Dissenting Radical

The Common Good: A 'Christian-Left' perspective on radical theology, progressive politics, authentic culture and sustainable living.

Month: February, 2013

Power in the Blood

For those who are not familiar with the drill, you are expected to shout on the word ‘Power’. The ‘w’ is unpronounced, slurred straight through to a strong, well-trilled ‘r’.

There is Paarrrrr!!! Paarrrr!! Wonder-workin’ Paarrrr!!!!
In the Precious Blood of the Lamb!

There’s a dark secret behind this song. I’ve always been a Unitarian at heart, but I did for some time (about two years, I think, maybe longer) regularly attend a Baptist church. Not only do I know the full standard repertoire of Matt Redman and Chris Tomlin songs, but I also have a range of old blood-curdling, piano-stomping Baptist favourites engrained in my mind.

‘Power in the Blood’, ‘Are you Washed in the Blood?’, ‘Nothing but the Blood’ – each one of these sing-along favourites is a grisly invocation of Jesus’ blood sacrifice. According to the ideology of conservative evangelical Christianity, sin cannot go unpunished. The angry alpha-male war-god of Israel is too holy and too austerely just to permit forgiveness without inflicting pain. The debts incurred by Adam’s fall and by our own imperfection must be paid in full (never mind that Adam is supposed to have existed, in the biblical chronology, about 20,000 years after we domesticated the dog). Only the tortuous shedding of the perfect, sinless blood of his own son can appease the awful wrath of Jahweh. Only by mystically covering oneself with that blood, as the gateposts of the Hebrews in Egypt were once covered with the blood of the passover lamb, can one escape the eternal torment that this monstrous deity has prepared for us.  The blood covering process, as far as I could ever tell, consisted mainly in believing that all this is true: ‘salvation by faith’, they called it. To plead the blood, one has to admit that one is a sinner (easy enough), and then try really, really hard to believe that this impossible nonsense is true, and that Jesus by his death on the cross ‘took on’ that sin, and paid with his blood the price of forgiveness.

It did not take me long to reject the whole evangelical system of sin, sacrifice and salvation. Its vision of god was deeply unflattering: an arbitrary, capricious, unforgiving, blood-thirsty monster. A god that was truly God, I thought, should be so much bigger and better than that. The more I thought about it, the more this partial, brutal god of evangelicalism seemed like exactly the sort of all-too-human deity that a frightened, beleaguered, warlike, bronze age society might invent. I soon reached the conclusion – shared with Dawkins et al –  that the god of conservative evangelical Christianity was nothing more than an idol, fashioned not from gold or stone, but from myth, legend and the darker parts of the human imagination.

Not only is the evangelical system of salvation so obviously untrue, and so dishonouring to any God truly worthy of the name, it also distracts us from the real, human, historical Jesus and his teachings. In the understanding of progressive  Christianity, Jesus was – whatever else he was and is – fully man, a man deeply but not uncritically inspired by the best aspects of his religious tradition, who took an ethical stand against injustice and exploitation, taught universal love and compassion, and exposed the hypocrisy of the priests, bankers, rulers and landowners who oppressed the people. His death was a sacrifice, at least in the sense that his principles brought him into conflict with the priestly, financial, political and military powers who conspired to kill him; he died not as a sacrifice for our sins, but as a martyr to his cause. He calls us not to be mere ‘worshippers’ of him, but to be followers of his cause.

The conservative evangelical view of Jesus obscures all this. Jesus the martyred prophet wholly absorbed by the idea of Jesus the sacrificial lamb. His message and his teachings are nothing; his death is everything. Jesus saves, according to evangelicalism, not by the way of life that he taught, but by the blood sacrifice of his death.

A consequence of the evangelical view is that one need not do anything; salvation is chiefly a matter of believing in and accepting for oneself the salvic magic of Jesus’ death. Its purpose is simply to rescue one from the hellfire that would otherwise await. Salvation as a process of personal and social change, of transformation and redemption, the purpose of which is to enable us to live well, to restore relationships and to heal and repair the world, is obscured if not altogether forgotten.

Another consequence of blood sacrifice is that it supports the fallacy of ‘redemptive violence’ – the idea that people must die and bleed in order to set things right, usually expressed in a ‘Left Behind’ longing for cataclysmic orgies of destruction and blood-letting.

Even when it stops short of actively wishing and hoping for the annihilation of the world, this blood-fixated way of thinking can have very harmful social and political consequences. A gruesome soteriology of blood sacrifice, where there is no redemption except ‘through the blood’,  can easily produce a mindset in which deeply unpleasant attitudes can flourish, leading to the promotion of graceless, punitive  policies, such as support for the death penalty and for mass incarceration. When combined with the idea that wealth is a sign of god’s favour, and that worldly success is evidence of spiritual blessing, this excuses the view that public welfare should be as ungenerous and as punitive as possible (“it’s their own fault they are poor, the lazy, dirty wastrels; they need to be taught a lesson”), that the rich and powerful should be fawned-upon and cosseted with tax cuts, and that foreign policy should be based mainly on bombing the living shit out of ‘evil do-ers’ and nicking all their oil.

As the words of the Rev. Dr. D. Wayne Love, front-man of the band Alabama 3 (satirically) put it:

There is power in the blood
Justice in the sword
When that call comes
I will be ready for war.
I will raise my sword upright
To the bright and shining light
Stained crimson red with the blood of the unredeemed
I will tear them limb from limb
I will slay their kith and kin
And their bodies I will bury in the deep
Because there’s power in the blood.

So the irony of conservative evangelical Christianity is that its fixation on the blood sacrifice of Jesus almost completely negates the teachings, the ethics and the call of the human Jesus – the martyred prophet, the radical rabbi, the one who came to preach good news to the poor and to liberate the oppressed.

This sometimes makes me almost wonder if Christianity is not, perhaps, the most cunning invention of ‘the Anti-Christ’, that is, of the Powers and Principalities who would deny the message of Jesus. By turning him into an idol to be worshipped, they managed to deny his radicalism. Maybe Paul of Tarsus, who never actually met Jesus, and who seems to have invented the whole system of substitutionary atonement, never really stopped persecuting the church; perhaps he just stopped trying to arrest its members, and instead turned to a tactic of subversion, transforming the church from a radical social movement for the living out of the teachings and Way of Jesus, and making it into an idolatrous, blood-curdling, salvation-cult.

The history is too murky, our sources too few, too corrupted, and too contradictory, to say for sure that Paul was a deliberate distorter of Jesus’ message. Despite all his faults, there is much good to be found in Paul’s writings, and his sincerity (even if based on partial understanding) ought not to be quite so easily dismissed. Nevertheless, it is probably true that Paul, not Jesus, was the chief founder of what became Christianity, and that Christianity as we know it has little in common with Jesus’ intentions. It is notable that Paul makes almost no references to the teachings of Jesus in his writings, and continual reference to the supposed consequences of his death and resurrection. Jesus the Man has disappeared, to be replaced by Jesus the Lamb.

The great task of progressive theology is to liberate the radical ethical call of Jesus from those who would imprison it in an unbelievable straightjacket of creedal dogma, or contaminate it with the myths, prejudices and blood-lust of past ages. We are called to preach and to practice a humane, social, ethical and rational Christianity, which challenges the complacent conscience, and sustains the wavering heart, but does not offend the enlightened mind.

The symbol of Unitarian Universalism is not the Bloody Cross of evangelicals, but the Flaming Chalice. As we know, the flame represents the Spirit, Life, Reason, Freedom; the chalice represents Love, Community, Fraternity, Solidarity. By this symbol we affirm our belief that grace extends to all, not just those who are ‘covered in the blood’. The power of grace is not in the gore of death, but in the Way, the Truth and the Life.

As we go into the week ahead, into our homes, our schools, our places of work or service, our city, our nation, and our world, let us follow the Way of bloodless grace, freely forgiving; let us seek the Truth of unadorned religion, manifest in good deeds, not far-fetched creeds; and let us continue to restore the Life – to protect the weak, to bind up the broken-hearted, to comfort the afflicted, and bring freedom, justice and peace to the world.



A Constitution for Everyone: Pluralism and the Limits of Pre-Commitment

Following the Scottish Government’s public commitment to a written Constitution for Scotland in January, the Deputy First Minister has issued a paper setting out the Government’s plans for a post-independence constitution-making process. Many details of timing and process remain unsatisfactory (not least the decision to delay constitution-making until after independence, rather than starting during the transitional period between the referendum and independence day). Nevertheless, the general trust of this commitment, and the recognition of the importance of constitutionalism, must be welcomed.

There have been various attempts to draft a written Constitution for Scotland, from that produced by the Scottish Provisional Constituent Assembly in 1964, through the SNP’s own 2002 draft, to the 2011 ‘Model Constitution’ prepared by the Constitutional Commission (all of which can be found here). At this stage, these draft constitutional documents must be regarded as contributions to debate, rather than definitive statements of intent. There will be a lot of heated discussion and tough negotiation to get through before we end up voting on a final, authoritative text.

Nevertheless, it appears the basic structure of a workable Constitution for Scotland is becoming clear. Scotland is likely to be governed by a single-chamber parliament elected for four or five year terms by proportional representation, with a ceremonial head of state, a cabinet executive drawn from the parliamentary majority, an independent judiciary with the authority to enforce set of fundamental human rights based on the European Convention, and a unitary state structure. In other words, on a superficial level, it might look rather like the Constitutions of Norway, Sweden, Denmark, or Luxembourg – which is probably, all things considered, not a bad start.

Moreover, such a Constitution would reflect the institutional outline agreed in the 1990s by the Scottish Constitutional Convention. This Convention, which brought together Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the churches, the trades unions, and the federation of small businesses, amongst others, rejected the winner-takes all, executive-dominated politics of Westminster. It insisted not only on creating a Scottish Parliament, but on creating in Scotland a different type of Parliament. The resulting Scotland Act of 1998, which is not by any means a Constitution, but does have a quasi-constitutional character, made several long-overdue institutional changes to the archetypal ‘Westminster model’. The most important of these were proportional representation (ensuring that minor parties would get a fair share of seats), fixed term elections (providing immunity from arbitrary dissolutions and snap elections), the formal election of the First Minister by Parliament (which removed the head of state’s discretion in the event of a parliament with no overall majority for any one party), and the judicial scrutiny of Acts of the Scottish Parliament for compliance with the Human Rights Act.

Whatever else the Constitution of an independent Scotland may include, this combination of proportional parliamentarism with justiciable rights must be at its core. Although some may prefer an elected head of state, while others insist on a revising second chamber, the basic structural provisions endorsed by the Constitutional Convention and embodied in the devolved Parliament seem to enjoy broad acceptance.

The difficulty, of course, is in the detail. The effectiveness of Parliament as a legislative and scrutinising institution, and the balance of power between the government and opposition, can be influenced by such seemingly esoteric details of institutional design as, for example, the way in which committees are chosen, or the process for setting the parliamentary timetable. Here too, the Scottish Parliament has much that might be emulated – although, I’d argue, there is no scope for complacency: an independent Scottish Constitution would have to place additional safeguards (such as a ‘people’s veto’ referendum) against the tendency of parliamentary majorities to pass hasty, ill-considered, or divisive, legislation.

Scotland’s constitutional debate would benefit from an engaged and informed discussion of how our institutions could be further reformed, in matters of detail, to improve public accountability, to increase representativeness and responsiveness, and to prevent abuses of power. In discussions on the Constitution, however, I notice very little argument or dispute over these core institutional or structural provisions. Instead, discussion is concentrated on the substantive provisions of the Constitution: whether, for example, it bans nuclear power, provides for animal rights, or enshrines same-sex marriage.

Focusing too much on these substantive matters, regardless of the rights or wrongs of each case, presents a problem; it runs the risk of ‘over-loading’ the constitution. Filling the Constitution with too many substantive provisions of this nature could undermine its universality, legitimacy and clarity. Taken too far, this could blur the distinction between that which is truly constitutional and those ordinary policy decisions that should be left to day-to-day parliamentary politics, undermining the status of the Constitution as a fairly neutral and generic set of ground rules and transforming it into a partisan manifesto.

I’ve written at length, elsewhere, on why a Constitution is necessary.  It is necessary to provide a process for the legitimate exercise and transfer of governing authority, and to place procedural and temporal limits on that authority. It is necessary to protect the permanent institutions of the State – the res publica that belongs to us all – from being manipulated by the parliamentary majority or the Government of the day. It is necessary to protect the human rights which any civilised society must protect. It is necessary to specify, in a way that is binding on Parliaments and Governments, what the people stand for, and what they will not stand for. A Constitution is not, therefore, an optional extra: it is as necessary to a well-functioning democracy as a foundation is to a house, or skeleton to the body. In the absence of Constitution that is above other laws and can be  changed only with recourse to the sovereign people, we have no way of preventing arbitrary power from  falling into the hands of one person or one party; we have no way, in other words, of claiming and ensuring our freedom.

A Constitution cannot, however, be a blueprint for an ideal society. It cannot be a short-cut to utopia, nor a way of conveniently entrenching every progressive policy on one’s wish-list (I say this as a progressive with a very long wish-list).

The reason for this is simple, but often overlooked, especially by those who are most sincere and well-intentioned: namely, that while some common ground might well be found, we all have different ideal societies, and different visions of Scotland’s best possible future. Not everyone thinks as we do. The things that are self-evidently true and right to us, may be difficult and doubtful to others. Worse, these differences are often bitter and heated.  For every person who insists that the Constitution should protect the ‘right to fetal life’, there is likely to be another, equally passionate, equally committed, who insists on the ‘right of a woman to control her own body’. These arguments are often highly polarised and very difficult to resolve.

This inability to reconcile such opposing values, visions and priorities makes some people sceptical of the entire constitution-making project. Rather than risk making any divisive pre-commitments on substantive policy provisions, they would rather cling to parliamentary sovereignty. I have never accepted that position. I regard unfettered parliamentary sovereignty as both anti-democratic (because sovereignty rests in the few in Parliament, not in the whole people) and dangerous to liberty (because there is no enforceable limit or restraint on power).

Provided that the Constitution be not overloaded with divisive content, I believe that a lack of societal consensus need not be a hinderance to a healthy constitutional democracy. All that is required is a broad and pragmatic agreement on democratic institutions and on fundamental rights. As argued above, such a consensus exists in Scotland. It is therefore possible, by concentrating on these institutional, fundamental, and broadly agreed provisions, to design a Constitution that enjoys widespread legitimacy, is far bigger than one party or one ideology, and has scope for pluralism and disagreement within it.

This is not to say that the Constitution should attempt to be value-neutral, that it should have no substantive content, or that it should exclude socio-economic rights. As argued elsewhere, where a consensus exists on which to build broad public agreement, there is a strong case for the inclusion of such material, if only in very generic terms. It does mean, however, that anything ‘too hot to handle’, or divisive, or irreconcilable, should be avoided. Instead of trying to be ideal blueprint for society, the Constitution should establish the free and pluralistic framework in which competing visions and ideals can coexist. Instead of trying to settle every dispute, it should provide a mechanism in which disputes can be discursively and democratically settled.

There should be room under such a Constitution for the grouse shooting carnivore and the vegetarian animal rights activist, for the religious and the secular, for the unreconstructed Thatcherite and the eco-socialist. These people might vote for different parties, read different blogs, and campaign on different sides of various issues. They might live much of their lives in different social milieu. They might argue vigorously and robustly, and perhaps sometimes change their minds. But they might nevertheless stand side-by-side as fellow citizens, fellow-members of the same res publica, and fellow-beneficiaries of the same Constitution which guarantees the same freedom and the same justice to all.

For the body is not one member, but many. 1 Corin. 12:14

Dr Ruckman strutting his stuff.

I could not let this gem pass without comment:

(1) Some people actually believe this nonsense. I suppose believing in magic resurrecting zombie-deities is a gateway drug into this madness.

(2) Some of them even manage to get themselves into positions of power and influence, where they can inflict the destructive consequences of this warped worldview on people (“Clean up the environment and build a sustainable and socially just economic system? No thanks, the Rapture’s coming soon! Let’s nuke Iran!).

(3) Others, although not in such positions of power, vote. I call these hapless dupes the ‘Armageddon enablers’. They are probably more deserving of pity than scorn. Fortunately, most of them are in the USA, which means they don’t have much influence on elections here. They do, however, have influence on the folks with all the nukes. That worries me.

(4) He’s quite talented with the chalk. Could have really made something with his life. Maybe been an art teacher or something.

(5) I have no idea what the nazi solider’s helmet is doing in the bottom left hand corner. Is it a sign?

Lift Up Your Hearts!

I was cooking supper, at the end of a long, difficult, stressful and emotionally exhausting day. As I stood over the pan of vegetables and rice, adding the cumin, chilli, cardamon and ginger, I found myself singing.

Tunelessly and absent-mindedly, these were the words that came out:

Father, hear the prayer we offer:
Not for ease that prayer shall be,
But for strength that we may ever
Live our lives courageously.

Not for ever in green pastures
Do we ask our way to be;
But the steep and rugged pathway
May we tread rejoicingly.

Not for ever by still waters
Would we idly rest and stay,
But would smite the living fountains
From the rocks along our way.

And that’s where my memory dried up. I couldn’t remember the last verse. I had to look it up in my old school hymnbook. But it doesn’t matter. The  song picked me up a bit. It fortified me. The very act of singing it, unknowingly, as if it came from a deep, half-forgotten corner of my subconscious, created within me a glimmer of the strength of which the lyrics speak.

I’ve known anxiety, depression and despair, as well as love, hope and joy. In real life we cannot expect for things to go well all the time. If we are honest in our theology, we must accept that there is no ‘Almighty Father’, no Magic Sky-Daddy who can fling the Cosmic Switch from ‘Fucked’ to ‘Sorted’.  Our problems are not going to magically disappear. All we can do is to find the strength to deal with life’s reality as we find it; not to avoid the difficulties of life, but to overcome them. This does not mean, of course, that we accept our lot passively or fatalistically. We are not merely to survive what life throws at us, but to transform the lives of others for the better. We are called not to endure brokenheartedness, but to ‘bind up’ the broken hearts; not to endure captivity, but to liberate captives. We must work in the world as it is, but for a world as it should be.

To overcome, to keep going in this struggle requires inner strength. For me, the inner strength I need most is that of ‘encouragement’ – or, translated from latinate words into plain English, the strength of a ‘high heart’, the strength to overcome the downheartedness that otherwise can crush my chest and paralyse my actions.

That inner strength is not acquired instantly or easily, but, like all virtues, by practice. I like to think of this as toning-up our ‘heart-raising’ muscles.

The liturgical line ‘Lift up your hearts!’ is expressed not just as an invitation, but also as a command. It is our duty – to ourselves, to the divine Spirit within us, and to those who depend upon us – to lift up our hearts. Just as we must decide to love, we must decide to lift up our hearts.

But we cannot lift our hearts unless we are trained for it and prepared for it. To expect us to lift hearts that are too heavy for our weakness would seem like just another burden, another ‘requirement’ against which to measure our failure. So, to the weak (and I include myself here), I say this: all you can do is your best. Lift your heart as high, and as often, as you can. But if you cannot lift it, let it lie where it is. Do not be hard on yourself, nor rack yourself with unrealistic expectations. Gather your strength, and try again later. Remember you are not relying on your strength alone, but also on the transcendent, ineffable, universal Paraclete. Sooner or later, you will raise it.

So much of what is valuable in ‘spiritual practice’ is really a form of self-training. Acts such as prayer, meditation, song and work, laughter and play, are healthy exercises that build up our inner reserves of strength. To sustain it takes self-discipline, commitment, lots of love, friendship and mutual help. There are many days when we feel like giving up, and some days when we do. But with practice, care and gentleness, we can acquire the strength to ride out the hard times, and to emerge just a little bit stronger – a just little better able to lift up our hearts when the clouds of despair and storms of difficulty next assail us. Perhaps, as in my case today, we will emerge fortified by the half-remembered words of an old song, sung tunelessly in the midst of a mundane task. It doesn’t make the bad things go away, but it helps us to see them in their proper proportion.

Great Hymns of the Faith: A Double Whammy

Martyn Joseph: ‘Crazy Like me’

Another version of ‘Hope, Struggle and Change’, as sung by a Unitarian Universalist church choir:

January was a long month of some hope, much struggle and little change. But the good news is that I’m still crazy like him, and as long as we still stick to the crazy notion that a better world is possible, we can keep on working to move it forward.