30 September 2014

Brush up your New Testament Greek

I recently decided that I needed to brush up my New Testament Greek and, largely because I haven’t studied 1 John for some considerable time, I decided to work my way slowly through 1 John in Greek. Imagine my delight when I discovered that Robert Plummer of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary has just begun a series of short videos translating a verse of 1 John from Greek to English every day. If you fancy brushing up your Greek in this way, you can sign up for daily email reminders here.

03 September 2014

The churches and the referendum 4: Better together?

Christian basis for unity

In the previous set of notes I suggested that Christianity lends support to cultural diversity and thus indirectly to nationalism. But, at the same time, it proclaims the fundamental unity of all human beings. This is evident from the creation stories of Genesis 1–11, which present all human races as descended from the family of Noah and behind that from Adam and Eve.

This fundamental unity is reiterated by the New Testament with its insistence that Christ has broken down the barriers between Jews and Gentiles. Look particularly at Acts 10; Galatians 3:27–28; and Ephesians 2:11–22. In light of these passages, how would you assess the relative importance of human unity and national identity?

Living with multiple identities

Christianity emerged and thrived in an era of large centralized multi-ethnic empires (e.g. Roman Empire; Neo-Persian Empire; Chinese Empire). Being a member of the dominant race of one of these empires was often socially advantageous. However, the other member races were still fully part of the empire: the different races retained their distinctive traditions and even languages, but also saw themselves as citizens of the empire (in the case of Rome, this was aided by the Roman tendency to assimilate local religions into the Roman pantheon).

The Jewish nation was exceptional in that its monotheistic religion was extremely resistant to assimilation. At the time of Christ, Judea was a hotbed of unrest because of this resistance. It was widely expected that God’s Messiah would be a supernatural general who would overthrow Roman power and inaugurate a divine kingdom based on ethnic identity.

Some of Jesus’ disciples shared this expectation (e.g. Simon the Zealot) and even after his resurrection, some still saw the kingdom in nationalistic terms (Acts 1:6). However, that expectation was contradicted by both Jesus’ ministry and the subsequent development of Christianity within the Empire.

The example of Paul (Acts 16:36–39; 22:25–29) is instructive. He is clearly happy to exploit advantages afforded by his Roman citizenship. Elsewhere he plays on his Jewish heritage (2 Corinthians 11:22; Philippians 3:4–6) and commends identification with the local culture for the sake of promoting the gospel (1 Corinthians 9:19–23). In view of these passages, how do you think Paul understood the relationship between his Jewish ethnicity and his Roman citizenship? And how does he relate both of these to his identity as a Christian?

Union as the status quo position

Scotland has been a more or less willing member of the UK for three centuries. This is the status quo position. It follows that it is up to the ‘Yes’ campaign to make the case for independence. As indicated earlier, from a Christian perspective, such a case can’t simply be about material well-being. Among the things they might do to be persuasive to Christians is present clear evidence that:

  • the current relationship is exploitative 
  • continuing the Union will implicate us in immoral or illegal behaviour (e.g. unsustainable environmental practices or abrogation of international human rights legislation) 
But, in addition, they would need to argue that the democratic process in the UK is not strong enough to bring about significant change in the above.

Responsible Christian engagement with referendum

We must recognize how the referendum differs from a general election:
  • It is an irreversible, long-term decision. Another independence referendum is unlikely for many years. 
  • It is not party political. Therefore, we should not make our decision simply based on our usual political loyalty. 
  • A ‘yes’ vote implies major changes in the cultural, social and political life of Britain (not just Scotland). 
  • A ‘no’ vote implies acceptance of the political status quo and current long-term political trends. 
  • Either way, it is the most important political decision we are likely to make in our lifetimes. 
Therefore
  • We must think and pray very seriously about the issues. 
  • We have a duty to read the news headlines and the partisan propaganda of the ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ campaigns critically. 
  • We must set aside our own self-interest. 
  • Having assessed the arguments on both sides, we must ask which option is more likely to create a society that better approximates Christian virtues. 
  • And we must vote one way or the other on 18th September. 

02 September 2014

The churches and the referendum 3: Can anything good come out of nationalism?

What does nationalism mean to you?

Nationalism has not had a good press in the past century or so. Examples include Zionism vs Palestinian nationalism; Ukrainian vs Russian nationalism. What other examples can you think of? What characteristics do these examples suggest? 


Most of the examples that come easily to mind involve ethnic differences. Most of the nationalisms of the past century have been forms of ethnic nationalism and have been at best divisive, at worst xenophobic and militaristic. Can nationalism exist without defining itself against an Other?

Perhaps the most obvious example of a nationalism that is not rooted in ethnic difference is the civic nationalism of the USA. (And it is this form of nationalism that the ‘Yes’ campaign claims to espouse.)

Biblical basis for cultural diversity

Genesis offers an explanation of the origin of cultural diversity in the form of the myth of Babel (Genesis 11:1–9). In this myth, God’s imposition of a multitude of languages is presented as a judgement on the arrogance of the tower builders.

However, the New Testament sees cultural diversity in a different light. Look at the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19–20) and particularly the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1–11). Taken together, do these passages suggest that one culture/language is superior to another? Or do they suggest that all cultures are equally good? In light of these passages, how should we view different cultures?

Christianity at the roots of nationalism?

In contrast to many other religions (notably Judaism, Islam and Hinduism), Christianity can be translated from one culture to another. Being a Christian does not require us to adopt a particular culture. On the contrary, every culture can be a vehicle for the gospel.

The collapse of medieval society saw the translation of the Bible into local languages (e.g. Luther’s Bible in Germany). Arguably, this strengthened the sense of national identity in the language groups affected. A similar process has been discerned as one of the factors that drove African nationalisms in the early twentieth century.

In Britain, King James VI/I harnessed this power by commissioning the KJV: a vernacular Bible one of whose purposes was to shape a united British identity for the subjects of his two realms of England and Scotland.

Since the Reformation, churches have played a role in shaping national identity in spite of other aspects of the gospel. Think of the national Lutheran churches in Scandinavia and the Baltic States or the Orthodox churches in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. In the British Isles, the persistence of very different church traditions in spite of King James’s efforts to unite them has been a significant factor in maintaining distinct English and Scottish identities.

What should independence be about from a Christian perspective?

  • Material well-being? But this should not be a priority for Christians.
  • Ethnic identity? But being Christian relativizes all other identities. Christianity is opposed to any political ideology based on separation or exclusion. 
  • Self-determination? Recent Christian social teaching has emphasized that decision-making should be as close to the people affected by the decisions as possible.
  • Opportunity to reform Scotland? This is the promise of the ‘Yes’ campaign (with regard to equality, compassion, hospitality, environment, being nuclear free); it sounds at least superficially good from a Christian perspective. But is the UK currently incapable of reform in these ways?

01 September 2014

The churches and the referendum 2: A godly commonwealth?

Inspired by Calvin’s Geneva, the Church of Scotland’s vision for our nation was the creation of a godly commonwealth. In Scotland, the church became the conscience of the nation. Working in parallel with government, it was the main agent of education, the main provider of social welfare, and it policed the morals of the nation (sometimes heavy-handedly). The same vision lay behind Cromwell’s Commonwealth, the only fully-fledged British example of a political system dominated by a Christian agenda.
Also inspired by Calvinism (and latterly by Catholic social teaching), the various European Christian Democratic parties successfully wedded the vision of a godly commonwealth to democratic politics. Today most of these parties tend to be Christian in name rather than by conviction, but their founders’ legacy is seen in their social conservatism and economic progressivism.

Biblical visions of society

  • Look at Acts 2:44–48. The earliest Christians respond to Pentecost by beginning to model a new kind of society, one in which all possessions were held in common. 
  • Look at Revelation 21:9–22:5. The Bible’s concluding vision is of a city. In what ways does this city differ from today’s cities? 

Responsible Christian citizenship
  • Look again at Jeremiah 29:4–7. What do you understand by ‘seeking the welfare of the city’? 
  • Look at Matthew 5:13–16. What is meant by being salt of the earth and light of the world? [Think of the cleansing properties of salt and the role of light in revealing/uncovering truth (cf. John 1:4–5, 9).] 
A note on ‘peace’ 

The Old Testament (and hence the New Testament) view of peace is much broader than the modern negative sense of ‘absence of war/violence’. Its root meaning is wholeness – for individuals, society and the entire world. So the peace we are called to pray and work for involves social and ecological justice, harmony and well-being throughout society.

How have Christians worked this out in practice? 

The period since the foundation of the church is littered with examples of Christians actively influencing society around them in a positive way. For example, from its earliest days the church has been involved in famine relief and caring for the poor; by the fourth century it was setting up hospitals; in the Middle Ages it was the sole provider of education. What other examples can you think of?

In light of the above considerations is there any place for a distinctive Christian voice in party politics?

Responsible Christian engagement in society:
  • Making the best of the political situation we find ourselves in 
  • Seeking/praying for the peace of the city 
  • Being salt and light: Where we can influence society for good, we should do so by voting, participating, good works, activism (political or otherwise). 
  • What about deliberate disobedience of unjust authority?