Political Theology

The enthusiasm some in the UK feel regarding Jeremy Corbyn’s election to the leadership of the Labour Party has filled me with almost as much gloom as my feelings of helplessness in face of the pan-European crisis of refuge and migration. What these phenomena have in common (for me) is that they point so directly to the limits of the possibilities of political action.

To take refuge first it is essential to note that the only European politician who had performed really well in all this is Angela Merkel. The collective memory of her will, I suspect, be dominated by her leadership in this to the same extent as that of Tony Blair is dominated by the disaster of the Iraq war. We all needed a voice that spoke for our moral obligation to those seeking shelter and Merkel stepped up to be that voice. Just as the underlying story of Blair’s premiership as it led him to take the wrong turning when faced with Bush’s determination to overthrow Saddam is more complicated than it is now often allowed to be so is the story of the German response to the present moment and Merkel’s embodiment of it. Nonetheless she has come out on the right side and I admire her for it.

Overall, though, the German response is only part of what is required. It is essential that the rest of the EU come forward to assist those bearing most of the burden (and we should be clear that it is a burden) of offering protection and respite. The Germans, Swedes, Greeks and Italians can’t be left to pick up such a disproportionate share. The UK in particular should be much more cooperative, unlikely though that is, given the complexion of our government and the state of popular opinion (recent poll numbers). At the same time, much as some of us might resist admitting it, David Cameron is right to stress that the best way to help those fleeing Syria is first to provide adequately for them in the neighbouring countries where most of them are likely to remain, above all Turkey and Lebanon, and second to find a way to end the war itself. He is also right that there is something essentially perverse about prioritising helping those with the resources and initiative to get to Europe over helping those stuck in the hopeless camps nearer Syria. In condemning the UK government for remaining outside the effort to cope with those arriving in Europe, and we should condemn it, we must also recognise the value in the UK’s very significant contributions to the effort to assist those in neighbouring countries, to which the UK is far and away the biggest European donor.

The question of how to cope with the current crisis is not a simple one of good vs. evil although we do in the end have to decide what is right. I think the UK should participate in the formulation and implementation of a common policy of resettlement of those arriving. I also think there is something positive to be said in favour of the UK scheme to resettle directly from the camps those most in need and a lot to be said for the emphasis on improving conditions in those camps and seeking a way to bring peace.

In all of these areas, though, I am very aware that the situation is unlikely to improve and that, indeed, the increasing instability in Turkey makes everything more difficult. A lot of the refugees are in areas where an escalating campaign of terrorism against the Turkish state is being waged by the PKK in response to the aggression of an Erdogan regime reacting to its political difficulties with provocation against the Kurds. In reality what I do, say or think as an individual is insignificant in face of all this. I can say to a few people that we are under an obligation to help in every way we can. I can give a little money. My actions, when I look at them objectively, are irrelevant to the outcomes.

In my estimation, as somebody who was once a part of the same marginal far-left world that Corbyn and McDonnell have inhabited for forty years or more, the political outlook of those now in charge of the Labour Party is essentially formed as a howl of protest against this helplessness. Seen in this way it is hard not to feel some sympathy with it. There is a lot of suffering and misery in the world that looked at in a certain way appear completely unnecessary. 500 million rich Europeans should be able to give shelter to a few hundred thousand desperate Syrians without any difficulty. If you look at the food eaten and wasted by the rich world it seems obscene that anyone anywhere is hungry.

Making this sort of straightforward observation can lead quite quickly to the thought that if these things are not addressed it must be because of the indifference or even malevolence of those in charge and that if the mass of people allow it it is because those evil people in charge are manipulating them. That, in essence, is the world-view of the milieu from which Corbyn is now emerging, blinking owlishly, into the light of the real public world. His message to the British people is: “those in charge are evil and they’ve been fooling you for years”. The popularity of films along the general lines of “The Matrix” show that at the level of fantasy it’s a message that at least some people are very ready to hear. In essence it share a good deal with that of UKIP (“liberal elite”, “speak the truth”) and indeed all other populist movements. “They’re lying to you but the truth has always been in plain view, if only someone had the courage to speak it.”

At one level I even think that they’re right. The truth is simple and clear. If people would love one another, put their selfishness aside and act in the interests of others rather than seeking their own security and comfort through conflict and competition we could and would indeed live in peace and plenty. That’s the message of the coming of the Kingdom of God as proclaimed by Jesus and by the prophets before him. It’s the message of the Mosaic Law and is the essence of the founding of monarchy and temple under David and Solomon in the historic books of the Old Testament.

In all these Biblical cases, though, it comes up against the reality of human sinfulness. Jesus ended up on the cross, the prophets were without honour, the Law was never followed and the monarchy and temple went down before God’s servant Nebuchadnezzar. That is not a cause for despair in the Bible, although there are plenty of desperate reactions in it. In face of every failure to overcome human sin we are encouraged to keep our faith in God, whose love is unfailing. This triumph of love over sin reaches a climax in the resurrection of Jesus and we are able to participate in that resurrection as a foretaste and promise of our own resurrection.

To put our faith anywhere else is to invite and embrace despair. That isn’t altogether a bad thing but it can’t be the last thing. One of the texts most important to my own Christian journey is Soren Kierkegaard’s ‘Sickness unto Death’. In it he argues that true faith can only be born of despair, only when one has accepted the futility of all human endeavour can one throw oneself unreservedly into the arms of God, with the loss of hope enabling the leap of faith into the unknown depths of the divine.

As long as one closes one’s eyes to the truth of the pervasiveness and intractability of the problem of human sin, preserving the illusion that all problems are soluble by us, then faith in God is partial and eclipsed by a desperate faith in human possibility. Only when this is surrendered by a faith that gives it all up to God enabled.

All my hope on God is founded … God unknown, he alone, calls my heart to be his own.


There is a widespread feeling that “things have gone wrong” and that a change in political direction is called for; variously this might be independence for Scotland, UK withdrawal from the European Union, the far-reaching transformations envisaged in the programme of the Green Party. These have in common a sense that we urgently need to do something very different. The UK Independence Party argue that immigration is wreaking and is going to wreak havoc on all we hold dear, that society has changed for the worse and that the time has come to revert to an older and better order of things. The Green Party argue that a rampant capitalism obsessed with growth will inevitably lead to irreversible degradation of the ecosystems of the planet unless something radical is done. The SNP argue that English indifference to the poor and needy and the dominance of London and its greedy bankers will lead to a brutal smashing of the welfare state and that Scots can only save themselves by separation.

I find all of this deeply misleading and rather worrying. I have a view of the world at once sceptical of the ability of human beings to take control of history and consciously shape it for the better and also confident that God will keep the promises made to us. These promises, made repeatedly through the history of God’s people as recorded in what we call the Old Testament, are reiterated and renewed by Jesus in the New Testament. They are for a new age of peace and justice in which poverty is abolished and oppression ended, in which all are free and all are fed. They are for freedom from sin and from sickness. They are for a world in which the violence of war and of laws regulating the relationships between people are replaced by a community of love and service.

Clearly we are now a long distance from that glorious kingdom of God. War, violence, oppression and poverty, let alone sin and disease remain all too real and present. However it is not unreasonable to see in the history of the last 60 years an incredible degree of progress towards the realisation of the promises made. Medical science has come a huge distance and continues to advance. The proportion of the world’s population living in absolute poverty fell (according to World Bank figures) fallen from 52.2% in 1981 to 22.4% in 2008. This astonishing advance came, in quite large part, through the dizzying growth in China, itself a product of that country’s integration into the world economy.

That integration has caused significant turbulence and difficulty for the world system and was, I would argue, the root cause of the collapse of the financial systems in 2008-9 to a much greater degree than, for example, the ways in which bankers were paid. The arrangement whereby we in the West bought goods made in China using money borrowed from the Chinese couldn’t last forever. Similarly it made it very difficult for people in Western countries to command the high and rising wages they had come to expect unless they could do something much cheaper Chinese labour couldn’t.

At the same time rapid technological advances have put pressure on a range of occupations susceptible to automation. We are in a period of change so rapid that our societies and economies are struggling to adapt. This makes this time similar in some ways to the middle of the 19th Century when steam transformed all sorts of things and caused dislocation and crisis in ways documented so memorably by Engels in his “Condition of the Working Class in England”.

What was true then is likely to be true again now. The long-term resolution of the crisis was not, primarily, a matter of conscious political will but of the evolution of a new economic and social order that accommodated the new technologies and ways of organising our lives. Political action was essential to this but had to fit in with the slow process of finding out how to change all manner of things to fit the new realities. Nobody in 1830 could have foreseen or created the relatively stable and much more comfortable world of Edwardian Britain (which is not to say that Britain in 1910 was paradise or without its injustices and horrors, just to say that the mid-nineteenth Century crisis conditions had abated and a new stability found).

Where attempts were made to change direction radically these sometimes succeeded and sometimes failed but in the end tended towards the same set of destinations. Something similar will, I’m sure, happen again. The very real problems the world faces are best tackled by incrementally responding to the most urgent while seeking to manage the least urgent. Finding ways of minimising and adapting to global warming while simultaneously continuing to raise people out of poverty through economic development is the core issue. Key to this is likely to be technological advance in electricity generation, storage and distribution. The costs of renewable electricity is falling but the problem of storage remains. Here, too, progress is being made. In time there is no reason to think that we will not be able to resolve this so that the use of fossil fuels becomes a niche part of our energy consumption.

In the meantime we will have to accept the continuing necessity of burning these fuels and seek ways to make this as efficient and clean as we can, whether by improving power stations or by switching from coal to gas. There is no realistic prospect of a political settlement that will persuade India and China to reduce their growth and, therefore, no realistic prospect of their not needing more power. In the absence of that the solutions are inevitably in the area of technical expertise and there are promising signs that the Chinese, at least, are recognising and prioritising this, whatever doubts one might have about their hydro-electrical and nuclear power projects.

Theologically it seems to me that we, who proclaim faith in a loving God, are called to confidence in the long and obscure historical processes rather than to panicky demands for urgent action to take conscious control over them. This is not to argue that we are not called to responsible and compassionate action. It is absolutely our duty to assess the possibilities and realities with which we are faced and to act in the way that will most adequately answer to the demand the we love our neighbour as ourselves. In the contemporary world our neighbours must include those suffering poverty and oppression in rural India, those threatened by Ebola in Sierra Leone and the millions whose lives have been devastated by the wars in Syria and Iraq as well as those struggling to put food on their table in our own towns and cities.

In all cases what we argue for and what we do should, must, have a realistic prospect of making a positive difference. My experience of being a member of the Green Party (albeit nearly 10 years ago) was that the more I found out about their policies the more likely they seemed to do more harm than good in the unlikely event of their being enacted. This party has a contribution to make in raising the profile of issues that are of great importance but which tend to be overlooked but its proposed solutions are mostly completely misconceived. What is most unhelpful, though, is the suggestion that the problems cannot be solved with changing the basic structures of our society, since this implies, really, that they can’t be solved at all, since such change is extremely improbable.

We would be much better advised, and more faithful to the Christian message that creation has already been redeemed in Christ, to assume that all our difficulties can and will be dealt with. In confident trust in our providential God we should seek the way forward, praying for guidance and patience as we work together to identify the path marked out for us.

PoppyRemembrance Day can be a strange and puzzling experience, at least to me. Brought up to be deeply suspicious of the British state and everything associated with it, steeped in a Trotskyist tradition that starts its thinking about war from the assumption that one’s main enemy is at home in the shape of the ruling class, I find it hard to shake off that instinctive distrust. I have come to see the premise that class struggle is the main truth of political and thus of national life as not just wrong but absurd. I have rejected completely the Marxism that dominated my youth. Yet I can’t accept a strong identification with “my” nation and its state.

The Christianity embraced in my thirties not much more compatible with nationalism than the Marxism of my teens and twenties. Our identity in Christ, if it is a genuine rebirth into a new creation, cannot be simply and straightforwardly grafted on to a natural national identity. Whatever else Jesus was and is he is not English, British or European. If we are adopted into the family of God our national identity becomes, at the least, problematic.

Remembrance Day is not necessarily an orgy of national self-congratulation and identity building, of course, but it can sometimes feel too close to that for my comfort. I don’t have a strong feeling of any kind about the recent installation at the Tower but the fact that it seemed natural to commemorate only “our” war dead is both quite understandable and in keeping with the nature of Remembrance Day and deeply troubling to me. That both these things are true is what makes this day difficult. I find myself able neither to embrace nor to reject it.

Equally I have difficulty with the “white poppy” response. I am not and have never been a pacifist. It seems obvious to me that sometimes it would be irresponsible to reject recourse to violence. One could legitimately say that one chose to submit oneself to the actions of evil men with resistance, in line with Jesus’ clear instruction. I find it more difficult to accept that one can make that choice for others. Those with the authority and the capability to protect the subjects of a sovereign power of which they are the agents must sometimes do so, it seems to me. Thus I accept the broad outline of a theory of “just war” as it has been developed in the Christian tradition.

I am also keenly aware of the injunction that we Christians are to “love our enemies”. Who “our” enemies are, in this case, is not completely straightforward. As I read Christ’s words they are those who are our enemies insofar as we are Christians who are primarily in view. In this respect it is not at all clear that the enemies of “my” country are my enemies. They may, perhaps, be my neighbours or they may be people to whom I have none of the relationships named in Jesus’ teaching, neighbour, enemy, brother, sister, friend. They may not fall into any of the categories named by him alongside these relational ones, poor, rich, those who mourn, those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, the blind, the imprisoned, the oppressed, the rich. If, however, their actions in war make them my enemies then I am instructed to love them.

Alongside my unease as the Church as the Church, which cannot really see itself as national, remembering the losses of one nation rather than another (an unease that recognises reasons why it might properly do so) comes another. What difference does it make it the wars in which people died were or were not, to whatever degree, “just”? Does it make a difference to our attitude to their deaths if we think they were in the interest of a good or of a bad cause? Does it make a difference if they were willing and enthusiastic participants or unwilling or even mutinous? Do we remember those shot for cowardice differently from the way we remember those killed doing heroic things for which they were awarded posthumous medals? If so, why?

At any rate our memorialising, as Christians, has to have at least a substantial element of repentance. All war is wrong, even just war, even war we cannot responsibly avoid. Jesus really does tell us not to resist the evil man and when we do we are quite clearly doing what we are told not to. It should come as no surprise to anybody with much acquaintance with the post-Reformation Christian tradition that we cannot keep ourselves pure of sin. Our lives are lived out in a fallen sinful world as fallen sinful people. This by no means absolves us of the struggle to align ourselves to God’s will as best we can but we should be under no illusion that this will leave us nothing to regret or confess, nothing to repent of.

Of course we can’t repent on somebody else’s behalf, when we remember the dead we do not remember or confess their sins. The primary modes of Christian memory in this case are thanksgiving and expectation. We give thanks for the gift of life, which is past, and we look forward to resurrection. Insofar, though, as we identify with the lost, in a moment of national solidarity, then there is repentance. The nation is responsible for these deaths and for the deaths of those killed on the other side of every war, and of this we should repent, even where we fought justly.

Balancing these various perspectives, us as Christians set aside and apart from our nation, as members of a national community mourning, in the Christian way of thanksgiving and expectation, those who have been lost, as members of a national community repenting of our sinful warring, is difficult, but it must surely be the task of the Church on these days of recollection.

I was involved in some conversations on Facebook recently which began with what I took to be the suggestion that Christian belief was incompatible with support for the policies of the current UK government especially as regards its reforms of the benefits system. Although I am not myself supportive of those policies the suggestion that commitment to the gospel required rejection of them seemed to me alarming and wrongheaded for a number of reasons. I feel myself moved, to help myself clarify what I think more than for any other reason, to try to articulate those reasons.

First (and most importantly) it flies in the face that large numbers of people are both Christian and Conservative. To say that these two are incompatible requires us to give an account of how it is possible that this should happen. Roughly this will require us to say one of the following things:

    • these people have misunderstood the gospel in its essence, that we understand what it means to be a Christian and they don’t, in effect we have to deny that they are really Christians at all, whatever they might think
    • these people are in fact hypocrites, that they distort the meaning of Christianity in order to fit it to their political agenda (this is rather similar to the above except for saying that the meaning of the gospel is clear and nobody could honestly mistake it
    • their view of the actual content of the policies they support is inadequate in ways that prevent them recognising the conflict between them and the gospel

The problem with the first two is that they seek, in effect, to declare unilaterally a new set of absolute truths about the content of the Christian faith. Deciding what things you either must or must not believe in order actually to be a Christian has been a longstanding concern of the Church, and rightly so. The most universal and absolute statement of this probably remains the Nicene creed, as supplemented by the Council of Chalcedon. The technical terms used in the Church are “dogma” (for the things one must believe, like the divinity of Christ and God’s being one in three and three in one) and “heresy” for the things one must not believe (like the subordination of the Son to the Father).

Personally I think we should continue to acknowledge and beware of the possibility of straying into heretical views and should recognise the authority of the early church councils but should be very careful about the declaration of new heresies. I am very uneasy. for example, about the decision of the World Alliance of Reformed Church to declare apartheid a heresy in 1982. To declare a heresy seems to me something only the Church catholic can do and in the absence of any mechanism to do so it seems to me to overstep the limits of what a narrowly confessional body like the WARC can claim for authority for. This is not to say that the suspension of the churches that supported apartheid was a bad thing, just that the use of the term heresy in justifying it seems to me to be a mistake.

In making any belief or behaviour a condition of claiming the name “Christian” requires, in my view, the authority of the whole Church, and without that authority this should not be attempted. Anything not already heretical is acceptable within the Church until such time as the Church is sufficiently reunited to begin to make authoritative pronouncements again.

This is not to say that we cannot express, forcefully if necessary, our disagreements about the implications of the doctrines and ethics through which we express the gospel message but that we should be modest and careful about our confidence in our understanding of those implications. If someone says that Jesus is not God then we can say that this is incompatible with the gospel (the ecumenical councils established that) if that say that the current welfare reforms are justified and necessary we can say that we think they’re wrong but we cannot be sure that they have not grasped the ethico-political implications of the gospel better than we have, since there is no authoritative statement that can establish who is right.

This begins to shade into my second source of unease. I think that politics, the art of shaping and guiding the direction of the modern civil authority, is simply too complex and uncertain for anyone to speak about it with any great certainty. One is always in a process of attempting to judge what is possible and what outcomes would flow from any possible set of actions. Anything done by the state and its agents emerges from a hard to comprehend chain of decision and influence and acts into a social world only very partially apprehended and understood. What will happen as a result and what the possible alternative outcomes would have been is impossible to be sure about.

This means, for me, that the apparent certainty about the rights and wrongs of any issue is based on very little and has little value. This does not mean we don’t have the responsibility to try to form the best judgements we can, we do have this responsibility. It does mean that these judgements are mostly very doubtful and should be offered tentatively rather than definitively. In secular politics there is no source of Christian authority and we should not speak as if there were.

Within the Church there are some things that are well established on the basis of apostolic authority. In my denomination, the United Reformed Church, a very good attempt was made at the time of its coming into being in 1972, to state the (rather few) things that were held to be absolutely non-negotiable in its Statement of Nature Faith and Order. Those ordained in the URC, as ministers or elders, have to express their agreement with those statements. That is a good things and guarantees our apostolic and catholic character as part of the one universal Church of Christ.

To speak as if anything else were believed by the Church (rather than by individuals within it) is a grave error, in my view, and this includes all matters of contemporary politics, about which the denomination would be better not to speak (although there is no reason why individuals within it should not do so).

happy endingIf one is convinced, as I am, that life on earth evolved according to mechanisms posited by the scientific consensus and also that the spontaneous order of the market is the best way of organising economic affairs currently available to us, what implications might there be for our understanding of the idea of “providence”, of God’s ongoing sovereign guidance of the world? How indeed are these ideas compatible with a traditional Christian doctrine of creation?

These, of course, are not new questions nor do I imagine that I will have anything very original to say about them but they are preoccupying me at present and I feel the need to write about them to put my thoughts in order.

1) I am convinced that part of the answer lies in the positing of two quite distinct temporal orders. God’s time is different from our time, although the two cannot be thought of as completely unconnected. For us time is bounded and uni-directional. For each of us individually, for our societies, our species, our planet, and even our universe, time has a beginning and it will have an end and we move through it from one to the other. God’s time cannot have that same character. If we accept the idea of God as creator then God must exist outside this flow of time as its ground and origin. (However hard this may be to conceive.)

2) Within historical time there appears to be a good deal of scope for human action to make a difference. We see cases where it is hard not to conclude that it would have been possible for decisions to be made that would have led to outcomes other than those that actually came to pass. Our sense of moral responsibility could not survive another conclusion and is central to (most) Christian teaching and accords with the sense of most other people. It is impossible for us to accept the idea that all our actions are determined by a sovereign God who decides who we will be and what we will do.

3) On the other hand on the grand historical scale it is hard to conclude that most processes and large scale developments do not come about through the conscious will of any or all of those who take part in them. We feel powerless to reshape our world and explain history using categories and structures at a level well above that of the single decision maker. The current disaffection from politics and distrust of politicians expresses this feeling of powerlessness. History seems impersonal, a “second nature” with its own laws.

4) This sense of the social sphere as subject to objective laws is reinforced by our experience of markets. Here agents exchange good abstracting to various degrees from their identities and using a universal means of exchange (money) that means that their interaction can in principle be narrowed down to the single event of purchase and sale. From the total mass of these exchanges a complex structure of economic life can be organised without the need of a central directing agency. It is impossible for anyone to know everything that is going on, as the difficulties of econometrics testifies. There is no one in charge, at the largest scale.

5) Some seek to reinstate providence at this level using some version of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand”.  God is to be found in the, to us, anonymous order to be found at the higher levels of abstraction and organisation. The flow of goods and services in the total economy or the progress of history as viewed from the point where it can be observed in retrospect. I find this unsatisfactory because these processes and systems are so clearly not perfect, not just, not peaceful, not in short Godlike. Were God already fully in charge surely the present could not look as it does?

6) The most promising line of thought for me is to suggest that this is the reason the idea of resurrection is so indispensable. God’s action in and on the world is not yet completed. God’s promise is that at the end of our time, which is already present in God’s time, all will be (is) well. It is only at the end, at the resurrection, that these two times will coincide but because both are present to God the promise is a sure one, rather than a conditional one. All is well because all will be well.

7) This leaves open the relationship between our responsibility and God’s action in the present. God is able to promise reliably because God is already at the end of time as well as in the present. Our hope depends on God’s act of promise, based on God’s linking of the time of the promise and the time of its fulfillment. Our hope does not depend on our belief either that we are or should be able to impose our will on historical development nor on our belief that we can observe things getting better in a progressive way. Our hope depends only on our trust in God’s promise.

8) In this sense belief in providence is not a conviction that God will act in the present to protect or to care for us, although we can have such a hope. It is rather analogous to the implicit promise in children’s films that there will be a happy ending, that the characters we care about most will be all right in the end. We encourage our children to endure the upset of their identification with characters who are suffering or in danger because “it will be all right in the end”. Perhaps trust in providence is rather like that.

henryI’ve been reading Oliver O’Donovan’s Desire of the Nations and very challenging I’ve found it. I won’t attempt to summarise or give any account of what he argues, since I don’t feel qualified, on the basis of one quick reading, to do so. I will however share some of the things reading this (excellent) book has made me think.

Accepting any version of the “modern” or “liberal” doctrine that “religion” is a private matter and that the civil authority could or should be neutral in matters of religion is hard to square with some basic aspects of Christian thinking and living. We proclaim Christ as Lord. That means, as I see it, Lord of all the world in all its aspects. We should, therefore, want the rulers of the nations to acknowledge and follow him, shouldn’t we? If not what does his lordship mean? Christianity necessarily (as far as I can see) implies a desire to remake the world, including its politics, by subjecting it to the rule of Christ. The only way this would not be required would be if one were to make Christianity primarily a matter of the salvation of individuals from the world, rather than of humanity in the world (a way of being Christian that is not unknown but which I have never been attracted to).

If one accepts that Christianity is, also, public and political then the rejection of the link between the Church and the state can still be maintained, if one were to conclude that the state as such was corrupt and corrupting such that the Church must exist in opposition to it (something like this may be the position of some modern inheritors of the anabaptist tradition). One could hold that the current political arrangements are such that entangling the Church with them will be so harmful to the Church that it must withdraw from them so as to maintain itself as what it is called to be. Something like this was the position of those who withdrew or were driven from the Church of England in the seventeenth century.

They must (and I’m no expert so I could be wrong) have accepted the possibility of an established church in principle or they would not have been members of the CofE in the first place. When they were unable to conform to the changes made at the restoration they must have regarded these as turning the church from one they could in good conscience belong to into one they no longer could. Their position, to be coherent, must at that point have been such that a properly reformed established Church would have been a preferable alternative.

This is different from the alternative, which I can imagine, of saying that until the coming of Christ in glory the Church must always remain separate from the civil authority which could never be sufficiently in conformity with Christ’s will for Christians to align the Church with it in any kind of partnership.

The problem with this is that it seems to deny that Christ is Lord in fact, being so only in name.

I find it hard to find a way through this problem of the standing of the Church with respect to the political order but see it as an extremely pressing theological problem for all of us, whether we recognise it or not.

israelSince coming back from Israel I’ve been trying to come to some view on the political situation there. This has been hampered by my feeling unqualified to have an opinion, due to my ignorance and then, as I’ve done a little research, hampered by my confusion as to what criteria of judgement one would apply to the facts.

The current position both in Israel and in the occupied territories is extremely complicated and if one advocates a course of action it is unclear, at least to me, at whom one is directing that advocacy. The current government of Israel is a coalition of four parties with significantly different bases and policies. If one argues that the government should follow a particular path which it is inconceivable this coalition could follow then one must, presumably, either be envisaging its replacement by a different coalition or imagining what a government of which one would approve more would do, without reference to the possibility of such a government coming to power in Israel in the short term.

The latter approach (imagining what one’s ideal policy would be in abstraction from a path to its enactment) is not illegitimate, but its connection with politics is one I find difficult to trace. And that’s the big problem I have with political life in general and with the issues surrounding Israel/Palestine in particular.

I would like to see a peaceful region in which all its people, Arab, Jewish, Kurdish, Syriac, and other co-exist in polities that respect the law and operate according to democratic principles within borders and under frameworks that all recognise and accept. I do not, though, see any realistic prospect of that happening so that any course of action I argue for would have to be within the constraints of the existing state system, including that of Israel.

This means that the opinions and prejudices of the Israeli electorate can’t be ignored. They are. for the most part, supportive of parties that prioritise the security of Israel as a Jewish state and are suspicious and defensive with respect to the Palestinians. In this they are not unreasonable. Palestinian hostility towards the Jewish immigrants dates back at least to the 1920s and for most of that period has had as an element the desire to see the Jewish population of Palestine reduced or eliminated.

We can differ about the attitude we take to the Zionist project of establishing a Jewish state in Palestine but it is too late to reverse it without mass expulsions which I would find impossible to support, so the reality that the powerful Israeli state will take the actions it deems necessary to preserve its existence is unavoidable.

It makes perfect sense to try to hold that state to account for actions against the Palestinians that go beyond what is required for its security but that will involve difficult and complex arguments about what is, in fact, required. This in turn is bound up with the perception of many Israelis that they face a serious and permanent threat of violence that they need to guard against.

At that point I start to feel absolutely lost and incapable of forming a meaningful judgement, and that’s before I begin to think about the questions from the point of view of a person of Christian faith. To do this means to take a position of some sort about the nature of Zionism as a religious phenomenon, which it has now, to some degree become.

Religious Zionists and their Christian sympathisers take a view of the situation in Israel that I can’t share, but that doesn’t put an end to the problem. Even though my take on the nature of Biblical authority is such that I would be doubtful about the line of argument that says that some Biblical books contain promises of possession of certain territories and we can apply those promises straightforwardly to the contemporary world I wrestle with the political existence of the Jewish people.

If we take seriously the idea of Christianity as a revealed religion this revelation stands in a close relationship to the status of the people of Israel as the people chosen by God. This status always had as an element the political ordering of that people. The modern state of Israel must have that as part of its background and constitution. Christians can’t ignore it, however difficult we may find to think about it.

That doesn’t help, though, if anything it just makes the whole thing harder. If Israel is not a state like any other (which we sort of knew anyway) it is even more puzzling to figure out what standards of judgement should apply to it. And even if we could work that out it would remain impossible to make a connection between those standards of judgement and anything “we” (whoever we are) could do to make a difference.

All in all I feel at once obliged to come to view and totally unable to do so. Yet again the only recourse is prayer.

I have just spent a concentrated time studying at Yad Vashem, the holocaust museum in Jerusalem. There are some ideas and feelings that I have brought back with me but not yet integrated with one another or with the rest of me.

1) The Church and the Jewish People remain bound together in specifically sacred history. That is to say that a history of the last 2000 years of God’s relationship with his people gathered in the Spirit as the Church is incomplete without an account of his continuing and real relationship with the Jewish people through the Torah. God’s relationship to the world is mediated through both of these covenantal relationships. The two covenants are active simultaneously and together.

2) The Holocaust is an event in that sacred history, as is the destruction of the Second Temple. We Christians recognise events in our history as revealing something about God and about God’s purposes, as being theologically significant (for example the early councils of the Church or the decisions made at vital moments in the Reformation). I think the Holocaust, as an event in the history of the people of Israel, is an event that theology has a responsibility to interpret, that Christianity (and Judaism) are living with unacknowledged trauma as long as they are not fundamentally transformed by it.

3) That this is what constitutes the uniqueness of the Holocaust, more than anything else about it. The Nazi attempt to utterly destroy the Jewish people is an assault on God and must be seen as such. This is not to deny the anti-divine character of other genocidal projects but it is to assert the unique covenantal status of the people of Israel and thus the uniquely demonic character of the Nazi attack on them.

4) That is is not accidental or irrelevant that it has become almost impossible to talk to anyone about the Holocaust with getting entangled with the policies and actions of modern Israel in respect to the Palestinians. Christian theology needs to come to grips with Zionism. This is difficult because Christianity is profoundly incoherent with respect to the modern national state form.

5) This makes Remembrance very difficult in a Christian context. As we think about how to acknowledge the national traumas of death in war we are caught in an especially sharp way in the bind that we are always in some ways dealing with: are we national or cosmopolitan. Christian churches since the rise of the nation state during the transition to modernity have often adapted themselves to this new form. This is at least a significant part of what Protestantism was and is about. In war this has often meant that the national churches have become effectively part of the national war machine.

These tentative and uncertain conclusions are just the beginning of something I will need to pursue but in the meantime I need to lead a Remembrance Sunday service. This remembrance has to recognise that death in war between nations is not and should not be seen as comparable to Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. His death was a (the) event in sacred history. Wars are not, they are events in secular history.

So here we are again (or so it feels). Cameron and Obama are talking on the telephone. Military options are being reviewed. Parliament has been recalled. Once more the UK and the US seem to be on the brink of military action in the Middle East.

I remember the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, when I felt unable either to join the demonstrations against (with their apparent indifference to the awfulness of the regime and their visceral hostility to those leading our own country and its allies) nor to support the proposed action (with its transparent lack of any real vision for what would be achieved). I was against the invasion but unable to lend my support to an opposition with which I could not identify.

Given the distance from those events I would probably now be more inclined to support the demonstrations but still uneasy about doing so. I subscribe to Just War Theory and would be willing to lend support to military action that meets its criteria. The invasion of Iraq seemed to me to fail on the grounds of probability of success and on last resort. Much was made of the competent authority argument in relation to the UN but I’m far from convinced by that. I’m not at all clear that the UN is an effective enough body to be regarded as a legal authority, valuable though it is.

At any rate we’re now facing many of the same arguments in regard to Syria, albeit nobody is seriously advocating or considering a ground invasion. Whatever military action might be taken is likely to be more demonstrative than really decisive. The arguments in favour seem to amount to “we can’t do nothing” more than “we should do this”. It’s even uncertain whether any state actor really wants Assad overthrown given the uncertainties and dangers attendant on this outcome.

So what, if anything, do Christians have to say that is distinctively Christian on all of this?

It seems to me that the moral and political questions are ones where we are unlikely to have much to add. We are likely to say “war is a bad thing” and to link this to the gospel, but we’re very far from being the only ones opposed in principle to violence. Where Jesus’ teaching is distinctive is in its radicality: “offer the wicked man no resistance”. This, though, would apply not only to intervention from outside but to the Syrian opposition and indeed to Assad. This teaching of Jesus would urge all involved to let the others do whatever they would.

While this accords with the gospel teaching I don’t hear many voices raised saying the the Syrian opposition “lay down your weapons and offer the wicked man Assad no resistance”.

We all understand, at some level, that this teaching is inappropriate. It may be that as individuals we are called to try to reach this level of self-surrender and Christ-likeness, but to choose it on behalf of others is not right. This kind of insight is part of what lies behind Luther’s two regiments approach to politics and to ethics. We have responsibilities towards others in this fallen world that mean that sometimes we are called to do and be things that sit uneasily with the kingdom teaching.

Often moral choice is more a matter of choosing between a set of wrongs rather than holding our for an unachievable right. This is what Just War says. War is always a bad thing but it may be the least bad of a set of bad options.

Again you don’t need to be a follower of Christ to recognise this. What you do need to be a follower of Christ for is to hope for something beyond the sets of compromises this world allows.

What Jesus announces is the coming near of the Kingdom of God, a direct and unchallengeable rule of the loving God. A state of affairs in which war and violence, injustice and abuse, even sickness and death are a thing of the past. In the redeemed and transformed creation into which we are to be resurrected all these consequences of sin will cease to be.

The Christian message is not “be nice” (although we should be nice) or even “be good” (although we should be good). It is that God is acting and will act to make sin and death things of the past. We are called to represent that kingdom in the here and now. We are called to live and act as if God’s rule has already been fully enacted (no possessions, complete non-violence and so on) but we’re also promised God’s gracious forgiveness for the ways in which we fall short.

This dual existence, in God’s kingdom and in the mess of our fallen world, is the core problem of Christian discipleship and is sustainable only through faith in that forgiveness, in the promised return of Christ to rule in glory and in resurrection to eternal life in him.

We shouldn’t try to short-circuit all this by looking for the perfect Christian answer to the pressing ethical and political problems of today. We have to live with the knowledge that there is no way to live in this world without sin, without really doing things that make us guilty, in our eyes and in the eyes of God.

Our only recourse is to throw ourselves on God’s mercy and pray for the guidance of the Spirit to lead us on the path Christ has laid.

poverty over


I was somewhat surprised and disappointed by the response to my arguing recently in a Facebook group populated by members and friends of my denomination that as Christians we were against death and sin. This seemed to me a rather uncontroversial statement in context and was bemused by the reaction of some of my ministerial colleagues

They seemed to believe that being against something we could not hope to defeat or otherwise conquer made no sense. Being against death was taken to imply believing that human agency could banish death from the world. If one accepted that we could not hope to do so then it was suggested that it made no sense to say we were against death, despite the strong Biblical support for exactly this stance (especially but not exclusively in the Pauline corpus).

I was very struck, therefore, when preparing to preach this Sunday, at the beginning of Christian Aid Week, that Christian Aid have declared their objective to be the end of poverty. This seems to me to be a goal of a very similar nature to being dedicated to the elimination of death, especially when one considers their definition of poverty. This is the subject of a (very good) discussion paper which considers a range of approaches to the definition of poverty, before deciding to synthesise them using the concept of a “good life” (increasingly popular in recent decades under the influence of “virtue ethics”). This synthesis is summarised in the phrase: “Poverty is disempowerment and the injustices that result.” (For the paper in full see here).

My purpose is not to disagree with this approach, indeed I think it is a very good starting point for thinking about the interaction of Christian faith with politics. What I would say is that it is very difficult (for me) to see this as much more credible than an end to death. Fallen human beings in a fallen world are and will remain prey to scarcity of goods (however one understands the word “goods”) and to consequent competition over their distribution. Power relations and injustice seem to me to be ineradicable until the kingdom of God is fully realised, that realisation being promised at the end of time with the resurrection to eternal life.

I claim to know neither when nor how this consummation of God’s redemptive work will take place  but I do contend (with the apostle Paul) that without faith in it the Christian faith is empty and absurd and we are to be pitied.

I fully support and endorse Christian Aid’s objectives and on that basis am happy to lend my voice to advocating for it (despite my reservations about some of its campaigning). I think that saying that we are for the eradication, not merely the amelioration, of poverty in the wide sense that word is given in Christian Aid’s literature, is a powerful and vital aspect of witnessing to the gospel.

In saying we want and expect the end of disempowerment and injustice we are, in effect, saying that the realisation of our political and social ends depends on the eschatological action of God, that no human social and political action will ever be sufficient to realise the justice we seek. To that message I say, “amen”.