How did we get here?

A brief history of events which led up to the killings in Paris last weekend, and beyond.

There was an old woman who swallowed a fly, I don’t know why she swallowed a fly, perhaps she’ll die.

In 1914 the First World War started. Historians agree that the causes of the war are complex, as large alliances battled for global supremacy, the diplomatic battles turned into physical ones. Millions died as the Allied nations fought against the so called ‘Central powers’.

In 1917 the Russian empire collapsed, and following the revolution which saw Russia become a Socialist republic, the Russians came to terms with the Central powers.

In 1918 the Allies overcame the Central powers, nullifying the treaty they had agreed with Russia, and peace treaties were negotiated with the various countries involved.

The Treaty of Versailles saw Germany agree to a raft of measures which included vast sums in reparation and the occupation of parts of it territory by Allied armies.

As the 1920s began, in Italy the politics headed to the right wing and a fascist party built power. In Japan a growing culture of militarism began to take hold.

With their national pride destroyed and their economy in tatters, some Germans began to follow a new leader, an Austrian born painter turned politician known as Adolf Hitler, he took power in 1933 promising to rebuild.

There was an old woman who swallowed a spider, that wriggled and jiggled and tickled inside her, she swallowed the spider to catch the fly,  I don’t know why she swallowed the fly, perhaps she’ll die

In 1939 a new war began, as Allied powers took on Germany and its allies after it’s invasion of Poland. Japan and Italy too became involved.

This war was bloodier than the last one, and lasted longer too. When it finally came to an end in 1945, economies were in tatters, and millions of people were dead, huge amounts of them were Russians.

Although they had been allies in the war, relations between Russia and America, which had dramatically different political outlooks, cooled dramatically. Shortly after WW2 ended, the Cold War began.

There was an old woman who swallowed a bird. How absurd to swallow a bird!
She swallowed the bird to catch the spider, that wriggled and jiggled and tickled inside her, she swallowed the spider to catch the fly, I don’t know why she swallowed the fly, perhaps she’ll die.

The Cold War continued for decades, fought hot in proxies here and there as economies were slowly rebuilt. America fought a doomed campaign in Vietnam, and some years later, in 1979, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. The Afghans, like other countries in the same region had been pawns in the Great Game for a long time, now as the Cold War ground on they were once again in the thick of things.

Immediately following the invasion, the British and others began to work out how they could send covert military aid to Islamic insurgents who were battling against the Russians. The Mujahedeen became our proxies in the on going struggle for global supremacy.

Shortly after the invasion a radical Islamist cleric called Abdullah Azzam travelled to Peshawar to assist the Mujahedeen in their struggle. With him went a 21-year-old disciple from Saudi Arabia, an engineer called Osama Bin Laden.

There was an old woman who swallowed a cat.  Imagine that, to swallow a cat!  She swallowed the cat to catch the bird, she swallowed the bird to catch the spider, that wriggled and jiggled and tickled inside her, she swallowed the spider to catch the fly, I don’t know why she swallowed the fly, perhaps she’ll die.

In 1989 the Russians withdrew from Afghanistan, but not until another million and half people were dead, and further millions had fled the country, leaving it battle scarred, stunted and deprived.

In 1988, Bin Laden who had supported the Mujahideen, decided to start his own movement, called ‘The Base’ or in Arabic ‘Al Quaeda’ which would focus on terrorism rather than ‘traditional’ military tactics. He left Afghanistan around the same time as the Russians, to raise funds for his new organisation.

The 1990s saw the start of AQ’s terror campaign, which climaxed in 2001 with an attack on the twin towers.

It had suited various powers over a number of years to prop up totalitarian regimes in various Middle Eastern and African countries, political support meant access to resources vital for the rebuilding of post war economies. In 1972 the progressive political leader Saddam Hussein had won support from Russia, the Baathist coup of 1968 had seen the US supported regime thrown out. A few turbulent decades led eventually to the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

As the Middle East grew yet more unstable, in 2010 the Arab spring saw violent and non violent uprisings across the region, which was widely (if nervously) welcomed by the democracy loving West. In Syria, former ophthalmologist turned politician Bashar al-Assad had won international support from a variety of right wing figures including the founder of the KKK, and the BNP’s Nick Griffin held power, and it was widely agreed that he should be toppled.

There was an old woman who swallowed a dog. What a hog, to swallow a dog! She swallowed the dog to catch the cat, she swallowed the cat to catch the bird, she swallowed the bird to catch the spider, that wriggled and jiggled and tickled inside her, she swallowed the spider to catch the fly, I don’t know why she swallowed the fly, perhaps she’ll die.    

While some regimes fell relatively easily, Assad proved difficult to unseat, another bloody civil war ensued, governments were wary of becoming involved too directly, but military advisors and weapons found their way to those opposing Assad in Syria. As they did so, a new group began to emerge.

Now known more generally as IS (Islamic State) this group was founded by Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi an Iraqi who claims direct descent from the Prophet. His first recorded message was a eulogy to Osama Bin Laden who was killed by US forces in 2011. As they fought Assad, Al Baghdadi and his forces seized large swathes of land in Iraq and Syria and declared a Caliphate.

There was an old woman who swallowed a goat. Just opened her throat, to swallow a goat! She swallowed the goat to catch the dog, she swallowed the dog to catch the cat, she swallowed the cat to catch the bird, she swallowed the bird to catch the spider, that wriggled and jiggled and tickled inside her, she swallowed the spider to catch the fly, I don’t know why she swallowed the fly, perhaps she’ll die.

The situation in Syria had become polarised, on the one hand America and others wanted Assad out, but nobody wanted IS to prevail. There appeared to be a catch 22, support the loathed Assad in his fight against IS, or attack Assad and thereby indirectly support IS. Meanwhile hundreds of thousands of refugees streamed out of the region, heading for the safe haven of Europe.

After the debacle in Iraq in the 2000s, Europeans and particularly the UK were reluctant to commit military support to action in Syria, all the same, British forces were fighting IS in Iraq, and British planes as part of a UN force were flying sorties in to Syria. Other countries were more strongly committed in Syria, in particular France who were strong in their demand for Assad to step down, but had also committed considerable resources in air strikes against IS positions in the country.

There was an old woman who swallowed a cow, I don’t know how she swallowed a cow! She swallowed the cow to catch the goat, she swallowed the goat to catch the dog, she swallowed the dog to catch the cat, she swallowed the cat to catch the bird, she swallowed the bird to catch the spider, that wriggled and jiggled and tickled inside her.
She swallowed the spider to catch the fly, I don’t know why she swallowed the fly, perhaps she’ll die.

In November 2015 a Russian aircraft was brought down over Egypt, IS claimed responsibility. They also claimed responsibility for attacks in Beirut, and then for the extraordinary series of coordinated attacks in Paris which saw the best part of 500 people killed or injured in a series of paramilitary attacks in the heart of the city.

The French response was understandably full of grief and bitterness, and they vowed to redouble their efforts in Syria, immediately launching more air strikes against IS targets. Other countries considered their positions.

There was an old woman who swallowed a horse, she’s dead—of course!

This is a grossly over simplified timeline of events over the last hundred years, which, among other omissions, doesn’t mention colonialism, hardly mentions expansionism, and takes no account of growing religious fundamentalism and its impact on politics. However, it makes, in a very general way, a point.

God and the dualist imagination part 3: Us & God

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHaving already stated that evangelical thinking uses a dualistic lens to create a divide between ‘us’ and ‘others’; I now want to consider the other way that dualism has infected the way evangelicals think, namely the ‘othering’ of God.

Not only are people ‘other’ to ‘us’, but so is ‘God’.

Language of transcendence is often used to speak of the Divine, I use it quite frequently myself. But while it can be helpful in talking about aspects of the nature of God, when God becomes solely transcendent as in the ‘Theist’ or ‘Supernatural Theist’ way of thinking, we have a problem.

When God is entirely transcendent, there seem to be places where he or she is not present, essentially places where God does not exist. These places may be in people, in the hearts and minds of those who we feel are evil or wrong; physical locations; or objects.

For some this is manifest in power relationships – God cannot be present in ‘their’ building, instead it is a haunt for ‘demons’ – their building may of course variously be: Mosque, temple, house of ill repute, anyone else’s church…

Often what lies at the heart of that is straightforwardly a power struggle, but underlying it, I want to suggest, is this kind of thinking about God.

Indeed I believe this lies at the heart of the problems with the way we conceive of all types of others. It can allow us to see ‘others’ as more distant from God than we are; just as it also allows us to conceive of certain places as ‘god forsaken’ or ‘god less’.

On a global/geo political scale of course, it allows us to consign our planet to environmental catastrophe by believing that God is transcendent from his/her creation. By living in this thinking we can justify not only environmental damage on an extraordinary scale, but also be ambivalent about the death and destruction of massive amounts of people.

On a local scale, and one that is very obvious in any kind of missional role, it allows us to abandon sections of society to sink or swim as church bails out and heads for a nicer place to live.

Tomorrow I will explain how this thinking has made me move into a new way of understanding God altogether. New for me that is.

Previous posts are here: 1, 2.

God and the dualist imagination part 2: Jesus & dualism

In post 1 of this series, I said that I believe dualism is inherent in the way that evangelical Christians have come to conceive of ‘others’ – those of different belief systems or lifestyles to the standards deemed ‘acceptable’ by the prevailing evangelical thinking.

I want to go to say that I believe this to be a deeply flawed approach, and one which seems contrary to the way of approaching otherness modelled by Jesus.

Jesus approach to those of other faiths, other lifestyles and other social classes is profoundly open and egalitarian. The gospels include stories of an encounter with non-Jewish astrologers and times spent with tax collectors, prostitutes, beggars and centurions.

He was a friend of sinners, and was condemned as a glutton and a drunkard for the way that he ate and supped with others as though he were part of their community. Jesus does not model a dualistic way of living, nor does he model a dualistic model of ministry – his encounters with those other to his own way of life are gentle, peaceful and respectful.

Various people have critiqued dualistic thinking, Julian of Norwich noted that ‘The fullness of Joy is to behold God in everything’; and Bede Griffiths advocated an approach which drew on the teachings of both Thomas Aquinas and Sankara – in believing that in God there is “no division, or ‘composition’ of any kind. He is ‘without duality’.” (Griffiths, Return to the Centre, 1978, 24)

When considering the otherness of different faith traditions, the former chief rabbi, Jonathan Sachs expresses similar views in ‘The Dignity of difference’ where he talks of religion as being “the translation of God into a particular language and thus into the life of a group, a nation, a community of faith.” (Sachs, The Dignity of Difference, 2002, 55)

Read more tomorrow in Part 3.

God and the dualist imagination part 1: Us & Others

I presented a paper at a conference recently, where I outed myself as a ‘recovering dualist’.

By this I meant that I find it very hard not to think about God with a classic dualist point of view – you know that idea of God as a person out there somewhere, with a Santa type ‘naughty and nice’ pair of lists? Yeah that. I find it a bit hard not to think like that.

I am by background an evangelical, and although I haven’t used that term to describe myself for some time, it has played an important part in forming the way I think about things.

So in a short series of blog posts, I want to look at the issue of dualism as a way of thinking about God.

My first point then, is that I believe underlying the evangelical understanding of God and ‘others’ is a deep seated dualism.

I suggested that this dualism leads to a colonial attitude towards the way the evangelical church approaches ‘others’. While I recognise that there are significant exceptions to this generalisation, it’s useful as a starting point.

My belief is that the majority of evangelicals operate in a kind of Platonic conception of the world as Ideal and Real. There is a separation for instance between concepts such as ‘science and faith’, ‘Christian and secular’, ‘heaven and earth’ and of course, ‘saved and unsaved’. According to this well ingrained way of thinking, all earthly things are intrinsically inferior to the unseen spiritual.

So there is, for instance, a very dualistic way of distinguishing between the evangelical/Christian ‘us’, (saved, sanctified, believers); and ‘them’ – (the unsaved, those of other faiths, the sinners). This dichotomy of salvation has traditionally been part of a sovereignty paradigm. The threat of exclusion from the company of the sanctified, puts ‘us’ in to a position of power, of declaring the orthodoxy.

This runs, however, contrary to the gospel idea of giving up power, as modeled by Jesus in the Kenotic cross ‘event’, and to what Roger Mitchell has described as ‘Kenarchy’ – the emptying out of power on the behalf of others. (Mitchell, The Fall of the Church, 2013)

A dualistic mind-set is conveniently easy: with a clear us and them divide, ‘we’ know who ‘we’ are, and where ‘we’ are. It’s also very much a warfare mentality which not only appropriates violent imagery for the way it approaches discussion of the issues, but also posits the idea of opposing sides in a battle, ranged against one another. ‘Powers of darkness’ almost equal to, and diametrically opposed to ‘powers of good’ – God and Satan juxtaposed against one another as opposing commanders, and this played out on earth between people of faith and the heathen.

It may be easy, it may even be ‘encouraging’ at times of difficulty, but I believe it is deeply problematic.

Read more tomorrow in Part 2.

Osama – the making of a myth

In the much publicised end of Osama Bin Laden’s life this week, the US military seem less likely to have pulled off a geo political coup, than to have bolstered their president’s domestic popularity.

The reported killing, which will evidently not now be officially ‘proved’ by photographs, and which will probably always be questioned by conspiracists, is not going to bring an end to anything much, but is likely to put a upwards spike in Obama’s popularity ratings. ‘Hot damn!’

While it has been lauded and applauded in some circles, and sadly accepted or even mourned in others – the fact is that the killing of Osama Bin Laden is very unlikely to change much in terms of global terrorism or the Jihadi movement. I am unaware of any major conspiracy in which Bin Laden has been sited as a key player in the last few years. Indeed if he has indeed been hiding out all this time, it seems likely that a significant amount of effort and expense has been spent by the Mujahideen to keep him hidden, presumably those resources will now be redirected.

As I mentioned of course, there have been numerous conspiracy theories doing the rounds for the last decade or so – initially that Bin Laden was a CIA stooge, then later that he was already in captivity, or even dead. Now it seems that he actually is dead – will this news end the conspiracy speculation?

Unlikely – in fact the muddy waters surrounding his death are only likely to further fuel the theorists imaginations. Why no pictures? How could he have lived there in the first place? What about the conflicting reports from different intelligence agencies about who tipped of whom about the compound and when? Why the mysterious burial at sea?

As it goes, I have no problem believing it – but in a world where nothing is real unless its televised, simulcasted, micro blogged (actually this one was almost tweeted) or captured by video on a mobile phone – is Osama Bin Laden really dead?

In some ways of course, he isn’t. Bin Laden had long since stopped being the central mover of a global terror network – Al Quaida is a movement, its very strength is the fact that it is totally decentralised and capable to working independently in small cells. In some ways, you might say Bin Laden had long since stopped being a man. Rather Bin Laden was a centralised myth, an icon, a bogey man figure who represented the very otherness of the Jihadi movement. With his well photographed beard, turban and combat jacket he depicted for many ‘the evil of the east’. Variously described as a wealthy Saudi, a desert fighter, a plotter, a devout Muslim – he was everything the west had to fear in an age when old antipathy with communist Russia had died away.

But aside from a few videos and an ongoing drip drip of reports of his suspected wherabouts, Bin Laden has had little to contribute to the narrative of the West’s ongoing struggle against evil. His killing was, a cynic might say, rather well timed for the American cause. It also leaves the stage now open for a new focus on the evil of… well take your pick – could be Gadaffi, although we’ve not heard much about Iran recently, so perhaps they are in for it next.

Osama Bin Laden was less of a person, more of a talisman. He represents a personifiable evil which suits the dualistic approach of Western (and Muslim) thinking. For us to be good, someone somewhere must be evil. By focusing on him, we’ve endowed him with mythical status, the evil murdering Muslim who would slit your baby’s throat and set fire to your house as soon as look at you. They seek him here, they seek him there… But at the end it turns out he’s just a man, easily killed by the elite forces of good, who have God on their side.

I don’t know if this makes much sense to anyone but me, but I really see this whole story as much more to do with reinforcing a narrative than the death of a terrorist.

So while the man may indeed be dead (I think he is) Osama Bin Laden lives on. His name, his image, his ideology, his myth remains strong. What he represented to people on either side of the struggle remains – just in different form. Osama Bin Laden lives on in despised dictators, in turbaned Mujahideen, in council estate boys trying to come to terms with confused ethnic and religious identities, in geo political power struggles, in history which is now being written by everyone.

He was – is, a mythical figure for the digital age. Thousands of images peer out of websites into the hearts of presidents and teenage wannabes. His thin smile adorns the targets of rifle enthusiasts, who take careful aim at the spot between the eyes. His name lives on in the world where turbaned arabs are ‘rag heads’ and where an aeroplane crashlanding is automatically assumed to be a terrorist plot.

It’s a sad week really – those who live by the sword are indeed likely to die by it, but regardless – this miserable life ending means nothing in terms of bringing peace to a world full or hatred and pain. Rather we have endowed his myth with a measure of immortality, the same sort enjoyed by James Dean and Che Guevarra – and sold to another, future, generation the other myth of redemptive violence – which works for all of us, whether we believe in a martyr’s paradise or the triumph of God over his foes.

I won’t be mourning or celebrating his death, I am mourning the the ongoing death of a world which seems determined to tear itself apart, to demonise and antagonise, to find immortality in human endeavour, and to define itself by opposition and duality.

What this death reminds me of most powerfully, is the need to recall that there is no them – there is only us.

Rowan Williams and Shariah law

I was going to write something about the Archbishop and Shariah Law, but then I read this excellent post by Richard Sudworth which says everything I would have said, and more in a clear and articulate manner…. in other words, he wrote a much better post.

I too think that Dr Williams is a highly intelligent and switched on character, and the big negative reaction is based on fear and ignorance of what Shariah law is.