What Role For Religion In Public Life?

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What role should faith groups play in civil society politics? In a society where a majority of people do not belong to any faith community should faith groups leave ‘politics’ to the ‘politicians’ or do they have an obligation to translate theological values into grassroots political activism?

This video from 2014 explores this question in some depth…..’The Role of Religion in Public Life’. What do you think?

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Poverty and Faith-based Activism

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Last Sunday I gave the ‘Thought for the Day’ on BBC Radio Coventry and Warwickshire. I spoke about poverty and faith-based activism. If you ‘d like to listen here’s the link to the broadcast [go to 53.00 in the broadcast]. The reflection is written out below – http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p034spyq

These are confusing and challenging times and it could be tempting for those of us who are committed to building a just and equal society to become depressed. Over the last five years the number of people relying on foodbanks to feed their families has mushroomed from 50,000 to more than 1,000,000; the number of cases of people with malnutrition being admitted to hospitals in England and Wales has doubled; we have seen hate crimes rise by 20%, the rise of far-right groups like the English Defence League and an increasingly poisonous debate about multiculturalism and migration. It’s easy to cover our eyes and our ears and pretend it’s not happening or to bury ourselves in Netflix and pretend that it’s not our problem. And yet in a letter to an early Christian community in Corinth the apostle Paul reminds us that we belong together and that when one person hurts we all bleed.

In Luke’s Gospel Jesus tells the story of a man who gets mugged on his way to Jericho. It’s a story we know as the parable of the Good Samaritan and it’s so well known that perhaps we’ve become immune to its radical message. Powerful religious people ignore the bleeding man, afraid to get involved but then a hated Samaritan stops and cares for him. He refuses to pass by on the other side of the road. We live at a moment of decision, what theologians sometimes call a ‘Kairos’ moment: a time of judgement and opportunity. How do we respond in the face of growing poverty and the rise of hate crime?

So far what I’ve shared probably sounds a bit depressing for a Sunday morning. However I believe that there are reasons to be bold and cause to be confident. Not long before he was murdered by the Nazis in 1945 the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer argued that “We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.” We are called to work to dismantle the structures of injustice in order build a more just society where people do not need to go to the foodbanks because their part-time job doesn’t pay a living wage.

Faith groups have been involved in civil society politics for centuries. However over the last five years we have seen the increasingly regular, confident and articulate involvement of faith communities on issues of social justice. Just before Easter 2014 more than 600 senior faith leaders wrote an open letter criticising the UK government about the dramatic rise in food poverty, declaring it a ‘national crisis’. Only this week Anglican Bishops have challenged the Prime Minister over what they suggest is his inadequate response to the desperate need of the unprecedented numbers of refugees fleeing poverty, violence and persecution. The Bishops urged the government to admit 10,000 refugees each year [not 20,000 over five years as has already been agreed]. Coventry is a City of Sanctuary and has responded in a largely welcoming way to Syrian refugees. What can you do where you live – in your street, your block of flats, your town or your village?

I work as a Research Fellow in Faith and Peaceful Relations at the Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations at Coventry University. There is an often repeated claim that academics are completely objective. We analyse and explain but are neutral in the face of injustice. I don’t buy and never have. Working as an academic is an incredible privilege and gives myself and my colleagues at the Centre with a real opportunity to develop research that really does help to build a more just, peaceful and equal world. The US philosopher and activist Cornel West put it best – ‘The role of the intellectual is to shine a light on the social misery that dominant forces within society attempt to keep hidden.’ It’s this vision that shapes my own work and the research of the Centre – Research that empowers people and fosters progressive social change.

Now all of that might sound a bit distant, about other people and not us. And yet I firmly believe we can all make a difference where we are. Each kind word, welcome to a stranger, stint at the foodbank, support for a destitute asylum seeker, support for our local credit union changes the world just a little. The social theorist Leonie Sandercock spoke about ‘a thousand tiny empowerments’ that can transform the world. It seems to me that a Sunday morning is a good time to make a start…..

Should Religion and Politics Mix?

My work as a Research Fellow in Faith and Peaceful Relations at the Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations at Coventry University focuses to a large degreee on the relationship between the values/theology of faith groups and their engagement in civil society politics.

This morning I was interviewed on BBC Radio Coventry and Warwickshire. I was asked ‘Should religion and politics mix?’ To hear what I had to say please click on the link…..

Welcoming Christ in Refugees

Yesterday I posted a short reflection on the ways in which our response to the crisis in Calais and our attitude towards the women and men who have been forced to call ‘the jungle’ home.

The vitriolic language surrounding the asylum seskers and migrants living in the camp in Calais continues unabated but the symbolism of the chapel at the heart of the Calais ‘jungle’ is a reminder of our common humanity and of the refugee Christ who lives there in solidarity with those who cry out.

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For those interested in reflecting further on migration, asylum and religious faith here is a useful resource from The Vatican. Written in 2013 but more relevant than ever this summer – click on the link to access the report – ‘Welcoming Christ in Refugees and Displaced People’.

A Chapel in ‘the Jungle’

We are Human

A young man called Alpha from Mauritania is living in a makeshift hut in an overgrown area referred to as ‘the jungle’ near the port of Calais. Like countless thousands across the face of the earth he is fleeing persecution. He is looking for sanctuary. In response to David Cameron’s dismissal in July of such women and men as a ‘swarm’ Alpha told a BBC reporter, ‘We are not locusts, we are human beings.’  A simple statement that seems to have escaped the headline writers of many British tabloid newspapers like The Daily Express – ‘Send in the army to halt migrant invasion.’ [30/7/2015]. The inconvenience caused to holiday-makers who’ve had delays before catching the Eurostar and the apparent ‘easy life’ everyone enjoys in Britain seem to have been uppermost in politicians minds. Other journalists however, like David Aaronovitch in ‘The Times’ have taken a different view – ‘As millions worldwide were displaced we looked the other way’ and, as Alan Travis in The Guardian noted ‘the only migrant madness’ is in the tabloids, complete with xenophobic language about so-called ‘invasions’. A more reflective response is found in a piece written by researchers Tom Davies, Arshan Isakjee and Surinder Desi’s entitled ‘Is this really Europe?‘. The report describes the conditions in ‘the jungle’ and reminds of two important facts that have been conveniently forgotten in the media feeding frenzy – [1] The vast majority of the 137,00 migrants and asylum seekers who have made it to Europe this year settle in Southern Europe – only 3,000 are currently living in Calais [2] The language of much of the media is misleading – Some of the people in ‘the jungle’ may be migrants but it is also true that many are asylum seekers fleeing persecution.

Calais Camp Chapel

The Hebrew and Christian scriptures speak a lot about ‘strangers’. These are words that appear to be lost on many of our politicians – ‘Treat the foreigner living amongst you in the same way as people born in your land. Love the stranger as you love yourself for you were once strangers in Egypt’ [Leviticus 19:34] and again – ‘Show hospitality to strangers for by doing so some people have entertained angels unawares.’ [Hebrews 13:2]

Amidst shrill calls for more dogs, razor wire and soldiers a remarkable ray of hope has emerged in the camp in Calais. Christians, largely from the Horn of Africa, have built a makeshift church [a mosque and a school have also been built]….the chapel in ‘the jungle’ has become a symbol of solidarity and of Christ’s presence as a stranger amongst and as one of those whom the Prime Minister calls a ‘swarm’. Giles Fraser has referred to the church as a ‘place of raw prayer and defiant hope.’ [the BBC’s Songs of Praise will come from the camp chapel on 16th August].

Calais calls us to recall our shared humanity and to remember that ‘migration is not a crime’. What does our rejection of sisters and brothers say about us? Nick Cohen suggests that ‘If you hate the migrants you hate yourself.’ Stark words maybe but I believe he hits the nail on the head. In denying the humanity of the women and men in Calais we diminish our own humanity. In demanding higher fences we turn our backs not only on our interwoven world but on our better selves. Our shared humanity in this interconnected but fragile age combined with a commitment to what the sociologist Paul Gilroy has called ‘planetary humanism’ and a recognition that, made in the image of same God we are all precious can perhaps begin to draw the poison from ongoing toxic debates about migration, multiculturalism and our common future.

‘When I was hungry you fed me. When I was naked you clothed me. When I was homeless you gave me a room. When I was shivering you gave me clothes’ [Matthew 25]

What Does It Mean To Be White?

Identity

Many [many] years ago I was a Religious Education teacher at a very large high school in the East End of London. In one particular lesson I was talking about identity with a group of 15 year olds. The class was roughly 1/3 Black, 1/3 Muslim and 1/3 White. I asked the Black pupils, ‘What does it mean for you to be Black and British in London?’ Loads of answers came pouring out. Same thing happened when I asked the second group oy pupils, ‘What does it mean for you to be Muslim and British in London?’ But when I asked the White pupils the same questions there was just a long awkward silence. Not because the White pupils were not sharp or smart but because they had never had to think about their Whiteness before…..To be White in the UK is still, many years later, the norm.

In the intervening years debates about identity, migration and multiculturalism have become more frequent, more intense and more shrill – often accompanied by a barely hidden racist sub-text. Whilst Blackness has been explored in perceptive depth within the ever growing canon of Black Theology [see Robert Beckford and Anthony Reddie for example in the UK], Whiteness has remained largely unexamined, even by progressive White political theologians.

I argued in my first book ‘Voices from the Borderland‘ that unless White women and men who are committed to inclusivity, liberation and multiculturalism engage with our shared [and complex] Whiteness in progressive ways the ground will be left wide open for far right and fascist groups like the British National Party, the English Defence League or Britain First. Debates about multiculturalism dominate the airwaves. British Prime Minister David Cameron insists that ‘multiculturalism has failed’ [implying this was the fault of the British-Muslim community] and before him Labour government Ministers like David Blunkett sought to reduce and pin down Britishness.

A plural vision of Britishness will always be beyond our reach unless progressive White people begin to ask, ‘What does it mean to be White in a diverse society?’ Rather than opting for an everywhere but nowhere cosmopolitanism or a crude ‘hybridity’ let’s reflect instead on a hermeneutics of liberative difference that critiques the oppressive aspects of all of our religious traditions and ethnic identities but celebrates the liberative potential that we all bear….