APRIL 17, 2015
One of the most frequent objections to Christian faith – or to religion in general – has to do with violence: that the Bible is full of violence; that Christian history is full of violence; that religion causes violence or is too often used to justify it.
In this episode of Life and Faith, Simon Smart and Natasha Moore bring together some of the many discussions of this topic in Centre for Public Christianity Australia (CPX) interviews over the years with Bible scholars, theologians and philosophers ( Iain Provan, William Cavanaugh, Miroslav Volf , John Dickson ) offers some ways forward through this thorny and profoundly important question.
For more extensive treatments of this subject, see the content listed under this ‘Big Question’ in the CPX library at www.publicchristianity.org/library/topic/violence.
James 1 v 17-18 All the good things come from God.
Matthew 6 v 24-34 Have no worry about anything
Psalm 118 v 24-29 God is good.
He woke up, hot and gasping, and sat up. That drowning dream again. He is walking or driving or playing golf and just when he is having fun suddenly a wave of water rises from nowhere and he is swept down, deep and dark, swirling, drowning, lungs bursting twisting busting and wanting to give up. So easy to just give up. He wishes he could. His troubles are just too much, and will they ever end. That’s what the dream wants. It wants him to just give up. Let the trouble fester and waste him. Why not? Is there any point anyway? There is too much trouble and sorrow everywhere.
I know that pain. Like you all I have known many kinds of sorrow. Some kinds fall off after a while and we learn from it and move on. Some of it scars and stays and we learn to live with it, manage ourselves with the black dog. Some sorrow returns and returns and eventually like water torture can become a trauma. Today I don’t want to tell those stories. They get too much air already. People already ask ‘is it worth to try to live’?
From out of my story I want to scream out to them all ‘Yes’. And what is more, I believe the universe screams out ‘yes’ to us all – there is a point to it all. That is what I want to celebrate today. I find people are blessed by my positive ways. So today is about why I have such a strong hope.
It is going to irritate the hell out of some of you. I want to get the hell out of you. I want to lift your head to see the many kinds of hope that attend every breath you take. Can I say with respect, don’t listen today if you can’t be anything else but a victim. Don’t listen if you want to be defined by your pain. Run for it now if you want to be known not in respect but only in sympathy. Look for the spelling mistakes in the newsletter if you want reasons to give up. Prepare your excuses if you want God on the end of your string to pull when you need a favour. Drown me out if your desire is towards the thrill and fascination of the nightmare. My desire for you is for ‘whatever is good, whatever is noble, …think on these things.’ Philippians.
Here it is. Goodness is everywhere. And Goodness is good. And goodness is evidence of a good God. Not Pollyanna goodness, not sweet gollygosh pink and light goodness, but tough goodness. The kind that can speak up against the cavalcade of sin and sorrow that passes through our days. The kind that gives people support and hope. The kind that can get you through. The kind that brings you to the surface for air. Life is a gift full of gifts. I wish I could show you. I think I can sort of prove it to you.
I can think of a dozen kinds of evidence, any one of which is amazing. There is a lot of evidence that the world is a very generous place, awesome actually, though (make no mistake)badly broken, and that God is very good to us all the time. Have a think on these, if you will. What goodness can I see?
1. I see Courage. Goodness in the midst of real fear.
I have read the legions of names at the war memorial, ordinary citizens, mostly quite young. Ordinary citizens found extraordinary courage to face together the hot metal of a deadly foe. So many, and their memory is sacred. Have you seen the same courage in the face of a mother as she faces into the abyss of their child’s deep trouble? Have you seen the resilience in a child cancer victim, in a woman who recovers from drug abuse and all its degradations, in a young person facing up to their tenth job interview? Courage is an awesome, sacred, inspiring, common-as-dirt and wondrous thing.
2. I see Play. Goodness in the midst of serious need.
The wind across the ridge was blasting bitterly cold so I sheltered below the rim. Behind me six birds were wheeling and, one by one, they flew low then lifted up into the icy blast, which sent them tumbling like rag dolls backwards, squarking and shaking their feathers, only to do it again and again, playing. You see it again with humans in the surf and in a sandpit, in an orchestra pit, a park, a footy oval. Even in prison camps, the jokes are still coming. Across the whole planet, have you noticed how we are all playing and playing, again and again? It is a wonder. Everyone is playing.
3. I see Beauty. Goodness in the midst of destruction.
From inspiring works of art in countless museums to dad’s best effort at a nice set of book shelves, we do our best with beauty. Take a walk in the bush and the natural beauty has a healing force. We humans are not just survivors, we need beauty. Take a look through any over-dressed shopping mall and you lose count of the beautiful children, the character grannies, the beautiful girls and the strong young men. Beauty is so everywhere. Do we have to be woken up to see how much we are surrounded by beauty of every kind? Take another look.
4. I see Sacrifice. Goodness that means we can begin again.
Like you I suppose, I first saw an act of sacrifice in my parents. Thousands of things they did for us kids. And what did they ever get for it? Not very much. It is so common, such loving sacrifice, that we are able to take it for granted. Immigrants gave up the love of their home to create a new opportunity here for their children. Citizens give up their own time and sweat to serve the community. Teachers invest their best years in ungrateful students. Soldiers and police walk up to face the foe on behalf of us all. Have you noticed how much athletes give up and what pain they suffer for their team. We simply cannot exist without a common and awesome spirit of sacrifice.
5. I see Community. Goodness that shelters everyone.
Some boring politicians will hate me for saying this -Mateship is not particularly an Australian characteristic. It is much better than that. Every place I have been, people look out for each other. Travellers often tell stories of the kindness of perfect strangers. In bushfires we all help out. Communities always band together to define their customs and language, to care for the land and the children, to make a common future. Neighbours look over the fence to make sure the old lady is all right. There are selfish people in every street, but if you get stuck, you can always ask for help. Isn’t it true that you like most people actually like to help? We are here to shelter each other. It is amazing.
6. I see Coincidence . Goodness that keeps on coming out of nowhere.
That year, state and local governments had turned their backs on our struggling community. We were angry, deflated and defeated. And old John said: ’Don’t worry; we’ve been here before many times. Something always turns up. You’ll see.’ And John was right. It all turned around within the year. Have you noticed that coincidences happen regularly, mini-miracles, synchronicity? They guide us, gift us, reward us with more than we deserve. Think of a book you just happened to pick up that proved to be a revelation. Think of how amazing it was how you first met your partner. Remember how chancy it was that you found out about that particular job. Can you think of something? Abraham Lincoln said: ‘if I prepare, my chance will come’. People often say that when they pray, coincidences happen. It is all meant to tell us that God is intent to guide us to live out our destiny. So, something will turn up. You’ll see.
7. I see Intelligence. Goodness that questions the normal and discovers the mystery.
My first go at university was biochemistry. I was in awe of the intricate mechanisms of the human body, and even more, in awe that we humans had forged the science to figure it out. (Faith and science are best friends in my journey.) And we have so many other technologies and systems. Even ordinary writing has a long history of development. My laptop has more computing power than the Apollo moon missions. And here I am typing as though it was perfectly natural. We have come to know that, beyond science, there are multiple intelligences like the colours in a crayon box – auditory, kinaesthetic, emotional, spiritual, social intelligences. Each community needs all types. Education is a known antidote to many conflicts and key to many pleasures. So, if you are stuck in a nightmare, start to learn about it and lights will go on.
8. I see Healing. Goodness that sets things right in a hurting world.
Your body has a habit of healing. Wounds close and organs restart. My emotions do the same. Memories can be reframed. Yes I have scars, but they remind me of the lesson I was meant to learn from the experience. And there are more habits of healing than those. Forgiveness opens the doors to freedom from the pain of our memories. Reconciliation, apology, restores relationships on a road with many wonders and much Grace. Peace-makers can bring dangerous tension through to a new possibility. Counsellors know how to offer us ways to go forward differently. Doctors and pharmacists know so much that relieves our aches and helps to fix us. We humans are wired in so many ways for the healing of our hurts.
9. I see Love. Goodness that flows thickly between people everywhere.
At the start of the movie ‘Love Actually’, the airport arrivals area is full of friends, children, grandparents, families who meet and embrace with smiles and joy. All these persons hold an unsurpassed love for a unique person. All of them. Have you noticed that there is an amazing amount of love going around? Friends meet and shake hands. Boy meets girl and smiles break out. Every wedding in a way writes its own love song. Sex is a fantastic way to speak love deeply into another. Every funeral finds it impossible to gather in the threads of just one life-time of love, trials and tenderness. I know all this love can get trashed, sex gets devalued, lovers hurt each other, and people can be deeply lonely. It is a large shadow because the love is huge and wonderful and waiting for us all. Love is the most powerful force in the universe. Anyone can start it anew.
10. I see Conscience. Goodness that calls us to act rightly in an immoral world.
Little children don’t need to be taught to lie, but have you seen how their cute little faces betray them? Their eyes, their faces, their tone of voice – they have a conscience. It needs to be shaped but there it always is. With rare psychiatric exceptions, most people want to do the right thing. It seems to work. Societies find ways of acting decently or else they crumble. I know there are bad apples who can spoil it for everyone else, but there is also a desire in every one to set things right, to be moral, to do justice, to give others a fair go. Money does make the selfish world go around, but you only have to look around the normal world to see that it is our innate desire for goodness that makes people tick. Invest in that.
11. I see Meaning. Goodness that values each of our lives in a huge universe.
It thrills me to know that the small life I lead has value in the greater scheme of things. I don’t have to talk myself up or put myself down. My life has meaning, that’s enough. I have a great life. But I get quickly tired, for instance, of dinners where the travel talk takes over – which exotic places and unusual destinations – a little competition. I am suspicious of the meaninglessness of it, collecting ‘wow’s the way that some collect spoons. Travellers who understand the story behind the people and places they visit will enjoy a deeper experience and come home the better for it. Those who work at their calling in life will work harder and enjoy it more than those who just show up and put in the hours. It is about the value of things, not just their price or size. It is not just the philosopher who says ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’. How often do you say – “What’s the point of doing that?” or “what a waste of time” ? These two common cries tell us that we humans have ways to live close to the purpose in our lives. Nothing is meaningless.
12. I see Seasons. Goodness in which we live and move and take our breathe.
I love the winter, when the waterways bulge with run-off and the damp earth is drunk with life. I love the spring when wildflowers cast caution to the winds and show off their colours for mile after brazen mile. I love the summer when the surf catches the light and throws me towards the beach. I love the autumn when the orchards are buzzing with impossible numbers of richly coloured fruit. The whole year, the whole earth is alive with life. Even the desert is crisscrossed with the tracks of resilient life-forms, and I have stood there gob-smacked when the rains came and the desert frenzied with colour and abundance. The slight tilt of the earth in its space creates the seasons, the winds, the tides and massive migrations. It is a speechless wonder. Have you seen how the whole planet is awash with life that is bursting forth so abundantly, ridiculously, extravagantly, wastefully, beautifully, all at once strong and fragile and exquisite? The Life Force is happening. The planet in season is generous, gorgeous.
Those are my twelve kinds of evidence. Scripture says that all the good things come from God. He authored this story, though we have scarred it and try our best to ruin it. What would you add to the list? The gift of sleep? Or the voice of a friend? They are not little things either. A life full of great gifts. Already we have said so much. Yes, we could say much more. But, that’s enough for now. Any one of these twelve thirteen fourteen kinds of evidence is enough to give you air in your particular nightmare.
I see Courage so face the foe. I see Play so laugh out loud. I see Beauty so celebrate the colours.
I see Sacrifice so hold on to the giving. I see Community so connect without choosing. I see Coincidence so venture forward with hope. I see Intelligence so look at the problem. I see Healing so keep living with wholesome holiness. I see Love so find someone to love without return. I see Conscience so do the right thing. I see Meaning so act upon your values. I see Seasons so live each day generously. God is so good.
It is Jesus who teaches me the eternal truth of this worldview, and shows me how to live this way in all these dimensions, and that is how I know. What a Saviour! He is the ultimate evidence of the goodness of God, but there is all this other, so much, so full, all of it free.
There are voices that try to shout this down. To them we are all just machines and genes and animals on the prowl, so we may as well fight with tooth and claw. They look at the troubles around us and conclude that God is not good, or faith is not good, or maybe not quite good enough. I just can’t go with that. The evidence is all around us. No wonder Jesus asks to look at God’s grace generosity operating within this planet, and says: No need to be anxious.
The good stuff is the God stuff and it is pouring out through every hole in the sky and every crack in your mind. If you are ever in nightmare, a waking or sleeping nightmare, which calls on you to give up, sit up and say: That is a lie. God is good. This too will pass. Thank you God.
Join me in this prayer, if you wish to…
So, Jesus, with your love in the world,
We will act in hope.
As events threaten to drown us,
We will come to the surface.
As you speak your Creator’s grace,
We breathe it in.
As we go out, sent out to care in a hurting world,
We can say with faith in you, and with a real vision of the real world,
Never give up.
God is good.
An article in the Spectator (UK) written by Michael Gove former Conservative minister
for education in British Parliament.
Subject: In defence of Christianity
‘Jeremy Paxman was on great form last week, reminding us that when it comes
to being rude to prime ministers he has no peers.
Jeremy’s rudeness is, of course, magnificently bipartisan. However elegant
the sneer he displayed when asking David Cameron about Stephen Green, it was
as nothing compared to the pointed disdain with which he once asked Tony
Blair about his faith. Was it true, Jeremy inquired, that he had prayed
together with his fellow Christian George W. Bush?
The question was asked in a tone of Old Malvernian hauteur which implied
that spending time in religious contemplation was clearly deviant behaviour
of the most disgusting kind. Jeremy seemed to be suggesting that it would
probably be less scandalous if we discovered the two men had sought relief
from the pressures of high office by smoking crack together.
Praying? What kind of people are you?One philanthropist gave up his work
because his evangelical Christianity was under constant attack
Well, the kind of people who built our civilisation, founded our
democracies, developed our modern ideas of rights and justice, ended
slavery, established universal education and who are, even as I write, in
the forefront of the fight against poverty, prejudice and ignorance. In a
But to call yourself a Christian in contemporary Britain is to invite pity,
condescension or cool dismissal. In a culture that prizes sophistication,
non-judgmentalism, irony and detachment, it is to declare yourself
intolerant, naive, superstitious and backward.
It was almost 150 years ago that Matthew Arnold wrote of the Sea of Faith’s
‘melancholy, long, withdrawing roar’ and in our time that current has been
replaced by an incoming tide of negativity towards Christianity.
In his wonderful book Unapologetic, the author Francis Spufford describes
the welter of prejudice the admission of Christian belief tends to unleash.
‘It means that we believe in a load of bronze-age absurdities. It means that
we don’t believe in dinosaurs. It means that we’re dogmatic. That we’re
self-righteous. That we fetishise pain and suffering. That we advocate
wishy-washy niceness. That we promise the oppressed pie in the sky when they
die… That we build absurdly complex intellectual structures, full of
meaningless distinctions, on the marshmallow foundations of fantasy… That we
destroy the spontaneity and hopefulness of children by implanting a sick
mythology in young minds…’
And that’s just for starters. If we’re Roman Catholic we’re accessories to
child abuse, if we’re Anglo-Catholics we’re homophobic bigots curiously
attached to velvet and lace, if we’re liberal Anglicans we’re pointless
hand-wringing conscience–hawkers, and if we’re evangelicals we’re creepy
obsessives who are uncomfortable with anyone enjoying anything more louche
than a slice of Battenberg.
Even in the area where Christianity might be supposed to be vaguely
relevant — moral reasoning — it’s casually assumed that Christian belief is
an actively disabling factor. When Paxo asked Blair about his praying habits
he prefaced his question by suggesting that the Prime Minister and the
President found it easier to go to war in Iraq because their Christianity
made them see everything narrowly in terms of good and evil, black and
white, them and us.
Far from enlarging someone’s sympathy or providing a frame for ethical
reflection, Christianity is seen as a mind-narrowing doctrine. Where once
politicians who were considering matters of life and death might have been
thought to be helped in their decision-making by Christian thinking — by
reflecting on the tradition of Augustine and Aquinas, by applying the subtle
tests of just-war doctrine — now Christianity means the banal morality of
the fairy tale and genuflection before a sky pixie’s simplicities.
How has it come to this?
The contrast between the Christianity I see our culture belittle nightly,
and the Christianity I see our country benefit from daily, could not be
The reality of Christian mission in today’s churches is a story of thousands
of quiet kindnesses. In many of our most disadvantaged communities it is the
churches that provide warmth, food, friendship and support for individuals
who have fallen on the worst of times. The homeless, those in the grip of
alcoholism or drug addiction, individuals with undiagnosed mental health
problems and those overwhelmed by multiple crises are all helped — in
innumerable ways — by Christians.
Churches provide debt counselling, marriage guidance, childcare, English
language lessons, after-school clubs, food banks, emergency accommodation
and, sometimes most importantly of all, someone to listen. The lives of most
clergy and the thoughts of most churchgoers are not occupied with agonising
over sexual morality but with helping others in practical ways — in proving
their commitment to Christ through service to others.
But Christian charity — far from being applauded — is seen by many as
somehow suspect. Again and again, as a politician, I have found that when
people who were open and proud of their Christian faith wished to help
others — in education, in social work, in prisons and in hospices — their
belief was somehow seen as an ignoble ulterior motive sullying their
actions. Their charity would somehow be nobler and more selfless if it weren’t
actuated by religion.
The suspicion was that Christians helped others because they wanted to look
good in the eyes of their deity and earn the religious equivalent of
Clubcard points securing entry to Heaven. Or they interfered in the lives of
the less fortunate because they were moral imperialists — getting off on the
thrill and power of controlling someone else’s life and impulses. Or, most
disturbingly of all, they were looking to recruit individuals — especially
in our schools — to affirm the arid simplicities and narrow certainties of
This prejudice that Christian belief demeans the integrity of an action is
remarkably pervasive. And on occasion singularly vehement.
One of the saddest moments during my time as Education Secretary was the day
I took a call from a wonderfully generous philanthropist who had devoted
limitless time and money to helping educate disadvantaged children in some
of the most challenging areas of Britain but who now felt he had no option
but to step away from his commitments because his evangelical Christianity
meant that he, and his generosity, were under constant attack.
I suspect that one of the reasons why any suggestion of religious belief —
let alone motivation — on the part of people in public life excites
suspicion and antipathy is the assumption that those with faith consider
their acts somehow sanctified and superior compared with others.
Relativism is the orthodoxy of our age. Asserting that any one set of
beliefs is more deserving of respect than any other is a sin against the
Holy Spirit of Non–Judgmentalism. And proclaiming your adherence to the
faith which generations of dead white males used to cow and coerce others is
particularly problematic. You stand in the tradition of the Inquisition, the
Counter-Reformation, the Jesuits who made South America safe for
colonisation, the missionaries who accompanied the imperial exploiters into
Africa, the Christian Brothers who presided over forced adoption and the
televangelists who keep America safe for capitalism.
But genuine Christian faith — far from making any individual more invincibly
convinced of their own righteousness — makes us realise just how flawed and
fallible we all are. I am selfish, lazy, greedy, hypocritical, confused,
self-deceiving, impatient and weak. And that’s just on a good day. As the
Book of Common Prayer puts it, ‘We have followed too much the devices and
desires of our own hearts…And there is no health in us.’
Christianity helps us recognise and confront those weaknesses with a
resolution — albeit imperfect and fragile — to do better. But more
importantly, it encourages us to feel a sense of empathy rather than
superiority towards others because we recognise that we are as guilty of
selfishness and open to temptation as anyone.
More than that, Christianity encourages us to see that, while all of us are
prey to weakness, there is a potential for good in everyone. Every
individual is precious. Christianity encourages us to look beyond tribe and
tradition to celebrate our common humanity. And at every stage in human
history when tyrants and dictators have attempted to set individuals against
one another, it has been Christians who have shielded the vulnerable from
oppression. It was Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Christian-inspired
White Rose movement that led the internal opposition to Hitler’s rule. It
was the moral witness of the Catholic church in Poland that helped erode
Communism’s authority in the 1980s.
In his magnificent book Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western
Liberalism, the Oxford academic Larry Siedentop shows how it has been the
Christian conception of God which has given rise to the respect for
individual conscience, rights and autonomy which underpin our civilisation.
In pre-Christian times, moral reasoning and full human potential were
assumed to be restricted to an elite. Greek city states depended on a
population of helots, the Roman Empire on the subjugation of slaves and
barbarians, to sustain their rule. Their achievements were built on a
foundation of radical inequality. Christianity, by contrast, like Judaism
before it, gives every individual the dignity of a soul, the capacity to
reason, the right to be heard and equality before the law. Because every
individual is — in the image of God — capable of moral judgment, reflection
Belief in the unique and valuable nature of every individual should make us
angry at oppression, at the racism which divides and the prejudice which
demeans humanity. And it was deep, radical Christian faith which inspired
many of our greatest political heroes — Wilberforce, Shaftesbury, Lincoln,
Gladstone, Pope John Paul II and Martin Luther King. There should be nothing
to be ashamed of in finding their example inspirational, the words and
beliefs that moved them beautiful and true.’