Sunday, 20 November 2011

Sepp Blatter and the Judgment of God

Sepp Blatter has done it again. Switzerland's most famous buffoon has managed to alienate most of the human race with his comments about racial abuse in football.

According to our beloved head of FIFA, you can get abused for the colour of your skin all game and are then you're meant to shake hands and forget it as if it really doesn't matter. But it does. And we know it does and it isn't good enough to pretend that it doesn't and can just be let go. The public outrage shows our sense of injustice and the desire for judgement - that when something has been done that is fundamentally wrong, it needs to be dealt with properly, not brushed under the carpet.

One charge often made against Christian faith is that the doctrine of divine judgement is exclusive and violent. The idea that God should judge is deemed harsh and unacceptable. Instead, the idea of 'indiscriminate hospitality' is supposed to be more worthy of God, who should accept everyone, with no questions asked. The idea of a God of judgment is a prehistoric remnant of ancient religion. Yet a God who refuses to judge, who refuses to discriminate between good and evil is a God who demands that that the victim of injustice, the abused child, the exploited slave, the beaten wife have to sit down at table in the heavenly banquet with their abusers and attackers. And shake hands as if it is all a bit of healthy banter. Do we really want that? Give me a God who judges, who vindicates the victims and condemns evil any day. I don't want a God like Sepp Blatter.

Friday, 4 November 2011

Prayer alone conquers God

If you ever wonder whether it is worthwhile praying, and whether it makes any difference, here is a bit of early Christian theology that might help. Tertullian was a Latin-speaking theologian of the C2nd with an ear for a good phrase and a great delight in shocking people. How about this:

 "Prayer alone conquers God. But Christ has no desire that it should do any evil deed; he has conferred upon it every power of doing good. Therefore it knows only how to call back the souls of the departed from the journey of death itself, to strengthen the weak, to restore the sick, to cleanse the possessed, to open the doors of prison, to loosen the chains for the innocent. The same prayer absolves sins, repels temptations, puts down persecutions, strengthens the weak-hearted, delights the high-minded, leads wanderers home, soothes the waves, confounds robbers, feeds the poor, governs the rich, lifts up the fallen, supports the unsteady, holds firm those who stand. Prayer is the buttress of faith, our armour and weaponry against the enemy that watches us from every side. So let us never set out unarmed. Let us remember the station (times of fasting) by day and the vigil by night. Let us guard the standard of our emperor armed with prayer, awaiting the trumpet of the angel while we pray. Indeed, every angel prays, every creature. The herds and the wild beasts pray and bend their knees, coming forth from byres and dens looking to heaven, giving movement to the spirit after their fashion with animated mouths. And even now the birds arise, lifting themselves to heaven, spreading out their wings like a cross whilst uttering what appears to be a prayer. What more can be said on the duty of prayer? Even the Lord himself prayed, and to him be honour and might for ever and ever."

I don't know many theologians who would dare the phrase 'Prayer alone conquers God'. It is striking how these early Christians believed that the way in which God's will works out in the world might be changed by our prayers, that he chooses to unite his work in the world to the prayers of his people, that he recreates the world at least in part through the prayers of the church. I can usually see how my work for God might contribute to his purposes in the world. I see less clearly how my prayers do exactly the same. I would be ashamed if I didn't turn up to work for the wider purposes of God's kingdom, but am I similarly ashamed if I don't perform the other part allotted to me - to pray, along with the whole creation, that God would "strengthen the weak, to restore the sick, to cleanse the possessed, to open the doors of prison, to loosen the chains for the innocent?"

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

St Paul's, Occupy London and the need for Repentance

The Christian church has always insisted on the necessity, every now and again, of repentance. Week after week in churches around the world, people are invited to admit their failings and sins out loud before everyone else in words of confession. It is remarkable when you think of it and not a little counter-cultural, to publicly express the fact that you are sorry for what you have done. After all in a culture always eager to find someone to accuse, who wants to stick their head above the parapet and invite the accusing finger of blame? So usually the default position of most of us (not just politicians) is to find someone else whose fault it is, and whatever you do, don’t admit liability.

Thinking about the strange saga of St Paul’s, it seems to me that the whole thing demands some real repentance as the key to moving on, and that in two ways.

I must admit on first sight, I shared some of the misgivings of the St Paul’s Clergy Chapter. If I were the Dean of St Paul’s, would I want a scruffy shanty town on my doorstep every day, spoiling that nice clean plaza outside the cathedral? If the encampment outside the Houses of Parliament is anything to go by, it would be unlikely to leave for years. For any group with unspecific and unrealisable demands, leaving always feels like defeat. I think I would probably also have subtly tried to move them on without too much embarrassment and just hope that life quickly gets back to normal.

That’s the strategy St Paul’s took, and it was disastrous. It made the Church of England look like what (let’s be honest) it often is – an old-fashioned, out of touch organisation, worried about its own life and survival, more concerned with petty Health & Safety rules and the loss of £20,000 of daily tourist income than issues of economic justice and poverty, or connecting with issues that matter to people outside the bubble of church life.

So I repent. I repent of my scornful attitude towards the protesters. I repent of not hearing God’s Word through them. Yes they lack cohesion and have a whole of host of contradictory concerns and unfocused grievances, but it seems to me more and more now they didn’t turn up by accident, but that underneath they are expressing something deeply felt by many, many people. Maybe they even were sent by God to show us, the Church of England for what we so often are – out of touch, deaf to real people’s anxieties and passions, insensitive to God’s voice, especially when he speaks to us through a rough rabble of face-painted peaceniks and anarchists. It is good that the Church seems to be beginning to get its act together with the Bishop of London taking a lead, refusing to take legal action against the camp, and setting up an initiative in ethical finance under Ken Costa, but it has been a chastening experience and one which needs a good dose of proper ecclesiastical repentance.

Yet it is not just the Church of England that needs to repent. Underneath the various agendas of the protesters lies a deep sense, felt I suspect by many people, that what has happened to the economy over the past few years is scandalous. It’s not so much that people hate bankers, or want to do away with the entire market economy. After all the creation of wealth is a vital aspect of a growing society – it has to be created before it can be distributed. It’s more the way in which a whole fantasy financial system was allowed to grow like an over-inflated balloon, with speculative deals involving the re-packaging of debts as assets to be traded when the money did not even exist, all because it made huge profits for certain individuals regardless of the social cost and longer term risks – that’s what went wrong. But even more it is the lack of repentance that gets out goat. A few bankers were named and shamed (Fred Goodwin for one), but how many have come out with a good hearty mea culpa? Where is the public repentance of the City? Where are the voices prepared to admit that they messed up, they goofed, they speculated with our hard-earned cash (or even with cash we never had?) and now it is gone?

Over the next few years we are likely to enter a period of real austerity, even tougher if the double-dip recession hits. Not as tough as Greece, perhaps, but it will not be pretty, with unemployment and inflation set to rise. What has happened has happened. We need to deal with it and there is no magic wand that makes it right overnight. Sending a few bankers to prison might make some people feel better, but wouldn’t change anything, especially if they fight it tooth and nail. What might change the mood is some genuine repentance. The protesters have high hopes for a new world order. But that can only begin with repentance, and sadly I see little sign of that from the financial sector.

Some kind of public act of repentance from those at the heart of the financial world would at least go some way towards getting us on the right track. I’ve no idea what that would look like (isn’t it strange that we have so few models of public acts of repentance?) but it certainly isn’t rising bonuses in the financial industry, Directors’ pay and perks. That doesn’t look like repentance to me. It looks more like hubris. Change always starts with repentance, because repentance makes possible forgiveness, forgiveness makes possible new relationships, and a new start with real hope that things might be different. Repentance in Christian faith is actually a joyful thing, because it is the moment of honesty, clarity and it always opens out a new beginning. Might that be the place where a new approach to ethical finance starts?

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