Category Archives: morality

Green Mamba

Accusation

Green MambaFrom one of Nicky Gumbel’s talks:

If it’s the Holy Spirit pointing out something that’s wrong in our lives, he will be very specific. We’ll know what it is, and we can repent about it and deal with it.

And after that we’ll feel at peace.

If it’s condemnation, it’s a nebulous feeling of guilt we don’t know quite what we’re feeling—that’s the accuser. Because St. Paul writes: There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

 

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Never too late.

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A couple of weeks ago I came upon this story in the Independent newspaper: The Dying Remorse of Mikhail Kalashnikov.

Kalashnikov invented the infamous automatic rifle, the AK-47, and as the article says, it’s the “weapon of choice, for revolutionaries, drug cartels, terrorists, kidnappers, pirates and soldiers”. Despite the 100m weapons in circulation, Kalashnikov made surprisingly little money from his invention. It was simply designed and easy to copy. Still it has been responsible for who-knows-how-many millions of lives to be cut short.

Earlier in his life, Kalashnikov justified his invention like so: “It is not my fault that the Kalashnikov was used in many troubled places. I think the policies of these countries are to blame, not the designers.”. He may have half a point. The designers of a bread knife cannot be held responsible if that knife is used in a fatal attack. Yet an AK-47 is not a bread knife. It was designed in order to put together and shoot quickly and repetitively. It’s purpose is to kill.

Yet still, the burden of this knowledge must have become a weight upon him. At the age of 91 he first entered a church, and asked to be baptised.

“My spiritual pain is unbearable. I keep having the same unsolved question: if my rifle claimed people’s lives, then can it be that I… a Christian and an Orthodox believer, was to blame for their deaths? The longer I live the more this question drills itself into my brain and the more I wonder why the Lord allowed man to have the devilish desires of envy, greed and aggression”.

The same day I read this article, I happened to be reading a section of Matthew’s gospel, and the parable of the workers in the vineyard. A landowner is looking to hire labourers for a day’s work on his land. He goes down to the market place (the job centre of the day) and hires some men who have not yet found work, promising them a denarius for their day’s work – this was the going rate for a labourer at the time. A little later, around lunchtime he goes down again and hires some more men. And twice more, in the mid and late afternoon he finds some more men. At the end of the day the men line up to receive their pay, starting with those who came last. Those who had worked only a few hours received a whole day’s pay – one denarius. As did those who were hired in the afternoon and at lunchtime. When the turn came of those who were hired first to be paid, they thought they may  be entitled to more, but they received exactly what was promised to them – one denarius for a day’s work.

It seems the Church is there, as it should be, for the spiritually broken, no matter how severe the crimes or burdensome the guilt or how late in life they come. This is the point of faith, that we all have messed up and called far short of God’s standard, yet through the sacrificial death of Jesus, we can hear the words “You are forgiven” and be welcomed into God’s family. We all get the same reward, whether we’ve been trying to follow Christ for our entire lives, or whether, like Mikhail Kalashnikov, it takes us until our tenth decade to discover him.

Well done to the Orthodox Church for welcoming him in, declaring his sins forgiven through Christ, for easing his guilt. He has received the same reward available to all who come to Jesus.

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A new orthodoxy

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We are in the age of post-modernism. The modernist era which begin around the time of the enlightenment was all about certainty, scientific and industrial progress, the putting away of old fashioned myths and stories, and the eroding of faith. This was the era of proof. And what couldn’t be proven would almost certainly be at some point in the future. Truth was out there, and it could be found, but most probably not in the church.

By the time we got to the final third of the 20th century, things weren’t all that certain. Yes, there had been huge strides in medicine, healthcare, poverty, democracy, civil rights, and welfare, but we were coming to the realisation that some problems would always be around, and some questions were not answerable by scientific method and social progress. This, combined with increased multiculturalism and globalisation opened us up to alternative perspectives from all around the world. Suddenly, your solution or opinion was deemed as good as mine and equally valid. There was now no absolute truth and no way of discerning one truth from another. Everything was subjective.

We are in the age of post-modernism. Or are we?

I’m not so sure.

The rise of twitter has made it abundantly clear that there are still many, many opinions out there. But a number of recent events have led me to question whether society in general really does still hold to the postmodern mantra of no absolute truth, with all opinions equally valid.

First we had the Luis Suarez racism debate. What was said, what what meant, and how was the translation? Was he a racist, or was something else meant by the remarks? I the midst of that we had Rio Ferdinand and Ashley Cole embroiled in a twitter row over the term ‘choc-ice’. For example, what constitutes racism? Simply inserting the word ‘black’ in front of an insult?

Second, the failure of the Church of England to pass the legislation to allow women to become bishops. The three chambers of the house. made up of bishops, clergy, and laity (non-clergy) were overwhelmingly in favour, with just the house of laity narrowly failing to get the two thirds majority required. The Twitterverse couldn’t believe it and there was very little attempt to understand the reasons why it might have failed.

Third, the debate and passing of the first reading of the equal (same-sex) marriage bill in parliament yesterday.

In all of these cases, the general feeling of society perceives that there is a ‘correct’ answer. In a true postmodernist society, both those speaking for and against the issues would have their voices heard, and their arguments engaged with. Sadly this no longer seems to be happening. There is a conformity to which we are expected to adhere. The debate on these subjects is shut down, often with the throwing around of insults, such as ‘racist’, ‘sexist’, and the catch-all, ‘bigot’. Tosh is last term in particular has been bandied around a lot this week during the same-sex marriage debate.

I heard someone today call this new way of thinking a ‘militant liberalism’, to go alongside the new or militant atheism that has risen up with the loss of religion, but is it not liberalism in the truest sense, neither is it tolerance. It is simple the expectation that everyone should conform in belief and practice, or else stay out of the debate and keep their opinions private. The views and morals to which we are to conform are vastly different to what they were a hundred years ago, but the expectation is that these views are the norm and there is an intolerance for anything else.

Some time ago, Ed West, in The Telegraph echoed this as he was commenting on the suggestions of some contemporary philosophers that atheists take the best, but non-spiritual, parts of religion.

The real problem is that religion is always replaced by something else. The rise of fads such as homoeopathy is well documented, but more commonly people’s religious desires for certainty, morality and community are transferred to their politics; that is why there is this sense that those outside the communion of correct beliefs today are morally unclean, and new sins such as “racist” and “sexist” replace “heretic” and “sinner”. That is the real “religion for atheists”.

Post-modernism was always difficult to define. What was agreed was that it was the time after modernism, but there was no consensus on what would take it’s place. I think it is emerging. We could call it ‘neo-orthodoxy’ or ‘neo-conformity’, but what seems to be clear is this: there is a new set of right beliefs not based on any faith position. What worries me is, without a theological foundation, where might these lead us?

It is easier to break a rule than to to cheat on a lover

The hijacking of the concept of morality began, of course, when we reduced scripture to formula and a love story to theology, and finally morality to rules. It is a very different thing to break a rule than it is to cheat on a lover. A person’s mind can do all sorts of things his heart would never let him do. If we think of God’s grace as a technicality, a theological precept, we can disobey without the slightest feeling of guilt, but if we think of God’s grace as a relational invitation, and outreach of love, we are pretty much jerks for belittling the gesture.

Donakd Miller in Searching for God Knows What

Truth telling and forgiveness by @scotmcknight

Telling God the truth awakens forgiveness. Sometimes one gets the impression from misguided experts that God is holding a club over our heads, and the moment we tell the truth he cracks us a good one and then says, “you ugly little sinner!”
But Abba is not like that. The promise of the Jesus Creed is that Abba loves us. He creates us to love him; he desires our fellowship. So, truth telling is not an opportunity for head bashing, but an opportunity for the heart of Abba to be thrilled by reconciling forgiveness.

Scot McKnight in The Jesus Creed

When is a risk worth taking?

Last week a nurse wrote about the top regrets that dying patients have about their life. Here they are:

1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.

3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.

4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.

5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

From PostSecret this week

Many of these are about taking risks or taking action. Risks to go against the expectations of others or the prevailing thinking of society, and an action which is a conscious choice – yes – even the choice to be happier.

Some risks are simply about taking control and making a step towards a new reality or a potential goal, yet it can still be daunting to take that step. For example, someone might have been dreaming of following a certain career, but has to retrain in order for that to happen. It is very easy to put off that phone-call – what if they reject you? What if it is too expensive? Because these things are unknown they involve moving from a place of safety to one of uncertainty. Even though the potential rewards might be greater, it can seem like a daunting course of action. Usually, in hindsight the regret is “Why didn’t I do that sooner?”

Some risks are about quality of life. For example the regret above “I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings” is simply about speaking the truth to others. Again the potential drawbacks, such as a rejection, can have a big effect. But people usually don’t regret saying what they feel. (If it’s bad news, however, people can regret how you say it!)

Others risks are simply for a thrill or a bit of fun. For example, I’ve been wanting to learn to snowboard ever since I saw the Snowboard-Cross event in the 2006 Winter Olympics. Yes, that’s a long time ago. Yet I never quite got around to it. I nearly did one Christmas in New England, but alas, that year, the snow came late and we had to go home before it came. Well I’m finally getting round to it at the indoor snow-dome near us. Nothing to lose but the possibility of a few bruises.

So when is a risk worth taking? In no particular order, this is what came to mind.

1. Does it fit into your life plan or help you towards where you want to go? If it doesn’t, the risk probably isn’t worth taking (unless it’s only a small side track). It may simply be a waste of time and energy. In this case, best to go back to basics and rethink what you really want and work towards that. (This can apply to relationships as well as job/career risks. Why waste time with a guy or girl who doesn’t treat you right or who doesn’t want to commit if you do? Might be best to cut your losses and hold out for someone whom you can plan a future with.)

If you don’t have a life plan it is worth finding out whom God has made you to by examining your passions, gifts and hopes. Finding a direction is usually a combination of these things.

2. Is it sensible? What do my trusted friends and family say? Sometimes the biggest sticking point in making a decision is wondering whether that decision is the right one. Talking about it to others and praying about it can help you work towards a solution. Some actions are obviously sensible but just require the discipline of a lifestyle change to get them sorted.

3. What are the potential consequences if the risk doesn’t pay off? Can I live with them if it doesn’t work?

For me, bungee jumping is a risk to far. The potential gain (a quick thrill) is not worth the potential risk (serious injury, death) if it doesn’t work. But if the risk is something more practical, like applying for a job in another part of the country, then assuming you want the job and don’t mind moving, it is probably worth the cost of a stamp to apply.

4. What is the likelihood of the risk failing? If the odds are too long and the cost is too high it might be worth holding back. If the likelihood of failure is high but the consequences of failure are minimal, it is probably worth the punt. Where there is a tricky middle ground, we need to go back to question 2.

5. Is is legal? Generally, what is illegal is not worth risking. There may be exceptions under regimes where human rights are not respected or religious freedom permitted

6. What are the consequences for others? Will they be hurt or impacted by the risk? There might be hardships for your family if you go ahead with something new. This will need to be taken into account. A few years on a lower salary might be worth it for long-term rewards, or if it means that you have more time to spend with them. Likewise, if a decision is going to take you away from them for large periods of time, however attractive or lucrative it might seem, it may not be worth it as their non-material quality of life may suffer from your absence. The impact of others needs to be carefully weighed up.

The Bible is full of examples of people who have taken great risks in order to serve God. In each case, they became aware of a call from God to do something particular. I would say that they discovered who God made them to be. It didn’t usually lead to a physically or materially better life – often they suffered hardship, imprisonment, they were chased out-of-town or persecuted because they went against the expectations of others. Yet in each case, they found their God-given selves and with that a peace and security to make the decisions they have to make.  I’m sure they would do it again.

Religion for Atheists results in a new moral certainty.

Alain de Botton has recently suggested a new kind of religion for atheists – one which takes all the best bits of religion such as community, generosity, creativity but leaves behind all the less desirable parts such as the rules and the actual beliefs. Ed West in today’s telegraph commented how this would always end up like an alcohol free lager – missing something crucial and something that doesn’t do much for anybody.

An interesting article – his last paragraph was this:

The real problem is that religion is always replaced by something else. The rise of fads such as homoeopathy is well documented, but more commonly people’s religious desires for certainty, morality and community are transferred to their politics; that is why there is this sense that those outside the communion of correct beliefs today are morally unclean, and new sins such as “racist” and “sexist” replace “heretic” and “sinner”. That is the real “religion for atheists”.

This struck a chord with something that we were discussing on Jon Marlow’s blog, about whether postmodernism was giving way to something else – a sense of ‘correct belief’ where everything outside of the prevailing view is not tolerated, shouted down or responded to with the refrain “You can’t say that!”. We called this ‘neo-conformity’. Interesting that this trend has been spotted by others and I wonder if it is really leading onto a change in era.

The solution to the riots

I’ve been thinking a lot, as have most of us, about the scenes we witnessed last week. As I sat eating dinner looking out window of the cottage we were staying in Worcestershire, over 10 miles of unspoilt countryside of the Severn Valley, I couldn’t help but think of the contrast between what we were experiencing on our family holiday and the violence in our major cities. A lot has been written on underlying causes, and I have sent off a letter to politicians giving my views on it too (which I’m not going to publish here).

However, I would recommend reading this, an open letter to David Cameron, and watching this, delivered six weeks ago before the riots. The problems aren’t new. They’ve been around for a long while but have only just been noticed.

Notes on Death: The Death of Ivan Ilyich

This short story is usually published alongside other short stories of Tolstoy’s that deal with issues of marriage, happiness, life and death. At about 70 pages (roughly the same length as some contemporary novels such as Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach), it is minute compared to Tolstoy’s other epics, but is certainly long enough to develop character and to lure you into it.

I’m going to give the game away. In the book, Ivan Ilyich dies. I was rather surprised to find that he actually died in the second paragraph, because it is the nature and significance of death that Tolstoy wants to discuss. The book begins with effect that Ivan’s death has on others. To two of his work colleagues, the death is an opportunity and an irritation. Someone will need to fill Ivan’s role and Pyotr Ivanavich thinks he might be the one. So the opportunity for promotion is there. At the same time there is the irritation of visiting the family, consoling the widow, and staying for the wake which only delays Pyotr’s preferred way of spending the evening, at poker with friends.

Only then does Tolstoy turn to to dealing, in retrospect, with the life and death of Ivan Ilyich. We are treated to a fairly leisurely description of Ivan’s life – of how he floated through life enjoying his position, taking the opportunity for work advancement when it was there, marrying well and fathering two children. The marriage is not described in glowing terms. The initial attraction wore off quickly and the marriage was simply a given – not particularly good or bad, just there. However familiarity bred irritation followed by annoyance and hate. In this time Ivan wanted to climb the rungs of government advocacy and he succeeds, resulting in a move to St. Petersburg.

Shortly afterwards he develops an illness. Although at first it did not seem like an illness. An uncomfortableness developed into an irritation. Doctors were summoned and consulted and second opinions were had. Diets were followed and medicine was prescribed. The ache got worse. Tolstoy describes it as a loose kidney. With the deterioration of his condition came the decline in Ivan’s mood. Only the kindness of Gerasim, one of his servants, gives him any comfort. This kindness is shown in the hope that someone might do the same for Gerasim when his time comes, and it affects Ivan. Lesson one: We Will All Die.

Ivan doesn’t do illness well. The realisation sets in that he will not recover and be becomes prone to depression, analysing his life. Looking back, Ivan couldn’t think of anything noteworthy nor much that was particularly bad in his life. Yet he cannot shake the uneasiness that something has been missed and that he has not lived as he should. Again he cannot think that he could have lived any other way. He remained upright in society and, well, only treated others as well as other of his class did. The story climaxes not with a great confession or conversion, just an acknowledgment that he has been living for the wrong thing – that his life has in some sense been inauthentic as he lived it for himself. At the moment of his realisation he experienced an end to his loathing for his family and a cessation of his pain as he embraced the joyous white light that was enveloping him.

There is a quote from the South American Missionary and martyr Jim Elliot who was killed at the hands of the people he went to serve in 1956:

“He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”

It seems that this is the lesson that Ivan finally grasped in his final moments. As soon as he realised he could not hang onto life, onto himself, he was embraced by a love and joy that he had never known.

Update 28/07/11: Following a recent newly published edition of this story along with another of Tolstoy’s short stories The Devil, The Guardian have also published a review here.