what right do I have not to be offended, outraged or indignant?

Hatred of the most despicable kind was on display in Charlottesville (USA) last weekend. We saw what happens when racists get together and find the cowardly courage of the crowd to shout and march and chant. The mob mentality encouraged them to make public the acidic bile that has rotted their souls: it is easier to wear racist emblems and make nazi salutes when there are others alongside you doing the same.

I have been hesitant about writing anything about what happened in Charlottesville because I am a middle-class white male who has only experienced any sort of discrimination in the form of bullying at school because I am a Christian. I have been hesitant to write about the predatory attitudes that we find skulking in the shadows of all cultures, thinly disguised as nationalism and preying on the insecurities of those who consider themselves to have been hard done by because I have not suffered in the way that others have at the hands and mouths of prejudiced bigots.  What right do I have to be offended, outraged or indignant?

But then I thought, “What right do I have not to be offended, outraged or indignant?” I may not know how it feels to have suffered racist abuse or violence but I do know that it is a nauseating stench in the nostrils of all that I believe in and stand for.

Regrettably that rally would not have received the publicity it did if it was not for the death of one brave person. The evil that reared its hideous, heinous head in the land of the free and the home of the brave was focused for the world in the act of one person who decided to use their car as a weapon of mass destruction and drive into a crowd of people protesting against the racists. It is tragic that Heather Heyer’s life was taken by that fascist-fuelled act and that others were seriously injured. It is tragic for the families affected and yet Heather’s last post on social media has become a rallying cry against such attitudes:

“If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention”

I want to say the loudest possible ‘amen!’ to that statement. I am outraged. I don’t want to make her a martyr to a cause because first and foremost her death is a family tragedy, but she was (along with many others) a brave woman who refused to stand by and allow evil to go unchallenged. I hope and pray that history will reveal this as a turning point when ordinary men and women across the world rose up against these attitudes. As Revd Dr Martin Luther King Jr said:

“For evil to succeed, all it needs is for good men [and women] to do nothing.”

stop

So what does ‘not doing nothing’ look like for me? This blog is one small thing – seeking to add my small voice to the many other small voices across the world that denounce racist and fascist attitudes so that together we might become a resounding roar of resistance against racism and leave no room for doubt that these people are a small minority of small minded people whose myopic and bigoted view of humanity is so far out of focus from the truth that they will never prevail.

We can expose lies with the truth. We can dis-empower evil by calling it what it is. We can not only stand against injustice but we can act for justice. If we ever encounter such discriminatory attitudes let us resolve that we will not leave them unchallenged. We will stand in protest. We will stand in solidarity. We will speak out against them. And at the same time if there is one present near us whom the bigot would try to make into a victim with their vile evil lies let’s be determined to stand with that person and for that person and ensure that they know that they are not alone. We may not be able to walk in their shoes but we can walk with them.

I have no wish or intention to diminish the hurt and insult that is felt by those who are subjected to racist taunts and attacks by claiming that we are all victims of racism. I cannot know how that feels. But by sub-humanising one group of people on the basis of their ethnicity racists are actually sub-humanising themselves and the poison of racism pollutes all of humanity. If one person is considered less than another we are all diminished by that attitude. So let’s resolve to honour and value and respect every single human being – even (or perhaps especially) those with whom we disagree. A powerful antidote to the poison of racism is the refusal to dehumanise racists: to refuse to fight fire with fire, hatred with hatred, evil with evil.

We can restore the dignity that the undignified are seeking to destroy by recognising that dignity is not only something inherent within all of us, but it is also something that we can give to others. If someone seeks to diminish the dignity of another we can enhance it by giving greater dignity in response. Look at the way that Nelson Mandela showed dignity and gave dignity in such a way that the racism of apartheid crumbled.

In response to the attack in Charlottesville President Obama tweeted a quotation from Nelson Mandela’s book The Long Walk to Freedom:

“No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin or background or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

Jesus Christ said that we should love our neighbours. More awkwardly he also said we should love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. That’s easy to say but it’s not easy to do. We don’t have to agree with them. We don’t have to allow them to succeed. We don’t have to submit meekly to those whose perverted view of people leads them to despise others – non-violent resistance has been at the heart of some of the most powerful movements in human history. ‘Turning the other cheek’ is an act of defiant rebellious love – responding extraordinarily to violence inflicted upon us and demonstrating an undiminished resolve not to retaliate and take revenge upon that person.

Loving our neighbours and our enemies does not mean that we cultivate mushy romantic or familial feelings for them. It means that we want the best for them (surely that includes that they recognise and repudiate the inhuman nature of their attitudes). So I also resolve to pray against the evil of discrimination that seeks to undermine the value of another person on the basis of difference and pray for a change of heart and mind for all who hold such views.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

 

om, nom, nom, nom popcorn

Last week I watched some of the World Athletics Championships in London. I didn’t manage to get to the stadium so was restricted to watching on TV. There were some astonishing feats, some memorable races, jumps, throws and performances. But the moment that I remember more vividly than any other was when the TV camera zoomed in on two little girls who were eating popcorn. You really have to watch it. You can see it on YouTube here.

om nom nom

I laughed at that moment so much, and it still makes me chuckle every time I watch it again. The contrast between how the two are eating the popcorn is delightful and the little girl with curls is so determined to shovel as much in as possible it’s hilarious. Watch it again and add “Om, nom, nom, nom” every time the girl with curls eats and it seems to fit even better than the commentary, which was already funny.

The video also made me reflect on my relationship with God. The following thoughts are disparate and don’t work consecutively…

  • Am I as hungry for God as the girl with curls?
  • Do I devour the Bible or dip in politely?
  • Is this a metaphor for how many of our churches operate – more focused on making sure we get what we want than about sharing it with anyone else?
  • Would we act differently if we knew we were being watched by millions? So why don’t we act differently in God’s constant presence?
  • It’s good to laugh and to be the cause of laughter.

Be blessed, be a blessing

 

100 metres

Like many millions in this country and probably across the world I watched the Athletics World Championships 100 metres men’s final on Saturday evening. I tuned in hoping to see the fairytale ending to Usain Bolt’s career with him winning the 100m.

But the fairytale ending didn’t happen. He didn’t even come second. He came third! That wasn’t meant to happen.

And more than that, the person who won, Justin Gatlin, had previously been banned from athletics for drugs offences. Twice.

I had very mixed emotions. I felt sorry for Usain Bolt. It would have been so good for him to win one last time. I felt disappointed that my dream of seeing him win had died. And I was conflicted about someone who had twice been found guilty of cheating by using performance enhancing drugs winning and being crowned World Champion. It didn’t feel right.

I think many in the crowd at the London Stadium in Queen Elizabeth Park also felt the same way. When he was introduced as he came onto the track at the start Justin Gatlin was booed. And he was roundly booed when he won. And he was booed when he was awarded his medal last night. Part of it I think may have been frustration that it wasn’t Usain Bolt getting the gold medal but it was mostly, I think, an expression of distaste at Justin Gatlin’s past behaviour.

And that did not feel right either. He had ‘done his time’ for whatever he had done in the past and because of the stringent drug-testing nowadays we ought to be confident that he is now ‘clean’. So even though it doesn’t make me happy that he won, I don’t think he should have been booed. The rules of the sport allowed him to compete after he had served his sentence. Couldn’t the crowd have showed a bit more class and a lot more grace?

Usain Bolt’s comments after the race show his class:

“I always respected him as a competitor,” he said. “He’s one of the best I have faced. For me he deserves to be here, he’s done his time and he’s worked hard to get back to being one of the best athletes. He’s run fast times, he’s back and he’s doing great. I look at him like any other athlete, as a competitor.”

I think that what bothers me most is the lack of grace shown by the crowd. What if they had twice under-declared their income on their tax return, or had twice failed to admit that they had been undercharged in a shop, or had twice broken the speed limit, or had twice taken a ‘sickie’ from work, or had twice lied to their family … and been caught? Wouldn’t they want to be given another chance? Wouldn’t they hope that this would not characterise their life in the future? Wouldn’t they want to be allowed to move on after doing something to repair the damage and apologising? If so, isn’t it a bit, erm, hypocritical not to offer that same grace to someone else?

I cannot condemn Justin Galtin without also condemning myself because I know I am far from perfect. I hope and pray that with the help of God’s Spirit I am becoming more like the human being I was created to become and am able to fulfil my potential and part of that is showing grace to others. Jesus told a telling parable, you can find it in Matthew 18:

21 Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, ‘Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?’

22 Jesus answered, ‘I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.

23 ‘Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24 As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. 25 Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.

26 ‘At this the servant fell on his knees before him. “Be patient with me,” he begged, “and I will pay back everything.” 27 The servant’s master took pity on him, cancelled the debt and let him go.

28 ‘But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. “Pay back what you owe me!” he demanded.

29 ‘His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, “Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.”

30 ‘But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. 31 When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened.

32 ‘Then the master called the servant in. “You wicked servant,” he said, “I cancelled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. 33 Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?” 34 In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.

35 ‘This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.’

 

Be blessed, be a blessing

Old Testament satnav

Image result for the man who took seven baths

When I was a child I used to love this book. It was about an Old Testament Syrian General called Naaman (you can read about him in 2 Kings 5). The story was told in rhyme and I asked for it as my bedtime story so often that I knew the whole story off by heart. My parents used to get so bored with it that they would make deliberate mistakes as they read it to try to see if I noticed. I did.

I was reminded of Naaman today, by my satnav. No, it didn’t get all ‘Old Testament’ on me: “At the roundabout take the third exit and then cross the Red Sea…” What happened was that I had installed a system update on it a while ago and ever since then it had developed a fault: when there was an instruction prior to a roundabout it used to say (for example) “Turn left, then cross the roundabout, third exit.” But after the update it just said “Turn left, then cross the roundabout.”

That was insufficient information – it meant that I didn’t know where to position my car approaching the roundabout or which way to indicate until I had got much closer to the roundabout, by which time it may have been too late. I sent an email to the support team at my satnav and explained the situation and received an email back telling me to reset the satnav.

I could not see how that would make a difference. It felt too easy. It felt like the old ‘turn it off and on again’ or ‘press ctrl+alt+delete’ approach to technical problems. I had already installed a new operating system and surely that would have involved a reset. And anyway, I didn’t want to risk losing all of the saved places that I had in the satnav.

So I wrote back to the tech support man and pointed all of this out. I wanted to know why a system reset would make a difference. I wanted a better answer.

And then I thought that perhaps the tech support man knew what he was talking about. I reckoned that maybe this was a problem they had come across before and that this was a solution that had worked. And anyway, all of my places were backed up in the cloud. And what could it hurt?

So I did a reset.

And then I reloaded my saved places and re-linked it to my phone to receive live traffic updates. And then I switched it on and set my next destination.

Lo and behold, thus spake the satnav: “Turn left, then enter the roundabout and take the third exit.” Ooh, new improved instructions and not only that but the voice was restored to the politely-spoken voice I remembered from before the update! Sarah the satnav was back to her best.

Ah. Time to eat some humble pie. I have written back to the tech support man and apologised for my attitude… I learnt a lesson in trusting others, letting go of pride and realising I don’t know everything. That was Naaman’s lesson too.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

seeing things

I wear glasses. They are varifocals – correcting both long and short-sightedness depending on which part of the lens I look through. I was pleasantly surprised at how quickly my eyes and brain adapted to this (I doubted I would ever get used to such a strange thing but it happened almost instantly).

glassesWhen I am not wearing my glasses some objects will be in soft focus. If you ever see me without my glasses and it looks like I am frowning at you, please don’t be offended it’s just that I am trying to work out who you are.

One of the things that is easy to forget is that each of us sees the world around us, and other people, through our own eyes, but other people see things differently. I am not really talking about literal vision and sight, but the way in which we experience, interpret, filter and infer.

For example, someone who loves fast cars might be really excited to see and hear an Aston Martin roaring up the street. Another person might experience the same event and be concerned about the safety of pedestrians. Someone else might experience the same event and wonder how anyone could afford such a car. Do you see what I mean.

When we forget that we ‘see’ and experience life in a unique fashion that can lead us into difficult and uncomfortable places. By way of an illustration, I sometimes forget that not everyone is into performing magical illusions to the same extent that I am. I might think I am being entertaining and engaging but to someone else I am a bore and tedious. You could replace ‘performing magical illusions’ with almost anything else and it can work out in a similar fashion…

Not everyone enjoys the same TV programmes / films / music / books as you do. And even if they do, they may not enjoy them in the same way.

Not everyone is an interested in crocheting as you are, and may not appreciate how much work went into your full-sized crocheted African Elephant so don’t be too disappointed if they simply say, “Oh, that’s nice.”

Not everyone enjoys sport (watching or playing) and even if they do they may not enjoy the same sport and even if they do they may not support the same team / individual as you do and even if they do they may not agree with your perspective on their performances.

Not everyone understands your interest in Mongolian Tree Frog Worship* or (more conventionally) shares your perspective on Jesus.

So what do we do?

A little self-awareness goes a long way. Be aware how you see things and realise that not everyone has had the same experiences, enjoys the same things and understands life in the same way as you. That’s called individuality.

Recognise that if you only ever mix with and talk with and encounter people who are broadly similar to yourself you are seriously limiting your ability to grow and learn and perhaps also limiting the opportunities for others to learn and grow through you. To realise and embrace that is called diversity.

Recognising that people see and experience things differently, and becoming comfortable with exploring that in conversation with them without fearing that it will contaminate the way that we see and experience things is called dialogue. (If you are tempted to think that you should not be influenced by others see the outcomes of a lack of ‘diversity’ above.) Communication and Community have the same root for a reason!

Now, before you start lobbing virtual stones in my direction for heresy let me be clear: I am not saying that there are no absolutes. I am not saying that I believe that all truth is relative. This is not a bloggage to embrace a pluralistic view of life, the Universe and everything. There clearly are some absolutes. For example: being outside in the rain without an umbrella or a coat means we will get wet; bald-headed people have less hair on their heads that people who are not bald… and so on.

I think I am coming up for some rules of engagement on issues and subjects that some of us believe are absolutes but which are not shared universally, even if we believe that they should be.

Should we share those with others? Absolutely. (pun intended)

Should we try to persuade them? With grace and respect, yes.

Should we force others to believe what we believe? No.

Should we insist that they accommodate our beliefs? Not to the detriment of others.

Should we listen to what others have to say about their perspective on things? Definitely.

Should we be offended if they disagree? No, although they may disagree disagreeably which may cause offence.

Should we be offensive if they disagree? No.

Should we be willing to change our minds? Maybe, but because it feels right to us, not because they tell us to. A closed mind can never be expanded.

Should we be open to learn new things and see things in new ways? Absodefinutely.

These rules of engagement are very much a work in progress. They have come out of the mush that is my brain as I have typed so have not had a lot of thought applied to them. But behind them all is an attempt to acknowledge that part of being in community is to sensitively encourage a creative balance between expressing individuality, embracing diversity, and exploring through dialogue. That is not something to be afraid of because if your truth is true it can survive those things and probably be enhanced by them.

If you have ‘absolutes’ you need to recognise that there may be different grades for you: my convictions about who Jesus of Nazareth is are absolutes that exist at the foundational belief level of who I am and how I see and experience things and shape what I do. I have that in common with a lot of people. But the way I express that through the Christian church of which I am a part differs from the way that others who share that same foundational belief express it in their church. To make non-foundational beliefs more important than they are opens us up to ridicule. And for that purpose I refer you to a joke by Emo Philips:

Once I saw this guy on a bridge about to jump. I said, “Don’t do it!”

He said, “Nobody loves me.”

I said, “God loves you. Do you believe in God?”

He said, “Yes.”

I said, “Are you a Christian or a Jew?”

He said, “A Christian.”

I said, “Me, too! Protestant or Catholic?”

He said, “Protestant.”

I said, “Me, too! What franchise?”

He said, “Baptist.”

I said, “Me, too! Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?”

He said, “Northern Baptist.”

I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?”

He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist.”

I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region, or Northern Conservative Baptist Eastern Region?”

He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region.”

I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879, or Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?”

He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912.”

I said, “Die, heretic!” And I pushed him over.

In the book of Proverbs in the Bible we read (chapter 3 from verse 13):

Blessed are those who find wisdom,
    those who gain understanding,
14 for she is more profitable than silver
    and yields better returns than gold.
15 She is more precious than rubies;
    nothing you desire can compare with her.
16 Long life is in her right hand;
    in her left hand are riches and honour.
17 Her ways are pleasant ways,
    and all her paths are peace.
18 She is a tree of life to those who take hold of her;
    those who hold her fast will be blessed.

It’s worth pointing out that in the book of Proverbs ‘wisdom’ is a way of living, relating, understanding and perspective, not mere knowledge. And the writer of Proverbs says that a right perspective on who God is and who we are (aka “the fear of the Lord”) is the beginning of wisdom.

Be blessed, be a blessing

*A fake religion I made up many years ago when I was trying to come up with something obscure as an illustration. I don’t even know if there are any tree frogs in Mongolia.