Saturday 12 September 2015

Taize Againt The Tanks

This year sees the return of the DSEi (Defence, Security Equipment International) weapons fair down in London. Held at the Excel exhibition centre in the docklands area, it is said to be the biggest arms fair of its kind in the world.

30,000 delegates from 150 countries will view and buy the latest military equipment from the worlds arms manufacturers. Britain is now the second biggest exporter of 'defence' equipment, with over £8 billion sales in 2014, and over £3 billion in 'security' equipment.

Unfortunately, so much of this weaponry ends up in the hands of countries who have appalling human rights records, or happily use the weapons to attack other nations. Worse still, these weapons end up being the ones used in the in conflict zones such as Syria, Yemen and Iraq.

The arms trade is one of the root causes of our current refugee crisis. We fuel the conflicts of tomorrow right here in London.

So we tried to highlight the madness of the arms trade, by attempting to disrupt the preparation for the fair. This meant teams of people getting in front of trucks and military vehicles entering the Excel centre. Each day, different groups took turns to cause mayhem. I joined in on the 'Stop arming Israel' and the 'No faith in war' days.

It was inspirational to watch so many different groups take it in turns to block the entrance, using dancing, painting and even funeral processions.

My own contribution was to hold a service in the road using Taize style chants. Taize (an ecumenical community in France) is a place of peace and reconciliation, so it seemed to make sense to use the simple singling style as a way of pursuing Non Violent Direct Action.

As we sang in the road - a truck carrying a 'Thales Bushmaster' turned up - so we keep singing as we stepped in front of it. It was extraordinary to watch the truck forced into reversing by the power of prayer and direct action!

As I write this, there is still a week of direct action planned - so why not pop down to Excel and do your bit to disrupt the arms trade!

Tuesday 21 July 2015

A gentle summer

Just a note of thanks to loyal readers who have contacted me and made sure I am alright! After a disappointing election in the UK, a brutal first Tory budget and watching the continued attacks on the left in Greece, I must admit, it's hard to be optimistic about the state of the world.

So I've taken a bit of time off from blogging while I concentrate on family and my local church. Refugee work is continually important and takes time and energy, leaving little space for creative blogging. I have a retreat in Taize coming up next week, but I hope that gives rise to a gentle summer of rest and restoration.

I'll need it, September will not only see the return of the students, but the continued struggle against the world's biggest arms fair down in London - I do hope you can join me in some of the activities planned by 'Stop the Arms Fair' and the SPEAK network.

So I hope you are taking some time out with friends and family. Look after yourself, so that we can be renewed in the struggle for a better world. Many blessings my friends.

Wednesday 29 April 2015

The Liberation Theology Gathering

Well, the third 'Victor Jara Liberation Library' is over, and what a treat it was! 25 delegates from across the UK gathered to share ideas and actions relating to a liberative theology.

A bit of social justice singing and worship from both the Iona and Taize communities was followed by a Bible study shared in a participative framework.

Then I presented a short piece on the issues facing Liberation Theology today (Inequalities of power and wealth, Climate Change, discrimination, war, attacks on the poor, poverty of education) before we spent a bit of time sharing our own contexts, and the groups of folk who had encouraged and enabled us.

We had an update from two members who had visited Kabul earlier in the year to meet with a Peace community in the thick of the harsh life in Afghanistan

One of the folk then shared about the work of SPEAK and the upcoming proposed direct action against the weapons fair down in London in September

at lunchtime, some of us went and lobbied the local Parliamentary candidates over the NHS as part of the 38' campaign.- there should always be a bit of 'action' a part of these conferences!

Sue Richardson then did a great bible study in a Liberation Theology format, emphasising our own experiences that we bring to the story from scripture.

We ended with Dr David Golding giving his take on why Liberationists need to take climate change seriously. Then we wound around a 'Labyrinth of Liberation' before preparing for the Ceilidh!

The Ceilidh against the Cuts was the most inspired bit of the conference. Many of the sanctuary seekers I work with were invited, so seeing Eritreans, Iraqis, Syrians, Iranians etc. getting to grips with the niceties of Scottish dancing was something to behold. It was a surprisingly moving event - and so much fun.

Strangely enough, 'Liberation Theology' needs to be 'liberating' - that means that as well as good theology, it should be fun and involve good dancing. I recall a great quote that says something like 'Its not my revolution if I can't dance to it!'

Wednesday 1 April 2015

Caroline Lucas set to become PM in secret deal

A secret deal to make Caroline Lucas Prime Minister in event of hung parliament is a logical and welcome breakthrough for British politics.

Rumours of secret talks between SNP and Labour have been denied by both parties, but investigative reporting by the Morning Star has revealed that plans are well under way to forge a SNP/Labour/Green/Plaid Cymru coalition in the event of a hung parliament on May 7th.

The mutual loathing between Ed Miliband and SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon has been a log jam in talks by senior officials, but the secret deal that has been hammered out is seen as the only workable solution. In the event of a hung parliament, Green MP Caroline Lucas is to be announced as Prime Minister. She is seen as the only MP to command enough respect among both SNP and Labour party members of parliament.

This ground breaking decision will cement a Labour/SNP/Plaid Cymru/Green coalition that may be on the only way to shut out another Conservative/Lib Dem coalition.

The Green party are also denying that these talks have taken place, but will be delighted that Mrs Lucas could play such a role in a future government.

‘Caroline has worked so hard to gain such support, not only during 5 years in in the House of Commons, but also whilst serving the country as a Member of the European Parliament’ a senior Labour politician admitted yesterday. ‘She has spent years building credible coalitions across Westminster, and is seen as the only person who could hold a Labour/Nationalist/Green coalition together’.

A poll of Labour MP’s shows that if they cannot achieve an outright victory in the general election, Ed Miliband will not have enough support to continue as prime minister of a coalition government. He is likely to accept the role as deputy prime minister with Nicola Sturgeon becoming the Minister for Scotland. The costly Trident Nuclear programme will almost certainly be the first casualty of such a coalition.

Jim Murphy is said to be furious at news of the deal, having been left out of the loop by senior Labour Party officials. He is said to be considering crossing the floor and joining the Conservative Party if such a deal takes place after 7th May. ‘Good riddance’ claimed outspoken Labour MEP Lora Ploif, ‘He’s been stinking up the place with his Blairite politics since becoming leader in December, haemorrhaging working class support for the Scottish Labour Party.’

All this is great news for the British Left/Green community. Let’s all hope for a breath of fresh air in the British Political System this May!

Clarkson to front UKIP Party Political Broadcast

In a major coup for Nigel Farage, Jeremy Clarkson is set to be the new face of UKIP in their first Party Political Broadcast to be aired today. All of the parties have be keen to show their celebrity support, with Labour using Martin Freeman and Broadchurch star David Tennant in their first Broadcast on Thursday. The Tory Party have garnered support from big names such as Phil Collins and Pippa Middleton and are set to even use Ant and Dec in a comedy skit representing Cameron and Clegg.

The use of Clarkson is set to be a big boost for UKIP, after 1 million people signed an online petition to have him reinstated as a presenter on popular BBC show ‘Top Gear’

Jeremy Clarkson was dropped by the BBC earlier this month following a "fracas" with a Top Gear producer.

 ‘UKIP is the only party to represent decent ordinary British people’ said Clarkson, who will appear with Farage in the broadcast, chatting over a pint in a traditional British Pub. ‘I used to support the Tories, but they have allowed the country to be overrun by Bulgarians. They also allow the BBC to be run by a bunch of pansies. UKIP is the only party with a decent track record of defending our national interests’

At the request of Clarkson, the broadcast is to be aired today at 12 noon on all digital channels with the exception of the BBC. He made the deal to exclude the BBC a condition of appearing in UKIP’s publicity, reportedly saying ‘That’ll teach the bastards’

There is no news yet as to whether fellow presenters James May and Richard Hammond will also appear on the broadcast.

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 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.

Monday 16 February 2015

Film reviews: from 'Selma' to 'Jupiter Ascending'

I've been lucky enough to have had space to watch a number of movies over the last few weeks, and I just wanted to recommend and review some of them.

Selma: This is the must see at the moment. The performances are great (there certainly should have been at least an Oscar nomination for David Oyelowo for his portrayal of Martin Luther King Jr) and the direction by Ava DuVernay tells the story of 'the voting rights marches' in a way that doesn't over romanticise the struggle for civil rights.

It is not perfect, and it doesn't delve deeply enough into Martin and Coretta's strained relationship, making the flow between them a little less credible. However, the main thrust of the story has to be about the march from Selma to Montgomery and the reasons for it. This is addressed clearly, and the importance of this struggle is made visible by this film.

It is an affirming film, that should make you weep, and should remind us all of the bravery needed to overcome injustice.

This brings me on to 'We Are The Giant' Greg Barker's documentary about the Arab Spring. It focuses on the lives of people caught up in the struggle for change in the Middle East, focusing on Libya, Bahrain and Syria.

It is difficult to watch (I watched it alongside several Syrian refugees, and it was very upsetting, they testified to the truthfulness of the horrific scenes we witnessed) but is probably the most powerful documentary I've seen on the subject. Primarily because it does not give any easy solutions. It shows the dilemmas faced by those who want to change injustices non-violently. In the official webpage for the film, we learn about those who died in the making of it, and the struggle to get the footage that was produced. All I can say is - watch this movie. It will change how you see the ongoing trauma in the Middle East and perhaps encourage you to support those who are suffering as a result.

Of the other films I've seen recently 'Ex-Machina' is recommended. It is beautiful to watch, and the tension builds perfectly. It uses the premise of 'AI' technology to explore much about the human condition. It looks at abuse, power and control from both a corporate and human perspective. I don't want to give away any of the plot twists, so just go and see the film and enjoy.

Finally - I went to see 'Jupiter Ascending', and couldn't believe that the makers of the brilliant 'Cloud Atlas' and the 'Matrix' could produce such a heap of steaming crap. So many fantastic effects, and it was crammed with excellent ideas - but the whole movie did not hold together well at all. Even the unsubtle homages to my favourite film 'Brazil' only went to demonstrate what a poor movie it was.

But three great movies out of four is a good enough success rate for me!

Sunday 15 February 2015

NHS Valentines weekend

A friend texted me with a very special message. She was so pleased to have taken part in the nation wide protest in support of the NHS on Valentines Day. Mostly because later that evening, her mum was taken ill and ended up in hospital.

The NHS saved her mum's life.

And that is how it is, most do not realise how important and incredible it is until we are faced with a crisis. For us, it was last year, when our daughter was diagnosed with Turner's Syndrome. We were in and out of hospital, and they were fantastic at the Children's Centre at Sunderland Royal Hospital.

But 1000's of nurses jobs have been lost over the last few years. The creeping privatisation of the NHS, hastened by the 2012 Health and Social Care Act, has meant that £13 billion of our tax payers money has already been syphoned off into the hands of the private sector.

The Tories are set to be the big winners - with 24 ministers who voted for the act in 2012 being financially involved with 15 private health care companies who have benefited from the changes.

Slowly and by stealth, the NHS is being degraded and sold off in little chunks. Staff moral is low, and 76% of GPs are saying that health care rationing is already happening.

It is our NHS, and we are not prepared to lose it without a fight. In Sunderland, in Durham, in hundreds of towns and cities up and down the country we shouted 'Hands off our NHS!'

It belongs to the people, not to the privateers. Let us not be the first generation since 1948 to lose such a life giving institution. The NHS is not safe in this governments hands.

Sunderland V Bradford - a house divided!

Today is the big match in our family. My two children are born in Bradford and feel deeply for it. They have grown to love our new city of Sunderland, (we moved here just over 2 years ago) and normally support Sunderland AFC, but in the FA Cup match, they are rooting for Bradford.

Not so with their Dad, I've become a serious Sunderland supporter over the last few years, and I'm clear on who I support today. It's not that I don't still love the city where I served as City Centre Priest, Bradford will always hold a special part of my heart. It is the city where my faith developed, where I stood side by side with campaigners on hundreds of issues of peace and social justice - it is a city full of love and surprises.

But this is about football, and I have been to seen more matches in Sunderland in the last 2 years than I ever did in 23 years at Bradford. The atmosphere at the Stadium of Light is magical, it is the supporters as much as the players and managers who have won me over.

I'm proud that Bradford City humbled Chelsea, and if they win today by sheer hard work, then I'll wish them on to Wembley. But I want Sunderland to win - and I'll be gutted if we lose. A win may reinvigorate us after a poor league season, and help ensure we stay up this year.

You have to love where you live. It is where God has put you.