Christian Concern’s general election campaign: Distorting the Gospel

With the general election coming up, there are a range of websites and other resources to help Christians to engage with the issues. My favourite is of course Vote for what you believe in set up by the Ekklesia thinktank, but I am rather biased, given that I’m an associate of Ekklesia.

Nonetheless, there are some other good sites. Many complement each other, while some come from different perspectives, which is fair enough.

I feel slightly sick, however, having just looked at the general election website of Christian Concern, a homophobic right-wing lobby group that sadly has influence over churches beyond its own extreme position.

The site lists “four key areas” that Christian Concern claims serve as a “litmus test” for society.

The first is “Family”, by which they mean a defence of the nuclear family and opposition to same-sex marriage. Nuclear families as we understand them today did not exist in Jesus’ time. Jesus himself does not appear to have been overly keen on biological families generally, insisting that “whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3, 35).

The second is “Foundations”, which seems to refer to protecting Britain’s “Christian heritage”. Britain has never been a country based around the teachings of Jesus, however powerful churches may have been at certain points. Does preserving a certain set of cultural practices have anything to do with living out the Gospel of Jesus?

The third is “Liberty”, by which they mean liberty for Christians. Christian Concern make artificial connections between a wide range of cases that supposedly show discrimination against Christians. Some are about over-the-top uniform codes. Most are about the supposed right of Christians to discriminate against others (usually same-sex couples). Jesus never taught his followers to demand rights for themselves that they deny to others.

The fourth is “Life”, which begins with the promising line “How we treat the most vulnerable in society speaks volumes about what we really value”. Is this the point at which Christian Concern will declare their opposition to austerity, their outrage at food banks, their solidarity with the homeless, unemployed and low-paid?

No, of course not. It’s all about abortion. Christian Concern think they can stop abortion simply by banning it. If they really want to reduce abortions, they need to tackle the causes, challenging poverty and sexual abuse, amongst others. In coming years, we are very likely to find that cuts to disability services have led to an increase in the number of abortions of disabled babies. But while Christian Concern will not say a word against these cuts, I’m not willing to take their claims seriously even on the question of abortion.

Let’s not forget that Christian Concern is an organisation whose leaders have refused to answer questions about the allegation that they held a strategy meeting with Tommy Robinson when he was leader of the far-right English Defence League.

The Bible says far, far more about poverty and violence than it does about sexuality and marriage. This is not to say that marriage and sexuality don’t matter. The Bible makes clear that they do matter. Jesus’ teachings about love and liberation apply just as strongly to sexual matters as they do to others (although I argue that they lead naturally to support for loving same-sex relationships, not opposition to them).

But how can anyone claiming to apply a Christian voice to an election completely ignore poverty? How can they insist that an unborn child should be born but say nothing about the chances of that child being killed in warfare? How can they demand the “right” of Christians to discriminate against gay and bisexual people but not defend the right of disabled people to equality and respect? How can they talk of the supposed destruction of Christian values but have nothing to say about the very real destruction of our God-given environment?

Jesus began his ministry by saying he had come to bring “good news to the poor” (Luke 4,18). Luke tells us he said “Blessed are you who are poor… Woe to you who are rich” (Luke 6, 20-24). In Matthew’s version, Jesus blessed “the poor in spirit” (Matthew 5,3) – that is, those who side with the poor. The majority of Jesus’ parables concerned economic themes. He spoke of a kingdom in which the first would be last and the last first.

I am sure that my own interpretations of Jesus’ teachings are mistaken in all sorts of ways. We all make errors. We are all influenced by our preconceptions and desires. Seeking to follow Jesus is a moment-by-moment challenge. Like many others, I fail all the time. Please let me emphasise that I do not expect all Christians to agree with me. I learn a great deal from those who don’t.

This does not mean that I can sit back while a group claiming to be a Christian voice in the general election use that voice to ignore the growth of poverty and inequality (thereby helping them to grow) and to stir up homophobia. Surely it is barely possible to come near to any understanding of Jesus’ teachings if we wilfully ignore the centrality of issues of wealth and power to almost everything that he had to say.

To speak of the Gospel without reference to poverty is not simply to twist the Gospel. It is proclaim another gospel all together .

Are Christians who support same-sex relationships frightened of saying so?

Conservative Christian groups are forever telling us that people who oppose same-sex relationships are frightened of expressing their views. According to people such as Christian Concern, those with “traditional” views are shut out of debate. George Carey frequently rises from his seat of privilege in the House of Lords to tell us that the voices of “traditional” Christians are marginalised. Newspapers such as the Daily Mail occasionally echo these comments, meaning views trumpeted on the front of top-selling newspapers are described, with no sense of irony, as being views that are shut out of public discussion.

It may come as a surprise then to hear that many Christians who are frightened of expressing their views on sexuality are those who support same-sex relationships.

A survey of churchgoing Christians by Oasis, reported in yesterday’s Daily Telegraph, found that 49.8% of respondents believed that same-sex relationships are not “wrong” and that being in one should not affect a person’s position in the Christian church.

However, 30% said that although they believed that churches should accept same-sex relationships, they thought that it would be badly received if they expressed this view openly in church. Another eight percent said they were in favour but considered it not to be “helpful” or “appropriate” to say so publicly.

If this survey is accurate, then while half of churchgoers are accepting of same-sex relationships, only around 12% may be saying so in their churches.

I admit to being baffled by the eight percent who don’t declare their support because it wouldn’t be “helpful”, implying it’s more helpful to go along with something they believe to be untruthful and wrong. I’m worried by the 30% figure. I don’t condemn anyone for being nervous of expressing their view – I’ve been there often enough myself. But we need to encourage each other to speak up and declare that loving same-sex relationships should be judged no differently to loving mixed-sex relationships. God rejoices in love and fidelity, not in gender.

It is not always easy to speak up, let alone to persuade others. At times, the arguments put forward by liberal Christians can make things difficult. They too readily get drawn by conservatives into discussing the precise wording of a small number of biblical passages rather than looking at the New Testament’s broader messages of radical love and liberation from law. Too often, their reasons for accepting same-sex relationships sound simply like a pale reflection of secular liberalism rather than a strongly Christian position. I failed to be convinced by these arguments for years.

There is an alternative. The New Testament presents a Christ who has freed us from the law and a Holy Spirit that empowers us to live by love, guided by Jesus’ teachings rather than the legalism of those who snatch lines of scripture from their contexts and set them up as laws. The Kingdom of God, present here and now yet mindbendingly eternal, offers an alternative to both legalism and hedonism, to the homophobia and sexual abuse of many churches on the one hand and the shallow, commercialised sexuality of secular capitalism on the other.

We need to give us each other courage, seek God’s guidance and speak up.

Faith is a question of loyalty

I was recently asked to preach at Kensington Unitarian Church in London. The church community there were very welcoming and it was a real privilege to worship with them on 30 November. My sermon and the rest of the service can be heard on a podcast available on the church’s website. 

The text of my sermon is below. Although I know the spoken version deviated from it at times, the gist remained the same.

I would like to introduce you to Harry Stanton. Not personally, because he’s been dead for a while, but as a historical figure. Harry was the son of a blacksmith from Luton. He was a Quaker. In 1916, at the age of 21, he was conscripted into the army. Denied exemption as a conscientious objector, he was forced into the army against his will where, like many others in the same situation, he refused to obey orders.

Harry was imprisoned as a result – as were about 6,000 other British pacifists over the course of the war. But thirty-five of these pacifists were forcibly taken to France, where they could be deemed to be on “active service” and therefore shot if they continued to disobey orders.

Taken before a court-martial, Harry knew that his life was in their hands. But he refused to plead, because he would not recognise the right of any military body to exercise authority over him. He gave a speech in his defence, in which he said that “all warfare is contrary to the spirit and teachings of Christ”. He said that when the claims of the state conflicted with the laws of God, “I must obey the higher authority”. Along with the 34 other British pacifists in France, Harry was sentenced to death.

Campaigning back in Britain thankfully had an effect and the sentences were commuted to ten years’ imprisonment.

One of the comments I hear most often about religion is the phrase “religion is dangerous”. It is true that religion is often violent and oppressive. I agree with people who want religion to stop being violent and oppressive. But I do not want religion to stop being dangerous. I suggest that religion is supposed to be dangerous.

Most religions speak in some way about transcendence. They speak of God, the gods, the Truth, the Divine, the Ultimate Reality or the Power of Love. And once you speak of God, or the divine or transcendent, you imply that God, or the divine or transcendent, should have our ultimate loyalty. If I seek to follow God, then my first loyalty must be to God. Therefore no king, no government, no army, no nation-state, no church can claim my ultimate loyalty.

This is why so many kings, governments, armies and churches have sought to equate themselves with God. When Henry VIII claimed that his thoughts were directed by God, he made clear that loyalty to God meant loyalty to the king. The claims about the Japanese emperor’s divinity had a similar effect. It is no surprise that people make these sort of claims. For if we are serious about placing our ultimate loyalty in something other than the governments and structures around us, we become a threat – a threat to convention and, if we persist, like Harry Stanton, a threat to authority.

If anyone can choose to follow God over following human structures, the consequences may depend on their view of God. Take Yigal Amir, a Jewish fundamentalist who assassinated Israel’s prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1994. Amir said he was acting “on orders from God”. Other murders have been committed on the basis of similar claims.

But a god who orders murders is a god whose values are all too close to those of the world around us, rather than the principles of a higher power. People of many faiths emphasise that faithfulness means acting with compassion. Some religious groups, such as Quakers and Rastafarians, have developed communal practices for exploring an individual’s feeling of being led to a particular course of action by God. Faith is not about certainty.

Let’s take a look at the passage we heard earlier about paying taxes to the emperor – Luke 20, 20-26. It’s a passage that’s often used to encourage Christians to be loyal to the state. Those who want us to obey authority are more likely to quote this passage than the many examples of civil disobedience that run through the Bible. However, many biblical scholars challenge the common interpretation heard in churches.

Luke tells us that the spies sought to trap Jesus by what he said, so that they could hand him over to the governor. In other words, if he had said that taxes should not be paid to Rome, they would have got him arrested.

Jesus was no doubt aware of this, and chose his words carefully. He responds by saying “Show me a denarius!” Why does Jesus have to be shown a coin? Why doesn’t he have one with him? Well, many devout Jews, even those who reluctantly used Roman coins for buying and selling, avoided carrying them, because they regarded them as idolatrous. The coin portrayed the emperor as a god. As Jesus does not have a coin himself, this suggests he was one of those who avoided it as idolatrous.

Jesus asks “Whose head and whose title does it bear?” They say, “The emperor’s”. Jesus thus draws attention to the idolatry, already highlighted by the fact that he’s not carrying the coins.

He then gives an ambiguous answer: “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s.” Jesus’ listeners were “amazed” by his answer. If he was simply telling people to pay taxes to Rome, there would be nothing to be amazed about. What he does instead is dodge the question with a statement that encourages everyone to think about what is really the emperor’s and what is really God’s. As the biblical scholar Ched Myers puts it, Jesus “is inviting them to act according to their allegiances, stated clearly as opposites”.

The Greek word “apodote” translated as “give” also means “pay back” or “return” – “Give back to the emperor that which is the emperor’s”. There are many ways to read this and I don’t claim for a moment that my interpretation is the only valid one. However, I suggest that Jesus is advocating something more radical than simply withholding tax: he is saying that the imperial system of which the coinage is part should be sent back to the emperor, back to Rome. By saying it in an ambiguous way, however, he avoids the trap.

Jesus encouraged his listeners to think for themselves about how to make decisions. It seems to me that ethical decisions are about where we place our loyalty, our trust, our faith.

What’s the sin mentioned most often in the Bible? It’s idolatry. We tend to think of idols as statues, but this misses the point. An idol is something that people put in the place of God. An idol is, on some level, not real; at least, we ascribe a power to it that it does not have.

Politicians today talk about “not upsetting the markets” as if markets were supernatural entities that must be appeased. In reality, markets were created by people. People can change them, run them differently, or get rid of them. We make an idol of the market when we talk as if it controls us. Really, we control it.

In the same way, we are encouraged to be loyal to “our country”. Countries are things that we have created, yet we speak of them as if they were natural. We demand loyalty to this abstract concept. It is a short step from idolising nationality to idolising armed forces. For much of the time when British troops were in Afghanistan, there were constant debates about whether they should be there. Much of this seemed to involve the question “Should we be in Afghanistan?”. Should we be in Afghanistan? And I would think, but I’m not in Afghanistan. Why do we describe the armed forces as “we”?

Whether we speak of the power of love, or the Kingdom of God, or of practising active nonviolence, we are talking about choosing to live by faith in a different power to the powers of markets and military might.

It is often said that we no longer have conscription in the UK. It is true that our bodies are not conscripted into the army. However, our money is conscripted, with taxes used to fund the sixth highest military budget in the world. Our language is conscripted, when we speak of “defence” and mean warfare. Our minds are conscripted, with constant pressure to believe that violence is the only solution to conflict and to regard as natural a situation in which millions live with hunger in a world that has enough to feed us all.

We need to be conscientious objectors today just as much as Harry Stanton was – although the risks for most of us are unlikely to be so great. We can object by how we talk, how we think, how we regard ourselves and others, how we make our decisions and – first and foremost – by to what we give our loyalty and our faith.

Of course, it’s easy to talk about living with a different loyalty. It’s a lot harder to do it, or even to know how to do it. We are all part of unjust economic and political structures. We participate in them even as we seek to resist them. At times, we benefit from the injustices that we oppose. We too commit the very sins that we speak out against.

It is vital that we are aware of this and equally vital that this does not stop us speaking out and aiming to live differently.

We glimpse the Kingdom of God not through a set of rules but in a way of living. For most of us, this way of living is not consistent and we often fail to follow it. Nonetheless it is there and can be seen. From small moments of kindness to global campaigns against injustice, the Kingdom of God is proclaimed. In people imprisoned for peace protests, in people choosing to buy Fairtrade tea, in those determined to see that of God in their neighbour and both the good and the bad in themselves, in hesitating steps towards prioritising love over legalism, in the courage to speak up for what is truly in our hearts and not what the world tells us should be there – in all these ways people proclaim the way of love, a challenge to the powers of this world. Sometimes, the way forward seems clear. At other times, we’re struggling in the dark.

My own commitment to love, to justice, to active nonviolence is much, much weaker than I would like. But I would rather stumble on the road to liberation than walk firmly down the road to oppression. If we know where our loyalty lies, if we know that we are aiming to live by a different power than the powers of this world, a stronger and subtler power, then we may have confidence that we are at least facing in the right direction. I pray that we will have – in the words of a song by the band Jars of Clay – “days that are filled with small rebellions, senseless brutal acts of kindness from our souls”.

Reflections on Greenbelt

Having got back from the Greenbelt festival a few days ago, I’ve mostly (but not completely) caught up on sleep. I’ve also had time to reflect on the festival.

If you would like to read my thoughts on this year’s Greenbelt, I had two articles about it published yesterday.

The first was in the Morning Star. This is a short article aimed at a mostly non-Christian audience (and I didn’t choose the headline myself!). The second, which goes into more detail, forms my latest column on the Ekklesia website.

Misreading the parable of the talents

There are few passages in the Bible that I feel more strongly about than the parable of the talents. This is partly because it is so often interpreted in a way that means it can be used to justify ideas that are contrary to Jesus’ teachings and to much of the Bible. I am convinced we have been reading the parable “upside down”.

If you’re unfamiliar with the parable, or can’t remember it all, you can find it in Matthew 25,14-30 and in a slightly different form in Luke 19,11-27. The gist of the story is that a rich man goes on a journey and leaves his servants to look after his money (Matthew uses the term “talents”, which was a unit of currency). On his return, he finds that two of them have invested the money and gained interest. He rewards them.

The third servant has hidden the money, gaining no interest. He tells the rich man that he was afraid of him because “you are a harsh man, you take what you did not deposit”. He gives him back his money. The rich man throws him out and, in Luke’s version, follows this by having his enemies killed in front of him.

Christians usually suggest that the rich man represents God. Nineteenth century clergy said it showed God will reward those who invest money well. Now it’s more common to be told that it means we will be rewarded if we put our skills to good use (this is helped by the convenient double meaning in English of the word “talents”).

Try reading this story to someone who is unfamiliar with it, without commenting, and ask them with which character they most identify. When I have done this, the response has been “the third servant”. He seems to be treated appallingly harshly and yet he has the bravery to speak truth to power – “you take what you did not deposit”.

Why are we so keen to equate the rich man with God? What does it say about our theology if we assume that a rich and tyrannical figure must represent God?

Jesus constantly sided with the poor and marginalised, extending his love to all and making clear that repentance for the rich meant a change in the way they used their money. Furthermore, it is unlikely that a first century Jewish teacher such as Jesus would have promoted usury.

What if Jesus intended the third servant to be the hero of the story? He tells the rich man the truth about himself and refuses to collude with his unrighteous moneymaking.

The parable thus becomes a comment on the sins of inequality: “to all those who have, more will be given; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away”.

It seems that this interpretation is becoming more common among biblical scholars, although I have sadly never heard it preached in church. For a more thorough examination of the parable from this perspective, I recommend Lloyd Pietersen’s book, Reading the Bible After Christendom (Paternoster, 2011).

I am not suggesting that there can be only one meaning of this (or any other) parable. If Jesus had wanted only to issue straightforward instructions, he would not have told parables. They are meant to make us think. My point here is about what attitudes and assumptions we bring to the reading of the Bible. Do we expect to see God identified with the powerful or the powerless?

The “traditional” interpretation of this parable is positively harmful. Christian investment banker Jeremy Marshall uses it to argue that “banking is a biblical principle”. We cannot know just how much financial exploitation has been defended on the basis of this misread parable, but it’s certainly played a part.

Cameron’s “Christian country”

Since David Cameron spoke about Britain being a “Christian country” two weeks ago, there’s been a lot of controversy around the issue. I’ve written an article about it for the New Internationalist, which you can view here. I suggest that a society that favours the rich and punishes the poor is far away from biblical visions of equality and justice.

Cameron talks about faith, churches and poverty

David Cameron has spoken this week of his Christian faith. His sincerity has been widely questioned on Twitter, but it’s not for me to judge him. God can see into Cameron’s heart but I can’t. However, the Prime Minister and I have very different understandings of Christianity.

Cameron praised churches for their work with the poor. Thanks to Cameron and his allies, British churches are doing more work with the poor than they have done for decades. This is because the coalition government’s policies have led to a sharp rise in poverty in the UK, with half a million people using food banks, rough sleeping rising by a third in three years and thousands of disabled people losing basic means of support. At the same time, the coalition has cut taxes for the rich and is planning to spend £100bn renewing the Trident nuclear weapons system.

While churches rightly reach out to help those in desperate need, Cameron has good reason to be thankful that they do so. Without food banks and the like, the government might well have a lot more riots to deal with.

I am as biased as anyone else when it comes to interpreting the Bible. My background affects my approach, just as David Cameron’s affects his. I am sure I have misunderstood Jesus in all sorts of ways. Nonetheless, however we interpret Jesus’ teachings, it is difficult to argue that they are not concerned with issues of poverty and wealth.

The Gospels show Jesus declaring he had come to “bring good news to the poor” and declaring “blessed are the poor”. Most of his parables had economic dimensions, however much they have been spiritualised and domesticated by centuries of interpretations in the hands of the powerful.

I suggest that Jesus did not practise charity in the narrow sense of helping out less fortunate individuals. He drew attention to injustice, attacked the priorities of the rich and powerful and challenged us all to repent and live differently. His support for individuals who were ill or distressed was in the context of solidarity and mingled with teachings about the unjust practices that contributed to their suffering.

As churches struggle to cope with the rise in poverty and homelessness, let’s remember a crucial question: are we simply patching over the cracks, or are we standing in solidarity with poor and marginalised people and challenging the sinful systems that lead to poverty and inequality?

UKIP, homophobia and the real sin behind the floods

UKIP councillor David Silvester believes that Britain’s recent floods are the results of sin. You may be surprised to learn that I agree with him. There the agreement ends, for we have very different ideas about what the sin is and how it has affected the weather.

In a letter to a local paper in Oxfordshire, Silvester has blamed the foods on the recent legalisation of same-sex marriage in England and Wales.

I respect the fact that many people interpret the Bible differently to me, but Silvester’s statements about the Bible are simply untrue.

In his letter, he writes “The scriptures make it abundantly clear that a Christian nation that abandons its faith and acts contrary to the Gospel (and in naked breach of a coronation oath) will be beset by natural disasters such as storms, disease, pestilence and war.”

This is, to put it bluntly, nonsense. The scriptures make no reference at all to a “Christian nation”. They have no concept of a “Christian nation”. At no point in the New Testament is there any suggestion that Jesus’ followers should build a nation-state founded on their principles or expect any nation to prioritise them and their religion. There is certainly no suggestion anywhere in the Bible of a Christian coronation oath.

What Silvester is doing, like many before him, is rejecting the grassroots radicalism of the New Testament in order to pick bits from the Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament) that refer to ancient Israel. The people who use the Bible in this way then decide that the Bible’s comments on ancient Israel (or at least, the ones they’ve chosen to pick out) somehow apply directly to Britain as a “Christian nation” today. This simplistic approach manages to insult and misrepresent both Christianity and Judaism at the same time.

I don’t know if David Silvester sees any tension between the Gospel proclaimed by Jesus and the policies of UKIP (including even bigger welfare cuts than the Tories, withdrawal from the UN Convention on Refugees, a forty percent increase in military spending and denying the reality of climate change). I don’t know if he thinks that the UK was a “Christian nation” when Britain was engaged in the slave trade or when Britain’s rulers were committing genocide in Tasmania or suppressing religious liberty in Britain. But I do know that Silvester’s comments will attract more amusement than anger, at least in the mainstream media. Sadly, they will also serve to give people a skewed impression of Christianity. People who have never read the Bible may well assume that Silvester’s description of its contents are accurate.

That’s why other Christians need to speak up. Let no-one misrepresent us as being less Christian than Silvester and his allies, watering down the Bible or compromising the Gospel. We too should speak about sin. Sin is all that separates us from God, from each other and from creation. Sin has played a major role in these floods.

It is not sensible to say that any particular flood was caused solely by climate change. What we can say with confidence is that the frequency of floods and erratic weather conditions is a result of climate change. That change has been brought about by human beings pursuing the goals of capitalism led by politicians worshipping the idols of “growth” and corporations pursuing short-term profit.

Jesus’ solidarity with the poor is central to his teachings. It is at the heart of the Gospel. It is already obvious that the poorest people and the poorest countries will suffer the most as a result of climate change. Christians need to work alongside people of other religions and none in working for new economic systems in which resources are shared rather than hoarded or destroyed.

I don’t claim to live up to Jesus’ teachings. I’m not a better Christian than David Silvester. But I can see that sin is present in destruction, poverty and inequality, not in the love between two people who happen to be the same gender.

 

Looking for Bible-reading notes for 2014?

When I became a Christian, I read daily (or almost daily) Bible reading notes, each exploring a particular Bible passage. They were helpful, at least in terms of assisting me to be disciplined about reading the Bible. They were less helpful in that they frequently jumped around the Bible and often implied that there was only one interpretation of a particular passage (to be fair, some did this more than others). They tended to assume that the reader had a rather straightforward view of biblical authority and they almost never drew any explicit social or political meaning out of the passage in question.

Of course, some were (and are) much better than others. In the last few years, it’s been a genuine delight for me not only to encounter some really good Bible-reading notes but also to have been asked occasionally to contribute to them.

I feel really privileged to have contributed to Fresh from the Word, a set of Bible-reading notes for 2014. Many of the notes have a focus on social engagement and they are intended to be useful to new Christians and to those still exploring and working out their relationship with Christianity. Each reflection is a page (or slightly less than a page) long, to help you to reflect on a relatively short passage.

I’m only one of dozens of contributors. They include Greenpeace organiser Malcolm Carroll, Christian musician Aileen Few, Baptist journalist Mark Woods, poet Nicola Slee and Quaker scholar Eleanor Nesbitt. The editor is United Reformed Church minister and writer Nathan Eddy. My contribution is a week’s worth of notes for November, around the theme of conversations with Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel.

You can order the book here, priced £8.75. Please let me know what you think!