Wednesday, August 13, 2014

A Word should not be a Sentence

Words are important. Freudian slips are accidental but no less significant. "I didn't mean that" can be both a genuine and a bogus excuse. With some of our news coming in a one sentence tweet you need to choose your words very carefully and woe betide the birdie who drops a bomb like 'suicide'.

It's not really surprising that someone has said that suicide is selfish. In a proper debate that point of view would have to be aired and examined. It would need to be tested from different angles and according to different criteria. The definition of 'selfish' has to be established. Does it simply mean I did it for myself or does it carry the caveat that it has no consideration for others? Is being selfish, of itself, a bad thing or does it depend on how you are being selfish?

Maybe it shouldn't but it bothers me a little seeing article headlines saying suicide isn't selfish. It's not that I believe it is but it seems that everyone has to defend Robin Williams' own suicide like a herd of wildebeest running from the pragmatic lion. Is it now something to be honoured like a death in the trenches? Does it actually have any merits or is it something that just needs to be understood more?

Those who have criticised JW should be ashamed of themselves but that's no reason to counter attack. By arguing against something you can accidentally validate its point of view. If someone claimed the moon was made of cheese you'd just laugh it off, not get into a serious debate.

When someone commits suicide as a way out of their torment, they do it for themselves. Its your choice to load that positively, negatively or not at all. But if this is our focus we are never going to tackle the important issues. A moralistic approach to anything only leads to shame, condemnation and self-righteousness. Reassigning suicide to the 'good' pile changes nothing.

Human nature is such that we cannot resist the urge to take a side or pass moral judgement. There is a place for this in setting your own standards or those of society. But like the doctor, psychiatrist or priest who must put judgement aside in order to treat the patient or seek the truth, it serves no purpose to label actions according to your own preconceptions.

We all feel the need to be in the right as if what we think really makes any difference.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Peek-a-boo

Now you see Hamas, now you don't.

The answer to, "Is Hamas a terrorist organisation?" is neither yes nor no. It can't be 'no' because they clearly are terrorists. They are terrorising Israelis with their indiscriminate bombs and they undoubtedly terrorise Palestinians. So why can't the answer be yes?

No one in the media is defending Hamas but do they not at least deserve a fair trial? Go back to the troubles in Ireland. From the mainland we could look at loyalists and republicans and wonder how they could support their respective paramilitaries. The IRA and their counterparts were thugs (no doubt there) but so long as there was an 'us' and 'them' there was no hope for peace.

The Sinn Fein were never flavour of the month except among republicans but they won elections, even to the UK Parliament. Ian Paisley was never a terrorist and Martin McGuinness was never a saint. Neither garnered much support outside their respective camps and if either had their way Northern Ireland would be either Catholic or Protestant (perish the thought). But in the end they shared power because that was the only answer.

I believe in, and hope for, good always prevailing. Its the feel-good factor in the movies we watch and books we read. There is often a goody and a baddy. The baddy sometimes turns good and the supposed goody sometimes turns out to be a scoundrel but the outcome is usually fairly straightforward. Life's complicated enough so when we recreationally put the world to rights at least we get a little peace. But that's not how the world works.

If the IRA were the equivalent of Hamas then Sinn Fein would be the equivalent of Fatah, except Fatah have effectively been reduced to puppets. So, like it or loath it, Hamas are the representatives of the Palestinians. In the latest peace talks (brokered by Egypt) Hamas were not even consulted. So when Israel says that Hamas have refused a cease fire that's a lie. It's generally recognised that it was not Hamas who kidnapped and killed the three Israeli teenagers. The Israeli government knew that, yet went after Hamas anyway. So to say that Hamas started this conflict is debatable at best.

Its like that question: "Have you stopped beating your wife?" The answer isn't yes because I never started beating her. 'No' would technically be correct but would imply that I am beating her. The problem lies in the question and its inherent assumptions. In the context of the current conflict the question, "Is Hamas a terrorist organisation?" is just too loaded. If you want something from the shop you don't ask if the shopkeeper can be trusted because if they can't, you won't shop there. If you truly want peace and that shop is the only place you can buy it you either settle for war or you take the risk. Of course you could always kill the shopkeeper.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Obama, the antichrist

Many American right wing nut jobs will claim that Obama is the antichrist. It sounds ridiculous but I would suggest a rational argument can be made to justify the title. Before you decide to disown me please allow me to explain.

In what is now the Holy Week, churches throughout the world are centring on the Passion, the final hours around Jesus' crucifixion. According to John's gospel, Jesus was taken before Pilate and questioned. Pilate asked Jesus if he was the king of the Jews because the Jewish leaders were accusing him of claiming that title. Jesus confirmed that he was a king but not of this world. If he were, then he could command an army to defend him.

Outside the specific context of his trial and execution this has massive implications for us who claim to be Christians. First of all it means we are citizens of a spiritual kingdom and, as Christians, have no nationhood as its understood in an earthly sense. Secondly it forbids us to assault those who do not claim Christ as their Lord either physically or verbally. There is no precedent in the New Testament for us to do so and, in fact, we are encouraged to practice respect and restraint. Unfortunately the church throughout the centuries has severely tainted its reputation by blatantly disregarding the words of its king and continues to do so.

If we are citizens of a heavenly kingdom then when we talk of a Christian nation, surely we are talking of one that consists of all Christians throughout the world. America's constitution clearly separates church and state so, of all the nations in the world it has least justification in claiming its country to be Christian. But that is where these nut jobs are coming from.

They would claim their authority in Jesus and the Bible. So when Jesus' claim to kingship and their claim to be Christians are put together they must be citizens of his kingdom. Now if America is a Christian nation its king must be Christ. They don't have a king but the nearest equivalent is the President. Antichrist means 'in place of Christ' and following this logic Obama fits the bill perfectly. Unfortunately the only alternative is for Jesus to become President but Jesus has already turned that down.

The issue, it would appear, is their claim of a Christian nation. As soon as they relinquish that claim the antichrist goes away. The same logic labels the Pope as the antichrist and our own Queen is in its targets. Its all rather silly but logical.

Many will celebrate Easter as an affirmation of Jesus as their personal saviour. Others will complain that its been hijacked by the Easter bunny. Worst of all some might complain that its been hijacked by pagans which would be highly ironic. There is no mandate for the people of this nation to celebrate a Christian Easter because this is not a Christian nation and never has been. Jesus denied us that right on Good Friday over 2000 years ago.

But Jesus is neither our national saviour or personal saviour. According to the New Testament he is the saviour of the world. The Jewish state was fittingly dissolved in AD70, the last dividing wall of God's new era. Ironically America is the champion of the modern Israeli state, an unholy alliance between the "one nation under God" and the special nation many Christians see as strategic to Christ's coming, the two horns of another antichrist.

Jesus leads us to a better place where there is no flag waving, no discrimination, no judging by the world's standards, where we defend the faith by turning the other cheek and bring down empires by exposing their lies. Jesus is no respecter of nations. The world's great faiths share a father Abraham who, according to the book of Hebrews, "lived in tents" but looked forward to "the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God". It goes on to say that, "if [he] had been thinking of the country [he] left, [he] would have had opportunity to return. Instead, [he was] looking for a better country - a heavenly one, (my emphasis)."

And the great news is that God's kingdom is here in our hearts - its not pie in the sky when you die. If, on Good Friday, we relinquish our hold on this world, on Easter Sunday we can wake up in a new united kingdom.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Moral Camels

©Fotofolia royalty free imageIt seems to me that Christians are their worst enemies when it comes to alienating those who do not share their faith. I am aware that Christians are persecuted for their faith throughout the world more than any other faith but we should distinguish between raw persecution, reasoned dislike and difference of opinion. Setting aside the principle that any discussion on religion is bound to spark passionate debate and raise the usual suspects, its the moral dimension that I want to address.

We should distinguish between morals and moralising. Society requires moral fabric, accepting that stealing, murder, rape, fraud etc. are not acceptable. But inevitably we each become arbiters of what is morally acceptable and judge others by our moral code which, for each of us, is different in degree if not in content. Stealing is a crime but the principle is that you do not acquire the property of another without their permission or by some sort of legitimate contract. But its a rare person who can say they have never stolen anything. Some could be said to be thieves in that it's their chief means of income but generally labelling others as thieves while absolving ourselves could be said to be moralising. Its slightly dishonest to claim that prisons are full of thieves and murderers. They are actually the ones that got caught.

We Christians often delude ourselves that we are not moralisers. We claim that Jesus is our righteousness but when we are ever confessing in order to cleanse ourselves of the moral filth of society and our own actions are we not obsessive compulsive, desperate to be good Christians. If we can't claim to be better than anyone else at least we can claim diplomatic immunity. Admitting you are a sinner doesn't automatically make you a better one. I believe one of the greatest problems the Church has is its obsession with law. It's understandable because law is the backbone of the Old Testament but there are enough clues in the New Testament to show that our obsession should be with grace – undeserved favour. However, we do need to understand the relationship between Law and Grace to fully understand what grace means.

“Old Testament” means old covenant (or agreement) and in order for a new agreement (New Testament) to be put in place the old must be revoked. Despite the Gospels being in the New Testament Jesus lived under the Old Covenant. Everything he did and said has to be understood in terms of that covenant which was based on law, a set of rules established hundreds of years previously. We should understand that this law was not primarily a moral code; it was a legal system undergirding a theocratic state. We can think it barbaric (in some respects) now but it was a law for its time in which God was king, when the nation was at war and its very existence was under threat. But as in all laws it was morally based, the Ten Commandments being its constitution.

We know we are loved because God is willing to forgive us; we don't need to prove it by meeting a set of guidelines.

Interestingly when Jesus referred to the law he was speaking about personal conduct and referred his hearers to natural law (common sense) in translating the moral code for themselves. Even in the Old Testament when you read the Prophets you hear God arguing for common sense against blind adherence to law. “Why do you fast and fight among yourselves? … The true fast is to free the oppressed and release those in bondage.” He called their sacrifices a stench in his nostrils. Jesus commended the Pharisees for tithing but could not overlook their cruel treatment of widows and orphans and their obsessive moralising. My favourite passage in the Gospels is the story of the woman caught in adultery. Ironically this story was dismissed by the early church because they thought Jesus should have condemned her. Jesus was pretty insistent that mercy should always trump judgement but it wasn't until after his death and resurrection that we could fully understand the relationship between law and grace and it was down to the Apostle Paul to explain it.

You cannot be expected to know what God requires unless its spelled out and you cannot know if you fall short if there is no measure. Jesus was clear that God's minimum was 100% but also recognised that no one could attain that. But instead of berating us as losers he pointed to himself as the one who could get us to that standard. The one proviso was that we give up all our efforts and rely on him. Jesus lived under the old covenant because it was his mission to meet the covenant's demands 100% for us. Then, having met the standard, he took the whole Law with him to the grave effectively dissolving it and making way for a new covenant, the covenant of grace. In his resurrection he instituted a new covenant but instead of discrediting the old he based the new on the essence of the original – to love God and love your neighbour. The greatest mystery of the New Testament is the giving of the Holy Spirit who helps us to live a good life by changing our hearts, not demanding we follow a set of rules. We know we are loved because God is willing to forgive us; we don't need to prove it by meeting a set of guidelines. Of course, if your heart is for God you will lead a moral life (more or less) but only because you are motivated to do that, not compelled or threatened.

The Christian has access to the Law only through Jesus Christ who met its every requirement. We are children of grace and, as such, should extend that grace to those who have none. Also, we are not to judge because we have already been forgiven. This doesn't give us license to abandon a moral code. We are not free from the constraints of moral decisions, only free from the condemnation that moralisers bring upon themselves. If you live by the Law, as Paul said, you will be condemned by the Law. You can't have it both ways. Maybe you would like the income of a surgeon but without the skills you would fail. No one is qualified to live a morally perfect life so why pretend just so that you can be better than your neighbour or command respect.

gatekeepers to a kingdom they could not enter

Unfortunately its only moralising and judgemental preaching that hits the headlines and their excuse is usually that they are only telling us what the Bible says, claiming no prejudice or self-righteous judgement. Anyone who challenges this is classed as a liberal who doesn't fully trust God's word. More often than not the source texts are taken from the books of Moses (The Law) or Paul's letters referring to church discipline. These are applied to behaviour they don't approve of. In contrast we hear Paul talking about God's love and how there is no condemnation and Jesus telling us we will never be plucked out of God's hands, when referring to those they approve of. They fail to see that Jesus condemnation is directed chiefly at moralisers and law keepers, that Paul's harshest condemnation is directed at those who insist on living according to the laws of Moses. The book of Romans is almost entirely devoted to understanding grace as is the letter to the Galatians.

Jesus said it was harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven than for a camel to enter the eye of a needle. In other words: impossible. But I think it's safe to say that Jesus was referring to more than financial wealth. I believe he was saying that a man defined by his wealth is not a candidate but neither is anyone defined by their morality. Lets look at the parable of the narrow and wide gates. Jesus said that the way to heaven was narrow and few found it. In contrast the wide gate was very popular. Combining this with the previous parable we might see the narrow gate as impossibly thin rather than the common conception of it being single or double file. The wide gate might then be whatever width or shape we like to imagine it. The parable only requires that it be easy to navigate.

Taking this one step further let's say there are many gates only one of which is impossible. We have 3 types of people: those seeking only self gratification; those seeking justification and those seeking truth. This first group go for the wide gate (no pain) and the third group stand at the impossible gate, instinctively knowing that there is a way through even if it's not obvious. The second group, seeking to justify themselves, find a gate that only they can get through and demand that others conform to their profile. Jesus told the Pharisees that they were gatekeepers to a kingdom they could not enter, keeping out the rightful subjects yet seeking out (proselytising) others making them more sons of hell than themselves.

“Many will say to me on that day,'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?' Then I will tell them plainly, 'I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!'”

Matthew 7:22-23.