Discipleship & Establishment

Apart from appreciation offered by Christians of all (Protestant) stripes to Bonhoeffer’s Cost of Discipleship, the word “discipleship” really began entering contemporary Christian discourse through David Watson’s book Discipleship (originally published 1981, I think). That came with a characteristic charismatic evangelical flavour, although influenced by some of Watson’s newly acquired friendships with catholic Christians.

It was complemented in popular evangelical reading by Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline, which offered a particular evangelical Quaker take on the catholic spiritual tradition. This made for a fairly heady combination, which was always eclectic and reaching beyond any single tradition of churchmanship.

The language of discipleship, informed by this history, and an ever-widening embrace of devotional writings, not least those of St Ignatius and St Thomas à Kempis, has become the aspiration of “ordinary” Christian belonging. As such it has received a rather OTT reaction from people like Angela Tilby.

the language of discipleship to describe the normal Christian life does not stand up particularly well to scriptural scrutiny.

It would be an understatement to suggest that is not a view well grounded in the scriptural text, even if the language of discipleship is used somewhat differently from one author to the next.

However, the debate over the language, and the increasing use of it, does point to a sea-change in the way the Church of England speaks about its identity. The language of discipleship belongs to a gathered church, where belonging is conterminous with commitment. That sits poorly with talk of establishment, which embraces (among others) a sort of Anglican agnostic, or the Prime Minister’s description of himself as someone whose faith is a bit like Magic FM in the Chilterns (“it comes and goes”). To some extent this also surfaces as an urban / rural divide.

The question Angela Tilby raises may be an un-alphabetical example of the D-word following the E-word, but despite the hyperbolic language there is a real question to be pondered. Does emphasising the challenge of discipleship reduce the opportunity to welcome the less committed or enthusiastic? And does it simply emphasise a favoured type of commitment?

Development aid: one good reason for pride in Britain

Scrutiny of development aid is important, and helps ensure it is used effectively. In the real world, all honest scrutiny will identify things that need improving. Today’s Making Independent Commission for Aid Impact’s report needs to be read in that context. There’s a good article on it in The Guardian here.

There’s always the danger, however, that those who are opposed to aid on ideological grounds, or simply those of prejudice, will seize on the existence of any criticism to argue for a reduction in, or even the abolition of, the aid budget. So it might be a good time to rehearse some of the fundamental reasons why it matters.

In the pastoral letter Who is my Neighbour? (PDF), the Church of England’s bishops said:

The government is to be commended for committing 0.7% of GDP to overseas aid when budgets have been so hard pressed. For any party to abandon or reduce this commitment would be globally irresponsible in pragmatic terms as well as indicating that the moral imperatives of mutuality and reconciliation counted for nothing.” (p74)

Those commentators who try to dismiss the letter as a leftist whinge against the government might note this is one of several places where the letter commends the government. Why though, do the bishops say this?

For Christians, there will always be an awareness of the gospel imperative to help those most in need, and that we are encouraged to do things not for those who might one day return the favour, but for those who never can. It is, of course, not only Christians who might wish to argue for the morality of altruism on the basis of need.

There is another moral argument, from obligation. The West’s economic superiority and standard of living owes much to our past history of colonialism. Bluntly, even those of us who believe that the British Empire gave many of our former possessions much of value, should be honest that our shared history was more to our benefit than theirs. Our markets’ purchasing power can still over-determine their economic production, and to their detriment.

But for those who think moral arguments have no place in politics, who oddly enough are always those who gain advantage from present arrangements, there are also pragmatic arguments.

A very practical argument is that the more we can contribute to the well-being, health and stability of other countries, the greater their chance of a more productive economy, better health, less violence, fewer economic migrants and asylum-seekers. Aid helps others and serves our own long-term interests.

Changes in the world’s climate, combined with deep poverty are a real threat in sub-Saharan Africa, for example. As in Northern Nigeria, with Boko Haram, there’s a real danger that those conditions will leave people prey to the rise of militant Islam. For the sake of global peace and stability, we need to support solutions to things that are not just “someone else’s problem.”

When it’s well placed, and UK aid is better targeted than ever, (even if, as toady’s report reminds us there’s always more to be done) it helps economies grow to the point where they can trade more effectively, and be better global citizens.

Well-placed development aid is win-win. And, to be honest, we should be proud as a country that the UK government is leading the way by honouring our commitments. Aid is an investment in the world’s future.

Making peace a strange greeting?

If you’d asked me how common “Peace be with you” was as a greeting in the New Testament, until recently I’d have said “very”. I’ve been surprised to notice that it is instead very rare. (Incidentally the same phrase – εἰρήνη ὑμῖν – occurs even more rarely in the Greek Old Testament.)

The basic idea occurs in combination with grace in all of Paul’s letters, but the simplest form of the greeting doesn’t. And in the gospels it occurs exactly four times. It comes once at the climax of Luke’s gospel. The disciples return from the Emmaus encounter, and are discussing it with those in Jerusalem, when “Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” (Luke 24:36 NRSV).

The other three all occur in the same story of the risen Jesus’ appearance to the disciples in the upper room. Twice on his first appearance as he shows them the marks of his wounds, and once on the appearance to Thomas which is the climax of the account (and I would argue, the gospel). The first occurrence is in words that seem to echo Luke’s: “Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” (Jn 20:19)

(I leave aside for now the interesting thought that this is one of several texts which raises questions about either the relationship of John’s and Luke’s texts, or their relationship to some shared tradition.)

What I want to suggest is that for both of them “peace”, as they present it, is seen as a consequence of the story. It is fundamentally the reason for everything that has preceded and is itself the experience and gift of the resurrected one.

If “peace” was a reasonably common greeting, as it is today in the Middle East, then there is a sense that what the gospel does is make it strange, and make it fresh. When you have journeyed with Jesus through the story that has been read, you discover the meaning of a word you have used all your life for the first time.

The Bible’s contrasting contexts of power

Let’s start his new site with a generalisation, in full knowledge that it’s always dangerous to generalise. That goes double for generalising differences between the Old and New Testaments. But, admitting that I paint with a broad brush, I think there is one that largely holds up.

With that caution, I note that the Hebrew Scriptures are the largely the creation of those in proximity to power. Scribes belonged at courts and temples. The concern they had with law was concern with the running of a country (whether idealistic vision or practical legislation for theocracy). It needed, on the whole, the wealth of kings and large temple complexes in the ancient world, to sustain an industry of producing texts. It is unsurprising therefore that the histories they wrote were the histories of kings.

Prophets seem to have been on hand as advisors to kings, even if their advice was sometimes unwelcome, most of them seem to come and go with full access to some kind of court or entourage. As for the production of poetry and wisdom literature; well, who but the wealthy or well-kept had the time to devote to scribal and literary study?

By contrast, when we move into the New Testament, we move largely away from elite groups. Jesus seems to have crossed most of the social boundaries of his day, but if we can make any deductions at all about a village carpenter whose innermost group were fisherman, we might place him and his core movement as artisan class. Most of those we meet in the urban centres where Paul conducted his mission can probably be placed somewhere between those struggling to survive even at subsistence level and a petite bourgeoisie.

In short, in the Old Testament we meet those who have the power to change their society, and in the New Testament those who have to live in their society with no real expectation of making any kind of difference. Those who suggest a version of religion that is disengaged from the structures of power and politics have forgotten the overt politics of the first, and misunderstood the restraint of the second.