2014- could this be the year we start to reclaim Christianity from Capitalism?

rainbow church, Dunoon

I am not into making new year’s resolutions- I tend not to keep them. However this time of year is the time to take stock, to dream of what might be ahead.

As well as the personal stuff it is a great time to wave some spiritual litmus paper in the stew of culture that we swirl around in. What is there that we can celebrate? What should we protest? How does the life of Jesus within us open us up to new ways of living in this new year?

A year or so ago, I wrote a post reflecting on the relationship between Capitalism and Christianity. This seems even more relevant now as austerity measures hit the poorest and weakest in our economy. Something is wrong– not just at an economic level, but rather in our very ways of being.

There are some encouraging signs that the Church is starting to realise this however- and that we need to be the voice of instability, not conformity. Sometimes it seems that our religion is like smoke blown into a hive while the honey is stolen. The Pope appears to understand this, as does Archbishop Welby.

The problem, it seems to me, is that church often claims to be separate from society (the old sacred/secular duality) at the same time as being indistinguishable from it perhaps in the following ways (as listed in my earlier post but with a few refinements and additions.)

  1. By emphasising personal, individual salvation above all else. The only useful purpose of mission is to save people from hell after they die. This means that active engagement in any other activities (particularly ‘social issues’) is downgraded, or even downright suspicious. For many these activities are only really acceptable if used as a trojan horse to smuggle in the gospel message.
  2. By embracing success culture. We use the same corporate structures, we reward our religious successes as we would our CEO’s, we value hard measurable outcomes, we construct programmes about personal empowerment and success.
  3. We make mission a kind of hostile take over. Business success involves out-performing the opposition, and rejoicing in their bankruptcy. We need to sell more, penetrate all markets, dominate the marketplace, crush to opposition.
  4. Christianity became a lifestyle choice that required no change to the way we live our economic lives. Yes, I know there is the old ‘tithing’ argument around Evangelical churches, but we drive the same cars, live in the same houses, take the same holidays, fill our lives with the same gadgets- or (and here is the sting) even if we do not have these things, we aspire to them. St Jobs is venerated in many a trendy Christian Church every time people meet.
  5. We bought into lives characterised by individualism above the collective. The model given to us by the life of Jesus and the early church was all about learning to live in loving community- how we live for one another, how we hold things in common, how we find ways of including the poor, the weak. Can we still hold these things as defining characteristics of church?
  6. We failed to demonstrate any kind of radical alternative. The best that we have been able to offer is how to live as better Capitalists- more sensible, more responsible, with greater probity. The Protestant Work Ethic lives on- in each one of us who finds comfort in our pews as much as our pension fund (even if both are more sparsely populated than previously.)
  7. We did not see injustice, inequality, poverty, unfair taxation, usury, over-consumption, environmental destruction, as any of our business. Which relates to point 1.
  8. Even where there was visible discomfort with Capitalism, we lacked any coherance, we lacked leadership, we did not become a critical movement. Rather we splintered and focused on totemic side shows live homosexuality and women bishops- all of which destroyed our credibility to speak prophetically into our culture anyway.
  9. Our mission to the poor was conditional on redeeming them to become like us. Difficult one this, but stay with me. There are lots of examples of Christian engagement with the poor, from the good old Salvation Army right through to the new food banks. However, these activities might be seen as cleaning up the edges of Capitalism– but also justifying the dominant ethos. It encourages us to lift people back into becoming productive consumers – just like us. This fails to engage with any idea that we need to become more like them; that the problem is caused by people just like us.
  10. We forgot that the Church exists not to give us a better life, but to serve the lost and the least. If we are serving the lost and the least, how can we have convinced ourselves that our unsustainable greedy lifestyles are God-given rewards for our moral superiority- which we Brits built an Empire on, and then passed the baton to the USA?
  11. We failed to form partnerships with other grass movements for change. Because anything outside of the walls of our particular church is suspicious, we are reluctant to engage with all those good ‘holy’ groups whose members are seeking to redeem and restore- the environmentalists, those working for social justice etc.

Occupy London Stock Exchange protest

I am not happy to leave this list just as a set of negatives, so here are my hopes/prayers for the Church in 2014;

  1. May our evangelical zeal be set free from the tramlines of heaven/hell. May our concept of salvation be much more gracious and generous, and may our evangelists be empowered to be agents of the Kingdom of God.
  2. May we see success for what it always is- a distraction from our call towards personal weakness, humility and love.
  3. May we stop competing.
  4. May we be among the first who chose to live differently- more simply, less driven by crazy consumerism. May we be a new kind of Amish people- not rejecting of technology, but neither enslaved by it.
  5. May our living draw us together, rather than forcing us apart.
  6. May our way of living be genuinely different- may we be consumers of less, wasters of less, sharers of more. May we party hard, love greatly, laugh a lot and weep when the time is right for weeping. May we be the first to demand products that last, that are updateable, that do not denude the environment or depend on the slavery of others and the raw materials dug out of some other part of the world for our own benefit.
  7. May we be angered by injustice, by poverty, by destruction of the beauty all around us, and may we express this anger in protest, in art, in full engagement.
  8. Rise up people who would show the way- give them a prophetic voice. Lead us out of our concrete wildernesses.
  9. May we see first the value in the other, not the rightness in ourselves.
  10. May we see our privilege for what it is; the inverse of the poverty of others.
  11. May we look for beauty and shine light on it. May we seek out flavour to savour with our salt. May we find out where Jesus is and try to join him there. May we seek partnership and friendship with other groups.

Let this be the year of a different kind of revolution…

capitalismrocks

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.

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.

 

 

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.

Off to Greenbelt…

Mud greenbelt 2012

(Hope we do not get a repeat of last years conditions!)

Will and I are going down to Greenbelt Festival on our own this year- Michaela and Emily are simply too busy with other things. In fact, it was a late call to decide to go down, partly because Will was desperate to go, and also because I get the chance to meet up with some old friends. Oh- and my mate Andy had some spare tickets!

This year we are going as punters- no responsibilities, no installations to set up/services to lead. I have strangely mixed feelings about this however. Greenbelt has provided for me a sense of loose ‘belonging’ to a wider ‘church’, and I am not sure that it will be quite the same experience without actually contributing something to the festival. It will certainly be a lot less stressful however!

I watched a DVD last night called Greenbelt/40, the journey so far. It was full of the music of my youth- trips to the festival in the early 80s. It was a slightly surreal experience- like watching your life pass away into the distance. It did leave me wanting to look forward, not backwards however….

May there be sunshine, good conversation, great music and new ideas…