God, Power and the Western World

In this blog, I am exploring how traditional views of God have dominated western thinking about the nature of power, sovereignty and systems. I am drawing heavily on three brillaint thinkers: Thomas Jay Oord and his book ‘The Uncontrolling Love of God’, Brad Jersak and his book ‘A More Christlike God’ and my great friend Roger Haydon Mitchell and his book ‘Church, Gospel and Empire.’

 

 

I agree with Richard Dawkins that there is an utter God delusion. But I disagree with him utterly about the nature of that delusion, which I will come on to. So much of Western thought has been shaped by “Christianity”, or perhaps more accurately, Constantine“Christendom”, and has very little to do with the person of Jesus of Nazareth. The dominant story, as we have it now, took it’s shape in the fourth century, under the partnership of the Emperor Constantine, and a theologian by the name of Eusebius. At this particular point in history, the message of Christianity was spreading like wild-fire throughout the Roman Empire and beyond. It very much challenged the status quo and the power dynamics of the Empire, calling for people to change the way they thought about who God is (a loving father, not a dominant emperor), to consider all people equal, to undo economic oppression and follow the radical way of love, partnering with God for reconciliation, healing and peace. This view of God didn’t suit the Emperor, nor the philosophy of Empire.

 

UnknownThis allowed an understanding to develop that God is actually quite like a Sovereign Emperor who rules the whole world, a God very much like the one Richard Dawkins describes in his famous book – and why would anyone believe in a “jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully” God like that?! No thanks! But this is the kind of God that Empires depend on. This is the kind of God that those with power through the centuries purported God to be like in order to hold onto their own power, making Jesus the great warrior and God the threatening one to be feared. Constantine understood that harnessing the message of Christianity gave him more control. The church leaders understood that partnering with the empire would mean greater safety and prosperity for themselves.

 

But God is not at all like the caricature painted by Dawkins. As Jesus said, “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.” God is exactly like Jesus. He is the antithesis of a dominant Emperor. He is a loving, kind, creative, healing, perfect Father, who rather than anihilating us for our rebellion, allows himself to be utterly misunderstood and seemingly defeated by the might of Empire, only to overcome it through love, breaking forever, the power of all that stops us being truly human and inaugurating a new way for humanity – what some of us now call kenarchy, but more traditionally referred to as the Kingdom of God (a term which now has so many other difficulties that it needs reinterpreting).

 

If God is exactly like Jesus, then he is essentially kenotic, in other words, he is first and imgresforemost about self-giving, others-empowering love, and therefore he cannot be like the God caricatured by Richard Dawkins, nor can he be a fluffy grandpa, a doting dad, a domineering dictator or an amalgamation of all of these, dressed up as Santa Claus. That means that the Christian scriptures have to be wrestled with and studied carefully with this lens firmly in tact. It also utterly changes the whole idea that Christianity could ever become a “state-religion”, uphold the divine right of kings (or indeed presidents/republics etc that behave in the same ways), or the support the propping up of political ideologies that lead to the oppression of the poor, marginalisation of the other or rejection of any person based on any part of their identity.


For me, the Gospel narrative is not that God made the whole world and we then messed it up, offended his sovereignty and so he needed someone to die in our place so that his wrath could be appeased. No, the narrative is something far more profound and beautiful. Brian Zahnd explains is beautifully in his ‘gospel in chairs’. My faith lies in a God who invested himself in the evolutionary process, creating a world of order and randomness in which human beings emerged, in his image, able to choose how we would relate to God, each other and the environment in which we find ourselves. But rather than choose this way of self emptying, others empowering love, we have time and again made God in our own image of power and self-centred free will. In doing so, we have wrought destruction to ourselves, to one another, to those weaker than ourselves and to the ecological systems in which we live, move and have our being. And this is why we have different versions of God painted through the pages of scripture in our desire to understand what God is like – and we must wrestle with ourselves as we read. What do our interpretations of the bible teach us about ourselves? What kind of God are we looking for?

We had so misunderstood and misaligned our very expectations of what God is like, that he came as a human being, especially as a male, as maleness needs utter redemption from the stereotypes we have created, somehow encapsulating the male and female in one body.

The incarnation is therefore not about God changing his mind about humanity, but about giving humanity the chance to change its mind about who he is and what he is imgreslike. This human Jesus, stood at the pinnacle of the Roman Empire, proclaiming himself the son of God in direct contrast to the empires of the day. But humanity did not like this image of God and so we killed him. But in his death, he took upon himself all that is broken in us and in our world and nullified its power, overcoming death through his endless, self emptying, others empowering love, and released the potential for new hope, creation and life. To me, this is the story of salvation, that out of our own selfishness, we can be re-activated into a place of love, in which we are free to choose to benefit others ahead of ourselves and bring this shalom or wellness to those around us, sometimes seeing miracles and sometimes not, because although God is good and more powerful than any other force or being, shit still happens; and because he is essentially kenotic, he is therefore unable to just intervene whenever he feels like it. He is unable to be untrue to his nature and in Him an uncontrolling love comes first. 

In the end, if you want to believe in a God who is first of all omnipotent, ie limitless in his power, you can find that kind of God in the bible. It’s a bit like needing a dominating form of government, and world order in which you are free, until you challenge the Sovereign. When this happens, the nice, good, caring government has unclear about copyright on google imagesbehind it the immense threat of the nuclear bomb, which I suppose you could liken to hell. Our view of leadership, our view of how government should behave, our view of the role of the state is actually pretty messed up, and I am arguing that it is messed up because it was shaped by a very warped view of God, who mostly cares for us, but has the great threat of eternal punishment for those who don’t believe quite correctly. That is not to say that all will be part of a heavenly future, but I would say that those who pursue the way of love are actually following the way of Jesus far more than those who follow the way of their version of the truth. The truth will set us free, but the truth is: (as Belinda Carlisle – that great theologan told us) in heaven, love comes first!! So when people pray the Lord’s prayer – ‘thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven’ – this looks very little like our current practices of government or nation states and the ways they behave in the earth.

But if self-giving,  others-empowering love is the ESSENTIAL nature of God, then this must images-1change the way we understand everything. The glory of God is not found in might, power, dominion and sovereignty. No, it is found in his cruciform nature. And if the earth can be filled with the glory of God rather than the ‘glory of empire’, where love is the antidote to fear, joy the antedote to debt, goodness the antedote to control through law and peace the antedote to violence, then together we might begin to taste a little bit of heaven.

How might we live and organise ourselves differently? How might we live politically? How might we shape economics? How might we heal and educate? How might we care for each other and the environment? How might nations relate to one another if love and not autonomous power comes first? There is a revolution much more profound than the violent overthrows of the past. It is the revolution of love.

My Manifesto for the UK Post Brexit (Part 3 – Defence and International Development)

Defence and International Development
Based on the facts that i) many of our military interventions have not proved to have the outcome we had hoped for, ii) the nature of the risks we face has changed, iii) we must build positively for peace, there will need to be an overhaul of our previous approach to defence.
I would seek to re-orientate the armed forces to be a peace building force, using the excellent history of discipline and service. This would be combined with an international development policy, building effective partnerships with developing nations to serve other nations in establishing infrastructure, transport routes, energy systems, sanitation systems, health hubs and schools. I would support a more collaborative approach with 3rd sector international development cooperatives to help support initiatives led by local communities. It is far better to collaborate and build than to tear down and destroy. These teams would actively work with progressive governments, seeking to promote the rights of oppressed people and communities, providing protection where necessary to allow people to flourish.
The UK needs to lead the world in nuclear disarmament, rather than renew trident and use the incredible engineering skills of companies currently involved in the manufacturing of weapons to turn their attention to other forms of engineering, like the creation of renewable energies for a greener and more sustainable future.

My Manifesto for the UK Post Brexit (Part 2 – Politics and Economics)

Here are some thoughts on Political Structures and the Economy:

 

Political Organisation

I would want to legislate Proportional Representation for a fairer reflection of the political will of the people, with coalitions becoming the norm, leading to a more collaborative and conciliatory form of politics, involving real engagement with and empowerment of local people in their communities.

Political conversations in local communities will mean that politicians and public servants do not come up with good ideas and “do things to people”, but rather learn to form environments of participatory leadership where co-commissioning becomes the norm. “No decision about me, without me, is for me.” (Leeds Poverty Truth Challenge). This is part of the new politics we need.

Sovereignty can be understood in several ways. From my perspective there are two competing narratives that frame the debate. Sovereignty can be the right to self-govern, to be in charge of our own future and rule in such a way to ensure that this happens – that is to insist that our own freedoms matter the most and we may have to suspend the freedom of others to ensure this happens. The alternative view of freedom is rooted in the idea of ‘essential kenosis’, i.e. that true sovereignty is not the domination of the other, but a self-giving, others-empowering love. I would see this latter definition of Sovereignty to be the basis of a more human kind of leadership. Leadership is something which is from among, rather than something which is lorded over others.

I would continue with town and county councils run on this basis, with two nationally elected houses, one based in the north and the other in the south.

Economy

I would start with the breaking up of banks into smaller, regional units, encouraging a multiplicity of options, especially encouraging credit unions and cooperatives. This is a well thought through idea of what to do with RBS, as championed by the New Economics Foundation. This will ensure local lending for local people, businesses and initiatives which will lead to a more sustainable system, more similar to the German or Danish model, both of which have ridden financial storms more easily than those where larger and centralised banks are allowed to dominate the market.

there needs to be a recognition that in all of economic history that we know of, only 3 countries have ever been in surplus and each case this was in a very unusual circumstance and for a short time. The obsession with balancing the books is a nonsense. (A national economy is nothing at all like a household! For instance, we do not have a bank in our back gardens that can print money, nor do we have rich friends living with us, to whom we give special privileges whilst making others work for very little pay, refusing to help them out, but rather telling them they need to have better aspirations and work harder).

A fair society involves creating local environments in which people can work and work pays well, so that a hard days work does not still leave someone unable to afford food, shelter and warmth. A fair society means that when you are unable to work or go through a time of hardship, you will be cared for appropriately. We would encourage the formation and strengthening of unions on this basis.

We need an economy that does not allow organisations to have their headquarters in the UK, but put their profits into other nations, whilst avoiding their fair share of taxation. The UK has many reasons to attract companies here, other than low tax rates and if companies wish to hold the UK to ransom, they can go elsewhere. Instead we will build relationships with those companies that will pay a fair and living wage, ensuring a fair share of profits and contribute to the wellbeing of the economy. Trickle down neoliberalism is failing the vast majority of people, and so we will develop this new economy together.

My Manifesto for the UK post-Brexit (Part 1 – Immigration)

I was having a conversation with someone recently and they challenged me to write a manifesto for the UK, to help put a bit of substance to my various thoughts. What follows is by no means a finished article, nor am I likely to do much with it, but I have found it helpful as an exercise and it serves as a starter on a few issues to spark discussion and also to help me shape my own thoughts further.

I am also a white, privately-educated, “middle-class”, married with 3-kids, “christian” male and so I recognise an inability to communicate, except from the perspective of power and privilege – I can’t change this, but I just want to say that I know it means I can’t see very well.

I hope what I have written is founded on the values of self-giving, others empowering love, the desire to build with positive peace and with hope for a fairer society for everyone. I will start with the area that caused so much debate over the last few weeks and has opened up some deep wounds – let’s see where this goes!

Immigration

I recognise this is a very real and important issue and it is not one that we should be afraid to face up to. My approach would be five-fold:

  1. Our education system will look at the damaging effects of empire and colonisation. We will look at the issue of white and male supremacy and work together to break down these deep set corporate worldviews that we find hard to name let alone own up to. We will help our children and communities face up to the bias and prejudice we all live with and learn from organisations, like the NHS that have done much to tackle them. We will encourage an understanding of the ‘other’ and the benefits of inter-culturalism. We will also work with charities like “together4peace” in Leeds to encourage intercultural dialogue and relationships.
  2. We will introduce a basic rate of pay, guaranteeing a fair and living wage for all of £10 per hour (see economy section for how this is affordable – austerity is NOT the only option available to us!). This will encourage people into work and we will ensure good support of small businesses to make this attainable i.e. the government will give means tested grants to businesses to support them in this. In this way it pays to work, but we will not have a society in which we punish or vilify those who are unable to do so, for whatever reason (see later policy on welfare). It will be illegal for any individual or business to employ workers from overseas or the UK for less than this. This must be legislated and so breaches of this will ensure a heavy fine and/or community service. A second offence would lead to a prison sentence. We cannot endure a culture of westernized slavery that leaves areas impoverished.
  3. We will create local jobs, especially in the places in the UK which have felt forgotten. This will come through a restructuring of the banking sector to encourage local investment in local businesses, as seen in Germany and Denmark. Our banking system is far too centralised and remote. Job creation will come through the creation of locally and/or publicly owned energy, utility and transport services. These might be structured in several different ways and therefore will not take us ‘back to the 1970s’ but create alternative and better ways ahead for local communities.
  4. We will allow the free movement of people but not the free movement of capital. It is not possible to have both. Money created in the UK will stay in the UK ie companies who do their business in the UK will pay their fair share of tax, rather than ship their profits overseas. This will include open but monitored borders, so we are clear who is in the UK, from a security perspective. But overall, we would seek to be a country that welcomes those who want to come here (it’s really not as many as we have been lead to believe!), especially those who need our help at times of crisis in their own nations.
  5. We will encourage every person who lives in the UK to be a net contributor to society where this is possible. We openly recognise and celebrate how many of our public services have depended on the great diversity brought by migrants and refugees from all over the world. We recognise that migrants make a net contribution to our society and give far more in terms of money, skills and rich diversity of culture into the UK than they take. We will ensure welfare for all those who need it, but our international development work will ensure we are able to work with countries to help people where they are to build a future of peace and prosperity (see later post on this). 

 

Obviously all of this needs a great deal of fleshing out, but these would be my overarching principles as points for discussion at this stage – I’m sure it is terribly lacking, so go easy on me – I’m looking for a conversation not a battle!

Theology and Power! (Intro)

I am deliberately intersecting this ‘Reimagining the UK series’ with the ‘My Manifesto for the UK post-Brexit’ series – sorry if it gets confusing!

Ok – first of all a disclaimer – this is my limited perspective on some very complex issues. Although I read quite a bit around all of these subjects, and there are some great books I will recommend as I go along,  I come at this from the angle of a diagnostician. I am also a white, privately-educated, “middle-class”, married with 3-kids, “christian” male and so I recognise an inability to communicate as an oppressed or “disempowered” person – because I am not. I occupy a position of power and strength and I know much less today than I knew when I was 18 (I am now twice that age – and therefore still relatively young and naive).

I have learned some extremely important lessons over the last couple of decades. Here are a few of them: Firstly, it is very important to question things. Secondly, it is also fine to be wrong and to fail – we learn from our mistakes. Thirdly, although I am a very future orientated person, sometimes in order to reimagine other possibilities, we need to have an understanding of our journey and face up to our past. Fourthly, our perspectives can change and letting go of previously held ideals and strongly held views can be a painful and humbling process. Fifthly, it is better to seek to understand than to point the finger and judge someone (often out of fear or arrogance) who holds a different perspective. Sixthly – not all perspectives are right or equally valid, but that does not mean we cannot talk about things we disagree with in a kind manner. My hope is not to create an idealized utopia, but to encourage us on a journey that is more loving, kind and hopeful towards a future of positive peace.

I wrote a blog a couple of posts ago, entitled “Reimagining the United Kingdom”. In it, I expressed a view, that much of where we find ourselves as a nation, particularly in the political climate, has been shaped by centuries of theological, philosophical and ontological perspectives, some of which have become the more dominant narratives of our day. I am so grateful for the academic work and light shone by those who have taken the time to unpack some of this and challenged us to look a bit more deeply at our roots and journeys. This will take a few posts to unpack. I will be particularly looking at this from the angle of the christian/Christendom narrative and so if this doesn’t float your boat, please don’t read on!

 

If you are into delving into some of these issues in a bit more depth, I would recommend the following (in no particular order):

Sacred Economics – Eisenstein

Peace Economics – Galtung

People Over Capital – Rob Harrison (Ed)

Economics of Good and Evil – Sedlacek

Post Capitalism – Mason

Church, Gospel and Empire – Mitchell

State of Exception – Agamben

Theopolitical Imagination – Cavanaugh

The Prophetic Imagination – Brueggemann

Disarming Scripture – Flood

The Immoral Bible – Davies

Parables as Subversive Speech – Herzog

Say to This Mountain – Myers et al.

The Politics of Discipleship – Ward

The Fall of the Church – Mitchell

Discovering Kenarchy – Mitchell & Aram (Ed.)

Falling Upward – Rohr

The Uncontrolling Love of God – Oord

A More Christlike God – Jersak