Archive for September, 2009

Life, Treasure, and the Commonwealth: 28 September

September 28, 2009

This blog has become too heavy: too much on what’s wrong with life. I’ll try and mix it more. I still, though, have a streak of Victor Meldrew…

Last week’s funerals went fine. At the end of the last one a mourner told me about his bad back. After some discussion, we prayed, there and then, at the crem. A first time for me. ‘That was strange,’ he said, not about being prayed for, but about the feeling that had come over him. ‘There was warmth on my back and .., well…, all I can say is that it felt strange.’ He was bemused but happy.

The Staffordshire Treasure was dug up 5 miles from where I live. 1500 gold and silver pieces lying in a field for about 1300 years! Now the contest is on for who keeps them.

Immediately the treasure has been declared the property of the Queen, ‘to stop them being sold abroad.’ What’s so wrong with some of the pieces being sold abroad? We need to keep and display much of the treasure in this country, of course. But why all 1500 pieces? That’s too much for anyone to take in. Let’s sell 500 pieces to the Commonwealth and America and use the money to build a great exhibition for 1000 pieces here.

Plenty of people in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and America have family roots in Britain. The treasure is part of their ancestral history just as much as it ours. (My father was an immigrant to Britain, so I don’t have as much of a claim to need to look at the treasure as many people who emigrated from Britain.) Those emigrants took very little European treasure with them. Their museums are empty. The great Getty museum in Los Angeles has marginally more good art than the New Art Gallery in Walsall.

People in our Commonwealth, and beyond, who trace their family history to Anglo Saxon Britain, might happily pay to share some of our amazing, abundant, treasure. Sharing the treasure in this way would underline our common heritage, strengthen the ties between us. Or is no-one interested in strengthening the Commonwealth?

My daughter recently visited Buckingham palace – as a tourist. She found an exhibition celebrating 60 years of the Commonwealth this year. That’s the first any of us have heard of this great Anniversary. Britain needs to value the Commonwealth much more, not out of pride in our Imperial past, but for our future as a nation.

The British Empire was not all glorious. Global selfish intimidation and brutality were fundamental, as they are to any Empire. There is much of which we need to repent. But there were also good works, more than any other Empire in history. These good works have left goodwill behind, not only resentment. Former colonies want to be part of the Commonwealth, want to keep ties with Britain. South Africa emerging from apartheid joined the Commonwealth before any other global institution or fellowship.

The Commonwealth should be valued more highly as a political and economic fellowship. I don’t think we would have made the costly mistakes of Afghanistan and Iraq if we had considered as a Commonwealth how to respond to the attacks of Sept 11. Britain needed the views of Canada and Pakistan, particularly, countries most closely involved, as well as other, more neutral, countries. A common approach would have been much better than Britain running along behind America, urging other countries to join. For present and future global issues, Britain needs a global point of view, which we can gain through seeking a common approach across the Commonwealth.

Economically too our future, as our past, is as a trading nation. In Europe we are marginal, geographically and economically. We are on the fringe of the economic hub of Europe. It makes no sense to manufacture in Britain or import to Britain and then transport it across Europe. We cannot prosper through the European economy alone. In the world, though, we can be a central piece in the jigsaw – the connecting piece between Europe and the Commonwealth. As we promote and enable trade between Europe and the Commonwealth, including manufacturing for export to the Commonwealth, we can prosper.

Far more people in Britain have relatives and friends in the Commonwealth than in Europe. We take part in both the Commonwealth Games and the European Championships. That is Britain’s true place, connecting both groups. The Commonwealth has been down played for years in favour of Europe. It is time to play up the Commonwealth. Celebrate sixty years of the Commonwealth and strengthen it as a key part of Britain’s future.

Roger Harper


Life, Infant Death, and Afghanistan: 21 September

September 21, 2009

This week I will be taking 5 funerals in four days. That’s a record for me in 25 years of vicaring. Bilston, where I work, is a solid traditional place.

One of the funerals is of a 2 month old baby. The mother has a strong Christian faith and was saying the Lord must have taken him for a reason. As I usually do, I gently tried to present another view, that God did not want this baby to die, but, in this life, His will is not always done. That’s why we pray ‘Your Kingdom come, You will be done.’ It felt like a pushy thing to say, to try and change someone’s belief at such an anguished time – but for me this is important. Thinking that God had, mysteriously or cruelly, decided to take her baby from her, might damage her faith for the rest of her life. Yes He had allowed it to happen, but did not want it to happen, a crucial difference, saying much about His character. The baby’s mother seemed to accept what I was saying. After I spoke about God not wanting her baby to die, she and her partner told me in detail about all the mistakes the hospitals had made. I don’t think they would have been free to speak like this if I had agreed that God had taken him for a reason.

This baby had been born 3 months premature, but he had breathed independently from his first day, soon started feeding, and had the nuzzling, ‘where’s-the-milk?’ reflex. Just before he was due to go home, he picked up an infection in the hospital. He was transferred to another hospital where he picked up another infection. It was his fourth hospital-given infection that killed him. Not God’s will but human negligence.

One member of staff explained that hospitals aren’t as clean as they used to be – not enough money is spent on ‘proper’ cleaning. These wonderful, resilient, caring parents are scared of having another baby in a British NHS hospital. How can this have happened in the 21st Century, in one of the world’s most prosperous nations, at a time when recession is only beginning?

Cutbacks in the NHS are bound to come as the economy goes from bad to worse. For me it is even more imperative that we stop wasting millions of pounds and hundreds of lives in Afghanistan.

A friend advised me to search the net for ‘Christian troops out Afghanistan.’ Veteran atheist US soldier, Stan Goff, now Christian, has written a tremendous Open Letter to Christian US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, Sept 18 2008. He eloquently calls on such troops to refuse to fight. But it is governments, not soldiers, who make decisions.

The Presbyterian Church in Wales are on the right lines. On Monday 7 Sep, the General Assembly voted in favour of putting pressure on Gordon Brown to pull British troops out of Afghanistan. In his final address as Moderator, the Rev Haydn Thomas said, ‘Is a war which is winning us nothing but enemies the most effective way of preventing massacres like the one in London four years ago? Certainly not.

A Conference of South Asian Churches, part of the World Council of Churches, meeting in Bangalore from March 30 to April 2nd this year noted that ‘the overwhelming presence and reliance on 52,000-strong foreign forces in Afghanistan has created more animosity among the local people as well as in neighbouring Pakistan. This situation creates an atmosphere ripe for extremist groups to exploit the religious sentiments of ordinary people and involve them in committing more violence.’ They called ‘upon all parties concerned to eschew violence and invest in negotiated settlements of all issues which will ensure peace, security and development in the region.’ All parties include the British Government. They further called for ‘the withdrawal of U.S.-led international combat troops from Afghanistan and appeals to the international community to ensure that the resultant power vacuum may be filled by a UN-sponsored peacekeeping force with Asian forces as major players, which will help the country’s transition towards stability…

The British Christian conservative organisation Christian Voice, back in November 2001 stated ‘In Afghanistan, America is conducting not so much a war against terror but a war for a pipeline.  She claims to seek justice but those in high places see the opportunity to make money.  Britain was supposed to have an ‘ethical foreign policy’ but our Prime Minister is acting like America’s Foreign Secretary, travelling the world shoring up – in the eyes of God – an unholy alliance between backslidden Christian nations, and despotic Muslim regimes like those of Saudi Arabia and Syria.’ Nov 2001

Surely it is time for more British Christians to join with our Welsh and South Asian brothers and sisters, with politicians in Germany and Italy, to do the best for our troops by taking them out of danger, to put pressure on our Government to pursue a policy in Afghanistan which is not based on a military campaign?

Roger Harper

Life, Nasty Criminals, and Afghanistan: 10 September

September 10, 2009

I may be asked to take the funeral of the lorry driver who, it seems, killed himself after killing his 9 year old step daughter. Someone who lived for 40 years on the same estate told me that if there had been any suspicion that he was molesting girls, ‘they’ would have put an end to it. The estate has a strongly enforced moral code. The police sometimes leave criminals to local justice. What will the estate think if we welcome his funeral in our church?

Jesus saw no-one as evil, but many people as influenced by unclean spirits or demons. These spirits were not part of the people and could be detached – if the people were willing. We can become infected with these unclean spirits in various ways. Unclean spirits which push us to sexual depravity come in through pornography, among other ways. It is no coincidence that in a society where people encourage and push pornography to sell newspapers and much else, where children are clothed sometimes in sexually revealing clothes, some men are so taken over by evil. Not that the lorry driver’s victim was clothed like that at all. Evil, once installed, often doesn’t attack the guilty, but the innocent.

The editor of the excellent email newsletter Charity Matters makes a similar connection:

The 10 and 11-year-old Doncaster brothers who tortured and nearly killed two 9 and 11-year-old boys in a pre-meditated two-hour attack should be hanged, says the father of the 11-year-old victim.

The father of the 9-year-old victim has asked why the brother’s father, reportedly a violent drunk who forced his children to watch sadistic horror films, and mother, reportedly a drug-addict who has washed her hands of her children, are not facing charges of criminal neglect.

The attack has brought comparisons with the abduction and horrific murder of two-year-old toddler, James Bulger, in Liverpool in February 1993.This prompted the formation of charity Mothers Against Murder And Aggression (MAMAA) which supports the victims and families of victims of serious violent crime, as well as running a weapons/ victims awareness safety programme for schools, colleges, universities and youth projects. In development is a parenting programme, and the charity points out that 90% of young people involved in murder are known to the authorities, as was the case with the above.

Meanwhile, “slasher” movies and violent computer games, in which victims are killed in cruel and gory ways for entertainment are becoming more popular in our increasingly violent adult society

Gordon Brown has said that he questions whether to keep up the fight in Afghanistan. He says he always concludes that the cost is worth it. If our Prime Minister, who was instrumental in the decision first to go to war, can voice strong doubts, why can’t Church leaders inspired by Jesus who refused to use violence?

Instead all we hear is that the Bishop of London is blessing more troops to go to Afghanistan. I don’t have problems with Bishops blessing anyone, but such blessing, coupled with a complete lack of criticism of the military policy, gives the impression that the military have the full support of the Church. This gives the Taliban and their sympathisers the message that this really is another Crusade against them, that they are at war with this ‘Christian nation.’ It all makes terrorist attacks on us more likely.

Antony Feltham-White, British military Chaplain is quoted in the Church Times: ‘… a large number of deaths and injuries … really does serve to harden the resolve of everybody to get the job done, in memory of those we lose.’ Just so. In other words, the longer we are there, the harder it is for us to admit that it hasn’t been worth it and pull out. Soldiers dying mean more soldiers will die, and we won’t allow ourselves to ask the hard questions about whether it is worth it or whether another way would have been better.

There is another way: a LEGAL response rather than a military response. The following letter of mine was published in the current Tikkun magazine in America ( )

‘Treat terrorists as criminals rather than an opposing army. They are outlaws who need to be brought under the law. Treating them as enemy soldiers gives them dignity in their own eyes and in the eyes of their local communities. A military response necessarily involves damage to the terrorists’ local communities, not least because terrorists ensure such damage by hiding in and behind these communities. This damage strengthens the communities’ antagonism to the military power and their ties with their compatriot terrorists. A legal response strengthens the message that terrorists are criminals not to be harboured by their communities and separates out terrorists from their communities through measures like rewards for information.

International terrorists need to be dealt with by international law. It is high time America not only joined the International Court but strengthened the role of the court in combating terrorism. The first objective should be to have international arrest warrants issued for international terrorists. Then work out ways that police forces and communities can enforce these warrants. New developments are needed.

The International Court should be given power to investigate all sources of funding for international terrorists and to cut off their financial support. The court should be able to issue enforceable search warrants throughout the international financial and banking system. Technically this would not be difficult. Cutting off financial support is more effective than military action.

The history of the Troubles in Northern Ireland shows the strength of the legal response. At no point did Britain attack Irish Republican Army (IRA) bases in Eire. The aim throughout was to bring terrorists under the law. Troops were involved, but primarily to support the police and judiciary. The great change in Northern Ireland came not through a military surge but through cutting off funding for terrorists, especially the funding coming from the United States, after September 11. The cooperation of the U.S. administration in stopping IRA funding was crucial. This should be a model for all international cooperation to deal with terrorism.

We British, of all people, know that the legal response is the better response to terrorism. We, of all people, should have pointed the Americans to this alternative, instead of joining Americans in their exaggerated fear and consequent military response.

The difficulty with adopting the legal response is that it goes against cherished myths and beliefs, that it dethrones idols: the myth of redemptive violence; the American escape from corrupt European culture, including biased law; the American tradition of taking the law into their own hands; the Western idolatry of the banking system which must be allowed to preserve its cultish secrecy …

The legal response to terrorism is not an easy option. But let’s not forget that it is an alternative to the military response.’

The British and US governments are acting like moralizing international vigilantes proud to use their might outside the law – not unlike ‘they’ who enforce rough justice on some of our estates today.

Roger Harper

Life, Sloppiness, and Afghanistan: 3 September

September 3, 2009

A British Crash is being read in America. A distant cousin ordered 3 copies, with signatures. Last week she reported that they had arrived, but without the signatures – ‘unless you’ve written in invisible ink.’ My sloppiness shamed me. Exactly this sloppiness in others is what goads me into grumpy-old-manism.

We sent a letter to our savings bank to transfer some money. They sent their official form which we returned, completed. They then phoned asking me to confirm the amount, as on their form the amount is only in numbers, not words as well. I pointed out that they could just look at the original letter. Why not look at the file properly in the first place?

My daughter had a phone call at 8am from the secretary of a consultant she was waiting to see: ‘Please can you come at 7.45 today?’ ‘This evening?’ asked my surprised sleepy daughter. ‘Oh… No… It was actually 7.45 this morning.’ Why not look at the appointment dates properly in the first place?

These sloppy mistakes seem universal in Britain today, so universal that there has to be a universal explanation. My candidate is the lack of criticism in Primary education. For years, no Primary teacher has said ‘That’s not good enough. Do it again.’ Certainly no-one ever said that to our daughters, despite some clearly sloppy work. Praise and encouragement are good, but if that’s all children receive, they don’t learn to check and correct what they are doing – ever. The also ubiquitous ‘recording for quality and training purposes’ can’t compensate.

Today I talked with the Office of the Public Guardian about why they had rejected my application to register my mother’s Lasting Power of Attorney. Their letter said they had ‘identified problems’, without specifying, which were too late to rectify. The problem was that I had left a couple of boxes unticked. Touché!

Even The Sun newspaper has voices calling for our troops to be pulled out of Afghanistan. ‘Our lads are stuck in the midle.of hatered that has went on out there for hundreds of years,It has nothing to do with Taleban  But everything to do with power.We lost to many good lads in Iraq,Why should we be repeating the same Mistakes That we encountered in Iraq,Bring all our lads home now before we loose any more young lives.’

‘Nothing to do with the Taleban’? You may question that. My friend, recently returned from Afghanistan, explained that much of the conflict is due to Pashtun nationalism. Afghanistan is one of the many artificial countries (including Iraq) created, mostly by Britain, to tidy up the map for the Imperial powers. The Pashtun homeland and community now straddles the Afghan / Pakistani border.

Yugoslavia was allowed to be split along ethnic / geographic lines. Why are people outside Europe not allowed even to consider such a change? We need a UN Border Change Commission to begin to talk about new borders that make geographic / linguistic sense, as they do in Europe. Surely this would be no more protracted and messy than carrying on with the interminable conflicts across the Middle East and Africa? It would certainly be less bloody.

Sudan shows that such debate / negotiation is possible. The border between the North and South is being fixed, with one disputed oil-rich town having recently been allocated by an international body to the South, without great uproar from the North. It’s early days yet, but if it can be done in Sudan, it can be done anywhere.

Why too can more countries not follow the example of the United Kingdom – one central government with strong regional variations, especially those in Scotland. It is possible to have local laws and local banknotes. It is long past time for Britain to state ‘Do as we do, not as we told you years ago.’

Roger Harper