Friday, 8 December 2017

Structures of injustice

"It's not fair!"
We've all heard that cry. Probably from our own lips at some time or another. Behind it lies a perception (sometimes correct to a degree) that an injustice has occurred, usually befalling the complainant: someone has exerted disproportionate influence on an outcome; someone has disproportionately benefitted; someone is losing out or suffering unfairly, or wrongly. Most of us have some understanding of 'injustice'.
Let's go to 14 June 2017, to North Kensington in London. 24-storey Grenfell Tower became the Towering Inferno, claiming 71 lives, injuring as many, and rendering over 200 homeless and with very few possessions. The horror of this tragedy reduced experienced firefighters to tears.
And, although the case is not yet closed, it seems clear that the fire was aided immeasurably by the appalling state of the building's exterior cladding, which was apparently highly flammable, and attached to the structure with a small gap in between. In effect, the gap formed a flue, allowing the fire to rise very quickly through this pocket of air.
I wanted to say this was substandard, but it wasn't. That's one of the most tragic parts of the story. This poor, ultimately fatal, state of the building was actually within the regulations. The problem, rather, was the "systemic failure of regulation", according to Thomas Lane for Building Design. The cladding had been added to the building around three years earlier, as part of a refurbishment. Presumably this was cosmetic, to improve the aesthetics of the council housing block that towered above the millionaire mansions of Kensington and Chelsea, (one of) the UK's wealthiest borough(s). Grenfell was home to some of the borough's poorest residents. Among them, asylum seekers and the previously homeless. For the survivors, the wait continues for a safe and more permanent refuge.
The Grenfell residents were victims of unjust structures. Not just the physical structure they called home, but the structures in which they lived. Firstly, the 'improvements' to the building which cost so many lives cut corners and costs, and was as much for the benefit of others (who spent more time seeing the building than those on the inside). And many of these were already making significant gains in a game of life that is weighted in their favour.
Add to this the review of the regulations which allowed the fire to spread - the review has been 'on the agenda' at Westminster for some time, certainly before Grenfell, but curiously never seems to happen. As circumstance would have it, a number of those who might be involved in such a review have links with landlords, or are themselves landlords. Moves to raise standards in housing may prove costly to such people, and a government hellbent on reducing spending might not be in a hurry to improve its housing stock. If I didn't know better, I might suggest that some people have a vested interest in conditions remaining as they are. And that would be unjust for those who have to live in these conditions.
Here we hit on structures of injustice. Grenfell is a harrowing example of what unjust structures can do. I would define these as any system or structure of organisation that maintains and protects privilege and power for the few against the many, that disproportionately benefits some to the detriment of others. Such systems can be oppressive and exploitative. Other terms for this include structural/institutional violence and systemic evil.
A quick way to check how just or unjust a structure may be, is to ask, 'for whom does this work? Who gains most from the status quo, and who loses or suffers?'
I would like to suggest that some structures can be 'passive oppressive'. By this I mean that they don't seem bad - in fact they exist to perform necessary and good functions - but they are not as good as they look, often toxic below the surface. I think here of, for instance, democracies and churches. Many great and good institutions are riddled with structural violence, where a small number (usually at or near the top of the particular tree) exert an unhealthy controlling influence over the rest, and in some cases their position is, or seems, unassailable. I notice that in restructures, redundancies rarely hit the boardroom. And politicians making spending cuts, never vote to cut their own salaries.
As a (left-leaning) Christian, I like to ask more questions about systems and structures too:
"Is it life-giving, or life-stealing? Does it promote life and freedom and creativity, or death and oppression and destruction?"
And, "How easily do information, resources and people move from one layer to another within the structure?"
Before I am unmasked as a Marxist, I call to the stand the witness of scripture. In Matthew 7:13-14, Jesus lays before his audience a choice, between two gates: the narrow and the wide. I think this is often interpreted (with some merit) as a (one-off) decision between following Jesus, or not, leading respectively to heaven or hell. However, the text doesn't say that, and Jesus has mentioned hell only a few verses earlier, so why not mention it again here? Instead, Jesus talks here of life versus destruction. I think he is presenting the choice between life-promoting or death-promoting. Our decisions, every day, have consequences in one or other of those directions - and not just for us, in the immediate or eternal perspective, but for others. It's like the butterfly effect.
Later in Matthew's account (20:20-28), Jesus corrects his disciples' view of greatness. They are not to promote themselves and their interests, to "lord it over" others, but rather to serve. For Jesus, it's not about exercising power over people, but power under them.
Of course a biblical consideration of justice certainly must take in the Old Testament prophets, and as an example I refer to Isaiah 5:8-10, where God's message is for the landlords, the landowners, who squeeze others out. They'll be left with nothing, in a collapsed market. Again, in verses 18-23, those who decide what is right and wrong, to their own advantage and agenda, will also get their comeuppance.
Finally, in John 10:10, we have once again the contrast between life-giving, and life-stealing. Jesus is speaking of those with (religious) power and influence, when he says, "The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy..." On the other hand, Jesus continues, "I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly."
When we find ourselves in structures, wherever we find ourselves within them, let's just ask, is this facilitating life in all its fullness - like Jesus? Or is it stealing it?

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Matthew, Mark, Lucy and Joan: Women in the 3rd and 4th Gospels

I'm not actually saying that Luke and John were written by women, but I have noticed in them a more pro-women stance than is evident in the other two gospel accounts, and indeed much of the bible at large.  Below are some examples I've found....
  Luke and Matthew between them furnish us with all the details of our nativity. But look at whose side they tell it from. Matthew - maybe this is a Hebrew thing - makes it all about the man, Joseph, with Mary at his mercy (remember, he plans to divorce her quietly, to spare her public disgrace, or indeed stoning!). Luke, on the other hand, majors on Mary,with barely a mention of Joseph. Mary is here cast as a heroine of faith, with her iconic Magnificat (some great women of the Old Testament also had songs, like Deborah, Hannah, Miriam), and her ready acceptance of God's will (contrast that with Zechariah, priest and, well, man).
  Strong and independent women are a feature of Luke's Gospel. Take 8:1-3, where we meet the women who support Jesus (and the disciples?) in his ministry.  Perhaps this meant providing food and shelter, opening up their homes. It also meant paying for their keep and their work. Granted, in some cases the funds were probably their husbands' (eg, Joanna).
  Perhaps the most controversial detail in Luke's treatment of women comes in chapter 10, when Jesus visits the home of sisters Martha and Mary. Again, they have opened their home, possibly offering Jesus a place to stay. Much has been said about the exchange between Martha and Jesus, and 'traditional' gender roles may be at stake here, but the most significant detail in the story is this: Mary "sat at the Lord's feet" (Luke 10:39). Let's skip ahead to Luke's second volume, Acts. In Acts 22:3, Paul tells a Jewish crowd that he was "brought up... at the feet of Gamaliel". That's a way of saying he was a student of the great rabbi Gamaliel. And the same language is used of Mary with Jesus. She is his student, his disciple. This puts her in the same category as great men like Peter, James and John.
  That brings us to the 4th Gospel which, as we might expect, takes a more "theological" angle in its treatment of women, and there are two examples I want to look at. The first is short and simple. In John 11, we read the cycle of the illness, death and raising of Lazarus. Lazarus had two sisters, Martha and Mary (yes, them). But the striking detail in this account is what Martha says in 11:27. The other 3 gospels, known as the Synoptic Gospels because they see (broadly) the same way, each have accounts of 'Peter's Confession of Christ'. They tell it with slight nuances of detail, but in all 3 Peter says that Jesus is the Christ or Messiah, adding "of God" (Luke 9:20), or "the Son of the living God" (Matthew 16:16). John, as so often, departs from this tradition. In John, it's not Peter who makes this confession. It's the equally headstrong woman, Martha: "Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah [or, Christ], the Son of God, the one coming into the world."
  The final point I want to pick up is big. It's all about Easter Sunday. Rob Bell has pointed out that John is keen to tell us Easter Sunday happens in a garden, and the risen Jesus is mistaken by Mary Magdalene for the gardener. It seems that this whole episode is re-creation, it's Genesis again, in a new garden of Eden. And Jesus is the new Adam, made perfect and complete. And that makes Mary the new Eve. But this time, instead of being cast as the harbinger of sin and death (that's all pinned on Eve in Genesis 3)' the bringer of bad news - she is now the bearer of good new, the Good News, of life and salvation, as Jesus sends her out with the message. She's the first one to proclaim the resurrection in John. And so Eve, the woman, is redeemed.
  Finally, then, to summarise, from Luke and John we can suggest that women are as much a part of salvation history as men (logically that's a no-brained, if we take salvation history as involving a people or a family); that women, even married women, can not just support and resource, but actually fulfill any ministry in the church; that women can and should be disciples to the same extent as men, with the ministry and mission implications that entails; and, that longstanding efforts to silence and oppress women on the basis of Eve's sin in Genesis are not valid, not theologically sound, and have no place in the church and in God's new creation.

Sunday, 7 May 2017

Polls apart

Over the last 3 years, I count 6 votes that have affected me (5 in this country, in which I voted, one overseas, in the United States). I think only one of these actually went my way. In the other five, the outcome was not what I wanted, not what I anticipated, or both. In fact, in some cases, the result was a shock. I was shocked at the lurch to the Right evidenced by some of these polls. I felt the world a more divided and dangerous place after some of the results. Yes, I was shocked.
But a comedian - those great observers and commentators - on a topical panel show rightly pointed out that liberals have been shocked and disappointed by the outcomes of recent votes mainly because they are out of touch with people who vote the opposite way. The truth is, we often live in echo chambers, where we are soothed and affirmed by voices and views similar to our own. We read papers or media that mirror our beliefs. And this isolates and insulates us, increasingly, from diverse opinions and attitudes. It leaves us with, at best, grotesque caricatures of those elsewhere on the spectrum. And I get the sense that this is exactly what someone wants, as though some force or movement is trying to divide and polarise society, penning us in, apart, adrift, from one another. It's like we are being cast away onto islands, with a expanding sea in between. And that sea, it seems, represents fear, suspicion, misunderstanding.
It's perhaps not unlike the sea might have appeared to the Hebrew mind. When we look at Palestine, 'The Holy Land', on a map, we will notice it has a considerable coastline. Yet, the Hebrews don't seem to have ever been seafaring. In fact, if you read the Bible, the sea is usually presented in negative terms, as a home to fierce monsters, the scene of shipwrecks, terrible storms, raging and foaming. Lands across the sea, or islands, are portrayed as being very far off, almost unreachable. I get the sense that the sea, for the Hebrews, also represented fear, suspicion, misunderstanding.
I think the way to cross our sea, to close these fissures in our society, and in our electorate - between us - is to engage one another, in dialogue, in journey, and in action too. We want things to change, let's see what we can agree on and work toward... Only in this way can we begin to understand each other's points of view. The apparently prevalent division and lack of understanding and respect for the other, takes us further away from God's kingdom vision, not closer to it.
In Revelation 21, the penultimate chapter of the New Testament, we read of a beautiful image of the new heavens and the new earth, and in this state of affairs, "the sea was no more". With no more sea, we don't need to be cut off from one another. There will be no more islands. Less to divide us. We simply step from here to there. And in doing that, we discover common ground.
Our lowest common denominator is (stating the obvious) that we are all human beings, made in the image of God, with the potential for greatness, individually but also collectively. How, then, do we work together, with the system or against it, to ensure fairness for all, to facilitate human flourishing? That, it seems to me, must be my response in the wake of any poll, irrespective of the outcome: how do I, how do we, work for God's purposes now, in this new context? The political climate was far from favourable for the earliest Christians, yet they stood their ground, dug in, and even made strides, in their missionary endeavours.
So, with a snap general election fast approaching, in the midst of a political maelstrom, I vote that we who dare to take the name of Christ work with him as he brings heaven and earth - and all who live in it - a little bit closer together.

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Pharisees not included?

So, Jesus didn't exclude anyone.
Then how come this? Pharisees... not included?
In our church, we've been doing a family service about once every month or six weeks for almost a year now. It was something God really spoke to us about, through people and circumstances. It is a way of creating a space for families - like our own and many others using our toddler group, etc - to 'come to church' in ways that might work for them. It was also a way of trying to integrate the various groups and activities of our church into one family, sharing together. This happens on a Sunday morning in place of our usual, more traditional, gathering (at most, once a month, I stress!).
Not long after we launched this new venture, perhaps after the first one even, a loyal friend and trusted adviser in the congregation was talking it through with us, and I said to him, "It's not for everyone." He was visibly shocked at this. It was an observation, since some members of the congregation either attended the pilot service and did not enjoy it (understatement), or boycotted altogether (and continue to do so, whenever it's family service). His shock was in that the idea of the family service was to include everyone. This is true, but we can't make people come, or make them enjoy it. The family service is open to everyone, it is designed to encompass and embrace everyone connected to our church. But... Some people will not accept that. It's ours, they'll say. For us. These other people can have their thing somewhere and sometime else. This is ours. If new people want to come along, they need to get with the programme...
This is exactly what happened with the Pharisees (and others) in the stories of Jesus, our gospels. Jesus came declaring and demonstrating the outrageous inclusiveness of God's kingdom. But some didn't like it. It's ours, they said. And if these other people want to come, they need to get with the programme. Such people had ways of (mis)understanding God and his way of doing things as being inherently theirs, belonging to and controlled by them. And so, it all had to be approved by them, measured by their criteria. Which meant they excluded many people from all of it straight off. But in trying to do that, they only succeeded in excluding themselves from what God was doing. They missed it. Missed the point. Missed the whole thing. That's why Jesus shocked a bunch of them by saying that the tax-collectors and prostitutes were getting into the kingdom of heaven ahead of these guys... (Matthew 21:31). Jesus made most of his enemies by including, not excluding. So let's remember that when we try to decide who is excluded, we're more like Jesus' enemies than like Jesus.
If we want to be included in what God is doing, we need to get with God's programme. When we try to exclude others from this, we only exclude ourselves.