On Wrath – Holy Week 2016

On Wrath – Holy Week 2016

The following brings together on my responses to a series of addresses on the subject of God’s wrath, given by Rev’d David Stone, Canon Precentor of Coventry Cathedral during Holy Week 2016

Whether we like it or not, the bible says a lot about Wrath. It is alluded to often in both the old and new testaments, and while it does make me squirm, to deny its existence would be to ignore a significant part of what the bible tells us of the nature of God. Yet what it doesn’t do to any great extent is explain what God’s wrath is like. We see it in action, but, like so much of the nature of God, it is to some extent beyond our knowledge. We can only try to consider what is written in a wider context of what we understand about God and the world, and try to piece together a clearer picture of what God might actually be like.

God loves us. This is our indisputable starting point. He is deeply invested in our world, and our shared life. That means that our sins will inevitably elicit what we would think of as an emotional response; to suggest that our failures do not pain the Divine Will is to create a God at one remove from our lives, in place of one who shares in our suffering. Of course, God does not feel emotion as we do. Rather, what we recognise as an emotional response is something like what happens to the Divine Being when we do anything which damages our relationships with one another or with God.

There are two natural responses to such damage. As a child, when I misbehaved, when I was unkind or rude, my parents’ responses were typically divided between anger and sadness.  The latter feels to me more understandable, but they are two sides of the same coin, resulting from the same failures. The question is not if our actions upset God (though upset feels too weak a word), but what happens as a result of this, especially what happens after our brief span of days. The problem is that wrath seems to me to be inextricably entwined with punishment, with God taking out his anger on us in a way which is petty or capricious.

Consider – none of us can ever be perfect. If we were, we would be divine. This means that we can never earn God’s love, yet it is freely given to us and all forgiveness is an act of grace. Salvation by grace alone is a central tenet of the Protestant reformation. Thus punishment from a Being so much greater than us is inherently petty. If we are punished, we must either be punished arbitrarily, or on some remunerative scale, or we must all be forgiven. It is pretty clear that there is no remunerative scale in action in life – no Divine karma. Put simply, bad things happen to good people, and vice versa. So then, either God doesn’t normally intervene in this life (except as part of some bigger narrative), or He enacts punishment, in a way which is fickle or arbitrary. If the latter is true, then frankly He is not worthy of our worship. Last year we marked 800 years since the signing of Magna Carta, a document written to curtail the arbitrary abuse of power by kings. If we don’t accept it from our monarch, we shouldn’t accept it from our deity.

This picture is even clearer if we look towards death, when, accepted protestant teaching tells us, God makes an all or nothing choice. We are either damned for eternity, or granted never-ending bliss. If we are paid according to our sins, then why should those of us who have been a bit bad suffer the same punishment as those who have been very bad. Any eternal punishment is arbitrary, especially when one considers that we can never be perfect in the eyes of God. Any decision to grant some people grace and not others is frankly appalling. Eternal punishment suggests that God has abandoned someone, has given up all hope of their salvation, which defies the idea of an all loving and all-powerful God with eternity to act.

So, punishment by God is either obscure or arbitrary, and whichever of those it is, eternal punishment is logically incompatible with the nature of God. Yes, of course God is hurt, upset, angered by the times we fail him and each other. But He does not, He *could* not take it out on people who are never able to meet his standards and still be what we mean when we say God. A being like that would be known by an altogether different name. No, any punishment we suffer is self-inflicted. There is no time cut off from God (since outside life there is no time), but a movement, a dance around the Still Point, now closer, now farther away, but always in its presence. Sometimes we draw others in, sometimes we turn away ourselves.

As for me, if I am wrong, if there is eternal punishment for our finite sins, well, that is a God not deserving of our worship. If there is a hell, that is where we should all seek to be, because anyone condemned to that needs all the love and support we can offer. That would be a ministry worthy of our loving energies.

Except of course, that Christ already covered that part of the relationship, eternally and universally. His response to our failings was to suffer, to be hurt by our sins, directly and personally. And in so doing, to make them as nothing. His wrath lead not to punishment, but to embrace.

St Anselm thought that human sin inherently elicits, even requires some form of retribution from the Divine Being. The abhorrence of sin, to Love itself, so damages the relationship between man and God that it cannot be repaired without some act of reparation, some punishment. In that light, God’s death on the cross is a paying of the bill, which allows our forgiveness. A way to clear a debt which we automatically owe.

But that seems to misunderstand what love is, and to place to great an emphasis on a human view of cause and effect. Love does elicit anger or sadness when it is abused, but it remains love, which “beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things”. To love is to accept failings (particularly when one party cannot but be perfect, and the other cannot help but disappoint). It is thus to forgive those failings, to be there waiting with open arms for the return of the prodigal son.

That raises the question of where the cross is in all that. Something about the cross feels like a truer reflection of the Divine Nature. God can be found elsewhere, but He is most Himself on Calvary. And it is more than just an example, an illustration of what God is like. For an eternal God, all time is co-eternal. Time and cause and effect fall apart, and all time is present to God. And thus, Christ’s life on earth is constantly happening to God. The incarnation and crucifixion are eternally part of God’s experience, of His very being. God is eternally choosing to be human, and to take the very worst of that humanity to himself, in the ultimate act of inclusive love. In that light, it is clear that He forgives through the Cross, not because the cross allows Him to pay off a debt that is owed for sin, but because the cross makes his very nature one of forgiveness. He could not be other than merciful. He can be nothing other than that Himself.

“…Our Lord descended into Hell

And found his Judas there

For ever hanging on the tree

Grown from his own despair

So Jesus cut his Judas down

And took him in his arms

“It was for this I came” he said

“And not to do you harm

My Father gave me twelve good men

And all of them I kept

Though one betrayed and one denied

Some fled and others slept…”

            Ruth Etchells


Budget 2016: Diversionary Tactics & Sticking Plaster Politics

Budget 2016: Diversionary Tactics & Sticking Plaster Politics

Yesterday was an odd day, in part because it was my last day as Policy and Campaigns Assistant at Sue Ryder. I have enjoyed my three months there immensely, and am sad to leave, but at the same time I am looking forward to the next stages. My next three months will be spent in Ghana (now in Tamale, working with the Resource Centre for Persons with Disabilities, rather than with the Ghana Society for the Physically Disabled in Bolgatanga). And I am looking forward to exploring my options after that – working out where my new experiences could take me, and with any luck securing a salary. Still, its a few weeks until I fly to Ghana, so yesterday felt a little like being left in Limbo, and the Chancellor’s Budget didn’t help matters.

I haven’t followed a budget statement in such depth before, and there was a lot of interesting things to gleam from it. The over-riding picture I got from it was that it was targeted to appeal to where I will hopefully be in a year or two. The tax breaks in particular, seemed to appeal to the aspirational middle classes. Increasing the income tax threshold for basic tax from £10,600 to £11,500 would save someone on a £22,000 salary £180 per year. The Lifetime ISA, which appears to offer in effect a 25% interest rate on the first £4000 pounds saved each year is almost too good to be true – I don’t imagine it will last for very long, but I certainly plan to make the most of it while it is available. Again, freezing fuel duty will certainly be seen positively, especially given rumours that it would rise (rumours which I would be willing to be came from within the treasury).

Looking further ahead, the higher rate income ta threshold has been raised, and a cut in capital gains tax will yet again help the aspirational middle classes. Combine this with cuts in corporation tax and increased tax relief for small businesses, and it is clear that this budget is appealing to the Tory base. You’d be forgiven that this were a pre-election budget, with the weight of giveaways included (and with the EU referendum now less than 100 days away, in a manner of speaking it is!)

Still, all these shiny announcements can’t hide the fact that the economic out-look is not all that rosy. The chancellor has been keen to highlight that Britain is not immune to the vicissitudes of global economics, and that we must ‘act now, so we don’t pay later’ (bottoms up), but there are certainly those who would argue that the giveaways in yesterday’s budget were designed to make up for the Chancellor’s own failure. Only a small number of the changes in the budget will increase government revenue, and the Chancellor has admitted that more borrowing will be needed between now and 2020 (when he will have, in theory balanced the books). This hardly looks like a ‘long-term economic plan’ (down it, honourable member).

In fact, rather than addressing systemic problems, this budget swaps between quick fixes and distractions. A ‘lifetime ISA’ which can be used to help save for a first house or put money aside for retirement is simply a way of skirting around the fact that housing costs in this country are astronomical, and that the government has no long-term plan for solving the looming pension crisis (at least, not without alienating its core voters). The Resolution Foundation estimates that, since 1997, the number of years it takes for a low to middle income family to save for a deposit has risen from 3 years to 22 years. Even if the government covers one fifth of the deposit cost through a lifetime ISA, it would still take the better part of two decades to gather together enough funding. Perhaps investing in housing projects might be a better solution.

The Sugar Rabbit (from the Exchequer’s hat) is another good example of hiding behind a good headline. While a tax on sugary drinks will likely help improve children’s health, it doesn’t address the underlying problems – a lack of green spaces for children to play in and too few families having the time to cook fresh food or get outdoors together (because parents have to work longer to save for a deposit). Again, the big education announcements (which have no place in a Budget anyway) of more academies and longer hours are certainly headline grabbing, but they are no substitute for good teaching (cf. Finland).

Underneath all of this, there is another current – what is not said. Analysis by the Resolution Foundation has found that changes to the income tax thresholds will benefit top earners far more than those on low incomes. While this in part mitigated by a freeze on fuel duty, which could have a major impact on a household living paycheque to paycheque, the budget took no steps to help the poorest most. Indeed, one cannot help but wonder where further cuts will fall if the gathering storm clouds burst. Given recent evidence, it would seem that people with disabilities are a popular target for the Chancellor. After all, they don’t make up a significant part of the electorate – especially if cutting disability benefits means that disabled voters are physically unable to get to their local polling station.

So, the overall impression is that things are going to continue to be very bad for the poorest in our society. The people who most need help appear to be receiving least support. And rather than investing in solutions to problems, the preferred methodology seems to be to conceal them behind impressive headlines, and quick fixes. Let me hear you say ‘long-term economic plan’.

A Letter to the Editor of the New Statesman

A Letter to the Editor of the New Statesman

A much reduced version of this letter was posted to the editor of the New Statesman yesterday, Friday 11 March 2016.

Dear Sir,
(yes, before anyone asks, and given the contents of this letter, I have checked. The editor of the New Statesman is indeed male).

As a proud feminist and support of the UN #HeForShe campaign, I must take issue with Rosie Fletcher’s blog (The Staggers, 9th March), “It’s great that Emma Watson is standing up for feminism – but #HeForShe is the wrong approach“.

First of all, the author conflates International Women’s Day with Feminism, saying “Feminism is not about men. We should not be putting men at the centre of a day for women.” Certainly the two should be linked, but they are far from being coterminous. International Women’s Day (marked on 8th March) exists “to reflect on progress made, to call for change and to celebrate acts of courage and determination by ordinary women who have played an extraordinary role in the history of their countries and communities.” It is designed to rebalance the scale of attention, to give slightly fairer exposure to the infinite contributions made by half the world’s population, and which are so easily overlooked by societies which have been dominated by men since time immemorial. It is, as the name suggests, about women, and the author is right that men should not be at the centre of a day about women. That defeats the entire purpose of IWD.

However, feminism is much wider than IWD. One friend of mine suggested we replace the word feminism with ‘equalism’, since that is the real aim. Feminism isn’t about women exclusively. It is right that attention focuses on the way women are traditionally cut out of higher jobs, or the fact that one woman in five has experienced sexual violence since turning 16, but that the rape conviction rate is only 5.7%. It is also right that it draws attention to the fact that, while one third of domestic abuse victims in the UK are male, there are only 78 refuge beds for men in the whole country, of which only 33 are dedicated male beds, and the fact that the suicide attempt rate for transgender people under 26 is somewhere around 48%.

An awareness of this is important, because International Women’s Day is not the same as International Feminism Day. Feminism isn’t directly relevant to IWD or to #HeForShe, a campaign set up by UN Women (aka the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women). #HeForShe fits into the feminism ideal, but feminism is much more than that.

More importantly, the author misrepresents #HeForShe, suggesting it exists to make feminism “more palatable”, helping “smuggle gender oppression into conversation like a stripper in a cake” and “massaging their bruised egos”. That is not what #HeForShe is about, and I would not want it to be thus.

The aim of feminism is to halt and counter the accrual of power and control by any one group or perspective at the expense of any other. If one group has power and control, that group will inevitably play a central role in redistributing power. They will either relinquish their unfair advantage willingly, or seek to cling on to it. Personally I prefer the first option, and *THAT* is what #HeForShe is about. In practically every society, male gender roles are dominant, female roles subordinate. This is both damaging to women, and damaging to societies as a whole. There are very strong links, for example, between improved gender parity and development, and yet, at current rates of improvement, it may take a century to close the gender gap.

#HeForShe is attempting to address this in a pragmatic way. One recent study found that 88% of men in corporate America believe women have equal or greater opportunities to advance, though in reality, women are 15% less likely to get promoted at any given level. Whatever the reason, a majority of men do not believe there is a problem. Gender inequality is seen as a thing of the past, at least among men in the developed world. #HeForShe exists to encourage men to note these imbalances and to take action. As the powerful partner, men need to be involved in rebalancing the scale. #HeForShe isn’t about making feminism palatable to men. It isn’t about sparing men from being insulted by the fact that they are responsible for centuries of female subordination. It is about making men aware that the problems are far from fixed, and that they have a crucial role to play in fixing them.

This perception damages feminism and this author only reinforces the point. Gender equality suggests entails involvement – by claiming feminism for women, equality is undermined. I am a man. I am a proud feminist. I know that I have a duty to work for a more equal world, I can’t just stand by and support other people who do so. I am #HeForShe.

Jack Fleming

Electoral Calculus: A Drumpf Nomination?

Electoral Calculus: A Drumpf Nomination?

With Super Tuesday passed, it looks increasingly likely that the businessman Donald Drumpf (whom you may know as Donald Trump) will secure the Republican nomination for President of the United States of America in advance of November’s election. Certainly, he is well on the way, having secured 285 delegates – just under a quarter of the necessary 1237, and having received a major boost to his campaign’s momentum. He also benefits from a split opposition; Ted Cruz at present has 161 delegates, and Marco Rubio 87. If one of those candidates were to endorse the other, the race might suddenly become far closer, but as it is, those opposed to Drumpf are divided, making it easy for him to capture and maintain media attention to support his campaign.

In fact, after Super Tuesday, he seems to be viewing the nomination as in the bag. This is undoubtedly a terrifying prospect. Drumpf’s rhetoric throughout his campaign to date has been deeply divisive, and, frankly racist. And yet this extreme position seems only to boost his support among a post-Bush Republican party. Drumpf can claim Mexicans bring drugs and crime, he can promise to bomb the families of Islamic State Militants, he can call all African-Americans lazy, but these comments only feed into his emphasis on reasserting white American exceptionalism.

Given his inconsistency, it is far from clear what a Drumpf White House would actually resemble, but that uncertainty only serves to make this prospect more alarming to moderates in the USA and around the world. A man with that much power, who is that unpredictable, would be, to my mind, as destabilising and damaging a leader as Kim Jong-Il or Stalin.

But a Drumpf nomination does not automatically mean a Drumpf presidency. In fact, it could potentially damage the chances of the Republican party. His extreme perspectives have certainly galvanised voters who do not normally turn out. Drumpf claims to have expanded the Republican base, and it may be the case that he has tapped in to voters usually apathetic to the electoral process. But this can swing both ways. His extreme rhetoric could strengthen Republic support in traditional red states, but it is the swing states which will decide the election.

Most elections are decided in effect by a few swing states, which are not strongly affiliated with one party or another (in the way that it is hard to be anything other than Republican in the deep south, or Democrat in new England). Crucial to winning states like Florida is how well a candidate can win over the centrist voters, and their ability to ensure high voter turnout among their own bases. A candidate on the extreme of a party, such as Drumpf, will be more likely to struggle when it comes to winning these states, and the reality of the American electoral system is that larger margins of victory within a state have no real impact on winning the election. Either you win a state, and get all its votes in the electoral college, or you don’t. How you win is irrelevant. So, a Drumpf nomination could significantly boost the prospects of a well orchestrated Democratic party campaign, either on behalf of Hilary Clinton or Bernie Sanders.

Of course, if Drumpf can draw in voters who are normally disenfranchised on the right of the American political spectrum, he could counteract his weaknesses in terms of the swing voters. Then again, as Marco Rubio’s campaign demonstrates, there are parts of the traditional Republican mainstream which are deeply worried by the possibility of a Drumpf candidacy (and presumably presidency). These parts of the Republican core could decide not to vote should Drumpf secure the party nomination, or even to vote against him, counteracting his benefits on the right. Likewise, the prospect of a Drumpf presidency will be deeply troubling to many Democrats and Independents, potentially boosting turnout among voters opposed to his position. I have heard tell if voters in Minnesota attending Republican Caucuses to vote for anyone but Drumpf (and it is interesting that this was the one state Rubio won on Tuesday). There is therefore good grounds to hope that a Drumpf nomination will actually boost the chances of a Democratic presidency.

This raises another question. If I were among the Democratic party elite, I would be asking myself what strategy to pursue in the event of a Drumpf nomination, particularly as someone towards the left of the party. I know, of course, that the candidate is chosen by the people, but the party upper echelons will certainly be considering who they would like to see on the ticket. If we assume that the Democrats want, as far as possible to push American politics to the left (which is still relatively moderate by British standards), then there can be few better opportunities to nominate Bernie Sanders. Sanders is on the fringe of his party, so would likely fare poorly against a centrist Republican. But if Drumpf cannot hold the middle ground, his odds are substantially reduced, so Sanders stands a better chance of winning than he would against a more moderate Republican. The extremeness of the two candidates would cancel out. Conversely, the stakes would be much higher in light of a Drumpf nomination. If the Democrats loose, the USA could take a major leap to the right, which might encourage a more defensive nomination – a candidate like Clinton who can win over swing voters, and doesn’t endanger the Democratic base.

In other words, in the event of a Drumpf nomination, the left will be faced with a choice between Sanders – a high risk, but potentially very high gain option – or Clinton – representing a much lower risk nominee, but who is likely to pursue a more centrist agenda. In their shoes, I don’t know which way I would go – a *lot* of polling would be needed, and consultation with some very strong political strategists, but that is the choice that would in effect be before them. (Of course, it isn’t down to the party, though party elites, including the President, could have a major impact on who wins the primary.)

There is, however, another possibility. Given current performance, if Trump doesn’t win the Republican nomination, it is likely to go instead to Ted Cruz. Cruz is perhaps more worrying, since his right-wing views are less political rhetoric, more thorough-going ideology, and yet he has the advantage of being acceptable in mainstream GOP circles. This threat would perhaps make a Clinton nomination a preferable option for Democrats keen to hold the Executive, and regain the Congress. Except, of course, if Drumpf were to run as an independent. He has pledged not to do so, but as we know, he is very changeable. If he runs a separate campaign, the right is divided, and suddenly the election is the Democrats to win. Should that rare situation arise, Sanders would be in with his best shot, and Clinton could stroll into the House she once shared with her Husband, making her the first woman president, and the Clinton’s the first couple to share the highest office in the USA.