Monday, June 20, 2022
Tuesday, May 10, 2022
I've been thinking about absolution - in the context of the UK government.
Historically, parliamentarians as a matter of honour have always faced consequences when they did anything wrong. This included what today feels almost trivial - government ministers in particular are bound by the Ministerial Code, and if a minister was caught lying to parliament, they would resign. The reason that MPs are not allowed to describe other MPs as "liars" was because in previous eras, such a slight on someone's honour would have led to a duel. When I discussed this idea on Twitter, someone pointed out that the sets of front benches were two swords-lengths and a foot apart, as presumably at some stage in parliamentary history, this might have been a real problem.
The point I'm making is: if you were caught doing something wrong, you stood down. You faced punishment for what you had done.
Very early in the Johnson era, it became apparent that this was not how his government would work. The minister James Cleverley was reported to have caused an accident speeding and using a mobile phone in a car within a month of Johnson taking office. The Prime Minister makes the ultimate decision about how to handle this, and he decided nothing should happen. The same pattern has followed with further misdemeanours by ministers throughout his premiership - Priti Patel shown to have bullied staff; unlawful PPE contracts; and then above all, Johnson's own misbehaviour. Johnson, as PM, decides how to apply the Ministerial Code. The UK with no written constitution, and a system based on honour, has no means of dealing with a PM who refuses to behave in an honourable way.
A consequence of all this, however, is a gradually building mountain of what we might describe as unabsolved sin, or debt. Government ministers who have misbehaved have not faced the consequences of that misbehaviour. Had they done so - had Cleverley or Patel resigned - they would have paid the price for what they had done wrong. But instead, they are now "owned" by it. They are bound to Johnson - because their continuation in their role was dependent upon his indulgence.
There are stories that the whips (who organise political party interests in parliament) have lists of material that they are able to hold over recalcitrant MPs, so that they can keep them in line. The principle is the same - the consequences of things that have not been absolved bind MPs to the whips.
There's a connection here with Christianity. A Christian is someone who recognises that they have a debt that they can't pay, which hangs over them. The gospel says that, rather than God just ignoring that debt or pretending it doesn't exist (like Johnson), he agrees that it's real, but Jesus pays it on behalf of the Christian. That's how sins are absolved in Christianity.
Ministers who do things wrong should resign. The price for that wrongdoing is then paid. If at some stage in the future, the PM decides that they should be brought back into government, that's within his or her discretion. But the consequence of what they did wrong will have been dealt with. Note that Johnson was a beneficiary of this - twice! It was reasonable for him to be brought back, if hardly wise given a track record of dishonesty. But many of his ministers now have unabsolved misdemeanours which bind them to him. It's hard to see how it will be possible for them to come back after the Johnson era.
Wednesday, February 23, 2022
Sunday, August 23, 2020
Monday, May 25, 2020
Martin Luther King Jr
Thursday, May 07, 2020
This is a pretty blunt and unambiguous instruction, from Paul’s letter to the church in Rome. And yet, I’ve been (and still am) pretty vocally opposed to the Conservative party in power. How do I square my commitment to obedience to the Word of God with respect to being subject to the authorities with my opposition to the Tory government?
Saturday, April 18, 2020
- Avoid - design procedures to protect against possible threats and prevent errors being made which might reduce safety margins.
- Trap - on the basis that there will be times when threats and errors nonetheless arise, design procedures so that they are identified quickly and dealt with before they have an impact on safety.
- Mitigate - on the basis that some threats and errors will not be trapped, design procedures so that people are able to intervene swiftly to correct them and reduce their impact.
- Avoid - the international standard changed the wording for ten thousand feet to "Flight level one hundred" - now it is very distinct from "flight level one one zero".
- Trap - in multi crew aircraft, both pilots should hear an altitude clearance, it should be read back to air traffic control, who should check the correct altitude was read back. The handling pilot should set the altitude and get confirmation from the monitoring pilot to verify that it is in accordance with the clearance.
- Mitigate - pilots are taught the fastest way to stop the aircraft from changing altitude (in an Airbus, for example, this consists of one button press on the autopilot control).
- Avoiding the threat of an international pandemic would have been making sure that investment in the NHS was maintained at a level that it didn't end up starved of resources every winter, that there was no staff shortage, making sure that there were good supply chains in place. It would have meant, following Exercise Cygnus, learning and applying lessons. For ten years, the Conservative government has failed to implement processes that would AVOID the threat of this sort of pandemic becoming a problem.
- Trapping the threat could have taken place over the last ten weeks. We saw what was coming - what had happened in China, what started to unfold in Italy. We could have used that time to buy more PPE and check supplies of it, put in place international collaboration and information sharing at the very least. The government was too busy focusing on Brexit, and telling us how well prepared we were. No meaningful attempt to trap the threat was made.
- Mitigating the threat when it arrived would have meant rapid intervention, to safeguard as many people as possible. That's what New Zealand did; it's what has limited the death toll in countries like Germany and South Korea. The impact of this could have been huge. In this article, Dominic Minghella points out that two thirds of the extra deaths were probably caused by this failure to mitigate the threat in those ten days.
Wednesday, April 08, 2020
- specifically by creating and stoking an environment hostile to ex-pat workers, draining medical staff from the NHS in the last five years;
- by wasting the 10 weeks effective notice we had failing to get the PPE and ventilators we required;
- by getting distracted for the last 10 days before the storm hit with poorly thought-out ideas about herd immunity;
- by undermining the civil service and reducing the availability and weight of expert advice;
- by prioritising a nationalistic, Brexit agenda over a co-operative one (refusing to take part in EU schemes which could have supported us, refusing to acknowledge other examples of international cooperation - did you know that other EU countries have helped to repatriate UK citizens? That China has sent emergency equipment and workers to this country?);
- by making loyalty to Brexit and willingness to take direction the requirement of being part of the government, rather than competence - and in fact, by creating an environment in which all the competent people left the conservative party;
- by refusing to draw on expertise in other political parties;
- by prioritising the interests of financial backers rather than the country;
- by not taking obvious steps, even when they were pointed out to them (there are still queues of people at the border at Heathrow);
- through "austerity" - which didn't extend to the super-rich - but which has left more people more financially vulnerable and more dependent.
Friday, January 03, 2020
Monday, December 09, 2019
Friday, May 24, 2019
What does grace mean to the giver?
I guess the point about grace is that it starts from love. This is something that is open to us to experience as human beings. The trouble is, the language of love is blurred today; we tend to think of it as being transactional - you do something for me, I do something for you. This idea of relationships is described in Ecclesiastes - not in an approving way, but as part of what life looks like "under the sun" - if you take God out of the equation. "Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken." As though the whole point of relationships is to make you stronger, a kind of evolutionary strategy.
But that's not what love is. Love makes you weaker. Or perhaps slightly more accurately, love has a cost. You give yourself for the other person. For example, parents sacrifice their comfort, wealth, and sleep to care for children. For all the jokes about what we expect our children to do when we need to be cared for, both the parents and the children know that there's nothing the child is ever going to be able to do which will make up for what their parents have done for them. Other relationships are like that as well - although it may be the case that both parties in a relationship sacrifice themselves within it.
I think that's how we need to understand how God is towards us. He created us, he loves us - not in a way that he is ever going to get anything back from. In fact, in the same way that there's nothing a child can really do to give anything back to their parents, there is absolutely nothing we can give back to God - because it was he who gave it to us in the first place. There's more - because we have "sinned", rebelled against God, he actually needs to come and rescue us. The price of this, in Christian terms, is massive - God, in the person of Jesus, comes and gives up his life to save us from the consequences of our sin. In the same way that a parent would do anything, give anything for their children, or a lover would do anything, give anything for his or her beloved, God has done everything and given everything to save us.
But the significant question is, why? What does he get out of it? Is it some kind of power trip to get people to worship him? Well, if you are the creator of the universe and so on, you don't need to surrender yourself to achieve this. In the same way as the pagan kings in the Bible could simply pass a law commanding everyone to bow down to them, and couple it with a death sentence for those people who didn't, there's no reason that God could not have done that. "Worship me - and if you don't, you'll face my judgement." If you accept that he is the creator of the universe, then it's hard to say that this is an unreasonable position to take.
But he doesn't.
Instead he gives us everything, eventually even himself. He knows that as he gives us this, we have done nothing to deserve it, and there's nothing we can do to repay it. So why does he? The answer is, because he loves us. "I know you don't deserve it. I know you can't repay it. But I love you - so I am pouring this out upon you..."
How does one react to this? Remember, nothing you can give back will ever repay what you have been given - and that's not what God expects - in the same way that we don't tot up the debt our children have for us and present them with a bill, and we don't keep a kind of ledger of the good things and bad things that our lover does for us if we truly love them - we just give, because it's what we want to do. What do you want from someone you have poured out your grace on, out of love? I would suggest that you just want them to value it, to be thankful for it, to recognise it. You want don't want them to do anything, you just want to know that they understand what you have done for them, and value it.
So what should grace mean to us?
I suppose we need to grasp the nature and meaning of grace, in the first place. God's grace to us means that there is nothing we can give back - for our life, for our salvation. Anything we have to offer God is what he has already given us - it's his already. And he's not looking for you to "give anything back" to him. Or "give anything" to him at all. He simply wants you to understand and value what he's given you.
Again, it helps to think about this in terms of human relationships. What would the beloved do if the lover pours out grace upon them? They would simply love back. They would recognise how much they have been given, and be simply devoted in return. They don't need to do anything - the lover doesn't give a list of rules that need to be obeyed in return for their love - because they are simply pouring out their love. But even so, it is easy to see that there are ways of behaving in the light of that love which aren't an appropriate response to it. Parents don't approach their relationship with their children as a kind of quid pro quo thing - but everybody knows how awkward it is to see children who are ungrateful, who take what their parents give them for granted.
This imagery does exist in the Bible in more concrete form (eg. the book of Hosea) as well as in discussion about salvation by grace, and what the law means for people who have been saved. It's wrestled out in the New Testament as well - how are we supposed to live? What are we supposed to do? We are not called to live under the law, but that doesn't mean that what we do doesn't matter. There is a picture of what it is like when it goes wrong in both brothers in the story of the Prodigal Son - the younger brother takes for granted what his father has done for him - but the older brother is clearly resentful of his father as well - the same grace has been poured out on both of them, but the older brother talks about the fact that he has been "slaving" for him and "never disobeyed [his] orders" - this isn't the language of someone responding to love.
The image of the older brother was arguably the main point of the parable, addressed to the target audience - the Pharisees, who resented the fact that Jesus was drawing "sinners" back to God. Their lives had been based on keeping the rules, on proving they were good enough for God. But that was not how God had ever brought people to himself - he had always given salvation to his people. It's hard for those of us from a religious background to hold onto the fact that it's nothing that we have done that saves us - we tend to think, like the Pharisees, that we are pretty good - and lose sight of the fact that God has simply poured out his grace upon us because he loves us, even though there was nothing we could give to him. That's what we need to be holding onto.
This post is just musing; if there are theological errors, they are all mine.
Saturday, May 04, 2019
What actually happened in the local elections is that Brexit supporting parties (UKIP, Conservative, Labour) all lost seats, and Brexit opposing parties (Liberal, Green) gained seats. There was also a turning away from national parties towards local groups. So there is disillusion with national/international politics - but to describe this vote as an endorsement of the movement towards Brexit takes a level of pigheadedness and confirmation bias that in any merely safety-critical role would probably be fatal. The parody website, Newsthump is doing a better job than the main news outlets of cutting through the cant on this.
In the European elections, the picture will be different. That's because at the European elections, the groups who don't actually care about local politics but which just want out of the EU will come out to play (Brexit party) and the voters who don't actually care about local politics but which just want out of the EU will come out to vote. The main parties will still be hammered, but it won't look as unequivocally anti-Brexit as the local elections did.
Thursday, March 21, 2019
The people who digitally sign the petition basically know that it's not going to change anything - the deal with government petitions is that over 100,000 signatures will mean that a petition will be "considered" for debate in parliament; that's the best that's on offer - but since parliament is largely preoccupied by the issue of Brexit anyway, the likelihood of this specific item receiving separate consideration is slim. The same goes, I imagine, for the people who are planning to march in London on Saturday in support of a new referendum. At this stage, it's unlikely to change anything - but people want the government to know that this is not happening in their name.
The justification for signing the petition is that for large numbers of people, their belief that the simplest and best way out of this mess is just to stop it, is not being articulated. The views of the 17.4 million people who voted to leave in the referendum are talked about continually - and the non-binding referendum has become binding, and the fact that we were told that arrangements for leaving would be agreed in advance has been ignored. If 2% of MPs expressed this view, 12 of them would have stood up in parliament and asked for the process to stop in the last few messy weeks. If even one person had stood up and articulated it, it might have been enough raising of a flag to get it on the table. But even the europhile LibDems instead have focussed on the expensive and dubious option of a second referendum. Revoking Article 50 is clearly not a less-than-1% option - but you wouldn't know that given the failure of any politicians to contemplate it.
Tuesday, February 26, 2019
Oh, and another funny thing ... picking isolated statistics as a supposed refutation of project fear ... "Look at our employment rate! Project fear is wrong about Brexit. Look at the nice weather in Wales! Project fear is wrong about climate change. My uncle smoked for eighty years and didn't get cancer! Project fear is wrong about smoking. I know someone who knows someone who in an accident was thrown clear of a car and walked away without a scratch, when the car exploded and killed everyone else! Project fear is wrong about seatbelts."
Basically, I am sceptical that anybody who says "project fear" about anything is capable of serious critical thought. It's an anti-argument. But then since "An argument that feels right to me and fits what I want to believe must be as true for me as your argument is true for you", I guess that's what we should expect in a postmodern era.