What If We Treated Guns Like We Do Cars?

Second Amendment rights advocates often want to tell you that guns aren’t the problem; that you can kill someone with a car or a knife, that there are far more deaths from motor accidents than gun deaths, that the police define a car as a deadly weapon. And no-one is crying out for cars to be restricted.

Okay, I’ll bite. What if we treated firearms in exactly the same way we treat motor vehicles?

In the US, before you can legally sit behind the wheel of a car and drive it solo, you have to pass a driving test and get a drivers’ licence. Typically, as I understand it, one will take a drivers’ education course which will teach you to safely and competently operate a motor vehicle.

If you want to drive a car, that’s one kind of licence. If you also want to ride a motorbike, that’s another licence with a separate test. If you want to drive a large commercial vehicle like a truck, the Commercial Driver’s Licence (CDL) is a separate and additional test and documentation with numerous additional facets and requirements allowing you to do things like transport hazardous cargo or particularly heavy goods or outsize loads.

Analogising to the firearms situation, if you want to be legally able to carry a gun, you should have to do a “firearms education” course and pass a gun safety test that confirms a minimum basic competency in firing it as well as knowledge of basic gun safety protocols. If you want a small-calibre handgun, that’s one kind of licence. If you want a hunting longarm, that’s another kind. If you want a high-calbre pistol like a Magnum or something, that’s another licence. There would be a minimum age requirement to do the firearms education course; we don’t let 7-year-olds learn to drive, do we? The states, or perhaps even individual communities, should probably set this lower age requirement for themselves.  Maybe we should be looking at a firearms licence similar to a drivers’ licence.  Just an idea.

On top of the licencing of drivers, motor vehicles themselves are individually registered with the state, taxed and inspected annually to make sure they meet basic safety standards. While the emissions test has no parallel in firearms, the idea that as a matter of course all guns will be registered with the state and taxed would probably send most gun owners into a flat spin. Nothing causes foaming at the mouth of your average Second Amendment activist than the words “gun registry”. “Then they’ll know exactly where to come when they come for our guns!” is the common refrain.

And yet, why? We register our cars, and only the most deranged of paranoids would suggest that the government is coming to take those away by force.  The right of freedom of movement is part of the First Amendment, and no-one suggests that the regulations we have around car ownership, registration and licencing are an infringement.

The idea that the government is going to take away guns by force is easily the most intractable of American political myths, and yet recent unwillingness to pass even the most basic commonsense gun safety laws and contrarian willingness to further loosen existing gun laws on the part of most of the current crop of politicians suggests that the reverse, if anything, is truer. Politicians seem unwilling to do even basic things like banning the bump stock devices that simulate fully automatic fire in a semiautomatic weapon; and yet you believe these same politicians are just waiting to pounce and forcibly take your guns.

I do not see that the “law-abiding gun owners” that the NRA and other firearms groups tout as the salvation of America have anything to fear from a gun registry.

Motor vehicles require fuel, which is taxed. In other countries like my native UK, it’s taxed quite a lot. Should we tax ammunition, and have the resulting funds channeled into mental health and/or a fund to help the victims of mass shootings? That might be appropriate.

I’m not necessarily saying “this is what we ought to do about gun safety”. But on the other hand, there are some interesting ideas here. In addition to repairing and extending the background check system that the NRA have paid their pet politicians to break and bend the proper functioning of (so that they can say “see, background checks don’t work”?), some of this might at least serve as a point of discussion.

If you want to point out how cars are also deadly weapons, it’s instructive to consider how comparatively regulated our driving is compared to what seems to be the case for firearms.  At the very least, it’s something to think about.

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Adventus: Entering In

I already mentioned that this year my Advent focus is on the Divine name Emmanuel: God With Us. God entering our world of chaos and mess, in order to bring it back into His proper order.

Last year my focus was on the quietness and unexpected nature of the birth; how while the whole Roman world was focused on the lives of the rich and great – Caesar Augustus, Herod the Great, Governor Quirinius – the Messiah promised for generations was born to a pair of poor teenagers in a tiny backwater town in a conquered province.

In this post we shall connect the two.

Emmanuel is God entering in, coming on our level and being born into human mess. And it doesn’t get much more potentially messy than the set of circumstances that Mary and Joseph were looking at.

First of all there’s the national political situation. Judea – the land of God’s own people – is a conquered Roman province, with an Edomite (=Idumaean) puppet king installed on David’s throne. With the Divine covenant with the House of David occupying such a prominent place in Judean ideas of legitimacy of kingship, the idea of a non-descendent of David occupying the throne is bad and wrong, let alone a foreigner like Herod the Great. And for the True God’s own people to be subject to pagan Romans, something ain’t right with the world.

YHWH will not be equated with the pagan Roman gods in the way that Celtic deities like Sulis were merged with their Roman counterparts like Minerva. If you worship the One God, part of the deal is that you don’t then turn around and burn incense to Jupiter, no matter how much secular peace that would buy you from the Romans of whose empire you are now a part. You can either be a good Jew or a good Roman.

And as usual, the poor people are caught in the middle, subject to being shunted around at the whim of godless rulers to facilitate their being gouged and screwed over to make rich tax-gatherers richer.

Then there’s the personal situation of Mary and Joseph.

Pledged to be married, Mary shows up pregnant, and Joseph knows it wasn’t his doing. As far as small-town scandals go, this is about as juicy as they come, and no doubt the rumours are flying. They’re still flying around, in fact, when Jesus is grown and in ministry; look at the derisive question of his home town: “Who’s his father?”

It’s never specifically said in the Bible, but reading between the lines a little in the matter of Jesus being born in a stable and there being no room at the inn, it seems likely that Mary and Joseph were being shunned by at least part of their family. Bethlehem was both Joseph and Mary’s ancestral town, and people in that day didn’t move around much. Undoubtedly they had relatives there, and the normal thing would be for them to stay with family, and for the family to put them up no matter how crowded it got. When I was working in Central Asia I had some experience with this same sort of mindset, and for family there’s always room for one more. Yet Mary and Joseph had to try the inn, where merchants and people who didn’t have family stayed. And it was full.

More, Mary and Joseph are young (they’re only pledged to be married in an age where you started popping out kids as soon as you started having sex) and poor (the sacrifice they make for a firstborn is the smallest and meanest version available, for those too poor to afford even a lamb) in a world that places all its adulation at the feet of the aged and the wealthy. The way we arrange our tax code, Joseph almost certainly wouldn’t be earning enough to pay tax today, yet back then his lack of economic muscle just made him a ready victim of the system.

Chaos and mess. A dark world doing what darkness does.

And into this low point comes not just a Messiah King but a God, born into squalor and privation in the equivalent of a bus shelter to a couple of homeless teenagers in a conquered province.

Who were then forced to flee for their lives when He was aged 2 and live as refugees in another country, their flight made possible by the gifts of the Magi just as it was made necessary by Herod the Great’s ambition and paranoia.

He really is God With Us. He’s been there, in the dark and pain of what passes for normal life in this fallen world. Entering in without visible glory or majesty or any of the trappings of success or material blessing. A baby boy growing up to be a man, apparently born on the wrong side of the tracks to a poverty-stricken family living in the town which is a byword for backward worthlessness. Growing up to die by a miscarriage of Roman justice without leaving a single offspring or visible result behind him.

It isn’t possible for the immortal God to be a failure, but this is what it looks like. The current President would no doubt dismiss him as a loser; most of his own town certainly did.

But this is what we need. A god who wins all the time cannot address our failures. A god of puffed-up pride cannot speak to our secret shame, except to condemn it.

There’s a poem I read, called “He showed them His hands and side”. One of the verses is appropriate here:

The other gods were strong, but Thou wast weak
They rode, but Thou didst stumble to a throne
But to our wounds only God’s wounds can speak
And not a god has wounds but Thou alone.

Emmanuel is God come down into our mess, walking my road and feeling my pain, as another song puts it. But not just God come down to experience our sufferings; God come down to do something about it. Just as when people were building the tower of Babel and the Bible says God “came down” to divide us one from another and check the untrammeled spread of diseased, sinful ideas between us, now in Jesus He comes down to make an end of sin once and for all. And now that He has done it and sits at the right hand of the Father, He will come down once more to make a final end, bringing with Him the New Jerusalem. “Now the dwelling-place of God is with men…”

God With Us.

The Taming of the Shrike

I never really planned to get a pet.

Apart from the various buckets of tadpoles and jam jars of caterpillars I inflicted on my mother, I never had an animal growing up.

A lot of Americans seem to have this theory that a kid needs to have a dog, but I wasn’t that kid. I’d have taken a cat, and I thought I’d have liked the idea of a lizard or snake, but dogs just looked like too much work.

My mother in particular doesn’t do well with animals. She gets very nervous around things that move of their own volition, even small furry ones like gerbils and kittens, and I knew better than to even float the idea of a reptile. And to be honest, I’m not sure I really had the temperament for any kind of pet, or if I’d have quickly become disillusioned with the upkeep. Reptiles aren’t easy pets, particularly not in a cool climate like the UK.

A lot later, my Dad had tropical fish, which look really nice but are quite a lot of upkeep for not much interaction, and are fiendishly expensive in terms of start-up costs too.

Strangely, I never really thought about a bird.

My wife, on the other hand, had a succession of budgies (“parakeets”, in American) after her earlier goldfish kept on trying to go outside the tank to play, and I think she only stopped having them because of the travelling she, and later we, were doing.

That and the fact that pets are darned expensive are the official reasons we’ve never done the apparently American thing of getting a pet for the kids.

The unofficial additional reason is that I perceived pets as a hassle. Dogs and cats need their shots and their vet checkups and their special food; dogs need to be walked on top of that, cats need toys and litterboxes. Lizards and snakes need their terraria and heat lamps, fish need tankage and water and all the stuff that goes along with having fish. Hassle.

We recently pet-sat my sister-in-law’s rabbit, which was another type of pet I’d never really considered. It wasn’t really my idea to pet-sit, but I had no concrete objections. Might as well.

The bunny was very affectionate, but I don’t think rabbits are my thing. They shed, they poo everywhere (especially if they’re like my sister-in-law’s rabbit and used to having the run of the house) and they leave bits of their bedding strewn all over the place.

If you’re a bunny person, this is probably no problem. I don’t think I’m a bunny person, and even though I have virtually no sense of smell, rabbit urine is apparently in that cluster of scent frequencies that get through regardless.

It’s a pleasant enough animal, but I have no desire to emulate my wife’s sister and get one of my own.

Enter the cockatiel.

Chewie, the cockatiel

My pastor found the bird flying loose in the drive-through area of a local fast food restaurant.

Actually, he says it was sitting on the roof of the car in front, where two kids seemed to be trying to get it back. Being a good-natured and helpful man, he offered to help, reached out his hand and got the bird to come to him.

Whereupon the woman driving the car said “Don’t you give that bird to my kids! That’s not our bird!”

So he called the local pet sanctuary, but no-one had reported one missing. This was obviously someone’s loved pet, but neither he nor we have any way of tracking its former owner.

My pastor and his family already have a dog and a cat; they can’t do a bird as well. So my wife persuaded me that we could take it in, after the obligatory period following the making of the report in which you’re legally obligated to hold the escaped bird.

I was expecting this cockatiel to be Heather’s pet. She’s the one that’s had birds before; she’s the one that knows what she’s doing; she’s the one that wanted the thing in the first place.

The bird, which we have named “Chewie” after the Star Wars character and after its habit of nibbling gently on fingers and ears, is having none of that. It (“he”, we think) will go to her if I’m not around, but when I’m available, as far as it’s concerned its proper place is riding my shoulder.

Perhaps surprisingly, I’m ok with this. It’s mostly quiet, making some little chirrups and beak clicks, and if it is a boy we’ll be able to teach it to whistle (apparently the ability is testosterone-dependent) and it’s not a heavy weight to carry around. It seems intelligent (birds are generally far smarter than mammals of the same weight), and it’s affectionate.  It even likes LEGO.  How appropriate is that?

It doesn’t make the sort of smelly, annoying, gets-everywhere mess that the rabbit did. Its mess is either strewn seed shells and the like, or neat little blobs of droppings that don’t detectably smell.  Ok, rabbit poo is easier to clean up, but it rolls, and you can’t always find it all.

We’ve had Chewie for just over a week, now. And I find it remarkable that my former indifference to the whole notion of pet ownership should be so quickly and easily tamed by one solitary cockatiel.

The Power of Story

It’s no accident that Jesus taught in parables. Humans are creatures of story.

Our movie and entertainment industry is largely engaged in the telling of tales, modern computer games, far from their relatively simple Space Invader-type antecedents, are replete with stories and missions and characters and plot. Go back further and the rise of the modern novel developed storywriting into a high art; go back even further and every inn or tavern had its old greybeard who would regale the patrons with tall stories of the doings of their youth. Ancient mythology finds its parallel in modern superhero stories (what are Jason and the Argonauts but the Avengers of the mythic age?); whoever we are and whatever our culture is like, we surround ourselves with many-coloured weavings of story.

Terry Pratchett, late author of the celebrated Discworld comic fantasy series, expresses the story element of humanity with his narrativium: the Fourth Wall-busting magical element that makes sure the universe doesn’t wander off-plot. It’s narrativium that determines why million-to-one chances crop up nine times out of ten – if heroes don’t overcome overwhelming odds, what’s the point? – and explains why magic works at all: stories want to be told, every story has a definite shape as it unravels, and a narrativium-based universe is very good at editing out the bits that don’t fit.

I’d go so far as to suggest that storytelling is part of the most basic set of traits that make us human, which would make it part of the Divine image that we are told humans bear. God is a storytelling God: look at the Book He communicates to us through. Not a list of commands or propositional statements (though there is some of that), not a hymn in praise of the Divine greatness (though that’s in there too); at root the Bible is a collection of narrative stories. We believe they’re true, factual accounts (with certain exceptions such as parables, which are couched in such language as to suggest hypothetical examples rather than real-life incidents, and symbolic writing like the book of Revelation), but they are primarily narrative rather than poetry, scientific textbook, discursive writing like a Socratic dialogue, or lists of commandments.

This is important because the ubiquity of story has implications for how we present truth, how we teach, even how we think.

As Westerners, we’re very attached to our propositional, analytical way of presenting information. If you were to ask almost any teacher from a Western country to teach about the Kingdom of Heaven, their first instinct would likely be to create a list or chart, detailing everything we know about the Kingdom: what is it, where is it, who’s in it, who isn’t, how do you get into it, all that sort of thing.

While this is a very good method for passing on factual information, it has very little in common with the way Jesus is recorded as having done it. “The Kingdom of Heaven is like…”

  • A tiny seed growing to become the largest of garden plants; a tree that the birds come and perch in…

  • A net that fishermen threw down into the water…

  • A sower going out to sow seed…

  • A man going on a journey, who called three of his servants together and entrusted them with certain sums of money, each according to his ability…

Since we believe that Jesus Christ was God incarnate, we ought to trust that He knew what He was doing selecting the teaching mode that He did. Maybe our way of teaching isn’t necessarily all it’s cracked up to be.

I have to confess that I don’t personally read a lot of Christian books. If you like that sort of thing, there are some good ones out there, but most of the ones I’ve read haven’t stuck with me all that well. I’m blowed if I can even remember the main point of The Prayer of Jabez or Wild at Heart or The Purpose-Driven Life, but narrative stories like The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe or The Lord of the Rings or even something completely pagan like the Harry Potter books have stayed with me.

I’ve learned far more Biblical truth over the years from the Chronicles of Narnia than I ever have from any number of teaching books, and in a far more important way. The stories make it live, make the truth something you want to emulate and live and be a part of. There really is a great cosmic struggle of good and evil that will take every power you possess (and a few you don’t) to gain the victory in. The power of love and self-sacrifice really is stronger than all the powers of darkness arrayed in their hellish might. The small deeds of kindness and loyalty done by unlikely, out-of-their-depth heroes really can tip the scales; in the Divine economy, these widow’s mites weigh more than the great gifts of the high and mighty.

Our stories don’t need to be strict allegories in order to communicate truth, either. I’m right with CS Lewis in “cordially detesting” allegory, with its one-to-one correspondence of story and truth, so that the whole thing becomes one of those slot puzzles we give to babies to teach them pattern recognition and hand-eye coordination. The round block only ever goes into the round hole; character X only ever represents truth Y.

“Real” stories are more complex and subtle, alluding to truth rather than hitting you in the face with it. Gandalf’s near-death and return in The Lord of the Rings is suggestive of Christ’s death and resurrection, and Gandalf himself does become a sort of Christological character, but there is no absolute parallel. He’s Gandalf, not Jesus in disguise; you can’t take everything he says or does as What Jesus Would Do. But in his character as written there are truths which the Holy Spirit can recall to those hearts He has been preparing.

Allegory seems to be a persistent temptation for the Christian storyteller. It’s neat and tidy; by one imperious gesture on the part of the writer their story world incarnates the truths they want to focus on in visible form.

But it usually makes for a rather artificial or stilted manner of storytelling that seldom works as well on its own terms as a pure story.

While allegory can sometimes be profitable, it’s so rare to find a well-written one. The Pilgrim’s Progress may be a classic of Christian literature, but it gets heavy and didactic at times, and all the labels are placed so visibly that there’s little to tell but the eventual proof of a character’s name. Where’s the story in that?

I have to confess to a sneaking suspicion that our love affair with allegory as Christian writers reflects a refusal to trust that the Holy Spirit of God knows His business.

If we are truly regenerate, if we have truly come to the saving trust in Jesus Christ and Him crucified that produces real change in a person’s life, we will write regenerate stories. Writing from our heart as believers without necessarily worrying about symbolism will of necessity produce a story as spiritually distinct from that produced by an unbeliever as light is from darkness.

Not that all non-Christian storytelling is necessarily spiritual darkness, either. For those with eyes to see, you can find Scriptural parallels even in the Harry Potter books, and no-one is claiming that Joanne Rowling is a Christian author. Sometimes the Holy Spirit is downright sneaky, putting things in there that even the authors do not necessarily intend. Or as CS Lewis put it, “all good stories are reflections of the one Good Story”.

When we write about great themes like love, self-sacrifice, the struggle of good and evil, triumph against the odds, personal redemption and so on as Christians, of course our faith is going to find expression in what we write. Tolkien’s work is far more intrinsically Christian in this sense, even with its pagan cosmology and elves and gods and magic, than many books supposedly set in this real universe that is a direct creation of God.

Similarly, too, the Holy Spirit working in the heart of a reader might use a single sentence, comment, paragraph, even the very heart of a tale itself, in His drawing of that reader closer to the Lord whether as someone inside or outside the faith. I don’t pretend to believe that JK Rowling intended to present Harry Potter as a deliberately Christological character, but as a person of faith I can make connections whether she intended them or not. In the final book, for instance, Harry is killed by Voldemort, the chief adversary and evil character, and then comes back from the dead to destroy him forever. Sound familiar?

Harry isn’t Jesus any more than Gandalf is, but Joanne Rowling handed the church a great set of culturally-relevant parallels to draw upon when she wrote those books. And the series is a rollicking good tale on its own merits, too.

All this to say what we all already knew by instinct: that storytelling is a powerful thing.

But as to implications for the way we teach, I’m sometimes struck by how dissimilar a modern sermon is from one of Jesus’ parables.

Could you teach entirely in parable-type stories? It’s a fascinating idea. Jesus did it, but the Gospels record that His disciples frequently missed the point or had to come to Him privately for explanation. Not something many preachers of my acquaintance would have time for; the object is to do the explaining, not to tell an obscure tale which requires further explanation before it’s understood.

What’s the point, then? Why take the risk on your hearers misunderstanding?

Maybe some are going to misconstrue, no matter what you say. Maybe it’s a way of guarding your truths from being deliberately twisted by the ignorant and hostile.

Maybe, too, it’s a way to slip past people’s guardedness and plant seeds that will bear fruit in time. A good tale on its own merits can get a hearing where a bald statement of fact will be rejected. Phillip Pullman notwithstanding, there have been hardcore atheists who have loved CS Lewis’ Narnia even with its innate Christianness. We are, as I said earlier, creatures of story, we humans.

Even in politics, it’s easier to make a hardline statement of position if you never hear the story of someone on the other side whose life has been messed about by that self-same position. Listening to their story, you begin to enter into their world, see it from their perspective. Story energises our compassion; they’re no longer a statistic, but a person with goals and hopes and dreams and pain. Listening to their story, we become more fully human, more like the Divine image. We care, we start to love and show mercy. Because we know their story.

Good stories are incredibly powerful things.

Remember, Remember

Remember, remember the 5th of November

Gunpowder, treason and plot

I see no reason why Gunpowder Treason

Should ever be forgot.

People in the UK don’t have fireworks on the Fourth of July. That much ought to be obvious, but I’ve met enough Americans that just don’t stop and think long enough to really realise this on a conscious level.

Anyway, our fireworks happen on the fifth of November, and for a different reason.

November 5th in Britain is vastly different, weatherwise, from July 4th in Texas. It’s cold and damp; not actually freezing (mostly), but weather for wearing coats and gloves and for having bonfires. Which you can actually do, usually, because unlike Texas, the British Isles are not a disguised desert in which rain is a legendary creature rarer than the chimaera. Trying to set a bonfire in Texas around the Fourth of July is asking to set the entire state alight. No exaggeration.

The bonfire also provides a welcome break from the cold and dark of a British November, but that’s not its primary reason for existing.

Just like the fireworks, and like the Liberty Bell and the Easter Egg, the bonfire is a symbol connected intrinsically to the reason we have a celebration at all.

(Incidentally, Brits definitely get the better deal with Easter Eggs. American Easter Eggs are small, plastic, and filled with various artificial-tasting American candies. British Easter Eggs are a hollow shell only slightly smaller than an ostrich egg, made out of chocolate (actual chocolate, too, not that awful Hersheys rubbish) and filled with vastly better-tasting British sweets. No contest)

Anyway…

The difference in history behind the US and UK fireworks days is emblematic of the difference in basal attitude between our two countries towards government. And with a US election just around the corner, it seemed an appropriate subject.

The Fourth of July is, of course, an Independence Day. In popular American myth, it’s the day when the heroic American patriots told the evil British tyrants that they weren’t having it any more, dumped perfectly good tea into Boston harbour and shot at the Redcoats until they all went home in disgrace. Give it a couple of hundred years more and Paul Revere will ride through town at midnight distributing presents of ammunition to all the good little redneck boys and girls.

Um, excuse me. I shouldn’t be facetious. This is serious stuff. The birth of a new nation by telling its former colonial power to butt out, and making it stick. The wisdom and foresight of both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution with its Bill of Rights.

The point I’m trying to make is that the essence of the Fourth of July is the celebration of independence. From whom? Well, we’ll look at that in a minute.

The Fifth of November, by contrast, celebrates the failure of an act of terrorism. I should probably explain a little for the benefit of my non-British readership.

The potted popular version is that back in the age when Europeans had long and bloody wars over which variety of Christian they were going to be, a group of Roman Catholic conspirators led by, or at least aided and abetted by, Guy Fawkes, plotted to blow up the overwhelmingly Protestant Parliament while the equally Protestant King James I (of England and VI of Scotland) was visiting. (Yes, the king visits Parliament. By tradition the Sovereign has to ask Parliament’s permission to enter; he or she may not do so merely as a matter of right).

The conspirators smuggled barrels of gunpowder into the chambers below the central House, where the aforementioned Guy Fawkes was to wait until he heard the sounds of Parliament in session above, light the fuse and make his getaway.

The scheme might have succeeded, leaving a power vacuum in which most of the powerful Protestant Lords were dead and the closest claimant to the throne was a Catholic prepared to unleash a new round of Bloody Mary’s burnings and torturings of Protestant heretics. British Protestants don’t have a spotless record when it comes to treatment of Catholics, but at least the official persecution stopped short of massed burnings at the stake.

It might have succeeded. The fact that it didn’t was due to the fact that a couple of the conspirators tried to warn four prominent Catholic Members of Parliament not to attend that day, and the four, whether from putting their country ahead of their religious allegiance or from a simple rejection of these violent means, in turn informed the King.

Guy Fawkes was caught red-handed and his ring of co-conspirators was apprehended. And for his act of treason against the lawful Sovereign and Government, he was put to death by burning. (It was a savage age in many ways, and the people were incensed. No pun intended).

Hence the bonfire, to remember his death, and the fireworks, to remember the Gunpowder Plot.

The point here is that the essence of the Fifth of November is the celebration of the preservation of government, and that’s the big difference.

For Britons, by and large, government is generally viewed as benign. Its purpose is to restrain lawlessness and allow decent ordinary people to live out their lives in relative peace. The Royal Family is emblematic of this; the friendly, cosy, limited authority of a good father or mother in a family, extended to the scale of a nation. The Sovereign of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland isn’t considered “the Father of the Nation” in the way the Tsars of Russia were, but it’s a metaphor. National government is fatherly, motherly, a close, familial authority which is, when the chips are down, for you, not against you.

This mindset might as well be Martian to most Americans (though if anything, Jupiter ought to be considered Britain’s presiding planetary power. King of the gods, and all that. Jupiterian, perhaps). The basal American attitude to government is that it’s at best a necessary evil. I sometimes suspect that a lot of Republicans are only narrowly removed from outright anarchism, but even a lot of Democrats seem to have a base-level distrust of government that even the most ardently republican (note the small “r”) Brit doesn’t.

Government seems to be viewed as the enemy. Necessary, perhaps, but needing to be caged and imprisoned and limited and controlled in order to keep the blighters honest. Give them the chance and they’ll turn on you in a heartbeat, eviscerate you and eat your lungs. The US political system of checks and balances is an institutionalised version of this mistrust of authority; no one agency has all of the power, because government is by nature untrustworthy.

Even at our most strongly pro-democracy, most Brits maintain a subliminal belief that the institution of government itself is basically trustworthy. While this is not true of any particular government or group of politicians (most of them, in fact, could do with having their feet held to the fire to keep the blighters honest), the integrity of the institution of governmental authority itself is not up for question. On some level, we trust government to at least try to act for the good of the country and its people, whether or not we trust the people involved to recognise what the good of the country is.

Americans are largely the inverse of this. They might place trust in individual political figures or parties, but the system itself, the institution, the nature of authority, is that it is an enemy and capable of great and nefarious evil. We’re free Americans! No-one tells us what to do! Hooah!

The Fourth of July celebrates freedom from the evil forces of government, embodied in the “foreign tyranny” (personally disputed on both counts, but let’s not get into that) of British rule.

The Fifth of November celebrates preservation of the government from evil forces. It’s a significant difference.

And on that note, I’ll leave all you Americans to go and vote on Tuesday, and all you Brits to reflect on the strange mindset that leads many Americans to vote the way they do. And I can’t even shoot up a single firework here in Texas to celebrate the day, because they’re not allowed to the general public within city limits.

Sanctuary

For once, I’m not going to whinge about Halloween this year.

Three years ago I don’t think I was even blogging, but I was moaning about it in the privacy of my offline life.

The year before last I grumbled about the inescapability of it and wanted better answers for my kids on why I didn’t want anything to do with it.

Last year we decided to counterattack by attempting a resuscitation of All Saints Day.

In the course of that discussion with the kids, we apparently managed to penetrate the sugar-induced pink haze around All Saints’ more well-known lead-in and communicate to our children that we weren’t trying to be killjoys who didn’t want them to have fun and get candy; there was and is a serious point to why we don’t do Halloween.

“You mean it’s about the devil? Why didn’t you say? No, I don’t want to do it if that’s what it’s about!”

Now, I know there are plenty of Christ-followers who do feel a freedom of conscience to joyfully engage with the rest of the world on this holiday, but I’m not one of them. I’m not going to tell you you can’t, or even that you shouldn’t. But for us, Halloween really is a celebration of the dark and disturbed. As for me and my house, we ain’t gonna do that.

These days, it seems like the popular Christian thing to do is increasingly to try to co-opt or join in with Halloween but to stand firm against Father Christmas to the extent of raising a generation of Santa-atheists.

Once again, I’m out of step with the up-and-coming in thing, but it looks to me as if the generation of which I was a part, that were refused permission to join in with Halloween as children by well-meaning Christian parents, are now all grown-up and fulfilling their childhood vows to themselves that “when I have kids, I’m going to let them do Halloween!”

However, it seems like our All Saints idea worked.

The family All Saints party was not a great party, as parties go, but the kids got to stay up a bit later than usual, dress up and get candy, so they were happy.

But in its larger aim of silencing the ubiquitous sucking sound of Halloween, it succeeded very well.

This year, our kids haven’t been pestering us about going Trick-or-Treating or celebrating Halloween. The Eve of All Hallows has been once again relegated to its proper place as a non-event.

And in this peace and freedom, a pumpkin can once again be just a pumpkin. Bats and spiders can be just (freaky-looking) creatures that God made. They aren’t symbols of acquiescence in the Grand Hallmark and Hershey’s Plot to let Halloween take over the world. All of the ghost and skeleton decorations are still there, of course, but they no longer feel like they’re taking over. I don’t feel quite so much like the Duke of Wellington’s army at the Battle of Waterloo: trying desperately to hold the thin red line against the enemy’s inexorable advance.

We have found, or built, a refuge. The treacherous Fifth Column elements that kept trying to open the gates have been brought back to the Side of Light.

As the Scripture puts it: “This is the victory that overcomes the world; even our faith.”

Happy All Saints’ Day, everyone!

The Brexit: Reactions from Over the Sea

When something like this happens, as a Brit living in America everyone wants to know what you think about it. What is going to happen now? Is it a good thing or a bad thing? What about this, that or the other?

It’s rather flattering to be treated as a source of primary information regarding whatever I’m being asked about concerning my country, but the truth of the matter is that my first-hand experience of Britain on a long-term basis is now over a decade old and there have been many changes in the interim.

Nonetheless, for the record, here are my thoughts on the Brexit we’ve just voted for ourselves: I don’t know.

I really don’t. I’ve been sceptical of the federalising nature of the European Union for decades now, mistrusting its stated aim of creating a single European state that I feel little to no emotional attachment to (and yes, that has been the stated aim right from the beginning). I don’t like the concentration of EU power in the hands of unelected bureaucrats, I dislike its general wastage of time and money (the British government isn’t really any better, but at least it operates on a smaller scale), I mistrust the necessity of giving up control of our borders, and I do not like the distant, basically faceless nature of European government.

However, I’ve been living in the US for long enough now to understand exactly how small a fish the United Kingdom is in the global pond. London is still one of the great financial centres of the world, but in American financial news it’s frequently less important (and therefore less mentioned) than the French or German markets. And the collective “European markets” are only one beside the USA, China and Japan.

The UK together by itself is a much more viable proposition as a state than something like Scotland trying to go it totally alone, but we’re still pretty small and should not get arrogant as if we still owned a quarter of the world’s land surface.

Also, Donald Trump thinks the Brexit is a good idea, which should give us pause.

Watching from a distance, I’ve become disturbed by the increasingly fascistic and anti-immigrant tone of UKIP and sections of the Leave campaign. Immigration is going to happen whether we’re in or out. We can’t and shouldn’t try to completely close our borders; the diversity of perspectives and understandings brought in by our immigrant communities ought to be a source of strength, not weakness.

Neither should we withdraw from the world into the snail-shell of our Island Britain, drawbridge raised and spears bristling against “contamination” or whatever. Britain really does have a vital role to play in the world, whether as a part of the EU or separately: we have real national gifts and perspective that the world needs. Too many of the Leave camp seem to want to do just that, and I am not with them.

Also, Donald Trump thinks it’s a good idea.

Would we be better off Remaining? I don’t know. We can’t hope to influence the European Union from outside, but we seldom seem to have very much influence on it even from within. Is it better to be a single small fish in a large global pond, or a single small fish in a slightly smaller European pond that wants to assimilate the shoal into being a single large fish? Either way it seems like we’re being eaten.

The EU is widely considered a nightmare of overreaching red tape and stifling regulation, but Britain’s recent record on actually beneficial legislation to protect the weak and the poor from predation of various kinds is not good. Typically we’ve opposed it until made to change our ways by Europe, and that’s not a good pattern. Take note, American Republicans. Sometimes government is there as a sheepdog to stop massive corporate interests from turning predator. The EU has been a force for human rights and peace in Europe. I recognise and honour that.

Also, Donald Trump thinks the Brexit is a good idea.

That’s been one of my main problems with the whole campaign, actually, but particularly the Leave folks. The fearmongering on both sides has been dreadful even from this side of the Atlantic, but the fascistic tone of much of the Leave arguments and many of the people who support an exit put me off, including just about all of UKIP.

One of the things this vote has done is expose how deeply divided our nation is. Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to Remain; Wales and England voted to Leave. Older people wanted to Leave, young people overwhelmingly voted to Remain. London voted to Remain, the rest of England voted to Leave.

Is the name “United Kingdom” a bad joke? We’ve seldom before seemed so divided. You probably have to go back to the time of the seven Anglo-Saxon kingdoms before “England” was even a thing in order to reach a comparative level of disunity. What is “Britain” now? What is “Europe”? What are “Scotland”, “Wales”, “Northern Ireland” and “England”?

I suspect that part of the success of the Leave campaign is a reflection of this especial confusion of our national identity as British.

Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have strong identities as Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. They have done for a long time, and they hold them tenaciously. Not so the majority English. When I was young the English were always taught that it was wrong to say “I’m English” because we wanted to include our brothers and sisters of the several Celtic nations (that is, the Welsh, Scots and Irish). We were always taught to speak and think of ourselves as “British”, engendering a monumental confusion over what is “Britishness” as opposed to “Englishness”. This was brought to the fore by the recent Scottish independence referendum, but it’s been a real question for quite a while. And I’ve been out of the country for most of that time, so I’m not directly familiar with what sort of answers, if any, my country is coming up with.

Add in another level of “Europeanness” and an EU that really fundamentally doesn’t like the idea of separate national identities and it’s perhaps less surprising that the Leave camp won (or who it was that voted to Remain). Those with the strongest subnational identities (Scotland and Northern Ireland, both of which have strong separatist movements and can view Britain as “English rule”) voted to Remain, while the confused English and the much more connected-to-England Wales (Yes, there’s a Welsh nationalist movement as well, but Wales has always been more integrated with England than Scotland is) voted to Leave. London, the determinedly cosmopolitan and internationalist financial centre, voted to Remain, the rest of England voted to Leave.

We don’t know what happens now. No-one does. In a real sense I have little invested in it any more; I live in America now. But I’m still at least emotionally committed to the country of my birth. I’m still a citizen of the United Kingdom rather than the United States, and I still don’t feel I can swear the US oath of citizenship in good conscience while it contains that clause about “renouncing all other allegiances” or however it’s worded. But the situation doesn’t affect me directly any more, so anything I say has to be viewed through that lens.

I’ve not been there for the arguments and wrangling. I’ve not lived in the UK for a decade. I’m viewing things from a distance, and that can sometimes play weird tricks on your perspective.

It will be very interesting to see how it all plays out, though I hope not in the sense of the ancient Chinese curse.

Britain is one of the top three or four economies in Europe. Her exit is going to leave a hole, not to mention potentially acting as the First Domino. But is this a fallacious “slippery slope” type argument? Only time will tell. And while I’m at least reasonably confident that Britain isn’t going to try to retreat from any and all engagement with the outside world, that may not be the case with all of the other potential exitees.

We don’t know what will happen as we try to extricate ourselves from the Union. At least we don’t have to get kicked out of the Eurozone and renegotiate our currency, but no-one can tell where the unravelling of that Gordian Knot will lead, whether for better or for worse.

So basically I’m still unsure over the whole thing. If I’d been registered to vote in it I would have done so (particularly if I’d been living there) but I don’t actually know which way I’d have voted. If I’d never left the UK, I might well have voted with the eventual majority, but I don’t know. It took moving to the USA for me to self-identify as a European, and I still mean that in a continental rather than political sense. But I’m a lot older and less naïve now than I was when I was in my early twenties in Britain, and watching the Scottish independence referendum gave me a certain sympathy for the rest of Europe who have been forced to deal with British Eurosceptics for at least a generation.

Who can say? As CS Lewis says, none of us are ever told what would have happened.

I hope that now we can all come together as a nation and do what’s right, making the best of the situation no matter how we (collectively if not actually personally) voted. We’ve historically been quite good at coming together and doing what’s right when our backs are to the wall. It remains to be seen whether that is still true.

I hope that my country doesn’t descend into the sort of ignorant anti-immigrant near-fascist mess that sections of the American electorate seem bent on becoming. I hope that we actually discover (or reforge) our real identity both as British and as English, Scots, Irish and Welsh. And as belonging to the European continent if not the Union. And as citizens of the world with something to contribute to the nations.

My optimism gives me hope. My cynicism isn’t so sure. And with the turn American politics seems to be taking, I see the same forces of ignorance, anti-immigrant nationalism and snaillike isolationism at work here.

What manner of world are we creating?