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 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.

Naming the BEAST: Neoliberalism!

We really must wake up! There is a vile beast at work in our world, which has a name, but we don’t know it and we don’t understand it and so its power grows! It is ravaging the poor and breaking our communities. It wears the mask of freedom, but devours our lives. “The freedom that Neoliberalism offers, which sounds so beguiling when expressed in general terms, turns out to mean freedom for the pike, not for the minnows”. Do you get it? The vast majority of us are the minnows! It serves the predators, not the enslaved. It gives us just enough freedom to think we are free, but we have become captive to the greed and rampant consumerist individualism it instills. We must throw off the chains. We have to shake off our malaise. It is the very antithesis, or the exact opposite, of what Jesus called the kingdom of God. It is, in fact, the dominant political and economic philosophy of our day. All the major political parties drink deeply from its cup. The Labour party do not think they can win an election without it and its poison will destroy the NHS, education system and all other public services.   We need to know about it, understand it, be delivered of its power and reimagine some altogether different, creative and positive alternative ways of approaching life together, that will free us from its grip.

 

Please make yourself a good old cup of fair-trade or slave-free tea and take some time to read this in depth article from the very clever George Monbiot. As he writes: “it’s not enough to oppose a broken system. A coherent alternative has to be proposed.”

 

George Monbiot https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/apr/15/neoliberalism-ideology-problem-george-monbiot

 

 

Reimagining the United Kingdom

imgresIt is no secret that I voted to remain in the EU. All 3 generations of my family, who were eligible to vote, also voted to remain (and my kids would have voted the same way, had they had the chance – under no parental pressure, you understand!). And yet, as my long departed Nanna would say (the one, who knew all the names of her grandchildren after her stroke, except mine, and called me, Edith!)…. “Well, here we are….”

 

Here we are indeed. I am disappointed and sad, but here we are. We have some deeply painful and complicated times ahead of us, but for those of us who voted to remain, what we must not do is retreat into a finger pointing woundedness that is willing to embrace the ‘other’ in Europe, but the reject the ‘other’ in the UK, who felt that Brexit was the way to go. No. In a world where we long for a positive approach to peace, for reconciliation under-girded by our first value to love one another, we must hold ourselves to account and dig deep to remember who we are and what kind of future we want to build together.

 

There are some really really important conversations for us to have right across the UK that will help us to face up to and heal the wounds we have exposed. Both sides of the debate over the EU have some significant hurts and many of them go deeper than a simple in/out referendum could ever address.

 

So, how do we engage together and have conversations with people from different sides of the dividing line about what kind of UK we might see develop? What might we reimagine together? Is there a hope of a Union left? Here are some things that I would like to explore in some upcoming blogs and see what conversations emerge:

 

imagesOntology – what?! Yep – in the end, so much of who we are and how we live, what we align ourselves with and how we would choose to shape our future together depends on this. Basically – why are we here? What is our purpose? We need to understand this at an individual and a corporate level. As I have suggested in my other blog (www.reimagininghealth.com) our health and wellbeing actually depends on having a life that aligns with this sense of knowing why we are.

 

Theology and Philosophy – what?! Yes – again, so much of our life in this nation and imgrescertainly our politics is under-girded by things people have/have not believed about God and his/her interaction with the world. Whether you are a person of faith or not, it is difficult to deny that for good or ill, the geopolitical worldview of the West has been hugely shaped by the partnership of church and empire over the preceding several centuries. This area of thought and study especially shapes our understanding of ‘Sovereignty’.

 

Economics – this is more obvious. How we choose to “order our house” has huge imgresimplications of how we then live in the world. David Cameron tells us there is ‘no alternative’ to the Neoliberal economic agenda with its reliance on the ‘benevolent’ free market, competition, privatisation, biopower and austerity. And whether the UK or the EU is the worst proponent of this, I’m not sure, but perhaps other options are available to us. Maybe we don’t need to have an ever widening gap between the rich and poor. Maybe we don’t have to have a London-Centric (or even with the emergence of a Northern Powerhouse, a Liverpool-Manchester-Leeds-Centric) economy. Does our economy always have to grow? If it does – what does this mean for the creation of a peaceful world or our ecosystems? Isn’t it high time we had a good hard look at what our policies are doing to the world we live in, or demand in terms of war and self-protectionism? I recently trained as an executive coach – I can tell you for sure, there are always options…..it is a lie to say that we have no alternative. We do. We can have a fairer society and perhaps it’s time for us to say to the corporate giants who threaten us that they will up and leave if we don’t give them enormous tax breaks and turn a blind eye to their greed, that we will find a kinder way of being without them. There are options open to us of renationalisation of some things, co-operatives, credit unions, gift economies, time banking and many other things explored by top economists, which the press give no voice to.

 

And then we have more surface issues. What about our relationship with Europe and the rest of the world now? Surely we aren’t going to believe we have some kind of Empire-like influence in the world anymore? The British Empire and Christendom are both over! So, now that we don’t have them and we’re not part of the EU – what kind of partnerships do we want with other nations?

 

imagesAnd what about education? Is it OK that there was such a massive split in how people voted according to what they had achieved at an academic level? Are we developing academic snobbery? Are we developing education systems where there is an understanding of important issues like the one we’ve just had a referendum about? If it wasn’t for our dinner time conversations, my kids would know nothing about the EU – but thanks to Michael Gove, they can tell me about subordinate clauses and modal verbs! There is something very wrong with that.

 

5517007247_63d55ac8f5_m[1]For healthcare – we already know that the Brexit campaign told us a complete lie about how much extra funding would be available to the NHS. But here we are! Given our current economic policies, it is difficult to see how our Nation’s favourite brand will survive. You cannot believe in an ever shrinking state and increased privatisation and continue to have the best and fairest healthcare system in the world! This is why we need greater participatory leadership and truer representative democracy!

 

Ecology, peace-making and so much more need to be the discussions around our kitchen tables, on our walks and in our cafes and pubs. Enough of the hypnosis by our media! Let’s find each other again, heal our hurts, listen, seek to understand and together find solutions for how we are going to live in this world. Here is to a future of love, hope and peace. I will explore some more of this in the coming blogs.

Understanding Neoliberal Economics

I am a big fan of the New Economics Foundation.
Here is a really helpful 6 part introduction to neoliberalism, how it has come to dominate the world economy and what some alternatives might be. Well worth a listen!
Beginner’s Guide to Neoliberalism by New Economics Foundation

https://itun.es/gb/Absg-.c

Political Parables – Education as a Revolution

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Paulo Freire

Paulo Freire was an educational revolutionary who saw that the poor, marginalised and oppressed in Brasil, took on the world view (or “social construct of reality”) of those who were their oppressors. More than this he described how the educational system was used like a “banking system” to deposit the world view of the dominant class, (with their wealth, power and privilege), into the hearts and minds of the lower social classes, therefore maintaining the status quo.

He spent loads of time with the “peasant classes”, (after a financial crisis in his own family left them very poor) and learnt that they were certainly not unintelligent and although illiterate, had an incredible language of their own. He went on to devise an educational program which enabled these “peasants” to learn rather than to be taught and in so doing released them to begin a revolution in which the powers were challenged, the presumed ‘ways of being’ were shaken and new freedom was found. Unfortunately, this was crushed by the military coup of 1964, but it left Freire never again to “underestimate the vested interest of political powers in controlling the production and distribution of knowledge through their system of schooling” (see amazing work on his by William R. Herzog II in Parables as Subversive Speech).

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William R. Herzog II

Herzog goes on to draw some extraordinary parallels between Paulo Freire and Jesus Christ, whom he asserts both hugely confront the power paradigms of the day and in so doing bring good news to the poor, freedom for those held captive to oppressive systems, sight for those who had been blinded by the worldview of the ‘mighty’ and light for those living in darkness.

Walter Brueggemann

Walter Brueggemann

Mitchell, in his book, “Church, Gospel and Empire’ demonstrates how Jesus directly challenges the Imperial System of Rome. Brueggemann (in “The Prophetic Imagination”) contends that Jesus (as a prophet and much more than just a prophet) is fulfilling the prophetic tradition of those who have gone before, criticising the oppressive systems and energising a fresh imagination of how radically different a future built on the foundations of (God’s) love could be.

I wonder how many teachers these days see it as their role to teach and train their pupils in the ‘national curriculum’ and the ‘social constructs of reality’ to which we all subscribe? And how many see their role as revolutionaries who dare to allow our children to believe that the world we live in can be radically different in the future; where instead of an economics of affluence, we have an economics of equity, instead of a politics of oppression, we have one of justice and compassion, and instead of a religion of immanence and law, we have one of true freedom (again, see Brueggemann) – I don’t know, but if you’re out there – please keep going!

Political Parables – A Mini Series

UnknownI love reading. For lent this year, my wife and I have switched off the TV and are giving our noses some more book time. There are two books I’ve read this past 12 months which have impacted me deeply: “Parables as Subversive Speech – Jesus as Pedagogue of the Oppressed” by William R. Herzog II and “The Prophetic Imagination” by  Walter Brueggemann. I would seriously recommend them to you, whatever your faith or political background – they are challenging to the core. I want to blog a mini series on lUnknown-1essons I have learnt and thoughts that have provoked me as I have read.

One of the people whom I hugely admire is Mehdi Hassan. I admire his courage to speak his mind, to be unashamed about what he believes as a Muslim and his passion in debate. I have felt challenged by the way he puts his faith front and centre whilst engaging deeply in the political issues of our day. I make no secret of the fact that I am a man who loves and follows Jesus (not very good at it, but hey-ho!). The more I have discovered about Jesus, especially over the last few years, the more I have found I love him. My world view is shaped by his radical love for ‘the other’ and for ‘the enemy’, his prioritisation of women, children, the poor, the sick, the prisoner and those generally hated or ostracised by society. There is no-one in history who has ever brought such a sharp critique of Imperial Systems that commodify human life like fodder to feed an economic machine or challenged the status quo mindsets to the extent that he did. Nor did anyone else release such deep hope of a reimagined future.

And yet, those of us who claim to follow him have so often utterly missed his point and have been more caught up in creating a religion around him that he never intended anyone to build, partnering with empire in the process rather than criticising it and bringing transforming love and economic justice to all of the creation.

I hope this mini-series inspires some good conversation, either online or around some dinner tables about the world we live in and how we engage with it. For me, the parables of Jesus have as much dynamic power to shock us today as they did for his first listeners. Put aside any hang ups about ‘christianity’ or ‘politics’ and let the subversive stories make you think.