When child refugees are someone else's problem. And the unacceptability of claiming "We have done our bit".
I read this piece this morning and immediately wanted to share it on Facebook. Here's why.
I share this because I believe the Dubs Amendment provided a morally and politically defensible response to a humanitarian crisis of suffering and threatened children.
I share the sadness of all who believe our country should not close doors on refugees - doors fit into walls as openings, and places of welcome; when they are closed all you are left with is a wall.
I share the shame that a rich and influential nation would rather pay others to keep refugees where they are, than welcome them as the human gifts they are.
I share the outrage of those who believe our responsibility under the UN Convention on Refugees is being compromised and bought off.
I share the anger of all who think the ending of the Dubs Amendment scheme was an underhand and cynical sleight of hand, displaying political self serving instead of demonstrating an ethically funded political leadership.
I share the sense of national diminishment, when our country's values are discarded in imitation of the door-closing mentalities elsewhere
I share the prayers of those who seek justice and mercy, peace and shalom, for others at least as much as ourselves.
For followers of Jesus truth-telling is not optional but crucial; the question what is truth, however cyncially asked, has an answer; integrity is truthfulness of character expressed in words that aim at honesty over expediency, clarity over obscurity.
The aim of words is to edify, build up, support that which is good and true and humanising; this in contrast to a discourse that aims to tear down truth and deceive the reader or hearer.
When words are captured by power and used as weapons to gain, increase and hold on to power, then yes, telling the truth is a revolutionary act. We shouldn't need to be told that by the author of two of most prescient and trajectory setting dystopian novels. But in the 21st century world of digitised and word saturated global culture, where immediacy and non accountable social media exchange encourages truth, half truth and lies, provokes disagreement, dislike, hostility culminating in hate language, and gives unprecedented exposure to anyone with internet access to a difficult to regulate but pervasive medium - in such a culture, truth is a hostage to fortune, and that is a euphemism for clear and present danger to its welfare.
"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free", said Jesus. Placed alongside Pilate's ambiguous and exasperated question, "What is truth", Jesus words push back at us, and our responsibility to care, to discern, to defend, to speak truth. Failure to do these is the loss of the very freedom that makes us human.
Not many authors find their names being used as adjectives, but when they do it recalls an entire literary style and context. Dickensian, whisks the imagination back in time to Victorian Engalnd and the colourful characters who populated it, the social contrasts of rich and poor, the costs and benefits of industrialised prosperity, and the far fetched and commonplace happenings that made up the story. Shakespearean, evokes a sense of language used powerfully, persuasively, indeed language taken to such a level that it has become a benchmark for English writing that has dramatic consequernce, descriptive power, psychological precision and narrative drive.
Orwellian, is an altogether darker adjective. The word describes not so much an overall style or narrative world, as a highgly developed skill in the use of language to mislead, obfuscate, and to undermine the rules of discourse so far as they are related to truth and trust, verity and fact. Thompson argues throughout his book, Enough Said, that the gradual but now dangerous decay of public language in the past 30 years has proved Orwell remarkably, and frighteningly prescient.
Orwell's fear that public discourse "would become so debased that it could not support political debate" is being realised in the digitalised, sound bite, fast flow, contested universe of a worldwide webb, 24/7 news in sound and image, and in how that is mirrored in public debate. Polarised opinion, misleading spin, outright lie and denial, the culture of blame, ridicule and claimed certainty, all make difficult, if not impossible, discussion, debate, agreed criteria for constructive argument, and the essential compromises of shared wisdom on which political and public discourse rely.
Orwell's point was that such degradation of language to serve the interests of power, to mislead and control the people, is made possible by a massive conspiracy, a web of linguistic deceit, an increasingly docile population no longer able to be critical of the status quo because the language and access to the truth are being hijacked. When powerful forces corner the market on the media, control the content and perspective of the reality communicated, the public discourse is reduced from dialogue to monologue, from diversity to conformity, from truth as contested and shared to truth that is manufactured in the service of the imposed reality.
Take the word "safe". The Trump campaign and the Trump administration use this word prevasively to project fear, to persuade of the reality of a threat that is personal and national. This in turn creates an ethos of menace and insecurity, such that any means is justified to repel the danger and exclude the dangerous people., the "BAD" people. The word "safe" is a positive word. So when a government insists its first duty is to keep the people "safe", it encourages the people who are told they are unsafe, to trust their government to use whatever powers are needed to protect them. The current legal dispute between the President and the US judges is about a measure claimed to be essential for the safety of American citizens. To the point where the tweeting President says,
"Just cannot believe a judge would put our country in such peril. If something happens blame him and court system. People pouring in. Bad!"
"People pouring in". Perhaps, but the 7 countries identified have no record of exporting terror to the United States. "Our country in such peril." But what has happened to justify this 90 day suspension, including initial revoking of all visas and dual citizenships? "Blame him and the court system". Even the courts can't be trusted, only the Tweeter. And the media are the enemy and lying manufacturers of fake news. And the Intelligence agencies are likewise previously degraded. And the last word in the tweet, "Bad". The word "safe" is not used; in its place is a fusillade of fearmongering.
That paragraph is intentionally deconstructionist. Once the word "safe" is used, and "safety" is given absolute priority, it then becomes a matter of establishing credible threat, enabling sufficient defence, and conferring freedom to act within the constitutional provisions for such a threat. Of course there is the matter of evidence that makes this "peril" credible. There is the matter of the Constitution which confers Presidential power, and if it is breached then so is the legitimacy of the action. The courts decide when such a breach has taken place, that too is in the Constitution. For the President to undermine the independence of the judiciary as the upholder of the Constitution sets a new precedent in Presidential pride, and ignorance.
The word "safe", used in a context where previous rhetoric has painted the world in dark colours, and with a proposed ban on Muslim people, becomes a potent trip-switch for fear, and as such opens the door to the strong protector to "do what it takes". Trump's tweet bristles with Orwellian ambiguities and alleged certainty. One of the more interesting historic consequences of the current dispute between the President and the Courts is its demonstration of precisley the breakdown in public language in which every disagreement becomes a 100% game. One is right, the other wrong. Certainty inflicts deafness to the other point of view. The habit of seeing the world as an arena, and every argument a fight to the death of the other person's viewpoint, is precisley the anatomy of conflict. Thompson's comment is cautionary:
But a rhetorical asymmetry has opened up; it is becoming harder to argue in favour of compromise than against it. In my time as a journalist and editor, I've seen the noun and verb compromise become a pejorative and the adjective uncompromising a compliment. To change one's mind is to execute a u-turn or, in the United States, a flip flop. (130)
What Thompson is arguing for, but lamenting its disappearance, is the capacity of grown up people to behave with maturity, wisdom, respect, and even, God help us, humility:
What has been lost here is the possibility of uncertainty, of listening to others, of consdiering the evidence and the political realities and adjusting one's position accordingly...to a significant extent radicalisation has taken place in the field of rhetoric. (133)
In other words we are showing symptoms of linguistic extremism, of developing and sustaining ideologies which rubbish all alternatives, are suspicious of those who don't share our worldview. We have smothered the instinct for truth as something other than what I would prefer it to be, and in short, become cyncical manipulators of language for the limited ends of my own agenda.
As a Christian, I am compelled to read that last paragraph and reflect deeply on what it means to be told glibly that I live in a post-truth, alternative fact universe, and I'd better get over it. Perhaps, I'd better resist it, call it our for what it is, go on beliecving "you shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free."
I learned these words by heart 50 years ago, when I came across them as a young Christian, in an old book of devotions by a now forgotten writer J R Miller.
It is interesting to put those wise words from late 19th century American piety alongside this observation in Mark Thompson's analysis of political discourse, Enough Said:
"Facebook, Twitter and the Blogosphere have created a limitless marketplace for doxa , a public arena in which your ability to get your opinion across is no longer constrained by the limitations of old media (newspapers) but simply by the challenge of being heard in the midst of a multitude in which everyone else is shouting too." (114)
Earlier Thompson had carefully defined this rhetorical standpoint of doxa.
" Doxa is opinion, common belief; it is what ordinary people believe, or could be made to believe, but without the same underpinning of evidence or structured argument...But in the context of modern media, doxa has powerful advantages. Opinions, especially strong opinions, appeal to the heart as well as the head, whereas episteme (argument from knowledge) is a wholly cerebral affair. Opinions and opinion formers can be a point of differentiation in a crowded market." (113)
What Thompson is describing is the marketplace of ideas in which the loudest voices are heard, the most attention grabbing sound bites are absorbed, the least complex and easiest grasped explanations are seized on, and there is little chance of the quiet voice of reason being heard. There is even less patience for evidenced case building, and little or no care for facts and truth. Strongly held opinions are like lenses through which we look at the world; they are made up of our assumptions, presuppositions and prejudices, reinforced by exaggerating our own way of 'knowing', and undeterred by any awareness of the limitations of our own experience, insight and knowledge. Doxa, which interestingly is the Greek word for glory, easily elides into the arrogance of the unteachable, that attitude of superior knowing that disqualifies critique however strong the proof otherwise. Indeed doxa, intensified into strong opinion, is impatient with otherwise. That's a short step away from being impatient with the 'other'.
When we want to be heard above the multitude because we are devout believers in our own rightness, the Internet is the most powerful, pervasive and non accountable weapon to hand. That by the way was a rhetorical move I made there. Internet as weapon; not merely tool; not merely resource; not blessing simpliciter; but a weapon, a way of attacking and defending, presuming a stance of hostility to those other voices that differ, are louder, are 'other'.
Thompson has some wise things to say about Internet rage.
"The language of (often anonymous) unbridled hatrednwhich the digital platforms have enabled, has damaged public discourse...It often triggers an equal and opposite response so that an entire debate descends into vitriol. And it sets a new dark standard for the expression of strong opinion, which some politicians and commentators are only too happy to meet"
This isn't the handwringing sensitivity of someone troubled by plain speaking. This is a seasoned news editor, who has been responsible for the content and tone of news reporting, investigative journalism, narrative framing and media to public communication, for well over 30 years. What is being lost, and is in danger of that loss becoming catastrophic for human community, society and culture, is the capacity for discussion, debate, information exchange, acknowledged mutual freedoms of speech, what Thompson calls "reasonable levels of mutual courtesy."
One victim of Internet rage is the classics professor Mary Beard, who has been trolled with "generic, violent misogyny". This wonderfully eccentric and gifted academic has at times named and shamed some of the worst trolls. But then again, she has also given educational advice and even a job reference to people who had set out to insult her and make her life difficult. Talk about turning the other cheek - this anecdote makes me admire her even more.
However Thompson's substantive point about Internet rage is laden with dark consequence. When it comes to political debate and decisions in democratic contexts, the complexities of the options require detailed information, experienced analysis, and the balancing of probabilities and consequences such that whatever decision is made, is made responsibly and by people who know, and own the consequences. Freedom of speech and freedom to vote depend on being informed in the decisions we make. The deterioration in public and political discourse is dangerous precisely because devalued language and radically lowered standards of discourse, lead to fractured social relations, inter-personal hostility, and a breakdown in the fabric of free discussion with agreed rules of engagement.
"A critical indicator that our public language in in crisis is the fact that so many people have in so many different ways given up listening to those they disagree with, preferring instead to prevent them from speaking, or, if that's not possible, to put their fingers in their ears or abuse, or intimidate them" (269)
"God's voice is of the heart....to discern his voice amongst the voices". Regular readers here know I am a Christian. As a follower of Jesus I care deeply and seriously about issues of justice, human flourishing, community building, peace, reconciliation and love as the core value of human existence. And in all of these values speech is a crucial component. How Christians engage with others with whom they disagree, in our daily world and the online world, is a matter of discipleship. The Kingdom of God is not built on winning wars of words online, or using words as weapons in our daily conversations, discussions, arguments, disagreements and even falling outs.
The dangers that are flowing from the corruption of public lanaguage require those who are ministers of reconciliation and peacemakers, and those who hunger and thirst for justice to be fully engaged in resisting hate, untruth, insult and divisive rhetoric. Followers of Jesus are committed to high standards of discourse, an ethic of language, wise discernment, a care for truth, including our own truthfulness and honest awareness of our own capacities for a fight. Refusing to listen is one of the most dangerous consequences of a lost ethic of speaking. "Let those with ears to hear, listen". (Jesus)
I'm a man of many words. That's not just because I preach and teach, read and write, all as part of a vocation and also in fulfilment of whatever it is that gives each of us that inner urge and urgency to communicate. In conversation with a good friend recently he compared us, acknowledging his own reserve and diffidence sometimes, whereas "Jim, you are voluble." It was a compliment, and I took it as such, cos it's true!
I'm also a lexophile. I love words. Collect them, file them, look them up, pronounce them, read them, write them, speak them, am moved by them, educated by them, and therefore value them as one of humanity's greatest gifts. The semantic and cultural origins of words, the creative precision and craft of weaving words into sentences, the rhythm and persuasiveness of words well chosen and composed into spoken music, and the capacity of words to convey something of thought, emotion and description, all are sources of delight. I have a hoodie, given by the students at the Scottish Baptist College, which has on the back "I am a sesquipidalian". It's a great conversation starter in a queue - "what does it mean, is it a dinosaur", being the best so far. It means someone given to using long words, sometimes unnecessarily! Guilty, your Honour.
But something has happened to words, especially the way they are used in public and political language. The past two years of campaigning about Brexit, and the November US election and its campaign, saw an unprecedented elevation of heat, anger, bitterness, exaggeration, claim and counter-claim. The rhetorical brutality on both sides included downright lies told with such barefaced seriousness and reiteration that no amount of evidence and proof to the contrary was able to erase, correct or counter the falsehood. When public language deteriorates to slanging matches, and these include the exchange of lies, half-truths, deceit and at times sheer ad hoc invention, then truth becomes a frayed rope in a tug of war between people for whom truth is secondary to impact, and point-scoring and wounding are more important than argument, reason and evidence.
In terms of ancient rhetoric, Aristotle's insights are still pertinent. To use his distinction, public language about politics in our time, has moved from being about logos-argument, and is about ethos-feeling. Language in these two campaigns was less about meaning and more about persuasion, less about informing and more about motivating, less about fairness and more about winning, even at the cost of truth, community health and social stability.
Trying to understand how this has come about, and how to deal with the legacies of fractured community, emboldened hate speech, truth held hostage to power interests, and the continuing juggernaut of political fractiousness and populist anger, on both sides, I started reading Mark Thompson's Enough Said. What's Gone Wrong With the Language of Politics? (London: Bodley Head, 2017) It's important to know what qualifies Thompson to write such a book. Since 2004 he has served as CEO of Channel 4, then 2004-2012 Director General of the BBC, and is currently CEO of the New York Times. His background prior to 2002 was as editor of such programmes as Newsnight, with input to other programmes of investigative journalism, including Panorama. When it comes to public language he understands at first hand the tensions and moral balances of telling the news, providing informed analysis, avoiding political bias, yet holding power to account whether politics, business, judiciary and criminal justice, major institutions of culture, media and religion. The list is long and the responsibility heavy. In other words, he knows what he is talking about. Does that make him an expert? I hesitate to say so, as one case in point of what has changed in our use of language is the spectacle of Michael Gove, a Government Minister, telling the electorate they cannot trust experts!
This is the first of a number of essays on Thompson's book. Not a review as such, but several soundings into the deeper and darker recesses of public discourse as it is practised increasingly in Western Democracies. These democracies would seem to have reached a critical junction, with several options, and no reliable road map, or even a chart that might at least warn us, "Here be dragons."
It isn't often the back of a dustcover so helpfully illustrates the content, and the impetus for the writing of the book,. This one does. It is adorned with very short phrases, sound bites that have been barbed to hook into the memory, armed with a payload of emotion, repeated until they become slogans, catchwords, sounds which smuggle in emotional stimulus along with, sometimes instead of, reason and meaning.
Have a read at them, and hear echoes of past debates, and the recent history of anger and rancour between politicians, between media and politicians, and the growing disconnect between such rhetorical slanging matches, and mature communication of what needs to be known by those who have to make informed choices and decisions. Several of them encapsulate entire narratives, while also creating flashbacks to the stories that created them - dodgy dossier; Je suis Charlie; walls work. Have a look, and a think....
This is the second part of Sunday's sermon. Quite simple observations from Daniel's story, of what it means to pray, regularly, obviously, unabashedly.
Christian allegiance is to Jesus. Jesus is Lord is the core conviction for Christians. Christian conscience is held captive to Christ, and the values of the Kingdom of God are righteousness, peace and joy in HS. Jesus call to Seek first the Kingdom of God and his justice is the priority call on our loyalty, words and actions. When talking to God was outlawed, Daniel trusted God, prayed, put God first, suffered the consequences and went on trusting. No accommodation to Empire’s values, he prayed. What made him wise, trustworthy and trusting was that regular obedience to a holy and righteous God - exposure to holiness and justice, transforms and conforms conviction and action towards the God we believe in, trust and spend time with.
Prayer as Habit and Lifestyle. Regularity, rhythm, discipline – prayer is not occasional, but a habit of the mind and spirit. Like piano practice, a diet pattern, an exercise regime, practice and presence to the task. After years of doing tapestry on the smallest guage canvas, I can nearly always find the right pinhole from behind, first time. The disciples asked Jesus early on, "Lord teach us to pray". The lesson was the Lord’s Prayer. Amongst those who found the Paternoster an anchor point was Bonhoeffer. During his impriisonment a regular reminder of God as Father, of the Kingdom coming, the will of God for peace, reconciliation, love, mercy being done on earth as in heaven. Each of us has to find own way of praying – a gratitude diary – prayer list for intercessions – newspaper and Bible – headphones on the train, walking as rhythm opf daily obedience. Daniel was trapped by his known faithfulness in prayer.
Prayer as an Act of Witness. In a materialist culture, barcodes, self-checkouts, 3 for 2, thanks for daily bread says what we have is from God. If you’re known as a pray-er, at work, in neighbourhood, amongst friends, that's when illness, anxiety, life gone wrong, others will find you and ask your prayers. When own life goes wrong, we default to the one place where we know we are welcome, loved and safe, even if it doesn;t feel like that. Social media from texts, FaceBook, email, phone call - our promise to pray is the gift of grace, time and thought – loving others in the presence of God. How widely known is it that we think prayer is normal, and we pray? Daniel was caught out doing what he was known to do – if prayer was illegal would I be arrested, would they know I was a secret pray-er?
Prayer and Politics. This week I prayed a lot. Torture was on the political agenda. I found myself embroiled in a Facebook exchange around the US President's public refusal to exclude its use. In thinking it through, and praying out of a deep inner resistance to torture in principle, I asked why Christians cannot ever approve torture. Briefly, this was my argument:
The Romans were experts in torture, its psychology and pathology. Crucifixion was one of the most effective instruments of torture ever used to secure political power - it silences the dissenter, executes the terrorist, uses fear as a weapon and deterrent, and dehumanises both the torturer and those deemed disposable. The Passion Story is an account of state power unleashed on a victim, all within the legal framework, and approved by the religious authorities. That's enough for me - I can't follow Jesus and consent to torture in my name, in the name of freedom, or in the name of supposed security.
Prayer and Our Relationship to God – prayer is conversation – contemplation – pouring out our heart – keeping company with God – learning to listen. Daniel was shaped and supported by time with God. For us, to love God is to know the meaning of love, we love because he first loved us. Prayer is a stewardship of friendship, sunbathing in the light of God, being rooted in the deep places of the soul where wildest hopes are born and worst fears lurk – and God is there – as in Ps 139, there is no place where God is not, even in the lion’s den, God is there.
Yesterday I preached on Daniel in the lions' den. It was the first of a planned series on prayers of the Old Testament. The first half of the sermon was a running commentary on the text, the second half some reflections on what it means for secular power and prayer to God to be on a collision course. Here's the first half in note form; the second half I'll post tomorrow :
6.1-5 Daniel was a politician, and a bureaucrat. He was a cog in the gearbox of the empire. When the big problems became huge, gigantic, terrifying, Daniel was the one who fixed them. Nebuchadnezzar, Belshazzar, and now Darius all relied on Daniel to interpret dreams and run the country. How do you bring down a powerful rival who is a good person? “They could find no corruption in him because he was trustworthy and neither corrupt nor negligent.” “unless it has something to do with the law of his God” So a collision course between the real cynical, manipulative power games of court and Government, and a person's integrity, faith and trustworthiness.
6-9 The greatest threat to genuine faith for Daniel, in exile in an alien culture, is idolatry, to worship what is not God. To give total allegiance of heart, mind, conscience and body is to sell our soul. Politicians and power players know that, they’ve always known that. Daniel is a man of faith, public faith. He prays – every day, they know that. The connection between prayer and his trustworthiness, integrity, compassion, mercy, wisdom - they either don;t get it, or get it too well. Never say politics and prayer don’t mix; or that being a Chrstian isn’t political. Prayer is to lift holy hands against the disorder of the world.
10-12 When there’s a law against praying, you pray against it! When someone demands your worship you say no by worshipping God. Sometimes faith is defiant, an act of uprising, a conscience in rebellion. Daniel was in the habit of praying, 3 times – facing Jerusalem. Prayer was the daily orientation of the heart, guiding of conscience, his values and ethics grew out of a heart and mind given to God. Christian response to power is prayer; to political oppression is prayer; to corruption and injustice is prayer. Revolution tries to replace one power with another; prayer is more than revolution, it bypasses empire to the higher power of almighty God, creator and Lord.
13-16 Policies and laws are instruments of power, so must be shaped and considered, and consequences measured. Darius had issued an executive order. Now caught in his own trap, bound by his own law, he is victim of own policies. His pride, trusting the wrong advisers, habits of power, results in edicts and decrees once written which can’t be rescinded. Prayer has become a political crime; allegiance to God breaks the totalitarian claims of the state. Tyrranny cannot survive unpunished defiance, or self-determining freedom.
17-24 Lions are the symbol of strength, ferocity. the have big appetites and teeth to match.The miracle is that Daniel “ had no wound because he trusted in God”. While Darius had a bad night, Daniel was safe with the lions. Collision of power between God of Israel and the Emperor who is to be worshipped. Daniel’s vindication as trustworthy and one who trusts God; in the right order he serves God, then the Emperor, and is faultless in both. Prayer is place where we learn trust, and are shaped towards trustworthiness; it is also the place where secular power is critiqued, and rendered penultimate.
25-28 – This is a conversion story. Pagan emperor bows before God of Israel; the God of the exiles is made the God of the people; the God of the captives is made the God of the conquerors. The empire wide decree “God rescues and he saves”. This story makes connection between secular power, trusting prayer, the God who saves, and human powerlessness. Prayer is an act of defiance and trust; an unravelling of the structures of power; an act of defiant faith that questions the totality of all other claims. This is a story for our time. Who is God? Who has the final claim on our conscience, minds and souls? When choices must be made to what, or to whom, do we give obedience and trust?
I'll post the second half of this sermon later - for now the passage (Daniel ch 6) is worth reading as a telling critique of Executive Orders, imagining of unforeseen consequences, manipulative malevolence in the places of power, and the sense throughout this strange book of Daniel that, God is at work, unseen except by outcomes.
The painting is by Rubens, as is the detail of the lion's head.