Is public opinion always right?

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There is a well-known and fascinating incident in the life of Jesus found in John’s gospel. It occurs at the end of his ministry when his popularity is at its height. Crowds surround him, hanging on every word he says. The leaders of the day bring a woman caught in adultery to him, they shame her in front of the whole crowd and challenge and test Jesus about what she be done to her. The law and popular opinion says she should be stoned.

Jesus tries to ignore them, writing on the ground with a stick, but they are insistent. He stands up and challenges them, if any of you are without sin, let him be the first one to through a stone at her. He then bends down and starts writing again.

One by one the crowd, including the leaders leave. Only the woman is left. Lovingly he tells her that he doesn’t condemn her but exhorts her to leave her life of sin.

A powerful story with much to stir us. The inconsistent way women can be treated, they are guilty of adultery rather than the man. The hypocrisy of people, condemning everyone else but themselves.

However, the thing that spoke to me when I thought about this recently was how Jesus stood up to public opinion, how he challenged public opinion and won! An important and relevant lesson today where public opinion is king. Politicians have focus groups to find out what public opinion thinks and then seeks to represent it. The assumption is that public opinion must be right. Whether it is about bombing Syria in response to a chemical weapons attack, or about the right of a woman to have an abortion on demand or for people to have the right to euthanasia or for us to leave the European Union.

My point is, as in the case of the woman caught in adultery, it is not public opinion that should determine whether something is right or wrong. Public opinion can be wrong, public opinion can change, be motivated by poor motives, can be hypocritical, inconsistent and prejudiced. At times public opinion needs to be challenged. We need the same wisdom that Jesus had, to know when to challenge public opinion as well as how to challenge it. To know what really is right and true. Fortunately, James tells us that if we lack wisdom we can ask God to give us it.

So, let us not be afraid, as Christians, to challenge public opinion but let us be wise in when and how we do it.

 

Written by Tony Thompson

Babel and Pentecost rethought

For many years I had understood and taught that the day of Pentecost, Acts 2, where everyone heard the gospel in their own language was a reversal of the curse of Babel, Genesis 11, where God scattered the people across the whole earth, with separate languages because they wanted to be like God.

However, I recently came across a different compelling argument explaining the relationship between Babel and Pentecost. These thoughts are found in Global Humility: Attitudes for Mission (McCullough, Andy) which I have spoken about in previous blogs and would encourage you to read.

It goes as follows, in Genesis 11:1, all the people had one language and the same vocabulary, we ask, ‘What happened?’ In chapter 10 each nation had their own language, but now there is one common language! Nimrod is described in Genesis 10v8-12 as a mighty warrior who creates a massive Empire which included Babylon, Assyria and many great cities. He had also done what so many tyrants after him through history chose to do: he has implemented one state language, quashing tribal expression and sentiment, outlawing the indigenous.

Multiplicity of languages, then – and this is the important point here – is a blessing, not a curse.

The story moves on, Nimrod sought to make a name for himself (11:4), God promised Abram that he would make a name for him (12:2).

At Pentecost, as at Babel, God actively came down to reinstate plurality of language. Humankind’s tendency is still, like Nimrod, to seek to gather to one centre, to build, to homogenise, and the Spirit’s tendency is still to scatter, to diversify.

This is an important, and powerful reading of these passages with significant implications.

In the multicultural cities and towns of Europe the same dynamic is true. In Luton we have a massive plurality of languages and cultures. Our tendency is to want everyone to be the same, the Spirit wants to celebrate the diversity. We need to acknowledge that there are many in our town who will never come to our church, the geographic, linguistic, cultural barriers are too many despite our best efforts. We may think our church is accessible because it has a good website and a wheelchair ramp, but what about emotional and cultural accessibility? Instead, we must go to them! Which is what we are doing with our 4pm service, but I would love to see us and other churches launching other initiatives that reaches people in ways that celebrate their diversity.

Humans keep wanting to get their identity and honour from being part of something big, something visible, some tangible measures of success, yet God keeps calling us to leave those things behind and trust him for honour and a name.

This has such profound implications for the types of churches we want to build!

 

Written by Tony Thompson

Global Humility: Attitudes for Mission

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Global Humility: Attitudes for Mission (McCullough, Andy)

As mentioned in a previous blog, I have found Andy’s book very helpful and would encourage people to read it.

Here are some more quotes, all relevant for us.

He is speaking from the perspective of being an outsider for most of his life, being a Greek Cypriot living in London and then Turkey.

He observes that most cultures see themselves as superior,

The English, for example, find Italians too emotional, Germans too serious but, by implication, themselves just right! Seeing yourselves as normal and others as extreme is an example of ethnocentrism – an in-built superiority of perspective.

Culture-crossing is about getting out of your story (where you/your people/your values play the main character), and getting into someone else’s story where they are the main character, and you realise you are just a cameo, your culture a caricature. It is to move from the centre of your story to the periphery of someone else’s. To become Robin to someone else’s Batman (or, more usually, to become the Joker or Poison Ivy – an enemy!). In your own view of the world, your people are the heroes. In another view, you are the villains.

Part of all cross-cultural conversation must be a desire to see the world from another’s perspective. Everyone is ‘us-centric’, but not everyone realises it!

As we seek to reach out to people of many different cultures in Luton, we need to recognise this.

He reflects on the sometimes unhelpful influence of other cultures on the church,

Paul’s being true to weakness, servant leadership, crossing cultures with humility, his desire to raise sons, not slaves, left his converts open to influence and control by powerful, influential global ministries. The same is true today. ‘I saw this on the Internet from America and we should do it here.’

He also sees dangers for us as the church in the west, e.g.

Sadly, crisislessness is a poor teacher. We assume routine is a right not a luxury, and we can get used to a degree of control over our lives that is globally and historically abnormal.

We often think that our weakness is as a result of the Fall, but what if it is essentially human? What if it is part of the image of God in us? What if God put vulnerability into us when he made us, even before the Fall?

We know that through the cross, Jesus is both Victorious King and Suffering Servant. That his victory is through suffering. Yet somehow, when we come to eschatology, we tend to de-couple these two again, with our focus being either on victory (Matthew 24:14) or on difficulty (Matthew 24:9). With Jesus, it is always both!

When we view the kingdom of God as a Hollywood movie or the American dream – a humble beginning, a struggle, gradual growth, then worldwide success – what are we missing? Is that really the story that Jesus and the apostles were telling?

Sobering, as is…..

In some places people are so used to the colonial masters calling the tune that they will back off and wait to be led.

We all have to overcome this, from both sides!

There are historical realities that can impact the present, e.g.

If many Arabs today will not trust a British person, the reason ostensibly is that: ‘You asked us to fight for you in the First World War, and promised us self-determination afterwards. We fought the Ottomans for you, and then you did not give us our independence. You lied to us.’ There is truth to this.

When the missionaries came to Africa, they had the Bible and we had the land. They said, ‘Let us pray.’ We closed our eyes. When we opened them, we had the Bible and they had the land.

He therefore says,

We can’t change our history, but we can, and must, allow it to humble us, create empathy and grace in us, to reform our world view to make us better servants of the gospel.

The Alpha course is contextual to questions British people are asking, so Alpha week one is ‘Christianity: Boring, Untrue, Irrelevant?’. The first question people in our Muslim city are asking is, ‘Christianity: Western, Political, Imperialist?’ and we have chosen to answer this from the Lord’s Prayer.

He has interesting things to say about leadership,

Bringing through local leaders from amongst unreached peoples is always a major spiritual battle. I do believe, however, that often our standard is too high.

The twenty-first century equivalent of ‘dressing the native converts in European clothing’ is the teaching of ‘leadership principles’.

So much of leadership seems to be about making better use of time or resources. For example: build a system of small groups in order to care for people more efficiently. However, in many places pastoring through a system does not work!

Perhaps churches in Turkey are small, not because of a lack of leadership, but because relational intensity is so high.

Task orientation One of the strengths of Western culture is a focus on the task at hand. Many, however, would argue that task-orientation has no place in the Church, which is primarily a relational context.

Task-orientated Christianity will not succeed in the Majority World, and probably is not appropriate anywhere.

Many leadership texts (Maxwell’s Indisputable Laws, Hybels’ Axiom, Covey’s Habits) presuppose a view of the world wherein there are universal or general principles, rules, laws that are always true. But this too is a uniquely Western perspective: there are many cultures where this is not how the world is perceived.

Ultimately, we must apply the Christian truth to all cultures.

Instead of the differences between the Gospels being an embarrassment, we affirm the fact that ‘the four gospels are four “contextualisations” of the one story [and] form an important piece of the total picture of how the Christian message is reexpressed for new audiences in the New Testament’.

Some Further Reflections On Sin

Seeing Sin as a power, rather than just things we do wrong has other implications and allows us to see things in the Bible differently. Writers from other cultures often see this more clearly than we do.

Vishal Mangalwadi, an Indian Christian writes

“Generally speaking, the “Sunday school Jesus” confines himself only to the changing of people’s hearts, but the Jesus of the Gospels aimed to change both human hearts and human society.”

His book, Truth and Transformation uses his experience of Indian society, his experience of the power of sin to try to wake up Western Christians to the need to impact society, not just individuals.

This is something that I am convinced is crucially important. We must impact society, see God’s kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven. We must transform human hearts and human society. See the defeat of Sin, Death and Satan outworked in the whole of society.

Andy McCullough is a friend. Originally, he was from Cyprus and has also spent years in both London and Turkey. He has recently written an excellent book called Global Humility: Attitudes for Mission.

Andy talks about an implication of seeing Sin as a power is that humanity then needs to be seen as a victim. He highlights this in the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman in John 4.

“Why condemn her? The reality of the ancient world, sadly, is that she could likely have been widowed several times (as older guys married younger girls and the life expectancy was not high), or she could have been divorced several times (divorce was extremely common in the ancient world, at the male prerogative). She most likely did not have children, or else they would have been collecting the water for her or with her, and perhaps her barrenness was the reason for her divorces. The man she is with now is not her husband; more likely to be his fault than hers! Nowhere in this story does Jesus call her immoral. Later on, the fact that the townsfolk so readily accept her testimony is evidence that she was not considered immoral by the community. Sin is at work in her story, yes. She has been sinned against. She is a victim! And Jesus shows her his mercy.

Of course, the Samaritan woman is a sinner – we all are! But the purpose of this story in its narrative context is grace for the marginalised, not grace for the guilty.”

This was a revelatory insight, I naturally see things through the exclusive eyes of people as sinners, rather than the victims of sin. Seeing things in this way changes so much.

Andy has other powerful things to say, I would strongly encourage you to read his book. Next week I will bring some further quotes and insights from “Global Humility”.

Written by Tony Thompson

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