Wednesday, 10 August 2011

What do the riots mean?

Mindless yobs? Social unrest? A lack of morality? A need for more discipline? More hugging? Class war?

There has been rioting and looting in England for the past four nights. It began and has been most intense in London - sparked by the police shooting of a young black man, but has spread to other cities, notably Birmingham and Manchester.

The understandings of the unrest have been many from all directions and perspectives. Blame has been directed at the Tories for their draconian cuts, but also at Labour for somehow creating the conditions for this in the first place. People on the right blame a lack of discipline and morality in "those people" and blame the left for coddling "them." They want to see plastic bullets, water cannons, tear gas, and generally stronger law enforcement.  The left blames the right for insensitivity and destruction of the safety net that gives the poor opportunities and hope. They want to see more programmes and resources for the poor.

These differences echo George Lakoff's model of the difference between conservatives and liberals. Conservatives hold a world view that sees a need for government taking a "strong father" role; what's needed is greater discipline. Liberals go for a "nurturing parent" perspective where underlying motives are considered and actions are directed toward supporting and changing based on the understanding that we are all essentially good and need to be nurtured toward greater goodness.

I'd like to avoid that usual left-right dichotomy, although my thinking certainly leads to a liberal approach.  My take is this: Class Division + Materialism = Trouble

Modern Britain is a society with an enormous class divide. The disparity between rich and poor is said to be the greatest it has been since the second World War. The economic climate, the severe cuts to benefits, the increases in the cost of higher education, and the numbers of poor youth growing up in dysfunctional families leads to a sense of hopelessness and lack of ownership. In other words, they feel that they have very little to lose.

People who feel they have nothing to lose are dangerous indeed.

Now add to that picture the fact that everyone is bombarded in nearly every waking moment by the advertising message that "you are what you have." Our value as human beings and our happiness - we are told - depend on having the newest smart phone, the right trainers, the most stylish jeans, a big flat-screen TV and on and on. We begin to learn this message before we can speak. Everywhere we go and whatever we do, the adverts are there to keep that message firmly in place.

When people who have nothing to lose understand that material goods are the only thing worth striving for and have no hope that they can reach a place in life where they can obtain them legally, criminality seems certain to be the response.

Is there a solution? Not an easy one. Materialism is the very basis of our capitalist economy. Unless capitalism falls entirely and something takes its place that nurtures good values rather than materialistic ones, the materialism factor will remain unchanged.

The class divide has grown and continues to grow. The levers of power are preponderantly in the hands of the rich who find rather little motivation to seek greater equality. They can simply build higher walls, invest in more police and prisons and simply keep this untidy little problem under control.

We need change. We need to invest in programmes that will provide real hope and opportunity for those at the bottom. We have now begun to see - once again - the results of neglecting whole swaths of the population. It is time to break down the class oppression that is built-in to our culture.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

A letter from a new member

I am posting a letter I received (with permission) from a relatively new attender at my Unitarian congregation in north London. She has come to us after years of trying to find her place in the Church of England. Now, she travels two hours to get to us, passing by a vast number of Anglican and other churches along the way.

My pledge today is to do all I can to make the author's vision of New Unity increasingly real...
I had a thoroughly inspiring time today - thank you. I'm looking forward to the 3 facets course and to coming to services whenever I can. 
The journey itself is becoming something I enjoy - it gives me 2 hours of reading time- and I am looking forward to what will happen when I get to you, as there is usually something to challenge, inspire, move or enthral me, and sometimes all of these at once! 
People here keep asking me what it is that makes you so different to normal church that I'm willing and keen to travel this distance for it, when I constantly refuse to go to regular church services.To answer this would require an essay! But words like 'freedom' 'space' 'encouragement' 'respect' 'vision' 'energy' 'a sense of adventure' 'trusting people' 'belief in goodness' and a hopeful mood of 'we can' all convey what your community says to me.
Though Jesus is seldom mentionned, I find more of his spirit amongst you than I ever did in 20 years of attending an Anglican church. 
I like and respect everybody I have so far met and talked to in your community; they are all so intelligent and caring and thoughtful, and a privilege to know. I can honestly say that I have never before felt this in any church, and it is a healing experience for me, restoring something that got broken and jaded through disappointment and disillusion. 
Your leadership is in such a contrast to the paternalistic and often suffocating authority of priests, who treat their congregation like children. It feels like all things are possible here; that everyone has faith - in themselves and eachother - and that nobody is afraid to take that first brave step on a long journey towards a better society. 
I think that the only reason your church isn't packed on Sundays is that people don't like 'church'. That word gives the wrong idea and puts people off. Your community is nothing much like any church I've ever been to in my entire life, and that is its strength and 'selling point'. We need to spread this around. Something very good is going on here and a lot more people should come in and benefit from it...

Monday, 1 August 2011

Should worship entertain?

In a 2010 paper on UU Worship, Mike Mallory asks us to consider the value of "entertainment" in worship services:
...we should be willing to include “entertainment” as a purpose in the Sunday morning experience. Entertainment is not a religious function. Then again, while community building is a secular function, it is vitally important for a religious community... 
The term “entertainment” is often viewed as cheap or superficial... However, if asked to name your favorite film or play, the answer, I suspect, will include a work of artistic merit, which produced insights into the human condition in a way, which was engaging, dramatic and memorable. “Entertainment” is not an antonym for “Authentic.” 
...evangelical mega-churches are serious about entertainment. I hesitate to point this out, because I am certainly not suggesting that entertainment in a UU congregation look like the entertainment that happens in an evangelical mega-church. Nevertheless, I am claiming that the presentation of the Sunday morning experience in UU congregations should be entertaining.  
Entertainment can be serious or lighthearted, tragic or comic, emotional or conceptual. Entertainment is a way of planning a presentation by focusing on the quality of recipient’s experience. Entertainment may not make a message more important, but it can make the recipient more engaged and the message more memorable. An entertaining message can inspire people to commit their time and energy into social justice, allow people to understand the inner reality of someone very different or lead a person into a moment of ecstatic presence...
Mallory goes on to question the typical UU anti-entertainment rationale and dares to suggest that our reasons may be more like excuses for an unwillingness to tackle the hard work of creating worship entertaining enough to reach the modern, plugged-in, worshipper:
I believe there is a sentiment that religion in general and Unitarian Universalism in particular should rise above the profane of entertainment and that a UU minister who stands and delivers a sermon, plainly and unplugged, is a living testament to honesty, genuineness and authenticity. I believe this sentiment springs from a na├»ve mythology and conveniently excuses the hard work of reimagining the Sunday morning experience. 
I find myself persuaded by Mallory's argument. The form of our worship should be among the transient elements of our faith, but has tended to be treated more like the permanent! In fact, the deep, permanent, elements of our faith may be ineffective because we fail to embed them in a form that touches people as and where they are.

What arises for me is not at all a feeling of revulsion at the concept of "entertaining worship", but a deep discomfort about my own inadequacy for the task and the lack of resources at my disposal.

I would love to hear how others engage with these ideas...