Abyss or Promised Land? A Personal View of Brexit

Tomorrow, on 29 March 2017, Theresa May will formally give notice of the United Kingdom’s intention to withdraw from the European Union. To some it will be the fulfilment of their hopes and dreams, to others the realisation of their worst nightmare. Those of us old enough to remember the tortuous process leading to the UK’s membership of what was then known as the Common Market may be permitted a wry smile. Every time General de Gaulle said ‘non’, the press reacted with indignation. How dare he refuse us admission, when we won the War for those ungrateful French! In recent months we have been treated to a curious re-working of the old theme, although now the enemy is Chancellor Merkel and Germany’s economic domination of Europe. For far too long our politicians and barrack room lawyers have played the game of blaming the EU for everything wrong in the UK, yet many of the things about which we worry and fret are outside the scope of EU legislation — we ourselves decide about tax, healthcare and education, for example. Much more rarely have we seen anyone lauding the benefitss of co-operation or even acknowledging the subsidies and grants we have enjoyed in various areas.

Tomorrow, all that begins to change. So, do we stand on the brink of the abyss or at the entrance to the Promised Land?  My own view is that it is far too early to say, although I do have grave reservations about the desirability of our leaving the EU. I have not been impressed by the arguments brought forward in support of Brexit, many of which have shown a surprising lack of understanding of some basic economic concepts (think of that oft-repeated claim about our being the world’s fifth largest economy— currently the sixth as it happens — with scant regard for what the phrase means or even how the ranking is calculated) or have made large promises the government of the day may not choose or be able to keep (think of that Brext ‘bus promise of £350 million more to the NHS.) Those in favour of our remaining in the EU have done a poor job of arguing its case and only now does it seem to have struck some people that there is a very real possibility of the break-up of the UK — not just Scotland seceeding from the Union, but Northern Ireland, too, which faces a particularly difficult problem over its border with the Republic. The implications for the EU itself, though commonly brushed aside in the British Government’s determination to secure ‘what’s best for us’, are important considerations. Could we see a break-up of the EU as a whole? What would that mean for the peace and prosperity of us all? And what will be the cost of Brexit, for all concerned? Has anyone any real idea?

Today, my own thoughts and prayers are with those who have to negotiate the terms of Brexit — the politicians and civil sevants, not just of the UK, but also of the remaining twenty-seven EU member States; those whose lives are ‘on hold’ while they wait to hear whether they are to be able to continue to live in the countries to which they have hitherto had free access; and with those who, like myself, have never seen any contradiction between being a patriot and a citizen of the EU. In 1973 when news came through of our having joined the Common Market, friends and I toasted a future in which there would be no more European wars, no more senseless divisions. Was that the fleeting idealism of youth, or did we grasp something our older selves have forgotten or no longer value? Only time will tell.

 

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On Being Lazarus

In an earlier post on the Dives and Lazarus story (Rich and Poor and Purity of Heart), I made the point that wealth is not condemned nor is poverty commended as such. There is much more about attitudes than there is about possessions. After all, there is a kind of poverty that has nothing holy about it, just as there is a kind of wealth that has nothing evil about it. It is what we do with either, the way in which we are rich or poor, that counts.

Interestingly, churchgoers tend to take sides, as it were, identifying with the poor but godly Lazarus who, typically of the truly poor, never speaks for himself but is spoken for by Abraham and Dives. It is worth thinking about that for a moment. Dives has a voice; Lazarus doesn’t. Dives’ overwhelming sense of entitlement leads him to ‘explain’ to Abraham how Lazarus can be of service to him and his brothers, but it is Abraham who rebukes him, not Lazarus. Is there something here to ponder?

You will have noticed, I’m sure, how many disputes boil down to have/have not antagonisms and the resultant envy and absurdity that often follows. Having more than another doesn’t confer any special rights on the one who has more, nor does it mean that the one who has less is in any way morally superior to the other, but how often do we confuse the two. We forget about obligations or duty as we rush to assert our rights. We think we are Lazarus while all the time we are behaving like Dives. The noisier we are, the more we convince ourselves we are championing the poor. Maybe. Maybe not. We are certainly falling into the trap of thinking of the poor as people different from ourselves, to whom we do good rather than people exactly like ourselves with whom we share.

Perhaps this Lent we could spend a few minutes thinking about our attitudes to the poor — not to poverty, for that is an abstraction, but to the poor, for they have a human and individual face. If our almsgiving is to mean anything more than giving a little from our excess, it must take account of that fact; but it also means that, in an important sense, we have to become Lazarus ourselves. What might that mean for you and me?

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Getting Down to Earth by Bro Duncan PBGV

This is my first blog post from Beyond. BigSis asked me to do one while she and the young sprog enjoy a protracted convalescence. There’s not much wrong with Bro Dyfrig BFdeB, by the way, he just likes lazing on the guest sofa, but I’m always happy to give a helping paw when I can; and I must admit, I do like the sound of my own voice which, as the breed standard says, is freely used. So, listen up, please.

It seems to me that Human Beans are getting worked up about all kinds of things at the moment: Brexit, the Trump administration, Mr Putin, Amoris Laetitia, refugees — you name it, you worry about it. Worry is not good for Human Beans. It gives you wrinkles and grey hairs and makes you very, very bad-tempered. Friends suddenly become foes, and you smoulder with barely-suppressed rage as the mildest comment is interpreted as criticism or betrayal. I’ve tried to suggest in the past that life would be much nicer for you all if you tried being more dog, but since you don’t seem to be able to agree on that, may I suggest that it is time you got down to earth and worried about something worthwhile: vegetable rationing. Yes, vegetable rationing.

According to the BBC, floods in Spain mean that there is, and will continue to be, a shortage of many of your favourite vegetables. Supermarkets are rationing broccoli and iceberg lettuce (why anyone should want to eat either is beyond me, but Human Beans are funny like that). Now, this isn’t just a simple supply and demand problem such as BigSis likes to pontificate about when she puts her ex-banker cap on, it is a Big Problem with metaphysical dimensions to it. You could call it the salad and civics question of our time, but however you like to dress it up, it is a question you need to address urgently.

You Human Beans like to think you can go it alone in so many ways. Yes, you will be a great nation; you will be lords of all creation; everything will be tickety-boo when the world is refashioned according to your own ideas, or so you say. But you forget something very basic. You have to eat. And if you don’t grow all your own food, you have to rely on others, which means trade and mutual give and take and perhaps having Human Beans from other countries doing some of the things that you can’t or won’t do for yourself. Even if you are remarkably self-sufficient now, the time will come when you are old or sick and you will HAVE to rely on others. My advice, therefore, is to think about these things now, and instead of worrying about a future that may never come or indulging in fantasies of grandeur and self-sufficiency, to live in the present, humbly and in touch with the reality you yourself can help shape and form. What you do now matters. How you treat other Human Beans matters. In fact, you really should try being more like us dogs — more loving, more compassionate, more down to earth.

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Conservatives, Liberals and Populists

To an Englishwoman of my generation and background, the use of ‘conservative’ or ‘liberal’ as a term of abuse or condemnation is incomprehensible. They are descriptive terms only, and although one may sympathize with one or the other according to context, the idea of their representing an individual’s moral standing is questionable. As far as I can see, there is probably more sin in spewing contempt and hatred over someone who holds different opinions from oneself than there is in holding those opinions. I say ‘probably’ because, of course, the argument must be nuanced.

To give an example to make that last point clearer. If someone argues that women have a right to abortion, I part company with them because I do not believe we have the right to destroy life in the womb. I believe it is wrong, very wrong, and during the years when I was active in the Life movement, I did what I could not only to provide practical alternatives but also to try to help others see why abortion is wrong. What I did not do was hurl anger and abuse at those who argued for abortion, still less did I talk about women who had abortions in terms of  wickedness and sin. In other words, I made a pragmatic judgement — abortion is wrong and to be condemned — but did not equate that with a moral judgement of the person  — you are to be condemned because you support abortion.

So, on the question of abortion, I am to be labelled a conservative; on other matters, such as  the desirability of some form of state-sponsored  healthcare and social welfare, I daresay I am to be labelled a liberal. In different degrees, and with different mixes, that is true of most people. We hold a wide range of opinions, some of which may appear to others inconsistent but which to us make sense and are part of our outlook on life. A problem comes when this cheerful mix is overlaid with dark notions of populism and democracy run riot, and it becomes neither acceptable nor even possible to hold opinions different from the mainstream. That is the point at which genuine freedom is lost; but before then it dies a thousand deaths as it becomes more and more circumscribed by those who argue loudly for the current fashionable orthodoxy. To take one example, it seems to be slightly easier in the U.K. to wear a hijab in the workplace than it is a cross, yet both are, for their wearers, a sign of their religious adherence. We can see an erosion of freedom in the name of, well, what exactly? A vague, well-meaning attempt to secularise the workplace has become something quite different, a form of petty discrimination.

A couple of BBC Newsnight presentations on Plato’s Republic as an explanation of the rise of Donald Trump as President of the U.S.A. have been going the rounds and provoked some interesting reactions (you can see the second here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cnzo9qXLFUo). Their reading of the text is selective, but to anyone familar with it, the trajectory traced is perfectly legitimate. There is an inherent tendency in democracy to become more and more liberal and for freedoms to multiply, so that, in the end, we all do as we please and all differences or inequalities are done away with. However, as that does not lead to happiness, we look for a saviour, drawn from the elite but who makes great play of being hostile to it and in favour of ‘the little man’, who solves our problems for us by gradually taking away the very freedoms that led us to desire a saviour in the first place. This is populism in action: the kidnapping of democracy by democratic means. As an explanation of the rise of tyranny, it is seductive; and to anyone who has read the nightmare vision of society in Plato’s mature work, The Laws, the vision of The Republic is, at least in its earlier account of democracy, infinitely preferable. But it makes several assumptions many of us would question. For example, self-interest isn’t the only value we admit. Pace Mr Trump, most of us see ourselves as part of a bigger world than that defined by the nation state. We have global responsibilities, whether we like it or not, although we may disagree on what those responsibilities are.

Where does all this leave the Christian when confronted with the moral and political upheavals of our time? I am not sure. What I do think is clear is that the need to live with integrity was never plainer or more important. Just as I don’t think we should join in the abuse-hurling that has begun to characterise every level of political debate, so I don’t think we should opt out of all the difficulties that living in a democratic society implies. We have a duty to engage, but how we do so is as important as that we do so. Today’s gospel, Mark 3.22-30, has much to say on the destructiveness of division and blaspheming against the Holy Spirit. It makes uncomfortable reading. I am reminded that tomorrow we celebrate the feast of St Francis de Sales, bishop of Geneva at a critical time, of whom one of the Calvinists against whom he argued said that, if ever they were to honour a saint, it would be he. He is the patron saint of writers and debaters. We are all now writers and debaters on blogs and Social Media. Prehaps if we spent less time shouting at one another and more time, like St Francis de Sales, thinking and praying, we might see more clearly what we have to do. In the end, labels are a minor matter; it is what we are that counts.

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The Problem With Good Advice

The problem with good advice is that it is often contradictory. Only yesterday I asked the opinion of my Facebook friends about planting a lilac at the end of the garden. The gardeners among them responded with enthusiasm, some endorsing my putative choice (Syringa Vulgaris Belle de Nancy), others suggesting alternatives and talking about autumn colour/winter delights, and one even warning that some people are allergic to lilac. Now I am all of a dither — insofar as I am ever in a dither, that is — and busy researching the alternatives suggested and thinking some more. It comes as a relief to be re-reading chapter 3 of the Rule, On Summoning the Brethren for Counsel, especially verse 2 which states, ‘After he has heard the brethren’s advice, [the abbot] should reflect upon it, then do what he judges best.’ In the end, you see, a decision has to be made and its consequences borne with.

Very often chapter 3 of the Rule is taken as a kind of democratic charter, especially by the young whom Benedict singles out as frequently having a vision and acuteness their elders lack. Anyone who has lived in community for any length of time will know that the great reverence given to seniority needs to be balanced by openness to the insights of relative newcomers. It is, after all, a community enterprise on which we are engaged and God makes  some surprising choices. But Benedict was not a democrat, and chapter 3 is really about giving the abbot all the help he needs to formulate the response a difficult situation requires. Is there anything we can take from this that may be useful in the world beyond the cloister? I think there is.

Whether we are talking about the management of a household, a business, a corporation or a country, consultation and reflection are essential if we are to secure a result that will best meet the needs of the situation. But the right to be consulted, to give one’s opinion freely, does not necessarily mean the right to insist that one’s advice is followed. Occasionally, one reads of protests that go beyond a legitimate protest and assume a right to change something that has been determined by due democratic process. For example, one may not like the person put in office by one’s fellow electors, but trying to force him/her out of office by anything but the proper democratic process is to arrogate to oneself a power one does not have. Dictatorships often begin with the intention of putting right a perceived wrong or grievance. It is only in retrospect that we see the full implications.

Benedict’s abbot is far from being a dictator, however, and the workings of the community assembly or chapter are to be open and frank. Ultimately, the abbot must make the decision. Note, however, the obligation Benedict places on the abbot with respect to the advice given him. He is to listen carefully and ‘arrange matters prudently and fairly.’ (RB 3. 6) There should be no arbitrariness, no self-serving abuse of power — and no recklessness. His decisions must be for the greater good of those he serves.

This week will see several meetings and events that will have consequences for all of us. It is a pity that RB3 is unlikely to be on the reading-list of Donald Trump or those at Davos. To be rich and powerful is to bear a great responsibility, and comparatively few truly live up to it. Let us pray for them all, for unless we do, we have no one to blame but ourselves if our best hopes are dashed and our worst fears realised.

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Of Barack and Boris: a Cautionary Tale

I wonder whether St Mark, whose feast we celebrate today, ever stopped to think how his account of the Good News of Jesus Christ would be received. Did he weigh his words carefully, or did they simply tumble out in his enthusiasm for his subject? We can certainly see signs of redaction, and we all silently bless him for some of the little details, like the green grass on which the 5,000 sat to eat their loaves and fishes, but we shall probably never know how much art or artifice has gone into his gospel’s composition. We do know that if we look too long at the gospel’s construction, we may miss the message it contains. Similarly with Barack Obama and Boris Johnson. Their words provoked such squeals of protest over the week-end that we may be in danger of missing the message they wished to convey.

Take President Obama’s forthright remarks about British membership of the E.U. No one likes being told by a foreign Head of State what we should or should not do, but what he had to say was worth pondering. Dismissing his remarks as bullying is unfair and, I think, unhelpful. My American friends won’t like my saying this, but the tendency to give the benefit of their advice to others unsought is one of their characteristics. It is no good taking umbrage, because it is usually kindly meant. Personally, I find it endearing more often than I find it irritating. But President Obama struck a nerve because he touched on a sensitive topic which has not yet been properly debated. We have had plenty of opinion voiced, and various figures have been published, but we have not yet had time to weigh them and think through the consequences.

Boris Johnson’s reaction to President Obama’s remarks was typical of the man. His questioning of the President’s motivation and underlying prejudices was perfectly valid, but the way in which he expressed himself was definitely not. However, it would be as wrong to dismiss his underlying argument as it would Mr Obama’s. Those of us who will be voting in the E.U. Referendum do need to think about sovereignty, economics, immigration and so on and so forth. There is, however, one more thing we must consider: the common good, and the common good not only of our own nation state but of all the other nation states that make up the E.U. and, indeed, the whole world. The Long Ending of St Mark’s Gospel contains the command to proclaim the Good News to the whole of creation. Maybe today we could spend a few moments reflecting on how we understand that injunction in the light of our place in Europe and the world as a whole. Neither staying in, nor leaving, the E.U. is without profound moral and ethical consequences.

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Do We Really Want To Be Fair?

Yesterday I returned from Oxford to find an interesting set of emails accusing me of having defended the doings of Mossak Fonseca and its clients. Actually, I didn’t. What I did do was to suggest waiting a little (patience) before rushing to judgement as not every act documented in those 11 million documents was necessarily illegal or morally reprehensible. Some have argued back, quoting a few of my own previous posts, that what is legal is not necessarily right; and again, I would agree. But it isn’t right to judge before the evidence has been assembled and reviewed, and I certainly haven’t waded through all the documents myself!

What I think is important here is to distinguish between a natural revulsion at greed and a deliberate attempt to defraud. No one likes the idea of a rich man or woman using their wealth and privilege to avoid paying tax; but is it envy of the wealth that motivates us, a sense of grievance or what? What does it mean to be fair in this context?

You could argue that every Registered Charity is in the business of tax avoidance. Everyone who claims Gift Aid tax relief on a charitable donation is in the business of tax avoidance. Of course, that isn’t the same as tax evasion; but, as those who have been assessing the Panama Papers will tell you, many of the schemes Mossak Fonseca devised, though apparently legal, leave a very unsavoury smell behind, but perhaps as much because of the people involved and the expectations we have of them as because of any perceived criminality. It will be interesting to see whether the late Icelandic Prime Minister is ultimately damned by the legality or otherwise of his and his wife’s schemes to avoid paying tax or by his failure to declare his interest to the Icelandic Parliament.

We don’t like the idea of concealment, but anyone who has ever held shares via Nominees is in the business of concealment. We regularly hide information about ourselves from others but we don’t like people who hide things from us, the public. That leads to lots of calls for disclosure on the one hand, and protests at ‘spying’ on the other. The internet is awash with arguments about privacy and the right of governments to monitor their citizens’ use of mobile ‘phones, etc — even when there is evidence of dangerous criminality, as in the case of the FBI’s attempts to get Apple to break the encryption on a known terrorist’s mobile.

So, I come back to my main point, which is: what is fairness, and do we really want it? My own working definition of fairness would be impartial and just treatment, with no pre-judgement of the issues involved and no discrimination on the basis of my own prejudices or preferences. That is incredibly hard to achieve, and it is a constant source of grief to me that St Benedict is always urging anyone with any sort of repsonsibility in the monastery to act prudently and fairly. At least, I suppose one can be sure that everyone in the monastery wants prudence and fairness. Elsewhere, it may not be so clear-cut. Thomas Pikkety’s analysis of economic inequality in Capital in the Twenty-First Century has provoked much debate, but one question I think he has not sufficiently addressed is whether we really want to remove inequalities of wealth, or would we, given the chance, amass as much as we could — and keep it hidden from view.

The moral questions raised by the Panama Papers are many and various; so are the economic and legal ones.

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Brexit and the Feast of St Peter’s Chair

Yesterday a Facebook friend asked what seems to me a pertinent question: as well as asking what a potential exit from the European Union might mean for Britian, shouldn’t we also ask what it might mean for the other countries of Europe? In other words, although we shall probably spend the next four months listening to arguments for and against continuing membership of the E.U., those arguments will, almost entirely, focus on the presumed benefits to Britain. Can we argue like that any more? Given the Scottish Nationalist Party’s emphatic preference for remaining in the E.U., can we even assume a coherent understanding of ‘British interests’?

The present cathedra of St Peter, enthroned in Bellini’s magnificent bronze structure, was the gift of Charles the Bald, the grandson of Charlemagne and himself Holy Roman Emperor. The feast itself pre-dates the gift and, while always having been seen as a feast of unity, is nevertheless not without controversy, the feast of St Peter’s Chair at Rome having been celebrated on 18 January, and the feast of St Peter’s Chair at Antioch having been celebrated on 22 February. Today we have but the one feast. Without trying to push the analogy too far, I think there is something there we can usefully ponder. I love my country but I am aware of belonging to something larger than the nation state. We no longer identify Europe with Christendom, but, as a Catholic, I certainly feel the pull of that older, larger world in which a common Latin culture both united and transcended individual kingdoms and principalities; and, just as in Charles the Bald’s day, when he and his brother, John, faced a Saracen threat, we are conscious of the threat posed by Wahabist violence to much that we hold dear.

The Brexit question is not a purely political or economic question. At its heart is a much deeper and more difficult question: how do we understand the world in which we live and our place in it? For those of us who pray, I suggest we have a lot of praying to do as well as thinking.

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Sentimentality is Not Enough

When the only news item about refugees and migrants on the BBC’s front page is a subcolumn headed EU tries to resolve migrant quota row, it is clear that there has been a major shift in the nation’s media focus. It does not mean that the problem has gone away or diminished in severity. There are still people clamouring to get to the richer countries of northern Europe; still people enduring appalling conditons; still host countries experiencing confusion and uproar. But we are not really looking. Many individuals have responded generously with money and offers of temporary homes. Some of the latter, I fear, have had more to do with sentimentality than serious consideration of what is most needed. Please don’t think I am belittling such offers, but there is a danger that in our anxiety to do something rather than nothing, we may unconsciously be trying to salve our own consciences rather than finding a solution to the underlying problems. To solve those problems, we must face some uncomfortable truths about ourselves and the situation we face.

A number of commentators have already said the unsayable: that not every person rattling Europe’s cages is a refugee fleeing war and terror; that there is a disproportionate number of young men unaccompanied by women or children; that the absorption of many thousands of Muslims could pose long-term cultural difficulties; that among those entering Europe may be those committed to its destruction. All these things may be true, but we would be untrue to ourselves and our Judaeo-Christian heritage if we didn’t first meet the purely human need of providing food and shelter to those who are lacking such things. But then comes the difficult part. What do we do next? How do we go about absorbing and integrating large numbers of deeply traumatised people? Should we even be thinking in terms of absorbing and integrating anyway? There is the fact that the public purse is not inexhaustible. We cannot complain, on the one hand, about diminishing services and benefits and then, on the other, expect the governments of Europe to cover the costs of resettlement, etc. It can surely not have gone unnoticed that Greece and Italy have borne much of the initial burden of welcome and support.

Politicians will argue endlessly about finance. It is true that Britain is the largest aid donor to Syrian refugees after the U.S.A., outsripping the contributions of other European countries by a considerable margin; but that doesn’t let us off the hook. The unpalatable truth we have to own is that much of the situation we face is of our own creation. The war in Iraq, years of cosying up to Saudi Arabia and oil-rich dictatorships, fighting phoney wars with Russia, even the mistakes, as we now see in retrospect, of British policy in Palestine have contributed to the chaos.

So, what to do? I think we need to support those trying to work out a political solution rather than simply condemn them for their failures. We cannot dismiss the past as of no consequence but, at the same time, we cannot let it dictate the present. Christians believe in redemption, in the possibility of change; and that is surely what we need to work at right now. It won’t be easy. More than one European politician must be having nightmares about civil unrest and trying to calculate how far it is politically expedient to follow one course or another. Such realpolitik should not surprise us. Those with a responsibility to govern, to ensure public order and safety as well as the provision of adequate food, clothing, shelter, etc, cannot be guided by feeling alone. As summer turns to autumn and chill winds begin to blow, it can be helpful to remember that we all need to take risks — and we cannot place the whole burden of doing that on our elected officials. ‘I was a stranger and you made me welcome’ has not lost its force or urgency. It is a sentence directed to each one of us.

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