Saturday, January 26, 2008


More political thoughts to come, but this is something that has been brewing in my mind all day and needs to be let out.

Christians talk a lot these days about the pursuit of joy. It's the key theme in the theology of, for example, John Piper. We are called to find joy in God, to delight in him, to be happy in our relationship with him.

And I do think that's right. But I think there's another side to it, and I think it's important. I think Christians are called to pursue pain.


Okay, I put that in a deliberately provocative way. But think about it. As a Christian, I believe some things about the world that make it more painful than it is for others. I do not believe, for example, that suffering and death are just part of nature - I think they are terrible, awful intrusions into a world created good. I do not believe that when people die they go to sleep forever, or watch us from clouds above - I believe that they face the judgement of God, to give account for their lives. My beliefs - based on Scripture - make the world a more horrible place than some might think it is.

Of course I have hope: hope that the world will be fixed, hope for personal salvation, hope for those around me - even those who seem to ignore the hope that God offers. My hope is based on the life, death and resurrection of Christ, the man who was God, and as such it is absolutely certain. The future is bright.

But that bright future means that the terrible things that presently exist in the world - in my pessimistic moments I would say "dominate the world" - cast long and dark shadows. Without eschatology - without the God-guaranteed, blood-bought hope of the bright future - everything that is would just be what is. But because it ought to be and will be different, better, redeemed - because of that, what is is terrible, horrible, an abberation and abomination.

And people around us don't know that. Or if they do know, they ignore. They eat and drink and are generally merry, and they numb the pain of the world with temporary pleasures and sophistical philosophies and doomed projects.

In this world, we are called to be witnesses. That means rejoicing in Christ and being full of the joy that comes from knowing him, knowing hope, knowing the future. In our rejoicing, we witness to the watching world that existence is more than they think: that there is life, real life and not merely existence. But I am sure it also means feeling the pain that they should feel but don't. We acknowledge the verdict of God on the world of humanity that rejects him as a firm "no", a word of judgement that leads to death and more than death. We see that verdict proclaimed and announced and foreshadowed in every bit of pain and suffering in the world. And we have to feel it. We have to feel it for those who are numb to it. We have to feel it for those who are deliberately blind to it.

Would it be heresy to say that the church is called to feel vicariously for the world - both the joys and the pains?

The author of Hebrews tells us that for the joy set before him Christ endured the cross. The cross made the joy possible. I wonder whether the joy didn't also create the cross. I wonder whether the darkness of death and hell and tomb that must have filled Christ's vision - if there is any other way, then let this cup pass from me! - wasn't made darker, thrown into sharper and more terrible relief by the brightness and certainty of the joy?

Will the hurting people come to us if we will hurt for them?

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Locke on target

Just as a postscript to my last post, it's interesting (to me, although probably to very few other people) that John Locke, the father of political liberalism, bases his liberalism on the truth that God the Creator is sovereign Lord over his creatures. He doesn't put it quite like that, but in his argument against absolute monarchy, Locke makes the point that human beings are "all the Workmanship of one Omnipotent and infinitely wise Maker... they are his property, whose Workmanship they are, made to last during his, and not another's, pleasure". (2nd Treatise on Gov't, section 6). It being the 17th century, and Locke being an Englishman, the language of property comes to him quite naturally. His argument is that since everyone belongs to God alone (and not therefore to any other human being), no human being can have absolute or abitrary power over another. (Particularly, no human being can have power to take another's life: but the principle is then enlarged). To claim absolute power over another is to make free with God's property.

The great thing about reading political theory from the 17th century is that you get to see the USA being founded on such theory. Very rarely does a political theory get put into practice! But Locke's theory did in the USA (with a bit of Rousseau mixed in, but that can't be helped). That's why the American government is so limited, and so self-limiting in its system of checks and balances. It's also why the idea of being "one nation under God", although a relatively recent addition, is implicit from the very beginning of the US.

Question: in the absence of God, is there any good foundation for a system of civil liberties?

Sunday, January 20, 2008

God and Politics (1): God is King

So, here is the first thing that I think Christians should think about when they consider politics:

God is King

A bit of a no-brainer, perhaps, but it has some important implications. The particular image (King) is not so important as the simple fact that it conveys: that God is in charge, that he rules. Let me expand that in a few directions, and look at some of the implications for the political sphere.

a) God is King in every sphere of life

Which obviously means that what happens in the political sphere is not something outside of his interest. Politics is not, and cannot be, a neutral sphere with regard to God. That is the problem with the "secular state" theory. Now, at one level, as we'll see in a later post, I approve of the idea of a "secular" state, if that simply means that the state ought not to try to force a particular religion (even the true one!) on people. However, the political realm is inhabited by people, and people are never neutral when it comes to God. So, a Christian politician cannot switch off their Christian convictions when it comes to political action; neither can a Christian voter (or potential voter) ignore the teaching of the Bible when it comes to their involvement in politics.

b) Only God is King

Because God does not (ultimately) delegate his authority, no government can claim absolute authority over the governed. The state cannot claim God's place - if it does, it is justly resisted (although what form this resistance might take is another question). Note in passing that this also counts against any form of Papacy. God rules in the person of his Son Christ (see Psalm 2), and he does not give all his authority to any human agency.

c) God is King over every individual

This point cuts two ways. Because God is King over every individual, every individual is ultimately answerable to God and not the state or anyone else. On the other hand, because God is King over every individual, there is no individual who can claim moral autonomy.

I think that the simple truth of God's active rule of the world, including the sphere of human government and politics, immediately limits that sphere. It is not ultimate, and it cannot claim ultimate control or allegiance. Already, I think we're pointed in the direction of a very limited state. How limited remains to be seen.

Thursday, January 17, 2008


Quoth Mr. Allberry: I'm increasingly convinced Christians need to reflect carefully and biblically on the world of politics.

Very true, say I. It seems to me that Christians I know fit into one of three rough categories.

Firstly, there are those who think that politics - all politics, mind - is either of the devil or is just mind-numbingly boring and irrelevant. Therefore, they have nothing to do with it. I can't go along with that on two counts. The first is that I'm sad enough to actually find politics very interesting indeed; the second is that politics is a sphere of human activity (and a hugely influential one at that) and is therefore something in God's creation, and thus is something of interest to God.

The second group are the knee-jerk-evangelical-rightists. The KJERs are primarily interested in ethics, not politics, but they see the latter as a way to enforce the former. They tend not to have a hugely thought through approach to politics. In fact, the level of their involvement tends to be protesting when legislation doesn't accord with Biblical morality (or at least their view of it). If they have thought about it at all, they probably basically assume that Britain used to be a cheerful theocracy when everyone was Christian-ish and respected Biblical norms. Therefore, the Old Testament is where they go to find out what governments should do. But, curiously, they tend to bypass all the bits of the OT about social justice, and about stewardship of creation. Certainly, they resist any application of those principles to the political sphere.

The third group are the knee-jerk-evangelical-leftists. The KJELs are mainly interested in Making Poverty History, although they are also prepared to jump on any other political bandwagon that promises greater social justice and equality. If the bandwagon also promises to save the earth from climate change or other malign effects of human occupancy, so much the better. The KJELs are no more thought through than the KJERs: they found a couple of bits in Isaiah and Amos that sounded socialist, and read the rest of Scripture as a purely devotional manual. Certainly they never stopped to ask whether Isaiah meant the same thing by "justice" as the contemporary charity movement does. Oddly, this group is also often not bothered by legislation that promotes immorality.

Against all three groups (which are, I confess, caricatures, but not without some germ of truth), I propose a quick dash over the next couple of weeks through some Christian principles for approaching politics. Just broad brush strokes, but we'll see where they take us...

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Tick Tock

So, here we are in 2008. I've been thinking a lot about time and the passing of time recently. Amongst other questions, I've been pondering the following:
  • is God timeless? (I think I think he isn't exactly).
  • what is time for? (I'm pretty sure the answer is the Incarnation).
  • how should we think about time? (I guess we should value it as any of God's creations).
But I don't want to talk about any of those right now. Right now, what I'm struck by is that relationships can only happen in time. (This is certainly true of human relationships, and I suspect that with some modification it is true of divine relationship as well, hence my disbelief in God's timelessness). And one of the things about a relationship is that it changes over time - hopefully growing and deepening. So it's a blessing that time is divided up - that we have months, and seasons, and years. Because the dividing points - like the new year just beginning - provide marker posts. Times for us to stop and reflect on the relationship so far, where it's been and where it's going.
In 1 Samuel 7, Israel's relationship with God has just reached a point of growth. The idols have been put away. Israel returns to the Lord. As a result, the Lord defeats the Philistines. Samuel marks this milestone in the relationship by raising a pillar, which he names Ebenezer ("stone of help"), saying "Till now the Lord has helped us". This specific point in time is marked and remembered, as a point when God's people learnt to trust him more fully. (A specific point in space - between Mizpah and Shen - is also involved. Time and space are inextricably linked as between them providing the context within which God relates to his creation).
The beginning of a new year is in itself an Ebenezer - we're still here, still trusting Christ. Thus far, the Lord has helped us. I wonder what other occasions there will be to raise memorials through 2008.