Sunday, January 11, 2015

Four lessons from Charlie Ebdo

The attack on Charlie Hebdo, including the murder of two police officers, was both a horrible crime and a reprehensible assault on the most basic of freedoms – free speech. However offensive Charlie Hebdo’s publications might have been (and were intended to be) there could never be any basis for such wickedness and violence. The incident has been the subject of wide-ranging debate covering political, security and religious issues.  Many of the problems are longstanding, complex and seemingly intractable – in other words way beyond the capacity of a blog to deal with. There are, however, a number of observations that can be made in reflecting on Charlie Ebdo from a Christian vantage point.

1.       Freedom of Speech is a declaration of Christian faith
Historically Western freedom of expression has often been summed up by Voltaire’s famous maxim: "I do not agree with what you have to say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it.” It is a principle that allows for disagreement, debate and objection – but rejects censorship and repression. Such a premise is really only morally permissible, however, because of the Christian confidence that good ideas will prevail over bad ideas. It is why Christians, who although claiming custody of Truth, can tolerate other points of views - because ultimately they believe God Himself will vindicate that which is right and expose that which is false.

It is thus a hallmark of Biblical faith to leave the final verdict on such matters in the hands of God – ‘the day will declare it’. Insecurity in faith, on the other hand, is typically marked out by the need to attack and coerce opponents into agreement now. As one radio journalist so starkly expressed it when interviewing a militant Islamic leader some years ago, ‘Surely the eternal fires of hell are punishment enough for infidels: why do you need to kill them now?’ It was a question that went to the heart of what real faith convictions look like. Muslim violence, or indeed Christian expressions of vilification, towards faith opponents simply suggests that those perpetrating such acts fear, deep down, that they might not be proved to be right in the end.

So Christians can uphold the freedom of Charlie Ebdo to ridicule and mock religion, not because such actions are commendable, nor because it is the price to be paid to ensure freedom of speech for all – but because defending Charlie Ebdo is a profound declaration that they actually believe in the God they profess.

2.       Secular media hypocrisy
Bryan Barkley expelled from
the Red Cross after 20 years
of volunteering for opposing SSM. 
Much of the secular media on the other hand have demonstrated a deep hypocrisy in this matter.  The reaction of journalists has been shock and outrage at this attack on freedom of speech – feelings heightened of course by being the victim in this instance. The many media expressions of protest against this attempt to intimidate and suppress free speech, are of course quite right, but would have more moral authority if not for their own inconsistency in this area. That is, our ostensibly liberal media have a track record of not defending the right of free speech for those out of step with their own approved viewpoints. We live a country where people have lost their jobs, been demoted and generally bullied for expressing non-violent and moderate opposition to Same Sex Marriage – but we hear of no media consternation at such practises. Indeed it is the fear of negative media comment that often drives and encourages such draconian reactions.

The inconsistency extends to our politicians – Holyrood, which refused to include a respect clause for those with religious and conscience-based reservations on the issue of Same Sex Marriage, has no doubt sent its message of condemnation about this attack on freedom of speech to the French people.

It would be heartening to believe that the media might become champions not just of their own freedom to question and dissent but also of those with non PC views. The likelihood of course is that Charlie Ebdo will quickly become yesterday’s news – and the media will revert back to its previous partiality.

3.       The hellishness of twisted religion
During the Rochdale Child Sex scandal one silhouetted girl described her experiences being trafficked around by the gang using her for sex. She mentioned in the passing that the men gave her crisps, but only Cheese & Onion, as meat flavoured crisps might be non-Halal. It was a detail that revealed the hellishness of twisted religion. The very idea that there might be a god in heaven who would be more concerned about the flavouring in your crisps than about trafficking under-age girls for sex is beyond damnable. Such perversions can happen in any religion of course – sadly Christianity has not been immune from its own distortions. Too often the trappings of Christianity have become more precious to its proponents than its message - its religious robes elevated above righteousness.

Such misuses point to the sinfulness endemic in humanity – a world in which good things are frequently misused for evil purposes (whether medicines, the internet, or indeed free speech). Some will seek to use Charlie Ebdo as the proof that all religions and expressions of Faith are dangerous and nasty; a position no more credible than suggesting the Labour party will inevitability result in Stalinism, or that the RSPCA is just a breeding ground for anti-vivisectionist criminals. The answer of course to all such misuse and extremism is not non-use but correction and right use.

4.      The Contrast of The Cross
It is why the Bible is such a challenging book – because it relentlessly confronts such misuses, starting ‘at home’. Israel was fiercely held to account by the prophets for its misuse of faith, its hypocrisy, its neglect of the poor and its tendency to substitute outward religious observance for loving God and their neighbours. Jesus explicitly banned His followers from using violence in order to defend or promote Him (Matthew 26:52). Those who follow Jesus are to be those who love their enemies and who bless those who curse them. The New Testament makes it painfully clear that Christianity is not a faith for those seeking worldly power, advancement or status: rather it is a faith most fully expressed in weakness, turning the other cheek and putting others first.
The glory of Christianity is that at its centre is one whose response to His enemies – to those who abused him, mocked him, slandered him – was not retaliation but to lay his life down for them. Even on the Cross, his response to his executioners was to pray that they might be forgiven. Despite His innocence, and even his divinity, he was content to entrust himself to the one who judges righteously (1 Peter 2:23).

The final word on all the issues surrounding Charlie Ebdo is still to be pronounced and it will be God’s – who knows all hearts, all truth, and judges with absolute justice. For now it stands as a warning against insecure faith, double standards and twisted religion. But it also points us to the astonishing grace and wonder of the Gospel – a man dying for his foes that they might be blessed. 

Friday, January 02, 2015

God's love: unfathomable not perverse

Hogmanay Message at Greenview EC 

You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But 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! 10 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! 11 Not only is this so, but we also boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.
Romans 5
2014, like every year before it, proved again that the only certainty in this world is that life is fragile. Whether Ebola, terrorism, war, getting on a plane, playing cricket or just going Christmas shopping in Glasgow – in a moment, out of nowhere, lives can be turned upside down. Hopes, dreams and plans snatched away.

We hate uncertainty – it’s debilitating, at worst paralysing. It’s why as individuals and as a society we invest hugely in order to eradicate it and guard against it. Some of those efforts are good and constructive – Health & Safety, Insurance. Some are just futile and wasteful – checking a horoscope or buying a Lottery ticket. Either way underpinning all such attempts is the deep human desire to find security, and to base our lives on something dependable.

This is no less true spiritually – although for most people that is a ‘hole’ the try to fill with all the wrong stuff. A deep spiritual emptiness won’t be filled with material possessions any more than a sieve will be filled with water. However, even for the Christian the reassurance of spiritual security (i.e. the deep confidence of being at peace with God, forgiven and under His loving care) can be lacking. Sadly, all too often the experience of Christians is one of doubt, worry and fear in their sense of spiritual well-being.

Rolling back the years
You see when a person becomes a Christian – that is, recognises their sin and need to be forgiven, recognises that Jesus is the Son of God who on the Cross made forgiveness possible, recognises that they need to say sorry to God and put their life back where it should always have been, under God’s rule – it is typically an experience of joy. There is the excitement of being a friend of God now. There is relief that a fresh start in life has been granted - a chance to do things God’s way and leave the floundering of the past behind.

But the years pass and some of the old sinful traits and behaviours can seem hard to shake off. Faith inevitably begins to feel familiar rather than fresh. A strange thing happens: you start to become even more sensitive and aware of your sinful inadequacies – so rather than receding over time your failures seem all the more inexcusable and damming. Subtly and stealthily joy gets replaced with anxiety, confidence with introspection, and hope with fear. The Christian walk once so invigorating, morphs into the uneasy sensation of straining God’s goodwill and tiptoeing along the edge of His rejection.  

Non-deductible love
It is the scenario for which Romans 5 was written. The reminder of God’s non-deductible love. It is the reminder that God knows every one of your sins and failures even better than you do. He even knows about the sins you haven’t yet clocked onto – those attitudes and perceptions that you are think are fine and normal but actually leave much to be desired. He knows you fall far short of the person he saved you in Christ to be. He knows all your nonsense – all of it.

But you know what, even when it was far worse than that, far worse than it is now – He loved you. He loved you when you cared not to give God any great honour in your life. He loved you when you had no real care or concern about Jesus.  He loved you when sin was easy and failure and faithfulness caused you no great worry. You see, while we were still sinners (that is, not saints – not Christians) Christ died for us (v6).

This is remarkable – we might put ourselves on the line for a friend or a nice guy. But Jesus gave up His life for the intransigent, the hard-hearted and the utterly ungrateful. He didn’t wait for signs of improvement, for a bit of appreciation or even to be asked. He loved them so much He sacrificed Himself for them when none of the above were ‘on the table’.

This great assurance of these verses is this: now you’ve been saved, now you are a follower of Jesus Christ – albeit an ever so imperfect one; now that sin does bother you; now you are grateful to God and thankful for His grace; now that you at least try and make an effort to please him some of the time and wish you were someone who did all of the time – do you think that God will now love you less?

Unfathomable not perverse
God’s love for us is unfathomable – but it’s not perverse. He isn’t going to love you less for caring a bit as opposed to not caring at all!

If Jesus died to open up the way for you to be forgiven, changed and saved – do you think having gone through that, and having begun His work in you, there is any chance that He will now get fed up with you and turn frosty?

The Cross is the great historical and tangible proof that you can never be too much of a failure, too much of a loser, or too great a sinner for God to love you. Because the hope of the Gospel is not in us now – but in Jesus then, now and forever. Whatever happens in 2015, God’s love in Jesus, for those trusting in Him, is certain. This truth about God’s love is the ultimate security – the bond and relationship that nothing can sever.

It is a reality to give us confidence – to allow us to enjoy our blessings, use our gifts and celebrate our faith. It tells us to leave our sins and failures where they belong – at the Cross. It is the invitation to live as free men & women – liberated, hopeful and confident that God is for us and will be with us no matter what.  

31 What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all – how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?33 Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. 34 Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died – more than that, who was raised to life – is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? 36 As it is written:
‘For your sake we face death all day long;
    we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.’
37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Romans 8 (NIV)