Friday, May 22, 2015

Letter to Nadhim Zahawi (and Others) RE: The Proposals to Repeal and Replace the Human Rights Act (1998)

I have recently written a letter to my MP (Nadhim Zahawi), voicing my grievous feelings towards the proposal to repeal the Human Rights Act.  I have copied the text for anybody who reads my blog and would be interested in reading:

Dear Mr Zahawi

I am writing to you as one of your constituents who has grave concerns over the Government’s proposals to repeal the Human Rights Act (1998), with the intention of replacing it with a more UK centric Bill of Rights.

I have studied your rhetoric on Europe and my understanding is that your position is moderately Eurosceptical. For the sake of clarity, I will say that I agree with you that Britain’s best interests lie with us remaining as part of the European Parliament, but whilst I am also in agreement that the EU and European Parliament need reform and that the best solution lies in not “throwing out the baby with the bathwater”, I am generally less sceptical than you and disagree with you on where the “baby” ends and the “bathwater” begins. Whilst I hope to obtain your support on the basis of my own argument, I accept that a more convincing case may be to illustrate to you how Britain’s position within the EU may be threatened by the consequences of a successful repeal of the Human Rights Act.

My concerns on the matter of the Government’s position over the Human Rights Act date back to 2011, where I set out my thoughts at the time on my blog, 

In 2011, when this first became an issue for me, the Home Secretary attempted to convince the public that a Bolivian individual escaped deportation on the basis of owning a cat (when in fact the cat was merely cited as a minor example on a very long list of criteria illustrating that a human relationship the individual in question had, was genuine and thus fell under the right to family life), it became apparent to me that the reasons for trying to repeal the HRA were ideological and not merely practical. The argument most proponents for the intent to repeal make, is that it is simply a transfer of jurisdiction about where and who determines the same rights.  I believe this is a straw man argument - a selling point that highlights a potential beneficial consequence of a repeal that conceals its actual purpose.  Besides, it is our own judges who uphold rulings like these and so the issue is not about who interprets these laws, but on the laws themselves.
When you look at the primary text of the HRA, there is nothing wrong in principle at all with it, we would be right to frown on anybody who objected to them. However, if the HRA is being misinterpreted, it is only because civil case law has gradually, over time, eroded or mutated its intent. I have little doubt that the same fate would eventually await any British Bill of Rights.

We must always be aware that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. Even if the reasons for repealing the HRA were noble (something I do not accept), by committing to this course of action we would set a precedent for countries with a far more disturbing human rights record to emulate us. Great Britain helped lead the way in bettering human rights. As a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, we helped secure the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights; it was a British citizen who subsequently helped forge the document that became the European Convention on Human Rights. It would be shameful if having played such a significant role in bringing other nations into the light, we enabled the door to swing the other way and became facilitators for nations pining for the darkness.

What happens when we start deciding that for whatever reason, on principle, one human being has more value than another? Is it not a slippery slope that has potential to result in dark episodes?

We must also take the long view with regard to this legislation. If a Bill of Rights becomes something malleable that successive Governments can use to further their own private agendas then even if it were used for a good purpose, the spectre that a more questionable or nefarious use for it would always hang over it. If Government overplays its role in scrutinising who and what is acceptable, the very notion of who is protected by the Bill of Rights becomes a movable feast and this is dangerous.

I don't necessarily oppose the composition of a Bill of Rights as it could be a useful tool to accompany the HRA in defining the responsibilities that accompany the freedoms. However, I don't see why it should need to replace the HRA. The Act doesn't just defend my rights; if I abuse the rights of another, then the Act works against me too. In fact technically, the legislation could be protected against the politicians who wish to do away with it:

“If any of these rights and freedoms are breached, you have a right to an effective solution in law, even if the breach was by someone in authority, such as, for example, a police officer”.

Does that not suggest that if the Government (being a lawmaker and source of authority), tries to repeal the Act, then they are actually violating our existing statutory human rights and are prosecutable themselves?  In my view the only legitimate way around this would be to hold a referendum. If the electorate clearly demonstrate by two thirds majority that they ultimately reject HRA, then I could see (regrettably), a case for doing something about it, but that mandate at the moment is far from clear.

These are my arguments for retaining the current legislation but as I said earlier, I recognise that if I’m to win your support, I must make a different case and this is it:
As a moderate Eurosceptic, you appear to believe that we have a place within the existing EU and that in the case of a referendum; you would prefer us to stay within it. I put it to you that should the law pass within Britain our position within Europe would be threatened from other influential nations within the EU. I also put it to you that should the law fail to pass, less moderate Eurosceptic rhetoric will gain more traction and the influence of Europe may be used as a scapegoat to deflect or embellish embarrassment over Government defeat… this would likely have an adverse effect on the subsequent referendum to remain within the EU. If Great Britain did regrettably exit the European Union, I believe that then and only then would be the a more reasonable time to have a Bill of Rights in place as a legislative successor to the HRA.

In conclusion then, I ask once again for your support. I would be extremely grateful for a response on this occasion; in the past I have tried communicating with you via email and Twitter and whilst I recognise that the latter isn’t the best format for formal political engagement, I am deeply disappointed not to have had the courtesy of a reply to my previous correspondence. I apologise for the somewhat lengthy nature of this letter but I hope the amount of time I have taken to write this demonstrates the level of feeling I and many like me have on this matter.

Thank you for taking the time to read my thoughts. I would be grateful if you would consider what I have to say and let me know how you intend to proceed.

Kind regards

Yours sincerely

Nick Payne

Incidentally I have also dispatched similar letters (modified to reflect party position and general commentary), to David Cameron, Harriet Harman, Nick Clegg, Caroline Lucas, Alex Salmond, Jonathan Edwards, Tom Watson and Stella Creasy). I did so in deference to their position as respective leaders of their parties or in the case of the latter two MPs, because I have a modicum of respect for some of the notable high profile work they have done as individuals.

I additionally intend to follow these efforts up by corresponding with Justin Welby, John Sentamu and Prince Charles.

I will keep you up to date as to any response I receive. In the meantime here are a few links to some campaigns if you want to show some support... and a couple of questions for feedback here:

38 Degrees
Tom Watson

  • What are your thoughts and feelings with regard to the Government proposals to repeal the Human Rights Act 1998 and replace it with a UK Bill of Rights?
  • Are you planning on doing anything to make your views known?

Monday, May 04, 2015

Mysteries of the Force

Several weeks ago, the second Star Wars Episode VII teaser trailer was released. I, like many of you I'm sure, was as giddy as a schoolboy. I wanted to post something about it then... but I thought I would wait until Star Wars Day to remark on them, as it gave me an opportunity to talk about it in a wider context. First however, just in case you've been hiding underneath a rock on Tatooine and have somehow missed it, here is that teaser:

It was exciting stuff. When I saw the initial trailer, I was happy... but the highlights of that was the sight of X Wings and the Millennium Falcon in flight. However when I saw this second trailer, I was overjoyed. It was just a step-up. Yes there's that big reveal of Han Solo and Chewie at the end... but for me, that was icing on the cake.  The general feel of the teaser just recaptured some of that old Star Wars magic. It was the clever use of specific John Williams scores, coupled with dialogue from Luke Skywalker that most caught my imagination.

A hooded cyborg (in all likelihood, Luke), affectionately places a hand on R2D2 in the new teaser.
When I look back to the flawed works that were the prequel films, I think it is pretty fair to say that for some people one of the things that annoyed long time fans, was the introduction of midichlorians as a way of explaining the nature of The Force. Star Wars works best as space fantasy and mythology... it doesn't require an overly heavy explanation as to the mechanics of its universe in quite the same way that Star Trek or Babylon 5 might.

Part of the beauty of Star Wars was the idea that the Force *is* a mystery - something to be probed, contemplated and explored, but never really answered.  This is probably never more evident than in The Empire Strikes Back, when Luke Skywalker begins his training under Yoda. Now it's true that Yoda's musings slant towards Eastern philosophies, but I think they are general enough that the wider world can lap it up and draw its own parallels.

However, in the prequels the mysticism seemed to take a firm back seat to the action... it just didn't seem to be as important - to the films detriment. Curiously when George Lucas originally came up with Star Wars, the need for young people to ask questions about religion, was clearly in his mind:
"I put the Force into the movie in order to try to awaken a certain kind of spirituality in young people--more a belief in God than a belief in any particular religious system. I wanted to make it so that young people would begin to ask questions about the mystery. Not having enough interest in the mysteries of life to ask the question, "Is there a God or is there not a God?"--that is for me the worst thing that can happen. I think you should have an opinion about that. Or you should be saying, "I'm looking. I'm very curious about this, and I am going to continue to look until I can find an answer, and if I can't find an answer, then I'll die trying." I think it's important to have a belief system and to have faith."
George Lucas - Time Magazine, 1999

Yet strangely despite Lucas' motivation, I've always found the stories where these themes were explored with the most depth and the most explicitly were in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. Both of these were co-written by Lawrence Kasdan.

This is why I'm greatly reassured about The Force Awakens... Kasdan is back on board. Going on this fact and the feel of the trailer, I am quite hopeful that this new batch of films will be the spiritual successor of the original Star Wars trilogy.

I do wonder if the new films are going to explore an evolution of Jedi beliefs.  As uncomfortable as I am with the idea of midichlorians in the past, what if Qui-Gon Jinn's death and the subsequent Jedi purge, became the catalyst for a Jedi Reformation?  Qui-Gon was the first Jedi to return from the netherworld of the Force; what if his spectral instruction of the exiles Yoda and Obi-Wan, led them to a deeper understanding of the Force... one that led them to realise that midichlorians were not the Force... but were just present on/in many beings who were Force sensitive?  Maybe they were symbiotes or harmless parasites that hitched rides on many Jedi because they could feed off Force energy.

It's a way of bringing back and reinforcing of the concept of the Force as primarily being mystical in nature as opposed to biological.

Finally, as it *is* Star Wars Day (still, just) I want to leave you with two more statements from George Lucas from that same TIME interview back in 1999  and a couple of questions to you as food for thought:
I think there is a God. No question. What that God is or what we know about that God, I'm not sure. The one thing I know about life and about the human race is that we've always tried to construct some kind of context for the unknown. Even the cavemen thought they had it figured out. I would say that cavemen understood on a scale of about 1. Now we've made it up to about 5. The only thing that most people don't realise is the scale goes to 1 million.

I think there's definitely a place for organised religion. I would hate to find ourselves in a completely secular world where entertainment was passing for some kind of religious experience.
  • Do you think there is a God?
  • Has Star Wars in any way influenced you on a spiritual level?
  • Do you agree or disagree with George Lucas that organised religion has a place in society?
  • What are you most looking forward to in Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens?

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Habeas Corpus

I was asked to preach this morning on John: 20:19-31, which recounts the tale of St. Thomas and his moment of doubt (I refuse to call him "Doubting Thomas" because I don't believe that one incident defines him as a character).

I titled this talk Habeas Corpus which means "you may have the body", for reasons that I hope by the end... should become clear. But let me begin with a little joke:

A defendant was on trial for murder. There was strong evidence indicating guilt, but there was no corpse. In the defence's closing statement the lawyer, knowing that his client would probably be convicted, resorted to a trick: "Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I have a surprise for you all," the lawyer said as he looked at his watch. "Within one minute, the person presumed dead in this case will walk into this courtroom."
He looked toward the courtroom door. The jurors, somewhat stunned, all looked on eagerly. A minute passed. Nothing happened.

Finally the lawyer said, "Actually, I made up the previous statement. But you all looked on with anticipation. I therefore put it to you that there is reasonable doubt in this case as to whether anyone was killed and insist that you return a verdict of not guilty."

The jury, clearly confused, retired to deliberate. A few minutes later, the jury returned and pronounced a verdict of guilty. "But how?" inquired the lawyer. "You must have had some doubt, I saw all of you stare at the door." The jury foreman replied: "Oh, we looked... but your client didn't!"

A couple of years ago I preached about Thomas and defended him as a passionate man who despite his moment of doubt, was a person who clearly deeply cared about Jesus and a man who we could all relate to.

However when I read the passage in preparation for this morning, I was struck by how Thomas's experience and the manner in which he expresses his doubt is especially relevant to our world today. Throughout history, people have had doubts about the resurrection of Jesus... But today we live in an age where for many outside the church, cynicism has been superseded by passionate and zealous unbelief. Some share the thinking of certain prominent critics of the Church that something cannot be believed without empirical evidence.

I felt that these demands very much echo the words and attitude of Thomas when he meets the disciples following their encounter with the risen Jesus.

Thomas didn't merely say "I can't believe" or "I struggle to believe"; Thomas declared "UNLESS I SEE... I *WILL NOT* BELIEVE". He was adamant!

Doesn't that sound familiar?

Usually when we see this part of the gospel performed in a play or a film, no sooner has Thomas uttered the words, then a great shaft of light breaks into the room and Jesus stands before Thomas. However if we read the text, we see that an entire week passes before Jesus is seen again. It makes you think, doesn't it? God doesn't always answer our doubts immediately... sometimes he gives us time to reflect on what we say and feel.

What is important here, is that although Thomas and the other apostles were in different spiritual places... they didn't disassociate themselves from one another. Thomas didn't dismiss his friends as crazy and disappear never to be seen again; for their part, the apostles bore with Thomas as he struggled to deal with what he must have considered to be outlandish claims.

I think there's a lesson for us all there, wherever we are. If we are struggling... don't give up. If we see our friend struggling... don't walk away from them just because they are on a different page. Isn't there a subconscious temptation to move towards a subtle parting of the waves when we gradually learn that a friend is moving in a somewhat different direction that disappoints us? If so... we should learn to wise up to it and resist its pull.

After the feast of Passover was finished and Thomas and the other apostles have had pause to reflect, Jesus returns to their presence to give Thomas his definitive answer. Thomas is confronted by the significance of his own words quoted back to him in the response of the all-knowing very real and living Jesus:

 "*Put* your finger here; *see* my hands. *Reach out* your hand and put it *in* my side".

The wonderful thing about Jesus' response to Thomas is how accommodating he is. Last week we read how in the garden, Jesus asked Mary Magdalene not to hold on to him as he had not yet ascended to the Father. Yet here Jesus not only invites Thomas to observe his wounds, but to actually reach out and touch them in an intimate way.

It shows us that when Jesus meets us at our point of need, he is selfless and personal. It does not matter to him how much it might cost, hurt or inconvenience him... he us wiling to offer his life and his wounds that we might believe and have life.

But the thing I feel most burdened to write about this morning, is how we are to witness to those who have that passionate disbelief about the nature of Jesus, as represented by Thomas.

Earlier I joked about a lawyer who tried to use the absence of his client's victim as a way of proving reasonable doubt of his crime. If you recall, the punchline was that the jury didn't believe the client because even though *they* looked to see if the victim would enter the court, the client in the dock,
The Holy Spirit is like the defence lawyer in that joke. Now I'm not saying that the Holy Spirit is lying about the resurrected Jesus, far from it. What I am saying is that the Spirit prompts the people of the world to look to the idea, the reality of Jesus being alive. Yet so often, it's when people look back at us as his followers in the dock that their decision as to whether or not they are willing to believe is influenced.

If we aren't looking to the return of the resurrected Jesus, if we aren't living a life that acknowledges the resurrection in some way... do we not falsely make out to other that the Spirit lies?

Habeas Corpus. Can we present the body of the risen, living Jesus to the passionately disbelieving?
One day, whether it's tomorrow or in a million years, the Bible tells us that Jesus will walk through that courtroom door... every eye shall see. The people asking the question will have their empirical evidence. But what use is it to them then? In order to have life, they need to know it *now*.

Yet, while we wait for that day we have the opportunity to bring forth the body of the living Jesus, every day. As Paul tells us in his first letter to the Corinthians, While he sits at the right hand of the Father, We the Church *are* the body of Christ:

"Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it."
1 Corinthians 12:27

While we don't necessarily bring empirical evidence to people's lives, by our words and our actions we *can* demonstrate Christ alive and at work in us.
Here are three steps taken from this morning's readings, that I believe we can take that will do this:

  1. Be at Peace and receive the Holy Spirit. Verse 21-23 tell us:
    "Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”
    John 20:21-23
    We need time to pause and reflect in God's presence... to breathe in the Holy Spirit and let God permeate our beings.  We also, when talking with people about God, if they get angry with us, need to do our best not to lose the peace God bestows on us and turn our conversations into verbal fire-fights. This is especially important in the Internet Age, where what starts out as well-meaning debate so often descend into a vitriolic slanging match.
  2. Secondly, we need to let that peace, that sense of God's presence, develop our discipleship. The Acts 4:32-35 reading today encourages us to be one in heart and mind. Serving and loving God and one another in such a way that his grace works in us powerfully and testifies to the resurrection.

    The German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer... who 70 years ago this week, was martyred by the Nazis once wrote:
    "Christianity without the living Christ is inevitably Christianity without discipleship, and Christianity without discipleship is always Christianity without Christ."
    If we breathe in the Holy Spirit in moments of peace and breathe out the Holy Spirit through our discipleship, the living Christ becomes evident to those around us.
  3. Finally, we should allow God to use the marks of our own wounds to witness to others. Jesus said that as the Father sent him, He sends us. The Father sent Jesus in frailty to be one of us. When Thomas required physical proof of the resurrection, Jesus allowed him to touch his wounds.

    Similarly when we see people struggling in faith with something we've been through, we should seek to show our empathy and demonstrate that although God may sometimes allow us to experience hardship, he does walk beside us and lead us through it.

So to recap...
  • Let us willingly receive the Holy Spirit
  • Let the Spirit direct our discipleship
  • Let those who suffer see the marks of our own spiritual testimony.
Peace be with you

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Heroes Come in All Shades and Sizes

I've recently been observing an interesting debate/war of words going on over at Twitter. It seems ever since Marvel & Sony did the deal to bring Spider-Man into the Marvel cinematic universe, there has been a small but vocal reaction to the possibility of Peter Parker being recast as a black character (even though this hasn't even been decided... as far as I am aware). Dan Slott (one of the writers), is currently engaging these voices head-on.

Now those of you nerdy enough to be in the know, will be aware that in Marvel's Ultimate universe, there is already a black/hispanic Spider-Man called Miles Morales... and that the Nick Fury of that universe is also black (as indeed he is, in the Marvel cinematic universe), despite the fact that in the mainstream comic universe... he is white.

The future ethnic heritage of Spider-Man has recently been a matter of debate on Twitter

This is where I stand on the topic:
  1. If the Spider-Man of the Marvel cinematic universe is a rebooted character then he can be of any ethnicity, it really doesn't matter... it's a fresh start and if we are honest, there is nothing, not one thing that says that Peter Parker is defined by ethnicity.
  2. If there were any new universe versions of Spidey... they could be any ethnicity whatsoever... new universe, new rules.
  3. If something happened in the main universe whereby the writers "did a Psylocke" or another plot along the lines of Superior Spider-Man, whereby Peter and his powers ended up in the body of somebody from another ethnic group... again, no problem... as long as the narrative gives a reasonable explanation for how the transfer happened.
I think the real reason that people are getting their webshooters in a twist is because they relate to Peter Parker as a fictional character.  They know what its like to be the nerdy kid in class who was picked on or looked over... and they fantasize about having the powers and responsibilities of Peter's heroic alter ego. All of this is fine... but we need to remember that our own relationship with a fictional character doesn't give us exclusive ownership of that character.

An important step in human maturity is developing the ability to decentralise our existence and understand that we are not the heart of the universe... and that other people have the right to appreciate the same things as us and relate to them in exactly the same way we do. This isn't something that is just restricted to the realms of fiction either. People might be quick to point out that  in the West, artistic and cinematic representation of Jesus Christ has largely been restricted to that of a white Caucasian... usually with flowing locks and blue eyes; this is despite the fact he was racially Semitic in origin. However the truth is far more kaleidoscopic and wonderfully complex than that.  If you take the time to explore other cultures where Christianity is present, you will see that Jesus is actually manifested in the dominant ethnicity of the country/region in question... and not just our own.

Rather than see different representation as a threat, isn't it better to use it to develop the commonality and empathy we share with these people and see past the superficial differences?

And ultimately in the final analysis... isn't what draws us to fictional characters like Spider-Man or real people like Jesus, the values, ethics and personality they exhibit... rather than the colour of their skin or shape of their body?

Saturday, October 04, 2014

A Disquiet Follows My Soul

First off... this is not a Battlestar Galactica related post at all.  I simply used the title of one of the episodes because the phrase has been running through my head a lot of late.

Secondly I have been silent for far too long. This place has gathered dust while I have been distracted... and this seems to be a habitual tendency, one that I should really get out of.

It's a funny thing but I have made a point of waiting upon God for direction as to whether I should embark upon a certain course of action, on the understanding that should I not get a definitive response before a set point in time, I would resolve to move on it myself in an act of blind faith and blind faith alone.  Yet as that time nears I find myself both disturbed and moved on the subject. I see the world moving to spur others on and yet find silly things get it my own way. You want to take the opportunity to talk to the vicar and elderly ladies gravitate in and do the "lovely service vicar" small talk routine and totally block access... that sort of thing.

At the same time it feels like various images and songs that have spoken to me... come to the fore... and my Bible notes are talking about being more focused.

There's a great sense of pressure building within me... but I am coming to understand that it is not negative, it is like the tension in the bowstring before the arrow is launched, or the stirring of champagne working against the resistance of the cork that holds it captive within the bottle.

I have always struggled with human impedance - the sense that people deliberately or unwittingly sometimes work against you because their own interests clash with your own. Yet as I type that sentence I am reminded of Christ's words to St. Peter at the end of John's gospel. Jesus has just given Peter an indication of the kind of life his ministry will end in, and yet Peter finds himself distracted and asking what the fate of John will be.

At the heart of Jesus' response is a question and a statement: "What is that to you? You must follow me.”

So back to this idea of disquiet... what does the Bible have to say about this word? Well in a few translations, the term comes up in a couple of Psalms:
"Why are you cast down, O my soul? And why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God, for I shall yet praise Him for the help of His countenance."
Psalm 42:5
It is easy to look at our frustration as a negative, to assume we aren't going anywhere because resistance is present or because we are held in some kind of suspended animation. However that's making the same mistake as Peter.  Instead we should look towards what God is doing: what God is doing in us; what God is doing to us; what God is doing for us. When the bowstring is drawn, it is no longer in an inert state... potential energy is being built up and will soon result in it being released as kinetic energy, propelling an arrow towards its target.

Likewise when we feel frustration, we don't need to get wound up (an ironic choice of words there), instead we should be prepared to accept that we are being built up with the necessary energy to take us forward to the next phase of our walk with God.

All that potential energy has to go somewhere... and the more it builds up, the more you should take courage that it will one day, strike or move its intended target... perhaps sooner than you think.

Disquieted - is it really such a bad thing?  The NIV translates the word as "disturbed" - the same word that lies at the heart of a prayer attributed to Sir Francis Drake. So wherever life finds you I'd like to leave you with the words of his prayer and ask you to contemplate anew what being disturbed means:

Disturb us, Lord, when We are too well pleased with ourselves,
When our dreams have come true
Because we have dreamed too little,
When we arrived safely
Because we sailed too close to the shore.

Disturb us, Lord, when
With the abundance of things we possess
We have lost our thirst
For the waters of life;
Having fallen in love with life,
We have ceased to dream of eternity
And in our efforts to build a new earth,
We have allowed our vision
Of the new Heaven to dim.

Disturb us, Lord, to dare more boldly,
To venture on wider seas
Where storms will show your mastery;
Where losing sight of land,
We shall find the stars.
We ask You to push back
The horizons of our hopes;
And to push into the future
In strength, courage, hope, and love.


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