Thursday, 17 July 2014

Why Assisted Dying needs to be resisted

Should we legalize Assisted Dying? The debate will last some time, but there is one historical factor that might make us pause before making such a step, however minor it may seem at the time, and however many safeguards surround it.

Michael Burleigh's book, 'Sacred Causes: Religion and Politics from the European Dictators to Al Qaeda' is a long read, at times depressing and inspiring, but always impresssively erudite. One of the most interesting sections is on the Nazis extermination policies in the 1930s.

It started with the gradual acceptance of the idea (shamefully agreed to in 1930 by the 'Inner Mission' one of the main Protestant welfare agencies), that sterilization was 'morally legitimate', even perhaps an act of duty towards future generations, a necessary means of social progress. It seemed at the time a fairly harmless move, only voluntary, with no indication that it led anywhere else. 


The next step was the decriminalization of voluntary eugenic sterilization in 1932. That again seemed a fairly harmless step. After all, no-one was forcing it on anyone, it was only for those who chose to have themselves sterilized on racial grounds, opening up the possibility that someone might choose to stop themselves bearing children in the future, and thus perpetuating their own race. 

The next stage was the possibility of sterilization at the consent of a guardian, for those whose own behaviour indicated that their children could end up being 'anti-social'. Once the earlier rubicon had been crossed, this didn't seem too bad either. After all, if the principle of the benefits of sterilization had been established, then a legal guardian worried about a teenager's behaviour might choose to save society the trouble and cost of future aggro by preventing any possibility that promiscuous delinquent youths might give birth to other promiscuous delinquent youths. It wasn't a huge step then towards the legalisation of compulsory sterilization at the decision of the local Party, who decreed that certain elements of society should be nipped in the bud and no longer allowed to replicate themselves.

From there it became feasible to imagine not only the enforced sterilization of undesirables but their extermination. After all, if you are stopping a particular kind of person from reproducing, why not go a stage further back and stop them living?

The point is that Nazi Germany did not suddenly go from a 'normal' society to one that could tolerate mass state murder of its own citizens overnight. It happened gradually, incrementally, step by step, almost while no-one, even 'good' people, noticed. It is to my mind one of the arguments that should make us pause before legalising Assisted Dying, however desirable it may seem to stop someone's pain. You never know where it will lead once you step out on that path. 

Sunday, 20 April 2014

Here is Athanasius on the difference Easter makes


"The Savior is working mightily among men, every day He is invisibly persuading numbers of people all over the world.., to accept His faith and be obedient to His teaching. Can anyone, in face of this, still doubt that He has risen and lives, or rather that He is Himself the Life? Does a dead man prick the consciences of men, so that they throw all the traditions of their fathers to the winds and bow down before the teaching of Christ? If He is no longer active in the world, as He must needs be if He is dead, how is it that He makes... the adulterer [cease] from his adultery, the murderer from murdering, the unjust from avarice, while the profane and godless man becomes religious...

All the disciples of Christ despise death; they take the offensive against it and, instead of fearing it, by the sign of the cross and by faith in Christ trample on it as on something dead. Before the divine sojourn of the Savior, even the holiest of men were afraid of death, and mourned the dead as those who perish. But now that the Savior has raised His body, death is no longer terrible, but all those who believe in Christ tread it underfoot as nothing, and prefer to die rather than to deny their faith in Christ, knowing full well that when they die they do not perish, but live indeed, and become incorruptible through the resurrection. But that devil who of old wickedly exulted in death, now that the pains of death are loosed, he alone it is who remains truly dead. There is proof of this too; for men who, before they believe in Christ, think death horrible and are afraid of it, once they are converted despise it so completely that they go eagerly to meet it, and themselves become witnesses of the Savior's resurrection from it. Death has become like a tyrant who has been completely conquered by the legitimate monarch; bound hand and foot the passers-by sneer at him, hitting him and abusing him, no longer afraid of his cruelty and rage, because of the king who has conquered him. So has death been conquered and branded for what it is by the Savior on the cross. It is bound hand and foot, all who are in Christ trample it as they pass and as witnesses to Him deride it, scoffing and saying, 'O Death, where is thy victory? O Grave, where is thy sting ?'"


Monday, 3 March 2014

An Experience of German Fussball

We walk towards the ground through the drizzle. Union Berlin at home to FSV Frankfurt. We trudge along wet streets into the woods - that's an odd one: don't think I've ever approached a football ground through a forest before, but then the stadium is called An der Alten Försterei, which I suppose is a bit of a clue.

The first thing that strikes you is the scarves. Everyone has one. At an English game, a few kids might have scarves, some will have team shirts, but quite a lot of people won't wear colours at all. Here there is a much more open display of allegiance by virtually everyone in the crowd.

We are still outside the stadium. Groups of people stand round talking, drinking beer and eating sausages (this is Germany after all). There is a sociability here that is unfamiliar. People have arrived a good hour before kick-off, to spend time gathering in a way that is rare before an English league match.

Having duly eaten our brotwurst, we climb up into the stand and make our way to the front. It is still a good 45 minutes before the start and already the area behind the goal is packed, and the singing has started. Eventually, as the players emerge, the entire home crowd holds scarves above their hearts while singing the club anthem. My arms ache. It's hard work holding scarves aloft.

As the game starts it quickly becomes apparent that the relationship between the crowd, the game and the players is totally different here. In England, what happens on the pitch tends to determine what happens in the crowd. At home games especially, if the team is winning, the volume goes up. If it is losing, or the game is dull, the crowd tends to fall into sullen silence.  The crowd has come to watch a game of football, and might sing some songs if it's going well. Here, it seems, it's the other way round. The crowd has come to sing some songs and happen to watch a game of football while they are doing so.

The game, which to be honest was a little dull, seems to have little impact on the singing, which continues virtually non-stop until the final whistle and beyond. And it's at the end that you most notice the difference. In England, some fans always leave before the end to miss the traffic. Most make for the exit as soon as the final whistle blows. A few stay behind to clap the team off the pitch, but the ground is usually empty within 15 minutes of the end of the game. Here, there is a lap of honour, the players saluting all four sides of the ground, gathering before each stand doing the continental thing - lining up, holding hands, raising and lowering them in time, as if they had just won the Champions' League. The crowd stays put for a good half an hour, singing and celebrating - following the lead of the Vorsinger, an entire stand bounces up and down at the end of the game. The sense of unity and mutual feeling is palpable. In England the crowd celebrates a win. Here, they celebrate the club.

And it is the club, das Verein that matters. The focus is not the players, the team, the game, or even the result that matters. The crowd is almost disengaged from the game, even to the extent that the Vorsinger, the two cheerleaders who conduct the singing and leading chants, have their backs to the game and face the crowd, not the pitch. Songs are focused not on the players (apart from one song for club talisman Torsten Mattuschka) nor the opposition (there is not one single anti-Frankfurt or anti-Hertha Berlin song all game, or '"who the f****** h*** are you?" songs at the away fans), but Eisern Union, The club. It is all about das Verein. The German word for club, Verein, literally means a 'making one'. And that is exactly what happens here. The crowd acts more as one than any English crowd.

This has its downsides too. You don't tend to get the witty banter of an English crowd, with songs made up on the spot in reaction to the opposition mascot, events on the pitch or figures in the home crowd (at a recent Bristol City away game, a home fan in a red and white bobble hat was the object of endless ribald songs - 'Wally, Wally, give us a wave...' - it didn't seem like this was likely to happen here.)

The game? A routine 2-0 win for the home team. The Union midfield bossed the game and with a decent striker would have won more comfortably than a first half penalty and a defender's late run  into the box allowed. The standard seemed around English League 1, which, seeing as this was the top half of the second tier of German football was a bit of a surprise. In England, the football tends to be better, but the experience as a whole less rich.

It felt a bit like the past - standing on terraces, scarves held above the head, endless singing - all reminiscent of the 1970s back home (without the violence, mind). At the same time it felt like the future. Or at least what the future could look like. Union is 100% fan owned, which goes a long way to explaining the sense of unity and belonging. English clubs owned by oligarchs or local businessmen in suits offer a product, entertainment for customers, rather than an experience of belonging for fans. I did miss the element of intense interest in the game and the result, but maybe that's just because Union are not quite my team. At least not yet.

Sunday, 9 February 2014

"Looking Through the Cross" is the title of the Archbishop of Canterbury's Lent Book for 2014, which I wrote last year, and was published a little while ago. Here is a small excerpt from the Introduction. The book can be bought on Amazon here

Looking is something we do all the time. From the moment we wake in the morning until we close our eyes before sleep at night, if we have the precious gift of sight, we spend all of our days looking at things. It is so natural a part of our lives that we barely consider it. It is the kind of action, like breathing or talking, that occurs unconsciously, without our noticing that we are doing it. At this very moment you are looking at this page, or perhaps a screen, if you happen to be reading this as an e-book. If you look up from where you are sitting or standing, as no doubt you will in a moment, to take a break from the concentrated focus of reading, you will be able to look at a whole range of things, people, buildings, landscapes.

Looking is different from seeing. Seeing is a more passive activity. We see a passing car, a dog on the pavement, a film at the cinema, a flock of birds in the sky. When we see things, we do not really consider them, or perhaps even think about them. We ‘notice’ them, observe them, perhaps register in our minds that we have ‘seen’ them, but little more. Looking is a more purposeful activity. When we look at our reflection in a mirror, at the cover of a book, or at a photograph in a magazine, we gaze a little more intently, we pause, focus and try to take in what we see.

And there are different ways of looking. We can look at things. When we do this, we focus our attention on the thing we are looking at. We might come across a striking statue in a museum or a town square. We might walk around it, considering it from all sides, seeing how it fits into its surroundings, examining its contours, colour and shape, wondering how it was made, pondering what it tells us about the sculptor or what it is trying to say about its subject. To look at something is to make it the focus of attention and to try to understand it on its own terms, or in its environment.

But that is different from looking through something. We look through a window, or a pair of spectacles. A little like seeing, with this kind of looking, we are barely aware that we are doing it. When you look through a window, you are rarely aware that you are doing so. You at gazing at the object you see out of the window. The point of the window is to enable us to see what it beyond it, but in such a fashion as to not get in the way, to provide a transparent view, and to give us a clear sight of what we are seeing. It is similar, but also a little different, when it comes to looking through spectacles. When I put on my glasses, as I do first thing in the morning, from that moment on, I am hardly aware that I am looking through them – they have just become part of the way I see. And yet I notice when I take them off. Everything then becomes blurred, uncertain, hazy. My glasses enable me to see, but not by giving a kind of neutral, transparent film, as a window does, but by actually changing the way I look at something. I do not ‘see’ my spectacles, I do not ‘look at’ them – I look through them, and in the very act of looking, they change the way I see the world.

Eastern Orthodox Christians make extensive use of icons in worship and prayer. To the untrained western eye, these look like pictures images of Christ or the saints, to be looked at, studied or contemplated. Yet icongraphers and ordinary Christians in the east insist that an icon is not something to be looked at, but looked through. There was an old test of whether an icon writer’s work was valid as a true icon – can you pinch the nose of the figure in the icon between your thumb and forefinger? In other words, does anything stand out from the surface of the icon in such a way as to make it three-dimensional, rather than two-dimensional? An icon suitable for prayer or devotion very definitely needed just two-dimensions, not three. Why? Because if an icon has three dimensions, it becomes an object. It becomes something to look at, to examine in itself. You can, as it were, walk around it and look at it. The icon itself becomes the focus of attention, its colour, beauty, sense of proportion and so on. On the other hand, if it has only two dimensions, it becomes something to look through, not at. A window has, as it were, only two dimensions – height and width – it does not really have depth, or at least, the depth is not important, as it is transparent. An icon of Christ is intended as a window into Christ, so that you look through the image to the real Christ beyond it. At the same time (like the spectacles we considered just now) it shapes the way we look at Christ, by helping us see a distinct image of him. A three-dimensional icon becomes no longer an icon but an idol. It becomes something that stops us looking at Christ and just our image of him, which is why the Old Testament, and many Christian traditions since then, warn against making images of God. Eastern Orthodox iconography can only avoid the charge of idolatry by maintaining this strict distinction between looking at and looking through.

This book is an act of two kinds of looking – looking at and looking through. Firstly, it looks at the cross, trying to understand more about this strange idea, that (as Christian theology has always claimed) God allowed his Son to die a gruesome and painful death. It tries to understand what that means and why it was in some sense necessary. The first two chapters therefore look at what the cross tells us about God and about ourselves.

The rest of the book is an exercise, not so much of looking at, but in looking through. It proceeds to view the cross, not only as an object to be studied or examined, but also as a lens through which we might look at the world. We will be trying to use the cross as a kind of lens through which to look at a whole series of aspects of contemporary life and experience. We will try to see how life looks when seen through the lens of the cross. It is in experiment in transparency, seeing the cross as an interpretive key for looking at the world.

Sometimes we have to look at a pair of spectacles or a pane of glass in a window to understand how it is made, why it works. To serve as a good pair of spectacles they need to work well, and so an understanding of how they work, how the frame fits the glass, how the glass is designed is vital. However, spectacles and windows are primarily for looking through, not at. In the same way, the cross repays close attention to help us see what it is, why it happened, and how it affects us . However, it also can serve to help us see the world differently. What might it mean to live in a world in which the Son of God gave himself up to death at the hands of human beings like you and me? What does that tell us, not just about God and ourselves, but about issues such as ambition, failure, weakness, suffering, society?

Looking through the cross is in a way, an exercise that demands a certain kind of faith. Putting on a pair of spectacles can make the whole world look clearer and more distinct. Put on the wrong pair, and it makes it worse. Everything becomes more blurred and hazy. It can even give you a headache. How do we know whether 'looking through the cross' in this way will improve, not damage our vision? There are a number of voices that would argue that the cross, as a symbol of violence and punishment is the last thing we should take as our key for looking at the world. We will be looking at these arguments from time to time as we go through this book. However for the time being, we have to just take a chance. How do you know whether a pair of spectacles will improve your vision? There is only one way: to try them on. This book is an exercise in doing just that.

To buy a copy click here

Friday, 5 July 2013

Is Winning all that matters?


In sport, is winning all that matters? Two stories this week have raised this intriguing question. The first was the 10 year anniversary of Roman Abramovitch’s reign at Chelsea. His millions turned a fairly good to average Premiership side into one that won all the major trophies at some point over the past 10 years, even the Champions League through their perhaps lucky but certainly plucky displays in 2012. In a recent interview on Sky TV, Matthew Syed pointed out however that this success has been built on dirty money. Abramovitch’s fortune was made when he and a group of other oligarchs made a deal to support Boris Yeltsin in return for the cut-price acquisition of much of Russia’s mineral wealth. Resources that should have gone to support the people of Russia ended up in the hands of a few wealthy moguls. The discussion on Sky was intensely revealing. Syed raised significant moral questions, which seemed to baffle Sky’s usual pundits, who could only see the football success Abramovitch had brought. So what if he’s a crook – he wins trophies, and that is all that matters.
The other incident is Warren Gatland’s decision to drop Brian O’Driscoll. The argument used by Gatland is a) that BOD has not been at his best in this series and that other centres fit into his game plan better, and b) that there is no room for sentiment in sport – decisions have to be made with the head rather than the heart, there is no room for sentiment in sport, because after all, winning is all that matters.
On the first argument, the call must be marginal at best. True BOD made a bad pass at one stage in the last game, and fell foul of the officials’ interpretation of the breakdown in the first test, but other than that, he has more tackles than anyone else in the last game, has not missed a tackle in the series so far. There is far from a cast iron case that he needed to be dropped on rugby issues alone.
It is the second argument is the one that interests me though. Is there really no room for sentiment in sport? Is winning all that matters? If so, is it worth playing if you lose? Who wins if one side win with dishonour and the other loses with honour?  Do values such as teamwork, history, respect, camaraderie, sportsmanship really not matter one jot compared to winning? It was this attitude that led to Neil Back’s infamous cheat on Peter Stringer in the 2009 Heineken Cup Final or ‘Bloodgate’ when Dean Richard’s Harlequins tried to win with fake blood.
There surely is a place for sentiment in sport. Not an over-riding one, sure. If BOD had been not up to scratch, than fair enough, drop him, but with such fine margins, surely there is an argument that one of the greatest players in Lions history, one of the best over the past 15 years deserved one more shot at glory. To lead the Lions in what is probably his last international would have been a fitting way to end one of the great rugby careers. To deny him that chance, is surely an act of disrespect and dishonor in the name of the mantra that 'winning is all that matters'.
Sport is so much more than winning. It is worth playing in itself, as a celebration of our physicality, interdependence and joy in life. It is worth doing as well as we are able. Yet winning does not trump goodness, respect and fairness. This week has seen sport loo a bit grubby and less magnificent than it can be. I truly hope that Warren Gatland and Roman Abramovitvh are not the future of sport.  

Sunday, 26 May 2013

German Football - Recovering the Drama of Sport

German football is all the rage these days. The age of Spanish tiki-taki is over, supplanted by speed in turning defence into attack, direct running into space, the ball delivered into those spaces by deft flicks, backheels, outside-of-the-foot passes – football played at pace, great to watch, with skill and panache, executed by the young Turks (or Poles) of Dortmund, and most effectively by Bayern Münich.  

I had the privilege of being at the Champions’ League Final on Saturday (and it was a privilege). What struck me was not just the style of football but the difference between German and English fan culture, and the reminder of what English football lacks these days. Despite having been to what must be over 400 football matches in my life, this was different.
Germans are famous for their organisation, and it seems to have been applied to their football as well as their industry – to BVB and FCB as well as to VW. I’ve been to a few Wembley finals: a play-off with Bristol City, Man United beating Villa in a League Cup & losing to Barcelona in the 2011 Champions League Final, and a few England games too. In each of those matches, the atmosphere was frankly a disappointment. Clubs have some fans who like to sing and others who don’t. Because clubs sell tickets to fans randomly, the ‘singers’ get scattered around the vast stadium. As a result hardly any songs get going, and those do are out of time and soon fall flat. In this game, the Bayern ‘Ultras’, the rowdy, but generally well-behaved singers were all deliberately grouped by the club on the top shelf behind the goal, making a heck of a racket. Borussia Dortmund had ensured the ‘Unity’ fan group were placed as a block behind the goal, the centre of the famous Dortmund ‘Gelbe Wand’. In front of the main singing group behind the goal were three ‘Vorsinger’ – fans in the ubiquitous yellow shirt who spent the entire game with their backs to the action, conducting the singing and co-ordinated gestures of the fans, alongside three drummers beating time to the fans. The Unity group in the centre was flanked by the ‘Jubos’ (Young Borussians) to their right, and another group to the left. Whatever the Vorsinger did, the Unity group did. What the Unity group did, the Jobos and the rest of the Dortmund fans soon joined in, in a rapidly spreading sequence. Within seconds of the Unity group starting to jump up and down, the entire Dortmund end, 30,000 people were bouncing up and down in a sight that made you fear for the stability of the stadium itself.
There were no anti-opposition songs. This is a surprise for any English football fan, where you expect a fair amount of abuse and taunting of the opposing club, or individual players (usually John Terry). Similarly, there were few songs about individual players on either side, just songs supporting the team. The songs continued virtually the whole game. United away games are the closest I have seen to this, but it is still pretty rare in English football, where interest wanes considerably throughout the game. I know this was the CL final, but this seems to be pretty standard in a lot of German football.
When the UEFA-sponsored pre-match entertainment was on, some choreographed ‘battle’ between a red army and a yellow one, with flags and plastic arrows involved, the Unity group turned their backs, disdaining to watch mere entertainment that was nothing to do with football.

The result was a quite remarkable atmosphere – by far the best of any Wembley or Premiership match I have ever been to. Why? A number of factors stand out:
Perhaps the main thing is that due to the famous German 50+1 rule, where the majority of the voting rights to Bundesliga clubs has to remain with the members (fans), the clubs are clubs belonging to their fans, not businesses owned by distant moguls offering entertainment to spectators. Hence the organisation – the clubs work with the fans to make sure the singers sit together, the more rowdy and boisterous are encouraged rather than distrusted. The equivalent of a ‘Unity’ group in an English club would most likely be given police escorts to the ground, dispersed around the stadium, and treated as criminal suspects (and not surprisingly they sometimes end up behaving like them).

Virtually the whole crowd stood.  The introduction of all-seater stadia has killed the atmosphere in most English football grounds. I remember a Bristol City away game at Leeds a few seasons ago, where all the City away fans stood for the first 20 minutes, resulting in a feisty, loud, enjoyable atmosphere. A few zealous stewards then insisted on us all sitting down, ejecting a few who resisted. The result? The singing stopped, the atmosphere died. Home crowds from the Emirates to Old Trafford to Stamford Bridge are pretty mute these days, which is why I much prefer away games to home ones – at least at away games it tends to be the harder core, usually standing, a smaller, concentrated group intent on making a noise.
Sitting to watch is what you do at the theatre, not a football match. At the theatre, you don't interrupt, jeer, shout or sing - you just shut up and watch. And maybe this is the clue to it all. Football matches are meant to be a different kind of drama in which the fans are not just the audience, but get to play a part as well as the players. They are not mere passive spectators, but active participants who make a difference to the outcome of the game and the sense of occasion. Modern football, where clubs have been turned into businesses (as chronicled in David Conn’s excellent Richer Than God) and fans into spectators has often lost this element of the drama, diminished what was once a much more raw, alive, bristling experience into a sanitised, sedated performance, in which the fans’ vital part in the drama is excised. It is like a Greek tragedy with the ‘Chorus’ omitted, Hamlet without Horatio, King Lear without Cordelia. Fans are meant to be part of the play, playing a vital role in the event, and the Germans have found a way to bring them back onto the stage.

The English often feel a bit superior to the Germans when it comes to football – after all we invented the game. But now maybe it’s time to sit (or stand?), listen & learn.

Saturday, 30 March 2013

What Christians do


We start and end each day with prayer
We teach our children to pray
We read the Scriptures daily
We publicly confess our failures to each other & to God weekly
We share bread & wine together when we meet
We meet together with our local community of fellow Christians 
We work hard, for God, not for our employers
We give away a proportion of our income, often 10% or more
We do not swear
We do not get drunk
We don't do drugs but experience the energy of the Holy Spirit
We remain faithful to our wives and husbands
We encourage those who are not married to stay celibate and develop deep friendships
We try to meet the needs of the poor as far as we are able
We support other Christians elsewhere in the world
We try to share our faith with whoever is willing to listen
We honour our dead with burial in hope of Resurrection
We try to be honest in all our dealings
We look for ways to love our neighbour as ourselves
We express our gratitude for our daily food each time we eat
We listen for God's voice to us each day

And that's just for starters....