One Quote Review: Redployment by Phil Klay

Phil Klay’s Redeployment was recommended to me by my aunt, who told me that after hearing him talk about war, she was struck by how similar he was to me. I will take that as an immense and somewhat inappropriate compliment, because Klay is a veteran and a tremendous writer. But I take from my aunt’s reflection that there is something of a resonance between my Christian pacifism, which never imagines that war is unnecessary and Klay’s refusal to allow his collection of portraits to collapse into a moralistic tome that declares simplistically that war-is-bad-ok.

My favourite story is called “Prayer in the Furnace”, charting the difficulties of a chaplain in Iraq. Caught between confessions that allude to war crimes and a hierarchy intent on denying any such possibility, he finds himself preaching one Sunday – after receiving advice from his mentor, a Jesuit priest – this glorious homily:

“Who here thinks.” I asked the small group of Marines who’d gathered for Sunday mass, “that when you get back to the States no civilians will be able to understand what you’ve gone through?”
A few hands went up.
“I had a parishioner whose six-month-old son developed a brain tumor. He watched his child go through intense suffering, chemotherapy, and finally a brutal, ungraceful death. Who would rather go through that than be in Ramadi?”
I could see confusion on the faces of the Marines in the audience. That was good. I didn’t intend this to be a normal homily.
“I spoke to an Iraqi man the other day,” I said. ”A civilian, who lives out there in that city I’ve heard Marines say should be razed. Should be burned, with everyone in it perishing in the flames.”
I had their attention.
“This Iraqi man’s little daughter had been injured. A cooking accident. Hot oil spilled off the stove, all over the girl. And what did this man do? He ran, with her in his arms, to find help. And he found a Marine squad. At first, they thought he was carrying a bomb. He faced down the rifles aimed at his head, and he gave his desperately injured daughter, this tiny, tiny girl, to a very surprised, very burly corporal. And that corporal
brought him to Charlie Medical, where the doctors saved his daughter’s life.
“That’s where I met this Iraqi man. This man of Ramadi. This father. I spoke to him there, and I asked him if he felt grateful to the Americans for what we’d done. Do you know what he told me?”
I held the question in the air for a moment.
“‘No.’ That’s what he said. ‘No.’ He had come to the Americans because they had the best doctors, the only safe doctors, not because he liked us. He’d already lost a son, he told me, to the violence that came after the invasion. He blamed us for that. He blames us for the fact that he can’t walk down the street without fear of being killed for no reason. He blames us for his relatives in Baghdad who were tortured to death. And he particularly blames us for the time he was watching TV with his wife and a group of Americans kicked down his door, dragged his wife out by the hair, beat him in his own living room. They stuck rifles in his face. They kicked him in the side. They screamed at him in a language he did not understand. And they beat him when he could not answer their questions. Now, here’s the question I have for you, Marines: Who would trade their seven-month deployment to Ramadi for that man’s life, living here?”
No one raised a hand. Some Marines looked uncomfortable. Some looked angry. Some looked furious.
“Now, I wouldn’t be surprised if this man supported the insurgency. The translator said the man was a bad guy. An ‘ali baba.’ But clearly, this man has suffered. And if this man, this father, does support the insurgency, it’s because he thinks his suffering justifies making you suffer. If his story about his beating is true, it means the Marines who beat him think their suffering justifies making him suffer. But as Paul reminds us, ‘There is none righteous, no, not one.’ All of us suffer. We can either feel isolated, and alone, and lash out at others, or we can realize we’re part of a community. A church. That father in my parish felt as if no one could understand him and it wasn’t worth the effort to make them try. Maybe you don’t think it’s worth trying to understand the suffering of that Iraqi father. But being Christian means we can never look at another human being and say, ‘He is not my brother.’
“I don’t know if any of you know Wilfred Owen. He was a soldier who died in the First World War, a war that killed soldiers by the hundreds of thousands. Owen was a strange sort. A poet. A warrior. A homosexual. And as tough a man as any Marine
I’ve ever met. In World War One, Owen was gassed. He was blown in the air by a mortar and lived. He spent days in one position, under fire, next to the scattered remains of a fellow officer. He received the Military Cross for killing enemy soldiers with a captured enemy machine gun and rallying his company after the death of his commander. And this is what he wrote about training soldiers for the trenches. These are, by the
way, new soldiers. They hadn’t seen combat yet. Not like he had.
“Owen writes: ‘For 14 hours yesterday I was at work teaching Christ to lift his cross by numbers, and how to adjust his crown; and not to imagine he thirsts until after the last halt. I attended his Supper to see that there were no complaints; and inspected his feet that they should be worthy of the nails. I see to it that he is dumb, and stands at attention before his accusers. With a piece of silver I buy him every day, and with maps I make him familiar with the topography of Golgotha.”‘
I looked up from my sermon and looked hard at the audience, which was looking hard back at me.
“We are part of a long tradition of suffering. We can let it isolate us if we want, but we must realize that isolation is a lie. Consider Owen. Consider that Iraqi father and that American father. Consider their children. Do not suffer alone. Offer suffering up to God, respect your fellow man, and perhaps the sheer awfulness of this place will become a little more tolerable.”
I felt flushed, triumphant, but my sermon hadn’t gone over well. A number of Marines didn’t come up for Communion. Afterward, as I was gathering the leftover Eucharist, my RP turned to me and said, “Whoa, Chaps. That got a bit real.”

Your Correspondent, His hands aren’t sweaty, he was just holding a fish

Interrogating Stanley Hauerwas Symposium

When I was doing my PhD in Aberdeen I got involved in lots of excellent side-projects. We initiated a 6.30am indoor soccer game every week called “No-Dicks Football” which invited people to enjoy the beautiful game without suffering the beautiful egos that often mar matches featuring 30-something failed maestros. There was “Whisky Fridays” in our office once a month, which invited people to enjoy the beautiful Scottish beverage without worrying that the people you were talking with would be bored by your effusive discussion of theology. I also put a book together with my teachers and friends, Brian Brock and Stanley Hauerwas.

 Beginnings

I promise you, the content is more interesting than the cover.

The book took a few years to put together. It takes the form of a long-running conversation between Brian and Stanley. Stanley is one of the most significant theological figures of the last four decades and his work is commonly mis-read, as much by his fans as by his critics. This book represents a unique attempt to probe the gaps that mark Hauerwas’ work and to discern connections that are easily missed because of the non-systematic way that Stanley has gone about writing. I am obviously biased, but as long as Nicholas Healy and Sam Wells aren’t in the room, I am happy to declare that this is the definitive guide to reading Stanley’s work. Brian is not nearly so well-known, but that, my friends, is a matter of time, and for those who want in close to the ground-floor, this text shows you how remarkable a reader Brock is. Most fundamentally, the work is notable because of its form. It is a conversation. It takes place over years. It is a testimony of friendship and it demonstrates the sort of generous listening that should mark theological deliberation. Even though the Academy insists we all play alone, theology is not a solo sport.

All these ideas and more will be explored on June 30th at the All Hallows campus of Dublin City University at the symposium and book launch the theology department are hosting in honour of this book. It is the first time that Brian, Stanley and I have been on hand to do our “Theological Pals” act outside of Aberdeen. There’ll be 2 short papers by Brock and Hauerwas, lots of time for Q&A, the book will be launched by Enda McDonagh, and we’ll pour wine and toast the joy of theology, friendship, and theological friendship together. Anyone reading this blog should know that they are most welcome to join us.

Hauerwas event

All the information you could possibly need is here. Should you need any further information, feel free to contact me.

Your Correspondent, He’s getting the epiphany sweats!

When Milton Friedman Reviewed a Papal Encylical

Milton Friedman is a Nobel memorial prize winning economist (1976). He was a prominent faculty member at the University of Chicago and a significant shaper of what has come to be known as neoliberalism.

I was astounded to find among the stacks in the Jesuit Library that Friedman had written a short essay [Milton Friedman, “Goods in Conflict?,” in A New Worldly Order, ed. George Weigel (Lanham, MD: Ethics and Public Policy Center, 1983), 75-77.] on Pope John Paul II’s encyclical (the name for a letter that the Bishop of Rome writes to the faithful that everyone is meant to take really seriously) Centesimus Annus. The letter is written to mark the centenary of a very important encyclical by Leo XIII in 1891 called Rerum Novarum, which kick-started the Catholic Social teaching tradition. Writing in 1991, just months after the reuinification of Germany and less than two years after the collapse of the Iron Curtain and the USSR, John Paul II reflects on how state-planned, centralized economies run the risk of trapping humans in a diminished spiritual, emotional, and political purgatory. The form filling maze of a bureaucracy is not a path to just and flourishing societies. The Pope was equally clear that free-market capitalism was no utopia. When the pursuit of wealth disconnects from the common good, that too is bound to be oppressive.

So, there’s lots of “on-the-one-hand-and-on-the-other” in this encylical, which is actually a hallmark of the genre (at least before Francis arrived, grabbed the mic, and got all John the Baptist on us). Friedman is not a “on-the-one-hand-and-on-the-other” writer and so he gets stuck straight in. The letter warrants the attention of people like him, who are not Catholic, because “it comes from the head of a major institution in the modern world, a pre-eminently multinational institution with members in the hundreds of millions throughout the world, an institution that has great influence on the beliefs and day-to-day activities of these hundreds of millions.” The most striking aspect of the letter, in his reading, is how it gives comfort to everyone except Communists, Marxists, and those who are ok with abortion.

Friedman would definitely get a passing grade if he based his essay in my class on that interpretation.

He calls it “a remarkably thoughtful, comprehensive, and finely-balanced document” before noting that the role played by subsidiarity – the idea in Catholic thought that decision making should be exercised at the lowest possible level. It’s of course interesting, because subsidiarity appears as a conservative idea, but today it is almost radical because of how it acts against the logic of neoliberalism. Friedman may not have been fully aware of how his theories would work out, but it is certain that his desire to carve out space for the market free from political interference has ended up with the markets interfering with politics. Instead of small localities deliberating together, as the Popes advocate, what we have are globalised trade deals and cross-border technocrats specifying many of the technical details of how we share life together. 

For all the effort that Milton clearly put into being positive, Friedman’s closing comments will be of interest to any historians of anti-Catholicism, as they stink of the bias of sophisticated bigotry.

But I must confess that one high-minded sentiment, passed off as if it were a self-evident proposition, sent shivers down my back: “Obedience to the truth about God and man is the first condition of freedom.” Whose “truth”? Decided by whom? Echoes of the Spanish Inquisition?

The high-priest of economics doesn’t like it when the high-priest of Christianity assumes the axioms of his own religion. Better, he would suggest, to unquestioningly embrace his axioms about aggregates and margins. That’s the truth that no one can dispute.

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

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?

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

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?

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

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

Change of Time for Sunday Event

I need to announce an update on my upcoming event about the theology of wealth.

As many of you know, on Wednesday evening in Lille, a city in northern France, a Wicklow man known as Wessi placed the most delicious pass in the history of football on to the rushing head of St. Robert Brady. The redirected ball flew past the highly regarded Italian goalkeeper Sirigu and into the net. By the end of the game, the Italians had not been able to respond and the Boys in Green were victorious.

Following the maze-like logic of soccer competitions, as the worst of all the best of the losers, Ireland thus qualified for the next round of the European Championships. We play the hosts, France, on Sunday, with battle commencing at 2pm GMT.

That would have been around the time I had hoped to have y’all in stitches as I answered your probing and smart questions about my theology of wealth with aplomb. Instead, the wise people in the church that are hosting the event had decided to move the event forward to 12.15pm and that means if you want to come, you can both hear my half-baked ideas about praying as a form of revolution and watch footage of Roy Keane sitting angrily on the sidelines as Irish players act as if the ball is a time-bomb that they don’t want to touch.

I am keenly aware that the god known sometimes as Juno but in this case Britannia – the power of ethnic identity – has this morning gone into battle with the god known as Mammon. The newspapers call this reality #brexit. It will have dramatic short and long term ramifications for the economies of the island of Ireland. I hope you will join me in praying for Britain this morning. That nation has made a catastrophically dangerous decision and the pain will be felt most keenly by the young and the unemployed, the disabled and the alien. I never thought I would be sorry to see David Cameron go. The world is an odd and baffling place. But it seems to me that a deep theological interrogation of how wealth can blind us to the reality of things is as important as ever.

Come and help me find a way to have that conversation.

Your Correspondent, Busy like a currency trader

Announcement: Public event based around my research

In Maynooth on Sunday June 26 at 1pm I will be doing something I’ve never done before: trying to explain the last three years of reading and thinking and writing in a way that doesn’t require footnotes.

Basically, I have been invited by the church I used to work for, the Presbyterian Church in Maynooth, to give an introduction to the theology of wealth. I will be road-testing a theory I have about how to explain my academic research in ways that are accessible and meaningful and helpful. Invariably, it will be a horrendous mess and the people who take the time to attend will remember it only for comedic value.

Without giving the game away, I think that the only hope that wealthy western Christians have is prayer.

Please feel free to come along; I’d love to see you and I would really appreciate your feedback. The location details are here.

Now, I am going to go meet Ben Folds.

Your Correspondent, Actually is going to meet Ben Folds right now.