2012 saw highs of Olympic glory stand out against a largely depressing backdrop of domestic debt and international conflicts. So where was God in it all? Lucinda Borkett-Jones evaluates the year.
If our lamp posts could talk, I imagine they’d say they’re exhausted: they’d only just recovered from June’s bunting and August’s inspirational sporting flags, before it was time for Christmas lights. 2012 has been a year of celebration against a depressive backdrop, and as always, a few surprises.
Obama wins a second term
After 19 months of campaigning, and a total election price tag of $6bn, President Barack Obama returned to the podium to thank his supporters and look forward to another four years. That is, until he looks at the budget sheets. As election fever cools, and the clear-up from Storm Sandy continues, the American economy is still alarmingly vulnerable.
Much was made of the Christian vote this time around – would evangelicals, most of whom are traditionally loyal Republicans, desert them for fielding a Mormon? Despite the perception on this side of the pond, support for the Republican Party was largely consistent with previous years. ‘Three-quarters of white evangelicals tend to support Republican presidential candidates: Romney won 79% of their vote this year, McCain won 73% in 2008, and Bush won 79% in 2004,’ says Dr Amy Black, associate professor of political science at Wheaton College.
It may be that in 2016 the ‘next generation’ of American evangelicals defer to the left, but for the time being their sympathies are more aligned with their parents’ views than might be anticipated. Though younger evangelicals generally take a more liberal stance on marriage, some reports suggest that they take a more conservative position on abortion.
Obama’s election night speech concentrated on the importance of guaranteeing jobs for Americans. In order to deliver on these promises, Black argues the economy will have to be Obama’s primary concern in the coming months. The US is currently teetering on a ‘fiscal cliff’, a term describing the impending spending cuts and tax increases set to take effect in January, unless Congress and the President can overcome the present gridlock and agree on legislation to change current plans.
Crisis continues in the Eurozone
Plate smashing, olives and a desperate economy. Three things for which the Greeks are renowned; unfortunately, the latter dominated in 2012.
Strikes and protests against the public spending cuts in Spain and Greece hit the international headlines as citizens were feeling the pinch of austerity budgets imposed by the leading economies of the Eurozone. In February there was fear of increasing anti-German sentiment as the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, led demands for tax increases and public spending cuts for struggling economies in the single currency.
The election of the socialist President Francois Hollande in France in May and support for the socialist party in the Greek elections in the same month sparked comment on whether the austerity era was driving European politics to the left. At the same time, outbursts of fascist sentiment have also become more prevalent in Greece.
So how do we respond to this? Jonathan Tame, director of the Jubilee Centre (a Christian social reform organisation engaging with current issues) encourages Christians to ‘pray for economic justice rather than peace in Europe, because keeping the Eurozone together at any price is not a route to lasting peace’. Peace can only be assured if countries have sufficient flexibility to manage their own economies when they are out of sync with the core of the Eurozone, he says. Where countries such as Greece and Spain cannot do that, because they are tied to the single currency, then without much greater financial transfers between the richer and poorer countries in the Eurozone (which seem unlikely), economic injustice will keep growing – and that will be the greatest threat to peace.
Farewell Rowan; welcome Welby
After ten years’ service, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, announced his resignation in March this year. In November, Justin Welby, the Bishop of Durham for less than a year, was appointed to succeed Williams in the post.
John Martin, head of communications at CMS and former editor of The Church of England Newspaper, said Williams ‘will go down as one of the greatest archbishops ever; not just because of his great achievements, but because of who he is: godly, poetic, a person of great character and charm’.
He’s famed for his intellectual prowess (and seriously impressive eyebrows), but Williams’ chief successes include his early support for the Fresh Expressions movement, and his diplomatic skill in holding the Anglican Communion together. Rev Andrew Goddard, author of a forthcoming biography on Williams and a tutor at Trinity College, Bristol, says Williams has effectively communicated the importance of a ‘mixed economy’ between traditional parish churches and new initiatives. Goddard also praises Williams’ creative way of engaging with the Islamic community.
But it has been far from plain sailing. The archbishop has had an interesting relationship with the secular media. In 2008 his comments on Sharia law were seized upon by the press, and Goddard says that Williams had not always been ‘well served by his media profile’. Despite this, he hasn’t shied away from contributing to the public debate on difficult social issues, notably on the economy in recent years. Williams hands on a difficult baton to Welby, but he is deemed ideally suited to tackling some of the structural concerns of the Church.
A ‘Jubilympic’ year
For possibly the first time since the term ‘cool Britannia’ was coined in the mid-1990s, it’s been cool to be British. It’s 104 years since Britain won as many gold medals in one day as we did on ‘Super Saturday’, (I say ‘we’, my contribution – along with several million other Britons – was to yelp at the TV, while Jessica Ennis, Mo Farah and Greg Rutherford did all the hard work), and it gripped the nation.
As Olympic fever became pandemic, many were looking forward to being caught up in the emotion of it all. Others scoffed, but it wasn’t long before they too were shedding a tear, and then weeping rivers as Katherine Grainger sculled to gold at last. The reason for the emotional excess is obvious: perseverance, hardship and triumph in adversity are the stuff great drama is made of (with a bit of help from the BBC).
National pride was already alive and well following the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations earlier in the year. Throughout the summer bonanza, there was a sense that the street parties, coronation chicken and sportsmanship were a welcome reprieve from the news of our struggling economy.
Christmas 2011 saw the Queen deliver a stonking good speech; the nearest thing to a gospel message likely to come from the mouth of a monarch. Whatever you think of a constitutional monarchy, she too has displayed perseverance; she’s seen war, outlasted 11 Prime Ministers, and lived through more than her fair share of royal scandal.
The Jubilee, the Olympics and the Paralympics abounded in community spirit, and the Church really got stuck in. In Reading, for example, churches came together to feed the 5,000 – literally. They held a Big Jubilee Lunch that’s still being talked about. ‘When the Church broadens out in this way, it creates interest and models faith,’ says Roy Crowne, executive director of HOPE. ‘Then the Church has to provide opportunities for people to respond.’
Broke Britain – whose job is it to fix it?
The 2010 Conservative election campaign was all about ‘Broken Britain’, trying to fix a country with its morals gone awry. But now the problem is that we’re all broke, and different political persuasions disagree about whose job it is to help us out. Some are seeing this as a perfect opportunity to see the Big Society in action, whereas others think it’s the job of the state to protect the vulnerable at an institutional level.
In an effort to reduce the national debt, the coalition government’s March budget announced a series of public spending cuts. The government chose controversially to protect the level of public spending on foreign aid, as well as the health spending budget, while other sectors experience extensive cuts. This could have far-reaching social effects.
The necessary reliance on voluntary and charity sectors brought about by the reduction in state provision is seen by some as an unprecedented opportunity for the Church to step into the breach. Steve Chalke, head of Oasis, says the Church has been ‘robbed of its mission’ by an over-reliance on the welfare state, and now it’s time for us to resume responsibility for delivering local services. But Rob Carr from the Christian Socialist Movement told Christianity that ‘it’s all well and good, but that gap shouldn’t be there to be filled...the UK should be able to support its own citizens’.
Unfortunately, the rise of non-state actors risks being seen as the product of government failure, rather than a coherent implementation of the concept of the Big Society outlined in the Conservative manifesto.
The next phase of benefit cuts will come into force in April 2013, and Carr warns that the effects could exceed many people’s expectations – ‘there’ll be people up and down the country losing their homes’. This is a frightening prospect that is either a sign of impending social breakdown, or the jolt we need to work out what community really means.
Voyages of discovery
While some news stories make us feel like it’s groundhog day, we can always count on the sciences to surprise us. As dawn broke over the earth’s northern hemisphere on 6th August, the Mars rover (aptly named ‘Curiosity’) touched down on the surface of the red planet.
For those who feel that this exploration sounds something like a cross between a car, a dog and a chocolate bar, the rover will spend a Martian year (approximately 687 earth days) exploring the hills, valleys and craters over the planet’s surface, reporting the findings to the 1.2 million Twitter followers (among others). ‘The Mars landing is an example of what humans do best: using our God-given sense of wonder to explore the universe,’ says Dr Ruth Bancewicz from the Faraday Institute.
In particle physics, significant progress was made in the investigation into the Higgs boson, a particle with a field affecting other particles around it. The experiments were conducted in the Hadron Collider in Switzerland, where scientists smashed protons together at high speed. ‘The Higgs boson is exciting because until now we didn’t know what gave matter its mass. That’s a pretty fundamental thing not to know,’ says Bancewicz.
This isn’t just to say that ‘science is fun’, she adds. These developments ‘get us thinking about how this knowledge should be used, but also help us to praise God for his wonderful creative power and provision’.
Things to look out for in 2013 include more discoveries from the Large Hadron Collider, perhaps some earth-like planets from NASA’s ‘exoplanet’ search, and new techniques in the field of medicine.
You can keep up with Curiosity’s explorations by following @MarsCuriosity on Twitter.
Syria death toll rises
Conflict continues in Syria more than 20 months after the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime began. Daily clashes between regime forces and rebels have led to a rising death toll of 37,000 Syrians.
In November 2012 various rebel factions agreed to form the Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces. This coalition has received international support, and was welcomed by the British government as an organised body of resistance with viable political capital. Until now, international support has been limited by divisions among the opposition movement. Dr Harry Hagopian, a lawyer and Middle East Consultant for the Catholic Bishops’ Conference in England and Wales, says the new coalition agreement is ‘a breakthrough’.
Months of incessant violence had caused massive destruction, and both sides in this conflict are responsible for grievous excesses. The less law and order prevails, the more there is room for radicalisation and sectarian divisions. So, will the new coalition help? Hagopian believes it could be ‘the beginning of something new – something that might actually liberate Syria for the betterment of all communities’.
There is debate about the fate of Christians in Syria. Some say Christians have been protected by Assad’s regime, but Hagopian thinks they are not likely to suffer increased persecution if Assad is removed from power. The new elected leader of the Syrian National Council (the largest group within the Syrian National Coalition), George Sabra, is a Christian, while the Coalition will be led by the moderate Muslim cleric, Mouaz al-Khatib.
There are fears that the conflict will be ‘exported’ to Syria’s neighbours, Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. Already this year the conflict has occasionally spilled over the Turkish border, where there are also 120,000 Syrian refugees. Though the scale of destruction is alarming, and we pray for peace in Syria, it is also worth remembering that civil war has often been the path to liberty.
Psy: Love it or loathe it, spontaneous outbursts of ‘Gangnam Style’ have been appearing left, right and centre on a global scale, from Ban Ki-Moon at the UN to Boris Johnson at the Tory party conference. The music video has been watched a whopping 710 million (ish) times since July – second only to Justin Bieber.
Andy Murray: Come on, admit it. Having made us weep in sympathy in July after losing to Roger Federer at Wimbledon, we all believed he was destined to take second forever (a fine example of British pessimism). But four weeks later there were only tears of joy as he clinched gold in the Olympics. The icing on his cake was winning his first grand slam title at the US Open in September. So Murray, Wimbledon 2013? Well, why not?
E L James: The remarkable number of spin-off headlines and book titles have made this author difficult to avoid. The Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy has whipped up a frenzy of comment on its graphic portrayal of lust and sexual domination. The questionable literary standard hasn’t prevented Erika Leonard (writing under the penname EL James) making it into Time magazine’s list of the 100 ‘most influential people in the world’ this year.
YouTube makes headlines
KONY 2012: the campaign by Invisible Children, to raise the profile of the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda, Joseph Kony, and calling for his removal. Within the first week the 30 minute film uploaded on YouTube had been viewed more than 21 million times.
THE INNOCENCE OF MUSLIMS: a low-budget, anti-Islamic video made in California by Egyptian Christians. It was then linked to anti-Western sentiment when the US representative to Libya was killed in September. In November, the seven film makers were given the death sentence in Egypt.
A scandalous year
LEVESON INQUIRY: as the investigation into the ethics of the press continued this year, relationships between members of the Murdoch empire and government came into question. Prime ministers past and present were called to the stand to give evidence between May and June, providing controversial intruders and text messages for tabloid speculation.
JIMMY SAVILE: reports of child abuse on an enormous scale within the entertainment industry in the 1960s and 70s emerged in October. Subsequent allegations of withheld information have sent heads rolling at the BBC.