Loose the Chains of Injustice: Foodbanks, Bishop Curry and the Prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 58:6-12)

food-bankOne in eight people in the UK go hungry every day. Let that statistic sit with you for a while. If it helps, it’s around three-quarters of a million people, roughly equivalent to everyone in Leeds. The statistic appeared in a Guardian article earlier today, which talks about FareShare, a charity which redistributes food that would otherwise have gone to waste; 17,000 tonnes of it (or, say, 85 blue whales worth). The article talks about various responses to this hunger crisis, all of which are positive, but it doesn’t touch on the deeper issue: that 12.5 of people in one of the world’s richest countries are going hungry. This is on the heels of a report saying that children are filling their pockets with food from their school canteens, with a head teacher describing them as having “grey skin, poor teeth, poor hair.”

What’s going on?

This isn’t a new thing. Way back in ancient Israel, the prophet Isaiah tore into religious supplicants who made a show of fasting but who ignored the plight of the poor. And for all that charities and foodbanks and churches are springing up to respond to this crisis, the fact is that this doesn’t happen overnight, and if we need an infrastructure to deal with the best part of a million people going hungry, something, somewhere has gone horribly wrong.

A couple of weeks ago, Bishop Michael Curry stood in front of Britain’s great and good and powerful, and saidWhen love is the way, then no child will go to bed hungry in this world ever again. When love is the way, we will let justice roll down like a mighty stream and righteousness like an ever-flowing brook. When love is the way, poverty will become history.” People seemed to respond well to his words, but at the same time there were plenty of smirks, plenty of eye rolls, plenty of complaints that 14 minutes was too long to talk about love. People aren’t used to being taken to church during a royal wedding.

But hey, Bishop Curry was nice about it. Isaiah would have been brutal:

“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?”

I’d say the church has a choice, but it’s only the same choice that we’ve always had. And this isn’t simply about collecting for charity and foodbanks, although if your church isn’t it should be. No, it’s about staying silent and complicit, or about asking the question that got Martin Luther King labelled a Communist – why are people going hungry? Because statistically speaking, this affects people in your congregation; they may be open about it, but they may be hiding it out of shame and despair. And we need to care for those going hungry within and without our walls, but we also need to challenge and convict a society that’s happily letting this happen, that allowed horrors like Grenfell Tower because of cost cutting and neglect. Spreadsheets are still spiritual. And Isaiah’s words still ring.


What’s the Theology of Big Data?


The last few weeks have seen the release of a number of revelations around Facebook, Cambridge Analytica, and the use of Big Data in influencing political campaigns and elections in the UK, US, Hungary and Nigeria. Much of this was around using information gathered from social media profiles, with the true depth of it all still waiting to be revealed. It’s a bewildering matrix of companies and individuals and manipulations.

Beneath it all though, there’s a familiar story: the desire for power. The idea that using our data and online footprints can create a means to control and manipulate people and events is bound to be intoxicating in a world where communication and commerce are dominated by the internet. And all that means that there’s a theological component to all this, one that needs to be wrestled with. The Lord knows the number of the hairs on our head; these guys want that information so that they can sell us combs and tell us to dislike bald people.

Okay, that’s sparky, but it raises the question of narratives. The whole point of this collection of data is to help various organisations get their message across, to communicate a story. That involves targeted adverts and constructed narratives, and frankly some of those aren’t healthy, often demonising others or propagating, to use an over-played term “Fake News”. There’s an army of bots out there, and our data is used to give them their marching orders, and that means we’re absorbing messages that are deliberately constructed to speak to our baser instincts. So what does that means for our discipleship when we’re being hit with goodness knows what other messages? I know that’s always been the case, marketing and advertising and what have you, but it was easier to ignore billboards when they were personalised and pointed directly at our lizard brains.

This also gives the concept of truth a kicking, now that “Fake News” has come to mean more than just a lie; it’s anything that someone wants you to think is unimportant, or simply something they disagree with. And you can only hear someone shout “Fake News” so many times before the seeds of doubt are planted – the whole idea seems to be to keep the ground shifting, to make us distrust everything. It keeps the world nice and malleable.

(I know this makes me sound like a conspiracy theorist. Stick with me.)

There’s also the way in which all this renders people made in the Image of God as products, commodities. We become data footprints to be bought and sold, so many pieces to be moved around a chessboard. This sounds extreme, but it’s the danger that lurks behind any enterprise motivated primarily by power and money. Our humanity – all those pictures we liked, all those websites we visited, all those conversations we shared – become commodified. Our lives become invisible tokens of trade, and that diminishes us, like anything else that sees us as less than image bearers of the divine.

There’s also a practical, pastoral implication to all this – which online platforms do our congregations use – is your church active on Facebook, for instance? In which case, how do the revelations of the last few weeks impact that – how we use it, what information can be gleaned from it? Maybe it’s worth an audit of sorts. Certainly it’s worth a chat with your fellowship’s resident IT expert. And while there may be a gut instinct to burn it all down, we also need to remember that social media can be a spiritual lifeline for those who can’t attend a church in person. There aren’t straight-forward solutions, the world’s just got complicated. Again.

I don’t have any smart answers to any of this – to be honest, I don’t think anyone does. The whole thing is a brave new world, the sort of thing that got mentioned in old sci-fi novels and dystopian fiction and we now how to view it in some sort of theological framework. And that’s a challenge because, bless it, the Church has often had something of the ocean liner about it when it comes to social change. Maybe that’s why we need young people to be theologians.

Sooner or later we’re going to be faced with figuring out the spiritual implications of AI, or finding ourselves operating ‘Smart Churches’ and we owe it to our brothers and sisters in the faith (and, frankly, everyone else), to try and get ahead of things for once. Because this isn’t about the world changing – it’s already changed. We need to figure out what that means for us living and responding as Christ in that world.

Resurrection Sunday: Listen to the Women (John 20:11-18)

It’s Mary who first meets the risen Jesus, and it’s hard to tell if this is by design or not; after all, the male disciples are in hiding at this point, and even those who venture out to investigate rumours of an empty tomb don’t stick around long enough to talk to any gardeners. Mary becomes the apostle to the apostles, she’s an evangelist to the runaways and the denier. And why not? It was the women who stuck around, after all.

That legacy continues. A woman taught me to preach, the theology side of it anyway. I worship in churches where women lead and preach and manage. I’m grateful for writers and speakers like Kaitlin Curtice and Rachel Held Evans and Wilda Gafney and Rachel Mann and others like them. It’s patronising to suggest the Church is stronger for them; without women, the Church would collapse. And I know Paul wrote two thousand years ago about a particular church in a particular environment in a particular age, but we can’t see that as frozen in amber while the Spirit continues to call women to be prophets, pastors, preachers.

So yes, this blog is always going to support women in church leadership but that’s hardly a big deal. I grew up in the Methodist Church and so the idea that women can’t be ministers and preachers and deacons is an alien concept.

And yet still not as alien as the abuse and silencing and condescension and violence faced by women who follow the lead of the Holy Spirit and speak out. Because, and I’m speaking specifically to men here, if your immediate response to a woman speaking about Christ is to dismiss them as a heretic or uppity or a tool of Satan, it’s probably worth taking a trip back to the garden, to the morning where the men were cowards and traitors and liars and a woman proclaimed Christ risen.

So it’s Easter Sunday morning, and we listen to Mary, who stuck by the Saviour, who treated him with dignity in death and was the first to meet him in new life. And as we join together and announce that “Christ is risen!”, let’s remember that the first person to say this was a woman.

Easter Sunday: A Nice Day to Start Again (John 20:10-18)

Mary is the first person to glimpse the new world, although she almost doesn’t recognise it. After all, the new world appears on the horizon unexpectedly, an encounter with a gardener who isn’t-but-is a gardener helping her to see a more glorious vision through the tears.

Christ is risen!

He is risen indeed!

This is a statement that reprogrammes everything, that reinvents and redefines our realities. If we proclaim, like Mary, a risen Jesus, we proclaim that the world isn’t how it once was, that a new Kingdom is inaugurated. We proclaim that our hearts are risen with Christ.

Therein lies a problem. Because too often we like the old kingdoms, those built on violence and power and privilege. And so we celebrate Easter as a transaction, we insure our afterlife like we insure our car, our house, and “Christ is risen!” becomes the shortest policy document ever written.

But Easter is far more than that, Easter is a cosmic reboot and that should affect everything. How we relate to others, how we spend our money, how we vote, how we speak, how we live. Easter should rewire us. The question is, do we allow this to happen?

Easter changes everything. It has to. And we can either pretend that is doesn’t or walk forward, with Mary, into a new world, new territory, new possibilities where we aren’t limited by what went before, where we can lean into a greater vision that isn’t limited by our institutions, our preconceptions, our prejudices, our fear.

For some this is liberating; for others it’s terrifying. Change always is. Transformation always is. We can roll with it or we can fight it.

Too often we try to co-opt it, but that won’t last, no matter how comfortable it makes us. Sooner or later Jesus will burst in and tip our tables, a warning shot before we try to crucify him all over again.

So it’s Resurrection Sunday. A time to start again, a time to confess, a time in which chains can be broken, things can be different, hope can be born. A time to let go, a time to stand up, a time to turn around, a time to find something new, something vital among the graves, in the quiet of the sacred morning.

The Desolation of Holy Saturday (Matthew 27:57-66)

Once, long ago, I lay curled up on my bed feeling hopeless and defeated and like every positive future had withered and died. I don’t talk about this often – this may even be the first time – and although the passage of time has taken away the feelings, I still remember the cloying numbness, the claustrophobic fog of depression.

That time passed, praise God, but the feelings return at times; many years later, weeks before going on holiday, I woke with the conviction that, if I went to New York I’d die. It was a lie, of course, a falsehood generated from who knows where. And I went to New York and saw the Statue of Liberty and a busker who looked like Hendrix tuning his guitar but never actually playing. I went to New York, because sometimes simply doing something good is a victory.

I won’t say I’m free of all this; it manifests differently now, I take medication and I get through it. And that’s why I often talk about the sort of faith that hangs over a cliff by its fingernails, because anyone who tells you that faith is pain free, that belief is a one way ticket to Big Rock Candy Mountain is trying to sell you something, or maybe just trying to cast their own spell to ward off troubles.

Holy Saturday sits at the heart of Easter weekend, an awkward heartbreak innoculating us against cheap triumphalism. There’s a season for everything, and Holy Saturday is a time to weep, a time to mourn, a time to lay flowers at a graveside. It’s a time to recognise trauma (let’s not forget Mary, who saw her son torn apart by scourges and nails), a time to cry out “This is wrong” and “That shouldn’t have happened” and “Never again”.

This is a time to acknowledge, in the silence, that the world isn’t as it should be, that the future is frightening, that oppression and persecution are real, that things are broken. This is not a time to pretend that pain isn’t a present reality, that troubles are simply the result of faithlessness. Your pain is real. But while this may sound naive and impossible, it’s not the end of the story.

Because Holy Saturday isn’t a nihilistic full stop. It’s part of something bigger, of which pain is a part but so’s hope. That spluttering candle glimmer may be faint but it’s there, the light at the end of a narrow tunnel. It’s Saturday, as the preacher might have said, but Sunday’s coming.

We have to hold on to a vision of hope, all of us, because even if we’re not going through our own dark night of the soul, we can stand in solidarity with those who are, we can weep and march and sit and pray and stand with others. There are too many paid-off guards peddling fake news and weaponised visions, and so we need Holy Saturday to remind us that our own pain and history and honesty can be a beacon, so many Marys in the garden who’ve seen the stone rolled away.

Today we sit and mourn, and while we may still be doing that come the dawn, we’ve made it through the day, and the sun still rises.