Iona Community Leadership

Iona Community

Forgive the very personal nature of this blog posting, but…

Today marks a significant change in the direction my life is taking: for a while now, I thought I was basically an academic, who did other things alongside that.

Today I have been elected as the ninth Leader of the Iona Community. Now everything else will happen alongside that.

I knew last year that I had to stand in this election – this was a ‘calling’ and a bit like the Jonah-and-the-whale story, I could not find a way of evading it. I did not feel called to be the Leader, but I did very much feel called to stand as a candidate for the Leadership. From there I had to rely on the wisdom and prayers and insights of the Members.

The Iona Community has just over 260 full Members, and is a tremendously – and at times terrifyingly! – talented community of engaged and wonderful people from all walks of life, in Scotland, the wider UK, and around the world. And to my astonishment, from a choice of inspiring and wonderful candidates, they have elected me.

For now I continue working at the Iona Community where I have been doing a temporary nine-month job since October last year. In the summer I take over from Rev. Peter MacDonald, who has been Leader since 2009. That is a tough act to follow!

The Member overseeing the election has been tremendously supportive, and a few days ago sent this to all the candidates, by Richard Rohr:

In the eternal scheme of things, we discover that all God wants from you is you.

It’s just so humbling, because it always feels like not enough, doesn’t it?

“All I want is to be like Saint Francis,” I said to my spiritual director, over and over…

Finally, one day he said, “Hey Richard, you’re not, and you’re never going to be, Francis of Assisi. You’re not even close, all right? You’re ‘unfortunately’ Richard Rohr from Kansas.” I said to myself, This doesn’t sound nearly as dramatic or exciting.

Except when I realised: all God wants is Richard from Kansas.

But that’s what I don’t know how to give you, God!

It feels so insignificant, and yet this is the liberating secret: I am precisely the gift God wants—in full and humble surrender. There is unity between the path taken and the destination where we finally arrive. Saints are not uniform but are each unique creations of grace according to the journey God has led them through.

I’m still just me. And being the Iona Community’s Leader will still make me just me – but I know that the point behind it being a community is that I am one of many, and together we can do great things! For now, I’m honoured, humbled, excited, and intimidated – and looking forward to the next seven years. As we pray in the Community:

In work and worship – God is with us.
Gathered and scattered – God is with us.
Now and always – God is with us.

Alasdair Codona and Scottish homelessness

Feasgar math h-uile duine – that’s the Gaelic for “good evening everyone”. The first Gaelic speaker I ever met was a music student at Aberdeen called Alasdair Codona. A warm and engaging individual, I shared a flat with Alasdair for a while, before moving closer to the university. We saw each other regularly as we were both involved in the Student Christian Movement, but after I graduated, I lost touch with him. Perhaps, subconsciously, my efforts to try and learn Gaelic now have their origins in my encounter with Alasdair.

A few years ago, however, I saw him completely by chance late one night on BBC Alba, as I was channel-hopping. I don’t now remember what he was singing, but there are some clips available online, for example:

and this one with Jenna Cumming:

and another song with her:

Here he is singing one of his own compositions about Calum Cille (Saint Columba of Iona):

Do take a few minutes to listen to these if you don’t know Alasdair’s music already. Also, if you’ve ever sung ‘Forgiveness is your gift’ in church (no. 361 in the Church Hymnary, 4th Edition, 2005), you’ll see it’s a Skye folk melody arranged by Alasdair.

I wrote to BBC Alba after seeing him on TV, seeking to get in touch with Alasdair, but he never heard from them. And then two evenings ago a friend, Déirdre Ní Mhathúna, not realising that I knew Alasdair, contacted me on Facebook with her page about him: he is on hunger strike, protesting homelessness legislation. The Daily Record newspaper has already run stories about him, but I had missed these: 23.12. and 24.12.

I went to Edinburgh today to meet him, and spent two hours sitting outside the Parliament chatting – we reconnected immediately, and spent some time reminiscing about Aberdeen days, and he then described some of what he has been trying to do. Having experienced homelessness, he has tried to lobby Members of the Scottish Parliament and councillors to change key parts of the Housing (Scotland) Act 1987, which define who is homeless and give enormous leeway to officials to block people from accessing services to which they would otherwise be entitled. In particular, not having a fixed address of course hinders all kinds of access to services, even to basic ones such as the Post Office Card Account (ironically, run by JP Morgan!). Alasdair feels that he now has no choice but to seek to pressure the Scottish Government to address these issues through his own body, hence the hunger strike, now into the third week.

How you can help

If you live in Scotland, do contact one of your MSPs, especially if you have a connection to one of them or you see that they are on e.g. the Local Government and Communities Committee, or the Social Security Committee. You might ask if they will meet with Alasdair – he is quite literally on their doorstep! – and address the concerns he has. Given the nature of his action, this is obviously urgent. It appears parliament is only in session again from 10.1. – but some MSPs may well be around the Parliament before then.

Wherever you live, a suggestion is emerging about setting up a Scottish Parliamentary petition and anyone can sign such petitions, whether they live in Scotland or not. Do join Déirdre’s Facebook page and follow the updates there for news and possible actions that might be taken.

Finally, if you are in Edinburgh, maybe go and visit Alasdair and offer your encouragement and support – though be aware he is weakening all the time, and you may not be able to stay for long.

Judy Murray and her tennis proposal at Park of Keir

Judy Murray has helped her sons to become world stars in tennis, and is keen to support others who might want to play too. This is very understandable.

She wants to push through a proposal to create a tennis centre at Park of Keir near Dunblane. Unfortunately for her, locals are strongly opposed to the proposal, as the BBC reported: “There were more than 1,000 objections to the scheme and only 45 in support.” Stirling Council refused planning permission for her scheme.

She and her financial backers decided to ignore the views of local people and the Council’s planning committee, and have taken their case to the Scottish government.

If this is beginning to sound familiar, that’s because you may be thinking: “didn’t Donald Trump do the same thing at Menie in Aberdeenshire?” – and, of course, the answer is that yes, he did.

Ms Murray does not like this comparison, as a Twitter exchange with her today shows. It began when I added a comment to a tweet from Andy Wightman MSP (click the images to see the original tweets):

Andy Wightman tweets about Judy Murray

Andy Wightman tweets about Judy Murray

My tweet, with Judy Murray’s reply:

My tweet, with Judy Murray's reply

I did, of course, respond, with the BBC link above:

My reply to Judy Murray

My reply to Judy Murray

I have had no reply. I understand that she might not like being compared to Donald Trump, but as Andy Wightman notes, she really is pursuing similar tactics.For more information from the local campaign group opposing her plans, see Protect Park of Keir, who say:

What this decision is definitely not about is whether Scotland would benefit from a new tennis centre. Of course the country would benefit from this. But to sacrifice Park of Keir for this purpose is to suggest it is the only place available. Of course it isn’t. There are countless brown field sites that could be used. But there is only one Park of Keir. It has stood here undeveloped since the last ice age. Once it has gone it will be gone forever.

Dropbox – a complete breakdown in trust (and what you can do about it)

A while ago I wrote about data security on my academic site. I believe data security to be of huge significance in academia and beyond: protecting significant quantities of sensitive data about ourselves and others is – or should be – an important part of what we all do now.

Collaborative tools like Dropbox can be very helpful in our work with others. Dropbox appears to offer reasonably secure ways of sharing specific folders or files with different people, and provided good passwords are used, most people will assume their data is pretty secure, somewhere “up there in the cloud” (actually, very much down on earth, on Dropbox’s computers…). Of course, if you use any kind of online service these days you may expect there to be data leaks. Dropbox, for example, “lost” 68 million user details in 2012, and recently asked users to change passwords as a result. So if you changed your password, all should be well and you can carry on using Dropbox, yes…?

No. Looking into it in more detail, I see that not only does Dropbox not encrypt data with keys that you create before sending your files to their computers (I gather this is why Edward Snowden advised against using Dropbox), if you have their desktop version installed on your Apple Mac, you are opening your computer to all kinds of vulnerabilities. This is because Dropbox installs itself as a permanent rootkit in your computer without telling you it is doing so. I was alerted to this a couple of days ago by a couple of tweets (1, 2) and then began to see a lot more (maybe Dropbox do this on Windows and other systems too but nobody’s found out about it yet, who knows?)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, any number of searches on the Dropbox help pages failed to give more information on all this.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, any number of searches on the Dropbox help pages failed to give more information on all this.

Even if you trust Dropbox not to take control of your computer (and I don’t see why you should, given they tricked you into giving them that possibility!), anyone who discovers or creates a vulnerability in Dropbox’s software now appears to have an open door to your computer – and if Dropbox can lose 68 million user details, why would you assume they’re particularly good at security? Anything and everything you do on your computer could be at risk. For details on this problem, I recommend the following two postings (and many of the comments are worth reading too):

  1. 28. July 2016: revealing Dropbox’s dirty little security hack
  2. 29. August 2016: discovering how Dropbox hacks your mac

Even if talk of hashtags and algorithms sends you to sleep, the key thing to note is Dropbox’s “explanation” for their actions; it is also highlighted on the second of these two links. Dropbox claim they:

need to request all the permissions we need or even may need in the future.

The problem is, they never ask their users if they could have permission to control all these permissions now and in perpetuity. Instead, Dropbox appear to have tricked users by using inappropriate dialogue boxes to gain this access, making it look as if users were giving their permission for something else.

In my book, this is an unforgivable breach of trust. I find myself asking why I should trust Dropbox with anything, if they deceive me into giving them control over my system?

What to do?

I’d suggest uninstalling Dropbox as soon as possible, and if you must still use it (for sharing with colleagues, for example), then just do so via the web interface. It is very simple to remove it from your Mac:

  1. move any files you want to take off Dropbox to somewhere on your computer
  2. follow the instructions on the Dropbox website to uninstall their desktop interface
  3. if your level of trust in Dropbox is the same as mine after reading all this, you might also want to remove permission for links to your Dropbox data, and then also delete the Dropbox apps on your tablet/mobile.

Then you might want to start looking for secure alternatives to Dropbox

Walter Roberts and 100 years of British militarism

Today is the anniversary of Walter Roberts’ death: 1895-1916.

Roberts studied architecture and was a Christian pacifist and socialist; his brother Alfred was also a conscientious objector. He refused to fight in World War One, but was not granted conscientious objector status by the British state. He was imprisoned in Wormwood Scrubs before being sent to a labour camp in Aberdeenshire where he was forced to work in a quarry in Dyce, breaking rocks for 10 hours a day. Camp conditions were terrible and inmates were not looked after properly: exposure to incessant rain in inadequate clothing and living under leaky canvas (probably left over from the South African War of 1899-1902) meant a cold rapidly developed into pneumonia and Roberts died within five days of arrival. The Dyce camp was closed as a result of his death; it is now a car park for Aberdeen airport.

Walter Roberts (photo via Peace Pledge Union, from the article in the Manchester Evening News - click image to read it)

Walter Roberts (photo via Peace Pledge Union, from the article in the Manchester Evening News – click image to read it)

Many courageous men and women resisted the drive to war alongside Roberts: another notable campaigner was Catherine Marshall, who developed her campaigning skills in the suffragette movement. In World War One she became the Honorary Secretary for the No-Conscription Fellowship as a result of her campaigning talents (though we might reasonably assume that she was in part also appointed to this role because the male leaders of the NCF were constantly being imprisoned by the British state). Amongst other things, Marshall successfully campaigned to save the lives of numerous conscientious objectors in France that the British state had intended to execute. She argued: ‘… all the horrors of war … do violence to the whole spirit of civilisation, the whole teaching of Christianity…’ (PPU, p4).

These conscientious objectors were tremendously courageous individuals – opposing the public mood of the time, which was overwhelmingly pro-war, would have been very difficult. The public mood in Britain has long continued to be broadly pro-war, no doubt arising from continual military engagement overseas for over 100 years. No other country in recent times has been at war for this long, and it is only possible because the public mood allows politicians to get away with pursuing continual war. In other words, the public needs to be either ignorant of what is being done in their name, or seduced into accepting militarism as a viable tool of international diplomacy (which recent British governments have all clearly believed to be the case). I was reminded of this by an article published today by Ian Cobain entitled Britain’s Secret Wars. He begins with an account of British soldiers fighting in Vietnam immediately after World War Two (26,000 men with 2,500 vehicles and air support committing horrific acts of brutality – but hardly discussed in public):

Back in the UK, parliament and the public knew next to nothing about this war, the manner in which it was being waged, or Britain’s role in it. And it appears that the cabinet and the War Office wished their state of ignorance be preserved.

Regarding Britain’s long-standing military engagement, Cobain goes on to say (my emphasis):

For more than a hundred years, not a single year has passed when Britain’s armed forces have not been engaged in military operations somewhere in the world. The British are unique in this respect: the same could not be said of the Americans, the Russians, the French or any other nation.

Only the British are perpetually at war.

It is hardly a surprise that much of Britain is completely desensitised to the militarism that the state propagates (nor is it a surprise many people argued the British state’s militarism was a key motivation in seeking Scottish independence in 2014). Britain is one of the world’s most militarily aggressive states – a rogue state, by many definitions.

We do well, therefore, to recall with gratitude the courage and commitment of those who resist this militarism, whether this be people in the past such as Walter Roberts and Catherine Marshall, or those today who resist the relentless drive to war and the state’s dedication to illegal weapons of mass destruction, such as:

The most appropriate way to honour Roberts, Marshall, and all who suffered as a result of their pacifist convictions is undoubtedly to support those opposing war today.


Postscript: a few hours after posting this blog, I read an excellent piece by Louis Allday in the Monthly Review: The Imperial War Museum in London: A Lesson in British state propaganda. I would have included this in the main text had I read it sooner. If you want to better understand how the British state encourages its militarism, this is a good place to start.

Some notes on the American election and imperialism

It’s impossible to escape the American presidential election. In most of the circles I move in, people worry about Hillary Clinton (especially her foreign policies, and in particular how they relate to the Middle East), but that worry is usually trumped (sorry!) by the far greater worry about Donald Trump’s candidacy.

That is hardly a surprise: when even a Republican like Caroline McCain (granddaughter of 2008 Republican presidential candidate John McCain), says she will vote for Clinton this year, and leading conservatives think the Republican party is dying, you know something really is awry in Republican politics.

But I’m particularly interested in non-Americans’ comments – and one I feel I hear quite regularly is “I wish WE could vote in the American elections – they affect us too!” As a writer on British imperialism, I find this a fascinating comment.

Of course, in some ways it’s not a surprise that people think this: I remember wondering why, if America was the leading country in the West against the Soviet-led bloc in the East, people throughout the West couldn’t vote in the 1980 Jimmy Carter/Ronald Reagan election. I was just 12 years old and even though I didn’t really have much of an idea of what ‘the West’ was, I did know that momentous global events were taking place and the Cold War seemed an epic battle of great ideologies, though as someone with family members (that I’d never met) in East Germany, I certainly wasn’t keen on the idea of nuclear weapons being used for defeating ‘the East’. To this 12 year old, Carter seemed less belligerent than Reagan, and my imaginary/real family were in danger – so of course we (well, the adults) should be able to vote for Carter and save the Americans from Reagan!

But I’m still sort of surprised when I hear this kind of thing from people in Britain now, and from people who should know better. It’s not really said with seriousness (I think people do understand the system!), but I do hear a certain wistfulness, as if the Clinton/Trump problem could be sorted if only we sensible Brits were allowed a proper say in the matter.

This kind of comment therefore tells us something interesting about Britain. We can all applaud Michelle Obama’s excellent DNC speech with her comment about the White House: ‘I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves and I watch my daughters – two beautiful, intelligent, black young women – playing with their dogs on the White House lawn.’

Many of us readily condemn the racist reactions she’s had. Of course we all know that America was built using black bodies: black women, black men and black children were bought, sold, transported wherever their white owners wanted them to work, and then exploited, whipped, and often murdered. When we think about ‘old money’ in America, it is generally money that has been passed down by white people that originated with black people’s labour. American slavery is often seen as black history, but it is just as much white history. Events such as Black History Month highlight some of these issues in Britain and many schools also appear to engage in some level of teaching of Atlantic slavery and Britain’s role in it (though the abolitionists often seem to feature more than the hundreds and thousands who profited from slavery – there is embarrassment about our key role in the slave trade).

But whilst we applaud Obama and condemn the racism directed at her, I can’t help thinking that the stereotypical British superiority over America communicated in the sentiment that we should have a say in American politics is in part a way of denying our own history, so closely related to America’s, not only in relation to slavery, but also wider imperial domination. “I wish WE could vote in the American elections” communicates at least two key things:

  1. a recognition that we are relatively insignificant in the current American imperial dynamic;
  2. a lack of agency that we know we once had: America now does significant things on the world stage that affect us and we have no say in the matter, whereas not that long ago, say, in the 19th century, it was Britain that did significant things on the world stage (that affected its colonies and they had no say in the matter).

Regarding the first point, of course Britain is relatively insignificant in relation to America, including American power abroad. The vote for Brexit on 23.6. diminished that further – England and Wales essentially voted to make Britain less important on the world stage, a pretty unprecedented move for any country.

The second point is just as interesting, however. The British Empire, at its height the largest empire the world had ever seen, was primarily about Britain doing things to others, though often indirectly. For example, look at the 1842 budget, which argued for moving ‘the country along the path to free trade‘ – this innocent-sounding phrase was actually a carefully constructed method of imperial control:

The apostles of the ‘free trade’ creed in the mid-nineteenth century favoured a more subtle kind of empire, a method by which (said a free trader in 1846) ‘foreign nations would become valuable Colonies to us, without imposing on us the responsibility of governing them’. The method was to dominate the world by means of a natural superiority in industry and commerce. (Bernard Porter, ‘The Lion’s Share’ (2nd ed. 1984): p3)

Porter’s 2004 book The Absent-Minded Imperialists argued that most British people in the 19th century were largely ignorant of and not necessarily very interested in the Empire. I don’t find his argument as convincing as Edward W. Said’s in Orientalism (1978), that empire was such an integral part of British (and European) society that it was often barely explicitly acknowledged but rather was woven into wider societal understandings (e.g. in literature and art) and that this normalised imperial control (Exeter’s Imperial and Global Forum has teaching podcasts discussing both of these scholars’ work).

Either way, absent-minded or wilful ignorance about the effects of their imperial adventures marked 19th century British thinking. Comments such as “I wish WE could vote in the American elections” suggest not very much has changed in our self-awareness – whilst Americans generally don’t acknowledge their present empire and its deleterious effects on the rest of the world, we still generally refuse to acknowledge our historical legacy of empire and the trauma Britain inflicted on others. Those affected have not forgotten, whether this be the 1970s Chagos islanders, the 1950s Mau Mau rebels, or the 1917 Balfour Declaration or… or… or… – our Empire has had long-lasting effects on many people.

As with America, much of Britain’s wealth derives from empire. In the same way ‘old American money’ is often based on slavery, many of our great city centres derive from empire and slavery. Whilst they may not have been built directly by slaves, they were built using wealth generated from slavery and other forms of imperial expansion. It’s great to see projects such as the Scotland Slavery Map offering new ways of engaging with the architecture of slavery in Edinburgh, for example.

So quite aside from thinking we British might be more sensible than the Americans in choosing their president (one word: Brexit!), let’s also not forget when condemning American racists attacking Obama that we are really just beginning to come to terms with, never mind rectify, the traumatic effects of our own imperial history around the world. Even starting to learn more about it would be a start, especially from the victims of our imperial ambitions, just as Shay Stewart-Bouley urges white Americans to hear black voices. We don’t have that much to be superior about, and should stop acting as if we do: no more wishing we could vote in American elections!

Brexit – what next? Thinking about the outcome.

I regard the referendum outcome to leave the EU as a disaster for many reasons, as will be clear from my last blog posting, written shortly before the vote. I’ll maybe write something short about my reaction to the outcome in the coming days.

Brexit: what happens next? Click to download the report.

Brexit: what happens next? Click to download the report.

In the meantime, the report from the House of Commons Library makes for fascinating reading (tweeted in the early hours of 25.6.16).

There are countless useful resources here, such as this note (p12) about devolution and how this situation may affect Scotland, citing Sionaidh Douglas-Scott:

It would still be necessary to amend the relevant parts of devolution legislation. But this would be no simple matter and could lead to a constitutional crisis. Although the UK Parliament may amend the devolution Acts, the UK government has stated that it will not normally legislate on a devolved matter without the consent of the devolved legislature. This requires a Legislative Consent Motion under the Sewel Convention. However, the devolved legislatures might be reluctant to grant assent, especially as one feature of the ‘Vow’ made to the Scottish electorate was a commitment to entrench the Scottish Parliament’s powers, thus giving legal force to the Sewel Convention. So the need to amend devolution legislation renders a UK EU exit constitutionally highly problematic.

Section 7 on the future options for Scotland are also very interesting for me (pp17-19), given that England (and to some extent Wales) voted to leave, but Scotland voted overwhelmingly to stay. It will be for Holyrood and Nicola Sturgeon’s government to chart a course through this situation; I am confident that she and her allies in Holyrood will do this well. Her speech after the referendum indicates as much:

I think it is safe to say that independence for Scotland looks much more likely in the meantime.