September 11 reflection

I really hope it’s not ‘too soon’, but you never know. ‘Too soon’, of course, is the response topical jokes about catastrophes sometimes receive when the public mood is not quite ready for light to be made of whatever disaster, tragedy or scandal is being targeted by a comedian. It was also the response to several statements, articles and speeches written by very serious people in 2001, following the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers on 11 September. Several columnists, activists and philosophers were vehemently criticized within the first few months following the September 11th attacks, for daring to ask certain questions or make certain observations about the events. And even now, as I consider bringing them up nine years later, I suspect some people will be muttering: ‘too soon’ and wishing I’d be quiet.

But that is simply because ‘soonness’ has nothing to do with why people objected then (as they do now) to certain things being said about 9-11. It’s the same impulse that makes ordinarily rational people object to a mosque being built near the site of the Twin Towers (in which a Muslim prayer room operated peacefully for many years). Because of the great number of people killed in that area, on that day, both have taken on a kind of sacred character for many. This is understandable for the friends and relatives in particular of those who died, but it should not preclude us from asking a question that several people were lambasted for asking nearer to the time: was there anything fundamentally more important about the people killed on September 11 than all other people?

Philosophers and critics who pointed out that while the events of September 11 were tragic and horrible they were not that out of keeping with what was experienced by the rest of the world were attacked for being outrageous, disloyal and speaking ‘too soon’. Is it still too soon now to ask why we still care so much about the 3,000 victims of that attack while even then we could hardly muster as much sympathy for the 20,000 who died in India that January? Is it too soon to ask why every civilian casualty in America should be venerated and mourned, while in our wars in the Middle East they should not even be counted?

Is it still too soon to genuinely ask the question: ‘Why do they hate us?’ without resorting to cartoon answers that assume madness, fanaticism or unadulterated evil and take no factors into account like the historic and economic oppression of Muslim countries by western powers or of the millions of children that had died in Iraq due to American sanctions and been deemed ‘acceptable’ by the US Secretary of State?

Is it still too soon to point out that American lives (and British lives, for that matter) are not nor have they ever been, more valuable than those of civilians or combatants in states with whom we are at war or in regions where our friends or companies commit misdeeds? Is it still too soon to ask Christians in particular to recognise this fact?

Is it too soon to compare the motives of the hijackers to the motives of those who pushed for the Iraq invasion for moral worth?

Is it still too soon to start comparing the numbers of dead in Afghanistan and Iraq, through military conflict and subsequent chaos, on both sides, to the numbers killed on September 11?

I’m not saying that all or even any of these questions would in any way justify the taking of human life (on September 11 2001 or any other day). I am also not saying that the dead from the Twin Towers should not be mourned, and that with respect and dignity. But the ‘war on terror’ continues. Iraq and Afghanistan will live for generations with the consequences of the actions undertaken by governments we elected in response to 9-11. If we don’t ask questions now, or some time soon, we never will. And we will make the same awful mistakes again.


The mantra of ‘business knows best’

Mantras are not usually popular in Baptist circles. But there is a mantra accepted by far too many Christians and non-Christians alike, a mantra whose chanted rhythms are becoming more pervasive by the day. It says: ‘Big business knows best,’ and it’s been echoing for decades throughout the western world. A recent amplification came from Tony Blair and it has found something of a devotee – no, a Swami in David Cameron (with side-kick Fakir assistance from Nick Clegg). If (to extend the metaphor), during the years of New Labour, Westminster became something of a flower-power teen’s bedroom of tentative occasional chanting, the Con-Dem government has turned it into an Ashram.

Everywhere, in almost every decision our new government takes, one hears it and variations on it: ‘Big business knows best.’ ‘Profits mean progress.’ ‘The private sector is our salvation.’ Businessmen are appointed to oversee restructuring of public departments and business principles deployed in spending public money. Indeed, big businesses will soon be running much of what used to be publicly owned. The chanting of the mantra has become so loud, so ubiquitous, that ordinarily balanced people, even economic ‘atheists’ seem to have got religion, at least in terms of believing in the mantra.

Even when discussing the war in Afghanistan, NATO last week complained that all the positive stories are missed by a negative media. Examples given on the radio included building projects and economic recovery. So much of the proverbial Kool-aid has been imbibed that we are really willing to see the destruction of homes and infrastructure (with the loss of life that entails) as a positive thing, because it is good for the business of reconstruction.

But let’s not be unfair. Big business does know best about some things. Making a profit, mostly. And if a profit is what you want, the big business world has some pretty good ideas to offer. But most of those ideas involve charging as much as possible for what you provide, cutting jobs or paying people the very minimum you can get away with to cut costs and focusing every decision about quality on whether it will, in the end, make more money.

This is all perfectly respectable within the narrow world of commerce. One would not run a family that way, though. Asking little toddler Jimmy how he has contributed to the family bottom line and regretfully informing him his services will no longer be required is something most parents would prefer to avoid. When a mother becomes pregnant a second time we don’t immediately commiserate because her costs have gone up. The very idea of applying big business principles to the family (at least exclusively) is obviously ridiculous. And yet, there are many in our government who believe that big business knows best for public services and parts of government. Their faith in the infallibility of big business is amazing. After all, the economic crisis was caused by big business, and their network, the markets. The oil-spill in the Gulf of Mexico? A business called BP.

The high-priests of this mantra would have us believe that we have to choose between a world in which everything is run by big business or a totalitarian state. This is not true. Many things work better without business and don’t result in us becoming North Korea. The police are not privatised, ambulance and rescue services are not expected to make profits and making the fire department a business would obviously return us to a world where only those with money would receive help when they needed it most. It’s unthinkable in terms of burning houses. But when it comes to the lives of those who rely on public services most, we seem pretty open to it. I wonder if that’s the fault of the mantra, or just because we’re selfish and indifferent to change that is unlikely to threaten ourselves. Either way, as the Beatles eventually lost faith in the Maharishi, a little skepticism might be healthy about now.

Rumpole and the ever-eroding liberties

There’s a great series of radio plays on the BBC iPlayer. Called Rumpole and the Reign of Terror, the first one is both amusing and profound (as well as being really good radio).

John Mortimer’s greatest creation faces the challenge of trying to defend a client who is not allowed to know the charges he is facing.

An excellent exploration of the idiocy and injustice inherent in much anti-terror legislation in Britain today, and funny to boot.

Tolstoy, Orthodoxy and justice


I’ve been watching the excellent BBC series, The History of Christianity on the BBC iPlayer. It’s superb. And some of the most interesting parts of it concern the Eastern Orthodox tradition. Did you know, for instance, that the Russian Cyrillic alphabet was created by the Orthodox Church to evangelise slavic peasantry? There’s a pub-quiz fact for you.

The Orthodox Church has at times been used as a tool of state oppression in Russia and at times stood valiantly against it. I have been reading about the life of a famous literary figure who stood against the church itself — not because he opposed the principles of the Gospel, but because he felt the church, under the Tsars, had betrayed those principles.

The literary figure is Leo Tolstoy, author of War and Peace, and I’ve been reading a book about his reflections on his own unorthodox (in both senses of the word) take on Christianity. It’s called Leo Tolstoy, Spiritual Writings (edited by Charles E Moore) and I recommend it to anyone with an interest in Christianity and justice.

Here’s a poignant piece from The Kingdom of God is within You, that I just love:

Are you doing what God has sent you into the world for, and to whom you will soon return? Are you doing what he wills? Are you doing his will, when as a landowner or entrepreneur you rob the poor of the fruits of their toil, basing your life on this plunder of the workers, or when, as a judge or governor, you sentence them to execution, or when as soldiers you prepare for war, killing and plunder?

Even if you are told that all this is necessary for maintaining the existing order, and that greater disasters would ensue if the way things are were destroyed, isn’t it obvious that all this is said by those who profit from the arrangement, while those who suffer from it — and they are ten times as numerous– think to the contrary? And at the bottom of your heart you know yourself that it is not true, that the existing order of things is not how things are supposed to be.

More importantly, even if such a life is necessary, why do you believe it is your duty to maintain it at


the cost of your best feelings? Who has made you the nurse in charge of this sick and moribund system? Not society, nor the state nor anyone. No one has asked you to undertake this. You who fill your position of landowner, businessman, politician, priest or soldier know very well that you occupy the position not because you are so concerned with other people’s happiness but simply to satisfy your own security and well-being. If you did not desire that position, you would not be doing your utmost to retain it.

Try the experiment of ceasing to compromise your conscience in order to retain your position, and you will lose it at once. Think about it.

It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s a bastard with a lawfirm!

Well, someone had to shut them up. MPs, I mean. The sound of their whining complaints about getting letters telling them to pay back expenses was distressing dogs for miles round Parliament. But the manner in which they were eventually shut up last week was, not to put too fine a point on it, evil.

They were shut up by a ‘super-injunction’, a kind of ultimate gagging order which demands that not only do you not talk about some forbidden subject, but you’re also forbidden to talk about the fact you’re forbidden. Unfortunately, it had nothing to do with their expenses.

The super-injunction was intended to stop members of the public hearing from MPs, though. Just not about themselves. It was filed by a law firm called Carter-Ruck against the Guardian (and all other media in the country), preventing them from reporting on (or reporting on the fact they were not allowed to report on) a question in parliament about how an oil company had dumped oil waste on the Ivory Coast, causing untold health hazards to the poor people living there. Oil traders Trafigura and Carter-Ruck effectively tried to silence Parliament on an issue of human rights. And for a short while they got away with it.

This obviously reaffirms the fact that you don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to believe that global capitalism kills ordinary people and tries to control our politics and media (you don’t need ‘Illuminati’ when you have old-fashioned greed), but it also reaffirms that parliament is important.

Which flies a little in the face of much of the news last week. Now don’t get me wrong. I think the MPs who were vociferously complaining last week are in need of a jolly good hiding. Possibly a public hiding. Cries of ‘getting this letter made me feel like a criminal’ will get nothing but a deeply ironic ‘boo-hoo, diddums’ from me until those same MPs do something about racially-profiled stop-and-searches taken out on ordinary, non-criminal citizens every day. Objections that ‘the relevant authorities okayed it, so I am not going to pay it back’ will find me and others metaphorically spitting on them unless those MPs change the system where over-paid tax-credits to poor families have to be paid back regardless of whether ‘relevant authorities’ made the mistake.

Some MPs clearly need to grow up and realise that they are citizens in a democracy, not special little princesses. But despite what many newspapers have said, they are not fat-cats either. Yes, they earn more than enough to be able to pay for their own bloody gardening as far as I’m concerned. But they are not bankers and they are not Royal Mail bosses (similarly-whiney in the face of their own immensely undeserved privilege and wealth though they may be.)

That said, the job they do is special. Because it’s in our name. And when it comes to doing that job, gags on what the press may report are just plain wrong because they threaten our ability as citizens to make informed decisions about what our government should do, threatening the very core of democracy itself.

Of course, if a minority of MPs keep moaning unreasonably and the media keep reporting the story as if they were a majority, then the general public is likely to become so disenchanted with politics that soon people like Carter-Ruck and Trafigura may not even need injunctions, super or otherwise.

This first appeared in the Baptist Times in October 2009,under a different title.

No blacks, no Irish, no BNP

Nick Griffin

Nick Griffin

A Harry Potter forum – that’s where my friend’s sister met her BNP councillor fiancée. Ha! The mind boggles (not to mention muggles). Jokes about Nick Griffindor (or ‘He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named’ ) chasing down ‘mud-bloods’ will be obvious to fans of the books or movies. All I’m saying is that if Big Nick had a Hogwarts House, you know it’d be Slytherin. If Boris Malfoy would let him in. It’s so posh.

But yes,  it’s easy (and fun) to laugh at the BNP. Not just because of gems like picturing a sweating far-right thug with a cape, wand and broomstick, but because their views are caricatures, simplistic as the dubious morality in a children’s book. But in our haste to use the BNP as demonising shorthand to discourage the less confident racisms we know lurk throughout our society, we must make sure we do not ignore the simple, non-militant, domestic racism of people like you and me. Well.. mainly you. I’m an immigrant. (But a white one from South Africa. Damn!)

Last week, the BBC uncovered British letting agents who happily flout equality laws if their landlord clients require it, refusing to rent to ‘foreigners’. But if we are disgusted by a possible return to the estate agent culture of ‘No dogs, no blacks, no Irish’ (and if we are not, we may need to repent), would we be comfortable having the BNP in our houses? How many ministers would not prefer my friend’s sister to go for the civil partnership option rather than having to perform a fascist marriage?

We can learn from our enemies’ mistakes, and one that the BNP consistently makes is in holding to a largely arbitrary but very rigid definition of ‘us’ and ‘them’. Another is a totally disproportionate loyalty to those they consider ‘their own’.

Last week the government, too, was criticized for arbitrary definitions of the proverbial ‘us’. A proposed ‘points system’ for potential British citizens would reportedly see the democratic (if not human) right of protesting against the government as ‘un-British’.

Loyalty, as all of us in our saner moments know, is not eternally uncritical or silent in the face of the unjust actions of friends, family or nation. But is loyalty, even critical loyalty, an absolute virtue?

MI6 (as was revealed on Radio 4 last week) regularly convinced Soviet citizens to betray their country. If betrayal, in a supposedly higher cause, is morally justified for Comrade Gordievsky, perhaps it is justified for Comrade Philby?  Or do we really believe that ‘we’ are always the good-guys, while ‘they’ are always the bad, as if life were a Harry Potter novel?

The BNP are wrong not just because they are traitors (to the ideals Britain fought for in WWII), but because they refuse to become traitors (to their largely fantasized version of Britain) in the cause of something better.

Loyalty is wonderful, but sometimes I wish we’d encourage more traitors. Radical faith and prophecy often require them.

Oscar Romero: Friend of the poor, traitor to the wealthy (Photo: DePaul)

Oscar Romero: Friend of the poor, traitor to the wealthy (Photo: DePaul)

Rahab was a traitor to her people, with terrible consequences (for them). Archbishop Romero was a traitor to his class. Wilberforce: a traitor to Britain’s economic best interests. And was the Apostle Paul not a traitor to Israel and even his religion when he converted? Isn’t every Christian conversion an act of betrayal against our old selves, our old priorities, friends and ideals? Great traitors are always loyal to something. The question is whether it’s the right something.

In Joshua 5 : 13-14, Joshua asks an angel with a sword whether he is on the side of his people or their enemies. The angel surprisingly replies: ‘Neither,” because he is on the side of the armies of Heaven. We should be careful that our good, praiseworthy loyalty to Britain, our culture, our race, our sex, our church or our families does not put us in opposition to him or the one who sent him.

Tony Campolo interview

I’ve just posted an interview I did a few months ago with Tony Campolo.

Click here to read it.

In it, he discusses (unsurprisingly) how ‘Red Letter Christians’ can change the world through politics.

He also discusses: death; Islam; making a fool of God and how he feels about the harsh criticism he’s received.

Fascinating guy, is Tony. If you’re wondering about what real Christian attitudes to politics might be, but are afraid of crazies or heretics, this is a safe and  good place to start — and you may find him more challenging than you anticipate.

I may post the video here at some point (or point you to where it does get posted).