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.

High food bank use is “fantastic” says preacher at Tory conference service

Fifty years ago today, peace protesters disrupted a Labour Party conference church service as pro-war politicians read out Bible passages about peace.

Sitting in the Conservative Party conference church service this evening, I started to think that the greatest thing I would be likely to protest about was an excess of blandness.

Until, that is, the preacher neared the end of his sermon. Andrew Davies is a Pentecostal minister, a Conservative Party member and a theologian at Birmingham University. In a sermon about Christian engagement in society, he eventually came to talk about the work of Christian charities.

He pointed out that the Trussell Trust had given out 1,109,309 emergency food parcels in 2015-16. This figure was displayed on a PowerPoint slide projected at an enormous size on the wall behind him. He then quoted the figure that the Cinnamon Network (a far more right-wing group than the Trussell Trust) had supposedly contributed to the British economy.

After these examples of Christian service, he said:

“Isn’t that fantastic?”

I sat up in my seat, feeling slightly sick. No, Andrew, it isn’t fantastic. It’s outrageous. It’s disgusting that anybody needs an emergency food parcel, let alone over a million people in one of the richest countries in the world.

It is one thing to praise charities for helping people who have been thrown into poverty. It is another thing to do so after causing the poverty in question.

Tory policies have caused the rise in food poverty. Praising those who alleviate it is like beating someone up and then saying that the person who gave them first aid has done a great job.

Earlier, I had stood outside the church with other members of Christians for Economic Justice (CEJ) as the Conservative conference delegates arrived at the service. We had handed out leaflets pointing out the contrast between Jesus’ example of siding with the poor and Tory support for the interests of the wealthy.

The leaflets – drafted by my friend Nicola Sleapwood, a Christian disability activist living in Birmingham – pointed out that the number of Trussell Trust food parcels in 2015-16 was more than eighteen times higher than in 2010-11. The same figure – 1,109,309 – was given.

Yet less than an hour later I sat in the service, saw this number flashed up on the screen and heard this situation described as “fantastic”.

The service was organised by the Conservative Christian Fellowship. There were some parts it that I would have readily agreed with – were it not for the implication that the views and values expressed were compatible with support for the Conservative Party. Andrew Davies deserves some credit for going out of his way to distinguish Christendom from the Kingdom of God.

Prior to that, there was a lot of vague and shallow talk about the importance of engaging with society and politics. Throughout the service, “politics” was taken to mean the narrow world of Westminster and Whitehall politics. To be fair, Caroline Spellman said, “Life is politics”. But she then went onto to talk of people “going into politics”. In reality, we are all “in politics” simply by being living human beings who are part of communities and societies.

A video was shown by the charity Global Vision, drawing attention to the horror of violence against girls and women around the world. The Tory delegates, whose party’s cuts have closed down rape crisis centres, applauded and nodded their approval.

I am not for a minute claiming to be a better Christian than any of the Tories there. I will have to answer to God as much as they will. I am frequently selfish, I often fail to love my neighbour and I am complicit in all sorts of injustices in the society in which I live.

However, I do maintain that solidarity with the poor and marginalised is not incidental to Jesus’ message but runs unavoidably through it. To seek to follow Jesus without recognising this is to build a house on sand.

Many of the people at the service were friendly, polite and – I’m sure – compassionate. I dare say they care for their families and friends. They may volunteer for charities and pray about the world’s problems. But if we are to follow the encouragement to engage in politics, we cannot have one set of values in everyday life and another in the polling station.

I am sometimes asked, “Can a Christian be a Conservative?”. Of course a Christian can be a Conservative. The question is whether they should be. However well-meaning individual Tory Christians may be, the Tory Party as a whole works to protect the interests of the super-rich. It has been doing so very well for 300 years.

The Conservative Party is for the rich in the same way that a potato peeler is for peeling potatoes. You can try to use it for something else, but it very rarely works.

Resisting militarism – and doing other things

If you’ve visited this site in the last couple of months, you’ll notice that I’m not blogging nearly as often as I used to.

This is mainly because I’ve been busy in the job I started in April: working for the Peace Pledge Union (PPU). It’s a real honour to work at the PPU, as we develop campaigns against militarism and speak up for nonviolence and disarmament. I’m pleased to work alongside some great people at the PPU and to be part of a historic movement.

This is all the more necessary as everyday militarism becomes an ever more visible part of life in the UK: military visits to schools are on the rise; Reserves Day has become an annual event along with Armed Forces Day; Remembrance is heavily militarised; and parts of the right-wing press are effectively arguing that the UK armed forces should be above the law.

My work for the PPU doesn’t mean I want to neglect my other work, or indeed activism more broadly. Many of the same issues are involved in them all. I’ll be very busy at the PPU as we approach Remembrance Day, calling for remembrance for all victims of war and for a focus on peace. One of my resolutions for the slightly quieter period after that time is to blog more often on here. In the meantime, I will try to post links to what’s going on at the PPU as well as on other issues when I get the chance.

Many thanks for the support, encouragement and helpful disagreement that I so often receive in response to my writing and campaigning. It makes a big difference.

Will anti-Trident churches now back direct action?

My abiding memory of today’s debate on Trident will be the sight of Labour MPs falling over each other to declare their enthusiasm for nuclear weapons, their support for the Tories’ policies and their opposition to their own leader.

Playground-style arguing saw at least one Tory MP suggesting that opponents of Trident need to “grow up”, as if a belief in using violence to resolve conflict were a sign of maturity. Meanwhile, Theresa May failed to answer one of the first hostile questions she has received from an MP since becoming Prime Minister (from Caroline Lucas) and stumbled through her answer when challenged by the SNP’s Angus Robertson about costs.

Today’s vote can hardly have been a surprise to anyone familiar with the childish antics and macho posturing that pass for democracy in the House of Commons. The question for opponents of Trident is: What do we now?

Last week, five major church denominations – the Baptist Union, the Church of Scotland, the Methodist Church, the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) and the United Reformed Church – collectively urged MPs to reject nuclear weapons and vote against Trident renewal. This was excellent.

It will be even better if they will follow through on their principles and encourage peaceful struggles against Trident to continue by other means.

Parliament is only part of the process. We all share some responsibility for what our society does. Nobody has a right to prepare an act of mass murder. Today’s vote should make us determined to back nonviolent direct action for disarmament, whether in the case of nuclear weapons or others.

The churches’ voices would be stronger if they would vocally back nonviolent direct action, at least against Trident if not against militarism generally. Most of them maintain chaplains in the armed forces. What an impact it would make if they would declare that their chaplains will encourage troops to disobey orders if Trident is renewed.

While several Anglican and Roman Catholic bishops have, as individuals, criticised nuclear weapons, the Church of England as a whole has generally shied clear of lining up with other denominations to oppose it. Last year, however, a Church of England statement suggested that the arguments for Trident need “re-examining”.

I suppose this is progress of a sort. At least the Church of England is beginning tentatively to lean in the right direction. It’s also profoundly mistaken. The arguments do not need re-examining. They have been examined for years. We need to get beyond the call for debates and take up the all to action. Let’s get on with it.

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.


Enemies become human in Royal Court production

It’s rare for me to give a standing ovation in a theatre. But on Wednesday I readily rose from my seat in the Royal Court Theatre to applaud six ex-soldiers from two sides of the same war. Despite the rawness of their memories, they had spent three months putting together a play to explore their experiences.

The Falklands War finished 34 years ago this month and all six veterans are now in their fifties. But we were left in no doubt of the deep impact that this brief but deadly episode had exercised in their lives.

The play – entitled Minefield  – could have been dry and worthy, but the six combined humour, anger and grief as they used a mixture of storytelling, drama, film and puppetry to impressive effect. The project was conceived and directed by Lola Arias.

The comedy was present from the start. One of the Argentines, Ruben Otero, explained that he was in a Beatles tribute band and sings in English. “Do you dress up as the Beatles?” asked one of the others. “No, I wear a T-shirt saying ‘The Malvinas are Argentine’.”

The humour was accompanied by intense and moving portrayals of pain and mourning. Otero was a survivor of the General Belgrano, the ship sunk by British forces, which accounted for around half the Argentine casualties in the war. He narrated his experience with a passion that showed no sign of being an act. At a dramatic moment, the light switched to a British veteran, Lou Armour, who said, “We were pleased when we heard the General Belgrano had been sunk. We didn’t care that it was travelling away from the islands.”

Thankfully, there was no pretence that the process of making the play had been easy. None of them spoke each other’s language fluently (the Argentines’ contributions were in Spanish with English surtitles). Some had buried their memories of the war for years until applying to be in the play. Others had become obsessed by them. One had previously taken to drugs and alcoholism to deal with his trauma while another spoke of his experience of therapy.

The play was of course only a snapshot, only a window into the events and emotions that had shaped six men’s lives. Although we heard extracts of speeches by Thatcher and Galtieri, there was little said about the wider political context. There was certainly no sign of the peace activists in both Argentina and the UK who campaigned against the war.

This of course was the point. An insight into the personal impact of war can be so much more powerful than a dry description or academic analysis of it.

The six veterans included three from each side. All there Argentines had been young conscripts, though one had been discharged by the time the war began and had volunteered to re-join the army when it broke out. Two of the British veterans had joined up at sixteen, one of them finding a “family” in the Marines that he had not found at home. For me, this was a a reminder of how the armed forces take advantage of loneliness and a lack of community, using them as recruiting tools. The other British veteran, Sukrim Rai, was a Gurkha from Nepal.

Headlines from Argentine newspapers flashed up, describing the Gurkhas as “mercenary killers”. Argentine soldiers heard rumours that Gurkhas cut the ears from their victims and ate them. One Argentine veteran, Marcelo Vallejo, explained that for years after the war he had wanted to kill a Gurkha personally. Now he sat opposite Sukrim Rai on stage and said he would prefer to go for a beer with him.

Nonetheless, it would be a mistake to think that all was forgotten and forgiven. The veterans focused on experiences and emotions. None spoke explicitly about their views on the rightness or wrongness of the war, but it was clear that there were mixed views among both the British and Argentine veterans.

In one scene, the six shouted accusations at each other about the behaviour of each other’s forces. It was not clear to what extent they were acting, but the arguments made by at least some of them were undoubtedly heartfelt. I doubt I was the only audience member left with the thought that both British and Argentine authorities had behaved appallingly.

In my eyes, the one shortcoming of the show was its failure to explore the participants’ political views more explicitly. Given the bravery involved in the play’s production and performance, it would surely have been possible to explore the veterans’ opinions as part of the production.

But perhaps that’s easy for me to say. These veterans had already done something remarkable. This production is more a work of poetry than a piece of historical analysis, but it is no less powerful for that. Reconciliation is a messy business. Anyone who dares to treat an “enemy” as a human being is taking a step towards it.