A Matter of Debate – “Who Would Jesus Shoot?”

First off, sorry for a recent bout of inactivity on this blog.  Hopefully there’ll now be quite a few new posts in the next few weeks.   For now, just to draw your attention to an interesting debate that took place last year, related to many of my regular themes….

A Matter of Debate – “Who Would Jesus Shoot?”

Alarmingly, if you Google up that phrase “Who would Jesus shoot?” you’ll find a lot of people – mostly American – who seem to think Jesus would be happy with shooting people. Particularly, of course, in the context of warfare. That’s why the phrase was chosen as the title of a debate in the autumn of 2014 between Canadian Mennonite theologian Tom Yoder-Neufeld and the Oxford Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology Nigel Biggar. Tom is of course a pacifist; Biggar has written books defending ‘Just War’ theory and regularly lectures on it.

To hear the debate – sorry there doesn’t seem to be video available – go to this link;

https://soundcloud.com/bloomsbury-1/who-would-jesus-shoot

Tom and Nigel approach the issue in quite different ways. That in itself says something. In conventional understanding I’m not sure there was a winner; but I understand that Nigel was admitting he’d need to rethink some of his positions. Anyway, have a listen and let me know what you think….

While Tom was in the UK for several weeks he spoke all over the country including one session for the Cheshire/Greater Manchester Anabaptist Group, where he did a session based on Ephesians, on which he has written a rather good commentary.

An heretical Hymn

I vow to thee, my country, all earthly things above,

Entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love;

The love that asks no question, the love that stands the test,

That lays upon the altar the dearest and the best;

The love that never falters, the love that pays the price,

The love that makes undaunted the final sacrifice.

I heard my country calling, away across the sea,

Across the waste of waters she calls and calls to me.

Her sword is girded at her side, her helmet on her head,

And round her feet are lying the dying and the dead.

I hear the noise of battle, the thunder of her guns,

I haste to thee my mother, a son among thy sons.

And there’s another country, I’ve heard of long ago,

Most dear to them that love her, most great to them that know;

We may not count her armies, we may not see her King;

Her fortress is a faithful heart, her pride is suffering;

And soul by soul and silently her shining bounds increase,

And her ways are ways of gentleness, and all her paths are peace.

Words by Cecil Spring-Rice; Music by Gustav Holst, adapted from ‘Jupiter’ in the ‘Planets’ suite; this version is known as ‘Thaxted’.

I find this hymn deeply troubling, and almost more troubling is the rarity of Christian protest at it. It is frequently sung at Remembrance Day services, was sung at both the wedding and the funeral of Princess Diana, and of course recently was part of Margaret Thatcher’s funeral. That second verse is rarely sung, and I suppose we must be thankful for small mercies….

In its present form it apparently reflects the trauma in Britain of the massive losses in the First World War of 1914-18; In its original form it was called ‘Urbs Dei’, the City of God, and was somewhat re-written after WWI. That title of course links it back to Augustine whose book of that name was a massively influential exposition of the concept of ‘Christendom’, the Christian state that began under the Emperor Constantine and still goes on in various slightly different forms including England’s established church. It was that idea which influenced the writer of ‘I Vow to Thee my Country’ with its perspective of dual allegiance to nation and to God.

Vowing things to your country is perhaps not necessarily unChristian; I still find it a matter for concern that it is the first strong line of the verse. I would much have preferred to put God first and my duty to him, and only later say what duty I might owe the earthly country. It is one of the problems of thinking of a ‘Christian’ holy nation that it tends to deify the nation, to end up in practice putting the nation first; it is as Jesus said of God and another worldly temptation – you can’t serve God and Mammon (money), it’s all too likely that Mammon will win out, and it is the same with God and state. I recall seeing a documentary about the modern Russian Orthodox Church from which it was all too obvious that for some Orthodox priests God exists for Mother Russia rather than the other way round.

What is vowed to the country is really disturbing, starting with the fact that it is vowed ‘all earthly things above’. Apparently I am to vow ‘entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love’; no, even with the qualification ‘all earthly things above’ this is just too much. The country by implication comes before family, before friends, and before all the other human beings who don’t happen to be citizens of the country, and before lots of other things which also deserve my love. Further, this love ‘asks no question’; even God allows us to ask questions of Him in love – see the example of Job, of Paul about that thorn in his flesh, and of many of the prophets as they suffered in His service. Also though it’s not quite the same thing we are told to ‘test the spirits’ ( ) in church affairs, not just take things for granted. If the country wants no questions asked that’s a bit over the top; and in any case the whole of history tends to show that what countries want should be questioned, otherwise you end up not asking questions about things like the Holocaust.

The rest of verse one is a bit worrying even without knowing it’s related to the First World War; “the love that stands the test; that lays upon the altar the dearest and the best. … that never falters… that pays the price… that makes the final sacrifice” – the ‘final sacrifice’ being of course to die for the country. Hmmm – would I make that final sacrifice for ‘my country’? For the country in the abstract, no, I don’t think so; for any current whims of our government, no way!!! For the narrow racism and domineering wishes of the extreme right, again no, because there are heavenly values which should preclude that. But for the people and for the best of Britain, yes, possibly. But even at the earthly level there is plenty of the ‘dearest and best’ that wouldn’t, for me come second to the country, while precisely because the country itself is very much an earthly thing, there would be a lot of faltering to be sure that I was paying a price for good reason.

But there is a bigger problem, not quite so evident in verse 1 but made all too clear in verse 2; this ‘hymn’ doesn’t envisage just that I sacrifice myself for others, as Christians should be willing to do. All too clearly in verse 2, it expects that I will go to war on my country’s behalf, become a soldier fighting for my country. Although phrased in terms of dying for my country, it’s first about being willing to kill for my country – a soldier who won’t kill is not a great deal of use! And immediately, this is a conflict not with earthly things but with the heavenly, with my obligations to God himself. Like, I believe I shouldn’t kill for my faith, should follow the example of Jesus in ‘turning the other cheek’ and being willing to suffer death rather than inflict it – but according to this hymn, I am going to kill for ‘my country’, an entity far less than God, far inferior in every way! How does that add up??

Rethinking Ecumenism

It was a good sermon from a guy who is a hospital chaplain, based on Acts 15.  That’s the episode now rather grandly known as the ‘Council of Jerusalem’ though it can’t in reality have been much like the later Nicaea or Vatican II; in this council the mostly Jewish early Christians tried to work out how to accommodate an influx of Gentile Christians, and decide how much Jewish customs they needed to impose on these new recruits – circumcision, kosher diet, and so forth.  I’ll leave you to read the details of the ‘Council’ for yourselves, I want to focus on the principles the preacher drew from the passage and consider their implications for the ecumenical/church unity project.

One principle was “Talk about it”.  Now I recall the ecumenism of the 1960s when everyone was really keen to resolve the differences between Christians by discussing them; but that doesn’t seem to happen much now.  Rather, we seem to have decided that where we differ, we won’t talk about it, just each denomination carry on as before and, well, just not discuss differences.  Now of course in a lot of cases the differences really don’t matter all that much and the churches can just carry on with their different customs; but the trouble is that this silence is also meaning that the important differences don’t get discussed – and one very important one in particular, the relationship of the Church to the world or the ‘Christian country’ issue.  

This issue is particularly important just now because of the difficulties the world is having with Islam.  It really matters, at a life and death/possibility of warfare level, whether Christianity is a religion which expects the kind of dominance in the state that Islam aspires to, with Sharia law to be imposed on all, or some lesser kind of privilege or favour in the state compared to other religions/faiths, or perhaps Christianity doesn’t work that way at all but the NT teaches us some other way to relate to the world around us….  We need to be talking about it, and in talking about it, other ideas from that sermon seem relevant.

Two of the points were actually almost the same thing from different angles – “Stick to basics/essentials” and “No ‘Jesus AND… some other thing’ such as the circumcision and kosher food issues of the original council”. 

The case for ‘Jesus AND circumcision’ or ‘Jesus AND kosher diet’ was plausible in a faith which had grown out of Jewish roots and Old Testament promises, but the apostles and church were able to see that these things were no longer essential in the new covenant.  It might be thought that as Israel not so much had a state church as was a state church, there would be a plausible case for the ‘Christian country’ too.  But interestingly that doesn’t seem to have been considered in the early church.  Partly because the issue wouldn’t arise anyway while the church was only just starting, but more importantly because Jesus had ruled it out.  The Church knew of his trial before Pilate and the implications of his declaration that his kingdom was not of this world, and of his rejection of the sword because those who take it up perish by it, and so on.  They knew they were trying to set up a different kind of kingdom to either the Roman Empire or the old ethnic Jewish kingdom, a kingdom of those who heard and followed Jesus rather than those who were forced by worldly power, those spiritually re-born rather than just born once. 

In line with that they positively set up, and taught as the ideal, a church which was not connected to particular nations, but was itself God’s holy nation throughout the earth, not confused with the surrounding society but called out from it as a witness to God’s ways.  In the context of that kind of thinking, ‘Jesus AND Christian states’ is really impossible, not just non-essential.

“Don’t make things difficult” was another principle our preacher highlighted.  The idea of ‘Christian countries’ makes things difficult for ecumenism and also in many other directions – indeed the other things it makes difficult are a difficulty for ecumenism too, as in how much are you willing to be united with churches that make things difficult for both non-Christians and for other Christians?

As a fairly simple example – obviously I want to be united with my fellow-Christians who are Anglicans, and informally I very much am, in fact.  Not only in religious terms either, a couple of months ago I was showing off one of my model railways at a ‘Model Railway Extravaganza’ at a local parish church, letting the visitors to the show actually drive my trains.  Again, the Baptist church I go to is currently involved with several other local churches, including the Anglicans, in setting up a ‘community café’ in the local high street.  But while the Anglican church is deeply constitutionally entangled with the state, and the head of state is its earthly ‘supreme governor’ and so on, formal union is going to be a bit difficult – union with my fellow Christians, fine; union with England as a supposed ‘Christian country’ carries a lot of real difficulties, just starting with the fact that Christian states are a Bible-defying concept anyway!  

There are also issues of warfare; even if I didn’t anyway believe the Bible teaches pacifism, what am I to make of all the past situations when Christians fought one another – for example WWI, with the Kaiser’s ‘Gott mit uns’ (“God is on our side”) set against similar slogans from the nations allied against Germany, and Christians shooting at each other not even in a properly religious cause (though I’d regard Christians fighting for their religion as worse, actually!).  The Church is God’s holy nation worldwide; are the members of that body to end up killing each other because some local churches have got themselves entangled with the world?  How can we have it that our unity as Christians can depend on the rivalries of worldly states?

How are English Anglicans and, say, Swedish Lutherans to achieve a formal unity while both are deeply embedded in the constitutions of countries which in worldly terms may have all kinds of competing interests?  I’m not even going to try and work that one out…!

Much of the concern in the Council of Jerusalem is with difficulties caused for unbelievers/other-believers/potential believers/ new converts; in a particular form then, related to the Jewish origins of our faith, in slightly different ways today.  .  These issues also have implications for our unity, because they cause confusion about the gospel, they interfere with the work of evangelism.   Remember that Jesus’ prayer for the unity of his people applies to their relations to the world!  Also the difficulties can reflect on Christians who don’t practice them as well as on those who do.  And in some cases that actually risks the lives of fellow-Christians for inappropriate reasons, especially when dealing with adherents of other state religions.

For the difficulties posed to atheists and agnostics by the state church kind of set-up, just look at the writings of people like Richard Dawkins.  Huge areas of their objections to ‘religion’ are not about the theology/philosophy but about the antics of various state religions and the warfare, discrimination and so forth not only of the past but still continuing in places like Northern Ireland, and of course also in Islam and other non-Christian religions.  Also I often these days find myself talking to people worried by the state-religion/Sharia-law aspect of Islam and also saying that they don’t want a Christian equivalent.  The shenanigans of the Anglicans about issues like women priests and gay marriage are a major problem precisely because they remain a state church and it can appear that they are therefore the state still discriminating in those areas, and their past conduct, like it or not, has kept such issues unnecessarily heated.  For church unity the issue is whether it is really practical for the rest of us to even work with such bodies, let alone be formally and organisationally united with them, when their position about the state can needlessly hinder our mission to the assorted non-believers around us?

With other religions, the problem is often that like Islam, they are themselves national or state religions in one way or another, and have theologies about warfare which ‘free church’ Christians may find unacceptable.  This brings many issues.  Just for starters, it’s not easy to complain about other religions practising things like national Sharia law enforced on non-Muslims if Christians themselves appear to want something similar.  Unfortunately the argument that it’s all right for us because “We have the true religion” isn’t going to impress anyone else!!  That way round it’s not the difference that poses the difficulty, it’s that some Christians are agreeing with them about the religious state issue and setting a bad example when they shouldn’t!

War is another problem.  Biblically, according to the New Testament, Christians don’t have ‘Christian countries’ with armies to threaten others, we ‘turn the other cheek’ rather than defending ourselves, so we just aren’t in the warfare business – well, shouldn’t be, anyway!  Christian countries fighting wars are a fairly obvious problem to the states adhering to other religions in which the wars take place, and by reflection to adherents of those religions who live in the UK.  A great deal of the difficulty in recent wars has been, as I’ve pointed out elsewhere, the perception of the West as ‘Christian countries’ and therefore of our armies in the Middle East being ‘Crusading Christian armies’ rather than the liberal democratic armies we perceive.

This is bad enough for the British and other western armies who find themselves fighting a war made intractable by such perceptions and the resulting cross-purposes, and for Britons at home facing terrorism.   But it is even worse for native Christians in Muslim lands throughout the East and Africa, because they are seen as allies of those ‘crusading’ armies of those ‘Christian countries’ and are persecuted for it.  It isn’t easy at best to be a Christian in a Muslim country, there are considerable discriminations and restrictions under Sharia law, but there is supposed to be some basic tolerance.  That tolerance doesn’t work when there are ‘Christians’ at war with Islamic countries.

So there’s the thing; how great an idea is it to be united with Christians whose ambitions for a Christian state are not only unbiblical but put our fellow Christians in unnecessary mortal danger?  Christians being persecuted for being Christians, despite being peaceable, is bad enough; but being persecuted because of unbiblical worldly power and influence seeking by other Christians is surely unacceptable, and the said worldly power-seekers and their unbiblical ideas should themselves be unacceptable in turn.

Also, many of those eastern Christians derive from western missions – missions often by those state churches in their state’s colonies.  This means that they have often inherited those same ‘Christian country’ ideas from the parent churches; and that in turn adds to their problems from the Muslims (or other religions) around them.  In many former Western colonies, Christians and Muslims are effectively at war – real shooting war – because the Christian country idea legitimates that kind of conduct in the same way that the Muslim equivalent does.  You could sort of argue that such Christians ‘deserve’ their problems – but of course they’re just following what they’ve learned from the Western missions.  The whole situation is a mess.

If we take Christian unity seriously, shouldn’t we be trying – REALLY HARD – to get rid of this whole problem??  Shouldn’t we be challenging those who hold this bad idea – seeking to persuade them that it isn’t at all essential, but very much the reverse??  That a comfortable situation in a Western country bought at the price of unnecessarily persecuted brethren overseas is a disgrace, not a benefit.

Another big problem state churches bring to ecumenism is in the history; essentially, most of the things that divide mainstream denominations are things that arose not from the Bible but as traditions in the ‘Christian countries’ back to the Roman Imperial church.  For purposes of this essay I’ll take for granted the Reformation view that over the thousand years since Constantine the Roman Catholic Church had gradually become more corrupted.  As I see it, much of this corruption arose from being a state church, first as part of the wider body that included the later ‘Eastern Orthodox’, and then as the surviving authority of the old Empire in the mixed states that arose in the west from the barbarian invasions. 

Things like monarchical bishops, which had only been trends, became fixed because they suited an imperial church.  Infant baptism was another such trend – before Constantine, this had been sporadic and generally about infants not expected to survive to exercise adult faith, but obviously it suited the Imperial church that everybody was automatically ‘christened’ soon after birth.  Once Theodosius made it a rule that ‘Everybody in my Empire is a Christian or else’, the church necessarily became a mixed body with many members who were just ‘once-born’ rather than spiritually reborn, and whose approach to Christianity was really worldly, including that often people would be seeking high church office because it had become a worldly advantage, and that all kinds of pagan superstitions infiltrated the church with these rather nominal members – and so on….

Come the Reformation, a raft of traditional accretions which had been added to the simple gospel over the centuries were challenged.  Unfortunately the link between church and state wasn’t challenged in far too many places; people had just got too used to thinking of the church in such terms, or if it was raised, there was fear because the state authorities wouldn’t support an independent church and they thought such an independent church couldn’t stand up against the worldly power of the Catholics.  (In honesty they were kind of right about this; at this time Anabaptists were able to grow in a way previously almost impossible in the ‘space’ created by the rivalry of Catholic and Protestant states)  But with a secular authority to satisfy as the new Reformed churches were integrated into their states, there wasn’t freedom to be fully biblical in other areas either, so instead of full reform the state churches ‘settled out’ in various semi-reformed conditions as reformers and governments accommodated to each other.  Some went further than others, but the continued ‘Christian country’ thinking was a hindrance.

Looking at the major things that divide the mainstream churches, there is the link between church and state, there is the style of government/ ministry, and there is baptism, infants vs believers’ (‘Paedobaptism’ vs ‘Credobaptism’).  Most of the other differences are pretty insignificant.

The Church/State link is the main subject of ‘stevesfreechurchblog’ anyway, so not too much detail in this post.  Just to point out that this can range from full establishment of a church as with the Church of England  to various other ways a particular church or Christianity in general can be favoured or privileged in the state and expect the state to conform to our faith.  Ian Paisley, for example, wouldn’t want a fully established church, but he still wants a ‘Protestant country’, with the resulting ‘Troubles’.

Church government; basically most of the state churches have a ‘top-down’ government of some kind and elaborate bureaucracies – the kind of thing you’d expect of a state religion.  The Anglicans and some others have preserved the episcopalian structure of the former Catholic Church, and many would believe in some kind of ‘apostolic succession’ in which clergy appoint clergy and ordination is considered quasi-magical rather than any democratic appointment.  While the NT is arguably fairly free about church government, some of these systems are unhelpful and certainly are ‘non-essentials’.

It is fairly simple fact that when people start from the NT and do ministry as that suggests they all tend to produce very similar patterns, while so many of the other patterns are clearly ‘hangovers’ from the age of state churches.  So again the state church poses a seemingly unnecessary difficulty for unity among Christians.

Baptism; obviously all churches practice believer’s baptism for converts old enough to do their own believing (which can be surprisingly young, though I’d hesitate to follow Spurgeon who I think once baptised an 8-year-old).  Baptising babies is a very different thing and needs some dubious biblical interpretation to justify it.  I think the practice originally arose from two factors, the baptism of children not expected to survive and an understanding of baptism as a quasi-magical washing away of sin rather than a response of faith to God.  But again, the state church with the desire to ‘christen’ everybody for social conformity, and the social ‘rite of passage’ angle (in state not just the church) distorts the argument.

On these ‘big’ differences and also other smaller differences which have arisen in and from the Christendom era, the need is to recognise them as such later developments and to apply to them the tests implied by the Council of Jerusalem and the sermon that triggered this blog – tests of how essential/basic are they, and of the difficulties they may make and whether those are inherent difficulties of the faith or unnecessary difficulties arising from illegitimate traditions. 

At five pages this is about enough.  Our preacher’s message about not making difficulties in the church or with potential converts and so on applies very much to this situation.  This whole Christian country is no part of ‘Mere Christianity’, of the real basics, the real essentials.  Over the centuries it has caused massive distress and mayhem in the name of Christ, and it still does.

LET’S START THINKING OF CHRISTIAN UNITY IN TERMS OF GETTING RID OF IT.

Then we can be united God’s way….

Ian Paisley is a Catholic….

…though obviously not a papist!  Anyone expecting me to reveal that Dr Paisley has been secretly attending Masses and/or negotiating with the Pope for a cardinal’s red hat, buzz off and wait for some tabloid to discover/hack/invent that story.  This item is a serious discussion of how the word ‘catholic’ is to be interpreted.

The word ‘catholic’ is derived from the Greek phrase ‘kata holos’, meaning something like ‘according to the whole’, as in the New Age buzz words ‘holistic/holism/etc.’  (The ‘holic’ bit is nothing to do with ‘alcoholic/ workaholic/ chocoholic/etc’ which are derived from the Arabic ‘al cohol’ meaning, well, alcohol)  ‘Catholic’ can fairly be translated as ‘universal’.

Way back, the word ‘catholic’ is used in early creeds like the Apostle’s Creed to describe the Church – ‘We believe in the holy catholic Church….’  At that time of course the Church was not entangled with the state but had voluntary membership, so ‘kata holos’ meant on the one hand that as God’s Church it was universal as God himself is, but with voluntary membership meant more like ‘for everybody’, ‘applicable to everybody’, or ‘open to everybody’ without distinction – ‘As many of you as have been baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.  No Jew or Greek there, no slave or freeman, no male or female, because you are all one in Christ Jesus’  In that kind of sense I’ve no objection to saying the word ‘catholic’ in the creed myself, though I admit I prefer, to avoid unhelpful associations, the English translation ‘universal’.

Things changed after Constantine, and even more so after his successor who made Christianity compulsory in the Roman Empire.  With everybody in ‘Christendom’ assumed to be ‘Christian’ following their infant baptism (apart from Jews whose status was grudged and under threat), ‘catholic’ ended up meaning something a great deal more like our word ‘totalitarian’, similar to Nazism and Stalinism, and ended up with the biblically dubious practices of Inquisitions and Crusades to enforce the faith.  With the splitting of the Roman Empire ‘Christendom’ was divided between ‘Eastern Orthodox’ and western ‘Roman Catholic’, but the state church principle remained, and both sides of the split were ‘Catholic’ in the totalitarian sense.  The Eastern Orthodox can still be pretty totalitarian – see ‘ethnic cleansing’ in Serbia and attitudes too often seen in Russian Orthodoxy.

At the Reformation the western church split between Catholic and Protestant, but both continued the practice of being totalitarian state churches; Protestants vary between the established national Anglican and Lutheran Churches and some Presbyterian/Reformed churches with varying degrees of connection with the state.  Even Cromwell, an ‘Independent’ in church government terms, nevertheless believed that the state should be ‘Christian’ in some sense.  The ‘Pilgrim Fathers’ might have sought freedom from Anglican tyranny  this side of the Atlantic, but the Puritan state they initially set up in the New World was – let’s say it wasn’t so free if you weren’t a Puritan…!

In the modern world few churches are as intolerant as used to be the case; a non-Catholic won’t have the Inquisition set on him if he goes on holiday to a Catholic country.  But the idea of a ‘Christian state’ in which the Christianity is generally privileged and assumed to be the norm still exists, and with different versions of Christianity so, sadly, does the idea that ‘our’ version be privileged and others ‘second-class citizens’ still exist.  And this, essentially, is the post-Constantine version of the ‘catholic’ idea still running and still causing damage.

I recall seeing Ian Paisley giving a speech somewhere circa 1970 and he said “This is a Protestant country!”  It is this belief in a Christian country that makes him ‘Catholic’ in the bad sense of the word; and it is that kind of Catholicism on both sides there which leads to the fighting and terrorism and the current marches, riots and protests.  As I’ve said before on this blog, it is not the theological disagreements but ironically the point the two sides are agreed about which causes the trouble. 

In contrast were the Anabaptists.  They realised that Christianity required a voluntary spiritual new birth that couldn’t be imposed by worldly legislation, and so any state including Christians must be pluralist, consisting of the born again and the still unconverted.  They realised too that therefore church and state should be separate – it wasn’t the church’s job to ‘Christianise’ worldly states, but to spread the gospel and bring people into the kingdom of God.  That kingdom consists of those who follow Jesus because they hear and believe him (i.e., not merely because some earthly ruler passes a law declaring his people to be Christian), and so instead of existing in this world as a regular geographical state, or as an ethnic entity like the Kurds or the Basques, Jesus’ kingdom exists as a worldwide body of ‘resident aliens’ – citizens of the kingdom of heaven living as ‘expats’.  

For Anabaptists and anyone else who accepts that basic idea, ‘catholic’ means what it meant in the first centuries of Christianity; universal in a sense of suitable for everyone, freely offered to everyone, open to all regardless of race, gender, or nationality in this world[i].  Such a church does not need a conventional worldly state based on worldly physical power and so does not need worldly warfare such as we see in Northern Ireland. 

It is ironic that this central value of Ian Paisley is also the key value of the Roman and Orthodox Churches; it is not the Bible teaching that Protestantism is supposed to stand for, but an unbiblical tradition going back only to nearly 400 years after Jesus, and actually actively contradicting the Bible itself.  But note that although the two sides in Ulster have slightly different formulations of the ‘Christian state’ idea, they still have that idea in common, and the resulting implication that they can engage in warfare for their version of a Christian state and so against each other.  Both sides need to do some serious thinking about this, including that Catholics need to recognise that their ‘totalitarian’ past, until such time as they disavow it, gives some valid reason for Protestant opposition. 


[i] Because Anabaptists rejected the ‘totalitarian’ interpretation of ‘catholic’, apparently many of them would refuse to use that word or its German/Dutch equivalent ‘gemeinde’ when saying the creed; the Inquisition would use that to identify Anabaptists.  The Anabaptists would not reject the word in its original sense, but probably didn’t realise in those days that the meaning had changed over the years.  Likewise the Inquisition; for them also the ‘Catholic Church’ meant their totalitarian body.   

Responses to my friend the other Steve….

The following were comments from Steve on two recent posts, the ‘Controversy Revisited (1)’ and also the original ‘Beast Revealed’ which unfortunately I had to withdraw.  My responses below.  The issues seem interlinked so I’m responding to these together rather than separately.

Love God, love one another. That is the whole of the Law; the rest is commentary; go away and study it. If you’re falling out with one another, if you’re hurling anathema at one another; you are seriously missing the point. Can you have a go at finding biblical support for reincarnation? It would be a seriously good Idea for Calvin, Zwingli and the Borgias to have to keep coming back until they got it right!

Powerful stuff suffused with God-sense, to which I say Amen (this sentence refers to the original ‘beast revealed’ post; thanks Steve for liking it, I’ll try and remake the point as soon as I can find a suitable ‘hook’ to hang it on. SL). They forget the context of love your neighbour and the parable of the Samaritan. In that culture, then, your neighbour was your enemy, the Amalekite you went out and massacred. The difference between a Samaritan and a Jew? I’ll be blowed if anyone knows. I have no idea why Greeks and Romans are hung up on filioque. A 30-year war, a devastated central Europe and millions of dead for 95 theses? I reckon old Martin has been sat outside the gates this last half millennium commiserating with Augustine about not thinking things through.

First the relatively trivial; no, I can’t see any support for reincarnation for those who’ve had a full life and messed it up, though I have wondered about the possibility for those who die in infancy deprived of a full life. But rightly the Bible doesn’t tell us about things like that; we need to concentrate on what’s relevant to us, and trust God for other people’s fate.  Given a generously forgiving God, Calvin and Zwingli I think got it right enough to expect to see them in heaven, just a bit chastened (as no doubt I will be about some of my errors I haven’t realised in this life!).  The Borgias – that’s up to God in each individual case obviously, not condemn the whole family, but it does unfortunately seem that many of the Borgias were so deliberately wrong it’s questionable whether reincarnation would help them anyway.  Luther and Augustine again I expect to meet in heaven.  The main fault for all these theologians, Calvin, Luther, Zwingli and Augustine, was their involvement in, and their inability to see the problems of, the state church idea.  Their basic personal relationship to God appears to have been OK.  Judging by other periods in Europe, the wars or similar were likely to have happened anyway for secular reasons; the ‘Hundred Years War’ between Britain and France was not religious.

‘Love God, love one another’ – I’m not arguing!!  Nevertheless theology is necessary because it’s ‘knowledge about God’ – true knowledge makes a true relationship with God much easier, false knowledge or understanding may mess up that relationship or even completely destroy it.  Of course abstractly true theology without genuine spiritual rebirth won’t help; as James points out, the devils probably know more theology than we do but it hasn’t helped them.  But false theology obviously risks putting your relations with God on a false basis – unitarian theology completely wrecks the idea of the atonement and that makes faith in Jesus as saviour just a bit difficult….  I would also point out that biblical love, ‘agape’ is not just any sloppy old sentimentality but implies very much caring.  God’s judgement is not opposed to his love but part of his caring.

There are comparatively few things in the New Testament that seem to justify anathemas and the like.  And even then, in the NT this is about the church as an independent body which does not expect the state to privilege the church or punish ‘heretics’.  In such a context people’s beliefs are voluntary, and the position is somewhat akin to other voluntary groups like sports clubs – if you join you’re reasonably expected to more-or-less keep the club’s rules, if you won’t keep the rules the club is likely to eventually ask you to leave, but you won’t be punished as a criminal by the state for your dissent from the sports club!  Obviously a reasonable club makes every effort to keep you, but you can’t go on forever committing deliberate fouls which mess up everybody else’s enjoyment of the game or even injure them and give a bad impression to the outside world.  The situation should be broadly similar with the church.  Being a state church messes this up in all kinds of ways; a state has all kinds of worldly aims inappropriate to the faith and is using the religion for such ends as cohesion and conformity in the state. 

As in Ulster to this day, the wars in Europe over the Reformation were not really over the ‘95 theses’ but over having a state religion.  Without that idea you could have had a right ding-dong argument about those theses but not the slightest need to raise even a fist let alone a sword, bomb, or bullet; with a state religion there pretty much has to be war, persecution, etc., to satisfy what the state requires of the religion entangled with it, whether it be a form of Christianity, or Islam, or Japanese Shinto, or indeed by a sociologist’s reckoning the godless ‘religions’ of Nazism, Communism, etc.  Using Christianity as a state religion goes back to the 4th Century Empire, with slightly different versions then developing in the ‘Orthodox’ east and ‘Roman Catholic’ west after the Empire broke up.  Unfortunately the Reformers didn’t challenge the state church situation but rather relied on their local ‘princes’ to support the Reform, resulting in a religiously partitioned Europe.  If you think about it such an idea is inimical to Christianity with its basic idea of personal spiritual rebirth through faith.

One problem here is that yes, God could just arbitrarily make things come out right; but that would be kind of unreal, and of course the wrong kind of coercive on His part.  For human lives to be real and significant we have to actually ‘work out/live out’ these things, and God must, at least to some extent, let us do them bit by bit as we learn while, as ‘judge of all the earth’ guaranteeing there will be no ultimate injustice.  Before the Reformation there was a totalitarian single church in Western Europe, and people who tried to reform it without state support didn’t have the clout to make it stick, though they seem to have been more effective than many realise.  But in broad terms the Reformation sort of ‘had to’ happen as it did both to achieve all the changes it did and also to open things up for the radicals to have a space to be heard, leading in the end to greater religious freedom and a hearing for the ‘free church/ Anabaptist’ case such as I’m putting forward in this blog, and hopefully in due course to the abandonment of what still remains of the unbiblical state church. 

[Massacring the Amalekites – the subject of Old Testament warfare really requires a lengthy post and I am working on it.  In the meantime the above paragraph contains some relevant ideas]

Samaritans and Jews?  The difference starts with the split-up of the original Jewish kingdom after Solomon, into the larger Northern Kingdom based on Samaria and the smaller Southern kingdom of Judah based on Jerusalem.  By setting up a rival to the Jerusalem temple the Northern Kingdom came to be regarded as heretics in the eyes of the southerners.  The Northern Kingdom fell to foreign invasion a long time before the southern, and it seems their already compromised religion got yet further compromised by the invaders’ paganism. 

Eventually Judah and Jerusalem also fell and a considerable portion of the population were deported to modern Persia/Iraq.  Then a conquest of the conquerors brought a ruler who curried favour with subjects by allowing the displaced to return.  A large number of Judeans returned to the southern kingdom area and rebuilt the Jerusalem Temple.  Samaritans remaining in the north opposed and harassed this, increasing enmity between the two groups.  It seems that the Samaritans had inter-married with their conquerors to a significant extent; in Judea the group rebuilding the Temple responded by a policy of ethnic purity, stricter than had been the case in the old kingdom.   By NT times the Samaritans were an enclave in the central highlands of Israel, where some still remain to this day, with a Jewish state more or less surrounding them, though Galilean Jews were also considered inferior and part-paganised by the southerners in Judea proper.  The situation could be compared to Northern Ireland in many ways.  Jesus’ kingdom reconciled Jews and Samaritans, as well as Gentiles, though of course many also rejected him.

The ‘Filioque’ (‘- and the Son’) was a credal issue which was part of the break-up between the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches.  This messy dispute was arguably another problem resulting from having a state church.  It is academic philosophical theology done in the wrong spirit and in the wrong context.  Technically I think the Romans were just about right; the Holy Spirit is the Spirit equally of both Father and Son in the Trinity – but the very use of the word ‘technically’ shows that we’re no longer in the same world as the New Testament, where theology is more concrete than that and less abstract and academic.  Essentially I think both churches were playing politics in which the Roman Church was looking for a way to be more independent of the Eastern Church and make higher claims for the Pope than the eastern bishops of Alexandria etc.  The ‘filioque’ disagreement was a pretext in that worldly political issue.

The temptation of assuming that God ‘must want’ a religious state in which his people ‘lord it over’ others is really seductive – so much so that far too many people who think of themselves as Christian (and some who basically really are Christian) fall into that temptation and can’t see how the New Testament rejects the idea.  Sadly this leads to unChristian conduct.  

A Beast Revealed – an update

Unfortunately I’m withdrawing this post, though I will be returning to the basic idea of it in future.  Trouble is that since I posted the item I’ve become aware that there is more than one Facebook page representing the ‘Protestant Coalition’ and at least one is being denounced by another as ‘fake’ – and it’s probably the ‘fake’ one that I’d hung my comments on!  In view of this it seems both wise and fair to withdraw the comments I made.  As I hint above, there is nothing wrong with the principle I was stating and I’ll come back to it – just that through no fault of mine (except a bit of naivety) I’d made the comments on a dubious foundation….

Comments on Syria…

.I’m relieved by the decision of our Parliament not to intervene in Syria.  Of course I’m appalled by the gas attack of which we saw the terrible pictures, and I want every reasonable thing done to hinder anyone in Syria taking such actions.  But I’m not sure that military action on our part is a ‘reasonable thing’; indeed I’m almost certain that it’s an unreasonable thing in the current circumstances.

Part of my concern is just how practical military intervention can be; as seen in my student days in the Vietnam war, and more recently in Iraq, civil wars are notoriously difficult even to work out properly who is on whose side and to be sure what and where your targets are.  They’re also not entirely suitable for superpower style weapons wielded by outsiders; one of the horrendous statistics of Vietnam was that US helicopter ‘gunships’ could be firing off a million or so bullets per confirmed kill; and the victim might still not be Vietcong but a person actually on the US side or just a peasant trying to get through the war alive.  Yes, modern drones and ‘smart bombs’ can minimise what is euphemistically called ‘collateral damage’; but neither the bombs nor our intelligence are infallible, and it only needs one misplaced bomb or one failure of intelligence about targets and we could easily be guilty of atrocity as great as the gas attack we’re protesting against.  Is that risk acceptable, especially as it could also compromise our authority in dealing with the issues in a non-military way?

My other concern is one I’ve mentioned before which has been affecting almost all our interventions in Muslim states.  We are a ‘Christian country’ whose head of state is also the head of the state Church, and that means that any intervention by us in Muslim countries is open to all kinds of misunderstandings, misinterpretations and misrepresentations, on our side as well as whoever we’re opposing.  One of the biggest of these misunderstandings is the notion that our army in a Muslim state is necessarily a ‘Crusading’ anti-Muslim army, even though we ourselves may think we’re defending Muslims; this not only makes the conflict intractable, it also endangers native Christians in states throughout the Muslim world, who have often been persecuted, officially and unofficially, as supposed allies of the ‘crusaders’.  As one who believes Christians shouldn’t be having ‘Christian countries’ anyway, I see this as extra tragic.  America is also perceived by Muslims as a Christian state, and despite its lack of a formally established church like our Anglicans it pretty much is such a state in practice, especially among the so-called ‘religious Right’ of their politics.

Our democracy also presents a problem to Muslims, especially to the fundamentalists who seek very emphatically Muslim states rather than our kind of pluralism.  Trying to impose democracy on a culture that really isn’t ready for it is another factor making things intractable.

We just about got away with Gulf War 1, the liberation of Kuwait from Iraq, because we went in invited by Arab states, did the job they wanted us to do, and got out, resisting the temptation to go further and topple Saddam.  Even so the mere presence of ‘infidel’ troops on the ‘sacred’ land of Saudi Arabia was a major factor in radicalising Bin Laden and leading to the 9/11 Twin Towers attack.  Gulf War 2 and our continued presence in Afghanistan long after its original purpose had departed with Bin Laden himself  was for many Arabs a different matter, as we were then intervening on our own behalf and seen as trying to impose anti-Muslim ways on these states.

We ourselves made a major mistake in the invasion of Iraq; though sold in the West as part of the ‘War on Terror’, Saddam was not a supporter of Al Qaida; he belonged to the other major Muslim faction to Bin Laden, and though he attempted to ‘play the Muslim card’ to get Arab support was anyway unacceptably theologically liberal and secular in Al Qaida’s eyes.  Toppling him actually, if anything, benefited the extremists and fundamentalists whose struggle to take over after Saddam is perpetuating conflict and death and mayhem under and against our occupation.  We may well be making a similar mistake in Syria; Assad likewise belongs to a faction opposed by Al Qaida, who are part of the loose coalition fighting to oust him.  How can we fight Assad without risking helping our extremist enemies in the internal Islamic conflicts?

It is being suggested that we are somehow diminished, and ‘losing authority’ by not taking military action at this point.  I think we would have been more truly diminished had we carried on along the simplistic route of posturing, waving big sticks and bossing people around in a situation which we don’t understand and which our existing interventions haven’t helped much if at all.   And when I say ‘our interventions’ that isn’t just the recent efforts; much of the problems in the Middle East, and the growth of extremism in Islam, goes back to our manipulation of these lands and peoples in colonialist times, including our support for Zionism in Israel (another very messy can of worms which most westerners don’t understand as much as we think we do….).

We need to put our own affairs in order before intervening dubiously in Muslim lands; and that includes a need to finally recognise that Christianity was never intended to be a state religion, and so remove that factor from this and other conflicts (among others, Ireland).  Agreed as a plural secular state we’d still be the enemy for many Muslims; but Christianity being itself and demonstrating a better pattern for ‘religion-and-state’ is a better answer to Muslim religious totalitarianism, while retaining the rags of a dubiously Christian past both provokes the Muslims and causes us misunderstandings as well.   At present in Syria we have most to offer by not intervening militarily.