Sunday, November 11, 2012

Who are your heroes?

I am increasingly seeing the word hero used to refer to those in the armed forces. The logo of Help for Heroes appears everywhere. I’m sure they do good work among ex-service personnel, and I have no doubt these people need help – the numbers of ex-army in particular who end up homeless, in prison, or with mental illness, is simply shocking. But the assumption that people in the armed forces are inherently worthy of the title ‘hero’ seems to be to be a serious travesty.

For a start, while they certainly do a difficult and sometimes dangerous job, are they any different in that respect from the police, or coal miners, or those who working A&E? Do we automatically treat them as heroes?

It also begs the question of what we find truly heroic. Is it heroic doing your job, risking your life, to look after your friends, your country, your people? Sometimes. But they’re doing a job they have chosen, doing what they are told, looking after their own friends. At the end of the day, they sign up knowing that, should the situation arise, they will have to kill or be killed. As Jesus simply said, ‘all who draw the sword will die by the sword’ (Matthew 26:52b).

Far more admirable, in my opinion, are those people who have the bravery to stand up against their friends, those with the moral courage to stand alone in the face of public opinion and approbation, those with the strength of character to refuse to do what they are told in full knowledge of the consequences. People like my aunt, who as a young school child refused to pledge allegiance to a flag. Like my grandfather who refused to go to war in an era when serving in the military was not an option. Like my grandmother’s cousin who married the man she loved despite the fact that he was Japanese, this was just after the war, and they had to drive all the way across the country to find a state where such a marriage was even legal. In the forces you fight with your friends beside you. It’s much harder to stand alone, and I respect anyone with the bravery to so, even if I don’t actually agree with them.

And that’s the kind of heroism I aspire to. That’s why so many of my heroes are uncomfortable characters, why during the Olympics I had a photo of Tommie Smith and John Carlos on my desktop. That’s why I’ve rarely been so proud of my son than when his reception teacher commented that he was the one child in the class who was willing to question her when she said something he thought wasn’t right – and why I’ve rarely admired a teacher more, because she said this as a point of praise. That’s why I’m writing this on Remembrance Sunday, the day when the country unites to worship and glorify figures of violence while I still long to praise the God of peace.

And there’s another kind of heroism that, in all this praise for military figures, gets forgotten. We can easily praise those who are heroic by doing exceptional things in exceptional circumstances. But it’s too easy to forget the every day heroism of people for whom even waking up at the start of the day and still being there at the end of it is an act of heroism greater than I can ever comprehend. Those suffering bullying or abuse, chronic illness, depression or other mental illness. No-one will ever sing their praises for what they do, but they deserve it far more than most people with guns and uniforms.

So pardon me if I don’t follow the line of Help for Heroes. I have heroes of my own who are far more deserving, and in far more need, of my help.

Thursday, November 08, 2012

The Enemy Within

The Truth is rarely palatable.

Over the past few decades evangelical churches in America have been systematically infiltrated by people peddling a right-wing political agenda that is utterly anti-Christian. The vast swathe of teaching both by Jesus and the Old Testament prophets on social justice has been concealed and its outworking derided as “communist”; despicable and utterly unbiblical teachings such as the “prosperity gospel” with its false identification of material wealth with God’s blessing, and the ridiculous idea that taxation is theft (directly contrary to Matthew 22:15-22), have been introduced in their place. The churches’ voice on “moral issues” has been narrowed to a select handful of areas which have no personal impact on the wealthy individuals driving the right-wing agenda and about which Jesus had nothing or next to nothing to say, while the vast majority of His teaching on the matters that are closest to God’s heart have been swept under the carpet. It is just as Jesus said: “You blind guides, you strain out a gnat but swallow a camel” (Matthew 23:24)

Clearly this is a bad thing because it has led to Godly people being duped into supporting bad politics. But it is far worse because it has led to compassionate people outside the church being fed a false (and utterly unattractive) view of God. It’s hard to find anything that is more despicable and more condemned in scripture than driving people away from God by painting such an utterly false picture of Him.

This has become all the more apparent in the recent presidential election in America. During the campaign respected Christian speakers keen to endorse the Republican Mitt Romney were even willing to sideline the divinity of Christ (having previously been utterly outspoken against the Mormon faith). In its aftermath the Evangelical Christian commentator and worship leader Vicky Beeching was vilified for daring to say that she was pleased that Obama won.

Well no more. As with the “confessing churches” during 1930s and 1940s Germany, those of us who truly follow Christ must not allow ourselves to remain a silent minority. It must now be a priority for all Christians to expose these evil teachings and preach against them.

But we should not be preaching against individuals. People are never the enemy, only the battleground. We should be preaching the words and deeds of Jesus, allowing his light to illuminate the darkness that has engulfed so many churches.

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19). That is the message Jesus proclaimed at the start of his ministry, and that is what America needs to hear from Him now.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

So we finally have a government ...

I love the tradition of the speech on the steps of Downing street. Even coming at the end of probably the most exciting week of politics I've ever seen, Tuesday's two examples were no anticlimax. I found both Gordon Brown's and David Cameron's speeches quite moving.

Of course the best speech of this sort ever delivered came from Jesus (Luke 4:16-21):

He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. And he stood up to read. The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

"The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to release the oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour."

Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, and he began by saying to them, "Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing."

This is the vision against which I measure every government, and every time I see a new prime minister speak outside that shiny black door I am looking to see to what extent their policies and values match with what Jesus said at the start of his ministry. Of course, none of them ever meet the mark. But sometimes, as this week, I find echoes of Jesus' words, they never meet the mark; but sometimes, as this week, there are echoes every time I am disappointed, but sometimes there are the odd parallels, and this week was no exception.

What was particularly interesting this time, though, was that the speech was more than just David Cameron's agenda for the country; it contained references to things that until a week ago were anathema to most of his party and clearly came from his Lib Dem coalition partners.

And that's the great thing about coalition government. After days of negotiations - and oh, how I'd have loved to have been able to watch those 24/7 on the TV - the two parties have put together a package that cuts out the extremes of both sides in the aim of being more broadly palatable. Out go the inheritance tax cut (hoorah!) and the scrapping of Trident (shame). For once we can see how two groups of people with apparently radically different views can put aside their differences and come up with a common agenda. Are you watching, Israel and Palestine?

Like most people, I suspect, I find this isn't the government I really wanted; but neither is it the government I most feared. And perhaps that is more important.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

I Went To Vote

I went to vote yesterday. I took my son with me, partly because the polling station was at his school, but also because I wanted him to see me doing it because it’s important.

Everything I heard on the radio suggested that we citizens have become so thoroughly disenfranchised with the system, what with all the scandal over MP’s expenses etc, that none of us would bother.

And in the evening, since it was sunny and my son was at Beavers at church, which was also being used as a polling station, I took a book and sat on the church steps and read, and watched the people coming and going.

What I saw was a beautiful thing. Couples walking along hand-in-hand clutching their polling cards. Whole families with young children coming out together. Fathers and sons heading off to vote together for the first time. Groups of young people voting with their friends. People of all sorts, all colours, all ages. All of them smiling, all of them proud to be part of something. Just like me.

So whatever you read this morning in the media, a media that seems to be escalating its war against the politicians to ever more extreme levels, don’t believe a word of it. Real people are still going out, quietly, in their millions, to vote for a system that they not only believe in but are fiercely proud of.

And deep in the bowels of Westminster, of Brussels, of our councils, among the spin doctors, the media hacks, and the moat-cleaning duck-island building spivs, there are still people who are in public office for no other reason than that the want to help run the country and make it a better place. Long may they continue.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008


Since getting up at 2am to watch the US election results, I've been strongly reminded of Psalm 40:

I waited patiently for the LORD; he turned to me and heard my cry.
He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire;
he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand.
He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear and put their trust in the LORD.
Blessed is the man who makes the LORD his trust,
who does not look to the proud, to those who turn aside to false gods.
Many, O LORD my God, are the wonders you have done.
The things you planned for us no one can recount to you;
were I to speak and tell of them, they would be too many to declare.

In fact I've been seized by the desire to listen to U2's version of that repeatedly. If you look back at what I wrote this time four years ago you'll probably understand why.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Election Day

So, US election today.

I read in all the media that the Republican party are relying on evangelical Christians to get the vote out for their candidate.

Well, don't believe everything you see on the news. I am an evangelical, bible-believing Christian myself, and I urge anyone out there to go out and vote for Obama.

Jesus' heart is with the poor, the outcast, the alien. I pray that America's Evangelical Christians (and everyone else) will think about that as they vote today.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Harry Potter and the Political Donation

I saw in the news recently (ish ... ok, I’m getting behind) that JK Rowling has donated a million pounds to the Labour party. More interestingly, she explained why here. I quote in full:

"I believe that poor and vulnerable families will fare much better under the Labour Party than they would under a Cameron-led Conservative Party. Gordon Brown has consistently prioritised and introduced measures that will save as many children as possible from a life lacking in opportunity or choice. The Labour government has reversed the long-term trend in child poverty, and is one of the leading EU countries in combating child poverty. David Cameron's promise of tax perks for the married, on the other hand, is reminiscent of the Conservative government I experienced as a lone parent. It sends the message that the Conservatives still believe a childless, dual-income, but married couple is more deserving of a financial pat on the head than those struggling, as I once was, to keep their families afloat in difficult times."

There was a time when I had real questions about the policies which JKR highlights. As a Christian, I have pretty strong views on the value of marriage. I believe (as does anyone who looks at the evidence) that a proper marriage (which means a man and a woman) is the best place to conceive and bring up children. I also fully believe in the biblical view that divorce is pretty much never the right thing (not least because that’s what Jesus says, and who am I to tell God he’s wrong?) There is a large part of the Labour party which would disagree with me on those views (but certainly not all of it), and I have a real problem with that.

But I still believe that of the choices available, the Labour party is much closer to God’s heart than the Conservatives, and JKR’s statement goes a long way to explaining why. You see, in God’s eyes, the question isn’t who best deserves a handout from the government; it’s who most needs it. It was not for the righteous (let alone the self-righteous) that Jesus came and died, but for the unrighteous, and to call sinners to repentence.

For how many people, honestly, can the married tax allowance have made the difference between divorce or working a relationship through? Between marriage and cohabitation – or more likely promiscuity? Maybe a handful. Most of the time, the policy simply gives money to people who are already better off than if they were single. Encouraging marriage is a noble cause, but for the effect it has, a married tax allowance is not a great use of government money. By contrast, giving money to poor people with children - married or not – makes a real difference to the lives of everyone concerned, particularly the children, and at a time when they really need help. It’s quite possible that the financial help given to new parents may do more to save their relationships and therefore promote marriage than the married tax allowance ever did.

But the focus of the Labour party’s policies hasn’t been on poor adults – it’s been on poor children. Children cannot help how many parents they have, nor by how hard their parents work. There may be a "moral hazard" in looking after the poor, but that moral hazard does not apply to children, as they can do very little to affect their own situation. And anyway, the concept of moral hazard - so important to right-wingers - is not something that should colour Christian thinking. It's not that it's not a valid concept - it accurately describes the fallen nature of humanity. But the only references you’ll find to it in the Bible are where we are explicitly commanded not to act in such a way. Hence the injunction that the Israelites should not reduce the value of property knowing that a year of jubilee was coming, and Paul’s comment that "should I sin more, so that grace may increase? By no means!" Yes, some people will take advantage of our good nature, but the Bible is absolutely clear that this should not discourage us from being helpful to others. If anything, the opposite: if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. Because it is God who holds people to account for their actions - not us.

The reason why child poverty – or rather, poverty in families with children – is so important is that being brought up poor is so limiting to life opportunity. Yes, people can climb out of poverty. But it’s wrong to presume (as most right-wing thinking does) that if one person can escape depravation and make something of their life, then everyone can, and therefore that the poor are only ever so because of their own laziness. It takes exceptional drive and ability to do this, and few people are fortunate enough to be born like that. It is not enough to be able to point to a handful of people like JKR or Damon Buffini who have conquered adversity and therefore to claim that we live in a culture of equal opportunity. What the Labour government stands for (or should) more than anything is sweeping away a system which means that a child’s prospects in life are still largely determined by the income of its parents.

And that’s the nub. The thing the right-wing fear most is to see the children of those they label as poor and therefore feckless getting all the same opportunities that they work so hard to give their own pandered progeny. Which is what God wants more than anything. Once again, I am reminded of that fantastic prophesy of Jeremiah’s: No longer will it be said, the parents have eaten a sour grape and the children’s teeth are set on edge. Instead, everyone will die for his own sin, and whoever has eaten a sour grape, his own teeth will be set on edge. That is the heart of God.

The last thing God wants is that sinners get what they deserve. Why else did Jesus die? The politics of the right is all about the preservation of wealth and inequality. The politics of the left is about equality of opportunity and giving people a chance to start again. It is the politics of Christ.