Skip to content

Posts from the ‘refugees’ Category


The Unbearable Reductionism of a Binary World

There’s no escaping binaries these days. Every conceivable detail of modern life seems to be reduced to digital 1s and 0s. As computing technology encroaches ever further, it makes resisting binaries seem harder than ever. In/Out, Left/Right, Same/Different, Them/Us. Read more »


Faith under fire in Bethlehem: Mitri Raheb’s FAITH IN THE FACE OF EMPIRE

At last year’s launch of veteran travel writer Dervla Murphy’s remarkable book, A Month by the Sea – Encounters in Gaza, she made a simple but telling point. “The Palestinians’ predicament is that they are the victims’ victims”. Of course, in Faith in the Face of Empire, an equally remarkable book by a Palestinian Christian pastor, victimhood (despite its postmodern attractions) is a dangerous mantle. Read more »


Q Conversations 5: Politician Elizabeth, Baroness Berridge

Elizabeth Berridge, until very recently, was the youngest woman in the House of Lords, the UK’s upper house in Parliament. Raised to the peerage in the 2011, she was before that a barrister and then in 2006 became Executive Director of the Conservative Christian Fellowship which exists to bring together Conservative Party voting Christians of all denominations. She describes herself as a classic Tory ‘wet’, as opposed to the ‘Dry’ Thatcherite end of the party’s spectrum. If that terminology is rather meaningless to you (or even sounds mildly offensive!) then listen in! Read more »


As If These Walls Had Tears: Reflections on Berlin’s Holocaust memorial

Apparently there were only 19 hours of sunshine in Berlin between 1st January and 22nd March – a record low. Such absolute greyness is oppressive. But in recent weeks, there have also been huge snowfalls. The result is an eerily monochrome world. Not ideal for taking sightseers’ photographs. But somehow appropriate for a visit to Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Read more »


The inaugural Q Conversations podcast: Talking with Jaap van Heusden

It’s been a germ of an idea for ages, but at last it’s finally come about. Q now has a podcast. Hurrah. I can just sense the infectious excitement simply oozing throughout cyberspace. But there are loads of fascinating people out there: hearing how a few live out their lives and passions ought to be fun. Doncha think?

Well, whatever you feel about the prospect of Q podcasts in general, the inaugural episode in particular is definitely exciting because last week, I had the chance to record a conversation with the very talented and thought-provoking Dutch filmmaker, Jaap van Heusden. Here is the link on iTunes (or if you don’t have that, direct through Jellycast) Read more »


Testifying to the Prince of Peace in today’s Bethlehem

Many people wanted to know more about the short clip I played during my sermon this morning. So i’m posting it here. I only came across it this week, through twitter (needless to say), but it fitted perfectly with the passage I was speaking on: Luke 2:67-80 and Zechariah’s song.

The five minute film was made by a bunch of New Zealanders, called St Paul’s Arts & Media and is beautifully and powerfully made. Definitely worth making it go viral Read more »


The dehumanising metrics of modernist ministry 3: The Past

No man is an island entire of itself said the prophetic priest-poet of old. Modernism and its western offspring, individualism, have done their utmost to prove him wrong. In vain. For whether we like it or not, we are all part of one another. And while Donne was clearly speaking of human society, he could equally have been referring to human history. For one of modernity’s most damaging trends has been to legitimise our innate haughtiness about the past. So having discussed how modernist culture shapes our present, and then sensed the crushing power of modernism’s relentless pursuit of progress, we must close the circle by considering the past.

Read more »


The dehumanising metrics of modernist ministry 2: The Future

Having speculated a little about how the prevailing winds of modernist culture affect our perceptions of the present, I now want to think about how we face the future. Which in some ways can have an even more dehumanising impact. And yet again, I need to say at the outset that there is a valid counter-argument to each point. But why should simultaneously agreeing and disagreeing with oneself get in the way of a blog-post? Read more »


God, The Refugees and The Dynasty: An overview of Ruth

The book that has occupied my thoughts for much of the summer is that almost hidden gem of the OT, the Book of Ruth. It was the focus of this year’s All Souls week away, and so my talks are issued as a free podcast. What blew me away is that of all the books in the OT, it is perhaps the most unrelentingly positive and inspiring. This is despite the fact that its dark historical and literary context was the Book of Judges, and that the suffering and vulnerability of 2 of the protagonists, Naomi and Ruth, were very real. Read more »


Shardlake returns: that awkward protector of the vulnerable in the brutal world of the Tudors

I admit it. I’m a total sucker for historical fiction – and absolutely adore all the books of C J Sansom. I’ve reviewed a few from the Matthew Shardlake series before (e.g. Revelation, Dark Fire and Dissolution) so i eagerly opened my copy of the 5th in the series: Heartstone. I only hope that there are more…

What makes them such page-turners? Well for a start, they have the pace of a good detective mystery. Shardlake is a superb creation. Amateur sleuth and stubborn, hunchbacked London barrister, he takes on the sorts of injustices from which the ‘great and good’ walk by on the other side… or even perpetrate. He’s a valiant-for-truth and a protector of the weak, in large part because he is one of society’s marginalised himself despite his mind. We’re frequently reminded that ‘hunchbacks bring bad luck’. Is there a subtle allusion to the Tudor propaganda against Richard III here as the hunchback, I wonder? (To see what I’m getting at, check out Josephine Tey’s masterly Daughter of Time.) Sansom’s sublime skill, however, (as I’ve noted before) is his ability to weave genuine plot-twists and cliff-hangers into the meandering events of genuine Tudor history. For not only is Sansom a trained lawyer, he is also a PhD historian. When combined with story-telling abilities, this is a potent combination.

In Heartstone, we’re in the last few years on Henry VIII’s reign, following on a few years after previous books (which, incidentally, all get nods by Shardlake on p296). He’s engaged in his 3rd campaign against France (as disastrous and pointless as the previous ones), but is now married to Catherine Parr, an old friend of Shardlake. The queen engages the lawyer on what (inevitably) proves to be a rather dangerous case. I will not plot-spoil at all – it’s too good a read to do that! But despite coming in at just over 600 pages, I’ll simply say that this is a rich and gripping book. More than that, there were aspects of Tudor life about which I previously knew nothing, and yet get meticulously researched and vividly brought to life:

  • the sweat and heat of the old iron foundries in Hampshire and Sussex
  • the recruitment and training of the famed English military archers – and the impact on a whole society of a country threatened with French invasion
  • the protocols, snobberies and excitements of a Tudor stag hunt
  • the brutal life on board the warships like the great Mary Rose

The biggest eye-opener, however, was the ancient Court of Wards, created by Henry to raise revenue by overseeing the sale of orphans’ wardships. It was appallingly abused and notoriously corrupt – as Sansom notes in his afterword, its abolition was one of the great achievements of Cromwell’s Parliament. While Shardlake normally works in the Court of Requests (which was a forum to protect land rights for the vulnerable), he gets dragged into this murky world at the Queen’s behest. And these 3 big themes come through the book – all of which seemed very contemporary.

  1. The power of leaders to drag their country to war: a frequent refrain is the cost of the king’s wars with France – both in terms of taxes but more importantly, in terms of lives. It is chilling to see, especially when the campaigns seem so futile and whimsical – an elderly cleric near the end of the book reflects on just war theory and concludes this French campaign certainly wasn’t that. Does this all sound familiar? Not quite the same, I realise, but Iraq anyone? My hunch is that the various post-invasion enquiries were going on in London while Sansom was writing this.
  2. The destructive grip of ambition: as the narrative develops, it becomes clear that ascending the power ladder in Tudor England takes ruthless dedication and single-mindedness. Several characters are determined to rise at all costs. And several of the crimes encountered by Shardlake illustrate the point perfectly, with the victims of others’ ambitions are left reeling or dying. But they are not the only victims. The ambitious men themselves suffer awful consequences. As one character says ‘Ambition, sir, I believe it a curse.’ (p281) Two characters are told that they ‘deserved it’, after all that they’d done.  Therein lies a wordplay that forms the book’s title. A heartstone was in one sense a goodluck charm. It was a bone from a stag killed at a hunt – and was presented to the first person to bring it down (presumably itself a wordplay on heart’s bone or hart’s bone (the old name for a deer)). As well as bringing the owner (who’d wear it on a necklace), it was meant to have healing properties. But 2 or 3 different people are described in the book as having hearts like stone. And as Shardlake bitterly observes to a great adversary near the end of the book, the king takes advantage of henchmen around him, because they are ‘men without even hearts to turn to stone‘ (p547). And the power of ambition is something that never goes out of date, does it?
  3. The extreme vulnerability of children, especially daughters: this is probably the key thread of the book, however – as one might expect when the subject is the Court of Wards. There are 3 parallel stories of children that Shardlake struggles to protect. And this is what makes this, the 5th in the series, one of the most poignant. We see children consigned to Bedlam, stolen as military booty and mascots from invaded lands, sold when orphaned to so-called protectors. It is truly horrendous – but one has little doubt about the credibility of such plot-lines. No doubt things were far worse. And in order to survive, such children find themselves having to act parts (as several in the book have to) – they are trapped and institutionalised, to the extent that even when they can physically walk way, they are chained psychologically. I couldn’t help but be reminded of the horrors of those abused as children by parish priests – which again bring such issues horribly up to date. (To see an impassioned articulation of the decades long damage, see this plea on Irish TV).

History should teach us – but rarely does. However, it’s amazing to find so much depth, provocation and research in a novel, and a whodunnit to boot. I’ve one, tiny stylistic quibble I’d not noticed before – I sometimes wished he’d let the dialogue speak for itself, without having to explain the significance of what everyone says immediately in the narrative. But that’s not a big deal. These are all wonderful books.

One undercurrent I’ve not touched on (but it’s something that this book has in common with its predecessors) is Shardlake’s struggle to sustain a theistic worldview. He is full of anguished doubt as he battles injustice after bloody injustice – as well as seeing firsthand the horrors caused by wielders of power. Belief in God or providence or fate has been dissipated. One or two characters half-heartedly try to resurrect his faith – including Queen Catherine Parr herself. And it is left to a decrepit parish priest (who harks back to the old pre-reformed ways) to attempt, amidst his beer cups, to attempt a defence. He even manages to point to precisely where I’d point when seeking to grapple with the goodness of God in a suffering world – the cross of Christ. As Seckford says, because of the Cross ‘I think Christ suffers with us.‘ (p601) But Shardlake dismisses this with a simple ‘What is the good of that, Reverend Seckford?’

If only he saw. But I certainly don’t begrudge him his questions – for none of this is easy nor lightly dismissed. This is a brutal world – and the Tudor world far more brutal than ours, perhaps. One is only glad that there are people around like Shardlake – and hope that there were those of conscience and integrity even in those dark Tudor times to stand for truth, justice and the downtrodden – as in fact Jesus himself did. It’ll be fascinating to see how Shardlake manages if he reappears in young Edward VI’s reign and even Mary I’s – for religion will be even more a burning issue. I fear that the events of those years will in many ways make faith even harder him. But I, for one, can’t wait to find out.


Petina Gappah on John Simpson’s Head of a Negro

Just been leafing through the latest Tate magazine – one of my favourite bits is the regular feature MicroTate where people from different walks of life offer a brief reflection on something from the Tate collections.

I was gobsmacked by this picture painted in around 1827: John Simpson’s Head of a Negro. It portrays such dignity and yet also such stoicism – above all, it surely points to a common humanity. There shouldn’t be a surprise there – of course. But just consider what was going on in that year (a few very random factlets):

– George IV, the former Prince Regent, had 3 more years left to reign
– Beethoven and artist William Blake died
– Aluminium was discovered (!)
– More significantly, it was 20 years after the British Slave Trade Act (1807) but 6 years before the Slavery Abolition Acts (1833)

So slavery was still a gruesome reality around the British Empire at the time. The famous Wedgwood medallion was still profoundly necessary.

Petina Gappah is a Zimbabwean who is a lawyer and writer, working in Geneva. These were her MicroTate reflections:

I don’t know whether John Simpson had a model for this portrait, whether he met a real black man who sat for him, or whether he glimpsed someone on the street whose eyes he could not forget, or whether the picture simply came straight out of his imagination. When I look at the painting, I like to imagine what its first viewers saw. Those eyes pull you in without looking at you; you cannot turn away. Did they recognise a common humanity shining from those eyes, those first viewers in the age of slavery? Did they recognise that beauty can come in this form? There is beauty in those eyes, yes, and there is a look of nobility and suffering borne with defiance.

I cannot help but think of the first two verses of HW Longfellow’s poem The Slave’s Dream:

Beside the ungathered rice he lay,
His sickle in his hand;
His breast was bare, his matted hair
Was buried in the sand.
Again in the mist and shadow of sleep,
He saw his Native Land.

Wide through the landscape of his dreams
The lordly Niger flowed;
Beneath the palm-trees on the plain
Once more a king he strode;
And heard the tinkling caravans
Descend the mountain-road.

The poem about a dying slave’s remembered past life of contented nobility, complete with a dark-eyed queen, kissing children, a powerful stallion and bright flamingos, was written on the other side of the Atlantic, and long after Simpson’s painting, so it cannot have influenced this portrait. There is no possibility of a direct connection, other than in the idea of the enslaved nobleman, a romantic notion that has a strong pull on the imagination. Perhaps it was necessary that those first viewers saw this man as a king in chains in order for them to understand that black slaves were people too. This is ultimately what those eyes demand; a recognition of a shared humanity.

Head of a Negro was presented by Robert Vernon in 1847 and is currently not on display.


Provocative Child Soldiers Ad

HT: Ads of the World


Q marks the spot – Treasure Map 10 (July 09)

Sacred Treasure

Topical Treasure

Quirky Treasure

  • Facebook/Twitter/Myspace addicts should check out this mental health advisory! (HT Visual Culture)



Q’s AFRICA week: 5. What’s going on? (Bono & Chris Martin)

Chris Martin & Bono did this cover of Marvin Gaye’s classic ‘What’s going on?’ back in 2001. The original was a reflection on the madness of the world at the time – with Vietnam looming large, as well as black-on-black violence in America’s inner cities. 

MosAzian has made this video compilation of photos from Africa to accompany the cover. I pondered quite a bit about whether to include it. Because, as the piece read by Djimon Hounsou earlier this week made clear, it is all too easy to tarnish the wonders and joys of this great continent with the stereotypical images of famine-starved families and child soldiers.

Well this video manages to avoid a monochrome approach – with some wonderful, life-embracing and inspiring images interspersed throughout. But, we can’t escape realities. Despite the difficulties of navigating the waters of political correctness, the fact remains that there are STILL millions starving, disease-riven and war-torn across Africa. And if I was one of them, I wouldn’t care less whether or not my suffering was stereotypical – I’d want my story heard far and wide in the (vain?) hope that someone could do something about it.

The first step has to be getting informed – for without that, the ghastly modern neurosis of ‘compassion fatigue’ would cause all but the most devoted to skulk quietly past. And above all, it is the gospel in action that can make the difference (as Matthew Parris so brilliantly articulated last week).


Mandela at 90: The world in search of a hero

Well, we were there. Regulars may be thinking that we spend our lives heading off to big rock gigs, but that’s far from the truth. Still, this felt like a once in a lifetime opportunity to see Mandela on his last visit to the UK and quite possibly his last major public appearance.

The Gig Itself

The concert was great in its own way – could have done without the Sugababes who didn’t seem to manage to be in tune very much – and the remaining half of Queen seemed a curious choice to close out the night. I also just wish Annie Lennox had sung some of her own stuff as well as her impressive, impassioned speech about HIV/AIDS in Africa – and of course it would have been so much better to have had Bono & The Edge in person rather than on the big screen. But for all that, it was a great night.

And we particularly loved the African musicians – one of the most moving moments was the guy Peter Gabriel came on stage to introduce: Emmanuel Jal (right). He was a child soldier in Sudan – and was rescued by an aide worker called Emma McCune – about whom he wrote a song that he sang. (She was an extraordinary figure, an English girl from a private school background who controversially ended up marrying the Sudanese guerilla commander Riek Machar and then was killed in a car crash in Nairobi. All the subject of a fascinating book called Emma’s War.)

There was also a showing from East Africa – Kenyan Suzanna Owiyo and Ugandan BBCool who were both great in their very different ways. Johnny Clegg brought back childhood memories for Rachel and did a great duet with the legendary Joan Baez (although both seemed to battle against technology to be heard). The other South African appearances were great too – especially The Soweto Gospel Choir who backed nearly everyone. Eddy Grant did the old protestors’ favourite of Gimme me hope, Jo’anna. I could go on. But the big highlight was the duet of South African Vusi Mahlasela and American crooner Josh Groban singing Weeping (below).

For those who don’t know it, the song Weeping has a powerful story. Written by Dan Heymann while he was a soldier drafted into the South African apartheid regime army, it poignantly conveys the absurdities and horrors of apartheid in ways that only music can. Mahlasela and Groban have recorded it together with Ladysmith Black Mambazo and you can/should get it from iTunes here – as have the Soweto String Quartet (whose recording was the first i’d heard). Both arrangements brilliantly weave the new South African national anthem Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika (=God Bless Africa in Xhosa) into the background.

The Man Himself

But of course the centrepiece was the 90 year old man himself. And he looked frail, unsteady and uncertain, perhaps a little deaf, perhaps short-sighted. Countless performers went on about how good he looked for 90 and that is certainly true. But it was poignant to see Graca Machel gently steer him to the podium and then tell him when to wave, and then in classic African idiom, whisper to him at the end (but caught on the PA) ‘we’re moving now, papa’. It is not without reason that he is commonly regarded now as the world’s favourite grandfather.

And yet, when for those brief moments that he spoke, Hyde Park was silenced. It was crystal clarity, and that voice, so unmistakably Mandela’s, rang out – and the moral authority of a man who has suffered, forgiven and led a nation into peaceful transition, transfixed his audience once again. It was unforgettable – and he is surely right about HIV/AIDS – it is not so much a disease as a human rights issue (especially when there are so many competing interests in the western pharmaceutical industry as well as endemic corruption in African health institutions).

So Mandela is my hero. He is certainly unique – and his impact on the modern world is unmatched. It felt right and proper to honour him.

But there are limits, with which I feel sure he would agree. And when compere June Sarpong got carried away by the moment (or at least I hope that that was the reason) and suddenly described him as ‘the greatest human being who had ever lived’ I balked, and so did a teenage boy standing just behind us. When this lad muttered ‘but what about Jesus?’ I could only agree. The thought was picked up by the Daily Telegraph review the next morning which noted:

20 years after massed superstars gathered at Wembley to demand his release from Robben Island jail, Mandela has evolved into a quasi-Christ figure.

Of course it was a gift for me – because I was preaching on Jesus being the Son of Man who forgives 2 evenings later – and had already decided to take the theme of our contemporary yearning for superheroes. And while Mandela has showed remarkable Christlike qualities, neither he (nor his honoured memory post-mortem) will ever be able to deliver on what we demand from our heroes. For idols never come up with the goods in the end. They simply can’t. And I feel sure that Mandela doesn’t believe any of the hype about himself, and nor do his family. For the they know of what he is made, despite his undeniably great and awesome qualities – and they are merely exploiting (legitimately in my opinion) the currency of his fame and prestige for great good, namely the conquest of HIV/AIDS. Revisionists will appear in decades to come and find all kinds of chinks in his armour, all kinds of skeletons, as they seek to right the excesses of hagiographers. And indeed the better biographies make it clear that he is no saint (Anthony Sampson’s biography is my favourite) but is a human being like the rest of us. Well, no surprises there. And in no sense does this diminish what he has achieved. It should merely prevent us from absurdities and idolatries.

So all in all it was a great night. And we were near enough to get some fantastic photos (which you can see on my Flickr page). My favourite was not actually of the stage at all. The VIPs stand was off to the side, at the top of which was Mandela’s personal ‘booth’. I turned around and took pics of it every now and then, unsure of what would come out or be visible. Imagine my joy the next morning when i sifted through them and found this one. It needed playing around with the exposure a bit and it is not quite in focus. But you can clearly see the great man sharing a joke with our dearly beloved Prime Minister, Gordon Brown. How cool is that?!


do you know? cos remember, Jesus was a refugee too!

This song and video was written and put together by Helen Mottee, a friend of a friend (Phil Warner), working in Hong Kong for a unique organisation called Crossroads International. A few years ago, Bob Geldof & Midge Ure asked the west to answer the unsettling question, ‘Do they know it’s Christmas?’ A fair point, and it certainly generated much (if short-lived) soul-searching about our materialistic world. But the catastrophes exemplified by the Ethiopian famine of 84 haven’t gone away. And in some ways, many are far worse than ever before. The global catastrophe of refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs) is a case in point. So Helen Mottee’s question is not simply a matter of “Do you know about them?” but “do you know what it’s like?” Well of course, unless we’ve been through it, there’s no way we can know. But that is no excuse for not being concerned about such things. Watch and learn:

As someone who carries a British passport, I’m blasé about passing through customs without much of a hassle. Customs are an inconvenience not a dread. But I’ll never forget what it was like to travel to Europe from Uganda with a dear friend, John, a refugee from Congo. He was carrying a much sort after UNHCR passport, because technically at the time he had no nationality. (And if, for whatever reason, he ever set foot back in Congo, he would automatically forfeit it.) This special blue, refugee passport made it possible to travel, but it didn’t necessarily make it straightforward to travel. A few little things happened on our journey which for John were totally uneventful, but which we all too eye-opening for me.

  • While we waited at check in at Entebbe airport, some border guards came up to us and asked to see John’s documents. They muttered to themselves and then said they had to inspect them. They told us to sit down and they pottered off to some office. Everything in the passport was correct and he had a valid UK visa. But even being in possession of such a passport made him suspect. We had to wait for a very long (and for me, tense) 45 minutes or so before they returned and gave them back.

  • Then there were complications with the journey. It just so happened that there was a lot of snow at Heathrow (clearly the wrong kind), so our direct flight from Entebbe was cancelled. It was a stress because we had an engagement in Oxford that we had to get to. But we managed to get onto a Sabena flight to Brussels later that day, with the hope of finding another connection once we got there (as there was no knowing when Heathrow would reopen). That was fine – but once we got to Belgium we struggled to get a flight without a long wait in transit. So I contemplated us getting the Eurostar train – but then another refugee reality hit home. Because Congo is a former colony, Belgium has an agreement with DRC whereby they will never take in Congolese refugees. To get to the Eurostar, we’d need to cross the city, which would require a visa for John – which he would never ever get even if he’d applied months before. This meant that we were contemplating a long wait without even being able to leave the departure lounge to go to on onsite hotel. Fortunately for us, Heathrow then had the right kind of snow and was opened very soon. We got the next flight within a short space of time.

  • But on arrival at Heathrow, we of course had customs to navigate. Getting John’s UK visa back in Kampala had been no small thing in itself. I had to produce evidence of my own bank accounts, plans, our itinerary (we were on a fund-raising trip for the college I taught in) and addresses of everywhere we would be staying. I also had to pledge that i would be with him every day of our 10 day trip. Having done all this, we had the longed for stamp in his passport (50% of applicants at the British High Commission fail to get even this, regardless of the validity of their trips). But at Heathrow, we had to go through it all over again. It helped a bit that I got John to come in the queue with me, and so could vouch for him as he was questioned. I should say that the officer was very polite and helpful, and was simply doing his job. We got through eventually without a worry so that was fine.

Now I’m certainly not naive enough to think that we can do without all these safeguards or hurdles. But what it brought home to me was simply the nerve one needs to do anything, let alone travel, with this constantly hanging over you. As someone who has posted flippantly about the stress of going through customs before, it is not something I would relish at all. And John is one of the LUCKY ones! He had his passport. That took years of bureaucracy, patience, luck and playing by the rules. There are millions who have nothing like this sort of security.

But of course, whether we like it or not, this time of year the Christmas story bursts our security bubbles because it rubs our noses (if we choose to allow it) in the simple fact that Jesus was born as a refugee himself. Not only were his family away from home when he was born (not quite internally displaced, but not exactly in Bethlehem for personal convenience), but as soon as the coast was clear they had to run for their lives to Egypt. Just a small element of what he and his family had to endure in order to fulfil his mission to save us all. How can this issue not concern us? Not a gospel issue, perhaps? Not something we should get involved in, perhaps? Too many other things we should be getting on with at Christmas, perhaps? I suspect our answers would be very different if we were refugees or IDPs ourselves. It is a quirk of providence that we are not.

Here are some other summaries of the situation (taken from the International Medical Corps website):

If you start asking the question, “What can we do about this?” then this at least a start, and this post has been worth the time taken to write it.