Sunday, April 23, 2006


One of the less-than-temperate Christian responses to the CPT Iraq hostage crisis and the actions of Norman Kember has come from Alan Billings, Director of the Centre for Ethics and Religion at the University of Lancaster. Billings is a one-time Labour councillor in Sheffield and former member of the Archbishops' Commission on Urban Priority Areas which produced the well-known Faith In The City report in 1985. He seems to have beaten a continual retreat from a liberal left Christian position in recent years (one which I agree is weak), and he now prides himself as a pro-war 'realist' in the Blairite mould - reality understood, that is, as the way the world presents itself on its own terms, rather than in relation to any scheme of redemption which might make a substantial difference to its constitution.

Though appearing to know next to nothing about Christian Peacemaker Teams, so far as one can judge from his contributions to BBC Radio 4's Sunday programme and The Moral Maze, Alan Billings peremtorily dismisses CPT as "naive", "irresponsible" and "self-indulgent". This is a pity because, while I disagree with his starting assumptions, he's a serious thinker. In this matter, however, he seems to have fallen prey to the emotivism of which he accuses others. Graham Old has written an Open Letter to Billings about Constantinianism, War and Norman Kember, which is worth reading for its commendable straightforwardness. There's much more to be said about how a kingdom-shaped ethic responsibly encounters the genuine moral ambiguity and complexity of a messy world, but any attempt to address this challenge which ends up sidelining the demandingness of Jesus surely risks forfeiting its Christian claims. Here is an excerpt from Old's response:

(Billings) "...But I think clearly there is a difference between a Church when it is a minority movement within the Roman Empire and the Roman Empire is pagan and when the Church embraces the Emperor, the court, the army and so on and so forth. You have to re-think the ethic at that point."
(Old) I don't think that anyone can really question that. However, surely the question that needs to be asked is whether the Church belongs in an embrace with the Empire. If such a scenario requires diluting the teachings of Jesus in order to serve the needs of an Imperialistic conqueror - who showed no fruits of repentance or signs of genuine discipleship - then it is an act of allegiance to our Lord to not embrace the Empire and to resist assimilation with the State. It remains such an act today. Jesus is not such an awkward figure once we are ready to accept that his words hold greater weight than those of Constantine, Augustine or Bush.

(Billings) "My take on this whole thing is that one of the problems for the Church at the moment is that it is marginalised. It's marginalising quite fast in the West. And I think a marginalised Church tends now to associate itself and identify with vicitms, people who are pushed to the margins, rather than the State."
(Old) Absolutely. However, I am not so sure that it is a 'problem' that the Church is marginalised. Does this not take us back to a scenario that is at least analogous (in some ways) to the Church pre-Constantine? Does that not mean (according to your earlier reasoning) that the Church should now be re-thinking its ethic? What a marvellous opportunity to re-discover a faithful, Christ-centred ethic! Now, of all times, we need guidance from ethicists, such as yourself. I for one rejoice at the idea that Christianity might once again be known for it's treatment of 'widows and orphans' - those who are pushed to the margins. Does the book of James not teach us that such things are the nature of religion? Do the words of Jesus not suggest that they are central to following him and [to] knowing God? [Thanks to Organic Church for drawing this to my attention]

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