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Monday, 30 March 2015

Labyrinth of our Times

Yesterday we installed the 'Labyrinth of our Times' in Sunderland Minster, and I really must commend it to you if you are able to visit during Holy Week.

Labyrinths are nothing new in Churches, the most famous being at Chartres Cathedral and the most recent being installed in the refit of Wakefield Cathedral. They are ways of encouraging a prayerful journeying inward and outward, and often have a surprising impact on participants (Iranian Christians visiting the Labyrinth last night were moved to tears at their first ever encounter with such a thing)

This Labyrinth is something both old and new though - as we are building it up out of donations to foodbanks, which we will pass on at the end of the week. The intention is to move the Labyrinth from simply a place for personal reflection to one with a more overtly political dimension. Of course our prayers are at one level internal and individual, but faith encourages an essentially social spiritual life.

The daily prayer Jesus gave us is completely communal: 'Give US this day OUR daily bread', and yet 20th Century Western forms of Christianity became increasingly influenced by the individuality encouraged by modern day capitalism.

The result of the rampant belief in individualism and free market capitalism has been the fragmentation of our spiritual lives and of our society. The economic crash in 2008 caused by the banking industry ended up with the state handing out billions of pounds to the very group in society that caused the disaster. At the same time governments were increasingly scapegoating those who were forced to live on welfare. Since the banking crisis, almost incredibly, the rich have engorged themselves and have been able to increase their personal fortunes. Their allies in the state have actually enabled rich individuals and large companies to get away with large scale tax avoidance whist public services have been dramatically cut.

At the same time, increasing numbers of people have been forced to go to foodbanks to feed themselves and their families. This has been exacerbated by the Government's use of punitive benefits 'sanctions' which penalise the most vulnerable in society.

The 'Labyrinth of our Times' encourages us to respond to this situation. As we enter it, we are asked to prayerfully work out our own response to a world of increasing inequality. As we emerge from it - we are challenged to lead lives of faith that resist poverty and challenge the inequalities inherent within Capitalism.

Saturday, 21 March 2015

Liberating Theologies Conference; 25th April, Sunderland Minster

If you have a hope that people of faith can be a force for good in the world, and can challenge the duel problems of capitalism and discrimination - then the 'Liberating Theologies conference' in Sunderland, Saturday 25th of April is the place to be.

This is the third conference hosted by the 'Victor Jara Liberation Theology Library', a library that shares the depth of practical theology from around the world that challenges unjust inequalities and structures. The library hold books on Black, Feminist, Gay, Eco theology as well as thousands of books from Africa and Latin American contexts.

The conference is small and beautiful with workshops from acclaimed Black Theologian Anthony Reddie, Sue Richardson (of Christian Aid) and Chris Howson (that's me! Author of 'A Just Church, 21st Century Liberation Theology in Action')

We are trying to give a space for those interested in a radical faith to share ideas and enjoy solidarity. And we want you to join us! Its free (but donations are welcome!)

On the Friday night we'll be showing several films about liberation theology (White Elephant & Romero) held in the impressive University of Sunderland David Puttnam Cinema - and people are welcome to stay over before workshops begin from 10am in Sunderland Minster, mostly in the famous Sunderland Minster Yurt!

Do contact me chaplain@sunderland.ac.uk or find us on facebook if you want more information

4 years on, have the lights gone out in Syria?

This week marked the 4th anniversary of the beginning of the bitter conflict in Syria. The situation, already one of worse in Middle Eastern history, has horrifically deteriorated in the last year. 12 months have seen over 70,000 people killed, the highest death rate in the world, and the highest death toll since the start of the conflict. With over 100,000 injured and millions displaced it is hard to see any light at the end of the tunnel.

On the eve of the anniversary, a coalition of human rights groups posted an image of the country taken by satellite. It shows that 83% of the lights in Syria have gone out since 2011. That means no schools, no hospitals, none of the basic needed to survive in most of the nation.

As in all wars, it is the civilians now who carry the cost of conflict, with the vast majority of those killed being unarmed people just trying to survive.

The press might have you believe that the horror is all the result of the so called 'Islamic State', but the reality is that Assad's regime is mostly responsible - dropping barrel bombs and
high impact munitions on heavily populated towns and cities. IS certainly has the brutality, but the state still has mass of weaponry used to crush its opposition.

So have the lights on gone out on this once proud nation, which boasts the oldest city in the world, Damascus?

I was privileged on Wednesday to host a meal in my home for two Syrian Sanctuary seekers. Both have tough tales to tell, one a great writer. They both articulated that the main issue facing Syria is Assad. They believed he has fuelled IS because while the opposition fight among themselves, they pose no real threat to his regime. My guest argued that many fight with IS not because of Islamic Ideology but because Assad has killed their families and destroyed their homes. When Assad is gone, my guests were convinced that Syria could return to some kind of normality and IS would be quickly dismembered.

The articulate and strong reasoning of these two men gave me some kind of hope. One day Assad will be gone, and these intelligent and skilled Syrians will return with millions of others to rebuild their homeland. There will be lights and parties and poetry back in Syria one day. Until that time comes, we need to stand with the Syrian people and never let the light of hope fade away.