How radical is the Greenbelt festival?

The following article appeared in the Morning Star newspaper on 2nd September 2017. I wrote it after attending the Greenbelt festival the previous weekend.

Last weekend communist theologian Marika Rose called for the abolition of the police.

It’s nothing remarkable: she has been expressing such views for years. What was different this time is that she was addressing an audience at one of Britain’s largest religious festivals.

Greenbelt is a Christian-based festival of music, comedy, arts, talks, debate, politics, worship and theology. In recent years, it has projected a clearly left-of-centre image.

Taking place every August, it is now held in east Northamptonshire. It attracted over 11,000 punters this year, as numbers rose after falling from the high point of 20,000 some years ago.

Mariks’a comments triggered a mixed response. One festival-goer told me she was delighted to hear such radical views at a Christian event. Another wrote: “Shame on you” to Marika.

The controversy provoked a minor Twitter storm, with some apparently angry that such a view should be given a platform at Greenbelt. Nonetheless, I can’t help thinking that there would have been more anger a few years ago.

This is not to say that Greenbelt is centre of communist activism, however its conservative detractors portray it. It has been described as “the Guardian does Jesus.” While this criticism comes from right-wing critics, there is a certain accuracy to it.

Like the Guardian, Greenbelt is liberal and centre-left, preferable to the powerful interests on its right, but broadly accepting of capitalism and compromised by its role as a large commercial institution.

You can hear repeated attacks on poverty and austerity at Greenbelt, but they often focus on specific policies rather than any deeper challenge to class structures.

Thankfully, there are exceptions: this year’s highlights included Teresa Forcades I Vila, often described as “Europe’s most radical nun.”

Pacifist activists Sam Walton and Dan Woodhouse spoke about their attempts to disarm a BAE warplane destined for Saudi use in Yemen. Anglican priest Rachel Mann offered a complex but accessible analysis of the link between militarism and masculinity. Interfaith events looked at how Christians can support struggles against Islamophobia and antisemitism.

Greenbelt has been a truly liberating event for many people. In the early 2000s, it was the first Christian event at which I saw a same-sex couple holding hands. Nowadays you can see almost as many same-sex couples there as mixed-sex couples.

At most Christian festivals, this would be unthinkable. For countless LGBT+ Christians, Greenbelt was the first place in which they could be open about their sexuality or gender identity.

Socialists at Greenbelt this year welcomed a new tent hosting stalls from co-operative businesses and discussions on the co-operative movement.

There was for the first time a women-focused venue on site: the Red Tent, with a number of events open to all who define themselves as women. This seems particularly important when transphobia is so prevalent in churches, and when even some on the left wish to deny trans people equality.

There were a number of firmly progressive groups running stalls in the middle of the festival, including the Fellowship of Reconciliation (a radical peace organisation), Church Action on Poverty and groups promoting resistance to the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

In important ways, however, Greenbelt fell short. The theme of this year’s Sunday morning communion service (the main event at Greenbelt) was disability.

There was an inspiring sermon by a disabled teenager as well as contributions from other disabled people about ways in which they are included or excluded.

Remarkably, however, despite all the discussions of poverty at the festival, not a single word was spoken in the service about the way in which disabled people are facing systematic attacks on their livelihoods by a government that is slashing and burning the welfare state.

And over it all hangs the shadow of an incident in 2011, when festivalgoer Ceri Owen was dragged from the festival by police as she was sectioned under the Mental Health Act.

The most positive interpretation is that Greenbelt organisers overreacted and misunderstood the situation when they called the police. But far from apologising, they continue to defend their behaviour and Ceri has been banned from Greenbelt ever since.

At the same time, she has become an increasingly prominent mental health activist, frequently appearing in the media to speak about cuts to mental health services.

The importance of Greenbelt for promoting progressive views among Christians should not be underesti lives. For some LGBT+ Christians in particular, it has literally changed their lives.

But as Ceri’s exclusion demonstrates, when push comes to shove large institutions tend to veer towards self-justification and conventional power dynamics.

Such problems can also be seen in a number of secular left organisations, including certain trade unions. Radical change requires people working at the grassroots from the bottom up.

Thankfully, the more radical punters at Greenbelt will soon be joining in with the large number of protests, vigils and direct actions planned for the run-up to the London arms fair.

Despite Christianity’s many compromises with wealth and privilege, we still have Jesus’s example of standing up to the rich and powerful. The reign of God is not compatible with the power structures of this world.

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Trident: Real security or playground politics?

Owen Smith, the absurdly self-described “unity candidate” for the Labour leadership, will be one of many Labour MPs voting in favour of the Trident nuclear weapons system today. Indeed, he has already gone further. Yesterday, he gave an explicit “yes” to the question of whether he would be willing to deploy nuclear weapons as Prime Minister.

While I can never agree that Trident is morally acceptable, at least some argue for it as a deterrent, rather than as something they would put to use. Even Neil Kinnock, after his about-turn to a pro-nuclear position in the late 1980s, refused to give a yes-or-no answer to the question of whether he would be prepared to press the button. But Owen Smith said yes when asked – in effect – if he was willing to commit mass murder.

The Tories may have hoped that the Trident vote would split Labour in two. They will no doubt be delighted that it seems instead to have split them into three.

Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry and Shadow Defence Secretary Clive Lewis are calling for a deliberate abstention, while Jeremy Corbyn will vote against. His Deputy Leader Tom Watson, along with leadership candidates Owen Smith and Angela Eagle, look set to vote in favour. Many – perhaps most – other Labour MPs will sadly follow their example.

By holding the vote earlier than expected, the Tories have seized the chance to hit Labour when the party is so weak by forcing them to debate the very issue that most divides them. Given how much the Tories have been tearing themselves apart over Europe, they will gain some comfort by addressing an issue on which they are virtually all agreed.

Theresa May will be able to use her first Commons appearance as Prime Minister to boast about her support for “national security”, “defence” and other such euphemisms for military power. As often happens on such occasions, a good many Tories can be relied on to jeer at anti-Trident MPs with a similar level of debate to that employed by school bullies mocking children who don’t fight as much as they do.

Opinion polls suggest the British population is split roughly evenly on Trident renewal. You won’t be able to tell this from the House of Commons today, as Labour MPs stuck in the 1980s are determined to believe that anything other than gung-ho militarism will lose them elections.

Nuclear weapons are one of the worst manifestations of a militarist culture. Let’s be clear that we do have a militarist culture in Britain. Militarist myths are treated as common sense: it’s taken for granted that violence solves problems, that nation-states have a right to our loyalty and that unquestioning obedience is something to be admired.

People who make arguments in favour of Trident often undermine their own case by revealing the depths of their militaristic thinking. They talk about a “deterrent”, as if threats to security consist solely in governments or groups that can be scared, rather than underlying causes of conflict such as poverty, inequality and climate change. They speak of weapons protecting “us” and what “we” would do if other states maintain nuclear weapons. 

Most of us have more in common with the people of other nationalities than we do with anyone who has command of an army, let alone a nuclear weapon. Yet we are supposed to believe that the government maintains weapons of mass destruction for our own protection. This is the same government that is itself attacking the British people, with heavy cuts to public services and the welfare state. People queuing at food banks, or shivering because they can’t afford the heating, are not going to be helped by nuclear missiles.

If maintaining nuclear weapons makes a country safer, this is logically an argument for every country in the world to have nuclear weapons. Supporters of Trident insist that they don’t mean this. When pressed, I have often found that they resort to using expressions such as “top-table nations” and saying the UK is one of these.

As soon as these phrases come out, it is clear that they are giving up the argument about security: Trident stops being about defence and becomes simply a matter of power and status. We are expected to put millions of lives at risk for the sake of appearing like a tough child in a playground. Militarism, in a very real sense, is about never growing up.

In Parliament today, we will hear people arguing that Trident exists to preserve peace. Like politicians around Europe in the years before World War One, they will keep repeating the Roman saying, “If you want peace, prepare for war”.

They were proved wrong in 1914, as they have been proved wrong so many times before and since. History shows time and again that if you prepare for war, you will get what you have prepared for.

 

The Church of England’s budget response reveals twisted priorities

Institutional churches can be pretty slow to respond to injustice, so I’m not surprised that some people were pleased to see that the Church of England issued a speedy response to George Osborne’s budget yesterday.

Did the CofE’s response challenge the cuts to disability benefits? Denounce the tax breaks for corporations and the wealthy? Demand more funding for public services and the protection of the welfare state?

No. It did none of these things. The Church of England’s press release began with the following words:

“The Church of England has welcomed warmly the announcement in the Chancellor’s Budget today of a £20 million fund for works to cathedrals.”

It continued along similar lines.

Thankfully, many Christians, including both clergy and lay people in the Church of England, have criticised the budget – the last in a long line of Osborne budgets to serve the rich at the expense of the rest. Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, has been known in the past to criticise some of the cuts to the welfare state, although I believe he has yet to respond to the budget.

Nonetheless, it says a great deal about establishment that the first official response from the Church of England as a whole was to “warmly” welcome the crumbs that the Chancellor threw in their direction.

Some may say that this was a press release about the cathedrals repair fund rather than the budget as a whole. That, of course, is the problem. Why should this be considered the most important part of the budget for the Church to respond to? It is a trivial detail.

Nor should it be said that this announcement was more relevant to the Church than the other parts of the budget. It was not. Christians are called to follow Jesus, who led by example in showing solidarity with the poor and marginalised. He did not set up a charity for maintaining interesting old buildings.

Cameron wants us to remember Jesus’ birth – but not his life

David Cameron has just released his Christmas message, calling on us to mark the birth of Jesus and to remember those who are hungry or lonely at Christmas.

I find Cameron’s message hard to stomach. David Cameron speaks of the meaning of Jesus even as his government wages class war on the poor and pursues endless war in the Middle East.

I do not claim to be a better Christian than David Cameron. I fail to live up to Jesus’ teachings all the time. I sometimes struggle to understand Jesus’ meaning. I do not assume that all my conclusions about Jesus are right.

This does not stop me expressing my revulsion when Jesus’ name is invoked to back up a government whose policies are geared to promoting the short-term interests of the rich and powerful.

Let’s have a look at Cameron’s message. It begins with these words:

“If there is one thing people want at Christmas, it’s the security of having their family around them and a home that is safe. But not everyone has that.”

Cameron goes on to talk of those living in refugee camps. Are these are the same refugees who the UK government has been so reluctant to welcome? He then adds, “Throughout the United Kingdom, some will spend the festive period ill, homeless or alone.”

Hunger and loneliness do not happen by chance but are due to inequality, capitalism and an individualist society. More people are hungry, more people are lonely, as a direct result of Cameron and Osborne’s policies. Rough sleeping in the UK has gone up a whopping 55% since Cameron became Prime Minister.

Cameron goes on to pay tribute to nurses, volunteers and others who work to support “vulnerable people” at Christmas.

I am happy to pay tribute to those who support vulnerable people, as well as those working to change the situations that make them vulnerable. More such workers and volunteers are needed as Tory policies increase poverty and remove support from people in need.

The Prime Minister then praises the armed forces, saying “It is because they face danger that we have peace”.

Cameron seems to think that peace is the absence of violence. UK armed forces are sent to fight in wars for commercial and strategic interests in which innocent people are routinely killed. War does not lead to peace any more than promiscuity leads to chastity.

The message talks of those who are “protecting our freedoms”. We are very fortunate to have a great many freedoms in this country. We have them because our ancestors campaigned for them, not because the powerful graciously handed them down.

Referring to peace, the Prime Minister says:

“And that is what we mark today as we celebrate the birth of God’s only son, Jesus Christ – the Prince of Peace. As a Christian country, we must remember what his birth represents: peace, mercy, goodwill and, above all, hope. I believe that we should also reflect on the fact that it is because of these important religious roots and Christian values that Britain has been such a successful home to people of all faiths and none.”

Britain is not, and never has been, a Christian country. Jesus did not call for “Christian countries”. He spoke of the Kingdom of God, in which “the first will be last and the last first”. This is a challenge to all the kingdoms, powers and hierarchies of this world.

Jesus sided with the poor, called on the world to change its ways and was arrested after leading a protest in the Jerusalem Temple. He was executed by the Roman Empire with the collusion of religious leaders.

Most of today’s politicians, had they been around at the time of Jesus, would have labelled him a dangerous extremist. Editorials in the Daily Mail would have demanded his crucifixion.

Jesus said, “To everyone who has will be given more; but anyone who has not will be deprived even of what he has.” Jesus was aware of the inequality and injustice in his own society, but it sounds like an equally good description of the UK government’s current policies.

My prayer at Christmas is that we will follow Jesus’ call to look into our hearts and that we will reflect on how we contribute to both justice and injustice in the world. In the light of this, I pray that we will end our subservience to systems of exploitation and war and follow Jesus’ example of resisting them.

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My new book, The Upside-Down Bible: What Jesus really said about money, sex and violence, has just been published by Darton, Longman and Todd.

Did Jesus believe in saving money?

David Cameron likes to describe people who work hard and save money as those who ‘do the right thing’. Cameron is a self-professed Christian and I would be fascinated to hear where he finds support for this approach in the teachings of Jesus.Upside-Down Bible

The gospels are pretty negative about saving money.

Take the ‘parable of the rich fool’, which you can find at Luke 12, 13-21. A rich man replaces his barns with bigger ones in order to store ‘all my grain and all my goods’. He then relaxes, knowing he has plenty of possessions on which to rely. God appears and calls him a fool, saying his life will be taken that very night. ‘And the things you have prepared, where will they be?’

Many Christians insist that it was not the man’s wealth that was the problem but his attachment to it. But the question at the end seems to be mocking the efforts he has made to accumulate it. Just afterwards, Jesus urges his disciples not to worry about what they will eat and wear. ‘Consider the ravens,’ he says. ‘They have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them.’

Elsewhere, Jesus urges his listeners not ‘to store up treasure on earth’ but treasure in heaven. He told a wealthy man to give all he had to the poor. Urging people not to boast about their generosity, he encouraged them not to let their left hand know what their right hand was doing. It is difficult to imagine Jesus entering his daily income and expenditure on a spreadsheet.

Jesus was acting in a strong biblical tradition. When the Israelites fled Egypt – where food was stored in barns for the elite – they had to rely on ‘manna’, food sent by God on a daily basis that went rotten if kept until the next day.

I have recently been showing Jesus’ teachings to non-Christians who were new to the Bible (as research for my new book, The Upside-Down Bible). I was not surprised that some of them regarded them as over-the-top. Dunyazade, a Muslim, contrasted Jesus’ ‘extreme’ encouragement to give away everything with the apparently more realistic Muslim requirement to give a percentage of your income away. Carl, a left-wing activist, approved of Jesus’ words on the grounds that they support ‘the ideals of socialism’. Sally, a charity fundraiser, saw Jesus reflecting the reality that it is often some of the poor who give the most to charity.

The gospels imply that at least some of Jesus’ disciples lived in community, sharing a common purse. This may have removed day-to-day fears about having enough to eat while making things very uncertain and precarious in the longer term. This style of living was itself a radical witness to the Kingdom of God, contrasted with the kingdoms and values of this world.

I recently heard a politician suggest that financial advisers should be stationed in food banks, to help their users to manage money. Perhaps he thinks the sharp rise in food banks has been caused by an outbreak of financial mismanagement. True, charities provide a valuable service in advising people on looking after their finances, but this is different to seeing such matters as the cause of the problem. I have always been baffled by the common middle-class belief that the act of entering numbers in columns generates food.

The idea of saving money and looking after it is so venerated in today’s society that any rejection of it seems extreme. Perhaps it’s time for Christians to acknowledge that this is what Jesus’ teachings are: extremist.

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My new book is The Upside-down Bible: What Jesus really said about money, sex and violence, which was published by DLT on 26th November in paperback and eBook, priced £9.99. The above post appeared originally on the DLT Books Blog as part of a series of five posts looking at Jesus’ parables in the light of my research for the book.

The labourers in the vineyard and their zero-hour contracts

My new book, The Upside-Down Bible: What Jesus really said about money, sex and violence, will be published next week. To give you a taste of it, I’ve written some short blog posts that my publisher, DLT, will be running over the next few days. I’m cross-posting them on here. Here’s the first.

 
Upside-Down BibleJesus spent a lot of time talking about money. It was a central theme in many of his parables.

When I showed these parables to non-Christians who were unfamiliar with them, they responded by talking about money. This is less obvious than it sounds. Christians rarely mention money when discussing these stories. We are used to being told that they are making symbolic points about salvation.

First-time readers are unlikely to do this. Like Jesus’ first listeners, they hear stories about their everyday concerns. I have found that they make varied, interesting and insightful observations – all of which Christians risk overlooking in our rush towards doctrinal conclusions.

This experience has convinced me that Christians have a lot to learn from non-Christians – about the teachings of Jesus.

Take the parable often referred to as “the workers in the vineyard”. You can find it at Matthew 20, 1-15. The story concerns a landowner who hires casual labourers for different lengths of time but pays them all the same wage.

For many readers, the issues feel close to home. In various parts of the world, farm labourers and construction workers still gather in the morning to see if anyone will hire them. In the UK, zero-hour contracts are now very common. People await a text at six in the morning to tell them if they will have work. They are the equivalent of day labourers gathering in the market place.

One recent academic commentary on Matthew’s Gospel lists eight possible interpretations of this parable, none of which have anything to do with money and work. It is true that Jesus appears to have been drawing on a Jewish tradition of ‘parables of recompense’, in which unusual payments were used to illustrate wider points. Jesus’ story, however, goes into far more detail than most of these. Furthermore, Jesus’ listeners heard a story about their own worries: work, money, power, having enough to eat. Christian interpretation, however, has been influenced over centuries by church leaders and scholars who have rarely had to worry about finding enough work, money or food.

So how does the story sound to people who have experienced poverty and unemployment in today’s world?

‘I would have to identify with the late arrivals,’ said Samantha. ‘As a person with a disability, I have often had to claim benefits because of being unable to keep up with normal “hardworking” people.’

She added, ‘I think the point Jesus is making is that to resent others receiving the same financial support, comfort and – ultimately – respect as you, and to consider them to deserve less of these things than you, is not a loving attitude towards others’.

Although Samantha is approaching the story from a left-wing perspective, it would be a mistake to assume that everyone who shares her politics will read it in the same way. Carl, another first-time reader, believes that the employer behaved unfairly.

‘This story illustrates the exploitation of workers,’ he said. ‘The parallels to today are many; the inequalities of pay are vast: between genders, between different countries of the world or even areas of the same country, between workers within the same company.’

He concludes, ‘Surely Jesus was saying this isn’t good and that we should not behave in this way’.

Whether we agree with Samantha, with Carl or with neither, their perspectives are a reminder of something that Christians all too easily overlook: Jesus’ teachings concern our everyday lives and how our world functions, not merely a distant future or an abstract doctrine.

 

The Upside-down Bible: What Jesus really said about money, sex and violence, will be published by Darton, Longman and Todd on 26th November in paperback and e-book, priced £9.99.

Nuclear weapons and bisexuality

My apologies for the lack of blog posts in recent weeks. I usually post a link to articles I have written elsewhere, but I admit I’ve not kept up with this lately.

Here are links to a few articles I’ve had published recently.

Corbyn should stick to his guns on defence policy (21.09.15)- My latest piece for the Huffington Post

Freeing sexuality from an either/or model (18.09.15) – My opinion piece for the Church Times to mark Bisexual Visibility Day

Hiroshima was an act of mass murder (06.08.15) – My blog post for Premier Christianity magazine, as part of a debate on the 70th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing