Living for the City

This article was first published in the March-April 2016 edition of The Officer 

1 goBy Nick and Kerry Coke

IN 1973, within a year of our births, the great American musician Stevie Wonder released the song ‘Living for the City’ – a track from his groundbreaking new album, Innervisions. The song is startling for its howl of protest at the systemic racism of American society at the time. It traces the journey of a black family from rural Mississippi to a New York ghetto. The parents work menial jobs for poverty wages, the older brother looks for work in vain, the sister has to go to school in ill-fitting clothes and the younger brother finds himself sucked into a life of crime.

On the day of its release Wonder, blind from a young age, arranged for a group of journalists to be taken on a tour of New York City, blindfolded. He encouraged them to hear the soundscape of the city streets – the pounding of feet, car engines, police sirens and the myriad of spoken languages. As the tour ended, and still sightless, he played them ‘Living for the City’. The song opened with the trademark soul of Wonder’s voice, but as the last verse kicked in his voice transformed into an unfamiliar cry of anguish. It finished with him bellowing out these words:

I hope you hear inside my voice of sorrow
And that it motivates you to make a better tomorrow
This place is cruel nowhere could be much colder
If we don’t change, the world will soon be over
Living just enough, just enough for the city!

We recently rediscovered this song on an old vinyl record we found in a charity shop. As we listened through the crackles and pops it felt as though Wonder’s prophetic voice was speaking down the generations. We began to reflect on what it meant to ‘live for the city’. We considered our own heritage and how the underbelly of city life was the crucible in which The Salvation Army was formed. When William Booth ‘found his destiny’ it was on the stricken streets of a city with circumstances not unfamiliar to the characters in Wonder’s song. Knowing this context is key to understanding our movement – who we are and why we do what we do.

In a biblical sense, ‘living for the city’ goes beyond the realm of the urban physical space we name ‘cities’. Take the call of Jeremiah, for example, to the Jews living in Babylonian exile: ‘Seek the peace and prosperity of the city… Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper’ (29:7). It is a plea to build the common good with those the exiles now live amongst. Instead of setting themselves apart and only looking after their own interests, Jeremiah charges them to embrace a radical new way of life where they are to build relationships across ethnic, religious and cultural divides. In doing so, he says, the land in which they live will flourish with peace and prosperity. Surely this is a message for our time. In an increasingly globalised and urbanised world, many of us live in communities which are becoming socially fragmented in ways that previous generations could never have imagined. It is becoming the new norm. Jeremiah’s call to a radical way of life, however, gives us a framework for peace in our time.

Living for the city, we suspect, begins with listening. How else can we win souls, care for the poor, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, love the unlovable and befriend those who have no friends, without first bending our ears to the struggle of the people? Without doubt that means presence, patience and an enduring spirit of love. Take a moment to consider your ‘city’ – what is it that you hear?

In the end, of course, there is another city. A perfect city when Heaven descends to earth (Revelation 21:2-4). In this ‘Holy City’ all tears are wiped away and all sorrow ends. Street lights are no longer necessary, for the glory of God will suffice (22:5). All poverty and pain are things of the past. Even death will be no more. This is the city we should live for – in the now and for the future. For it is coming. Close your eyes, lend your ear to the soundscape of the city streets and perhaps you can hear its coming.

Solidarity

Guest post by Tom Underwood

The 14th of February 2016 marks the fifth anniversary of the pro-democracy uprising in the kingdom of Bahrain. Whilst the Arab Spring movement in countries such as Tunisia, Egypt and Libya made headlines the small island of Bahrain remained mainly under the radar despite the fierce crackdown on peaceful protest.

I first came across Bahrain through meetng the Bahraini human rights activist Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei. Sayed was one of hundreds of thousands of peaceful protestors (according to his own estimation about forty percent of the population) calling for democracy and an end to discrimination against the Shia’s by the ruling Sunni royal family. Thesayed response from government authorities was brutal. Sayed was severally beaten leaving a permanent scar across his forehead. He was imprisoned for six months during which time he was regularly beaten, sexually harassed and tortured. Finally, he was given two choices; stay in Bahrain and remain in prison or leave the country he loves. In July 2012 he claimed asylum in the UK.

Unfortunately, Sayed’s experiences are not unique and human rights abuses continue to be prevalent in Bahrain. In a recent article about the five year anniversary of the uprising James Lynch from Amnesty International writes, “Today in Bahrain, anyone who dares to criticise the authorities – whether a human rights defender or political activist – risks punishment.”

Despite all of this British arms sales to Bahrain have increased significantly during the past five years. Sayed first became aware of this link between the UK and Bahrain when after being attacked with tear gas he collected up the canisters and found that they were all made in the UK. Over the past five years the UK has sold arms worth £45 million to Bahrain. This doesn’t include the impact of British arms sales to Saudi Arabia who were brought in to crush peaceful demonstrations by the Bahraini government.

arms fairIMG_1732In September 2015 I joined with others to protest outside the Excel Centre in East London as it hosted DSEI, the largest arms fair in the world. On that day Sayed was one of many international speakers, all from countries where the UK sells arms despite oppressive human rights regimes. Many of these speakers used the word ‘solidarity’ to describe the impact of us standing alongside them in their struggle for human rights.

The word ‘solidarity’ has tricky connotations in the UK, conjuring up images of Citizen Smith and Che Guevara berets. Outside of Catholic social teaching Christendom has not embraced the word despite the positivity of it’s message of unity and support. However, at the centre of Christianity is the incarnation, God’s declaration of solidarity with the world. God does not stand separate from creation but physically enters into the messiness of flesh and blood, standing with us, close to us and part of us. This is what ‘solidarity’ means for us as Christians. In the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

“And in the Incarnation the whole human race recovers the dignity of the image of God. Henceforth, any attack even on the least of men is an attack on Christ, who took the form of man, and in his own Person restored the image of God in all that bears a human form. Through fellowship and communion with the incarnate Lord, we recover our true humanity, and at the same time we are delivered from that individualism which is the consequence of sin, and retrieve our solidarity with the whole human race. By being partakers of Christ incarnate, we are partakers in the whole humanity which he bore. We now know that we have been taken up and borne in the humanity of Jesus, and therefore that new nature we now enjoy means that we too must bear the sins and sorrows of others. The incarnate Lord makes his followers the brothers of all mankind.”

Within this quote I’m struck by the phrase “Bearing the sorrows of others,” as a beautiful realisation of solidarity. Just as the incarnation is physical so too this idea of solidarity must be physical for us and lead us away from ‘clicktavism’ and ‘best wishes’ to a muscular activism where we stand, protest, and march with Sayed and others recognising that through the incarnation God has made us brothers of all mankind.

Profile picTom Underwood teaches young people with autism and writes plays about peace. He is currently writing about peace activism and arms trade activists.  He worships at Raynes Park Community Church and tweets @tomcunderwood

When The Salvation Army took risks and why it matters

By Nick Coke

We all love a bit of Salvation Army history don’t we? When I was doing some research for the first chapter of ‘Marching Towards Justice’ I learnt a few details about Salvation Army justice-seeking I hadn’t known – you’ll have to read it to see what I found out! More recently I received a short book in the post from my brother-in-law entitled ‘Social Evils The Army Has Challenged’. Written by S Carvosso Gauntlett in 1946, it tells seven stories of how The Salvation Army went about challenging the status quo and bringing about social change. The writer takes us from Britain to Japan, India and French Guiana covering a period from 1880-1933. This blog is too short to share everything but what comes across throughout is the role risk-taking plays in order to bring change.

In the foreword, General Carpenter, writes:220px-General_George_Carpenter

‘William Booth was by no means opposed to, in fact welcomed, the plans for social improvement based on Education, Trade Unions, Co-operation, Socialism and so on; in fact, almost anything short of violent revolution.’

Seems to me that back in the day our forebears didn’t see the possibility of social change as a mere hope or dream but rather a reality that was eminently possible with the right approach. There was a confidence that came with personal conviction, spiritual power and a collective commitment to the cause. It also appears that because of this, taking risks was simply a natural part of the process required to achieve just and righteous ends.

Take the ‘Maiden Tribute’ Campaign, for example, or as it was known in the 1880s – The Purity Agitation (I love that!). This was the fight to force the British government to raise the age of sexual consent as a protection for trafficked and abused children. Bramwell and Florence Booth who spear-headed the campaign did so from the grassroots. Twenty-three year old Florence, the pioneer leader of women’s social services, was so outraged by the stories she heard at the home for rescued women in Whitechapel that she encouraged her husband to go and find out for himself what was happening. So, the chief of staff, took to wandering in certain neighbourhoods in disguise ‘wading’ as he put it ‘through a sea of sin and defilement’. At the end of his listening campaign he concluded:

‘No matter what the consequences might be, I would do all I could to stop those abominations, to rouse public opinion, to agitate for an improvement of the law.’

bramwellHe was as good as his word. The remarkable campaign that followed with help from reformer Josephine Butler, journalist W T Stead and Salvationists up and down the land brought about a change in the law. The campaign involved the publishing of shocking stories in the press, a 2 mile long petition delivered to the door of parliament and the buying of a child. Yes, that’s buying a child – to prove it could be done in London for £5. The result of that action was a date in court for Bramwell. After a 12 day trial that held the attention of the country, he was acquitted, although Stead was jailed for 3 months. At the time many feared it would be the end of The Salvation Army with the Founder’s Son and Chief of Staff in the dock of the Central Criminal Court. And yet as Bramwell later reflected when General:

‘The trial did the Army a great deal of good. It made us known, and put us at one stroke in the very front rank of those who were contending for the better treatment of the lost and the poor… Our work for women was greatly furthered… We knew…. that the Queen followed the proceedings with great concern and sympathy. The case opened doors for us also in the overseas dominions and in the US.’

All this makes me wonder what place risk-taking has in our cause of justice-seeking today? A risk-averse culture will help us to maintain the status-quo and keep our friends happy but it won’t bring about change. It occurs to me that we have as much to lose by not taking risks as we do by taking them. When we stay silent on an issue that we really should be speaking up about then we become complicit with the wrong itself. That may not damage our brand but I wonder what it does to our souls? I want to admit here to longing for some of that confidence from the early days – a confidence in the spiritual power to overcome ‘social evils’ of our time, to ‘stop abominations, to rouse public opinion, and to agitate for an improvement of the law.’ Lord, give us a vision for your kingdom here on earth, motivate us to action and remove our fear. Amen.

Freedom Highway

staple singersBy Nick Coke

I’m listening to The Staple Singers bellowing out ‘Freedom Highway’ from their legendary live performance at Chicago’s New Nazareth Church in 1965. It’s three days after my second visit to the Jungle in Calais. I’ve tears in my eyes and a sickness in my stomach.

Pop staples introduces the song:

“A few days ago, the freedom marchers marched from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. I know some of you know about that. That was in March of nineteen hundred and sixty-five. And from that march, word was revealed and a song was composed. And we wrote a song about the freedom marchers and we call it the ‘Freedom Highway’, and we dedicate this number to all the freedom marchers.”

I’m holding the original record sleeve in my hand. It’s a thrill to know that the person whose hands pressed this vinyl half a century ago and the first owner of this particular LP would have lived through the Martin Luther King led march that made history. The concert was recorded only 3 months after that event.

The guitar kicks in, then the drums, hand-clapping and finally the vocals.

March for freedom’s highway
March each and every day
Made up my mind and I won’t turn around
Made up my mind and I won’t turn around
There is just one thing I can’t understand my friend.
Why some folk think freedom
Was not designed for all men.
Yes I think I voted for the right man
Said we would overcome.

portaloosI’m back in the Jungle, standing in the winter rain and mud. There’s a hopelessness hanging in the air I hadn’t sensed the last time. There are rumours of a government demolition, of police brutality, of vigilante gangs beating up migrants whilst the authorities turn a blind eye. I’m told by a Syrian refugee about the orphans living in the camp with no-where to turn. I’m struggling to see the freedom highway.

Pop Staples knew when he composed his song that he was writing about an historic moment. Today we are making history. Future generations will look back and wonder about our response to the biggest humanitarian disaster in Europe since the Second World War. We will be judged for what we are doing and what we are not doing.

The Jungle in some ways has come to symbolise the British response. It’s the closest we’ll allow those fleeing war and poverty to get before they meet our high border fences. It’s a third of the distance than from Selma to Montgomery.

As I listen to The Staple Singers from 50 years ago, I can’t help but dedicate this song to the people I met in Calais. May you one day experience freedom – freedom from war, freedom from poverty, freedom from oppression, freedom from fear. May you find freedom – may you overcome. And Lord – help me be a freedom marcher.

May God Bless You With Anger

welcome

By Nick Coke

This article first appeared in the January-February 2016 edition of ‘The Officer’ magazine and is re-published with permission.  

I sat in a coffee shop with a veteran Christian minister from my neighbourhood. At his instigation we were meeting to talk about community engagement. I’d barely taken a sip from the cup in front of me when he looked at me across the table and asked, ‘What makes you angry?’

I was a little taken aback. I hesitated for a moment to gather my thoughts before speaking. At first my words were faltering – offering something about being a Salvation Army officer and a minister of peace and love. As I listened to myself I sounded unconvincing – dispassionate even. Glancing across the table I could see he looked disappointed.

Pausing for a gulp of coffee I reappraised my response and opened up a little. ‘Well, I suppose I’m angry that some people living here are so privileged that they have far more than they will ever need whilst others are trying to get by with virtually nothing.’ The words began to flow. ‘I’m angry that some people feel they’re inferior because of their culture, religion, gender or the colour of their skin.’ The flow turned into a torrent. ‘I’m angry that the landlords round here charge extortionate rent and the politicians appear helpless to do anything about it. I’m angry that some people work day and night and still don’t get paid enough to live on. And I’m angry that when we Christians do get worked up it’s almost always about internal issues rather than the great injustices in our world.’

Slightly embarrassed at my outburst, I grinned weakly, reached for my coffee cup and asked, ‘What about you, what do you think?’ He nodded gently and with a smile on his lips replied, ‘That’s a lot of anger, my friend. I think we can do business!’

Since that day, I’ve thought much about anger. Oh I know that anger can be destructive, a conductor of reckless, damaging behaviour and impulsive, ungodly words. We must flee from this kind of selfish anger and root it out of hearts and minds. Such hot anger should never be allowed to get the better of us and it is not compatible with the Spirit of the living God (see Matthew 5:22). ‘Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry’ (Ephesians 4:26) wrote the apostle Paul. Wise advice. We’re foolish, however, if we consider this the only kind of anger.

There is a rich tradition of cool, righteous, sanctified anger flowing through Moses, the prophets and Jesus himself to the Church and down through the ages. Such anger inspires us to action, drives us forward in the struggle and agitates us to a holy discontent with the world as it is. I know this to be true from my own experience ministering in various contexts.

I love the quote attributed to Augustine of Hippo (354-430): ‘Hope has two beautiful daughters; their names are Anger and Courage. Anger at the way things are, and Courage to see that they do not remain as they are.’

Hope that has no intention of changing the way things are, that has no means to grip the passions of the believer’s heart, is no hope at all. That rather is a vague wish or aspiration – here today and gone tomorrow. But hope fuelled by anger and courage, filtered through the sanctification of the Holy Spirit, is a most potent weapon for the fight. Such anger becomes terrible in its beauty and a righteous tool for confronting the ‘powers and principalities’ (Ephesians 6:12 KJV) that stand against the coming Kingdom of God ‘on earth as it is in heaven’ (Matthew 6:10).

So my friends, I ask you, ‘What makes you angry?’

May the restless Spirit of God fall upon you, bless you with anger and discomfort at the way the world is, and agitate you to work for the world as it should be.

Martin Luther King on the ultimate revolutionary

storyimages_080121mlkvmed6awidecBy Nick Coke

Today on Martin Luther Day, my social media timelines are full of the great man’s inspiring and challenging quotes. Reading his autobiography earlier in the year I came across a section that I found particularly challenging to Christian activists. In it he explores the intersection between evangelism and social justice. As someone who likes to get involved in justice-seeking I’m regularly quizzed about these two essential ingredients of mission and how they fit together. It often perplexes me how often they are spoken of as if they were mutually exclusive. My own experience in this regards is that whilst acting on issues of common concern with those who do not share my Christian faith there have been many, many opportunities to give a reason for the hope I have in Jesus.

Here’s how MLK puts it:

‘We have the power to change America and give a kind of new vitality to the religion of Jesus Christ. And we can get those young men and women who’ve lost faith in the church to see that Jesus was a serious man precisely because he dealt with the tang of the human amid the glow of the Divine and that he was concerned about the their problems. He was concerned about bread; he opened and started Operation Breadbasket a long time ago. He initiated the first sit-in movement. The greatest revolutionary that history has ever known. And when people tell us when we stand up that we got our inspiration from this or that, go back and let them know where we got our inspiration.

I read Das Kapital and The Communist Manifesto years ago when I was a student at college. And many of the revolutionary movements in the world came into being as a result of what Marx talked about.

The great tragedy is that Christianity failed to see that it had the revolutionary edge. You don’t have to go to Karl Marx to learn how to be a revolutionary. I didn’t get my inspiration from Marx; I got it from a man named Jesus, a Galilean saint who said he was anointed to heal the broken-hearted. He was anointed to deal with the problems of the poor. And that is where we get our inspiration. And we go out in a day when we have a message for the world, and we can change this world and we can change this nation.’

 

My conscience compels me to action

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By Nick Coke

A month ago I wrote a piece called ‘A Calais Protest’. It was written within a day or so of visiting the camp known as ‘The Jungle’ rotting on our borders. There’s always a risk in writing something in haste, whilst things are still raw – it can become a knee-jerk response. In this case, however, even with a month’s distance, I stand by every word.

The anger still smoulders in me. Every time it rains, I picture in my mind’s eye the mud and squalid conditions surrounding the crowded tents that are home to 6000 men, women and children. Whenever I hear the boiler kicking in to fire up my central heating, I remember how the night after I visited, a fire swept through the camp as people tried to keep themselves warm around a naked flame. As I’ve watched my son head out to the shops on his bike, I remember the young boy of similar age riding through the camp – it’s no place for any human being, even more so the vulnerable. Each time I go to church I’m taken back to that ram-shackled structure pieced together from random lengths of wood and plastic sheeting where Christians in the camp go to pray and worship. I’ve struggled since to sense the presence of God I found in that thin place in the comfortable worship settings that I spend my time in.

I mused in my earlier post that there comes a time when we must move beyond protest to action. In the case of Calais, avenues for action are limited by the lack of political will in France and the UK to take any responsibility. Bowing to that position, of course, is not a given – rather it is a choice that each of us makes.

I was recently convicted by Martin Luther King Jr’s comments about knowing when to take action:

“On some positions, cowardice asks the question, ‘Is it safe?’ Expediency asks the question, ‘Is it politic?’ And vanity comes along and asks the question, ‘is it popular’? But conscience asks the question, ‘is it right?’ And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe nor politic nor popular, but he must do it because conscience tells him it is right.”

My conscience refuses to allow me to sit idly by and do nothing. I refuse to choose silence. So, what to do? Well, I know from experience that when ordinary people band together and organise themselves, even the gravest situations can change. Political realities can take another shape when enough creative people begin to use their prophetic imagination and look beyond the prevailing narratives to something more akin to the Kingdom of God. I’ve asked some of these prophets for their suggestions of what we can do and added a couple of my own. Take a look below and ask yourself, ‘what is my conscience compelling me to do?’

  • Go and see for yourself. Calais is a mere 26 miles from our borders – a 2 hour journey from our capital city. The first step towards action is always listening. And if you can’t go, then encourage your leaders to go – political leaders, church leaders, community leaders. I defy anyone to go and not feel challenged to action.
  • Read about it, preach about it, blog about it, talk about it and urgently pray about it. Don’t let it fade into the background as if it doesn’t exist. When we agitate and needle others it provokes greater action, public pressure and accountability around the root causes. You can join Facebook groups that keep you up to date with info. Here are some with contributions from ordinary people who are in and out of Calais all the time: Calais Migrant Solidarity Action and Calais Action And there’s one called ‘Jungle Life Calais’ that has testimonies from people living in the camp.
  • Bring it to the attention of elected politicians – talk or write to your MP or Assembly Member about it. Admitting it is a UK issue (as well as a French one) is the first step in seeing some action. More specifically call on the French and UK governments to follow basic UN conventions in meeting needs for those living in the camp. The camp currently fails on all internationally agreed standards.
  • Join the campaign calling for those in the camp, particularly children, who have family members in UK to be allowed to make asylum applications. More on that here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Calais protest

church

By Nick Coke

On Sunday I preached a sermon from the Old Testament prophet Amos. Standing before my congregation, they graciously listened as I wondered aloud how this unlettered, unqualified, shepherd from nowhere could pull off delivering such an angry howl of protest at the religious and political establishment of his time and still manage to have it remembered for millennia as part of the canon of scripture. His message has virtually no hope – a handful of verses at the very end promise a better day but for the most it’s wave after wave of finger-pointing, judgement, warning and lament. The reason it stands the test of time is that sometimes there are moments when all you can do is protest. Whilst protest does not provide the answer it certainly raises the question. Protest marks the moment of refusal to be comfortable with things as they are. It is the beginning of change but never the end. Continue reading “A Calais protest”

‘…no holiness, but social holiness’: my journey with the Living Wage Campaign

prophetBy Nick Coke

This week is Living Wage Week in the UK. It’s a time of celebration and action for a remarkable campaign, started by a group of church, faith and community leaders, trade unionists and cleaners in East London 15 years ago. The story is a wonderful testimony to the power of grassroots community organising – how conversations initiated in church halls and homes (civil society) have agitated and led government (state) and business leaders (market) into adopting the idea. I’ve written before about how I had the privilege in my previous appointment of being involved in the campaign for 8 years and observed first-hand how it transformed the life of families in my neighbourhood and congregation. Continue reading “‘…no holiness, but social holiness’: my journey with the Living Wage Campaign”

Praying towards justice – a vigil for refugees

By Nick Coke

Last night I attended a prayer vigil for refugees, with Salvation Army colleagues from across London. It was a remarkable gathering.

Look at this photo –  what do you see?

vigil

Here’s what I see…

I see diverse people. Gathered in the courtyard of Westminster Cathedral 450 souls stand shoulder to shoulder. A snapshot of the diversity to be found in this great capital city. People of various faiths, ethnic and social backgrounds. Humanity in it all it’s jumbled, glorious, and wondrous mess. All belong, all needed. Continue reading “Praying towards justice – a vigil for refugees”