Category Archives: Longer essays

These are my longer essays on a variety of topics. Mostly the product of my own thought and research.

What I meant to say on Radio 4

Last Friday, I appeared as a guest on the Today programme on Radio 4. The subject was a report that had been done by the Institute for Fiscal Studies about how the wealth of those born in the early 1980s was half of those born 10 years earlier (when they had been in their early/mid 30s). The largest factor behind this was the inability of those born in the 80s to get on the housing ladder.

The interview was done before 7am, I hadn’t had any coffee and speaking to an audience that probably numbered in the hundreds of thousands, if not millions was rather nerve-wracking. So I stumbled over my words and didn’t make all the points I had wanted to.

This then, is my attempt to clarify and expand a little on what I had hoped to say.

The economic reality

I was born in 1983 and as such I fall squarely within the demographic being studied. I fall at the tail-end of Generation X, just a little older than those increasingly referred to as Millenials. The housing situation comes with a double-edged sword. The starting point is that rental prices are high. The effect of this is that it is difficult to save as much of one’s salary as one would like in order to contribute towards a deposit. Yet it’s a goal that is constantly moving. Moving further away. In January, the Halifax bank said that the average deposit needed for a first time buyer in my area was £91,000. More recently, the Land Registry recorded house price inflation in the 12 months to July 2016 as being 8.3%. So what ends up happening is that the real value of the savings towards a deposit is being eroded by inflation. Interest rates aren’t keeping up either. The highest rate of interest I can get on my savings is 0.75%.

As such, I cannot foresee a time within the next few years when houses may become affordable. One of the few hopes of the Brexit vote was that it would bring house prices down, but the devaluation in the pound seems to have offset any domestic instability in the market by making buying houses in the UK cheaper for overseas investors.

A fairer economics

So what needs to happen? Here are some suggestions:

  • Rent controls. First of all, curb any increases in rents and then seek to bring them down, starting with those that are most exploitative (e.g. by looking at rent charged per square foot of living space). At present, tenants are simply being milked for their cash to slake the thirst of landlords’ greed.
  • Build new houses. One of the main driving factors behind house price inflation is a lack of supply. We need new homes and they need to be built sustainably and sold affordably. There’s no point going down the “grand designs” route if all the houses you build come with a £400,000 price tag. The prices need to be linked to average local incomes. There’s also the added benefit of investment in housebuilding is invariably a boost to the economy, creating jobs.
  • Factor in house price inflation into either CPI, RPI or create a 3rd There’s a saying I use at work (nicked off a book on steady state economics): “You measure what you care about and you care about what you measure”. At present, the Bank of England willfully turns a blind eye to house price inflation. This leads to them keeping interest rates artificially low. If they cared about the economic problems caused by uncontrolled inflation, then they would start to factor it into their measures. And once they do that, they’d care about getting it right and getting it down.
  • Increase interest rates to control inflation. Linked to the above, it has to be recognised that inflation of 8% is not healthy for the economy. Incremental increases are needed to a) curb the reliance on debt and b) assist savers in going someway to stop the real value of their savers being eaten away.
  • Limit buy-to-let investors from having an unfair advantage over first time buyers. As well as the under supply of new houses, one of the problems that is contributing to the problem is that homes are being bought by those who don’t intend to live in them. Examples of such measures could include: a) penalties for property owners for not letting out empty properties, b) increased taxes on the profits from rents, c) tariffs on overseas companies & individuals buying UK residential properties, d) Legal maximum on the number of residential properties an individual can own.

Objections

The above suggestions are not universally welcome.

  • Free market fundamentalists object to the idea of rent controls as a matter of principle, as they abhor “market interference” regardless of how justified it is. The reality is that with inelastic demand in the housing market, unfettered market forces will only push prices even higher. Those who subscribe to neoliberalism, though, subscribe to a failed economics and their opinions on such matters need not be taken too seriously, as they are always driven more by ideology than they are by sound reasoning.
  • There tend to be fewer objections here. The main issue is about where houses are built. Brownfield sites are preferable. The downside is that extra supply may push prices down, though given the rampant inflation of recent years, it seems likely that it would just temper that runaway increase in prices. Even if house prices were to come down, this is not as bad a thing as some might think it is. The term ‘negative equity’ still haunts those who remember the late 80s and early 90s, but today’s recent inflation means that homeowners have already benefitted hugely, so it is unlikely that the value of their homes would dip below the amount they bought for it. E.g. Let’s say someone bought a house for £200,000 three years ago. If inflation was about 8% a year, then that house would now be worth about £50,000 more. So if a market correction brought the price down to £220,000 they would still have a £20,000 gain, even though it had decreased by £30,000 from its inflated peak.
  • I’ve heard some contest that this isn’t necessary because mortgage inflation is already factored into the RPI. However, I don’t see this as an objection holding much weight as it only takes into account those fortunate enough to already have mortgages. It does nothing to measure how much more difficult it is to get a mortgage in the first place.
  • This is the big one that people hate. It depends on whether you are part of the “haves” or “have nots”. The downside to increased interest rates is that those with existing mortgages will find they get more expensive. It would also push up the cost of borrowing for businesses. This is where we find out if the lessons of the 2008 crash have been learnt or not. Sensible financial planning, whether personal or in business, needs to take into account the possibility of interest rate rises. If you haven’t got enough headroom to be able to afford a rate rise, then your financial planning abilities should be seriously called in question. In the case of the homeowner, when enjoying the advantages of low rates, it is prudent to save some of the excess; a rainy day fund, if you will. In the case of a business, you need to have modelled your banking covenants with sensitivities built in. Not everyone will have been so sensible, and those who have indebted themselves to such an extent that they would be unable to cope with increased will find themselves struggling more than they have done in the past. Of course, it is the job of a responsible government, with the will of the populace, to support any who fall on hard times. Some people would be hurt by an increase in interest rates, but it’s a necessary consequence of a correction to the market, and there ought to be a sufficiently robust welfare state in place to ensure that nobody is made homeless or bankrupt as a direct result of any interest rate rise.
  • Here, there are difficulties of practicality. How enforceable might they be? In particular, proposal d) might be easily dodged by the having properties owned by a spouse/partner. I must confess I’ve not thought through all the possible loopholes and there’s significant improvement needed to make this a workable suggestion. Yet the principle appears to be sound. For while on the one hand, the rhetoric of the current government is increasingly xenophobic, to pander to the support they get/need from the far right, there is at the same time keenness on investment into the UK from overseas. But we need to both educate out the xenophobia that is endemic in society and be more nuanced about the nature of overseas investment. If it is a case of “put a little in, get much more out” then this should be recognised as a threat to the economy, as opposed to blaming doctors who come from overseas and do a great job in the NHS under (unnecessarily) difficult circumstances.

Political Will

The existing economic situation is a result of the economic and political will of the past. To have a hope of changing things for the better we need a fairer economic and political will now, though it will take time to come to fruition. One of these is the need to change an unhealthy mentality that sees houses as investments rather than as homes. Just a few days ago, I saw on Facebook a post from an old school friend who is an estate agent encouraging people to see how much their house had increased in value. Someone I used to sit next to at work also had an odd boast that his home made more money in a year than he did. This is the kind of thinking that has been allowed to fester for many years and will take a long time to fix. With the above measures, there should be a reduction in the rate of increase in property prices and therefore lower returns for those who have used property as a means of investment. But none of this will happen if the political consensus carries on in the same way it has done for the last few decades. There needs to be a change, but it needs to a sensible change. As we’ve seen particularly in the last year, change for the sake of change can turn up some distinctly unsavoury characters and ideas that should never become part of public policy.

Side issue: the radio experience

Having gone through the experience, there are any number of things I would have liked to have done slightly differently. I had lots of thoughts (which I’ve tried to enunciate above) but I didn’t arrive in the studio with a set of points to make. I was given some idea of the questions, but John Humphrys could ask me what he liked, having been given a briefing paper on the think tank report and on what I had told the show’s producers the evening before. So I have something of a new-found respect for the politicians who go on live interviews. They come on with a set agenda, something they have come prepared to say. While we were off-air, just before the interview, John asked me “So you’re going to say you’re broke, are you?” which I wasn’t. When the microphone was on, I could think of 3 different things I could have said, each worded in another 3 different ways, and so in trying to pluck the right words out of the air, I hesitated, mumbled and then stumbled over what I actually said. That’s why I’m ever so grateful for the existence of a backspace key on the keyboard. I was also conscious of the rumour that if Radio 4 goes silent for 6 seconds, it’s a sign that something’s gone very wrong, so every moment of silence on my part (while my pre-7am coffee-less brain was trying to work) added to the pressure I felt in the interview. I do admit to dodging one question, as it was about another member of family (who’d been invited on, but declined) where I wasn’t prepared to speak on their behalf.

Final thought

As frustrating as it is to be living a relatively miserly existence, certainly compared to friends and colleagues, I am by no means poor. There are many more who have been hurt far worse by the failures of Conservative economics. One need only look at the proliferation in the need for food banks in the last 6 years to see the damage that Cameron & Osborne wreaked upon the citizens of this country.  Whether we are rich or poor, as measured by non-liquid assets, cash or income, there is far more to life than materialism.

Advertisements

Tax transparency and the left’s financial illiteracy

When stories regarding tax hit the news, it frequently frustrates me at the lack of clarity with which they are reported. The recent example of Google paying £130m has illustrated this quite well. What I find frustrating is the reaction and commentary from the political left when it comes to matters of tax; in particular corporation tax.

My frustration stems from the fact that by profession, I’m a chartered accountant. I’ve taken exams in taxation and though it’s not the area of finance I work in everyday, I do have a good knowledge and understanding of it. In particular, I can tell when others don’t know what they’re talking about.

The ideology of the right wing parties such as the Conservatives and UKIP is for a low tax society. That’s their stated aim. The caricature that is then made of the more left wing parties is that they are in favour of high taxes. This is generally a false caricature, as the aim of the political left is rather for fair taxation that properly funds public services. Though to put it that way risks putting the cart before the horse. So let me put it this way:

The left aims to have properly funded public services that are fit for purpose, that support the vulnerable and those who have fallen on hard times. In order to fund this, there is then required an appropriate level of taxation and it is the job of a left wing government to determine the fairest way of spreading the cost.

But what is fair? It’s an intuitive notion that pretty much everyone gets, so long as they’ve got a reasonable moral compass. Yet taxation is inherently a quantifiable thing. So we have to try to quantify fairness. And this is where, in my view, the left fails to make a suitable case.

All too often, the discussion veers onto a company’s revenue and we get comments like “Industry analysts estimate true UK sales of the six at £14.2billion. Yet they paid £41.3million in UK corporation tax – just 0.3 per cent.” [source: The Mirror]

Trying to make such a link simply isn’t how corporation tax works. Corporation tax is based on profits, not revenue. I sometimes wonder if journalists reporting on finance matters understand the difference. It is especially unhelpful when phrases like “how much money they made” are used. What does “made” mean? It’s unclear, and where there is a lack of clarity, there is room for misunderstanding.

Corporation tax is quite unlike income tax that the average employee is subject to, as in that latter case, the tax is based on the gross income. It is understandable, then, that mistakes can be made if the two are perceived to be equivalent. Indeed, perhaps it might be fairer if an element of corporation tax were based on revenue, but that’s not the way the law stands at the moment.

The thing is, there are hints in the public domain that some companies are paying less tax than one might reasonable suspect they should. But such suspicions do not constitute evidence. There are a number of reasons why a company that has a large amount of revenue may pay very little tax. The obvious reason being that it’s not particularly very well run and that their costs are almost as much as their revenues, meaning they have very little profits on which they may be taxed. But we don’t know that for sure.

Why not? Well, this gets to the nub of the issue. Transparency. The amount of information disclosed in a company’s annual accounts is not the same as the amount of information as needed by HMRC in their corporate tax return. Worse still is the fact that the disclosures in a company’s accounts include other accounting adjustments that have nothing to do with the corporate tax for the year and which only serve to obfuscate the matter. What are these adjustments?

They’re referred to as “deferred tax” and are an accounting adjustment, not directly related to the tax incurred by the company that year. Deferred tax arises because of the disparity between the accounting rules and the tax rules. In tax, one may have transactions which do not result in a change in this year’s tax but which may either allow you to pay less tax in the future or oblige you to pay more tax in the future. Under the accounting rules, the fact that this is in the future is irrelevant, and the adjustments goes through this this year’s income statement.

So if you read a set of financial statements and see the line entitled “Tax (charge)/credit” on the face of their income statement then the number next to it is likely to be meaningless.

If you want to see the amount that was actually paid, then you have to look at the cash flow statement. But then again, the amount of tax paid in a given year will not necessarily be related to that year, as they’re likely to be paying off the liabilities from the previous year.

I’ll stop shortly. The point is that to read a tax figure off the face of the income statement is naive, and to link it to the revenue number is just plain stupid.

My advice to anyone who wishes to campaign for fairer tax (and there are some beginnings to this, though I’m far from convinced by it yet) is first of all to learn how to read a set of financial statements. Know the difference between P&L and cash flow, strip out any deferred tax and recognise that you are unlikely to be provided with all the information you need to be able to make an accurate judgement as to whether a company is paying a fair amount of tax. If they are an international group of companies, it gets more complicated, given different tax systems in different countries and again, there isn’t enough information in a set of financial statements to clearly see how much profits arise in which countries and what reliefs may be available in those countries.

So by all means, campaign for greater transparency and keep asking awkward questions. But if you assert that a company has avoided X amount of tax then don’t expect to be seen as a reasonable, financially literate person. Any legitimacy to your argument will be washed away as your credibility goes down the drain.

Prayer on the silver screen

Photo by Leland Francisco - used under CC license

Photo by Leland Francisco – used under CC license

Yesterday morning, one of the top news stories on the BBC was that an advert featuring the Lord’s prayer had been banned by a number of cinemas. It seems to have had something of a Streisand effect by getting a lot more people talking about it than otherwise might have done so had the advert been shown without any fuss over banning it.

It’s raised a number of issues, some of which are less interesting than others. Let’s get those out of the way first.

Firstly, it’s not that the Lord’s prayer has been banned; it was an advert that portrayed the Lord’s prayer. In spite of having it passed several hurdles it did contravene some rules about political and religious advertising that were brought in earlier this year, after the plan for the advert was first mooted, but before the final ruling made recently. So it’s a bit of a muddy timeline, but the ban was in line with current advertising rules.

Secondly, it’s not really an attack on christianity. I’m a secularist as far as I agree with the idea that no religion (or lack thereof) should be privileged above any other, but I stop short of agreeing with campaigns that seek to marginalise religious voices by excluding them from the public square.

So what is interesting about it?

Well, for starters, it’s the means through which the message was being made: advertising. It’s the hallmark of a consumerist society, which, the last time I checked, christianity wasn’t all about. In the early church, the public forums were just that: forums. They were places that people went to discuss the issues of the day. And where did the evangelists go to declare their message? The forums. They used what was around them to get their message across in ways that tapped into the public consciousness. Paul’s use of the statue to the “unknown god” is a great example of this.

Whilst watching The Big Questions yesterday morning, one of the objections raised to this was that it reduced christianity to the same level as other things for which cinema advertising is used for; namely, sugary snacks. The fear was that christianity was then to become a commodity. It’s a risk, certainly, but one that isn’t inevitable if the Church uses modern means of advertising to gets its message across.

Thinking it through, I quite like the idea of advertising as a part of Church strategy. This is my thought process: We cannot argue people into coming into the Church (and by Church, I mean the body of people as a whole, not a building or any particular institution). Apologetics has its place, but I am highly sceptical about its effectiveness as a tool of evangelism. That place is as a means of countering bad arguments, both for and against christianity, and of clearing up misconceptions about christianity. The difficulty comes when there is disagreement about what one means by “christianity” and results in a lot of apologetics going down wildly misleading paths.

Instead, evangelism is far more gentle and appealing when it comes in the form of invitation. “Taste and see that the Lord is good” not “Here, let me force-feed you some doctrine, it’s good for you”. If we stretch the analogy a bit further, if people are to taste and see that the Lord is good, then the Church needs some good cooks. Yet people do have different tastes. This is why the variety of emphases across different denominations is a good thing, not necessarily a sign of division. See here for a recent take on this.

Another interesting aspect is the idea of the Lord’s prayer. Did you know there isn’t one? There are a few; and I’m not talking about translations. Read the gospels. It never appears in the gospels according to Mark or John. Luke has a short version and Matthew a longer version. Even then, if your bible has some decent footnotes, it will have references to “other ancient authorities” including other bits that aren’t in the main text.

Yet these biblical versions remain relatively unknown. Why is that? Because the version that is heard most often only goes back as far as the 17th century. It was an amalgamation of the two (including the added bits in the footnotes) and was published in the Book of Common Prayer (BCP). This, then, is seen as (even if it not often declared to be) the “definitive” or “complete” version.

Here’s an anecdote to illustrate.

A few years ago, the finance team I was a part of had a corporate training day. Part of this was about memorisation and a point was made that we all can memorise things, even if we think we can’t. To show this, we were asked to recite the Lord’s prayer. And everyone in the room recited, word perfect, the BCP version. As far I know, only myself and one other person were practicing christians. To everyone else, was a little chant that had become incorporated into the cultural psyche.

As an aside, it often strikes me as odd that this is often chanted en masse, which rather rips it from the context of Matthew where immediately beforehand Jesus said “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypcrites ; for they love to stand pray in the synagogues…But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret.” If you ever struggle to understand why I abhor liturgy, this is probably the most concise summary explaining why.

Back to the point. What this corporate training day showed to me was the danger of dilution. If something becomes commonplace, it’s impact can be lessened because it is seen as an everyday thing. One of the reactions I read was from a vicarbot (@AJWtheology) on Twitter who posed this:

The question is not, “How could anyone find The Lord’s Prayer offensive?” The question is, “How could anyone not?”

There are many commentaries on the Lord’s prayer and I won’t add to them here. For a nonconformist perspective, I’d recommend Roger Forster’s book on the subject (disclaimer: Roger & I are part of the same local congregation). I would just bring out the term, “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven”. That is one of the most revolutionary calls ever made in human history. If, instead of monotonously chanting it, we took it to heart and made that a heartfelt plea, then christians would be seen not as a harmless anachronism in the modern world, but as a subversive movement. It’s not one that sets out to destroy the world and replace it with a new ideology, it’s a movement that we invite you to try out.

How I read the bible

Today I’m joining up with Balaam as we cross-post about how we each read the bible. This began life as a “positive alternative” to the extremely conservative view as espoused by Kevin DeYoung in his book, Taking God at His Word (see here a review of my review). It’s changed shape a bit since then, but I hope it still hangs together.

I will begin with a summary I have used before:

I view the bible as a collection of books which is the most reliable source we have for understanding the origins, themes, aims and beliefs of the christian faith. To get as true and fair an understanding of christianity, out of which flows a faithful adherence, the Church and its members must make the best effort to understand the bible in its historical context and from there to apply it to the society, geography and time that we find ourselves in today. That understanding may be aided by any available tools we have, whether that be linguistics, historiography, tradition, etc. (all of which may be brought together under the umbrella term, ‘theology’).

There’s quite a lot condensed in there and there are some things I’ve chosen not to say. For example, you not find in that affirmation a statement of inerrancy or about authority. So let me try to unpack some of these.

The Chicago statement

One of the best known statements on the authority of scripture is the Chicago statement on biblical inerrancy. Drafted in 1978, it gained the backing of a number of well respected biblical scholars including Don Carson, Norman Geisler, Wayne Grudem, John Meyer, J.I. Packer, Francis Schaeffer and R.C. Sproul. What is most bizarre about the statement is that only applies to the original texts, none of which any person alive has ever seen and where it is extremely doubtful if they even exist any more. It doesn’t apply to copies of the texts (which we have) or to translations (which we have in our homes). It is, in effect, a statement of confidence about a series of objects where their content can only be inferred, and even then, not perfectly. Yet the idea of inerrancy necessitates the idea of being able to reconstruct the texts perfectly. If we can only have a “pretty good idea” what the original texts said, down to the nearest letter, then inerrancy is a non-starter.

The temptation of inerrancy

If the bible could be shown to be inerrant, then of course it would make things a lot simpler. There would be no need to wrestle with issues or to think things through for oneself. You could simply open up a book and know that it is flawless.

As such, the idea of inerrancy is one that is greatly tempting. It is a temptation that many fall into. Yet to do falls foul of one clause of what we speak of as the greatest commandment: to love God with all your mind. Statements of inerrancy are a wish fulfilment; a wish to not have to work for understanding.

Paul instructs the church at Thessalonica to “test everything, hold on to what is good”. What happens when we apply this to the bible itself? When tested, we find that one cannot claim the bible is inerrant and remain an honest person. As a simple test, read the book of Acts. You find there three accounts of Saul/Paul on the road to Damascus. Ask the question: did his companions hear a sound? Read the texts carefully and you will find self-contradiction within a single book. You may read much more widely and find discrepancies between books.

Authority of scripture?

The idea of ‘sola scriptura’ arose with the reformation as a reaction against catholicism, where tradition or the word of the pope were taken as authoritative. Scripture was relegated in importance and free reign was given for the catholic magisteria to make up whatever they wanted, hand that down, call it tradition and that became “orthodoxy”. It was from this approach that various aberrations sprung, including indulgences, papal infallibility, prostitute racing in the Vatican and transubstantiation.

Of course, a correction was needed.

Sola scriptura was what was formulated by the reformers as a kind of restorative simplicity. The trouble comes when you apply to the field of interpretation. There are few better examples of this than that demonstrated by Kevin DeYoung in the aforementioned work. In it, he claimed that scripture interpreted scripture and that since scripture was infallible then scripture’s own interpretation of scripture was also infallible. This is clearly an absurd circular argument, yet its adherents stick to it, because of their vice-like grip on the notion of infallibility. What ends up happening is that they shoe-horn in their own interpretation (which may or may not be correct) and defending it on the basis that it is scripture’s interpretation of itself.

Scripture, tradition and reason – an alternative trinity

Whenever the question of christian understanding crops up, there are 3 sources of information often cited: scripture, tradition and reason. How these three relate to one form the framework of many a person’s understanding. Some choose to emphasise one over the other two, two over the other one or they try to use all three equally.

If you read this blog regularly, you’ll know that I’m not the biggest fan of tradition in the world. It’s mainly because when it’s boiled down to its essence, it’s doing something because it’s something that’s been done before. It might sound all well and good to say that you are following in the same direction as esteemed women and men who have gone before us, but it rather breaks down if they’ve set off in the wrong direction.

So is reason the best way to go? Well it’s better than tradition, but if it is devoid of an evidential basis, then it just becomes stuff we make up. Some of it might be right, but there’s no proper way to tell. In this respect reason-in-a-vacuum is little different from the worst examples of mysticism.

So what’s the alternative?

Epistemology

When discussing the nature of the bible, the question of epistemology comes up very rarely. This is something I find both surprising and disappointing, as it seems to cut through a lot of the undergrowth created by the obsession with authority. Those who err on the conservative side of things have a tendency to treat the bible as a normative document, that which gives clear, reliable facts and instructions. At the more liberal end of the spectrum, there is the idea of the bible as formative, telling the story of God’s dealings with his people, often told parabolically. One should get the gist, but not get hung up too much on the details, particularly with regards to history.

I don’t wholly agree with either, but I think each has their merits. The person who anachronistically projects relatively modern standards of historiography onto the biblical authors, imagining them to have been the idealistic journalists of their day, detailing the facts in an impartial manner, is a fool. Such an approach gives rise to young earth creationism, an utterly defunct view that has done nothing to advance the proclamation of the gospel and has in fact given christians (including those who denounce such nonsense) a bad name.

To me the starting point of christianity has to be Jesus. Many have started off with the idea of “God” and many words are spilled before we even get onto Jesus. A very influential example that I’ve been reading about lately is Thomas Aquinas. His Summa Theologica begins with a lot of questions and talk of God, but scant all about Jesus, who is relegated to later parts of the book. This approach, adopted by many after Aquinas, can be called “Godianity” instead of “Christianity”. It is this parody that ends up as the target in so many critiques of the so-called “New Atheists“. The idea of God gets attacked, with Jesus barely getting a look-in.

But if we make Jesus the starting point of christian epistemology, then many of the critiques lose their focus. Instead, there is then either a resort to the Christ-myth hypothesis, which is in the same league of intellectualism as young earth creationism and homeopathy, or one has to undertake a serious engagement with Jesus. And how do we know about him? In the bible. One has to be able to read it critically, without the naivety of thinking the gospels are accounts that were documentary accounts, but such an approach shouldn’t allow for reading non-evident material into the texts. Though they may not be inerrant, they remain the earliest and most reliable evidence we have through which we understand the person, life, actions and deeds of Jesus. This understanding is then the lens that we put in our glasses, and through which we view the rest of the bible and the world.

This lens, though, can always be refined. By understanding the context of the time, religion, politics, geography, etc. in which Jesus’ story is told, we can better understand the hues and textures of the biblical story.

What then, of sola scriptura? If one gets stuck with the obsession over authority, then sola scriptura still stands, more or less. My proposal is that if we pull ourselves out of the mire of authority and instead go with epistemology, then biblical study becomes somewhat easier. There’s still hard work to do, and there is plenty in the bible to wrestle with, but I don’t agree with those who choose to ignore or simply argue around those aspects we find difficult, particularly in regards to the hot topics of today.

It might be argued that I’ve missed the point of sola scriptura, if one still thinks of the bible as the primary source of our epistemology, and that the key question is over who is allowed to interpret scripture. Here, I refer the reader to my idealistic view of theology, where church is informed by the theology of academia, but where academic theology is also informed by the life of the church, in a kind of virtuous circle. No person should be restricted from biblical interpretation, but it doesn’t mean that everyone’s view is necessarily right. It is a community matter to discern correct interpretation from false.

Conclusion?

How might this be summed up? Well, the bible is the starting point for our knowledge of the story of God acting in the world, culminating in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. From this start, we use whatever tools we can (be they reason, history, literature, sociology, etc) to try to understand it. If those conclusions, when tested, turn out to be good, they may be passed on and become something akin to a tradition, but we retain the right to constantly question received wisdom of ages past, nomatter how treasured they may be.

End Austerity Now: The Witness of One Participant

Gathering by the Bank of England

Gathering by the Bank of England

On Saturday the 20th of June, I took part in a protest march in London. It was the first march I had been on since the days of the Blair government introduced top-up fees and launched an illegal war against Iraq. Organised by the People’s Assembly, it was an anti-austerity protest directed against the planned cuts to public services.

Here is my account of the day.

The itinerary on the People’s Assembly website stated that we were to gather together outside the Bank of England at midday, there would be some speeches and then we would set off at 1pm through the City of London, down Fleet Street and Strand to Trafalgar Square, then turning left onto Whitehall, past Downing Street and finishing in Parliament Square.

I got off the train at London Bridge shortly before 12, where the first signs of a protest were visible. One or two banners were visible, but they were furled up, their messages hidden for now. Walking out of the station, there were pockets of people gathering together. In the shadow The Shard was a group of about a dozen people, with a very prominent NHA (for the National Health Action party) in its familiar shade of blue.

Going across London Bridge, there were far fewer people than expected. I recall my days of commuting this route and the east side of the bridge would be packed with medium paced, middle aged, middle class white men in suits. On Saturday, we had more guitarists and the first of the placards were visible.

Getting across to the north end of the bridge the first of the road blocks was visible, so I was able to wander down the middle of the road, which was quite liberating. Though I soon discovered it was only closed to motorised traffic as a cyclist ting-ed their bell before passing by in close proximity.

Getting to the bank of England, the crowd was huge. The junction with Mansion House is a very large one, and there were people as far as you could see (which, admittedly, as a little limited due to the banners having been unfurled). A few opportune salesmen were offering whistles for a pound. The stewards in their fluorescent tabards were encouraging people to move towards the front which I duly did until I could go no further.

I had been hoping to join with the Quakers for some of the march, but at no point did I see any sign of them. In the throng at the start, I found myself standing alongside the anarcho-Marxists and the members of the Socialist Worker’s Party (SWP). They’re not groups that I would readily identify with, but it was testament to the unity in diversity that we could stand shoulder to shoulder. From where I was stood (just between Mansion House and Poultry), I could see the big balloon that was suspended from the Fire Brigade Union’s (FBU) and there were a few Green Party signs dotted about.

The organisers had made sure there was something of a carnival atmosphere to it, with plenty of music. Every now and then, for no apparent reason, there were whooping cheers and mass whistle-blowing. It was a difficult balance to strike, as this was a protest, not a celebration. So I didn’t cheer, nor did I dance. In fact, I was quiet pretty much the whole time, apart from the occasional conversation with those around me. I was most vocal on Twitter, where I was providing updates, primarily for those who wanted to be there but couldn’t. There was some very heartwarming feedback, saying that people felt I was marching for them.

Looking round, there were some who (purely due to my own prejudices) thought might have been there to cause trouble. With any mass protest consisting of tens of thousands of people, there are often a handful who do something daft and who draw the attention of the right wing press. In this case, it was those wearing black bandana-style covers over their mouths and noses. On closer inspection, each had a logo and some words on them, and it was clear that this was to protest against state surveillance. Chatting to one bloke near me who had one on, he said that it was a reaction against the kind of surveillance that was revealed by Edward Snowden and also against the proposed snooper’s charter, which Theresa May has recommended, after its previous incarnation was scrapped during the coalition. To get the negative out of the way in one paragraph, I wasn’t in agreement with some of the tones of the banners. There was one that read ‘Fuck the fucking fuckers’ and another that called for unilateral free markets. I’m more in favour of protest by education (making sure that those to whom you are protesting understand what your complaint is, why you are making it and what you are proposing they do about it) rather than insult and I am also not a free market fundamentalist, preferring good corporate governance and a strong regulatory system in place to ensure that the business sector acts for the good of all society, not just the narrow segment of investors and analysts.

To that end, I was much more in favour of a group entitled ‘Economists against austerity’ and I’ll take a look at that group later this week.

In contrast to what had been promised, there were no speeches at the start of the march. We eventually started to move at around quarter past one, as a few people had started to complain about the prolonged standing and wanted to get their legs moving. As we got going, the throng thinned out a little, so it was less like rush hour on the Underground and a bit more civilised. The main upside was that I no longer got the whiff of cigarette smoke from nearby chimneys.

There was a sort of MC who was reading out some of the placards. A lot were from the People’s Coalition and a variety of trade unions. Some construction workers looked down on us, as did a couple of helicopters. The route was dotted with police, though their presence was unnecessary. Some looked on with seemingly stern disapproval written across their faces, others were much friendlier, chatting to the crowds and helping to direct people to the nearest public toilets.

Once we got beyond St Paul’s cathedral (we didn’t go immediately next to it, but another road down), the chanting began to subside and people marched on in relative quiet. Occasionally, there’d be pockets of noise, but being the City, we were going through an area that is generally deserted on a Saturday anyway. Off to the side of the main crowd, the route was dotted with some side shows. There was a brass band, some Hari Krishnas, a rat pack style singer doing a piece of satire on Iain Duncan Smith and someone dressed as a crab. In many ways, it reminded me of the Great North Run in terms of atmosphere.

One place in London I’d never been to before was the Royal Courts of Justice. It’s a really spectacular building, and I couldn’t help but think that justice was a theme that underpinned so many of the strands of protest.

As I went along, I marched alongside a number of different groups. There was the group Disabled People Against Cuts. One of their big concerns is the scrapping of the Independent Living Fund, which currently helps to pay for the costs that allows disabled people to live with the independence and dignity that many of us take for granted. The Conservatives wish to take this dignity away from disabled people.

Another group was Sisters Uncut. They are primarily concerned with the effects that cuts have on women, arguing that they have been unfairly targeted, as well as that not enough is being done to prevent violence against women or to adequately prosecute those who perpetrate such violence.

Coming down Whitehall, past Downing Street, the volume began to pick up again as people made various chants and songs, mainly directed against the incumbent government, some against particular members (David Cameron, Iain Duncan Smith, George Osborne, Theresa May and Michael Gove being those mentioned most frequently) and a few that were bordering on the abusive. The police by Downing Street were the most densely packed and the most stony faced. Previous to this, it was their guarding of Coutts bank that was the most superfluous (7 officers in uniform). It struck me as more symbolic, verging on the futile, to aim slogans at Downing Street directly, since it’s likely the weekday residents would be spending their Saturday at their 2nd homes in the country.

Arriving in Parliament Square, the place was pretty packed. I found a tiny spare patch of grass and sat down at about quarter to three. It wasn’t long before the speeches started. Most of the speakers I hadn’t heard of. The only one I was familiar with was Len McCluskey, the democratically elected leader of the Unite union. As I have the foresight to take a notebook with me, I couldn’t catch all the names or the details of the speeches. So I can only convey the general sense that I picked up. They were all passionately given, with a mixture of well-researched evidence and rhetoric. All were strongly pro-trade unions. It seemed to be fairly standard fare. The question was, who was listening? Because unless the anti-austerity message gets beyond those of us on the left and has the positive effect of educating and persuading those in government and those who voted for this government, then it will all be for naught.

As I had made sure I was well hydrated along the march, it became necessary to make a visit to a nearby pub to use their facilities. As I left the square, I checked with a policeman that the figure of 250,000 was correct, as had been claimed by Len McCluskey. To be precise, he said that that was the police estimate, though later reporting in the media said that the police did not make an estimate. The officer I spoke to confirmed verbally to me that “that was the estimate we were working with.” However, there were signs of an increased police presence around, with them massing in large groups outside Westminster Abbey. To me, it looked like they were getting ready to instigate a kettle. So I made the decision to not come back for the rest of the speeches (missing out on Jeremy Corbyn, whose praises had been sung throughout the march, in contrast to Liz Kendall who was roundly booed every time her name was mentioned). I headed down to Victoria to get a bus home.

There was a small group of vocal protesters (about 15-20) outside Westminster City Hall. They were being very closely watched by the police, in a ratio of 1 police officer to every 2 protesters. On hand also were the legal observers, seemingly taking the numbers from the epaulettes of the officers nearby and talking with them. Earlier, the same observers had been handing out cards advising people what to do if they were arrested. I simply stated that I would give no cause for possible arrest. As it turns out, no one else did at all as the whole event went without any trouble whatsoever. Any suspicions of possible mischief-makers were unfounded.

Here ends my observation of the day.

Reflections

It was a fantastic day to be out and extremely heartening to be part of such a diverse group of people, united in standing up for what is right. Yet the point of it was not to make us feel good. This was to ensure that the message was delivered: Austerity isn’t the best way; there are fairer ways to do politics.

There are many sub-stories that make up this narrative, many of which were represented on Saturday. Yet effective protest has to not only be large and loud, it has to be clear and clever. If the only ones who listen to the message and understand are those on the political left who would never dream of supporting Conservative neoliberalist ideology, then we are speaking to an echo chamber. We need to demonstrate the human cost of austerity to those who tacitly or openly support it, in order to bring about a change of mind.

Key to this is ensuring that the press are not allowed to twist the message. If you read the reports of the march in the Mail or the Telegraph, then you will end up with a highly distorted understanding of what went on. Many doubted the BBC would report on the march, though to their credit they did. Yet the only person they interviewed was the one chap from the right wing pressure group The Tax Payers’ Alliance, which is hardly representative of the views of the thousands who marched. This is partly why I’ve written my eyewitness account, and I hope that others will do too.

Earlier I stated that it one needs to state 3 things: what your complaint is, why you are making it and what you are proposing those in power do about it. It seems only right then to finish with a brief summary of these 3 points.

My complaint

The last 5 years of austerity and the current plans for further cuts to public services is not the result of sound, well-thought out economics. At the end of the last Labour government, after the 2008 crash, the economy was recovering. We had growth in GDP and falling unemployment. So Conservative claims that their policies were the sole factor in the recovery are untrue; things were getting better.

Some cuts were necessary, that is clear. We needed to try to reduce the debt and the deficit, very few deny that. But the manner in which the Conservative-led coalition did this was not fair. The burden of the cuts fell hardest on disabled, the unemployed and the poor. There was some good here (the raising of the personal allowance, as championed by the Liberal Democrats) but the bad far outweighed the good. This is why we have a country where around a 1/3rd of children live in poverty, where over a million meals have had to be provided by foodbanks.

This is not right. This must change.

Why make it?

I am not one of those who has been badly affected by the cuts. But that is not sufficient reason to refrain from protesting. I am compelled by a sense of decency to stand up for my fellow human beings. Many couldn’t make the protest because they were housebound. Right now, I am healthy and employed in the private sector on a salary that is more than the national average. But there is no security in this position. If I become unemployed again, or homeless, or ill or disabled, who will stand up for me?

My proposal

I have laid out my ideas at some length in A Voter’s Manifesto. In short, we first need to ensure that government supports those who most need it. This includes an NHS that provides universal healthcare, free at the point of need. It means a system of social security that helps people to have a decent standard of living when they are unable to earn enough. It is also ensuring that employers provide a living wage so that there is an end to the need for in-work benefits.

To fund this, there must be a fair tax system, where those who earn more than they need to live on pay their fair share. Where companies providing valuable goods and services at a fair price are managed and regulated well, allowing them to do business and to earn sufficient, but not excessive, profits from which they may pay their fair share of tax.

We may also need to cut some aspects of spending, but not those that the current government proposes. We can phase out the renewal of our weapons of mass destruction and scale back expenditure on those industries and government departments whose function is warfare and death. Yet this need to be done in a careful manner, so as to not increase unemployment.

In short, I want a fairer, more just society where no one is left behind.

The election happened, what next for the left?

Since last week’s general election, many have been quick off the mark with writing the post mortem, suggesting what went wrong and a few early hats have been thrown into the ring for the vacant party leadership roles.

I hope you’ve not become bored of reading such articles. I’ve written this over the course of the weekend; so I’m sorry that’s not been as quick off the mark as others have been. The plan is to look at the disparity between what was widely expected to happen and what did happen, try to look at some of the reasons behind this, suggest how the UK political left might start the fightback and what the ordinary citizens of this country can do in the meantime.

What was expected to happen?

With the opinion polls that were published prior to the election, there was no clear winner. It seemed likely that the Conservatives would win the most seats but fall short of an overall majority. Labour were expected to suffer heavily at the hands of the SNP in Scotland, but that they might gain a fair few from the Liberal Democrats, meaning an overall small loss in the net number of seats.

My own particular guess was that in the Lib/Con marginals, the Liberal Democrat voters would, in spite of their party’s betrayal, remain loyal. After all, their sin was to go into coalition with the Conservatives, so it would make no sense for voters to go from Lib Dem to Conservative. I thought they might lose some voters to Labour, ultimately diluting the Lib+Lab vote and allowing the Conservatives a few wins, but not many, as they would vote with the Lib Dems as a tactical manoeuvre.

I also thought that, given the cuts the Conservatives unleashed in the last 5 years that Labour would pick up some Lab/Con marginals. Further Labour gains would result from the rise of UKIP which would dilute the Conservative vote.

The result would be that the Conservatives wouldn’t be able to win a majority and that another attempted coalition with the Liberal Democrats would still fall short. The other possibility was that Labour would try to form a coalition with the SNP but that too would fall short of a majority. Yet crucially, Lab+SNP would be greater than Con+Lib.

As a result, I thought that we would end up with a minority government. Such a government would not last long, being unable to pass a queen’s speech and losing a vote of no confidence, triggering a second election this year. Given a quick failure, whoever formed the minority government would likely lose the subsequent election, making this May a good election to lose. My hope then was that since the Conservatives had the most seats, they would be the ones to drink from the poisoned chalice.

What happened?

My estimate was wrong. I’d bought in too much to the published opinion polls prior to the election and when the exit polled showed a clear lead (though not quite a majority) for the Conservatives, I didn’t believe it.

The expected windfall of seats for the SNP did happen, with a number of high profile people losing their seats, including Douglas Alexander, Danny Alexander, Jim Murphy and Charles Kennedy.

The first real warning sign, though, was in Nuneaton. It was a target Labour seat that they needed to win if they were going to beat the Conservatives. But instead of that happening, the Conservatives won the seat with an increased majority. This happened in several marginals, though Labour did take some (and the Conservatives won a few Labour-held marginals). This was not a case of a significant victory (though I would say it was a notable victory) for the Conservatives; more a stern defence of that which they held most precariously. Also, the success that UKIP had in the last round of local elections was not replicated, meaning that they did not dilute Conservative support as much as had been expected. A case in example was my incorrect prediction about what would happen in Crawley, where I lived for 7 years.

The real surprise was what happened in the Lib Dem dominated area of South-West England. Here, contrary to my (and others’) expectations, the Lib Dem voters did abandon their party in droves, and went to the Conservatives. It was these wins that really helped to ensure the Conservatives won a majority.

Why it happened?

We have to acknowledge that this is now a highly divided country. Scotland is undoubtedly the country of the SNP. London is predominantly a Labour city. In England, outside of London, the Conservatives are the dominant party except for in former mining communities. Wales is predominantly Labour, by population, at least. As with London, their support is greater in more urban areas, though the constituencies with larger areas are more mixed, so the Labour majority doesn’t show up well on a map. Northern Ireland has a quite different politics altogether, which has a far deeper and more painful history than I can reasonably go into here.

I would need to add: the SNP ensured that Labour had a bad night. But the SNP are not to blame for allowing David Cameron back into Downing Street. If they had increased their share of the vote, yet not won a single extra seat, then David Cameron would still have a majority. The difference would be that Labour would have a greater share of the opposition benches.

I have long maintained the idea that governments are not so much voted in as they are voted out. In 1997, the Conservatives had lost any shred of credibility and all Labour needed to do was present a credible alternative. They did that successfully and won the election with a landslide. At the time, people asked if it was the end of the Conservative party. It wasn’t. It was damaging, yes, and they were unlikely to win the next election either. But then Labour took 418 seats, with the Conservatives on 165. Compare that to last week, when the Conservatives won 331 and Labour won 232. So I think one cannot say that 2015 was as bad for Labour as 1997 was for the Conservatives.

In 2010, Labour were the ones who had lost credibility, so it should have been a cake-walk for the Conservatives to win a majority, but it was a reflection of their electoral failure that we ended up with a hung parliament, resulting in a coalition. A part of this may well be due to the fact that the Conservatives came off worse than Labour did in the expenses scandal. Though trust in both sides was severely dented by that episode.

They key thing that happened in electoral terms was where the disaffected Lib Dem voters went. In London, having looked through some of the constituency results (I haven’t done a full numerical analysis yet), they seem to have gone largely to Labour and the Greens, with some to UKIP and a handful to the Conservatives. This is what I expected to happen nationwide, but elsewhere, particularly in the south-west, the largest chunk of Lib Dem voters went Conservative. I confess, I don’t understand why they would really do this. It’s not a part of the country I live in and I haven’t been able to speak to anyone who did switch their vote that way.

Beyond that, though, my view is that the Labour message was too piecemeal. They were chasing the agenda set by the mainstream media (see below), coming up with policies in response to what others had said, instead of leading the way with an alternative vision. Much of the discussion over the last few days has asked whether they were too far left (which doesn’t wash with Scotland, nor with the opposition to their ‘control immigration’ mug) or too far right (which doesn’t explain why they didn’t take the English marginals that were ripe for the picking).

How to fix it?

There has to be a long term strategy from the left. Ideally, this should be a 13 year strategy, starting from now. Why 13? Well, there should be 3 phases: the first starts now and needs to establish a plan for bringing down the Conservatives at the next election, replacing them with a credible, progress and egalitarian government. But it would be too short term to say the aim is to be elected. The strategy has to include a full 5 year plan for government. Yet we know what the Conservatives have done in the last 5 years of coalition, and we have some idea about what they will do, untethered, in the next 5 years. Will a single term be enough to unwind the legacy of the David Cameron, George Osborne and Iain Duncan Smith? Maybe not. So we need to think about how to start undoing the damage they’ve done as well as the further damage they will do; this will entail fixing the country and preparing for a 2nd term.

The strategy has to be two-fold: national and local.

On the national level, there has to be a whole, coherent and credible alternative. The first thing is the substance of the message, be it on business, on housing, on debt, on immigration, on debt, on taxation, on education, on defence, on health, etc. More than that, though, any election strategy has to incorporate the media. While there has been some progress with social media, it remains the BBC and the newspapers who set the agenda. Given these are largely Conservative biased (the BBC’s main political team of Nick Robinson, David Dimbleby, Andrew Marr and Andrew Neill being the most notable of the pro-Tory group) then an infiltration strategy is partly what’s needed. One can combat the right-wing hegemony head on, to sing a different tune. Yet one can also attempt to change the tune from within the choir. In the wake of the election, people have been joining both the Liberal Democrats and Labour. Yet party members are unlikely to find employment in press run by Murdoch, Dacre or the Barclay brothers. A little more subtlety is required. In short, to be as clever as a fox, whilst remaining as innocent as a dove.

Then we have the matter of the Independent’s betrayal, as they encouraged a continuation of a Conservative-led coalition, while the Evening Standard, owned by the same tycoon who runs the Independent, backed the Conservatives. My proposition is that we need a new left-leaning national newspaper. I suggested this on social media on the election and was subsequently trolled for saying it. Amongst the irrational rantings that were aimed at me, they said that the Guardian and the Mirror were sufficient and that there was nothing wrong with the over-arching dominance of the newspaper market by a very small number of very rich men with a vested in interest in keeping the Conservatives singing their tune.

On the local level, the obvious answer is to set about targeting the seats to win. However, there has been a strong suspicion that to counter this, the Conservatives will attempt to rig the next election by changing the constituency boundaries so as to favour them. I’ve read comments from Conservative supporters saying that their primary aim is to make sure than Labour are locked out of government for decades. As an example of how this could be done, they might enlarge the London constituencies (making sure they are larger both in terms of population and area), thus reducing their number; or they might take two adjacent Conservative constituencies and make them into three.

For the Liberal Democrats, they have space to come back. First of all, though, they need to acknowledge their responsibility for helping to introduce the bedroom tax, for Sure Start centres, for cuts to disability benefits, for targeted sanctions against the unemployed. They can’t say that because they were in coalition they were forced to do those things. They need to acknowledge that they were wrong. Then, depending on how the majority Conservative government play things out, they can (as some have before the election) list out the things they prevented happening during the coalition’s reign. Things like the Conservative plan to repeal the Human Rights Act, to change the boundaries, to make even deeper cuts or further and faster privatisation of the NHS. If they can do this, then they stand a chance of taking back some of the Lib/Con marginals they lost, particularly those in south-west England and south-west London.

In the mean time

I am not a politician. I am not a journalist. I am someone who cares. Someone who is worried and fearful of the harm that this government will do.

On Saturday there was protest held in Westminster. I had looked around to see if I could find any plan for a protest but could find none. The first I heard about it was on Twitter after it had begun, by which time it seemed a little late to go and join. I supported that protest, and let me say why.

Democracy should not be an event that happens one day every five years. Democracy should be woven into the fabric of the society we live in. When we’re not at the ballot box, we can protest, we can petition, we can march, we can write letters, we can go and see our MPs at their local surgeries. Such expressions of democracy can be firm, they can be loud and at times, they can be disruptive. There are lines to be drawn, though. I do not advocate violence, nor do I advocate inappropriate protest, such as the graffiti that one person put on a war memorial.

Protests against austerity or against the removal of human rights are not, as some Conservatives have been saying, moaning or whinging about the result of the election. While there is a debate to be had over the effectiveness of our current democratic system (c.f. the referendum debate and the outcome of every close election – my particular favourite example is 1951), I do not dispute the Conservative’s right to govern. It has been suggested to me, by several on the political right, that accepting the legitimacy of the result means that we shouldn’t protest. I cannot agree with that.

When Labour won the 1997 general election and sought to introduce a national minimum wage, Conservatives would have been well within their rights to take to the streets to demand that employers should be allowed to employ people for as little pay as they saw fit.

Nor do I agree with the accusation that protest is in any way sanctimonious or self-righteous. To speak out against the Conservatives is an act of compassion; of standing up for those who have been, and will be hurt, by the acting out of Conservative policy. To turn one’s back or adopt an “I’m alright, Jack” attitude is an act of wilful negligence. There will be a time for gentler persuasion, but right now the time is right to give Conservative voters a metaphorical slap across the face, show them what they have allowed to happen. So that, like the end of The Bridge On The River Kwai, they may realise what they have done. I do not wish to demonise Conservative voters. Instead, my prayer for them is “Father, forgive them. For they know not what they do.”

1 Peter – more work needed

I’ve been a bit neglectful of late. As I blog for the Big Bible Project, I’ve been reading my way through and around the Old Testament prophets of late. Supplementing this, I’ve also been looking at Jesus, both through the eyes of the gospels and with a more theological bent through Paul (helped partly by N.T. Wright’s in-depth study). A few weeks ago I sat and listened to a former pastor of mine give an exposition of Revelation.

So what’s missing?

Well, there are a few bits, but I’m thinking (well, you read the title didn’t you?) of the book of 1 Peter. The reason this has come into focus is because it is appealed to on two controversial topics within christianity. Yet it’s appealed to from different parts of the spectrum. The two topics I have in mind are 1) atonement, 2) the harrowing of hell.

Not two of the most straightforward subjects and here I only wish to note some points, rather than give a detailed exposition. The passage in question is this (emphasis added):

For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil. For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight people, were saved through water.

1) Atonement

I’m generally reluctant to write on this subject as it can be needlessly divisive. Broadly speaking, the two main ideas are referred to as penal substitutionary atonement (PSA) and christus victor (CV).

PSA concerns the idea that Jesus died in our place. It is the meeting point of two of God’s characteristics: justice and love. Justice demands that there must be a penalty for sin, but instead of humans paying the price, God, embodied as Jesus, took the punishment himself as an act of love for us.

CV concerns the idea that Jesus’ death was not as any form of punishment at all, but was his triumph over evil and death. This was a view that was espoused by the Swedish theologian Gustaf Aulén in the early 20th century, although he claimed that it represented the earliest views of the church.

Without going into any depth here, I subscribe the both/and compromise. Some christians will be fiercely PSA-only and some will ferociously defend the idea of CV without PSA. Using a very broad brush, my observation is that PSA-only tend to be more evangelical, while CV-only tend to be more anglican.

The above passage (particularly the first part bolded) is one of the clearest statements of PSA. There are others, including Isaiah 53 and 1 Corinthians 15:3. I was at a talk recently with someone for whom PSA played no part in their theology. It wasn’t that they were CV-only; rather, they were advocating what they referred to as nonviolent atonement (the speaker was from an anabaptist background). In this talk, when someone challenged him about this particular passage he could only respond that he thought Peter was wrong. In fact, that’s the only time I’ve actually heard anyone who didn’t incorporate PSA into their theology tackle this particular backup for it. Usually, it is combated by means of first caricaturing it (often as “cosmic child abuse” or something similar) and then dismissing the caricature using some form of moral argument. i.e. a straw man argument.

Yet we still have the above passage which seems to speak clearly of a substitutionary process: the righteous for the unrighteous.

2) The Harrowing of Hell

This is a question of what happened to Jesus between his crucifixion and resurrection on what is variously called Easter Saturday, Holy Saturday or Silent Saturday. I’m sure there must be other terms used for the same day.

Having grown up an an orthodox, but not traditionalist, evangelical baptist church, the idea that was taught (though not with much emphasis) was that Jesus went to hell. Then somehow (it’s a mystery, the how was never properly explained) he endured multiple eternities in a single day. Once that was over, he rose from the dead.

In later life, I encountered those who took to the idea of the harrowing of hell. Here, Jesus is somewhat more active in his day in hell, doing something akin to a jailbreak. Part of the idea behind it comes from supersessionism whereby Jesus’ death created the problem of “[what do you do with the faithful Jews before Jesus?]” The problem is resolved by the harrowing of hell, whereby Jesus converts dead, faithful Jews to christianity.

I know that’s a slight simplification and that various traditions have subtly different takes on it, but that’s it in a rough nutshell. Now, I take a fairly “high” view of scripture. Not as inerrant, but as the primary epistemological source for christianity. Because of this, I come with the question “how do we know this?” Or, “what’s the backup for the idea?” If you talk to someone from a conservative background, they tend to point primarily to creedal statements rather than scripture. In this case, I get pointed to the Apostles’ Creed which has as one of it’s clauses “He descended into hell”.

Peeling back the layers, the most commonly cited backup for this idea is from Ephesians 4:4-10:

There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling,  one Lord, one faith, one baptism,  one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.

But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it is said,

‘When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive; he gave gifts to his people.’

(When it says, ‘He ascended’, what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.)

My reading of this passage has changed over the years. I no longer interpret this as a reference to Jesus’ death (descended) and resurrection (ascended) but rather I see it as a talking about incarnation (descended) and ascension into glory (ascended). It is this revised reading that has been one of the factors (amongst several) that leads me to holding to a position of annihilationism.

Another of the backups comes not the bible but from the later works that are sometimes referred to as the New Testament apocrypha. Specifically, the Gospel of Peter with it’s rather odd resurrection scene with the talking cross that comes out of the tomb and confirms that the dead have been preached to. With hindsight, I think it’s probable that this may have been inspired by 1 Peter, though when I’ve previously read the epistle (the one that seems to be genuine, rather than the more dubious gospel) I’ve rather glossed over this part of chapter 3, so I’ve only come to it after noting story of the talking cross.

Over the Easter weekend, when lots of people were talking on social media about the harrowing of hell, I tended to bite my tongue, though I did finally manage to pin down and articulate another objection to it. It is this: if Jesus was active in salvation on Easter Saturday, then it makes his declaration of “It is finished” a lie. Or at least wrong.

Yet we still have the above passage which seems to speak clearly of Jesus making a proclamation to the dead.

The Puzzle

All this so far has been background. I’ve not tried to argue my position in much detail, just to state it with some clarity. The aim is not to divide (as these topics so often can), the aim is to note the paradox laid out below.

What intrigues me is that these two subjects are closely linked, not only in proximity in 1 Peter, but also by what we might call theological string. The ideas are not disparate strands of theological thought, as one might suppose if considering, say, the doctrine of the fall with Thomas’ scepticism at Jesus’ resurrection. Of course, one might say all things are connected somehow. But the two topics mentioned above rather nuzzle up against one another.

Yet from my experience, those who are most likely to reject PSA are those from the traditions/expressions of christianity that are more likely to embrace the idea of the harrowing of hell. Likewise, those who are more inclined to be advocates of PSA-only are also more inclined to leave out the harrowing of hell from their theological language.

It seems that both camps may be guilty of cherry-picking. I’m sure there must be some christians who take an all inclusive approach and do incorporate PSA with the harrowing of hell; it’s just that in the circles I move in, such voices are absent. There may also be some who reject all aspects of PSA who also don’t teach of the harrowing of hell. Again, such voices seem to be on the fringe.

I may well have missed something significant here, making this whole post little more than a confession of my own ignorance. I’ve clearly got some more studying and thinking to do.