On responding to tragedy

Fig tree

This is my sermon for this coming Sunday, in case anyone wants to pinch it – or bits from it.

It’s based on the Gospel reading Luke 13:1-9. Jesus responds to a couple of tragedies with some pertinent comments and a story about a fig tree.

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Mass shootings: how to respond?

Yet another mass shooting. We used to think they were unique to the USA. Now they can happen anywhere. Why?

And how should we respond? Do our public responses only make things worse?

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Are we civilised? Should we be?

There should be no snot on the nostrils… A peasant wipes his nose on his cap and coat, a sausage maker on his arm and elbow. It does not show much more propriety to use one’s hand and then wipe it on one’s clothing. It is more decent to take up the snot in a cloth, preferably while turning away. If when blowing the nose with two fingers something falls to the ground, it must be immediately trodden away with the foot. The same applies to spittle.

Thus Norbert Elias’ The Civilizing Process summarises some instructions in Erasmus’ 1530 publication On Civility in Boys. This post compares The Civilizing Process with Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature to ask: are we civilised, and is civilisation what we want?

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Climate Strike and spiritual values

Today’s youthful Climate Strike shows the immense gap between what young people are concerned about and what governments are doing. It is as though governments – not just ours, but most of the ones most responsible – are simply failing to address the urgency of the situation as described by the world’s climate scientists.

Children holding Climate Strike banner

This post asks about the role of spiritual values. There has been a great deal of Christian literature arguing that Christians should be concerned about the environment. But should Christian concern be any different from everybody else’s concern?

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Why do we make each other so ill by polluting the air?

Air pollution is ‘ the new tobacco‘, said the World Health Authority a short time ago: ‘the simple act of breathing is killing 7 million people a year and harming billions more’. It now affects over 90% of the world’s population.

Now the Guardian has just published an excellent article about the damage we are doing to children. A reporter attended a consultation at the Royal London Hospital. For the children there, air pollution is linked to heart disease, dementia, reduced cognitive ability and asthma deaths. A growing number of people are considering moving house, or school, or even country because of it. This post asks why we are doing it.

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Fake news, democracy and the real world

Cartoon of Donald Trump reading

How much fake news is there? And how much does it matter?

In Britain the concerns usually focus on Brexit: which side told how many lies, how many people believed them, whether they are bringing disaster. In the USA everything is on a much bigger scale.

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Can evangelicals evangelise?

Miranda Threlfall-Holmes

There is an excellent article on liberal evangelism by Miranda Threlfall-Holmes in Friday’s Church Times.

She is organising a day conference on the topic for Saturday 2nd February: if you’re interested book here.

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Would you fancy crossing the Channel in one of those boats?

Seize the migrant boats in Calais, screams the Mail on Sunday in block capitals that fill most of the front page, after telling us that Britain’s Armed Forces ‘stand ready’ to stop migrants from crossing the English Channel.

As I write this, most newspapers have had plenty to say about Members of Parliament wanting the Royal Navy to prevent migrants reaching the UK.

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The meaning of the Magnificat

The Magnificat has been set to so much beautiful music that it’s easy to ignore what it says.

It’s part Luke’s story of the birth of Jesus. We love its gooey sentimentalism. We imagine it happening exactly as he described. This post is about what Luke meant, the point he was making. The Magnificat was his way of saying ‘This is what Jesus was about. This is what Christianity is about’. This post defends the Christian record in these terms.

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70 years on, do we still believe in human rights?

Hands expressing human rights. Source: skepticalscience.com

This Monday is the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It was a great achievement. Nobody publicly disapproves of human rights. They are too important.

But as soon as we ask what these things are, we get into trouble. Nobody has seen them. Do they really exist? Or are they, as Jeremy Bentham argued, ‘nonsense on stilts’? Positive rights are easily recognised: buy a bus ticket, have a right to ride on the bus. The right is granted by a known authority. Human rights, on the other hand, are a type of natural rights, and appeal beyond all human authorities. To what?

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