God’s culture of dependence

If you’ve watched or listened to any episodes of Global Christian Perspectives, you’ll have probably grasped the fact that my co-host Elgin Hushbeck and myself don’t see eye to eye on very much, whether it be Christianity or politics. One of the points on which we differ most is the question of social welfare; Elgin has gone so far as to write a book “What is wrong with Social Justice”.

One aspect of Social Justice, to my mind, is providing for the poor, the sick and the disadvantaged. I see this as an absolute Christian duty. Elgin, on the other hand, thinks that social security can “encourage a culture of dependency” and as such is a bad thing. This, to me, has the ring of pronouncements by Ian Duncan Smith and others in our current Conservative government; Mr. Smith has the weird notion that it is actually helping people to strip them of their social safety net, as they need the spur of absolute destitution to persuade them to get a job.

In the world IDS lives in, it seems that there are abundant jobs which are well within the capabilities of all the people who are receiving benefits, including those who are partially (and sometimes extensively) disabled, and all they need is to be bullied in order for them to go out and get a job. I am not sure where this world is, but it isn’t the Britain of 2015, and it equally wouldn’t be the USA of 2015.

I have three really major problems with this approach. The first is that no sane person who is able to go out and do a job which will return a reasonable wage sufficient to live on adequately is going to sit back and try to subsist on the level of benefits which either government currently provides. While I keep hearing people on the right talking of hearing someone say “You’re a fool to work when you can live on benefits”, I have yet to hear anyone actually say that, and no-one I know who is living on social security or disablement benefits would not give their eye teeth to be able to get a job which would provide them with a reasonable standard of living.

Of course, in actuality the lowest paid jobs, which are generally all that is available to the less able, do not actually pay enough to keep someone clothed, housed and fed adequately, at least not unless you work two or three of them; in addition, there just are not enough jobs. IDS is saying “Just go and pick an apple from that tree”, and you look, and there is no apple on the tree. This is just wanton cruelty. That, however, leads me on to my second problem.

I spend some of my time as, in effect, a kind of technologist; I do some part time work with a company which develops and optimises chemical processes. This helps me appreciate the thrust of technology, as does a long-term interest in history. Technology enables us to save labour, to produce more using less labour. In the process, it removes less skilled jobs, but in fairness it tends to create more skilled jobs. Unfortunately, a sizeable proportion of humanity are not able to acquire the kind of skills which are increasingly required in order to earn enough to live on. This is particularly pointed as technology is now replacing even the actions which used to require a fairly high level of intelligence and many years of training. I could joke and say that not everyone is ever going to be able to be a brain surgeon, however much tuition and practice they have, but actually there’s some danger that even brain surgeons may be replaced by robots in the future…

Of course, there are always going to be jobs in personal service, but care assistants and burger flippers are never paid enough to live on.

I know that this directly contradicts what seems to be a portion of the myth of America, that if you only work hard enough, you have the opportunity to become rich ( a myth which seems at the moment to have corrupted the minds of our Conservative party). The trouble is, it is a myth not in the sense of an inspiring story by which you can live, but in the sense of a falsehood.  You can work 120 hour weeks in most of our low paid jobs and still never have a hope of managing a really decent standard of living, let alone becoming rich.

If we are to have a future in which most people have a decent standard of living, it seems to me that we are going to need to start valuing people for being human, rather than for what they can do – because we increasingly are not going to need humans to do anything.

I should perhaps remind Christians that we regularly pray “Give us this day our daily bread”, relying on God to provide this. God’s hands for achieving this are, in my way of seeing things, those of other people. Jesus lauds the lilies of the field, who toil not neither do they spin (in the KJV, which I tend to remember). Clearly, he does not think that working is an essential in order for God to provide.

My third problem with this outlook is this. It assumes that being dependent is a thoroughly bad thing. Another plank of the American way is individualism, the cult of the man who is not dependent on anyone but makes his own way, proudly refusing all assistance.

However, as a species we are born the most dependent on earth; we do not become truly able to cope for ourselves for years, whereas even other live-birth mammals manage the feat within at most about a year. Unless we are eking out an existence as subsistence farmers or hunter-gatherers in some third world country, we continue to be dependent in ways which individualism would like to deny; we are dependent on the culture we live in, and the contributions of all the other people (and, these days, machines) in it; we are specialised in what we can actually do (assuming we are lucky enough to be born with the capacity to learn an useful trade and the health to pursue it) and depend on other people who are specialised in their own ways.

I blogged about some aspects of this issue from a different perspective recently, where I suggested that the least we should expect from our community is that it provide for Maslow’s levels one and two; we also have a need for Maslow’s level three, love and belonging. It is, to me, fundamentally wrong that we regard ourselves as primarily individuals without responsibilities to each other; “No man is an island, Entire of itself, Every man is a piece of the continent, A part of the main” as John Donne memorably wrote.

Indeed, the Bible from very early times talks about the tribe, the people, the children, the group, the disciples, the Church. Not much about the individual, and even there, I think that should be read against the background of an assumption that the listeners and readers understood that they were a people of God, not individuals of God.

This has been a lesson which I have learned only with huge difficulty; I’m an introvert and have always suffered from some social anxiety (and now have a fully fledged anxiety disorder), so groups of people are not my favorite location; I’m a solitary contemplative in terms of my deepest spiritual practice (I seem to have had that foisted on me, not that it was in any way contrary to my nature); I’ve always thought that I should make my own way in the world, reliant on no-one else (such as my parents and their willingness to pay for an extended education); I was born with a decent mind and natural abilities which have made it easy for me to acquire skills in several areas and change direction when one became difficult or impossible to pursue. I should be a natural candidate for thinking that I, as an individual, am the captain of my ship, the master of my fate. However, illness and minor disability has taught me that I am absolutely dependent on others; I would not be here absent a twelve step community which recovers as a group where no individual could recover by themselves, or absent a wife and family. Or absent God.

I suggest that we should confess our dependence, accept it and strive to give effect to the economy of God, in which no person should go unprovided with food, shelter or clothing. Or love.

The raping of theology

The most recent Global Christian Perspectives discussion included an item which frankly horrified me; the report that some individuals in ISIS had developed a “theology of rape”, making it a religious act to rape members of the Yazidi group.

One of my more scholarly Islamic friends has made haste to post a link to a piece which completely rebuts any suggestion that this is acceptable Islamic theology. I am sure that this is correct, and that if any Muslims actually do follow this “theology of rape”, they are not following any version of Islam recognised now or in the time of the Prophet. I say “if any Muslims actually do follow this” for two reasons. Firstly, it is distinctly arguable that if they do follow this, they cannot any more be regarded as Muslim. The second I expand on later.

The problem here is that the shock effect of the first article outweighs the reasoned, considered and extensive scholarship of the second, irrespective of the accuracy of the report and of whether the alleged perpetrators are actually Muslims. I suspect that the reasoned and considered discussion we engaged in on Friday will equally have much less impact.

Some of my less scholarly Islamic friends have just discounted the report as mere propaganda and without any likelihood of being accurate. In conscience, this was my first thought on seeing the article. It felt like propaganda. It felt like the kind of thing the British government put out during World War I (in which, apparently, Germans were bayoneting Belgian babies and raping Belgian nuns, an allegation which was virtually certainly false); it also brought to mind the Nayirah testimony which may have been pivotal in inducing the US to invade Iraq in the first Gulf War. The allegation there was that Iraqui soldiers had removed babies from incubators, stolen the incubators and left the babies to die; this testimony has since been shown to have been false, and an effort by Kuwait to present the Iraquis as barbaric.

It is well known that if we can present an enemy as barbaric, lacking in human values, not worthy of being called human, we can then excuse and promote any degree of violence against them – including violence which is itself barbaric. This is psychology of aggression 101. If the report is true, it’s what is being done in respect of the Yazidis, though to a somewhat lesser extent – the Yazidis are monotheists with links to the Zoroastrian tradition, seeing the deity as having delegated control of the world to the “Peacock Angel” (who is neither good not evil in Yazidism); unfortunately it is relatively easy to equate the Peacock Angel with Satan in the Islamic angelology – come to that, as the Peacock Angel is identified as having fallen, and as being the ruler of this world, it would not be difficult to do it in Christian angelology.

So the Yazidis are “obviously” Satan worshipers – and as such, they are probably alleged to eat aborted fetuses, or some such garbage. It would then be the argument that no usual rules of behaviour toward them would apply.

The argument “but Sir, he did it first” does not work in the playground, but it appears to work more often than it has any business to when talking of populations or governments; it should never work for Christians, who are enjoined to love their neighbours even if they are enemies (such as the Syrophonecian woman and the Samaritan, respectively members of groups for whom there was a scriptural injunction to eliminate them and of a group considered heretics, which is often thought of as worse).

Now, I don’t know whether there is truth in the story or not, but whichever is the case, recounting it feels to me like circulating propaganda aimed at removing our inhibitions about violent action against ISIS. I was, therefore, unhappy that the item was included at all.

What if there were some truth in it? Let’s face it, ISIS is quite prepared to issue video of them committing atrocities of other kinds. Well, my thoughts immediately turned to the injunction in Deuteronomy regarding how you should treat defeated enemies. There is, of course, a saving provision in Deut. 21:10-14 ordering that the Israelites marry any women with whom they want to have sex, which is sometimes put forward as an event on the trajectory towards, eventually, the more enlightened attitude to enemies in the Gospels, the justified assumption being that in the warfare of the time, women were probably going to be raped and abandoned – something which continued to be a feature of warfare even of Christian nations for a very long time, and has not entirely vanished, if some reports of activities in Ruanda relatively recently are to be believed.

All of Judaism, Christianity and Islam have moved well beyond this in their theology and ethics, but soldiers have not necessarily kept up with theology and ethics. In particular, I note, as highlighted by another item mentioned on Friday, that concepts of honour which have also been superseded by the theology of Islam do still persist; it may be that the culture of the area has also kept its old ideas about treatment of enemies despite the best efforts of religion, in this case Islam; this is seen particularly in “honour killings”. If religion is invoked at all in honour killings, it is twisted in order to attempt to justify actions which are not taken for reasons of religion, but those of a longstanding previous culture of the area.

So it may, just possibly, be with the ISIS report. If there is a second lesson we can learn here, it is that religion is often used as an excuse for appalling actions where in truth they do not flow from the religion itself. My own touchstone for this in Christianity is the celebrated statement of the Papal Legate Arnaud Amalric at the siege of Beziéres; “Kill all, God will know his own”.

Those who are prepared to massacre and rape are, it seems, also prepared to massacre and rape their theology.

The value of a life in “The Bridge”

Following my previous post, which dealt with boundaries we draw when considering moral issues, and attempted to problematise where we draw some of those boundaries, I watched an episode of “The Bridge” which brought up some linked thoughts.

I hasten to say that I don’t usually enjoy having to read films and TV programmes (the series is in Swedish and Danish with subtitles), particularly when the language is close enough to my own to keep making me think that if I listened just a bit harder I would understand it (I live in a part of England with a lot of dialect and accent influence from Scandinavia), but I got sucked in by a somewhat bizarre start point (which got more bizarre before the end of the first episode) and by the interplay of two detectives with hugely different characters, one of whom is “a bit diferent”.

In that episode, the background is that an apparently socially conscious serial killer has kidnapped a bus full of schoolchildren and has promised to let them go, but on the condition that buildings belonging to five companies all of whom profit from child labour (in effect, slavery) are burned (slightly complicated by the fact that the perpetrator has identified them only by what they sell…). This becoming public, various people duly go and commit arson, and there’s a nailbiting finish as there’s a fire at a chocolate factory moments before the deadline runs out, and the box saying “chocolate” winks out; in the newspaper offices where this is being watched, a cheer goes up – and the viewer is inclined to cheer with them.

The thing is, even in that episode, you have to think that the background is that everyone dealing with those companies has been contributing to child slavery; why is it that five schoolchildren of the same nationality have to be in danger of dying in order to focus people’s minds on the destruction of the lives of many more children in other countries? Why do we think that very significant acts of arson against private property should be celebrated, and do we think that those five children’s lives are worth enough to justify this criminal behaviour? Why especially as, in order to save a little money ourselves, we have been buying from the slave-labour companies?

Earlier episodes, in fact, highlighted the lack of concern of many people to the death of several homeless people, an immigrant and the ambivalence of the slow, public death of a very violent robber and bully by the draining of his blood.

One cannot avoid thinking that there’s huge concern about five children, but very little about those homeless people, an immigrant and the violent guy. We may, perhaps, say that all life is sacred, but we act as if children are more valuable than adults as long as those adults are people we don’t identify with or who aren’t of specific economic benefit to us (there’s an issue in a later episode about how a rich guy who has killed someone by drunk driving has got away with it, for instance). We act as if the mere fact of the life of a child is valuable, but the quality of the lives of a greater number of children is not.

In fact, we seem to think that children, including the unborn, have infinite value (as long as they’re fairly much like us), but adults have a specific financial value, and those who are socially marginal have little or none. At least, we do outside the realm of the UK courts, where the value of a human life is routinely assessed based largely on earning potential; this tends to result in fairly low figures for infants, whose earning potential cannot be assessed. Things are somewhat different in the US courts, where damages are assessed by juries; I’ve occasionally suggested that as the value of a life is incalculable, the States puts a mind-blowingly high value on it, while the UK basically says it has no value in and of itself, just what it can be predicted to provide for others in the future.

In fact, things are different in a lot of other places and cultures, from the far lower amounts which some systems allocate to any lives to those which are still operating (if not notionally, then on a cultural level)  according to the kind of rules which operated in Biblical times, when children were basically of no value at all until they’d reached the age of a month and were a possession of their father thereafter until some arbitrary age when they were decreed adult (if male) or married off (if female) – or even those of still earlier times when unwanted children were just discarded, exposed to the elements and the local wildlife which was in those days generally entirely capable of eating a baby or three.

We also seem to have an elevated view of the character of children – “innocents” is the watchword there. I don’t think this is due to Jesus’ statements in Matt. 19:14 or Matt. 18:3, either; both were largely ignored in the notionally Christian western Europe until at the earliest the early 19th century. However, psychological studies seem to demonstrate that the very young are fundamentally sociopathic narcissists, who think only of self (once they form the idea that “self” is not continuous with the rest of the world) and are born manipulative; my own observation of children doesn’t disagree. Only later do a sizeable proportion become socialised and fit to be regarded, in my eyes, as fully human. Some, of course, avoid this socialisation and become criminals or company executives.

We then proceed to have a confused idea of when to promote people to having full adult responsibility. Not infrequently, we allow teenagers to fight for us, but not to drink alcohol or smoke tobacco; ages of consent for sex vary vastly depending on what country you are in, as do ages of legal liability for criminal offences and ages when the punishment of offenders is upgraded to “adult”. In this week’s Global Christian perspectives, Elgin Hushbeck bemoaned the fact that we allow teenagers freedom without responsibility, but we also impute some of them with responsibility without freedom. It is hardly surprising that many of them seem confused as to what they actually are!

It seems to me that we are operating by taboo when we so protect the very young, a taboo which I think was born of Victorian sentimentality (which, on the good side, also ended child labour). We are not operating logically, nor are we operating out of the Christian value of valuing life irrespective of its utility to society or conformity with social norms. What motivates us is taboo, prejudice and, sometimes, xenophobia. This really will not do.

Personally, I think this is an area in which we have to make hard moral choices, as indeed some of the cast of “The Bridge” are presented with. We could say that the mere existence of human life is a good so great that anything else should be sacrificed in comparison. In that case, we would also, in order to be rational, have to forswear capital punishment, war and lethal force in self-defence or even law enforcement. I suggest that rationality would also demand that we then also collectively provide for every human life within our society to at least a basic level, say level 2 (so that both physiological and safety needs are provided for everyone); maybe even level 3, providing also for love and belonging. The mere presence of life, it seems to me, is not sufficient when that life is going to be, as Thomas Hobbes put it “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”.

Alternatively, we can attempt the extremely difficult task faced by the courts in cases of civil actions for wrongful death, and value every life as dispassionately as we can. And if we do this, as the experience of the courts shows, the very young and the very old have very little value.

What price the busload of children under that paradigm?


Dentists, lions, symbols and Satans

Some readers who connect via facebook will already have seen a link, but I can announce that every Friday at 7.00 UK time, 1 pm central time, I am co-hosting Global Christian Perspectives with Elgin Hushbeck at Energion, so those who are interested can see me and hear me as well as reading me. Elgin is from the States, and tends to the conservative by US standards, whereas I’m from the right hand side of the pond and the left hand side of almost everything else, which means we fairly rarely agree about anything. Each week we tend to have one or two guests to add a little more interest to what might otherwise just be left and right locking horns and struggling mightily to no great effect!

So far, at least, the format is that for the first half hour we talk about a number of topical news stories, with a Christian spin, and for the second half hour we look at something in a little greater depth. On Friday last week (31st July) the topics were the Planned Parenthood videos, the banning of the GMO Golden Rice, Cecil the lion and, for the last half hour, whether government or the market is the best solution to problems.

Obviously, ten minutes each with three speakers isn’t much to explore topics which can have many levels of significance, so I thought I’d delve a little further here.

My position on Planned Parenthood is that yes, the videos make me feel squeamish – but then, so do most surgical procedures, and feeling squeamish isn’t a reason to ban something; it is by no means clear to me that the Biblical witness is univocally against abortion, particularly bearing in mind the injunction to stone disobedient children to death in Leviticus – clearly, the Biblical view of the value of the lives of the young, even after birth, is not the one we tend to have today.

Once you have a situation where there is living tissue from a dead human being (or proto-human being), the issue as to whether you can “sell” it is an entirely different one from whether the death should have occurred (and I’m reasonably satisfied that “sell” is not an accurate term; reimbursement of expenses would be more reasonable). I can see no good reason in Christian thinking not to allow the use of such tissue to save or ameliorate the lives of the living. Yes, some of those videoed were talking in a rather crass and insensitive manner, but we’re talking about medics here, and just thinking back to MASH indicates that this kind of talk isn’t exactly unusual, though in MASH it was enlivened by being funny. If there’s an issue to my mind, it’s that in the States parts for transplant are a commodity, and one worth considerable amounts of money – and that isn’t the fault of Planned Parenthood, but of a system which puts a price on everything.

On Cecil the Lion, my main comment was that there are at most around 30,000 African lions, while there are over 155,000 American dentists. I highlighted that we should be good stewards of creation, in accordance with Genesis 2:15 – I could equally reference Psalm 50:10-11 and point to animals as God’s personal property; the fact that lions are an endangered species promotes their importance. Yes, I note arguments that the public reaction was greater to the killing of Cecil than to (for instance) reports of the killings of individual humans, which was broadly Elgin’s point. There are, of course, over 7 billion human beings – and the numbers do not mean that we should therefore treat human lives as worth very little, whether in comparison to a lion or in comparison to (say) their ability to earn large amounts of money.

Both of these items raised issues of where we draw lines. In the case of abortion, it is clearly possible to take the position Catholicism was taking some years ago, and suggesting that contraception was evil as it prevented the possibility of conception (“every sperm is sacred” as the Pythons put it, a view which few non-Catholics here regard as anything other than ludicrous). There’s Biblical backing, perhaps, in that Onan was condemned for refusing to impregnate his deceased brother’s wife, in accordance with the good Biblical principle of levirate marriage. Once conception has taken place, most places which allow abortion take some point during the pregnancy, often an estimate of when a child might be born viable (which presents problems as science allows earlier births to survive), as being a cutoff time. Historically, the moment of actual birth has been chosen as an easily established one.

Once born, until relatively recently in history, children were not regarded as full human beings until some point when they were considered mature, and as late as the early years of the 20th century this was reflected in UK law in that the killing of an infant by its parents had to have a separate offence of “infanticide”, as no jury would in those days convict a parent of murder; the stoning of the disobedient child is part of a spectrum in which lines have been drawn at various points historically.

All this goes to show that, to my mind, there is no absolute way in which we can determine where the line should be drawn which is not subject to objections.

How about the line between human and animal? Might Cecil in fact be worth more than an American dentist?

This might seem far more obviously not the case. Some commentators have described Cecil as a “feral cat”, which is accurate, if misleading by omission, but strongly argues thinking from an absolute divide between human and animal. However, having referenced Genesis 2:15 earlier, let’s turn to some following verses, Gen. 2:19-23. We might consider whether these show animals as in principle of less worth than women; it is Adam’s choice, not God’s, which makes the distinction here.

The master Biblical passage for both of these is, of course, “thou shalt not kill”, which is more accurately “don’t murder anyone”. The trajectory of interpretation has meant that just as children have become increasingly protected, so have we moved in the direction of taking this more as “kill” than as “murder”, and I note that as “murder” is a legal term, “child-murderer” for someone performing an abortion in a state which permits abortion is inaccurate, as it isn’t murder, but a lawful killing. I do consider it ironic here that most of those who consider abortion to be child-murder have no problems with the death sentence or with killing in war, both of which offend “do not kill”, even if not “do not murder”.

The thing is, by many standards, an embryo is a lesser being than, say, a dog or cat. It’s thinking capacity is smaller, it’s physical abilities vastly inferior and its ability to survive unaided is zero. Yes, it has the potential to become an independent human being which animals are never going to achieve, but potential is not actuality (otherwise “every sperm is sacred” becomes entirely serious).

We do very commonly value some species over others – those who bemoan Cecil’s death would no doubt be markedly less concerned about other species; among mammals, for instance, it is difficult to elicit much human sympathy for rodents; snakes are not well regarded, and when it comes to insects and arachnids, we are inclined to swat them without a second thought. As for bacteria or viruses – no-one would weep were we to eliminate Ebola from the face of the planet. Or, at least, almost no-one, as no doubt there exist a very few microbiologists who would feel that the elimination of even that species was a loss.

I actually think that this trajectory of interpretation is a good one, as my mystical experiences, breaking down all divisions between myself and the other, vividly makes clear to me that in a fundamental way I am one with all other organisms within that-which-is-God; that God is immanently present in all these other forms of life, and that killing them is in a sense a crucifixion. Yes, even Ebola.

To kill anything is a wrong. In that sense, I’m pro-life – but I’m more pro life-with-quality than I’m in favour of creating lives with no hope and no prospects. I don’t think that lives should be a matter of “pile ’em high and sell ’em cheap”.

However, I am wholly sensitive to the fact that there is no way I can exist on earth without killing things; meat or even vegetables are formerly living, and even were I to turn fruitarian, I cannot continue to live without the deaths of countless bacteria and viruses which, even if I take no antibiotics (and I would have died many years ago had I not), are daily killed by my immune system. I am equally sensitive to the fact that there is a spectrum of living organisms and that choices must be made on where lines should be drawn between what I would not kill, what I might kill in certain circumstances and what I would in general kill without too much guilt. That leads me, on abortion, painfully to decide that we probably set the dividing lines in about the right places in the UK at present.

The standard retort at about this point is that I’m a moral relativist, which seems to be in the eyes of some an argument-clincher. It’s probably accurate. I am, however, confident that everyone is a moral relativist to some extent. Those who draw an absolute line as far as abortion is concerned at conception, I find, often tend to temper their “do not kill” with “except in self-defence”, or “except in a just war” or “as a punishment for heinous crimes” – and that’s equally relativism. A line drawn in law ends up having exceptions – there’s an old legal maxim that “hard cases make bad law” and I have rarely found a law to which some bright individual couldn’t find a circumstance in which, morally, the law should be broken – and those where I think I have found one are probably awaiting a slightly brighter person to propose a counter-example.

It has to be a greater crime (or sin) to wipe out a whole species than one member of an abundant one, and the closer you get to that last member (or, more accurately, to the point at which the breeding population drops below viability) the greater the crime becomes. Thus, I am not surprised to find people making more fuss about Cecil than about poor Zimbabweans – there are a lot of poor Zimbabweans, and the supply of more is not in peril.

That brings me  neatly to a second point, the suggestion that the real fault is with the Zimbabwean authorities who did not prevent the hunting of an endangered lion, or (to stick with the poor Zimbabweans for a moment) who did not provide for Zimbabweans well enough to ensure that hunting an endangered lion would not be an attractive prospect, given enough money. The dentist paid a LOT of money to hunt Cecil, and in Zimbabwean terms, that was a fortune which was going to circumvent any legal restrictions.

Now, Cecil is also a symbol for other endangered species which we have already allowed to become extinct, commonly by hunting them to that point. The Dodo, the Great Auk and the Passenger Pigeon are well-known examples, but there are very many others – and all those who haven’t been hunted, but whose natural habitats mankind has removed or rendered unlivable. I think we need to take into account that symbolic position when understanding the distress over Cyril.

However, the dentist is a symbol as well; a symbol of the ability of very rich people (and he would qualify as very rich by Zimbabwean standards) to overcome governmental principles, to buy their own “justice”. We adverted to this somewhat in the section regarding markets -v- democracy, and Elgin’s book “Preserving Democracy” laments the ability of money to subvert at least the US democracy while suggesting that the market is a better way of promoting human wellbeing than are governments, as he did in the show on the 31st.

Cyril stands as an object lesson that markets are not a good way of promoting the conservation of endangered species – it was clearly very economically sensible for the hunters to lure Cyril out of the protected reserve so he could be shot, given the amount of money available. Markets also, of course, decree that a human is commonly worth more as a set of carefully preserved body parts than as a whole human being; this is the case in the States, evidenced in the Planned Parenthood vidoes; it isn’t so much in the UK, as the UK decided some while ago that body parts were not a commodity to be bought and sold at profit.

Markets certainly have no regard for human beings just in themselves – if there is any value, it is in what they can produce, and that means that those who for reasons of personal capacities social acceptablility, education or sickness are unable to produce much are not valued at all. Perhaps not coincidentally, these are among the categories whom Jesus commanded that we put first.

Markets can be regarded as a kind of impersonal force, not subject to the same temptations as are given representatives in a democracy, and, indeed, that is how they generally function. We all contribute our little piece of supply or demand, but there is no individual human oversight – and, of course, no point at which compassion or human feeling can creep in; the market is predicated on the greed of sellers to get, if possible, a high price for very little good and on the greed of buyers to get, if possible, a great deal of goods for a very small price.

It plainly does not work to produce anything remotely like fairness, or even a balance between seller and buyer. Unrestrained capitalism rewards money with more money and punishes lack of money with forced purchases of the necessities of life at whatever price the seller wants; it tends in the direction of monopolies and cartels, where the sellers can dictate the price (and the wages they pay employees) irrespective of any principle of reason. It concentrates money in fewer and fewer hands, and thus concentrates power in the same way. In particular, it concentrates money in multi-national companies which have profit as their only motivation (not making a bigger profit tends to get you fired when employed by one of them…)

The love of money, says Jesus, is the root of all evil; power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, as Voltaire said. Voltaire was notoriously anti-religious, but Jesus before him shockingly said “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God”. Market capitalism says “blessed are you who have much money, for you will be given more”.

Is there any room for surprise that, in an earlier GCP show, I called market capitalism a Satanic system? It is one which we all do our little bit to create as long as we participate in society, and is contrary to human flourishing without allowing us clear moral choices. Clearly it must be restrained, and the only thing we have which can restrain it practically is government. Where that government is democratic, it has the merit of being one in which we all have a say. (The alternative, of a widespread movement to not cooperate with the system, seems to me doomed to failure, but I mention it in passing).

For those outside the States, it is probably also true that the USA is currently seen as the preeminent representative of the corrupting influences of money and power, and so our dentist manages also to be a symbol of that. Up to sometime in the early 20th century, my own country had managed that distinction for rather over 100 years, gaining in the process names like “perfidious Albion” and song lines such as “we were bought and sold by English gold; such a parcel of rogues in a nation”. This is, I suspect, at the root of various ayatollahs describing the States as “The Great Satan”. They confuse the symbol with the system, to my mind.

One might almost think that having the words “Novus Ordo Seclorum” on your Great Seal was an acknowledgement of the intention…



Can we be a Christian nation?

The Spectator has a fairly recent article about the decline of Christianity in Britain which makes for depressing reading for those who yearn, as I do, for some revival in the fortunes of the church generally, and even more depressing reading if your chosen church is Anglican, as mine is. If the projections in that article were correct, in 52 years there would be no native-born Christians in the UK, and Anglicanism would die out in a mere 18 years.

My main church at present is evangelical Anglican, and has a magnificent vision of being at the head of “God’s Transformation of the North”. It is without doubt one of the most vibrant congregations in the area – or, more accurately, four of the most vibrant congregations, as crossover between the four Sunday services is limited. Even so, I note that its electoral roll has shrunk over the last 15 years or so, from around 800 to around 500. (For American readers, that is a significantly large congregation by either Anglican or indeed UK standards…).

Of course, the projections are not likely to be anything like accurate. Had I extrapolated from the decline in church attendance between, say, when I was 10 and when I was 30,  during which time church attendance went from being something which on balance I expected of everyone at school, the main question being which flavour of Christianity was involved, I would have predicted total demise by the time I reached 50. At the worst, we’re looking at an exponential decay, which is never quite going to reach zero, overlaid by more short term fluctuations.

Patheos Progressive channel is having a set of contributors assessing the future of Progressive Christianity at the moment, and one at least of the contributors, Elesha Coffman, thinks that American Christianity including the Progressive wing is going through the same process, albeit perhaps a little delayed from the UK experience (the last time we had church attendances here as high as they are now in the States was probably at the most recent the 50s, and more likely the 20s).

Coffman, in my opinion rightly, notes that one factor at work is the reduced will to join things in the States. I think this is very much what we saw here in the earlier part of my life; going to church on Sunday was the norm, it was a major focus of social activity (with only the local pub and sports spectatorship being serious competition), and at first, the competition won – and then, the pubs started declining and sport became more something to watch on TV. There was a growing rush for the exit of those who were attending out of reflex or out of social motives, growing as it progressively stopped being the norm and peer pressure reduced. Then the decline slowed, though the figures for the first 15 years of this century seem to show another abrupt decline, so there may be other factors at work there. It may be that, as she suggests, community is being found increasingly online, and that that revolution has only really started to bite since the turn of the century.

I am not certain that I consider it a real loss to Christianity for those who do not see the Church as a vehicle of personal transformation to stop being part of its institutions. I do, however, see it as a loss to society that we are abandoning social structures. Anything which contributes to the isolation of the individual is damaging (and I say that as an arrant introvert who does not take at all well to social situations and, for preference, will curl up with a book rather than go out and talk to people). Ben Dixon looks to a faith liberated from religion – and that is fine, but ignores the fact that the Progressive movement only exists because people in evangelical and mainline congregations find themselves called to something more radical than those structures can currently accommodate, but how are people to find that faith once the evangelical and mainline congregations are no longer there?

Jennifer Butler optimistically says “If we build it, they will come” (to paraphrase slightly). I think she’s over-optimistic; without a certain critical mass, there is no forum in which to find the builders, and as matters stand, that critical mass is becoming increasingly difficult to find in the UK. In effect, the Progressive tendency in Christianity is inevitably parasitic on mainline and evangelical congregations (just as in centuries past the monastic tradition was parasitic on the near-100% church attendance of the laity), and without a host, the parasite dies. I can’t find a Progressive congregation anywhere near me (which is a prime reason why I’m currently a member of a rather conservative evangelical congregation who don’t mind their parasitic liberal/progressive, or at least so far have been tolerant). It seems probable that the critical mass of more traditional congregations just isn’t there.

Jim Wellman doesn’t put it in quite that way, but I think expresses sentiments fairly close to my own. But there are definitely other voices, including Kyle Roberts, who as a former evangelical thinks that Progressive Christianity might become evangelical. Eric Smith has another upbeat riff on the concept of yeast (and makes me recall Jesus comparing the Kingdom to a leaven, i.e. yeast), and Mark Sandlin goes in a similar direction, though his analogy is chickens rather than craft beer.

I would love to think that Kyle, in particular, is right – but have to say that I have no idea how you can evangelise Progressive Christianity, any more than you can evangelise liberal Christianity (the mainline churches found that out years ago, and basically stopped trying to evangelise, which accounts for the more savage decline in their numbers). The trouble is, the message is not simple enough.

At least, it isn’t simple enough when I try to explain my faith to anyone. Comments to me along the lines of “I hadn’t realised it was that complicated” are commonplace, and that’s with people who are already committed to at least some kind of Christianity. In the case of the unchurched, at about the half hour mark the eyes of even the most polite glaze over, and I know that talking further is pointless. I grant you, that may be just a function of my tendency to over-intellectualise everything, the lack of a “common touch”, you might say. However, I can’t point to many of the main Progressive leaders and identify how they are able to engage those outside the church any better than I can; they are almost without exception talking to those who are already part of a mainline or evangelical congregation or have recently left one.

In the UK, at least (and it looks as if the USA might be catching up with us, or at least following our example), it is also becoming increasingly difficult to evangelise the “conservative” gospel. Paul’s impassioned condemnation in Romans 1:19-23 probably made eminent sense in the year 60 or thereabouts; the concept of some kind of God was an integral part of the world-view of almost everyone in those days. It does not make much sense in 2015 to the majority of Britons (and that goes for the majority of Western Europe as well). The concept of sin, of transgressing some absolute laws (as opposed to humanly constructed, relative ones) is better founded, although without a concept of God, what it is founded in is very much not apparent to the majority of people I talk to here. Most can manage an amorphous sense of guilt, but there is no clear source of forgiveness. With no concept of God and no clear concept of sin, it is just not possible to preach a gospel of salvation.

I therefore see a steady tailing off of the ability of the conservative and evangelical churches to gain new adherents, and as liberal, progressive and radical Christianities are currently parasitic on them, they will likewise tend to wither.

Some of the commentators in the Patheos round-robin have a vision of a kind of religion-less Christianity, where Christianity has gone outside the institutional church and found other roots in the community, a kind of Bonhoefer-like “Christianity after religion”. This is an attractive concept. Some years ago, I would have said that we perhaps didn’t need Christianity as an institution here, as basic Christian principles of communitarianism and love of the other had become an integral part of our world-view (at least as an ideal which people respected), just as that of God was integral in Paul’s world. I was still thinking that way even after the country lurched to the right in 1979 with the election of Margaret Thatcher – I didn’t think her statement that “there is no such thing as society” really represented the national world-view. Indeed, I was still thinking that way after 1997, when Tony Blair scored a landslide victory over the conservatives. At least he talked a good communitarian line, even if what Labour did between then and 2010 looked very much like Thatcherism light.

The most recent election, in which the conservatives managed a majority (albeit small) and which put an even more anti-communitarian and less compassionate party (UKIP) in third place for number of votes  was a blow to that hope. Granted, the Scots voted overwhelmingly for the SNP, with solidly communitarian and compassionate policies, but the rest of the country knew that the conservatives would pursue a policy of austerity and that that would affect the poor, the sick and the less able more drastically than the more privileged, but nonetheless they voted that way. Maybe we were just sold on the line that the economy needed austerity, and other parties weren’t trusted to deliver it (something which I am fairly convinced is not actually the case), in which case perhaps our collective social conscience will come to the fore again in 5 years – or, indeed, if there are sufficient by-elections, before that.

I fear, however, that we are stuck with whatever government the market says is best for the economy for the foreseeable future, irrespective of the pain it causes all those whom at least the Christians among us are supposed to be prioritising, and irrespective of whether the market takes into account the welfare of the mass of individuals who make up society – which it doesn’t, and which is why I sometimes characterise it as a fundamentally Satanic system.

If my fears are correct, we cannot be regarded as a Christian nation, a nation of Christians or even a nation whose heart is with the Jesus of the Sermon on the Mount, irrespective of whether it thinks it’s Christian. I think we should be at least the last of those, but I don’t know how to get there from here.

Perhaps praying for revival is all I can do?