It’s bizarre, for anyone over 30, to see people such as Peter Tatchell, Stephen Fry and Germaine Greer being ostracised by the movements that they helped to create. Why are students ‘no platforming’ these people? In the latest case, with Tatchell, it was purely because he supported the principle of free speech. I offer some reasons why this trend might be happening, in a piece for Christian Today.
I write this knowing that there’ll be very few who read my opinion, compared to the millions for your recent tirade against God. Apart from the Pope, or perhaps Bono… even learned and accomplished believers get little coverage compared to you and Dawkins and all of the other famous celebrity atheists. You have an awful lot of power. Somehow The Archbishop of Canterbury doesn’t seem to go viral, he seems a nice man but he’s just not got the street cred I suppose. Most of the believers who get the headlines are the nasties like Westboro Baptist Church, and they’re about as representative of Christians as Stalin and his cronies are of atheists.
As many of my learned friends have pointed out, your anger against God assumes that this world is the way he designed it to be. But it’s not, if we take a Christian view on the subject. It doesn’t take much reading of the Bible to see that the God described in those pages is not very happy with the world as it is. In fact when he’s most angry, in the much maligned Old Testament, then God’s raging about the lack of compassion for people in poverty, the murdering of children in pagan blood sacrifices or just plain selfishness and hate. Most clearly in Jesus’ teachings, you can see clearly that God wants people to care for one another, not to be greedy etc. Yet, we ignore him.
The problems you cite in your rant on RTE – as with most of the suffering of the world – could be alleviated, if not eradicated, if human beings chose to love. (Not the fickle, randy, romantic kind of love that is usually what’s counted as ‘love’ these days, but the agape, compassionate, caring kind of love that Jesus talks about.) How? Well, we could be giving our money to the care of those children turned blind by worms, rather than spending it on nice meals out, posh clothes or sunny holidays. We could be adopting the orphans and tending to the sick kids – spending all our time caring for them rather than all the ‘leisure’ activities that us Westerners love so much. We could be studying for the ultimate purpose of relieving suffering and treating illness rather than just the learning for enjoyment’s sake that we tend to do – or the learning we do to make ourselves sound clever and be admired, even worse. We could be spending as little money as possible on ourselves, in order that we can give it to others. In short, we could be living lives of pure love, and focusing all of our time and energy on relieving the suffering of others. But, we don’t. You and I, Stephen Fry, do not do that. Even the people I know who do a much better at it than I do, still obviously fail at it on a regular basis.
This, according to the Bible, is why God is angry. He doesn’t want it to be this way, because he loves us. He created a world that was meant to be good, where humans were meant to love one another. But, we were given free will. We have many choices that we make each day, that could make the world a better place. They involve more than just giving a fraction of our handsome surplus or of our time to our favourite charity – it involves genuine sacrifice of our whole lives for the sake of others.
We’ve been given that responsibility. And most of us have it in our power to do something about it, however small that something is. If everyone used their little bit of power for love’s sake, then most of the evil in the world would either be stopped at source, or at least alleviated. It’s no use shouting at God for the evil we claim he is responsible for. He’s given us the power and the free will, to make things different. And we choose not to do that. Heaven is the place where what God wants is done perfectly, not here. He’s given us the reins while we’re on Earth, and we’re doing a hopeless job of being in charge.
Jesus was pretty clear, when he was asked by a rich young man how to be good enough get to heaven. He said, we’re to give all our money up for the poor – to the people who are genuinely suffering. The rich young man was sad, as I suppose we would be too, if told we had to give up our comfortable, Western lives, to help those who are suffering today.
His disciples were too. But thankfully, Jesus had more to say – “nothing is impossible with God”. Christianity is not about us being good enough, but instead recognising that God is good enough. That’s pretty good news given the very clear reality that there’s no-one who’s perfect in this world – no-one who is giving up everything for the sole purpose of genuine self-sacrificial love of others. It says that Jesus saw this problem, and decided to take on the negative consequences of all our selfishness so that we can be free of it. If we choose to, we can accept this free gift, accept our own responsibility for the problems of the world and say sorry to God for this – and then learn from Him how to love better, love more, and relieve suffering. But we have to recognise that we can only do this, by turning to God, for his leadership and his love. On our own, we just don’t manage it.
Now you might say, with good reason, that the church is not presenting this utopia to the world. We’re not the perfect houses of love that we’re meant to be. That’s very true. There are some pretty irritating and occasionally nasty people within church walls – such as myself, I would say. But I came from a very typical liberal, secular culture and then moved into the church after I became a Christian as an adult. No, it’s not perfect, but when you find a genuine church that is truly seeking to follow Christ, then you do start to see something a little bit different. You see glimpses of the way the world is meant to be. Not a window, but just glimpses. A drug addict who has been healed and now has a happy family and is holding down a job. A church rallying round a mum whose disabled daughter and poorly husband have left her exhausted. People who give up well paid and powerful jobs in order to go and practically help the suffering in other countries. Those who suffered terrible abuse as a child who find peace through faith, and start to give their lives to help others. These are glimpses of heaven, and of the way the world is meant to be. Sometimes those glimpses are seen outside the church, it’s true, but in my lifetime I’ve most often seen self-sacrificial love within the church. It’s not a wishy-washy, State-dependent, ranty, political kind of ‘love’, either (though there is quite a bit of that too, to be fair, it not being perfect). There’s a ‘taking on of responsibility’ kind of love, making things happen with our own hands and not blaming the government or whoever else for the problems. It’s recognising the massive responsibility that has been given to humans to choose. To choose whether to obey God’s commands for genuine love and to avoid greed and suchlike – or not. To choose his way, his redemption, or not.
So, when you get to the Pearly Gates, you rage to God all you want to. I suspect what he might say to you or I, or anyone who chooses to start wagging their fingers at him: “And what about you? What did YOU do with the money, time, gifts and relationships that you had? Did you love others or did you love yourself and your own desires? Did you follow Jesus’s instructions for making the world a better place, or not?”
I think that we’re living in this world where God’s will is not done, to see whether we want to live in the world where his will IS done – heaven. There, is pure joy and pure love, with no greed or selfishness at all. If you don’t want to follow his way of love – loving God, loving people, and recognising that the world’s problems are our fault and saying sorry for that – it’s your choice. But you might find out that who you should really be angry with, is not God, but yourself, myself, and everyone else.
It was great to see so many people out marching for Climate change around the world last weekend. It’s always good to see a community getting together for a common cause. But will it change anything? I doubt it. Governments already know that a significant minority of their populations are concerned about climate change. What will really change the situation is not going on marches, but changing the way we live.
And, encouragingly for Christians, this way of living is laid out pretty clearly in the Bible. In fact, even if you don’t believe in climate change, if you want to take the Bible seriously, you’ve to live a life that is in agreement with the greenest and most right-on environmental protesters.
Why? Well, anything that is producing carbon and going into the atmosphere, is related to consumption. It’s caused by money, or more to the point, it’s caused by some people having too much money and greed. It’s now the norm for our culture to be going off on foreign holidays via plane, even twice a year, having two cars, changing technology every few months, eating vegetables that were flown from the other side of the world. And what makes all this possible? Having too much cash, and then choosing to spend it on ourselves rather than on helping others. This is a lifestyle that we’re all caught up in in the West, and dealing with it is a lot harder than going on a march. Our societies need root and branch reform, and the Bible is the best place to start. I think this passage is key to the issue:
“Yet true godliness with contentment is itself great wealth. After all, we brought nothing with us when we came into the world, and we can’t take anything with us when we leave it. So if we have enough food and clothing, let us be content.
But people who long to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many foolish and harmful desires that plunge them into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. And some people, craving money, have wandered from the true faith and pierced themselves with many sorrows.” 1 Tim 6:6-10
How true this Bible quote is. Greed, and the lust for entertainment, stuff, activity and fashion, has lulled us into this situation, where the world’s resources are scarce and we’re wasting them on consumer goods and leisure rather than investing them into people and the planet. We have a model in Jesus, who was so low-impact that he didn’t even have his own house (Luke 9:58). We’re told to be stewards of the Earth and all the living things in it (Gen 1:28). When we think of Matt 25 we normally remember that those who go to eternal punishment are those who have not helped the sick, the imprisoned and the hungry. But Rev 11:18 also points out that those who destroy the earth will be in this group. So if we’re God’s people, then we’ll be caring for people and caring for the Earth too.
Breaking our addiction to consumption, cars, boys toys and all the trappings of the modern world will take a long time. In the same way as an addiction to crack or alcohol, it takes Jesus to fill the hole that the addiction leaves and repair the damage. This in and of itself will direct our attention from entertainment and buying stuff, towards helping others and loving Creation, in all its beautiful variety. We’ll not be working every hour God gives us, but working fewer hours because we’ll need less money: truly we’ll be serving God and not filthy lucre (Matt 6:24). We’ll have more time for our friends and family, and serving our community, even putting on dinner parties for the lost and broken (Luke 14:13). We’ll be able to give away the money we do have to good causes.
I can hear the mini-me Richard Dawkins of the twitter world howling in outrage at what I’ve just said, thinking of the gas-guzzling SUVs and private jets of certain parts of the Christian community, especially in America. But it’s not our job to shout at them, it’s our job to lead by example. And perhaps we need to get the log out of our own eye, before we can help others get the speck out of theirs (Matt 7:3-5). We need more than shifting to a green tariff, reusing plastic bags and buying recycled paper, to get the almighty, rotten trunk out of our own eyes.
Living a life worthy of that 1 Tim passage, and to be content with just having enough food and clothing to survive, is radically different from our Western culture. But as the ancient monks and nuns discovered, it can leave more space for what’s really good, and what’s really God. After all, it’s His Earth, not ours.