Why I refuse to love my enemies

In Matthew 5, Jesus is reported as saying, “‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies.'”

I disagree with this.

After meditating on the parable of the good Samaritan, I think there’s an apparent contradiction here and I’ve fallen on one side of it. That parable was told to answer the question, “who is my neighbour?” Yet all too often, stripped of his social and historical context, we treat it as a story of loving compassion from one human being to another, with an implicit criticism of the Jewish religious authorities.

I don’t read it like that. The parable has given rise to the use of the term ‘Samaritan’ as someone who does good, even to the extent of being the name of a national charity that does everything it can to give a listening ear to those in need and to do everything that can to prevent suicide. But this use of the word misses the cultural aspects to which Jesus was appealing. To a Jewish audience in the 1st century A.D. the inhabitants of Samaria were an anathema.

The whole parable relies on a presupposition of sectarian hatred. It’s a hatred that gets turned on its head in the course of the story. To portray the parable as being about how to be nice to people is to dilute its shock value. To the people Jesus was speaking to, there was nothing good about a Samaritan. If I were to try to update it to today, I would choose one of 2 scenarios. Instead of speaking to a Jewish audience about a Samaritan, I would opt for:

  1. An audience of UKIP supporters about an unemployed Romanian migrant who wishes to claim child benefit for his 3 children.
  2. An audience of disabled activists about Iain Duncan Smith.

The point of the story, as I understand it, is that even those people about whom every fibre of your being says is no good, is your neighbour. The term enemy isn’t used here. Who is my neighbour? My neighbour is the Robert Mugabe. My neighbour is Kim Yong Un. My neighbours are Westboro Baptist Church. My neighbours are members of the EDL. My neighbour is Katie Hopkins. My neighbour is Richard Dawkins. My neighbours have joined ISIS/ISIL/IS.

To define who my enemy is, is to create an ‘us and them’ mentality. Christians are great at doing this, despite how unhelpful it is. We set up discussions as ‘Christians v Atheists’, ‘Christians v Muslims’, ‘Christians v The World’. The language of alienation is itself alien to the christian ethic that sees only neighbours and which refuses to define anyone as its enemy.

If someone else calls me their enemy, so be it; I will not reciprocate the epithet.

In short, I refuse to love my enemies because I refuse to have enemies. I have only neighbours, and I am called to love them.

Noisy head, blank page

If you read this blog on a regular basis, you may well have noticed a lack of….well…blog posts. All there’s been recently is a few book reviews and even those have been of a lower quality than I would normally publish.

The thing is, there’s so much going through my head that I want to write about, it’s hard to know where to start. During the day, I witness lots of things in the world of work that I could write about. Some I would be legally prohibited from writing about, due to confidentiality agreements. At other times I read, I talk to people and I think. Yet by the time I’ve done a full day at work (typically 08:30-19:30, minus lunch) my mind resembles the inside of a blender. There’s so much that’s gone in, but it’s all a bit of liquidised mess when I get home. If I have time to turn on the computer all I am greeted with is a blank screen.

Even if I have a key point to make, a good piece must begin somewhere. So I end up trying to reverse-engineer an introduction which either proves to be too contrived or else it naturally leads in a different direction to that in which I intend the argument to go. OK, maybe that means that my original idea is need of reworking, but then I’m left exploring new thoughts which takes some time and effort to condense into words. Time and effort that I generally don’t have at 11pm on a weekday evening.

Which leads me on to my other difficulty at the moment. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). I get it sometimes, but amongst the worst is the summer. In the mornings, the early sun wakes me far earlier than I ought to be awake. Sleep is elusive, so when breakfast has been had and the bus journey to work completed, I arrive at work having had less rest than is ideal. The long day then wears me out. I begin to recharge in the evening after having dinner and so my energy levels pick up about 9pm, though my head is still buzzing from the day’s activity. It’s rather like a state of entropy: plenty of energy but no coherence.

Finally, there are two pieces that I’ve been hacking at for months now but can’t seem to get right. One is a piece trying to state clearly why I support same sex marriage and the other is on a liberal evangelical perspective on sola scriptura. Both, I think, need saying. Both have the potential to really piss people off, so I’m trying to be careful about what I say, but without being disingenuous. Those two pieces are being written like a statue. First I need to write a big block, saying as much as possible, but then I need to chip away the extraneous parts, leaving (hopefully) a fine sculpture. I don’t want to miss major things and I want to address most obvious objections. Others have written similar pieces, though few I wholly agree with. I could point to them, but then it’s no longer my voice. And it’s only once I’ve condensed my thoughts into words, found my voice and articulated them that I can truly say I know my own mind on these matters.

So that’s why there’s been little on the blog other than book reviews lately. Once those two chips are off my shoulder, work quietens down and my sleep patterns get back to normal, then I hope to resume some blogging.

Whether anyone will be reading then, I have no idea. But if it makes one person smile, think or realise that they’re not alone, then it’ll be worth it.

Book Review: The Koran – A Very Short Introduction by Michael Cook

I read the Koran once when I was a teenager, but did so with no guidance and just went through it cover to cover. It seemed rather disjointed, with some oddly worded concepts and what I considered to be perversions of stories from the Old Testament. The one that stuck in my mind was a re-telling of the story of the garden of Eden, where the serpent of Genesis became Satan (or Shai’tan as I think it may have been rendered) and prompted me to wonder whether this was the impetus for christian theologians to make that identification or whether it was earlier, even if it is commonplace in most expressions of christianity today. Yet I haven’t touched the book since then. At some point, I may come back, though I wonder how one might review it on this blog.

I approaching this book, then, in the hope that it will go someway to filling a hole of ignorance. Already, one may think it wrong to refer to the Koran as opposed to the Qur’an. In his introduction, Cook states that while Qur’an is the more faithful rendering, Koran is readily recognised as an anglicised form that lends itself to a correct stressing of the syllables. As this is the way Cook refers to it, then so shall this review.

The manner in which Cook approaches the book is unlikely to be one that people expect. He works roughly in a sort of anti-chronology, looking at the modern usages of the Koran, moving back in time to tell its story. Though at times, this timeline gets a bit jumbled, that seems to be in order to avoid the exposition itself becoming jumbled. In case it needs highlighting, this is the VSI of the book of the Koran, it is not a VSI of Islam. If that it was you’re looking for, then this is not the right book for you.

We begin by considering what the notion of ‘scripture’ is and what the overall message of the Koran tries to tell us. The emphasis Cook brings out is that of the straight path and the nature of God (though I did wonder why Cook referred to God, rather than Allah).

After this introduction, we get to see how the Koran is used today and its influence, which is quite evident to many if you either live in an area where there is a high Muslim population or by putting on the news. Yet the disparity between these two is clear and not a little confusing for the non-Muslim. Such misunderstanding can give birth to Islamophobia.

After looking at how the Koran is communicated (both as a written text and as a self-contained oral tradition in and of itself), there’s a general discussion as to what it means for any text to be regarded as “scripture”. Of course, any writing is, etymologically scripture. Even this blog is; but that’s not the common usage of the word, which tends to denote some sacred text of a religion. Contrasts are drawn between the Koran and some of the Vedas, though to many a reader, especially christians like me, the comparisons to the bible are rather thin and it left me feeling a little flat.

One of the bits that didn’t seem to make a lot of sense was the idea of coloured text. There is talk of it, but as the book is published in black & white, apart from the cover, then one cannot tell about the red and gold punctuation marks. It was only when I visited the British Library’s collection of Koran’s that this became clear.

What we don’t get is one clear story of how the Koran is said to have come about. There are hints here and there, but the whole story of Mohammad being told to read is rather lost in amongst the other chapters, partly as the story of where he was when various bits of the Koran were revealed.

Overall, it is a useful VSI, though I can’t say it was particularly memorable. I’m publishing this review some time after having finished it and find myself having to keep opening it to remind myself of the book’s contents. It’s one to keep and refer to, yet I couldn’t help but think there are better introductions available.

Hoping for Harper Lee

Today sees the release of the year’s most anticipated book: Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee. My plan is to use my lunchbreak to head to a bookshop, buy a copy and then set about reading it. So do look out for a review appearing on this blog within the next few weeks. Why is it so keenly anticipated, though?

Partly there is the mystique surrounding Harper Lee and the fact that she has spent most of her life as a “one-hit wonder” in the same league as J.D. Salinger. Rumours have long abounded about other works, but it was only earlier this year that it was confirmed that we would have a follow-up to ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’. Many have taken to re-reading Mockingbird in preparation for its sequel, though I’ve opted not to. I retain a strong memory of a book I read several times as I was studying it for my GCSEs. Unlike Pride and Prejudice, which I was also made to study, this was a book I fell in love with. As soon as one does, you can see why it has been considered a classic.

Though a work of fiction, Mockingbird told much truth and gave an insight into the place and time to which it related: the racist deep south of the USA. Atticus Finch was the hero of the story, standing up to the hegemony of hatred and giving a voice to the voiceless. The civil rights movement was meant to address this aspect of American society and to ensure that all people were treated as the equals that they were, regardless of the colour of their skin. Yet the civil rights movement seems only to have been a partial success. Legally, it has succeeded, but it doesn’t seem to have universally won over hearts and minds.

And racial tensions are on the rise again. With instances of institutional racism on the part of white police brutalising black citizens, with black churches being attacked by gunmen and their buildings being burnt to the ground, with the confederate flag being banned in places and (according to a documentary on Channel 4 last night) an increase in the membership of Ku Klux Klan, one cannot help but think back to the America of the 1950s and 1960s and think that whatever progress may have been made, it simply isn’t enough.

There was understandable rejoicing when Barack Obama was elected and re-elected as president, but he remains far from universally respected in the American domestic political arena, and a lame duck as his party doesn’t control one of the two houses of their decidedly odd form of government.

It is into this arena, this day and age, that we see the eventual publication of Go Set A Watchman. Can Harper Lee speak truth to a society, one that is so pivotal in the world stage, and bring healing and hope where there is hurting and hate?

One of the things that is different about this, is that Go Set A Watchman wasn’t written for 21st century America. It was written before To Kill A Mockingbird, with the first published work being a prequel to the one that sees the light of day today. We may read with the hindsight of 55 years, but in doing so we must be careful not to project that hindsight back onto the book, which wasn’t written by the 89 year old Harper Lee; it was written by a much younger woman.

There have been early rumours that Atticus Finch has been made less than the ideal model of gracious virtue, but as for the plot, the rest of the characterisations and the quality of writing, that is all yet to be discovered by a legion of readers across the world. I’m looking forward to reading it and I hope you are too.

God willing, there should be a review appearing on this blog in a few weeks.

Book Review: The Spark of Life by Frances Ashcroft

While most books are those I’ve bought or requested as gifts for birthday or Christmas, this was one that was lent to me by a friend at church. Their premise was that it was recommended to them by an atheist friend of theirs who had said it was a marvelous book about reductionism, showing that there was nothing more to life than electricity. I confess I’d not heard of the book before so it seemed reasonable to look at what some others had said about it. When I read a few other reviews, the above synopsis seemed quite a long way from what the truth.

My friend asked for my thoughts on the book, and while I hold to some views on the matter of reductionism, it might well be unfair to apply them to Ashcroft’s work if that was not her aim. So the only way forward, it seems, is to press on and read the book itself.

The subtitle, ‘Electricity in the Human Body’, gives a flavour of what’s to come. Ashcroft opens by diving into the deep end by talking of K(ATP) ion channels which rather shot over my head. I think that’s the intention. Returning to the introduction after having finished the book it makes a lot more sense, so one can see how much we’ve gone through.

The heart of the book is Ashcrofts own passion: ion channels. But what are they? I’d never come across them, though you’re probably less ignorant than I. So it was for this reader a journey of discovery. In short, they are holes in the membranes of cells. i.e. they’re really really really small. They are holes that act sort of like valves, allowing the flow of ions in and out of cells. The upshot is that miniscule electrical balances (carried by the ions) are created inside and outside of the cells. This is the electricity of the human body that is referred to in the subtitle.

With this as our firm grounding, we can then go off exploring various aspects of the human body. I would imagine that everyone knows that nerves operate by electrical impulses. That much is GCSE level science. But how do these impulses operate and how do we know? These are the questions that Ashcroft sets about answering in a lively and engaging manner.

The book is full of fascinating vignettes, such as the details of how synapses operate, how a heart beats and why some goats go incredibly rigid when frightened. Possibly the most disturbing was the chapter on neurotoxins which I admit made me feel a little numb as I read it, though it hasn’t yet put me off wanting to try fugu sometime.

Yet what of this claim reductionism alluded to above? As I read, greatly enjoying the book, it simply wasn’t there. All I could find where a couple of disparate sentences towards the back of the book, which were neither justified nor expanded upon. The book would not have suffered in the least by their omission. So it is my view that the friend of my friend was perhaps engaging in an exercise in eisegesis, reading their pre-existing thoughts into a work which are not expressed by that work. Let us say no more about it, then, and get back to this wonderful work of science.

We get a brief overview of electrical activity in the brain, though as with any popular-level take on neuroscience, there is a fair admission that we simply don’t understand the details of how the mind works. This does make it a weaker chapter than the rest, though those who are interested in the workings of the brain (often worked out when things go wrong) will be pleased to see the mention of Phineas Gage. If this subject piques your interest, then I would suggest following up with The Emperor’s New Mind and in particular A User’s Guide To The Brain.

The final chapter examines the effects of electricity upon the human body, as opposed to that generated from within. Not wholly unlike the chapter on neurotoxins, this makes for uncomfortable reading in places. As someone who opposes the death penalty, it was most disturbing to read of the electric chair’s mechanism for bringing death. Yet the same chapter also tells of how a defibrillator works (hint: not how you may think if you watch a lot of fiction on tv).

With the tour over, what can we say in conclusion? It’s a captivating book, giving insight where previously this reader was blind. It is written plainly yet in such a way as to draw the reader along and infuse them with some element of the enthusiasm and passion that is evident in Frances Ashcroft. I’d thoroughly recommend it.

Book Review: Simply Good News by Tom Wright

Disclaimer: I was given this book by the publishers, SPCK, free of charge. I was not asked to review it, so, as ever, I publish this review off my own back.

Tom Wright manages to write books faster than most can read them. While I’ve caught up with all published volumes of his Christian Origins and the Question of God series and dip into his New Testament for Everyone commentaries every now and then, there are many more works that I’ve not yet got into. Most notably, these would be Virtue Reborn, How God Became King, Simply Jesus (though I bought this last year, it’s not yet percolated its way to the top of my reading pile) and Surprised by Scripture.

This work, subtitled ‘Why The Gospel Is News And What Makes It Good’ could be thought of as “Simply Paul”. For as some of his works published as “Tom Wright” have been closely linked to, and could be thought of an shortened version of, his longer works published under “N.T. Wright”, there is much here that is in common with Paul and the Faithfulness of God. If anything, this could be summed up as the ‘gospel according to Paul, according to Tom Wright’.

The major thesis is that what we refer to as “the gospel” is often misunderstood. He is not here proposing that the church has wholly misunderstood christianity, but that when we speak of the gospel, it is often more spoken of as advice rather than as news. Of course, there is a right an appropriate response to the news, but that response should not be mistaken for the news itself. So calls to repent are not inherently the gospel. Giving your life to Jesus is not the gospel. Taking part in the sacraments is not the gospel.

A master of the analogy, Wright begins by taking us not to the gospels, but to England’s victory in the rugby world cup final in 2003. The game was in Australia, but Wright was in America at the time (a country not exactly well known for its love of rugby). He was excited by news of the victory but found that anyone he wanted to tell simply didn’t care. Until he found some Australians, that is, who weren’t exactly keen on hearing the news of England’s triumph. His excitement about England’s victory was irrelevant foolishness to the Americans and was unwelcome to the Australians. It is in this way that Wright gets across what he understands by Paul’s statement that gospel is foolishness to the Gentiles (what does anything to do with a Jewish teacher have to do with us) and a scandal to the Jews (this person cannot be the Messiah if he died in ignominy).

The heart of the book is laid out very early on. What is the news? Firstly, it is a development, something unexpected happening within a wider context. Secondly, it is an announcement not only that something has happened, but that because of it, things will be different from now on. This then brings about a period of hopeful, expectant waiting.

The rest of the book is the fleshing out of this. So we get an overview of what the wider context was. This entails an overview of 1st century Judaism and the Roman Empire. The second part necessitates the “now and not yet” of christianity to be discussed, though Wright skillfully avoids the technical jargon of inaugurated eschatology, which can be so off-putting to many. Indeed, throughout the book, the theologically well-informed will recognise many a familiar concept, but Wright communicates them with the utmost clarity and gentleness.

In reading this, I could not help but think that the misrepresentations of the gospel Wright is so keen to correct are largely that of the more right wing American churches. In so doing, he does seem to rile up others who interpret him as saying that the whole church has failed to understand the gospel for centuries but thank goodness that Tom Wright has now arrived to correct us all. I don’t think that’s what he intends at all. It is rather that he is here trying to write for as wide an audience as possible, but having in mind particular ways of teaching of christianity that miss the central point of the gospel.

So he is neither being an heresiologist nor a general teacher, but trying to incorporate both aspects in his writing. A tough task, indeed, yet it is my view he does this just about as well as anyone could hope for. In so doing, he does bring a challenge; a challenge to our current understanding and our ways of communicating the news that God has come to earth to restore creation through Jesus as the Jewish Messiah, and that we are all invited to be a part of that ongoing story which has already reached its dénouement in his death and resurrection.

To finish this review, one must think of who it would stand to gain most from reading this work. Might it be for the curious non-christian who wants to find out what we mean by ‘the good news’? Perhaps, though Wright does assume a level of familiarity with the ancient world that the person on the Clapham omnibus doesn’t have. Maybe it is more suited to the more Calvinist christian who, though familiar with the bible, doesn’t always seem to get the emphasis right. Maybe it is best for the person who has recently become a christian but is still trying to navigate their way around the rich, vast and multitudinous expressions of christian belief across different churches.

I would suggest that it may be read in conjunction with a few other works. Firstly, the gospels themselves. Examine the source material and make an assessment for yourself. Secondly, it might go well with Rowan Williams’ Being Christian or C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity. I hope that gives you a fair impression. If it at all piques your interest, then please do read it. It is well-written, gently provocative and has the gospel of our Lord Jesus, the Messiah, running through it like a stick of Brighton rock.

Book Review: Before I Say Goodbye by Ruth Picardie

Readers of this blog may recall that I went on a tour of some of London’s bookshops back in February, buying one at each. This was a work I picked up at the Kennington bookshop which, as it turns out, was not far from the area of London where Ruth Picardie lived. It is an area I am quite familiar with, as I was commuting on the bus through Walworth and Elephant & Castle as I read it, seeing the occasional references to places outside the window.

Yet as I sit down to write this review, the afternoon after finishing it, I am somewhat at a loss for how to give it a fair and reasonable review in the same way that I try (to a varying degree of success) with anything else I read. For the title should be fairly unambiguous: Ruth Picardie is dead. She died in September 1997, in her early 30s, after having had cancer for a little under a year. The book is not a memoir or the impartation of a brief lifetime’s worth of wisdom. It mostly consists of letters to and from Ruth in the months between her diagnosis and her death. It is interspersed with the occasional article that she wrote for the Guardian and also features a handful of the responses she received from readers.

Describing herself as a ‘fast-track kind of girl…an evolved post-feminist chick’ one shouldn’t be surprised at her very forthright and occasionally fruity turns of phrase. She gives it what-for and doesn’t beat about the bush in her criticisms of the doctors who she felt passed her from pillar to post, getting diagnoses wrong and not being as straightforward with her as she would have liked.

With the diagnosis of her breast tumour being malignant, one cannot help but feel something of the anger Ruth expresses as well as the desperation to do anything. One of the things that struck me was how quickly she turned to alternative “medicine” in search of anything that might help. But this is not a miserable book. It is a last hurrah of a great spirit of wit and humour. With an opportunity to take a wry look at the end of life, the to-ing and fro-ing of repartee with her friends gives an insight into a world that many of us have been affected by in some way or another, but far fewer live in, day in, day out.

Ruth’s writing then stops fairly abruptly, in the middle of an article which was finished by her sister, Justine. There is then an afterword by Matt, her husband, describing her last days and paying homage to Ruth. From this other perspective, we can see the dehumanisation that cancer can wreak upon people. In line with much of the rest of the book, there is little beating about the bush. I would wholeheartedly recommend the book to you; just be prepared for some fairly frank talk. It’s not a great work of philosophy, nor a guide on how to go through cancer treatment. Indeed, there is much railing against the euphemisms surrounding cancer; the word ‘ontology’ coming in for a lashing in particular.

The top corner of the cover states that 10p from every sale would go to the Lavender Trust. As I bought it 2nd hand, that donation was only made on behalf of the original purchaser. So if you’ve read the book, want to read it or this review has made you think, then here is a link to their website, where you can donate.