Saturday, 16 December 2017

Being Out of Step

In the wake of the marriage survey and parliamentary vote with its 'freedom of religion' shenanigans, it has become a bit of a thing for Christians to talk about how out of step our society is with the Christian faith.  Conservative Christians are now battening down the hatches in readiness for attacks on their religious freedom, which may possibly take the form of being forced to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding.

Of course the Christian faith itself is a diverse thing.  I can hardly speak for the Christian faith as a whole.  All I can do is tell you what I think it means.  Still, there are plenty of Christians who, like me, think opposition to same sex marriage was a mistake.  Even some who were uncomfortable with same sex marriage were not fans of the Coalition for Marriage's homophobic TV campaign.

Still, I think there is something in the idea that both our society, and much of the church, is out of step with a Christian view of what society ought to be - the Kingdom of God, if you like.  I just don't think the legalisation of same sex marriage is the thing that shows it.  In fact, our focus on this issue is one of the things that shows how out of step we are.  Here are some reasons I think our society, and much of the church, is out of step with the Kingdom of God.

1. We fete the rich and neglect the poor
In Luke's version of the Beatitudes, Jesus talks clearly about the poor and the rich.

Blessed are you who are poor,
    for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who hunger now,
    for you will be satisfied....

But woe to you who are rich,
    for you have already received your comfort.
Woe to you who are well fed now,
    for you will go hungry.

Jesus is reflecting the teaching of the Hebrew prophets.  Isaiah 5 says:

Woe to you who add house to house
    and join field to field
till no space is left
    and you live alone in the land.

The Lord Almighty has declared in my hearing:

“Surely the great houses will become desolate,
    the fine mansions left without occupants."

I could go on to quote many other passages but the point is this - God's desire for his people is that we act justly, that we refrain from amassing riches and instead show generosity to the poor.  The Kingdom of God is not for the rich, it is for the poor, and if you want to join it you have to be on their side.

Yet our society is firmly committed to the rich.  The accumulation of wealth is seen as a virtue, rich people have inside access to the corridors of power, we cut taxes for the rich and try to pay for it by cutting support for the poor.  The Game of Mates ensures public resources are funnelled into the hands of wealthy private interests.   We tolerate entrenched homelessness and demonise desperate refugees, imprisoning them indefinitely to signal clearly to the wider world that we are not a compassionate nation. Meanwhile, a billion people around the world live on less than a dollar a day and we cut overseas aid.

Now, there are many in the wealthy Western church who are generous and who share their wealth and work for justice.  Yet there is a lot of truth in the famous quote from American preacher Tony Campolo.

I have three things I'd like to say today. First, while you were sleeping last night, 30,000 kids died of starvation or diseases related to malnutrition. Second, most of you don't give a shit. What's worse is that you're more upset with the fact that I said shit than the fact that 30,000 kids died last night.

As Christians, we are too often complicit in our society's glorification of wealth and its neglect of the poor.  So often, missionaries who work to relieve poverty are treated with suspicion because they are not focused on conversion, and we support charities which make us feel good not those which actually address poverty and injustice.  If our society is out of step with God, the church is often more in step with society.

2. We make war, not peace
In Matthew's version of the Beatitudes, Jesus says,

Blessed are the peacemakers,
    for they will be called children of God.

Later on in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus talks about this in more detail.

You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

The Kingdom of God is a kingdom of peace, but our society is increasingly turning to war.  In recent years, our governments have decided to increase our spending on arms and armies, and to send our troops to war in Iraq and Afghanistan.  How have we paid for this increase?  In addition to cutting programs for the poor here at home, we have slashed our overseas aid programs - the very types of programs that build positive, peaceful relations between nations.

Yet this has not made us safer.  Despite the recently trumpeted defeat of Islamic State in Iraq, and the billions spent on armaments, our terrorist threat level remains high as the anger of Muslims around the world grows.  We find ourselves in a classic spiral of violence, our armed interventions drawing retaliation which lead to us tooling up further.

Many in the church are complicit with this cycle of violence.  Our churches, as much as anywhere else, preach a suspicion towards Islam which builds support for wars overseas and suspicion at home.  We are silent on the suffering in the Middle East and other war zones.  We feel, perhaps, that it is not our business, but peacemaking is the job of the sons of God.

3. We exploit the earth instead of caring for it
In the account of creation in Genesis 1, God makes humans to rule over the earth.

Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.

In the second version of the story, in Genesis 2, God places Adam in the Garden of Eden:

The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.

With great power, as they say, comes great responsibility.  We have been given the ability to control the earth, but also the responsibility to tend it and take care of it.

If you read the Hebrew prophets, as Jesus did, you see that fertility, a stable and helpful climate, orderly seasons and lush fields are signs of God's favour.  On the other hand, drought and desolation, plagues and crop failures are signs of God's disapproval.

So how are we going with our great responsibility?  Our power to impact on the environment is greater than it has ever been.  Our sheer numbers, our technologies, our ability to generate power and use natural resources, far exceed anything in human history.

Yet there is mounting evidence that we are failing in our responsibility to tend and care for the earth.  We are on a path to significant warming with its associated sea level rises, weather extremes, crop failures and human displacement.  At the same time, our chemical and plastics pollution continues unchecked, we are destroying habitats and causing extinctions at an unprecedented rate.

Much of this is irreversible, but our overall course is not.  We can switch to renewables, curb our resource use, distribute our resources more fairly, moderate our excessive consumption.  But our society is moving slowly, and powerful forces are trying to push us in the opposite direction, undermining the shift to renewables, promoting unrestricted land clearing and keeping us on the path of never-ending growth.

Where is the church on this profound contradiction of God's kingdom?

4. We are focused on the individual, not the community
It is no accident that all the things on this list are about collective responsibility, because God's vision for his people is about solidarity and service.  In Mark 10, as his disciples jostled for power and prestige in the coming kingdom, Jesus called a meeting and told them this.

You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them.  Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant,  and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.  For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

Paul puts these ideas into the practical context of church life in 1 Corinthians.  After criticising them for flaunting their inequalities in the Lord's Supper, allowing some to go hungry while others gormandised, he presents as an alternative the image of the body.

The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.

The vision of the kingdom of God, and of the church as we try to live out its mandate, is of a community where we are all part of something larger than ourselves, where we give ourselves in service to one another, and where the most vulnerable are treated with the most care.

Our Western society has tried its hardest to throw this concept out of the window.  We focus on individual achievements, individual autonomy and individual responsibility.  Our responsibilities stop at ourselves and our families, increasingly atomised into struggling nuclear units.  A little charity is a good thing, but not necessary, and if people are poor this is likely their own fault.

In the church, we have very much fallen into this mind-set.  We follow an individualised spirituality, a focus on individual conversion, prayer and study.  Little wonder that our primary concerns are not with the suffering of our fellow humans or the destruction of God's earth, but with our private family life and our sexual behaviour.  So many of us have lost both the mental tools to think about collective responsibilities, and the structures and processes to act on them.  This is why saying 'shit' is a big issue but mass starvation leaves us unmoved


So yes, I do think we are out of step with God, both in our church and in the wider society.  Our focus on sexuality is merely a sign of this disconnect.  We are so out of step on the big issues of peace, justice and the wellbeing of the planet that we do not even realise how out of step we are.
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