Dissenting Radical

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

Category: Sermons

I’m in a preachin’ mood tonight…

When people talk about ‘biblical values’, what they generally mean is ‘being beastly to the gays’ and, if they are a particularly ignorant type of fundamentalist, trying to get creationism taught in school.

This is a great pity. It makes me want to cry out, “Ye blind guides, ye hypocrites!” If there is a great arc of biblical values, it is this: “All people are precious and fragile, treat them with care and compassion” – otherwise known as ‘neighbour loving’. And if there’s one subject that the biblical narratives concentrate on more than any other – yes, even more than what gay men do with their willies – it is wealth, the just distribution thereof, and the duty of the haves to the have-nots.

If only those who shout “BIBLE!” at people would actually read it, and think about it, and study it critically and historically, maybe – just maybe – they could stop being part of the problem and start being part of the solution; that is, they could share in the healing and transformation of a deeply scarred world.

But that would involve stripping away many layers of Christian thought going back to Paul, the first corrupter of Jesus’ teachings. It would require us to be honest about the role of myth, legend and Greco-Roman and Egyptian paganisms in the development of Christian ideas such as the incarnation, the resurrection and the trinity. We’d have to see Jesus not as a dead and resurrecting zombie-demigod, who died to satisfy the wrath of an angry anthropomorphic Sky-Daddy so that we would be saved from an eternity of sentient torment after we die, but as the greatest of the great Jewish social-justice prophets, who died as a martyr at the hands of the rich, the powerful and (worst of all) the religious.

And he wants followers. He wants people who will sacrifice their relative ease and comfort within an evil, exploitative, oppressive system in order to oppose and change that system in the name of love. He wants people who feel the heel of that system, the millions of people across the globe for whom ease and comfort are distant dreams, to experience – no, not just to experience, but to achieve – liberation.

Some people think that the ‘End’ of the Christian life is to ‘get to heaven’, or to be raptured into glory when American Jesus comes riding back from Glory in a golden Cadillac with G. W. Bush at the wheel. But that’s not how the bible seems to tell it. Instead it hints, in mystical and exaggerated language, of a non-exploitative society, governed by love and freedom. It makes us look to restoration of an Edenic promise: a world in which we shall sit under our own fig trees and enjoy the fruit thereof, not tilling for another’s gain, nor reaping for another’s harvest while our children go without.

In other words, Christianity is a social mission committed to a profound revolution: a revolution that starts in the heart and branches out into the transformation of society.

This revolution is the business of the church – the called, gathered and sent community of those who accept Jesus’ challenge to dedicate their lives to the healing and restoring of the world. This truly universal church, as I understand it, includes all who hear and respond to the promptings of love, life and light in their hearts – regardless of their religion, or lack thereof.

The revolution is gradual. We push onwards towards an unfolding End (not as finality, but as objective, purpose, and telos) without knowing when it shall be accomplished. But one thing is very clear: there will be a great levelling. The last will be first and the first will be last. Those who have gathered much will be commanded to share out of their abundance, that those who have gathered little shall have enough. Chains will be cut. Captives sent free.  And, first of all, the blind shall see.

So our calling as those who have committed to the revolution of love is two-fold. In working within the world as it is, we are called to provide charity – to hold up candles of hope and succour to those in distress. As we work for the world as it should be, we are called to shine searing light into the darkness of systemic evil, even into the darkness of boardrooms and war-rooms.

Isn’t that a glorious calling?

Aye, but how?

So let’s get this straight.

  • The Queen gets a £5 million raise, while unemployed people get a benefit so low and meagre that they are reduced to one grim meal a day.
  • Top earners get a 5% tax cut, while working families with a stay-home parent (despite all the ‘big society’, family friendly rhetoric) will be penalised.
  • NHS services in England (although not in Scotland, thanks be to the SNP!) will be reduced, while private healthcare companies profit from distress.
  • Big companies cut costs by using ‘workfare’ labour, then hide their untaxed  and immoral gains in foreign bank accounts.
  • There’s one law for the rich and another for the poor: the rich can flout the rules with impunity, while the poor are criminalised for the mildest infraction.
  • Youth unemployment and graduate unemployment are at an all-time high across Europe, but there’s no effort to invest in the sort of New Deal infrastructural projects that would create employment.
  • The economic models we have relied on for the past 30 years have been shown to be grossly deficient, but no UK politician has yet has the courage or the wisdom to articulate a sustainable, socially just alternative.
  • The bankers shifted their losses on to the public, and went back to ‘business as usual’. There has been no major re-regulation, break-up, or mutualisation, of the banks.
  • The mantra of endless growth is still repeated, despite the very real threats of climate change, resource depletion, pollution, and loss of biodiversity, and despite the fact that well-being for all, not wealth for the few, is what enables human flourishing.

In short, we no longer have democratic government of, by, and for the people (i.e. a government which represents us, is accountable to us, and serves the common good). Instead, we have an oligarchial government of, by and for the rich (i.e. a government which represents corporate interests, is accountable to ‘the markets’, and serves the bottom line of its paymasters).

Only the richest 1% benefit from this. The rest of us (the desperate, trapped, welfare-dependent poor, the struggling working poor, the hope-stolen graduate, the squeezed lower middle, and even the moderately prosperous upper middle) are being systematically pillaged by a thin, fragile crust of sociopathic corporate rent-seekers. We have been enslaved to the doctrines of neo-liberal capitalism by the high priesthood of City bankers and Chicago School economists who serve at the cruel feet of that most unforgiving and extracting idol, Mammon.

And it seems no-one dares do anything about it, because the oligarchs control the media and the politicians, and hold the monopoly of power.

These realities, if they were not evident before, are evident now. But it is so easy to be overwhelmed by these realities, to be crushed and dispirited by them. A friend of mine put it this way:

“Yes. That is the way of it. I was brought up to think we can change things. But frankly, at this moment, I have never been more at a loss as to HOW.”

How indeed? To look at the world today is like staring into a dark, bottomless pit. The task before us is to fill that pit with the good stones of love, mercy and restorative  justice, and to provide a foundation on which the structure of a good society, dedicated to the worth and dignity of all its members, can be built. But it is so easy to be discouraged, to be defeated by the size of the task and the odds against us, to be overcome and overwhelmed by the layers of hate, bitterness and brittle self-interest that stand against us. The temptation is to jump into the pit before we fall, surrendering to what we think is the terrible inevitability of our failure. Where can we find the strength to go on? Where do we even start? How can we make a difference? Is there any point?

While wading through this swamp of despondency, I came across a sermon from the  Christian Universalist Association website that really challenged and encouraged me.

The message of encouragement I took from this sermon was this: that the revolution we need starts on the inside and works on the outside. It starts with an inner testimony and expresses itself in social action. It starts with being transformed and leads to transforming. Both are long and messy processes of gradual growth, but both are possible, as many can testify. How do we overcome? How do we triumph? How do we heal and restore the world? By being it and by doing it. By finding a need and meeting it. It almost doesn’t matter what or where. There’s so much to be done. But we can do it. The first step is to realise that it is possible. From that flows all else.

The challenge was this: what can I do, what one specific, immediate, practical thing, can I do to advance the common effort? That challenge is confronting me squarely, and I am confident that an answer will soon make itself evident.

I figured that if the Spirit could speak to me through this sermon, others might be reached through it as well.  If my despair can be beaten back and transformed, however marginally, into hope and purpose, then maybe the despair of other can be similarly overcome.

(There’s a bit of tuneless singing and general American-style boosterism at the beginning, but don’t worry about that. Listen to the words. This is what strong, passionate, progressive and inclusive preaching sounds like.)

Rev. Susan Smith, “Just Do It”


Why did Jesus die?


I’m sure, back in the days when I was spiritually fed on the infantile milk of Alpha Course pamphlets, there was one entitled ‘Why did Jesus die?’ This set out the usual conservative evangelical line: Perfect creation, Man’s fall, ‘Woe we are all hellbound sinners!’, God needs blood, so he sends (becomes? – not clear on that part) his Son, kills him(self), punishes him(self), and thereby can forgive us for the sins that we did because of Adam’s fall, so that we can go to heaven when we die.

It did not take long to dismiss this thin and brittle theology. Aside from all the problems this story creates (like, ‘Why did God put a talking snake in the garden anyway?’ and ‘How come all this happened 20,000 years after man domesticated to dog?’), it makes God out to be a blood-thirsty monster, whose insatiable wrath can only be appeased by an act of horrific, sado-masochistic slaughter.

To the conservative evangelicals, Good Friday is, indeed, ‘good’. It is the day on which their salvation, as they understand it, was purchased by blood on Calvary. Once we have moved to a Unitarian and Universalist theology, in which Jesus is a prophet, teacher, revolutionary and mystic, but no more a ‘Son of God’ than Moses was, and in which none shall be consigned to torment because God’s nature is to love and forgive, not to punish and destroy, what significance does Good Friday have?

Can it still be ‘good’ for a progressive Christian who has rejected the myth of redemptive violence along with all literal interpretations of the creation and fall stories?

Indeed, why should we bother to mark and observe it at all?

To answer these questions, it is necessary to return to that posed by the dog-eared pamphlet that someone once gave me at a Christian Union Events Week back in 1997: ‘Why did Jesus die?’

One alternative position is to see Jesus’ death not as a necessary blood-scarifice to appease an angry God, but as a tragic martyrdom. Jesus died because he was good. He had the courage of his convictions, and those convictions upset people. Jesus opposed the rulers, the priests, the bankers, the moneylenders, the landlords, the whole imperial-hierarchical system. This great reformer of religion and ethics, who was deeply absorbed in, but not uncritical of, the traditions of his people, offered a radical creed of love, forgiveness, community and equality. He broke down barriers. He exposed hypocrisy. He called for the redistribution of land and the forgiveness of debts. To the Romans, he was a threat to state security who might incite the people against occupation. To the colluding temple authorities, he was a threat to their wealth, power, and priestly monopoly of religion. To the zealous people – ah, this is the rub! – he was a bitter disappointment. They wanted a king, a new David, but Jesus refused to play that part. The kingdom he had in mind was of a different, more subtle sort, brought in not by military force but by love. He masterminded a policy of non-violent resistance, of being-the-change-you-want-to-see. And they killed him for it. In the words of John 3:19, ‘light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil’. It was so predictable. So tragic.

And, like every good tragedy, he saw it coming. He knew at the outset that to follow his great calling would require him to lay aside any trappings of wealth and power (that’s what the story of Jesus in the wilderness being ‘tempted of the devil’ is all about). He knew that his radical teaching, in the tradition of the social justice prophets of Israel, would bring him into conflict.  He knew in the garden of Gethsemane that he was about to be killed. And yet, although he knew it, he could not avoid it. He could not turn from the path on which he had set out. Not my will, but thine. “Here I stand”, he might well have said, “I can do no other”.

Not only is this death tragic, it is also heroic. His martyrdom was an act of political theatre. It did not disarm the military might of the Roman empire, but it stripped it naked, and revealed its oppressions in a light so stark that even Roman centurions were forced to question their motives and their loyalties. He could have flinched. He could have run, or have gone into hiding. He didn’t. He allowed himself to by killed, so that the evil of his killers and the system they supported could be unmasked, and so that the way of non-violence and love could be vindicated.

Evangelicals believe that Jesus’ death was a one-off, a unique event in history. For Unitarian and Universalist Christians, this is not so. Rather, Jesus’ death, sadly, is all too familiar. It is shockingly similar to too many other deaths, beatings and imprisonments. Every freedom fighter in an infested cage, every investigative journalist facing punitive damages, everyone who stands on the side of love, of justice, of peace, of freedom, will encounter, to some degree or other, the same opposition, and perhaps the same fate. As we recall on Good Friday the martyrdom of Jesus, we are also invited to remember all those before and since, and all those still to come, who will be moved by their conscience to ‘pick up their cross’ and follow his Way.

The salvation wrought by the Cross is not that of the passover lamb, but that of moral example. Every act of martyrdom, great or small, weakens the moral authority of the systems of power and domination which seek to exploit and oppress, and strengthens the claim of those who are working for liberation and justice. For the seeds do indeed bear fruit. The gains are fragile and often temporarily reversed, and the struggle continues, but we are moving forward. The kingdom of love and light expands. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. From darkness into light; from a narrow, bitter, tribal ethic into a broad, gracious, universal ethic; from vengeance to forgiveness, from hatred to love, from division to harmony.

That is the way of salvation. Salvation is not an escape-card from the imaginary underworld of hell, but a call into wholeness and newness of life. That, and that alone, will wipe away all the tears from our eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain. That alone is what causes former things to pass away, and lions to lie down with lambs. And this is not for the future, at some great eschatological explosion. It is for now. I know because I have seen it. I have seen it in many transformed lives and in restored relationships. Moreover, this salvation is never merely individual. It is social and civic, too. I’ve even seen it in the rebirth of delicate democracy, in the end of brutal conflict, and in the passing of bold, generous, reforming legislation.

So this, then, is what is good about Good Friday: As we remember the death of Jesus, we remember that force and fraud may prevail for a time, but cannot endure. We remember that power without moral right has no authority, but righteousness produces an authority whose power, while soft and silent, overcomes all things.


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.