Thou shalt have no other gods before me.

The first of the Ten Commandments is often quoted and preached upon, and while it applied to Israel in a time they were tempted to worship other gods or go after them for blessings and assistance in some matters, I have often heard that it should apply to us too, since we may be capable of placing other ‘things’ before our Lord and allowing them to be ‘worshipped’ in some way. One might argue that is a bit of a stretch if you are talking about things which are naturally important to us and prominent in our lives, like family or jobs. However, Jesus did make a stunning declaration about following him:

“If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters – yes, even their own life – such a person cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26)sermon-mount

Many have tried to downplay the word ‘hate’ here as if it means ‘love less’ or ‘make secondary’ yet it is the word miseo, which means ‘hate’! In the context of ‘everything else Jesus said’ of course, we have to find an explanation of it, since we are commanded by him to love absolutely everyone! Why would we be commanded to love our enemies, yet hate our own family? Best answer I can offer is that the natural ties we have are to be regarded as below ‘loving others’, so our devotion to our families must be no more nor any stronger than our love of anyone else; we should love all people equally. Interesting? Something to ponder?

What is clear, however, is that Jesus demands our devotion to him first, and that he is not to be equated with devotion to anyone or anything else. An alternative translation of the first commandment is ‘Thou shalt have no other gods beside me’ so that would fit with the idea that God has no equal, no partner, no cohort he will allow to be venerated or worshipped like him.

Fair enough? Let me suggest a common mistake many make regarding this commandment. Some time ago, while I was still a freshman (as they call it in the US) at Bible College, I came across a woman who believed that John 1:1 ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.’ meant her Bible! I was surprised at myself that I suppressed a laugh, since I had this picture in my mind of a black leather gilt-edged KJV sitting beside God at the beginning of the universe! I quietly explained to her that ‘the Word’ here is the pre-eternal name of Jesus [note: capitalised (in English)]. He is the one who was both with God, and was God, from the beginning and will be forever. By equating her Bible (the word of God) to being the Word, she was actually allowing it to not just be with God as I had pictured, but to be God (that is what John 1:1 states). Does this mean then that when I read my Bible, I hold God in my hand? Or within the app on my phone, in 64 different versions?

While this may be something we can laugh over, I have come to the conclusion that it is more serious a problem than one might first think. I know plenty of believers who adore their Bible, talk about it in ways that you’d think was reserved for lovers or family members… and right away I recall that command Jesus made about family! If nothing is to come between us and God, or to be equated in reverence with God, then this must include our Bible! Please don’t ask for a Venn diagram of that – our Bible sits squarely within the box marked ‘everything’.

The Jews hated idols, just like the Muslims do today. They were commanded not to worship them, and they strove to have no graven images to which they bowed or showed reverence, but human nature being what it is, they had to have some tangible thing to sit in awe of, in their synagogues. So they created special manuscripts from specifically prescribed forms of hide, written in a specific mixture of ink, which were not to be touched by vile human hands or anything else debase, so they made silver psothebystorahointers… were you to drop one of these scrolls on the floor, I am sure you would hear gasps of horror! Some Muslims do exactly the same thing with their Koran, wrapping them in beautiful silk scarves and handling them with such delicate care. Do Christians do the same? I did know of believers who were shocked at the idea of me tossing my old worn-out Bible into a bin once I got a new one! What was I supposed to do? Burn it on a ceremonial barge on the river Jordan with prayers? Revering the paper and ink IS idolatry, sorry!

However, I do love my Bible! I read it constantly, and try to find new things I can learn from it, and strive to live by what I glean from it. Thankfully, the English word ‘love’ can be used for anything from ice cream to God, so when I say I love something I know I don’t love it more than I love Jesus. Or can I be sure? If it is possible for me to fall in love with someone, or some thing that I love doing, which distracts me from following Jesus, then can it also be possible that my Bible could distract me too? There may be many ways, but the question raised surely is this: “if my Bible is simply the words of God in written form, then how could that be possible?” Right away, I arrive at the kernel of the issue as I see it. The ‘standard’ position of the fundamentalist who holds to ‘inerrancy of scripture’ on this is that ‘every word of our scriptures has been written by God’. Known as ‘plenary inspiration’ (a good description here), it ascribes God’s inspiration to the complete Bible as we have it today, and decries any attempt to ‘water that down’. This is perfectly understandable since we do not wish to allow a ‘take what you want and ignore the rest’ faith in Christ (even though many who maintain ‘inerrancy’ do so with some commands they don’t like!), but while I have never held this ‘plenary’ position (which is not the default position within the whole church and never has been), I have never been one to take a pair of scissors to my Bible! I prefer what scripture says about itself, that it is all ‘God-breathed‘ (2 Tim. 3:16). I see the hand of God and his redemption story and plan throughout, from Genesis to Revelation, but many parts are limited in understanding simply due to the human writers, since it was written by people of an ancient time, who had limits on knowledge and a lack of things we now know. Therefore to find an ‘archaic’ view of something in my Bible is not a problem to me; I don’t need to explain it or defend it. However, many believers, fixated on their irrefutable plenary doctrine, tie themselves in knots defending what is text on a page of a book, in the belief that they are defending their faith, or even defending God!

Let’s take a couple of examples for illustration: in the book of Job, we have a record of God speaking to Job where he asks “Have you entered the storehouses of the snow or seen the storehouses of the hail…” (Job 38:22); we now know that God does not have ‘storehouses’ of snow or hail. We know how they form now, through our study of meteorology. Of course, everyone says that this is metaphor/ poetry/ allegory, even though it is a record of God’s actual words to Job. So was God revealing a truth to Job according to his limited understanding? Then we encounter the creation account in Genesis: this is taken as literal by so many who would easily accept the metaphorical aspect of the passage in Job, yet reading Genesis 1 without the blinkers of devotion can see clearly that it is the description of a flat earth at the centre of the universe, with night and day occurring before the creation of the sun and moon. Why is there this ‘blind devotion’? It might be because it belongs to the Pentateuch/ Torah, the first five books of our Bible also known as ‘the Law’. From some Jewish tradition we have inherited, it is part of that ‘given’ to Moses directly by God, yet there is no support for this (and Moses even dies before the end!). So much of this comes from cultural tradition and not a direct reading of scripture. It’s all supposed to be literal historical narrative, yet in my evangelical Bible College, we studied the first 11 chapters of Genesis separately to the rest – chapter 12 is when the famous Abram appears (later called Abraham).

I do ponder how some parts that we can now see with modern knowledge can be accepted as not literal, yet other parts cannot! What is it about the creation account that it just must be adhered to? I’ll not go into any speculation about politico-historico-cultural stuff here, but my point is simply this: in trying to explain our faith to non-believers, do we not realise that an insistence on a literal reading of Genesis 1 is perceived as one of the most idiotic stances in the 21st century? If we try our hardest to state that every word is literal, and that it is not describing a flat centric earth, is that not just plain denial? If we apply a rational mind to it, then surely a realisation must occur! To continue in this conformity, then is it not akin to ignoring or covering over the truth? Is that not a description for lying?

flee_idolatryFor me, it truly is a blind devotion, by faith, and that means that your faith in a book is unshakeable (even though you’d be prepared to forego the ‘storehouses’ reference in Job!), and right away, I worry. I worry that such devotion that should only be reserved for God and God alone, is given to what is an object on our shelves or a program in our computers and phones!

I actually don’t want any debate on this – I’ve had enough over my life! I know where I stand on this issue, where I have always stood, and it has never affected my faith in Jesus as my Lord. I simply want fellow believers to consider what they’re doing. If you are not ready to accept it, I’ll leave it there.

Grace be with you.

Great Expectations

jesus-christ-triumphal-entry-949744-wallpaperIt just dawned on me what it was that led to the people who called for Jesus to be crucified only a week after hailing him as the Messiah… their expectations!

We are often told from pulpits that the Pharisees and the religious ‘establishment’ in Jerusalem ‘turned the crowd against Jesus’. That has an element of truth in it, but it wasn’t in just one week that it was achieved. The people had been fed a diet of expectation all their lives. It was the received wisdom, from specific interpretations of their scriptures, that the Messiah was about to come, but he would be a warrior king who would supernaturally eject the Romans from Judaea and ‘restore the kingdom’ i.e. just as it was in King David’s time.

That was why they cried ‘Hosanna to the Son of David!’ (Matt. 21:9). They were expecting this revolution, this spiritual freeing of their nation from oppression. They had heard many things, and many rumours about this prophet from a far-off part.

Imagine their disappointment when he actually did not challenge the Romans, nor be drawn on any questions about how they should ‘deal’ with the Imperialists. Instead he continued in his teaching he had always maintained… that he wants his followers to be servants, to everyone, and to love all, even enemies! It wasn’t a battle cry, or a call to arms, or anything remotely like that. No, it was the opposite! This man they had been told was coming even arrived on a donkey! The donkey and colt were ready for him to use for his ‘triumphal’ entry, just as Zechariah had prophesied, so these people were not properly informed on scripture after all. The first thing Jesus did on arrival? He went to the Temple and drove out those who had commercialised his religion! His attacks were not on their conquerors, but their own religious leaders. He just could not have been their glorious Messiah! So when the call came for his death, they were only too eager to join in.

What are our expectations of Jesus? Do we decide in advance what we think he will do for us, or who or what he will be to us?

Or do we just accept who he iswhat he is, and most importantly, what he asks us to be, and to do? It’s all there in our gospel records, so why the false expectations?

Grace be with you.

The Chilcot Report and the separation of church and state

Tony-BlairHere I go finding links again! What has Chilcot got to do with disestablishmentarianism, I hear you ask? You weren’t asking that specifically? Well, here goes…

Amidst all the conclusions, recriminations and finger-pointing going on right now, what stood out to me was a comment by Claire Short, who was a member of Blair’s cabinet and was opposed to the Iraq invasion. She said that Tony Blair was determined to stand with George W. Bush on the matter and was convinced that going to Iraq was the right thing to do, thus leading to a preference for the intelligence reports that favoured that decision and a dismissal of other voices.

Something I bang on about quite a bit is ‘confirmation bias’ since it affects a lot of things we say, do and believe. We have certain convictions within ourselves that we hold to firmly. These are the sort of things we hold ‘sacred’ and would need to undergo a huge change in ourselves to abandon, or even question. When these things are challenged, we immediately become defensive, and try our best to seek validation for our beliefs, to the point that we choose to ignore glaring truths that we are faced with, just because they undermine these sacred things we treasure. While I describe myself as a definite ‘questioning Thomas’ who is always posing the questions others dislike or avoid (the childlike ‘WHY?’), I too have a degree of confirmation bias. It exists in us all. Acquiescing to such unpalatable truths is never comfortable.

So I can see how Blair fell into his own bias trap by making a gut decision before all the information was in and digested. Maybe he had Thatcher’s advice still ringing in his ears: “Great leaders lead by conviction, not consent!” That’s only true if you consider dictators and tyrants to be ‘great’! True democratic leaders recognise that they are not perfect, and are capable of making fallible decisions, so submit themselves to the rigours of democratic consent, and the voices of the dissenters. Only the bad ones surround themselves with ‘yes men’ (like George W. Bush). Admission of our fallibility is the starting point of the Christian journey, is it not? Blair counts himself as a religious man, so why did he ignore that basic belief at that crucial time of decision?

I see the results of this bias almost every day. My fellow evangelicals have a set of beliefs that spring from their faith, which they count as vital core parts of their faith. They believe a, b, and c, so then it follows that d, e, f,… right up to x, y and z must be true too. They post on social media about all these various things. I reply that they’ve latched onto a hoax or an exaggeration. 9 times out of 10, they react badly, and reject my claim, no matter how factual it is. Saddens me, since we all follow Jesus, who is The Truth. I cannot comprehend how holding on to something false has any positive effect for the holder, the hearer/ reader, or our faith (or society in general!)

And so this is why I maintain my core belief in the separation of church and state, as has been maintained in manywestminster-abbey branches of Christianity, not least the Baptist school of thought. If we allow any ‘church’ or any part of the Christian church in the world, to have political power, then certain convictions they hold will be subject to become state policy, and who is to say which convictions are right, and which are wrong? In a plural society, under the overarching belief… no! strike that… the overarching fact that not one of us is infallible (except The One), we all need to find common agreement on things.

My convictions of faith are mine, and I do seek to convince others that my faith is true, and convert them to following Jesus, but any decision I make in regards to politics or the society I share must recognise that many things I hold true are not so for others, and may even be unfounded! I know which things are certain in my heart, but even those are simply personal and not universal. Just surrounding myself with ‘yes men’ who concur with all my convictions will not change that fact.

Tony Blair failed as our PM right at the most important time we needed him to make a decision, simply because he had convinced himself of his motives. What does our scripture say about that?

Fools find no pleasure in understanding
    but delight in airing their own opinions. (Prov. 18:2)

Do not get me wrong; my values will always shape what I say, do, act, vote, lobby, campaign or petition for. However, I exist as one individual in a society of voices, and we will never agree on everything, so listening to those voices, and understanding them, is vital for righteous living, in my humble opinion.

Grace be with you.

It’s an offence!

not-religiousOne of the most influential books I read as a young Christian trying to find the path that Jesus asked us to follow was “How to be a Christian without being Religious” by Fritz Ridenour. It was a fairly simple book that expounded Paul’s epistle to the Romans. Well, it was as simple as any exposition of that letter can be! Needless to say, the main point the author was trying to get across was that religion is not what following Jesus is about, and that, in essence, is one of the main themes Paul stresses in his epistles, which was exactly why the book had that title. So it has shaped me ever since, to be someone who wishes to express my love for Jesus and my desire to follow him without falling into the same trap that all other religion (including ‘Christian religion’) falls into. That is the trap of sameness, ritual and blind devotion to a code and to a way that others have followed without much thought.

One of the ways we see this expressed is when an offence is caused against a religion. The murders at the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris is an extreme example; that magazine made the offence of religions across the world its mission, and they did create a long string of articles and cartoons that enraged religious adherents of many faiths. However, they did not deserve to die for such transgressions. When I do see and hear fellow believers become almost1489207_10205194809768149_7591136757420390852_n as ‘offended’ at such publications as those Muslim extremists, I fear that it might be possible they could descend into the same madness (some Christians have been so offended by abortions being performed that they have resorted to murder!). On a more standard level, though, short of taking someone’s life, I do wonder if we are only having the same attitude as those jihadists, and becoming ‘religious’ about it. Should we be any different in our demeanour? Can we?

When questions like this arise in my head, I turn to other things I know I can apply. Linguistically, an ‘offence’ (in English at least) can be taken, but never given! I cannot give you offence, but I can cause you offence. ‘Cause’ is one of those words that carries specific semantic properties – in layman’s terms, it means it is fairly easy to grasp what it means. Were you to hit someone with your car while driving and they died, you would have caused their death. You would not be performing the active verb ‘to kill’, unless you drove at them with the intention of killing them. So ’cause’ has a limited usage: it is indicative of an action that created a situation not intended or beyond the control of the performer. Note that you can use the active verb form: “You offended me!”, whether the person who offended you intended to or not; it can be used in both cases.

So if you have a case where someone says or does something with the intent to offend you, that is very deliberate. However, for someone to cause you offence, you have to take it. If I were to attempt to give you a gift, but you did not take it, then I did not give it, I only intended to. The transaction did not take place. Similarly, in order for an offence to occur, it has to be taken by the intended recipient. Otherwise, no offence passed from intender to intendee! Put it another way; if the offender has the intention, and wishes to offend you, they will be thwarted if you don’t take it. Yes? Their fiery dart will have missed its intended target. If, however, they had no intention of causing offence, and did so in ignorance or innocence, then why should you take the offence anyway? In both cases, choosing not to take offence is the best option! No?

So while this might all sound fine and dandy as my own philosophising, does it ‘square up with scripture’?

But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.

Matt. 5:39

If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’[Deut. 32:35] says the Lord. On the contrary:

‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
    if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.’[Prov. 25:21,22]

Rom. 12: 18-20

In other words, the person who intends to cause offence against us as believers must be offered ‘the other cheek’ i.e. we show that they did not smite us or knock us down, but we are willing to let them continue to try to insult us. The person who intends to offend God is in God’s hands, and it is not for us to jump to his defence. As I have quoted the lyrics of Bono before: “Stop helping God across the road like a little old lady!” We are to stand up for the little guy who needs defending, but not the creator of the universe! We not only insult him in his majesty, we also disobey his direct commands!

Also, imagine having burning coals heaped on your head! Would you not be dancing in pain, howling and swiping your head to get the coals off? Pretty funny for others to watch who had that sort of sense of humour, but almost certainly you’d be looking like a fool. So in order to disarm these intentional offenders, our reaction should be not to react! If we take no offence, they will be seen as base, boorish or just plain annoying. The unintentional offenders who might do so just for the sake of comedy would not fulfil this maxim if they had no intent i.e. they are not our enemy. We might just be able to laugh along with them, if they were really being funny.

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for whoever is not against us is for us.

Mark 9:40

Yeah, maybe I’ve taken that verse well out of context, but let us not make more enemies for ourselves! Just because Jesus told us “Everyone will hate you because of me” (Mark 13:13 – which could also be said to be out of context since Jesus was talking about the persecution by the first-century Jews) does not mean we must go around giving people reason to hate us! Such attitude and/or behaviour flies in the face of all the commands to love and do good to others!

Grace be with you.

The end, surely? (but NOT for the EU!)

tower-of-babel-600I have blogged a few times on ‘End Times Prophecies’ and thought I might have posted my last. Recently, with the EU debate looming, old interpretations about Rome/ Babylon/ Europe/ whatever have surfaced again. Yes! Old ones, since I’d heard it all before many years ago! A very good short blog was shared on social media, from premierchristianity.com., entitled ‘I believe in prophecy. But the EU is not Babylon the Great.’ (here)

The author of the blog, Martyn Whittock, is qualified in theology and history, and specialised in the interpretation of prophecy in the 17th century. I have always wondered what previous generations (pre-dispensationalism) made of these difficult parts of scripture. He responded to a comment of mine on the blog, about how I heard about the ten-horned beast when the EU (then the EEC) became 10 members. I’ve included his reply here in full:

I remember that coin. I also remember how, in 1976, I took an assembly at school and said that the EEC was the ten-horned beast of Daniel 7. Some friends of mine thought that Henry Kissinger (US National Security Advisor and Secretary of State) might be the antichrist. I never could quite see what poor Henry had done to deserve this suspicion.

Then I went to university and studied the history of End Time prophecies over 2000 years, on my way to becoming a Medieval and Early Modern historian. It was then that I realised that we had been here before…again and again…and always got it wrong. I read ‘The Little Horn’s Doom and Downfall’ (1651) by Mary Cary, who was convinced it was Charles I, then Oliver Cromwell. That made me think. Then the EEC grew way beyond 10 nations and I knew we were the latest in the terrible track record of wrong predictions.

What is disturbing is that, in 2016, I see the same erroneous claims being recycled that I knew in 1976; only with the latest twists (eg the claim that seat 666 is left vacant in the EU Parliament). How to explain this? I think one of two explanations: 
(a) People of the 1970s generation who have never admitted their mistakes. There is a track record of failed-End-Time-predictors refusing to admit their error and, instead, recycling it in a revised form: after Jan Mathias’ failure in 1534 his successor claimed that he was the returned messiah, until the revolt was crushed in 1535; the Fifth Monarchy Men, having failed in the 1650s, then seized on the year 1666 (and failed again); the Millerites (later Seventh Day Adventists) after the ‘Great Disappointment’ of 1844 claimed that a ‘change’ had occurred in heaven (others claimed Christ had returned invisibly); Jehovah’s Witnesses reverted to similar beliefs about the failed prediction of 1914, although some seized on the events of that year to reinvent it as signalling ‘the end of the time of the Gentiles’; Hal Lindsey’s implicit assumption that the Second Coming would occur within a generation (ie 40 years) of 1948 (ie 1988) being revised to ‘encoded symbols’ that would only be understood in the 21st century by Christians with correct ‘insight’; Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson’s identification of the USSR as Gog, Magog, and Rosh being revised by Robertson (after the fall of communism in 1989) to a focus on the ‘Illuminati’; the 10-nation-EEC (now it is 28) being revised to some inexplicable future political transformation that will reduce it to 10 again.
(b) People with an antagonism to the EU (and it’s a free country so that’s ok) spiritualising their prejudices (that’s not ok) so they don’t have to worry about difficult matters such as economics, politics, etc, since if it’s antichrist you don’t need to worry about these complications, as obviously it is just wrong. So, that website which said that the 28 states will get reduced to 10(!) added that it will have a political centre in Germany and a religious centre in Rome (so, anti-EU prejudice combined with two other English historic prejudices!). Clearly a desperate attempt to force reality into a preconceived framework. Worrying, to put it mildly.
Since I believe in prophecy I think it is crucial to admit when our interpretation of it is wrong.

Surely, once you have read this, you cannot simply cling to this ongoing error! For 2000 yeblood-moonars, various individuals and groups within the church have made attempt after attempt to decipher the apocalyptic texts, and each one to no avail! I have already found out for myself that my prediction that Wormwood is a meteorite was wrong, debunked the restoration of Israel and the secret rapture as completely unbiblical, demolished the whole premise of the ‘Blood Moons’, as well as already showing the dangers of making predictions. Add to that the fact that when the last Lord Mayor of London procession was televised, they had statues of Gog and Magog… clearly ancient Roman soldiers, not Russia as I had been told was unarguably factual so many times! Having read the above comments about how this continual guessing and suggesting has happened numerous times over centuries, is it not clear that the whole ‘end times’ preaching we hear in so many churches is utter nonsense? And dangerous nonsense at that! As I have consistently pointed out, much of what we believe as evangelicals is political, not religious, and this apocalyptic preaching is clearly in that camp since it is attempting to explain world events and history; preconceptions and prejudices are bound to surface in all the postulating! All that is expressed above in that comment confirms this.1415471839210_wps_13_Gog_and_Magog_are_paraded

So am I saying that all the pastors who spout this tripe have been lying to us? Not at all, I think they’ve just followed along in an error from previous mentors, and become indoctrinated into the whole debacle (and just repeated and recycled what are obvious lies, like the seat no. 666 described – because it fits into their worldview). Though there are maybe some who have made good money from the books they write who should know, if they have researched properly, that their ideas are pure conjecture. I’d hazard a guess that they are simply self-deluded.

do know how difficult it is to let go of things we have always held onto, especially as we have thought of them as biblical truths linked to our faith, but as I have said before, the release from this worldview changes so much in you, and for me it’s all for the better. Let me assure you: It has not shaken my belief in the return of our Lord Jesus Christ, not one bit! I just choose to leave the timescale in the Father’s hands, and not sweat about it. I shall see signs after they unfold, like Wormwood, but predicting is modern-day divination!!

Do not practice divination or seek omens. (Lev. 19:26)

Maybe I could make one prediction for 2016? It is the end… for ‘End Times’ predictions! Let go of it all now; it’s 2000 years overdue! And then live your life for Jesus.

Grace be with you.

Who is my neighbour?

good_samaritan

It would appear that the commandment ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ which goes right back to Leviticus (19:18) has always drawn the question “who is my neighbour?” as if we all want to be sure that we can include those we want to love and exclude the rest. Many commentators often try to whittle down the possibilities to produce a smaller category. Isn’t that what we all want? There are plenty of people around that I just have no desire to show love to! I do not like being told to extend my loving embrace beyond my own circle! It’s only human nature. Meeting that question head on, Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan (which has come to be lost on us to some extent since we no longer view Samaritans with the same contempt that first century Jews had). Though if you wish to take a deeper thought from the parable that I never realised myself, take a look at the ‘grammatical tweak‘ Jesus performs.

Reading a daily devotional from my own church the other morning, I was struck by a thought. The devotional highlighted a legal statement made under tort law (which seeks to define cases eligible for civil lawsuits). It came from Lord Atkins in a 1932 case, where he answered that perennial question ‘who is my neighbour?’ in a very concise and helpful way:

“The answer seems to be persons who are so closely and directly affected by my act that I ought reasonably to have them in contemplation as being so affected when I am directing my mind to the acts or omissions which are called in question.”

If we accept this very concise and very apt description, then practically everybody we coilovemankindme into contact with is our neighbour, whom we are to love. This could be anybody that any ‘act or omission‘ on my part would affect, so not even offering a smile to someone could be an omission by me that otherwise would have affected that person: Even that person who cut into my lane last week and nearly swiped the entire wing off my car. I can assure you I did not give her a smile!

If you think this only applies to acts you do, not ‘omission’ of acts you did not do, think again:

If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them.

James 4:17

Though I’ve long known that the above is the true definition of my neighbour (and I have grave reservations about anyone trying to narrow it), I now realise that in the 21st century, this must go even further! Social media has turned the ‘global village’ into a thriving metropolis. Those who used to be people we sent emails to in order to be faster than traditional ‘snail mail’ can now be easily messaged or tweeted instantly, at any time or place in the world (with internet connection). I can raise someone up or put them down with my all-powerful words, and that someone could be a total stranger to me thousands of miles away. Only now they are no longer a stranger, they are my neighbour! I have forged relationships with new people on Facebook, friended friends of friends, and entered into lengthy debates over faith and politics with other commenters on various blogs, articles or Facebook posts. I have maintained relationships with people I no longer meet in person, and rekindled old ones. This new world of communication makes our need to be salt and light all the more potent, dynamic, consuming and precarious! Especially when you consider the pitfalls of the absence on social media of non-verbal communication!!

May we consider carefully every word we type and ‘send button’ we hit!

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Grace be with you.

Then they came for the Muslims…

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—Martin_Niemöller_(1952)
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

– Pastor Martin Niemöller

You may have heard or read a different version of this poem, because it exists in a number of forms. It certainly was given in speeches by Niemöller (1892-1984), who was a German Lutheran Pastor, contemporary and colleague of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (see last post). The version above is the one found on the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, but in various guises it can be discovered, with mention of Communists, the ‘incurable’, the Social Democrats, etc. The point being made is basically that by not standing up for those who are ‘not like us’ or ‘not of our race/ religion/ creed/ political allegiance’, we do ourselves a disservice and thus fail to serve all of humanity.

The problem that confronted Niemöller was that, unlike some contemporaries at the time of the rise of Nazism, he did not speak out against Hitler, at least not at first, and this poem that we read is testimony to the anguish he felt over his initial inaction. He was anti-Communist, so welcomed the new Chancellor who was going to deal with the problems caused by what he saw as the prevalent social evil of his time, and deal firmly with those who were stirring things up and were enemies of the church. It was only as time went on, and each successive group of scapegoats were ‘dealt with’ that he started to realise where things were going. The Jews would appear to have been the group that suffered the most under Hitler, but they shared the concentration camps with political dissidents like communists as well as gypsies, homosexuals and Jehovah’s Witnesses.

What Niemöller intended with his words was to convey how it started with those that ‘everyone disliked’ i.e. the political troublemakers, then it moved to a group marked by nothing except their religion or race (the Jews). It is often debated how a modern European ‘civilised’ nation like 20th century Germany could so easily have allowed these things to happen, but it was at the end of a centuries-long process of the dehumanisation of the Jews. Anti-Semitism may have complex roots but to simplify it as best as one can; the first step was when many Jews in Europe became bankers by trade. This was a niche for them to fill since the church, pre-reformation, banned the practice of usury (charging interest on loans), since this is actually forbidden in the laws of the Old Testament. Actually it was forbidden for Israelites to charge interest to fellow countrymen (brothers in the faith), but not those of other races or faiths, and so since Christians could not lend to each other professionally, Jews were able to exploit that market. Various Kings and Emperors across Europe employed their services to bankroll their armies as they tried to take more territory and defeat neighbours; because many of them resented paying the money back, they would concoct stories against Jews, like saying that they ate Christian babies – horrible stuff like that – or blame them on devilry and casting bad omens and spells when disasters occurred, and then allow mobs to ‘take matters into their own hands’ or just proclaim a law that all Jews be deported, and thus their debts went away with the exiles! Where Jews found they could stay, they tended to remain together for their own safety and so their ‘ghettoisation’ began; they often did not integrate well with Christians.

By the time of Nazism, even ‘scientific’ studies were used to offer proof that Jews were genetically inferior, or ‘subhuman’ to the ‘better races’ like the White European tribes. On top of this, laissez-faire capitalism, in its first recent outing, had collapsed the world markets in the Wall Street Crash of 1929 (just like it did again in 2008). People then realised, as many are realising this time around, that it was the fault of the banks and the unhindered greed of the bankers who could not stop the ‘boom’ of the 20s and went too far. For the reasons listed above, many of these bankers were Jewish! In finding who to blame for the woes of the First Great Depression, much was apportioned to the Jews, and so the rounding up of these people was easier to achieve. Problem was that not all bankers were Jews, and not all Jews were bankers, but who would be concerned with such petty truths when people have a good old-fashioned lynch mob ready to take the trash out to the bins!

Anti-Semitism is on the rise again, and some are using the recent crash and New Depression in their finger-pointing efforts, but in the complexities of world politics, we have a situation where nobody really wants a return to persecuting the Jews like ’twas done a generation ago (fortunately), and Israel has become a powerful world nation with ties and links to major political powers. These days you only have to say that you’re not a fan of Woody Allen’s films to have the Anti-Defamation League accuse you of being anti-Semitic!

Enter the new scapegoats! The ‘Jews of the 21st century’! The Muslims!! Sure we all see the barbarity of those extremists who post their own videos online to boast to the world just how barbaric they can be as they do it all in the name of Allah, to cries of ‘Allahu Akbar!’ – sure we can see with our own eyes on our TV screens just how murderous and utterly detestable these people are! I’ll make no argument against that. I have already stated how the likes of ISIS are immoral human beings. However, just as not all Jews were or are bankers, and I believe we should apportion blame on those bankers who messed up (in 1929 and 2008) for our financial problems, so I also see that not all Muslims are extremists, and we should apportion the blame for the genocidal activities we are seeing on the extremists, and the extremists alone!

The dehumanising process has begun already. A large proportion of immigrants coming here are Muslims (actually escaping persecution by the extremists!); how often do we read in our media of ‘the death of an immigrant’ under a truck or of ‘a boatload of immigrants’ in the Mediterranean instead of the death of a boatload of people? They are fleeing the same groups that are our enemies, they are victims too. In the huge complexities that we need to wade through to find any sort of answer to this crisis (which I believe could be reduced from the megacrisis it is portrayed to be by parties interested in scapegoating again), we will have many questions difficult to answer. Let us relish the challenge instead of jerking our knees to the goose-step of hatred!

You don’t think they’re being dehumanised? Nobody is calling for their extermination, like the Nazis with the Jews? Think again! Almost a year ago, Charisma magazine online published an article from the website of the CADC (Christian Anti-Defamation Commission) that called for the extermination of all Muslims in the Western world! Actually it called for Muslims to ‘convert, leave, or die!’ – how and where does that sound familiar? While the CADC may be a fringe group, Charisma is a magazine of some note and a reasonable readership – its founder, Stephen Strang, was listed by TIME in 2005 in the ’25 most influential evangelicals in America’. I am very pleased to say that due to a flood of protests, Charisma removed the article and link, but never offered a reason for retraction nor an apology! To  think that they would even consider printing such an article is beyond my comprehension! I do not pass judgment on the salvation of other believers, but this attitude has zero to do with my faith, or my Jesus!!! The original article is still available here at defendchristians.org.

muslim-family-cropped-shutterstock_185552456-400x400Unlike Niemöller, who waited too long to be effective, I will start speaking out now, to halt the process that turns humans into cattle for slaughter, before we reach the day when we add a new line to that poem: “Then they came for the Muslims…”. I shall leave you with the very words of Pastor Niemöller [apologies for the imperfect translation], so you can sense his regret and angst:

When Pastor Niemöller was put in a concentration camp we wrote the year 1937; when the concentration camp was opened we wrote the year 1933, and the people who were put in the camps then were Communists. Who cared about them? We knew it, it was printed in the newspapers.
Who raised their voice, maybe the Confessing Church? We thought: Communists, those opponents of religion, those enemies of Christians – “should I be my brother’s keeper?”
Then they got rid of the sick, the so-called incurables. – I remember a conversation I had with a person who claimed to be a Christian. He said: Perhaps it’s right, these incurably sick people just cost the state money, they are just a burden to themselves and to others. Isn’t it best for all concerned if they are taken out of the middle [of society]? — Only then did the church as such take note. Then we started talking, until our voices were again silenced in public. Can we say, we aren’t guilty/responsible? The persecution of the Jews, the way we treated the occupied countries, or the things in Greece, in Poland, in Czechoslovakia or in Holland, that were written in the newspapers
I believe, we Confessing-Church-Christians have every reason to say: mea culpa, mea culpa! We can talk ourselves out of it with the excuse that it would have cost me my head if I had spoken out…. We preferred to keep silent. We are certainly not without guilt/fault, and I ask myself again and again, what would have happened, if in the year 1933 or 1934 – there must have been a possibility – 14,000 Protestant pastors and all Protestant communities in Germany had defended the truth until their deaths? If we had said back then, it is not right when Hermann Göring simply puts 100,000 Communists in the concentration camps, in order to let them die. I can imagine that perhaps 30,000 to 40,000 Protestant Christians would have had their heads cut off, but I can also imagine that we would have rescued 30-40,000 million [sic] people, because that is what it is costing us now.

Grace be with you.