Friday, October 18, 2019

Gay thoughts!

The account of creation in Genesis is one passage of the Bible that is often used to argue against homosexual equality. Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve. God created them male and female. For a man to be attracted to a man, or a woman to a woman, is an act of sinful rebellion against God’s design for us, therefore such people need to repent and change their behaviour before they can be saved. And if we do welcome them into the church, we can’t possibly allow them into positions of leadership or authority before they’ve either committed to celibacy or been ‘converted’ to heterosexual practice. Right?

Well…no, I don’t think it is. 

I want to clarify my own thoughts and opinions about this, partly for the sake of integrity and partly to welcome the challenge of those who may feel differently. I don’t think I’m going to entirely please either side of the debate, but I want to be honest about where I’m ‘at’. So here goes. 

Firstly… God didn’t make us to be gay. 

It wasn’t part of our original design, it’s not how we reproduce and it’s not the way our bodies are made. His intention was for sexual relations to take place between a man and a woman. Homosexual attraction and homosexual relationships are an indication that somewhere along the line, something has gone wrong.

But hold on a minute. Let’s look a bit more closely at Genesis 1-3 and see what else happened that God didn’t intend. If you and I are going to argue against homosexuality because it wasn’t part of God’s original plan, then we must also acknowledge: 

That we should all be vegetarian (Genesis 1:29-30) 
We shouldn’t be alone (Genesis 2:18) 
We shouldn’t be wearing any clothes (2:25) 
Women shouldn’t experience pain and discomfort during child-birth (3:16) 
Men shouldn’t find providing food for themselves and their families a difficult, arduous task (3:17) 
We shouldn’t even understand the difference between good and evil (3:22)

It seems to me that whilst homosexual attraction is one indication that we’ve fallen, it’s one of many. The Bible repeatedly teaches us not to judge each other because we’re all sinful and only God can judge. If we insist, however, that some individuals need to change something as personal and fundamental to them as their sexual orientation before they can truly be accepted by God, then there are some pretty drastic changes that we all need to make: stop wearing clothes; stop eating meat; stop finding work difficult. In fact, unless you’re an extrovert nudist vegetarian living off a huge inheritance then you can’t possibly be right with God. 

In the fallen, post-Eden world that we live in, surely the dial has been reset? After sin entered the world it simply wasn’t possible for us to get back to what God had originally intended. Or at least not in this life. Child-birth will always be hard. We’ll always feel shame and embarrassment about our naked bodies. And some people will always be gay. 

Is it necessary then for gay people to suppress or inhibit their natural instincts? Most Christians nowadays understand that it’s generally not possible to reset or ‘heal’ homosexuality, but argue that those who have such urges should commit themselves to a celibate life, because gay sex is sinful. Is this right? 

I’ve thought long and hard about this and I’ve come to the conclusion that there are two ways of addressing the question: by the Word and by the Spirit. More specifically, by looking at what the Bible has to say about homosexuality, and (alongside this) by prayerfully allowing the Spirit of God within me to shape and direct my thoughts: essentially to do what Paul advises in Philippians 4:8 – ‘Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.’   

The Word
Scripture doesn’t have very many references to homosexuality at all. It isn’t specifically mentioned once by Jesus, whereas greed, hypocrisy, envy and hatred are frequently lambasted. This alone should give us reason to stop and think. There are only four explicit references in the Bible; two in the Old Testament and two in the New. 

Genesis 19: 4-8
Before they had gone to bed, all the men from every part of the city of Sodom—both young and old—surrounded the house. They called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us so that we can have sex with them.” Lot went outside to meet them and shut the door behind him and said, “No, my friends. Don’t do this wicked thing. Look, I have two daughters who have never slept with a man. Let me bring them out to you, and you can do what you like with them. But don’t do anything to these men, for they have come under the protection of my roof.”

Sodom was a deeply sinful, wicked place which was destroyed by God because He couldn’t find (in a city of many thousands) even ten righteous people living there. These verses have been used to show that the Sodomites’ homosexual urges are indicative of how sinful they were. That doesn’t sit right with me. Is homosexuality really the problem here? What these men want to do is commit gang rape. They want to break into another person’s house and force his guests to have sex with them. Furthermore, whilst the master of the house is horrified at the thought that his esteemed guests might be subjected to this, he seems entirely at ease with the prospect of his daughters being savaged and penetrated. 
What is the problem here? What is it that offends us? Is it the fact that some of these people have homosexual urges? Or is it instead the rape, violence, mob rule and misogyny.    

Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13
‘Do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman; that is detestable.’ 

‘If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They are to be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.’ 

This would appear to be quite unequivocal. These are two of many laws and decrees that were given to the Israelites at a time when they were in exile, seeking the Promised Land and seeking to establish themselves as a distinct, recognised and respected ethnic group. There’s no escaping the fact that God did not want His people to engage in homosexual relationships at this time, and this should give all of us reason to pause: it does reinforce the fact that same-sex relationships are not what God originally intended and whatever conclusions we come to about this, none of us should be flippant or dismissive either in our own opinions or in our attitudes to those we disagree with.

There are a few thoughts I’ve had about these verses. Firstly, I’ve yet to come across a convincing argument as to why some of these Old Testament rules should still be followed rigidly whilst others can be ignored and over-looked. If it is detestable for two men to have sexual relations then shouldn’t we also be avoiding clothing made of two different kinds of material, or making sure that we don’t plant two different kinds of seed in the same field? 

Secondly, if it is right for us to follow these commands about homosexuality, then presumably we should be doing everything that they tell us to, and in the case of Leviticus 20:13 that includes the punishment as well. We should be putting gays to death. No Christian worthy of the name would dream of trying to enforce this, yet it doesn’t seem entirely consistent to argue that we should adhere rigidly to the law but ignore the specified punishment.

Thirdly, and most importantly, we can’t forget what the New Testament teaches us about the law. The Old Testament law shows us just how far we fall short of God’s perfect standards because we can never hope to live up to them. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t really try, but as Paul says in Romans: ‘No-one will be declared righteous…by observing the law’. Why? Because in trying to do so we will not only inevitably fail, but we will also become competitive and judgemental towards each other in a way that won’t promote Christian love and unity. As Jesus replied to the law expert in Matthew’s gospel: 
“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”      
If we come across someone living in a homosexual relationship who is doing their level best to please the Lord by following these two commandments, is it really our place to tell them that they’re not right before God?  

Romans 1: 26-27
Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error. 

I think we fall into a trap when we take this out of context. We need to have some awareness both of the historical context, and also the holistic message of Romans. Remember 2 Timothy 3:16? ‘All Scripture is God-breathed…’. Note the very first word. All Scripture. Let’s not focus our Christian ideology on one or two verses that happen to chime with our own opinions. 

I won’t go into much detail about the history, but suffice to say that first century Rome was a hot-bed of immorality, sexual and otherwise. Much of this wickedness is mentioned throughout the first chapter of Romans: evil, greed, murder, arrogance, ruthlessness… it’s likely that homosexual acts were one of the signs of moral deprivation, but they were one of many and they were carried out in an attitude of shameful decadence and reckless hedonism. Is it fair to equate this with same-sex relationships that are genuinely respectful, loving and committed? 

Also, we cannot ignore the very first verse of Romans chapter 2 when thinking about this passage: ‘You therefore have no excuse, you who pass judgement on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgement do the same things.’  
The use of the present tense is interesting. It’s not just that we did the same things. We do them! We are doing them. God’s wrath is also evident in our lives. As seen in Genesis 1-3, none of us live lives in keeping with His original intentions. We too, whether gay or straight, can be envious, boastful, arrogant…and sexually immoral. We all fall short! We confess our sins and rely on His grace. We will however put our own relationship with God at risk if we condemn others for the signs of His wrath in their lives, but choose to ignore those which are evident in our own. 

1 Corinthians 6:9-10 
Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men] nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. 

There is very little ambiguity here. For someone who is instinctively opposed to the idea that people in homosexual relationships cannot be included in God’s family, I find this the most challenging of the four references in Scripture. Paul states quite explicitly that ‘men who have sex with men’ will not inherit the kingdom. This is a reminder to me that, at the very least, I need to respect the faithfulness and resolve of my fellow-Christians who maintain a ‘traditional’ view on this: it’s not an easy stand to make and it’s not a popular one in contemporary society. I admire their courage and I need to acknowledge to them, and to myself, that I could be wrong.

There are a few observations and thoughts that I’ve had about this passage:

Paul states his views unequivocally in other parts of his letters too: 1 Timothy 2:12 is a classic example: ‘I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent’. Also 2 Thessalonians 2:9 – “If a man will not work, he shall not eat.” There are few who would argue that these teachings should be literally applied in the developed 21st century world. All Scripture is divinely inspired, but surely if we believe that our Bibles are the living word of God then that implies that their truths can adapt and renew themselves according to the historical, social and cultural environment that they find themselves in. That’s what living things do. 

This verse appears to have been translated slightly differently over the years. The King James version has ‘fornicators’ instead of ‘sexually immoral’, (something that would no doubt concern many of us) and ‘abusers of themselves with mankind’ is used instead of ‘men who have sex with men’. An earlier version of the NIV states that it is ‘homosexual offenders’ who will not inherit. These subtle differences in translation are not conclusive, but I think we should at least consider them when making our minds up. 

Why only ‘men who have sex with men’? Why is there no mention of female same-sex relationships? If we’re going to insist on applying this literally then it’s only relevant for men. For women there is no problem. 

Elsewhere in his letters, Paul lists the type of behaviours that displease God: Galatians 5:19-21 and Colossians 3:5-9 are two such references. The more general reference to ‘sexual immorality’ is often used. These verses in Corinthians are the only ones that reference homosexuality. That doesn’t mean we ignore them, but it does perhaps point to the fact that we shouldn’t become too fixated on this one sparsely referenced issue. 

Again, the context of these verses shouldn’t be ignored. In 1 Corinthians 6 Paul’s overall purpose is to encourage the Corinthians not to take each other to court. Why would he include in this passage a list of behaviours that is displeasing to God? Maybe it is to remind the Corinthians that God is the only judge, and that they shouldn’t need to rely on earthly judges to settle their scores. Is it possible that some amongst the community of believers in Corinth were suing people who were involved in same-sex relationships?  And is it possible that Paul’s message to the church was essentially…don’t worry about it. If they truly are ‘offenders’ or ‘abusers’, then God will know and He will judge accordingly. It’s not your job to do so, because you’ll almost certainly get it wrong. 

The Spirit 
It’s a false distinction, of course. The Spirit and the Word are mentioned together at the very beginning of the Bible and they work together throughout Scripture and throughout human history. There’s no essential difference between them. Our understanding of the Spirit comes from the Bible, but the Bible itself tells us that knowing the Word of God is more than just an intellectual exercise in reading, memorising and studying. When the Lord speaks in Jeremiah 31:33, He says (of the new covenant) that: “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts.”  If you and I have accepted Jesus as our Lord and Saviour; if we both read and listen to His words; and if we are prayerful and humble in our endeavours, then we should feel able to trust our emotions and instincts. It isn’t always necessary to be able to quote chapter and verse. His law is written on your heart. So what does your heart tell you? What does mine tell me? 

It reminds me of close friends from years gone by who have committed their lives to God and loved Him sincerely, then been struck down by doubt, depression, loneliness and emotional breakdown because of the extreme guilt and confusion they felt about their sexual orientation. After difficult and painful journeys, these individuals have committed themselves to loving same-sex relationships. Who am I to judge? Who am I to tell them that their lives are unworthy of the Lord when I’ve experienced nothing of their pain and have turned a wilfully blind eye to the myriad ways in which my own life falls short? 

It persuades me that one of the viewpoints often expressed in evangelical circles nowadays – that gay and lesbian people are welcomed and loved in the Church but, in order to be truly right with God (in order to be really loved) they must renounce same-sex relationships and live celibate lives – doesn’t sit quite right. When my wife and I got married I promised to love her unconditionally and unreservedly. You can’t enter into a truly loving marriage by saying - “In sickness and in health, from this day forward, for better or worse: BUT… after a few years have passed I expect you to have given up this… to have started behaving in this way… to have improved in this area. If you haven’t managed it then I might reconsider my position.”  It just doesn’t work! When Jesus met people He loved them unconditionally. They knew that and because they knew it, some of them did change their behaviour. But you can’t start with the conditions and reservations: it’s not genuine love if you do. 

It tells me that throughout history, some Christians have found themselves on the wrong side of the argument when they have sought to restrict other people’s rights and freedoms, not because of any immoral or criminal behaviour, but because of an unavoidable and unchangeable aspect of their identity. Many Christians believed that the Bible should have been translated from Latin, but some did not. Most believed that slavery should be abolished, but some did not. Most believed that education should be made available to all, but some did not. I’d like to be on the right side of the argument on this one.

And it helps to focus my mind, ultimately on the fact that God is love. And that if you love, you know God. Where there is hatred and fear, we can be confident that God is absent, but wherever there is love – real love – we can know that He is present. Who is more loving? The person who sleeps around and leaves a trail of hurt, confused partners in their wake? The married heterosexual who neglects their spouse, deliberately tries to undermine them, maybe is even unfaithful to them? Or is it the homosexual who loves their partner with self-sacrifice and commitment? It’s an easy answer as far as I’m concerned. 

Homosexuality is not what God intended. Adam and Eve makes scientific, physiological, cultural and spiritual sense. But the extent of our Fall is unimaginably huge in its size and scope. The damage that has been done to humankind and to creation, from generation to generation, is tragic, immense and irrecoverable. That is, apart from the life and death of one Man. A Man whose life (and death) was all about one thing: love. One Man who loved the world so much that he put Himself through the most physically, spiritually and emotionally painful death that there has ever been. It wasn’t judgemental or conditional love, but one that was higher and wider and deeper than we could possibly comprehend. 

So let’s try to love each other in the same way. Let’s not place restrictions or conditions or reservations on it. It’s not our place to judge and we’re very likely to get ourselves into a whole lot of trouble if we do. If we do this then I believe we’ll be living the lives that God wants us to, which will make all of us – according to the traditional meaning of the word – a lot more gay!   


Friday, June 2, 2017

Tax doesn't have to be taxing!

Imagine for a moment that there is a big, important job that needs doing. It’s not going to be easy and will take quite a lot of time, effort and commitment. The job is offered to two different people. They both outwardly express a willingness to take on the responsibility and get the work done, but their approach and attitude varies considerably.

Person A (can’t think of a better name but ‘Selfie Feet’ randomly springs to mind) makes their offer in this way:

“If I take on this job then I will immediately pass the buck and ensure that the real work is done by somebody else. Many people will be relying on me to do the job competently, and many will lose out when I don’t, but I don’t really care about this. The only thing that matters is that if things go well I can, by a vicarious sleight of hand, claim all the credit for myself, whereas if things go badly I will quite reasonably blame someone else. It’s all about having the opportunity to scapegoat as far as I’m concerned.”

Person B on the other hand (any number of names would work, but not Theresa, Boris or Dave. Definitely not those) has this to say:

“I’ll take on this job and take on all the responsibility for it. I’ll need some help and support from others, but hopefully once the job is done those same people will benefit from it. And when the work’s been completed you’ll have the chance to judge for yourself whether or not I did a good job.”

Who would you have more respect for? Who would you prefer to give the job to? It seems pretty clear to me that A is all about the image and the kudos, whereas B is willing to put his/her head above the parapet, get the job done and take responsibility for the outcome.

Lately I’ve had taxes on my mind (it’s all rock and roll at our house, believe me). They’ve been on my mind all the more since reading this excellent article in The Guardian. The Conservative party want to convince us all that tax is a burden and should be reduced as much as possible. They are proposing cutting corporation tax to 17%, which would be one of the lowest rates in the developed world. I think I have a basic grasp of the ideology: low tax rates are needed to attract and keep the entrepreneurs, innovators, wealth-creators and money-makers whose work benefits us all and whose absence would plunge Britain into a Third-World state of poverty and despair.

The problem is, it just doesn’t seem to be true. As the Guardian article makes clear, the wealthiest Swedes are not leaving their country in droves despite having a top income tax rate of 60%, because they understand that this gives them great state welfare and ensures that future generations receive a great education. In Germany (where their economy is even bigger than Britain’s which has THE FIFTH LARGEST ECONOMY IN THE WORLD DIDN’T YOU KNOW!!!) the rate is 30%, and their infrastructure is the envy of Europe.

So why does the Conservative party persist with this myth that tax is a bad thing? Why keep arguing and arguing that higher tax rates don’t bring any benefits when they quite clearly do, in all sorts of different ways?

Honestly I can think of only one explanation: like Person A, they just want to duck the responsibility. They want to be able to blame someone else when it all goes wrong.

Take the NHS as one example. When the whole thing is privatised and the childish, immature notion of providing good healthcare for everyone regardless of their income has finally been put to bed, the Conservatives will quite legitimately be able to blame other people for any mishaps or mistakes. “Don’t blame us!” they’ll say. “You don’t pay us any tax for this anymore! Talk to your provider. Talk to your insurance company. It’s all their fault.”

Similar things would happen in education. When we have nothing but free-schools and academy chains (and I’m very suspicious that the savage cuts are a backdoor attempt to continue the policy of getting rid of all state schools) then the government of the day will absolve themselves of all responsibility for educational standards. Shrink the state and you shrink its accountability too.

A braver government would not cut taxes. A more courageous, caring and forward-thinking government would, like Person B, say to its citizens: “We’re not passing the buck to anyone. Give us the money to do these things for you, then judge us by the results. If you don’t like what you get, then vote for someone else.”

There are lots of things to consider when we vote on June 8th. A vote for the Conservatives would, in my view, be a mistake. And one of many reasons for that is their ongoing refusal to have the guts to take responsibility.        

Sunday, February 12, 2017

The Gospel according to 294 (almost entirely Conservative) MPs

“Give to everyone who asks you...unless they happen to be a foreigner. Those who were not born on the same patch of land as you are far less deserving of charity.”

“Do to others as you would have them do to you. If, however, you are financially comfortable and live in a politically stable country then of course this doesn’t apply. After all, the circumstances of your own birth were entirely down to your own hard work and diligent planning.”

“Love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Unless a few national newspapers suggest that there might be a small possibility that one or two of them are trying to take advantage of your generosity. This absolves you of all responsibility to all of them. Scrounging bastards.”

“But a Samaritan, as he travelled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he said ‘I must not, on any account, do anything to help this man. His situation is unfortunate but if I stop to heal his wounds it will only encourage the thieves! If they think that there are good people in the world who might actually care then they’ll feel justified in robbing more people! No no...far better to give a few quid to charity. That way someone else can get their hands dirty.”

People were also bringing babies to Jesus. When the disciples saw this, they rebuked them. But Jesus called the children to him and said, “Let the little children come to me.” Then he looked one of them in the eye and said “Clearly you are not a child. I specifically said little children and you must be at least twelve.  Also, you have no visible scars or signs of trauma, therefore you must be lying to us all. Piss off.”

Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you?”

And the King will reply: “No you didn’t do any of these things, and this is why I’m so pleased with you! Thousands died because you chose instead to do what was politically expedient, or what your mates told you to do, or because you were scared of what Rupert Murdoch and Paul Dacre might write about you. You’re exactly my kind of people! Hurrah!!” 

See Luke 6:30-35, Luke 10: 30-37, Luke 18:15-17, and Matthew 25:31-46 for original source material.  

Tuesday, January 17, 2017


My little boy, Corin Walter Shepherd, was born at 7.37pm on Wednesday 17th September 2014.

I’ll remember a number of things from the final few hours that led up to his birth and the few hours that followed. The moment that I saw him for the very first time is one that will, of course, never be forgotten. My dear wife had already endured a marathon and was exhausted when the time came to push. She tried and tried to get him out but nothing was happening. The doctor had a look and told us that he was facing the wrong way and was unlikely to be coming out without a bit of help. We headed down to theatre where we were told that they would try to use the forceps to encourage him along, and if that failed then it would be a caesarean section. It was at this point I convinced myself that something was going to go wrong: his heart-beat would stop; he’d be injured in some way; he’d come out not breathing; he’d have two heads. I remember sitting alongside my wife as she lay on the operating table. I smiled at her, told her everything was going to be fine. She’d been through so much more than I had and for her sake I wanted to appear as calm and confident as I possibly could. Inside I was a mess.

I needn’t have worried. After a couple of twists and pulls, Corin made his grand entrance. He was by far the loudest person in the room! Proudly announcing his arrival into the world, he turned to look at me with a very cross face, rebuking me for doubting that he was ever going to be less than perfect. Daddy! Daddy! How little faith you have! I am Corin, hear me roar!! A few minutes later I think he had forgiven me, as I held him in my arms and walked him round the operating theatre. Quiet and content, his eyes darted around the room, taking it all in. Calmly accepting this strange new world.

As intense and draining and joyful as all of this was, it wasn’t until a few hours later that the wonderful gift and privilege of parenthood really hit me. I’d been unable to think straight for some time, but driving home by myself later that night, having left my new family safe in a hospital bed, I was calm and quiet enough to be able to hear a whisper. A profound, encouraging, life-affirming whisper.

He’s not yours.

It made me frown too. He’s not yours. What do you mean? I think you’ll find that he is! I’ll get all Jeremy Kyle on your ass if I need to!

He’s not yours.

So whose is he then??

He’s mine.

And who exactly might you be?

I think you know.

And yes, I did. The conversations that I’d had with God over the past few days had been panicked, one-way monologues. I’d forgotten what it was like to listen to Him, but in the quiet of my car there was no mistaking His voice. And what He was saying made perfect sense.

We always talk about our children. This is my son. My daughter. These children are mine. And there’s nothing wrong with that. I’ve called Corin my boy many times already and will continue to do so. You are their parent and primary carer, more responsible to them than any other human being, so it’s quite normal to think of them as yours.

They’re not though. Not really. They, like all the billions and billions of people in the world, are God’s. They are His children just like we all are. Being a parent is a precious, precious gift and a wonderful thing. Through an act of love, my wife and I have created a person. For as long we are able we get to care intimately for another human being. Our love for him is as strong as any human love possibly could be. Over and above any other person we are responsible for his safety and well-being. We get to nurture him, teach, encourage, and protect him. He will probably be the best thing that will ever happen to us.

But we don’t have any rights of ownership. He’s not ours. We don’t have the right to impose our preferences or viewpoints on him. We don’t have the right to force him to make choices, pursue relationships or careers that we think are the right ones. We don’t have the right to try and turn him into the person that we think he should be.

Our only aim, and our only prayer, is that every day of his life he will know the love of his Heavenly Father, and that he will follow the path that that Daddy – the Daddy who knew all along that he was going to be perfect – has laid out for him. And if my wife and I can be signposts along the way then we will have done our duty in this wonderful gift called parenthood.       

Sunday, November 13, 2016

It was...the Church wot won it??

So…it’s Donald! We’ve all been trumped by this one. A bitter and cantankerous man who appears to colour his hair with the urine of a farmyard animal just got elected to the most powerful office in the western world. This time last year Donald Trump was the joke story at the end of the news. Now he’s the joke story at the start.

I wasn’t as depressed by this news as I thought I would be. After Brexit there was part of me that expected it to happen, which probably helped soften the blow. On Wednesday morning my beautiful two-year old boy, oblivious to it all, repeated one of his favourite phrases a number of times: “It’s okay Daddy…it’s okay Daddy…it’s okay Daddy.” Then on Wednesday evening a group of children whom I’d spent several weeks preparing and rehearsing performed a Shakespeare play at our local theatre that was dazzlingly and movingly brilliant. All these things made me smile on a day that should have been truly miserable. More than this, I think I’d given myself a good talking to. After Brexit I was downcast and withdrawn. I’m determined not to react in the same way this time. Of course this outcome is very, very worrying and we’ve all got good reason to fear for the future, but if this is to be the challenge that my generation faces then bring it on. The cards have been thrown up in the air but the way that they land isn’t going to be random: let’s make sure it’s the hearts and diamonds that face up.

However, one aspect of this that really does trouble, infuriate and concern me is the role that the church in the USA played in this election. Analysis seems to show that about three quarters of evangelical, church-going Christians voted for Trump, and they were almost certainly influenced by a number of high-profile Christian leaders who openly supported him. For the life of me I cannot understand this, and whilst the vote to leave the European Union made me feel, for a time, ashamed to call myself British, Donald Trump’s victory makes me almost feel ashamed to call myself a Christian.

Almost. But not quite.

Because the reality is that I’m deeply proud of being a Christian. It’s the most important identify that I have. It’s just that it appears I don’t have a great deal in common with some who would give themselves the same label.

This is the way that I see it.

Being a Christian means being a follower of Jesus. And Jesus disturbed the comfortable and comforted the disturbed. Whenever he saw hypocrisy, oppression, arrogance or injustice he challenged it. When these qualities were combined with wealth, status and influence (as they so often are) he was particularly scathing. Any time that he met the marginalised and oppressed, however, he was kind, compassionate and loving. He ate in the homes of those who the religious authorities had declared were ‘sinners’. Arguably the most shocking aspect of his life was not that he healed the sick but that he associated with them. Spoke to them. Touched them. Gave them back their dignity and humanity. Before he left the world, he promised his followers that they would be filled with his own Spirit so that they could live life in the way that he did. The Bible is fairly clear about what the signs of a spirit-filled life are: love; joy; peace; patience; kindness; goodness; faithfulness; gentleness; self-control.

Now it’s not for me or any other human being to make a definitive judgement about the character of Donald Trump, but I don’t see evidence of any of these characteristics in him. It doesn’t matter what label he gives himself or what ‘tribe’ he chooses to identify with. A true Christian is someone who tries to follow the example set by Jesus. Trump, as far as I’m able to tell, does not. And any church-goer or church leader who makes out that Trump is the Christian choice has got it pretty badly wrong in my opinion.

In fact, the Church as a whole sometimes worries me – or at least certain factions (on both sides of the Atlantic) do. It worries me that the Church, like Donald Trump, has a tendency to pick on easy targets. It worries me that the Church, like Donald Trump, sees issues in very black and white terms and therefore feels qualified to judge, when the reality is that there are millions upon millions of shades of grey. That’s why God and God alone can judge. How good is the Church at speaking challenging and uncomfortable truths to those with influence and power who oppress and demonise the poor and needy? This is what Jesus did. I don’t see much of that going on today. At times it seems to me that, throughout much of recent history, the Church has understood that it should be taking a stand against something, but it is too frightened and too institutionalised to take on the real villains, so instead it goes after the weak and vulnerable: women; single parents; homosexuals; those who have suffered the pain and trauma of abortion. These are the very groups that Jesus himself would have broken bread with. I’ve been fortunate enough to attend caring and loving Churches throughout my life, and have witnessed, experienced and benefited from a huge amount of real Christianity in those congregations, but even so it depresses me that the only time I’ve ever heard a church leader pray for a specific outcome from a specific political vote was when God was asked to ensure that the bill to legalise homosexual marriage should be defeated.

Love; joy; peace; patience; kindness; goodness; faithfulness; gentleness; self-control. Which people do we know who genuinely try to live up to these ideals? Which church leaders, and which church congregations, demonstrate a commitment to them? And which political candidate demonstrates them? Because he, or she, is the one who truly deserves the Christian vote.               

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

On scepticism, grammar schools and segregation

I think it's always a good idea to interrogate what you believe. To challenge it every once in a while, step back from it and view it with the scepticism of a detached critic.

It's certainly the approach I've tried to take with my Christian beliefs. In my early twenties I had a bit of a crisis of faith, and seriously considered rejecting it completely. I remember praying at the time that God would give me passion and conviction only for the truth; not for what I'd been told as a child, not for the preferences and prejudices of the culture and people that I'd grown up with. Only for the truth. I remember as well coming across a number of people at the time who were intelligent, well-informed, well read and passionately anti-religious. I remember late night debates with one individual in particular who, on more than one occasion, I was convinced was on the verge of punching me. The fact that he was a martial arts instructor and had previously worked as a bouncer made the stakes feel a lot higher. 

It was quite a difficult time for me personally but it helped me to realise a few things that have been hugely important in the years since. I learnt that my beliefs stand up to the most intense scrutiny and are entirely defensible intellectually. I also learnt great respect for those who reject them. They, too, are often whole-heartedly committed to finding the truth and just because the conclusions they've drawn are different to mine, it doesn't mean that I can't welcome, appreciate and honestly engage with their doubts and challenges. Hopefully they would feel the same way about me. 

So what of politics? 

I don't like the Conservative Party. 

That doesn't mean that I dislike people who vote for them, or even those who openly champion them. I have friends and family who are members and I know that they're honest, good and kind people. I do disagree with them however, because I've only ever rejected what the Conservatives stand for. It seems to me that they prioritise the creation and accumulation of financial wealth above everything else, and I can't get behind an ideology like that. 

Maybe I haven't challenged myself enough on this though. Maybe I haven't opened myself up to the level of private and public scrutiny that has been applied to other areas of my life. I couldn't begin even to pretend that I'm the most well-informed of political observers and in all my views and beliefs, political or otherwise, I try to remind myself of the undoubted certainty that I could be wrong. Maybe I only think of the political right in the way that I do because of my family background. Maybe it's because I want to impress and get a pat on the back from the people I look up to. Maybe the social media echo-chamber has indoctrinated me to the extent that I've started to think of my opinions as merely common sense, when in reality they're anything but. 

There is some truth in all of these maybes. I have found it encouraging and affirming in recent weeks, however, to be able to articulate another reason why I don't like the Conservative Party. It's to do with grammar schools. And it's to do with segregation. 

More specifically, it seems to me that the Conservative Party like segregation. 

They seem to champion it quite often, and they seem to thrive off the tension that it creates. Public Sector vs Private Sector. The Young vs the Old. Strivers vs Shirkers. The Deserving vs the Undeserving Poor. Us vs Them, again and again. And it seems now that Theresa May wants to introduce (or rather re-introduce) another form of segregation: grammar-educated vs non-grammar educated. 

The various attempts at window-dressing can't do anything to disguise the fact that if selective secondary schools were to become the norm across the country then our children would effectively be segregated at the age of 11. In theory it sounds like a bad idea and in practice we know it is. Any number of studies have shown that the grammar schools of the past did very little to improve social mobility. Teachers do all that they can to avoid labels and divisions in the classroom, because it helps both to encourage the less-able and challenge any comfortable self-satisfaction in the brighter ones. Making division and labelling fundamental to the whole school system is not going to take us to a good place. The champions of the idea don't see it that way, of course. Some of them have good intentions which, I believe, are misguided. Some of them merely see another chance to reinforce their own authority through yet another form of segregation and the inevitable tensions that will result.  

Of course, I could be wrong. And even though I spend my working life trying to help the very kids who are likely to come off worst in all of this, and even though I find it very hard sometimes to detach myself from the emotion and frustration of it all, I'll try to stay sceptical.            

Friday, June 24, 2016

Dear Maria

Dear Maria

First of all, sorry for calling you ‘Maria’! I can’t use your real name as people might then be able to identify you, and as the conversation we had this morning was a private one, that wouldn’t be fair. I’m not sure whether or not you’ll get to read this one day, but I hope I’ll be able to find ways and means of communicating it to you over the weeks and months ahead.

People who are reading this probably won’t know who you are, so I suppose I should introduce you. You are a girl who I teach at school. You are a bright, brilliant and kind pupil. Some time ago your family made the difficult decision to move to this country from Romania, where you were born. I know that they’re so proud of you! All of the staff here at school are proud of you as well. You are a credit to yourself, to our school and to your family. I look forward to our little chats every day because I know you’ll make me laugh! When I first started teaching you, I remember thinking that you looked permanently terrified. Now you’re full of confidence, and it’s sometimes hard to get you to stop talking! This is the best thing about my job; getting to see children like you grow, change and become more confident in themselves. Thank you for being you!

I’m sorry that I couldn’t answer your question this morning. I tried to, but I just mumbled and didn’t really say anything very helpful! There were two reasons I couldn’t answer it. The first was that I genuinely don’t know: I don’t think anyone does at the moment. The second is that your question upset me. I know you didn’t mean to! Your question wasn’t bad or unkind. It was a good question and I’m pleased that you felt able to ask me. But it still upset me. After I’d tried to answer it, I had to walk out of the classroom for five minutes because I was so upset. And that’s because it’s not a question you should have felt the need to ask.

I wonder if you remember what it was? I know I’ll remember it. You came up to me quietly, first thing this morning, looking a bit terrified like you always used to! And you asked me this:

“Mr Shepherd, what will happen to me and my family now that Britain has left the EU?”

Now please don’t ask me to remember what I said back to you! I haven’t got a clue. It wasn’t worth remembering anyway. But I’ve thought about it a little bit since and although I still don’t know the answer, these are some of the thoughts that I’ve had.

I don’t think you need to worry too much. I hope and pray that nothing will happen to you and your family and I don’t think anything will. I can’t be certain of this and I’m not going to make any false promises, but I think you’ll be okay. This country should be a welcoming and friendly place for people like you and your family. It probably won’t feel like that any more. It probably won’t be like that any more, at least for a while. I’m so sorry that you and the people you love are probably going to feel insecure, unwanted and maybe even threatened. I really, really hope that it won’t last and I promise you that you’ll always feel secure, wanted and safe in my classroom.

I don’t know why Britain voted to leave the EU but I can make a few guesses. The people who voted for this are not bad or stupid, but for a long time they’ve felt let down and betrayed by the people who are in charge of this country. Promises had been broken and lies were told over a number of years, so lots of people got very angry and they used this vote to show their anger. The really sad thing is that the people who told them to vote to leave the EU are the same people who lied to them! They’ve been told by some very powerful, very rich and very selfish people that the immigrants in this country are to blame for all the problems. People like you! Doesn’t that sound crazy?! They don’t know you and your family. They don’t know that your Dad works really, really hard and that you’re now really scared he’ll lose his job. They don’t realise how much you’ve given to this community, this city and this country. Not just by working hard and paying taxes but by being such lovely people.

I wonder if that might be the problem? They just don’t know you. They believe the things they read and the things they’re told about you, but they’re not lucky enough to get to know you and your family, to work with you every day. They’re mostly good people who love their families and want what’s best for them, but because they don’t know you they see you as a threat. I’m sure they’d change their minds within five minutes of meeting you!

The weeks and months to come – maybe even the years – will not be an easy time for this country, and they probably won’t be an easy time for you. But you know what I think the best way of dealing with it is?

Just keep being you.

I remember reading a book once that said everything human beings do and say is motivated by one of two emotions; either fear or love. And love is stronger. I think that many of the people who voted Leave in this election did so because of fear. I’m sure that you and your family might feel a bit frightened now. But try not to be. Of course you need to be sensible and you need to look after yourself, but try not to let fear tell you what to do, where to go, what to say or even what to think.

Because when people get to know you, they won’t be frightened any more. I was frightened of teaching before I started working with you. Because of some of the experiences I’d had in the past, I was really scared about coming back into the classroom and having to face some of the problems and difficulties again. But you changed that, you and all the other children that I teach now. You stopped me from feeling frightened, and you can do it for other people too.

As your teacher, there’s not a lot I can do to make things easier for you, but I’ll do whatever I can and if ever you need to talk…well, you know exactly where to find me! And the next time you ask me a question (and knowing you you’ll have asked me another seven by nine o’clock on Monday morning) I promise to give a better answer!

Much love,       Mr Shepherd