Wednesday, October 19, 2016

There’s no grays, only white that’s got grubby...

Thoughts from Terry Pratchett:
'There is a very interesting debate raging at the moment about the nature of sin, for example,' said Oats.
'And what do they think? Against it, are they?' said Granny Weatherwax.
'It’s not as simple as that. It’s not a black and white issue. There are so many shades of gray.'
'Nope.'
'Pardon?'
'There’s no grays, only white that’s got grubby. I’m surprised you don’t know that. And sin, young man, is when you treat people as things. Including yourself. That’s what sin is.'
'It’s a lot more complicated than that—'
'No. It ain’t. When people say things are a lot more complicated than that, they means they’re getting worried that they won’t like the truth. People as things, that’s where it starts.'
'Oh, I’m sure there are worse crimes—'
'But they starts with thinking about people as things…'
THERE’S NO GRAYS, ONLY WHITE THAT’S GOT GRUBBY... no, I'm not speaking as Death, just realising that this sentence expresses what I've been thinking about a lot recently. Man was created perfect, but all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.

What matters is what direction are you heading. Towards the white or away from it... towards relationships with people or towards people as things.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Open our eyes, LORD, so that we may see you

Let me ask you to put to one side where you are, who or what you vote for, whether you think the EU, the USA, ASEAN or whatever is a good thing, a bad thing or who the heck knows what thing... and consider this: There is a creeping evil in this world, which is subverting people and governments. As Christians, it is our duty to stand and fight that. We live in the world, yet we're not of the world, we come bringing Good News that is sometimes rejected because it's the steep and narrow way, but it is indeed the Way, the Truth and the Life.

Realpolitik... a creeping evil

I have been struggling to find words to express what we have been increasingly seeing in politics in the last few years, culminating in Brexit and Trumpism. I've realised the problem is that politics has morphed into realpolitik. Make no confusion about it; this is not the way of Christ. It is immoral and a form of idolatry, subverting following the Way and replacing it with following the choice facing Adam and Eve; the choice of a life led by the Spirit or a life where moral choices are determined by expediency.

There is a creeping evil in the UK, USA and many other nations. I almost hear from every friend I have worldwide how evil is creeping over their land. Our ability to govern ourselves, and by this I mean worldwide, not merely in the UK, in an endurable ongoing fashion, has not developed much over the past two centuries. Our weapons have become more targeted but more prolific. Refugees are running from increased terrorism and we see Christians in the UK wanting to bolt the door and pull up the drawbridge to keep these innocent terrorised people out. 

It's 2016 and approximately the same number of people as the combined population of England and Wales are refugees worldwide! Obviously the UK cannot welcome them all in, but compared to countries like Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan they are doing pitifully. It’s a horrendous indictment upon British Christians that they are more prepared to vote for isolationism than to care for the sojourner in their midst. They want 'the Jungle' to be in Calais so that the poor, the weak and the needy are kept at arms length.

A spiritual battle

We need to realise that this is a spiritual battle. You need to be a follower of Christ and to see with spiritual eyes. You need to experience Jesus in your life, it's not logic, it's not common sense. Yet even the disciples were baffled at times. Jesus said to them,  'Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear? And don't you remember?' We're talking about the indwelling Holy Spirit. Yet many followers of Jesus are blinded to the creeping evil they are embracing.

The European context

In my context, born as a European in the UK, the battleground is Brexit and Remain. The Christian founding fathers of the EU, Christian democrats like Robert Schuman, Konrad Adenauer, Alcide de Gasperi, Joseph Bech and others would be horrified at the UK deciding to turn it’s back on building bridges that rebuff the division and hatred that tore Europe apart in two world wars during the 20th century and the xenophobia sweeping across the continent. Now we hear demands for counting foreigners working in British companies, for checking ethnic identity and country of birth for kids in British schools, for passport identity before you can give birth in British hospitals… this is an ugly repeat that Brits along with other European peace lovers fought to shun 70 years ago.

We are Europeans, we have wider natural ties than being island isolationists. To spurn that unity is to reject God’s call on our lives, to turn self-centred. There is a need for Christians who voted Brexit to repent of that sin. We need to hear again the call of John the Baptist in the desert to repent because the Kingdom of God is near - as close as your hand! The Kingdom of God is not some nationalist and isolationist structure, but an open bringing together of people and reconciliation of God and man. 

Open our eyes

Repentance is about a change in direction not an apology. That change in direction needs to be towards bridge building and unity, yes, towards an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe and the peoples of the World. They are not clients to be sold things, this is not some trade contract but about humanity. It's totally wrong to see Brexit and Remain in terms of trade! All the trade discussions I have heard tend more towards expediency than morality.

Make no mistake about it, the EU is not the Kingdom of God, nor is the UK, nor the USA, nor any man made nation state. The Kingdom of God is spiritual. Nevertheless, we Europeans, we Christian Europeans, through the EU, are modelling Christ's way on earth, not isolated inward-looking nationalism, but community embracing transnationalism.  Like Elisha, we pray, 'Open their eyes, LORD, so that they may see.' When the LORD opened Elisha's servant's eyes, and he looked and saw the hills full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha. This is indeed a spiritual battle.

Monday, June 20, 2016

What is the Christian way forward in the EU referendum?

For various reasons all that I had seen of the facts convinced me that the Remain vote was the way to go, but a friend published a video from a Catholic debate by the speaker for Brexit and it made me think was I right? Was I, in fact, positing cultural values as Christian? What would be a truly Christian approach to Brexit/Remain, indeed is there a Christian approach to this?

For Evangelicals the Bible and frequently ‘sola scriptura’ is the reference for all decision making. As a starting point that is interesting for multiple reasons. Firstly some of the words translated from the Hebrew and Greek into English have different understanding today than when they were originally written. Secondly while some of Scripture is prescriptive, some is descriptive, some uniquely for a bunch of tribes functioning as a people group, some for all people everywhere.

Forms and levels of government


Looking at the Old Testament we see this bunch of tribes, who were some of the children of Abraham, having a unique position within the recorded history in the Bible. They went through various forms of government, theocracy, single God ordained leader, judges, kings, Sanhedrin and so forth. Some God ordained, some (like the kings) while not God ordained, at least God permitted.  We read of God’s involvement with the leaders of other people groups who lived around them, sometimes good, sometimes evil. It’s a complex story, and difficult to understand exactly what God was doing in different communities in the surrounding areas. Take Akhenaten as an example. As Pharaoh of Egypt he was unique in that he was a monotheist and some have argued that he worshipped the same God as the Israelites. 

Jesus was born in a time when the people group he was part of was under the rule of the Romain Empire. An Empire very different to the democratic Greek/Athenian states where the rule of law was not only absolute but was based upon the assumption of a complex polytheistic approach that was very distant to that we read about from the people of God in the Old Testament. The only political statement that can really be attributed to Jesus would be the one in response to paying taxes to this oppressive empire… and his comment was to give to the empire what was owing to the empire but to give to God was was owing to Him.

So there are three things coming out of this
  1. There is no clear form of government prescribed by God in Scripture
  2. There is no clear prescription of structure of nation, empire, affiliation of nations etc in Scripture 
  3. There is no clear prescription of functioning as a nation in Scripture
Thus I would argue that the structure and functioning of modern nation states or other geopolitical entities cannot be defended or attacked from Scripture, because there is nothing prescriptive or descriptive to match them to.

Church governance as a model?


The early church didn’t have the hierarchy we see today. To start with they had elders, who were more like mentors than we would recognise as pastors today. The word ‘poimen’ or pastor only occurs once in Scripture in Ephesians 4:11. From reading Scripture we see elders as someone radically different to the modern day pastor or priest. That role has evolved over the centuries and through the various church councils. The structure rose above the elders to have overseers (also called Bishops) who, for many churches, were part of the apostolic succession. This was not a clean and easy step, indeed Ignatius of Antioch wrote to offer strategies to pressurise churches in a city to recognise a single bishop of that city. Some cities, however, had a plurality of leadership.

As the church grew so efficiency, mirroring the Roman empire, became something to be desired. However, in general, that arose alongside the secular geopolitical. In other words the rising nation states and empires were separate from the structures and hierarchy of the churches. Though at times there were ‘Christian’ countries, unlike Islam and unlike Judaism, the church functioned by influence rather than direct control.

Culture and the modern nation state, and 'Christian' countries

Something to think about too is the difference between nation and people group (ethnous). It is the word ethous or people group that is mentioned in Scripture rather than nation. Nation comes from a latin derived word which incorporates a sense of place where you are born, whereas people group is a cultural identifier without relationship to geographic place of birth. 

So part of what I now look at is whether the nationstate of the the UK (or any other nationstate for that matter) is ipso facto God ordained and I cannot see any Scriptural evidence for that. I must therefore conclude that though it may be within the permissive will of God we don’t intrinsically have to accept it as a ‘yesterday, today, forever’ structure, merely something to serve the needs of the time. 

For about 30 years I have not voted, though I have a preference for libertarian republicanism I don’t have a feeling of desire for political involvement. Why? Well, that does come from my reading of Scripture. Jesus talked about being ‘salt and light’ within the community. That implied that those who are followers of Jesus were not the entire community but an influencer within the community. A meal of meat lightly flavoured with salt or meat preserved with salt is tasty; a meal of exclusively salt would make you vomit. The idea of creating a exclusively Christian community is non-scriptural. 

Historically Christian values have influenced Europe and the UK and to some degree they became what some people call ‘Christian countries’ and I hear people wanting to return to these values. The trouble is, if it was never in God’s prescriptive will that the UK or Europe became ‘Christianised’ in the way these people look back towards then looking forwards to that again may not be the best way forward. The body of Christ grew under USSR communism, it’s growing under Chinese communism, it’s growing in Islamic countries… and waning in ‘Christian’ countries. Did we get it wrong trying to create these Christian countries? This week I watched Nik Ripken’s new film ‘The Insanity of God’, which I highly recommend. Persecution is horrid, it’s evil, and I don’t want it. And under persecution the church flourishes.

So I’m not sure that we can argue from a Christian nation state point of view that countries should be independent. Indeed when I read Scripture I see more about interdependence than independence as the way of Christ. I’m not sure we should be targeting a Christian state either. Our aim as Christians is not structural but relational. 

So there are three things coming out of this
  1. Scripture prescribes interdependence not independence
  2. Scripture doesn’t prescribe or describe ‘Christian’ countries
  3. Scripture implies that Christians will be in the minority not the majority

Do the church councils give us any indications of the way forward? 

The first council of Nicea was called by Emperor Constantine the Great (unelected), a secular rather than church leader, who assembled the overseers or bishops (also unelected) to discuss a number of procedures.’Resplendent in purple and gold, Constantine made a ceremonial entrance at the opening of the council, probably in early June, but respectfully seated the bishops ahead of himself.’ Obviously not a sign of Christian humility!  Anyway, the council primarily met to discuss the Arian controversy and they took a month over that. The result was that all bar two of these bishops signed the new Nicene Creed. The way forward was not by a simple majority vote but by seeking God and building consensus till almost all agreed.

If we look at the EU and at the UK Parliament we see the EU as in an overwhelming number of cases (I believe it is more than 80% of the time) building consensus till almost all agree and only majority voting on those small number of cases. Whereas UK Parliament as a functional representative government votes on the the majority of issues. There is an exception to that though, because there will be 40 years worth of legislation, which is too many laws to disentangle from the EU within a very short time frame if the UK votes to leave the EU then that will become a government not a parliamentary issue. Secondly the referendum is based on a simple majority vote rather than building consensus or an overwhelming majority vote. I would therefore argue that the very method of deciding IN/OUT is in itself non the Christian way. I would further argue that because the EU requires consensus more often than not, it follows a more Christian path than British Parliament!


When I look at the percentages for the vote, I see very close numbers being predicted… possibly coming down to a few thousand votes on a population of 64 million.  When the UK joined the EU (then the EEC) 44% of those who could vote were in favour of joining and 21% against. There was not even a clear majority of the country in favour of joining. Whichever way the vote goes it’s highly likely to be less than a majority vote again. And on something serious like this I think it should be significantly more than a mere majority of 1. We, as Christians, should thus be arguing not whether to vote in or out but how we should build consensus rather than division.

There are three and sometimes four layers of government with the EU being the top, Sovereign nation states under that, regional or national governments under that (eg Wales and Scotland), and counties or districts under that. There are apparently 33,000 ‘faceless bureaucrats’ in the EU for the whole continent and 400,000 at the sovereign nation state level. Countless more lower down.  However, the figures are unclear. The video I watched that started this off suggested that the Catholic (Christian) way was for decisions to be taken as low in the ladder as possible. Looking at this and understanding the type of directives made by the EU it looks to me as if the problem is not with the EU but with the national governments.

Re-looking at the Christian and Scriptural principles has made me realise that the reality is a relational consensus driven EU is not merely beneficial to the population of the UK, but is in fact the Christian approach to organising things and that maybe what is needed if we are to follow as a Christian principle that decisions should be taken as low as possible is a review of national government with an aim to reduce that layer to something more appropriate!

Government spending

One thing however did surprise me. As an Christian pacifist I was expecting a huge lump of money to be able to be taken from the Armed forces if the UK was to follow Costa Rica and disband it’s army. I thought that might be a way of funding the NHS. What surprised me was that the armed forces only accounts for 6% of spending whereas Health accounts for 18% and Education for 13%. I know some people would disagree, but from my perspective encouraging more people to home educate and this reducing the education budget would be both good for the budget and a Christian way forward.

Immigration

One thing a lot has been made of is immigration. This overlaps with the concept of the modern nation state. The concept of passports is possibly early 15th century. Before that people travelled, I cannot say freely because one of the reasons for introducing passports was to facilitate travel. But in general the borders of nation states was not seen in the way it is today. This overlaps with the concept of nationality (where I was born) and ethous (my culture).

Scripture does give clear guidance on how to treat the sojourner… the foreigner in your country. Though intermarriage was something clearly against Old Testament principles, there was no rule to keep foreigners out or even limit how many came in. Those who did should be treated as guests. Welcomed. Indeed provided for the same as widows and orphans in the host people group.

There are two separate things I see… one is immigrants from outside the EU into the EU and secondly migrants in both directions between EU countries. I can see nothing in Scripture to differentiate between them. They are not of the same nation… but then a Sussex guy in Cumbria is almost in a different nation, ie place where they were born, as centuries back those were different sovereign nations. The ethous is different too. I spent a weekend in Scotland with Protestants and a few months later a weekend in Paris staying with Catholic fathers. I felt more culture shock (different ethous) in Scotland than France. The same is true contrasting living in the USA and living in Cyprus… though they speak English in the USA culturally they are more different than Cypriots.

So I’m not sure how to categorise immigration. I’m very unhappy with the attitude of some people to immigrants, both EU and not EU, but I recognise the entire world population cannot live in the UK. Nor indeed would they want to! Scripture clearly teaches us to care for the sojourner, but doesn’t give guidance on numbers.  

So what is my conclusion?

Mainly that regardless of the outcome the method by which that outcome will be derived is not a Christian approach. If you add to that the vitriolic and in some cases vindictive nature of both campaigns then even more so. In researching this I was shocked and horrified to see and hear Farage behaviour in the EU Parliament. He was downright and unnecessarily rude. That is certainly never the Christian way.

My conclusion is still that the UK being part of the EU is the Christian way forward. But instead of looking at it from being the most beneficial for the UK, I have now come to the conclusion it is Scripturally the Christian way.