Happy New Year

Well, here we are. 2015. It's going to be a busy one! Lots to do and say and many miles to walk. We want to see Christians show up and to keep showing up, playing our part in the politics of our nation. Here's Gavin Shuker talking about the importance of the coming election.

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It's a wonderful life

Whether we are celebrating Christmas for reasons of faith or otherwise we could all do a alot worse that watch the Frank Capra classic ‘Its a wonderful life’ . Whilst some see an All-American saccharine story, it contains themes that are relevant and inspirational. As a Christian Socialist I see the story as powerful and inspiring.

 

The film focuses on a man, George Bailey, who gets to see what life would be like in his home town had he not been born. Through supernatural help, God sends an angel, Clarence to show him what life would have been like in Bedford Falls, had he never lived.

 

In essence, we see that without Bailey, a virtuous family man and communitarian owner of a building and loan company, Bedford Falls becomes corrupted at the hands of a nihilistic, cynical tyrant called Potter. Many other negative things happen because Bailey simply wasn’t there to prevent them or be influential. A lovely story, but is it just a lovely story? For me, as this time, when we can might be more open to reflection it contains some powerful messages.

 

Firstly, the film reminds me that no life is worthless, Capra intentionally wanted to communicate this. We see that one life can, overtime have immense impact, without the impact of that life, who knows what can happen? What would life be like in the UK had Keir Hardie, Clem Attlee, Barbara Castle or Nye Bevan never been born?

 

Furthermore, we are to hold onto hope and reject cynicism. George Bailey is a hopeful person, but he is perhaps not hugely successful. Yet, he is a man of character, a man of virtue, who loves his family and is respected in the community. He is hopeful, he is a dreamer, he is a romantic rather than a rationalist and I believe Labour needs its romantics.

 

In addition, the Capra epic reminds us what success really is. Our hero is not a careerist, in the film, Bailey never quite achieves all he wants to do. He is forced to stay at home and tend the family business when he would rather travel the world. He faces personal disappointment and has broken dreams. Through this painful process his real success is born, but it is not apparent. What is success for Labour? What is success for us? Is it winning or achievement or is it more than that but less perhaps obvious? Similarly, if our political purpose becomes only orientated towards winning and achievement at all cost then we loss something of value. As the film ends Clarence sends Bailey a note saying ‘No man is a failure, who has friends’This reminds me that relationships should trump achievements.

 

The business and community ethos of Bailey is one of compassion and communitarianism. It is not one of naked individualism, or a nihilistic, predatory capitalism. His business provides people with decent homes so they can remain decent citizens.

 

The opportunity Bailey is given; of seeing what life would have been like had he not lived is something none of us will get. He sees his town become a soulless, chaotic, dog-eat-dog place of disenchantment. Compared to a decent town with some semblance of community and where he is held in high regard. This powerfully re-inforces the truth that no life is worthless, no-one should be overlooked or put down. Politics can too often focus on the big picture and the abstract and ignore or crush the individual and his or her worth.

 

We see that in the end, there is no wealth, but life, family and friends. At Christmas time, I like to be reminded that my worth is not defined by my economic utility or achievement but has been forever changed because an extraordinary event occurred to very ordinary people two thousand years ago and that has changed my life.

 

Happy Christmas and best wishes for 2015, it really is a wonderful life.

 

 

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Faith and Politics: Words from the Chair

Stephen Timms MP with Rob Flello MP Stephen Timms MP gave a speech in Stoke-on-Trent about the growing grassroots movement of faith-based social activism and the need for more partnership between politics and faith-based organisations and churches.

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ADVENT THOUGHTS ON ELECTION YEAR

Tom Carty argues that, as we enter election year, the Labour Party is better placed than is generally assumed. It needs to show the courage of its convictions (and some Advent spirit).

The publication this week of the Smith Commission's report was a reminder of the Labour Party's loss of nerve and direction since the latter stages of the Scottish referendum campaign. Hopelessly wrong-footed first by the progressive tenor of the 'Yes' campaign, and then by Cameron's ruthless exploitation of its electoral fears and instinctive constitutional conservatism, Labour has threatened melt down at times.            

This was most dramatically evident in the sudden upsurge of dissatisfaction with the leader (and it was personal, especially when the right-wing press pitched in). In the event, the immediate panic subsided, but the fact that people were apparently seriously prepared to consider dumping  the leader just six months before a general election testifies to the level of volatility. The leadership's overreaction to the 'white van' tweet was one more expression of this malaise.

The uncertainty also shows signs of affecting policy. After articulating a post-New Labour social democratic approach, which reflects the leader's own instincts, the party has recently seemed unsure of its direction. There is talk once more of focus groups. Ed Balls' embrace of the Tories' self-imposed austerity straitjacket, coupled with the ‘symbolic’ freezing of child benefit (far from symbolic to the mothers who will lose out) are not encouraging.

More worrying still, some in the leadership clearly want the party to respond to the rise of UKIP by echoing its rhetoric and aping some of its policies, as demonstrated by the party’s distinctly muted reaction to the government’s announcement of a four-year qualification period for EU migrants' entitlement to in-work benefits, and deportation for those arriving without a job who do not find one within six months. Apart from being morally repulsive and cynical, accepting the logic of UKIP, as the Tories have, is a blind alley for Labour, as we cannot (I hope) compete with them on their ground. The same applies to going along with Cameron's reckless promise of a referendum on continuing membership of the EU.

Anyway, the situation is less threatening than it seems:

First of all and this explains the increasingly desperate tone of the attacks on Labour in the Tory press, the fact is that in England it is the Conservatives who have the greater problems going into election year. Despite the spin put on recent by-election results, Labour retained its seat, while the Tories lost both theirs. UKIP is more of a threat to the Tories than to Labour. Not only will it take seats directly off them, it will hand seats to Labour by splitting the right-wing vote. A UKIP presence in Parliament will encourage Eurosceptic Tories, probably leading to a split in the Conservative Party. 

The prospect of 'English votes' depriving Labour of an effective majority after the election depends on getting legislation through, or at least into the Queen's Speech However, only the Tories want a minimal quick fix which does not address the matter of how England should be governed and how the different parts of the UK are to relate to one another. The Liberal Democrats have long favoured a federal solution. If we are bold we can call the Tories' bluff. Nothing is decided yet.

That leaves the likely loss of seats in Scotland to the SNP. We have to accept that Labour has seemed to many of its voters in Scotland to take them for granted.  Apart from its complacency, the poor performance of Labour-dominated local government, the perceived abandonment of its distinctive values, and the Iraq war are among the factors behind the disenchantment with Labour. If the new leader in Scotland gets off to a good start by recognising and beginning to address failings, the losses next May could turn out to be less dramatic than feared.

If the Labour Party has the courage to go to the people with a programme which addresses the issues which they recognise as needing urgent action, they will respond positively. Above all, this means dealing with the consequences of the systematic assault on the poor and on the fabric of social provision in the name of austerity. We have to be united and focused on winning the election to remedy these injustices. As we prepare to celebrate the coming of Jesus Christ, we should renew our faith in the light of his unequivocal requirement to serve the poor and the cause of justice.

Tom Carty is the author of' 'The Jesus Reader. The Teaching and Identity of Jesus Christ' (Columba Press, Dublin 2013). He blogs at 'Seek First the Kingdom’’.

 

 

 

 

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Revelation 4: A reflection

Last Saturday was the winter meeting of our executive committee. The meeting always includes prayer and reflection and this one was no different. This time it was on Revelation 4. Let us know what you think. 

Revelation 4

'After this I looked, and there before me was a door standing open in heaven. And the voice I had first heard speaking to me like a trumpet said, ‘Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.’ At once I was in

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What would it be like to live in a Society and not an Economy?

Did you know that in California prisoners can pay for a cell upgrade ($82 per night)?

Or that you can pay for the right to shoot an endangered Black Rhino in South Africa ($150,000) and Walruses in Canada?

Did you know that some companies will pay you to tattoo yourself (permanently) with their Logo?

tattoo 2

Or that you can buy the Life Insurance policy of an ill person while they are still alive and then collect  payment upon their death?

At first sight, the question in the title of this Blog might seem strange. Clearly, a modern Society needs an Economy to prosper and a modern Economy needs a stable Society to function. But which is ultimately more important as we think about how to build a progressive country in the Twenty-First Century? Which should be at the front of our minds as we think about the purpose of politics, for example?

It can be argued that, since the end of the Cold War, and in the absence of the old ideological fault-lines, Free Market Capitalism and the neo-liberal worldview which underpins it are completely dominant. After all, in the infamous words of the political scientist Francis Fukuyama, haven’t we reached the End of History anyway?

And yet, through this way of looking at life, moral decisions about what constitutes Goodness have been downgraded in favour of Market Efficiency. It has become increasingly possible to consider the impact of business decisions on the workforce, community or the environment as superfluous. It is the size of the shareholder dividend which really matters.

Taken to its logical conclusion, in the paradigm of the Market Society, politics becomes a process which is simply about the most effective management of the Economy. The winner of the electoral process should be the Political Party which can promise and then produce the best economic results for the largest number of people. The only thing we need to (or even can) agree on is that we all want to be more materially-wealthy, whilst agreement about what constitutes Public morality and social capital become increasingly rare.

As political ideology has narrowed toward the centre-right over the last 30 years, the range of the political discourse has narrowed along with it. And yet the question still remains: How will we live together?

And something seems to be changing. In the last seven years since the financial crash, we have seen the unchallenged dominance of neo-liberalism and the idea that the Market Knows Best increasingly called into question. Whether in academic journals, the Bank of England and Federal Reserve or the Occupy Movement, more and more people are asking if our primary identity really should be HomoEconomicus after all.

Meanwhile, the – often brutal – rise of Islamic extremism across the world has seen the pursuit of a worldview which seems to be primarily-rooted in an idea of what a Society should look like, with relatively little reference to economic structures at all. Whilst the West continues to move towards the ultimate commercialisation of everything – including social Goods like education, healthcare and policing – ISIS and their allies fight from and for a worldview that has very clear ideas of how Society should be structured.

It seems like we may have a window of opportunity to ask anew what Goodness is, to publicly articulate our answer to the question and ultimately even to change the way that we organise our society. In this space, we could do worse than return to the Christian teaching on the Common Good, such as that found in Catholic Social Teaching.

And what is the Common Good? The best description that I have found comes from one of the supporting documents to Vatican II – “The Common Good is a vision of the social order which is founded on Truth, built by Justice and animated by Love”.

In contrast to this Michael Sandel, the renowned Harvard Moral Philosopher, notes that there has been a moral vacancy in contemporary politics, in which there is an:

“…attempt to banish notions of the good life from public discourse. In hopes of avoiding sectarian strife, we often insist that citizens leave their moral and spiritual convictions behind when they enter the public square. But despite its good intention, the reluctance to admit arguments about the good life into politics prepared the way for market triumphalism and for the continuing hold of market reasoning.”

This is what happens when the Economy becomes our only focus. Alternatively, we see in the Bible that God views Society as a worthy aim in itself – an Oikonomia that includes the Material but which frames society as being much more about relationship than material possessions. As Jesus  said in Nazareth at the start of his ministry, in the words of the prophet Isaiah :

 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”

We could do worse than start with this as we seek to build a progressive society.

This article first appeared at http://thedangerouscurve.wordpress.com/2014/11/13/what-would-it-be-like-to-live-in-a-society-and-not-an-economy/

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Should Labour oppose individualism?

photo.jpgEver since the Thatcher era, British politics has been defined by forms of economic and social liberalism. The right won the argument for the former and the left the argument for the latter, or so it is said. Yet in the post-crash era, this ideological settlement is beginning to fracture. The right is re-examining its crude economic liberalism and the left its social liberalism.

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The Iran threat: inconclusive evidence

images9LXF056J.jpgAcross the negotiating table from Iran sits France, the US, Britain, China, Russia and Germany. The subject under discussion is Iran’s nuclear program.  The deadline for completion of talks is 24 November with substantive issues still unresolved. Given that Iran is now about two months away from producing enough enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon the question which emerges with increased urgency is: how much of a threat would Iran pose if it manages to produce such a weapon?

This question can’t be resolved without considering Iran’s past and present interactions with the rest of the world. Has it behaved in such a way as to inspire trust in its intentions? If the answer to this is ‘yes’ it is likely that it will behave in the same way if in possession of the bomb. If the answer is ‘no’ then Iran with the bomb should rightly be considered a danger to the international community. However, evaluating its intentions is no easy task. Much remains hidden or obscure about what Iran really wants to achieve on the world stage. Studying its behaviour does not provide us with a conclusive answer.

There are numerous examples of ambiguous behaviour but Iran’s bid to become the most powerful player in the Middle East is one of the most important. Whether this policy is to be counted as defensive or offensive depends more on the narrative being told and by whom than on the existence of any conclusive evidence. The Islamic Republic has been consistently hostile to the west but has not launched an all out war against it. It supports terrorist groups which function as such but with certain restraints built in.

Does the regime practice extremism checked by moderation or moderation compromised by extremism? It is hard to tell. The evidence on the ultimate aims and intentions of those at the top must therefore be considered inconclusive.

It would be unwise to assume anything based on the evidence available and caution is the best policy. An agnostic approach is in practice the same as a threat assessment which registers high on the scale of danger to western and regional security. It means that we must take seriously the possibility that Iran’s intentions are neither moderate nor defensive in nature and that the possibility exists that its acquisition of a nuclear weapon may constitute the sort of risk we would and should consider un-acceptable.

Bob Glaberson is a member of the Brighton Pavilion Labour Party and currently involved in the campaign to elect Purna Sen as the next member of parliament. He is a husband and father, living in Brighton for thirty years since moving to the UK from New York. He has been involved politically all his life on both sides of the Atlantic. He worked as a NHS counsellor and WEA / Sussex University adult education teacher for many years. He is a political writer with wide interests but his main focus being the Middle East.

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Who Do We Want to be Led By?

IMG_1432.jpgHere’s an intriguing thought: how much of what Jesus actually thought about things do we honestly know? I would contend not very much.

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Andy's letter from America

I am doing some musical work in the USA at the moment, and it is intriguing to be here in the run-up to their midterm elections. TV stations are flooded with attack ads. Lawns are flooded with signs. Politics is especially in the blood for many here in the ‘cradle of the Clintons’ - Little Rock, Arkansas.

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