Saturday, September 23, 2017

Fake news is always with us



If you imagined that 'false news' was a contemporary phenomena, think again! It is a recurrent theme. Wherever competing interests exist to be communicated, there it will be. This was brought home to me whilst reading Kent Nerburn's excellent, "Chief Joseph and the Flight of the Nez Perce".

The Nez Perce first encounter with the white man was peaceable (and ennobling). It was with the expedition of Lewis and Clark as they made their way to and from the Pacific. The Nez Perce lived as independently minded groups in what is now Idaho, Montana and Washington. Intermingling with other tribes, through trade and marriage, differentiated from others by enmity.

As the pressures of white settlement mounted, much nobility evaporated and under increasing pressure, some chose the way of agriculture and Christianity, others, however, found themselves on an epic journey of months as they fled the pursuing US Army (and assorted vigilantes including other indigenous tribes, often lured by the Nez Perce's wealth especially their exceptionally well-bred horses). This flight was necessitated by an atypical act of violence against white settlers when the Nez Perce's patience at white depredation finally snapped.

The journey ended (after successful flight and fights) near the Canadian border. The Nez Perce were encircled, too exhausted to fight their way out, and reduced to a bare rump. They were shipped to Kansas and a reservation where they suffered further indignities (including at the hands of a Quaker Indian agent) until they finally find themselves either back with their settled Christian kin or in another tawdry reservation in Washington, trying to follow the old ways, ruptured by defeat and displacement.

One of the ironies Nerburn explores is that Chief Joseph though singled out by the press (and subsequent mythologizing) as the leader of the Nez Perce (and brilliant military leader), in fact, was only one amongst a number of chiefs, by no means, until the very end, the most important and spent most of his time on the flight looking after the needs of the elderly, the women and children; and, rarely having the opportunity to fight himself! You see compellingly (and dispiritingly) how the news about this unfolding event was simply and radically distorted by its reporting - savage Indians on the rampage or noble victims of bungling US government policy - with very little attempt (on any side) to arrive at balance or rounded judgement. A balance of which Nerburn's book is a beautifully written example.

Sadly, not only 'false news' is an ongoing reality so is the plight of indigenous people - as I write they are being widely either deprived or patronised. Their land stolen for resource extraction, their way of life condemned as primitive. In both cases standing in the way of 'civilisation' - for Joseph this was agriculture and Christianity - now, no doubt, it is wage labour and atomisation compensated for by the prospect of shopping!

If we do make progress, it is slow. Towards the end of his life, we find Joseph discovering the power of the media, and the image, for himself; and, interestingly the employment of the law to file for 'land rights' for a community rather than for individual property rights. Both of which have been, and continue to be deployed, to argue for indigenous rights, with some, if too little and fragile success.

It is a sad, instructive book - of the resilience and fragility of culture, of the realities of discrimination and power, and of a noble soul who endured it all and died defeated 'of a broken heart' and yet had never, in that same heart, surrendered.


Sunday, September 10, 2017

When the English Fall



A solar storm has knocked out much of the world's electronic/electrical systems only fragments of that world, so unthinkingly familiar, survives. Mobile phones fall silent, your credit card is useless and indeed redundant as your bank account, nesting in the 'Cloud', has disappeared! Just in time delivery means that nothing is stocked where it is needed, the cities and their citizens, go hungry and slowly, steadily citizenship, itself, crumbles.

Meanwhile, though not wholly unaffected, even they have made compromises with modernity, the Amish and their life continues to unfold. It is late summer, moving into autumn, there is harvesting to be done and the subsequent milling, canning, preserving. All of this shot through with scenes of community help, community gossip and, most importantly, for this ancient Anabaptist group, worship and prayer.

But even though they have 'separated' themselves, no one in the world is truly separate and the world's chaos closes in; and, the community must find ways to respond, to suffer and to survive.

David Williams' "When the English fall" is a post-apocalyptic novel woven around this scenario. It takes the form of a journal, kept by Jacob, an Amish farmer, who lives with his wife and two children, in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, heart of the original Amish settlement in the U.S..

In his simple, reflective, measured prose the events slowly unfold until most of the community decide that to survive, without sheltering under their neighbours' defensive violence, they must go west to their newer fellow communities, where land is more plentiful and cities, with their emptying, threatening, desperate outflows of people, less numerous.

It beautifully captures the dilemmas of a community, wedded to non-violence, in a darkening age and, of course, uses the scenario to quietly question our growing 'connectivity' and whether it genuinely builds the resilience of community that we need.

It, also, interestingly weaves into the narrative hints of a gathering challenge, not as immediately catastrophic as a solar storm, but nevertheless already profoundly dislocating, namely climate change. It is cunning of the author to unobtrusively slip it into a farmer's journal recognising that it simply now, sadly, belongs there. Mr Trump in his golden tower might not believe in it but it is, as study after study shows, what every farmer now knows.

All of this is rooted in a narrative saturated with the community's Christian faith, a faith that, in the past, and now again, was and is much tested. A faith that indicates that though the world is a divine gift, our collective and individual handling of that gift leaves much to be desired. A handling that requires more reverence and humility than we have afforded it.

This mystery at the heart of things is most readily shown through Sadi, Jacob's daughter. She is 'fey'. She foresees. Growing up this is seeing simple things such as a forthcoming accident to a friend but as the storm approaches, she foresees the oncoming crisis, interpreted through her lights. Her promptings, when acknowledged, help the community take its next step but, equally, on their own can only ever be one among many sources of guidance. Even the 'magical' must take its place amongst an ordering of the world that is meant to serve the witness of community to its life and faith.

Along the way, you gain vivid insight into the ways of a living community and some sharp, if compassionate, asides on some of our current cultural predicaments; not least, the strange disconnecting angriness one finds on social media.

It is a dark novel - but with significant indicators to where light might lie: in faith, in resilience, in reconnecting with a gifted natural world, in scrutinising our default to violence; and, most simply, in preparation, nothing is as complacent as complacency!


Sunday, September 3, 2017

The naturally holy



I remember when Rowan Williams was made Archbishop of Canterbury his staff had to persuade him to cease his previous practice of opening his own mail not only because of its increase in volume but also because often nestling within was the vituperative poison of the disgruntled and disaffected!

Avril Pyman in her accomplished biography of Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh gives her own examples of this surprisingly common 'Christian' art form that this particular saintly bishop accrued to himself through his own management of the Russian Patriarchal Church in Western Europe that was his responsibility over many years. The disappointments of Judas, sadly, are always with us.

Since the organisational life of the Church absorbed so much of Anthony's attention and energy, likewise it must occupy his biographer but I confess it is, for me, the least interesting part of the book. The parsing of denominational difference especially when it is within Orthodoxy (rather than betwixt Orthodoxy and other dimensions of Christianity even) can only truly interest the specialist!

But the book comes truly alive when it continually steps back into the reality of the man.

I remember the first time I saw him. It was at a University London mission - the first night had been Michael Ramsey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, the second night was the Liverpool duo, David Shepherd and Derek Warlock, Anglian and Roman Catholic Bishops of Liverpool respectively; and, the third and last night was Metropolitan Anthony. Whilst the previous speakers had sought to explain to you why you might be a Christian in undoubtedly lively ways, Anthony simply was it. This is how the world is - God's gift - and you lived into that gift by following Christ and to follow you prayed. I had never met anyone, to that time, who radiated such holiness and did so with such charm, serenity and wit.

Afterwards I read his books - all of which carry the same straightforwardness of an experienced conviction that never talk at the reader, simply invite them in (rather akin to the photograph above). They, also, as the philosopher, Jacob Needleman noticed (in his book, 'Lost Christianity') have a strikingly 'objective' feel -unsentimental, direct, alive - as if sharing a discovery that anyone can discover if they place their attention and will in the right direction. Grace is ever present waiting to respond. Faith is a matter of observation and experience, not of belief.

This too was my experience of the man when we subsequently met (and I discovered through the book that by this stage - bearing on his age and health - this was a privilege). There were not many meetings but he taught me prayer (which is after all rather like saying he taught me the one thing necessary)! I remember each time we met (and the last time was in the more public forum of a Diocesan conference), I always found myself oscillating between embracing him and running away because he had a way of looking at you that saw through you. There was I felt to be no hiding place - especially not from my own conscience!  I also had that sense that though I stored up questions to ask, actually what mattered was not the 'answer' as such but a presence that let the reality he witnessed to unfold, dissolve the question.

It was a similar sense I had with the only other person I have met (as yet) who carried quite the same embodied, objective holiness: Dom Bede Griffiths. When we met for the first time, after a prolonged correspondence, likewise I had saved up all manner of question, all of which seemed to evaporate as we simply enjoyed lunch together, bathed in his kindliness!

Perhaps it is a mark of sainthood - that you step with them, however, momentarily into the world seen aright, made its true self again, all cleansed and transfigured; and, there is nothing striking about this except its naturalness from which usually we stand estranged in our myriad complications. We see the difference that makes the difference and, hopefully, re-gird our loins to dispose ourselves to the closure of that gap.




The search for understanding

Kent Nerburn received a call. It was a Lakota Indian woman on behalf of her grandfather. Would Kent come and visit him? Dan, the grandf...