Saturday, June 20, 2020

Race, Identity and Grace

England Rugby fans may be banned from singing Swing Low Sweet Chariot. It has slavery connotations, apparently. Which it does. But not in a Edward Colston kind of way. According to anti-racism campaigner, Trevor Phillips, the song was composed by a freed slave just after the American civil war. The ‘Sweet Chariot’ was the Underground Railway, a network of secret routes that helped runaway slaves escape to freedom. Swing Low was a favourite of Louis Armstrong and Martin Luther King. As well as celebrating the Underground Railway, the song was probably an allusion to a dramatic episode in the Bible, when chariots of fire appeared and the prophet Elijah was swept up to heaven in a whirlwind.  

You’d have thought the English rugby authorities would be pleased that fans had adopted an anti-slavery anthem as their song, but no. Writing in The Times (19 June), Phillips argued that an obsession with symbols has overtaken a desire to change the world. Toppling statues and banning songs won’t deal with the issue of racial equality. But such gestures may help us to feel better about ourselves.

Is it just attention deflecting 'whataboutery' to ask why aren't people taking to the streets to protest against modern slavery, rather than vandalising public iconography? The killing of George Floyd was an outrage, but in recent weeks scores of Christian villagers were slaughtered at the hands of Boko Haram in North East Nigeria. See this Open Doors report. You won't hear a lot about that in the media. Christians don't tend to rank very highly when it comes to oppressed victimhood status. 

Welcome to the increasingly febrile world of identity politics. Martin Luther King famously dreamed of a day when people would be judged not on the colour of their skin, but the content of their character. With identity politics, race itself is politicised. The effect is to further divide, rather than bring healing and reconciliation. The hip hop artist Kayne West was denounced as ‘not black’ because of his support for the Republican Party. Closer to home Labour MPs wrote to Home Secretary Priti Patel, questioning her authority to speak out on racism, here. The Black Lives Matter movement has Marxist sympathies. 

Why am I wading in on the subject of an England rugby song? You wouldn’t catch me singing it, anyway. I’m Welsh and can happily sing, Bread of Heaven, knowing that it’s author, William Williams Pantycelyn (1717-1791) wasn’t tainted by slavery in any way. Williams was caught up in the Evangelical Revival that swept across the United Kingdom in the Eighteenth Century. He was a physician turned preacher and a prolific hymn writer. Many of the leading campaigners against the slave trade were Evangelicals such as John Newton and William Wilberforce. 

Their argument against the vile trade was based on the Bible. The Bible teaches that all human beings are made in the image of God, whatever the colour of the skin. There is only one race, the human race. Scripture teaches that we should love our neighbour as ourselves. Jesus was crucified, enduring the death of a common slave to save the world from sin. In the church, a person’s primary identity is in Christ, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)

In the light of those beliefs slavery had to go. The icon of the anti-slavery movement was a black man in chains with the caption, "Am I not a man and a brother?" In the light of those same beliefs discrimination on the basis of skin colour has to go. But virtue signalling identity politics isn't the answer. Identity politics tends to be quick to denounce and tear down, but knows little of grace or forgiveness. The Christian faith offers hope to a broken and divided world. The preacher John Newton was once a captain of a slave ship. Later in life he bitterly regretted his involvement in the trade and worked with Wilberforce to campaign against it. Today’s ‘cancel culture’ would show him no mercy, but in advanced old age Newton could say this, 'Although my memory's fading, I remember two things very clearly: I am a great sinner and Christ is a great Saviour.' 

Monday, June 15, 2020

Plague Journal: Weeks 11-13

Back by popular demand. Or at least one or two of our church people asked what had become of my  weekly Plague Journals, last entry, Week 10, 24 May. Since then we've had three more weeks of lockdown, albeit with some easing of restrictions. After experiments with various kinds of online 'services' we've now settled upon a format that seems to be working OK.

On Sunday mornings at 10.30am we have a Zoom Service that includes a Bible reading, children's talk, song videos, open prayer and a message from the Bible. The reading and talk are recorded for posting online or distribution via CD for people with no internet access. On Sunday evening I do a Facebook 'Go Live Service' with prayer, Bible reading and talk. On Wednesdays we have a Zoom Prayer Time with a Bible Study and time of open prayer. 

I had a week off from 25-31 May. We didn't go anywhere, apart from local walks. Mostly we did jobs around the house. We were meant to be staying with friends in North Wales for the week, but... As I was 'on holiday' men from the churches gave the message in our Zoom meetings on Wednesday (Matthew 15:15-28) and Sunday, (Ephesians 3:14-21)  which you can find here and here. It was good to be able to sit under the ministry of the word after having spoken twice on a Sunday and each Wednesday since our meetings stopped in mid-March. On Sunday evening we joined the friends at Bradford on Avon Baptist Church for their livestreamed service. 

On Wednesday 3 June I spoke on Exodus 33:1-17 and on Sunday 7 June on Psalm 51 and John 7:37-39. Then on Wednesday 10 June on Exodus 33:18-34:9. It never ceases to amaze me how relevant and up-to-date the Bible is, even in these extraordinary times. What a privilege it is to proclaim the Word of God. For sung worship we've been using some of the Evangelical Movement of Wales song videos, recorded at their Aber Conferences. I think they have 99 hymns on YouTube, a good mix of trad and new, see here. You can't beat proper 'in person' congregational singing, but they are the next best thing. Thanks EMW! 

Now the theology bit, which some of our church members say they can't always understand. It's not that Robert Letham's Systematic Theology is especially inaccessible, just my reflections on it. As of Week 10 I'd got as far as p. 570 . Now I'm on p. 612, which is the start of Chapter 22 on 'Salvation and the Church'. In many ST's the doctrines and salvation and the church are treated separately, but Letham wisely integrates the two. Chapters 20 & 21 were on 'Christ Our King' and 'Union with Christ'. Excellent stuff in both. Letham's strictures on  Van Drunen's Two Kingdoms teaching were thought provoking, especially as I was quite sympathetic to the 2K view (see here and here).  

One thing missing from a Letham's discussion of Christ as Prophet, Priest and King is a detailed consideration of our Lord's prophetic role, which is not accorded a discrete chapter. Another lacuna is the relative lack of attention given to the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. This is made good to some extent in the chapter on 'Union with Christ', but still. Reformed STs need a greater focus on the meaning and significance of the resurrection of Christ. Richard Gaffin has done excellent work in demonstrating that in the teaching of the apostles the resurrection as well as the death of Jesus are of central gospel importance. See especially his Resurrection and Redemption, P&R. Similarly with N. T. Wright's massive, The Resurrection of the Son of God, SPCK. Yes, you can't say everything there is to be said about everything, even in a 1000 page volume, but choices have to be made and the resurrection of Jesus is a key doctrine that deserves more than a quick glance. End of theology bit. Not that difficult, was it?

I'm becoming a proper 'Zoom-head' now, despite having never heard of the thing before the coronavirus outbreak. I've been tuning in to the FIEC's helpful webinar series on 'Leadership in Lockdown'.  Our Bradford on Avon Ministers' Fraternal last Wednesday was also a Zoom meeting,  It was good to catch up with the men and their wives and spend time in prayer together, Andrew Davies spoke very encouragingly on the Pilgrim Fathers, who set sail for the New World 400 years ago, 'All Aboard the Mayflower' . I also signed up to EMW's 'Bala Lite' Ministers' Conference from 15-17 June.  More on that in the next journal update.

I wrote to my MP Dr Andrew Murrison last week on a number of matters, including the government's proposals to make divorce easier, liberalisation of Sunday trading laws, the need for clear Covid secure guidance on church meetings and activities, excess deaths in residential homes and the government's botched attempts at getting more children back to school. That was probably enough for him to be getting on with. I look forward to his response.

There are serious questions about the government's response to the coronavirus outbreak and subsequent lockdown. Claims that ministers were just 'following the science' are disingenuous when scientists disagree on how to proceed. It also seems that some scientific modelling was deeply flawed, especially the model championed by the disgraced Neil Ferguson. His model massively overinflated the likely number of deaths in Sweden in the absence of lockdown. That same model when applied to the UK was a factor in the government imposing a tight lockdown here.

In the end, as the saying goes, advisers (even scientific advisers) advise, but Ministers must decide. It is the job of politicians to weigh up scientific advice, economic factors, the impact of measures on people's mental health, pressures on family life, disruption of education and so on. That is why we elect them to wield power, to make informed policy decisions that will help promote the common good, while maintaining our basic freedoms.

The easing of lockdown and the gradual reopening of businesses are moves in the right direction, but the government should now step back from micromanaging people's lives. By all means let Ministers issue Covid secure guidance for various sectors to follow. People should maintain social distancing and the most vulnerable should be protected. But it is time the government started to treat us as responsible adults who are capable of making our own decisions on who we see and where we go. And that includes going to church, as well as the High Street.

Cley Hill from Saturday's walk