February 24, 2018

The Soul of Pakistan

The Soul of Pakistan

Over the last two weeks many people in Britain have talked of a fight for the ‘soul of Pakistan’. Shahbaz Bhatti was the second prominent Pakistani politician this year to be killed for opposing the country’s blasphemy law. Many thought his death inevitable, after Pakistan’s Prime Minister ruled out government support for reforming this law, and left the Christian minority particularly vulnerable. One British commentator in South Asia claimed that it effectively handed victory to the Islamic militants, a faction described by the Archbishop of Canterbury as people ‘wholly uninterested in justice and due process of law, concerned only with promoting an inhuman pseudo-religious tyranny.’

It is not only Britain’s history in relation to Pakistan which connect our countries together. It is also that Pakistan’s founder, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, studied law in Britain and sought to implement the best aspects of that legal system in a new free society. His speech to the first Constituent Assembly expressed his vision for tolerance: “You are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place or worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed that has nothing to do with the business of the State.”

Shahbaz Bhatti the Minorities Minister and only Christian in the Pakistani Cabinet strongly subscribed to the vision of Pakistan’s founding father. For him, pluralism, freedom of religion and the rule of law were at the heart of political integrity. Bhatti’s commitment was deepened by the ‘spiritual awakening’ experienced in his teens, which became the foundation for his life’s work. He said he had decided to give his life to serve others, as he believed Christ had done for him. He wanted to “make this world beautiful by delivering a message of peace, togetherness, unity and tolerance”.

His many interfaith initiatives were a witness to his aspiration, ranging from prison visits, aid distribution, political advocacy to legal support. At the invitation of senior imams he spoke at large mosques and, last year, secured a joint statement from religious leaders denouncing terrorism. He never shied away from danger. He joined Christian villagers who feared attack from local extremists. He stood by people in a Punjab town who were being killed and their houses destroyed, refusing to leave the police station until the crimes were registered.

Bhatti’s opposition to the blasphemy laws was that they encourage Christian persecution. His death validates his claim. The Bishop of Faisalabad speaks out: ‘In our religion we do not educate our people to insult God or his prophets..No-one is declared infidel or hypocrite in our cathedrals and our religious leaders do not issue decrees of death against anyone.” The fear is that the extremists are winning by killing off Christian resistance. Tolerance has become a capital offence. The tragedy is what this is doing to the Pakistan of Jinnah’s vision.


March 2011



Fighting a Cause

Fighting a Cause

This week the British Red Cross in the UK has been fighting to safeguard its reputation. The problem is not, however, scandal or embezzlement. It is not like the aggravated fraud which sent its communication chief,  Johan af Donner to prison in Sweden last year after swindling the Swedish Red Cross of millions of kroner. Nevertheless, the Red Cross has made allegations that it has suffered a breach of trust and that the Geneva Convention has been violated.  So what is the issue?

Amazingly, it is a children’s theatrical event – a pantomime held at the Pavilion Theatre Glasgow. The pantomime is an annual British institution which re-enacts popular fairy tales and follow predictable plots. Viewed from the outside the tradition is certainly eccentric. The leading man is usually a girl, his mother, the ‘dame’ is a man in drag, there are villains and heroes, fairies and elves, and the amiable ‘horse’ is played by two actors inside an animal costume. The large, lively cast is supplemented by the audience who are a key part of the production and shout predictable lines of  warning or disagreement. It’s all silly but great fun, and families flock to theatres during January to brighten dull winter evenings.

Yet this harmless event has caused offence in Glasgow – not because of the plot or risqué humour  – but because of the dress. The outfit of the dame,  exaggerated as usual,  sported a large red cross on the hat and chest and this brought allegations of unlawful activity.  Recognizing how their response might be interpreted, the British Red Cross insisted they had ‘no desire to be the villains of the pantomime’ but that they had a serious obligation to protect the emblem since it is recognized internationally for its neutrality and its use is limited by the Geneva Convention. The pantomime producers did not argue. They climbed down rapidly and changed the colour to green.

The incident has raised an ethical discussion. How far should one go to protect an emblem? No-one seriously thinks that a Scottish theatre had any intention of undermining international humanitarian commitment. So where there is no motive of offence, is a legal reprimand really justifiable?

Surely, it is, because the power of an emblem depends on the integrity of its meaning and use. The Red Cross grew from Calvinist and evangelical roots in Switzerland in the mid -19th century, but it was a non-partisan Christianity, committed to seeking good for all people, providing protection for the vulnerable, whoever they were. The Cross –the symbol for Christians of Christ’s death for us –became red on a white background, universally recognizable, to assure us that all humanity matters. And for almost 150 years we have learnt to trust the Red Cross to act with impartiality, bringing help to those who need it even in the midst of war and violence.

So the Glasgow pantomime can have fun but not trivialize the Red Cross emblem. The world cannot afford for its significance to be diminished.

First published in Dagen

January 2011

New Vision. Old Legacy

New vision. Old legacy

The contest between David and Ed Milliband for the leadership of the British labour Party has opened up our recent social and political history. Their father, Ralph Milliband was one of Britain’s leading Marxist thinkers and academics. Their mother, Marion Kozak was a former member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and is still active in human rights. These parents, from  Polish Jewish ancestry, were survivors of the holocaust in which many of their family members died. Ralph and his own father fled to Britain in 1940, and Marion Kozac spent much of the war in hiding before she too came to the UK.. When they married,  he was already a celebrated intellectual and she had been his student.  Their two sons grew to be  prominent members of the Labour Party, and the younger one, Ed Milliband has become its new and youngest-ever leader.

The leadership contest was one of dignity and respect. And even though the media followed the men everywhere,  determined to expose dissent and animosity, they found little to expose. The solid affection between the brothers was as evident as the warmth of their commitment to each other. They spoke openly of the legacy of growing up in a close family of Jewish refugees.

Their father’s political ideas, however, have not enjoyed the same lasting influence. By the time of Ralph Milliband’s death in 1994, any remaining vestiges of his Marxist ideals were disappearing from British politics. They would be virtually eradicated over the next decade by Tony Blair’s reformulation of socialism into a pro-capitalist party of New Labour, which would absorb even his own sons.

The same seems true of the heritage of faith. Ed Milliband acknowledges respect for those believers, supports faith schools, and wants to draw Christians, Jews and Muslims into the public discourse. But he himself is a Jew who does not believe in God.

So his leader’s speech to Conference took many by surprise. For he began to use language we had not heard for two decades. He repudiated New Labour, denying its claims of a classless Britain where wealth ‘trickled down’ from the wealthy to the rest.  He exposed the myths of equality and opportunity, pointing to the levels of exploitation,  poverty and powerlessness. He called for justice for workers, insisted on the need for a living wage, and told us we have the wrong evaluation of worth. It is unacceptable, he said, to rapturous applause, that a banker can receive in a day what a care worker earns in a year.

People have heard echoes of his Marxist father. But those of us who know the prophets of his faith tradition can also hear echoes of Isaiah and Amos. Their cry against exploitation and injustice is taken up by the New Testament also. St James warns that the wages we fail to pay to workers will cry out against us. Jesus himself tells parables to drive home that God holds us responsible for how we serve the poor. The new Labour leader is drawing on a deeper legacy of faith than he realizes.

First published in Dagen

October 1 2010

A Hung Parliament?

A Hung Parliament?

This was written for Dagen, May 2010.

The result of the British General Election was widely predicted. The outcome, as expected was a ‘hung parliament’. The very phrase signifies uncertainty; parliament ‘hanging around’ waiting for some leader to emerge. Even though we anticipated it, the traditionalist press went into panic mode, announcing ‘Britain faces limbo’ and that ‘fears of a power vacuum in Westminster have sent financial markets into freefall.’ Some even saw a crisis parallel to that of Greece.

There is an individualism built into Britain’s ‘first past the post’ electoral system. The single candidate with the most votes in any constituency wins the seat, and the single political party with enough seats to cross the finishing line forms a government. So when, as in this election, no-one crosses the finishing line there is confusion. Political hardliners forecast gloomily that it will be impossible for any party to govern, and we will need another election within months.

Yet many UK voters find it extraordinary that we cling to this old electoral system with its  polarized view of power and combative process of policy-making. It barely seems to serve the interests of democracy when one party polls 36% of the votes and gets 47% of the seats, whilst another gains 23% of the votes but only 9% of the seats. Minority parties have no voice, but a major party, with only one out of 59 Scottish MPs, has a mandate to rule Scotland! This way of approaching government seems undemocratic and odd; all the more so because elsewhere in British society we make decisions by consensus and conduct elections by proportional representation.

The Christian roots of British social democracy have often been acknowledged by politicians, including Gordon Brown. Indeed, embedded within the traditions of European and American democracy is a long Christian legacy. Theological principles like the idea of human accountability, the equal significance of each person, and the commitment to care for our neighbours form a bedrock for law-making and government. Our legacy urges respect for justice, and good stewardship. It endorses human freedom and gives us the responsibility to choose well. Even in a secular age these principles are almost engrained in public awareness and values.

In this election, the dominant British media focused on leader debates and ignored many key issues which concerned the public. Now they deride the electorate for not knowing what it wants. But the election result might well suggest the British public does know what it wants. There is surely something significant in the wide distribution of votes, the election of the first Green Party MP (despite media and electoral disadvantage), and the lack of overall support for any one party. It could be a strong indication that the electorate wants stronger democratic values; that it wants politicians to work together in a more consensual democracy where everyone’s vote counts equally. Let us hope this week can bring us closer to that.

Dagen Newspaper, Sweden, May 2010

Refusing their Claims

Refusing their Claims

This was written for Dagen October 2009

We have become used to news of the global financial crisis, but now in the UK we find we have a local crisis also.  It is one not of scarcity but over-abundance, and affects our politicians. The country has been shocked to discover the very large sums of money claimed as expenses by Members of Parliament. The claims have arisen because of the need of MPs for two homes – one in London where parliament meets, and the other in the constituency they represent. Costs of upkeep of these homes are shared by the Exchequer. However, a few of the claims have assumed enormous proportions, and the details are bizarre. Taxpayers have been footing the bill for swimming pool filters, the cleaning of a moat around a country house, servants to look after empty properties, and payments on non-existent mortgages. Names of politicians from all political parties have hit the headlines this week. It is also sobering that the issues have been made public, not by any official report into parliamentary expenses, but through the investigations of one of our national newspapers.

As fresh revelations emerge every day, they are accompanied by calls for the offending politicians to return the money.  And the calls have been heeded. By the middle of last week twenty MPs had agreed to pay back £100,000 claimed inappropriately. As the Parties reflect on all this, there has been a renewed call for a similar exposure to be made of practices in the European Parliament.  Here, however, the note is rather more sinister with little willingness for the figures to be made known. Auditors’ reports seem to have been kept secret, yet we read allegations of some £100 million claimed on top of MEP salaries.

All this has raised two key issues. The first is the relationship between legality and morality. In the UK, none of our politicians has been charged with unlawful activity. There is no suggestion that they were engaged in corruption or fraud. It is simply that there are loopholes in the system which enabled it to be exploited to the financial advantage of those involved. But the electorate is not at all reassured by this explanation.  Just because something is lawful does not mean that it is moral. The point is a contemporary echo of Christ’s argument in the Gospels. He pointed out that  the legality of the ‘Corban’ practices did not make them right. To claim privileges for oneself by depriving the elderly was, however lawful, a denial of true morality. And, two millennia later, we still are conscious of the yawning gap between what the law might allow and what the conscience should forbid.

The second issue is about the nature of public office. It is fascinating that many of those exposed this week as self-interested and complacent are the same people who went into politics to make the country a better place. As we recall their early, passionate speeches we wonder what happened to bring about such a change. How does high motivation with regard to political office turn into compromised practice with regard to the public purse?

The answer may be something to do with a loss of humility. The Christian faith, which has bequeathed much to the politics of Europe, ought to remind us that leadership is fundamentally about service and neighbour love. Politicians are elected to be servants of the people and their calling is to seek the common good. Certainly we need good laws to define a just society and protect the vulnerable. But we also need a humble view of public office which discards privilege and affirms the vocation to serve others. Only when these come together can we safeguard morality and discourage those who exploit the system to serve themselves.

Dagen October 2009


BBC Today Programme is Half A Century Old

BBC Today Programme is Half A Century Old

This was written for Dagen in October 2007

It is striking that this month we celebrate a key British broadcasting institution. For since it began, not only has there been change in proliferation and  extent of media access, but also in social context. In the Britain of the 1950s, broadcasting symbolised postwar optimism; strong national consensus  was reflected in the way families across the country tuned in at the same time each day to enjoy the same BBC programmes together. And despite the growth of television, BBC radio stayed firmly at the heart of popular culture offering a particularly British outlook on news, plays, music, sport and entertainment.

It was into this climate that the BBC Today Programme was born. Launched in October 1957, it reflected the leisurely, rather ponderous radio broadcasting mode of its day. Broadcasters with immaculate British accents disseminated the news for us; a  keep-fit slot aimed to improve the nation’s health and fitness. Yet quite quickly it became the flagship programme for radio news, setting the nation’s agenda and providing coverage which no politician could ignore. Now, in our very media-diverse, individualised world, Today still holds its audience of millions. For three hours every morning from 6 to 9am, it opens up world affairs through fast-moving reports, interviews and analyses. The day’s news first breaks on this programme, updated each half hour for its listeners. Prime Ministers, Archbishops, Princes, prize-winning novelists, military commanders, University Vice-Chancellors and many world leaders have all broadcast on it. The standard is high, the timing impeccable, the coverage broad.

The programme has its own internal traditions – weather forecast, time announcements, sports report, the ‘big interview’ after 8am. Yet one of these traditions is much older than all the others. In fact it predates the Today Programme itself. A regular item before the 8 o’clock news first began life on the radio in 1939. Nearly seventy years later, and now called ‘Thought for the Day, it continues to offer a three minute reflection on the news from the perspective of religious faith. The fact that this has survived the huge cultural changes is surely itself quite remarkable. For it has been attacked by atheists, resented by cabinet ministers, parodied by comedians and scorned by the erudite. There is probably no other three minutes anywhere on the radio which has been subject to so much attention from its critics. In fact, even many of the editors over the years have set about trying to remove this religious slot from their programme, only to find that it has somehow withstood all their attempts and outlived the demise of their own careers.

For the last twenty years I have enjoyed being one of the ‘Thought for the Day’ presenters. My first broadcast, in 1987, was a Christian reflection on Budget Day – an annual British tradition featuring the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Since then: football, rail disasters, invasions, war, buildings, film awards, foot-and-mouth-diseases, earthquakes have all required scripts from me. It can be nerve-racking when news alters on the way to the studio, and a carefully crafted script has to be changed minutes before going on air. But it is a wonderful opportunity to reflect on the insights the Christian faith brings to our understanding of the world.

Why has this slot survived 50 years of changes in Today? Probably because people recognize that journalists can report news but explanations lie much deeper. And if there is a even a possibility that a God who made us has something to say to everyday life, many listeners are glad of the chance to hear what it could be.

October 2007