Cost Benefit

Recently there have been a number of journalists writing articles about church, God and Christianity. Oddly they’ve not all been entirely negative. Since Dave flagged up Matthew Parris’ thoughts from last month I’ve come across, or been pointed towards, other things most notably here and here.

Nice to see that we Christians are capable of being presented in a positive light. Of course the articles are imperfect and there are things to which we Christians, and those heathen others, could pick on. Problems in their reasoning, or their misconceptions or their opinions but nevertheless these are articles which are refreshing.

Coupled to that refreshment is the wonder of the internet where anyone can hold forth on anything (just like this). And, even better, people can take their cue from what someone has written to delve deeper into the issues at hand.

Predictably, some of the articles have descended into thinly veiled arguments over “my absence of God is better than your God” and vice versa. Clearly, my bias lets me take the undoubtedly condescending, self-righteous and arrogant position that my God is better than the absence of Him but that’s another discussion. And one which tends towards going round in circles generating heat rather than light.

What’s caught my attention is the following remark…

Both atheists and believers have done evil things (China’s cultural revolution to today’s Jihadists to name just some). But I do feel that if one were to do a ‘cost/benefit’ analysis of the two camps- the atheists would have the higher moral ground because we have contributed a lot more to science in general and in particular, the pursuit of life saving medicine.

An interesting thought and not one that I feel particularly well qualified to discuss from the point of view of the premise that, looking at contributions to science, theists have had less impact than their atheist fellows. My gut reaction is that given the durability of Christianity, 2,000 years of thought, invention and design inspired and informed by those worshipping God does not suddenly get undone by a louder atheistic presence (which of course is nothing new).

In terms of the moral high ground, however, it’s a position that doesn’t show much appreciation of history. The reality, however much we appeared on earth by chance or hold that morality is simply something that occurs naturally, is that it took a very long time for people to think that other people were important.

In Genesis 34 we read about Dinah and the Shechemites. Basically, Dinah, daughter of Jacob (sister of Joseph, he of dressing gown fame) gets defiled by Shechem. The response is brutal and savage, just have a read. It’s that kind of an environment into which Moses speaks in Leviticus 24.

Here’s a culture that practices rampant, and disproportionate violence being told, in no uncertain terms that actually, if you’re going to exact vengeance it should be in correlation to what went on. I appreciate that a stoning for a blasphemy is arguably disproportionate in itself but stick with me (no doubt this will be something to explore at a later date).

You get the whole idea of punishment and revenge turned on its head by Moses. And that persists for quite some considerable time. In fact up until Jesus.

In Judaic culture you were very keen on helping your family, and your tribe but that was where it ended. You helped those you liked. You helped those who might help you back. The concept of the neighbourhood was a closed one.

And history is full of city states, tribes and kingdoms setting off to war against its non-kindred neighbours. Now whilst the thirst for power and the quest for domination didn’t end with Jesus the whole idea of what being neighbourly meant didn’t so much end as finally got the point. If, in the years after that we’ve carried on as before it doesn’t mean Jesus was lying, just that we might not have been paying enough attention.

Because if we read Matthew 5 it’s blatant what Jesus is saying. This is a beautiful exposition of why vengeance is not what’s best for us and specifically Jesus takes to task the idea that ‘an eye for an eye’ is. Instead he says that the best way to respond when someone does you wrong is to take it and offer the chance for them to wrong you further.

Madness.

A madness that only gets worse in Luke 10 when a young lawyer says, so Jesus, how is it that I get eternal life? As ever, Jesus gets him to answer the question himself, whereupon he retorts that you need to love God with everything and to love your neighbours as yourself. Although the answer impresses Jesus the young man wants clarity and says but, who’s my neighbour?

With the result that Jesus unleashes the Parable of the Good Samaritan on a truly unsuspecting world. This is the point when the limits on charity, on love and on compassion get undone. When Jesus becomes not just a Messiah for the Jews but effectively declares salvation for all. The moment from which the early church takes the inspiration to turn the world on its head outside of the Jewish nation. The point when all the good which has happened through Christian endeavour can find its point of conception.

Who’s my neighbour? It’s that person you hate; the one you share nothing in common with; the guy who is something you would hate to be.

Had Jesus not been the one to institute that new covenant based on a relationship with God that flourishes in relationship with others then maybe someone else would have done at a later date. But no matter how much cynicism is poured onto the Biblical Jesus it’s not an idea that pops up elsewhere. This is something attributed to him before anyone else.

Of course the church and Christians haven’t always lived this out and that is to our corporate regret and shame. But it’s workmen rather than tools and whilst I’ll see your Crusades and Inquisition it bears raising you the 20th century secular leaders who are no less, if not more, responsible for suffering than the carnage of antiquity.

So if we keep those events out of it in recognition that death by conflict is motivated by a thirst for power irrespective of faith, or none, and return to the cost/benefit analysis it’s difficult to agree with the original premise. As I said I can’t comment on science, but the sweeping generalisation has certainly agitated Mrs Wellers, instead I can look at the history of selfless love (read charity). And through that lens Jesus’ idea of neighbourhood, community and revenge becomes a world altering idea that strikes the Father of all blows for morality, for transforming lives, for putting hope into the middle of dark places.

But then I am exceptionally biased aren’t I?

About Benjamin Welby

Hi, I'm Benjamin Welby. I'm a displaced northerner currently living in Croydon, I church with a group of Christians who meet in a Soho nightclub on Wednesdays and I support Bradford City. I've an academic background in History, Politics and International Development. I work for the Government Digital Service but I left my heart in local government. This blog is infrequently updated and may feature any, all or none of these things...

  • Dave Burton

    >YES.Yes yes.So we have something good to give.Let’s give it, eh? ;)I’d like to hear some of Mrs Wellerses thoughts re science and faith, as a PhD genius. Do you do requests?