Thursday, January 21, 2021

The death of Mohamud Mohammad Hassan


I don't have anything wise of clever to say about the death of Mohamud Mohammad Hussan in Cardiff a few days ago. Clearly South Wales Police have a lot of questions to answer. We need truth and justice.

For now, I will be trying to pray, holding the rage and the grief of it all. You're welcome to pray with me too.

Thursday, January 14, 2021

A Quaker Review of Seeking Paradise

 Here's a link to a review of my book "Seeking Paradise" from Quaker theologian Mark Russ

(Mark is a friend of mine, and we talk a lot about theology!)

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Meeting the Beloved: A Time of Contemplative Prayer

Meeting the Beloved: A Time of Contemplative Prayer 
Tuesday 26th January 7.30pm 

Many of us are drawn to that sense of the divine, or the “something more”, but we don't know how to start to explore this, half the time we don't really believe it, and the idea of “prayer” seems silly and childish. 

But contemplative prayer is a practice that can begin to introduce us to the mysterious "something more" that reaches out to us in love: the Divine, the Beloved, God. 

This online event does not try to "sell" you someone else's ideas about God, but will create a space to encounter the Divine for yourself. We will introduce chants, meditation, and contemplative prayer to allow a space to genuinely encounter the God within for ourselves. 

Send a message to to get the zoom log in for the event. 

Tuesday, January 05, 2021

Love your enemies

I'll never forget the time I heard a colleague of mine talking about when he was doing peace work negotiating with loyalist paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland. The one thing he said which struck me was this: that he genuinely found the loyalist terrorists to be nicer people than the peace activists; that within the peace organisations there was more “politics”, more backbiting, more bullying than in the terrorist organisations. 

That's always stuck with me because it reminds me that an organisation can have a noble purpose, and yet have totally screwed up interpersonal dynamics. You can belong to an organisation that's purpose is peace, and yet one that acts in an ultimately violent way, even if that's just the violence of words. 
This is the danger that is always present for any group of people trying to seek the Beloved Community.
Churches can be places of nasty gossip. 

Peace organisations can be places where people get bullied. 
Climate activist groups can act with huge amounts of white privilege and unreflective white supremacy.
And politically progressive men can treat the women they are dating with sexism and abuse. 

What do we do about this? Just shrug our shoulders and admit we're hypocrites? Or say “nobody's perfect” and just keep going? (In church this is expressed in the version that says “the church is full of sinners, there's always room for one more!”) Or do we “call out” this wherever we see it? And if we do, how does that not just become another form of dysfunction fuelled by anger and guilt and fear? 

I suggest we find something of the answer to this in ferns. Yes, ferns! adrienne maree brown, in her book Emerging Strategy, talks about a fern as an example of a fractal. Fractals are “infinitely complex patterns that are self-similar across different scales”. This means that when you look at a fern you see one long stem with branching green leaves sprouting off, but when you look at those leaves you see the same pattern: one long stem with branching green leaves, and again if you zoom into those leaves you see the same pattern again. Applying this principle to human organisations adrienne maree brown says, “How we are at the small scale is how we are at the large scale.” 

I think Jesus had this intuition too. I think that's how we need to understand the most difficult thing he ever said: love your enemies. 

Interestingly “love your enemies” is the one phrase that the Jesus Seminar thinks is most likely to have actually been said by the real living breathing historic Jesus. Now, not everyone is on board with the Jesus Seminar project, where they look at every word in the Gospels and judge how likely it is to have been actually said by Jesus, but at least on this one, I think they're probably right. I think if there was any chance this didn't really come from the lips of Jesus then someone would have quietly found a way to get rid of it from the record. But because it was so well-attested they just couldn't do it. 

Of course there are days when we wish we could get rid of it from the record: when it's challenge is just too much for us. But there it remains – the unreasonable challenge. 

How can we possibly respond to this challenge? First, let's understand that to love enemies, you gotta have enemies. Now that's not too difficult for folks who suffer under an oppressive system. If your body is threatened in this society, then I'm pretty sure you know who your enemies are. If you think you've not got any enemies to love, I gotta tell you, you're not doing it right. If you think you've not got any enemies, then you've likely got a lot of privilege. You're going to need to work at getting yourself some enemies. Don't worry, it's not that difficult, listen to the experience of others: of black lives, queer lives, trans lives, women's lives, you'll find your enemies soon enough! 

Once you have enemies you've gotta start fighting against them. Jesus said, “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword”. That doesn't mean violence, but it does mean fighting. It means condemning the kind of peace that is really just quiet streets, a submissive population, a passive society that does not speak up about injustice. That's not true peace. That's just silence. And “Silence = Death”. That's what the signs said at AIDS activist marches in the past, and what they say now at Black Lives Matter marches. This is the silence/peace that is white silence that just wants people to be nice and not cause a fuss, even while black bodies are sacrificed. To this silence/peace, Jesus says, “No, I have come to bring a sword to this peace, I've come to name the enemies, the Powers, the systems we need to make war with.” 

So once you've found your enemies, and started fighting against them, then you're in a position to love them. How do we do that? Firstly, not the easy and cheap way. Again, we have to be aware of privilege here. There's an easy and cheap way of loving enemies if you've not really experienced them as enemies – as people threatening your body, your rights, your dignity. This has been shown in some Extinction Rebellion protests when white activists were chanting “Police, we love you, we're doing this for you too!” This was cheap enemy love, done with no understanding of police brutality, and the historic institutional racism of the police, particularly in London. This was harmful to black people who have been protesting about this police brutality for decades. 

This is not what real enemy-love looks like. Real enemy-love is super clear on the enemy, and exactly what violence they are responsible for. It names, describes, and condemns that violence. It demands the end to the violence. But ultimately it refuses to manifest the violence back on the enemy. Ultimately it responds with love. 

And again, privileged people like me need to be super conscious of our white privilege in wrestling with this. We need to be careful we're not demanding nonviolence from the oppressed while excusing the violence of the oppressor (including economic, cultural, and spiritual violence). 

But while keeping the nuance of this struggle in my mind, I do have to commit to enemy-love as a disciple of Jesus. We ultimately respond with love. Why? 
Because this is the ultimate path to liberation.
Because “how we are at the small scale is how we are at the large scale.” 
Because to fight against the violence of the world I need to fight against the seed of violence within me.  
Because as Francis of Assisi said, “Can true humility and compassion exist in our words and eyes unless we know we too are capable of any act?” 

We need to be able to recognise the violence within us, the white supremacy within us, the potential dictator within us, the abuser within us – to be able to liberate ourselves from these things. As Buddhist teacher and activist angel Kyodo Williams says we ultimately bring down violent capitalism, white supremacy, and patriarchy by “reclaiming the human spirit”. By operating out of what I would call our Christ-nature, rather than out of ego and fear. 

We reclaim our own human spirit, and by acting out of nonviolence and love to enemies (while also fighting against them) we begin to reclaim the human spirit of our enemies, of the people who are the vehicles of that oppression and violence. 

It's not just that this is a good tactic (though I think it is). It's that it plugs us in to the very nature of the Universe/God. This fractal universe where your veins look like rivers, and the swirl of your coffee looks like the Milky Way, this quantum universe where there's more mysterious entanglement than we can understand, invites us to awaken to this: how we are at the small scale is how we are at the large scale. 

And in the spiritual practice of contemplative prayer, and the emotional practice of doing community, and in the mistakes, and the forgiveness, and the conflict, and the confession, and the repentance, we begin to reclaim the human spirit, piece by piece. And we begin to learn to love our enemies, and reject violence on the small scale, on the spiritual scale, on the interpersonal scale, as much as on the global scale. 

This is how I try to practice this: When I've been at the Pride parade, and the religious protestors are there with their big old signs, I never forget to shout at them, “BLESS you!” And yes, part of me is pronouncing “bless” as a four-letter word. But I do mean it: I want them to be blessed, I want them to reclaim their human spirit and experience the gospel of love. 

The other thing I've learnt to do is respond to cold callers and telephone scammers with love. For a while I was also getting the kind of calls that said, “We are from Microsoft and there is a virus on your computer that we need to get rid of.” It tended to happen every Monday morning. And of course if you let them, and do as they ask, they will take control of your computer and cause havoc. Now my immediate reaction used to be just to put the phone down. Because I really dislike confrontation, especially on the phone. That puts me right out of my comfort zone. 

But then I decided to treat these phone calls as little exercises in being assertive. I'd get a phone call, and I'd play a game: I wouldn't let them take control of my computer, but I would keep talking to them for as long as possible. I would never hang up, I would always get them to hang up first, and as I long as they hung up first, I'd win the game. And I'd also just try to keep them on the line for as long as possible: five minutes, six minutes, seven minutes. I was always trying to beat my record. I would go slowly, ask them questions, just try to play for time. I thought that if they were talking to me then at least they weren't scamming some other more vulnerable person. Eventually they would get sick of me and put the phone down. 

Then I saw a Youtube video where someone had actually got one of these people talking, and they said, “Yeah, I'm not proud of myself, but I don't have many options, I can't really leave.” And I realised that the people making these phone calls (my enemies in this game) were actually victims too: coerced to work for criminal gangs, probably in some kind of debt-labour, exploited. And since then, after wasting their time for five minutes, I started saying to them: “Can I talk to you as a human being? You're a human being. I'm a human being. I don't know you. You don't know me. But we are humans on this planet, and I just want to say: I love you. I love you. I am sending love to you. I don't know what your situation is, but it can't be a good situation. You're involved in this criminal act and it's not good. It's not good. I don't know if you can get out of the situation you're in, but I hope you can. There's not much I can do. But I want to say: you are a human being, and I love you. I am sending love to you. And please please get out of this situation. I really hope you can. I give you all my best.” And after a few moments of quiet they usually said, “Thank you” and we ended the conversation like we were friends. 

Doing it once doesn't magically change the world. This is a lifelong practice. But to love enemies, to practice at the small scale what we want on the big scale, to live and learn in the messiness of human meeting, plugs us into the fractal nature of the universe. And that is the true liberation of the human spirit.

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

What the pandemic tells us about the politics of the climate crisis

In many ways the 2020 pandemic is a rehearsal of the climate crisis. Indeed in many ways the 2020 pandemic is the first part of the climate crisis, the first of many global crises that are coming our way, all linked to the twenty-first century climate and ecological emergency that is upon us.

And so this crisis can teach us something about the crises to come. Specifically I think it can teach us something about how politically right wing governments react to crises like this, and what that means for climate activism. The UK/English Conservative government have failed us repeatedly in this crisis, and that failure is not just about incompetence, it is very much about ideology.

The fact that the same mistake has been made twice, in both the spring and the autumn, of going into a lockdown much too late, shows us the basic response to crises is to do nothing. Again this is not a matter of incompetence but ideology. The right wing ideology is to do nothing that disrupts the "normal" functioning of the economy/free market. Everything has to keep going, tomorrow must be much the same as today, with a bit of "economic growth". This is despite the fact that even on the market's own terms small disruption earlier is better than larger disruption later. But no, the imagination of the right is that things have to keep going on as they have before, the market keeps flowing, and we need to make sure that it does. This is the fundamentalism of post-Thatcherite neoliberalism. It is an ideology that is incapable of adapting to large systematic crises, and yet is is the ideology that has ruled the world for the last forty years.

What does that mean for the climate crisis? It means that right wing governments will not act on the climate crisis until it is too late. They will not act until it is unignorable, until whole cities in their own countries are wiped off the map and the citizens start asking - "what are you doing about this?" They will not act until scientists sit them down and say "this will kill hundreds of thousands of people in the next few months". But unlike in a pandemic, instant action will not solve the problem. In a pandemic instant government action today can save lives in the next two months, but instant action today on the climate crisis will not actually have an effect until forty years later.

Right wing governments will never act on a crisis if that acting goes against their foundational ideology of free market fundamentalism. This is why I think the messaging of Extinction Rebellion is deeply politically naïve. Extinction Rebellion believe that a right wing government will enact the results of a citizen's assembly even if that involves massive state intervention in the market (which it obviously must do). They won't, which is why I have been frustrated at no apparent change of messaging and tactics since last year's election. Though in a hung parliament perhaps many things are possible, in a parliament with a comfortable Conservative majority many things aren't. 

Extinction Rebellion, even through last year's election remained naively "neutral" continuing with the usual actions through the election. Now I'm not suggesting that XR should become party political, but they could have said to all the activists "we are now suspending our activities and we suggest you judge for yourself who is most likely to act on the climate crisis and go campaign like hell for those representatives."

Instead Extinction Rebellion seem to have their own fundamentalism in believing that citizens assemblies can replace representative democratic institutions, forgetting that the conclusions of citizens assemblies can only be implemented if consented to by representative parliaments and governments. 

I often quote the words I once heard Bill Mckibben say, "I thought I was in an argument about climate change, it took me twenty years to realise I was in a war. And we are losing the war." I think for all the apparent radicalism and "rebellion" of XR it still believes we are in an argument, not a war, and that the argument can be solved by citizens' assemblies. I believe that vastly underestimates the powers that are stacked against us - the powers of corporations and political and economic institutions that rule the world.

These things will not shift until there is massive democratic pressure to do so. This will require massive movements on the streets (not just thousands but hundreds of thousands), arguments communicated and won in the public sphere, powerful moral and spiritual persuasion, and, yes, left-of-centre politicians winning elections. Citizens' assemblies are not a replacement for any of these things, they are simply one tool to be used once all these things are in place. 

We are in a war (not an argument) and we are losing. The 2020 pandemic is a warning that shows us just how powerful (and literally deadly) the enemy is. We need to pay attention to that and adapt accordingly. We need to be able to name the enemy more clearly and show how that enemy - free market fundamentalism and its disciples - are also the cause of our other ills - poverty, colonialism, austerity, worker exploitation, homelessness. It is this joined-up thinking that will allow climate activism to become a movement for justice for all, and it's that that makes it a mass movement with a powerful moral argument - and not just the concern of white middle class vegetarians. 

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Christendom IS White Supremacy

I read a lot of books about how Christian churches should radically change, embrace the postmodern reality, get back to biblical principles, abandon old models. A lot of these books will criticise the old models under the label of "Christendom" - that European and colonial idea where power, culture, and religion are all aligned. In Christendom everyone is assumed to be Christian by virtue of being in a "Christian country" and the church is in the centre of power, resulting in, in some cases, state churches such as the Church of England. 

I agree with these criticism, but I feel like the whiteness of so many of these writers blinds them to the true sins of Christendom. It is not simply that Christendom is an old model, and we need to move on to something more relevant. I feel like sometimes that's what these writers are saying. Sometimes it feels like the criticism doesn't add up to anything more than "this isn't fashionable anymore". 

But it's much worse than that. When Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire it became corrupted to such an extent that its values were effectively reversed: from nonviolence to violence, from power-from-below, to power-from-above, from good news to the poor to good news to the rich. As the Empire crumbled but Imperial Christianity remained holding together European society these values were further embedded. Christianity, instead of following the humble way of Jesus became an expression of superiority and supremacy. "Christian" became a label for a race, a people, defined over and against others. 

The Crusades were the first violent expression of this Christian-as-race ideology. But then came European colonialism, a project that depended on a belief in the Christian-race superiority over other races. So what later evolved into white supremacy, was first Christian supremacy, and depended on that theological backing to justify the enslavement and subjugation of other peoples. 

White supremacy is the child of Christian supremacy, which is a fundamental expression of Christendom.

So when white writers today talk about moving beyond Christendom I want to say to them: yes, but this isn't just about church in a cafe being cool and church in a big old stone building being uncool. It's much more foundational than that. It's about recognising that Christendom fundamentally reversed the very nature of Christian faith from a decolonising movement to a colonising movement, and in doing so laid the groundwork for white supremacy in all its forms. Rejecting Christendom isn't just about what form the church takes, it's about repenting of the Christian-white-supremacy ideology and identifying Christian faith once again as a decolonising movement, led by a radical prophet resisting occupation in his homeland. 

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

The Youness of the Universe

Image: Karl Stapelfe/ESA/Hubble, NASA
This is the fundamental insight of religious theism: that the reality we encounter when we encounter reality most powerfully is a Someone, is a "you". This is the insight that the universe has a quality of "youness" to it. 

While other religious (or nonreligious) approaches may encounter an "it", the theist encounters a "you" - a "you" that we label as "God". There seems to be no way to judge the truth of an approach that finds a "you" versus an approach that finds an "it", and that might be a very fruitless thing to try to establish. But I think it helps to clarify this difference.

What theistic practices of prayer are designed to do is to open you up to a real-life encounter with the "you" - the "you" that is always and everywhere present and always available, and always seeking relationship. The sure sense of faith that theists rest upon is not some intellectual proof that the universe is designed or created, but that in the encounter of the heart we encounter one is a "you", and fundamentally one who loves. This is the most profound statement given to Moses at the story of the encounter with the burning bush - "I Am What I Am" says the voice - this is the central insight: that the encounter is with a "you" that speaks as an "I". 

We grapple for ways to talk about this, and most of us settle on a language of ecstatic love. The encounter is not observation or the receiving of information or knowledge, the encounter is erotic, bodily, ecstatic, joyous, it is love.

So the way to know God, even if the idea of God makes no sense to you, is to begin to treat the universe as a "you". Once we begin to speak to the empty space, to listen to it, to be in its presence, and to literally say in our minds: "Who are you? What are you? Do you have anything to say to me?" then we begin to hear, very dimly, the still small voice of calm. 

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

A Method of Contemplation

There are of course many ways to practice meditative contemplative prayer. Many people want to jump straight into silence and mindfulness, but for most people this becomes dry and feels like hard work after a while (if it doesn't for you, great! But I want to talk to those who do struggle). So often there is a need for some scaffolding, some structure of words to hold the deeper silence. I use prayer books by John Philip Newell, who for me offers a poetic language that opens up the heart. Using reading and chanting as punctuation, I use a fourfold method of prayer: intention, compassion, meditation, and communion. 

This is a form of prayer that last for about an hour:

Begin with speaking a written prayer and/or chanting.

Intention: Then five or ten minutes of silence in which you express a desire, an intention, to enter into deeper prayer. You try to open yourself to the divine, but you are also full of forgiveness and love for yourself as your mind wanders. You let is wander if it needs to. Allow yourself to think the thoughts if you really feel you need to process something.

Written prayer/chanting.

Compassion: Then five or ten minutes of prayer for the life of the world. Hold all those you know in need this day, all the suffering of the world, hold it in the presence of God. Again your mind might wander as you think of your friends, your family, and the state of the world, but try to bring the attention back to God.

Written prayer/chanting.

Meditation: Then ten minutes of mindfulness meditation. You sit with your mind on your breathing, your body, listening to the Universe/God all around you. Many people practice breath meditation, but I find listening works best for me. I listen to the sounds of the room: traffic, the ticking of a clock, a dog barking. Don't analyse these sounds, don't think about them, just purely listen with as much attention as possible. You can begin to realise in this that you are within a whole body, the body of the universe, the earth, and you are part of it. You in a womb listening to the heartbeat of your mother's body. You are intimately connected and held in the body of God/Earth.

Written prayer/chanting.

Communion: Finally speak intimately with God, express your desire to be close and connected, to be filled with love, or simply rest in the silence of God's peace. Five or ten minutes. 

Brief song or spoken blessing to end.  

Tuesday, September 08, 2020

The revolution that nearly happened


I recently found something out that astounded me. Martin Luther King, Thomas Merton, and Thich Nhat Hanh were supposed to go on a retreat together in 1968. This was scheduled and the only reason it didn't happen was the assassination of King on 4th April 1968.

This astounds me because I feel like that retreat might just have been the start of a revolution, a spiritual revolution that might have transformed the world. 

Here were three men: one white, one Asian, one black; one Protestant, one Catholic, one Zen Buddhist; two American, one Vietnamese (at the height of the American-Vietnamese war). Sure, they didn't represent all the diversity that exists on earth (they were all men for a start) but there was significant diversity there.

But also significant unity. Here were three men all committed to radical activism as well as spiritual practice - to a vision of spiritual activism that I genuinely feel could have transformed the world (and might still do). These were three men who knew we needed to transform the heart, purify the soul, to create a revolution of love that might just save the world.

And so in a sense it's not surprising that King was killed to prevent this revolution from happening, as was Merton soon after (probably by the CIA). I think political forces of darkness absolutely saw how revolutionary these men were, and put a stop to this happening. 

But I keep imagining - what would have happened? I would love to see someone write a play based on this retreat that never was - to show King, Merton, and Hanh sitting in silence together, eating together, and sharing their words on peace, justice and prayer. I so long for that play to exist. Please make it exist someone!

Although this realisation for me is kind of tragic, it is also kind of hopeful, because I feel like we were that close to this revolution happening. Three men might have sat in silence together for days and then come into the world more deeply renewed and powerful than ever before (and these were already powerful influential people). I just feel like these men were already spiritual giants, and a united front from them would have been truly truly transformational for the world. From the silence of a hermitage in Kentucky the world would never have been the same again. It was a revolution that so very nearly happened. 

Sunday, August 09, 2020

I'm really tired of negativity

I've got to the stage when I'm really tired of the negativity of liberal religion, defining itself over and against conservative religion. It often feels to me like liberal religion has got nothing to say apart from saying that it is not conservative religion, and that conservative religion is wrong.

For a while this is refreshing. When you move from conservative religion to liberal religion you feel reassured by this. I moved from, well let's say orthodox religion, not necessarily conservative, to liberalism and I needed to be affirmed in that movement. 

But after years (or decades) of this, you look around and ask, "Yeah, but is there anything more to say? To learn? To do? To grow into?"

This came to my mind recently when I was listening to a liberal religious podcast. Someone had written in to say, "I didn't really grow up with any religion. My question is - how can I get to know God?" And the answer of the podcasters was, "Well conservative religion says there's only one way to know God, but that's wrong, and it's not necessarily what conservative religion says about this...." But they didn't really have any positive answer to this question.

I decided at the moment to turn off the podcast and unsubscribe to it (and I've probably been listening every week for five years). Because I'm just really tired of that kind of stuff, it doesn't feed me spiritually, it's not edifying or useful in my spiritual journey. I know what I'm not, I really want to work on what I am. I know what I reject, but I really want to work on what I affirm. I know the spiritual paths I reject, but I really want to work on the spiritual path that I do walk. 

I do know that I am guilty of this too. It's very easy to slip into it as a preacher, to say, "Well, not this, and not that." But I'm going to try to work on this because it's just not good enough, and the times we live in demand more than that. The times we live in demand spiritually transformed people, so I'm going to work on my transformation and the transformation of my communities, there's no time to waste so much energy on the the things that I reject.

I've also been influenced by this article that says:

People also repeat bad ideas when they complain about them. Before you can criticize an idea, you have to reference that idea. You end up repeating the ideas you’re hoping people will forget—but, of course, people can’t forget them because you keep talking about them. The more you repeat a bad idea, the more likely people are to believe it. 

Let's call this phenomenon Clear's Law of Recurrence: The number of people who believe an idea is directly proportional to the number of times it has been repeated during the last year—even if the idea is false.  

Each time you attack a bad idea, you are feeding the very monster you are trying to destroy. As one Twitter employee wrote, “Every time you retweet or quote tweet someone you’re angry with, it helps them. It disseminates their BS. Hell for the ideas you deplore is silence. Have the discipline to give it to them.” 

Your time is better spent championing good ideas than tearing down bad ones. Don't waste time explaining why bad ideas are bad. You are simply fanning the flame of ignorance and stupidity. 

The best thing that can happen to a bad idea is that it is forgotten. The best thing that can happen to a good idea is that it is shared. It makes me think of Tyler Cowen's quote, “Spend as little time as possible talking about how other people are wrong.” 

Feed the good ideas and let bad ideas die of starvation.

So (unless a group is actively doing harm or threatening rights) I'm just going to ignore them. I'm going to try to commit, now, to let bad ideas die of starvation, to ignore conservative religion rather than define myself as being against it. 

I'm starting to hear a little bell go off in my head each time I hear someone criticise someone else's religion, including myself, and I'm going to say, "Ignore it, stop talking about it, move on."