Saturday, 31 January 2009

The Truth of Reconciliation

In the aftermath of the Eames-Bradley report* and the controversial £12,000 'recognition payment' Denis Murray talks to Andrew Neil on This Week. Watch the video here

There are some interesting points raised. Around 2 minutes in Denis Murray states,
Some clergymen in Northern Ireland . . . say that I can offer you forgiveness,
but that doesn't mean anything unless you express regret
Is forgiveness conditional? Do we offer it on the grounds that
someone is sorry? That's probably our default way of doing things. Who forgives his wife for cheating on him if she doesn't express regret, and sorrow for the pain caused? Yet Jesus, radical as ever, wants us to forgive unconditionally. He is quoted as saying;
And whenever you stand praying, if you have anything against anyone, forgive
him, that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses
There is no clause. No conditions. No small print. If you hold a grudge, if someone has wronged you, forgive them. There is no hierarchy of sin mentioned, no one sin to great to offer forgiveness for. We should not wait for someone to express regret before we offer them forgiveness. Yet it is true, that we can offer it and they may not accept it. They may feel small because we have offered something they cannot fathom and refuse out of disbelief or mistrust. They may simply have no remorse whatsoever. But we are called to forgive.

And Jesus knows a thing or two about forgiveness. He offered the ultimate forgiveness of sin. He offers forgiveness for all our sins, through his death and resurrection. And he can offer it, but it won't mean anything in our lives unless we recognise our need for it, continually, acknowledging that we need to be forgiven for our disobedience against our perfect creator.



Another thing to note is Michael Portillo, 5 minutes in. He says this:

The thing that would most interest me for the future ... will be whether
education is now going to be inter-communal, whether Catholics and Protestants
are going to go to the same schools ... If that's not happening, then that's a
very serious problem
This is a statement I agree with wholeheartedly. Would we not rightly say America was stuck with its past if black children and white children went to different schools? For Northern Ireland to rid itself completely of sectarianism, the education system must be overhauled. I'm not calling for greater promotion of integrated education, I'm calling for an abolishment of segregated education. Segregated education allows for one version of history to be taught to pupils of one background. It means our children will grow up with the mindsets of their parents and their grandparents. It means another conflict will never be far away from the surface, as long as we keep the 'other side' anonymous. How can you hate Catholics if you're friends with one? How can you loathe Protestants if you play football every lunchtime with them? But if you wait until you're 16,18 and in a working environment, or third level education before you interact with people of the 'other side', then by that time you may well have a deep rooted sectarian mindset. It is imperative that with EU money being directed to Eastern Europe thus reducing cross community schools projects funding, that we address our Education problem immediately, and pave the way for the next generation.

*You can read the 192 page Eames-Bradley report here

Friday, 30 January 2009

Nazis, Numpties and the National Trust

Who'd have thought it? Doing a bit of reading around some different bits on Northern Ireland in the lead up to the Second World War, and came across something I'd never known before - Joachim Von Ribbentrop (Hitler's foreign minister) was hosted at a reception by Lord Londonderry in Mount Stewart in 1930s. Not only that, but the numpty tried to invite Herr Goering to the Coronation in 1937.

So next time you're down at Mount Stewart, keep an eye out for the little statue of a stormtrooper that stands there as a diplomatic gift

£12,000 the value of a life?

So, there is quite a ruckus going on at the minute over the head of the Eames-Bradley report, which among other things has called for families of all those killed during the troubles to be given £12,000. Frankly I find the whole 'recognition payments' thing rather foolish. It has overshadowed other good ideas that come out of the report completely. It has opened up wounds of pain that it seeks to heal, as many families feel bitter at the 'one size fits all approach' (e.g. The families of the nine people killed in the Shankill Road bomb will receive the same amount as the family of Thomas Begley, who died carrying out the attack when the bomb exploded prematurely). And it also attempts to put a price on life. Is £12,000 too much? Is it not enough? Is money really the compensation that these grieving families want?

Apparently the monetary value of the minerals and skin that compose our bodies amounts to around £3.00. Now that seems a petty amount, and a price that completely devalues me as a person. So £12,000? It's a considerable amount more, it's a yearly wage, but I still think I'm worth more than that. Ask any of those families who lost a loved one during the troubles if they would pay £12,000 to have them back, and they would in an instant. Life does not have a monetary value.

The Bible tells us in the book of Genesis that we are created in God's own image. If God who made the vastness of the universe, saw fit to create me in his image, as a being who loves relationships, who laughs, who cries, who feels love and pain, then surely that gives me much greater worth than any monetary valuation?

Thursday, 29 January 2009

Free things No.2 - Couchsurfing

I was away last week in Spain visiting a friend, but I also made the most of my time away to do a bit of couchsurfing. It's not some wacky water sport, but rather a means of experiencing and sharing hospitality and culture. I've been doing CouchSurfing for over two years. The first time I tried it was when I was off to Germany for the World Cup, and I used a similar project, Hospitality Club, to stay with some random Germans in the cities I was travelling in. Although my primary selfish aim was simply free accommodation, I was completely taken aback by the rich conversation I was drenched in, and the wonderful people that I was able to meet. I know that had I stayed in a hostel, I would have met all the usual tourists from everywhere except Germany, and gone to all the usual tourist places, so to be able to meet people who knew and loved their city and wanted to show off their side of it was a wonderful experience.

Since then I have hosted 43 people in my home on the North Coast. I had a hitchhiker from Finland, an American couple and their 9 month old baby, a film crew from Canada, two Swedish girls, a French girl travelling with her Grandfather amongst others. I've met some wonderful people, and had some great times. I've also used it myself some more too. I've stayed with a young unicycling family in Liechtenstein, a Tube driver in London, and a Scrabble player in Ballycastle. Last October I took my Dad couchsurfing in Krakow, and last week I stayed with a wonderful man, Ivan, in his home in Cadiz while in Faro I slept in Bruno's house (right) which is right beside the sea.

There'll be the usual won't you get raped/mugged/murdered questions that I'm used to, but the system is based on community trust provided through references and vouches.

I highly recommend it, as a means of meeting varied and fascinating people, and enjoying the richness of culture and diversity.

Sunday, 18 January 2009

Free things No.1 - Free Hugs

A video to make the dullest day bright

Free Hugs

Saturday, 17 January 2009

Spheres of Influence

Thursday night was the East Londonderry Association of the Alliance Party's AGM. I went last year shortly after I joined the party; it being my first taste of things to be, and seemingly the first taste of youth the Association had seen in many a year - As I sat waiting for it to begin, a little lady scurried up to me and asked if I was from the Press! Having been slightly involved over the past year, I went again, roping in some friends to come too. Rach, Richard, Callum, Ashleigh and Pete were the talk of the evening! Constant references to all these young people who turned up. I could hear wee old women chatting in the balance tone* about who these people were and wondering where they came from. I thought the evening itself was reasonably interesting. There was the usual reports and re-nominations (which saw a red faced Pete fighting off attempts to have him elected to various posts and yours truly become the Publicity Secretary, whatever that may be). Ian Parsley (pictured, North Down Deputy Mayor and Party Policy Spokesperson) spoke about all things central, and what the Party is doing and is looking to be doing in the year ahead, on cutting down on the cost of segregation, improving the economy and furthering sustainability efforts.

Whilst I thought the evening was interesting, I wasn't expecting my friends to have had a good time. Yet surprisingly they did. And I think that seems to come down the lure of influence. Whilst the Association might be just a bunch of old fogies, they are people campaigning to make a difference and - through local councillor Barney Fitzpatrick and Party Central - they are. And I thought back to last year's AGM where I grasped that. I realised in me a desire to be involved in spheres of influence, be that in local politics, lobbying, journalism or outher outlets.


*The Balance tone - A volume old women have perfected whereby speaking quietly enough so that it's a private conversation yet speaking loudly enough so the person you're talking to can hear, thus making the conversation public. Perfected during church services when talking about the preacher

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Defiance - A film about Leadership


Released last Friday, Edward Zwick's film Defiance (trailer here) is the latest in an ever lengthening line of films depicting different aspects of life during the Second World War. The film is an adaptation of Nechama Tec's book Defiance: The Bielski Partisans. Set in Belorussia, it focuses on four Jewish brothers who have escaped from their village where the local authorities handed all Jews over to the Nazis, shooting their parents in the process. The brothers hide in the woods, that they know so well from their youth where they would hide from the police, often wanted for smuggling. As the eldest, Tuvia (Daniel Craig) assumes natural leadership of his brothers, but soon there are more joining them. Aron the youngest goes wandering off and discovers other Jews hiding in the forest and brings them back to his brothers. Tuvia calls for the old man to lay his sick child down, while the reflex of Zus, the second oldest, is to lift his gun in suspicion. Zus (Liev Schreiber) is not impressed at these extra mouths, and sends Tuvia to get food while he waits with Aron and the other brother, Asael.

Tuvia returns with food, a pistol, and more Jews - including his old teacher - who he met while hiding in the barn of Jewish sympathiser, Koscik. As the camp grows, so does their reliance on the brothers and in particular Tuvia who becomes defacto commander. The Bielski Otriad grows in reputation and more Jews come, Tuvia and Asael even going on a mission to the nearby ghetto to bring as many out as they can which leads to Zus mockingly calling him 'Moses'.

In the early part of the film Tuvia's leadership goes unchallenged. It is he who has rescued these people from the Nazis, and has organised food missions to feed them, giving compassionate orders to "take from those who can afford to give, and leave alone those who can't". When the camp is discovered by local collaborators, it is Tuvia who is quick to point and yell instructions and directions, differentiating in the spur of the moment between those who need to run, and those who need to stay and fight. He is a good delegator in the midst of chaos.
Zus begins to doubt Tuvia's direction as he sees more mouths and less food in the camp. He claims that "they only follow you because they are too weak and afraid for themselves." A fight ensues and Zus leaves with some of the best men to join the Russian Partisans.

As Zus and Tuvia fight, it is Asael who steps in from amongst the crowd, shouting for his oldest brother to stop as he holds a rock in his hand ready to crush Zus. This is the first glimmer of initiative that we have seen in him. Our previous sightings of Asael were when he was sobbing as they first went on the run and when Tuvia had to force him to go talk to Chaya, the girl who he had taken an interest in. As their mutual interest grows, it takes the intervention of Bella to tell him to hurry up and propose, and his unfinished muttered proposal is accepted with haste. Now a married man, he grows in confidence and begins to teach the new camp dwellers how to shoot, encouraging and rousing them with Tanakh-littered rhetoric.

Zus meanwhile is off with the Russian partisans. He is defensive about his relationship with his elder brother, responding to the Commander's remark "You compete with him" with an instinctive,"He competes with me". He helps out Tuvia in a mission to get medicine for the typhoid-suffering at the camp, but this seems to be as much proving to his older brother that he is able and strong. He says to his sickly brother; "I give the orders tonight" as he tells him to stay in the truck.

When one of his Jewish comrades is beaten for using an officer's latrine because the man "would not shit in the same toilet as a Jew" it is Zus who takes up the complaint with the Commander, taking upon himself the role of liaison officer for his injured friend, seeking justice. When the Russians retreat it is Zus who his friends turn to to find out what is going on and why
As Tuvia's sickness worsens it creates a power vacuum at camp. Asael has seemingly been handed responsibility in his brother's absence but the rebellious Arkady Lubczanski takes no heed. He demands extra portions of food as one of the hunters, and responds to Asael's command to get back in line with a threateningly held knife. Order is restored when Tuvia enters, and Arkady follows his orders to get back in the queue without question.

However more disturbance is not far away. With Tuvia recuperating in his cabin, Arkady has forcibly introduced a new policy that fighters receive better food portions. When Tuvia questions him he responds "You are no longer commander". Tuvia looks to walk away and then turns round and shoots Arkady dead. His cronies are ordered to go dump his body. He then looks to reassert his flailing authority, telling all "As long as I am leader, you will obey my commands. There will be no complaining, no sitting, no doing nothing."

Later, With Luftwaffe planes circling above, it is Tuvia who makes the rapid decision to leave immediately. He delegates Isaac - the intellectual of the group - to spread the word, and busies himself with rushing people out of camp. Alas they have been spotted and an air raid comes leaving Tuvia - literally - shell shocked. With his older brother dazed and confused, Asael steps up the mark showing complete awareness of the situation. With the planes having done their damage he knows the infantry will follow and knows the best places to post his shooters. He makes wise decisions quickly, leaving no time for uncertainty. He serves others by helping the injured despite his weak frame.

While Asael and those he trained to shoot stay to delay the infantry, the others follow Tuvia further down the trail. The run soon descends into a slow walk, illustrating the lack of hope and ideas their leader now holds. He looks exhausted, weary and ready to give up. Yet it is still he they turn to when they reach the end of the trail and are faced with a swamp.
"Tuvia, do we stay or do we go?"
"Tuvia, what do we do?"

The hesitancy allows for indecision and arguments, with no one stepping forward to assume leadership. With so many options being given as to whether to turn back, to stay or to continue forward, nothing is getting done. Tuvia has lost all hope and tells his new love Lilka to turn her gun on herself before the Germans would get her.

At that moment Asael arrives, despairing at the lack of movement with German troops soon to descend upon them. He immediately senses Tuvia's lethargy and steps in with a rousing speech:
"Nothing is impossible. What we have done is impossible. We will go forward, not by miracles, but by our own strength." He asks for rope, belts to support them as they cross the swamp. He deals with problems with decisiveness and swift
"We won't have enough rope"
"Then we'll link arms"
"What if someone slips?"
"The strong will carry the weak"

His confidence is infectious and soon there is a massive response with all sorts of belts flying in as the group numbering in their hundreds make their way across the swamp. Tuvia is now rejuvenated by his younger brother's initiative and thanks him with a kiss.

Upon reaching the other side, Tuvia's old teacher is breathing his last. He uses his final words to tell Tuvia: "I thank him (God) and I thank you". Despite organising food missions, ensuring that hundreds could be fed, killing his own horse at one stage to feed his community and leading them away safely from danger twice; this is the first time that Tuvia has been thanked for his efforts.

The final battle in the film sees the Jews face more Germans, this time armed with a tank. Yet clever thinking from Tuvia and the return of Zus ensure that once more the community is kept safe from harm, as they go on to build a new camp, brothers reconciled and hope regained.

Tuvia's leadership is strong and macho, using initiative and delegation to gain the support and following from those lacking direction. But it is also somewhat iron fisted. When confronted by Zus at one point, he tells him, "I cannot have you questioning me in front of the others". His reaction to Arkady in shooting him - which whilst seemed to fit with the survival mood of the film - showed a lack of patience and unwillingness to discuss problems with opposition. It is interesting to note that Tuvia, knowing what it is like to lead these people thanks Asael for leading them across the swamp, despite us never seeing him thanked himself until the very end. Are we thankful for our leaders? Do they know it?
Zus's leadership is as much about competing with his older brother as anything. When the Russian Partisan Commander asks him "Are you related to Bielski" he replies, "I am Bielski". Stronger in build and seemingly infuriated by his position in the family, he seeks to rebel against Tuvia and lead men to join the Partisan's only to find there that he has no identity or standing amongst them, some of whom are deeply Anti-Semitic. Zus allows his natural leadership abilities to be marred by jealousy and competition. Do we seek only to lead and never to be led when there are others with more experience? Can we take a back seat, and offer support?

Asael's leadership is one that develops throughout the film. He goes from the terribly timid boy who couldn't approach his future wife without fear to a man who shows courage in the face of adversity, and manages to pick up his community and its leader when they seemed resigned to death. He communicates well with Tuvia, letting him know what the mood around the camp is. He grows in confidence, yet never displays signs of cockiness. He knows when to take orders, and when to take over and give them.
For me Asael is the hero of the film. A young man who gains respect, and does not demand it. A young man who develops into a leader, discerning the positive and negative qualities from his older brothers and putting the good attributes into action. A man who serves others; Asael shows us what a good leader can be like.

The ultimate example of a leader is found in the Bible, in the example of Jesus. God manifest in man who spent three years training his disciples, imparting upon them his wisdom and knowledge. He taught them by observation, setting examples not only in leadership, but in how to live a life honouring to God. One of the most stunning examples he gave them was when he washed their feet, just hours before he would be led away to death. He showed that being a leader does not mean to be at the front all the time, to be served. Jesus showed that as a leader we should serve others, not only by washing the feet of those who followed him, but by the ultimate sacrifice - His death so that we can live.
Jesus said; "Just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”

And so as he served us, we should serve him through serving others

Friday, 2 January 2009

Ethical Shopping

Something I feel very strongly about is the issue of Ethical Shopping. Simply, I divide it up into two areas - Fairtrade and Local

Fairtrade
Fairtrade is the only logo on a product that guarantees a fair price for the worker in the developing country. This means that not only by buying Fairtrade products are you guaranteeing a fair price for the worker but it also means that when you buy a product that isn't Fairtrade, you may be giving money to a company who pay poor wages to workers who do long hours in poor conditions.

Fairtrade gives the coffee bean harvester maybe 4 times the wage of a non-fairtrade worker doing the exact same job. This extra money is then circulated in the local community. So the farmer is able to spend his money supporting his local butcher or crafts person. Fairtrade also take money and set it aside for community funds which are ploughed into schools, training, industrial technologies, sanitation.

How we can help
- Buy Fairtrade goods (common ones are coffee, bananas, tea, rice, clothing)
- Encourage others to do the same
- Ask at the places you shop in if they have a Fairtrade alternative (e.g. Trolans in Portstewart used to stock Fairtrade Wine, but not anymore - Pester them to bring it back!)
- Does your church, university, workplace use fairtrade products? Lobby them


Local
Never underestimate the power of those in education. Around a year ago we were studying the reunification of Germany. We were told that when East and West became one again, those in the East started to buy Western basics, such as Bread, Milk, Eggs. It wasn't that they were cheaper, or even better, there was just this notion that it would be a luxury good coming from the land of capitalism. This had a huge knock on effect to the East German farmers and producers. Productivity in the region went down, unemployment went up, which was a disaster for an area struggling to cope with the introduction of a free market. So pretty soon the East Germans twigged on. Their buying products from the West was having a negative impact on the East's economy.

And so I wondered about my own consumer habits. What good am I doing to the Northern Irish economy (let alone the environment) by buying a Brocolli from Spain, when there are plenty of local ones in season? Who exactly benefits when I buy bread from Ayrshire and not from Armagh? An increase in local produce being bought, means more jobs in agriculture, production, retail. It also means more graduate jobs - A successful local business needs people with degrees in marketing, advertising, web design, business. We don't need to lose all our best graduates to England, if only we would contribute more to our local economy.


Buying local goods, inevitably means buying in local shops. In the past 15 months, I have shopped in Tescos once. I prefer instead to go to Buds in Portstewart, or Peter's on the Old Coach Road. Still small supermarkets, but with a greater range of local options (e.g. Linwoods, who don't supply to the mega chains, and Ballyrashane creamery). I like to shop at Glass's - A stunning fruit and vegetable shop in Bushmills, with a real mouth watering selection. And is it more expensive? Sometimes yes. Sometimes no. Why would a sack of spuds from McCurdy's at Portbradden cost more to bring down the road than potatoes from the south of England which have had to be transported on a truck and a ferry to get here (losing days of quality on the way)? With local food, you pay for quality, not for distribution costs.

That's not even going into the sub-ethical business model that the big supermarkets are often accused of (demanding exclusivity, ordering more stock than they need but only paying for what they take, demanding double the order at the same price to allow for a 2 for 1 offer and many many others)

I worry. I worry that if I'm allowed to get old and if I'm still in this country, I won't have any good local butchers or greengrocers to shop in where I can contribute to my local economy, where I can get personal friendly service, where I can get food that tastes better, where I can buy as much as I need (you try buying for one!).

I feel the Supermarket is stealing our community, and I want it back.

How we can help
- Read the label, find out where it is from and buy local goods and produce where possible
- Try the difference between the 'freshness' on offer at your supermarket than that at a greengrocers
- Try the difference between the 'taste' on offer at your supermarket than that at a butchers


Further Reading
http://www.fairtrade.org/
http://www.100milediet.org/
Blytham, Joanna; Shopped - The shocking truth about British Supermarkets (2004 ed available on Amazon for a penny!)

Thursday, 1 January 2009

2009. A Year of Choices

I'm not one for New Years resolutions. Gym membership in the month of January will swell, cigarette sales will decline, sales of Dieting books will increase. And yet come February we'll be back to driving to the shop with gout to get our smokes. I'm not defeatist, just a realist. And so when Thom tries to encourage me to run the marathon with him, I think about it seriously for a while, and then come to the conclusion that it just won't happen. His optimism remains though, and I sinisterly look forward to around March, early April when he concedes he won't be doing it as we sit in the Harbour cafe eating a fry.

Yet, what does 2009 hold for me? As I went for a dander last night at the convenient time of 11.55pm, I thought about this, and about what 2008 was for me.

I think the past year was defined by leadership. Learning to put in to practice some of the skills that I have picked up over time and thoroughly enjoying that. Learning about leadership as I go, what it looks like, dealing with people, being vulnerable and open, serving.

This next year I feel may be future defining. Ultimately what I do come June or September could shape my future steps. If I take the option of a TESOL (Teaching English to Students of Other Languages) then that looks down the road of living abroad, and using that to make a living whilst enjoying the culture of another country. If I take the option of working up here, then that may further entrench me in the local community, setting out a potential path of life on the North Coast. If I strap on a pair, and run for the Student Elections as I threaten to, then that might give me more of a taste of leadership, and who knows where that could end up.

Ultimately though, things could define my future that I can't forsee. If I get run over and lose the use of my legs, that shapes my future in an altogether different way. If I meet a girl who I fall hopelessly in love with, but who just happens to be on a one year sabbatical from her job as an oil rig driller somewhere in the middle of the Pacific, that may affect my future.

There is a balance. I have plans. God has plans. It's not about compromise, it's about honouring and serving God. Yet I can and should honour him will 'all my mind', using this wonderful brain that he has given me to reason out my future, to see where my desires lie and to go follow God there.

I'd love to live on the continent.
I'd love to be a journalist
I'd love to be a politician of sorts.

All three are never going to happen. Living on the continent completely forsakes the option of being involved in a sphere of influence in a place where you aren't immersed in the history and culture, let alone speak the language to any degree of fluency. So I have to choose.

I thank God for choice. Over the course of 2009, I get to make alot of choices. Sometimes it will be easy, between what is bad and what is good. Sometimes it will be difficult, discerning what is good from what is of God. And sometimes it will be pure lethal, trying to work out what to do when God gives me a few options and promises that whichever one I choose, he'll go with me and won't leave me.