thoughts on faith, justice, politics and philosophy

Month: May 2015

Co-mission, Omission and Community

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On Thursday night I was at a film and discussion event in Sheffield on the subject of human trafficking. I found myself profoundly shocked by some of the things discussed and shown there. It got me thinking about how we’re shocked – more often than not – not by that which we do not know that we discover, but by that which we do know that we like to pretend we do not. When we are confronted with it, almost against our will, we discover the truth really hurts.

We live in a world built on willful ignorance. Thursday night and Friday morning demonstrated this in its most democratic form. There are some who believe Conservative policy is genuinely the best thing for the country; yet there are many more who believe that Conservative policy is the best thing for their wallet. People do not want to hear about the food banks, about the incoming £12bn of welfare cuts, of the effects of the bedroom tax on real lives, and so on. People don’t want to see their factory farmed food killed, cut, diced, processed and packaged. People don’t want to know about the stories of slaves killed in the process of making garments for sale at less than £10 in our supermarkets.

We don’t want to know because we’re comfortable, and we don’t want to see our comfort disturbed. We don’t want to face what we know to be true. Yet the very fact we know it to be true betrays the selfish evil that underlies our conscious choices to take part in these very systems, processes, interactions and relationships.

Those of us that claim to be “Christians” or “follow Jesus” or whatever we want to call it have been called into a way of life that contradicts these harsh, disturbing realities. We have chosen to follow the path of fairness, social justice, equality, freedom from slavery, freedom from loneliness, freedom from poverty. There is little doubt when we look at the teachings of Jesus that he calls us into a world where we can be a part of this change.

So it is worse still for us then that we actively take part in the lifestyle of the world as it is. We do this in the name of being “culturally relevant” (at worst) or “being like those we’re trying to reach” (at best). But neither is reason for compromise. We are simply perpetuating our status as a guilty party in a system which is utterly, utterly broken.

The lifestyle that Jesus calls us into helps us to counter this reality. Granted, we are unlikely to ever be truly free from this charge. But if we follow Jesus’ teaching, if we lay down our selfish lives for the selfless Way, if we live simply, live well and love well in community and to communities, then we achieve three things: firstly we negate vast swathes of our culpability,  secondly we make some difference to the suffering and injustice of the world, and finally we find in our simplified, more worry-free lives that we have the capacity through community to care.

It is the last of these that is crucial to our new Way. Without the support of community we burn out. Without the capacity to care we simply bury the bad news and carry on as normal, willfully ignorant of the injustices of the world. And with this capacity we can find it in ourselves to resist the temptations of the world.

We find ourselves here because we have boxed our faith into Sunday mornings and into salvation. Jesus talks, time and time again (as do I, you may have noticed) about the Kingdom of Heaven. The way things are meant to be, right here, right now, if we choose to take part in that way of life. If we choose to allow our faith to extend to every area of our life; then we will find it starts to look completely different. Being “culturally relevant” will not even be possible, never mind an option.

Because it isn’t about being culturally relevant, is it? And when we enter in to dialogue with people, we find it’s actually okay to say “I don’t want to be controlled by my desire to buy clothes”, “I’d rather not fund international wars”, “Prostitution is damaging because it encourages the sexual exploitation of vulnerable people”. People are, as I have said before, inclined towards the message of Jesus. They often just don’t realise it’s Jesus who is the messenger.

Classical theology talks of “Sins of comission and omission”. Comission being the committing of a sin – such as murder, adultery, and so on. These are the sins we avoid regularly and avoid well; though we often allow the more subtle negative actions we take to slip by un-noticed.

“sins of omission” are those which are done not by doing, but by not doing. We do not feed the poor. We do not care for the widow. We do not help the needy or the oppressed. We do not consider where our clothes or our coffee have come from. We do not think about those who will suffer from the cuts when we vote to increase our savings, (that last one is probably a mixture of both co- and o-) and so forth. More than all of these, omission covers the failure to campaign, the failure to speak up, the failure to stand up and be counted against the damaging, negative ways of this world.

So in practicing the way of Jesus, we must ensure we not only remove ourselves as much as we can from the damaging, negative, anti-Kingdom practices we find the world calls us into on a daily basis. We must also stand up and make the voice of the oppressed heard. We must fight for them and with them for change. And we can do this because of the support of community.

What Jesus does, time and time again, is provide an alternative to many of the lies of our consumerist, selfish world. I hope in the coming posts to explore some of these lies/promises made to us and what we are led towards as an alternative.

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God Isn’t Here

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Following on from yesterday’s article about finding a way back to wanting to follow Jesus, I have been thinking this morning about the biggest stumbling block that I have in my walk at the moment: community. For reasons I won’t go into here, the ‘community house’ in which I live is disbanding at the end of this month, and I am going to live with friends a couple of streets away and I haven’t been back to the city centre mega-church I used to attend for over a year now. This puts the activities of meeting co-consiprators and doing some conspiring at an all-time low.

That said, I wouldn’t change my journey or where it is heading in the immediate future. I have immensely enjoyed my time in my current house, but it is rightly the time for things to move on from here. I do not regret moving from a city centre faith community to a suburban one and then finally to a locally-minded one; even if it has meant having to get used to the quirks and eccentricities of the Anglican church.

Enough about my immediate journey. What I wanted to talk about this morning was about how the churches that I have been a part of (a Welsh Baptist, independent Charismatic, Assemblies of God Pentecostal, and finally CofE) have all made it enormously difficult to feel as though viewing Jesus as my role model for now can be the central pillar of my faith.

The first question is, is that right?

I mean, is it right to have that as the central pillar of my faith? Well, people come to faith for all kinds of reasons in all kinds of ways. You’ve only got to read the stories of Jesus to see this; never mind the myriad of reasons people give in modern times, ranging from the overtly miraculous to the coincidental and finally the absurdly rational. My reasons are two-fold.

Firstly, I was born with it. I was taught Jesus was God and that God loved me. So it always made sense to listen to what Jesus had to say. Then when I hit around 21-22, I realised that I had been fed this by my upbringing and set about intellectually burning down every last pillar of Christianity that I could find in my life. I’ve been left with feelings of unease, discomfort and loneliness. It is only recently that I have found a way back to wanting to believe, and that’s what I talked about yesterday. This has been my conversion mechanic.

So on emotional grounds, yes, it is right. On theological grounds? That depends who you ask. The more “orthodox” Christians would argue that what I am presenting is essentially what they might call a “social justice gospel”, which is some kind of distortion of the “real” gospel.

This is (look away now if you don’t like it when I get blunt) total bollocks. The real gospel, the “good news” that comes straight from the mouth of Jesus himself is time and time and time again concerned with the poor, the widowed, the orphaned, the sick, the lonely, the prisoner, the rich man too distracted by worldly possessions. Jesus doesn’t walk around saying “pray the prayer and believe I died for you and was resurrected and you’ll get to live forever, isn’t that good news!”. No, instead, Jesus has a focus on the here and now and the way the world is and how it can be so. much. better.

Of course, you counter, it would be absurd for Jesus to say that because they haven’t happened yet. And you would be right – except that he actively tells people they will be with him in paradise, for nothing more than recognising that it all hinges on mercy. The man acknowledges that he is not destined for eternal bliss, and upon pleading with Jesus for mercy, Jesus assures him that mercy is his. So the good news becomes two-fold: There is hope for those who lack and There is mercy for those who have done wrong.

Yes, Jesus’ death on the cross is important. It allows him to become the god of empathy and allows death to be symbolically “defeated” allowing us a future hope that one day all suffering will be rendered powerless. But for me it is not the reason for my faith and I will no longer be ashamed of that! The reason for my faith is that Jesus promises a better way of life here and now and that this is somehow linked with the not yet which I do not fully understand. And I’m fine with that. I’m sure many would disagree and take me to task on this. And you’re welcome to. But moving on…

Church and the Kingdom

I can see more clearly than ever now that the problem lies in the way that church communities are built: invariably around the “Saving power of the Cross” or some other similarly crux-centric salvation mechanic that effectively sidelines the life of Jesus. The Anglicans skip over it in their creed, the Baptists tell you to pray the prayer, and the Charismatics obsess about bringing the “not yet” spiritual wackiness into the “now” and perpetually celebrate their boyfriend status with Jesus in their singing.

I don’t find any of this satisfying. That’s not to say that in each of these churches there hasn’t been a single thing I agree with. Of course there has. But when you look at the dominant narrative it often becomes about me as an individual and my “personal relationship” with God. I find this self-absorbing and unhelpful. I want to meet with people who want to change the world. I want to scheme and dream. I want to follow in Jesus’ footsteps and be a part of the coming of the Way of God on earth today. now. here.

I want to sing songs of revolution. I want to cry out to God for social change – not of opinion on marriage or abortion but social change that allows the poor to have a chance in life, that gives the widowed and the orphaned support. I want to share in communion meals – involving good food and good drink – with people from all kinds of walks of life, not have to stare helplessly at a giant statue of Jesus while I am fed a wafer by a priest, nor to stare at my feet while I consume the shot of Ribena shared out among the congregation.

Why do I want those things? Because I earnestly believe that if we come together as community intent on following Jesus we will quickly find ourselves needing to live more simply (both inside and externally), love more wholeheartedly and care more compassionately. And when we do these things we run the risk of losing our lives; only to find them in God. We won’t need to go back every week to the addictive euphoria of worship gatherings, we won’t need to satisfy our guilt with sweet, strong port. We’ll be too busy getting a sense of meaningful change in the world. Just like the kind Jesus left behind as he walked Palestine two millennia ago. And that really will be sharing the good news.

If we put social justice and compassion here and now at the centre of our faith it doesn’t have to replace the cross. The cross is the signature at the bottom of the contract:

“There is a better way. There is a new world. There is an age to come. All may know it. It is here now. It begins. Join me.”




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God is Nowhere

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So, there’s been quite a long silence. It’s because I’ve had nothing to say. I‘ve not felt as though I’ve been on any kind of journey with any kind of god. I have recognised that I want to be on some kind of journey with some kind of god (that’s a whole separate topic to deliver into one day).

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about trying to build up a narrative that makes sense – but not just making it up to be how i want; nor simply accepting the way that people talk about their god as though they know their god inside out.

John, one of the biographer’s of Jesus’ life, talks about Jesus’ arrival on earth as a light among the darkness. It makes sense to me that any god worth their salt would be something like that. So the first question is, is there darkness?

The answer is a pretty obvious and resounding ‘yes’, isn’t it? It tells that possibly the number one reason that people claim they cannot believe in Yahweh – the God of Christianity – is because they cannot fathom why Yahweh would allow so much suffering in the world.

People die from horrible cancers. People get raped by soldiers committing genocides. People are acutely lonely. There is a lot of suffering, or “darkness” in the world.

We don’t like the darkness when it happens to us, and we don’t like it when it happens to our family. We also find ourselves feeling empathetic when we come across others who suffer similar plights to ourselves – just look at AA meetings or cancer support charities.

So it stands to reason that we should try to do something to fight the darkness. We cannot eradicate suffering altogether, but we can do our bit. We can stand up for the poor, the oppressed, the widowed, the orphaned, the raped, the families of the murdered.

Yet in our own individual strength we are feeble. It is community which makes us strong. We can be kind to those around us and we can do small acts of kindness. But to fight trafficking, to counter racism, to stop gang violence, to address inequality – that requires communities of people united against these things.

Some would say that every community needs inspirational leaders. People we look to to inspire us towards our goal.

According to John, Jesus is that person. Jesus arrives on the earth and proclaims good news to the poor. Jesus heals the sick, addresses injustice, and declares that there is a newer, better way of doing life. Jesus calls this, “the Kingdom of Heaven” – as opposed to the Kingdom of Caesar. Perhaps today we might call this “the way of God” – early followers called it “the way”, in fact.

Having a leader is dangerous. Leaders are fallible. Jesus counters this on two fronts: he behaves impeccably, irreproachably. And secondly, he makes the Way of God the ideal to follow, rather than himself as the object of perfection. The goal is not to be Jesus. the goal is to have the same goal as Jesus. So in a sense it becomes something to share in as a community.

Ultimately, Jesus claims to be God himself. Jesus claims to be the Messiah – a figure the ancient Jews believed would save them from oppression. In being God and in being separated from God through torture and death and abandonment (Jesus cries out at his death – “my God, why have you forsaken me?”), Jesus becomes a god who is not sympathetic to our plight but instead empathetic. Jesus knows what it means to feel pain.

Finally Jesus defeats death. I have no idea how, and it bugs me regularly. But if I choose to accept that it is true – and I am willing to take that chance, on balance, owing to the integrity and consistency of his teachings and the words written about him – if it is true, then Yahweh offers some kind of ultimate, over-arching solution to suffering.

The question becomes ‘why can’t everything be solved now?’ And that’s a question to which no-one has an answer. And I’m not sure they ever will. But I am willing to be a part of a community of people who have a way to answer the two burning questions that I recycle time and again: “is there a God” and “how can we stop all the suffering”. I’ve never found a better answer than this: Jesus.

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