Wednesday, April 28, 2010

ten past eight: rant time

Oh yes. Time for a rant all right.

So I got an invitation to "like" the 2010 Westminster Declaration on Facebook. What is this? You can read it here.

The authors of this Declaration start their piece, written for this election period with these words:
Protecting human life, protecting marriage, and protecting freedom of conscience are foundational for creating and maintaining strong families, caring communities and a just society. Our Christian faith compels us to speak and act in defence of all these.

It's an attempt to bring American style right wing politics into British evangelical Christianity. Which is slightly bizarre, as British evangelicalism has always been strangely split - a fair section of it has always belonged in the country side of the Tory party, and a fair section has always been avowedly socialist. Straightforwardly political issues have therefore never sat well with this constituency.

What has changed? Not a lot, really, although there is a secular air about which makes those who like to feel threatened feel threatened. They should have been around in St Paul's day. Of course, a liberal secular agenda and a sprinkling of Pullman & Dawkins will bring the loudmouths out of the woodwork...

And hey presto.

Let's get this straight. We love life here at St Catherine's: God is the author of life, and we love God; valuing his gifts is a part of following him. So statement number one is a given. Protecting marriage? We love marriage - we try to marry as many couples as we can, and fight hard to preserve marriages that struggle. For life should mean for life. We believe in faithfulness - because we worship a God who is all about faithfulness. It is one of his most profound and richest gifts to us. Protecting freedom of conscience? That's a deep one. I got into trouble on Remembrance Sunday on this one - because of my insistance that this is foundational. For everyone. Including those whose conscience I disagree with. Otherwise, it isn't freedom - it's the tyranny of me. Censorship by another name. I have to allow freedom to those who hate me, in order to have it allowed for me - that's freedom, and respect is living together and understanding so that hatred becomes dislike with understanding.

Are these things "foundational for creating and maintaining strong families, caring communities and a just society"? We are all about strong families, caring communities and a just society here. Sounds like this is just the kind of thing we should support.

But then suddenly it goes into crassness hyperdrive.

Under "Our Beliefs and Values" it has a kind of diluted creed, a washed out version of Trinitarianism that places the Father's actions in the past, Jesus' role mostly in the past - with a reference to his return sneaking in there, and the Holy Spirit as the only currently active member of the Godhead, and whose role is defined in terms of serving us. Oops.

It goes on to say that as UK citizens (err, subjects, anyone? In my head somewhere I have this idea that it's US citizens and UK subjects, technically) we agree "to be subject to all governing authorities and obey them except when they require us to act unjustly". Fair enough.

Fair enough? Anyone read St Paul recently? The man is spinning on his cloud, uttering great chunks of Welsh as we sit here glued to our screens. Romans 13.1. That would be a start. Except when they require us to act unjustly? Sorry, the Bible offers no easy cop outs on obedience to authorities. We would love it to, but it is one of those hard issues. And what is meant by "act unjustly"?

"God told me that to pay my taxes was wrong, so you can't throw me in jail. It's unjust." Nope. Really no. Romans 13.6-7. This is silly and dangerous language because it can mean anything...

In the paragraph Human Life, we begin to be clearer where this is taking us. Again, we value all human life. Agreed. And we would fight for human life. But isn't it interesting that in a time of active military intervention, there is no reference to a pacifist agenda here? They argue that it is a duty to protect a foetus against experimentation, but not an Afghan against "friendly fire". There is a choice made about which lives matter. There is an agenda. I'm just saying.

The paragraph Marriage is awful. Badly written. The definition of crass. Let me quote:
We pledge to support marriage – the lifelong covenantal union of one man and one woman as husband and wife. We believe it is divinely ordained, the only context for sexual intercourse
What's wrong with that? Well, let's start with the fact that they have just made all re-married divorcees who have sex to be adulterers. Some people may believe this. I think it's probably a minority opinion, even in quite conservative circles. If lifelong marriage is the only place for sex, and you are in a second marriage, according to this, you have to be celibate. NOW - of course this isn't their target, but it is what they are actually saying. And that's why it's crass. If you don't mean it, don't say it.

What they are really saying is - we don't want any of that nasty gay stuff here, and we won't accept it as being equal to us nice straight people. Fair enough - freedom of conscience is freedom for all, even if you don't like what's being said. But I do feel they might have been a bit more honest. "We refuse to submit to any edict" has a nice ring to it; just not a lot of humility, or very much St Paul.

The Conscience paragraph is glorious. Almost Puritanical, I love it. Well it made me smile. And recoil.
Get this:
We will seek to ensure that religious liberty and freedom of conscience are unequivocally protected against interference by the state and other threats
The state and other threats! In a society where there is actually a State church and the monarch is the head of that church! No religious liberty here - just a threat to being a Christian from the state. This may have been true in Communist Romania, but it is a little over-egging the biscuit even in Gordon Brown's Britain.

Alas, it goes on in similar form, having found its theme:
We will not be intimidated by any cultural or political power into silence or acquiescence and we will reject measures that seek to over-rule our Christian consciences or to restrict our freedoms to express Christian beliefs, or to worship and obey God.

But what Christian beliefs is it referring to? Those key beliefs of being against abortion, stem cell research, homosexuality, civil partnerships and the like.

I don't want to belittle ethical debates. I don't want to say there can't be disagreement on these debates - I think there can and should be such disagreement - we have the freedom to disagree, I've made that plain - but I do think these are not central areas of Christian faith, and are areas on which Christians take differing attitudes and emphases.

Seriously. With prayer, and Scripture, and seeking to follow God. We differ. So saying that we are under threat from the state when someone disagrees with us - well, that won't do. And using inflammatory language and threatening back, which this declaration seems to me to be doing, well, that won't do either. Romans 12 - bless those who persecute you, bless and curse not.

Somewhere along the way we have to see that the people we disagree with are people. That means God loves them. Amazing but true. Jesus died for them. Wonderful. If he thinks so much of them, it's a bit low of the church to get so angry and mean with them when they give us a rough ride. They gave him worse - and he stayed silent. It's all very well to say we love them but they know the truth.

A Declaration like this says we don't. We just want our own way or we'll throw our toys out of the pram.
But Marcus, we're throwing our toys out BECAUSE we love them - it's for their good!
Yep. OK. Listen - they don't feel loved. I think we need to do a bit better than this.

Rant over.


Martin said...

You were rather more gracious than I felt having read it. Having seen first hand the effect of the Christian-right's anti-abortion, anti-homosexual, anti-anyone-who-tries-to-shut-us-up lobby in the US first hand, I have a unpleasantly visceral reaction to seeing it presented in weasel-words for a new audience. But I know that you are right to be more balanced - it's OK for us to have different opinions. I know mine are almost diametrically opposed to the ones I held twenty years ago on many many topics.

Love, humility, more love, more humility - that's how I want to approach my faith - especially when it comes to those I disagree with - but I still fall a long way short of my ideals! More thoughts on that here.

Anonymous said...

Just to question your rant Marcus, on Marriage, doesn't Matthew 5:32 state that someone who marries a divorcee (except when that divorce has come aboout through adultery) is committing adultery?

Marcus Green said...

It seems that most comments from here are up on my facebook page, so if you have access, look there!

I don't normally allow anonymous comments - come on, identify yourself - but here I will.

It seems Jesus is really strict about divorce. Though not about homosexuality - there is a good argument that the centurion's slave in Matt 8 was actually teh centurion's partner, based on the choice of word Matthew uses, which is different from Luke's. Yet Jesus heals him. And what is that stuff in Matt 19 (following more stuff on divorce) about euncuhs doing? In the church today we, of course, have it the other way around. Why?

Let's look a bit at what Jesus is doing with the divorce issue.

Jesus stresses faithfulness in a society where women were thrown away. People are not disposable objects. Lives are to be valued. Jesus teaches in absolutes.

But he pastors in reality - or have you not read John 4? A woman who has had too many husbands is not condemned (as an adultress should be) but redeemed; as indeed an adultress is in John 8. Not condemned (but the Son of Man did not come to condemn, did he? Or have you not got past John 3.16 to v17?)

The God of love gives his Son to save people when were sinners. Romans 5.8. If he is strict on the law, you'd think he should send his Son to blow us off the face of the planet.

But that's a misreading of the law - cos the law is really about how sacrifice will make us right with God, and here comes the sacrifice. Not us. Not Isaac. Not the sons of men, but the Son of Man, the Son of God.

And when we are tempted to point the finger at those who have failed, St Paul gently pulls us back: though I worry that badly used proof texts in Romans 1 stop us reading Romans 2.1...

Mercy triumphs over judgement because the judgement of the cross hollers out over Creation "You are forgiven!" if God's creatures will receive it. AND if those who have received it will take a moment to pass it on.

So whilst Jesus is harsh on a throwaway society, unless all we were left with was that one verse, I don't for a moment think we could presume that we were supposed to point fingers at people and say "Sinner"! loudly so they might understand how much worse than the rest of us they are. Whatever the issue. Surely that is profoundly the reverse of the Gospel?

Am I comfortable with re-marrying divorcees? When our ethics are generally so poorly worked out that we make some people better than others and cannot link the dots of Scripture but still think that single verses are all there is on a subject - no I am not comfortable. Not until we allow all people the equality of being God's children. But I'm not comfortable with the mindless rubber-stamping of marriages I have to do in my job where a couple who have both had other committed relationships before a first marriage get a free pass, and a couple where one partner did the right thing and married early but unwisely get penalised. I'm not comfortable with all sorts of things. It doesn't matter -

I am comfortable with this: God's grace is big enough for me to be included. Because I am a human being and he loves me, just as I am. So my job is to pass that grace on and to make it stick.

Saying "Oh dear, you're not quite the thing, are you?" doesn't seem to me to be a sure fire way of doing that. Not every time. Not as a rule of thumb. Not as an opening gambit. Not as an overture to the revelation of unconditional love.

Anonymous said...

Well, you know me and signing statements of faith. But if I *were* going to put my name to one, I'd like it to have more theological and less political content than this one.

I agree that the tone is off, even in spots where I can't argue with what's said. And, yes, the marriage section is embarrassingly coy-- we know what's *really* meant.

But I wasn't as bothered as you by the "obey [governing authorities] except when they require us to act unjustly" part. I mean, okay, it's badly written, seeming to put the "time to disobey" bar way too low. But there are surely instances where civil disobedience is either not wrong or downright called for. I know pacifists here (I'm in the US, for y'all who don't know) who consider registering for the draft (which our 18-yr-old males are still required to do) to be one such instance, and I'm not prepared (not at the moment, anyhow) to say they're wrong...

P.S. British subjects? Maybe not, unless I'm misreading this Wikipedia article, or the person who wrote it was misinformed.

Meg Underdown said...

I agree that the grace of God is large enough for all and that we are often zealous to protect God from his overarching love by putting rules back into the equation. The writers of that declaration are very Us in tone and like many of them on the abortion issue didn't pick up on the law of unintended consequences. There were more abortions under Bush and his anti-abortion agenda because of the rest of his policies made people poorer and therefore unable to afford children! It's notjust by passing things into law that we get what God wants but by giving better opportunities for development and that doesn't come with bashing tham over the heads with certain verses from the Bible