Tag Archives: justice

Trying to make sense of this mad world

The world is full of hatred, death and misery. The news over the last week has been especially draining on anyone who is emotionally affected by the goings on in the wider world. You could take your pick at any number of issues that have made the news to some extent and feel for those who have suffered in the acting out of these events. Foremost in my mind are:

  • The crash/shooting down of flight MH70
  • The current escalation of violence in the Gaza Strip
  • The expulsion of christians in Mosul
  • The Nigerian schoolgirls who were abducted and are still missing

You may have different things come to mind. Whichever news items we choose to be most enthralled by (I use that term deliberately) it almost invariably entails an emotional reaction. Yet any such reaction is almost certainly going to be negative. Knowing this, usually by experience of previously having been caught up in events over which one has little to no control, it is tempting to avoid these negative emotions by avoiding the news.

So I have sympathy with those who would remain less informed than they otherwise might be as they spare themselves from agony by exercising the one form of control they do have: the off switch.

But not all of us do choose the off switch. I am one of those who value being informed, in spite of the cost to one’s own spirit. The fact is that I feel helpless. I can read the news from a number of sources in order to see things from several angles. Yet what good is that? All I end up with is a slightly better informed view than before. Maybe I change my mind about who is right and wrong, or who is to blame. Maybe I might change my opinions based on what I read. Maybe the evidence backs up what I already think. But what good is that if it doesn’t help other people?

Just so my own position is clear: I am not pro or anti Israel. I am not pro or anti Palestine. I am for a total ceasefire on both sides of the conflict and I am anti killing people.

Sometimes all we have is prayer. All too often that doesn’t seem enough. We yearn for something more tangible yet the democracies in which we have put our faith seem compromised and slow to act to ensure an end to violence and a pursuit of justice. If God is the one in whom we can have faith to act justly, then why are so many faithful prayers seemingly unanswered?

Such thinking is the currency of the atheist. Yet do we rightly understand what peace is? What justice is? There are no simple answers to these questions or to the problems brought about by the decisions humans make when they dumanise one another and act unrestrained to destroy those they see as ‘The Other’.

100 years on from the start of the First World War, it seems that collectively we still haven’t learnt our lesson. So we continue to destroy and kill. Yet in all this, for those of us who stand against violence, there is hope. Nomatter how dim it is, we must never let it go out.

Book Review: The Peaceable Kingdom by Stanley Hauerwas

Having read Hauerwas’ autobiography last year and declared it to be one of my books of the year, I was keen to read more of what he wrote. The two stand-out books that seemed to define his theological thinking were Resident Aliens and The Peaceable Kingdom.  Subtitled A Primer in Christian Ethics, I understood this to be his exposition of pacifist theology.

From the start, it struck me that this was quite a “dense” book. Though it’s not incredibly long, it is tightly argued and quite technical in places, where I admit I didn’t quite understand the detail of his argument, and in some places even the general direction of the argument was lost on me. This is largely because I have never formally studied moral philosophy. Though I have thought about it, and even written about it some time ago in a series of blog posts I have yet to finish, I am certainly no expert, as Hauerwas clearly is.

Some of the confusion may come about because at times Hauerwas conflates, or at least uses interchangeably, the terms ‘morals’ and ‘ethics’ whereas I see the former as foundational (the bricks) and the latter as what is constructed from them (the house). The opening part of the book is very one of moral philosophy rather than theology. His opening contention is that ethics cannot stand on its own, but must be defined within a specified paradigm, in this case the paradigm of christian ethics. In this respect, it is most certainly not a book of apologetics. His discussion of ‘qualified ethic’ and of the nature of ‘agency’ rather passed me by, so I cannot comment much on this.

As he eventually gets into a theological discussion, he seems to show a slightly Bultmannian viewpoint that we can’t really know anything about Jesus, but that the New Testament, and the gospels in particular, are solely reflective of the early church’s view, though contradictorily, he also places emphasis on the church’s declaration of the death and resurrection.

Crucial to his argument is the notion that the Church should not necessarily adopt a social ethic, but that it should be a social ethic in and of itself. This he sees as a fulfilment of the primary role of the Church, which is simply to be the Church.

The whole book is littered with quotable vignettes, which I very much enjoyed and largely agreed with. They shouldn’t, however, be taken out of context of this very tightly argued thesis. In this respect, it reminded me quite a lot of the structure of Moltmann’s The Crucified God. So if you found that accessible, this should be no problem. If, however, you struggled at times with that, then do expect to find this a little bit stodgy in places.

Hauerwas has set out here to give his own view, rather than an overview of lots of different areas of christian ethics. As such, there are a limited number of other voices that are heard, most notably those of John Howard Yoder and the Niebuhr brothers. The culmination of the book looks at these latter two and how they differed in nonviolent reaction to a provocative situation. The background to this is that Hauerwas proposes, rightly in my view, that ethics is not a case of “what to do if…?” but that it is a whole way of being which guides in every day mundaneness as well as the edges of human experience.

Hauerwas proposes that in choosing nonviolence in the face of violence, that there are different kinds of pacifism. He calls for a patient kind whereby, nomatter how impatient we may be, or feel ourselves to the victims of injustice, we should not seek justice by violent means. Rather that recognition of God as Lord of the world, we should wait for divine justice.

For me, I struggled with this. I know Hauerwas is a great admirer of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, but here he veers away from Bonhoeffer’s idea that inaction in the face of evil is itself evil. One other point that struck me was Hauerwas’ take on the language used in human rights, that we ask all people to conform to a minimum level of behaviour in respecting the rights of others, but that implicit in that is a threat of violence against those who would choose to violate the human rights of others. In which case, just how humane are the enforcers of the human rights?

It’s certainly food for thought, and though I would largely agree with the drift of the book, some parts of his reasoning were not clear to me and other bits of reasoning I might disagree with in their precise details. There is little here by way of direct confrontation with the ideas of ‘just war’ – rather, this is an alternative proposal. So if you are a ‘just war’ proponent and want to read Hauerwas attempt to counter such a viewpoint, this is not the book for you. But if you want to read one theologian’s thoughts on a nonviolent, just and thoroughly ecclesiological ethic, then this is the right book to read.

Book Review: Political Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction by David Miller

Regular readers of this blog may well recognise my growing addiction to the Very Short Introduction series published by Oxford University Press. As they are so short and so interesting, they are ideal for me to keep in my desk drawer as an “emergency stash”. One day in early October, I switched the bag I took to work, but forgot to transfer the book (The Extended Phenotype). So it was that I dipped into the emergency stash and pulled out this take on political philosophy, which I had bought a few months beforehand.

In reviewing books, one likes to have some foreknowledge of the subject at hand, even if one does consider oneself omniscient on the subject. We read non-fiction not to be entertained, but to be informed. Though I do, from time to time, post my political opinions on this blog, the idea of political philosophy is more fundamental than the level at which I usually ponder. As such, it fitted the bill as a short introduction rather well. The individual notions will be familiar to us all. What makes this an interesting work is the particular combination of topics, along with their interplay.

He writes under the headings of political authority, democracy, ‘freedom and the limits of democracy’, justice, ‘feminism and multiculturalism’ and finally, ‘nations, sates and global justice’.

In the discussion of political authority, the figure of Thomas Hobbes looms large. In many ways, this is quite a sad outlook, particularly as I look at it from a christian perspective, as much of Miller’s argument is to do with a carrot-and-stick approach, whereby adherence to political authority is done so out of the threat of some form of physical violence. The root of this seems to be the notion of human selfishness and greed, but this seems to be accepted as a fact to live with rather than a problem to be addressed.

In democracy, attention switches from Hobbes to Rousseau. The discussion pulls on a few threads that will likely occur to anyone who has considered democracy, such as how to protect the rights of the minority and how democracy differs from mob rule, but there’s nothing earth-shattering here.

In discussing freedom, our central figure is John Stuart Mill. As with those before, he is another writer who I must confess am familiar with only by reputation than by their writing. Miller doesn’t so much give answers and just ask the reader a series of questions to consider. This is a theme throughout, so even if you disagree with the particular slant that Miller presents, he does at least give the reader room to come up with their own answers.

What seems to be the heart of the book is the notion of justice, where Miller takes as his key guide, John Rawls. The focus here is not about justice of outcomes but of justice of machinery. i.e. let’s not look at the outcomes, but at whether the systems in place are fair. At one point in this chapter, Miller seems to lose the plot entirely, trying to draw principles of justice from living in a desert. The concept of social discussed though he does bring in the counter point of Friedrich Hayek, an ideologue who I have little time for.

As he looks at the nation states, he continues to ask us questions, while sketching out the answers that others have given. At times it felt less like a book a politics and more about ethical dilemmas. One thought that flashed through my mind was about the curbs to liberty; specifically to the idea that one cannot be free to as one wishes, as that may include the ability to curb the freedom of others, hence not everyone can be free to do as they wish.

One thing that soured it was Miller’s pessimism in human nature. There was a theme running through the book about the need for either coercion or the threat of it. My personal reaction to this is that, as a species, we can do better this. It may require education, even a more enlightened worldview, but that it is possible for people to work together for a common good without the need for violence.

At this point he seems to run out of steam and so the chapter on ‘feminism and multiculturalism’ feels quite different. Here, Miller tries to ask the same questions as he has before, only through alternative lenses, as some factors fade into the background and others get highlighted. The treatment given to these subjects are so brief, though, as to be rather unsatisfying. I doubt many of the feminists I know would consider Miller to have captured the nuances of their views.

In any discussion of politics, one cannot write from a neutral perspective, just as one cannot really read such a book from a neutral point of view. Miller attempts to give a fair weighting to different viewpoints, though his choice of representatives may be questioned by some. The other thing that I picked up on, which other readers may do so, is that is quite UK-centric.

As far as meeting the brief, Miller does as good a job as one can hope. From my point of view, I acknowledge that my formal learning in political philosophy is somewhat lacking. Though I know my own mind, I probably ought to learn the minds of some of those others who have gone before me. So I have added some works of Mill, Rousseau, Hobbes and Derrida to my reading list. Though as that is rather long, it may not be until late next year before you can expect to see any further book reviews on the subject.

Book Review: Faith in the Public Square by Rowan Williams

This was one of those books I picked up on the off-chance as I was browsing round a bookshop one lunchtime. I was aware of its existence a little while ago, when it seemed to cause a minor stir among some Anglicans but it seems to have little longer-lasting impact. The first thing to note about it, however, is that it’s not a book that Rowan actually set out to write. Instead, it’s a collection of transcripts of various sermons and lectures he gave between June 2002 and February 2012. Much of the vernacular used for a public address has been kept; in fact, I’m not certain how much editing was done to the transcripts at all, apart from the staff at Bloomsbury occasionally omitting spaces whenever they thought italics were most appropriate, something I hope they will correct in any subsequent print runs.

As the title suggests, the book is largely about how issues of faith and religion play out in public life. The lectures have been ordered by theme, rather than by the order in which they were first given, so as to try to give some kind of coherency to discussions on a quite wide variety of topics. The first two parts of the book, which are the longest and, I think it’s fair to say, the most intricate, are about secularism, multiculturalism, pluralism and the different ways these are perceived, coupled with Rowan’s own thoughts about which is the right path to walk down.

If anything though, these chapters could be skipped, as Rowan summarises it all very nicely in the Preface. The rest is more filling in the details. Crucial to this point of view is the distinction between what he refers to as “procedural secularism” and “programmatic secularism”. The former is a stance where no religious (or non-religious) position is given undue privilege in places of public life, such in government or media. The latter is (though Rowan, if I recall from those early chapters correctly, does not use the phrase) “aggressive secularism” – a term that is too often used, more often than not, incorrectly. It denotes the idea that religion ought to have no place in public life; it should be out of sight, out of mind. He does single out the French for having this view, something I have written a little about some time ago.

Rowan advocates procedural secularism whilst rejecting programmatic secularism, as well as those who advocate the latter under the guise of the former. Though he does not mention by name the National Secular Society, the inference is all too easy to draw.

After this opening, which I warn you gets a little turgid, the book moves onto the application of religious (though mainly christian) thinking into other areas of public life. i.e. after having advocated that christians be allowed a voice in a liberal democracy, here is what one influential christian has to say on matters of environmentalism, justice, finance and community.

What he has to say is well thought through, effortlessly sensible and immensely thought-provoking. That said, it’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. Despite the back cover’s claim that he is “the finest theologian in Britain” (a title reader’s of Hannah’s Child may smirk at), there is very little theology here. This more ‘applied’ theology than ‘pure’ theology, to bring in a mathematical analogy. I suppose it is inevitable that the book would appeal to a christian secularist, such as myself, though I would be interested in reading the thoughts of an atheist secularist on the book.

Justice is a delicate thing: reflections on the Stephen Lawrence case

Yesterday, 2 men were convicted of the murder of Stephen Lawrence, 18 years ago. Today, the newspaper headlines are themed by the notion of justice.

The Times: “Convictions mean justice at last for Lawrence”
The Independent: “The moment Doreen Lawrence’s 19-year wait for justice ended
The Guardian: “Stephen Lawrence verdict delivers justice after 18-year wait

I am not convinced that everyone is agreed on what the notion of justice means. To me, it is something entirely different from retribution, though some less savoury aspects of the press seem unable to make this distinction. It has been noted (e.g. by The Sun & the Daily Mail) that at an earlier trial 3 others were declared ‘not guilty’ of Stephen’s murder. There are now some calls for a re-examination of the accusations made against them.

The BBC had a particularly ill-judged section on this in the 10 o’clock news last night, when one of their camera crews and a reporter turned up at the home of one of these 3 men demanding that he answer their questions. If any further convictions are to come about, then the appropriate judicial process has to be followed, not trial by media.

I cannot speak for the innocence or guilt of these men, as I do not have access to all the evidence. Yet, in this country at least, the idea of presumed innocence until proven guilty is under threat.

It has to be remembered why Gary Dobson & David Norris were made to face a second trial. It was because there was new evidence which was not available at their first trial. This was the idea behind the repeal of the double jeopardy law. If there is no such new evidence against the remaining 3 men, then it would be a great injustice to make them face trial again, as that indicates that the only reason is a presumed guilt and that the original trial verdict was incorrect.

It may be the case that the trial verdict is incorrect and that they did perpetrate the crime. But without evidence to support this, the default position has to remain the presumption of innocence, nomatter what our gut instincts may be.

Dale Farm: 2 Questions

“The police are the public and the public are the police; the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence.”
Robert Peel

This was the view given by Robert Peel, the founder of the metropolitan police force.

Looking at the scenes from Dale Farm and reading the accounts, it seems that this vision has been lost. I simply ask these questions:

  • How many people were being harmed, and to what extent, by the occupation of the land at Dale Farm?
  • How many people were being harmed, and to what extent, by the eviction of the occupants of Dale Farm?

The interests of community welfare and existence have been least in the minds of those ordering and carrying out the eviction. Instead, the existence of the community has been openly persecuted and their welfare ignored and trampled upon. The violence that has been seen on both sides has been shameful. The protesters should not have thrown bricks and debris at the police, but it has to be noted that this was an act of desperation to which they have been driven. Likewise, the police use of tasers is deplorable.

“Agitation is the marshalling of the conscience of a nation to mould its laws.”
Robert Peel

Book Review: Surprised By Hope by Tom Wright

Before reading this, I knew it was a kind of ‘lite’ version of the Resurrection of the Son of God (RSG), which Wright published a few years earlier. There was also some additional material included, where he built upon the conclusions reached at the end of RSG. The only other thing I was aware of was that it was not universally welcomed by all christians, and has faced something of a backlash at times.

The book is certainly aimed at a wider audience than RSG as Wright tries as hard as possible to say away from technical terminology, though he can’t resist returning to ‘inaugurated eschatology’ on one or two occasions. As usual, though, his writing style is brilliant, clear and easy to follow. He picks his analogies carefully, and always maintains a pace to keep the reader interested.

His basic thesis is as follows: many christians have muddled beliefs about death, resurrection and the afterlife. This then leads on to a confused idea of how the ideas of life after death relate to ideas of life before death. The book outlines some of the current ideas about these topics and Wright contrasts these with the beliefs of the early church, or what we might consider to be “authentic” christian belief. He demonstrates how some ideas that are commonly assumed to be christian are in fact adopted or adapted from alternative sources. One example of this is the notion of Hell. Many christians that I know have very firm ideas of a literal lake of fire and eternal torment, when in fact this is really just the Hellenistic idea of Hades, with some twists put on it by the likes of Dante Alighieri and John Milton.

Similarly, the traditional idea of heaven and the Roman Catholic idea of Purgatory are also shown to have no real relation the beliefs held by the early church. As I read it, I found myself agreeing with much of what he said, sometimes suspiciously too much, so that I questioned whether or not my own prejudices were being pandered to. Certainly I find myself frustrated when I wish to challenge fellow christians about what they believe only to have told to me “The bible says… [insert Sunday school cliché]” to the extent that I question how many people regularly question what they believe and look to the bible for a proper basis, rather than cherry-picking certain passages and claiming the bible “says” what their particular interpretation is of this particular passage.

Of course, I don’t deny the possibility that I may do that myself. Just like anyone else, I’m a fallible human. If you think I’m wrong, please feel free to point me in the right direction (or at least, what you believe the right direction to be!).

Wright develops his own idea of “Hell” which he admits has no significant precedent. His view is that we become more and more defined by that which we worship and define ourselves by. So while christians become more Christ-like, those who “refuse all whisperings of good news, all glimmers of the true light…by their own effective choice, [become] beings that once were human but now are not, creatures that have ceased to bear the divine image at all.” (emphasis included in original text).

I do not agree with this, as my understanding of the bible leads me to be an annihilationist. I know this is also not a widely accepted view, though this does only prove Wright’s point that there is a wide range of beliefs within christianity.

From here, the level of controversy only increases. Having set out his stall with the historic evidence for the resurrection, what the ascension meant and what the earliest creation hope for “life after life after death” he then moves on to the idea of salvation. The two key questions posed, which I think we all ought to answer, are:

1) What are we saved from?
2) What are we saved for?

Wright’s particular answer is framed in terms of creation and new creation. Given my own liberal-baptist background, I have been used to the idea that salvation is about the restoration of a broken relationship with God. Wright calls this into question and claims such a worldview has missed the point. Personal salvation is a secondary matter to the restoration of creation. This view is, I think, one of the main areas where he rubs up against a large number of christians, who have been taught a different emphasis. I say emphasis, because I don’t think it really is a fundamentally different understanding from that taught from the front of churches week in, week out; but the deanthropocentrication represents a massive shift in focus.

Following on from this, the final section of the book looks at how this all affects the look of the church. Here, Wright does not shy away from politics. And when christianity (or religion, if you consider christianity to be a religion) and politics mix, controversy almost inevitably follows. It is probably fair to describe Wright as morally conservative but socially liberal. He has criticisms of both the right and left wings of the political spectrum. Probably the most insightful area of this section is when he talks about the “massive economic imbalance of the world, whose major symptom is the ridiculous and unpayable Third World debt.” He goes on to say, “I simply want to record my conviction that this is the Number One moral issue of our day….The present system of global debt is the real immoral scandal, the dirty little secret – or rather the dirty enormous secret – of glitzy, glossy western capitalism.” Now that you’ve read that, consider this: this book was published in 2007, a full year before the Credit Crunch.

The conclusions of the last couple of chapters are not always that insightful or strong. Here, Wright does betray an Anglican bias, particularly with his advocacy of liturgy and other such religious rituals. So in one moment he calls for us to be living as “resurrection people” but in the next he supposes that the best way to live this out is in religiosity. I completely disagree with this application. I don’t think religion should have any part in christianity, so for me, this final section devalues the book slightly.

Other than that, it is an insightful and thought-provoking read; well-written with a razor sharp wit and a well-researched basis.

Justice, Love & Grace: A christian response to the England riots

I started writing this about a week ago, but have been ridiculously busy with work lately, but I hope it is still relevant.

Though I touched on this in another recent post, I thought I would expand a little on some of the reactions coming out of different sections of the christian community in this country in response to the riots. It seems to me that there has been a distinct left/right divide that has exhibited itself. Those that know me are aware I am unashamedly liberal in my outlook. Here, I will provide the reasons for my views, which will include some lengthy Bible quotes. So if that isn’t your cup of tea, you may wish to skip the rest.

I was ashamed to see so many people who profess to be christians speaking so much intolerance in relation to the recent spate of violence in some of England’s largest cities. In my earlier post, I included some quotes. Below are a few more that I have copied from facebook:

“Dear police, if you do feel the need to shoot anyone looting or rioting whilst on duty this evening, please feel free, we don’t mind. Dear fire brigade, if you want to shoot the miserable scum with your high powered water hoses whilst they are preventing you from doing your job, that’s absolutely fine. Dear ambulance service, if you get any phone calls from injured/dying or bleeding rioters, stay at home and watch corrie.”

“I hereby give my consent to curfews, water cannons, rubber bullets, tear gas and the army on the street to sort the rioting and the looting on Britain’s streets.”

“Human rights?! Surely these idiots lose their rights once they start being as stupid and reckless as they are now!”

Whenever I have sought to point out how wrong this thinking is and pointing people to relevant scripture passages, all I got back was hatred. They didn’t want to listen to sound teaching and correction. One comment I got was “when they ask for forgiveness, I’ll consider it.” I know I’m not the brightest button around, but did Jesus wait for us to ask for forgiveness before he was executed? No. In Mark 2:1-12, did the paralysed man ask for forgiveness before it was offered by Jesus? No. Jesus is a very counter-intuitive figure, and while it may be gut instinct (or sinful nature, depending on your favourite terminology) to put the onus on those we perceive to be perpetrators, we should be the ones to take the first step, even if it hurts our pride.

There is an oft-quoted incident whose veracity may be questionable, but whose sentiment is pertinent. It regards the Inklings, who were discussing comparative religion. They were trying to work out the characteristics that distinguished one from another. After having come to an impasse with relation to Christianity, C.S. Lewis arrived late and replied along the lines of, “That’s easy: grace.” Although I am not an expert at comparative religions, I am not aware of any evidence that contradicts this view. Justice is common, but grace is uniquely christian. It is one of the central themes of the gospel, and if you take it away, the gospel you would be left with would not be worth keeping.

From what I have seen in the news the most vocal advocate of well-reasoned grace came not from a christian, but from a Muslim: Tariq Jahan, the father of one of the men who were murdered in Birmingham during the unrest. When I see the above words of hate I have quoted and compare that to the gentle answer from Jahan, turning away wrath, I wonder what perception those outside of the church receive of our worldview. How is it differentiated from that of any other person?

To my way of thinking, if grace is what we have been shown by God, then that is what we ought to show to the rest of the world as a means of our witness aboutGod. But grace is an action that stems from a root cause: love. Paul describes what happens when our outward actions are not motivated by love:

“If I could speak all the languages of earth and of angels, but didn’t love others, I would only be a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I had the gift of prophecy, and if I understood all of God’s secret plans and possessed all knowledge, and if I had such faith that I could move mountains, but didn’t love others, I would be nothing.If I gave everything I have to the poor and even sacrificed my body, I could boast about it; but if I didn’t love others, I would have gained nothing.” 1 Corinthians 13:1-3

It’s when I think of the above scripture that it saddens me at how poor a witness is being given by some christians. If, as a community, we speak what is in our hearts (c.f. James 3:9-12, Mark 7:20-23), then to speak words of intolerance & hate is to testify that Jesus was a man of intolerance & hate. But this is not a Jesus that I recognise. It is a false impression, distorted by a failure to remember the love that has been shown to us:

Then Peter came to him and asked, “Lord, how often should I forgive someone who sins against me? Seven times?”

“No, not seven times,” Jesus replied, “but seventy times seven!

“Therefore, the Kingdom of Heaven can be compared to a king who decided to bring his accounts up to date with servants who had borrowed money from him. In the process, one of his debtors was brought in who owed him ten thousand talents.He couldn’t pay, so his master ordered that he be sold—along with his wife, his children, and everything he owned—to pay the debt.

“But the man fell down before his master and begged him, ‘Please, be patient with me, and I will pay it all.’ Then his master was filled with pity for him, and he released him and forgave his debt.

“But when the man left the king, he went to a fellow servant who owed him a hundred denarii. He grabbed him by the throat and demanded instant payment.

“His fellow servant fell down before him and begged for a little more time. ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it,’ he pleaded. But his creditor wouldn’t wait. He had the man arrested and put in prison until the debt could be paid in full.

“When some of the other servants saw this, they were very upset. They went to the king and told him everything that had happened. Then the king called in the man he had forgiven and said, ‘You evil servant! I forgave you that tremendous debt because you pleaded with me. Shouldn’t you have mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you?’ Then the angry king sent the man to prison to be tortured until he had paid his entire debt.

“That’s what my heavenly Father will do to you if you refuse to forgive your brothers and sistersfrom your heart.” Matt 18:21-35

When I read that, I fail to understand how anyone can claim to be a christian and yet hold a grudge. Of course, christians aren’t the finished article. We are all works-in-progress, liable to slip up. Nor am I saying that those who spew forth words of hate and condemnation aren’t christians. I simply say I do not understand how they reconcile such right-wing views with the grace of God.

“You have heard the law that says the punishment must match the injury: ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’But I say, do not resist an evil person! If someone slaps you on the right cheek, offer the other cheek also. If you are sued in court and your shirt is taken from you, give your coat, too. If a soldier demands that you carry his gear for a mile,carry it two miles. Give to those who ask, and don’t turn away from those who want to borrow.” Matthew 5:38-42

To the modern reader, this may sound trivial; but when you apply it to the violence and looting that we have seen on the streets of England, you can begin to get an idea of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer meant when he talked about “costly grace.” To give someone a blessing, when convention tells us they deserve the opposite, requires real strength of character and self-sacrifice.

I think it is right that as christians we should call for justice in the world. At the same time we need to show the world grace. It is not always easy to get the balance right, and I am sure I’ve got it wrong plenty of times myself. I do not set myself up and “better” than anyone else in this, or any other matter.But we have to understand where our notion of justice comes from. Too much of what I have read seems to come more from the Daily Mail than from critical reasoning, based on what is found in the Bible. If you take the words of Jesus seriously, then you may well agree with Gandhi in his paraphrase: “An eye for an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”

It is also written (Leviticus 19:18, Romans 12:19, Hebrews 10:30) “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”

My interpretation of that is that it is not for us to meat out any form of retribution. We need to understand that there is a difference between divine justice and the secular rule of law that is needed to govern this, and any other country. I am not an advocate of theocracy as a form of government, as it inevitably leads to people being in charge and hence it is no less susceptible to corruption and greed than any other form of government. So I’ll happily stick to democracy.

Please do misunderstand me; I am not condoning or encouraging violence, theft or any other form of criminality. I am here merely looking at the reactions of individuals and communities in response to these actions.While I agree with the response from some sections of the christian community, I am not convinced that other parts of the witness given has been either unified or dignified.