Don’t dare quote the “abomination”

I’m truly saddened by how orthodox Christians beliefs are being subjected to all-out assault by those in positions of authority.

You may have heard in the news this week about Australian Rugby player, Israel Folau, almost certain to be sacked by his club and country for saying “hell awaits drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists and idolators” — adding they should “repent” as “only Jesus saves.”

Of course, outlets such as the BBC only focused on one small section of people that stand condemned by the warnings of Scripture “gay people”.  Fornicators, incidentally, is anyone who has sex outside traditional, male-female marriage but somehow the reality of what the Bible says is lost in the caricature.

An English rugby player, Billy Vunipola, defends Folau’s stance, calling for people to “live their lives how God intended” and saying “man was made for woman to procreate”.  He will be spoken to at the earliest possible opportunity by his rugby bosses for what is seen as utterly indefensible.  Whatever happened to free speech and religious liberty?

Away from sport, a student social worker is on the verge of being completely expelled from his profession for arguing what the Bible clearly teaches – that homosexuality is a sin.  Apparently, according to the case for the prosecution, Mother Theresa would not be deemed fit to practise social work in modern Britain.

To be clear, “Counsel for the University of Sheffield said that Christian views on sexual morality could never be expressed in a public forum, at a meeting, in a newspaper article or on any social media. She said that the social work profession would need to consider whether such speech may be permissible in a church or Bible study group, but that was a decision for a later date – the implication being that such views will not be permissible even within the walls of a church.”

Lord Jesus, we lift up this tragedy to you.  We pray for our courts, our politicians and our nation to see that Christians must be free to express what your word clearly teaches.  Lord, we tremble for our society if they choose to persecute your Body, the Church, if they opt to silence the voice of truth.  We pray that they would see the Light and repent of their addiction to darkness, to shades of grey and despicable deeds.  Lord, may the abomination that causes desolation be cast out of your holy temples and may truth, righteousness and justice reign.  Have mercy, Lord Jesus, on sheep who are straying and sleepwalking into destruction.  Awaken them from their slumbers and lead them in the Way of life.

Just consider for a moment – we as Christians sincerely believe what the Bible teaches, most importantly that salvation is found in Christ Jesus alone.  We would betray our conscience if we kept quiet about all the things that we are certain lead to eternity without God, a punishment that far outweighs anything the courts of this world can mete out.  Crucifying Jesus and his disciples, or throwing them to the lions could not stop the spread of this revolution over the last 2000 years.  Is this a fight a society bitterly divided by Brexit, social deprivation and myriad disunities really wants to pick?

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Revoke Article 50

Democracy is a beautiful gift.  About 3.822 million at time of writing have signed a petition “Revoke Article 50” and keep Britain in the European Union.  As the clock ticks down to a new Departure Day of 12th April, all those who believe that:

a) the 2016 Referendum was fundamentally flawed, dominated by spurious claims, false promises and Russian propaganda

b) the Brexit negotiations and Parliamentary process towards Leaving have been even worse than anybody feared, involving near-meltdown of our Parliament and a huge pile-up of issues that desperately needed resolved but for which there is no time amidst the shenanigans of “May’s deal or no deal or…”

c) “the people” have a right to change their minds – you cannot use one faulty plebiscite from nearly three years ago as carte blanche for the dog’s breakfast that has become Brexit.

d) we must find ways to make our voices heard and this petition represents a brilliant opportunity to show the strength of feeling, the earnest and sincere desire that exists across this country, to end this madness and Remain in the EU.

If not now, when? We’ve watched the politicians make such a hash of Leaving but maybe the 2016 Referendum set them up for failure.  Can you just walk away from decades of shared history and deepening integration between our economies and societies?  Did anyone clearly explain how preserving peace in Northern Ireland would lead to an indefinite backstop that seems to please no-one?

You know, one of my big regrets was not saying enough before the Brexit vote, assuming that the majority would be able to see what was clear to me that one country negotiating with a bloc of 27 would be fiendishly complex.  I thought the logic was inescapable but now I realise more than ever that we must fight against what are dangerous delusions.

Surely now we know much more and it’s time to unite and plead with our politicians to do what is best for our whole nation – from Belfast to London, Kirkwall to Penzance. Please sign the petition and do whatever you can to stop this madness: https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/241584.  Imagine if 17 million signed this petition – our MPs could definitely not ignore that mother of all messages!

Fixing Facebook?

It’s been a little over a year since Mark Zuckerberg announced his focus for the year was to “fix Facebook”.  Apparently, this mission will take 36 months to achieve that target.

Whilst I believe much of the many anti-Facebook pundits are very biased and the politicians who jump on the bandwagon just love to find a scapegoat to distract from there failure, there is one key issue.  You cannot fix Facebook because the problem is ultimately how the human beings use the tools technology offers.  As long as hearts are hardened against love and minds closed to truth, there will always be outbursts of hatred and malice.  Too many people worship technology as a panacea and fail to appreciate the limitations of even the best app or coolest gadget.

In terms of Facebook, you can and should keep improving the code to encourage better behaviour and remove dangerous content more promptly.  Governments can introduce sensible but realistic regulations, just as the European Union devised emissions targets for reducing pollution from cars, which gradually are becoming tougher over the course of time.  Yet we must all accept that there will always be issues and posts that slip through the net (generally because individuals actively are working to “game” the system and find the loophole).

What a tragedy if we destroy a new technology with amazing potential simply because we are unable to manage the inevitable downsides and dangers.

Brexit – here we go again

Sadly, no-one seemed to read my previous thoughts on how to break the Brexit log-jam.  I can understand the reluctance of MPs to countenance another referendum on the issue – yes, it is more delay and has the potential to turn tumultuous. However, given last night’s astonishing events where May’s deal was voted down by a historic margin of 230 votes, Parliament needs to seek a fresh mandate from the people to deal with this monumental issue.

In effect, MPs should “test the will” of the people and confirm if they really want to leave the EU on the only feasible terms – May’s painstakingly negotiated deal. Personally, I believe they will reject this Brexit but, even if they say vote to Leave again, at least we can all unite behind that and our MPs will have no excuse to vote it down. It’s surely the only way out of this deadlock.

This is not a second referendum per se because we would actually know exactly what we are voting for (or against!). Of course, maybe some sort of deal will emerge that commands a majority in the House of Commons but that seems highly unlikely. That means it’s either a General Election (which would be folly – would the result really be that much different?) or a fresh referendum on the EU.  I also think that this could establish a positive precedent whereby major constitutional changes – such as Scottish independence – cannot be decided on the basis of one referendum. Such upheavals should be only allowed based on a confirmatory ballot once the full terms of the deal are known.

To be honest, if I was in Parliament, I would have voted for May’s deal as a way out of the log-jam. However, if as is frequently stated by May it is that or “no deal” or “no Brexit”, then she should have the courage to go to the country and put that choice to us, given the huge ramifications. Brexit has sucked so much energy from fixing our public services, leading to a host of problems piling-up in the governmental in-tray. Do we really want to be responsible for “lost generation” where all political energies are consumed by this incredibly complex issue?

We have seen that the EU is more concerned with protecting the unity of the 27 and making Britain pay a price for trying to Leave, which from their point of view makes sense. Is the UK really ready to endure that suffering – job losses, reduced prosperity, public services slashed further – for a poorly-understood point of principle about sovereignty? Given that Leavers promised us we could “have our cake and eat it” and that we would frolic in “sunlit uplands”, no MP can make that assumption. A referendum would establish exactly how committed the people who will be most impacted by Brexit really feel about this whole project.

Breaking the Brexit-jam

Whilst many are quick to mock those who offer only “thoughts and prayers” when another tragedy unfolds, I believe they deride what they do not understand and dismiss the one weapon that has won countless seemingly impossible battles.

The apostle Paul urges us to offer-up “petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving” for “all people” with his first specific example being “those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.” (1 Timothy 2:1-2)

As we survey the seething mess that is Brexit and Westminster at the moment, all I can offer is prayer: may the LORD God Almighty guide our politicians to a way forward that is just, beneficial for everyone and promotes peace across our nation.  May our MPs be given grace and wisdom to work together, putting aside petty rivalries and sacrificing egos for the sake of our society.  May Westminster serve as an example of how democracy and compromise can break an impasse.  May Britain be able to move forward together and focus on fixing the numerous problems that blight communities.  O Lord Jesus please have mercy on the United Kingdom, rescuing us from crisis and leading us to a place of stability and positive relationships with our neighbours.

I was encouraged to read recently of Franklin D. Roosevelt‘s words to the American public on D-Day, the invasion of continental Europe to overthrow Nazi tyranny: “because the road is long and the desire is great, I ask that our people devote themselves in a continuance of prayer. As we rise to each new day, and again when each day is spent, let words of prayer be on our lips, invoking Thy help to our efforts.”  

Many people today look back at the heroism of our ancestors, wondering how their towering achievements were made possible.  Surely, the answer must be their faith in the One and Only LORD God Almighty and their earnest prayers for His blessing.

Of course, Brexit is very different from D-Day but I’m struck by that call to prayer from the leader of a great country, just as I was to hear of the Bishops of the Church of England releasing this statement: “In the light of this week’s turbulent events, the bishops of the Church of England pray for national unity – and courage, integrity and clarity for our politicians…”  Amen.

Lord Jesus, please help our political representatives to agree the best possible way forward, so we can live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.  I thank you that you are able to do “immeasurably more than all we can ask or imagine” (Ephesian 3:20).  I trust that you will deliver us.

Next steps for Brexit?

This is the perplexing question of our time and I would like to offer some thoughts on the subject.

1) To claim that the UK should not be permitted a second referendum because the will of the people was clearly expressed in June 2016 is just plain wrong.  We know that the Leave campaign was riddled with dodgy claims, such as the ludicrously misleading £350 million per week claim that (as of 29th September 2018) apparently 42% of the British public still believed!  There is also the issue of Russian influence and interference, which is repeatedly swept under the carpet but must have been significant with such a close referendum result.

Most significantly, the 52% did not know exactly what they were voting for and were promised dazzling, bright “sunlit uplands“, a land flowing with the milk and honey of freedom from constraints and a trade bonanza.  Just take a look at these claims, which have been exposed as utterly hollow.

So, that’s why we should have another vote to confirm the will of the people.  We can clearly see now how complicated and costly untangling ourselves from the EU will be.  In terms of the price paid, please note that already we have lost the equivalent of £500 million per week due to the decision made on 26th June 2016 and our actions since.  Government forecasts suggest that the UK economy would be 9.3% smaller under a “no deal” best case scenario after 15 years, than if we stayed in the EU.  Surely, very few people voted to be poorer and those who did were certainly not considering the interests of those are most vulnerable in our society and subsist on the breadline.

2) Nevertheless, I can see the merits to accept May’s Brexit deal for now, working towards “near-frictionless trade” with the EU and keeping the “Norway-style” option as a “Plan B” if a bespoke arrangement does not emerge from the negotiations.  There are clear benefits to leaving the EU in terms of fishing and agriculture, which are hardly being mentioned at the moment but are important to many communities across the UK.

We have probably lost so much already in terms of EU agencies and bank HQs that have relocated away from the EU, maybe we should persist on a sensible, gradual uncoupling from Brussels and pursue the opportunities this bring, whilst seeking to maintain as much of our trading relationship as possible.  I can see that a second referendum would be very disruptive, though if Parliament is deadlocked then that will become the best way out of the impasse.

Mind you, how much of the current Westminster inertia is based on lack of an overall majority for any one party and what chance is there of a General Election delivering a more decisive, satisfactory result?  There is also some doubt about whether the UK can unilaterally revoke Article 50 and easily maintain our current EU membership.  Moreover, if there the first referendum result was reversed, would too many people feel betrayed and disillusioned by British politics, sowing the seeds of future discord.  Yet again, we can see the merits of May’s Brexit deal and only wish that she was better able to sell this across party lines…

3) Whatever happens, we must learn from this shambles.  Referendums are complex, emotive and divisive.  They do not solve issues but simply unleash mayhem.  They are a distraction from the serious and important business of government.  Think of how much could have been accomplished in the last 30 months if we were not so distracted by Brexit.  Is the price of a spurious vision, “Britannia Unchained”, truly worth the uncertainty and chaos.

The case of the much-maligned Samaritan’s Purse

Why do people trust the truth so little that they feel the need to distort the facts in order to “win” a case or promote their agenda? Case in point is Toynbee’s broadside entitled “This Christmas, beware evangelical Christians bearing gifts”. Admittedly the headline was quite intriguing but the argument was frustratingly flimsy.

Firstly, why does it matter that Samaritan’s Purse has a monthly income of £16 million? Don’t you think every single penny is being used to promote the charity’s aims and objectives? Oxfam, recently rocked by a child abuse scandal, still managed to accrue a monthly income of £34.5 million (2017).

Secondly, wouldn’t Christians be abject hypocrites if we just doled out goodies and said nothing about our reason for doing so? We believe our Lord Jesus Christ’s ultimate act of grace — leaving the glories of heaven to enter the cesspit of earth for the sake of our salvation — is the greatest possible motivation for any human being to show love. In fact, why should humanists even bother to be charitable if they believe this life, so scarred by suffering, irrationality and unfairness, is all there is?

As we know the source of grace and truth, we are obligated and motivated to share this treasure. There’s no point in talking about love without also displaying kindness. Individuals and communities have physical and spiritual needs — Samaritan’s Purse aims to meet both, but recognises that what makes Christian charity unique is Christ Jesus the One who created us to care.

Thirdly, why would we not send boxes to the most needy people who, yes, live in Muslim countries? The sad fact is the West is woefully under-informed about Islam — please take time to read-up on what the Koran actually says and how this directly influences the beliefs and behaviours of millions.

For example, although Muhammad did not envisage modern terrorism, some of his instructions and actions can be used to justify such. For example, Q 8:12: I will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieved, so strike [them] upon the necks and strike from them every fingertip.

Islamic tradition (namely the hadith, which is said to record Muhammad’s sayings) also justifies spreading fear: “I have been made victorious with terror.” (Bukhari 4.52.220)

Just look at the desperate plight of Asia Bibi in Pakistan where mobs are baying for her blood after she was accused of maligning Muhammad.  Despite that country’s highest court ruling that she is “innocent”, she is in hiding and refused asylum by a UK government that appear desperate to avoid a violent Islamic backlash.  How can anyone objective seriously give any credence to the claim that this is a “religion of peace” when its followers direct so much animosity against those who refuse to “submit” to Allah’s rule?

Now listen to Jesus: “love your enemies” and “pray for those who persecute you” — statements found nowhere in the teaching of Islam. Jesus never killed anyone, and criticised Peter for taking up a sword in his defence. Instead of killing and maiming, the Messiah healed people and even raised some from the dead.

Truthfully, we do a grave disservice if we only pack a shoebox, or send-off a tenner for “Children in Need”. Surely, everyone deserves to know the reason for the hope that we have.

In following-up Toynbee’s hyperlinks, I noted that the origins of this article seem to be from a website, “Wales Online“.  You can see again the misrepresentation: the author claims to present the case “for and against”, implying a degree of objectivity, but nearly every point is very much antagonistic, concluding with a link for a letter template to write to schools demanding they reconsider their support of Samaritan’s Purse. What a travesty. “Bah humbug” Scrooge would be proud of such efforts but who does the Humanist Society’s invective really help?

Rather than the legal eagle who walked by on the other side of the road, I’d rather be the compassionate Samaritan, getting stuck in to assist the man badly injured at the side of the road and share the Good News of great joy.

“Austerity isn’t over” – but you should at least get your facts right

Long-standing Guardian journalist and commentator Polly Toynbee just wrote an article that encapsulates why mainstream media have such a trust deficit.  To be fair, I actually agree with many of her central propositions about the damage radical Tory cuts have wrought on our social fabric but that’s no excuse for such a serious misunderstanding of the Resolution Foundation‘s figures, on which she bases her latest broadside against the government.

She fails to grasp the reality of the cuts to various government departments as a result of austerity.  All the figures Toynbee quotes, such as “Local authorities face another 57% cut in grant”, are actually “real-terms per capita RDEL cuts between 2009-10 and 2023-24”.  It is woefully inaccurate to portray these as a further, majorly worrying reductions – i.e. “a walloping cut in subsidy [for Transport and railways], presumably a gap that will be filled with fare rises.”

In a different misreading, Toynbee writes that Gavin Williamson’s “Ministry of Defence” gets a 12% cut when, in fact, the Budget marks an increase and improvement.  Yes, of course, we will not somehow be able to magically return to spending levels that could be expected if there was never a financial crash (a crisis that happened on Labour’s watch). The way these figures are repeatedly misrepresented as “ANOTHER” cut, in addition to everything that has gone before, is deeply disingenuous.

Yes, commentators are right to point out that the government still plans to make spending cuts in certain departments but Toynbee’s economic illiteracy is deeply alarming and incomprehensible for a media organisation that proudly boasts “Facts are sacred”.  If the Daily Mail or Donald Trump was bandying around similar figures in such a misleading way, they would be the first to complain and shine a light to embarrass them into a correction, so I hope they will act accordingly to sort out their own “fake news” problem.  I wrote to the Guardian’s editor earlier today and I sincerely hope that this news outlet, which has many great features, fixes this issue soon.

MPs are not exempt from austerity

The proposals to cut the UK Parliament down in size from 650 to 600 MPs must not be abandoned.  Money has already been spent painstakingly redrawing the constituency boundaries so they are each of a similar size.  In the long term, this change would reduce costs (an expected £12.2 million saving) and why should MPs be exempt from austerity?  If the police have to tackle rising levels of crime with fewer officers, is there any justification for Labour and The Guardian’s arguments against the reform?

Yes, of course, I would like to see a more comprehensive electoral revolution with no wasted votes or safe seats but don’t let the best become an enemy of the good.  This re-adjustment has been completed fairly and impartially, so if (as predicted) Labour would lose out, they should be thinking how to appeal to a much broader range of voters, not bemoaning their lot.

There is only seating capacity in the House of Commons for 427 MPs, so even with the proposed reductions we will still have a packed Parliament.  Opponents argue that 23% of MPs will have some sort of government position and be dependent on patronage but Parliament could easily introduce a measure to limit how many of its members can work with the executive branch.  This could be tabled as an amendment to the bill, a condition for cross-party support.

There is no excuse for MPs to duck out of the unpleasant but necessary task that is cutting down Parliament to size.  This is a chance to actually make change happen, so please lobby your MP and make sure they don’t duck out.

A SMART teaching assistant

Technology should be all about enhancing what human beings can offer, not replacing them. As I am about to start another academic year as a lecturer, I wish the astonishing developments in voice recognition and artificial intelligence would be applied to the classroom.

Imagine a smart assistant for teachers that works around the slides you have already prepared. The app, which would hopefully interface with the likes of PowerPoint and Prezi, listens to what you are saying and brings up slides, as well as wider information from the Internet, as appropriate.

Behind the scenes, this technology could record and summarise key points of what was discussed, which are then presented to the teacher for review and upload to the school or College’s Virtual Learning Environment.

This sort of system would enable more dynamic and learning-focused lessons, following the needs of students, rather than the predetermined teacher script. There are so many times in a lesson when I wish it was easier to follow spontaneous lines of enquiry or even just change the order of what is covered, based on where the learners currently are. Such tangents or re-routes could be seamlessly incorporated into teaching, if the tech gurus focused on this issue, rather than silly distractions like Juicero or Washboard.