This Must Not Stand

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Look, this isn’t about Politics-with-a-capital-P: there was a referendum, small majority voted to leave the EU, we have to manage what happens next. That’s just how democracy works. And markets will eventually stabilise, deals will be reached and things will come together like a lucky drunk fumbling his way round a jigsaw.

But this is a Bible blog,  and so it’s at least partly about politics-with-a-small-p, because how we think about God will mould have we think about people and society and laws and how we live together. And the church can’t help but find itself in the middle of that messiness, because the church is made up of people that form communities, and right now there are scared people out there.

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Apparently instances of racial abuse have risen 57% since last Friday. Regardless of the rights and wrongs of Brexit, it seems like a spectre has been unleashed, or rather emboldened. I didn’t want to use the picture above, because I didn’t want to give the damn thing airtime, but this is what seems to be facing people in our communities to an increasing degree.

Maybe we weren’t aware of that. I wrote elsewhere that the last week feels apocalyptic, not because it’s The End Of The World, but because it’s an unveiling, a revelation of things that were hidden behind the curtain. We’re seeing things now that are messing with my naivete and my privilege as a comfortably employed white guy – the blatant violence of racism in word and deed, the fear of migrant communities and the fear and rage of people robbed of hope and opportunity and hunting down a scapegoat.

What do we do with this? I guess it’ll be different for each congregation; we need to challenge attitudes that are toxic and dehumanising, we need to offer sanctuary for those who feel scared and threatened, we need to build bridges rather than set down landmines. We have to declare, with one voice, that hatred and bigotry and violence won’t get beyond our gates, that there’s a line in the sand around our churches and a sign above it that says “No further”. Heck, we have to think about wearing safety pins.

It’s also an unveiling in the sense that we’re forced to ask ourselves where Jesus is in all this. To be honest, this isn’t that difficult a question. He’s alongside the families who received that note through their letter box. He’s alongside the German woman told by ‘friends’ that they don’t want her here any more. He’s on a tram in Manchester. He’s sweeping up at a Polish community centre. Jesus is always with the vulnerable and the marginalised, we see that throughout the gospels, and if that’s where Jesus is, that’s where the church should also be.

Something bad has found its voice. Something dangerous has started to roar. We need to shout louder.

A British Apocalypse

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Yesterday, in the aftermath of Brexit, I had a Twitter conversation with a friend (hello, @stephensuthes!). It lamented the way in which divisions in the UK had opened up like crevices, how the uncertainty of the future runs the risk of killing hope. He said it felt like social armageddon; being a smart alec,  I reckoned it was more of an apocalypse in its literal sense: an unveiling of what was already there, a drawing of the curtain. Either way, it feels like things are crumbling – not because of leave voters or remain voters, but because of the racism and the chaos and the lack of a plan and things falling apart. Maybe that’s why my friend alluded to Yeats’ The Second Coming.

I’m a Christian. The idea of great spiritual forces on the move isn’t alien to me. But I’m not going to use religious language here, because this isn’t about theology or philosophy or whatever (that was this post). This is now about how we treat one another, how we draw together to rebuild despite our differences. This isn’t the end of the world. It’s a time of change and confusion and transition, and right now we’re all trying to ride out the earthquake. But the fact is this: the centre never holds. There are many rough beasts that have slouched their way towards Bethlehem. Empires, states and kingdoms rise and fall, then rise and fall again. This is a lesson of history.

And that’s why looking to the centre may be a distraction right now. Look to the margins, the corners, the doorways and shelters and crisis lines. Look to the camps along the borders, to the edges and the cracks and the wastelands. Because that’s where we need to be, those of us without political power and vast economic influence.

We need to seek out those who are scared and then bring hope. We need to be with those who are vulnerable and offer protection and sanctuary. We need to understand the difference between speaking truth to power and telling lies to the powerless. We need to find out where the vacuums are and fill them with the good and not the bad.

We need to deweaponise words like ‘freedom’ and ‘control’, ‘power’ and ‘borders’. We need to hold an amnesty for all the swords that have been forged over the last few months and find a way to mass produce ploughshares. We need to say these things and do these things. We need to stand, and proclaim, and be brave.

Where there are words of hate painted on walls, we need to rewrite them with words of hope. Where we hear other languages being spoken, we need to hear them as a pentecost, not a babble. We need to laugh, and take the mick, and tell better stories around our campfires.

Statistics get manipulated. Theories can be disproven. Philosophies can be poisoned, memes become drones,  identities confined by words on a page or lines on a map. In a post-truth society, all of this is true.

But it’s people who matter.

You matter.

I matter.

Everyone around us matters.

And I write these things because this is my voice. And though it’s quiet and wavering and imperfect, I’ve still got to look my children in the eye, and though a million voices may become a rabble, I’m still less scared of that than the things the silence may bring.

A Christian Meditation / Hot-take on #Brexit

So the Leave vote won and cue the days of confusion and anticipation and reconstruction. And now everyone’s trying to figure out what happens next, because no-one really knows. And they’ll be people trying to figure out what the Church’s reaction to all this should be. And, as always, the answer to that will get caught up in personalities and politics and everything else, and it’ll end up becoming yet more noise. Just like this post really.

But while I don’t have a political answer, there are some immediate principals we need to remember and live by in the days to come. Because if we don’t have these, we’re sacrificing what the church should be and we become just another pressure group:

So. If our sermons and tweets and rhetoric and Facebook posts are motivated by hatred (regardless of who we hate), they’re not of Christ.

If our decisions in the days to come don’t recognise and respond to the image of God present in all humans, by they European migrants or Old Etonian,  they’re not of Christ.

If our actions in the coming days are proactive about defending the poor and the vulnerable, the least of these, if they’re not about looking after each other, then they’re not of Christ.

If we’re waiting for Cameron or Johnson,  Corbyn or Farage to guide us dancing into a golden age utopia, we’re not following Christ.

The days to come are uncertain, but the Church’s response should be easy.

Look to Christ.

Then look like Christ.

A Meditation For Those Who Stand At The Front

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You stand at the front of church and you see a sea of faces in front of you. Each one of them has a different story: some are facing questions about their career or their relationships or their future. Some are watching their partners grow more distant; others are watching their parents fade away through Alzheimer’s. Some are lonely, some are depressed; some are cutting themselves, some are throwing up their breakfast, some are figuring out the easiest way to stop the pain and slip out of this life. Some like booze too much, or money, or power.

Some are disabled, some are disgruntled,  some are dismissed. Some are figuring out their sexuality and their identity; some are figuring out what to do about their cancer diagnosis; some are trying to decide if they’re safe to discuss any of this stuff with the person next to them.

Some are sitting there desperate to worship; some are desperate to get out of there; some are just desperate. Some are scared, some are oppressed, some are waiting to see if your words are going to hit them with hope or hit them with condemnation.

Some need to be forgiven,  some need to forgive,  some need a safe place to be angry,  some need a safe place where they’re not going to be beaten. Some need permission to get the hell out of Dodge.

Some think they’re sinners while others think they’re saints, and the truth is they’re probably both. Some you love, some you like, some drive you crazy, and as you look at them you realise they’re also a mirror of the things inside you.

You look at that sea of faces and you’re faced with a choice.

You can be the one who throws a punch before twisting the knife.

You can be the one who keeps adding to the load, adding and adding and adding.

You can be the one with the most impressive PowerPoint and the most impressive platitudes.

Or you can be the one who reaches out and pulls back the curtain and helps them, and you,  find hope, because you look out into that sea of faces and see Jesus in the midst of them.

No Happily Ever After in the Stories We’re Telling (Proverbs 10:12)

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It’s been a nightmarish week or so, days that sink beneath the weight of infamy while also feeling like a prelude to something that future historians will endlessly debate. And while the causes of the shooting at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub and the murder of MP Jo Cox in Yorkshire will be endlessly debated, there seems to be an undercurrent making itself known about the words we use and the stories we tell.

See, we’ve been telling stories that turn people into targets. We print newspapers that talk about fellow human beings as “swarms” and “invaders”; we preach sermons that reduce individuals to a faceless mass of enemies, or a theological challenge, or the root cause of hurricanes and earthquakes. We offer up these stories, and then something terrible happens and we offer up our thoughts and prayers. But those affected by tragedy have also been affected by our stories, and our thoughts and prayers are viewed with suspicion and scepticism because they’re asking what we’re thinking and praying about the rest of the time.

We’re guilty of telling polluted stories, poisoned narratives that divide and dehumanised,  that legitimise violence of words and actions. We can’t then look shocked and innocent when our words of war play over scenes of death and carnage as a toxic soundtrack.

“Hatred stirs up conflict but love covers over all wrongs.” That’s from the Book of Proverbs and it’s a reminder that the words we use have consequences, they get magnified and strengthened, they get shared and transmitted and charged up. If the underlying emotion behind those words is hatred or fear or disgust or idolatry,  the result will be conflict. That’s not a rarefied philosophical idea, it’s the reality we’ve been living out this week.

So what happens if we shift towards words built on love, on grace, on hope? What would happen if we allowed a different story to resound throughout our echo chambers? What would happen if we were less interested in proving or superiority, our orthodoxy, our idolatrous security and more interested in reflecting compassion and community, justice and Jesus?

We may think we’re telling visionary stories of a golden age to come, but if the road to that golden age involves walking past symbolic camps in which we lock away those who aren’t like us, if we get there by stepping over the bodies of those we want kept out of our glorious future, then the stories are a  poison and human beings, all made in the image of God, will suffer as a result.

We need to tell better stories. We need to sing songs of justice and retweet  tweets of hope. We need to go to the pub and chat about our lives and struggles, even when those lives are different to our own; we need to sit around the campfire and remind ourselves of all the times the light won and the sun came up. And we need to pray that the Holy Spirit would tell those stories and bring us together in peace and grace.