Ezekiel 36.26 – about hearts of stone and flesh.

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Australia is burning. Our news sites and TVs are full of images described as apocalytic, extreme, horrifying and every other desperate descriptor. These images are from The Guardian on New Year’s Eve.  They were taken at two small, ordinary towns, Batemans Bay and Mallacoota, with people fleeing in terror from approaching flames.

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These scenes, and the knowledge that friends and relatives are inhaling hazardous air, worried about their homes and their lives, has rather put the little anxieties of post-Christmas (when shall we take the tree down? how will I lose the extra kilo or 6? how did I manage to forget my greatniece’s present twice?) into perspective. At the same time, I have been involved in a typical Facebook wrangle about climate change, all elliptical argument and missed points.  So this seemed like a good time to undertake a bit more reflection on this gravely important theme.

This report, The Truth Behind the Climate Pledges ,is rather a long read, but worth every minute. Authored by 5 eminent scientists – climatologists, oceanologists who are government and UN advisors – it analyses the pledges made under the Paris Agreement and their potential impact on the world. Amongst other things, it says this:

“As long as global emissions are not rapidly reduced, global warming will continue to accelerate.This means that we could be living in 1.5 degrees C world as early as the 2030s. As a result, weather events and patterns will continue to change, and will adversely affect human health, livelihoods, food, water, biodiversity and economic growth.

Weather events are the result of natural factors. A warming climate has altered the intensity and frequency of heat waves, droughts, wildfires, and severe storms (or heavy precipitation) and hurricanes –both of which lead to flooding. Once-a-century severe weather events are now becoming the new norm.

These weather events influenced by human-induced climate change are becoming more frequent and intense. They are also becoming more costly. Economic losses and damages from 690 weather events were $330 billion dollars globally in 2017. These figures have almost doubled in number and in losses compared to 2005, when 347 weather events caused $274 billion dollars in economic losses worldwide –almost half of the economic losses were caused by Hurricane Katrina in the United States.

Because global warming is accelerating, the number and economic losses from weather events are projected to at least double again by 2030. That comes to $660 billion dollars a year or almost $2 billion a day within the next decade.

The world cannot afford these costs on lives, livelihoods and economic growth. This massive price tag is part of the cost of inaction.”

That is the economic argument. But for us Christians, and indeed for all people of faith, there is a more important imperative. Clearly and evocatively articulated in ‘Laudato Si’, Pope Francis’ encyclical from 2015, the need is to understand that our despoiling of creation is not just an act of selfish economic vandalism, but also a sin. This is just a short extract from rather an excellent document.

“8. [Ecumenical] Patriarch Bartholomew has spoken in particular of the need for each of us to repent of the ways we have harmed the planet, for “inasmuch as we all generate small ecological damage”, we are called to acknowledge “our contribution, smaller or greater, to the disfigurement and destruction of creation”. He has repeatedly stated this firmly and persuasively, challenging us to acknowledge our sins against creation:

“For human beings… to destroy the biological diversity of God’s creation; for human beings to degrade the integrity of the earth by causing changes in its climate, by stripping the earth of its natural forests or destroying its wetlands; for human beings to contaminate the earth’s waters, its land, its air, and its life – these are sins”.For “to commit a crime against the natural world is a sin against ourselves and a sin against God”.”

As people of faith, it is absolutely incumbent on us to be good stewards of creation. As people of reason, able to think critically, it is equally incumbent on us to listen to voices of reason and expertise, and not to value our own opinion above research and knowledge. As people of goodwill, we have to try to see that this is an existential crisis which demands cooperation across boundaries – barriers of race, nationality and religion; and that it is the rich countries of the world that bear most responsibility. It is our responsibility, indeed our fault to a large extent,  retrospectively, in that we have created much of the problem by our compulsive over-consumption and greed; and it is our responsibility now, in that we have the resources of finance and research capacity to DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT!

Perhaps the appalling nature of what we see today in the beauty of Australia, alongside our own, lesser, changes (no winter yet in Latvia….) will finally, in this year of 2020, give us 20/20 vision and total clarity about the absolute imperative to really tackle this. Now, obviously, as most of us are not MPs, presidents, CEOs, or even Greta Thunberg, we are not going to be able to change the socioeconomic environment we live in. Clearly. But on the other hand, each of us can still be involved – campaigns, letter-writing, political pressure, Extinction Rebellion or whatever each of us chooses.

Concerned: Mothers have gathered outside the Conservative Party headquarters to protest

Those of us less able to be active, can perhaps donate to those who can be involved. And each of us can do small things, which in and of themselves will not save the planet, but which at least will lessen the harm. Zero Waste, buying fewer clothes, travelling less by air – consuming less, in general, for the affluent parts of the world would do much good for creation, and, indeed, for our own souls. And for those of us with a faith – prayer, proclamation, study – a gentler, simpler lifestyle. If nothing else, that will help to relieve our own climate anxiety, for while righteous anger is good and empowering, gnawing anxiety is bad and depletes our energy.

So here’s a profoundly beautiful prayer by Rabbi Daniel Nevins to conclude.

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Eternal God, You created the heavens and earth in love.

You fashioned plants and animals,

breathing Your spirit into humanity.

We have sinned against You by throwing off all restraint,

and we have sinned against You by rashly judging others.

We have sinned against You by plotting against others,

and we have sinned against You through selfishness.

We have sinned against You through superficiality,

and we have sinned against You through stubbornness.

We have sinned against You by rushing to do evil,

and we have sinned against You through gossip.

We have sinned against You through empty promises,

and we have sinned against You through baseless hatred.

We have sinned against You by betraying trust,

and we have sinned against You by succumbing to confusion.

For all these sins, forgiving God, forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.

We were created amidst a clean and pure world,

but it is now degraded in our grasp.

Not on our own merits do we beseech You, Adonai our God,

for we have sinned, we have wasted,

we have caused vast damage:

For the sin of filling the sea and land with filth and garbage;

for the sin of destroying species that You saved from the flood;

and for the sin of laying bare the forests and habitats that sustain life.

Please, God, open our eyes that we might see the splendor of Your creation.

Then we shall praise You, as it is written: “How great are Your works, Adonai! You have made them all with wisdom; the earth is filled with Your creations” (Psalm 104:24).

Remove the heart of stone from our flesh, and give us a feeling heart. Grant us wisdom and determination to safeguard the earth beneath the heavens.


Two Cummingses, Gilead and Johnson

Two Cummingses, Gilead and Johnson

A couple of weeks back I made a mistake one Friday evening. It had been a long week, long hours and various stressful events, mostly to do with the church ceiling repair. It seemed like an evening to just chill, so I ended up binge watching series 2 of The Handmaid’s Tale, which is available on Shortcut, Latvia’s version of iPlayer and Netflix combined.

And it was a mistake, alright. For those not familiar with this series, based on Margaret Atwood’s vision of a dystopian future (or present?) in the USA, tells the horrific story of the founding of a republic named Gilead in the northeastern states of the US. The flashbacks give us glimpses of how this starts, with increasingly conservative politicians working together with fundamentally oriented Christians to establish a theocratic system. Due to some unspecified catastrophe involving nuclear waste, the population has become infertile, and women of childbearing age become the eponymous Handmaids, subdued by violence and manipulation to become vessels for childbirth. If you haven’t yet read the original novel, do.

Why was this binge on a cool Friday night a mistake? Mostly because the second series begins

…..Begins with a long sequence filmed at the Boston Globe, deserted, abandoned; and then the discovery of a wall where the journalists have been shot. Of course this evokes a reaction because it resonates with the current US President’s frequent denunciations of the Press as ENEMIES OF THE PEOPLE. Because what happens to the ENEMIES OF THE PEOPLE? They are exterminated, and not in a basically cosy, Dr Who Daleky kind of way. That is extrapolation, of course it is. But Handmaid’s Tale shows us that sometimes the descent into totalitarianism, just like the pathway to Hell, is paved with the very best of intentions, and it happens slowly, imperceptibly, when at each step we think that none of this is really so bad, when we become habituated to small acts of hatred, to increments of intolerance and oppression.

That’s why Donald Trump’s nastiness towards Elijah Cummings matters. It does.

Quite apart from the sheer indignity of the President(!) of the USA (!) using such intemperate language on Twitter (!) towards someone who is, basically, just a political opponent, this is dog whistle racism. And that is NOT OK. Can you imagine FDR, Ronald Reagan or either of the Bushes doing this? Let alone statesmen or women from other countries, like Adenauer, Churchill, Gandhi, Merkel, or the rising new star of world politics, Jacinta Arden? (Names picked rather randomly, by the way).

And now in the UK there is Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson (sic). Prime Minister, serial adulterer and proven liar, with his own ‘Cummings’, the rather less savoury Dominic.

Here’s a quote from The Independent:

Fletcher, the former Times editor, has compiled a list of Johnson’s greatest hits from Brussels: Johnson wrote that the EU wanted to standardise coffins, the smell of manure and the size of condoms – and had rejected an Italian request to make undersized rubbers. He warned Brits that their prawn-cocktail-flavoured chips could be banned, that their sausages were under threat and that their fishermen would be required to wear hairnets.

And all of those were lies. But does any of this matter? Yes, it does, too. Bishop Berkeley wrote in 1750

It is impossible that a man who is false to his friends and neighbours should be true to the public.

That is still true today, even if some commentators are trying to divorce public from private morality. And thereby hangs the problem. Morality has become something of a dirty word in our postpostmodern world. We have a diversity of moral frameworks, based on a potpourri of religions, and, indeed, for many people morality has become something entirely private, a sliding, slippery, ephemeral concept, where moral relativism, albeit unnamed, is the order of the day. Reality TV shows us adultery and luuurve in all its shapes and sizes, making popular drama out of real pain and betrayal. Love Island apparently thought this was a cute quote

After getting a drama-filled text the night before telling all the Islanders to nominate a fellow couple to be dumped, Amber told the Beach Hut: “In here you can be at your highest high, and you think that nothing could possibly ruin this, and then a text comes in.”

Our bankers and politicians lie without compunction, and without consequences. Greed has become praiseworthy, and stealing or corruption the norm for many. In addition, social media have become a breeding ground for contempt and unkindness.

The old standards of morality, often observed in the breach though they were, were a rule by which to measure ourselves, first and most importantly, and others only in a secondary way. So I can even see the temptation to believe that a benevolent theocracy, guided, say, by the Sermon on the Mount, might drag us out of the cesspit. But that way lies Gilead, Law not Gospel, and more intolerance, even if accompanied by a greeting of

Blessed day!

But what we should do, as people of faith and people of goodwill, is to uphold those standards in any case. If we were, seriously, to take the 10 Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount as reasonable guidelines for living well, we would save ourselves and those around us from much misery. As the Church of England website says,

The Ten Commandments set out fundamental principles of how we are to treat God and how we are to treat our fellow human beings. 

For lack of a better or more functional vademecum, most Western legal systems, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and many other fundamental documents find their basic principles precisely here. I suspect also that a necessary concern for the environment and overcoming the existential challenge of global climate change would be aided by a deeper understanding of these two profoundly wise writings.

And we have do the right – no, the obligation! – to hold Presidents, Prime Ministers, politicians and leaders to a standard of morality, without which we find ourselves in an environment where lies are  as good as truth, dishonesty as honesty, where kindness is seen as weakness, and a world where racism, sexism and all the other isms are set free to skitter around, wounding and killing as they go.

QED, I guess.

So is this World 6.0?

So: two more educational and inspirational pieces of work – this time not books, but presentations.

A couple of weeks ago at our Deanery Synod we listened to a talk by Rev’d Dr Mika Pajunen, who is Theological Advisor to the Lutheran Archbishop of Finland. Mika talked us through a fairly classical model of developments in church history – of paradigm shifts in the way that the Church understands God, faith and itself, in the philosophical and metaphysical underpinning of the Church’s theology and worldview. The aim was to apply these understandings to our current obsession with matters of sexuality – but of course they have a much wider application. For what it’s worth, Mika’s opinion is that the church is in many ways stuck in Enlightenment mode, which requires that there is a right and wrong answer to problems to questions, which permit of no shading and not enough latitude to allow us to find solutions which are fuzzier.

Then last week at an International Conference here in Rīga organized by the Latvian Lutheran Women Theologians Association, Rev’d Dr Linards Rozentāls from Luther Church presented a different way of analyzing these shifts in humankind’s understanding of God, and the presence of the Divine in Creation. His innovative classification led us from God 1.0 to God 6.0, with the possibility of development onwards. It was fascinating to hear, and will, I hope, be published somewhere soon.

But it got me thinking (or, as Poirot says, it made me furiously to think). What is it that moves our civilizations and faiths from one paradigm to another? What kicks us from God 4.0 to God 5.0? Could it be that the present world crises I wrote about previously – the inherent instability of the global monetary system, climate change, poverty, inequality, wars – which are leading to this acute flow of refugees are actually a first sign of a real paradigm shift? And if so, which direction are we heading in – towards a deeper understanding, greater freedom and openness (marks of God 6.0) or backwards to greater prejudice, a more childish view of how the world works, a greater desire to see God as judge and strong ruler?

What will we do (Part II)

…and this is the most difficult part, of course.

As far as the economic crises go, the two authors I mentioned (Rickards and Goodchild) have solutions to offer, one of a radical free-market nature, the other more of an ‘to each according to their need, from each according to their gifts’ concept. And just today, a video surfaced on my ‘Facebook interface’ – this by Paul Mason, a well-respected economic journalist and analyst. The video is entitled

capitalism is failing, and it’s time to panic

and it suggests that technology, combined with a willingness to share more freely without necessarily demanding payment for everything (non-market collaborative ventures such as cooperatives), may offer a solution. For those who might think that this is impossible, Mason says: “What is impossible is the democracy of riot squads, of oligarch-run political parties, of fiscal coercion by central banks, the surveillance state.”

What will happen to the global financial system in reality? Personally, I don’t have the faintest idea, and it’s all way above my pay grade. But respected and respectable commentators from many angles are saying that – whatever else –  the status quo is untenable.

The church world, indeed the world at large, has watched and listened in fascination to the words and actions of Pope Francis. Much of what he says is truly radical, especially in the context of Vatican politics and formalised religion. Not least, his Encyclical Letter this year, called

Laudato Si, On Care for Our Common Home

which has caused waves because of its tremendous outspokenness on the issue of – well, care for our common home, the planet that we live on and should be caring for. The encyclical tackles climate change, pollution, waste, inequality amongst other issues; and says

” These situations have caused sister earth, along with all the abandoned of our world, to cry out, pleading that we take another course. Never have we so hurt and mistreated our common home as we have in the last two hundred years.”

So we are faced with this unpredictable future, with a whole complex matrix of interconnected problems which no-one really knows how to resolve, or perhaps has the political clout and courage to tackle radically, in the real sense of the word – from the root. And we are faced with the question – what will we do?

The New Statesman recently published an article which made me cheer through this depression, because it articulated so clearly how many of us feel. The greatest threat to Europe – to our way of life, our European values, our standard of living – is not migration, it is creeping fascism.

“Fascism happens when a culture fracturing along social lines is encouraged to unite against a perceived external threat. It’s the terrifying “not us” that gives the false impression that there is an “us” to defend.” (Laurie Pennie, New Statesman, 14 August 2015)

And that’s the thing: our culture may well be fracturing, but the real reason is all the above – financial instability, increasing inequality and sheer bloody poverty, climate change, pollution and all the rest of the unfairness that, basically, dying capitalism is forcing on us.

What will we do? Will be build higher and higher walls to keep migrants out? Will we put broken glass on top of the walls, and then barbed wire on top of the broken glass on top of the walls? Will we say ‘I’m alright, Jack’, and pursue our goals of comfortable life and massive over-consumption, no matter the environmental consequences?

“Inequity affects not only individuals but entire countries; it compels us to consider an ethics of international relations. A true “ecological debt” exists, particularly between the global north and south, connected to commercial imbalances with effects on the environment, and the disproportionate use of natural resources by certain countries over long periods of time.” (Laudato Si’, para 51)

Will we continue to close our eyes to inequity, the ecological debt – to be blunt, the greed which blights our lives and those of the poor?

And as Christians – how will we square the circle of living in the comfortable West, knowing that there are human beings worldwide who are suffering NOW? One suggestion for migrants to Latvia, where I live now, is that our country should only accept Christian migrants. Why? To paraphrase Shylock, if we prick a Muslim, does he not bleed? If a Muslim mother loses her child in a suicide bomb, does she not weep? Do we not share a common humanity with all of God’s created children?

For me this is all still thought in progress. One thing I do know: tomorrow, 1 September, Christians throughout the world will be fasting, praying and reflecting on Creation.

On the 1st day of September this and every year, let us join in this global Christian observance, and let our prayer, fasting, and personal reflection lead to action and the shaping of lifestyles which enable us to walk lightly on “this fragile earth, our island home”, as an Anglican Eucharistic prayer describes our planet. (Bishop David Hamid’s blog)

Joining in one day of fasting and reflection seems like a very small first step, but still worth taking.

What will we do (Part I)

Over the last months, I have read two fascinating books, both of them outside my normal range of reading, and both partly outside my range of understanding. Both of them have ‘money’ in the title, and both are very critical of the current global monetary system, but there the resemblance ends. The Theology of Money by Philip Goodchild (Professor of Religion and Philosophy at the University of Nottingham, UK) is described as ‘a philosophical inquiry into the nature and role of money in the contemporary world’; and for someone who is not a philosopher or an economist, it’s a pretty challenging read at times. But essentially, Goodchild regards our present global monetary system, which is based on the premise that money=debt=money=credit, is irretrievably broken; that economy and ecology are mathematically incompatible; that in a capitalist system, the drive to profits will always take precedence over sustainability, and therefore economic growth is incompatible with ecological finitude; and therefore, in the end, capitalism is unsustainable.

Theology of Money

The other book, more apocalyptically entitled The Death of Money, is by a free-market economist, James Rickards, a financial wizard who has worked with the Pentagon on some fascinating projects attempting to predict security risks from market movements. His premise is also that the current global financial system is extremely fragile and built on systems of unrepayable debt bolstered by no real substance, and is likely to end in a huge upheaval something like (but probably worse than) the Great Depression on the 1930’s. Rickards also thinks it very likely that this will lead to massive social unrest, specifically in the US, which the government of the day (Republican or Democrat) will use its multiple and highly developed surveillance technologies to try and suppress. James Rickards’ blog can be found here.

What is really interesting about this is that these two highly intelligent and knowledgeable people both think that our current global financial system is close to collapse, although they come at the problem from very different viewpoints and offer radically different solutions. The theologian sees a need to deal with debt in theological terms, playing on the term often used in English for debt relief – i.e. forgiveness, and sees redemption from debt as holding the potential to bring good out of evil, and forgiveness as flowing from divine creation. The financier recommends a return to the gold standard, while acknowledging that that in itself will cause instability and hardship to many people. Strikingly, though, Rickards last words are: ‘We live in an ersatz monetary system that has reached its end stage…A return to true value based on trust is long overdue’.

In the background this summer have been equally apocalyptic images of migrants crossing the Mediterranean, and often drowning there, to leave behind lives in conflict zones, lives scarred by poverty and hatred, and seeking shelter in the perceived safety of Europe.

Joe Brennan migrants
Photo taken from Joe Brennan’s Facebook page

There have been stories from and about Calais, where thousands of migrants live in appalling conditions, in a legal limbo, hoping against desperate hope to make it to the UK, so as to rebuild their lives in a country which has not experienced war or famine in 70 years.

And year on year the pressure of the urgent messages from climate scientists and campaigners is making it clear to us all that we can expect more migration worldwide, more conflicts and wars – partly because of territory lost to desertification or rising sea levels, partly over access to water and food security. In years to come, numbers of desperate migrants are very unlikely to decrease; and whether we call the economic migrants, refugees or asylum seekers will come to seem like a complete irrelevance. They will just be people who are fleeing from the four horsemen – famine, plague, war and death.

This is how it is. For those of us who were lucky enough to be born into the almost uniquely peaceful and comfortable setting of post-WWII Western Europe, the future seems dark indeed as we look back to the light of our younger years. The question, though, is: how will we deal with this? Mostly the impending catastrophes are not within our capacity to influence, and indeed both Goodchild and Rickards make the point that in many ways today’s complex systems of governance and financial regulation are so abstruse and complex that no one really does understand how to influence them anymore.

What we can influence, though, is our own actions and reactions to the world around us – a truism of cod psychologists everywhere, but none the less true. Faced with desperate people in Calais, presented with quotas for accepting migrants, asked to accept a potential reduction in our living standards, for example – what will we do?  How will we respond here in Latvia, or indeed anywhere in Europe? That’s for Part II.