Friday, February 09, 2018

Beyond the Veil (the basis for a just society)

I’ve always been fascinated by the philosopher John Rawls’ ‘veil of ignorance’ theory as a way to determine a just society. Rawls asks us to imagine that we have yet to be born and have no idea what kind of life situation awaits us. Collectively we gather together behind a ‘veil of ignorance’ about our future selves. We might be born healthy or disabled or sick, we might be born into wealth or into poverty, we might be born white or black or brown, we might be born with great intellectual abilities or be intellectually impaired, we might be born into a secure loving family or we might be dumped on the street, and so forth.  The point is we don’t know - anything is possible.

So the question is raised among us – what kind of society would we want to await us (bearing in mind that none of us know what our personal life situation will be)? Rawls’ point is that we would surely all hope for a society that was fair, compassionate, tolerant, and which gave help and protection to its weakest members. It brings home the moral folly of thinking our greatest advantages are self-earned. It also humbles us into caring for those without those advantages.

That said, its appeal is essentially to selfishness rather than altruism (i.e. 'hedging your bets') - and doubtless some, even behind a veil of ignorance, would be prepared just to ‘roll the dice’ in the hope of coming out on top. Nonetheless, as a concept for the desirability of a just society it possesses a huge amount of force.

And in a world that rejects other sources of moral guidance it’s worth exploring its implications in specific areas of life.

The right to life itself: so there we are gathered together discussing life beyond the veil. We agree that the world should give everyone the chance for the best possible outcomes in whatever life they find themselves in. But would we then consider it fair that 25% of us will have our lives prematurely terminated by the people who have had the great advantage of getting beyond the veil? Surely the exercise of such draconian power by the strong over the weak would be the mark of a horribly unjust society.

Childhood: but what about our hopes beyond just entering the world itself – our hopes for our childhood and upbringing? Is there anyone behind the veil anyone who wouldn’t hope to be brought up in a loving secure home by their biological parents? Now of course, that’s not always possible and individual mums, dads, carers and adoptive parents provide impeccable loving care for children. So this is about the ideal not what may be the next best in a fallen world. Indeed those ‘next bests’ for children are all the more to be praised and commended because they often require greater effort and sacrifice than the ideal.

However, we increasingly live in a world where the ideal is being withheld not through misfortune but deliberately and selfishly. The sentiment of one ‘polyamarous’ woman is rapidly becoming our culture’s received wisdom, "It is really outdated to think a child needs one mother and one father”. Outdated for adults perhaps! That is, those with power over children – but not for children themselves – either emotionally or in terms of life outcomes (as testified to by the overwhelming testimony of social studies). So increasingly those behind the veil are being made to serve the interests of those who will hold power over them on the other side.

The ‘veil of ignorance’ is a powerful concept in the pursuit of a just world – but it also highlights the deep partiality and deep self-interest of our contemporary liberal culture despite its claims to want fairness and equality.

Only in Jesus 
Ultimately the ‘veil’ relies on a set of moral principles outwith itself – e.g. the belief that it’s better to suffer loss than to cause loss or that we should treat other people the way we ourselves would want to be treated. In that regard it relies on an under-pinning Biblical morality – a morality that has objectivity and transcendence because it emanates from a Creator God.

Try as we might only in Jesus Christ has humanity been presented with absolute self-giving that puts the deepest interests of others before self – and thus only in following Him is there the hope for a truly just world beyond ‘the veil’.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

SMACKING BAN (SCOTLAND) - Letter to Nicola Sturgeon MSP

FAO. Nicola Sturgeon MSP

Dear First Minister


As one of your constituents, I am writing to express my concern about your Government’s recent decision to support the above proposed legislation. Many arguments against such a move have been aired and doubtless you are very aware of them. I would, however, appeal to you to reconsider supporting this change to the law and not to whip MSPs (potentially against their own judgement and conscience) into voting for it.

There are some issues around family life that are surely best left to the discretion of parents – e.g. the discipline of children. That is not to say, of course, that the State should tolerate an ‘anything goes’ approach to such matters – but it seems to me that the existing arrangements are quite adequate. They prohibit the excessive use of force and any form of physical chastisement that would be injurious – and indeed where disproportionate ‘assault’ is used against a child the Police and Social Workers can be called upon.  

Thus the proposed legislation may be well-meaning but instead of protecting genuinely at risk children it will simply disempower decent parents. That is not to say, that reasonable physical chastisement need be used by parents but that it will be their choice. It would be a recognition that even the best government is no substitute for most parents when it comes to having the best interests of children at heart.

The argument that any physical chastisement is simply tantamount to abuse, seems to me confused. If causing any physical distress (however momentary and transient) to a child is unacceptable – then why is it acceptable to cause a child psychological distress (by taking away privileges, ‘telling them off’, or restricting their movements)? Why is the body so sacrosanct and not the mind? In recent years non-physical traumas such as bullying, harassment, verbal intimidation have been highlighted as social evils – in other words, how long before any parental sanctions, of whatever kind, that cause any form of distress simply become unacceptable. After all when ideology usurps the wisdom of centuries anything is possible.

Are we really going to criminalise parents who, like our own mothers and fathers going back generations, might use a moderate smack on occasions to discipline and even protect their children?

Please First Minister reconsider this further step of ‘Nationalising’ parenting – i.e. the State taking to itself more and more of the prerogatives of parents.

Finally, I note the Scottish Government is pardoning Gay men convicted of certain indecency charges prior to homosexuality being decriminalised. Many will see that as recognition that the State should not have tried to police people’s sex lives – perhaps it would also be wise for the State to refrain from trying to police people’s family lives.

With grateful thanks for all your work and service.

Yours sincerely,

Andrew Hunter.

Friday, August 11, 2017

FIEC Certificate in Independent Church Ministry course

In-class & on-line. 
FIEC's 'Certificate in Independent Church Ministry' commences on Tuesday afternoons at ETS on Tue 12th Sep. The course can be accessed in class or online - so if you'd like to understand more about Independent Churches and how to serve in them better then book a space HERE.

Friday, August 04, 2017

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

'dislike for the unlike' (non-conformity is not extremism)

Israel Zangwill described anti-Semitism as being rooted in the human tendency to have ‘dislike for the unlike’. For the Jews with their peculiar religion and culture the result was a cycle of suspicion and prejudice from the societies in which they lived. For Zangwill the only solution was a Zionist State where Jewish people could live free from the repeated persecutions and purges that had been their experience. Only in their own land could they escape from being the scapegoats on which the grievances of others were frequently heaped.

This recent terrorist attacks in the UK have led to calls for widespread clampdowns on extremism and extremist groups. There is though the danger that such demands move beyond tackling terrorism and become a justification for acting against groups that wider society just doesn’t like.

Now of course, incitements to violence or the promotion of threatening behaviour should be challenged and, as is already the case, be illegal. No-one has a right to inflict injury, intimidate or coerce those with whom they disagree, however profoundly, on matters of religious, political or philosophical belief.

Indeed this cherished protection of ‘conscience’ in Western society is a freedom borne out of the trauma and bloodshed of trying to do otherwise. It was a lesson first learnt by the church (in the post-Reformation disputes and wars) and which subsequently became a foundation of our democratic society.

So freedom from such assault and bullying should be vigorously upheld – and those who seek to perpetrate such acts confronted with the full force of the law.

However, the calls to ‘clampdown on extremism’ are worryingly being extended way beyond this area. For some, in the political and media world, it seems that any religious beliefs or cultural practices that conflict with their own secular/liberal views are by definition ‘extremist’. 

This was illustrated in an interview with Archbishop Justin Welby on Radio 4’s Today programme (5/6/17). The interviewer raised (legitimately) the issue of religious belief being a factor in the London Bridge attack – he then went on to ask whether Islamic meetings where men and women were separated should be tolerated. For the interviewer such a practice was clear evidence of misogyny – to which he added, the church had also been guilty of (although probably not as much as the BBC and other media outlets – I’ve seen sitcoms and tabloids from the 1970s!). Welby responded by noting that such separation is common in synagogues too - and he could have added many African churches.

The fact is, throughout history men and women have often sat or met separately in a wide range of settings – practices that may have nothing to do with misogyny but reflect legitimate cultural and religious sensibilities. Yet something that most people in most places have found unremarkable is now seized on as dangerous and objectionable simply because it doesn’t chime with early C21 Western culture (which of course, represents a pretty thin slice of the totality of human wisdom and experience).

A lot has been made in recent years about ‘British Values’ and the insistence that everyone in these islands subscribe to them. But what about those British people who don’t subscribe to secular/liberal ‘British’ values when it comes to matters such as sex, abortion, the obliteration of gender and the meaning of life? Indeed one MP has already branded traditional Christian views on Marriage as extremist. So people who are peaceable, hard-working and law-abiding citizens ought to be marginalised and distrusted – because like Jews in medieval Europe they have beliefs and lifestyles that seem odd to the wider culture.

In Russia the Jehovah’s Witness organisation is facing a complete ban for being ‘extremist’. So a peaceable (if somewhat niche) religious group is being closed down by the State for the crime of ‘sowing religious discord’ – which means, as many observers have put it, they’re not ‘Russian’ enough and don’t fit in. Of course the UK is vastly different from Russia but nonetheless a pressurised government and an angry majority population can quickly be tempted to heap their grievances on anyone who dissents from their worldview.

There is a real risk of an over-zealous (albeit well intentioned) desire to tackle terrorism ending up turning non-conformist groups into scapegoats. Not because they’re going to harm anyone but simply because nothing fuels ‘dislike for the unlike’ as much as fear. 

Thursday, May 18, 2017

FIEC in Scotland - Free Church of Scotland Article

An article published in 'The Record' (Monthly Magazine of the Free Church of Scotland).

‘If you can do it on your own, it’s not big enough’, was the strapline of a recent FIEC Mission Day held in Edinburgh – but it could equally be the motto for all churches and groups with a heart to see Scotland reached for Christ. The Fellowship of Independent Churches is one such group and is delighted to share that ambition with the Free Church of Scotland.

FIEC is a UK wide network of over 560 Independent Churches (including Brethren, Congregational, Baptist, Missions Halls…) who are united by strong evangelical convictions and a vision to see local churches strengthened and supporting each other. In other words while FIEC churches are ‘independent’ as regards their governance they know that being separatist or existing in isolation is not a Biblical model.

In Scotland, which historically has had a relatively small constituency of independent churches, there are currently 23 affiliated churches along with another 30 pastors connected to FIEC’s Pastors’ Network. It is nonetheless a growing network and encouragingly includes four new Church Plants in Huntly, Buckhaven, Glasgow (Barlanark) and most recently in Orkney. Other churches who have joined in recent years include Harper Church in Glasgow, Niddrie Community Church and Charlotte Chapel in the capital.

A proliferation of new Independent Churches
A key FIEC conviction is that there is no substitute for healthy and outward looking local churches if the gospel is to flourish again in Scotland. In recent years while there has been decline in some sections of the church there has been a proliferation of new Independent churches. New churches that will be increasingly needed in evangelising unreached areas and new communities. In this FIEC exists to help connect them with each other and to a big vision for gospel growth across the whole nation.

Almost every Independent church would want to see Church Planting and Revitalisations taking place nationwide, they would want to see new gospel workers being raised up and well trained, and they would want to see those gospel workers being supported and cared for. The reality is however, that such aspirations are often beyond the capacity of individual churches and remain unachievable for them. Alternatively a group of likeminded churches partnering together have the potential to give those gospel desires concrete expression.

FIEC means that an Independent church on the Black Isle can help a Church Plant in Glasgow get legal help setting up its constitution, a church in the borders can support the training of a student in Edinburgh, or a church in Shetland can help support a sick pastor in Ayrshire. In short FIEC allows Independent Churches to have something of the vision and capability of a gospel denomination like the Free Church.

In practical terms this is being worked out in initiatives such as the Certificate of Independent Church Ministry at ETS. The course is designed for students and others who are considering ministry in Independent Churches and gives an appreciation of the history, ecclesiology and practicalities of serving in a self-governing church. Along with this has been the FIEC initiated Pathways Conferences for men and women thinking about vocational ministry options. In the past two years these events have helped almost 100 men and women think through issues such as ‘the Call’, the character, and the challenge of Christian ministry today.

Care of Workers
FIEC pastors and church leaders are connected together in a ‘Link Pastor’ network to help ensure that no-one need feel isolated or out-on-a-limb because they serve in an Independent church. Additional support in this area has also been provided by pastoral retreats and day conferences which provide refreshment and fellowship for those in the front line of church life.

Reaching Scotland
The big challenge for all gospel-hearted people is, of course, the desperate spiritual state of the nation. With over 90% of the Scottish population lost and increasingly ignorant of the gospel the need for Bible-believing Christians to stand together and clearly proclaim Christ has never been greater. Because no one group, however dynamic, can meet that need on its own – all are needed and all have a part to play. FIEC is just one of those groups and thus we particularly value our deepening friendship with the Free Church and its big hearted gospel generosity towards us.

So please pray for FIEC and its work supporting Independent Churches – pray that such churches will have a big vision for the gospel, that being Independent won’t stop them partnering with other committed evangelicals, and that their part in the great task of making Christ known in the nation will be a fruitful and God-glorifying one.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Ian Brady was evil and that's a fact.

It was Bertrand Russell who made the statement, “‘Dachau is wrong’ is not a fact.” In other words, while he was appalled by the Nazi Concentration Camp he nonetheless struggled to see an objective basis for calling it ‘wrong’. Russell of course, was simply being consistent in applying his atheistic world view – in a meaningless universe where everything is ultimately arbitrary what basis can there be for such moral absolutes?

Today’s news of the death of Ian Brady the notorious ‘Moors Murderer’ seems to be causing some people a similar quandary. One contributor to Radio 4’s Today programme was reluctant to call Brady ‘evil’ as it was a term that had ‘religious connotations’. Instead he seemed more comfortable in seeing Brady’s crimes as the escalation of earlier sadistic and violent behaviour (which they undoubtedly were).   

Well, as others have pointed out, if your world view isn’t able to look at someone torturing and murdering five children and call them ‘evil’ – then perhaps there is something deeply flawed about your world view.

Blinding or illuminating
Psychology and social sciences have contributed hugely to our understanding of human behaviour - but all such enquiry, if detached from the notion of a moral universe, is in danger of blinding rather than illuminating us. To see Dachau or Brady as just being dysfunctional behaviour or simply sitting on an amoral continuum of possible human activity, is to reduce ourselves to little more than mechanistic animals.  It strips us of ultimate moral responsibility and indeed of ultimate moral accountability.

The rejection of ‘evil’ as an objective moral category is in part driven by the hubris that humanity can explain itself and thus fix itself. So by turning the actions of Brady into observable processes we are able to rationalise them, and if we can rationalise them we can rectify them. But as most of us know from personal experience human behaviour is frequently irrational and defies mechanistic explanations.

It is only the recognition that there is a spiritual/Godward dimension to our lives that can allow us to truly comprehend ourselves, never mind Ian Brady.

The reality of evil
So far from being a product of religious imagination ‘evil’ is a reality – a reality that affects and infects every person. At its deepest level evil is not simply behaviour that we find distasteful or upsetting – it is a condition. Biblically it is the dislocation of men and women from the source of their life and purpose. It is the rejection of God and thus the rejection of objective morality. A rejection that inevitably leads to conflict, self-assertion and the manipulation of others.  It is why Jesus was clear that even the best of humanity is ‘evil’ in God’s sight and that apart from God Himself there is no-one ‘good’ (Luke 11:12, Mark 10:18)

So Ian Brady was evil and that’s a fact. But, in the eyes of God, you and I are also evil and that’s also a fact. Our offences might not be grizzly and tabloid (thank God), but we have each stood apart from God, made up our own rules, violated our consciences and pursued self-gratification at the expense of others.

Inexcusable but not unforgivable
We cannot simply explain ourselves as corks powerlessly thrown about on a sea of haphazard materialism or victims of circumstance – we are responsible moral beings because there does exist a supreme moral standard. We are evil and we are culpable – no more excuses.

Yet the staggering message of the Gospel is that even though we are inexcusable we are not unforgiveable. The Gospel is painfully blunt about our evil and its consequences, it offers us no ‘get outs’ but amazingly holds out the prospect of forgiveness. It points us to a place where evil was laid bare and its horrors exhausted so that guilty people could be forgiven and go free. Because we can no more fix ourselves without God than we can truly understand ourselves.  

Ian Brady will now give an account of himself to God and face the consequences of his evil. The call of the Gospel is to take responsibility for our own evil, to look to the Cross of Jesus Christ and ask for mercy in the here and now.

Jesus Christ came to save you, me and the worst of sinners. And that’s a fact.