A chance to hear about our findings…

If you’d like to hear more about the findings of the Megachurches and Social Engagement in London project, please come and join us at our Day Conference in November. Booking and further details at: bit.ly/mselconf 

Megachurches Conference Invite

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Some thoughts on ‘Disagree with tea’

Christians in Politics recently released a video entitled ‘Disagree with Tea’: its basic premise is that Christians need to learn to disagree well, maintaining relationships across differences of belief or opinion, in this case, particularly political opinion.

Ironically, watching it left me feeling rather conflicted, and realising that I needed to learn to disagree well…with myself.

On the one hand, the video speaks in a timely way to one of the key challenges we face as a society, and often as individuals too: far too easily, disagreement with people is equated to disapproval, judgement or hatred of people. And likewise, far too easily, disagreement with people can descend into disapproval, judgement or hatred of people.

Christian theology offers several important antidotes to these things: all people are seen as loved and precious to God, regardless of their beliefs, behavior or background; Christians are taught by their scriptures to ‘speak the truth in love’, suggesting that if we can’t maintain a loving attitude to those with whom we disagree, we need to examine our own hearts and motives before pursuing a particular conversation or course of action; and finally, there are Jesus’ instructions to love our neighbours, and even our enemies.

As such this video carries an important message about unity in the midst of disagreement, and about giving oneself the freedom to find (at least elements of) truth in the perspectives and beliefs of a different political (or indeed other kind of) ‘tribe’, potentially giving rise to fresh, more holistic and more imaginative ways forward in terms of political thought and action. Great!

However, the clip also left me with two troubling questions:

First: who is doing the tea-drinking? And second: to what extent is tea-drinking really a loving response to the use of political or economic power in a way that damages, degrades or oppresses real people? There is something uncomfortably safe and sheltered about drinking tea in a nice coffee shop while others wait fearfully for Work Capability Assessments, or stare into a nearly empty cupboard wondering what to feed their kids.

I’m not suggesting people should stop drinking tea, going to nice coffee shops, or talking politics. And I agree that relationships – and the opportunities they offer to be exposed to and changed by the life experiences and insights of others – are the primary means by which issues of social injustice, segregation and inequality can be addressed. But perhaps we need to ask some questions about who we are drinking tea with, and whether we are also willing on occasion to stand up, knock over the teacup, and challenge injustices where we see them, recognising that getting angry about the suffering of other people is also part of what it means to love them.

Photo: Spilt Tea, Caro Wallis. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

 

Shalom and Salvation: either/or or both and?

‘Blogs are great places for pithy assertions, but not for in depth analysis’ – or so one speaker at last week’s Social Policy Association conference in Belfast suggested.

I fear there is some truth in that statement. However, what I hope to do here is rather to point to an idea that I think represents a valuable tool when it comes to understanding and talking about the relationship between the church and wider society: namely, shalom.

Shalom is often rather inadequately translated as ‘peace’. In fact it represents a very holistic notion of wellbeing, including: physical health, good relationships, justice, having sufficient material resources, making a meaningful contribution to society and being safe and secure. Significantly, shalom is inherently relational and presents the wellbeing of individuals, families, communities and societies as inter-dependent. It is understood to be relevant to whole cities and societies, regardless of a person’s religious beliefs: all can participate in bringing it about, and in receiving the benefits that it comprises. ‘Human flourishing’ is perhaps the closest concept to shalom in social policy speak: both terms acknowledge the relational and multi-faceted nature of human wellbeing.

As such, we might think of shalom as what the ‘social engagement’ or ‘social action’ work of the church is oriented towards. Except that there’s a problem with that. Because among the good relationships that the concept of shalom encompasses is a good relationship with God. Theologian Cornelius Plantinga describes shalom as ‘the webbing together of God, humans, and all creation in justice, fulfillment, and delight’ (1996, p. 10). Contrasting shalom with a secular notion of ‘the good life’, philosophical theologian Nicholas Wolterstorff notes that ‘the Old Testament writers … would say that one’s life does not go well… if it does not incorporate being rightly related to God’ (2013, p. 19).

Similarly, the concept of ‘salvation’, often conceived of as a primarily individual experience or choice, can also be understood as both social (e.g. having relevance for communities too) and holistic. Arnold (1996) describes salvation as: ‘a reality with at once spiritual and physical, individual and communal, objective and subjective, eternal and historical dimensions’. Thus, a reconciled relationship with God is seen to have far-reaching implications, rather than being solely a personal and spiritual matter distinct from the rest of one’s life.

On this basis it is difficult to justify a strong distinction between the ‘spiritual’ and ‘social’ work of local churches. One might argue rather that both the shalom-seeking and salving work of the church and of God are inseparable and orientated towards human flourishing in good relationship with God. What this means in practice needs to be the subject of a much longer piece, but here I simply suggest that, understood in this relational, holistic way, shalom might serve as a valuable concept in identifying possibilities for collaboration and innovation in a variety of contexts that contribute to human flourishing, whilst also honouring diversity, integrity and difference.

More in-depth analysis on these themes to come!

One God, many parties? Christians’ responses to the General Election

I have to confess I have spent rather longer than usual scanning my Facebook newsfeed over the past week, not least because it offered some thought-provoking insights into the way that a (relatively small, but not homogenous) group of individuals articulated their perceptions of the results of the UK General Election as they were made known. I’m a Christian myself, and amongst my Facebook friends are quite a number of Christians: they were by no means the only ones expressing their views on the election, but since churches’ social engagement is what we are interested in here, that is where I focus my attention in this post.

A number of themes emerged from my unscientific analysis of this ‘data’. Firstly, there was sadness, grief, anger even, that policies that have made life more difficult for some of the most vulnerable groups in society will likely continue and deepen over the coming years. Secondly, there was defensiveness: Conservative-supporting Christians protesting at being labelled as lacking in compassion, especially for those experiencing poverty. Thirdly, there was fear: for example from friends affected by increasingly punitive approaches to benefits related to disability or ill health. And fourthly there were injunctions to prayer, faith and action in local communities instead of moaning and despair about the outcome.

It was evident that Christians who agree that social justice, compassion and love for others are important can disagree profoundly about what these look like in practice and how they are to be brought into being. So why is this the case? This question of course merits far more exhaustive research and explication than a short post such as this can offer, but here are a few suggestions:

  • Evidence: People’s attitude to quantitative and qualitative evidence about social and economic problems, the evidence they choose to pay attention to, the way this evidence is constructed, and the way in which it is presented in the media are likely to have a significant effect on the way in which people conceive of social issues, their causes and what might constitute an effective or desirable solution. One only needs to consider newspaper readerships to recognise that we generally prefer to read evidence that reinforces our existing views, so there is plenty of potential here for deepening polarisation instead of expanding our knowledge and understanding.
  • Encounter and experience: Does it make a difference how immersed or far removed one is – socially, geographically, or financially – in or from socio-economic deprivation? This letter from URC Minister Mike Walsh reflects the view that those who live at a safe distance from poverty may have little awareness of the profound impact that changes to policies around welfare benefits have on people’s lives. Alasdair Rae’s blog has some fascinating maps showing the political colours of the most and least deprived constituencies in the UK (prior to the 2015 election): he rightly points out that these maps raise questions rather than provide answers, but perhaps one of those questions should be – what difference does experience and encounter make to voters’ choices?
  • Scale: An important consideration for a Christian voter who is committed to social justice arguably concerns the scale over which they believe it is possible for justice to be worked out. A strong emphasis on localism and community-based social action has found considerable support amongst some Christians, with good reason. However, when one considers the unevenness of the pre-existing socio-economic landscape within which localised action is envisaged to emerge or grow to meet a greater range of needs, some serious questions arise about capacity and resourcing. An international perspective adds a still greater degree of complexity. Indeed, a further issue is how one gauges the scale of the social issues to be addressed: this in turn is likely to be strongly influenced by the two points raised above.
  • Scope: This is perhaps the only point here that pertains specifically to Christian voters, and it concerns the extent to which one believes that Christian teachings about justice, poverty, work and compassion (amongst others) apply to different aspects of life and society. For instance, some seem to conceive of God’s involvement and concern as focussed on two levels: that of the individual and that of the whole created order over which God is recognised as sovereign, with little concern for layers or structures in between. Others emphasise the importance of establishing just structures in the state and markets whilst paying little attention to the personal responsibility and potential of individuals and neglecting the agency of God. Still others see all of these as levels or sectors in which faith is to have an influence and offers hope for a better future. This question of scope is crucial in determining the forms that Christian social engagement takes, be it practical social action, prayer, campaigning, lament, political involvement or a combination of these and other actions.

Clearly this is not an exhaustive list, nor is it free from the influence of my own beliefs and experience, both academic and personal, but hopefully it provides a bit of food for thought and further reflection as we continue to consider the consequences and implications of the UK’s new political geography.

Religious interference or faithful living? When politics and religion collide

There are perhaps many reasons why religion and politics are topics we are often taught to steer clear of in polite conversation, but something that these subjects have in common is that they are at once intensely personal – experiential even – and intensely public: they can shape the way we perceive the world, our identity and place in it, and our relationships with others. As such they can influence both our most intimate relationships, as well as those within local and national communities, and our understanding of our responsibilities towards those we may have never met because of geographical, social or historical separation. Such deep and at the same time far-reaching core values and beliefs can be difficult to articulate, particularly in contexts where they are not shared and where prior understanding or common experience cannot be taken for granted. Indeed, this difficulty has perhaps been reinforced by our reticence as a society when it comes to engaging in conversation about these themes.

Adam Dinham, Director of the Faiths and Civil Society Unit at Goldsmiths, University of London suggests that ‘there is a lamentable quality of conversation about religion and faith after decades of relativist Religious Education (RE) in schools and secular normativities in universities and professions’. This conversational difficulty is increasingly problematic when we consider that, alongside the continued progression of secularization, we are also seeing a ‘return of religion to the public agenda’ and, as Grace Davie notes: ‘At precisely the moment that we need them most, we are losing the vocabulary, concepts and narratives that are necessary to talk intelligently about religion’.

We can unpack this a little by looking at a recent example. A diverse range of responses can be found amongst the media and political debates that followed the release of the Bishop’s Pastoral Letter that Sarah Dunlop discussed in her recent post to this blog, but I will focus here on one aspect: namely the criticism levied at these faith leaders on the basis of their ‘meddling’ in politics. For me, this raises a fundamental question about how faith is perceived in the public sphere. It implies that faith is rather like a commodity or resource that can be allocated, harnessed even, for particular purposes or activities – such as worship services (particularly to mark important state occasions) or helping the poor (especially where we’ve cut government-funded provision for them) – in much the same way that one might put aside some money for a holiday, or spend a certain amount of time each week undertaking paid employment or driving the kids around, or whatever. For some, this may indeed be the case. But for others it is not: their faith is a matter of relationship – with God and with others – and lived identity. And this applies to faith leaders as much to people of faith as to those whose vocations are in other fields.

It is interesting to consider what kind of message this accusation of interference in the political sends to people of faith in the country at large: need they not participate in the upcoming election? Or is the suggestion that they ought to wear a different ‘hat’ in order to do so, ensuring that their vote is not informed by their faith? This would seem to run somewhat contrary to objectives of the ‘Show Up’ campaign, which is supported by Christian groups from all three major political parties.

A quick look at the Old and New Testaments of the Bible show us that where the outworking of faith and obedience to God – sometimes in the form of speaking out publicly – intersects with vested financial or political interests, it is not always well received… but there are also times where it meets with humility and gives rise to a change of direction. Perhaps it is unsurprising then the Bishop’s Letter met with such a variety of responses – what remains to be seen is which of these will reverberate longest and to greatest effect within the UK’s social, political and economic cultures.