Friday 31 December 2010

A preview of 2011 part 2

April 2011:

The Morning Star trebles its readership by launching a 'I couldn't care less about the royal wedding' campaign. After massive public discontent, the Government decide not to fund the security and travel arrangements of the wedding. Instead Elton John offers to pay for all the arrangements, the Queen accepts on the condition that he never performs 'that bloody candle song ever again'.

Israel is found guilty in the International courts of war crimes over the killing of civilians during the 2008 bombing of Gaza, and the further killing of 9 peace activists on the Mavi Marmara. The UN orders Israel to pay compensation to the 1,5 million people imprisoned in Gaza for the last 5 years, and the EU decide to impose severe sanctions, denying Israel voting rights in the European Song Contest.

May 2011:

The media savvy new Bishop of Bradford, Nick Baines, is installed in Bradford during a 'virtual' service that takes place in cyberspace. In his first sermon/blog, he calls for the Church to embrace new technology, and launches a new social networking site called 'Faithbook'.

In the UK local elections, the Liberal Democrats lose 95% of their seats, whilst the Tories lose control of every council that they had previously held. Labour hold most of their seats, but the country sees massive gains for greens and anti-cuts candidates. The fightback begins!

June 2011:

My sister sets a blog to openly deal with her incontinence problem. Http:/

In the progressive Independent city state of Bradford, the trial of those charged with wrecking the city centre continues. If found guilty, Maud Marshall, Kris Hopkins and Tony Reeves may have to pay for the unwanted spitpool built in front of City Hall from their own private fortunes.

Thursday 30 December 2010

A preview of 2011:

January 2011

Nick Griffin is outed by a former lover, one of the leaders of the English Defence League. It becomes clear that the split in the far right between the BNP and the EDL was nothing more than a lovers tiff.

On a business trip to Jordan, George Osborne is struck by a blinding light on the road to Damascus. He repays all his outstanding taxes and brings in legislation to force companies to pay their taxes in full.

High street retailers 'Topshit' announce record losses following the recent spate of occupations. Sir Philip Green resigns amid lurid sex allegations involving a sports bag, but is swiftly taken on by the board of Vodaphone.

Revd Chris Howson of Bradford is surprised to learn that he was voted 'Best Dressed Vicar of 2010' by the weekly newspaper Church Chimes.

February 2011:

The Military Junta of Burma are suddenly overcome with a sense of decency, and hand back power to the democratically elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi. The former leaders are sentenced to working in Total garage forecourts for the rest of their natural lives.

The founder of Wikileaks is found not guilty of charges in a Swedish Court. However he is extradited to the USA for charges of 'once stealing paper clips from an office drawer'. He is likely to face several life sentences following a relatively fair trial.

Obama announces a sudden shift in US foreign policy based on environmental concerns. Troops are pulled out of Iraq and Afghanistan, and Venezuela is invaded. "We began to look at the war in turns of 'air miles' and decided that South American countries were much better to invade for the sake of the environment."

In the city of Bradford in West Yorkshire, the local council are overthrown by a Peoples Coalition who formally declare Bradford to be an independent and sovereign country. They immediately eliminate all fees at the prestigious 'National University of Bradford' and a period of rebuilding and investment is announced. The Westfield site is nationalised and work begins on the refurbishment of the National Museum of Bradford, formally known as the Odeon.

March 2011:

Record sales are announced for a new book released called 'A Just Church'. The Archbishop of Canterbury instantly calls an emergency session of General Synod to look at reforming the Church of England along guidelines set out by the author of the book.

2011; "We say fightback!"

The TUC have announced today that 2011 will be one of job losses, with the subsequent deterioration in standards of living for many groups of workers. Housing, education and healthcare will all be reduced for those on low incomes. At the same time, the government has just predicted that a fifth of the population may soon be able to live to the age of 100 due to increases in the standard of living and medical advances!

Clearly, there is an increasing gap between the rich and the poor in the U.K.  This Christmas I was given a copy of 'The Spirit Level' by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett; an almost scientific manifesto for the importance of a more equal society. It argues convincingly that if we want to live in a genuinely better society, with less crime, more public safety, happier people, then all of our policies should be about reducing the margins between the rich and poor.

The policies of this Government are evidently not in the interests of all. We are not 'all in this together'. This is nowhere more evident than in how local authorities are to face budget cuts. Those in the North, and those with higher proportions of people on low incomes face the largest cuts to public services.
For the sake of the public good, for the sake of our common humanity, 2011 must be a year in which whenever they say 'cutback' we must say 'fightback!'

It must be more than just a slogan. We must expose the way policies will affect the poor in general, and how they will ultimately ruin the wellbeing of the nation. Over Christmas in the UK, the BBC treated us to a wonderful 1930's drama 'Upstairs, Downstairs'. As good as it was, it presented a far too rosy picture of a life of inequalities. We are becoming far too accepting of the differences within society. The struggle for equality needs to won in the hearts and minds of society once more.

In the Christian tradition we can point to scripture; 'Let the person with two shirts give one to the person with none, and let the person with two loaves give one to the person with none'.  There is no room in faith traditions (or indeed any humane tradition) for greed and inequality enshrined in government policy.

Tuesday 28 December 2010

Crossbow shop keeps its shutters down!

So pleased to see that the crossbow/sword shop in town has decided to keep its shutters closed on its display windows! So many people had gone in and complained since the article appeared on the front page of the Telegraph and Argus, that 'Barkers' decided that a bit of tact was required.

Maybe Bradford can start the new year by recognising that people power is more effective than we often realise!

'Of Gods and Men'

An extraordinary film of rare integrity. This film is an honest look at faith, death, fear, and Muslim/Christian relationships. Based on a true incident that occurred in 1996 in a monastery situated in a remote Algerian village, It manages to feel like a very accurate portrayal of what this group of people were going through. The camera lingers long as people think, pray, and wrestle with their inner thoughts.

The scene of the monks last supper is one of the most beautifully crafted shots that I have ever watched. I will try to add to this page when I have had time to digest the movie more fully, (I also don't want to give too much away about the film!) but there is certainly much richness to ponder over.  We will certainly be showing it at one of our JustSpace evenings when it comes out on DVD, though I would recommend seeing it on the big screen because the cinematography makes such great use of the natural landscapes.

Despite the tragic circumstances that it portrays, this manages to remain a thoroughly life enhancing piece of storytelling, escaping the sentimental pitfalls that often overcome the genre. Go and see it if you get the chance.

Holy Innocents Day

Today we remember the plight of children everywhere. In the nativity stories from Matthew's Gospel, we learn of the evil that those with power can do to our little ones. King Herod, alerted to the fact that their may be a rival king being born, orders the slaughter of all boys under the age of two around the area of Bethlehem. It is a scene that reminds us of a similar fate for Jewish children at the time of Moses' birth. Both Moses and Jesus would change the course of history, to be liberators for their people, and those with power did everything in their power to try and stop them.

And so to today, how many potential leaders and great liberators are killed at birth through violence, war and poverty? My book coming out in February asks this question; What does it mean to be church in a world where 30,000 children die needlessly of preventable poverty and disease each day? What does it mean to be human while we allow such suffering to go unchallenged?

Let us pledge in this coming new year to protect the holy innocents. Join in the work of the Childrens Society or Jubilee Action or Save the Children or support the work of Christian Aid or Oxfam.

Now, I'm off to play with my kids - the most precious things on this earth.

Monday 27 December 2010

A tough year in Bradford.

Its hard to admit it, but this has been one of the toughest years Bradford has had to face. The murder of three women and subsequent trial of Stephen Griffiths may seem like a less shocking event than the Valley Parade fire, or the Bradford riots in 1995 and 2001, but it some ways it has been more disastrous. It has cemented in the minds of detractors of the city that Bradford is simply going from bad to worse.

Cities are about perceptions, there is no getting away from it. Not only is Bradford marred in the national image, but for many local people, this has also been a year when the city centre has felt depressing. Well known shops and restaurants like Probyns, The Love Apple and the Cocina have gone to the wall, and the repaving of the city has not led to a surge of investment. There was a moment of respite when the council gave in to popular demands and put a temporary garden on part of the Westfield site. But the badly planned and unwanted ripping up of the city centre has made parts of Bradford feel like a permanent accident site.

The election in May of a Tory Government will have a devastating impact on the city, and record public sector job cuts have already been announced. The public transport system is in a shambles, the health sector is under threat, and SERCO are still succeeding to run our education system into the ground.

The two visits by the English Defence League in May and August left a bitter taste in Bradford's mouth, as did the councils poor handling of the situation. Luckily, the people of Bradford (especially the women and Muslim youth) showed that they were made of stronger stuff than the EDL thought, and another riot did not happen, despite the huge provocation.

The city has had to deal with another major blow to its heritage as several beautiful and historical parts of St Lukes Hospital were pulled down to make way for a carpark. The only new buildings that have gone up were the Provident HQ, built on profits taken from the odious practice of doorstep lending, a nice little earner during a recession; and the Jury's Inn, an unwanted new hotel which finally forced the city's leading historic hotel, the Victoria, to go into administration.

So where is the hope? Several schemes come to mind, the first being 'Inn Churches' where hundreds of Christians from scores of denominations have come together to respond to the growing plight of homeless people in the city. The response of the local Muslim population to this years flood crisis in Pakistan has also been heartening. The fact that the Street Angels project has carried on working on Friday and Saturday nights in the city is still impressive.

It is in the people of this city that I find hope. Not our politicians, not our 'leaders' but our people. Despite our local and national governments, despite poor civic leadership, the citizens of Bradford still come up with the goods. They protest at Topshop and shops selling Israeli products. They occupy the university admin floor to resist fees increases and organise events to hear the stories of those seeking sanctuary in our city. They organise 'Free shops' and creative 'Zine' Fayres.

If the 'big society' agenda of this government of millionaires is simply an excuse for more privatisation and cutbacks, then in Bradford and beyond, it is our creative and resilient people who will organise the 'big fightback' of 2011. That is something we not only have to be hopeful about, that is something that we have to build and organise ourselves.

As a priest, I want the churches to wake up, and fulfill the powerful prophetic voice they have. Let us pull down the mighty from their thrones, and lift up the lowly! Lets turn a tough year in Bradford into a terrible year for those who have shown nothing but contempt for the people of this city. Let us be part of the coalition of resistance that will tear this present government apart.

Thursday 23 December 2010

Stop the sale of crossbows and swords in Bradford Shops!

As I got off the bus today, I happened to look in the store window of 'Barkers' of Sunbridge Road. I was horrified to see that on display was a special sale of Crossbows. I've long hated this shop, with its window display of imitation weapons and samurai swords and 'ornamental' daggers. But in the wake of the Stephen Griffiths conviction of the killing of three Bradford women, a sale of 'Armex Pistol Crossbows' was more than I could bear.

I went into the shop and asked if the offending items could be removed from the display case. The owner said he would do it straight away, yet when I returned an hour or so later, nothing had been done.

I rang the T&A (the local newspaper), and they requested a photo with me next to the offending shop window. I asked them to report that this is the season of goodwill to all, not the season for selling weapons that can kill! Imagine the distress of the families of victims of the self styled 'crossbow cannibal'; seeing a special sale of his weapon of choice on a Bradford high street!

The shop used to sell all sorts of novelty gifts and toys, but now it is simply a newsagent with a huge arsenal of weaponry on sale. Surely there must be better ways of making a living? Do they not accept that loners and disturbed people are more likely to kill if you allow them to be armed to the hilt? The walls of Griffiths' flat were adorned with such weapons - apparently he used them to disturb and frighten the women brought back to his home.

Much in the same way that handguns are restricted in the UK, now is the time to restrict the sale of such weapons of terror. There is no place for them in a safe and civilised society.

Remembering Gaza this Christmas

At 4.30pm today, around 25 people gathered at the bottom of Sunbridge Road to take part in a vigil to prepare for the 2nd anniversary of the vicious bombing and invasion of Gaza by Israeli forces in 2008.
Two years have passed and yet still the International Community stands idly by and allows Israel to blockade this tiny strip of land, a very real prison for the 1.5million Palestinians living in the region. lets hear that again - 1.5 million people imprisoned for nearly 4 years now. How is this possible? How can the world allow this to happen?

During the brief war, 1,400 people died and entire neighbourhoods were flattened. Illegal weapons were clearly used in civilian areas, and Israeli leaders now have to be careful where they travel for fear of prosecution for war crimes. Yet those responsible have never been held to account. Worse still, the killing of 9 innocent people on the Mavi Marmara and the turning back of blockade busting ships has never been successfully challenged by the UN, the EU and the USA.

Until we can persuade the Governments of this world to hold Israel to account for the crimes it has committed, there is nothing else we can do but to support the boycott, disinvestment and sanctions campaign. this is a non-violent campaign that needs to be built up over the coming year. At this Christmas time, be careful where your dates and vegetables come from: buy nothing from Israel until there is justice and peace for all the peoples of the region.

In this holy season, we remember the oppression Jesus' family suffered during his birth at the hands of the Romans and their client rulers. It is vital also that we never turn our faces from the oppression suffered by the people of Palestine today.

Tuesday 21 December 2010

Stephen Griffiths pleads guilty

The media storm will hopefully soon pass. I have just come off BBC radio Leeds talking about this terrible tragedy for Bradford. It is my hope that our city can put this horor behind us, and the the families of the victims can begin to find some peace. Stephen Griffiths now needs to make sure that details of the whereabouts of all the victims are made clear, as this is hugely important to the family members.

This has been a grisly affair, and I think the authorities have dealt with it as best as could be expected. However, as I learnt from the sex workers last week on the vigil for 'International day against violence to sex workers', there is still not enough being done nationally to protect sex workers from danger. Experiments in Liverpool have shown that it is possible to work to reduce violence towards sex workers, if the political will is there. For the sake of all those trapped in this line of work, we pray that this case will help provide impetus for greater protection for all sex workers in the U.K.

We pray for all the victims of violence towards women, and we pray and demand that more will be done to reduce the risk of this type of incident ever happening again.

Here is how the news was reported in the T&A local paper:

A Bradford criminology student who dubbed himself the “crossbow cannibal” has admitted murdering three prostitutes.
Stephen Griffiths, 40, killed Suzanne Blamires, Shelley Armitage and Susan Rushworth, who all went missing in Bradford.
Griffiths, of Thornton Road, Bradford, pleaded guilty to all three murders at a packed hearing at Leeds Crown Court this morning.
Griffiths stood in the dock to enter his pleas surrounded by five security guards. Dressed in a grey tracksuit, he said “yes” when asked to confirm his name.
He then said “guilty” in a quiet voice when the clerk put each of the three charges to him. Griffiths then sat with his head on his chest.
The judge, Mr Justice Openshaw, told the court the defendant’s mental health had been carefully examined and there was “no question that he was fit to plead”.
Stephen Griffiths's victims worked the streets of Bradford’s red light district a short distance from his flat.
Suzanne Blamires, Shelley Armitage and Susan Rushworth were familiar figures in the network of run-down streets off Sunbridge Road, a two-minute walk from the city centre.
Parts of Miss Blamires’s body were discovered in May in the River Aire at Shipley, about five miles north of Griffiths’s Thornton Road flat.
In the days which followed, more of Miss Blamires was found in the water along with a small part of Miss Armitage’s body. No trace of Miss Rushworth has yet been found.

Yarl's Wood to close down!

I met the news last week that Yarl's Wood would be closed down with a mixture of joy and suspicion. London Citizens have done a great job in pushing for this move to protect families and young children, and this is a good moment to consider the impact of effective community organising.

However, it is clear that this announcement from Nick Clegg is timed to reduce the huge animosity being built up towards the Con Dem government. The recent taped confessions of Vince Cable are testimony to the mess they are in. Away from the smokescreen of policy announcements, the real issue will be whether the claims from these families of sanctuary seekers will be dealt with fairly. Access to legal support for sanctuary seekers has been greatly reduced by the present government, increasing the chance of families being eventually sent back to potentially life threatening situations without a fair opportunity to defend themselves in court.

In the new year, we will be able to better assess the full implications of this policy, but at least for now, let us hope that the days of endless detention for children in the Governments private prisons is coming to an end.

Here are the headline facts from the announcement:
  • No children will ever be detained at Yarl's Wood again - the family unit closes with immediate effect
  • No children will be held anywhere over the Christmas period.
  • Family accommodation at Tinsley House will be closed down on May 11th 2011 and until then only 5 rooms will be able to hold families for 72 hours before a flight.  While in this accommodation the children themselves will be free to enter and exit with the support of social care workers subject to a safeguarding and risk assessment.  Thus children will not be detained, even in this small number of cases.
  • A complete overhaul of the system by which family returns take place, with greater emphasis on families being supported to leave under their own steam.
  • An independent Family Panel will make sure that any UKBA returns procedure does not compromise the welfare of children.
  • New community-based pre-departure accommodation run by a charity will be provided for the very small number of families who are left once all other options have been tried.  This will be for 72 hours before a flight and children will be free to enter and exit with the support of social care workers subject to a safeguarding and risk assessment.  

The smell of a new book...

It finally arrived, a proof copy of my new book! The striking cover by Ed Marshall is very effective, an image of Christ wrapped in barbed wire - reminding me of fences crossed at military bases, and of the barriers put up between the rich and poor, the powerful and the powerless.

The comments on the back cover by Kathy Galloway are very kind indeed "This book bears witness that hope is not a time story, it's a love story. I am going to get all my friends to read it." Kathy is someone I have always admired, from my first meeting with her at Faslane Naval Base. Seeing Christian leaders prepared to break the law and non-violently struggle for peace had a huge impact on me, and helped shaped my future ministry.

I really hope that the book does justice to those I have worked with over the years, and tells the story of grassroots opposition to inequalities. It has been an immense privilege to be alongside so many beautiful people over the last 21 years in Bradford, and the last 5 years as Bradford's City Centre Priest have been amazing.

Being a perfectionist, I can already see the flaws and mistakes, now in print forever! But I also am so happy to have told this story, and to talk about some of the extraordinary issues we have dealt with. The style is written very much in the style of how I speak, so I'm really looking forward to some of the 'readings' booked for Waterstones, they will really bring the text alive. The official launch will be on the 24th Feb, 6pm Wool Exchange, with other readings to be arranged in Leeds, York, Birmingham, Sheffield and Durham.

If the book leads others to become interested in liberation theology and to be inspired to get stuck in with direct action on the environment, human rights and peace issues, then all the hard work will have been worth it!

Friday 17 December 2010

The Bible in one hand, the Morning Star in the other....

Whether or not it was the 20th Century Theologian Karl Barth who said 'a Christian should have a bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other' is debatable - but the quote has resonance and power regardless of who actually conceived it. We must look around us, be aware of the realities of the world, and be prepared to weigh up those realities in the light of the spiritual and political wisdom that we possess in our scriptures.

The problem is that our newspapers, and our media in general, rarely present us with 'reality'. John Pilger's new documentary 'The War You Don't See' was aired this week, and it was a bitter reminder that the 'truth' offered to us in the printed or electronic media can be as far from reality as governments need it to be. From 'the Guardian' to the BBC, from 'the Sun' to Fox News, spin and lies are regularly fed to the Western Populaces and the news reporters are complicit in the game, failing to live up to even a pretence of journalistic integrity. One after another, famous reporters and news presenters admitted that if they had done their jobs properly, we would not have gone to war in Iraq.

I have long held the news media with a suspicious, contemptable gaze. Solace has been found in my daily edition of the Morning Star newspaper. I find it almost miraculous that it still exists, a daily paper for socialism and peace. It manages to survive despite the fact that so many retailers often refuse to stock it (try ordering a copy at your local newsagents) and despite the fact that it has stayed true to it's values in an age where the daily papers have mostly sold out to consumerism or popularism.

It is quite simply remarkable. Almost nothing in wikileaks is news to those of us who read the Morning Star. The insightful reports from Pilger, Hughs, and, one of the only decent MPs left, Jeremy Corbyn, help my analysis, and the world news section throws a light on the parts of the planet where Capitalism is not seen as the only answer (especially the lessons being learnt from Latin America)

The Morning Star is green, has no corporate advertising, and reports from the front line of the struggle against cuts, the peace movement and the bits of the radical Christian world so often ignored by the media (who else reported Ekklesia's Symon Hill's 'pilgrimage of repentance against the homophobic church'?)

Of course it has its biases, but that is why it is as important to Christians as reading the Bible. In common with Jesus, it proclaims good news to the poor. I think during the current cuts crisis, it will become essential reading for those trying to get a better picture of the horrors being thrust upon us by a political elite so distant to the realities on the ground. Order two copies today, and give one to someone you love!

The International Union of Sex Workers

I spent the evening in the freezing cold with some wonderful people from the International Union of Sex Workers. To mark 'International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers', they had decided to come up to Bradford to hold a vigil, as well as holding a larger event in London. Bradford was chosen because of the horrendous events of the past year, with Stephen Griffiths awaiting trial over the murder of three sex workers in the area. 

We carried distinctive red umbrellas, the symbol of the international sex workers' rights movement. Red for strength and pride, and an umbrella to symbolise protection from the elements and from prejudice, discrimination and abuse.

This remarkable movement, organised and run by sex workers themselves, is testament to the human capacity to love and unite with one another even in the most hostile of political and social situations. Sex workers are often the victim of violence because they have so little protection, and there is so little political capital in protecting their rights.

I have always been a fan of the I.U.S.W, ever since joining them on some stunning May Day demo's down in London. Colourful and creative, and determined in the face of indifference or aggression, they are a model for a liberated church.

Saturday 11 December 2010

Anarchy in Topshop

Today saw the first of Bradford Uncuts direct actions targeted on Topshop (Arcadia) and Vodaphone. After a rally by the Bradford Peoples Coalition Against the Cuts, attended by upwards of 200 people, we moved towards Topshop. I led the chanting to the Christmas song 'We wish you a merry Christmas'. 'We wish you'd pay your taxes, we wish you'd pay your taxes, we wish you'd pay you taxes or we won't shop here! Bad tidings we bring to you Philip Green, we wish you'd pay your taxes or we won't shop here!'

It was very effective! A few of us got in Topshop, with a hundred or so outside. It was pretty tense, and they threatened to arrest me 3 times. I was surrounded by good people, and held out for 15 minutes. We then left and headed for Vodaphone. This was where it got hairy. Vodaphone is inside a shopping centre, and they did not want us in. It got crazy, police and security guards holding us back. Several police officers grabbed on protester, and another young woman got stopped close to Vodaphone. Security people were shouting at me, and we were all pushed back, but it was great to watch the shutters close down on Boots and Vodaphone!

We went back to Topshop, and stayed there until we found out what happened to those arrested. Then a group went to show them support. We heard that one of them was being charged with 'assualt of an officer' even though we had witnesses that could prove that wasn't the case. I was so relieved later when I heard that the charges were dropped. It was as if the police had only tried to say it to discredit the protesters in the local media.

People are rightly angry at the way the police can be used to protect the interests of big business - but we can honestly say that our protesters acted peacefully and non-violently. The people of Bradford, the people of the UK are finally standing up to the powerful, and they don't like it. I found the whole experience distressing and emotional, we need real inner strength to take part in these struggles. May God bless those brave enough to make a stand.

Thursday 9 December 2010

Police fears about Topshop and carol services!

At one of the anti-cuts demos this week, I took up a megaphone and stated my solidarity with the occupation and direct actions aimed at tax avoiding companies such as the Arcadia group (Topshop/Miss Selfish etc). As soon as I had gone back, police wanted to know my name (see earlier blog). Today I was contacted by the police again, trying to get information from me as to the plans for the Topshop demos to come. I was so annoyed at the thought that the police believed I might be a soft touch for spilling the beans!

I explained that these are autonomous actions, with no leaders. They are spontaneous, and no one person can 'control' them. Police find all this very frustrating. And they are clutching at straws. I was asked to contact the police if I heard of anything else happening.

I rang the police officer later in the day with a top tip "In half an hour, 100 students are taking over the small hall of the university - its going to be very noisy! You should come along!"

I was of course referring to the Christian Union Carol Concert.

Violence on the streets of London

London is in a mess, the vote is made - students face a future of debt and uncertainty. Lib dems lied and some of my friends who are caught up in it all are in shock, still kettled on Westminster Bridge 8 hours later. The media is obsessed with the damage done to a royal car with Prince Charles and Camilla inside.

The world is very different today. People are angry and young people are picking up a new militancy, fed by lying politicians and a police force which seems to wish to provoke and encourage the violent element on these demos.

The story will be focused on those who attacked the cenotaph, the royal car, the statue of Winston Churchill. The police horses charging students and kettling and beating people, the attacks on peaceful protest in the weeks leading up to today, these will not be put into the context.

The cuts have only just begun, and people have not even had to bear a fraction of the pain to come. There will be more violence in the months ahead. People of faith and all of us on the left are going to have to work out where we stand in all of this. At the moment, all I can do is pray for friends caught up in all this, and pledge to oppose the policies of this government which are causing such division in the streets of our country.

Wednesday 8 December 2010

Uk uncut - direct action against the tax avoiders!

At today's city centre demo, I made a quick speech in favour of the direct actions taken against Topshop, Boots and Vodaphone. The police quickly took me to one side; "Can I take your name sir?" I wanted to say Sir Philip Green (the chief exec of Arcadia) but I wasn't quick enough. "Revd Chris Howson, city centre minister." My name was radioed in straight away, before I faced a barrage of questions about Topshop actions. I didn't give much away, but said that I hoped many more occupations should take place! Clearly the chain of shops involved are very nervous, and the state will do all its can to protect them.

I grabbed the megaphone again, and let everyone know that the police had pledged to join in any direct action we did at Topshop! I think we recruited many more to Bradford's part in the hugely successful 'UK uncut' campaign.

The importance of the actions is that they shift the agenda - cuts are not the only options - instead, we could make the corporations pay back some of the estimated £20 billion lost in legal tax evasion. It would mean fees could be abolished, health care kept free, and public services could avoid being slashed.  It should not just be the poor who pay for the banking crisis, it should be the wealthy corporations.

Sir Philip Green is a horrendous character, who even has been advising the Con Dem government in how to cut public spending. Let's give him a Christmas surprise that he will never forget.

Occupations and direct action against tuition fee increases are vital!

It is the third day of occupation in Bradford University, it is important to reflect on the importance of these actions up and down the country. The Bradford occupation came when Mark Cleary, the Vice Chancellor of the university, came and said that he personally disagreed with the increase in tuition fees, but could not oppose them because of his role in the institution. At the meeting, he admitted that he hadn't even contacted the local members of Parliament to lobby them before the vote. One student likened it to watching the bully on the school bus, but failing to do anything.

When the VC left, the mood of the meeting was pretty clear - occupy! This was to try to force the institution to be more vocal in standing up to the proposed tuition fee increases, and to make the Local Lib Dem MP, David Ward, think twice before voting in support of the policy.

The effects of the occupation were impressive. The media coverage was huge, from local papers, to regional TV, to national papers (I was especially pleased to see Bradford University pictured in the Morning Star!)

The local Labour MP, Marsha Singh, promised to vote against the policy in Parliament, and gave much needed support to the leaders of the occupation, urging them to keep up the pressure on the government. The press were able to out David Wards support for Tory policy, and we could put more pressure on local Lib Dem councillors.

When I spoke to David Ward, I realised he was sold on the Tory policy. He had clearly been offered sweeteners (money for regeneration of Bradford City Centre) and had lost sight of the trust that young people placed on them in the May elections.

The occupation produced amazing creativity, workshops, banner making, and deep discussions. After three days though, cracks were showing and the student union exec, under pressure from the University, gave up their unconditional support for the students in occupation. Students felt betrayed and angry, but managed to work through it! Quite why the Student union took this action was beyond me, I think is was due to tiredness and lack of political experience. Personalities lost sight of the unity needed to pull off such actions.

But the occupation has shown its importance and for those involved, real political skills are being honed. Lessons in campaigning, the pains of struggle, the pressures placed on unions, the thrill of small victories,the realisation of the inadequacies of the political system - all these things were exposed and learnt from. I was impressed by the students who showed great bravery under pressure and I hope we will see more of this in the years to come. Certainly it will take courage, occupations, strikes and direct action to bring down this government of billionaires.

Saturday 4 December 2010

Liberation Theology in the U.K.

Liberation theology is finally becoming bolder in the UK. For years, liberation theology existed mostly in the form of discussion and debate. The limited number of educational and ministerial faculties that dealt with the subject worked either with an academic distance or with a simple sense of nostalgia. The work of the Iona community, the Catholic Workers Communities and some determined grassroots Christian activists kept the flame of liberation theology alive. (helped by the Holy Spirit!)

Now, as the failings of neo-liberal economics are being exposed, and the agenda of the ruling class mentality is more clearly witnessed in the make up of our politicians, those involved in liberation theology are becoming more outspoken. Finally we can cry like the prophets of old: 'DOWN WITH EMPIRE! PROTECT THE WEAK!'

We can sing the promise of our magnificat with vigour; 'He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly!'

We can begin as Christians to live out the words and life of Christ "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has appointed me to bring good news to the poor." (Luke 4 v 18)

Now is the time to be bold about the biblical story of justice and equality, to stand in solidarity with those struggling for a better, fairer and greener world. Jesus Christ came not to accept the way the world is, but to build a better one. Let us join in this struggle, let us become 'A Just Church'!

Friday 3 December 2010

The White Ribbon Campaign

The white ribbon campaign is designed to encourage men to think and act seriously about the issue of violence towards women. I recently signed the pledge to 'never commit, condone, or remain silent about men's violence against women in all its forms.' and would encourage others to join this campaign. Violence towards women comes in many shapes and sizes, and includes unwanted sexual advances and nuisance texting or emailing.

Recently, the issue arose in one of the churches I work with. A male in a position of trust invited someone into his flat and made unwanted advances. The good news is that when the matter was exposed,  it then allowed us to talk about the matter more freely, which will hopefully help people to feel safer in the future. The bad news, is that the male involved failed to recognise the gravity of the situation, and has had to be excluded from our church community. No woman should ever be made to feel unsafe or frightened, and the churches cannot ignore this issue. Here are some statistics that explain why the subject must be tackled in churches committed to liberation in all its forms:
  • 45% of women have experienced some form of domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking
  • At least 32% of children, mostly girls, experience some form of child sexual abuse
  • At least 80,000 women suffer rape every year.
  • In a survey for Amnesty International, over 1 in 4 respondents  thought a women was partially or totally responsible for being raped if she was wearing sexy or revealing clothing, and more than 1 in 5 held the same view if a woman had had many sexual partners.
  • 70% of incidents of domestic violence result in injury, (compared with 50% of incidents of acquaintance violence, 48% of stranger violence and 29% of mugging).
  • Domestic violence is estimated to cost victims, services and the state a total of around £23 billion a year.

Farewell to Janet.

Yesterday we welcomed family and friends of Janet to our Church for a farewell memorial service. Janet was a refugee who had played a special part in our church life over the last couple of years. She was a gentle woman of God, who prayed and read her bible and did much to help others.

I had met her a few years ago when she was destitute, and we supported her in getting housing, medical support and ultimately, immigration status. It was a long hard struggle, and she had to put up with ill health, (she was HIV positive) casual discrimination and racism, and extreme poverty. Yet my overwhelming memory of her, was not one of a victim, but one someone who was helper to many. She often brought new people to our community whom she new we could help. She recognised the way God was a work in our church, and prayed for our ministry constantly.

We told the story of Luke 18 v 1-8 - the widow working for justice constantly. It ends with the question; 'When the son of man comes, will he find such faith on earth?'

In Janet, he finds that faith, and she will remain an inspiration to all who got to know this quiet and loving woman.

The casual nature of police violence.

I work closely with the police, and have a lot of tolerance for the difficult work they do. They see violence, anger and pain on a daily, sometimes hourly basis. I know many good officers, some who suffer from depression and anxiety caused by the events they have to deal with. I know some who deal with the difficulties they face with courage and professionalism way beyond the call of duty. I get frustrated by the way they are often characterised by those of us on the left.

However, we still have to challenge aspects of the police force that results in the casual nature of violence towards those with a legitimate right to protest. The policing of the our small 'anti-cuts to education' demo in Bradford this week illustrates this. Following the events in London, the police are dealing with demonstrators in the most extraordinary way.

Police followed the student protesters from the university of Bradford Student Union building, on the pretense of 'road safety'. 8 officers met our small band outside the city hall for our brief gathering. Students then decided to go to the entrance of Bradford College. Two police officers then aggressively pushed students back towards the door. It was so casual, so 'normal', as to be terrifying. A small protest which should have been seen as understandable and reasonable was met with force and aggression. The students involved and those who witnessed the attacks were shocked and disturbed. They never imagined that officers would so quickly turn from 'joky friendliness' to shocking aggression.

The group of a hundred or so protesters then went up to the atrium of Bradford University where they were met with a different approach. The security staff respected our right to make a point in the very institutions affected by the cutbacks and the rise in tuition fees. There was no need for violence, pushing and shouting.

On a national scale the problems are escalated. The government and the police wish to show that non-violent protest against the cuts are 'extreme' and anti-democratic. Police vans are inexplicably abandoned and allowed to be wrecked (bait) and there is a media focus on the one or two idiots who are not interested in 'non-violent' direct action. Under these circumstances, casual violence on protestors will become more widespread and tolerated.

We must do all we can to expose this 'normalisation' of force used against legitimate protest. Not least for the sake of police officers who are dehumanised by the process, and are a group that are also under attack of cutbacks.

Personally, I would love to see an occupation of the police stations that face cuts. I wonder how they would police such actions of solidarity with their colleagues? Would they push and beat us then?


Harry and Christy invited our family to a thanksgiving meal last Sunday, and it gave me such joy that I thought I would share it with you. Christy is from the United States, and is a community activist and joyful person of faith. last year, she married Harry, a thoughtful, playful Christian who always challenges me and makes me think. They have settled in Bradford where they do wonderful things for our city.

The thanksgiving meal was a vegetarian and vegan delight, but not only was the food divine, but the company was extraordinary. Christy and Harry open their home to destitute asylum (sanctuary) seekers, and they know some amazing people. People of all faiths and none crammed into their lovely house, made new friends and shared their stories.

Christy explained the controversies around the theme of thanksgiving: was it being thankful for escaping the Church of England? Was the familiar story of Native Americans feeding starving pilgrims a fairy tale? Was it really a celebration of subduing the local population?

We heard about the communities of Native Americans calling for the day to be one of mourning and remembering the continued problems faced by their people. Between 10-30 million native people died or were killed by the settlers following their arrival in the America's in the 17th Century.

How is it possible to reclaim genocide into an occasion of hope? As we each took turns to share the things we were grateful for, it became clear that despite the power of empires and occupiers, humanity still simply wants community and peace. We want to be thankful for life, and we want to give, not to take.  I thank my good friends Christy and Harry for opening my eyes and allowing thanksgiving to become a symbol diversity, unity and love. I also thank them for the banoffee pie!

Thursday 2 December 2010

Total Boycott and the BBC

I was recently invited onto the 'Sunday' programme on Radio 4 to discuss the release of Aung San Suu Kyi. I had been involved with the Burmese Rohingya community for several years (read details in the book!) and together we had organised a street party on the 13th November to celebrate her forthcoming release. The BBC producer talked to me on the Saturday morning, and I explained that we had gained the trust of the Rohingyan community by occupying Total Garages to highlight the companies links to the oppressive Myamar (Burmese) Junta.  We had planned to closedown a Total garage in the event that Aung San Suu Kyi was not released as promised.

On the sunday, literally minutes before I was due on air, the producer spoke into my headphones: "You cannot go on air if you are going to mention Total, they may sue the BBC or you as an individual". I argued that it was nothing that hadn't been said on air before, and that Aung San Suu Kyi herself had initially called for the boycott - all to no avail. On the radio, I was only able to encourage listeners to join the Free burma Campaign and join their activities, and to boycott companies involved in Burma, and to push for sanctions that targetted the ability of the Junta to oppress the population.  I was desperately annoyed at the BBC's failure to stand up to the lawyers of multinationals.

On the first interview upon her release, Aung San Suu Kyi stated that 'the mark of a true democracy was its freedom of speech'. How sad that the British media's freedom of speech is curtailed by the power of the corporations.

Wednesday 1 December 2010

Dancing in Millbank

It will be interesting to see where theologians and Christians locate themselves in the 'big society' debate. Already, key members of the institution keep referring to the opportunities the new conservative policy may bring to the church, others point out our impressive role already in the 'big society'.

This all misses the point. The Tory 'big society' is nothing more than a expression of 'big unregulated capitalism'. To ally ourselves to this movement is to ally ourselves to the corrupt neo liberal agenda.
The location I wish to find myself in during this debate, is alongside those who are exposing the ideological attack on the welfare state, I want to be with those who are pointing out that it is the banks and big businesses tax cheats who are wrecking this country.

I was happy to be dancing in the Millbank building with thousands of young students, who quite rightly identified it as a legitimate target in opposing cuts to education. The media's focus on one dangerous and reckless act with a fire extinguisher eclipsed the non-violent bravery of thousands of young people who took the issue right to the heart of the enemy. Most of the violence I witnessed was of truncheons raining down on defenceless young students, an image that didn't make it to most of the tabloids.

So where will Christians be in the 'big society' debate? They can rub their hands together at the thought of picking up a few government crumbs as the public sector crumbles, or they can go join in the occupations, the sit-ins, the protests outside corporate tax evaders. Personally, I'd rather be dancing at Millbank.

A Just Church

The book will finally be out in a few months, almost 18 months since theologian Ann Morisy encouraged me to write about our experiences in Bradford. Our church has had its ups and downs, but we can still claim to be at the cutting edge of the interplay between the emerging church (commonly known as fresh expression churches in the UK) and liberation theology.

In this blog, I hope to update readers with ongoing news from our two fresh expressions of faith: SoulSpace and JustSpace. Those familiar with the book might be interested to see how our experiment is developing.

As a word of warning, comments will be brief and patchy. Life as a liberation theologian can never relaxed enough to spend too much time in front of a computer! In the UK we have a conservative neoliberal government to contend with, and I would rather spend my efforts fighting cuts than typing! Also my two beautiful girls are growing up - and time with them is a liberating as any reflection on theology.

When I get a chance though - I promise to keep up to date with news from 'a just church'!