Matthew Meets The Journos

It might be one of the most familiar of the Gospels, but the Gospel of Matthew also feels like one of the least exciting. Mark has a very direct and appealing style. Luke gives us a flowing narrative that is both easy to read and memorable. John’s account is rich in poetry. So how might Matthew’s gospel speak to us? And who does it speak to?

In our guest blog today, John Holdsworth imagines what a journalist might learn from Matthew’s gospel.

***

Jo had always wanted to be a journalist, a career which combined her interest in the world at large with a facility for language in a most satisfying way. In her thirtieth year she was on the lowest rung of the journalistic ladder, working with a national daily, and living with Olly. Olly gave every impression of having already exhausted one career. He had been something in the city, which he described as spending long days watching screens, shouting a lot and waving his hands about occasionally. On his thirtieth birthday he had decided there must be more to life than this and had walked out of his job and started to do a degree in theology.

Their after dinner (or more precisely, after pizza) conversations often centered on their differing claims to inhabit the real world. Jo’s evidence was the current edition of her paper. She could hardly understand why someone as intelligent as Olly could still live in what she considered to be a cross between a mediaeval world and some fantasy game of dungeons and dragons. Last Tuesday’s slightly wine-fuelled conversation was a case in point.

After some initial sparring, Jo opened the day’s paper at a random page and noted the main stories. They were about Brexit, #MeToo, and a transgender conundrum. “What do your ancient books about God have to say about that?” she asked, “because that’s the real world: that’s what people are really concerned about.”

Olly thought for a moment and then began his response. “You have to remember,” he said, “that people like the Gospel writers, and indeed Jesus himself, were not journalists. It was not their intention to offer a commentary on the day to day concerns of first century Palestinians. The key documents, the Gospels, are not oracles that can be appealed to in order to provide an answer to specific modern questions quite outside their time and culture. As their name suggests they are documents, innovative in their own time, which seek to describe good news. If what they said were to be regarded as good news by those who read their stuff, then it had to respond to something that their hearers needed or even longed to hear, and that could be and indeed still can be, vary varied.”

“At one level there were very practical bits of good news that some people needed to hear. In Mathew’s Gospel for example – and let’s stick with him – in chapter 25 he makes the point very strongly that if you are hungry, it is good news that someone is willing to feed you. If you are homeless, it is good news that someone is prepared to find you a bed, if you are without dignity it is good news that there are those who treat you with dignity and provide the practical accompaniments to that. But there are also more sophisticated needs, and even fears, that good news can satisfy. There are people who need to be forgiven, who yearn for reconciliation, who just need a second chance in life, and of course, people who really need to be loved.” “Absolutely,” said Jo.

Olly continued. ”So you have to read the Gospels as responses to those needs, longings, yearnings. All of them are things that impede enjoyment and prevent living life to the full. And the Gospels chart ways to live life to the full. That is Jesus’s stated aim. So the question to ask is not: what does the New Testament say about this or that. The question is what lies behind the current concerns in the news. Are there longings that need to be met with good news, and if so, what good news does the Gospel have to offer? Are you with me so far?” Jo said she was. “So, as a journalist, what fears or needs underlie the news stories you’ve just pointed to, do you think?”

Jo said that she had been writing a piece that she was rather pleased with that had in fact made links between those these issues and some others, around the issue of identity. Left-behind communities whose members had formerly found their identity in their work; now that the work had gone, were clinging to a nationalist ethnic identity as security instead, she had written. “Me too” was a way of asserting identity and therefore worth and dignity, and transgender people were in one sense abandoning one identity, but claiming true identity. All of them had fears that society had somehow either downgraded them or marginalized them. “Right, now we’re getting somewhere,” said Olly. ”So your question really is: what does the New Testament have to say to such people that would be good news to them?”

He answered his own question. “The community to which Matthew was writing also had identity issues. What did it mean to be a Jew who was Christian? What commitment were you making as a non-Jew to a religious tradition that was unquestionably Jewish? How could you have an international religion that had no ethnic definition? Was some new kind of identity possible based on belonging to a community bound together by belief? Matthew’s Gospel deals with all these issues, but is also at one with a general New Testament message that true God-willed human community is possible, and that a new social concept called an ekklesia, could embody that, with the values that had been part of the Jewish tradition of the Kingdom of Heaven. Such communities would be inclusive though diverse, and would put love, mercy, compassion, forgiveness, sharing, sacrifice and lust for life at the centre of what you might call their prospectus.”#

***

In Everyday Conversations with Matthew, published this month, John Holdsworth imagines the kind of people who might benefit from ‘talking’ to the gospel. What questions could they bring to Matthew’s account?

How might a young student be inspired by the sermon on the Mount? How can environmentalists, anxious for the future of the world, connect with Matthew’s concerns about the End?

These everyday conversations are predicated on a belief that connections are possible; that there are ways of seeing the pastoral or practical usefulness of the text, and, ultimately that there is some point in reading, preaching and teaching from Matthew’s gospel.

Get £2 off the RRP in our pre-publication offer.

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The books that influenced me in my twenties…

The theology we encounter in our twenties has a profound effect on our understanding of God, faith and the world for the rest of our lives – and crucial to that process is what we read.

To mark Academic Book Week, and a few days ahead of the live final of Theology Slam on 7th March, we asked our judges what book most influenced them in their early adulthood.

Isabelle Hamley, Chaplain to Archbishop Justin Welby


Isabelle Hamley

“My twenties were a time of a lot of theological searching and reading! I was hugely influenced by a mix of writers, but I guess the most important was, without a doubt, Walter Brueggemann. Until I read his Theology of the Old Testament, I had thought the OT boring and off putting. Reading this totally transformed how I read the OT, with the notion of testimony and counter-testimony, helped me look out for story rather than proposition, and gave birth to my own passion for the Old Testament – and got me to read many more Brueggemann books!

“I found Phyllis Trible equally fascinating in unlocking some of the most difficult texts of the OT, particularly in relation to gender and gender violence, both in Texts of Terror and in God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality.

“In a completely different register, reading Henri Nouwen’s The Inner Voice of Love marked a turning point in my spirituality and how I understood my own self in relation to God. Other contenders on my ‘turning point’ booklist would include liberation theology in general, Gutierrez’s Theology of Liberation in particular, as well as my all time favourite, Moltmann’s The Crucified God. The book that most influence my theology however is not a book of theology but a novel, Toni Morrison’s Beloved. It has so much about power, identity, relationships and oppression that it changed my outlook on the world and turned me into quite a passionate social activist! It is a bit of an eclectic list, but, as I said, this was a time of exploring beyond the confines of what the ‘set texts’ of traditional theology in a white protestant church were.”

Mark Greene, Executive Director, LICC

Mark Greene

“The book that most thrilled and liberated me was Francis Schaeffer’s The God Who is There. I picked it up in a bookshop on Madison Avenue when I was about 28…

“I’d always been interested in contemporary literature and films and art but I came to Christ in my last week at Uni and I’d never seen or read anything by a Christian that engaged with any of that material.

“Schaeffer had read everything I’d read and far, far more, seen more films, thought about more art. He not only appreciated and understood the material  but he was able to read it through biblical lenses that clarified the yearnings that lay behind the work as well as the flaws in the artists’ worldviews. I was blown away by his analysis and exhilarated to discover that there was someone out there who shared my interest in culture and could be my guide.”

Eve Poole, Theologian and Third Church Estates Commissioner

Eve Poole

“I was taught Theology at Durham by the legendary Ann Loades, who introduced me to Simone Weil.

“Not only was I transfixed by her writings on affliction, in her book Waiting for God I found what became for me the best apologia for my vocation in her essay ‘Hesitations Concerning Baptism’.  Her well-meaning priest was trying to persuade her to be baptised, but she declined, saying: ‘I cannot help still wondering whether in these days when so large a proportion of humanity is sunk in materialism, God does not want there to be some men and women who have given themselves to him and to Christ and yet who remain outside the Church.’

My career has very much held this tension between God and Mammon in order that I might remain intelligible to the secular world, but like Weil I often find this a hard fence to be sitting on.”

John Swinton, Chair in Divinity, Aberdeen University

John Swinton

“I’m not sure I can remember being in my twenties but I guess it must have happened! The book that most influenced me was probably a little book by Jean Vanier called Brokenness and Community. The book began life as  two lectures given by Vanier as part of the Wit Lecture series at Harvard University in 1988.

“It is just beautiful in its simplicity. I like to think of the puzzled looks that the good students at Harvard must have shared as Vanier informed them that being clever was not the thing to value, but rather that giving it all up and learning what life is about from those whom society considers to be weak and worthless was the way of the Kingdom. It must have been quite a challenge for them. It was for me.

“But I guess that was the first time that I began to think about community and belonging and what it might really mean to be present for one another. What I liked about that book (apart from its brevity!) was that Vanier didn’t try to romanticize community. He calls us to it warts and all; a life together that is filled with conflict, tension, joy, love, forgiveness and grace. It is within such a community that we discover the God who comes to us in our poverty and who heals our hearts with the simplicity of love.  I’m not sure I have ever quite lost that vision, even if I do struggle to live into it sometime.”


The Live Final of Theology Slam takes place at St John’s Hoxton, London on 7th March at 7pm. Tickets are selling fast, but there are a few still available here.

For more information about Academic Book Week, visit https://acbookweek.com/

Theology Slam: Meet the Finalists

Ahead of the Theology Slam Live Final on 7th March, Ed Thornton of the Church Times caught up with the three finalists.


Hannah Barr

Hannah Barr, 27, is a first-year ordinand and Ph.D. student at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford. Before training for ordination, she worked for an international children’s charity and was a non-resident member of the Community of St Anselm. She has an undergraduate theology degree from the University of Exeter, and an M.Phil. in theology from the University of Oxford.

She was encouraged by friends to enter the competition, she says, and chose “Theology and the #MeToo Movement”. “I’m really passionate about the #MeToo movement, and I really want the Church to take its response to the movement seriously, even though it’s going to be uncomfortable.”

It is a subject that she knows well. “I’ve been looking at the issue of sexual consent since my Master’s, and watching what has happened in our cultural and societal conscience with #MeToo. . . I’m keen that we keep #MeToo on the agenda.”

She senses among her generation “a real enthusiasm to have God made real to everyday life. My generation isn’t content with being told statements about God and the world and taking them at face value. Actually, it really wants to grapple with them. In sharing the message of Jesus with our friends around us, really grounding it in the questions that people have today — that’s a real priority for this generation.”

Sara Prats

Sara Prats, 23, from Spain, is studying for a Bachelor degree in divinity at the University of London, part-time, and for a Master’s at the University of Birmingham. Her talk will be on “Theology and Mental Health”.

She found out about the competition from her BA director of studies. She was very excited to be chosen as a finalist. “I have never spoken about theology in front of an audience; so that makes me feel very nervous.”

She says that the support of Mr Williams has made her feel “much more calm and confident with what I am going to do”, however.

Her talk will examine “‘How the rise in mental-health issues among millennials is related, somehow, with the loss of the reference of our identity in God’ — by that I mean the way God looks at us, and the context in which God created us.”

She is familiar with the territory, having studied psychology. “Theology Slam has given to me an opportunity to show a new perspective, from theology, about the mental-health issues that adolescents are facing nowadays.”

Hannah Malcolm

Hannah Malcolm, 26, works as project co-ordinator at God and the Big Bang, an organisation that runs workshops for young people on science and religion.

She studied theology as an undergraduate at the University of Cambridge, followed by a Master’s degree in World Christianities at Yale Divinity School.

She found out about the competition on Twitter. “It was such an interesting idea to have spoken theology, and to challenge people to think about how communicating theology out loud has to be different from the way that you write it,” she says. “That really appealed to me.”

Ms Malcolm’s presentation will be on “Theology and the Environment”, although she says that she wants to avoid referring too much to “the environment”, which is “quite a clinical and alienating and scientific-sounding word. It doesn’t trigger any emotional response or sense of attachment.

“I’m going to be looking at the idea that watching the world around us go through climate breakdown, and watching other members of the community of creation suffer and die, produces in us a feeling of grief and sorrow. That is something worth exploring theologically.”

She has enjoyed honing both the content of her presentation and its delivery style with Samuel P.S. Williams (the ‘narrative consultant’ who has been preparing all three finalists for the final). “It’s been really interesting to have an outsider perspective on my topic. . . It is a new idea that theology is something you can have in a public and slightly less formal setting. I hope that will challenge people on the night — that doing theology doesn’t just mean doing it in a university setting.”


Excerpt from an article first published in the Church Times. Click here for the full article. 

For more information and details of how to buy tickets for the live final, see www.churchtimes.co.uk/theology-slam 

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What Comes After Post-Christendom?

Last year, we published the 2nd edition of Post-Christendom: Church and Mission in a Strange New World. The author is Stuart Murray,Tutor in Mission at Bristol Baptist College. He contributed a guest post to our blog. 

For the past thirty years I have been reflecting on the implications of the demise of the Christendom era – the long period of European history in which church and state were partners in a sacral society and the Christian story shaped western culture.

I have tried to differentiate between the undoubted achievements and glorious legacy of that era and its follies, cruelties, compromises and collusions that have so damaged the church’s witness to Jesus Christ.

My inclination is to celebrate the end of this era and welcome the fresh opportunities that are emerging, alongside many challenges, but I have learned that many in our churches need first to grieve what they sense we have lost.

In hundreds of contexts in many nations I have attempted to offer some interpretation of what is happening and some guidance as to how we might respond. And I have insisted that the term ‘post-Christendom’ refers to a period of transition, not to whatever will emerge after Christendom.

For several years what I brought was clearly new to most people. They recognised what I was describing but they did not have an interpretive framework for it. They had many of the jigsaw pieces but needed the big picture. It has been exciting to watch lights going on all over the room. Some were troubled by what they learned, but many more were excited and energised by this new understanding.

In more recent years, though, the responses and questions have changed. The term ‘post-Christendom’ is much more widely understood (and not so often unhelpfully conflated with ‘post-modernity’), so conversations tend to move on more quickly to exploring the implications for mission, discipleship, church life and social engagement.

Indeed, for many young adults the term is largely meaningless – their perception is that they have never experienced the Christendom era (although they are affected by its legacy even if they don’t realise this). And more often the question arises – what might come next after the transitional period that ‘post-Christendom’ represents? What might be the features of ‘post-post-Christendom’?

I have responded to this question in three main ways.

First, I have suggested that the transitional period will be lengthy and complex. Rather than peering ahead and trying to discern the features of whatever might come next, our priority is to negotiate the turbulence of this transition as creatively and courageously as we can.

Second, I have focused on one significant feature of the transition that is almost certain to persist for the foreseeable future: the Christian community will be a minority in a culture it no longer dominates.

In my book, A Vast Minority, I have explored the implications of this. It is not just that we are a minority (as many Christian communities are across the world) but we are an ‘ex-majority minority’, which presents very different theological, psychological and logistical challenges. I’m very interested in what kind of minority we choose to be.

Third, in some contexts I have offered five possible scenarios of what might come after post-Christendom. I have prefaced this presentation by insisting that I don’t know which of these, or which combination, is more likely:

  • Europe after Christendom might be predominantly Muslim. Continuing growth in this community through its higher than average birth rate, conversions and limited further migration might at some point result in a Muslim majority in Europe.
  • Europe after Christendom might be predominantly secular. Continuing decline in religious belief and practice and the pervasive impact of secularisation on all faith groups might result in religion being further marginalised but tolerated because it is not worth persecuting.
  • Europe after Christendom might experience a resurgence of Christian faithas Christians from other parts of the world learn to engage effectively in ‘reverse mission’ and join forces with a chastened and renewed indigenous church.
  • Europe after Christendom might be a post-modern smorgasbord of philosophies, beliefs, subcultures and interest groups with no one of these persuasive enough to form a new basis for social cohesion to replace a discredited Christendom. This may result in a brutalist culture dominated by military consumerism.
  • Europe after Christendom might face civilizational collapse as multiple threats to health, the environment, economics and social stability combine with a vacuum in the realm of values and the absence of political vision.

As the revised and updated version of my book, Post-Christendom, is published, my hope is that the book will continue to stimulate debate. In this transitional period we are likely to have many more questions than answers, and any answers are likely to be provisional. I find inspiration and insights in the long-marginalised Anabaptist tradition, which challenged the Christendom synthesis nearly 500 years ago, but we will need each other and the contributions of many different traditions if we are to chart a course into this strange new world.

Post-Christendom is included in our Winter Sale. Click here to see other titles on offer

Two Critically Acclaimed Books on the Apostle Paul

Amongst the gems in our Winter Sale this year are two critically acclaimed books on Paul…


Paul on Baptism:
Theology, Mission and Ministry in Context

“This book is a brilliant example of the best scholarship offered at the service of the church. Anyone who wants to think deeply about their own theology of baptism, inspired by the Pauline texts, will find this an invaluable source of lucid and thoughtful insight. I highly recommend it.”

Paula Gooder

Drawing on recent scholarship on the Pauline tradition within early Christianity, Nicholas Taylor examines Paul’s theology of baptism and highlights its practical application in ministry today.

It considers what the rite represented and effected, in the light of the social and cultural milieu in which his letters were written, and of his strategies for mission and the formation and nurture of new Christian communities. The need to integrate recent scholarship with contemporary pastoral issues, and to do so in a theologically reflective way, is acute.

Using a wide range of social scientific approaches to the ancient world and Christian origins, including identity, religious conversion, and ritual, the book explores the implications of this reconstruction for contemporary issues of baptismal practice, pastoral care and mission, aiming to bring the insights of specialists to those working on the frontline of pastoral practice.

35% off RRP in our Winter Sale (save £7)


Paul: The Apostle’s Life, Letters and Thought

“There is no better introduction to Paul, for the simple reason that nobody has approached the task with greater mastery of sources, greater clarity of mind, and greater keenness of insight than E.P. Sanders. This is that rare textbook that will educate both beginning and lifelong students”

Craig C. Hill, Duke Divinity School

The Apostle Paul is the author of almost half of the New Testament and one of Christianity’s key theologians. In this new and ground-breaking book, E. P. Sanders offers an expansive introduction to the apostle, navigating some of the thorniest issues in scholarship using language accessible to the novice and seasoned scholar alike.  

As well as giving a detailed study of the life of Paul and an close reading of Paul’s letters he offers profound and wide-ranging insights into the legacy of the man without whom Christianity would not be what it is today.

E. P. Sanders has for many years been one of the leading scholars of Paul’s life and work. His book is a key text for scholars and students alike.

50% off RRP in our winter sale (save £20)

God in an Age of Empire

Featured in our Winter Sale, God, Neighbour, Empire by Walter Brueggeman (with a foreword by Jane Williams) demonstrates how the Old Testament offers an alternative to the imperial narrative that dominates ordinary imagination both in ancient times and in the present. Here is an extract from the introduction.


Biblical texts always emerged in a context. We often cannot determine with any precision the exact historical moment or circumstance of such emergence of any particular text. But we can determine, very often, the macro-context of political economy for such emergence, for the patterns of political economy in the ancient world are recurring.

Specifically, much of the Old Testament text emerged in contexts of empire amid great concentrations of wealth and power. Thus, we are able to trace a sequence of empires and their impact in the Old Testament from the paradigmatic empire of Pharaoh in Egypt to the Assyrian, Babylonian, and Persian empires, to the global power of Alexander the Great and his Hellenistic successors, and finally to the Roman Empire. This sequence, in large sweep, was interrupted in ancient Israel only by the modest empire of Solomon (the Davidic dynasty) that presided over the Jerusalem establishment for a long period of time.

Given some particularities, it is fair to say that ancient empires, like contemporary empires, can be identified by recurring markers. For our purposes we may identify three characteristic marks of imperial policy and practice.

First, empires existed to extract wealth in order to transfer wealth from the vulnerable to the powerful. (Solomon’s practice of extraction featured an imposing taxation system. See 1 Kings 4:7-19 and the revolt against his taxation system in 1 Kings 12:1-19.)

Second, empires pursued a policy of commoditization in which everything and everyone was reduced to a dispensable commodity that could be bought and sold and traded and possessed and consumed. (Solomon’s practice of commoditization is evident in his policy of forced labor [1 Kgs 5:13; 9:20-22] and his expansive trade policies that produced seemingly limitless wealth for his entourage [1 Kgs 10:13-25].)

Third, empires that practiced extraction and commoditization were fully prepared to undertake violence on whatever scale was required for the success of extraction and commoditization. (For Solomon, the combination of taxation, slavery, and confiscatory trade constituted a state policy in readiness for violence.) All such policies and practices could be justified as they secured the expansive wealth of the empire.

These policies and practices, moreover, were regularly legitimated by liturgical enactment of myths that allied the power of God to the power of the state. Such an understanding of god (gods) was perforce top-down, so that the claims of empire were theologically imposed by the empire of force.

The gods whom the liturgy attested were champions of extraction and commoditization in the service of a coherent social order. That social order eventually came to be accepted as normal and normative by the populace, so that extraction and commoditization came to be viewed as routine.

Such hegemony, performed as normative liturgy, becomes the “common sense limit” of ordinary life beyond which it is not possible to imagine. The god (gods) celebrated in the imperial liturgy assured the legitimacy, normalcy, and ordinariness of such policy and practice.

It is in that recurring, almost constant context of empire that the Old Testament became the countertext of ancient Israel. The Old Testament is offered as an alternative to the imperial narrative that dominates ordinary imagination. That countertext intends to subvert the dominant imperial text and so is rightly seen as a “sub-version.” The trajectory of texts that the synagogue and the church entertain as “good news” bears witness to an emancipatory God who stands apart from

and over against the mythic claims of imperial religion.  The God attested in the Exodus narrative, the covenantal tradition of Deuteronomy, and the prophetic corpus stands over against the ideology of empire. The paradigmatic narrative of Exodus–sojourn–Sinai, presided over by Moses, yields an alternative narrative that is occupied by an alternative God:

  • The Exodus narrative (Exod 1–15) exhibits Yhwh—in the service of emancipation and the end of economic extraction—as more powerful than the Egyptian gods (see Exod 12:12).
  •  The narrative of wilderness sojourn (Exod 16–18)— with the surprising gifts of abundant water, bread, and meat—witnesses against the usurpatious ideology of scarcity that propels Pharaoh. The wilderness narrative teems with abundance for all for all.
  • The meeting at Sinai yields a covenantal relationship wherein Yhwh and the people of Yhwh pledge abiding fidelity to each other (Exod 19–24):

This very day the Lord your God is commanding you to observe these statutes and ordinances; so observe them diligently with all your heart and with all your soul. Today you have obtained the Lord’s agreement: to be your God, and for you to walk in his ways, to keep his statutes, his commandments, and his ordinances, and to obey him. Today the Lord has obtained your agreement: to be his treasured people, for him to set you high above all nations that he has made, in praise and in fame, and in honor; and for you to be a people holy to the Lord your God, as he promised. (Deut 26:16-19)

In sum we are able to see that the emancipatory narrative of Exodus, the abundance attested in the wilderness, and the covenant of Sinai provide a very different account of lived reality in the world due to the decisive agency of Yhwh. In each of these episodes in the narrative, it is the newly engaged God, Yhwh, who makes the decisive difference. Yhwh is unlike the gods of the empire; Yhwh has no interest in extraction:

Not for your sacrifices do I rebuke you;
your burnt offerings are continually before me.
I will not accept a bull from your house, or goats from your folds.
For every wild animal of the forest is mine, the cattle on a thousand hills.
I know all the birds of the air,
and all that moves in the field is mine. (Ps 50:8-11)

Yhwh values human community and human persons, and refuses the reduction of even the vulnerable to the status of dispensable commodity:

You shall not deprive a resident alien or an orphan of justice; you shall not take a widow’s garment in pledge. (Deut 24:17)

This God, as given in the narrative, is not immune to the practice of violence, but the narrative of this God is on a trajectory that critiques the practice of violence in the interest of neighbourliness.

 Thus, the issue is joined in the narrative between the imperial practice of extraction, commodity, and violence legitimated by the imperial gods, and the practice of neighbourly reality and fidelity legitimated by the emancipatory, covenant-making God of Israelite tradition. It is conventional to assign to the imperial gods the qualities of omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence. And Yhwh, to be sure, is seen as well to be all-powerful, all-knowing, and everywhere present. These marks that are common among the gods, however, are not the most characteristic marking of Yhwh. In contrast to the gods of empire, Yhwh is praised and celebrated most characteristically for an eager capacity for fidelity. This turns out to be the tenacious, long-term commitment of Yhwh to Yhwh’s covenant partners, Israel and all creation. It is fidelity that marks the good news of Israel’s texts and that speaks broadly and passionately against extraction and commoditization.

The decisive difference in this God yields, derivatively, a decisively different notion of world history and of human persons in human community. When the gods are presented as legitimators of extraction and commoditization, then the mark of effective humanness is to be competent extractors who can reduce all else to dispensable commodity. When, however, the legitimating God is an agent of reliable, big-time fidelity, then the quintessence of humanness is the practice of such fidelity that embraces neighbourliness and that eventuates in a society of public justice. Thus, in the emancipatory-covenantal tradition of the Old Testament, human agents are, in replication of the emancipatory, covenant-making God, charged with neighbourly fidelity. Whereas imperial accounts of reality specialize in static order and the maintenance of preferred arrangements in the political economy, the tradition of emancipatory covenant-making, by contrast, affirms human agents who have the capacity and responsibility to act transformatively for the well-being of the human community and the ecology of creation.

All of that pertains to the ancient context wherein the subversive narrative of Israel lived in ongoing tension with imperial accounts of reality, and amid that tension resisted imperial accounts while proposing alternatives. Our reading of these ancient texts is, characteristically, by way of analogue. We are drawn to trace out analogues between the “original” context of the text and our contemporary reading context. And when we do that, we find that we ourselves also read the biblical texts in contexts of imperial power.

While we can, in global context, identify other empires or would-be empires, closest to us are the imperial pretensions of the United States, for globalization is primarily a project of political economy propelled by the United States.6 It is easy enough to see that the United States, with its inexhaustible consumerism, its unrivalled military power, and its growing economic gap between haves and have-nots, is a forceful, willful practitioner of extraction and commoditization.

In that context, our contemporary reading of the Bible, in its emancipatory, covenant-making trajectory, invites to sub-version, resistance, and alternative. In our present social circumstance of willful extraction and commoditization, the practice of neighbourly fidelity, in replication of the neighbourly fidelity of the God of the gospel, is a crucial mandate for the well-being of our society.


God Neighbour Empire: The Excess of Fidelity and the Command of the Common Good, is available for £12.00 in our Winter Sale.

Why we Still Need Catholic Social Teaching in an Age of Brexit

An exclusive guest post by Simon Cuff , tutor and lecturer in Theology at St Mellitus College


I don’t envy the Prime Minister. We’ve all seen just how difficult a task it has been to get a deal through Parliament, following the vote of the United Kingdom to leave the European Union. If the referendum result was clear about anything, it was that the United Kingdom is a divided society. 52 to 48 speaks loudly of the division within our society over the future direction of our nation.

Subsequent opinion polls, debates, and the difficulty of finding a means to leave the European Union that garners widespread support continue to demonstrate that if there’s one thing we can agree on, it’s that we are a nation divided.

Brexit is not the only division in society. We are divided by wealth, geography, opportunity, colour, gender, age and more besides. Leave and Remain, rich and poor, north and south. We are divided even within our divisions. Division between generations appears on the rise. Calls for intergenerational fairness have gathered pace, as millennials and succeeding generations struggle to buy homes and appear to be the first cohort to earn less than the parents at the same age[1].

Within Scripture, S. Mark’s Gospel reminds us: ‘If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand’ (Mark 3.24-5). Divided communities, divided nations, divided churches are not able to stand. Divided communities, divided nations, divided churches are not able to flourish and be those cradles of human flourishing God calls them to be. A deeply divided society is not a society living life in all its fullness. A deeply divided society is not a society in communion with God and with neighbour, practising that love which overcomes divisions and tears down the walls we put between ourselves.

In the midst of such divisions, Catholic Social Teaching has much to offer to all Christian communities seeking to play their part in overcoming divisions and putting the Christian faith into action. The principles of Catholic Social Teaching derive from more than a century of thought and praxis within the Roman Catholic Church about how to overcome such divisions and social ills.

Division in society is not new. Widely recognised as the foundational document of Catholic Social Teaching, Rerum Novarum, the 1891 letter of Pope Leo XIII knownwas written in part in response to such divisions, and to offer practical solutions to the worsening living conditions of the urban poor at the end of the 19th Century.

Less well-known is his letter Aeterni Patrisof 1879, in which the Pope observes and rejects the various solutions from communism to authoritarianism being proposed to these worsening social situations. Instead, he writes: ‘Domestic and civil society even, which, as all see, is exposed to great danger from this plague of perverse opinions, would certainly enjoy a far more peaceful and secure existence if a more wholesome doctrine were taught in the universities and high schools – one more in conformity with the teaching of the Church, such as is contained in the works of Thomas Aquinas’ (§28).

Observing a divided and broken society, he recommends a healthy dose of St Thomas.

I’ve always thought Pope Leo was a little optimistic to think that society would be more peaceably ordered if everybody was reading medieval theology. (From my limited experience trying to teach the thought of St Thomas, it initially raises the level of discontent rather than soothes it, as students grapple with the question and answer method he adopts in his great theological text book, the Summa Theologica.)

Once you begin that grappling, however, you start to see the truth in what Pope Leo had to say, because central to the thought of St Thomas is justice. Justice is what will put an end to the social ills and divisions that ravaged society then, and continue to ravage society now.

For St Thomas Aquinas, justice is a kind of relationship. A relationship which brings with it certain rights and duties, which preserve this right relationship. Herbert McCabe, the Dominican theologian, puts this simply: ‘Justice, for Aquinas is the stable disposition to give everyone his or her due; it is concerned with maintaining an equality between people. Justice, then, is essentiality about a relation to another and its criteria are objective’.[2]

Justice, for Aquinas, is the restoration of a relationship that has broken down, the restoration of someone to their rightful place in society.

This is precisely the justice we hear proclaimed by our Lord in St Luke’s Gospel (4.16-20): good news to the poor; release to the captives; recovery of sight to the blind; the oppressed go free, the year of the Lord’s favour – the year of jubilee and the release from debt which jubilee brings. These are the contours of justice, the return to right relationship willed by the Lord.

This is the justice we hear about in Mary’s song (Luke 1.46-55), the Magnificat, too – the proud humbled, the mighty brought down, the lowly exalted, the hungry filled, the rich – those who rest content with excess, whilst others remain in poverty – sent away empty; right relationship restored.

This is the justice we see Jesus bringing about throughout the Gospels. The outcast and the marginalised are brought back into their proper relationship in society, the poor, the widow, the leper, the sick, the women, the divorcee at the well, the adulterer – all encounter Jesus and are restored to right relationship, with God and with their neighbour.

This is how Jesus always brings about justice. Jesus is God’s means of bringing about justice for the entire human race. God becomes one of us to restore us to right relationship with him, to take humanity to himself, to reconcile us in Christ.

This justice, this restoration of relationship, is at the heart of Catholic Social Teaching. Catholic Social Teaching, as Archbishop Welby has reminded us, is nothing other than an ‘applied outworking of the good news of Jesus Christ in terms of social structures and social justice’.[3]

Catholic Social Teaching offers a set of principles which help us to live out the justice of the Gospel as we seek to restore the broken relationships of injustice, and overcome the divisions in society which are a violation of this right relationship God intends.

The principles derived ultimately from Scripture and which Catholic Social Teaching has distilled are: the inalienable dignity of the human person, the common good, solidarity, subsidiarity and the preferential option of the poor.

These principles teach us that an action will be in keeping with the demands of justice if it recognises each human being as created in God’s image and as being chosen by God in Christ. Any action which instrumentalises a person is rejected as a violation of the principle of inalienable dignity. Any action which benefits one group whilst harming another is rejected as a violation of that group’s dignity and the solidarity between individuals which arises out of our shared humanity and relationship in Christ. Christian action must seek that which benefits the whole of society, the genuinely common good. The principle of the common good also asks difficult questions about how we use our property to benefit not just ourselves but our community and society at large.

The principle of subsidiarity encourages decision-making to be made as close to the person impacted by a decision as possible. It also encourages a vibrant society with healthy small and medium-sized institutions, faith-groups, charities and trade unions, where individuals can grow in the confidence and skills needed to participate fully in society and enjoy a life of truly human flourishing and relationship.

Finally, and most importantly, the preferential option for the poor requires an awareness of how each and every action will effect the poorest and most marginalised in our society. It remembers God’s special concern for the poor not only as objects of charity, but as an indictment on human society. The preferential option for the poor calls upon every Christian community to be alert to the mechanisms of marginalisation and poverty which give rise to human impoverishment.

Living according to the principles of Catholic Social Teaching restores relationships across society, and helps to bring about the justice which will overcome the most entrenched divisions between us.

Finally, it is obvious that division is as rife in the Church as in society at large. Christian unity sadly remains a distant, if often prayed-for dream. The Roman Catholic Church too has its own divisions and tensions between liberals and conservatives, progressives and reactionaries, traditionalists and social reformers.

The principles of Catholic Social Teaching have emerged in the context of such division, out of the Catholic Church’s experience of seeking consensus across the range of opinion which is included in such a large and diverse organisation. John Carr calls this process of finding consensus and discerning truth between extremes in ‘often ideological and polarised’ debates “the Catholic AND”, which ‘brings together complementary ideas and values into a more coherent and integrated framework’[4]. He gives the examples of Catholic Social Teaching’s emphasis that private property exists as a right, but one that brings with it responsibility; and that human work is a duty, but a duty that must be properly remunerated with decent wages and working conditions.

As the divisions in our society seem no closer to being overcome in the course of the Brexit debate, and consensus on what sort of future we want for our nation seems no closer to being achieved, this might be the most valuable contribution that Catholic Social Teaching has to make. It is a lesson in consensus according to red lines which safeguard the dignity and image of God in each and every human being, and brings together opposing groups around a hopeful vision of the common good.

Whatever Brexit means for the future of our society, the principles of Catholic Social Teaching might be a good set of red lines to build a more just and harmonious society. A society which is shaped according to this ‘applied outworking of the good news of Jesus Christ’. A society which has come together to overcome division, to live in right relationship with God and with each other, to put that love into action which is the heart of the Gospel according to which we as Christians order our lives.


Published in February, Fr Simon Cuff’s book Love in Action: Catholic Social Teaching for Every Church offers an accessible introduction for Christians of all denominations to Catholic Social Teaching and its importance well beyond the Catholic Church. Pre-order now and get 20% off.


[1] See Cuff, S., ‘Prodigal Daughters and Sons: Millennials and Generational Fairness’ in Crucible (forthcoming)

[2] McCabe, H. On Aquinas (London: Continuum 2008) 150

[3] Welby, J. Reimagining Britain: Foundations for Hope (London: Bloomsbury 2018) 35

[4] Carr, J., ‘Moving from Research to Action: Some Lessons and Directions (from a Catholic Social Ministry Bureaucrat)’ in Finn, D. (ed.) The True Wealth of Nations: Catholic Social Thought and Economic Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2010) 341 – 349, 346