Being a upstanding Christian and a singer (actually, lets be honest, mainly being a singer), I have sent a lot of the last few weeks at carol services. During the many hours spent in candle-lit cathedrals and parish churches, most of my attention has been focussed on the music. But occasionally, I have been awake enough ‘read and mark in Holy Scripture the tale of the loving purposes of God’.
The ubiquitous Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols (reworked at Coventry as the Dean’s Carols by Candlelight), from which I quoted above, does an excellent job of providing a summary of the Bible’s key events, from the Fall to the Incarnation of the Word, mixed in with some of the most beautiful parts of the prophecies of Isaiah. Yet this beautiful service, almost unchanged since its inception in 1918, leaves something to be desired. Its draws heavily on scripture but leaves no space for a sermon, for a chance to unpack what is spoken. That role falls instead to the music, which often offers allegory and commentary on scripture. Neither is there any space for the ritual which those of us from a more High Church tradition benefit from, to help us inhabit and live the experience. The result is that the scriptures themselves become ritualised, and there is a risk that we accept them without thought.
Such unquestioning acceptance is always likely to lead to error. I am not suggesting that the Bible is not divinely inspired, but I do take issue with the idea that it consistently, literally true. For one thing, to suggest that there are no translation or transcription errors is simply absurd, especially given that much of the Bible existed in oral tradition long before it was written down. But my greatest problem with the idea that the Bible is literally true, is that the presentation of God it offers seems to contradict itself, depending on what you read. Just contrast ‘God is Light, and in Him is no darkness’ (1 John 1:5) and ‘I will take vengeance on my adversaries, and will repay those who hate me’ (Deuteronomy 32:41).
Such contrasts are common – the general trend is that where the old testament God is one of wrath and vengeance, the new testament God is one of love and forgiveness. I tend to take the view that the understanding of God’s love which was most useful to building loving communities shifted. In an era before strong government, social relations needed regulation to prevent the fragmentation of an already marginalised, and frequently exiled people. A God of war and anger provided justice and defended the interests of a group which saw itself as isolated and alone, and in that way, was loving. He provided the kind of legal paternalism which, by the first century AD, was being provided by Empires and powers (what have the Romans ever done for us…). This meant God’s love could be more fully realised in other ways – in shaping community and human relations, in caritas et amor.
But amid the hawkish appeals to the power of the Lord, there are still passages which reflect a truer vision of the kingdom of God. Isaiah is awash with them ‘The leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and the little child shall lead them.’ ‘They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain’ (Isaiah 11:6, 9). More interesting, though, are those passages which take a second listen, which make your ears prick.
When God and Abraham establish their covenant, Abraham is promised that his children will be a great nation, more numerous than the stars. He is also promised that ‘[his] seed will possess the gate of [their] enemies’ (Genesis 22:17). At first reading, this sounds militant. They will win sieges, and defeat their enemies. But that is only one interpretation. To possess the gate of your enemies means having control, yes, but it need not be warlike. If you control the gate, you control the city, but you need not have taken it by force. I could have given it to you. And in giving it to you, I have placed my life and freedom in your hand. I have put you in a position of trust, giving you the chance to break the cycle of violence, and allowing enemies to become trusted friends.
And that is what God is all about. Helping those of us who struggle with each other to get along, to build communities. Those of us who identify as Christians believe we have been entrusted with that duty. God has given us the gate of our enemies – the chance to change enemies to friends – and it is our duty to make good on His trust in everyone.
Unfortunately, as the lead image for this post illustrates, trust is something we continue to be rather bad at. From Mexico to the Middle East, we build walls to keep people apart. We have a tendency to emphasise the opposite of trust. We emphasise how people differ. What divides us. He looks different. She speaks a different language. They known God by another name. 2015, has seen these divisions emphasised again and again, from a refugee crisis, to foreign wars, and I fear 2016 will only see them grow. But hopefully, together, we can turn fear into trust. We have the power to change the narrative, to make the coming year better.
We may not succeed. The odds are stacked against us. National politics, personal power, community self-interest, all argue against global unity. But we must try. The city of Paris has defined the year, bookending it with divisive attacks in January and November, attacks which sought to heighten divisions, and emphasise the incompatibility of identities. But it also witnessed one of the greatest moments of unity seen for a long time. Less than a month after the city was left in fear and trembling by terrorism, 195 countries met in Paris, and agreed to a convention which would reduce carbon admissions as soon as possible, and limit global warming to well below 2 degrees. While the agreement leaves much to be desired, it is a sign of what we can achieve when we come together. It is not an easy path, but we must try to walk it.