We Need To Talk About Toilets

I’ve said this before, but we need to talk about toilets.

For most of us, the humble toilet is something that’s taken for granted. It’s just there, certainly not something to worry about. Okay, maybe toilets are a tad embarrassing, not something to talk about in polite conversation, but they’re there when we need them, right?

Sadly, for a lot of people that’s not the case. And that’s why we need to talk about toilets, because among other things (sanitation, safety, education) they’re a matter of human dignity.

For a start, there aren’t enough decent public toilets out there for people with disabilities. That presents a stark choice – either struggle with inadequate facilities or just stay in the house all the time. Neither of these choices are fair, neither allow people their intrinsic worth and dignity, but this is the reality for too many. There are children with disabilities who have to be changed on a filthy, inadequate toilet floor just because of the lack of equipment like hoists and adjustable changing benches. This should not be the case.

This is why toilets are a theological issue, and why our churches have to give them more thought. For a start, are our disabled toilets as good as they could be? Do they need more investment? Look, I know funds are tight, but when people are marginalised from the wider community, that could be a clue as to where our churches’ spending priorities should be.

Then there’s accessibility. If local councils and town planners aren’t stepping up to the plate, maybe our churches should make our toilets more accessible to the public. And I don’t know how they might work, but that doesn’t matter because these are conversations that need to be held on a local level in response to local needs.

I know this might all seem a bit prosaic, but toilets are a theological issue. They’re about compassion and justice, they’re about loving our neighbour and the Image of God.

And that’s why we need to talk about toilets.

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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!

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.

Putting Out The Fire Of The Prophets

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Look, the last thing the world needs is another white guy talking about Martin Luther King. I get that. But thoughts have got lodged in my head, and I keep going back to words spoken by Jesus in the last few days of his life. In a searing attack on the Pharisees, he yells “You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous”, even though they’re complicit in the acts that put the prophets and the righteous in the tombs in the first place. And Jesus is rightly furious at this, because it’s hypocrisy of the highest order.

Martin Luther King is a towering figure of the 20th Century. “I have a dream” isn’t just a great speech, it’s a prophecy, a glorious, beautiful vision casting that’s rightly remembered decades later. But the tragedy is that King gets frozen in amber during the March on Washington. He’s considered a Great Man, and we learn about him in schools, and Americans have a day dedicated to his memory. He’s an icon.

But he was more than that. He was a flawed man who found himself caught up in history, and he made mistakes, and by the end of his life, people were questioning his relevance and noting the tensions inherent in his message. He was also a prophet, but not in the sense of a plaster-cast saint; he spoke words of righteousness, against racism and inequality and violence and war. And so the FBI wanted to destroy him, and people beat him and firebombed his house; he got thrown in jail and, ultimately, he was murdered. We like prophets who talk about non-violence, because we can be violent towards them in response.

That’s what happens to real prophets. We like them once they’re dead and gone and we can sanitise their message, but while they’re actually running around on earth, we’d much rather just shoot ‘em. Two thousand years ago, Jesus railed against how we treated prophets and just a couple of days later he was nailed to a cross. If we think about it long enough, we can probably come up with the names of prophets who are being persecuted right now.

The worst of it is, we then erect statues to their memory and publish their words in nice little gift books, and the rage and the fire and the Spirit that danced through their words gets extinguished. We praise Martin Luther King for his vision of an integrated word, but we’re still cheering on wars, we’re still a grossly unequal society, we’re still seeing unarmed black people shot by police. And the prophets will still rage, and they’ll still get killed, and we’ll still use them as inspiration porn in an effort to quiet their cries and put out their fire.

Maybe we should just start listening and changing instead.