UKIP and the “abnormal” gays

People who defend themselves by saying “My words were taken out of context” sometimes have a good point. It is possible to misrepresent someone, either deliberately or accidentally, by quoting their words out of context. However, a UKIP candidate in Portsmouth has stretched this defence to breaking point. He has also attempted some creative redefinitions of common English words.

Douglas Denny is a member of UKIP’s National Executive Committee and a candidate for Portsmouth City Council in next month’s local elections. He was involved in a discussion on a UKIP members’ online forum, apparently about whether or not it is right to describe gay and bisexual people as “sodomites”. It says something about UKIP that this discussion was even happening.

In the course of this online discussion, Denny reportedly described same-gender sexual acts as “disgusting” and wrote:

“What irritates me is the way they and their leftie, neo-Commie followers seem to want to force the rest of us to consider them as normal. I just wish they would keep their homosexual nature and practices to themselves and stop trying to ram it down my throat telling me they are ‘normal’ when they are not.”

When the comments were published by the Sunday Mirror, Denny did not deny using these words. Instead he claimed they were taken “out of context”. I’ve tried thinking about how these words could possibly be used in a context that is not homophobic, but I’ve so far failed to think of one. Please feel free to offer suggestions.

But you can’t accuse Denny of giving up easily. He’s tried to justify his words by saying that by “normal” he simply meant “in the majority”.

Now I realise that not everyone uses words in the same way and that one word can carry several shades of meaning. Nonetheless, some shared understanding of a word’s meaning is necessary for us to use language effectively. I don’t think I’ve ever come across anyone who thinks “normal” means simply “in the majority”. By this definition any minority could be declared “abnormal”. To be normal is to conform to a norm, an acceptable standard, not simply the most common form of something.

To be fair to Douglas Denny, he told The News (a local paper in Portsmouth), “I believe homosexuals have a perfect right to live their lives and wander around like everyone else and do not deserve any discrimination because of their sexuality.”

You might have expected Douglas Denny to leave it there and to try to move in on, but in the same interview he decided to add, “I wish that they wouldn’t try to keep ramming it down my throat that they are normal in their sexual practices.”

Stuart Potter, chairman of Portsmouth UKIP, decided to back Denny, insisting “He isn’t a homophobe”.

All this comes shortly after Nigel Farage promised to remove people with “extremist” views from being UKIP candidates. He made the promise after David Silvester, a UKIP councillor in Oxfordshire, argued that the recent floods were a result of God’s judgement on same-sex marriage.

Denny’s comments are a reminder that Farage has failed to remove candidates who express these sort of views. Some UKIP members have started a petition calling for Denny’s removal. This is not something that I support – because it implies the problem is simply about an individual. So many examples have been reported of homophobic and racist comments by UKIP members that it is clear that such views are very common in the party.

This is not a surprise. This is a party so right-wing that they believe the Tories’ vicious cuts have not gone far enough, that climate change is not real and that UK military spending (already the sixth highest in the world) should be increased by 40 percent. They also want to withdraw from the UN Convention on Refugees and the European Court of Human Rights – currently backed by every country in Europe except Belarus. They are more than a group of clowns banging on about Brussels or a convenient way of registering discontent with mainstream parties.

However much Farage tries to remove embarrassing candidates he cannot get away from the reality that UKIP is a far-right party with a nasty agenda rooted in prejudice. It’s not Douglas Denny that’s the problem; it’s UKIP.

Cameron talks about faith, churches and poverty

David Cameron has spoken this week of his Christian faith. His sincerity has been widely questioned on Twitter, but it’s not for me to judge him. God can see into Cameron’s heart but I can’t. However, the Prime Minister and I have very different understandings of Christianity.

Cameron praised churches for their work with the poor. Thanks to Cameron and his allies, British churches are doing more work with the poor than they have done for decades. This is because the coalition government’s policies have led to a sharp rise in poverty in the UK, with half a million people using food banks, rough sleeping rising by a third in three years and thousands of disabled people losing basic means of support. At the same time, the coalition has cut taxes for the rich and is planning to spend £100bn renewing the Trident nuclear weapons system.

While churches rightly reach out to help those in desperate need, Cameron has good reason to be thankful that they do so. Without food banks and the like, the government might well have a lot more riots to deal with.

I am as biased as anyone else when it comes to interpreting the Bible. My background affects my approach, just as David Cameron’s affects his. I am sure I have misunderstood Jesus in all sorts of ways. Nonetheless, however we interpret Jesus’ teachings, it is difficult to argue that they are not concerned with issues of poverty and wealth.

The Gospels show Jesus declaring he had come to “bring good news to the poor” and declaring “blessed are the poor”. Most of his parables had economic dimensions, however much they have been spiritualised and domesticated by centuries of interpretations in the hands of the powerful.

I suggest that Jesus did not practise charity in the narrow sense of helping out less fortunate individuals. He drew attention to injustice, attacked the priorities of the rich and powerful and challenged us all to repent and live differently. His support for individuals who were ill or distressed was in the context of solidarity and mingled with teachings about the unjust practices that contributed to their suffering.

As churches struggle to cope with the rise in poverty and homelessness, let’s remember a crucial question: are we simply patching over the cracks, or are we standing in solidarity with poor and marginalised people and challenging the sinful systems that lead to poverty and inequality?

Welby, homophobia and the lives that are at risk

Justin Welby has declared that acceptance of same-sex marriage could lead to Christians being killed in South Sudan, Nigeria, Pakistan and elsewhere.

In his comments, Welby made some valid points. But the conclusions he drew from them seem to me to be severely mistaken.

The archbishop told LBC Radio that he had “stood by gravesides in Africa of a group of Christians who had been attacked because of something that had happened in America”. In the incident in question, in Nigeria, the murderers had allegedly said “If we leave a Christian community here, we will all be made to become homosexual and so we will kill all the Christians.”

Welby is right to say that “We have to be aware of… the impact of that on Christians far from here.” As he pointed out, “Everything we say here goes round the world.”

It would be naïve and uncaring not to think of the possibility that same-sex marriage in British churches could be used to incite anti-Christian hatred elsewhere in the world. Welby rightly reminds us that we need to take that into account.

However, when something is used to incite hatred, this does not mean it is necessarily the underlying cause of the hatred. I am sure Welby would acknowledge that anti-Christian prejudice in Nigeria, Pakistan and elsewhere is due to complex social, historical, economic and political causes. The same can be said of homophobic prejudice.

I dare say that some Nigerians assume that Christians in South Sudan all share the views of Christians in the US. They show as much prejudice as those British people who assume that all British Muslims are comparable to the Taliban. I am sure the majority of people in Nigeria, like the majority of people in Britain, have the sense to realise that this is not the case.

Much of the British reporting of African homophobia has racial undertones. An assumption that all Africans are homophobic (clearly not true) is accompanied by an implication that Africans will naturally behave in a prejudiced, irrational and ill-informed way.

I am not suggesting that Welby shares this attitude. Nor, to be fair, does every British media report. But it is nonetheless a common attitude. At its worse, it combines appeasement of homophobia with underlying racism.

Bigots who attack Christians in South Sudan, Nigeria or Pakistan have no more excuse than the bigots of the English Defence League attacking Muslims in Britain.

This does not mean that we should be callous about things that might provoke them into turning their hatred into violence. We should not be naïve or thoughtless about the effects on Christians in these countries of decisions taken in Europe or North America.

Nor should we allow this to become a convenient excuse for British Christians who oppose same-sex relationships in any case. If Christians in Pakistan were attacked by Islamic fundamentalists shouting that the doctrine of the trinity is blasphemous, I doubt we would see any British church leaders arguing that we should abandon belief in the trinity.

While talking about the implications of our decisions for Christians in Africa, there was one aspect of the issue that Welby sadly did not mention. He did not point out the consequences for gay and bisexual Africans. Many African cultures were accepting of homosexuality prior to the arrival of western armies and missionaries. As Davis Mac-Iyalla, a gay Nigerian Anglican, points out, it was not homosexuality but homophobia that the west brought to Africa.

The many LGBTI Christians in Africa need our support and solidarity. They don’t need the double curse of homophobia justified by racial, colonial assumptions.

Farage still scaremongering about same-sex marriage

During his recent debates with Nick Clegg, UKIP leader Nigel Farage found time to make a baseless prediction about same-sex marriage and religion.

In his first debate with Clegg, Farage said that UKIP opposed same-sex marriage “while we are signed up to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, and where we have the risk that our established church, and possibly other faith communities, could ultimately under discrimination laws be forced to conduct services that they find anathema”. 

He went further in a statement released by his office, to correct any perception that UKIP now supports same-sex marriage. He said, “We note that some gay rights activists are already talking about taking legal action in Strasbourg to force this issue.”

Are they, Nigel? Can you name them please?

I’m not sure they exist outside Nigel Farage’s fantasies, but I am ready to apologise if he or anyone else can point them out to me.

The fear that faith groups may be forced to carry out same-sex weddings against their will has been whipped up over the last two years by groups such as the “Coalition for Marriage”, certain conservative Catholics and UKIP.

These claims are less believable than ever. They had largely died down since the legislation on same-sex marriage was passed by Parliament last year, as it became clear that legal challenges were not happening.

By reviving these claims, Farage raises the spectre of the European Court of Human Rights. He does not, of course, explain why the Court has not forced faith groups to carry out same-sex marriages in all the other European countries that already recognise same-sex marriage.

Despite working on these issues for several years, I know of no LGBT rights group that wants to force faith communities to carry out marriages they don’t believe in. I have never met any individual who wants to do so either. Anyone attempting such a legal challenge would almost certainly have to begin it in the UK courts; not in Strasbourg. Furthermore, they would receive no support from any of the major LGBT rights groups in the UK, and very little from anyone else.

In November 2011, Christian Concern (one of the lobby groups behind the “Coalition for Marriage”) commented on new legislation allowing churches to host civil partnerships. Christian Concern’s director, Andrea Williams, said “It is almost certain that homosexual campaigners will commence litigation against churches that refuse”.

No such litigation was commenced. No organisation came out supporting such litigation. I wrote to Andrea Williams on 4th November 2011, asking her to name any groups or individuals of whom she was aware who were planning such litigation. Two and a half years’ later, I am still waiting for a reply.

It’s no surprise that the Christian Concern website currently has a picture of Nigel Farage on the front page, with an article saying he is “right to the fear the consequences” of same-sex marriage. Both UKIP and Christian Concern are fuelled by fear. Their baseless claims must be challenged.

Opponents of equal marriage resort to dirty tactics

It must be unusual to find that somebody objects so much to your wedding that he has travelled half way around the world to do a series of media interviews criticising it. All the more so if you don’t know him and possibly have never heard of him.

This is the experience of the same-sex couples in England and Wales who married today. They are the first same-sex couples to have their marriages recognised under English and Welsh law. Pro-equality religious leaders have been among the first to welcome the news. My congratulations and best wishes to them all.

Professor Bobby Lopez, a right-wing US activist, arrived in Britain earlier this week to campaign against these people’s weddings. He is here at the invitation of “Gay Marriage, No Thanks”, a bizarrely named campaign backed by homophobic lobby groups such as Christian Concern and so-called Anglican Mainstream. These groups are so extreme that they tend to embarrass the more moderate opponents of equal marriage.

The particular emphasis of “Gay Marriage, No Thanks” is to claim that children are harmed by same-sex marriage. This repugnant tactic is Lopez’s specialism. He was brought up by a female same-sex couple and claims that the lack of a “male role model” hindered his personal and social development.

I cannot of course comment on Lopez’s parenting. I am sorry to hear it was such a negative experience for him. What I can say is that growing up without a father is not a new or unusual experience. I am not speaking primarily about single parents in the sense the term is now understood. I am thinking of the many places and cultures in which it has been normal for a father to travel a long way to find work, sending money back to his wife and children, who may rarely see him. During both world wars, millions of children were effectively brought up by single mothers, because their fathers were away fighting. The lucky ones had more time with their fathers when the war ended. Others had only a distant grave to visit.

It is typical of anti-equal marriage campaigners to portray modern nuclear families as the “natural” way for bringing up a child. This is misleading in the extreme. Those who claim to be defending “biblical values” are of course ignoring the fact that no-one in biblical times would have recognised a nuclear family. They also skip over the controversy that Jesus caused by challenging biological notions of family, insisting that all who do the will of God are his brothers, sisters and mothers.

Some would point out that wartime mothers or single parents involved other people in the bringing up of their child, such as a grandparent, neighbour, aunt or uncle. This is exactly the point. Children do not need to be raised solely by parents (whether one or two, whether biological or not). Throughout history, extended families and communities have played a much bigger role in raising children than they do in much western culture today.

I have doubts about the notion of “male role models”, a phrase that implies that children should be taught to conform to narrow and unhealthy understandings of gender. Nonetheless, I accept the point that it is helpful for children to experience a range of role models and encounter loving adults with varied personalities and views. If this is what Lopez and “Gay Marriage, No Thanks” really want, they shouldn’t be opposing same-sex marriage. They should be opposing the destruction of communities under capitalism, the narrowness of nuclear families and the shallow, commercialised approaches to relationships that lay down restrictive and unhelpful roles and pressurise parents to conform to impossible ideals.

This would promote children’s rights, and all our rights. But it wouldn’t satisfy those who confuse the needs of children with their own hatred of same-sex relationships.

The faith of Tony Benn

When my radio alarm clock woke me this morning, I was unsurprised but deeply saddened to hear of the death of Tony Benn. 

I was 18 when I met Tony Benn for the first time. I stood up, nervously, to ask him a question at a fringe meeting at Labour Party conference in 1995. I asked him his views on Christian socialism. He gave a long and rather indirect answer, which mixed criticisms of the hierarchical nature of churches with appreciation of the teachings of Jesus. 

He also said, “Of course, there are some Christians in the churches, just as there some socialists in the Labour Party.” It’s a sentence I’ve never forgotten. 

Later in the conference, I queued up to ask him to sign my copy of his latest book. After signing it, he shook my hand, looked at me directly with his amazingly bright eyes and said “Look after yourshelf, Shymon”. 

I met Tony Benn on another two occasions. The last time was when he spoke at the Yearly Meeting of British Quakers in 2011. He was very frail and hard of hearing but his handshake remained firm as I introduced myself as a news reporter for The Friend, the independent weekly Quaker magazine. 

Tony Benn was not a Christian. Nor was he an atheist. Compared to many left-wing radicals, he was surprisingly positive about Christianity.

I dare say that most of Benn’s supporters are unaware that his mother, Margaret Benn, was the first president of the Congregational Federation, formed in 1972 by those Congregationalist churches that voted against merging with the Presbyterian Church of England to form the United Reformed Church.

In my late teens, I read one of Benn’s most famous books, Arguments for Socialism. In an early section on the history of British socialism, he portrays radical Christian movements in the middle ages and early modern times as forerunners of socialism. 

There are some on the left who make these links but who suggest that such movements were not really Christian, that they simply used Christian terminology because they were familiar with it. Tony Benn never made that mistake. The book quotes the passionately Christian words of the fourteenth-century priest John Ball and the seventeenth-century activist Gerard Winstanley, showing how their Christian faith inspired their belief in sharing the world’s resources. Benn was similarly positive about radical Christian faith in countless other writings and speeches.

I thank God for Tony Benn. However, Benn would be the first to acknowledge that he is one among many. He refused to accept that change happens because of influential individuals, constantly reasserting his socialist conviction that only movements of ordinary people can really change things. I think this faith underscored all his other views – on peace, democracy and economics. 

Tony Benn was a man who believed in people. It’s a rare thing in a cynical, celebrity-driven age. The best way to remember him is to show the faith that he showed in the power of justice working at the grassroots, whatever religion or theology we may (or may not) attach to it. 

Why is a Christian school promoting an arms company?

The arms company BAE Systems, along with the Royal Air Force, has run a “science roadshow” for pupils at a Christian secondary school in central London. The school is a few minutes’ walk from where I live.

The school, St Marylebone Church of England School, aims to “nurture respect for religious, moral and spiritual values” and to help pupils to “understand the interdependence of individuals, groups and nations”.

BAE Systems is a multinational arms firm, selling weapons to oppressive and aggressive regimes around the globe. 

I heard about the event, which happened on 5th March, when I was contacted by the local paper, the West End Extra. It has now run a story about my criticism and the headteacher’s response. I have also written to the headteacher, Kat Pugh, explaining my concerns and apologising for not having written before my criticisms appeared in print. 

I emphasised to her that I am not criticising the school as a whole. I am pleased to hear that the school has maked Fairtrade Fortnight and run an e-safety event. 

I did not write as a a parent or a schoolteacher (although I teach in adult education). My comments are simply those of a local resident with a good knowledge of the arms industry in general and BAE in particular. There are two reasons why I strongly object to BAE’s role in this event. 

Firstly, there is the issue of BAE’s influence on young people and its portrayal of science.

In her comments to the West End Extra, Kat Pugh emphasised that the event is not about recruitment for BAE or the RAF. I appreciate that it is not a direct recruitment event.

Nonetheless, I doubt that either BAE or the RAF engage in this sort of activity purely as a matter of charity. BAE have an interest in more people choosing careers in science, technology and engineering, as they employ people to do this sort of work. This employment is helped by the UK government, which effectively subsidises the arms industry to the tune of £700 million per year (according to the academic researchers at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute). 

The headteacher suggests that the name of the company that runs the event is irrelevant because the children will not remember it. This seems rather disingenuous. The way the event is run will inevitably affect the way that science is portrayed, however subtly. 

Secondly, any invitation to BAE helps to confer an image of social and moral legitimacy on the company and its activities. 

This is why the Church of England no longer invests in BAE (or any company making more than ten percent of its turnover from arms sales). It is why nearly all charities now refuse to invest in BAE and and why institutions such as the National Gallery have recently ended sponsorship deals with arms firms. 

In Kat Pugh’s comments to the West End Extra, she refers to the “defence industry”. BAE’s work is not about defence. Its customers include regimes that use weapons in the most aggressive manner against innocent civilians. Saudi Arabia is one of BAE’s “home markets”. I am sure the headteacher does not need me to tell her about the reality of the Saudi regime, its suppression of dissent or its use of weapons against peaceful critics of its royal family.

In 2011, peaceful pro-democracy protesters in Bahrain were attacked by their own government with the help of armoured vehicles made by BAE Systems.

If BAE’s representatives were in the school to debate the ethics of the arms industry with their critics, I would be glad that such a discussion was taking place. However, by allowing BAE to run a roadshow at which the company’s values are not questioned or debated, the school implies that it endorses, or at least tolerates, the activities of BAE and their impact on the world.

Having written to the school’s headteacher, I will also be writing to the Church of England to ask about any national policies concerning their schools’ relationships with arms companies.

Ironically, the BAE event at St Marylebone School took place on Ash Wednesday, 5th March. Ash Wednesday is a day associated with repentance, accepting God’s forgiveness and a change of hearts and minds. We all need to repent of our country’s role in the evil of the international arms trade.