Archive for October, 2019

Grace is neither costly nor cheap

October 27th, 2019

I’ve been editing a book by William Powell Tuck, “The Rebirth of the Church” (forthcoming shortly from Energion Publications). In it he says “Many church members turn to the church only when they want to get married or buried or have a crisis in their lives. These same people often show greater loyalty to their civic clubs or country clubs where they have annual dues and attendance requirements. The church must assume some of the responsibility for this failing since it has placed too much emphasis on the ease of church membership and has not had any real requirements for those who have joined. There has been too much stress on the security of the believer and not enough acknowledgement of faithfulness. Many have found cheap grace from their church and have been unwilling to examine the New Testament requirements for following· Christ. This failing demands that we look again at the New Testament call to discipleship. Dietrich Bonhoeffer has called this “cheap grace.” “Cheap grace,” according to Bonhoeffer, “is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.” “

He goes on (quoting Bonhoeffer again) “”Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the regal rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble, it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.” Bonhoeffer goes even further when he declares:

“Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought repeatedly, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock.  Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: ‘ye were bought at a price’, and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God” (The quotations come from “The Cost of Discipleship” pp. 36-37)

Now, I hugely respect Bonhoeffer. Unfortunately, I think that in this much quoted attitude to grace, I think he is mistaken. What he speaks of is, I think, true of discipleship, of following Jesus, who talked about taking up our crosses in Luke 9:23. If you are “all in” following Jesus as Lord, then yes, that is at least a potentially very costly course of action.

But that is not “grace”. Let me explain…

Grace is a huge feature in Christianity, and particularly in Protestant Christianity, in which it is one of the three (or sometimes five) “solae”, “sola gratia”. It is unmerited gift (we preserve the terms “gratuity” meaning a tip, and “gratis” , meaning entirely free, in English).

Gifts, however, particularly in the West, seem historically to have been hugely difficult for people to grasp. In the Roman world of the first century (i.e. the background of most if not all of the New Testament), gifts were given by a patron to his clients, and there was an overwhelming understanding that receiving such gifts placed you under an obligation of service to the patron. Jesus was dead against giving gifts this way: in Matthew 6:1-4, for instance, he says “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” This is echoed in the common Twelve-Step “Just for today” injunctions “Just for today… I will do someone a good turn and not get found out; if anyone knows of it, it will not count” .

We preserve this in modern society to a considerable extent. How many of us, for instance, calculate the value of presents we are given and try hard to give presents of similar value? The motivation is clear – if you agree to buy something, you know the price. If you accept a gift, you incur a potentially infinite obligation, certainly one which is not well-defined. In giving a gift of similar value, we are trying to get rid of that unspecified obligation…

This is particularly forceful in the case of the debt we feel we owe if someone has saved our life. In that instance, we readily talk of an infinite debt, possibly involving the whole of the rest of our life. After all, we wouldn’t have that were it not for our rescuer, would we?

Curiously, that doesn’t apply in every society. The Chinese template, for instance, is that if you voluntarily save someone’s life, you become responsible for them for the rest of your own. There is a logic there as well, though it is one which is difficult for Western minds to grasp quickly.

The Roman and general Western attitude is picked up by Paul in the quotations to which Bonhoeffer is referring – 1 Cor. 7:23 and 1 Cor. 6:19-20. Paul is there perhaps thinking of the concept of ransom (which isn’t explicit in either passage, but in 1 Cor. 7 he does refer to us being freedmen of God, even if we were previously bondservants). Ransom is, of course, a motif which is used by Paul for what Jesus does for us, and forms the basis of Origen’s “Ransom” theory of atonement.

The thing is, if you accept that we are infinitely indebted to Jesus for his self-sacrifice, you are not talking about ransom, which (as Paul indicates) frees you, you are talking about the purchase of a slave. To give Paul his due, he is only arguing that there is some moral weight to Jesus’ action in the 1 Cor. 6&7 texts; you might feel that you are undoing Jesus’ actions, for instance, if you then misuse your newfound freedom. Bonhoeffer, however, sounds far more as if he is talking about Jesus having purchased our slave-contracts – and that is nothing remotely like gift.

Indeed, the very idea of “cheap” or “costly” grace contradicts the basic concept of a gift. You can have a cheap or a costly purchase, but not a cheap or a costly gift – at least, not to the recipient. The giver, of course, can give as much or as little as they wish, but if they follow Jesus’ prescription, they shouldn’t expect anything in return, even the good opinion of others.

Thus, of course, if we look at Jesus’ self-sacrifice as a gift, we should be able to accept it as just that – the freedom not just to accept it or reject it, but to accept it in total freedom. Any suggestion that we need to commit ourselves to Jesus if we accept it (and otherwise it is witheld) is no longer a gift, it’s a purchase.

But, as I say, we don’t really understand gift.

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The wrong Gospel

October 25th, 2019

My friend Tom Sims posted a quotation from Matthew, which got me thinking (my emboldening):-

Matthew 12:15-21
When Jesus became aware of this, he departed.

Many crowds followed him, and he cured all of them, and he ordered them not to make him known. This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah:

“Here is my servant, whom I have chosen, my beloved, with whom my soul is well pleased. I will put my Spirit upon him, and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles. He will not wrangle or cry aloud, nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets. He will not break a bruised reed or quench a smoldering wick until he brings justice to victory. And in his name the Gentiles will hope.”

I have also recently been thinking about the Great Commission, to some extent courtesy of listening to a Richard Rohr podcast. This is also found in Matthew (28:16-20):-

Then the eleven disciples went away into Galilee onto a mountain where Jesus had appointed them.

And when they saw Him, they worshiped Him; but some doubted.

And Jesus came and spoke unto them, saying, “All power is given unto Me in Heaven and on earth.

Go ye therefore and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you. And lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.” Amen.

That got me thinking about the way in which people have so often told me this initial instruction to the disciples not to talk about him became an instruction to “go and teach all nations”, and how that has always been interpreted as “teach all nations about Jesus”.

The thing is, that’s not what Matthew 28 tells the disciples to do. It tells them to teach them to observe Jesus’ commandments (and I think of “if you love me, you will obey my commandments” from John 14:15, and the synopsis of Jesus’ commands in the Great Commandment). I might, perhaps, extend that to the “good news” (i.e. Gospel); that, I think, is encapsulated in what might be regarded as Jesus’ “mission statement” in Luke 4:18-19 ”
“The Spirit of the Lord is on Me, because He has anointed Me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent Me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour” “. That is quoting Isaiah, about the Year of Jubilee (which is something Israel is supposed to implement, not something which is miraculously imposed by God).

There’s nothing about Jesus in there… nor is there anything about sin, hell, judgment or most of those things which street evangelists like to talk about.

John Dominic Crossan talks about how the religion OF Jesus becomes the religion ABOUT Jesus; I’ve written about this previously in “Direction Finding with Jesus”. I don’t think we were ever instructed to go out and tell everyone about Jesus. I think we were instructed to go out and tell everyone Jesus’ message. And that is the Great Commandment and the news of the Jubilee which we should be implementing.

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Brexit – more on Path dependency/Slippery Slope

October 20th, 2019

Theresa May’s speech after the defeat of the government yesterday included, according to the Sun, these words:-
“Because we have, today, to make a key decision. And it is simple, do we want to deliver Brexit? Do we want to deliver on the result of the referendum in 2016? When we voted to trigger Article 50, did we really mean it? When the two main parties represented in this House stood on manifestos in the 2017 general election to deliver Brexit, did we really mean it?”
 “I think there can only be one answer to that and that is yes, we did mean it. Yes, we keep faith with the British people. Yes we want to deliver Brexit.”
“If this Parliament did not mean it, then it is guilty of the most egregious con trick on the British people.”

I think this beautifully examplifies the path dependency I referred to in my previous post.

David Cameron stood on a manifesto of holding a referendum, and then campaigned against a leave vote, never expecting that it would actuallyu result in a “leave” vote. That’s the first step.

The second was when parliament agreed the proposed referendum, on the basis that it was a non-binding indication of preference, and NOT that it would be binding on every subsequent government. Mrs. May referred to the fact that the legislation had passed with overwhelming cross-party support; we cannot now know for certain, but it seems to me overwhelmingly likely that it would NOT have had cross party support if it had been couched as mandating the government to leave the EU – it might well not have got a majority, given that at the time polls of MPs indicated that over 60% of them opposed leaving.

The third step followed the referendum result. Suddenly, it was taken as a binding obligation on parliament to implement Brexit (and I note this is the view Mrs. May is still pushing, despite the fact that it’s probable that when parliament agreed the referendum, that is not what they thought they were doing). When there was a snap election called by Mrs. May (and agreed by Labour) to try to get a better majority (and with the actual result that the existing majority vanished, leaving her in the hands of the DUP to get anything done), both Conservative and Labour stood on a manifesto of leaving the EU, a mistake on the part of Labour which the Liberal Democrats, Greens, SNP and Plaid Cymru did not make. Mrs. May is therefore right to say that Labour supported some Brexit at that point. However, Labour’s preferred continuing relationship was in that campaign, in general terms, a “Norway” deal (which would have kept us in the customs union, kept all the environmental, labour, food and product safety rules, kept us trading in exactly the way we always had), and on the doorstep not a few Conservatives were also campaigning on the basis that we could leave and still have such a deal.

A “Norway” deal, as I’ve pointed out before, would be pretty much a case of agreeing to all EU law and paying for common institutions but not having any say in how they were made, something which was, of course, totally unacceptable to the UKIP/Brexit party bloc (of which Conservatives and, to a lesser extent Labour were scared, with some merit, given that our first-past-the-post voting system might actually have given them an absolute majority despite having only around 31% of the vote) or to the 150-200 Conservative MPs who favoured leave at all costs. Nevertheless, at that point it was still a live option.

Then it became apparent that the EU would not negotiate unless an Article 50 notice (which committed us to leaving if not first withdrawn, without any certainty of a future trading agreement) was given, and again, Conservative and Labour MPs voted overwhelmingly to do that. That was the fourth step – Mrs. May again rightly points out that that was agreed by parliament.

Then we had Mrs. May’s “deal”, which, under EU rules, didn’t actually specify what the future trading agreement would be. OK, technically it couldn’t, we had to leave before the eventual agreement could be negotiated, but the accompanying political declaration could have specified a “Norway” deal, or a “Canada” deal, or a “Switzerland” deal – but it didn’t. That was the fifth step. The likely outcome had now become something less beneficial to us than any of those options.

The reason for this is that the hardline Brexiteers wouldn’t support any of those beneficial agreements which could have been made under any circumstances, and as we progressed down the path towards a harder and harder Brexit, their votes became more and more vital if any progress was to be made, as those MPs who had expected not less than Norway, Canada or Switzerland stopped being willing to support anything further. As everyone know knows, that is the point at which Mrs. May no longer had a majority…

Finally, the “Boris deal” arrives, trampling all over the lack of a customs border in Ireland (mandated by the Good Friday agreement, which is the basis for peace in Northern Ireland) and the lack of a customs border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK (an absolute requirement of the Ulster Unionists whether DUP or otherwise) as well, and anticipating that on a simple majority vote of the Northern Ireland Assembly we could crash out of the Good Friday Agreement as well. It is hardly suprising that MPs are digging in their heels at this point. We are so far down the path to a “no-deal” or a very damaging deal Brexit that MPs with a lively interest in the welfare of the country cannot support it.

Does Mrs. May have ANY merit in her suggestion that to stop Brexit (or even delay it) would be “an egregious con-trick on the British people”? I am totally confident that she does not. Let’s look at the votes cast: 52% voted in favour – but although that 52% were in favour, how many of them at the time were prepared to go so far down this path as “no deal”?

My very strong suspicion is that the answer to that is something around 31%, namely the proportion of people who voted Brexit in the 2019 European election – after all, everyone who wished to leave expected at the time that the MEPs elected then would either never take their seats or only sit for a very short amount of time, and it was a “regional list” PR election so tactical voting was pretty much ruled out, so it was in effect a fresh “free vote” on what kind of Brexit people were prepared to countenance. Yes, one can argue that a proportion of the Conservative voters thought the same way, perhaps as many as 70%. The thing is, the Conservatives only polled 9% of the votes, and even if every single one of them was a “no deal Brexit” supporter, that only gives “no deal” 40% – and that is a long way from a majority.

But, watching the BBC coverage of yesterday’s debate, I noticed that there was virtually no mention of the possibility of stopping the whole thing in its tracks by revoking Article 50. Path dependency seems to have removed that possibility from the table completely; the only options really being talked about were the “Boris deal” and “no deal”.

A similar thing seems to have happened in the minds of many of those who voted Leave in the first place. People who told me that they wanted a “Norway” deal in 2016 became willing in 2017 to accept “Canada” and, by this year, would accept “no deal” just in order to have the thing over and done by (and I note at this point that the only way for it to be over and done with quickly IS to revoke Article 50, as the Boris deal means we will then have uncertainty until a new trade deal has been negotiated and agreed by Parliament, and that will take at least another year, and more probably two or three).

It looks a lot like a “slippery slope” rather than a true path dependency, and that seems to have infected the minds of a lot of the population, the BBC and a fair number of MPs, including Mrs. May (assuming for a moment that she was not just being disingenuous…). The thing is, it is not too late to stop the whole sorry mess. Yes, a lot of damage has been done (see my previous post), but we don’t have to have any more damage.

Please God, revoke the Article 50 notice now, and put us out of our misery. At least 60% of those who voted this year plainly don’t want a no deal Brexit, and that is what we are inexorably heading for.

If there’s a con-trick, it’s those who lured people into voting on the basis of a decent trade deal and are now telling them they have to accept a bad one – and yes, I’m looking at you, Mrs. May, and you, Mr. Johnson…

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The fallacies of Brexit

October 19th, 2019

Three years ago, we voted in a referendum, and by a modest but not wafer-thin majority, those who voted, voted to leave the European Union. At the time, I head a lot of reasons given for people voting to leave, and a lot of differing expectations about what leaving would actually mean. Many who voted did so on a rather fine balance between a “leave” and a “remain” vote (and I note in that connection that Boris Johnson prepared both a pro-leave and a pro-remain opinion piece, so he was at least somewhat representative of a country which took a very marginal decision to leave – and that after being a major contributor to the enthusiasm of some to leave through his largely fictional columns for the Telegraph, which unfortunately people often believed).

Of those I talked to who voted Leave, the vast majority expected to end up with a trade deal like Norway or Canada, or perhaps Switzerland. I’ve previously written about why I think the deal we currently have, remaining IN the EU, is superior to any of those options. Some voted that way as a protest vote against the way David Cameron had been running the country, without any expectation that the vote would succeed (and I’ve noted previously that even the arch-Brexiteer Nigel Farage didn’t expect to win, even on the evening of the vote). A significant number of people who wanted us to remain just didn’t vote, because they thought it a foregone conclusion that the vote would be to remain – and I’m sure David Cameron thought that when he campaigned on the basis of calling a referendum and then did so.

I’ve also commented that, far from deriding the House of Commons as unable to make up it’s mind and get on with things, I think they have been pretty accurately representing the population as a whole (and we are a representative democracy, not a direct democracy). We were

So, I ask myself, how have we arrived at a situation where, though we were most definitely in two minds about whether to leave or stay, where most of those who wanted to leave expected a trade deal not much different from the trading relationships we had previously had, the options on the table appear to be either:-
(a) a no-deal Brexit (which almost all commentators agree would be an economic disaster for the country) or
(b) a hastily cobbled together “deal” which commits us to 33 billion pounds in transitional costs, erects a customs border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK and, most saliently, contains absolutely no assurances that after a little over a year’s transitional period, we would have any trade deal at all, far less the Norway/Canada type model.

Looking at its terms, it (in common with the previous Theresa May deal) is predicated on us leaving the customs union, which means that 44% of our exports and 53% of our imports will be subject to administrative burdens even if there are no tariffs, again in common with that deal, but in stronger terms, it is predicated on us not having the same protections against unreasonable labour conditions, food safety and product safety and environmental protection, and it withdraws us from all Europe-wide information sharing and other cooperative ventures – even the European Court of Human Rights. It also leaves the issue of a possible hard border in Ireland up to a simple majority vote of the Northern Ireland Assembly, which would actually let the Unionists break the Good Friday agreement which brought civil strife in Northern Ireland to an end.

It is, as one might expect from any agreement reached in a hurry, a pretty bad agreement.

The main thing is, it definitely looks to a trade deal not as good as that for Norway, and it’s dubious that it looks to one as good as Canada. The whole tenor of it seems to indicate that we’ll end up on terms which are not specially favoured in any way over more distant EU trading partners…

And that is most definitely not what the majority of my Brexit-supporting friends voted for three years ago. Curiously, though, some of them who expected a very close trading partnership with the EU three years ago are now content (or at least resigned) to accept no-deal or something close to it. Why? Probably because they are tired of this going on, and on, and on, and think that this will bring an end to that (it won’t, of course, because we still need to negotiate an actual trade deal with the EU…). The refrain of Tory Brexiteers is now “let’s just get this done”, and I am SO sick of hearing that.

I see this as the first factor at work, exhaustion. We are, it seems, supposed to surrender to a really bad deal because it’s too much work to carry on fighting.

The second factor I see at work is path-dependence. Our avilable options for the future are governed by the decisions we have already made. Granted, in the case of Brexit, there is relatively little which has been done which cannot be undone, but the perception is definitely that we have collectively made a decision (much reinforced by Brexiteers saying “the people have voted, now we have to act on that”); the agreement, if parliament does vote for it, represents another step in that direction. I will freely grant that that perception is an example of the slippery slope fallacy, but it is a very real factor.

The third factor is another fallacy, the sunk cost fallacy. It is a fact that we have already, as a country, lost a very great deal by having Brexit looming for so long – commentators estimate over 400,000 jobs have been lost as a result so far, and that the damage to the economy has been around 66 billion pounds so far. Johnson knows that, having argued in the House today that we needed to accept the deal to put an end to cotinuing damage to our nation and increasing acrimony in the nation, clearly appealing to just that fallacy. The sunk cost fallacy says that we’ve lost so much already, we ought to just plough ahead and try to make a success of it – though in fact estimates of future cost range between around 8% of GDP and 20%, and clearly a significant amount of that could still be avoided.

I think the sunk cost fallacy also applies to our national reputation, which has suffered a huge blow (the only reason my American friends are not holding us up as a laughing stock is that they elected Trump in the same year…) and to the personal reputations of those who admitted to voting for Brexit; again, the feeling is that we just have to, somehow, go ahead and hope that in some sense it can be demonstrated to have been a good thing, because otherwise they’ll just look like total idiots.

Those who are busily saying “we just need to get on with it”, “I just want it to be over” and “there’s no other option than no deal or Boris’ deal” are just falling for one or more of those fallacies. The answer, of course, if we want the damage to stop, is to stop banging our head against a wall and revoke the Article 50 notice.

(addendum – I’ve explanded on the slippery slope in another post)

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