Riots, Looting and the Myth of Redemptive Violence

8 08 2011

London is in shreds. Rioting has begun to spread: First in Tottenham, then Enfield, and now many other places, including my neighbourhood, Brixton. It’s shocking and saddening when you hear the reports and see the footage of buildings you pass by every day, with bricks through windows and flames tearing their hearts out. Each shop represents a staff of dozens; people’s livelihoods. Each person injured is a son, or a daughter, or father or mother. Each person arrested is a needless waste of human liberty.

I’m not in London at the moment. I’m on holiday outside the city for a few days, and my news is coming from TV reports, online newspapers and twitter searches. It’s strange watching the whole raft of people commenting on the various riots; some in proud approval, some showing off their haul from various shops (a few seemingly oblivious to the inherent stupidity of posting a photograph of your own face next to a stolen plasma screen!), some in shock or fear. Every time I hit refresh there’s a new threat, a new rumour, a new precaution. People speculate about how it’s all been organised and where will be hit next. Who knows how far this will spread?

It’s hard to know if any of the protests were legitimately warranted, even in their nascent form. It’s not yet clear whether Mark Duggan’s death was due to police malpractice, or whether he shot first, and I dare not speculate.

But what is clear is this: responding with violence will achieve little. Violence has a nasty habit of escalating. We could cite hundreds of examples, but one leaps immediately to my mind.

In the Bible, the book of Judges chapter 15, Samson’s father-in-law gives Samson’s wife away to someone else; perhaps a legitimate reason for him to be somewhat irked! Samson responds aggressively, the Philistines up the ante, and the whole thing spirals out of control:

‘Samson said, “This time I have a right to get even with the Philistines; I will really harm them.” So he went out and caught three hundred foxes and tied them tail to tail in pairs. He then fastened a torch to every pair of tails, lit the torches and let the foxes loose in the standing grain of the Philistines. He burned up the shocks and standing grain, together with the vineyards and olive groves.

When the Philistines asked, “Who did this?” they were told, “Samson, the Timnite’s son-in-law, because his wife was given to his companion.”

So the Philistines went up and burned her and her father to death.  Samson said to them, “Since you’ve acted like this, I swear that I won’t stop until I get my revenge on you.” He attacked them viciously and slaughtered many of them. Then he went down and stayed in a cave in the rock of Etam.

The Philistines went up and camped in Judah, spreading out near Lehi. The people of Judah asked, “Why have you come to fight us?”

“We have come to take Samson prisoner,” they answered, “to do to him as he did to us.”

Then three thousand men from Judah went down to the cave in the rock of Etam and said to Samson, “Don’t you realize that the Philistines are rulers over us? What have you done to us?”

He answered, “I merely did to them what they did to me.”’
(Judges 15:3-11)

What is striking about this scenario is the futility of it all. Things so quickly leap from the actions of one person, to the burning of crops, to murder, to mass murder, until over 3,000 men are involved, and 1,000 Philistines get pummelled to death with a donkey’s jawbone!

How quickly too the threats, excuses and defences leap to the tongue:

“I have a right to get even” (v3)
“Since you’ve acted like this, I swear that I won’t stop until I get my revenge on you” (v7)
“We have come […] to do to him as he did to us” (v10)
“I merely did to them what they did to me” (v11)

Humans have an uncanny ability to legitimate their actions and defend the indefensible, at least in their own minds. Even if Duggan was the victim of police malpractice, a violent retort is hardly the answer. How does burning buildings to the ground establish justice? How does robbing a shop, or decimating a bus?

But let’s be clear: most of what has been done this weekend is in no way related to the Duggan incident. I don’t know what motivated the hundreds of youths to smash, maim, burn, destroy and steal, but I doubt that for many of them it was a passion for justice.

Just this week I’ve been thinking about a talk I’m due to give in a month or so. It’s on the latter chapters of the book of Esther, and at this point in the story, the Jewish people are facing extermination. The Persian King Xerxes permitted the Jews to defend themselves, to kill their attackers and ‘to plunder the property of their enemies’ (Esther 8:22) and yet three times we are told that ‘they did not lay their hands on the plunder’ (Esther 9:10, 15, 16). I don’t know why they refused to take the plunder, even when the King had permitted them to. I assume it was to show something of their character: they were not in this for selfish motives, to make money at others’ expense; rather they were trying to establish justice. So they protested strongly, they fought, but they refused to cross over into greed.

Looting would only have undermined their cause, but they demonstrated the purity of their motives by refusing to plunder their enemies.

Of course, at other points the people of God did take spoils from war, so I’m hardly holding them up as a shining example! But for all the questions this passage does raise about the legitimacy of war or self-defence, it tells us one thing: In standing up against injustice, you don’t have to go to extremes. You have a choice. You can draw a line; saying ‘this far and no further.’ You are able to go as far as is necessary to protect yourself, to prove a point, and yet still resist greed and selfish motives. You have a choice about how you conduct yourself.

There is nothing honourable about the way in which people have conducted themselves these last few days. This kind of mindless looting is immoral, and it undermines the original cause: the pursuit of truth and justice. The higher the injury toll goes, the harder it will be to gain sympathy for the cause, and the death of Mark Duggan, innocent or not, will very soon be irretrievably buried under hatred, pain, bitterness and cynicism.

I pray for peace on my home streets. I pray for the family of Mark Duggan. I pray that justice will be done for all involved. I pray for the police, that they may have wisdom to handle the riots with integrity. I pray for those arrested, that they would be truly repentant. I pray for those who are contemplating rioting tonight; that they would think before throwing away their lives. And I pray that Isaiah 2 will be fulfilled even quicker than expected:

‘God will settle disputes for many peoples.
They will beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
nor will they train for war anymore.’ (Isaiah 2:2-4)





Love Wins: An Incognito Sheep?

28 02 2011

Once again, Rob Bell has stirred up much discussion simply by announcing the publication of a new book…

From the start, let me say this: I like the guy. I think he is a remarkably gifted communicator and a provocative preacher. Many of his insights into preaching are remarkable, and I would far rather grab a beer with him than many of the theological heavyweights in the reformed world with whom I may be more closely aligned… for the simple reason that he’s interesting! He’s creative. He’s quirky. I think he’d be fun to spend time with. He’s a bit more edgy. He doesn’t just serve up a hunk of flame-grilled meat; he knows how to cook it sous-vide, decorate and garnish it! He’s the Heston Blumenthal of the preaching world. And there, perhaps, lies his downfall…

His new book, Love Wins, comes out at the end of March, and already bloggers are wading in and condemning it as heresy, swiftly followed by the predictable backlash of comments saying ‘how dare you? You haven’t read it yet!‘ Well… yes… they have a point. But if the promo video is anything to go by, the concerns of the likes of Justin Taylor and Joshua Harris are quite valid. It does appear that Bell is radically redefining, or rejecting the biblical notion of hell.

But then again, Rob Bell does have an infuriating habit of painting himself as less orthodox than he really is. I found that reading Velvet Elvis I regularly got annoyed at what I perceived to be him rejecting a major doctrine, only to find upon a careful second-reading that he wasn’t really denying it at all. Often he raises incisive questions in order to expose our knee-jerk fundamentalism, and to cause us to rethink how we express our doctrines. Such a strategy is high-risk! Many never recover from their initial anger, and others, not picking up the nuances, will think that his questioning gives them permission to jettison large portions of orthodox faith. Personally I would be wary at taking such large risks when the items that stand to suffer are people’s hearts, minds and souls.

I sincerely hope that this is another of those ill-advised, but typically ‘Bellian’ marketing strategies. We are greatly in need of a way of articulating hell that avoids the equal and opposite pitfalls of grace-less fundamentalism and woolly liberalism. If Bell can help us with that, I will be very grateful. But for the moment I am more inclined to echo the concern of Harris and Taylor… I am dismayed, but sorely hope I am wrong.

Leaving aside the specifics of this book though, this marks a peculiar shift in preaching technique and common sense. I am deeply saddened that we have reached a point in time where people feel that the only way to get a hearing for orthodoxy is to dress it up as heresy! Jesus warned us about:

Wolves dressing as sheep to feed on the sheep

But now we’re beginning to see a strange phenomenon:

Sheep dressing as wolves to feed the sheep

If this continues, sales in lamb will suffer, and nobody will know who to trust…





Resources on Suffering

13 11 2010

This Sunday I have the privilege (and immense challenge) of speaking on the subject of God and Suffering. It’s always daunting entering into a talk in the knowledge that you will barely scratch the surface of what needs to be said. There will, no doubt, be plenty of opportunity for questions, and I will recommend a few resources for people who want to go further. There are dozens of articles, books and talks I’ve devoured on this subject, but here are the five I will recommend this Sunday:

Tim Keller – The Reason for God

I find your lack of faith – disturbing.” The moment you open a book on apologetics and find the initial quote to be from none other than Darth Vader, you know you’re in for something a little different… As many have said, The Reason for God, is one of the most significant books on apologetics to have emerged in decades. Far from providing us with a pocket-guide to apologetics, crammed with pre-packaged, cold and heartless answers, Keller presents a well-thought out, well-articulated case for Christianity that goes far beyond an exercise in persuasive rhetoric. It is an engaging read full of examples and quotes from many areas of popular culture. Never have I read a book that can so seamlessly quote Foucault, C.S. Lewis and Neitzsche alongside Bono, hobbits and Darth Vader. But Keller does it. His wide repertoire of illustrations provides an incredibly fresh and modern way of looking at age-old questions. His chapter on suffering is just one great chapter amongst many.

D.A. Carson – How Long, O Lord?

Carson’s book on suffering is one the best ‘full-book’ treatments I’ve come across. In places it says some things that are so obvious, yet I’d never really considered them – The sections on poverty and the suffering people of God for example. At times it feels a little cold (any book that describes the ‘epistemic dilemma’ using a logic model that goes S = Set of beliefs. R = Rider. S + R = SΘ… etc puts up an immediate barrier for the suffering reader. Who wants to see their emotional pain depicted in cold, hard equations!?) but the further into the book you get, the more profound some of the pastoral insights get. There are, as always with Carson, some moments where I think he has strayed into being a little pedantic, and a couple of sideswipes that I don’t think add much to the book (like his rant at Wimber for example), but those aside, I think this is a robust treatment of the subject.

If you were going to buy one book on suffering, and wanted something quite meaty, I would highly recommend this.

Pete Greig – God on Mute

I just read this book last week. It’s a great book on prayer, and in particular prayer that seems to be unanswered. Peppered with real life examples – modern, ancient, and personal – Pete Greig lays out some helpful guidelines for identifying why prayer may not be answered, or whether it might in fact be answered in unexpected ways. It’s a very pastoral, helpful book. He takes as his model, Jesus’ own experience of Gethsemane and the cross. But lest that sound too lofty – for who really can understand going through the same level of suffering as Jesus did? – he grounds it in his own story of learning to live with a wife who suffered from fits and epilepsy. If you are not after a philosophical book, but are in the midst of suffering yourself, I would recommend this book over Carson.

N.T. Wright – Evil and the Justice of God

I very much like Tom Wright, and his books occupy a large portion of my shelves. This little book is slightly deceptive in appearance. It is small, but note, he still names himself N.T. rather than Tom – a sure sign that it will be on the meatier end of his authorial spectrum!

In this book, Wright addresses the problem of evil, and in particular, the question of what God is doing, and will do about it. He focusses on what it means for God to be ‘just’ and how that will play out as God brings his justice to bear over all creation. He majors on the Christus Victor model of the atonement, showing how Jesus is victorious over evil at the cross. He doesn’t deny the penal elements of the atonement, but some will perhaps find his portrayal of the cross a little jarring if they are not familiar with his other writings. All in all, a great little book, well worth a read. And as he says, “Evil may still be a four letter word. But so, thank God, is Love.”

Liam Thatcher – How Could a God of Love Allow Earthquakes?

Shameless self promotion. This is a talk I gave at Newday this year, focussing in on the area of natural disasters, taking Haiti as a model. This is, to my mind, the most difficult angle on suffering to answer, and one Christians are tempted to duck. Knowing that in the talk this Sunday I won’t have anywhere near enough time to deal with all aspects of suffering, it’s helpful to have this talk online to direct people to.

I shall say no more…






Dealing with Doubts (xi)

3 07 2010

These final few posts are looking at 6 encouragements from the example of Jesus’ interaction with Thomas:

6) You are more blessed than Thomas

Verse 19, ‘Jesus said to [Thomas] “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”’

In typical ‘Jesus style’ he speaks a beatitude that turns human wisdom on its head. ‘Seeing is believing’ according to our regular idiom. But no, Jesus says you’re more blessed if you haven’t seen.

This verse is a big comfort to me, because Jesus doesn’t rebuke Thomas for doubting. It was understandable that Thomas would doubt. If he’d just shrugged his shoulders at the idea that a dead man had returned to life, we ought to think him naive, stupid, or scientifically ill-informed! Of course he would doubt! How much more understandable is it that we, thousands of years on, having not had the opportunity to physically see Jesus will also have doubts and questions?

Thomas was called blessed for seeing and believing. How much more blessed will we be when we, by the grace of God, overcome doubts without seeing. As is so often the case, it’s the kind of blessing we only realise with hindsight. But it’s worth holding out for.

Conclusion

Clearly there is far more that could have been said. Many books, talks, seminars, blogs have been dedicated to the subject in far more detail than this – But I’m bored now. I want to blog about something else!*

But in summary: If you are doubting, seek evidence. Take practical steps to find answers. Surround yourself with people who will help you. Ask questions, read books, listen to talks. Be disciplined about it. Don’t forget that we have a God who knows what you need even before you ask. Trust Him. Ask God to give you His peace and to pour His Spirit upon you. It will calm your troubled heart immeasurably. Use your doubts for mission. See them as God given tools for equipping you to extend the grace of God to others. Hold out for the blessing that is coming to you who overcome doubts.

In Luke 24:41 there is a similar story where Jesus reveals himself to the disciples. At the moment of revelation there is this curious phrase: ‘they still disbelieved for joy and were marvelling.’ Reflect on that – They disbelieved for joy and were marvelling. I pray that your disbelief would give way to joy. That you would be struck afresh by the revelation of God that leaves you marvelling. If we knew everything, we would have no cause to trust and be amazed by this almighty God.

Let your doubts fuel your worship.

_____

*I’m kidding… sort of. But if you want to read more, why not start here – a blog by fellow Newfrontiers blogger Phil Duncalfe





Dealing with Doubts (x)

2 07 2010

These final posts of the series are looking at 6 encouragements that Jesus offers to Thomas in dealing with his doubts.

5) Jesus sent the disciples

Look at verse 21‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.’

Though it may not seem like it at the time, overcoming doubts equips you for mission. It prepares you to be sent, to pastor people, to evangelise.

What better witness to an unbeliever who is genuinely trying to get their head around the aspects of Christianity that just seem so implausible than one who has struggled and fought and emerged with answers themselves?

What better help can there be for the struggling Christian trying so hard to reconcile their faith with their questions than one who has wrestled with those very same questions, learnt to guard their heart well, and can disciple them wisely?

2 Corinthians 1:3-4 says ‘Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.’

I love the principle in these verses: As you go through trials and God gives you the grace to endure them, you are being prepared to extend that grace to others. Dealing with doubts is character building. It’s missional.





Dealing with Doubts (ix)

1 07 2010

These final posts of the series are looking at 6 encouragements that Jesus offers to Thomas in dealing with his doubts.

4) Thomas didn’t even need to touch Jesus

In verse 27, Jesus says ‘Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side.’ And what does Thomas do? There is no indication he actually touches Jesus at all. He just answers ‘My Lord and My God!’ That was enough.

Only moments before, Thomas had been so adamant: ‘I will only believe if I touch the scars’ and yet when presented with the risen, scarred Jesus, he doesn’t even need to do that. His unbelief crumbles.

So often, when we are wallowing in doubt, it is easy to think we know exactly what we would need to be convinced out of it. I remember feeling miserable and doubt-ridden, presenting God with lists of my criteria thinking:

‘If you just do this and this… cause this sequence of events to occur… provide this bit of evidence, that’ll be enough to convince me.’

In the end, none of my lists got ticked off! But God knew what I needed: An encounter with Him that bypassed my criteria.

Was it wrong for me to seek evidence? No. Was it wrong for me to pray for revelation in specific areas? No. But what I’ve learnt is that when you are doubting, you are really not in the best position to know what will resolve your situation. Sometimes simply being in the presence of God is enough. God will do something unexpected, impossible to anticipate, and totally transform your situation.

Don’t prescribe to God the 12 steps of your recovery programme. Work diligently to find evidence, and wait on Him.





Dealing with Doubts (viii)

30 06 2010

These final posts of the series are looking at 6 encouragements that Jesus offers to Thomas in dealing with his doubts:

3) Jesus already knew what Thomas needed

Get this – Not only does Jesus provide Thomas with the evidence he needed, one look at his hands, bearing the nail marks, but he did it before Thomas even said a word!

Jesus didn’t walk in and say:

‘Thomas… why the puzzled look on your face? What can I do to convince you.

He already knew.

We have a God who knows us, who cares about us, who hears our pleas and cries in the night, who hears the deep questions we have even before they form on our lips. He knows what evidence you need, what will tip the balance to convince you and bring you back to Him.

We have a personal God who is for you. Take comfort.