Friday, 18 April 2014

Moving on

I'm trying a new, more integrated blog, which I hope will reflect the issues I've dealt with here, what's happening in our garden, if anything ;) and my own spiritual journey all in one place, so if I'm concentrating on one aspect rather than others there won't be a long silence on that particular blog.  If also feels less schizophrenic, but time will tell if it works.

Perhaps I'll see you there: Faith for a Fragile Planet

Friday, 4 April 2014

Why Hunger Has Put Me Off My Lunch

So today I'm not eating any lunch.  I didn't have any elevenses either, although I did have breakfast, and I'm not planning to eat again until 6 or 7 o'clock.

Today's lunch #EndHungerFast

I didn't think I'd get much done this morning if I didn't have any breakfast, but some people don't have that choice. Some people in Britain, probably thousands of them, didn't have anything in their cupboards for breakfast, lunch or dinner this week and for some of them that was all week.  Some people haven't eaten for weeks.

Earlier this year the Oxford Mail reported on the death of a 'vulnerable and fragile' man who starved to death, four months after most of his benefits were stopped. You can read more here.

Isn't it enough to put you off your lunch? It is me. Around three thousand people will be volunteering to go without their lunch and many of them are not eating at all today because they want to see an end to people having to go hungry in Britain. It's all about End Hunger Fast.

10 million people live in poverty in the UK and 3.5 million of them are children. Most of the households in poverty have one or more people in work, but if their total income is under £17,000 they are likely to have to cut back on things like food to make ends meet.

Six hundred thousand people needed to use food banks in the last six months even in many places we think of as wealthy parts of the country. 30% of people using food banks say they needed food because their benefits had been delayed.

Benefits being stopped due to sanctions, or delayed, is another reason why so many people are going hungry. People get their benefits stopped when they fail to turn up for appointments with Benefits Advisers and it doesn't seem to matter if they are prone to serious bouts of depression, have started training for work or lead chaotic lives for some reason or other.  Their mental health and home circumstances don't seem to be taken into consideration and in some cases, the fact that they've just started on a training course that can help them back into employment isn't, either.

Half a million people have been put on benefit sanctions in the last six months.

Another reason why people are going hungry is because they are on a low income or a pension and once they've paid the gas and electricity bill they have very little to live on. With rising fuel prices people living in badly insulated homes will be paying an increasing proportion of their budget on fuel, so if they are in a low-paid job or have a low-income for any other reason, they will be struggling to feed themselves and possibly even their families, although parents usually go hungry before letting their children go without.

One in five mothers have said that they've had to skip a meal in order to feed their children.

Food prices have risen by 30% in the last five years but wages have mostly stayed the same or even fallen and benefits have been capped.

The dramatic rise in the use of food banks over the last few years, makes it clear that Britain's welfare system isn't working properly.  The fact that many people who use food banks are working also shows that for many wages are not high enough.

Keith Hebden feels so strongly about this that he decided to stop eating for a full forty days. I think he can start eating again on Psalm Sunday.  Here he is telling us what it is like to eat no food for 29 days:

Rev.s Keith Hebden and Matthew Neville got together with support from Church Action on Poverty, the Trussell Trust, Quakers and Just Fair to call for a National Day of Fasting today, the 4th April, to highlight this situation.
We all think it's time that the government did more to help the most vulnerable people in our society and we want to End Hunger Fast.

The point of today's National Day of Fasting is to call on the government to ensure:
  • That the welfare system provides a robust last line of defence against hunger in Britain
  • That work pays enough for working people to properly provide for their families 
  • That food markets function, promoting long term sustainable and healthy diets with no one profiteering off hunger in Britain 
So I'm going to have to wait until dinner time before I have my next meal, and there are a lot of people who won't be able to do that in one of the wealthiest countries in the world.  There are a lot of people in 21st century Britain who don't know where there next meal is coming from or when it will happen.

Thinking about this on Thursday I was inspired to write a 'Psalm of Lament for Those Who Go Hungry'

Friday, 8 February 2013

Surrounded by a Culture of War

Did you read much as a child? If so, what did you enjoy reading?                            

I used to love books about war and soldiers; Romans, Vikings, Anglo-Saxons, King Arthur, King Alfred, books by Rosemary Sutcliffe, Geoffrey Trease, Henry Treece and many others. I enjoyed books about criminals like Robin Hood and Hereward the Wake, too! If they lived today that's what we'd call them.

What I'm not normally interested in are books about modern warfare, perhaps because it's too close to reality, perhaps also because the boundaries are blurred and for me there is no more idealism, no clear right and wrong. Although some years ago I did read about the peninsular war in the Sharpe novels by Bernard Cornwell.

As a child I was always on the side of the underling Celts and Anglo-Saxons, but most of all I was on the side of what I perceived to be 'good' and 'right'. It all seemed so straightforward then. Even reading 'Kidnapped' by Robert Louis Stevenson I was on the side of the Highland hero, not the wicked English, but then my parentage did leave me somewhat ambiguous about 'the English'.

It was my father who taught me in no uncertain terms that war is not glorious, and perhaps that was because he hadn't been on the winning side, but I think it had a lot more to do with him being a person who thought deeply about things and who had seen what war can do. He'd seen the results of war from many sides: the starving French at the fence of his prisoner of war camp begging the German POWs for food, his own family bombed out and emaciated when he returned home after the war, and as well as his comrades dying around him at the front, his best friend from school days didn't return. Hamburg, the town he was born in was practically flattened.

Yet inspite of the experiences of my parents' generation, so many of whom came face to face with the consequences of war, we continue to feed our children the myth of the glorious soldiers and, it seems, we adults lap it up ourselves. We must have close on 400 books about war in my local library, yet a handful or so books on peaceful living, and novels about war prove very popular, too.

I consider myself to have lived through a time of peace, yet I was surprised to learn that Britain has been at war for most of the half century or so I have been alive. I've been vaguely aware I suppose, but unless you live in a town with a strong military presence, it's easy to put these things to the back of your mind.

Our young men may not be practising with long bows on the village green in our full sight, but we are still surrounded by a culture that promotes war, it's just more subtle than before. As a result of which, people like me who have no time for war, can pretend it isn't really happening, if we choose to, some of the time at least.

I'm lucky to live in a prosperous part of Britain and that conscription is a thing of the past. As things stand it seems very unlikely that either of my children will need to go to war and neither find the prospect attractive, but in some parts of the country it is very different. I recently came across this video by ex-soldier, Joe Glenton, that is quite an eye-opener into the practices of the modern day recruiting officers. It seems the Ministry of Defence is targeting our children and persuading 16-year-olds to join the army. While they cannot be sent into conflict zones at that tender age, they can be trained and their young minds can be moulded to prepare them to become the killing machines the army needs so much. Yet we all get indignant about African war lords etc using child soldiers.

You may think all this doesn't matter too much at present as British soldiers are out of Iraq and troops in Afghanistan are due to be withdrawn next year, but recently our government sent soldiers, i.e. young men and possibly women, to Libya, Britain is also involved in the conflict in Syria and just recently our government has sent British troops to Mali.

John Pilger wrote an article recently that suggests our government's motives for the war in Mali may have less to do with fighting terrorists than it is letting on and it seems a fairly widespread view that Britain's involvement in wars in the Middle East has been about oil as much as anything else.

It seems our armed forces' are constantly at war, whether to justify there own existence or to bolster government interests I don't know. Meanwhile young British men, and sometimes young women, are being killed and maimed and traumatised. If it were happening here amongst us I'm sure we'd all be up in arms, but the unheroic corpses and broken people return quietly to be seen by  few of us other than their families and friends.

This recent article in the Independent, also by Joe Glenton, tells how there are likely to be far more cases of combat post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) than the MoD recognises and that this may account for the high number of soldiers who have taken their lives since the Falklands War, more than the number who died fighting in it. He thinks, not unreasonably, that we could be sitting on a time bomb where those who have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan are concerned.

It's not just suicides we have to worry about, but men already brutalised by training for war can be dangerous to their families and the people around them. I'm not suggesting for a minute that we need to worry about hoards of soldiers around the country going on mad rampages, but some people suffering from combat PTSD do turn to drink and that alone can have very negative effects on families. There doesn't even need to be physical violence, it could be verbal abuse or just a cloud of depression hanging over the house, all of these things can have an effect on children growing up with them and partners often suffer, too. In some areas this sort of thing may affect a large number of families and so the whole community may well feel the repercussions.

The kind of training soldiers receive, described in the second part of Joe Glenton's documentary, 'The Soldier Myth', can cause soldiers a problem settling back into civilian life at the best of times. If you google 'soldiers in prison' you'll see that there is a high number of ex-soldiers in prison. This article in the Independent suggests that as many as one in ten prisoners could be military veterans.

War is a waste of so many precious lives and so much human potential.

So what should we do? What can we do? You might have your own ideas, and I should be pleased to hear what they are if you wish to post a comment. As for me, I think the most important thing we can do might be to challenge the culture of war whenever we come across it. When people say war is a good thing, ask them why they think that. An outright argument might not get us very far, but if we can ask probing questions, some people might start to rethink their own position. Arguing with someone who has swallowed all the propaganda about the need for war is more likely to have their views entrenched by simple argument.

If you know someone who is thinking of joining the army, especially a young person who may not be acquainted with all the facts, then unless you know a better resource the first part of Joe Glenton's documentary, 'The Soldier Myth' should help them to make a more informed choice.

You might want to support an organisation such as the Peace Pledge Union or the Stop the War Coalition. Then again you might want to donate to a charity that helps soldiers damaged by war, such as PTSD Resolution that tries to breach the gap left by the lack of help given to sufferers by the MoD.

If you have further suggestions, feel free to use the comments box to make them.

Here is another website, which helps to inform people considering a career in the armed forces, Before You Sign Up.

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Considering Contradictions on Gay Marriage

People are so full of contradictions, aren't they? Have you noticed that? Have you ever spotted it in yourself? I know I have, and recently there's been a particular contradiction on my mind.

I believe passionately in justice and equality, but I had a very conservative upbringing and something in me still feels uneasy about the idea of gay marriage. Yet I have no problem with the idea of gay people having fulfilling sex lives and I feel strongly that gay people in loving, faithful relationships need all the support they can get. So, I was very pleased when the last government introduced civil partnerships.

I know what it is like to be told that God disapproves of your relationship and for people to try to undermine it. When I was at university I went to a church with very extreme beliefs. The pastor was a Welshmen who preached that Catholics were not proper Christians, which shocked me. Once I was engaged this pastor told me in no uncertain terms that God didn't want me to marry someone who wasn't a Christian, however much I loved him. He even found at least one verse in the Bible to 'prove' his point. It can be pretty devastating to be told that you should not marry the person you love deeply or, therefore, continue in a relationship with them. To be told that this is because God forbids your relationship can be even more devastating if God has become an important factor in your life.  Needless to say, I started to realise that this pastor had rather unusual and extreme views so I left that church shortly after that meeting and married the man I loved anyway, but the idea that God disapproved of our relationship niggled in my mind for a very long time. I often felt torn between God and my husband.

For a gay person it's not just about being told you can't marry the person you love, it's about being told you can't marry anyone you are ever likely to want sexual intimacy with.  If the gay person is also a Christian it must be even worse to be told the God you love and/or fear doesn't only disapprove of your choice of mate, but of what is an essential part of who you are.

Now, I am familiar with most of the verses in the Bible, which are given as reasons why God disapproves of gay sex, but personally I'm not convinced that there is any proof that God does disapprove of loving, faithful relationships between two people of the same sex.

The writers of the Old Testament lived in a patriarchal society where women were deemed to be the inferiors of men and wives were considered to be their husbands' property. The Jews had strict laws about what was proper and what was not proper, too and they attributed these ideas to God. So, to 'lie with another man as with a woman' would have been thought of as demeaning the other man by treating him as a woman. It would have also upset people's ideas about the social order and it would not have produced the children necessary to work the land nor produced any heirs to inherit the land as it was a rare thing in ancient Israel for daughters to inherit property.  So, it is safe to say that references in the Old Testament to sex between men have no relevance to modern British society.

It is important to note that Jesus said nothing at all either about sex between two men or between two women, or if he did, no one bothered to record what he said. This suggests it wasn't an important issue to Jesus.

Later in the New Testament, the Letter to the Romans sees sex between two men or between two women as unnatural, wicked and degrading and a sign that God had abandoned them, despairing that they could ever be saved. Modern Science, especially Psychology, has now shown that if people are lesbian or gay then it is far more natural for them to have a sexual relationship with someone of the same sex than with someone of the opposite sex, although it seems some people can find both natural. So these verses, based on ignorance and misunderstanding, are no longer proof that God disapproves of gay people having sexual relationships and cannot be seen as a divine prohibition of gay marriage.

Yet these small parts of the Bible are still being used to encourage prejudice against gay people and to tell gay people themselves that God disapproves of who they fundamentally are. This way of thinking encourages abuse and violence against gay people, whether it means to or not, and can result in gay people feeling so ashamed or rejected that hundreds of them, especially teenagers, end up taking their own lives every year. That such things are said and done in the name of the God Jesus taught us to imagine as being like the most loving father makes me very angry.

As a result I left the Baptist church I belonged to when the new pastor appeared to have trouble accepting gay relationships as worthy of validation and, more than that, thought that I should believe whatever he told me to because he was my pastor. I wonder if he would have said that to me if I had been a man. Perhaps he would have, but I have no respect for anyone who is not open to reason and debate about areas of disagreement. It usually means they aren't all that sure of having good reasons for what they believe.

Later I left the Church altogether,  among other reasons, because I was tired of what I heard and read in the news about the in-fighting in the Church of England about what gay people could and couldn't do, not to mention the out-dated attitudes some clergy have to women. (Update: At the end of February I decided to go back to the last church I was a member of, which is a small, Inclusive, Anglican church in walking distance from where I live. I've been missing the people recently and just now I am feeling a lot less tired than I have in recent years. For the minute both my father's and mother-in-law's conditions seem fairly stable as well, so I shall see how it goes.)

Even now that civil partnerships are legal in Britain ministers of the Church of England cannot risk people knowing that they love someone of the same sex as themselves, especially if they hope for any kind of promotion. There is no justice or compassion in a situation like that. It's certainly not what I think Jesus would have done. However, this is a matter for the Church and not the state. It would give the Church more credibility with the general population if it caught up with modern ideas of how people should be treated equally, though.

Although civil partnership gives gay people similar rights to married straight people with regard to British law, it seems their legal status is not even recognised in parts of Europe where gay unions are accepted.

So what, really, is my problem with gay people being allowed to be legally joined in marriage? Gay people are fully human after all, and have as much right to marry as anyone. I don't have any inkling that the marriage of gay people will undermine the institution of marriage in general, on the contrary it can only uphold it.

No, I think my problem is something I absorbed as a child, something that wasn't really even spoken about, which I have never really questioned or properly challenged. Growing up is about questioning the things we absorbed as children and seeing if those ideas are still valid and if they fit what we believe now. If they don't it's time to consign those ideas to the rubbish bin along with the worn out clothes we wore then, which no longer fit us. They certainly don't warrant recycling. So, it's time for those uneasy feelings I have to be acknowledged for what they are, the worn out vestiges of something I have now outgrown completely. If we don't do this then, like clothes we have outgrown, these ideas will constrict our growth and limit our potential.

Update: Strangely, after writing this post, my feelings of slight discomfort at the thought of gay people being allowed to marry have dispersed entirely.

Monday, 28 January 2013

Will the Hungry Always Be With Us?

Oxfam, Cafod, Christian Aid are among over 100 organisations who have got together to launch the IF campaign. It's very much along the lines of Make Poverty History which, if you aren't sure, did not make poverty history. In fact they say the gap between rich and poor in the world has become wider not smaller since.

However, if we didn't make poverty history, these people now think that we can make hunger history throughout the world,  just by signing up to their website and maybe wearing an armband. Do they really think that this will make all those who are out to line their pockets while others starve to death turn over a new leaf and the people who shot and killed Cicero Guedes a leader of the MST (Landless Workers' Movement in Brazil) over the weekend become deeply repentant and give the people of Brazil all the land they need to feed their families? I really don't think so. I wish I could believe it, but it will take more than everyone in Britain signing up to this campaign, I'm afraid.

War on Want has not signed up to this campaign, although it did take part in the Make Poverty History campaign, and gives its reasons here. The World Development Movement are not taking part either, and they have discussed their reasons in the Guardian.

Not that I want to stop you signing up, I just don't think we should become complacent, but see what else we can do. It will need a remarkable idea and some remarkable people to bring an end to the power structures that keep people hungry throughout the world.