The Christmas story is a political story

The New Testament opens with a story of conflict. It is a political conflict.

By any standard, King Herod was a vicious ruler. Yet in Matthew’s Gospel, he is frightened. He feels threatened – not by another ruler, not by an army, not by his masters in Rome. He is frightened of a baby.

Herod tries to fool a group of astrologers (not three kings) into passing on information about Jesus, but they are warned and outwit him. They proclaim Jesus, not Herod, to be king. In his desperation, Herod inflicts the unimaginable horror of a massacre of children. But Jesus survives. Mary, Joseph and Jesus become refugees in Egypt.

The story has been distinctly odd even before Herod appears. We have a Jewish couple who look set to break up when Mary becomes pregnant. But Joseph is told that Mary is pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Instead of feeling shame or outrage, he trusts her and goes through with the marriage. Social and family norms are overturned. No “traditional family values” here. Jesus had two fathers.

We are presented with contrasting images of kingship. We have the worldly kingship of Herod, rooted in wealth, violence, deceit and political manipulation. Against that, we have the child of an almost-single mother who becomes a refugee. As the child grows up, he mixes with the marginalised, sides with the poor and exemplifies active nonviolence.

Since the fourth century, when the Roman Empire domesticated Christianity, many churches have shown more affinity with the sort of power represented by Herod than with the upside-down kingship of Jesus.

Few elements of Christianity have been domesticated more thoroughly than Christmas. Stories from Matthew and Luke have been welded together, mixed in with Pagan imagery and used as the sentimental background music to a festival of consumerism.

It is sometimes said that we are losing “the real meaning of Christmas”. I’m not sure that people in Victorian times or the Middle Ages were focused on the radical nature of Jesus’ message any more than we are – at least not if they were listening at the pulpits of state-aligned churches.

The nativity stories are among the parts of the gospels that scholars tend to regard as least likely to be factually accurate. I accept that judgement. Nonetheless, I suggest that these stories mean a lot because they are a microcosm of the conflict and choice that is at the heart of the gospel. The nativity story is not merely a romantic myth but an invitation to take sides.

Will we choose the kingdom of God or the powers of this world? The tyrant or the baby? One side has money and armies. The other has love and nonviolence. It’s up to us.

 

The above article is adapted from a piece I wrote for the December 2016 issue of Reform magazine, in which I was one of four people asked to respond to the question, “What does Christmas mean to you?”. Many thanks to Steve Tomkins, editor of Reform, for asking me to write this.

My latest book is The Upside-Down Bible: What Jesus really said about money, sex and violence, published by Darton, Longman and Todd. It costs £9.99 in paperback or ebook.

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The Church of England’s budget response reveals twisted priorities

Institutional churches can be pretty slow to respond to injustice, so I’m not surprised that some people were pleased to see that the Church of England issued a speedy response to George Osborne’s budget yesterday.

Did the CofE’s response challenge the cuts to disability benefits? Denounce the tax breaks for corporations and the wealthy? Demand more funding for public services and the protection of the welfare state?

No. It did none of these things. The Church of England’s press release began with the following words:

“The Church of England has welcomed warmly the announcement in the Chancellor’s Budget today of a £20 million fund for works to cathedrals.”

It continued along similar lines.

Thankfully, many Christians, including both clergy and lay people in the Church of England, have criticised the budget – the last in a long line of Osborne budgets to serve the rich at the expense of the rest. Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, has been known in the past to criticise some of the cuts to the welfare state, although I believe he has yet to respond to the budget.

Nonetheless, it says a great deal about establishment that the first official response from the Church of England as a whole was to “warmly” welcome the crumbs that the Chancellor threw in their direction.

Some may say that this was a press release about the cathedrals repair fund rather than the budget as a whole. That, of course, is the problem. Why should this be considered the most important part of the budget for the Church to respond to? It is a trivial detail.

Nor should it be said that this announcement was more relevant to the Church than the other parts of the budget. It was not. Christians are called to follow Jesus, who led by example in showing solidarity with the poor and marginalised. He did not set up a charity for maintaining interesting old buildings.

Church welcomes arms dealers – but tries to ban pacifists from singing hymns

Church House vigil 140709The most bizarre moment of today’s vigil outside an arms conference at Church House was when Westminster Abbey’s staff told us that we were not allowed to sing hymns on their land.

A group of around twenty people, mostly Christians, were holding a vigil of prayer and protest outside Church House, whose conference centre is hosting an “Air Power” conference sponsored by arms companies such as BAE and Lockheed Martin. The area outside one entrance to Church House is on Westminster Abbey land.

Our vigil had largely been silent until we started to sing “We are marching in the light of God”. A member of Westminster Abbey staff came over to us and said we should not sing. She insisted that the Abbey had been “very generous” in allowing us on to its “private property” and that we would not be allowed to continue there if we sang.

I said it was odd that an arms dealers’ conference is welcome but that Christians singing hymns were not. The Abbey representative told me that the Abbey had nothing to do with the arms conference, which is hosted at Church House.

This is a fair point as far as it goes, even though the Abbey own the steps up which the arms dealers walked to get to Church House. But I asked why we could Church House vigil 140709 - 2not sing hymns in the grounds of a church built on Jesus Christ.

The Abbey staff member (I’m sorry; I don’t know her name) said she worked for the Dean and Chapter. I said that they were part of a church built on the teachings of Jesus. She said, “I don’t know what the church is built on” and insisted that she was accountable to the Dean and Chapter.

I asked if this was an admittance that Westminster Abbey is basically a secular institution rather than a church of Christ. She said, “It’s a royal peculiar”. This is a legal term regarding the Abbey’s official status and its relationship to the monarchy.

I replied that I had no interest in “royal peculiars” as the only royalty I recognise is Jesus Christ. I explained that Jesus is my king and queen and that Elizabeth Windsor is not.

She seemed offended at this point and said, “Queen Elizabeth the Second is my queen.” I replied, “She’s not mine” but she soon returned to talking about the Abbey being a “royal peculiar.”

Even if you accept monarchy, private property and so on, this does not explain why the Abbey should object to people singing hymns on its grounds. She never explained this, only saying the Abbey were “very generous” by allowing us there. Perhaps I should have put this point more, rather than got into an confused exchange about the monarchy.

I suggested that her words were an admission that the Abbey was more concerned with its loyalty to an earthly monarch than to Jesus. She didn’t answer, but walked off angrily to consult with uniformed staff as we continued to sing.

We sang hymns, prayed and read the Bible aloud for more than half an hour after that without being disturbed. The arms dealers enjoying drinks on the balcony above us could clearly hear us.

Of course, this comes less than a fortnight after Westminster Abbey’s staff called in the police for a violent eviction of a group of disabled protesters. Their behaviour on that occasion made St Paul’s Cathedral’s treatment of the Occupy London Stock Exchange camp seem mild by comparison.

What’s this got to do with the arms trade? It’s about loyalty and authority. In what culture do Christian organisations operate? I frequently fail to live in loyalty to Christ. I do not love my neighbour as myself, I behave selfishly and am complicit in the sins of our society and economic system. The task of a church is to bring together people as they struggle to live in loyalty to the Kingdom of God, and to witness to Jesus Christ in the world.

Loyalty to the Kingdom of God means a rejection of the powers of this world. Sadly, Westminster Abbey and Church House seem to be in thrall to the idols of Mammon, monarchy and militarism.

 

To sign an email about arms conferences at Church House to the Archbishop of Canterbury, please visit http://act.caat.org.uk/lobby/churchhouse.

British racist group backed by Egyptian embassy official

The military government in Egypt has received the enthusiastic backing of Tony Blair. The UK government, while using more cautious language, has continued to license arms sales to this regime, which imprisons its opponents and attacks peaceful demonstrators.

If we needed another reminder of the reality of this regime, one of its press officers has now tweeted – with approval – a link to the website of Britain First, a violent, racist group that split from the British National Party (BNP). 

In January, Britain First held a rally outside the London offices of a group linked to the Muslim Brotherhood. Shortly afterwards, Sohair Younis, Press Counsellor to the Egyptian Embassy in London, tweeted (in capitals): “Demonstration: Britain First holds successful demonstration at London HQ of terrorist Muslim Brotherhood”. This was followed by a link to a story about the protest on Britain First’s own website.

Younis is clearly implying that she supports the demonstration. If she had made a statement about the event with no comment or link, she might get away with claiming that she was merely noting that it had happened. The link to the group’s own account of it, along with her willingness to use their own description of it (“successful”) make clear that this is not a neutral tweet.

I admit I would not have noticed Younis’ tweet were it not for a good friend of mine who campaigns against Egypt’s military regime. She uses Facebook under the name Sarah Antideepstate. Many thanks to Sarah for drawing this tweet to my attention.

You may well not have heard of Britain First. The group’s website is so full of half-truths, fantasy and lies that it’s difficult to know how much of what it says about itself is true.

It was founded by former BNP members who argued with BNP leader Nick Griffin. This appears to have been in part due to Griffin’s decision to allow non-whites to join the party. However, Britain First seem to emphasise religion at least as much as race.

Its members include Paul Golding, a former BNP councillor in Kent, and Jim Dowson, a former BNP treasurer and Christian fundamentalist minister with links to extreme loyalist activities in Northern Ireland.

The group say they want to preserve “British and Christian morality”. They describes themselves as a “patriotic political party and street defence organisation”. They clearly hate Muslims (who they lump together as terrorists and sexists). Their website declares that they are “overtly proud” of putting “our own people before foreigners” (how this fits with “Christian morality” is not explained). The website includes several attacks on homosexuality and applause for Vladimir Putin, the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church and countries that have passed laws against LGBT rights.

Despite all their hate-filled, racist, homophobic rhetoric, they say they want to “restore Christianity as the bedrock and foundation of our national life”.

It may be argued that Sohair Younis is not supporting everything Britain First stands for. However, if she does not agree with the group’s other views, she at least regards them as tolerable enough to overlook them for the sake of unity against the Muslim Brotherhood.

I’m no supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood, although it is absurd to suggest that all its members are terrorists.

The current Egyptian government is a terrorist regime. So why am I bothering to mention this tweet? You might point out that the regime’s violence against its critics in Egypt, its murder of opponents and its fixing of a referendum are far worse than a tweet about a small group of right-wing extremists in London. You would be right.

However, what’s significant about this tweet is that it’s a comment on British politics. It’s a reminder that when Blair and Cameron get friendly with this regime, their friends’ friends in the UK include racists, Islamophobes, homophobes and fundamentalists who don’t think that the BNP is extreme enough.

Celebrating revolution at Christmas

Tonight and tomorrow, millions of people will gather in churches to tell each other a truly subversive story.

They will tell of a baby born to a semi-homeless family living under a viciously oppressive regime. They will declare that the mother’s husband was not the baby’s father; this was a very unconventional family. They will tell of how the puppet ruler of the area was so frightened by this obscure baby that he killed all the children in the town to try to get rid of him.

They will add stories about visits to the child from migrant travellers, who foiled the king’s attempts to hunt down the baby. They will say that the child was visited also by people whose work was looked down on, but to whom God chose to reveal the news of the birth.

In many countries throughout history, and in some today, the authorities have tried to suppress Christians telling these stories to each other. After all, they challenge authority, monarchy, national loyalty and family values.

Over time, the people with power have become more subtle and effective in their methods. They have found it much easier to tell these stories themselves, repeating them so often that they become familiar and disconnected from the realities of life, death, power and politics today. Some of us can be quite comfortable with this. We can enjoy the stories, but not the challenge they bring to our lives. Even those of us want to change the society we live in can still cling on to the comfort of familiarity.

No king, no dictator, no burner of books has ever suppressed the Christian message as well as those who have domesticated Christianity. Turning subversion into a fluffy story is much more effective than banning it.

At times, we glimpse the transformative potential of Christmas. On Christmas Day ninety-nine years ago, German troops on the Western Front displayed a sign reading “We no fight. You no fight.” The British responded in kind, and the opposing soldiers were soon shaking hands and playing football. The authorities on both sides responded by criminalising such behaviour to make sure it didn’t happen again. If people realise that they are fighting people who are just the same as them, they might decide that there are better causes to fight for, and better ways to fight for them. If the troops had gone on playing football into Boxing Day, they might have stopped the war.

The baby we’re talking about this week grew up, despite the king’s murderous intention. He continued to be in conflict with authority. He welcomed and challenged all whom he encountered. He declared his solidarity with the poor and marginalised, while offering just as much love to the rich and powerful as he called on them to repent. He spoke of the kingdom of God, a revolutionary notion in an empire whose emperor expected to be worshipped. He was executed after a rigged trial by the local rulers, helped by the collusion of religious leaders. Some of us have faith that the oppressive powers could not hold him and that God raised him from the dead to continue to lead and liberate us.

That really is something worth celebrating. Merry Christmas.

All baptisms are royal baptisms

When I complained on Twitter last week about the excessive amount of media coverage given to George Windsor’s baptism, somebody replied with the understandable opinion that it was a welcome change to see Christian sacraments featuring in the news.

I can see his point, although as the week went I on I became convinced that the coverage was bad rather than good news for Christianity. The reporting reinforced prominent misconceptions about baptism, including the idea that it is about conforming to tradition rather than making a radical statement.

The media told us that George was baptised in a “private” ceremony. My idea of “private” does not involve an event that is pictured on the front pages of the next day’s newspapers, but I suppose it’s literally true in that the ceremony was not open to everyone. George was surrounded by people as wealthy and privileged as he will one day be. Media comment focused on the details of the clothes he was wearing and his godparents’ ancestral backgrounds.

I don’t doubt the sincerity of Justin Welby’s prayers, nor of the worship through which the baby was welcomed into the Christian church (although George himself is too young to have much say in the matter). He was splashed with water from the River Jordan, where John the Baptist immersed Jesus two thousand years ago.

That was a rather different event, when people voluntarily walked into a river to repent of their sins and to ask God’s forgiveness. Following Jesus’ resurrection, his disciples continued to practise baptism in water, while also experiencing baptism in the Holy Spirit, a more internal matter of cleansing and rebirth.

It is not known whether the early Christians baptised children as well as adults (the question is the subject of a never-ending debate amongst historians and theologians). What is clear is that baptism was a dangerous business. Being baptised helped to mark people out as Christians at a time when they were marginalised at best and executed at worst.

Christianity gradually became less radical, accepting dominant norms of slavery and gender roles. Then in the fourth century, the emperor Constantine sucked the power out of this once subversive movement by making Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire and thereby domesticating it. As church leaders were given positions of power and privilege, they found themselves defending ideas they had previously been against (think of Liberal Democrat ministers in the UK government and you’ll get the idea).

With the beginning of Christendom, the church and state became allies, offering support and sanction to each other. All parents were expected to have their children baptised. Baptism, far from being a sign of rejecting the powers of this world, became a symbol of acceptance.

Among the groups who reacted against this were the Anabaptists of the sixteenth century. Emphasising that following Jesus is a matter of personal choice, they baptised each other as adult believers. In many countries by this time, refusing to hand over your child for infant baptism was a criminal offence punishable by death. Anabaptists were martyred in their thousands.

Some Anabaptists survived by fleeing to North America and a few continued to live in Europe. Their influence on other radical Christian movements, such as Quakerism and some strands of the Baptists, is debated but should not be underestimated. Quakers and the Salvation Army developed a different, but equally radical, interpretation of baptism, rejecting the use of water and focused on inward, spiritual baptism alone. The early twentieth century saw the birth of the Pentecostal movement, which emphasises baptism in the spirit as well as in water for adult believers.

To be fair, many supporters of infant baptism see it as a case of welcoming a child into a community rather than simply going through the expected procedure. They also believe they are preparing a child to make a decision for themselves at a later date, despite applying the water in infancy. I am not persuaded by their arguments, but their approach is very different to the popular conception of “christening” as something that is about celebrating birth rather than about joining the church.

It is this misconception that was reinforced by George Windsor’s baptism last week. George is starting out on a life in which – despite enormous wealth – he will be required at every stage to do exactly what is expected of him. Baptism for him looks likely to be the first step on a journey of commitment to the powers of privilege and earthly power.

In baptism, said the apostle Paul, we die and rise with Christ. We dedicate ourselves, in all our fallible humanity, to Jesus Christ. All baptisms are royal baptisms, because they mark out the participants as citizens of the Kingdom of God. Loyalty to that subversive kingdom means rejection of the kingdoms of this world.

Baptism is not about conformity. As early Christians, Anabaptists and Quakers knew to their cost, baptism is an act of rebellion – and it leads to trouble.

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The above article appeared as my latest column for the website of the Ekklesia thinktank. Please see http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/news/columns/hill

Christians must speak out against anti-gay bus adverts

Once again, groups that attempt to “cure” people of same-sex attraction have made the headlines. The Core Issues Trust (whose only “core issue” is an obsession with opposing same-sex relationships) and Anglican Mainstream (who are not at all mainstream) have co-sponsored bus adverts for London, promoting the idea of being “ex-gay”.

The Mayor of London has now banned the adverts. In the ensuing controversy, the two groups will get at least as much publicity as the adverts themselves would have generated. But they won’t have to pay for them.

Conversion therapy” for gay and bisexual people used to be a very marginal idea in Britain. When I (to my shame) supported a homophobic position, in the mid-late 1990s, most socially conservative Christians either refused to accept that homosexual orientation existed, or (in the case of the slightly more humane ones) insisted that gay people should be “celibate”.

But in the last few years, we have seen a sharp increase in support for “ex-gay” and “therapy” ideas deriving from the US. To understand the reasons for this, we need to look at the social and religious context.

Christianity – or at least certain traditional forms of it – have in recent decades moved from centre-stage in an increasingly multifaith society. This has been a welcome relief for Christians who want to move on from Christianity’s collusion with wealth and power. But it has been frightening for some more socially conservative Christians.

This is not surprising. What is worrying is that many of them have latched on to sexuality as the issue to fight over. They claim to be protecting “Christian values”, “biblical values” or “family values”. But they are usually defending their own privileges.

Extreme groups such as Anglican Mainstream and Christian Concern have become obsessed with sexuality. Their narrow focus and extreme rhetoric have alienated more moderate conservatives. There are people who still have a problem with same-sex relationships but who are open to dialogue with those who disagree and who think that Christians should also be concerned with issues such as poverty, peace and climate change. While I want to challenge these people’s views, I would not confuse them with people who sponsor anti-gay bus adverts.

Unfortunately, whenever a story of this sort breaks, much of the media cover it in terms of “Christians v. gays”, as if the two groups were mutually exclusive. The Core Issues Trust and Anglican Mainstream cannot claim to represent Christians generally – or even evangelical Christians generally. No Christian group can do that.

But these sort of stories perpetuate the impression that all, or nearly all, Christians are homophobic. Last year, when I went on a pilgrimage of repentance for my former homophobia, I received emails from people who had genuinely never heard of a non-homophobic Christian before (let alone a gay or bisexual one).

The media cannot take all the blame for this. Homophobia is on the march, and pro-equality Christians must be prepared to speak up as loudly as Anglican Mainstream and the Core Issues Trust.

Let us never confuse the radical inclusivity of Christ with the legalism of the homophobes or the shallow surface equality offered by secular liberalism. Let us have love for our opponents. Let us be open to learning and developing our views. Let us not be afraid to take a stand for love and justice. Otherwise, the only news that the world will hear from Christians is a message from people who want to “cure” them of falling in love with the wrong person.