When tolerance is not OK

In most democracies we proudly proclaim that we are tolerant societies – willing to see the other’s point of view, wanting to reach out to those who are different, not judging.

But tolerance can end up meaning that nothing is sinful – we never say, “this is wrong”.

I’m reminded of the dangers of tolerance by a small paragraph in a story about a champion cyclist, Thomas Dekker, who chose to take decisions that ended with him being branded a drugs cheat.

One of the early steps of dangerous tolerance was taken by his mum and dad who were told by Dekker’s team trainer that doping was necessary if their son, then aged 21, was to be a champion.

Dekker recounts that his mother pressed her lips tightly together but only said, “I hope this turns out OK.” She was willing to support her son’s choice if it meant he would win.

Four years later, Dekker was caught and suspended for two years. He returned to cycling but was never more than a decent professional rider.

Tolerance of illegal behaviour led to a ruined reputation. I wonder whether his mum and dad regret their acquiescence.

What else do we ‘tolerate’ in the cause of short-term or selfish gain?

Guided by nothing but opinion polls and pub philosophy, we fail to talk about morality and virtue, or to think of them at all. We laud our own brand of diversity, tolerance and non-judgementalism but fall into a trap of having no standard of timeless Truth.

Increasingly, in a media of half-truths and rushed, careless reporting, we tolerate what we agree with and hate everything else. We have a certain set of topics that immediately allow us to judge others while hypocritically seeing our own views as fair and open-minded.

I see this all the time around issues of gender equality. The conservatives see gender equality as laughable or extreme – feminists are man haters who push abortion rights and they pay homage to women as equal but different. Meanwhile the left see themselves as champions of equality and all about the rights of women to make their own decisions; those who disagree are dangerously out of touch.

Our ‘tolerance’ ironically only extends to those within our own tribe. I’m pretty sure Thomas Dekker’s parents would have hated the idea of cheating in sport as a general principle, but were willing to tolerate it in the case of their own son.

When we talk about gender, we are willing to tolerate huge inconsistencies. Those who support abortion on demand can never ‘tolerate’ the idea that abortion is not the ideal solution to unwanted pregnancy and that we could have a debate about the lie of sexual freedom and the need for man and women to take responsibility. And people who staunchly oppose abortion on demand can’t bear the idea that all sorts of girls have unwanted pregnancies and that we need a bigger discussion about sexual freedom and responsibility.

So I’m not sure I want to live in a society that misuses tolerance – I want to live in a society where we can debate ideas honestly and where we can accept difference but also be respected for holding firmly to beliefs about right and wrong.

I want to have zero tolerance for self-righteousness, for hatred and arrogance (from the left or the right). And I think the Bible is a good place to start to find those truths.

False Fears

False facts and half truths can make us unreasonably fearful. They make us suspicious and guilty. And women are specially prone to guilt.

Talking to a friend in her late 30s recently, I learnt about the pressure on 20 and 30-somethings to consider freezing their eggs. And then later that week I heard a radio program on the same issue. The guilt comes in because women hear the body clock ticking and egg freezing is being promoted as a simple, practical way to prolong the chance of having children. Inquiries about egg freezing at private fertility clinics in the UK surged by more than 400% between 2014 and 2015, mostly from women under 35.

Apparently,  Apple and Facebook now offer to pay for female employees to freeze their eggs as part of their benefits package. Perhaps their staff welcome such a benefit (maybe lobbied for it) but it also sounds like a corporate ploy to encourage young women (and men) to work hard and not think about taking time off for family.

There are three big provisos that make egg-freezing a rather false solution for singles. Number 1, nobody really knows whether egg freezing works. The ideal is that once a woman meets her man, age will be no barrier to pregnancy. The eggs are unfrozen and the woman goes through IVF to create a much wanted baby. But the older a woman is, the less likely it is that any IVF procedure will be successful. According to the NHS in the UK, around one-third of couples in which the woman is over 35 have fertility problems. This rises to two-thirds when the woman is over 40. Egg freezing is not an answer to issues surrounding pregnancy as we get older.

Even though we might feel entitled to it all, unfortunately, we cannot cheat our bodies and my friend is one of many single women who should not be made to feel guilt about being single. If parenthood happens, it will be wonderful but we should not be pressured into a procedure that is dubious at best, and which cannot guarantee peace of mind.

That brings us to proviso number 2. Women have to fork out big money for this procedure. It costs around £5000 to freeze eggs for 5 years and of course the companies that promote it downplay any doubts about the success rate of IVF years down the line.

Which brings me to proviso 3. We are simplifying and ‘medicalising’ much bigger social and ethical issues around being single, finding a life-long partner and delayed parenthood. There are big questions here that should involve discussion amongst men and women.

We should be discussing the changing shape of relationships in church rather than simply bemoaning the lack of eligible males. We should ask honestly, “Is any age too old to become a parent?” Sarah in the Bible (wife of Abraham) may have been 91 when she had Isaac but do we really think that having a baby when we are 50 or 60 is a good idea. We should also talk about women and men in the workforce, our careers and whether we need to actively encourage a more balanced vision of work and family.

The problem in discussing these big issues honestly, is that false fears and prejudices always end up screaming at women like a tabloid headline – blaming us, whatever happens – a woman is branded selfish if she delays having children and selfish if she does not want children and selfish if she has them too young. We can’t win.

We should not contribute to the constant guilt trips. Why don’t we make men feel guilty for their decision to delay commitment and parenthood?

To my female friends who are single and long for a partner and babies, I have to cling to the hope that God sees our desires and wants us to feel fulfilled. We trust that God will give us good things, just as he did for Hannah and Ruth.

Parenthood is wonderful (most of the time). But that does not mean a single life is second-best. Are women only hanging around in some metaphorical waiting room till they have babies?

Single women (and men) are not failing in some way. It seems to me that apart from a small number of women who will benefit from egg-freezing – maybe they face major surgery or chemotherapy – it is mostly a marketing ‘false fact’ designed to play on women’s  guilt.

Demeaning or just a bit of fun?

This week saw the UK begin the process to leave the EU. A big day with major implications for all of us in Europe. Amongst many potentially messy issues, Brexit could lead to another Scottish independence referendum.

So on Tuesday Theresa May, the Prime Minister, and Nicola Sturgeon, the leader in Scotland met to discuss the future.

TheLegs-it Daily Mail, the biggest selling paper in the country chose as its front cover a picture of the two women, seated, angled to show their legs. The headline hilariously noted, “Never Mind Brexit, who won Legs-it!”

There was up-roar as a result. Lots of people who don’t like the Daily Mail were offended by its demeaning representation of two influential women. One politician tweeted, “The 1950s called and asked for their headline back. #everydaysexism”

Others[1] saw the absurdly unequal treatment of men and called for similar photos of male politicians (eek no, not Boris Johnson’s legs!)

Many women and men were offended because the photo and headline WERE sexist and though the full article was actually quite insightful about the two women, we should not have to put up with the repeated references to women’s shoes, legs, sexiness or dowdiness when their appearance has nothing to do with the person’s competence.

It happens way too often. Three weeks ago, Amal Clooney, a human rights lawyer with a famous husband, was at the UN with Nadia Murad, a Yazidi woman who was a slave of IS and talks powerfully of her horrific experiences. She is incredibly brave to share her story.

But what did the media talk about? That Amal wore a wonderfully fetching yellow dress (Bottega Veneta, in case you want to know) and pulled off “an enviably flawless maternity style as she carries twins.” Some chastised her for wearing high heels when pregnant, however if she had worn sensible flats, she probably would she have faced other critics.

Nadia Murad, who does not wear designer clothes and is not married to a celebrity, was mostly ignored.

Do you see a pattern here? These women have been reduced in value to their outward appearance and even though every parent stresses to their daughter that looks are not important – ‘it’s character that counts, darling and you do not want to go out of the house dressed in a way that is only about looking sexy’ – that is all nonsense if the media continues to fetishise over Amal Clooney’s heels or Theresa May’s legs.

Sometimes the references to a woman’s fashion sense are actually fun and quite admiring, or at least harmless, but when intelligent capable women are judged purely on their looks, it is demeaning.  And if we make a fuss, we are accused of not being able to take a joke, or of being menopausal and a bit erratic.

Julia Baird is an insightful Australian journalist and broadcaster. Fascinated by the pressure on women in politics to be ‘likeable’, she has commented, “What we often fail to portray is the incredible complexity of women in powerful roles, and what we’re capable of. [This is] largely because we are so blinkered by expectations of female behaviour – of what a powerful woman or a feminist looks like.”

So I don’t think it’s good enough to dismiss the sexist headlines as a bit of fun or a light-hearted (can’t you take a joke) look at women of influence.

Such language is part of a bigger picture of discrimination that blinkers us to the rich variety of women in our world – women who wear high heels, women who wear trainers or women who have only enough money for a pair of plastic sandlas. To put us all in a box labelled, #looksareallthatmatter, is not much of a joke.

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Like Carol Midgley, in The Times

Using our wealth for women

My blogs never usually mention giving money – so next month, you can relax. But just this once….

Over the next two weeks, thousands of women from every UN country will be in New York. They won’t be marching or doing much shouting.

They will instead be making their voices heard at the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW). A plethora of events will cover different agendas, from high powered celebrity packed celebrations to small, slightly amateurish affairs on the fringes. The CSW is the biggest UN gathering aside from the General Assembly. There will be politicians, professional feminists, charities and faith groups.

It’s expensive to be there and this year I won’t be making the trip. Lack of money is the biggest barrier to having a voice.

Last year, the leader of evangelical women in the Caribbean and I were there, sharing a budget room, meeting people, attending events and telling anyone who would listen that women in local churches around the globe deserve a voice. Jenifer Johnson from Barbados is a strong leader: she has her own radio program dealing with a range of relationship issues from a Christian perspective; and she runs the only shelter on the island for women who need to get away from abusive homes. She is consulted regularly by the government on these social issues because she is intimately involved in the lives of local women.

At the CSW, Jenifer spoke at an event organised by a faith group, Side by Side, about how she is working with churches to alert them to abuse and trafficking (girls and boys are victims). She also trains pastors in how to talk about healthy family life.

Women of faith can be sidelined at the UN but they have important views on education, family, health and work. They also want to learn how to advocate more effectively.

I would love to be able to have funds so more women can go to events like the CSW. I would love to see more capable women like Jenifer training others. Women like Fortuna in Kenya, Lona in South Sudan and MayPan in Myanmar.

It is not easy to get money to train, develop and inspire Christian women in leadership. Those words don’t go together in Christian fundraising circles. We will give money to see women lifted out of dire poverty via micro-credit, which is great. We will sponsor girls to get an education, which is very needed.

But somehow, the next step, of seeing young women being trained as leaders in a Christian context becomes too hard. Women are victims of violence, of poverty, of maternal mortality. But they can also deliver solutions if they get opportunity and encouragement.

So this week on International Women’s day (the 8th) and  with Mothers Day around the corner, I’m asking  for women and men to help me develop confident and equipped women leaders in the Church, at the UN and in business.

Let’s use our wealth for women. And then let’s pray that the money will be multiplied as it is used for leadership projects. Those empowered women will in turn train, equip and encourage many thousands more.

I’m asking for money so women from places like Egypt, Barbados and South Sudan, can have leadership training and development opportunities for the benefit of the whole Church.

If you live in the UK                                                                                                                         Please make your donation by bank transfer to Transform Network.                                     Bank: HSBC   Account Name: Transform Network Sort code: 40-06–34                       Account Number: 01411616     Reference: Women’s Commission

If you live anywhere else eg USA, Canada, Australia                                                                 The easiest way to donate is online                                                                                                  Please designate your donation – Women’s Commission

All these accounts are audited. The money will go to the Women’s Commission of the World Evangelical Alliance to develop women in leadership.

 

A spoonful of reason

Common sense is not so common – Voltaire

We need a spoonful of common sense and a large dose of wisdom in 2017 after the year that brought us post-truth.

But it’s not looking hopeful. Some nonsensical (or worryingly dangerous) events that have caught my eye this year (and it’s only week 2!):

Glasgow University has warned theology students studying ‘Creation to Apocalypse: Introduction to the Bible (Level 1)’ that a lecture on Jesus and cinema sometimes ‘contains graphic scenes of the crucifixion’. The university says it has a duty of care but I wonder whether they have warning signs outside university bars?

The New Year’s Honours in the UK included many wonderful awards for those who have served the community and delighted the nation with their achievements. But Dominic Johnson, associate treasurer of the Conservative Party earned a CBE, maybe because he gave David Cameron and his family a home to stay in when the PM left Downing Street after the Brexit result.

Easter eggs have already been seen on shelves in Sainsbury’s and Tesco’s, 100 days before Easter!

Judges in Israel have been harassed and threatened for their ruling that an Israeli soldier is guilty of manslaughter for killing a suspected Palestinian terrorist who had already been subdued. These threats come from a part of the community that feels it is OK for Israel to act in any way it wants if it suspects terrorism. And this aggressive jingoism is not just happening in Israel.

Nigel Farage has been given a new job as host of his own radio show, so he can sprout his views in the time honoured tradition of shock jocks in the USA and Australia. I had thought the UK was too sensible to allow free rein to a man who thinks Trump is going to be a great president and who criticised the Archbishop of Canterbury for being too gloomy for pointing out social injustice.

People who confronted Jesus (the powerful, the religious, the crowds) often weighed in with half-truths or controversy hoping to catch out this man they could not understand. By turns, Jesus was wise, gentle, debate-ready, scathing or silent in his responses.

May we all be wise in how we respond to the half-truths and hysteria in the media or at the office. And I pray for common sense.

 

 

 

 

 

Decisions to enjoy

Sometimes we seem to have far too many decisions to make and it can be confusing, unsettling. We long for black and white choices.

My mum, in her late 80s, ponders how she will give money to charities at Christmas time. But what decisions does she make among many good causes?

My niece and her husband are trying to make wise decisions about study and work – balancing the need for an income to provide for their young family, and their desire to prepare for church ministry.

And of course at Christmas, there are numerous opportunities to upset the relatives if we make the wrong decisions.

But actually, we are blessed to have choices.

For many hundreds of years, ordinary women and men didn’t have time for anything other than supporting their families, couldn’t have freedom to travel, could not choose to be single or who to marry, and did not have spare money to spend or give away.

I have been thinking of Joseph’s choice to love and protect Mary when he found out that she was pregnant. He could have cast her aside or he could have quietly broken off his commitment (as he was tempted to do) but he chose to stand by Mary and protected his family even though that meant exile.

God trusted Joseph to make the generous, kind and Godly decision. He asks us to make such decisions too, so that we counter the world’s selfishness with consistent generosity.

Philanthropist Deanne Weir puts it this way, “Pick something that interests you, take the time to get informed. Then just give what’s reasonable to you.”

So this Christmas, enjoy pondering how to give in a good way, just like my mum.

The writer of Hebrews reminds us,

“Do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.” Hebrews 13:16

Have a wonderful Christmas doing good and sharing generously.

 

Gender and locker room banter

This week saw the US Presidential race sink to new lows as Donald Trump’s appalling language about women and his alleged behaviour took up the media’s attention and serious policy slipped further down the agenda. What a sad election this is.

The fact that Trump has tried to excuse his language as locker room banter is an insult to most sports people in locker rooms, but also a reminder that macho behaviour can become misogynist very quickly. In the UK this week, another footballer accused of rape was cleared in very murky circumstances.

Gender inequality and injustice are still rampant. I see it daily in the work I do.

The debate about gender is about us! And the truth is that gender is still a big deal here in the UK, in the US and many other western nations, but especially in the developing world where being a girl means fewer opportunities and fewer resources.

We all need to have a view because we are all impacted by the lives of women and girls. We all have mothers. Many of us have daughters and sisters.

So let’s remind ourselves what gender injustice looks like around the world.

About 1 in 3 women experience physical or sexual violence at some time in their lives.

Even before girls are born, they are at risk – there are 170 million ‘missing’ girls in Asia because of sex selective abortion.

Trafficking is a major industry – involving billions of $ and up to two million people a year. The majority are female and poor – abused as domestic servants, working in factories or brothels, intimidated, with no rights

Almost 700 million women globally were married before their 18th birthday. Around 250 million were married before 15. Although it’s hard to have accurate numbers because the issue is not considered important.

Girls of 13, even 12 sent to an uncertain and dangerous future of hard work, risky pregnancies and lack of love.

Of the 8 Millennium Development Goals, ambitiously set in 2000, and which ended last year, the one that had lowest success was No5 – to cut maternal mortality by ¾. Doesn’t that tell us something about the priorities of many developing country governments – money for guns or sports stadiums, but not for maternity clinics.

The World Heath Organisation says complications in pregnancy and childbirth are the 2nd highest cause of death in girls 15-19.

How do we respond to this tidal wave of gender injustice?

Do we say complacently, ‘Well things are slowly improving’ Do we get angry about all the things that are wrong?

Or do we decide to take positive action –

pray, give money for community projects, educate our own girls and boys about these injustices

Do we speak out?

We need actions that acknowledge that every life is valuable because God thinks we are all valuable – regardless of whether we live in Kensington or a Calais refugee camp or a one bed hut in Kenya.

Can I get a bit religious? In the days of the early church, Paul, one of the leaders, came across a slave girl who was trapped in exploitation as a fortune teller. He sets her free from an evil spirit, he frees her from economic exploitation (much to the annoyance of the slave owners) and gives her the chance to have a new life. And he gets thrown into jail for tackling injustice.

It’s a story that takes up just 4 sentences but it shows us what life can be like when we take the time to care for girls who are trapped. The girl had no choices when Paul met her – she was a slave in every sense. And she was set free in every sense.

We need to remind ourselves of the value of a spiritual underpinning to the practical support, help for the family, teaching and empowering that we can offer girls and women.

I want my daughter to have dreams and hopes and to be able to have choices about family and career or both or … without being judged, without having to shatter glass ceilings. I want girls living in economic and social poverty to see their dreams realized too.

God promised to give beauty in exchange for ashes, wherever they live and whatever restrictions society may impose.

Donald Trump’s sleaziness must not triumph.