THE ROHINGYAS – WHERE ARE THE PEACEMAKERS?

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There have been many sad and sorry stories about trouble spots around the world – about people who have been caught up in the midst of war, civil unrest, barbarity and violence, but none are so poignant at the present time as that of the Rohingyas. The Rohingas Muslims are from the Rakhine state in Myanmar (formerly Burma). They are a ‘stateless’ people who have faced many years of persecution from the Buddhist majority and deep seated historic tensions have fuelled the latest catastrophe, sparked by the actions of Rohingya militants earlier in August. However, the scale of the military response from the Burmese Generals alongside Buddhist monks has been vast and unprecedented, driving hundreds of thousands of Rohingya, men, women and children, across the border and into squalid relief camps in Bangladesh.

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Systematic burning of Rohingya villages

This terrible situation has become even more tragic as the Burmese leader is Aung San Suu Kyi – the 1st State Counsellor of Myanmar (akin to our Prime minister), the former ‘non-violent’ civil rights campaigner and leader of the National League for Democracy who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990. Quoted in 2007 as saying “I do not hold to non-violence for moral reasons, but for political and practical reasons”. This statement may ironically shed some light on her current, bewildering silence as the leader for Myanmar. Does she now believe that for political and practical reasons, violence against the Rohingyas is justified? Has she been persuaded by her Generals that violence is necessary? Is she prejudiced against the Rohingyas? Admittedly, it may appear that her actual power is very limited, but her ambivalence seems to perfectly illustrate the statement often attributed to Edmund Burke that “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men (or women) do nothing”. Which is such a shame, as for many years she was held up as the shining light and beacon for civil rights and democracy. It seems that this mantle has now passed to another recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize – young Malala Yousafzai, herself the victim of violence in Pakistan. “We can’t be silent right now,” she says. “The number of people who have been displaced is hundreds of thousands …. This should be a human rights issue. Governments should react to it. People are being displaced, they’re facing violence. We need to wake up and respond to it,” she continues, “… and I hope that Aung Sang Suu Kyi responds to it as well.”

The Christian will be aware that when Simon Peter, one of Jesus’ disciples, tried to protect Jesus and prevent his arrest by the temple guards, Jesus warned him urgently to put his sword back into place “for all who live by the sword will die by the sword” (Matthew 26.52) and had conversely famously promoted the cause of peace in his ‘sermon on the mount’; “Blessed are the merciful for they will be shown mercy” he said “…blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God,” (Matthew 5.7,9). So, where are today’s peace makers? Well, they are all around us – in fact they are us! For like Malala Yousafzai, we should be encouraging our government to act swiftly to put pressure on the Myanmar government and not to stand silent. There may be very little that we can do personally, other than to pray for peace and support relief organisations and charities that we know are working in the area, but we can also be clear that these sorts of actions will never be seen by us as being part of a just, fair, civil and democratic society.


“… and what does the Lord require of you? To act justly, and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God”

Micah 6.8


 

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WOULD YOU RECOGNISE A SLAVE IF YOU SAW ONE?

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Whilst many of us were enjoying the Summer holidays and watching the World Athletics, a darker side of our society also came to the fore last month. The BBCs Home affairs correspondent Dominic Casiani reported how the NCA (National Crime Agency) had revealed that victims of modern day slavery were being forced to work in every large town and city in the UK in far higher numbers than was previously thought – “from the person who washes your car, to the worker who picks your fruit, to the labourer who helped build your house, more people would be coming into contact with them every day” he said. “These are people who are forced to work against their will, under the threat of punishment or as a form of debt repayment. Some of them may not even realise that they are the victims of crime – in many cases they are victims of criminal gangs”.

These are all incredibly vulnerable people who are usually disadvantaged, poor or from other countries who are being repeatedly ill-treated, abused and exploited. The NCA sadly described how the more they looked at the problem the worst the figures became, so much so that they have now asked the public and the general community to help them by reporting any form of this sort of exploitation that they may come across.

Previously, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby alongside the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople at a conference in Istanbul had observed that slavery is more rampant today than at any other time in human history and called it an “abomination to human dignity”. “There is no religious basis or justification for a practice that commodifies human beings” he said and suggested that the church with a presence in every parish was uniquely placed to help spot, confront and challenge those who seek to exploit others in this way. The Prime Minister, Theresa May welcomed the subsequent declaration that came out of the Istanbul conference saying that “modern slavery is one of the great human rights issues of our time, subjecting people around the world to experiences that are horrifying in their inhumanity. We have a duty, as human beings and as Christians, to bring it to an end. The UK is leading the way…but governments alone will not be able to stop it. It is vital that all parts of society do their part”.

The Christian will recognise that as human beings, we are all made ‘in the image of God’ and all equally of value and worth before him. Indeed, Jesus not only summarised the Jewish faith as ‘loving God’, and ‘your neighbour as yourself’, but capped it in his own unique way by giving his disciples the ultimate command that they should ‘love one another as I have loved you’ (John 13.34). In other words, selflessly, sacrificially, compassionately and with a generous spirit as ultimately displayed in his own death upon the cross.

These are sentiments, I believe, that whether we be religious or not, we can all sign up to as marks of our common decency and shared humanity. The challenge is of course, would we recognise this sort of exploitation if we saw it – and if we had a suspicion would we have the courage to report it? I truly hope so, for this sort of problem will only get worse if people ‘turn a blind eye’, ‘mind their own business’ or try to ‘sweep it under the carpet’. Ultimately, we always need to put ourselves in the place of the victim, and treat others as we would like them to treat us – with common decency, dignity, value and respect. That’s part of what it means to ‘love one’s neighbour as one’s self’.


“There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”

Galatians 3.28


 

CAN EVANGELICAL CHRISTIANS NO LONGER BE IN POLITICS?

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Naturally, our hearts go out to all the people that were caught up so tragically in the fire that destroyed the Grenfell Tower in North Kensington. We pay tribute to the fire and other emergency services and we applaud the amazing generosity, love and charity demonstrated by the people of the local community. We pray for all affected and hope that lessons will be learned to prevent such tragedies in the future.

However, on the same day another interesting story took place when Tim Farron announced that he would be standing down as leader of the Liberal Democrats citing the pressures that had been placed upon him by the media due to his Christian convictions particularly over the matter of ‘Gay Sex’. “A better, wiser person may have been able to deal with this more successfully, to remain faithful to Christ while leading a political party in the current environment. To be a leader, particularly of a progressive liberal party in 2017 and to live as a committed Christian and to hold faithful to the Bible’s teaching has felt impossible for me,” he said.

The irony of all this was that Tim Farron’s voting record had been exemplary in the support of gay rights and as a politician he had publicly and passionately supported peoples’ rights to live in whatever way they chose, regardless of his own personal thoughts or opinion. Knowing that biblically and theologically speaking, the bible does regard gay sex as a sin (it’s hard to come to any other conclusion if you read the Bible honestly) the media saw this as a stick to beat him with and wouldn’t let it drop, despite the fact that Tim Farron had represented all of his constituents with integrity to the best of his ability (even though the Office for National Statistics itself believes that the gay community only represents 1.5% of the population). It’s interesting to note that the media didn’t bully Muslim MPs in the same way, even though the whole matter of gay sex is just as contentious in the Qur’an and Islam as it is in the Bible, which once again is an example of systematic media bias and spin.

The problem with our society is one of an extremely bad and intolerant ‘political correctness’ which doesn’t only wish to restrict any form of language which might offend, marginalise or disadvantage people on grounds of race, sex or religion (which is good) but actually stifles debate in the process (which is bad) and is intolerant of anyone who doesn’t hold the commonly held party view, regardless of its failings.

Over the years many Christians have faithfully and passionately sought to serve their communities with ‘love and devotion’, seeing it as part of their Christian and political vocation to make the world a better place. We have a proud Christian heritage which has shaped many of our laws and influenced the way we govern ourselves and look after one another, based on mutual understanding and the traditional Christian values of love, justice, equality and the intrinsic worth of the individual made ‘in the image of God’. It would therefore be such a shame and a real detriment to our communities if Christians were discouraged from entering politics or thought that their contributions to society were of little value or worth.


“Love the Lord your God with all your heart … and love your neighbour as yourself.” Luke 10.27

GOOD MORNING, MR PRESIDENT!

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By the time, you get to read this letter, Donald J Trump will have been sworn in as the 45th President of the United States of America, and life, it seems will never be the same again. Adopting Ronald Reagan’s campaign slogan, Donald Trump will set about ‘making America great again’, but not without some controversy. Will Donald J Trump build a wall between the United States and Mexico? Will he impose import taxes on US companies that create product intended for the US market whilst using foreign workers in foreign plants? Will he continue to stir up controversy with China whilst seeking to improve relations with Russia? Will he continue to denounce the workings of the American Intelligence agencies, and with regard to Russia – is he politically compromised? The list of controversial questions seems to be added to each day with a flurry of response being sent on Twitter.

But can President Trump ‘make America great again’ and is he really that powerful? Well, in a sense the answer is both yes and no! As President, he certainly commands a lot of power, but in theory even he is subject to the higher authority of the American Constitution. It is this document which is so sacred to Americans which is considered to be the ultimate resort. Congress may make laws, but it is the American courts which interpret them according to the Constitution and determine how they should ultimately be applied – a system designed, it is said, to prevent any one person having too much power or being subject to corruption. However, this means that ultimate power can be said to reside with the unelected members of the Supreme Court. To counter their influence American Presidents are able to appoint a number of ‘Justices’ to the Supreme Court according to their political persuasion; Republicans tend to appoint conservatives or ‘originalist’ judges and justices who will always try to interpret the law according to the Constitution as it was originally understood by the ‘founding fathers’. Democrats will say that the Constitution is a ‘living document’ which needs to be interpreted according to the issues of the day and so will appoint Liberal or ‘activist’ judges and justices, and try to promote their own particular agenda on modern day issues of concern (e.g. abortion). This is one of the main reasons why Presidential campaigns become so messy as everyone wants to get their candidate elected so that they might be able to shape and influence society and politics not just within Congress but through the courts. The problem with Donald Trump it seems, is that because of his outlandish statements and apparent policy making ‘on the hoof’ he’s been quite capable of upsetting both Republicans and Democrats and so his candidacy as President hasn’t always been easy for either side to settle with or predict.

So where does this leave us? Well, the Christian response has always been to pray for those in authority that they will govern wisely and well for the benefit of all people, and do all that they can to support and encourage them in that task. Equally, in a period of so much change and uncertainty, we are encouraged to think about what do we consider to be our ultimate guide and authority? For many Christians that guide would be the Bible, which has been the foundation and backbone of so many of our laws and legal frameworks within British Society for countless generations, but the constant task is of course, not only to understand the context in which the Bible was originally written, but how we can also best apply it to today’s modern society. We may call ourselves Great Britain, but in my own humble opinion, our national status would be greatly enhanced if we were to spend a little more time quietly, prayerfully, and intelligently reflecting upon some of the biblical and Christian principles which have served us so well in the past.


 “Pray for all people … kings and all those in authority, that we may live a tranquil and peaceful life in all godliness and dignity” 1 Timothy 2.2


 

POLITICS, LEADERSHIP AND AUTHORITY – WHAT A RESPONSIBILITY!

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They say ‘a week is a long time in politics’, but it’s taken seven long years for the Chilcot Report to be published. The Inquiry into the Iraq war may have been announced by Prime Minister Gordon Brown on 15th June 2009 but the final report published on the 6th July 2016 with its ‘damming conclusions’ about the ‘decision to go to war’ and upon what basis the nation did so, immediately shone a light, once again, upon his predecessor, Tony Blair. The media were waiting with eager anticipation as to what he would say – and whether he would apologise for the deaths of 179 British Servicemen and many others killed during the conflict.

The pros and cons of such a debate are far too long and complex for me to consider here, but they do raise some interesting questions about power, leadership and authority, and raise the conundrum of what do we do when the people that we vote into government (often with large popular majorities), do things that we rather wish they didn’t? Frequently the cry is for firm leadership – but what happens when our leaders firmly direct us in the wrong direction? Understandably many people will have a view on Tony Blair, and hindsight as they say is a wonderful (and occasionally cruel) thing, but perhaps it should be noted that despite his many failings Chilcot does not say that Tony Blair wilfully deceived Parliament, rather that he honestly believed the flawed intelligence that had been given to him, and despite many people marching in protest against the war, polls showed that at the time, public opinion was overwhelmingly in support of military action. All of which goes to show how easy it is for us a nation to be led up the garden path, unless we ensure that all the appropriate checks and balances are in place. This is all salient, because once again we find ourselves as a nation at a crossroads, and once again ‘firm leadership’ is called for as the Conservative Party elects a new leader and Prime Minister. In homage to Margaret Thatcher, Teresa May and Andrea Leadsom are already being touted as the new ‘iron maidens’ for our generation but they will need to be careful that in their desire to provide firm and positive leadership in the light of the nation’s decision to leave the EU, that they do so collegiately and with the full support of their cabinet, colleagues and party members or else they too in future years could find the swathe of public opinion against them. Firm leadership is not always about getting one’s own way, but taking sound advice and acting in the best interest of others.

It’s interesting that there is a sober lesson to be the learnt from the pages of the Bible, because at one point the people of Israel were so unhappy with their current system of leadership, that instead of the historic train of prophets ruling over them, they demanded a king so that they might be like all the “other nations” having a king to govern them and go out before them and fight their battles (1 Samuel 8). The prophet Samuel saw this as a rejection of God’s voice and authority administered via the prophets and warned them about all the disadvantages of having a king and the possible corruption that came with it, but the people wouldn’t listen. So Samuel prayed to God about it who graciously let the people have their way. The lesson is that sometimes God grants us the very thing that we wish for, but then not only do we have to take responsibility for our actions but we sometimes also have to live with the consequences.


And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and walk humbly with your God. Micah 6.8


EU REFERENDUM – SHOULD I STAY OR SHOULD I GO?

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In the light of the EU referendum on the 23rd June, “The Clash’s” 1982 song Should I Stay or Should I Go (complete with backing vocals in Spanish) seems to sum up the mood of the moment as people struggle to decide which way they will vote ( ‘this indecision’s bugging me’ – esta indecision me molesta ). How do we decide? The problem is, of course, that a good case can be made either way. Most people would consider the ‘Common Market’ to be a good thing and initially thought that this was what they were joining, but over the years the EU has changed beyond recognition, becoming a vast bureaucratic machine (some would say empire) that has power and influence over most aspects of common life, from weights and measures, to rights of employees, to the environment. Over time, the size of the EU has also changed from the original six nations in 1957, to nine in 1973 when the United Kingdom joined, to the current twenty-eight, with other nations such as Turkey wanting to join at some point in the future. Many of the benefits have been considerable; cheaper products; greater choice and opportunity; stronger ties with European partners leading to a greater sense of mutual understanding, co-operation, stability, security and peace. The economic, corporate and personal opportunities have also been immense with the free movement of individuals across the continent seeking work and a better way of life.

Equally, as ‘the club’ grows bigger the disadvantages have become more apparent (and some would say irritating). Britain’s influence isn’t what it once was as it tries to negotiate with 27 other partners. The ‘one size fits all’ approach of Brussels doesn’t always seem to make allowance for exceptional or national circumstances, resulting in a perceived lack of sovereignty and a reduced ability to determine one’s own future (or even manage one’s own borders).

So, what IS the answer? Well, in some ways it’s hard to see ‘the wood for the trees’ as nobody really knows what life would be like if Brexit occurred. There are naturally a lot of fear stories and some things said which simply don’t appear to be logical. Why, for instance should our security arrangements be changed, because we decide to make the political and commercial decision to withdraw from EU? Collaborative working in this area seems only natural and no one is seriously suggesting otherwise.

David Cameron and Boris Johnson might be clashing with one another but in reality it seems to me that we have two choices! We either stick with the tried and trusted with all its imperfections and try to reform things for the better from within the EU, recognising the value of international co-operation – or we say that the EU is impossible to reform and has become simply too big for its own good, weighed down with its own bureaucracy hindering the creative talent, and well-being of individual nations such as ours. It’s a big decision and a difficult choice but it’s still our choice, and so I would like to urge you to do your best and think around the issues, be bold, courageous and use your democratic freedom to the best effect and vote. Vote not just for yourself or for what will benefit you in the short term, but vote for your children, grandchildren and their children, vote for future generations – what will give them the best chance of living in peace and prosperity? Vote for the nation!


“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Jeremiah 29.11