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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Calais and the Language of Fear

Anyone who has been following media reports of the disturbances in Calais will have been struck by the way in which the language we use reveals more hidden attitudes. The BBC seems to have opted for ‘migrants’ as the most neutral term it can find to describe those trying to make their way into Britain via the Eurotunnel. Add ‘illegal’ to ‘migrant’ and one immediately has a more disapproving idea of the people involved. Why should anyone think they have the right to enter Britain? Aren’t they already in a free country (France)? They only want to come here so they can enjoy a better standard of living at our expense! Conversely, call such people ‘refugees’ or ‘asylum seekers’ and a more positive note is sounded. What unimaginable horrors they have fled from, and at what cost! A compassionate society must provide for them. Shame on those who show reluctance! How we talk about all the others caught up in the disturbances, from the French police or Eurotunnel guards to British lorry-drivers/holiday-makers, also reflects our underlying attitudes.

What I think is indisputable is that we are all, in some measure, afraid. Our language about Calais is the language of fear, whether we take a positive or negative view of people and events. Some are afraid of being swamped by an alien tide of immigrants; others are afraid of being found wanting in compassion, of inhumanity to those most in need. Ask me where I myself stand and I can’t answer because the situation is too complex. How does one weigh the case of a young person fleeing poverty and distress against (significant word!) that of the middle-aged lorry-driver whose freight company is being pushed towards financial collapse? Everyone wants the situation resolved peacefully and soon, but how shall we be fair to everyone involved?

To many, it will seem lame and inadequate to say that, unless we are called upon to give practical help, the only answer is prayer; but there is a very important truth contained in that answer. Prayer, because it invites God into a situation, opens it up in a way impossible to us as mere human beings. It drives out fear and selfishness (which is only another kind of fear) and allows us to work for the common good. In all the debate about what should or should not be done in Calais, no one seems to have addressed the importance of changing the economic/political circumstances that drive people to make that hazardous journey to Europe in the first place. Until we do something about that, I suspect we are destined to go on being afraid. Calais is a challenge to more than the way we use words. It is a challenge to the way we view the world.

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What Do We Mean by Democracy?

A single, short question for Monday morning. What do we mean by ‘democracy’? No one denies that the origins of the word are to be found in the Greek ‘demos’ = people and ‘kratia’ = power or rule, but what do we mean by them?

When Alexis Tsipras talked about the ‘democratic mandate’ he had received from the Greek people as a result of last week’s referendum, he overlooked one rather obvious point. Every other elected E.U. leader also has a ‘democratic mandate’, and is answerable to his/her own country for the decisions made with regard to Greece and the Eurozone. Similarly, we are seeing a wave of tweets and posts about ‘Tory cuts’ which suggest that the writers do not accept that the government of the day has any democratic legitimacy. So what does confer democratic legitimacy in Britain, or indeed Europe, today? It is, hopefully, something more objective and quantifiable than my mere personal opinion.

Before anyone leaps in to say, for example, that Greece is being unjustly treated, or that the Tories are this that or the other, may I make two further obvious points? There isn’t a simple right or wrong answer to the Greek crisis — not in my view, at least. What the Eurozone leaders decide has implications for every other member state, so whatever is going on behind those closed doors in Brussels, we can be quite sure that a lot of self-interest and trading of positions is involved. The argument, in other words, won’t just be about Greece. Similarly, whatever one thinks about government policy on any particular issue, does any individual or group have the right to do more than challenge the government via the democratic processes we already have? What are the limits of dissent?

Our understanding of democracy is important because I think Europe now lacks any other single cohesive force (see my 11 July post). If democracy is the only value on which we can agree, that has huge implications for our moral and ethical principles. Many people take their ideas of right and wrong from the law; so, if the ultimate arbiter of what is right or wrong is to be found in democracy and the institutions of the democratic state, we had better start thinking what we truly mean by democracy itself. If all the big questions are, in the end, political (i.e. related to citizenship), they are also religious and related to our lives under God.

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Anti-German Sentiment

Like everyone else with an interest in financial and political matters, I have followed events in Greece with increasing concern. This isn’t the place to argue what should/should not be done. I don’t know, and I’m pretty sure that many of those who rush to comment don’t know, either. What I have become very conscious of, however, is the anti-German sentiment powering much of the Greek people’s opposition to the various bailout programmes proposed by the E.U. Die-hard opponents of Britain’s membership of the E.U. like to remind anyone who will listen of a certain German general’s prophecy at the end of World War II, to the effect that Germany might have lost that war but would win the economic one. Today, in Europe, there are many who feel that Germany dictates economic policy to other nation states. There may not be the same intensity of loathing that some in Greece have displayed recently, but still there is a fund of anti-German sentiment that is troubling.

Today is the anniversary of the beheading of St Thomas More. One way of dealing with opposition is to cut off its head, either literally, as in the case of More, or figuratively, as in the case of Greece and its likely exclusion from the Eurozone. It is much harder to weigh arguments and open oneself up to the possibility one may be wrong. No one outside Greece doubts the corruption and economic mismanagement that led to the present situation, but the solutions proposed hitherto may be too ‘north European’. Couldn’t part of the problem be that those of us who live in northern Europe expect everyone in southern Europe to think and behave as we do? Phrases like ‘austerity’,  ‘economic discipline’, ‘retrenchment and reform’ sound differently under southern skies. Maybe when we ask why Greeks can’t be more like Germans we’d do well to admit the long shadows cast by history and examine our own attitudes. Anti-German sentiment isn’t something that concerns Greece only. It is a thinly-disguised element in some of the debate about Britain’s membership of the E.U., too.

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The Morning After #GE2015

There are advantages to being a nun when General Elections are held. One goes to bed at the usual hour then awakes to a world a-buzz with comment. Twitter this morning is awash with tweets containing a degree of infallibility that might surprise even the pope. For some, we face disaster; for others, a golden era beckons. Both are wrong. What we face is largely unknown. We know there will be some very important decisions to be made — about our place in Europe and the shape of the Union, for example — but the predictable is often blown out of the sky by the unforeseen. We are not just a small group of islands able to live wholly self-sufficiently. What happens in Washington, Beijing or Moscow, in the boardrooms of multi-nationals or on the streets of Syria or Iran, can have a huge effect on what happens here. Even the actions of a single rogue trader, manipulating stock markets, or someone anonymously hacking the IT systems of a nation state, can have immense consequences for us.

Today brings us not only the General Election results but also a reminder of VE Day, the seventieth anniversary, in fact. World War II may seem a distant event to many, but we live with its consequences, both good and bad, even today. As we remember those who gave their lives for the freedoms we now enjoy, and reflect sadly that the world is still at war in many places, we can also reflect on both the fragility and strength of our democratic processes. We need to pray for H.M. Government, H.M. Opposition, the Civil Service and all who have a role to play in the business of government and the implementation of policy. We may like or dislike individual parties and their policies, but the important thing is surely to try to do the best we can for everyone — to put into action what we, as Christians, often claim to have: a sense of moral purpose, a commitment to the common good, a desire to be of service to others. These are not small things, but they can be hard to achieve.

Many today will also be quietly celebrating Julian of Norwich and her wise and generous vision of a world in which all shall be well, because it is held fast by the hand of God. That hope and vision are a comfort and inspiration, but they require our co-operation to be realized. The General Election is the end of one process and the beginning of another, just as much as VE Day marked the end of the war in Europe and the beginning of the building of the peace. The one thing we can safely predict is that it isn’t going to be easy.

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