How do you fight…?

I read an article in the Guardian on Saturday that really stuck in my mind. It was comment by Eve Ensler on the furore surrounding the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case, in which she asked a series of questions. I want to reproduce those questions here:

This is a stream of the questions running in my head all morning.

How do you fight a rape case if you have lied in your past? How do you fight a rape case if you have been sexually active? How do you fight a rape case as a woman who wants a future in journalism, politics, banking, international affairs? How do you fight a rape case and ever hope to be taken seriously again or be perceived as anything other than a raped victim?

How do you fight a rape case as a woman in places like Congo where there are no real courts and no one is held accountable? How do you fight a rape case as an illegal immigrant with no rights in that country? 

How do you fight a rape case if you still believe rape is your fault, if you don’t even know what rape is, if you are afraid of upsetting your boyfriend/husband, or afraid of getting him in trouble because he will be more violent to you?

How do we get men to stop raping lesbians or independent or highly sexual women as a “corrective act” rather than addressing the forces and powers they are truly angry at? How do we get men to understand the impact of rape: how the external bruises are internalised and remain for ever?

How do you speak out against rape and not be called a man hater, a gold digger, a slut? How do you convince women to speak out when their character is called into public question?

How do you speak out against incest or childhood sexual abuse if your mother is sleeping with the man who is abusing you, and you know she loves that man or will not believe you? 

How do you speak out against the adored, handsome, powerful, charming company president/caring psychotherapist/honoured history professor/visionary film director when you risk being despised by those around him? How do you speak out against the charismatic leader of the party or country when to do so jeopardises the standing of the party, the country itself, and could let the opposition take power?

How do you press charges for sexual harassment and not worry about losing your job, or being seen as weak or unable to protect yourself or hang with the guys and “take a joke”.

When do we stop separating how we treat women from our vision of a free, equal, just world – ie how do you call yourself a socialist, an intellectual, a leader, a freedom fighter, an anti-apartheid, anti-racism, pro-earth champion, and not make honouring women a central part of that equation?

How do we create a real dialogue between men and woman about violence: what it does, how it hurts? How do we stop saying that women who are opposed to violence hate sex? When do we stop seeing them as the same thing?

I am a man, and as such I’m not sure if you will allow me to be a feminist. But these questions haunt me as well, and I want to see them answered. I want us, as a society, to honour women and treat them as equals. I want to see sexual harassment, objectification and subjugation removed. I want us to treat rape as what it is – the worst of all possible crimes.

How do we do that?

In the Beginning there was… Gravity?

Stephen Hawking is in the news today, apparently after claiming in a new book that spontaneous creation is possible within the existing laws of physics, and hence there is no need for God. He writes:

“…the coincidences of our planetary conditions — the single Sun, the lucky combination of Earth-Sun distance and solar mass — [are] far less remarkable, and far less compelling evidence that the Earth was carefully designed just to please us human beings.

“Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing.

“Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist.

“It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.”

[Reuters and BBC News]

Now, I need to tread a little carefully here, as I cannot pretend to be a brain anywhere near as great as Dr Hawking. It is a good twelve years since I last studied physics, and I am keenly aware that a few sparse quotes on the newswire do not an argument make. But I have to say that I really don’t see the logic in this statement.

Isn’t Gravity a feature of the universe? It is a force, it is a law. It pervades the system and governs the bounds of how the system functions. But it’s a feature of the system, isn’t it? i.e. no universe, no gravity – just as there is no protons, neutrons, quarks etc.

My understanding of cosmological theories was that it was effectively impossible to know the state of the universe prior to the Big Bang. We can model all the way back to microseconds after – but other than suggesting it was in “a hot dense state” (as the song goes), there’s no real way of knowing what was there. So, is Hawking now suggesting that before the Big Bang there was gravity? That gravity is pre-existent?

I don’t understand how this answers the First Cause argument. Gravity, matter, energy etc are now pre-existent? Self-existent? Even if we could say that we knew enough about the nature of creation (for want of a better word) before the Big Bang brought our universe into existence, to say that gravity existed in creation then, and acted within it enough to bring about the Big Bang… Where’s the First Cause? What existed before the “hot, dense state”? Isn’t the question of where the something of creation came from still relevant?

There is a cyclical theory of cosmology that suggests that gravity will act on our expanding universe and (eventually) cause it to contract back to a singular point. From which it will in turn rapidly expand into a new universe in a second Big Bang. That theory argues that our current universe could be one of an infinite series of expansions and contractions, a cycle that runs on forever. Without being able to read the source of the above quotes, it seems like this is what Hawking is advocating, but it still leaves a problem: what is on the outside of that cyclical system? How did the cycle begin initially? And where does the necessary material, the fuel for the Bang(s) come from?

There may be millions of other Earth-like planets in the universe. We may be in no way unique. But I still don’t see why that means, definitively,  there is no need for a First Cause. On this evidence, I don’t think that Hawking has (yet) killed God.

Staring down a microscope too long gives you tunnel vision

So, much in the news this last weekend about Catholic bishops criticising the forthcoming embryology bill… The issue? Mainly that of making human-animal ‘hybrids’; scientists say its good progress, and will help develop useful new treatments; the bishops didn’t like it, one going so far as to call it ‘Frankensteinish’. 

Since then, there has been much too-ing and fro-ing between scientists, clergy and politicians on this issue. [Some key quotes can be found here.] This is a thorny issue and I don’t want to go in to it too much, because I have neither the time nor the ability to treat it with the care it deserves. What I do want to comment on is the fundamental difference in perspective between the bishops and the scientists, which was touched on by the Today programme this morning, and can’t be over-emphasised.

When a scientist in this field looks down their microscope at the small bundle of cells they are working on, they see a small bundle of cells. These are the Lego-bricks of life, but grouped together in too small a bunch to actually build anything. To the scientist these amazing micro machines are of great interest, even wonder, but the difference between a small bundle of cells (with no opportunity of implantation) and a human being is immense.

For many people of a religious persuasion (and in fact, for many non-religious people of non-scientific backgrounds), when they look down the microscope at the same bundle of cells they see something similar, and yet profoundly different. They look at the same cells with the same wonder and interest, but see something more: they see life, or at least the potential to become life. That potential is in itself something sacred, something of great mystery. Whether those few cells constitute life or not may be up for debate, but if those few cells were implanted in a womb they could continue to grow and divide and develop and become something wholly more wondrous.

For many people of a religious persuasion, the idea of experimenting on these cells is already a controversial, to some even immoral, one. This is especially true when the cells in question are of human origin; especially human embryonic origin. How can we treat as mere mechanisms the very cells from which we all began? Those that in a different context could well become another person like ourselves?

The suggestions in the bill coming before parliament take this already-thorny issue much further, by legislating the provision of creating chimera from the fusion of human adult cells and animal (probably bovine) eggs.

To the scientist, these chimera are merely useful alternative mechanisms on which to test their theories. An egg, stripped of its DNA is to them simply a vessel in which the mechanics of the human cell can function; the blank framework in which to mount the cogs. The resultant ‘cell’ is to them no different from the other cells on which they work, because all these cells they see down their microscopes are the same Lego bricks, the same clockwork contraptions.

I wonder if the scientists are actually able to understand the opposition from the Catholic bishops and others? Most of the reporting I have heard over the weekend suggests that those questioned simply think the issue is of a lack of appropriate education on the part of the bishops: if the science was only properly explained to them then they couldn’t possibly object so vociferously…

To me, this shows a fundamental inability to grasp the basis of the disagreement. I really don’t believe that those bishops that have spoken out have failed to understand the situation. I think they understand the science perfectly (or at least, as perfectly as any laymen can). It seems to me that it is those scientists that have been in the news that have the lack of understanding, because they have quite evidently failed to comprehend the basis of their opponents position.

If you look at a bundle of cells down a microscope and see them as devoid of life (in a meaningful, rather than technical sense), then there are going to be few manipulations of those cells that you would object to on a moral basis. In fact, it would be quite hard for you to connect that small bundle of cells with the concept of morals at all. If you look down that microscope and see something greater than the sum of the parts, see some however-distant reflection of yourself, then you are going to believe quite strongly that there needs to be a moral basis to working with such cells; that there are possible manipulations that should not be permitted.

While there have been many in the news who have criticised the bishops position, it is the voices of the scientists that I have heard that I feel I must criticise. Gentlemen, please lift your gaze up from your microscopes, rub your eyes, and try and understand the world around you. There are many, religious and non, in our society who have great qualms with the work that you do, because they fail to separate themselves from the small bundles of cells you work with as fully as you do. Please try to understand that, before you dismiss the objections of your detractors.

Taking the Pledge

Anyone from across the pond will be fully familiar with the idea of a pledge of allegiance, an oath of agreement and support with the values of a country. In the States schoolchildren pledge allegiance ‘to the flag of the United States…’ Well, Lord Goldsmith, former UK attorney general and Tony Blair’s right hand man has suggested that such a thing might be a good idea for over here too.

Oh, this is wrong on so many levels…

Aside from the ridiculous notion that we should take pointers on what makes a citizen from America, who suggests that anyone would be more committed to the UK simply by saying a few words? The planned pledge will be in allegiance to the Queen. Now I have no problem with the Queen, I think she’s great and long may she continue to live happily in the house at the end of The Mall, but what about this countries long history of quiet republicanism? Isn’t that British? I mean, the vast majority of Labour MP’s are republicans for crying out loud!

OK, I’m going to leave the political rant there, because my main concern is actually a religious one. Pledges of allegiance, whatever their form and whoever or whatever they are to, are fundamentally un-Christian. To require schoolchildren to take an oath (something they can’t possibly fully understand) is to infringe their freedom of religion.

Christians call Jesus Lord. Now, that is a statement that doesn’t translate well into modern English, because the only people we call Lord now are ceremonial figures like Lord Goldsmith. Shane Claiborne has a better suggestion that helps us to understand the point. He says we should call Jesus President.

The declaration of Jesus as Lord (or as President) is a recognition of Him as the fundamental authority in our lives. It is to Him and Him alone that we ‘pledge our allegiance’. That declaration is fundamentally a political act, which is why the Romans killed so many Christians in the first 4 centuries: because the Christians were allied to a higher authority than Rome. They recognised Jesus over the Emperor.

I believe that Christians cannot pledge allegiance to a flag, or a Queen or a President, to a nation or a republic or a people group. Because Jesus Himself said that we cannot serve two masters.

That doesn’t mean we cannot serve peacefully under the authority of a state, or a citizens of a nation. But it does mean that we cannot take an oath to pledge allegiance to that nation, because our allegiance is elsewhere.

Throughout the last 2000 years Christians of many nationalities have had to take a stand for their beliefs over and above the politics and policies of their nation. Many, many have died because of that decision. Some of the worst excesses in Christian history, the stuff that has given us a bad name, has occurred when we have not been able to do that, when national interests, politics and ideologies have got in the way.

The Queen is great. Britain is great, and I am proud to be a citizen of this nation. But I am unable to pledge allegiance to either queen or country, because I am allied to ideals that go beyond such boundaries. And I believe that there are many, of my faith, of other faith and of none, that would be similarly unable.

Ditch the idea Gordo; its daft.

10 Predictions for 2008

OK, these aren’t really that serious, but I thought I’d have a go… 10 predictions for things that might just happen in 2008. Some are more plausible than others; none of them should be used to elevate me to a position of sage or futurologist (unless they all come true!)

  1. The American presidential election race will comprise at least 50% of all international news on TV and radio in the UK this year.
  2. This will be despite the fact that violent political instability will continue in Kenya, Pakistan, Burma (Myanmar) and (eventually) Zimbabwe…
  3. Gordon Brown (UK Prime Minister) will look increasingly incompetent and will continue to wobble precariously in the poles, especially as his collection of neophytes cabinet ministers will continue to be inexperienced, anonymous and ignorant of basic law (like data protection).
  4. The Conservatives will capitalise on this instability, without ever actually looking electable (never mind a plausible alternative government). Dave Cameron will continue in cheeky-chapy status; no one will know who the other guy is…
  5. An utterly disproportionate amount of media attention will be given to every product released by a small California-based technology firm named after a piece of fruit. Carla Harding will blog about her lusting for each new item.
  6. Capitalising on the moves of mobile phone companies towards IP-based infrastructure, the mighty Google will continue its move towards total control of the whole world by releasing a mobile phone that can operate across all networks simultaneously. Everyone will want one.
  7. Technology pundits and Google staffers will say that this finally “[makes] the mobile internet work properly for the first time
  8. The Anglican Church worldwide will spend the whole year talking about gay bishops (ok, occasionally about women bishops), continuing to reinforce the media’s perception that Christians are totally obsessed with sex. They will end the 2008 Lambeth Conference by utterly failing to resolve the issue, proving yet again that their greatest weakness is their greatest strength*.
  9. The phrase Emerging Church will only be used by people who are attacking it, allowing the good work of individual churches to continue under the radar, while really confusing irate Reformed Evangelicals.
  10. Towards the end of the year, I will finally get round to buying a laptop, after talking about doing so for more than 2 years. It will probably have a piece of fruit on the front…

* They never actually make a decision on divisive issues, meaning that people with utterly opposing opinions can (somewhat) successfully coexist.

Gutless Gordon

So after tons and tons of speculation, media hype, and plenty of comment from ministers, it looked by Friday morning that we were certain to have an election in the next month…

and then Gordon saw the polls.

The press are having a field-day, which they quite deserve. It hasn’t been the political writers driving the speculation of the last couple of weeks, it had been the Labour party. I cannot believe quite how spineless our current Prime Minister seems to be. This is going to do huge damage to his political reputation, proving that he doesn’t have the instinct of his predecessor. And, in my eyes, it shows him as unfit to govern…

…if only the other guy was up to scratch…