Franklin Graham and Freedom of Religion

I find many of the things that Franklin Graham says extremely frustrating. Whether he is talking about Muslims, or Donald Trump, it seems like he represents a brand of religio-nationalism more than he does the teachings of Christ. However, I thought this post defending his work (through Samaritan’s Purse) in New York was very insightful regarding the issues at stake in the discussion of whether or not Samaritan’s Purse should be welcome in New York.

But my concern about the attack on Samaritan’s Purse by a gay activist in New York City is not about my disagreement  on marriage. My concern is about religious freedom, choice, pluralism, and respect for those who disagree with us. The key point of our constitution’s first amendment on religious and political freedom is this: Precisely because society is and always will have many diverse views, we  therefore respect and affirm the freedom of those who profoundly disagree with us. We will argue vigorously with each other and explain why we think certain views are profoundly wrong and even harmful. But we will defend the freedom of those who disagree with us—even those who disagree vehemently with us! And we will not try to use government to silence or exclude them.

The argument isn’t that Franklin Graham is right in his attitudes towards gay marriage, but that if we want a society that values religous freedom, we need to avoid participating in witch hunts.

I lament and strongly condemn Franklin Graham’s many misguided, unloving statements and actions. But the solution is not to try to silence or expel him. Rather it is, first, to insist that a pluralistic society defends everybody’s right to views that others consider profoundly wrong. And then, second, to argue persuasively to refute misguided ideas.

Because doing the opposite, creating a society where everyone must think the same or risk being cancelled, is extremely dangerous. Not only to those who think differently from the liberal norms, but to those who endorse those norms.

It’s an old argument (from J.S Mill), but those who we disagree with serve us in two ways; firstly, they help us to see where we may be wrong, or only in posession of a partial truth, secondly, they serve us by forcing us to defend ideas and values that we previously held lightly. The argument goes that there’s nothing worse than the sloppy thinking of inherited opinions.

Enjoying quarantine: something for those with more time on their hands, and something for those with kids

There are some of you who have found yourselves with more time on your hands than you had before Covid-19 emerged. According to the media, some of you are finding this to be a hellish experience.

As someone doing home quarantine with a high-energy 3-year-old and a 6-month-old, I find this difficult to imagine, but I thought I’d share two free courses that I would participate in if I were you:

Principles of Economics

This looks to be a super interesting introduction to the concepts that underpin the discipline of economics. It promises to expand our view of what economics is and how it touches broadly on decision making.

Find it here

The Science of Wellbeing

Offered by Yale University, and taught by Professor Laurie Santos, who also hosts The Happiness Lab podcast, this course in practical psychology is oriented toward teaching participants to understand their own brains and to think better.

Find it here

For those with kids, here are two free resources that I think are useful:

Elevenses with The World of David Walliams

David Walliams, the Little Britain comic turned children’s book author, is making a new audio story available each day at 11am (GMT). His narrations are hilarious.

Find them here

P.E. With Joe

Every morning at 9am (GMT), Joe Wicks leads a live P.E. class on YouTube for kids and their parents. From what I understand, a lot of primary schools in the UK are building this into their homeschooling schedules.

Find it here

A life online

Today our church met for the first time online. I don’t mean that we listened to a band, and then listened to a sermon as they appeared in a one-way ‘livestream.’

We met (via Zoom) and sang together, we learned a Jesus story, we discussed a Psalm, and we prayed together.

It wasn’t quite like being in the same room, and we are still learning what to do about the logistics, when to mute and when to unmute, but it was good.

Our church this morning

It was also my Mum’s 60th Birthday and so later in the day we had another Zoom call, together with my sister and brother in law, to sing her Happy Birthday and to watch her and my Dad eat some of her birthday cake.

This was more bittersweet since it is a big birthday which would usually be celebrated with family and friends, but the plans had to change because of new regulations and advice in light of the Coronavirus pandemic.

All of the above makes me thankful for the infrastructure we already have in place to make this second best approach to connecting a possibility.

What I learned from my month without Twitter

At the start of Advent I decided to take month long break from Twitter, the last remaining social media platform that I use. During the autumn I had noticed myself feeling on edge, running towards distractions, and I wanted to see if I could spend Advent focussing on its original purpose: anticipating the coming of Jesus.

Now, on New Year’s Eve, I thought it would be a prime opportunity to reflect on my Twitter fast and on any lessons I learned during it. But first a brief diary of my fast:

1st-3rd December

I have the nagging desire to update my feed and to check that no one has been in touch. I forgot to announce the fact that I was taking a break. On the third day, instead of going onto the site and updating it, I decide to post to my blog. I figure that since my blog posts get automatically posted to Twitter, this is a good workaround (cheat?) I make sure that my title is clear enough that even if no one clicks on the link, there will be some indication of where I have disappeared to during this time.

4th-6th December

I’m less twitchy. I no longer feel provoked by the Twitter icon on my browser home screen. However, I’m not totally over it. Instead of looking at my Twitter feed every hour, I’ve noticed that I’m hitting refresh more often on my Gmail account. I am expecting an important email, so it’s not entirely unusual, but it’s still not something I’m proud of. I decide to use these urges I have to remind myself to do something else: take a walk, read a book.

7th December

My wife Sofia and I have been reading the Jesus Storybook Bible with our daughter every night before she goes to bed. I downloaded an Advent reading plan, so each night we have a story to read. Our daughter is just about to turn two, so sometimes struggles to concentrate through the entire story, but not always. I’m really enjoying the way the stories are written and that they are woven together to make sense of the Bible as one whole story.

8th December

I’m doing more focussed reading. Instead of getting bounced about the internet by every new link that appears in my feed, I am taking control of my attention. There are books that I have started reading but haven’t yet finished:

  • You are what you love by James K.A. Smith
  • The Milkman by Anna Burns
  • Leap over a wall by Eugene Peterson
  • Millones Cajones by Rob Bell
  • Factfulness by Hans Rosling

I decide to read as many of these as possible before the New Year, and to avoid starting any new books until I have. One exception to this rule is Jesus Calling, which I start reading before bed each night with Sofia.

I find myself composing tweets in my head and then remembering that I can’t publish them. Each time I remember this, I have a sinking feeling.

9th December

My parents arrive tomorrow, so I’m busy getting ready for their arrival. This includes ordering the last of the Christmas gifts that are left to order. Life is a big swirl of hoovering, online shopping, offline shopping, dusting, and child care.

10th-17th DecemberMy parents arrive and our schedule becomes a bit busier. This is good because it means that I am distracted from my urge to think about what I would tweet if I were allowed. In fact the only online things that I think about are the important email that hasn’t arrived yet, and the message from the place I ordered my wife’s gift from saying that they didn’t actually have it in stock when they accepted my order (!)

18th December

The day before my birthday. I find myself thinking about the year that I re-joined Facebook because I wanted to read the messages from friends on my wall. I feel a pang of desire for the sense of connection that these platforms can bring, but then remember that people write messages because Facebook tells them to, not because they actually remember. I decide that I will be happy with the small number of genuine greetings that I receive.

19th December

It’s the day! My birthday! I do receive a few WhatsApp messages from my close friends. A few are quiet, but I know that I’ll see them later that evening. I break my no new books rule when Sofia gives me a copy of What are we doing here? by Marilynne Robinson and I start reading the introduction.

I mention to Sofia that I’ve received messages from some friends and she tells me that they probably got reminded on Facebook, that my account is still active. I have no idea if this is the case, but I really thought I closed it down several years ago.
That evening, my friends come around for beer tasting. Although we use our phones to keep score, we connect face to face, not through screens. It feels good.

20th-23rd December

The quietness descends. Although we’re busy celebrating Christmas, battling colds, and getting ready for a drive up to Sofia’s family in Småland, there’s a pleasant peacefulness about it all. Our toddler is fully embracing the extra sugar in Christmas food, especially gingerbread cookies. She’s a little more highly strung than normal.

24th-25th December

Kick back and relax. It’s Christmas! We’re a Welsh-Swedish family, so that means at least two days feel like Christmas. The schedule is pretty structured at my Swedish in-laws place over Christmas, but it’s mainly about eating and going for walks, and sitting. My old Twitter-urges seem to resurface during this change of pace. The news isn’t updated as regularly and no-one sends emails during this time. Should I just check Twitter? Advent is officially over, after all! But I don’t, and I haven’t.

Now several days have passed and I still haven’t checked Twitter. I’m kind of apprehensive that what drew me in before would draw me in again.

But what did I learn from this break?

That Twitter isn’t the problem, I am

It’s easy to demonise Twitter, to rail against it as some kind of corruptive force, but the reality is that it is just one of the instant distraction buttons that I have allowed to shape the way that I behave.

By using Twitter and other apps in the way that I have done, I have programmed myself to be low on concentration, low on empathy, and obsessed with what’s new.

Taking a break from Twitter has been liberating because it has given me more time and I have used that time to focus on activities that demand longer spans of concentration (like reading The Milkman).

You could say that my problem isn’t (or wasn’t) Twitter, but my misuse of time. I haven’t been stewarding my time well, and as a result have cultivated addictive behaviours.

Why I’m celebrating Advent for the first time by fasting Twitter

Refugees: The Holy Family by Kelly Latimore

This December is the first time I’ve observed Advent. I mean really intentionally observed it.

While I love this season as much as anyone, I usually don’t make the most of it. I’m usually distracted by whatever it is I’m working on and, by the time Christmas comes around, I get swept up in whatever festivities are happening around me. I usually let other people curate my Christmas experience.

Not so this year.

I can remember coming to the end of almost every winter holiday season wishing that there had been more focus on Jesus. I felt sad that something that is so important in my life had been sidelined.

While I had the intention of celebrate his coming to Earth, my attention was elsewhere. It was on logistics and shopping and meeting friends and family members and cooking nice food.

Don’t get me wrong, all these things are good, it’s just that I have experienced them as distraction from the kind of space I actually want to inhabit. I want to be someone whose life isn’t hurried, but is deeply centred.

At times in church history, Advent has been used for fasting and reflection. It’s been a time in which decorations are kept to a minimum in order that we celebrate Jesus coming to a world that wasn’t prepared for him. Fleming Rutledge puts it this way:

The purpose of this withholding is to teach us that, in the birth of our Savior, we have received something that is beyond our deserving, beyond our preparations, beyond our human potential, beyond our expectations–that comes to us, in the words of beloved carols, in a “silent night,” in the “dark streets,” “in the bleak midwinter”

Fleming Rutledge, Observing Advent

So this year, knowing that it won’t work to start pursuing centredness on Christmas Eve, I’ve decided to embrace Advent. I’m using it as a time of preparation for what is to come. I’m taking time for reflection and focus in the hope that this will influence my inner space by the time Christmas comes around.

One of the important factors in cultivating this space is reducing distraction. Instead of falling prey to the cacophony of voices that usually crowd, and shape, my imagination, I’m taking back control.

One of my sources of endless ideas and questions and opinions is Twitter.

Even though I deleted the app from my phone several months ago, it has continued to be one of my go-tos for new information.

But more than that, I’ve noticed that it’s been my go-to for a quick fix of distraction: an escape from my inner journey. And my inner landscape has been deforested by this incessant running away.

So this Advent I’ve decided to abstain from using Twitter.

I won’t be opening that particular tab on my web browser until after Christmas. And even though I have minor anxiety about missing out on some important news, I think things will be okay.

Hopefully, learning to spend more time reflecting on the things I choose to, rather than the things that are thrown at me, will mean that I have more to offer the world.

How about you? Are there things you do during this season to help you reflect? Leave a comment below or shoot me an email to share your advent practices.

Ps. for those of you who arrived here from Twitter and are wondering if you caught me cheating, that was an auto-post 🙂

How anti-racism strategies can backfire

While reading about refugee children in Sweden, I came across a study by Ann Runfors which looked at the way that schools on the multicultural margins of Swedish society instil identity in those they teach.

What Runfors found was that while the schools she visited worked hard to avoid emphasising the differences between people, with the aim to be anti-racist they instead reinforced a Swedes vs. Immigrants mindset.

In their desire to nurture an atmosphere of culture blindness and tolerance, the teachers in these schools avoided even asking where their students came from. The idea behind this was that if teachers didn’t recognise the differences between say Somalis and Kurds, or Afghans and Iranians, the pupils were less likely to see these identities as having an impact on who they should or shouldn’t associate with.

But the teachers still needed a way to describe the kind of behaviour which was desirable within Swedish society. And for this task they referred to “Swedes.” A Swede sees things this way, or does things that way…etc.

And who became the other to the teachers’ idealised version of a Swede?

Yes, you guessed it – immigrants.

In an environment that had been intentionally engineered to be prejudice-free, immigrant children were learning that they were not ideal citizens. They were second. Other.

The large group which was made up of many ‘invisible’ cultures was, according to the narrative told by the teachers, a unified block. This block represented the antithesis of Swedish culture.

I tell this story for two reasons.

First, that it is a reminder of the gap that can exist between intention and outcome. The teachers were not trying to educate their pupils to see themselves as lesser. This was an indirect effect of a well intentioned strategy. 

Second, it teaches us the need to reflect on the impact of our actions. It is easy to get busy with activities that are well intentioned but which reinforce destructive and inhumane power structures. It is important to seek the input of those who have a different point of view, especially if we are more closely aligned with the system of power than those who are affected by the things we do or say.

This can be applied to many contexts. It applies to the education of immigrant children, but it can also be applied to the #metoo movement. It has relevance to relief and development organisations, as it does the missionary world.

The more we are able to reflect on our own place in the world, the more we become aware of the voice that we have, the voice which can ask questions and challenge policies, which can prod and persuade and instigate change in the direction of a more just world.

Sweden’s new class system

A short time ago I visited a Syrian family with a friend of mine. My friend is an engineer and had decided to help this family’s two sons with their maths homework.

Our time with the family was lovely. We got there and the two sons were ready to get started right away. They started showing my friend their current schoolwork on a computer that they have been given by their school.

I sat on a mattress on the floor with the Mum and Dad, talking about life in Sweden, life in Syria and why, after two years, they still hadn’t been given a residence permit.

These boys had been placed in a class that reflects their age (they’re twins and both 12). The work they are doing is, by Swedish standards, several years behind their age.

Their parents are from the Syrian countryside. The mum is illiterate, even in Arabic. The Dad likes to read, but left school when he was nine.

In another setting in Sweden, the kids would be getting help with their homework from their parents, who would have the education level to understand the work their children have been given. But our Syrian friends don’t have those resources to lean into.

The Swedish system is designed to be a meritocracy – an environment in which people succeed based on their natural abilities, rather than the connections they were born into. Someone from a poor family who performs well at school has just as much chance of getting into a good university as someone from a wealthy family.

Kind of.

Although anyone who performs well at school can succeed, there are factors that prevent those from families like our Syrian friends succeeding.

One of these is not having parents who can help them with their homework.

Another is being taught in a language in which they are not yet fluent.

And then there’s the fact that they have been out of school several years because of displacement, journeying to Sweden, and then the time it has taken them to get enrolled in a school here.

Not to mention the trauma that accompanies witnessing war, travelling to Europe in a cramped sea vessel, seeing fellow travellers die, and being separated from family and friends.

All of this hinders them from competing with other children in their age group.

Which, to me, looks like the makings of a class system.

Because it’s theoretically easy to succeed in Sweden, and education is free, certificates are very important.

In fact, they are much more important than things that used to count for something, like experience.

I don’t know what the answer is for kids like these, who are so full of potential but have had so little opportunity to develop it. Perhaps it’s just the one-at-a-time offering of homework help by people like my friend.

According to Dave Eggers, the author who started the 826 Valencia homework club, a child who receives 35-40 hours one on one homework attention usually improves by one whole grade (see his TED Talk here).

That’s just one hour per week.

I wonder what could be achieved if enough people took this kind of  initiative?

Why silencing Jordan B. Peterson does little for our public debate

I grew up thinking that universities were places where ideas could be discussed, challenged, contested, and ultimately improved. I thought that they were places where anyone was welcome and where rigour of thought and evidence were valued more highly than political biases.

In this marketplace of debates, I assumed that populism and partisanship would be limited. Ideas would stand on their own merits without having to be labelled right wing or left wing.

So it surprised me when I discovered that the academy can be as susceptible to the marginalisation of views that have been prejudged as sitting on the wrong side of the political divide.

A few days ago I spoke to a friend in Canada who told me that an event at the University of Ottawa in which Jordan Peterson was due to appear had to be cancelled because of protests by students. They are angry at how his views have been adopted by the Alt-Right and used as justification for continued marginalisation of some groups. Because of this, he is prevented from submitting his ideas for public debate in the context of this university. 

My own opinion of Jordan Peterson is somewhat ambivalent. There’s a lot that I dislike about what he says and how he says it. He certainly loves a good argument and comes across as overly insistent on his view of the world. At the same time, he presents a way of looking at issues which is under represented within academia and our public debate. These are ideas which do not align neatly with a leftist liberal world-view, and which are therefore only given exposure in places where the debate is even more populist: Youtube, Twitter, glossy magazines and TV news programs. However, Peterson is an academic and works at the University of Toronto which is in the same province as Ottawa. In my view, he should be challenged by those who see things differently from him within an academic setting.

Of course, he has made appearances at other universities and also been rebutted in the intellectual press. I’m not saying that he has no platform, but I am arguing that the exclusion and attempts at marginalisation do us no favours. Calling him A Messiah-cum-Surrogate-Dad for Gormless Dimwits might be good for click-throughs, but it does nothing for the respect and openness that we need in our societies.

In a recent post, Ben Pollard refers to Bernard Crick’s argument that politics is “the negotiation of difference without violence.” He continues,

True politics is grounded in the ancient rituals of common life, not the divisive games of contemporary populism. Democracy began in the common spaces, the Greek agora, and the Syrian souk. Places where common rituals helped humans to negotiate their common good.

Ben Pollard, Politics is beautiful

I think universities should nurture this kind of common democracy, instead of pandering to the exclusion and polarisation of populism.

I want to live in a world where we learn to respect people who think differently from us; a world where a person’s views can be taken seriously and given the dignity of a reasoned response. I think that’s the kind of world where people’s minds can be changed. And even if their minds aren’t changed, their ideas are put through the fire of rigorous debate. Their thinking is strengthened. And those who disagree are also forced to explain why they disagree. They can’t fall back on lazy dismissals of “he’s right wing,” or “he’s not very clever.”

If there’s anything that is effective at enhancing the influence of an idea, it is dismissing it when it already resonates with a big enough number of people. Calling Jordan Peterson stupid just mobilises those who hate the left and see his ideas as justification for bringing back archaic practices. He becomes the underdog outsider who others use to give credibility to their own sense of victimhood.

Instead of lazy dismissals, I’d like to see more thoughtful deconstruction of ideas. I’d like to see those who are racist or chauvinistic or seem to be transphobic held accountable for these views, not just excluded from the public discourse. 

Is identity fixed?

One of the interesting factors in the immigration debates that take place around Europe is how common it is that we end up making identity seem like something that is set in stone. 

Whoever you ask what it means to be Muslim, or what it means to be Swedish, they will usually describe something that in their view is fairly concrete. Let me illustrate this with two examples.

A Swede is someone who was born in Sweden, loves eating herring and crayfish, would raise arms to defend her country, respects the royal family, celebrates St. Lucia, Ascension Day, and All Hallows Eve. Swedes are tolerant and socially liberal.

A Muslim is someone who is devoted to God, who prays five times per day, who doesn’t eat pork or drink alcohol, who sees himself as part of a community before he is an individual, who fasts during Ramadan and gives money to the poor. Muslims go out of their way to help others and never get involved with crime.

But there’s a problem with these definitions. While there are those who align with them, there are also many who consider themselves Swedish, or Muslim, who do not. That’s because the language we use and the definitions we have for our categories are dynamic – they are used differently at different times and in different places.

Some years ago , I attended a dinner at Princeton University where I witnessed a revealing exchange between an eminent European philosopher who was visiting from Cambridge, and a Muslim scholar who was seated next to him. The Muslim colleague was indulging in a glass of wine. Evidently troubled by this, the distinguished don eventually asked his dining companion if he might be so bold as to venture a personal question. “Do you consider yourself a Muslim?” “Yes,” came the reply. “How come, then, you are drinking wine?” The Muslim colleague smiled gently. “My family have been Muslims for a thousand years,” he said, “during which time we have always been drinking wine.” An expression of distress appeared on the learned logician’s pale countenance, prompting the further clarification: “You see, we are Muslim wine-drinkers.” The questioner looked bewildered. “I don’t understand,” he said. “Yes, I know,” replied his native informant, “but I do.”

Shahab Ahmed, What is Islam? pg. 3

The same is true of identity. I’m not the same person I was five or ten years ago. I have grown, changed, experienced new things, made friends with new people who have given me insights on life that I previously did not have. As I interact with the world, I am constantly renegotiating what it means to be me.

Although this process happens in everyone, it is particularly noticeable for those going through big changes like migration. It is common for those who move from one society to another to discard ideas and practices from their homeland, especially when those ideas and practices have been tainted by war or persecution. A person who went to church every week might stop going. A person who has always considered herself part of a particular social group might begin to distance themselves from that group. They might even begin to associate with another group altogether.

Kathryn Kraft interviewed Syrian refugees who came into contact with churches in Lebanon. Most of these refugees were from a Muslim-background. Even though they first came into contact with the churches through their relief efforts, many of these Syrians began attending other activities organised by the churches.

In her interviews, Kraft found that while only a minority choose to change their identity from Muslim to Christian, all began re-evaluating their beliefs about God and changing some of their views and practices. In other words, being exposed to a group of people with very different views didn’t make them less Muslim, but it did change how they looked at their beliefs and practices.

When someone moves to a new society, it is also necessary for them to acquire skills or dispositions that enable them to thrive in their new host society. They might learn the language, or begin making friends with locals. Each culture has its own rules and things that are seen as more important than others and newcomers are often forced to acquire some level of competency in the things which are valued by their new society.

This process is also instrumental in a person’s identity. In acquiring a new language, or adapting to a new worldview, they are forced to see themselves differently. They are forced to reflect on what they once took for granted. Sometimes this period of reflection will lead to them being more determined in their views they had before leaving their homelands. Other times, they decide to align with a new way of seeing things or seek some kind of middle path between the two.

So the next time you hear someone say something like “Muslims think _______,” or “men are ________,” I challenge you to remember that there are always exceptions and that assuming that the identity of a person or a group of people is fixed does not reflect reality.

The one who got sent back

In my last post I mentioned the young men I spoke to who had converted to Christianity within the Church of Sweden. What I failed to mention was one young man, Amir*, who converted to Christianity, was then deported, but returned to Sweden a second time in order to seek asylum.

Amir had lived in Iran since the age of three but was deported to Afghanistan. He was terrified of admitting that he had become a Christian. He found a place to live with some other young men, all of whom were Muslim. All of whom prayed together five times each day. Amir participated, but was torn up inside because he knew he was no longer Muslim.

I lived in Afghanistan for four months and I was afraid the whole time, every second. I woke with nightmares, when I had slept at night…I was scared for my life.


He feared being found out, but also felt conflicted.

When he would take trips to other towns, the buses stopped at  prayer times in order that all the passengers could pray.

One day he decided he had had enough of faking it. He told one of his house mates who he believed he could trust. This house mate became angry; he went outside and began telling the neighbours that they had had a Christian living among them. The neighbours became angry.

Amir fled the neighbourhood and found a friend who he really could trust. He told this friend what had happened and asked him to go and check on how things were going at the house. When the friend returned he told him, “you have to flee immediately. You can’t return. They will kill you.” So Amir left immediately.

After making his way back to Sweden, Amir was told that he had to wait a full four years after his denial before he could apply for asylum again. He went into hiding, biding his time before he could officially enter the system again.

Hearing this story, looking this man in the eye as he told me of his simple desire to live in peace and security, really put flesh on the harm that ill informed migration officers can do.

*not his real name