Tombs for the Prophets: A post on Martin Luther King

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 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 the 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 they’re less likely to beat us in response to our own violence.

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


Some brief theological musings on The Last Jedi (spoilers)

(Spoilers throughout, so if you’re planning on seeing The Last Jedi, you might want to wait ’til you have before you read this one…)

It’s been 500 years since Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the Castle Church in Wittenberg. 2017 is therefore a good year for the Jedi to have their own Reformation.

That’s what The Last Jedi is: a moment of crisis in a belief system that, through either corruption or mistakes, has failed the galaxy. Luke in particular has given up, the weight of his own failings convincing him that his religion needs to quietly die with him. Better for the whole thing to die than the mistakes of the Skywalker family to lead to more suffering and oppression.

But there’s a younger generation stepping forward, a generation that has sought the wisdom of its elders but that has subsequently been let down or manipulated. And because this is unsustainable, The Last Jedi sees characters like Rey taking a stand: they can’t perpetuate the mistakes of the past, can’t be led or mentored by men who can’t see under their own noses or, even worse, only seek to maintain their own poisonous brand of power.

So Rey has to become a leader herself, and in doing so teaches Luke what needs to be done for the Jedi Order to survive. And she does this instinctively but falteringly, making mistakes but still offering Luke a measure of grace that gives him and the faith a way forward. The old ways have to die, but they offer a foundation on which to build something more able to serve and save a galaxy torn apart by war. The legalism and rigidity of the past, which arguably led to the chaos, heartbreak and war we’ve seen across nine movies to date need to be burned down so that everyone can move on.

The journey of Luke and Rey contrasts with that of Ben Solo, who, when offered the chance to move beyond a family legacy that’s become toxic, just falls deeper under its spell. He uses the language of a reformer, but really it’s all just the same old ranting: he needs to be in charge because only he can lead, only he can do things right. He’s trying to be his grandfather, but all he’s doing is repeating Vader’s sins rather than following his path of redemption. He actively rejects redemption, because all that matters is power, as much power as possible, never mind how many people get hurt, never mind how many people die. To use Yoda’s metaphor, he’s only interested in looking towards a horizon where everything’s ‘perfect’ while missing what’s right in front of him. He misses the wisdom summed up by new character Rose: “We don’the win by killing what we hate,” she says, “We win by saving what we love.”

Rey, when offered the same choice, does the right thing, going to help those who need her most. She’s not part of this legacy that’s become a millstone; despite plenty of fan speculation, her parents were ‘nobodies’ and therefore she’s free to follow her own path. Throughout the film we’re reminded of what’s at stake for those who aren’t Skywalkers, who aren’t ‘chosen’, the extras along the hero’s journey, and in doing so the story starts to reorientate itself on the margins.

That’s why it’s important that, at the end of the movie, the future lies in the hands of women and people of colour, voices that traditionally haven’t been front and centre throughout the whole Star Wars franchise. The only way forward is to start listening to marginalised voices, to be led from the margins, because otherwise the poison from within can overwhelm the body, the cracks in the foundations can bring the whole edifice to the ground.

The Last Jedi is about change, it’s about power, it’s about toxic legacies and about who gets to lead us into the future. Maybe, in this Reformation year, it has more to teach us than we might at first have thought.

Childermas Again

Dawn breaks on the Feast of Holy Innocents, on memories and statistics: Manchester Arena and Kameron PrescottNorth Park Elementary and Aztec High SchoolYemen and Syria. Roy Moore and Kevin Spacey. One in four children in the UK are affected by poverty, 21% in the US, 1 billion worldwide. Children are bought and sold for sex, we hand children guns and force them to be soldiers. Herod’s shadow still stalks the land.

Only that’s not true, is it? Because Herod’s not our shadow, he’s our mirror. We write off the Slaughter of the Innocents as an anomolous event aimed at killing the Son of God, but let’s not kid ourselves, it’s yet another example of a normalised assault on children. If Herod was our historical dark side rather than our twin, we wouldn’t see churches covering up child abuse, we wouldn’t see so many bombs falling on civilians, we wouldn’t pat ourselves on the back as politicians enact policies that push more children into poverty.

The Slaughter of the Innocents was all about who gets to be king, and the children of Bethlehem were that most obscene of euphemisms, “collateral damage”. Given the situation facing many children throughout the last twelve months, we’re more open to Herod being king than Jesus.

Maybe that’s why it’s so important to celebrate Holy Innocents: not simply because it reminds us of the crimes of Herod, but because of its present reality. It’s a time to remember the realities of the season now we’ve stopped greeting each other with “Merry Christmas” and started to return to our ordinary lives. It’s a time to remember that Christmas has consequences, and that’s not just about distant atrocities but about the societies and cultures in which we live, the societies and cultures we help create with our spending, our attitudes, our blessings, our silence.

We live in worlds in which Herod still occupies a throne and in which it’s still children who suffer the most as a result. On the Feast of Holy Innocents, it’s time to stop empowering that.

The Hopes and Fears of All the Years

But while the days are getting longer and light breaks through in the dark, the nights still feel long. Last week a young man froze to death on the streets of Birmingham. People with disabilities are unable to fully participate in society because of, among other things, a lack of adequate toilet facilities. Around 20% of people in the UK live in poverty. The light in the darkness often looks more like a flickering candle than a healing sunrise.

Advent is the anticipation of two sacred narratives: the coming of Christ in the manger, and the realisation of the Kingdom of God to come. Which can leave us in a chronological limbo – we celebrate the past, we look forward to the future, but what does that all mean for the here and now? It’s hard to celebrate when you don’t know where your next meal is coming from; it’s hard to look forward to a better tomorrow when your family is being torn apart.

And so Advent is nearly at an end for another year, but where does that leave us? Are we changed as a result? That’s the question, isn’t it?

Because if we’re looking back to one Incarnation, and looking forward to another, then there’s got to be another kind of incarnation in the middle, an attempt to help the Kingdom of God break through. And that’s down to us. Sometimes it’s about leveraging our privilege, sometimes it’s insurrectionary, sometimes it’s just about being decent to each other, but it’s down to us to cry out for justice and to fill the food banks and to protest and listen and welcome and love.

(And the fact that the ‘Homeless Jesus‘ statues that top and tail this post remain so controversial shows us how far we have to go.)

That’s not just for Advent, although in the depths of winter it takes on a new urgency. Maybe Advent isn’t just a countdown, it’s a way of starting the new year right. Things don’t change overnight, after all, it takes time for green shoots to emerge from cracks in the pavement.

But in the dark streets shineth the everlasting light. I need to remember that as we emerge from the anticipation of Advent to the hope of Christmas. That the presence of God is still here, and that it can work through us to make a difference in a world that aches and wars.

(More posts for Advent 2017 can be found here.)

God vs. Defensive Architecture (update)


Urban spaces are more complex than we give them credit for. I guess we’ve all had the experience of wondering why a public bench is so uncomfortable, or why we’re stumbling over humps in the pavement. The answer, quite often, is that someone’s trying to manipulate our behaviour.

“Defensive Architecture” or “Aggressive Design” or whatever you want to call it went viral a while back. Photos of nasty looking spikes embedded in a doorway to deter rough sleeps hit Twitter, raising questions of how compassionate the design of our public spaces should be.

In one sense it sounds ridiculous to say that spaces can have a moral quality like compassion. But we build our cities, our civil structures, our open structures. They are designed and created and funded by us, and so spikes in a pavement can sometimes say as much about a society as our greatest cathedral. Sidewalk or sanctuary, there can be something intimately spiritual about public design.


We saw this again this week, when the Independent published a story about howhomeowners in Bristol have attached spikes to trees to stop birds from defecating on their cars. We’re manipulating our environment in an almost dystopian manner, weaponsing space to keep away unwanted animals, unwanted humans. Urban design needs its ‘swords into ploughshares’ moment.

Because all of this is dehumanising, and dehumanisation is an attitude born out of seeing people as problems to be ‘fixed’ rather than individuals of intrinsic worth. We should therefore celebrate the moments humanity wins through, however; in Manchester, anti-homeless spikes have now been removed because locals kept covering them with cushions. A similar thing happened in Liverpool, when an anti-homeless ramp was turned into a tea stall. I see that and I see hope, but I also remember the Homeless Jesus statue, and hope and apathy in an awkward dance.

There’s a command, way back in Leviticus, that talks about landowners not harvesting the edges of their fields – the produce there was to be left for the destitute and refugees. Now that’s predominantly an economic command, but there’s something symbolic about it – it reflects God’s heart for the poor and the marginalised, it forces an interaction between haves and have nots (the outcome of the Book of Ruth ties in to this passage) and it forces us to consider how we‘re using the spaces around us.

This consideration is vital because, as Matthew 25 implies, it’s the things we do for God when we’re not actually thinking about God that can be the real test of our character. How we create spaces for ourselves is evidence of how we feel about other people.

So yeah, homeless spikes send a message. But so does a lack of funding for hostels, or demonising food banks, and a thousand other things beyond rough sleeping – public toilets, wheelchair access, transport networks, benches, all of these have a moral dimension. They all take our spiritual temperature. And it would be wrong to say that this is entirely negative – here in the UK there are textured sections of pavement to help blind people and guide dogs cross the road, and my favourite piece of hidden design is a small gizmo on the underside of pelican crossings that rotates when the traffic lights change, thus alerting those who can’t hear the signal.

There’s an opportunity here for Christians. Think about all the land owned by our churches: do we need a revolution in ecclesiastical design? Are there ways in which we can transform our public spaces, develop missional architecture, reflect God’s heart for the world around through surrounding our sanctuaries with community gardens or libraries or art galleries or debt counselling, not to replace the heart of our faith, but to recognise that it expands into every corner of human experience. God cares about what we do with the edges of our fields; he cares about our church car parks too.

How do we respond to that?