Thursday, 30 June 2016

A few photos from the south side of Baltasound, Unst, Shetland.

This afternoon I went over to look at the south side of Baltasound on Unst in the Shetlands. Lovely. I even took my sandals off and had a little paddle. Brrr, chilly . . . As with yesterday it was a day constantly threatening rain, However, this time, I succeeded in dodging the showers.

Here are a few photos I took on the ride. All taken with an iPhone 6+ and the Blackie App. Just click on a photo to enlarge it. 

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

A few photos of a walk round the base of Houllna Gruna to visit the bay called Wood Wick

Fence posts, barbed wire and a dry stone wall on the way up
Unlike yesterday it was, for the most part, a rainy and overcast day. However, I still felt impelled to risk a shortish walk up to the end of the Loch of Cliff and around Houllna Gruna to visit the bay called Wood Wick. I got to the bay without getting wet at all and enjoyed my lunch and a flask of tea whilst looking westwards towards the little group of islands called North Holms. For me the most striking thing was not so much the scenery—though that was striking enough—but the complete absence of any human sounds whatsoever;  just the wind, the sea, the cry of various sea-birds and then, finally, the rain on my back.

I made my way back along the route by which I came but, towards the end, took a short-cut via an old ruined croft and a trackway that runs up to the cottage where we're staying where a warm cup of tea and dry clothes awaited me.

(Just click on a photo to enlarge it)
All taken with an iPhone 6+ and the Blackie App

My first sight of Wood Wick
Wood Wick
Wood Wick
The south side of Wood Wick
The north side of Wood Wick 
The view while I ate my lunch with the small islands of North Holms in the distance
The ruined croft
The ruined croft with the Loch of Cliff in the distance
Looking towards the trackway leading back towards the Scraefield Cottage
Looking back down the trackway from just below Scraefield Cottage
Scraefield Cottage
The view back along the trackway from the cottage
Scraefield Cottage

A Tolstyan moment of much needed peace on Unst, Shetland—“De staar o’peace is risin, may shu never set ageen”

The Peace Pole
Still saddened and shocked, both from the result of the EU Referendum and the increasing reports of an upturn in abuse towards migrants in England (about which I commented in my last posting), yesterday I was spending a wonderful first full day on Britain's most northerly island, Unst in the company of one of our kind hosts, Barbara Priest. Barbara also happens to be the Session Clerk of St John's in Baltasound so, naturally, we stopped by the church and, since the day was sunny and warm, we lingered in the church's peace garden which was lovingly created in connection with the international and inter-religious Peace Pole Project.

As Barbara and I sat quietly in the sun she told me about the project and we talked a little about the current situation and how the British peace movements may now have to devote an unexpectedly huge amount of time energy to promoting peace on the British mainland where nation suddenly seems to be beginning to be set against nation. I had in my bag, as I nearly always do, Tolstoy’s Gospel in Brief and it seemed appropriate read together the following passage where Tolstoy has Jesus offer the following commandment:

“In the previous law it was said: do good to your own people and do harm to the foreigner. But I say to you: love not only your own countrymen, but also the people of other nations. Let others hate you, let them attack you and insult you; but you must praise them and do good to them. If you are only good to your own countrymen, then you are like everyone else who is good to their own countrymen; and it is because of this that wars occur. But you should treat all nations equally, and if you do, you will be the sons [and daughters] of the father. All people are his children, consequently all people should be your brothers. And so, this is the fifth commandment: Keep the same law in regard to other nations that I have asked you to keep amongst yourselves. For the father of all people there is no such thing as different nations, there are no different kingdoms either: all are brothers, all are sons of the one father. Don’t create differences between people based on nations and kingdoms.”

I am so grateful to Barbara (and to Sidney, Martha and Amit with whom we are staying) to be able to have this opportunity in such a beautiful and peaceful place to reflect, not only upon the events of the last week, but also the last eight years of my own ministry and how I might go about approaching the next eight years and beyond.

What ever that approach looks like I'll clearly need to keep the hopeful prayer of Unst’s Peace Pole in my heart:

“De staar o’peace is risin, may shu never set ageen.”
Our first sight of Unst from Yell
Hamar Longhouse or Jacob Johorasen’s house with Balta in the background

Saturday, 25 June 2016

As a British Unitarian minister, in this post-Brexit hell I want loudly, and proudly, to proclaim my Polish roots . . .

Just a few minutes ago I read a truly shocking report in the local Cambridge newspaper entitled:

Reports of “No more Polish vermin” signs left outside primary schools in Huntingdon

Other people I know have also began to note that similar kinds of things are happening elsewhere in the UK and, not just towards Poles.

As a small act of solidarity I want to SHOUT OUT LOUDLY that my roots as a liberal, Unitarian minister of religion are POLISH and I'm out and proud about that. The first explicit Unitarian community was formally founded on June 10, 1565 in the Polish town of Brzeziny at the first synod of the “Minor Reformed Church of Poland”, better known today by the name of the Polish Brethren

As regular readers of this blog know for many, many years I've worn around around my neck a reproduction of a medallion produced in the sixteenth-century by the Polish Brethren. The French historian Albert Blanchard-Gaillard tells us that the medallion was worn by "young Polish Brethren of noble origin who, without superstition, loved Jesus and held him as their master and began, in the late sixteenth century, to frequent foreign universities, principally in Holland or Germany, to study under anti-trinitarian ministers or theologians."

Because to be a Socinian (that is to say a Unitarian) was still at the time to risk execution across Europe the medal was, in addition to being a statement of faith, also a way of identifying each other without making their heresy too obvious. Additionally, because the inscription was in Hebrew it would not be understood by most people and so the wearer could either claim ignorance as to its meaning or, if it someone could read it, it could be given an orthodox spin. But to most it would be a simple symbol of devotion to Jesus (Revue Regard, no. 2, Summer 1997, Institut d’études et de recherches sur l’histoire, les traditions, la nature et les sciences, pp. 30-34).

The medallion shows a beautiful picture of the Rabbi Jesus surrounded by the single word “man” (“ishi”) which is used in Hebrew in balance to the idea of God and so it has the additional connotation of ordinary, customary or common — i.e. that which is not God. On the reverse the (faulty) Hebrew can be rendered, "The Messiah of the Kingdom of Peace came in true human form.'"

In this post-Brexit world — which is already beginning to look very nasty, brutish and ugly — my faith (inherited from my Polish forebears) that the Kingdom of Peace remains both desirable and possible remains as important as it ever has been.


Friday, 24 June 2016

DiEM25's first statement on Brexit—passed on here without comment

DiEM25 campaigned vigorously in favour of a radical IN vote.

OUT won because the EU establishment have made it impossible, through their anti-democratic reign (not to mention the asphyxiation of weaker countries like Greece), for the people of Britain to imagine a democratic EU.

Our radical IN campaign was thus defeated.

We can proudly look the powers-that-be in Brussels, Berlin, Frankfurt, Paris etc. in the eye and tell them: “We tried to save the EU from you. But you have poisoned the EU so badly by silencing the voices of democrats that, though we tried, we could not convince to people of Britain to stay.”

We, at DiEM25, are in no mood for being downcast now that Leave won, against our better efforts. As of today, a new exciting challenge begins for our pan-European democratic movement.

At DiEM25 we rejected the logic of EU disintegration implicit in the Leave campaign. But we also rejected the logic of business-as-usual for the EU peddled by David Cameron, Tony Blair, Wolfgang Schäuble, François Hollande, Jean-Claude Juncker, Hillary Clinton and all the other contributors to the loss of EU’s legitimacy, integrity and soul.

DiEM25 regrets that the British people chose to leave in the EU. But at the same time, DiEM25 welcomes the British people’s determination to tackle the diminution of democratic sovereignty caused by the gross de-politicisation of political decisions and the consequent democratic deficit in the EU.

As of today, DiEM25 will seize upon the OUT vote to promote its radical agenda of confronting the EU establishment more powerfully than before.

The EU’s disintegration is now running at full speed. The DiEM25 campaign of building bridges across Europe, bringing democrats together across borders and political parties, is what Europe needs more than ever to avoid a slide into a xenophobic, deflationary, 1930s-like abyss. In this endeavour, British progressives will be at the heart of DiEM25's campaigns.

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

A self-critical and disturbing thought to consider following the assassination of Jo Cox, MP

This morning I re-read some words in Simon Critchley's excellent book, "The Faith of the Faithless: Experiments in Political Theology" (Verso Press, 2012) and here I'd simply like to invite you to consider them in relation to the assassination last week of the British Labour Party MP, Jo Cox.

"Our subjective outrage at the facts of violence—a suicide bombing, a terrorist attack, the assassination of a seemingly innocent political figure, the subjugation of the resistance movement, or whatever—blinds us to the objective violence of the world, a violence where we are perpetrators and not just innocent bystanders. All we see are apparently inexplicable acts of violence that disturb the supposed peace and normal flow of everyday life. We consistently overlook the objective—or what Žižek calls "systemic"—violence that is endemic to our socio-economic order. Capitalism is the organization of the relations of production that violently produces inequality, alienation, and social dislocation" (p. 208).

The point is, of course, that none of us are truly innocent bystanders and, if we want properly to honour the death of a decent, honest, committed MP such as Jo Cox, then we are all going to have to work our hardest to ensure that a genuine democracy prevails, not only here in the UK, but across Europe and the world; one that non-violently is able to remove the causes of inequality, alienation, and social dislocation that conspired to make Thomas Mair, who murdered Jo Cox, the kind of man he is.

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

"An Open Letter Regarding the EU Referendum" by Bob Biderman

Bob Biderman, a British-American  writer and publisher who is associated with the Cambridge DiEM 25 group which I am helping to organise, has just sent me this open-letter with permission to distribute it to those who might be interested in reading it. I figure that will include some readers of this blog.

(UPDATE 22nd June 2016: I'm pleased to say that the main DiEM25 website has given this piece its own page. Click on this link if you wish to see it there and also explore the aims of DiEM25 further.)


By Bob Biderman

I first came to Britain from the United States in 1960 as a young man having been fascinated by the stories of this island nation my father told me when I was a child. My dad had volunteered to serve in the merchant navy some years before America entered the war and was full of admiration for the spirit of the people he encountered at the other end of that dangerous North Atlantic run bringing food and supplies to the last redoubt against the fascist takeover of Europe. His stories, couched in language fitting for a small boy, told of those simple acts of courage that defined a people standing resolute against, what seemed to be impossible odds.  So landing in Britain when I did was almost like a rite of passage.  I came to pay homage and I wasn’t disappointed.

Travelling the length of the island, from London to Glasgow, I witnessed a country still piecing itself together from the brutalities of war.  In London, large gaping holes stuffed with rubble that once was someone’s home, had yet to be cleared fifteen years after the bombings. Rationing had ended not too long before, but there were still shortages of basic supplies augmented by workers’ cafes that served cheap sausage and beans to a skint labour force.  Coming from an unscathed America where most were well-off (though many still lived in abject poverty), the dignity of the British people who had suffered incredible hardships was inspiring.

I returned to Britain in 1970, this time, recently married, with my wife. Then, again, in the 1980s, when we finally decided to settle here and raise our family. For us, Britain was not only an adoptive home, but a needed antidote to an American culture becoming fatally obsessed with money and power.

Over those fifty-six years – from 1960 to the present – I have witnessed dramatic changes in the culture and attitudes here. The destruction of communities from north to south, east to west, through global shifts augmented by new technologies and intensified by misguided austerity policies, has caused or exacerbated deep social wounds.  But most striking to me is the unravelling of that spirit which had once been so strong – that which my father had so admired. Nothing exemplifies this unravelling more than the toxic referendum on whether Britain will remain in or leave the European Union, fomenting a battle of questionable ideas, fought in an atmosphere of quasi-civil war.

America was built by immigrants, but so was modern Britain: the French Huguenots who became the Spitalfield Weavers, the Dutch who helped drain the East Anglian fenlands, the Italians (God bless them!) who established the first espresso cafes, the Irish who built the canals and the highways – the list is endless.  After the war the British needed labourers and so shiploads of immigrants were brought in from the Caribbean, India and the African nations of the Commonwealth. They were welcomed for their labour and over the years became part of the great British melting pot – joining that vibrant genetic mix reaching back beyond the Roman conquest.

From the beginning of the 20th century to the start of WW1, America had an open door policy toward immigration.  Millions of refugees from military conflict and economic hardship came in their shiploads (stuffed into filthy steerage holds by semi-legitimate people traffickers).  The massive number of immigrants – mainly non-English speaking and often illiterate – caused social and political problems in the cities where they settled. But the economic growth realised by their incredible energies was massive and, despite the hostility of ‘America First’ nativist movements – the Great Depression of the 1930s happened only after America’s open door policy was essentially halted. Few people today would argue that the Italians, Irish, Eastern European Jews, Poles and people from the Balkans were problematic because they could never be assimilated into ‘American’ culture.

In the 19th century Britain also had what was essentially an open immigration policy.  Throughout the 1880s and 90s, Eastern European Jews in their hundreds of thousands fled to London, Manchester, Leeds and Glasgow escaping intolerable conditions imposed on them by the Tsarist government.  Reading the scurrilous literature of the time directed toward these essentially impoverished people is strikingly evocative of what now passes for ‘reasoned dialogue’ by some in the EU referendum’s Leave Campaign. Yet a generation later, those refugees had been well integrated into British life and were, in the main, considered as respectable citizens.

Throughout history, fear of ‘the other’ in the guise of migrants, transients, nomads, itinerants of any kind, whether they be on a spiritual quest like Moses, Christ, Mohammed or Buddha, victims of political persecution, refugees of social turmoil or simply people who wanted to find a better life, all became easy scapegoats for people in power to deflect systemic problems onto those who are powerless.

Britain has a proud history of accepting refugees and immigrants of many backgrounds and persuasions. I think of the marvellous Café Royal in London’s Soho where, in the 1880s, the upstairs was filled with French nobility whose ancestors escaped beheading while the downstairs was occupied by the refugees who survived the Paris Commune.  There are few places on earth where you would find a scene as evocative as that!  But the movement of people isn’t a one-way street. It never is.  We only need consider the millions of British who emigrated to Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, North America and, yes, Germany, France, Spain, Holland, Sweden and all the other EU countries as well.

The people of Britain, who my father saw as heroic, were matched by those others, from outside Britain, like the Poles and French who took sanctuary here and gave their lives to defend it - and those anti-fascist Americans, like my father, who offered their lives to keep Britain supplied in her hour of need.

Britain at its best was not a country looking to pull up the drawbridge and isolate itself. I think, for instance, of the Welsh miners who had volunteered to fight in Spain as the front line in what was soon to become a European-wide Guernica. Two world wars and many other European conflicts centuries before, emphasised the absurdity of isolationism.  The problems of who we are and what we will become won’t be solved by voting in a toxic referendum.  But voting to ‘Leave’ will, I fear, give the country over to those whose interests are nothing more than the quest for personal power and who are willing to do and say anything to gain that end – even if it means Britain would lose that which my father, and many others of his time, so greatly admired.

Saturday, 18 June 2016

DiEM25 in Cambridge—an update—"The Radicality of Love"

Four of us from the Cambridge DiEM25 DSC met on Wednesday to decide what we’re going to do next.

Firstly, it’s worth saying that, since we are small in number, we decided that we would not, ourselves, organise any referendum related event but commit to being involved with existing Remain campaigns of which there are a number active in Cambridge. As a whole, the Cambridge City area (where we are based) seems to be behind the Remain campaign and this may might explain why we have not (yet!) gathered a very large group (in total we have thirteen people on our email list). Nevertheless, to do a little bit more we did get hold of some materials from the “Another Europe is Possible” campaign and we’ll distribute them in the immediate locality.

We also decided to try and figure out something we could usefully do after the referendum regardless of whether Britain votes in or out and came up with the idea of starting a “Democracy Café”. Some of you may be aware of an initiative that started in the USA called “Socrates Café” and we thought it would be worthwhile taking the basic idea and use it to work conversationally through the various elements of the DiEM25 manifesto in some convivial surroundings. Naturally, if we remain in the EU this conversation needs to be had in the context of democratising the EU, however, should the vote (the gods forbid) be for leave (and on the dreadful ticket that the leave campaign has been promulgating) it is clear that the need to democratise Britain will be equally as pressing and the heart of the DiEM25 manifesto would remain relevant and highly useful.

So, watch this space in September/October. Any thoughts from folk on a suitable venue?

The second thing we thought we would work towards — but probably only in the event of a remain vote — is to try and organise an event centring on the DiEM25 Manifesto which we’ll pitch to the Cambridge University Festival of Ideas which takes place in October.

Lastly, the four of us realised that whether or not we leave or remain a group committed to the aims of DiEM25 is important as it can provide philosophical, intellectual and moral support to folk such as us. Again, whether we leave or stay, meeting together in good company and surroundings to discuss democratic ideas is something we think is vitally important. We certainly thought it would be good to continue to meet to read together both Yanis Varoufakis’ book, “And The Weak Suffer What They Must?” as well as Srećko Horvat’s book “The Radicality of Love” (as I’m sure most of you realise Srećko jointly launched DiEM25 with Yanis back in February at the Volksbühne in Berlin):

After a loveless and occasionally hate-filled referendum debate such as the one we are having it is clear that, without the radicality of love supervening, we are in for the hardest of times.

It’s surely worth remembering Srećko’s words that:

“A truly revolutionary moment is like love; it is a crack in the world, in the usual running of things, in the dust that is layered all over in order to prevent anything New. It is a moment when air becomes thick and at the same time you can breathe more than ever” (Horvat, p. 4).

So, yes, the radically of love is needed and if you’re interested in getting involved please get in touch.

Andrew Brown

If you are interested here is Srećko Horvat’s recent TED talk, "Love has to be reinvented"

Friday, 10 June 2016

A thought about post-truth political language and the language of theology

Click here for an interview with Altizer in Emory Magazine
This morning a secondhand copy of Thomas Altizer's "The Self-Embodiment of God" (Harper and Row, 1977) came through the post. I've been wanting to read it it for a while now although the immediate question of why I'll leave aside here. Suffice it to say that Altizer has been, in all sorts of ways, a big influence on my own thinking about Christianity. I've got other things to read right at this moment but I did read his very short introduction which I could not but help hear against the background of the painfully poor EU Referendum "debate" in which "post-truth" politics (see HERE and HERE) seems to have taken frightening hold amongst us.

Of course Altizer speaks specifically about theology and God in the opening two paragraphs of his book below but, if you replace "God" with "Reality" and "theology" with "politics" (a legitimate move in my opinion) then I think you'll be able clearly to see why I made the connection between Altizer's words and the current political "debate".

I think we should be deeply concerned (even very afraid) about this situation. Your thoughts would be most welcome.


Theology today is most fundamentally in quest of a language and mode whereby it can speak. Above all it is in quest of a language whereby it can speak of God. Ever increasingly and decisively this quest is becoming a quest for language itself, and for a new language, a language whereby we can actually and fully speak. Again and again we have discovered that the greatest obstacle to speech about God is now the obstacle of speech itself. If language has become a prison-house in our time, then so likewise has speech. We can speak about God only if we can fully and actually speak, even if such speech should be indirect, paradoxical, or veiled. Yet it is the very possibility of such speech which is most in question for us. 
          Speech is the most immediate and intimate arena of our life and identity. Whether in interior monologue or in exterior confrontation and response, speech is our primal mode of realizing identity and meaning, and neither meaning nor identity can be actual and real apart from speech. No doubt the uniquely modern obstacles to speech revolve about a breakdown in meaning and identity in the modern world. And this breakdown may be observed not only in society and politics, but also in literature and the arts, as well as in physics and philosophy. Speech has become ever more precarious in all of these realms, and most frequently the actual exercise of speech seems to deepen rather than to resolve this situation (pp. 1-2).

Thursday, 9 June 2016

A little bit of heaven in the backyard—a set of black and white photos

Outside the back door of the manse here in Cambridge is a tiny little yard which constitutes our garden. Susanna, to whom I am married, tends this small plot with great love, care, attention and imagination and she has made it a truly wonderful and beautiful space.

This year we were graced with dozens upon dozens of birds and even had as guests a family of nesting Blue Tits.

As I sat at breakfast this morning I thought I'd take a few photos of the yard and post them here for your, and my, pleasure.

All taken with an iPhone 6+ using the Blackie App
(click on a photo to enlarge it)