Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Why Freedom is not what you think it is

I have always struggled to understand what Christians mean by freedom. There is quite a lot in the Old Testament about Israel as free people, in the New Testament about how Christ sets us free, Christians talk a lot about freedom, and yet Christianity has always seemed to demand things like obedience, submission to God's will, adopting a moral code where certain things are right and certain things are off-limits, none of which really seems like freedom. 

For a number of years now I've been pondering this question, and the result is a book which has just been published, entitled “Bound to be Free: the Paradox of Freedom”, published by Bloomsbury. At the risk of sounding a little arrogant I think I may have worked it out - at least to my own satisfaction!

The problem is not so much a Christian understanding of freedom, but the secular way of thinking about the concept which most of us imbibe without even thinking about it. The book traces the roots of secular notions of Freedom in the libertarian tradition exemplified by thinkers such as John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Stuart Mill. The basic idea here is that freedom is individual freedom. It is the ability to do what I choose with my own goods, talents, time and opportunities, without any hindrance from wider bodies like the state or government. J.S. Mill extends this into the idea that such freedom is necessary from all kinds of social restriction and expectation, and that individuals should be free to do as they choose, as long as they do not harm other people, and do not infringe upon the rights of others to exercise their own freedom within their own personal space. 

If that's the way we understand freedom, then it's not surprising that Christians struggle to fit biblical notions of freedom into that framework. However, there is I think a problem with this secular way of thinking about it.

Societies need to somehow square the circle of allowing and enabling personal flourishing, while at the same time enabling social cohesion. The secular libertarian view allows a certain level of personal liberty, but doesn't do very well when it comes to social cohesion.

Basically the problem is this. On this view of freedom, the Other, whether understood as my neighbour, my wife, my children, my friends, or the state, is understood as essentially a limitation or even a threat to the exercise of my freedom. The exercise of freedom is possible within my own personal space, as long as I don't tread on the toes of anyone else, but this sets up the other person as someone whose boundaries I need to tread very carefully, and needs to be resisted in case they tread on mine, precisely because the Other is a potential threat, and therefore someone essentially to be feared.

The Christian idea freedom is very different. It is not freedom to do as I want, because what I want is so often the problem. The Christian doctrine of sin tells us that our desires are not always very healthy, in fact very often we desire what will ultimately destroy us, our relationships and even our planet. Instead Christian freedom is the freedom from anything that would hold us back from becoming the people that we were meant to be - people capable of love for God and for our neighbour, as Jesus taught we were to be.

It is therefore freedom from that obsession with ourselves, our image, wealth looks and prospects, and freedom to be properly self-forgetful in love for our neighbour. It is not so much freedom for myself as freedom from myself. It is freedom from habits we wish we could kick, political systems that stop us caring for one another, an economy that sucks us into personal self-centred consumption. The key to that, says Christianity, is learning first of all a love for God - a recognition that I am not the centre of the universe, and that I need to learn to re-boot my life to fit the way the world is, where God lies at the centre not me, as I develop a relationship with my Creator. I then learn to love those he has given to me – my neighbour for starters. Freedom is therefore a gift and not a right, and the Other becomes not a threat nor limitation, but a gift - a gift to enable me to exercise this crucial virtue of love, and to grow in my ability to love my neighbour. The other is now not a threat but a gift, and so the Christian account of freedom squares the circle of personal flourishing and social cohesion much better than the secular one does.

Of course there's a lot more to the book than this, but it begins to give you a sense of the argument. If you want to get your copy – click here.

Friday, 16 June 2017

Thoughts on Hope in Grenfell

In our community over the past few days we have been through a range of emotions that we rarely experience so close together. Even now as we meet and pray, there are people here in this church, in the surrounding streets wondering how to make sense of this. 

How do you put into words what people here have experienced, the story of the past few days?

First there was Shock. As we woke up on Wednesday morning, there was that numb feeling, incredulity that something like this could happen in our modern, C21st sophisticated city. Looking up at the Tower and imagining what the people in there was going through was almost unbearable and so hard to even imagine how awful that must be.

Then there was Compassion. Alongside the tragedy, one of the remarkable things has been to see the amazing outpouring of compassion in this community over the past couple of days. It is as if that deep, God-given humanity in all of us has suddenly arisen to the surface and displayed itself in all its wonder and glory. Despite how diverse this community is, it has been remarkable to see that sense that underneath our differences of language, faith, colour, beliefs, there is this deep human instinct of compassion that we all share - wouldn't it be something if London was like this all the time? 

Then there has been Grief. Yesterday I spent time with a family whose five-year-old son was missing and then heard the cries of grief as they heard the news that he would not be returning to them. This deep sadness and sorrow will be felt by many families over the coming weeks and months. We grieve with them and need to do all we can to support such families over the coming times strengthened by the knowledge that God does not stand apart, but grieves with them; that he is no stranger to sorrow and that as Jesus weeps with those who weep, so God our Creator grieves with those who are full of heartbreaking sorrow today. 

There has also been Pride. I have been privileged to spend time with some of the emergency services over the past few days, listening to the stories of firefighters going in and out of the building with no thought of their own safety to witness the astonishing bravery and courage of those who had to take on this dreadful task. We should rightly be proud we have such people in our midst, and do all we can to thank them for the selfless and heroic way in which they do this work on our behalf. They carry a burden of the memories of the things they have done and seen, so they should be in our prayers too as they come to terms with these past few days. 

Then there is Anger. Many people over the last couple of days have expressed a deep anger that anything like this could have happened. There are serious questions to be asked about housing in this area and how we care for and provide for those who are the weakest and most vulnerable in our society. It is too early to allocate blame and to point fingers, but these questions need answers and we need to channel that anger into a patient determination to support those who are seeking to discover the cause of this tragedy, and to ensure it never happens again. Today we cry out for justice and real lasting change. 

But now we need Hope. While we go through all these emotions, we also need a new sense of hope there is a future, that lives can be rebuilt, that this community can be restored, a hope for a better future where everyone, regardless of ethnicity, religion, income and background is able to live in safety and security - they deserve no less than this. Hope is what we deal in as Christians. It is perhaps one thing we can offer, because we know that beyond the cross there is Resurrection. 

In the past couple of days I have often been asked what can you say to those who have lost everything, who have lost dearly loved ones. My answer? There is very little you can say. There are times when all you can do is pray - and I and many of my clergy colleagues have done that with many over these past days. Prayer reminds us there is God who weeps with those who weep, who hears the cries of the poor and disadvantaged, and while there are many things that happen in God’s world that are not part of his will, in the end, his purposes will one day be fulfilled. We believe in the God of Resurrection, the God of hope. And today this is what we need - Hope that does not eliminate our shock, our compassion, our pride, our anger, but transcends it, lifts it and makes a future possible.

Our thoughts, our prayers, hearts today are with those who have lost everything, with those who are grieving, those wondering where they will be living in the next few weeks. As we watch this compassion break out around us, as we experience it arising in our own hearts, we need to hold onto this hope that will make this compassion not just a fleeting reaction that fades as the media focus moves onto something else, but a settled, long-term characteristic of our great city. 

Now as we face the future, we need, faith and hope that will make our love for each other grow stronger. To rebuild not just tower block, but hearts and minds towards a city that truly cares for each other and where all can find a welcome, a future and a hope. 

Friday, 14 April 2017

A day with the homeless

The other day, as part of my Holy Week spending time with those who experience the things Jesus experienced during his final week, I spent the day with homeless people. When you hear the ‘homeless’ what do you imagine? Probably fairly ragged, unkempt people with plastic bags, straggly beards and dirty clothes, people with little employment capacity, who had spent a good deal of their lives unemployed? Well there’s a fair bit of that but I found my preconceptions beginning to erode quite quickly. I’m ashamed to say I tweeted early that day that I was going to spend the day with ‘a bunch of homeless people’ to which one person replied that they were a bit uncomfortable with that description. And they were exactly right.

Talking to several people over the day, I began to realise that ‘homeless’ is a fairly blunt category. This homeless drop-in centre in a church in central London had around 60 or so regulars but they were all there for different reasons. I spoke with one elderly woman who was not homeless, in fact she had a very nice flat, but was desperately lonely, since her husband died, and came along to find some people to talk to. Another had walked out of an old people’s home because he had kept getting drunk and fell out with those in charge. Other were sleeping on friends’ floors, others had recently arrived from other countries.

I met an architect with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the dates of London City churches, a teacher of English as a Second Language, and a retired research chemist. All the world was here. The one thing in common was some back story, some thing that had gone wrong in their lives. I heard one story of a man who had come to the centre who had been CEO of a large international airline. His child had died in an accident, the stress led to the break-up of his marriage, he then started drinking which led to him losing his job, and soon he had lost family, home, income, job everything and was now on the streets. Whether it was a bereavement, losing a job, a marriage breakdown, mental health issues, a physical accident, a bad temper, something had led them to this point. Usually alcohol or drugs were involved in some way, a short-term comfort, but ultimately making the problem worse. And what strikes you is how easily it could happen to anyone – even you or me. There are no such thing as homeless people, just people with different problems, who find it difficult to handle life when it gets really hard.

And then there are the volunteers, people who give time and energy to serve them, wash their feet, give legal or housing advice, cook breakfast, listen to their stories. And each of us doing that have our own problems and issues as well. None of us are self-sufficient and were never meant to be. We are all in need of a Saviour, someone who understands our weakness, and stands with us in our sufferings, which is what we find on Good Friday, yet also one who transcends and can overcome our weaknesses and sufferings, which is what we find on Easter Sunday. And that Saviour ministers to us through each other, through the words of life, encouragement, gospel we offer one another, and through the gestures of love – a hand offered, a meal given, a new set of clothes given, a dirty hand shaken. Each word or act of love becomes and word or act done to Christ and for Christ, as we work out our salvation with fear and trembling.

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Seeking Refuge

I spent a day this week with a young asylum seeker from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and his friends. Jonathan is a gentle, unassuming and quiet 22-year-old, with a broad smile, who loves football, never really knew his father, and was brought up by a friend of his parents in Kinshasa. When he was a student, despite the fact that he and his friends were paying fees, the government defaulted on paying his university lecturers, and so lessons stopped. Jonathan joined a series of political demonstrations against the government, was caught taking a picture of the police and was duly arrested. He was bundled into a car, taken to an isolated spot, tied up and beaten. He still has nightmares recalling his torture at the hands of government agents. To cut a long story short, he eventually managed to get a visa to leave to the UK, as he had relatives here, hoping that things would die down a little before he would return home in due course.

Phone calls with friends back in the DRC warned him not to come home, or he would almost certainly be arrested and killed. And so, he began the process of applying for asylum. Three years later, after several stays in detention centres, which effectively felt like prisons, being repeatedly threatened with repatriation, which he is convinced would mean further torture and probably execution, he is still waiting for a definitive answer to his case.

The life of an asylum seeker is pretty grim. While applying for asylum, they are unable to work, so drift from drop-in centres to free English lessons run by charities, trying to spend time but not money. They are caught in a cycle where they have little to do, not much to spend and accommodation is always precarious. They are caught between wanting to apply for asylum with the prize of getting leave to remain, and yet the risk of appearing before the courts and the decision going against them, and then having to be deported to the dangers of their home countries. So, they often lie low, perhaps tempted to take poorly paid jobs, all the while knowing it is illegal. One woman I met from Burkino Faso had taken such a job, and when she was found out to be an illegal immigrant, was sent to Holloway Prison. The other difficulty is the presumption of guilt. In interviews by the officials, they report a constant feeling of not being believed or trusted, with the assumption that they are telling lies to gain entry to the country, a level of suspicion that adds to their feelings of despair.

For people often fleeing failed states, poverty-stricken nations, or war-ravaged countries, the UK seems at first like a haven of peace and security. Yet sadly this is not the experience of many of those who seek asylum here. Of course, the courts have to do their job and do due diligence on refugees, but surely we can do better at making our default pose a welcome rather than a rejection for those who have already experienced so much rejection already? There are some exceptions. When I asked the group ‘what has helped you most since coming here?” they all said ‘The church”. I saw some remarkable examples of saintly people giving time and energy to welcome the stranger, and in doing so, firmly believed they were welcoming Jesus. As Jesus himself once said “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ To welcome the stranger is to do something close to the heart of God who welcomes us into his presence through Christ. It is a profoundly Christian act.

Why Freedom is not what you think it is

I have always struggled to understand what Christians mean by freedom. There is quite a lot in the Old  Testament  about  Israel  as free...