Here is an early morning vlog to end the year – sorry, its slightly longer than usual!
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, “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.
This 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 foremost 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 like. 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 behind 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 change 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.
For those looking for a post about outer space and extra-terestialism, I’m sorry, you’re in the wrong place!
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the possibility of another world, a different kind of future to the dominant story we find ourselves in at the moment. Much of my reading and wondering over the last few years has been about this: Is another world really possible?
I know people have asked this question for generations and for some it has meant creating an alternative story, outside the dominant system in the hope that others will join it. For me, this is obvious in certain religious and political institutions. The same yearning has also led to many wonderful people movements (suffragettes, civil rights, gay rights etc), inventions and change. But nearly always, these catalytic shakings result in commodification and assimilation into the status quo. My good friend, Martin Scott, has written some very helpful and thought provoking things about the nature of people movements of late and I especially like the observation he makes about how such movements rise and fall. First of all they are ignored, then they are ridiculed. When ridicule fails and the movements become more threatening to the powerful elite, the strategy becomes one of hostility and when this fails, they are colonised. Colonisation leads to control.
The danger for any people movement is the acquisition of power. This is based on the old adage that all power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. For me this is held fast by the current reality of the dominant system that holds its power through the triangulation of control through violence (particularly seen in the state of the exception), debt and law (both religious and political, especially when is oppresses or stifles creativity and freedom). But, another good friend of mine, Roger Mitchell, contests that love itself is the most powerful force in the universe and love does not have to be corrupted. If love is the prime choice before power, then power becomes subordinate to love and another world becomes possible (see ‘The Uncontrolling Love of God’ by Thomas Jay Oord).
Another world is possible, but my perspective is that it is only possible for it to be ‘recreated’ from within it. And that involves our eyes being opened to new possibilities and a determination that love must be our prime choice. Once we decide that we are first and foremost about love, it leaves nobody at all on the ‘outside’. It has a different set of priorities to those of the dominant form of power. It involves a new way of being together. Our systems can be transformed once we personalise them and realise that we are part of them. For me, this is the heart of what the christian narrative is all about (ignored, ridiculed, treated with hostility and then colonsied). It awakens the possibility within us, as individuals, communities and nations, of another kind of world, not a separate world within the world. A world where God is not mysterious but known to all as the One of Love, who does not dominate or control but gives love and life freely; not in some Utopian, hippy-like dream, but in the gritty reality and pain of every day life, pouring itself out from the choice of love. This kind of love does not demand uniformity, but calls us deeper into a place of union, a real belonging to the family of humanity in which our choices, values and behaviour become aligned with the hope we carry for the future. Once we decide that our underlying and first value is love, the possibilities ahead are very exciting!
We had a conversation as part of the Love Politics Initiative recently hosted in Silverdale, in which we looked at just how broken language is. So, even in writing this post, I will fall short of what I hope to communicate and recognise that what I write may be misunderstood, misconstrued or misinterpreted.
I left the weekend with three words resonating for me: recognition, rearticulation, reconnection. For me, these three words express what it means for us to recover the public space as a place of real discourse for politics/theology/philosophy/psychology/sociology all of which I believe belong in public and to the masses, not just the few.
Cognition is all about knowing things. Sometimes we can be so sure that we know something or know somebody, but then something happens that utterly changes our perspective or our previous ‘knowing’. We ‘re-cognise’ a person or a situation. We see it differently. Take the famous example of St Paul on the road to Damascus. He encounters something he previously thought he knew about and had boxed in his mind, so much so that he had given his time and energy to try to destroy it. But then he had an encounter with Jesus which was unexpected and utterly shifted what he thought he knew. Suddenly he was blind and realised how blind his ‘cognition’ had been. When his eyes were reopened, he recognised the world and humanity in an altogether different light.
So often I have made up my mind about people or made judgements about them, often based on rumour, hear say or other people’s opinions, but when I actually encounter that person, I recognise they are very different to what I had thought I knew. I wonder how much of the brokeness we find in any given area of social or racial division is based on assumption and ‘knowing’……perhaps when we learn to recognise people different to ourselves, when we know them differently because our eyes see differently, we can find new ways of being together.
I have written previously about the great work going on in Leeds with a shift from talking about multiculturalism to an understanding of interculturalism. It resists the desire for homogenisation and shifts the conversation to one of mutual respect, with a celebration of a “give and receive” way of being together. There is great work in Lancaster though the “East meets West” initiative. Work continues in Ireland in co-educating children across the old Catholic/Protestant divide. Cafes in Israel and Palestine actively encourage Muslims, Jews and Christians to eat together. We are also seeing beautiful stories emerge as various households across Europe welcome refugees into their homes. We must break down what we think we know, so that we can learn to see differently, to re-cognise each other. This breaks down fear, which is always the dividing wall and allows love to drive that fear away.
My friend, Mike Love, who is one of the best thinkers I know, recently wrote an essay on public space. He wrote powerfully about how nearly all our public space, once the domain of the male (it has nearly always excluded the female), is now almost entirely privatised and controlled. He riffed on the need for us to articulate our public spaces. To articulate can have three different meanings. It is used to describe speech that is coherent and eloquent. It has a medical meaning to describe how joints fit together and a third similar meaning in the world of architecture.
Our public conversations are currently not very articulate. Too many voices go unheard or forgotten, not given space to articulate. We have become dislocated. Our physical bodies often never meet with others and so the corporate body has become dysfunctional. The Leeds Poverty Truth Commission has done and continues to do phenomenal work in this area.
Our physical spaces, even the design of our cities and certainly some of the social cleansing we are seeing in some of our big cities is causing further separation. Where are the city planners who might know how to design space that rejoins and heals us? We need to be rearticulated so that we can recognise one another and rearticulate that it is only love that will help us find the future of peace together.
When we learn to recognise the world and all that live in it differently, and are rearticulated through the rediscovery of our shared public space and our language becomes one of healing and reconciliation in place of division and suspicion then we can become reconnected. There is a verse in the bible that I love. St Paul, who has learnt to see the whole world in a completely different way says that Jesus came to reconcile all things to himself through the cross, (not start an exclusive movement). He pulled the whole of the creation back into the flow of love that comes from God. But he also made a way for us all to be reconciled and reconnected. It is in essentially kenotic love (Thomas Jay Oord – ‘The Uncontrolling Love of God”) that we can all find hope for the future. To put that another way, when we understand that God is first love and everything else flows from this love, we find a way for ourselves to be reformed and reorientated in the world. It is in the very act of taking up our own crosses, of not demanding our own ways, of being misunderstood and dehumanised by the ‘system’ that allows us also to be reconciled and reconnected to all things.
A couple of blogs ago I wrote that I believe we need a revolution of love. I believe that repentance IS the revolution we need. And what is repentance? Isn’t it recognition, rearticulation and reconnection? All of these require a dismantling of selfishness, pride, greed, and everything that stops us walking in the way of love; everything that prevents us building the wellbeing of those around us, the world we live in and indeed ourselves! I have personally found through my own encounter with Jesus a continual journey of reorientation in the way of love. Where do we think that we see clearly, but are actually motivated by hate or fear? Who or what do we need to re-cognise? What can we co-create that will enable re-articulation and re-connection/re-conciliation in our neighbourhoods, towns, cities and nations?
110 years ago last weekend, there was a phenomenon that occurred at Azusa Street, Los Angeles, which saw the birth of the Christian Pentecostal movement and forever changed the face of global christianity and society as a whole. In the gatherings and prayer meetings that happened during this time, many people encountered the egalitarian love of God and were utterly transformed by it. In a day and age in which there was still an utter domination of Black men and women by Whites and the general degradation of women of all colours and backgrounds, something incredible unravelled. Suddenly, men and women, blacks and whites found themselves to be equally loved, equally honoured and equally transformed. Sadly, within just a couple of years, much of this free and radical move of God, this outpouring of the Holy Spirit, had become commodified and controlled with the separation of men and women, black and white as entrenched as ever.
What we can recognise, however, is that something had been birthed that was unstoppable. It is without doubt, that one can trace this awakening force all the way through to the bravery of Rosa Parks and the peace-fuelled dream of Martin Luther King. But, I want to argue that between the early 20th century and the time of the Civil Rights Movement, a virus had infected the movement that has ultimately led to it being ineffectual in creating a truly egalitarian society.
In a recent blog I wrote on Christmas, I stated that the Christmas story is not about God changing his mind about humanity, but about humanity reconfiguring its understanding of who God is. So, it was with Azusa Street. The movement of God in the earth, what some people term ‘the river of God’, flows to “bring down rulers from their thrones and exalt those who are humble”, or to “bring the mountains low and raise the valleys up”, creating an equal playing field for humanity. To state this even more clearly: There is a whole new way for humanity to walk in together, which is utterly different from the status quo, where we move from a place in which the power and wealth is held by the few, to a ‘new creation’ of egalitarian grace for all. The Azusa Street ‘awakening’ was not given so that more and more Christians could sing more and more songs for longer and have ever more wonderful experiences. No, it was to begin something that could change the whole of society and put right age-long injustices.
In the flow from Azusa Street into the Civil Rights Movement, something precious was lost and a distortion took place. Azusa Street offered a new way for humanity, a partnership between kenosis and ecstasy. However, a misapplied understanding of Sovereignty through a leadership of domination and control, meant that rather than creating a new dance, to which all could be invited, it was believed that it was only through the positions of power that one could affect change. So, the contemporary critics of MLK may have been onto something when they said that he should not be knocking on the door of power in order to be part of the white man’s game. Rather, the movement could have found a new way of being that they invited all, including the powerful to join in with.
If we take the journey right through from Azusa Street to Obama, even with a black President, the problem still remains. So much hope rested on one man. ‘Yes We Can!’ has become ‘Oh no you couldn’t’. Not because Obama isn’t brilliant (I think he was ace in many ways). Not because his motives were wrong. Not even because he was naive. No, the truth is that real change doesn’t happen from the top. The positions of power are incapable of making the changes that many long to see. Generally the positions are filled with good people, but they find that the power they thought they might have is utterly impotent. They are actually powerless to do the very thing they were elected to the office to do! Otherwise, we would have implementation of Obamacare, and many other injustices put right…..only we are seeing the very opposite of this occur on both sides of the Atlantic.
It is the powers that have to shift and the processes that need to change. The systems are so strong and built on such endemic injustice, violence and control, that they simply cannot shift their ground. If people movements try to get ‘the right people’ into positions of power in the hope that they will bring some kind of salvation, they will be sorely disappointed. We cannot knock on the doors of power to try to gain that power. We must fundamentally see a power shift and redistribution. This requires an entirely different kind of culture and an entirely new politics. It is the movements that must help those in power to make the shift into the new future we are all longing for, rendering the current power structures null and void.
In my last blog post in reimagininghealth.com, I talked about the concept of meta-narratives and how they effect our health and wellbeing. For me the Christmas story is the ultimate meta-narrative (the big story with which I align my life). It changes the idea forever that God is a far off hierarchical, imperial, power-hungry megalomaniac. It eradicates the notion that we must go to him, where he is, in some special sacred space and will only find him if we clean up our act and start behaving in certain ways. No. He comes to us. This story (as JRD Kirk says) is not one of God changing his mind about humanity, but about humanity changing its mind about who God is.
He comes to be with us and changes himself in the process. He becomes utterly human, not some weird, ready-break glowing child, but deeply human and in so doing destroys the stories we have told ourselves about what he is like. He comes to us. He comes right to our very situations, our joys, or triumphs, our brokenness and our shame and says, I AM with you. And if you run away, I’m there with you. And if you turn away, I’m there with you. And if you hide away, I’m there with you. And if you fail, I’m there with you. And if you don’t believe, I’m there with you in your unbelief. Because contrary to the caricature of Dawkins, I am love itself. A love that will pour itself out time and again. A love that is stronger than bitterness, hate and division. A love that is willing to be misunderstood, misinterpreted and misrepresented. This is not the story of a God who slaughters his enemies in order to protect himself and those he holds close (a narrative upon which the nation state is built and uses to predicate the violence it does to others – and if you don’t believe me, then you haven’t read enough history). No, this is a story about a love that will lay its own life down for its enemies and enables us to do the same.
As Steve Chalk says, Jesus never came to start a religion. He came to start a political, social, economic and spiritual revolution. God with us – wherever we are. The God who prioritises the poor, the refugee/marginalised/outcast, the sick, the prisoner, the woman, the child, the environment. The powers have never and will never understand or overcome this light. The promise of the light is peace. Peace on earth. If we embrace the way of love, anything is possible. Even in the midst of all the turmoil in our world this Christmas, I find great hope in the idea of God, who is love, with us in it all. I believe that when we embrace this light and this love as our meta-narrative, as our raison d’être, we find healing for ourselves individually and corporately.