Thursday, 18 February 2016

Do unto others

Matt 7:12 and Luke 6:31 is one of the often quoted core aspect of Christianity: Do unto others as you would have them do to you. As I was thinking about this recently and realised that it is not as self-effacing as it appears to be, and I had to consider whether this is because it is less altruistic than we understand, or that we need to re-express it in a way that reflects the meaning of the original.

The problem with it is that it focusses on the giver. It says, or implies, that the way the giver wants to be treated is the right thing for everyone. This can be patronising, but - more commonly - it can also be unhelpful. If what I want others to do for me is to leave me alone when I am struggling, then a strict interpretation of this means that I should leave others alone when they are struggling. Of course, not everyone wants to be left alone - some people find it better to have others around them, to be visibly supported. In this case, doing to others would be seen as a negative. Of course, it also works the other way round.

Now I am not suggesting for one moment that we abandon this passage "The Golden Rule" just because it can be misused. I think it is far too important to be simply ignored, rather, we need to work a little harder to properly understand the depth of it. I tend to reject the idea that it is intended as a justification for patronising people, because Jesus explains it as "summing up the law and the prophets", which do not patronise. So I am forced to consider how it should be expressed.

I think it might better be expressed as "Treat others how they wish to be treated, considering how you would wish to be treated in the same circumstances". Not quite as catchy, but changing the emphasis to the receiver, and what they want, not the giver. I might want to simply say "Treat others how they want to be treated", and this is, to my mind, the heart of it, but not the whole. It should involve asking others how they would like to be treated, but, for example, a thief might decide that he wants to be treated as if he wasn't a thief, and be allowed to get away with it. That is not necessarily the best for anyone.

So there is a part which also asks how you would like to be treated in a similar situation. However, this is a secondary consideration, and should be a more general aspect - "with mercy" would be a good answer here. The thief may want to be allowed to go free, but, if I were in a similar situation, I would want to not have to steal any more. I would want to be helped out of the situation I was in that meant I was stealing and had been caught. So punishment is appropriate, but merciful and with a view to redemption, not simply suffering.

We - Christians, the Church, Westerners - are very good at using this sort of passage to inflict our solutions on other people. I do not believe that was the intention,and I don't think that is how it would have been heard originally. The intention is not to focus on you, but to put you in the other persons place, and then to consider how you would feel - if you were actually there, rather than just hypothetically.

It is very easy to say "If I was unemployed, I wouldn't want handouts, I would want people to find me things to do in my lovely spare time". That is hypothetical, and probably not true. It is harder to say "If I was where they are, unemployed and asking for money, I would want someone to give me some money". That is really what it is about, actually putting yourself into their shoes now, at the point of contact.

In the end, it reflects a saying that I hold very close, despite the antiquated and trite language: "There but for the grace of God go I". I have never been able to rephrase this as succinctly, so I stick with this phrasing, and understand it as meaning that I might be in their shoes, were it not for some twists of fate. If I was in their shoes, I would want people to be good and kind to me, in a way that I want, not in a way that they deem is good for my soul.

Sunday, 7 February 2016

Opting out

One of the greenbelt talks was by Stephen Oram discussing the question of opting out. And yes, I know that was ages ago, but it takes me a long time to put these thoughts in place sometimes. At the time, it made me think that the idea is a fallacy, because it is actually impossible to opt out.

I am very positive about the idea of opting out, in theory at least. There is some attraction about going "off the grid", cutting dependencies on others - no internet, no television, making your own electricity, recycling everything you can, growing your own food. Actually, I would miss the connection with others, but I would like to make my own electricity, personally recycle stuff more, have less reliance on services. I would also find it a whole lot of hard work, and enjoy not having to do all of this.

The problem I have is that it is only possible to be off grid to a certain extent. I want to identify the things we can do and the ones we can't.

The services are the first thing to try to sort out. Electricity can, if you have a large enough area, generate this from solar panels and wind turbines. Gas we have to do without, but we can heat with wood burners, and cook in a similar way, if we have an appropriate supply. So with a large enough area, this works.

Water we can achieve if we have a stream on our property, so we need to take care at finding the right place. Of course if too many people take water from a stream, it will run dry, so we also need to collect rainwater, and use this where possible. The other service, telephone and internet, is impossible to get without paying, so we either have to accept this or do without this. It is, of course, possible to have no phone or internet, but then you would not be able to read this.

Sewage can be dealt with by recycling the water having cleaned it up enough for some purposes. Recycling the excrement as fertiliser can be achieved with a little work - a dry closet does this, apparently. So the services can be attended to.

Food can be grown, if you are prepared to harvest and deal with it yourself. That is a large amount of work, but, assuming that you are not working outside your home, this should not be a basic challenge

The problem with this is that it has too narrow a scope. Which is a strange thing to say given that it seems to require a lot of planning and organisation. However, the aim is to "opt out", to remove oneself from a dependency on  a society that we might reject (for any reason).

Firstly, I presume that there is a house on the property, which has been built using resources from the society. This could be avoided if you choose to build the house yourself, but somewhere in that, there is likely to be some external dependency. Can you build a house yourself without using facilities from outside? It can be done by skip diving, but this is not opting out, this is depending on other peoples rubbish. If you use tradespersons, they are external resources that are needed.

An existing property has all of this already inherent in the location. This is opting out only for the now, using what has been created already. This is like being homeless for a few weeks, and thinking you know what it is like. It is one of the things that irritates me about the "sleep-out" events. One night sleeping out is a bit of fun. Every night is not. Claiming to be opting out, while still relying on what others have done is short-term opting out.

The other problem is that your little property cannot exclude itself from being part of the UK. If, as an example, the locals rivers are managed to not flood, then your property benefits from this work. Similarly, if it does flood, you can rely on the emergency services to assist. If someone is ill, you can take advantage of the NHS. Those aspects of "society" that do not affect us directly and imminently are easy to ignore, but they are still there, still aspects that you are engaged with. If the country is threatened from outside, the government will not point to your smallholding and say "you can invade there, they are opting out" - you are still reliant on the military, however much you might disapprove of them.

To me, this is the core problem with trying to "opt out". There are some aspects which are comparatively easy to avoid, with some thought and planning. But opting out of "society" is a whole lot harder. I think this is why I don't choose to opt out, rather I choose to be involved and try to change. That is not an implied criticism, just the way that I choose to go.

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Evangelising England

OK, so this was announced last week Evangelising England.

To which I let out a resigned sigh. 
To those who don't know me - and probably some of those who do -  this may well sound like I have rejected Christianity, and don't want people to get to know Jesus. That could not be further from the truth.

I am a passionate believer that people need to know Jesus, need to engage with the Divine, need to find faith, find spiritual truth and reality that engages them and drives them and fires them on.

I am a passionate believer that we, as Christians, need to talk to others about what we believe, discuss with them, engage with them about faith - ours and theirs.

The reason I sigh is that the Church of England as a system and structure has done so much damage to these conversation over the last few years. The damage has been done mainly with the farce over Women Bishops and the constant and continuing hand-washing over sexuality. The messages that these have sent out - very publicly - are that women are just about tolerated and that anything other than heterosexuality is an abomination to God. The recent suspension of ECUSA over this issue is a clear demonstration of the feeling from the church system.

Now I know that there are many Anglican churches that strongly support women in all roles. There are many churches who are less interested in peoples sexuality than their humanity. The problem is that the general public perception of what Christianity means is set by the more public statements. There is a perception that Christianity is anti-women and anti-homosexuality. This is not helped by some of the more fundamentalist reports coming from the US and (sometimes) supported by people in the UK. The impression given is, although we are very British, and are not going to shout and rave like the Americans do, British Christians are also very much the same.

This statement is likely to have a number of effects:

1. All sorts of money and resources will be poured into ineffective, outdated "evangelism" campaigns.
2. Some of the larger, more conservative churches will push their agenda again, and there will be embarrassments.
3. For a few people, in a few places, the negative impressions that the Church of England has given over the last few years will be undone.

Of course, there is a view that not giving total support to any activity that you define as "evangelism" makes the baby Jesus cry. In truth, some of these activities make him cry - both in sadness and laughing.

I am all for evangelism. I am all for telling people the good news. But the starting point today is to undo so much of the damage caused by the Church of England as an organisation. And then it is to engage and listen. And then to change and accept and embrace others, to move to being where they are, to be the presence of God for them.

Yes, I am all for evangelism. That is why I sigh at the statement, because I suspect, in many cases, this will put back the work once again.