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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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.

Are Christians who support same-sex relationships frightened of saying so?

Conservative Christian groups are forever telling us that people who oppose same-sex relationships are frightened of expressing their views. According to people such as Christian Concern, those with “traditional” views are shut out of debate. George Carey frequently rises from his seat of privilege in the House of Lords to tell us that the voices of “traditional” Christians are marginalised. Newspapers such as the Daily Mail occasionally echo these comments, meaning views trumpeted on the front of top-selling newspapers are described, with no sense of irony, as being views that are shut out of public discussion.

It may come as a surprise then to hear that many Christians who are frightened of expressing their views on sexuality are those who support same-sex relationships.

A survey of churchgoing Christians by Oasis, reported in yesterday’s Daily Telegraph, found that 49.8% of respondents believed that same-sex relationships are not “wrong” and that being in one should not affect a person’s position in the Christian church.

However, 30% said that although they believed that churches should accept same-sex relationships, they thought that it would be badly received if they expressed this view openly in church. Another eight percent said they were in favour but considered it not to be “helpful” or “appropriate” to say so publicly.

If this survey is accurate, then while half of churchgoers are accepting of same-sex relationships, only around 12% may be saying so in their churches.

I admit to being baffled by the eight percent who don’t declare their support because it wouldn’t be “helpful”, implying it’s more helpful to go along with something they believe to be untruthful and wrong. I’m worried by the 30% figure. I don’t condemn anyone for being nervous of expressing their view – I’ve been there often enough myself. But we need to encourage each other to speak up and declare that loving same-sex relationships should be judged no differently to loving mixed-sex relationships. God rejoices in love and fidelity, not in gender.

It is not always easy to speak up, let alone to persuade others. At times, the arguments put forward by liberal Christians can make things difficult. They too readily get drawn by conservatives into discussing the precise wording of a small number of biblical passages rather than looking at the New Testament’s broader messages of radical love and liberation from law. Too often, their reasons for accepting same-sex relationships sound simply like a pale reflection of secular liberalism rather than a strongly Christian position. I failed to be convinced by these arguments for years.

There is an alternative. The New Testament presents a Christ who has freed us from the law and a Holy Spirit that empowers us to live by love, guided by Jesus’ teachings rather than the legalism of those who snatch lines of scripture from their contexts and set them up as laws. The Kingdom of God, present here and now yet mindbendingly eternal, offers an alternative to both legalism and hedonism, to the homophobia and sexual abuse of many churches on the one hand and the shallow, commercialised sexuality of secular capitalism on the other.

We need to give us each other courage, seek God’s guidance and speak up.

A Christian protesting against anti-porn laws

In recent years, Britain has slowly begun to wake up to the reality of sexual abuse. The Jimmy Saville scandal triggered shocking revelations about abuse carried out by respected entertainers in the 1970s and 80s. Child abuse scandals in the Roman Catholic Church have been followed by increased reports of similar outrages in the Church of England. Only this week, it was revealed that the Scout Association had paid out thousands to settle legal cases brought by survivors of sexual abuse.

There is a very long way to go. Research by children’s rights charities suggests that child abuse is still rife. The conviction rate for rape is dreadfully low. A string of opinion polls suggests that significant percentages of people believe rape is less serious if the victim is drunk or has previously consented to sex and changed her mind.

Challenging and reducing sexual abuse should be an aim that unites people of many different political, religious and non-religious persuasions. Unfortunately, some seem to be more keen on restricting unusual sexual behaviour between consenting adults – including consenting adults in loving, faithful relationships.

The latest “anti-pornography” laws will do nothing to reduce sexual abuse. On the contrary, they will perpetuate inaccurate ideas about abuse while restricting civil liberties and demonising sexual minorities.

That is why I will join the protest against them outside Parliament at noon today (#pornprotest). I am sure I will not be the only Christian there.

I am not naïve about pornography. I have no doubt that the majoirty of pornography is exploitative, abusive and misogynistic. It contributes to the commercialisation of sexuality, which is also seen in the pressure to spend vast sums of money on weddings and the way the advertising industry promotes narrow types of romantic relationships for the sake of profit (though many who criticise pornography overlook these more respectable forms of commercialised sexuality).

Whether you regard pornography as inherently unethical depends to some extent on how you define “pornography”. Some years ago, like many other Christians, I simply dismissed anything described as “pornography” as immoral. I do so no longer. This is not because I’ve adopted some ultra-liberal approach to sexual ethics (something which I’m occasionally accused of), but because I see the hypocrisy behind mainstream attitudes to sexuality.

Conservative Christians sometimes accuse me of simply accepting the dominant values of British society. On the contrary, I oppose the hypocrisy of conventional sexual morality – which idolises narrow ideas of romance and condemns those that don’t fit into them, which tells people that love is what matters but pressurises them to spend thousands of pounds on weddings, which screams outrage at child abusers on street corners but ignores the abuse that takes place within apparently respectable homes. And which condemns sexual activities and relationship structures that look a bit odd – such as kink and polyamory – even when they involve love, honesty and meaningful consent.

The new anti-porn laws will restrict “kinky” porn in particular. Producing spanking, caning and face-sitting images, for example, is likely to be illegal – even if the producers of the image are the people participating in the sexual act it depicts. By targeting kink, the law is unlikely to damage big corporate pornographers. It will instead restrict “home-made” and specialist small-business porn, which is, of course, less likely to be exploitative in the first place (although I accept that some of it is). Any meaningful government attempt to prevent physical harm caused by such activities would surely involve consultation with people who practise kink, who tend to know most about the health and safety issues involved. This certainly does not seem to have happened in this case.

There are at least four good reasons for opposing the anti-pornography legislation.

Firstly, there is the importance of free expression. I am not absolutist about free speech. For example, I do not think people should be allowed to stand in the street and promote violence. But free speech should be restricted only when there is a very strong case that doing so will reduce or prevent violence or other forms of abuse. No such case can be made in regard to this legislation. Any unjustified restriction of free expression is an attack on the civil liberties of us all, regardless of our sexuality or beliefs.

Secondly, the proposed laws tend towards sexism and homophobia. Most of the activities they will restrict are more common amongst women and within same-sex relationships. Many of them are related to female domination (which can be practised in a playful way between people who nonetheless regard each other as equals).

Thirdly, the laws demonise sexual minorities by singling out certain sexual practices, even though taking place between consenting adults. Of course, some forms of kink can be abusive. Kink, at times, can be used as an excuse for abuse. Marriage can also be used as an excuse for abuse. It is dangerous and wrong to encourage the idea that conventional sexual relationships are all fine and unusual ones are immoral. Sexual abuse can be found within the most outwardly respectable marriages – as can love, mutuality and compassion. It is the values present in relationships that make them moral or immoral, not how they look on the outside. I am, of course, talking about relationships between consenting and honest adults. There is nothing healthy or ethical about sexual activity that is without consent, that involves children or is deceitful.

Fourthly, these laws may make it harder, not easier, to challenge sexual abuse. They confuse abuse with oddness, criminalising sexual activity because it is unconventional rather than because it causes harm. I am against these laws precisely because I want to tackle sexual abuse. To do so, society must place a much higher value on meaningful consent. Let’s celebrate healthy sexual expression between compassionate, consenting adults while striving to eliminate the vicious, outrageous abuse that still pervades the sexually hypocritical society in which we live.

Reflections on Greenbelt

Having got back from the Greenbelt festival a few days ago, I’ve mostly (but not completely) caught up on sleep. I’ve also had time to reflect on the festival.

If you would like to read my thoughts on this year’s Greenbelt, I had two articles about it published yesterday.

The first was in the Morning Star. This is a short article aimed at a mostly non-Christian audience (and I didn’t choose the headline myself!). The second, which goes into more detail, forms my latest column on the Ekklesia website.

After Beeching, where are the bisexual Christians?

Vicky Beeching’s decision to come out publicly as a lesbian is so important because she is such a prominent figure in evangelical circles. As I mentioned on this blog yesterday, there is good evidence that the news has given many other gay Christians the confidence to come out.

Of course, there have been comings-out before this, including among evangelicals. Sally Hitchiner, an evangelical Church of England priest, was outed as gay on national television last month. I confidently predict that the number of comings-out, among Christians generally and evangelicals in particular, will increase over the next few months.

The phrase “coming out” tends to be used as short hand for “coming out as gay”. I find this slightly irritating, as there are lots of things you can came out as, whether to do with sexuality or otherwise. I hope we will also hear about the coming out of bisexual, asexual, trans and other Christians who have been wrongly excluded from equal inclusion in the Christian Church.

I admit this desire is influenced by the fact that I am bisexual. I know lots of bisexual Christians, but I cannot think of any prominent Christians in the UK who are openly bisexual (please feel free to correct me if I’m wrong on this).

Sadly, much of the media, and even parts of the LGBT movement, seem to regard “bisexual” as simply a variant on “gay”, and barely worthy of being mentioned in its own right. I’ve been introduced on the radio as a “bisexual Christian writer”, only to be described as “gay” a moment later by the same presenter who has introduced me. While most gay and lesbian people are very supportive of bisexual people’s rights, there are a small number of gay people who are just as prejudiced against bisexuals as any homophobe is against gays.

I sometimes come across Christians who say they are OK with people being gay but have a problem with bisexuality. In some cases, this is because they believe that gay people “can’t help” being like that, but bisexuals could simply choose to enter only a mixed-sex relationship. This is as offensive to gay people as to bisexuals, implying that attraction to members of the same sex is some sort of pitiable condition.

All these issues relate not only to whether LGBT people are given equal inclusion in the Christian Church, but why they should be. There are a range of arguments in favour of equality and inclusion, some of them contradictory. Pro-equality Christians hold the views they do for varied reasons and I sometimes find myself disagreeing with liberal Christians on sexuality just as much as conservative ones.

The more Christians talk about their varied sexualities and gender identities, the more it will be possible to have a real discussion on Christian sexual morality and how it relates to life, faith, ethics and politics today.

British Baptists take a step foward on sexuality – but need to go a lot further

Ministers in the Baptist Union of Great Britain who bless same-sex partnerships will no longer be disciplined for doing so if they have the support of their local church. I think this is brilliant news.

The news has been misreported in some places, with the decision being overstated as a sudden change of Baptist attitudes to same-sex marriage. However, the Baptist Union’s own spokespeople are downplaying the news, implying that they’ve just made a minor tweak to the regulations. To me, this seems to understate the significance of this development.

To be clear: I’m no expert on the Baptist Union of Great Britain and I’m still struggling to understand just what has happened. The key point to grasp is that Baptists believe strongly in the autonomy of the local church. The Baptist Union is not a church in the same way as the Methodist Church and the Church of England. Rather it is a union of churches.

As Stephen Keyworth, the Union’s team leader for Faith and Society, put it in a recent interview with Adrian Warnock, “The supreme authority in all things is the person of Christ, as revealed in scripture, discerned in community, through the power of the Holy Spirit… each church has liberty to discern that for themselves. This is the basis by which churches belong and function within our union.”

Because a lot of Baptists are passionately committed to this structure, there are Baptists who do not personally endorse same-sex relationships but who believe in the right of each local church to make its own decisions on the matter.

Despite this, many Baptists ministers have until recently feared that they would be disciplined for blessing same-sex partnerships. Some seem to be claiming that the position was unclear and that the Baptist Union was merely clarifying things. I am not convinced by this, as I know of Baptist ministers who have feared for their jobs after effectively blessing same-sex partnerships in secret.

I must thank Adrian Warnock for asking lots of questions to the Baptist Union’s Stephen Keyworth and thus getting some answers about what’s going on.

Keyworth said:

“First I need to correct you, there was no decision made last weekend. What happened was a very small part of a very long, thorough and prayerful journey… We are not a denomination that makes central decisions and policy – we discern the Mind of Christ through the prayerful deliberations of His people gathered together in church meetings.

“On this issue, over the last year or so we have encouraged churches, minsters and associations to engage in conversations through a whole series of approaches, and what was offered last Saturday, was a very simple update from the Baptist Steering group – which in essence said to the wider Baptist Community – this is what we believe to be your view on this matter.  This is what we think we have heard.”

This answer suggests that the Steering Group discerned that most people within the Union wanted ministers and churches to be allowed to follow their differing consciences on the subject and therefore made clear that ministers would not be automatically disciplined for blessing same-sex partnerships. This is fair enough. Nonetheless, there are two ways in which I find the statements of Baptist Union spokespeople to be highly questionable.

Firstly, there is Stephen Keyworth’s insistence that “no decision was made last weekend”. This is not really believable. The steering group may have been responding to what they discerned to be going on within the Union as local churches discerned the mind of Christ. But in doing so, they made a decision. They changed – or at the very least, clarified – the regulations concerning ministerial discipline.

However much they try to play it down this is potentially very significant for Baptist ministers who want to affirm loving same-sex partnerships, as well as for gay and bisexual Baptists who want their relationships to be blessed in their own church.

Of course, it does not go nearly far enough for those of us who wish to see equality in Christian churches.

This leads on to the second problem. At the same time as saying that Baptist ministers would not be disciplined, the Baptist Union reaffirmed “the traditionally accepted biblical understanding of Christian marriage, as a union between a man and a woman, as the continuing foundation of belief in our Baptist Churches”.

I find it hard to see how this could not be contradictory. More worryingly still, the Baptist Union still maintains that its ministers are required to follow guidelines that state that “a sexual relationship outside of Christian marriage (as defined between a man and a woman) is deemed conduct unbecoming for a minister”.

So it seems that ministers can bless same-sex partnerships but not enter such a partnership themselves. This is an incoherent position (reminiscent of the sort of baffling compromises adopted by the Church of England).

Furthermore, it remains very unclear what will happen if a Baptist church wants to go further and carry out a legally recognised same-sex marriage. The legislation allowing same-sex marriages in English and Welsh churches seems to say that the national body of a religious organisation has to apply for permission to hold them. As I pointed out when the legislation was going through Parliament, this would rule out an individual local church applying for permission, even in a denomination such as the Baptists in which authority has always been located in local congregations.

This week’s news does not indicate a sexual revolution in the Baptist Union of Great Britain. It does not mean that Baptist ministers and churches are truly free to make their own decisions about loving sexual relationships. But it is a far more significant step forward than some seem to think. The chance to celebrate your love in the context of worship is not a minor thing, and I’m sorry that anyone should imply that it is.

During his interview, Stephen Keyworth said, “I’m tired of speaking about sexuality and its complexities when what I would like to do is tell the world about Jesus. I’d like us to be known as spirit-filled and spirit-led communities who are able to make a difference in the world living as disciples of Jesus Christ.”

I can understand Keyworth’s frustration. But I’m sure he would agree that following Jesus in our daily lives has a deep effect on our relationships. This includes relationships with friends, colleagues, enemies, and strangers as well as sexual relationships. We can’t avoid talking about them by talking about Jesus. Those of us who believe that Christ has freed us from the law to live by love will keep resisting regulations and structures that prevent this from happening.