Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Can we do better?

I've been thinking back to the church's response to the riots in the 1980's. A lot happened that was good, but it was superficial. Most of it was minister-led, and the nature of the Methodist system ensures that this can never be the answer. Ministers move on, and nothing they run can ever last too long. That, I think, was the nature of the system back then. We were still living in the days when the slightest breath of criticism of a minister was always met by appalling patronising speeches about how wonderful everything in a dog-collar was, from officials who were, of course, 'nominated' to office by ministers, and probably lived up their backsides. Hopefully, the church has moved on a little.

Most of these ministers were perfectly well-meaning, though there were a few empire-builders involved. None, as far as I know, ever asked serious questions about systemic problems; mostly, they set up 'projects' designed to alleviate the situations they found in the inner city. Theological thinking, such as it was, was superficial, and soon sank without trace. Funding for projects ran out, ministers moved on, and everything came to a halt.

We can certainly build sustainable projects. We have a charity shop at my church which predates the riots. It's survived because we run it ourselves without outside money, paid workers, or significant minsterial involvement. So that's one thing we can do. Set things up which we can run ourselves, long-term. That, however, is still just sticking-plaster on the wound. It doesn't solve the problem.

We need some serious theological thinking. The church is a theological community, whose way of being is intimately involved with its theories about God, the universe, and itself. A hierarchical church will tend to develop a theology which makes hierarchy essential; look at the Roman Catholics. A church which is cosy with the political powers - as much of it has been for most of its history - fails to challenge them as it ought. We've developed a cosy doctrine of salvation which is about repentance from personal sin, and about 'souls', whatever they are, going to heaven after we die. That's obviously simplistic, but I think it sums up the position.

We've tended to emphasise the individual sins of the poor (why do we find it so much easier to condemn a rioter than a greedy banker?) at the expense of those of the rich, and particularly at the expense of the great social sins - poverty, injustice, and so on - which the Bible has rather a lot to say about. We've taken this to the point where it's possible for preachers to invent the 'prosperity gospel', castigate the poor, make the agenda of the greedy rich into the agenda for their churches, and still get away with calling themselves Christian. At best, we've patched up peoples' wounds, and helped alleviate the worst evils of an unjust system without calling its existence into question. We've accepted the increasing inequality in Britain with nothing more than an inaudible squeak.

The root of the problem is often that we fail to question tradition. We make a big noise about the Bible, but at the same time we accept a situation where it's normal to take a snippet here and a snippet there, rearrange them to suit ourselves, and use them uncritically to prop up doctrines and ideas which simply aren't there in the text. The 'prosperity gospel' is an obvious example, but I'm concerned about the stuff we accept without question. It's easy to find passages which condemn, for instance, adultery - plus the odd one which suggests that perhaps we shouldn't condemn it too hard - but how is it that significant sections of the church manage not to notice the stuff about poverty? Sexual behaviour, abortion, birth control, all become central to some sections of the church, while war or discrimination are treated as lesser evils, or even lauded as virtues. Something's rotten in the house of Denmark, and I think it's our understanding of salvation.

According to what records we have, Jesus didn't come telling us to go to heaven. He proclaimed a much worldlier salvation, to do with the coming Rule of God, and this rule was to be established in this world, not the next. The dead may rise to be judged, but there's no radical discontinuity involved. Rather, it's a question of one age - the age of the sinful, man-made world order which creates so much suffering - passing into the next, the age of the Rule of God. Somehow, we manage to ignore the apocalyptic dimension of the New Testament. The fact that the authors concerned were wrong in believing that Jesus' return was imminent doesn't mean they were wrong in everything except the bits we happen to find convenient!

Then again, salvation in the Bible is never individual. In the Old Testament, it's about the salvation of Israel, or at the very least, of the righteous remnant who remain faithful to its vision. Or maybe they're actually developing a new vision, leading it out of paganism towards the worship of one God, but whatever, they're faithful. In the New Testament, it's about the church, the new community which, again, is groping its way towards something, trying to live as though the Rule of God was already established. Perhaps we could describe it as an outpost of the Kingdom (more familiar, but it doesn't get the sense so well), attempting to be obedient to the risen and exalted Christ, rather than to the powers and principalities of this world.

And what of those powers and principalities? The people who wrote the Bible thought in terms of angelic powers lurking behind political structures; once, each people had its own god, now they each had their own angel. The absolute monotheism we're used to didn't exist at the time, boundaries were a lot fuzzier, and angels tend to look rather like lesser gods by any other name. Satan doesn't sit on a red-hot throne nursing his burnt bum and dreaming of cosmic revolution, or murmering sweet nothings into the ears of those he tempts; he appoints the one who rules over all the kingdoms of the earth, and anyone in the ancient Mediterranean world could have told you who did that. The job has to be in his gift, or how can he offer it to Jesus?

So often, Biblical powers and principalities seem to have political and economic dimensions. That's what we need to grapple with; we need to reclaim these areas of the New Testament from the lunatic fringe, grapple with them seriously, and develop something which isn't spiritualied out of sight, and can address the real problems of the real world. I think Marxism could be described as a secular apocalyptic, and it certainly recognised its equivalent of demonic powers. So what would a 21st Century apocalyptic look like? Somehow, we need to rework our whole understanding of the faith, and turn it into something which puts engagement with the world around us at its core, rather than running away, or becomeing the polite end of an unjust system.

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