Our Troubled World

Today I thought I’d take a step back and have a wider view at the very troubled world we live in.  Frequently our attention is on our community, our church, our town, and our nation, and how we, personally, are affected by what is happening there.  Will I be disturbed by whatever changes are afoot? And how will it affect me on a day-to-day basis? I often hear people talk about their rights, and I find myself sometimes being conflicted because they seem to be saying that their rights are more important than anyone else’s.  Many times, I agree that they have been the victim of an injustice, but what are the rights that should be behind a red line?  I’m really not sure, and I suspect everyone will have their own list, and these will differ from everyone else, because we all have our own view of what we regard as absolute rights, or priorities.

When I was a child (born in the fifties and growing up in the sixties) we didn’t have a TV or a car, and we didn’t feel deprived.  We cycled places or got the bus or train – or walked.  I can’t remember when we rented (yes, that was a thing!) our first black and white television, but I do remember staying up to watch Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin land, and take human’s first steps, on the moon.  This was before people became really cynical and started arguing that it never happened – grow up people!  I remember getting our first colour television, which I think was around 1973, for the wedding of Princess Ann.  Dad bought his first car in probably the late sixties/early seventies, and it was a Standard 10, which sometimes had to be started with a starting handle – those were the days! This was before seatbelts, and well before airbags.  So, for me, I find it difficult to see having a car or television as a Right. These days we can probably include internet access to that list.  Is internet access really a right when so many people across the world don’t have it – either because the technology isn’t available, or because the state has blocked it?  It might be possible to argue that in this country, and in Western countries generally, it is.  It is certainly a convenience, because so much is now possible only if you have access to the internet.  You can’t sign on for state benefits without completing online forms, and we were encouraged to use the internet to fill in our national Census forms.  I remember going with someone, probably about 4-5 years ago, to a government Job Centre to claim Jobseeker’s Allowance, because this person didn’t have access to the internet.  The staff took some persuasion to help us: “You can only register if you go online”.  “Yes, but he doesn’t have access to the internet.” “Well, what about on his phone?” “His phone isn’t internet capable.  We’re here.  We didn’t know how to start the application process.  You’re the Job Centre, all the claims come to you, and you have access to the internet!”

To make a change of direction, I’m hoping you may have come across the term “favela”.  I have visited Brazil a couple of times, and “favelas” are shanty towns where people have built their homes on open areas of ground initially towards the edges of towns, but over time, as the towns expand, properly constructed, both standard and luxury, housing estates have grown up around them.  In the favela, the buildings are constructed using whatever cheap materials can be found – town planning and safety regulations are unknown concepts, so I saw some single storey buildings made with plywood sheeting and corrugated iron roofing.  I visited an active infant’s school, which wasn’t properly finished, with no faceplates covering the bare wires of the light switches with kids milling around in the various rooms.  In recent years, many homes are now built using cheap airbricks, and frequently many look unfinished, as they wait either for more money to come in, or alternatively, the next generation to come along, so they can finally finish them off.  What surprised me while passing these favelas, was that several of these dwellings had satellite dishes on their roofs.  Given my upbringing/background, I found it hard to understand people having satellite TV, when their home was, in many cases, little more than a shack.  If they had the money for a TV, why not make the home more habitable?  But this is a good example of my imposing my worldview on others.  Here’s a picture I took while I was in Brazil (I think it was part of Belo Horizonte) back in 2010, and I apologise for the quality.  The arrows show the satellite dishes – at least the ones I can see as I write this.  When I took the picture, I wasn’t thinking about satellite dishes!

A favela in Brazil.

Notice how few windows there are in these buildings, and consequently how dark they must be inside.  What rights would you say are being inhibited, and what are being upheld here? 

You can see in the middle distance there is better-quality housing that has been built.  I found it fascinating to see poverty and prosperity so close together: several times I saw a walled off gated community with security guards at the gates.  Inside this area there were luxury homes, but on the other side of that wall, there would be the poverty of a favela.

From an international perspective we have what are collectively known as Human Rights, but what are Human Rights? “Human rights are the basic rights and freedoms that belong to every person in the world, from birth until death.  They apply regardless of where you are from, what you believe or how you choose to live your life.  They can never be taken away, although they can sometimes be restricted – for example if a person breaks the law, or in the interests of national security.  These basic rights are based on shared values like dignity, fairness, equality, respect and independence.   These values are defined and protected by law.  In Britain our human rights are protected by the Human Rights Act 1998.” – Equality and Human Rights Commission.  [And yes, this month I have dropped the idea of using Bit.ly links!  Just click on the coloured link.]

That same site goes on to say that we have Rights:

  • to have and express your own opinions. 
  • to an education.
  • to a private and family life.
  • not to be mistreated or wrongly punished by the state.

Probably other Rights would be to have a reliable source of food and water; to have the potential to hold a job and earn money, and to have a safe place to stay, with a roof over your head.  You’ll think of others!  Unsurprisingly the United Nations and UNICEF sites also have many pages covering the issue of human rights.

I’m not going to go stamping in the muddy water and define it all, because it is far too messy.  People differ about what should be included and about when those rights can fairly be limited, constrained, or set aside, but generally, if you cause loss or harm to others, you are likely to be punished in some way, frequently by imprisonment.

But why do we have human rights?  As a Christian it makes sense, because we see human life as sacred, created in God’s image and imbued with His spirit, but if you have no faith, if you don’t believe in any god, what is the basis for claiming these rights because presumably humans are no more precious than your pet dog?  If you are an atheist, what is the foundation for morality and Human Rights? If it is our ability to  think, create, plan, communicate, rationalise, etc., presumably those in comas, or with other disabilities, get excluded from some of these rights, and those with greater capacity get more rights?  Yet that isn’t so is it?  And are Human Rights invented or discovered?  I’ll leave you to work out that answer to that philosophical question.  Many deep thinkers have concluded they were actually discovered, but arguing the case is beyond my pay-grade!

In my case, I have a right to express my views, which is what I am doing here, but because I am a Christian, my expression of faith must impact both what I say, and how I say it.  I cannot trample on other people.  I can deeply challenge other people’s views, and hold them to account, but I must not spitefully harm them in any way.  I am commanded by Jesus to treat them in the same way as I treat myself.  I must affirm them and value them as people even if I completely disagree with their attitudes and behaviour.  My Human Rights do not trump yours, and yours don’t trump mine.  So what do we do if they conflict?  We must listen to the other person, we must talk, and we continue to listen and talk until we understand each other and find a place where we can live at peace with each other even if we fundamentally disagree at a deep level.  In Paul’s letter to the Philippians, he writes:

…make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. 3Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, 4not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

5In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

6Who, being in very nature a God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; 7rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.

8And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross! (Chapter 2 vv 2-8)

If you don’t share my worldview, it doesn’t give you the freedom to ride roughshod over me, using my valuation of you, against me.  No, that is like living in an abusive relationship, and that is not what Jesus is saying.  That would mean that I do not value myself in the same way God values me.  God has made me (made us) in his image, and God saw that it was very good.  If I’m trampled on and abused, that image is spoiled, and that goes against God’s desire for my life.  When we are working things through, we both need to be prepared to concede in some areas we ordinarily wouldn’t want to.

Some of that is depicted in the Victorian morality tale “The Water Babies” by Charles Kingsley, where there is a water-based fairy called Mrs Doasyouwouldbedoneby, a kind of spiritual advisor to Tom, the young chimneysweep who has drowned and become one of the titular Water Babies.  It is a book written at the height of the Industrial Revolution in England, so there are many prejudices we would object to today, but with that in mind, it still has the value of a book worth reading.

It doesn’t sound like there is a link, but there is!  Would I lay down my life for Donald Trump?  Unlikely.  What about Vladimir Putin?  Not a chance.  And yet this is what Jesus has done.  Why did I pick on those two people?  When I look back through my life I have seen some terrible leaders Nikita Khrushchev (Soviet President, September 7, 1953 — October 14, 1964); Nicolae and Elena Ceaușescu (President of Romania from 1974 till his execution in 1989); Pol Pot (who governed Cambodia as Prime Minister of Democratic Kampuchea between 1976 and 1979, and led the Khmer Rouge). 

(Hitler and Stalin, and many others, were gone before I was born!)  I have lived through numerous other dictators and despots in other parts of the world: Augusto Pinochet, former leader of Chile; Mao Zedong, former Chairman of the People’s Republic of China; Idi Amin Dada of Uganda, Kim Il-sung, of North Korea, then you’ve got Ethiopia, Sudan, Iran, Iraq, and so many more.

Of those I initially mentioned, they had all killed, or had ordered the killings, of thousands, if not millions, of people.  Khrushchev, Ceaușescu and Pol Pot were all Communist or Marxist-Leninist leaders who had no faith-based moral scruples but acted solely in line with what they believed expedient to further their cause.  Their appalling behaviour was in line with their dogma.  However, they had no underlying belief in the sanctity of human life.

Trump and Putin are different.  Trump isn’t guilty of genocide.  However, both Trump and Putin claim to have a “Christian” faith of sorts, and both have quoted from, or used, the Bible to justify their actions, and it is this that I find utterly reprehensible.  Only God knows whether they have a real faith, and God knows my own doubts about that. Trump hasn’t killed or ordered anyone’s death that we know of, but he has undermined what people think of as truth, and sowed so much doubt and distrust, that many people don’t know how to sift truth from falsehood.  You might enjoy, or cringe while watching this video, or this, but you’ll definitely cringe watching this montage of clips.  I must be fair and say that you can make anyone look bad just pulling three-second clips from here and there, but there is a consistency in Trump’s arrogance that he “doesn’t need God”, whilst at the same time appealing to Christians, as if he was one of them.  After watching his mock humility and total lack of understanding of the meaning of communion, go away and read 1 Corinthians 11: 23-29 especially from v27.  We all remember Trump awkwardly holding a Bible (regardless of whether it was upside down or not – I don’t think it was, fyi!) standing outside a church after security forces had tear-gassed people to clear them away, so he could have his photo-opportunity.  He is like the serpent in the Garden of Eden saying, “did God really say…?”

Putin, on the other hand, has killed tens of thousands even before his war on Ukraine.  Remember Chechnya and the vast devastation of the Chechen capital, Grozny.  Remember too, the way the Russian troops flattened parts of Syria, and their use of chemical weapons against civilians at times.  As I write this, Mariupol, in Ukraine has been bombed to dust, at the costs of thousands of civilians lives’.  Will it ever be rebuilt?  Depending on how this war finishes, I can’t see that happening in my lifetime.  Maybe there is a chance if Ukraine remains independent.  What will happen to Kyiv? Possibly the same as Mariupol.  What does Putin hope to achieve?  Almost no Ukrainian will sing his praises as I write this in the final full week of March, even if they did before.  If Russia holds onto Ukraine, which they will probably have to do, they will have to invest more money than they have available to make it habitable.  The devastation is sheer spite: if I can’t have it, neither can you.

Why is Putin so much worse than these other dictators?  I find it repugnant that he reinforces his murderous campaign using the words of Jesus.  He has embraced very publicly the Russian Orthodox faith and is very close to Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church.  Reuters have a very interesting article about the Orthodox church, here, and both Pope Francis and Justin Welby have tried to appeal to Patriarch Kirill, but to no avail, so far, because it seems that he sees the war as a crusade against the decadent West, “particularly over the acceptance of homosexuality” (according to the Reuters page just now).  Even if the West IS decadent (I agree it is far from being God-honouring) there is nothing in the teachings of Jesus that says you should attack your neighbour, and if you can’t kill them make sure you maim or starve them, to make them more God affirming.  That is antithetical to the whole tenor of scripture.  Romans12: 20 quotes Proverbs 25:21 “If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; if he is thirsty, give him water to drink.”  New International Version.

But perhaps the worst thing is that, like Trump, Putin distorts the truth, so that he presents lies as truth, and truth as lies, until his own people believe what he says, and disbelieve their own Ukrainian family members who tell them they are being bombed out of their homes, killed and injured.  We have seen so many examples as he attributes the shelling of hospitals and residential areas to Ukrainian “Fake news”, “false flag operations”, carried out by Ukrainians, aimed at making Russians look bad.  

The offensive misuse of the Bible came when he addressed a large rally to mark the eighth anniversary of the annexation of Crimea.  He paraphrased John 15: 13 saying: “Words from the Holy Bible come to my head: there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”  It is reported he went on to say: “Shoulder to shoulder, they help each other, support each other and when needed they shield each other from bullets with their bodies like brothers. Such unity we have not had for a long time.”

That was not what Jesus was talking about.  Jesus was talking about when you are being attacked, with everything against you and it looks hopeless, but by sacrificing your own life, your friend might get the chance to live.  An action done to defend others, possibly more vulnerable that yourself, not one when you are in the middle of attacking others in their own home.  When Jesus was crucified, he died to save each of us because we could do nothing for ourselves, hence it is wholly inappropriate to use that verse when describing Russian soldiers dying with their friends when all of them are fully armed, and have been responsible for so much destruction.

And as this article in The Week pointed out, “the verse is part of a long discourse Jesus delivered to his disciples as they travelled to the Garden of Gethsemane, where he was arrested and taken to be crucified after ordering Simon Peter not to use force to defend him.”

Putin’s claims on God are like C.S. Lewis’ Witch in “The Magician’s Nephew” who climbed over the wall to steal the fruit, instead of entering by the golden gate and being invited to “take of my fruit” to help others in need.  The invitation on the gate went on to say “… For those who steal or those who climb my wall, Shall find their heart’s desire and find despair.”  In the next chapter of that book, Aslan [the Lion-creator of the world of Narnia] talks about the titular Magician, Digory’s uncle Andrew, saying “... He has made himself unable to hear my voice.  If I spoke to him, he would hear only growlings and roarings. Oh, Adam’s sons, how cleverly you defend yourselves against all that might do you good!

I wish Putin knew his Bible, and had discovered a few of those verses I’ve quoted earlier, but more importantly understood the truth behind them. 

In some ways we all need to examine what we believe.  Is it right to fight?   Is it right to defend those who can’t defend themselves? Pacifism is honourable, but how does it practically work itself out in a scenario like this?  A few days ago, as you read this, but yesterday, as I write this, a Ukrainian was asked whether it would be better to surrender the country to save more lives.  The general sense of his reply was that “if somebody has broken into your home, killed your children and raped your wife, do you agree to let him stay and have permanent use of your bedroom?” 

As this site has always been one that seeks to defend the LGBTQ+ community and provide resources where possible, it concerns me how the Ukrainian LGBTQ+ community will be treated if we find Ukraine is eventually annexed by Russia.  I don’t believe Putin’s words when he says they don’t intend to stay.  In Russia, being gay was decriminalised 20 years ago, but in practice they have repressive laws against the “propaganda of homosexuality.” (I won’t include links here because the information is easy to find using whatever search engine you prefer.)  In addition, the Kremlin has an active program of shutting down LGBTQ+ and human rights organizations.  Hence, life will become incredibly difficult for our LGBTQ+ friends if the Russians stay in Ukraine. 

Therefore, if you are someone who prays, please remember not just the people of Ukraine, but the LGBTQ+ community, in particular, in your prayers.

By now you will have noticed I try and fact-check information I quote.  It is a practice I adopted when I first started writing my essay (available on the Download page).  So how do you learn to fact check information and images?   Many of you have Twitter and/or Facebook accounts.  Have you ever simply forwarded a Tweet without fact-checking it?  You might be someone people trust, but if you can’t be certain the posting is true, you might be forwarding something that is fake, which might go on to possibly reinforce someone else’s ideas, and you have helped it spread.  Others might be different and fact-check your posts, and if they find it isn’t reliable, you might find that from that point on, they may stop trusting what you post.

So, what do you do? If you want to stay on top of what is true and what is fake, please fact check what you receive.  When the war in Ukraine started, the Poynter Institute published a helpful web page about “How to spot video and photo fakes as Russia invades Ukraine”.  They have also made a free course available called “How to Spot Misinformation Online”.  Take a look at it here and if it is something that interests you, and you have 2 hours available, click on the “Not Enrolled” button to enrol.

There are several other sites that are also really helpful. I’ve used all of these: FactCheck.org (and specifically fact-checking Ukraine), the UK based Fullfact.org (with their Ukraine fact check page) and of course everybody’s favourite Snopes (with their Ukraine page).  Explore these issues further and read what one site views as the top 6 Fact checking sites.

We will have Ukrainians who are escaping the war, coming to live here in the UK. So coming back to that earlier question about Rights, what Rights do you think they should have?  The same as our own, or different? Why? What values help inform your decision? 

For my part I try to keep in mind the Biblical narrative that Sodom was destroyed for its lack of hospitality.  Ezekiel 16:49 says they were “arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy”.  Also, many of the commands in the Torah expect you to always be ready to be hospitable, and to provide for the widow, the orphan (both equate to our contemporary idea of the “homeless”) and the alien (“refugee”, for us these days), inviting them to be part of your cultural celebrations (Deut 16: 14). 

We are already in big spiritual trouble because our government welcomes refugees with a shut door, or with hoops, that few can hope to jump through, because their legs are tied together in red tape.  In fact, the Home Office motto seems to be “the United Kingdom (only) welcomes (wealthy) Refugees”.

If you are in a position to offer help, whether financial or practical, please do.  We all face difficult and uncertain days ahead, but if we look into the face of Jesus, I’m sure we will see him smile when we offer help, and see his tears as he weeps for Ukraine and it’s people. As Matthew 25 says:

34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

37“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’