Sunday, 6 March 2016

Open letter to the UK Home Secretary

The UK Home Secretary is currently putting the ‘Investigatory Powers Bill’ before the Government; detractors call it the ’snoopers charter’. We are told that ‘those who have done nothing wrong, have nothing to fear’ from these powers.

I very rarely do not tell the truth
I routinely keep speed limits, and have no points on my driving licence
I have never been drunk in my life
I have never used illegal drugs or ‘legal highs’
I don’t watch porn, have never slept around or had an affair
I smoked one cigarette as a teenager, and I didn’t like it
I have no debts
I declare all sources of income and pay my taxes on time
I have never been arrested, charged or convicted of a crime
I have no involvement with terrorism other than to follow the news
I have only been inside a police station to report a lost wallet.

And yet I still do not want you reading my emails or tracking my phone calls or activities!

Although I recognise that the weight of responsibility for the UK’s security must weigh heavily on your shoulders, and I don’t assume you are particularly interested in watching me, I nonetheless do have something to fear:

You are not balancing the necessary measures to protect us from terrorism with the protection of privacy for ordinary citizens
You do not admit what the security services are doing unless forced to do so
You avoid transparency and accountability, and minimise the checks and balances to restrain the excesses of undue power
And you only make changes when the current position becomes untenable or is declared illegal.

I do not think that you are an evil person, or that you want to be a dictator. But protecting the security of our citizens includes protecting the privacy of ordinary people from unreasonable intrusion. Yet the clear trend is for increasing and intrusive surveillance of the general UK population and I do not see you trying to slow that trajectory. Rather, I see you trying to legalise after the event what has already been taking place in secret, and putting in place further loopholes that can be exploited in the future.

So, I do not trust you.

You have moved well beyond a reasonable concern for security, and I am fearful that this country, which once was known for its openness, honesty, justice and free speech, is becoming an oppressive state.

And I am fearful of that, for by your actions you are seriously eroding the security you claim to protect.

Sunday, 25 October 2015

The taxonomy of sin

There are several classification systems for sin, but the most commonly referenced include the following:

A Biblical taxonomy of sin:

  • Overarching definition of sin: rebellion against God - as in doing just as I please
  • Sin (examples of): abuse, adultery, arrogance, boasting, brutality, conceit, debauchery, deceit, depravity, discord, dissension, disobedience to parents, divorce, drunkenness, envy, evil, fits of rage, God-hating, gossiping, greed, homosexual practice, idolatry, impurity, insolence, jealousy, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, love of money, lust, malice, murder, not lovers of the good, orgies, pride, selfish ambition, sexual immorality, slander, strife, theft, treachery, unforgiving, ungratefulness, unholiness, wickedness, witchcraft, without self-control (taken from Galatians 5v19-21, 2 Timothy 2v2-4, Romans 1v18-32)
  • Unforgivable sin: none of the above

Western church taxonomy of sin (there are variations, but generally):
  • Not sinful: greed, overwork, pride
  • Normal human behaviour: envy, gossiping, half-truths, love of money, selfish ambition, strife
  • Regrettable: deceit, divorce, drunkenness, slander, sleeping around, smoking
  • Historical, and no longer extant: idolatry, witchcraft
  • Sin: marital unfaithfulness
  • Unforgivable sin: homosexuality

Western secular taxonomy of sin:
  • Not sinful at all, in fact to be celebrated: greed, homosexuality, pride
  • Normal human behaviour: drunkenness, envy, gossiping, lack of self-control, lust, pornography, sleeping around, strife
  • Clever and to be admired: corruption (so long it is to one's benefit), manipulation, spinning the truth
  • Interesting: witchcraft
  • Understandable human failings: deceit, unfaithfulness, slander
  • Historical, and no longer extant: idolatry
  • Sin: paedophilia
  • Unforgivable sin: anything which questions my right to do just as I please

Sunday, 27 September 2015

Shooting our wounded or turning a blind eye

Sometimes church is the very last place where we want to admit our deep sinful failings. Maybe we have seen others do something like this and then seen the church’s reaction - to look down upon, to verbally or physically exclude, to make clear in one way or another that 'we don’t want your sort in here!’.

Meanwhile, those inside the church who so exclude others, those with a critical and judgemental spirit, also deny their own sinfulness and maintain the self-deception that they are different, better, holier! And so others are much more careful and dare not let their guard down; they appear fine on the outside, yet hurt on the inside while the pretence is increasingly difficult to maintain.

So churches that shoot their wounded remain filled only with ‘decent’ people, while those who know they are broken sinners - those who have been abused, those addicted to pornography, those whose marriages have ended badly, those confused about their sexual identity - do not feel they could ever belong.

So the hypocrisy of the church that ‘shoots its wounded’ is plain to see and the damage done all round is profound.

Consequently, some Christians take a clearly different stance, which looks much more gentle and loving. They say to the fallen brother or sister, “We are all sinners, you are very welcome here and we will not judge you! The church is exactly the right place for sinners feel at home. Come on in, for Jesus is the friend of sinners.” They make no comment about the behaviour that is clearly unscriptural, not wanting to pass judgement for fear of discouraging or appearing to reject, or maybe regarding the behaviours as so commonplace that it does not even occur to us to pass comment.

But both stances preach a half-truth. The first recognises that God cannot stand in the presence of sin, and that God is the Awesome Judge of all. But there is no demonstration of God’s mercy and grace, nor a humble recognition that we are all, indeed, sinners - even if forgiven sinners! We take upon ourselves the role of judge, when Jesus is alone the Judge; and also forget our own sinfulness, for we are no better than those we exclude and don’t want to associate with.

The second preaches a fake love, inclusivity but not cleansing!  It forgets that our sin must be crucified before we can come into the presence of a Holy God. So, we deny the seriousness of sin - for example, saying ‘well, everyone sleeps around these days, it’s only to be expected in this day and age - in effect implying that Jesus need not have gone to the bother of being crucified over such a small matter, such a common behaviour!

But sin has very serious consequences: a separation from God and from others while a sense of shame pervades; trust is broken and people get deeply hurt; relationships, families, even communities are shattered; the domain of the Enemy is advanced!

We need to address the seriousness of our own and others' sinful behaviour, and yet together plead for God’s mercy, confident only in Jesus to cleanse our filth. A Love that does not challenge and deal with sin is no love at all.

(I wrote about the true nature of love in one of my earliest blogs: 'Whatever you do, do not love me’)

Saturday, 22 August 2015

On morality and public opinion

I’ve read with some interest the recent news stories about the hacking of a website whose purpose was to enable married people to have affairs. I’m interested in the moral questions it raises.

First, I wonder why people who sign up to a site that encourages deceit, are so surprised when they are in turn are dealt with deceitfully?

And secondly, I’m curious about people’s reactions. Some apparently fear being blackmailed because they don’t want their activities made public. But if having affairs is as common as implied by these revelations, why it is still thought to be shameful?  However, it clearly is!

Here we see clearly the difference between knowing what is right, yet doing something felt to be wrong.

As a Christian I would like to think that people have some inherent sense of right and wrong, but I’m not sure whether this is actually the case.  Just a few decades ago having sexual relationships outside marriage was commonly thought to be wrong (though of course it still happened), and it was seen as wrong for a couple to live together outside of marriage (though it did sometimes happen), and to have a child outside of wedlock had serious consequences.  But in Western society nowadays these behaviours are all so commonplace that the Biblical view of sex belonging only within marriage is regarded as absurdly old fashioned and quaint, even among some Christians!

So, attitudes about morality can and do shift, sometimes quite quickly. [For example, redefining the question of gay marriage as an issue of ‘equality’ rather than an issue of ‘morality’, was a sleight of hand that changed public opinion remarkably quickly.]

So, where does morality come from? If it is just a matter of shifting public opinion, will there soon come a time where there will be no felt shame, no need for deceit and no risk of blackmail when one has an affair?

The Christian view is that morality is certainly not just a matter of public opinion - in fact it doesn’t come from people at all, but from God’s revelation; it is necessarily something defined beyond human beings. The most obvious example is the 10 Commandments in the Bible's Old Testament. These were not a moral code that Moses thought up, nor were they guidelines for good living offered by God to humankind in order to be helpful, but commandments about how people should live and the consequences laid down by God if they did not do so. (By the way, the 10th Commandment says “You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife”, Exodus 20 v17.)

But as most Western (supposedly ‘Christian’) societies have stopped believing in God, or at least in his authority, the resulting moral vacuum has been filled by 'public opinion’, which not only shifts but is different in different societies.

There is evident self-righteous hypocrisy when Western ‘morals’ are thought to be ‘right’ but another society’s ‘morals’ - for example that it is acceptable to marry girls at the age of 12 - are ‘obviously wrong’. Sorry, you cannot define your morality by public opinion and then condemn others who do what is considered normal amongst their public!

Either way, the Bible tells us clearly (e.g. Matt 10v26, Luke 12v2-3) that there will come a time when everything we have done - and even thought! - will be made public.  Although my name will not be on that particular list which has just become public, I do not gloat. There are plenty of other things that I would be ashamed of when they become public, were it not that Jesus’ already knows about them, and died so that I could be forgiven.

However, it hadn’t occurred to me before that the fulfilment of the Biblical prophecy that 'all will be made known' might come about through computer hacking! I suppose this is just a tiny foretaste of the judgement still to come.

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

The poor will always be with us

Some people are rich and others poor. It's the way of the world, and even Jesus said the poor will always be with us.

This story is mainly about a person called Jubilation. Such names were not so unusual in her country. She lived surrounded by her family and friends. Although she often found her work a struggle, she was used to it, and though her health was not always good, she didn't complain. Even when her husband had died, leaving her with the children, she trusted that God would provide.

Her favourite times were seeing friends, even better, being able to have some visitor come to her home. On these occasions she lavished her best on the honoured guest, and her smile beamed from her face - her eyes sparkling, and the warmth of her welcome was unmistakeable; and so was her faith in God. Her name, Jubilation, was well chosen indeed.

Looking after her own family was her priority of course. The youngest was only two, but the oldest now 18, and she gave them the best she could. But as there were 12 children in all, there was not a lot to go round - rice and beans was the usual fare. They were blessed to have such a mother, and she in turn, despite the challenges of parenthood, was blessed by them.

Meanwhile, far away lived another mother. Nancy's life was very different to Jubilation's, though her life also had its hardships, and as she flicked the channels on her TV she saw only bad news in the stock-market. She poured herself another drink, then checked her email again - nothing but junk mail. Why didn't her son write? He was something big in finance.

Yes, and when Christmas came round, Jubilation, having worked from before sunrise to after sunset in the fields all year, had been able to save up so she could afford meat for her family and her face beamed, basking in the glow of her 12 children squatting around her on the dirt floor in eager anticipation. Yes, she was indeed blessed, a loved child of God, and spreading her love to all around.

At the same time, Nancy was getting ready to go out to an expensive restaurant for her Christmas meal. It was better to be out in company, even if sitting at a table by oneself, than eating alone at home. The restaurant was a favourite of Nancy's and the manager there knew her well; he also knew what would happen - she'd drink more than was good for her, and eventually he would order a taxi to take her home. When she did get back to her penthouse apartment she checked her answerphone in the forlorn hope that her son had called. Nothing.

Yes, Jesus knew that the poor would always be with us, and sorrow filled his heart as he thought of Nancy - the poverty of her relationships, her values, her ambitions, her life. But he went where he'd been invited and joined the family on the mud floor as the honoured guest at Jubilation's meal and delighted in her thankful heart and her generosity, and in the richness of her smile, reflecting his own heart of love.

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Why God made us human

It seems common amongst Christians to dislike and distrust our earthly nature, to see every earthly desire and need as an expression of 'the fall' (which was the rebellion of humankind against God, as described in the Bible in Genesis 3), and to assume that our goal is to overcome our sinful humanity.

And yet ... God created us human!

God made us frail people, created out of dust, who get hungry and need food, get tired and need rest, get lonely and need relationships, and as human beings our knowledge and understanding is limited. And this was before the fall. God created us human, and said his creation was "very good".

So, what happened after the fall? Well, amongst other things, we misused our God-given good desires, and became gluttonous, lazy, misused sex outside of marriage, and we thought we knew better than God. And so we decided that we didn’t want to be human; we thought we should be more than mere humans, we should be gods ourselves!

Consequently, people spend a lot of time and effort trying to prove that they are not human, that they can live 24/7, that they can keep going with some kind of 'pick-me-up', that they can exceed their human boundaries, that they 'know it all' and can 'do it all' and be 'super-human'. And many Christians join in, working 'tirelessly' yet getting exhausted, rushing around being busy, thinking we understand it all, and trying to be 'super-Christians'! And in this way we all fall for the Enemy's lie that we are not mere humans, we are surely something more…

We confuse ‘pressing on toward the goal’ (Phil 3v14) with thinking we should ignore tiredness, ignore rest, ignore our limits, pretend our small understanding is great knowledge and wisdom … in fact, ignore that we are human.

No, God made us human, and that was "very good". But why? So that we may live content within the God-given limitations that he created within us. For being human is not a sin. It is how God intended us to be - his creatures living in relation with our creator and dependent upon him for his love and every provision.

Sunday, 24 May 2015

Salt and light

Jesus told his followers that they were to be salt and light in the world, meaning that they both preserved and made life 'tasty', and brought light into a dark world - not just for themselves but with their mere presence impacting the whole of society. Jesus also used a similar metaphor by describing Christians as ‘yeast’ in a batch of dough - where just a little yeast has a dramatic impact on the whole mixture, on the whole of society.

Oftentimes, Christians seem to feel that they are having very little impact on society, which appears to be becoming increasingly unsavoury and dark.

Moreover, the majority of the population, who appear uninterested in things of faith, sometimes see Christians and those of other religions as bringers of trouble and division, and feel that society would be better off without them!

But imagine what society would be like if there were no Christians and no Christian values. Actually, you don’t need to imagine, for there are just a few areas of the world where all Christians have been killed or driven out - and they are areas where unfettered evil and darkness reign, and life is most definitely unsavoury!

So, in the rest of the world where there are at least a scattering of Christians, be assured that their presence has a profound and good effect for all - and may they shine yet more brightly!