Why We Need the Refugees

“Salvation comes to us in the form of a tired traveller.”

-Henri Nouwen

I thank God that so many are saying we need to help the refugees, even as many others are singing the right wing media’s tune and saying no we don’t need to help the refugees. What I want to say is that I think we need the refugees. We need them to help us. The Britain I know and love is in a very deep hole, and if anyone in the world today can save us from our situation, it is the refugees.


The Desire to Remain Unchanged is Delusional and Destructive

Those who are resisting calls to welcome refugees into our country are motivated primarily by the desire to be unchanged by the state of war that is destroying parts of the Middle East and North Africa. They are afraid that we will be poorer, more crowded and less “British.” Indeed the government see it as their job to prevent our being changed.

But the hope to remain unchanged is delusional and destructive.

It’s delusional because it’s based on the denial of the obvious. Everything is changing whether we like it or not. The old order of things is passing. Ask Peter Hitchens (who is quite frank about the futility of his own winging). We are entering a time when the world will be increasingly mixed up and indeed a time when we can no longer maintain our imperialistic power relations with Middle Eastern countries. The sad irony is that, for most of us, life in our own country has been a routine exercise in daily alienation, structural injustice and cultural oppression, and yet so many of us are defending this miserable order of things, as though it stood for us. It doesn’t.

The hope to remain unchanged is also destructive, because, even if we succeed, by some bitter and twisted effort, in keeping all this suffering out – if we really manage to remain untouched by this terrible war – we will nevertheless be utterly changed in the process. We will deteriorate into a socially and morally disfigured society: a boat meaningless privilege sailing through an ocean of corpses. Our hard won security from the terrible other will be ashes in our mouth and we will continue on our present trajectory towards a soulless and lobotomised mirage of stability.

In any case, we have no right to remain unchanged by this crisis. Our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, our addiction to certain resources from the Middle East, and our habit of selling arms to Middle-Eastern regimes, make us utterly complicit in the situation. We will be changed by it: the only question is, how? Will we sink deeper into the alienation of empire? Or will we come to terms with our predicament and find some unexpected opportunity to be transformed and rehumanised by this crisis of human suffering that we’re locked into?

From What Predicament Must We Be Saved?

Our predicament is one of greed, imperialism, racism and alienation.

Greed, because our level of consumption is unsustainable. If everyone lived as we do, I’m told we would need four worlds. Our wealth necessitates other people’s poverty.

Imperialism, because our foreign policy, arms trade and our oil addiction have created catastrophic political instability for Middle Eastern peoples.

Racism, because the media powers we uphold over ourselves have normalised a degree of racism since it suits them to find poor foreign scapegoats for the inequality that they themselves help to perpetuate against us.

And alienation, because life on the ground has become an alienating routine of work, sleep and numbing consumerism which has all but destroyed our community life. British life has been in a sort of glitter-sprinkled, numbing pathos for decades now.

These are four manifestations of the basic competitive hostility that has underpinned and withered British life. The first two are active, and the latter two are passive. While many communities fight the good fight and there are glimmers of hope everywhere, so much grassroots British life has been held mercilessly down in this basic world view of competitive hostility – the war of every man against every man – and it has has come close to defining our way of being as a people.


How Can the Refugees Save Us?

Firstly, it is absolutely necessary that we become poorer, and the refugees will help the west to redistribute wealth. Perhaps you’re having a panic attack now, but the fact is, there is not enough for everyone if we live as we currently do. Notice that relatively poor nations are taking in refugees by the million. It is rich nations like ours, and Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait who have bolted the door, turned out the lights and are all hid under the kitchen table pretending no one’s home. Yes, “it is hard for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” I hasten to add that I don’t think the poor among us should be made any poorer, but that ordinary western life needs to move towards greater simplicity, greater interdependence in communities and less waste. Ultimately I believe this will enrich the poor among us and provide an escape route from the financial and social poverty that come with our alienating myth of consumer individualism.

Second, the refugees confront us with the fruits of our imperialism, and if we are willing to face up to their stories we may finally accept the challenge of finding an alternative route into the future – one that isn’t dependent on oil and or on the economic boost we gain from the arms trade.

Third, they give us an opportunity to overcome the racism that now dominates so much of our politics and media, simply by being the human other in our midst. I believe that we will not lose a sense of who we are in the presence of the other. Rather, we will gain a deeper sense of who we are, as we gain a deeper appreciation of the other.

And lastly (and most of all) the refugees will help to reconfigure British social life and politics through the grass roots community cooperation that is now necessary to respond to this crisis. Community cooperation is necessary now because a) the powers are not invested in the future, but in the present (the era in which they hold power) – they will not do what must be done. And b) because community cooperation is precisely what has been chased out of British life by numbing consumerist order of the last decades – and it is precisely this that has left us bereft of any sense of who we are. Functional and compassionate communities will be the most important political spaces in the future. If we don’t rise to this, we will remain locked in a stagnant and dying imperial past.

Why The Government Can’t Save Us

The government are almost completely unable to help us. Rather, we must help them by changing the assumptions under which they operate. The government have been a driving force of the greed, imperialism and social alienation that now characterise Western life, and racism is a tolerated side-effect. More than that, the government’s fear of the big newspapers (The Sun and The Mail) means that they are an obstacle to the refugees that we so sorely need to help. But lastly, even the refugees that the Government does let in will do us no good if the government oversees their life in this country.

We have to recognise now, that nobody’s humanity or dignity will be preserved if refugees are to be minced through government bureaucracy into dire council houses where they will live on a pittance, secluded and alienated and suffering continual racism and prejudice, only to be finally deported at the age of 18 if they are unfortunate enough to be orphans. The housing, social integration and provision of resources for refugees must be handled by welcoming grass-roots communities who are invested in their humanity and are willing to be changed by them. These grass roots communities, who will most likely be faith communities, must then include the wider community so that we, as a people, can be changed by encountering the other, can be grieved by their stories, can be heartened by their newfound stability and the part we are able to play in it. We could be transformed from a people of television and entitlement to a people of life, culture and hospitality once again: a people who’s core values are not dictated from the heart of capitalist economics but from a compassionate connection to the other.

What Should We Do?

If any of us have any enthusiasm about the opportunity to begin transforming British life from the grass roots upwards, then I encourage you to get involved with Citizens UK, to lobby your local councils to accept refugees, to consider how you could make yourself available to spend time with refugees and help them to settle and integrate and be welcomed, and to explore fund-raising activities that will involve the wider community.

This is not merely a crisis. This is the beginning of the world to come. And so I think it will be fruitful to respond to this in a steady, considered and committed way – to re-position ourselves gradually. If our own country is to be a good and beautiful place in the future, much depends on our response to the weary traveller. The current powers will make nothing but the most begrudging response, and so hope now depends on ordinary people in ordinary communities.

Our opening quote from Henri Nouwen, doubtless refers to Jesus’ story about the judgment (Matthew 25:31-46) where he tells one group of people “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” And they say “When?” and he says “Whenever you did it for the least of these.” Then he talks to the other group of people, and it doesn’t go so well.

As I’m sure is already clear, I don’t consider this to be religious mysticism so much as a concrete political reality that stands before us: “salvation comes to us in the form of a tired traveller.”


Reflections on Protein World and the A.S.A.

I was struck recently by Charlott Baring’s very short and successful campaign against Protein World’s Are-You-Beach-Body-Ready? adverts. As a response to the online petition, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) were called out of their offices to conduct an “investigation.” I had in my imagination a pair of men in suits with clipboards and coffees-to-go standing there in a London Underground tunnel regarding the giant picture, and circling numbers from 1 to 10, trying to empirically document how offended they felt.

This sort of automated bureaucratic response seemed ridiculous, because the people had already decided to be rid of those adverts, and made a public spectacle of it. It used to be, in times gone by, that when we didn’t like an advert, we would quietly not buy the product. Now ordinary people get out their scissors, and glue and spray paint and make their views known. For a long time public space has been ruled by the voices of those with the money to project their message into it, and ordinary people felt constrained to silence by an unspoken sense of subservience to those powers. Something’s tipped, I think. Now we talk back. And we don’t need the ASA’s permission or agreement to do so. Public space is beginning to be won back as a place for the public’s voice.

If the ASA’s involvement felt like an absurdly unnecessary gesture, the news of an “investigation” also felt like a desperate attempt to claw power back upwards. The people could not be seen to have spoken, uninvited, into the discourse of public space. Imagine the chaos if people felt able to talk back to every piece of coercive consumerist propaganda. It felt like the ASA were trying to stamp the authority of the advertising industry back onto a situation that had already left their control. The emerging truth is – I hope – that we are no longer satisfied to have our lives regulated by the powers. We are feeling freer every day to speak for ourselves, and take back public space.

Ruskin on the Arms Trade and Petroleum

In an open letter to workmen and labourers entitled Charitas (1871) John Ruskin quite boldly asks his readers to make three promises. The first is this:

Mind your own business with your absolute heart and soul; but see that it is a good business first. That it is corn and sweet pease you are producing, – not gun powder and arsenic. And be sure of this, literally: – You must really rather die than make any destroying mechanism or compound… In your powder and petroleum manufactory, we work no more… There is no physical crime at this day, so far beyond pardon, – so without parallel in its untempted guilt, as the making of war machinery, and invention of mischievous substance. Two nations may go mad and fight like harlots – God have mercy on them – you who hand them carving knives off the table for leave to pick up a dropped sixpence, what mercy is there for you?”

There are so many problems with this statement – not because it is wrong but because it is right. The problems involved in extracting ourselves from the industries of empire and violence are overwhelming.

I recall late on last year, the job of administration for the NHS was to be privatised and outsourced to an arms dealing company. The bid was abandoned after a petition, praise God. But it raises the question: how can we abstain from such things when everything is increasingly being mixed up together? Will we refuse to pay our taxes one day? What has it come to when it is proposed that the NHS be administered by the arms trade? That juxtaposition is a joke.

We could also ask the question from the other side of a war, ie. what resources are wars fought to secure? If its true, as Adam Curtis’ documentary Bitter Lake sees it, that our endless adventures in Iraq are ultimately about our commitments to Saudi Arabia (that is, our addiction to their oil), then it becomes a question of not only of the “arsenic and gunpowder…” we produce, but also what we consume. If we add to this the new information that our reliance on fossil fuels has itself turned into a war on the sublime cosmic sphere that God’s put us on, we are confronted with a question…

Addressing our fondness for petrol is something like the book on the shelf that we know is there, but put off reading. At what point do we decide that this choice is upon us? One part of what Ched Myers calls radical discipleship involves protest, activism and petitioning the powers – and this is growing, praise God. But if this is all we do then we confirm our total reliance on the powers to change the world for us. Are they going to be the sole agents of Good News? Another side is the rearrangement of ordinary life in spite of the powers. I believe that ordinary life can and must be rearranged radically, and that the Spirit of change empowers ordinary people to change the world in ways the powers cannot.

Ched Myers describes the moment Jesus told some fishermen and a tax collector to quit their jobs and join His movement like this:

The first step in dismantling the dominant social order is to overturn the “world” of the disciple: in the Kingdom, the personal and the political are one. These concrete imperatives are precisely what the rich are unable or unwilling to respond to…” (from Binding the Strongman)

And now let the disclaimers begin. Just as Zacheus the tax collector kept his job, and St Paul continued making tents, and Nicodemus stuck to politics, and there is no sign that the Roman centurion quit even his job as the teeth of imperialistic power – ordinary life is not to be rearranged arbitrarily, nor is it always possible to make very necessary changes all at once. Likewise, a plumber needs a van, families sometimes need cars, and I don’t want to go to hospital with a broken leg on a bicycle (anymore than I want to be checked in by arms dealers on the reception desk). When we think of our petrol addiction, and the wars fought to supply it, we’re not talking about something like quitting smoking (a personal change), rather we are challenging the very things that ordinary life is arranged around. We will have to change the world outside ourselves in some way, to rearranging it around something better than the motor car.

The change is impossible without re-forming grass roots geographical community and will inevitably involve reforming life around some kind of geographic village well – a life shared with others in a walkable, or bike-able, locale, and shareable resources. We can’t make the change until we emerge from the identity of individualism and consumerism.

Grass roots community resists empire. Empire dismantles grass roots community. Amongst numerous new technologies of the last century our reliance on the motor car (for all it has given us) has helped to dismantle grass roots community. I am not suggesting that none of us should have them – it actually helps a lot if some of us do. But I am, unapologetically saying that we will not be able to emerge from empire as long as our lives, as individuals and families, are arranged around the motor car rather than around our local community.

It is an odd paradox, in keeping with Myers’ observations above, that it is far more difficult for the rich to rearrange ordinary life in this way than the poor.

The less we, as a people, are reliant on such mediums for life, the richer life will be and the less Western bombs will be dropped on oil rich countries.

For the record, Ruskin’s second and third requests are these: to “seek to revenge no injury…” and lastly to “learn to obey good laws… and subdue base and disloyal ones… ruling over those in the power of the Lord of Light and Peace, whose Dominion is an everlasting Dominion, and His Kingdom from generation to generation.”

Breast Feeding & Prophetic Action

The prophets are the women breast feeding their babies in public.

If Walter Brueggeman is right that the biblical prophets criticised the present situation and energised people towards an alternative future, and did so by offering symbols from the past, public breast feeders do it all.

They criticise an order that has made breasts a symbol of women as the playthings of men, and the iconography of power, profit and control. The fact that the criticism rings true is obvious by the cries coming down from businesses, politicians, and celebrities telling them to stop it. Meanwhile the protest against the people who drag women’s bodies through the public sphere as visual amusement comes up from everyday people. (That fox, the prime minister is happy to say public breast feeding is natural, but he won’t raise a whimper against Rupert Murdoch’s peculiar right to publish breasts as a misogynist spectacle in a daily newspaper, because he knows that Murdoch carries the keys to the next election).

The prophets – the public breast feeders – energise us towards an alternative vision: a humanising order against a dehumanising one. A relational order against an alienating one. An order that glorifies grass roots life against the cult of the idealised image. It’s something that the businesses who rule consumer capitalism can make no use or sense of, and that makes the consumerist reconstruction of masculine libido evaporate. Its the image of Kingdom against empire.

Of course people aren’t feeding their babies to make a statement (apart from the protesters outside Claridge’s). British life has made a prophetic statement out of ordinary human life, by being a place driven to strangeness by systems of power and profit.

Babylon is Dead Vol#3

Plugged in my music computer a few days ago to start recording the new project and I found this – a song from Babylon is Dead Vol#3, which will never get finished.

I think it was recorded 2011, in the thick of financial collapse (“the party animals are saying that the party is over. But whose party was it anyway?”) and the riots, occupy protests that followed (“But behold, the empire’s endless sameness has been broken and a brand new word has been spoken…”).

I love how redundant it sounds now. In 2004 when I made Glass & Tears it was all about how numbing and passive life in the West was, and how difficult it was to care about or believe in anything. Now there’s protest, dissent, hope and hunger for change all over the place. People are fighting for things because they believe those things are worth fighting for. I know it’s full of mess and contradiction, but the pervading numbness of the last decade is over. There is a sustained awakeness underneath those radicalised spectacles of the last few years, I think.

I recall reading Leonardo and Clodovis Boff saying that Liberation theologies don’t last forever, because they respond to life on the ground, and by God’s grace life on the ground changes.


Unexpectedly Crowd-Dividing Talk for Threads

Here’s what I said…

* * *

I’ll tell about three things I’m going to do this year.

The story begins with the book I wrote, Kingdom vs Empire, a feminist and anti-capitalist rampage through 21st Century Britain – our politics, economics, social structures and our culture and everything else. I deconstructed it all.

And by the time I’d finished, I realised I needed to change my way of living into something completely different – but to what? I had no idea. The way forward hardly seemed to exist.

I think the revolutionary spirit of recent years has wandered into the same cul-de-sac. Occupy has, more or less, been and gone. Russell Brand’s compelling political critique has been cheaply dismissed. We know we want change, but change to what? What alternatives are being proposed?

But while the question on everybody’s mind seems to be, with what shall we replace this dysfunctional system here in the centre of life? the New Testament tends to talk as though the world is more profoundly and interestingly transformed by how we re-arrange life on the periphery. Kingdom politics is outsider politics.

Here’s three small things I came to… the three things I’m going to do this year:

1. I’m going to move house, to live walking-distance from my church.

I was horrified that my book had pushed me towards the notion that we should live within walking distance of our churches. Why should we? The reason is this: we are socially impoverished and politically disempowered for lack of a village well… for the lack of some local meeting point where we cross paths with others in our community, even the ones we don’t like… where we go pretending we want water, but really we just want a chat… where the concerns of ordinary life are shared and thrashed out.

Modern life has no village well.

Since the invention of the car we’ve all been shopping for the church across town that meets our needs, but the Church is also supposed to exist for the transformation of the world… and I don’t think it can do that without being an actual community… and I don’t think it can be an actual community without those Book-of-Acts hallmarks of being in and out of each others’ lives and houses daily and making our resources available to each other.

So here’s one hallmark of Kingdom politics. We as a people are politically dis-empowered by our individualised rhythms of life. In the churches, God has given us a forum in which to stand together for the transformation of the world – not just another public service for a spiritual health-check. An inquiry into the meaning of the word Church (Ecclesia) may shed some light on this.

2. I’m going to subscribe to Ethical Consumer and propose a monthly boycott list for my church.

Everybody knows that the greatest democratic power we hold today is not that of the ballot box, but of the checkout – the stuff we buy every day, so it is of course embarrassing to make the point. But even though everybody knows, few people take much care to inquire about what they are voting for when they fill up their car, or go to Asda, or order a Coke, or buy any paper Rupert Murdoch owns…

I’m not going to be popular. One doesn’t expect to be told what not to buy at church. But if we’re going to continue to frown on those Christians who smoke, or cuss sometimes, the least the people of the Kingdom can do is to vaguely organise ourselves enough to withdraw our corporate support for slave labour, economic injustice, cultural oppression and environmental ravaging. With a tiny bit of organisation, the churches could perhaps make an alarming difference.

I think the key thing here is daring to move towards a corporate response. Acts 19 might give us a sense of how this could work.

3. I’m going to get together with other people from my neighbourhood and we’re going to grow, and brew, and bake and make our own stuff… our own songs, our own art, our own booze, share our own skills, and whatever else we can… 

Most would recognise this as a desirable and delightful way of living. The main reason I consider it a matter of Kingdom Politics is that of decentralisation. Generally, we live in rhythms of dependence: dependence on the supermarket for food, on government legislation for social ills, on the television for culture. Life is lived indirectly, via centralised systems of various kinds. By making our own stuff we break free of a mindset of dependence on systems, and enter into inter-dependence on each other.

I think we need to break free of a mindset dependence on the systems of the world we live in, before we have the autonomy to turn it upside-down.

All this sounds like the fetishised the idea of an organic, hippy sort of life, that’s the last thing I want. More likely I’m guilty (as ever) of being an idealistic brute. My interest in growing vegetables is mostly political (though I fully expect they’ll teach me deeper truths). This is about making my church community my community – including the people who live nearby – and contributing to it in such a way as to cultivate inter-dependence, social conscience, political savvy, and a unified voice in the part of the world we live in… to help us break free of our total dependence on centralised politics, systems and services, and to cultivate a politics and a culture of our own.