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.

What the Andrew Windsor case says about sex, abuse and power

Andrew Windsor, commonly called Prince Andrew or the Duke of York, has been accused of raping a teenager. Even the scandal-loving British press are being relatively reticent about this, avoiding the word “rape” and saying that the allegation involves a woman who says she was “forced to have sex” with him. Perhaps certain newspapers can’t bear to associate the word “rape” with a royal. Or they think that there is some form of forced sex that is not rape. Both attitudes are equally worrying.

I do not, of course, know whether Andrew is guilty of the crime. Like every other accused person, he has a right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty. And like every other person making an accusation of rape, his accuser has a right to be taken seriously.

The accusation has surfaced in a case in the US concerning Jeffrey Epstein, who allegedly procured Andrew’s unwilling teenage victim. If there appears to be a strong case against Andrew, he should of course be extradited to the US to stand trial. Even if the case is strong, I very much doubt that this will happen. I find it hard to believe that US authorities will want to ask their usually subservient allies in the UK government to hand over a member of the royal family.

True or not, the pressure is on Andrew, who has so far failed to comment in public and is instead hiding behind a brief statement issued by Buckingham Palace. The Palace declared yesterday that “any suggestion of impropriety with underage minors is categorically untrue”.

The use of the word “impropriety” to refer to something as horrific as rape makes me feel slightly sick.

The BBC keep telling us that it is unusual for the Palace to deny something directly, as they usually simply ignore allegations. This is outrageous. If the rape accusation had been made against a politician, bishop, business leader or celebrity, the person in question would be denying the allegations in front of a camera and facing questions from journalists. But a member of the Windsor family can simply ask his mother’s press office to issue a one-sentence comment, with the expectation that parts of the media will congratulate him for doing even this.

Have we learnt nothing from the horrors of child abuse in the Roman Catholic Church? From the revelations about Jimmy Saville, Rolf Harris and Max Clifford?

Recent months have seen a string of allegations and convictions involving sexual abuse in the Church of England. Oddly, this has made relatively little impact on the secular media. The story a few weeks ago about payouts for sexual abuse in the Scouts disappeared from the media almost as soon as it arrived. Earlier this week, the Guardian revealed systemic sexual abuse in the Army Cadets, yet the Guardian’s editors did not seem to think that the story was worth more than a half-page piece on Page 14.

I am not suggesting that every single allegation made about people within these institutions is true. But a vast number of them are true, as we can tell from the convictions and payouts. It seems clear that publicity about sexual abuse has urged other victims to come forward. In some cases, they have done so years or decades after the abuse in question. They then have to cope with the abuse being described as “historical”, with the implication that it is less important. In other cases, accusations have been made much sooner after the events in question.

With all this going on, we might expect society to be waking up to the dreadful reality of sexual abuse – its frequency, its impact, its horrifying normality in certain institutions. If society is waking up, the establishment and much of the media do not seem to be. So many of these cases involve people using status to abuse someone with less power and to get away with it. Priests, celebrities and army officers all know that their status makes them difficult to challenge. Abusers in churches, the BBC and the Army Cadets all saw their institutions close ranks to protect them.

It should be obvious that sexual abuse is often linked with power. Abuse is more likely when certain individuals are revered or protected by institutions that require people to accept what they’re told without question. Despite the revelations about the Army Cadets, the government is still keen to promote them, talking of the benefits of “military values” in schools. Military values, of course, involve doing what you’re told and not questioning authority. Can we still not be honest about what that leads to?

Apparently not. We now have a rape accusation against one of the most high-status people in the UK. Not only is he sixth in line to the throne, but Andrew has also spent years as a trade ambassador with UK Trade and Investment, a unit of the Department for Business. He has been particularly associated with securing arms deals for multinational companies such as BAE Systems, often with the world’s nastiest regimes. As such, he is complicit in the deaths of thousands, but this does not make the rape allegation any less serious.

With the rape accusation against Andrew Windsor, it is surely time to put an end to our usual practice of doing nothing to hold the Windsor family to account despite the vast influence, wealth and status accorded to them. Andrew’s brother Charles, expected to be head of state within a few years, expresses political opinions on all sorts of things but is never challenged about them on Newsnight or the Today programme.

Britain now faces a test. Either we can show that we take sexual abuse seriously and believe that all people are accountable. Or we can let deference, inequality and brutality win the day again. It’s up to us.

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”.

English people and the Scottish referendum

I’ve been wary of blogging about Scottish independence, not least because I’m well aware of how many English people are writing about it in a way that implies they know more than the Scots. It seems that the referendum debate is engaging thousands of people in Scotland who were previously seen as apolitical. I don’t doubt that they know more about the issues than commentators in London.

I’ve therefore resolved to focus on the effect of the referendum on the rest of the UK.

Throughout the last few months, I’ve been intrigued and fascinated by the attitudes of English people towards the question of Scottish independence. Many seem to have strong views, or at least feelings, on the issue. Some have remained indifferent but now that the London media have finally realised that the Yes side might win, the referendum seems to have become a major issue of popular discussion down here as well. Unfortunately, the London media seem to be helping to distort English people’s perceptions.

One of the oddest aspects of English discussion is the way so many people speak of Scotland “leaving us” or “going away”, as if Scotland were to be physically detached from the rest of Britain. Some talk of Scotland “leaving Britain”, when they mean “leaving the UK” (Britain, of course, is a geographical area). Some English people seem to regard the idea of Scottish independence as a personal afront, as if Scotland were collectively refusing their company rather than choosing between different methods of government.

Scotland will still be there. Travelling to it from England will still be easy. We will still be welcome. We will not have to queue up at some sort of military checkpoint just north of Berwick-upon-Tweed, nervously clutching a passport in one hand and a Gaelic phrase book in the other.

Newspaper headlines refer to the Yes campaigners as “nationalists”. Some of them undoubtedly are. Many of them are not. People are voting Yes for all sorts of reasons: a belief that Scotland will more democratic outside the UK, a hope for a fairer society, a desire to avoid Tory government, opposition to Trident, desperation that something has to be better than the present set-up. We can debate whether these beliefs are accurate or right, but it is absurd to label them all as “nationalist”.

The No campaign also includes nationalists, such as people who are fiercely proud to be British. I fear that the referendum has also triggered a rather ugly strain of English nationalism, with a (hopefully small) number of people in England attacking Scotland for having the temerity to consider independence.

By voting No, Scots would not be rejecting nationalism. They would be choosing the United Kingdom over a Scottish nation-state. In England, left-wing supporters of the No campaign frequently condemn nationalism and tribalism. I hate nationalism as much as they do, but I wish they would admit that they are, on some level at least, advocating for the United Kingdom.

Defending the union in yesterday’s Independent, George Galloway tied himself in knots trying to avoid this reality. He referred to “the 300-year old Britain”. This is a ludicrous phrase; this island’s been here a lot longer than that and will remain here whatever the outcome on Thursday. But Galloway was avoiding referring to “the 300-year-old United Kingdom”, which is what he is really defending. It is a United Kingdom built on monarchy, warfare and empire.

Nationalists of various sorts can be found in both the Yes and No camps. Both sides also include people who thankfully reject nationalism and are motivated by other, and often better, considerations.

So what are people really voting about if not nationalism? Both sides in this debate are reluctant to admit that the idea of “independence” is an anachronism. Nowhere is really independent in today’s globalised world. Different decisions have to be made at different levels. Some things are decided at the level of your street, some as a town, some as a region and so on, up to those decided at the level of Europe or even the world.

Labelling one of these levels as a “country” and demanding that it is the one that has our greatest loyalty, seems arbitrary, not to say absurd. What we can do is to ensure that all levels are as democratic as possible. We can also choose what decisions we want made at what level. It is this that the Scots are voting on, not on nationalism or “going away”.

Of one thing we can be certain: the UK will change forever on Friday. If London politicians and commentators think that a No vote means business as usual, they will quickly find themselves mistaken. Politics in Scotland has been shaken up, with people from all walks of life are engaging in political issues in ways not seen for decades. Whatever the result, I hope that some of that enthusiasm, excitement and engagement will spread to the rest of the UK. Scotland isn’t going away. Indeed, if their democratic fervour spreads southwards, our politics may be getting closer to theirs.

Church welcomes arms dealers – but tries to ban pacifists from singing hymns

Church House vigil 140709The most bizarre moment of today’s vigil outside an arms conference at Church House was when Westminster Abbey’s staff told us that we were not allowed to sing hymns on their land.

A group of around twenty people, mostly Christians, were holding a vigil of prayer and protest outside Church House, whose conference centre is hosting an “Air Power” conference sponsored by arms companies such as BAE and Lockheed Martin. The area outside one entrance to Church House is on Westminster Abbey land.

Our vigil had largely been silent until we started to sing “We are marching in the light of God”. A member of Westminster Abbey staff came over to us and said we should not sing. She insisted that the Abbey had been “very generous” in allowing us on to its “private property” and that we would not be allowed to continue there if we sang.

I said it was odd that an arms dealers’ conference is welcome but that Christians singing hymns were not. The Abbey representative told me that the Abbey had nothing to do with the arms conference, which is hosted at Church House.

This is a fair point as far as it goes, even though the Abbey own the steps up which the arms dealers walked to get to Church House. But I asked why we could Church House vigil 140709 - 2not sing hymns in the grounds of a church built on Jesus Christ.

The Abbey staff member (I’m sorry; I don’t know her name) said she worked for the Dean and Chapter. I said that they were part of a church built on the teachings of Jesus. She said, “I don’t know what the church is built on” and insisted that she was accountable to the Dean and Chapter.

I asked if this was an admittance that Westminster Abbey is basically a secular institution rather than a church of Christ. She said, “It’s a royal peculiar”. This is a legal term regarding the Abbey’s official status and its relationship to the monarchy.

I replied that I had no interest in “royal peculiars” as the only royalty I recognise is Jesus Christ. I explained that Jesus is my king and queen and that Elizabeth Windsor is not.

She seemed offended at this point and said, “Queen Elizabeth the Second is my queen.” I replied, “She’s not mine” but she soon returned to talking about the Abbey being a “royal peculiar.”

Even if you accept monarchy, private property and so on, this does not explain why the Abbey should object to people singing hymns on its grounds. She never explained this, only saying the Abbey were “very generous” by allowing us there. Perhaps I should have put this point more, rather than got into an confused exchange about the monarchy.

I suggested that her words were an admission that the Abbey was more concerned with its loyalty to an earthly monarch than to Jesus. She didn’t answer, but walked off angrily to consult with uniformed staff as we continued to sing.

We sang hymns, prayed and read the Bible aloud for more than half an hour after that without being disturbed. The arms dealers enjoying drinks on the balcony above us could clearly hear us.

Of course, this comes less than a fortnight after Westminster Abbey’s staff called in the police for a violent eviction of a group of disabled protesters. Their behaviour on that occasion made St Paul’s Cathedral’s treatment of the Occupy London Stock Exchange camp seem mild by comparison.

What’s this got to do with the arms trade? It’s about loyalty and authority. In what culture do Christian organisations operate? I frequently fail to live in loyalty to Christ. I do not love my neighbour as myself, I behave selfishly and am complicit in the sins of our society and economic system. The task of a church is to bring together people as they struggle to live in loyalty to the Kingdom of God, and to witness to Jesus Christ in the world.

Loyalty to the Kingdom of God means a rejection of the powers of this world. Sadly, Westminster Abbey and Church House seem to be in thrall to the idols of Mammon, monarchy and militarism.

 

To sign an email about arms conferences at Church House to the Archbishop of Canterbury, please visit http://act.caat.org.uk/lobby/churchhouse.

Where do “British values” come from?

Schools in which pupils are taught to follow the same values as the government are usually associated with totalitarian regimes. This has not stopped Michael Gove and David Cameron from saying that “British values” should be taught in all British schools.

Despite their repeated use of the word “British”, Gove can determine only what’s taught in English schools, as education in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland is handled by the devolved administrations there. This is a thus a policy that fails before it gets to the end of its first sentence.

There have been a lot of jokes about attempts to define “British values”. Will children have lessons in moaning about the weather? Will there be exams on the rules of cricket? Will pupils have to demonstrate an ability to glare at people who jump queues while never actually challenging them?

Perhaps all these jokes going round social media demonstrate that one “British value” is a belief in the importance of laughing at ourselves.

Gove’s supporters suggest that “British values” include concepts such as democracy, free speech and human rights. The irony of teaching people what view they should take on free speech and democracy seems to be lost on them.

There are many countries that can take pride in their traditions of democracy and human rights. Nonetheless, I see nothing wrong with people in Britain being proud of what has been achieved in these areas in Britain. But before we do so, let’s remember two overlooked realities.

Firstly, Britain’s traditions of democracy and free expression have sat alongside other traditions – of oppression, racism and violence. The British Empire was rooted in economic exploitation and justified by a racial view of conquered people. It diverted attention away from poverty at home by telling people to be proud of what their masters were achieving abroad. Wars were fought not only against subject peoples but against other imperial powers that threatened the British Empire’s dominance – the first world war is the obvious example. During that war, the government exercised heavy censorship, lied to the public about what was going on at the front and imprisoned 6,000 critics of the war.

Secondly, progressive traditions of free expression and human rights have survived despite all this. When democracy has triumphed in Britain it has done so in spite of the powerful and not because of them. The great parliamentary reforms of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were dragged out of a reluctant elite by mass public campaigns. In some cases, reforms were desperate attempts to avoid revolution or to buy off one section of society so that they would not ally with another. But such changes would not have happened at all without the reality of grassroots campaigns, even if the reforms often did not go as far as the campaigners wanted. Society was changed from below, not from above. Going back to the seventeenth century, the rule of law was established only when King Charles I was convicted of treason after waging war against his own people, establishing the principle that no-one was above the law.

The human rights and relative democracy that we have in Britain are due to millions of ordinary people going out and campaigning for them over centuries. They did so in defiance of the rich and powerful. Michael Gove and David Cameron have far more in common with the politicians and monarchs who resisted such progress than they do with the people who championed it.

What could illustrate this better than Cameron’s deals with the vicious regime of Saudi Arabia, to whom he continues to sell weapons? Or the government’s use of drones in Afghanistan, killing civilians in a way largely indistinguishable from the “extremists” who Gove is so keen to challenge with “British values”?

Let’s celebrate our democratic traditions. Let’s do it by campaigning against the concentration of power and wealth in the hands of a few, and by insisting that school pupils must be free to hear a wide range of views, ideas and interpretations – not just those of Michael Gove.

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.

 

Celebrating revolution at Christmas

Tonight and tomorrow, millions of people will gather in churches to tell each other a truly subversive story.

They will tell of a baby born to a semi-homeless family living under a viciously oppressive regime. They will declare that the mother’s husband was not the baby’s father; this was a very unconventional family. They will tell of how the puppet ruler of the area was so frightened by this obscure baby that he killed all the children in the town to try to get rid of him.

They will add stories about visits to the child from migrant travellers, who foiled the king’s attempts to hunt down the baby. They will say that the child was visited also by people whose work was looked down on, but to whom God chose to reveal the news of the birth.

In many countries throughout history, and in some today, the authorities have tried to suppress Christians telling these stories to each other. After all, they challenge authority, monarchy, national loyalty and family values.

Over time, the people with power have become more subtle and effective in their methods. They have found it much easier to tell these stories themselves, repeating them so often that they become familiar and disconnected from the realities of life, death, power and politics today. Some of us can be quite comfortable with this. We can enjoy the stories, but not the challenge they bring to our lives. Even those of us want to change the society we live in can still cling on to the comfort of familiarity.

No king, no dictator, no burner of books has ever suppressed the Christian message as well as those who have domesticated Christianity. Turning subversion into a fluffy story is much more effective than banning it.

At times, we glimpse the transformative potential of Christmas. On Christmas Day ninety-nine years ago, German troops on the Western Front displayed a sign reading “We no fight. You no fight.” The British responded in kind, and the opposing soldiers were soon shaking hands and playing football. The authorities on both sides responded by criminalising such behaviour to make sure it didn’t happen again. If people realise that they are fighting people who are just the same as them, they might decide that there are better causes to fight for, and better ways to fight for them. If the troops had gone on playing football into Boxing Day, they might have stopped the war.

The baby we’re talking about this week grew up, despite the king’s murderous intention. He continued to be in conflict with authority. He welcomed and challenged all whom he encountered. He declared his solidarity with the poor and marginalised, while offering just as much love to the rich and powerful as he called on them to repent. He spoke of the kingdom of God, a revolutionary notion in an empire whose emperor expected to be worshipped. He was executed after a rigged trial by the local rulers, helped by the collusion of religious leaders. Some of us have faith that the oppressive powers could not hold him and that God raised him from the dead to continue to lead and liberate us.

That really is something worth celebrating. Merry Christmas.

All baptisms are royal baptisms

When I complained on Twitter last week about the excessive amount of media coverage given to George Windsor’s baptism, somebody replied with the understandable opinion that it was a welcome change to see Christian sacraments featuring in the news.

I can see his point, although as the week went I on I became convinced that the coverage was bad rather than good news for Christianity. The reporting reinforced prominent misconceptions about baptism, including the idea that it is about conforming to tradition rather than making a radical statement.

The media told us that George was baptised in a “private” ceremony. My idea of “private” does not involve an event that is pictured on the front pages of the next day’s newspapers, but I suppose it’s literally true in that the ceremony was not open to everyone. George was surrounded by people as wealthy and privileged as he will one day be. Media comment focused on the details of the clothes he was wearing and his godparents’ ancestral backgrounds.

I don’t doubt the sincerity of Justin Welby’s prayers, nor of the worship through which the baby was welcomed into the Christian church (although George himself is too young to have much say in the matter). He was splashed with water from the River Jordan, where John the Baptist immersed Jesus two thousand years ago.

That was a rather different event, when people voluntarily walked into a river to repent of their sins and to ask God’s forgiveness. Following Jesus’ resurrection, his disciples continued to practise baptism in water, while also experiencing baptism in the Holy Spirit, a more internal matter of cleansing and rebirth.

It is not known whether the early Christians baptised children as well as adults (the question is the subject of a never-ending debate amongst historians and theologians). What is clear is that baptism was a dangerous business. Being baptised helped to mark people out as Christians at a time when they were marginalised at best and executed at worst.

Christianity gradually became less radical, accepting dominant norms of slavery and gender roles. Then in the fourth century, the emperor Constantine sucked the power out of this once subversive movement by making Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire and thereby domesticating it. As church leaders were given positions of power and privilege, they found themselves defending ideas they had previously been against (think of Liberal Democrat ministers in the UK government and you’ll get the idea).

With the beginning of Christendom, the church and state became allies, offering support and sanction to each other. All parents were expected to have their children baptised. Baptism, far from being a sign of rejecting the powers of this world, became a symbol of acceptance.

Among the groups who reacted against this were the Anabaptists of the sixteenth century. Emphasising that following Jesus is a matter of personal choice, they baptised each other as adult believers. In many countries by this time, refusing to hand over your child for infant baptism was a criminal offence punishable by death. Anabaptists were martyred in their thousands.

Some Anabaptists survived by fleeing to North America and a few continued to live in Europe. Their influence on other radical Christian movements, such as Quakerism and some strands of the Baptists, is debated but should not be underestimated. Quakers and the Salvation Army developed a different, but equally radical, interpretation of baptism, rejecting the use of water and focused on inward, spiritual baptism alone. The early twentieth century saw the birth of the Pentecostal movement, which emphasises baptism in the spirit as well as in water for adult believers.

To be fair, many supporters of infant baptism see it as a case of welcoming a child into a community rather than simply going through the expected procedure. They also believe they are preparing a child to make a decision for themselves at a later date, despite applying the water in infancy. I am not persuaded by their arguments, but their approach is very different to the popular conception of “christening” as something that is about celebrating birth rather than about joining the church.

It is this misconception that was reinforced by George Windsor’s baptism last week. George is starting out on a life in which – despite enormous wealth – he will be required at every stage to do exactly what is expected of him. Baptism for him looks likely to be the first step on a journey of commitment to the powers of privilege and earthly power.

In baptism, said the apostle Paul, we die and rise with Christ. We dedicate ourselves, in all our fallible humanity, to Jesus Christ. All baptisms are royal baptisms, because they mark out the participants as citizens of the Kingdom of God. Loyalty to that subversive kingdom means rejection of the kingdoms of this world.

Baptism is not about conformity. As early Christians, Anabaptists and Quakers knew to their cost, baptism is an act of rebellion – and it leads to trouble.

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The above article appeared as my latest column for the website of the Ekklesia thinktank. Please see http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/news/columns/hill

Charles flies to Saudi Arabia and ignores human rights

At a camp for Syrian refugees in Jordan yesterday, a visitor expressed his shock at what he saw. It was, he said, an “unbelievable and heartbreaking situation”. The visitor was Charles Windsor, commonly called the Prince of Wales. His wife, Camilla Parker-Bowles, praised the “strength of spirit” of the women refugees at the camp.

Today, Charles and Camilla visited Saudi Arabia for friendly meetings with Saudi princes. Charles did not say it was “heartbreaking” to see the suppression of political and religious freedom in Saudi Arabia. Camilla did not praise the “strength of spirit” of the Saudi women who challenge state misogyny by driving cars or travelling without a male companion (both of which are illegal). Neither of them said it was “unbelievable” that seven people had just been shot in public by firing squad after an unfair trial for theft.

Indeed, prior to the visit, their spokesperson ruled out any idea of them even mentioning human rights, torture or political prisoners to their royal Saudi hosts.

Once again, I am sickened by the hypocrisy of the British establishment when it comes to Saudi Arabia. It is one of the most vicious tyrannies on Earth and yet Tory, Labour and LibDem ministers have all readily looked the other way for the sake of two industries that rely on UK-Saudi co-operation. They are the arms trade and the oil trade – two of the dirtiest, deadliest, most immoral businesses in the world.

British subservience to Saudi Arabia undermines every comment that any British minister or royal figure makes about human rights and democracy.

Tony Blair, seeking to justify the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, said he was worried by the treatment of women under the Taliban. The treatment of women in Saudi Arabia did not stop him intervening in a criminal investigation in 2006 to ensure that BAE’s Saudi arms deals would not be investigated for corruption.

In 2007, Gordon Brown welcomed Abdullah, the king of Saudi Arabia, on a state visit that saw them sharing a banquet at Buckingham Palace. Kim Howells, then a junior minister, spoke of the “shared values” between the two countries. Shortly beforehand, the Saudi regime had arrested a group of Catholics for peacefully worshipping in a family home.

In 2011, David Cameron condemned Assad’s brutal oppression in Syria. A few months earlier, the Bahraini regime had invited Saudi troops into their country to help them to suppress peaceful pro-democracy protests. They did so with armoured vehicles made by BAE in Newcastle.

And now Charles Windsor has joined in the hypocrisy. Attempts to plead that the royal family are “non-political” just won’t wash. Charles has made comments on all sorts of political issues, from education to the environment. His description of the situation in Syria as “unbelievable and heartbreaking” was political as well as accurate (it would certainly be seen as political if he said it about Saudi Arabia).

The very idea of being “non-political” is a moral and practical absurdity. Neutrality is literally impossible in a context of injustice. Those who respond to oppression by saying they are not taking sides are helping the oppression to continue and thus siding with the oppressor.

Such behaviour by British ministers and royals is nothing new. But Charles is also expected to be “supreme governor” of the Church of England some time fairly soon. This is another good reason for disestablishment. Leaders of churches should not be defending tyrants.