Election, politics, loyalty and love (previously posted as Loyalty)

Love and loyalty hang together…
I vow to thee, my country, all earthly things above,
entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love:
the love that asks no question, the love that stands the test,
that lays upon the altar the dearest and the best;
the love that never falters, the love that pays the price,
the love that makes undaunted the final sacrifice.

When people say that the Bible and politics don’t mix, I ask them which Bible they are reading (1859-1918) wrote of loyalty and we are witnessing loyalty in politics stretched to the limit, at times, completely broken. Who can sing of a love for country that asks no question? Can anyone anymore, in this country or any other?

Soon, however things pan out politically in this country, we will need to choose how to vote, and I feel confused. It would be wrong use of this platform to tell you who to vote for and, in any case, I don’t know the answer to that question for any of us individually or corporately, but I’ve been thinking. And it relates to that word loyalty. Where do we place our loyalty?

Let’s think back, dig into history a little. My Grandfather, born in 1886, fought in the war to end all wars. Served in the Royal Army Medical Corps, became a captain. People who fought in that war hoped there would never be another such war. The League of Nations was formed. TocH started by the Reverend Phillip Byard (Tubby) Clayton offered fellowship to members of the forces. Step through the door and rank disappeared. All in it together would be a reasonable summary. My Dad joined TocH. Born in 1912 he was in the Eighth Army. Drove a water carrier at El Alamein. Royal Army Service Corps. Died when he was 60 in 1973. He and so many others fought against what they saw as ultimate evil in Nazism. Let us remember that the growth of Nazism took place in a Christian country through a democratic process.

Shades and colours of loyalty, interpretations of faith. A league of Nations that grew into the United Nations. In my lifetime Europe grew closer and distances seemed to shrink. Society has become global. We shudder at natural destruction in other parts of the world, at fire by the Amazon, but also at gun crime in America and knife crime in our own cities.

And now, that imminent election asks of us, against this back-drop of history, our varied and disparate experiences, our personal stories, our joy and our pain, where we place our loyalty.

Our faith and our doubt inform what we have become and put us where we are. Yet we each, as people of faith, ought still to ask ourselves ‘where do we place our ultimate loyalty?’ And if this is too political then Jeremiah, Amos, the prophets were too political. I think it was Desmond Tutu who said, ‘When people say that the Bible and politics don’t mix, I ask them which Bible they are reading’.

Where do we place our loyalty? Is it to our country? To our family? Our church? To our neighbours? My Dad or your Grandmother? Are we driven by self-interest?
The Hebrew scriptures say honour your father and your mother. In Luke Jesus is reported as saying, ‘Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple’. We cannot just read scripture without engaging our brains, looking at what is being said and to whom. Sometimes the Cain and Abel situation is re-run; verbally if not physically.

But to go back to the Bible one thing shines through, from Amos and Hosea (read them, they’re short books), through the Magnificat to the story of the Good Samaritan, to the crucifixion and on beyond the resurrection, and that is LOVE. If we are not loyal to LOVE we are just like ‘resounding gongs or clanging cymbals’. We make a lot of noise but we are worth nothing at all.

It seems that in all things, not least our political choices and decisions, we must decide how to prioritise LOVE over and above anything else. And that may take us out of Europe or leave us in. It may join us with our families or separate us from them so distantly that sometimes it will be as though we hate them. But above all only ‘resounding gongs and clanging cymbals don’t care‘. They are not human, they do not think, they CARE for nothing AND COUNT FOR NOTHING.

In every choice, every decision, every vote if we see ourselves as Christians we will ask, does this choice, this decision, enhance or diminish the way those affected by it are LOVED. And those people may be our Jewish or Muslim sisters or brothers, or those of other faiths or none. They may well be vulnerable with less wealth or power than ourselves.

YOUR CHOICE…AND MINE…EVERY TIME…don’t point the finger, don’t blame the other person, the other party, the other side, the other nation… YOUR CHOICE…AND MINE…EVERY TIME…but lets us prioritise LOVE.

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Loyalty

In this month 80 years ago the Second World War began –

I vow to thee, my country, all earthly things above,
entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love:
the love that asks no question, the love that stands the test,
that lays upon the altar the dearest and the best;
the love that never falters, the love that pays the price,
the love that makes undaunted the final sacrifice.

Cecil Arthur Spring-Rice (1859-1918) wrote of loyalty and this week we have seen loyalty in politics stretched to the limit, at times, completely broken. Who can sing of a love for country that asks no question? Can anyone anymore, in this country or any other?

Soon, however things pan out politically in the UK, we are likely to have an election and I feel confused. It would be wrong use of this blog to tell you who to vote for and, in any case, I don’t know the answer to that question for us all individually or corporately, but I’ve been thinking. And it relates to that word loyalty. Where do we place that loyalty?

Let’s think back, dig into history a little. My Grandfather, born in 1886, fought in the war to end all wars. Served in the Royal Army Medical Corps, became a captain. People who fought in that war hoped there would never be another such war. The League of Nations was formed. TocH started by the Reverend Phillip Byard (Tubby) Clayton offered fellowship to members of the forces. Step through the door and rank disappeared. All in it together would be a reasonable summary. My dad joined TocH. Born in 1912 he was in the Eighth Army. Drove a water carrier at El Alamein. Royal Army Service Corps. Died when he was 60 in 1973. He and so many others fought against what they saw as ultimate evil in Nazism. Let us remember that the growth of Nazism took place in a Christian country through a democratic process.

Shades and colours of loyalty, interpretations of faith. A league of Nations that grew into the United Nations. In my lifetime Europe grew closer and distances seemed to shrink. Society has become global. We shudder at the destruction in the Bahamas, at fie by the Amazon, but also at gun crime in America and knife crime in our own cities.

And now, that potential election asks of us, against this back-drop of history, our varied and disparate experiences, our personal stories, our joy and our pain, where we place our loyalty.

Our faith and our doubt inform what we have become and put us where we are. Yet we each, as Christians, ought still to ask ourselves ‘where do we place our ultimate loyalty?’ And if this is too political then Jeremiah was too political. I think it was Desmond Tutu who said if people think the Bible has nothing to do with politics they’re reading a different Bible from me.

Where do we place our loyalty? Is it to our country? To our family? Our church? To our neighbours? My dad or your grandmother? Are we driven by self-interest?

One thing shines through the Bible, from Amos and Hosea (read them, they’re short books), through the Magnificat to the story of the Good Samaritan, to the crucifixion and on beyond the resurrection, and that is LOVE. If we are not loyal to LOVE we are just like ‘resounding gongs or clanging cymbals’. We make a lot of noise but we are worth nothing at all.

It seems that in all things, not least our political choices and decisions, we must decide how to prioritise LOVE over and above anything else. And that may take us out of Europe or leave us in. It may join us with our families or separate us from them so distantly that sometimes it will be as though we hate them. But above all only ‘resounding gongs and clanging cymbals don’t care‘. They are not human, they do not think, they CARE for nothing AND COUNT OF NOTHING.

In every choice, every decision, every vote if we see ourselves as Christians we will ask, does this choice, this decision, enhance or diminish the way those affected by it are LOVED.

YOUR CHOICE…AND MINE…EVERY TIME…don’t point the finger, don’t blame the other person, the other party, the other side, the other nation… YOUR CHOICE…AND MINE…EVERY TIME…

God’s condemnation of Sodom and Gomorrah

Genesis 18:20-32 

This passage relates the story of God’s condemnation of Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham pleads for the people. If any are righteous then the cities will be saved for their sake.

More often than not the condemnation of Sodom and Gomorrah is related to sexual sin, and righty but whether it can be taken to be a condemnation of homosexuality is not quite so clear. It looks as though this is the case until we read further.

What was happening in Sodom was a total disregard of other people. In a later passage we read that two angels – messengers – are being sheltered by Lot. Men come out from the city and want to ‘know them’ – it is assumed that this means to ‘rape them’. The messengers were alien, visitors if you like. The judgement is not primarily against the sexual act but against the men’s violation of another human being simply because they are foreign, alien. These aliens were doubly threatening as they were coming to deliver God’s message of judgment. In addition the men of Sodom want to deal with Lot even more violently because he has given shelter to these strangers. (The sexual morality of the story is even more muddied as we read later that Lot, while guarding the aliens, is willing to hand over his daughters to be raped. Subsequently we find his daughters in the foreground, getting their father drunk in order for him to have an incestuous relationship with them. Not exactly a pattern on which we might want to base our sexual ethics – remember that Lot is ‘on God’s side’).

To bring it up to date. Someone comes and stays with you and they begin to point out something of the wrong they see in you or ,your nation or town. Those with power are threatened. Firstly they resist or reject, alienate or harm the foreigners; then they aim their hatred, perhaps their fear, at anyone who gives the foreigner shelter or comfort. The foreigner is labelled and can be abused.

This puts a different spin on the story. How do we feel about the stranger in our midst? And about those who welcome and support them? Tempted to say ‘Oh I wouldn’t act like those people’. But how would we act if the presence of the messenger was going to threaten our way of life? I wonder.

Let’s step a bit further. A contemporary translation of the Lord’s Prayer from Luke 11:1-4 replaces the words ‘lead us not into temptation’ with ‘do not bring us to the time of trial’.

The word ‘trial’ (or ‘temptation’) is a translation of the Greek πειρασμός (peirasmos). The meaning of the Greek is putting to the proof, ‘trial’, as we would understand it, rather than ‘temptation’. It is used in this way explicitly elsewhere in the New Testament. It implies a testing of a person’s fidelity, integrity, virtue, constancy.

In this light the question about how we would act confronted with the alien who is judging us becomes a testing of our fidelity, faithfulness.

Those who want to make a link between Jesus and the story of Sodom and Gomorrah usually refer to Matthew 10: 5 – 15. Jesus is sending out his disciples:

‘Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel’. Verse 14 concludes the story, ‘If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town’.

Putting this passage beside the one from Genesis suggests that:

  1. Given the most important commandments are to love God and our neighbours as ourselves. It is reasonable to assume that this was the message, the Good News, that the disciples were sharing.
  2. That it is this that the people may not accept. This, then is their time of trial.
  3. Rejection puts them in the position of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah.

And this is exactly what the people of Sodom were condemned for, though the expression of this lack of love for neighbour was, for them, expressed in the violation of those who ought to be both neighbour and guest.

So for us the test, the trial, the judgement is arguably related to how we accept those who are different from us, how we demonstrate love of our neighbour, rather than on anything sexual.

Human Relationships and the Church

What we need is the courage to affirm/bless different relationships not simply maintaining that one form of relationship has been divinely prescribed for all people.

Why?

The man born blind

When Jesus met a man born blind ( John, 9:1–12) two issues were addressed. First the man’s blindness. Being blind within his culture he was regarded as bad, a sinner. So were his parents. Neither the man nor his parents had done anything wrong, but the intransigence of humanity was such that it was easier to heal the man than to heal those who were condemning him. Ultimately those condemning him would not let go of their critique. To do so would be to lose face. Though there is a lingering human sense for some people that illness or disability has a human agency, that if, for instance, our children are different it is our fault, science and culture do not generally uphold this point of view. We are born as we are. We are all different from one another and the challenge of Jesus is one of accepting love which bridges difference and loves others, incorporating them into society rather than alienating or condemning them.

Healing a leper

This is further underlined in the instance of a leper coming to Jesus to be healed (Mark 1: 40 – 45). The leper is unwell, but fear of illness had caused society to alienate people with such illness, rather than enabling them to live and be loved within society. So Jesus heals the leper but also points him to the priest who can issue a certificate indicating that he is ‘clean’ and can be reincorporated into society. Jesus’ initial response to the man is to be moved, either with compassion or with anger, depending on the Biblical text which is chosen. There are two and the Greek word in each is different. One suggests compassion, but at a level which is visceral and not the gentler sense which our English might suggest. The other word relates to ‘snorting like a war horse’, it conveys a very aggressive emotion. Neither expression fits an appropriate response to the man himself, or to the illness. It does make sense in relation to the those who would seek to put this man outside of their society on account of something which was not his fault. While some illnesses might carry with them an element of personal responsibility, not all do and even in those that have this component, the sufferer needs to have an awareness of what they are doing in order to avoid the action that is causing the problem and the capacity to alter their practice or context. The bottom line that Jesus demonstrates in these situations is the human possibility of love to incorporate someone different from ourselves and the human responsibility to change our attitude in order that someone else can be whole as they are. The illness and its healing is secondary.

Creation

Arguably in relation to racial difference we are still on a journey of growing understanding. Racism still exists in society, though most societies recognize it as wrong. What is more difficult is eradicating it as we have a deeply ingrained sense of fear, sometimes biologically helpful sometimes culturally learned which makes us fear difference. Increasingly such differences are seen as biologically inherent and make up part of the variety of created life. Indeed, such variety offers a survival premium and hence the emphasis on seed banks and conservation maintaining a varied genetic resource for future generations. So there is a human benefit, aside from any cultural or Biblical injunction at least not to kill, at best to love and care.

Reading the Bible

This moves us to a consideration as to how we read creation stories and particularly phrases such as ‘male and female created he them’ and ‘being made in God’s image’ (Genesis 1: 27). When such passages were first spoken or written people were seeking to make sense of the world in which they lived. Arguably they saw men and women. What they saw was an outside manifestation, but also what fitted in the context of their culture. Difference felt threatening. We now know that human beings  have been around for upward of a million years. We now (except in situations where the Biblical text is read independently of context, variety and translation) recognise that the Biblical text we are reading cannot be read as a literal description of what happened at creation. We also see around us people who exhibit a variety of difference in appearance, genetic make-up, cultural history, mental capacity and theological understanding. This latter is manifested, not simply in nuances of interpretation of one collection of scripture, but in a compendium of different faiths, some of which have come and gone and others are still being practised. In that light we might read ‘male and female created he them’ and ‘being made in God’s image’ differently. We now know that there is, for instance, a spectrum of skin and hair colour, genetically determined. We are also increasingly aware that the same is true of our sexuality. I would suggest that this has been so for centuries. Our forebears would recognise ‘strong women’ and ‘gentle men’, though we now know that such descriptions are limited and simplistic. We are all more varied, indeed ‘fearfully and wonderfully made’ (Psalm 139: 14), than our simple outer appearance would allow. Turning the phrases around, without I think doing disservice to scripture, we might now say male and female and in many other ways (LGBTQ for instance), we have been made. And if that is so, and we are made in God’s image, this variety must be inherently present in the otherness that we name ‘God’.

Human variety and relationship

These reflections give me pause to reflect and the conviction that, while recognising this fascinating and wonderful variety of created humanity, we should have little surprise that Jesus worked so hard, in the terms of his day, to enable people to live with difference and to love one another, to break down walls of alienation. To do this today we need to see all people as created in God’s image, to work together in mutual recognition of our common humanity for our common good what ever our differences.

In the context of intimate human relations, the church has tended to fit people into models of relationship rather than enabling people to be affirmed in the relationships for which they were suited. This should in no way diminish our reverence for traditional marriage, but neither should we be fearful of other forms, styles and types of relationship. For some these other relationships will feel like a traditional marriage, and could be named as such, others might be seen in other ways, named by other names. Even the term ‘traditional marriage’ is difficult to pin down as individuals relate faithfully to others in a variety of different ways. No two marriages are the same. What ought to be stressed is that no relationship is acceptable which is one sided or abusive in any way.

What we need is the courage to affirm/bless different relationships not simply maintaining that one form of relationship has been divinely prescribed for all people.  

The Trinity – some thoughts – nothing fixed or final of course…

On Twitter recently there has been some conversation about the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. Traditionally Christians believe that God is manifest in a transcendent form = creator, often called Father.

Additionally God has become incarnate, made flesh in the person of Jesus = Saviour often called the Son.

Finally Christians belove that God continues to be manifest in the life of Christians = the Holy Spirit.

The problem is that the Trinity is not specifically defined in Scripture though the names of the ‘persons’ of the Trinity are provided. Trying to put the ‘persons’ together involves mental gymnastics if we believe in Monotheism. Even the term ‘person’ is problematic as it defines an existent being.

An analogy might help:

Resonance, in chemistry, refers to contexts in which one or more electrons contribute to more than one bond in a molecule. A most common example is found in the resonant bonds between the carbon atoms of benzene rings. The molecule appears to be two things at the same time. Now if that is over-complicated it could be you’re not a chemist. No shame in that. But…

The Trinity says the same of God. God is three ‘persons’ at the same time. If we express this in familial terms we make analogies which are contradictory, don’t work. Anthropomorphising language makes it less intelligible. God is outside our human language and categories and means of expression.

What we name ‘God’ transcends time, space, language, understanding. God is not part of creation or an alternative creation. Ground of being (after Paul Tillich) best expresses this. So let’s just leave ‘God’ as mystery. Forget explanation and practise LOVE?

John Wesley – timely words for today…

Words of John Wesley in his sermon on the catholic spirit – original, non-inclusive language of the 1700s – strong inclusive sentiment:

Is thy heart right toward thy neighbour? Dost thou love as thyself, all mankind, without exception? “If you love those only that love you, what thank have ye?” Do you “love your enemies?” Is your soul full of good-will, of tender affection, toward them? Do you love even the enemies of God, the unthankful and unholy? Do your bowels yearn over them? Could you “wish yourself” temporally “accursed” for their sake? And do you show this by “blessing them that curse you, and praying for those that despitefully use you, and persecute you?”

Do you show your love by your works? While you have time as you have opportunity, do you in fact “do good to all men,” neighbours or strangers, friends or enemies, good or bad? Do you do them all the good you can; endeavouring to supply all their wants; assisting them both in body and soul, to the uttermost of your power? – If thou art thus minded, may every Christian say, yea, if thou art but sincerely desirous of it, and following on till thou attain, then “thy heart is right, as my heart is with thy heart.”

“If it be, give me thy hand.” I do not mean, “Be of my opinion.” You need not: I do not expect or desire it. Neither do I mean, “I will be of your opinion.” I cannot, it does not depend on my choice: I can no more think, than I can see or hear, as I will. Keep you your opinion; I mine; and that as steadily as ever. You need not even endeavour to come over to me, or bring me over to you. I do not desire you to dispute those points, or to hear or speak one word concerning them. Let all opinions alone on one side and the other: only “give me thine hand.”

I do not mean, “Embrace my modes of worship,” or, “I will embrace yours.” This also is a thing which does not depend either on your choice or mine. We must both act as each is fully persuaded in his own mind. Hold you fast that which you believe is most acceptable to God, and I will do the same. I believe the Episcopal form of church government to be scriptural and apostolical. If you think the Presbyterian or Independent is better, think so still, and act accordingly. I believe infants ought to be baptized; and that this may be done either by dipping or sprinkling. If you are otherwise persuaded, be so still, and follow your own persuasion. It appears to me, that forms of prayer are of excellent use, particularly in the great congregation. If you judge extemporary prayer to be of more use, act suitable to your own judgement. My sentiment is, that I ought not to forbid water, wherein persons may be baptized; and that I ought to eat bread and drink wine, as a memorial of my dying Master: however, if you are not convinced of this act according to the light you have. I have no desire to dispute with you one moment upon any of the preceding heads. Let all these smaller points stand aside. Let them never come into sight “If thine heart is as my heart,” if thou lovest God and all mankind, I ask no more: “give me thine hand.”

What does singing do to us?

When we sing we embody (in-body) the theology that we have read. We take it in, translate, interpret and transmit. In the process are we, perhaps, formed or changed by the medium? Not pushing the metaphor too far, is it in any way like eating – what we eat becomes part of us, we excrete some of it, and it can nourish or poison…

So what we sing, and even how we sing, becomes important in a way we may not have envisaged before. It is one thing to read a text which remains remote, like looking at a cake and not eating it; it is something altogether different to take the text in and to re-transmit it. That we might do by reading aloud. The sheer physicality of singing, the presence of music, steps everything up a gear. Wesley knew that. That is why hymns were so important. The hymns provided portmanteau scriptures or interpretations, theology or doctrine. These were memorised and could be shared with others. And you can never lose them – which can become a bit of an irritation!

Why do you like this hymn or that? Why do you find some hymns abhorrent? ‘A good sing’ says as much, if not more, about feeling as it does about understanding or literary or musical quality. But Britta Martini wants to push us further by asking what is there in the expression of the music or the structure of a text, key or melody, image or metaphor, that causes a hymn to affect us in this way?

What hymns or songs affect you? And how? And why?