Dead Letter Office

January 2017: 4 Things

In part inspired by my friend’s lovely old-fashioned habit of blogging and in part recognising that I am about to enter a new stage in my life, I have decided to keep a little monthly record of the things I am seeing and doing and eating and watching and listening to and playing.

1. At least I’m not tempted to waste time in the sunshine.

I am readying my thesis for submission. Sometime in the next few weeks I will pay a stupid amount of money to get my 300 or so pages hard-bound in two books, one that will get sent out a theologian in Chicago and another to a theologian in the Old Brewery on campus. Then in the middle of May, the three of us will gather and they will grill me like the Romans grilled St. Lawrence and if all goes well, they’ll send me away with a few changes to make before declaring me a doctor.

But while that happy day is coming into view on the horizon, it is still damn hard right now. Aberdeen is never really beautiful, but it is especially unappealing in January.

Aberdeen stinks

2. It will win Oscars for good reason.

One of the reasons life is hard is that the country where many of my friends are from is slowly descending into a horrible kleptocracy. Every morning I wake to find new Wotsit Hitler abominations and I do worry sometimes about how bad things might get if there is a terror attack that gives him a licence to act freely.

In that charged context, I am finding lots of pushback against La La Land because it is sentimental and nostalgic and flighty and insufferably white. It may be all those things and all those things might be insufferable in their own way, but watching movies in that register always leaves me cold. It feels like the fundamental task of telling a story visually falls aside in such analysis. And on that level, La La Land is remarkable. It is marred, perhaps, by revealing the truly astonishing shots in the trailer. But the songs are superb and the performances are charismatic and the final scene is the reason it deserves the accolades it will surely receive. Call me a Presbyterian, but an infinity of possible universes are sparked with every passing second of time. There is, however, a harmony and a melody and a tune that weaves the universes that go beyond possible into a song that one day we all will sing.

Maybe I was reading too much into it, but damnit, look where I live! I needed the colour!

3. A Sailor’s Guide to Earth

Country music gets a lot of hate. I hated it for most of my life but Gillian Welch converted me to its virtues and it is one of those musical genres that seems to constantly churn up wonderful new acts. A few years ago I found Sturgill Simpson off the back of a friend’s recommendation but somehow I missed his new album last year. It is so good that it is interrupting my usual January habit of listening exclusively to my friends’ Best Ofs from the previous year. This cover of Nirvana is not the best song on the album, but it might be a good one for convincing those suspicious of country music. If nothing else, it reminds you of how beautiful Nirvana songs were:

4. Hand-held relief

I have an ongoing shoulder injury that is making life hard. They should warn you that the life of academic research is a life beset by chronic back and neck problems. I hadn’t realised how dangerous my job was, but it seems everyone has some horror story of vicious pain! For the last three months I have been very careful with my computer usage as I slowly undo decades of bad habits and tend to years of slowly worsening strain. I’ve found, for the first time, the joy of simple computer games on your phone. Now that Twitter is just a nightmare machine, this is doubly comforting. If you are a fan of games that use your brain, but in a way that is entirely non-taxing, then I can recommend Antiyoy wholeheartedly. It’s a nifty little turn-based game like Civilization, but radically streamlined.

Alright, that’s it. I’m off to bed with some chamomile tea and dreams of a completed thesis.

Your Correspondent, The whole point of his Doomsday Machine is lost, if he had kept it a secret!

Church, theology

What’s Unity Got To Do With It?

My friend Conor McDonough is a ferociously smart Dominican. It is Christian Unity week and so, he recently asked me and a bunch of his friends who are not in communion with Rome, what our traditions made of 2 Corinthians 5:14-20, which is the passage of Scripture we are all meant to reflect on this week. Paul tells the Christians in Corinth that God has given “us the ministry of reconciliation” which prompted Conor to ask:

So, a question for my Orthodox and Protestant friends: what does this phrase mean in your traditions, and what does the ministry of reconciliation look like today in your communities?

I can’t speak for the entire Reformed tradition, but I can allude to the two major figures in our family tree. John Calvin declares in his commentary that “Here we have an illustrious designation of the gospel, as being an embassy for reconciling men to God.” In unpacking this verse, it is clear that Calvin reads it as a message to the leaders of churches. “Ministers are furnished with this commission” and “when, therefore, a duly ordained minister proclaims in the gospel, that God has been made propitious to us, he is to be listened to just as an ambassador of God.”

In the context of church unity it is important to note that already, a generation into the Reformation, its key intellectual leader no longer feels a need to justify his (or his readership’s) status as a minister of God. Once they made the break, they broke.

Karl Barth takes up a similar note in Church Dogmatics (§19 is where I’m focused but the other references all sync closely to what I write here), where he considers what can be discerned about the apostolic vocation from this passage. Barth doesn’t read it as a message directed to leaders in particular, but to every Christian who might have business sharing the good news (all Christians, for old Karl). The reconciliation accomplished in Jesus Christ is one side of a coin, the other side is our ministry of reconciliation. So, for Barth, when a Christian proclaims the Gospel – which at base must be concerned with the gracious and costly redemption of humanity achieved by Jesus – their words have potency only to the extent that the Spirit speaks through us.

Admittedly this is a very brief overview of only two figures, but it is probably extensible across Reformed thinking generally: this text is read as being about soteriology. Verse 14 talks of Christ’s love and his sacrifice, which continues into verse 15. Verse 16 describes the epistemological transformation that follows from conversion. Verse 17 stretches that subjective transformation out to the objective, eschatological hope that we all await. So when Calvin and Barth reach verse 18, their Presbyterian DNA is exposed, as they see it as a reminder that whatever authority a Christian teacher might have is always rooted in God’s graciousness.

How does that answer Conor’s question? I think that it presses Presbyterians to remember the precarity of our ecclesial position. By our own lights we are meant to be temporary. We cannot assume that our generation still has reason to exist because the previous generation did. We are not authorised to engage in this ministry of reconciliation through our good intentions, impeccable logic, or the achievements of our forefathers and mothers. Our tradition, both in broad theological brushstrokes and detailed historical detail, emerged as a corrective for a church that had, in many ways, gone down several dead-ends. “Back to the sources!”, they shouted in Geneva. “Reject no light!”, they declared. But they maintained their commitment to the church catholic. In the Scriptures or in the Patristic mothers and fathers, no church outside that universal church can be found, and the desire to see that universal church in unity should be perpetually stoked.

But if unity is to flourish, it will blossom from Jesus. This is both a challenge to the Presbyterians like me who relish praying with other Christians and a comfort to the Presbyterians who can be commonly found around Ireland who are hesitant to enter into church unity activities. It is a challenge to me because no ecclesial creativity can generate unity. It is a comfort to my friends who are more exclusionary because they have no need to fear a slippery slope of manipulation. The ministry of reconciliation we are charged with in verse 18 is embedded inside such a payload of phenomenally explosive, Christ-centred theology, that we can never imagine that making the church one is a human act. We can do a bang-up job of shattering church unity on our own, but we need the Spirit if it is to be repaired. God’s reconciling action is always prior to our efforts.

So that is a quick attempt to answer the first part of Conor’s question. For Presbyterians, the reconciliatory meaning of 2 Cor 5:14-20 is, unsurprisingly, that God is radically sovereign and free, rampantly gracious, and utterly trustworthy when it comes to making peace. He makes peace with us and that makes us peacemakers on his behalf, but never on our own authority.

It leaves the last part of Conor’s question unanswered. My honest sense – admittedly from a few hundred miles away in north east Scotland – is that the ministry of reconciliation, from a church unity perspective, is only embraced in patches. There remain many in the Presbyterian Church in Ireland who are fearful of church unity efforts. There is a vocal margin that actively suspect that ecumenicism is a watering-down of Gospel clarity. They argue, with strong reasoning, that many of the dead-ends of the Reformation era have not been renovated and now we have Protestant liberalism to battle with as well. Then there is a bigger slice of ministers and leaders so busy with keeping things ticking over that they never have the time to reflect on and prayerfully commit to church unity. They are inclined, instinctively, towards embracing their brothers and sisters from other traditions but they have hospital chaplaincy duties and funerals, youth groups on Tuesday and homegroups on Wednesday and Presbytery duties on Thursday and on and on until they collapse on Sunday night exhausted and baffled at how so beautiful a job as ministry ends up being so bitty. Then there are people and places where church unity is taken very seriously. Steve Stockman at Fitzroy is an obvious example, as is Keith McCrory in Maynooth.

Approved

The nature of the Presbyterian church structure means that there is unlikely to be a centralised, unified, solitary approach to unity anytime soon. I recognise that that appears ludicrous on the surface. We have designed it so that we can have no structural unity on the question of unity! There is no Presby-Lutheran council who can approve a particular approach to ending/healing/completing [delete where appropriate] the Reformation. But there is a beautiful theological commitment hidden in that stubborn stance. Unity will come about, maybe faster than we dare to believe. And when it does happen, we won’t be able to claim any credit for it.

Your Correspondent, It’s like words are his second language

Prayer

A Prayer for the Day My Friends’ President is Inaugurated

For me, today was a good day. But my president is an old poet who has spent his life as a public servant. I sent a contract off in the post, the last formal step I needed to take before starting an amazing new job with these good people after I finish my PhD. I edited some journal articles on disability and religion. I drank whisky with my friends, many of them American, as their leaders gathered in their capital to appoint their new Commander in Chief.

Trump Sworn In

It wasn’t a good day for many of my friends who are Americans. But one of them, DL Mayfield, has it right when she took herself off to pray. With that in mind, let me share with you a very good prayer written by Walter Bruggemann:

Your New Word amid Our Anxiety

(On Reading 1 Kings 2:1-9)

The promises roll off your lips
and into our ears:
I will be with you;
I will love you faithfully;
I will be your God;
My covenant is forever.

We count on your words that flow from our ears
to our hearts, and we are glad.

But even while we listen,
we live much of our lives underneath the table.
We read these old stories, and
we know about intrigue and fear and
anxiety and near violence
and deception.
We mostly do not act out our violence
but we imagine and ponder and scheme;
and then we, too, must cover up
and the cover-up ferments;
our lives become complex and burdened.

We keep inventing ourselves and our underneath selves turn out
to be less than adequate
and we wish we were other than we are.
We juggle your good purposes and
our hidden yearnings and
try to serve two masters,
try to live two narratives,
try to live two dreams,
and we are weary.
Because we know our hearts of anxiety so well,
we seem fated to disease.
But because we know your heart of fidelity so well,
we know you will defeat our demons
and make us new.

We know about your abiding fidelity in
Jesus of Nazareth.
Give us patience and steadfastness as we
process the ragged edges of our lives.

***

Your Correspondent, Deep down he longs for a cold-hearted Republican to lower taxes, brutalize criminals, and rule him like a king.

Dead Letter Office

Remembering the Year: 2016

Inspired by Declan Kelly’s hilarious run-down of the films he saw in the year (here, here, and here), I thought I would try to do the same.

But I didn’t have the energy.

2016 did that to a lot of people, I think.

It was a year too full of things, from my perspective. I don’t just mean the tragedies of Brexit and Trump and Harambe, but I did a lot of work.

I also cycled around a Scottish island drinking whisky with my best friends, so I can’t complain too much.

Islay

And I spent the peak of the summer learning French and writing about Karl Barth in the library of the Institut Catholique, so on reflection, that was good.

Paris

I spoke at a few places. The faculty in Aberdeen invited me to respond to Kathryn Tanner when she came to talk about God and money and economy for the Gifford Lectures. I went home to Dublin and gave a paper which summarised my thesis and an old lady I am almost sure wasn’t an actor paid by my parents to boost my self esteem practically embraced me at the end in gratitude. Best of all, I delivered a paper at a big congress in York where I fulfilled a life ambition and embedded Football Manager in the heart of a theological argument. That was a creative landmark.

York

Friends had babies and friends got doctorates. I drove the babies home from the hospital or visited them hours after they were born, and I took my newly in-doctor-nated friends out to the pub right after vivas. Here’s Dr. Taido Chino, looking relieved:

Dr. Taido

I went glamping and I went to Manchester and I went home to Dublin for various family parties which were full of joy and relief and contentment. Scotland looks good when you go glamping on the north coast with your friends:

Glamping

Wife-unit took me to see actual real, live pandas, which was fitting because it was a few weeks after they were officially declared no longer desperately endangered. Three cheers for China, lads, for providing one of the few unalloyed good news stories of the year.

Pandas

But when I look back on the last year, I will remember very hard times. There were deep sadnesses and fundamental worries that made all the tabloid noise fade away into the background. I am glad to see the back of the year. The consolation is that the work and the toil has some tangible outcome. I have a draft of my thesis and coming to a store near you soon is my first book, which in an act of absurd good fortune, I got to put together with my theological heroes and teachers.

Outcomes 2016

I read a lot more than any year of my life but most of it was the Church Dogmatics, so telling you to pay particular attention to §64 is unlikely to help you as you think about what to check out in 2017. I was so busy reading and writing that I paid very little attention to the movies, tv shows and books I read for fun. So this is all very vague.

Like my thesis.

Books of the Year

Obviously I read some magnificent theology this year. I would like to highlight the as-yet under-recognised Plundering Egypt by Gregory Wagenfuhr. It is the sort of theology that I love the best; it actually believes that God might be real and that could have some significance for our lives. It is sprawling in its conceptual ambition, even if it comes in under 200 pages. There are lots of precise, carefully calibrated scholarly tomes and the other blogs will cite them. But this book will annoy you in its insistence that there are values Christians should prize above the ones we currently do.

In terms of non-academic Christian writing, I am obviously biased and want you all to read my friend D.L. Mayfield’s book, which should win prizes both for best cover and for oddest missionary memoir. I review it here.

The best novel I read was Anatomy of a Solider. It is a searing examination of how war turns human beings into instruments of death. Novels are rarely so elegant, especially novels about such a sinewy topic.

In terms of non-fiction, I loved The Goddess Pose, because I really got into pilates this year and the history of yoga’s popularity in the West was entirely news to me.

Television
The second series of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt disappointed me and the Simpsons continues to be awful and people are always on about this televisual revolution but it is so often grim-by-numbers that I struggle to care too much about the latest Scandinavian hard-bitten detective drama or the just-now-streaming French/Vietnamese family drama that you are all immersed in. I loved Stranger Things as much as the rest of you and I was delighted by Ireland and Northern Ireland’s performances at Euro 2016.

But there were two things that happened on television that stick in my mind. Remember though, I am exhausted and I can’t recall if I had breakfast this morning. They are Fleabag and Horace and Pete. Fleabag is amazing. You must watch it this instant. It is 6 hard episodes that are funny and very sad and at times shocking. Being a human is hard and being a young female human is among the hardest ways to be human and this show is about that and a whole lot more.

Horace and Pete is slow. It is paced like a theatre show and shot like one too. It exhibits all the humanism that you have come to expect from Louis C.K., but it is embedded among performances from Alan Alda and Steve Buscemi, Eddie Falco, Jessica Lange and even Paul Simon that make the show compelling. And the ending. That ending. It still gets me.

Films
Hail Caesar was funny Coen Brothers being funny, which is always welcome. Midnight Special was special. The Nice Guys was entertaining and Sing Street was charming and 10 Cloverfield Lane was exhilirating and Don’t Breathe was terrifying and relentless. Train to Busan was fecking brilliant.

But the best films I saw this year were Room, Spotlight, and Arrival. Brie Larson’s performance in Room is unparalleled. Apart from her performance in Short Term 12 of course. She is an astonishing actress and the adaptation of what was a superb, compact novel is an example of where the film improves on the book. It is as dark as the novel and yet, it is not a depressing film.

Spotlight is a paint-by-numbers re-telling of a newspaper following a lead with courage and patience. But it is a story that everyone needs to reflect on. And in many ways, it takes more skill to tell the story straight in this fashion.

Arrival is a marvel. It could be read as more pro-life than Juno and more Presbyterian than any film ever made but I suspect those who made it did not mean for it to be read that way. The story is so full that it can give rise to so many readings. I have met people who felt it was simplistic and over-drawn but I was captivated from the first scene to the last. Don’t let my fanciful interpretations put you off.

Things that go in your ears
I live in a cultural wasteland so the only live music I saw was Ben Folds with an orchestra, which was good. It was better than the album by Ben Folds with that orchestra. But music was mere sonic background for writing for much of this year, which meant a lot of Girl Talk, my music of choice when I have writer’s block. I loved very little this year, deep down in my heart. I was disappointed by A Tribe Called Quest and The Avett Brothers and surprised by Paul Simon. Mitski’s two albums became ear-worms for me, Radiohead was great and Sandra McCracken’s adaptations of the Psalms was constantly in my ears as I walked around Paris. My favourite song remains Kate Tempest’s War Song:

Podcast-wise, I think the Guardian Football Podcast is smart and funny and consistently brilliant, if you like soccer, that is. Otherwise it would be very boring. Adam Buxton is reliably charming and never boring. Finally, the Irish Jesuits have a brilliant little podcast, if you like that sort of thing.

Which you should.

After the fact edit: Best scene of the year
During half-time of the awful Man City -v- Liverpool game, I remembered I wanted to tell you about the single best scene I saw this year. If it could compete against best song or best chapter without it being a case of apples against oranges, I would set that fight up. It was powerful in a breath-stealing way. It is, of course, the already and rightfully legendary food-bank scene in I, Daniel Blake. It is a strange age we live in, where we have no words that seem to accurately capture the shift in the cultural values and the political vision we share. Maybe I’ll resume blogging more regularly in an effort to explain how the banal protestation of Christians in the public square over the last few decades was a major contributor to that collective impoverishment. But that is neither here, nor there. In an age when technology guarantees our harvests, in economies so wealthy they would make Midas gasp, people go hungry. They rely on charity to be able to consume enough calories to not expire. This is not reflected upon. Instead we are distracted by the threat of the ghoulish foreigner or the menace of the possible Fascist. We fight over a new fad issue each month, directed by the cover of National Geographic or the tweets of a pop-star to agitate for this irrelevancy or that one. But in our towns and cities people queue for food. Ken Loach didn’t merely shoot a fine scene, he captured an ethical reality more precisely than we have words to articulate. I sobbed and lamented and repented. In 2017, I hope I encounter more art like that and that I spend my time living in ways that make such art decreasingly relevant.

I have spent the last two months in various levels of discomfort due to a shoulder injury, which I fear will never get better. I miss home. The society I live in seems to be getting hard in a way that no one can stop. I worry about even worse things happening in 2017. But I have a big stash of purple snack bars, I should have my thesis submitted by St. Patrick’s Day and this time next year, I may live in Ireland again. There is reason to hope.

In the meantime, there are gifs.

Your Correspondent, If he was a spice, he’d be flour

non-violence

Towards a Sermon for Remembrance Sunday

I am a Christian who is committed to non-violence. This is not unusual, historically speaking. After all, the first few centuries of Christians were notable for their staunch refusal to kill people, even for the best possible reasons.

I am also a Christian who is training to be a church leader in a context where my denomination is almost entirely committed to supporting the military. What I mean by that is that the Presbyterian Church in Ireland appoints military chaplains to both front-line and reserve forces and it wholeheartedly endorses the martial acts of remembrance that are conducted in the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland every November. Here’s the current cover of our denomination’s magazine:

Pres Herald Remembrance 2016

Now as these things go, this is pretty reserved. It’s not pinning a poppy on a freaking puppet. But I could draw on countless sources to show, conclusively, that uncritical engagements with military imagery contributes towards willingness to engage in military conflict. Examples: Here and here and failing everything else, if that is too academic, consider the films we watch and the games we play and the books we read.

If and when any church decides to call me to be their minister, if they want to acknowledge the tragic and horrendous loss of life involved in war, I will suggest a repentance service is more appropriate than a remembrance service. But I will also suggest that we agree that I go on holiday on the 2nd weekend of November. That’s what I currently do, living in Britain. Tomorrow morning my wife and I will eat breakfast and drink coffee and instead of going to church to sing God Save the Queen and uncritically allow Mars into the community of the Prince of Peace, we will read Isaiah 11 and pray that Barack Obama, Donald Drumpf, Vladimir Putin or Theresa May never decide to kill anyone (else again).

I can’t partake in Remembrance. Not because I don’t value the lives of the young men that died in Britain’s wars, but because I do. I cannot reconcile the uncritical embrace of our ability to end life with the voices of the men who died in the trenches. They warned us of the hollow hell that hides behind noble words. Dulce et decorum est and all that. More than that, the engagement in sombre remembrance choreographed by the state that sent those men to die for no good reason stops us from seriously considering how the recent wars were fought for no good reason. The sepia tinted nostalgia for the Somme and the heroic stand against fascism in the 2nd World War obscures how Britain has recently engaged in two horrendous, unlawful, unnecessary, utterly pointless wars and that they are currently supporting a secret war in Yemen. Presbyterians don’t gamble, but I would make a killing if I could bet that Yemen won’t be mentioned in any Presbyterian church on the island of Ireland tomorrow.

The church is called to remember. We remember the passover and we remember the most remarkable account of non-violence in all the cosmos. When we confuse those instructions with the things that the nation state wants us to remember, we listen to an imposter. If we remember what official Britain wants us to remember, we forget the Mau Mau, we forget Dresden, we forget Abu Ghraib.

So I hope that my commitments to non-violence – which means I preach unambiguously against abortion and the death penalty, against direct provision and against torture, but also against all collusion with the martial power of the nation state – will not hinder a church from calling me as a minister in the future. After all, if I can cite Tertullian and Ireneaus, Hippolytus and Cyprian, Menno and George Fox, Dorothy Day and Jacques Ellul as my allies, surely I can still be considered a safe, orthodox pair of hands? Yet I fear that the time is coming where my refusal to do Remembrance services would mean that congregations would refuse me as their minister. It is becoming part of the Gospel.

If I was forced, I would be able to preach on Remembrance Sunday. I would do it in the following way. I would set my text as Romans 13, which is the definitive text in the New Testament that argues that we must respect the state. But I would focus on verse 8:

Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.

And then I would describe the Predator UAV. Each one costs just over $4 million. It is a remote controlled drone. It can fly 400 miles to a target and then hang in the air for 14 hours. It carries 2 hellfire missiles. It is almost 50 feet wide, but its camera is precise enough to identify human faces.

I would emphasise: this is how we fight war today. We see without being seen. We fire missiles from hundreds of miles away or we send flying robots to kill. Let us remember this. We say the men who died on the Somme died to make our freedom possible? This is what we do with our freedom. The Americans use the Predator. The Brits use Reapers. The names reveal much. But the particular models don’t matter. What we do is what matters. We are in debt, because we cause death. We are in debt because we have not loved one another.

Then I would step out of the pulpit and pray that come Monday, I’d still have a job.

That such a concern is increasingly real reveals the Babylonian captivity of the church to the age in which we live.

***

Why am I so bolshy on this marginal issue? I am beating an old drum here. A really old drum. I mean, you must be tired of this drum.

I am not bolshy. I am convinced that our failure to stand at a distance from our culture on issues like the poppy and Remembrance is directly connected to the failure of Christian witness on these islands. “Gay cakes” aren’t the obstacle hindering the Gospel. Hollow Christian religiosity is. The church has been deaf to the threat posed by neoliberal capitalism’s unending desire, it has been blind to the God-denying rape of the created world and it has ignored the refugee. But at least it doesn’t give over a Sunday every year to celebrate the 1 percent “job creators”, or to thank God for fracking, or to engage in xenophobic harassment. Yet in an age when we literally hand a nuclear arsenal capable of wiping out all life on earth to a reality tv celebrity, we gather on Sundays and bow our head and let Mars pretend to be YHWH.

I have a friend we will call H. H hated reading growing up but is now almost at the end of a PhD in the sciences. And she told me during the week that I needed to read Malcolm Gladwell’s book David and Goliath because it was so heart-warming and illuminating. I take H seriously in everything she says and so I read the book yesterday. The book is classic Gladwell. A lot of important nuance gets brushed over by his wonderful, easy prose. But it closes with the story of the Presbyterian village of Le Chambon, where hundreds of Jewish people found refuge during the NAZI occupation of France. This is an amazing story, with increasingly terrifying relevance, considering the decisions that electorates are making across the Western world. Gladwell tells the story of how the teenagers of the village, summonsed to a Vichy event where a French version of Hitler Youth would be established, instead delivered a letter that began, “We have learned of the frightening scenes which took place three weeks ago in Paris, where the French police, on orders of the occupying power, arrested in their homes all the Jewish families in Paris,” and then continued to build to a conclusion that you should learn off by heart:

We have Jews.
You’re not getting them.

But there is a little detail, much less dramatic and heroic, in the story that explains why I think you should refuse to participate in Remembrance services. At one point, the Vichy government issued an edict that required all French churches should ring their bells on August 1st to mark the one-year anniversary of the NAZI arrival. The Presbyterian minister, André Trocmé, did not need to deliberate. He informed the church caretaker, a woman called Amélie, to ignore the rule. Two people summering in the village noticed the little disobedience and complained. Amélie knew how to respond:

The bell does not belong to the marshal, but to God. It is rung for God – otherwise it is not rung.

The ringing of the bell is not a hill to die on, surely. The townspeople were running a high-stakes game, offering sanctuary to Jews before shepherding them over the mountains to Switzerland. The less attention they attracted, the better. Strategically, this ringing refusal was an awful choice.

But they weren’t being strategic. They were being faithful. It is not always clear that those two domains overlap.

The disciplined, uncompromising witness of the Christians of Le Chambon did not fall like Manna. It was cultivated by regular, small acts of obedience to God which took the form of disobedience to common sense, to common decency, to common respectability.

I am not being needlessly bolshy. Our church is not discipled. Our church does not know how to worship its Lord. We are compromised by our love of technique and relevance. We are seduced by Mammon. We are intimidated by Mars. The poppy might, in a parallel universe, be an innocuous symbol of cultural heritage, but that is not where we live. There may be a world where it is just a good charity initiative, but that is not where we live. Where we live, in this, the real world, Remembrance Sunday is a missed opportunity for the church to recall its first love.

Ring your bells for God, otherwise ring them not at all.

***

I wouldn’t preach a sermon, if I had to take a Remembrance service. I’d invite Kate Tempest and buy enough copies of Harry Parker’s first novel that everyone could have a read.

Your Correspondent, There’s no kill switch on awesome.

Ethics For Everyday

Rendering Apples to Caesar

My friend Jurg asked me to write something about the EU Commission’s decision that Ireland had given unfair advantage to Apple through the provision of tax loopholes this week. The chat in Ireland is all about what we should do with the €13 billion that the lads in Brussels have told us to take; a tunnel to Wales or a 100-metre-tall golden statue of Michael Flatley seem to be the best ideas at the moment.

Now the bosses in Apple are like you and me. They like to get good value. And if they bring their colossal profits back to California, where arguably they originate, the American tax-man will take 35%. The Apple bosses are concerned with their shareholders’ value. In fact, as the law is currently interpreted, that concern outweighs practically all the other concerns. So they are holding on to about $230 billion in reserves, waiting for the US to revise its tax code and lower that repatriation rate.

They are basically waiting for the sales.

So whatever way you slice this cake, it appears to be a move by the European Commission to call a halt to the waiting game. The scoundrel Irish government will appeal and will surely be successful and will therefore have done the unthinkable: spent money to avoid receiving money.

***

Apple is run by good people. Or at least, let’s assume it is. Why don’t they want to pay tax? The reason is the same reason you don’t want to pay tax. Why would you want to! That money is better in your pocket than in the taxman’s, right? The only certainties in life are death, taxes, and the irrefutably straightforward decision to avoid tax you don’t have to pay.

***

A tax haven is a tricky thing to define. One man’s tax haven in another man’s Singapore, miracle of capitalism and shining beacon of entrepreneurship. Sure, the New York Times referred to Dublin as the “wild west of finance” because the size and the scale of its tax loopholes are large enough to fit Steve Jobs’ ego and €200,000,000,000 with space to spare, but someone else might say it’s the cost of doing business in a competitive global economy.

Nicholas Shaxson, in his book Treasure Islands writes:

Nobody agrees exactly what a tax haven is, but I will offer a loose description here: It is a place that seeks to attract money by offering politically stable facilities to help people or entities get around the rules, laws, and regulations of jurisdictions elsewhere.

Let’s stick with that for the moment.

***

It’s not that the bosses in Apple are bad people. They are just doing what you would want them to do if you owned shares in Apple. They are maximising the return on investment. They are ensuring profitability. They are returning value. They are being good stewards. They are hoarding gold like a dragon in its untouchable lair while children are homeless on the streets of Cork, but you shouldn’t complain because they give jobs to people.

And you can be sure those people pay tax.

***

Apple, and Amazon, Starbucks, and the rest of them, are walking miracles. Let us call them Schrodinger’s Corporations. When the market opportunity arises, they are alive and well and on hand to do business. But go looking for them when it comes time for tax and suddenly they are gone.

This serves the dividend pay-outs of the shareholders, and for all I know, that’s you and your parents. And it serves the value of your pension fund. So the executives will keep searching for the next loophole and the politicians will keep spouting noise about Ireland being open for business and none of them will pay their taxes because taxes get paid by people who aren’t smart enough to get the absurd joke. The rich are secure and get more secure the more at risk they make the poor.

***

Only the rich get to use tax havens. That’s actually a pretty good rule of thumb to figure out if you are rich: do you know the difference between tax avoidance and tax evasion? The things we pay for with taxes are the things we need that we can’t guarantee provision for if every man was left for himself. Fire trucks, hospitals, libraries, maternity cover, old-age pensions, street-lights, deaf interpreters in the court service; these are the sorts of things that get de-funded when you ask your accountant to find a way to be more tax efficient. Sure, you spend that extra money on a new flat screen tv and that helps keep a fella in a job in Currys, but that’s not quite the same thing as emergency relief for victims of flooding.

***

And that’s the great tragedy in the tax evasion conversation. The bosses in Apple are probably morally virtuous in ways you don’t imagine. They probably give a lot to charity and they really care about the progressive causes their firm supports and they may even wake at night in a cold sweat about the conditions in the Foxconn factories. They are doing the best they can when they avoid that tax, for you, the shareholder, whose pension is invested in Apple.

The tragedy, of course, is that they aren’t doing the best thing for you. The best thing for you is for everyone to pay their tax. Because the money you spend on tax is the best value money you spend. Every single year you should tally up your tax spend and celebrate it. It helped 5 year olds to learn to read and it allowed mothers to take a break from working, so their babies could sleep in peace on their shoulders for the first few months of their life. If you were left to fund libraries and ambulance services and prisons from your own devices, you’d end up with crappy services and it would take all your time. Your tax spend is more convenient than Uber and better value than Aldi.

***

Apple will eventually pay its tax, at a much lower rate than you or me, in America or here or elsewhere. But when they do, they are adding shareholder value, even if the share price doesn’t reflect that. It is in the shareholder’s interest to make society equitable and fair and just. The innovation that they get so aroused by comes about most effectively when people don’t have to scrabble around in precarious jobs to just make ends meet. Taken to its logical conclusion, a culture of tax evasion is an existential threat to a society because the poor will only tolerate being mocked by the rich for so long before they rise up and decide to mock the order that the rich rely on.

***

Apple has been trading in Ireland longer than I’ve been alive and I’m almost officially middle-aged. They employ 6000 people. They make glossy products that people love. They are not to blame for Ireland’s economic catastrophe and neither are they the solution. But the impossibility of us imagining that straightforward justice would be done – that Apple and their ilk would post profits where they make them and pay tax on them there too, at the same time – reveals the fragility at the heart of our democratic order.

Why do people vote against their interest and back Drumpf or #brexit? Surely that mystery is solved when we consider this absurdist farce. The people who have been entrusted with the collective good can now longer even discern it. People legitimately wonder, “How could Theresa May be worse?” and people coherently ponder, “If the system is genuinely crazy, maybe it would help to put a wig-wearing loon in the driving seat?”

1989 was just the most recent point when history reminded us that even the most extensive societies will collapse if they disconnect from reality. The collective purse being funded by the poorest while the richest get to scarper is unreal. So whatever happens with this particular instance, let me suggest that what we see here is a fracture that is much more serious than Michael Noonan and Tim Cook thinks it is. And between now and the time the fracture gets fixed or grows too big, let me further suggest that you should pay your taxes with glee. All of them. On time. It’s the best money you get to spend.

Your Correspondent, Who needs money when he’s got feathers?

Society

Soccer, Money, Loyalty and the Meaning of Sport

I have supported Manchester City since I was 8. Thus, for most of my life, I was included in perhaps the most beloved group of fans in Anglo-speaking football culture. City were a giant club that were not so much sleeping, as comatose. They constantly got relegated, quietly flirted with bankruptcy, and were renowned for teams that shot themselves in the foot on the field. But through all the bad times, City fans stayed loyal. They had a collective sense of humour about the strange indignities that came from following a team that constantly dashed hope.

That is not how City fans are seen now. About 10 years ago the former Thai prime-minister and possible war criminal, Thaksin Shinawatra, bought the club and things changed. No longer were City signing strong, slow, dependable players who would gladly bleed on the field. Elegant, exotic foreigners who were dainty on the ball and swift off it started to pack the squad. Less than 2 years later, Thaskin sold out his share at a monumental profit to the royal family of Abu Dhabi. Since then, Manchester City have spent a billion pounds and a good chunk more expanding the stadium, developing social housing around east Manchester, launching a professional woman’s team, and developing the most elaborate and well-funded soccer academy in the world. Most of the money has gone on assembling a collection of world class players for the (male) team. Success has followed. Man City have gone from being the fond butt of soccer fans’ jokes to being the blinging, oil-drenched symbol of everything that has gone wrong with football.

A handful of players who were with the club before the oil money arrived are still around. But now that Man City have a new manager, Joe Hart, one of those veterans and the first-choice goalkeeper, has found himself surplus to requirements. Hart is one of the few English players good enough to stake a claim in the City team and so, predictably, this everyday occurrence in the game (players get dropped and fall out of favour constantly) has become a mini-storm of increasingly heated comment.

Hart is thought of fondly by City fans. But those who follow the club’s fortunes week-in and week-out have been long familiar with his regular lapses in concentration. For every game saved by a stellar Hart performance, there seems to be a game lost by a Hart fumble. The new manager has a very distinctive way of playing the game that requires the goalkeeper to pass the ball fluently. Hart will never be able to do this and more importantly, doesn’t really seem that interested in trying, and so his demotion is more of an inevitability than a horrendous injustice.

But friends have suggested that this little personnel change is an expression of the ongoing erosion of whatever trace of nobility is left in the game. The general conclusion seems to be, “What does loyalty mean when a guy can be dropped like this?” The fact that Hart pointedly refused to pass the ball in his first ever game under the new manager, and instead kicked the ball long every time it came to him, is rarely discussed. The fact that Hart is error-prone is downplayed. That Hart is still paid £110,000 a week to sit on the bench appears a moot point.

Hart would have to go a long way to become City’s historically outstanding goalkeeping servant. The most popular player in the history of the club was a former Axis paratrooper, Bert Trautmann, who took his place between the sticks over 500 times for the club. The team reached the final of the FA Cup in 1956. They played Birmingham City and were guarding a 3-1 lead with 17 minutes to go. Spud Murphy, who had scored five goals on Birmingham’s run to the final, broke free in the 73rd minute and the City keeper stormed out to confront him, diving at his feet and expertly seizing the ball. But in the clash, Trautmann was injured. The physio came on and it looked like Bert’s final was over. The City players knew there was something amiss and some pleaded with him to see sense. He refused. He played on. Birmingham assaulted the City goal but Trautmann and his defence stood firm and triumphed. As he walked the famous steps of Wembley to receive his winner’s medal from the British monarch, his neck was visibly distorted. Prince Philip apparently commented on it. Later x-rays revealed he had broken his neck in the clash with Murphy. And played on.

These kinds of stories are allegedly what sport is all about. Trautmann’s Herculean strength and determination, his phenomenal commitment to his team-mates and his extraordinary skill are meant to inspire us. I get all that. But isn’t that, at base, deeply stupid? The guy broke his neck so badly, that it broke in on itself, the third vertebrae cracking in on the second, and only for that reason did he not die there and then, instantly. Trautmann is a legend, immortalised at the City football stadium in a statue and remembered everytime the club has success. But I’m glad Joe Hart will never risk his life so as to win a game.

Elite sport exists today primarily to encourage our consumption. This is true for the Olympics and it is true for the NFL and it is true for Man City and Arsenal and the other “well-run” mega-rich teams of European soccer. It is even true for the notionally amateur Gaelic games. It’s an excellent distraction that primes our minds to look at advertisements. That’s the economics behind Joe Hart getting paid almost £6 million a year to catch balls. It’s not about the game. It’s about the money. And if you doubt that, remember how it is also about defeating the scourge of dandruff.

Joe Hart, Head and Shoulders

But Bert Trautmann should remind us that it was never about the game. It was about glory. The modern game might, therefore, be an improvement. Money is much more flexible than glory, and as a motive it doesn’t encourage people to cripple themselves in quite the same way.

The theology of all this is complicated. But what appears critical to me is how sport exposes the mechanism of capitalism in today’s world, not least in how elusive it is. While we think the scandal is multi-million euro transfer fees and stratospheric wages, like a skilled magician, Mammon has guided our eyes away from the action. He picks our pocket and we are too busy cheering our idols to even notice.

Your Correspondent, Head and shoulders above the competition when it comes to explaining the meaning of sport

Adventures

5 Places for Christians to Visit in Paris

I have a friend who is a brilliant travel blogger. I can’t even travel well, let alone blog real good! But sometimes when I am planning to go on a trip some place, I wonder why there isn’t more niche information out there. My best friend is an architect and when he jets off for a weekend break to Porto or Lodz or whatever city is going to be discovered by the style magazines next year, he can fairly easily find the five or ten buildings he simply must see in advance. The same would hold if your passion was food or sport or shoplifting from designer stores. Guidebooks will presumably tell you about the best restaurants and the location of the sports stadiums and the shops with lax security. But when it comes to really obscure, niche, weirdo concerns like, religion, travel literature is surprisingly silent.

(Just as an aside, while I am spouting off about stuff I know nothing about: Why are there no Gaelteacht holiday resorts aimed at families in Ireland? I bet you could make a killing by building a nice little spa resort out in Belmullet and running it like any other resort, except that there are Irish lessons in the morning for the kids and the grown-ups and that everyone agreed to only speak as Gaeilge.)

Staying in Paris over the summer, I searched for a walking tour of its Christian sites of interest but to no avail. Maybe my Google mojo had deserted me and such a thing exists but I wasn’t able to find any guidance for places to visit that weren’t basically architectural tours (the churches are pretty!) in disguise. But I walked all over the city and I stumbled into some interesting and unusual places that would be of interest to Christians (especially theologically-inclined Christians). So here is my Unusual Parisian Pilgrimage.

1. The Sorbonne
Since Paris remained Catholic, France remained Catholic. But there was a time back during the Reformation when the country was aflame with theological dispute and passion. The continued relevance of the minority population of Reformed Christians in France can be testified to by the life and work of the insanely prolific sociologist Jacques Ellul. But the first out-of-the-ordinary place to visit on your little day of pilgrimage in France is the Sorbonne.

The reason?

Because for a brief period, two of the most significant figures of the Reformation overlapped there in their study, and went on to have a dramatic role in shaping either side of the conversation. John Calvin, the father of Presbyterianism was a student here at the same time as Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits. Presbyterianism and the Jesuits provided much of the intellectual muscle of their respective positions and it is fascinating to imagine them sharing small talk over porridge in the morning.

Sorbonne

Today, of course, the Sorbonne is the centre-piece of the acclaimed University of Paris and tours can be arranged. They probably won’t focus much on this obscure side-story however…

2. Thomas Aquinas
The most important theologian in the history of the church famously lived in Paris. The Dominican friar, Thomas Aquinas, assimilated Aristotelian philosophy with Christian theology and produced a work that has systemically shaped Christian thought and practice (for good and ill) since then. His thought continues to be studied by philosophers and political scientists, and I imagine that hidden in his extensive writings, everyone could find something that applied to their craft or field or calling. Famously, at the end of his life, he had a vision of some sort that convinced him that all his writing was for nothing. “I can write no more. All that I have written seems like straw.” Theologians since him have chosen not to take his wisdom seriously on that count.

Considering how monumental a figure Thomas is, it is amazing that there is nothing much made of him in Paris. There is a notable painting in a side-chapel in Notre Dame but that is all I could find. Except, of course, for a little parish church in his honour, located on a little square at the end of a lane, also named after him. So if you are that way inclined, you can drop in and say a prayer of thanks for the big Italian brainiac, and ask God to let you know sooner than a year before you die if it turns out everything you’ve spent your life doing is worthless…

Rue St. Thomas d'Aquin

3. Hammurabi’s Code
The Hammurabi Code is in the basement in the Louvre. The Louvre is a museum in the middle of Paris. It is 700 metres long and it is a palace and there is a glass pyramid in the middle of it and it is the most famous gallery in the world, so you will probably be visiting there anyway.

But when you visit, as you grow exhausted by the crowds of people taking selfies or even more inexplicably, just taking photos of everything, you can slip downstairs to the much less visited section on Egypt and Babylon. Standing in the middle of one room you will find a breath-taking obelisk of diorite, black as night, with intricate carvings etched into its surface. This is the Code of Hammurabi, a legal monument from the Babylonian empire first cast in stone about 3750 years ago.

No one will bother you as you pay close attention to it because practically everyone in the room is just lost, and looking for a Da Vinci to take a photo of. But if you are fond of reading the Bible, then this exhibit is worth going out of your way to examine. The Law, that Moses gave the Israelites, and that is recorded in the Pentateuch, was most certainly formed with the rulings listed on Hammurabi’s Code in mind. The Law of Israel draws on, remixes, and parodies the law of the Babylonians. This big, beautiful stone testifies to that very real, historical world of military power and kings-glorified-as-gods that we find in the opening pages of the Old Testament. And in that complex way, the Code can inspire devotion very different from the stunning stained glass of Saint Chapelle or vaulted ceilings of Notre Dame.

Hammurabi, not Harambe

4. Passage du Harve
The penultimate stop on our little pilgrimage is to a shopping centre. Paris is riddled with passages couverts, laneways that were roofed and then developed into prototype shopping malls. They are sometimes called arcades. The reason I propose wandering down through one of these unassuming but pretty temples to consumerism is not just that you might want a Starbucks, but because of the way in which these developments can help us understand how confusing is the world in which we live.

Walter Benjamin was one of the great philosophers of the 20th Century. He lived in poverty, made some of the first radio programmes intended for children, spent all the money he had on books, and committed suicide trying to escape the NAZIs. He also, in that great theological tradition that Thomas began (and Karl Barth perfected), left his masterpiece unfinished. As a young man we wanted to write an essay about the joy of learning about a place by walking around and he used the Parisian arcades as the context. But the work swallowed him and the Arcades Project expanded and grew to a scale no one could ever finish. Benjamin had that knack that all Christian ethicists should aspire to replicate, whereby a sign in a shop window is as worthy of deep reflection as an ancient middle-eastern legal code or the achievements of a historic university.

Benjamin’s Marxism never transcended his Judaism. He is invariably despised by the kinds of intellectuals who think that belief in God is a brain disease that afflicts the morally weak. They insist his dense prose hides everything, because behind it lies nothing. But I have never understood that criticism. Maybe trained by the internet browser to appreciate hyperlinked things, Benjamin’s roving mind always provokes me to thought. As I wandered down the Parisian arcades, I thought about how it wasn’t Baron Haussmann’s vision, nor Gustave Eiffel’s ingenuity that made Paris great, but the imagined engines of commerce, that rest collectively inside our heads and make us want a juicer that we can control from our mobile phone. Our consumption consumes the world and I thought then about Benjamin and his Angel of Progress, who is driven forward with his back to the future, facing history:

There is a painting by Klee called Angelus Novus. An angel is depicted there who looks as though he were about to distance himself from something which he is staring at. His eyes are opened wide, his mouth stands open and his wings are outstretched. The Angel of History must look just so. His face is turned towards the past. Where we see the appearance of a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe, which unceasingly piles rubble on top of rubble and hurls it before his feet. He would like to pause for a moment so fair, to awaken the dead and to piece together what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise, it has caught itself up in his wings and is so strong that the Angel can no longer close them. The storm drives him irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned, while the rubble-heap before him grows sky-high. That which we call progress, is this storm.

It turned out Benjamin never managed to make sense of the world by walking down arcades. And we cannot make sense of history which drives us irresistibly into the future a-top the rubble-heap of our consuming love of progress, but for an out-of-the-ordinary Christian pilgrimage, I recommend wandering the passages.

Passage du Harve

5. The Tomb of Oscar Wilde
It should be of comfort, I suppose, that Ireland is better at making missionaries than theologians. I seem to remember Augustine refers to the great heretic Pelagius at one point as a porridge-eating Scotus, which suggests that old fool might have been Irish. We generated John Scotus Eriugena in the 800s but he was suspected of heresy as well and since then, we’ve gone through a bit of a fallow period. When Bono is your most prominent God-talker, and Sinéad O’Connor is in second-place, you know you’re in trouble.

But I have always thought of Oscar Wilde as a theologian. I would maintain that along with The Brothers Karamazov and Gilead and Silence, any introduction to Christian literature has to dwell for a long time with The Portrait of Dorian Gray. Wilde has understandably been adopted as an icon of the LGBT movement. It ought not need to be said but I shall say it anyway: That doesn’t mean he can’t also be a Christian from which we learn.

My suspicion, which I might get to test out properly some time, is that you can read all his work through two dynamics. Firstly: The history of the world will, in the end, turn out to be a comedy. Jesus is the Christ, and therefore, even in the sky-high rubble-heap of history that surrounds us, we can hope and we can laugh. As he writes, “Since Christ the dead world has woke up from sleep. Since him we have lived.”

Secondly, sin is a lethal seduction that traps us. This is the insight that drives The Portrait. It is always under the surface in fairy tales, where the disfigured are very often the ones who communicate grace, while the beautiful are revealed to be ugly below the skin. It is hard (impossible?) to follow this line of thought without confusing it with Wilde’s own life and with the form that the political conversation around LGBT liberation takes in today’s discourse. But Wilde could laugh because he knew there would be good news at the end. And he had to laugh because in the here and now, so little could be trusted.

So if I am right that Wilde is the rarest of things: an Irish theologian worth reading, then surely it is worth walking to his grave and paying your respects? I think the actual monument is hella ugly, made even worse by the protective perspex erected to protect it from graffiti. But the Pére Lachaise cemetery is strikingly beautiful in its gothic splendour. And a graveyard is always a good place to finish a pilgrimage, right?

Oscar Wilde Tomb

Your Correspondent, How can someone with glasses that thick be so stupid?

Books

We Were Just Sitting There Talking When…

When Wife-unit and I got married, someone made a speech about how they were convinced we were going to change the world. We struggled to change a tire on a Fiat 500 earlier this week, so I suspect that that claim has only grown more embarrassing with every passing year.

In our defence, we lived fairly intensely back then and people were often gripped by the sheer importance of the work that we all together were doing. We were making history, as young leaders in the first Presbyterian church plant in Ireland in a century. We were on the sharp edge of a movement that was sweeping the western world, establishing new and vibrant church communities that would rejuvenate Christianity and, to use the deeply arrogant language that was prevalent at the time, “incarnate” the Kingdom of God.

I don’t know what we were doing.

I share this bafflement with my friend, D.L. Mayfield. In her new book Assimilate or Go Home: Notes from a failed missionary on rediscovering faith, we get to follow along the journey as she discovers a vocation for ministry among refugees and then in the course of doing that ministry, learning that much of what she thought was ministry was wrong. Reflecting on my own experience in the light of this beautifully written book, I am prompted to suggest the following koan: True vocations start from mis-hearings.

The book is structured around four movements: Anticipation and Excitement, Reality Sets In, Depression and Culture Shock, Stabilization. These are the four stages traveled by the typical refugee as they settle into their sanctuary society. It is a revealing insight to the subtle theological weight of this work that Mayfield present ministry in terms of distressing displacement.

Mayfield tells how she hurled herself into ministry with refugees in her hometown. Fueled by the hagiographies of missionaries and evangelists that she read as a girl, her anticipation was that she would change the world, or at least change their world, those lucky few who would be subject of her attention. I don’t know how good she is at changing tires, but she has likewise failed to change the world.

Critically, the disillusionment and discouragement that she endures in these years of unspectacular ministry consisting of car rides and babysitting, failed English lessons and floundering food exchanges, is a loss of confidence in the traditions and assumptions she had inherited from the evangelical Christianity of her youth and her culture.

In Bible college, I was learning how to evangelize, how to convert those who believed differently than I did. Meeting the refugees was like enrolling in a practicum course: I could use all the tips and tricks I was learning in the classroom and implement them in the real world. Except, of course, nothing ever happened like it did in the textbooks.

The trauma inflicted on a refugee affects their ability to learn and remember. In the torrid tumult of being chased from your homeland, apologetic arguments about the divinity of Christ turn out to not be top of your agenda. Mayfield deftly explores the complex self-motivations that are at work in our outreach, the deep soul-reasoning that makes us hungry to be of use, any old kind of use at all. To say we are justified by faith, by grace, is to say that we cannot vouch for any merit of our own. The long struggle that Mayfield experiences is truly an account of conversion because she painfully comes to the end of her tradition and finds that it cannot convert her friends and it cannot sanctify herself. Our goal in the Christian life is not to make people more like us. To the extent that we seek safety in theological accuracy or in ministry competence (I winced in reminiscence at the evangelical leadership conferences as I read the “Life List” chapter) or in any other avenue that justifies us and our apparently insane insistence that we have the truth of the universe at our disposal, we evade the living God and miss out on the call he actually makes. Or as Mayfield puts it:

“All I over wanted to do was oppress people, in the kindest way possible”

This book is about American Christian experience engaging with American refugees. But it is deeply relevant outside that context because of how it presents an account of ministry as presence. Again and again we find that what matters is being with people. Patient attention to the ways of others is a much more significant aspect of being involved in Christian work than being able to say all the right things or co-ordinate strategy in all the right way.

Throughout the book I couldn’t help thinking of how it resonated with Dorothy Day’s The Long Loneliness. Day was the founder of the Catholic worker movement and she spent her life agitating for the rights of the poor and serving them food from her kitchen. She and her companions lived in community and offered hospitality to everyone who needed it. She did not change the world. Arguably, the plight of the worker is more precarious today than it was fifty years ago. The neighbourhood in which she primarily lived and worked, the Bowery, has now been gentrified beyond all recognition. Her homeland is no closer to pacifism than it was when it was dropping nukes on Japanese kids.

Dorothy Day

She was, in many ways, a failed missionary. She was keenly attentive to the self-deception entailed in do-goodery. She knew that the only antidote to the long loneliness of waiting for the Kingdom was community. She had to be converted out of the conviction of her youth to actually pursue the thing that convinced her.

Day summed up the work of her movement in the following way:

All of them understood the works of mercy – old-fashioned prayer books list them. The corporal ones are to feed the hungry; to give drink to the thirsty; to clothe the naked; to harbor the harborless; to ransom the captive; to visit the sick; to bury the dead. The spiritual works are to instruct the ignorant; to counsel the doubtful; to admonish sinners; to bear wrongs patiently; to forgive offenses willingly; to comfort the afflicted; to pray for the living and the dead.

And Mayfield closes her work in the following way:

We aren’t being asked to assimilate, but we are called to make our home here more like the kingdom we have always dreamed about but were too scared to believe was possible. Because God’s dream for the world is coming, looming brighter and brighter on the horizon.

That Kingdom action to which we are called is the business listed in the old-fashioned books. Living with people, eating with people, listening to people, helping people with the concrete things that trouble them. We weren’t called to save the world. We are called to follow the One who has already done that.

When Day looked back on her life – a life full of dramatic and remarkable events – she described it as nothing more than a long stretch of days when “we were just sitting there talking when…” they decided to feed whoever was hungry or set up farms of refuge or publish a newspaper about a longterm green revolution. “It was as casual as all that… it just came about… it just happened.” The ministry of the church that arises from genius technique dismisses such talk as unprofessional or careless. But this is how the work of God occurs. “It all happened while we sat there talking, and it is still going on.”

If you are involved in the mission of the church, I think you should buy and read this book. It’s on sale tomorrow.

Your Correspondent, Tugs at the heart, fogs the mind

Ethics For Everyday

On Byron Burgers and Consumer Boycotts

Tim Maly on how globalisation implicates us:

Something that journalists sometimes do is publish a disclosure statement. It’s sort of like an About Me page except it’s a listing of all their conflicts of interest—all the areas of coverage where you might have good reason to think they should not be trusted. It’ll say things like I once worked at Google or I’m married to an employee of Microsoft.

I have never written one of these but I have fantasies about doing a comprehensive one. It would be the length of a novel, I think. An endless and yet incomplete litany of all the blood, privilege, history, and compromise on my hands.

I am training to be a Christian ethicist. That is a kind of theologian that Christians (used to?) like to have around to tell them what to do so that they can always feel like they are doing the right thing, or at least not doing the wrong thing. It should come as no surprise to Christians that Christian ethicists cannot do this; we cannot tell right from wrong. Surely that’s one of the most interesting things that Christianity claims about the world. As the prophets, the Psalms and Paul, not to mention Jesus and 50 Cent remind us, only God can judge that.

So one of the reasons I think Christians believe they can get by just fine without theology is how unsatisfyingly “vague” are the outputs of all these ethicists at work. All the church wants to know is: “Whether communion is just a meal or does something hocus-pocus-y happen at it?”, and “Can gay people get married and if they do, can they be on the flower rota?”, and most importantly, “Where can I go to stock up on my Autumn wardrobe that is both on fleek and ethical?” We’ve been busily toiling away in the TheoLab for three years now and we do not yet have straightforward answers to any of those questions.

What even is the point?

When I say I do Christian ethics, people think that I write footnotes that validate what they think is right, or wrong, or stupid. But what I actually do is description, not prescription. I don’t produce answers. Rather, at best, I refine questions. This is very valuable work, even if it isn’t valued much. It has a use-value, even if it (currently) has a low exchange-value. But the one thing it doesn’t do is make things simpler. It doesn’t tell us the one true way to proceed. At this point it is important to remember that if the Gospel is true, we are as lost in our virtue as in our vice (See: Jesus of Nazareth, Parable of the Two Lost Sons, Bethany: Dr. Luke Publications, 30AD.) so even if I was able to tell you what is the right thing to do with the Christmas bonus that is still sitting in your bank account, it would be only a little more valuable in the eternal stakes than some bozo accountant encouraging you to invest it in East Asian online gambling firms.

I have many Christian friends who are troubled by the ethics of the things they consume. They want to have a phone that wasn’t made by slave labour and eat meat that wasn’t bred in torture and go on holidays with carbon offsets for the plane ride. I do not intend to malign such efforts, but as the Tim Maly quotation at the top of this piece reminds us, there will be no end to the deliberations involved in buying things rightly, and one thing I am pretty sure is a dead-end is spending your life deliberating about your purchases. The slippy, trickiness of sin means that even our concern for others and for justice and creation-care folds in on itself and we end up navel-gazing about adding possessions more effectively to our store of treasures.

I encountered this problem last week when I heard about the Byron Burger scandals. Byron Burger opened earlier in the year in Aberdeen and it was a cheap(-ish) place to eat a good meal. Such small events can matter when you live in a small city like Aberdeen. The restaurant was directly across from the cinema and so we fairly often found ourselves coming out of Fastly Furiousing 12 starvacious and Byron ended up as our culinary destination.

But it turns out that Byron are cruel employers. They had some staff in London, some of whom had worked for the company for years, who had come to Britain on falsified documents. When the British authorities notified them of this, Byron agreed to organise a staff in-service day which was actually just an ambush. Their employees showed up to learn new ways to wash their hands or to refresh their manual handling skills and instead they were directed into a room where they were arrested and then deported.

Now as my non-EU friends in Aberdeen will tell you, British immigration services are surely among the most obnoxious in the world. And they can prosecute companies that employ “illegals” and fine them up to £20,000! But Byron don’t actually have to go so far as to collude with the political regime. When this news broke, there were protests outside Byron restaurants and people declared their commitment to boycott the company in the future. In accordance to the Newtonian laws of contemporary discourse, when news of that outrage broke, a counter-outrage erupted which declared that Byron were doing the right thing in getting rid of “illegals” and that the leftie-hippy posers who thought that they were fighting for the rights of the oppressed were actually systemically embroiled in denying their ordinary, decent, unemployed British neighbours a chance at a job.

So who is right and who is wrong?

This problem is like every other problem in that it isn’t tractable in that way. And my point is that Christians should know this and even revel in it.

Let us describe the problem. There is language of “illegals” that we would need to consider. Christians, informed by the monumental Biblical teaching on the Stranger would query how someone can be illegal. Acts are illegal, people aren’t. We are invested in using words rightly so we might want to put a big question mark over the rhetoric upon which the broader culture constructs this problem.

There is the question of sin on the personal level, which is the angle Christians are most likely to go to first. This question takes the form of “What about the people who forged documents – weren’t they lying?” This is true and lying is wrong. But it is funny how the obvious companion sentence never appears: “What about the managers who said that it was a training day – weren’t they lying?” Also, how unfortunate are Byron? This one little company ends up with as many as 200 staff with faked papers in just 15 of their restaurants! Those conniving immigrants are obviously running an extraordinarily sophisticated con-job to pull the wool over the eyes of the HR department so successfully! Surely their cunning would have been paired with loftier criminal aims than earning the right to sweat in kitchens?

But the question of counterfeit documents brings up the question of why people from Brasil would ever want to flip burgers in London. Pondering whether or not to avoid a burger joint quickly presses us up against the profound inequalities that mark the global economy. People risk deportation and engage in illegality to work exhausting hours for minimum wage in the back of a London eatery. More than that, they leave their families and friends and cultures behind them to do this half a world away. What sort of insane system have we constructed that means that mothers in Sao Paulo say goodbye for good to their sons just so I can have a quick bite after Minions IV: The Minions Rise?

But before we are entirely swallowed up in the cavernous abyss that is thinking hard about simple issues (a restaurant boycott), we remember that this entire scenario is created by laws that are written by British civil servants and legislators. Britain is a sort of democracy (albeit with a monarchy, no constitution, a hereditary parliament and various other “historical quirks”) so those laws are made by the people voted into power by British people. Britain needs foreigners (to flip their burgers and to negotiate their trade deals now that they are leaving the EU) but Britain sort of hates foreigners. Even the British (notionally) left wing party thinks immigrants need to be “controlled”. How do you convict Byron Burgers of wrong-doing when they are part of a culture that is arguably sick with fear? They needed to avoid the fines that could come their way! What could they do? (Potential better answer: Normalise the working arrangements of their loyal staff.)

Labour immigration mug

This is to say nothing of the issue of eating animal flesh at all. In a world enduring catastrophic climate-change, our continued consumption of beef needs to be scrutinised. It is not unlikely that our grandchildren will stand agog when they hear of how happily we munched on burgers while methane-fuelled climate change flooded Bangladesh. Telling them that we were too excited by George Clooney’s turn in “Prognosis: Dinosaur” to think about what we were doing is unlikely to win us much credit.

How do we navigate our way through this morass? What thread do we pick up that helps us make sense of a mess that we know is a mess, but for the life of us we cannot put into a neat order. Christian ethicists describe the problem and in so doing, when we are lucky (read: providentially appointed), we end up with a perspective that allows us to see the possibility of a better way of doing or saying the things we are trying to do or say.

The staff who were employed by Byron on dodgy permits paid tax. The documents got them in the door, but they also got them in the system. Byron Burger, however, it appears, did not pay their tax in the same way.

The people who own Byron own companies in Luxembourg, a tax haven. Those companies lend money to Byron and charge interest rates above the market level. Byron pays back those loans in a fashion that most effectively minimises their tax burden in the UK.

The people who were deported had no aid to call upon. The people who arranged their deportation have all the aid they need. The people who were deported did not avoid investing in the common fund. The people who arranged their deportation did avoid investing in the common fund.

The people who own Byron broke no laws and the people who were deported did. After describing the situation, that sentence is loaded with surprising ethical significance.

When we describe the situation, we very often find the situation is different from what we imagined. There are problems with the language of “illegals” and there are problems with counterfeiting documents and there are problems with global inequalities and there are problems with societal xenophobia and there are problems with meat. But if we pull on the thread of the entitlement that allows one group of people to dance around the moral responsibility of paying tax – in the light of the deportations and the protests and the counter-protests – we begin to spy a way to make sense of the mess.

The people who own Byron think that the money that straightforwardly would go to pay for schools and streetlights and immigration officers is better off in their pockets (albeit in trousers hung in a wardrobe in Luxembourg). The people who own Byron have money that has freedom to travel. They can dispatch it to a tax haven over there or an investment over here without reference to permits or visas or fear of immigration control. The human beings whose labour generated that money do not have that freedom. They do not live without fear.

I am boycotting Byron and wrote a letter to the manager of the local branch to explain to them why. I am not just boycotting them because of their humiliating treatment of their loyal staff. I am not just boycotting them because I am a migrant who feels solidarity with the plight of migrants less privileged than I am. I am boycotting them because if the practices of Byron Burger were the norm, this society would be royally screwed. I’ll pack sandwiches when I go see Leaving Las Vegas II: The Return to Las Vegas.

We can’t make ourselves ethically right. But we can do what we can to make things less wrong.

Your Correspondent, Just back from Bible Camp where he was learning to be more judgemental