Saturday, 29 April 2017

Unmasking the myths - Key Christian values when choosing who to vote for

What are the key Christian values we should look for when choosing who we vote for?

In one sense, there is just one key Christian value that should determine how we vote. It's the Christian value in how we treat our fellow humans- “love your neighbour as yourself” (Matthew 22:40). As Jesus says, from that all else flows. Perhaps the clearest exposition of what this should mean practically is given by Jesus in the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats (Matthew 25). The lives of those counted worthy of his eternal kingdom should be characterized by the following sort of actions:               

                          ·         Feeding the hungry
                          ·         Taking in the stranger
                          ·         Housing/clothing the destitute
                          ·         Looking after the sick
                          ·         Visiting prisoners

 If such actions should characterize our personal actions they should also characterize how we how we exercise our vote. There is not one set of values we should follow in our personal lives, another in our work life and another in our politics. God has the same set of values in everything and we should seek to mimic him and adopt his values in every aspect of our lives; “in all your ways acknowledge him.” (Proverbs 3:6).

At the last election Ekklesia, a politically independent Christian organisation, published a really helpful guide “Vote For What You Believe In”. It highlighted what they considered to be the values that the bible most emphasizes that should guide how we vote. It was an excellent document widely supported by Christians of different political parties, even if they had different views on how those values were best realized. The link to it is:
Frankly, Ekklesia’s guide is better than anything I can come up with. But this hasn't stopped me have a stab at it! (Mine's a bit shorter anyway)

 Some key Christian values that should guide our voting

1.  Looking after the poor and marginalized  

Biblically this includes the hungry, the homeless, those marginalized by society and yes immigrants- "The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt." (Leviticus 19:34). Caring for the poor comes so high on God’s list of priorities that it is mentioned 128 times across the bible and is repeatedly emphasized in both Old and New Testaments. It is at the core of Jesus’s challenge in Matthew 25 and in his Sermon on the Mount. It is illustrated by Jesus’s own life, with his mission being directed particularly (but not exclusively) towards the poor and marginalized in his society. On two occasions he miraculously provided food for large groups of his hungry audience. God has a real heart for the poor and so should we. Just one among the many dozens of verses that could be cited: “Is this not the kind of fasting I have chosen?… to share your bread with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter-when you see the naked, to clothe them...” (Isaiah 58:6/7)

             2.  Caring for the sick
God’s injunction to care for the sick and desire to see them healed is emphasized throughout the bible, being mentioned at least 27 times in scripture. It is also highlighted in Matthew 25 and very much seen in Jesus’s own actions. Wherever he went he did not just teach and offer spiritual healing but he physically healed the sick.

             3.  Ensuring true justice for all

Ensuring true justice for all comes extremely high on God’s list of priorities, especially giving a voice to the poor and dispossessed. It is often spoken of in the same breath as looking after the poor. Indeed, between them God’s concern for the poor and for social justice are mentioned over 300 times across the Old and New Testaments. Just one among the many dozens of verses that could be cited: “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.” (Proverbs 29:7)
And the sort of justice we are talking about is filled with compassion and mercy and humility; “And what does the Lord require of O mortal? To act justly and love mercy and walk humbly with your God…” (Micah 6:8). This is exemplified in Jesus, who with a single sentence disarmed the stoners about to carry out capital punishment on the adulteress: “he who is without sin cast the first stone.” (John 8;7)

           4.  Ensuring everyone has a fair share.

When God set up his original (imperfect) earthly kingdom of Israel social justice was at the heart of it. He ensured everyone, from the least to the greatest, had a stake and fair share in the good things of the promised land : “…there need be no poor among you, for in the land the Lord your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance he will richly bless you…” (Deuteronomy 15:4)
This is also part of his ultimate plan for his perfect heavenly kingdom on earth. (Micah 4:4) It’s not about arithmetical equality and the bible extols the principle of rewards for what we have done. But it’s about ensuring everyone has a fair share. We won’t achieve a perfectly fair society here and now. However if we are seeking to follow God’s plan and pattern in his word we should be aiming to get as close as we can to this.

           5.  Looking after the planet. 

The bible declares the earth is God’s and not ours (Psalm 24:1),but he has entrusted us with the care of his planet. In fact, from the beginning the essential mission he gave us was to care for his planet:   "The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it." (Genesis 2:15 ). Caring for our planet also flows into God's other priorities of caring for the poor and giving everyone a stake in the land. This is because in the end the resources upon which we all depend come from that planet.

  1.  Keeping peace and order
Seeking peace is a key value extolled throughout the bible. It is mentioned at least 48 times. It is a key characteristic of God which we are encouraged to imitate in all aspects of our lives. Indeed, one of the names Isaiah gives to Jesus when he foresees his return as the world's ruler is “Prince of Peace”. It is therefore not surprisingly that in his preaching Jesus acclaims peace-making. He laments how the Jewish nation fails to understand what makes for peace and weeps over Jerusalem as he foresees the Roman destruction of Jerusalem that will result from the Jews’ rebellion. (Luke 19:42-44) In his Sermon on the Mount he says, “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the sons of God" (Matthew 5:9).

Ultimately the vision of Micah 5 is that wars between all nations will cease and we will turn “our swords into ploughshares”. That vision cannot be fully realized until Jesus returns. However, in the meantime the bible makes clear that we should "Strive for peace with everyone..." (Hebrews 12:14). And that applies to what we do as a nation as well as individuals. This is implicit in Jesus’s lament in Luke 19. In fact, peace-making and keeping the order that comes with it is specifically identified as an area in which secular government has an important role to play: "I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Saviour, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth."(1 Timothy 2:1-4)

        7.  Allowing freedom of speech and belief

God’s injunction to preach the gospel to all nations in Matthew 28 should make all Christians very mindful of the importance of free speech. Freedom of speech gives room for the gospel to be preached. But Christians cannot expect freedom of speech over our beliefs and speech without offering that same privilege to others; even those who take very different views and may even be directly hostile to Christianity. The bible teaches that we should be gracious to and tolerate opposing views and voices:
"And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth".
(2 Timothy 2:24-25)

I think the large majority with Christians would agree that these are all key values that we would want the government we elect to strive for.  We may then end up coming to different political stand points over how these values can be best realized. However, I think part of the reason for such divergent political views between Christians is that we do not always keep such key values front and centre stage. Sometimes I think we allow worldly political values to eclipse these biblical Christian values. I will look at that in my next blog.

Thursday, 27 April 2017

Unmasking the myths- better voting, free from the mind fog

How can we better exercise our vote in a principled Christian way, free from the mind fog of misleading myths?

Prayer- let God renew our minds

As a Christian I would say the starting point before making any difficult decision, including voting, should be to ask God for his wisdom (James 1:5). This requires not just going through the ritual of asking for his guidance, but submitting to God in humble prayer. Too often our thinking is molded by what the rest of the world thinks rather than what God thinks. We need to align our thinking with God by allowing his Holy Spirit to renew our thinking so that we can “test and approve what God’s will is” (Romans 12:2).

Following the Maker’s instructions- the Bible

Having asked God for his guidance, I believe we should then look to the Maker's instruction manual, the Bible. It's chiefly through the bible that God’s Spirit can guide and teach us in everything and that must include our politics.
"All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right." (2 Timothy 3:16)

To take the bible seriously means understanding God's word in its context and through the lens of God the Son, Jesus, and the Kingdom he preached. He is the ultimate Word (John 1) and the Truth (John 14:6). If we feel that God is telling us to do something but it does not align with the principles in the bible then we have got it wrong and are being deceived. And that is just as true with our politics as anything else.

The bible contains plenty of practical wisdom to help us when making difficult decisions:

1.    Make an effort to understand the evidence & issues.

The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom. Though it cost all you have, get understanding.” (Proverbs 4:7)

To get wisdom over difficult decisions like who we should vote for requires effort. We should not just rely on our gut instinct about what “feels” right. We should examine the evidence and look into the issues so that we gain some understanding of them.

2.    Listen to wise advice

The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice.” (Proverbs 12:15)
Where there is no guidance, a people falls, but in an abundance of counsellors there is safety.” (Proverbs 11:14).

Part of our effort to understand should be to listen to advice from others, people who appear to be wise and know what they are talking about- experts in their field. We should also listen to advice from more than one other person and more than one point of view. We shouldn't simply listen to politicians spinning their policy or journalists making headlines. It is better to listen to real experts in their field; e.g. the views of doctors over the NHS, of economists over the economic impact of Brexit, of climate change scientists over the environment. Of course, experts in their field may take many different views. But where there's a large consensus of expert opinion we should take that quite seriously.

3.    Look at the signs of the times- is a storm coming?

 "A prudent person foresees danger and takes precautions. The fool goes blindly on and suffers the consequences.” (Proverbs 22:3)
 " say...'Today it will be stormy, for the sky is red and overcast.' You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. (Matthew 16: 2b/3)   

       To make a wise voting decision we also need to carefully consider “the signs of the times”. Is there evidence of a storm coming that requires sensible precautionary action? This is also where listening to the advice of experts in their field may be important.

4.    What best promotes justice and compassion?

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8)

In exercising our vote, just as in everything else we do, our actions should be dictated not simply by what serves our own personal interests but what promotes justice and compassion to wider society.

5.    Beware false prophets

We should not be swayed to vote for a politician because they claim to be a Christian, nor because they say they are pursuing Christian values in their policies; “…many shall come claiming to represent Me, saying that I [Jesus] am the Christ, yet shall deceive many.” (Matthew 24:4-5). We need to be sceptical over how politicians may appear in the media. Often leaders who appear to be “good” leaders can be the very opposite. We need to be wary of “…false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. By their fruit you will know them." (Matthew 7:15) Paul talks about the “super apostles” that some rated more highly than Paul because they who were evidently better trained, more charismatic speakers than he was. However, they were actually deceivers leading people astray (2 Corinthians 11).  Too often our idea of a good political leader can come down to who is the more media friendly; who is the more eloquent speaker or who comes up with the best soundbites.

Instead, we should be judging politicians by their “fruit” i.e. their character and most of all by their actions rather their words. “… faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead." (James
2:14). If a politician or party has been in power what good (or bad) have they done with that power? How honest and trustworthy have they been? If the politician or party has not been in power recently we can at least examine what their actual policies would potentially do to achieve (or not) good Christian ends and how honestly and honorably (or not) they have conducted themselves.

6.    Look at the bible’s “red letter”/Kingdom of God values- God’s priorities

More than anything we should be looking at a leader/party’s proposed policies in the light of the values the bible most emphasizes, sometimes referred to us "red letter" values. How would this politician or party’s policies actually realize (or not) those key Christian values?

So, I guess the next question is what are the key Christian values we should be looking for in the policies of parties we might vote for?  I will discuss that in my next blog.

Friday, 21 April 2017

Unmasking the myths - Not Another Election! How we get fooled again (and again and again)

And so here we are again- on the verge of another major national vote; the third in three years. This is despite our Prime Minister assuring us there would be no new election until 2020! And as in the previous contests we will find ourselves often casting our vote in a different way to many of our family, friends and neighbours with whom we share very similar life situations and even the same faith and values.

Christians (and indeed Muslims, Sikhs or Jews) would say they seek to base their lives and values on the same book and the same God as their fellow believers. However, as we saw most clearly in the US Presidential elections, people of the same faith can end up coming to some very different political choices. So why is it that people who share similar life situations and similar faith and values often end up reaching different political choices?

From what I have seen I believe the answer is that, whatever or whoever we vote for, many (probably most) of us who vote will cast our vote based more on myth than fact. As a result, I believe we are often lead us to vote in ways that are ultimately against our own interests and against the values that we really believe in.  Sadly, all too we then just repeat the same mistakes again. To misquote  the Who, “we will get fooled again”. And in case I’m here accused of arrogance I will freely admit I am not immune to such deception. Looking back, I believe I was fooled in the way I voted in 2 out of the last 3 general elections.

So why are we so often taken in?

As a Christian, I believe that humankind in general is ultimately deceived about themselves, God and life as a whole and clearly politics is included in that deception. And the ultimate deceiver is not any politician, however eloquent and successful, but someone far more powerful-  a supernatural being, Satan, “the Father of Lies” as Jesus calls him (John 8 v44). From the beginning, he was out to get us, to separate us from God and from each other and all the good things God wanted for us all. He mostly achieved this through spreading lies. This was seen first in the Garden of Eden. His lies about God’s motives in keeping the tree of knowledge off limits deceived Eve who in turn deceived Adam so that they both disobeyed God. (Genesis 3). In judgment, they were driven from the Garden into a harsh and broken world where we’ve all been struggling ever since.

As a Christian I believe that Satan was defeated by Jesus on the cross and his fate is sealed. However, he is still very active in the world and still trying to make us suffer as much as possible. Even though he is mortally wounded like an injured beast he remains very dangerous, “prowling around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5 v 8). And his methods haven’t really changed since the Garden of Eden. One of the main ways he still makes us suffer is through spreading lies. Sometimes he does this directly but mostly he does this through humans deceiving each other, just as he did in the Garden. Like Eve, having been deceived, we become the deceivers of others. And we are all caught up in deceptions sometimes as the deceiver sometimes as the deceived and often a bit of both. This applies to all aspects of life and certainly applies to our beliefs including our religious and political beliefs.

 In fact, as a Christian I would say the most important thing that most of the world is deceived about is Jesus and His message. If most are deceived about that then it is hardly surprising if most are also deceived about other slightly less important stuff like politics. And Christians are certainly not immune to such deception!

 I believe one of the things that makes us most vulnerable to deception is natural bias. So much of what we believe comes not from facts that we’ve seen or observed but from the influence of natural bias. We are all affected by natural bias. Often it’s negative bias, e,g. distrust of benefit claimants, of the rich, of employers, of trade unions, of the EU, of politicians, of Tories, of socialists, of immigrants, of Muslims, of Christians, of atheists, of economists,  of journalists, of bankers, of northerners, of southerners, of political correctness, of “red tape”/”health and safety”, of patriotism. But it can also be a positive bias e.g. in favour of anything that promotes free speech, free enterprise, the environment, equality, “health and safety”, helping the poor, law and order, security, self-dependency, anything “British”, anything “Christian”.

Sometimes our bias might happen to align with reality but often it doesn’t. Bias may even lead us into making wise choices but for the wrong reasons.

And where does our bias come from? It could be our upbringing and childhood influences- sometimes due to our particular life experiences and often through osmosis of the opinions of our families and our friends we grew up with. That bias of course can be influenced by later life experiences and social interactions. But our bias isn’t necessarily overcome by facts that might contradict that bias, because we often see and interpret the world through the lens of that bias. So two different people looking at the same thing do not necessarily see the same thing. And when we find others agreeing with our views we will naturally tend to take this as confirmation that we were right all along. In doing so we fail to recognize that we tend to gravitate towards those with similar views and bias that we already hold.

Then there's the influence of mass media; the views and spin of newspapers, TV journalists and increasingly of social media outlets.  And we need to consider who are the people who fund those who propagate those media messages? Some of them may be new types of influencers (individual bloggers like Russell Brand). However, many of them have a much more established pedigree, e.g. the owners of newspapers and TV/satellite companies, the spin doctors of political parties and political pressure groups (often masquerading as policy “research” centres). And increasingly they will share their more traditional product via social media.

I would suggest we need to be particularly wary of the influence of the media because their direction is generally determined by their owners who by definition will usually be super rich individuals and corporations. They will therefore tend generally to have a bias towards parties and policies that will serve the interests of the very rich rather than the interests of most ordinary folk, let alone the poorest and most vulnerable. These if you like are the descendants (in some cases literally) of the ruling rich elites that have by and large always run our country in their own interests. Originally, they did so as kings and feudal lords who lauded it over ordinary folk in a world before democracy. But their power and money has allowed them to retain much of their ability to control things in their own interests. Even in our supposedly democratic country they can still do this by influencing the opinions of ordinary folk to vote (or not vote) in a way that serves the interests of the elite.

 A key way they achieve that end is by spreading political myths and fake news that deceive ordinary folk into voting for parties or policies that ultimately are contrary to their own interests but for the benefit of the rich elite. Note (unlike the “Father of Lies”) I am not suggesting they are out to harm the interests of ordinary folk. Like most people, they are primarily motivated by self-interest, without looking to positively harm others. It’s just that their wealth and privilege means that very often what is most in their interests is not in the interests of most people.

And very often the way the media manipulators influence opinions and votes is by latching onto popular bias. They use this to nudge or push the public towards the party or policy they want to sell.

And then there’s the sinister influence of the intellectual cyber criminals, who spawn the fake news viruses-  editors of fake news websites and even more macabre, foreign government cyber spies. Through the internet they can spread their fake news viruses far and wide though news websites and social media. And then through TV and more social media via the fingers and mouths of politicians and other opinion formers and then repeated through wider public social media. It gets into our own eyes and ears and then into our minds. It then comes out of our own fingers and mouths as we in turn spread the virus further. And if we had any doubts about the devastating influence of fake news we only have to look at the US Presidential election.

But it’s not just about deception or bias. Even without any fakery it is often difficult working out the best way to manage things in this world. That’s because the world and us humans in it are broken and dysfunctional and have been (I believe) ever since the Fall. As a result, neither we nor our world works the way it should and how we interact with each other and our world is complicated. None of us fully know and understand how it all works.  As it says in Ecclesiastes 8 v 17, “No one can understand what goes on under the sun. Despite all their efforts to search it out, no one can discover its meaning. Even if the wise claim they know, they cannot really comprehend it.” And the pace of change in our modern world, with ever developing technology and the globalisation it brings only makes our world even more complicated.

And history has taught us that there is no social or economic model that has really succeeded in bringing good outcomes for all. To a greater or lesser extent all have failed, albeit some certainly more than others. And even with the greatest effort and best of intentions things often don’t work out as we think they should.  “Time and chance happens to them all.” (Ecclesiastes 9 v 11). There just seems a lot of randomness.

 It’s because it’s difficult enough to work out stuff even when we do know the truth that it becomes even more important to strip away the myths so that we can at least start from a basis of truth.
But in this ever more complicated world of 24/7 media we are surrounded by a wall of competing messages. It gets very confusing. For many of us trying to sift the fake from the real, the myth from the truth seems almost impossible. It just gives us a headache.

No wonder then that an increasing number of people simply do not vote . In fact, in the 2015 election the winning Conservative party received only 24% of the votes of registered voters. This was dwarfed by the 34% of registered voters who didn’t vote at all. Tragically in all recent UK general elections the largest political camp has not been Labour or Conservative but non-voters. Yet the right to vote is a precious gift that people have died to win for us. I therefore believe we have a moral duty to exercise a right to vote. However, equally we have a moral duty to exercise that vote responsibly and after due consideration of the evidence. Frankly voting irresponsibly without properly considering the evidence is an abuse of that right which is at least as bad as not voting at all.

But to fulfil our moral duty to vote and vote responsibly how can we find our way through the miasma of myths and mixed messages to reach some truth? In my next piece, I will suggest what I hope are some good biblical pointers towards exercising our vote responsibly.

This blog is written for Christians and anyone of other faiths or none who shares the essential core Christian values seen in the bible and the life of Jesus Christ.

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Unmasking The Myths -What Is Truth?

Unmasking The Myths -What Is Truth?

“What is truth?” Pontius Pilate asked Jesus. (John 18 v 38). The Roman Governor was wrestling over what to do with this strange man the Jewish authorities had handed to him. They were pressing for Jesus's crucifixion. In our world of full of fake news we might well ask Jesus the same question. What is the truth and what is false? And Pilate’s dilemma shows how fake news is not just a recent problem. He was having to grapple with this in his decision about Jesus. Was he really a dangerous rebel plotting to usurp Caesar as King? Was that true or was that myth, fake news spun by the Jewish authorities looking to pursue their own agenda? He never really got to the bottom of the issue. Yet, as we remember this Easter, he sent Jesus to the cross anyway.

In our age of ever accessible internet, 24 hour news and constant social media we are bombarded by messages, much of it spawned from fake news and myths. These myths often deceive us into making decisions that are against our own best interests and those of wider society. We will never face as momentous a decision as Pilate did- to send the Son of God to his death. However, we have many decisions affecting our own lives which can be influenced by myths and fake news.  As a Christian I believe the most important of these decisions is whether to follow the man (the God) whom Pilate had crucified. This I believe will determine our eternal destiny (John 3 v 16).

But myths and fake news also infect our beliefs and decisions on wider issues affecting the whole of our community, country and even the world. Unlike Pilate we may not think we have any influence over those. However, since we live in a democracy collectively through the exercise of our votes and voices we do. 

In my future blogs I am going to unmask what I believe are some of the myths and fake news that deceive us and infect our beliefs and decisions on political issues. Since I myself am not immune to the deceptive influence of myths I won't always get it right!

Over the past 30 years or so I have changed my views on a whole range of political issues (and sometimes more than once):
  • Nuclear disarmament (several times!)
  • Brexit (albeit only very briefly)
  • Taxation policy
  • The causes of the crash
  • Austerity
  • Privatising public services
  • Abortion laws
  • Gay marriage
  • Which party I've voted for (at least three!)
  • Which political leader I support
 Some of those changes I might justify in terms of changes of facts. However, in most cases the real underlying facts have not changed - only my perception of them or the conclusions I have drawn from them. Therefore, I must have got it wrong on most of these issues. The only question is whether I've got it wrong now or got it wrong before! (Or perhaps was I wrong both times?)

However, I would like to think that I do at least try to cut through the myths and deceptions to reach the truth. A bit like the Prince in the Ladybird version of Sleeping Beauty (now I’m really showing my age!). I am slashing through the weeds and brambles with my trusty sword, determined to make it through to the castle that they hide. (Sometimes perhaps only to find it’s the wrong castle!)