According to the Gospels Jesus, like many other Jewish people, used “shalom” meaning peace, goodness, good day, as his greeting. It can be used simply as a conventional hello, or with more profound meaning. In John’s gospel, when Jesus says to his disciples that he gives and leaves them his peace, he notes that his gift is not to be mistaken for something worldly, as if it was mere good fortune. John places these words in the context of Jesus’ imminent suffering and death. Clearly most human beings would welcome a peace which has been tested but not destroyed by suffering.image

Jesus’suffering was not simply the expectation of death. I don’t fancy death too much but I have known some splendid human beings, some of them quite irreligious who faced their dying with courage, indeed, even with humour. But Jesus was tortured and deliberately degraded. Could his kind of peace cope even with that? This year I have often mentioned David Haines, the refugee camp volunteer tortured and killed by Daesh. He managed to retain his dignity. Perhaps part of the peace shown by Jesus and by David Haines, came from knowing that the ending of their lives was in tune with their sacrificial living.

But it’s possible that Jesus came to doubt his life’ s commitment to God’s justice. Maybe his questioning howl on the cross  expressed the feeling that it had all been for nothing.

That’s a true killer. When you are forced to ask if your main reason for living has not fallen to bits;  that something you have worked for, loved, lived with, grieved over, may be null and void. My sense is that Jesus experienced this and overcame it. The writer of the book of Revelation, conscious of the persecution which might afflict his flock, used the word overcome, or conquer, to characterise the strenuous shalom that would see them through such suffering.

“Split all ends up, they shan’t crack/ and death shall have no dominion.” (Dylan Thomas)

“In the teeth of life we seem to die; but God says no. In the teeth of death we live!” ( Martin Luther)

If there  is such a peace, then we should not imagine it as a feeling, not even as an inner conviction that cannot be extinguished. No, it is the capacity to endure the unendurable, annihilating nothingness, as if it were the love of God.  I do not mean that God wills the suffering or excuses the evil that causes it, but rather that God’s love respects the autonomy of his creatures as long as they live on earth, and does not intervene, no, not by force or miraculous messages in the mind. But when God receives his creatures in death, then he wipes away all tears and welcomes them into a peace that is beyond their understanding.

So of course, the words spoken by Jesus in the gospels are always the words of the Risen Lord. The peace which Jesus promises comes from beyond all worlds. But I can only receive it as I walk with Him in this world, where even the greatest trust is far from certainty.

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Bognor

In imagine all this sounds a bit somber; far from the cheery sign off message appropriate to the last day of 2015. In fact, I’m not gloomy, I am speaking of a fighting faith. God’s peace to all my readers! Confusion to your enemies!  And bugger Bognor! (The reply of George V on his death bed to someone who tried to avoid the issue by hoping that soon he might be well enough to holiday in Bognor. It is also my reply to all pious attempts to make life seem easier that it is.)

 

 

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The writer Brian Aldiss either invented or quoted from somewhere the adage that “civilisation is the distance between Man and his own shit,” which he thought mistaken and proceeded to construct a novel that illustrated a radically different possibility. I am reminded of this argument every time I see a report on my local beach at Monifieth, where the water is frequently “polluted with faecal material” in spite of the recently installed Great Outflow which is intended to take it all elsewhere, possibly Germany. image

My excuse for this unsavoury opening paragraph is the increasing evidence that humanity has a maybe fatal difficulty with the waste products of all its activities, especially those which create carbon dioxide of course, but also with nuclear and chemical waste from agriculture, not to mention the plastic particles which already clog most of our oceans. A measure of how serious the difficulty is can be seen in the self-congratulatory tone of the decisions of the recent Paris Conference which agreed more stringent hopes for limiting poisonous wastes without agreeing a single binding commitment.

In spite of the romantic view that all this is due to modern civilisation which has destroyed the wisdom of our more remote forebears,  I guess that from the start Homo Sapiens has been a tad careless about the natural world. The greatest destruction of the Caledonian forest we are now told, took place in prehistoric times, when it was cleared to create land for farming. There’s no doubt however, that the ruthless consumption of natural resources and deposition of waste products in earth and air and water, by private and state- owned industries in the last 100 years, is of a different order from anything that went before. Currently the most profitable and polluting industries try to persuade us that the environmental crisis is not as bad as some fear, and that as long as they can continue to pollute, they will try to provide a fix.

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Polluted burn on beach

In truth I am not competent to write about these issues, and certainly do not have clean hands: I still drive a car powered by a pollutant (diesel) and would still consider using a plane to get to Europe.

The thing is I understand the human impulse to forget the mess we leave behind us, only too well. I can remember as a young man hiding the vast collection of glass milk bottles I had accumulated in the attic of my flat, only to be found out by a colleague who had taken over the flat and found my bottles when he tried to use the attic to hide something else. It may be the memory of such acts of shame that has turned me into a furious recycler, ever ready to remove rubbish from my house to the council tip.

More seriously I know that I have sometimes moved  jobs when the problems I’d created seemed beyond me and could be safely abandoned for someone else to sort out. I know people  who do the same thing with relationships. The attraction of being clean, of being able to make a new start, is very powerful when we begin to smell the mess we’ve made. Perhaps that’s why we have invented the phrases, “clean sheet, clean start.” The impulse to move on quickly may owe something to an animal fear of being tracked down by our spoor, but its human form is nearly always irresponsible. We hope something can be abandoned while knowing that nothing disappears, and that all actions have consequences.

But doesn’t the Christian Gospel, with its offer of forgiveness through Jesus, encourage just this mindset, that we can leave the mess behind us and be saved? Well, yes, sometimes it may have been misunderstood to mean just that; but in fact the forgiveness that Jesus offered released people from social condemnation and self- loathing to deal with what they had been, while reaching towards what they could be. The story of the corrupt collaborator and tax collector Zacchaeus, is of a man who is freed by Jesus’ advance of trust (forgiveness) to restore the money he has extorted from his victims. (Luke 19). In fact Jesus was always dealing with the mess that others had left behind. The diseased outcasts, for example who had been judged as suffering for their sins by the rigidly righteous; or the prostitutes, whom men had used and forgotten.

I like the gospel word “redemption” which originally referred to the buying back of captives or of slaves. It is used as a metaphor for the liberation Jesus brings. It is not a matter of “at one bound he was free”; there is a price to be paid. People who are in a mess have to be empowered to tidy it up or make reparation to others. Often they have been unable to do so, but somehow Jesus helps them do so by transferring some of his credit to them. Jesus loses some of his public honour  in order to give honour to Zacchaeus, who in turn deals with the mess he’s made. image

Indeed we could say, that in Jesus, God takes responsibilty for the mess he’s made by inventing human beings and permitting their evils. In Jesus, God shows that he will avoid no suffering to clean things up, that he tolerates no pollution at all, but fights it to his last breath, and invites human beings to share his passion.

So, yes, the ending of a year brings time for urgent reflection on the messes I make, so that I can help to clean them up. And , oh yes, which Council department do I contact about the state of my local sea water?

 

 

 

It’s a phrase from the Christmas story in Luke chapter 2, which tells of the coming of the Angel to the shepherds, and the chorus of angels singing glory to God. Then it says that when the Angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds decided to obey instructions and go to Bethlehem to see the child. There is a vision, then the everyday world returns, in which there are no angels, and still these remarkable shepherds decide to stick with the vision.

When the angels have gone away into heaven, is when Christmas lives or dies. For if it is a brief moment of pretence, the families who rarely come to church these days, all present and smiling for our Christmas Eve services, and the old stories generating a glow of magic and goodwill that lasts till they get home, but not much longer, then not much has happened.

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Dundee, a good place to be

if I, after becoming utterly absorbed in the worship and the worshiping people, return to face my own accusing memories of countless follies in the past with no confidence that my future will be different; if I am no more equipped to cope with the terrible suffering of one of my family than I was before; if the fact of the plain stupidity of human beings including myself suggests just as messy future for the planet and its creatures as it did last week; yes, if the Angels have gone away into heaven, leaving no addresses, what benefit can there be in this festival?

Luke, the storyteller would not be impressed with this ineptitude. He knew that when the Angels went away, everything depended on the shepherds’ readiness to meet the new reality, just as it had all depended on Mary when the Angel went away, that there would be any new reality for them to meet. Of course Luke is writing magical realism rather than history, but every single detail is important. This one suggests that I have to get off my ass, and find the reality in which God is with us.

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The earth and its creatures

Did I say, “in which”? Of course, it should be “in whom.” That is, it will be present in human beings and in the creatures of the earth. If the word, the wisdom of God was indeed made flesh through all the processes of evolution, then I should  be able to trust that it has not gone back into heaven but continues to be flesh here and now. This presence of God however is not some mystic thing that that exists in and under everything, it is goodness: the goodness God saw in his creation; the goodness of Jesus Christ in every person who shares his ministry to other human beings and his sufferings at their hands; the goodness of the Holy Spirit, who shows me that I am not on my own, but that I inter- exist with all other existences, including God’s.

Ths link to goodness is all that matters, as it tells me that hurt, oppression, violence, selfishness, greed, addiction, lust and self- righteousness, as well as all disease and suffering,  are damaging and wrong and must in God’s name be opposed, healed, perhaps transformed.image.jpeg

I can sit on my butt complaining that angels have never had to deal with sheep tics, or I can make my way to Bethlehem and find a family treasuring their newborn, as families do. Treasuring the good God has given me, is where I must start again, and where I can learn again to treasure all the good God gives, when the Angels are gone away into heaven.

The other morning I had a phone call from an old friend Dennis Nicol, whose name will probably be unknown to most of my readers. He was on his way back to his home in Aberdeen from vital development work in Africa, where he had been offering his very practical entrepreneurial skills as a volunteer. I first met him when as along with others I formed a voluntary agency called Instant Neighbour, designed to use the skills of unemployed people in Aberdeen to assist its most vulnerable citizens. Dennis was employed as the manger and development officer of this project, which is still at work today, largely due to his genius for invention, hard work, and total respect for people in need.image

He is only one of a vast army of people I know in Scotland who have spent significant parts of their lives working for charitable agencies, not to mention the very many people, especially in retirement, who work as volunteers for the same agencies.

At Christmastime I am deluged with appeals from charities that want my support. I am a habitual supporter of Medicins Sans Frontieres, Shelter, Amnesty, and Christian Aid. But I also give gladly to the local charities whose people engage me in the street and in supermarkets. Just this week I met for the first time representatives of a small Dundee charity that provides spectacular holidays for terminally ill children. Some may ask if that is really a priority, but I am simply impressed by the humanity and energy that gets something like that off the ground. There’s also something gallus and politically incorrect about it, that seems to me distinctively Scottish.

imageScotland has a spectacular number of charitable agencies for a small nation and its citizens give a bigger proportion of their incomes to charity than any other part of the U.K., except maybe Northern Ireland. Who can say what influence this kind of wealth has on the quality of life in Scotland, and on the social ethics of its people? I’m sure that a little of the kindness, bloody minded determination and social vision of these agencies rubs off on the consciences of many citizens.

I am a socialist who believes in the welfare state, but who knows that the quantity and quality of state provision must be supplemented by many different kinds of charitable work that is not owned by the state. There has been and still is here a continual, critical, relationship between the state and the charitable sectors.

I think people should be more aware than perhaps they are of the extraordinary richness of charitable provision in and through my nation. We may not have a world class football team these days but our charities are world class! You don’t think so? Who d’ye think you’re talking about, pal? Want tae argue? Anyway if you are unfortunate enough to come from somewhere else and think you do it better – tell me about it, and I’ll celebrate your achievements as well.image

In a world where the worst are always wanting something for nothing, the best are giving their something for nothing or for very small rewards.

That’s why a report this week on the very large salaries being paid to the CEO’s of some charities, even in Scotland, is a warning. The greed of sinful human beings and the sense of entitlement inculcated by capitalist society endanger even the best of people and institutions. Highlighting the true wealth of charitable agencies is one way of guarding them against corruption.

For the benefit of readers who know nothing of Scottish culture let me explain that a proddy is a Protestant brought up to view anything connected with the Virgin Mary as Roman Catholic and therefore probably damnable. My own upbringing was more reasonable, softened by elements from the English Cathedral Christmas, but it stopped short of anything that might be called mariolatry.

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Mary takes her baby in her arms

 

Over time I have come to see the Catholic tradition about Mary as an answer to the male bias of mainstream Christianity, but as the wrong answer. Yes, Mary has become a kind of female incarnation of God, with her motherhood emphasised and her sexuality rejected. She is the apotheosis of the female eunuch, serving the male power of Christ and The Father and conceiving Jesus through the male power of the Spirit. She has been distorted by a deviant preference for virginity over sexual experience, and has in turn helped to bring the Catholic tradition on sexuality into its current antiseptic irrelevance to healthy people although it does, however, influence the aberrant sexuality of its male priesthood. She is a male dream of holy womanhood.

The biblical Mary is quite different. Luke makes her a feisty young woman, part of a family whose women,especially, dream of the Messiah to come, and are ready to play their parts in his birth and ministry. She responds to Jesus’ adult ministry with dismay and is rebuked along with the rest of his family for not giving priority to God’s will. She is also mother to Jesus’ brothers and sisters. She follows Jesus to the cross, and becomes the mother of the Christian community as part of the household of John the disciple. Her son James becomes the leader of the community of  believers in Jerusalem. The biblical account gives absolutely no indication that she remained virginal for the rest of her life or that she was assumed bodily into heaven. image

Still, even a Prod has to admit that she must have been a splendid person; indeed a Prod like me who doesn’t believe that Jesus had a son of God implant which made him different from other children, is probably the ideal person to appreciate Mary’s qualities as a woman and mother. She along with her husband Joseph must take credit for Jesus character and wisdom. The reasonable deduction, that Jesus’ parents contributed to his adult nature, undermines a magical view of Jesus as son of God, and allows us to begin a reflection on the God who works through an evolutionary process which culminates in Mary and her first-born child.

Yes,  that’s a real brain teaser!

Meanwhile I leave my readers with a fresco by Giotto, which more than any other work gives us the human Mary and Jesus, and the bond between them. Mary reaches for her child from the midwife and her eyes look into his, and his into hers. This is the word made flesh.

 

Jesus: Santa Claus! This is a nice surprise, but aren’t you a bit early? It’s santa1only 15th December, but if you want to give me an early Christmas, that’s cool with me….

SC: Well, no sorry Jesus it’s a bit more serious than that, and I’m not on my own today…….

Jesus: Well, yes, hello Rudolph,  and, eh, good morning elves, and yes, peace to you, Christmas Snowman, and …and…

SC: This is Theresa McConnachie, one  of my most faithful mums….

Jesus: You’re very welcome Theresa, come in and have a seat. Cups of tea all round?

SC: No thanks, I think we need to get down to business….

Jesus: The floor is yours, big man…

SC: Well the fact is, we’re going on strike!

Jesus: You mean, no special parcels, no reindeer, no Santa visits, no snowmen!?

SC: That’s it in a nutshell.

Jesus: So what’s brought about this decision?

Elves: We used to cope alright with the demand. Kids would ask for one item or maybe two from Santa. But now the kids have got so greedy that we get lists twelve or even twenty items long,best of stuff too, that it’s simply impossible to get it all together…

Rudolph: And even if they could get it together, my team just can’t cope with the delivery schedule. I mean, I try to keep the lads fit, on the road and in the gym, with special skill training on the roof tops and that, know what I mean? And these are good willing boys, they’ll try to get a result, but the fact is they’re not coping. I’ve got a terrible injury list already and there’s no way we’ll manage Christmas Eve..

Snowman: My problem’s more fundamental. Not only are most kids not interested in snowmen any more, but also the snow’s not there. Dreaming of a white Christmas, my sweet ass! It’s years since we’d a real fall of snow at Christmas, so nobody even thinks now of keeping that special carrot for my nose. It’s global warming of course, but nobody really wants to know. But if you’re built like me, well, there’s a nasty dripping noise when I walk…sanata2

SC: Most of all, there’s the sense of entitlement. Just last week I was I a big store and this porky kid was demanding a new x-box thingy and I tried suggesting something less expensive, and he just kicked me, and said,’Just do what you’re told, fatso!’ so I kicked him back when nobody was looking, and he was so astonished he went all quiet, but someone had filmed it on a phone and so I was asked to leave under health and safety rules…

Jesus: Dear, dear, what a catalogue of troubles! But you’ve said nothing, Theresa?

Theresa: I’m on my own with two kids, so it’s always been hard at Christmas. I buy things early when I see them cheap, and try to teach my kids to be reasonable, but this year I just know it won’t work. They won’t get what they want to keep up with their pals and I’ll have borrowed money from the loan shark at terrible interest…so if I had my way, I’d cancel Christmas! It’s become a monster!

Jesus: I hear all your troubles and I sympathise especially with Theresa…..but I’ve one question: why have you come to me?

SC: Well you’re the big boss of Christmas, it’s your show like, so if we’ve got an employer it must be you. I mean if we go on strike you’ll be the most affected…

Rudolph: I said it was only fair to tell you so that perhaps you could change things for us….

Jesus: I see. The first thing you have to learn is that I’m not your employer. If you want to see your real employer I can call him for you.

Snowman: Yes,  go on, why not?

Jesus: MAMMON COME HERE!

( A  giant appears dripping with all manner of consumer goods, riding in a  Rolls Royce,  wrapped in tinsel and fairy lights, playing White Christmas, and giving away signed photos of Donald Trump)

Mammon: Ho, Ho, Ho, what’s all this about then?

SC: We’re completely fed up with your Christmas and we’re going on strike until we get improvements.

Theresa: Yeah, no more exploitation for us!

Mammon: You are truly pathetic, you little people! Grow up. Christmas like everything else is for money. Of course most of that comes to me and my fellow entrepreneurs, because we deserve it. Don’t imagine you can change the system, you get what you deserve. I have true worshippers all over the world, in every board room of every enterprise, and in every government. So don’t think a strike will cut the mustard. I’ll just sack you  and make sure you never get a job again, anywhere. Now, get back to work!

mammon
a makeover for mammon

 

SC: When you put it like that I don’t suppose we have much choice….

Elves: I guess he’s got us beat, boss….

Theresa: But you can’t bully me, I’m not working, I owe you nothing….

Mammon: I think you’ll find that I can stop your credit altogether. Then where’ ll you kids get presents? Think of it. The only kids in the school that got no pressies. How do you think they’ll feel?

Jesus: As far as Christmas is concerned you still need me. My name makes the whole thing OK. Without me, it won’t be any different from New Year. Without me, everyone will see it as just one big rip-off. So I say the strike should go on, and I’ll join it. And I’ll tell all my churches that Christmas is nothing to do with me….

Mammon: You wouldn’t dare! How would they survive without Christmas? Even as it is they’re going down the tubes, do you think they’ll throw away their best brand?

Jesus: We’re going to find out Mister! From today, I’m asking my churches to announce that I’m on strike with my friends here and that none of us will ever work for Christmas again. And for those who want to celebrate my real birthday, I might tell them the real date, one of these days…..

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In a thoughtful article in the New Spectator, Matthew Parris argues that in contemporary European society there is no authoritative answer to this question; in fact, he raises two issues:

  1. Who is my neighbour?
  2. Who can give me an authoritative answer to this question?

I want to take the second, first.

Matthew Parris gives the example of the pre-reformation Catholic Church as the kind of authority he means. Now, I think that as a gay man who has endured the consequences of the authoritarian homophobia of the Catholic Church, Matthew ought to be careful what he wishes for. Of course over the centuries the community of the Catholic Church has fostered much sound moral thinking and behaviour; but it is precisely the authoritarianism of its doctrinal system which has led it into its worst errors, as for example, over birth control. An outdated view of what is ‘natural’ and the decision of a respected Pope to categorise all modern methods of contraception as unnatural has imposed an evident nonsense on the Catholic believers who would most benefit from family planning, and resulted in the farce of Catholic priests and nuns upholding the teaching with one hand while handing out condoms with the other. I am not saying that the Catholic view on this matter is simply wrong; indeed it represents an important tradition of thought. The problem is that when it has been imposed with such authority, it cannot be revised without bringing that authority into disrepute.

One of the real benefits of a God as the source of goodness is that divine authority is ultimately a mystery, able to be characterised by human virtues such as love, peace and justice, but not to be defined by any particular version of these. If believers agree that an event has taken place which alters their characterisation of God, then their views of love, peace and justice will also change. For the Judaeo – Christian tradition, the life of Jesus is such an event, the discoveries of modern science another.

This places the moral authority in a living God, as transmitted through a living tradition, which has to respond to the knowledge and the conscience of a living community. Any authority that might be more absolute than this, such as that of an infallible Pope or inerrant scripture, is an arrogant intrusion on the authority of God, and may indeed be idolatrous.

My answer to the second question therefore is that moral authority belongs to a community and its traditions with which we freely identify, and to which we contribute our lived experience. Who wants an authority with which we cannot argue and to which we cannot contribute? I am always impressed by the Dalai Lama’s ability to transmit the tradition of Mahayana Buddhism, with an authority which involves a reappraisal of that tradition and a readiness to listen to people from other traditions. I don’t find him less authoritative because  he has reviewed his Tibetan tradition in the light of his exile from Tibet and his experience of the wider world. Wherever a living tradition has originated, it cannot hold authority today unless it is prepared to be ‘ecumenical’ that is, open to the lives of people from all parts of the inhabited world. At their best many religions strive to be open in this way, as do the sciences and European rationalism. Moral authority is exercised by the ecumenical community to which we choose to belong; it is directive for its adherents but requires critical participation as well as obedience.

The specifically moral content of each tradition is unique, reflecting its  history and beliefs. These should not reduced to slogans like ‘loving your neighbour’ (Christianity and Judaism) or ‘what goes round comes round’ ( Buddhism). Their teachings have specific contexts within their traditions.

For example when Jesus was asked the question about neighbourliness, the context was that of Jesus having defined the duty of human beings to love God and their neighbour. When his questioner asked , who was his neighbour, Jesus set aside a whole history of debate about the limits of that obligation, and told a story about how a Samaritan ( heretic!) rescued  a Jew when the official representatives of his own faith had passed him by. We can smile at Jesus’ shrewd portrayal of the negligence of clergy and the kindness of a stranger. But we must also see how Jesus changed the terms of the debate. The questioner asked about the limits of his neighbourly obligation. Jesus put him in the position of a man in terrible need, and asked him, who, in that situation, was his true neighbour. There could be only one answer. When we are in need our true neighbour is the one who helps us.

Jesus is not saying we have to run about madly trying to love everybody. He is saying that, based on our experience of the kindness of others, we should not duck the responsibility of responding to the need that presents itself to us, by holding exclusive definitions of who our neighbour is or isn’t. Our neighbour is the one who is kind to us, says Jesus; now go and be a neighbour to others!

I doubt if Jesus would respond to Matthew Parris’s request for a list of priorities. That’s exactly what he refused to do. Just be a good neighbour, he advised, and don’t pretend you don’t know what this means. You react to the need that you encounter personally by your personal kindness, which may also include guiding the needy person to where relevant help is to be found. When we become aware how much relevant help is provided by charitable agencies, we should, if we are able, make a commitment to support one or more of them with our money. When we become aware of how much relevant help is provided by the state, we should commit ourselves to paying reasonable taxes so that these provisions can be funded adequately. That might involve trenchant criticism of a government which has pretended we are poor in order to underfund our common provision for neighbours in need.

For me, the authority of this teaching is God, Jesus and the whole Judaeo- Christian tradition mediated through  the world church. I have freely chosen to belong to it and believe that I should contribute to that tradition by my own thought and action. I don’t know what Matthew means when he says that Christianity has failed. If he means that its adherents, like me, often fail to act on its teachings, I would have to hold up my hand, while asking him to look to the lives of our saints. But I don’t think he means that. He says he wants to be told what to do, in detail, and with total authority. If so, I would want to advise him that the Christian tradition is one of several which can offer him a collection of practical wisdom and clear pointers in the direction of goodness, without asking him to deny his own intelligence, creativity and commitment, qualities I know he possesses, because they are evident in his Radio programme, “Great Lives.”

He is a man capable of contributing to a contemporary understanding of morality, so why does he yearn to be told what to do and think?

Angela Merkel, Time Mag’s woman of this year, famously said of restricting access of refugees to Germany, “A Germany that does not welcome refugees is not my country.” She was articulating a Christian obligation she had learned in her youth and finds no difficulty in acknowledging as a political leader. She doesn’t think that her moral tradition has failed, and she is determined not to fail it.

Here is the  link to the New Spectator article

http://new.spectator.co.uk/2015/12/the-question-christianity-fails-to-answer-who-is-my-neighbour/