Tag Archives: opinion

See How The Monsters Fall

I’m just old enough to remember the dying days of the Cold War, news reports full of Strategic Defence Initiatives and the tick-tock of the Doomsday Clock as it moved closer to midnight, inspiring nightmares and Watchmen as it went.

Then, in 1989, the whole house of cards collapsed, seemingly overnight but I guess the cracks were showing long before, at least to those with eyes to see. The Bogeyman had fallen and he didn’t even get chance to launch all those nuclear missiles. The monster had been felled.

I wonder if that’s how it felt to all those living at the end of the Second World War, hearing that the spectre who had cast his deathly shadow over the fields of Europe now lay dead in a bunker in Berlin?

Libya was once another such bogeyman, responsible for terrorism and the Lockerbie Bombing. Heck, Libyans are even a destructive presence in Back To The Future. But somewhere along the line, Gaddafi became the comedy uncle of global dictators, at least in the western world that didn’t have to live under his regime.

It was a different story in Libya, of course, and yesterday the revolution that started in February reached something of a climax with the death of Colonel Gaddafi. Another dictator down, another fallen regime.

I’ve said before, probably too many times, that this is turning out to be a very strange year, almost as if 2011 has served notice on the leaders and institutions that are corrupt, oppressive or simply anachronistic. Maybe we felt that they’d last forever, that their power would pass to the heirs and nothing would change. Suddenly that no longer seems to be the case, and it ‘s steange and disorientating and a little scary, but ultimately hopeful.

GK Chesterton said, in so many words, that fairy tales don’t teach children that monsters exist – they already know that – but fairy tales do teach them that monsters can be beaten. And maybe, in some less mythic way, the same is true of protest songs and Twitter. We’ve learned that monsters – Gaddafi, corporations, media corruption – aren’t invulnerable, aren’t immortal, aren’t omnipotent. That knowledge is liberating and empowering and intimidating, because it confers on those who’d succeed a monster the responsibility to do a better job.

And, as 2011 seems to be restructuring the world around us, that responsibility necessarily falls on us all. We are the 100%.

 

What’s Going On? Protests, Riots, the Internet and a Changing Civilisation

When the winners write their history books, the one thing they’ll agree on is that 2011 was a really weird year.

It’s been a whirlwind of revolutions and crumbling authority, and while it’s way too early to try and get some perspective on the events that started with the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi and seem, somehow, to have resulted in the peaceful Occupation of Wall Street, Boston, LA and other US cities, that’s never stopped me before!

I can’t help thinking that all this isn’t (just) about rich verses poor; after all, if you can use an iPhone to Tweet about the protests then you’re not poor, at least not globally speaking, not when 1,345 million people in the developing world live on less than $1.25 a day. However, let’s not kid ourselves; the same corruption that forces the American middle class onto the streets to protest the potential loss of their homes also contributes towards poverty in the third world. And the developed, western nations aren’t exactly utopias – 80% of NHS hospitals face severe financial difficulties, rising food prices in Scotland are forcing Scotland’s poorest to miss meals, and youth unemployment has reached 21.3%. Similar issues affect America and Europe, and at times it feels like the giants have lost their golden goose and are waiting for the beanstalk to fall. Add to that issues like the closure of libraries and the bread and circuses of mainstream media and it’s starting to feel like one of those years, like 1914, 1939, 1968, 1989, years when everything shifted and changed.

I suspect a lot of this is about people being disenfranchised. The Arab Spring was largely about people rising up against corruption amongst their rulers; the Occupy movement sweeping the States is a reaction against corporate corruption. Heck, even the UK riots, which didn’t really have a criminal component, kicked off in areas where prospects are limited, to say the least. Keep denying people a voice, either deliberately or as the default outcome of political ideology, and things will start to happen.

It’s interesting that all this is happening in the age of social media; the beauty of the Internet is that everyone can contribute to it, and that’s why, when those historians are writing about 2011, they’ll need to dig out Twitter archives rather than film from the mainstream media (and why fears of a Digital Dark Age should be heightened during all this – these are historical records, not digital emphemera). It’s interesting that the mainstream media has been lagging behind when it comes to coverage of Occupy Wall Street and its sister movements, but perhaps not surprising. After all, it’s part of the same corporate culture that people are reacting to – the phone hacking scandal and the resulting can of worms showed that human diginity and privacy are expendable when it comes to profit.

And yet if this is about people needing a voice, the rise of social media and citizen journalism raises questions for its most enthusiastic proponents; there’s still a Digital Divide, both globally and within individual nations, and that’s only going to get worse with sweeping cuts to library services (and don’t forget, those and other public service cuts arose from a global recession caused by corporate malpractice). I love Twitter, but I bet my mom’s never heard of it, and if social media is going to be the new grassroots ‘mainstream’ then don’t forget that you’re not going to get a lot of political insight from the Top 100 Most Followed Tweeters.

That’s a key point in other ways – the battlelines have been drawn, but the opposition doesn’t understand what’s going on. David Cameron described the UK riots as “criminality, pure and simple”; Veterans for Peace were beaten by police describing them as “anarchists”; Libyan rebels were said to be on “hallucinogenic drugs”. The response from authority figures to the protests has ranged from disingenuous to deranged conspiracy theories; I guarantee none of them are avidly following the Occupy Together hashtag. And that’s a problem with the Internet as a source – search engine technology has progressed to the point where it can now pretty much tell you what you want to hear. Things are becoming more and more filtered in an age when what we really need is to be challenged, to hear opposing voices, to enter into rational and constructive dialogue. It’s difficult to do that if everything we read backs up our existing prejudices, and while the mainstream media do that anyway (hello Daily Mail! Hello Fox News!), the mosaic nature of the Net may well exacerbate things.

But in the end it does feel as though things are changing. People are more willing and more able to let their voices be heard, and the leaders that dismiss those voices are actually starting to look irrelevant. Heck, maybe the institutions we’ve relied on for so long are starting to crumble and/or evolve – the general assemblies of the Occupy movements would seem to be more truly democratic and representative than Cabinets made up of millionaires – and the onus is on us, all of us, not just those who are protesting on the streets, to make something good and positive as a result. Something good and positive that brings in the disenfranchised and treats them as friends, not enemies.

After all, wouldn’t it be nice if the 99% could one day become the 100%?

Welcome to the Occupation 3: What the protest movements might mean for *me*

I was going to make my ‘Welcome to the Occupation’ posts a trilogy, but sometimes people come along and say things better than I ever could. Here then are two great blog posts on how we respond to injustice:

Praying With St. Francis by Shane Claiborne

Yom Kippur and Sins of Silence by Deborah Bryan

Please check them out; they’re worth a read, and wise.

Welcome to the Occupation 2: Some more thoughts on what protest movements might mean for Christianity

A few days ago I blogged about how the recent waves of protest sweeping the Middle East, Europe and the States could have interesting implications for Christianity. However, that post made a pretty major assumption – that Christianity should be concerned with the protests in the first place. After all, while the Church has been involved in some of the major protest movements of the last few hundred years – the abolition of slavery, the Civil Rights movements – it hasn’t always been on the right side, with plenty of Christians at the time believing that slavery was an integral part of society, or that black people should sit at the back of buses. It’s not really news to point out that religion gets corrupted when it gets too close to politics, to the social status quo – it’s a form of blasphemy to suggest that Jesus would have been an ardent supporter of Jim Crow.

The fact is, protest against social injustice runs through the Bible. The prophets, men and women inspired by God to act as His mouthpiece, to interpret the signs of the times, to receive visions and proclaim the will of the divine, spoke not only of abstract religious matters but also of social justice – in many ways the two were inseperable. Take Isaiah, who insisted that true religion, true worship, should be a blessing to oppressed communities: “If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves on behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday.” We’re supposed to look out for each other.

Then you’ve got John the Baptist, who was arrested and executed for speaking out against the crimes of authority figures, not a million miles away from the story of Jesus, who really got himself on the political radar when he took pretty direct action against corrupt commercialism alienating people from the Temple and ultimately God. It’s unavoidable – anger at injustice, especially when that injustice hurts the poor and needy – is part of the Bible’s DNA. You’d think we’d be out protesting every day.

It’s not always that simple though. For at start, a lot of protests, even those with good and noble aims, end up degenerating into violence. Sure, this may often be down to those on the fringes of a movement, or agent provacoteurs, but the fact is that it happens more often than we’d like to admit. Now, the most famous Christian response to this is Martin Luther King championing non-violent resistance in the sixties; inspiring, yes, but not something I’d like to be in the middle of – not sure how much self-control I’d have in certain circumstances. How we react to something, especially when we’re under pressure, is a mark of our faith, not least because of the impact it has, not on our friends but on our enemies.

Because believe it or not, our enemies are people too, and in the gospels, justice is often restorative – it heals the perpetrator as well as providing justice for the victim. “Turn the other cheek” isn’t a command to passively accept everything that’s thrown at you, it’s a way of reasserting your own humanity while forcing our enemy to confront their own. A protest rooted in Christianity should always be interested in finding ways to make enemies into friends, looking at how best to communicate the grace of God to the opposition, or to those spectating from the sidelines.

Then there’s the danger of factionalism. Most protest movements in the West seem to be left vs right, but Christianity should be beyond this. The minute faith becomes so tied up with politics that they become indistinguishable is the minute something’s gone wrong – do we really think Jesus would be making a fuss about Obama’s birth certificate?

As I said in my last post, these are only a few ideas, and the heavy thinking has to be – probably is being – done by people way smarter than me. But I’m interested in hearing your thoughts – what can Christianity bring to these protests, what does a protesting faith look like, and when should Christians think about backing away?

Welcome to the Occupation 1: What a wave of protest movements might mean for Christianity

Somewhere along the line, 2011 went crazy.

It began, paradoxically, in 2010, with the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, a street vendor in Tunisia. He set himself alight to protest his treatment by the authorities; within weeks the resulting public outrage had lead to Tunisia’s president resigning and fleeing the country. The dominoes began to fall across the Middle East, becoming known as the Arab Spring; the protests continue throughout the region and have become increasingly violent in Yemen, Syria, Bahrain.

Then there were protests across Europe, in Greece and Spain and elsewhere. The motivation behind these was more economic and financial, in the shadow of bankers’ bonuses and austerity for the rest of us.

Then there were riots in London. These seem to have been more apolitical and criminal, but it’s hard not to draw a connection between them and the social unrest spreading throughout the rest of the world. They stopped as suddenly as they started, but prompted a tremendous outpouring of community spirit in reaction against the violence and disorder.

The latest protest movement has sprung up in America, with the initial ‘Occupy Wall Street’ demonstrations going viral across the States; we’ll see how this evolves over the next few days and weeks.

These events have been triggered by, and run parallel to, the failure of major institutions – politics, finance, media – to act with restraint, foresight or compassion, and while I don’t think the Church (with a capital C) is quite in that boat, it’s naive to think it doesn’t have something to learn from all this. I’m no expert on any of this (read the rest of my blog, it’s pretty Jack-Of-All-Trades-Master-Of-None), but I figure there are at least three points that the Church can learn from…

(Churches like information to be delivered in three points. Preferrably all starting with the same letter, but I couldn’t manage that, sorry!)

The first is the internet. While it’s not true to say that all this is a worldwide youth revolution, it’s accurate to say that social media, particularly Facebook and Twitter, have been the heartbeat of many of the movements that have erupted. Following the riots in London and the rest of the UK, there seemed to be a sense in which politicians were blaming the technology rather than the users, and this is key to understanding the internet’s role in all this – it’s an absolutely fantastic communication tool, but it’s value-neutral – how the technology is used is what matters, and effective use of social media depends on interactivity. This can be a bit hard for the Church to wrap its head around – after all, for years the primary formal method of Christian communication was through the sermon, which tends to pretty much be a one-way street. This is echoed by other examples of Old Media – newspapers, television, radio, books. The internet is interactive, and you can’t use it effectively without being adapting to this. Having 10,000 Twitter followers is great, but its not really a measure of success if all you do is make pronouncements to them every so often. All those followers are following a bunch of other people too, and your message will soon find itself at the bottom of a long list of other messages – many of which may be much more fun than yours.

The internet is a good metaphor for the next point – we’re living in a networked world. The protests exist within a context of crumbling authority, where many people feel disenfranchised and powerless in the shadow of faceless institutions. The protests are mostly self-organised, like-minded people getting together to do what needs to be done in spite of authority, not with its blessing – it’s the unexpected flipside of the UK Coalition Government’s ‘Big Society’. Now, some churches are better adapted to dealing with this sort of mindset than others – if you’re dependent on strong, centralised authority, then you may need to think carefully of where that’s going to take you over the next few years. On the other hand, I’m a Methodist, and we’ve always been big on the idea of ‘the priesthood of all believers’ – while ministers/presbyters are the professional end of our community, we’ve all got important roles and responsibilities. This would seem to lend itself well to more networked societies – heck, my church has been operating this model for years by accident – so it’s got to be worth thinking about. Yes, there are issues of accountability to consider, but isn’t that why they developed cell groups?

(Also, think about what Christ’s ‘network’ looked like – the working class, social outcasts, the radicalised. How would that be mirroed in 2011?)

The last point – humility. Yes, this is a strange one to end with, but stick with me. Look at the ways institutions have reacted to the protests – with violence in the worst cases, with disinterest in others, and with the protesters being dismissed as some sort of criminal sub-group. But the fact is, banks have played fast and loose with the global economy. The media have hacked phones and peddled fear. Politicians do seem more interested in protecting big business interests before grassroots communities. That’s not meant to dismiss the value of the institutions or the many good and decent individuals who work within them, but there needs to be a visible and genuine acknowledgement of the many flaws that have been exposed over recent months. We need to rediscover humility and repentance in the public sphere, and as those are meant to be key Christian virtues, the Church should be all over this. It starts with us though – we have to acknowledge the times that the Church has failed to follow Christ’s command to look out for the poor and needy, we have to admit we have too much money tied up in investments and not being released to where it could do the most good. Most damningly, the Vatican could more to address issues relating to child abuse. Confession, repentance, resolve to get it right in future with the help of God – these are engrained in Christianity’s DNA. We need to rediscover them.

Of course, these are only a few ideas, and the heavy thinking has to be – probably is being – done by people way smarter than me. But I’m interested in hearing your thoughts – in a year where everything is in upheaval, and where society is undergoing what could be a seismic shift, where does the Church go from here?