Monday, June 27, 2016

Brexit and the Rise of Poor Loser Syndrome






It's interesting to think about the reasons for the rise in "Poor Loser Syndrome which has been so clearly manifest since Friday morning's announcement that a majority of British voters had chosen to leave the European Union. 



I can't help thinking about the different ways in popular culture that winning and losing is currently framed. In some sports, especially those with a large TV audience, the concept of losing (especially a cup final or league title) has become massively inflated - both in emotional and financial terms.


If we were to view videos of the final minutes of FA cup finals from the 1950s to the present day, I suspect that, along with the improved production qualities, we would also see an increase in the severity of emotion expressed by losing teams.







The media have played a part in encouraging this mindset of over-reaction (since it has a popular entertainment value). as has the presence of big money into some sports, which has the capacity to induce strange and unseemly behaviour in otherwise stable and moderate people.


This drift towards the "awful-isation of losing" can also be seen in popular television game shows such as Million Pound Drop, where the failure to win large sums of money is framed - for entertainment purposes - as an unmitigated disaster.









Behind these trends is a growing idolatrous attitude towards money and power. The rise of grievance politics, in which the perceived failure of the individual to achieve personal political self-actualisation is presented as the lowest form of human oppression, adds to the toxic mix.


It seems rather prosaic, but perhaps a simple but significant contribution that many people could make to what Thomas Aquinas described as The Common Good is to simply express publicly the dignified habit of losing well.











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Saturday, May 07, 2016

Politics and Sport: a Bristol Tale

Today has been a day of politics and sport in my home city of Bristol.

I started the day by listening to a talk by Tim Dobson from Woodlands Church on Reaching your City. Tim argued that for the church to reach its city, it had to be actively involved across all the spheres of city life, a dynamic presence in the heart of politics, sport, the arts, education, rather than acting as a separate entity alongside them.

Later that day, having failed to get tickets for the sell-out match, I was listening on the radio to the last Bristol Rovers game of the season. If other results went their way, and if Rovers won the match (against already relegated Dagenham and Redbridge), then the Bristol side would win automatic promotion to League One of the Football League. Glorious as that would be, even more magnificent was the prospect of securing promotion for the second season in a row - a feat never before achieved by Bristol Rovers. 

Meanwhile, in the minutes before kick-off, as Rovers made their final preparations for their vital end-of-season encounter, the results of Bristol's mayoral election were trickling through. Second-choice votes were being counted, but it looked to informed observers as if Labour Party candidate Marvin Rees had won the contest, replacing incumbent Independent Mayor George Ferguson who had been elected in 2012. As Lee Brown tapped in the 92nd-minute goal which secured Rovers' promotion,  the results of the Mayoral election had been confirmed. The Gas were going up; Marvin Rees was Bristol's new elected mayor.  

After Marvin's unsuccessful attempt at becoming elected Mayor in 2012, he was interviewed by Andy Flannagan of Christians on the Left about the intersection between his Christian faith and his political vocation. Rees cites the biblical idea of the Year of Jubilee - the releasing of debts and the proclaiming of liberty - as the overarching narrative that defines his understanding of his own politics. 



Meanwhile, wandering down the Gloucester Road after the match, which was heaving with the blue and white shirts of thousands of Rovers fans, I saw some of the uglier side of our city's life. A Muslim women, fully veiled in a Niqab and with a young daughter and a baby in a pushchair, was waiting at a bus stop as hundreds of the fans streamed past, many spilling onto the busy road, cheering and shouting. Several white men, middle-aged, bald headed, flashed Nazi salutes as they marched past the family. The sight of such hostility and prejudice was shocking, but gave me an insight into what may be a semi-regular feature of life for some of our Muslim neighbours in a society where racism and Islamophobia seem to be on the rise.    

In the pre-match build up, I saw this clip about Bristol Rovers chaplain Dave Jeal. His story of transformation from football hooligan to football chaplain is an inspiring tale of restoration. He now serves as the chaplain at the stadium from which he was once banned. 





I think Tim Dobson was correct. The church has much still to do to be be present, prayerful and authentic in our witness to God's kingdom, a reality which still has the answers to the real issues in our city. 







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Thursday, March 03, 2016

The Problem of Suffering, Christian Faith, and the Hebrew Mind





When confronted with the twin realities of evil (destructive human action) and suffering (destructive natural phenomena), the Christian believer often feels under pressure to "explain" them in the light of God's goodness, love and sovereignty. We are in fact at the receiving end of nearly 2,000 years of reflection, philosophy and apologetics within the Western Christian tradition that seek to address these issues and respond to the (atheist) question: how can a loving god allow this to happen?

Those of us who are Christian believers may have our various responses to the questions raised. We may have refined and developed them over the years to a point where we at least feel reasonably satisfied with our own explanations.

It is worth reflecting, however, that the Hebrew mind, revealed in the Scriptures, often approaches the question in a different way. Instead of seeking explanation, we find the writers asking questions without apparently seeking to provide answers.

Taken together, this question-asking approach develops into a type of literature that has come to be described as "complaint". It's not "having a moan", but rather asking "why" in an engaged and personally involved way.

The Hebrew scriptures are full of this type of literature.

Speaking thousands of years ago, the God-fearing Job demanded similar answers to those asked by Stephen Fry and other prominent atheists. His questioning of the character of God is breath-taking and audacious. Think about this series of "complaints" for a while, recorded in the Bible for all time for our edification:


"How then can I dispute with him?
How can I find words to argue with him?"

"Even if I summoned him and he responded,
I do not believe he would give me a hearing.
He would crush me with a storm
and multiply my wounds for no reason.
He would not let me catch my breath
but would overwhelm me with misery."

"He destroys both the blameless and the wicked.
When a scourge brings sudden death,
he mocks the despair of the innocent.
When a land falls into the hands of the wicked,
he blindfolds its judges.
If it is not he, then who is it?

"Why does the Almighty not set times for judgement?
Why must those who know him look in vain for such days?

"The fatherless child is snatched from the breast;
the infant of the poor is seized for a debt.
Lacking clothes, they go about naked;
they carry the sheaves, but still go hungry.
They crush olives among the terraces;
they tread the winepresses, yet suffer thirst.
The groans of the dying rise from the city,
and the souls of the wounded cry out for help.
But God charges no one with wrongdoing."


The emotional intensity and challenging, almost accusatory tone of this line of questioning may lead some to see it as the speech of an unbeliever. Nothing could be further from the truth. Evidently, the Hebrew mind allowed for the possibility of challenging questions to be put from a position of faith, as Job did, not only from a position of unbelief. 


In a follow-up post, we'll consider what the Hebrew mind does next with these questions, and how it prioritises wisdom (knowing what to do in different circumstances) over watertight philosophical answers in the face of evil and suffering.





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Sunday, December 20, 2015

Alvin Plantinga on "Augustinian Christian Philosophy"

For those interested in exploring the relationship between Christian faith and philosophy, a good starting point may be Alvin Plantinga's lecture on Augustinian Christian Philosophy.

Justin Taylor provides a helpful summary of the presentation here. For those with 54 minutes to spare, the whole lecture is available below. 







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Saturday, December 12, 2015

Donald Trump and Identity Politics in Eighteenth Century England

Is Donald Trump a Whig?



In the 17th and 18th Centuries, there was a strong and popular association made in England between Roman Catholicism and the idea of Absolute Monarchy. Spain and France were regarded as the prime illustrators of this connection.

Whig Protestants (especially Anglicans) sought on the basis of this association to significantly limit the political freedoms of English Catholics. Many of these restrictions remained in place until the Roman Catholic Reform Act of 1829. One restriction - the prohibition of the monarch being a Roman Catholic or marrying a Catholic - was only repealed as late as 2013.

The tendency to treat entire religious groups as sharing in a particular political ideology is a long-standing one. Donald Trump's generalisations about Muslims is a continuation of this political Whiggish tendency.










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Friday, September 25, 2015

The Hajj Tragedy, Victim Blaming and the Gospel of the Kingdom

Of the many tragedies our world has suffered in 2015, the death of over 700 pilgrims at the annual Hajj in Saudi Arabia must be one of the most pitiful. The idea of hundreds of devout worshippers, having saved their hard-earned money to pay for this once-in-a-lifetime event, being crushed to death at a time which should have been at the pinnacle of their religious faith journey, is a true tragedy.
  
Along with the death of thousands of migrants in the Mediterranean this summer, and the desperate experience of those affected by the Ebola outbreak in recent years in west Africa, the Hajj calamity is a human tragedy on a grand scale.

With tragedies come recriminations. Reports suggest that some Hajj pilgrims are blaming the Saudi police and authorities for the stampede in Mina. Saudi spokesmen, meanwhile, are reported as blaming African pilgrims for not following instructions. Iran is blaming the Saudi Royal Family.  

When faced with a tragedy in his own lifetime, the mainstream view confronting Jesus of Nazareth appeared to be that the victims themselves were to blame for what happened.  Jesus responded to this popular assumption by analysing the self-righteous motives of his contemporaries who were not directly affected by the tragedy, and turned their complacency upon themselves by warning them of their own impending doom. 



"Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” (Luke 13:4)



Although fewer in number, the victims of the Siloam rower collapse were also the objects of criticism by the self-righteous of Jesus' day. The world-view of the critics is not difficult to detect: a high view of God's sovereignty, meaning that all that happens does so ultimately by the permissive or directive will of God, and a covenant theology which saw unfaithfulness to God resulting in judgement, combined to interpret the death of these 18 as the result of their morally dubious state.

Victim blaming today seeps through much of the analysis of contemporary human tragedies. It is implicit in the European Union's decision in 2014 to not support Italy's Mare Nostrum operation, rescuing migrants in the Mediterranean. The claim was that such a humanitarian initiative would act as a "pull factor" in emboldening migrants to board unseaworthy vessels and attempt the perilous crossing from the north African coat to Italy or Malta.  Victim blaming was present in the Sun newspaper's coverage of the Hillsborough tragedy - an editorial decision for which it has publicly apologised

The focus of Jesus' few words on this Siloam tragedy is not on explaining "the problem of evil" in abstract, philosophical terms. Nor does he align himself with those who cast aspersions upon the victims. Instead, he turns the tables and points to those of us who would pass judgement:


"Unless you repent, you too will all perish."


It is highly unlikely that the words of Jesus were intended to predict further tower collapses or similar calamities. Rather, his focus is on something much worse.

To "perish", in its New Testament usage , often means to come under the judgement of God - in this age and the one to come. The apostle Paul, for instance, is quite willing to distinguish between "those who are perishing" and "us who are being saved." (1 Corinthians 1:19) and elsewhere describes those who "perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved." (2 Thessalonians 2:10)

Evidently, the Son of God saw it as imperative that people "repent" of sinful patterns of thought, attitude and action. This theme of repentance is present, implicitly or explicitly, throughout the gospels and other New Testament writings.

The tragedies of the Hajj, of tsunamis and of plagues are not to become opportunities for hard-hearted self-righteousness, but occasions to express sorrow and sympathy with the victims, their families and their communities. They also provide a stark opportunity to examine ourselves by asking some uncomfortable questions: have I repented? Am I to perish?

For those who embark on such a process of self-examination, the words of the gospel truly come as good news:



"For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. " (John 3:16-17)









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Thursday, August 13, 2015

Foreign Policy Realism and the Prophetic Summons: Jeremiah, Syria, Ukraine and the West


Fools rush in to apply Biblical principles to the complexities of contemporary foreign policy - an exercise which often results in the espousing of bizarre and impractical opinions, and a lack of critical analysis, making the word of God look ridiculous.

It is with some trepidation, therefore, that I offer the following analysis of Jeremiah 27 and apply it retrospectively to the current situation in Ukraine and Syria. 

In the passage cited, the kingdom of Judah finds itself invaded by Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, who has defeated the army and entered the city of Jerusalem. Having deposed the king (Jehoichin) and replaced him with a puppet ruler (Zedekiah), the Babylonian tyrant then forcibly removes from Judah the economic and social elite of Judean society, taking them into exile, and leaving behind "only the poorest people of the land." (2 Kings 24:14). Nebuchadnezzar, who was personally present in Judah during this military campaign, also removes the royal treasures from Jerusalem, as well as the precious metal artifacts from the Temple. 






 The best-preserved image of King Nebuchadnezzar II, standing next to one of the ziggurats built during his reign. 




Against this backdrop, the prophet Jeremiah (born c. 642 BC) addresses the new vassal king of Judah as well as the envoys of the surrounding nations - Edom, Moab, Ammon, Tyre and Sidon. These foreign secretaries have gathered in Jerusalem to discuss a possible coalition against Babylon, the new dominant power in the region.

Jeremiah's message to this would-be coalition summit is unambiguous: he urges them to abandon their plans and to submit to the king of Babylon as vassals. The following is typical of the prophet's approach:


This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: “Tell this to your masters: With my great power and outstretched arm I made the earth and its people and the animals that are on it, and I give it to anyone I please. Now I will give all your countries into the hands of my servant Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon; I will make even the wild animals subject to him. All nations will serve him and his son and his grandson until the time for his land comes; then many nations and great kings will subjugate him.


The consequences of pursuing the planned rebellion are severe, according to the prophet:


“If, however, any nation or kingdom will not serve Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon or bow its neck under his yoke, I will punish that nation with the sword, famine and plague, declares the Lord, until I destroy it by his hand. So do not listen to your prophets, your diviners, your interpreters of dreams, your mediums or your sorcerers who tell you, ‘You will not serve the king of Babylon.’ They prophesy lies to you that will only serve to remove you far from your lands; I will banish you and you will perish. But if any nation will bow its neck under the yoke of the king of Babylon and serve him, I will let that nation remain in its own land to till it and to live there, declares the Lord.”



On the one hand, Jeremiah is preaching a message of God's sovereignty in the rise and fall of governments and nations. At the same time, he is urging what could be seen as a "realist" approach to international relations - a recognition that the practical consequences of rebellion will be far worse than the consequences of submission and vassal status. 


It is far too easy to engage in armchair politics and analyse contemporary and complex situations from a safe distance. Nonetheless, to the extent that the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria are directly impinging upon Britain - military intervention against IS, trade sanctions against Russia, and the vast numbers of displaced peoples resulting from the upheavals -  it is important to have a view on our nation's policy in these conflicts, not least of all in order to be equipped to respond to future scenarios.   








Initial support from some western countries for anti-Assad groups in Syria and for pro-western factions in Ukraine before and during the Euromaiden demonstrations are matters of record. In both cases, ideological motives combined with claims that such western support would reduce the numbers of civilian causalities affected by the two upheavals. An important question to ask therefore is whether, on balance, the civilian populations of both countries are better off or worse off as a result of these rebellions, and whether on humanitarian grounds alone, western support for them has been justified, quite apart from ideological considerations.  

In Syria, the statistics of the five-year war are staggering: 


  • a quarter of a million people have been killed 
  • 7.6 million Syrians have been displaced 
  • 4 million of these have fled the country - a number equal to about 20% of the pre-war population 

The conflict has also seen widespread human rights abuses on all sides, massacres of civilians and combatants, and the rise of Islamic State who have made brutality a defining hallmark of their rule.  


Although overall casualties in Ukraine have been far lower, the displacement of over one million civilians within Ukraine, and the involvement of Russian "irregular" forces in the east of the country and the Crimea make the Ukraine crisis the most serious military situation in Europe since the Balkan Wars.    








Jeremiah's position was that submission to the tyrant provided better outcomes for the subjugated nation as a whole than armed rebellion. This claim had several related strands:


  1. The "realistic" view that it was Babylon's time to be a world power - a reality wrapped in the mystery of God's sovereignty.
  2. The "realistic" view that the minor nations of the near-middle east were going to come under Babylonian domination by the will of God
  3. The claim that subjugation by Babylon was not the same as annihilation. It was in Babylon's interest to extract wealth from its subject kingdoms, not to massacre them or render them economically bankrupt
  4. The time-limited nature of Babylonian domination. This prediction was fulfilled by the defeat of Babylon by the ascending Persian Empire under its ruler Cyrus the Great in 539 BC.



Looking at the carnage in Syria, and the fragmentation of Ukraine along nationalistic lines, it is difficult to argue against the view that. on practical grounds alone, the outcomes for the citizens of these two different countries would have been better if armed rebellion against a tyrant (in the case of Syria) or the forcible removal of an elected President (in the case of Ukraine) had not taken place when they did. Furthermore, it is hard to argue that the west's support for these developments has turned out to be in the best interest of the populations most affected by them.

Aristotle taught the virtue of slow revolutions in political life. Not all fundamental political change has to be sudden. The al-Assad regime could not have lasted for ever. The strengthening of civic society within Syria and Ukraine may have been a less dramatic but potentially more sustainable and judicious approach to supporting the democratisation of these nations.


Hard-nosed, biblically-informed realism should not be ignored when formulating policy in these complex arenas. The well-being of the people, combined with a measured assessment of the risks and outcomes, must be central to western responses. Ideology alone will deliver more pain, not less. 












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Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Managers: Why do we have them?


I've yet to read an article by Kevin Carson that I haven't found stimulating and insightful.

This one on the historical origins of the idea of management - in business and politics - is no exception.

"The first corporation managers came from an industrial engineering background and saw their job as doing for the entire organization what they’d previously done for production on the shop floor."

Fascinating. 



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Thursday, October 03, 2013

The Levellers as Left Libertarians

High Speed Rail
High Speed Rail (Photo credit: loudtiger)

Apart from being an interesting historical essay about the common political goals of two groups active during the English Civil War - the Levellers and the Diggers - the above article also has a number of practical applications for the contemporary economic and political context.

Although the author Julio Rodman writes primarily for an American audience, the practical policy areas addressed are relevant to many developed western economies in which state regulation is widespread, and disproportionately beneficial to large corporations rather than small business owners. Three areas are mentioned that, if reformed, could contribute to a significant re-balancing of the economic playing field in pursuit of the author's stated aim of a Jeffersonian model of a republic of property-owning citizens: 

1. National transport infrastructure

The subsidising of the costs of national rail, road and communications infrastructure, it is argued, disproportionately benefits large national and global corporations at the expense of small landowners, farmers and business owners. Kevin Carson has made a similar arguement with more in-depth economic analysis of the cost benefits to various parties of the state subsidy of national railways in C19 America.

Comparisons with the UK government's goal of building a High Speed Rail Line between London and certain northern cities is inevitable. If Carson and Rodman are correct, the HS2 proposal - with a price tag of around £50 billion - will effectively transfer wealth from tax payers (many of whom are non-asset holders) to large corporations such as the engineering and rail companies who will build and run the network.    

2. Professional Licensing

The ever-growing  tendency to seek state-backed licensing of various sectors of business professionals (the author cites the extreme examples of florists and fortune tellers!) is a further barrier to individuals entering profitable trades and businesses, according to the article.

Earning a living as I do in one of the last license-free areas of professional activity, I note with some alarm the voices being raised in favour of state-sponsored registering of private educators and tutors. Although voluntary professional bodies are to be welcomed as a means of ensuring high ethical and professional standards, and although appropriate criminal background checks are an essential part of safeguarding children,  I agree with the above article that the state's involvement in further licensing represents a barrier to small business owners. 

3. Restrictions on street vending

An economic mainstay in many countries, the restrictions on selling goods on the public highway is a further barrier to individuals getting started in business. Although such prohibitions are often cited as being in the interests of consumers, protecting them from unethical traders, Rodman in my view correctly analyses the actual reasons for such trading restrictions: 

"This is largely at the urging of immobile business owners who sell the same or substitutable goods and thus have an interest in eliminating competition, and at the pressure of various powerful economic actors seeking to maintain a bourgeois aesthetic in the urban environment surrounding their place of operation which is incompatible with the street vending ambiance."

Street vending provides, potentially, a great economic opportunity for those without assets to get a foot on the ladder of owning their own businesses and becoming economically self-sufficient. The restriction of the practice is to the disadvantage of such groups within society.

Rodman's article highlights areas that do not often receive attention in macro-economic discussions, but which, if implemented, have the potential to empower groups of individuals to become asset-owners through self-employment. The economic and social benefits of such a model are considerable, in my opinion.   

 


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Monday, September 02, 2013

Syria and Europe: Lessons from the Nineteenth Century

Arab Spring [LP]
Arab Spring [LP] (Photo credit: Painted Tapes)


Popular demonstrations are taking place across the region's capital cities.

Rioters are demanding political reform, greater freedoms and the removal of the old dictators.

An economic crisis has been a catalyst for a wave of popular uprisings across the continent by the growing educated middle classes.

Liberal reform is everywhere, opposed by entrenched political elites.

Should foreign troops be deployed in support of the protesters?


No - Europe in the early decdes of the nineteenth century.

Following the defeat of Napoleon in 1815 and the subsequent Congress of Vienna, liberal and republican movements took to the streets in cities as diverse as Manchester (1819), Lisbon (1820), Paris and Brussels (both 1830), and Rome (1831). The protests were often violent, resulting in many deaths. In some countries, elements of the armed forces joined with the rebels.

Protests were often put down, not only by national governments and their armies, but also through intervention by allied powers - Austrian forces into northern Italy, British troops to Portugal and French soldiers into neighbouring Spain. Elites defended one another against the growing tide of liberal and republican sentiment.

Comparisons with the Arab Spring and its related uprisings are especially relevant in examining the experience of Greece during this age of revolution. A revolution broke out in 1821, aimed at freeing Greece from the rule of the Ottoman Empire and establishing a liberal constitution for the country. This aim was only partly realised when the Ottomans received military support from the Egyptian viceroy Muhammed Ali, whose troops seized a large part of the Greek mainland by 1826.  Only the southern part of the country remained free enough to sustain its independence from Ottoman rule. 

Fast forward two centuries, and the comparisons with events in the Middle East and North Africa are striking.

 

 

  

  




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Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Carbon Reduction Realities

Greater China. Note the oval Tarim Basin, the ...
 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)



"The carbon cuts we have made so far... have been achieved by means of a simple device: allowing other countries, principally China, to run polluting industries on our behalf."

George Monbiot









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Monday, March 04, 2013

Clash of Values

Joe Strummer
Joe Strummer (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Driving round today, I saw a white van covered in a logo and advert that made me laugh:

The Rock Project:
School of Rock and Pop
(Franchises Available Nationwide)


It reminded me of some lyrics by Joe Strummer from back in the day:


The new groups are not concerned

With what there is to be learned.

They've got Burton suits,

They think it's funny,

Turning rebellion into money.



(From White Man in Hammersmith Palais by the Clash. Go on, have a listen. You know you want to.)  





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Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Obama’s Second Inaugural Speech: a British Perspective

Official photographic portrait of US President...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)


It is interesting reading President Obama's speech delivered at his second inauguration today.

Despite being a dual-national Anglo-American myself, despite having studied American Studies for four years at university, and despite having lived there and visited on numerous occasions, this set piece occasion reminds me of how very different America is to Britain, culturally and politically.

I mentioned to friends at dinner this week, who have never been to the United States, that one of the surprises British people often have when they travel there is that they experience unexpected culture shock. Many British people assume America will simply be a bigger, brasher version of the UK. They are often thrown by the profound differences in outlook and mindset that lie beneath the near-common language.

Some of the differences that leap out at me from the President's speech today include:

  • his reference to God. British politicians tend not to "do God", or if they do, they are a bit diffident about his involvement in the life of the nation. Rightly or wrongly, Americans by contrast assert that their political system exists to ensure certain "unalienable rights" that are endowed upon them by their Creator. I can't quite see Nick Clegg embracing such a doctrine any time soon. 
  • his reference to America's creed. It is quite logical, of course, that a political system based on divinely-endowed rights should be expressed by its chief executive as being a "creed" - a term normally reserved for a formal religious statement of doctrinal belief (from the Latin credo - I believe.)   
  • The phrase "we the people" which Presdient Obama uses five times in his speech, is one I cannot remember ever hearing from a British politician. The nearest equivalent I can think of is the name of the Irish political party, Sinn Fein - "we ourselves." Used in that way (British socialists used to use the term "comrades" in a somewhat similar way), it speaks of a class or cultural identity in distinction from that of the rulers. Obama, like many American millionaire politicians, uses the term without irony, in the sure belief that his hearers will assume he is "one of them." The real irony is that America may be more unequal a society than Britain, but it is the latter that is far more class bound.
  • The mythologising of geography. Places have symbolic, historical and cultural significance in American political rhetoric in a way not found in Britain. Seneca Falls (location of the nineteenth century declaration of women's rights), Selma (location of the early black civil rights marches in 1965 under Martin Luther King) and Stonewall (the gay bar in New York City, scene of a riot in 1969) were all cited by the President, and understood by his listeners. Interestingly, Obama used this device in his previous inaugural speech in 2009, citing Concord (War of Independence), Gettysburg (Civil War), Normandy (World War Two) and Khe Sanh (Vietnam)  as examples of American military heroism. Apart from Churchill's promise that "we will fight the on the beaches", it is difficult to imagine a modern British politician talking of British geographical places in quite the same way.  Bannockburn, Brixton and Belfast are all places resonant with division rather than national unity in the British political psyche. 


 

 
 







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Friday, January 18, 2013

Snow: a Biblical Perspective



 
Those of us who do not live in the middle east may be surprised by the frequent biblical references to the white powdery stuff most associated with cold northern climates. We do not tend to automatically associate snow with hot, desert environments.

Such a perspective, of course, lacks an appreciation of the influence of the mountain ranges in and around Palestine, as well as the temperature fluctuations throughout the year.

An early incidence of a biblical snow story involves Benaiah, one of King David's mighty men. Snow days were presumably as rare in Judah as they are now in southern England, resulting in people taking days off work to engage in other recreational pursuits. In the case of Benaiah, to whom Facebook was not available, we are told that he
  
"went down into a pit on a snowy day and killed a lion"

This made a change from the warrior's more usual pursuits of striking down Moab's two mightiest warriors or dispatching a "huge Egyptian" by attacking him with a club and spear.

Four of the references to snow in the Hebrew Bible occur in the book of Job, where the term symbolises the unreliability of people (6:15), the temporary nature of human life (24:18), the power of God to command the weather (37:6) and the inappropriateness of mankind in challenging the justice or sovereignty of God (38:21):

Surely you know, for you were already born!
    You have lived so many years!
 “Have you entered the storehouses of the snow
    or seen the storehouses of the hail, 
  which I reserve for times of trouble?"

These twin uses of the word continue through the wisdom literature and the prophetic books. Snow is referred to both symbolically and literally. Symbolically, it represents the thoroughness of the cleansing from sin sought by David as he confesses to God his sins of adultery and murder (Psalm 51:7). This same image is mirrored in God's promise through Isaiah that though the sins of Israel are "like scarlet", they shall through repentance and forgiveness be made "like snow." (1:18).

A reliable messenger is like a "snow-cooled drink in harvest time", refreshing the spirit of the one who sent him (Proverbs 25:13). The incongruity of snow at harvest is used differently elsewhere in the Book of Proverbs to illustrate the inappropriateness of giving honour to a fool (26:1)

Snow is often cited as revealing the majesty and power of God in his creation. 

"He spreads the snow like wool, and scatters the frost like ashes" (Psalm 147:16)

It is but one of the elements of the weather ruled by Almighty God:

"lightening and hail, snow and clouds, stormy winds that do his bidding." (148:8)

The moisturising effect of snow is compared with the effect of God's word by Isaiah; both of them accomplish the purpose for which they were sent forth (55:9).

As the Hebrew Bible concludes, snow is employed as a metaphor for the indescribable glory of God himself, a theme which is picked up by Christian writers centuries later. Although, like his predecessor Benaiah, the prophet Daniel also encountered a lion in a pit, in the latter case it did not take place on a snowy day. Babylon may or may not have experienced snow during Daniel's exile there, or he may have had a childhood memory of snow-capped peaks from Judah. Whatever the visual association, the prophet's vision of God is extraordinary by any measure. Daniel describes the Ancient of Days in his heavenly glory as seated on a flaming throne and wearing clothing "as white as snow." (7:9)

Matthew the gospel writer uses similar imagery when recounting the events surrounding the resurrection of Jesus Christ, an experience witnessed first hand by two of his female disciples. On arriving at the tomb where Jesus had been buried on the previous Friday, the two Marys witnessed:
  
"a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow." (28:3)

Continuing the motif of snow representing the transcendent glory of God in heaven, the final book of the Bible sees the combined use of both fire and snow to attempt to convey an idea of what the glory of God looked and felt like to John as he was captured up in his remarkable vision. When reading this highly symbolic language, I am reminded of the words of Bruce Milne when he said that, in attempting to describe the divine essence, "human language is inevitably placed under considerable strain."

Let's leave John with the final words on this snowy day, focused on the Son of God:

I turned around to see the voice that was speaking to me. And when I turned I saw seven golden lamp stands, and among the lamp stands was someone like a son of man, dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest. The hair on his head was white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire. His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters. (Revelation 1:12-14)





Photo credit thisreidwrites 

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