An open letter to Lord Freud

Dear Lord Freud,

I wanted to wait to wait a week or so before responding to your remarks about about the deservedness of the disabled in relation to the minimum wage. I am the father of a disabled daughter and, I didn’t want to write an ‘angry dad’ style letter (even though I was angry – very angry) but, instead, to provide something that I hope is theologically nuanced.

Deservedness for the Christian is a difficult concept, for the doctrine of grace accepts that ultimately the ‘benefits’ we receive, and inherit, are pure gift. Clearly the majority work hard to maximise the fruit of their endowments. This is true for the abled bodied and the disabled. But, as a society we surely need to be very careful about categorising people as either deserving or undeserving?

Like you I worked for many, too many, years in the city and I know that there are large numbers of city workers who, in reality, are undeserving of the stratospheric rewards received. So if we must persist in the language of merit please can we at least be even handed?

A society is healthy when the conditions are created, to paraphrase St. Benedict, where all may flourish and none need fear. Policy making and political rhetoric should avoid creating the impression that some groups are inherently more deserving than others, especially where favoritism, or partiality, is granted based on the fertile fallacy that somehow one group have done more to maximize their God given (or, if you don’t believe in God, biologically inherited) gifts than another group and therefore deserve a greater share of the pie, or less demands placed on them to enlarge the overall size of the pie.

I understand that balancing the books is challenging and, that resources are finite, hence the rationale that policy should be determined by reference to a set of principles that genuinely seek to promote the common good; starting with gift. I would like to suggest that the disabled have a unique gift to offer for what I suspect that they show, alongside other vulnerable groups, is very high stocks of resilience and fortitude and not only in respect of coping with the demands of day-to-day living but also in terms of absorbing patronising and ill informed attitudes to disability. My daughter is a student at Oxford University and yet when she is in her wheelchair people often talk to her in ‘mono syllable.’ She has on occasion been called cripple and spaz. Unacceptable, definitely, but, part of the stock in trade that tragically is part of living with disability.

So much for our Christian heritage!

Archbishop William Temple, who coined the term Welfare State in a 1928 lecture series, famously suggested that theology should seek to influence decision making in other disciplines by providing the broad animating principles but, without focusing on the technicalities of policy making.

I would like to offer six theological principles, or motifs, for integrating Christian ethics into politico-economic decision making: (gift, as I have already discussed), community, solidarity, justice and, subsidiarity. In many ways these principles overlap for they all stress the importance of the common good as the foundation for mutual flourishing. A governments demonstrable commitment to the common good is really the only basis for its ethical evaluation.

One of the pagadological tasks of government, in a modern liberal democracy is to recapture the concept of the common good. Theology, perhaps uniquely, is in a position to help. All that is required are politicians who can see beyond the demands for short term electoral success! Could you become such a politician?

I hope that these insights are useful and will help you to evaluate the ethics of policy making in respect of the disabled community.

Your sincerely,
Rev’d Andrew Lightbown

Co-editor of Theonomics.

Loving Kindness: How a white middle class man was converted by a boy giving an egg

My wife always used to say to our daughters,’be kind.’Kindness has always been an expression of her faith and spirituality. I have not always been kind and, it took an act of unexpected kindness to ‘convert’ me, or at least convert my heart.

Picture the me of ten years ago: successful (in worldly terms),cultured (by reference to my own group’s definition), highly educated (the right schools, universities and degree programmes) and, miserable. Yes, miserable as sin itself: lost in a sea of other peoples expectations, grandiose ideas and, misconceptions. The biggest misconception of all? Duty=charity, agape, caritas. So, I went to rural Uganda to exercise my duty. I went as a good Nicodemus, full of ideas about the good life, yet not knowing that the prerequisite for the good life is poverty of spirit. Our lady might have been referring to me when she talked, in the Magnificat, about the ‘proud being scattered in the imagination of their hearts.’ You see despite the fact that I was successful the vision of success I subscribed to was an illusion, created in the imagination of my heart, or more precisely the corporate heart of an overly professionalised, under sacramentalized, middle class elite. And, I was lonely, ‘scattered,’ I just didn’t feel part of the club. And, so I went to Uganda, a rural village called Kabubbu, partly to find myself but also to do my Christian duty. And, in Kabubbu I was found.

Once again picture the scene. It was a hot, hot day. The dust was rising from the ground leaving its indelible imprint on my shoes and lower legs. My throat was parched and, I was feeling satisfied, self-satisfied. I had done my bit. Money had been transferred from my wallet into the hands of needy widows and orphans. The odd prayer had been offered and vague promises of returning one day given. I felt kind of off the hook. My duty (which I thought was charity) had been done. I was sanitised. And then:

A teenage boy approached me and asked me whether I liked eggs. Strange question, I thought. I said yes and carried on walking the path of self-satisfaction back to my hut. Twenty minutes later the boy knocked on my door. He had brought me a gift. One egg! One beautiful, perfectly formed egg. It was all he had to give and he wanted to give it to me, the guest, the alien, the refugee in his land. His eyes dazzled with greater depth than the night sky, his smile was broader than the continent of Africa. He had exercised the most amazing act of loving kindness, he had given to me ‘out of his poverty.’ He went home justified – of this I am sure. And he converted me! He showed me where I stood, really stood, in the story of the pharisee and the widow at prayer. He came to release me from the ‘imagination of my heart,’ to ‘recover my sight,’ and ‘let the oppressed go free.’ He was as Christ to me. He, the poor, uneducated, HIV orphan converted me. He set me on a different path; the path to ordination. And, he doesn’t even know it.

And, so my wife was right all along! If we both give and receive loving kindness you never know it might transform everything; even the hardest of hearts.

An open letter to Nigel Farage

Dear Mr. Farage,

You have got your seat and, to be fair, you nearly got another one.

Of course you want to promote U.K.I.P. as a party offering a new, different and radical, politics. But, is this true? It seems to me that history is full of political parties who have defined themselves along narrow nationalistic lines. Doesn’t history also show that such parties have an appalling tendency to extend the range of their disapproval to other vulnerable, minority, groups over time? Maybe you’re not like that, but history is not on your side.

But, what really bugs me is this: the way you talk about U.K.I.P. as a party committed to protecting Britain’s Christian past, as though you care about the flourishing of Christianity in this land.

The problem you face is this; you can’t talk about Christianity without talking about Christ and, the work of the cross (in reality there isn’t much else to talk about), and you don’t talk about either of these. Christ and Christianity cannot be separated, yet you seek to do so. For a political party to talk about Christianity without talking about Christ is to render Christ an idol, to manufacture him into a political and identikit caricature of the Divine and this is graceless in the extreme.

It is legitimate, of course, to hypothesise over where Christ’s contemporary allegiances may or may not lie. But, I suspect that at the end of the day you would have to say the data indicates is that he transcends nationalism and party politics. Let me offer you some evidence from both the Scriptures and the Christian heritage you say you are so keen to preserve.

Starting with the Gospels we find Jesus declaration of his own mission (Luke 4, 18-19). Although it would be misleading to suggest that Jesus is specifically advocating the tearing down of national borders, it is fair to suggest that his message is one of radical inclusivity. Indeed, we find a foretaste of Jesus’ being available for all in the Song of Simeon (the Nunc Dimitus – Luke 2, 29-32) which does, explicitly, suggest that Jesus’ -who was a loyal Jew -commitment to all people was not constrained by national identity.

St.Paul in his pastoral letter to the Galatians is keen to stress that ‘there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus,’ (Galatians 3, 28). Now clearly we all do have a national identity but, for the Christian this can never be our primary identity. National and religious identity are not, cannot be, one and the same, as you seem to suggest. The Christian is always both resident and alien with regard to the nation state. As St. Augustine suggested Christians belong to Two Cities.

Turning to Christian tradition the Second World War martyr Bonhoeffer might be of interest. Bonhoeffer was always keen to highlight that he was both a Christian and a proud German. Bonhoeffer of course ‘betrayed’ his country. Writing to his friend Reinhold Niebuhr, in 1939, he said: ‘Christians in Germany will face a terrible alternative of either willing the defeat of their nation in order that Christian civilization may survive or, willing the victory of their nation and thereby destroying our civilization, I know which I must choose.’ History indicates that Bonhoeffer, was the real patriot, the authentic German because he understood that any attempt to pander to some form of nationally defined Christianity was to cheapen everything that Christ stood, and stands, for.

So my one, sole, request is this. By all means carry on advocating whatever policies you wish, but please don’t equate them with Christianity, unless you are prepared to talk about the Christ of Scripture, for Christianities’ only logic is Christ. To talk about Christianity separate from Christ is to secularise Christianity, which according to Bonhoeffer is the very definition of blasphemy (against the Holy Spirit).

Yours in Christ,

The Rev’d Andrew Lightbown

Uniform Christianity

I nearly called this blog Commuter Christianity as the encounters I refer to all happened on a day trip to London. Also, I suspect that there is a sense in which we are all commuters, journeying towards the eternal destination. But, I didn’t go with Commuter Christianity because on reflection all of the encounters in some way (I think) were initiated, by others because I was sporting my uniform – in this case a rather natty tonsur collar!

I sometimes (well quite often actually) suffer from a desire to do something truly heroic; but I suspect that heroism is not part of my calling. On the surface there is something really appealing (yet deeply sinful) in the thought that I might do just one thing that is so heroic that it provides me with a story that I can trade off for the rest of my mortal days, thereby ‘absolving’ me of the requirement to minister into the mess and ambiguity of daily life!

I have also come to a realisation that one of the reasons God wants me in a dog collar is that I am not strong enough to be an effective advocate for him dressed in secular clothes. I need a uniform! But, and here is the really good news, so do others. A uniformed Andrew is more use to God and His people than a plain clothed Andrew.

So here we go with three ordinary pastoral encounters:

Getting on the tube at Euston I was approached by a young and highly distraught Liverpudlian who couldn’t work out how to get to Lewisham on the tube. So I travelled with him as far as St. Paul’s and made sure he was on the right train. We had time to chat and I was able to offer him God’s blessing as I went on my way.

At At. Paul’s I was approached by two young women from California who wanted me to bless some rosary beads they had just purchased, which I did, but actually the real prayer was for the pain that sat behind the rationale for buying the rosaries.

On the way back to Milton Keynes I was able to offer my seat to a lady with her leg in a caste so she could stretch out her leg and ease her discomfort. (She clearly desired the extra leg room to ease her pain).

So three short, unspectacular, pastoral encounters. Will they have a lasting impact? God knows. Its His business not mine. But, just two thoughts:

Do you expect to incarnate Christ in the small and normal or (like me) would you prefer the one big act of heroism? Do we prefer our missionary encounters to be the result of our own grand strategies or the promptings of others (including the Holy Spirit)?

Should Christians clothe themselves in Christ, both literally and symbolically? Does what we wear change expectations and behaviours? I suspect it does!

Well she’s off on Monday – a dad’s hope for university education

So she’s off to university on Monday.

Her passage through school has been, let’s use a positive word, exciting.

School (Thornton College and Monkton Combe), ultimately, did her proud. She passed her exams with the requisite grades, but more importantly grew into her frame. I have used the word frame purposefully as my daughter has had to learn to prosper and grow into, and through, her disability. No easy task. A task made easier by some wonderful, and wise, educators.

So off she goes to study Theology and Religion, and she goes with a whole set of hopes, and maybe a few fears. But, what do I, her dad, hope for? What would a top notch university experience look like?

Let’s start with the obvious: I hope she develops the skills to be a first rate theologian and that, through the technical expertise (knowledge) she obtains, she will be able to make a significant difference to the communities in which she will subsequently live and serve. I also pray that she will develop some wonderful and life giving friendships.

But here is my real hope, the ‘’biggy:’’

I hope (and pray) that she (and all other students) will also grow in wisdom. For the ability to make life enhancing contributions, to serve the environments in which we live and work, is a function of wisdom plus knowledge, worked out through imagination.

Now wisdom is a difficult word to pin down so let’s consider just three verses from Scripture – all from the Old Testament – that capture my understanding:

Genesis 1, 27: ‘So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them.’

For me that means all humankind: male, female, pale skinned, darker skinned, able bodied and so called disabled, straight, gay: he created them.  God’s wisdom is made manifest in and through each individual act of creation. (Creation was not a one off!)

Can you imagine a world where everyone knew that they were created in the image of God? This surely would be the beginning of wisdom, the starting place for transformation, salvation even, of the world?

Psalm 139, 14: ‘I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works.’

Surely our only response to the ‘wisdom of creation’ can / should be the ‘wisdom of thanksgiving?’  Can you imagine a world where thanksgiving for the amazing diversity of human creation was truly celebrated?

Jeremiah 29, 11: ‘For surely you know that plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not harm, plans to give you a future with hope.’

So here with have it: the wisdom of hope (where hope is built on trust). And it strikes me that we all have one more bit of imagining to do. Can we imagine a world, or at least the small section of the world we inhabit, where all can prosper and non need fear? If we can, we might just be imagining what the kingdom of earth as in heaven looks like, we might actually be seeing a glimpse of salvation. But in order to do we need to fully assimilate the wisdom of Genesis 1, 27? As always we must return to the beginning, for this is the start of all worthwhile wisdom?