Contested love (1) Diotima’s Ladder

9780300118308Simon May’s superb book Love: A History unpacks changing understandings of love through the centuries. It’s a tour de force; a scintillating journey with an expert and entertaining guide who introduces the reader to a fascinating list of characters, all of whom have a lot of (conflicting) things to say about love.

A few posts follow on key highlights of that journey.

The first stop on our journey is Diotima’s Ladder in Plato’s Symposium.

First, some questions: if asked, what would you say is the key to happiness? Would your answer include love? How do you think of love? Is it the supreme goal of life? Is it the true sign of spirituality and virtue? Is it that which makes you whole?

If you are answering yes to some of these then you are at least in part agreement with Plato.

Here’s a very clever little video (1.32) that captures Plato’s’ important idea of love as an ascent towards virtue: from physical lust to abstract morality; from this world to a higher plane; flesh to spirit.

The Symposium is the first extended philosophy of love in the Western world and has had immeasureable influence in the history of love.

This is Greek morality  – the ideal youth is male; sexual lust is not in mind here, it is beauty that is idealised and women were inferior, so male beauty is that which arouses ‘bottom rung of the ladder’ love.

What parallels do you see in the concept of love as a ladder with Christian theology? And / or with how our culture thinks about love today?

 

Fear, Nietzsche and Beauty: approaching 2017

Two things behind this post.

  1. 2016 was, in many ways, a brutal, ugly and unsettling sort of year.
  2. This pair of goldfinches visited our garden (I’ll come back to the goldfinches)

img_7518-2

2016 was especially unsettling for us in the West, I think, because it was also a year that saw rising threats to the future stability and security of our Western way of life.

In no particular order, some of these threats include (and I am sure you can add your own):

  • The devastation of Syria – but also within Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen and elsewhere – and its unimaginable associated human cost, have left many looking on feeling both helpless and angry. On top of this, the conflict has exposed the West’s impotence to oust Assad and has hugely bolstered Putin’s influence in the region.
  • The West continues to reap what was sown by Bush and Blair’s reckless and arrogant invasion of Iraq. Western hubris to imagine that Western democracy could be catalysed in Libya, Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan has been shown to be just that.
  • Putin’s latest ‘victory’ in Aleppo is part of his agenda of regaining Russian self-respect and influence in the world. Annexing Crimea, partial invasion of Eastern Ukraine, new balances of power with Turkey, cyber-hacking the USA and ruthless crushing of dissent at home – are all part of Putin’s gangsterism and empire-building strategy demonstrating his contempt for the weak West.
  • European elites seem to have no coherent answer to either the refugee crisis or the very real chance of the break up of the Euro. Italy could enter a fiscal crisis in 2017. Risks to the viability of the Euro appear to be relentlessly rising despite continual firefighting by European policy makers. After years, it is pretty clear that there is neither the political cohesion or creativity to ‘re-imagine’ a different structure for Europe that can actually work.
  • That scepticism towards Europe as an idea is shared by more and more within Europe. Brexit might be only the first step.
  • Liberal Westerners are aghast at the potential ending (or at least a serious threats to) of the onward ‘civilising’ march of liberal secular democracy in Europe and the USA. Trump and Putin (and their mutual admiration society) pose the nightmare scenario of the rise of autocratic right-wing nationalism. I mean by this  a form of nationalism that goes back to a myth of ‘our origins’ and seeks to ‘recover’ who we ‘truly’ are while simultaneously finding scapegoats blame for the ‘decline of our once great nation’.
  • The nihilistic brutality of ISIS / Daesh and its sporadic, unpredictable and ruthless violence within European cities is designed not for military victory but to spread fear and catalyse division within the enemy. One desired outcome is to sow seeds of enmity and distrust within European multiculturalist pluralist societies that can grow into ugly plants of xenophobia, racism and exclusion – to undermine Europe from within.  So far, quite a lot of progress made on this front.

The fear and uncertainty felt by many in the West today is not because uncertainty, violence, mass immigration and nationalism are new but because they are hitting close to home.

These are some impressionistic descriptions – some may be more accurate than others. The real point is not the detail but a question:

What is a response for a disciple of Jesus to living in times of deep uncertainty?

Some possible responses:

  1. Be consumed by fear at threats to our ‘Western way of life.’

There is an incomparable richness with living in the West – the freedoms and opportunities that we take for granted are all around us. It is an astonishing privilege to live in a culture that has a democratic government (and only partially corrupt form of politics). Heck, even the trains nearly run on time some of the time. These freedoms should be supported and defended as that which gives maximum freedom to most people.

But, Christians should be well aware that these gifts are not guaranteed and are certainly not an indispensable part of being a follower of Jesus. A Christian’s source of identity, security and hope does not derive from living in an unheralded time (historically speaking) of prosperity, political stability and access to infinite information.

So we are not to be people of fear, but of hope. Our ‘salvation’ does not rest on the fortunes of liberal secular democracy. Christians in the West are, after all, called to be NOT good Westerners – whether Irish, American, British or German etc. They ARE called to be faithful disciples of Jesus their Lord.

2. Live by the sword

Up there with ‘love your enemies’, perhaps one of the most ignored teachings of Jesus is that “those who draw the sword will die by the sword” (Mt 26:52)

Christians are not to be uncritical supporters of the West or of their particular state. A role of the church (however unpopular) is to call the state to account before God – and take the consequences (ask John the Baptist).

It is the West’s arrogance and militarism that has helped create the disaster of the contemporary Middle East. Rather than respond the catastrophic mess with support for more violence, it is Christians who are called to be peacemakers; people of prayer; compassion; of reconciliation and mercy.

An illustration from the radio this morning: Lyse Doucet is a superb international correspondent for the BBC. She was talking of why she risked her life reporting from Aleppo. Her reply was unescapably moral: it was a privilege to see what was happening and tell the human story of suffering. She recalled her Catholic upbringing and that she had been taught to be ‘my brother’s keeper’. She was there to use her training and experience to help give a voice to those without a voice. Her actions are a fantastic model for Christians. Non-violence is not passive, it is courageous and bold on behalf of the weak and vulnerable. It speaks of risky love at cost to ourselves. It speaks of a radically different narrative to the men of war.

3.   Accept the fate of the world

nietzscheThe brilliant atheist Friedrich Nietzsche (with impressive moustache) talked of amor fati – love of fate. By this he meant that we should overcome our weakness of trying to seek salvation or moral perfection in this world. Rather we should grow up and say YES to all that exists; embrace all of life, both its miseries and joys. There is nothing else higher or better than life as it is.  It is Christian weakness and illusion to believe that there is – and Nietzsche hated such weakness. He believed in strength and power rather than perverse ideas of pity and compassion.

Nietzsche was absolutely right – if God is dead. For without God all we do face is a pitiless world where the will to power wins out and compassion is mere stupidity (sound familiar re a certain President elect?). Fatalism and power are the responses of faithlessness – quite consistent for an atheist but not exactly an option for a Christian.

4. Hope, compassion and beauty

Rather than 1-3, can I suggest that in a violent and uncertain world, Christians are to be people of hope, compassion and lovers of beauty.

Christian hope rests not in politics or nationalism but on the victory of God won in Christ. In him we have the certainty of resurrection life, forgiveness of sin, new life in the Spirit, a mission give our lives to, a God to love and a church and world to serve. We are to be people who believe in, are shaped by and share good news – whatever the world is doing around us.

That good news includes Paul’s command to ‘remember the poor’ and to live a kingdom life that is ‘good news to the poor’. God’s people, like OT Israel are to reflect God’s heart for those cast aside by the power structures and politics of the world:

He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt. Deut. 10:18-19

As recipients of God’s grace and compassion, we are to share grace and compassion generously with those in need like refugees fleeing from unimaginable violence.

Finally, back to those goldfinches. I like bird watching and think goldfinches are particularly pretty. Now some people I know don’t like birds at all and I think Starlings are frankly evil. So my point is not about birds per se, but beauty.

There is something captivating and transcendent about beauty – maybe for you it is a landscape, a sunset, a person, a poem, a tree, a painting, a crashing wave on a beach or a crafted piece of clothing?

Beauty reminds us that this life, this world, is full of goodness, made by a loving creator. It is to be treasured, savoured, enjoyed and looked after. Since God’s ultimate agenda is renewal and healing of this broken and violent world, Christians are to be life-affirming and world-affirming.

Part of being people of hope is to pause and give thanks for the beauty we see every day. Part of being people of hope is to create beauty with our hands and with our words.

Hope, compassion, beauty: these, I suggest, rather than fear, violence and fatalism, form a Christian framework for approaching 2017.

A Christmas reflection (according to the book of Hebrews)

Rarely included in texts read at Christmas is Hebrews’ distinct and rich contribution to the identity of the incarnate Son. In a sense this is not surprising – compared to John’s magnificent and poetic prologue and Matthew and Luke’s compelling birth narratives, Hebrews’s more unfamiliar imagery is harder to relate to.

Here’s a summary of Hebrews on the incarnation for this Christmas.

Hebrews 1:1-4

In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. So he became as much superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is superior to theirs.

In these few lines the story of Jesus is beautifully unfolded. God has now spoken through his Son. All previous revelation through the prophets and history of Israel has foreshadowed the coming of the Son.

The Son is described in extraordinary Christological language and accomplishes extraordinary things.

In terms of identity, the writer talks of key moments in the ‘career’ of the Son, not in a neat chronological progression but by moving back and forward between past and present.

Seven things are said of the Son in these few lines:

  1. He is appointed heir of all things by God – when exalted by God after being made lower than the angels for a period of time.
  2. The Son is the one through whom God created the world. The Son therefore existed before engaging in his saving work (not a major theme in Hebrews but important nonetheless).
  3. Ontologically this exalted creator Son embodies the very glory and presence of God himself. Like the dazzling warming rays of the sun are in effect the presence of the sun itself here on earth, so Jesus is the radiance of God. To gaze at the Son is to gaze at God himself.
  4. The Son not only creates but also sustains all things by his powerful word
  5. The Son’s ‘mission’ was to effect the purification for sins (the main theme of Hebrews)
  6. As a result the Son has been exalted to sit at God’s right hand in heaven (a major theme of Hebrews)
  7. He has inherited a name far above that of the angels – he alone is the Son of God (another major theme in Hebrews)

With the Son’s exaltation, Psalm 8:4-6 is fulfilled (Heb 2:5-9)

It is not to angels that he has subjected the world to come, about which we are speaking. But there is a place where someone has testified:

“What is mankind that you are mindful of them,
    a son of man that you care for him?
You made them a little lower than the angels;
    you crowned them with glory and honor
   and put everything under their feet.”

In putting everything under them, God left nothing that is not subject to them. Yet at present we do not see everything subject to them.  But we do see Jesus, who was made lower than the angels for a little while, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.

God’s purpose is to exalt and redeem humanity. For this to happen, the preexistent Son has become incarnate, truly ‘one of us’. Humanity’s exaltation is yet to happen. But the author of Hebrews writes to encourage and give hope. The destiny of the exalted Son is the destiny of humanity. He is the pioneer and perfecter of faith – the truly human one who has provided purification for sin through his atoning death. Now crowned with glory, his journey through suffering and death to glory can be followed by those in him.

The author spells out the significance of the incarnation from 2:14ff. Jesus shares in our flesh and blood to break the power of the devil and to “free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.”

The Son is “fully human in every way” and this means:

  • He alone can become a merciful and faithful high priest representing humanity
  • He alone can make atonement for the sin
  • As risen and exalted one, he is able to help those who are being tempted because he himself suffered when he was tempted.

This is the astonishing good news of the incarnation according to Hebrews this Christmas – and every Christmas.

Happy Christmas!

Christians and the Arms Industry

Last month the Centre for Contemporary Christianity in Belfast hosted Alan and Elaine Storkey to give their annual Sir Fred Catherwood Lecture. It was entitled ‘Ain’t Going to Study War No More ..’

The lecture can be listened to here.

One major theme of Storkey’s lecture is how arms do not ‘follow’ wars, but wars follow the production and selling of arms.

In other words, the arms trade has a vested interest in the incredibly lucrative business of selling arms. It also has a vested interest in promoting narratives that tell us that we need arms to defend and protect our Western freedoms. They also need, and have, mutually beneficial relationships with Western politicians who give the companies contracts worth billions that simultaneously help Western economies grow.

Storky also talks about the endemic corruption of this system with arms companies engaged in blatant bribery of potential clients – that Tony Blair (for example) knew about and closed down investigations ‘in the national interest’.

The money at stake also means that attempts at disarmament will, and have for many decades, met a wall of resistance from political power brokers and the arms trade.

The West, of which you and I are a part, has therefore a huge ethical and moral responsibility for the proliferation of war around the world.

If this is so, what then is a response for Christians who owe their primary loyalty to a crucified Messiah and not the state they happen to live in?

The lecture is largely drawn from a book by Alan Storkey called War or Peace? The long failure of Western Arms.

A discussion board hosted by the centre is here with a post by Rev Norman Hamilton, former moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland. It in he says,

It is striking, and deeply disturbing, that our daily diet of the horrors of war on the news has not energised any substantial discussion amongst Christian people in the UK (or indeed the Western world) about war – even though huge attention has been given this year to remembering World War 1 and the Battle of the Somme. Is that because war is not quite yet on our doorstep, even thought its tentacles have brought death and fear to Nice, Rouen and Brussels this year, after the outrage in Paris in 2015? Is it because we know that jobs and economic prosperity come to us from the making of war and armaments, and that we don’t want unemployment to rise? Is it because we really do believe that a ‘war on terrorism’ war is necessary and justified to try to rid our world of such evil? Is it because we believe that national defence matters a great deal, and so we must encourage our government to take whatever steps are needed to protect us? Is it because we have committed so few of our armed forces to that conflict (unlike our role in Afghanistan)? Or is it because we haven’t thought much about it as Christian people, and find it all too easy to keep it that way.

What do you think? What are some reasons why Christians are so slow to talk about war?

Some points come to mind for me:

  • A failure for Christians to have a prophetic critical distance from their own’s national narrative.  Too easily we believe the myths that armaments and violence will make us ‘safe’. Too easily we swallow the assumptions that war is a necessary and even good thing that is regrettable but ‘justified’ – despite pretty well no war meeting the abstract criteria for Just War theory. This all leads to passivity and acceptance of the status quo.
  • How we read the Bible: if Christians globally refused by default to engage in war how profoundly this would challenge the assumed ‘naturalness’ of war and the acceptability of the arms trade. Yet this is not the case – despite the New Testaments crystal clear teaching that followers of Jesus are to be people of peace, reconciliation and non-violence. For various reasons, we jump through all sort of hermeneutical hoops to avoid the teaching and example of our Lord, and the teaching and example of Paul and the rest of the early Christians movement. We have been co-opted into the Constantinian story of religion in partnership with the state rather than resisting the temptation to take up the sword in the name of the state.
  • A fatalism / passivity that this is the way the world is? Storkey ended with a call to action and also a confidence in the gospel that God’s ways actually work. Is war – with all its senseless brutality and death actually practical in solving anything? Just ask the residents of Aleppo. Is peacemaking and action towards dismantling the West’s military industrial complex somehow more impractical than warmaking?

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Interrogating Hauerwas – book notice

My friend Kevin Hargaden has had the privilege and task of listening to and editing a series of conversations between his two Texan PhD Supervisors, Brian Brock and a certain Stanley Hauerwas. He’s done a great job.

The result is Beginnings: Interrogating Hauerwas, to be published in February 2017. Here is the endorsement that I’ve had the pleasure to write:

“This is no ordinary conversation. Brian Brock’s deep familiarity with the entire Hauerwas corpus, astute and persistent probing, combined with an ability to push Hauerwas hard, results in an important book – one that offers new perspectives on both Hauerwas the man and the integrative importance of Christology and ecclesiology within his diverse theological vision. Following the discussion is demanding. It is also an education – not only in Hauerwasian theology but in truth-telling, the art of conversation, wisdom, virtue, suffering, prayer, love, hope and joy. All told, a richly rewarding eavesdropping experience.” –  Patrick Mitchel, Irish Bible Institute.

I read it in bed in a mammoth session over a weekend when not feeling very well. It was a wonderful excuse to do nothing else but devour this book and forget about the rest of life for a couple of days. While these two men are obviously very good friends, the conversations are far from ad hoc chats. Brian Brock is frankly rather awesome (I can say that of an American) in his depth of research combined with an ability ‘interrogate Hauerwas’ in a way that very few people would be equipped to do.

The resultant conversations are erudite and – I’ve got to be honest here, you can’t BS about Hauerwas, he’s the one who says we must be first and foremost truth-tellers! – at times I had to read and re-read to keep up with what was going on.  The level of learning and the art of conversation is remarkable, but more that this, what comes through is the vibrant, attractive (I’m a huge fan) and passionate humanity of Hauerwas.

The thing is he is just simply right about a whole lot of things. And he writes beautifully, whatever the subject. The discussion on his writing of Hannah’s Child was fascinating in how seriously Hauerwas takes the creative art of writing.

What’s the best way in to Hauerwas? Opinions welcome.

Three suggestions to begin:

His autobiography Hannah’s Child is wonderful – I read it again a while ago and it helped me enormously at the time.

The Peaceable Kingdom is terrific – I recall thinking that Hauerwas was extolling the benefits of narrative theology long before it became popular and fashionable.

War and the American Difference is classic polemical and prophetic Hauerwas, calling Christians to an alternative ecclesiological body politic to that of militarism, nationalism and violence that characterise contemporary America. (And that just might be a message that needs to be proclaimed from the rooftops in the next few years …)

Loving Donald Trump: a theory

Whatever your political persuasion or opinion on the American Presidential election, there are few voices even trying to argue that Donald Trump is a good, morally upright and virtuous person.

Even one D. J. Trump did (briefly and defiantly and only when confronted by the audio-tape of his bragging about using his fame to take advantage of women) admit that he has made mistakes and is not perfect.

Yet, it’s pretty clear that a very many Americans love Donald Trump. I use the word ‘love’ deliberately. I’m not talking just about political reasons to vote for him. Yes, for a lot of people, it was his policies and promises that won the day. But from mass rallies all over the country it’s clear that a very sizeable portion of the electorate are passionately committed to Trump at an emotional level that goes far beyond pragmatic self-interest.

(It’s not my main point here, but it might even be said that one reason Hillary did not win was that even her own supporters did not love her in the same way as Trump’s supporters loved him. They respected her, but she did not inspire the same intensity of devotion)

9780300118308Simon May has a very interesting take on this phenomenon of love for people who are most definitely not good. People who actively have no interest in appearing to be good and yet who are loved. May mentions captives’ love for their kidnappers or a child’s continuing love for a parent who has obviously harmed them by some form of abuse.

Or what about whole populations’ love for megalomanical leaders who killed millions?: huge swathes of the German people’s love for Adolf Hitler. Many Russian people’s love for Stalin (even after his death). I’m not equating Trump with Hitler or Stalin, the point is that love is not necessarily inspired by virtue.

We are tempted not to call such devotion ‘love’ because we are shaped by the very Greek idea that love, if it is to be true love, is inspired by beauty and virtue. But such mass love for bad people cannot so easily be dismissed.

If love is not necessarily inspired by virtue, what then can it be inspired by?

(this question does not deny that love can be inspired by virtue and goodness; it does suggest that love cannot be so simply explained).

May’s theory is that love is inspired by what he call’s ‘ontological rootedness’. Now that’s quite a label. What he means is that we love that which gives us a sense of ultimate meaning and security in the world. Love is deeply connected to power because it is the powerful who have the capacity to deliver on such deep hopes.

Here’s May’s explanation … and I will resist the strong temptation to pick out bits that I think are stunningly prophetic regarding the 2016 USA Presidential Election!

How well does this explain Trump’s election do you think?

There is no greater human need that to find such affirmation, nourishment an anchoring of one’s being, and we can secure it only through relationships to a world in which we are embedded. This is why when we think we have discovered someone – or indeed something, like a vocation or art or nature – with ontological power over us we lunge at it with such overwhelming desire. It is also why we can fall (and remain) in love not only with those who would use their power to affirm and enhance our lives, but also – even precisely – with those who regard us as enemies, or with people whose wealth inspires a sense (robust or not) of ontological rootedness, or with fraudsters who give us illusory confidence in ourselves, or with others who might destroy us, or with those whose love for us we permanently doubt. (37)

Comments, as ever, welcome.

 

Escaping the babylonian captivity of theological education (1)

ibi_logo_400x400At Irish Bible Institute we are embarking on a year-long journey of ‘re-validation’ with our partner university. Happily, this means that the university has agreed to renew our partnership for years ahead.

But it is not just re-signing a bit of paper, the process involves (and requires) us to think afresh about what we are doing and why. This isn’t just ticking boxes – our partner is committed to educational innovation and creativity and is pushing us to think afresh from first principles as to what we are doing.

The thing is, most theological colleges have some form of assent to integrative learning. But it is a very different thing to get beyond ‘ink on paper’ to genuine transformative learning that shapes the whole person.

Some paradigms of theological education, historically particularly within universities, aren’t that interested in this sort of learning, particularly if that university is, or has ambitions to be, a prestigious academic institution that prizes a particular type of educational success . This is one reason the Bible College movement began in the UK and Ireland.

It was Lesslie Newbigin who, paraphrasing Luther, talked about the Babylonian Captivity of much theological education. He meant by this the prioritization of a form of objective, scientific learning that imagines theology as an academic exercise of the detached neutral mind. It results in a programme where academic, cognitive success dominates all levels of the student experience – from advertising and recruitment of students, entry qualifications, the shape and structure of the classroom, the content of lectures (primarily information transfer), the setting of assessments, the criteria for grading, right through to qualifications, awards and prizes.

In other words, an Enlightenment paradigm of learning where theology is primarily the study of books and ideas, detached from personal faith, character transformation, practical skills for ministry, prayer, community and Christlikeness.

This is theology as mere acquisition of knowledge, the student as consumer of information, the teacher as expert distributor of information. It is non-relational and I would say, pretty well non-Christian in terms of an authentic preparation for forming people spiritually and preparing them for the demands and messiness of Christian ministry.

No wonder churches have long been sceptical of the value of going to study theology – whether at Bible College or university. No wonder, there is a lot of anti-intellectualism in the church if studying theology means that a student might be brilliant at writing a paper on Barth’s doctrine of election but have little humility and self-awareness or pastoral heart (nothing against Barth, but you get the point).

So, going back to first principles is a very good, and demanding and uncomfortable, thing to have to do. For, if you are like me, if we are allowed to, we tend to keep doing what we know, what we are comfortable with, what has worked in the past, without asking too many tough questions of ourselves and our organisations.

9781783689576To do this, we are working as a team together through Perry Shaw’s excellent and stimulating book Transforming Theological Education: a practical handbook for integrative learning

I’ve linked to Shaw on this blog before – see here, here and here for thoughts on integrative learning across cognitive (head), affective (heart)  and behavioural (hands) domains.

At the moment we are also doing a series of consultations with leaders, current and past students and others on some key initial questions. We need to answer these sorts of questions before we get into the nitty gritty of programme design and what modules we will offer and how they will be assessed etc.

Because it will the answers to these sorts of questions that will shape what we do. The biggest obstacle to change in any organisation I think is not being willing to ask and act on questions of purpose.

Shaw talks about the sorts of questions his Seminary worked through in their radical restructuring of their programmes. We are now doing the same:

I wonder what your answers to these questions might be?

What is the ideal church for our contemporary context in Ireland?

[assuming our continued purpose is to serve the Irish church it makes sense to think about what sort of churches are going to be best set to fulfil God’s missional mandate.]

What are the contextual challenges facing churches in Ireland?

  • Internal challenges?
  • External challenges?

What are the qualities and attitudes and skills of an ideal graduate in this context?

  • what sort of knowledge and thinking skills are needed for a faithful Christian to connect with the context and to continue to adapt and grow in a changing ministry environment?
  • what sort of character and attitude traits are required for Christian service in this context?
  • what sort of skills and abilities are needed so that the gospel can be incarnated in word and deed in the student and those he / she serves?

We are processing these questions and working towards the next steps

Your comments and thoughts are welcome to the mix

which Messiah? which hope?

Sstatue-liberty-hands473x488o America has made its decision. I believe it’s a reckless one.

Trump’s narrative in the campaign and his acceptance speech is messianic … greatness is around the corner, our time has come, economic blessing is coming, the government will be once again for the people. .. it is going to be a beautiful thing.

The only certain thing about such dreams is that they will fail. The irony is of course that Trump got elected on capitalising on the failure of previous political dreams. And so on goes the cycle of political ambition and hubris.

What’s not sure of course is how a Trump Presidency, his supporters and America in general will deal with the dashing of those dreams. I don’t think it’s going to be beautiful, it’s likely to get rather ugly. Such has been his rhetoric that he’s got little or no room for manoeuvre in building walls, delivering jobs, fixing the entire political system, renegotiating global trade, and making people feel they have hope in life …small stuff like that.

When Obama was elected the first time there was a lot of messianic mania in the air. I remember thinking then that he had no chance of meeting such unrealistic hopes. No mere human could …

For Christians do not believe in political messiahs .. whether democrat or Republican or whatever other brand around the world. Human history is littered with the vain hopes of emperors, kings, and hubristic politicians and their ambitions to control history. One reason I think voting for Trump was reckless is that his vaunted ambitions are going crash and he’s going to do a lot of unpredictable damage in the process.

In contrast, Christians believe in the one true Messiah who is the eternal Word made flesh, the king of kings, the one through whom all things are made. Christians’ hopes lie in him alone – nowhere else. For it is in God, Father, Son and Spirit, is the hope of a ‘new world order’ of justice and peace. In him alone is reconciliation, ultimately of all things.

We pray for his kingdom to come in full.  It is already here, we are citizens of the kingdom first before any national or political identity. Our ‘politics’ are kingdom of God politics – the church as an alternative body politic to the vain power plays of transient politicians. A calling to preach, live and embody the good news of Jesus the Messiah and risen Lord. To be people of reconciliation, forgiveness and grace. To live lives worthy of the gospel. To walk in the Spirit, love God and love our neighbours.

That task remains constant and urgent – regardless of who happens to occupy the White House for a few years …

Comments, as ever, welcome.

One of the most extraordinary misunderstandings in all of Western history

9780300118308Another snapshot of Simon May’s exceptionally good book Love: A History

The Hebrew Bible develops three innovations of immense significance for how we think about love today.

The Shema of Deuteronomy 6:4-5 states

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.

1. The goal of love is divine

God is the one true God, the creator and source of all that exists. To love God with all that we are is to make the goal of love divine. There can be no higher purpose or calling.

2. Loving God means that we are to walk in his ways

He argues that the second innovation is that we are to love what God loves – and that includes our neighbour.

May could unpack this more. He doesn’t quote this but Deuteronomy 10:12-13 states

And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God ask of you but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to observe the Lord’s commands and decrees that I am giving you today for your own good?

The text goes on to define the sort of imitation that Israel is to demonstrate:

He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.

As God loves the alien, providing for their needs, so Israel is to imitate Yahweh, in a sense ‘doing to others as God has already done to them’.

3. Love is a moral duty

The love of the alien, widow and the orphan above is not a sentimental feeling-based emotion – it is a moral duty to do good to those in need. Israel is commanded to love God and love others.

May comments that other pre-Christian systems of thought – Confucianism, Buddhism and Platonism made love a central value “but in none was it conceived as so overwhelming a command issued by the one God”.

May concludes with this – and it needs to be said again and again given the caricatures and confusions out there regarding the Old Testament and its main character ..

“The widespread belief that the Hebrew Bible is all about vengeance and ‘an eye for an eye’, while the Gospels supposedly invent love as an unconditional and universal value, must therefore count as one of the most extraordinary misunderstandings in all of Western history.” (19-20)

A vote for Trump is reckless irresponsibility

If the Brexit vote in the UK taught us anything, it is that (very) surprising things can and do happen at election time. Sure it was going to be a close-run thing but the overwhelming consensus was that a Remain vote would fairly comfortably win the day. What was missed was the momentum was with Leave and the rest is (unfolding, messy and chaotic) history.

There are parallels – most have not seriously thought Trump could win, yet he has the momentum entering polling week. It is now more conceivable than ever that Donald J Trump could become the President of the United States of America.

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Very thoughtful, non-American Christian commentators like John Stackhouse have argued that a vote for a third party in order to send a message to the main parties or to avoid contamination of voting for two awful candidates is basically a cop-out, ethically and politically.

He may be right. He also says this:

In this election, American friends of mine are supporting Donald Trump. They want above all to see the next president appoint a more conservative Supreme Court that will overturn Roe v. Wade and protect Christians from an encroaching political correctness especially on matters of sexuality and bioethics.

They are well aware of Mr. Trump’s manifest deficits and they know that they are taking the longest of political shots by trusting in a man who has (one wants to put this gently in a decidedly un-gentle campaign) no very strong record as a political conservative, a defender of the unborn, or as a keeper of promises.

Still, they reason, Mrs. Clinton will definitely be worse. And so they intend to vote for Mr. Trump. And I can respect that.

And Prof Stackhouse adds

Other American friends of mine are supporting Hillary Clinton. They want above all to see an experienced, moderate politician in the White House who will do some things they like and some things they don’t, but will not put much at risk that isn’t already at risk and likely will do some good in the process.

They are well aware of Mrs. Clinton’s deficits, manifest or otherwise, and they know that they are going to have to swallow some bitter pills.

Still, they reason, Mr. Trump will definitely be worse. And so they intend to vote for Mrs. Clinton. And I can respect that.

I am not as sanguine about respecting a vote by a Christian for Trump or Clinton within a sort of “equivalence of badness”. I can only see a vote for Trump by a Christian as being a form of reckless irresponsibility.

It is patently obvious that Trump is utterly unqualified to be President. He has none of the virtues required and all of the vices you do not want to see in a person representing one of the greatest experiments in liberal democracy in recent Western history, that has, with many faults, worked.

John Stackhouse is right to say that a Christian voting for Trump is taking ‘the longest of long shots’ that he might – just might –  show some integrity and values that could inform policy around political conservatism, defence of the unborn or keeping his election promises. There is little or no evidence Trump is going to do any of these things.

What we do know for sure is: he is a liar and bully; a man without any signs of integrity; who breaks promises; gropes women, admits it, then tries to intimidate and threaten to sue women who says he did; uses his power for selfish ends; who is running of a platform of ugly potentially violent nationalism; inchoate rage; not so incipient racism; and a ‘towering’ vanity that verges towards megalomania.

The idea that, whatever happens on Tuesday, that such a man could get within sight of the White House should be deeply deeply troubling to all who care about America.

I have huge affection for the country. Yes it has manifest flaws, deep inequalities, a history shaped by violence and an addiction to unsustainable ruthless capitalism (and Ryder Cup fans who lack civility). But show me a nation that does not have parallel problems, if on a smaller scale. I live in the Republic of Ireland and we are a tiny little place but do a pretty good job on political corruption, injustice, a history of violence, inequality and a neglect of the weakest and most vulnerable people in our society.

So this is not American bashing. It is an expression of horror that Christians, and especially well known Christian leaders, can come up with arguments defending the indefensible of voting for Trump.

Again and again in media reports we are told that ‘evangelicals’ are a key support group for Trump. I am not naive enough to believe that this is generally true. Those labelled ‘evangelical’ are likely very nominally connected to that label. Many evangelical Christians I know in the States are most definitely not voting for Trump – they are as appalled by him as others around the world.

But the fact remains that a lot of committed evangelical Christians are supporting Trump. I can only see this as a failure of discipleship – where a combination of loyalty to Republicanism and antipathy to the Democrats ‘trumps’ the bigger and more important moral duty to keep a man like Trump out of power.

And, such Christians may not realise it (but they should), their stance does nothing but harm the wider mission and reputation of the church outside America.

That evangelical Christians – who are called to follow a crucified Messiah and who are to be shaped by love for God, love for neighbour (where the neighbour is an enemy other than us), love for the foreigner, the weak and the vulnerable, who are to be people or peace and reconciliation – are labelled as supporters of a man of hate and division gives Christians a bad name globally.

The first duty of Christians in America is not to America .. it is to act in a way worthy of Jesus Christ and his gospel and for the good of the church catholic. And that means, I suggest, not voting for Donald Trump.

Comments, as ever, welcome.