by i.burgess on December 9, 2014
When I was a child I was bullied.
Even writing this sentence I am filled with shame. How childish. Get over it. Move on.
It’s a squirming sense of embarrassment that crawls over my body. Bullying – how juvenile. The word gets stuck in my throat and I want to swallow it down. Everyone gets picked on in school and everyone gets over it. We all do things we regret at children but we grow out of it.
Yet here I sit, marked by the scars of things said and done a decade ago. Disconnected, disassociating. Emotionally numb. Anxious and afraid. How does one begin to unpack these things? How do I begin to reclaim that part of my story I’ve ignored for so many years?
How do I make sense of pain I had no control over and had no way of comprehending at the time?
Let me tell you about gym class. As I’m sure you can guess I loathed P.E. at school. I wasn’t very good at it and I didn’t enjoy competitive displays of ability. I think there is something in this about not really valuing the people around me enough to want to play them in sport. Or perhaps I felt so distanced from them that there was no way I could ever feel included in a competition. I didn’t enjoy P.E. (exert for swimming. Everyone loves swimming).
I especially loathed being commanded to wear shorts and t-shirt and go outside in the cold to play Rugby. Everyone was bigger, faster and more skilled so I would stand there flushed with shame for the two hours it would take for the game to end. Imagine a short blond chubby child with his shoulders hunched, looking at the ground. This experience, twice a week, only ever made me feel different to the other kids. It was like standing behind a soundproofed perspex screen: I could see the movement but I had no idea what it all meant. How alone I felt then. I’m no good at catching balls, playing in teams or memorising rules which I suppose says a lot about me, much of which I am grateful for today. Then, there? No. The mark of success in this is the extent to which you can conform. I couldn’t, so I was unacceptable.
So I’m enduring a couple of hours of Rugby and avoiding ever having to so much as look at the ball. If my acceptance, participation and success determines my inclusion in the group (as determined by the teacher) then it follows that my failure to do these things would exclude me. I didn’t like Rugby so I was on the outside.
How do teenagers treat outsiders?
Do they extend sympathetic embraces to those who occupy the ambiguous places in the collective conscience?
Do they accommodate the comfort and preferences of those around them, without harassment?
Do they allow for others to be free in their own consciences?
I was taking off my soaking wet rugby kit, ashamed of my nakedness as I still am to this day. Fiddling with socks when someone came over to me. He looked my small, if somewhat fat, frame and sneered. As I tried to stick up for myself he pushed me. And someone else pushed me. And someone put a leg out and I was hitting the floor.
Have you ever seen pigeons carpeting a London square? They squabble over a few crumbs or a discarded half-sandwich, pecking at it and taking it apart piece by piece.
So I was naked and on the cold floor of the changing room.
I think a piece of me still is.
by i.burgess on November 13, 2014
I have no idea when Clarence was born. When I met him he seemed old. He had been from Baltimore, Maryland to Richmond, Virginia to hear him tell it and been a chef in one of the finest hotels in the city. He had family somewhere in the south and owned a ruined townhouse on Clay Street. He had friends in Newtowne 20 and he knew every pastor in town.
Clarence slept on the bench in front of the church office when I met him. A thin man in stinking clothes he stood a few inches shorter than me, or he could have been hanging his head. I was frightened of this thin man who spoke with all the rich culture of the African-American community in which he was raised, which was so foreign to me. He drank a lot too so he would sway and slur and stare. Coming from a commuter community in the suburbs to work for a church based in the downtown of a middle-American city meant that I had to do more than drive past this disorienting sight. I had to regard him as a fellow human. For the first time a problem became a person.
For a brief few months we would see one another nearly every week. Some days he would be sober and would ask after my life, and others he was too drunk to recall my name. I didn’t matter, I would be with him either way even if just to share a hot cup of tea. When it came time for me to leave America he came to see me off and we embraced and wept. I told him I would see him again soon.
Our friendship was my inspiration for a vision to see Christians befriend those whose needs were totally beyond what they could imagine. I realised that fixing people doesn’t mean you love them, and the fact that I couldn’t give him everything he needed didn’t mean I didn’t care. I could give him the time of day and he gave me his stories and that was enough.
Sometime in 2013 Pastor Joey ran into Clarence who had developed a large tumour on his neck. He seemed otherwise in good health and had plans to undergo surgery to have the tumour removed. He was never seen again.
He passed away a few months later and I never got to see him again. I promised I would and by a matter of months we missed one another. It hurts me to think that he might have faced his death believing I had lied to him. I pray in some corner of his messy heart he found hope in God and that he was relieved with warm welcome to the eternal kingdom.
I doubt he knew how he had changed my life and that would have been the last thing on his mind in the final days but I am grateful for the short time we shared.
His funeral was held at the local Methodist church where he had some kind of connection and so I suppose it might be true, what Charles Wesley wrote:
One family, we dwell in him,
one Church, above, beneath;
though now divided by the stream,
the narrow stream of death.
I sure hope it is. I’d love to see him again.
Thank you, Clarence, for the person to made me
by i.burgess on November 8, 2014
The other day I was sitting on a pew in an old Methodist chapel. It was a pastors prayer gathering which runs for about 45 minutes each week and one of the other local ministers was asking about what I was doing in America. I explained how I was here to help the local church enter into the mission of God, which is to say to help them obey Jesus in befriending and serving the poor. He asked me what I “felt called” to and I paused to think for a moment.
“Some days I feel like I was made for this and that I’m making a real difference. Other days I feel defeated and inadequate, and like my skills are more suited to other work.”
I supposed then that an inward sense of calling-which is to say that bright clarity which makes all other things dull in comparison-is a pretty shortsighted way to think of one’s work. While such enthusiasm lasts a while, soon the cut of the cost of such a work as that which I do begins to trim the wick.
“Some days I do feel called to this” I continued, “but others it is my choice to respond to the actual words of Jesus which makes me do this.”
Upon reflection I suspect the length of my wait to come back to America grew within me the understanding that any substantial work (whether public ministry or personal witness) must be grounded in more than youthful enthusiasm. I do what I do because I understand that Christ asks it of me. Or, at least, this is my interpretation of what he has asked of all believers (Matthew 25:34-46). The point being that the source of my ministry is not my own imagination but rather a small piece of the vision Jesus casts for the world. The beauty of church is that so many others have the other pieces that together we are a mosaic displaying a picture of the coming Kingdom of God.
What therefore shines before the people of the world is not the charisma or character of any one person but the crowd of small acts of love which bring glory to the one God in heaven.
It’s been just over a month since arriving in America and I have encountered a small corner of the local picture, each piece unique and uniquely interesting. The pastor is a classically trained artist and the director of the church is a Marine (even if you’re not in active service, I learned, you’re ALWAYS a Marine). Between them they care for a beautifully imaginative and energetic church and are constantly asking how they can empower their members to do their part for the cause of Christ. From Joey the Pastor I am learning that ministry doesn’t mean doing everything and from Joshua the Director I am learning how to build teams and train people. While it is certainly slower than doing everything oneself I can see that this is how you form a church which does not depend on professional clergy.
Last week I sat in a local coffee shop to respond to some emails. I promise I don’t spend every day in coffee shops-sometimes I go to the pub-but that day was too good to be in the church office. There were two women on the next table, one older than the other and they were clearly friends. The older woman said to the younger one, recounting her years as a mother of young children, that there was a time when she would be at church every single week because there were faces she needed to see just to survive the next seven days. As I sat their, frankly annoyed by the amount of administration I had to perform I was convicted in my heart. This woman had reminded me that there is not one single thing in church which doesn’t matter. All of it matters because all the people matter. Yes, I can sit in alleyways with the street people sipping hot tea, or I can distribute meals at the local shelter or I can do any number of commendable things yet even the mundane ordering of a Sunday morning service matters to the souls of the people there.
I suppose I have been guilty of a snobbish cynicism (surprise surprise) because I get to do ‘real’ ministry with the ‘really’ needy which allows me to deride the middle-class christianity of the churches in Annapolis which so happens to be one of the most affluent cities in America.
Yet these people have faith just like I do, and their faith has not been in vain but has stood as a guardian and a shield for the desperate in the face of uncaring politics. St Anne’s Episcopal Church is the most famous and one of the oldest churches in Annapolis. It sits at the top of the hill at the top of Main Street. It is just a block from our church office so I frequently go there for their midweek communion (Did you know that in America only the minister says the Collect for Purity? Each time I go to say it and awkwardly blurt out “Almighty God” before silently staring into the prayer book (I digress)). About two decades ago they started setting up bunks at the back of the church and allowing the homeless to sleep there. All the local churches shared this work and it grew from that into a permanent shelter, to a sophisticated homeless prevention scheme called the Lighthouse which not only houses individuals and families but provides qualifications, mental health care and support to help people keep jobs.
I do not think such a thorough response to the needs of the homeless is generated by a spasm of pity for those who sleep on cold streets, a feeling of inner calling but rather by the reality of what we who are disciples of Jesus are asked to do. Now I have no expectation that what I’m seeking to do with one small church will germinate into something so vast. In fact such expectation is besides the point. I hope that this one small church will gain a love for the work of Christ and a desire to serve the desperate. Where that goes is determined by the Spirit.
So with gentleness I’ve been pursuing the work already occurring in the city: With the Stanton Center providing dinner and homework help to kids on what we in Britain would call a council estate; Spending time at a youth club in one of the rougher neighbourhoods where heroin has a terrifying grip; Keeping my eyes open to the street people who live downtown and spending time with them; and in all cases going with those who have already made a first step into these very different worlds.
Thank you for being with me on this long journey and I hope some of the stories I can share are encouraging to you. Please continue to pray for me, I know I need it. Thank you also to those who support me each month. I have been so liberated by the knowledge that my calling is affirmed by people who know me. This has given me the strength to walk into many difficult places secure in who I am and what I am there to do. I look forward to sharing more as these small seeds of relationship begin to show some fruit. The real goal is to see people from my church have the kind of relationship which was so important for me all those years ago, a deep friendship with a homeless man called Clarence.
I’d love to share more but then I’d be giving away the chapters of my book (I AM kidding) so please ask me things.
by i.burgess on October 24, 2014
I have experienced so many things since landing here in Annapolis that I have no idea where to begin. So instead maybe you might enjoy some of the things I’ve seen.
Flying, Moving downtown, moving chairs (ministry) and some of the cool places I’ve seen so far. I’m sure I’ll figure out something to write. Eventually.
by i.burgess on July 16, 2014
There is a time for everything under the sun, and I’ve spent a lot of it in the shade of a restaurant waiting on tables and pulling pints. I have been disappointed, despondent and defeated. I’ve felt frustrated and furious. I’ve wrestled with the fact of this time of waiting and I’ve felt jealous of those who have found success when I have experienced failure.
This has been the time after my ministry training.
This time is coming to a close.
On the 29th of September I am going to get on a plane and I shall arrive in Washington DC seven hours later.
I am finally going to fulfil the purpose I was called to over two years ago.
I am grateful.
I am grateful to the friends who have prayed for me, supported me, and believed in God for me. These have been the people who have helped me open the door through form-filling and filing and petitioning, through pleading with God and sitting with me whilst I try to figure out why God has asked me to wait here so long.
I am grateful too for the time I have spent working at The Young Pretender. I’ve felt like a pretender, an impostor with nothing to offer and no claim to do anything remarkable at all. There were times when even I didn’t believe I’d ever make it back and I became thoroughly bitter. My colleagues have born with me through this, allowing me to be part of their life and business despite whatever personal flaws I struggle to reconcile. In turn I have been overjoyed to be included in their struggles and triumphs, their highs and lows. They have given me the gift of knowing that I can be myself.
I am grateful.
Whatever else this between-time signifies, it has meant that I have had no choice but to be myself. The demands of a physically exhausting job means that whatever professional pretence I could maintain quickly dissolves until people experience me without my defences. That they could experience this and not hate me, this has been a blessing. This time of waiting has demolished the fears I held on to and has liberated me from my own self-pity.
It seems that the biggest obstacle to God fulfilling the ministry he has given me, was myself all along.
Thank you, all you who have read my letters and checked up on me. You have believed in me and in God for me when I doubted him and hated myself. Thank you.
Last month I took a trip to the US embassy in London. After queuing for half an hour to be checked in, and another 40 minutes to have my bags searched, and another hour in a hot waiting room, I spoke to a mild-mannered American man for two minutes and he told me he was going to give me a visa. Quite the circus if you ask me but it is what it is.
The embassy authorised me for a 12 month visitors visa. I think this is time enough to fulfil the ministry to which I have been called: enabling christians to form authentic friendships with the marginalised community where they live.
I cannot deny that my time working in a pub has made me more ready to do this than my time in theological college or working for a church.
It is true that my research into scripture and church tradition has given me the imagination to see a new way of being with the marginalised and disenfranchised, but it is equally the case that working in a pub has put me quite literally next to these people in such a way that being with them comes more naturally than it did two years ago.
What has changed is not the vision, but myself. I did not expect that. I could not have preached this message on Job were it not for what I have experienced in disappointment and frustration.
I am grateful.
So as this short season draws to its close I’d really like to find ways to connect, be it in writing or over the phone or coffee somewhere.
Please pray for me and the inevitable melancholy of the many farewells over the next few weeks. Check up on me if you’re in my neighbourhood. I know I’m going to need to lean on friends in this time.
Also pray that the financial support will be enough for me to accomplish all that I envision.
If you would like to contribute to my costs with a one-off gift or with regular giving you can do so through stewardship.org.uk (create a giving account and search my name) or leave a comment asking me to email a mail-off Direct Debit form. If you’re in America you can give through the church by clicking here.
Thank you for waiting with me. I am looking forward to sharing this next year with you as we discover something new together! I shall be writing regular reflections and reports of what I am discovering and I am considering a few opportunities for more formal academic writing and research and in this way I hope to be of service not only in Annapolis but also to churches in a wide range of locations and contexts.
by i.burgess on May 2, 2014
I had gathered with Christians from all over the local area to celebrate Easter Monday at a big event. The Cathedral was full to bursting with Pilgrims who had walked for miles just to be there. The seats had been removed and a modest communion table was set in the middle of the nave. Gone was the finery of Easter Sunday. No shimmering robes, no bleach-white choir, no ladies in fine hats. This day was stripped of pretence as it was merely the gathering of those who wanted to celebrate the resurrection with their friends.
Hymns, readings and reflections led our thoughts as we prepared to share bread and wine. The story of forgiveness, of barriers brought down and hearts humbled became a real experience as we crowded into the church, smelling from our long walks and shoulder-to-shoulder with strangers and acquaintances alike. It was glorious.
Indeed it was a testimony to the reality that Christ’s resurrection inaugurated. Christ called people to himself and overcame death, demonstrating that there is no end to his reign and that all who follow him have nothing truly to fear. This is the foundation of Christian community.
One thing only threw me that day. I could cope with the authority exorcised by the Bishops, the fact that this event was steeped in Anglicanism and even that the Diocese of St. Alban’s has endured its own share of strife, disagreement and controversial opinions.
What threw me was that one line in one song had been altered.
Stuart Townend’s hymn “In Christ Alone” had been revised such that the line which was intended to say:
“Til on that cross as Jesus died,
The wrath of God was satisfied”
Had been altered to read:
“Til on that cross as Jesus died,
The love of God was satisfied”
Why did I find this hard to deal with?
This line is typically altered because the implication behind it is that Jesus came to save us from God’s rage. Therefore God cannot be loving, cannot be trusted and certainly ought not be worshipped. An angry God is not a good God and only a good God should be praised.
Now, the first thing to notice about such a decision is that it takes any objective content out of God and places him in the realm of subjectivity. Appropriately, the language of God can be altered to suit the mood of society and God has no response. It is also telling of the theology of those who would advocate such a change:
Imagine if you will that some researcher notices that a drug problem is intrinsically linked to sex-work in a deprived area. The fact of this research would keenly imply that the reduction of sex-work and the crime which surrounds it would be achieved by eliminating the cruel dependence the community has on drugs. But say for example that this is too hard. Why not just arrest every prostitute on a street corner. It’s easier and looks better to the Middle Class voter.
This would be philosophically bankrupt: The researching body knows what should be done, yet has chosen to do something easier. In the same way, those who jettison ideas of God on the grounds of expedience or comfort for the hearer are demonstrating their ideological bankruptcy because they have decided that Christian doctrine is a matter of opinion, or worse–marketing.
In order to appeal to the nice white middle-class churchgoers the notion that these people could be in any way worthy of God’s wrath must be not only diminished, but denied. It is a crude suggestion and I dislike the very notion that church leaders would indulge in this sort of crass revisionism, yet there is little else to justify such a transformation. Steve Chalke in his book “The Lost Message of Jesus” fiercely denies the teaching of preachers like Johnathan Edwards’ ‘Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God’ on precisely these grounds. He speaks for a great many Christians, as his popularity testifies.
Yet the songs of the faith have not always been thus tamed. In days of trial, or suffering and persecution the songs uttered from the lips of the believer have been very different.
Oppressed black people in America sang their spirituals, calling for judgement, for mercy and looking forward to the day of justice.
He delivered Daniel from de lion’s den
Jonah from de belly of de whale
An’ de Hebrew chillun from de fiery furnace
An’ why not every man
De moon run down in a purple stream
De sun forbear to shine
An’ every star disappear
King Jesus shall-a be mine
De win’ blows eas’ an’ de win’ blows wes’
It blows like a judgement day
An’ every po’ sinner dat never did pray’ll
Be glad o pray dat day
From one sufferer, to another the Scriptures sing the same songs:
Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites
the day of Jerusalem,
how they said, “Lay it bare, lay it bare,
down to its foundations!”
O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed,
blessed shall he be who repays you
with what you have done to us!
Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones
and dashes them against the rock!
It is the groan issued forth from the lips of those under the burden of slavery, genocide, poverty and oppression.
This is the song wealthy, secure Christians no longer want to sing.
Stanley Hauerwas speaks of Black slavery as a “wrong that is so wrong there is nothing you can do to make it right.” There is only judgement in store for those who participate in this ongoing exploitation. The abuse of women is a wrong that is so wrong there is nothing you can do to make it right. The neglect of the disabled is a wrong. The disenfranchisement of the poor is wrong. The manipulation of global economies by businesses for their own ends is wrong. These are so wrong there is nothing you can do to make them right. There is no way for a person’s actions to justify them to the people they have wronged.
I think this is why God’s wrath is kindled against humanity. Not that people have failed some abstract set of rules but that their actions trample on the lives of others. The Christian tradition, especially what it inherits from the Hebrew scriptures, testifies to a God who is moved by the suffering of humanity. In compassion? Yes. But what is God’s care for the suffering if not accompanied by wrath for those who cause it?
Hauerwas taught me that the ability to confess to sin is a theological achievement. This is to say that it takes time and effort and reflection to really grasp the fact of one’s own sin and indeed the sin of the world. That God should be angry at this sin is then a clear conclusion. Short-circuting this journey to get God off the hook, to apologise for the harsh language surrounding him, thus displays a lack of reflection on the part of the church and also a perverse denial of the wrongdoing with which it has participated.
Standing amongst the multitude who gather to share the body and blood of the one crucified by the Romans confronts secure western Christians like me with the truth: That I participate in this same oppressive violence every day. How can God not be consumed with wrath on account of the misery my life, my culture, my empire inflicts on the downtrodden? How can I stand there and take the sacrament after this wrong that is so wrong there is nothing I can do to make it right?
It must be because the suffering and death of Jesus is God’s choice to identify not only with the victims of this world’s sin. In his resurrection he confronts those who abandoned him, who caused his suffering, inviting them to be reconciled through him to his Heavenly Father.
In this way the wrath of God was satisfied: Jesus died because of sinners, but in his resurrection that death becomes *for* the sinner.
Standing in a cathedral in a wealthy city in suburban south-east England, it is plain to see why we don’t want the wrath of God to be satisfied. This impinges far too heavily on our life now. Yet I could not but sing and celebrate that the wrath of God was satisfied. There is no way for what I have done and participated in to be made right but by forgiveness and no way for me to participate in the life of God in faith and through the sacrament without his sacrifice on my behalf.
Til on that cross as Jesus died,
The wrath of God was satisfied.
by i.burgess on April 24, 2014
If Christmas is a time of promise, I suppose the week of Easter is a time for realisation. I last wrote to you to share my frustration that things had been held up, that I couldn’t be where I knew I was called and I had no idea why. I was angry that the door hadn’t yet opened, that I was languishing in my position and felt altogether useless. It was more than a little embarrassing.
In those hard days I spoke with friends, the praying and wise sort, and they wondered with me whether this delay was some sort of plan. I don’t think God expects anyone who he calls to be perfect, but for some reason each time my ticket over seemed to be in reach, it would be delayed in some way. To my mind, there is only so many times this can happen before one wonders whether there is a reason. Not that I’m the superstitious sort, I hope you know me better than that.
The time I’ve spent working in a bar has been trying. It has shaped me. When I first began I was the image of a perfect servant. This is to say, efficient, silent and cool. I was there to do a job and walk away. I discovered that this sort of facade can only be kept up for so long, especially after relentless weeks of 10-hour days, finishing after 11 each night. There comes a point where the presumption of the professional becomes too much effort to bother with. It crumbled away, yet much to my surprise everyone preferred the cantankerous, cynical, funny, oddball, real person beneath. In fact I was given more responsibility and more shifts.
I learned that I don’t have to be anyone else to love others, to serve the world and participate in God’s work. I’m allowed to be myself.
This was such a relief, because I assumed that I had to become some sort of empty vessel for God to ‘fill’ before I could do what he had called me to. It was pure grace to realise that God had already made me the person he wanted me to be.
So I re-evaluated what I was supposed to do with my time in America, accepting that the person I am could be what the church wants. You know what? Suddenly all those awkward moments where I asked the wrong question, or said things which made leaders uncomfortable, or made everyone have to go back and re-think the plan weren’t embarrassing. They were a testimony to the person God made me.
I’m a question-asker, a listener and a reader. I like to learn and help others learn. I like to see people bring what they have learned to their experience and practice. I like to see Christians transformed by the renewing of their minds. I want to see churches serve their cities and towns with wisdom and care.
And after I shared this with Pastor Joey and a few mentors, their response was an overwhelming ‘Of course!’
And the real surprise was that after I figured out what it is that I can give, then it dawned on us that there is a way for me to join in the work of the church in Annapolis despite visa trouble.
I will be applying for a 12-month visitor’s visa. Though the length is not what I envisioned, this is the door which has opened for me. On reflection it seems that 12 months would be more appropriate if this is indeed the purpose I’ve been called to.
That is, to share in ministry, to ask questions and to study the church in it’s mission.
I want to respond to this realisation for the benefit of not only myself and my ministry, not only Downtown Hope and their ministry, but to share those insights with others who are asking the important questions of mission and ministry in the contemporary world. I might be able to build a bridge into the community of Clarences, but surely it is better that every church learns how to do it for themselves? Maybe that’s the gift my ministry can give. I hope you’ll continue to walk with me as I flesh this out.
I’m excited to share this with you, and look forward to preparing over the coming weeks. The usual process for getting a 12-month visa usually takes a couple of months, so at the moment I’d estimate that I will be in Annapolis in September.
Thank you for your prayer, encouragement and support. Thank you for holding me when I thought I was useless and deluded. Thank you for showing me that this was never true at all.
by i.burgess on December 11, 2013
After the brutal murder of a British serviceman near his barracks the most normal response is horror. Horror gives way to anger, anger at the perpetrators and anger at the systems which created them. The anger of the English Defence League was directed against the Islamic Extremists who had manufactured the young terrorists who hacked Lee Rigby to death. They staged a march in the town, rallying support for the British army and demonstrating that such acts would not be tolerated.
Such people would not be tolerated.
In a display of tolerance, the local Mosque made tea for those furious protestors who had come to tell them to stop murdering the favourite sons. Like a spoon of sugar in a hot brew, the tension dissolved and all were with all.
The Islamic community appeased their critics by demonstrating that they are with Us, not with Them. Tea, Football, all things British to show commonality. What can a British person do but accept these gestures, these tokens of solidarity? They become One Of Us.
The feeling of inclusion here is dependent upon a prior ideal of society. The extent to which a person or a community can conform to this highly held standard will determine the form of their fellowship with others.
Would the picture have been quite so perfect if they had passed a shisha pipe?
Though Britain’s colonialism is hastily a forgotten footnote in her autobiography, its lessons have echoed through the generations. The presumptuous imposition of one ideal upon the ‘lesser’ other’s, the posturing of one people as benevolent host of another, that one people are ahead of another; this is the radical reshaping of a society which Imperialism engenders. Remember that the language of intellect, of politics and religion was Latin for centuries after the Empire ceased dictating from Rome.
It is assumed that Western style liberal democracy is the ideal for which all should strive and which the few have achieved. Thus we Brits are in the end times, the eschaton, the end of history. There’s nowhere to go from here. Since we sit at the end, we reach back to those at the beginning as angels from the heavens, enlightening the darkness of the world.
We did, after all, call our African colonies the ‘dark continent’.
Today we cannot mediate our contact with these Others through trade, military and religious mission. Their faces are beamed to our televisions. They are our doctors, neighbours, friends. In such immediacy our bigoted presumptions are shown in their entire ugliness. Yet like the Islamic Extremist, the Bigot is always ‘my dad’ or ‘that bloke at the pub’, always an Other who is hastily disowned.
Unless of course one proves that they really are One Of Us: Tea and biscuits.
Assent to the idealised society is then the foundation of community. What is said, believed or done in private doesn’t need to interfere with this. One can be racist in private but still buy cigarettes from the Indian shop keeper on the corner. This maintains a certain form of peace yet is riddled with contradictions and presumptions. The extent to which these can be manipulated or conformed to are the essence of our modern tolerance.
What cannot be tolerated is a deviation from the ideal. Liberals have been quick to wave the flag of gay marriage without asking the broader question of the substance or justification of the institution. So long as the gays can conform to, or indeed manipulate, the prevailing discourse then their acceptance can be assured. Not that they, or any other group, can be accepted on their own terms.
That bigots can’t be tolerated speaks to the limits of our tolerance. It is a tolerance of taste, not of the substance of a human person.
Ian Watkins was convicted of horrendous crimes against vulnerable children. He is a paedophile and a rapist. He is a human being. The response of the haughty social media pundits was to scream for his head.
I don't generally believe in the death penalty – but in Ian Watkins' case, I'd make an exception.
— Piers Morgan (@piersmorgan) November 26, 2013
This kind of deviation is the vile, unwelcome intrusion of the private reality into the facade created by public speech.
By exorcising the murderer, paedophile and bigot the majority maintain the hegemony of unadmitted presumptions. It is an offence to include such people in the category of ‘human’. Yet to be offended by such people is to contradict the essential truth of our own common being, and common weakness, with fellow human beings. To claim a kind of being-together which transcends tea and biscuits is then a tolerance grounded in a reality more substantial than Great Britain.
by i.burgess on November 16, 2013
The door opened and 30 small faces turned to the guests. Some of the older children had ben sent around the school with a collection tin and a blue tray. In this tray were dozens of small, red poppies. Each 7-year-old reached a sticky hand into their pocket and fumbled with the golden coin they had been entrusted with. The rattle of pounds in the box was overwhelmed by the voices of excited children pinning on a small, paper, poppy.
A squad of tiny soldiers with our badges proudly on our chests. Or raw wounds, bleeding.
Overpraised, overpaid, overeducated. My generation found itself in university and profoundly loses itself each weekend as vodka stains the piss-soaked streets. We were promised the world and our parents were the generation capable of providing it. It’s a world of infinite possibility, at every turn a choice or an opportunity for personal freedom. Taught one thing but Google already rendered the lesson irrelevant.
Marched for peace and camped for justice and now our boys march for injustice in a far-land. It is clear that the authorities have no ear for this generation, only a thirst for their wealth. Yet Generation Y makes a difference by purchasing fairtrade, organic products which regrow the rain forests and their bosses ask them how their weekend was. It’s a culture of authenticity and mutuality plastic wrapped in a redemptive experience. No, this generation is not like the one before.
A world of environmental abuse and “yes, boss” and “you have my vote” and hiding our money and asking no questions. Paedo-Priests and Pervert-Presenters, lying politicians and greedy corporates. This baby has boomed and our baby is bust.
My generation lives in the shadow of the Boomers. We were raised by the children of the 20th century’s greatest tragedies. The boomers, rooted as they are in the events of their youth, embody so much of the truth of their age. Namely, the truth of two global conflicts and the collapse of socialism. Their parents overcame the end of the world, the collapse of Western civilisation and the Boomers bore witness to the great cost. Traumatised men who lived as the waking dead. Widows who raised a family alone. Children displaced. Bombs. Nukes. The boomers saw the cost of their own future.
So it is with the contradictions of tragedy and victory, survival and death, that these people pin a red poppy to their chests each year.
Yet my contemporaries were raised in the paradise forged by the Boomers. We were presented with poppies year in and out and told that people “gave their lives for our freedom.”
Well, who were they? Why were they fighting? What did they lose? What did that mean?
These are the questions left unasked. Since they are unasked, we summon the answers from the aether. The vague notion of being saved from some unknowable evil is reenforced by the zeal of the remembrance–as if the gravity of the Wars can be captured in a solemn march, or a poem, or the testimony of a veteran.
Remembrance for my generation is rooted in saving face. It would be a disgrace to disagree or to question, and so every justification is paraded every year unopposed while we weep the great cost of war. In being so removed from the conflicts, the rituals surrounding the remembrance of them become increasingly elaborate. It is our yearly sacrifice to the scarcely remembered death of a generation.
I do not think awareness diminishes the fact of the Wars, nor their lasting impact on the world. Rather it is this rootless ritual which has become an untruth. As the last living witnesses pass on, the stories told about the war become myths to justify our basest notion of “freedom.” Any opposition to that myth is tantamount to treason.
It is a betrayal of our common humanity that we remember one telling of the War at the exclusion of the others. When I was a boy, I was taken on a trip to Belgium to see some of the sites of the great wars. We visited that Allies cemetery. It was a great hillside full of proud white stones, all upright in neat rows.
We visited the German war grave in the same region. It looked something like this.