Monday, 27 December 2010

Christianity and Politics (part two)

A few weeks ago I wrote on here about the interaction between Christianity and political power. My personal view is that all faith systems should be treated equally by the state, so I have not been joining in with the seasonal complaints about how our country has lost its Christian heritage and we can't celebrate Christmas properly any more.

Well I've just read an article which so neatly illustrates the opposite view to my own that I feel I have to write something about it. Someone on a messageboard that I read posted this article about the repeal in the USA of the 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' (or DADT) rule which currently allows homosexual people to join the armed forces as long as their sexual orientation remains secret. When the repeal of DADT is signed into law, openly homosexual people will be able to apply to the USA military. At the moment, they are not able to do so and apparently over 13,000 people have been dismissed from the armed forces in the USA after their sexual orientation became known.

If you read my previous post on Christianity and politics then you can probably guess where I stand on 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell'. I don't think the state should deny people certain opportunities or services because of their age, gender, faith, sexual orientation, etc. So I was pretty stunned when I read that article I just linked to. The author's view is that the DADT policy itself, which allowed gay people into the military as long as their sexuality remained secret, was 'a slippery slope down the slide of societal collapse' and 'a slick wink and a nod to homosexuality'. According to the writer, the new policy means that 'our once noble military is being used to conduct a social experiment in debauchery, ostensibly to prove the point that moral turpitude need not necessarily reduce the effectiveness of our fighting force'.

I know very little about how you sign up with the USA military but maybe someone can tell me whether there is a wide-ranging test of morality that you have to pass as part of the entrance procedures. Are you asked about how generous you are, how well you control your temper or about your faithfulness to your (opposite sex) partner (to whom you were married before you slept together)? Or is sexual orientation the only issue of morality (if it is an issue of morality – I won't go there in this post!) that ought to be considered? I can just possibly see the argument that allowing openly gay people into the military could lower morale and cause some people to leave or not sign up in the first place (the latter point is made in the article). But this argument could have been used – and probably was used – by those who argued against equal rights for black people, or for women, or for any other marginalised section of society. Too bad if some white people stopped using buses because they might have to sit next to a black person! Too bad if some straight people leave the armed forces because they might end up serving with someone who is gay! Government shouldn't pander to our prejudices, it should promote and enshrine in law equal rights and opportunities for all.

It's particularly odd to see the Founding Fathers of the USA invoked in an argument for faith-based restriction of people's rights, considering that the Declaration of Independence says this:

'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.'

I'm struggling to see how this can be squared with denying certain people the right to join the armed forces because of things those people do in the privacy of their own homes. And that leads on to my second issue with the article and the view it espouses: what gives the author, or me, or anyone else, the right to have our particular view of morality imposed on others by the law of the land? Who says my view is correct? And even if it is correct, why should I get to rob others of their right to live as they see fit? Focusing in on Christianity, what did Jesus say about enforcing your views on other people? He gave plenty of teaching about what his followers should be like but I can't find where he told his followers to compel non-Christians to also obey those ways. Indeed, the New Testament seems to show Jesus' followers respecting and obeying authority, apart from where it is in direct contradiction to the ways of Jesus.

Friday, 24 December 2010

'In community' or 'Why I want to be part of Malcolm Reynolds' crew'

I was watching an episode of the TV show Firefly the other day. Firefly only lasted one series due to low ratings, which is a bit surprising seeing as it was created by Joss Whedon, of 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' fame. Anyway, it's set a few hundred years in the future in a solar system that humans have colonised, with central planets run by a USA-Chinese alliance and several outer, frontier worlds that look quite a lot like the American Wild West. The show follows the nine-strong crew of the ship Serenity (a Firefly class spacecraft, hence the show's name) as they try to make a living for themselves, all the while avoiding the Alliance as best they can. The ship's captain, Malcolm Reynolds, fought on the losing side of the Unification War in which the Alliance gained control over most of the star system. Reynolds is an incredibly inspirational leader. He fiercely guards the togetherness of the crew, creating a family of disparate characters who (most of the time) protect and fight for each other. He makes each crew member feel they belong.

This got me thinking about how I'd love to be on Reynolds' ship, even with all the hardships of being on the run and living in such a confined space. I guess within all of us there is a longing for significance, for there to be some people who really love and care for us. We want to matter. More than that, I think we need to matter. It's part of our nature as human beings. And even though my faith in Jesus Christ tells me that I matter so much to the creator of the universe, I still need earthly community. One metaphor used in the New Testament to describe Jesus' followers is that of being God's temple. 1 Corinthians 3:16 says this:

Don’t you realize that all of you together are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God lives in you?

In some real, significant way, God dwells in us. Now it's a wonderful comfort to know that God's Spirit has made his home in me. But that verse in 1 Corinthians (and so many other passages in the Bible) talk about believers being the body, temple, family and bride of Christ in a collective way. It's not that each of us individually is part of God's body, the temple of God and so on. Together, we are the body of Christ, his temple, his family and his bride. I think that's an important difference. We need community with each other and we've been made that way. Indeed, it's simply an echo of the community of God, the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Scholars and writers have tried to describe the essence of the Christian God in all sorts of ways but I think the one I like best is 'perichoresis', which captures the mutual indwelling and mingling within the Godhead. The 'perichoresis' idea also makes room for us to join the Divine community, something which John 17: 20-21 gives a sense of:

I am praying not only for these disciples but also for all who will ever believe in me through their message. I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one – as you are in me, Father, and I am in you. And may they be in us so that the world will believe you sent me.'

Jesus prays that we would all be one, just as he and the Father are one. And he prays that we will be 'in us', united with God in perfect community. Wow.

It's very nearly Christmas and I'm looking forward to spending time with friends and family over the next week or so. May you know real, genuine community at this time, both with your loved ones and with God himself.

Saturday, 18 December 2010

Being a disciple of Jesus Christ

I've been thinking about what it means to be a disciple of Jesus and how we can be better disciples. Firstly, I understand Christian discipleship to mean basically being a committed follower of Jesus. The Greek word for disciple is 'mathete' which, I'm told, was a well-known word meaning apprentice or student. So a disciple of Jesus is simply someone who wants to learn from Jesus and emulate him, just as a modern-day apprentice car mechanic or architect aims to learn from and emulate the person apprenticing them. For Jesus' physical followers 2,000 years ago being Jesus' disciple meant living with him, following him around and doing what he said to do. But what about for us now? How do we 'follow' Jesus?

Well, there's two ways that pretty clearly don't work, I think. Dallas Willard wrote in 'The Divine Conspiracy' about how it's a mistake to put signing up to a set of beliefs or trying to behave in a particular way as our highest goal. For Willard, these two goals 'either crush the human mind and soul and separate people from Jesus, or they produce hide-bound legalists and theological experts with lips close to God and hearts far away from him.'

Our highest goal is instead to learn from Jesus so that we live life as he did while he was on earth. On the positive side, this means growing in love for God so that we naturally want to do things his way. On the negative, it means overcoming our ungodly habits and patterns of thinking so that we are actually able to do what we want to. Without the second part, we might well end up saying 'the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak' rather often!

The New Testament describes being a disciple of Jesus in several different ways. Jesus himself talked about remaining in him, like the branches of a grapevine, so we will produce much fruit (John 15:4-5). Paul wrote to the church in Ephesus, praying that Christ would empower them with inner strength and make his home in their hearts so that their roots would grow down into God's love and keep them strong (Eph 3:16-17). And Peter said this: 'By his divine power, God has given us everything we need for living a godly life. We have received all of this by coming to know him, the one who called us to himself by means of his marvellous glory and excellence.' (2 Pet 1:3)

But how do we do this? If I asked you to tell me how I should go about becoming perfect like Jesus, what would you say? I read recently that when Christian leaders get interested in discipleship 'they seem to almost universally make the same mistake. They treat discipleship training the same way many overweight people approach a diet – one new wonder diet idea after another.' A similar, crash course approach to discipleship must lead into a long-term pattern of living otherwise it just won't produce lasting changes in our life.

Several Christian authors have written about particular things that we can do (or avoid doing) in order to help us (a) grow in love for God, and (b) conquer our unholy patterns of behaviour and thought. What's struck me recently though is how the support of godly friends is simply vital to making discipleship work. We just cannot do it on our own. We might develop a pattern of life that works for a while; perhaps we get into the habit of reading the Bible several times a week or we manage to train ourselves to think well of people when they hurt us. But life gets in the way. Our Bible reading routine is disrupted by a busy period at work or a holiday, or someone does something so unkind to us that we cannot ascribe honest motives to them. Don't you find it so hard to get back into a routine once it's been thrown out of joint? I certainly do! So we need people around us who'll ask how we're getting on and will lovingly remind us of our intentions to be a good follower of Jesus. And I think we need to be doing the same in return, in a small community of people who have all committed to learning from Jesus. This won't always be comfortable but it should lead us to more closely emulating our great Teacher so that we 'will produce much fruit'.

On that note, I'll end with another thing I read a few days ago, from 'Finding Organic Church' by Frank Viola. Building on 1 Peter 2:5, he described the building of an authentic church community as being like 'living stones that are being welded together to form a dwelling place for the Lord. In order for those stones to be built together, they require a great deal of cutting, chiseling, sanding, and refining.' Trying to live in genuine, life-changing community will cause us pain. But it should also bring transformation to our being, so that we more closely imitate Jesus and bring his glory, his kingdom into the world.

Friday, 10 December 2010


I’ve heard hundreds of church sermons, but I’ve been thinking recently about how much difference those sermons have made to my life. I’ve heard many interesting, inspiring, thought provoking messages in church services over the years that I’ve been a Christian but with what end result? If you’re a church-goer, think back to the last sermon you heard and ask yourself a couple of questions: ‘What do I remember from that sermon?’ and ‘How has my life changed as a result?’

I really must say right away that I totally appreciate the amount of time and energy that church leaders and others put into preparing and giving their messages. I am also privileged to be part of a church which has many members who are gifted public speakers, well able to present a clear and relevant message. But still… How much difference have those messages really made to my life? I’ve started taking notes in church meetings in an effort to make the message stick a bit more but it’s still a real struggle. Far too often, a talk at church goes in one ear and out of the other without really having much of an impact on the lump of brain matter in between.

Is it just me? Maybe it is, but I think not. If I’ve missed a Sunday church meeting then I’ll often ask a friend what happened at the meeting. Quite often they’ll say it was good and so-and-so gave a great talk. ‘Oh fab, what did they speak about?’ I’ll ask. ‘Hmm, let me think… yeah it was really good, but what did they talk about… Oh, I can’t remember.’ So what’s going on? Perhaps we don’t consciously remember what most talks were about but they still encourage and nurture us. Is that good enough, all we should expect? As I write this, I’m trying to think back over my years as a follower of Jesus to work out what events have had the most positive impact on me. It’s not sermons that come to mind, it’s friendships and shared experiences, and the example of spiritually mature friends who have inspired me to believe that I can follow in their footsteps.

I think the central place that the sermon has in our church meetings might be another thing that has wormed its way into our collective psyche (like wanting formal political influence has done for many parts of the modern church – see my last blog post) but was completely alien to the early church. Where does this idea that our church services ought to have a lengthy talk from a trained / qualified person come from? I’m very much a novice when it comes to early church history but when did the first people start becoming known for giving sermons? Third or fourth century AD? And looking at the New Testament, the church meetings written about in there all seem to stress learning from, encouraging, teaching and ministering to each other, not one or two specially trained people taking the lead. For sure, some have a gift of teaching but who’s to say the best way of using this gift is through a thirty minute sermon?

Saturday, 4 December 2010

Christianity and Politics

‘Tis the season to be jolly. Also, ‘tis the season to complain about the loss of Christian values and traditions in the UK. I’m thinking in particular about some local councils having ‘winter lights’ rather than ‘Christmas lights’, and how you often hear about the ‘festive season’ instead of the ‘Christmas season’. This is a Christian country, people say, so we should be free to celebrate Christmas in public without worrying about offending minority faith, ethnic or nation groups.

This got me thinking about the wider issue of how Christianity is intertwined with the social fabric and indeed the governmental structures of the UK. We still have an established church, with several of its bishops sitting in the House of Lords. This means that Christianity (or rather, one part of Christianity) has a presence right at the heart of our law-making system. Isn’t this a marvellous thing, though; what am I moaning about? Well, it feels to me like a special privilege for (one part of) Christianity and I don’t think Christians should rejoice in special privileges. I think it’s really important that the state treats all faiths equally as much as it possibly can, without any particular faith being specially favoured or squashed. There are limits to this – for example around things like equal rights whatever your age, gender, sexual orientation etc. – but I think the government should be religion-blind unless there’s a powerful counter-argument.

Let’s go all the way back to when the Roman Emperor Constantine made Christianity legal and gave the Christians power and resources. It often seems people think this was a great moment in the history of Christianity. Suddenly the Christians could meet together freely and even start to influence the policies of Rome. But at what cost? The Christian faith went from a radical, releasing, dangerous way of life to (for many people) an avenue for the exercise of political power, or simply an automatic, taken-for-granted part of your identity as a Roman citizen. Grand, ornate church buildings sprung up everywhere, the church had much greater resources than before but maybe the life-changing energy started to go. Here’s a short introduction to the view that political power wasn’t such a wonderful thing for the early Christian church:

I love the illustration in that talk about how hard it is for us to see our own assumptions, like fish being blissfully ignorant of what the water they are swimming in is like. The culture we live in can have such a powerful impact on us and we must watch out for how it affects us. What if we’ve got the whole power thing all wrong? What if Christians in political power are not supposed to pass laws reflecting Christian values and limiting people’s sinning? What if Christians are not supposed to seek political power at all?