Monday 3 December 2012

Bruce Almighty

The concept of God as somehow separate from creation and only standing outside as some kind of all powerful being either occasionally intervening in or on the other hand ignoring the passing events on earth does not accord with the words ascribed to St Paul. Quite the opposite, as Paul says, "For in him we live and move and have our being".  Here we are given a certain flavour of the proximity of God in our lives, a proximity so close we can scarcely imagine it.  It is reminiscent of the fish that wanted to see the ocean so badly but didn't know she was already in it.  We too are in that ocean; enveloped in that loving, pulsating consciousness where even the hairs on your head are numbered for in God, there is nothing that is not known. 

Jesus gave us a glimpse of our own potential to become truly the children of God and sometimes we may see in another, the flowering of that potential, a glimpse of that divine goodness that for a time may guide and inspire us. I recently enjoyed the comedy film, Bruce Almighty, featuring Jim Carey as Bruce Nolan, an egotistic and disaffected television reporter who temporarily becomes Bruce Almighty, while God has a holiday. In this production, God played by Morgan Freeman, is depicted as appearing as a wise, world weary God, a God who is very much the creator God, but a God also who knows only too well the weakness and failings of humanity.  He is a compassionate God with a sense of humour and he is a God with a filing cabinet who knows everything about Bruce Nolan. Importantly, Freeman helps us to glimpse that divine goodness that exists in others.   

Because Bruce had complained about being ignored by God, that God was not doing his job properly, God taking his holiday hands over his powers to Bruce for a while with the rule that Bruce must observe the right of all human beings to have "free will".  Bruce Nolan therefore becomes Bruce Almighty. Hilariously the whole episode ends in near disaster, with thousands of people, for example, all winning the same lottery draw and rioting, until God takes over again but in the process, Bruce learns some major life lessons.  Through his own suffering, Bruce realises that real success cannot be achieved through selfish egotism; you have to be there for other people if you want them to be there for you.  Secondly, that we do not inhabit a world that is indifferent to our existence but a world that needs us to become compassionately aware of our interdependency that we all have a role to play. 

This God of love calls us into the fullness of the one life and knows our weakness and our potentialities so God says to Bruce Nolan, "Bruce, you have the divine spark, you have the gift for bringing joy and laughter to the world - I know, I created you".  Jack Kornfield, teacher, psychologist and Buddhist tells a story of the Buddha who shortly after achieving enlightenment was approached by a man who had noticed that there was something special about him.  The Buddha seemed to exude a remarkable energy.  The man wondered if he was a god, a wizard or a magician.  The Buddha simply replied that he was 'awake'.  In the same way, Jesus exhorted the crowds to wake up, he said, "Seek ye first the kingdom of God then all things will be added".  On our own journey, we may sometimes be given insight and moments of inspiration. Our spiritual path if we choose to take it is a journey not an end.  However, it is the only response to despair and cynicism as Bruce Nolan discovered. May you take your journey with courage and faith.

Saturday 10 November 2012

If We Can Understand Who We Really Are

The twentieth century comedy actor, Jimmy Edwards, once remarked, “If there was any good advice he could give it would be, “don’t take good advice!” There’s a message there somewhere.

A few weeks ago, The Guardian carried an interesting review by Susanna Rustin of a book entitled, “The Social Conquest of the Earth” by Edward Wilson. Since I have already touched on the subject of advice, I can tell you that the writer and atheist Richard Dawkins has advised that we shouldn’t read it, “Potential readers should throw the book aside with great force” he says.  Should we take such advice?  What is so objectionable about the book in the first place?  First, we should remember that back in 1976 Professor Richard Dawkins published a book on evolution entitled “The Selfish Gene”.  The premise of this book is that our genes drive evolution, and that our genes drive us to do the things that give us most chance of survival and of replicating those same genes.  Our actions may appear to be unselfish, but basically, the genes are driving us in one direction – the survival and replication of our genes.

However, the Harvard biologist and professor Edward Wilson has scientifically challenged this rather bleak view of humanity, much to the annoyance of Richard Dawkins. From his research, Wilson has proposed the alternative view; he said, "I think if we can understand who we really are then we could reach a much better world."  His work and research on social insects such as ants has led him to conclude that their high level of organisation through close co-operation has promoted the replication of their own genes. Through such co-operation, there has been altruistic evolution that has ensured group survival and so these insects have become one of the most successful species on earth.

For Wilson, the lives of the ants provide a lesson for humanity.  He sees our own selfish striving is continually at war with our more generous co-operative and compassionate instincts.  He says it is a conflict between the poorer and better angels of our own nature.  He warns us about the contradictions of human society, a society he says that is a "star wars civilization with Stone Age emotions, medieval institutions and god-like technology.  We thrash about terribly confused by the mere fact of our own existence and the danger to ourselves and the rest of life".

But Wilson, through his own take on evolutionary theory offers us hope. He says, "I think we have the qualities to come through and staunch the haemorrhage of species extinction I just think people are capable of being better than they have been. Why would you risk your life to save the life of a stranger? Why would you give up one of your kidneys? We really are a wonderful species, and I think if we can understand who we really are, then we can reach a much better world, and a much better arrangement than we have now."

On the other hand, Professor Dawkins has said the threat of extinction was real and very disturbing he has stated, "Humans may be unique in having the consciousness and ability to look into the future. Ninety nine per cent of species have become extinct. I don't think there has been a mechanism by which a species took steps to halt a headlong rush to extinction."

Against the advice of professor Dawkins, to throw professor Wilson's book "aside with great force", perhaps we might consider that Wilson’s perspective holds out the hope for humanity that in the end our better angels can defeat our poorer angels and that ultimately we can create a better world.  These two opposing views may be dressed up in scientific verbiage but the decision to choose hope over despair lies within you alone, no one can think for you, you have to decide.

We struggle with the dark side our own human nature there is uncertainty and we have to live with that. However, Psalm 23 exhorts us to acknowledge God, to live with the faith, courage, and determination:

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
    all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
    for ever. Amen

Our beliefs and attitudes make us who we are and will ultimately create the world in which we live.

Thursday 11 October 2012


Last year, in Norway on July 22nd 2011, Anders Breivik a declared ultra nationalist, launched a bomb attack on government buildings in Oslo where he killed eight people, and then travelled to a Labour party youth camp where he killed 69 young people, one of whom was only 14 years old.   He shot them using a handgun at close range, or if they were further away, he used a semi-automatic rifle.  Breivik justified his cold-blooded slaughter by saying “I see all multi-cultural political activists as monsters, as evil monsters who wish to eradicate our people, our ethnic group, our culture, and our country.”

It is natural to think that anyone who could carry out such atrocities is insane; certainly, they must be!  Anders Breivik is clearly a madman yet he too was ruled eligible to stand trial because psychiatrists had declared him sane.  Apparently this had overruled a previous psychiatric evaluation in which he had been described as “living in a delusional universe” - a paranoid schizophrenic who had lost touch with reality.  The state prosecutors lost their campaign to have Breivik declared insane while 72% of the Norwegian population wanted him declared sane so that he could stand trial.  Breivik wanted the same thing and he got it. The New Statesman magazine commented, “Breivik’s actions are not rooted in mental imbalance, but in political belief, and we must study and negate his beliefs – and those who adhere to them, to stop future slaughters.”  Actually, all we see here is the beginning of the operation of the law of unintended consequences.  In giving such evil the credibility and status of political belief, we end up allowing the power of darkness to dictate the terms of our existence. We unwittingly give it power.    For now we have unintended collaboration and the boundaries have become blurred.  One person said, “I believe he is mad, but it is political madness, not psychiatric madness”. The question is what is the difference? 

The Catholic priest, Thomas Merton said, “The generals and fighters on both sides in World War 2, the ones who carried out the destruction of entire cities, these were the same ones.  Those who have invented and developed atomic bombs, thermonuclear bombs, missiles – who have planned the strategy for the next war; who have evaluated the various possibilities of using viral and bacterial chemical agents – these are not crazy people, they are sane people.  The ones who coolly estimate how many millions can be considered expendable in a nuclear war, I presume they do all right with the Rorschach (ink blot) test.”

Sunday 5 August 2012

In Struggle We Can Find Truth

Years ago there was this famous TV advert for a brand of cigars, known as Hamlet.  There were many versions of these advertisements that would begin with various scenes involving an attempt of sorts that would go wrong.  Famously, there was one advert where a man in a photo booth is vainly attempting to hide his baldness with only a few strands of hair before the camera flashed to take his photograph, but the unpredictability of the camera turned his vain attempts into disaster.  Disappointing, is the word that comes to mind.  At the point of deepest despair, Bach's Air on a G String is played and our dismayed friend consoles himself by lighting up a Hamlet cigar.   Such was the popularity of this advertisement at the time that if you referred to any story of failure or disappointment as 'Hamlet time', it would be likely to receive a knowing smile from the hearer of the tale. I can't help feeling that the Hamlet advertisements inadvertently not only pointed to consolation but also to the potential for new understanding that can arise from disappointment. The Zen Buddhists call this form of personal insight Satori.   

Life as we know can be full of disappointments or to put it another way, 'Blessed are they that expect nothing for they shall not be disappointed' which in a way is again very Buddhist when we consider the four noble truths, of its teaching that tells us that life is suffering and that our suffering arises from desire or attachment or wanting; and no doubt, disappointment. If we look at the New Testament there is of course, the story of Jesus and an expectation that following his death and crucifixion that he will return within the lifetime of his followers and bring God's kingdom to earth:

And then they will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds with great power and glory: Mark 26: 13

Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass a way before all these things take place:Mark 26: 30

The literal message, the eschatology, was of course not realised and yet the faith of the Church, sustained by the spiritual truths of the teachings of Jesus, continued. 

It seems that there has to be new revelation when events, outcomes do not concur with our expectations.  There is more on the ground than there is on the map and we have to accept surprise and disappointment and move on in the light of new knowledge, in revelation, so that we can continue our journey. In an article published by the National Unitarian Fellowship 'Book Believers' by the Rev. Bill Darlison he tells us that, 'We must constantly bear in mind, that in the main the Bible is a book of poetry, and poetry depends for its power on ambiguity, on nuance, metaphor and similes. To translate poetry into history or into prosaic doctrinal formulations is to destroy it. There is no one way to interpret a poem.'

In the Bible, we are challenged and confronted by the contradictions and mixed messages, and even Jesus is not always presented as a serene mystic who can face his own death with equanimity but is actually presented as someone much more human who knows pain and fear and openly expresses anguish and his own anger as he argues and remonstrates with the teachers of the law.  The characters in the Bible, as well as Jesus, have faults and many commit all kinds of crimes and take issue with God.  Perhaps the Bible exists to say to us 'life isn't perfect and neither am I, look upon me as a person and then show me a person who never made a mistake.' Or we could remember the words of Theodore Roosevelt, who said, 'It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again . . .'  In struggle we can find truth.

Monday 23 July 2012

Say it with Flowers

'Say it with flowers' - that's the advertising slogan of Interflora probably the oldest commercial flower delivery service in the world. 'Say it with flowers' - it's a very simple strap line but it's clever for it seems to say something that most of us instinctively understand at a deeper level. Whenever flowers are presented or given to someone, often to, but not always, to a woman, there is a message there, a message that cannot always be adequately expressed in words. Therefore we really do 'Say it with flowers'. Flowers are used to express love, affection, or are used for celebration, for congratulations, for bereavement, for sympathy, for welcome and so on. In short, flowers become a medium of communication.

The beauty of flowers is universally recognised, the beauty of flowers is a kind of beauty that can lift us from the apparent ordinariness or drudgery of day-to-day life onto another plane, onto a plane that can transcend our preoccupations allowing us to connect with a more profound reality.

We can experience this reality in a wide variety of ways for example, when we gaze into a clear dark evening sky and witness the diamond display of countless distant stars and then taking it all in, gaze across the horizon at the relative proximity of the moon, or when we observe abundant fields of poppies or buttercups or when we see the sun's rays breaking through misty skies bringing warmth to the cold earth. In fact everywhere we look when we care to do so, we can allow ourselves to see the wonder of life, whether it be a solitary bird winging through the sky or the teeming flocks creating dark shadows as they sweep and swerve in spontaneous formation. Here we are given a glimpse of the majesty of creation of a world of which we are very much a part. But as William Blake wrote in his 'Auguries of Innocence' it doesn't always have to be the wide panoramic vision:

To see the world in a grain of sand
And heaven in a wildflower
Hold infinity in the Palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour

Blake's words about seeing 'heaven in a wildflower' are an echo of Jesus' injunction to consider the lilies of the field:

'And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin. And yet I say unto you, that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of those.

In this instance Jesus is speaking of the kingdom of heaven, he is advising us not to worry, not to sweat the small stuff, not to be concerned about 'storing up treasures', or what we might eat or wear.  For tomorrow will take care of itself if we seek the 'kingdom of God and his righteousness'.  If we pay attention to the spiritual life we will get our priorities right. Bogged down in worries and concerns and in our own personal dramas, we cannot live life to the full successfully and we cannot approach that peace of mind that can be our heaven in the here and now.

A boy, who had never seen his father, asked his mother what his father looked like. 'Look into the mirror and you will see,' she replied. And the God question is rather like that for us. If we want to see a reflection of God we have only to look within our own selves. The German philosopher, Hegel wrote:

'We are all from God and we carry in our minds and hearts the ripple of the divine mind.'

The meaning of life is the dynamic creative love that can be found in our own depths.

Towards the end of his life legend has it that the Buddha, standing near a pond, gave a sermon. This sermon was different from all his other sermons in one respect, it was conducted in silence. Instead of addressing his disciples, he reached into the pond and pulled out a lotus flower which he held out to his disciples, who stood close to the old man, looking at the lotus and wondering what the significance of this particular teaching was. Eventually one of his disciples Mahakashyapa began to laugh quietly. The Buddha then said. 'What can be said I have said to you, and what cannot be said, I have given to Mahakashyapa". From that day onwards Mahakashyapa became the Buddha's successor. Perhaps this Zen story illustrates the Buddhist belief that some things cannot always be said or written down, we have to discover truth in our own hearts. Perhaps it was the Buddha and not Interflora who first invented the slogan; 'Say it with flowers'.

Thursday 7 June 2012

Revolutionary Love

We went recently to the Corner House cinema in Manchester to see Marley, a film documentary on the life and times of Bob Marley. I thought that this was a fantastic film comprising archive film footage of his performances, interviews with people who knew him, and original film clips of some of the other great moments in his life. Without any hesitation I would recommend that you should go and see this film if you get the chance. If I was asked to sum up this film on the life of Bob Marley into a few short words I would say that it's about revolutionary love. It seemed to me as I watched the film unroll and illustrate the life of Bob Marley that we were being given an insight into the mind, thoughts and actions of a great man who had a message for the world.

Bob Marley wrote and sang fantastic songs about love, compassion and revolution, about a new world that is possible. He wrote the song, I Shot the Sheriff and Eric Clapton's version of this song helped catapult him to fame. Songs we will remember like Buffalo Soldier, One Love/People Get Ready, No Woman No Cry and Get Up Stand Up - are profound and inspiring songs. In Get Up Stand Up he tells us to get up and stand up for our rights not to give up the fight and that religion is not a private affair that has no relationship to what's happening in the world but something we should be involved with in the here and now in daily struggle:

Preacher man don't tell me
Heaven is under the Earth
I know you don't know
what life is really worth
it's not all that glitters is gold
half the story has never been told
so now you see the light
stand-up for your rights.

But Bob Marley's words were also translated into deeds. He eschewed personal wealth in favour of people, his generosity was legendary. He gave the songwriter credits to the song, No Woman No Cry to his friend, Vincent Ford who ran a soup kitchen in Trenchtown. The royalties ensured that the soup kitchen could remain open. In 1976 right wing gun men, loyal to the Jamaica Labour Party, attacked and injured Marley and his friends and they were forced to flee to Britain. But he returned in 1978 at the request of the government of Jamaica where he staged the One Love Peace Concert, at Kingston’s National Stadium, it was a symbolic moment of national reconciliation. And in 1980 he performed at the celebration event of Zimbabwe's national independence in Harare.

The film as I am sure you have no doubt gathered was a joy to watch. At 36 years of age Bob Marley had so much more to do and so much to look forward to. He was intent on further touring in America and performing to new audiences. Sadly, as we know this was not to be, by 1980 he was sick with cancer having contracted a malignant melanoma which in the end proved to be fatal. The film deals with these remaining days of his life in some detail. Bob Marley died in hospital in Miami in 1981. (The film) Marley has received very positive reviews because it has served to reveal a Bob Marley who spoke out for the poor and the oppressed; he was a man who worshipped God in his own way, and in a faith of his own choosing. He said, 'My life is only important if I can help plenty of people. 'In my life, there's just me and my own security. There'd be no wanting. My life is the people.' And when asked, 'Are you a rich man? You have a lot of possessions? He replied Possessions make you rich? I don't have those types of riches; my riches are life.

What a blessing the cinema is and what a privilege it is to see such great films.

Monday 9 April 2012

Being Compassionate

The continuing reports in the press expressing concern about the quality of care for elderly people in care homes and the National Health Service continue. Recently the Patients Association and Care Quality Commission have both recently provided detailed studies of what they describe as "shocking" levels of care in the NHS. Apparently problems are compounded for the elderly because of shortages of nursing staff and the prevalence of institutionalised ageism.

A report by the Commission on Dignity in Care whose message was that, "Being compassionate should be as important as being clever when it comes to the recruitment of staff." This was one of the recommendations made by the commission for improving dignity in care for older people in hospitals and care homes in England. They said that it has become clear that many elderly people are being seriously let down because of poor standards of care.

Last year, February, 2011, a report on the plight of the elderly was published by Ann Abraham the health service ombudsman. A Guardian caption on the publication of this report read, "Some elderly patients were given no help to eat or left in urine soaked clothes, according to the health service ombudsman". Ann Abraham's report was a catalogue of neglect and cruelty and highlighted examples, 10 cases, where elderly people were not treated with either, care, dignity, or respect as they came towards the end of their lives.

Words and phrases introduced into this debate include 'emotional intelligence', and 'empathy' as well as 'compassion'. There is a power, I think in these words because the caring services cannot operate properly without a preponderance of such qualities. Yet compassion (or can we go a step further and say love?) seems to be such a threat to the status quo. One of the things we rarely if ever hear politicians talking about is love and what is love if it's not the ability to understand, to put oneself in the other person shoes, to care deeply about the fate and well-being of others. What is love if it's not a desire to seek conciliation to bring peace and harmony and to alleviate suffering in the world? Humility is an aspect of a love that requires us to put others before ourselves and want what is right for everyone no matter who they may be.

There is this contradiction that we live with, that says we don't want to die young and yet we don't want to get old even though we know we have to die. So if we are lucky enough we may have a long and full life and will therefore get old. This is one of the challenges we all must face. In general our growing old and our inevitable death will demand an acceptance that the world continues to change and that we cannot for ever be part of it. Our final journey, death, will be a letting go of everything that we have known and loved on this earth.

In the nursing homes and care homes for the elderly there is naturally a more explicit recognition of this inevitability. In these care homes, there exists a tremendous opportunity for meaningful ministry, to share time with its residents and to be with them in the final phase of their lives. In care homes for the elderly there is a hunger for visitors, for company and for spiritual solace. At this stage in their lives many older people crave that company, a friendly face, a sympathetic ear and just a few encouraging words. It's not much to ask but it can make a big difference. In one care home, a woman, demented and confused, alone in her room in the hours of darkness, was heard crying out to God and praying, "O God, I am so alone, I don't know where I am, I don't know how I got here, but I'm so lonely, please send somebody to see me!"

The first verses of Psalm 22 read:
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest.

The woman's words and the words from the Psalm speak pitifully of a profound sense of abandonment, of pain and desolation. It seems that the secular world has forgotten largely that "man cannot live by bread alone." Where there is a perceived need for ministry it should be offered. Simply spending time with the elderly is a gift that the Church should provide; the gift of human contact and spiritual solace.

Monday 12 March 2012

Spiritual but Not Religious?

Perhaps the big attraction for the modern liberal individual private spirituality is that it seems to offer the prospect of personal or spiritual growth that can be had without responsibility or without any external commitment. It seems the ultimate working out of an unbridled capitalist ideology whose advocates can say that there is no such thing as society only individuals. And these individuals, consumers if you like, can go and buy their faith as a commodity, something to be consumed or disposed of until the next fad comes around so that one's life can become a continual search, a merry go round of esoteric, mystical, spiritual, workshops, much like the endless stream of self-help publications all promising a pathway to happiness and no doubt to success and wealth. It all becomes a mish-mash of competing ideas, a kaleidoscope jamboree where one can hop from one idea to the next. But where does it all end?

I think in a way it ends up becoming just like the worst aspects of the religion that was rejected in the first place, the religion that placed emphasis on the law, and on self righteousness, on one's own spiritual purity and individual salvation. We are reminded of the famous exchange that Jesus had with one such spiritual seeker when Jesus was once walking down a road and a man ran up to him saying, "Good teacher what must I do to have eternal life?" In this story Jesus says, 'Why do you call me good? Only God is good. Jesus simply reminded him to keep the Ten Commandments, to which the man replied, "I have obeyed all these commandments since I was a young man". Then Jesus looked closely at him and replied saying, "There's still one thing to do. Go and sell everything you own. Give the money to the poor and you will have riches in heaven. Then come with me." "When the man heard this he became very sad because he was very rich.

Then Jesus looked at his disciples and said to them, "It's hard for rich people to get into God's kingdom" According to Mark, even the disciples were shocked to hear Jesus say this and just to make sure that nobody was in any doubt he said, "In fact its easier for a camel to pass through the eye of needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God!

And when we think about it too it is quite a shocking revelation, it is a disclosure about the true path to the spiritual life, it clearly is not about adhering to this law or that law though of course it may help, and it's not about personal salvation in terms of self righteousness as the man found out but of a giving up of everything of all that we love for God. When the disciples saw how harsh the terms for salvation were, they asked, 'How can anyone ever be saved?' Jesus simply replied there are some things that people cannot do, but God can do anything." Like the mustard seed we have to let the kingdom of heaven grow slowly and gradually within us, we have to let God into our lives in order to make these changes for us. And in a church or a religious community we are more easily sustained in our religious or spiritual lives, our spiritual quests, where we are reminded to love God and to love our neighbour as ourselves, to care for others. It was no accident either that Jesus told the man to give his money to the poor because the true spiritual life demands that we must pour out our love in the service of others.

An editorial in a New York church magazine commented that being 'spiritual but not religious' can lead to complacency and self-centeredness,"  "If it's just you and God in your room and a religious community makes no demands on you, why help the poor? The religious life is not an easy option, it has its rewards but it necessarily has its responsibilities as well. Religion is not a hobby or a pastime, it's not something to be 'privatised' or made subject as part of this individualistic trend to 'aggressive marketing', and sold as being 'spiritual but not religious'. Rather it's a calling, a way of life that acknowledges people's need for each other, in worship, in community together where we may acknowledge that divine love, the presence of God in our lives.

Saturday 25 February 2012

Who Is My Neighbour?

On my regular jaunts to the local supermarket I usually go to the newspaper stand and survey the newspaper headlines. I can't help but look particularly at those papers that have become known as the 'red tops' not to mention the other tabloid newspapers. Usually these newspapers carry all sorts of weird and wonderful headlines, well probably not wonderful, and in most cases, in my opinion, definitely not wonderful.

Such tabloids report with depressing regularity on a particular group of people making them the main headline targets of vilification, unwarranted abuse, and persecution. They are of course, refugees who in recent years have become known as asylum seekers. And where the question of asylum or immigration is brought up it appears to me that there are no limits, no standards of human decency to which these so-called newspapers can be held to account. And I get the impression that there are no depths to which they will not sink in their appeal to negativity, to the darkest side of human nature, to petty minded nationalism and racial hatred.

There was for example the Daily Star's headline on August 21st 2003: “Asylum Seekers Eat Our Donkeys”. This story suggested that African asylum seekers used a lorry to steal nine donkeys from an area of east London because apparently, Africans, Somalis in this case consider donkey to be a delicacy. In spite of the fact that the Sun newspaper had admitted making up a story earlier in the year about asylum seekers stealing swans from local parks, roasting and eating them, the story about asylum seekers stealing and eating donkeys got wide coverage on radio stations and in other newspapers. In this case it was the Daily Star's turn to admit that their story too was a fabrication. However, in spite of the inflammatory and derogatory nature of such stories, no action was taken against these papers. Apologies were eventually published by both newspapers but of course, not writ large on the front page.

The war against asylum seekers or to be correct refugees who are seeking asylum is not simply confined to the racist fantasies of the Daily Star or the Sun. This war, a very one-sided war, is a war that is raging twenty four hours a day. In fact you can't pick up a newspaper or view online media without there being some story about refugees. These stories seem to fall in to two categories. They are either stories that vilify asylum seekers, either as scroungers, terrorists or criminals or they are stories of cruelty to asylum seekers. In January of this year the Daily Telegraph ran a headline that 371,000 immigrants were claiming benefits. This headline obviously intended to stir up resentment against asylum seekers was condemned in letter by Sir Michael Scholar, the head of the UK Statistics Authority in which he wrote: "The Statistics Authority recognises that Ministers often want to present published statistical information in the way that best serves their political objectives, and that this is part of the cut and thrust of political debate."

He also stated that 'statistics are both highly relevant to public policy and highly vulnerable to misinterpretation.' In the same letter he added, 'There are some important caveats and weaknesses that need to be explained carefully and objectively to Parliament and the news media at the time of publication. In other words the Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith who released the story and the Daily Telegraph who published the story were misrepresenting the truth for political gain. But this political game has real consequences for the people at the receiving end. The underlying racism within our society now finds its expression on the question of immigration, allowing manifest racism and cruelty through the way that we as a nation treat asylum seekers.

In the same month (January 2012) a government Home Affairs Select Committee Inquiry met to discuss and look into the treatment of asylum seekers who are being deported from the UK.  This inquiry followed the death of Jimmy Mubenga while he was being deported from Heathrow to Angola in 2010. Three G4S security guards escorting him were arrested and are still under police investigation. The MPs added that they were shocked to find that private security escorts used racist language in front of UKBA staff and official prison inspectors. 'It is possibly the result of a relationship between the agency and its contractors which had become too cosy,' said their report. Keith Vaz MP said he was disappointed there had been little progress in the police investigation into Mubenga's death.

One of the most shocking stories of 2011 was of how a boat carrying seventy two political refugees from Libya including children was heading for the Italian island of Lampedusa when it suffered fuel loss and engine failure. The Italian authorities were aware of the situation and also NATO ships were operating in the area. An army helicopter was dispatched some water and fuel and some bread was lowered onto the stricken ship. There was a promise of more aid to come but it never arrived. The boat drifted aimlessly and dangerously for days. Then a NATO aircraft carrier came into view, low flying aircraft flew over the boat and the refugees held up two starving children. But their plight was ignored. Eventually after sixteen days without food and water the boat was washed up on a beach in Libya. Sixty one of the original passengers had by this time died of hunger and thirst including the children; eleven survived. However one died shortly after arriving on dry land and another died in a Libyan jail. The surviving refugees were clear that their plight was definitely ignored and they know that the people who could have rescued them were indifferent to their plight.

No matter what anyone says, no matter how we as a nation might bury our heads in the sand or try to justify the policies on asylum, in effect how we treat refugees, we cannot ignore these crimes of inhumanity to others. Moreover, there is no way we can extol the virtues of the 'Charter for Compassion', call our selves people of faith, or even Christian whilst we remain silent on what in some way has become a silent holocaust. This barbaric treatment of vulnerable human beings has become so normalised and common place that we seem to be no longer aware of it.
We should know that every person is a child of God, there is that divine light in each person, and so each person we have ever met and will ever meet will be in effect, an encounter with God. Jesus reminds us that the King will say, 'In as much as you did it to the least of these you did it unto me.' Throughout the pages of the Bible one of God's most consistent messages is that of the requirement to provide hospitality. It is a requirement not an option. In Deuteronomy (10: 19) we are commanded to 'Love the stranger' and we are reminded of our own vulnerability: 'for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.' This message, this injunction, we should write not only on the walls of our churches and chapels but on our hearts as well.