Offended by the Lord’s Prayer? You should be!

There has been a minor media storm over the decision of certain cinema chains to withdraw a Church of England advertisement featuring the Lord’s Prayer.

Perhaps they were hoping to avoid controversy by avoiding religion. In reality, of course, religion is unavoidable and they have generated far more controversy than would have been the case if they had gone ahead with the advert.

The decision to refuse the advert is pretty ridiculous, but I’m sorry to see that many of its defenders have responded by insisting that the advert is not offensive. There are two issues that are being overlooked.

Firstly, there is an assumption that adverts generally are not offensive. Personally, I am offended by about ninety percent of adverts. Many of them promote values I don’t believe in, encourage consumerism, champion narrow gender stereotypes and tell me that my life will be better if I buy a load of wasteful junk. I’ve seen army recruitment adverts in cinemas, romanticising war and promoting an organisation rooted in violence and hierarchy.

If you do not share my values, these things may not offend you, but I’m sure some other adverts will. Almost anything that promotes a product or an idea will offend somebody. But I do not have a right not to be offended, and nor do you.

Secondly, the Lord’s Prayer is supposed to be offensive – at least to those who benefit from the status quo. One of its most important lines is, “Your kingdom come”. A prayer that the Kingdom of God will come is implicitly a prayer that the kingdoms and powers of this world will come to an end.

Theologians from Augustine onwards have made tortuous arguments for the idea that Christians can support both the Kingdom of God and the kingdoms they live in. But the Kingdom of God has inherently different values to the idols of money and military might that dominate our world. No-one can serve two masters.

Let’s have a look at the actual content of the Lord’s Prayer. The prayer is attributed in the New Testament to Jesus himself, although it’s likely that only parts of it were said by him and other parts were added by others.

It’s opening words are:

“Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.”

This may sound fairly innocuous, but in Jesus’ time, the word “father” implied authority over others. Not only was a father seen as in some sense the “owner” of his wife and children, but the Roman Emperor was described as father of the empire. According to the New Testament, Jesus encouraged his followers to “call no-one ‘father’ on earth”. Titles that involve authority belong only to God. This was subversive of both family structures and the emperor.

The prayer continues:

“Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven. Give us today our food for the day. Forgive us our debts as we forgive those indebted to us.”

God’s kingdom is an alternative to the kingdoms, nation-states and other powers that we live under. Jesus prayed that God’s will would be done. What does this mean in practice? The next line prays for us to be fed. If God’s will is done, everyone will have enough to eat. Jesus chose this as his first illustration of a world which follows the will of God.

This is followed by a prayer for the cancellation of debts. In some translations, the word is rendered “sins” or “trespasses”. It can refer both to literal financial debts, metaphorical debts and the guilt that comes with sin. It is pretty shocking to call for the cancellation of any or all of these things, and certainly contrary to the values that dominate our world, which insists that debts must be paid.

The prayer goes on:

“Save us form the time of trial and deliver us from evil. For the kingdom, the power and the glory are yours, now and forever. Amen.”

Speaking in a setting in which his followers expected persecution, Jesus prayed that God would save them from the trials and evils that they were likely to expect. He finished with a reminder that the power and glory lies in God’s hands, not anyone else’s (such as the rulers and persecutors of this world).

The Lord’s Prayer is a prayer for the overthrow of all existing social conditions. Of course some people should find it offensive.


My new book, The Upside-Down Bible: What Jesus really said about money, sex and violence, is published this week by Darton, Longman and Todd.

The labourers in the vineyard and their zero-hour contracts

My new book, The Upside-Down Bible: What Jesus really said about money, sex and violence, will be published next week. To give you a taste of it, I’ve written some short blog posts that my publisher, DLT, will be running over the next few days. I’m cross-posting them on here. Here’s the first.

Upside-Down BibleJesus spent a lot of time talking about money. It was a central theme in many of his parables.

When I showed these parables to non-Christians who were unfamiliar with them, they responded by talking about money. This is less obvious than it sounds. Christians rarely mention money when discussing these stories. We are used to being told that they are making symbolic points about salvation.

First-time readers are unlikely to do this. Like Jesus’ first listeners, they hear stories about their everyday concerns. I have found that they make varied, interesting and insightful observations – all of which Christians risk overlooking in our rush towards doctrinal conclusions.

This experience has convinced me that Christians have a lot to learn from non-Christians – about the teachings of Jesus.

Take the parable often referred to as “the workers in the vineyard”. You can find it at Matthew 20, 1-15. The story concerns a landowner who hires casual labourers for different lengths of time but pays them all the same wage.

For many readers, the issues feel close to home. In various parts of the world, farm labourers and construction workers still gather in the morning to see if anyone will hire them. In the UK, zero-hour contracts are now very common. People await a text at six in the morning to tell them if they will have work. They are the equivalent of day labourers gathering in the market place.

One recent academic commentary on Matthew’s Gospel lists eight possible interpretations of this parable, none of which have anything to do with money and work. It is true that Jesus appears to have been drawing on a Jewish tradition of ‘parables of recompense’, in which unusual payments were used to illustrate wider points. Jesus’ story, however, goes into far more detail than most of these. Furthermore, Jesus’ listeners heard a story about their own worries: work, money, power, having enough to eat. Christian interpretation, however, has been influenced over centuries by church leaders and scholars who have rarely had to worry about finding enough work, money or food.

So how does the story sound to people who have experienced poverty and unemployment in today’s world?

‘I would have to identify with the late arrivals,’ said Samantha. ‘As a person with a disability, I have often had to claim benefits because of being unable to keep up with normal “hardworking” people.’

She added, ‘I think the point Jesus is making is that to resent others receiving the same financial support, comfort and – ultimately – respect as you, and to consider them to deserve less of these things than you, is not a loving attitude towards others’.

Although Samantha is approaching the story from a left-wing perspective, it would be a mistake to assume that everyone who shares her politics will read it in the same way. Carl, another first-time reader, believes that the employer behaved unfairly.

‘This story illustrates the exploitation of workers,’ he said. ‘The parallels to today are many; the inequalities of pay are vast: between genders, between different countries of the world or even areas of the same country, between workers within the same company.’

He concludes, ‘Surely Jesus was saying this isn’t good and that we should not behave in this way’.

Whether we agree with Samantha, with Carl or with neither, their perspectives are a reminder of something that Christians all too easily overlook: Jesus’ teachings concern our everyday lives and how our world functions, not merely a distant future or an abstract doctrine.


The Upside-down Bible: What Jesus really said about money, sex and violence, will be published by Darton, Longman and Todd on 26th November in paperback and e-book, priced £9.99.

Remembrance Day: Why should former soldiers have to rely on charity?

I recently blogged about how the Royal British Legion – who produce the red poppy – insist that Remembrance Day should honour only the British military dead. I received a fair few responses, from support to abuse to constructive discussion.

Some of those who responded agreed that there was a problem with honouring only military dead, and only British dead, but they said they buy a red poppy because the British Legion use the money to support those injured and bereaved by war.

There is some truth in this. Many people are motivated by compassion to give donations that will benefit the victims of war.

It is encouraging that there is so much compassionate feeling around. Compassion leads not only to helping people, but to seeking to do so in the most effective way possible.Therefore  we must ask a vital question: Why should former members of the armed forces have to rely on charity at all?

When a government makes a decision to go to war, it calculates the costs. Such costs should include the expenditure needed to support those who come backed injured in body or mind.

However, all governments know that they can rely on charities such as the Royal British Legion to provide such support.

I don’t blame charities for helping people who are suffering, but I would rather see them do so under protest, explaining that it is necessary only because the government has abandoned those that they sent to risk their lives.

The British Legion refuse to do this, saying they are not political. But a decision not to mention something is just as political as a decision to speak out.

The Cameron government is slashing support for disabled people while preparing to throw around £100bn into renewing the Trident nuclear weapons system. At a time of massive cuts to vital public services – that really do provide security for many people – the UK maintains the sixth highest military budget in the world, providing only sham security in a world far too complicated for problems to be solved with bombs and bullets.

Let’s honour the dead and the injured by calling for a decent welfare state to support those affected and by engaging in the difficult and challenging processes that will help to prevent war in future.

Who is the red poppy designed to remember? The answer might surprise you

Many people in the UK wear a red poppy at this time of year out of a laudable desire to honour and remember the victims of war.

I have often been told by red poppy wearers that they wish to commemorate all those killed in war. It comes as a surprise to some people to discover that this is not the stated purpose of those who produce the red poppy, the Royal British Legion.

According to the LegionRed poppy, the red poppy does not even commemorate all the British dead.

The Legion is quite explicit in stating that the purpose of the red poppy is to honour British military dead. At a stretch, they will commemorate allied military dead. But civilian dead don’t get a look in.

What about civilian stretcher bearers in the Blitz, killed as they rushed to save the lives of others? Shouldn’t they be honoured on Remembrance Day? No, says the Royal British Legion.

As the Legion would have it, the poppies they produce do not honour the innocent children killed in the bombing of (say) Coventry, let alone the equally innocent children killed in Dresden.

If you click on the “What we remember” link on the Royal British Legion’s website, you will found this blatant statement:

“The Legion advocates a specific type of Remembrance connected to the British Armed Forces, those who were killed, those who fought with them and alongside them.”

I do not wish to engage in such partial and sectarian remembrance. But it gets worse. The front page of this year’s Poppy Appeal website includes a large picture of a current soldier, with the headline:

“The poppy doesn’t only support veterans of the past”.

Current members of the forces are now given at least equal, if not more prominent attention, by the Royal British Legion on the web. The Legion clearly has a political position of encouraging support for the British armed forces as an institution, and by implication supporting war as a means of addressing conflict and celebrating military values such as unquestioning obedience.

Of course, the Legion has every right to adopt this position and to make an argument for it. But let’s not pretend it’s politically neutral.

Despite all this, the Legion does some good work. Their website includes a relatively prominent section about supporting veterans with mental health problems. Sadly, this is overshadowed by all the nationalism, militarism and romanticising of war with which their publicity is glutted.
White poppies
I want to commemorate all those killed, injured and bereaved in war. That’s why I wear a white poppy, symbolising the need to remember all victims of war and to honour them by working for peace in the present and the future.

You can buy a white poppy at

Cameron standing up to the Saudis? I don’t believe it!

According to news reports, David Cameron has cancelled a deal to supply prison services to Saudi Arabia.

Frankly, I don’t believe it. At least, I don’t believe that Cameron has stood up to the Saudi regime. If the prison deal has been cancelled, I am sure the Saudis have been offered something else instead. My experience of campaigning about UK-Saudi relations over the last decade has taught me never to underestimate the willingness of the UK establishment to submit to the desires of Saudi princes.

The prison controversy is not the only Saudi-related issue to appear in the British news today. A 74-year-old British man has been sentenced to 360 lashes for possession of home-made wine. The Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) has pointed out that the Cameron-Clegg government licensed £4bn worth of arms sales to Saudi Arabia between 2010 and 2015. Recently, it was reported that UK officials played a major role in helping Saudi Arabia to retain its absurd position on the UN Human Rights Council.

Cameron and Saudis

The Saudi regime remains the biggest buyer of British-made weapons. They have almost certainly been used by Saudi forces against civilians in Yemen and Bahrain.

Former Foreign Secretary Robin Cook wrote that, under Tony Blair, the chairman of BAE Systems had the “key to the garden door at Number Ten”. It dosen’t look as if Cameron has changed the locks.

The UK’s loyalty to the Saudi dictatorship makes a mockery of almost every announcement the government makes about human rights, democracy and terrorism.

Ministers denounce dictators such as Assad in Syria, but bow to the wishes of an equally vicious dictator in the same region. They express horror at beheadings by ISIS, but don’t mention that beheadings in Saudi Arabia have doubled in the last year. Tony Blair stated that one of the reasons for invading Afghanistan was to improve the status of women; as the comedian Mark Steel put it, perhaps Blair thought that his ally Saudi Arabia was a feminist paradise. Cameron accuses Jeremy Corbyn of being “terrorist-sympathising”, but when it comes to the terrorists running Saudi Arabia, Cameron goes far beyond sympathy: he sells them weapons.

I had always known that the British establishment was subservient to the Saudi regime, but I did not realise the extent of this until I saw it first hand.

In 2006, I was working for CAAT when Tony Blair interfered in a criminal investigation and pressured the Serious Fraud Office to drop its inquiries into arms deals between Saudi Arabia and BAE Systems.

The decision followed an intense media campaign by the pro-BAE lobby, with certain papers making wildly inaccurate claims about the number of jobs dependent on a new arms deal with Saudi Arabia (their inaccuracy was demonstrated when the deal went ahead, creating almost no new jobs in the UK). The Saudi regime had said they would cancel the deal if the investigation went ahead. Blair claimed that he had accepted this demand for the sake of “national security”, as the Saudis had also threatened to abandon intelligence co-operation that would help in the fight against terrorism. In other words, Britain was faced with a terrorist threat – and simply backed down.

CAAT, along with The Corner House, took the government to court. In 2008, the High Court ruled that the authorities had acted illegally by cancelling the investigation. There was outrage in the right-wing media (“Judges blow to war on terror” ran the headline in the Sun).

The impact of this was brought home to me when a Conservative MP angrily told me and a colleague that “If you knew half the damage you’ve caused to UK-Saudi relations, you’d be shocked”. I was not shocked; I was delighted.

Such damage could have been caused only if the Saudis were used to getting everything their own way in their relations with Britain. Sadly, the government appealled to the Law Lords who overturned the court’s ruling. UK-Saudi relations apparently returned to normal – but public awareness of the problem was growing.

British subservience to Saudi is the nastiest aspect of British foreign policy and it urgently need to become a major political issue in the UK. Let’s not just end one prison deal, but this whole foul and subservient relationship.

Nuclear weapons and bisexuality

My apologies for the lack of blog posts in recent weeks. I usually post a link to articles I have written elsewhere, but I admit I’ve not kept up with this lately.

Here are links to a few articles I’ve had published recently.

Corbyn should stick to his guns on defence policy (21.09.15)- My latest piece for the Huffington Post

Freeing sexuality from an either/or model (18.09.15) – My opinion piece for the Church Times to mark Bisexual Visibility Day

Hiroshima was an act of mass murder (06.08.15) – My blog post for Premier Christianity magazine, as part of a debate on the 70th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing