My supervisor recently lent me a formidable coffee table book just published about Douglas Coupland’s art. As a suburban boy, there is something positively Coupland-esque about the fact that I have never managed to see any of his work up close and in person. The world goes on elsewhere, in Berlin and New York and Santiago and Dalian, but in Maynooth I could track it all through a browser window – which is something for which we should be grateful. The title reminds us after all, that everything is now anywhere.

I knew of some of Coupland’s artwork before, like his Digital Orca installation and his security blanket covered with the world’s most trusted corporate brands, but so much of it was new to me:

Coupland art

In Coupland’s introductory essay he tells us that growing up in North Vancouver – a logging centre turned into the suburb of a dynamic, utoptian city – taught him that enlightenment invariably comes at the expense of nature. Coupland’s work, in his art and in his writing at its best is testimony to this. The world where everywhere is anywhere and where anything is everything is a plastic world; creation has been superseded in our minds and replaced in our space with invention.

With essays from some of my favourite artists like Chuck Klostermann and William Gibson and Michael Stipe, this was a treat of a book to peruse. But it is Coupland’s art that rightfully lingers. For the Biennial of the Americas, held in Denver, Colorado in 2013, Coupland erected this sign on a vacant lot in the city.

Detroit everywhere

A week later the city of Detroit declared bankruptcy. Today, it’s drinking water supply is undergirded by help from the United Nations. Everywhere is anywhere is tinkering on the edge of oblivion.

I am intellectually inclined towards the aphorism. Surely this is why Hauerwas is my theological mentor and Vonnegut is the saint I would pray to, if I prayed to saints. It is why the parables exert such a mighty influence over my mind. It is even why Lincoln Harvey is my favourite Christian on twitter. In 2012 in Berlin, Coupland exhibited his “Slogans for the early 21st Century”, stark zen koans, daubed in black capitals on bright backgrounds.

Slogans by Coupland


The piece of art that struck me most forcefully is his collection of “hornet’s nests”.

Hornet's nest

Writing a book is an audacious thing to do. To capture a story you made up in ink pressed on to paper is to make a statement that lingers long after you may have repudiated the tale you told. These delicate nests, that mimic the homes created by fierce, angry and painful tormenting insects, are constructed by tearing out pages of his own books, chewing them up in his mouth and then gently drying and peeling them into these hives.

But the works that will probably resound into the future are the works that Michael Stipe writes about. One, called The Poet, looks like just another piece of dotted art, the kind of thing that you see in every final year exhibit in every art college. But this is 2014. Even with art that doesn’t instantly resonate with us, we feel a need to take out our iPhones and Galaxies and Nexuses and snap a photo to stick on Facebook later. When you take a photo of The Poet, the cellular phone machine you carry in your pocket interprets it for you.

You see the Falling Man from September 11th.

You carry the ability to see and hear and learn everything you would ever want to see and hear and learn in your pocket and your handbag but you use it to read puns sent out by an Anglican priest in London. Or at least I do. The total availability of data forces us to choose where we will register what the data represents. As Stipe puts it, Coupland “offers us the choice to either see or not see these deeply internalized images.”

The Poet

The most affecting essay in the collection is by Sophia Al Maria, “A Millennial Moment”. She is an artist based in Qatar who was born around the time I was born. Her essay charts how her life has changed along with the period Coupland’s work has been prominent. The descent into the madness of the never-ending war on terror is captured powerfully. She has an anecdote about recognising a voice behind her on an escalator in Doha and realising it was the boy from high school she had a crush on. Now he was a US Marine and as she is “swathed head-to-toe in the black polyester of my Qatari national dress: the abaya,” she is not recognised. Her old friend walks by without seeing her. We choose what we see. Al Maria becomes “Anonymous. Obscured. Out-of-focus.” Now she is “like some tacky shadow of death, a target in whatever pre-combat simulator he probably trained on, not a girl he went to high school with.”

Coupland grew up in that generation after the post war economic boom. He grew up in a military family in the midst of the Cold War and the threat of nuclear annihilation. He grew up in a time where people still felt utterly convinced that optimism was the right way to respond to the world. When I first read his early works I found a man preaching my Gospel – humans are advancing. As I aged, I have come to see I am right about that and very wrong too. Coupland’s art is about progress – but the progress that actually did happen. Tyler Johnson, the protagonist of Shampoo Planet, progresses from his parents failed hippie commune to yuppie certitude. The prefab dreams of North Vancouver gave rise to a world where we try to forget the falling man of Manhattan. The digital logic of clean, straight-edged LEGO may have cognitively conditioned us to imagine a future where things fit together, but we have broken them up.

We are creators who are creatures. We are creatures who unmake as fast as we create. That Coupland continues to unveil the vulnerability entailed in that means he is a friend you should make. He isn’t always a happy friend, and his books are sometimes very badly off course. But as Chuck Klostermann quotes it in his essay, “Bad taste is real taste.” Coupland, even when is off-course, is somehow headed in the right direction.

Coupland's slogan before his YouTube event

Your Correspondent, Shopping at face value

Wife-unit watched Good Will Hunting again recently. It is a masterpiece of a film, full of glorious moments and superb performances. My favourite scene in the film is where Ben Affleck’s character stands in for Will at a job interview.

“Until that day comes, keep your ear to the grindstone.”

Of course, as the years have gone on, Affleck emerged as an outstanding scriptwriter, actor and director. Argo is as rollicking and enjoyable a film as I can remember winning an Oscar and his performance in To The Wonder is utterly iconic.

One of the things that I liked about Affleck’s appearance on the Bill Maher show this week was how easily dumbstruck he was. He is obviously a deeply intelligent and compassionate man. By his fruits we can assume as such. But faced with the smug smarminess of the unfunny Maher (lionized recently by Dawkins as “brave”) and the comedically evil Sam Harris, all Affleck could come up with was a resigned “Jesus Christ”.

He did manage to point out that Maher and Harris’ liberalism was gross, racist and blind to the decades of slaughter that America has inflicted in majority Muslim lands. For that he deserves our gratitude.

But let us take the Maher and Harris logic and try the simple task of turning it back on itself. Presumably, for two men who believe themselves to be intellectuals, coherence is an essential aspect of any argument that they wish to back. How does the claim that Islam is “the mother lode of bad ideas” stand up if we examine American liberalism and American progressives with the kind of suspicion that Maher, Harris, or many in the Obama administration hold for the entirety of the global ummah?

If Islam is the mother lode of bad ideas, what is American liberalism? It insists that all humans are intrinsically good, invested with inalienable rights. And yet in a world populated with good men, it has been at ceaseless war since 1939. American liberalism is such a bad idea that it cannot even account for the causes of wars that it endlessly fights. Oh you American progressives, answer us this: “All the evil people, where do they come from?”

Islam is oppressive of its women and homosexuals. But American liberalism has just recently decided that homosexuals were people too. And the argument used to support this change of heart is that gay people are born this way. But at the same time, every single person’s sexual identity and practice is an expression of who they want to be, a free and autonomous act of self-creation. A nation that forgets that its psychological association only declassified homosexuality as a condition in 1973 affirms gay people by simultaneously saying “You are made this way” and “you make yourself”. Liberalism forgets its own sins, while it convicts Muslims on terms that Islam does not accept and even contradicts itself in the action.

And let us not forget the great liberation that women in the liberal west now enjoy. They can do the same jobs that men can do, for less money, while doing all the work they historically had to do in normative patriarchies as well. “But,” says the western woman who is expected to dress to a higher standard than her male colleagues, is afflicted by drastic body-image issues and who has often heard bosses make comments about how her “refusal” to get pregnant is one of the reasons they can “really trust her to do the job”, this woman says, “but the hijab is oppressive.

Sam Harris loves to tell us that Islam is violent. But Sam Harris is a citizen of a country that has been at war without end for longer than my dad, who is not a young man, has been alive. America kills with secret agents, and with robotic drones, and with trade sanctions, and with intellectual property clauses over essential medicines, and with soldiers carrying guns, jet fighters flying faster than the speed of sound, submarines powered by nuclear reactors and through the slow, determined, dedicated acts of torture they unfurl without any accountability and justice. America kills its own citizens, in botched capital punishment and in alarming numbers at the hands of police officers who aren’t racist but they just happen to only shoot at black people. Liberals say Islam is violent, but they ignore the fact that Affleck tried to make. More Muslims, innocent children and elderly ladies as well as young Jihadis, have been killed by western Liberals than westerners killed by Muslims. Putting a murder on YouTube isn’t what makes murder wrong. Putting murder in the hands of soldiers doesn’t make murder right.

Islam, it is said, hinders culture. It drapes social life under a theocratic strait-jacket. It slows economic development. All this may be true. It may be false. But let us consider again on what shaky ground the liberals stand when they make this claim. The western progressive laments the state of societies they have never visited, while living in cities segregated so thoroughly by internal poverty that there are neighbourhoods they have never visited and would feel unsafe to do so. Somehow, this is exclusively the fault of the people who live in those council estates or projects. Such social utopia we enjoy in the EU and the US! We are segregated by race and by creed and by capital. But the people up on top who get invited onto hilarious talk shows with Bill Maher don’t need to worry because they never need to see what happens to families when no one can get a job and kids go to schools where the teachers have 38 students in a class and where libraries get shut down, sports centres never get built and the only place where you can congregate with friends is the pub. Islam is the mother lode of bad ideas, but our increasingly unjust distribution of wealth, decaying social fabric and paranoia represents the pinnacle of human culture.

Finally, the sophisticated liberal distances himself from the crude, gross, racism of Maher and Harris but they do quietly suggest, in tones informed by tomes you have heard of but never read, that Islam has a problem with its status as religion. “You see,” says this mansplaining progressive, “Islam can’t have a separation of church and state.” Somehow this is meant to be a killer argument. We in the west have entertained a blind faith in the dogma that religion is a private endeavour that shouldn’t intrude on the public square. That the Muslim world refuses to embrace this doctrine doesn’t just make them heretics. In the eyes of the contemporary liberalism, it makes them savage. Until they progress beyond their primitive refusal to compartmentalize religion from politics, economics from ethics, liturgy from community and faith from reason, they will always be suspect. Islam is the mother lode of bad ideas, but in the face of all evidence, we liberals will continue to irrationally insist that religion is something like Marmite, a taste acquired by some, offering marginal flavour to lives of those in the margin.

Let me close with a word from an American Muslim prophet:

Your Correspondent, Once visited the United States, Land of the thief home of the slave

Who Owns Scotland?

In The Poor Had No Lawyers, Andy Wightman does four things:

    > He recounts the history of Scotland as a history of successive land grabs.
    > He explains how these land grabs express themselves today in the wildly unbalanced patterns of territory ownership in Scotland.
    > He offers some cogent and well thought through arguments about how land reform could happen.
    > He puts yet another nail in the coffin of the “Vote No” campaign.

My mother is not the kind of person who has a list of “personal heroes”. She is not easily swayed. But growing up it was evident that at least one of the great titans of Irish history had her allegiance and that was the one armed land agitator and trade-unionist, Michael Davitt. Davitt hailed, like my mother, from the western county of Mayo. But in the late 1800s his influence across the island of Ireland and even into Britain was massive. He secured tenants rights for the multitude of farmers that up till then had relied on the graces of their absentee landlords to get by. He initiated a land reform movement that would successfully deconstruct the vast estates, owned by the landed gentry of England, that covered the island. He tried to preach his message of worker solidarity and agitation in Britain.

But Scotland still needs a Davitt.

The first land grab came soon after the Norman invasion, back in the 1100s. The monarchy installed feudalism at the expense of the existing clan structure. The second land grab came soon after the Reformation. The state installed Presbyterianism at the expense of the existing church and monastic lands. The land grabs continued up until the turn of the 20th Century, as common land that was a rich resource across the country slowly got stripped away and appropriated by landed interests.

The common agitation that ought to be Irish and Scottish independence is revealed as far back as 1609, when the Royal Privy Council forced the clan chiefs to submit to English ways or lose their lands. Notice how the legislation sees “Irische” as the root of the problem. Schools would be established in every parish in the Highlands so that:

the youth be exercised and trayned up in civilitie, godlines, knawledge, and learning, that the vulgar Inglische toung be universallie platit, and the Irische language, which is one of the chief and principall causes of the continewance of barbarities and incivilitie amangis the inhabitantis of the Ilis and Heylandis, may be abolisheit and removeit.

Abolishing language because it is barbarous and uncivil is the height of urbanity and civility.

From Wrightman:

The pattern of landownership in the nineteenth century became more concentrated as the new Highland elite extended their holdings. By 1870, for example, Sir James Matheson, who had amassed a vast fortune from trade in China, owned 424,560 acres of land. The Marquis of Breadalbane owned 458,421 acres across Perthsire and Argyll. The Duke of Sutherland held all but a few glebes and lighthouses across the 1.2 million acres of Sutherland. And, by 1900, over half the land area of the Highlands was owned by just fifteen landowners.

– Andy Wightman, The Poor Had No Lawyers, 46.

Things of course have vastly improved between then and now.

969 people own 60% of Scotland.

If a people do not own the land, the people are not free.

Counting inland water and land, Scotland consists of about 19.5 million acres. 1,550 people own over 10 million acres of that. Voting yes at least opens the possibility of land reform. Voting yes at least puts some distance between the governance of Scotland and the culture of English aristocracy, most perfectly captured in the ongoing expansion of Elizabeth Windsor’s private estate at Balmoral, which she inherited from her parents, who inherited it from their parents, who bought it under a dodgy deal in 1852 and then had a law passed in 1853 to make sure that they could keep it. It has been expanded at least five times since the end of World War II.

Balmoral Estate

The United Kingdom currently holds the world record for invasion of other sovereign states. Only 22 countries haven’t had the honour of Her Majesty’s forces arriving with weapons and the threat of murder. How did a little temperate island in the north Atlantic come to dominate the world for centuries? They had a training grown for colonizing in Ireland. This laboratory meant their research and development, when it came to imperialism, was way ahead of competitors. But Scotland suffered in the same way. It continues to suffer, with a disproportionate number of its young working class men serving and dying in Britain’s contemporary wars of profit.

The final land grab that Wightman records is the grab for Africa, India and southern Asia, which was accomplished with technique, manpower and politics that originated in Scotland.

An independent Scotland will have many obstacles to face. Engineering the cogs and wheels of government will be complex. Devising an alternative economic strategy to the exhausting approach modelled in Ireland might be too much to hope for. And the people who will run this new country are as craven as the next batch of politicians. Watching “You’ve Been Trumped” demonstrates that! But land matters. Land reform will most effectively happen under an independent Scotland.

Your Correspondent, He’s the reason today bananas are called “yellow fatty beans”

Two Days And One Night

Who knows what the original title of “Deux jours, une nuit” means, but this morning I watched Two Days and One Night and it was the best possible use of a Thursday before lunchtime that I can think of.

It tells the story of Sandra, who is recovering from depression, and one Friday evening gets a phone call from her friend at work explaining she is about to be laid off. The boss put a proposition to the staff. They can either get their annual bonuses, or Sandra can stay. All but two of the sixteen factory floor workers vote to lay Sandra off and to get their €1000.

What follows is very simple. After her friend Juliette convinces the boss to run a secret ballot after the weekend, the film consists of the Dardenne brothers’ camera following Sandra – played with astounding brilliance by Marion Cotillard – as she wrestles with herself to go and plead with her colleagues to vote for her and against their bonus.

Marion Cotillard as Sandra

There wasn’t a moment where I felt bored and at the end of it I realised it was as compelling and clear a picture of the plight of the worker as I can remember seeing in my time. The film isn’t an uplifting story about the triumph of the human spirit. It isn’t a sentimental escape from the material problems that vex our cities. It is a profoundly humanistic depiction of the forces that pull and stretch and toss the people who are just wrestling to put food on the dinner table and get their kids through school.

Our jokes about first world problems are certainly hackneyed, but they might be callous too.

There is a scene where Sandra goes to see her colleague Hichim. The electricity is gone in the apartment building. She walks the stairs, flight after flight, the picture of exhausted dejection, climbing to reach a peak where she does not know if she will be welcome, in the dark now and facing future darkness. It is a simple 30 seconds of camera-work, but it is a better description of the economic world most people in the EU live in than anything I’ve ever encountered from a politician. She climbs because if she doesn’t climb, she’ll lose her house; but even climbing, she might still lose her house. She climbs to secure the basic dignity of having a job and a role and a thing to do, but to do it, she must humiliate herself by throwing herself on the mercy of people as taxed and strained as she is.

Here are three very brief thoughts by which I hope to convince you to go watch this before it leaves the cinema or to load it up on Netflix or whatever it is that people who don’t use torrents use.

1) The boss is always above the fray. Literally, in the final scene, his pristine and spacious office is on the first floor. He never gets dirtied by the fight that is the lives of these workers.

2) The workers are distant from the place they work. Sandra has to take a bus all over the city. Her husband drives her up hills and out into the countryside, she visits suburbs and flats in slums. The task of making money to get by dislocates the workers from their physical environment.

3) The world that the worker is forced to live in is agonistic. It is a battle. Many of the colleagues phrase the ballot in terms of “losing their bonus”. They have been convinced this world is one of scarcity and therefore it becomes one of desperate scarcity. Worker tears away at worker, the son lashes out at the father, the world is so shaped by capitalism and globalisation that we sacrifice our colleagues for a little more comfort.

If I say that Two Days One Night is a 90 minute illustration of Marx’s theory of alienation you might yawn and decide that sounds too lofty, or too earnest, or too damn boring to squander an evening on. It is not. Sandra, in her depression, laments that she does not even exist. Marx told us that the alienated worker:

only feels himself freely active in his animal functions – eating, drinking, procreating, or at most in his dwelling and in dressing-up, etc.; and in his human functions he no longer feels himself to be anything but an animal. What is animal becomes human and what is human becomes animal.

Capitalism dehumanises us. This film is a portrait of that process that manages to be fully and totally human. It is splendid.

Your Correspondent, At the end Sandra reminded him of a bird singing

My most excellent friend Richie Cronin took me to task over the belligerence, if I can use that phrase, of my “pacifism” this week. Here are some stray thoughts that might try and wrap up that conversation.

It Is Not Realistic
Non-violence doesn’t elicit a peaceful response. People are annoyed when you insist that you are against war. “All war?” You assure them that it is all war, even the so-called good ones. Then the annoyance begins.

Pastorally, when people get annoyed (and there isn’t anyone flicking their ears or snapping their bra-strap or breathing loudly through their nose or checking their phone while standing in a public doorway), it is usually a sign that sensitive emotional nerves have been touched. “Don’t meddle with my dishwasher organisation scheme!” (because it is one place in the chaos of my life that I can implement order and so on).

One of the expressions of annoyance that follows after you admit to agreeing that war is good for absolutely nothing, is a line of incredulity that takes the form of “You can’t really believe that!” As a Christian, I believe at least 66 incredible things before breakfast, including the claim that the Creator of the world was born of a Jewish teenager only to die at the hands of a smalltime Roman bureaucrat. The idea that people should refrain from killing other humans is smallchange after that set of commitments is brought into play.

Before long, the incredulity will turn to moral dismay. After all, HOLOCAUST. That the Germans who implemented the systemized and industrialised murder of millions of Jews, Catholics, homosexuals and disabled people also wore belt buckles that read “Gott mit uns” doesn’t appear to be relevant to the calculus, sadly. I should commit to memory this interaction between the 10 year old boy on his way to Germany and his father in Aidan Mathew’s great short-story “Train Tracks“:

“If anyone annoys you, just tell them this: in the middle of 1944, the Allies precision-bombed a munitions factory outside Auschwitz. Precision-bombed it.

Pulverised the whole complex. But they didn’t bomb the train tracks leading to the camp. They knew perfectly well that the camp was there; they knew perfectly well what was happening inside it. Flame-throwers turned on pregnant women; newborn babies kicked like footballs. But they didn’t bomb the train tracks. And now after twenty years, they talk about preserving the otter.”

Stanley Hauerwas and Enda McDonagh might be mocked for their “Appeal to Abolish War“, but people told William Wilberforce that his bill would bankrupt Britain. That the law passed didn’t mean slavery ended in the Empire. But it definitely helped reduce it.

This insistence that pacifism is unrealistic is so curious for Christians who have spent the last two millennia changing what is considered realistic. Remember that the belief in a Creator God seemed borderline crazy among the intellectual elite of Rome. Hospitals and orphanages, care programs for widows who then implemented care programs for the homeless, and a range of other costly social interventions by centuries of Christians literally changed the world so that compassion seemed like the most natural thing in the world. Wilberforce read the Scriptures and stood up to the slave-traders. It is not inconceivable that you might read the Scriptures and stand up to the weapons manufacturers.

Luke Bretherton, in Christianity and Contemporary Politics talks about how the Canon laws of sanctuary changed the social imagination of the world. Christians read their Scriptures and decided that the Christ-event meant we could never despise a human being because the state found them guilty. The monastic practice of sanctuary was our unrealistic response. As Bretherton unpacks it: “Theologically, if Christ is King, then no earthly sovereign or community has the power or right to utterly exclude or make an exception of anyone from the status of a human being.”

It was the duty of every man in eleventh-century England to pursue an outlaw, ravage his lands, burn his house, and hunt him as prey for he was a caput gerat lupinim – a friendless man, werewolf, wolf-man – in other words, he was bare life. Yet at the same time, the right of sanctuary and liturgical processes of giving satisfaction provided a countervailing injunction to enable the possibility of forgiveness and reconciliation.

– Luke Bretherton, Christianity and Contemporary Politics, 157.

The determined and costly practice of Christians made lepers human, made the sick human, made the orphan, the widow, and the embryo human. It gave the outlaw sanctuary and the slave liberty. It is not unrealistic that the God of Resurrection would honour our determined and costly practice of non-violence and save the soldier from the battlefield.

Sanctuary was so successful a practice that when it was officially abolished by statute in 1624 its decline was “not lamented but viewed as part of the proper triumph of the modern secular state.” The polis was converted by the ekklesia.

Christological non-violence is not unrealistic because the miracle of conversion does actually happen.

Calvin and Hobbes

It IS Realistic

My friend Richie thinks there are only two options for Christians: Just War or pacifism. I think there are an infinity of ways to try to work out what it means to be a Christian but non-violence is the right answer. An analogy: on the spectrum from “Jesus was a great moral teacher” to “Jesus is the long awaited Messiah of Israel” you can find a bajillion gradations. Only one of those two options is correct however, and to whatever extent it is correct, it assumes the best of the wrong answer too. So the truth is found when we say “Jesus is Israel’s Messiah” and saying that commits you to also thinking that Jesus was a great moral teacher. Similarly, non-violence is the right response to the Messiah’s death on a cross, and that means that reasoning about war must be just.

G.K. Chesteron quipped that “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.” The same might be said in the modern era for Christian non-violence. But if the argument against pacifism is that it is unrealistic, the arguers must believe their alternative is realistic. But if it turns out that Just War thinking has been held and advocated by the majority of Christians and it has functionally offered moral under-writing to unjust aggression, then the reasoning is not just.

Those last two, dense paragraphs can be summed up as: Can we take it for granted that Just War practices are realistic?

Let’s consider that question. I propose we take the last century as our sample, because humans are physically inclined to think in multiples of ten and because 100 years ago a very big war began which should be called the First Iraq War but because we are collectively insane, we call it the Great War.

Just War thinking is broken into two phases. We need to consider the justice of a proposed war before the battle and we need to consider the conduct of our war forces in battle.

The questions that must be answered before war are:

    Just cause
    Competent authority
    Right intention
    Probability of success
    Last resort
    Comparative justice

The questions that must be answered during war are:

    Minimum force
    Exclusive combatant engagement
    Respect for international law

There is no war in the last 100 years that I am aware of that meets either the prior or direct requirements for just war. Even the war I most directly benefit from fails under both tests. The Irish revolutionary forces of 1916 did not have competent authority and they did not distinguish their targets. The Allied forces in World War II come closest, although any serious reading of that history which accounts for the role of the Versailles Treaty would call right intention into question. However, their means of fighting jus in bello fails on every count.

Modern warfare, especially as the West fights it, cannot possibly meet Just War standards. Bombs cannot distinguish between combatants and non-combatants. When they can, that algorithm will still be programmed by human beings intent on killing people. International law cannot be honoured when France or the UK or Germany sell Israel or Colombia or Burkina Faso weapons that are outside the pale in terms of what is warranted. Augustine, Thomas and Grotius could never have imagined surveillance or drone warfare but neither of those developments make things easier for the majority Christian position. In the years to come, things are going to get messier still with the augmentation of soldiers through biotechnology or their replacement by robotic substitutes. I haven’t even addressed the issue of atomic weaponry, whose mere invention was so astoundingly stupid that their continued existence serves as proof for the Satan’s reality.

If there are only two options for Christians: Just War or pacifism, then a considered look at the world we live in removes one of those options. The existence of dark evil like Stalin’s Russia or Hitler’s Germany or our modern-day ISIS ought not to be news to people who read about Herod. If John the Baptist and Jesus the Redeemer were peaceful in the face of that maniac, we know the way to go. Just war theorists give licence to maniacs like Tony Blair to rub his chin an go to church and bomb Iraq into the ground with a clean conscience. There is only one option. Because Christians live in a world of war, they cannot imagine being anything else than non-violent. If modern-day Just War advocates only sanction lethal violence when the terms of the theory are met, then they will be functional pacifists.

These may seem like strong words, improportionate and without warrant. But pacifists have committed to only fighting with words. Forgive us if they are sometimes very sharp.

Richie sometimes feels frightened by the claims of pacifists. His fears are misplaced. God sees every action and will judge them. The spilling of blood in Syria and Gaza, in Kurdistan and Missouri… it all flows as a result of military commitment. Jesus’ birth was met with the slaughter of the innocents. His death was the slaughter of The Innocent. If his victory is won by the subversion of the Empire’s military, then we should quake with holy and reverent fear to find ourselves on the side of war.

Drone victims are people too

Your Correspondent, He tries to be on time for his appointments, so as to be late for his disappointments.

Some Thoughts On Movies I Recently Saw

I presume someone has already made a parody of Room 237 where a bunch of film critics talk over the footage offering far-fetched theories about why Rodney Ascher put this together in the first place?

Byzantium continues to prove that Saoirse Ronan is fecking deadly, even if it is one of those Neil Jordan movies that leaves you surprised he made it.

Here’s how dumb I am. I was dumb enough to be surprised at just how dumb Lucy was. I mean, I expected a dumbfest, considering the “humans only use 10% of their brain mumbo jumbo”, but the godlike powers that accrued to Scarlet’s character was quite spectacularly stupider than anything I could have dared to hope for. The best blockbuster of the summer was Edge of Tomorrow, but this was almost as satisfying in its gun-toting momentum.

If a movie about tornado hunters doesn’t feature lots of people shouting “Hold on! Just hold on!” then the damn scriptwriters don’t know what they are doing. No fear of that with Into The Storm, a film so formulaic that the scriptwriters know exactly what they are doing because they have hunted the films that have gone before and delivered exactly what the audience wants: a film with strong winds.

The Congress stars Robin Wright as Robin Wright, a beautiful actress with an ambivalent relationship to acting and a tendency to make ill advised career moves. Surprisingly, her performance is superb. You’d think playing yourself is easy, but Wright is amazing in how she occupies that role so fully that you forget that she is playing herself. Made by the guy behind Waltz With Bashir, this is a fascinating set up: movie studios are digitally sampling their actors and then forcing them into retirement. Films will be stitched together by computer artists in the future from the stock footage accumulated from just a few hours capturing the movie stars of today. In the first half of the film, things are brilliant and compelling and philosophically interesting. In the second half of the film, things get more animated. Literally. And the momentum of the plot, the clarity of ideas and the enjoyment of the viewer suffers. It goes on too long and gets confused within itself. Wife-unit and I can’t put the plot together in such a way that it isn’t incoherent, but it’s one of those films where maybe we just weren’t smart enough to piece it together. When films mistake themselves for brain teasers, something is amiss. The animation is technically marvelous, but the narrative doesn’t drive it forward, so it is just impressive drawing. A failed masterpiece or a glorious crapfest – we couldn’t decide which but it is definitely worth watching.

Finally, This is Martin Bonner is a unique, flash of a film. It is sort of the opposite to The Congress. It is short and thematically sparse and so simple you would be mistaken for thinking there was no plot. As this review in The Other Journal (one of the single, finest pieces of film writing I’ve ever read) helpfully puts it, it is a film about sight and investment. It centres on two people: an older man starting a job with a Christian charity that help re-integrate ex-offenders into society and a middle-aged man who is coming out of prison after a 12 year sentence. It is a deep, quiet, humble film. There is no elaboration in the cinematography or inter-trans-textuality in the script. It is a mundane story about real people, compellingly told. Of all the movies I’ve seen since Sunday, this is the best.

Also, the lead actor can play Karl Barth in the Avengers’ style comic book movie I am writing about the great theologians (Peter Capaldi as Calvin and Meryl Streep as Catherine of Siena), cos he’s the spit of him, as we’d say in Dublin.

Your Correspondent, He’s smart, he’s sensitive, he’s clearly not obsessed with his physical appearance…

One of the Sunday tabloids here in Scotland this weekend had a histrionic headline about the risk of an ebola outbreak flowing from the return of British citizens who contracted the disease while on medical mission to their homeland for treatment.

In America you find public voices that somehow have an audience say things like this:

If Dr. Brantly had practiced at Cedars-Sinai hospital in Los Angeles and turned one single Hollywood power-broker to Christ, he would have done more good for the entire world than anything he could accomplish in a century spent in Liberia.

Ann Coulter.

These people may be wacko, but they have much more of a platform than my barber, who has some zany ideas but tends to keep them to himself and his amused customers.

It occurs to me, when I see this kind of heartless stupidity, that we are the same people who heaped up death upon death in their panicked response to the Plague. Wifi, refrigeration or even automatic soap dispensers don’t make us any safer from ourselves. When crisis comes, our paganism is laid bare. It strikes me that even when not attending the mosque on Friday, the synagogue on Saturday or the church on Sunday, we remain a culture obsessed with drawing lines between the clean and the unclean.

Being very crude: We’ve left our faith behind, but the religion still persists.

In or around 366AD, Gregory of Naziansus preached what has come to be known as his Oration 14, “On the Love of the Poor”. In a city full of lepers, he preached that his congregation must be present to those amongst them with that affliction:

You will not demean yourself in the process; you will not catch their malady even if the squeamish deceive themselves into believing such nonsense; or rather, this is how they justify their, call it over-cautious or sacrilegious, behavior; in point of fact, they are taking refuge in cowardice as though it were a truly worthwhile and wise course of action. On this score accept the evidence of science as well as of the doctors and nurses who look after these people. Not one of them has ever yet endangered his health through contact with these patients. You, then, servant of Christ, who are devoted to God and your fellow man, let compassion overcome your misgivings, the fear of God your fastidiousness.

– Gregory of Nazianzus, Select Orations, 60.

Ebola and Gregory of Nazianzus

This is an interesting argument, if only because of how he appeals to “science” and the counsel of experts. But resting behind this argument is the strong Christian claim that since prosperity gets washed away like sandcastles and poverty alleviated by a single stroke of good fortune, since health gets wiped away by a single bacterium and illness flees in the face of a single vial of medicine, any wise counsel that separates us from our brothers and sisters is folly. We live and we die according to the good plan of our good God. “No guilt in life, no fear in death,” as that great modern Irish hymn puts it. On that basis, in the midst of plague, we continue to do what we are always meant to be doing – the caring of others as if they were our very selves, the singleminded determination to ignore the invisible lines that society insists on drawing, and the worship of the peculiar God who died to kill death.

Your Correspondent, Preaching to himself

Last week, the ISIS forces currently active in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere, beheaded an American journalist. His crime was being American. And a journalist. It also seems to have been relevant to the logic of the murderers that his brother was in the US Air Force.

They also hacked his computer so that they could inform his parents what they were doing in advance of broadcasting it live on the internet.

This is a terrifying innovative kind of atrocity. The people involved have the technical expertise and attention to detail that suggests they would be most valuable if they were to become actual Muslims and dedicate themselves to social care of some kind or another. Instead they wage war for concepts and power, assert authority through the language of caliphate and jihad.

But the reaction in the media around me has been astonishing. The evil has been discussed as if it is a deep mystery about which no questions can be asked. Nobody has thought to quote a character from a Terence Malick movie and ask, “Where did it come from?” Instead we use big clunky words we have spent decades bankrupting like “evil”.

The answer to the deepest level of that unasked question invariably lies in theology, the thick accounts of creation and redemption as can be found in Islam, Christianity and Judaism. Maybe that’s why we don’t spend any time asking it?

The surface level answer to that question is the War on Terror. And before that, the war on Soviet forces in Afghanistan and before that, the disassembly of the British Empire and before that, the British Empire. My historical knowledge doesn’t go beyond that, which is one of the consequences of being raised in the penumbra of the British Imperial force.

To stop the terrorists from achieving their aims, YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter tweaked their algorithms to discourage people from sharing the video. This raises three important ethical questions:

    What does it mean when we gladly let publicly traded corporations explicitly filter our news for us?
    What does it mean when we need algorithms to counteract our desire, without which we would trade snuff movies on public websites?
    What does it mean that certain forms of murder are opposed and certain forms of murder are celebrated?

That last question is the critical one. We like to believe in moral progress. Even if you would reject that suggestion if I asked you in a YES/NO format, the commonplace call on us to recognise things in the light of “this day and age”, to disparage things we don’t like as “medieval”, and to imagine a moral trajectory (the arc of history) that modern people can discern indicates we do believe in progress. We believe we’re making progress. Thus, in this day and age, the medieval tactics of ISIS need to be opposed because the arc of history bends towards liberation.

The liberation we promise will be announced with bombs.

That is the response of our political leaders to a snuff movie made by soldiers from a phony caliphate. We will invade Iraq. Again. We’ll drop bombs on Syria. Again. We’ll sponsor the first bunch of men organised enough to oppose ISIS to do civilization’s work for us. Again.

But let us remember the preaching of our political masters: Cultures that feel the need to televise such slaughter don’t deserve the title “civilized”.

Your Correspondent, Is a big fat loudmouth, and can walk when he has to

Richard Dawkins is a voice of reason. That’s his whole deal. But one of the benefits of him being on Twitter is we get to see how unreasonable that position is.

I don’t follow him, largely because I only like to follow people on Twitter who make jokes. Twitter is like real life. I prefer to hang out with people who laugh a lot.

Speaking of which, one thing that is wonderfully refreshing about hanging out with people with special needs is how open and human they are with their feelings. This holds especially true, in my experience, for people with Down Syndrome. They cry a lot and they laugh a lot. There is no detached irony. There is no protective cynicism. There is a lot of bewildered dismay and unaffected delight. There is a lot of experiencing life that I can’t manage. My youngest niece is a baby who is unusually eager to smile. She is going to do life better than me in important ways.

What I am trying to say, for those of you schooled in a kind of Dawkins-esque reason that only feels comfortable around propositional claims, is that my friends with disabilities are significantly closer to exhibiting the best of what it means to be human than I am.

Dissing dis-ability

Some of the best writing in the aftermath of this tweet has come from the parents of people with Down Syndrome who admit that to some extent, they would have felt a similar conflict to the one Dawkins flattens out with customary brutality. Here is an example.

Stanley Hauerwas used to start his course on the ethics of marriage by asking his class: “What reason would you give for yourself or someone else having a child?” Few people had ever considered this and the justifications he would receive back would be thin, to say the least. Children were a hedge against suffering in old-age, or a cure for loneliness, or an attempt “to make the world better”. Hauerwas would then try to demonstrate how this apparently noble ethic is an example of moral idealism in its purest form and deeply threatening to the mentally handicapped:

If children are part of a progressive story about the necessity to make the world better, these children do not seem to fit. At best, they only can be understood as deserving existence insofar as our care of them makes us better people.

– Stanley Hauerwas, “The Church and the Mentally Handicapped” in Dispatches From The Front, 182.

This is the best thinking of the best young thinkers in the Christian church and Hauerwas concludes that such attitudes “reveal a society with a deficient moral imagination.”

That would be a polite way to describe Dawkins, not just in this tweet, but in his entire corpus. And not just Dawkins, but the entire new-atheist movement. And not just atheists, but Christians too. After all, Dawkins is accurate when he says that what he advocates is simply what people do. So many people abort their children with Down Syndrome that Christians must be in their number.

My supervisor, Brian Brock, has thought a great deal about disability. He has a wonderful essay in Disability in the Christian Tradition: A Reader where he gives a brief overview of the very interesting way that Augustine engaged with disability.

Augustine wrote a lot about everything and in the course of his life he is probably the first person to observe sign language among the deaf in the written word. As a man born with an extra finger, I was delighted to find that in City of God he writes:

We know of men who were born with more than five fingers or five toes. This is a trivial thing and not any great divergence from the norm.

– Augustine, City of God XVI.8

My birth abnormality isn’t simply trivial because it leaves me capable of being a tax-paying, law-abiding citizen. It is trivial because all human beings are born off-perfect. For Augustine, the perfect human being was born to Mary, wife of Joseph. As Brian puts it, apart from Jesus, Augustine denies “the ascription of physical, intellectual, or volitional perfection to any human being.” We all fall short of the norm.

The Christian claim is that Jesus relativises our abilities.

Gus, like Hauerwas in our age, does not condemn the sadness that we feel when people are born with disabilities more significant than my unusual hands. “Augustine insisted that, while the loss or lack of any of these traits was properly lamentable, life itself was a good not vitiated by the loss of any of these capacities.”

In the essay, Brock goes on to explain how Augustine saw humanness as intrinsically connected to rationality, but in such a way that humanity is not lost if rationality is not expressed. Gus even offered some thoughts as to why people are born with serious disabilities and “suggests that those who have come to appreciate the diversity that attends all human life may discover humans who lie at the margins of his norm as divine acts of communication.”

I have heard the Aberdeen practical theologian John Swinton discuss the possibility that Jesus had Down Syndrome. If you are a Christian who reads that and recoils (as I did when I first heard it), you might need to reflect on what the incarnation means. The diversity that attends all human life is created by God and is good. If you can’t see that, you might benefit from reflecting on the Christ as embryo, the Saviour in inchoate pain while teething, the Sustainer of all Existence relying on his mother for the milk that sustained him. Jesus didn’t defeat death with a high IQ.

Dawkins, for all his protestation about the wonder he finds in evolved life, sees little to wonder (in the full meaning of the word) over in the face of a disabled human. One suspects he hasn’t done enough empirical, hands-on investigation. If he hung out at L’Arche for a while, he would repudiate his words with a repentance much more interesting than his catastrophic apology.

Genuinely, that would be my prayer for him: that he might make friends with people with disabilities who would gently reveal his self-delusion for what it is. His ignorance handicaps him. His perception is disabling and will continue to be so, as long as he insists he knows what he is talking about. He doesn’t. Here’s Brian, on Augustine:

Our perception of other human beings must be illuminated or sanctified if we are to know them rightly and resist temptation to approach people as little more than their apparent deficits of mind or body.

Brian Brock, “Augustine’s Hierarchies of Human Wholeness and Their Healing” in Disability in the Christian Tradition: A Reader, 65.

Brian’s wife Stephanie has written often about raising their son Adam who has Down Syndrome. This closing paragraph of something she wrote last year has lingered with me as the final word when I talk about this stuff with family and friends. Check it:

Adam came to us and he changed our lives for the better. Would I cure his Down syndrome? Probably not. Would I rather try to cure the tendency in all people to be selfish, and unloving, and unwilling to accept life for what it is and not look for self-gratification at every turn? Now that’s a silly question.

I hope Dawkins is disabused of his silly answer. His life will be enriched.

Your Correspondent, The leader of the Weiner Patrol, boning up on his nerd lessons

Book Review: Honey From The Lion by Doug Gay

Doug Gay is a Scottish theologian who has written a book entitled “Honey From the Lion“. It intends to offer a theological defence of nationalism, with a specific application to Scottish nationalism. It manages to do this without becoming a “God thinks you should vote yes” diatribe, so that is pretty impressive right from the beginning.

Scotland free?

So the argument that Gay makes is firstly, that there is a kind of nationalism that isn’t bad. He goes further than this and thinks that nationalism can take a shape that can be good, even good enough that Christians can embrace it. His unpacking of the ideas that trade around the concept of nationalism in the early chapters is really very good. He points out that in a world of nation states, nationalism is pretty much inevitable. Quoting Jonathan Hearn he suggests: “Liberal democracies do not so much transcend nationalism as domesticate it.”

This is something I have noted since moving to the UK. The ubiquity of the Union flag on packaging, the “Great British” trope present in the titles of products of popular culture, and the always present symbols of military power are notable when you first arrive in Scotland. Is this the liberal nation state domesticating the “lion” of nationalism, extracting honey that is sweet for society? Or is there a connection between the common and aggressive racist and xenophobic graffiti I see on the streets of Aberdeen and the voluminous reminders of Imperial Britain in all aspects of our shared life?

In other words, I am not so sure that nationalism can be domesticated. But Gay makes a really excellent case by marking out the ways in which nationalism is out of bounds theologically. Our nationalism cannot be imperialist or essentialist or absolutist but instead our task would be:

    To renounce imperialism is to renounce domination and to practise recognition of the other.
    To renounce essentialism is to renounce a biological nationalism based on the ius santuinis or law of the blood in favour of a habitat-based nationalism, based solely on the ius solis, on the law of territory.
    To renounce absolutism is, in the language of the Barmen Declaration, to place the state under God, asserting God’s sovereignty over the state and the state’s accountability to God.

– Doug Gay, Honey From The Lion, 81.

Having staked out the argument that nationalism can be a good, Gay moves on to consider the idea of a Christian society. Throughout the book he is in dialogue with some serious theological voices; Milbank, O’Donovan, Hauerwas, Bretherton, and Cavanaugh, amongst others. I presume he hasn’t dealt with my Facebook posts on the topic because he sent the proofs off to the publisher before I came out in favour of the Yes vote and swung the entire referendum. The leading idea that allows us to consider society Christian-ly is Augustine’s concept of society sharing objects of love; “The better the objects of this agreement, the better the people; and the worse the objects, the worse the people.” Christian theological thinking on society demands a rejection of the flat space imagined by militant secularists and instead conceives of society as a complex space where the state and the market and the arts and the religions and all the other human collusions that make up our shared life clash against each other and cling to each other and compromise with each other.

In the book’s second half, Gay gives us a history of the Scottish devolution movement and a really good, practical chapter on the good, the bad and the middling that can be said to have come from the Edinburgh parliament since it was inaugurated in 2000. The book closes by suggesting certain ways in which the independent state of Scotland could go if the vote on September 18th is “Yes”.

Having not been completely convinced that Christians can dabble in nationalism, I am convinced that we cannot simply dismiss it. Gay demonstrates, for example, how Scottish nationalism in the 20th Century has been internationalist in nature. That those two things sit side by side is not inherently contradictory. Similarly, as a Christian socialist, Gay compellingly shows how socialism can accommodate nationalism – think only of how effective nationalism was for colonies in the overthrowing of the British empire.

He does completely convince me, a second time, that I should vote Yes in the referendum. This paragraph, quoting Charles Warren, is especially convincing to me:

Half of the entire country is held by just 608 owners and a mere 18 owners hold ten per cent of Scotland. Of Scotland’s private land, 30 per cent is held by 103 owners, each with 9,000 hectares [22,250 acres] or more, and 50 per cent by 343 owners. A minuscule 0.025 per cent of the population owns 67 per cent of the privately owned rural land. Thirty owners have more than 25,000 hectares [61,750 acres] each.

– Doug Gay, Honey From The Lion, 121.

Paragraphs like this should be on the tip of every tongue in Scotland. Of course, land reform doesn’t live or die based on the answer to the September 18th vote, but an independent Scotland is in a vastly stronger position to undue centuries of hoarding of the basic asset that a nation has – its space.

In the final chapter Gay turns to the possibility of a Scottish constitution and his discussion of the establishment of the Church of Scotland and the persistence of the Windsor monarchy in an independent Alba are far less convincing than his argument for a Yes vote. The trouble with both is revealed in his anecdote that at the ceremony where Elizabeth Windsor was made Queen of England and Scotland, the Archbishop of Canterbury refused communion to the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. What kind of Union is this that people want to protect? What kind of Christian nation is the UK? It seems to me that the ambivalence about both establishment and monarchy is a failure to follow through with the style of the earlier chapters. He makes such a good go of launching so complex an argument as a defence of nationalism that his himming-and-hawing here about the peculiarities of the Church of Scotland’s role in Scottish law seems to lack clarity. The hedging on monarchy is even worse.

But I am a staunch Republican, and maybe I am just sore that he didn’t join my team at the end?

There is one more question raised by the end of the book that I need to unfurl on my unfortunate readers. Gay proposes the use of common good” as the rubric under which Scotland ought to shape its new independence. But the failing here is the poverty that I always encounter with this language. What is the common good that holds Scotland together? There is no such thing. The conceptual deployment of Augustine’s common objects of love is one thing. The practical application of Catholic Social Teaching’s common good is another. What’s the common good in intractable conflicts – for example between profitability and sustainability? The common good is obviously sustainability, but the common choice will be for profitability. Or what’s the common good is in incommensurable moral conflicts – for example on the question of legalised abortion? Competing goods do not necessarily overlap. How does common good help as a political idea if it doesn’t lead to meaningful compromise?

The best reason for voting yes is that the new Scotland won’t have nuclear power or nuclear powered submarines or nuclear bombs. The second best reason for voting yes is that the new Scotland won’t invade Afghanistan or Iraq or Sierra Leone or the Falkland Islands. The reasons that Gay cites are excellent reasons as well. And the argument he makes that carefully extracting a narrowly-defined nationalism from the jaws of the lion can lead to sweet honey is a good one. The book is a rare example of theology being applied to contemporary issues in non-simplistic ways. It is practical theology at its best. That doesn’t mean all the arguments are equally convincing and it isn’t without its flaws, but it is genuinely worth tracking down.

The best reason for voting no is that you will really miss Liz Windsor’s face on some of the money used in Scotland or because an actress from Game of Thrones recommended it on Twitter. Small nation states are well placed to thrive in the years ahead and Scotland is a distinctive culture with its own language and history. It is more open and more socialist than the UK. It has arguably the most impressive educational traditions in the world. Its citizenry will be better off (not necessarily richer, as Gay points out with wonderful Christian clarity) making decisions about what happens in their territory without the opinions of people from Swansea, Sion Mills or Stockport weighing just as heavily as the folk who live in Stirling.

We can advocate this position and still be skeptical of nationalism. After all, Samson, who took the honey from the lion, ended his life in an act of suicide terrorism that killed thousands of people. He killed them because they were the enemies of his people, even though in so doing he directly repudiated the Torah that constituted his people. Nationalism can be rejected, while the nation state of Scotland can be welcomed.

Practical theology like the kind found in this book should be welcomed too.

Your Correspondent, A little boy told him “The English are best at everything”


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