Cameron wants us to remember Jesus’ birth – but not his life

David Cameron has just released his Christmas message, calling on us to mark the birth of Jesus and to remember those who are hungry or lonely at Christmas.

I find Cameron’s message hard to stomach. David Cameron speaks of the meaning of Jesus even as his government wages class war on the poor and pursues endless war in the Middle East.

I do not claim to be a better Christian than David Cameron. I fail to live up to Jesus’ teachings all the time. I sometimes struggle to understand Jesus’ meaning. I do not assume that all my conclusions about Jesus are right.

This does not stop me expressing my revulsion when Jesus’ name is invoked to back up a government whose policies are geared to promoting the short-term interests of the rich and powerful.

Let’s have a look at Cameron’s message. It begins with these words:

“If there is one thing people want at Christmas, it’s the security of having their family around them and a home that is safe. But not everyone has that.”

Cameron goes on to talk of those living in refugee camps. Are these are the same refugees who the UK government has been so reluctant to welcome? He then adds, “Throughout the United Kingdom, some will spend the festive period ill, homeless or alone.”

Hunger and loneliness do not happen by chance but are due to inequality, capitalism and an individualist society. More people are hungry, more people are lonely, as a direct result of Cameron and Osborne’s policies. Rough sleeping in the UK has gone up a whopping 55% since Cameron became Prime Minister.

Cameron goes on to pay tribute to nurses, volunteers and others who work to support “vulnerable people” at Christmas.

I am happy to pay tribute to those who support vulnerable people, as well as those working to change the situations that make them vulnerable. More such workers and volunteers are needed as Tory policies increase poverty and remove support from people in need.

The Prime Minister then praises the armed forces, saying “It is because they face danger that we have peace”.

Cameron seems to think that peace is the absence of violence. UK armed forces are sent to fight in wars for commercial and strategic interests in which innocent people are routinely killed. War does not lead to peace any more than promiscuity leads to chastity.

The message talks of those who are “protecting our freedoms”. We are very fortunate to have a great many freedoms in this country. We have them because our ancestors campaigned for them, not because the powerful graciously handed them down.

Referring to peace, the Prime Minister says:

“And that is what we mark today as we celebrate the birth of God’s only son, Jesus Christ – the Prince of Peace. As a Christian country, we must remember what his birth represents: peace, mercy, goodwill and, above all, hope. I believe that we should also reflect on the fact that it is because of these important religious roots and Christian values that Britain has been such a successful home to people of all faiths and none.”

Britain is not, and never has been, a Christian country. Jesus did not call for “Christian countries”. He spoke of the Kingdom of God, in which “the first will be last and the last first”. This is a challenge to all the kingdoms, powers and hierarchies of this world.

Jesus sided with the poor, called on the world to change its ways and was arrested after leading a protest in the Jerusalem Temple. He was executed by the Roman Empire with the collusion of religious leaders.

Most of today’s politicians, had they been around at the time of Jesus, would have labelled him a dangerous extremist. Editorials in the Daily Mail would have demanded his crucifixion.

Jesus said, “To everyone who has will be given more; but anyone who has not will be deprived even of what he has.” Jesus was aware of the inequality and injustice in his own society, but it sounds like an equally good description of the UK government’s current policies.

My prayer at Christmas is that we will follow Jesus’ call to look into our hearts and that we will reflect on how we contribute to both justice and injustice in the world. In the light of this, I pray that we will end our subservience to systems of exploitation and war and follow Jesus’ example of resisting them.

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My new book, The Upside-Down Bible: What Jesus really said about money, sex and violence, has just been published by Darton, Longman and Todd.

Did Jesus believe in saving money?

David Cameron likes to describe people who work hard and save money as those who ‘do the right thing’. Cameron is a self-professed Christian and I would be fascinated to hear where he finds support for this approach in the teachings of Jesus.Upside-Down Bible

The gospels are pretty negative about saving money.

Take the ‘parable of the rich fool’, which you can find at Luke 12, 13-21. A rich man replaces his barns with bigger ones in order to store ‘all my grain and all my goods’. He then relaxes, knowing he has plenty of possessions on which to rely. God appears and calls him a fool, saying his life will be taken that very night. ‘And the things you have prepared, where will they be?’

Many Christians insist that it was not the man’s wealth that was the problem but his attachment to it. But the question at the end seems to be mocking the efforts he has made to accumulate it. Just afterwards, Jesus urges his disciples not to worry about what they will eat and wear. ‘Consider the ravens,’ he says. ‘They have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them.’

Elsewhere, Jesus urges his listeners not ‘to store up treasure on earth’ but treasure in heaven. He told a wealthy man to give all he had to the poor. Urging people not to boast about their generosity, he encouraged them not to let their left hand know what their right hand was doing. It is difficult to imagine Jesus entering his daily income and expenditure on a spreadsheet.

Jesus was acting in a strong biblical tradition. When the Israelites fled Egypt – where food was stored in barns for the elite – they had to rely on ‘manna’, food sent by God on a daily basis that went rotten if kept until the next day.

I have recently been showing Jesus’ teachings to non-Christians who were new to the Bible (as research for my new book, The Upside-Down Bible). I was not surprised that some of them regarded them as over-the-top. Dunyazade, a Muslim, contrasted Jesus’ ‘extreme’ encouragement to give away everything with the apparently more realistic Muslim requirement to give a percentage of your income away. Carl, a left-wing activist, approved of Jesus’ words on the grounds that they support ‘the ideals of socialism’. Sally, a charity fundraiser, saw Jesus reflecting the reality that it is often some of the poor who give the most to charity.

The gospels imply that at least some of Jesus’ disciples lived in community, sharing a common purse. This may have removed day-to-day fears about having enough to eat while making things very uncertain and precarious in the longer term. This style of living was itself a radical witness to the Kingdom of God, contrasted with the kingdoms and values of this world.

I recently heard a politician suggest that financial advisers should be stationed in food banks, to help their users to manage money. Perhaps he thinks the sharp rise in food banks has been caused by an outbreak of financial mismanagement. True, charities provide a valuable service in advising people on looking after their finances, but this is different to seeing such matters as the cause of the problem. I have always been baffled by the common middle-class belief that the act of entering numbers in columns generates food.

The idea of saving money and looking after it is so venerated in today’s society that any rejection of it seems extreme. Perhaps it’s time for Christians to acknowledge that this is what Jesus’ teachings are: extremist.

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My new book is The Upside-down Bible: What Jesus really said about money, sex and violence, which was published by DLT on 26th November in paperback and eBook, priced £9.99. The above post appeared originally on the DLT Books Blog as part of a series of five posts looking at Jesus’ parables in the light of my research for the book.

More famous parables reconsidered

Upside-Down BibleLast week saw the publication of my new book, The Upside-Down Bible: What Jesus really said about money, sex and violence.

My publisher – Darton, Longman and Todd – have been publishing a series of blog posts I have written about Jesus’ parables, based around some of the parables explored in the book.

The fourth post, Sex workers and the Kingdom of God, was published today. It explores Jesus’ comments on sex workers and the “parable of the two sons” in Matthew 21.

The previous blog posts are

Offended by the Lord’s Prayer? You should be!

There has been a minor media storm over the decision of certain cinema chains to withdraw a Church of England advertisement featuring the Lord’s Prayer.

Perhaps they were hoping to avoid controversy by avoiding religion. In reality, of course, religion is unavoidable and they have generated far more controversy than would have been the case if they had gone ahead with the advert.

The decision to refuse the advert is pretty ridiculous, but I’m sorry to see that many of its defenders have responded by insisting that the advert is not offensive. There are two issues that are being overlooked.

Firstly, there is an assumption that adverts generally are not offensive. Personally, I am offended by about ninety percent of adverts. Many of them promote values I don’t believe in, encourage consumerism, champion narrow gender stereotypes and tell me that my life will be better if I buy a load of wasteful junk. I’ve seen army recruitment adverts in cinemas, romanticising war and promoting an organisation rooted in violence and hierarchy.

If you do not share my values, these things may not offend you, but I’m sure some other adverts will. Almost anything that promotes a product or an idea will offend somebody. But I do not have a right not to be offended, and nor do you.

Secondly, the Lord’s Prayer is supposed to be offensive – at least to those who benefit from the status quo. One of its most important lines is, “Your kingdom come”. A prayer that the Kingdom of God will come is implicitly a prayer that the kingdoms and powers of this world will come to an end.

Theologians from Augustine onwards have made tortuous arguments for the idea that Christians can support both the Kingdom of God and the kingdoms they live in. But the Kingdom of God has inherently different values to the idols of money and military might that dominate our world. No-one can serve two masters.

Let’s have a look at the actual content of the Lord’s Prayer. The prayer is attributed in the New Testament to Jesus himself, although it’s likely that only parts of it were said by him and other parts were added by others.

It’s opening words are:

“Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.”

This may sound fairly innocuous, but in Jesus’ time, the word “father” implied authority over others. Not only was a father seen as in some sense the “owner” of his wife and children, but the Roman Emperor was described as father of the empire. According to the New Testament, Jesus encouraged his followers to “call no-one ‘father’ on earth”. Titles that involve authority belong only to God. This was subversive of both family structures and the emperor.

The prayer continues:

“Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven. Give us today our food for the day. Forgive us our debts as we forgive those indebted to us.”

God’s kingdom is an alternative to the kingdoms, nation-states and other powers that we live under. Jesus prayed that God’s will would be done. What does this mean in practice? The next line prays for us to be fed. If God’s will is done, everyone will have enough to eat. Jesus chose this as his first illustration of a world which follows the will of God.

This is followed by a prayer for the cancellation of debts. In some translations, the word is rendered “sins” or “trespasses”. It can refer both to literal financial debts, metaphorical debts and the guilt that comes with sin. It is pretty shocking to call for the cancellation of any or all of these things, and certainly contrary to the values that dominate our world, which insists that debts must be paid.

The prayer goes on:

“Save us form the time of trial and deliver us from evil. For the kingdom, the power and the glory are yours, now and forever. Amen.”

Speaking in a setting in which his followers expected persecution, Jesus prayed that God would save them from the trials and evils that they were likely to expect. He finished with a reminder that the power and glory lies in God’s hands, not anyone else’s (such as the rulers and persecutors of this world).

The Lord’s Prayer is a prayer for the overthrow of all existing social conditions. Of course some people should find it offensive.

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My new book, The Upside-Down Bible: What Jesus really said about money, sex and violence, is published this week by Darton, Longman and Todd.

The labourers in the vineyard and their zero-hour contracts

My new book, The Upside-Down Bible: What Jesus really said about money, sex and violence, will be published next week. To give you a taste of it, I’ve written some short blog posts that my publisher, DLT, will be running over the next few days. I’m cross-posting them on here. Here’s the first.

 
Upside-Down BibleJesus spent a lot of time talking about money. It was a central theme in many of his parables.

When I showed these parables to non-Christians who were unfamiliar with them, they responded by talking about money. This is less obvious than it sounds. Christians rarely mention money when discussing these stories. We are used to being told that they are making symbolic points about salvation.

First-time readers are unlikely to do this. Like Jesus’ first listeners, they hear stories about their everyday concerns. I have found that they make varied, interesting and insightful observations – all of which Christians risk overlooking in our rush towards doctrinal conclusions.

This experience has convinced me that Christians have a lot to learn from non-Christians – about the teachings of Jesus.

Take the parable often referred to as “the workers in the vineyard”. You can find it at Matthew 20, 1-15. The story concerns a landowner who hires casual labourers for different lengths of time but pays them all the same wage.

For many readers, the issues feel close to home. In various parts of the world, farm labourers and construction workers still gather in the morning to see if anyone will hire them. In the UK, zero-hour contracts are now very common. People await a text at six in the morning to tell them if they will have work. They are the equivalent of day labourers gathering in the market place.

One recent academic commentary on Matthew’s Gospel lists eight possible interpretations of this parable, none of which have anything to do with money and work. It is true that Jesus appears to have been drawing on a Jewish tradition of ‘parables of recompense’, in which unusual payments were used to illustrate wider points. Jesus’ story, however, goes into far more detail than most of these. Furthermore, Jesus’ listeners heard a story about their own worries: work, money, power, having enough to eat. Christian interpretation, however, has been influenced over centuries by church leaders and scholars who have rarely had to worry about finding enough work, money or food.

So how does the story sound to people who have experienced poverty and unemployment in today’s world?

‘I would have to identify with the late arrivals,’ said Samantha. ‘As a person with a disability, I have often had to claim benefits because of being unable to keep up with normal “hardworking” people.’

She added, ‘I think the point Jesus is making is that to resent others receiving the same financial support, comfort and – ultimately – respect as you, and to consider them to deserve less of these things than you, is not a loving attitude towards others’.

Although Samantha is approaching the story from a left-wing perspective, it would be a mistake to assume that everyone who shares her politics will read it in the same way. Carl, another first-time reader, believes that the employer behaved unfairly.

‘This story illustrates the exploitation of workers,’ he said. ‘The parallels to today are many; the inequalities of pay are vast: between genders, between different countries of the world or even areas of the same country, between workers within the same company.’

He concludes, ‘Surely Jesus was saying this isn’t good and that we should not behave in this way’.

Whether we agree with Samantha, with Carl or with neither, their perspectives are a reminder of something that Christians all too easily overlook: Jesus’ teachings concern our everyday lives and how our world functions, not merely a distant future or an abstract doctrine.

 

The Upside-down Bible: What Jesus really said about money, sex and violence, will be published by Darton, Longman and Todd on 26th November in paperback and e-book, priced £9.99.

Nuclear weapons and bisexuality

My apologies for the lack of blog posts in recent weeks. I usually post a link to articles I have written elsewhere, but I admit I’ve not kept up with this lately.

Here are links to a few articles I’ve had published recently.

Corbyn should stick to his guns on defence policy (21.09.15)- My latest piece for the Huffington Post

Freeing sexuality from an either/or model (18.09.15) – My opinion piece for the Church Times to mark Bisexual Visibility Day

Hiroshima was an act of mass murder (06.08.15) – My blog post for Premier Christianity magazine, as part of a debate on the 70th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing

Busy being mad

It’s a while since I last blogged. I’m not egotistical enough to imagine that there are people waiting with baited breath for my next post, but I thought I would offer a short explanation for my absence.

The first reason is that I am very busy with various bits of work. I have been working on my third book, The Upside-Down Bible, which will be published in November by Darton, Longman & Todd. I have also been editing pacifist writings from the first world war for the next instalment of the White Feather Diaries, a Quaker-run online project.

However, there is a second reason for my blogging silence. I have been really quite ill. I have recurrent mental health problems and they have been particularly bad over the last few months. I think things are now improving slightly, but it’s always difficult to say. Trying to keep on top of work while wrestling with mental ill-health has naturally led to my getting behind with things, which in itself has made things more difficult – and so on.

It’s not easy to write about my mental health problems, even though I mention them quite often. I sometimes receive praise for being open about them. I appreciate the encouragement of those who make these sort of comments but I sometimes suspect that part of what I am being praised for is the ability to mention these issues in a calm manner. Most people who I meet have never seen me in the middle of a major OCD-induced panic attack. People who do experience this are likely to be freaked out or at least struggle to know how to respond. There is no blame in that. I would have no idea about how to respond to many other health conditions.

So I am all the more grateful for the many people who have supported me lately – friends who have given me lots of time and emotional support, acquaintances and colleagues who have been understanding and patient, strangers who have been friendly and offered kind words.

No individual could ever be as mad as the political and economic systems under which we live. No-one can be as dysfunctional as a world that leaves millions to starve despite having enough food to feed everyone. Nothing can be as delusional as attempts to defeat violence with violence, hatred with hatred or greed with money. This is a twisted world, and it twists us with it.

Thankfully, not everything is so bad: there is kindness, there is compassion, there is the ability to disagree. There is an alternative. There is a different power – and a different sort of power – to the powers of greed, selfishness and abuse which hold sway over so many areas of life. We can glimpse this power in all sorts of ways, from small moments of kindness to global campaigns against injustice. I have faith that this power will ultimately triumph, though I don’t blame anyone for finding this hard to believe.

How the Church of England profits from the arms trade

Pope Francis last week attacked the “duplicity” of those who profit from the arms trade but “call themselves Christian”. Meanwhile, St Paul’s Cathedral in London has adopted a policy of refusing to host events sponsored by arms companies. Guildford Cathedral took up a similar policy some time ago, cancelling a booking at short notice when they realised that it was for an arms industry event.

It seems that none of this has made any impact on Church House, the administrative headquarters of the Church of England, which is next to Westminster Abbey. This week it will again host a conference sponsored by arms companies – and profit from their business.

The ‘Land Warfare Conference‘ will take place on Tuesday and Wednesday (30 June and 1 July). Its sponsors include Lockheed Martin, one of the world’s biggest arms companies. Lockheed arms one some of the world’s most oppressive regimes, including Bahrain and Egypt. The company makes Trident missiles for the US (and loaned by the UK government). Lockheed also provides the Israeli government with F-16 aircraft and Hellfire missiles, used in attacks on civilians in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

For the last two and a half years, Church House has been dismissing objections to its arms industry conferences, despite protests from within the Church of England and beyond.

Their first line of defence was to claim that the Church House Conference Centre was separate from Church House. Along with other campaigners, I have looked into this claim in some detail. It turns out that the Conference Centre is a wholly owned subsidiary business of the Church House Corporation, whose directors include the Archbishops of Canterbury and York. The separation is a legal technicality.

Church House are now trying to rely on the argument that the booking for the conference is not made by an arms company but by the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a military thinktank. This is disingenuous. RUSI’s website makes clear that these conferences are sponsored by arms companies. Alongside Lockheed Martin, sponsors of this week’s event include MBDA Missile Systems (whose weapons were used on all sides in the Libyan civil war) and L3, owners of MPRI a “private military and security company” (or mercenaries, as they’re usually known).

Chris Palmer, secretary of the Church House Corporation recently claimed that:

“The conferences held at Church House by the Royal United Services Institute, an academic body respected throughout the world for its consideration and debate of defence and security issues, are perfectly legitimate and certainly do not breach any ethical stance taken by the Church of England.”

Whether or not RUSI is respected, it is certainly not unbiased. It lobbies for high military spending and promotes the arms industry. If you want to glimpse of the reality of RUSI, have a glance at the front page of the RUSI website, currently featuring a picture of them giving an award to the war criminal Henry Kissinger. Another picture features a celebration of the Duke of Wellington, who backed the use of troops to crush peaceful demonstrations.

But whatever we think of RUSI, Chris Palmer clearly finds it easier to focus on RUSI than on arms companies themselves. His comment deliberately ignores the fact that the conference is sponsored by arms dealers, whoever it is who made the booking.

In contrast, St Paul’s Cathedral has the wisdom to rule out “bookings, or sponsorship of bookings” from any company making more than ten percent of its money from the arms trade.

This is in line with the Church of England’s own ethical investment policy. The Church of England would not buy shares in Lockheed Martin, so why will it profit from it in other ways?

Chris Palmer said that the body that manages the Church’s investments has no connection to Church House and that therefore, “I cannot comment on its ethical stance”. He cannot, it seems, comment on why it has a higher ethical stance than Church House.

Chris Palmer’s comments were made in a letter to Richard Bickle, chair of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FoR), who had written to him to raise objections to hosting arms dealers’ conferences. FoR is a long-standing Christian pacifist network. It is not only pacifists who object to these events at Church House. Others oppose them because they do not want to support companies that arm dictators and they do not want the Church to be making profit from the business of such companies.

As Christians, we do not hate arms dealers. We seek to love and forgive them. I for one know that I am just as sinful as an arms dealer, and that I need God’s forgiveness. I do not object to an arms dealer entering a church building. I would not have a problem with Church House hosting a debate on the arms trade (as long as it was not sponsored by arms companies), in which arms dealers were challenged and allowed to challenge others.

But this is not what is happening at Church House this week. This is about making money from the arms trade and giving it moral legitimacy.

FoR has been joined by groups including the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT), Pax Christi and Christians for Economic Justice to call on Church House to adopt an ethical lettings policy and throw out the arms industry. Hundreds if not thousands of Christians, including Church of England clergy, have written to Church House to raise their objections.

Church House’s leadership, however, are not even engaging with the issues. As we can see from Chris Palmer’s quote above, they talk of the formal booking and ignore the issue of sponsorship. They have dismissed polite letters, ignored criticism in the media and refused to acknowledge that there is anything to talk about. Last year, security staff at Westminster Abbey tried to stop us from peacefully singing hymns as we held a vigil outside one of Church House’s arms dealers’ conferences. I cannot believe that everyone working for Church House shares these high-handed attitudes, but our polite appeals to reason are being met with rudeness and arrogance.

At 8am tomorrow (Tuesday 30 June), Christians and others will gather outside Church House for a nonviolent vigil and act of worship. A Church of England priest will lead us in Holy Communion. This is entirely appropriate. Communion is a memorial and a celebration of Jesus, who was tortured to death by the oppressive Roman Empire after his nonviolent activism. As a Christian, I have faith that Jesus rose again, heralding the eventual defeat of the unjust powers of this world.

Perhaps the Church House authorities expect our campaign to fade out, or to continue only as a minor irritant. If they do think this, they won’t be thinking it for long.

Blogging through the night – follow Ekklesia’s rolling election blog

Tonight, I’ll be tweeting and blogging throughout the night as the general election results come in.

Rather than blogging on this site, I’ll be contributing to the rolling election blog run by Ekklesia, the Christian political thinktank. The blog is already rolling, with frequent brief insights and observations on election developments. I’m honoured to be blogging alongside an impressive team of progressive Christian contributors.

Ekklesia has been exploring the role of values and beliefs in the election, emphasising that an election is only one event in democracy, exploring innovative approaches to politics and encouraging people to “Vote for what you believe in”.

Although it’s not always possible to add comments on Ekklesia blogs, please feel free to respond to me by commenting on here, tweeting me at @SymonHill or emailing me at symonhill@gmail.com. If you’re on Twitter, please use the hashtag #Votebelief to refer to Ekklesia’s election coverage or rolling blog.

You can also make a donation to Ekklesia and help us to keep awake!

15 UKIP candidates and two Tories accidentally pledge to oppose Trident

Fifteen UKIP candidates and two Conservatives have signed a statement that commits them to opposing the renewal of the Trident nuclear weapons system. Unfortunately, they appear to have done so by accident.

Indeed, those who produced the statement seem to have overlooked the meaning of what they have written. The Christian Party has produced a so-called “Declaration of British Values”, which they have asked candidates of all parties to sign.

The declaration includes the following sentence:

“I will not participate in nor facilitate abortion, embryo-destructive research, assisted suicide, euthanasia, or any other act that involves intentionally destroying innocent human beings.”

Forty-one candidates have signed the declaration, including two sitting Conservative MPs –
David Amess and Bob Blackman – and fifteen UKIP candidates (most of the others are from the Christian Party or Christian People’s Alliance).

All warfare involves taking innocent life, although supporters of wars insist that this is unintentional. Nuclear weapons, however, cannot be used without killing millions of innocent people. It is illogical to argue that they are “only a deterrent” – they will not deter anyone if it is not possible that they may be used.

Of course, the signatories will insist that they were thinking of abortion. Some who refuse to facilitate abortion are happy to facilitate the creation of weapons that would kill thousands of unborn children – and millions of others.