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Saturday, 7 November 2015

UKIP's by-election literature: be informed #OldhamWest

As you are probably aware, Oldham West & Royton - the constituency in which I live - is in the the throes of a by-election campaign following the recent death of our sitting MP Michael Meacher. And, as is customary during such occasions, party campaign literature is beginning to arrive through the letterbox. Today, I had the pleasure of receiving a circular from UKIP's parliamentary candidate, John Bickley. The leaflet was rather asking for a fisking, so here it is:

Michael Meacher was a conviction politician who worked hard for the voters of Oldham West & Royton. He represented the people of this constituency, for a party that no longer represents anybody.

A bold claim indeed. But Michael Meacher was elected in the 2015 General Election to the Oldham West & Royton seat on a majority of 23,630. That is more votes than the UKIP (8.892), Conservative (8,187), Lib Dem (1,589) and Green (839) candidates combined. Evidently the people of Oldham West & Royton felt Michael Meacher, as part of the Labour Party, represented them pretty happily. Given the man represented the constituency since 1970 (always under the auspices of the Labour Party), the claim seems fatuous.

I used to believe in Labour. Like many in my family before me I thought that the Labour Party believed in representing the hard working people of our country. That was a long time ago. Far from believing in the people of Britain, Corbyn's Labour Party would rather sympathise with the IRA than sing our national anthem to honour our brave armed forces.

It is probably worth pointing out that WWII was fought precisely so that we might have the freedom to decide whether to sing the national anthem or not. It would be rather odd to fight fascism simply to replace it with a rather more British version. As for honouring our "brave armed forces", I am at a loss as to what evidence is being offered to suggest the Labour Party don't? Presumably this is in response to not singing the national anthem which, for the sake of clarity, nowhere honours the armed forces.

Aside from all that, it seems something of a non-sequitur that Labour once supported working people (as Mr Bickley himself ruefully notes) but now doesn't because they (though I suspect this is limited to Mr Corbyn) don't sing the national anthem. I struggle to see the link here.

I'm standing in this by-election to fight for what I believe in. I'm standing to fight for what is best for Britain. I'm standing for the unwritten future of our children and grandchildren. I'm standing for you and I want to tell you my top priorities for this election.

UKIP believes in the NHS and with my party I will fight to keep the NHS free at the point of use. When they were in power, the Labour Party not only supported but encouraged the fat cat privatisation of the NHS with PFI deals.

Equally, we could look at the words of their leader Nigel FarageHe claimed Britian will "have to return" to a debate about funding the NHS through a private insurance system. He has also been caught on record stating the NHS should be "funded through the marketplace of an insurance company".

Again, Paul Nuttall (one time UKIP deputy leader) stated: "I would like to congratulate the coalition government for bringing a whiff of privatisation into the beleaguered National Health Service".

Douglas Carswell, UKIP's only sitting MP, famously wrote in his document Direct Democracy, that his proposals may "see some local health services introduce private health insurance schemes, which if successful, other local health services would then want to emulate in order to satisfy the raised expectations of their own local electorates."

UKIP is opposed to mass, uncontrolled immigration. We are the only party prepared to take on the establishment and regain control of our borders. David Cameron is unwilling, unprepared and incapable of doing it. His Tories can't take on the establishment, they are the establishment.

I want to live in a country where I can feel safe again. How can we possibly combat criminal gangs when we're importing organised crime, unchecked from overseas? Right now we can't even look into the backgrounds of people who come into this country. The Labour Party did that, and the Tories can't fix it.

It is fair to say all the major parties are opposed to "mass, uncontrolled immigration". Were they not, all would dispense with wasting money on any border staff at all. Most waves of mass immigration that have come to this country have been thoroughly controlled and usually in response to a distinct lack of native workers with specialist skills. Presumably, the reference is to our continued membership of the European Union. However, Jeremy Corbyn has made no secret of his position of the EU and the Labour Party have been very clear that they will not be giving David Cameron a complete pass on his EU negotiation.

More concerning, Mr Bickley states he wants to live in a country where he can feel safe again. It does seem that immigration is the basis for his safety concerns and he goes on (without any credible evidence) to link immigration with "criminal gangs" and "organised crime". If such was true, we would find our prisons full of immigrants and foreign nationals. The figures, as of 2012, don't seem to bear this out (see here). The immigrant and foreign national numbers in prison seem to reflect the the national immigrant population.

I think it's time that somebody took a stand and protected our national identity. I'm unashamedly patriotic, I'm proud to be British and proud of all the people in our country.

I refer you to the above. Apparently he is "proud of all the people in our country" except those who have come as immigrants.

As a Mancunian, I believe that the fight to get our country back should start here, in Oldham West & Royton.

"As a Mancunian" is unlikely to go over well with those who are overtly and self-consciously Oldhammers. Indeed, one might almost appear a little like an immigrant.

Friday, 6 November 2015

The need to defend free speech

In light of things like this, but more directly things like thisthis, thisthis, this and this, and unhelpful and unconscionable consequences like this, this and this I suggest you go here and sign up to this.

Free speech is becoming ever less free. Over the last 15 years, encroachments onto this several hundred year old right have been increasing. It would be remiss to lay the blame at any one government's door. For the start of such interference began with the Blair-era New Labour government and have continued with aplomb under David Cameron's Conservative government. The introduction of such draconian, heavy-handed and ill-considered legislation is therefore neither solely a Conservative nor Labour foible and - with their recent foray into government before their catastrophic implosion - the Liberal Democrats do not escape unscathed either. 

The clampdown on free speech and basic civil liberties is manifestly a centrist obsession. Governments, and parties of government, across the board have played their part in pressing forward such inhibiting laws. The strongest opposition to such measures has unerringly come from those on, and to, the left of the Labour Party (eg Michael Meacher, Diane Abbott, Caroline Lucas, Peter Tatchell, et al) and the right, and those to the right, of the Conservative Party (eg David Davis, Douglas Carswell, Fiona Bruce, et al). Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat centrists and moderates appear to be those most keen to implement extreme, draconian and thoroughly immoderate laws that inhibit basic civil liberties.

If you value the right to be able to think and express opinions that may, or may not, accord with the cultural zeitgeist  then consider joining the above campaign. If you find any of these following pronouncements troubling, then consider joining the above campaign.
"Extremism Disruption Orders will go “beyond terrorism” and “eliminate extremism in all its forms”. - George Osbourne, Chancellor of the Exchequer
"If that’s what you think and that’s what you believe and you want to hold that in your head, that is your business and your right but bear in mind that if you speak it out loud you might be breaking the law.” - Polly Harrow (head of safeguarding and Prevent) [in response to being asked if someone was allowed to have a religious opinion against homosexuality]
"For too long, we have been a passively tolerant society, saying to our citizens: as long as you obey the law, we will leave you alone... This Government will conclusively turn the page on this failed approach." - David Cameron, Prime Minister
"There will, I’m sure, be some who say politicians shouldn’t get involved in these matters. But to live in a modern liberal state is not to live in a moral vacuum. We have to stand up for our values as a nation. There will, I know, be some who say that what I describe as extremism is merely social conservatism. But if others described a woman’s intellect as “deficient”, denounced people on the basis of their religious beliefs, or rejected the democratic process, we would quite rightly condemn their bigotry. And there will be others who say I am wrong to link these kinds of beliefs with the violent extremism we agree we must confront. To them I say, yes, not all extremism leads to violence. And not all extremists are violent. But the damage extremists cause to our society is reason enough to act. And there is, undoubtedly, a thread that binds the kind of extremism that promotes intolerance, hatred and a sense of superiority over others to the actions of those who want to impose their values on us through violence." - Theresa May, Home Secretary
Such moves are extremely worrying. They will stop any dissenting opinion and will impact the nature of debate, discussion, free thought and free speech. It will have knock-on effects for academia, education, entertainment, religious institutions and political discourse. Things have moved from the realm of allowing certain ideas to be frowned upon to making certain ideas unsayable and, in the process, is attempting to make certain thoughts unthinkable. It is without question a totalitarian move by an existent oligarchy. Despite what the Prime Minister and Home Secretary have repeatedly tried to claim, this has no place in a free society. It has no place in a liberal democracy. It cannot be squared with the free democratic system that Britain at least claims it wants to remain.

If you are in any way troubled by these moves, I strongly encourage you to make your voice heard here and write to your MP to express your concerns.

Monday, 2 November 2015

Rev Barry Trayhorn forced to resign for quoting Bible in chapel

The salient facts of this case are these:

  • HMP Littlehey is a category C men's prison and Young Offender institute in Cambridgeshire. Chapel is entirely voluntary. Nobody is required or forced to attend, sing hymns or listen to scripture.
  • Rev Trayhorn is an ordained Pentecostal minister who worked as a gardener at the prison. He has helped out with prison chapel services at the invitation and under the supervision of the coordinating Chaplain, the Rev’d David Kinder, on behalf of the Criminal Justice Forum in the Diocese of Ely.
  • Whilst leading worship in chapel in May 2014 Rev Trayhorn quoted the passage 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 (the quoted version is unknown).
  • Four days later, a complaint was lodged against Rev Trayhorn. He was immediately suspended from helping with chapel services, and was subsequently told that his comments during the service were ‘homophobic’ and breached national prison policy.
  • Rev Trayhorn was informed a disciplinary hearing would follow. He was subsequently signed off work with a stress related illness. During this time, his manager visited him three times at home to discuss work-related issues. On two of those occasions, a senior prison official was present.
  • On 4th November 2014, Rev Trayhorn felt that he had no choice but to resign. Two days later, a disciplinary hearing was held in his absence, when he was given a ‘final written warning’.
  • Rev Trayhorn, backed by the Christian Legal Centre, is now taking HMP Littlehey to an employment tribunal where he is claiming he was forced out of his main paid job as a gardener at the jail because of the intimidation he suffered as a result of his faith.
Several things are worthy of note and a few comments seem necessary.

First, as the Archbishop Cranmer blog notes, Rev Trayhorn's claim is not entirely unreasonable. For "it was not Barry Trayhorn’s skills as a paid gardener which had been called into question, but his competence to lead worship as an unpaid chaplain’s assistant." By all accounts, Rev Trayhorn's gardening skills have not entered into any discussion and there has been no complaint received over his horticultural prowess. It does, therefore, appear very much as though his quote from the Bible has directly led to the loss of his job as gardener.

Second, Rev Trayhorn received a final written warning at a disciplinary hearing in his absence. Again, as noted by Cranmer, given his gardening skills were not under scrutiny and he had "no previous misdemeanours or complaints recorded against him, it is not unreasonable to conclude that he was disciplined for quoting scriptures about sin which were deemed unpalatable by sinners."

Third, it seems worth pointing out that Rev Trayhorn did not major on sexual sin at the expense of other forms of sin. It does appear his quote includes the sexually immoral (that is the heterosexual immoral as the verse also goes on to mention those who practice homosexuality), idolaters, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers and swindlers. Across the range of those sins, and in line with traditional evangelical thought, the list takes aim at just about all people everywhere. It is a more extensive list of Paul's basic comment in Romans 3:23: "for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God".

Fourth, Rev Trayhorn was not disciplined for offering a particular interpretive view of the verses quoted. In fact, the man only went on to say "the Christian message [is] that God will forgive those who repent." It is, therefore, highly likely that Rev Trayhorn was disciplined specifically for quoting directly from the Bible.

All of this adds up to the ludicrous position that suggests it is now a felony to state the Bible's ethical teaching to convicted felons. It is equally ridiculous that prisoners, many of whom have been incarcerated for heinous sexual crimes which both the penal system and wider society recognise as ethically wrong, can claim offence at the biblical position (which is in agreement with both the penal system and wider society on this issue) and make a felon out of the man who dared quote it. Truly this is a nonsense.

Aside from all of this, the only conclusion that can be drawn is that significant portions of the Bible are now prohibited for public proclamation. We are censoring the ethical teachings of a book that played a central role in forming the ethical standard by which our own penal system abides. We are deeming a book that was, until very recently, a central part of school daily assemblies and a copy of which was given to every hotel room in the land to be incompatible with nebulous "British values" which, if they even exist at all, have been drawn from the selfsame source.

Most troubling of all, we already know about the government's plans to crack down on "extremism in all its forms" (see here, here and here etc). It seems quite clear that ill-defined "British values" must be pressed into every sphere of British public and private life. Anything that does not accord with them will be clamped down. The Home Secretary has already made it clear that those who speak against orthodox cultural utterances stand to lose charitable status and assets such as privately held buildings and cash funds. Some evangelical preachers who pose no physical threat to anybody - regardless of whether you agree with their position or the way in which they communicate it - have begun to feel the force of these measures (eg here).

And this seems to be yet another case of it happening. The chapel at HMP Littlehey is neither a public space nor a mandatory requirement for all prisoners. It is attended voluntarily and nobody is forced to partake in worship or to listen to God's word against their will. It is, therefore, utterly incredible that the Bible can be censored during a private meeting of Christian worship. Whilst this particular case beggars belief, it is all the more troubling that what is happening in HMP Littlehey and has already reached into some private meeting houses, will increasingly impede the public reading of God's word and the clear proclamation and explanation of what it contains in more and more churches. 

Measures intended to impede acts of terrorism and those propagating such acts are increasingly being used against all manner of political protesters and benign religious groups who pose no physical threat to anybody but who nonetheless do not assent to cultural orthodoxy. The measures are politically obtuse and utterly cowardly. For it seems clear enough that to avoid being seen to target one particular religious group, all people of faith - regardless of what they actually teach and believe or their propensity to call for the death of the infidel - are embroiled in a war against one small group, within one particular strain, of one particular branch of one particular religion. By any measure, it is not fair, it is not equitable, it is not reasonable and it should not stand.

Saturday, 31 October 2015

Why the Christian has nothing to fear in Halloween

I posted yesterday, for those who were worried about such things, about why ghosts and ghouls most definitely do not exist. But, of course, there are plethora of monsters the likes of which the Bible doesn't give such clear reason to believe don't exist. And then there's all the scary stuff the Bible does talk about. Though ghosts and ghouls may not be real, are there things - in the realm of the seen or unseen - of which we should be frightened? Let me give you a few reasons to put your mind at ease.

The Bible is clear there is one thing alone to be feared

Both Matthew and Luke make clear that there is but one thing to be feared above all else:
“I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him!" - Luke 12:4f
"And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell." - Matthew 10:28
As the writer to the Hebrews says: "It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God." For, as he says earlier in the letter, "it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgement" (Hebrews 9:27).

In Jesus, the Christian has no need to fear the judgement

The apostle John tells us clearly enough that in Jesus there is no fear of God. He says:
15 Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. 16 So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. 17 By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgement, because as he is so also are we in this world. 18 There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. (1 John 4:15-18).
If we abide in God, his love is perfected within us so that we can have confidence on the day of judgement. If fear of judgement has to do with punishment, if we abide in God we have no fear of such punishment on the day of judgement.

Paul, who obviously got the same memo, says this: "there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus" (Romans 8:1). Similarly, Isaiah 43:1 says “But now, this is what the Lord says…Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine.”

Taken together with Matthew and Luke's earlier statements, the Christian can say along with the Psalmist “The Lord is my light and my salvation—whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life—of whom shall I be afraid?” (Psalm 27:1).

In Jesus, the Christian has no need to fear outside powers

Both Jesus (Matthew 6:25-34) and Paul (Philippians 4:6) command us not to be anxious or worry. Though many would say that is easier said than done, the Christian has very real grounds to not be impeded by such things.

For a start, Paul emphatically makes the point in Romans 8:38f:
For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Peter also tells us to cast our anxiety onto God "because he cares for you" (1 Peter 5:7). So nothing can separate us from God's love with which he cares for us. As a sovereign God with all things in his hand, this means our worries and anxieties can really be given over to him in a meaningful way.

Paul really lays it on thick in Ephesians 1 when he says:
that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all. (Ephesians 1:18-23).
You cannot fail to miss the central point: Christ is "far above all rule and authority and power and dominion... in this age... [and] the one to come." There is nothing for the Christian to fear in Christ because he is over all. All things have been put under his feet. That is surely a God on whom we can cast all our cares and anxieties, wherever they come from.

Knowing a little something about the magic and cultic practices in Ephesus at this time only lends further weight to Paul's point. Ephesus was awash with pagan practices, magic and mystery cults, mantras, spells, charms and the rest. The Ephesian believers were constantly pulled toward such things (e.g. Acts 19:13-20). Paul's concern was to make abundantly clear that there is no power, ruler, dominion or authority - whether physical or spiritual - that can surpass the ultimate rule of Jesus Christ. Paul is equally clear that the believer shares in his rule and has that same power at work in them (cf. Eph 2:6; 3:16, 19f). It is for this reason the believer has nothing to fear in Christ.

All of this leads to the conclusion that in Christ, the Christian has nothing to fear. So whether your view of Halloween is that it is really dangerous or a bit of fun; whether you see the monsters and ghouls as synonymous with the evil Spirits Paul warns about or you think them jejune anachronisms; Paul is clear that the believer has nothing to fear in such things. Christ is above all, ruling with power that exceeds all. In Christ, the believer has no need to worry because that same power is at work in us.

So whether you decide to shun Halloween, redeem it with a nicer alternative or you choose to be part of it like the rest of our culture, the biblical takeaway is: do not fear. In Christ, you are safe, secure and one with the ruler who is above all things. Take courage.

Friday, 30 October 2015

Worried about Halloween ghosts? Never fear, here's why they definitely don't exist

For those of a sensitive disposition, Halloween can be a troublesome time of year. It is a celebration of all things ghoulish and creepy and a wonder that it passes as a culturally acceptable form of fun aimed at children. For a range of views on how Christians should approach Halloween, you can read Canon J. John outline his problems with Halloween here. Glen Scrivener explains (in very different form) why he has no particular issue with Halloween here and here. For a third opinion, you can hear (or read) John Piper's view here.

It isn't my aim to speak into the rights and wrongs of Halloween here. I shall leave you to follow the various links and make up your own mind. I want to offer a little succour to the frightened and scared. To that end, if you find yourself frightened of things that go bump in the night, let me offer you a few reasons why ghosts and ghouls definitely do not exist.

Before some smart aleck asks "what about the Holy Ghost/Spirit?" let us define our terms. I am using the word 'ghost' to mean the wandering spirits of the dead. I mean what most psychics and mediums mean by the term: departed souls who have not found rest. That is spirits of once living people who now float around in some netherworld occasionally appearing to living people or chucking things around rooms.

So how can I be so sure ghosts and ghouls absolutely do not exist? Here are a few reasons:

After death comes judgement

The writer of Hebrews makes it quite clear: "it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgement" (Heb 9:27). If there is a judgement after death, it seems pretty obvious that there are no people left hanging. The idea that there may be some departed souls who never quite made it to the other side doesn't account for the fact that all people will stand before almighty God and give an account of their life. Unless God has appointed wandering the earth without rest as one of the possible outcomes of judgement, there can be no such things as the ghosts of departed spirits wandering the earth.

God has not appointed wandering the earth as a possible consequence of judgement

The parable of the wheat and tares (Matthew 13:24-30) makes pretty clear there are two possible outcomes in the judgement. If we take the fairly obvious interpretation that the wheat are those who belong to Christ and the tares are those who reject him, one is either gathered into the Lord's barn (Heaven) or put into bundles to be burned (Hell). If you're not sold on the imagery, the apostle John puts it in starker terms in Revelation 20:11-15 (note especially v15). If there are only two possible consequences following the judgement, the idea of wandering souls roaming the earth is rather discounted.

After judgement, there can be no return to earth

As the story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) makes clear, those who have been appointed to Heaven or Hell cannot return to the world after judgement. So even if we wanted to accept the possibility that, having been judged and appointed to either Heaven or Hell, one might return to the land of the living (√† la Hamlet's father), the bible simply doesn't allow the possibility. The concept of returning to earth after judgement is foreign to anything we read in the Bible.

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

How should Christians respond to Socialism? A response to John Piper

In his latest ask pastor John podcast, John Piper answered a question in relation to the ongoing political campaign of Bernie Sanders. I suppose it was inevitable that a renowned evangelical pastor, in a country noted for its links between evangelicalism and right-wing politics, would eventually be asked a question about a high profile politician, currently in the public spotlight, who identifies as socialist (of one sort or another). 

Socialism has always been something of an uncomfortable political bedfellow for a country close to a rabid phobia of state involvement in anything. So an American evangelical answering the question 'how should Christians think about socialism?' was never likely to end in unmitigated endorsement. And whilst it is true that no political system will ever be perfect, and certainly no political system will ever fully align with scripture (and scripture was never intended to make one do so), let me explain why I disagree with pastor John.

Before I go on, I should point out that I have been here before. In response to a post by John Stevens, National Director of the FIEC, some years ago I outlined why I disagreed with his position on socialism (and, therefore, by extension with Wayne Grudem and Barry Asmus). You can read that article here. I am an FIEC pastor and I really like John. I often read his blog and find his posts quite insightful and helpful. Likewise, I've found much of what Wayne Grudem has written highly valuable and helpful. And, in the same vein, I like John Piper too. I find his writing and preaching usually very helpful, he is theologically excellent and he is a huge asset to the church (as are these other men too).

First, let me highlight where I agree with Piper. His opening salvo regarding the church - "in the church no one should go hungry. In the church no one should be without a place to stay..." etc - is spot on. His closing line in that very same paragraph, that within the church all this should be without compulsion, is absolutely correct. Nobody should be under any doubt that the church ought to be generous and giving without coercion and force. I can also agree that Acts 2:44-45 is not an example of the early church being demanded to give to those in need. There was no compulsion, just a heart changed by God's Spirit. Beyond this, Piper is quite right that "thou shalt not steal" does indeed indicate the ability to keep what is yours and Paul does emphasise cheerfully giving, freely and not under duress (cf. 2 Cor 8-9). I basically agree with Piper's view on funding state churches (if not entirely for the reasons he intimates).

Here, however, is where I think Piper goes astray. He argues that socialism either (1) establishes legal, government or military coercion to establish social ownership at the expense of private ownership; or, (2) uses coercion to establish social control — if not ownership, at least control of the means of production in society. He goes on to state "And thus, through control, you effectively eliminate many of the implications and motivations of private ownership."

Now this errs in presuming that scripture demands private ownership. Yes, scripture presumes the existence of private ownership, but it never suggests that it is inherently good or the fundamental basis of state economics. Equally, Piper errs in presuming that socialism stands against all forms of private ownership. I see no reason to believe either of those presumptions are necessarily true. 

A further problem with Piper's answer is that his application of the above verses rule out taxation and state funding for just about anything. If giving freely is the driving principle then, by definition, all forms of taxation and state intervention are out of the question. This means no governance, no military spending, no forms of revenue. The logical conclusion renders the national coffers the equivalent of a charity living on sporadic handouts at the whim of the people. All giving must be free and not done out of compulsion. Even the right-wing social conservative Peter Hitchens recognises this principle (see here at 4:40 as an example). As he says: "every state has to intervene in something. Once you've decided you must intervene to create a navy, then you've pretty much sold the principle".

Moreover, whilst I agree with Piper's view on the giving in Acts 2:42-43, it is a category error to apply it to politics and economic systems. It is interesting to me that, when the Spirit is at work amongst a true community of believers, things appear very much more socialist than capitalist. However, that is not a basis for arguing these verses represent some sort of socialist manifesto. These verse clearly describe the Spirit at work within a community of believers and we cannot simply apply it to political and economic systems on the world stage. For exactly the same reason I do not think 2 Corinthians 8-9 can be applied to world economic systems, the principle of generous, free giving would be a similar category mistake. Paul is talking about giving within the community of believers. He is talking about what should happen amongst those who have been made regenerate toward other Christian people in need. He is not talking about what should happen at a governmental level or within economic systems.

Piper moves on and takes aim at the economic system of Denmark and others in Europe, arguing that over half those who live in such places live off the state in some way. He simply states this as negative without giving any grounds for why this really represents a problem biblically (save his spurious logic outlined above). By all means make a case - as he goes on to imply - that there are economic problems with socialism (such as you believe them to exist). What seems specious is to suggest that biblical descriptors of what ought to happen within the church should define what happens at a state economic level.

Now, there are some biblical principles and doctrines that ought to be brought to boot on this discussion. First, as I argued here, tax is not inherently unbiblical. It does not amount to state theft and it is not akin to sin. Both Jesus (Mk 12:17) and Paul (Rom 13:6f) make that clear enough. If tax amounts to state theft and/or sin, then Jesus and Paul are clearly encouraging all believers to participate in sin. It is evidently not the case that is what they are doing. To quote Peter Hitchens, if you take Jesus' and Paul's points, "then you've pretty much sold the principle". Ergo, far from being sinful, taxation can indeed be a force for good.

Second, let's refer back to Piper's reference of Acts 2:42-43. It is clear enough that this is what happens when the Spirit is at work in God's people. Free, generous giving without the need for compulsion. The question is, what do we do for those who are not so indwelt by the Holy Spirit? Are we likely to see widespread, free giving without compulsion. Years of Western capitalism, which allows the rich to keep much of their money, rather suggests not. Even in America, where there is more of a culture of charitable giving, even the slightest probing makes clear enough this is to avoid losing more money through taxation! It is not charitable like Acts 2, it is a selfish bid to avoid such charity!

It is theologically and empirically obtuse to presume that making a few people very rich will work for the benefit of all. James 2:6f makes the case clearly enough. The doctrine of total depravity also speaks against the idea that the unregenerate would likely give their money away simply out of the generosity of their own hearts. If James, along with the doctrine of total depravity, suggest individuals may need some encouragement in helping their fellow man, and it be not sinful to implement taxation, it follows that taxation as a means of helping the poor is a thoroughly biblically consistent position. Moreover, if scripture obligates the believer to care for the poor and needy (e.g. here and here) and the above means are not sinful, it strikes me as thoroughly reasonable to campaign for a high tax, redistributive system as an excellent means to care for the less fortunate. The Christians, campaigning for higher taxes on themselves as a means of achieving these ends, seems to be perfectly consistent with these biblical imperatives.

Free market capitalism makes no credible allowance for total depravity and inculcates greed as its very motivating force. It allows the rich to remain rich and does nothing, ultimately or inherently by the very nature of the system, to help the poor. Indeed, untrammelled free market capitalism uses sin to motivate and does nothing to encourage the biblical imperatives to have an eye for the poor, needy and less fortunate. If nothing else, socialism at least attempts to address the very problems the bible considers problems. It, contrary to popular belief, actually takes better account of total depravity than does the capitalist system. It is no coincidence that the Socialism of the British Labour movement was started by a Scottish lay preacher and built on the back of Welsh Methodism. Free market capitalism can hardly be said to have been borne out of any adherence to biblical principles. 

As Piper rightly notes, "every economic and political system will eventually collapse where there are insufficient moral impulses to restrain human selfishness and encourage honesty and good deeds even when no one is watching." It strikes me that capitalism makes no effort to address either of those issue. It rather hopes for a 'trickle down' effect (or a work of the Holy Spirit to give them a heart to share aright). A presumption that the rich will try to hoard their money necessitates a system that redistributes their wealth (total depravity nigh on demands it for the unregenerate). Given that politics cannot instil a work of grace, you tell me, dear reader, how Christians ought to respond to socialism.

Sunday, 11 October 2015

What Labour Party divisions can teach church denominations

Yesterday, The Guardian reported that over 50 Labour MPs plan to defy Jeremy Corbyn's stance on a British military intervention in Syria. The Labour leader has made no secret of his opposition to a bombing campaign. Corbyn's supporters, such as Diane Abbott and John McDonnell, have gone on record backing his stance. They too reject a bombing campaign, with Abbott in particular vociferous in her criticism of those who plan to defy the party leader. What is abundantly clear is that not all those who belong to the Labour Party reside within the same political camp as their current head.

The parallels with the Church are striking. For not all those who associate with the Church belong in the same camp as its head. Both Jesus (cf. Mt 7:21-23) and Peter (cf. 2 Pet 2:1-3) make this clear enough. Jesus tells us that we will recognise those who are his by the fruit expressed in their lives (Mt 7:15-20). Elsewhere, the fruit that Jesus expects is clear enough: "if you love me, you will keep my commandments" (John 14:15). The one who is the head of the church expects those who really belong to the church to actually keep his commands.

Hand wringing by centrist MPs over whether to remain in the Labour Party are reminiscent of various internal denominational battles between theologically conservative and liberal wings. Significant internal differences within the denominations have been dealt with in a variety of ways; from the perennial splits upon splits within Presbyterianism to the staunch refusal to leave the Church of England despite fundamental, insurmountable differences between those who purport to have communion. Other denominations have worked such things through in a plethora of different ways, from complete isolationism to an emphasis on non-denominational gospel partnerships.

Until the Labour Party can form a direction around which the MPs will unite, it will continue to face these same problems over and again. Likewise, though a wholly pure church is the world of fantasy, churches would do well to heed the lessons being played out in Labour Party politics. Denominations, gospel partnerships and associations can only press forward when those seeking to work together are united in purpose and agree on certain core beliefs and values. Without such agreement, partnerships and denominations will forever find themselves unable to move forward. Jesus said something like that (cf. Mark 3:24f).

Friday, 2 October 2015

O Liberté, que de crimes on commet en ton nom!

Freedom and liberty, the clarion calls of those who typically abuse the very things they claim to defend. The news is awash with yet another American mass shooting. President Obama makes his 15th statement about shootings since he took office. He once again makes a plea for tighter gun controls. The usual suspects reply with their standard cry. In the name of freedom, people continue to be killed all the day long.

It is a gross act of sin to use the cause of freedom to persist with a situation that continuously and repeatedly leads to death. Just as the those on the right would (rightly) have no truck with arguments that rely on freedom to continue the systematic destruction of children in utero, the call for tighter gun controls are no less unimpressed with arguments from freedom while people are being repeatedly killed. While human beings are dying, using freedom and liberty as the basis for letting it continue is nothing short of iniquitous.

This side of the pond, where we have never quite had the same national obsession with personal armaments, may seem easy. The Dunblane massacre in 1996 was the impetus to introduce two firearms Acts which effectively banned the private ownership of handguns. However, even prior to the mid-90s, it was not exactly the norm to own a gun. Nevertheless, this same approach to freedom exists as much here as it does in the US. Our approach to abortion rights is often based on this same spurious reasoning and our recent national debate on the 'right to die' also leaned heavily on such arguments. Though it may not be gun control, we are not immune from the questionable application of freedom despite the obvious, dangerous and highly troubling effects on the people.

As Christians, we don't always stand apart from this specious reasoning either. Yes, we may oppose abortion and euthanasia, we may be pro-gun controls, yet this same tendency can exist in Christian circles too. It is called antinomianism. There can be an insistence upon freedom despite the fact that, in the name of the freedom we proclaim, people are lost. In the name of freedom in Christ, gross acts of sin are justified because "we're free". Freedom once again becomes a call from those who, frankly, want to abuse the freedom that is theirs in Christ. By abusing freedom this way, many who think they are safe remain lost in their sin. Christ did not win our freedom so that we may carry on as before. Our freedom in Christ is not a freedom to ignore his commands and continue in our sin. We have been freed from sin in Christ. To carry on sinning, and to use this hard won freedom as the basis to do so, is the most offensive way to treat Jesus. 

Freedom is a most important civil liberty that must be defended. It is a most important Christian concept that must be defended theologically. However, using freedom as a basis to defend/reject law that was intended to protect the individual, is nothing short of perverse. It doesn't matter whether we are talking civil liberty or Christian liberty, freedom is not there to the detriment of the life of the people. Anyone arguing otherwise has neither stared down the barrel of a gun nor come to terms with the doctrine of Hell.

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

VW and how to really generate lower pollutants

You will almost certainly have come across the latest scandal involving the German car manufacturer Volkswagon. What broke as a story in the USA is now being followed into Europe and the rest of the world. The company fitted 'defeat devices' to their cars which cause the vehicles to cheat the diesel emissions tests. The company admit that around 11m vehicles worldwide have been fitted with such devices. Since allegations emerged, around 40% has fallen off the VW share price, the affected cars will have to be recalled and refitted at a cost of £4.2bn and the company is also facing further fines of £11.9bn.

The point of gaming the tests this way was so VW could offer cars with low emissions. The low emissions meant a low tax option for buyers. The problem with many low emission vehicles is what they lack in pollutants they also lack in performance. The defeat device recognised test conditions and ran the car engine at a below normal level of power and performance. When the test was over, the car returned to normal levels. This meant the company appeared to offer low emission diesel cars that lacked nothing in the power and performance department. In reality, it meant VW cars emitted nitrogen oxide pollutants up to 40 times above the legal US limit.

In Matthew 15:10-20 Jesus spoke about what pollutes people:
what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person.
If they are the things that defile us before God, hear what Jesus has to say about those who only appear great under test conditions:
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. (Matthew 23:27f)
Things appear OK outwardly but inwardly they are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. Claiming to be clean when, in reality, they are dirty and full of law-breaking levels of  pollutants. Both hypocrisy and lawlessness in one. Sounds like VW. Sounds worryingly like many Christian people too. Sounds rather like me much of the time. Perhaps even sounds a little like you?

The human heart isn't unlike a VW engine. Under test conditions, we seem to operate pretty well. We can sense when people are looking and precisely what they are looking for. Our performance under test - our attendance at church, our public Christian face, our evangelistic efforts - all seem to stack up pretty well. And yet, many of us, when we're back under normal conditions may be emitting many more pollutants than tests seemed to show.

The apostle John puts it well when in 1 John 1:8-10 he says this:
If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.
A pretence that we have no sin means that we remain in sin itself. But, if we confess our sin - in other words, if we cease being hypocrites, own our sin and seek the forgiveness that is found in Christ alone - then he is faithful to forgive and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. As long as we keep trying to game the tests, our sin and the just punishment it deserves will remain our own. Only when we cease being hypocrites, admit our sin and turn to the only saviour able to deal with do we stand any chance of becoming low emission polluters.