A lot went through my mind during the recent tragedies that made the headlines – the mass shooting in Orlando and the killing of MP Jo Cox in Yorkshire. As might be expected, much was written about the two men that committed the atrocities. And the pain inflicted by these devastating events has continued to dominate the news.
While I shared in the sadness and sorrow that came about after hearing both bits of tragic news, I also thought about what combination of factors had turned Thomas Mair into a killer. I thought too about the man who murdered all those people in the Orlando nightclub. What toxic combination of religious ideology and personal prejudice could make someone so unhinged that they could kill 50 innocent people, and totally devastate the lives of their families and friends?
It’s natural for us to go through the whole gamut of emotions in the wake of mindless murder: shock, anger, sadness, confusion, and I dare say judgment too. While victims rightly receive outpourings of sympathy and love, those who commit the atrocities are often publically vilified, ostracised, and even dehumanised, with the risk of us writing the worst offenders off as unforgiveable monsters who should rot in jail for the rest of their lives.
It’s true that some prisoners are so dangerous that they should never be released, and justice rightly needs to be administered before the law. But for the Christian, it’s never the case that the worst offenders are ‘unforgiveable monsters’ – quite the opposite really.
Central to the Christian faith is the truth that we are all equal in being sinners, and that we are all equal in being offered forgiveness by God’s grace. While we might sometimes find this difficult to accept, it really is the case. As Philip Yancey once said, “grace means there is nothing we can do to make God love us more… and grace means there is nothing we can do to make God love us less”.
It’s on that basis that we can be agents of grace for others in the swirl of darkness and chaos that sometimes threatens to engulf us. And, at a time of heightened uncertainty following the result of the EU referendum, we of all people can be bearers of the message of radical grace in these momentous days in which we live.
James is a local government officer based in Norwich, and is a regular columnist for Network Norfolk and Heart 4 Ipswich, Christian Community websites. He also blogs regularly as ‘The Philosophical Muser’, and contributes articles to UK think tanks The Adam Smith Institute and The Institute of Economic Affairs.
Blessed be your glorious name, and may it be exalted above all blessing and praise. You alone are the LORD. You made the heavens, even the highest heavens, and all their starry host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them… You are the LORD God, who chose Abram… You saw the suffering of our ancestors in Egypt… You came down on Mount Sinai… You gave them kingdoms and nations… By your Spirit you warned them through your prophets… Now therefore, our God, the great God, mighty and awesome, who keeps his covenant of love…
Nehemiah 9:5, 7, 9, 13, 22, 30, 32
It is surely significant that at the heart of Scripture is not a list of rules to be obeyed or a set of promises to be claimed, but a grand, sweeping story that is told. It’s an account of God reaching out in love to sinful men and women, drawing them into relationship with himself, who then become the main ingredients in a plan – centred in Christ – which involves the restoration of creation itself.
Nor should it come as a surprise that several summaries of this story are found throughout Scripture. The story is narrated up to the point of telling, of course, but each of the tellers is concerned to place themselves and their listeners or readers into that larger story, in such a way that it becomes their story too.
That’s what happens in Nehemiah with those who return from exile, rebuilding their walls and rebuilding their lives.
In this case, reading the Book of the Law leads to confession, with Nehemiah 9 recording the longest prayer in the Bible outside the Psalms. Beginning with praise, the people then trace the biblical story from creation right through to their present day. In doing so, they confess their faithlessness and God’s faithfulness in his dealings with them, admitting their guilt and acknowledging God’s grace.
Mediated through the lens of a scriptural memory of God’s past actions on their behalf, that shared history cements the identity of the people of God, forming a community which will trust and serve him in the future. And so, confession turns to commitment as they make an agreement among themselves and before the Lord to make their own history different in the land God has given them anew. The renewal of the covenant that follows in chapter 10 flows from the awakening by the word of God in chapter 8 and the confession of sin in chapter 9.
Of course, we need ongoing renewal at the personal level. But what’s going on in Nehemiah, crucially, is corporate renewal, renewal of the people of God. A restored relationship with God leads to a restored relationship with each other, to a concern for the welfare of the whole community. The vision at the heart of these chapters, shaped by the biblical story, remains as powerful now as it did then – renewal through the word of God, renewal in relationship with God, and renewal as the people of God.
With less than a week to go, and with one poll suggesting there are ‘high levels of ignorance about the EU’, have you decided which way to vote? How have you decided?
Both sides have arguably been guilty of embellishment and dishonesty on several issues. Even worse has been the corrosive obsession with economics as the be all and end all. Yes, immigration, and to a lesser degree democracy have played a part in the debate, but essentially the main battlefield has been the bottom line: money.
But support for a political entity based purely on economics is a weak basis for unity. Loyalty based on financial gain only lasts while the profits do – and performance will go up and down. The only sustainable politics is one based on something more fundamental that can be supported in bad times as well as good. That should be the big question – what is the EU fundamentally for?
As it happens, there is a different vision for the EU – one that was there in its foundations in the 1950s. The goal was to establish a new type of international politics – one that rejected the failings of the war period and, crucially, embraced a distinctively Christian political vision, based on the principles of solidarity, subsidiarity, and the need for a moral project.
Solidarity brought a commitment to improving the lot of workers and citizens. Subsidiarity, a concept taken from a Papal encyclical, was about taking decisions at the most suitable level: for a local issue you use a local agent, for national a national agent, with the biggest problems needing an international agent.
The problem is that those original principles have become muted over time. Solidarity looks a tough sell to Greek pensioners and Spanish teenagers. Subsidiarity is widely perceived to have gone wrong – with far too much being done at the EU level and handed down without democratic consent.
Yet the need for a moral vision remains. Issues of development, the environment, the menace of ISIS, economic threats that would undermine rights and living conditions – all of these require international solutions and would benefit from a strong moral project to drive and underpin them. The question is: can the EU be something like what it was in its origins in providing that vision? Or is it committed to a neoliberal economic programme that rejects those origins? That, I think from a Christian perspective, must be the crux of the debate.
Ben (@BenedictWRyan) is a researcher at Theos. He is the author of the report, ‘A Soul for the Union’, which can be found here. Other resources on the Referendum, written from a Christian perspective and representing different views, are available from the Jubilee Centre , KLICE, Care, the Evangelical Alliance, and Christians in Politics.
All the people came together as one in the square before the Water Gate. They told Ezra the teacher of the Law to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses, which the Lord had commanded for Israel… He read it aloud… And all the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law… The Levites… read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people understood what was being read.
To the delight of many a deacons’ meeting, parochial church council, or fabric committee, the books of Ezra and Nehemiah tell the story of building projects. In Ezra it’s the temple, in Nehemiah it’s the city walls. Hard work. Bricks and mortar. Blood, sweat and tears.
No less real – and no less hard graft – is the rebuilding of the people themselves. A restored temple and rebuilt walls to be sure, but at the centre of it all is a renewed relationship with God, in community with others. And at the heart of that renewal, the means by which restoration comes, is the word of God.
Picture the scene in Nehemiah 8: thousands crowd into the public square; Ezra stands on a raised platform; unusually, the people have asked him to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses; when he opens it they stand up, he blesses them, and they respond in worship. Ezra reads from daybreak to noon, for about six hours, and the people listen attentively and reverently.
However, reading and listening on their own are not enough. God’s word requires explanation, as we see with the Levites ‘making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people understood what was being read’.
But something more is needed. For, as the story goes on, explaining and understanding lead to responding and celebrating – with weeping first, and then with delight, as the people discover that ‘the joy of the Lord’ is their strength (8:10).
Even this, it seems, is not the final goal of their encounter with God’s word, for the rest of the chapter shows them celebrating the Feast of Tabernacles, recalling how their ancestors lived in the wilderness, with everyone taking part, acting out God’s provision for them.
As they hear, understand, and respond to God’s voice in the pages of Scripture, they are recovering what it means to be the people of God.
Here is a window on the significance of the word of God to the life of the people of God. It reminds us that God renews through his word, that it’s a word for men and women and children, that it addresses the whole community, that it is to be listened to attentively, understood clearly, and responded to obediently, that it makes a difference to how people live.
Minds informed, hearts touched, lives changed – God renews through his word.
Stay up-to-date with LICC's latest news, events, videos and resources, plus enjoy our short weekly biblical reflections (Word for the Week) and blogs on faith and current events (Connecting with Culture).