On Nationalisms, Christian, Scottish, and British

Can ‘nationalism’ ever be Christian? Brian Stanley has recently answered that question negatively in a blog for the Edinburgh Centre for World Christianity. He defines nationalism as ‘the elevation of one’s own nation over all others’, which I suspect many who call themselves nationalists would not recognise as an account of their position. He rightly highlights, however, that the two presently-plausible outcomes of the present Westminster election both involve a nationalist party holding some measure of the balance of power: If the polls are even close to correct, and if they do not shift significantly in the next thirteen days, then it seems that a Labour minority government, relying on the support of a large SNP block, and perhaps also the Liberal Democrats, is the most likely outcome. There is essentially no chance of a Conservative majority, or even of the current coalition having enough seats to govern, so a right-of-centre alliance is very likely to be dependent on support from UKIP. Further, today’s ‘English manifesto’ went some considerable way to defining the Conservatives as an English nationalist party that has essentially given up on Scotland and Wales, particularly in its repudiation of the Smith Commission. Is there more, theologically, to be said for nationalisms? I think so; the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics in Cambridge do excellent work, and their resource material in the run-up to the election has been a wonderful example of intellectually-serious non-partisan Christian engagement. The most recent (as I type) example caught my eye: Adrian Hilton’s offer of ‘a plausible ethical perspective’ on a Christian preference for UKIP. Hilton’s language is more colourful than I find comfortable (‘Ukip becomes an army of protestants, defending British national culture and traditions from the latest threat to emerge from Rome’; umm, no…), but his basic argument is worth reflection: he highlights a real problem with a democratic deficit in EU decision making (a problem that, as I see it, is nationalistic in origin: the member states will not surrender power, and so important decisions are made by the council of ministers, not in the parliament); and suggests, essentially, that a revival of traditional English anti-Catholicism will be the solution. If there is to be a Protestant defence of UKIP’s English nationalism, I accept that this is the best line available. That said, my basic response is this: I find it unconvincing, for exactly the same reasons that I found Doug Gay’s arguments in defence of Scottish nationalism in his (excellent) book Honey from the Lion eventually unconvincing. Now, I know enough of Gay’s politics, and can guess enough of Hilton’s, to appreciate that neither will be at all grateful for the comparison. Further, there is an unpleasant and unworthy Unionist line in Scottish politics at the moment trying to link the SNP to UKIP, which I have no desire to give any support to. UKIP stand well to the right of the mainstream of British politics, and propose positions that to my mind are reprehensible; if I find the SNP’s current self-presentation as the standard-bearers of progressive politics somewhat unconvincing, particularly given their record in office in Holyrood, I nonetheless of course accept that they are essentially a party of the centre-left; I would rather they were rather more to the left, but that is finally a difference of emphasis not of direction. That said, and this is my point, both pieces of writing assume that the a Christian defence of their position requires a defence of the ethical possibility of nationalism; that nationalism is properly applied to Scotland on the one hand or the UK on the other is almost taken as a given. (This is somewhat unfair to Gay’s book-length treatment, but the weight is certainly in this direction; he perhaps relies on others’ constructions of ‘Scottishness’ – I have on my shelf Storrar, who is important to Gay, judging by the references, and Smith.) I have commented before in public that I have essentially no instinctive sense of national identity; I do not say this either as a boast, or as a confession; it is just who I am – a fairly peripatetic childhood (all, however, within England) might be the reason. I found the referendum campaign odd, in that I had neither the instinctive sense of ‘Scotland’ that fired the core nationalist vote nor the instinctive sense of ‘Britain’ that drove the core unionist vote. (And I think the ‘Yes’ campaign was much better run precisely because it understood that some of us who had a vote were in this position, and so it offered appeals beyond gut-level nationalism, something only Gordon Brown, late in the day, really managed on the ‘No’...

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Faith in faith and valuing values? Reflecting on David Cameron’s Easter message

The Prime Minister has issued an ‘Easter message’, which makes for interesting reading. It has rather less (that is, no) reference to cross, resurrection, or indeed the name of Jesus than I suppose is normal in Easter messages; The claim that ‘Easter is all about remembering the importance of change, responsibility, and doing the right thing for the good of our children’ might raise more than a few eyebrows; Easter always used to be all about ‘the death of death in the death of Christ’ (to borrow what is possibly John Owen’s only truly memorable line). My friend Danny Webster has blogged on this, and I pretty much agree with everything he says. I cannot imagine any positive reception for this piece; Mr Cameron has (once again) proved himself simply tone-deaf to the concerns of the Christian community (I am told he is similarly blind to the concerns of the Muslim community). I say that not as a complaint – I do not have any right to demand a Prime Minister who is interested in my faith commitment – but as a matter of surprise; if I were running for office in a democracy, and there was a group of organisations that claimed the serious allegiance of about 7-8% of the voters, I would either make sure I understood how to speak to them, or at least had people around me to check my words and give me advice. He draws attention to the enshrining in law of the 0.7% of GDP overseas aid budget and to the modern slavery bill, two good things for which his administration does deserve credit; I suspect churches that are involved in foodbanks and debt counselling services (which most of us are, one way or another) might struggle more with the claim ‘I am proud that despite the pressure on public spending, we made clear choices to help the … most vulnerable in society’. That said, I find the piece interesting and worthy of comment because it displays a particular type of common contemporary liberal piety, which is not only wrong but positively dangerous. He starts with a recognition that is valuable, and deserves to be remembered more often: ‘As Prime Minister, I’m in no doubt about the matter: the values of the Christian faith are the values on which our nation was built.’ Yes; absolutely. He then moves on to defend the importance of faith in British society: ‘I’m an unapologetic supporter of the role of faith in this country … I’m a big believer in the power of faith to forge a better society.’ He then makes a point which I agree with entirely, but which I interpret rather differently: strong faith makes people act. Mr Cameron says ‘…faith is a massive inspiration for millions of people to go out and make a positive difference.’ OK, but I want to think about the word ‘positive’, or at least to suggest that ‘faith’ is also an inspiration for other people – fewer, I hope – to go out and make a very negative difference. Then we turn to that wonderful contemporary idea, ‘values’: ‘in the end we are all guided by the lights of our own reason … this government has consistently taken decisions which are based on fundamental principles and beliefs.’ Well, yes; as Danny said, ‘everything we do is based on some sort of fundamental principle and belief’. And that includes the bad things as well as the good things. I think that celebrating ‘faith’ and valuing ‘values’ is dangerous. Strong faith makes people act, and if their faith is deformed, so will their action be. The Anglicans who condemned Elizabeth Gaunt to be burnt alive for being a Baptist were people of faith, acting according to their values; the German Christians who supported the rise of Hitler were people of faith, acting according to their values; the members of Westborough Baptist Church who picket funerals with their homophobic ‘God hates fags’ posters are people of faith, acting according to their values. (I criticise my own tradition; other faith traditions are, obviously, not immune.) ‘Values’ are not necessarily good; some are, but some are not. Faith is a powerful motivator to action, but that makes it particularly dangerous if it is misplaced. Faith well-placed will inspire heroic and sacrificial action. When Mr Cameron says ‘[a]cross the country, we have tens of thousands of fantastic faith-based charities. Every day they’re performing minor miracles in local communities.’ I know that he is right; I know many people who work for these charities, and some of the visionaries who have started them; I know in some cases just how much they risked to follow the calling of God...

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On repentance, forgiveness, and the Church of the Second Chance

My friend Natalie Collins wrote a piece a few weeks ago for the (excellent) preachweb.org site responding to an earlier piece by Martin Saunders; both reflect on how a preacher might deal with the simmering news story concerning the footballer Ched Evans, who has recently been released from prison on licence for a rape conviction, and is looking for a club to resurrect his career. He is (or was) talented enough that a number of clubs are tempted; his crime, his refusal to acknowledge his guilt, and his public lack of remorse, are together sufficiently sickening that the opinion of the public and (perhaps more crucially) that of a significant number of financial sponsors is set against at having him at any particular club. As a result a rolling story is being played out, with one club after another testing the possibility of signing him and then – in every case, so far – refusing to do so, because the financial and reputational cost is too great. Natalie does an excellent job of pointing out the structural and sociological realities that lie behind this story, and I don’t really want to address the particular narrative, other than to note my agreement with what she says. The defence offered for Evans by those who wish to employ him, or to see him employed, is uniform: ‘he’s served his time’ and deserves ‘a second chance’. The first claim is factually untrue (he is released on licence and so in law he is still serving his sentence); it is also uninteresting, at least from a Christian perspective. The interesting question here (as Martin noted) is about repentance, which is a necessary precursor to rehabilitation. What does it mean to ‘repent’ adequately? What does one need to do to be granted a ‘second chance’? The phrase, inevitably, reminded me of Anne Tyler’s excellent novel Saint Maybe. (Actually, that is redundant: it’s a novel by Anne Tyler; obviously it is excellent). The novel tells the story of the Bedloe family, and particularly of Ian Bedloe, who is at high school as it begins, but some way in is nineteen and a freshman in college. At this point he also is (or feels) responsible for the suicides of his brother and sister-in-law. Struggling with guilt, and worrying how his parents will manage to bring up the orphaned children, he finds his way into a small storefront church called ‘The Church of the Second Chance’, pastored by the Revd Emmett. He prays for forgiveness, and falls into conversation with the pastor (quotations from pp. 122-124 of my Vintage paperback edition): ‘…don’t you think? Don’t you think I’m forgiven?’ ‘Goodness, no,’ Reverend Emmett said briskly. Ian’s mouth fell open. He wondered if he’d misunderstood. He said, ‘I’m not forgiven?’ ‘Oh, no.’ ‘But … I thought that was kind of the point,’ Ian said, ‘I thought God forgives everything.’ ‘He does,’ Reverend Emmett said, ‘But you can’t just say, “I’m sorry, God.” Why, anyone could do that much! You have to offer reparation–concrete, practical reparation, according to the rules of our church.’ ‘But what if there isn’t any reparation? What if it’s something nothing will fix?’ ‘Well, that’s where Jesus comes in, of course … Jesus remembers how difficult life on earth can be … He helps with what you can’t undo. But only after you’ve tried to undo it.’ The pastor calmly tells Ian that, for him, the path to forgiveness involves dropping out of college so that he can raise the children. Ian’s response: ‘This is some kind of a test, isn’t it?’ he said finally. Reverend Emmett nodded, smiling. Ian sagged with relief. ‘It’s God’s test,’ Reverend Emmett told him … ‘God wants to know how far you’ll go to undo the harm you’ve done.’ ‘But He wouldn’t really make me follow through with it.’ Ian said. ‘How else would he know, then?’ After working through the reality of this demand, Ian explodes: ‘…What kind of a cockeyed religion is this?’ ‘It’s the religion of atonement and complete forgiveness,’ Reverend Emmett said. ‘It’s the religion of the Second Chance.’ Then he set all the hymnals on the counter and turned to offer Ian a beatific smile. Ian thought he had never seen anyone so absolutely at peace. Ian follows through on the demand, despite the horror of his parents, and the latter two-thirds of the book trace the reality of the second chance he has found through his repentance. I have some theological questions about the language Revd Emmett uses in speaking to Ian – it is a bit too much like a classical American self-help religion, ‘God helps those who help themselves’ – but there is something deep here. Real repentance must, at least, mean a burning...

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Communal discernment and the church meeting

As Baptists, we believe in communal discernment of the will of God, and we engage in such communal discernment through the church meeting. However, this raises a question: is the practice of church meeting just a convenient occasion for communal discernment, or is it of the essence of such work? Is there something special about communal discernment that takes place in the context of church meeting, or is that practice of gathering merely a way of facilitating a process that can happen equally as well in other contexts?

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Moral arguments for independence

The Sunday Herald yesterday ran an advertisement carrying the names of thirty-four Church of Scotland ministers committed to a claim that a yes vote in the independence referendum would improve social justice in Scotland. Three individuals were quoted, two of them offering (what could be constructed as) moral arguments in favour of independence. Are they right? My judgement is that one might be, but it relies on an undemonstrated premise if it is; the other is wrong; both judgements depend on some interesting moral reasoning which is worth exploring.

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