All right-thinking people should now boycott The Daily Mail

Last year, I wrote a post arguing that Christians should lead the way in a boycott The Daily Mail due to its campaign against overseas aid.

Today, The Mail has descended further into the pit of the worst type of journalism with this incredible election headline:

Daily Mail - RIchard Littlejohn

It is simply incredible that any newspaper could use the tragic suffering of innocent children abused by a criminal as the basis for such a cheap headline.  It is barbarically insensitive.

I have today tried to log a complaint with the Independent Press Standards Association (IPSA) but the Editor’s Code of Practice is so restrictive that there are no categories under which a complaint could be filed.  Like the Advertising Standards Authority, it is another example of the toothless agencies which we end up with in this country because we believe in self-regulation.  It seems nothing has been learnt from the hacking scandals and the press remain free to do whatever they want.

I think The Daily Mail is the most dangerous newspaper in the country, because it spreads a toxic brand of pious-sounding poison.  I do not write this because of its political perspective but because of the repugnant and hypocritical way it points the finger at everyone else whilst behaving so poorly itself.

I simply do not understand people who continue to buy it, especially those who profess to be Christians. We can make complaints, but the best decision is for right-thinking people (in both senses of the word) to commit to no longer buying this odious publication.

Know a Mail reader? Share this article with them and see what they think…

On a more light-hearted note, they may enjoy The Daily Mail Song:

Posted in Politics | Tagged | 16 Comments

‘Understanding theology is to understand God, who is Love’

Pope Francis1Across the broad spectrum of Christian culture, one characteristic is shared by almost all traditions: the church uses a lot of words.

Hymns, Bible readings, sermons, liturgy and prayers are saturated in words. And the internet is crammed full of blogs (like the one you are reading).

And so often, it is those most prolific at shaping and expressing words – preachers, writers and theologians – who are the most esteemed. Often, they will be promoted at events with phrases like ‘Author of over 20 books’.

Becoming real

But of course, the Christian message cannot be limited to words.  They need to be embodied – to come to life and become real.  Our words need to be in sync with Jesus who ‘became flesh and blood and moved into the neighbourhood’ (John 1:14)

Therefore sermons, books, theology, conferences and websites should never be seen as ends in themselves. They are means that should equip people for action.  All Christian reflection and writing ultimately counts for nothing unless it contributes to making a difference in our unjust and fractured world.

As Shane Claiborne has wisely said:

“Most good things have been said far too many times and just need to be lived.”

Strong roots

I think books and learning are important: to carry God’s message we have to understand the message and what it means for today. Strong roots are vital for a healthy tree. But they are not the tree itself. Good theology does far more than enhance reputations and sells books – it helps produce the fruit of love.

This is why Christian knowledge should never puff us up, make us proud or give us delusions of grandeur. For knowledge must simply oil the works of love, equipping us to live and work for God’s purposes.

‘Do not settle for a desktop theology’

This emphasis is captured by Pope Francis in a recent letter to the Catholic University of Argentina as they celebrate their 100th Anniversary:

We must guard against a theology that is exhausted in academic dispute or watching humanity from a glass castle. 

Do not settle for a desktop theology. Your place for reflection are the boundaries. And do not fall into the temptation to paint, to perfume, to adjust them a bit and tame them. Even good theologians, as good shepherds, smell of the people and of the road and, with their reflection, pour oil and wine on the wounds of men.

Theology is an expression of a Church which is a “field hospital”, which lives its mission of salvation and healing in the world. Mercy is not just a pastoral attitude but it is the very substance of the Gospel of Jesus…Without mercy our theology, our right, our pastoral care runs the risk of collapsing into bureaucratic pettiness or ideology, which of itself wants to tame the mystery. Understanding theology is to understand God, who is Love.”

Posted in Theology & Church | Tagged | 2 Comments

Beach-body ready or not, the real winners are the advertising industry

Each body's beach body readyProtein World’s ‘Are you Beach Body Ready?’ adverts have created a massive row. In among the countless adverts that commuters are pummeled by, these posters immediately struck me as unusually crass and objectionable.

So I was not that surprised to see the furore that has developed this week in response. There has been widespread vandalism of the posters and a whole array of online spoofs in response.  Today there is even a protest rally against the adverts organised in Hyde Park.

Campaigning against adverts

There is already enough words written about the adverts, both in favour of the protests and in defending them.  What I want to focus on is the peculiar challenge of campaigning against adverts because it’s a subject I have some experience of.

About 5 years ago, I started a campaign against billboards promoting a website which facilitates and encourages married people to have affairs.  I saw the advert after my son (who was 5 at the time) asked me while I was driving ‘Daddy, what’s a marital affair?’ when he saw the advert.

I complained to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) and they wrote back to me saying that the adverts in their opinion the advert ‘did not offend against widely held moral or cultural standards’.

So I set up a facebook group to support my complaint which over the course of a few days gathered over 4000 members. This led to many people joining in a series of simple, non-violent direct actions against the company who ran the website.  After just a few days, this led to the withdrawing of the advert.  (You can read more about it here: Marital affairs, facebook and non-violent protest)

Creating more publicity

Although ‘successful’ in having the advert withdrawn, there was an obvious problem that was continually pointed out to me – that our campaign in effect gave the company exactly what it wanted from the adverts: publicity.

This came home to me when a widely-read online blog claimed that ‘Jon Kuhrt is probably a brilliant marketing expert working on behalf of the affairs website’.  I remember reading it with incredulity and realising the trap that I had fallen into.  Our campaign meant that this particular advert was the 4th most controversial advert of 2010 – but I am sure the website company and their advertising agency were delighted.

Different approach

When similar adverts re-appeared a year or so later, I adopted a different approach and deliberately did not use the advert itself as a basis for the campaign. Instead, working with many others, we formed a coalition called ‘Faithfulness Matters’ which worked far more behind the scenes.

Instead of seeking the superficial generation of publicity, we focused on the key points where our pressure could make a difference.  It was far harder work, a lot less fun and also included some nasty legal threats made against me personally. But it was also more effective.  Our work led to a formal meeting with the company (along with their lawyers) where they agreed to not to advertise these websites on billboards anymore.

Generate publicity

We have already seen the CEO of Protein World say that the controversy has been great for his business. This means that the real battle will be won by ensuring that such adverts are stopped before they generate the publicity they are designed to create.  We need an ASA with more teeth and we need the billboard companies and London Transport to commit to refuse to carry adverts which harm and warp people’s perspectives.

One thing is for sure – we cannot expect too much of an advertising industry which is committed to feed off the greed and insecurity of the public.  George Orwell wrote:

‘Advertising is the dirtiest ramp that capitalism has yet produced…They have their cynical code worked out. The public are swine; advertising is the rattling of a stick inside a swill-bucket.’

Campaigning against adverts is not straight-forward.  But it needs to be done. We need to stand up against public statements which demean and damage society. The challenge is how we do so in a way which does not give the companies the publicity they crave.

Posted in Faithfulness Matters, Social commentary | 4 Comments

Making the world a better place, one commuter at a time

Free High FiveAnyone who commutes into central London can bear testimony to the daily struggle it brings.

Packed trains, late cancellations and staff specially trained to make announcements as confusing as possible all contribute to the challenges.  My no.1 gripe is passengers who can’t be bothered to move further up into the train which means that others can’t even get on. Grrrr…

This daily grind creates a large amount of miserable individuals, keeping themselves to themselves, grimly making their way to work. Heads down, headphones in and only interacting with each other only when absolutely necessary (for more on this issue see When good people do nothing).

But yesterday I met someone doing something positive to make a difference.

‘Free High Fives’

I was standing (it had been a hard day) on the escalator going up to Victoria station. I noticed many of the people coming down the escalator the other way were smiling and laughing and slapping high-fives on a man standing a few steps further up the escalator from me.  He was holding up a sign which the people coming down towards him could read, but as he had his back to me I couldn’t see what was on it.

Whatever was on the sign it was having an impact on people. Even those who chose not to high five seemed to enjoy the fun. I travel that way every day and I have never experienced a happier escalator.

Making people smile

When we got to the top I spoke with him and he showed me what was on the sign. It turned out he was Kiwi who worked as a handyman during the day and who did stand up comedy in the evenings. I asked what his motivation was and he said:

‘It’s purely about making the commute better – nothing more’

He went onto to say more:

‘Coming to the UK and London, you can tell people are reserved and keep themselves to themselves on the tube. At first you think they are being rude but it’s really because there are no reasons to interact. So I was thinking of a simple thing that I could do and I came up with this. It makes the commute more interesting – a high-five is not really threatening is it? It doesn’t involve much commitment, but can make people smile.’

The impact of negativity

The world has plenty of apathy and negativity comes easily to most of us. It is easy to feel powerless and that we cannot do anything to improve situations – like the state of our transport system. But its important to consider the impact that sustained negativity can have on us and those around us. If we let it, moaning can become our default setting.

But yesterday, through the gloom of self-pity and the tired frustration of a long day, I experienced a bright example of someone doing something – however silly and frivolous – which made a difference. And it made me smile.

Want to know more about the Victoria Line High-Fiver, you can follow him on twitter @TJ_mcdonald

Posted in Social commentary | 3 Comments

Pushy parents and competitive dads: when children behave better than adults

competiitve dadEvery Saturday, my 10 year old son plays in a football team in a south London league. He is part of a great club, with dedicated coaches and he loves it.

It is a very competitive league but over the course of the season, I have seen hardly any aggressive behaviour, bad language or arguing with the referee from the children on the pitch.

Sadly I can’t say the same for some of the adults involved.

From among the parents watching, there is often a perpetual sense of injustice similar to the attitude of fans at a premier league match.  Any decision against the team means that the ref is rubbish or biased. Or worse. The shouting directed at the referee creates a simmering level of aggression which can boil over.

Intensity

One game this season had to be abandoned before it even started. A legitimate query over the eligibility of one of the players descended into a aggressive row which involved racist abuse. The children were all patiently waiting for the game to start as the game was called off due to the behaviour of adults.

Whilst this kind of incident is not common, what is normal is the intensity with which so many parents watch as their children play and exhort them to play better. It shows how through competitive sport children can sometimes be vicariously representing their parents own aspirations and the fulfillment of their dreams.

The most important factor we have to remember is that this kind of support does not increase the enjoyment of the children who are actually playing.

Put off by parents

Yesterday a survey was published by the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) and cricket charity Chance to Shine which spoke to over a thousand children about this very issue.

It found that children as young as eight are being put off sport by the behaviour of their parents. Of those surveyed, 45% said the bad behaviour of parents made them feel like not wanting to take part in sport. And the parents agree with them: 84% of parents of those children agreed negative behaviour discouraged youngsters from participation.

As the BBC said:

‘The survey highlights how the pressure put on by parents, whether through shouting or continually criticising, is ruining the experience of sport for too many children.’

It has made me think as I am again managing an under 12 cricket side which my boys play in and the season is just about to start.  I prefer cricket to football, and I can recall with embarrassment a few times last season when I got a bit too passionate during tense matches.

What sport can do

Team sport can do amazing things. It can bring people together – it can turn strangers into mates and bind a group like few activities can. More deeply, it teaches us things about life – about pushing ourselves, making the most of our skills, working as a team, looking out for others and achieving something as a group.

But ultimately children’s sport should be about fun – sure it can be more fun when you play well and win – but competitiveness should never be allowed to over-shadow enjoyment.

As parents, we all want our children to listen to us. As this survey shows, when it comes to our attitudes to sport, it’s time we listened to them.

Posted in Sport | Leave a comment

‘He was so nearly a good man': Tony Blair on Pontius Pilate

pontius-pilateTony Blair’s Christian faith is most commonly associated with a comment which was not even made by him.  His press secretary, Alastair Campbell famously said ‘We don’t do God’ because of his concerns about how easily faith and religion are misconstrued in public life.  

But, in contrast to the banal nonsense that David Cameron wrote in his recent message, Blair wrote openly and substantially about his Christian faith.

The following text is taken from his article Why I am  a Christian’ published in The Sunday Telegraph at Easter in April 1996.  It is interesting that this was written a year before the General Election and at a time when he might have most to lose from speaking openly about his beliefs:

“Easter, a time of rebirth and renewal, has a special significance for me, and, in a sense, my politics. My vision of a society reflects a faith in the human spirit and its capacity to renew itself. But Easter is not only a celebration of the Resurrection: it is also a time to recall the events that led to Christ’s crucifixion and what they mean.

There are three parts to the Easter message – best described in St Matthew. First, there is Pontius Pilate, taking his decision as Jesus stood before him. One of the things that lends power to the Gospels is that the characters are so real. Pilate is fascinating because he is so obviously human and imperfect, torn between principle and political reality. Were the Gospels simply a didactic tale, his choice would be remembered as an easy one. But it is not described in this way.”

Blair’s analysis of the political dilemma facing Pontius Pilate is fascinating to read in retrospect. Blair’s legacy, despite many positive domestic achievements, is dominated by his decision to invade Iraq in partnership with the US.  In many people’s eyes, he has been guilty of the same lack of principle that Pilate showed – and to many will be judged by history in a similar way:

“The intriguing thing about Pilate is the degree to which he tried to do the good thing rather than the bad. He commands our moral attention not because he was a bad man but because he was so nearly a good man. One can imagine him agonising, seeing that Jesus had done nothing wrong, and wishing to release him. Just as easily, however, one can envisage Pilate’s advisors telling him of the risks, warning him not to cause a riot or inflame Jewish opinion.

It is possible to see Pilate as the archetypal politician, caught on the horns of an age-old political dilemma. We know he did wrong, yet his is the struggle between what is right and what is expedient that has occurred throughout history. Should we do what appears principled or what is politically expedient?”

Posted in Politics | Tagged , | 6 Comments

David Cameron’s Easter Message: wrong on so many levels

david-cameronDavid Cameron has written an Easter message to Christians. It has been published by Premier Christianity as ‘an exclusive’ which they summarise as ‘Prime Minister David Cameron speaks up on the significance of the Christian faith.’

Danny Webster, a moderate and sensible commentator on faith in public life, is savage in his critique:

David Cameron’s Easter message is dreadful. I’m used to the charm-offensive-say-something-nice-to-Christians-at-Christmas-and-Easter type of message, but this is in a league of its own.

Cameron’s message reminds me of Tim Vine’s gag about crime in multi-storey carparks: it is wrong on so many levels.

1) It fails to even mention the central aspects of Easter

Even though this is a message to Christians, it does not even once mention Jesus, the cross or the resurrection.  Instead, Cameron gives this incredible summary of what Easter ‘is all about':

Easter is all about remembering the importance of change, responsibility, and doing the right thing for the good of our children. And today, that message matters more than ever.

Cameron, or whoever wrote this for him, is certainly not stupid. You don’t get through an Eton and Oxford education without knowing the basics of Christian doctrine.  But this shows how politically cynical a message this is – trying to remove the core of the Easter story and replacing it with feel-good fudge.

2) It substitutes faith with ‘moral claptrap’

As he has done before, Cameron makes a big play of how appreciative he is of what the Christian faith can do, that he is “an unapologetic supporter of the role of faith in this country”.  But this clearly reads like a belief in faith itself, a belief in cultural Christianity – which essentially boils down to a sort of home counties, middle-class decency.

This is exactly the kind of twisting of authentic faith that Christians should reject. It is a great example of what the Archbishop Justin Welby described as ‘moral claptrap’ which can so easily and insidiously replace the gospel of grace at the heart of the Christian message.

3) It shows his fondness for charity more than social justice

Cameron makes himself out to be a great defender of Christian voluntary activism:

Across the country, we have tens of thousands of fantastic faith-based charities…As Prime Minister, I’ve worked hard to stand up for these charities and give them more power and support. If my party continues in government, it’s our ambition to do even more.

But does this ring true to how dismissive and aggressive the Tories have been towards the Trussell Trust who coordinate the Food Banks?

In any case, we should always be suspicious of the rich and powerful’s fondness for charitable activity.  The Church’s acts of compassion should never be separated from our demands for justice.

The true power of the Easter story

This is the most important few days of the year for committed Christians.  It is not a celebration which is about chocolate, rabbits or daffodils.

It is about a man who lived, died and was resurrected. It’s story which we believe to be true – in both the sense that ‘it happened’ and because it contains truth which speaks to people across cultures and generations.  It’s a story of friendship, betrayal, political reality, sacrifice, cowardice and forgiveness. It is the most powerful story of renewal and hope that has ever been told.

This the revolutionary faith that turned the ancient world upside down and which is making a difference today.  This the faith that people are still dying for in many countries. This is the faith which is inspiring 6 people where I live to be baptised at our church on Easter Sunday.  

This is a long way from the banalities and superficiality of Cameron’s Easter message. This is the celebration of the resurrection of the Son of God. He is Risen – and a vast explosion of love, joy and hope have been released into the world. Nothing can ever be the same again.

Posted in Politics | Tagged , , | 5 Comments

‘It’s All About Me': spiritual music to nourish the soul

I am really excited by this album of Christian worship songs that I have just discovered – check out this promotional video.

It helps me focus on what is truly important – I would recommend it for anyone, but especially bloggers. Surely nothing could be a better in the week approaching Easter…

Note: for those reading this afterwards, please bear in mind the date of this post….

Posted in Films & music | 3 Comments

‘All of humanity’s problems stem from our inability to sit quietly in a room alone’

Blaise PascalBlaise Pascal (1623- 1662) was a French philosopher, mathematician, inventor and Christian writer.

He wrote about faith in a highly skeptical time, just after the Thirty Years War where Europe had descended into brutality and chaos as Christians killed each other over doctrinal differences.

Despite this disastrous religious violence, Pascal argued that the Christian faith was true because it offered the best understanding of human nature: why we are the way we are and what we can do to remedy our condition. Among many great things he wrote, this is perhaps one of the most famous:

“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”

The journey inward

Much of the content on R&R is about activism – about what we can do to make a difference in the world. But I increasingly believe that this emphasis on outward actions needs to be complemented by attending to our own inward journey.  Authentic spirituality deepens our journey in both directions.

Whatever they believe, everyone should take regular time and space for the journey inward.  As Henri Nouwen wrote:

‘Solitude is the furnace of transformation. Without solitude we remain victims of our society and continue to be entangled in the illusions of the false self.’

We need to sit quietly in a room alone. Busyness is indeed the enemy of spirituality.

We all need the discipline of paying attention to what is happening within ourselves – to examine our soul, who we really are. This is not about navel-gazing or self-indulgent analysis.  It is about gathering resources in order to live authentically.

In the silence, what do you hear? What are you reminded of? What thoughts flood in? Do you have the courage to listen to what you hear?

Contemplation and activism

Mother TeresaLast week, I was read for the first time a mantra that Mother Teresa used to often repeat. It is beautifully distilled, spiritual wisdom about the relationship between contemplation and activism:

The fruit of silence is prayer.

The fruit of prayer is faith.

The fruit of faith is love.

The fruit of love is service.

The fruit of service is peace.

Unity and integrity

These words sum up the way that the journey inward through silence and prayer lead us to faith:

Silence – Prayer – Faith 

And in turn, faith sends us outward to live a life of love and service to others:

Faith – Love – Service

It is in the unity and integrity of these inward and outward journeys that we will find peace. Both for ourselves and for the hurting world around us.

Related: Busyness: the enemy of Spirituality’

Posted in Ethics & Christian living | Tagged , | 3 Comments

‘I fully sympathise with Stephen Fry’ – by Alan Jonas

Stephen Fry and Gay ByrneIn early February, Stephen Fry was in the news, and all over the internet, for declaring if there was a God, he would be “utterly, utterly evil.”

Fry was reacting to a question from Irish TV presenter, Gay Byrne: “What would you say if you came face-to-face with God?”

Stephen Fry demanded:

“Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid god who creates a world which is so full of injustice and pain?”

I fully sympathise with Mr Fry.

All of us must question what it means to have faith in a world of suffering.  If, however, that questioning leads people to conclude, like Stephen Fry, that there is no God, they make a huge leap of faith.

Atheists, such as Stephen Fry, can only believe that we are random, meaningless accidents in an infinity of space. This means that there is no ultimate point or purpose to our lives, nothing intrinsically valuable in our existence. That there is no basis beyond humanity for where love and beauty come from.

‘The mystery of evil’

And yet, most of us would say from instinct, from truth deep within ourselves, that this cannot be true.  Rather than the lost plaintive cries of Stephen Fry, hear the beautiful gentle words of the monk and writer, Timothy Radcliffe:

“The mystery of evil has no explanation, but it is swallowed up in the more profound mystery of good.”

Even in a world of appalling suffering, most of us live by this profound mystery; the victory of good; that there is point and meaning to our lives; we are not random, meaningless accidents; there is purpose which has at its core love and beauty…there is God.

Of course, once we acknowledge this creative force in the universe that is God, it must be incumbent on us to find out who He is, what He is like.  The Christian faith gives us answers to these questions.  Jesus says “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father” (John 14:7). As we know Jesus, we know God.

Facing injustice and pain

We find that God, of course, does not magic away all of the world’s problems.  Instead, He faces the world of injustice and pain that Stephen Fry decries.  He loves and serves, and overcomes the power of the essential ills of our existence – the sin of mankind, death and the force of evil.

Then we are invited by God to join the battle.  Following His example and in His power and victory, we are not to be by-standers decrying a world of injustice and pain, but instead we are to be engaged in bringing His kingdom, until all of the “mystery of evil” is completely “swallowed up in the more profound mystery of good”.

Everyone has faith – something we believe in, base our lives on.  I believe not in random meaningless but in good, in God, and in the example and victory of Jesus Christ.

Rev. Alan Jonas, Vicar of Holy Trinity Church, Westcott and Rural Dean of
Dorking

Posted in Social commentary | Tagged | 2 Comments