Tolstoy, Orthodoxy and justice

From jknirp.com

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

From ebooks.adelaide.edu.au

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.

Is this the kind of fast I have chosen?

A meditation on Isaiah 58

For as long as I have been a Christian  (and for some time before) I have been in churches where people have been ‘hungry for revival’. We still sing songs about it. The more adventurous go around the world looking for it, and the rest of us pray for it to come. We’ve tried everything.

We’ve prayed, praised, interceded, prophesied, been slain, worshiped professionally, rejected our personal sin and we have fasted. We’ve read and written books and sermons, tried to convince ourselves that we were finally righteous enough, repentant enough, theologically correct enough for God to draw near us. We are eager for that.

We want our voices to be heard on high. We want healing, we want righteousness, we want our light to break forth like the very dawn! We want God to be so near, to guide us, to satisfy our needs, to strengthen our frames and find our joy in the Lord. To feast on the inheritance we keep reading about as a promise.

 

We want it so badly, but what do we do? We worship earnestly, passionately, with abandon. But we worship for ourselves. All I want is for God to show me he loves me, to forgive me, to inhabit me. I want him to make me pure and I want to thank him for removing the stain of my sin. I sing songs about the great things God has done for me and can do for the world and then I walk out of church.

It’s not that i forget God or become ashamed. I don’t. It’s just that I am, we are so focused on that personal relationship with God that the world does not exist. We have become so obsessed with ‘me and God’ that all we can offer, as we leave the church (having worshiped in our beautiful clothes and fashionable shoes, having given money to coffers that will be spent on a new sound system, new carpets, a new kitchen, all for us) is words.

 

And words are not primarily what a world like ours needs. To be sure it needs them, too. Words of truth, speaking of salvation. For sure. But who the hell will listen to us when we are so clearly out of touch with reality? We sing songs about how God owns all of us, and we lie. Because we spend half our lives at work and the proceeds of that work go…where? To us. Our homes, our food, our clothes, our entertainment budgets. Our savings. And a small percentage to charity. Tithe. We claim to believe in the infallibility of a Bible that tells us that if we fail to feed the hungry, we are failing the Son of God, directly and we think it appropriate to spend ‘our’ money (by accident of birth, education or good parenting) the way we do.

We waste our lives on trivialities and the triviality has infected our church. We are so conformed to the thinking of this world, our minds so unrenewed, that we genuinely think of the luxuries and excesses that surround our daily lifestyles as ‘needs’, and dare to sing and speak of dying to self.

 

And we pray. We pray earnestly, for God to draw near and make his and our light shine. We feel alone in our failure to keep Him manifest without the effort of self-convincing and soft music.

 

But read what he says: “Day after day they seek me out. They seem eager to know my ways… yet on the day of your fasting you do as you please and exploit all your workers…” Our society, in the global middle class, is built on the poverty of others. You cannot have as much as we have without it having been taken from someone else, not in the real world. And no amount of fair-trade chocolate can make up for that.

We think “humbling ourselves”, like “bent reeds” is what God wants. But this is what he wants: “to loose the chains of injustice… to set the oppressed free and break every yoke.” Do we really believe, truly believe, that we can do that by singing in our churches? By attending Bible study? By having the thirtieth discussion about the end times or homosexuality or, irony of ironies, revival?

God says something more practical:  “to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter— when you see the naked, to clothe him.”

The Devil will tell you you do not have enough. The Devil will encourage you to call a television an essential, a house in a nice suburb a basic of life and to do your accounts with that in mind. That way we can always disobey, in the name of ‘being reasonable’, retaining enough wealth to sit back in our comfy chairs, behind high fences, as the city burns, and talk about ‘being radical for Christ’.

But God tells you to “spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed.” This is the way, he says, for “your night to rise in the darkness and your night become like noonday.” And it is natural to doubt him. Natural to believe that this is too hard, too much, too scary. But if we choose not to believe him then we have to stop lying in our prayers, lying in our songs, lying in our theologies of faith and total surrender.

 

I am not good at fasting. I am terrified of moving to a lifestyle in which I really am dead to myself and alive to the Christ of Matthew 25. But I read the words of Isaiah 58 and watch films like The End Of Poverty? and I know that there is more to be done than inviting my friends to an Alpha Course, worthy as that is.

 

What gives me hope is that God seems to be saying that all the things I want, spiritually and emotionally from God, the greater victories and stronger sense of his constant presence,  are right there among the poor and oppressed whom I have been trying to ignore. But words are easy.

 

Because I Got High

from legaljuice.com

‘Weed, dude…’ The dope-head said to my friend, after he’d lost his train of thought for the umpteenth time, ‘It messes with your short-term… your short-term… um…’ and trailed off. ‘Your short-term memory?’ My friend asked, and the marijuana-smoker replied in the affirmative. True story. The ‘weed’ he was referring to was, of course, cannabis, and I was reminded of the exchange last week as I listened to news of the row between the government and their chief scientific advisor on drugs.

Over the last few years, the government has pretty much ignored the scientific advice on drugs. From deciding on its policy on Ecstasy without waiting for the findings of its scientific advisers, to reclassifying cannabis from a Class C to a Class B drug, the government has demonstrated time and again that its objections to drugs are more social and ‘moral’ than scientific. This was borne out last week when Home Secretary Alan Johnson sacked Professor David Nutt, head of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, because Professor Nutt had publicly criticized the government for ignoring the ACMD’s advice.

‘Ah!’ you say, ‘It all makes sense now! The pinko-liberal politics, the hippie attitudes to the environment and war, the beard… Jonathan Langley is clearly on drugs. And that’s why he’s about to defend their use, probably on the basis of hemp making good rope, just like a typical degenerate drug-addict.’

Well, sorry to disappoint, but, I’m not a fan of drugs. I’ve tried cannabis a few times, and it’s just not my cup of (green) tea. I am, as my editor never tires of telling me, relatively paranoid when on nothing stronger than coffee. Smoking illegal herbage (while at university), nearly scared me to death. In fact, in my experience, most of the illegal drugs my friends have used have made them vacant, shallow, insincere and, well, stupid. Of course, that goes for many of the legal drugs, too. But if you asked me, I’d advise you to keep away from drugs.

drugs are bad, mkay?

from southparkstudios.co.uk

And that means absolutely nothing. Why? Because I’m not a scientist. I can recognise that my opinion on a subject I know little about is not very important. But, apparently, successive Home Secretaries cannot. Some of them may genuinely believe cannabis is dangerous (though this seems unlikely considering how many of our top politicians have admitted smoking pot earlier in life and going on to fruitful lives). More likely is that they are afraid of the social backlash against them if they take a reasonable, measured, scientific approach to all recreational drugs (including alcohol). A backlash from people like us.

Because, for Christians, this is not an issue where we can dispassionately criticize the government. We are one of the reasons the government ignores scientists when they try to say that some drugs are not as dangerous as others, that mental-health fears with certain drugs are nothing more than scare-tactics. We, people in churches, members of campaigning groups, ‘the silent moral majority’ that tabloids make so much noise about, are the ones who, directly or indirectly, demand that the government take a ‘hard line’ on drugs, for many different reasons of vastly disparate validity.

But if we really want, for whatever moral, spiritual or other reason, to discourage people from taking drugs, perhaps we should try telling the truth about drugs and basing our laws consistently on that truth. I know that sounds crazy. It’s probably just the booze talking.

Here’s an amusing anti-drug advert (I’d love to post the old Dennis LEary MTV one, but the only rip of it contains some of his other opinions, most of which are, well, stupid.):

Is Britain leftist? Ask a postman.

from socialistworker.co.uk

We’ve won! The Lefties and pinko liberals have finally taken over. You could tell by the reaction, last week, to the news that BNP chief-wizard, Nick Griffin, was going to appear on Question Time. Beyond the predictable lefty activist reactions, ordinary, mainstream people actually got involved. And properly freaked out. Radio phone-ins, blogs, newspaper columns and office coffee-points resounded to the sound of otherwise apolitical middle-classers denouncing the BNP in ways that made Joe Public sound suspiciously like George Galloway.

But never fear, oh conservative (or, indeed, Conservative) reader. Britain has not descended into liberalism or fallen into the arms of Marxist ideology. The vision of leftism sweeping the nation last week was just a mirage, a conscience-salving display by a populace that, like a grown-up hippie with a mortgage, likes to think of itself as a bit of a lefty more than actually behaving like one.

Because just as left-leaning newspapers produced posters making fun of how small Nick Griffin’s brain is (embarrassing) and right-leaning tabloids denounced his racism (hypocritical), the nation’s media showed its true political colours while covering last week’s strike action by Royal Mail staff in the Communication Workers Union – and those colours were not varying shades of red. Ordinarily impartial interviewers took for granted the belief that strike action in itself is a damaging, unreasonable and negative phenomenon. Otherwise intelligent commentators with a sense of proportion referred to their having to wait a week for internet hardware (delayed by the strike) as ordinary people’s ‘suffering’. And perhaps most remarkable of all, the Tories and Labour seemed to be pretty much on the same side: in opposition to the strikers.

Photo from socialistunity.com

The question is: why? It’s not like the nation has been crippled by strike after strike, causing constant upheaval to our lives. Royal Mail workers are not the bullies in this situation, either. They are overworked and facing privatisation (disguised as ‘modernisation’) which always means job-losses and a worse deal for both workers and consumers. The only power they have is in acting together. It’s not like the claims of government ministers and Royal Mail bosses of falling mail volumes are true (an excellent exposé of unilateral adjustments of figures and fiddling of statistics by bosses was published a week or two back in the London Review of Books and makes for fascinating reading) or even logical (can you say eBay? Amazon? Junk mail? Post ‘sent’ by ‘outside contractors’ that’s still ultimately delivered by Royal Mail posties?) It is just that the zeitgeist at the moment is pretty right-wing when it comes to strikers.

The reasons why could be debated in a whole book. But whether they are our sense of entitlement (outraged whenever we are even slightly put out), our culture’s hostility to those who seem ‘too political’ (as if that could somehow be a bad thing in a democracy) or just our subconscious belief that ‘the workers’ should be glad for whatever they get, because ‘beggars can’t be choosers’, Christians have a choice. We can go with the flow, side with the spirit of the present moment and accept, uncritically, the attitudes and viewpoints in which we are immersed. Or we can think for ourselves, applying God’s values, rather than those of the market or our privileged class, to issues in the news – hopefully siding with justice, mercy and the poor, rather than the forces of selfishness and expediency.

This originally appeared in The Baptist Times, under a different title.

Here’s a lovely video by Die Krupps about making a choice against fascism:

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.

At least it wasn’t Homer

From Chinadaily.com

From Chinadaily.com

Marge Simpson ‘posed nude’ for Playboy Magazine last week. Sounds like spoof news from The Onion or Daily Mash, I know. But much of last week’s news had a spoofy flavour. Like Prince Philip ranting, in classic grumpy old man fashion, that ‘you practically have to make love to’ TV remote controls in order to get them to work, and NASA ‘bombing’ the moon.

Actually, Mrs Simpson (née Bouvier), one of the lead characters on TV’s longest-running sitcom (and a cartoon) did not ‘pose nude’ as the Telegraph (and Independent) said – the ‘photoshoot’ only contains ‘implied nudity’; and NASA did not ‘bomb’ the moon (the Telegraph and others again), just crashed a rocket into it in search of ice.

Obviously, newspapers using misleading words to make stories more interesting is about as surprising as the fact that Prince Philip really did say that stuff about remotes. And when we’re misled about cartoons (who, let’s face it, are no Jessica Rabbit), it probably doesn’t matter. But when it’s about the Archbishop of Canterbury and the war in Iraq, it does.

Last week, The Sun ran a story that claimed: ‘The Archbishop of Canterbury yesterday hijacked a service honouring the sacrifice of British troops in Iraq – to spout an anti-war rant.’ And that sounds awful, doesn’t it? But it’s not true. Or at least, only as true as Marge posing nude, judging by The Sun’s own quotes.

The Archbishop ‘hijacked’ the proceedings by being their main preacher. Which is like saying David Cameron ‘hijacked’ the recent conference in Manchester with an attack on Labour.

From getreligion.org

From getreligion.org

And his disgusting ‘anti-war rant’? It included this venom: ‘Reflecting on the years of the Iraq campaign, we cannot say that no mistakes were ever made.’ Shocking, I know. He also suggested that we should think more carefully the next time we were asked to send young people to die. Which is crazy, right? I mean, as I’m sure The Sun would agree, give them better equipment, but don’t think too hard about starting wars. It is far less dramatic.

The Sun’s story not only suggested that the content of the speech was inappropriate for an occasion where our troops’ sacrifice was honoured, it suggested that to make such a point at all was disrespectful to those who’d died. And this is an argument and an attitude that is trotted out all too often when nations have been at war.

But, would German citizens have been wrong in 1939 to question whether it was right to send their young men to die for their Fuhrer? Were the veterans of the Vietnam ‘police action’ who bitterly protested the continuing war being disloyal to their living and fallen comrades? No. Because if young men and women are going to die serving a country they have committed to obey, it is up to those of us who are safe at home, not facing the danger they face, to make sure that they are not being sacrificed for nothing, or for goals that are far from righteous.

When the patriot Rudyard Kipling wrote, in 1918: ‘If any question why we died, Tell them, because our fathers lied,’ he expressed something that is too often still true today. That truth is most relevant when we honour the fallen. Pretending that is not the case or refusing at least to ask the question is not something that any Christian should be comfortable with. Regardless of what any paper says.

And, yeah, here’s who i would have picked:

Asda and arms-dealers

From Greenpeace.org.uk

From Greenpeace.org.uk

ASDA nearly killed me last week. True story. I was driving to work, listening to Radio 4, when an Asda representative ‘revealed’ that he suspected that people didn’t seem to trust big businesses anymore. I laughed so hard I nearly drove into the Thames. Really, mister British representative of one of the most reviled and hated corporations in the world? You think?

Asda’s parent company in America, Walmart, came third in Corporate Accountability International’s Corporate Hall of Shame list of most irresponsible businesses in the world last year (just behind mercenary corporation Blackwater and the world’s leading rainforest destroyer). When a corporation rated less ethical than Nestle by consumers starts talking about restoring trust, that is sort of like the Conservative Party bemoaning the demise of Trades Unions.

The thing is, while supermarkets are particularly damaging to society (their size and structure drive down wages and make it very hard to compete with them if you are an independent store, as the Competition Commission amusingly ruled last week) it is not because the people running them are evil. It is not even, despite what my Marxist agitator friends might say, because the people who own them are evil. It’s because their structure and the category of organisation they fit into carries inside it the potential for great evil. Because they are corporations.

Walmart wants your soulThey exist to make profits. Their priority is growth, even if that growth is environmentally unrealistic or damaging to society, because corporations do not worship Jesus and they don’t worship Satan, they worship Mammon.

In pursuit of lower costs, they will cut wages and pollute the earth, because neither people nor the environment show up on their balance sheets. They will even break the law, as we saw last week as BAE systems was facing fines of up to £1bn for paying bribes to support their business around the world. Such a fine is to be welcomed, but it is only the first step.

Corporations play a massive role in our society and it is only a severely idealistic leftist who believes that can change any time soon. But if they are so inherent to our society then they must be brought back under our control.

A ‘corporate person‘ (for that is what corporations are, under law) that commits crimes again and again should not just be fined any more than human recidivists should be allowed to simply buy their way out of justice. It should be incarcerated, its assets nationalised or handed over to competitors on the understanding that if they break the law (and laws must be made with ordinary citizens, not corporate bottom lines, in mind), they too will be ‘executed’.

Of course, the huge, putrefying dead elephant in the room during discussions of this story is that BAE, the UK’s largest manufacturer, is an arms-manufacturer. They make weapons. To kill people.

The British government is blessed to live in a world so hypocritical that Libya (not even in the top 20 of arms exporters) faces a righteous campaign for restitution from the victims of its weapons, while Britain (the world’s seventh largest arms exporter) does not. Christians need to speak out when businesses harm people (and applaud strong judgements against them). But we also need sometimes to evaluate what those businesses do, even when they are not breaking the law, and speak out prophetically against that too.

Here’s a trailer for a movie about Asda’s parent company. You should really also watch The Corporation, tho.