Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Cactus in a hostile environment: our toxic political culture

for Collinwood Road URC, July 14th 2013

25 An expert in the Law of Moses stood up and asked Jesus a question to see what he would say. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to have eternal life?”  26 Jesus answered, “What is written in the Scriptures? How do you understand them?”
27 The man replied, “The Scriptures say, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind.’ They also say, ‘Love your neighbours as much as you love yourself.’”
28 Jesus said, “You have given the right answer. If you do this, you will have eternal life.”  29 But the man wanted to show that he knew what he was talking about. So he asked Jesus, “Who are my neighbours?”
30 Jesus replied:
As a man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, robbers attacked him and grabbed everything he had. They beat him up and ran off, leaving him half dead.
31 A priest happened to be going down the same road. But when he saw the man, he walked by on the other side. 32 Later a temple helper came to the same place. But when he saw the man who had been beaten up, he also went by on the other side.
33 A man from Samaria then came traveling along that road. When he saw the man, he felt sorry for him 34 and went over to him. He treated his wounds with olive oil and wine and bandaged them. Then he put him on his own donkey and took him to an inn, where he took care of him. 35 The next morning he gave the innkeeper two silver coins and said, “Please take care of the man. If you spend more than this on him, I will pay you when I return.”
36 Then Jesus asked, “Which one of these three people was a real neighbour to the man who was beaten up by robbers?”
37 The teacher answered, “The one who showed pity.”
Jesus said, “Go and do the same!”
(Luke 10 : 25 - 37)

The linking of these two commandments (to love God and love neighbour) is critical : one deals with the ‘internal’ aspect of religious faith — loving God with heart, soul, mind and strength — what’s going on inside you that noone can see.  The second deals with how that cashes out in the world : how someone on the path to eternal life behaves.  What faith looks like in practice.

And the question is : where is the boundary between the neighbour and the foreigner to whom you owe no obligation?  Understand this : in Jesus’s Judæa, ‘neighbour’ was understood very clearly to mean ‘fellow-citizen’, ‘fellow-countryman’.

Now we might scoff at that : “obviously, my ‘neighbour’ is every other human being in the world”.

It‘s absolutely not obvious at all.  How is it ‘obvious’?  As I look at British society at the moment what is very obvious is that there are limits to our compassion.  We are being taught it persistently and insidiously by our politicians and the media.

Two examples :

You will hear politicians regularly using the phrase “hard-working ordinary people” or suchlike.  These are the people — ordinary people like you and me (we’re meant to understand) — whom they are there to serve.  They’re on our side.

Be very wary.  What they mean is that the people they are there to serve are the ones who are working, not the ones that aren’t working.  It’s a phrase carefully designed to drive a wedge between those who have work and those who don’t.  The United Reformed Church, in conjunction with the Church of Scotland, the Methodist and Baptist Churches have publicly demanded that our leaders cease demonising and lying about (yes, they’ve used that word) unemployed people.  Because (to take just one example) the majority of unemployed people are only out of work for a few weeks — less than a fifth of unemployed people have been out of work for more than two years (and some of those have already found jobs and are waiting to start.  When unemployed figures rise, what it means is the average time it takes a person to find another job has increased, so more people are unemployed at any one time — but it’s not the same people otherwise the long-term unemployed figures would be rising, and they’re not.  They’re moving in and out of work all the time.  So we’re being invited to lose compassion for anyone who isn’t in a steady job.  Distance ourselves from those on the edge of the economy.  We’re being taught to believe that unemployed people — even though most unemployed people actually work — are not our ‘neighbours’, we have no obligation to them.  That’s what we’re being ‘groomed’ to believe.  Welfare benefits become undeserved charity.

My second example is the insidious way that a wall is being constructed between permanent UK residents and so-called ‘immigrants’, and especially ‘illegal immigrants’.  Now, like ‘unemployed’, ‘illegal immigrants’ is a slippery term.  For instance, it includes 147,000 asylum applications dating back to the early 1990s — that’s nearly 20 years in some cases — which are still stranded in the Home Office bureaucracy. The government’s own Chief Inspector reported :
Such was the inefficiency of this operation that at one point over 150 boxes of post, including correspondence from applicants, MPs and their legal representatives lay unopened in a room in Liverpool.
(Report by Independent Chief Inspector of Borders & Immigration John Vine, Nov 22, 2012)

That is the equivalent of the population of the City of Oxford unable to provide residency papers because their applications, submitted between six and twenty years ago, have not been dealt with.

‘Who is my neighbour?’

Well, it’s not those 147,000 people, that’s for sure.  It was revealed yesterday that the prime minister set up a cabinet working party called the ‘Hostile Environment Working Party’ whose job is to make life as miserable and difficult for unwanted immigrants as possible, to break up their families and drive them into destitution, and a new swathe of laws on the statute book is designed to do just this.  These people are being absolutely redefined as ‘not neighbours’ — people to whom we have no obligation whatsoever.

In fact it’s the very opposite : the obligation on employers, landlords and doctors will be to sack them, evict them and deny them medical treatment.  I’m not joking : that is exactly what the new laws will require.  And I imagine the prime minister's ‘Hostile Environment Working Party’ also has a media consultant on it to make sure that the stereotyping, demonising messages are filtered into the media.  We’re being groomed to believe this abuse is acceptable, normal, “common sense, really”.

And this new ‘them and us’ mood is catching on.  Read the comments that people post on the websites and you’ll find the spite-filled, poisonous messages you read there deeply alarming — at least, I do.  We have our own spiritual work cut out if we’re to avoid our minds being poisoned — it’s insidious.

‘Who is my neighbour?’ asks the legal expert of Jesus, to test his grasp of the law.  Maybe it was a genuine question, not a trick question.  Perhaps he genuinely wants to know how the Law of Moses defines ‘neighbour’.  Read Deuteronomy — it’s not straightforward.  The answer he gets is not what he expects.

Jesus twists it back as a question about what it means for you to be ‘neighbourly’.  And instead of generalising, he pulls it down to a story of a particular incident.

Why does he do that?

Because it’s so easy to stereotype and generalise, isn’t it?  It’s impossible — it’s downright dangerous — to generalise about unemployed people and immigrants because every story’s different, as I’ve explained.  You couldn’t have a separate law for every particular situation.  But lawyers have to generalise in order to make their laws, don’t they?  Law is a blunt instrument, and in the wrong hands becomes a ‘weapon of mass destruction’, as these new laws will.

So instead of giving a legal opinion, Jesus gives a story of particular people, and the picture he paints of the Samaritan is not the stereotype — because, after all, there is no stereotype Samaritan. He and his disciples have just passed through Samaria : they’ve been welcomed in some people’s houses, not in others. This Samaritan is a man of compassion, who understands that compassion doesn’t stop at the borders of Samaria.  Even though the man who’s been mugged might despise him (were he conscious) the Samaritan helps him anyway.  In his hour of need, and whilst not in a state to choose who will or won’t help him, the victim depends for his life on the Samaritan, while his fellow-countrymen abandon him.

So Jesus puts the lawyer (the politician — for in his day, the two were not far from being the same thing) in a situation where he must acknowledge that maybe, one day, he may desperately need help from a Samaritan — “so, my friend, be very careful before you go writing laws that drive a wedge between Samaritans and us”.

The MP who, because she was so appalled by it, leaked the information about the ‘Hostile Environment Working Party’, was not just any MP. Until recently she was government Minister for Children and Families. She will no doubt pay a high price for her ‘outing’ of what’s going on.  Unless a lot of things change quickly in our toxic political culture she is (as my Australian relatives would say) ‘cactus’.  She’s ‘cactus’ . . out on her own in a hostile environment, with noone wanting to get too close to her.

As happened, eventually, of course, to Jesus.  I wouldn’t push the parable too far.  Sarah Teather will continue to be very well paid, and though on the front benches she may be ‘cactus’, she'll find plenty of friends outside a House of Commons that’s so intent on creating a ‘hostile environment’.  Jesus’s world was very much more violent and chaotic, and the price he paid for his message of neighbourliness was total.

My task this morning, of course, is not just to deliver social comment (even if it does come straight from the Gospel reading) but to proclaim The Gospel — ‘Good News’.  The thing is, the message of this text isn’t necessarily Good News.  It offers no promise of life to those who swallow the poisonous message that we owe no obligation to people without work or to people who can’t produce the appropriate documentation to appease the gods of the Home Office.  There is no eternal life — it says — for these people, though fortunately there is always the opportunity for repentance.  ‘Repent — and believe the Good News’.

But it is ‘Good News’ to the victims of these laws — “despite what they say, you are valuable to God; you are welcome in the Christian community”.  And our response to the Gospel must be to live that welcome, and not cooperate with systems that limit our neighbourliness and replace it with legally-sanctioned abuse.

The world — the ‘hostile environment’ which our smiley Prime Minister has set up a Working Party to create — will do its worst.  Those who actually believe in loving ‘the neighbours they have from God’ (as we sang in our hymn) as they find them, in all their variety — not as the stereotypes by which others full of fear want to portray them — may find themselves unpopular with the majority.  But the love and acceptance of the outcast shown by Jesus is invincible even in death.  The resurrection means many things, but amongst them is the conviction that cactus can survive and multiply in the desert.

Statistics are taken from the Office of National Statistics latest reports.  The paper referred to is the Joint Public Issues Group's 2013 paper The Lies We Tell Ourselves : comfortable myths about poverty

Monday, 1 July 2013

A complete philosophy of religion in 1000 words

From time to time, I find myself conducting a service with a lot of people who have no church or religious background at all, and very little knowledge of Christian belief.  Rather than say creeds that are full of jargon, I try to open up the world of Christian thinking about ‘life, the Universe and everything’ in as few carefully chosen words as I can.  Here’s the most recent attempt — slightly expanded.

When we talk about ‘God’ (capital ‘G’) we are not talking about something that may or may not be real, something that may or may not ‘exist’.  Indeed, to talk about God ‘existing’ doesn't quite make sense.  God is the word we use for the reason why anything ‘exists’ at all.  God is whatever causes reality as we know it.

So to say ‘there is no God’ is either to say ‘there is no Reality’ (but that would be stupid — wouldn’t it?) or ‘Reality has no cause’ (which seems a bit weird), or ‘even if Reality did once have a cause we will never know what that was so there’s no point talking about it’.  If that works for you, fine, but me, I’m interested in what Reality’s like so I can work out how to live my life — and die my death.  It seems more likely to me that whatever was the first cause of Reality is still holding existence in being, and will be at the end of the Universe (if there is one).

One thing we can definitely say about God — if we’re to use the word properly — is that God cannot (by definition) be a product of our imaginations any more than reality is a product of our imaginations (but see footnote).  Why? Because to worship something that our minds have conjured up or imagined is what the ancients called ‘idolatry’ — worshipping something you’ve ‘made’ — and that was absolutely forbidden.  If we’re worshipping a product of our imaginations, then by definition we’re not worshipping God but something else (and the Bible suggests that’s a dangerous thing to do).

In fact, because we’re human, we can only ever worship a product of our imaginations, but we need to recognise that that’s what we’re doing and keep ourselves continually on the alert for signs of false-god-worship.  (That’s why the first Christians were persecuted for being ‘atheists’.  They wouldn’t acknowledge the Roman emperor as one of the gods, which was nonsensical to a lot of people, quite apart from being traitorous.)

I suppose you could say, though, that whatever God is like, we and all of reality are a product of God’s imagination!

The key question, then, is not whether God ‘exists’ or not.  That is a meaningless question.  It’s rather like a fish debating whether water exists.  The question is — what is God like?  What is Reality like?  Here are some possibilities :

  • Is there only one Reality or many, for instance?  Is there a ‘this world’, and ‘another (spiritual or ideal) world’?  (Groups that believed that caused the early Christians a lot of trouble, and were eventually ejected from the Church).  The central affirmation shared by Jews, Christians and Muslims is, “Hear, O Israel : the Lord your God, the Lord is One”
  • Is Reality basically mechanical, and only understandable in terms of physics theory? (Bear in mind that physicists are having trouble finding a single set of theories that make sense of the whole Universe).  Are human beings the only point at which the Universe has feelings, and are those feelings just meaningless processes going on in our brains?
  • Is the Universe basically human-friendly or is it out to kill us unless we stop it?  Should we just accept whatever comes, or should we ‘barter’ with God, try to outmanœuvre the workings of the Universe?
  • Does everything in the Universe sort of hang together in a balanced way, making sense; or is the Universe a chaos of different forces competing with each other, some horrible, some beautiful, with no overall purpose?

For most of human history, religion has probably been based on the last of these beliefs : that it’s chaos out there — that there are many competing ‘invisible forces’.  That the gods are cruel and fickle, always at war with one another and not basically interested in human beings.  And that we have to attract their attention with our rituals and buy them off with sacrifices.  (That doesn’t just apply to ancient civilisations.  The same sort of religion, for instance, is practised by those who think The Free Market  is some unchallengeable principle that must be appeased if society is to flourish — appeased with ‘human sacrifices’ if necessary.  It’s just that the language is different).

The Jews who later became known as Christians, however, had what they called a ‘gospel’ — meaning ‘Good News’ — which, they claimed, rendered this sort of religion redundant.

This Good News is there throughout the Bible, but it is revealed most clearly in the shape of a human being — Jesus of Nazareth.  Jesus’s followers came to believe that in Jesus they were seeing what God is like.  (That is to say, what the one Reality is like, deep down.)

The Good News is that ‘God is One’ and ‘God is Love’.

This doesn’t sound very ‘news’, does it?  It sounds like a statement of the obvious.  Of course ‘God is love’!

Of course?  There’s absolutely no ‘of course’ about it!  When you look at Reality, where’s the evidence?  It’s a crazy claim to make — not least by people whose holy prophet was tortured to death — and the early Christians were understandably ridiculed for it.  Reality, surely, is harsh, chaotic?  ‘Life’s a bitch, then you die’.  Better burn a pinch of incense on an altar to ward the gods off, in the hope that they’ll be nice to us — or at least leave us alone.  Where’s the evidence that ‘God is love’?

The evidence is Jesus.  That is the reason why Christians dare to claim that the deepest Reality loves us.  How it is that Jesus is ‘evidence’ is another story.

footnote : Since we can only ever experience reality in our minds I suppose you could say reality itself is ‘imaginary’.  Whilst that might keep us humble by reminding us that everything is to some extent subjective — that is, that every person experiences and interprets reality differently — I'm not sure quite how far that gets us.  It’s quite good at challenging dominating single ideologies, but its danger is that we end up imagining that only ‘objective’ science can say anything sensible about reality, which is pretty much what we’ve ended up doing.