Five Good Things for the Fifth of October

In my effort to get back into a blogging groove, let me return to one of the most basic ways of using a website. Before we had Twitter, blogs rose to prominence primarily as a place where people curated links that were fascinating. So here are five worthy things I have seen online recently, that you may or may not have missed:


      I have supported Manchester City since I was a little boy. Yesterday I saw perhaps the most remarkable performance of any City player ever when their star striker, Sergio Aguero, touched the ball nine times in twenty-two minutes, scoring five goals. It is tradition that when a player scores three, they get to keep the game ball. Here is “Kun’s” claim:

Kun on five

Jason Goroncy on the calling that creates Protestantism; an excellent essay that audaciously positions Mary as the Biblical figure who represents Protestantism:

It is a community that, as another great Australian theologian put it, is ‘prepared to live without guarantees, without the guarantee of an infallible book, or infallible creeds, or an infallible church’ (Davis McCaughey). It is a community that continually risks the judgement of God’s Word, and that lives in such a way that it is entirely uninterested and uninvested in its own self-preservation. It is a community that lives faithfully with the receding horizon of postponed dreams and made free thereby to throw itself entirely into the embarrassing service of Jesus, and that not for God’s sake but solely for the sake of the world. It is a community, therefore, that is always learning how to fail, always rediscovering its uneven record. It is a community that risks even its life with God so that it might become contemporary with Christ.

As someone who is studying the problem of wealth for Christians, I found this article by Mallory Ortberg where she replaces the word “tithe” in the Biblical text with “Ass, Grass, Or Cash – Nobody Rides For Free” absolutely brilliant. It’s actually not merely hilarious but wonderfully apt theology.

A searingly vicious book review is among the hardest things to pull off. The great Terry Eagleton does just that in this hilarious, unflinching take-down of a recent biography of the British theocrat Elizabeth Windsor.

Finally, wife-unit and I harvested some blackberries over the weekend and that reminded me of one of the great Séamus Heaney poems.

Your Correspondent, Lives perpetually in the site of his spiritual dispanting

Ethics For Everyday

The Meat of David Cameron’s Porcine Problem

Sufficient time should now have passed from #piggate for me to write about it without being caught up in the hysteria that naturally flowed from finding an episode of Black Mirror (the crappiest episode of all, to be honest) break out into reality.

The claims may well not be true. In the august pages of the London Review of Books, a former president of the society in question certainly suggested that by the time he took the reins, the parties were more about lsd and old fashioned sex with other humans. But then again, it may just as well be true. The Rubberbandits seem to have been sharper than all other commentary in their brief description of why the story matters:


That’s pretty much all that needs to be said.

But Wife-unit and I were talking about this (again!) on the way to church on Sunday and I think there is one angle that needs to be more deeply considered. Surprise surprise, considering that I am writing: It is the religious aspect.

The nations of Western Europe are at the moment embroiled in an interminable conversation about their “values” because brown human beings from south of here are fleeing war, climate change and grinding poverty and would very much like to get a little flat in Greece or Germany or Wales and a chance to raise their kids without fear of chemical weapons. As we deliberate about whether or not this “migrant swarm” has a right to such lofty claims, a subtext in the conversation about multiculturalism is our ability to tolerate their religion. See, many of these brown people are Muslim.

So #piggate arrives at a time when Europe’s Islamophobia is unusually on display. The powers of Europe have spent the last 14 years either actively bombing, shooting and spying on massive Muslim populations in their own countries or have been supporting those so engaged. The rhetoric in newspapers and the protests on the streets are just a new layer on this deep conflict. If there is a clash of civilizations, Europe is firmly on the side that is starting the fight.

Now, let me ask you to imagine a version of yourself that lives in the Middle East. There is a person just like you in Aden or Amman or some other regionally significant city. They are thoughtful like you are. They are as empathetic as you. They appreciate poetry and love to unwind at the weekend by slowly and carefully preparing a delicious and intricate meal and they probably know more about coffee than you do. The only reason you beat them in the hipster stakes is that your purchasing power is higher than theirs. Even so, their outfit is on fleek in ways you can appreciate.

Now this Arab version of you opens up Twitter on a Sunday evening and reads about this strange story that David Cameron had intimate contact with a pig carcass. What does this Jordanian version of you conclude?

David Cameron has used robots in the sky to kill people who look like you, even when they have British passports. David Cameron has military force deployed openly and secretly in practically every country in your region. David Cameron has his government sell weapons to the tyrants who terrorize people who live near you. David Cameron is the leader of a country that has claimed land where you live as colony and outpost and oil production zone for centuries and has never thought it ever needed to say sorry.

How can this parallel version of you, this person who would be your friend if they lived in your city instead of their city, think anything except that David Cameron has defiled himself in a way that is fitting with the desolation he brings to everything he touches? Whether the story is factually true or not is almost irrelevant. The optics of it render it as a myth. This is a leader whose government screws everything it encounters. Why wouldn’t it screw a dead pig?

I apologise if my language strays outside the typical boundaries of Christian speech, but I am doing my best to talk around this point. It is critical because it is so profane. To many subjects of the British crown who are Jewish and Muslim, this story is not merely a regrettable case of college high-jinks. It is a profoundly revealing illustration of the hellish death that flows from the nihilism of Empire.

And this is where Wife-unit’s reflections, shared with me as I walked into our sun-filled sanctuary to hear John Swinton preach on the love chapter of 1 Corinthians 13 hit the ground. If this story is true, it was absolutely certain that there was no point before the dreadful act when Cameron weighed the possible actions that lay before him and decided that, on reflection, he should defile himself by profaning this creature’s corpse in this way. Cameron’s presence in that room means that he had no choice but to act in that way.

At some point, early in his life or late in the day, Cameron resolved to be a winner in the big game of life. He determined to do whatever it took to get ahead. And with that decision made, the rest flowed as surely as ginger ale placed in front of me disappears. He decided he would be someone and to achieve that he went to these parties and joined these clubs and found himself in these situations. He decided he wanted power and so he ended up doing vacuous public relations work in the City of London and palling around with an intellectually bankrupt Conservative party and running for office and then talking more commonly in front of cameras and eventually winning at the game so well that he had the power to drop waves of fire from the sky on wedding parties and force disabled people to work themselves to death.

Whether the story is true or not, the meat of Cameron’s problem is that at some point along the way he decided what success was and has been happy to defile himself ever since then.

So as we arrived at the door of the church, my wife confessed she pitied him. And I have reflected on that in the days since. I wonder if the Amman or Aden version of me can bring themselves to pity this sad man.

Your Correspondent, He’s got franks and pork and beans, always bust the new routines

Ethics For Everyday

What Can Be Bought?

I have become a master of asserting my consumer rights. Every time the courier delivers something late they get an angry email. Every time I buy an apple that is crumbly I take it back to the shop and throw it in the manager’s face. Every time I get called a thief at the cinema, I drop whatever life-sized cut-out I’m carrying and give them a piece of my mind.

People often ask me, in reverential awe, “How are you so laid back all the time?” And I answer them, sagely and with appropriate humility, “I am not laid back all the time. I complain whenever my choices aren’t respected.”


I have written elsewhere about the problem with rights language. Human rights as a concept has many benefits. For one thing, as the Sri Lankan theologian Vinoth Ramachandra reminds us, human rights is one of the few tools by which the developing world can hold the west to account. But the fundamental problem with rights go deeper than our tendency to demand them in trivial settings like when we want a train ticket exchanged or some identification document stamped. Human rights, as things we possess, are almost bound to get hijacked by the logic of capitalism.


Is it not significant that the rights that you most commonly defend are your consumer rights? My email-flinging, apple-pitching, tantrum-throwing ways may be the sign of a life that is too comfortable. I don’t have real problems to get upset about so instead I complain for hours to my bank about changes to their website’s login procedures. But that analysis is too thin. Consumer rights are not just the rights to which we most commonly attend. They are also the form to which all other rights get reduced. In America, your right to bear arms involves possessing weaponry. You have to buy them first. The rights are rights about the ability to own. In Ireland, your right to religion involves tax-back on donations. The law doesn’t care if you are Trinitarian or Unitarian, Shia or Sunni. It cares if you give your money to the priest though. Even the A-grade rights – the right to life for example – are inextricably tied up with commerce. Many death sentences are commuted because the legal defence team was found to be incompetent. That is a high stakes form of consumer law. Your refund is considerably larger than the compensation I get from Lidl if my usb powered heated coaster malfunctions.

Only rights can stop the wrongs


This summer, Amnesty International has been in fierce debate and have decided that sex workers’ rights are human rights. They are calling for the decriminalisation of prostitution. They have arrived at this position after 2 years of consultation, which was not some desk-bound academic exercise but involved widespread consultation, primarily listening to the people most directly affected – sex workers. Proponents of this view argue that decriminalisation is not the same as legalisation. And indeed, most of life as we live it exists in that grey zone between decriminalised and legalized. Selling computers was never decriminalised and it is legalised (hence you get asked by Dell to tick a box promising you won’t use your PC for terrorism), but when I empty out the contents of my computer, fill the box with soil, and plant daffodils the law has very little to say about it one way or another. It might step in when I process those flowers into a powder and sell is as “digital medicine” that cures autism, cancer and dampness. Then it will be criminalised. If, after a time, it turns out my cure works, it might then be decriminalised and legalised. But Amnesty’s call, on the face of it, is to liberate the oldest profession, one way or another, from the oversight of law. The police won’t hassle the working girls. But the working girls won’t be paying social insurance tax any time soon.



The real beneficiaries of this proposal, critics argue, will be the pimps. That the police won’t hassle the working girls means the managers of the prostitution rings will suddenly benefit from a productivity efficiency. You don’t need to be an economist to know that this will increase profits. Amnesty’s position is proposed in direct defiance of what has come to be known as the “Swedish model”, whereby being a prostitute is decriminalised but being a buyer is punished severely. Amnesty argues that this has left prostitutes exposed to police violence. Their approach removes police entirely and so makes the sex worker safer.

Critics argue that the structure of prostitution is inherently violent and that this policy basically calls evil good, freeing pimps to have unmitigated control over the lives of the (overwhelmingly female, immigrant, and disadvantaged) employees that would be created by these proposals.


This might be an admirable attempt to develop policies that reduce harm, if it wasn’t such an incoherent mess. After all, the claim that the choice to engage in sex work is a right means that you are already claiming something far more than decriminalisation. Rights are, by definition, legal entities. They require laws to enshrine them, to protect them, to enforce them. Without the oversight of law, your rights are just rhetoric. To claim rights involves admitting that you are claiming laws need to be passed. You can’t merely decriminalise. You have to thoroughly normalise it. And in that making-rights-normal you end up implicating all the other rights-holders. Rights are bound up in responsibilities. If you have a right, that makes me responsible for it. They stretch with universal effect. They are, necessarily, communal.

What looks like an audacious libertarian move to radically reform a market so that the active players can determine their own futures folds in on itself by simultaneously demanding a massive legislative agenda that would integrate that market into the regulated world of other products and services. Farm labourers aren’t set free when the EU regulates agri-business. The guys who run the agriculture industry benefit. Why would we assume that the pimps who become the executives of the newly legitimised adult companionship industry wouldn’t similarly benefit at the expense of the sex workers?


But the problem runs so much more deeply than that. My facetious opening about consumer rights takes on a dark and sombre tone when we consider what is actually proposed when we imagine sex work as a way of life as likely to flourish as working on a farm. This is not a liberating move by Amnesty. It is the surrender of Amnesty to neo-liberalism. This is not emancipation for sex workers. It is a new chapter in our collective captivity to our obsession with ownership.

The sex work advocates (who are often the pimps) declare that it is their bodies, their choice, their rights. Implicit in that argument is the admission that the very flesh of the human is the machine for profit. The sweat of the prostitute is different from the sweat of the farm hand, because the product being purchased is quite literally the body of the prostitute. The rhetoric of capitalism has been inexorably grasping at more and more of our lives, ever-reducing the space and time that is not commodified. Our love letters are surveilled and harvested for tips on how best to advertise at us. Our steps are counted and tabulated in the name of cheaper health insurance premiums. Our entire national economies are painfully re-orientated to win the confidence of markets. In countless visible and invisible ways, you are massaged towards being a more productive consumer. The emancipated prostitute is a logical triumph of this savage capitalism. The consumer consumes the fellow consumer, the person is the product, all of history’s antagonism against women of the street evaporating under the late-modern miracle of tax credits, labour law, and individualism.

James Park of FitBit, making Wall Street and the world more efficient

James Park of FitBit, making Wall Street and the world more efficient


I can choose crummy crumbly apples, and often do. I can choose to pilfer my way around the local cinema and send verbose missives to the postman when my book comes crinkled. I can choose to buy a train ticket and choose to insist on my right to change the ticket, loudly, even though there is a stressed queue behind me waiting for their turn to shout at the poor person behind the bulletproof glass.

These are simple, mundane choices.

It is utterly incoherent to suggest that the choice to engage in sex work is equivalent to my choice to buy a gadget at Lidl. Choice is an insufficient, redundant, trivial category for so serious a conversation. Consent is barely better. No one chooses to do sex work like they choose to spend a few weeks temping in an office. Sealing envelopes and selling sex are not equivalences. My body is rendered as a possible product by the fact that your body has been so rendered. The pimp harms me when he harms you in a way that the recruitment firm never does. I am my body. I am not a product. The substance of what it means to live, all of us, together, starts to crumble when we move from acknowledging that tragically bodies are sometimes sold to forgetting to name the tragedy.

That prostitutes tend to be women, tend to be immigrants, tend to come from the majority world, tend to already be poor, tend to be under-educated, under-nourished, and under-loved is not a consequence of absent law or insufficient policy. It goes so much deeper. It cannot be disconnected from the fact that the users of prostitutes tend to be men, tend to be citizens, tend to come from the western world, tend to be well off and well educated and well fed and well respected. They use prostitutes. They pretend that sex is a right, a need, a biological imperative and they use this pretence to turn the human being in front of them into a tool.

Harm reduction matters. With that we forcefully agree with Amnesty. Making life better for sex workers matters. That’s why the sex worker should not be subject to punishment. The pimps and the johns are the problem. Amnesty avoids that. But even better again would be a world where there wasn’t a market for bodies. Human flesh, living or dead, in part or in whole should not be sold.


If “the Left” exists for anything, it exists to politically represent the view that the best things in life are not to be bought. They are too valuable. The Amnesty policy is liberal in the purest sense, in that it is anti-humanist. It imagines a world of isolated, alienated, atomised human beings all out to carve whatever they can from a hostile universe. I know my Christian readers – many of whom have an in-depth knowledge of sex work far finer than mine because of how common serious ministry to prostitutes is in urban churches – will have heard this news and instinctively sensed there was something wrong with it. I hope I have helped to put flesh on that suspicion. Christian humanism declares that the truth of this world is that we are all in the boat together, bound by DNA and language and culture and space and there is more than enough for all our needs if we make sure to give when we hear the call. The Christian humanist and the hard Marxist agree: alienation is illusion. But I plead with my readers on the Left to consider how futile this Amnesty policy is, how sold out to the markets it is, how brutally calculated it is for the sake of profit.

Your Correspondent, Remembers that the place everyone wants to be in the brothel is not in the bed, but at the till

Ethics For Everyday

The Word That Best Describes Me Is Migrant

This is a list, three years old, of the 17306 human beings seeking refuge who up to that point had died as a result of Europe’s border militarisation, asylum laws, accommodation, detention policy and deportations. This is a form of the file made before the Lampedusa disaster, before the civilized powers stopped running rescue missions, before the human lives were transformed by doublespeak into “migrants”.

17306 names


The immigrants into the Roman Empire did not have histories written in their honour. Rome had some virtues, but they had no Howard Zinns. No statues were cast of a blacksmith who arrived from what we now arbitrarily call Spain. No poet penned songs to immortalise the repeated labours of a woman who raised a gaggle of children before dying early of a disease we now would call cancer. The poor in Rome are mostly anonymous to us.

And yet these nameless dead speak nonetheless. Anthropologists and archaeologists can now study the grave sites that sometimes get turned up when a developer wants to build apartments in the suburbs of Rome or some other Italian city and from these skeletons (especially their teeth) we can gather that the immigrants to the Imperial City typically achieved a standard of living comparable to their more established neighbours. On average they died slightly younger, but they ate largely the same food and were buried in the same way and lived side by side with the people who were born in what was then the centre of the world.

The savage Roman Empire might have something to teach the civilised European Union.


Citizen. Student. Migrant.

Three seven-letter words accurately describe me.

I renewed my driving licence yesterday. My old Irish one is on a pink piece of paper, so easily counterfeited that it alone speaks to the profound complacency that comes with being part of the elite. The process of getting a British licence was simple. I filled in a form that was a front-and-back piece of A4 paper, attached one photo and dispatched them with my outgoing licence and my passport. My passport is maroon. It is the best passport to have because I can go anywhere with it. People smile when they see the harp on the front. Because I got born where I got born, I get credit where I was not born. Queuing to see a border guard, the most pressing thing on my mind is a range of small talk topics. I am a citizen of the Irish Republic, and for no good reason at all, that makes life easy.

I am more than that. I am a citizen who is a student. So I get a special council tax rate and discounts at the barbers and when I do have to talk to someone in officialdom here in the UK I never have to worry about small talk topics. My thesis will be their small talk. They will feign interest, or be interested, but no one ever asks me to account for myself. Why should I be here, in a foreign country, taking up a place that a Scot could have, with 44 books out on loan from one library and three from another and a GP and a dermatology consultant and tax-free allowance for the little job I got because I sent an email to a stranger and they thought, “Yeah he seems cool”.


Daily Express doesn't get it

But in this summer when Britain is all a flutter with a “migrant crisis” and the European sea is filled with human beings seeking refuge, the best word to describe me is certainly migrant.

There are Theology departments on my island. I could have studied at home. There is a real job waiting for me as a minister. I didn’t need to do a PhD. I am in Scotland because Scotland has something to offer me. Two bearded Texans, to be precise, who have agreed to be my supervisors. When I am done, I will leave. Wham, bam, thank you hen. I am going back to Ireland. Like a particularly unfortunate flightless swallow, I have come over here for a season before going back to sunnier climes.

That’s what a migrant is – someone who chooses to go to a place for a period of time without ever intending to put down roots there. A migrant is not someone whose psychopathic President uses chemical weapons against his people in the hope that he might knock out a few ISIS fighters in the process. Syrians aren’t migrants. A migrant is not someone who has trekked across half of Asia, boarded ship and boat and dinghy from Turkey to Cyprus and across Greece to try to find a place to live and work and earn enough to send some money home. Afghans aren’t migrants.

My American friends who come to Aberdeen and make friends and chat with the police when they want directions and have babies for free on the NHS – they are migrants. The Japanese guys in our programme who preach in local churches and buy cars without credit checks and get offered jobs when they go to visit sushi restaurants – they are migrants. The people who sit out in the sun (on the rare days it shines) on the lawn outside the King’s College and get photographed by a passing journalist and have their picture in the paper the next day – they are migrants. We are swarming all over the place. The government welcomes us in and we steal college places and medical attention and resources.

We get away with it because we are citizens and we are students.


The dead immigrants of Rome still tell their story. The truth unremembered by the powerful lay dormant in their gums. Our Dead will tell the story of our Empire. Those thousands upon thousands who need refuge and instead meet barbarity will have their voice heard. Future generations will find ingenious ways to expose our crimes in the Mediterranean and Calais and Irish “Direct Provision” centres. And God, who counts the hair on their head will not need to carbon test their teeth. He will turn to us and mimic our question back to us: “Who then is your neighbour?” And in our silence, the glory of our European Union Empire will be deafening.

Your Correspondent, He thought the highway loved him, but she beat him like a drum

Barth, Society, theology

On Visiting Princeton

In what is surely the largest gathering of verbose dudes in gingham shirts happening anywhere in the Western hemisphere this year, the annual Karl Barth Conference finished up today at Princeton Theological Seminary. The theme of the conference was Barth and the Gospels. Since my PhD thesis is in a large part made up of discussions about Barth’s reading of the Gospel parables, I thought I would fly over and sit in.

It began on Sunday night. After 20 hours of exhausting travelling, myself and my buddy Taido made it on time to barge in on Jurgen Moltmann’s opening address. It might have been worth the journey alone to see the 89 year old saint present the legendarily complex teaching that Barth expounded on predestination and election. The key, he reckons, is to remember that freedom is not unencumbered choice, but relationality. Everything straightens out then, allegedly.

The next morning, Eric Gregory, a Princetonian giant laid out all the ways people read the parable of the Good Samaritan, which was a great way to show just how fascinating Karl’s reading was. Right after him came the Duke Divinity lecturer Willie Jennings, who considered Barth’s interpretation of the Rich Young Ruler and challenged us to unmask the power of Mammon in our life. It was such a great presentation that I enjoyed it, even though it trod right across the very fulcrum of my thesis.

The papers came thick and fast. Like everything that Americans organise, the conference seemed to assume that you can’t be using your time right unless you are busy. We got to listen in on great talks about Barth’s reflections on Jesus in Gethsemane, on the disciples on the road to Emmaus, on the Greek make-up of the first 18 verses of the Gospel of John and the parable of the Prodigal Sons. And that’s not even mentioning the myriad of fine papers delivered in break-out sessions or the conversations had over the fearfully bad coffee, or the talk by Bruce McCormack that may become the matter of myth in the coming years as he began with an extended discussion of a Jose Saramago novel as a set-up to present a mind-bending, intricate argument which says more but not less than that God’s love is generative of death.

I am sure there are people who would like to read a more detailed account of the conference, but I am not the person to write it. I never feel fully at home at an academic conference, because I am at heart not an academic. An exhaustion quickly settles when I have to navigate the strange terrain of conversation among graduate students and early career academics and established veterans. There is little small talk. There is just big ideas. There is little listening, but lots of nodding and hmming and uhhuh-ing. It is work, I suppose. We’re all at work, but for these three days our office is this strange space and we go to work with people who aren’t our colleagues.

Princeton Theological Seminary Library

What I did want to talk about though is America.

I promise to be brief.

Princeton is perhaps the most sumptuous place I have ever been. It is luxurious in a way I can’t communicate. It feels like a 5 star resort but for research. The theological library is the second biggest in the world. Their new books section is about the size of the theology library in its entirety in my home university. Everywhere is air conditioned. The shops all sell very stylish clothes, even if they aren’t fashionable. The houses are run down in the way that requires careful maintenance, invariably done by people with darker skin than me. I have seen more police cars in the 3 days I have been here than I would see in three months in Ireland. There are flags constantly in view, whenever you are out in public.

It is a wonderful place. But its greatness rests on such shaky foundations.

Palmer Square, Princeton

This all became very clear for me when I went to buy stamps for postcards (they have Karl Barth postcards here!!). Inside the beautiful little post office on the beautiful Palmer Square I found a mural. It was painted in 1939, as part of the New Deal, by Karl Free. It reminded me of the public murals you still find lingering from the Soviet era in eastern Ukraine. Whereas that public art was invariably modern and decisive, this is romantic and idyllic. Three white men stand on the left of the piece, dressed in the uniform of Englightenment-era philosophers. They are surrounded by symbols of learning – an antomical skeleton and a globe and Hellenistic sculpture. Their faces are impassively, stoically set towards the right hand side, where the future is found in all graphs. Above them, from the heavens, are angels bearing trumpets. The artist has caught them in the moment of annunciation. There is no Christian imagery anywhere in this painting and the angels are neither the cherubim of popular imagination or the more closely Biblical fear-inducing messengers. They are mature. Directly below them sits Columbia, with her shield of liberty at her feet, a bald eagle perched beside her and behind her the famous Naussau Hall of Princeton University.

The last element of the artwork are two “natives”. They are largely naked, coming out of a jungle of palms, and cowering under the glory of the trumpet ring that heralds the arrival of the book-carrying white men. The native woman is on her knees and might be pulling her man away, out of the scene, frightened to even engage with these civilised characters. Lest this visual feast does not satisfy you, the artist has explained it all in verse beneath:

America! With Peace and Freedom blest,
Pant for true Fame and scorn inglorious rest,
Science invites, urged by the Voice divine,
Exert thyself ’til every Art be thine.

Consider these words. There is no peace even in the image thus depicted. The America that looks upon this art when posting birthday cards to nephews back home and buying packing tape before moving to a bigger house is an America that today pants after fame, and so utterly despises rest – that basic commandment of YHWH – that they do not even assure maternity leave for pregnant women. The science whose invitation they have pursued has created bombs strong enough to kill us all and has been co-opted by an economic system that only staves off killing us because there would be no one left to buy things. The voice divine that animates this artwork is the Unmoved Mover of the Deists, not the God that took on flesh much darker than that of Columbia.

Columbia under the palms

Tonight there is a vigil in Princeton, starting at the local AME church, where the city will walk and stand in solidarity with the victims of racial violence. Then tomorrow they’ll go back to work and back to school and back to the post office and their lives might be exciting and ascetically dedicated to learning or back-breaking and devoted to mowing lawns but they will be so awash in the lies of histories never told that even prayer doesn’t seem to bring relief.

On the globe in the painting, America is literally the only country in the world. Imagine how sad living in that world must be.

I like visiting America. But I think I am very glad that I don’t have to call it home.

Your Correspondent, If you don’t believe him, believe in America!

Church, Society

The Only Position To Hold Is None At All

7 thoughts and a conclusion about the hot topic of the week, that will actually continue to be a critically important topic even after magazines stop talking about it next week.

Christianity can be sorted into all sorts of different buckets. You can parse it by era (apostolic – early – medieval – and so on), place (east and west and the east beyond Russia and the south and the Mediterranean versus northern Europe and Celtic versus Roman and on and on), institutions (a denominational approach), or theologically, liturgically, doctrinally, or how much the priests like getting dressed up in silly clothes.

Having done this, the one thing you can’t do is go out on to the street or down to the church building and actually find the taxonomy you have described. In the Presbyterian church where I discovered that God had indeed charged my baptism with more than water and a chance for a knees-up, devout Roman Catholics would take a seat, eager to hear the Word preached, having come from mass. My pentecostal buddy here in Aberdeen has the deepest sense of creedal liturgy. I could go on.

The point is: there are theological reasons to reject theological abstractions.


There is a certain strand of theological ethics that is enamoured with order. You can find thinking of this sort through the eras and in all the places and institutions, as well as all over the theological and liturgical and doctrinal spectra. With such a theology you can sort things in ways that can be very useful. You can sort political power out from ecclesiastical power. You can sort nature from supernature. You can sort man from woman. And the ability to make these distinctions from what is called “created order” can give a structure to the apparent anarchy of our shared lives.

This strand of theological ethics is often very well liked by people with status.


In many places in the West today, Christians are commonly scared. Their churches continue to empty. Their balance sheets are thinning. Their connections to power are weakening. All this encourages them to get caught up in a sorry story of the decline of their civilization, with important symbolic losses in courts and legislatures where abortion is decriminalised and gay marriage is legalised and the onward march of euthanasia is unstoppable. The order doesn’t seem to hold anymore, their arguments never seem to land, they sincerely worry about the human life being wasted in an increasingly atomised, consumptive society.

The instinctive reaction of people who find their hold is slipping is to try and grab it even tighter.


Transgender issues have been discussed for decades but it seems that they are becoming more pressing in our public discourse. Undoubtedly this is because of the glossy media coverage of celebrities who are struggling with gender identity issues but it may also owe something to the way in which it is pitched as “the next big thing” for us to fight about after gay civil rights. You can leave such analysis aside, because the reality is that our conversation about transgender issues – whatever prompts for-profit media corporations to give it attention – is deeply significant for the many people afflicted with them who aren’t going to be on the front cover of Vanity Fair and don’t have the energy or resources to launch activist campaigns.

We have known for decades that this phenomenon existed and perhaps now we can pay it sustained attention.


The default mode of the early 21st century person who lives in the Western world, when confronted by transgenderism, is to applaud the existential self-actualisation involved in coming out. As Hauerwas never tires of saying, we are the people whose story is that we have no story apart from the story we choose for ourselves. The problem with this, in the realm of gender dysphoria and in so many other realms, is that we are not our own. We come to discover our “I”, straightforwardly cis-gendered or in ways that are more complicated and fraught, in the midst of a “We”. The people we discover ourselves in the midst of have some real purchase on who we are.

Alongside the deep trauma of gender dysphoria for the one who suffers, there is trauma for those all around.


The default mode of the early 21st century Christian who lives in the Western world, when confronted by transgenderism, is to lament how this condition destroys order. The categories are all messed up. The structures that we take for granted disintegrate and we are confronted with the troubling reality of the way everything we make falls. We construct these ways of being human; male and blue, and female and pink, one side taciturn and stoic and the other emotional and sensitive. And then they slide out of place and what can we do except groan in deep human empathy for those trapped inside this pincer movement of social construct and internal identity.

If the doctrine of the Fall cannot anticipate gender dysphoria, we are devastatingly under-estimating how far things fall.


Then the smart, order-loving Christians reflect on all this and they notice that gender dysphoria expresses itself in the modes that are dominant in the culture. So the man who comes to identify as a woman buys into the tropes of femininity that are propogated by late-capitalism. This is how you end up with transgender celebrities in lingerie on the front of magazines. The stark order created by the binary of male and female has been challenged for so very long that when it gets challenged not as intellectual game but as the deepest form of existential angst, these Christian thinkers think they see a flaw. Equipped by a theological system that can find a place for everything, they describe those who are transgendered as sadly futile, a hollow parody of what our society mistakes for masculinity or femininity. This thinking holds that because their identity is so wafer-thin, the phenomenon can be disregarded. This is a grave mistake. It is disdain posturing as theology. There are internal incoherencies present in the accounts of those who are transgendered, in the same way that there are internal incoherencies in all our accounts of self.

In other words, of course gender dysphoria expresses itself in gender-normative terms, because the people suffering from gender dysphoria live in a gender-normed society!


The question raised by people who are transgendered is not a question about gender. It is a question about humanity. “Masculine” and “feminine” may be ideas that can be useful in some conversations. But like the taxonomies of Christianity, you’ll never encounter the taxonomies of gender out on the street, or down at the church building. You won’t even be sure to meet “man” or “woman”. You’ll meet people. With names they were given by their parents, and names that they took from their spouses, and names that they changed by deed poll to avoid abusive partners, or for a prank, or because of gender reassignment therapy. And the Scriptures tell us that none of these actual people even know their names. Jesus will reveal that to them when the time comes.

Christians are tempted by accounts of the world that promise order because in times of change, order promises stability. But Christians cannot be seduced by accounts of the world that do not begin with Jesus. The natural orders we locate in tradition, or culture, or science do not win our allegiance. The fully human one – who was biologically male but who took form in the womb of a biological female – is the one to whom we owe our allegiance. The fully human one is the one we turn to when we seek wisdom about what it is to be human.

People with gender dysphoria suffer immense trauma and stress. Their families do too. The weight of being this uncategorizable type in world obssessed with categories and in a species addicted to types is too much to bear. Suicide rates are so high as to constitute a crisis, with or without the incentive of celebrity interviews to drive the narrative.

Christians are tempted to take positions, aided by reasoning that seems solid because it is built off of orders that appear to be natural. If we find a firm place to stand, then we can start moving again. On this, as on so many issues, I plead with my friends to resist calcifying. We’re not really talking about the transgendered issue. We’re talking about people, people bearing an incredible weight.

Jesus is not a theological abstraction. He is not a container full of propositions that allow us to advance our piety or politics. Jesus is a man who lived a life paid for by women and who preached sermons about eunuchs. Gender identity (and indeed, for a conversation on a different day, sexual identity) is as native to Jesus as it is to you or I or Chelsea Manning. We don’t abstract Jesus’ humanity and break it into components that can be placed in little boxes. We don’t do that to ourselves. We should oppose doing it to others.

I realise I have written 1500 words to say “we don’t need to have a position”. So obviously that is my position. But that is not an evasion. It is theological stance that would train us to shut up long enough to learn how to listen. In shutting up, we might see there is reason to hope where we thought there was reason to fear. In listening we might hear the word of God break in and strip away our flimsy self-made personae as ordered people. Regardless, we will at least be close enough to make friends with people just as confused as we are about how to go on being human.

Your Correspondent, Broker than an old VCR

Church, Society

How To Bake A Gay Cake

Today in Northern Ireland, a civil court found in favour of a gay rights activist who brought a case charging a prominent bakery – Asher’s – with discrimination. Last year Gareth Lee had ordered a cake with Bert and Ernie on it and a slogan supporting gay marriage. Asher’s initially accepted the order but then two days later reneged on the deal, citing their Christian faith as the motivation for turning down the work.

I think this ruling is best described as asinine. The great risk of identity politics is that it will be reduced to the freedom to purchase our identity and in this instance, that seems to quite literally be at play. Whatever about the reaction of the people who brought this case and the people who defended this case, Mammon is delighted about the verdict.

But the over-riding impression that I have following this case is the sense I have had from the beginning. Something is very amiss about what Irish Christians seem to think is a public voice. The freedom to not make cakes is not a promising start for trying to enact a New Testament social witness. There are legitimate reasons to stress about how deep our concept of free speech is in such cases, but there are deeper concerns about how deep our concept of mission is (as well as legitimate concerns about cross-sectional discrimination against gay people!).

I am a reasonably skilled baker. I am a wizard with old bananas or a few carrots or a half finished box of malteasers. So let me share with you and any potential Christian bakers out there my recipe for Gay Cake.

    1. Take Mark 12:30-31 and reflect on the nature of neighbour love. Think how outraged many Christians would be if a prominent secular family of bakers outright refused to make Easter-themed cakes anymore. What does it now mean to love your neighbour as yourself?
    2. Add in Matthew 5:41 and consider how Jesus used the example of a genuine enemy to describe the social engagement of his followers. The audience of the Sermon on the Mount were Hebrews, oppressed in their homeland by the undefeatable and pyschopathic might of the pagan Roman Empire. The backstory to “walk a mile in their shoes” is the legal blank cheque that Roman soldiers had to humiliate and denigrate the local population. Even to chief enemies – the rapists of your women, the murderers of your sons, the thieves of your land, the insulters of your God – even to these should compassion be shown.
    3. Fold in Matthew 5:44 which tells you to love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. Don’t go overboard here with whisking because the idea is so similar in texture to the previous one that it will just flow right into the mix. After all, if Christians in Ireland did have some genuine persecuting enemies, the clear and unavoidable teaching is that we should love them and pray for them. Loving them means contact with them and praying for them creates some sense of openeness and empathy for them.
    4. With these three ingredients ready to go, you now need to bake it for an hour in a kitchen. Consider the kitchen of Simon the Pharisee, or Zacchaeus the tax collector or the numerous places where Jesus engages in table fellowship with people whom he ought to stay clear of. The Pharisee is a particularly good case because on the surface, he is the kind of guy you want to have marry your daughter, so to speak. He is fine and decent and upstanding. But he judges Jesus for the way he welcomes the attentions of a disreuptable woman. Commentators down through the centuries have speculated that the woman was a prostitute. It seems the upstanding religious impulse has wanted to distance dinner parties from sexual immorality even before Belfast bakers said no to Ernie.

The New Testament scholar Craig Blomberg has a wonderful little book called “Contagious Holiness” about the way that Jesus used meals to both instruct his followers in his Way and to initiate the reality of that Way in his followers. If the ingredients of this gay cake are clear teachings of Jesus, the oven it is baked in are the many cases where Jesus transgressed both societal norms and the internal coherence of his own movement if he was just another religious guru selling enlightenment. He issues teachings with Godlike authority and then interprets them with Godlike audacity. He has no fear of contamination. He acts as if he is the one who is a contagion. The saltiness and the light that he represents gets passed around along with the bread-basket. He eats with anyone and everyone.

Christians should be the same way. The Ashers are sincere and obviously very committed to Christianity. They have the stamina and the cojones to back up what they say they believe. They are not bigots. They are not worthy of scorn. But I do think they missed an opportunity when they didn’t bake the Ernie and Bert cake. As one Christian to other Christians, I suggest there was a better way.

Our voice in the public square is no longer going to be about power. Our voice in the public square can no longer be about having friends in high places. Our voice in the public square should not be about how we have special rules for conducting our business affairs. Based on the specification of electoral politics, Christians will therefore be increasingly silent in the public square. This is very good news. When we stop speaking the language of power, people will finally get a chance to listen in on us as we worship the one who, forsaking power, triumphed over power, and killed death. He was hospitable even to death, he went as far as hell, he did this to set the captives free.

We can bake cakes for gay people, for capitalist people, even for Baptists. Jesus wants to welcome them all. We should too.

Your Correspondent, Has your cake and will eat it too

Church, Society

Theological Reasons For Not Imposing Theology On Our Laws

After demonstrating the patience that marks true friendship, by reading my 3,500+ word screed on theological stances towards marriage equality in Ireland, a dear friend asked me to elaborate on the theological reasons that we have for not imposing our theology on law.

Jesus and politics

I love questions that allow me to badly regurgitate ideas that Stanley Hauerwas has taught us.

But let me be brave and try to sketch this out without blatantly ransacking the old works published by my teacher and so exposing what another friend called, as if he was alluding to a B.O. issue, my “Anabaptist tendencies”.

I study wealth. This leads me to reading many books about capitalism and globalisation, markets and money. I have become reasonably competent at guiding people through the Christian tradition on how to engage with wealth. And I have noticed that thinking about the theology of having more than you need casts a great deal of light on thinking about other aspects of the Christian life. For one thing: when you get paid to read books about getting paid, you start to really notice how often Christians get agitated about, well, getting laid.

So Christians that I know and love and respect are very agitated about the idea of marriage equality but they are not really comparably concerned (at least by reference to their external acts) about wealth (in)equality. We want to maintain a legal framework that encourages our sexual ethic but we do not want to build a legal framework that encourages our wealth ethic.

Perhaps the reason is because we have no wealth ethic. We just have claims about God in one hand, and our day-to-day life with our bank account in the other, and the left doesn’t know what the right is doing and we are happy with that.

If that seems unfair, let me ask you when was the last time you deliberated on the nature of usury? When was the last time you heard a sermon about the dangers of usury? When was the last time a Christian got themselves invited on drivetime radio to debate with politicians about the futility and delusionary nature of societies constructed on usury?

Christians have reason, it would seem, to impose their views about usury on the world. The Bible is very clear. Usury is out of bounds. The people of God do not engage with it. They cancel debts. They forgive debts. They do not profit from debt. They were enslaved in Egypt, they are now liberated from enslaving others with fictional bonds.

Jesus on money-lenders

Laws progressively changed in post-Reformation Europe so that the concept of usury is now effectively meaningless for us in any legal sense. The failure of the British government to clampdown on parasites like Wonga demonstrates how in a critical contemporary ethical zone a basic Christian commitment has been so unlegislated as to be silent. The Archbishop of Canterbury rails against Wonga, but he is unusual in that. I have heard more Christians laud the welfare cuts, systemic underemployment, and brutal surveillance of David Cameron’s Satanically named “Big Society” than I have heard Christians offer quiet critique of 3000% APR rates.

So why do Christians not lobby for laws that limit (nevermind prohibit) usury?

There are two reasons, as I can see it. Both are pertinent. The first is that we cannot successfully get them passed. We’re better off putting our energy into realisable political goals – like getting funding for a huge educational tapestry that shows Jesus first fighting and then taming the raptors in Jurassic Park that once and for all teaches children the folly of Darwninism.

The second is that we cannot achieve what we want to achieve by passing such laws.

We have laws against murder because it is evident to everyone why murder is wrong. We do not have laws against usury (and soon gay marriage) because it is not evident to everyone why they are wrong. It is only because it was revealed to us that we claim that we should not establish industries that are predicated on profiting without reference to the success of our partners. Murder destroys civilisation. It is not evident that usury does. When we say usury is wrong (something few of us actually seem to believe), we are not just making a claim about licit financial transactions but making a claim about the very nature of reality.

Strip usury out of our society, without that transformation being embedded in a deep trust in the grace and covenant shared with us by the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, and we will just find new and more devious ways to enslave each other. Unless we actually believe that God stands opposed to all our attempts at mastering others, boycotting usury will just be window dressing.

In the same way, living for generations in societies where gay people couldn’t get married didn’t create societies where people trusted and lived out the strange and upside-down logic of Christian sexuality.

So pragmatically we can’t pass these anti-usury laws we’ve never even thought about, because no one agrees with us. And on a deeper level, we can’t pass these anti-usury laws because they don’t achieve what we long to see.

This is not some secret anabaptist retreat from the public square. Rather, it is a theologically coherent position that arises from dwelling on what our theological vision for our communities actually looks like. Law limits excess. But the goodness of God is always in excess. Law is great for doing some things, like drawing lines for acceptable behaviour and arranging ways to fight with each other without resorting to pistols at dawn. But the Gospel pushes us over the lines into unacceptable behaviour and it is forever aligning us to love those we are logically meant to fight.

Other arguments can be offered. For example: one could read Hauerwas’ many references to Walter Rauschenbusch as a lesson in how successfully changing society for the better can still lead to Christian unfaithfulness. I could offer a theological argument for the value of tolerance, grounded in the doctrine of hospitality. Tolerance, remember, implies disagreement. But welcoming those we disagree with is central to who we are meant to be as people of the Eucharist. We could argue from history and consider the hellish place Ireland often was when Christians got to make up the laws to suit themselves.

But I think thinking about our failure to think about usury is a good way to approach this question because of how it implicates us. The things we fight for reveal the things we believe. Christians genuinely do want to see strong families and so on, and hence some people are very vexed about gay marriage. But the things we don’t fight for also reveal the things we believe.

Usury shows us that we don’t believe we can bring in the Kingdom by passing laws.

Your Correspondent, Would raise a white flag, but even that is too much participation

Church, Society

Five Equal Reflections On Marriage

*On How Strange Is The Collusion Between Christian Marriage And Civil Marriage*
One afternoon in 2004, I got two buses across Dublin with my girlfriend and knocked on the door of a nice house on a tree lined avenue. A harried, welcoming woman showed us into the living room, littered with the debris of an abandoned board game and we waited awkwardly for the man of the house to return. This he did, within minutes. He was bearded and friendly and he was prepared with a set of forms that we were to sign in his presence.

He was a Presbyterian minister. We wanted to get married. He was the Presbyterian minister designated with taking care of the marriage forms on behalf of the Presbytery. Those forms needed to be dispatched to a government office and arrive there not less than six weeks before the well spoken woman sitting beside me agreed to become Wife-unit.

I am sure I have friends in the Anglican churches who can make a strong argument that there is something gracious and meritous about the fact that our covenantal commitment to each other on our wedding day was so immersed in form filling. But ever since Henry VIII decided he wanted to have a religion of his own, God has had to maintain an office building in heaven. Anglicans are eternal bureacrats and they get bored in paradise if they don’t get to photocopy things and file them.

The rest of Christianity suspects that the excellence of marriage might be somewhat diminished by having to stop in the middle and apply for a tax write-off.


Why did we start doing this?


*On How Biblical Marriage Is About God, Not A Political Campaign*
The Bible is almost as long as the Harry Potter books. So it is impossible to isolate particular themes and elevate them to supremacy. There’ll always be contestation about interpretation. But I think a reasonable Christian summation is that the overarching story is about God and the God in question is whoever it was who raised Jesus from the dead, having before raised Israel from Egypt.

I think it is also a reasonable bet that Christians, who worship that insistently particular God who took on flesh and dwelled among a few hundred people in a small village in the armpit of the Levant, tend to be suspicious of big overarching stories. They will want you to show them how that compressed movieposter summation works out. When you look inside the books, you find very often that the story works out along the plotlines of marriage.

This is why Christians fall into the trap of talking about Biblical marriage. There is so much of it! They say that Adam and Eve is the beginning, even though they definitely didn’t meet Rev. Alan Boal and get their papers processed. The subsequent chapters of Genesis are full of horrendous polyamory and misogyny that is so brutal, it is a wonder we let our kids read it. Women are property and security and playthings. The first book of the Bible is full of dysfunctional families and it doesn’t improve from there. David killed a man to take his wife. Solomon kept a harem. The book of Esther tells the story of a kind of heroic divine prostitute, who wins a competition to become a concubine of a foreign king. God tells the prophet Hosea that he is to marry Gomer, a prostitute, and what happens next is the clickbait worthy book called Hosea. Even the Holy Family fails the tradition test. Mary is a teenager when she hears the news from Gabriel. There is nothing comfortable and suburban and sanitised about marriage in the Bible.


In fact, a sustained sensitive reading might lead one to believe that the Scriptures expose – in the brokenness of the stories it unflinchingly depicts – the ways in which marriage can break us, especially those of us who are women. It is an institution, and therefore Christians should be wary of it because institutions get corrupted. We are meant to believe that guys. Not just as a generally observable fact but as an eschatological reality. The powers and principalities with which we engage are not neutral.

Easy talk about God’s will for marriage is easy because it isn’t wrestling with reality. True language is hard fought.

Below the surface stories of marriage is a deeper narrative arc. God’s faithfulness to the promises made to the Iraqi pagan called Abrahm is again and again depicted as a marriage. Israel is to be the bride of YHWH. Israel is adulterous. The church is to be the bride of Christ. The church is adulterous. Marriage takes on a significance not because it is so romantic or because it is what human beings are made for or because of some natural law. It is significant for us because God uses it as an analogy to describe what his faithfulness looks like. When we consider the paltry trustworthiness we can muster for ourselves, by negative reflection, the Scriptures suggest, we can come to see what God’s gloriously reliable trustworthiness looks like.

Biblical marriage talk shouldn’t lead to a conclusion where we talk about ourselves. Biblical marriage should lead us to pay attention to God.

I am not opposed to us wading into public squares and getting all hypostatic about our unions. We should be unashamedly Christian in our political speech. The Gospel is public truth. We can’t stop being Christians when we come to deliberate as citizens. Jesus is Lord means Caesar isn’t! But if you follow the Biblical theology I am sketching out in the broadest terms, then you begin to see why “Biblical marriage” is not the engine of an electoral argument. It doesn’t result in a message we can put on a billboard, or even cram into a manifesto.

Living in a republic, we have theological reasons for not imposing our theology on laws. That is not a capitulation of theology any more than it is an elevation of republics (both mistakes can be made but are not necessarily going to be made!). When we take the deep story of divine marriage that comes to its climax in Revelation and instrumentalise it to a political argument about how people’s relationships can be recognised in a state with a dwindling number of Christian adherents, we might be making a theological, missional, and political mis-step.


*On Natural Laws And Slippery Slopes*
I am writing this on a sunny Saturday afternoon because my friend sent me an email during the week and asked me to write. She had heard that when the referendum passes, all sorts of bills will automatically be passed. This is not how republics function. This referendum affirms a reorganisation of a clause in the constitution that has already been passed in the Dáil. It doesn’t do anything else. When that bill becomes law, it is like all other bills – passed by the representatives we elected. That will continue to be the case. We did not need to have this referendum. Because of the fact that the constitution never thought to stipulate gender in the marriage clause, the Dáil could have just passed this law. They didn’t do that because of a perception that this law is culturally significant and needs the unusual imprimatur of a general referendum.

One of the drawbacks of a yes/no referendum is that it can only ask a yes/no question. And as everyone who has ever been part of a home Bible study group can attest to, the conversation that follows from that kind of question is usually crappy. In this instance, the conversation has been full of inflated rhetoric about the inevitable march of liberty and equality and fraternity from the Yes campaign and ramshackle digressions about natural law and surrogacy and feminism and all sorts of distractions from the No campaign. If I was home for the vote, I’d be tempted to spoil my vote with a hastily composed cartoon of a dog marrying a cat and “MAKES YOU THINK” scrawled over it.

One of the concerns that Christians have is that this is a redefinition of marriage and that starts us on a slippery slope. Of course, in 1996 we redefined marriage when we permitted divorce. And we redefined it when we made the idea of rape coherent within marriage. And we are currently redefining it to make it illegal to arrange kinship marriages. We call that “forced marriage” and Christians gladly support that redefinition, even though it raises questions of religious liberty.

It is absolutely clear that the referendum presents a redefinition of marriage. I have tried to suggest above that our political goal ought not be to make the law look like our theology. So if the redefinition is occurring, Christians who are ambivalent about divorce and wholeheartedly against forced marriage need to justify some serious grounds for calling this redefinition a slippery slope.

And here I think it is useful for us to remember how law happens. It is not truly the case that after the referendum, gay people in Ireland will suddenly be able to form unions that fulfill all the requirements of civil marriage. There are gay couples living in such unions in every city and town and village in Ireland. The law is catching up with life as it is lived. We are not at the top of a slippery slope. We are at the base of a mountain of injustice.

I am an evangelical Christian. I am a proponent of the traditional Christian sexual ethics. I think marriage is for life and between a man and a woman and that sex should happen inside marriage. But I am an evangelical Christian. I am an heir of the nuanced and deep social thought we can draw on. I don’t expect my non Christian friends to see their marriages like I see mine, or to live their sex lives like I failingly try to live mine.

But while my friends who were married in a civil office approach their relationships with a very different set of justifications and hopes and desires than Wife-unit and I in our deeply Christian worship service, the end result in the eyes of the state is the same. The Republic of Ireland determinedly ignored Rev. Dr. Keith McCrory’s words at the end of our service: “What God has brought together, let no man pull asunder.” The forms we signed mean that there are a bunch of reasons for this man or my woman to pull the union asunder, because fundamentally, the state acts as if God doesn’t exist. We might lament that, or celebrate that, but let’s not be confused about that.

In a society that lives etsi deus non daretur, there are many people who have meaningful relationships that mirror marriage. They are marriages in the eyes of the state. They are monogomous sexual unions where intimacy extends to all material aspects of life. That people can selflessly serve each other for decades and then find at the end that there is no way to let the other care for them in their dying or that they can sacrificially give to each other and yet not have that bond recognised by the society is an injustice. Marriage redresses the injustice.

“But it is against nature!” say some. “But I am a Christian!” I answer! After Easter Sunday, after the Incarnation, after the call of Abrahm, we don’t make arguments from nature. There is no more secular argument.

“But what’s to stop people marrying 3 people, or their sister, or their garden fence?” query some. “Nothing!” I answer. We can live as counter-witnesses, faithful to what the Spirit calls us into. We can form communities where our distinctive and strange marriage is practiced. We can show grace to each other and grace to our neighbours. And we can hope things get better. But if they do get worse, law is one way we can limit excess and if in decades we need to make more redefinitions, we shouldn’t mistake acknowledging how things are with how we want them to be.

Slippery slopes

We’re Christians. Of all people, we should be invested in telling it as it is. We’re religiously devoted to the truth!

Here’s my mischievous question to the natural law folk: Why do so many gay people want to get married?

It used to be that homosexual life was a genuine sub-culture, forced into the shadows at the margins of our shared life. It is no longer the case now. Do we think that vice can flourish more easily today? Do we think that virtue is hampered by tolerance? Homosexuality used to be disparaged for the wanton culture that it was associated with. Now it is synonymous with gentrification and farmer’s markets. If you want to make an argument from some critical redefinition of how reality is, it seems that this radical community has been converted to desire the most conservative of institutions.

The Iona Institute should see this massive movement as its historic victory. Give people space, and they form society-constructing, economy-driving units of suburban flourishing!

I jest, but only in part.

And here’s my deathly serious question to the slippery slope folk: What else is a slippery slope?

My friend Geoff Lillis has shown that the Irish Catholic bishops seem to be unable to do basic moral calculus because they think gay marriage is a grave threat but couldn’t find the same potency in their words about systematic child abuse. The Presbyterian Church in Ireland has issued letters about both the civil partnership bill in Northern Ireland and the marriage referendum in the Republic but has said absolutely nothing about seven years of the most depraved austerity. The Evangelical Alliance released a nuanced but ultimately cautious statement but for all the midweek events happening in churches ahead of the referendum, there has never been an event (that I am aware of) about how the Irish state colluded in the “War on Terror” alliance and so supported a global network of torture.

Violence against children, class war, and participation in torture machines – these are slippery slopes. You can be a No voter. You can even be a No voter and argue from natural law or slippery slopes. But I would urge Christians to ask themselves why certain ethical issues exercise them and others don’t.


*So What Should We Do?*
I don’t even have a vote. Irish citizens who live outside of Ireland are, inexplicably, not allowed to vote in referenda. If I was home, I would vote yes. But it would be an apathetic yes. I don’t think a yes will bring about the end of civilization, nor a utopia of mutual respect. I think it will lead to a lot of joyous days for couples whose relational bond deserves our respect and gratitude. It is good when people are good to each other. I also think it will lead to a lot of alterations in what future generations think is normal. But I carry a black piece of plastic in my pocket with a clear screen on the front. When I tap it, it answers every question I ever have. I take it for granted. If I showed it to someone from 1995 they’d think it so abnormal that they’d mistake me for a wizard. I suppose if I was time-travelling, that would make me sort of a wizard. My point is that what we think of as normal is always fluid. “Normal” is not a category Christians aspire to – just ask any nerdy friendless church kid. I am quite sure my grandchildren will think my habit of taking short-haul flights to be a habit of grotesque, selfish depravity. To me it is just normal.

Things change.

We should change too. We should stop doing the state’s job. Christians have a fascinating and rich and complex approach to marriage that is a witness to God’s grace in the world and it is utterly obscured because it is ubiquitous. Why confuse it with civil marriage?

We don’t need a referendum, a campaign, or even little logos stamped on our social media images. We can just start having a civic marriage on an anonymous Wednesday afternoon when it suits us. And on a different, special day we can have a thing called a wedding and invite our communities to raise the roof in praise of the God who is faithful in a way that we can sometimes, vividly discern in the close friendship of marriage. What this does is reorganise our shared life so that we are less likely to think that it is our job to make the history of Ireland turn out well. It is a habit of reorganisation that would teach us that the vibrancy of our shared life and the legitimacy of our praise is not dependent on the state agreeing with it, or pretending to not disagree with it. We are followers of the one whose first miracle was to make 500 litres of wine for a wedding party. There were no forms filled in. There was no regard for tax individualisation. There was rejoicing.

Now is a good time to commit to a different way of being Christian. Whatever is coming after Christendom is going to be a place where we are set free to be irrelevant. Juicy things will come from that freedom.


There were other forms we filled in in 2004 that I remember. There was a referendum that drew very little attention from Christian leaders. Churches were not organising mid-week meetings to ensure that congregations were informed and prepared. That referendum passed as rampantly as this one will. And it was a travesty that I often reflect on. We collectively agreed that babies born in Ireland weren’t Irish unless their parents were.

Nobody made a fuss about natural law that time.

There were no prominent churchmen grabbing the mic and shouting about the slippery slope of dehumanization that this law represented.

The Irish constitution now says that babies born in Ireland aren’t Irish unless other factors are met. How’s that for pro-life? How’s that for love-your-neighbour? How’s that for welcome-the-stranger-and-the-orphan?

The Irish church needs to reflect on how they fail to be prophetic. This campaign, that I have observed from a distance, has so little light or laughter or good news in it, one wonders where the Gospel actually is. Why is God so feeble that we can be so afraid? We are screeching, not singing. We have gotten it wrong so often, we should maybe think about taking a break from telling society how to live. We have a lot of housework to do. We have a lot of repenting to do. We can’t listen for the Spirit if we’re always talking (says he after writing 100 lines!).

Parts of the Irish church seems to find itself looking around and saying, “Where are we?” We feel we have woken up in a foreign place and an alien land. We cannot comprehend the decisions people make. We seem to use the language spoken here with a thick tongue, confusing people and offending people and boring people. We are in a foreign land. We haven’t yet woken up. When we do, we will set off on the long walk out of exile, towards our home. When we do, we will have moments of clarity where we remember the riches we have squandered and fear for the reception we will get from our father. On that long walk we won’t have time to influence power, or make the world a better place, or protect the natural order of things. We need to go home. We need to find the embrace of our father again. We need to rediscover our identity – not as kingmakers, or entrepreneurs, or gurus – but as sons and daughters who are beloved and forgiven. The scandal of our sin has not yet struck us and so we are worse than charlatans as we lament the sin in others.

There are fancy political theologies that we need to develop. And there are serious liturgical reforms that we need to initiate. But the problem that the Irish church faces today is the same one it has faced in all the years I have been a Christian: we still do not believe that to repent is to be set free. We cling to power and status and rules and law and concepts of righteousness and the divide between in and out and pure and dirty and with all that feverish activity, we don’t stop to listen. The Spirit speaks. The Spirit persists. We don’t need to protect marriage. We don’t need to save the family. We don’t even need to have the right theology of sexuality. We need to listen.

Your Correspondent, Going back to shutting up


Maybe If You Had Women Preachers, You’d Know How To Use The Word ‘Heresy’?

Why You Should Define Your Terms
Peter Leithart is one of the most prolific theologians writing today and his books are always worth a look. He writes a blog – an old fashioned, often updated, here’s-what-I’ve-been-thinking blog – for the conservative American magazine First Things. Sadly, because it is a blog, he sometimes publishes things that I suspect an editor would stick a firm red line through. For example, last week he called feminism “gender arianism.”

One of the basic tasks of honest thinking is to do justice to your opponent. You will never arrive at the truth if you don’t account for those you disagree with in such a way that they would stand over how you have described them. Feminism is a massive, many branched thing. It is a splendiferous diversity, such that one can easily be a feminist (because you have strong allegiance with some or a large chunk of the movement) but you could never really be an anti-feminist (opposed to everything that could be called feminist). After all, each of the different waves and movements have one thing in common – they are activist movements that seek to end sexism and its associated oppressions.

Leithart offers no definition of how he uses the word “feminism” and he doesn’t even offer any clues to help us. There is no accounting for the diversity of feminist thought. There is just “feminists”, a conceptual unity, who apparently “reject the Genesis account of creation as misogynist.” I think I could find feminists who would reject this account of feminists. I would raise my hand but I am too busy angrily typing. Wife-unit would raise her hand but she is too busy burning her bra.

Pat Robertson

Who was Arius?
Feminism is, it seems, a form of gender Arianism. “What the hell is Arianism?”, asks everyone who has never been to seminary.

Arius was a 4th Century Christian teacher who became one of the first and most notable heretics in the church. As Rowan Williams has shown, Arius was not some evil caricature of a false teacher. He was a serious ascetic who felt that the language that Christians were using to describe Jesus’ identity was in error. All this talk of homoousia and pre-existing eternal divinity was an innovation to Arius’ mind and a dangerous one at that. The central concern for Arius was that Jesus was not pre-existent. He was not properly, originally divine. So Leithart summarises Arius well when he talks of a “twofold assumption behind Arianism.” The church decided that he was wrong. And his views about Jesus were ruled out of bounds. That is what heresy is. It is the markings on the pitch that determine where theology can play. You cross into Arianism and the ball is out of play.

File photograph of Arius, lounging around while the bishops do the hard work at Nicea


Now there are two big problems with what Leithart has written and they replicate enough in common Christian conversation: Misapplication of the word “heresy” and blindness to where your argument really leads.

Stop Dropping the H(eresy)-Bomb
The first is the colloquial use of the word “heresy”. Arianism is a heresy and a heresy is a sort of border we cannot cross. But heresy is the most formal language that the church can deploy. It would be a dreadful mistake to take the ancient heresies and start applying them willy-nilly, wherever their resemblances could be discerned. We could no doubt make a superficially scholarly argument that that kind of habit should be called rhetorical Donatism but Donatism is an ecclesiological heresy and we would be warping it to, well, apply it willy-nilly, wherever a resemblance could be discerned!

Serious Christian speech involves taking care of our language. Let us not start comparing feminism to Arianism, unless of course a specific feminist starts teaching Arianism. Heresy is a special category, determined by councils, not individuals and specified with precision, not as a stylistic flourish to short-cut an argument.

The alternative is that you’ll start calling me a Star Wars Marcionite because I want to cut out the first three movies when I am giving any hypothetical future kids an education in film. And while there is an elegance in combining the nerdiness of Star Wars with the nerdiness of church history, it is probably a bit over the top to call someone a heretic for disagreeing with you about Jar Jar Binks.

The Incoherency Of Complenetarianism
Leithart’s argument is a variety of what might be called complementarianism. This is the position within the church that holds that men and women are equal, but different. They complement each other, see? The difference argument sometimes is a tedious Men Are From Mars, Women From Venus variety and other times is an even more tedious argument from some “natural law” but what it amounts to is that men get to preach and women get to listen.

That mansplaining remains a Christian doctrine is a sad thing.

Complementarians are happy to live under the authority of a female President, as they are happy to live under female Supreme Court judges, female surgeons, female police officers, female primary school teachers, female basketball coaches, female environmental health inspectors and female playwrights but they draw the line at female preachers. Their reading of Scripture leaves them in this strange quandary.

Whenever I press my friends – and I have dear and beloved friends of both genders who fiercely hold this position – they tell me that this is what the Bible says and that Eve was made from Adam so there is some intrinsic ordering at play that means that preaching and priesting is a male-only thing.

That the first creation narrative in Genesis doesn’t have ordering is never fully acknowledged. That Paul who references this argument elsewhere praises female teachers and gives guidance for how women should prophesy in church is not fully acknowledged.

And this is where Leithart’s argument is very werid. I’ve been mulling it over this week and I think it reveals an incoherency in the complementarian position.

Leithart’s argument is that feminism has a blanket rejection of Genesis and that rejection is based on a perception of misogyny. (Let us skip over the fact that there are so many reasons why individual feminists might not take Genesis as sacred, most fundamentally that they might not be Jewish or Christian!) The critical move comes right at the end. Leithart says that the misogyny in Genesis is diagnosed by feminists because they think that “to be second is to be subordinate.” Arius thought that too. So feminists resemble Arius. And QED: feminism is gender Arianism.

Am I imagining this? This argument freaking DESTROYS the complementarian position.

If priority does not equate to primacy, then that the first priests were male in no way excludes women from being priests today, or bishops, presbyters, elders, pastors, deacons, ministers, or whatever title you want to give to the people who hold the keys. If priority does not equate to primacy, then the entire edifice of cultural reasoning that allows some Christians to block the way of women with gifts and calling from the pulpit falls away.

You can’t call people you disagree with heretics, unless they are guilty of that specific heresy (and found guilty of that in an actual council of the church!). You certainly can’t do ad-hoc extensions of heresy so that 4th Century disputes about the nature of the Trinity become grounds for attacking 21st Century feminism. But the one thing that Leithart gets right in this post – that coming first doesn’t make you best – is completely misapplied. That is not a stick with which to beat feminists. It is the collapsing walls complementarians have constructed around the Bible.

When your defensive walls fall in on yourself, maybe you’ve misidentified your enemy?

Your Correspondent, From Earth, like all women.