The Rowes case: The Christian Gospel does not uphold binary gender

I was protesting against the London arms fair when I heard the news story about the Rowes famiy on the Isle of Wight. They have withdrawn their child from school, supposedly because he was “confused” by the school allowing children to make choices about what to wear.

It seems that the school permitted another pupil to choose weather to wear “boys’ clothes” or “girls’ clothes”. The Rowes parents insist that this was contrary to their Christian faith. They are now taking legal action against the school for allowing their pupils to choose what to wear and “confusing” their own child.

I too was confused when I was a small child. I was confused about why boys and girls wore different clothes, and why I couldn’t wear the same clothes as girls. I was confused about why girls and boys were expected to play with different toys. I was confused about why my family lived in a small cottage in the grounds of a large house in which my mother worked as a housekeeper, and why the family that she worked for had a much larger and better house than ours.

As I grew up, I came to understand the reasons for these things, while never accepting they were right. I am still confused all the time. Being confused is part of being a child – or an open-minded adult.

It came as no suprise to me to learn that the Rowes parents are backed by the Christian Legal Centre, a far-right gang of homophobes who pursue legal cases to back up their absurd claim that Christians are being “marginalised” or “discriminated against” in the UK. While they’re most often attacking gay and bisexual people, their other targets have included trans people, Muslims and Jews.

With this case, the Christian Legal Centre have sunk to a new low (some might be surprised that such a thing is possible, but they keep proving that it is). This time, they are not objecting to something being banned, but something being allowed. They are not opposing the treatment of their own child, but to the choices of another child.

They are launching a legal challenge over a school uniform policy that they considers offers children too much choice. As if this isn’t bizarre enough, they are citing Christianity as their reason for doing so.

The Christian Legal Centre (and Christian Concern, which is their political campaigning wing) are not representative of evangelicals, let alone Christians generally. Many other Christians, however, tend to ignore them rather than challenging them, which unfortunately gives them space to represent themselves in the media as the voice of Chrsitianity.

Occasionally, they have brought cases that make at least some sort of sense (such as opposing restrictive uniform policies that rule out religious symbols). This time, they’re objecting to a uniform policy that offers too much freedom.

Thankfully, they have very little chance of winning this ridiculous legal challenge. They will, however, manage to secure considerable media coverage to promote their prejudices. As a result, Christianity will probably be associated with bigotry and coercion in even more people’s minds by the time they have finished.

They will also promote the impression that the Bible upholds narrow attitudes to gender and sexuality. I am baffled as to how so many people who have read the New Testament can conclude that it promotes “family values” and binary gender. It is not just that gender fluidity is compatible with the Gospel. Rather, it seems to me that that narrow atttiudes to gender are utterly contrary to the Gospel.

Different groups of Christians can always hurl quotes from the Bible at each other. But I am not backing my argument with a few isolated lines from the Bible. I suggest that most of the New Testament consistently attacks narrow, biological, socially constructed attitudes to families, gender and sexuality. Rejection of such things is one of the New Testament’s prominent themes.

Jesus and his followers left their families to form a community that travelled around together; such behaviour was surprising at least. According to the gospels, Jesus allowed women to make physical contact with him in a society that found it shocking (but he is never shown initiating the contact). He redefined family, saying that whoever does God’s will was his brother, sister and mother. He urged his supporters to “call no-one father on earth” (in a context in which a father was a figure of authority). He opposed the practice that allowed men to divorce their wives on a whim, throwing them into disgrace and poverty. He made clear that men were responsible for the sexual sins they committed “in their hearts” and couldn’t blame women for tempting them.

Such radical attitudes continued in the early Christan community, with the older parts of the New Testament making clear that women were given a central place in the community. In his letter to the Galatians, the apostle Paul attacked those who would replace the freedom of the gsopel with a series of rules, insisting (among other things) that distincitons between Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female, were ended in the Christian community.

True, the later parts of the New Testament show a more conventional attitude to gender, family and hierarchy. For example, the letters to Ephesians and Timothy tell women to obey their husbands (these letters are attributed to Paul but most biblical scholars take the view that he did not write them). This reflects Christianity losing its progressiive attitudes as time went on, contrary to the shocking radicalism of Jesus and Paul.

The Gospel is about liberaton, not legalism. To preach legalism, as Paul told the Galatians, is to preach “another gospel”.

Since last week, over 100 people have been arrested while taking nonviolent direct action against the evil of the DSEI arms fair in London. Many of them are Chrsitians, some arrested during acts of worship. The Christian Legal Centre present themselves as anti-establishment (as far-right groups often do) but they do nothing to challenge the injustices of capitalism and militarism. The gospel is about challenging legalism, exploitation and oppressive attitudes – not upholding them.

Advertisements

How radical is the Greenbelt festival?

The following article appeared in the Morning Star newspaper on 2nd September 2017. I wrote it after attending the Greenbelt festival the previous weekend.

Last weekend communist theologian Marika Rose called for the abolition of the police.

It’s nothing remarkable: she has been expressing such views for years. What was different this time is that she was addressing an audience at one of Britain’s largest religious festivals.

Greenbelt is a Christian-based festival of music, comedy, arts, talks, debate, politics, worship and theology. In recent years, it has projected a clearly left-of-centre image.

Taking place every August, it is now held in east Northamptonshire. It attracted over 11,000 punters this year, as numbers rose after falling from the high point of 20,000 some years ago.

Mariks’a comments triggered a mixed response. One festival-goer told me she was delighted to hear such radical views at a Christian event. Another wrote: “Shame on you” to Marika.

The controversy provoked a minor Twitter storm, with some apparently angry that such a view should be given a platform at Greenbelt. Nonetheless, I can’t help thinking that there would have been more anger a few years ago.

This is not to say that Greenbelt is centre of communist activism, however its conservative detractors portray it. It has been described as “the Guardian does Jesus.” While this criticism comes from right-wing critics, there is a certain accuracy to it.

Like the Guardian, Greenbelt is liberal and centre-left, preferable to the powerful interests on its right, but broadly accepting of capitalism and compromised by its role as a large commercial institution.

You can hear repeated attacks on poverty and austerity at Greenbelt, but they often focus on specific policies rather than any deeper challenge to class structures.

Thankfully, there are exceptions: this year’s highlights included Teresa Forcades I Vila, often described as “Europe’s most radical nun.”

Pacifist activists Sam Walton and Dan Woodhouse spoke about their attempts to disarm a BAE warplane destined for Saudi use in Yemen. Anglican priest Rachel Mann offered a complex but accessible analysis of the link between militarism and masculinity. Interfaith events looked at how Christians can support struggles against Islamophobia and antisemitism.

Greenbelt has been a truly liberating event for many people. In the early 2000s, it was the first Christian event at which I saw a same-sex couple holding hands. Nowadays you can see almost as many same-sex couples there as mixed-sex couples.

At most Christian festivals, this would be unthinkable. For countless LGBT+ Christians, Greenbelt was the first place in which they could be open about their sexuality or gender identity.

Socialists at Greenbelt this year welcomed a new tent hosting stalls from co-operative businesses and discussions on the co-operative movement.

There was for the first time a women-focused venue on site: the Red Tent, with a number of events open to all who define themselves as women. This seems particularly important when transphobia is so prevalent in churches, and when even some on the left wish to deny trans people equality.

There were a number of firmly progressive groups running stalls in the middle of the festival, including the Fellowship of Reconciliation (a radical peace organisation), Church Action on Poverty and groups promoting resistance to the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

In important ways, however, Greenbelt fell short. The theme of this year’s Sunday morning communion service (the main event at Greenbelt) was disability.

There was an inspiring sermon by a disabled teenager as well as contributions from other disabled people about ways in which they are included or excluded.

Remarkably, however, despite all the discussions of poverty at the festival, not a single word was spoken in the service about the way in which disabled people are facing systematic attacks on their livelihoods by a government that is slashing and burning the welfare state.

And over it all hangs the shadow of an incident in 2011, when festivalgoer Ceri Owen was dragged from the festival by police as she was sectioned under the Mental Health Act.

The most positive interpretation is that Greenbelt organisers overreacted and misunderstood the situation when they called the police. But far from apologising, they continue to defend their behaviour and Ceri has been banned from Greenbelt ever since.

At the same time, she has become an increasingly prominent mental health activist, frequently appearing in the media to speak about cuts to mental health services.

The importance of Greenbelt for promoting progressive views among Christians should not be underestimated. For some LGBT+ Christians in particular, it has literally changed their lives.

But as Ceri’s exclusion demonstrates, when push comes to shove large institutions tend to veer towards self-justification and conventional power dynamics.

Such problems can also be seen in a number of secular left organisations, including certain trade unions. Radical change requires people working at the grassroots from the bottom up.

Thankfully, the more radical punters at Greenbelt will soon be joining in with the large number of protests, vigils and direct actions planned for the run-up to the London arms fair.

Despite Christianity’s many compromises with wealth and privilege, we still have Jesus’s example of standing up to the rich and powerful. The reign of God is not compatible with the power structures of this world.

Christian Concern have crossed a line to outright racism with their attack on Sadiq Khan

The right-wing lobby group Christian Concern are well-known for their vocal homophobia and for stirring up prejudice against Muslims. With their attack on the man set to be the new Mayor of London, however, they seem to have crossed a line from nastiness to racism.

Sadiq Khan’s Tory rival, Zac Goldsmith, has rightly been accused of running a campaign that encouraged thinly veiled racial language and anti-Muslim prejudice. Christian Concern have gone further.

I have no brief to defend Sadiq Khan. I once shared a platform with him at a Fabian Society conference. He was friendly and seemed genuinely down-to-earth. But I disagree with him on too many issues for it to be likely that I would ever vote for him. I am angry not because I am a Khan supporter but because I am disgusted by racism, and furious when I see it promoted in the name of Christianity.

The day before polling day, Christian Concern published an article on their website entitled “Londonistan with Khan?”. It was written by Tim Dieppe, the organisation’s “Director of Islamic Affairs”. I was unaware that Christian Concern employed anyone in such a role; I think it’s fairly new. This being Christian Concern, it’s safe to assume that they mean “Director of Islamophobic Affairs”.

Dieppe’s article is truly vile. Some of Khan’s attackers accuse him of association with “Islamic extremists” but insist that they are not attacking him for being a Muslim. Christian Concern offer no such qualifiers. Dieppe states simply, “It is well known that he is a Muslilm who is devout in his adherence to the faith”.

The article then goes on to repeat some of the accusations about his “links” with extremists. Dieppe states that they have been “well-documented”, though the only link provided is to an allegation that he shared a platform with some extremists twelve years ago.

There is a list of six bullet points about why Khan is so terrible.

At least one of the points is factually inaccurate. Khan has not opposed the criminalisation of forced marriage but rather a particular law about it. Whether or not he is right about that law, this is not the same thing as wanting forced marriage to be legal.

But by far the most bizarre bullet point is the first. This states that, in his capacity as a lawyer, “Khan wrote a ‘how-to’ guide for people wanting to sue the police for damages”.

So whatever else he might be blamed for, it seems that Khan has been willing to help people who have been the victims of police racism or brutality. So why is this on a list of bad points?

Underneath his list, Dieppe has written, “Particularly concerning are his encouragement of suing the police for racism”. The implication is that the police should be allowed to get away with racism.

This becomes more explicit a few lines afterwards, when Tim Dieppe’s foul arguments reaches its height. He writes:

It is hard to see Khan supporting the police being more proactive in upholding the law in areas with high Muslim populations… Knowing they lack political support, the police are likely to continue in their politically correct ways, with disastrous results. Fear of causing offence will rule. We have already seen some of the effects of such politically correct policing in Rotherham, Rochdale, Oxford and other cities where Islamic rape gangs have been allowed to run riot, with the police terrified of being called racist.”

Well, at least Tim Dieppe and Christian Concern are not terrified of being called racist. They are blatant and open about being racist. I doubt they would describe groups of child-abusing priests as “Christian rape gangs” but when the perpetrators are Muslim, they blame the crimes on Islam.

The organisation says little about sexual abuse more generally or asks whether wider social attitudes and police prejudice contribute to the lack of rape convictions. Nor is such prejudice likely to be challenged by people who damn lawyers for writing guidelines on how to challenge the police.

There’s a thin line between Islamophobia and racism. Christian Concern are now clearly promoting the latter as well as the former. To suggest that police racism should not be challenged goes hand in hand with their focus on rape committed by ethnic and religious minorities rather than others.

Let’s not forget that Christian Concern have never denied or confirmed the allegation that they held a planning meeting with Tommy Robinson when he was leader of the English Defence League. That tells you a great deal about Christian Concern.

I have no doubt that Christian Concern are, at least in many areas, entirely sincere about their beliefs. What I will not accept is that these beliefs have any basis in the teachings of Jesus.

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

Britain has never been a Christian country

Happy Easter!

As Christians around the world mark Easter Sunday and celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, there are some who are using the occasion to demand that Britain needs to turn the clock back.

The right-wing lobby group Christian Concern has published a survey suggesting that 73% of the public believe that Britain has become “less of a Christian country” since the general election five years ago.

This suits Christian Concern in their attempt to push their two main messages: Firstly, that Britain should be a Christian country. Secondly, that Britain is no longer a Christian country.

David Cameron has also been known to employ such language, albeit from a different angle. In his Easter address this year, he insisted that Britain is still a “Christian country”. His address, which  made no reference to Jesus, seemed to confuse “Christian values” with middle class respectability.

I have on many occasions challenged groups such as Christian Concern to explain how Britain was “Christian” when its leaders were involved in the slave trade, when its representatives were committing genocide in Tasmania and when its troops were setting up concentration camps in South Africa. They have never answered this question.

I have little idea of what a “Christian country” is supposed to be. Jesus never said anything about establishing Christian countries. This is hardly surprising, given his general hostility to political and religious authorities. But if a “Christian country” is supposed to mean a country based on Jesus’ teachings, then Britain has never been a Christian country. Nor has anywhere else.

Judging from their press release today, Christian Concern seem to think that Britain is “less Christian” because of the legalisation of same-sex marriage. Jesus’ teachings on poverty, violence and power, about which he said a great deal more than sexuality, seem not to concern them.

On Good Friday, we remember Jesus’ execution at the hands of a brutal empire with the collusion of the religious establishment. On Easter Day, we celebrate Jesus’ resurrection, in which God breaks through the cycle of violence and reveals that the power of love and liberation will ultimately triumph over the evil, oppression and injustice. Today, let’s seek to follow – however imperfectly – Jesus’ example of loving resistance and active nonviolence. This means challenging the powers of this world as well as allowing ourselves to be challenged. It has nothing to do with “Christian countries”.

Christian Concern’s general election campaign: Distorting the Gospel

With the general election coming up, there are a range of websites and other resources to help Christians to engage with the issues. My favourite is of course Vote for what you believe in set up by the Ekklesia thinktank, but I am rather biased, given that I’m an associate of Ekklesia.

Nonetheless, there are some other good sites. Many complement each other, while some come from different perspectives, which is fair enough.

I feel slightly sick, however, having just looked at the general election website of Christian Concern, a homophobic right-wing lobby group that sadly has influence over churches beyond its own extreme position.

The site lists “four key areas” that Christian Concern claims serve as a “litmus test” for society.

The first is “Family”, by which they mean a defence of the nuclear family and opposition to same-sex marriage. Nuclear families as we understand them today did not exist in Jesus’ time. Jesus himself does not appear to have been overly keen on biological families generally, insisting that “whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3, 35).

The second is “Foundations”, which seems to refer to protecting Britain’s “Christian heritage”. Britain has never been a country based around the teachings of Jesus, however powerful churches may have been at certain points. Does preserving a certain set of cultural practices have anything to do with living out the Gospel of Jesus?

The third is “Liberty”, by which they mean liberty for Christians. Christian Concern make artificial connections between a wide range of cases that supposedly show discrimination against Christians. Some are about over-the-top uniform codes. Most are about the supposed right of Christians to discriminate against others (usually same-sex couples). Jesus never taught his followers to demand rights for themselves that they deny to others.

The fourth is “Life”, which begins with the promising line “How we treat the most vulnerable in society speaks volumes about what we really value”. Is this the point at which Christian Concern will declare their opposition to austerity, their outrage at food banks, their solidarity with the homeless, unemployed and low-paid?

No, of course not. It’s all about abortion. Christian Concern think they can stop abortion simply by banning it. If they really want to reduce abortions, they need to tackle the causes, challenging poverty and sexual abuse, amongst others. In coming years, we are very likely to find that cuts to disability services have led to an increase in the number of abortions of disabled babies. But while Christian Concern will not say a word against these cuts, I’m not willing to take their claims seriously even on the question of abortion.

Let’s not forget that Christian Concern is an organisation whose leaders have refused to answer questions about the allegation that they held a strategy meeting with Tommy Robinson when he was leader of the far-right English Defence League.

The Bible says far, far more about poverty and violence than it does about sexuality and marriage. This is not to say that marriage and sexuality don’t matter. The Bible makes clear that they do matter. Jesus’ teachings about love and liberation apply just as strongly to sexual matters as they do to others (although I argue that they lead naturally to support for loving same-sex relationships, not opposition to them).

But how can anyone claiming to apply a Christian voice to an election completely ignore poverty? How can they insist that an unborn child should be born but say nothing about the chances of that child being killed in warfare? How can they demand the “right” of Christians to discriminate against gay and bisexual people but not defend the right of disabled people to equality and respect? How can they talk of the supposed destruction of Christian values but have nothing to say about the very real destruction of our God-given environment?

Jesus began his ministry by saying he had come to bring “good news to the poor” (Luke 4,18). Luke tells us he said “Blessed are you who are poor… Woe to you who are rich” (Luke 6, 20-24). In Matthew’s version, Jesus blessed “the poor in spirit” (Matthew 5,3) – that is, those who side with the poor. The majority of Jesus’ parables concerned economic themes. He spoke of a kingdom in which the first would be last and the last first.

I am sure that my own interpretations of Jesus’ teachings are mistaken in all sorts of ways. We all make errors. We are all influenced by our preconceptions and desires. Seeking to follow Jesus is a moment-by-moment challenge. Like many others, I fail all the time. Please let me emphasise that I do not expect all Christians to agree with me. I learn a great deal from those who don’t.

This does not mean that I can sit back while a group claiming to be a Christian voice in the general election use that voice to ignore the growth of poverty and inequality (thereby helping them to grow) and to stir up homophobia. Surely it is barely possible to come near to any understanding of Jesus’ teachings if we wilfully ignore the centrality of issues of wealth and power to almost everything that he had to say.

To speak of the Gospel without reference to poverty is not simply to twist the Gospel. It is proclaim another gospel all together .

Sex, violence and Margaret Thatcher

The week between Christmas and New Year’s Day is generally considered a “slow news” period by the media, as not much is happening (in reality of course, lots of things are happening; just not the sort of things that most editors tend to consider newsworthy). The week, however, is always livened up by the release of government papers under the 30-year rule. Government documents from 1985 have just entered the public domain.

These reveal all sorts of alarming, amusing and sometimes predictable facts: Thatcher considered removing schools from local authority control; it was Oliver Letwin who recommened using Scotland as a guinea pig for the poll tax; there were discussions among ministers about forcing advertising on the BBC.

I am struck by the contradiction between two of the revelations. Between them, these two stories say a great deal about the ethical hypocrisy of British politics and society.

On the one hand, it appears that Thatcher considered a ban on sex toys, or at least certain types of sex toys, by extending the Obscene Publications Act to include physical objects. The then Home Secretary, Leon Brittan, wrote a memo to Thatcher saying there was a “strong case” for such a ban, adding, “Some of the items in circulation are most objectionable, including some which can cause physical injury”.

At the same time, Thatcher thought about spending £200 million of public money on chemical weapons, despite the UK’s declared position of opposition to chemical weapons. Such weapons were intended for use if the cold war turned hot: in other words, they would have been deployed against the civilian populations of the USSR and its allies.

Here we have Thathcherite ethics in microcosm. Minor physical harm between consenting adults having sex: unacceptable. Mass killing of innocent civilians: acceptable.

Dominant atttidues to sex and violence in the UK continue to stink with hypocrisy. The establishment are dragging their feet on investigating alleged Westminster-centred child abuse while approving of “anti-pornography” laws that demonise sexual acts between consenting adults that tend to be enjoyed most by women and LGBT people.