Friday, August 14, 2015

Reflections on Gay Marriage

Tying a knot
I've resisted the temptation to write about gay marriage for quite some time, firstly because I'm not gay and secondly because I have been married and divorced more than once, thus disqualifying me experientially, morally and ethically from engaging with the issues it raises.
Quite a number of the historic denominations seem more concerned with being inclusive than being the 'church', whatever certainty this presupposes. I don't think that we have much idea what we mean by being inclusive other than some vague idea that inclusivity has something to do with being accepting and loving and, of course, it's a necessary strategy for survival in what is denominationally a buyers’ market; it's a smorgasbord of intellectual and social paradigms out there and one size doesn't fit all. Furthermore, the inclusive church is captured by romantic notions of marriage. Combine inclusivity and romanticism and you have no reason to deny marriage between gay people.

When couples come to ministers to talk about their marriage ceremonies, some ministers think it’s mandatory to ask if they love one another. The couple dutifully admits that they do - if they said otherwise, the priest or whoever might have serious doubts about joining them together, especially if the denominational slant is sacramental. But, in truth, how would they know? A Christian marriage isn’t about whether you’re in love. Christian marriage is offering the practice of fidelity over a lifetime in which we can look back and call all those collective decisions, hopes and fears 'love'. It is a hard discipline over many years and some of us weren't, it seems, quite up to the task.

The difficulty, therefore, is that Christians, when they approach this issue, no longer know what marriage is. For centuries, for socially advantageous or politically expedient reasons, just like a lot of other religious practices, Christians married people who didn’t know one another until the marriage ceremony, and they were going to have sex that night. They didn’t 'know' one another. Where does all this 'love' come from? As the song says "what's love got to do with it..." They could have sex because they were married, not, as is the case today, with whomever and whenever they felt like it.

Now, when marriage becomes a mutually enhancing arrangement until something goes wrong, then it makes no sense at all to oppose homosexual marriages. If marriage is a calling, carrying with it a transcendent holiness that makes promises of lifelong monogamous fidelity in which children are welcomed, then we’ve got a problem. But we can’t even get to a discussion there, because quite a lot of self-confessed so-called Christians no longer practice Christian marriage.

What has made it particularly hard is that the divorce culture has made it impossible for us to talk about these matters with the requisite honesty so as not to indulge in self-deceptive, sentimental lies. We have become serial polygamists, confused about whom we're allowed to sleep with and who we're not. We're confused about our reasons for having children and the moral relativism which we practice is justifiable in the broader ethical context in which we find ourselves. It would be surprising indeed in such a climate if gay marriage legislation actually failed.
If you were expecting me to come out firmly on one side or the other, sorry to disappoint. I make no judgement on horrifying Levitical pronouncements - I am not sufficiently qualified to do so, neither am I qualified to demand certainty in the face of moral confusion. The whole purpose of intellectual wrestling is that sometimes, the two protagonists are locked in inertial combat, where neither appears to be moving. My hope is that some internally fruitful debate is produced.
My thanks to Stanley Hauerwas for some of his thoughts.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

A Fly Trap for the Islamists

Jizya. Everybody's favourite tax
I have to confess to a small but delicious sense of schadenfreude when reading that the radical cleric Anjem Choudary has finally been arrested. I wonder, whatever can be done about a British-born man who is qualified to work but appears never to have done so, and who instead spends his time taking his "dole" money, boasting that he is entitled to it as 'jizya' and using it to fund a lifestyle devoted solely to preaching against the state? Britain can't withdraw his citizenship or otherwise render him "stateless." He has a young family who cannot be allowed to starve on the streets. These are admittedly late liberalism problems, but they are problems nonetheless.
He has been undone by his own self-aggrandisement and attention-seeking, but the  problem is that over many years he has been involved with innumerable people who have shown themselves to be more than simply loudmouthed blowhards. They have attempted to bring serious sectarian conflict as well as murder to the streets of Britain. A number of Choudary's associates were imprisoned a few years ago for attempting a Mumbai-style attack on London landmarks, including the London Stock Exchange. Others have been to prison for incitement and countless terrorist-recruitment offences; and since the beginning of the Syrian civil war, a number of his followers or supporters have gone to Syria and Iraq to join and fight with ISIS.
Choudary himself is a trained lawyer and is sufficiently slippery to know on just which side of the law to keep his remarks. The last Labour government's creation of a new offence of "glorifying terror" ought to have caught him within it, but it appeared not to have done. Frustratingly, he has remained at large.
I wonder why. One theory is that Choudary has been, to some extent used as a "fly-trap" by the police or SO15.  He is well known enough to have anyone seriously interested in the most radical forms of Islamic extremism find their way to him. Perhaps there was some clandestine agreement to allow him to get away with what he does because it is better for such extremism to have an observable and open meeting-point than to be forced underground where tracking and monitoring becomes so much more difficult. Also, second tier commanders - those who are more directly involved with fomenting hatred and plotting terror, may be drawn out into the open. 
Bomb threats have been made by radical Islamists against members of the Royal Family during celebrations on Saturday commemorating the capitulation of Japan in WW2. Ultimately, they were unfounded, but their very existence is the terrorists' main weapon, to try to make people afraid. Is it possible, I wonder,  that  the timing of Choudary's arrest is not accidental? 
The Brits may only tolerate their Royal family sometimes, but if such an attack took place,  the consequences for the perpetrators and indeed anyone suspected of being the least bit radical would be catastrophic and it would change the British attitude to Islam and its involvement in the Middle East crisis, perhaps for ever. 
The British National Anthem has a number of verses, often forgotten and rarely sung. Verse Two goes like this...
O Lord our God arise,
 Scatter her enemies,
 And make them fall:
 Confound their politics,
 Frustrate their knavish tricks,
 On Thee our hopes we fix:
 God save us all.
Knavish tricks. Quite so.

New Labour for Old

Who's he?
Sometimes, I wonder, idly, about British politics. The Canadians are about to vote, the Brits have a right wing mandate for the next four years and all credible opposition has descended into factional infighting and recrimination. Labour is not so much licking its wounds but has been placed on life support. All through my life the Labour party have been at the gates of Downing Street, and often enough stormed them, only to be beaten back at a subsequent election. Even Tony Blair's soft centrism failed to sway my own instinctive pull to the right. But, what might happen to the Conservative party if those barbarians disappear? Jeremy Corbyn, the vegetarian cyclist and teetotaller represents the barbarian, old-school face of the Labour Party. Steeped in Marxist-Leninist ideology, a union man to his toenails, a fiercely combative and frequently bad-tempered debater, he may take some beating. But, one should not assume that he will lift the Labour leadership, despite the best efforts of the Socialist Workers, rightist fifth-columnists and Communists to inflate the voting numbers. The slender possibility remains that when second preferences are counted Yvette Cooper or Andy Burnham will scrape through. But theirs would be a miserable, half-hearted victory: humiliated before they even begin. Their party now faces one of two alternatives: a 'real' hard left, miners' revenge victory for Mr Corbyn, or a Pyrrhic victory for Ms Cooper or Mr Burnham who says the Labour party may split and I do not doubt him. The Right, and especially the Kippers will at first rejoice. The barbarians are fighting among themselves and no longer threaten us! Huzza! And it is true that a Labour party rushing headlong to destruction would guarantee the Conservatives’ return to office in 2020. Shall I, then, live under a Tory prime minister until I’m at least 75? Perhaps. But the isolationists' pulling up the drawbridge may be too high a price to pay. Corbyn keeps strange bedfellows - he has hosted Hamas and Hezbollah leaders, amongst others which isn't surprising since an irreligious man has sno understanding of the religiously motivated agendas of such people. He is the favourite by a mile at this point - so just as a marker, here's the odds for today. Let's hope the old saying is right, 'it ain't over till the fat lady sings.'

Meanwhile... Calais migrants are storming the Channel tunnel in their thousands, desperate to get to the UK, seen still as the Promised Land and the Brits' response is currently feebly ineffectual. All over Europe, people desperate to flee war zones and destitution are beating a path to their doors. Greek islands and Lampedusa are overrun by those who have survived the perilous and ruinously expensive journey, trafficked by those who have cynically  made money out of the desperation of others. The whole demographic of Europe is changing and the least that the British voter can expect is a Government both muscular enough and compassionate enough to take appropriate action. If Corbyn gets in, he'll fling wide the immigration gate and have them all working down the Welsh coal mines he wants to re-open. 

Saturday, August 01, 2015

Problematically Correct

...but getting married soon...
There's a tyranny of forced sensitivity, alive and well in a pleasantly cocooned part of North America. I refer, of course, to the wonderfully liberal, inclusive and welcoming University of New Hampshire - surely home to multitudes of young persons, eager to join the well-meaning throngs of the socially and politically aware. The website positively shouts inclusiveness. If you are lesbian, gay, queer, trans, not sure or even mildly interested in being any or all of the above, there's a place for you. After a series of (probably minor) protests, they have recently removed from their site  the  somewhat tautologous "Bias-Free Language Guide", where words like “American,” “illegal alien,” “foreigners,” “mothering,” and “fathering” are deemed “problematic”.  By this, one assumes that somebody, somewhere might be slightly offended by the use of such outrageously provocative terms. According to the university’s website, the guide “is meant to invite inclusive excellence in [the] campus community.” Leaving out, just for a moment, the fact  that the sentence as written is meaningless, what can possibly be so very precious about people's sensitivities that they are not able to deal emotionally with having their feathers ruffled a little bit? I rather imagined that part of the purpose of higher education was to learn to listen to disagreeable points of view. What's worse, the neutering of language robs much dialogue of the robustness necessary to bring a point home. Resorting to beige, nondescript and damply meek wording only subtracts from the dialectic, hardly ever adding to it.
The guide defines words such as “homosexual” as “problematic,” offering “Same Gender Loving” as a more inclusive substitute.  What a shame that people feel it no longer necessary to learn classical languages, since if they did so, they'd realise that the substitute term means something rather different to the original. Similarly, a lack of gender-neutral bathrooms is, according to the university, “ciscentrism.” Doesn't everyone use the one with the shortest queue?
There's a big, wide difference between a deliberate, gratuitously offensive remark or form of words chosen precisely because the speaker wants to do some damage and a figure of speech used with no malicious intent and I'm tired of the endless tiptoeing around people's real or imagined sore spots.

Oh dear. So it's not OK to call someone a nigga? Even as a term of affection? Even if they are one?

Monday, June 29, 2015

Flat Lands and Legends (Part Two)

When it comes to food, the French are the most obsessive on the planet. Yet they have rather lagged behind the curve when it comes to cooking outdoors; Texas muscle and Antipodean flair have rather led the field. But, the French are catching on and, as always, bring more than a little Gallic flair to the barbecue business.

On the beach in 2014, moved to town square this year
There was quite a crowd. Professional teams with slick uniforms and their own washers-up (in our case, me), amateur teams consisting of men in silly hats out for a good time happy to let their meat char to a cinder in favour of drinking a lot of pastis and having fun by the sea. Reality TV stars, coached by the sponsoring barbecue company, gaggles of photographers, pretty girls with fake tattoos and considerable razzmatazz. And, a serious jury, consisting of starred chefs and other head honchos. All converging on the little town of Saintes Maries de la Mer, the capital of the Camargue, to find the best barbecue chefs in France.

Also, two middle-aged women in home made tie-dyed T shirts turned up to take on the 'best of the best' from all over France, Europe and as far away as French Polynesia. One of whom is quite well known to me, a legend in her own lunchtime.

The advertising budget was eye-watering. In addition to a lavish beach party for all those involved, each of eighty teams received the use of a brand new 300€ Weber charcoal barbecue, plus tools, competition aprons, charcoal and a large parasol, and, of course, meat, fish or vegetables from a top-flight local provider. Competitors could enter a maximum of three categories. Once the meat was received, they had two and a half hours to present.

Dear God, but it was hot. Most of the time, I hung around, dripping, like a spare usher at a wedding; when Gipsy slips into top gear, the best thing to do is just take cover. Hand movements are as fast as a concert pianist's and one can almost hear the vegetables begging for mercy.

Day one, the chicken and taureau day, went well and the food as always was outstanding, but the jurors reached us virtually at the end of the judging period. When the taureau was being tasted, a frisson went around the site as the chief juror, an elderly gentleman, suddenly lit up. He stayed for rather longer than his allotted time and questioned the team closely.

Taureau - after the jury had finished with it
We left for a night in a farmhouse in Vaccarès. Day Two was, if anything, hotter. The team were only doing the pork section so it looked like an easy day. However,  outrageous fortune's capricious nature being what it is, delay followed delay until mid-afternoon when Gipsy was hauled off to the ambulance with a hour to go, suffering from heatstroke. The partner was left to finish and the result was good but not outstanding, which was unfortunate.

These things are always a lottery. I told myself that it was the taking part that mattered and a prize was a bonus. Gipsy muttered grimly that 'she hadn't turned up just to come second'. Just as well, really.

The Blue Riband event is the bull, the 'taureau' of the Camargue. A special trophy is presented to the winner of this category, since it is considered to be the most difficult meat of all to prepare successfully, with originality and the perfection required at this level.  When she won, I shouted like a kid at the football match and might even have jumped up and down. When she got second prize for the hamburger section and third for the chicken, I clapped politely, having recovered my customary sang-froid.

The three-starred chef asked if he could use her bull recipe in his kitchen.  After all the packing up, we barely had room in the car for the winner's barbecue and the trophy. The former we get to keep, the latter we have to give back or defend next year. Apparently.

Champions Trophy 2015

Flat Lands and Legend (Part One)

Photo: Public domain
The Camargue is almost not France. Windswept and flat, the winter Mistral howls relentlessly across the salt marshes, whipping up the waters of the ragged Rhône delta and the Etang de Vaccarès from which thousands of pink flamingoes take flight, in spectacular V-shaped formation, their long necks extended like fighter jets.
Photo: Public domain
Wild horses, the hardy white breed thought to be one of the oldest in the world still live semi-ferally and are the  traditional mount of the gardians, the cowboys who herd the fighting bulls. At the southern apex of the delta lies Saintes-Maries de la Mer, the capital of the Camargue. Catholic tradition has it that there were three Marys at the foot of the Cross, Magdalene, also Salomé and Jacobe, sisters of Jesus' mother and mothers to Apostles. Exiled by the Romans, they came with Lazarus, Joseph of Arimathea and a black, perhaps Egyptian or Ethiopian "child servant" called Sara to the shores of the Camargue and brought Christianity to France. The Romani gypsies venerate this 'black virgin' at an annual ceremony where her effigy is carried waist-deep into the sea by the gardians.

Photo: Public domain
Today, the little town is full of well-heeled tourists - a pair of cowboy boots can cost as much as two thousand euros and the beaches are long and sandy. With few adjoining condominiums or big hotels, they are far less crowded that their immediate neighbours on ether side of the delta.

Last weekend, the town came alive. But for quite a different reason. End of Part One.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Flags and Guns

I haven't been to many of the Southern states of the USA. I've met a number of people from the Carolinas, well-mannered, fiscally conservative folk who don't exercise their Second Amendment right to bear arms. It was the English who enshrined the right to carry firearms for self-defence and legally defensible right to life in a turbulent and unstable period of English history; the American fledgling state simply copied the idea.
Even the most trigger-happy Americans are getting tired of having to defend the indefensible statistic that far too many people suffer mortal injury because of gun crime.

The image shows twenty-one year old Dylann Roof. He is holding two objects, both of which are venerated and highly dangerous. One is a Confederate flag, the other is a semiautomatic .45 calibre Glock 41 pistol, obtainable to almost anyone without a violent history at a cost of just over six hundred dollars. Designed for the Austrian military, it is used by police forces all over the world. This particular one took the lives of nine black churchgoers in Charleston a few days ago. Over sixty thousand died under the Confederate flag in Virginia and North Carolina alone during a war motivated primarily by a desire to end slavery. For the moment, it still flies in the grounds of the South Carolina Statehouse, a grim reminder to the black population that the white man's wishful thinking is alive and well.

It is not enough for the State of Mississippi to remove the Confederate flag from its license plates, nor is it enough that the President makes yet more sympathetic noises. White supremacist websites radicalise those of fragile mind and limited intellect, deluding people into thinking that a race war is just around the corner and it is their duty to prevent it by violent means. If firearms are so easily obtained, it is hardly surprising if such people use them. Labelling this boy as a white supremacist terrorist, therefore not 'one of us' won't do since it distances his actions from a wellspring of US opinion that justifies the use of lethal force by private citizens by allowing them, any of them, to carry a weapon of mass destruction. It's time, just time, to reconfigure the software, update it for a new time and a different morality where we come to the realisation that private citizens do not need handguns. Only then will the Dylann Roofs of this world no longer be provided with the means to enact their warped, twisted fantasies.