washing our linen in public

Posted: August 27, 2016 in ethics

I forget which writer first drew my attention to the fact that in the Apostles Creed the text jumps from the birth of Jesus to his suffering and death and misses out his life. This raises interesting questions about the significance of the life of Jesus and its practical ethical significance in terms of offering the way of Jesus as a model for discipleship as an essential aspect of the faith. But to be fair, the Creed is about beliefs not ethics (mmm!)….and maybe those who compiled this early creed were smart – they maybe had an eye on the fact that it it might be hard enough to get a group of Christians to believe some basic stuff about God and Jesus (you would have thought!?)… but to agree on what that means for daily living – much less chance…

Social media demonstrates the huge disparity of Christian opinions on so many daily life – ethical – issues: nuclear weapons, immigration, Brexit, Trump or Clinton…Some of these different opinions concerning these issues, the views of others (sometimes in the same congregation if not denomination) and with respect to others are expressed very strongly.

Perhaps for some this public space gives an opportunity to state things that they feel strongly about in a way that has not been possible before. Perhaps for others this is indeed an opportunity often absent in other ways to engage in the public square of ideas. Others may feel the need to correct or challenge those views that they think are inappropriate, wrong, plain stupid…because this is actually a public space and someone has to make sure that the Christian view is presented correctly. Others still are not sure that this is a good thing, particularly when it is about Christian views and values, because it seem to be like washing your linen (dirty?) in public and not helpful to the witness of the Church to show at times such strong diverging opinions on issues.man washing clothes in public

We may not like this public washing of the linen – but it is our linen – and it is our public –
and it looks like we are not agreed on what the “clothes of righteousness” actually look like in practice on some matters that matter or even indeed on what matters matter.

This difference of opinion has clearly always existed but since these issues are often not discussed in churches, they have remained confined to the realm of the personal and private conversation rather than the public helping to maintain perhaps a veneer of unity on stuff that appears to matter. This going public has not created these often strongly held differences but has allowed them to be aired.

In one way or another social media demonstrates that Christian people viscerally hold different views on matters that matter.

Maybe the public demonstration of the fact that Christians strongly disagree on a large range of current socio-political ethical issues is a good thing. It shows the strength of the tradition in accommodating difference. But if this is to be the case we need to admit that the Christian thing only influences certain areas of life – e.g. we agree on doctrine but not ethics or at least not ethics on all things. Perhaps that is fine.

I contribute to the social media thing – I am aware that I am doing it right now. This said, I am not convinced that the medium of writing is the best for conversation and discussion if the goal is persuasion because it fixes statements and opinions on the page making it more difficult for people to change their minds easily and as part of the conversation. Social media is not a “safe place” for honest conversation and while it may give a democratic opportunity for all to contribute it favours, without the potential of mediation, those who can write and argue in a particular way.

If we in the Christian Church want as is sometimes said to “speak truth to power” on matters that matter we should not discourage but encourage people to first speak to one another on the matters that matter because these feelings and opinions are there. We need to find other places to do it, however, than only social media. I could bore people on why within the congregational context we already have that resource but save that for the doctrinal, spiritual, and sometimes mundane, while using social media for the rest…I will save that.


(Cartoon image comes from HERE)





I continue to reflect on what I am learning about the nature of ethics as I try and become a better bagpiper. Yes, I think in some strange ways. Practice_chanter

At a recent lesson I highlighted a set of notes, which in this particular sequence appear often in tunes, but which to my ear just did not seem right when I am playing them. It transpires that there is one small note, a ‘d’ grace note, that I am taking too long to play. No real problem – just a small note given too much emphasis. But unfortunately not so simple. For because I take too long to play it I am either playing it too late – or normally I am starting it too early. No problem, it is just a small note being given too much emphasis. But unfortunately not so simple. Because it is getting too much emphasis all the other notes have to be shifted fractionally – but shifted, to allow me to accommodate this note in the tune. This means that it sounds like the tune but not quite. As suggested – “I have developed a system of playing that accommodates a misplayed note”. The system is logical and coherent in itself – but it is not quite the tune as found in the music or played to its best.

People can develop systems of ethics. Ways of thinking about ethical decisions that appear logical and internally consistent, difficult to fault according to their own internal logic, yet do not quite appear to be the tune as we find it played out not least in the life and person of Jesus.

James Wm. McClendon Jr famously defined theology as:

‘the discovery, understanding, and transformation of the convictions of a convictional community, including the discovery and critical revision of their relation to one another and to whatever else there is’.

That phrase that interest me here is: ‘including the discovery and critical revision of their relation to one another’. Perhaps not everything in our systems need to be given the same weight, perhaps not all beliefs are of equal value or deserve to be given such, perhaps good things are misplaced and condensed by an over emphasis of misplaced importance. Oh what we say and may have an internal logical consistency and can even claim to be the tune, Christian, but when compared to the script, the text, for me Stassen’s thick understanding of Jesus as the model for discipleship, it seems not quite right.

Then perhaps we need the sort of critical revision that McClendon speaks about of how things relate to one another as I need to learn to play that note faster in order to allow the tune to reach its full musicality.




FlagsIn the past two years I have found myself on the wrong side of two referendums:

The first of these was in the 18th September 2014 when the people of Scotland in a referendum decided by 55% to 45% not to become an independent country.

The second of these was on the 24th June 2016 when the people of the UK voted to leave the European Union.

(Why I would support leaving one ‘union’ but not another ‘union’ is the stuff for another post except to say that the nature of the ‘unions’ are qualitatively different.)

The two above referendum decisions led to a situation where:

Scots voted in favour of the UK staying in the EU by 62% to 38% – with all 32 council areas backing Remain see BBC News.

For me (and many others) this results highlights the democratic deficit in the self-governance of Scotland. This is not, in my opinion, the indication of a good democratic system for Scotland.

I have stated this here and there and perhaps rightly have been challenged on why as one who claims to support democracy can I not accept two democratic decisions.

I will try and explain:

First, the language of ‘accept’ operates on so many levels.

I clearly do accept these decisions in that I recognize that they were legitimate decisions, made by a majority of people in a defined area – and I do not try and overthrow these decisions by violence or force. I would call this ‘formal acceptance’.

The language of ‘accept’ as defined above, however, is very limited and often does not capture the full range of our complex responses to democratic decisions. For to be sure, we may both ‘formally accept’ a decision and also believe, think, feel, that it was the right decision, a good, decision, an informed decision, a moral decision. This latter acceptance I will call ‘convictional acceptance’.

On the other hand, however, we may ‘formally accept’ a decision because that is what it means to be part of a democracy but convictionally think that it is a bad decision, the wrong decision, a misinformed decision, an immoral decision. In such as situation while formally accepting one can quite rightly seek to see it changed. Such change is sought though ongoing discussion, debate and persuasion. (In some instances it may also result in non-violent civil disobedience which accepts the consequences). Part of such ongoing debate may be to highlight the consequences of previous decisions in the light of latter ones e.g. people may vote a party into power believing they convictionally represent the right ideas, that party may then institute legislation which the same people think is wrong, – in such an instance they may opine: ‘I wish I had never voted for them’. This statement does not necessarily change the fact that people recognize that the party was legally elected, it does however show a convictional change in that they may no longer think the election of that party a good decision and may vote differently in future.

To summarize the above – in a democracy formal acceptance does not require to equate with convictional acceptance and a feature of the latter is to seek change through democratic process. So it is quite consistent to support democracy and to convictionally oppose democratically made decisions – we do it all the time. A decision indeed narrow or broad should not silence difference in some sort of totalitarian way. It may frustrate the ‘winners’ but ongoing disagreement and discussion is part of being a democracy – not in opposition to it. Change good and bad comes through this dynamic process.

The second main thing, and following on from the above is that I do not regard democracy as being defined by fixed decisions but rather an ongoing and changing process of participation, discussion, debate and decision making. All democratic decisions are provisional and changeable. People change, populations change, and the material circumstances in which decisions are made change. Democratic participation except on the most basic level is more than voting and formally accepting decisions but involves ongoing participation and discussion about ‘what is’ as well as ‘what can be’. To say – ‘democratic decisions have been made and you should simply accept them (convictionally)’, therefore, is not to fully understand the democratic process except at the crude level to which it has been reduced by a party political system.

In relation to democracy as ongoing participation and debate two ‘theological’ reflections:

The provisonality of all political decisions and indeed all forms of governance is affirmed in a belief that the kingdom is yet to come.

In the ‘waiting’ the goal of Christian participation should be in the direction of fairer and more just systems for all people.

I have been on the wrong side of two referendums. I formally accept the legality of both. I do not think that either of these decisions were good decisions for different reasons. I do not accept them at that level of my convictions concerning best decision. I think that the second decision highlights something of the problems of the first.

The people of Scotland voted in favour of the UK staying in the EU by 62% to 38% – with all 32 council areas backing Remain but will be forced to leave – yes I have a problem with this.

I would like to see both decisions changed. Such a position is not contrary to democracy but fundamentally consistent with being a supporter of democracy.



At the International Baptist Theological Study Centre in Amsterdam we were recently pleased to welcome Prof. Louise Kretzschmar as a visiting scholar. Prof. L Kretzschmar3jpg (1)As part of her talks she identified four interdependent areas that contribute to ‘moral formation’. These were: being, relationships, knowing, and doing. Each of course requires significant unpacking. At the core of such formation, however, she placed ‘volition’ the will of the individual and for Christian moral formation, such will in relationship to God. Of course for people who do not hold the Christian faith this volitional core can be related to their own ‘big idea’ or faith commitments.

This emphasis on the individual and ‘volition’ would appear to go against some more recent thought and writing which emphasises the ‘communal’ and communal practices as core to moral formation. This communal emphasis can be seen as a reaction to Cartesian Western individualism. Kretzschmar, however, in some of her articles highlights the danger of community loyalty overriding other ‘moral’ considerations. A pendulum push back perhaps…

Let me offer my own poor reflection from my recent musical experience and learning. In music my knowledge and abilities are limited. I am a grafter presently working hard at technique to improve musicality but knowing that musicality is more than technique.

Piping Me

Apparently at the moment I am a reliable band player. What this means is that when I practice and play with my band I can lean into the good players and follow their lead in playing particular tunes. I can play well with them. When I play on my own, however, I do not play as well.

The above can indeed be seen as supporting the power of communal practice. The communal practice described above, however, requires good players who can play the tune well without the necessary aid of others. They lead. If I want to lead and so contribute to the good of the band as more than a ‘follower’ who performs different as an individual then one of the things I need to learn is to internalize the tune the way it should be played so that I can play it that way when I am with the band- as part of the community, yes, but also play this way as an individual. This latter state requires me to practice in a different way – it requires my mind to engage much more consciously with what I am doing as formative. It requires a conscious and indeed individual internalizing and an personal ownership and responsibility, it may also require a strength to hold the tune when others do not. To play in this way will be for the strength of the band when I contribute. But more than the band is required for this to happen. I need to engage consciously.

So I actually have a lot of sympathy for what  Prof. Louise Kretzschmar is arguing in terms of an aspect of volition in relation to something greater (the tune) if the other aspects of being, doing, knowing, and relationships are to be formative in a good direction.



In a paper delivered as part of an European Baptist Federation conference on human rights Dr Nigel Wright stated:

‘In this paper I intend to argue that whereas civic secularism is not the preferred societal option for Christians, it may well represent the most realistic future shape of advanced societies and therefore has to be reckoned with. Moreover it both offers a number of political benefits that are advantageous to Christian faith and practice and should be maximised, and also presents a context which can assist the churches in maintaining authentic Christian witness. None of this is to minimise the genuine challenges to faith that such a society can pose’.

The paper of the presentation is available on the European Baptist Federation site: Here.

For Wright the preferred social option would appear to be a non-Constantinian Christendom. This would refer to a situation although I am not quite sure how this could ever really be a ‘participating without possessing’, his preferred description for a Baptist relationship to the State.

This being the case, I think if I were to disagree with Wright it would only be in stating more clearly a preferential suppport for the option of ‘civic secularism’ understood as a ‘a political strategy designed to hold together religiously and diverse societies’ without giving privilege to any one ideology (not least those which would deny the free existence and participation of others).

In my understanding, such ‘civic secularism’ need not deny national interests and cultural particularities but would be undergirded by commitments that extend beyond the national, e.g. the Declaration of Human Rights.

I am aware of the critiques which can be made of the Declaration of Human Rights from a variety of perspectives including my own Christian tradition but agree with David Gushee when he said in a soon to be published lecture:

‘Certainly human rights are a far less coherent notion apart from a biblical theological foundation, but in pluralistic discourse we all do the best we can, and in the Christian community we are entirely free to re-anchor human rights language in the best resources of our own theological tradition. Once we have dispensed with our theological reservations about the language and implications of rights claims, Christians ought to be some of the world’s most vigorous champions for the legitimate human rights of our neighbours near and far.’

I can feel a theoretical abyss coming on, where it can rightly be stated that I am actually setting up an ideology, one of ‘civic secularism’ above the rest in the name of denying any dominant ideology. In brief response, I would say yes indeed I am, because I think that this is the best way to defend freedom for people of all faiths and none to live freely and freely live.

Further, if I have a critique of the ideas and values of liberal democracy it is that it needs to be a bit better at articulating, defining, and defending itself as a worthwhile value system.

As a consequence I have a lot of sympathy with this article: Tackling Europe’s Crisis Through Education



One of the ways in which Christian’s develop a particular  understandings of ‘Christian’ leadership is through a study of biblical character.

A quick look suggests that the following names are often in or near the top ten of favourites: Abraham, Joseph, Moses, Joshua, Deborah, Gideon, Solomon, David, Daniel, Esther, Nehemiah, Jesus, Peter, Paul.

I guess it might depend on the type of ‘leadership’ that one might want to talk about as to whom you might choose. Nehemiah is a great favourite for churches involved in building projects! In turn a quick Google search (of course we do not do that in serious research) indicates that there are 4, 5, 10 and even 12 things, principles, characteristic we can learn from Nehemiah.

Of course none of these characters n the bible are presented in books entitled – ‘A Guide to Effective Leadership’ and we have to deuce from narratives ‘principles’ and ‘practices’. In turn the fact that we might choose a character to develop an understanding of leadership suggests that we already have an understanding of leadership in mind that they can as it were ‘illustrate’. So some biblical views on leadership derived from biblical characters are therefore nothing more than general views on leadership illustrated from a text.

I recently suggested at a Christian leadership conference in Norway that the Good Samaritan was an example of Christian leadership. People seemed a little surprised. Why did I not choose someone like Nehemiah?

Using the general method that can be used of biblical characters I suggested that I could defend my choice because the Samaritan illustrates many of the qualities and characteristic we might look for in a good leaders e.g:

  1. Is influential (to this day people talk about others being a Good Samaritan … seldom an Effective Nehemiah)
  2. Sees what needs done
  3. Wiling to take risks
  4. Gets things done
  5. Can manage resource
  6. Works with others
  7. Has a strategy for the future
  8. Demonstrates self care

I did not, however, chose him for any of these reasons but rather because:

  1. His life was lived at the crossroads of loving God and loving neighbour (Not an idea that appears in many books on leadership)
  2. He was a non typical choice (bit of a point in the story)
  3. He was compassionate rather than good (The Samaritan is never described as good in the story – the Lawyer, Priest, and Levite are the good people in the story)

For me at least this brings a bit of a different perspective on ‘Christian’ leadership.

Value-Less Democracy

Posted: March 2, 2016 in Uncategorized

I am writing this at a point when it appears that Donald Trump is on the verge of winning the Republican nomination for Presidential candidate and Hilary Clinton the nomination for the Democrats.

American Flag

I have encouraged myself to re-read the late Glen Stassen’s chapter on Democracy in his book A Thicker Jesus: Incarnational Discipleship in a Secular Age.

It seems possible to suggest that what is happening in the American campaigns with respect to the support for both main candidates but particularly Trump reflects a failure of liberal democracy. What I mean by this is that if liberal democracy has inherently no other values than freedom, such as in the freedom to vote, then issues such as the stature, character, and policies of candidates become irrelevant because there is no agreed system on which to judge them.

If I read him right, Stassen in his writing wants to counter both ‘tradition’ less liberal democracy and a purely pragmatic liberal democracy. He does this by an appeal to the Puritan Christian tradition in the making of America. From this position he wants to argue for the importance and presence in the liberal democracy tradition of such things as separation of Church and State, civic responsibility, justice, freedom of religion for all, and human rights.

I have sympathy with Stassen. That history should not be written out of a purely ‘secular’ explanation of the American Democratic story. It represents at least a tradition within a tradition.

Yet I think two things need to be said:

First, whatever the history – people today do not need to identify with the Christian faith in order to hold some or all of the values I have mentioned above in order to see them as an expression of liberal democracy. You can indeed be secular and atheist and hold these values. Arguing about the grounds for these values if a person holds no faith is another matter and actually today I feel less important than the fact that people can find common ground on them.

Second, there is no such thing as the Christian tradition. Not all versions and expressions of Christianity result in the comittments which Stassen highlights. Indeed, the evangelical support for Trump perhaps suggests that some expressions of Christianity necessarily go against these values. I am also not always convinced that the Puritan’s held some of the values that Stassen advocates. I am clear, however, that Stassen as a Christian ethicist holds these values/practices to be important and that his views come from a particular understanding of the Christian faith that places the life teaching, death and resurrection at the centre of his understanding.

It is also feature of Stassen’s work that he encourages Christian people to work with others on common ground and in tactical alliances of matters that matter. I think that for the sake of a liberal democracy which is good for the ‘common’ as well as indeed for the Church that this is a time for such alliances.