Some choice quotes on “Love thy neighbour.”

I got to thinking today, didn’t the Prime Minister offer some Christian-sounding Easter messages over the last few years?

Careful observers might recall my disappointment with the woolly content of these messages, but… as the Good Book says, “Be sure your sins will find you out.”

“The heart of Christianity is to ‘love thy neighbour’ and millions do really live that out. I think of … the soup kitchens and homeless shelters run by churches. They proved, yet again, that people’s faith motivates them to do good deeds. That is something this government supports and celebrates.”

David Cameron, Easter 2014

“Across Britain, Christians don’t just talk about ‘loving thy neighbour’, they live it out… in faith schools, in prisons, in community groups.
“And it’s for all these reasons that we should feel proud to say, ‘This is a Christian country.’ The church is not just a collection of beautiful old buildings. It is a living, active force doing great works across our country.
“Yes, we are a nation that embraces, welcomes and accepts all faiths and none but we are still a Christian country. And as a Christian country, Our responsibilities don’t end there.”

David Cameron, Easter 2015

Then there was this interview with Premier Christianity magazine, last Easter..   It’s worth reading in full, but here are some choice quotes:

“As Prime Minister, I’m in no doubt about the matter: the values of the Christian faith are the values on which our nation was built.”

“But I’m an unapologetic supporter of the role of faith in this country. And for me, the key point is this: the values of Easter and the Christian religion – compassion, forgiveness, kindness, hard work and responsibility – are values that we can all celebrate and share.”

“‘Love thy neighbour’ is a doctrine we can all apply to our lives – at school, at work, at home and with our families. A sense of compassion is the centre piece of a good community.”

Above all, his conclusion:

“I end my argument with this: I hope everyone can share in the belief of trying to lift people up rather than count people out. Those values and principles are not the exclusive preserve of one faith or religion. They are something I hope everyone in our country believes.

That after all is the heart of the Christian message. It’s the principle around which the Easter celebration is built. Easter is all about remembering the importance of change, responsibility, and doing the right thing for the good of our children. And today, that message matters more than ever.” (Emphasis both mine.)

I have, I guess, one question.

YUNO

Christian principles, or “values” as David Cameron calls them, are only worthwhile if they shape our Character.   This one time, a lawyer – read “politician” – asked Jesus, “What is the greatest commandment?”   It’s great that anyone, not least the Prime Minister of the UK’s Government can give part of the answer.   But remember, Jesus expanded his answer, when another (or possibly the same) politician asked him, “Ah but, just who is my neighbour?”

Love your neighbour.   But remember, sometimes your neighbour is Johnny Foreigner.

One final point in all this.   My Lord and Saviour was also an infant refugee.   And so, when the judgement comes, one charge will be, “I was a stranger and you did not welcome me,”   I hope our Christian values will lead us to reflect on that for a moment.

Reconciliation (& Deprivation)

Scotland has decided.

Indyref results

That’s it.   As a nation we can be proud of the level of engagement the #indyref generated – in our age of apathy, and disillusionment with politicians, a turnout of 85% was impressive.   Once we go back to ballots to elect a person, I doubt we will keep the vote at this level.   I suspect the electorate do care about political debate, just not the ad hominem point scoring played by professional politicians.   MPs and MSPs: please take note.

But, there are now two big questions to address: Reconciliation and Deprivation

Reconciliation

There is no longer a 45%, or 55%, or even an 85%!   There is only one Scotland.   Our nation has to come together as one to face the enormous challenges presented to us.   That doesn’t mean we stop caring, or speaking about the issues – but the debate has to move on from the referendum’s binary choice, to normal political engagement.

It can’t be a superficial change.   It has been refreshing to see how quickly my social media streams drained of political symbols after Thursday’s vote.   But changing your Facebook profile certainly isn’t costly.    Reconciliation can’t be done on the cheap.

That’s why I’m disappointed with Scotland’s foremost churchman.   I couldn’t believe my ears Friday morning (BBC coverage, about 7:20am) as John Chalmers suggested his plan for reconciliation: Go and find someone from the other side and take a “selfie” with them.   It’s a sad symptom of the Church in Scotland: she has forgotten her foundation, and embraced the cheap self-indulgence of the age.   The Church doesn’t exist to encourage people to be nice to each other – we exist to call people to radical discipleship: Take up your cross and follow Jesus.   I suspect many parts of the Church can’t call people to costly grace because they don’t believe in a God whose grace was costly.

God’s model of reconciliation wasn’t to send his Son to take a cheap selfie with fallen people; to show off a chummy picture on social media.   He came to die in the place of people who had rejected God, God’s ways, and the good of God’s world.   As Paul put it, himself he emptied, taking the form of a slave, and then he went to the cross and died.

If there’s going to be reconciliation, it’s going to be costly.   If Scotland is to move forward as one, both the 45% and the 55% are going to have to die to their division, and work as one.   Leaving the fight we invested so much in for the last two years is where the real cost is going to be found.   And I think – even for my Christian friends on both sides of the debate – that will be hard.

Never let it be said that Scotland’s Presbyterian ministers offered only empty ideals, or pious rhetoric.   Here’s a practical suggestion:

Today, there’s a lot of talk about a movement emerging: #the45.   I can see why galvanising a partisan movement like this might be good for a future Independence battle.   But there might be a more refreshing route.   What if the diverse elements of the grassroots Yes campaign were to open up to include the huge number of No voters who today share the desire to hold Westminster to account for more powers?   That can only be done if they forsake their identity as a vehicle for Independence.   Moving on from the fight that ended on Thursday will be costly, because the way ahead doesn’t represent the interests of the 45% over against the 55%.   It has to include all of us.

If you think that’s impossible, consider this picture:

Impossible?

Deprivation

This needs another post – but this is why reconciliation can’t be cheap: the problems we face are huge, and demanding.

How Should Christians Vote in the #IndyRef?

On Sunday evening past, I preached on what God’s Word says about how Christians should vote in the #IndyRef.   As the campaign reaches its closing stages, Scotland’s Christians need to be reminded of these things.

IndyRefSept

In 1 Peter 2:13-17, Peter takes some time to tell persecuted Christians how they are to relate to civil authorities – especially civil authorities they find they have little common ground with.   Polls are showing it’s going to be a narrow vote this Thursday, meaning about half of people – possibly half of Scotland’s Christians – are going to be disgruntled with the outcome.

So what does Peter say about how Christians should vote in the Referendum?   I suggest five things:

Submit to the result for the Lord’s sake

Peter urged Christians to respect the persecuting authorities in much the same way as Paul does in Romans 13.   Ultimately, they are appointed by God – a sovereign God who is working out a plan for his own glory, and the salvation of the saints.

There are going to be some Christians who really don’t like the #indyref result.   It’s important to therefore avoid bitterness, by walking into the polling booth with a heart resolved to submit to the result, because we love and trust a sovereign God who knows what he is doing.

Live as people who are free

Peter was writing to people who probably didn’t know a lot of freedoms.   Some were slaves, but even your average non-Roman had few of the civil liberties we take for granted today.   So why does Peter write to them, crushed under the heel of a persecuting government, to live as people who are free?

It’s actually because they were free.   They were set apart as a holy priesthood by God.   Christians need to grasp this – our unique status in Christ: as Jesus promised, free indeed.   The #Indyref can be dangerous for Christians, because it offers some sort of liberty (whichever way you see things!).   We need to vote on Thursday remembering this: the greatest liberty we want for our fellow Scots is freedom from sin and death.   We can’t go to the ballot box with confusion about this.

Have God’s heart for our nation

Along with living as free people, Peter (curiously) also reminds them that they are to live as servants – or literally, slaves – of God.   How are free people also slaves?   In Roman culture, the slave was expected to share his master’s goals and objectives.   He was, in a way, an extension of his master’s arm.   Christian freedom is actually a freedom to live our Master’s agenda: the counter cultural agenda of the Sermon on the Mount.

One danger for Christians voting in the #indyref is to accept the world’s agenda and priorities.   While the whole world sees the debate framed in essentially economic terms, maybe Christians want to remember they have counter cultural priorities?   When we go to the ballot box we ought to bear in mind that we have been given the heart of a servant of God, and ask ourselves hard questions accordingly.

Honour the Emperor.   Fear God.

Peter concludes the section with four people or individuals worth special mention.   I’ll come back to the brotherhood of believers last, but note the extraordinary thing he says about the emperor: honour the emperor.   That was probably Nero – of fiddle fame, who scapegoated the Christians while he torched Rome.   Peter’s point seems to be that the emperor ought to be treated with same honour given to all men.  But God alone is to be feared.

For Christians voting in the #indyref, it is alarmingly easy to fall into vitriolic or disparaging remarks of David Cameron and Alistair Darling, or Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon.   We need to treat them with honour and respect.   But also with the right sort of respect.   After all, it’s not to them that we will one day have to answer.   Our vote shouldn’t be cast to impress people, or to fit in with the approval of peers.   Whatever hopes we have for the outcome of Thursday’s vote, again, God alone is to be feared – for he alone can deliver.

Finally: Love the Brotherhood of Believers

Peter, like other New Testament writers, expresses a common concern for the unity of the Church.   Groups under pressure are always likely to implode into angry recrimination and blame.   But the chief guard against that is to recall the brotherhood – the family ties – shared by believers.

At risk of cliché, we know the vote is on a knife edge.   Scotland is divided.   We really don’t know how that will play out over the coming months, but we do know this: Jesus meant for a united Church to be a powerful evangelistic message.   If we can go to the ballot box on Thursday resolved to be united with our brothers in Christ, whatever the outcome, then Scotland will be considerably well served.   It’s not about being seen as the broker of reconciliation for the political classes: it’s about being seen as loving people who are themselves reconciled around the risen, loving, Lord Jesus Christ, who died for all his children.

That’s how Christians should vote on Thursday.

God willing, we’ll have a bloodshed free final four days.

Reconciliation

Three days after the national armistice (the close of polls on 18th Sept. 2014) there’s to be a service of reconciliation at St. Giles – High Kirk of Edinburgh, curiously referred to as a Cathedral, although the last time someone approaching a bishop sat there, it sparked a stool throwing…

Riot_against_Anglican_prayer_book_1637

This is all, of course, patently absurd.   If there is war, you don’t seek to reconcile the parties once the war is over and the victor is seen – if you wait for that, you are too late, victor’s justice prevails – reconciliation must always be now!   Scottish politics is riven by sectarianism – SNP and Labour activists really loath each other, and the two left-of-centre parties rarely reach consensus.   A one-off service of reconciliation is naught by tokenism – Alex Salmond sitting in the pew alongside Alistair Darling Douglas Alexander will do nothing to take the sting out of Scottish Politics.   Regardless of the outcome, Labour and the SNP will still be at each other’s throats at FMQs the following Thursday.   The “blogosphere” will still be full of sectarian blogs.   Twitter-storms will continue for the foreseeable future.

But nobody will have died as a result (discounting the victims of: fuel poverty; Glasgow’s chronic health problems; Scotland’s affair with booze; adventurist wars in central Asia; etc.).   Scotland doesn’t need token reconciliation.   We need a measure of respect returned to political dialogue.   We need consensus on more than just liberal shibboleths, like SSM.

While the need for a service of reconciliation is questionable, this story does tell us a lot more about where the “church” is headed in Scotland.   The Church has a role – look it up, start at Matthew 28.   But it looks like someone in the heart of the Kirk’s structures isn’t satisfied with that counter-cultural mission.   There’s a growing list of issues where the Kirk is being aligned to the liberal, secularist, cultural consensus in Edinburgh.   The Anti-Semitic bias in last year’s report on Palestine is one example.   So too the botched deal with the Secularists to abolish Worship Assemblies, and replace them with the blander “Time for Reflection”.   There’s the trajectory to embrace SSM.   Not one of these strands has anything in common with the Biblical Christianity of Jesus.

There are of course many “private” Christianity things the Church does well: alms-giving, mercy ministry stuff – but alms-giving is no basis for a publicly recognised national Church.   Public recognition for the church should permit counter-cultural engagement.   This is why many of my colleagues in the Free Church suspect Scotland’s, and indeed the UK’s, future will have no space for public Christianity – counter-cultural Christianity is dissonant, it doesn’t chime with the gong of progressive liberalism.

But I see a different future.   The politicians seem happy to embrace the service of reconciliation.   Of course nothing counter-cultural will be said there.   There will be the somewhat bland Jesus of the “turn the other cheek” variety, but that is a Jesus without offence.   It seems the acceptable face of public Christianity is in danger of forgetting that Jesus didn’t encapsulate his message with just “love thy neighbour as thyself.”   He called for a total, heart, body and soul love for God, who in turn defines what true love for one’s neighbour really is.   In the absence of our evident ability or desire to do so, God sent his Son to reconcile us to him, through his death at the cross.   He didn’t wait for the end to bring reconciliation – he sends it today!   But I have my doubts that this radical counter-cultural call to faith and repentance will be heard at St. Giles, four months from now, and three days after the armistice.

There are now two versions of the “church” in Scotland.   By “church” I don’t mean institution, but “gathering” of people.    One is aligned with the counter-cultural message of Christ, the other is aligned with the liberal agenda of the age.   I suspect that in the not-too-distant future one of these will be suppressed, and the other will be embraced as the accepted face of public Christianity in Scotland.

Does it matter?

Four Free Church guys writing about the future of the Church in Scotland after the independence referendum.   Hmmm, bored much?   Except this really matters… and here’s why:

Christianity is inherently public.   Christians are called to make a public declaration of their faith, and to live their faith in daily life.   You can’t do that if you buy into the myth that Christianity is a religious liberty to be kept for Sundays at church.   Think about Paul’s life, as it’s recorded in Acts.   When he preached, there were crowds.   When he was put on trial, there were crowds.   When he was beaten, there were crowds.   Christianity makes the public news.   It did over the last month as people debated whether or not Britain is a “Christian” country.   But this creates a tension between the private right to worship, and the inherently public right to practice your religion.   The future liberty of the Church in Scotland (in our papers we call this “spiritual independence”) will matter not so much at an institutional level, but more so at a personal level – will you as a Christian be free to live out your faith at work, in your child’s education, in how your life is valued in old age?   Most of us feel far more connected to Holyrood (who have the say in all these matters) than we do to Westminster, and I believe it will be easier for Christians to have a say in society in an independent Scotland.

Religious liberty needs public Christianity (and vice versa.)   The alternative to having some sort of healthy relationship between Church and State is to suppress Christianity.   There is no easy middle ground, and secularism is certainly not neutral on questions of religion and religious liberty.   The choice for politicians is to give liberty to public Christianity, or to suppress it.   Historically, the Scottish solution has been a very formal Establishment – the Church of Scotland enjoys a few privileges, and has a few duties to carry out in return.   She is otherwise free to get on with her mission – along with other churches – as she sees fit.   Again, it’s spiritual independence in action.   But, as my good buddy Neil DM Macleod points out, spiritual independence is not guaranteed by anything – it can go on slipping away at Westminster, just as it is at Holyrood.   Whilst it could be argued that a ‘yes’ vote would lead to a secular Scotland, similarly a ‘no’ vote will leave us with a secular Britain.   We can only call for spiritual independence if we have an organised public voice – and I’m not sure we’ll be heard above the cacophony of the money traders in Westminster.

Scotland needs a free public Christianity.   A free public Christianity has a couple of jobs.   Firstly, we preach that God so loved the world that he sent his one and only Son into the world, so that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.   But the Bible has a lot to offer on matters of public policy.   Scotland has problems, but we have a lot going for us.   We may well be the 14th richest nation on earth, but we still have significant social and moral problems.   I’m not saying our politicians can’t find answers, they are smart people, they will.  The Evangelical Alliance, Solas, and others are going a good job of speaking publically.   But we are only able to do so as part of the Church in Scotland enjoying its spiritual independence.   If Scotland becomes independent, the Free Church and others should be there from the beginning seeking to be salt and light.   That’s why these papers matter – because Scotland may be independent in a few months time, and our response must be more than “No, we don’t want that.”   We have to shape how that will work out, and we can only really do that through positive engagement.

What Kind of Nation?

Blogging hiatus over.

The last few months have been busy with physiotherapy, so bloging’s been on the back-burner.   I’ve spent a bit of time thinking about Christian engagement in the debate about Scotland’s Future.   Whether or not we see an Independent Scotland, it remains true that the Church in Scotland really needs to articulate, in a positive and engaging way, what the Bible says on a range of public policy areas.

I’ve found a lot of David Robertson’s stuff over at Solas very helpful, especially on the shibboleth issues – abortion, sexuality, euthanasia, etc.   Worth a look.

Last night I was directed to this manifesto from the Evangelical Alliance.   It’s worth a read.   They’ve identified four principles (Biblical, God-honouring) that they apply to a very wide range of public policy:

  • Wisdom: “The wisdom of the prudent is to give thought to their ways, but the folly of fools is deception” (Proverbs 14:8)
  • Justice: “Let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never failing stream” (Amos 5:24)
  • Compassion: “Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the alien or the poor” (Zechariah 7:8)
  • Integrity: “Whoever walks in integrity walks securely, but whoever takes crooked paths will be found out” (Proverbs 10:9)

When I think about Church and State, this is what we need more of: the Church articulating Biblical values into a broken society.   Yes, of course we need to articulate the Gospel, but we also have to teach our nation to observe all that Jesus has commanded us.   This is a good start.

[[Note: What is the Church in Scotland?   We need to start seeing past the institutionalised role for “The Church” – that view grows out of a hierarchical view of the Church, as if the Church were a political party, where the members follow the lead of appointed figureheads.   We have one head, Christ – and he takes the lowest place in serving (dying, tasting the hellishness of God’s wrath, for us) and invites his under-shepherd to serve also.   The articulation may fall, from time to time, on ministers, but our chief task is to articulate the truth to our fellowships, so that they will be equipped to articulate the same in their lives.]]

First glance questions

It’s been a long day…

Scotland's Future

I was looking forward to reading the Scottish Government’s white paper on Independence, but first a ministers’ fraternal, community cafe, Presbytery strategy discussion, presbytery “Christmas” curry (far too early, we’ll need to get together again later on), moar presbytery meeting, and a missions speaker… home, talk to my wife, and then, finally… I got to sit down and read.

…it’s 00:54am.

I’m trying to get my head around this massive document – 670 pages is a lot, ever for a Free Church minister to plough through.   Where to begin?

First Impression: There is a lot that is good, so many positive policies that the current Scottish Government would seek to implement in an independent Scotland.   That’s maybe a draw back: it is a manifesto, not a true blueprint.   This isn’t what an independent Scotland will look like, it’s what the SNP want an independent Scotland to look like.   The real thing will be different, but maybe not very much so, going on the SNP’s electoral form.

But right now I’m drawn to page 564, question 590 in the Q&A.

590. What will be the position of churches and religion in an
independent Scotland?
We propose no change to the legal status of any religion or
of Scotland’s churches.

This is a conspicuously short answer – because in a document where just about every term has been carefully outlined and explained, no effort whatsoever is given to define “the legal status of any religion or of Scotland’s churches.”   Earlier in the paper churches are described alongside other parts of Scotland’s civic society, and as charities – players in the future process of crafting Scotland written constitution.   Great stuff – even if it downplays the contribution of churches!   But what exactly is the “legal status” which will be unchanged?   My suspicion is that this term has not been defined because, in short, our politicians, and possibly even our judiciary, don’t actually know for sure.   What it possibly entails is in the independence of the church to manage her own affairs – or as we like to call it in Scotland, Presbyterian Church Government.

And so, I have a related question.   Back on page 354, (Chapter 10,  Part 4, Building a Modern Democracy, The Monarch and the Crown) we read:

Earlier this year the rules on succession to the Crown were
amended (for Scotland and elsewhere) to remove outdated
gender discrimination. An independent Scottish Government
will promote, and support amongst the Commonwealth States
with the Queen as Head of State, a similar measure to remove
religious discrimination from the succession rules.

This second part relates to the 1707 Treaty of Union with England – a treaty which will be in effect revoked on a “Yes” vote.   While the religious tone of the treaty is obvious, it’s framework relates back to earlier principles enshrined in both Scottish and English law – the monarch, as head of state, shall be a Protestant, because in England they enjoy the odd office of “Supreme Governor of the Church of England”, and in Scotland they are bound to maintain Presbyterian Church Government.   The discrimination – and frankly, I’m happy to concede that – exists because of the “legal status” of Churches in these united Kingdoms.

And this presents a challenge to the framers of this white paper: How can you propose that the legal status of churches will be unchanged, while fundamentally changing the relationship of the Monarch, as head of STATE with these churches?   Suppose the “legal status” of churches really is a degree of independence in their own sphere, and this is what question 590 is about, surely we need to know how the Scottish Government propose to ensure this, while tinkering with the relationship in other areas?

These are perhaps, for most people, questions of mere window dressing in the context of Scotland’s constitutional future.   But I would like a lot more clarity from our politicians.   I don’t want to wake up and suddenly find I’m living with a secular constitution – which is intolerant of dissonant voices like independent churches, let alone open to listening to them on a range of moral and social issues.   I’d rather a partnership.   I believe a Christian heritage has shaped Scotland for good – in education, in democracy, and in civic values.   And I don’t want Scotland’s Future to slip that anchor.