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Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Speaking notes for Belfast’s Sunday Assembly, 2nd December 2013
John Barry


Welcome everyone to this inaugural Belfast Sunday Assembly...but of course this being Belfast we have it on Monday.

I would like to thank the organisers of this event, and you all for coming, the Black Box for hosting us this evening.

Why are we here?

To celebrate life and all that is life giving and life affirming. 

For me, the values of the Sunday Assembly chime with something I've always believed in and which marked the start of my own journey from the Christian-Catholic faith in which I was raised.  And that is that the real mystery of human existence is not death or the hereafter...but rathe life, in the here and now in all its glorious, unpredictability and

The three aims of Sunday Assembly are:  “Live better, Help often, Wonder more”

Which are excellent guidelines or inspirations for living a decent life, and to which I would add “Connect, Take Notice and get Angry about something important and do something about it”.

First a little about me.  I am a humanist, not just a lapsed, but completely collapsed Catholic and see myself as someone trying to live and practice the ethical principles I hold.  I sometimes see myself as a deeply flawed ethical atheist. 

I am by day a lecturer in politics, economics and ethics at Queens University and in the evenings and weekends a Green Party activist and councillor on North Down Borough Council.  I am also a husband, father and a keen cyclist and well known environmental hypocrite…hypocrisy being the tribute vice pays to virtue…and I have a lot of vices…and am the lookout for some new ones.

A word of warning before I begin…. I am prone to exaggeration and dramatisation for the sake of heightening the impact of what I am talking about.  I believe exaggeration is when the truth loses it temper.


The theme of this inaugural Sunday Assembly is feast. 

It’s an interesting and satisfying word, saying it one almost gets a sense of fullness, especially if you say it or savour it, slowly… ‘feast’ . 

It’s automatically connected to food and drink, the collective enjoyment (cooking, eating etc.) of a shared and meal.

But it’s also something infrequent, something special and not everyday. 

Feast conveys a sense of something lavish, for example a feast is not an ordinary meal, bit something sumptuous, occasional, extravagant, perhaps even a little over the top.  Feast is associated with special events in a person’s life or a group of people, or certain times of the year.  Often there are special types of food and drink or ways of cooking or serving food and drink associated with feasts, again underlying the celebratory and specialness of feasts.    

It’s a relatively underused word, old-worldly harking back to days of yore, the type of world you expect to hear in an old-time Christmas carol.

Feast is also related to festival, conveying sense of community, of ritual, of gathering, solidarity and coming together. And in that sense related to a sense of fellowship. 

By ritual here I do not necessarily mean religious or spiritual-based ceremonial practices, but rather collective practices that express and through their expression create solidarity, a sense of belonging and meaning. These meaning-making rituals can occur at harvest time, or around special daily events, such as eating, or significant episodes within the life of a community, family, and individual, such as birth, marriage/partnership, and death. Rituals bind people together and since strong bonds and the recreation of community are central to resilience, rituals are vital. And while not always the case such solidarity creating and meaning making rituals often are occasions for feasts and feasting.

Feast, festival and fellowship - these capture the essence perhaps of this time of year.

Festival and feast are and are at the heart of many of the rituals, public holidays which make up the annual rhythms of civic life.  Some of these festivals as associated with religious feast days.

Some have associations with the seasons – spring, summer, autumn, winter – such as St. Bridget’s day on 2nd February, or Imbolc, the older Celtic feast day upon which the later Christian saint’s day was superimposed.

Or some festivals are largely political and secular feast days, often associated with significant historical events around the foundation of a nation-state, birth or death of past civic heroes or heroines whose names and the principles by which they lived and for which they gave their lives for

Feast, festival and fellowship make sense to us since we are essentially narrative creatures.  That is, we live our lives, construct and reconstruct our identities and interests, on the basis of stories we tell one another and ourselves.  With are also essentially mythic beings, and have a tendency to crave and believe in myths….but that’s another story….

What stories are we telling in having a feast?

At this time of year in this part of the world, when the days are shorter, temperatures drop and the growing season has stopped, we have always craved light, warmth, community … and drink…. 

The feast we’re now coming up to in Christmas is an old festival of light has its origins in two ancient pagan festivals, the great Yule-feast of the Norsemen associated with the winter Solstice and sun worshipping, and the Roman Saturnalia.  Both evoke the feast’s association with excess or exuberance in terms of food, drinking, singing, debauchery and generally having a good time.  But like all feasts this excess is temporary, limited and therefore bounded.

And like all feasts, it evokes a sense of life-affirmation through temporary or bounded excess and it is this essential life celebratory element of feast which I think is at the heart of the meaning of feast and why we are attracted to it.  Feasting is pleasurable, sometimes a guilty pleasure, joyful and celebratory, raucous, always edgy and always holds underneath it a sense of anarchy.  It was for this reason that many of festivals and feast days and practices in many cultures were about diffusing social tension through role reversal, gender reversal, dressing up, role-playing, cross-dressing and so on, all with the aim of temporarily turning the tables on the established order.        

And yet, we also have the phrase ‘Feast or famine’ and others such as “Eat drink and be merry for tomorrow you may die” both of which I think also convey something else about feast and feasting, that we feast knowing it will not last, that it will come to an end and perhaps ultimately feast (like humour with which feasting is of course centrally concerned with) is about warding off death, the ultimate end point for us, and pole around which much meaning can and ought to be made for us to make sense of life, to get things in perspective for example. 

Feasting and food

I want to focus here on food within the context of the story or stories of feasts and feasting and also make some remarks about the importance of generosity and gratitude around food.   

The point of practices of being thankful and expressing generosity around food is that they stand as occasions to pause and reflect upon our connections with one another and the non-human world.  It is right, ethically appropriate and socially positive that we recognise the labour, often gendered and done by women, the concern, planning and care that go into feast making and preparation.  It is only children and teenagers who think that there is a magic fairy that creates meals, prepares food and all that goes with celebratory shared enjoyment of food and drink.  In giving thanks at special occasions such as feasting (but also in everyday meal times) we recognise, thank and honour the human labour and thoughtfulness that has made the feast possible.  And we are often lacking in gratitude today, taking all that we enjoy for granted and not honouring or recognising the human labour that has made all that we have possible. 

I try as often as I can do offer gratitude when I eat or drink and sometimes say the following verse taken from the Holywood Steiner school where my children go:

“Earth who gives to us our food, sun who makes it ripe and good, dear earth, dear sun by you we live, our loving thanks to you we give”.

Gratitude as part of the ritual of feasting also evokes a sense of reintroducing ‘mindfulness’ into these everyday activities, and indeed reintroducing meaning into these practices so that proper human food eating is not utilitarian or instrumental but cultural, social, and symbolic.  It is not simply about nourishment or calories.  And indeed feasting, unlike everyday eating where we are often too rushed and harried to think about being grateful (here I think the Slow Food movement offers some excellent insights), in being occasional and special, and therefore more planned in advance, could or should have rituals of gratitude built into them that perhaps are not possible in everyday food consumption.  

Another reason I think we should be grateful for what we have is that it should also remind us that many others don’t have what they need to live decent lives.   Here another humanist form of grace which like all acts of gratitude offer a pause for thought and reflection, focuses on this aspect: 

Let us think thrice while we are gathering here for this meal.
First, let us think of the people we are with today, and make the most of the pleasure of sharing food and drink together.
Then, let us think of the people who made the food and drink and brought it to us, who serve us and wait on us, and who clear up and clean up after us.
Finally, let us think of all the people all over the world, members with us in the human family, who will not have a meal today.

Here, while be grateful that we in enjoying the feast are lucky enough to have one another, to have this food and drink and so on, we should not forget those who do not have what they need.  And this should …in my view… make us both thankful for what we do have, and evoke a sense of warranted and justified concern, and perhaps even anger, that in a world and society of plenty such as ours, so many people’s lives are disfigured and blighted unnecessarily…. But the reasons and remedies for that is another story for another time. 

Feasting and consumerism

I would like to conclude by reflecting on the weekend just past

First we had ‘Black Friday’ and the chaotic scenes in Asda stores here in Belfast and Bristol.  While we saw the physical injuries suffered by people in the rush to compete and fight for cut-price electrical and other goods, I would also suggest that there is a deeper problem that Black Friday suggests …namely the dangers of unrestrained consumerism and its disfiguring effects on human lives and aspirations.

Then on Saturday we had two contrasting events, one known to you all here tonight and another less known.  The first was the Flag protest march which brought thousands of people onto the streets and was a largely peaceful event (though 2 policemen were injured), but caused anxiety and insecurity as well as inconvenience to many people.  The second is the much less well-known fact that last Saturday, 30th November was “No shopping day”, a day when we are encouraged, in the run up to the orgy of consumerism towards Christmas, to stop, step away from the credit card and cash register and do other things than shop, spend and consume.

And here we are on Monday, perhaps Happy Monday? 

But let’s look at these three events.  Firstly we have ‘Black Friday’ (a rather apt name if ever there was one), the main aim of which is to encourage as much ‘festive feasting’ as possible.  On the one hand, does it provide cheap offers and therefore helpful to those on limited budgets?  Or is it, on the other hand, a cynical ploy to encourage irresponsible consumerism, often digging people into more debt? 
Then ‘Buy Nothing Day’ is a perfect antidote to that excessive consumerism by directly challenging the logic of accumulating and consuming more than one needs, encouraging people to be resilience and confident in their finding alternative ways to express themselves and their love for others.  As the wise Revered Billy of the Church of Life after Shopping says, “You don't have to buy a gift to give a gift”.

And what of the Flags protests?  The reaction to the flags protests of from a broad liberal view, which dominates the media, including social media, such as the satirical and popular Loyalists Against Democracy website (L.A.D.) in my opinion, is a combination of class prejudice masquerading as liberalism mixed with incomprehension as to how people could get so upset for such a sustained period of time over a flag.   I have my own views on the decision to restrict the flying of the flag from City Hall on designed days which I don’t have time to develop here – but suffice to say my view is that it serves as yet another example of the ‘ungenerous and unimaginative’ majorities we produce in Northern Ireland.   And I also have views on the protests against that decision – and here my view is that this was a democratic decision which can only be undone democratically, thus my advice to the flags protestors would be to use the democratic opportunity of the local elections next May to make their views known.

However, this evening I wish to connect the three events – so where does the flags protest sit between the urge/temptation to over-consume as represented by Black Friday and the polar opposite in the encouragement not to consume at all in ‘Buy Nothing Day’?   Well…going against the liberal, intellectual stream somewhat (but then ‘only dead fish go with the flow’ I always say) I would, without romanticising or being uncritical of the flags protest, say that it has a lot to positive features which are over-looked, even by those organising or participating in them. 

Firstly, they can be viewed as rituals of non-consumption, acts of social solidarity that do not implicate people into consuming things.  There is joy and pleasure for people in such collective experiences (including for example the less politically charged one of our gathering here together) and a strong sense of meaning and purpose for people.  Of course others, not part of this collective experience, may and do criticise the motives, tactics and aims of the flags protestors, but for those involved in them the protests are meaningful, purposeful and enjoyable. 

Secondly, and especially to the extent that such protests are non-violent, such protests are examples of ‘active citizenship’ and are part of a sadly neglected aspect of democratic societies.  Key here, I should stress, is that any protests be non-violent, disruptive yes, inconvenience people yes, but violent or threaten violence absolutely not.  The key issue, or one of the key issues it seems to me, is not whether or not one agrees with the flags protests, but whether they are non-violent or not, that is the key democratic issue.

The neglected aspect of democracy which I think the flags protests raise relates to questioning the commonsense idea that democracy consists in electing people every couple of years.  The protest marches draws attention to the fact that democracy can and indeed needs to continue in between elections, that democracy is a non-violent way of disagreeing and the vibrancy of a democracy is measured by defending the rights of people and groups you disagree with, to non-violently express their views.    

And such ritual acts of non-consumption are obviously challenging or pausing consumption; people involved in them are not shopping in Victoria Square (or indeed trying to blow it up).  Yet look at how the dominant response to the flags protests goes something like this –the protests are bad for business, they will put people off coming into Belfast to shop, consume, buy etc.  Everyone from the Sinn Fein Mayor to the DUP First Minister, to business representatives and media commentators, are all in agreement on either condemning or cautioning the protestors for the negative impact on the shopping period in the run up to Christmas.  Now…least I be accused of neglecting the connection between supporting businesses and the workers and families who depend on them thriving (and here I am more interested in how thriving businesses support people rather than abstract entities like the NI or Belfast economy)… I of course do wish for decent well-paid jobs for workers and not against businesses making profits (the issue is how they make them of course).   I don’t have time tonight to go into the full details of my argument here tonight (which of course I open for rejection and criticism), but if, as I suggested earlier, there is a moral and ethical argument for reducing and reigning in consumerism (that is over-consumption)  (never mind the ecological one), surely we should recognise, if not support, the flags protests as helping reduce consumerism, even though that may not be its intention?  That they indicate or point towards forms of pleasurable active citizenship and practices of collective action that stand in opposition to the passive consumerism which dominates our lives at this time of year in the run up to Christmas?  That is, something positive, even if one may still hold may negative views and opinions about them?  A provocative suggestion of course, but one worth considering and discussing I think.

Here’s one way to think about it – which may help make the world a better place – the help achieve the goals that inspire the Sunday Assembly, ‘Live better, Help often, Wonder more’ – people non-violently expressing their perceived political grievances in collective acts of active citizenship? Or passive consumerism based on getting people into debt and into Victoria Square?  Of course you might want to answer ‘neither’ (though I suspect this might be based more on a negative view of the flags protestors than a positive embracing of anti-consumerism) but I think there is more in the protest, in terms of potential, than first meets the eye.  Which of them speak more to fundamental ethical and political issues of this society and our times? 

The flags protests, if one if open to perceiving them in ways not completely blinkered by one’s inevitable biased and prejudiced ways of thinking, raise important issues of democratic politics, how to deal with dissident and difference as well as of course speaking to some deep, unresolved issues in our ‘post-conflict’ society 15 years after the 1998 Agreement.  Whether one agrees with them or not, indeed especially if one disagrees or feels uncomfortable about what they represent, at the very least the flags protests are explicitly political questions that raise deep questions of how far tolerance stretches in democratic societies.
Which goes to some of the deep questions of our society and the modern human   experience – viewing the flags protests as an example of Voltaire’s famous statement on democratic tolerance and freedom of expression “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”…or “I’ll defend your right for free or reduced car parking for late night Christmas shopping”.

Shopping in Victoria Square of course could be viewed as another modern ritual, and I’m not for one moment seeking to completely disparage the reasons and motivations why people buy things (often it’s an expression of love and concern for others as well as a way to communicate).  What I am highlighting here is over-consumption, consumerism as opposed to a healthy attitude towards buying material things.  And, again using the idea of exaggeration as the truth losing its temper, shopping in Victoria secure is a modern act of loyalty and loyalism, different but also similar to the loyalism underpinning the flags protests.  Shopping is an activity which both helps sustain the existing social and economic system (let’s call it carbon fuelled, debt-based consumer capitalism for short!), and also an act of loyalty to that order.  By shopping you demonstrate your loyalty.  And of course the opposite is true, by not shopping or by participating in activities which prevent others from shopping (through such activities like engaging in disruptive street marches and protests), you are disloyal.  Indeed you are a dissident, someone ‘not with the programme’ as it were.         


But to conclude and return to feasting.  What I am suggesting in part is that over-consumption or consumerism are unhealthy or debased form of feasting, that can corrupt and undermine the solidarity-creating and life-enhancing potentials that lie at the heart of feasting, and which make it so attractive to us.  There is a lovely quote from the American farmer-poet Wendell Berry which captures what I am trying to say:  

“The most alarming sign of the state of our society now is that our leaders have the courage to sacrifice the lives of young people in war, but have not the courage to tell us that we must be less greedy and less wasteful”.

So when we think about feasting, about festivals, family and fellowship we should bear in mind some of the issues raised above.  And it’s absolutely fine not to agree with anything I’ve said…though believe me on the exaggeration issue…. It really is when the truth loses its temper…and do you know what, given the state of the world, the state of Northern Ireland we need to exaggerate more, lose our tempers more, feast more, rest more and love more.  We need rituals of non-consumption such as the Sunday Assembly, bringing people together, connecting people and encouraging people to ‘do’ and not simply ‘have’.  

John Ruskin: “There is no wealth but life. Life, including all its powers of love, of joy, and of admiration”.

And I leave you with three things to remember:

       “Take the red pill Neo”… be curious and wonder more.

       “Don’t read beauty magazines they’ll only make your feel ugly”... believe me , you’ll live better

       “Don’t sit on the fence…you’ll only get splinters up your arse”…you can only help people by coming off the fence

Thanks for listening and happy feasting!