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.

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.

More famous parables reconsidered

Upside-Down BibleLast week saw the publication of my new book, The Upside-Down Bible: What Jesus really said about money, sex and violence.

My publisher – Darton, Longman and Todd – have been publishing a series of blog posts I have written about Jesus’ parables, based around some of the parables explored in the book.

The fourth post, Sex workers and the Kingdom of God, was published today. It explores Jesus’ comments on sex workers and the “parable of the two sons” in Matthew 21.

The previous blog posts are

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

UKIP’s Christian group accuses gay people of ‘recruiting’ children

One of the nastiest accusations against gay people is the claim that they “recruit” children with the intention of turning them gay. In Britain, most groups that oppose LGBT rights, even the fairly extreme ones, tend to avoid making this claim explicitly. However, it has now turned up on a leaflet distributed by the group called Christian Soldiers of UKIP.

Christian Soldiers of UKIP is a group set up by Christians who belong to the UK Independence Party (UKIP). The UKIP leadership has described the group as “authorised but not official”.

Nigel Farage and his colleagues insist that they do not share the group’s views on sexuality.  Nonetheless, they are prepared to work with them. They have certainly not disowned the “Christian Soldiers”.

I wrote on the Huffington Post a few days ago about UKIP’s links with right-wing Christian lobby groups such as Christian Concern. Earlier this week, Nigel Farage launched UKIP’s “Christian Manifesto”, which offers to defend Britain’s “Christian heritage” and the “rights” of Christians who want to discriminate against gay and bisexual people.

The latest comments from UKIP’s Christian Soldiers shows further evidence of the party’s willingness to tolerate homophobia.

The leaflet in question is an attack on sex education in schools, which it claims is seeking to “normalise” same-sex relationships. The leaflet’s writers declare, “The state is allowing the sexual grooming of our Primary School children for same-sex attraction”.

This leaflet was distributed during at least one hustings event in East Anglia (without the organisers’ permission). I would be interested to hear from anyone who has seen it, or any similar leaflets, elsewhere.

In their leaflet, UKIP’s Christian Soldiers state:

“What the LGBT is achieving, of course, is a recruitment drive. As such people cannot reproduce their own kind, they must recruit among the young and this is best done among children in schools, the younger the better.”

Presumably the Christian Soldiers of UKIP believe that heterosexuals can “reproduce their own kind” by giving birth only to children who turn out straight.

The leaflet includes the lyrics of songs and dances for young children that imply a celebration of a same-sex marriage or unclear gender identity. On the grounds that the children change “partners” during the activity (as they surely do in lots of activities), the leaflet adds the note, “Multiple partners made to seen normal”.

The Christian Soldiers of UKIP state:

“Ideally, we should work towards the removal of all ‘sex education’ from state schools.”

They then go on to link increased sex education with a rise in teenage pregnancies and abortions. No evidence whatsoever is cited to back this up.

Marginalised and minority groups have always been accused of harming children. Most famously, European Jews were for centuries accused of kidnapping and crucifying Christian children (the blood libel, as it’s commonly called). However, early Christians were also accused of drinking children’s blood. Recently, child abuse in the UK has attracted more attention when the perpetrators have been Asian and the victims white, with racists linking the horrific abuse of children not to the people who committed it but to whole ethnic or religious groups.

At the same time, recent years have given ample evidence of how child abuse is often overlooked when the perpetrators are powerful or respected. Child abuse should be tackled regardless of the perpetrator, not used as a means to attack social minorities.

Christian Soldiers of UKIP, in their leaflet, quote Jesus’ comments about not harming children. This is outrageous. They want to deny children the chance to learn about life, to consider different ethical views for themselves and to grow up to form healthy, loving, consensual relationships free from prejudice and narrow gender roles.

I could call on UKIP to disassociate themselves from the Christian Soldiers, but I’m not going to bother. UKIP’s tolerance of homophobia is already clear. Christians, however, need to do a better job of rejecting it.

Let’s remember that some of those who have been handed this vicious leaflet may not have read or heard many other comment from Christians on sexuality. If we don’t do a better job of speaking up, it may be the only Christian perspective on sexuality that they encounter.

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 .

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.