Friday, 21 August 2015

On the historic apology

It can't have escaped your notice that the unstoppable runaway train that is Jeremy Corbyn's Labour leadership bid has been a rich vein of material for this blog of late (see here and here). And today is no exception. In today's Guardian, Corbyn announces that if he becomes leader he will apologise on behalf of the Labour Party for the (most recent) military intervention in Iraq.

I dared to reply to the Guardian twitter update with the following:
This led to a small twitter-spat (as these things tend to do) which I will not bother boring you with here (for those interested in such things, you can find it here).

This got me thinking about the value of historic and symbolic apologies. On one side of this discussion are those who think they are a symbolic show of future intent. Never mind that Jeremy Corbyn consistently voted against the Iraq war, it doesn't matter that he himself always opposed it, as leader of the Labour Party he would be making an important symbolic gesture moving forward. On the other side of the debate are those who think it is a totally valueless act. His future intent is clear enough when he called for Tony Blair to be tried as a war criminal and has consistently and repeatedly voiced his opposition to military intervention. If the word 'sorry' conveys contrition and remorse, how can those uninvolved in a felony, and who consistently stood against the action, show such penitence? I fall into the latter of these two camps.

Symbolism is only really valid when the symbol applies to the one associating themselves with it. I am sure scores of Iraqi citizens would find value in an apology from the perpetrators. I am far less convinced they will find an apology from a man who consistently voted against the action and has repeatedly and vociferously called out his own government on the decision remotely worthwhile. His views on the issue have been clear from the beginning, remain clear and his plans going forward are no less transparent. An apology under such circumstances is neither symbolic nor meaningful. Only those who are responsible for an act can offer a meaningful apology. An apology from someone who always rejected the action does nothing to change the fact that those responsible are still unrepentant. It is like receiving an apology from the mother of a murderer (who you never held responsible) whilst her son continues to brag publicly about his heinous crime. It is simply a hollow gesture.

That also brings into question the nature of the historic apology altogether. The Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, recently apologised to America for Japanese actions during WWII though he has more recently claimed that modern-day Japan shouldn't have to keep apologising for WWII actions. Angela Merkel has made further apologies for German atrocities under the Nazis. And Tony Blair, though unable to apologise for his own actions in Iraq, seems to have no issue apologising for Britain's past involvement in the slave trade and our part in the Irish potato famine.

It is Blair's own apologies that bring into sharp relief the pointlessness of the historic apology. It is easy to say sorry for actions with which we were personally uninvolved and that we have consistently made clear were wrong. There is little doubt in the modern age that virtually everyone in the Western world despises slavery. There are no policy decisions from any party across the political spectrum that suggest, explicitly or implicitly, any desire to return to such days. To apologise for something universally rejected in the West, and for which we bear no personal responsibility, is but a valueless and hollow gesture. We are really apologising on behalf of others which seems to defeat the very purpose of an apology. I can express sorrow and disgust about the actions of others but I cannot be remorseful or penitent on their behalf. An apology is only worth something if there is a recognition of wrongdoing on the part of the perpetrator. For those of us who always rejected the action, apologising on behalf of others does nothing.

It is ludicrous to me that people who openly and repeatedly reject the actions of the Nazis in modern day Germany are expected to continually apologise for something with which they had no part, neither passive nor active. It is silly that a hollow apology from a modern world leader about the horrors of slavery, when they have repeatedly and consistently stated their opposition to it, is deemed of value. It is rather more telling that Tony Blair has no problem whatsoever apologising for historic crimes in which he had no part but cannot bring himself to say sorry for the very real problems his decisions have directly caused for those who are still alive, affected by such things and for whom an apology would be both laden with meaning and of any intrinsic value. It says to me that the only apology worth anything is one from the individuals responsible. It says to me that is a much harder apology to give because it involves owning up, to those affected, to that for which we are personally responsible. It says to me that anyone can express sorrow and remorse for what they have not done; it is much harder to own what we personally and directly have done and admit we were wrong.

It also brings into sharp relief the words of Jesus Christ in Matthew 7:13f: "Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few." Many of us are happy to accept that the way is hard. Jesus also said “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it." And so we expect following Jesus to be tough. But we often don't like the fact that "the gate is narrow... and those who find it are few". It is not simply following Christ that is hard but even entering by the gate - a gate that Christ elsewhere makes clear is himself - is also difficult.

Those from other religions may not understand what is so difficult about salvation by faith alone. What on earth could be difficult about that? It is precisely the same thing that is easy about the historic apology and extremely difficult about the current, only valid, one. To come to Christ necessitates an understanding that we are personally responsible for our own sin. It is not an historic crime in which we have no part and remains entirely the fault of Adam, Paul tells us "for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Rom 3:23). Without acknowledging our own personal responsibility for the sin that separates us from God, there can be no forgiveness. And there is no denying that accepting responsibility for what we have done, acknowledging that we have not lived as we ought and accepting that we have actively pursued what is wrong is difficult indeed!

It also means - if I must accept personal responsibility for my separation from God - that somebody else cannot be penitent on my behalf. If I am separated from God because of my sin, it is simply no good for my father, mother, brother, sister, friend or colleague to be terribly sorry on my behalf. My personal responsibility has in no way been accepted if I am personally unwilling to seek forgiveness for what I have done. It is only when we accept that we have done wrong and that forgiveness is found in repentance and faith in Christ alone that we can be made right with God. It is something that requires a personal and heartfelt penitence. A meaningful apology - that is true repentance and genuine faith in Christ - are the only means of real forgiveness.

By contrast, historic apologies are neither personal, do not accept responsibility and are not an acceptance of wrongdoing. It is pleading on behalf of another who has potentially shown no remorse whatsoever. If we want the word 'sorry' to mean anything at all, let's please stop insisting we use it on behalf of others.







Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Jeremy Corbyn's campaign and what it has to say about two-stage separation

I have watched on over recent weeks as Jeremy Corbyn has been associated with "Jew-haters", conspiracy theorists, murderers, Holocaust deniers and other terrorists and extremists. In his most recent interview with Cathy Newman on Channel 4, Corbyn denied sympathising with Holocaust deniers and vociferously rejected such views in no uncertain terms. On today's World at One on Radio 4, Corbyn denied knowing the 'extremist' Dyab Abou Jahjah who has links to Hezbollah. He also denounced the actions of Hamas and Hezbollah in no uncertain terms whilst still maintaining the importance of open dialogue.

I am reasonably happy with such denials. I am rather in agreement with the need to keep lines of communication open for dialogue that leads to peace. I do think it is possible to speak to terrorist organisations and unsavoury characters without endorsing everything they say, do and stand for. I am, nonetheless, much less impressed with his continued refusal to denounce the IRA in the same terms as he has Hezbollah and Hamas (see here). If he can censure Hezbollah and Hamas in the clearest possible terms whilst maintaining the need to talk to them for the purposes of a peace process, there is no reason the same cannot be said to the IRA. I strongly suspect this is down to his ongoing friendship with the Irish Republican top brass compared to his mere supposed general association with those linked to Middle Eastern terror groups.

Leaving aside the glaring exception of the IRA, Corbyn has consistently denied sympathising with the views espoused by those he has been accused of courting. He has publicly rejected the violent means of Hezbollah, Hamas and their respective supporters. Corbyn has also condemned Holocaust denial in the strongest terms stating "Holocaust denial is vile and wrong. The Holocaust was the most vile part of our history. The Jewish people killed by the Nazi Holocaust were the people who suffered the most in the 20th century." Despite pictures emerging of him sitting beside Dyab Abou Jahjah, I think Owen Jones' defence of Corbyn is quite reasonable and eminently likely. Frankly, I believe Corbyn when he says he doesn't remember the man and knew nothing of his views; not least given his brazen, unrepentant willingness to admit to the vast majority of links that many deem questionable.

In short, I don't think Jeremy Corbyn is anti-Semitic, a Holocaust denier nor a "Jew-hater". I do not think he supports Hezbollah and Hamas. I am yet to be convinced he wholeheartedly rejects the actions of the IRA and doesn't seek to justify their means as "necessary".

In Owen Jones' defence of Corbyn, he comments:
If he knew somebody had anti-Semitic views or indulged Holocaust denial, he would find their views utterly repulsive. But having spent his life attending more meetings and protests than virtually any other MP, he will have encountered and met countless people. I can’t remember people I’ve shared platforms with and met (which has led to many embarrassing moments in my case) and the idea an MP like Corbyn juggling his constituency and campaigning work and meeting the number of people he does will remember is pushing human capabilities to an extreme degree.
I am utterly sympathetic to this defence. Christians who advocate a policy of co-belligerence (e.g. here) should understand this. On issues of agreement, we may share a platform with those whom we would otherwise disagree. For example, in the Reform Section 5 campaign, Christian groups found themselves sharing a platform with all sorts of atheistic and secular groups due to agreement on the issue at hand. It seems likely in the Palestinian Solidarity movement one is likely, on that issue, to share a platform with others who hold unsavoury views in other areas. The same is almost certainly true in the pro-zionist camp - agreement on the issue is likely to lead to one sharing a platform with some who hold unsavoury views in other areas.

The issue is one of two-stage separation. If it can be reasonably demonstrated that Jeremy Corbyn himself supports Holocaust denial, sympathises with anti-Semites and supports the violent means of sundry terrorist organisations then we are well within our rights to denounce his campaign on such grounds. If, however, he does not hold or sympathise with such views but happens to support some other issues which those who hold these views also happen to support that is rather different. For example, it is possible to support the maintenance of the Union in Northern Ireland without in any way linking oneself to the terrorist activities of Loyalist paramilitary groups (so Unionism has been arguing for over a century). The same goes for Irish unification without supporting Republican paramilitaries (or so the Nationalists have been arguing to some while). It is, however, wholly unreasonable to denounce Ian Paisley - who has consistently denounced the actions of Loyalist paramilitaries - for having occasionally found himself in the same room as paramilitary men who share his view on the Union. Likewise, to denounce Mark Durkan - who has consistently denounced the tactics of Republican paramilitaries - for having occasionally found himself in the same room as Provisional IRA men is equally unreasonable. This guilt by association two-stage separation is unfair, it is no way to determine the actual views of an individual.

The approach to Jeremy Corbyn's campaign is reminiscent of two-stage separation in churches. It is the view that says A must separate from B, not because of any issue with B, but because B is associated with C who is deemed beyond the pale. Occasionally, it becomes three, four or more stage separation. It is a view that infers guilt by association and can often end up condemning nigh on everybody. If we are working with the sense that it is not possible to even share a platform or be in the same room as those with whom we disagree on unrelated issues, we may as well shut the House of Commons down. We cannot possibly expect people to be so certain of any link they may make that they must background check every individual they meet at any given rally they attend.

This blog has previously commented on the issue of two-stage separation within the Christian world. If our unity is based on gospel truth, it is inevitable that we will ultimately share fellowship with churches who are no exactly like us. That is not to say there are no ministries we ought to denounce in no uncertain terms but there are clearly large areas of theological truth which will be relegated to matters of secondary importance. They are those issues on which there may be a right answer but which do not form a basis of separation. Moreover, there will be issues on which we share a platform without agreeing with those whom we campaign. It is entirely possible, for example, that in the name of co-belligerence a Christian may find themselves on the same platform as a Muslim. It is highly likely that, in so doing, there may be dispensational, pro-Israel, CWI-supporting believers sharing a platform with some Muslim who hold less than salubrious views toward Israel and its citizens.Yet, because we agree on the issue at hand, we share a platform without endorsing all the views of those thereon.

If we want to be able to defend co-belligerence, we must be careful we don't fall into this guilt-by-association trap toward others. If links are symptomatic of views, then we ought to be careful to bring personal views into the light and make sure we are denouncing the actual views of the individual rather than our presumed view based on some of things we may know about their associations. If we want to be able to support gospel unity, we will have to be very careful about precisely those positions we wish to denounce. Are they essentials? Do they undermine the gospel? Are we sure the people we are disassociating with actually hold the views we deem anti-gospel or are we presuming that based on others they know? For the sake of the gospel, let's keep the main things the main things. If we must disassociate with someone, let's make sure we are doing so rightly. Let's determine fellowship based on the actual views of those we know, not based on the presumed views of third-parties with whom they associate.

Monday, 10 August 2015

The problem with protest-free buffers around abortion clinics

There seems to be much news about abortion of late. The blogosphere - and certain mainstream news outlets - have expended much time pouring over recent undercover videos showing the modus operandi of American abortion provider Planned Parenthood (e.g. see here, here and here amongst others). Attention initially focused on PP's callous efforts to abort foetuses in "a less crunchy way" in order to preserve body parts which they can sell on. Things quickly moved on to their "after-birth abortions" which remain virtually impossible to distinguish from the murder of a newly born child (apart from the fact the foetus is not wanted by the mother). 

Many have commented on the glib manner in which PP representatives conversed over lunch about killing infants who have taken their first breath (not just those killed in utero) and noted the cold, detached discussion regarding the resale value of individual body parts. It is the matter-of-factness of it all that seems to have caused the greatest consternation. The details surrounding the reality of abortion clinics have long been in the public domain; the regular goings on are well established. As such, I don't particular want to dig into any of the details surrounding PP here. I rather wanted to look at another story which, though having nothing to do with PP, is linked. 

Today, Yvette Cooper - Labour leadership contender - argued in favour of protest-free buffers around abortion clinics. We are already contending with Extremism Disruption Orders (EDOs) from the incumbent government (see here) which seek to inhibit free speech and, to some degree, free thought. Now, in line with the New Labour tendency to such things, Cooper is mooting curbs on the right to protest against abortion, another of the new cultural orthodoxies that cannot be spoken against.

Why has this been raised as an issue? As The Guardian report, The British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) has complained confirmed that one of their clinics had to close down as a "direct result of protest activity". In other words, as the protest actually had the desired effect, Cooper wants to limit anything that might have a positive outcome for the protesters. She is happy for folk to protest in ways that are thoroughly ineffectual but, as soon as the action begins to work, curbs on freedom must be introduced to protect cultural orthodoxy.

On such things New Labour have form. It was they who stopped anti-war protesters from camping outside Westminster primarily because they found it a nuisance to be reminded of widespread public displeasure at certain military interventions. It is New Labour who began to introduce limits on free speech because certain words or phrases could be deemed "offensive" or "annoying". It was New Labour who inculcated the culture of offence and victimhood which meant certain words and views could not be expressed without the law being brought to boot. Now, Yvette Cooper - who has been part of the New Labour project - wishes to stop dissent regarding yet another culturally accepted norm. Cultural orthodoxy cannot be challenged, protests can only take the form of ineffective, inoffensive nothingness. Anything that may offend or lead to a questioning of the cultural zeitgeist is verboten.

Is there a legitimate discussion to be had regarding the boundaries of legitimate protest? Of course. Is it wrong to intimidate or harass those against whom you protest? Absolutely. But if intimidation and harassment are subjective measures, that which one person finds meek and mild another will find thoroughly intimidating. Where do the boundaries of such things lie?

Let's consider this: if we were discussing a protest outside the doors of a shop found to be exploiting foreign labour, would a buffer-zone be mooted? Would tears be shed for the shop workers? Would there be an outcry if the shop had to shut down? Or, alternatively, consider animal testing laboratories. Are protesters expected to protest away from the lab in such a way that their protest is rendered totally ineffective? Surely it is simply the nature of the clinic that has caused the concern.

Every reasonable person agrees that threats and intimidation are not appropriate tools of protest. However, being "confronted with images of foetuses" can hardly be said to represent a threat. And a static protest standing outside the doors of a clinic is hardly harassment. Following those seeking to go into the clinic up and down the street may fall into that category but a static protest can hardly be considered within the same bracket. As for intimidation, it is possible for anyone to find anything intimidating. It may be intimidating to walk past a group of protesters but if there is not danger to life or limb, no threat of assault, it seems such is congruent with a free and civil society.

The issue is a troubling one and extends well beyond the presenting issue. If we are prepared to reduce protests outside abortion clinics to ineffective and valueless acts, what is to stop legislation from doing the same to other forms of public assembly? If a static protest outside an abortion clinic amounts to intimidation and harassment, then what of the union picket line? What of animal rights protest? What of anti-hunting campaigns? How about the anti-austerity protests or anti-war marches? If we go down this line, there really is nothing to stop future governments finding anything politically awkward to which this approach could not be taken. There will be no means of protest that might possibly have any effect on the issue at hand. By castrating the power of the protest, they render all protest of no value.

Regardless of our view on the rights and wrongs of abortion, it surely cannot be right to restrict the right of others to disagree. It is also short-sighted to disallow tactics that may cause others to change their mind. It sets a dangerous precedent for all forms of protest and reduces protest to a valueless act. If it is politically expedient to do so, there is no reason such powers couldn't extend to any protest on any issue. The policy is a bad one and the precedent it will set is even worse.

Friday, 7 August 2015

I like Jeremy Corbyn but on this one thing I simply cannot agree

I'm going to go on record - I really like Jeremy Corbyn. He is not some archaic throwback to 1970s Labour politics but a politician who, on a wide number of issues, has proven himself several decades ahead of the curve. He is reconnecting with long lost Labour core voters as well as reaching swathes of young people who have grown tired of bland, centrist politicians who stand for next to nothing. He has achieved this without spin and slickness but rather by speaking his mind based on a set of political principles that he has communicated clearly and held consistently.

Jeremy Corbyn really is my sort of candidate. When I see how in tune he is with public opinion, I am not particularly surprised. He is pro-nationalisation of public services, he is in favour of high tax on the wealthy and considers this a good way to bring down the deficit, he is for rent controls and overhauling the private rental sector, he sees little value in upgrading trident, he backs the living wage, he is against tuition fees and has generally been on the right side of every suggested military intervention over the last few decades. On all these issues, I am in agreement with him. I really do share many of his core convictions and I think his explanation re common misconceptions surrounding his candidacy are spot on.

But there is one area on which I simply cannot agree and which sticks in my craw. There may be more than one such issue but, if there are, his opinions on them are not being widely reported. Nonetheless, there is one particular issue that stands out as something of a blind spot. In fact, I would go as far as to say it is an inconsistency from a man who has been, in almost every other respect, unimpeachably consistent on his guiding political principles. That issue is his unwavering support for the IRA and his staunch refusal to condemn their actionsThere are several reasons why I find this a problem. 

First, as a man wedded to the concept of direct democracy, it is apparent he does not apply this principle to the Northern Irish context. It has always been my basic position that so long as the majority wish to remain in the Union, the status quo ought to be maintained. The point at which a 60-70% majority wish to unify with the Republic of Ireland, the province ought to change hands (1). At present, the majority (by a c.10% margin) wish to remain within the Union so thus it ought to be. To continue to publicly support the Republican movement in the region, regardless of the democratic will of the people, is to fly in the face democracy itself. The majority in Northern Ireland do not wish to be united to Ireland and, lest we try to co-opt the Republic of Ireland into the voting majority (and as separate state we shouldn't), the majority in the ROI do not particularly want to be unified with the North either. It is a limited number, a minority within the region of Ulster, who are pressing for Irish unification. To support and press their aims is to ride roughshod over democracy itself. This is a patent inconsistency from a man who so supports the will of the people that he wants to reinstate direct election of the entire Labour cabinet by a vote of the party membership.

Second, as a man committed to CND and (rightly) outraged by various recent military interventions in foreign countries, it seems incredible that he cannot bring himself to condemn the more obviously illegal IRA bombing and murder campaigns that took place on home soil. He would be critical of British Army behaviour during The Troubles, he would see issues with Protestant Loyalist groups such as the UVF and UDA, so why can he not accept the same issues regarding the IRA? Most agree that the British Army did not always act reasonably and responsibly in Northern Ireland. All will agree Loyalist paramilitary men were guilty of heinous acts of murder. But neither of these things justify the murderous IRA campaign. In fact, the Loyalist paramilitaries only formed in response to increased IRA action and the British Army were initially sent to the province to protect the Catholic community from the resultant increase in Loyalist paramilitary action. None of this justifies the behaviour of the British Army nor any Loyalist group (the former often acted questionably and the latter should certainly be condemned by all). Nonetheless, to justify one whilst condemning the others seems to be a clear case of justifying the means because you support the ends. Worse still, it actually undercuts Corbyn's (largely correct) opposition to military interventions in Iraq and Syria. Most people agree with  the intended ends of military intervention but found the means both morally questionable and practically ineffective. However, any moral outrage Corbyn may have regarding military intervention cannot be justifiably maintained whilst he refuses to condemn the means undertaken by the IRA in pursuit of their own agenda.

Third, Corbyn has always maintained that talking to terrorists was an essential part of any peace process. On this we can agree. Without speaking to the parties involved in conflict, one can never expect to reach any sort of solution. In the Northern Irish context, this approach formed the basis of the now (largely) successful peace process and power-sharing agreement.

Nevertheless, it is entirely possible to argue that talking to terrorist organisations is a necessary component of any successful peace process whilst simultaneously condemning their activities. Presumably Corbyn would have seen the importance of including the UVF and UDA in such talks despite clearly disagreeing with their agenda and tactics. It is simply reprehensible to allow certain atrocities to pass simply because we are sympathetic to the aims of those who commit them. The right-wing very often do it with military interventions and dealing with certain dictators whilst the left will often turn a blind eye to those advancing some revolutionary cause or in dealing with other despots closer to their position. It is simply intellectually dishonest to decry violence and murder, and especially to claim pacifism as a cause, and yet make allowances for the acts of murder committed in the name of a cause we rather admire. Either it is morally abhorrent to engage in bombing campaigns, murder and "disappear" your victims or it is not. If it is, we cannot simply tolerate those things because they are done in the name of a cause we rather like. To do so is to disrespect the victims and their families in the most egregious way. It is hard to view Corbyn's refusal to denounce the IRA's activities in any other way.

To hear Jeremy Corbyn refuse, five times no less, to condemn the actions of the IRA is a blot on his campaign and a stain on his character. To refuse to acknowledge their behaviour as repugnant - no matter how much he may sympathise with their aims - is nothing short of disrespectful to all IRA victims and their families. It is the sort of refusal that would (rightly) not be OK if it were directed at victims of Islamic State, those who suffered at the hands of the Nazis in Germany nor even the victims of the Loyalists fighting on the other side of the divide within the same conflict. If it is not OK in all these other cases, we surely can't be OK with this being an exception.

Let me say it again, I really like Jeremy Corbyn. I support vast swathes of his policy. But if I could change one thing about his campaign, if I could get him to apologise for just one thing, I would almost certainly make it this.

Notes

  1. This is my basic position on all issues of national self-determination and it applies to Scotland, Wales and any other province that wishes to gain independence or join with another state.

Tuesday, 4 August 2015

MP claims EDOs should be used against teachers who hold traditional views on marriage

It has been reported in The Telegraph and The Independent that the introduction of Extremism Disruption Orders (EDOs) - the latest government anti-terror legislation - will be used against teachers who hold to a traditional view of marriage. A Tory backbench MP has written to one of his constituents and claimed EDOs should be used in "a situation where a teacher was specifically teaching that gay marriage is wrong". Both the National Secular Society and the Christian Institute have criticised the comments. This blog has already highlighted some of the issues surrounding EDOs here and here. For a reasoned explanation of the problems surrounding these recent troubling developments, you can do much worse than read the Archbishop Cranmer blog.

Mark Spencer, backbench Conservative MP for Sherwood, has this to say in a letter to a constituent:
I believe that everybody in society has a right to free speech and to express their views without fear of persecution. The EDOs will not serve to limit but rather to guarantee it: it is those who seek to stop other people expressing their beliefs who will be targeted. Let me give you an example, one which lots of constituents have been writing about – talking about gay marriage in schools.
The new legislation specifically targets hate speech, so teachers will still be free to express their understanding of the term ‘marriage’, and their moral opposition to its use in some situations without breaking the new laws. The EDOs, in this case, would apply to a situation where a teacher was specifically teaching that gay marriage is wrong.
If this case seems like an (ironically) extreme approach to those holding traditional views on marriage, it is entirely consistent with Theresa May's claim: “I want to see new civil powers to target extremists who stay within the law but still spread poisonous hatred..”; and David Cameron's comment: “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 is dangerous territory for the government. We have moved from a position where dissenting opinion was tolerated, to a place where it was not, to a situation where only the active affirmation of state orthodoxy will do. Not only will the government refuse to tolerate anybody who actively opposes gay marriage but they are now also making it virtually impossible to do anything other than affirm it without question. It is now official policy that certain views - specifically traditional views on marriage - are illegal to express. This is totalitarian control of the very worst order.

Aside from the clear issues related to freedom of speech and freedom of thought, this particular case becomes even more ridiculous when one remembers that there are parts of the UK that still uphold the traditional view of marriage. Northern Ireland has yet to pass a gay marriage act which, bizarrely, makes the entire Stormont government guilty of extremism according to our new prescribed definition. Just as ludicrous is the thought that our own government, up until a few months ago, were themselves guilty of extremism according to this new definition. Every Westminster MP that abstained or voted against gay marriage should, presumably, be subject to EDOs in retrospect. Even if the government aren't concerned about retroactive action, those who have never fully affirmed the new prescribed direction must surely be investigated as extremists as they remain belligerently unreformed.

We are told that we must all actively support, without reserve, nebulous "British values". And what are those values? Apparently the affirmation of whatever the government tells us they are. And if we do not assent? We are extremists and fall foul of EDOs; even if you are non-violent, not inciting violence and are in every respect obeying the current law. That is, we can be prosecuted even when - to all intents and purposes - we are obeying the government. It is utterly ludicrous and terrifyingly dangerous.

Saturday, 25 July 2015

Tax, total depravity and why I disagree with R.C. Sproul Jr.

As you will gather from the above embedded tweet, R.C. Sproul Jr is a man with whom I have a lot in common theologically. Yes, we differ on the issue of baptism and we would see things differently regarding polity. Beyond that, we're not far apart theologically. And, as he has helpfully pointed our here, we ought to weigh the views and advice of those from different church cultures and theological backgrounds. Without throwing the baby out with the bath water, we should learn to take the good and leave the bad. In all of that, I am total agreement with him even though, of course, we will differ slightly on what constitutes the good and bad (1).

While we are (broadly) theologically on the same page, politically we are poles apart. No doubt there are areas of agreement (2) but when the man considers Barack Obama as far away from him on the political spectrum as one can get, I dread to think how he would categorise one such as me! Which leads me on to a short conversation I recently had with him on twitter.

It was this I wanted to dig into.

As I have previously commented here and here, the doctrine of total depravity tells me that a society built on philanthropy, charitable giving and the economics of 'trickle down' will not work in the interests of most. The capitalist model is predicated on greed as a motivator. Unfortunately, greed being deemed good is entirely antithetical to the teachings of the Bible. Moreover, if greed is the motivating factor in creating wealth - and if greed is deemed good by society as a result - we can hardly be surprised when that greed extends to seeking to keep as much money to myself as I possibly can. A society that functions on 'trickle down' or philanthropy as a principle for helping the poor fails to account for the base desire to hoard wealth. Examples of companies and individuals using tax loopholes and avoidance schemes serve only to underline the point. The rich - who become so by being told their greed is good - merely take that view to its logical conclusion and do all they can to keep their amassed wealth and do very little for the poor.

For some on the left, more often than not the secular left - though I may often (but not always) agree with their outcomes - there is far too much confidence in the inherent good of man. Total depravity tells me their optimism is more than misplaced, speaking against the reality of what we see in the human heart and the world all around us. I do not see a world full of people who naturally help each other at great cost to themselves (3). For those on the right, more often than not the Christian right in America, they see through this optimism in the inherent good of man. However, they then presume, despite man being inherently selfish and sinful, those individuals who generate wealth will be philanthropic and generous. They motivate individuals through greed - recognising that sinful human nature can be harnessed this way - but with a ludicrous sleight of hand simultaneously argue these same sinful people will suddenly become generous and philanthropic despite having been motivated to amass their wealth through greed and monetary motivation. It makes no sense and doesn't speak to the reality of a world in which the very rich do all they can to maintain and hoard their wealth.

It would be my contention that because the human heart is sinful we cannot rely on the generosity of rich and wealthy individuals. It is precisely because I believe in the doctrine of total depravity that I cannot see how a low tax system, that relies on philanthropy and trickle-down economics, can possibly work for the good of all. Rather, it makes more sense to recognise that people are inherently sinful. That sinful nature does not suddenly disappear upon the generation of vast amounts of wealth. Therefore, to have a system that imposes redistribution on wealthy individuals seems a far more sensible approach. This allows people to amass wealth whilst simultaneously recognising they are unlikely to share their money for the benefit others.

This brings me back to my twitter conversation. My response to R.C. Sproul Jr's view of economic systems being beneficent if they let you keep your money was this: why not emphasise total depravity and selfishness and assess an economic system by its redistributive effects? His answer was illuminating: because no system can undo total depravity or selfishness entirely we shouldn't even bother trying to mitigate them.

Now, this was surprising. One could argue, using the same logic, that because no system will ever undo total depravity or murder then we shouldn't bother assessing any system based on its efficacy of limiting and preventing murder. He and I share a view on abortion. We would both support a system that limited the proliferation of abortion on demand. But, by his logic, the system shouldn't interfere because it won't undo total depravity or the desires of some to abort children. Unless we can wipeout total depravity and the sin that underlies each and every outworking of it, we must ignore it and allow it to continue. As we can't undo total depravity, and the sins of greed and selfishness, we shouldn't bother to mitigate them and, in fact, should press on with a system that not only allows them but  actively encourages them to thrive. This is madness. As Martin Luther-King said: "morality may not be legislated but behaviour can be regulated. Judicial decrees may not change the heart, but they can restrain the heartless". To paraphrase another comment by the man: it may be true that the law cannot make a person generous, but it can keep him from the sinful outcome of his selfishness and greed, and I think that's pretty important.

One may seek to argue that it's not the same. One may argue that in allowing selfishness we are allowing state theft with a system that steals from its citizens (4). But this strikes me as a weak argument. Jesus and Paul are both clear enough that taxes do not equate to theft (see Mk 12:17 and Rm 13:6f). They are a legitimate part of governance and cannot be equated with sin - unless of course Jesus and Paul were trying to encourage us into sinful behaviour by telling us to pay them! The selfishness and greed inherent in the capitalist system cannot be deemed anything other than sinful; taxes inherent in almost every system are evidently not forms of state sin.

For me, it is my view of total depravity and sinful human nature that tells me we require a system that does something for the poor and needy. Left to our own devices, there would be no measures in place for them at all. In fact, God himself seemed to recognise this tendency and put such measures into the civil law of Israel. Without such laws, human nature was unlikely to ever come up with any sort of solution (or, dare I say, truly care about it). When the Early Church in Acts 2 were living as they ought under the gospel, we don't see amassed wealth and no giving. We see something much closer to an uneforced version of Socialism. But we must recognise that those who aren't under the gospel, who aren't regenerate and don't have the Spirit of God dwelling in their hearts and changing their desires, aren't going to act like this voluntarily. Hoping that they will is simply pie in the sky. It is for that reason I believe the state is duty-bound to redistribute wealth through a fair system of taxation.

None of this is to turn anyone away from R.C. Sproul Jr - I really do hope this doesn't come across that way. I honestly did mean what I said at the beginning. R.C. Sproul Jr. is a man with whom I agree on so much. I find his blog helpful in many ways. On lots of theological and church issues I think he often gives good counsel. I, frankly, wouldn't engage with him at all were that not the case. I see this as an example of the very principles he outlines here. Only, now, we're not talking specifically about theological and ecclesiastical issues, but political ones. Nonetheless, I suspect if we ever were to meet and become friends, he and I would agree not to "get [our] eschatology from [our] dispensational friends" but I would certainly be the friend from whom he wouldn't get his political or economic insights.

Notes
  1. For example, I favour congregational polity, independency and credo-baptism. But on the doctrines of grace, the ordo salutis, soteriology and any number of other theological areas there would almost certainly be a great deal of agreement. I read his blog and often find it very helpful.
  2. He and I share a definite and clear view on the issue of abortion, for example. 
  3. Whilst there are individuals like this, they are often notable because of their scarcity
  4. This is an argument R.C. Sproul Jr. has made before (see here)

Monday, 20 July 2015

Tim Farron, illiberalism, bigotry and Evangelicals

This last week I have been on my yearly pilgrimage to Llandudno. It's not so much a site of religious interest as an opportunity for me to serve with United Beach Missions. It is my nearest Beach Mission centre and it is one of very few with the sort of facilities that mean I can bring my family with me too. 

I have spent the last week standing on Llandudno promenade doing public interviews with people about their faith, asking them to share their stories and pressing them to answer questions and objections people may have about the Christian faith. I have also been engaging with non-Christian holidaymakers (NB: only those who actually want to talk, we're happy enough being told to push off) and sharing with them the Christian message of salvation in Jesus Christ. We've also been out delivering short gospel presentations in open air meetings and engaging in public apologetics.

None of that is to say bully for me. Rather, it is to set in context how truly odd such things have become in modern British society. For, as I reacquainted myself with social media and online news output, one particular news item - or one particular angle that kept reappearing in several different stories - seemed prevalent. The story, insofar as it is newsworthy, was the fact that Tim Farron, newly elected leader of the Liberal Democrats, is a Christian. Not only a Christian, but an Evangelical Christian. Not only an Evangelical Christian, but one who is actually prepared to speak about his faith in public.

Gillan Scott, at the Archbishop Cranmer blog, has given a good summary of how several of these interviews have focused not only on Farron's faith but have pressed particular presumed outworkings of his religious beliefs. Specifically, a Channel 4 News interview with Cathy Newman pushed Farron repeatedly on whether he viewed homosexual sex as sinful. Since then, Labour MP and deputy-leadership hopeful Ben Bradshaw has called Farron's approach to gay rights illiberal. Beyond these, The Times has referred to him as an "illiberal democrat", based on little more than the fact he is an Evangelical, and John Humphries pressed him on his Radio 4 Today programme about whether he prayed about different aspects of his job. Some of this interrogation is legitimate - private views will affect what we do in public (unless, of course, you're happy with a Magic FM in the Chilterns kind of faith) - but several things ought to be said.

First, these interviews have only been conducted and focused this way because Farron is an Evangelical. Although occasionally Tony Blair was asked about his faith, very little was ever made of it. David Cameron likewise is asked very little about his Christian beliefs, such as they exist. Moving away from those who identify as Christian in any regard, can you imagine Sajid Javid being asked for his views on particular Qur'anic suras which advocate less than liberal approaches to homosexuals or non-muslim believers? Would Clive Lewis, as chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Humanist Group, be pressed this hard on how his non-belief in a God would affect his moral compass? It is telling that perceptions of what Evangelicalism is persist (1) and such views are often held to a different standard than almost any other view, even among those in parliament.

Second, Tim Farron has been labelled illiberal by those who themselves are being illiberal. Regardless of the rights and wrongs of his position, and despite what Tim Farron's actual views on the sinfulness or otherwise of homosexual sex may be (we may infer what he believes but he hasn't actually said anything about it), Farron has repeatedly stated that he defends equal gay rights. Either, he doesn't think homosexual sex is sinful and he defends gay rights or he does think homosexual sex is sinful but he nevertheless defends gay rights. The first of those may or may not be a liberal position - we all obviously find it easy to make legal or illegal all those things we personally think are right and wrong respectively - but the latter view certainly is liberal. 

At the heart of the liberalism is the view that we don't have to agree, we don't have to be the same, but we can co-exist and defend the rights of one another. It is telling that Ben Bradshaw claims Farron is illiberal for not daring to affirm the moral eminence of homosexuality. In other words, Bradshaw argues you cannot do any other than affirm the moral zeitgeist, all contrary views are verboten. Hardly the words of a thoroughgoing liberal. Farron, on the other hand, defends equality for gay people despite (potentially) personally disagreeing with them. That is surely the same sort of liberal position as anyone who is not a Muslim, and disagrees with swathes of Islamic theology and praxis, yet doesn't believe Islam must be forcibly renounced by legal dictate. True Liberalism defends your entitlement to your view, it defends your equality in law, despite our disagreeing over the issue at hand. It is utterly wrong to suggest Tim Farron is illiberal for (potentially) disagreeing with homosexuality but defending homosexual rights in law. It is surely illiberal to say he cannot hold such a view. 

Farron was absolutely clear that "to understand the Christian faith is to understand we're all sinners". It is evidently not his view that, as we're all sinners, we should all go to prison. It is clearly not his view that, as we're all sinners, none of us should have any rights in law. Even if his view on homosexual sex (yet to be stated) is that it is sinful, it is evidently not the case such a view necessarily means he would do anything other than defend the rights of gay people in law. Even the Conservative American Evangelical writer Tim Keller, some while ago now, argued "you could believe homosexuality is a sin and still believe that same-sex marriage should be legal". Whilst that is not his own view, Keller reported that while many Christians "still believe homosexuality to be a sin, they don’t think the government should put that belief into law for the nation." There is every reason to presume Tim Farron holds to something akin to this Anabaptist position as described by Keller.

It is interesting to me that Farron has been pilloried, not even so much for his views (though that is certainly illiberal) but for his presumed position. The media have decided what they believe Evangelicalism stands for - regardless of the range of views even within this subset of Protestantism - and are gunning for a man based upon their own presumption rather than his actual position. This position is not necessarily the position of the man on the street. It is one pressed by media outlets.

As I was out on the streets of Llandudno, as an openly Evangelical Christian, we were generally not received with complete scorn. Those who didn't want to talk, didn't talk. Those who did, spoke politely and often disagreed with us (which is to be expected, those are the people we are generally trying to reach). When we disagreed, we spoke together about why and we had a reasonable discussion about the issues. Some people seemed to move closer to our view, some people didn't. At the end of each discussion, nobody fell out, many were glad to have the conversation (even if we didn't end up agreeing together) and nobody was forced to say, believe or do anything. We sometimes engaged with Atheists at the opposing end of the believing spectrum to us. It was a triumph for liberalism. Two opposing views who could, in the end, disagree strongly and yet remain genial. Nobody forcing anyone else to believe what they don't believe and nobody taking such offence at opposing views that police involvement or legal proceedings had anything to do with either one of us.

It seems to me that illiberalism is a charge thrown around whenever somebody voices a view that someone else doesn't like. It is incredible that someone can suggest, as Cathy Newman in her Channel 4 interview tried to infer, it is impossible for a Christian to be a liberal because they may hold illiberal values. But the essence of liberalism is defending such views even as we may disagree with them. If Newman is correct, then liberalism is not about defending alternative views but rather about insisting on the affirmation of prescribed state orthodoxy. For Newman, liberalism is authoritarianism. Up is down. Good is bad. It is Newspeak in every conceivable way. Beware the charge of illiberalism. One may be a bit more illiberal than our clarion cry suggests. 

I am not a Liberal Democrat but I can spot a witch-hunt when I see one. It doesn't take a genius to see that Tim Farron, irrespective of his political views, is being hounded for being an Evangelical Christian. It matters not whether he defends gay rights. It makes no difference if he upholds religious plurality. It is of no importance whether he has credible view on tax and spending. He is an Evangelical and has thus been branded a bigot. Much like the cry of illiberalism, we should be careful what we use as our rallying cry. If bigotry is defined as "intolerance of those who hold different opinions to oneself" [source: Google Dictionary], dismissing somebody politically as an Evangelical bigot - without engaging with what they say, think or do - rather, at best, smacks of the pot calling the kettle black.

Notes

  1. The Times comment that Tim Farron believes "every word of the Bible is literal truth" is clearly misleading to those who do not understand the doctrines of infallibility or inerrancy. It shows a naive ignorance of how the Bible was written and the various types of literature it contains, grossly misinterpreting anything Farron has actually said. Nevertheless, because he's Evangelical and we all know what that means, it seems not to matter.

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Should we extend Sunday trading: our answer shows what we value

When the right-wing Archbishop Cranmer blog lines up right alongside The Guardian, USDAW, several Labour leadership candidates and TUC General Secretary Frances O'Grady one knows something has gone awry. In this case, it is George Osbourne's latest plan to extend the Sunday trading laws. It seems left and right, Christian and non-Christian alike believe the move to be less than excellent.

First, lest we forget, let's remember that the government introduced a short-term measure to extend the Sunday trading laws for the duration of the London Olympics. As Gillan Scott remembers well, "voices from the Church of England along with various others raised the concern that this was the first step to them being permanently scrapped." Nonetheless, a response was sent as recently as April to the Keep Sunday Special campaign assuring them that the government had no plans to extend the Sunday trading laws. To be precise:
I am writing on behalf of the Prime Minister... 
I can assure you we have no current plans to relax the Sunday trading laws. We believe the current system provides a reasonable balance between those who wish to see more opportunity to shop at large stores on a Sunday, and those who would like to see further restrictions. (Abigail Green, Political Correspondence Manager, letter dated 20th April 2015).
Given such assurances, it seems odd that the extension of Sunday trading laws are now being mooted once again, this time on a permanent basis, by George Osbourne. I wouldn't quite want to say the quoted letter represents a lie but it does rather suggest assurances from the office of Prime Minister aren't worth the paper they are written on. Certainly it is an assurance that is hard to square with Osbourne's new proposal and his comment that "Even two decades on from the introduction of the Sunday Trading Act, it is clear that that there is still a growing appetite for shopping on a Sunday”.

So what if shops open up a bit longer on a Sunday? Let's be clear why this represents an issue. The issue is not primarily one of faith. Traditional sabbatarians are perfectly able to keep the Sabbath themselves (i.e. not using shops and services on a Sunday that cause others to work) without restricting the freedom of others to do so if they wish. Moreover, as outlined here, there is no particular reason to tie the Sabbath command to Sunday and thus it is possible to have a day of rest another time in the week. So, if not an issue primarily revolving around sabbatarianism, why does this represent a problem? There are three basic reasons.

First, it is detrimental to the families of shop workers. Though it is possible for shop workers to have another 'day of rest' in lieu of Sunday, it is often not possible for them to have any time with their families on any other day. Saturday and Sunday used to afford families time together. Traditionally, Saturday was nuclear-family time whilst Sunday was church-family time. Weekend opening has been in force for decades and Sunday trading possible since 1994. Children are on ever-increasing schedules of extra-curricular clubs, additional tutoring and nightly homework with parents faring little better. Sunday used to be a time for families to relax before beginning the hectic weekly routine. Sunday trading already eats into such family time and extending it further can only make matters worse.

Second, it is detrimental to Christian workers. Though there is no scripture command for us to meet together on Sunday (see here), this has traditionally been the day Christian churches meet. Moreover, despite being free to meet on any other day of the week, it is clearly the case that the majority of people enjoy weekends off and thus Sunday becomes a good day for most to meet. Sunday trading laws make it particularly difficult for Christian shop workers, and even some of those in higher managerial positions in the retail sector, to meet with other believers. Though we are free to meet on any given day, Christians are still commanded to not "neglect our meeting together" (Heb 10:25). As most churches meet on Sunday, the trading laws make this nigh on impossible for Christian workers.

This isn't just an issue of Christian workers being able to meet with fellow believers. Many good Christian people cannot enter the retail sector because it will force them to choose between church commitment and work. This happened to me some years ago. I applied for a managerial role with one particular supermarket and, as my CV obviously indicated, I was involved heavily in church. I made it to second-round interview and was asked directly about my desire to work on Sunday. I made it very clear I was prepared to work 6 days a week, and would even work slightly longer hours if need be, to avoid Sunday working so that I could attend church. Unsurprisingly, I was not invited back. Extension of Sunday trading laws will force some to choose between feeding their family physically and feeding their soul spiritually.

Thirdly, it is a measure of government policy and what they value as important. George Osbourne cited research which claimed that extending the laws by just 2 hours in London would create 3000 extra jobs and £200m in extra income. The driving force behind the measure is monetary. It is a placing of the national economy over and above the health of the family unit. It is a desire to put markets ahead of the needs of the workers propping them up. What is more, the research cited by the Chancellors seems questionable given that during the relaxation of Sunday trading laws during the London Olympics retail sales fell by 0.4% overall and as much as 20% being reported by some smaller retailers.

This is an ideological position being touted by the government where growth in GDP is considered the summum bonum of British existence. The workers are simply there as wealth creators to prop up market performance. Gillan Scott argues, to paraphrase Jesus, "the markets were made for man, not man for the markets". Whilst I don't agree markets particularly serve the interests of people, he is right that we were certainly not created as market-fodder. As Frances O'Grady rightly puts it "We need a better economic plan than asking people to spend another day of the week putting debt on their credit cards".

It is questionable whether the measure would, in actual fact, increase GDP. Nonetheless, the question is primarily not one of faith nor one of growth. The question is what do we value as a society. If increasing GDP is all there is, and it can be proven the measure would strengthen the economy, a solid case can be made for relaxing the law. If the family unit, workers rights, the ability of Christian people to practice their faith, Christians in the retail sector, spiralling costs related to stress  brought on by high expectations and increasing hours and other non-monetary concerns really matter, then perhaps we should consider not only keeping the laws as they are but restricting them further still.

At the heart of this move is the rampant capitalist consumerism that we have seen at large since the 80s. The banking crisis should have been warning enough that untrammeled greed is not, as Gordon Gekko famously averred, good. If it is not good in the banking sector, for those who have vast amounts of money to spend, how much worse is such thinking for those who will be encouraged to rack up increasing debts buying goods they frankly don't need. What is for sure is that buying those goods you really don't need can certainly wait until Monday and nobody will be more grateful for your minuscule attempt at restraint than the working parents who can finally spend a day with their children.

Thursday, 2 July 2015

Changing the definition of child poverty: Right move, wrong motive and mendacious cover

Much has been made of David Cameron and Iain Duncan Smith's latest proposal to alter the definition of child poverty. The current definition states a child is living in poverty if their household income is less than 60% of the median average. Gordon Brown first pledged to do away with child poverty, based on the old measure, but now David Cameron promises the same by altering the definition of the term.

First, let me say where I agree with Cameron. The current definition of child poverty is a nonsense. It is clearly true that in times of recession and depression, where median income falls, child poverty falls right along with it despite that same household having less money. Frank Field has also argued along similar lines. If the measure is simply to determine whether children are doing worse than average in any given year, then the measure does what it claims. If the idea is to determine whether children are better of in real-terms than they were before, then the measure is deeply flawed.

Nonetheless, this is where my agreement with Cameron's plans start and end. I have no issue with a change in definition per se. I do, however, object to both the timing and motive of the move as well as the supposedly superior definition being offered.

First, the timing. It will come as no shock to anybody that statistics due out this month are likely to show a significant increase in child poverty. There can be no doubt that this move has been prompted by such unhelpful numbers for the government. The Prime Minister had just over five years to tackle this problem of definitions but has only been prompted to do so now. All but the most naive  political observers will surely conclude this is a prime example of reality not backing up government plans thus the government seek to alter the statistics.

Second, the new definition proposed by the government is hardly an improvement on the old. In fact, I would go as far as to say it is worse. Rather than focus on household income, Cameron and Duncan Smith suggest we focus on 'life chances'. Instead of determining poverty levels on the basis of actual poverty, they will instead focus on things such as worklessness, educational attainment, drug dependency and family breakdown. Never mind the fact that, under certain circumstances, worklessness doesn't always make one worse off than those in work (1), it is clearly possible to have low educational attainment and make quite a lot of money, drug abuse is often rife (though hidden) amongst the middle-classes and family breakdown does not necessarily imply low income. Despite the flaw in the current definition, the existing measure at least looks specifically at income levels. For what is poverty if it is not linked to the money in your pocket?

A much better (and more creative) definition of poverty is obviously in order. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation offers one such measure. Rather than base their definition on median income (which is liable to change and throws up obvious anomalies) or 'life chances' (which is double-speak for ignoring how much money you actually have), they use a Minimum Income Standard (MIS). This is the minimum income - set by the public, ratified by experts and updated annually - according to costed basic essentials for families with children. This provides a moving measure according to current levels of income whilst not tying the definition to median incomes that will change during times of recession.

Worse than the timing and new definition, however, is the motive behind this move. This is not simply a case of government, once again, massaging figures. Rather, this move is now intended to soften opinion for further benefit cuts to be announced next week. First in line for the chop is working tax credits, largely paid to 'in work' families not given enough by their companies to raise them above the current poverty measure. In one fell swoop, families will have money taken away from them, in the form of tax credits, and simultaneously told that child poverty levels have improved because the measure will take no account of their income. If it be flawed to measure child poverty according to median income because it falls during times of recession, it is down right mendacious to use that as a basis for altering the definition of poverty whilst simultaneously revoking supplementary income for those working in the lowest paid jobs.

Very few will argue that child poverty does not need addressing. However, the way to address it is not to define it away and measure it in anything other than monetary terms. Nor, as Alison Graham from the Child Poverty Action Group pointed out, can any moral mission involve "taking away tax credits for our poorest children, no serious plan for the low-paid begins with making them poorer by cutting their tax credits”. Even if we concede that 'life chances' are a better measure of poverty, surely we can't ignore the glaringly obvious fact that income-levels and life chances are closely linked.

I am reminded that this is very often our approach to sin. If we simply define it away - saying what God calls sin is not actually sin - then our problem is gone forever. Yet, the solution to sin is not to so define it that we can pretend it's not there. The solution to sin is to actually get rid of it but, like poverty, that is easier said than done and not something we can do simply by our own hard work. The means of doing that is by coming to Jesus Christ in faith and having God remove it from us (2). Whether we want to admit it or not, we cannot define our way out of our problems. Whether sin or poverty, the solution must lie in actually tackling the problem by first defining what the problem really is. It is only once we accept the issue, according to a credible definition, that we can really begin to find a solution. 

The solution to child poverty is not to pretend its not there. It's not to measure it against things that define it away. It is to accept that no money makes for poverty. Only when we finally accept poverty is a lack of money which impedes life chances (not the other way around), can we begin to improve life chances by solving the issue of households with no money.

Notes

  1. Consider those in work on part-time and zero-hours contracts. Compare inner-London council house subsidies/private landlord subsidies and child benefits to those elsewhere in certain low-skilled jobs receiving tax credits.
  2. That is not to say we no longer sin. Rather, that our sin is no longer counted against us because it will have been punished in Christ

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

When are the covenant signs appropriate for children?

There has been a conversation doing the rounds regarding polity, ordinances and the place of children within the church. Jonathan Leeman, of 9Marks, started it with this. Mark Jones, writing at Reformation21, countered from a Presbyterian perspective with this. Tom Chantry shot back from a baptist stance with this. Finally, Andrew Wilson - at ThinkTheology - rounds up the whole debate with this.

The main debate centred around a question sent to the 9Marks mailbag. Leeman answered in the context of a discussion between father and daughter:
Daughter: Daddy, am I a Christian?
Me: If you’re repenting of your sins, and putting your trust in Jesus, then yes.
Daughter: I am.
Me: If you are, then praise God! Keep doing that, sweetheart!
Daughter: Can I get baptized?
Me: At some point, honey. Right now, while you’re young, let’s continue to learn and grow. We’ll think about this more when you are older. I want you stand on your own two feet as a follower of Jesus, and not just believe these things because I do. But I’m so glad you want to follow Jesus with me! This is the most important decision you’ll ever make. There’s no one better than him.
Mark Jones responded (in part) this way:
His words, “if you are” (the second time), are regrettable. “Since you are” - based on the judgment of charity - would be a more appropriate response to such a wonderful declaration by a child, in my view.
Does anyone else think the daughter might be really confused after this conversation as to whether she is a Christian or not? She believes she meets the conditions for being a Christian, but she is told she can’t be baptized. Why? Because the church refuses to formally affirm her (child-like) faith. In short, she has to “prove” herself.
From this,  Jones goes on to list four questions - all valid and worth thinking about - and proceeds to explain how (he perceives) baptists and presbyterians differ in answer to them. Andrew Wilson summarises Jones' position this way: 
Presbyterians are confident, reassuring, pastorally sensitive fathers, and Baptists can’t even teach their kids to pray the Lord’s prayer without what-iffing about it. Presbyterians are Lloyd George (“Do it now!”), and Baptists are Asquith (“Wait and see.”) Mark Jones has been much to winsome to put it like this, but that’s certainly the direction it is pointing. How can someone be a Baptist and a good parent at the same time?
As a counter to Jones, Tom Chantry says:
I know there is a theological answer to give, but our concern here seems to be to somehow avoid confusing the kids, so what’s the simple answer? “You’re a Christian, but you cannot come to the Christian feast”? “We’ve baptized you, but now we’re barring you from communion”? We Baptists have a word for that: “excommunication.” It seems a tad harsh, but then, we wouldn’t want to confuse the kids, so let’s use plain language.
The truth is, once we get past the rhetoric, any serious paedobaptist still has to work out how and when to answer the very questions which Jones assigns solely to the Baptists – questions like “Does this toddler really believe in Jesus, or would she also believe in fairies if her mother told her to?” and “How exactly do we say that this little boy is a ‘disciple,’ which Jesus told us involved taking up a cross’?” Sorry, folks, but your baptismal program is not a get-out-of-awkward-conversations-free card.
At least when I baptize someone, I immediately and automatically admit him to the Table. Like, you know, they did in the book of Acts.
Summing up the whole discussion, Wilson states: 
Both paedo- and credobaptists distinguish between the faith commitment of a five year old and the faith commitment of a thirty-five year old, even though we all know that the five year old often perseveres in faith, and the thirty-five year old often doesn’t. For the paedobaptist, communion is delayed until (probably) the teenage years, at confirmation; for the credobaptist, it is baptism which is delayed; but both regard the full receipt and practice of the covenant signs as inappropriate for a young child. In that sense, Anglicans, Baptists and Presbyterians all have the same theological position when their child asks them Jonathan’s question, whether or not it’s what they actually say.
It is here I would like to take the discussion on and depart from what seems to be something of a consensus. I think it is entirely possible to give assurance to our children without presbyterian overconfidence (though still refusing to grant communion) nor uncertain "baptist what-iffing".

Let's start with Jonathan Leeman's imagined conversation. I completely sympathise with Mark Jones' view that the second "if you are" is thoroughly regrettable. The profession of the child is as clear a profession of faith as that of the Ethiopian Eunuch or the Philippian jailer. It strikes me that the only credible response to such a profession is - especially in light of the conversation being in the context of seeking baptism - to give thanks to God and proceed in baptising your child.

We must be clear on the criteria for baptism. It is not works or fruit. Rather, the criteria for baptism is a credible profession of faith. The example given by Leeman strikes me as perfectly credible. The only reason to ask your child to wait is if you have some solid reason, as their parent, to doubt the credibility to their profession. In that case, the correct response would not be "let's wait and see" but rather "we are convinced you are not yet a believer for X, Y and Z reason. Therefore, it wouldn't be appropriate just yet". As Leeman offered no such qualification in the conversation, one can only presume the profession is genuine. To not go ahead and baptise on that basis is to stop your child from obeying a command of Christ (which, given that is what they are requesting to do, is surely some evidence of the fruit of change as well!)

In line with Chantry, and against the Presbyterian position, once I had baptised my child - on the strenghth of their profession of faith alone - I would then permit them to partake of communion. If they are professing faith, have been baptised according to the command of Christ then there can be no reason to deny them admission to the communion table. Like any other baptised church member, unless there is some evidence of ongoing unrepentant sin, what possible reason is there to deny either ordinance?

Let me pick up on Andrew Wilson's comment regarding the faith of a 35 year old compared to a 5 year old. I would make no such distinction. In fact, it strikes me that it flies in the face of various biblical passages to differentiate between faith based on little more than age. If we insist on a "wait and see" approach to children, we must at least be consistent enough to expect the same from adults. If we are happy to take a credible profession from an adult as the sole criteria for baptism, and hence admission to the communion table, it is right and proper to do the same for a child.

To not do this, we can end up creating an unnecessary lack of assurance in our children and potentially crush the faith of some. Certainly the Presbyterians face the same problem in that they deny communion to children. If anything, the Presbyterian is in a worse position. The baptist position advocated by Leeman is at least consistent in doubting the covenant position of the child and therefore denies the ordinances on that basis. The Presbyterian faces the difficult balancing act of insisting the child belongs to the covenant community whilst simultaneously denying them one of the ordinances that belongs by rights to all those in the covenant. Nevertheless, we must be clear on what admittance to the covenant is based upon and how we decide anyone - child or adult - can be deemed a member of the covenant community.

If a credible profession of faith is the base criteria - and I would argue on the baptist position it is - then a credible profession of a child means they are a member of the covenant community. And, if a member of the covenant community, entitled to partake of the ordinances given by Christ to such members. It strikes me as wholly appropriate to then baptise children based on such credible profession and to admit them to the Lord's table once they have been baptised.

Of course, we cannot overlook the inevitable "what if they fall away?" question. But let's not pretend that only pertains to children. Anyone who makes a profession may fall away, child and adult alike. If we then only baptise those who we are certain will not fall away, which one of us would have ever been baptised at the point of our request? In fact, such a line of reasoning leads almost to the Gospel Standard position where many folk never got baptised because they could never be 100% certain they would not fall away. Even after decades of Christian service and clear fruit, the small nagging doubt seemed to override the patent reality of a ongoing practiced faith. We either baptise on a credible profession or otherwise we are tied to the search for fruit or a certain level of assurance that this person will not fall away. The latter position certainly has no biblical warrant, gives the impression that we are counting inclusion in the covenant based on works and can lead to a lifetime of "waiting and seeing" that never quite meets our undisclosed standard of certainty.

This is not a theoretical discussion for me. I grew up in a credo-baptist home and became a Christian aged 6. I certainly made a profession before this age but lacked assurance. My dad took my lack of assurance as a sign I may be a believer, but it was not entirely clear. By age 6, I not only professed faith but had assurance of that faith as well. Had I so requested, I am quite certain my parents would been happy to let me be baptised. Incidentally, it was the strict and particular baptist church in which I grew up that led me to believe I could not request baptism until I was older and I did not do so until my mid-teens, despite being certain I was a believer. To be fair to the church, I don't know what their response would have been had I requested baptism much sooner but I was under the sense that I could not ask until later (though, not doubt, this is something I probably inferred). My faith has clearly proven true, had I requested baptism aged 6 is it really fair - despite my inclusion in the covenant community by faith - for the church to deny me the the blessings of the ordinances given by Christ? It strikes me the church, had I made such a request, would be the only ones stopping me from fulfilling a clear command of Jesus that I was seeking to obey.

To that end, I say the child in Jonathan Leeman's discussion should be baptised. Unless there is solid reason to doubt the profession itself (of which, there is no indication in the discussion), we must surely say that child is a member of the covenant community. And, if a member, then it is sinful of the church to deny the ordinances given by Christ to one who is under no discipline and is simply seeking to do what scripture commands.