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.

3 Words of a New Politics

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.

 
Recognition

 
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.

 
Rearticulation

 
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.

 

Reconnection

 
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?