Advent Day 4: After the Beginning

Stained Glass Window showing Adam and EveEarlier in this series, we talked about the start of the world, and how this relates to the Christmas story. Today, we’re looking a bit further on in the story. In Genesis 3, the Bible tells the story of the first human beings. It calls them Adam and Eve, though the fact that the names are symbolic (Adam means “man” and Eve means “source of life”. Some Christians think these are two individuals, others that they are symbolic of a larger group of humans.

The story is fairly simple. Adam and Eve lived in a brilliant garden, living in close personal relationship with God. They had the full run of the garden (and, indeed, the planet), being responsible for caring for everything in it. There was one thing in the garden that God kept from them – the fruit of one particular tree. Adam and Eve chose to eat the fruit, and the consequences were quite severe. As they finished the fruit, they experienced guilt, fear, and shame for the first time. Their relationship with God was horribly broken, and the effects had a knock-on effect on the rest of creation.

However, in the midst of this mess, God made a promise to set things right. Talking to the serpent who had provided the temptation, God said “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head,and you shall bruise his heel. (Genesis 3:15). Christians believe that this refers directly to the coming of Jesus – whose life, death, and resurrection provided a way to restore the broken relationship between God and humanity, taking away all of our guilt, shame, and fear.

Much later in the Bible, we see a call-back to these events. In 1 Corinthians 15:21-23, Paul writes this:

For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.

Whilst this is more the Easter story than the Christmas one, the coming of Christ undid the curse that came from humanity breaking off our relationship with God. Not only did Jesus make a way to reconcile us with God, one day Christians will be raised from the dead, and live an eternal life with God forever.

Advent Day 3: Humility and Greatness

So far in our Advent series, we’ve talked about how God became a human being. Let’s continue on that theme. One of the early Christian leaders, a man called Paul, wrote this about Jesus:

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross!

In this passage we learn that, whilst God can obviously do anything He wants, sometimes there is a cost. For Jesus becoming human meant becoming a servant and, ultimately, suffering the most painful method of execution humanity has ever come up with.

But it also serves as the ultimate example of humility. That he chose to give up the full status of being God for our sake tells us a lot about God, and sets us an awesome example.

Sadly, I don’t think I really have the words to express this. So I’ll share a video of the words of somebody more eloquent expressing what I want to say here.

Advent Day 2: The Word Became Flesh

John's GospelIn yesterday’s advent blog, we looked at the start of John’s gospel. The gospel begins with the a rather strange sentence: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. A few paragraphs later, John adds a bit more meat onto the bones, saying “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us”, and a little bit after that he says that “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.”

Yesterday’s blog pointed out that Jesus is the creator. But that fact, whilst awesome and somewhat mind-blowing, isn’t the whole story. What John is saying here is that God has become a human being. Two thousand years ago, God lived among us. God lived and breathed, and ate and drank. He grew up, had a family, had friends. He knows what it is like to be human, not in an abstract “God knows everything way”, but in the sense that He has lived it.

And, not only has God lived out being a human. By saying that Jesus made God known, he is saying that Jesus revealed what God is like. The people who knew Jesus in the flesh saw God’s character. And, whilst only a small fraction of Jesus’ life is recorded in the gospels, they show us an awful lot of what he was like.

By looking at Jesus in the gospels, we see that God is compassionate, that He gets angry at injustice, that He loves and cares. He teaches those who will listen, and gives chances to those who refuse. He prefers people to be in relationship with Him than that they simply fuss around doing things, or following arbitrary rules. He is willing to break social conventions out of love for others.

They also show a man has gone through the experiences of life. He had they joys of friends and family, but also his fair share of sorrows. Jesus experienced what it was to be hungry, to be rejected by his family, and betrayed by his friends. And at the end, he knew what it was to be falsely accused, to be tortured, and killed.

In short, one of the key things to take away from the Christmas story is that God was once one of us. He truly understands both the joys and the struggles all human beings go through, and He shows us what God is like. And that truth is far more inspiring than anything you’re likely to take away from your average school nativity play.

Advent Day 1: In the beginning

John's GospelIt always annoys me how the period covered by advent calendars only co-incides with advent itself one year in seven. So to relaunch this blog, I’ll be doing my own advent calendar of sorts. I plan to blog about something related to Christmas for every day of advent.

I thought I’d start at the beginning. John’s gospel introduces the story of Jesus in a very odd way. The opening lines are:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.”

The “Word” (actually a translation of the Greek word “Logos”, which has a whole load of extra meaning) is clearly a reference to Jesus (verses 14-16 make this crystal clear). I’ll be coming back to the first sentence tomorrow. Today, though, I want to talk about the last one.

Christianity clearly teaches that God created the universe, and everything in it. Christians disagree on how (and even when) He did it. Some think that God guided the naturalistic process of evolution, in the same way as He answers prayers about mundane matters. Others think that He supernaturally created new species over millions of years. And some think that He did it in six literal, 24-hour, days only a few thousand years ago.

When it comes to the Christmas story, though, that debate doesn’t really matter. John’s gospel (which was written by one of Jesus’ closest friends) opens by telling us that the man whose birth we celebrate during Christmas was right there during the process.

That baby, lying in a feeding trough, had created stars and galaxies, planets and moons. He had invented the pig, the kangaroo, the albatross, and the duck-billed platypus. He had fashioned blades of grass, painted cloud formations in the sky, and designed all the intricacies of human beings.

Isn’t that thought amazing?

#euref What would Brexit actually look like?

brexitProbably the most important question of the EU Referendum is what would happen next if Leave wins. There are, broadly speaking, three different ways in which the UK could leave the EU, and each of them would mean a different set of changes.

A quick disclaimer here: Whilst I’ll try to be objective here, I am planning to vote remain. If you aren’t familiar with the EU, you may want to read my  previous post “What is the EU anyway“. I’ll list the three options from the one I think will leave us worst off to the one I think will leave us best off.

The “Albania” Option

We could leave the EU without any trade agreement at all.

One immediate effect of this would be that trade with the EU will be subject to tariffs (taxes on goods and services going between the UK and the EU), and a few other “barriers to trade”. As 44% of British exports go to the EU, it is very likely that the short-term effect of leaving this way would be an economic crash in the UK. The other immediate effect would be that Parliament could change any EU Law that is not enshrined in any of the other treaties we are signed up to (see the previous post for a list of what policy areas are affected).However, using those powers to move UK law away from EU law would make trading with the EU in future more difficult, as some of the differences would create extra barriers to trade. Brexiters who favour this kind of arrangement, however, believe that in the long term severing our ties with the EU will lead to significantly increased trade with non-EU countries, and that eventually this will lead to us becoming better off than we would have been if we stayed.

The big unknown with this option is immigrants. There are currently about 2.2. million Brits living elsewhere in the EU and about the same number of citizens of other EU countries living in the UK. If we leave without any kind of agreement, it’s unclear what will happen to either group. Perhaps the worst case scenario is if the vast majority of both groups lose the right to live and work in the countries they currently live in. In addition to the obvious human costs of this, there will be an economic cost. Because EU citizens living here are mostly here to work, whilst UK citizens in other EU countries are mostly there to retire, this would have a disastrous effect on government finances. We would be swapping a couple of million taxpayers who use very few government services for a couple of million pensioners, who will be paying very little into the system, whilst requiring – on average – a lot more from the NHS than the average person.

The “Canada” Option

Leaving the EU with a free-trade agreement, but not remaining part of the common market.

In this arrangement, the UK would not pay any tariffs on our exports to the EU, but there would be all sorts of little barriers to trade, which would gradually increase if UK law did not deliberately keep in step with EU law. Under this arrangement, there would be a much longer transition period than either of the other options. Canada took ten years to negotiate their free trade deal with the EU. Since the UK starts off with our laws being entirely compatible with the rest of the EU, negotiating a deal will almost certainly take less time. But whilst the deal is being negotiated there will be a period of several years where nobody can be sure what the future will look like. This option will cause us fewer problems than leaving with no trade deal at all. However, it is still a high-risk scenario, and almost everything I said about the first option applies to this one.

The “Norway” Option

Leave the EU, but remain in the common market.

This would mean agreeing an arrangement with the EU that is similar to the ones Norway, Iceland, and Switzerland have, and would take far less time to negotiate than a separate free trade treaty. Whilst the details of such a deal would probably differ from these three examples, there will be a number of similarities. Under such an agreement, we would have to obey the vast majority of EU law (see the next post in this series for a description of how this works), although our influence would be reduced to lobbying behind the scenes. We would retain freedom of movement for EU citizens (so EU citizens retain the right to live and work here, and vice versa). Westminster would regain control of some areas of policy (Norway and Iceland have complete control over their fishing, for example). British businesses would face no real barriers to trade, except when it comes to any areas were control has returned to Westminster.

One consequence of this kind of deal would be that we continue to pay in to the EU. Norway pays about the same per capita amount to the EU as we do. However, none of that money comes back into the country. The UK gets some of its money back as a rebate, and receives other bits back as subsidies for agriculture, science, and regeneration schemes.

Which is more likely?

The most likely deal to be struck is going to be a Norway-style one. The Conservatives will not want to be seen to cause an economic crash – which is a definite risk with both of the first two options.

Given that the current government will be negotiating on our behalf, working out the most likely exit deal means it is worth considering what kind of EU regulations they would want to negotiate away. There is no way the EU will allow free market access without retaining free movement of people. However, the UK could get opt outs of other aspects of EU law. David Cameron lobbied very hard against proposed EU regulations on investment banking that would have restricted the City of London. Conservative minister Priti Patel has suggested to employers that EU legislation securing workers’ rights was amongst the “red tape” that could be got rid of if we leave. And the government has been somewhat hostile to any kind of green/renewable energy generation, in contrast to the rest of the EU, which is fully embracing these technologies.

In my view, it seems unlikely that any of these scenarios will leave the UK in a better state than we would be in if we remained. But please do make up your own mind.

 

The next post in this series will discuss what “Brexit” would actually look like.

 

If you’ve noticed a mistake in this post, or there’s something that isn’t entirely clear, please tell me in the comments so that I can correct it.

If you’ve found this post helpful some of your friends probably will too. So make sure you share it on social media.

If you want to repost this on your own blog feel free to do so, as long as you credit me and link back to the original.

#euref What is the EU Anyway?

EU LogoThe EU referendum campaign is underway, and a lot of people don’t think they know enough to decide how to vote. So I thought I’d try explaining it all. This post is a quick guide to what the EU is and what it does. Other posts in this series will explore what “Brexit” looks like, and examine some of the arguments being made in the debate.

Before starting,you should know that I am in favour of remaining. Whilst I hope to represent both sides fairly in all the posts in this series, the fact that I come down on one side of the debate means I might be a bit biased at times.

Describing every part of the EU would be about as difficult as describing everything that the UK government does – both are large organisations that do a lot of different things. But at the most fundamental level, the EU is an international institution created by a series of treaties between its member states. In other words, the countries of Europe have agreed to work together on a lot of different issues, and the EU is the main way they do that.

What is the EU for?

The original aim of the EU was to create a peaceful Europe where countries trade with each other and work together to help each other, rather than going to war against each other. It began as a “common market” – bringing down the barriers to trade between the different member states. Its most fundamental principles are the “four freedoms” – that people, goods, services, and money should be free to move between the member states. There are, however, two very different visions of what it should focus on.

One vision is that the EU should be primarily about free trade – bringing down economic barriers between countries, and making it easier for business (especially big business) to do business here. Sometimes this vision appears to be about using the EU to make things easier for corporations. This is the vision shared by right-wing parties in Europe. In the UK, this is the pro-Europe wing of the Conservatives, the right wing of the Liberal Democrats, and some of the more Blairite members of Labour.

The other vision is that the EU should be primarily about protecting Europe from the negative effects of Capitalism. This is the view of most of Labour, some Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP, and Plaid Cymru. This view emphasises protections for workers, consumers, and the environment. Many within this group see the EU as the most effective way for European countries to fight climate change.

In practice, European legislation has been a mixture of both ideologies. Each group has managed to achieve things through the EU.

What powers does the EU have?

The EU only has power over some areas of policy.

It has sole power over the following things:

  • Customs rules between EU members
  • Competition rules that affect the common market within the EU
  • Monetary policy for countries using the Euro (which does not affect the UK)
  • Conservation of fish within EU waters
  • Common commercial policy
  • Negotiating international treaties that affect the things the EU has responsibility for.

The EU shares power with the member states on these issues:

  • The internal market (i.e. everything that allows free trade etc. within the EU)
  • Some aspects of social policy
  • “Economic, social, and territorial cohesion” (Basically helping areas in the EU with weaker economies catch up. In the UK, Wales has received a lot of investment from the EU under this area of policy.)
  • Agriculture and fisheries
  • Protecting the environment
  • Consumer protection laws
  • Transport
  • Energy
  • “Freedom, justice, and security” (meaning helping police co-ordinate across borders, and agreeing a common approach to things like asylum)
  • A few aspects of public health
  • Research and development, including the European Space Program
  • Shared development aid (part of our international aid budget is sent via the EU)

It has the power to support member states in the following areas, but cannot do anything to harmonise different countries’ laws:

  • Protecting public health
  • Industry
  • Culture
  • Tourism
  • Education, vocational training, youth, and sport
  • “civil protection” (I’m not entirely sure what this one means)
  • administrative co-operation between member states

It has the power to provide arrangements for the member states to co-ordinate policy in the following areas:

  • economic policy
  • employment
  • social policies

The EU has no powers over anything not listed above. So please don’t decide your vote on the basis of, say, defence policy where our membership of the EU is entirely irrelevant.

How does the EU work?

The EU works through a number of different institutions. I’ll go into detail on how EU law is passed in a later post in this series. There are seven “major” EU institutions, but the most important are the following four:

The European Parliament

Made up of elected representatives (called MEPs) from across Europe, the Parliament does most of the work of writing European laws.

The European Council

This is made up of the heads of state or government of the member states. The British Prime Minister, French President, German Chancellor etc. meet together four times a year to set the EU’s agenda.

The Council of the European Union (aka the Council of Ministers)

This is a committee made up of ministers from each member state. The minister each country sends will be the one responsible for that area of policy. For example, if they are discussing the Common Agricultural Policy then the council will be made up of the Agriculture ministers. Whilst the term “Council of Ministers” is unofficial, it is used far more often than the official name, and helpfully describes exactly what it is.

European Commission

This is the body that is responsible for running the EU. It is made up of one representative from each member state (usually nominated by that country’s government), and its President must be approved by both the Parliament and the European Council. Each commissioner has a particular area of EU policy that they are responsible for.

What the EU is not

There are several things that are associated with the EU, but which are technically separate things.

The Common Market

This is the part of the EU that allows free trade within the EU. Whilst it is the core part of the EU, it is possible to be part of the common market without actually being an EU member. We’ll get to that in the next post in the series.

The European Court of Human Rights

Not part of the EU at all. Though every EU member is required to sign up. This court is basically the ultimate court of appeal for human rights issues. It enforces the European Convention on Human Rights.

The Eurozone

Countries that use the Euro as currency. The UK has an opt-our from the Eurozone. If we left the EU and then re-joined we would have to sign up to adopt the Euro, although the process could be drawn out for quite some time.

The Schengen Agreement

All EU citizens have the right to live and work in any EU country. The countries that are part of Schengen go one step further – they have no internal borders. Anybody with a visa for one Schengen country can visit any other. So, for example, an American tourist can visit Spain, France, and Italy on the same trip. Switzerland is a Schengen country, but not part of the EU, and being allowed to live and work in one Schengen country does not automatically allow you to do so in every Schengen country. The UK is not signed up to Schengen, and some Schengen countries have re-introduced border controls as a result of the refugee crisis.

 

The next post in this series will discuss what “Brexit” would actually look like.

 

If you’ve noticed a mistake in this post, or there’s something that isn’t entirely clear, please tell me in the comments so that I can correct it.

If you’ve found this post helpful some of your friends probably will too. So make sure you share it on social media.

If you want to repost this on your own blog feel free to do so, as long as you credit me and link back to the original.

Why I might spoil my ballot paper this year

a spoilt ballot paper from the 2012 electionsIn my area there are two elections this May. Whilst I will be voting Green in the local council elections, I might be spoiling my ballot for the Police and Crime Commissioner, because there are no candidates I can honestly support. If you’re not familiar with the term, a spoiled ballot is a ballot paper that is not valid for some reason, and spoiling your ballot is the only way to actively abstain from voting. It is better than not casting a vote at all, because then the politicians know that you don’t want any of the candidates, rather than that you simply can’t be bothered to choose.

Before you take this as an attack on my party, there is no Green candidate on the ballot paper. The feeling amongst Greens in the West Midlands (my police area) is that finding a deposit of £5000 for an election where we aren’t guaranteed to retain the deposit, for a post that is almost certain to be abolished next year (the powers to be rolled into the not-Greater-Birmingham-honest Mayor that’s being created) was not a wise use of our money.

There are, in fact, only four candidates standing.

Pete Durnell (UKIP) – there are very few circumstances where I would consider voting for UKIP, and all of them would involve an outstanding candidate. Nothing I know about Peter Durnell suggests that he is outstanding, or that his approach to policing would be in any way similar to what I would like to see.

Andy Flynn (Independent) – an ex-UKIP official, whose platform is apparently to “take the politics out of policing”, which would seem somewhat hypocritical at best. He is just as unappealing to me as the actual UKIP candidate.

David Jamieson (Labour) – the current Police and Crime Commissioner (elected in a by-election in 2014). Given the rest of the ballot, I probably would have reluctantly voted for a generic Labour candidate. However, there has been a big controversy over his deputy, Yvonne Mosquito – whom he recently suspended from her post. Everything I have heard from both insiders and media coverage suggest that his handling of the affair raises serious questions about whether he is suitable for the role.

Les Jones (Conservative) – Like UKIP, there are very few circumstances where I would consider voting for a Conservative candidate. And, again, there is nothing I know about Les Jones that makes me think he would be an outstanding candidate, or that his approach would be what I would consider to be a good one.

So, faced with the lack of any candidate who strikes me as at least “the best of a bad bunch”, I am considering spoiling my ballot paper.

How the Police and Crime Commissioner election works

The PCC elections are slightly different to other elections, they use a system called “supplementary vote”. Basically, you get a first preference vote and a second preference vote (you mark a cross in a different box for each of the votes). If nobody gets over 50% of first preference votes, then everybody except the top two is eliminated, and the second preference votes of all the other candidates get given to the top two. Which means that voters are expected to know who the top two are supposed to be.

If you live in an area with Police and Crime Commissioner elections, all of the candidates have statements posted on the website choosemypcc.org.uk.

Easter

It’s Easter Sunday, so here’s the Easter story reimagined in the form of a dance.

Faith and the Green Party DO mix

Yesterday, Gillan Scott (formerly of God and Politics UK, now blogging at Archbishop Cranmer) wrote a post with the provocative title “Green Party: Christians welcome, but only if you ignore your faith”. Whilst Gillan is usually even-handed, the post was a hatchet-job, basically claiming that the Green Party’s positions on abortion, euthanasia, and same-sex marriage make it impossible for a Christian to remain true to their faith and belong to or vote for the Greens. He ignores the fact that most of these views are very similar to those of other political parties, and doesn’t acknowledge that many Christians think that Green politics are the best fit for a Christian.

In response, I thought I’d explain some of the reasons I think that the Green Party is a good fit for Christians.

Firstly, the issue of creation care. In Genesis 1:29-30, God tells the first humans that he’s putting humanity in charge of the rest of creation. Christians have traditionally interpreted this as meaning that we have a duty of care to it, perhaps the most notable example being Francis of Assisi. Living, as we do, in an era where human technology is reshaping the global climate, we have to ensure that this duty is central to our political life. In the UK, the Green Party is the only political party that treats environmental issues with this level of importance.

Secondly, the issue of poverty. Anybody familiar with the Bible will know that it frequently talks about how God wants us to care for the poorest and most vulnerable in society. Right now, none of the other UK national parties treat this as a priority. Even Labour are talking about how they will be tougher on benefits claimants than the Tories. When austerity policies have seen record numbers of people turning to foodbanks, with a very large proportion of them saying that it is because of benefit changes, a Christian approach to the poor cannot allow us to side with the tabloid press who routinely demonise benefits claimants.

Finally, I’ll mention immigration. Whilst this issue is less fundamental to my theology, my politics, and my party’s politics than the other two, it’s one of the issues that the media and politicians are talking about a lot at the moment. Labour, the Tories, and UKIP are currently playing a game of one-upmanship to see who can talk the toughest about immigration. The problem is that being anti-immigrant is a fundamentally unChristian position. One of the groups that are disadvantaged in society both now and in Biblical times are the immigrants (or aliens, as many Bible translations say). And the Bible repeatedly tells us to about welcome the aliens. The New Testament says many times, and in many different ways, that the differences between nationalities and ethnicities are nothing compared to the unity Christians should have in Christ. As Colossians 3:11 says, “Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.” (ESV translation). Right now, as far as I can tell, the Greens are the only national party which are trying to say positive things about immigrants when the issue comes up.

So I’ve outlined three issues that are (or at least should be) massively important to British politics in 2015 where I think that the Green Party is more in line with a genuinely Christian approach than the other mainstream political parties. In all three cases, my faith leads me to support the Green Party approach above those of other parties. Given that all three are far more salient to today’s politics than abortion, same-sex marriage, or euthanasia, Gillan’s assertion that Christians should leave our faith at the door before joining or voting for the Green Party looks a little bit silly.

Thoughts on Green Party Conference

I spent last weekend at Green Party conference in Liverpool. Every conference is different, and this time I was manning a stall for some of the time. This was on behalf of the new group within the party that is provisionally called Christian Greens (all welcome). Basically, a few weeks ago, a few of us got in contact by e-mail to talk about the idea of finally getting a Christian group together within the party. After a bit of organising, we found out about the process, booked a stall, created our own introductory leaflet, and begged various Christian groups for some other material to put on there. Despite being hidden away from the main atrium, we expanded our list to over 40. We also had an initial meeting of – I think – 18 people, from a range of different traditions (they included Anglican, Catholic, Orthodox, URC, Evangelical, Liberal, Charismatic, and Post-Evangelical). The group will be officially set up, open to all Green Party members, once we’ve sorted out a formal constitution. The group even got a brief mention in The Guardian sketch column.

There was, of course, far more to conference. Catching up with party members from around the country and meeting ones I’ve not met before, the usual round of voting on policy and organisational motions, training events (including a very useful one on winning over UKIP voters), and also a few speeches (the Shahrar Ali’s speech was particularly good – though I sadly missed leader Natalie Bennett’s).
From what I’ve seen of the media coverage, there are two things that stand out. Firstly, the Daily Mirror had a piece comparing the Green and UKIP conferences in graph form. Secondly a Guardian journalist comments on the atmosphere of conference – which really sums up the mood. We are a party that is enthusiastic and energised, with the #GreenSurge playing a large part in that feeling. Unless things go very badly in May, that’s going to continue to be the case for quite some time.
Finally, in the main hall there were artists taking “visual minutes” of the proceedings. Here are some photos of them.

visual-minutes-1visual-minutes-2 visual-minutes-3