And now what?

 

Military flags, Lichfield Cathedral

The referendum in Scotland is over. The narrowness of the result has left half of Scotland relieved, whilst many are sore, even heart-broken. This is democracy by referendum I suppose – a black and white duality that gives a one-size-fits-all answer.

My FB feed is full of people suggesting that the vote was rigged or finding other reasons to blame. It seems to reflect peoples anger and hurt as well as the refusal to let go of something that felt vitalising and alive. The referendum was a blank canvas onto which all sorts of hopes and dreams were projected onto, but it lit us up like politics has failed to do for a generation. Can it really be all over?

My own feelings are very confused, for all sorts of reasons. The referendum somehow never asked questions that I could get excited about. I tried to express some of this in a previous post, but do not feel that I said it well, and in the end I was left rather sore and deflated. For all of us now however the question surely has to be, what next?

For some, the issue remains sovereignty; authorship over national fate, and so the matter of devolved powers is top of the agenda. The constitutional changes needed to achieve this, not just in Scotland, but in the whole of the UK, are likely to have far reaching consequences. It will also be a protracted process involving lots of twists and turns, dodgy deals and uncomfortable compromises. This is democracy too. We make deals with the devil and rubber stamp them with 4 yearly elections in which people vote blindfolded.

What about followers of Jesus in these interesting times? Where do we look for leadership, for inspiration, for challenge to our inertia and complicity with empire? How do we continue to seek to be agents of the New Kingdom (rather than a particular earthly one?)

I started to make a list of things that I think might be important. None of them are new, but for my own benefit, I thought it was time to restate them;

  1. Our primary allegiance is not to a flag or a country, rather it is to Jesus and the New Kingdom. This is not to say that we should not seek to be enthusiastic engaged critical lovers of the place where we live however, rather it is an encouragement to see ourselves as agents of something deeper, something purer and more loving. Something bigger than now, so that the now might be carried forwards into something better.
  2. The rules of engagement with the place we live are given to us in clues by the life of Jesus, his sermons, the stories he told, and the stories of his failing followers ever since. Our job, which sometimes seems almost impossible, is to apply these rules anew in this context, this time. We have to start with the Shalom of God, made real in the person of Jesus.  We are to people a people who first of all are learning to love. A people who seek to make peace. Too often we have been easily sucked into to making war.
  3. Jesus had a skew towards the poor, the weak, the broken. It almost seemed as though he deliberately eschewed power in all of its earthly forms- particularly political power. That is not to say that he despised people in power- witness the ‘rich young ruler’, or the Roman Centurion – rather that he preferred the company of the small people.
  4. Justice. This word clearly means different things to different people, then and now. from one perspective, Jesus’ teachings seemed to focus more on our inner lives, to the exclusion of protesting injustice, but on the other hand, you might see his whole life as being a lesson in HOW to protest injustice. How to look in the face of power and take the radical alternative path of love. How to turn the other cheek. How to scandalize by simple acts of mercy.
  5. Community. Jesus seemed to place deep value in friendship, in shared life, in teaching and learning through close community. In a shattered society, where communality has been devalued and we worship instead the gods of individuality, personal growth, me, myself and mine. The way of Jesus might be described as deliberately putting the self (my ‘rightness’, my stuff, my needs, my art, my dreams, my own fulfillment) behind the rule of love.
  6. Healing, restoration, stewardship. Again, the life of Jesus that we know about tended to be transitory, always on the move; he had 4 years on the road then they crucified him. But in all those years he sought to mend what was broken- as if to return the world to the way it was made. In our time, the whole of creation might just be broken. We are all vulnerable, particularly the poor and the weak. How might we become agents of healing?
  7. Agents of peace and love might get angry- Jesus did after all. Because being engaged hopeful critics of culture and place might often lead to outrage. It is all too easy to forget the way of love, to turn from being people of the open hand, to people of the clenched fist.
  8. Agents of the Kingdom are not bound by narrow sectarian divisions. Hard boundaries and walls were never the Jesus way. Rather he looked beyond the labels, the religious and political differences and saw real people. He even formed friendships and allegiances across the boundaries- to the frequent anger and disgust of those around him. Tax collectors, Romans, Samaritans. This was not political expediency, it was love.

How do I apply this to now – to the UK, 2014, to post referendum Scotland, to Argyll, to Dunoon, to my house, to my self? One small decisions at a time I suppose. Most of the time I feel like I get it all wrong, that my hands have formed themselves, almost unbidden, into fists.

I think that whatever happens next is not my really my concern. Rather it is to seek always to form in myself the way of love. The Spirit within me will do the rest. One shuffling step at a time.

The referendum was seen by some followers of Jesus as a means by which justice might be increased, by which love could have more elbow room, by which old wounds could be exposed to the therapy of new sunlight. Hopes and dreams became wrapped up in an ideal of renewed nationhood. Amidst the disappointment perhaps all we can do is return together to the way of Jesus. The point was never nationhood, it was love.

May we followers of Jesus be part of the healing of our nation. May we try always to see through the eyes of the poor, the weak and the broken. And when others around us seek to build walls of division, let us smile and step back, hoping for the best, whilst looking for cracks, through which the light can get through.

paved with light

Pope Francis on Capitalism…

My sister challenged me to right something lighthearted here, and leave behind all the heavy economic/theology etc for a while, at least in part because some of it was making her cry (which in my book is no bad thing!)

I tried sis, I tried, but then I come across this;

I am trying not to get too excited by this old man. He is after all human, and like all of us, will be shown to have clay feet. But in the meantime he makes my heart dance.

At last someone is using a traditional seat of global power to speak the words of Jesus into the madness of our age. Those in power are rattled. The small people are engaged.

People get crucified for this kind of thing you know.

Contrast the words of Pope Francis with the latest morally bankrupt drivel from the Mayor of London.

Are people with high moral beliefs more likely to act them out?

sin

It has always been a bit of a strange thing to me how followers of Jesus came to be seen as collectively ‘holier than thou’. How over the millennia we serially get caught up in elaborate morality systems, measuring others by how much they share the same code and punishing those who do not.

It is not as though this was the model for life that Jesus gave us. As far as we are able to understand his way of teaching, way of living, he seemed to react against those in his time who lived this kind of religious life. Remember all those exchanges with the Pharisees, who had a rigid rule to measure everything against. By total contrast, Jesus seemed much keener for his disciples to live deeply and fully, opening themselves up to the wild ways of the Spirit and subjugating all sorts of rules to the overarching principle called love.

Having said that, let us not pretend that morality has no place within the life of faith. It is not as if anything goes. Choices we make in life have consequences – even passive choices. But those outside the holy huddles will often accuse those inside of rank hypocrisy, suggesting that we do not live according to our principles, let alone live up to the life of Jesus. Remember these words attributed to Ghandi?

I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ. The materialism of affluent Christian countries appears to contradict the claims of Jesus Christ that says it’s not possible to worship both Mammon and God at the same time.

Or these, which he wrote in his autobiography;

 I heard of a well known Hindu having been converted to Christianity. It was the talk of the town that, when he was baptized, he had to eat beef and drink liquor, that he also had to change his clothes, and that thenceforth he began to go about in European costume including a hat. These things got on my nerves. Surely, thought I, a religion that compelled one to eat beef, drink liquor, and change one’s own clothes did not deserve the name. I also heard that the new convert had already begun abusing the religion of his ancestors, their customs and their country. All these things created in me a dislike for Christianity.

All of this starts for me to highlight the fact that although shaping our souls towards love may involve a constant processions of moral choices, morality itself should not be the starting point.

There was a story in The Guardian yesterday that made a rather different point about morality- suggesting that there might be an inverse relationship between highly developed ethical/moral belief and ethical/moral action. In other words, perhaps those who have rigid moral belief might be LESS likely to act on these beliefs.

Ethical philosophy isn’t the most scintillating of subjects, but it has its moments. Take, for example, the work of the US philosopher Eric Schwitzgebel, who’s spent a large chunk of his career confirming the entertaining finding that ethicists aren’t very ethical. Ethics books, it turns out, are more likely to be stolen from libraries than other philosophy books. Ethics professors are more likely to believe that eating animals is wrong, but no less likely to eat meat. They’re also more likely to say giving to charity is a moral obligation, but they were less likely than other philosophers to return a questionnaire when researchers promised to donate to charity if they did. Back when the American Philosophical Association charged for some meetings using an honesty system, ethicists were no less likely to freeload.

One take on this is that ethicists are terrible hypocrites. As Schwitzgebel points out, that’s not necessarily as bad as it sounds: if philosophers were obliged to live by their findings, that might exert a “distortive pressure” on their work, tempting them to reach more self-indulgent conclusions about the moral life. (And there’s a case to be made, after all, that it’s better for people to preach the right thing but not practise it than to do neither.) But another possibility bears thinking about. It’s plausible to suggest that ethicists have an unusually strong sense of what’s right and wrong; that’s what they spend their days pondering, after all. What if their overdeveloped sense of morality – their confidence that they know what’s what, ethically speaking – makes them less likely to act ethically in real life?

Hmmm, what if our churches carry a similar kind of ethical corruption? Later the article describes something called  “moral licensing”, the deep-seated human tendency that leaves us feeling entitled to do something bad because we’ve already done something good. It explains why people give up plastic bags, then feel justified in taking a long-haul flight, obliterating the carbon savings. It’s also why, if you give people a chance to condemn sexist statements, they’ll subsequently be more likely to favour hiring a man in a male-dominated profession.

How might this play out in our religion? A focus on those parts of us that are good so we can blind ourselves to those parts of us that are not? A compartmentalism that means we can live externally moral religious lives whilst compromising on some of the most basic ways of loving our neighbours.

One reaction to this (a very common one in our churches) is the call from the pulpit to be MORE moral. The call to purify, to get our moral codes sorted and organised. The degree to which this ever works is rather doubtful, to my mind at least. We are all of us a complex mess of aspiration and failure at the surface and subliminal levels; old sinful habits die hard in me.

What we need to do then, we followers of Jesus, is to return to trying to understand his relationship with morality. We have to remember that the moral leaders of his day clearly regarded him as immoral. He drank, he mixed with the unclean and ungodly, he broke religious rules, he disrupted churchyness, smashed up tables, upset good people and seemed to prefer low-lifes.

Morality was something to be challenged, to be tested, to be subjugated towards love. Morality was not to be seen as the goal, or the most valid measure, not even of righteousness.

Just as well, otherwise we are all screwed.

Is it time for the left to take hold of the Beatitudes again?

jesus-christ

Regular readers of this blog will have noticed that I often find myself mulling over the passages of the Bible that start in Matthew chapter 5, usually known as ‘The Beatitudes‘. I wrote an extended set of poetic meditations on these at a key point of my faith journey. These poems became a large part of my book ‘Listing’.

At the time, what I thought I knew about being a follower of Jesus had been broken down, smashed, deconstructed, so I desperately wanted to engage once more with the core of what Jesus called us to- and the Beatitudes are really the best place to start.

One of the things you come up against immediately is how impossible it all seems. Who can really live like this? What on earth did Jesus mean? Yet still, for people like me, there is this soaring tingling sense of excitement every time I read Matthew chapter 5. There is something so right about it all- simple, lovely, beautiful.

However, I read these words in the context of living in our western consumer culture, and this also brings me to total dissonance, because in many ways, the words of Jesus are simply not compatible with our way of living.

We can do three things with this;

  1. We can decide that the words have to be read in the wider context of the Bible, and that Jesus was not really meaning it to be our manifesto for all time. He knew that it was impracticable to live like this, so merely wanted to make our sinful state clear to us, in order to accept his forgiveness.
  2. We could use his words as a critique of culture, seeking to understand where our system – in its pursuit of profit, wealth, ascendancy, distraction, celebrity, shallow experience – has got things wrong.
  3. We can really try to live according to the beatitudes.

It will be no surprise to you that I am caught between 2 and 3.

I was reminded of this by an article that Thomas posted on Facebook the other day, in which Peter Ormerod reflects on the decision by the Christian Socialist Movement to ditch the S word, and call themselves instead, Christians On The Left. He began by re writing the beatitudes to make them more culturally appropriate;

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain, and after he sat down his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, not saying: “Blessed are the rich, because your wealth trickles down and everyone’s a winner.

“Blessed are those who are full, because that means you’re not scrounging off the rest off us.

“Blessed are you who are laughing now, because you’re obviously hardworking, responsible, decent people.”

It would be reductive and misleading simply to describe Jesus as a leftie. And Marko Attila Hoare wrote earlier this week of the dangers in ascribing a particular view to a particular political wing. But it’s safe to say that, in terms of the left’s usual causes célèbres, Jesus does pretty well: nonviolencesupport for outcasts and outsidersthe redistribution of power and wealth in favour of the powerless and poorforgivenesstaxationreconciliationfigs.

He rather hit the nail on the head when he suggested that the problematic word was not necessarily ‘Socialism’, but rather that increasingly meaningless word ‘Christian';

Many who might sympathise with the teachings of Jesus would scarper from anything Christian. Often, they’d have good reason to. It can mean judgmentalism, ludicrous doctrine and bad parties. Worse, it can mean bigotry, violence and terrible parties. The Christian right – embodied in the UK by groups like Christian Concern – has been so successful at promoting its ideology that you may well think Christians care only about what jewellerythey’re not allowed to wear, what days they’re forced to work, and gay men having big, gay sex. Christians have often done a great job of killing people who disagree with them, too, which doesn’t really help.

Probably the kindest thing one can day about “Christian” is that it’s meaningless. It somehow describes the beliefs of both the Westboro Baptist church and Desmond Tutu. It’s barely even biblical, appearing only twice in the New Testament (and one of those times merely tells where it was first said). Jesus didn’t use it ever.

In any case, it seems that Jesus cared less about what people believe than what they do. The sheep and goats are separated on account of their actions, not their beliefs. The man who said “no” but did God’s will was favoured over his brother, who said and did the opposite, and so on. Those who thought God was happy with them were brought up short, and told that actually God was happier with the people they saw as sinners. Labels weren’t his thing.

Ormerod concludes by suggesting that Christians need to have a louder voice- to shout about the beatitudes…

If we can’t do this now, in the face of a broken political and economic system as it cuts and slices its way to greater riches by attacking the poor, the sick, the refugee, then what use are we?

Talking of Christians on the Left- check this out;

Tony Campolo on homosexuality…

Over the last few years, a number of people who would previously have been regarded as Evangelical Christian heavyweights appear to have changed their stance on homosexuality significantly. There seems to be a whole wing of Evangelicalism that is ‘coming out’- or do I generalise from the particular?

Is this accommodation with the changing views of culture- albeit lagging behind because of a dragging-anchor theological hermeneutic?  Or is it the fact that Christians are finally catching the scent of freedom and justice on the breeze? Whatever, I celebrate the change.

I will not list the names I am thinking of, as this plays into the hand of the totemic brigade- you know the way it works, the degree to which a person is ‘OK’, ‘Biblical’, ‘Theologically sound’, depends on whether they agree with us on certain totemic issues. I try, but if I am honest I am guilty of a bit of this too…

I was first inspired by listening to Tony Campolo speak back in the early-mid 1980’s. He upset a lot of people at Spring Harvest festival some time around then (I think I was there, but the story might have become more important than fact on this one!) by telling a story something like this;

You know folks, X (can’t remember the exact figure) number of people have starved to death since I started to speak to you tonight.

And you know what is worse? Most of you people here do not give a shit.

And even worse that that, most of you are far more concerned that I just used the word ‘shit’ than the fact that those people have starved to death.

It is hard to convey how genuinely shocking hearing these words from a preacher at Spring Harvest was back then. Campolo has always been rather left field.

However, his stance on homosexuality in books of his I have read went something like this;

It is not the fault of gay people that they were born different, but the Bible is clear that the homosexual act is sin. It is however NOT a sin to be homosexual, as people have no control over their sexual orientation. Therefore to be gay and Christian is to be celibate.

I think he may even have used the old ‘love the sinner, hate the sin’ argument. If he did not, others certainly did in his wake.

Contrast this with the clip below. He does not need to talk about the theology- rather he tells a story, which is a very Jesus kind of way of doing theology of course.

The emotional musical soundtrack is a bit naff, but Campolo is always (ahem) Campelling.

 

 

It does not matter what you believe…

theology

…or does it?

We had a lovely discussion tonight with some friends, sitting round a fire, talking about life and death (as you do.) The death bit because several folk were still in the midst of dealing with loss. The life bit turning on how we understood what our lives were drawing us to.

And because of our shared journeys, the meaning we have found has a lot to do with Jesus, although has been somewhat complicated by our experience of religion…

Some of us have done a lot of (perhaps even too much) unlearning/deconstructing/questioning what this religion has told us we have to believe. Not just the obvious stuff, but the sub-cultural subliminal stuff too that it even harder to come to terms with.

I found myself asking the question- does it really matter what you believe?

We kind of agreed that the religious context that we were familiar with made far too much of belief. We all knew exactly what we were supposed to believe. It was never really stated, but we all knew it was vital to get all your theological cards stacked right. This was what most ‘teaching’ was really aimed at after all.

Strange then that this did not seem to be Jesus’ preoccupation. He was not much interested in making sure that his disciples answered all those complex theological questions that we struggle with now. In fact, he seemed to take quite a lot of pleasure playing with people who came to him looking for absolute theological questions- sending them away with a parable or two- almost like he was saying ‘go and work it out for yourself’.

As I read the gospels, it seems to me that Jesus was much more interested with how faith (rather than belief) brought us to action- particularly how it turned us towards love. Those two commandments- love god and others as yourself.

My conviction is that the obsession with belief often gets in the way of active love. It does not encourage engagement with the world around us, but sits smugly on its own sense of rightness, pompously calling for others to join our club.

theology

At least that is what I believe.

As our discussion went forward we circled again towards death. We talked about the death of a God fearing man, whose passage from life was characterised by fear of God. How he was sure he would not be allowed into heaven as he had done too many bad things. And we began to wonder again about belief…

Our working conclusion was this- belief matters only as far as it becomes the means for us to move, to act, to live, to travel. Even if that journey is the last one.

The rest of it is children playing with marbles.

Doing church the new/old way…

a church under reconstruction?

Michaela and I have just had a really lovely trip up north to spend some time with friends who are part of Garioch Church. We had been asked to be part of something called a ‘sounding board’- a group of people from outside the church who meet a couple of times a year to reflect on where the church is heading, and what challenges it is facing. We were looked after by Andrew and Jane magnificently and it was a privilege to hear something of their story, not least because it enabled us to reflect anew on our own.

Garioch is an area on the outskirts of the city of Aberdeen- a string of villages over a 10-15 mile area. It is a largely affluent place, with pockets of deprivation, fueled by prosperity from the oil industry. We had never spent any time in that part of Scotland before, and in many ways it felt like a different Scotland to the one we knew. It was busy, bustling, full of industry and people had a pace of life very different to our small west coast town.

The church has been trying to find a way of being authentically present in this new context. What they have done is really interesting and genuinely innovative. Rather than seeking to follow a familiar model of church planting, which goes something like- small group of people with lots of energy start a gathering, invite friends, it grows and so house becomes too small so they rent a hall, it grows so they need to buy own hall, appoint staff, etc, they did this;

Gairioch church wanted to remain based around homes, families, small community. They wanted to be a local, connected expression of faith- engaged in their small context. What they now have are three thriving home groups which are the focus of ‘church’. Once a month they meet in a school hall where they can make a bit more noise and feel a wider sense of connection.

Simple huh? Sounds very like that elusive but often used idea of trying to connect with a New Testament idea of what church looked like?

Alongside this deliberate emphasis on the small, they have found themselves having to grapple with some familiar themes- what does leadership look like in this context? How do you survive community? How do you continue reaching out when there is so much to do within the social context of community itself? What does teaching look like when traditional ‘preaching’ no longer fits? What about all the children? How do we manage all these competing demands with such limited time?

It was rather special to see them feeling for answers to all these questions- to appreciate the freedom that allows them to try, and the long tradition of Christian collectives who have done the same.

My own small community feels special too. We are different, in that we are one (rather isolated) community, and in many ways the pressure to lead, to organise, to manage is very different. As a result of this we are less hierarchical, more driven by the need to be joint travelers, not leaders and followers. This made for some interesting parts of our discussion at the sounding board day. How much do we as leaders, in taking responsibility, remove this in both obvious and more subtle ways from the people we lead?

I came home inspired, humbled and also grateful for the fact that people remain inspired by Jesus towards the new. That Christians in these times are still looking for new ways to love better, to live better, to serve better.

Yesterdays post was a rather cynical one about church names- I removed it as although a whiff of controversy in blogging is usually a good thing, I never like giving offence, and it turned out that some friends of mine have a church whose name I accidentally lambasted. As part of yesterdays post however, I said this, and I will repost it as a prayer for our churches everywhere!

I think the words of Jesus lead us on a path emphasising a whole different set of principles. Rather than our success he promised that the last shall be first. Rather than our satisfaction, he promised a hard road. Rather than storing up comfort and riches he pointed us towards the lost and the least.

When Church is defined as being the provider of success and abundance I also cringe for those whose experience has NOT fitted into this shiny stereotype. People who even whilst in this kind of environment feel unable to share pain and brokenness. People whose lives fall apart for no apparent reason.

I pray that the people in the shiny Churches grow in to abundant life, so that they can become a well of blessing for the rest of us whose lives are full of beautiful aching brokenness…

I think we can take heart and courage, because good things are growing in the cracks of Old Church.