Failing Children in Care (Thought for the Day)

Script for Thought for the Day, BBC Radio 4, 11th June.

By what measure do we judge our society’s character? Last night, BBC Two broadcast the televised version of ‘My Name is Leon’, a novel by Kit de Waal about a young mixed-race boy who gets separated from his white baby brother after their mother has a breakdown. As we follow his longing to be reunited with his brother, Leon also finds loving mentors in the Caribbean community on a local allotment. The transformative power of their friendship sustains him even while the care system fails to understand his needs. It might be set in the 80s, but its message about the trauma faced by vulnerable children – and their longing for community – feels just as relevant today.

Yesterday the BBC reported that the number of child cruelty offences in England jumped by a quarter last year. And on Thursday the news broke of allegations that children in care were being groomed and sexually assaulted in homes run by a firm making double the profits of other big care providers. These headlines come just weeks after an Independent Review of Children’s Social Care has called for a ‘radical reset’ of the entire care system. It described the current outcomes for children as ‘unacceptably poor’, in part due to sometimes trying to quote “replace organic bonds and relationships with professionals and services”. If, as Nelson Mandela put it, there can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children, we are due for a major wake-up call.

Mandela’s observation draws on a much longer tradition of judging a community by its care for the most vulnerable. In Jewish and Christian scriptures, protection for the orphan and widow is seen as the benchmark for a holy and just society. The prophet Isaiah tells the people of Israel that God rejects their religious ceremonies in part because they do not defend orphans and widows. In the New Testament the Book of James insists that true religion must include caring for these most vulnerable groups. In the scriptures, the sacred responsibility of protecting a child in danger is not just given to a few specialised carers. It is the job of the whole community. If we want to keep children safe from harm and ensure parents and carers can love and support them, our collective priorities must be revisited. Our deepest spiritual roots prompt all of us to look first to the most vulnerable, imagining our society around meeting their need.

The Swifts Return (Thought for the Day)

Script for BBC Radio 4’s Thought for the Day slot, 11th May.

Good morning. Like many others I have spent the last couple of days with my eyes trained upwards, hoping for my first sighting of a returning swift. Each year the beginning of May marks the end of their long migration from Africa, and each year I wait anxiously for a first sight of their safe return. And then, yesterday morning, I was rewarded with a sudden swooping flash past my window, the dark curve of their wings joyful against the blue spring sky.

In this country our relationship with birds is complicated. Millions of us tune into Springwatch, and we spend more than twice as much on bird food as the rest of Europe put together. But we also tear down hedgerows, net our buildings, and make liberal use of pesticides. Last week the BBC reported on a 75 year-long study of Great Tits which found that the changing climate has pushed egg-laying up to three weeks earlier than usual. Birds are considered a good indicator of the state of wildlife in the UK, and their numbers have consistently declined over the last half century. As our ability to manage our environments increases, we are remaking the world in our own image. We can look around us and see where humans have intervened to protect and sustain ecologies, and where humans have intervened for the benefit of a few powerful people. When the world feels like it’s growing more chaotic and the future feels threatened, it is easy to give up investing in the fates of these other creatures – to see them as insignificant, or even a barrier to our own flourishing.

Last Sunday was the feast day of Julian of Norwich, a 14th century mystic who lived through hunger and plague, political upheaval and violence, and personal suffering. A woman who wrote in the vernacular, her life was insignificant in the hierarchy of the Church. But during an illness which brought her close to death, she had a series of visions about the love of God for creation. In perhaps the most famous of those visions, she sees a tiny thing in the palm of her hand, the size of a hazelnut. She is told that this tiny thing is everything that is made. Julian is astonished that something so small could keep on existing. But then comes the response: it lives, and will keep living, because God loves it. Julian sees that littleness and fragility are not at odds with ultimate significance. As the sky fills with swifts returning for another spring, I am reminded that it is not foolish to delight in these little creatures. Perhaps in doing so we might learn to love the world as though it is not ours to control.  

The Witness of Abune Antonios (Thought for the Day)

Broadcast on BBC Radio 4 Today Programme, Saturday 12th February.

On Thursday this week, as I scrolled through breaking news stories, I came across an announcement I might have missed if I weren’t online at the time. Abune Antonios, the third patriarch of the Eritrean Orthodox church had died at the age of 94. In normal circumstances, a news story like this might go unnoticed by those outside his church or country. But this leader is different. Patriarch Antonios spent the last 16 years of his life under house arrest. That was the cost of being a long-standing critic of the Eritrean government. When his government demanded that he excommunicate three thousand members of a Sunday School Movement they opposed, he refused outright. He was then deposed and arrested without trial. In the years since, protestors gather annually outside the Eritrean Embassy in London, praying in solidarity with those imprisoned because of their faith. For many Eritreans – Christian and Muslim – Abune Antonios is a symbol of resistance.

But his story was not only political struggle. Three years ago, his own bishops excommunicated him for heresy. They said at the time that his name should never be mentioned again, and that those who remember him would be punished. His treatment reflects the dark history of state-controlled religion, which can have the power to silence those who are politically inconvenient. He is one of many prisoners of conscience around the world whose names are scrubbed from the record and who often die in anonymity. When I heard he’d died, I realised how long it was since I’d last thought about him, or the stories of people like him. Years had gone by, and his situation remained unchanged. It was so easily forgotten.

Orthodox Christians pray the psalms daily. These ancient songs of praise and lament are a constant part of their worship – verses that have comforted the persecuted for centuries. Over his sixteen years in captivity, Abune Antonios would have prayed them countless times. I imagine he found strength in words like: ‘The Lord is a refuge for the oppressed’ and ‘God does not forget the cry of the afflicted’. The psalms are full of cries for help alongside declarations of hope in the face of suffering: honesty alongside resolute courage. Certainly, the patriarch found the courage to resist his oppressors even while the world moved on. He believed he was not forgotten by God, and nor were those he was imprisoned for protecting. Abune Antonios’ name will be remembered. But there are many like him whose names are lost. In recalling their names and stories, we can honour their struggle to worship in peace.

Moral Evil and Another Haiti Earthquake (Thought for the Day)

Broadcast on BBC Radio 4 Today Programme, Saturday 21st August. You can listen to the recording (for a while at least) by clicking here.

A week ago today, a 7.2 magnitude earthquake hit the nation of Haiti. Since then, the death toll has risen to more than 2,000 people, with a further 12,000 injured and hundreds more still missing. I have watched with growing horror as days have passed without basic support reaching survivors, despite the efforts of agencies on the ground. With the country already in political turmoil, it is difficult not to recall the controversies which surrounded external aid after the 2010 earthquake, and to fear that a nation which has suffered so deeply will fail to receive the support it desperately needs.

Any philosophy or theology student can tell you that when faced with the problem of suffering you are supposed to divide it neatly into moral evil – human caused harm – and natural evil – so-called ‘Acts of God’. Earthquakes have long been offered as an example of natural evil, an event before which we are helpless – and so, we might think, blameless. But as the threads of human influence have woven their way into seemingly natural events, the lines between moral and natural evil become increasingly blurred. Climate change is an obvious example; we have increasingly loaded the dice towards weather extremes, whether flood, fire, or famine. But earthquakes also testify to these blurred lines. An earthquake of similar magnitude in Japan has comparatively little impact – the country’s warning systems and quake-proof buildings minimise the loss of both lives and infrastructure. By contrast, Haiti’s history of colonial-era debt and political instability has left its people exposed, and the international promises of safer buildings and contingency plans in 2010 seem to have been forgotten.

Our responses to an event of this kind can also contribute to suffering – whether in neglecting to offer compassion or in blaming the victims. In 2010 U.S. televangelist Pat Robertson infamously blamed the Haitian earthquake on what he called the country’s ‘pact with the devil’. But in the Gospel of Luke Jesus uses the example of a building collapse to emphasise that suffering is not administered as punishment. Instead, he urges his listeners to examine their own need for repentance in the wake of tragedy. In my own Anglican tradition, the prayer of penitence invites us to both repent of the evil we have done and the good we have left undone. The suffering of the people of Haiti is a testament to these two kinds of moral evil – acts of deliberate harm and acts of neglect. The question is now whether international repentance and compassion will follow.

Pilgrimage to COP 26 (Thought for the Day)

Broadcast on BBC Radio 4 Today Programme, 7th August 2021. You can find out more and join the pilgrimage here: https://www.yccn.uk/

In recent weeks we were once again reminded of the horrifying impact of sudden flooding: floods in Germany, Belgium, and China have claimed hundreds of lives and destroyed local communities and ecologies. As these events increase globally, fear sets in, and my own feeling of helplessness rises. A study published on Wednesday in the journal Nature indicates that, by 2030, around 50 million extra people will live at risk from flooding directly due to the impacts of climate change.

One year ago, a group of 20-somethings from churches across the UK established the Young Christian Climate Network, committed to living out our faith in the pursuit of climate justice. This week, the network’s pilgrimage from the G7 to COP26 sites – St Ives to Glasgow – is passing through London. Walkers gathered on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral under a banner which read ‘Same Storm, Different Boats’, highlighting the global disparity between poor and wealthy nations in facing the impacts of climate change. The pilgrims represent all ages and backgrounds, and as they travel, they‘re calling on the government to meet and exceed their own climate finance commitments, and to cancel the debts of poor countries. The relay of participants is accompanied by a boat whose sail bears fabrics from climate threatened places – pointing to the hundreds of millions of people whose lives are threatened by sea level rise, cyclones, and other climate related disasters.

What can a pilgrimage offer, given the scale of these threats? In the Christian tradition, walking a pilgrimage invites participants to practise holiness through devoting slow attention to the work of God in the world. On this journey, we’re learning how we might better participate in that work. As a member of the Young Christian Climate Network, I’m waiting for the pilgrimage’s arrival in the north-east, where we’ll tread ancient pilgrim paths together. As we walk the same ground as St Bede, St Cuthbert, and St Aidan, we’ll seek, like them, to witness to God’s love for all his creatures. It might seem strange to emphasise slow attention in the face of so much urgency. But the Japanese theologian Kosuke Koyama described Christians as following a three-mile-an-hour God – whose dwelling among us was paced at the average walking speed, whose love was unhurried, who was attentive to the powerless and forgotten. In this pilgrimage our hope is that many will join us in our witness to climate justice, redirecting our attention to those people and places who so easily go unheard.

Jackdaw

People tell me I shouldn’t feed the crows

That they are loud, rude, social

That they will keep coming back

But each morning I watch them on my garden wall

Awkward, black, hunched in the rain

And they did not choose to be crows

Any more than I chose this dark bird

Nestled in my chest

And so I give us breakfast.

Thought for the Day: 1st May

Script for Radio 4’s Thought for the Day, 1st May.

Good morning. Like many others I have followed the unfolding COVID crisis in India with a feeling of helpless horror. As the numbered dead grow, with thousands dying in a single day, it becomes more and more difficult to wrap my head round the loss – to see each number as representing a family member, a friend, a human life. While the vaccine roll-out offers hope here in the UK, uneven access means other countries still face devastating death tolls. Instinctively we shrink from attending too closely to disasters of this kind. They feel overwhelming, provoking feelings of powerlessness in the face of so much suffering. But perhaps it is precisely our attention that is required. 

This week I attended a prayer vigil for India after being particularly struck by the invitation given by one of the organisers, Revd Dr Raj Bharath Patta. He described prayer as ‘solidarity’. The idea of offering thoughts and prayers can feel like a cheap alternative for genuine action – and it has often been used that way. But as over 200 of us gathered online, our calls for God’s mercy were mingled with donation links, offers of pastoral support, and letters written to government officials demanding aid. 

In praying I am compelled to pay attention to suffering which I might otherwise be tempted to ignore. The philosopher Simone Weil described the act of unmixed attention as prayer. She proposed that in the act of prayerful attention our behaviours are changed; some courses of action become impossible for us. When I attend fully to the suffering of another, I find myself shaped by the priorities of divine compassion rather than by my own preferences or desires. 

And the human instinct to turn to prayer in the face of death is a shared one: following the tragic deaths of dozens of people at the Lag B’Omer festival in Israel on Thursday, rabbis have also called for prayers in support of those bereaved and injured. One of the pilgrims at the festival described it as rejoicing turning into mourning, light becoming deep darkness. 

The call to prayer requires a willingness to stay in the darkness. The Apostle Paul instructed the early church to ‘mourn with those who mourn’. Helpless though I might feel, I am invited into solidarity. So I turn my attention again to overwhelmed cremation sites, exhausted health workers, grieving families, breathless patients. I ask God to have mercy. And I ask that I might be made more merciful too.  

Thought for the Day 24th April

Script for TFTD, BBC Radio 4, 24th April. The following is inspired by all those who work faithfully on the Archbishops’ Anti-Racism Taskforce Report (which you can read here) and all who have shared testimonies of racism, whether in the recent BBC Panorama Documentary (which you can watch here) or elsewhere.

As someone training for ministry in the Church of England, for the last few months I’ve been waiting for the new Archbishops’ Anti-Racism Taskforce report. It was published on Thursday and it outlines the reality of institutional racism in the Church of England and calls for urgent cultural changes. It happened to come in the same week as a BBC Panorama documentary on the same themes. I watched clergy share damning testimonies of their experiences of racism in the church, including at the theological college where I study. 

When we’re confronted with collective failure – collective sin – the temptation that many of us feel is to create distance between ourselves as individuals and the wider accusation. The urge is to say that we weren’t present, that we didn’t know, that the incidents don’t reflect the whole. The church is adept at this kind of distancing. But this misunderstands how our bodies work. We’re constantly made and remade by the things we consume, by the spoken and unspoken cultures we inhabit. And as communities we carry these stories with us. 

The Apostle Paul described the church as the body of Christ. For Christians, the visible witness of Christ in the world stands and falls on the health and work of the collective whole. If one part of the body suffers, the whole body suffers with it. When a body self-harms, by some members rejecting or abusing others, the whole is damaged. This is as much true for a nation state as it is for a local parish church. The Taskforce report is subtitled ‘From Lament to Action’: perhaps we have begun to accept the harm racism has done, but we haven’t yet made a decisive move toward transformation. 

So how can a damaged body be transformed through action? The political philosopher Hannah Arendt describes action as emerging from the freedom humans have to make something new and unexpected. We can break away from what went before. But this freedom is conditioned by our shared humanity – for our action to be meaningful, it must be done openly, with others, as part of a community of memory. For my community – for my church – and, indeed, for any of us – to move from lament to action, we’ll need to see ourselves as we really are; members of a wider body, a plurality, both carrying stories of suffering and gifted with the grace to make something new.

How To Rage: Climate Grief and the Church.

Introductory comment for the Climate panel at SCM Press’s ‘How to Rage’ event, January 2021. The panel included Panu Pihkala, Anupama Ranawana, and Sophia Chirongoma.

If you are going to be angry in this time of climate breakdown you are going to need a long-term plan. I have said elsewhere that climate breakdown is a grief multiplier – there is not one climate grief that we will be able to solve, or find closure for, in our lifetime. It is our companion now. The same is true, I believe, of the kind of rage which climate injustice creates in us. Yes, rage is something that, for many of us, we can opt out of by simply turning off social media – but even for those of us who do not get to opt out, anger is an exhausting emotion, and if we are to clothe ourselves in anger, we must clothe ourselves carefully. Of all the passions the Church fathers described, anger was the one which made them most wary. Long before Jedi wisdom, St Augustine had observed that anger ultimately leads to hatred, and hatred to the dark side. That’s my translation – if you want the original, I can give you the reference. In perhaps one of his most convicting commentaries on the human condition, he points out that no one who is angry considers their anger to be the unjust kind, and that sweet, sweet feeling of being right means we are tempted to let it hang around until it sours into hatred of the image of God in another. In other words, we all assume our particular kind of anger is righteous, and since there is unrighteous anger in the world, some of us must be wrong. I am talking here about the anger of those whose sense of rightness becomes so loud in their ears that they cannot or will not hear the angry cries of others who have been left behind. And I talk about this because I believe it’s particularly important to pay close attention to our anger in relation to the ways we imagine our anger with, or on behalf of, the Earth.

Lots of biblical scholars have observed that the prophetic tradition treats the Earth as alive, as an agent, as a witness to human sin. It responds to us, it mirrors our sin, it measures human faithfulness. But other creatures also have their own worlds, and their own relationship to the Creator, of which we are not a part. It is tempting for those amongst us who are economically removed from intimacy with the Earth to try to tame it in our imaginations – to make it our ally against oppression, to pair its rage with ours. But the Earth does not lash out at the people we want it to. The Earth’s scars and groanings bear witness to the greed and power of a minority, but the result seems to be that a less greedy, less powerful majority are punished. How do we rage with the Earth when the Earth also seems to pose a threat? Like humans, ‘the earth’ is not one homogenous entity. Our relations to it differ, and we need to attend to these different – and sometimes competing – angers carefully if they are to shape our activism.

And just as our anger doesn’t necessarily mimic the witness of the Earth, as the church we must emphasise that God’s wrath – that is, God’s eternal opposition to the powers of sin and death – is not identical to our own. We are in danger of reading the wrath of God as communicated by the prophets as being similar to ours – we are the prophet, not those prophesied against. How often, by way of example, do we call on Jesus clearing out the temple as a model for our activism, rather than hearing it as a warning against us?

I make these observations because an anger which is not brought into obedience under love – and in particular a love of truth about the real state of the world and ourselves in it – will destroy us and turn us to despair. Activism for the Earth across our diverse experiences will require humility, and patience – a consistent attention to others. Has your anger stopped you from listening? It is no longer obedient to love. Activism requires a generosity of spirit towards failure and compromise. Has your anger made you a legalist? It is no longer obedient to love. And activism requires us to give up our own agenda to make space for others. Is your anger crushing another in order to burn? It is no longer obedient to love.

I hope that these three observations offer some context for careful attention to our panel today as we consider the nature of our activism. We are set up to offer you different testimonies, in conversation. We hope to honour points of tension with humility. And given that the majority of listeners to this panel will occupy positions of relative safety in relation to the Earth’s witness, we hope that attentiveness to the anger of others can guide our own anger not to self-justification, but to a longing for liberating truth. It is in this commitment to truth that our anger can bear the fruit of change.

Grieving the Earth as prayer: A wounded speech that heals

Article published for The Ecumenical Review‘s volume ‘Christ’s Love in the Midst of Pandemic‘.

You can read it here (if you can’t access it, send me a note and I’ll send you the PDF). With thanks to Simon Oliver, Carmody Grey, Caleb Gordon, Oana Marian, and Stephen Brown for their thoughtful comments and suggestions.

Abstract

‘The COVID‐19 pandemic is not so much a new kind of crisis as our most recent reminder of the dysfunction of human relations with the world we inhabit. This article argues that transforming our relations with other creatures begins with an examination of the call to be human: understanding the kind of creature we are and therefore how to live alongside other creatures with natures distinct from our own. It critiques the tendency to overemphasize human distinctiveness (anthropocentrism) or creatureliness (biocentrism, ecocentrism) to the detriment of our interpretations of human nature. Employing Jean‐Louis Chrétien’s phenomenology of prayer as wounded speech, it proposes that climate/ecological grief mediates the tension of our distance from and intimacy with other creatures. Speech expressing grief over the world therefore re‐embeds humans in our finitude and contingency while nevertheless treating human nature as containing a particular call to participate in Christ’s transforming work.’