‘I just want to do God’s will’ – Martin Luther King’s final speech

Every day around 100 homeless people come to the day centre run by the West London Mission for a hot breakfast, showers, clothing or to see our in-house doctor or nurse.

Lively, raw and honest

Every Tuesday a Spirituality Discussion group takes place in the TV room led by our Chaplain.  I love it when I am invited to come to the group and participate in the discussions because they are always lively, raw and honest.  Discussing the deep questions of life and faith with homeless people has been a richly rewarding experience.

This week, the group asked me to lead a discussion on the life of Martin Luther King. I handed out copies of his ’10 Commandments of Non-violence’ that he asked protesters to sign and this created a lot of discussion:

I hereby pledge myself – my person and body – to the Nonviolent Movement. Therefore I will keep the following Ten Commandments:

  1. Meditate on the life and teachings of Jesus
  2. Remember the nonviolent movement seeks justice and reconciliation – not victory.
  3. Walk and talk in the manner of love; for God is love.
  4. Pray daily to be used by God that all men and women might be free.
  5. Sacrifice personal wishes that all might be free.
  6. Observe with friend and foes the ordinary rules of courtesy.
  7. Perform regular service for others and the world.
  8. Refrain from violence of fist, tongue and heart.
  9. Strive to be in good spiritual and bodily health.
  10. Follow the directions of the movement leaders on demonstrations.

‘I’ve been to the Mountain top’

But of everything shared, the most impact came from watching a clip of his final speech, made to striking sanitation workers on April 3rd 1968 in Memphis.  Some people believe that MLK had some form of premonition of his impending death:

“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will.”

The next day, Martin Luther King was shot dead.  He was 39 years old.

Do you have 2 minutes to spare? Then watch this:

See R&R’s review of the film ‘Selma’ which is on general release in the UK next week.

Posted in Ethics & Christian living | Tagged | Leave a comment

Remembering the holocaust means fighting anti-semitism today – by Alan Bolchover

Anti-semitic graffitiThis week marks the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp. Many of my Jewish friends are sharing their own family experiences of the holocaust. Nearly all of us have them.

During the war, my grandfather Elio lived in a village called Lubcz in Belorussia, where he had been brought up.

In 1941 the Germans invaded Belorussia and “liquidated” the village – the Jews who lived there did not even make it to Auschwitz.  My grandfather managed to save his brother Guttel and his sister Sonia but the rest of his family and friends were murdered. Along with the rest of the Jewish population, they were marched out of the village and machine gunned to death en masse in one day. A thousand men, women and children. including many of my relatives, all brutally killed in one day.

I have visited Lubcz and seen where all this happened.  The experience had a deep impact on me. It is part of my family’s story, part of my identity, part of who I am.

Rise of anti-semitism

There is a reason why so many of my friends are posting these stories at the moment and it is not just because it is Holocaust Memorial time. It is because increasingly, we as Jews feel concerned about our future and the rise of anti-semitism throughout the world.

My brother, who works as an accountant in Manchester, was hit in the face last year for buying bagels at a Jewish delicatessen.  The motive of the assailant was that he was buying Israeli food.  The police were there and asked him whether he wanted to press charges.  All this for being Jewish and buying bagels.

My other brother lives in Southgate in London. The synagogue he takes his children to has had excrement and bricks thrown at it.

This is happening today in 2015 – and Jews are nervous again.  I believe in the old Churchill adage that “the further back you look, the further forward you are likely to see.” History could not be more relevant in today’s world.

Anti-Jewish coalition

Increasingly we have a bizarre anti-Jewish European coalition growing in Europe between radical Islamic views, the far right and the far left. They are different in many ways but they unify on one key point – seeing a common enemy in Israel, and by implication, Jews.  From George Galloway to Jean Marie Le Pen via Nicolas Anelka – they all share one core belief – that Israel and “the Jews” are at the heart of the “problem”.

In France we have a situation where Jean Marie le Pen and the founder of the “quenelle”, Dieudonne, have founded a strong anti-establishment voice which has a contempt for Jews and Israel at its heart.  The result: 35% of those under 35s in France voted for the Front National.

No wonder French Jews are leaving France.  Over the last year or so many French Jews have fled to two places: London and Israel.

Why London?  Because it is in the EU and is relatively easy to travel back to Paris to continue with their jobs.  But also Britain has a proven history of protecting minorities.  Jews have lived here for 360 years in relative peace.  My family have lived happily here and are testament to that.

Open arms

The vast majority however have gone to Israel.  Why?  Because it welcomes them with open arms and says “here we will look after you and we will die to protect you”

Of course this is not ideal as we share the land with another people.  I hope and pray that Israelis and Palestinians can live alongside each other in peace, with a Palestinian state founded alongside an Israeli one. Where both peoples can live freely.

Everyone should be able to walk freely without fear of intimidation and violence but currently we are walking a tightrope. As we remember the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, we must commit to making sure that such hatred never takes hold of our world again.  As George Santayana put it “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Alan Bolchover lives in North West London with his wife and two children.

Posted in Social commentary | Tagged , | Leave a comment

False Profits: why all companies should pay the tax they owe – by Laura Taylor

Tax Dodging Bill campaignTax collectors had a pretty bad name in New Testament times. And perhaps rightly so. At the time, taxation represented subordination and injustice – collected by a Roman regime stripping wealth from the territories they occupied to fund the machinery of their empire.

Religious leaders of the day debated whether it was morally right to pay these taxes.  This is what led to the famous question put to Jesus in Mark’s gospel, to which he replied “Give back to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” (Mark 12:17)

The common good

In January, when many of us are racing to fill in our tax returns, we might have similar feelings about tax collectors. We are asked to part with our hard-earned cash and to hand it over to the government, in the trust/hope that they will spend it well.

While we may have some concerns about precisely what happens to the money, few would say that tax itself is an emblem of injustice. Rather, taxation can be one of the best ways in which a society can share its burdens, duties and responsibility to provide the goods and services we need for our mutual “common good”. It is tax that pays for schools, hospitals, and the protection of the vulnerable – the stuff that makes us a decent society.

Outrage

There has been huge indignation about the tiny amount of tax paid by many multinational companies, such as Google, Amazon and Starbucks.  People are outraged because it seems to be another example of the rich and powerful acting with disregard for the rest of society. But also, if like me you have visited a country where women face a two day walk to a hospital to give birth, or where children are taught in the open because not enough classrooms have been built, then you know just how much difference this money could could make to those in desperate need.

Changing the law

One of the common defences put forward is that the highly complex reporting processes that companies have put in place mean that what they are doing usually is not illegal. However, as the public outcry confirms, just because something is legal, it doesn’t mean that it is moral.

Of course, boycotting Amazon or Starbucks is one way we can express our fury at a personal level but, as the law is meant to set out a society’s common view of morality, then if we don’t like what’s going on, then we need to push for a change in the law, and ask the government to close some of the loop holes which let companies get away with this.

A Tax Dodging bill

A campaign has launched this week which is seeking to do just that. A group including Church Action on Poverty, Church Urban Fund, Christian Aid and the Quakers, as well as Oxfam, the NUS and others, are asking all political parties to introduce a Tax Dodging Bill in the first 100 days after the election. This Bill would tackle some of the loopholes and could help make billions more available to tackle poverty both in the UK and overseas.  You can read more about it and sign up here.

Tax may have felt like an injustice in the Roman empire 2000 years ago. But fighting for tax justice looks a bit different today. Rowan Williams summed it up well recently when he said:

“The campaign for tax justice has a moral foundation. A just society expects companies to contribute their fair share towards the common good. When some multinational companies find ways to manipulate their profits to avoid paying tax where it is owed, this has a real and direct impact on others, particularly the poorest.”

Laura Taylor is Head of Advocacy at Christian Aid.

Posted in Politics | Tagged , | Leave a comment

The personal cost of injustice: review of ‘Selma’ (12A)

selma UK movie posterFew people have integrated activism, theology and personal commitment in such an inspiring way as Martin Luther King.

‘Selma’ is the first major feature film made about King.  It focuses on his campaign in Selma, Alabama in 1965, where the restrictions and obstacles enforced on black people meant that, despite having a constitutional right to vote, hardly any were registered.

Powerful portrayal

The film is a powerful portrayal of the man at centre of the civil rights movement. David Oyelowo captures King’s resonant voice and lyrical expressions incredibly well. It also avoids hagiography and deals with the well-documented flaws in King’s life.

The reason ‘Selma’ is a great film is because of the way it weaves the political battle with the personal stories of those involved.  Behind this famous movement, lay countless stories of people tired of injustice and who had the courage to stand up against it.

Political reality

The film opens with King receiving the Nobel Peace Prize for his achievements, but there is no resting on his laurels. When he returns to the US, he goes to see the President Lyndon B. Johnston (Tom Wilkinson) to press the need for reform to the voting system which effectively excluded black people from the ballot in many southern states.

The encounters between King and LBJ are masterfully portrayed. LBJ was a skilled and wily political operator who is reluctant to change his agenda for what King is demanding. In one scene an exasperated LBJ shouts at King: ‘You’re an activist, I’m the President. You’ve got one problem, I’ve got hundred and one problems.’

King also faced much opposition and disputes within the civil rights movement where the activists of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) resented the publicity King created and parodied him as ‘De Lawd’.  It captures well the fractious alliance that King was able to hold together for the greater good.

Personal cost

But the power of the film lies in the way it conveys the personal stories of those who marched and protested for change. This is where King becomes just one person amid many who were beaten, imprisoned and killed for standing against the injustice.

We see four girls chatting about their hair as they walk down to their church basement before a bomb blows the building apart. We see the humiliation of Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) who is continually denied in her attempts to register to vote. We see the anger and resolve that grows in Jimmy Lee Jones and his family as they are drawn into the protests. We see the conviction growing in others, such as the Boston clergyman, James Reeb, who responds to King’s call to come to Alabama to join the march.

In addition, we see the personal cost to Coretta King because of the constant death threats to her and her children.  And we see the pain she experiences when the FBI send her recordings from bugged hotel rooms of her husband being unfaithful. These historical realities are neither exaggerated nor ignored – they are simply true parts of the story that need to be told.

Spiritual vibrancy

And lastly, ‘Selma’ does not air-brush out the spirituality at the heart of the civil rights movement. The scenes of King’s sermons in churches capture the spiritual vibrancy which fueled the movement. And the churches are accurately portrayed as the organisational bedrock from which the civil rights movement operated.

And at a key moment in the story – when King is faced with a decision about whether or not to lead protesters to cross the bridge out of Selma, we see him kneeling in prayer to gain guidance and clarity about what to do.  It is in God that this famous clergyman found the resources to deal with the challenges he faced.

‘Selma’ is a powerful, moving and uplifting film, and I would urge everyone to go and see it.

Posted in Films & music | Tagged , | 3 Comments

The secularisation of Martin Luther King

Jon Kuhrt:

Ahead of Martin Luther King day tomorrow in the US and the release of the film ‘Selma’ in the UK, I am re-posting this article from 2013.

Originally posted on Resistance & Renewal:

MLKThere has been a huge amount of coverage in this last week about the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’sI have a Dream speech which was delivered at the 1963 March on Washington.

The speech is widely considered as the most inspirational of the 20th century.  However, alongside the appreciation there is a consistent tendency of commentators to downplay or eliminate the Christian faith in King’s activism and the wider civil rights movement.

A Baptist Minister

So frequently is King is referred to as a ‘Civil Rights leader’ that many people don’t even know that he was and always remained a Baptist Minister until his death.  Despite the campaigning, the marches, the imprisonments and the Nobel prizes, almost every Sunday he would preach at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Montgomery or later on at Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta.

It was because of his role as a Minister that, aged 26, he was asked to lead the boycott of…

View original 763 more words

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

A journey of radical humility: ‘Pope Francis: Untying the Knots’ by Paul Vallely [review]

Pope-Francis-Untying-the-KnotsRecently I was talking with someone who was brought up a Catholic but it now an atheist. Although he has rejected the church of his upbringing, he was fascinated and excited by the approach of Pope Francis.

It was just one example of the impact that Jorge Bergoglio has had since becoming Pope in March 2013. His generosity, simplicity and passion for social justice has captured the imagination of those both inside and outside the Church.

Conservative and dictatorial

But, as this biography shows, Bergoglio journey to becoming Pope is not a straightforward one.  Back in the 1970s and 80s, when he headed up the Jesuits in Argentina, he was seen as dictatorial, conservative and divisive figure who tried to quash the influence of the Liberation Theology movement. He was even implicated in the military’s kidnapping and torture of radical priests who worked in the slums.

Vallely explores these accusations extensively and does not shy away from mistakes that Bergoglio made during this period. The question that lies at the heart of the book is how did Jorge Bergoglio transform from such a conservative and divisive figure to someone who is proving to be such a radical and popular Pope?

Deep spiritual experience

The answer is what makes this biography so fascinating and helpful.  Because Vallely argues that Bergoglio’s transformation came not through shrewd careerism or a shift in political outlook, but a deep spiritual experience.  He came to terms with his mistakes and failures through prayer and repentance.

Mary Untier of KnotsThe subtitle of the book comes from a painting called Mary Untier of Knots which Bergoglio discovered when exiled in Germany in the 1980s because his superiors wanted him out of Argentina.

The knots are a metaphor for the difficulties we face and as Vallely puts it ‘There were knots aplenty for the Virgin Mary to untie for Bergoglio”. He spent many hours praying and meditating in front of the picture.

‘Bishop of the slums’

As Vallely writes ‘An extraordinary journey had begun’ which would lead Bergoglio back to Argentina and eventually to become Archbishop of Buenos Aires.  In this role he spurned the luxurious trappings of high office and insisted on using public transport.

He became known as ‘the bishop of the Slums’ because of how he increased the numbers of priests working in the poorest areas. In addition, he became an outspoken critic of economic injustice which maintained poverty:

‘We are tired of systems that produce poor people so that then the Church can support them’

Breaking the mould

Right from the off, it was clear that he was going to be a different kind of Pope. When approached to be offered the role, the candidate would traditionally say one word: “Accepto“.  When Jorge Bergoglio was asked, he replied:

“I am a great sinner, trusting in the mercy and patience of God in suffering, I accept.”

Bergoglio’s appointment broke the mould: he became the first Jesuit Pope, the first to come from the southern hemisphere and the first ever to take the name Francis. And since taking on the role he has been determined to embody a simpler and less formal type of papacy.

‘I don’t need all this space’

When he was shown the Apostolic Palace where generations of Popes have lived he said ‘There’s room for 300 people here. I don’t need all this space’ and decided to live in a simple guesthouse. The next day he preached at Mass:

“If we walk without the cross…then we are not our Lord’s disciples. We are worldly people. We may be bishops, priests, cardinals, popes. But we are not disciples of the Lord”

As Vallely notes ‘Cardinals were not used to anyone suggesting, particularly not the Pope, that they were not proper disciples of Christ’.

‘Our true power must be in service’

This biography  is inspiring because it shows how personal spirituality can equip a leader with the resources to be brave and radical in the public sphere.  His lifestyle and integrity drives the clarity of his vision:

‘The poor are the treasure of the Church. If we lose this vision of things, we will have a lukewarm, weak and mediocre Church. Our true power must be service. We cannot adore God if our spirit does not include the needy.’

I have never read a book about a Pope before, but this biography excited and inspired me. Jorge Bergoglio is a flawed human being, a sinner, whose experience of God’s grace has led him on an incredible adventure in radical humility.  Who knows what God may achieve through him?

Buy Pope Francis: Untying the Knots – by Paul Vallely

Posted in Recommended books | Tagged | Leave a comment

I am Not Charlie: a Christian response to the killings in Paris – by Bob Ekblad

Officials join hundreds of thousands of people on a Je Suis Charlie march in Nice, France

I was deeply troubled by the news of the killings of journalists at Charlie Hebdo, France’s beloved satirical newspaper, by two French Muslim brothers of Algerian descent, Chérif and Saïd Kouachi. I’ve been haunted by footage I saw of these gunmen’s shooting of a police officer in cold blood on a Parisian street where our good friends live and where we regularly stay. The killing of four hostages in the Jewish kosher grocery store by another jihadist activist, followed by the French police’s shooting of all three gunmen, has made this a traumatic week for France and the world.

Should we be surprised by these killings? Offense, resentment, and shame carried by many young Muslim men and others on the margins today incite rage. In this case, the rage is directed against the dishonoring gaze and mocking words of journalism that appears to consider nothing sacred, except free speech.

Paying the consequences

In the twenty years of my chaplaincy ministry in our local jail and in prisons around the world, I have witnessed the consequences of the exercise of free speech over and over. Exercising your freedom of speech to say whatever you want in a prison context (and many other places too) is possible, but it is not advised, especially if your words increase offense and lead to a sense of powerlessness and shame when the offended one may not have an effective way to respond. If you disrespect someone’s mother, girlfriend, or even fellow gang member, you will likely pay the consequences at some point.

Cartoons of a naked Prophet Mohammed published by Charlie Hebdo, as well as images of the victims of Israel’s recent bombing of Gaza or America’s tortured detainees add to many Muslim people’s experience of being disrespected by the powerful status quo. Chérif and Saïd Kouachi sought to vindicate the honor of Mohammed (and his followers).

Alienation

Many second generation immigrants, like Chérif Kouachi and his brother (who was orphaned and then raised in France’s foster-care system), experience tremendous alienation growing up in Western European countries as disaffected minorities, and they find refuge in their identity as Muslims. Chérif Kouachi was reputed to have been first radicalized in his early twenties when he saw images and heard reports of American soldiers torturing Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib prison.

The tremendous violence unleashed on Palestinians by Israelis has radicalized many young Muslims.  Attacks on Muslims in Iraq, Syria and Yemen by Americans and their coalition through bombing raids, drone attacks, incarceration and torture is radicalizing many more. And Western media that dishonors Islam or justifies violent actions against it only adds salt to the wounds.

Further dishonour

People all around the world have reacted to the massacre at Charlie Hebdo by identifying with the slaughtered journalists, who have come to represent freedom of speech. Masses of mainstream Westerners with signs “I am Charlie” or “We are Charlie” (“Je suis Charlie”; “Nous Sommes Charlie”) are effectively cloning en masse those viewed by Muslims as dishonoring and mocking Islam.

When the French public and their sympathizers choose to first and foremost stand in solidarity with those champions of freedom of speech such as Charlie Hebdo (the French value of freedom or “liberté”) rather than prioritizing pursuit of communication and mutual understanding with Muslims (the value of brotherhood or “fraternité”), they further dishonor disaffected Muslims, provoking them toward deeper frustration and resentment and increasing violence.

Jesus’ response?

So how might followers of Jesus respond to this escalation of hatred and violence? Jesus warned his disciples: “You will be hearing of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not frightened, for those things must take place, but that is not yet the end” (Matthew 24:6). Jesus expects his listeners to be aware that history is heading toward increasing tension and to resist the natural tendencies toward hard- heartedness or violence.

“Because lawlessness is increased, most people’s love will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end, he will be saved. This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all the nations, and then the end will come” (Matthew 24:12–14). Anyone listening to Jesus is told to not be fearful, but to get on with the highest priority work—announcing the Gospel of the Kingdom. What is this Gospel?

It most certainly does not include Christians identifying with or justifying swift and effective retaliation, increased surveillance, growing suspicion, incarceration, hatred against Muslims, or fear. When James and John ask Jesus if they should call down fire from heaven to consume the Samaritans who refused them entry as they traveled toward Jerusalem, Jesus rebukes them, saying: “You do not know of what spirit you are of.  For the son of man did not come to destroy men’s lives but to save them” (Luke 9:55–56).

Building relationships

Those following Jesus need empowerment by the Holy Spirit to love our neighbors, to love our enemies, and to actively pursue understanding and reconciliation. This includes first taking the log out of our own eyes through confessing our sin and renouncing our violence. We must refuse our natural proclivity to judge the other, and to seek instead understanding with Muslims or anyone we label an “offender.” Honest communication can happen only when we build relationships.

Now we have an opportunity—to refuse to let our love grow cold or be overcome by evil, but to pursue Spirit-guided ways to overcome evil with good; to refuse to let the light of our Gospel be overcome by the darkness, but to shine brightly, so that all can see the light of the face of Christ—the world’s Messiah Savior.

Now is the time

Now is the time to pray for the families and communities of the dead and for the people of France, for God’s comfort and peace. Prayers for peace for the larger European continent are critical at this time, as anti-immigrant political parties are on the rise everywhere, and the scapegoating Muslims and Jew is likely to increase..

In contrast to the shaming gaze, we must seek to look with the compassion of Jesus, who sees the crowds harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd, and then exclaims: “The harvest is plenty but the workers are few: beg the Lord of the harvest to cast out workers into the harvest.”

This article was originally published on Bob Ekblad’s website and is re-produced with permission.

(I would strongly recommend R&R readers to sign up to Bob’s regular emails via his website.  His ministry is an inspiring mix of deep spirituality, gritty social reality and faithful hope in action. Bob is the author of ‘Reading the Bible with the Damned‘ and runs the Certificate in Transformational Ministry at the Margins. Jon Kuhrt)

Posted in Ethics & Christian living | Tagged , | 3 Comments

‘All Christians are political’ – putting our faith in the mixer

‘All Christians are political, whether they realise it or not. But especially when they don’t realise it’ Kenneth Leech

In football terminology, putting the ball ‘in the mixer’ means getting it into the penalty area right in front of the goal.   It’s where there is often some jostling and controversy and where the most contentious things happen. But this is often where the action is, where key things happen and where there is the greatest chance of changing the course of the match.

This is a bit like debates about how faith relates to issues in the public square.  It’s messy and complex.  Arguments can get heated, people get hurt and easily upset.  But this is where authentic faith has always lived.  The modern tendency for privatised, cosy beliefs expressed among everyone who agrees is a decaffinated version of authentic faith. It presents the Christian faith as not so much a Holy Fire but more like a nice scented candle.

The roots of a public faith

The thing is that truly following Jesus cannot be done in private – it is a public commitment which needs to be lived out in the real world. Right at the start of the Church’s life under the shadow of the Roman Empire there were many religious sects, cultus privatus, which offered their adherents a route to personal salvation.  These were not persecuted by the authorities because they posed no threat to the status quo.

But the Church never described itself as one of these – it almost uniformly used the phrase Ecclesia which means the public assembly or gathering.  Like Jesus’ himself, the public statements and actions of the Church were in conflict with both the Jewish and Roman authorities because they proclaimed what they believed was a public truth – not a privatised belief.  This threatened the control of the Jewish establishment and clashed with the cult of the Emperor. (For more see Proper Confidence in the Gospel: the theology of Lesslie Newbigin.)

Political not ‘spiritual’

Many of the phrases which we hear as purely spiritual, would have been heard in the first century as deeply political.  When Christians said ‘Jesus is Lord’ this was not a airy-fairy statement about Jesus ‘reigning in my heart’ or up in clouds somewhere.

No, if Jesus was Lord then Caesar wasn’t.

What was being said was Caesar, his armies and military might was not the ultimate authority – for God had displayed himself in the person of Jesus of Nazareth who lived, died and was resurrected.

Resisting the seduction of a privatised faith

Christians can easily be seduced by the idea of a privatised faith – the heresy that says what we believe is simply an issue between us and God. These routes might be cosy and safe but they are not authentic Christianity.

Rather than putting their faith into the mixer, sometimes Christians are not even taking their faith onto the pitch.  Too often we are watching silently from the stands or nervously sitting on the bench waiting for someone else to call on us.

Show UpThe Show Up campaign

The 2015 election is going to be one of the most fascinating in memory.  The voices of those who advocate the politics of fear and selfishness could be stronger than ever.  We need to speak up for justice and hope.

Today, sees the launch of Show Up campaign which challenges Christians to be more engaged in political issues.  Will you put your faith in the mixer?

Check out this short video below and see the Show Up website:

Posted in Politics | Tagged , | 1 Comment

We cannot pretend this violence has nothing to do with religion

islamic-violenceMy next door neighbour is a devout Muslim and he is the best neighbour that it is possible to have. He recently replaced the fence between our gardens. Not only did he refuse to accept any contribution from us for the cost of the new fence, but while we were away he came round and coated our side of the fence too.

Over the years, I have got to know him and we have talked about our different faiths and what they mean to us.  There is no way that his generosity, kindness and essential decency can be separated from his faith. His beliefs and action are integral to each other.

Religion that leads to violence

In an attempt to stem the flow of anti-Muslim sentiment after atrocities such as 9/11, or the murders of Lee Rigby or the Charlie Hebdo staff, it is common to hear people say ‘this has nothing to do with Islam’. However, just as my neighbour’s kindness is a positive expression of faith, we cannot pretend that the horrific violence that we have seen again unleashed yesterday has nothing to do with religion.

It is well-meaning but dangerous. History shows us that religion often leads to violence. And however twisted and warped, it is theology that has helped form the worldview of these killers.  Thomas Merton wrote about the power of this kind of violence:

“Strong hate, the hate that takes joy in hating, is strong because it does not believe itself to be unworthy and alone. It feels the support of a justifying God, of an idol of war, an avenging and destroying spirit.”

Religion as a private matter

In contemporary Western culture there is a strong liberal desire to respect all forms religion but essentially to domesticate them within a private sphere.  Faith is fine, as long as it’s between you and God.  It has no place in the public realm.

But Islam and Christianity will always resist being domesticated in such a way.  Both faiths believe in a God who created all things, who is sovereign over all people, not just those who acknowledge Him.  They are faiths which have universal claims at their core and these lead to public witness and a myriad of social and political action.  And throughout history, both religions have contributed to the some of the most beautiful achievements of humanity, but also to the most blood-soaked.

Corrupt religion

No one could deny the European Church’s involvement in the brutal imperial opportunism in Africa and Latin America in 18th and 19th century.  And however twisted and barbaric it was, it makes no sense to say that Islamist extremism, and especially suicide attacks are not religious acts.  They were intrinsically faith-related because they involved self-sacrifice motivated through belief in a reward beyond the grave.  These acts are carried out by believers who don’t acknowledge the liberal dichotomy between the political and the theological.

Religion will always be vulnerable to corruption because humans are involved. The exposing of corrupt religion is a major theme in the Bible, especially in the prophets such as Amos, Jeremiah and Isaiah:

‘Even if you offer many prayers, I will not listen. Your hands are full of blood’ (Isaiah 1:15)

The true role of faith

Most people want a society built on justice and compassion, which is hallmarked by reconciliation, forgiveness, love and generosity.  But these virtues will not be generated simply by our own goodwill or our innate qualities, as optimistic humanists believe.  Faith and religion will always have a major role to play in public and community life because of the need for a deeper basis to these values than what is offered by contemporary moralism.

For me that basis, the clue to history, the cornerstone on which society can find meaning and unity is in the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. In him, we find the deepest resources.

Christians, now more than ever, need to make sure that our religion is continually shaped and re-shaped by this truth and grace, and is expressed in costly generosity, reconciliation and love. ‘The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love’ (Galatians 5:6).

When we do, our faith, like that of my Muslim neighbour, stands in deepest contrast to the warped and twisted expressions of religion which perpetuate violence and destruction.

Posted in Ethics & Christian living | Tagged , | 5 Comments

‘Back street theology’ and stories from the frontline

Contribute an article for R&RDuring 2014, the growing use of food banks across the country has been a major political story. A key reason is because the Trussell Trust, who coordinate the majority of the food banks in partnership with many churches, have been persistent and determined in communicating the crisis they see unfolding across the UK.

They have told the stories from the frontline of what their thousands of volunteers are seeing every day.  Despite the paranoid responses from the government, this is not because they are an ideologically or politically driven organisation, but simply because they are committed to saying what is really going on.

The story needs to be told.  And its a powerful one.

Faith - community action - social justice

It tells of how the generosity and activism of local people has exposed glaring social needs in our country.  It is yet another example of the intrinsic and enduring connection between faith, community activism and social justice.

‘Theology done on the run’

Kenneth Leech is a Church of England priest who set up the youth homeless charity Centrepoint in the crypt of St Anne’s Church, Soho in central London.  In an 1996 essay titled ‘The Rebel Church in the Backstreets’ he wrote:

“For me, the future of Christian social witness is all about how to relate the concrete struggles of ‘the local’ to the large scale vision of the kingdom of God, the reign of justice, love and peace within the created order of people and things.”

He went on to describe the importance of listening to ‘backstreet theology, theology done on the run’ which is developed by those engaged in the struggles of poverty and serving on the frontline. He contrasted it with much theology which was elitist and academic.

This challenge is still hugely relevant.  The internet is full of armchair commentators and bookshops are full of long academic tomes which don’t connect enough to what is happening on the street.

Connecting up what matters

As the food bank situation illustrates, we live in a time of both deep challenges and amazing opportunities. Two of the most high profile global church leaders, Pope Francis and Justin Welby, are exciting and inspiring many people with their humble, dynamic and fresh approaches.

More than ever, the world needs Christians who are prepared to connect up the things that matter.

People who want to integrate the demands of loving God with the demands of loving their neighbour. People who know that compassion must never be separated from the demands of justice. People who know that faith is always personal but never private. People who know that hope comes through engagement with reality and not escapism from it. People who are committed to both Jesus and justice. People who know that faith involves both resistance and renewal.

R&R in 2015

Since  it in 2011 R&R has had almost 500,000 visits. It has a growing membership on facebook and 530 people get an email every time there is a new post. This has far exceeded my expectations when I started it.

My ambition for R&R is that throughout 2015 it grows and deepens as a website where a wide range of frontline activists can find articles and resources which bring together practical, theological and political thinking. I would like to have more stories from the frontline which embody this, such as Emma Tomlinson’s about funeral poverty or Jeremy Sharpe’s about loneliness.

Four ways to be more involved…

  1. Write a guest post.  Do you have first hand experiences or work or volunteer with people in need? What has your experiences taught you?  Share a story which brings your work alive to others and make some punchy points which gets them thinking.  See here for more information and contact details.
  2. Encourage someone else to write a guest post.  Do you know someone who is always sounding off about social justice? Send them the link to this page and encourage them to write a post.
  3. Sign up to get an email whenever there is a new post. Just put your email into the box on the side bar on the right.
  4. Join the Resistance & Renewal Facebook group 

Thanks for reading R&R this past year and I hope you have a great 2015.

Posted in Theology & Church | Tagged , | 1 Comment