Oct 152014

It’s not the start of a tasteless joke. It was the start of my day today, and the pastor in question was me.

UKIP immigrant header

I want to tell the story, because I’ve been reflecting on it a little. It’s raised some questions and I’m not sure if the way I reacted was the best, so I want to sound it out. Please tell me what you think, even if you think I was an idiot!

How it started

The train was quite busy, but I managed to get a seat and found myself next to a rare phenomenon: two people talking. When the conversation turned to politics, one expressed his views in strong terms and (with some choice language). He’s not a fan of David Cameron, Ed Miliband or Nick Clegg who are all just in it to get rich themselves.

In fact, UKIP are the only hope. They are the only ones who have an answer to immigration, which is causing the disintegration of our society. That’s not the language he used (his was far stronger), but the following is:

All them immigrants, the problem is they just come because they know we’ll give them benefits for nothing so they can go back wherever they came from where stuff doesn’t cost much anyway and live it up large with our money.

This is not true. I happen to have read around this issue a little recently, so I knew that immigrants to the UK, on average, contribute more to the economy than they ‘cost’ in benefits, etc. And that Immigrants are less likely than native citizens to claim benefits. Many immigrants do come to the UK and send money back home or go back home in a financially stronger position. But while here, they contribute to the economy, not weaken it.

Some level-headed journalism on the issue.

Some level-headed journalism on the issue.

What he’d said wasn’t true. It’s a commonly believed lie, but a lie nonetheless. And potentially quite damaging.

What I did

As much as my middle-class, commuting Britishness told me to keep quiet, I found myself unable to do so. Truth is important, and especially because here we’re talking about a form of oppression against those already maligned in our society. These lies hurt immigrants, who have a difficult enough time already.

So I spoke up. Politely. I said I wasn’t sure he was right and asked where he’d got that information from.

There was a pause, and I was then asked who had asked me and why I was sticking my nose in. I said I think it’s an important issue and we need to let our views be shaped by facts, not just hearsay. I then shared simply some of the things I’d read about. I honestly believe I remained respectful throughout.

It was at this point that I spotted, just across the train, a woman who looked to be Eastern European and was visibly quite upset by what she was hearing. I made eye contact briefly, but she quickly turned away.

What happened then

I was surprised and shocked by what then happened. I got shouted and sworn at quite a bit. I was told it was none of my business what they thought and I had no right to tell them what to think. We all have a right to our own opinions and how dare I try and tell them theirs weren’t right.

I was amazed at the strength of their reaction. In their minds, my presenting an opposing position to theirs was me stripping them of the right to hold their own opinion. They were adamant that they were entitled to their own opinion, but they also seemed to feel a right to their own facts.

Another gentleman (a bit older) then joined in and suggested I was ‘clearly too young to remember what Britain use to be like, what it should be like, before our society was eroded by all this outside influence’. I began to respond, but didn’t get very far before the first two guys started admonishing me again.

I wish I could say I had some knock-down argument that ended the whole thing and I won over their hearts and minds. I didn’t.

The woman across the aisle looked very distressed, and got up to go to another part of the train. As she stood, she looked over to me and mouthed ‘Thank you’ with deep sincerity in her eyes. I wanted to check she was alright, so I finished my conversation with these three men by apologising if I’d caused offence but suggesting again that we need to explore these issues carefully. By then the train had pulled in to the station and the woman had gone.

Did I do the right thing?

There’s a few things I’m sure of. Truth matters and isn’t relative. As a follower of Christ, I’m bound to stand for truth. I’m also bound to stand against oppression and for the oppressed. I’m also called to be engaged in this world, its systems and structures.

That was my motivation as I spoke on the train. But did I do it in the best way? Should I have just kept quiet? Should I have said something different?

What would you have done?

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Snapchat & photo leaks: is the internet just awful now?

Oct 142014

The internet has gone a bit bonkers recently, with lots of things previously thought ‘safe’ now not really seeming to be very safe at all. And a lot of it seems to be to do with seeing pictures of people they never wanted us to see.

Screen Shot 2014-10-14 at 10.34.56

I’ve been an advocate of the internet for a while, encouraging Christians in particular to use it for good. It’s also the major thrust of my role as a pastor at present. But should this ever-increasing dark side of the internet call that into question? I’ve certainly heard a few people suggest these things show we—especially as Christians—should avoid the internet altogether.

The problem

A number of female celebrities have had explicit pictures they took of themselves on mobile devices hacked and posted online. (While I question the wisdom of taking those sorts of pictures of yourself, I do not sympathise with people who say ‘it’s their fault for taking them’. If you disagree with me on that, feel free to comment below and we can chat about it!)

More recently—and perhaps more disturbingly—a little under 100,000 images originally taken on Snapchat have now been leaked onto the web. Some of these are explicit in nature, but by no means all of them. You can read a little more here.

My personal views on Snapchat have always been pretty clear, and I’ve never used it. To my mind, an app designed around the premise of sending a picture you do not want people to be able to store for very long is just a very bad idea. It encourages people to take and send images that aren’t a good idea because it promises the safety of a limited shelf-life. It has been the root of countless ‘sexting’ problems in schools, and actively feeds into the desire to do things in hidden and secretive ways. Of course people use it for harmless fun, but the premise on which it’s built is—in my view—not harmless at all.

The real problem

But I believe these recent events are just symptoms. So what’s the real problem, the real cause? On one level, it would be easy to say the root of all this is the internet itself. If it didn’t exist, hacking scandals like these would never have happened. Right?

Screen Shot 2014-10-14 at 10.24.37

What evil technology!

I don’t think so.

Do you remember a year or so back when that picture of Kate Middleton sunbathing topless in a very secluded and private place in France was big news? That picture was taken using a camera with a massive lens and then printed in a magazine. No hacking required at all. Just a desire to take that picture by some people and a desire to see that picture by more people.

My point is simply that the real problem isn’t the internet, but broken, sinful people who find ways to use it to do all the things that broken, sinful people want to do anyway.

We don’t blame the printing press because it was used to spread Nazi propaganda. We don’t blame photography for pornography. We don’t blame farming for obesity.

The tools and technologies humans create reflect their human creators. The good and the bad. I believe the internet is a mirror, a reflection, of ourselves. At its best, it shows us our capacity for relationship, dialogue, pursuit of good causes, creativity, passion—at its best it reveals those parts of us which are the image of God. At its worst, it shows our self-centredness, gossip, lust, shallow ways of thinking, apathy—at its worst it reveals those parts of us which are fallen and sinful.

What to do?

So, is the internet just awful now? No, I don’t think so. We are sometimes, but not the internet itself. In my view it’s neutral.

That isn’t to say every part of it is neutral. I don’t believe pornography websites are neutral. I don’t believe secret forums which are used to plot and plan acts of violence are neutral. I don’t believe certain apps are neutral (as I said above). Some things, in their DNA, in the purpose they set out to achieve or the principles by which they work, feed into our darker side. And I think they should be treated with extreme caution. They might not be as safe or benign as they are branded to be.

But while exercising caution, we mustn’t forget to celebrate the good parts of our online world. There are fantastic things going on, and great blessings in this world because of what people are doing online. We should embrace these good bits, seek to be part of them, let them be part of us.

The internet, like us, has dark and light. And we should—as with ourselves—let the light shine brightly into the dark.

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