King's Evangelical Divinity School

28 July 2010

David Cameron: Doing What Britain Does Best... and Worse

Britain's new government, led by David Cameron, is radically overhauling its foreign policy. In short, it has gone back to traditional British Foreign (and Colonial) Office first principles, focusing on developing relations which promise to build and enhance trade, rather than relying on old alliances or relations which are largely militarily-driven. Thus, Cameron has put together a high-profile team of high-ranking politicians and leading members of the business community as he sets about a whirlwind global tour aimed at making overtures to governments of emerging economies, rather than putting all his eggs in the EU and US baskets. For the Coalition Government, then, building strong trade relations with the likes of India, Turkey, Brazil and other emerging markets is the order of the day. It's a smart move. Look at the portfolio of most emerging market funds - which have largely outperformed funds specialising in typical Western blue chip stock - and you'll see these countries and others (notably China) are the ones to be doing business with these days.

Thus, David Cameron seems to be going back to the glory days of empire (minus the empire bit), focusing on developing a foreign policy which enhances global trade, together with all the benefits that promises, such as global influence, greater tax revenues back home and trickle-down wealth to keep the masses happy (the latter arguably a key reason why Britain did not witness revolution in the late 19th or early 20th centuries, directly contradicting Marx's view that as the world's most advanced economy Britain's proletariat would be the first to revolt). For Britain, empire (both formal and informal) was driven by trade and wealth creation, unlike some other countries' imperial designs fuelled by, for example, raw nationalism. Hence, this week the British PM issued veiled criticisms of France and Germany for stalling Turkish entry into the EU. For Britain Turkish entry not only widens the EU, directly challenging Old Europe's attempt to deepen it (a position which Britain is ideologically opposed to), but Turkey also offers a gateway to a whole new region to the east which is ripe for trade exploitation. Ditto Cameron's efforts in India yesterday, and no doubt Brazil and other emerging economies will soon be paid a visit from the British delegation. And it all seems to be working. Cameron's insistance that Turkey should be allowed to join the EU was music to the Turkish government's ears, which later claimed the visit heralded a new golden era in Anglo-Turkish relations. But none of this should surprise us. Britain has a long history (minus hiccups, for example during the last Labour government's military-driven relationship with the exterior) of such foreign policy success aimed at building trade. It is, after all, what Britain does best.

Unfortunately, it is also what Britain does worse, and Cameron has fallen headlong into the trap of pragmatism over idealism for the sake of furthering trade. I'm referring, of course, to his strong denunciation in unequivocal language of Israel concerning the Gaza situation (which he described as a prison) during his visit to Turkey. True, insisting Turkey must be allowed into the EU, together with denouncing Israel over the botched flotilla raid and criticism over Gaza (the current Turkish government's pet issue right now) was a Cameron masterstroke which will surely help open up Turkey and beyond to British business. But it comes at a cost, namely, deep suspicion within Israel concerning Cameron's public stance and motives. Let's be absolutely clear here: Hamas imprisons its own people (for example, ask the many Gazans hassled for wearing the wrong clothing on the beach or beaten for dancing with people of the opposite sex at weddings, not to say firing rockets at Israel which merely serves to attract the ire of the IDF).

Now for those who have no time for Israel, Cameron's undiplomatic language this week may not much matter. But the likelihood is that one day Cameron will have to visit Israel, one of the purposes of which will be to bolster trade links with the Jewish state. Israeli high-tech business, together with a string of innovative products and inventive entrepeneurialism, is forcing many countries, some not particularly friendly towards Israel, to trade with the country anyway. More important, however, is Western reliance upon Israeli intelligence concerning Middle East terrorism. This is the joke, really, public Western criticism of Israel while, behind the scenes, strong intelligence links and cooperation. Arguably, it is somewhat hypocritical.

So Cameron will one day visit Israel and make overtures. In other words, pragmatism will lead him to make a statement which makes his hosts feel good about themselves. Inevitably, though, it will anger those who were very happy when he said something quite different (for example, in Turkey). All in the name of pragmatic necessity, whether trade or intelligence cooperation. The problem is, Britain has a track record of playing both sides for its own purposes. Indeed, some of the current Arab-Israeli conflict can be laid at the feet of a Britain which, for its own purposes and interests, promised both Jews and Arabs a state of their own, knowing full well it was impossible to deliver both.

A pragmatic, trade-driven, playing-both-sides and thus occasionally-deceptive British foreign policy. It's what Britain does best... and worse.

16 July 2010

Time to Tone Down the Language

I've commented briefly in previous posts concerning the complexity surrounding how Messianic Jews seek to juggle their identity as both believers in Jesus and Jews (for example see here). Worse, Messianic Jews are faced with the impossible situation of proclaiming Christ, with all the sacrifices that entails socially and culturally, to their fellow Jews while simultaneously having to fend off repeated claims from the very Jews they share the Gospel with that the Church they belong to is anti-Israel, or worse, anti-Semitic. It is a crisis few of us really appreciate, compounded by how Jewish believers in Jesus themselves struggle to identify where exactly they fit in to the body of Christ, parts of which view them with suspicion.

Over at the Rosh Pina Project Joseph has written an interesting piece on that champion of Christian orthodoxy and defender of the traditional view of the divinity of Christ against the Arian heresy, Athanasius. Yet again, Joseph highlights this ongoing battle faced by MJs: a leading Church figure who defended orthodoxy yet who seemingly also spoke negatively of the Jews. Thus the essay points out how Jews who reject the Gospel juxtapose Athanasius' high Christology with his negative protrayal of the Jewish people, almost as if the two are somehow related. Joseph concludes:
The challenge then for those of us believers in Jesus with a high Christology is to demonstrate to Jewish people that we repudiate anti-Semitism, and that our Christology should lead us to a positive attitude towards the Jewish people, not a negative one.

Whilst we should redeem the more positive elements of Athanasius, sifting it away from the highly-charged politics of fourth-century Alexandria, we should loudly condemn the negative aspects of his writings.

Of all the identities he could have taken, our God chose to become a Jewish man with a Jewish body, living in first-century Israel. He lived with Jews, he breathed in and breathed out Jewish teachings, and he broke bread with Jews.
Now some may argue Athanasius was not truly anti-Semitic, that some secondary sources are biased in their anti-Christian interpretation and selective citation. Others better qualified in Church history than I in must decide. But this said, yet again we see another clear example of a Church which, throughout its history, has done itself no favours in the tone and nature of language it employs. It is quite one thing to challenge - and robustly at that - the theological distortion of Mosaic Judaism which is rabbinic Judaism. After all, the New Testament's Jewish writers squarely rejected such theology in their proclamation of Christ, who is the Jewish Messiah. Yet throughout much of its history, the Church's challenging of rabbinic Judaism has all too often degenerated into condemnation of the entire Jewish people themselves, so that criticism of a religious system has shifted to intense and vociferous criticism of an entire people.

Unfortunately, we face a similar situation today. Unlike traditional Reformed supercessionism which has carefully eschewed highly charged anti-Israel political language, the New Supercessionism is all too often politically inflammatory, polarising and divisive in its anti-Israel stance. This is a pity, not only because it makes Jewish evangelism so much more difficult, but also because within those circles are some committed Evangelicals who genuinely hold to a strong Christology. Unfortunately, yet again Christian orthodoxy is associated with a movement which - rightly or wrongly - is perceived by Jewish people as deeply critical of an entire people. Thus the Gospel suffers. It's time to tone down the language.

6 July 2010

Something Must Change

This one won't take long. Here's the story of a little boy born 17 weeks premature. That's a week earlier than the UK legal abortion limit. And this story is far from unique. Ideology aside (whether pro-life or pro-choice), 24 weeks is absolutely ridiculous. The majority of EU countries - by no means conservative, right-wing or anti-liberal - have a limit approximately half that of the UK. Something must change. How many viable Nathans - or for that matter Mozarts, Da Vincis, Shakespeares, Pascals, Churchills, Einsteins, Newtons - together with myriads of unknown but potentially brilliant, or loving, philanthropic, caring, inventive, intelligent, witty, careful, thoughtful , or indeed just plain normal human beings - have been needlessly lost forever?

3 July 2010

Today's Methodism: Distancing Itself Yet Further From Wesley?

Drawing on a 54-page report produced by a Methodist committee, this week’s Methodist Conference voted to boycott Israeli goods produced in Israeli settlements. The committee included pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel activists (do a search of some of the committee members to get a flavour), and thus predictably the report follows the same somewhat tired, ideologically-driven and polemical pattern of similar reports produced by other Protestant organisations in recent years. Its historical narrative is one-sided, selective and incomplete (since acknowledged by the report’s chair Revd Graham Parker, who cites time constraints) and therefore misleading. Worse, it relies heavily on controversial historian and Israel critic Ilan Pappe.

Meanwhile, while purporting “to help British Methodists understand better some of the complexities that surround the current situation”, the report’s list of recommended books exploring the conflict from a Christian perspective consists of the usual pro-Palestinian Israel critics, namely Naim Ateek, Colin Chapman, Gary Burge and Garth Hewitt. Thus it is clear there is no intention whatsoever to help Methodists understand the complexities of the conflict, but rather just one particularly simplistic view of it. As such, the report represents a top-down strategy, an attempt by intellectual elites (Cadre? Vanguard?) to indoctrinate the proletariat Methodist masses which, given Protestantism’s historical eschewing of hierarchical authority in favour of democratised theological enquiry, is distinctly unProtestant and medieval (to say nothing of cynical). It appears such a strategy is being increasingly exploited by anti-Israel Christians to counter a popular grassroots Christian unease with politicised supercessionism and support for Israel (including among some Methodists I know). Significantly the report relies on the Kairos Palestine Document, authored by Palestinian Christians which likewise does not reflect the divergent views I have personally encountered during fieldwork among grassroots Palestinian Christians (the theological perceptions of Israel among Palestinian Christian are far from homogenous). Again, another document imposing a top-down theology upon the masses.

1 July 2010

We Need to Get Over Being Offended

Yesterday's Daily Telegraph reports a new French law which fines and even imprisons individuals for insulting their spouse. Being charged for what you say, of course, is nothing new, but today's politically correct society has moved far beyond issues such as perjury, treasonable speech or threats to an actual effort to legislate against offending others. For example, just this week a council worker was found guilty by magistrates under the Public Order Act and fined £620 court costs for insulting a work colleague. The  circumstances were rather unpleasant, but I am far from convinced this should ever have reached a courtroom.

Now of course some insults and taunts can be hurtful, spiteful and even downright nasty and abusive. But is it really possible to legislate against offending someone? To be sure I understand a decent, civilised society does not want to see unnecessary insulting or abusive behaviour. Yet people say all manner of things and it seems patently unrealistic to think you can legislate to stop people saying things simply on the grounds they may offend others, whether by virtue of their gender, age, sexuality, religion, or a myriad other circumstances. Seeking to curtail genuine hatred possibly leading to violence is quite one thing, but wanting to protect everyone from being offended is quite another. Be that as it may, (il)liberal fascism's political correctness crusade seeks to do just that: outlaw offending others, even if that means creating so-called speech crime. The grave danger, of course, is the gradual erosion of free speech.

But what do I know about it? Some might argue that as a middle-aged, white, heterosexual male I'm unlikely to have experienced first-hand serious instances of racist, sexist or ageist abuse, or insults by virtue of my health or sexuality. But that aside, I do regularly experience abuse as a direct consequence of my faith, whether first-hand or via the media from those who are deeply angry towards Christianity or religion in general. Try reading some comments, too, left after some online newspaper article or other reporting a story which involves Christianity or Christians. Worse (for the believer) are those handful of people (usually in the Arts) who - now that blasphemy laws have by and large disappeared - do all they possibly can to be as offensive as possible towards Christianity, usually by insulting Christ in some quite outrageous manner. Note how they think long and hard about doing so (usually choosing not to go there) when saying anything disrespectful about the Muslim prophet Mohammed.

So how should Christians respond to such offense? Well, we're going to be insulted from time to time regardless (indeed such revile brings great blessing, Mt 5:11-12), while in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus instructed us simply to turn the other cheek. That's why I'm not a particularly strong fan of legislating to protect Christianity. I just want a level playing field so we're all treated the same. You can't legislate against being offended.