Saturday, 23 November 2013

On being a recovering hypocrite

I've been feeling a bit of a fraud recently.

On one side of this particularly uncomfortable coin are some real causes for celebration. (I would say 'pride', but that would be to give the game away too quickly, and probably - hopefully - to judge myself a little too harshly, which is at least sometimes a temptation I find myself falling into. So let's stick with 'celebration' for the moment...) The fact that the values, principles and practices of asset-based approaches to community-building (ABCD for short) have found their way to the agenda of the Church Urban Fund (a 'toolkit' for churches, in development) and, via a barn-storming speech from the Archbishop of York this week, the Church of England's General Synod, is something that I'm delighted about. That some of the stories of our accidental adoption of an ABCD approach here in Hodge Hill have made their way into these 'official' public domains - such as the story of our fabulous 'Unsung Heroes' event of March 2012 - is really encouraging for us here (and, yes, if I am proud of anything, then I'm certainly proud of the visionary, energetic, passionate, committed people that I live among and work alongside in these neighbourhoods, and within Hodge Hill Church's 'extended family'). And to lead a couple of workshops on ABCD at the CUF annual conference a couple of weeks ago, both fully booked, both full of energised, enthusiastic people saying 'yes, this makes sense', 'yes, we're doing this', 'yes, let's start connecting', and the like... well, that's given me real hope that we might just be onto something, and that there's energy for a real movement within church communities for this kind of approach - just as there obviously is in all kinds of other institutions, networks, and neighbourhoods, where our friends at Nurture Development, Barnwood Trust and others have already for some time been working hard and seeing all kinds of encouraging fruit.

But still I feel a bit of a fraud. And I think it's for a couple of reasons.

One reason is that (in the words of a wonderful story that I have both heard told and told myself a number of times now) when I've talked to people about the ABCD stuff, I've been really aware that "I'm not going to tell you anything you don't already know." On a very important level, it's not rocket science. Starting with what people and neighbourhoods and communities have, instead of with what they lack, is not a complex idea. It's actually very easy to explain, and to get hold of. And to many, many people, it is simply common sense.

Another reason for my fraudulent feelings is slightly more complex and subtle. And that's the reality that, at least here in Hodge Hill, our 'putting into practice' of an ABCD approach has had its ups and downs, its stumbles and falterings; we've got it wrong as much as we've got it 'right'; it has taken large amounts of time and patience; and the 'big idea' has often been evidenced in very small-scale practical 'successes'. The various exciting things that we're able to say that we're doing here and now are, without exception I think, all quite fragile. There has, as yet, been no dramatic, widespread 'revolution' here. At best, there are some people - a very slowly growing number of people - who are able to tell a different story about their neighbourhood, about their church, and at least sometimes about themselves.

There is a bigger, deeper reason underneath both of these, though...

I recently bought a book which quite grandly entitles itself as 'The Intentional Christian Community Handbook'. I tend to be rather wary of anything that proclaims to be 'The... Handbook'. The thing that redeemed this book, at least as far as its cover went, was the subtitle: 'For Idealists, Hypocrites, and Wannabe Disciples of Jesus'. That works a lot better for me. I can recognise in myself an Idealist, a Hypocrite, and a Wannabe: a Wannabe disciple of Jesus; and a Wannabe asset-based community builder.

The thing about the asset-based stuff is that, while on the one hand it is 'common sense', our 'common sense' as a society, as institutions, as neighbourhoods, as individuals, has all too often been co-opted, distorted, marginalised, in the interests of what I've begun to call (with shades of Old Testament prophet frustration) the 'idolatries' of money and of 'service-provision systems'. We have bought into the 'big lies' that money is the thing that, more than anything else, determines what is of value and what isn't, and that, more than anything else, enables us to achieve what we most desire - when, in fact, the things that are of most value, and that we desire most of all - love, friendship, community, for example - can't be achieved with money at all. We have bought into the 'big lie' that the things that we most need are best provided by comprehensive systems - and that the way we should relate to those systems is as 'clients', 'customers', or 'consumers'. We have allowed ourselves to be convinced that what we most need for our safety and security is police; that what we most need for our health and wellbeing is doctors; that what we most need for our children to learn and grow and flourish is schools; that what we most need in our ageing and dying is care homes...

Now I realise I'm treading on dangerous territory - that I risk being misunderstood as, or coopted into, advocating the 'austerity agenda' of our present coalition government: that we can't afford to sustain these creakingly ineffective public service machines and we'd be much better off just letting the market provide us with what we want, and letting the 'Big Society' get on with doing its job without the interfering State getting in the way. Please don't misunderstand me. I don't believe the current regime has the best interests of people in neighbourhoods like mine at its heart at all, but the best interests of the companies that will make vast profits from taking over what were once 'public services' and offering those services to those who can afford them, and can afford the luxury - or at least the imagined luxury - of 'choice'. I don't believe that the 'Big Society' will suddenly spring up in neighbourhoods like mine, while the ever-shrinking, asset-stripping State disinvests in them, and allows our once 'common wealth' constantly to 'trickle up' towards the '1%' of the country's super-rich and super-powerful.

But I do think we need weaning off our addictions. We need to rediscover our vast 'common wealth' as truly common, but we need weaning off our addiction to believing money on its own is 'the answer' to any question, when the answer is almost always love, care, friendship and community. And likewise, we - 'professionals' and 'clients' alike - need weaning off our addiction to the kind of 'service provision' that defines people in terms of their lacks, deficiencies, needs and pathologies; that isolates them from each other and from their networks and communities; that creates and sustains dependencies on 'experts' and 'systems' that, in turn, need a steady stream of the 'needy' to justify and sustain their own existence - that have to position themselves as 'the answer' to questions they themselves have defined, when, again, the answer is almost always love, care, friendship and community.

So my own feeling of being a fraud goes deeper, I think. I am not only a fraud and a hypocrite, but also a recovering addict. If I'm keen to be part of growing a movement around asset-based values, principles and practices, then I think what I'm discovering is that we're a movement of recovering addicts, who have got as far as acknowledging that we've got an addiction and are wanting to change.

Two recent books are helping me begin to get a handle on what I'm trying to say here. One is by Christian community worker Dave Andrews, Out And Out: Way-Out Community Work; the other is by the Franciscan priest and founder of the 'Center for Action and Contemplation', Richard Rohr, Breathing Under Water: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps. Dave Andrews draws heavily on Rohr's book, and both, as you might have guessed, draw heavily on the insights from the 12 Steps movement which began in the 1930s as Alcoholics Anonymous, and now has millions of individuals across the world attending meetings every week.

I don't have much first hand experience of the 12 Steps movement, and I'm only beginning to digest the insights from Andrews and Rohr. But I have a hunch that they're on to something really important, for all of us - and particularly for those of us who are people of faith, and those of us who are committed to building community starting with what we have, and not what we lack. I'll try and share what I'm learning, as this journey continues, but I think what I'm wanting to do here is throw open the invitation to others - to you, whoever you are - to join in the conversation. I think we need, need perhaps quite urgently, to start addressing our addictions. And to do that, we need each other.

So, anyone for therapy? Shall we do it together?

Saturday, 9 November 2013

And that's why I wear a white poppy: on our failure of moral imagination

I've worn a white poppy for a few years now. I can't make any grand claim to be radical, pioneering, trend-setting - it's something I 'caught' from friends whose commitment and creativity in real, costly work for peace and justice far exceeds mine. But I am increasingly convinced of its importance as a small, symbolic act, within a 'big picture' of global scope and deep seriousness.

Red poppies & 'future soldiers'

This was the moment it got to me this year. A photo, shared by a friend on Facebook. Now, I know nothing of the story behind this picture. (That, in itself, is one of the big issues about Remembrance Sunday / poppy issue - a multitude of individual, deeply personal stories are entangled in some powerful, largely unquestioned 'big stories'.) I can make no judgements about the personal reasons behind the T shirts, and the photo. But as a symbol - and it's certainly a photo that 'says something' profoundly symbolic - it's tragic, in the most literal sense.

I'm reminded of the origins of the white poppy, in a request from war widows to the Royal British Legion to put the words 'No More War' in the centre of the red poppy - and when the Legion refused, in the determination to develop an alternative symbol that bore that same message. The white poppy began with the insistence that the future could, should, must be different: we remember, not to fall into and repeat the same tragic violent entanglements again and again, but to seek an alternative future, a future where war is not an inevitability, a necessity, a normal part of life.

The tragedy of the photo, then, is that the future it imagines is a future where today's children have become tomorrow's soldiers. A future where war remains a given - an inevitability, a necessity, a normal part of life. It's even more tragic, though, because these 'future soldiers' are smiling. War, and the armed human bodies that make war possible, are not simply inevitabilities, necessities, normality - they are, in at least some sense, something to look forward to, something to be proud of.

Of course, there's nothing about the colour of the poppies that makes all the difference to the message of the photo, just as there's nothing inherent to a red poppy that means its wearer is explicitly or implicitly promoting future warfare. But the fact that such an image can be cheerfully posed for, taken and shared is witness to a wider, national - global, even - failure of imagination. And the white poppy, in even just a small way, probes that failure, that dominant, unquestioned story, and invites, provokes, the imagination of alternative possibilities.

Fig trees & 'proximate' relationships

Something similar was highlighted in the recent trial of the 'Waddington 6', which I was privileged to witness. The six men and women broke into RAF Waddington, creating a hole in the fence inviting others to follow them. They began planting a peace garden, and splitting up, searched the base for the control centre for the armed, unmanned drones that have been attacking unsuspecting, often civilian, 'targets' in Afghanistan for the last few years. Their stated aim was to enter this 'war zone', to interrupt the drone controllers, to prevent casualties and deaths in Afghanistan.

The trial judge, 'with a heavy heart', felt he had no choice but to find the six guilty, on the basis of the lack of 'proximity' between the protestors and the potential victims of the drones. The protestors, however, were working within a different moral imagination, in fact, an imagination that in many ways more accurately reflects the interconnectedness of our globalised world: that children at school and families celebrating weddings in rural Afghanistan are as much our 'proximate' neighbours as those people who live next door to us, or share the same queue in the supermarket.

The difference, of course, is in how we feel about those different neighbours, and that is in great part shaped by how we are told to feel by those who dominate our media, our politicians, the purveyors of the 'big stories' within which we so often, unquestioningly, live. And that is another reason why I wear a white poppy. Because the 'big story' behind the red poppy is about remembering 'our' war dead, supporting 'our' troops, taking pride in 'our' nation - at the expense of 'them', the 'enemies', or even simply those countless innocent others who are not 'us'. The white poppy says that 'they' are our neighbours too, that 'their' lives are just as precious, that 'their' deaths are just as grief-worthy, that 'their' future is inextricably tied up with 'ours'.

Remembrance Sunday in Hodge Hill

Tomorrow, Remembrance Sunday, people of all ages will come to church in Hodge Hill. Many of them will come wearing red poppies. Quite a number of them will come with personal losses and wounds from at least one World War, and from other conflicts in which the UK has participated over the years since WWII. Some will come with pride in servicemen and -women who they have known. Some will come with pride in a nation which, at its best, they believe acts with restraint, decency and humanity.

And as their priest, I will invite them to lay their red poppies down, in the circular space of the worshipping community, close to the altar of communion and the font of baptism. And I will lead them in prayers of penitence, both individual and corporate, for the violence of our world, our nation, and for our part and our complicity in it. And then, after our sharing in two-minutes' silence for 'all who have given their lives, or have had them taken away, in the war and violence of our world', I will invite them to take up a white poppy, as a sign of their own personal commitment to seeking peace and justice in our own lives and relationships, in our own neighbourhoods, in our world. As their priest, I will then lead them in the celebration of the Eucharist, remembering together the one and only 'sacrifice' - we will affirm - that truly inaugurates a world of peace, the loving-even-to-death of the innocent victim of the world's violence, in whose resurrection he returns to us breathing not revenge, or resentment, but forgiveness and peace.

Many of those who come to church tomorrow will, at the end of the service, pick up their red poppies again and replace them in their button-holes. Perhaps for them the red poppy does not mean what our society's dominant stories say it does. Perhaps it does, and our shared liturgy will simply have not changed their minds and hearts on the matter. But I live in hope that, even in small, barely perceptible ways, our words, symbols and shared actions tomorrow will open at least a crack or two in our world's 'business-as-usual' for an alternative imagination, of a world where Afghans are our 'proximate' neighbours with whom we have relationships of compassion and joy, a world where 'future soldiers' are an oxymoron, because war is finally no more.