Monday, March 21, 2005

Hands up if you want a debate!

‘Would those who would like to discuss whether or not we have a debate please raise your hands now?’ Listening to the news this week I thought I’d been transported back to the Students’ Union. People from across the political spectrum were arguing about whether or not we should talk about abortion. Each morning I would turn on the radio anticipating that the debate would actually have started. Each morning I was disappointed. Just another hand raised in favour of debate.

If and when a debate does start let’s hope it’s a proper one. The early signs are not encouraging. The focus has been on whether the law should allow abortions at 24 weeks, 22 weeks or 20 weeks. This is tinkering around on the edges based on an unspoken consensus that a) we shouldn’t abort babies who might survive apart from their mother with the help of science and b) we shouldn’t abort babies who look like babies. The fact that if the parents waited another couple of weeks it would survive / look like a baby seems to be conveniently forgotten. If it was remembered the discussion seems almost irrelevant. A debate based on this consensus is a debate on quicksand.

We need an alternative starting point. A simple statistic can provide it. In the UK in 2003 were 695000 births and 181600 abortions. Factor in an estimated figure for miscarriages and 19% or almost one in five of recorded pregnancies in the UK is aborted.1 Whatever your view on a women’s right to choose or a baby’s right to life everyone should be able to agree that are too many abortions happening in this country. Whether a woman or couple choose to abort a baby or not the psychological trauma involved is huge and often life long.

I’m not sure I am in a position to tell a woman or couple whether or not they should have an abortion in a unique and difficult circumstance that they find themselves in. I do know that we need to find ways to reduce the number of women that face that choice in the first place. If we’re going to have a debate, these are the things we need to be talking about.

1. There are no official statistics on miscarriages, although approximately one in eight pregnancies miscarry, mostly before ten weeks.

Friday, March 04, 2005

Stories of Grace

2005 is the twentieth anniversary of the musical Les Misérables, based on the epic book by Victor Hugo. What is it that continues to appeal? The music is fantastic, but if you want staging and lighting there are many other performances that would up stage Les Misérables’ simplicity. It is the story, which starkly contrasts the costly, unlimited grace of the central character Valjean, with the harsh, uncaring, measured justice of Javert that continues to enthral.

Valjean’s story starts when he steals some candlesticks from a kindly bishop, but is caught. When the police arrive the bishop says that they were a gift and then gives Jean Valjean the rest of his silver. A reformed and almost unbelievably godly man Jean Valjean is placed in the maelstrom of suffering and poverty of 19th Century Paris. He then helps a prostitute, rescues a man trapped under a cart and saves the life of his future son in law at risk of his own life. Finally, he forgives and spares the life of his decades long-persecutor, the officious and just policeman, Javert.

The story is inspiring, but ultimately remote. The grace so costly, the poverty so harsh that it seems difficult to relate to our own times and place.

In his book ‘the Idiot’ Fydor Dostoevsky, like Victor Hugo, parachutes pure grace into a harsh landscape, this time full of ‘empty headed people’ obsessed with money, looks and power. The reader watches as different elements of St. Petersburg high society misunderstand, are broken by or refute the accepting, forgiving, innocent, unmanipulative actions of the ‘simply good’ Prince Mishkin.

In the Idiot, the moments of grace seem more within our grasp than in Les Misérables. The characters deficiencies are writ large, but Prince Miskin’s actions are smaller, accumulating gradually rather than immense actions of a superhero.

In ‘the Terminal’ Viktor Navorski (Tom Hanks), a man speaking no English becomes trapped within a busy, brash US airport. Passengers push past, always in a hurry and the staff are unhelpful and rude. In this arena Navorski helps passengers with their bags, stops them from slipping on wet floors and slowly breathes humanity into the staff.

In many ways ‘the Terminal’ is just another formulaic feel good film, but it also translates some of the stories of grace that we find in Dostoevsky and Hugo into a modern setting. (This is probably the only time you’ll hear a Spielberg movie compared to Dostoevsky, so enjoy it while you can.) The airport typifies our individualist, time poor, consumerist culture just as Dostoevsky compounds the wretchedness of St. Petersburg society and Hugo rubs in the poverty of nineteenth century Paris. Like Myshkin, Navorski steps in completely powerless and ignored, but with time and a natural inclination to serve. His actions are everyday and almost unnoticed – this is grace writ small.

Where are the small acts of grace in our society today? Grace is both hard to define and hard to find. In his book ‘What’s So Amazing About Grace?’ Philip Yancey starts by saying that he wants to ‘convey grace rather than explain it’. We need stories of grace if we are to understand, experience, enjoy and pursue it. We need the mountain peaks of Jean Valjean which can inspire and clarify our vision. But we also need stories in the foothills where we live our daily lives. If you’ve got any stories of grace, the smaller the better, please post them up or email them – I’d love to hear them.