Terror threat: Let’s not fall for it again

Do they expect us to believe it all again? With weary familiarity, I have been reading the government’s claims that we face a heightened “terror threat”. UK governments have been making this claim every so often since 2001. It is usually followed by a fresh restriction of civil liberties or the departure of British troops to yet another war zone.

Despite Saddam’s non-existent weapons of mass destructions, despite the killing of the entirely innocent Jean Charles de Menezes, despite the absurdity of tanks sent to Heathrow in the run-up to the Iraq invasion, despite the widespread distrust of politicians, we are for some reason expected to fall for it this time.

When the “terror threat level” was raised a few days ago, I predicated a new assault on civil liberties. I’d barely typed the prediction on Twitter before Cameron and Clegg began to fulfil it. We can apparently expect some sort of announcement from them on Monday about new measures to tackle the “threat”. Cameron has spoken of filling the “gaps in our armoury”.

Ed Miliband has loyally weighed in with his own suggestions for reducing our freedom. In his article in today’s Independent, he makes some good points about tackling the root causes of support for IS and working multilaterally. He then ruins it with a call for the return of control orders and a “mandatory programme of deradicalisation for anyone who is drawn into the fringes of extremism”. I’m not sure what this phrase is supposed to mean, but it seems to imply that people should be punished for their beliefs rather than their actions.

The odd thing is that the “terror threat” claim might be true. It could be the case that we face a greater than usual threat of terror attacks on British soil. But we’ve got no idea, because the claim has been used so often to mislead and manipulate us that a true claim would not stand out.

Certainly, the announcement is convenient ahead of the NATO summit in south Wales next week. The front page of today’s Independent shows residents of Cardiff passing through metal detection barriers in order to be allowed to walk around their own city. Restrictions on peaceful anti-NATO protests, and the arrest of protesters, will no doubt be justified on the grounds of the threat of terrorism.

The concept of protecting NATO from terrorism would be funny if it were not so sickening. Unlike Iraq, several NATO members actually do own weapons of mass destruction (the US, UK and French governments own nuclear arms). NATO’s explicit policy is to encourage high military spending among its members, inevitably reducing spending in socially useful areas such as healthcare and education. NATO’s attitude to Ukraine is every bit as aggressive and imperialist as the Russian government’s.

In short, the leaders of NATO have at least as much blood on their hands as anyone that they want “protecting” from.

I’m not denying that there is a chance, perhaps a strong chance, of terror attacks in Britain. The British government’s killing of innocent people around the world makes it likely that some will wish to respond by killing innocent people here. I am not for a moment suggesting that this makes such killing justified. To identify someone’s motivation is not to condone it. Nor will I pretend that the UK government is in a better moral position than those it condemns.

Cameron’s government sells weapons to the vicious regimes of Bahrain, Israel and Saudi Arabia. British drone pilots have been killing civilians in Afghanistan for years. George Osborne and Iain Duncan Smith have snatched away the livelihoods of some of Britain’s poorest people, who may well feel more under threat from their own government than from terrorists in Iraq.

Whatever the “terror threat”, I cannot support efforts by Cameron and Clegg to defeat it. I detest “Islamic State” as it now calls itself. It is a gang of mass murderers and no decent-minded person of any religion will offer them the slightest measure of support. Nor do I support the terrorism carried out by the US and UK governments. I oppose NATO as much as I oppose Putin, and the IDF as much as Hamas.

In short, I will not unite with one group of killers against another. The people of Britain, of Iraq, of Ukraine, of Palestine, of Israel, of Russia and of the US share a common identity and future as human beings. We have too much in common with each other to give in to those who kill in our name.

Reflections on Greenbelt

Having got back from the Greenbelt festival a few days ago, I’ve mostly (but not completely) caught up on sleep. I’ve also had time to reflect on the festival.

If you would like to read my thoughts on this year’s Greenbelt, I had two articles about it published yesterday.

The first was in the Morning Star. This is a short article aimed at a mostly non-Christian audience (and I didn’t choose the headline myself!). The second, which goes into more detail, forms my latest column on the Ekklesia website.

Misreading the parable of the talents

There are few passages in the Bible that I feel more strongly about than the parable of the talents. This is partly because it is so often interpreted in a way that means it can be used to justify ideas that are contrary to Jesus’ teachings and to much of the Bible. I am convinced we have been reading the parable “upside down”.

If you’re unfamiliar with the parable, or can’t remember it all, you can find it in Matthew 25,14-30 and in a slightly different form in Luke 19,11-27. The gist of the story is that a rich man goes on a journey and leaves his servants to look after his money (Matthew uses the term “talents”, which was a unit of currency). On his return, he finds that two of them have invested the money and gained interest. He rewards them.

The third servant has hidden the money, gaining no interest. He tells the rich man that he was afraid of him because “you are a harsh man, you take what you did not deposit”. He gives him back his money. The rich man throws him out and, in Luke’s version, follows this by having his enemies killed in front of him.

Christians usually suggest that the rich man represents God. Nineteenth century clergy said it showed God will reward those who invest money well. Now it’s more common to be told that it means we will be rewarded if we put our skills to good use (this is helped by the convenient double meaning in English of the word “talents”).

Try reading this story to someone who is unfamiliar with it, without commenting, and ask them with which character they most identify. When I have done this, the response has been “the third servant”. He seems to be treated appallingly harshly and yet he has the bravery to speak truth to power – “you take what you did not deposit”.

Why are we so keen to equate the rich man with God? What does it say about our theology if we assume that a rich and tyrannical figure must represent God?

Jesus constantly sided with the poor and marginalised, extending his love to all and making clear that repentance for the rich meant a change in the way they used their money. Furthermore, it is unlikely that a first century Jewish teacher such as Jesus would have promoted usury.

What if Jesus intended the third servant to be the hero of the story? He tells the rich man the truth about himself and refuses to collude with his unrighteous moneymaking.

The parable thus becomes a comment on the sins of inequality: “to all those who have, more will be given; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away”.

It seems that this interpretation is becoming more common among biblical scholars, although I have sadly never heard it preached in church. For a more thorough examination of the parable from this perspective, I recommend Lloyd Pietersen’s book, Reading the Bible After Christendom (Paternoster, 2011).

I am not suggesting that there can be only one meaning of this (or any other) parable. If Jesus had wanted only to issue straightforward instructions, he would not have told parables. They are meant to make us think. My point here is about what attitudes and assumptions we bring to the reading of the Bible. Do we expect to see God identified with the powerful or the powerless?

The “traditional” interpretation of this parable is positively harmful. Christian investment banker Jeremy Marshall uses it to argue that “banking is a biblical principle”. We cannot know just how much financial exploitation has been defended on the basis of this misread parable, but it’s certainly played a part.

After Beeching, where are the bisexual Christians?

Vicky Beeching’s decision to come out publicly as a lesbian is so important because she is such a prominent figure in evangelical circles. As I mentioned on this blog yesterday, there is good evidence that the news has given many other gay Christians the confidence to come out.

Of course, there have been comings-out before this, including among evangelicals. Sally Hitchiner, an evangelical Church of England priest, was outed as gay on national television last month. I confidently predict that the number of comings-out, among Christians generally and evangelicals in particular, will increase over the next few months.

The phrase “coming out” tends to be used as short hand for “coming out as gay”. I find this slightly irritating, as there are lots of things you can came out as, whether to do with sexuality or otherwise. I hope we will also hear about the coming out of bisexual, asexual, trans and other Christians who have been wrongly excluded from equal inclusion in the Christian Church.

I admit this desire is influenced by the fact that I am bisexual. I know lots of bisexual Christians, but I cannot think of any prominent Christians in the UK who are openly bisexual (please feel free to correct me if I’m wrong on this).

Sadly, much of the media, and even parts of the LGBT movement, seem to regard “bisexual” as simply a variant on “gay”, and barely worthy of being mentioned in its own right. I’ve been introduced on the radio as a “bisexual Christian writer”, only to be described as “gay” a moment later by the same presenter who has introduced me. While most gay and lesbian people are very supportive of bisexual people’s rights, there are a small number of gay people who are just as prejudiced against bisexuals as any homophobe is against gays.

I sometimes come across Christians who say they are OK with people being gay but have a problem with bisexuality. In some cases, this is because they believe that gay people “can’t help” being like that, but bisexuals could simply choose to enter only a mixed-sex relationship. This is as offensive to gay people as to bisexuals, implying that attraction to members of the same sex is some sort of pitiable condition.

All these issues relate not only to whether LGBT people are given equal inclusion in the Christian Church, but why they should be. There are a range of arguments in favour of equality and inclusion, some of them contradictory. Pro-equality Christians hold the views they do for varied reasons and I sometimes find myself disagreeing with liberal Christians on sexuality just as much as conservative ones.

The more Christians talk about their varied sexualities and gender identities, the more it will be possible to have a real discussion on Christian sexual morality and how it relates to life, faith, ethics and politics today.

Vicky Beeching and the EA: Who represents evangelicals?

It’s five days since top Christian singer Vicky Beeching came out as gay. Evangelical Christianity in Britain is still shaking with the impact of this earthquake, whose effects will be felt for years and probably decades.

I admit to being slightly embarrassed about my own response to the revelation. I knew of Vicky Beeching mainly as a religious commentator. She delivers Thought for the Day and appears on religious discussion programmes. I was only vaguely aware that she was also a singer. Basically, I had no idea how well-known she is, in the US as well as the UK.

My ignorance was in part due to my being so un-musical. Also, I’ve not belonged to an evangelical church since I was in my early twenties, pre-dating the popularity of Vicky Beeching’s songs. I dare say I’ve occasionally heard (or even sung) one of her songs in church, but to me she was still primarily a religious commentator.

So last Thursday, while many people were saying “Vicky Beeching’s gay”!, I was thinking “Vicky Beeching’s a world-famous singer! I had no idea.”

But many evangelicals, especially in the UK but also in the US, are used to singing Vicky’s lyrics and looking up to her. True, she has become more liberal recently on some issues. She is also a great proponent of Christian feminism, which no doubt puts off some evangelicals but by no means all.

I am cautious about attributing too much to the actions of individuals, however exemplary or heroic. Vicky Beeching is inspiring, but – as I’m sure she would be the first to acknowledge – similar struggles to hers are faced daily by other Christians trying to come to terms with their sexuality and the responses of others.

What’s so good about the Beeching revelation is that it appears to have given many other Christians the confidence to come out as gay or bisexual, or to acknowledge that they have been wrong to oppose same-sex relationships. A gay friend of mine who grew up in a conservative evangelical setting has been texting me over the last few days to tell me how many of her friends, former friends and acquaintances have either come out or apologised in the wake of Vicky Beeching’s coming-out.

This may all sound as odd to liberal Christians as it does to many non-religious people. I’m sure many are wondering what all the fuss is about. But as Peter Ormerod points out in the Guardian today, Beeching’s coming out will help to “shift the centre of gravity” in Christian attitudes to homsexuality.

The reality is that a few prominent evangelicals coming out as gay or bisexual are likely to make a bigger impact than a well-argued academic argument in favour of Christian acceptance of same-sex relationships. This is for the same reason that people are less likely to be homophobic if they know gay and bisexual people personally. Here are people leading faithful Christian lives, valuing the Bible, who are OK about their attraction to people of the same gender, and whose sexual relationships would be regarded as ethical by evangelicals were it not for the gender of the people involved. As Jesus said, a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. The goodness that comes from these people and their relationships makes it hard for many Christians to accept that they are wrong.

The often overlooked reality is that evangelical views of same-sex relationships have been shifting for some time, albeit gradually. There are now several pro-LGBT evangelical groups. They range from Accepting Evangelicals, which campaigns vigorously for change in churches, to Diverse Church, which supports LGBT+ young people in conservative churches. Last year, the Baptist minister and writer Steve Chalke became the most well-known British evangelical cleric to back same-sex marriage. Beeching has now become by far the most prominent evangelical to come out as gay.

Al of this makes the attitude of the Evangelical Alliance (EA) all the more questionable. The Alliance includes evangelicals with contrasting views – for example, creationists and evolutionists, evangelical pacifists and evangelical members of the armed forces. It is meant to be an umbrella body so naturally these differences exist. But when it comes to sexuality, the umbrella disappears. Groups such as Accepting Evangelicals are not allowed to affiliate. Steve Chalke’s Oasis Trust (with which I have major problems, but for other reasons) was thrown out after Chalke backed same-sex marriage.

The day after Vicky Beeching came out, the EA posted an article on its website by Ed Shaw, a pastor in Bristol who experiences sexual attraction to men but who believes same-sex relationships are wrong. Despite starting off in apparently gentle tones, he then declares that Vicky is wrong because “we are simply not at liberty to change what the Bible says”. He goes on to make several similar statements about the Bible without acknowledging for a moment that different readers might sincerely interpret it in different ways.

Thankfully, many evangelicals know very well that the Bible can be interpreted in various ways when it comes to sexual ethics. When I was a homophobe, I suppressed my doubts about the shoddy biblical interpretation that backed up opposition to same-sex relationships. I am no longer an evangelical, and I no longer believe that everything in the Bible is true, but I love the Bible as much as I ever did. It remains very important to my faith.

In my experience, there are numerous evangelicals who are struggling with their views on same-sex relationships, having been brought up to oppose them but now finding themselves conflicted. Many of these people are genuinely open to dialogue and are appalled by the behaviour of extreme homophobic groups such as Christian Concern. Those of us who support equality and inclusion should be engaging with these people, honestly listening to them and explaining our views.

As evangelicalism slides into its own division over sexuality, the Evangelical Alliance is on the brink of losing any credibility in its claim to represent British evangelical opinion. Call me an optimist, but I believe that it is Vicky Beeching, and not the EA, whose views represent the future of evangelical Christianity in Britain.

Nick Baines is mistaken: Cameron’s policy is coherent, but morally foul

This morning, I was invited onto BBC Ulster’s Sunday Sequence programme to discuss my response as a Christian pacifist to the situation in northern Iraq. Our discussion followed headlines reporting that English church leaders have criticised the UK government’s response to Islamic extremism.

The story appears in more detail on the front page of today’s Observer, which declares that the Church of England has launched a “bitter attack” on the UK government’s Middle East policy. The “attack” consists of a letter to David Cameron from the Bishop of Leeds, Nick Baines, backed by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby.

I don’t object to bishops criticising the government; I wish they would do it more often. However, this “attack” – which is really more of a polite criticism – is far too soft on the government, making no mention of the militarism and commercial exploitation at the hear of UK foreign policy.

Baines’ letter suggests that UK foreign policy is not “coherent”. In contrast, I believe it is fairly consistent – and morally wrong.

On one issue, I applaud Nick Baines’ intervention. The letter raises vital questions about asylum, saying:

“As yet, there appears to have been no response to pleas for asylum provision to be made for those Christians (and other minorities) needing sanctuary from Iraq in the UK. I recognise that we do not wish to encourage Christians or other displaced and suffering people to leave their homeland – the consequences for those cultures and nations would be extremely detrimental at every level – but for some of them this will be the only recourse.”

The bishop is quite right to push the government on the question of asylum. There are several right-wing columnists who want to bomb Iraq, supposedly out of concern for the plight of Yazidis and Christians. I have no doubt that many of them would show far less concern about these people’s plight if they were to turn up claiming asylum in the UK.

If Baines had confined his letter to the asylum issue, it would be stronger and the press reports would be focusing on it. But his letter includes comments on the Middle East generally, as well as UK government policy on “Islamic extremism”. Predictably, much of the media have picked up on these questions rather than on asylum. Baines’ comments on these issues may well do more harm than good.

Baines writes:

“We do not seem to have a coherent or comprehensive approach to Islamist extremism as it is developing across the globe. Islamic State, Boko Haram and other groups represent particular manifestations of a global phenomenon.”

In this passage, “we” appears to mean the UK (in effect, the UK government). The examples that Baines gives are both manifestations of Islamic extremism. Unfortunately, talk of this “developing across the globe” plays down the many differences between types of extremism and the variety of contexts that have given rise to them. It also implies that Islamic extremists are somehow more of a problem than other violent and terrorist groups – from the Israeli government carrying out massacres in Gaza to Buddhist extremists burning mosques and churches in Sri Lanka.

The bishop unfortunately writes about Christians in an equally unhelpful way:

“The focus by both politicians and media on the plight of the Yezidis has been notable and admirable. However, there has been increasing silence about the plight of tens of thousands of Christians who have been displaced, driven from cities and homelands, and who face a bleak future. Despite appalling persecution, they seem to have fallen from consciousness, and I wonder why. Does your Government have a coherent response to the plight of these huge numbers of Christians whose plight appears to be less regarded than that of others?”

This, frankly, sounds petty. Baines is right to speak up for the plight of persecuted people and we all naturally tend to be more worried about the suffering of people with whom we can identify. But these comments add to the impression that Christians should be more worried about the persecution of other Christians than about the persecution of Yazidis, Shia Muslims, Sunni Muslims, Jews, atheists or anyone else. Let’s challenge persecution because it is wrong and because we are called to love all our neighbours as ourselves. Let’s not sound as if we think the rights of Christians matter more than the rights of others.

Early on in his letter, Baines says that “it is not clear what our broader global strategy is – particularly insofar as the military, political, economic and humanitarian demands interconnect”.

Again, the use of “our” identifies Baines – and by extension the rest of the Church and the British population – with Cameron’s government. Cameron’s foreign policy is, if not clear, then at least more coherent than the bishop suggests. It may seem inconsistent for politicians to wring their hands about Islamic extremists in Nigeria while preparing to bomb Islamic extremists in Iraq. It may appear absurd for Philip Hammond to condemn Russia for arming separatists in Ukraine while happily selling weapons to Israel, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.

But while ministers’ words are inconsistent, their actions are not. The government’s foreign policy is based on the commercial and strategic interests of those who hold power in the UK and the class that they represent. This is a government thoroughly committed to promoting the concerns of the super-rich. This has after all the basic purpose of the Tory Party throughout its existence. While I’m sure that some ministers believe that they are acting out of humanitarian concern, their domestic policy has involved rapid redistribution of wealth from the poor to the rich. We cannot expect their foreign policy to be any more ethical.

The problem is not that UK government policy is incoherent. The problem is that it is wrong. It makes sense within the context of the values by which Cameron and his cronies abide. These are the same repugnant values of militarism and colonialism that led Cameron to back Blair in invading Iraq, triggering a downward spiral to sectarian civil war.

In his letter, Nick Baines follows the common practice of using the words “we” and “our” when he really means the UK government and its armed forces. This is unhelpful, as it implies that nationality is the primary aspect of our identity and that we are basically on the same side as those who hold power.

As Christians, our loyalty is to the Kingdom of God. I owe no more loyalty to David Cameron’s government than I do to ISIS.

Don’t bomb Iraq (again)

The stories from Iraq are getting worse. There is news of massacres and threatened massacres, reported deaths and abductions, the sufferings of Yazidis, Christians and the many Muslims who reject the message of ISIS. It makes me sad and angry in equal measure.

In 2003, the peace movement predicted that the US-led invasion of Iraq would lead to sectarian violence and possibly civil war. I take no delight in seeing our predictions fulfilled, and on an even worse scale than most of us expected.

But some of the militarists who spoke of “liberating” Iraq eleven years ago seem to have little self-awareness and no shame. The likes of Liam Fox are now popping up in the media to argue that UK forces should join US forces in bombing Iraq, supposedly out of humanitarian concern for the victims of ISIS.

These people were warned in 2003 that their actions would lead to disaster. The disaster has come, and they respond by advocating the very same thing that triggered the disaster in the first place. They want to go to war in Iraq again.

However many times the are proved wrong, the most naïve kind of militarists always believe that the solution to any problem is to drop bombs on somebody.

As usual, it is not clear who they would be bombing. We could debate whether it is ethical to secure one person’s freedom by taking the life of an aggressor. But this is not what is happening in Iraq. The US bombs will kill civilians just as surely as they will kill ISIS fighters. Warfare has never been about killing aggressors. At most it involves killing people who are the same nationality, the same religion or simply in the same place as an aggressor.

Every civilian killed by a US bomb will give ISIS another argument with which to appeal to potential supporters. The very existence of US bombing will help this vicious gang of fundamentalists to present themselves as the true defenders of the Iraqi people. ISIS can be defeated only if its support is undermined, yet Obama and his allies are acting in a way that can only increase its popularity.

I respect the fact that many supporters of the bombing are motivated by a genuine horror at the ISIS butchery and an urge to do anything to stop it. As some have said to me on Twitter, “We must do something”. But responding to this feeling by bombing Iraq again would be like seeing a house on fire and pouring petrol on the flames – on the grounds that you had to do something.

While I respect the humanitarian motivations of some supporters of bombing, I find it difficult to take such claims seriously when they come from politicians and commentators who would never apply the same principles in other areas. The behaviour of ISIS is horrific, but it is sadly not unique. The vicious fighting between Christians and Muslims in the Central African Republic has rarely made headlines in the UK, despite the atrocities committed by both sides. The kidnapping of schoolgirls in Nigeria went from being a global outrage to forgotten news in a matter of days, with the girls no more free when they disappeared from the headlines than they were when they disappeared from their classrooms.

The Israeli government and its army have massacred hundreds of innocent civilians in Gaza. The Tory MPs and columnists who want to save the Yazidi from the terrorists of IS are quite happy for the UK to continue to license weapons sales to the terrorists of the Israeli government – and to the regime of Saudi Arabia, whose ideology is hardly a million miles from the views of IS.

Indeed, the UK government sold weapons to Saddam, then helped the US government to remove him and sold weapons to the regime they put in his place. As ISIS have captured weapons belonging to the Iraqi government, there is a good chance they are using some British-made weapons. British ministers now look set to sell weapons to Kurdish troops so that they can use them against the British weapons held by ISIS troops, who have taken them from a government supplied with arms by the UK after the US and UK went to war with the regime that they had previously armed. In this context, it is difficult to regard any supply of weapons as a moral and humanitarian act.

Imagine if the Iranian government were to bomb Israel, saying it was doing so to save the innocent people of Gaza from being massacred. This is substantially the same argument as the US government makes when it justifies bombing Iraq with talk of saving innocent Iraqi Christians. If the two arguments seem different, it is only because we are used to seeing actions by the US and UK governments as inherently liberal and humanitarian. This is not how they are seen in much of the world.

I do not have any easy answers to the dangers of ISIS in Iraq. I do not have solutions to offer with a promise that I can save the enemies of ISIS from being massacred. The cheap answers and supposed solutions are provided by militarists who believe that violence can save us from violence. Their promises are empty, although no amount of evidence will stop them repeating them.

It is odd that pacifists are so often accused of being naïve, when it is militarists who repeatedly offer the same response, no matter how many times it fails. Someone asked me a few days ago if the situation in Iraq means that pacifism is no longer credible. On the contrary, the situation in Iraq means – sadly – that the warnings of pacifists have been proved right. It is not pacifism that has been discredited, but militarism.