Friday 29 March 2013

Why I'll be marching against the EDL tomorrow

I'm new to Sunderland, so I've not been quick to jump head first into the local response to the far right, but there are reasons why I will walk with the anti-fascists tomorrow (Murray Library, Chester road, 11.30am)

The message we learnt in Bradford was simply this - if the EDL are unopposed when they come to town - they keep coming back for more. When in the Summer of 2010 they were met with a large demonstration of Anti-fascists, it was the beginning of the end for the EDL. Since then, they have been diminishing in number, and are getting weaker by the day.

In Sunderland they have not met with enough resistance. The Police let them come and go with little controls. They are allowed to meet up in pubs and get tanked up. The Council thinks that encouraging people to stay away will solve the crisis. It hasn't. They keep coming back - time and time again.

I agree that the left must change their tactics - too many young men think that shouting abuse at fascists is a way to combat them. It isn't, they thrive on confrontation, they are desperate for a fight - they are mostly common thugs.

But we need to publicly and politically show that this city is a 'Fascist free zone'. If we do not mobilise when they come, they will keep coming back for more - terrorising our Muslim population, making them fearful about their new mosque, and inciting racial hatred in our neighbourhoods.

It must end. The local population, the faith communities, the police and the local council must all play their part in making sure the EDL know 'They are not welcome in our city'.

'No Pasaran', the Fascists shall not pass!

The Pope's Sunderland connections revealed!

During a sleep over at Sunderland Minster this week, a friend pointed out that the list of 'Rectors of Bishop Wearmouth' on the tower wall contained a 'Robert de Geneva' later Pope Clement VII! For 4 years in the 14th Century, the Minster was run by someone who went on to become a Pope!

But the Sunderland connections don't end there - when the new Pope Francis revealed his motto this week, it happened to be quote from a Mackem!

The Pope has picked a line from a sermon by Bede, the Sunderland lad who joined the monastery of St Peters at the age of 7 years old:

"miserando atque eligendo"

Here’s the translation used in the Vatican press conference:

“His motto—“miserando atque eligendo” (because he saw him through the eyes of mercy and chose him)—is taken from the Venerable Bede’s homily on the Gospel account of the call of Matthew. It holds special meaning for the Pope because—when he was only 17-years-old, after going to confession on the Feast of St. Matthew in 1953—he perceived God’s mercy in his life and felt the call to the priesthood, following the example of St. Ignatius of Loyola."

But links from Sunderland to the Vatican run deeper than you think - When Saint Benedict Biscop in the 7th Century was tasked with creating a new 'St Peter's' here in England - he chose Sunderland. The Wear reminded him of the Tiber, and the city was surrounded by 7 hills, as was his beloved Rome. That's why St Peter's Monkwearmouth has its name.

Now finally, with Sunderland inspired by Rome, the Bishop of Rome returns the favour by being inspired by a Mackem lad! 

'Good' Friday? Hope amidst Despair on Tunstall Hill

I hate the way it is called 'Good' Friday. In reality, it sucks big time. The Romans and Jewish authorities ganged up on a good man, a man preaching revolution (repentance = to turn things around) a man preaching Non-Violence.

For challenging the greed, militarism and violence evident in his society, Jesus got creamed during the Jewish equivalent of Christmas, the Passover festival. Not only that, but it was one of his best mates that threw him to the wolves.

Jesus may have known it would all end in tears - you don't turn over the tables and say that Caesar is not God without realising what that means - but clearly he would have preferred a different route if at all possible.

Yet his death is seen as 'Good'. Those that think that it was a sacrifice for them, to 'bridge' the gap between 'mans' sin and God, may well think it was a 'Good' day. But I don't think so. I think the joy needs to be reserved for Easter day, when we realise that it is God's love that overcomes death.

For now, I just want to weep that the kindly ones are often beaten and abused by the state. I weep for the Romeros, the MLKs the Victor Jara's and the unknown millions of men and women who resist evil and are then killed by those who hold power.

And so today, on Tunstall Hill, I wept. We watched the cross hammered into place. Hundreds were there, and though the mood was jubilant, and it was heartening to see so many witnessing to their faith, I wept at the foot of the cross.

The fact that the cross has been turned into a sign of hope is a miracle in itself. The cross is an instrument of torture - a highly visible way for the Roman occupiers to say 'one false move, and we will crush you'.

Now - it is genuinely a sign of hope and even of joy. This is truly a 'swords into ploughshares' achievement, and proof that even in the deepest depths of despair, we must always be prepared to hope and work for a miracle.

Tuesday 26 March 2013

The Highland Yurt in the Minster!

If you go to Sunderland Minster this week, you may be surprised by the strange sight of a large sandy coloured round tent slap bang in the middle of the nave.  Once you enter in, questions such as 'why here?' are answered immediately, as it is clearly a thing of great beauty and tranquillity - easily befitting a place of prayer.

I began my interest in yurts when Barbara Glasson, a Methodist mystic, introduced one to Bradford, and developed it into a place of listening and encounter. Then I visited the great yurt of St Ethelburga's church in London - a place of healing, reconciliation and interfaith friendship. I was hooked, and have been determined to bring one to Sunderland since my arrival.

In the course of working on this project, I contacted Paul Spencer from 'Highland Yurts' and immediately felt he was the right man for the job. He has a fascinating personal story, and clearly understands the emotional and spiritual resonance of these ecological buildings. His wood comes from sustainable sources from the areas he lives in in Aberdeenshire, and he crafts the yurts with skill and love.

After constructing the Yurt on Palm Sunday, he gave us a talk on his methods and on Yurt 'ettiquette'. Then we were led clockwise into the structure by Clare, beautifully playing her violin.

The first thing we did in the Yurt was to hear the stories of Syrian Students. It was extremely moving, and I couldn't help but think that the room itself made their stories more powerful, as it created an intimacy where you needed to pay attention to each persons hurt and hopes.

Why a Yurt in Holy Week? Well, at the end of the week, the Yurt will become a tomb. We will 'seal' it on Good Friday, remembering Jesus' death on the cross and subsequent burial. An on Easter Sunday though, the stone entrance will be rolled away and the empty Yurt will become a sign of resurrection and hope - a sign for Sunderland and Syria that God's love will always overcome the power of death.

Thursday 21 March 2013

Syria - 'Justice, not mercy'

I have met many inspiring people in my time, from activists to nobel peace prize winners, and yesterday, it was my privilege to listen to someone who left most of them standing. Dr Haytham el-Hamawi came to Sunderland to share his story with us as part of our 'Syria Awareness Week'.

His testimony was deeply moving and remarkable. It clearly illustrated why the Assad regime is so detested that millions have people have risked everything to bring an end to his rule. Haytham was sentenced to 4 years in a Syrian prison for setting up a peace library, and organising a silent protest march against the US war in Iraq. His crime was effectively to try and build up 'civic responsibility' in his local community. He first incurred the wrath of the state by making a series of cartoons which encouraged people to 'curb public smoking'; 'refuse to bribe officials'; and 'do community tidy ups'. For this, he and his father was arrested and 'disapeared'.

After his arrest, he was beaten, continually sworn at and put in a room 3m by 3m with up to 40 other prisoners. Eventually he was sent to a 'judge' in a military court. He was asked if he would undertake such activities again. he said 'Yes - because I have done nothing wrong'. For this he was sentenced to 3 years imprison. the Judge then asked if he wanted to plead for mercy. His reply was. 'I need justice, not mercy' and for this remark a further year was added to his sentence.

His first 7 months in prison was spent in solitary confinement, and the very first month spent in complete darkness.  He describes the horror of when they eventually replaced the light bulb. He then wished he could remain in darkness, because he could finally see the squalid conditions of his cell and the disgusting state of the black piece of plastic he had to eat all his meals from.

Dr Haytham was humble and painfully honest. He is a man of peace and determination. One day, one day soon, Bashar al-Assad will fall. My prayer is that great men like Haytham will be able to return to Syria, and make that nation great again.

Tuesday 19 March 2013

Ten years ago

Ten years ago today
The bombs rained down
'Shock and awe'
We watched, helpless, our TVs ablaze with exploding buildings
We knew that people were inside

School Children and others took to the streets and city squares.
But most were just stunned
We had marched on Parliement and our leaders had dismissed us.

We knew deep down it was all a lie
Iraq was not about to attack our troops in Cyprus
There was no WMD
Or nuclear capacity
It was all a lie.
We knew Bush was a fool
But that Blair would jump at is every command.
We would allow war crimes to be carried out
The imprisonment of resistance
This was a war with not just blood on our hands, but oil.

And 10 years on:
50 killed in car bombs today
179 British troops killed
1 in 30 Iraqi people have died
1,000 000 people are displaced
Just numbers
Numbers are people
Numbers have mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers
Numbers have children

10 years on
Our pledge must be this
Never again
Not in our name

War is never a solution
Violence just masks one injustice with another

Monday 18 March 2013

Syria Awareness Week

It is two years since the first stirrings of resistance to Bashar al-Assad's government began.
The uprising has its roots in protests that erupted in March 2011 in the southern city of Deraa after the arrest and torture of some teenagers who painted revolutionary slogans on a school wall. After security forces opened fire on demonstrators, killing several, more took to the streets. The unrest triggered nationwide protests demanding President Bashar al-Assad's resignation By July 2011, hundreds of thousands were taking to the streets in towns and cities across the country.

Bashar's father Hafez al-Assad had taken over the country in a coup in 1970, with his son taking over the reigns when Hafez died in 2000. They have both ruled with an iron fist, not tolerating any opposition to their control of the state. they have strongly promoted the Alawite minority, a sect with in Islam that covers roughly 10% of the Syrian population. The Assad regime has largely been associated with state violence, corruption and nepotism, but all previous revolts have been mercilessly dealt with, such as the massacre of 25,000 civilians in 1982 around the city of Hama

Yet, propelled by the Arab Spring - this revolt is unstoppable, and the only question on every bodies lips is, how long will Bashar last. He has a lot to lose, as have those who have benefited from his families dynasty. The Baathist army is well disciplined and well armed, and has been happy to employ vicious attacks on civilian populations. This regime will not fall easily.

Around 80,000 people have died so far, nearly a million people are displaced, and millions more are struggling to find fuel, food and water to survive each day.

During 'Syria Awareness Week' in Sunderland University, we aim to let the Syrian Students here tell the story in their own words, and on Tuesday at noon, we will chalk around 80 bodies, one for each 1000 people killed so far. On Wednesday at 3pm in the Library, Syrian Students will tell their own harrowing stories. There are no easy solutions. Some Syrians I speak to call for the U.S. and others to arm the Syrian rebels, some call for peace talks, some call for non-violent resistance.

Whatever the solution, it is clear that Assad's legitimacy is completely destroyed, and nations such as Russia should desist in arming and supporting his regime. This week we will highlight the plight of ordinary Syrians, and call for solidarity with all who are seeking a just and swift end to the conflict.

Wednesday 13 March 2013

Pope Francis is no Latin American Liberationist!

It is great that the election of Pope Francis marks an end of 1000 years of the dominance of European pontiffs, it certainly makes sense that the conclave look towards Latin America, where 40% of all Catholics live.

Latin America is linked in many peoples minds with the tradition of LiberationTheology - a theology on the side of the poor and the marginalised. However, over the last 20 years, the last two popes have swept away the influence of progressives throughout South America, replacing them with conservatives in the likeness of the Vatican Curia.

Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires is one of those conservatives. Though there are signs that he may be sympathetic with the 'social justice' agenda, and he may well be a better communicator and more of a 'team player' - but he is clearly not a 'new beginning' for the Roman Catholic Church.

Priests will still not be able to marry, and there will be no discussions about women priests or gay clergy. It is unlikely that this new pontiff will condemn the wealthy elite that dominate the Latin America that he leaves.

It will take much more that electing a non-European Pope to satisfy those desperate for a modern Roman Catholic Church. The world needs a Pope who is able to address the real issues of the 21st century, equality, climate change, militarism. It would also be helpful to have a pontiff who is humble enough to beg forgiveness for the arrogance and abuses of power in the Vatican's recent history.

We will keep Pope Francis in our prayers, and continue to hope for a miraculous change of thinking at the heart of the Roman Catholic Church

Wednesday 6 March 2013

Fairtrade is for life, not just a Fortnight!

We've had a lot of fun this fairtrade fortnight, with all sorts of events, lectures and flashmobs! It was a lot of fun to try to create a 'human fairtrade banana' outside the main university building, then go into the Bridges shopping centre and serenade shoppers with a fairtrade version of Harry Belafonte's 'Banana Boat Song'!

We've had our laughs, with more to come at the Fairtrade Family Ceilidh on Saturday at the Minster (6.30pm - free for under 16s! £3 for student and low wage!) but there is a very serious side to all this. Most trade is certainly not 'fair'.

For most people in the poorest parts of the world, there is only a struggle to live in sometimes unspeakable conditions. Poor access to housing and education, lack of clean water and electricity and heating are endemic. Most peoples working conditions are horrendous, with low wages and a complete lack of long term security.

When we buy fairtrade coffee, tea, bananas, grapes, cotton etc - we are saying that we expect workers and their families to be able to live with dignity.

Every commodity picked or produced without that fairtrade mark, potentially masks the expoitation of women, child labour, environmental degradation, human rights abuses or just plain poverty.

That is why fairtrade is not just for a fortnight - fairtrade is for life!

Tuesday 5 March 2013

Hugo Chavez, The Peoples Hero

Hugo Chavez is dead. At the age of 58, he was one of the greatest revolutionaries of this new century. He was constantly attacked by the US government, and by the right wing oligarchs of Latin America, yet he inspired hundreds of millions of people and dramatically transformed the lives of the poorest in Venezuela.

He was a committed Christian, with a faith that led to his determination to be on the side of the poor. He faced a violent, US backed coup in 2002, and was brought back to power by the millions of ordinary people who took to the streets in his defense. His detractors claimed he was a dictator, but in reality he won more democratic elections than any other Latin America leader in history.

Even in death, I am sickened by the media's constant denial of his achievements. The BBC continue to allow his enemies (the elite in his country) airtime to call him an autocrat and a disastrous leader. The facts tell a different story. Millions lifted out of poverty, billions of dollars reclaimed from the oil wealth and spent on education, health, housing, electricity and the basics for human dignity.

Chavez said that his socialist project was aimed at promoting equality, liberty, fraternity and the fulfilment of basic necessities such as food and education - he said his work was the search for the reign of God, but "here on earth".

I met many many who benefited from his idealism, including students from poor backgrounds who were finally given the chance for an education.

We who believe that there is an alternative to the barbarism of capitalism, salute his achievements. We will continue to work and pray for a better world, inspired by Chavez's extraordinary example, and his remarkable achievements. Long live the revolution.

Monday 4 March 2013

'Seeds of Liberation'

The Student Christian Movement held its annual conference this weekend in Manchester, and the theme was 'seeds of liberation' - based on a similar gathering held 40 years ago. Some of the participants of that first conference were there - Bruce Kent from CND, John and Grace Vincent from the Urban Theology Unit.

The conference was superb - with speakers from environmental groups, peace organisations and those generally concerned with the common good. I particularly enjoyed hearing Raj, a Dalit liberation theologian from India, who reminded us that we will always be required to be continually sowing the seeds of liberation as part of our continued discipleship.

The overwhelming feeling I had of the weekend was one of hope. I met so many young folk who represented the vibrant future of the church. Thinking, and acting, they demonstrate that there is hope for Christianity in the UK. They represent hope that our faith can be inclusive and creative amid the conservatism and bureaucracy of much of the institutional church.

During one of the sessions I was leading, we all decided to cut it short and join the anti-fascist demo in Manchester central. The English Defence League were having their 'national rally' in the city centre. The students wanted to do something, not just be in a workshop about doing something! I loved the spontaneity of these people, it really impressed me.

One of the participants of the conference 40 years ago eventually turned out to be Archbishop of Canterbury. Who knows.... a future leader of the Anglican church may well have helped us drive the EDL out of Manchester this weekend! Now there is hope for you!

O'Brien - 'woe to you hypocrites'

I am still waiting for an apology from the former Cardinal Keith O'Brien, an apology for the hurt he has caused millions of people with his anti-gay rhetoric. I am looking for some genuine repentance beyond simply 'having been found out'.

Frankly, his meagre apology to those he may have been 'inappropiate' with is not nearly good enough. O'Brien had been a staunch advocate of church teaching against homosexuality, calling same-sex marriage "a grotesque subversion of a universally accepted human right" and saying that British government plans to legalise same-sex marriage would "shame the United Kingdom in the eyes of the world."

Last year, his outrageous comments caused Stonewall to name O'Brien "Bigot of the Year" for his hard line on homosexuality.

It doesn't look like his temporary successor, Archbishop Phillip Tartaglia has got the message either. he simply seems to care about the 'moral credibility' of the Church, and is not prepared to question whether the Church has got its teaching on sexuality completely wrong in the first place.

Jesus spent a lot of his energy warning about the perils of riches and materialism. He also spent a huge amount of time warning about the hypocrisy of faith leaders. But Jesus never once condemned homosexuality. Surely now is the time for the churches to do some serious repentance for their continued homophobia and relentless hypocrisy.

As for O'Brien, he needs our prayers more than most. He is clearly the victim of 'internalised oppresssion' and will not be the only one within the Church. We need to help people like him recognise the dysfunctionality of the Catholic churches teachings on aspects of sexual ethics.

Though I feel sorry for those repressed in the Church due to their sexuality, I find it hard to find any sympathy for O'Brien. As in most situations of such horrendous abuses of power, he only apologised when things got public. Jesus' warnings of hypocrisy to those with power ring as true today as they did 2000 years ago.