I’ve tried for most of my working life to avoid pious claptrap,however beautiful, in the context of worship, and to use a langauge that respects the facts of life. So, for example, because I reckon that God will not intervene to stop the bloody war in Syria, I do not pray that s/he should do so, but rather that s/he should inspire people of goodwill to work for peace.img_0355

But what am I saying? Do I think that the God who chooses not to intervene by instantly destroying all armaments will intervene by some kind of spiritual force to inspire people who might oherwise not worked for peace? Indeed when I find the courage to do my duty, do I feel some power beyond myself, enabling my action? The answer to these questions is “no.” Nothing supernatural happens in this world; if we think it does, that is because we have an impoverished view of what is natural. Of course, I believe that if people of goodwill turn consciously towards what they consider the source of goodness, they will be clearer in their minds and stronger in their wills. I know that the story of Jesus and my image of him have often inspired my better attempts at living well. And yes, I also believe that through such means God gives me guidance, but s/he does so by worldly means which involve no dislocation of cause and effect. The mystery of God is not found in doubtful miracles, or at the boundary edges of human understanding, but rather in the ordinary and extraordinary facts of worldly life.

But how can this resolute refusal of mumbo-jumbo be expressed in hymns and prayers and sermons? Well, it’s relatively easy in sermons where the preacher has considerable freedom to use her own langauge, though even here the temptation to be  pious is not absent. But the other elements of worship are more difficult because they are more attached to the tradition of the church, which includes its traditional language. How can we pray without telling lies? Indeed, why pray at all, if we no longer think that God will intervene?  Jesus touched on this issue when he told his disciples that the father knew what they needed before they asked for it. But he also told them that if they asked they would receive.  In these words he taught that the desire for something good is an essential prerequisite of it happening, so that what is beyond us can take place amongst us.img_0357

Perhaps Jesus’ own prayer speaks the language of reality.

He begins with his name for God which expresses intimacy and respect, “father”, and asks that it should be held as holy by human beings.  This is not a a petition which  expects miraculous intervention; it is a longing and an intention to do what we can to  make it happen, as is the next petition, that God should rule the earth. This also expresses longing and commitment, but there is in addition the trust that is ready to accept what God’s ongoing creation brings. The prayer for daily bread recognises that livelihood is a gift to be shared rather than a achievement to be possessed, but it includes our willingness to work. The prayer for forgiveness sees the generous justice of God  announced by Jesus as the climate in which we want to live. The final petition to be spared harsh testing and to be rescued from the evil one, expresses our human frailty, and our trust that even if we fail the test, God will not leave us in the clutches of Evil. This last phrase along with the prayer that Gid should rule rhe earth, takes us beyond the present world, beyond our knowledge, expressing our trust that there is a reality beyond the facts, for which we can hope.

There is nothing in the whole prayer which authorises pious exaggeration,  sloppy emotionalism, liturgical pomposity, or spurious assurance ( “we just want to thank you Lord and praise your precious name for saving us from our sins and making us a shining fellowship of your saints”). If Jesus gave it as a model for his disciples’ prayer, or even if, as some scholars suggest, the prayer itself comes from the early communities of disciples, maybe we ought to attend to its language and its theology, and allow them to inform our own practice of prayer.img_0356

This does not mean we should not be direct. If we can pray for God’s rule on earth, we can surely pray that Jean should be healed from her cancer. When we do so we are not asking for something beyond medical care and the possibilities of her own body, but rather that the medical cate she is receiving may enable her own body to overcome the cancer. Rather than pray for “peace in places of war” we can pray that those who kill by suicide bombs or by sophisticated drones from thousands of miles away, should be defeated and punished for their atrocities. Given that the father knows what we need, there’s no point in saying “powerful people with prejudices” if we mean Donald Trump.

The language of prayer should be sober, modest, clear, specific, kindly and hopeful, and should express our trust in the goodness of God. Many of the old prayers do this very well, such as the one I use most days:

“Lord for thy tender mercies’ sake, lay not our sin to our charge; but forgive what is past and give us grace to amend our sinful lives; to decline from sin, and incline to virtue, that we may walk with a perfect heart, before thee now and evermore.”

 

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For the last fortnight I hve been privileged to watch a woman dying.  She was my cousin’s partner but I barely knew her, having just once shared a meal with her. i had an impression of a lively, outgoing sort of person, but no idea that she was the great spirit who revealed herself to all who came to see her in these last days. She ruled the room with grace and humour, setting the tone of conversations which were affectionate and life-affirming. img_0349

She was able to do so because she was in Roxburghe House, Dundee, an NHS hospice, which offers palliative care to patients for whom no further curative interventions are possible. Prior to her admission she had been in distress due to pain and weariness, but once there, with efficient pain control and skillled nursing, she was set free to be herself, until the final few days of her life when she was mainly unconscious. Because she was fully herself, her family and friends were able to respond in kind, offering her the distinctive inventiveness of their own love.

Because I was an occasional intruder into these gatherings,  and because I have a professional interest, I was reminded again of what an extraordinary combination of good things is provided by the staff: rigorously scientific care, meticulously delivered; tender nurses; companionable ward cleaners; cheerful auxilaries; decent facilities for visitors; robust humour, quiet attentiveness, affectionate cuddles; above all a compassionate realism about dying. Not only does the unit have a good philosophy, it puts it into practice effectively and with such a rich humanity, that those who have received it express astonishment as well as gratitude.

All of us will die. Here is a way of doing it that enhances rather than diminshes our humanity; and it’s a team effort in which everyone, including the dying person, plays their part. I believe that this quality of terminal care should be available to everybody. If it were, many of the issues which lead people to demand the “right to die” would arise less frequently. It would not of course deal with the issues of people who have to suffer long-term incapacity and indignity, nor of those who are in so-called vegetative states. But it would, I think, meet the requirements of those who want a “good death.” img_0351

There is behind some of the impatience with our present laws, a notion that as soon as  it is impossible for a person to be active, meaning to work, play and consume, they should be able to die, because they no longer have any “quality of life.” The assumption is that auffering, because it is passive, has no value. It seems clear to me fhat with the kind of care offered at Roxburghe House, patients can at times be active, their courage and endurance can be expressed, their dying can be filled with  their characteristic life.

There are indeed legal issues about dying with which I hope our society will grapple, but I consider that the philosophy and practice of hospice care, if extended throughout  society, could set the bench mark of an experience of dying that is comfortable, peaceful, heroic if you dare , angry if you want, funny if you will, and distinctively human, all with the help of a therapeutic community that reminds us mortal creatures, that we can sometimes be glorious.

We all have to walk that lonesome valley, but we do not have to walk it by ourselves.

 

The Church of England is again debating sexual morality today with special attention to homo/ bi/ transsexual people who want to be married in church. A report recommends that they should not be permitted to do so, as Church doctrine defines marriage as  a relationship between one man and one woman.

The practical issue should be easily enough resolved. There is an issue of equality here which goes beyond the issue of historical or present doctrine. People who are not heterosexual are being discriminated against – yes, they are, whatever moth-eaten excuses are offered- as indeed they are in my own  Church of Scotland,  and that is sinful behaviour,  from which all churches should turn in repentance.  Complete equality should come before nonsense from the book of Leviticus, or semantic arguments about the meaning of marriage.img_0348

Of course, I can see the problems which have pushed churches into unseemly compromises. If the C of E grants complete sexual equality, it will probably lose a number of its own energetic evangelicals, as well as the greater part of the Anglican Communion in Africa. My own church would probably also be split between those who hold to inerrant Scripture and those who hold to social justice. I am for justice and equality and would happily wave goodbye to those who can reject it for the sake of maintaining the authority of Scripture. Serious faith cannot afford magic books.

But I retain a good deal of affection for what might be described as the “heterosexual narrative” and am not altogether convinced by arguments that gender is solely a social construct, which can be altered at will. I guess the heterosexual story that we find in claasic texts like the Hebrew BIble, the Mahabharata, Homer, the Chinese Odes, is now viewed as a one-sided choice made by these societies, and transmitted to subsequent generations.

We can think of these societies of the first millennium BCE as archaic and traditional compared with ours; but of course these very societies were not only rhe inheritors of the history of unrecorded human experience on this earth but also were themselves revolutionary in their arts, technologies and politics. The time between them and us is negligible compared with the vast reach of human time before them. As well as changing much of what they received from the past, they carried forward from the past what they believed to be of permanent value, including the heterosexual story. I do not mean the patriarchal story, which they may indeed have invented and imposed on past traditions. I want to separate the priority they gave to the heterosexual story, from the dominant role they gave fo males.

Why is this story so powerful? Answer: because it seems natural. Sexual reproduction is not the only natural strategy for reproduction: even so-called primitive societies knew how fungi and rice reproduced. But sexual reproduction was evident and appeared natural to most observers of humanity. The process of sexual reproduction in human beings was not scientifically understood; in some times and places, the role of the male was seen as very limited and subordinate to the fecundity of the female. But given the anatomy of the human body, heterosexual intercourse looked natural.

Even if you can’t follow rhe directions on the flatpack wardrobe, an experienced eye can tell that the holes on the door and the frontpiece are intended for screws that will fix the hinges. It seemed to observers in those early civilizations, that nature had designed human beings for heterosexual intercourse, and with the desire for it. This basic observation was of course expressed in very different customs and convictions, some of which made a place for same-sex activity while maintaining heterosexuality as a norm. I am not arguing that we must do so because they did; they may have been no wiser than we are. Rather I am pointing to the apparent naturalness of heterosexuality, in its appreciation of the male and female bodies. img_0347

This means that heterosexual story we have inherited from many varied cultures has in spite of their different constructions of masculinity and femininity  a common element in the human body, male and female, as desired by the opposite sex. Images of male and female bodies and their sexual organs are diffused through all the arts of our society, and are so pervasive that often we have ceased to notice them. Why are all these erect church spires thrusting upwards?

The fundamental sexual story has of course given rise to a multitude of other stories, from Helen of Troy to Romeo and Juliet to Beyonce and her pregnancy; and to millions of poems and songs, as well as the tat of  Valentine’s Day. Many of these are our greatest narratives and songs, just as heterosexual art includes many of our greatest paintings, sculptures and buildings. This culture formed my personal experience of boy meets girl from the outset, conferring on it graces and expectations which were not of my invention, although leaving room for personal  creativity. It told me a little about who I was, and a little about who she was.

There is a delicacy and magic to this tradition as well as a robust earthiness, which I would be reluctant to see lost to future generations because liberal societies must not prioritise in advance the gender choices and sexual preferences of their children. I agree that in a society which rightly grants equality to all forms of loving, the heterosexual story cannot have the unique place it had in former cultures, but I am convinced it has value for all children, and provides an intimate education for the heterosexual majority of them.

This is not a major issue compared with the fight for equality for people of all sexual predispositions, but that does not mean it is unimportant. In fact a greater public appreciation of the heterosexual story might help people who are reluctant to give equality to other sexual stories. The biblical creation story in Genesis 2, 3, in which what was originally one flesh but are now two, are always wanting to become one flesh again, sets out well the humour, loneliness and blind desire of the human animal; of which it is written, “male and female he created them.”

 

See previous material in last blog but one.

Before He embarks, however, on a more positive theme of his joyful news, Paulos wants his readers to recognise clearly that doing wrong and being in the wrong (=“sin”) is a universal condition of humanity. He is particularly concerned that no Jewish person should think himself exempt from this by virtue of race or religion, and he re-enforces his criticism of Gentile behaviour

People who sin outside the Jewish Law will be destroyed outside the Law; while people who sin within the Law will be condemned by the Law; for it is not those who hear the Law who are recognised as just before God, but those who do the Law who will be justified. When people who do not have the Law naturally do lawful actions, they are a Law for themselves, although they do not have the Law. They show that the actions of the Law are written on their hearts, as their conscience confirms; with their embattled thoughts either denouncing or defending them, on the day, when according to my Joyful News of Messiah Jesus, God will judge the secrets of men and women.

But if you call yourself a Jew, rely on the law, take pride in God, know his will and discern what is best as you are instructed by the law; 19 and if you are confident that you are a guide to the blind, a light to people in darkness, 20 a corrector of fools, a teacher of babes, because you have in the law the perfect form of knowledge and truth, 21 yes, you, teacher of others, will you not teach yourself? Preaching the command against stealing, do you steal? 22 Quoting the command that forbids adultery, do you commit it? Detester of idols, do you rob their temples? 23 Boaster about the law, do you dishonour God by breaking it ? 24 As scripture says, “The name of God is reviled among the Gentiles because of you.”

25 Foreskin-snipping is indeed of value if you obey the law; but if you break the law, your snipping has become foreskin-possession. 26 So, if those who possess foreskins keep the requirements of the law, won’t their possession be regarded as snipping? 27 Then those who are physically in possession of foreskins but keep the law will condemn you that have the written code and the snipping but break the law. 28 For no one is a Jew by outward appearance nor is true snipping something external and physical. 29 Rather, a person is a Jew by inward reality and real snipping is a matter of the heart—in a spiritual rather than a written character. Such a person receives praise not from others but from God.
So is the Jew better off? Is there any profit in snipping?
A great deal in all respects! For a start, the Jews were entrusted with the commandments of God. So what if some were unfaithful? Does their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God? Certainly not. Let God be true even though all human beings are liars! As Scripture says, “That you may be proved right in your words and prevail when you are brought to judgement.”

But if our wrongdoing serves to prove the justice of God, shall we say it’s unfair of God to inflict his anger upon us (This is worldly language)? Certainly not. For how then could God “judge the world”? But if God’s truth gains extra credit through my lie, why am I condemned as a sinner? Indeed, “Why not do evil so that good may come of it?” as some people slanderously claim I’ve said. Well, they are fairly condemned! But does their wrongness exceed ours as Jews? Not at all, for I have already proved that Jews as well as Greeks are under the power of sin. As Scripture says,

“There are no just people, no, not one; no one thinks wisely, no one looks to God; all have wandered from the road and become worthless, no one does good, no, not one. Their throat’s an open grave, their tongues are treacherous, the venom of vipers is under their lips, their mouths are full of curses and spite. Their feet are swift to shed blood, they have taken the road to ruin and misery, but ignored the way of peace. There’s no fear of God in their eyes.”

We know that whatever the Jewish Law says, it speaks to those who are under The Law, so that every mouth may be shut and the whole world held accountable to God. Therefore by the deeds of The Jewish Law no flesh is declared just in God’s court, since by the Law comes recognition of sin.

Paulos is writing to an Assembly of believers composed of Jews and Gentiles, and desires to encourage an absolute equality amongst them. He recognises the advantage of having the Jewish Law, but balances this by emphasising the moral capability of Gentile people to live decently by creating their own moral norms. Then since he has already denounced the idolatry and sinfulness of Gentiles, he fashions a diatribe against Jewish hypocrisy, including robust ridicule of what is usually and solemnly translated as “circumcision”. I have used a more ordinary expression, as I think Paul is making fun of an operation which would certainly have been carried out on himself. He wants his readers to smile with him, realising that there is no magic virtue in this ritual snipping in itself. He wants Jew and Gentile alike to see that although Jewish faith in the one God is better than Gentile idolatry, religion in itself does not produce just people. Jewish and Gentile people are both capable of some goodness but both are also sinners who cannot attain the justness that God desires.

1. The first application of this discourse is to any polity in which there are obvious religious/ ethnic/ groups. Any government or party seeking justice can learn from Paulos that they should deny the self-definitions of such groups, while being appreciative of their different virtues. No group at any time will have a monopoly of virtue, not only because the other group will also have virtues, but also because the people of both groups will have faults that are endemic to sinful humanity.
2. The second application is for any government, party or individual looking to improve the polity. They should not forget that human beings are sinful. Naïve notions of human perfectibility are said to have led, as in the French revolution, to tyranny, because they failed to provide the constitutional checks and balances required to contain human sinfulness at all levels of power. This analysis has been applied to Soviet totalitarianism: the belief that human wickedness derives from the slavery imposed by capitalism, may have led to the belief that those liberated from capitalism, especially those who belonged to the Communist Party, would not be wicked, and needed no legal restraints on their power. Any insistence therefore, on human sinfulness is suspect in the eyes of left-wing thinkers as justifying conservative constitutions and policies. Paulos in contrast, believes that the human beings to whom is writing, and the Assemblies to which they belong are perfectible by means of the “rescuing justice” of God which will make them just people. But this rescue is never complete in this “present age” so the human person remains, as Luther recognised, “simul justus, simul peccator,” at once just and a sinner. Paul’s politics, his guidance for the life of The Assemblies, combines a realism that is aware of human sinfulness, with a revolutionary hope of perfection.
3. The third application is to the kind of politics which is designed to restrain wickedness without any commitment to transformative justice, which is identified by Paulos with the Jewish Law. It is not negligible because it exposes sinfulness, which is important, but it is inadequate in comparison with the joyful news of Jesus, which offers transformation. For contemporary politics the question therefore is whether there is any practice which corresponds to Paulos’ joyful news of Jesus.

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Dotterel singing in a mountain morning

Often it was no more than a flash of brown as I trudged across a high plateau in the Scottish mountains. But in a brown landscape a flash of that colour is dramatic, demanding attention. When I looked carefully after a while I would find a small bird whose breast was even browner than the moorland in which it was nesting. Well, actually, the nesting bird, incubating the eggs, or guarding the chicks, was the almost invisible male, while the bird I had noticed was the food- gathering female whose colouring is much brighter.

This bird is the dotterel, a small wading bird which winters in the Atlas mountains in Africa and migrates northwwards in April/ May to breed in Scotland and Norway. It likes the high moors of the Scottish mountains where it is almost invisible and has little competition. Perhaps because it is seldom endangered it is very tame and will allow a human being to approach it without alarm. This behaviour earned it its English name, which means a stupid person, and its official classification Charadrius Morinellus, which means a stupid ravine dweller. Human beings reckoned they were easy to hunt, and although their taste is not highly rated, they have been commonly hunted in Europe. In Scotland, on the whole, they have not been much hunted since the energy required to find them would exceed the energy gained in eating them.

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Male dotterel with chicks

Instead they have been the quiet companions of hill-walkers, especially of those who are never in so much of a hurry to get to the top that they will turn aside for any matter of interest. The simple whistle of the female dotterel has become for me a welcome invitation to pause and look and perhaps, disgracefully, share a few raisins from my food bag. The last bird count in Scotland found that its numbers are declining alarmingly, probably due to global warming. These are birds which have chosen marginal landscapes which used to be covered in snow much of the year. Now they are often free of snow on winter. It’s not clear what difference these changes make to dotterel, or to their diet of insects, snails, and worms., but it is clear that these birds, along with the ptarmigan, who need the sub-arctic conditions which used to be found reliably on the high mountains of Scotland, will have to move north to find the conditions they like. Their decreasing appearance on our mountains is a sad indication  that global warming is a fact.

When President Trump comes on a state visit to Britain, and perhaps sneaks north to visit his golf course in Aberdeen, I hope I can persuade him to meet me on the Moine Mhor, a vast moorland plateau that is the high ground between the River Feshie and the infant River Dee. Perhaps given his bulk he will have to forego the exhilirating walk, and ascend to the plateau in a helicopter. There I would hope to introduce him to one of the few dotterel still nesting there, maybe one of the beautiful females with the chestnut breast. I would hope that he might be moved by this modest, friendly creature which for over a  million years or so, has trusted its human brothers and sisters not to harm her. I would explain to the President her role as a proof of global warming.

It is perhaps daft of me to hope that this almost trivial issue will affect the President when the rising of the sea level with the complete  inundation of parts of The USA has not, but you have to use what you’ve got. If he does refuse to understand what we are doing to the dotterel and the whole planet, then he will deserve the application of another word that means “stupid”, the Scots word “gomerel” which is itself endangered as a live element in our vocabulary. Certainly I used it as a child without any sense that it was exotic. Derived from old Scots “goam” to be vacant or aimless, it means “very, perhaps willfully, stupid; an idiot.” Obviously human beings who cannot pay any attention to their own environment deserve a name that means thicko, numptie, knuckle nuts, pinhead, plonker, dork, nutter and bampot, and other epithets too rude to grace the screens of this blog.

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female dotterel

The wisdom tradition of the Bible, as in Job 38, liked to show the wisdom the creator by describing the marvellous creatures God had made; and encouraged buman beings not to be gomerels as in Proverbs 8:

Is not wisdom calling?

“I am calling to you, all people;

my words are addressed tomall humanity.

Simpletons, learn how to behave!

Fools, come to your senses!”

If the  BIble had been written in Scotland it would have dotterels in it – and gomerels.

Not long ago I posted a complete translation of Paul’s letter to the Romans on this site. Now I am adding the initial section of an investiagtion of its significance for politics in Scotland today. My brother Colin, who is much more exoert on political matters than I, is also investigating and I will inlude his contributions on this site.

Someone calling himself Paul is writing to people he doesn’t know who live in a city he’s never visited, probably around the year 50 CE. He claims that their shared allegiance to one Jesus Messiah will make his words of interest to them.

He is a Jewish man, named Shaul in his own language, and formerly eminent in the religious hierarchy of his people. We know from his other letters that initially he was a fierce opponent of this Messiah Jesus and violently persecuted his early followers. He can dictate fluently to his scribe in the common Greek of the Roman Empire, the language of trade, commerce, politics, popular religion, civil administration. Probably he has been bilingual in Greek and Aramaic from childhood. Doubtless a Greek could tell from his letters that he is not an educated man, but would nevertheless be impressed by his ability to carry through an argument, to use forms of Greek rhetoric when he wished, to find vivid words for his most important ideas – and all this from a Jew, the Greek might have said, holding the popular view that the Jewish homeland must be a cultural desert seeing so many of its citizens had found their way to the great cities of the Empire. As Paul reminds his Roman readers, he has traversed a large section of the Mediterranean Sea with his “joyful news of Jesus” at least as far west as Greece, bringing into existence and nurturing what he calls “Assemblies”, ekklesiai in Greek, meaning people summoned together, usually for a civic purpose. Now he is writing to the Assembly in Rome, the capital city of the Empire.

By this time he must have been picked up on the CCTV of the Imperial administration. Somebody, somewhere, in an official position or paid as a spy, had noticed a man who was establishing a group of people who met in each other’s houses. He might have noted with concern that the group included slaves as well as working people and even some leading citizens. Officials would have dealt with breaches of the peace due to the enmity between this man and some of the Jewish residents of their cities. In Ephesos certainly he had been imprisoned, possibly for some considerable time. At a local level, the great empire was aware of Paul.

There had been empires before but none like this one. Perhaps the Greek Empire under Alexander had at one time been greater in extent, but it had swiftly disintegrated. Rome extended its reach gradually, backing up its conquests with roads and systems of communication, establishing efficient administrations backed by its amazingly disciplined and well-equipped legions, yet leaving plenty spaces to be filled by indigenous people attracted by the opportunities of education, travel, trade and secure income. Its great boast was that it allowed the arts of peace to flourish. There were territories that Rome had gained by military conquest, others by political interference, others again by the decision of their own elites, who saw the benefits of Roman rule. Roman citizenship was eagerly sought, and the cult of the Goddess Roma and the Imperial Family was enthusiastically taken up by many city administrations.

The spread of new Roman technologies in agriculture, manufacture, land and sea travel, commerce, and administration throughout the empire, brought about huge changes in local economies, work, knowledge and culture. Its effect on traditional societies was revolutionary, sweeping away established customs and politics, and replacing them with the Roman way. As far as religions were concerned, Rome was pious, affirming traditional practices especially where they were open to the Imperial cult as well, but also permitting some that were hostile to other Gods, such as Judaism. An approved religion was designated as “permitted” maintaining Roman oversight while permitting the priestly castes of conquered nations to keep their privileges.

Many people experienced the Empire as liberating. Good communications meant easier and safer travel; the Roman Law was foreign but more rational than many local systems; the currencies of the Empire were reasonably stable, which encourage consumption and trade. The Empire’s need of local goods and services allowed local suppliers to flourish. The Roman rebuilding of ancient cities meant aqueducts and sewerage systems became more common. Many people, especially artisans, small traders, the educated classes and aristocrats of all nationalities adapted to this more prosperous way of life. Others, the poor, the nationalists, the religiously fervent, were often disadvantaged by the Empire and were opposed, sometimes violently, to its rule.

Slavery was an issue; not that it was a new institution, as slaves had been part of mediterranean societies for thousands of years, but rather that due to increased competition, and the power of large enterprises and estates, numbers of formerly free people found themselves enslaved as a result of debt. From their perspective, the Empire itself was an enslaving power, exploiting the wealth of many nations through its taxation and control of trade, and reinforcing this hegemony with exemplary brutality when there was any open opposition.

The Zealot rebellions in Judaea in 70 and 135 CE led by nationalistic Jihadists are good illustrations of what could happen, in this case the utter defeat of the rebel forces, the punishment of the Jewish nation, the dispersal of its population and the destruction of its symbolic centre.

Rome saw itself as a humanistic force in the world, but it was careful in its definitions of humanity. Roman citizens were truly human and had human rights. Non- citizens might be treated as if they were human, but had no rights; while slaves, as in all cultures, were non-persons, useful commodities who might be cherished or abused..

The man called Paulos is writing to a group of people in the capital city of this Empire, some of whom may be citizens but most of whom are probably non-citizens and slaves. What is he saying to them? Let’s eavesdrop as one of their leaders reads his letter to the group.
From Paul, a slave of Jesus Messiah, called as an Emissary and set apart as a preacher of the Joyful News that God had announced earlier through his prophets in the holy writings: about his Son. A flesh and blood descendant of King David, he was installed in power as Son of God by God’s spirit through his resurrection from the dead. He is Jesus Messiah, our Lord.
From him I have received kindness and the status of Emissary for his honour, to encourage trustful obedience amongst all peoples, amongst whom you are also called to belong to Jesus Messiah.

To all God’s loved ones in Rome, who are called to be holy, kindness to you and peace from God our father and the Lord Jesus Messiah!

The writer defines himself as a SLAVE, albeit of the MESSIAH who gives him the dignity of being an EMISSARY like the appointed ambassadors of the Empire. JESUS in whom they already trust is described as SON OF GOD and RESURRECTED which clearly places him above any Emperor, from which position he demands TRUSTFUL OBEDIENCE from all peoples.

In these opening words the writer sets out the authority of an alternative Empire of which the readers are already subjects. Then on behalf of GOD and his MESSIAH, the writer assures his readers of divine KINDNESS AND PEACE and tells them they are loved. As such they are summoned by God to Be HOLY, that is, to demonstrate by their goodness that they BELONG TO GOD. This greeting suggests that they are part of something greater than the Empire, because its PEACE, unlike that of the Empire, is matched by its KINDNESS.

Paulos then indicates the scope of his task a an EMISSARY; it has taken him to many parts of the Empire, to share the JOYFUL NEWS OF JESUS MESSIAH, which he defines as the RESCUING POWER of God. This is the language of KING JESUS and his KINGDOM encouraging his readers to recognise the new authority in their lives, in which they share a growing imperium with other assemblies around the Mediterranean. Doubtless there are in the Assembly some people of Jewish origin for whom the notion of a rescuing God goes back to the Exodus from Egypt.

This kingdom recognises the rule of God through his Messiah Jesus, but puts all human beings on the same level, although they have different gifts and functions. That’s why Paulos catches himself, when he has given the impression that the Roman Assembly must learn from him, and adds that he will also learn from them.

First, I thank my God through Jesus Messiah for you all, because news of your trust has gone out to all the world; for God is my witness, to whom I give my spiritual service in the Joyful News of his Son, that at all times I remember you in my prayers, asking that by God’s will I may now at last succeed in coming to you. For I long to see you, to give you some spiritual benefit that will strengthen you- I mean, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, yours and mine. I want you to know, my brothers and sisters, that I have often intended to come to you -but have been prevented until now- so that I could work fruitfully amongst you, as I have done amongst other peoples. To Greeks and barbarians, wise and unwise, I am under equal obligation, so for my part I am eager to announce the Joyful News to you in Rome as well.

I am shameless about the Joyful News, since it is the rescuing power of God for everyone who trusts in him, for the Jew first and also for the Greek. For the saving justice of God is unveiled in it, from his trust to ours, as the scripture says, “The just person will live by trust.”

Although the Assemblies of Jesus may be scattered over the extent of the OIKUMENY, the inhabited world, they are united by the JOYFUL NEWS and by PRAYER. God and his Messiah also have their SECRET SERVICE, a means of communication which shares the concerns of all parts of the KINGDOM. This is all for the sake of the gift which the kingdom offers to all people: SAVING JUSTICE which neither ignores nor merely punishes wrongdoers, but lifts them up and makes them into just people.
Even in these opening remarks, Paulos clearly asks his readers to imagine themselves as citizens of a kingdom which is different from the Great Empire. They are not prisoners of the global power of Rome, but open to a transcendent justice which has been made available through Messiah Jesus, in whom they trust.

What I would call the “religious assumption” about Paulos, namely, that his concern is to access a God and hold on to his favour in this life and the next, has led to misinterpretation of what he means by the saving justice of God. His “joyful news” is that God has made himself available to all and his offered his favour unconditionally, so that there is no longer any need for religion. That’s what lies behind his attack on the Jewish Torah. If we cash out what Paulos means by God’s rescuing power and saving justice, we find it consists in living as a just person in a community that accepts an advance of trust and promotes a familial justice amongst its members. Yes, this advance of trust is said to come from God, indeed it almost defines God in Paulos’ thinking; yes, the offer is made through Messiah Jesus, killed on a Roman stake; yes, the other name for this shared justice is the Holy Spirit; we shall investigate these matters in due time. Here I want to emphasise Paulos’ announcement of a transcending justice in a political, ethical and cultural space that denies any other dimension than Imperial power. He has briefly indicated the nature of this justice by words such as peace, kindness, and above all, trust. Members of the Assemblies of Jesus trust in each other’s capacity for goodness and are mutually enabled to be good to each other and their neighbours. Their trust in a transcendent God is not first of all to do with realities beyond the material world and its history, but in a here and now justice that goes beyond what Rome provides, and which becomes real as they trust it and each other.

If I look today in Scotland for an all-encompassing power to equal that of the Roman Empire, one which has established networks of communication, technology, ideology, culture, trade, finance and effective political control throughout the world, I’d be wilfully blind if I did not see it in capitalism itself. As in the case of Rome, its global control has brought all manner of material benefits to some, while reducing others to the condition if not the status of slaves. It has been, as Marx noted, revolutionary in sweeping away traditional economies and ways of life, transforming the planet into a single market and its inhabitants into consumers. In Scotland, it provided the huge boost to the economy of the oil industry, while creating a political culture that makes it impossible for a popular government to tax its citizens enough to provide a decent health service. It openly interferes through its bankers and business people in the public affairs of the nation while entering, by means of pervasive advertising into the most private dreams and fantasies of even the poorest citizen. Its monuments and shrines rise high here as in every city in the world. A Great Empire indeed.

In Scotland, as in other nations, there was for many generations a countervailing power which drew on a critical analysis of capitalism, and worked consciously to control it politically and industrially. I grew up in the 1940’s and ‘50’s with socialism, expressed through its political parties and trades unions. In many places socialism reached further into the ordinary lives of individuals through cooperative societies, friendly societies, educational movements and so on. It stood for a transcendent justice that went beyond capitalism.

Today in Scotland that power still exists, although much attenuated, in the Labour Party and other smaller, more radical socialist parties; in Trades Unions; in a plethora of charities that tackle poverty and related ills; and in a Green Party which recognises capitalism as a conspiracy against nature as well as justice.

The Scottish Churches, while critical of many of the effects of capitalism, are not opposed to it as such. The governing party the SNP which relies on the votes of supporters as well as opponents of capitalism, rejects what it sees as ideological issues and opts for a mildly reformist pragmatism. There is also a majority of wealthy and powerful citizens, along with many of middling income, and even of those classified as poor, for whom capitalism is as natural as the polluted air we breathe, does what they think they want, and who simply do not want any alternative.

These are my observations and are presented without proof, because they are only intended to support my opinion that present day Scotland does not look like promising territory for a reform or effective control of capitalism and its practices.

In this situation I feel challenged by reading The Letter to Romans. Without doubt Paulos could have looked at the Empire as hugely unpromising territory for a message of transcendent justice, but clearly he saw opportunity where I might have seen No Chance Saloon. I put this down to the content of his convictions, rather than any difference of temperament. These are:

1. Human beings need rescued from “enslavement” by experiencing kindness and peace.(non-violence, safety, welfare)
2. Those experiences are aspects of a “rescuing justice” that is mediated by a community of men and women.
3. Those who are treated in this way become just people who are capable of mediating this rescuing justice to others.
4. Such communities exist everywhere in the world, and the primary allegiance of their members is to each other, rather than to their nation or race.

Of course there is much more to Paulos’ conviction than these. We shall see more of them as we read more of the letter, but these are evident in his introduction. Yes, I have removed his references to the ultimate source of rescuing justice, because while recognising the importance of the story of God told by Paulos, he himself insists that it is not only a story of rescue, but also a rescuing practice, exemplified historically by Jesus Messiah and contemporaneously by his Assemblies. The story of the Source is fundamental, and we shall return to it, but the points noted above can be a useful starting place.

Like socialists, Paulos insists that human beings are capable of justice. Like them also he knows that people must be liberated from their chains before they can liberate others. Unlike them however, he designates kindness and peace as the means of liberation. These qualities of course are a shorthand for the life of the Assembly which is structured by the life of Jesus, but they they indicate clearly what is transmitted by the assemblies and their tradition.

This is a different starting place from that of most contemporary political movements, who tend to bypass such concern as merely ethical, “because we’re not here to be a fucking church are we?” but announce that they must get down and dirty to deal with matters of oppression and exploitation, if they are left wing, or matters of economic opportunity and growth, if they are right wing. The innocence of most political people is stunning in that they assume their own liberation, and rarely ask if they are capable of bringing justice to themselves or others. This insistence that liberation is a practice and not an ideology is not a demand for an impossible purity in political activism, but a shrewd critique of those who want to change others without changing themselves.

Paulos’ assumption that Assemblies of Jesus will hold a primary allegiance to each other, across racial and national boundaries indicates a rejection of all racial, national and sectarian concerns; and his own role as an organiser and go-between across huge geographical and cultural distance is a useful model for political leaders in Scotland today. If we start with a concern only for the good of Scotland we shall remain captives of the ideology of the nation state which has not been a boon to humanity. Allegiance to other assemblies should also make us aware that the unit of justice is not necessarily Scotland, but rather communities of justice in Scotland.

Would a Muslim assembly with clear views on social justice be the sort of community I would recognise? Yes, of course, if it met the four criteria noted above, including that its primary allegiance was “ecumenical”, that is, to similar communities of justice across religious barriers, rather than simply sectarian.

In these matters we only begin to explore the relevance of this text for Scottish politics today.

A BLAST FROM THE FREE CHURCH?

After the introductory remarks in his letter, Paulos embarks on a sharply worded diatribe against the immorality of Gentile societies. Torah-observant Jews did find the Graeco- Roman culture shocking, especially its plethora of deities and its sexual promiscuity. From the time of the Ten Commandments Israel had rejected idolatry, meaning the representation of deity in images of any kind. The Jewish prophets depicted idolatry as sexual promiscuity, “whoring after other Gods” and denounced the sexual elements of Canaanite religion. Paulos is part of this cultural tradition and uses it in his diatribe, which will be offensive to some readers.
But God’s anger is displayed from heaven towards all the impiety and injustice of human beings who by injustice suppress the truth. The facts about God are evident to them, because God has made them evident. For the unseen things of God, such as eternal power and divine nature, are made clear to the mind ever since the world’s creation, in the things that have been made. So they have no defence. In spite of knowing God, they neither honoured him nor gave him thanks, but became idolatrous in their reasoning and overshadowed in their hearts. Trying to be clever they became idiots, exchanging the glory of the undying God for the fabricated likenesses of mortal men and women, birds, animals and reptiles. For this reason God handed them over, in the desires of their hearts, to the impurity of dishonouring their bodies with each other. They exchanged the truth of God for a falsehood, by serving in worship the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen! Yes, for this reason, God handed them over to shameful affections: their females exchanged natural sexual behaviour for what is contrary to nature; and in the same way the males, neglecting natural sex with females, burned with lust for one another -males did shameful things with males, and so received in their own persons the due reward for their wrong belief. Because they did not think God worth their attention, God handed them over to a worthless compulsion to do worthless things.

They were filled with all kinds of injustice, depravity, greed and malice; full of envy, murder, violence, deception and craftiness. They became whisperers, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, proud and boastful. Inventors of evil, they were disobedient to parents, irrational, faithless, heartless and ruthless. Although they know the just verdict of God, that people who do such things deserve to die, they do them and are pleased with those who also do them.
Whoever you are, you leave yourself with no defence as a judge, if you do the very same things for which you are condemning others. For we know that God’s judgement is shrewdly made on those who do such things. Do you imagine if you stand in judgement over people who do such and such while doing it yourself, that you’ll escape the judgement of God? Or are you presuming on the abundant goodness, forbearance and long-suffering of God, ignoring the fact that God’s goodness is meant to drive you to a change of mind? With your hard and unrepentant heart you are piling up anger for yourself on the Day of Anger when God’s just judgements will be openly displayed. For God will reward each one according to his actions.

Whoever seeks glory and honour by the discipline of good deeds will get eternal life; whoever serves injustice through strife and refusal of truth, will get fierce anger. There will be sharp pain and distress for every human soul that produces evil, Jews first and Greeks after; honour and peace for every one that labours for the good, Jews first and Greeks after, for God has no favourite faces.

People who sin outside the Jewish Law will be destroyed outside the Law; while people who sin within the Law will be condemned by the Law; for it is not those who hear the Law who are recognised as just before God, but those who do the Law who will be justified. When people who do not have the Law naturally do lawful actions, they are a Law for themselves, although they do not have the Law. They show that the actions of the Law are written on their hearts, as their conscience confirms; with their embattled thoughts either denouncing or defending them, on the day, when according to my Joyful News of Messiah Jesus, God will judge the secrets of men and women.

Yes, it’s a notorious text in which Paul views homosexual relationships as God’s punishment for idolatry. Should we not simply give this passage the body-swerve, because it expresses a religious judgementalism which we know only too well today, and which is still fuelled by this kind of biblical material? My conviction is that we can learn a lot by trying to understand cultural prejudices with which we disagree. Before I do so, I must state my own disagreement with what Paulos wrote in this passage; I do not consider homosexual relationships to be a punishment for idolatry. I think of them in exactly the same way as heterosexual relationships, some good, some bad, all human.

Paulos begins by setting out an argument for faith in a creator God which would be rejected by many people, including many believers today. He says God’s deity can be easily discerned in the cosmos. “The heavens tell the glory of God and the firmament shows forth his handiwork” says the Jewish psalmist. This constitutes not so much an argument from design as an immediate apprehension that the cosmos owes its existence to One who is beyond all worlds. The cosmos has not simply happened but is, in all its contingency, ordered by divine wisdom. God, the one source of the cosmos is for Paulos the only acceptable object of worship; and he regards failure to perceive this truth as culpable. All people, in his view are capable of recognising their creator.

Most readers will reject this supposition out of hand. Many of those who have studied the cosmos most carefully and understood its processes most precisely, do not apprehend it as created by any God, but as having evolved according to its own laws from a roughly datable singularity often called the Big Bang. Although this scientific knowledge is far from well-known, its dismissal of a creator has become a common possession of our culture.

I will return to the issue of the creator God but meantime move on to Paulos’ assertion that those who do not worship a creator God are open to all sorts of idolatry, offering worship to images that represent worldly powers of wealth, sex, success, knowledge, or empire. His view of this worship is subtle in that he considers these idols to be negligible in themselves but given power by human allegiance so that they become formidable forces in the life of individuals and cultures. The accusation of idolatry in contemporary societies is a common enough piece of pulpit rhetoric, but it may have a grain of truth for all that.

If it were possible for Paulos to look at our advertising images in electronic media, print and light displays, I think he would see them as offers of idolatry. With all their sophistication, wit, and artistic skill they are not merely seeking an act of purchase, but the continuing allegiance of the mind and heart. They mean to insert themselves into our dreams and obsessions, while promising a public persona which will give us success in a world of competing deities and their acolytes. Terms developed in anthropology and sociology to describe the operations of religions in society, turn out to be quite appropriate for describing the effects of advertising. I like to say that I am resistant to advertising and am describing its effects on others, but I’ve just replaced my car with a new one and taken a winter holiday in Spain. Resistant?

At a different level, as a Glaswegian I have experience of football idolatry as practiced by Rangers and Celtic FC’s, whereby the innocent colours blue and green take on divine or diabolic significance depending on who you support and team strips are sold like holy vestments to the faithful. This idolatry also involves periodic human sacrifice in the ecstatic killings of supporters of the opposing team.

Money itself is worshipped. Flamboyant forms of worship include betting and the lottery, while more frenzied devotion is seen in Stock Exchanges, and more solemn adoration in the quiet boardrooms of banks and multinational companies. As the Cash God begins to topple the more mobile God Credit is ready to take over. Of course my description of these activities is biased, but I do in fact think that a degree of idolatry is necessary to arouse the moral determination on the one hand and the compulsive hysteria on the other, that global capitalism needs to survive.

Idolatry is a form of addiction, controlling thought and action, in both individuals and collectives. The belief that unlimited growth is possible on a finite planet is the kind of delusion that often afflicts addicts: more is always better and possible. The careless disposal of waste, so common in capitalist societies, could be described as addictive guilt: we have consumed too much, but we have disposed of the evidence: my pockets are free of syringes, my room is free of bottles, my car is free of Kentucky Fried Chicken.

Because it is hard to resist all the kinds of idolatry on offer, there are aspects of our lives which are determined by it and our consequent addictions. For a surprisingly large proportion of people, the feeling that they are no longer in control of their own lives, is worryingly common. In chapter 7 of his letter Paul describes the enslavement of human beings to worldly powers, so we will return to this topic. At present it’s enough to note that his criticism of idolatry is not irrelevant. His remedy of course is that people should worship One invisible God who cannot be imaged, the Creator.

For him true worship expresses affection for our own nature as part of the nature of the cosmos. We do not make ourselves or the cosmos but receive them as a gift for which we should be grateful – to the Creator, Paulos says – but without faith, we can still practice the affection for what we are and the gratitude for what we have received. These are natural responses to our existence in nature. Paulos thinks that when we worship idols or imagine that we are self-made, we refuse this gratitude and deprive ourselves of natural affection. Our alienated affections can then be given to false Gods or to unnatural relationships, which he wrongly identifies as homosexual behaviour. We can see why he thought it unnatural, given his Jewish faith in creation and his experience of homosexual behaviour. There is no record from his time and place of what we might call faithful homosexual relationships, only casual or orgiastic sex of which he probably disproved anyway. But while we reject his specific application of the phrase “unnatural affections” we should look carefully to see if it can be applied to some of the compulsive behaviours I have described above.

There is moreover the sad evidence that our affection has been alienated from the natural world and its life. In Dallas the other day there was an auction of permits to kill animals including an African black rhino, for fun. The biophilia which is natural to us, and which would be a powerful aid to preserving our planet as a biosphere, has been taken away from some of us and given to our idols, including the God of Death. If we cannot worship the Creator, we can free ourselves from idolatry and addiction by cultivating gratitude for all we have received and affection for all that we are. Gratitude promotes humility while affection fosters kindliness and this ensemble of emotions is the basis on which we can construct our ideas of justice, goodness, peace and beauty.

Paul accepts that gentile unbelievers have fashioned their own forms of private and public justice, and should be recognised as a “Torah to themselves.” The Creator God, he says, will acknowledge their goodness and reward them for it. Paulos values the educated conscience of the non-believer which is their inner guide and judge.

I would sum up my analysis of this passage as follows:

1. Paul’s diatribe against idolatry is not irrelevant o our current social and moral concerns.
2. His analysis of idolatry as leading to destructive addictions is a persuasive description of some human behaviours under global capitalism.
3. His remedy for idolatry, that people turn to the one true God, the creator, cannot be pursued as a political goal; but the combination of gratitude and affection for life which he advocates can be nurtured by education and other communal institutions.
4. Gratitude and affection for life can free us from idolatrous culture and enable us to develop the humane personal and social moralities, which are, in spite of all deformations, natural to us.

Accepted wisdom tells us that we can’t afford to be a decent society because taxing most people a bit more would be disastrous. This is what is called austerity, which means that the richest countries in the world must pretend to be poor, because higher taxation will scare away the wealth junkies we need to invest in our economies. Let’s take one example of what this means: the work of community nurses and carers who look after people in their own homes or in residential facilities.img_0342

These are not good jobs. In Scotland few of them will be paid more than £15,000 a year, or around £7 per hour. Many will not be paid extra for working unsocial hours, or in the case of home carers, for time spent travelling from patient to patient. These are people whose compassion and integrity are essential to the welfare of very vulnerable patients. They undertake the most intimate kinds of physical care while trying to preserve the dignity of their patients, listening to their concerns and responding to their desire for companionship. In many cases they do these things while subject to an instruction limiting the time they can spend with any one patient.

The work force is overwhelmingly female although the number of male employees is increasing. Often, due to their decency and inventiveness, patients receive good care most of the time, but sometimes the system is suddenly shown to be abusive or to have collapsed completely. This is not surprising given the sheer difficulty of the tasks, the relative lack of training and support, and the very modest remuneration. These are problems that affect both publically and privately funded providers. There may be -I’m told there are- very expensive agencies that provide a better class of care for their wealthy patients, but the more expensive providers I have seen are neither paying staff better not offering significantly superior care.

img_0340In our economy those to whom we entrust our frailest dear ones in their time of greatest need are poorly paid and poorly regarded as a profession.

This is not an accident. These workers do not contribute to economic growth. Their specific sort of caring does not have the apparent glamour of hospital medicine. They require public or private funding for which there is keen competition. And they remind citizens of the uncomfortable fact that our chosen way of life involves the neglect of our disabled, frail,  demented, loved ones of all ages.

Jesus taught that when the Humane Ruler (The Son of Man) came to earth, he would judge nations by how well they had cared for the least important and most vulnerable citizens. Whatever they provided or failed to provide for them, they provided or failed to provide for him.

The truth is that for the price of one fish supper a week, (£5) we could solve this and many other problems in out health provision. Now of course there are people, including many care workers who will not be able to afford this. But there are plenty of us who can. But let’s take it step by step. Let’s ask the government to work out the cost of paying care workers £15 per hour, and to introduce a ring-fenced care tax that makes this possible. Of course there are many other priorities for improvement in our nation, but taking just this one and dealing with it, might be a declaration that as citizens we want our economic decisions to reflect our moral and political priorities; that indeed we want to put human necessity before what is claimed to be economic necessity.img_0341

It might be that just one such decision would restore our politicians’ faith in the purpose that drew most of them into office in the first place: the possibility of improving the lives of their fellow  citizens; and the confidence of the electorate that we can achieve more together than we can as individual competing consumers. I am not a politician and would probably be a very bad one, but I reckon that the slogan, “A FISH SUPPER FOR SCOTLAND!” might awaken the citizenry to the economic power that they possess.