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Bank Street Unitarian Chapel

Open Hearts Open Minds

Minister’s Letter

October's Theme:

Freedom

 

"We have before us but the one work to do, that of giving to every human being the fullest possible liberty to develop his or her spirit just in accordance with its own promptings."

Susan B. Anthony

 

Our spiritual film last month was Ridley Scott's version of the story of Exodus, the classic biblical story of a people liberated from slavery. Watching those thousands fleeing from oppression my mind couldn't help thinking of the thousands of Syrians today fleeing from war and religious fanaticism in the Middle East. The story of Exodus continues to this day.

The solutions to the problems of war and the refugees fleeing it are certainly beyond me. I don't pretend to offer any. But I do know that hospitality and compassion are fundamental religious values; and I believe this country should offer to do its share of the work as a sanctuary to those in need. We are all human, and share the same sacred worth, and we need to treat these refugees as humans with inherent worth and dignity.

What can we do? Perhaps not a lot. We have taken a retiring collection for the Red Cross Europe Refugee Crisis Appeal, which will go to those in need. More locally we do continue to support the Destitution Project, supporting refugees in Bolton with food packages. We will continue to do what we can, put pressure on those with political power, and pray for a world with more compassion.

This is the work of freedom. But freedom comes in many forms. Last year homophobic hate crime in Bolton more than doubled. This is also something of which our world needs to be freed. That's why some Bolton folks have organised the town's first Pride. This is about celebrating diversity and creating a society where everyone can be themselves. Bank Street Unitarian Chapel is proud to be a part of this and will be hosting a short service of Interfaith Prayers for Pride on 11th October. I will also be taking part in the Hate Crime Vigil on 18th October. As Unitarians, we are in a position to tackle homophobia in a way many other religious communities won't do. We have a calling to give a message of acceptance and love, and will be proud to do so this month. That's what being a Unitarian is all about.

Love and peace

 

 

Stephen

Minister’s Letter

September's Theme:

God

 

"There is no God in the sky: God is in the heart that loves the sky’s blueness."

A. Powell Davies

 

"God" - such a small word, and yet such a big one! One word that points us towards... something?... nothing?... something beyond our comprehension? Early Unitarians stood firm on the sense that God was One, that God was Father, that God was loving and benevolent. While being heirs to that faith we also come to "God" with a great deal of doubt and questions. Is "God" a good word for what we're talking about? Is "God" an old fashioned idea that's had its time? What does that word even mean anyway?

There are no simple answers to this, and simple answers may in fact be dangerous... when people are certain they understand God and understand God's will it can cause deep problems. Some days I think the idea of God is so utterly silly that there's no possibility it could be true. And yet I would say that the love of God is the foundation on which I build my life. My relationship with God is the most important thing in my life. I have a personal relationship with God that is in some ways stronger than ever and fills my life with a depth of joy every day.

This I know: we understand God with both heart and mind. This month we will be exploring what we mean by God with the mind as well as seeking God with the heart. This is the spiritual journey we're on.

Love and peace

 

Stephen

Minister's Letter

August 2015

 

"Study the religions of the world, hearken devoutly to the psalms of the East and to the songs of the West, kneel silently in the temple of the Buddhist, join in the worship of the Jewish synagogue, or listen to the prayers of the Christian Church; in its essence all worship is one, for all religion is one; for all religion leads to God."

Gertrude von Petzol.

One of the joyful privileges I have in my role as minister is to host visits from "faith trail" participants. The Bolton Interfaith Council organises faith trails from any group to visit a Hindu temple, a Muslim mosque and a Christian church in one morning. Lots of groups use this opportunity but the most common groups are school children. It's wonderful that children have this opportunity to explore faiths and learn about their fellow citizens of different religions. It's something I certainly never did. Even though I grew up in multicultural Walsall, with many of my schoolmates being Muslims, it wasn't until I came to Bolton that I visited my first mosque.

When children visit us it is my challenge to try to explain what our faith is all about to sometimes quite small children. To explain that as Unitarians Jesus is important to us, but we also want to learn from all religious traditions. That learning can be hard and complicated, but it's worth doing. We must keep learning both from scriptures and writings of different religions as well as the living people practising their faith (as we all do) in human, ordinary and sometimes messy ways.

There aren't any simple answers to the world's problems, or the problems in our neighbourhoods. But as Unitarians we must be open to what we might learn from people different from us, in the belief (as the old hymn says) that "the Lord hath yet more light and truth to break forth from his word."

In love and peace.

Stephen

Christianity and Killing

Words based on a talk given by Stephen Lingwood

to Bolton Friends Meeting House

2nd June 2015

 

So, the first thing to say is that this is a huge topic, and I can't hope to cover it comprehensively in our short time together this evening. What I hope to do is make an ecumenical Christian case for a modest proposal: for the Christian killing is a sin.

This seems to me to be a modest proposal, and yet one one which some Christians have abandoned. I want to tell the story of how this modest proposal was was abandoned, and the exact opposite put in its place. My argument is that Christians just need to keep that simple premise in their centre of their vision as they do theology and live in the world.

So, early Christianity took a stance against the shedding of human blood.

Jesus, of course, counsels turning the other cheek, and refused to contemplate violence when arrested. Early Christian writers such as Origen, Tertullian and Justin Martyr all taught that Christians could not shed blood for any reason.

Tertullian wrote "The Lord, by taking away Peter's sword, disarmed every soldier thereafter."i

 

It was clear that a soldier could not become a Christian without giving up his profession, or at least never bear a sword or shed blood. Athanasius wrote, "How does it come about that each one of us has turned away from his brother, despising the peace which we had been given? Yet your brother, your neighbour, is not only a man, but is God himself."ii So this incarnational theology held that all humans contained a divine spark, and so to harm any human being was to injure God.

But this slowly began to change. In 313 The Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan which officially ended the persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire. Christians became first the favoured religion, and eventually the official state religion of the Roman Empire.

In 325 Constantine called a council of bishops at Nicaea to settle some theological questions so that a unified Christian church could provide stability for a united Roman Empire. The council did not settle questions such as whether a Christian could be a soldier, whether a Christian could hold power and wealth within this new context of imperial favour, although I would argue those were the pressing questions in this new context; rather the council produced a new Creed to settle subtle theological questions about the nature of Christ.

Jesus as a teacher of non-violence, humility, forgiveness, generosity and love is entirely absent as the Creed flows from Jesus being born of the Virgin Mary, to being crucified by Pontius Pilate. Everything that happened between those two sentences was made non-essential to Christian faith and practice.

Slowly, Christians went from being a persecuted minority to being made up of rulers, politicians and soldiers. By the fifth century the Theodosian Code made it a requirement for all soldiers to be Christians. And the cross became a symbol to paint on shields.

But Christians still in some sense stuck to the principle that killing was sinful, and struggled with what this might mean. One early fifth century document instructed:

"A Christian should not voluntarily become a soldier unless compelled to by someone in authority. He should have a sword, but he should not be commanded to shed blood. If it is ascertained that he has done so, he should stay away from the mysteries at least until he has been purified through tears and lamentation.iii

Christians who who killed for any reason - including soldiers - were expected to undergo penance before taking the Eucharist.

In the fifth century, as Christianity became mainstream, Augustine of Hippo grappled with whether killing in war could ever be justified. He is remembered for laying down some of the foundations of just war theory - setting out the (limited) circumstances in which war might be justified. However under this theory he could look at most of the wars waged by Rome and see that they weren't just. And he insisted that words like "glory" and "victory" should never be used to describe war as these were "disguises of wild delusion."iv

The point I want to make here, is that this remained the official teaching of the church for a thousand years. I'm not saying it was held to in all circumstances - it definitely wasn't - but there was a recognition, that to kill, even in self-defence, was to become polluted with sin. As late as the Norman invasion of 1066 after the campaign the Norman soldiers went to monasteries to do penance for their killing.

We only really see the last cultural fossil of this in the practice that if a member of the clergy is knighted, they are not "dubbed" with a sword. It's still seen as inappropriate for a clergyperson to be associated with this military practice.

 

So when did this change? It changed around the turn of the millennium when Northern Europe became Christianised in name but in many ways continued as a collection of divided and warring tribes. In 1095 Pope Urban II called a council of nobles, bishops and others in which he declared that there must be a truce between warring nations in Christendom and directed their attention to the "bastard Turks" who held "sway over our brothers" in Jerusalem.v This was the beginning of the Crusades in which Christian soldiers travelled to the Middle East to claim "the Holy Land" as a Christian land.

But this is also the significant turning point in the Christian position on violence. Urban II performed what could be the biggest U Turn in Christian theology and ethics. As an incentive to crusaders he said, "Whoever goes on the journey to free the church of God in Jerusalem... can substitute the journey for all penance for sin."vi So killing went from something that you needed to do penance for - to an act of penance itself. Killing went from a definite sin, to something that can bring about salvation from sin. Being a crusader got you into heaven.

War was now no longer something to be tolerated, something that could be just in some circumstances, but something that could in itself be "holy." The Christian church had gone from being anti-war, to tolerating just war in some circumstances to opening advocating for holy war.

The Crusaders set out on this "holy war" against the "infidels" but not before slaughtering about 10,000 Jews in the Rhineland, blaming them for "killing Jesus."

At the same time, a friend of the Pope, Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury, began to develop a particular theology. This theology presented a vision of sin and salvation that went something like this:

Humanity had sinned against God, and therefore owed a God a debt,

but this debt could never be paid, because the sin against an infinite being made an infinite debt. So the only way the debt could be repaid would be if God became human, and then offered his life as a sacrifice that paid the debt.

This theology proposed for the first time that the sole purpose of Jesus' life was his sacrificial death. This theology made the incarnation, and the resurrection irrelevant. What mattered was the atoning death of Jesus.

This has become a dominant theology of salvation through later Protestantism and modern Evangelicalism. But it's still a theology that is quite alien to Eastern Orthodoxy, which still emphasises the incarnation.

This was the beginning of a Christianity that was centred on the crucifix. And it is only at around this time that the crucifix becomes the dominant Christian symbol. It might surprise you to know there were no crucifixes in the first one thousand years of Christianity. The earliest Christian churches show images of Jesus as the Good Shepherd - simple images of a man carrying a sheep. Later images showed a resurrected Christ, glorious and triumphant. But the image of a dead or dying Jesus does not appear until the tenth century. That is not the emphasis of theology or popular devotion.

But now the theology of Jesus' death becomes the lynchpin of Christianity. The Gero cross is the oldest know crucifix and was made in Saxony around 960. You can see it today in Cologne Cathedral. It represents the beginning of a cross-centred Christian spirituality. The Middle Ages represented a period when Christian theology and devotion centred around the cross, and suffering and violence. Writers such as Julian of Norwich, though insisting on the love of God, were largely concentrated on Jesus' gruesome death. If I read Julian's Revelations, I find some parts are beautiful and some parts radical, but most of it is gruesome. It's about blood and bleeding and death and wounds and blood and bleeding. It's about the cross.

This is the medieval cruciform spirituality. But it is also alive and well today, in both Catholicism and Protestantism.

Many can simply say that Jesus dying for your sins is the whole of Christianity.

Though this theology did exist earlier, it is only in the violence of the Crusades that this theology really becomes dominant.

 

Sometimes in conversations with mainstream Christians they assume that the Trinity is really the issue for me as a Unitarian, that's where we're going to disagree. But the Trinity, doesn't worry me hugely one way or another. But what I can't accept, is a theology with the crucifix at the centre. And it worries me, because it presents a picture of God using violence to achieve God's purposes. God achieves salvation through someone being tortured to death.

This is sometimes called the myth of redemptive violence. The idea that violence, that killing, is what redeems us. That salvation is achieved through violence. It's sometimes thought of as an image of divine child abuse. God is so angry with us that he's about to harm us, but Jesus, the son, steps in our place, and instead of us, Jesus is the one who gets beaten to death by the Father.

I can't believe that, I can't believe that the God revealed in the teaching and way of Jesus, uses violence to achieve salvation. That's not the picture of God Jesus actually gives. As the Unitarian William Ellery Channing wrote I cannot believe that there is a gallows at the centre of the universe.

Personally, I really can't get along with crucifix-centred Christianity. And that's a struggle, when for example, the Christian community in Bolton are putting on a Passion play, presenting the Christian message as fundamentally about the Cross. And every Good Friday I really struggle to go to ecumenical worship, that presents a theology of redemptive violence.

 

But I also want you to notice how this thinking has got so deep into our culture that it affects the "popular theology" that in some ways seems like it has nothing to do with Christianity. And that's showed in the way people sometimes talk about soldiers. Jesus Christ, and the soldier, both died for you. Killing, and being killed, are what saves us.

Think about how many times the myth of redemptive violence is used in our cultural and political discourse. How we talk about the noble sacrifice of soldiers in the same way we talk about the noble sacrifice of Jesus. This is not a coincidence!

This is a theology that is born out of the Crusades that has infected Christianity, and the broad culture of the west. It's a popular theology that violence is the way salvation is achieved, whether purely religiously or politically. This is the language of Remembrance Day as it is popularly marked. It all comes out of the Crusades. It is a theology of holy war.

 

But the non-violent tradition of Christianity wasn't completely extinguished, it couldn't be, at least while people could read the Gospels. Of course at the time of the Reformation the Bible could be printed cheaply and read in native languages by a much broader range of people for the first time. Many on reading the New Testament for themselves found that the standards taught there did not match what they saw in the church.

Some Anabaptist movements took the teaching of Jesus at face value and committed to Christian non-violence. And of course those traditions continue to this day, not least in the Society of Friends.

Of course we could say that today the Christian church in our society is a lot less savage and violent. We're not preaching crusades and most Christians would be horrified by the war-mongering of those years. However, I think that change has largely come through Enlightenment humanism rather than through mainstream Christianity really wrestling with and rejecting the redemptive violence theology of the Crusades. I think that theology is still there.

The theology of holy war has not been expunged from the church and from society.

 

So here is what my modest proposal to Christians would be:

Not to go all the way to a a complete rejection of violence, but simply this: to go back to a pre-Crusades theology that acknowledges that killing is sinful.

Always and everywhere sinful. Not holy, always the opposite of holy.

In the early Christian church a Christian was forbidden from the sacraments if they had killed, until they had gone through a period of penance. Though you might think this is judgemental and designed to induce guilt, it seems to me to be actually quite healthy. It acknowledges that to kill someone is to undergo trauma. Killing really harms the soul in a very serious way. There is something profoundly unnatural about killing. And we know so many soldiers and service people suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. This process says - you need to come through a process of healing, repentance, reconciliation for being involved in the act of killing, to be able to come fully to the table of God. Those involved in the act of killing are also victims. It is sin - it is a brokenness of the world that affects all. Are we really serving those who have been a part of war by pretending otherwise?

A pre-crusades, a pre-holy war Christian theology does not shy away from naming killing as sinful, as evil, as unclean. A gun, a sword, are unclean objects, representing a rejection of holiness. By this extension war is always evil, always sinful, always tragic. Now even if you accept circumstances when you might believe fighting is the lesser of two evils, is it still an evil.

So again, my modest proposal accepts some Christians might in some limited circumstances see war as a necessity, but that it is never glorious, never victorious, never holy, never to be celebrated. For the Christian, killing is sin.

And this really is modest. It is really only a rejection of the concept of holy war and crusade. And yet it is not what we hear from many of our politicians and religious leaders, who are still working out of a crusade theology.

My hope would be, if Christians could accept this modest proposal, and change the popular discourse around these things, then at least war would only ever be entered into very reluctantly by our nation. And that, at least, would be an improvement.

iSaving Paradise 184

iiSaving Paradise 184

iiiSaving Paradise 184

ivSaving Paradise 105

vSaving Paradise 263

 

viSaving Paradise 264

Minister's Letter

July 2015

 

"Hate is not going to win."

A resident of Charleston.

 

As I write this I am thinking of the terrorist hate crime that has taken place in Charleston, South Carolina, USA. A few days ago a man enter into Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, joined in a Bible study, but then half way through pulled out a gun and and killed nine people, including staff and ministers of this historic African American church.

This has come after months of different incidents in the US that involved police attacking African Americans. At best these incidents appear to be overly authoritarian policing, at worst they have been murder.

I have been reminded in these days of my small experience when living in the United States of experiencing the American black church tradition. This is a dynamic and powerful Christian tradition (often with excellent and compelling preaching); but it is also a tradition born out of oppression, violence and racism. The United States of American is still deeply scarred by racism borne of centuries of slavery and white supremacism.

Of course, in Britain, our history and culture is different, but it is still one that has its own racism with which we should wrestle. Black denominations were formed in the 1950s in Britain because immigrants from the Caribbean were made to feel decidedly unwelcome in the British churches. We should not be resting on our laurels as there are still ways that the subtle evil of racism infects our culture, attitudes and beliefs.

If we truly wish to welcome all within our chapel, and create a just society outside it, we should be prepared to sit with these uncomfortable truths and be prepared to change. That is how we make sure hate loses and love wins.

In love and peace.

 

 

Stephen

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