MPs, bankers, police and media: powerful reasons why free will doesn’t mean free reign

3 07 2012

they didn’t look like this

He started with Adam and Eve, kept doing it through the Old Testament, peaking with the Top 10 and then carried on with Jesus who made it worse by making us have to go to church as well as behave ourselves. All that ‘do this’, ‘don’t do that’. Isn’t God just a rules-based kill-joy who wants us to stand in straight lines and do as we’re told? Isn’t it better to take the rules away and give ourselves freedom? After all, we’re all grown-ups, living in a civilised society these days. 

I’d love to say yes. I’d love to say that now we’ve gone through the Empire-building evolutionary-scoiety Enlightenment stuff about being brilliant, now that we’re aware of the consequences of our actions on a global scale and have social consciences regularly pricked by Pudsey and Gary Barlow, now that we are grown up, we could leave the rules behind. Like joining the sixth form and no longer having to wear uniform and sit with 12 year olds. Free reign. Freedom! 

But if the moral crises of the last 4 years have shown us anything, it’s that there is nothing more dangerous than humans without rules. Like out of control Victorian public-school prefects, without a framework for their freedom humans just cannot control their insatiable desire for power, for selfishness, for self-protection, and for financial gain at other’s expense. 

The economic boom was built on a lie, that financial people knew was a lie until they told it so many times even they thought it was true. The MPs knew their expenses system was dubious at best and corrupt at worst but it was in all this best interests to keep quiet and carry on. Our politicians and our Police knew their relationship with the Murdoch Empire was dangerous and wrong but it was just too good to stop because the perks were too attractive. 

It wold be very easy to cry “Moral outrage! Repent and bring back gospel values!” in a shouty-street-preacher sort of way. Or at least be heard as saying that. Because, I think I am. The more I see our society frame its ethics and moral around a the jelly of “what works for me”, “it’s a victimless crime”, ‘it feels good” and “I’m too big to fail”, the more I feel like donning a sandwich board. 

no irony in the name

Each time something like this happens, our ineffectual and highly-implicated-in-it-all Prime Minister (or one of his clones) says something like “This is terrible and it must stop”, and yet offers absolutely no alternative. And neither does anyone else. Regulation? But based around whose principles? Unless there is an over-arching and generally agreed framework to work from, it’s meaningless.

What God has constantly given us is a framework on which to base society. That framework has shifted and changed depending on where that society is, but even before Jesus the Law was not there to kill joy, but to provide a framework for it. And what Jesus did was raise the stakes even higher, because our motivation to follow the framework was no longer “because we follow the framework’ but “because we love”. 

It is because he loves that he gives us free will, but not free reign. It is because we love that we operate within this framework which is summed up in the two greatest commandments, which are themselves about love: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. And love your neighbour as yourself.” We need to restore those as the centre of who we are. And if we don’t do that ourselves, then we cannot point the finger at others for not doing it either. 


lampposts and landrovers

4 03 2012

I was out with my running club the other night. It’s something I do from time to time to confirm the stereotype that skinny people are good at long-distance running. Anyway, we were doing this horrible training run where you run hard up a steep hill, then turn round and jog back slowly to a fixed point. And repeat it as many times as you can in 30 minutes.

I say fixed point. You see, often with these runs we use lampposts as markers but the pavement was being dug up so we used a parked car as a landmark. A Land Rover. Which was fine. And very appropriate.

Trouble is, on the 2nd repetition the Land Rover (predictably) disappeared. It threw me momentarily. It reminded me of the time I was walking over Kinder Scout in the Peak District, lost my way and took a compass bearing on the only fixed point I could see. A cloud. I know, not good. But we survived. 

Following fixed points when following Jesus sometimes feels like he has got in the landmark and driven it away. Jesus refuses to be pigeon-holed or boxed. Which we deny, time and time again by making him into fixed point. Turning a parked car into a lamppost is fine if you want to light up a tiny area but not go anywhere.  

I mean, there are fixed points. I’m not saying there aren’t. But the Word of God is person not a book; a personality and not a sentence. Being dogmatic about Jesus is like catching a cloud in a jar to ensure your compass reading is accurate. We don’t really know where Jesus really stands on contemporary conundrums from banking to sex to fig trees to being gay. Ok, we know about fig trees.

We think we know; we make leaps from principles to practice which we may well absolutely believe are true to Jesus. And they may well be. But… Sometimes he drives the landmark away. 

So when we obsess over fixed points, be they about homosexuality and marriage or about anger or adultery or fig trees (and other gardening issues) let’s try and remember that Jesus always – always – saw the person, and the bigger picture; always put loving people first. 

He operated on fixed points. Of course he did, he was a devout Jew. But he also moved them. Redefined them. And to steal from Rob Bell, Jesus didn’t say get out of the box. Because there is no box. This doesn’t get us off the hook when it comes to living well. It doesn’t mean we don’t aim for holiness.

But it does mean we don’t just stand still and admire the small pool of light the lamppost makes around us. Because Jesus has just driven away.  

eastenders: gay, pregnant and religious

27 04 2010

Religion is a harmless bundle of old ladies superstitions, like the tangled knitting of an old baggy jumper no-one will ever wear.

Religion is the hardened dogmas of narrow-minded dangerous hypocrites, like sharp stones flung in self-defence at a too-fast changing world.

Which is it? You decide.

EastEnders is doing religion at the moment. The harmless old ladies religion of Dot Cotton has been replaced by something far more dramatic. This time they are portraying the worst sides of 2 religions at once. A double whammy. A Christianity and Islam hypocrisy-sandwich, with a hefty slice of bigotry and a dressing of moral outrage. Watch this episode from Monday 26th April 2010 to get a flavour…

happy couple?

happy couple?

In one corner of the dock is Islam. A Muslim called Syed Masood is married to Amira, but is gay and having an affair with a man (ironically) called Christian. Syed’s otherwise liberal and nominal Muslim family are less than impressed. When it was revealed at a family ‘do’, words like “shame”, “disgrace” were thrown around.


In the other corner of the dock is Christianity. Part-time church pastor Lucas, who killed his ex-wife in the allotment shed, is threatening his daughter Chelsea with judgement from “the scourge” if she has her planned abortion, if she chooses not to listen to him, god’s messenger. Proper hell-fire and brimstone. Thou shalt not kill, from the mouth of the murdering pastor.

Part of me is glad it’s not just Christianity being portrayed like this. Part of me feels religion-solidarity with Islam because we’re both in the dock. Part of me thinks it’s ok because this is how a lot of people experience religion: angst-ridden, judgemental hypocrites. Part of me sees it as just ordinary people trying to live their lives and not finding it straightforward, balancing their history and their culture and their family and their convictions and it all going belly-up.

I know it’s just EastEnders. I should ignore it. But Lucas’s attitude to abortion is very real. The Masood’s attitude to homosexuality is very real. It happens all over the place. In Islam, in Christianity, in places where there is no religion at all. People are forced into sham marriages because of attitudes to homosexuality. This is a very real issue, and it is brave of EastEnders to portray it.

I don’t mind a bit of anti-religion gip from the tellybox. I know it makes a good story. I just wish that sometimes a softer side of “religion” was given. Not the weak side, not the Dot Cotton superstition or the Aled Jones cheesy smile side, but the strength-of-grace side.

Sometimes there are people of religion who stand by girls facing the abortion decision, look them in the eyes and feel compassion and love and not hell-fire judgement. Sometimes there are people of religion who stand by people who are gay and don’t shout abuse and feel shame and disgrace, who feel compassion and see the love and do not give hell-fire judgement. This is not wishy-washy liberal thinking, it is hard, thought-through, and very real.

I wish it could be known that sometimes there are people who follow Jesus who wrestle with these big things and come down less on the side of law and dogmas and stereotyping and more on the side of love and grace and peace and that sometimes people who follow Jesus do not follow a book of shouted rules but a person and that person is alive and the faith is dynamic and brings social life not social death because that person is life.

That is what I wish.

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