Friday, 2 February 2018

Race, gender and class: deeply intertwined with information

Our research group is increasingly focused on developing a discipline of critical information studies - exploring the social impact of information and information systems, in particular through examining the way they interact with, and strengthen, imbalances between different powerful groups. As part of this we're especially concerned with the ways that race, gender and class interact with each other, with power issues, and with informational phenomena.

My colleague on the group, Dr Mustafa Ali, is working hard on issues of decolonial computing, and we have been having many discussions about the interplay between race and gender in particular - the concept often called intersectionality, but which Mustafa prefers to call entanglement.

Mustafa pointed me to the work of Thomas Curry, who argues strongly against the concept of intersectionality as being inadequate to capture the lived-experience of black people and their relation to gender. In an essay entitled Ethnological Theories of Race/Sex in Nineteenth-Century Black Thought: Implications for the Race/Gender Debate of the Twenty-First Century [subscription], Curry argues that "In the nineteenth century, what we know as gender was believed to exist only among civilized races" and that "Under nineteenth-century ethnological thinking, races were gendered, rather than those bodies biologically designated as male or female by sex".

I find this very interesting, and it raises all sorts of questions. I doubt anyone would subscribe explicitly to a view like the 19th century approach to race & gender (though there’s probably a nastier sort of intersection between white supremacists and so-called men’s rights activists) but I can readily see how such a view was only widely-held and would persist in some kind of background form. All that said: it strengthens my view that race, gender and class issues are deeply intertwined and need to be considered together, and that in turn they’re intertwined with information. Because it seems to me that these views are deeply based on information - constructed narratives which put together half-selected 'facts' about the world, from a strong worldview, choosing those which fit and rejecting those which don't.

Two more thoughts about the intertwining of race, gender and class. Earlier this week I was reading about the Irish potato famine and specifically the Gregory Clause of 1847 which worsened the plight of the poor considerably (my eye lit on it because my son is called Gregory). Named after a Sir William Gregory MP, it restricted public assistance to those who possessed essentially no land, less than ¼ acre, to avoid ‘absorption by undeserving persons of a large portion of the public funds’. Interesting because of the entanglement here of class and race – the Irish of course are white but have always been treated as a sub-race by the British/English.

Second, in choir yesterday we were singing Heinrich Sch├╝tz’s St John Passion. Of all the gospel accounts, John’s is often said to be the most anti-semitic, and I’m finding the English translation here to be very starkly so (dated 1963 in the score but I think possibly a few years older). There are constant references to ‘the Jews’ saying nasty remarks, or asking for unpleasant actions. It reflects older Bible scholarship, and the translators (Imogen Holst and Peter Pears) were musicians not theologians, but no modern translations of John’s gospel would say ‘the Jews’ – they say ‘the Jewish leaders’ or a more specific term such as ‘the Sanhedrin’ (the ruling court of leaders). I’m wrestling with the text still, but in a way it gives me hope, that ideas do shift, and that contemporary Christians, however suffused with racism (and I can name plenty), are recognising our need to move away from our historic anti-Semitism and other forms of racism.

Lastly all this makes me uncomfortable about my own complicity as an affluent middle-class white male, but as I've written more than once on this blog, I'm used to that discomfort!

Monday, 15 January 2018

Being seen and being called

Sermon preached at Long Buckby URC on 14th January 2018. Texts: 1 Samuel 3:1-10, John 1:43-51.

Listen. Look. Be watchful. 

These two passages are often described as being about calling. The calling of Samuel. The calling of Philip and Nathanael. Now calling matters. We are called to all sorts of different things in this world, Some of us are called to parenthood. Others are called to teaching, or medicine, or creating art, or fixing problems. Others are called to care for others. Some are called to preach the gospel. But we’re all called to something. I believe that calling changes through life, and that part of our role in life is to discern what God is calling us to, and how that might be changing. 

But part of calling is about being authentic, true to ourselves, about accepting OUR call against the call that was given to others. There is a Hasidic tale told about a certain Rabbi Zusya, who said as an old man, ‘In the coming world, they will not ask me: ‘why were you not Moses?’ They will ask me, ‘Why were you not Zusya?’  We must all guard against not being ourselves. 

The American Quaker author Parker J. Palmer comments on the story of Rabbi Zusya and writes that:
Vocation does not come from a voice ‘out there’ calling me to become something I am not. It comes from a voice ‘in here’ calling me to be the person I was born to be, to fulfil the original selfhood given to me at birth by God.
So the calling of Samuel and Nathanael is important. But I think in lots of ways that those aren’t the main point of these passages. Rather, they’re about being able to listen and to see, to wait for the presence of God. 

We’re only a week on from the celebration of Epiphany, and in some churches the period between that festival and the start of Lent is referred to as the season of Epiphany. Now Epiphany is often associated with the Magi bringing their gifts to the Christ-child, but the Magi and gifts aren’t really the point. Epiphany is about an experience of the divine, breaking through suddenly like the rays of the sun through the clouds.

And to me the thing that’s so interesting is that both Samuel and Nathanael were experiencing the divine already, but they didn’t know it until they were able to see. 

Listen. Look. Be watchful. 

Samuel was being called by God, again and again. And yes he responds with ‘Here I am’, just as in the song we sang, but he’s responding to the wrong person. He thinks that Eli is the one calling him, and so he hears the calling in the light of that assumption, and he gets it wrong. Samuel’s call is genuine, but he needs to listen better. 

Nathanael had it differently. He had received witness from Philip that Jesus was the one they’d been waiting for. Yet Nathanael was prevented from seeing who Jesus really was, by his own prejudices and preconceptions.
Source: Interrupting the Silence
We don’t know a lot about Nathanael, beyond this story and his name, which means ‘gift of God’. However John tells us at the end of his gospel that Nathanael came from Cana in Galilee, the place where Jesus performed his miracle of turning water into wine at a wedding. This might explain Nathanael’s rather crass question as to whether anything good can come from Nazareth. You may have heard that Donald Trump made some recent remarks about immigrants from Africa that even by his standards look particularly unpleasant. Nathanael’s scepticism about Nazareth may not be quite so extreme, perhaps it was only founded on the kind of local rivalry. To pick a local example, it’s as if somebody here was told the Messiah was to come from Daventry or Rugby, and to respond with incredulity. 

Philip responds with an invitation. He doesn’t tell Nathanael he’s a small-minded fool, he instead gives Nathanael the offer to see for himself – he says ‘come and see’, the same invitation that a few verses earlier in John’s gospel, Jesus had given to Andrew, the first disciple to follow him.

But before Nathanael can see, he is seen. Jesus has already seen him under the fig tree. Nathanael’s calling is an act of pure grace on Jesus’ part – Jesus reaches out to him, and sees him as he truly is, an honest and decent man. Jesus looks inside Nathanael’s soul and sees good. 

And that’s the first message from this passage. We have to be ready to respond to God’s calling, to seeing Jesus, but it’s always possible because God always makes it possible. Because God looks inside each one of us and sees good. He sees past the uncertainty and doubt, past the weariness, past the wrongs we’ve done or think we’ve done, past our sense that we can’t cope – and he sees us as good, sees us as loved children of God. I know that’s something I need to hear, that however much I can’t believe it myself, I am called by God through the love of God, not through any action of my own.

Listen. Look. Be watchful. 

Now January can be an exciting time, with the new year and new life and new challenges. But it can also be a dark time, if you don’t know what the year will bring. It can literally be dark – the mornings continue to get darker not lighter for a few weeks after the winter solstice, and the Christmas lights and decorations have gone down at last. But sometimes it’s precisely in the dark times that God speaks to us. A couple of stories that I heard recently of God speaking into the darkness.

Tomorrow is the anniversary of the birth of Martin Luther King, celebrated as a holiday in the United States. Dr King was a great agent of change, a man of the gospel, and a powerful orator, but he too suffered doubts. In his book describing the Montgomery bus boycott, he writes of a moment of despair in his kitchen:
I was ready to give up. With my cup of coffee sitting untouched before me, I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing a coward. In this state of exhaustion, when my courage had all but gone, I decided to take my problem to God. With my head in my hands, I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud.
The words I spoke to God that midnight are still vivid in my memory. "I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I've come to the point where I can't face it alone.
At that moment, I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced God before. It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: "Stand up for justice, stand up for truth; and God will be at your side forever." Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything.
If Martin Luther King could face that kind of despair, how can it be wrong for the rest of us to do so? Yet that kind of experience of God is just as much available to all of us as it was to Dr King. Sometimes it comes through others as much as well. Here is an example of this.

The BBC broadcaster Ernie Rea tells of attending an Easter Vigil in the night in a Catholic church in Derry during the Troubles. The church was in complete darkness, but not a peaceful darkness – on all sides he could hear the sounds of violence, of gunfire. And then the priest lit a single candle, and proclaimed the light of Christ, and the light spread through the church, bringing hope in the darkness. But then something else happened. Ernie Rea was the only Protestant in the church, so when all the rest of the congregation moved forward to take the Eucharist, he stayed seated – and again, he felt cast down into darkness. But having served the others, the priest walked all the way down the aisle, and served Ernie Rea the Eucharist at his seat. And he was lifted up, and it felt to him that light had returned to that place. Because the priest hadn’t tried to teach anything, he had simply shown by his actions that hope comes through relationship, that God acts through other people.

And that can be part of our response to God’s calling upon our lives. It’s partly about understanding what we’re being asked to do or be, about casting aside preconceptions and assumptions, about learning to listen to the still small voice of God which doesn’t for most of us come booming out of the sky but calmly chips away at what we thought we knew. But it’s also about building relationships, about demonstrating God’s love through our actions. It’s about inviting others to ‘come and see’, and it’s about living our lives so that people will see God’s love through us.

Listen. Look. Be watchful. 

Samuel eventually responds to God’s calling as you might expect a prophet to do – faithfully, carefully, preparing himself to listen and act. We’re not told in the reading today of the message God will give him, but it turns out to be unexpectedly powerful, one which “will make both ears of anyone who hears it tingle”. Because Eli’s sons are corrupt and violent, and Eli isn’t doing anything to stop them, and Samuel’s message from God is that he, Samuel, a boy, is to speak up against Eli the great prophet, a powerful figure, his own mentor. So Samuel’s message turns out to be a tough one. And sometimes we’re called to speak out against the powerful, to call out corruption or bad practice or sexual violence or a lack of compassion, and to say ‘no! this is wrong!’. And sometimes we’re given strength to do that speaking out, and we’re carried in the arms of God – and other times it’s much harder to do so, and we might suffer for it, as Martin Luther King suffered for his witness against oppression. 

Then we turn to Nathanael’s response. And that’s perhaps still more surprising. Because he turns 180 degrees, he suddenly goes from having no interest in Jesus to recognising him as the son of God and the king of Israel. In our world, 2000 years on, those are important but innocuous titles, common things to call Jesus. But in Roman-occupied Israel, they were revolutionary statements. Because the king of Israel was ultimately the Roman Emperor, and the Son of God was a title that the Emperor gave to himself. And if Jesus was those things, then the Emperor was either a liar or due to be deposed or set aside. Nathanael was not making a profession of faith, he was making a political statement. He was setting himself very clearly on one side rather than another. 

And Jesus promises Nathanael that this particular epiphany is just part of a much larger epiphany to come, when he will see the angels and the son of Man face to face, language to do with the end-times in Jewish thought. Nathanael’s experience and his statement will lead on to more and greater experiences of God.

And so at last we’re promised this too. That if we listen for our calling, if we build relationships and bring hope to others, if we challenge the powers of this world and put ourselves on the side of the powers of the kingdom of God. That if we do these things, we will see God and we will hear God and we will walk more deeply with God.

Listen. Look. Be watchful. And respond. 


Monday, 13 November 2017

Coral spawning and the hope of resurrection

"It's like the coral is being blessed!" said my 8-year old, as we watched the latest episode of Blue Planet 2. Coral spawning. It happens once a year, when the moon is full in spring and when the coral is ready. It is synchronised across the reef, with all the coral spawning at once; and many of the other creatures that live on the reef spawn along with the coral.

That night, that holy night. Because I agree with my son - this is an act of blessing. It's a natural act, that happens annually. But it is an act of blessing and mystery, a gift from God. It has been laid into the coral's DNA to ensure new life and growth.

But there is more: it also ensures rebirth. The episode also talked movingly about the widespread bleaching of coral due to global rises in sea temperature (due to human-made climate change), leading to the coral being unable to grow. Many coral reefs around the world are suffering hugely - 2/3 of the Great Barrier Reef has become bleached - and it's possible there may not be any coral reefs by the end of the century.

But there is hope - slim but real. The spawning of the coral gives these complex ecosystems the chance to be renewed each year, creating a new community in a different place as the spawn sails through the ocean. And maybe, just maybe, coral reefs can be renewed and reborn in different places and in ways that can withstand the worst that humans are throwing at them. Because hope springs eternal, and resurrection happens everywhere. One day a year in spring can be Easter for the coral reefs - and hope is always and everywhere for the rest of the world also.