washing our linen in public

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)





Imagination as an Ethical Practice

I am presently reviewing From Nature to Creation: A Christian Vision for Understanding and Loving Our World by Norman Wirzba.[1] Early in this book Wirzba argues that an ethical response to the earth requires the use of imagination for proper ‘knowing’. [2] In advancing this argument he refers to a quotation from Wendell Berry where knowing imaginatively involves knowing with the ‘heart’ for ‘To know imaginatively is to know intimately, particularly, precisely, gratefully, reverently, and with affection’. [3] I save the review for another occasion. This, however, got me to thinking about the practice of imagination as an ethical counter strategy to the performance of hate.

In an earlier post I reflected upon the idea that the dehumanisation of another is part of the anatomy of hate: hate understood as extreme dislike which incites or enacts harm or violence against another. This I will name as the ‘performance of hate’. In such dehumanised hatred the other person or persons is imaged as less than human through the use of labels loaded in the mind of the one using them in derogatory terms. In this labelling, the personal is political because these labels are often given their derogatory meaning in the speech of a wider grouping. This can be encouraged and fed by events and media reporting both institutional and social. The shift and slippage in language and thus in personal imaging from refugee to migrant to terrorist is a very present example. A process of course that operates in both directions in any situation of conflict where hatred is performed.

In what I have described the practice is one where implicitly and explicitly we are encouraged to imagine others as something other, different, and less human than we ourselves. We do not thus see them as mothers, fathers, daughters, and sons, lovers, eating, laughing, and crying. Rather we deny them the complexity of humanity which we admit for ourselves through often single dimensional and often derogatory labelling. To label someone as an ‘illegal’ immigrant as it were settles the case, there is nothing else to be said or asked about them.[4] This can include failing to question the ‘legality’ of the laws they are supposed to have broken, a perspective we would normally allow ourselves.

In such a context imagination can be a positive practice of counter imaging. It invites a richer and multi-faceted description of the other. It allows for us to imagine them beyond the label, to see them as human beings like us and to allow our responses to be encouraged and shaped by that appreciation. In such an imagining we need little other than our own lives and experiences as humans in order to begin to paint a richer picture of the other as human.  In such a practice imagining ‘what if that was me?’ transforms from criminal to parent the picture of an ‘illegal’ immigrant crossing the border carrying their child. It transforms it not to fantasy but to the reality of humanity at least as we normally allow it for ourselves.

Perhaps such imagination is to be found in the actions of the Samaritan. He imagined the other as himself and acted accordingly. He is the most developed and rounded character in the narrative and turns the one robbed and beaten into such a character through his actions. He puts the wounded man ‘on his own donkey’. Such need not be a fanciful reading. For the Samaritan is not offered as one who loved his neighbour – rather he is offered as an example of one who loved his neighbour as himself (Luke 10:27).

[1] Norman Wirzba, From Nature to Creation: A Christian Vision for Understanding and Loving Our World (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2015).

[2] Wirzba, Nature, p. 3.

[3] Wendell Berry, Life is a Miracle: An Essay Against Modern Superstition (Washington DC: Counterpoint, 2000), pp. 137-138, cited Wirzba, Nature, p. 4.

[4] Victoria M. Esses, Stelian Medianu, and Andrea S. Lawson offer some interesting research on this in  ‘Uncertainty, Threat, and the Role of the Media in Promoting the Dehumanization of Immigrants and Refugees’, Journal of Social Issues, Vol. 69, No. 3, 2013, pp. 518—536.