Wednesday 21 January 2015

not 'jihadists', not 'muslims', but 'idolaters'

One of Islam's big selling points, as far as I'm concerned, is its robust monotheism.  No 'idol' worship — worship of anything less than, or any one aspect of God — can be allowed to diffuse, divert or obstruct worship of the one God.  I agree with this.  This is the power and wisdom of a monotheistic religion, which I share.

Clearly the Christians' presentation of Jesus as 'God incarnate' and the portrayal of Jesus in innumerable pictures and statues must present the Muslim both with a puzzle (since Christians likewise claim to worship just one God) and a problem.  As a Christian, I do have my answer to that conundrum, but that can be the subject of a different essay.  The reason for making this point is to justify me, as a Christian, daring to venture an opinion about what is — and isn't — 'Islam' (that is, 'submission' to the One God).  I'm trying to demonstrate that I do 'get it' — I do understand why it is important not to set up images of divinities of any sort, and worship them.

As I understand it, the Prophet Muhammed forbade any images being made of himself. Of course!  This was in a culture in which idols were worshipped — in which many deities were given physical representation in art and statuary. In the polytheistic religion of the Greek and Roman world (whose cultural and religious legacy still shaped the known world at the time of the Prophet), the boundaries between the mortals, the 'heroes' and the gods were often blurred.  There was every possibility that, after his death, the Prophet would first be canonised, then 'promoted' to demigod status and worshipped.  This would have been completely counter to the revelation he had received — a denial of the essence of Islam — so images of the Prophet (or of God in any form) were and are forbidden.

The problem with images the Prophet, then, is that they could distract from worship of the one true God. Surely, it's not primarily to do with portraying the Prophet in unflattering ways?  Indeed, a far worse — or should I say "more spiritually dangerous" — image would be an image that tried to be flattering . . . that sought to present the Prophet as some kind of saviour figure or holy being.  A cartoon image of the Prophet such as is on the recent front cover of Charlie Hebdo is hardly likely to be interpreted as an image designed to evoke worship of the Prophet!

But 'idols' do not have to be given physical representation in order to be idols.  There are many 'invisible forces' that have the power to fascinate and elicit 'worship'.  Polytheistic religions have historically given these entities forms, seeing them as just one aspect of the Divine.  In fact, although we no longer use the language of gods, idols or whatever, the old gods are still around doing great business.  Think Aphrodite — image of the sexual instinct. Think Dionysus — the urge to drink and party to excess, whose sacramental presence may possibly be found in an ecstasy tablet. (A 'sacrament' is a symbol that also makes real in some way the 'thing' that it symbolises).  In particular, think Mars (or Ares) the god of war and violence.  It's clear that the young people who go out to fight with Isis in Syria are turned on by the images of war and violence.  Why else would images of executions inspire them, whilst they revolt most people?  This violence-worship is idolatry on a dangerous scale.  In fact, the god they worship is given a physical representation : it's the gun, the gun that features proudly in the videos, being carried with pride — a 'sacrament' of the false god 'Mars', that can bring about the death and destruction it celebrates.

I was struck to learn that the blood-soaked terrorist cell whose British member was arrested returning from Syria and who now faces a life sentence styles itself 'Rayat al Tawheed'.  I don't know what 'Rayat' means, but 'tawheed' I recognised instantly as the fundamental Islamic doctrine of monotheism.  This cell — this violence cult every bit as pagan as the Viking worshippers of Odin — is not islamic at all because it is a living denial of 'tawheed'.

What this means is that these jihadists are not actually 'jihadist'.  A jihadist struggles against anything — starting with anything within their own soul — that gets between themself and worship of One God alone.  But these people have weakly sold their souls to Ares, Mars, Odin or whatever you want to call it . . the spirit of violence that lies within each of us.  This is not metaphorical speech : they are literally 'worshipping' ('giving worth to') extreme violence; celebrating it.  In short, they are idolaters . . 'infidel' ('unfaithful') to the One God.

Further, they have turned images of their Prophet into a powerful 'idol' that must be honoured by being avenged.  The images seem to have such a powerful hold on their imaginations that they are willing to kill for them.  I have to say, no image of Jesus ever had such power over me, however flattering or insulting.  It's just a human-created thing, and I've never yet seen an image of Jesus that did anything for me.  The ones that turn me off most are the ones that were designed to be beautiful.

Further still, if I am correct, it means that these people do not represent a hidden violence that is latent within Islam and which they have latched on to and amplified to the extreme.  It is not there at all — I can't see how it can be there in any of the monotheistic religions.  I write as a monotheist myself.  If war happens, it could never be the will of the One God; it can only ever be the inevitable working out of colossal human failure, to be repented of, not celebrated.

Monday 1 December 2014

Advent Hope in the face of Climate Crisis

for Holy Trinity, Headington Quarry, Advent Sunday 2014

Bible readings for First Sunday in Advent :
Isaiah 64:1-9 (NRSVA)
Mark 13:24-37 (NRSVA)

So it's Advent Sunday, the first in the Church's year.  The story begins as we look to the future and wonder when God will come, and when God comes, what it will mean for us. And whence comes hope.

The secular Advent seems to entail sitting in 2-hr queues for Bicester Village in preparation for a season of unremitting jolliness and goodwill to all — if you can afford it (and maybe just a little bit of goodwill if you can't). Christmas is going to be fun.

Christians, if they're doing Advent properly, don't profess to know what's coming, or assume it's going to be fun.  Instead we ask, "If God were to come — and ultimately we can be sure God will, because God is the source and goal of all things created — what would God do with us?  And if we don't like the thought of what God might do with us, what do we need to do to make the future more hopeful?  And who might lead us into that future?"  That's Advent in a nutshell.

Now, if you ask me to look to the future and ask about hope — and I guess you have asked me, because you've asked me to preach on Advent Sunday — I have to tell you that as I look into the future I am filled with foreboding about the very future of our species.

The coming climate crisis is the elephant in the room that noone wants to talk about in polite company for fear of spoiling the party.  We don't want to believe that climate change is a catastrophe round the corner, so we don't believe it.  Or we believe it in a way that doesn't challenge our lifestyle, so we tame it.  But Advent is a penitential season — it's a time for asking "How do we need to change?".  Not just as individuals — that's more a Lenten theme — but as a society.  Advent is more a time for reflecting about the kind of world leadership we need.

Let's go for a moment to the world that the writer of Marks' gospel knew.

The Judæa of Jesus's day was a powder-keg waiting to blow. Did the people of Jesus's day poke fun at the doom-mongers like Jesus and just get on with daily life?  If they did sense danger, what if anything did they do about it?  The authorities, we know, dealt with it in different ways — some tried to adapt to Roman rule (in the hope of mitigating the disaster), a few resisted violently, a few retreated into personal piety, most (I suspect) kept their heads down and got on with it.

Jesus's warnings were fulfilled, I suppose, in the year 70CE.  After a final decade of social collapse, with abuse and corruption in high places, Jerusalem was obliterated.  The prophecy was fulfilled. (That's probably why Mark records it).  The Christian Church emerged out of the wreckage as a frail remnant of its Jewish ancestor.

Our 21st century crisis is of a different order.  The first difference with climate crisis is that without a real repentance from the Powers That Be — that is, an about-turn in policy — there won't be any 'elect' being gathered from the four winds; there won't be any Noah's Ark, there won't be any promised land to escape to beyond the wilderness.  Blood on the doorpost will be of no effect when the angel passes over.

The second difference with the climate crisis is that unlike Jesus's hearers who don't know when 'the Master of the house is coming' and are being told to hold themselves ready for who-knows-what — hold themselves in a Passover-like state, shoes on feet, staff in hand, ready to cut and run for the promised land leaving Egypt to drown in its sins — unlike them, we do know what our crisis will look like. We can measure at what pace the crisis is coming — indeed with grim fascination we can watch it coming, we know largely why it is coming, even if we don't understand all the mechanisms.  What's more, we know in great detail what we need to do to limit its impact so that our great-grandchildren may not be the last humans on the planet.

And yet, far from holding ourselves in a state of readiness (as Mark urges us), we push the thing to the back of our minds.  It's as if it's just too big to think about.

Daniel Kahneman won a Nobel Prize for his work on the psychology of human decision-making.  He was interviewed by George Marshall for Marshall's recent book Don't even think about it : why our brains are wired to ignore climate change.  He quotes the psychologist as saying :

This is not what you might want to hear, but no amount of psychological awareness will overcome people's reluctance to lower their standard of living.  So that's my bottom line : there's not much hope. I'm thoroughly pessimistic.  I'm sorry.

Well, I'm pessimistic too, but I'm not so thoroughly pessimistic, because he's wrong about one important thing :

We don't need to lower our standard of living.  We don't need to persuade everyone to go about barefoot and eat nothing but broccoli.  Don't need to cover ourselves in sackcloth and ashes.  It's more party-going Jesus than the austere John Baptist.  Though I do occasionally wonder whether the prophet Jeremiah's symbolic protest in refusing to have children might not have some wisdom in it.

In order for our race to survive, our way of living will change, but far from being a lower standard of living it might actually be a higher one.  We all know, deep down, that quality of living isn't about having more and more stuff, running harder and harder to stand still.  It's about a secure roof over our heads, it's about warmth, healthy food on the table, dignity in useful labour, it's about family and community, its about health care.  These things are perfectly possible to achieve, provided we give them priority, which we don't.  It often feels to me as if these things are seen as the by-products of some other objective, like 'economic growth'.

Sure, some things will have to change.  We will need to rely less on imported goods and severely ration our air travel, of course.  I have a daughter in Canada.  But we probably have more and longer conversations with her on Skype than we did when she was with us.  We'll probably need to build with wood not concrete, and build better.  Eat much less meat; farm differently.  We'll need to get used to different technologies around us.  (Mostly, they'll be quieter and won't have such hefty bills attached to them).  It's not 'rocket science' — indeed, it's the very opposite of 'rocket science'!

It's not all totally mysterious, either. Turning to today's OT reading,  Isaiah accuses God of 'hiding his face from us' :

because you hid your face from us, we transgressed
Isaiah 64:5

. . . as if God, angry with us, has left us unguided to make terminal mistakes.  But God is not 'hiding his face' from us!  There are plenty of people shouting out warnings, calling for a global repentance, showing us a better, more hopeful way.  God has sent many prophets amongst us wearing all sorts of garb, some maybe a bit rabid or smelly, some upright and sober as judges (assuming judges are upright and sober).  Many of the prophets are scientists, of course.

And there are plenty of so-called 'sustainable' communities of hope living the life of the future now, and many more that would like to if they could get the money monkeys off their backs.  Communities of hope, living out a different way : not a 'lower standard of living' way at all.  Living the Kingdom, if you like. Some of them may even be churches.

In case this makes the 'Kingdom' sound a bit ordinary, and well, unreligious, remember that we are asked to pray "Your kingdom come on earth, as in heaven".

Heaven . . . what's 'heaven'?  I think 'heaven' is a word the Bible uses to talk about 'potential' — the potential glorious fulfilment of what things were created to be; and that potential is always there, trying to break through.  Think 'heaven', think 'potential'.  God's potential is here, now.  The Kingdom of Heaven is amongst us.  Hope is always with us if we know where and how to look.

And actually, I dare say that many of you are already changing your ways in readiness for the Kingdom, so that when it comes (as come it must) it will not be destructive.  Had you ever thought that checking how much water you put in the kettle, or taking the train instead of driving was an act of Advent hope?

It is our collective choice whether the coming of the Kingdom — the fulfilment of the Creation's potential — will be painful and finally destructive of the human race, or whether it will be a joyful pilgrimage to a better life.  Mark Chapter 13 reminds us that Jesus himself thought it would be painful and destructive, but he also demonstrated that even if self-inflicted suffering is to be our choice, God would not totally abandon us but enter into the suffering with us.  But that comes later in the story.  For now, let's peer into the future and choose to act with hope.  Choose life that will last.

Tuesday 17 December 2013

Mandela : the Authority of the Activist Victim

Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.  Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need  [Hebrews 4:14-16].

It was a fairly safe prediction that it would not be long before Nelson Mandela would die.  He had been ill for some time.  It's amazing that someone who underwent 27 years of punishment — 18 of those years in a single cell smaller than the kennels of the guard dogs — should live to 95.

What is a surprising coincidence is that he should die shortly before the Sunday in Advent in the year when all the set readings for the day (in churches of all denominations across the whole world) were about hopes for and prophecies of a good and just king who would defend the cause of the poor and bring about seemingly impossible reconciliation.  Not black and white, as in the apartheid struggle, but (in Isaiah) lions and lambs, little children and snakes; or in Paul — and just as unlikely — Gentiles and Jews.

There is a very important Christian message for us in the life of Nelson Mandela, but before I share it with you it's important that we remember something else — something darker.

Lawrence Moore was last year one of our two Moderators of General Assembly.  He grew up in Zimbabwe — what was then Rhodesia — and was a member of the Rhodesian police force; he was personally involved in the repression of black political activists.  He was also at the time a Christian youth leader.  He has written :
It wasn't Mandela's faith that drove and sustained him to do the things he did and to stand so unflinchingly, gloriously, humanly tall against Apartheid and the attempts to crush his humanity. The man who was the architect of forgiveness and reconciliation was not the church leader and man of faith.  Instead, it was the Church and the so-called 'men of faith' who were the architects of Apartheid and who saw Robben Island as an important expression of the will of God for South Africa. 
My church was one of the churches that thought Christians ought to stay out of politics and concentrate on 'making disciples'. If people were 'born again', the argument went, all the evils of South Africa (or do I mean 'regrettable necessities'?) would disappear.
There was just one rather obvious and fatal flaw to this argument that managed to go unnoticed: 98% of the white population of South Africa were card-carrying, twice-a-Sunday church-attending Christians! So how many Christian converts does it take to change the light bulb of Apartheid? More than 98% of the population, obviously …
And here's the killer question for me: how come it was possible for people like me to go on believing there were no substantial changes that I needed to make? How could I live with a clear conscience while Mandela was imprisoned on Robben Island and Steve Biko was being murdered in police detention? Why did no-one tell me? My parents didn't. My teachers didn't. My pastors didn't.
But neither did God! I prayed and read my Bible daily. I was a youth leader (I've been preaching since I was 16) and, in all that time, God spoke to me about sex, smoking, bad language, being polite, helping old ladies across the road, not cheating in exams …  but was strangely silent on Apartheid! 
Lawrence Moore, posting on Facebook 6th Dec 2013

If there is a Christian message in the story of Nelson Mandela it includes a word of fiery judgement against a Church that failed to understand its own gospel.  Not just the Dutch Reformed Church of South Africa, either.  I will not easily forget the Elders Meeting in one of my first churches where I raised the question of moving our bank account from Barclays Bank — the bank which, of all banks at the time, propped up the apartheid régime and gave it the sanctions-busting lifeblood that helped it to stagger on for an extra fifteen destructive years.  I wish I had the confidence that, had our churches and their members been in South Africa, we would have been much different.

Looking to our Bible readings : John the Baptist might have had a fiery judgement to pronounce against the whites of apartheid South Africa : "Who warned you to flee from the judgment to come?"

But maybe the fear of a possible fiery judgement is precisely why South Africa's white Afrikaner leaders could not tolerate the sort of opposition Mandela represented.  John the Baptist's message is of judgment, and the power of revenge.  The one who comes after him is going to be a terrible figure, destroying the unjust in the fire, meting out the revenge of God.

And it's true that the world has seen many leaders who, having won their authority by heroic service in resistance movements, then ruled by revenge — the Ceaucescus of Romania, Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Lenin and Stalin, Mao Tse-Tung, Saddam Hussein — rulers who have been tested in the fires of resistance and then, having overthrown the oppressor, in turn reigned by terror, setting themselves up as Messiahs — saviours and guardians of their nations, with their portraits on every wall, by decree.

That, surely, was the prospect facing white South Africa.  That was why people like Mandela, Sisulu, Thambo were considered so dangerous.  Fear of the fiery possibility of the kind that John the Baptist predicted is what made apartheid hang on.  "There's everything to lose — therefore we must strangle the prophets!"

But according to the gospel story John the Baptist misread God's mind.  The 'one who was to come' was not, it turned out, going to be a warrior of revenge and a self-serving Messiah.

Neither the Apartheid Government nor the Church understood the kind of man who was being imprisoned on Robben Island.  Very few knew anything about Mandela at the time.  No one was allowed to : pictures of him were banned; to photocopy and circulate the speeches he had given was illegal.  He was just 'one of those terrorists'.  They imagined him as a John the Baptist figure, and we know what happened to John the Baptist.  They never imagined that Mandela was more in the mould of the prophet Jesus.

I suppose you could say that one way of understanding the Christian Gospel is that "in God's kingdom, it is the victim that has the authority and the power".

The authority of Jesus as Saviour comes by virtue of the sacrifice he made.  He became for us not only the one true High Priest, but he confirmed that by also becoming the sacrifice that the High Priest offers.  That execution for us — in God's name, remember — is what makes Jesus alone worthy and gives him supreme authority in our lives.

Who, in South Africa of 1989, had the authority to transform the situation?  Who could command respect from the majority black population?  Who but someone who had declared his willingness to die if that's what it would take to overthrow apartheid, and who said this fully expecting to be hanged; who then suffered most grievously at the hands of the Apartheid establishment.  Somehow, unlike many of his compatriots, he survived with his life. That's where his authority and respect amongst the black population came from — that, and his complete inflexibility, determination in the cause of justice.  This was a man who would never sell out, accept the thirty pieces of silver from the white oppressor.

No other black leader — who had survived, that is — had the status of victim that Nelson Mandela had.  Therefore only he had the authority to forgive the oppressors.  A politician can't forgive people who have killed and oppressed others.  How could they?  Only a politician who has himself been a prime victim has such authority.

But how, on the other hand, did Mandela come to win the confidence of Klerk, the State President?  The story reads like something straight out of the Book of the Acts of the Apostles.  Mandela's relationship with his jailers and prison governors — his principled position which never crossed into personal hatred, and led him to have concern for his jailers, ask after their families and so on — must have gradually permeated up the chain and into the highest places : "This may be a man we can do business with.  This may be a man who might have what it takes to take South Africa" — which was by then crumbling economically and descending into chaos — "into a different future".  And so he was transferred to Pollsmoor Prison where secret talks could take place.

To lead a nation in such a way that the oppressors not only have a place in it but actually have pride and hope in their radically changed nation is remarkable and inspirational.  In Mandela we see a combination of

  • authority that comes through personal suffering
  • refusal to compromise with injustice
  • determination that the truth will not be covered up but told in all its horror, in order that reconciliation may not be 'pouring oil on troubled waters' only for it to blow up again.  Reconciliation must be based on the truth, and founded on repentance and forgiveness, not revenge.
  • recognition that 'we are not struggling against human beings but against the principalities and powers' (and therefore I can be gracious towards my captors — 'forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do')

. . . these are all things that are absolutely fundamental to the Christian understanding of how God brings salvation to a broken world.  If only the present leaders of the State of Israel would take heed.  Their predecessors had the authority, but squandered it.

Nelson Mandela would have been the first to say he was not God's chosen Messiah, but his life reflected that of Jesus and vindicates Jesus's way as the true way of salvation.  He is rightly something of a messiah figure to South Africans.

Now that he is gone there is a renewed anxiety in the air.  While he was alive it would have been difficult to adopt policies that he would have hated.  Is there anyone else of his stature to remain as a witness that the way of truth, justice, reconciliation and forgiveness is the most powerful way?  Will whites be sleeping soundly in their beds?  Or will the voice of the Baptist be heard once more out in the desert, warning of fiery vengeance?  Do any future leaders have the authority that comes from being victims, and thus have the authority to forgive?  I don't know.

Maybe now the task of witnessing to the 'Jesus Way' will go back to where it should have been in the first place — the Church in South Africa.  We must pray for the Church and Nation of South Africa that the period of mourning for Nelson Mandela may not be a lament for an era that is now gone — an era of truth and reconciliation — but that it will be a real affirmation of the way forward too.

Friday 15 November 2013

Calling all kamikaze pedestrians

a short article commissioned by the Oxford Mail on a topic of local interest :

Gazing out of his study window across Southampton Water, the great 18th century hymnwriter Isaac Watts dreamed he was looking across the River Jordan to the Promised Land beyond, and wrote a hymn with these words :

Timorous mortals start and shrink
to cross this narrow sea
and linger shivering on the brink
and fear to launch away

(The Jordan River is often used as a metaphor for death — he’s writing about dying).

Gazing out of my church window across the A40 to the ‘promised land’ of Barton beyond, I watch elderly people and schoolchildren timing their run across the dual carriageway and admire their courage.

When the Israelites eventually came to cross the River Jordan, the priests carrying the ‘ark of the covenant’ (containing Moses’s famous law tablets) went ahead, and as soon as they dipped their feet in the water, the flooding river stopped flowing and the water piled up giving them all a safe crossing.

Call me a heretic, but I reckon a set of traffic lights to enable pedestrians to cross in safety would do the job more reliably than a church minister with a Bible in his hand marching across.

Unfortunately, it seems that in order to get the crossing we need, we’ll need some much ‘better’ casualty statistics to raise it up the County's priority list.  A few deaths and serious injuries should do the job.  Calling all kamikaze pedestrians (I’m a cyclist — I know you’re out there) — don’t be ‘timorous’!

Friday 18 October 2013

Unlocking others' love in loneliness

AgeUK are running a project in Risinghurst tackling loneliness and isolation, especially of elderly people. Part of the difficulty is their invisibility. Some may have family living at great distance who visit occasionally, but be so rarely seen by their neighbours that they could have a serious accident and no-one notice for days. Some have no family at all. Isolated people can slip through the net of Health and Social Services systems. Every year the City Council finds itself providing the funerals and dealing with the estates of ten people who had no-one. Few actively choose the hermit’s life. Most suffer from their isolation; some are trapped and crushed by it. “It is not good for man to be alone”, says God after creating Adam. It’s not necessary.

We have a popular hymn which begins and ends with : Brother, sister, let me serve you, Let me be as Christ to you. Pray that I may have the grace to let you be my servant too.

When I was a hospital porter there were those whom it was a pleasure to help. They smiled through the indignities and accepted help gracefully — they made it worth going to work despite the rubbish wages. It was ‘win-win’ for both of us. Others’ pride meant they resented needing help, so were either aggressive and demanding or just sullen.

There are so many people and agencies willing to help (churches included), and so many would-be-good neighbours — not self-righteous ‘do-gooders’ but people who simply believe in helping others as they themselves may one day need helping.

A key Christian insight is that our vulnerability and distress can unlock love in others. We're not a burden — if we're humble enough to let others help.

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.