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.

The Myth of the Nation State

Here begins a mini series, which will take a few blogs to get to where I want to go, but please bear with me, as I give some background to where my thoughts are currently!

I had until fairly recently misunderstood what is meant by a myth. I thought it to be a story which lacks truth. This can be the case but is only one of its meanings. It can also describe “a traditional/legendary story which may or may not have a factual basis and is used to explain some part of life.” Or it can refer to “an unproved or false collective belief that is used to justify a social norm.”

If we are going to reimagine the future, we must become more aware of some of the myths we believe to be true and question their basis for having shaped our thinking. I have recently been reading a book entitled ‘Theopolitical Imagination’ by a chap called William T Cavanaugh. It is deeply challenging. Cavanaugh argues that all politics is a practice of our imagination. The state itself, he argues doesn’t actually exist. It exists only in our imaginations. What actually exists are things like buildings, tax forms, border patrols and aeroplanes. “What mobilises these into a project called ‘nation-state’ is a disciplined imagination of a community occupying a particular space with a common conception of time, a common history and a common destiny of salvation from peril’. Our belief in this myth is so strong that a young man (or woman) from a rural village can become convinced that he/she must travel to another part of the world to kill people he/she knows nothing about. (Think on that for a minute or two). We have become reliant on the state for our provision and protection.

The nation state, as we know it, is relatively young, having only found its place in history within the last four hundred years. Cavanaugh argues that the myth was born out of the context of the ‘religious wars’ in Europe (in the sixteenth and seventieth centuries) to ‘save us’ from the ill effects of religion and enable us to live peacefully. The hope being that the borders and flags to which we would give our allegiance would save us from the divisions that plague us. Yet this has not been the case. The borders and flags in fact deepened our sense of the ‘other’ and created barriers where previously there had been less. Cavanaugh would argue that it was the ‘spirit of empire’ that used religion as an excuse for the wars, that was the real culprit. Mitchell would argue, however, that it was a complicit agreement between Church and Imperial powers that lead to the vast blood shed in the 30 years war that in turn gave way to the enlightenment and the creation of the nation state. What’s the point? The point is that the nation state is not our saviour. It is built on exactly the same foundations of empire and employs the same currencies – money, law and violence.

If you don’t believe me, then witness the economic threat of Westminster towards Scotland, or see how much clout the banks and huge corporations play in their lobbying power of government and ability to run the show. Or think about those who are held in the state of exception in our eleven detention centres around the UK alone (plenty of examples in other countries) where law is put aside to maintain the status quo, revealing the true foundation of ‘the law’. Or have you noticed how we now talk of those who die in war as being ‘martyrs’? I am not saying that we shouldn’t remember the lives of those who were given so appallingly in war, but let us also clearly see the undergirding message that strengthens the myth of the nation state. “War brings peace”. ‘dulce et decorum est pro patria mori’…. it is sweet and right to die for one’s country…….

The nation-state project is both waning and failing. But the myth which perpetuates it is incredibly strong and acts as a huge barrier to our imagination of anything different. Peace will not come through a remodelled version of empire. True nationhood will not be recovered whilst configured as states. But there is a hope rising of something different, of new ways of being. Sometimes we have to tear down some mindsets in order to think in new ways……

Kenarchy – the beginning of a series

Yoda_SWSBI was watching ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ with my eldest son a few days ago – love that film. There’s a brilliant bit in which (for those odd ones of you, who aren’t into Star Wars) Yoda (the Jedi Master) is training Luke Skywalker to become a Jedi. Luke catches a glimpse of the future and asks Yoda what will happen. Yoda tells him that the future is always moving, and so it is difficult to see. We live in a moment in time, when so much of what we have taken for granted until now is crumbling around us. The ‘rich west’ is no longer the great power that it once was. The globe is changing. Free market capitalism is failing, democracy is being revealed to be the child of empire that it really is and the nation-state project isn’t working. Yet, at a time when everything is shaking, and uncertainty taints our sense of stability I feel a deep hope that there is a future, which though uncertain on one level, due to the dynamics of human interactions, complex choices and external pressures beyond our control, could be one in which the peace and love that humanity longs for, could be more real.

There’s a guy, I like a whole lot! His name is Walter Brueggemann. One of the things he says is that “we must be unafraid to subvert the dominant realities of our time.” There are things, which we assumeWalter Brueggemann to be true, things deep in our psyche which we hold fast that are not really in line with what it means to be fully human. These mindsets, fit into three main categories – firstly, our paradigm, or worldview, secondly our praxis, politics or how we live and thirdly our personhood, or how we see ourselves. If we don’t face up to some of the ways we think and challenge those things then maybe the future is inevitable……

Over the Christmas period, I always love listening to Handel’s ‘Messiah’. I especially love that famous piece from the book of Isaiah, found in chapter 9 v 6 and 7. It says: ‘For to us, a child is born, to us, a son is given. And the government will be on His shoulders. And He will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of His government and of Peace there will be no end.’

Jesus was born at a moment in history when Caesar Augustus, the first emperor to call himself the ‘Son of God’ was in power, in Rome. He comes onto the scene telling people to ‘Repent, for the Kingdom of God is near’. Repent, change the way you think about God, the world, the way you live and who you are. Think differently about the future and what is possible.

Firstly, He challenges the paradigms of the day. Who is this Messiah you wereimgres expecting? You wanted a warrior? Oh, different kind of warrior am I (I’d love it if Jesus spoke like Yoda!). What do you think it means for this Messiah to be called ‘the human one’ by the prophet Daniel? Who do think God is? You think God is a Sovereign Dominator who needs all to submit to Him? “No”, says Jesus, ‘if you have seen me, then you have seen the Father. I and the Father are one. And I have come as a servant, one who pours out his life for others.” Caesar, the one who calls himself Son of God, has not even begun to understand the nature of God. Jesus declares himself to be God and shatters any other understanding we may have.

Secondly, He challenges the politics. He prioritises those most forgotten and marginalised in society. He is the champion of children, he breaks cultural taboos and promotes women. He goes to the poor and the sick. He associates with those of disrepute. He champions the foreigner and the refugee. He declares a new Houses of Parliamenteconomics in which you either serve money or you serve God. He devalues money to be a resource not a ruling power. He stands in the shadow of temple mount, and declares that ‘if you have seed as small as a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mountain (this whole system established over centuries, which has ended up oppressing and suppressing people) be thrown into the sea, and it would be done.’ At a time when the romans were establishing ‘ecclesia’ as the ruling councils of their cities, Jesus establishes his ‘ecclesia’ made up of a mixed bag of the un-elite, whom he wants to learn how to steward the resources of a city for the good and peace of those who live there. He comes to a contested city, Jerusalem and declares that we are to love our enemies and turn the other cheek…….Shane Claibourne has recently written a phenomenal piece on what Jesus would say to the NRA, in the Huffington Post and it is worth a read.

Prodigal SonThirdly, He calls us to see ourselves differently. To be those who carry light into dark places, hope beyond hope to those who have lost their way in disillusionment, peace to those who are torn apart and warring, love to those filled with hate and grace to those who are broken and rotting. He calls us to recover our humanity, to become like him, the human one. To be those who forgive and so find forgiveness and freedom. To be free from all that which makes us less than human (aka sin), that which destroys ourselves, relationships, other people or the planet.

And so, in challenging the paradigms of the day, the politics (and economics) and even the person as to what it even means to be human, he challenges the powers. It turns out, the powers don’t like it. And so they kill God! And as they kill him, instead of smiting them all, Coventry Crosshe declares forgiveness, he sucks up all the ‘sin’ into himself, like a cosmic sewer, and then declares all things new. A chance to start again. A chance to live and hope for something other.  You see, the powers never counted on resurrection, but love wins! It is, as Aslan calls it, the deeper magic. Love is stronger than death. And so the one who is love, defeats death and brings life. Then He gives us the substance of Himself, the Holy Spirit to fill us and help us and calls us to follow Him, to the same radical, life-laying down love that holds no fear of death because in Him is life in all its fullness.

But something terrible happened. In the 4th century, a theologian called Eusebius and the Emperor Constantine worked together on a theology, or way of thinking about God, that led us to believe that GodConstantine is not just like Jesus, he is, rather, like an angry emperor that wants to dominate other people and have them all come and bow down. So church and empire got into bed together to try to create peace through dominance and created a mish-mash of children, including the Nation State, Western Democracy, Free Market Capitalism, Communism, but none of them come close to the radical Kingdom of God that Jesus spoke of. Too often christians have aligned themselves with these things, rather than having railed against them. Too often, christians find themselves yearning or harking for the ‘good old days’ of the ‘christian nation’. There is no such thing. A nation is not ‘christian’, just because it seems restrained, or has the ‘right’ kind of laws in place. The days of ‘christian dominance’, or christendom, are over. We cannot go back. The context we find ourselves in now, is completely different. It is the future that calls us forward. That does not mean a society cannot be transformed, but top down dominance is not the way of Jesus!

Empire, in any of its forms has nothing to do with Jesus or his life-laying down kingdom of peace.

My friend, Roger Mitchell, honorary research fellow at Lancaster University calls this emptying out of power – ‘kenarchy’, a word coined from the greek – ‘keno’ to empty and ‘archy’ power. It is this that I want to explore more in the next few blogs and what it might be like if we were to embrace this way of life more fully.

What if to have a ‘God complex’ was not to misuse power but to be servant-hearted and to be a one who facilitates and makes room for others so that they can become fully what they can be? What if we were those who chose collaboration and partnership instead of control, manipulation and dominance through competition? What if business, The Futurehealthcare, education, government, finance, media etc were based on these kind of principles? What stories might be told to future generations? My challenge this New Year is to realign my mindsets again with those of the One who is Love. My allegiance is not to any flag or nation-state. I believe our hope for the future comes from embracing an altogether different paradigm, politic and personhood. It is peace I hope for, and peace I pursue and that is going to mean some radically different choices for us as humanity than the ones we are currently making. This year, I resolve to choose life.