Sunday, January 29, 2012

Aching for a new world

It's that time when again when our church magazine hits the stands and both excited readers pore over its contents. Anyway, here's my perspective in the dark days of winter longing for spring...

In the depths of winter, you can often overhear people longing for lighter evenings and warmer days; at the bedside of a loved one, we ache for things for be different; in the tents outside St Paul’s, there’s a call for a better world; on the streets of Syria’s cities, the cry for freedom and justice grows louder despite the tank shells and bullets.

Everywhere, it seems, there is the ache for a new world. We hear it in the parents raising money for their child to receive experimental life-saving treatment only available at great cost in a far-away place. We hear it in the worker whose pay packet will not stretch to cover all the bills this month. We hear it in the middle-aged whose lives are cut short by an unexpected illness or accident. We hear it in the child drinking dirty water because there’s nothing else to slake her thirst.
And we hear it in the bible.

There’s a great moment in the movie Evan Almighty where Morgan Freeman, playing God, takes the hapless Evan, a weatherman, to show him what the Californian valley he lives in looked like when God first created it. It convinces Evan that the Freeman character really is God but leaves him perplexed. ‘Why me?’ he asks. ‘Because you want to change the world,’ God replies, ‘and so do I’


Martin Luther King expresses the same urge this way: ‘We are deeply in need of a new way beyond the darkness that seems so close around us. We must be prepared to match actions with words by seeking out every creative method of protest possible. Every man of humane convictions must decide on the protest that best suits his convictions, but we must all protest.’

In Isaiah 65, the prophet gives voice to God’s dream: ‘“See, I will create new heavens and a new earth. The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind…Never again will there be in it an infant who lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out their years; the one who dies at a hundred will be thought a mere child; the one who fails to reach a hundred will be considered accursed. They will build houses and dwell in them; they will plant vineyards and eat their fruit. No longer will they build houses and others live in them, or plant and others eat…My chosen ones will long enjoy the work of their hands. They will not labour in vain, nor will they bear children doomed to misfortune. [Isaiah 65:17-25].

It’s a wonderful vision of people at peace, families enjoying the fruit of their labour, ill health banished, hunger a memory. It’s a dream that appears in the New Testament as well. Many of its themes are taken up in the final chapters of Revelation. But the sentiment echoes through Romans 8 where Paul sees the journey to glory and new creation passing through a vale of tears and sorrow.

We ache for a new world, says the apostle, because we’ve tasted it through our faith in Jesus. The Holy Spirit, that messenger of the world to come, has taken up residence in our lives and now sings the song of that new world even as we struggle with this one. It is the Spirit’s song that fills our hearts with the hope that what we ache for will become a reality in God’s good time.

And so, we don’t only ache for the new world; we actively work for it now. We add our voice to the cries for freedom and justice echoing round the world. we feed the hungry and house the homeless, care for the young and elderly, create meaningful and fulfilling work for all people to enjoy because these things are foretaste of the new world God is dreaming.

All our Good works – those things that God has prepared beforehand for us to walk in (Ephesians 2:10) – point to what God is doing in the shadows, what he has unleashed through the cross, resurrection and enthronement of his King, Jesus, and the pouring of his Spirit on the church. We become his partners in redemption through our lives lived in accordance with the values we see in Jesus.

The trouble is that often we don’t look to see what God is doing. We see only the brokenness and despair around us that sometimes takes hold of our spirits and persuades us that life will always be like this until it stops. And the trouble is that because we’re not sure what we should be doing or that our good works could really make a difference, we sit on our hands and do nothing.

But God is in the ache we feel for a new world. And however much we can’t see how it will come about, deep down we know that the God who met us Jesus Christ, forgave and made us new, will bring that new world into being. Deep down we know that one day we will be whole, living in a renewed creation of heart-stopping and wonderful beauty. God has said it will be so and, even in our darkest moments, we can’t but believe him.  And it is that tiny mustard seed of faith that gives us the strength we need to press on.

So, spring is coming, the evenings are getting lighter, the mornings warmer, the sap is rising and God’s Kingdom bursts out in unlikely ways pointing us forward to the future being dreamt up in the Father heart of God. And doesn’t it fill us with hope until we’re fit to bust!

Friday, January 20, 2012

Yet more on why austerity isn't working

Today we can add to the roll call of Damascus-road conversions (following S&P's last week). This time it is none other than Christine Lagarde of the IMF - obviously helped by her welter of  economists. When she was French economics minister, she championed austerity policies, arguing that only by driving down deficits would room be made for growth to return. Such Hayekian mumbo-jumbo seems to have been cut down by the - dare I say it - Keynsian good sense of the IMF.

At the heart of the warning issued by the IMF, World Trade Organisation, World Bank, World Health Organisation and the Organisation For Economic Cooperation and Development plus a cluster of development banks from across the continents, is a simple assertion: austerity by itself doesn't work.

Faced with decelerating growth across the globe, these representatives of the nearest thing we have to an economic establishment, argue that governments need to manage deficit reduction only in a way that promotes growth and employment. They further argue that policy responses to the mounting crisis have to focus on reducing inequality through labour market reforms and the use of the tax system to encourage job creation.

Even more surprising is that they agree with the International Labour Organisation in its assertion that governments need to invest in skills training, education of young people and social safety nets to cushion labour market transitions. The elimination of inequality is essential for generating stable growth in the world's economies.

Well, let's do that then. Messers Cameron and Osbourne are always banging on about how the OECD, IMF, WTO et al are key audiences for their policies. Well, they are listening and seem to find the UK policy path somewhat wanting.

I must say that I find it gratifying that the great Keynsian institutions - IMF and World Bank - are bringing their thinking more into line with their founder. But I am much more gratified to hear the biblical echoes in all this.

There is a strong strand in scripture that talks about equality being a goal of social and economic policy (if use of that language is not too anachronistic). We see it not only Paul's argument in 2 Corinthians 8:1-15, but the whole concept of the Jubilee, which stood at the heart of Old Testament economic thinking, Jesus' announcement in Nazareth and the early church's focus on economic sharing so that no one within the community was in need.

It is interesting that Steve Keen, an Australian economics academic, has called for a jubilee as a key tool in stabilising the world's economy. You only have to look at figures out this week showing that UK debt is currently running at 400% of GDP - that is, we owe four times the nation's total output. Most of this financial sector debt; another chunk is corporate debt; quite a bit is personal debt (mortgages, credit cards and the like); and a vanishingly small proportion is government debt.Who ever owes it, the maths indicates that we will never pay it off unless we have at least another decade of austerity, zero growth, rising unemployment and plummeting living standards.

Is there any other out of this mess than considering what a debt write-off would mean, how it would work and what shape it would leave the world's financial system in? Keen acknowledges that this is not straight-forward but since every other suggestion seems to be steering us closer to the economic rocks, someone should be crunching the numbers.

Of course, the question of living standards and perpetual growth is a question the Bible has a good deal to say about as well. But that's for another day.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Reading to give ideas a fresh hearing

Today I have finally acquired a copy of Douglas Campbell's The Deliverance of God. I have resisted until now because of the sheer size and the vast price, so when I found a pristine copy going for a comparative song at a second hand book shop this morning, I thought 'oh, go on, then...'

I am due to teach a course on Romans from the beginning of February and since Campbell's book is seeking to make an argument about Romans, I thought it would be good to have it to refer to. I have read some bits and pieces of it before (in library copies) and remain to be convinced that his central suggestion that not all of Romans 1-4 represents the thinking of Paul but rather that of a rival teacher he is seeking to correct holds any water.

It's an intimidating read - there are 300 pages of thicket clearing before he actually gets to Romans! The introduction does contain one insight that has set me thinking, however - and augurs well for the journey ahead. He argues that 'at the heart of the conventional "Lutheran" approach to these texts...are powerful commitments to individualism, to rationalism, and to consent.' He goes on to suggest that Luther's reading of Romans (and Galatians) were heavily influenced by the prevailing renaissance culture with its strong attachment to humanism and individualism.

It is of course not new to suggest that protestant and evangelical formulations of the faith are deeply indebted to modern and even enlightenment thinking. But it is new (at least, it is to me) to have a scholar arguing that the very reading of the core texts of protestant Christianity owe more to the renaissance than they do to the apostle Paul.

I am interested to see what Campbell makes of this because one of my current study interests is the whole area of the relationship between literacy and spirituality - both in the NT world (where literacy rates were very low) and in our context (where literacy rates are high but people read less and less - especially in the areas of theology and Christian spirituality).I am wondering if we need to develop a hermeneutics of the faith that is based on oral culture rather than reading, much as the one Paul operated in; wondering if evangelical renewal will come via hearing rather than reading.

And I wondering if  a 1200+ page book is going to help me!

Saturday, January 14, 2012

S&P springs a surprise

So Standard & Poor has downgraded the credit rating of half the Eurozone. This is not a surprise as it was flagged up a long way before Christmas.

But there are two surprises in all this. The first is that we still pay any attention to the credit ratings agencies. After all, they managed to give triple A ratings to securitised sub-prime mortgages that caused the 2008 credit crunch and near collapse of the financial system. Their subsequent response seems to have been a giggle and cry of 'whoops'. Sadly, it seems that Obama's plans to sue the pants off them ran into the sand.

But the second surprise is that buried in S&P's statement is reference to the fact that austerity by itself will not get the Eurozone out of the crisis it is in. Well, derr...! They have been calling for austerity to reduce government deficits to maintain low real interest rates and market confidence. And now they have recognised that by itself austerity just adds to deficits and keeps economies bumping along the edge of recession. We should all rejoice at  such Damascene conversions!

Perhaps we can look forward to the agencies starting to give triple A ratings only to governments that use their deficits to stimulate growth.

Keeping baptist life fresh

For those of you interested in where the baptist movement (I've stopped calling it the baptist family because that suggests something cosier and more settled than we should be) is going, there's a new conversation beginning at beyond400.net

Over the next few weeks baptists from all the country and in all kinds of situations will be sharing their ideas about where we're going as movement as we approach and move through the four hundredth anniversary of the founding of the first baptist community in London. It ties in with the Assembly this year (also happening in London) and aims to provide a place for creative conversation to take place.

It would be good for as many baptists (and others interested in missional discipleship of all kinds) to lend their voices to this conversation as we face challenging times and enormous opportunity to continue to embody the values of Jesus in our communities and ministries across this land.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

Would St Paul the Tentmaker have camped with Occupy?

As promised, here's the full version of my presentation at the Bank of Ideas this afternoon. We had an excellent time with some lively and imaginative thinkers who were keen to explore whether Paul the tent maker had any wisdom to share relating to changing the world. None of them were church-goers but all found Paul more interesting than they were expecting!

Anyway, here's what I said:

If St Paul walked into the building in the churchyard that bears his name, he’d struggle to make the connection between it and the movement he belonged to. So maybe he’d make a tent and pitch it alongside the others outside the Cathedral and pondered the paradox.
Paul was a craftworker who lived by making tents, shop awnings and other canvas and leather goods. He was never a religious professional; if he didn’t make and sell his goods, he didn’t eat and couldn’t pay his rent.
He lived like other craftworkers in the empire in a rented workshop, sleeping on a mezzanine floor above his bench, tools and canvas or in a room behind his workspace. He bought his food at a street cafĂ© – a popina – if he’d made a sale and shared it with fellow craftworkers as they talked about Jesus and how they might embody his values in their lives.
Paul lived in a world where an elite 1-3% owned pretty much everything, called the shots and lived lives of hitherto unknown luxury. The other 97-99% got by as best they could. A few earned enough to enjoy a modest surplus – maybe a week’s cushion, a month’s in boom times; most scraped by a day at a time – if they got work today, they ate and kept the landlord happy til tomorrow.
So everything Paul says about money, he says against this background – a context that has a curiously modern ring to it.
Paul also joined a movement that already had some firm views about how the economy ought to be organised – certainly the economy over which they had a measure of control, namely their own churches. There were two abiding principles that seem to have been at work among those early followers of Jesus – mutualism and equality (the former arising from the latter).
In the opening scene of his story of the Jesus community in Acts, Luke twice tells us that the believers had everything in common and distributed to those who were in need (2:44f; 4:32, 34f). This form of social organisation is sometimes called 'love communalism', a community of shared or pooled resources motivated by love between its members. It is mutualism in practice, ‘the implicit or explicit belief that individual and collective well-being is attainable above all by mutual interdependence’ (as Justin Meggitt puts it)
Some scholars suggest that this was a social experiment that failed. Their argument hinges on the fact that when famine came to the region in the mid-40s, the Jerusalem and Judean believers did not have the resources to cope and were therefore dependent on support from elsewhere.
But such a view completely misunderstands the precarious nature of life in the first century. Few people had the resources to be able to cope with food shortages – the result of the prices of staple foods going up beyond their reach – let alone famines. The majority of Jesus followers were middling to poor people who lived at or just a little above subsistence and who were vulnerable to economic downturns.
It also fails to grasp the consistent teaching of the Bible, taken up and reinforced by Jesus and sitting at the heart of the movement that bears his name.
Economic justice, in the form of frequent acts of redistribution to ensure equality among his people – was at the heart of God’s agenda for his people from the earliest days on.
The Sabbath cycle ensured that the poor were not neglected. Every harvest was to be taken in such a way that the crops at the edge of the fields were to be left for the poor to glean. Every seven years, the land was to be left fallow, allowing anything that grew on them to be picked by those without fields to work (Exodus 23:10-11; Leviticus 25:2-7). On top of that, slaves were to be released (Exodus 23:10-11; Deuteronomy 15:12-18). And debts were to be cancelled (Deuteronomy 15:1-6). God’s idea seems to have been that no one, regardless of whether they’d brought it on themselves or not, was to be left in unsustainable debt and everlasting slavery. Grace was built into the economy.
Then every 50 years, everything was to return to how it was when the people entered the land. All the families would return to their portion of Israel. It was a reminder to the nation that the land belonged to God and they only worked it as tenants or stewards, managing it for their landlord, God (Leviticus 25:10-16).
The prophets emphasised the importance of the jubilee in the future God plans for his people (Isaiah 58, 61; Ezekiel 45:7-9; 46:16-18). At the heart of the prophetic critique of the people’s life was the fact that they had neglected justice in the land. For example, Ezekiel 16:48-50 likens Judah to Sodom, a city marked by greed and neglect of the poor; and Isaiah calls the leaders of Judah ‘Sodom’ (1:10) because they have neglected justice (1:17; 3:13-15 and especially 5:1-7).
Much of Jesus’ teaching about money and life in the Kingdom of God is rooted in the jubilee notions of release and restoration – especially his first sermon at Nazareth and the model prayer he taught his disciples with the line ‘forgive us our debts as we have already forgiven our debtors’.
Paul absorbed these radical economic values and they became the bedrock of his understanding of how the Christian community should work. And while he outlines how the principles of mutuality and equality should work within the Christian community, he does so because he believes this to be God’s blueprint for human society everywhere.
It’s interesting that Steve Keen, professor of economics and finance at the university of Western Sydney, has suggested total debt cancellation as a way of getting the global economy out of the mess it’s been pitched into by an over-reliance on debt-financing of everything! He argues that a debt jubilee is politically improbable because it would cause the failure of many banks. But the alternative is a decade of economic stagnation with the poor picking up the tab for the rich world over-dosing on debt.
I can see Paul nodding in the door of his tent…
When Paul talks about the mutualism of the small churches he wrote to, he has in mind the release from oppression at the heart of Old Testament jubilee ideas. In Galatians 2:10, 5:13-14 and 6:7-10 he outlines an ethic based on mutual sharing and seeking the good of others – especially those in the household of faith. In Philippians 2:1-4 he argues that we should seek one another’s interests rather than our own, since through Jesus we have been freed from sin and competition and he offers his own life as an example of being content with our economic circumstances because God will provide all that we need to live in the context of thanking them for sharing economically with him while he was in need (4:10-20).
And in 2 Corinthians 8:1-15 we have an outline of the heart of his thinking about money and mutualism that is based on the key jubilee principles of release and restoration. By the grace of God, the Macedonians have been released from the prevailing greed of the culture, freed to share their surplus with those in need, so that they in turn might have a measure of prosperity restored to them.
And at the heart of this vision is equality. Mutualism – which aims for those in surplus to share with those in need – is based on a fundamental principle that there should be equality between people. He says:

13Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. 14At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. The goal is equality, 15as it is written: “The one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little.” (Ex 16:18)

For Paul the simple principle that everyone should have what they need and share what is left over with those who are in need determines our economic relationships. He was gathering support for believers in Judea because they were hammered by hunger and a crashing economy.
His model is that everyone should work to have something to share. So when he writes to a small group of believers in Thessalonica, he urges them to work with their hands rather than be dependent on hand-outs from wealthy patrons, so that they will have something to share. Indeed, his aim appears to be that everyone would want to be a benefactor, using their surplus for the good of those who were in need around them.
Paul’s economics are probably not directly transferable from his world to ours. But his was a world where government was weak and a wealthy minority called the shots; his was a world where the have-nots were hung out to dry by those who amassed wealth for themselves; and his was a world where the poor were squeezed by rising prices, high taxes and a lack of opportunity.
So perhaps his economic principles of mutualism and equality have something to say to our world. Perhaps he’d have spoken about this as he sat outside his tent in Paternoster Square.
Comments very welcome...

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Would Paul join Occupy?

I am doing a gig with Juliet and Rob at the Bank of Ideas on Thursday at 1pm. Details here.

I'll be reflecting on what we can learn from Paul's ideas of equality and mutuality. He was keen to 'remember the poor' (Galatians 2:10), seen particularly in his raising a redistributive collection among his churches for the hard-pressed Judean believers.

If you work in the City, please come along, bring your lunch and join in the debate; if you know people who do, invite them along. It'd be good to have an audience!

I'll post what I say after the event.

Keeping the rumour of God alive

Peter Oborne has a timely and wide-ranging piece in the Telegraph (here), charting a rise in church attendance in recent months.He suggests 'Their Christian values stand at an angle to the brash, thrill-seeking, instant consumer culture that has become dominant in Britain over the last half-century.' I hope so.

Oborne tells stories of churches attracting large numbers in the capital but admits that the picture elsewhere in the country is less buoyant. For me the most encouraging part of his story is that there is some evidence that locally rooted churches are seeing an increase in numbers as people seek something more than shopping as a source of purpose and values in life.

He argues that one reason why London might be bucking the trend is that there are fewer churches sharing ministers, so a minister or ministry team is able to focus on a single gathered community, able to create a welcoming and stimulating environment for people of all kinds. There could be something in this.

He acknowledges that a little upturn in numbers over recent months does not assuage the haemorrhage of people the church has suffered over the past generation. He cites the statistics, well known from Peter Brierley and Callum Brown, that show the scale of the collapse in church attendance since the 60s.

But it is encouraging that in the midst of austerity and consumerism the rumour of God is being kept alive and is drawing people who are seeking something deeper. And that something is not just a desire for a 'spiritual hour' on a Sunday morning. One and a half million people are engaged in volunteering activity through their local church; this is an army of people seeking to model different values in our me-first culture - and that has to be good thing.