The Stories We Live By: Abuse

wp-image-1856397313jpg.jpegCross posted to Bezalel’s Legacy.

We’re a storytelling species; we gather together to tell tales around fires, we paint pictures on cave walls to shape the world beyonderland.  And these stories grow and spread their roots, they accrete and mutate and become memes and mirrors, become the rivers and the topsoil of our cultures. Often these stories are beautiful.

Other times? Other times these stories are toxic.

Silence has a weight all of its own; it creates its own gravity, a crushing absence. Sometimes rumours break through this forcefield, sometimes facts escape to become open secrets, and yet still the silence exerts its power. Everyone knows but no-one says anything.

Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby, Rolf Harris and Jimmy Savile. Household names who abused women and girls for years under a silence purchased with popularity and power and cold hard cash; men standing on top of a pyramid with an altar and a knife. But while these might be the celebrity illuminati of sex offenders, they’re not the only ones. Angelina Jolie and Gwyneth Paltrow and, heck, Terry Crews were assaulted, but so were waitresses and cheerleaders and office workers and students.

Because we’re living in a world that says “no” means “yes”, that clothing is consent, that gloating about groping is just the talk of locker rooms, that men get to take what they want and that women should keep quiet about it or suffer the consequences, that sometimes rape is ‘legitimate’. These things are said so many times that they take on their own twisted reality; society itself is groomed. We tell stories that empower abuse, we whisper stories that promote silence and strangle justice. Because this is about intimidation and fear and power that says everyone’s there for the taking.

We’ve got to allow different stories to be told, and in doing so, start putting rape culture to death. Men have to start calling out sexual harassment and objectification and raising our sons and daughters to get out of the shadow of a culture of abuse; men also have to stop assaulting women. That’s where everything starts. Masculinity needs detoxifying.

And with the telling, listening and believing. Because the diesel powering all this is disbelief and inaction; our cynicism and apathy fuels a culture of abuse.

And we have to exorcise our institutions: our churches, our sports clubs, our film studios, our politics, our schools, our homes. Because too many women are too scared to come forward, too many have been denied justice, too many live with the trauma of assault. That’s unacceptable, no matter what our darker stories tell us. Too many rumors turn out to be true, too many scandals end up forgotten. Everything needs to change.

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Helter Skelter

I feel weird writing this. It’s rooted in strange thoughts that have been rattling through my mind since I heard that, at a New Year’s Eve concert last year, Paul McCartney made a surprise appearance at a Killers concert to sing Helter Skelter.

There’s nothing wrong with that, of course; he’s one of the Beatles, he can play what he wants at any concert he wants. But Helter Skelter is a song with a strange history: McCartney apparently wrote it to sound like the fall of an empire, while Charles Manson used it as a code name for his deranged race war conspiracy. It was scrawled on a fridge at the scene of a mass murder, for goodness sake.

So hearing that Helter Skelter heralded 2017, a year in which white supremacists and resurgent Nazis march with torches, in which world leaders tweet and dream about spraying nuclear fire across the Pacific, well… The image is haunting and I can’t shake it. That’s probably why I’m writing this.

Because there’s a counter thought emerging: that as people of faith, we need to protest and resist the darker shadows of our society, and envision and embody a different world. We don’t have to ride the Helter Skelter; we can nail the OUT OF ORDER signs to the whole skeletal fairground.

We can, but too many of us are joining the queue to pay a misplaced tithe to the carnival barkers and the rowdy mesmerists. And all the while the frogs of war croak in the chill swamps of night.

This is why we need to stop, and kneel, and gather round the bread and the wine, not just like our lives depended on it, but those of everyone else as well. Our hope is found in the Eucharist, in the body and blood that unites us rather than divides, in the power that reveals itself not through empire, but in a cross outside the city walls. This is where the strength and the character of the Church is formed; not by the games of Caesar but by meeting around the table and seeing that we’re brothers and sisters sharing in a Kingdom banquet.

There are plenty of people who scream with joy as they Helter Skelter through what’s left of 2017. We don’t have to join them, we don’t have to be formed by them. We have to eat, and drink, and sing a different song.

Heads Up: New Show on Cbeebies

pabloRepresentation is important. This is something that’s easy to forget if you’re used to seeing yourself on TV, or in books, or emblazoned across billboards, but not everyone gets to see heroes or icons who look like them. The media’s mirror doesn’t reflect everyone.

That’s why it was great to hear about a new show being produced by CBeebies, the BBC’s channel for pre-school children. Pablo is an animated series based around a five year old boy with autism whose imaginary friends come to life to help him navigate life when things get confusing. Each of his friends represents both a skill and a difficulty that Pablo has, allowing the show to portray different facets of life with autism, hopefully helping its audience at the same time.

Now, Pablo doesn’t launch until October, so it’s too early to talk about the content of the show. However, CBeebies has a good track record with inclusion (Something Special, Magic Hands, Tree Fu Tom’s roots in dyspraxia research…), a track record that’s better than its parent channels to be honest. And I’ve written before in praise of the channel, because frankly, it’s quality programming in a media environment where that’s sorely lacking. I’m also confident that Pablo will be something good, mostly because it’s going to be the first TV programme that has an all autistic main cast, a cast who are also writing the episodes.

This is huge – it would be easy for producers to go along with the stereotypes we often see in TV drama, but by being representative behind the camera as well as in front means that Pablo can present authentic experiences and feelings in an accessible way. And that’s important, because when it comes to representation, the most important thing many of us can do is just get out of the way and amplify marginalised voices. It sounds like Pablo is trying to do this.

So why post this on a faith blog?

Because a lot of churches struggle with inclusion – I’ve written about this here before, and so I won’t get into it again. But here’s a request to Sunday School teachers and pastors and youth groups and moms and tots workers and everyone else involved with family work in churches: when it comes out, give Pablo a go. Listen to the voices, encourage your kids to watch it, embrace the fact that it’s out there. Because we need to get better at welcoming and supporting children with disabilities, and this sounds like a good way to start doing that.

PS. Mr. Tumble for Prime Minister!

Sometimes, the most important thing you can do is just give a damn


Sometimes, all it takes is for someone to give a damn.

Sometimes all it takes is for someone to say “How are you?” and then to follow that up with “Okay, now tell me the truth.”

Sometimes all it takes is for someone to put up a red flag. Sometimes all it takes is for someone to pick up the phone.

Today is Suicide Prevention Day. And look, if you’ve stumbled here and you feel like you need to want to hurt yourself or stop the pain forever, then please, talk to someone, call someone, please just stop for a moment and pick up a phone. The number for the Samaritans,  in the UK at least, is 116 123; in the US you can call 800-273-8255. Or ask your mate to take you out and buy you a drink.

I don’t know what else to say. I’m fortunate I guess, I’ve never been in that dark a place. But there have been times when I’ve been horribly low, when I didn’t know where to turn, when I just wanted to curl up and sleep. And I hid it pretty well. Maybe I dodged a bullet.

Others aren’t so lucky. And that means we’ve got to look after each other.

That goes for all of us, of course, but this is a Christian blog and so I got thinking about this through the lens of the Church. Because look, I know our churches are busy. We’ve got a lot on and a million jobs to do and about three elderly volunteers to do them with. Ministers have diaries that would turn my hair white at the thought of all the meetings and councils and committees that need to be endured.

But there are times when we’ve got to look at that, times when we have to challenge the corporate model of doing church, with its pastor/manager making sure everyone’s on message and doing their jobs and go back to being a community. And we’ve got to look at the language and attitudes we promote, because sometimes that’s inadvertantly driving people deeper into the dark.

So if that means being radical and dropping an event and thirteen church council meetings to chat with people down the pub then so be it. If that means deciding to not budget for a new sound system so we can spend that money on mental health awareness training for our pastoral visitors then we should do so. If we need to drop a meeting or two so that people can also be taught to care for themselves better then go for it.

Worship is important, vital even. But we’re kidding ourselves if we think God’s interested in our songs if they’re distracting us from noticing the person sitting at the back who can barely get the words out because they’re hurting so much. Our churches need to be spaces of raw honesty rather than places where we pretend everything’s okay because of some impossible obligation.

And then there are those who fall through the cracks, those who take their own lives despite everything.  And that leads to guilt and grief, shock and shame, and we have to be able to look after each other then as well.

We’re called to love each other. That’s not just a platitude. And you can preach and you can sing and you can fix the Roof and you can do the flowers. But sometimes the most sacred ministry you – and all the rest of us – can do is to simply and steadfastly give a damn.

Who Belongs?

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A couple of years ago I was on a panel interviewing new ministers for a local church, and as part of that process we asked candidates what they felt was the greatest question currently facing the church. You can probably guess the answers, but the whole process got me thinking about that one question. And after all that time, I think I’ve got an answer:

Who belongs?

It’s not just relevant to the church, of course. The question of who belongs where is something that informs everything at a fractious time such as this, although it’s normally framed in a more negative sense – who doesn’t belong?

We try and convince ourselves that our communities, our politics, our institutions, our very hearts are inclusive and open, but the reality on the ground is often very different. We have dark urges pushing us to declare some of us on the inside while others – the Other – remain outside the gates. Because, after all, some of us just belong, and therefore deserve all the perks and privileges that entails. Others don’t quite belong – they look like us, but there’s something about them that means they don’t fit in. And to accommodate them is just too expensive or too difficult or too resource intensive. And bad things keep happened to them, but it always seems to be their fault, so what are we supposed to do about that?

There are others, of course, we’d rather shun, that needs to be ostracised for the good of the whole. They live among us, but we wish they were just a little more like us. Some of them will never really be like us though, and while we’re benevolent, we’re not foolish. So we decide they belong fractionally less than the rest of us – say two-fifths? Because civilisation belongs to those with the wherewithal to win, right?

Some of us are just too different, or just too in the way. So we try to concentrate them in one place, where we can keep an eye on them. Others are just a drain on resources, so we go with the deportation option. They get to live, but somewhere else.

Others we just herd into ovens, or in front of bullets, or at the business end of a machete. And the generations after us will say “Never again!”, but there’s always someone who doesn’t belong…

Who belongs?

Terrible, terrible things are wrought as a result of that question. And the reason that it’s the most important question facing the church, and our societies, is that too many of us gleefully act as cheerleaders and enablers of policies and attitudes that ultimately treat other people as less than human, as less worthy of justice and dignity, of happiness and opportunity, as less worthy of their very lives.

We don’t ask the question enough, we don’t ask it seriously, we make assumptions and in those assumptions are born both nightmares and apathy. And if our churches are rooted in the love of God and the grace of a man who stood between mobs and demons and those who allegedly didn’t belong, then our answer to this question needs to be as compassionate and as expansive and as merciful and as loving as the Spirit will empower us to be.