It’s been quite the week in politics. The Prime Minister’s Brexit speech, a Northern Ireland election announcement, and now the inauguration of President Trump. Wherever you fall on the political spectrum, it’s clear that things aren’t straightforward, and haven’t been for a while.
Many of our significant political choices now seem to come in binary options. Are you in or out? Republican or Democrat? Narratives around these decisions have become divisive, and those who take opposing views can become demonised as we feel betrayed by fellow Christians who voted differently to us.
When the choice boils down to x or y, it can be easy to characterise outcomes as winning or losing. Brexit won. Republicans won. If you voted otherwise, you’re a loser… or so the logic goes. Things are black and white. Someone is either a ‘goodie’ or a ‘baddie’. Something is either ‘healthy’ or ‘unhealthy’. You either ‘win’ or you ‘lose’.
But it’s never really that simple, is it? Many Americans, Christians included, agonised for weeks and months over how to vote. And although good intentions do not necessarily mean a good outcome, we must not gloss over the complex ethical, moral, and spiritual decisions that the presidential election posed.
As the rubber hits the road today with President Trump’s inauguration, it’s easy to throw stones at the other side, to be smug if you’ve ‘won’, or bitter if you’ve ‘lost’.
But what if we did something radical, and refused to play the game of ‘us’ vs. ‘them’? What if we saw those we differ from politically simply as people like us, fallen and broken, but trying their best? What if we remembered that, although God is fazed by injustice, misogyny, and racism, he is still sovereign, and our ultimate hope lies not in politicians, Brexit, or the single market, but in our God who suffered and died for us on a Roman cross?
As Christians, as people of the Risen King, we know that God can bring good out of any circumstance. We know that, ultimately, through Jesus, we have a hope that is not of this world.
So maybe we don’t have to see it as a ‘win’ or a ‘lose’ situation. Maybe, instead, it’s an opportunity for a more radical, possibly even counter-cultural, commitment to follow the New Testament mandates – to honour the governing authorities, to pray for our leaders, and – no matter their political views – to love our neighbours as ourselves.
Nell is Culture Projects Leader at LICC
Join us for our event Faith in Politics? Lessons from the White House on 23rd of February. Details here.
You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly… God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! Not only is this so, but we also boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.
The story is told of Brooke Foss Westcott, Regius Professor of Divinity at Cambridge and Church of England bishop, being approached by a zealous evangelist. (Accounts differ as to whether it was a member of the Salvation Army or an undergraduate student, but don’t let that get in the way of a good story.) ‘Are you saved?’, Westcott was asked. To which he apparently replied, ‘Ah, a very good question. But tell me: do you mean…?’ – and went on to cite three forms of the Greek verb ‘to save’, indicating that his answer would depend on which of the three was in mind. ‘I know I have been saved,’ he said, ‘I believe I am being saved, and I hope by the grace of God that I shall be saved.’
There’s a temporal span to our salvation, which embraces past, present, and future.
Having just written of God’s love being ‘poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit’ (Romans 5:5), Paul reminds us where that love was so clearly demonstrated in the past – in Christ’s death on our behalf, when we were powerless to save ourselves. If God went to such cost to reconcile us to himself, even when we were his enemies, we can be confident he’ll finish what he has started. All this is grounds for assurance in the present, encouraging us to rejoice for what God has done in Christ.
Paul moves with ease from the past to the future to the present. And it’s helpful that he does. Some of us may be certain that God worked in us in the past, but find it difficult to see his hand on our lives right now. Or we might worry whether things we have done in the past disqualify us from his service in the present. Or our current struggles and suffering can make it hard to see the certainty of our future hope. But Jesus has the whole of our redemption wrapped up – then, now, and forever more.
And it’s all of grace. At every stage – past, present, and future – we come with empty hands, seeking mercy from our heavenly father, recognising as Paul says in Philippians 2:12-13 that we ‘work out [our] salvation with fear and trembling’, knowing that ‘it is God who works in [us] to will and to act in order to fulfil his good purpose’.
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Why can’t they just leave things alone? I liked my phone/operating system/Creme Egg just as it was, thank you, I don’t need a new, ‘improved’ version every five minutes.
If you’ve ever felt like this then you, like me, might be suffering from Progress Fatigue. Symptoms include nostalgia, sighing, rapid-onset frustration with technology and a tendency to use phrases like ‘Why can’t they just…’.
Part of the issue is that it rarely seems as though the improvements actually improve anything. Apps lose your favourite features, computer programmes develop new bugs, Creme Eggs don’t taste as nice.
We often think of change as a good in itself. As Sam Seaborn, in the TV show The West Wing, put it, when explaining why the US Government kept funding missions to Mars:
Because it’s next. For we came out of the cave, and we looked over the hill and we saw fire. And we crossed the ocean and we pioneered the West, and we took to the sky. The history of man is hung on the timeline of exploration and this is what’s next.
We want the next thing, the new thing. Something more. Something better.
Yet it gets tiring when, as my cousin tweeted recently, “we suffer constant change without any sense that things are progressing in the ‘right’ direction”.
Change needs to be underpinned by some vision of the good in order to be inspiring and compelling. We trial new medicines because we want to be healthier for longer. We develop new technologies because we want to live, work and travel more efficiently. Knowing and believing in the goal helps even Luddites like me to accept the change.
There are some changes that are not so positive, though. Some are driven by greed, some by hedonism. Some, such as changes to sexual ethics and moral codes, are due to an outright rejection of God’s authority and boundaries. As Christians, it is important that we keep our eyes on the ultimate goal of life – God’s Kingdom come and his will done.
When changes bring us closer to that point, we can rejoice. When they take us further away it is time to pray, to act, to speak out. And when they’re change for change’s sake, it’s probably time to sigh and reach for the Creme Eggs, however disappointing.
Note: this post contains spoilers
For a film that is so visually beautiful and rich in period detail, an atmosphere of quintessentially 20th century totalitarianism hangs around Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of Shūsaku Endō’s novel Silence.
This film – an exhaustingly tense and penetrating treatment of moral and spiritual pain – is about a series of specific events at a specific time in a specific place, but it is also about something much bigger. As is so often the case, the universal is accessed through the particular. Silence centres on how a Jesuit priest caught up in the persecution of Christians in 17th century Japan deals with the challenge that physical pain – both his own and that of his flock – poses to his faithfulness to God – and the challenge that God’s silence poses to him.
But – and here comes the spoiler – he fails. He avoids the martyrdom that he envisaged and the blood that he says is the seed of the church, and he does so by denying Christ and trampling on a carved image of the cross.
In its central figure (though not, it should be stressed, in all its figures) the film shows how pain triumphs over piety, the body over the mind, and how our greatest fear wins out against our greatest love.
Moreover, it does not try to soften this by an appeal to heaven making it all okay in the end. The idea of ‘paradise’ plays an important role in the film, but it is certainly not redemptive, let alone salvific.
What lifts it from unremitting bleakness, however, is the idea that hangs like an ungraspable mist in the background: our betrayal is not the final word because Christ did not betray. The priest’s denial is not ultimate because, before him, Christ, in whom we can somehow live, underwent the same trial to the end. In short, it is precisely the cross that permits the priest to deny the cross.
Silence never denies the weakness and failure that haunts and breaks human life. It refuses any cheap consolation or redemption. Indeed, it hardly offers any expensive redemption. But it does pose the question, asked by one of the film’s more obviously flawed characters, “Where is the place of a weak man in a world like this?” And it implies that the final answer to the question lies less in overcoming our weakness than in acknowledging it.
Nick Spencer is Research Director at Theos. A longer version of this article first appeared here
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.’
The 12th day of Christmas falls on 6 January this year. In the Christian calendar the day is known as Epiphany, marking the visit to the young Jesus by… well, by whom?
We sometimes sing ‘We three kings of Orient are’. But Matthew calls them ‘Magi’, not kings. Magi were a number of things, but they were certainly not kings. Nor, probably, should we think of them as ‘wise men’.
By the first century, the term ‘Magi’ referred to astronomers, fortune-tellers, or star-gazers. So, think ‘magicians’. Think horoscope fanatics. Think those who claim to tell the future by reading stars, tea leaves, and chicken gizzards. In the Bible, think of the magicians in Egypt at the time of Moses, or the interpreters of dreams in the book of Daniel, or Simon the sorcerer in Acts 8.
So, for an early reader of Matthew’s gospel, the Magi aren’t just Gentiles (significant though that is); they represent the height of Gentile idolatry and religious wizardry. But it’s these star-gazing, horoscope-writing, would-be magicians who are the heroes in the story. They shouldn’t be there. They don’t worship the right God or adhere to the right religion or belong to the right race. And yet they are there.
It’s possible, then (according to Mark Allan Powell, Chasing the Eastern Star, Westminster John Knox, 2001) that we should see the Magi as bungling astrologers or sorcerers – more like the Three Stooges than the Three Wise Men! They go to the wrong place. They speak to the wrong person. When they give their gifts, it’s gold, frankincense and myrrh, which were elements used in their magic. And yet, by a mysterious combination of God’s loving grace and their faithful seeking, they are there – as models of seeking Jesus, believing in Jesus, and worshipping Jesus with what they have. God used what they knew – the stars – and gave them what they didn’t know – the Scriptures – to bring them to Jesus.
The story of the Magi shows us that God revealed the truth about Jesus to a bunch of pagan fools while those who were clever enough to work it out for themselves missed out. Their story reminds us that God shows his strength in our weakness, his glory in our humility, his wisdom in our folly – to make it clear that everything comes from him and not from ourselves.
Let’s celebrate that this New Year.
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