Elitism dressed as charity: the injustice of tax breaks for private schools

whigift-school

Whiftgift School, Croydon

Tory leaders have a habit of declaring social justice as their key aim when they come to power. Remember Margaret Thatcher quoting St Francis of Assisi ‘where there is discord, may we bring harmony’ on the steps of Number 10?

Or John Major speaking of his vision of ‘the classless society’?

In her first speech as PM, Theresa May followed suit:

“If you’re at a state school, you’re less likely to reach the top professions than if you’re educated privately….but the mission to make Britain a country that works for everyone means more than fighting these injustices…The Government I lead will be driven, not by the interests of the privileged few, but by yours…When it comes to taxes, we’ll prioritise not the wealthy, but you.”

But what does this rhetoric actually mean in specific and practical terms?

Are private schools charities?

Yesterday, May’s former colleague, Michael Gove, wrote an article in The Times with one specific suggestion: ending the tax exemptions available to the 1200 private schools in the UK due to their charitable status.

I don’t aim just to start an argument about the pros and cons of private education. Rather, I want to focus very specifically on this question: is it right that some of the most elitist establishments in the country are able to present themselves as charities?

Breathtaking facilities

In his article, Michael Gove lists some of the facilities that top private schools enjoy: Millfield has an equestrian centre and clay pigeon shooting facilities, Stowe its own night club and Charterhouse its own stables and golf course.

Every week I go to a Whitgift School (pictured above) because my cricket club hires their sports hall. The quality of the facilities are breathtaking.

Many of the top schools have fees of over £30,000 a year, per pupil.  This alone is well above the national average income.

Discounted privilege

Yet each one of them is a registered charity. As such, they get an 80% discount on their business rates and their school fees are VAT exempt.  As Gove puts it:

‘To my continuing surprise, we still consider the education of children of plutocrats and oligarchs to be a charitable activity. This allows the very wealthiest in the globe to buy a prestige service that secures there children a permanent positional edge in society at an effective 20% discount’

He also refers to other state-paid benefits enjoyed by private schools, such as the subsidised uniforms of their cadet forces. But I think this is just so he can fit in this one-liner: ‘The Eton rifles are welfare junkies.’

Bursaries

Of course, supporters of the status quo will point to the bursary schemes that enable kids from families with lower incomes to attend.  And, fair enough, many of these schools do provide for a limited number of people who are not in the tiny % who can afford the full fees.

Also, some will point to private schools allowing state schools to use their facilities. But according to the Independent Schools Council’s own figures only 3% of private schools sponsor an academy and only 5% loan teaching staff to state schools.

These efforts hardly scratch the surface of creating any authentic diversity.  And it is on this tiny thread of noblesse oblige that the legitimacy of their charitable status hangs.

Rampant inequality

For me it is clear that the richest schools in the country are not legitimate charities and should not be given tax breaks.  As Gove says:

‘Are the children of the rich intrinsically more talented and worthy, more gifted and more deserving of celebration than the rest? Of course not. But our state-subsidised private schools continue to give them every advantage.’

If Theresa May truly believes in what she has said then she should end this state-subsidy of elitism.

People on both the political left and right believe that the rampant inequality between rich and poor in this country needs to be addressed.  And education is one of the best places to start.

Posted in Politics | Leave a comment

‘Dethroning Mammon: making money serve grace’ by Justin Welby – a review by Gordon Kuhrt

justin-welby-dethroning-mammonMammon is money or possessions when they are enthroned.

The author says there is nothing wrong with money in itself, but when it exercises supreme power (is enthroned) it becomes mammon: evil, destructive and dangerous. A Foreword commending the book is from Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche movement which now has nearly 150 communities worldwide.

The author is, of course, Archbishop of Canterbury. This book has been written specially for Lent, that seven week period of preparation for Holy Week, and the death and Easter resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The six chapter headings give the flavour:

  • what we see we value
  • what we measure controls us
  • what we have we hold
  • what we receive we treat as ours
  • what we give we gain
  • what we master brings us joy

Re-thinking materialism

An introduction uses Jesus’ parable of a merchant finding an immensely precious pearl – to be gained even at the cost of surrendering everything else. Welby suggests that preparation for the Passion of Jesus might involve, not so much re-thinking chocolate and alcohol but, re-thinking materialism, mammon on its throne, what is good and bad in the economy.

Each further chapter is similarly based on a Bible story or passage. Chapter 1 (using the death of Lazarus) offers a more insightful kind of seeing. Money as an idol has a pseudo-divine authority in our lives, distorting our seeing.

Chapter 2 (Zaccheus the taxman) shows we like to measure – salary, budget, profit, even time. So unpaid caring of children, elderly and the disabled is less valued, as is the word of God. But mammon lies, deceives us, and controls.

Envy or generosity?

Ch 3 (Mary anointing Jesus) contrasts the economic systems of Judas and Mary, between fearful envy and ‘absurd’ generosity. Ch 4 (Jesus washing the disciples’ feet) explores the close relationship of money and power. Jesus’ challenge is not just for personal humility, but for a community of service.

Ch 5 (the burial of Jesus) is an intriguing and thoughtful critique of ‘financial man’ and ‘economic man’ in the light of the extraordinary behaviour of the rich Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus. There are comments on international generosity, e.g. the Marshall Plan and DFID.

Ch 6 (the message to the church in Laodicea, and the fall of Babylon in Revelation) returns to the deceitfulness of mammon. Ways to dethrone mammon involve listening properly to God, repenting, and intentionally enthroning Christ in our lives – examples are given.

Exciting and fresh

I couldn’t read the book quickly because it is demanding in both information and challenge; but I didn’t want to put it down because it is winsome, exciting and fresh. Welby fairly says he is neither a professional economist or theologian – but he has substantial senior experience in oil finance, and a thoughtful rigorous approach to scripture. He was a member of the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards following the 2008 financial turmoil, and has led a practical and successful assault on the pay-day loans business.

Highly recommended

I cannot recommend this relatively small book too highly. If you read it carefully you will be in the company of the Governor of the Bank of England.

Few subjects are more important and relevant; few books could have a greater impact for good, for grace and justice. Might you put it ahead of chocolate and alcohol?

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Click here to buy: Dethroning Mammon: making money serve grace by Justin Welby (Bloomsbury)

Ven. Dr Gordon Kuhrt lives in Buckinghamshire and is a former vicar, Archdeacon and Director of Ministry for the Church of England.

Posted in Ethics & Christian living, Recommended books | Tagged , | 1 Comment

The Moorside: Shannon Matthews and the three faces of poverty

shannon-matthewsEveryone who cares about poverty and community life in the UK should make sure they watch the BBC drama The Moorside. 

It is a thoroughly researched and brilliantly acted film about the tragic case of Shannon Matthews, a young girl from Dewsbury, West Yorkshire. In 2008, Shannon was reported as missing by her mum, Karen Matthews. Her disappearance triggered a massive search and the biggest Police operation in the region since the Yorkshire Ripper.

After more than 20 days, Shannon was eventually found at a relative’s house. But gradually the truth emerges: the abduction had been staged by the family in a crude plot to secure a reward.

There are many layers to the tragic tale: the comparison of media coverage with the disappearance of the more middle-class Madeline McCann, the arrest of Shannon’s Step-Dad for child pornography and how David Cameron used the case as an example of his narrative of ‘Broken Britain’.

Bravery and integrity

The Moorside tells the story from the perspective of the local community and it captures both the positive and negative aspects of the estate culture with bravery and integrity. Julie Bushby (played by Sheridan Smith) passionately mobilises the community to search for Shannon and organises marches and vigils. There are many painful lines such as ‘We’ll show the world the kind of community we are’.

When Shannon is found and the truth emerges, the same people who supported the efforts to find her, turn in understandable rage and anger on Karen and the others involved.

Truth and grace

In court, Julie gives evidence when Karen is charged with kidnap, false imprisonment and the perversion of justice. Sheridan Smith’s acting is remarkable and her words are extremely powerful:

“Karen Matthews is weak, cowardly and a liar. She put her child through a horrible experience, she let down her community and people who she said were her friends. And even when she eventually told the truth she went back to lying to save her own skin. 

Thats what you all want me to say isn’t it? 

And it’s the truth. But it’s a long way from the whole truth.

If you want to know the whole truth, you need to know that Karen is damaged. She has been used and abused since childhood, don’t ask me by whom but I am sure the list of people is a long one. Most are men who have used her for sex. Karen let them get away with it because she doesn’t understand that sex is not the same thing as love or affection, which is the thing she really wanted…

She has told lies and let people down but I will not join in with the lynch mob. Other people might want to use her as a human punch bag because it makes them feel better about their own lives and the shit they get up to but I won’t do it. I have stood by her before and I am standing by her now. She is still my friend.”

You will find it hard to find a more powerful expression of truth and grace.  And these words are made all the more authentic by knowing that Bushby continued to visit Karen Matthews in prison for the whole of her sentence.

Poverty of relationships and identity

3 Faces of PovertyThe Moorside captures an extreme example of the multi-layered problems of poverty that many deprived communities face.  Material poverty is compounded and deepened by the poverty of relationships and identity.  These forms of poverty are entrenched by child abuse – a theme which runs through the film.

It is another reminder of the need to hold each of these forms of poverty together and resist the simplistic polarising that so easily happens.

The role of the church

The local church play a small but significant role in the story.  When the vicar arrives to help with the search, Julie Bushby tells her ‘We don’t need no Bible-bashers here’. But her willingness to serve and get involved means that she plays an important role. And it is to her that Bushby turns, despite her lack of faith, when the reality behind Shannon’s disappearance becomes clear.

And it is a fascinating postscript that, according to some reports, Karen Matthews has found faith in God.  According to The Daily Mail, she said: ‘When I left prison I picked up a Bible and saw a passage about “God loves you”. I knew I was hated by everyone, cut off from my family. But here they were, saying I was loved’.

Feel free to comment or share this article, but perhaps a fitting response would be to offer a prayer for all those involved in this tragedy. Especially Shannon who is now 18 and living under a new name with a new family.

The Moorside is available on BBC iPlayer until 9th March 2017

Posted in Films & music, Poverty | 4 Comments

Sexuality, the C of E and the myth of Christian unity

c-of-e-sexuality-debateAnother week has passed with painful and damaging arguments within the Church of England. The Church’s governing body, the General Synod, voted against ‘taking note’ of the Bishop’s recent report on sexuality. The report followed three years of ‘shared conversations’ about how the church views gay relationships.

The argument between influential blogger Ian Paul and the Prolocutor of Synod, Simon Butler, is a sad microcosm of the dispute.  Butler, a gay clergyman, told Paul of his sexual orientation many years ago when they were at college together.  Now in positions of influence on either side of the polarised stand-off, they have been trading public accusations and counter-accusations on social media.

It reminded me of the dispute in the film Ben Hur between Judah and his former childhood friend Masala. Personal relationships, broken by conviction, ambition and tribal loyalty, have led to bitter enmity.

What is clear is that the whole church is diminished by such public conflict.

Toxic deceit

I have previously written on the need for honesty in these discussions because, alongside the disagreement, there has also been such widespread deceit. The accusations of lies add a bitter toxicity (and irony) to discussions about human and divine love.

After yet more talks and meetings, the Bishops have come up with a report which angered liberals and concerned many conservatives. The divides are deeper than ever and I believe are institutionally unbridgeable.

The myth of unity

Of course, everyone knows that the different denominations and traditions have different perspectives on all kinds of theological and pastoral matters. What makes the disputes in the C of E so painful is the denomination’s lingering ambition for national unity – or the pretence of national unity on this issue.

Anglican ecclesiology has ambitions beyond what is possible. It would be more honest to accept that much of the church believes one thing about gay relationships and another part of the church believes something else. Conformity to one approach will not be possible.

But I don’t believe that conformity on this issue has ever really existed. There have always been many, many gay clergy whatever the institution was decreeing from the centre.  And because Bishops have been complicit in maintaining the deceit it has made the situation all the worse.

Pyrrhic victories

The sexuality debates flow from fundamentally different theological traditions which have always deeply divided the C of E. Many conservative evangelical congregations have little to do with more liberal churches, despite them both having ‘Church of England’ on the noticeboard outside.

But the ambition for conformity on a matter like this leads to deeply unpleasant politics. Genuinely held convictions are fused with the desire to control resources in an unholy alliance.

There will be no winners from these conflicts. It will lead to many more years of bitterness with occasional Pyrrhic victory for one side or the other.

Unity in action

My dislike of a false myth of unity is because I have experienced such a different form of unity which can cross the divisions in the church.  Being involved in initiatives which bring congregations together in local mission such as Love Streatham has been a fantastic experience. In my previous job with the Shaftesbury Society, I worked with similar initiatives in Bradford, Eastbourne, Leeds, Brighton, Southampton and many parts of London.

In my work now with West London Mission, I Chair the Westminster Churches Night Shelter which brings together 13 local churches (plus a synagogue) to help homeless people come off the streets. The generosity and enterprise shown by these vastly different churches shows the power of Christian unity.

Focus on outreach

A focus on outreach and mission helps our perspective.  Often the local community are neither interested or understand the theological differences between the congregations. But they are interested when they see churches working together to make a difference they understand.

And it is not that theology is not important. But these forms of unity in action accept the kind of diversity that will always exist and allow people of different views to make a distinctive contribution.

And through working together on the frontline, they appreciate and understand each other better. Quite the opposite of how things have looked in the C of E this past week.

Posted in Theology & Church | 3 Comments

It is nice when religion and politics are kept apart…

It is nice when issues of religion and politics can be kept apart.

Religion is unsullied by worldly concerns. Going to church can be an inspiring escape from reality.  We can focus purely on God and listening to the Holy Spirit. We can reflect on our future hope in heaven.  We can think really theologically. We can have a deep personal experience which leaves us feeling uplifted.

But when religion and politics are mixed, things become difficult.

Fellow Christians start arguing on facebook about Brexit or Trump. Sermons become controversial, people who pray and sing together easily feel tension. Arguments break out about all-sorts of non-religious subjects like money, tax, justice, refugees, poverty and power. Religion gets messy.

But…

…authentic faith cannot be never be neatly separated from politics. In reality there is no sacred-secular divide. God is concerned for the whole of his creation.

And this includes subjects like money, tax, justice, refugees, poverty and power.

Is it not wrong to disagree with those we worship with: a common faith should not lead to political conformity.  The resources of faith should actually help us disagree – but do so with grace and respect.

Check out this short film from Christians on the Left about the thorny issue of tax evasion, a ‘non-religious’ subject that Jesus was specifically asked about…

Posted in Politics | Tagged | Leave a comment

Jesus did not write a book but formed a community

Last year I spoke at a weekend away for St Mary’s Church in Islington.  When I arrived in my room at the conference centre, there was an envelope on my bed with a card welcoming me. And inside the card was a single piece of a jigsaw puzzle.

The card asked me to bring the jigsaw piece to the main room where we later met as a group. And at the back of the room was the frame of an empty jigsaw. Each of us had to find the place where our piece fitted.  Gradually, through working together, the picture below emerged, formed from the different pieces which we brought.

Both the picture that was made and the way it which was created was a beautiful and powerful illustration of the Church:

church-crown

Diversity

Almost all urban churches are highly diverse communities. Diversity is one of those issues that is easy to write and speak about as an ideal, but far harder to live out in reality.  Sharing life with people who do and see things differently is never easy.

Yet it is in its diversity that the beauty of any community is most evident. The Church should never be a social club of like-minded people. It is a place where the walls which divide people come down because they have found a focus for unity which transcends all other boundaries.

Community

I see this in the Sunday services in my church where people from over 50 different countries worship together each week. I see it in my diverse mid-week home-group which meets in my house where we gather to share our lives, troubles and hopes and try to help each other to keep following Jesus.

I see this in the Winter Night Shelter run by 13 different churches (and a synagogue) coordinated by the West London Mission. Instead of arguing over theological differences, these churches work together with generosity and kindness to help homeless people come off the streets.

I see this in the Lee Abbey youth camp that I am part of every summer where 150 people come together to form a community and to help young people find hope and identity in Jesus. The simple beauty of the place and the warmth of community makes it my favourite week of the year.

As Lesslie Newbigin wrote “Jesus did not write a book but formed a community.”

Abuse

Of course the church gets things wrong. Only this week we have seen the terrible examples of abuse being exposed within Christian youth camps.  Trust and faith can make church cultures vulnerable to those who want to abuse others.

We should never flinch from complete honesty about the failings of the Church. As the Bible makes clear, weakness and treachery were part of the church from the very start.

The root

As anyone who reads this blog will know, I believe the church should be deeply engaged in the struggle for social justice.  But, this fruit does not grow without healthy roots. Ultimately, the social and political impact of the church is dependent on the way it forms communities of those who are committed to following Jesus.

And alongside all the social and community projects I have been involved in, some of the biggest joy in my life has come from seeing close friends make their own steps of faith. To discover for themselves the meaning and transformation the gospel brings. For me, this will always remain the radical core from which all else flows.

Individuals within a collective

The jigsaw puzzle is a brilliant picture of the Church: a collective enterprise made up of many different individual pieces. Each one with a part to play to create something beautiful.

At its best, the Church is a ‘beloved community’.  A place where each of us can find our own true identity in God’s love and forgiveness and find a vital role to play in sharing that love.

Posted in Theology & Church | Tagged | 5 Comments

The political naivety of evangelical Christians – by Matthew Rhodes

President Donald Trump speaks during the National Prayer Breakfast, Thursday, Feb. 2, 2017, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

President Donald Trump speaks during the National Prayer Breakfast, Thursday, Feb. 2

‘Just watched and listened to President Trump speaking at the USA National Prayer Breakfast – has he become a Christian? Very God centred. Impressive. While some have been ranting – maybe others have fulfilled what is required of Christians – to pray for those in authority?’  Gerald Coates

Thus the charismatic church leader Gerald Coates commented on facebook. It provoked a torrent of responses – both in support and to disagree with the assumptions behind his comment.  He seemed genuinely shocked and surprised by the response. It reminded me of something Rev. Ken Leech once wrote:

‘All Christians are political, whether they recognize it or not. But especially when they don’t recognise it.’

I think this is something that Gerald hasn’t truly grasped.

Like Gerald, I too am an evangelical  Christian. But I found his comments on politics deeply troubling and I think they illustrate the political naivety which is being shown by so many Christians in response to Donald Trump.

Co-option

For many “evangelicals”, especially in the US, right wing politics is a default position. But the irony is that Donald Trump isn’t even a conservative. He has co-opted the Republican Party in the same way that “his” party has co-opted the evangelical church over the last 3 decades.

And  given his tendency to duplicity and irascibility it is extraordinary that many Christian leaders are cosying up to him. It seems incredible to me that Christians who “take the Bible seriously” and love the Jesus who preached the Sermon on the Mount are so supportive of someone like Trump.

An over-emphasis on personal belief

The strength of evangelical Christianity is its emphasis on a personal faith – this is where it draws it dynamism and power. But when it comes to politics, this emphasis becomes a weakness. As with Coates’s comment ‘Has he become a Christian?’ there is an obsession with whether someone has ‘prayed the prayer’ of commitment or not – as if this makes all the difference in and of itself.

It is overly personalized emphasis to judge what is a public role. When faith is claimed there has to be at least some concomitant evidence of true repentance.

Trump is man who has said that he has no need of forgiveness – from anyone. His speech at the National Prayer Breakfast showed no sign of Christian doctrine whatsoever. I fear that his “conversion” is instrumentally convenient as he seeks to bed down his core support in his first year as President.

Cheap grace

I make no judgment on the man’s justification before God – that’s not my job.  But we must remember that although God’s grace is freely given, it is not in any way cheap. As US Christian, Ron Sider wrote:

“Cheap grace results when we reduce the gospel to forgiveness of sins; limit salvation to personal fire insurance against hell; misunderstand persons as primarily souls; at best, grasp only half of what the Bible says about sin; embrace the individualism, materialism and relativism of our current culture; lack a biblical understanding and practice of the church; and fail to teach a biblical worldview.”

So praying a simple prayer is never enough.  God’s salvation is both as simple as accepting Christ’s sacrifice and as complex as seeing a whole life utterly transformed. So the idea that we do not critique Trump, or treat him more generously on the basis of a prayer he may or may not have prayed is naïve and depressing. In fact, if we do believe that his Christian faith is real then we hold him to a higher standard.  His faith will be evidenced by the fruits of what he does.

Speaking truth to power

Gerald Coates is right – the Bible is clear that we should prayer for our leaders. But, it also contains many examples of people who stood up and spoke truth to political power (Moses, Nathan, Jeremiah, Amos, John the Baptist, Peter).  We should never limit our political engagement to an uncritical commitment to pray.

We live in dangerous times. All Christians, and especially Church leaders, need to think carefully about the role our faith is playing in our turbulent political context. What is the approach that Jesus would advocate? He came as the Servant King – and we need his commitment to speak and display God’s justice, love and compassion more than ever.

Matthew Rhodes is a Streatham-based Leeds United fan. Follow him on twitter @MatthewRhodes

Related on R&R: What Evangelicals have done to sin

Posted in Politics | Tagged | 9 Comments

‘I Didn’t Meme to Hurt You’: disagreeing better online

trump-memeI am facebook friends with people with a very wide range of views: rabid right-wingers and loony lefties and everything in-between. Raving charismatics, fluffy liberals and hard-bitten atheists.  Millie Tants, Chardonnay Socialists and Gary Lagers.

Our on-line followers represent to some extent the worlds we move in. And for many of us, these worlds vary greatly.

Unprecedented times

And we live in momentous times.  The election of Donald Trump and the series of executive orders he has issued are genuinely unprecedented.  For the record, I am strongly opposed to him and what he stands for. I believe its essential that people are engaged in what is happening in the world and that we raise our voice for what we believe.  It is one of the reasons why I bother to blog.

But as my dad said to me when I was 16 after an argument I got into: ‘Son, sometimes its better to lose an argument and keep a friend’. (Note: I added the word ‘son’ to make it sound deeper).

Seven ways to disagree better

So, whilst online disagreement is both inevitable and important, I think it is something that we can do better. So here is my top tips:

1. Recognise that disagreement is a good thing. Having a wide range of friends with different views (even just Facebook friends) is a good thing. Sure I get nervous when one of my hardcore ‘prayer-warrior’ type evangelical friends gets into a tussle with a die-hard atheist – but at least they are in contact. One of the shocks from the Brexit vote for many was that too many people did not know anyone who disagreed with them.

2. Try and be as specific as possible about actual events. The most powerful thing I read this week about Trump’s travel ban was from a local friend who posted about the impact it had on a work colleague whose trip to the US was suddenly cancelled. It brought it home and made it real.  Labels like ‘bigot’ and ‘fascist’ don’t help anyone to change their mind and statistics are rarely effective. But genuine stories about real people do move people.

3. Try not to pass on dodgy information. It is so tempting to share a funny meme with a fake quote or a graph that purports to show something shocking.  I posted something this week which quickly proved to not be quite accurate. I have learnt my lesson – we need to spend a few more seconds to verify that something we share is reliable. We cannot combat post truth culture by sharing things that are not actually true.

4. Recognise when its time to bail out. Online debates which get aggressive are generally dysfunctional and pointless.   Recently, two friends of mine got into a heated exchange about Trump with accusation and counter-accusation about whether one was calling the other ‘a Nazi’. Ironically both are deeply committed Christians who both do loads to help others. Neither is remotely a Nazi so it was a shame to see things descend like this. In debate, you have to know when its time to fish or cut bait – and its best to bail out before things get this pear-shaped (there was a lot of metaphors in that last sentence).

5. Unfollow but don’t de-friend.  The fact that facebook have appropriated the word ‘friend’ means that we have to think carefully about how we manage the arguments we can get into.  So if someone you know is winding you up, it is far better to ‘unfollow’ them so you don’t see their feed and so don’t get wound up anymore. I am sure lots of people have done this to me especially with all the blogs I post. Think carefully before ‘unfriending’ because it is a bit terminal.

6. Try and inject a bit of humour.  Those perceived as liberal lefties like me will always be in danger of sounding a bit pious and we have to admit it is hard to be right-wing on social media.  A bit of humour, self-depreciation and humility (not to mention the odd emoji) often oils the machinery of a healthy argument. ;]

7. Remember how inconsequential arguments on social media are.  As I have experienced sometimes social media can change the world a bit but mainly it doesn’t. Online rows can easily take up a whole evening that could be spent far more productively. Talking, debating, protesting (and praying) in real, live situations will always more worthwhile.

Feel free to disagree – but please do it nicely!

Posted in Social commentary | Tagged | 3 Comments

Contemplation in a world of reaction – by Ian Geary

contemplative-prayer‘There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence to which the idealist most easily succumbs: activism and overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence.

To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of our activism neutralizes our work for peace. It destroys our own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.’  Thomas Merton

Political disorientation

2016 saw disorientating changes in the political realm. We may want to respond by being active.  However, paradoxically, prayer and contemplation might be a better place to start. A retreat might be more fruitful than going to a conference or a march; campaigning is good, but what if it is an actually an empty act? Or even an act of ‘violence’ as Thomas Merton, warns if we become subsumed by thoughtless and prayer less activism?

Political activity is a positively biblical thing, yet without from rest and reflection we can detach ourselves from the source of love and justice – and burn out.  

Doing nothing is an option

Some in the political world say ‘Doing nothing is not an option’. Well, actually doing nothing outwardly – for a time – is an option. The monastic lifestyle is not passive and other-worldly – many riches can be gleaned from contemplative disciplines and practices. They will become ever more important in our uncertain future.  

Silence, solitude and actively listening to those with whom we disagree don’t happen naturally in our culture. Yet, they are an essential spiritual disciplines. Let’s be contemplative and not instantly get sucked into 47 ways to change the world via the click of a mouse. Real change is harder than that.  

Contemplative disciplines

This passage from Job 11 speaks to our modern predicament. Job is exhorted by his friend ‘prepare your heart’ and ‘pray’.  We see the promise of the tremendous transformation and a new perspective that is rooted in a life of prayer.

“If only you would prepare your heart and lift up your hands to him in prayer! Get rid of your sins, and leave all iniquity behind you. Then your face will brighten with innocence. You will be strong and free of fear. You will forget your misery; it will be like water flowing away. Your life will be brighter than the noonday. Even darkness will be as bright as morning. Having hope will give you courage. You will be protected and will rest in safety. You will lie down unafraid, and many will look to you for help. But the wicked will be blinded. They will have no escape. Their only hope is death.” Job 11: 13-20 (Holy Bible, NLT)

These verses contain sound principles and clear promises:

  • We are urged to pray and repent (v13-14)
  • Visible manifestations of transformation and a new perspective are granted to the one who prays, repents and leaves the past behind (v15-19)
  • You will forget your misery’ (v16) you don’t need to be bound to the imminent i.e. the state of the Labour Party, Brexit, Trump. We care about our world, but without an encounter with God these things can stifle us.
  • Many will look to you for help’ (v19) we aren’t the only one God will bless, others can be blessed too.
  • This path of prayer not just a ‘nice to have’ it is the only path, as the alternative is destruction. (v20)

This passage reminds us to get our heart and devotion right. As a Christian I believe that lifting up our hands in prayer means that our heart remains attached to a holy goal. I want to cultivate good habits of the heart such as worship, prayer and solitude. If we don’t develop such spiritual disciplines, it will secular liturgies that will shape our desires.

A radically different view

This is no call to passivity.  The good news of Jesus calls us to action. Yet we must resist social and political activism detached from prayer and reflection. Just as Jesus retreated in solitude from the crowds to pray his Father, our action will bear fruit if it attends to the heart beat of the one who created us and loves us. 

So in 2017, let’s not get sucked into hyper-activity. Pay close attention to these verses in Job and orientate your life on a different track. Take a radically different view of what it means to be political.

Ian Geary works in public affairs, is a member of the Christians on the Left and lives in South East London with his wife and their three young children.

A longer version of this article is also available on R&R

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Taking a break from Fakebook – by Jill Rowe

funny-social-media-man-jailI have not been here.

Over the past little while I took a break from Facebook. I’ve not ‘photo-ed’ for Instagram and my tweeting volume has been close to zero.  I have not been here.

Why? Because I know that sometimes being here stops me being here, where I should be or where I need to be.

Distance and falsehood

The virtual world is just what it says it is. Virtual and not real.  And if you’re not careful, it creates distance and a whole heap of falsehood. Many close to me will have heard me call it ‘Fakebook’. I’m conscious that it builds thrones and platforms that can be built on nothing more than sand.

We forget that the things we are fed and the things we feed are always highly filtered, if not by us then by the logarithms that sit behind the machine. Sooner or later we have to pull the curtain back and face what is real and what is reality.

Knocked and dented

For some of us, we are strong but for some of us we are not and we create our worth as we create our online profile. For others, our worth is knocked and dented by the profile of others.

And if any of us thinks that our value as human beings is based on our ‘likes’ – the momentary online click of approval – if we constantly check how many likes we have, or compare our likes to those of others, if we take our posts down when we’ve not got what we wanted, if we think or do any of these thing then I’m telling you it is a pile of BS. Honestly.

Keep believing that this is where worth resides and you, me, we, we will all lose the plot. What happens ‘here’ is not always the truth or the whole truth and sadly sometimes nothing like the truth – so help us God.

A resource not a master

So my recommendation to us all is that we learn how to take a break sometimes.
Learn how to not be here so that we really can be here.
Learn how to see social media as resource and do not let it be our master.
Learn how to be with the people we are with and practice putting our phones down.
Learn how to speak again – one to one and do not do not do not pick up our phones to check or measure our profile ratings.
Learn how to look up and around at the world we are in.
Learn how to give thanks for what we have and not to be jealous of the show-reel of others (remember it’s not a real reel).
Learn that we don’t need to show off because we’re not sure if we have enough to show.
Learn how less really can be more.
Learn how to be real again and again and again.

And when we return – let’s tell one another what we’ve have learnt as well.
Help us all to remember how to not be here.

Jill Rowe is Ethos & Formation Director for Oasis 

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