The strange case of the DUP and the English left

I never cease to be amazed by just how London-centred the UK media are. As the results came in during the early hours of Friday morning, it became clear that Theresa May was likely to attempt some sort of deal with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). Yet the BBC election programme told its viewers almost nothing about the DUP. Even the election results in Northern Ireland, which saw the DUP increase its number of seats from eight to ten, received little attention.

A friend of mine who is a Scottish political journalist used to challenge Westminster-based political correspondents to name the First Minister of Wales. Most were unable to do so. I suspect that on Friday morning, some of them were desperately typing “Democratic Unionist Party” into Google, as they sought to find out about a party whose candidates all stand in areas further away than London Underground Zone 3.

Of course, many other people were looking up the DUP on Friday – at one point, the party’s website crashed. It’s entirely understandable that many voters in England know little about parties in other parts of the UK, especially when the UK media pays them so little attention. What I’ve found more surprising is the odd reaction on parts of the English left.

Anyone looking up the DUP can find out very quickly that they are viciously homophobic and anti-abortion. Some of their leading members are creationists, fundamentalists and/or climate change deniers. Several have past links with paramilitary groups and they are gung-ho for high military spending and nuclear weapons.

So it’s no surprise that most people on the left don’t want the DUP in government. A number of feminists and left-wing campaigners are writing to Tory MPs to urge them not to do a deal with the DUP.

I can understand why people might do this, but it isn’t something I’ll be joining in.

I accept that the DUP are even worse than the Tories when it comes to human rights – particularly LGBT rights and women’s rights. On economic issues, however, they are slightly less right-wing than the Tories. For example, they oppose the bedroom tax and want to maintain the triple lock on pensions.

This doesn’t for a moment excuse the homophobia, sexism and climate change denial. But it does make me wonder why so many on the left think that the Tories taken alone are any better than the Tories and the DUP added together.

To write to Tories to ask them to reject the DUP seems to suggest that the Tories on their own are not too bad. There is an implication that Tory MP are basically reasonable, liberal-minded people who can be asked not to do deals with bigots. But while many Tory MPs may now support (some) LGBT rights and pay lip-service to environmental issues, this does not make them better than the DUP. Their welfare cuts have literally killed people over the last seven years. Their arms sales to countries such as Saudi Arabia have added to the blood in which the hands of Tory MPs are so liberally covered.

Of course I would rather have a minority Tory government than a majority Tory-DUP one. A minority government will be easier to defeat. And I would rather see both the Tories and the DUP divided: I don’t want people who are attacking the rights and welfare of millions to be strong or stable.

I fear that those who see the Tories as preferable to the DUP may be influenced by assumptions that religious bigots must be worse than liberal-sounding millionaires or that Northern Ireland must be more extreme than England. Neither of these are helpful or accurate assumptions for people on the left to be making, whether consciously or otherwise.

I do not suggest that Tories are all the same, nor will I waste my energy on personal hatred for Conservatives as people. I instead suggest that we need to continue resisting the Conservative Party as an institution that functions to promote the interests of the wealthy at the expense of the rest of us – however liberal some of them may sound when standing next to Democratic Unionists.

Churches should be challenging the Tories at election time

Churches at election time are a sad sight.

Organisations that spend much of their time championing principles of compassion and seeking to serve local communities are suddenly afflicted by an apparent inability to speak when it comes to one of the most important decisions that people around them have to make.

The attitudes adopted by national denominational institutions are particularly disheartening.

Take for example the Joint Public Issues Team (JPIT). It brings together the Baptist Union, Church of Scotland, Methodist Church and United Reformed Church to comment on political issues. They have produced some great statements over the last few years, challenging welfare cuts that increase poverty and calling for an end to the Trident nuclear weapons system. With an election coming up, you might think they would have something to say about how the choices with which we are faced relate to these issues.

In particular, they could point out that a vote for the Tories is a vote to continue with the very policies that they have been criticising. It is a vote for more poverty, more inequality and more war.

Instead, JPIT’s website declares that, “While we all have political opinions, when the Church gets too involved or too close, it begins to lose the detachment that we need to discern God’s will… Election campaigns make this ever more sensitive.  Notwithstanding the fact that as registered charities the churches must abide by statutory guidance on impartiality, lobbying and campaigning, it is far more important that the Church sees itself not as any other kind of organisation weighing in on its priorities for manifestos or commitments from future MPs.”

This is odd, because JPIT and its member churches frequently speak up for their priorities and call for particular commitments from MPs the rest of the time. Laws that bar charities and churches from expressing preferences should be challenged, not quietly submitted to.

I make these comments about JPIT not because I do not support JPIT but precisely because I value them so highly. This makes it all the more disappointing.

This of course is before I even get on to the Church of England archbishops’ letter, which echoed Tory slogans about “stability” (this has been widely discussed elsewhere, so I won’t go into it here).

And up and down the UK, there are local churches cautiously saying very little at a time when their words and actions could have a considerable impact.

Thankfully, there are some variations. A friend of mine who is a Methodist minister said in a sermon that he thought that support for the Conservative Party was incompatible with following the Gospel. He was criticised by several members of his congregation. Some of them disagreed with him; I’m glad they felt able to say so and it’s quite right that they challenged him. Far more worryingly, however, some of them agreed with what he said but thought he should not have said it. This is bizarre and dangerous: suggesting that Christians should hide their deeply held principles as they relate to vital events going on in the world around them.

I am not suggesting that clergy and churches should tell their members who to vote for. Members of churches should think through everything they hear for themselves, including everything preached from the pulpit. Churches in which people are discouraged from disagreeing with preachers are not healthy places.  This does not mean that clergy and other preachers should refrain from addressing difficult and controversial issues, including choices about voting.

Of course churches should not declare that all Christians should vote the same way. Nor should they refuse to engage in dialogue with those who disagree. This should not stop churches from declaring opposition to Tory government and calling on people to vote to remove it.

Of course some Christians will disagree (I’m not saying that they’re not Christians, but simply that I think they’re mistaken). Of course, unjust laws could be used against us; they should be resisted and challenged. Of course we would be misrepresented; Christians are used to that. None of these are reasons not to do it.

Jesus sided with the poor and marginalised. That is a fundamental aspect of the Gospel. There is no Gospel without that reality. The Conservative Party has spent two centuries promoting the interests of the super-rich. That what’s it’s for. These things are not compatible. Let’s say so.

 

 

 

On The Big Questions: Church buildings and drones

I’m pleased to report that I’ll be on The Big Questions on BBC1 at 10.00am tomorrow (Sunday 12th March).

They have three debates per episode. I’ve been asked on to talk about church buildings (in the light of the potential closure of Guildford Cathedral). However, they’ve also asked me to join in on another topic: the ethics of drones.

My main job now is working for the Peace Pledge Union (PPU), a pacifist network that includes people of many religions and none. Tomorrow, I’ll largely be speaking in a personal capacity, particularly when it comes to church buildings. Of course the topic of drones is very relevant to my work at the PPU (although I’m coming from a Christian pacifist position, the PPU includes many other sorts of pacifists as well).

I’ll be back here in the next few days with some thoughts about the programme. If you want to tweet while watching it, I believe the hashtag is #BBCbq. You can link to me on Twitter at @SymonHill or the PPU at @PPUtoday. Your comments on the issues are also welcome below. Thanks!

 

 

Sexuality and the church: Let’s stop listening to bishops

I’m disappointed but not remotely surprised that the Church of England bishops’ latest two-year consultation process on sexuality (which followed their previous two-year consultation process on sexuality) has resulted in a recommendation to keep things exactly the same, except for some very small changes that will be kept as slight as possible so that nobody will notice.
The report’s feeble attempt at talking of welcoming LGBT+ people is revealed for what it is in the use of the phrase “gay and lesbian” to mean people attracted to people of their own gender. Once again, the existence of bisexuals is forgotten. Not that it’s much better for gay and lesbian people.
I don’t want any more consultation processes on sexuality from the Church of England. I won’t support them, co-operate with them or be part of the consultation. While we wait for yet more phoney consultation, yet more LGBT+ people will be denied an equal place in the body of Christ. More people will lose faith, give up, hate themselves or kill themselves. And the Gospel of Christ’s love will be denied and law will be promoted over grace.
Some of the bishops will talk about how painful it was to reach these conclusions, how they wrestled with their decisions and how hard it is to have to deal with competing expectations. I’m sure there’s some truth in this, but after so many pointless processes and delaying tactics, my patience with these sort of comments is rapidly deteriorating. I’ve nothing against the bishops, I just don’t think we should allow them the authority to make decisions like this.
We don’t need church leaders to tell us what we may and may not do when we worship God. We don’t need them to tell us how far we can follow the Spirit’s leadings or how we should read and interpret the Bible. We can do these things ourselves, with support from each other and with guidance from the Holy Spirit. Of course we get it wrong, we will often get it wrong, but there’s no reason to believe that church leaders committed to hierachy and homophobia will be more likely to get it right.
Let’s get on with it.

The Christmas story is a political story

The New Testament opens with a story of conflict. It is a political conflict.

By any standard, King Herod was a vicious ruler. Yet in Matthew’s Gospel, he is frightened. He feels threatened – not by another ruler, not by an army, not by his masters in Rome. He is frightened of a baby.

Herod tries to fool a group of astrologers (not three kings) into passing on information about Jesus, but they are warned and outwit him. They proclaim Jesus, not Herod, to be king. In his desperation, Herod inflicts the unimaginable horror of a massacre of children. But Jesus survives. Mary, Joseph and Jesus become refugees in Egypt.

The story has been distinctly odd even before Herod appears. We have a Jewish couple who look set to break up when Mary becomes pregnant. But Joseph is told that Mary is pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Instead of feeling shame or outrage, he trusts her and goes through with the marriage. Social and family norms are overturned. No “traditional family values” here. Jesus had two fathers.

We are presented with contrasting images of kingship. We have the worldly kingship of Herod, rooted in wealth, violence, deceit and political manipulation. Against that, we have the child of an almost-single mother who becomes a refugee. As the child grows up, he mixes with the marginalised, sides with the poor and exemplifies active nonviolence.

Since the fourth century, when the Roman Empire domesticated Christianity, many churches have shown more affinity with the sort of power represented by Herod than with the upside-down kingship of Jesus.

Few elements of Christianity have been domesticated more thoroughly than Christmas. Stories from Matthew and Luke have been welded together, mixed in with Pagan imagery and used as the sentimental background music to a festival of consumerism.

It is sometimes said that we are losing “the real meaning of Christmas”. I’m not sure that people in Victorian times or the Middle Ages were focused on the radical nature of Jesus’ message any more than we are – at least not if they were listening at the pulpits of state-aligned churches.

The nativity stories are among the parts of the gospels that scholars tend to regard as least likely to be factually accurate. I accept that judgement. Nonetheless, I suggest that these stories mean a lot because they are a microcosm of the conflict and choice that is at the heart of the gospel. The nativity story is not merely a romantic myth but an invitation to take sides.

Will we choose the kingdom of God or the powers of this world? The tyrant or the baby? One side has money and armies. The other has love and nonviolence. It’s up to us.

 

The above article is adapted from a piece I wrote for the December 2016 issue of Reform magazine, in which I was one of four people asked to respond to the question, “What does Christmas mean to you?”. Many thanks to Steve Tomkins, editor of Reform, for asking me to write this.

My latest book is The Upside-Down Bible: What Jesus really said about money, sex and violence, published by Darton, Longman and Todd. It costs £9.99 in paperback or ebook.

Do the anti-strike commentators believe in magic?

Certain middle class commentators seem to have a sizeable sense of entitlement as they direct their anger at the drivers and guards striking against their treatment by Southern Railways.

If you’re a passenger who supports the strike, or at least appreciates the complexity of the issues, you are not the one who is likely to get quoted in the right-wing media. You’re more likely to be heard if you say something like, “Because of the strikers, I’m going to be two hours late for work!”.

I wonder how these people imagine they get to work normally. Do they think that the trains magically glide along without the effort of the very same people who they are now attacking for striking?

Some angrily blame strikers for making them late. When there are no strikes on, I doubt that many of these people put the same energy into thanking the same workers for getting them to their destinations on time.

Similarly, those who blame postal workers for striking should be taken seriously only if, on every other day, they thank postal workers for delivering the post.

Sadly, some people from privileged backgrounds don’t seem to notice that the world works for them only because of other people’s work. Trains move because people drive them. Public toilets are clean because people clean them. They can buy things in shops because people serve them. Their children can go to school because people teach them.

Some workers only get noticed when they stop doing the work for which they are so rarely thanked on every other day.

If workers’ concerns are noticed only when they are striking, then it’s hardly suprising that they choose to do so.

Of course, it’s not just the rich who sometimes display these attitudes. In an atomised society that promotes “independence”, we can easily forget that we are all dependent on each other. I cannot drink a cup of tea without relying on the thousands of people who have picked the tea, packaged it, transported it and sold it, the people who made the mug I’m drinking from and the equally large number of people involved in producing and selling the milk and sugar.

Many commuters affected by the strikes earn less than the staff who are striking – because they don’t have the strong unions that rail workers maintain to promote their concerns.

If, like me, you spend large parts of your life travelling by train in Britain, then you’ve probably spent many hours despairing of delayed trains or getting anxious as you stand crammed in crowded carriages.

You’ve probably not found someone from the Daily Telegraph popping up to get a quote from you about how stressful and inconvenient this is. Unless, of course, this situation arose during a strike, when right-wing journalists trip over each other to gather stories of the “misery” that they can blame on the unions.

The government and their allies allege that these strikes are political. They are right. Putting safety before profit – by keeping guards on trains – is a political position. Suggesting that disabled passengers should have equal access to transport – which is helped by having guards on trains – is political. It is political to ask people to cope with inconvenience so that they can support each other in taking action that protects each others’ needs. These are all political positions that I am happy to hold and to promote.

Yes, the strikes are political. Everything’s political – including safety, access and mutual support.