Wednesday, June 29, 2016

The Aftermath (3): There are no foreigners

One thing that the referendum brought into the light - and this has been widely-noted - is that we don't know each other.  I believe I may have remarked on this in advance of the event, but my point in raising it is not really to glory in my own prescience.  Rather, I just want to point out the multi-layered and complex 'othering' that is going on right now, and suggest that perhaps we might want to stop it if at all possible.  Also, I'd like to say something about Jesus.

To start with, there is the well-documented racist abuse directed at ethnic minorities in the wake of the referendum result.  That is the most urgent issue, because this is the most vulnerable group.  Anything that can be done to put an end to the scape-goating of those who are ethnically different should be done.

Then there is the obvious fact that the referendum vote largely went along geographical and class lines, implying that the concerns of those in the countryside are different from those in the cities, and that those in the working class are different from the middle class.  Of course that's no surprise - people living differently will have different political concerns.  But I think we've all been struck by just how different our visions have become, and how little we understand each other.  We are foreigners to one another, foreigners sharing a language and a country.

Then there are all the comments from people who are disowning half the country.  In the run up, this was mostly on the 'leave' side - let's take back our country etc.  The implicit message behind this is that not only 'immigrants' but also all those 'natives' currently in power are 'foreigners', others, those from whom we need to reclaim 'our country'.  In the aftermath, it's been more the 'remain' side - I don't feel like I belong in my country anymore etc.  The implicit message here is that everyone who voted leave is a 'foreigner' who has somehow infiltrated and taken over 'our country'.

This stuff really is complex, and it concerns us all.  The obvious xenophobia - other-fearing - which shows itself in racist attacks, and the more subtle other-fearing which demonises those who share our ethnicity but no longer share our culture...  It all needs attention, even if it is not all equally urgent (see above).  But at one level it's so extraordinarily simple: we need to widen our networks of relationships, to deliberately seek out friends of different ethnicities, economic backgrounds...  Simple, but really hard.  I am challenged and don't know practically how to go forward.

What I do know is Jesus.  Jesus is the one who persuades me of our common humanity, and he is the one who does not allow me to close the door on anyone - he won't let me 'other' anyone.  Jesus really is 'other' than me - better, above, transcendently superior.  But what he does with that glorious otherness is step down and become 'one' - one of us, one with us.  He 'un-others' himself, declaring that none of us is a foreigner to God, and in so doing he 'un-others' us to one another.

And he does it to the depths.  Perhaps it might be tempting to think that there is at least one legitimate piece of othering to do - we should obviously refuse to be identified with the genuinely vile racist, shouldn't we?  But it won't do, because of Jesus.  Even the genuine racist, the most vile, is no foreigner, because Jesus has 'un-othered' the vile by so closely associating with them that he has taken on their guilt and died for them.  So I can't disown the racist.  I can bear responsibility for his actions, but I can't just call him 'other'.  Like me, he is a sinner whose guilt was paid for at Calvary, whether he will acknowledge it and benefit from it or not.

We are all one.  This is often advanced as a pious creedal statement of humanism.  But it is not true in that sense.  It is true only in the sense that we have been made one, by Jesus.

Monday, June 27, 2016

The Aftermath (2): Take Responsibility

This one is for the Leavers, and since they're my crowd I'm taking some liberties with tone.  You've probably been on the receiving end of a lot of grief over the last few days.  It's been great to periodically check the old Facebook feed and discover that we're all moronic xenophobes, hasn't it?  Fantastic to have your friends call you a Nazi?  You've been enjoying that, right?  And of course it hasn't been at all frustrating to watch people try to wriggle out of the result, whether it's with re-runs or protests or just plain ignoring the referendum altogether.  It's been a tough few days.

Well, boo hoo.

Look, we got what we wanted.  Other people got something they really, really didn't want.  In many cases, the vitriol you're getting is literally grief.  In a few weeks time, it will be appropriate to ask for a moderation of tone, but for now I really think all those who disagreed with the result have a right to complain, bitterly.  I also think they have a right to seek any way they can to overturn the decision.  Given how destructive many of them think it will be, it would be negligent to do anything less.

Responsible leaders wouldn't have brought us to this place.  They would have taken responsibility themselves, and with it they would have shouldered the burden of the unpopularity, even hatred, which inevitably comes from making a call on an issue which so sharply divides the country.  We don't have responsible leaders, and so the responsibility falls to us.

Suck it up.  You won.

Take responsibility.

And that will mean more than just quietly taking the hits from your upset friends.  That upset isn't coming from nowhere.  There is good evidence that genuine racists have been emboldened by this referendum decision.  I don't think you voted for that.  I don't think you wanted that.  But right now, taking responsibility for your vote means demonstrating that there won't be tolerance for racist behaviour.  Think about how you can do that.  Consider attending one of the 'Stand Together' events (Oxford folk, here is the local one on FB) - the event descriptions say they want to welcome everyone, regardless of how they voted, so that we can all work out how to go forward positively together.  Why not take them at their word?

We shouted at each other for weeks, and in the end somebody had to win the shouting match.  Now it's time for talking and listening.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

The Aftermath (1): An indestructible kingdom

I have some post-referendum thoughts.  This particular one is theological; others slightly less so.  It might be too soon, in which case maybe don't read them right now.  Most of my friends are pretty upset about the result (okay, very upset).  I am not upset, but I am nervous - I am by nature averse to change and in favour of the status quo!  In the run-up to the referendum, and even more in the aftermath, I've been pondering Daniel 2.  Here's where my thoughts have arrived.

1.  The kingdom of Christ (the stone) destroys the whole statue - that is to say, the kingdoms of the earth past and present (and presumably from the perspective of the book, future).  All of our politicing therefore has only relative significance: it takes place in the context of the growing, mountainous, enduring kingdom of the Lord Jesus, which can't be shaken by plebiscites, or war, or any other circumstance.

2.  The surface of history is just the constant churn of empires and peoples, but underneath is the sovereignty of the God of history.  In his plan, apparent disasters serve great goods.  Note that this plan might seem a long way down!  Underneath are the everlasting arms, but it might feel like a long drop before they scoop us up.  They are still there, regardless.

3.  Nebuchadnezzar's dream is not for him, not really: it is a comfort to Daniel and fellow exiles, who would understandably be tempted to think that everything is out of control.  It isn't.  The God of Israel, who gave his people into the hands of Nebuchadnezzar, is none the less God of gods and Lord of kings.

4.  So if you're a Christian who wanted a different result, by all means grieve and lament; in your view (which I can understand, even if I don't share it) something terrible has happened.  But in your grief, don't despair, and don't become bitter.  If you are right and I am wrong and this is terrible, it is still only relatively terrible, and God is in control.  That isn't trite, or just a pious thing we have to say.  It's the very heart of reality.  The kingdom of Christ will grow, regardless.  The relative good or evil of our political systems can and will serve him and his purposes.  Maybe this doesn't feel like a comfort right now, but if we are seeking Christ then it will be a comfort one day.  Hold on.

5.  If you're not a Christian, it is presumably of little comfort to know that God reigns.  It's true regardless, and it should be of comfort to you.  History is not a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.  It all takes place under the control of the good God, who in the person of his Son gave himself to crucifixion for you,because he loved you.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Preparing to lose, or to win

The miserable referendum debate grinds on, and I'm desperately weary of it all.  I've already decided how to vote, although I confess I have almost been persuaded to change my mind by the wretched tone of the campaign.  One thing I am increasingly clear on: the fact that we are having a referendum at all represents a massive failure of leadership which has led to us being more divided amongst ourselves, less able to live with one another, than we were before.  There have been three referenda in the UK in the last five years or so, all of which seem to have been politically opportunistic events designed to put a particular issue to bed for a generation - but which have instead made divisions more acute and left behind them a huge feeling of resentment.

But here's the thing: one way or another, we have to live with one another next week.  I strongly suspect we will vote to remain part of the EU - but I think it will be close.  Then what will we do?  It won't do to just breathe a sigh of relief (for those who will be relieved) and then resume business as usual.  There needs to be a process of reconciliation.  We need to understand how we got to this place, and we need to work out what happens next.

Perhaps the biggest thing we need is to understand each other.  I've read a number of articles in the more liberal media which appear to proceed on the assumption that either 40-50% of people in the country are racist, or that a similar proportion have just been duped by manipulative UKIP types.  That won't do.  The analysis is simplistic and patronising.  There needs to be some listening here.  Personally, I think a lot of it is nothing to do with the EU.  There are a whole crowd of people who are not on board with the direction of political and social travel - they are not okay with globalisation, they are not okay with the new sexual politics, they are not okay with mass immigration.  For those who see themselves as citizens of the world, as liberals, as the good guys, these attitudes are incomprehensible and vile - but they are widespread.  What are we going to do about that?

As a thought experiment, it might be useful for us all to imagine what it will feel like on Friday if the side of our choice loses.  Half of us will feel like that whatever happens.  Or imagine the relief if your side wins.  Half of us will feel like that.  Whichever it turns out to be for each of us personally, remembering how it is for the other half of us will hopefully restrain triumphalism on the one hand and anger on the other.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Reader Response: Ethics (8)

Manuscript number eight included in the Works edition of Bonhoeffer's Ethics is actually a re-working of manuscript seven - given the title History and Good (2).  The themes are very similar, but I can see why the editors have elected to include both versions.  Bonhoeffer approaches the same questions from different perspectives, and whilst the second version is certainly tighter and clearer, the first is worth a read to see how the thought develops.  Given that it is essentially a repeat, though, here are a few thoughts with less quotes and more of my own interpretation.

In comparison to the first version. this second version puts Christology much more front and centre: it is because of Jesus Christ that we find ourselves in positions of responsibility towards one another.  Because the God who has become man is our neighbour, making us neighbours of God and one another, we are placed in relationship with God and our fellow man.  What I find fascinating and helpful about this is that, if I'm reading it right, Bonhoeffer makes Christ the source of our ethical responsibilities, the limit of those responsibilities, and the shaper of our responsible actions.

Christ is the source of our responsibilities because, as mentioned, it is he who brings us into relationship with God and one another.  Christ is, in a way, the mediator of all our relationships - we see God and others through him.  As such, he is the word of God which we hear, and to which we respond in all genuine responsible action (that is what makes it responsible).  He is also the one in whom God and the world are bound together and reconciled, and therefore the only one who can make action in the world a genuinely responsible action - an action of significance in the sight of God.

Christ is the limit of our responsibilities because he has ultimately taken responsibility for the world.  Therefore all our action takes place within the sphere of relativity; we do not deal with absolutes and ultimates.  He is himself the only absolute and ultimate left to us.  It is only because our responsibility is limited in this way that we can actually take any responsible action at all!  Otherwise we would be frozen by the weight of it all, or we would construct an abstract ethical system in order to clarify our choices.  As it is, knowing that ultimate responsibility is his, we can weight the situation and its likely consequences and make the necessary choice: we can act responsibly.

Christ is the shaper of our responsible actions, because in him we are called to vicarious representative action on behalf of all those for whom Christ has made us responsible.  Jesus, in showing us what vicarious representative action looks like, has also shown us the way: it is the cross.  That means both being willing to identify with the guilty and being willing to suffer for the other.  Perhaps what it means most fundamentally is to trust God for justification whilst venturing the necessary action to which we are called, and which we must undertake without ever being able to certainly justify ourselves.

It's a powerful way of thinking, and I'm wrestling with what it means for us (me!) in the here and now to act responsibly, responding to Christ and answerable to him.

Saturday, June 18, 2016


The young man glanced up.  “The towers aren’t as tall as I expected.”
“They were taller once,” replied the old man, “Long ago.”   And then they sat in silence for a while, and the dust shifted on the deserted streets, and birds landed near them and took off again.  “Why have you come here?”
“I don’t know really.”  A shrug.  “I suppose I wanted to see what it used to be like.  Before, you know.”  He paused.  “I didn’t realise everything was ruined.”
“Yes, everything ruined.  Not much left here.  Nobody comes here anymore.”  A longer pause.  “How are things, how is everything, out there?”  He waved his hand, indicating the world beyond the bounds of the empty city.
“Oh, fine.  Fine.”  And then, after a moment’s reflection, “Of course, there’s the war.”
“Of course.  The war.”
“It is pretty awful, I think.  I don’t know.  It doesn’t really affect me.”  He shifted uncomfortably.  “They say that you remember things.”
The old man looked sideways at his companion.  “I do remember.  Not everything.  There is a lot that I have forgotten.  But I remember the forgetting.  I cannot remember, anymore, what it was like when people lived here, or when the streets were full.  I know it was like that once, but I cannot recall the pictures to my mind.”  A long silence.  “But I remember when we all left.  I remember when the streets emptied and the people were all gone.”
“Why did they leave?”
“We left to build taller towers.  We left because we wanted to forget, and this place...”  He looked around at the empty square, the columns and the temples.  “This place reminded us.  In the end, we couldn’t bear it, the memory.  I was gone for years; I nearly forgot.  But when I returned...”  A pause.  “When I returned something came back to me.  I remembered something.  I remembered that we had forgotten.  I don’t suppose anyone else remembers, anymore.”
The young man reached into his rucksack, pulled out a water bottle.  He drank, offered it across.  The old man declined.  The young man sat, flipped the lid of the bottle open and shut, open and shut.  “What was it you forgot?  Why did you want to forget so badly?”
For a long time there was no answer.  Open, shut.  Open, shut.  And then the old man spoke quietly, almost in a whisper.  “How could we forget?  How could we try?”  And then in a louder voice, to his companion, “We wanted to forget ourselves.  We wanted to forget who we were.  We couldn’t bear to remember anymore.  I don’t suppose you can understand.  We didn’t want to know ourselves.”  The young man was silent.  He did not understand.
“Tell me,” the old man continued after a while, “do they still build towers?”
“Yes,” he replied.  “Yes, they build them.  They are taller and taller.  They build them of glass, now.  Where I live – well, I can look from my window and see dozens of towers, and the cranes building new ones all the time.”
The old man fixed him with a deep stare.  “Do you know why they build them?”
A pause, and then the young man could hold his gaze no longer.  “No.”
“No.  Of course not.  But we knew.  We knew why we had built the towers.  And we could not bear it.  We had done our best, before.  We built them as tall as we could, these ruins.  But it wasn’t high enough.  They meant something, and because they meant something they were failures, these towers.  We had to forget them.  We couldn’t live here, in the midst of our failures.  They had to become ruins so that we would not know.”
“Would not know what?”
“So that we would not know that we were ruins, too.  So that we would not have to remember that we had failed and fallen.  We could build bigger towers, start again.  But we would forget what they were for.  We would forget.  And now they have forgotten the forgetting, and only I am left.”
The old man fell into silence, gazing at the dusty cobbles.  The young man, too, was silent for a while.  A couple of times he opened his mouth as if to speak, but did not.  He took another swig from his bottle.
And then at last, “why did you build them?  Why did you build the towers?”
The old man did not reply at once, and when he did his voice wavered.
“I don’t know.  I don’t know.  I forgot, we all forgot.  What good does it do to remember?  I tried to fix them, for a while, after I came back.  But it was just me.  I was alone, and I did not know how.  And...”  A long pause.  “And I could not remember why.”
And the young man and the old sat silently in the shadows of the decaying towers as the sun went slowly down.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Friendly fire

I've been thinking a little bit about how painful church can be.  It seems to be a sad fact that church communities - which are meant to be families of grace and places of gospel healing - are very often places where Christians suffer their most serious wounds.  A house divided against itself cannot stand - and yet every church I know of is to some extent divided against itself, and the fallout of this division is very often deep personal pain for individuals.

What's going on?

To a certain extent I suspect we over-sell church, making it offer more than it can ever provide in reality.  No community made up of sinful people can ever be a totally safe place.  No community of miserable sinners will ever be free of pain.

But sometimes it's more than that.  The division and fighting and pain is not just the inevitable result of any human community, but is specifically about church.  I would guess there are a couple of things going on here.  One is that the church is not a community we choose, and in that regard it is less like a club and more like a family.  We find ourselves members of the church as a result of being joined to Christ, and we are stuck with that Christian family whether we like them or not.  My guess is that we all know to some extent how families can be: the places of the deepest love, but also the most painful struggles to relate.  That's church.

Then on top of that you have the fact that in entering the church we enter a place of acute spiritual conflict.  The fight for genuine church community is not only a fight against our own selfish predispositions and sinfully warped characters; it is also a fight against the devil and all his angels.  We have been brought into the cosmic struggle, won by Christ but still being fought - and it perhaps ought not to be surprising that there is a certain amount of friendly fire, given who we all are and given what is at stake.

Perhaps there is an analogy here to our personal experience.  When we don't try to follow Christ - when we let sin reign in our mortal bodies - well then, to be sure, we're dying eternally, but it feels easy and even pleasant.  When we turn to Christ and take up arms against our sin - well, that is the way to life, but it sure feels like a war.  It feels like it because it is.

Church is hard.  The Christian life is hard.  We're at war, and entering into church community puts us on the front lines.