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.

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.

The Power of Forgiveness

Forgiveness can be both utterly painful and gutsy but carries with the opportunity to be completely freeing. I see so many patients with complex problems, which present to me as a physical or psychological pain. After I have listened intently to their story and the subtle things they reveal or omit, we explore together the possible reasons for their condition.

Once we have excluded any obvious causes through history, examination and tests (where required), we meet again and probe a bit deeper. Time and again I have found in such situations where there is no obvious medical cause, that that there was some kind of hurt caused to them, which they have never been able to forgive. Many times they don’t want to forgive and sometimes they don’t know how to.

Choosing not to forgive someone always has its benefit to us, in some way, otherwise we simply would not hold on to grudges. It can be that which let’s us feel superior or something which justifies our own feelings or patterns of behaviour. But the cost of unforgiveness can be absolutely crippling, leaving a root of bitterness in our lives which can manifest itself in physical, psychological, relational and emotional pain.

I never put this idea onto someone, but have been amazed as I ask an open question to a  person about what they think the root of their problem might be, how often this issue of (un)forgiveness rears its head. They have become stuck in a moment and they can’t get out of it. (U2)!

Over the past few years I have been astounded to watch people make the brave decision to revisit past hurts and memories. Some of the memories have been so traumatic and horrific that being with them in the process has been both heart-wrenching and humbling.

But the change I have seen in people’s lives as they have chosen to forgive, to be forgiven, to restore and to be restored has been extraordinary. There are so many things that the science of medicine cannot explain. We are so uniquely knit together – mind, body and spirit and the complex intertwining relationship of these is not to be underestimated. I have seen major changes in the symptoms of MS, Chronic Fatigue, Back Pain, Unexplained Numbness, Depression, Anxiety, Addiction and Abdominal Pain (to name just a few) as people have forgiven the “unforgivable” behaviour of others or even of themselves.

James Thwaites defines health as being in right and true relationship with others, with the creation and with God, rather than necessarily the absence or presence of disease or infirmity. If he is right, and I certainly tend to agree with him on this, then the forgiveness of ourselves and others has the ability to heal us of deep pain and shame and helps us to find a beautiful healing, wellbeing and wholeness.