Sunday, May 19, 2019

Religion and Politics

Religion and Politics don’t mix…?
It is often said that religion and politics don’t mix.  Well, what a load of complete tosh that is!  But before I try to explain my reasoning – let’s start with a little bit of etymology. 

The word ‘religion’ comes from the Latin word ‘relegio’ – which means ‘re-connect’.  It’s the same root word from which Lego comes.  Think of that, the next time you are building an edifice of plastic bricks with a grandchild or child.  So ‘religion’ is the practice of ‘re-connecting’ ourselves to the divine source from which all life springs.  For Christians, that divine source is the originally Jewish concept of God.  But for others, its Allah, or Vishnu, or Mother Earth…or any other number of creative sources.  All religions have in common the idea that if we could just re-connect ourselves to the Love which brought us forth, our lives would be fuller, more complete, more worthwhile.

Politics is, of course, the business of the polis – another Latin word meaning ‘the people’.  It is ultimately about the way that we people choose to live together.  It’s about the framing of laws, and the distribution of the community’s wealth. It’s about caring for the vulnerable in our midst, and, in short, loving our neighbour as ourselves.

So, if religion is – at the core – about reconnecting ourselves to whatever God we perceive, and if politics is about the way that we connect ourselves to one another, we have a simple concept to hang our entire world-view upon.  It was a concept that Jesus expressed most clearly, but which is also common to every great religion.  It’s a concept which can be summed up in five words:  Love God. Love your neighbour.

Around the time of Jesus, there was another great teacher doing the rounds.  His name was Rabbi Hillel, and he was once, famously, challenged to stand on one leg and recite the entire law of God.  He accepted the challenge, stood on one leg, and said: “Love God, and love your neighbour as yourself.  All the rest is just commentary”.

When you think about it, the command to love our neighbour is a profoundly political statement.  Truly understood, it would radically reform the kind of nasty politics which we see around us so often these days.  You know the kind of politics I mean – the kind of politics which blames the homeless and the poor for their own misery, or blames the collapse of our financial system on immigrants. 

Margaret Thatcher knew that religion and politics belong together.  Which is why she famously quoted the words of St Francis of Assisi on the steps of No. 10 in 1979.  “Where there is discord, may we bring harmony. Where there is error, may we bring truth. Where there is doubt, may we bring faith. And where there is despair, may we bring hope’.  I know, it was rather cringy…but we perhaps all remember her entry to No 10 better than any other Prime Minister, before or since, because she had the courage to quote a religious text.

All of this is essentially my way of saying how delighted I am that one of the first things we do, in this Borough, after electing a new Mayor, is that we bring them to church!  For I believe, passionately, that any politics which divorces itself entirely from some form of religion is a poorer politics.  It’s something I believed when I worked as a Government advisor in the early years of this century.  And it’s something I continue to believe as a humble parish priest.

Party politics is essentially the battle of ideas.  It is the assertion of one group of people that their ideas about how the world should be are better than another group of people’s ideas.  The great religions of the world have often inspired politicians to rise beyond narrow party politics, and to embrace a fuller, wider, kinder sense of how the world should be.  A quick glance into history should remind us that it is religions which first inspired the idea of charity.  It remains one of the five pillars of Islam.  It is central to the teachings of the Buddha, and of course to the teachings of Jesus Christ.  

Religions were most often the founders of systems of healthcare, and education.  They were often flawed, sometimes rather narrow in their focus.  But the essential idea that all human beings should have the right to see a doctor, and chance to expand the mind is essentially a religious idea.  

Arguably, the state does a much better job of these things – not least because it has the resources to do so through taxation.  But let us never forget that charity, healthcare and education all arise out of the religious imperative to love our neighbour.

In fact, I would argue that we need more religion in our politics.  When we contemplate the various secular political systems under which we live, we find that we need religions to correct and steer.  All too easily we accept the mantras of secular gurus, without asking ourselves what religions might have to offer as an alternative view.

Take, for example, the concept of economic growth.  The success, or failure, of most modern politics is measured on the basis of GDP.  The stated aim of most western governments is to achieve economic growth of around 2% per year.  That doesn’t sound too bad, does it – until you realise that 2% growth over 10 years would equal 20%.  So we live with an economic model which believes that in 10 years’ time, we could – indeed should - use 20% more of the world’s resources.  Which is nuts, of course.

We find the concept of economic growth in the Scriptures too.  Many times, prophets promise the people that if they will obey God, their flocks will multiply, and their cattle increase.  But set against this are the imperatives of religion too.  Such growth, according to the Scriptures, will only be achieved by a people who give a tithe of all their wealth back to God, and who welcome the stranger, and care for the poor, the sick, the widow and the orphan.  This is a true blending of religion and politics.  Economic growth is achieved not on the backs of the poor, but as a result of generosity to the poor.

So, I’m delighted that in this Borough we continue the debate about religion and politics.  By appointing a Chaplain each year, you open yourselves to the possibility that whatever suspicions we might justifiably have about the motives of some religious people, religions themselves do still have the power to shape and mould our politics.  I yearn, as do most of us I suspect, for a kinder, more humane, more caring society.  And I pray that the interplay between our religion and our politics will continue to march towards such a goal.


Saturday, May 18, 2019

Radical New Life

Acts 11.1-18, Revelation 21.1-6, John 13.31-35

Radical New Life

I don’t know about you, but I am constantly amazed at how small my brain is.  My wife, on the other hand, is never surprised at how small my brain is – but that’s the burden she bears for living with me.  My brain feels especially small when I try to wrestle with some of the great issues of the day.  I find my mind reeling, for example, when I contemplate the complexities of the Brexit debate, or the climate emergency, or the problems of the Middle East.  Like most people, I find that if I get too deeply concerned with any of these issues, my mind goes round and round in a never-ending circle of worry.  For what can I do about any of them?  These problems are just too big for a bear of little brain (as Winnie-the-Pooh would say).

The same is often true of our encounters with Scripture.  At our first reading, today’s passages don’t appear to have any connection with each other, do they?  We have Peter’s amazing vision of a sheet of unclean animals being let down from heaven.  We have John’s profound vision of the new Jerusalem being let down from heaven, with promises of hope for all humankind.  Then we have Jesus, telling his disciples that the crucifixion he is about to endure is a kind of glorification, which they cannot share.  And a stern command that whatever happens to him, they must love each other.

My brain hurts!  So I imagine that some of yours do too!  Not all of you, of course.  Because some of you are much brainier than me.  But for those of us who are less well-endowed in the brain-cell department, here’s a little phrase that I find helps me at such times:

“What is plain, is main.  And what is main, is plain”.  It’s a pretty good maxim to apply to the reading of all Scripture.

So let’s apply that maxim to these three readings…and see what we can learn.

The main, plain point of the first reading can be summed up in the final line – “…God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to eternal life”.  Peter has been given a vision of all the things his Jewish culture considers ‘unclean’, with a stern warning that it is not his place to decide what is clean or not.  Or which foods are in, or out.  Or which kinds of people are in or out of God’s Kingdom. That’s God’s job.  And in these post-resurrection days, God is making it plain to Jewish Peter, that God’s Kingdom is meant for all humanity.  It is a radical message for one like Peter, brought up in a culture which believed that one could be made ritually ‘dirty’ by even touching the clothes of a non-Jew.  But God’s message is one of radical inclusion.  His message of love is for the whole world – wherever we come from, whatever our background, whoever we are.

Let’s see what is plain, and main, about the second reading.  Well, first of all, this is obviously the language of metaphor.  This is the Apostle John rising to the very heights of metaphorical allegory.  Rather like Tolkein did in the Lord of the Rings, or C.S.Lewis in Narnia, or even today’s script writers of the Game of Thrones.  John paints a picture of a glorious future in which God is experienced so closely, so intimately by us, that we can almost hear him say “See, the home of God is with mortals”.  John gives us the picture of a ‘New Jerusalem’ – a new ‘City of Peace…’Jeru---shalom’.  That is actually a picture of the Church.  We are called to live together in such a way that there will be no more mourning, or crying or pain – because of the way that we care for one another, the way that we love one another.

And that, finally, brings us to the Gospel reading.  How will the world recognise the reality of God? Quite simply, Jesus says, through experiencing the love of God through us.  Jesus says “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples…if you have love for another”.

So perhaps all this theology-stuff isn’t such a brain ache, after all.  Perhaps we just need to take Jesus at his word when he says that the essential message of the Kingdom, the distillation of all the Scriptures’ wisdom, can be summarised in five words:  Love God.  Love one another.

It was love which drove Jesus to the cross, for us.  It was love which is his ‘glorification’ (as he says in today’s Gospel).  It was God’s love which brought him back from the dead.  And it is God’s love which is the fuel in our tank, the energy at our core, the impetus that drives us to create a new City of Peace – a new Jeru-shalom.

What might our branch of that Church look like, if we completely, radically, enthusiastically embraced that message of love?  Well, from today’s readings alone, I think we can draw out some pretty fine examples.

First – we would be a radically inclusive community.  We would be a group of people who include everyone who walks through our doors, wherever they come from, whatever they’ve done, wherever they are going.  That’s the plain, main message of the reading from Acts.  And, I want to say, it’s something I recognise in this community.  We are a pretty odd assortment of backgrounds, aren’t we?  But could we do more?  Could we be still more radically inclusive…to the young, for example, or to the homeless, or to those of other cultures, or those struggling with mental health issues.  I wonder.

Secondly, we would be a community in which there is no more mourning, or crying, or pain – because the kind of love we show to one another would wipe the tears of the lonely, the housebound, the dying.  I wonder whether this is something we could do more about.  Our list of housebound and lonely people is ever growing, and it is frankly beyond our current capacity to tackle.  Is there something you could do to help?  Could you commit to an hour a week, or an hour a fortnight, to spend time in the home of one our housebound or sick parishioners.  The fields are ripe unto the harvest….but the labourers are few at the moment.  If this is something you feel you could so, let me encourage you to speak to Sandra after the service.  She would love to add just a few names to our small list of pastoral visitors.

Thirdly, and finally, we would be a community in which the love we bear for each other, and for God, would be so real, so present, so inescapable, that everyone we encounter would know that we are God’s disciples.  The way we welcome people, the way we love them, the way we include them – all this speaks of the welcoming, loving, including God whom we serve.

That, when all is said and done, is the plain, main message of our Scriptures today.  And it’s the plain, main message of the Gospel too.  We, who live in the light of Easter, are the people of Love.  Amen.