Apr 302014
 

In a statement in the House of Commons today, the Home Secretary announced that the powers for police to “stop and search” are to be revised.

theresa may

This follows the revelation that up to a quarter of such searches may have been illegal – which contributes to the, sometimes uneasy, relationship between the police and some groups of society.

With policing in this country being based on the consent of citizens, a good and healthy relationship between the police and citizens is essential and the sort of behaviour referenced in this report and statement can seriously undermine it.

In a totally different context, in a country which was overrun by a foreign power, Jesus called on his followers to act in an amazing way towards those who had authority over them.

If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. (Matthew 5:41)

Here Jesus was referring to the power which the ordinary Roman soldier had to compel anyone to carry his equipment for one mile. And Jesus was saying that, instead of resenting it, they should be willingly prepared to do so and even go beyond what was expected of them.

This verse occurs in a passage where Jesus is advocating a different way of living (Matthew 5:38-42), a way which seeks to defuse tension, reduce hostility and introduce peace and goodwill. A tall order but one which Jesus develops as he calls on his followers to

love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.  (Matthew 5:44b–45a)

It is in living this way that we emulate and follow the example of God.

Jesus demonstrated this model of generous forgiveness as he was being nailed to his cross and called out to his father to forgive those who were treating him so badly:

Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing. (Luke 23:34a)

In this article I am not advocating that the police should be above the law nor that it is right for them to behave as the report to which the Home Secretary refers suggests.

What I am reflecting on is that we will all find ourselves badly treated in many different ways, and by many different people, and it is our responsibility to determine how we will react and respond.

Am I prepared to follow Jesus in the way he calls me to?

 

Apr 292014
 

One of the news items today is a report on the UK economy showing that it is thought to have grown by 0.8% in the first quarter of 2014.

uk economic growth

 

This is seen as a positive thing with the Chancellor welcoming the news but warning that

the recovery could not be taken for granted

The shadow chancellor acknowledged the positive growth numbers but is concerned about the fact that

millions of hardworking people are still feeling no recovery at all

There is a sense that things are getting better, at a macro-level, but that for many people things are still as they were or worse. Underlying the opinions expressed is the premise that economic growth is a good thing which is something that we have become so accustomed to that it is accepted as a fact – and I don’t know enough about economics to know whether it is really true. Interestingly, on the same day, an article was published asking whether wealth has made the people in Qatar happy. According to this article, Qatar is now the richest country in the world with the average per-head income exceeding £60,000 per annum.

qatari wealth

The article itemises many of the benefits which the Qatari people enjoy but there is a sense of something valuable having been lost. At the end of the article there is a quote from an American anthropologist who has lived in Doha for a long time:

Have some sympathy for Qataris. They’ve lost everything that matters

That, admittedly, extreme example does raise questions about the challenges to a society associated with economic growth – though few would suggest that the economic hardships we have been experiencing over recent years have been helpful. But are there different indicators that we should use to assess the health of a nation? In what we now refer to as the “Sermon on the Mount” Jesus calls on his followers to make a choice as to whether they are going to pursue earthly treasure or are they going to seek to serve God and do the things which are important to him (Matthew 6:19-24). And he presents his listeners with a stark choice, arguing that they can’t do both:

No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be not serving two mastersdevoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” (Matthew 6:24)

And to get an idea of what serving God is like we can look at Jesus’ “manifesto” at the start of his public ministry:

The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Luke 4:18–19)

Jesus was there for the marginalised, the poor, the neglected, the oppressed. If we are seeking to follow him then these should be our priorities as well, and how well we deliver against these should be a mark of how our society is doing.

Apr 282014
 

This is the first post in a series looking at what following the example of the Jesus who suffered for us could mean to our country. (For the context to this, please see the post which introduced this series yesterday)

I said that I would reflect on one of the top news stories of the day and, unfortunately and sadly, there are two stories today which relate to how people have been abused and mistreated. In one the victims were women and girls, in the other it was boys in a school. Both stories (one is reporting on a verdict, the other relates to an ongoing investigation) refer to people in positions of power exploiting that to take advantage of others.

When we look at the life of Jesus we see something very different.

In Matthew 19:13-15 there is a story of parents seeking to bring children to Jesus so that he might bless them and pray for them. His followers try and stop this (presumably thinking that Jesus had more important things to do) jesus and childrenbut Jesus intervenes and makes it clear that children are very important to him, and to God’s kingdom, and blesses them.

In a society where women were very much second-class citizens, Jesus spends time speaking with them (e.g. John 4) and defending them (e.g. John 8:1-11). They were included among his group of followers (Luke 8:1-3) and were witnesses of his resurrection (e.g.  Matthew 28:5-6).

We see Jesus healing the sick, speaking to the oppressed, giving comfort to the suffering and raising the dead.

In these, and other, situations we see Jesus seeing each person as important and valued and special. And this is hardly surprising as each one was made in the image of God. I love the story where two blind men are brought to jesus and blind manJesus, and Jesus, not presuming on what they want, asks what he can do for them (Matthew 20:29-34). What a great demonstration of the way in which Jesus treated the vulnerable with dignity and respect.

Jesus had power and authority on a scale that those in today’s news stories couldn’t imagine but he didn’t use it for his own ends, rather he laid it aside and came into this world to be a blessing to those in need. The apostle Paul spells this out in Philippians chapter 2 where he speaks about Jesus:

  • Sharing in God’s nature and being equal with God (Philippians 2:6)
  • Being prepared to leave that behind and live as a servant (Philippians 2:7)
  • To be obedient to God even when that meant him dying on a cross (Philippians 2:8)

and in Philippians 2:5, Paul calls on the Philippian disciples to have the same attitude as Jesus did.

And so the question which this raises is how do we relate to other people in general and, in particular, how do we relate to those over whom we have some form of authority?

The model of Jesus is one of love, respect, care and service. The question I need to reflect on is how I follow that example in the relationships which I am part of.

And what a difference would it make if this model was lived out in our neighbourhoods, in our schools, in our workplaces, in our families, in our churches, in our legal system, in our government, in our media and wherever people engaged with others.

 

Apr 272014
 

When David Cameron included the phrasedc and church leaders

our status as a Christian country

in his Church Times article on 16th April 2014 I wonder if he expected the debate it generated.

56 people put their names to an article in the Telegraph objecting to this characterisation and “the negative consequences for politics and society that this engenders”. They recognised the contribution made to our society by many Christians but claimed that it was wrong to single out this particular group when those of different beliefs provide equal contributions.

Representatives from some other faith groups seemed to be relaxed about what the Prime Minister had said with the Hindu Council UK saying it was “very comfortable” with it while the Muslim Council of Britain said the UK “was a largely Christian country”.

Some of the Prime Minister’s colleagues came to his defence talking about our Christian heritage and the way Christian values have contributed towards the “ethics of our society”.

The BBC came up with a “matter-of-fact” analysis looking at the arguments for and against this claim looking at numbers of those who claim to be Christian on the census vs the numbers who attend church and a range of other indicators.

The Archbishop of Canterbury joined in the debate and talked about the way in which our laws and values

have been shaped and founded on Christianity

He also argues that the influence of Christianity “has enabled us to be welcoming to other faiths” which is one of the points made in the Prime Minister’s original article.

The thing that I find strange, and deeply disturbing, is that in none of these articles – as far as I can see – is there any mention of Jesus!

In fairness to Mr Cameron his article was actually about the Church of England, not Christianity itself – it’s title was

My faith in the Church of England

but I still find it bizarre that the ensuing debate could omit to mention the person on whom the Christian faith depends.

The Prime Minister’s article speaks about the good things which Christians do (while recognising that this is shared by those of other faiths and none), the help which faith can be in times of difficulty, and that this faith can encourage people to help others. It’s as though if people behave in a particular way we can apply the label “Christian country” in the same was as we call ourselves a “democratic country” because of how we govern ourselves and a “capitalist country” because of how we we manage our economy.

And if that’s all it is I don’t think its a particularly helpful label and I agree with a post by David Criddle (written months before this current debate) where he speaks against

 imposing the idea of a ‘Christian nation’ or ‘Christian values’ on society

But what if it were a label which meant something more significant? What if we reclaimed the meaning of the word “Christian”?

Maybe surprisingly, the word only appears three times in the Bible – Acts 11:26, Acts 26:28 and 1 Peter 4:16.

In the first we find that this title was applied to the disciples (followers of Jesus) in the church in Antioch, in the second it was addressed to a follower of Jesus who was in chains for what he believed and in the third it talks about the very real expectation that Christians should be prepared to suffer for their faith.

And this is very consistent with the words and actions of Jesus as he talked about how he was going to suffer and be killed (Mark 10:33-34) and how he called on those who chose to follow him to be prepared to take up their own crosses (a sign of suffering and shame) and to follow his example (Mark 8:34).

In his book “The Crucified Christ”, Jürgen Moltmann makes the powerful statement that:the cross

Christian life is a form of practice which consists in following the crucified Christ, and it changes both man himself and the circumstances in which he lives (p.25)

and he goes on to say that:

The assimilation of Christianity to bourgeois society always means that the cross is forgotten and hope is lost. (p.58)

It strikes me that in the debate I summarised above Moltmann’s warning (in the second quote) has come true in the understanding of many people and society in general, and that if we are serious about the question of Christian living we need to seek to “follow the crucified Christ”.

What Christian distinctives would the rest of our society see if all those who have committed themselves to following Jesus took this challenge to heart? I know it would change how I see things and how I respond to different situations.

To help me reflect on this further, I plan to take one news item over each of the next five days and think about how  I should engage with it from the perspective of a deeper understanding of what it means to follow Jesus who was prepared to suffer for me, and calls me to be prepared to suffer for him.

I’ll select each item from the BBC’s UK News website  (which recently added a report on  comments from the former Archbishop about this country now being “post-Christian”!) and post some thoughts and reflection here.

 

Apr 172014
 

A readily accepted principle of law is that “ignorance is not an excuse”

(There’s an interesting discussion of this, and some of the implications, at the Heritage Foundation website outlining the basis for this principle and being ignorant is no excusesome of the issues associated with it. As the article points out, it would be ridiculous if someone could claim that they didn’t know murder was wrong and so escape punishment. Although it does recognise that when laws speak about things which are not “inherently wrong” this principle gets a little more difficult to follow.)

And there are probably “border-line” cases that we could all think of. If I deliberately went out to steal money from a bank I would do so just knowing that this was wrong (even if I didn’t know the exact legal statute which made it unlawful) whereas if I was prosecuted for speeding on a road where the speed limit signs were hidden by overgrown trees I might feel that being found guilty was a little unfair.

But, in general, most of us accept that this is a valid and reasonable principle. And it is a long-standing one.

In the Old Testament, as God outlines the ways in which his people could receive forgiveness for breaking his laws it is clear that the provision made is for those sins which are unintentional (Leviticus 4:1-35). Numbers 15:27-31 spells out the different implications for unintentional and defiant sin with the first carrying the possibility of atonement and the second resulting in them being cut off from God’s people.  But in either case there is a recognition that wrong was committed – even if unintentionally – and this needs to be dealt with. Ignorance wasn’t an excuse.

In the New Testament, we see this distinction between unintentional and intentional sin being removed, with the promise of all sins being forgiven as we confess them and seek forgiveness based on the sacrificial death of Jesus on the cross

the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin. If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:7b–9)

But there is still the requirement on us to recognise our failing and to ask for forgiveness.

But, in preparing for Easter, I was reflecting on the words Jesus spoke from the cross and it struck me that – for a brief moment – this principle was suspended in an amazing way. As Jesus is crucified, he calls out to his father asking him to forgive the soldiers who are ignorant of the crime they are committing.

Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”  (Luke 23:34a)

For the soldiers it would have been a routine task on an ordinary day. A man had been tried, had been convicted, had been condemned to death and the crosshad been handed over to them by their superiors in order for them to carry out the sentence. Something they would have done many times before and something they would do many times again. Even on this occasion they were crucifying three people together. They didn’t realise that the one in the centre was different – that the man they were crucifying was God-in-flesh, the Son of God who had taken on humanity and was walking among them.

What danger were they in, what punishment were they due as they treated God’s well-beloved Son so shamefully? From their perspective it was an unintentional sin – they really didn’t know what they were doing – but there was no thought in their mind of needing to seek God’s forgiveness and so they were exposed and vulnerable.

And in the midst of all that was going on, through the pain and anguish which Jesus was experiencing, very much aware of the awful agony he was about to endure, Jesus reaches out in love and mercy and compassion and calls on his Father to hold back from judgment and punishment and to forgive. What an incredible demonstration of the love of Jesus as normality was suspended and forgiveness was sought on behalf of those who had no awareness that anything they were doing was wrong. They were not required to carry out a sacrifice to receive forgiveness, the request of the Son to the Father was sufficient.

Jesus knew that a sacrifice was just about to be made, as he willingly gave himself for the sins of the world including the sin of these soldiers who were instrumental in his death and it is as though he is adding this specific sin to all the others which he would bear and carry.

This Easter as we reflect on all the things which Jesus accomplished, let’s rejoice in the love which he demonstrated and the love which he continues to extend to each one of us.

 

Apr 042014
 

newsLast week, Rowan Williams (former Archbishop of Canterbury) wrote an article for the Daily Telegraph commenting on climate change and the issues it causes 

He was writing as Chairman of Christian Aid and called for action to be taken to “stop subsidizing the degradation of the planet.”

The evening before the article was to be published I was watching a late night news show which included a “review of tomorrow’s papers” where this article was discussed. I was interested when the show’s host asked his two guests (fellow journalists) whether it was appropriate for the church to be commenting on this sort of issue. (Technically, he nearly asked – he was interrupted before he could complete the question!)

In this post I’m not particularly trying to answer the question as posed but rather to reflect on the fact that it was asked in the first place.

In a country which prides itself on free speech why is it appropriate for someone in the media to question the right of anyone to comment on any issue they are interested in? And in this particular case, another media organisation was publishing the article so they clearly thought it was appropriate.

And why does someone in the media think that two other journalists are in a position to adjudicate on whether it was right for Rowan Williams to be commenting? And it seemed to be less about him as an individual but as a representative of the church.

And it’s not just this occasion – we frequently hear people in the media questioning the right of “the church” to speak out on particular issues.

In an earlier post I wrote about the importance of the church speaking out regarding issues in our world. It is part of our responsibility in seeking to bring to fruition the prayer of Jesus about God’s kingdom coming to earth as it already is in heaven. So I believe it is right and proper for the church to engage in these sorts of questions, just as it is important for us to be properly informed before we do so.

But this has got me thinking about the role and impact of the media. Having an independent media with the mandate of investigating, reporting and commenting on what is going on is of fundamental importance in a free society and something which is to be cherished and defended.

But when, and if, that media appoints itself as judge and jury on what other people and organisations are able to say then, I believe, there is real cause for concern.