Lent 2021: Fleming Rutledge on the cross versus gnosticism

A lenten post on Fleming Rutledge’s outstanding book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (2015). We are in chapter 1, ‘The Primacy of the Cross’.

A major section of this chapter is how, both historically and today, gnosticism is the ‘most pervasive and popular’ rival to Christianity, particularly in terms of the cross.

Now this might sound a peculiar thing to say – wasn’t gnosticism an ancient philosophy? You don’t tend to see any local congregations of gnostic churches dotted around our towns and cities today.

The Greek word gnosis means knowledge. Combine it with the idea of special spiritual knowledge being the path to ‘salvation’ and you are getting to the heart of gnosticism.

So far this may sound quite innocuous. After all didn’t Jesus gather the twelve around him and teach them in ways not available to outsiders? But the real problem is how this secret path of knowledge is open only to the select few who are wise enough to discern the way.

The teaching of Jesus in parables to the twelve prepares them for public proclamation of the kingdom to all.

‘Gnostics, in contrast, are mystery-mongers’ (46).

1 Corinthians is full of references to Paul combatting proto-gnostic ideas among the spiritually elite Corinthians. Wisdom (sophia) and knowledge (gnosis) are recurring words with the apostle often sarcastically asking ‘Do you not know?’ Are you not wise? In other words, he keeps puncturing their balloon of spiritual self-regard, reminding them that they are not wise, powerful, rich or influential but God has chosen them regardless out of his grace and love.

It is no accident that his theology of the body (1 Cor 12) elevates the ‘inferior’ parts that hidden in shame to be of equal status and importance with the visible and impressive parts of the body – this is anti-gnostic theology. As of course so is John’s great statement ‘the Word became flesh’ (John 1:14).

Rutledge’s argument then, is that gnosticism is a form of spiritual hierarchy that puts human wisdom, knowledge and experience at the centre of revelation and the path to enlightenment. It blurs the distinction between God and humanity. By minimising God’s transcendence and our transient mortality, gnosticism elevates humanity to the realm of the divine – all of us, potentially or actually are God’s children and can reach enlightenment.

This is a lot ‘more appealing than orthodox Christianity’s teaching that God is the creator and we are his creatures, made in God’s image but not God’s substance.’ (50).

Rutledge has a swipe at Richard Rohr in passing (footnote) who uses typical gnostic language in talking of the ‘deeper wisdom teaching’ of Jesus that is the ‘goal of religion’ that helps those on a ‘serious spiritual journey’ towards ‘contemplative seeing’.

A key symptom of gnostic theology then is stratification: where an elite few exist within an inner circle of those ‘in the know’.

What forms of elitism come to mind within contemporary Christianity in your experience? Where have you been made to feel inferior because you did not ‘measure up’ to the knowledge or experience of others?

Rutledge identifies the modern appeal of gnosticism here:

Much of it is in tune with today’s American attitudes. It seems to offer greater openness and flexibility to those who experience Christian orthodoxy as rigid … it is thought to be more welcoming to women, artists, freethinkers, and free spirits … It definitely seems more “spiritual,” and offers a selection of paths to follow … yet without restrictive dogma. For example, gnostic devaluation of the material world offers two views of our sexual nature, both of them conducive to a libertine way of life. Either the sexual act is thought to be immensely spiritual, offering access to the divine, or it is a matter of no importance one way of the other, since the flesh is unspiritual. Either way, the gnostic is free of sexual restrictions.  (51-52)

But the most serious incompatibility between gnosticism and Christianity is in the former’s optimism about human capacity for self-enlightenment.  Gnosticism says, in effect, we can save ourselves. Suffering and the cross are not only to be avoided, they are unnecessary.

Which raises questions:

Where and how do some modern forms of Christianity mirror gnosticism’s discomfort with suffering and the cross?

Where and how, to use another Bonhoeffer’s language, do some modern strands of Christianity represent a ‘cheap’ form of grace that refuses to pay the cost of discipleship?

[Note: This is a re-post from a daily series I ran during Lent a couple of years ago on Rutledge’s book. This Lent I will do some re-posts from that series].

Love in Paul (9) Love, Faith, the Spirit and Union with Christ

We’re continuing a series about the apostle Paul’s theology of love. To recap, there are three great strands of love in the OT that also continue, now Christologically framed, into the NT (and Paul in particular).

1) The elective and saving love of Yahweh for his chosen people.

2) The responsive love of Israel (God’s people) to God’s prior redemptive action.

3) Inter-communal love: the love God’s people are to have for one another

This is the last post within strand 2 – the responsive love of God’s people to God’s prior love. In this post I want to sketch the connections between faith (pistis) and union with Christ. The role of the Spirit is critical here. And the ‘outworking’, or we may even say ‘purpose’, of being united in Christ through faith alone is seen in a life of love.

The gospel calls for a response of faith which results in believers being joined together ‘in Christ’. This is a remarkable image when you think about it. It speaks of Paul’s high christology that is some cosmic / spiritual sense all believers are united together within the ‘body of Christ’ – the church.

To be ‘in Christ’ is therefore an eschatological concept – believers ‘in Christ’ belong to God’s new creation (Gal 6:14-15; 2 Cor 5:14, 17). Elsewhere Paul talks about them being baptised into Christ’s death and resurrection.

A tight connection between faith, the Spirit and love is typically Pauline. It is the Spirit through whom God’s love is poured out into believers’ hearts (Rom 5:5) and through whom God is known (1 Cor 8:3; Eph 3:19). Indeed, faith and love are often mentioned alongside one another (Eph 6:23; 1 Thess 1:3; 3:6; 5:8; 1 Tim 1:14). The primary evidence of the empowering presence of the Spirit is love (Gal 5:6, 13).

It is important we see the apostle’s pastoral concerns here. So often we get lost in technical theological debates about justification and soteriology that we miss how Paul’s priorities are primarily ethical – that believers would be living lives of love and holiness pleasing to God. This is his heartfelt plea to the believers to whom he writes.

Paul leaves some things unsaid – he doesn’t really explain how someone ‘in Christ’ is transformed by the Spirit into a person of love. The NT scholar Michael Gorman lists different biblical images or ideas that various scholars have argued captures how union and moral transformation ‘work’ in Paul: participation, incorporation, identification, (mutual) indwelling and even (Christ-) mysticism (Gorman, 2019). Volker Rabens (2014) has done outstanding work on unpacking the relational role of the Spirit within the community of the church.

Most recently, Douglas Campbell’s Pauline Dogmatics: The Triumph of God’s Love (2020) gives five chapters to love within the theme of ‘Formation’. For Campbell love explains everything important about Pauline ethics – he calls this ‘agapeism’. And I’m inclined to agree with him on that point.

Two points to note – and these are absolutely crucial for understanding the theology and pastoral mission of the apostle Paul. Both, I think, are too often missed or marginalised in teaching and preaching today

1) Christianity is a Communal Faith

Or, to put it negatively, Paul knows nothing of individualism. The idea that a believer would or could try to follow Jesus apart from a community of believers would be incomprehensible to the apostle. Faith, the Spirit, and union in Christ brings a Christian into a new community – and it is within that new community that he / she is live and love and forgive and serve and teach and care. And it is in doing so that the Spirit works to effect moral transformation. That doesn’t happen on your own.

If you are reading this it’s likely that like me, you are a Western individualist – shaped and formed by an individualist culture that says follow your own dream, do your own thing, be yourself, you’re worth it etc etc. It is easy to frame the gospel around this sort of narrative – it’s about me and my happiness, or my experience of God’s love, or my assurance about the future and so on. Of course the gospel is personal and individual – it has to be real for each person. It requires personal faith and repentance and a turning around to follow the Lord. But it’s a reduced and distorted Christianity that makes it all about individual experience or individual salvation.

Yes, church can be the hardest place to be a Christian. Yes, churches can be toxic. Yes, any community is going to be difficult. But this was nothing new to Paul – just read 1 Corinthians! His passion is to see renewal and reform – the idea of opting out to go my own way was inconceivable.

2) Every Christian is in a spiritual battle – and love is God’s weapon in the war

Second, love lies at the heart of an eschatological conflict between forces belonging to the old age and the new.

In 1 Corinthians 13:8-13 love is both the goal of God’s salvation and an eschatological foretaste of God’s new creation in the present. Within the present believers are to ‘pursue love’ (1 Cor 14:1) and are later exhorted ‘Let all that you do be done in love’ (1 Cor. 16:14).

In Galatians love grows and matures in opposition to attitudes, desires and actions that belong to the ‘present evil age’ (Gal 1:4) or ‘kosmos’ (world). It is only the empowering presence of the Spirit which can transform uncontrolled ‘desires of the flesh’ (Gal 5:16, epithymia, ‘desire’) that lead to destructive ‘works of the flesh’ (Gal 5:19). In contrast, ‘those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions (pathēma, ‘passion’) and desires’(Gal 5:24).

In the ancient world it was not unusual for the passions to be seen as obstacles to a virtuous life. What is of profound importance in Paul is how the Spirit and love is the means by which the battle is fought and won. Love in this eschatological perspective is God’s ‘weapon’ in a cosmic battle against destructive forces opposed to his good purposes.

Think about this for a moment. This is the heartbeat of the Christian faith. It takes us back to the previous post on Stanley Hauerwas and the way of Jesus being love and non-violence. The radical core of Christian faith is love – not force, not selfish power, not exclusion, not human reason, not Torah obedience. It is the way of the cross. And this all flows from God’s own loving nature – Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Hauerwas on love and community in an age of Christian nationalism

I’m re-reading Stanley Hauerwas, A Community of Character: Towards a Constructive Christian Social Ethic (1981).

I’m working on a writing project and am thinking about the connections between the narrative of the Christian story and the love ethic within Christian community. In other words, if humans are story-formed people, how does the particular story of the Gospel shape the ethics and aspirations of followers of Jesus? Where and how does love fit in?

As usual Hauerwas is on the money. Note in the quote below how he connects the cross, discipleship, community and the Gospels. Christians share in Christ’s story – a story of love and self-giving. Such a calling is not to power, coercion or violence. Nor it is motivated by fear and protective self-interest. Nor does it imagine it can or should seek to control the world.

We need Hauerwas more than ever these days. While Trump is no longer President and has again been acquitted by the Senate, forces of Christian nationalism are on the rise. The erection of a cross outside the Capitol on January 6 during a violent and deadly assault represented an idolatrous rejection of the way of Jesus. The symbolism was unambiguous – God blesses our political objectives; God blesses our violence; God blesses our version of America. God’s way of the cross is subverted, the cross instead becomes a weapon of war. God blesses our ‘politics of purity’ by which we are going to ‘cleanse’ America from all who (we believe) are defiling the nation’s God-given calling. This is the politics of exclusion, of fear, of oppression – it belongs to the ‘powers and principalities’ of this age, not to the Kingdom of God.

We’ve seen this before of course. The cross used as a symbol of Empire, a battle standard in Christendom’s wars with Islam. We had our own version here in Ireland with Padraig Pearse’s Easter Rising in 1916 and in Protestant versions of ‘For God and Ulster’. America has long had a corrosive strand of religious nationalism where God’s blessing is routinely invoked on its special destiny as the nation of ‘freedom’. What’s happening now is this form of religious nationalism is ‘heating up’, the fires stoked by Trump – ironically someone for whom ‘Christianity’ is little more than a useful symbol to use for his own political self-interest. Once the fires have been lit, ‘hot’ nationalisms are hard to put out. (Which is why it is Bible-believing devout evangelicals enablers of Trump like Kayleigh McEnany who I think are most culpable).

To be a disciple is to be part of a new community, a new polity, which is formed on Jesus’ obedience to the cross. The constitutions of this new polity are the Gospels. The Gospels are not just the depiction of a man, but they are manuals for the training necessary to be part of the new community. To be a disciple means to share Christ’s story, to participate in the reality of God’s rule.


I have tried to suggest that such a rule is more than the claim that God is Lord of this world. It is the creation of a “world” through a story that teaches us how such a rule is constituted. Christians learn the power of this rule by loving as God has loved through Jesus’ life. That is, they love their “enemies, and do good and lend without expecting return” for, if they do, their “reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and selfish. Be merciful, even as your father is merciful” (Luke 6:35-36).

It is through such love that Christians learn that they are to serve as he served. Such service is not an end in itself, but reflects the Kingdom into which Christians have been drawn. This means that Christians insist on service which may appear ineffective to the world. For the service that Christians are called upon to provide does not have as its aim to make the world better, but to demonstrate that Jesus has made possible a new world, a new social order.

Page 49.

Relentless Love: Trócaire, Tearfund Ireland and Integral Mission

In chapter 11 of Relentless Love I compare and contrast how the Bible is used within two approaches to social justice in Ireland – that of Trócaire and of Tearfund Ireland. Trócaire (established 1973) is the overseas development agency of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland. Tearfund Ireland was launched in 2008 and is a sister organisation of Tearfund UK, a global relief and development agency operating within an evangelical ethos.

The chapter was originally published in Anderson and Kearney Ireland and the Reception of the Bible (2018). The broad theme was the Bible and social justice in Ireland. As I was trying to figure out what angle to take I knew it needed to engage with Catholic thinking and practice and not just the ‘minority report’ of Protestant/evangelical thinking and action on social justice. And so a comparative analysis of how the main relief agencies of those two communities approached social justice seemed a good way in to the subject.

In terms of budget Trócaire dwarfs Tearfund Ireland. It takes in c. €30 million each year in donations alone during its annual Lenten appeal. But my interest was more in the two organisations theology and practice of social justice.

On the surface, they have much in common: Both:

  • are professional and experienced faith-based development organisation which depends to a significant degree on support from local churches across Ireland,
  • prioritise aid to the poorest and most vulnerable people in the world
  • offer resources and training for churches in Ireland to engage with issues of social justice.
  • recognise that the causes of poverty are complex and that bringing justice involves both aid to relieve suffering and action to address the root causes of injustice.
  • place significant emphasis on sustainability and empowerment at a local level.
  • root their call to action in God’s love for all people and the God-given worth of each individual

But under the surface some significant differences emerge. Below is a summary of the argument.

Trócaire

From its beginning Trócaire was focused on global economic justice – ‘no nation has a right to build its own prosperity on the misery of others.’ What emerged in the analysis is a tension running through Trócaire’s work between its identity as a Catholic relief organisation set up by the Irish Bishops and informed by Catholic Social Teaching (CST), and its largely secular approach to establishing justice through human rights legislation within a firmly ‘this worldly’ political framework.

To illustrate: the organisation’s six core themes (sustainable livelihoods; human rights; gender equality; HIV; climate change; emergency relief) are framed within a general theme of justice rather than being developed around specific biblical themes.

So there is little talk in Trócaire’s many publications, as far as I found, of themes such as the kingdom of God; future hope; the New Testament’s eschatological structure for Christian ethics; themes of sin; forgiveness, the uniqueness of Christ; new life in the Spirit; the church as the people of God and so on.

The three elements of CST that Trócaire highlight are dignity (all people are created in God’s image and are therefore due respect); option for the poor (putting the poor and vulnerable first); and the common good (everyone is included with a right and responsibility to promote the community’s good and benefit from it). These are applied in ways to support (good and valuable) development objectives of helping practically those in need.

The same can be said in general for how the Bible is used. Verses used include classic “justice” texts such as Isa 58:6, 10 (fasting as loosing the bonds of injustice), Mic 6:8 (do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with your God), Prov 31:8-9 (speak out for those who cannot), Luke 4:18-19 (good news to the poor), and Luke 10:25-37 (parable of the Good Samaritan). These texts are applied within a broad creational framework to support general rights-based teaching on the value of all human life which compels those with resources to help those without.

The overall impression is of a highly professional aid organisation, but one in which its Christian identity is largely in the background. The approach is primarily political and legal and sits comfortably within the values and goals of secular aid agencies. On the ground, Trócaire is a non-missionary organisation, its primary focus is a rights-based approach to global development.

Tearfund’s theology of integral mission

The critical difference between the approaches of the two organisations, in my view, is Tearfund’s commitment to integral mission. I’m not commenting here on the merits of either – just observing that it is Tearfund’s explicit attempt to integrate mission and social justice that distingushes it from Trócaire.

Within integral mission, mission is framed within the biblical narrative of creation, fall, redemption and consummation. The church exists ‘between the times’ of Christ’s incarnation, life, death, resurrection, Pentecost and the consummation of all things when Christ returns.

This means that the call of the church is to declare the good news (gospel) of forgiveness of sins but also new life under his lordship in the power of the Spirit for all aspects of life.

This leads to the most significant different between the two organisations. Integral mission has the church “as a caring, inclusive and distinctive community of reconciliation reaching out in love to the world” (Dewi Hughes) at the centre of Christian mission. Hughes argues that

“[t]he church is not the means by which Tearfund can deliver ‘development’ to the poor but the most convincing evidence that we now have of the outworking of God’s purpose to redeem his creation.” While churches are frequently broken and imperfect, it is Tearfund’s “privilege to be continually looking for such churches within the worldwide evangelical community that we may encourage them in their integral mission” since “showing mercy and acting on behalf of the poor belongs to the essence of the church. . . . a church that does not care for its poor is not a true church. (Dewi Hughes, ‘Theology of Integral Mission”)

And so an integral vision for mission is to knit together Christian mission, development and the local church into a coherent rationale for praxis. This means that integral mission embraces practical needs being met, increasing participation and empowerment of the poor, advocacy to challenge structural injustice, personal understanding of individuals as made in the image of God, local church engagement in service to the poor alongside worship and witness.

This sits very much within the Micah Network’s Declaration on Integral Mission

If we ignore the world we betray the word of God which sends us out to serve the world. If we ignore the word of God we have nothing to bring to the world. Justice and justification by faith, worship and political action, the spiritual and the material, personal change and structural change belong together. As in the life of Jesus, being, doing and saying are at the heart of our integral task.[1]

From the Micah Declaration on Integral Mission: http://www.micahnetwork.org/integral-mission.

And this issues in a different perspective on human rights and the goal of a Christian relief agency. Tearfund say human rights legislation needs to be viewed through a Christian lens. It may be the calling of Christians to accept injustice and violation of their rights, but simultaneously be committed to seeking justice for other people’s rights. A motivation of love rather than law.

Reflections

First, the comparison between Trócaire and Tearfund revealed some fascinating distinctives in their theology and praxis. Perhaps this is best summarised in Trócaire having more of a ‘top-down’ rights-based approach to development and Tearfund having more of a ‘bottom-up’ emphasis of change at a local level in partnership with local communities of Christians.

Second, more broadly, given the negative legacy of so much of ‘Catholic Ireland’, the work of Trócaire, and many other Catholic organisations committed to serving the poor, is a reminder of a ‘thread of grace’ woven into the fabric of Christianity to serve those in need.

Third, the motive for engaging in social justice is crucial. Within Ireland, (some) Protestant relief work during the Famine fatally tainted an astonishing range of aid by multiple organisation. Within Catholicism, the enormous contribution of the Church to social action in Ireland has tended to be lost today. Not only because of scandals, but because it tended to be pragmatic – as a means to an end (the dissemination of the Catholic faith) rather than out of a ‘no strings attached’ love or desire to reform embedded injustices in Irish society. All churches today – of whatever hue – need to love and care for people as people rather than ‘care for the poor’ becoming, however subtly, a means to an end, whether church growth, praise from others or as a means of attracting funding.

Fourth, in an era of unrestrained capitalism that is wrecking havoc on the world’s ecosystems and harming the poor most of all, the call for Christians is to reflect the character of God. He is a God of the poor in whom there is no partiality. His church is called to loving action in his name.


Becoming a Community of Resistence in a Consumer Culture

I can honestly say I love teaching all my modules on the undergrad and post-grad courses in IBI. But it’s when you get ‘in’ to the nitty gritty of teaching and interacting with students that a module comes alive – and every time is different because every group of people has its own dynamic.

We’ve recently begun ‘Faith in Contemporary Culture’. But it could just as easily be called ‘Everyday Discipleship’, or ‘Being Resident Aliens’ (re quote Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon) or even perhaps ‘How To Develop Your Love Life’ – but I suspect that might lead to disappointment.

We try to set the historical context and also consider what culture is and how it works in the first 3-4 weeks. The idea here is to look at the ‘big stories’ that have framed Christian faith and experience for centuries: Christendom (Irish style) to post-Christendom; modernism (human progress, reason etc) to post-modern scepticism and disenchantment. I used to spend more time on these big stories. Another major one is nationalism (again Irish nationalism was a very particular expression but still typical of a of modernist metanarrative of the onward march of the nation leading to a utopian future).

But I’ve shifted to spend more time in the present – in the contemporary stories that shape our culture. Here’s the overall framework.

Several ideas lie behind this approach

One is that we are storied people – identity and purpose are found in and through narratives of meaning.

Old narratives are in the process of fragmenting in all directions.

The narrative of the free self, with love at its core, is probably the dominant story of Western culture.

We are first and foremost ‘lovers’ – people who are shaped by desires and loves. To quote JKA Smith, we are what we love.

Contemporary culture is a desire factory. Consumerism is first and foremost, after our hearts.

Christian theology needs a robust theology of love and desire if it is going to even begin to grapple with the pervasive reach of contemporary consumerism.

Augustine’s theology of love and desire is a profoundly important entry point to begin to think theologically and critically about contemporary consumer society.

A theological response of what it looks like for Christians to be ‘resident aliens’ or a ‘community of resistence’ will need embodied practices that reflect an alternative narrative. In other words, to live as disciples of Jesus, to live to his kingdom and not the kingdom of the market, means intentionally resisting the corrosive story of consumerism. It means living to another story.

To even begin to do this requires first recognising consumerism’s power, its pervasive reach, and unmasking its ‘invisibility’ – how consumerism is taken for granted as a perfectly ‘normal’ way of envisioning a fulfilling life. It’s the air we breathe every day.

[I’m not the first to say this, but my sense here is that swathes of modern Christianity have a comfortable and uncritical relationship with the values, story and destructive impact of contemporary consumerism. A gospel of personal salvation has little or nothing to say about the idolatry of the market. If an illness is undiagnosed and we don’t even know we are sick, then we aren’t going to pose much of a challenge to the marketeers and gods of mammon.

More positively, the Christian faith has a positive vision of what it means to live a flourishing, good and happy life – and it is not a consumerist one (to put it mildly). Christians follow a crucified Messiah after all.

This course encourages and facilitates students to work out that Christian vision for a flourishing life for themselves.

So that’s a flavour of what’s going on – comments and suggestions for reading welcome

Golf and Slavery: an unholy alliance

Two images collided in a Sunday afternoon browse of the net.

One was of the closing moments of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship from the Abu Dhabi Golf Club in the United Arab Emirates. As a Holywood man I always hope Rory is going to win and he was leading into the last round. It wasn’t to be this time and Tyrell Hatton took home the first prize of over €1 million and Rory had to make to with third and €407, 158.14.

The other image was from Aeon Magazine and an article called ‘Gulf Slave Society’ written by Bernard Freamon, adjunct professor at New York School of Law and author of the book Possessed by the Right Hand: The Problem of Slavery in Islamic Law and Muslim Cultures.

Freamon’s argument is compelling, sobering and unsurprising. I’m not going to do it justice in what is necessarily a brief summary. Do read the essay for yourself. Here are some salient points:

  • Dubai and Abu Dabhi are two of six modern gulf city states, constructed on the back of unimaginable wealth generated by oil and gas and global financial capital. (The others are Kuwait City; Doha in Qatar where the 2022 football world cup is to be held; Manama in Bahrain; and Dammam in Saudi Arabia).
  • Abu Dhabi has 420,000 citizens, who ‘sit on one tenth of the planet’s oil’, are worth about $17 million each on average and have $1 trillion invested globally
  • Each of these 6 gulf states are an example of a ‘genuine slave society’
  • A ‘genuine slave society’ is one that depends on slaves – core functions of its economy and social fabric would not work without slavery
  • In the UAE migrant workers make up 90% of the population. They have very few rights, work in extremely dangerous conditions and are housed in ‘squalid dormitories’ akin to work camps
  • Passports are confiscated. All waking hours are spent working or being shipped to work
  • Domestic female migrant workers face similarly awful conditions. They are essentially property of their employers (the kafala or sponsorship system requires a worker to have their employers’ permission to leave or travel). They are underpaid, or not paid at all, have no access to health care and are frequently subject to sexual exploitation
  • Pretty well all such workers are brown skinned or darker – there is a systemic race issue at the heart of the gulf slave states’ economies
  • Such states, Freamon argues have profound parallels with ancient Greek city-states. The city dominates and the slaves are essential to make it function. To be a ‘genuine slave society:
    • slaves must contribute more than 20% of the population
    • slaves must be essential to the production of economic surpluses for the elites
    • slavery must be a central cultural and economic institution
  • In slave states the slaves will be ‘outsiders’ and considered inferior. Race and ethnicity mark out the lower status of slaves
  • Slavery depends on force and the use of or threat of violence. Freamon argues that both the race / ethnic markers and the role of violence are present in the Persian Gulf societies.
  • Yes, the migrant workers do not have all contacts cut off from their homelands and families but Freamon concludes this is not enough to overturn the overwhelming evidence that these 6 gulf city states are built on slavery

Freamon concludes

If there is to be true abolition in the Persian Gulf, all of the markers of slavery that I have identified, particularly the racialisation of labor and rampant worker abuse and exploitation, must be eliminated.

There are tiny steps beginning to be made but they are only scratching at the surface. Freamon is active in setting up a website Ijmāʿ on Slavery that is seeking to be a catalyst of reform within Islam – for this is an Islamic problem. Racism is not only white on black. Slavery should in theory be illegal under Islamic law.

Golf and Slavery

If Freamon is right – and there is little reason to doubt what he says – the actual courses they play and the opulence which golfers of the European Tour enjoy every time they visit Abu Dhabi and Dubai, are built on slavery.

The money which funds the European Tour’s season long Race to Dubai is tainted with slavery.

Indeed the strategic shift from Europe to the Middle East in the schedule and funding of the European Tour is all due to the attractive power of gulf states money. Quite simply the money on offer from UAE is unmatched anywhere else in Europe. The US Tour has enormous wealth, it doesn’t need Gulf money. The European Tour has fallen significantly behind the US Tour in pulling power. It needs all the money it can get – and seems to be willing to pay a high price.

Next week the Tour stays in UAE and moves to Dubai for the Omega Dubai Desert Classic. The week after that it moves to King Abdullah Economic City in Saudi Arabia for the Saudi International powered by Softbank Investment Advisers.

The first tour event in Saudi Arabia was controversial, scheduled at it was during the political fallout of the abduction, murder and disposal of Jamal Ahmad Khashoggi in late 2018. Rory did not play but a whole host of top-ranked golfers from the US and Europe had no problem turning up.

Tour organisers, sponsors, players, TV rights and a host of other interests all have a common motive in not asking any questions about the morality of hosting and playing major international sporting events in slave states.

This is fantastically hypocritical.

Internationally golf tours and sponsors are desperate to promote inclusion and support anti-racist programmes. But that principled push for inclusion, equality and anti-racism seems to be at best selective – it does not seem to reach brown-skinned people from Nepal, Bangladesh, the Philippines, East Africa and elsewhere.

To be morally consistent, the European Tour – and its players – should refuse to host and play in sporting events in slave societies. Yes they depend on Gulf money, but it works both ways. Major international sporting events bring immense credibility and prestige to those slave states. Tour organisers and world famous players like Rory have real power to effect change that will not happen from within.

I pray to see the day when a famous golfer stands up and says ‘No’ to this unholy alliance between golf and slavery.

LOVE IN PAUL (8) Towards a theology of love and suffering (and a critique of some contemporary Christian worship songs)

When bad things happen to us we often doubt the love of God. Is he really there? Does he care?

We’re continuing a series about the apostle Paul’s theology of love. To recap, there are three great strands of love in the OT that also continue, now Christologically framed, into the NT (and Paul in particular).

1) The elective and saving love of Yahweh for his chosen people.

2) The responsive love of Israel to God’s prior redemptive action.

3) Inter-communal love: the love God’s people are to have for one another

We are in strand 2 – human response to God’s prior love.

So how to respond to God when our world falls apart? When a beloved spouse dies?  When a business collapses and bankruptcy looms? When a doctor says ‘I’ve got some bad news …’?

However counter-intuitive it feels to us today, for Paul there is no conflict between suffering, persecution, hardship and even martyrdom and being loved by God.

To put it another way, being loved by God is no guarantee of some sort of divine protection from the harsh realities of life.

Now, that is a lot easier to say than to live through, but we need to get a theology of suffering in right perspective. If we don’t, then when suffering comes we are unprepared. Its arrival can shatter faith – and reveal unexamined assumptions about some sort of guarantee of divine protection and blessing.

Love and Suffering

Recall how I’ve been arguing that there are deep continuities (as well as some profound discontinuities) between Paul the OT faith in regards to love. This call to faithful trust in God whatever happens brings us back to OT wisdom literature and especially to the book of Job.

If you’ve read Job you may recall Job’s response to his wife who urged him to ‘curse God and die’. In her thinking there was an unspoken assumption of divine protection and blessing for those who loved God.

When God did not keep his side of the bargain, all bets were off.

But Job rejected her advice, saying that

Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad? (2:10)

And he is affirmed for this right answer.

Paul stands in this Jewish wisdom tradition: God is still good, even if things that happen to us are not.

His emphasis is on trusting God in the face of ageing, and whatever hardships come our way, while awaiting a future eternal glory (2 Cor 4:16-18).

16 Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. 17 For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. 18 So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

Indeed, from this eschatological perspective Paul does not even address the question ‘Why me?’ or ‘Why suffering?’. These things are inevitable and to be expected – but they do not have the last word. He can even call them ‘light and momentary troubles’ of relative insignificance compared to what lies ahead.

Now I’m not suggesting that telling someone in the middle of a traumatic crisis to cheer up because their troubles are relatively insignificant is a good strategy for pastoral care.

But I am suggesting that we need to get our theology of love and suffering right before that crisis hits. Paul’s words could easily be misunderstood. He is not trivializing suffering. He is putting it in a far bigger eschatological perspective. He has a profound understanding that our lives are lived in the overlap of the ages – where the forces of Sin and Death and Evil still hold sway.

And, while those forces hold no fear for the Christian in Christ, they are still real and will do their worst. Since we are not yet in the new creation, all believers will feel their cold grip.

This means we need a theology that combines being loved by God with a theology of suffering, lament and longing for that new creation.

Distorted Love

And I’m suggesting that this sort of theology is lacking within a lot of contemporary Christian spirituality. Or, to put it another way, what Job and Paul (and Jesus) tell us is increasingly alien to much Western Christianity, distorted as it is by a misshaped theology of divine love.

I’d better explain that rather big assertion.

We are inundated with songs and sermons celebrating the immeasurable love of God – that we are special, that we are chosen, that we are the apple of his eye, that we are beloved etc.

None of this is untrue of course. But it is what is not said that is as important as what is said. The overwhelming impression can be little different from a session of hug therapy that helps us feel better about ourselves when we leave.

Within this culture of peppy optimism about ourselves and about God’s all-embracing and unconditional love, there is little room left for lament, for expressing anger, for tears, for confession and repentance, for grief.

David Smith, who teaches on our MA programme at IBI, recently wrote a book on this. Stumbling toward Zion: Recovering the Biblical Tradition of Lament in the Era of World Christianity. After the death of his wife, his experience of much Christian worship left him feeling like an exile. It had little or nothing to say to someone grieving a deep loss.

He laments the absence of lament in the “unremittingly affirmative, positive and celebratory” ethos of much contemporary Western Christianity.

Worse still, more than a few of those songs are more like romantic love ballads. They speak of being held in the arms of God the lover who will protect us and help us feel secure. Here’s one very well-known example:

Hold me close let your love surround me
Bring me near draw me to your side
And as I wait
I’ll rise up like an eagle
And I will soar with you
Your spirit leads me on
By the power of your love

Geoff Bullock, 1992 Word Music/Maranatha Music

This is the language of sexual intimacy between two lovers. It is personal and private, not public and corporate. The music is soft and emotive. Within the 240 word lyrics I counted 49 first-person pronouns (I, me, my) and not one plural pronoun. God becomes ‘You’ – an ambiguous term that makes it even easier for the lyrics to fit into the genre of a pop love song. In this song – and many others like it, Jesus does not appear – nor is there any reference to the Bible story, the incarnation, the cross, future hope etc.

There are hundreds of other examples we could talk about. Maybe that’s a subject for a blog series. Save to say that all this is a long way from the theology of Paul (and the rest of the NT)

Christian Faith and Coronavirus

The January-March 2021 edition of VOX is out – Issue 49.

As usual its excellent design and layout contains an informative and interesting mix of news, articles and reflections representing a wide cross-section of Christianity in Ireland.

With distribution much more difficult these days, you can order your copies(s) online here. Perhaps consider ordering multiple copies and giving some away to encourage others and help support VOX at the same time. It is produced by a talented team of volunteers.

Below is my ‘Musings’ Article from the current edition.

Christian Faith and the Coronavirus

As I write, vaccines are on the horizon, but SARS-CoV-2 has much of the world in its grip. About 1.5 million people have died and there are about 60 million cases worldwide. Beyond debates about lockdowns and economic responses, what are some distinctively Christian ways to think about the pandemic? Here are some thoughts …  

1. Is God to blame?

We could drown in deep theological waters very quickly here, but three truths need to be held together. God is good. Much that happens in this world (like a pandemic that kills people) is not. Disease and death will form no part of God’s new creation to come. Together, this points to the coronavirus being a symptom of a creation twisted by the Fall. While in itself the virus is not evil (it’s just a tiny organism without moral agency), it’s an unwelcome intruder in a creation that looks forward to liberation and renewal. If anyone is to blame, it’s human interference in the natural world.

2. Love your neighbour

An authentically Christian response to suffering and inequality begins with lament, compassion and love for those most in need. From Christianity’s earliest days, it was known as a movement of care for the poor. Such teaching is embedded in Jesus’ life and in the writings of the rest of the New Testament. This emphasis is in turn rooted in the Jewish scriptures which speak of God’s impartial love for the widow, alien and stranger. Christianity lay behind the development of hospitals and the idea that all people, made in the image of God, are worth caring for. Such love is revolutionary. In these pandemic times let the church be known for its self-giving love, not a concern for its own rights.

3. A school for faith

Eusebuis’ Ecclesiastical History describes plague in third-century Alexandria as recorded by Dionysius.

“… But now all things are filled with tears, all are mourning, and by reason of the multitudes already dead, and still dying, groans are daily resounding throughout the city… [This pestilence was] a calamity more dreadful to them [the pagans] than any dread, and more afflictive that any affliction, and which as one of their own historians has said, was of itself alone beyond all hope. To us, however, it did not wear this character, but no less than other events it was a school for exercise and probation.

Indeed, the most of our brethren, by their exceeding great love and brotherly affection, not sparing themselves, and adhering to one another, were constantly superintending the sick, ministering to their wants without fear and without cessation, and healing them in Christ, have departed most sweetly with them.” (VII, 22.7).

This is radical stuff! These early Christians really believed that death died at the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. They knew it had lost its power and weren’t afraid of its sting. What a wonderful way to see these ‘strange times’ – as a school for fearless practice of faith in the service of others.

4. The illusion of control

In a recent zoom call, our home-group talked about how much we took for granted before March 2020. Now it’s a dream just to sit around a table having a cup of tea with a group of friends. As 21st century Westerners we are daily sold a story of what life ‘should’ be like: expectations of endless growth, prosperity, freedom, happiness, travel, safety, comfort, health, low infant mortality and long-life. We are cocooned in technology and medicine (especially if we have money).

The arrival of vaccines offer hope that life can go back to ‘normality’. But let’s learn lessons before rushing back to life as it was. We’re being reminded that we’re not in control – however much we like to think we are masters of events, our lives and even our bodies. The theologian Stanley Hauerwas likes to say that, in the West,

we think we have the medical technology to get out of life alive.

The trouble is life has a 100% death rate. We also have much to learn about humility and faith from brothers and sisters from other parts of the world familiar with war, famine, death and disease. They are well used to the fragility of life and have no illusions about being in control.

5. Pray

Prayer is another way of acknowledging that we’re not in control. Prayer brings us into God’s presence and re-orientates us to think, talk and act in light of the truth that God is God and we are not. It looks forward to the return of the Lord and his final victory over sin, sickness, death and evil. So let’s pray

Marana tha. Come O Lord!’ (1 Cor. 16:22).

Thoughts on the Vaccine, Gratitude and Ingratitude

[This post also appears on the Jesus Creed blog at Christianity Today]

2021 looks like a pretty dark year ahead Pandemic wise. It sure is beginning that way.

Just for the record….  In Ireland record levels of new cases of Covid-19 continue to rise. Only people with symptoms are being tested, not close contacts due to limitations in testing capacity. Testing centres are working expanded hours at full capacity. ICUs expect the peak in the next few weeks to be higher than back in March/April 2020. The new variant may increase the surge and perhaps the current Level 5 lockdown will not be enough to stop cases rising.

The vaccines are coming, but it is going to be a long road back to anything like ‘normal’ – and I suspect a longer road than we’re hoping.

And if you live in Northern Ireland, most of Britain, Europe or the USA, it is worse still.

So what’s the point in recapping this tale of woe that we are all too familiar with? Well, I want to think a little about gratitude.

GRATITUDE

‘Thankfulness’ or ‘appreciation’ are probably the closest words to gratitude.

I’m not thinking about ‘counting our blessings’ – although that can be a very good thing to do.

Nor I am thinking of all the ‘good’ spin-offs from the Pandemic – like time with family, time to read, enjoy nature, learn a new skill and the like. Seems to me those spin-offs are mostly for the privileged who have kept jobs, have financial security and have a nice home & garden and such like and haven’t been too effected at all, except having holiday plans disrupted and having to work from home.

I’m thinking of a more specific sort of gratitude – gratitude for science.

Now science is a pretty broad term. To be specific I mean by it the discipline of scientific enquiry that has the knowledge, self-critical rigour, professionalism, expertise and sheer determination and hard work to research, devise, create, test, mass produce and distribute a vaccine in a matter of months.

I am only dimly aware of what that has meant in practice. I’m also aware that there big questions within science about the desperate rush to vaccination – dubious claims, wasted money, duplication of research and entire areas of science being ‘Covidised’.

So this isn’t a naive paean to saintly scientists. But from hearing and reading the stories, ‘science’ here means real people working 90 hour weeks for months to do something unprecedented in the history of medical research. And that work has global beneficial implications.

It’s a story that I hope will be told and celebrated because it makes a post-Pandemic world imaginable.

I’m also grateful for the doctors, nurses and volunteers working hard to get that vaccine out to the general population. I’m grateful for the institutional and political structures that makes all of this possible.

But that remarkable achievement has got pretty lost in all the in-fighting, arguments, politics and differences of opinion about the right strategy for the roll-out of the vaccines.

We hear about little else except administrative failures in get started early enough (eg The Netherlands), decisions to delay the second jab so as to give more people the first jab (UK), the failure to vaccinate health-care workers fast enough, arguments over who should be eligible for vaccination, scepticism over the efficacy of vaccines, anger at the anti-vaxxers, the failure of capacity to deliver vaccines to the right places, suspicion over deals done by governments with the drug companies  … and very legitimate concerns about the inequality of access to the vaccine between rich and poor countries globally.

In all the noise, there is precious little gratitude about.

Which leads me to ingratitude.

INGRATITUDE

The Pandemic has only highlighted the fact that ingratitude is an intrinsic characteristic of modern life in the West.

In the secular disenchantment of the West, all we have left is ourselves. And when life goes wrong there has to be someone to blame. And there is a lot of blame about.

Since this is a theology blog, let’s think about ingratitude as a spiritual issue. Why? Well because it goes to the heart of character and virtue.

And I’ll go as far to say that ingratitude is antithetical to Christian faith.

  • Ingratitude flows from a sense of entitlement – I have a right to what I am due.
  • Ingratitude is a symptom of judgmentalism – I am not getting good enough service. Others don’t live up to my standards.
  • Ingratitude is a form of selfishness – I am obsessed about my own rights, my own needs, my own opinions to a degree that I don’t appreciate or even see the work and good intentions of others.
  • Ingratitude is a close cousin of cynicism – I choose to focus on and complain about ‘the bad’: the perceived failures of others.

Entitlement, judgmentalism, selfishness and cynicism aren’t a very attractive quartet of anti-virtues are they?

I don’t know about you but I confess that I can all too easily lapse into a ‘glass half-empty’ pessimism that sees only what is wrong and not what is right and good. So I need regular reminders to practice the virtue of gratitude!

THE PRACTICE OF GRATITUDE

Gratitude affirms that there is goodness in the world and actively appreciates its presence.

Gratitude is hopeful. It sees evidence that the world can be a better place.

Gratitude is thankful: it recognises that I am a recipient of undeserved benefits and goods. Being loved by others is the greatest gift of all.

Gratitude is other-orientated: it recognises others and the good they do. It affirms and encourages others. It deepens relationship.

Gratitude fosters community and acknowledges that ‘I’ only flourish in relationship with others (which brings us back to the vaccine as a fantastic corporate scientific enterprise that benefits all of us)

This is why gratitude is a profoundly Christian virtue.

For, fundamentally, a Christian is simply someone who has received an undeserved gift.

Every Christian – regardless of money, intelligence, possessions, achievements, social standing, gender, or skin colour – are recipients of God’s grace in Jesus Christ. And that grace leads to being adopted, forgiven, restored, empowered, and reconciled to God and to one another to be people of hope in the world.

That’s a lot to be thankful for.

So for 2021, why not set about practicing the virtue of gratitude?

– Look for good in the world and in others

– Focus on reasons for hope

– List things to be thankful for

– Encourage others, say thanks

– Appreciate that your life only flourishes in relationship with others

Relentless Love: Peter McVerry ‘Beyond Compassion to Solidarity’

Back in 1979 Jesuit Priest Fr Peter McVerry opened a hostel for homeless children in Dublin city centre. The Peter McVerry Trust now has 25 hostels where over a thousand homeless people stay each night. It also has 400 apartments where homeless people and families can have a home for life. It also runs four drug treatment centres, a drop-in-centre and a youth café.

Now that paragraph alone should be raising all sorts of questions in one of the richest countries in the EU. Why homeless children? Why a growing homelsss problem and now 25 hostels? Why 400 apartments? What is the story with the grip of drugs in the city?

A neat, comfortable, middle-class answer, shaped by market economics and a strong sense of personal responsibility, might be to say something like the following:

“Poverty, homelessness and drug-taking are the results of choices. In a country like Ireland there are state supports and free education, so it’s bad self-destructive choices that lead to the streets.”

Such self-righteous detachment (for that is what it is) has zero appreciation for the systemic inequalities in which we live. McVerry writes honestly of the huge social and economic advantages he grew up with:

As I look at my own life, I see that I have been given so much by God. I have been given a good family, good education, good opportunities in life; but there are so many people who have not had those opportunities or gifts. p. 179

As he tells some stories of the children and homeless people he has worked with, that last sentence sounds like an immense understatement. 11 year old boys forced into prostitution; 9 year olds sleeping rough; a 12 year old boy seeing his sister stabbed to death by a parent; another 12 year old having to help his mother inject heroin each day and becoming an addict himself; others victims of sexual, physical and emotional abuse; generational unemployment; a pervasive culture of hard drugs and associated crime and so on.

McVerry reflects that decades of work with some of the poorest and socially disadvantaged communities in Ireland has changed him in a number of ways.

1) He’s stopped judging people

What I am doing if I judge one of these young people? If I say: “There’s a little scumbag,” or ‘There’s a little junkie robber,” what I am doing? I’m actually judging myself, because I know that if I had been born into their circumstances, I would be exactly the same. pp 178-79.

2) Gratitude

The result of his work has been a deepened gratitude and appreciation for all that God has given him.

“My relationship with God totally changed – from being one of worrying whether I was on God’s side or not, to simply praying ‘Thanks for all I have received’. There is nothing else to say except ‘Thanks’.” p. 179

3) He sees God not as a judge, but as a God of forgiveness and compassion

So the God I came to believe in was no longer the judging God. God does not judge us – God forgives us again and again and again. And so, for me, God became the God who cares, the God of compassion. p. 179

4) Anger

Angry at injustice. Angry at Irish govt policy that allows and contributes directly to homelessnes in a rich EU nation. Angry at unnecessary suffering.

“I’m glad to be angry – I always say that when I lose my anger I’ll be no use to homeless people. They have made me angry because we as a society have failed them.” p. 179-80.

Beyond Compassion to Solidarity

McVerry has concluded that in combating poverty, compassion alone has its limitations. Compassion rests with the giver, who I choose to be the beneficiary of my giving. Who I deem worthy of my charity.

Solidarity, for McVerry, means putting ourselves in others’ shoes. It begins with compassion but goes beyond compassion to action to alleviate injustice and inequality. It envisages action for the common good based on solidarity within a common humanity made in the image of God.

Every one of those people living on the streets is God’s beloved child. p. 183.

Such solidarity has to lead to action if it is to mean anything. Without action the world will just see empty words, a church without compassion, a church of judgement and condemnation.

“It’s time to recover and show the solidarity and compassion of Jesus … So I tell young people: you will not find God in your churches, and you will not encounter God in your prayers and your hymns, unless you first find God and encounter him in the suffering, pain and distress of those around you.” p. 184.

SOME COMMENTS

1) CONTINUITY WITH EARLY CHRISTIANITY

I’m reading Christianity’s Surprise by C Kavin Rowe at the moment. In it he talks about the radical innovation that Christianity represented in the ancient world. One of the most radical was the value of each human. Before Christianity,

no-one had thought that every human – whether high, low or anything in between – was exactly the same as every other, and no-one had thought that all of them were to be treated as if they were the very Lord of the world. p. 4

McVerry stands in continuity with that great radical Christian tradition of compassion for the poor, the outcast and the vulnerable and the ‘worthless’ who have nothing to ‘contribute’ to society. A tradition that has its origins in Jesus himself.

2) ORTHOPRAXIS

In the chapter McVerry is primarily telling a story of his life and ministry, not writing a theological paper. But theology keeps breaking into the narrative. There is a repeated emphasis on orthopraxy – that orthodox belief in itself is not enough. For belief to be ‘real’ it must be demonstrated in action.

This is again very much in the tradition of Jesus. His critcisms of the Pharisees frequently revolved around a disconnect between adherence to the Torah and a lack of compassion and love for people in need.

3) CATHOLIC SOCIAL JUSTICE AND INTEGRAL MISSION

Just to remind you if you have not read the first post on this book, it originates from a Micah Global Conference on Integral Mission. Micah Global is an evangelical network, fitting within the orbit of the Lausanne Movement and its Cape Town Commitment that embraces Christians and Christian mission organisations from all over the world, particularly the Global South.

As a guest speaker to the conference, Fr McVerry does not frame things in quite the same way that Micah Global or the Lausanne Movement do.

Evangelicals would resist setting love and judgment against one another, arguing that they are two sides of the same coin. Indeed, God would not be loving if he were not also a judge of the evil and sin that causes human suffering.

I suspect also that there are quite significant differences in Micah’s theology of the church, integral mission and the kingdom of God and an approach shaped by Catholic Social Teaching (CST). [We’ll come back to this in the next post in this series looking at my chapter comparing Trocaire and Tearfund’s theology of social justice].

But for armchair critics to nitpick at what Peter McVerry does or does not say, is to bring to mind the response of the nineteenth century preacher D L Moody to criticisms of his blunt evangelistic style.

“It is clear you don’t like my way of doing evangelism. You raise some good points. Frankly, I sometimes do not like my way of doing evangelism. But I like my way of doing it better than your way of not doing it.

D L Moody

Yes there are differences, but in a focus on the poor and on orthopraxis, there are significant areas of common concern between Catholics like McVerry and evangelicals committed to integral mission. This points towards what Francis Schaeffer once called ‘co-belligerence’ between Catholics and evangelicals – a working together on issues of justice.

4) PERSONAL CHALLENGE

More personally, Peter McVerry’s ‘righteous anger’ at injustice – and his costly response in serving the poor – should challenge every Christian to ask two questions.

What injustice am I angry at?

What am I going to do about it?