Dissenting Radical

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

Month: March, 2015

Going Dutch and Paying Taxes

Readers of this blog might not know that I have relocated from Scotland to the Netherlands, primarily for work reasons. This move actually took place some months ago and I’ve had an opportunity to get used to Dutchness – the weather (better than Scotland), the food (worse than Scotland) and the culture (quite similar to Scotland, in lots of ways, but disorientatingly different in others).

On the whole, it’s a great country. Things work. Public transport is excellent. The streets are clean and safe. There’s a healthy, balanced lifestyle. People treat one another as equals. I’ve seen fewer beggars in months in the Hague than I would see in a day in Edinburgh or Glasgow.

I’ve even had my first experience of voting in a Dutch election. As an EU citizen resident in the Netherlands, I can vote in municipal and European elections, as well as elections for the local ‘waterschap’. The waterschap is the body that is responsible for maintaining the dikes and the dams that keep the water out of the country – and they are also some of the oldest democratic institutions in the world, with a continuous existence going back to the middle ages.

One of the things that there is in the Netherlands, though, is quite a lot of tax.¬† It’s going to be a slightly lean month, because I’ve got a 760 Euro tax bill to pay to the municipality and to the waterschap. But I really don’t mind. In a just and fair society (which the Netherlands pretty much is), where corruption is minimal and where the common good is the principal object of public affairs, paying tax is an honour not a burden. Taxes are an opportunity to contribute, in some small but tangible way, to the common good in which we all share.

Thanks to good governance and a relatively high quality of democracy, I don’t feel I’m being robbed by a distant or wasteful state that wants to spend money on, say, nuclear weapons. Instead, I feel glad that I’m doing my bit towards maintaining a decent society.

I just wish the mega-corporations and the super-rich, in the UK and elsewhere, felt the same. If they would adopt a less selfish and more civic attitude towards the payment of taxes, we could all be better off.

The Bible: What it is and How to read it.

The angry anti-christians and the angry fundamentalists at least agree that the bible has to be taken as literal, direct, timeless revelation, or not at all. So either the bible is a horrid book that justifies slavery and genocide (as the anti-christians would claim) or it demands that we believe in talking snakes and six-day creationism (as the fundamentalists would insist).

For it or against it, it is what it is, and there’s no room for nuance or selectivity in engaging with it. Sincere attempts to discern wisdom, and to find that which is truly ‘a word of God’ to us within its leather-bound pages, are dismissed as ‘pick-n-mix religion’, or as ‘making it up as you go along’; it invites scorn from the anti-christians and condemnation from the fundamentalists.

Liberal or progressive Christians don’t see it that way. We try to see the bible for what it is: not a timeless dictation from God, but an evolving record of the thoughts and experiences of God as told by two communities – the ancient Hebrews and the early Christians.

Once you see it through that lens (as a human artifact, that attests to our encounters with the divine, but does not itself claim to be divine) it makes much more sense. It accommodates the fact that the image of God in the bible is not a consistent one: it is an evolving one, from a very partial tribal understanding to one that comes to reflect – first through the social justice prophets and then through Jesus a universal ethic of love.

It also enables one to accept the fact that the bible does not always speak with one voice, but with a plurality of sometimes complementary and sometimes contradictory voices: these are not ‘false contradictions’ to be ironed out by epicycles of elaborate exegesis, but simply reflections of the fact that human understanding of God has differed, and that the bible records that conversation – including the voices in that conversation that are later shown to be wrong by deeper reflection and wider love (Joshua slaying enemies vs Jesus loving them).

That’s not to say, of course, that God does not speak to us in and through the bible, but only to warn against taking it as a simple rule-book or even history book: it’s much more of a story book, which invites us to reflect on and dwell within the stories.

Even those who deride the bible as a book of ‘myths and fairytales’ are closer to the truth than they think, but only because myths and fairytales are treasuries of cultural wisdom, of the reflections of communities, over time, on the most important matters of identity, meaning and ethics.

How then, are we to discern the meanings of these stories? One way is to focus on the main character: Jesus. The individual stories – the tales of murder, genocide, rape, pillage, slavery, and all the other horrible things that the bible records – are embedded in a larger, framing narrative.That is the narrative that the world, although imperfect, and in many cases spoiled needlessly by our own sins and vices, is nevertheless permeated by a God whose nature is love and whose passion is to heal and restore us. This God, through the Holy Spirit who is alive and active in the world and in our hearts, and through Jesus who showed us the Way, is at work to bring about a world that is as it was always meant to be.

As we allow ourselves to be filled by that Spirit, and to concentrate on the actual teachings and example of Jesus, a consistent tool of analysis emerges: love. Jesus rejected biblical literalism, may times saying ‘You have heard it was written x, but I say unto you y’. He recognised that fundamentalist obsessions with rules and regulations could not lead us into a life of love, joy, peace and wholeness. The only way to achieve that was through mutual forgiveness, through embracing the other, through non-judgmental service to our fellows.

Jesus confronted head-on not only the arrogance of the rich and the despotic power of the rulers, but also the twisted and cramping piety of the religious. His ethic was that it is better to be loving in our treatment of others than to be punctilious in the observance of religious rules. That is the ethic with which we should read and interpret the bible. If we do so, we will probably not go far wrong.

Restored, not annihilated.

The grand narrative of the Christian story, according to N. T. Wright, is that the world will be restored not annihilated.

Christianity isn’t about escaping from the real world to go and sit pointlessly on a heavenly cloud forever, but about being transformed by love and set free to be an agent of loving transformation in the real world. Jesus doesn’t want us to ‘believe in him so we can go to heaven’. That’s primary school religion.

The reality is so much more than that. The good news is that the whole world has been restored (in principle), is being restored (in practice), and will be restored (in perfection). Jesus  calls upon us to follow him in his mission of bringing the Kingdom of God to reality on earth. We are called to be part of the process of restoration. We are invited to be co-implementers of the radical manifesto set out in the Magnificat, in the Sermon on the Mount, and elsewhere in the teachings of Jesus.

That manifesto of restoration is good news for the poor and the outcast, the landless and the oppressed, the sick and the abandoned and the refugee. But of course it will be bitterly opposed by the rich, the powerful, the vested-interests, and the ‘religious’ types, who will see it for what it is – a challenge to the lies and the fears on which their privilege rests. In fact, people who truly live and preach that manifesto are likely, in many parts of the world, to end up as the victims of murder at the hands of corrupt militaristic states – and often with the collusion of corrupt religious hierarchies. After all, that is precisely what happened to Jesus. But somehow, in a way I cannot begin to fully understand, he rose above it all. They could kill him, but they couldn’t quite kill him off.

And I’ve glimpsed just enough of the reality of this Kingdom over the years to be increasingly convinced that there is, behind it all, something ‘out there’ and ‘in here’ that makes this more than just a reliance on well-intentioned human effort. There’s a moment of resurrection in history that assures us that resurrection is not only possible but ultimately assured. The same Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead is still alive and at work and is still bringing shoots of resurrection and restoration all over the world. So although Christianity has political action and social action, as integral parts of its transformative work, the church is more than just a pressure group or an aid agency; it is a community in which we live in and share that Spirit. All this comes from an experience and encounter with the power of love. It saves us from the messes we make, so that we can save the world.

I think that’s a beautiful, compelling, amazing thing. Something worth devoting one’s life to.

The day job (and why it is totally worth doing).

I am currently on a short field research trip to Kenya, where I am studying the process of political negotiations that led up to the new (2010) Constitution.

One senior Kenyan politician shared a fascinating insight into where, in his view, the country went wrong: “In 1963, we wanted independence. We didn’t think about building institutions of good governance. We just thought independence was the main thing, and we’d worry about all that constitutional business later. So we became independent, and the KANU party took office, closed down the democratic space and centralised power until we had become a one-party dictatorship.”

The obvious moral of this story (which, incidentally, the Scottish Government would do well to heed) is that if you don’t want to become a failed state, and if you do want to reap the benefits of independence, it’s no good just to throw off external rule; you also have to build consensus, in advance, around robust institutions of democracy. The same goes for countries emerging from dictatorship or military rule. It’s not enough to send the dictator packing or get the generals out of politics; you also have to build something better in its place – a stable, workable, effective, legitimate democratic constitutional order.

And that is what Kenya, to a point, has now done. There is still a lot of corruption, abuse of power, inefficiency, and lack of state capacity. There are problems of implementation. But Kenya has – after many years of hard negotiations and bitter political struggles – arrived at a workable constitutional settlement that gives people the powers they need to build a better future for themselves. It is a free state in an open society. People do not live in fear. Public discussion and engagement flourishes.

On the streets of Nairobi’s Central Business District I saw a ‘People’s Parliament’, a semi-formal gathering of people on the street corner to discuss the political issues of the day.

People's Parliament[A ‘People’s Parliament’ in Nairobi]

This, it suddenly seemed to me, is what it’s all about. I know it might look like my job is all about burning taxpayers’ money in expensive foreign hotels and occasionally writing obscure publications about constitutional stuff that hardly anyone would want to read. But what I’m really trying to do here is to encourage and equip people (whether they are government ministers, parliamentarians, judges, civil society activists, or ordinary citizens) to think about their constitutional options and to make sensible and informed constitutional choices (in both process and substance) that will help bring stability, peace, inclusion, effective government, responsibility, accountability, justice, and all those good things that actually, really, matter.

Constitution-building is not an obvious way of improving people’s lives. It’s not like the things to which many are called: teaching, feeding the hungry, healing the sick, stewarding the environment. It’s not always clear how, exactly, a good constitution helps with the bread and butter issues of life.

But – although the timescales are long, the successes relatively few, and the results very indirect – constitutions are foundational to the realisation of the common good. Done right, a good constitution can help to create the political and social conditions in which human beings can flourish. It provides rules for decision-making and sets up processes that encourage the government to do, over time, a reasonable job of representing and responding to public needs. So, for example, the constitution doesn’t build the school, but it does put in place the legal and political infrastructure that means the money will be put into a public good, like education, and not just squandered on arms or siphoned into the private bank accounts of Ministers. On the other hand, the lack of a legitimate and democratic constitutional order can lead to civil wars, dictatorships, coups, corruption, disappearences, torture chambers, fear, misery and poverty.

So my work is ultimately about more democracy, less oligarchy. More accountability, less corruption. More justice, less torture. More peace, less war. More co-operation, less conflict. It’s an unusual calling, but it is the calling I have; it’s the point at which, for me, passion, mission, vocation and profession coincide.

Passion-e1401914160928The more I am able to remind myself of that (and it is sometimes easy to forget it, when I have to drag myself out of bed on a cold Monday morning, or hurry to finish something on a hot Friday afternoon) the easier it is to keep going, even amidst the uncertainty of a world where freedom, democracy and justice seem increasingly under threat from challenges like the counter-terrorism agenda and corporate power. Seeing constitution building as a calling on my life and as a purpose to which I am passionately committed gives me a sense of joy and hope in my work, even when it seems that there is such a discouraging distance between the often rather abstract and intangible work I do at my desk and the outcome achieved in the real world.

Seeing light in the darkness

“The first way we contribute to injustice in the world is to choose not to see it.” Danielle Strickland (co-author of ‘Just Imagine: the Social Justice Agenda’).

It’s really easy to close our eyes to injustice. Injustice is always ugly and hard to look at. And, if we open our eyes, we see too much injustice – so much that it overwhelms our senses. It can daunt us and freeze us into a sense of despair and inaction. I reckon the challenge is to see the injustice, but also to see the potential for resurgent and restorative justice shining through it; to see things as they are, but also as they might be. This is to acknowledge the reality, but never the finality, of injustice. That’s hope.