Transgender Day of Remembrance

Today commemorates the lives of transgender people lost to violence. Around the world, vigils will be held, acts of remembrance for a community that faces anger and hostility on a daily basis. Transphobic hate crimes have quadrupled over the last few years. Many transgender people face domestic violence, anger and insults walking down the street. Some are murdered, some take their own lives. Some are buried under the wrong name.

This is a season of memory, but increasingly it needs to become a time of passing down stories, of stopping to listen to the experiences that have been silenced or ignored, of letting these stories change those of us who need to change, to empower those whose power and hope has been taken from them. Too many people have been taken from us because their stories were drowned out by rage and hostility, and this has to end.

There are verses throughout the Bible which talk about God calling us by name, about God engraving our names on a stone and giving it to us as a gift of love. And I think it’s important to say, on this day of remembrance, that God doesn’t dead name anyone, that proclaiming God knows our innermost being is a vital statement in a world where so many are dismissed or gaslit, that creation is a spectrum rather than a collection of binary oppositions. And we remember, through the weeping and the cries for justice, those an angry society failed to protect.

Childermas Again

The Killing of the Innocents by Herod, Leon Coginet

The original version of this post was written five years ago. It’s tragic to note that, since then, not much has changed; in some ways the situation has become worse. On the Feast of the Holy Innocents, this is something we need to confront; on the brink of a new year, this is something we need to take forward.

It’s the Christmas hangover of commemorations, isn’t it? The joy and beauty of the Nativity give way to the world’s brutal realities as Herod’s death squads march into town.

It’s not a part of the story we like to think about too much, a liminal atrocity on the fringes of the narrative. And yet so many of those kneeling beside the manger are either affected or complicit – Herod issues the order, sure, but it’s inadvertently thanks to the blunders of the Magi. Jesus, Mary and Joseph have to flee to Egypt, but what of the shepherds left out in the fields? Did any of them have infant sons waiting for them at home?

We pretend, of course, that this sort of thing is rare. That we live in a civilised society where children are valued and loved. And yet there are 4.2 million children living in poverty in the UK (that’s gone up since I wrote my original post); UNICEF reports that one in six children globally live in extreme poverty. The UN tells us that around 33 million of the world’s refugees are under 18, but it takes a photograph of one of their bodies washed up on a beach to make us give a damn about that statistic for five minutes. Churches cover up child abuse.

Herod casts a long shadow.

Over recent years, I’ve slowly begun to appreciate the wisdom of the church calendar. Not just the big celebrations, but the hidden feast days, the obscure remembrances, the idea that someone somewhere decided it would be good to honour Herod’s victims, and in doing so remember all the other infant victims of our politics and greed, our rage and corruption. Childermas isn’t just a call to memory, it’s a call to repentance.

And yet there’s also space for hope – there has to be, because this is too important to fall victim to nihilistic cynicism. There are people working to end child poverty, people operating shelters so families can escape domestic violence, people opening their homes to refugees. They need our support and our prayers, because they’re saving children from war and want, violence and apathy; because they’re a sanctuary along the flight to Egypt; because they’re building the Kingdom of God in the shadow of Herod’s legacy and that’s a sacred calling, at Christmas and beyond.

On International Migrants Day

It starts with the language; words like ‘infest’ and ‘hordes’ and ‘armies’, words that weave images of war and plague. The language seeps into our hearts and minds, like some toxic incantation that transforms human beings fleeing for their lives, men, women and children, into an invasion force come to rape and pillage. “They’re here to take our women, they’re here to take our jobs” yell the tabloids; after all, it gets votes and ad-clicks, no matter how distorted or untrue the screaming gets. This is the era of Fake News after all, and people profit from it, people gain power from making conspiracy theories a new gospel. Never bet against the darker angels of our nature; the race starts with the language and ends with kids in cages, or worse.  Memesmiths are happy to shape reality, to turn London into the mythical Londonistan, to augment reality with toxic hallucinations, to grow fat on clicks and likes.

If you fight monsters, take care lest ye become a monster. That’s doubly true if the monsters you’re fighting don’t exist.

And yet I’ve met migrants and asylum seekers and refugees. I don’t work on a border or in a camp; I make no claims to nobility. That’s the point – I’ve met asylum seekers at work, people who just want to get an education, to learn English or Business or Engineering. They have families and aspirations, they have hopes and a sense of humour. They’re ordinary, albeit forged in extraordinary circumstances that I wouldn’t want to face. And that’s why we need to stand with migrants and refugees, because we’re all human and we need to look after each other. Don’t sell your soul in return for outrage. Cut through the rhetoric and the rants, shout down the prejudice and profiteering, because we’re one and it’s a sin to sacrifice our brothers and sisters to the idolatry of lines on a map.

La Sagrada Familia by Kelly Latimore

We live in dangerous times, shadows that once crept around corners now coalescing into a cold eclipse. Injustice and hatred have their sway, and despite the cries of “This isn’t who we are!”, the dirty secret of history is that that atrocities are committed by those who would have once thought themselves incapable of it.

Right now it’s Christmas. Peace on Earth, goodwill to all, but the comments sections are terrifying; today I saw migrants described as a bio-weapon. Mention that Jesus was a migrant, that he was descended from at least one migrant, and the walls go up – “That’s not the same!” Of course it’s not the same, it’s never the same; history doesn’t repeat and yet it sure as hell rhymes. It’s Christmas, but I’m scared; we can’t wait another five months for Pentecost to transform our words and with it our actions.

And so we need to stand together, stand together and be caring, be compassionate, be kind. Bad times start with language, but so do good, so speak words of hope, of humour, of peace and mercy and grace and welcome. Use words to cast visions, not curses; speak kindly of your neighbour, speak well of those fleeing the armies that arrived or the rains that didn’t. All the Never Agains started with people like us, for good or ill, and so we face the eternal choice. Be good. Be humane. Be kind.

Iconoclasm

jpgThe line between hero and villain is often so thin that it’s transparent, sin and virtue written on either side of a piece of glass, a double exposure of virtue and atrocity. History is complicated, messy, and should come with a health warning: handle with care, lest the contents burn you, lest they carpet-bomb the idyllic images we’ve constructed of our past.

I woke this morning to tabloid outrage: protesters have, apparently, defaced the statue of Winston Churchill in Parliament Square. ‘CHURCHILL WAS A RACIST’ the epithet now reads, a reference towards his attitude towards Indians. Meanwhile, in Bristol, a statue of slave-trader Edward Colston was torn down, protesters kneeling on its neck in reference to George Floyd before throwing it into the harbour. In Richmond, capital of the state of Virginia, a statue of the Confederate General Robert E. Lee is to be put in storage, and while actions such as this often generate spittle-flecked outrage, it feels like something else is going on. Some claim that this is vandalism or cultural erasure, but what if it’s something deeper? What if it’s iconoclasm?

Let’s not kid ourselves; we live in a secular society, and because of this we have secular icons. The reason the tabloids are so angry about the vandalism of Churchill is partly because of the mythic status of the Second World War in British culture, part of the whole ‘Two World Wars and One World Cup’ thing. To draw attention to Churchill’s failings is, in some way, to expose the failings of Britain at the same time, and alongside the political and social implications of this, there’s also a spiritual element. After all, we’re in a time of change, when plague, violence and greed are shaking our foundations. It’s been said that the times feel apocalyptic and that’s true, not because zombie hoards stalk the streets but because much that was hidden is now being revealed. And because that trashes some of our most sacred icons, the pain it brings may seem brutal. Brutal, but ultimately necessary, because all this forces us to ask questions, to see things anew, to change course.

A preacher I know once did a sermon on a famous biblical villain – King David. Because the man who wrote the 23rd Psalm and killed a giant with a slingshot also became a murder, a rapist who didn’t deliver justice when his daughter was herself raped. The biblical writers could have left these latter stories well alone, stuck with the giant-slaying and the action movie bad-assery. But no; there are the failings of our heroes in black and white. It’s an invitation to live in the tension, to accept that history is messy, difficult, problematic. To not get too comfortable in our constructed histories but to be moved to change, to embrace grace, to recognise that sometimes the truth gets spray-painted on the side of a statue.

But, in the words of Homer Simpson’s review of the Bible, “Everyone’s a sinner! Except that guy.” I have to have faith that there’s one person who doesn’t fall short of the glory, who I can trust, who can provide a way forward in these times. The world is shaking, but there’s still hope. There can still be justice. We can still change.

And Jesus once vandalised a Temple.

Black Lives Matter (And They Always Did)

I hesitated to even start writing this post. After all, I’m a white guy in England – what do I have to add to the debate, the conversation, the placards? A large part of me thinks that I should just close my laptop, to shut up and listen to the voices that need to be heard. There’s a huge list of names, people of colour killed by American police, but I don’t know how to speak into that, don’t know how to heal the effects of this trauma on young black men and their families. It feels like another world at times; that’s probably part of the problem.

But in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King spared his greatest criticism not for the ardent segregationists, but for the white ‘allies’ who thought that his protests were foolish and needlessly provocative and who hoped that the whole Civil Rights thing would quietly work itself out. It didn’t then, and it won’t now. Peaceful actions are ignored, riots are condemned, the wheel keeps turning.

We celebrated Pentecost last week, the time when the Church was brought together by the fire and the breath of the Holy Spirit, when people from all around the known world heard God speaking in their own language. And yet we celebrated that when American cities burned in the outrage of communities who have been ignored for too long, burned in the counter-rage of those who wanted to make protesters into demons. A week later, two thousand years later and we’re still confronted with the duty as well as the gift of Pentecost; this feels like a time of repentance and confrontational justice and, I hope, a time of deep and genuine healing. It’ll take time but there have already been too many wasted and unjust years.

Jesus traveled through Samaria, despite local racial tensions, because Samaritan lives mattered; the early church had to confront its prejudices towards parts of their community because the lives of Greek widows mattered; Philip baptised the Ethiopian eunuch, despite him being a social outsider, because Black lives matter, and they always have. But throughout our history, we’ve failed to remember that simple truth, that lesson in basic humanity.

So Pope Nicholas V baptised the Doctrine of Discovery so that European Christian empires could take control of any lands they found, no matter who was already living there. That led to the Transatlantic Slave Trade, the American Civil War, the Ku Klux Klan. It led to overflowing coffers for cities like Liverpool and Bristol; it led to ‘Negro collars’ and chains and cuffs being forged in the area in which I grew up, it led to newspaper readers in the city I now live cancelling their subscriptions because the editor called attention to the horrors of slavery. It led to the theologian James Cone drawing comparisons between the Crucifixion and the lynchings that scarred the American south. And, in many ways, it led to more modern words that speak to toxic ideologies and theologies that move virus-like through our society’s DNA: Grenfell, Windrush, Hostile Environment.

Words, of course, have layers of meaning. It’s easy to say, like so many do, that “All lives matter”. It’s a phrase that, on its surface, sounds true. But we live in a world where some lives seem to matter more than others. Some lives are more likely to end up in prison. Some lives are more likely to be animalised by Google’s algorithms. Some lives are less likely to have clean water to drink. Some lives are more likely to be ended by COVID-19. There’s a pattern here that suggests that, actually, all lives don’t matter. And that’s a sin.

Ad so I come back to Pentecost, the birth of the Church, a Church that is made up of people of all races, all nationalities, all ethnicities, a Church that was born in an explosion of different languages. We are one Body, this Church, and if we look at that demographically, that Body is one of colour; if we look like our Saviour, then that Body is that of a brown Middle-Easterner.

Yes, I’m being deliberately provocative here, but it feels like this is a time not only for repentance but a greater appreciation of the Church’s diversity. Because we are brothers and sisters, and some of those brothers and sisters are scared right now, they’re angry and frustrated and traumatised and because we’re bound together by bread and wine, by Blood and Spirit, we can’t remain on the sidelines. We can’t fix this, not as individuals, but we can learn, we can support, we can stand in the gap, we can check our hearts. We can sing. We can amplify. We can pray.

Because Black Lives Matter. And it’s a sin to live as though they don’t.