Monthly Archives: July 2014

On being counter-cultural

It’s often said that following Christ is ‘counter-cultural’. But mostly it doesn’t feel like it. My life feels much the same as everyone else’s – shopping, cooking, watching TV, wasting time on Facebook, worrying about which school the kids will go to. I try to make some ethical choices, like recycling or buying Fair Trade. I guess praying and spending Sunday morning in church mark me out a bit, but generally I don’t feel much different to the people around me. Then I come up against someone who really doesn’t get the choices I’ve made. Why did I leave a perfectly good career? Now I’m tentatively looking for a job, why would I choose to look for a job with a charity in a city 35 miles away when there must be plenty other jobs in the city where I live? And then I see that it is my motivation that is counter-cultural. Perhaps not explicitly Christian, but not the wisdom of the world to reject ambition, money and status and instead be seeking a better society based on social justice, equality and peace.

Which brings me back to the other question that spins round my mind, on the match up between Christian values and ‘Universalism’ values as discussed by Common Cause.

Actually, there’s been a lot of discussion in the last few weeks about values, especially British values. And whenever someone comes up with a set of values, someone else is guaranteed to say that the values are not British because they are important to other people too. So, let’s approach this from the opposite direction. I’m not looking for values which are exclusively Christian – I’m not sure there are any. But I do want to consider the values that Christianity espouses and those it rejects, and to see where they fall on Schwarz’s values circumplex (sorry it’s hard to read).

values circle
Schwarz values circumplex, from The Common Cause Handbook 2011

And what brought all these thoughts together was the service at church last week on the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-12). Here, surely, we have it laid out before us the full extent of Christianity’s counter-cultural-ness. And as good a place as any to see the values considered important to Christians and compare them to Schwarz’s universal human values.

The Beatitudes

Jesus said:

3  ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

4  Blessed are those who mourn,
    for they will be comforted.

5  Blessed are the meek,
    for they will inherit the earth.

6  Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
    for they will be filled.

7  Blessed are the merciful,
    for they will be shown mercy.

8  Blessed are the pure in heart,
    for they will see God.

9  Blessed are the peacemakers,
    for they will be called children of God.

10  Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

11 ‘Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.


I’ve never studied theology, and make no claim to be a theologian, though I will tell you I’m a linguist. So, I can only offer you a discourse analysis and not a theological point of view. The first problem is pinning down the meaning of the word ‘blessed’, so I’m not going to do that. Suffice it to say, for the purposes of this analysis, if something is blessed, we can assume that it is considered valuable, and therefore these qualities are the ones that are important – to Jesus at least!

The second problem is working out what is meant by ‘poor in spirit’. Most people I know will work with a paraphrase ‘spiritually poor’, meaning their life of faith and relationship with God could do with some work. But I have read commentaries from others who suggest a meaning more akin to identifying with the poor – being with them in spirit if not in reality. Interestingly, there is another version of these words in Luke, which has Jesus saying “Blessed are you who are poor” and later “Blessed are you who hunger now”, making the whole thing much more about a physical status than a spiritual one.

Leaving these questions unresolved to one side, it is still possible to consider the things which are described as blessed in order to see which values are given value by Jesus, and which are not, and to map these if possible to universal human values as described by psychologists.

It’s not straightforward though! Let’s start from the bottom up! Verses 10 to 12 describe us as blessed when we are persecuted, insulted and lied about. This doesn’t look like a value in itself, but it is clearly opposite to values like ‘preserving my public image’ and ‘social recognition’. The verses say that being persecuted is a sign of blessing because it aligns us with the ancient Hebrew prophets, who said uncomfortable things to the rulers of their day. The prophets spoke about how people and rulers had turned away from God, and time and time again, this was a call to social justice – this brilliant report from Christian Aid explores this in more detail. So I suggest that ‘social justice’ is being lifted up here, but this might be stretching this passage a little.

Next to be considered blessed are the peacemakers – this can be fairly easily translated to the value ‘a world at peace’. Then we have the pure in heart, not so straightforward. One of the features of Jesus’s teaching was the idea that is not just what we do that matters, but what we think as well (see later on in Matthew chapter 5 talking about murder and adultery). Motivation matters – the inward motivation should match the outward expression, should be ‘pure’ rather than ‘mixed’. I think the value ‘inner harmony’ comes closest to expressing this kind of idea, being at peace with ourselves in that what we do does not come into conflict with what we believe about the world.

Being merciful is considered important next, which looks like a match for ‘forgiving’ in the ‘Benevolence’ sector. Hunger and thirst for righteousness could be two things, depending in how ‘righteousness’ is understood. At face value it looks like a straightforward match for ‘social justice’ – wanting to see the right thing done. But this is a human/social understanding of righteousness. If righteousness is understood to mean being right before God, then it could be a better match for ‘inner harmony’, or ‘a spiritual life’ in ‘Benevolence’. Going back to the things that made the Hebrew prophets hot under the collar (eg social structural inequality), then I think a case can be made that to seek righteousness before God also includes seeking righteousness in society. Therefore, placing importance on having ‘a spiritual life’ and a right relationship with God includes placing importance on ‘social justice’. There is also a sense here of a desire to know what is right, possibly a seeking after ‘wisdom’.

Understanding the value of the meek seems easier to follow as a negative – it is clearly opposite to ‘social power’ and ‘authority’. I did wonder whether the value ‘accepting my portion in life’ was appropriate here, but this doesn’t fit with the second part of the verse; blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. While they may not be seeking after power, being meek is not the same as just accepting what comes along, because, in the fullness of time, much more will be due.

It is hard to know why anyone who is mourning should be considered blessed. Even being comforted in the long run doesn’t necessarily make the mourning easier to bear. But perhaps what is being valued here is the capacity to recognise loss. If loss doesn’t make us mourn, then perhaps we are hard-hearted and selfish. And this could be extended beyond personal grief to recognising the loss and pain in a world where there is suffering. Grieving for our world seems like a good quality to me, though I can’t locate it in Schwarz’s circumplex. But if the motivation for exploring these ideas and lifting up intrinsic values is to change human behaviour in order to tackle climate change and global poverty, then a sense grief for what we have lost seems a good place to start.

Finally, the confusing value of the poor in spirit. A more material understanding, as in Luke, suggests this is opposing the value of ‘wealth’. A more spiritual understanding, suggesting that what is needed is a recognition of our own lack of faith and dependence on God is closer to the values ‘humble’ and ‘ a spiritual life’. My preference is to say that we can understand both meanings, especially as I think our spiritual and physical lives can’t be divided up that neatly. How is it realistic to say we are pursuing a life of righteousness when others around us are hungry (James 2:14-17).

I realise there is much more to say about these verses, as I have barely touched on the second half of each “blessing”. But in summary, let’s look at the values which are promoted and the values which are the opposite of what is blessed. It is important to remember that these are universal human values, which we all consider important at different times and in different circumstances. But the things given value by these verses are not compatible with the values in the ‘Power’ segment of the circle – ‘preserving my public image’, ‘social recognition’, ‘social power’, ‘authority’, ‘wealth’. These extrinsic values are least associated with pro-social behaviour.

Most associated with pro-social behaviour are the intrinsic values in the ‘Universalism’ segment. Some of these values are found in the Beatitudes – ‘social justice’ (twice), ‘a world at peace’, ‘inner harmony’ (twice) and ‘wisdom’. There are also values from ‘Benevolence’ – ‘forgiving’ and ‘a spiritual life’ (twice) – and ‘Tradition’ -‘humble’.

Without analysis, I’ve always felt that ‘Benevolence’ values easily fell within Christian values, but that ‘Universalism’ values, while not incompatible, were not obviously Christian. But the Beatitudes fit best within the ‘Universalism’ sector. There are a few gaps, most notably those concerned with the environment, which may be why it has taken the church so long to wake up to its environmental responsibility. And I don’t think the Beatitudes are an exhaustive account of Christian values, just a representative one. But most stark of all is the comprehensive rejection in the Beatitudes of the ‘Power’ values. It is in the not seeking after power, wealth and status that Christianity finds itself most counter-cultural. The question is, is that what Christianity really looks like?


Clearing up the mess

Just a brief thought for today..  unapologetic

I’ve been reading Francis Spufford’s book Unapologetic. I’ve only completed the first chapter so far, but I really like the way he talks about sin. ‘Sin’ is such a rubbish word to use these days. Spufford talks about how it has been appropriated by dieters, or used to laugh at people who are hung up about sex. It has lost its meaning as something serious or relevant for most people – that’s why people are baffled about why Christians are always going on about sin.

Instead, Spufford talks about that point when we realise we’ve messed up. However hard we’ve tried, the relationship has soured, we’ve hurt people we love, life hasn’t turned out how we planned it. He calls this the human propensity to f*ck things up – or the HPtFtU. That really made sense for me. With the best will in the world, why do conversations with my husband and kids so often end in shouting and recrimination, or a major sulk.

Then, on Sunday morning on the radio, Clare Balding was talking to Buddhist Alison Murdoch about something very similar. Murdoch described how so often we wake up and resolve to be kinder that day, or not to lose our temper, or whatever it might be. And before we know it, our resolve has been broken and we’ve got angry or been rude. It reminded me of the HPtFtU.

But the really interesting thing, which inspired me to post this, was how to deal with this. Murdoch talked about Buddhist techniques to do it right the next time. Ways to become less angry, to be the person we are trying to be. It struck me that in Buddhism, the solution is seen as coming from within. Each person has the power to deal with his or her own HPtFtU, with the right set of discipline and tools at his or her disposal. This is in contrast with Christianity, which admits that humans have no capacity to sort out the HPtFtU. Each person is utterly dependent on God to help us find a way out of the mess that he or she has created, and it is at the point when someone realises how utterly dependent on God they are that the real journey with God begins.

Is Climate Change Campaigning the job of a Development Agency?

Bearing Witness

I was in a discussion the other day about whether it was right for Christian Aid to get involved with campaigning about climate change. Between us, there was a consensus that climate change was a serious and significant issue needing to be addressed in the world today. We also recognised that the effects of climate change have a bigger and more devastating impact on people in poor countries than they do in richer countries. The question that divided us was whether Christian Aid should be one of the organisations to take this campaign on.

Christian Aid’s mandate is as a development and relief organisation. It is a mistake to think of it as a benevolent dispenser of charity, giving aid to the poor*. At times, in emergencies, giving stuff is the right thing to do. But most of the time, Christian Aid is involved with long-term development, helping people out of poverty for good. It works in partnerships all round the world, giving people the tools they need (physical and otherwise) to build their own futures.

One of the key roles Christian Aid plays is to empower people. One of the effects of poverty is that it takes away power, so poor people do not have a voice in their societies. They cannot change things if no-one listens. Christian Aid works hard to make sure people in poor communities do have a voice, a voice which they know how to use, so they can get a hearing about the things which affect them most. It seems to me that the issue of climate change cannot be ignored in this case. The lack of action to stop climate change suggests that most people are not listening to people who are suffering its effects. That’s why Christian Aid should speak out about climate change, giving the poor a voice to change things that are devastating their livelihoods and communities.

People and churches in the UK which support Christian Aid are also involved in these partnerships. Realising our mutual dependence on one another, making sure learning is a two-way process is another strength of the work that Christian Aid does. It is not just people in poor countries who find themselves being ignored when it comes to calling for action on climate change. Maybe the stories being told by those most affected will help the voices of those calling for action in the UK.

Christian Aid does not only help people to advocate for themselves in their own communities. It also advocates on their behalf when it comes to challenging global structures that perpetuate poverty. Recent campaigns on tax avoidance are a good example of this. Key to the tax campaign are calls for transparency, to shine a light on corrupt and unjust practices that allow the rich to get richer by finding ways to withhold taxes due to governments, rich and poor alike, though having a greater impact on those with less to start with.

But what does campaigning on climate change involve if not to shine a light on corrupt and unjust practices. Why is it that, despite scientific evidence which shows beyond reasonable doubt, that increases in carbon in the atmosphere are caused by humanity’s actions, many of those in positions of power are able to deny this and still get a hearing?

Once again, we are back to issues of power. Money buys power. The fossil fuel industry is able to pour millions of dollars (or pounds!) into lobbying governments, funding climate change denying “science” and ensuring it is allowed to go about its business unhindered. Even as I type, the EU is debating a deal which will allow multinational corporations to fine national governments if said government brings about legislation which has a negative impact on its profits (known as TTIP). Most of these debates are in secret, unreported and unknown.

To be able to unpack and dismantle the power structures and influences of the fossil fuel and energy industry would bring a transparency and accountability that would transform so many other industries and governments. Imagine a world unbeholden to Russia or the Middle East for oil. To be able to make economic decisions without bowing to pressure from the energy industry. Unfurling the grip that fossil fuel has on governments, politics and economic structures goes far beyond climate change. Think tar sands oil and Arctic drilling. Who would sanction this kind of activity unless they were terrified of losing the good will and economic power of the fossil fuel industry? Think about the destructive power of extractive industries (mining) in Africa – especially Nigeria – and then tell me that campaigning on climate change is not an issue of justice. Christian Aid has to be there.


*As an aside, I liked this article exploring the relationships and nature involved in “charity”.