Monthly Archives: July 2015

The long shadows of history

I’ve been saving up this article about British slave owners for a couple of weeks. Slavery, as an institution, dates back many centuries, long before Britain had a civilisation let alone an empire. I say that merely because we have finally found a cruel and dehumanising oppression that we didn’t invent. Since the abolition of the slave trade and of slavery in (amongst others) 300BC, 206BC, 960, 1214, 1368, 1537, 1775, 1805, 1838, and again in 2007, we have considered it to be a solved problem that we needn’t worry about any more. We’re too civilised for that sort of thing.

Since the decriminalisation of homosexuality (in England and Wales) in 1967, this, too, has been something of a solved problem. In particular now, with the implementation of same-sex marriage in the whole UK and the US too, this has to be all fixed and happy.

Women have been able to vote since 1920 or 1928 (or others) and own their own property and manage their own money and open bank accounts and get credit and so on for a long time now. In fact, women have achieved so much equality that feminism is seen as a dirty word and is feared by some as a way to oppress men, some of whom have decided that they are the underprivileged few and they have to turn back the tide before they are overwhelmed.

It’s not quite that simple, of course, as I allude in the title of this post. History is casting a long shadow.

I have spoken about the oppression of black people in the US quite recently, and of how this oppression carries on even today. When black people were enslaved in the New World, they had nothing of their own. When slavery came to an end, they still had nothing of their own. They were free, but all around them, the land, the houses, the horses, the power was all held by white people, who begat more white people, and bequeathed to them the power and riches. Ten generations on, this begetting and bequeathing is still preventing people from achieving equality. Not only have possessions been bequeathed, so have attitudes.  In 1800, you were a slave; in 1850, you were the child of slaves; in 1900, you were descended from slaves, which meant that you had no worth as a human. Right up to today (remember the Black is ugly line from last month?), parents are passing on to their children the notion that some people are worth more than others because of the colour of the outer few millimetres of dead skin cells at the boundary of their body.

At least racism is starting to fall out of favour, though, as clearly based on nothing beyond oppression dressed up as oppression.

Homophobia lives on and has weekly parties in every town of the country. I’ll sidestep much of the usual rubbish here and relay a theory I have and its inevitable, in my opinion, conclusion. Some centuries, the church decided that gayness was the same thing as wrongness and chose to Frown upon it. Indeed, the frown got so deep and the oppression so energetic that gay people went underground. In the sixties, the sexual revolution did not pass gay people by, but the laws keeping them underground remained, so a culture of casual, anonymous sex grew amongst (mostly) gay men in the cities of the world. I have heard stories that ten or more different partners in a single night was not unusual. This, in turn, led to a bad reputation for gay men and led people to believe that to be gay meant to shag everything that moves, several times, then move on to anything else moving. This, in its turn, led to the church being able to stand up on its soapbox and proclaim that gayness was just as bad as it had been claiming all along: see all of these guys cheapening human sexuality and chewing through the whole football team at a single party.

The way forward, here, is for the church to stand up start speaking some truths. Like “it was we who pushed gay people into their closets; it was we who denied them their sexuality; it was we who sowed the seeds of this culture of depraved promiscuity, so it must be we who roll up our sleeves and start to pick up our mess. We have been the oppressors, we must stand tall and lift you up with us, in contrition. We must bandage your wounds and present you to God as the beautiful creations he made you and it is we who must beg the forgiveness of the Almighty and of the people for our sins.” The church could (should) have come out as a huge counter-cultural voice, way back when. It was the church that should have extended her protection to these people who needed it most. The rewards could have been great and, naturally, have been missed and squandered.

And on to women. In the year of our Lord 2015, there is still a gender pay-gap in every society. The country with the most gender-balanced parliament is Rwanda. Not the US. Not the UK. No, it is famous-for-genocide Rwanda that is getting it. The British Army have had to launch a poster campaign to educate its (men) soldiers that they need to obtain actual consent prior to forcing themselves onto a colleague. Gamergate exists. The Everyday Sexism project exists. Beach body ready is a thing.

Again, the church could follow Jesus’ lead in taking a radical stand against oppression in this area too.

Not going to happen though. Not any time soon. There is too much power in the hands of people who do not wish to relinquish just enough to acknowledge that others are people too.

Yesterday morning, I spent an hour writing a long and winding ramble that made little enough sense to me and will make none to you. Today, I’m trying again.

The gist of it is that Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith (who famously tried to claim £39 for a single breakfast on expenses funded by the taxpayer: I’m sure he’d be delighted if other public servants tried the same thing, but I digress) seems to be a Roman Catholic.

This came as something of a surprise to me.

I am surprised because we Catholics are supposed to be followers of Jesus Christ. Yes. That Jesus Christ. The one in the bible. Let’s look at Matthew 25:31-46 as a jumping-off point.

This is the story about Judgement Day, when God will collect up all the people and have a quick word with them all. On his right hand, he will gather people who visited the lonely, welcomed the stranger, cared for the sick and clothed the naked – in short, the people who look after people who need help – and he will say to them “well done, thank you for your good work, come into paradise.”

On God’s left hand, however, he will gather the people who did not visit the lonely, did not welcome the stranger, did not care for the sick and did not clothe the naked. To these people, he will say “whenever you did not do this for the least of my people, you did not do it for me” and he will dump them into eternal damnation.

Jesus does not mince his words here.

Note that he’s not condemning the people who actively sought the destruction of the weak, he’s condemning everyone who didn’t lift a finger to help them. You need to actively do good in order to end up on the right hand.

Luke 16:19-31 has a similar message. In it, there is a rich man and a desperately poor man who scratches out a living by the rich man’s gate. The rich man enjoys his wealth and ignores the poor man, Lazarus, and passively allows Lazarus’ suffering to continue. In time, they both die and are judged. Lazarus is taken to paradise to be with Abraham; the rich man ends up in torment. Abraham takes the time to explain to the rich man what he did wrong and that there is no way back. Sorry, dude, but you should have listened to the lessons in the scriptures.

Luke 10:25-37: through no fault of his own, a person finds himself in a squalid situation that he cannot get out of by himself. He needs someone to inconvenience themselves to help him. The two people with status and holiness in society pass by in a hurry, they clearly have important things to do elsewhere and can’t stop to help. The person praised in the story for helping is the one that nobody in Jesus’ society would ever even acknowledge let alone speak to.

It is worth noting that the scandal that Jesus caused by telling these stories got him nailed to a tree.

Atheist members of the government have the advantage here. They can legitimately claim that they are not accountable to a higher power, so they are at liberty to be heartless bastards who revel in the suffering of others (please note that I’m tarring Tories with this brush, not atheists).

Christian Tories (personally, I have no idea how a person can subscribe to both ideologies, but I know that many do) have the problem that they are bound by Christ’s words (the clue’s in the name Christian) and cannot justify the suffering they cause to others when they construct a system designed to enrich the rich at the expense of the poor and marginalised.

And I reserve special venom for Catholic Tories. Simply because they embarrass me. I am a Catholic, and it irks me when people in power, publicly Catholic themselves, seem indifferent to the suffering of others and blithely pursue policies that are diametrically opposed to those explicitly stated by Jesus himself.

It’s not just me, though. The Catholic Church’s own charitable body seems to feel much the same way.

On the other hand, Mr Duncan Smith does appear to keep his religion out of his politics…

We’re not racist, dear

Are you a racist?

It’s terribly unfashionable to be one these days. Most of us decent, middle-class white folk would bristle at the very suggestion that we are racist or that we support racism.

And that is the point, really, that John Metta is making in his blog over at Those People magazine. He is, of course, generalising, but the point he makes is a good one. When a black person talks about racism, she is talking as a black person, and she sees herself as a part of a large group of people who are still being judged because of the colour of their skin. When a white person talks about racism, she is talking as an individual, frequently an individual who has never experienced the direct effects of racism, so is able to deny that it is something she would do or that she has ever seen.

Racism is a solved problem.

Except that it isn’t. My wife had to point it out to me when we first met, because I was pretty convinced that racism was a solved problem. Particularly in the UK. The US was still racist, of course, but we’d fixed that with slavery back in the 19th century.

Metta’s thrust is that talking about race to the privileged white folks who unknowingly perpetrate it is mostly pointless. Telling a white person about racism will often result in the race equivalent of Not All MenI don’t do that sort of thing, dear: not all white people are racist, please don’t hurt my feelings by suggesting that I, personally, am to blame for police brutality or the slaughter of innocent lives in Charleston. I am a decent individual, thank you very much, and I would never kill a black person simply because they are black. Racism is a solved problem, now let me take my white children to the white school so they can get the sort of education that black people can only dream about which will propel them into the best jobs and positions of power where they, in their turn, can deny that racism is a problem because they have never seen it happen.

In the same way that it’s not very British to admit to homophobia (all Panti wanted to do was walk down the street holding hands with his boyfriend), it’s equally un-British to admit to racism. Middle-class America seems to have the same attitude.

If a black person commits a crime, that’s because black people are criminals.

If a white person commits a crime, that’s because a specific individual went bad.

Even the Independent’s headline is racist: “Charleston shooting: Black and Muslim killers are ‘terrorists’ and ‘thugs’. Why are white shooters called ‘mentally ill’?”. Black and Muslim killers and white shooters. The white person killed just as completely as the black and muslim killers did, yet he is spared the verb “to kill” and gets the much gentler verb “to shoot”. Shooting can have many results, including an Olympic medal. Killing, on the other hand, has already declared loss of life. The white guy who shot up the church in Charleston is as much a killer as the black person or the (race-unspecified) Muslim person in the headline, yet he gets the verb that implies that the killing was not a foregone conclusion when he pulled the trigger.

A problem black people have when bringing all this racism to the attention of white people is that they can get emotional about it. “This is happening.”  “But I can’t see it.”  “IT’S BLOODY WELL HAPPENING!” is the kind of exchange I am talking about. The difficulty is that this simply ends up with the black person coming across as The Angry Black Person, which further perpetuates the stereotype that black people are angry. The fact that it is an entirely reasonable reaction to the pure injustice of the situation they’re talking about is irrelevant.

I have seen it myself when I get exercised about transgender issues. I can say how things are, how I have come to understand some of the problems that transgender people face and how it is completely unjust that they end up with kidney problems because they cannot use public toilets without the threat or application of violence, but I find that I’ve said the same things so many times that people aren’t listening to me any more. I am that angry transgender-rights voice (and not a very good one at that), who is just banging the same drum over and over again and the message is lost. The status quo wins.

So, what can we do about it? This problem is not going to go away unless the privileged actively undermine their own privilege. It’s long since time that we did, but how do we begin?

As I have hinted, this is an intersectional problem about privilege: it is not simply a problem about racism. It’s about sexism, homophobia and transphobia too. Hell, it’s about the discrimination experienced by disabled people, by “ugly” people, by poor people, by people who cannot work (sometimes after working their arses off for 30 years or more), by all people who lack privilege in any given situation.

The Huff Post has a hint about what we might be able to do to start this. The article is about the Green Dot project, which aims to prevent sexual assault by empowering bystanders to intervene in situations long before the assault actually occurs. Given the intersectional nature of discrimination, I believe that the techniques deployed by Green Dot can be carried over into any other area where -isms are at play. If we take the responsibility ourselves for the problem, rather than taking the ‘other individuals do that’ approach, and use our eyes and our ears to see the signs, we can stop the violence before it happens. It is up to us privileged people to challenge other privileged people about their words and actions.

Until we do, we’re stuck reading the same old headlines.

Something positive

This blog is often a bit of a rant, so I’m taking a week out to be a little bit positive.

Sort of.

I’ll begin with an update on a story I commented on a couple of weeks ago, where 3-year-old Aboriginal girl Samara Muir was racially abused in the queue for a Frozen-themed attraction in a Melbourne shopping centre. People have been rallying around her, in the hope that she will lose the revulsion she was given about the colour of her own skin. The latest news from Melbourne doesn’t say if she’s mentally recovered yet, but it is rather positive: she got to meet the stars of the Frozen show and have tea with them at the Langham Hotel.

In transgender news, it seems that the “80% of boys who wear dresses in childhood do not grow up transgender” statistic that is widely quoted (I have used it myself) is actually based on an entirely dodgy conclusion drawn from missing data. Over at How to be a Girl, Marlo Mack debunks the myth. She and her daughter are involved in a longitudinal study that hopes to fill in some of the gaps that exist in the global body of scientific knowledge. We are seeing the very first generation of Western children who are being allowed to grow up transgender. Before now, transgender children were suppressed, sometimes brutally, and forced to hide their identities. Some killed themselves, some transitioned later in life and the rest… we simply don’t know. In the last few years, however, there has been a growing acceptance that gender is a little more complicated than we have been taught, and some parents are starting to listen when their children tell them “I am a girl” or “I am a boy”.

We are a generation of pioneers. This is a mixed blessing, of course. It is wonderful that young trans kids are not having their souls crushed by well-meaning doctors and parents and less-well-meaning peers and kids on the school bus, but it also means that we are flying blind. There simply does not exist any scientific data on the outcomes of this approach to childhood. There is plenty of data about that suggests that suppression leads to suicide and general misery and there is anecdotal evidence that shows that children allowed to dress how they desire and to present themselves how they choose to are much happier than children who have their favourite clothes and toys taken away, but there have been no scientific studies completed looking at the issue of raising trans kids in a supportive environment.

The study Marlo Mack and her daughter are involved in is one of several I have heard of, but they are all, necessarily, studies that take a lot of time, and simply cannot report any outcomes until the people in the studies are old enough to count as an outcome. All we can do is trust the parents to know what is working for their children and wait and wait and wait.

Time, as they say, will tell.

Staying with the transgender theme, Raising My Rainbow has some encouraging news for American schoolchildren in Greenfield, Massachusetts. The Center School there is becoming something of a specialist with transgender and gender-nonconforming children. They have created a scholarship fund in honour of a trans student at the school and have named it in honour of Raising My Rainbow. If you’re feeling generous, do pop over and give them your money.

Also on RMY this week is a link to a segment on HBO’s Last Week Tonight where David Baddiel-lookalike (and sound-alike: it’s almost as if we cloned Baddiel and sent him to enlighten Americans), John Oliver, talks about transgender issues in the US. If you are in the US or can persuade YouTube’s servers that you are, the link to the segment is here. If you can’t see it, I’ll quote Lori’s summary:

“Some transgender people do undergo hormone therapy or sexual reassignment surgery as part of their transition; some do not. And interestingly, their decision on this matter is, medically speaking, none of your f*cking business,” John Oliver said on HBO’s Last Week Tonight, in re media questioning of transgender interview guests’ body parts. Singled out for shaming: Barbara Walters, Wendy Williams, Katie Couric, Larry King, etc.

Oliver’s note to media: “If you’re still wondering, ‘What do I call a transgender person, it’s so confusing,’ actually it’s pretty simple – call them whatever they want to be called.”

It’s not nearly as hard as people think it is. Oliver mentioned Puff Daddy, who has been known variously as Puff Daddy, P. Diddy, Diddy and Puff Daddy again over the course of 20 years. It seems that we are able to cope with people asking us to call them something new. Except maybe Prince.

To finish off, I’ll share a TEDx talk that I can’t remember if I’ve shared with you before. Olympic athlete Janine Shepherd had what she described as “a pretty bad day” while out on a training bike ride with her teammates. She missed the Olympics, but she did get a new perspective on life. If we let our bodies define us, we lose sight of the fact that we are people. And beautiful ones at that.

WWJD, SCOTUS, USCCB, LGBT: 4 acronyms that matter to me

It’s a funny old world.

Here I am, sitting in the UK, watching the sun rise over a snooker-table landscape and yearning for the days when I could see hills from my window, yet most of my news about the shenanigans of my church comes from the other side of the Atlantic.  Following Ireland’s decision to adopt same-sex marriage as a constitutional right, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) has decided, by the slimmest of majorities, to do the same thing in that country.

Naturally, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) thinks this is appalling and means that we’re all going to Hell in a handcart.  Because the US recognising that two people love each other is a hateful thing, of course.  OMG, TOTC!  Naturally, it is the children who are way ahead of us as, increasingly, the children are not being taught to hate people who are a bit different from themselves and are growing both more incredulous that us oldies still hold onto beliefs that are unsupportable and more numerous as time goes by.

One moderate-ish voice from the USCCB, however, is that of San Diego’s bishop Robert McElroy.  In an interview reported in NCR, it seems that the good bishop has been reading the gospels.  He is far from thinking that the recognition of same-sex unions is a good thing – he is quite in agreement with the rest of the USCCB on that matter – but he has noticed something that I have pointed out here before (a point that I make frequently to anyone who is unlucky enough to hear me bitch about the state of the world, as I do often), specifically the WWJD question.

Too often, I have been involved in discussions with people who speak, apparently in the name of God, yet have not stopped for a moment to ponder whom we, as Christians, claim to follow. Bishop McElroy has. He has looked at the life of Jesus, as reported in the Gospels, and has noticed how Jesus encounters people. He has noticed that Jesus reserved his harshest words for religious leaders and the people sitting in power in his day, and poured scorn on those who would place intolerable burdens on the powerless and not lift a finger to help them. He has also noticed the way Jesus encountered those powerless people, how he spoke to them, how he loved them and, ultimately, how he brought them into a greater union with his Heavenly father.

Take, for instance, the story of the Samaritan woman, whom Jesus meets at a well. This woman is in what the Catholic church might call an irregular situation regarding her married state. In addition, as a Samaritan, she doesn’t even belong to the same church as Jesus. By all accounts, he shouldn’t be talking to her at all. She is exactly the sort of person the church would turf out of the door or, at the very least, bar from the sacraments. Many bishops are scandalised at the thought of allowing such people access to the Eucharist and even to reconciliation. In the account, we see Jesus verbally sparring with her about her sexual history. She holds her own and gets him back to theology pretty quickly. Jesus concedes that the theological arguments trump the simple focus on sex and speaks to her about the living water that he can offer to all people. As a result of this encounter with Jesus, she returns to her village and gets all of them to convert to following Jesus.

Bishop McElroy seems to have been reading this. He said

[Jesus’] first challenge to them is not to transform their lives, the first challenge to them is to understand the depth of God’s love for them, in their concrete circumstances with all their strengths and all their weaknesses.

He has probably also read the story of Jesus’ meeting with Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus was a tax collector. Tax collectors were rolled out whenever anyone of the time wanted an example of the depths to which human beings can sink. Not only did they work for Rome, the occupying power, taking money from hard-working Jews and passing it on to fund the occupation, but also many were corrupt, taking more money than Rome required and pocketting the difference. Zacchaeus was a rich man, and we are left to infer that he became rich through his own personal corruption. For any leader to even enter this man’s house would be unthinkable; for any leader to sit at his table and eat a meal with him would have been scandalous.

Jesus stopped under the sycamore tree that Zacchaeus had climbed to get a better view (I’ve heard one scholar suggest that sycamore trees were used for hangings and Jesus saved Zacchaeus from being lynched) and spoke to him. Take note that Jesus didn’t give Zacchaeus a list of conditions, a list of sins that Zacchaeus needed to repent of before Jesus would deign to enter his house. No. Jesus tells Zacchaeus to put the kettle on, as it’s nearly time for tea and he would like to spend time with him. Jesus accepts Zacchaeus unconditionally first. Zacchaeus’ transformation comes from within Zacchaeus himself, as a response to Jesus’ unconditional love for him.

If only people who call themselves Christian (and bishops especially) treated people like this more often.