Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Gentle/Radical nominated for the Turner Prize

One of the projects I'm involved in as part of Gentle/Radical is “Doorstep Revolution” a project to collect stories of Riverside during the pandemic. This has been a fascinating and rewarding project. It's such a privilege when people let you into their lives and tell you their stories. One of the themes that has come out of this work is the importance of connection, the connections that have been strained under lockdown, and the connections we want to grow and strengthen in the coming months.

This, and other work, has now been recognised with a nomination for the Turner Prize. The following article is from the BBC:

The 2021 Turner Prize nominees are, for the first time, made up of collectives who have helped to "inspire social change through art", organisers say.

Exhibitions have been largely closed over the past year due to the pandemic.

With that in mind, Friday's shortlist contained the names of five groups who continued to work in the community.

Prize chair and Tate Britain director Alex Farquharson said it is intended to capture and reflect the mood of the moment in contemporary British art.

"After a year of lockdowns when very few artists have been able to exhibit publicly, the jury has selected five outstanding collectives whose work has not only continued through the pandemic but become even more relevant as a result," he said in a statement.

The efforts - by Array Collective, Black Obsidian Sound System (B.O.S.S.), Cooking Sections, Gentle/Radical and Project Arts Works - have included artwork in support of law changes in Northern Ireland, a 24-hour fundraising rave for queer, trans and intersex black and people of colour, and the use of food to help understand the workings of the world.

As well as a lockdown doorstep neighbourhood story-telling campaign and work by a group of neurodiverse artists.

Last year's Turner Prize didn't happen at all due to the effects of coronavirus and it was instead replaced by a fund for struggling artists.

In 2019, the prize pot was split four ways at the nominees' request.

Eventual joint-winners Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Helen Cammock, Tai Shani and Oscar Murillo said they wanted to make a "collective statement" at a time when there was "already so much that divides and isolates people and communities" - a nod to the fall-out from the Brexit referendum.

This year is the first time a Turner Prize jury has selected a shortlist comprising entirely of artist collectives, who the judges say have all showed "solidarity" with various communities across the UK during a difficult 12 months...

Over in Cardiff, Gentle/Radical - made up of artists, community workers, performers, faith practitioners, writers and others - are advocating for art as a tool for social change.

They create real and virtual spaces for communities in Wales to engage with culture, such as the creation a pop-up cinema space showing independent films.

Their ongoing Doorstep Revolution helped people to share neighbourhood stories during lockdown.

The jury admired their "deep commitment" to the hyper-local community of their native Riverside...

An exhibition of all five Turner Prize nominees work will be held at the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum in Coventry from 29 September until 12 January 2022, as part of the UK City of Culture 2021 celebrations.

The winner will be announced on 1 December.

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

The problem with advocating for future generations and nature

"The unborn" are a convenient group of people to advocate for. They never make demands of you; they are morally uncomplicated, unlike the incarcerated, addicted, or the chronically poor; they don't resent your condescension or complain that you are not politically correct; unlike widows, they don't ask you to question patriarchy; unlike orphans, they don't need money, education, or childcare; unlike aliens, they don't bring all that racial, cultural, and religious baggage that you dislike; they allow you to feel good about yourself without any work at creating or maintaining relationships; and when they are born, you can forget about them, because they cease to be unborn. It's almost as if, by being born, they have died to you. You can love the unborn and advocate for them without substantially challenging your own wealth, power, or privilege, without re-imagining social structures, apologizing, or making reparations to anyone. They are, in short, the perfect people to love if you want to claim you love Jesus but actually dislike people who breathe.

Prisoners? Immigrants? The sick? The poor? Widows? Orphans? All the groups that are specifically mentioned in the Bible? They all get thrown under the bus for the unborn.'

Dave Barnhart

I spotted this quote doing the rounds on the internet a few months ago. I think it has been widely shared because it tells a very clear truth that is worth speaking out loud. But I actually don't want to talk about abortion in quoting this. Because what struck me about this quote is how it could apply to white climate activism:
"Future generations" and animals and nature are convenient groups to advocate for. They never make demands of you; they are morally uncomplicated, unlike the incarcerated, addicted, or the chronically poor; they don't resent your condescension or complain that you are not politically correct; unlike people in the majority world they don't question your imperialism and white supremacy; unlike the poor they don't ask for your generosity of question your capitalist system, unlike black people and people of colour they don't bring all that racial, cultural, and religious baggage that you dislike. They allow you to feel good about yourself without any work at creating or maintaining relationships. You can love animals and nature and generations to come and advocate for them without substantially challenging your own wealth, power, or privilege, without re-imagining social structures, apologizing, or making reparations to anyone. 
The key part of this I think is "they allow you to feel good about yourself without any work at creating or maintaining relationships". I think a few years ago I literally had this thought, I thought "if I do environmental activism I can feel like I'm doing some good without having to do the difficult work of people". My white privilege and seeking of what seemed like an easy life led me to that thought process, but I was wrong. You can't do activism work, you can't make a difference in the world without dealing with the messy world of other human beings, and when you do that you other people will make demands of you. Other people will tell you when you're wrong. Other people will call out your bullshit. Other people will not let you feel good about yourself all the time. Other people will stop you feeling like you're a good person all the time. 
I think this is where white climate activism can go a bit wrong, and just feel a bit... icky. It's this moral certainty that we are good people doing good things and no one can tell us otherwise. Of course there's an element of truth in it, we do have to create change to combat the climate crisis, we do have to do activism, but when it's activism that is not rooted in creating or maintaining relationships then there's a way in which it just doesn't quite work, and ends up putting people's backs up.
White climate activism, while it is rooted in a sense of moral superiority in advocating for animals and nature and future generations, will always have an element of inauthenticity about it. It will always seem more like it is about proving the moral purity of white activists than actually creating the world we need to create.
The alternative is a climate activism that is rooted in advocating and giving voice to the majority world, the global poor, indigenous peoples, climate-vulnerable nations. But the difference is these people are able to speak for themselves and so white activism will primarily be about getting out of the way to lift up those voices of those people. And it will sometimes involve white people being told they're getting it wrong, and need to change language or approach or activities. It will not be as comfortable for white climate activists as we will feel less morally pure and right. It will not fed our egos in the same way. But it will be rooted in real relationship, in growing human community, in creating solidarity, and ultimately I think that will be more likely to be effective and create the world we're wanting to build.

Thursday, May 06, 2021

What would a "Buddhist kind of" Christianity look like?

I keep playing with the idea of a "Buddhist kind of" Christianity. This comes from my experience of dynamic Buddhist groups that are thriving and growing in a western context. Sure, those Buddhist groups are never going to grow so that they are the majority (or anywhere near) in a country like Wales. But I have no doubt that they will remain a growing, dynamic, minority. 

And so I think - what is it that Buddhists are doing that Christians aren't? And what would it mean if Christians did those things? And yes, generalisations are hard, and Buddhism is a very diverse thing, so I'm really just speaking out of my own experience, rather than from doing an in-depth survey. 

This is not a well-thought through list (this blog is really for thoughts-in-progress) but here's what I think a "Buddhist kind of" Christianity would look like:

  • There would be an emphasis on practice. Rather than seeing the point as being attendance at a church, or self-identification as a Christian, or signing up to a creed, the emphasis would be on a path and practice: here is the thing you do every day. That doesn't mean there isn't a place for community, but the primary invitation would be the taking on of a daily personal practice. This wouldn't be seen as a thing for "advanced" Christians like monks or nuns, but the first thing new Christians would be invited to do.
  • There would be a shift from talking about sin and salvation to talking about enlightenment. Instead of trying to convince people of a worldview and a problem no one thinks they have, Christians would offer something beautiful to people without first trying to convince them they are a sinner. (Contemporary Evangelical evangelism has to convince people of a series of unconvincing metaphysical truths before they can present "good news". First you have to be convinced that (a) you're a bad person who's done bad things, then you have to be convinced that (b) there is some sort of cosmic punishment for this (but - why would there be?) and then you have to convince them that (c) Jesus has magically taken away the cosmic punishment that you never knew about in any case. But if you never convince people of (a) and (b) then you can't convince them of (c).)
  • Following on from that, this kind of Christianity would offer an existential difference to people's lives. Look at any Buddhist leaflet you pick up anywhere they will say something like "this practice gives a deeper sense of inner peace, and helps you to become more compassionate". What if that was the offer of Christian practice? Why shouldn't it be? Can't Christian practice offer inner peace and cultivate compassion? Of course it can! But this is rarely seen as the "offer" to non-Christians.
  • It would have less (or zero) emphasis on buildings and "congregations" or "churches". There are Buddhist groups with thousands of members that have something like three buildings in whole the country. While probably smaller Welsh non-conformist denominations have to deal with hundreds of creaking old chapels. A Buddhist-like Christianity would put you on a path of personal practice and plug you into a group of ten others that probably meet in somebody's living room.
  • It would see Jesus as exemplar to follow more than saviour to worship. In being inspired by Jesus it would see the purpose of the Christian path as cultivating the Christ-within, and becoming more Christ-like. It would connect us with our Christ-natures.
  • It would be unashamed of the ancient and the ritualistic. This is of course very difficult to generalise because it differs so vastly across Buddhism and Christianity. But the kind of "Buddhist like" Christianity I'm envisioning would not be attempting to be modern or playing down the ancient and exotic. Rather it would embrace and celebrate the fact that its pathway goes way back to ancient times. It would be deeply inspired by different traditions of monasticism going back to the desert fathers and mothers and it may well embrace practices of icons, incense, chanting, other languages, and of course the deep deep practices of prayer. 

Maybe there's more things to put on the list, but this is what I'm thinking so far.

Thursday, March 11, 2021

To slay the demon you have to name the demon

The principle of needing to name a demon before you can kill it is well enshrined in magical folklore, and I know it particularly because the principle was talked about by the author Terry Pratchett. 

Naming demons is the first step to slaying them. Names have power. This is magical folklore - that once you name something you have a degree of power over it. You know its truth and that is powerful. There is a deep truth here.

The fact that the UK has started naming winter storms shows how this effect works psychologically. If you say "it's going to be windy and rainy tomorrow" it doesn't have the same effect as saying "Storm Denis is coming!" Naming makes something more real, we take it more seriously and we respond to it.

This idea has been on my mind as I've been reading This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate by Naomi Klein. 

I've not even got half way through but it's an exhilarating read that I'm thoroughly enjoying. I'm trying to work out why it feels like a positive experience to read about the god-awful mess we're in with the climate crisis. And I think it's because she puts her finger on exactly what the problem is: exactly how the doctrines of neoliberalism, free market fundamentalism, growth-ism, and the powerful disciples of these ideologies are the real blocks to climate action. It's because it feels like she is naming the demons, and suddenly it feels like we might be able to slay them (metaphorically) because we have finally named them.

The great problem with climate activism is the sense that we don't know the names of the demons. We desperately say "somebody needs to do something!" but we struggle to answer questions like: who? Who needs to do what? And why aren't they doing it? What's stopping them?

The government needs to do something, certainly. But then, why aren't they, when what needs to happen seems quite clear and urgent? And the answer is the ideology of free market fundamentalism (on the rise since Thatcher), the think tanks that promote it, the politicians that believe it, the oil companies that profit from it, the financial industries that profit from it, the banks that bankroll it, the international free trade agreements that give legal backing to it. These are the demons

Once we know these are the demons we can begin to fight against them. Their unmasking is their undoing, as darkness is their greatest weapon.

The political shift that would happen is we truly recognised that these structures are the source of our problems is immense. And so the constant work of these demons is to keep themselves shadowed and keep us looking elsewhere for the source of our problems, not just the climate crisis, but poverty, inequality, austerity, racism.

The Right tries its hardest to convince people that the source of their problems are immigrants, ethnic minorities, and "liberal elites"; liberals mistakenly believe the source of the problems are just religious fundamentalists, right-wing crazy people like Trump, backwards-looking right-wingers. These are the things that keep us in culture-wars and that suits the demons because we are blinded from seeing them and really addressing the structural economic systems that are the root cause of our problems.

Even climate activists are not really clear in naming the demons. Extinction Rebellion, with its activities of "general disruption", with a kind of undirected protest, does not clearly enough name the demons. When Extinction Rebellion block a road* it gives the impression that they are against motorists, or the general public not doing enough in their lives to fight climate change. That's the message the general public get - that Extinction Rebellion are protesting against them. The messaging is not clear enough. The demons have not been named clearly enough. 

And I tend to think Extinction Rebellion are naïve in believing that one bill or one Citizens' Assembly will provide the solutions to the climate crisis that will then be enacted by government. This underestimates the insidious power of the demons. They will fight with all the power they have to prevent that. And they have a lot of power and billions of pounds. Only a mass people's movement that names and condemns these demons will counter their power. Only a shift in culture in which it would be a scandal for a Prime Minister to be seen in the same room as an oil executive will take away the power of such people. 

So we have to keep naming the structures of Late Capitalism, and the ideology behind it, as the true demons that for thirty years have been preventing action on the climate crisis. 

And it's true of course that the problems go much deeper: to centuries of colonialism, empire, extractivism, and ultimately the greed and apathy that exist in all of our hearts. But that shouldn't prevent us from naming the way these realities exist in the world today. The real-life structures and institutions that are affecting the world in this way. 

We name them, and we can slay them. The first step is reading Naomi Klein's book, and to start talking about it. 

*Full disclosure: I have done this, I took part in a mass cycling event which blocked the road for motorists. My thinking is evolving.

Saturday, February 13, 2021

Doorstep Revolution

Here's news of a project I'm involved in (words edited from the Arts Council of Wales website):

Gentle/Radical is a Cardiff-based grassroots organisation and they have received £40k in funding from The National Lottery Community Fund to build on and amplify the creativity and contribution seen within communities and across civil society during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The funding, made possible thanks to National Lottery players, will enable Gentle/Radical to work within the neighbourhood of Riverside, listening to and sharing different experiences and stories and imagining together, what is possible for the future. The project is called Doorstep Revolution and initiates a hyper-local street-by-street outreach and doorstep engagement programme, aimed at creating a vivid COVID-portrait of one of Wales’ most diverse and rich multicultural neighbourhoods. 

The project will establish an outreach and volunteer team who will conduct hundreds of dialogues - socially-distanced doorstep interviews, zoom chats, and phone chats - to gather perspectives on the Lockdown experience, its challenges, surprises, transformations, and opportunities, as well as insights into how residents have experienced life – and might wish to experience it – in the future.#

Gentle/Radical will engage a cross-section of multi-generational, multi-lingual Riverside voices, focusing intensively on residents in eight selected streets, and up to five households from others. An outreach and volunteer team will be trained to use audio recording equipment to conduct doorstep dialogues over the first three to four months. The last two months will be focused on using gathered narratives and dialogues to create 1) a multi-lingual Riverside community newspaper/publication and 2) a podcast/web repository bringing together recorded interviews, stories, and reflections around the COVID experience, as well as commentary on what the future could - and should - hold.

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Saying hello to God: An audio meditation for the curious and the sceptical

Monday, February 08, 2021

Meeting the Beloved

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.

The last Wednesday of the month for the next five months, at 7.30pm. 

24th February

31st March

28th April

26th May

30th June

Meeting ID: 827 0747 2167 

Passcode: 674772

Saturday, January 30, 2021

Why I now identify as a Universalist

For a while now I've been thinking of myself as more of a Universalist, and less of a Unitarian. The reasons for this are many-layered and evolving, but I thought I would write some of them down. 

Firstly I suppose I should say in many ways I am still a Unitarian. I am a minister of the General Assembly of Unitarian Free Christian Churches. I am not a Trinitarian, and in that strict sense I am still a Unitarian. I am still inspired by a number of aspects of the Unitarian tradition: Channing, American Transcendentalism, Polish Brethren Unitarians, James Luther Adams, James Martineau.

And yet I feel Universalism describes my faith better. This is despite the fact that, unlike in the United States, there never was a large organised Universalist denomination in the UK, though there were a smattering of Universalist churches, and some of today's Unitarian churches were originally Universalist (I might be wrong but I think: Brighton, Boston, Glasgow, as well as the congregations of the General Baptist Assembly).

Universalism is one of the legitimate expressions of religious life represented by the General Assembly. It didn't make it into the title of the denomination, as in the United States, but it is there. 

I am inspired by the history of Universalism, particularly the early spiritual Universalism of George de Benneville. That's partly it. And I want to put myself in the flow of a religious tradition that emphasises prayer and the encounter with the Divine as the foundation for faith. 

But it's not especially because I disbelieve in hell. I do disbelieve in hell, but it's never really been something I've worried about. 

Fundamentally it's because at the heart of my faith is the love of God, and it's easier to call that Universalism than Unitarianism. The word Universalism connects a lot more with the heart of things, with what matters, with spiritual teaching. 

Universalism: the universal and unconditional love of God for every person. That's what my faith is. I find that easier to explain to people. And it feels like "good news". God is love, and the invitation is to discover that love in the practice of contemplative prayer. That feels like a faith that can and does sustain me, and can be offered as a gift to others. 

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!)