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!)

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.