Sunday, 19 October 2014

Raining burning sulphur and inclusive marriage

I have had two discussions about inclusive marriage on Facebook recently. 

One was a very balanced debate with a former vicar who clearly read the bible very differently from me. Despite our differences it was a respectful exchange of views. The other was less pleasant. One contributor simply said that I was wrong and that they would pray for my enlightenment – possibly the ultimate evangelical put down!

But what was interesting was that on both occasions reference was made to Sodom and Gomorrah as an example of the ‘sin’ of homosexuality. I have recently re-read Genesis 19 in some detail. To be honest it was a bit of a surprise.

We all know the plot. Two angels visit Sodom and are welcomed by Lot. A gang gathers at the house demanding that the angels are brought out – ‘so that we can have sex with them..’ This is shocking behaviour, only matched by Lot’s offer to the gang that they take his virgin daughters instead. We are all familiar with the destruction of the cities as they face God’s judgement. The argument seems to be that the actions of the men of Sodom are the same as those who are gay in the 21st Century; therefore they should not be allowed to marry.

Now there are a few obvious flaws with this. It places more emphasis on the same sex issue more obvious crime of ‘gang rape’. The intended victims were not, of course, human men at all. But let’s leave all that aside for a minute and look at the story in detail.

The first thing to note is that the angels were there to destroy the cities in any event. They tell Lot in verse 13 that they have been sent to destroy them. So they were going to get the burning sulphur treatment anyway. In fact if you go back and read chapter 18 you see that Abraham is told about the grievous sin of Sodom and Gomorrah.

So there must another reason beyond the actions of the mob. I suppose the obvious response is that this was just one episode and if this is how they lived, then they deserved all they got. But there is nothing in the story to suggest that this was the main problem.

So what was the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah? According to the prophet Ezekiel it was something quite different. In Chapter 16 of that book we read – ‘Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.’

That moves the discussion in a completely different direction. So the real sin was not caring for the poor. There is far far more in the bible about that, than there is about same sex relationships.

I have written before about the need to take care with factually literal reading of the bible.

We have to be even more careful about grafting our ideas onto stories written in a different age. This is a story of shocking violence. I think it highly unlikely that hot sulphur really came down from the sky to destroy everyone in these cities. There is a broad message about God’s protection of those who are faithful to him. And at his anger at those who ignore the cries of the poor and weak. 

On a closer reading this is a million miles away from any current debate about the nature of marriage. It is one of those difficult Old Testament stories that might contain some broad message. But to extract an argument that somebody in a committed gay relationship is somehow guilty of the sin of these two cities is both inappropriate and a bit embarrassing.

Sunday, 28 September 2014

ISIS to bomb or not to bomb

So Parliament has voted in support of limited military action against ISIS in Iraq. And it has done so with a thumping majority and general public support. Only 43 MPs opposed the proposal. So it is fair to say that there are few dissenting voices. This is surprising because it appears to be extremely dangerous and poorly considered.

There is no doubt that ISIS is bad. They are a violent, brutal and oppressive group who are intent on removing any opposition without mercy or humanity. It sickens us when we see thousands or ordinary people fleeing for their lives. We reel with horror at the thought of their terrifying videos of the execution of western hostages. Of course ISIS is not only brutal regime that cuts heads off. Saudi Arabia beheaded 19 people earlier this year for offences including sorcery and including one ‘criminal’ with mental health issues –

These killings get less exposure because the ones they kill are not so close to us. This doesn’t in any way justify ISIS, but there is no great clamour to bomb Saudi Arabia because are our friends.

Buy my main concern is that there is no clarity at all about who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. It changes by the day. Not long ago we supported anyone who opposed the Assad regime in Syria, which included ISIS. Now we are bombing the same group. The whole dilemma was brilliantly summed up in a recent letter to the Daily Mail –

There seems to be such a desperate need to do something, to bomb someone that we just have to wade in regardless.

We cannot forget that the West has some responsibility for this whole mess. We invaded Iraq in 2003, in the face of huge opposition, to eradicate weapons of mass destruction which did not exist. However brutal Saddam Hussein was, the outcome of our intervention has been nothing short of a disaster. In fact this seems to have been a feature of western interventions in a region so rich in those resources that we need to maintain our lifestyles.

Many people support this military action because ISIS persecutes Christians. And we should be shocked by the behaviour of any group that kills and oppresses others purely because of their beliefs. There are in fact many groups who are in danger because of this violent group –

Persecution of anyone because of their beliefs is wrong. It is no more wrong just because it is directed at members of our particular group. Would there be the same public support if the horror of ISIS was limited to the Yazidis?

The Christian way should always be one of peace and reconciliation. I cannot think of any example where Jesus advocated military action. I would not go as far as to say that war is never an option. But on this occasion it seems that we are enthusiastically supporting it because ‘something’ has to be done. But the outcome is likely to be massive aggravation, radicalisation of many young Muslims and a never ending spiral of violence in a volatile region.

So for all of these reasons I am well and truly behind the small minority in parliament who voted no.


Saturday, 20 September 2014

Pride - a movie not to be missed!

It is fair to say that the 1980s were not easy years for anybody concerned with social justice. This was the decade of riots in Brixton and Liverpool and of the Labour Party being torn apart. It was also the decade of the miners’ strike of 1984 – 1985 as hard pressed communities fought against Margaret Thatcher’s pit closures. For anyone interested in the background of that strike there was an excellent summary in the New Statesman Magazine earlier this year –

Those communities were eventually worn down, most deep mines were closed and almost 150,000 jobs were lost.

This is the back cloth for Pride, a film written by Stephen Beresford and directed by Matthew Warchus. It is the true story of an unlikely alliance between a group of Lesbian and Gay activists and a small mining village in the welsh valleys. The L and G group led by Mark Ashton see a synergy between the oppression experienced by them on a daily basis and the way that the striking miners were treated by the establishment. They decide to help and go on to establish Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM) and adopt the small mining village of Dulais. The group eventually became one of the biggest contributors to the miners’ cause. It was not an easy alliance. A small mining village in the 1980s was certainly not ready to welcome the LGSM. One local bigot contributes to a press story about ‘pits and perverts’. The phrase is brilliantly stolen by the group as they put on the Pits and Perverts Benefit Concert headlined by Bronski Beat, a real event from December 1984.

The drama and the humour of the film develop as two very different communities begin to work together for a common cause. The script is sharp and witty, particularly when the middle aged welsh women grill the LG group about their lifestyles –

‘Is it true that lesbians are….you know…all vegetarians?’

And to two gay men –

‘If you live together as husband and wife which one…..does the shopping?’

There are many sub plots within the groups as they get to know and accept each other. It is a wonderful film and one which should be seen by anyone who wants to understand how oppressed people feel and live; and laugh and sing! There are great performances throughout but particularly from Ben Schnetzer as Mark, Faye Marsay as Steph and also from Bill Night and the ever brilliant Imelda Staunton. 

In one of my earlier blogs I talked of the need to move away from talking of equal rights as an issue. I said that we needed to see the real people behind the discussion. 

How timely therefore that this film comes along and demonstrates the humanity of a group who were marginalised as 'perverts' but showed a humanity way beyond their peers.

Alongside the humour and the great 80s music is the tragic story of Mark Ashton. He is the young gay communist who inspires and leads the group and who sadly died in 1987 from AIDS aged just 26. He is an unsung hero of his age who merits more attention than he has been given. On his death Jimmy Summerville of Bronski Beat and the Communards penned a moving tribute – For a Friend –

If you see no other film this autumn please go and see Pride. It is a great night’s entertainment and will change many people’s ideas of the LGBT community. For many it will also shed a new light on the miners’ struggle in the 80s.

Saturday, 6 September 2014

Dear Mr Newmark - I cannot knit but I have a voice!

Brooks Newmark is certainly not the first politician to come out with a comment which is so alarmingly of touch with reality, that it belongs in science fiction. He won’t be the last. But his recent comments about the role of charities must justify some award, such as honorary citizenship of Cloud Cuckoo Land.

Brooks who? He is the recently appointed Minister for Civil Society. He has been in the news this week for saying that charities should keep out of the realm of politics. In one sentence he has managed to insult the entire voluntary sector by saying that charities should be ‘sticking to their knitting’. The comment come as politicians discuss the Lobbying Act which could restrict the ability of charities to lobby the government.

It is easy to dismiss this as the harmless rant of a patronising idiot. But he has a senior political position and what he says is noticed.

He clearly has no idea at all of what is done by charities and voluntary workers. I am involved in two charities. The one in which I play an active role is the North West Legal Support Trust (NWLST). This Trust raises funds and makes grants to organisations which provide free legal advice to those in need. The fact that this trust exists at all is a political issue. Politicians have taken it upon themselves to virtually wipe out Legal Aid in the UK. At a time when more and more people are needing advice for debt, family breakdown and benefits, they have had the gateway to advice shut firmly in their faces. The government pushed through the cuts in the face of a huge campaign. The story of that struggle can be found in Patrick Torsney’s book Saving Justice –

That was, and still is, a political struggle. Ensuring that the citizens of our country have access to our country’s justice system regardless of wealth is ultimately a matter of politics. Anyone who cares about justice for all has to fight attempts to remove people's rights. But in the meantime, those in need cannot be turned away and so it falls to charities to try and fill the gap. Someone needs to tell Mr. Newmark that these are serious, cutting edge issues.

For me this is also a Christian imperative. Jesus said that as we feed the hungry, welcome outsiders, visit the sick, clothe the naked we are feeding, welcoming, visiting and clothing him. For me, this includes campaigning on behalf of those who have nothing. That means wading into political arguments. It certainly does not involve knitting.

The same goes for food banks. I have written on this before –

In the UK, in 2014 people should not have to rely on charitable hand outs to get a meal on their table. This again is a political issue. The need has come about as a result of the actions of ministers. The need can be resolved by politicians. Those who work tirelessly to meet the ever growing need are the ones who have earned the right to be heard. It is an affront almost beyond words to say that they should stay at home and do the knitting.

In one sense he should be right. Volunteer workers should not have to involve themselves. It should be the role of the state to look after those in greatest need. But until this happens the burden will fall on charities, churches and voluntary groups.

David Cameron has talked about a Big Society in which we all care for those in need –

But he cannot say this and at the same time permit ministers to dismiss the concerns of those charities who are trying to do just that, when nobody else will.

Mr Newman may think that he can silence people by legislation, removing funds and insults. But none of that will take away the need. And while that need exists we will not go away as easily as he hopes!

End of serious rant.

Saturday, 30 August 2014

Discovering a love for the bible - for the first time!

I mentioned in my last blog that the work of Brian D McLaren had helped me through difficulties with The Bible. So let’s elaborate on that a bit.

Over the last five years or so the bible has come alive for me. I have discovered a depth, richness and wisdom that were never there before. Over a period of time the bible firstly became a problem, then irrelevant and eventually died. And it almost took my faith with it.

My Christian story is like many others. From my teens I was in a strict brethren assembly for nearly 15 years. This was a great environment for learning about what was in the bible. But it was the last place on earth to question its content. The bible was inerrant in every way. To question whether there was a real Adam and Eve, Noah or 900 year old Methuselah was unthinkable. The answer to any question was ‘the bible says’. The question that followed any statement was – ‘do have a chapter and verse for that bro?’

Even as I moved into the more ‘progressive’ thinking of events like Spring Harvest and New Wine there was still that underlying mind set. The bible had to be factually literal. If it wasn’t then the whole basis of our faith collapsed and the whole basis of our social acceptance disappeared.

The questions that were always there became more problematic the more I studied the bible itself. And there was no shortage of problems –

  1. A literal belief in every statement required an acceptance of facts which in any other context would not be given a second thought. The sun could not possibly have ‘stood still’ in Joshua 10. Where was it planning to go? People do not have conversations with snakes and did Balaam really have a conversation with his ass, so to speak? (Numbers 22). Was Jonah really swallowed by a big fish and stay in its belly for three days? Even St Augustine struggled with that one –
  2. There are very obvious contradictions. We have three gospels which give one account of Jesus and a fourth which is almost entirely different. We have a letter to the Galatians saying - There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’ Then we have the writer of Timothy saying that a woman is not permitted to teach and have authority over a man.
  3. There is sickening violence. Did God really kill the entire firstborn of Egypt; possibly one of the greatest acts of genocide in history? Did God tell Joshua to kill 12,000 men and women in Ai, to plunder the city and to hang the king of Ai on a tree? Was God really angry with Saul for failing to kill all of the Amalekite men, women, children and infants? And how does that tally with a god of love and mercy?

We could go on. These difficulties were always there but were suppressed because, well the bible was God’s word and He knew best. My real crisis came when I was asked to speak on the massacre at Ai and had to admit that I had nothing to say! In the light of the ‘all or nothing’ mentality the whole building began to collapse. If the baby had to be thrown out with the bath water then so be it.

One advantage of hitting rock bottom is that you then have the freedom to face things head on. There is no longer any other agenda driving you. From this point I began to actually study the bible itself and also how and when it was written. Suddenly there was a bigger picture that made it all so much clearer. I was helped here by Brian McLaren, Karen Armstrong and more recently Marcus Borg (see below).

I firstly explored where the whole idea of inerrancy came from. For many, the answer is obviously found in 2 Timothy 3:16. But let’s break that verse down –

‘all scripture’ – the writer is manifestly not talking about the bible. There was no such thing at that time. We were at least a century away from that. Even the Hebrew cannon was not yet complete. All the writer knew was the law and the prophets. There has be a considerable stretching of logic to extend this to the bible as we know it.

‘is God breathed’ – this expression is all about giving life. We are told in Genesis 2 (the second creation story) that God breathed into Adam ‘the breath of life’. So, according to that story I am God breathed. But I am certainly not inerrant. So, we are told that, ‘all scripture’ has its life and vibrancy from God but that is a long long way from a claim to inerrancy.

‘and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness’. I have to confess to ignoring that part of the verse for many years. So scripture is useful. It has a role to play. It is important. But there is nothing say that this means that every single statement has to be literally and factually accurate.

There are two conclusions from looking at this verse. Firstly it is highly questionable, in any event, that something is inerrant just because it claims to be – I did once hear a Spring Harvest speaker say that. Secondly the bible itself does not actually make any such claim.

Rather than undermine my faith this discovery of the patently obvious was liberating. It opened the door to enable me deal with all of the above problems, and more.

It certainly resolved the question of violence. Those books are ancient documents written by humans in a very violent age. Most other writings from that time concern warriors who wished to prove that their god was greater then others. It was part of the literature of the day. The stories do not reveal a violent God but are the written record of verbal accounts that had been around for hundreds of years. That was how stories were told at that time.

If it is no longer essential to hold on to the literal factuality of the bible then the bible can become a living resource to teach us so much about God and ourselves. The one thing I have learned is that there is all the difference in world between saying the bible is true and saying that every detail is factually literal. In fact the truth is not dependent on whether the stories are recording historical facts or not.

For example Brian McLaren deals with Adam and Eve in his latest book –

‘The story of Adam and Eve doesn’t have to be about literal historical figures in the past to tell us something very true about us, our history and our world today. We humans have consistently chosen the wrong tree. Instead of imitating and reflecting god as good image-bearers should do, we start competing with God, edging God out, playing god ourselves.’ *

So it matters not whether this really happened or not. The real truth lies behind the story, not the actual history. The same goes for Jonah. Once we see it as a parable about one man’s journey to enlightenment, it becomes so much more than a cute, if rather unlikely Sunday School story. We are very comfortable with the parables that Jesus told. Nobody needs to believe that there really was a sower. The bible is packed with stories which reveal God to us. And it is the truth within them that is relevant. If we never get out of the need to prove that it is all factual despite our intelligence and experience, then we are in trouble.

This does not mean that the bible is of no value. In fact it is of supreme value, if read correctly. These books are the gateway to us understanding God. Not because they were supernaturally dictated, but because they were written by those who were expressing their experience of God.

So how do we read the bible?

(a) A reasonable starting point is our own intelligence and experience. We draw the truth from the bible as it it is revealed to us following careful and prayerful study. If everything that we know tells us that the massacre of children is wrong then we read those stories from that perspective.

(b) We must explore the times and the context in which particular passages were written. So if, in Romans 1 Paul is writing about the unacceptable behaviour of his day - including homosexual activity by heterosexuals, we have to careful about applying those words to sincere same sex relationships today just by word association.

(c) We must look at the whole story and not use bible verses like fortune cookies. I remember years ago booking a speaker for a youth group. He let us down on the night and left a phone message to say ' -can't make it. Romans 8 - 28',  as if that coded message made everything alright.

(d) Read the bible through the lens of Jesus. He said that he was 'the way, the truth and the life'. This has usually been used to promote the exclusivity of the christian faith. But I am not so so sure. If you look at the the context, he was answering a question about finding God. His answer was that if you want to know what God is like then 'look at me'. So the bible has to be read from the same perspective. Jesus has to be our starting point in finding the truth of the bible.

(e) Read it imaginatively, always look for the truth behind the words.

These are just some ideas but the possibilities are endless.

The books of the bible were written in a particular time and place. We need to read them from where we are. We should not translate an ancient cultural world to today. We need to seek the truth within the books and interpret that truth within our world.

It is this process that has brought the bible back to life for me.  It has been transformed from a dry, unmovable rule book to a rich well of truth and life.

This is neither a liberal nor conservative viewpoint. It is the result an honest struggle over many years.

*Brian D McLaren We Make The Road By Walking – Hodder and Stoughton 2014

Helpful reading –

Karen Armstrong The Bible, the biography – Atlantic Books 2007

Marcus J Borg Reading the Bible Again for the First Time – Barnes and Noble 2001

Brian D McLaren Generous Orthodoxy – Zondervan Book 2006

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Greenbelt 2014 - Travelling Light - some thoughts

I am just back from this years Greenbelt festival at its new venue – Boughton House, Kettering.

The theme for this years’ festival was Travelling Light. As I was lugging my camping gear from the car park to the camping area I was beginning to wish I had done just that. But more of that later.

The new site is beautiful. Its setting in the grounds of the lovely Boughton House is quite idyllic. It gave the whole weekend more of a festival appeal and allowed for venues such as the Grove to come into their own. This is a small outdoor space which was used particularly well by those involved in Forest Churches, which explore the relationship between faith and our natural world. My wife Jackie and I went to the waning moon event on the Friday evening and found it fascinating and quite moving. (I should say that there were those who thought it actually involved Wayne mooning but that is another story.) Some say that it is a bit New Age but in fact it is the opposite. I have found some interesting stuff here –

Greenbelt is a festival which includes speakers, often with a radical edge, music and performing arts. One speaker who is worth a mention was Nadia Bolz-Weber from Denver, Colorado. I have heard her before and recently read her book in which she writes of her experience of watching 24 hrs of God TV non stop*! She speaks as she writes – it is pacey, funny and powerful. Two things stick in the memory. One was her comment on LGBT friends. She reminded us that we do not welcome them because they are a project; so that we can feel that we are ‘in touch’ and ‘inclusive’. Rather, we welcome them because they are not really different from the rest of us. We are all in need of God’s grace. In another session she talked about her own church which is the House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver. Her congregation includes many who are on the edge of society including the homeless, those with addictions and ‘drag queens’. But they only really struggled with welcoming strangers when a group of 50 something, respectable citizens from the suburbs turned up! Hang on that’s me!

Brian D McLaren has been a huge influence for me and I enjoyed hearing him on the bible and on other religions. I have read most that he has written on these subjects and he has helped me get through a number of difficult times especially with the bible! He is one of those speakers that I could listen to for hours. I also confess that became a bit of a groupie by going to get a signed copy of his latest book, We Make The Road by Walking. I had the briefest of chats and was tempted to ask for a selfie but bottled it.

The best performance, by a mile came from the brilliant poet Harry Baker –

My name is Harry Baker,
Harry Baker is my name
If your name was Harry Baker
Our names would be the same

So you get the idea! It is unique, machine gun slam poetry. His use of words is pure genius. You can catch him on You Tube doing the magnificent Paper People –

He is surely destined for greatness.

On the music side I caught Levi Hummon at the Canopy Tent. A great young singer songwriter from Nashville who appeared alongside his dad Marcus Hummon. Think Jake Bugg does bluegrass and you get a vague idea! And there was Sinead O’Connor. I didn’t know what to expect. She looked like an older version of, well, Sinead O’Connor. The first couple of songs didn’t do much. But I have to say that I warmed to her as she got going. She still has a voice to die for. She did a great version of her one huge hit which feels like a lot more than 7 hours and 16 days ago. But the highlight was the beautiful Thank You For Hearing Me. She can still rock it with the best them and was a real and pleasant surprise.

One other highlight was the fantastic reception for Vicky Beeching as she appeared in the Big top for a session on marriage - 

And we cannot forget the volunteers who man the  various stalls in G-Source - particularly those supporting Palestine which is a subject close to my heart.

So overall it was a great success and congratulations to the organisers for the brave decision to go for something so different from the previous years at Cheltenham Racecourse. There were quite a few teething problems. Access to the site was a nightmare and many people, particularly those with mobility problems, had a major struggle to get from the car parks to the camping area where no vehicles were allowed. That will need to be looked at next year.

But this also brought out the best. The Greenbelt volunteers were heroes as they helped us brave the elements on the final day. And there were many younger and healthier campers who helped others to drag their gear back through mud. A special word goes to the women who helped me pull my trolley up the hill from the campsite who turned out to be a vicar from a church in Bootle..

I also noticed lots of queues at women’s loos so maybe a few more of them next year too!

But I have come away with much to think about and will certainly be there in 2015 – although possibly in a bed and breakfast!!


Photo curtesy of Jackie!

Friday, 15 August 2014

Concerning Vicky Beeching, Kellie Maloney and other Special People

The first blog that I posted on here related to same sex marriage. I stated quite firmly my support for what should really be known a ‘inclusive marriage’. But reading over it again, there are some parts of it that now make me feel uncomfortable. I talked about it as a ‘subject’ that was driven by religious and political arguments. I talked about those who were ‘for’ or ‘against’ ‘Gay/Lesbian’ marriage. Worst of all, I declared myself in favour of ‘it’.  

I have not changed my opinions, far from it. But the blog was all about an issue, a controversy, an ‘it’. I seriously overlooked that behind all the talk, there are real people who suffer real pain, real rejection and real loneliness. At one level, those in the LGBT community are as ordinary as the rest of us. They have mortgages, they go shopping, they worry about paying the bills, they go on holiday. And they are as special to God as the rest of us. 

They are fully included in the words of the writer of Psalm 139 –

‘For you created my inmost being;
    you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
    your works are wonderful,
    I know that full well.
My frame was not hidden from you
    when I was made in the secret place,
    when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.’ (NIV)

It is shameful that we have talked about a group of humans as if they are somehow different. And that goes for those who support and oppose inclusive marriage. It is not about being right.

This has been highlighted by two stories in the last week. The first concerns the Christian musician, theologian and media personality Vicky Beeching who gave an interview to The Independent in which she said that she was gay and also talked about her life.

You can read the interview itself here –

It is a very honest and powerful read. But one small section says more than anything else. Talking about her struggles as a young teenager she says  

"I remember kneeling down and absolutely sobbing into the carpet. I said to God, 'You have to either take my life or take this attraction away because I cannot do both.'"

Nobody should have to face that level of pain in any circumstances. But for a young girl to struggle alone for fear of God and the church is, or should be, unthinkable.

The other story concerns the well known boxing promoter Frank Maloney who has publicly declared that he is transgender and is going through a process of becoming a woman. He will now be known as Kellie. Boxing has an image of being a sport for the macho – despite the recent success of women boxers. It is a tough world. When I was about 10 I went to a local boxing club in Bootle. Part of me wanted to learn to look after myself and part of me wanted to glide like a butterfly and sting like a bee. I still remember when I got in the ring and was quickly smacked in the face. It really hurt. I went home and decided that incisive wit was a far more effective form of defence!

Boxing is tough. So it was particularly brave of Kellie to place herself in the public eye. In an interview with the Mirror she also talks about her struggles –

‘I can’t keep living in the shadows, that is why I am doing what I am today. Living with the burden any longer would have killed me’

She mentions the lifelong conflict within her –

‘What was wrong at birth is now being medically corrected. I have a female brain. I knew I was different from the minute I could compare myself to other children. I wasn’t in the right body. I was jealous of girls.’

There are, of course, hundreds and hundreds of others who remain trapped in silent fear.

So I think I need to stop arguing about an ‘issue’ when we are really talking about special, valuable people who are suffering and alone.

We should also be grateful for these two people, from different worlds, who have made themselves vulnerable so that we can all learn this important lesson.

Saturday, 19 July 2014

Gaza - the silent voices and worse (update)

The Palestinian death toll in Gaza tops 300 as Israel’s relentless attacks continue unabated.

Over the last week we have seen the tragic deaths of four children as they played on a beach near Gaza City. Four children who were just doing what children do and have never fired a missile at anybody. An eyewitness account in the Guardian is particularly harrowing –

In the meantime the west continues its devoted support for Israel. Just this weekend David Cameron spoke out in support of Israel’s actions –

He was not speaking in my name. Nor was he speaking in the name of the thousands in London and across the world who have taken to the streets to protest against the continuing bombing.

Israel justifies its attacks by pointing to the missiles that come across the border from Gaza. Now let’s get one thing right, those attacks by militants cannot be supported. But the response is so disproportionate as to be oppressive. Even if an eye for an eye is good theology, which it isn’t, this is more like 200 eyes for an eye. It is simply an aggressive demonstration of power to show the Palestinians who is the more powerful. And we can easily forget that it is an illegal occupation.

What is particularly depressing is that Christians continue to give Israel blind support. It is as if they can do no wrong. Any criticism of Israel’s leadership is tantamount to blasphemy. I know people who have been accused of anti-Semitism and even of being holocaust deniers just for speaking out against Israel’s oppression. Have they never read the Hebrew prophets? Have they not read the prophet Amos who said that they had turned justice into bitterness and cast righteousness to the ground (Amos 5)? Or how about Jeremiah who talked of the blood of innocents (Jeremiah 2). Isaiah spoke out against those who called evil good and good evil. Were the prophets anti-Semitic? No. They were speaking the words of God to those who oppressed the weak.

Some Christians look no further than the promises to Abraham and the geography of the ‘promised land’. This seems to subsume all other issues. It is as if they are more interested in the implications of those words and the status of the ‘chosen people’ than the injustice that is there for all to see. It is a devotion that even some Jews fail to understand –

Innocent children are being killed or injured and the death count is bound to rise.

If Israel could no longer rely on the blind support of the Christian west they would have to think twice. But as it is they can do what they like in the knowledge that conservative politicians and Christians will not only stay silent but actively cheer them on. Anyone who is serious about the bible and about the teachings of Jesus has no option but to say that this is unacceptable and that it has to stop.

Women Bishops - bring on the Purple Rain!!

I know that the news is nearly a week old but I want to say how pleasing it is that the Church of England has, at long last, opened the door to Women Bishops. Let’s hope this is the start of a complete change that will see the distribution of women leaders in the church head towards equality. 

In an interview with the BBC’s Andrew Marr last week, the Archbishop of Canterbury commented that, for most of the world, the very fact that this was an issue for debate seems almost incomprehensible. And he is right. We have had our own women Prime Minister. Angela Merkel is arguably the most powerful and popular leader in Europe.  Countries across the world have been led by women.

In my own profession of the law, the best and most intelligent judge in the UK is Lady Hale who will certainly be Head of the Supreme Court one day. The Director of Public Prosecutions is a women – Alison Saunders. Women are at the head of major corporations. That is not to say that we have yet reached equality. But the days have gone when there was any credible argument against women in leadership just because they are women – apart from in the church.

The argument against women bishops is fairly straightforward. All logic, proportion, experience and common sense says that continuing objections fall somewhere between the ridiculous and the downright discriminatory. But the same four words are always repeated like a mantra – ‘the bible says so’.

Now I have to say that I don’t read the bible as a literal rule book in the way I did, say, 20 years ago. But even if I did I would have to say that the bible, in fact, says nothing of the sort. And certainly not with sufficient clarity to have justified centuries of exclusion.

So let’s just have a quick look.

1.                  Jesus, the central person of our faith had a very radical view of sexual equality. We have to remember that this was an age and culture in which women were horribly devalued. Look no further than Deuteronomy 25 v 11 – ‘If two men are fighting and the wife of one of them comes to rescue her husband from his assailant, and she reaches out and seizes him by his private parts,  you shall cut off her hand. Show her no pity.’ (Not sure how those of a literal persuasion explain that one but that’s another discussion!). Jesus did not make any distinction. The longest recorded one to one conversation in the gospels is with a woman in John 4 – much to the surprise of his male friends. Some of his closest associates were women – Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary and Martha of Bethany etc. It was a group of women who were the first to encounter Jesus on Easter Sunday. Women had an equal status among the closest followers of Jesus.
2.                  St Paul is the person most often quoted by those who oppose women in leadership. In fact, his attitude was in many ways as radical as that of Jesus. He famously wrote to the Galatians – ‘There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’ They are not the words of someone who promoted any sexual distinction. In Romans 16 we see a roll call of his closest co-workers. These include – Priscilla, Mary, Tryphena, Tryphosa, the mother of Rufus, Julia, the sister of Nereus. Priscilla seems to have of particular importance. She and Aquila worked closely with Paul in Corinth and Ephesus. They both instruct Apollos and are left in charge of the church inEphesus when Paul moves on – both of them! It is impossible to imagine any of these women sitting silently and having no leadership role. So if we leave it here then there is no controversy. That is, until we get to some later comments that seem to say the opposite. So the writer of the letter to Timothy says that he will not permit a woman to teach or have authority over a man. So there is a problem. We know that Priscilla taught Apollos. Did Paul change his mind? Did he support the role of women in his earlier ministry and then decide later that he didn’t. Most scholars suggest that the later letters came years after Paul, at a time when the church was beginning to revert to the cultural norms of the day. So the reason for the change is that is was a different person. That would certainly explain the very obvious contradiction. Whatever the reason one thing is clear – there is no clear statement in the bible that women are to have no role as leaders. In fact there is far more evidence that they played a significant role. Either way, we are quite entitled to deal with the contradiction using our own logic, observation and common sense and the answer is frankly, overwhelming.

We only have to look at the great work done by women vicars over the last 20 years to see that this is a natural progression. That men and women are equally gifted by God to lead the church.

I hope and pray this will lead to a huge increase in numbers of women leaders. I for one will be laughing in the purple rain! 

Saturday, 31 May 2014

Jonah - a journey to enlightenment

The Book of Jonah is one of the great works of Hebrew literature. But it has been ruined, for me, by a Sunday School Song, a controversy and a misunderstanding.

The song will be familiar to many –

Come listen to my tale
Of Jonah and the whale
Way down in the middle of the ocean
Oh how did he get there?
Whatever did he wear?
Way down in the middle of the ocean
A preacher he should be
At Nineveh you see
Then he had a very foolish notion,
But God forgave his sin
Salvation entered in
Way down in the middle of the ocean, ocean, ocean

For most of us that is the book means to us. It is about someone who runs away and gets eaten by a whale – even though it is in fact a big fish! Unless we see this book as a complete narrative we have no hope of getting its true meaning.

The controversy is all about whether it is a book of factual history or a parable. This goes back centuries. In 409 AD St Augustine wrote – ‘What are we to believe concerning Jonah who is said to have been 3 days in a whale’s belly. The thing is utterly improbably and incredible…that a man swallowed with this clothes on should have existed in the inside of a fish…such questions I have seen discussed by pagans amidst loud laughter and with great scorn.’

For many others it has to be accurate history because it is in the bible. It is also said to be factually accurate because Jesus spoke of the story on more than one occasion. The reality is that we don’t know. It seems highly unlikely that it all happened exactly as it is written. More of that shortly. The fact that Jesus referred to it does help one way or the other as we would then have to believe that there was really a sower or a prodigal son. Stories formed an important part of Jesus’ teaching and his emphasis is more on the truth behind those stories. And that has to be the case here.

My own preference is to see Jonah as a piece of literature which may be based loosely on real events. It is a structured piece of writing that is full of imagery and poetry. I think that it is far more important to see the profound and timeless truths behind the story than to worry about whether every word has to be factually literal.

The misunderstanding is that the story of Jonah is all about God punishing us if we make wrong choices. How often have people felt that they have chosen the wrong career or made the wrong decision. When things go wrong they go through the pain of wondering whether they are a ‘Jonah’.

We need to look at Jonah with a clean slate and see it for what it is – one man’s road to enlightenment. So let’s look at it with fresh eyes.

The book tells us little about the man himself. All we know is that he is the son of Ammittai. There is probably help in the book of 2 Kings where we are told that God spoke through his prophet Jonah, son of Ammittai and from Gath Hepher (2 Kings 14 v 25). So assuming this is the same person, this places him in Galilee during the reign of Jeroboam 11 sometime between about 786 and 746 BCE. So he is in the Northern Kingdom of Israel, a few years before the Assyrians came and virtually wiped out that kingdom. The capital of Assyria was Nineveh.

Nearly everything about the book is counter-intuitive and subversive. It cuts across most of our conventional thinking, a bit like the teachings of Jesus.

(i)                 Firstly he is unlike any other prophet. He is called to take a message of judgment; not to the nation of Israel but to Nineveh. The capital city of the growing threat that was Assyria. Other prophets do what they are told – see Isaiah, Samuel and Jeremiah. Jonah heads in the opposite direction. Rather than going east to Nineveh he heads west to Tarshish which was somewhere in the South West of Spain.  So that makes him one of the first people to head to Marbella in order to get away from things! It was as far away from Nineveh as you could imagine. So right away our expected ideas are challenged. The rest of the story is about his journey to finding true enlightenment or wisdom.
(ii)               Jonah is often thought of as being a coward but his decision seems to make sense to our normal way of thinking. It was a long and hazardous journey that would have taken him days or weeks across hostile terrain. He was being asked to take a message of judgment to a powerful enemy nation that would soon overrun Israel. So he would be placing himself in great personal danger. But he would also be putting himself in great social danger. Why would a prophet of Israel go the heart of a powerful and frightening enemy? So he risked becoming a social outcast.

Most sensible people would have advised him not to go. That is quite consistent with conventional wisdom or common sense.

So he finds himself on a ship heading for Tarshish when – ‘such a violent storm arose that the ship threatened to break up’. This is far more than simply a punishment for running away. It is a direct encounter with God; similar to those of Moses and Elijah. In the bible, the sea is a powerful image for God. So readers of this story would have been able to identify with the crossing of the Red Sea during the Exodus. The psalms are full of references – ‘You rule over the surging sea, when its waves mount up you still them.’ (Ps 89) and ‘The sea is his for he made it.’ (Ps 95). In the story of Job there is the magnificent language of chapter 38 as he is shown things in perspective. Concerning the waves – ‘Thus far shall you come and no further, here shall your proud waves be stopped.’ All of this prepares the way for the story where Jesus calms the storm – ‘Who is this – even the winds and waves obey him.’ (Mark 4).

So Jonah begins to see things in perspective. Conventional wisdom sees the size of the task and the danger. He is shown the power of the sea in order to see where true power and authority lie. Even the great fish – not whale (!) – adds to this imagery. As Jonah is thrown over board he finds himself in the belly of a great fish. In Psalm 104 we read – ‘There is the sea, vast and spacious, teeming with creatures beyond number – living things both large and small, where the ships go to and fro and Leviathan that you formed frolic there…’

So we Jonah learning to see things clearly; to see things in a way that subverts conventional ways of thinking.
Next we come to the part which convinces me that this is predominantly a parable. If I were to find myself in the belly of a fish I would either –

(a)    Die or
(b)   Panic and gasp for breath or
(c)    Be sick

What I would certainly not do is write a psalm. Which is what comes next. This adds to the sense of Jonah’s journey to wisdom. He has seen the power of God and this is reflected in a song of praise. He acknowledges that he has been banished from the sight of God but then says – ‘…you brought my life up from the pit’ (cf Psalm 40, Psalm 103). He is rescued, not so much from the sea and the big fish, but from his wrong way of thinking.

We also see here a common biblical theme of down and up. Joseph is thrown into a pit and is raised up, Jeremiah goes into a cistern, Jesus dies and rises – and likened his story to that of Jonah (see Matthew 12). Time and again, hopeless situations are turned around.

And so to Nineveh. This is certainly subversive. Jonah goes to this massive, scary city filled with terrifying enemies. Guess what happens. They listen to him. The king covers himself in ashes and calls on his nation to repent. What do we know about prophets? No one ever listened or took any notice. Time and time we read of their efforts to get the people of God to change their ways. But the Ninevehns, the Assyrians, the enemy …. Listen! This again cuts across all expectations, just like the Good Samaritan who is the example of a good neighbour.

God listens and has mercy. So we come to the final step on Jonah’s road to wisdom. He has seen the power of God that’s puts things in perspective. Now he sees the heart of God.

Jonah gets a sulk on when God shows mercy to the people of Nineveh. And why not? This undermined him and his authority. Why would any Israelite want a powerful Nineveh? Why not just wipe them out with a thunderbolt or a few storms and floods? This again is counter-intuitive. Why should God show mercy to those we do not like, to those who are socially and culturally different from us, who threaten us? Why should he by good to those who do not deserve it? How dare God show grace to them. It isn't fair. He feels like the Prodigal’s older brother.

God firstly shows his power and authority then he shows his love.

Jonah finally gets to the truth. He finally finds enlightenment under a tree. How very philosophical! He is given a beautiful vine that shades him from the burning heat. Ten is shrivels and is gone and Jonah is sad. God shows him that he is sad because he lost the shade of a tree for which he had done nothing – ‘But Nineveh has 120,000 people who cannot tell their right from their left… should I not be concerned about that great city.’

So here is final piece of the jig saw. No one is outside of the love of God. However different they may be, God cares about them. Jonah finally gets it. He encounters God – both his power and authority but also his love and mercy. That is why we need to see this as a book of wisdom more than simply an eccentric story about a man and a whale. It is about nurturing a different way of thinking. As with the book of Job it is about seeing things as they are. About seeing the power of god and his love for those who, we think, do not deserve it. Most of that time the one we think is least deserving is our self. 

This blog is a summary of a talk I gave at St Lukes, Crosby on 25th May 2014

Monday, 26 May 2014

Concerning floods, Conchita and an angry God

This picture of the Shard being struck by lightening is a great piece of photography. I have to say that I was surprised that no Christian group tried to blame it on the LGBT community. They do seem to be blamed for many things.

The most recent and possible the most bizarre was the claim from church leaders in the Balkans that devastating floods were caused by Conchita winning Eurovision –

I think we need to stop and think for a minute here. So God is so interested in the outcome of Eurovision that he would bring down death and destruction? But this is far from being a quirky Eurovision thing. Blaming gay people for disasters is nothing new.

The trend goes back, at least, to 2005 with the terrible tragedy of Hurricane Katrina. One Megachurch Pastor said - “God caused Hurricane Katrina to wipe out New Orleans because it had a gay pride parade the week before and was filled with sexual sin.” Earlier in 2014 a UKIP Councillor blamed the worst floods in UK living memory on the government’s acceptance of inclusive marriage –

And so we could go on. It is easy to laugh but these views are damaging. They damage the dignity of ordinary LGBT people who just want to get on with their lives like the rest of us. They damage Christianity by portraying a distorted view of God. So it is not something we should just ignore as the ranting of a few cranks.

Firstly we need to focus on the issue itself. Let’s just suspend reality for a minute and assume that God would send bad weather because he was angry with us. Why would God choose this particular issue as one which merits the lightening bolt treatment? I don’t propose to repeat what I have said in other blogs save to say that it is hardly a subject to which the bible gives any great attention. In fact it does not give inclusive marriage any attention at all –

On the other hand the issue of poverty and inequality rolls off the pages. How about this from Jeremiah 22 - “Woe to him who builds his palace by unrighteousness, his upper rooms by injustice, making his own people work for nothing, not paying them for their labour”. For the prophet Amos the unrighteous - ‘trample on the heads of the poor as on the dust of the ground and deny justice to the oppressed.’

The gap between rich and poor, in the UK, is wider than ever –

So why does this not cause severe weather? Or what about climate change? Or bombing of Iraqi children?

Those who blame bad weather on the LGBT community seem to be more interested in their own prejudices than in the truth.

But in fact we do not need to suspend reality. The whole idea of God using weather to express anger is flawed. Let’s go back to the UKIP Councillor and the UK storms.

What he said was this –

“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."

It is hard to know where to start. What on earth is a Christian Nation? There is no such thing. Jesus called individuals and groups to follow him. There was no concept of any nation being ‘Christian’ before Constantine made it the official religion of the Roman Empire.

Mr Silvester seems to assume that any comments from the prophets about the nation of Israel can be seamlessly translated to modern western countries. What is very disturbing is that many of those who come out with these comments have a very literal and conservative view of scripture.

I would challenge any statement that the bible makes any thing ‘abundantly clear’. There are interpretations of most passages of scripture except perhaps that God loves us and does not want anyone excluded from that love. Just read the book of Jonah which tells us how much God cares for the inhabitants of a pagan city that was the enemy of Israel.

These attempts to blame God for bad weather – which is the reality of what they are saying – can be laughed and disregarded. 

But they give a distorted image of God that has to be challenged and rejected.

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Evangelical Alliance have not just excluded Rev Steve Chalke

A few days ago I tweeted that I was sad about the Evangelical Alliance’s decision to disassociate itself from Rev Steve Chalke and his organisation Oasis. That decision was based on EA’s unhappiness with his vocal support for same sex marriage.

I chose my words very carefully. You have to when you are limited to 140 characters. But I also wanted to make it clear that this was a genuine sadness and not an expression of anger; even though I profoundly disagree with the decision. The sadness is more about what this decision says about the EA leadership and the message to those evangelicals who see things differently.

If there is one thing on which most people agree it is that there is disagreement on the subject of inclusive marriage. I have made my own position clear in an earlier blog and am quite happy to say that I am very strongly in favour. I don’t propose to repeat that argument here –

But there are those who I know and respect, who take a different view. They are neither homophobic nor intolerant of all same sex relationships. They just see marriage differently than I do. In all other areas we can work well together. They affirm God’s bias for the poor. They will come alongside the marginalised and oppose discrimination, including homophobia. I wish that I could persuade them to agree with me but that does not mean that I refuse to have anything to do with them.

In his most recent book the American writer and activist Jim Wallis says –

‘It is time to reclaim the common good and learn how faith might help, instead of hurt, in that important task’. *

Why should a person’s views on a particular issue define the value of everything that they do? And how is that reclaiming the common good?

When Jesus prayed in the Garden before his arrest and execution he prayed that his disciples would be ‘one’. He never prayed that they would be ‘right’. The decision of EA suggests that they see things the other way round. Because they see their view as ‘right’, they exclude those of a different viewpoint. It is not limited to Steve Chalke or Oasis. I would at one time have comfortably called myself an evangelical. But that is now in question. On their website they describe themselves thus –

‘We are the largest and oldest body representing the UK’s two million evangelical Christians.

But they have publicly stated that they no longer represent me or many others who have a different opinion. So I am alienated by them. I am no longer welcome because I agree with Steve Chalke and others.

And that is a reason to be sad.

*Jim Wallis - On God's Side; BrazosPress

Thursday, 27 March 2014

World Vision, Discrimination and a new kind of goat...

I am not the first to comment on the sad events involving World Vision over the last few days. And I will not be the last. But it raises so many issues that merit discussion.

To understand the story we need to go back a few days. World Vision is one the most well known Christian relief charities. It has supported thousands of children through its sponsorship initiatives. In common with other similar organizations it has had to address the question of employing those who are in same sex relationships. Earlier this week we saw a very promising statement, in which they publicly stated that they would no longer refuse employment on the basis of that issue alone. To many, this was a welcome announcement which brought them into line with most modern employers.

Before we look at the depressing reaction from evangelical Christians, let’s just stop and reflect on the implications of that decision. It simply meant that a person in a same sex relationship would be permitted to work on behalf of the poorest and weakest children and families in the world. By any reasonable reckoning that is a good thing. It is something that we should all welcome. Sadly, the powerful evangelical lobby thought otherwise. World Vision faced a torrent of opposition. According to the Apples of Gold Blog they lost as many as 2000 sponsors in a couple of days. As they rightly point out – ‘by any estimation this means that at the very least hundreds of people have decided to take their unhappiness at this decision out on some of the world’s poorest children..’

Do they not see how shocking this is? Do they not see what an image it paints of the Christian faith?

They are saying in effect – ‘…because I disapprove of you, you are not fit to serve the poorest of the poor. And I will bring to its knees an organisation which has had the cheek to accept you.’

It is as if the words of Jesus in Matthew 25 have been re-written. He actually said – ‘For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in,  I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

He certainly did not say that the King would grab some by the scruff of the neck and say – ‘Ah there’s a catch. You might have fed me, welcomed me, clothed me, and cared for me. But your lifestyle is inconsistent with the priestly laws as set out in Leviticus Chapter 18 so you don’t count. You are now a goat.’

Those who stand alongside the weakest are the ones who are ‘blessed’ and who will inherit the kingdom.

Wealthy and powerful Christians need to look long and hard at those words before they pass judgment on their LGBT brothers and sisters who want to follow those words of Jesus. The behaviour is simply shameful, sad and very depressing.

But what about World Vision? My first reaction was to accuse them of weakness. Why could they not stick to their decision which came following years of discussion and prayer? But, on reflection they had very little choice. If Christians were leaving them in droves, their capacity to help the world’s poorest children could have been terminally damaged. And that was simply not a feasible option. This is why I understand their decision and will continue to support them.  

The decision is regrettable. But the real fault lies with those angry and thoughtless Christians who seem to have lost touch with what it really means to follow Jesus.