Friday 13 February 2009

Spring and winter

One of the reasons I love this garden so much, I think, is because I find within it echoes of the wider world, of God’s world, while safely removed from its tumults.

This is a mild, sunny morning, the first real spring morning of the year, giving promise of the warmth and happiness to come after the recent cold snap and snow. The ordinary single and double snowdrops are bravely blooming, and the bigger Elwesii ones are just showing white. The early Crocus chrysanthus have opened wide in the sun with their bright orange stamens sparking fire from the cream of their petals. The pussy willow is shimmering with silver on bare twigs. We are past the worst of winter in the garden.

Not so in the wider world. The news is more desperate day by day. Each day thousands more job losses are announced, ordinary workers’ wages are being slashed, and their savings and pensions are evaporating. The economic winter is only beginning.

Today I found the clearest account I have yet read of the roots of the crisis, in the most surprising place – in a discussion paper put before the General Synod of the Church of England! In his short paper entitled ‘A brief account of the financial crisis’, Andreas Whittam Smith, former editor of British Independent newspaper and First Church Estates Commissioner, outlines the origins of the global bubble in credit and its recent collapse, de-leveraging in economist’s jargon. He concludes with stark pessimism:

Some 18 months since it began, this de-leveraging process is still under way and, if anything, gains in momentum. It is a doomsday machine. In my view, it explains almost everything: –
a. Why property prices continue to fall
b. Why any gains in stock market prices are quickly swamped by fresh selling
c. Why the banks find there is no end to the losses that they are incurring and that they thus constantly need re-financing
d. Why banks remain terrified and will engage in fresh lending only if the government forces them to do so or if it removes the risk.
The recession will continue until this process is over.
Read the full paper here.

In his fine speech introducing the subsequent debate, the Archbishop of York John Sentamu maps out a spiritual response to the crisis. He starts with an apposite quote to set the scene:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity".

(WB Yeats,'The Second Coming')

He goes on to describe a three fold movement - from orientation to dis-orientation and through to re-orientation – to map our journey through this economic and financial crisis. How we got here, where we are now, and where to aim for next. He finishes with words of hope:
We share a hope, born of the incarnation, which goes far beyond economic recovery. It reaches into the heart of every man, woman and child. Yes we lament our situation, but we do so knowing that our song will finish in hope: the hope in Christ's message to us. "Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive for ever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and Hades. Do not be afraid". (Revelation 1:17-18).
Read the full speech here.

It would be nice to hear a bit more from our own Synod and House of Bishops!

Thursday 5 February 2009

Fascists in the Garden

Times have been hard in the garden this winter, and I am finding it difficult to work up any enthusiasm for the jobs that need to be done. But I did get out with a borrowed chain saw yesterday to cut up the Monterey cypress at the bottom of the garden - I still call it Cupressus macrocarpa, though systematic botanists now assign it to the genus Callitropsis. A full force 11 storm out of Scariff had caught it, and the main roots simply sheared through. It’s rather sad because we grew it from seed we collected at Monterey ourselves – planted out seven years ago, it was already 20 foot high with a base as thick as my thigh.

The ground is sodden from the heavy rain we have been having, which is my excuse for not having dug the vegetable ground. And the frosts have killed most of the Puya chilensis plants which have survived and flourished outdoors for 3 years. Somewhat like a Yucca with fierce backward-pointing spines, I saw its extraordinary 10 foot spike of acid lemon flowers on Tresco, where I got the seeds – it is said to be fertilised there by blackbirds, rather than the hummingbirds that do the job in Chile. Happily I still have three plants in the polytunnel, so I may yet be able to shock the neighbours with its phallic magnificence!

Female and male Blackcap warblers (Sylvia atricapilla)
Susannah continues to feed the small birds, but I am rather disturbed at the behaviour of the Blackcap warblers (Sylvia atricapilla). I was delighted to see a single male back in December, and more delighted still when he was joined by two females. They look rather demure and Quakerish dressed in pale grey, with the male sporting a black cap and the female a brown one. But they have now become very aggressive, constantly flying from one feeder to another to drive the other birds away, so much so that they eat very little themselves. No doubt they are selfishly determined to save a stock of food for themselves, but if only they would share there would be plenty for all, as Susannah will replenish whenever necessary.

This reminds me that it is also turning into a hard season for people. We are plainly entering an economic depression, which I fear will be as long and deep as the Great Depression of the 1930s. That released deeply selfish and destructive forces in Germany, the Blackshirts and Brownshirts of the Nazi movement, and the idolatry of leadership. Similar fascist movements sprang up in many other countries, including our own. How like our warblers with their black and brown caps! I detect similar forces on the rise today, even in Ireland, with the growing media clamour for leadership.

The forces of the right are trying to drive a wedge between private and public sector workers. Already the Government has effectively moved to cut public sector pay through the so-called pensions levy (many of those effected aren’t eligible for a pension). Private sector employers will follow this up with demands to cut private sector pay, which workers will find difficult to resist as unemployment grows. Reduced wages and unemployment will bring reduced spending and cuts in essential services and benefits, and a vicious circle of rising unemployment, falling spending and ever deeper cuts. This is what happened in the 1930s when social cohesion collapsed. Have we learned nothing?

Tuesday 3 February 2009

A View from the pew - Eyeless in Gaza

View from the Pew is a series of articles I am writing for Newslink, the Diocesan magazine for the Diocese of Limerick and Killaloe. This one appeared in the February 2009 issue.

Gaza under bombardment

Smoke billows from the Gaza Strip following Israeli air strikes, as seen from the northern Israeli border with the Palestinian territory on December 27, 2008.

As I write, on the 17th day of the Israeli offensive, the brutal bombardment of Gaza continues as Israeli troops push forward into the city of 1.5 million, while in a futile gesture Palestinian fighters continue to fire small numbers of improvised rockets at civilians in southern Israel. According to the latest reports, 908 Palestinians in Gaza have been killed and thousands wounded, including many civilians; 13 Israelis are dead, mostly soldiers from ‘friendly’ fire, but also 4 civilians in rocket attacks. The disproportion in the death toll ought to shock us all. Please God both sides will agree to a ceasefire long before you read this article. That will halt the deaths, but the wounded will still need to be cared for and the damage repaired.

Holocaust, Naqba and Terrorism

We are witnessing the latest battle in a war which started in 1948, the year I was born. It is tragic that Jewish people, who suffered so much in the Holocaust, should themselves inflict another historic injustice on Palestinians, around 250,000 of whom are Christian, including about 7,000 Anglicans.

Nazis and other anti-semites murdered 6 million Jews in the Holocaust. It is seared into the Israeli national psyche. This, and the reality of their encirclement by enemies, stiffens Israeli determination to preserve the security of their state, and no wonder. I do not doubt that Israel would use its nuclear weapons in the face of defeat, much as Samson brought down the roof on the the heads of both the Philistines and himself.

But the Palestinians too have suffered a national catastrophe, which they call the Naqba in Arabic. In 1948, some 750,000 Arabs fled or were expelled from their homes, to become refugees in Gaza, the West Bank and neighbouring countries. Their land and houses were taken over by around 900,000 Jewish settlers, refugees from Europe and immigrants from elsewhere. And Arab land is still being seized for Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Palestinian refugees and their descendents, now more than 4 million, continue to cry out for redress, and the right to return home. Is it any wonder that they continue to resist Israel?

Unable to challenge the Israeli army supplied with high-tech weapons by the USA, many Palestinians have fought back in successive rebellions or intifadas, targeting Israeli civilians with improvised weapons and suicide bombs. Such terrorist tactics are wicked of course, and we know all too much about such evils on this island.

But let us not forget that the Israeli state is also stained by terror. After WW2 the Irgun fought a bloody terrorist campaign to force British withdrawal and establish a Jewish state. My father, a British army chaplain in Palestine, remembered with horror the bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem in 1946, which killed 91 people, mostly civilians. The Israeli army used terror deliberately in 1948 to force Palestinians out. And terrorism is surely the precise word for the continuing communal punishments and targetted assassinations. Israeli terror is just as wicked as Palestinian.

An eye for an eye

Both peoples, Israeli and Palestinian, have been locked in an escalating cycle of fear, anger and violence for 40 years. ‘An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind’, said Gandhi. In Samson Agonistes, the poet John Milton describes the Israelite super-hero Samson as ‘eyeless in Gaza’. Is this to be the fate of both the Israelis and the Palestinians?

It need not be. Jesus tells us in the Sermon on the Mount, ‘you have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.’ This is the only way to break the vicious circle. Our own experience in Ireland shows it is possible for deeply divided people to find a way to live together in peace. It may seem that we as individuals in Ireland can do nothing to help, but we can.

Firstly, we can pray for all those who are working for peace in Israel and Palestine. Our prayers will encourage them, and strengthen our own resolve to help.

Secondly, we can support our Irish Government’s diplomatic efforts to bring both sides to see the futility of their actions and seek another way.

And thirdly we can help in practical ways. A good way to do so is to send money to our fellow Anglicans already working on the ground to relieve distress among Palestinians of all faiths. Anglican Bishop of Jerusalem Suheil Dawani has asked both for our prayers and for financial support for Al Ahli Hospital in Gaza, run by the Diocese of Jerusalem.

A recent report from Al Ahli Hospital, Gaza

We continue to receive and care for up to 40 new patients each day who are injured, wounded, or burned from the current conflict, requiring hospital admission and surgery, as well as up to 15 referrals from Shifa Hospital in Gaza City. This increased surgical load places strains on anaesthetics, suture material, operating room linens and equipment, bandages, and surgeons themselves. Staff, some of whom stay in the hospital round the clock, are working long hours without rest and struggle against exhaustion.

The hospital is short of fuel to continue operating the electrical generator. Without fuel the hospital would have no electricity, greatly impacting its ability to operate. Glass in the hospital was shattered by nearby rocket and missile strikes. The windows are temporarily covered with plastic rubbish bags until plastic sheeting becomes available for better protection from the cold. Food is desperately needed. Our efforts are focused on providing nutrition for the most vulnerable people, like children and nursing mothers. The Diocese is providing the cash necessary for Al Ahli to carry out its work and is also guaranteeing debts incurred by the hospital.

Here is a picture of Mohan’nad, a 9 year-old boy, who’s badly injured leg the doctors and staff at Al Ahli were able to save, thank God.

You can donate on-line at the Diocese of Jerusalem’s web site:

Please give generously!