U.S. policy in Syria is insane

American policy in Syria increasingly looks insane. A Syrian war plane, involved in the Syrian government’s ongoing battle with ISIS in Eastern Syria, was shot down by America – who thought it was a threat to a local militia that America happened to be supporting.

In the light of this, it is worth remembering that 9 months ago, in September 2016, the American-led coalition attacked Syrian forces near Deir ez-Zor who were involved in a battle with ISIS, killing about 100 Syrian soldiers. The coalition claimed it was a mistake. But it’s funny that it is now twice within a year that America has attacked Syrian forces involved in battles with ISIS.

And exactly what authority does America have over Syrian territory anyway?  Not only is Syria not part of the USA, it isn’t even anywhere near the USA.

Basically, American armed forces went into Syria uninvited by the Syrian goverment, shot down a Syrian plane, and then called it “self-defense.”   That’s like someone breaking into your house, and when you challenge them, they shoot you, and then claim they acted in self-defense.

Are any other countries allowed to operate this way?  Or is it simply that might is right?  What would happen if other countries operated this way?

I can’t help this is yet another case where Galatians 6:7 applies: “Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap.”

To quote Daniel Larison

” . . . the U.S. has no authority to be engaged in hostilities anywhere in Syria, and [its] government certainly has no authority to attack Syrian government forces operating inside their own country in support for anti-regime insurgents . . . .   [Its] Syria policy . . . is also illegal.”

It is hardly surprising that Russia has now said it will treat coalition forces in some parts of Syria as targets.

And why exactly is the UK involved in the American-led coalition?   It seems extremely foolish to me.

But nobody seems to be asking that question.

 

Note: For background information on the situation in Syria see my previous posts on the subject:

The situation in Syria: 1) The Christian community

Syria 2: Politics, insanity and dishonesty

Syria 3: Motes, Beams, and Russians

And see also Philip Giraldi’s excellent article “Who is destroying Syria?

 

Putting one’s trust in princes: thoughts on the General Election

The General Election turned out to be a little more interesting than expected. As with the referendum on EU membership and the American presidential election, the result was not quite what was anticipated. Until the exit poll showed that a hung parliament was likely, most people reckoned that the Conservatives would have an overall majority – probably a substantial one. However, it was not to be.

And that has made this election very interesting – for two reasons.

The first is that, once again, almost everybody got it so wrong. But one person, in particular, got it very seriously wrong: Theresa May. When she called the election in April, the Conservatives were almost 20 percentage points ahead of Labour in the opinion polls – the only time in the last 20 years, other than a few months in 2008, when they had such a commanding lead. It must have seemed too good to be true.

Polling for the election_crop

It was. The gap narrowed over the course of the campaign, but even then, the Conservatives still appeared to have a lead of 6 or 7 points on the eve of the election – sufficient to give them a good majority. But when the votes were counted, the Conservative lead over Labour was only 2 points – not enough for them to form a government without the help of another party.

Theresa May turned out to have been seriously mistaken.

The fallibility of the powerful

Of course, she wasn’t the only one who was wrong. One of the reasons she was so confident was because Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, was widely thought to be a major electoral liability for the Labour Party. Many people in the Labour Party warned that choosing Corbyn as leader was the road to disaster.

And, in particular, Tony Blair did. In August, 2015, he wrote: “If Jeremy Corbyn becomes leader it won’t be a defeat like 1983 or 2015 at the next election. It will mean rout, possibly annihilation.”

I mention Tony Blair for a particular reason. This is not the first time Tony Blair has been badly wrong. He has been wrong about many things, but he will go down in history for being wrong about one thing in particular: weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) and the decision to involve Britain in the disastrous invasion of Iraq. It is well worth reading his comments over the months on the subject of WMDs as listed by the BBC here.   Until the publication of the Butler Report in July 2004, Blair was convinced that Iraq had WMDs. Only after its publication did he admit that he was wrong.

What is significant about this is that in the House of Commons vote in 2003 about invading Iraq, Theresa May voted for war while Jeremy Corbyn didn’t. Andrew Marr, interviewing her on the 30th April said

And you have raised again and again the question of Jeremy Corbyn. Can I put it to you that when it came to one of the most important votes that we’ve had in recent times, on the Iraq war. Whatever you think of Jeremy Corbyn, he was on the right side, looking at history, and you were on the wrong side. You went into the voting lobbies behind Tony Blair and voted for the Iraq war, which had so many disastrous consequences. And he did the unpopular thing and stood out against it.

Marr called it one of the most important votes we’ve had in recent times. I suspect that’s an understatement. I think it is the most important vote in Parliament in the last 30 years.

But the point is this. Theresa May and Tony Blair have both shown themselves to have the ability to be very seriously wrong. Tony Blair’s mistake in 2003 effectively destroyed Iraq; Theresa May’s decision in April this year looks likely to finish her political career.

But it is not just them. Politicians have a remarkable ability to be wrong. Daniel Hannan’s amusing video “Wrong Then, Wrong Now” (about how most of the British political establishment turned out to be wrong about the Euro) is very instructive. Prime Ministers, Parliament, and the political establishment have a track record of being disastrously wrong.

And yet a remarkable number of people in Britain look to the government – which in practice means Prime Ministers, Parliament, and the political establishment – for solutions to the major problems that the country faces.

They need to heed the words of Psalm 146:3: “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortal men, who cannot save.

Uncertainty

Which brings me to my second comment about the election.

It seems to me that one of the main reactions to the election is concern about “uncertainty.” A lot of people seem to feel that not knowing exactly who is going to be in government is a cause for anxiety.

I find this strange. We live with great uncertainties all the time. Why is not knowing exactly who will be in government such a big problem?

I think that this is closely related to the fact that many people think that a hung parliament is, per se, problematical. They think that the country needs a “strong” government. And, it seems to me, the reason they believe this is because people look to government for solutions to problems. When people see a problem, many of them ask the question “What is the government going to do about it?”

In other words, there is what we might call a “something must be done” mentality with regard to government – and the reason for that is that people have an almost childlike faith in government to solve problems. They may not believe that a particular government will solve the problem – but they believe that government can solve the problem, and should attempt to do so.

I’m sceptical. I suspect that most social problems do not have political solutions.

Indeed, I would go so far as to say that in my opinion, the way so many people look to government to solve the social problems the country is facing is a prime example of trusting in princes.

I’m with the Psalmist:

Do not put your trust in princes,
   in mortal men, who cannot save.
When their spirit departs, they return to the ground;
   on that very day their plans come to nothing.
Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob,
   whose hope is in the LORD his God,
the Maker of heaven and earth,
   the sea, and everything in them—
   the LORD, who remains faithful forever.

Biblical priorities in voting

“When it comes to a matter of public policy, Christians have to assess biblical priorities.”

So says the Christian Institute, in a section of its “Election Briefing 2017” entitled “Biblical priorities in voting.” The question, in other words, is “What guidance does the Bible give to the Christian who is wondering how to vote?”

Of course, elections for public office are not mentioned in the Bible. True, ancient Athens was a democracy, and the Roman Republic had democratic institutions as well – the Centuriate Assembly was elected by Roman citizens, and had considerable powers. But by the time of the New Testament, the emperor ruled supreme, and voting by the citizens was a thing of the past.

But does the Bible give any guidance about what Christians should hope to see in rulers. And, in particular, does it give any guidance about what issues Christians should be focussing on when looking at manifestos and questioning candidates?

Politics and the Ten Commandments

The Christian Institute has this to say:

 . . . the Bible is “clear, direct, and decisive” about a whole host of political issues. For example, a vote for abortion or euthanasia is a vote to break the sixth Commandment on the law of murder (Exodus 20:13). These are the kinds of issues that we focus on in this briefing – straightforward matters of right or wrong.

That is a very interesting comment. It seems to be saying if one does not vote in favour of making abortion a criminal offence, one is voting to break the 6th commandment. The implication is that people are, at the very least, encouraging others to break the break the commandment if they vote this way.  At worst, they may be breaking the commandment themselves.

This immediately raises a question: Does this apply to other commandments? If I were an MP and there was a vote on making adultery a criminal offence, would it be breaking the 7th commandment if I didn’t vote for it? If there was a vote on making it a criminal offence to make idols, would I be voting to break the second commandment if I didn’t support it? If there was a vote on whether to make coveting ones neighbour’s possessions a criminal offence, would I (as a Christian) be under a moral obligation to vote to make wanting someone else’s possessions a criminal offence?

In other words, it seems to me that just because something is forbidden by one of the ten commandments, it does not necessarily follow that Christians should want it to be a criminal offence. The Westminster Confession of Faith describes the Ten Commandments as part of the moral law; it does not suggest they form a basis for the judicial law. It seems to me that there is complete agreement among Christians that breaking the sixth and eighth commandments should generally be criminal offences, and most Christians would also reckon that some violations of the ninth commandment (thou shalt not bear false witness) should also be. But beyond that, there is no general agreement among Christians that breaking any of the others should be a crime. Indeed, I have never encountered a Christian who thought covetousness should be a criminal offence.

What exactly is forbidden by the sixth commandment?

And, speaking of the Westminster Confession, the Westminster Assembly also produced a document called the Larger Catechism, which in answer to the question “What are the sins forbidden in the sixth commandment? ” includes “sinful anger, hatred, envy, desire of revenge; all excessive passions, distracting cares; immoderate use of meat, drink, labour, and recreations; provoking words, oppression, quarrelling, striking, wounding, and whatsoever else tends to the destruction of the life of any.”

Which, if any of these, should be criminal offences?

The fact is, I believe that murder should be a criminal offence – but not simply because the Ten Commandments forbid it. But I am not sure which violations of the sixth commandment should be criminalised. It seems to me that there is strong case for making abortion a criminal offence because I find it very difficult to see why a living human individual that is entitled to legal protection after it is born should not be entitled to legal protection beforehand. Equally, it seems to me that killing another person in order to relieve their suffering – even with their consent – should be a criminal offence. (That is basically because the law does not generally allow one to do things that are otherwise illegal just because one’s motives are good, and someone might consent to something in a very depressed moment that they might later have changed their mind about.)

What are the Bible’s political priorities, anyway?

If I really wanted to know what the Bible had to say about about priorities in voting, I wouldn’t start with the Ten Commandments. In fact, I wouldn’t start with the Old Testament. We live in the New Testament age – the era of the gospel. As I explain in some detail on my post “What does Jesus want us to do with Leviticus“, things have changed fundamentally since Old Testament times in a way that they have not changed since. The relationship between Christians and government is basically the same as it was in the days of the apostles – in other words, New Testament times.

So my starting point for asking about the Biblical priorities in voting is to ask “What were the things that the New Testament Christians looked for in government – and particularly in rulers? Does the New Testament have anything to say about that?”

And the answer is that it does. I wrote:

it seems that the only matters of public policy that the New Testament has much interest in is that rulers would preserve order and freedom. Paul, writing to Timothy (I Timothy 2:1-2), says I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.” The big priority was basically that rulers would allow people to lead a peaceful and quiet life. In other words, pray that we would be spared tyranny, war, and a breakdown of law and order. These seem to be the only real political concerns of the New Testament.

I would suggest that if you are looking for Biblical priorities in voting, you have it there. The priority is that rulers will allow people to lead a peaceful and quiet life. In other words, that we would be spared tyranny, war, and a breakdown of law and order – and that our brothers and sisters in Christ elsewhere may also be spared those things.

And furthermore, I think that by the standards of New Testament times, we in Britain do pretty well for those things. Law and order, by historical standards, is excellent. We have not had war on British soil for hundreds of years. And freedom, including religious freedom, is pretty good.

So – what should our priorities be today?

As priorities in the election tomorrow – and this is true of all recent general elections – I think there are two practical priorities.

The first is religious freedom. The concept of religious freedom is complex, and I would not expect a government to allow anyone to do anything at all, simply on the grounds that it was part of their religion. No modern western government is going to allow, for example, human sacrifice. The freedoms we should be vigilant about, it seems to me, are freedom of speech and freedom of association.

The second practical priority is foreign policy. The actions our government affect our brothers and sisters in Christ in other countries.

The Barnabas Fund recently published an editorial that asked “Are persecuted Christians ‘the elephant in the room’ in the UK election? ” It said

“There is a very real threat that by the time of the next UK general election in 2022 large parts of the Middle East will have been emptied of Christian populations which have lived there since the first century, as Christians flee beheading, enslavement and other forms of religious cleansing by a whole range of jihadist groups.”

Their Manifesto for Persecuted Christians says

Soon after the 2003 Western-led military intervention in Iraq a targeted campaign of church bombings, kidnapping and assassination of church leaders began. Consequently, although only 3-4% of the Iraqi population were Christians, roughly a third of all Iraqis who have fled the country are Christians. When the Syrian civil war started in 2011, anti-Christian violence soon began there too. One of the jihadi groups targeting them evolved into IS. Christians and other non-Muslim minorities such as Yazidis have been executed and enslaved as jihadists seek to religiously cleanse the area of ancient communities such as Christians and Yazidis who have lived alongside Muslims for centuries, and very harmoniously in recent generations. 

That is pretty diplomatic. When you read the words “Soon after the 2003 Western-led military intervention in Iraq a targeted campaign of church bombings, kidnapping and assassination of church leaders began,” what you are basically being told is that the main reason that the Christian communities in the Middle East have been decimated in the past 15 years is the foreign policy of America and Britain. However, the Barnabas Fund is not about to say so in so many words!

What about the Syrian civil war and the Jihadi groups there who have sought to cleanse the area of its ancient Christian community? The plain fact is that America and its Middle Eastern allies were instrumental in instigating the conflict in Syria, and they also supported the Jihadists. This is something that the mainstream media in the west has been remarkably quiet about – but it is well documented – see my blog post last year “Syria 2: Politics, insanity and dishonesty” – and the Christian community in Syria is very well aware of it.

What are the Biblical priorities for voting in tomorrow’s election? It seems to me that the two main issues are religious freedom and Middle East policy.  

And it further seems to me that with regard to Middle East policy, what we really need is the ability to admit that the policy followed by Britain and the US – at least for the past 15 years – has been completely disastrous.

General Election 2017: My questions and the answers the candidates gave

Updated Edition (6th June)

What are the questions that you would ask a candidate for parliament in 2017?

Here are the 15 questions I asked, and the answers from three candidates.  (I also include my reasons for asking these questions, though I did not share these with the candidates.)

I have shown the answers from Olivia Bell (the Labour candidate) in red, the answers from Struan Mackie (the Conservative candidate) in blue, and the answers from Paul Monaghan (the Scottish Nationalist candidate) in Green.  (I have not yet had a response from the Liberal Democrat candidate, but will add his answers when / if I receive them.)

I initially posted this without giving any of my opinions about what they said. I have now updated this post with my own comments (indented).

The Questions

1. Do you believe that reducing the national debt should be a priority for the government? If so, do you believe that should be done primarily by increasing taxes or cutting spending?

(The economy is always a major issue, so it is appropriate to ask a question. I chose to ask this one because debt is a serious matter – but one that is usually forgotten.

I would add that I think it is significant that Jesus used debt as a picture for sin, both in the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:12) and in the parable of the unmerciful servant (Matthew 23:18-25). The reason he did so was surely that it was understood that debt was something that one could not run away from for ever; it had to be repaid.)

A strong, growing economy is the foundation we need to make sure working people across Scotland are doing well. That’s why Labour will create a Scottish Investment Bank with £20 billion of investment power to help businesses grow and stimulate the Scottish economy. And we’ll invest in our crumbling infrastructure to connect our country together through a £250 billion National Transformation Fund to drive investment across the UK.

The last few years have shown that wealth doesn’t trickle down. 467,000 people in Scotland earn less than the living wage. Two thirds of them are women. And 57,000 workers are on zero hour-contracts.

So we need action to put more money into the pockets of working people and to make work more secure.

Labour will do that by introducing a real Living Wage of £10 an hour. Labour introduced the minimum wage in 1998, despite the predictions of the Tories and others that it would wreck our economy. Some are saying the same now, but the truth is our businesses can afford to pay a little more so that workers aren’t paid a poverty wage. We can drive up living standards for working people across Scotland.

Yes- I believe that reducing the national debt has to be at the forefront of decision making for the next parliament to ensure that we have sustainable public sector and that the next generation aren’t saddled with sovereign debt that has become unmanageable. I think there are still areas within government spending where the total allocation is unsustainable and we must look to address that.

Just like a household or a private business does I believe that we should aim to a balance budget. It is something that is done regularly in Continental Europe and other nations around the world. I believe that is ‘best practice’.

Yes. I believe we require a radical overhaul of both spending and taxation. I believe taxation should increase in certain areas and spending should decrease. We should be focussed on ethical investment and developing the economy.

[My comment: While Olivia Bell didn’t technically answer the question, but instead chose to quote from the Scottish Labour manifesto, I would take her answer as a “no”. Struan Mackie gave a clear “yes” to the first part, and strongly implied that he believed the main way to reduce public sector debt was by cuts in spending. Paul Monaghan spoke about reducing the debt by both increasing taxation and reducing expenditure.]

2. Do you think there should be another referendum on EU membership within the next 5 years?

(This election was basically called because of the result of the referendum on EU membership, and hence has been referred to as the Brexit election. So Brexit is clearly a major issue.

Whether it is an important one or not is debatable, but I do think that MPs have a responsibility to accept the results of referenda unless there is a very good reason for not doing so.)

No the country has voted.

I believe that we will have left the European Union in around 3-4 years time. At that juncture anything brought in front of the electorate should be by General Election can be used as a mandate in the House of Commons. I personally don’t believe their is an appetite for another referendum on EU membership however that could change in the preceding years and a mandate could be brought in front of the Commons by a pro-EU government being returned to Westminster.

If there is appetite for the United Kingdom to rejoin the EU, the above would be the route map to achieving it.

I think there should be a referendum when the outcome and ramifications of the negotiations to leave the EU are clear.

[Olivia Bell and Paul Monaghan gave clear answers. Struan Mackie was a little more nuanced, but strongly implied that his answer was ‘no’.]

3. Do you think there should be another referendum on Scottish independence within the next 5 years?

(This is one of the main issues in Scotland. Again, one can debate whether this really matters, but I do find it strange that some politicians called for another independence referendum after the Brexit vote when they had given no hint before the Brexit vote that they might do so.)

Definitely not! Voted No and campaigned for Better Together last time round – devisive and taking away from investing in health, education and public services

No, I believe the referendum was a ‘once in a lifetime’ , ‘once in a generation event’. I do not believe that either of those criteria meet the 5 year marker and I do not believe there is overwhelming demand for a second referendum. Certainly not from my constituents in Thurso and Northwest Caithness nor the doors I have knocked in the rest of the Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross constituency.

I think the people of Scotland should have another referendum on independence when they choose to have one.

[Clear answers from Olivia Bell and Struan Mackie. Paul Monaghan‘s answer puzzled me. How do we know when the people of Scotland have chosen to have another referendum. Will there be a referendum on whether to have a referendum?]

4. Broadly speaking, do you think that immigration is good for our country and its economy?

(As with the economy, Brexit, and Scottish independence, this is one of the main issues of the day, so it seems appropriate to ask. For what it’s worth,this short video gives some idea of my views on the matter.)

Yes we need immigration in Scotland to keep our economy strong

Broadly speaking I believe immigration is good for the economy and it can be an asset to the country. Open door immigration however has driven down wages in our major cities and it has put major strains on public services. A managed immigration system, accessible by all, should be the way forward.

Yes. I think immigration is essential in certain areas.

[Fairly clear answers from all three candidates, though Struan Mackie seems to have slightly more reservations about the economic benefits of immigration than the other two. None mentioned the social effects of immigration, which is interesting.]

5. Are you concerned that laws to combat ‘extremism’ could suppress the right to free speech?

(I think that free speech is always an important issue. For Christians, it is of great practical relevance, because the good news of Jesus Christ is something that is communicated, and the communication of it requires an element of freedom of speech. Governments and politicians in many countries find the Christian message, or aspects of it, unpalatable, and would have no qualms about passing laws to muzzle Christians who say things they find unacceptable.

In addition, I think that the whole concept of “extremism” is so ill-defined as to make it unhelpful. We already have laws forbidding incitement to commit a criminal offence.)

balance needs to be struck between freedom and inciting hatred

I am concerned about privacy and free speech, however finding a balance between liberties and safeguarding our country and its citizens is absolutely paramount. The internet has been a breeding ground for extremist who are sheltered from the security services. That cannot be the case going forward.

Yes. We must be careful that restrictions of liberty and speech are not used as excuses for combating extremist activity.

[A clear answer from Paul Monaghan. Both Olivia Bell and Struan Mackie seem to be less committed to freedom of speech – though the former’s concerns are about inciting hatred, and the latter’s are extremism and the security situation (which was what my question was about). The fact that Olivia Bell mentioned “incitement to hatred” does raise the question of whether restrictions on free speech aimed at combating extremism could include restrictions on speech that was seen as inciting hatred.]

6. Do you think public office holders should be forced to swear a ‘British values’ oath?

(Such legislation would basically amount to the state demanding that citizens should be barred from public life unless they hold to the values of the current political leadership of the country.

Sajid Javid’s proposal for a British values oath mentioned three particular values: democracy, equality and freedom of speech. While I am delighted that freedom of speech is in there, I don’t see any reason why people in public life have to believe in democracy. In the last couple of centuries, democracy has come to be seen as the best form of government – but before the 18th century, the best form of government was a matter of debate and discussion.  It is not a British value; it is simply the current orthodoxy.)

need to know more about this before giving an answer

I would not be opposed to office holders swearing an oath to uphold a series of British values that promotes fairness, tolerance and to preserve the British way of life. 

No.

[Paul Monaghan‘s answer is clear. Olivia Bell and Struan Mackie are more cautious, but Struan Mackie does appear a bit more sympathetic to a new oath being introduced – something that, as far as I can see, is an unnecessary and an unhelpful demand by the state that citizens should conform to an ideological orthodoxy determined by those in power.]

7. Do you think public office holders should be forced to swear an oath to uphold equality?

(This is essentially the same as the last question. Like ‘British values’ and ‘extremism’, equality is a rather ill-defined concept – and, even more than democracy, something that for much of Britain’s history would not have been regarded as a basic British value.)

there are laws to ensure those in public office uphold equality

As above.

Yes.

[As Struan Mackie‘s response (‘As above’) indicates, this question is very similar the previous question. The questions come from the Christian Institute, who appear to use the phrases “equality oath” and “British values oath” interchangeably – even though they are not quite the same thing.

The background is that in a report into integration issued in December 2016, civil servant Dame Louise Casey recommended that there should be a ‘British values’ oath for public office holders, including civil servants, school governors, councillors etc. Communities Secretary Sajid Javid supported the idea, suggesting requiring a commitment to ‘equality’.

Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman Lord Brian Paddick said: “Forcing public servants to swear an oath to British values would be both superficial and divisive. We should be talking about the universal values that unite us, not using nationalistic terms that exclude people. ” Nicola Sturgeon’s comment was “we respect the work that has been carried out by Dame Louise Casey, which deserves to be given proper consideration. I suggest that the UK Government do the same, and commit to giving it proper consideration rather than taking the premature step of announcing that all public servants should be compelled to swear an oath. Such an oath potentially risks exclusion of people who do not define their values as being uniquely British.”

All that said, Paul Monaghan has given a clear answer which differs from his answer to question 6. I take this as meaning that he has a problem with using the concept of ‘British values’, but no problem with requiring an oath per se. Struan Mackie also seems to have no problem with an oath, per se, but seems to be less enthusiastic about putting the concept of equality in it. Olivia Bell‘s response suggests that she doesn’t think a promise to hold to the concept of equality is necessary for public servants because the law already guarantees equality. That seems to me to be a fair position, but as she didn’t actually use the word “no”, one suspects that it is possible that in practice, her position would be the same as Paul Monaghan‘s. But it might not be.]

8. Do you support the campaign by Time for Inclusive Education (TIE) for LGBT education to be a statutory requirement in schools?

(Last year, the Public Petitions Committee at Holyrood decided to reject a call from Time for Inclusive Education (TIE)  for LGBT education to be a statutory requirement in schools. The Convener of the Committee said: “I don’t think we can ask the government to do what the petitioner asked, which was to set something in the curriculum, and force local authorities to teach it in the way they were asking.”

The basic issue is the extent to which the curriculum in schools is set by the government. However, this also raises the question of the extent to which the state uses the education system as a tool for indoctrination. I think that the Committee were clearly correct, but apparently TIE has not given up.)

A Labour government will reform the Gender Recognition Act and the Equality Act 2010 to ensure they protect Trans people by changing the protected characteristic of ‘gender assignment’ to ‘gender identity’ and remove other outdated language such as ‘transsexual’.

Labour will bring the law on LGBT hate crimes into line with hate crimes based on race and faith, by making them aggravated offences.

To tackle bullying of LGBT young people, Labour will ensure that all teachers receive initial and ongoing training on the issues students face and how to address them. And we will ensure that the new guidance for relationships and sex education is LGBT inclusive.

I am not aware of this particular campaign. I am sorry.

Not sure. I support equality and diversity in education but I will have to learn more about this specific initiative before commenting.

[To be honest, I am not much the wiser about where the candidates stand on the TIE proposals. At least two of them admit they don’t know much about this issue, despite the fact that it was dealt with by the Public Petitions Committee at Holyrood. Olivia Bell raises the separate issue of “hate crimes”, which I consider to be an unhelpful concept. But that was a question I didn’t ask.]

9. Do you believe that action on climate change is urgent and vitally important?

(This is one of the big issues of the day, so an obvious thing to ask. Most politicians would give a simple “yes” to this question, but I thought I would ask just to see if any of the candidates disagreed with the current consensus.)

Yes

We must balance efforts to protect future generations from the results of changes in our climate. This however cannot be done instantaneously and we must be progressive with change and move wherever possible towards a low carbon future. I think an energy mix is critical to achieving a sustainable energy economy and in my opinion that must include, wind, tital, solar, limited oil and gas in addition to nuclear power.

Yes.

[Clear answers from Olivia Bell and Paul Monaghan. Struan Mackie is more cautious and non-committal. It is difficult to know how much he actually differs from the other two in his views.]

10. Do you think the ‘Named Person’ scheme should be dropped entirely?

(In my opinion, the “Named Person” scheme is an unacceptable intrusion by the state into family life, and a major blot on the record of the current administration in Holyrood. While this is an election for the Westminster Parliament, the principles are important, so I asked the question.)

The process has been a mess, bringing anxiety for parents. Labour has supported the principle of this scheme. A Labour Goverment would pause this process and ask the Children’s Commissioner to carry out a review.

Yes.

No.

[Clear answers from Struan Mackie and Paul Monaghan. Olivia Bell seems to be somewhere in the middle, but it seems to me that technically, that’s a “No, not in its entirety.”]

11. Do you believe that parents should be criminalised for smacking their children?

(Currently a subject of a lot of debate. Reasonable physical punishment does not constitute assault, and parents can already be prosecuted for assaulting their children. Again, it seems to me that this is an unacceptable intrusion by the state into family life.)

The world has moved on since my childhood when smacking was routine. I would have to see the detail of any Bill but in general terms it would bring home the message that there are other sanctions for children rather than smacking.

I think times have changes since I was a child, it is clearl incredibly fine line. But current political attitudes would probably be in favour of criminalisation… I personally wouldn’t go that far.

In general no. However “smacking” is a very loose term. It can range from a tap on the hand to a child being thrashed. We must be careful to be definitive in such situations. Clearly different ends of the spectrum warrant completely different approaches.

[Olivia Bell seems to lean yes, Struan Mackie and Paul Monaghan seem to lean no.]

12. Do you believe the law on abortion is too lax, too restrictive or about right?

(No basic change takes place in a child the moment it is born.  If it is entitled to protection after birth and it is a criminal offense to kill it, I cannot see why this is not also the case before birth.)

support current abortion laws

There was a movement several years ago which indicated the law might have been restricted in Scotland. This has not gained ground in the preceding years. It is a very controversial topic, I am pro-life, however in the cases of sexual assault, or fatal fetal abnormality I can understand that the law must take these cases into account. 

In Scotland, my personal view is that the law is about right but I also believe that women are the best placed to make decisions about their bodies.

[Olivia Bell and Paul Monaghan are clearly one one side of this question. Struan Mackie appears to be on the other. Personally, I am not sure that this should be a major issue for deciding how to vote at a general election as it seems extremely unlikely that the matter will come before Parliament any time soon. But it does give an indication of where a candidate might stand on related issues which might come up.]

13. Do you think Donald Trump was right to attack a Syrian air base on 7th April this year?

(I think that this is a very serious matter. Philip Giraldi has argued, quite convincingly in my opinion, that Trump’s action was a violation of American and International law – and yet many British politicians have supported it.)

This issue has caused differing opinions in the Labour Party – I think Trump got away with it this time but in my opinion it could have sparked a Third World War and surely no Party would want that?

Yes, I am not Trump’s greatest fan but I believe attacking the base was the first real sign that atrocities such as the gassing of communities in Syria would simply not be tolerated by the international community.

No.

[Clear answers from Struan Mackie and Paul Monaghan. Struan Mackie seems to assume that the Syrian armed forces did indeed launch the gas attack referred to. That is far from certain – and I personally am very sceptical. I am fascinated that Olivia Bell refers to the differing opinions in the Labour Party about this question. I’m not quite sure why – but she seems to lean toward Paul Monaghan‘s (and my) position.]

14. Do you believe that the UK armed services should be part of the American- led International Coalition in Syria?

(The Coalition is responsible for bombing raids that have killed hundreds of civilians, as well as an attack on Syrian government forces that were engaged in a battle with ISIS.  Why are our armed forces there?)

Need to know more about this one before answering

Again, this is a hard one. I believe it was right to intervene. And going forward it is imperative that we must be part of the solution and it isn’t dictated to by Russia and their allies… as such on balance I think we should be part of the American led coalition.

No.

[Olivia Bell‘s answer is extraordinary. She appears to think that this is a proposal, whereas the UK has been an active part of the American led coalition for some time. Struan Mackie and Paul Monaghan are quite clear.]

15. Do you think that the UK should be selling arms to Saudi Arabia?

(Saudi Arabia’s record is appalling both in its domestic and in its foreign policy. See my post on the subject last year.

Furthermore, we now know (thanks to Wikileaks) that the American government knew back in 2014 that Saudi Arabia was providing support to ISIS and other Jihadist groups seeking to overthrow the Syrian government. Part of an email between Hilary Clinton and John Podesta that year reads “we need to use our diplomatic and more traditional intelligence assets to bring pressure on the governments of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which are providing clandestine financial and logistic support to ISIL and other radical Sunni groups in the region.”

And, according to  the Guardian: “An investigation into the foreign funding and support of jihadi groups that was authorised by David Cameron may never be published, the Home Office has admitted.  The inquiry into revenue streams for extremist groups operating in the UK was commissioned by the former prime minister and is thought to focus on Saudi Arabia, which has repeatedly been highlighted by European leaders as a funding source for Islamist jihadis.”

And of course there is the case of the war in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia invaded Yemen two years ago, and have repeatedly bombed civilian targets, and, in an effort to starve anti-government forces into submission, have enforced a food blockade that has caused massive malnutrition.  These things strike me as utterly reprehensible.

And yet the British government continues to support the Saudi government and sell it arms.)

Our party has always pledged to embed human rights and social justice into our trade policy.

No. I do not believe that Saudi Arabia is the kind of ally we should court in the International word. Although they have long supported the United Kingdom on several grounds over the years they still have an appalling civil rights record and are strongly linked to state sponsored terrorism.

No.

[Olivia Bell didn’t really answer the question – which rather surprises me since the Labour Party’s position on this issue is pretty clear. I assume that she stands with it, but why didn’t she just say so? Struan Mackie‘s answer is the most interesting one here. He is choosing to disagree with Conservative Party policy, which I think is very commendable. Paul Monaghan‘s response is straightforward.]

 

Final comments

1) Each of the candidates has their own style.

Olivia Bell referred to the position of the Labour Party several times, whereas the other two candidates didn’t actually mention their parties. She also was a bit more likely to say “that depends”. The fact that she wouldn’t commit herself on several questions could be seen as wise, and means she is less likely to be accused of changing her mind or breaking her promise. It led to the impression that she would generally follow the party line.

Struan Mackie, by contrast, came over as someone who was giving his own personal opinion, and who was willing to go against the party line on some occasions.

Paul Monaghan was very good at giving short, brief replies!

2) In an effort to try to assess the candidates, I tried to work out which questions were more important, and to assign values to them, and then to try to work out how many marks to give each candidate for their answer to each question. Neither of those is an exact science. For what it’s worth, Struan Mackie and Paul Monaghan came out well ahead of Olivia Bell, with Paul Monaghan possibly slightly ahead. All of them, however, are far from ideal from my perspective.

3) When trying to decide which way to vote in a general election, there are a lot of things that come into play. I took the “I side with” test in order to compare my views with those of the different parties. The result was not the same as when I compared myself with the different local candidates. That’s a useful reminder that parties all contain a variety of views, and candidates often are at odds with their parties on important matters.

Another thing that comes into play is personalities. How much I personally like a candidate as a human being is not the same as how much I agree with their views. The same is true of the party leaders. It is possible to like the leader of Party A more than the leader of Party B, but to actually agree more with the policies of the leader of Party B. How do we vote: according to personalities – or according to policies?

The Questions I put to Election Candidates

Update: Answers from candidates have been coming in.  See this post for their responses.

What are the questions that you would ask a candidate for parliament in 2017?

Here are the 15 questions I asked – and my reasons for asking them.

1. Do you believe that reducing the national debt should be a priority for the government? If so, do you believe that should be done primarily by increasing taxes or cutting spending?

The economy is always a major issue, so it is appropriate to ask a question. I chose to ask this one because debt is a serious matter – but one that is usually forgotten.

I would add that I think it is significant that Jesus used debt as a picture for sin, both in the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:12) and in the parable of the unmerciful servant (Matthew 23:18-25). The reason he did so was surely that it was understood that debt was something that one could not run away from for ever; it had to be repaid.

2.Do you think there should be another referendum on EU membership within the next 5 years?

This election was basically called because of the result of the referendum on EU membership, and hence has been referred to as the Brexit election. So Brexit is clearly a major issue.

Whether it is an important one or not is debatable, but I do think that MPs have a responsibility to accept the results of referenda unless there is a very good reason for not doing so.

3. Do you think there should be another referendum on Scottish independence within the next 5 years?

This is one of the main issues in Scotland. Again, one can debate whether this really matters, but I do find it strange that some politicians called for another independence referendum after the Brexit vote when they had given no hint before the Brexit vote that they might do so.

4. Broadly speaking, do you think that immigration is good for our country and its economy?

As with the economy, Brexit, and Scottish independence, this is one of the main issues of the day, so it seems appropriate to ask. For what it’s worth, this short video gives some idea of my views on the matter.

5. Are you concerned that laws to combat ‘extremism’ could suppress the right to free speech?

I think that free speech is always an important issue. For Christians, it is of great practical relevance, because the good news of Jesus Christ is something that is communicated, and the communication of it requires an element of freedom of speech. Governments and politicians in many countries find the Christian message, or aspects of it, unpalatable, and would have no qualms about passing laws to muzzle Christians who say things they find unacceptable.

In addition, I think that the whole concept of “extremism” is so ill-defined as to make it unhelpful. We already have laws forbidding incitement to commit a criminal offence.

6. Do you think public office holders should be forced to swear a ‘British values’ oath?

Such legislation would basically amount to the state demanding that citizens should be barred from public life unless they hold to the values of the current political leadership of the country.

Sajid Javid’s proposal for a British values oath mentioned three particular values: democracy, equality and freedom of speech. While I am delighted that freedom of speech is in there, I don’t see any reason why people in public life have to believe in democracy. In the last couple of centuries, democracy has come to be seen as the best form of government – but before the 18th century, the best form of government was a matter of debate and discussion.  It is not a British value; it is simply the current orthodoxy.

7. Do you think public office holders should be forced to swear an oath to uphold equality?

This is essentially the same as the last question. Like ‘British values’ and ‘extremism’, equality is a rather ill-defined concept – and, even more than democracy, something that for much of Britain’s history would not have been regarded as a basic British value.

8. Do you support the campaign by Time for Inclusive Education (TIE) for LGBT education to be a statutory requirement in schools?

Last year, the Public Petitions Committee at Holyrood decided to reject a call from Time for Inclusive Education (TIE)  for LGBT education to be a statutory requirement in schools. The Convener of the Committee said: “I don’t think we can ask the government to do what the petitioner asked, which was to set something in the curriculum, and force local authorities to teach it in the way they were asking.”

The basic issue is the extent to which the curriculum in schools is set by the government. However, this also raises the question of the extent to which the state uses the education system as a tool for indoctrination. I think that the Committee were clearly correct, but apparently TIE has not given up.

9. Do you believe that action on climate change is urgent and vitally important?

This is one of the big issues of the day, so an obvious thing to ask. Most politicians would give a simple “yes” to this question, but I thought I would ask just to see if any of the candidates disagreed with the current consensus.

10. Do you think the ‘Named Person’ scheme should be dropped entirely?

In my opinion, the “Named Person” scheme is an unacceptable intrusion by the state into family life, and a major blot on the record of the current administration in Holyrood. While this is an election for the Westminster Parliament, the principles are important, so I asked the question.

11. Do you believe that parents should be criminalised for smacking their children?

Currently a subject of a lot of debate. Reasonable physical punishment does not constitute assault, and parents can already be prosecuted for assaulting their children. Again, it seems to me that this is an unacceptable intrusion by the state into family life.

12. Do you believe the law on abortion is too lax, too restrictive or about right?

No basic change takes place in a child the moment it is born.  If it is entitled to protection after birth and it is a criminal offense to kill it, I cannot see why this is not also the case before birth.

13. Do you think Donald Trump was right to attack a Syrian air base on 7th April this year?

I think that this is a very serious matter. Philip Giraldi has argued, quite convincingly in my opinion, that Trump’s action was a violation of American and International law – and yet many British politicians have supported it.

14. Do you believe that the UK armed services should be part of the American- led International Coalition in Syria?

The Coalition is responsible for bombing raids that have killed hundreds of civilians, as well as an attack on Syrian government forces that were engaged in a battle with ISIS.  Why are our armed forces there?

15. Do you think that the UK should be selling arms to Saudi Arabia?

Saudi Arabia’s record is appalling both in its domestic and in its foreign policy. See my post on the subject last year.

Furthermore, we now know (thanks to Wikileaks) that the American government knew back in 2014 that Saudi Arabia was providing support to ISIS and other Jihadist groups seeking to overthrow the Syrian government. Part of an email between Hilary Clinton and John Podesta that year reads “we need to use our diplomatic and more traditional intelligence assets to bring pressure on the governments of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which are providing clandestine financial and logistic support to ISIL and other radical Sunni groups in the region.”

And of course there is the case of the war in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia invaded Yemen two years ago, and have repeatedly bombed civilian targets, and, in an effort to starve anti-government forces into submission, have enforced a food blockade that has caused massive malnutrition.  These things strike me as utterly reprehensible.

And yet the British government continues to support the Saudi government and sell it arms.

Edit: I’ve just seen this in the Guardian:

“An investigation into the foreign funding and support of jihadi groups that was authorised by David Cameron may never be published, the Home Office has admitted.  The inquiry into revenue streams for extremist groups operating in the UK was commissioned by the former prime minister and is thought to focus on Saudi Arabia, which has repeatedly been highlighted by European leaders as a funding source for Islamist jihadis.”

Fancy that.

Manchester in perspective

In the 23rd chapter of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus takes aim at the scribes and Pharisees and points out some of their failings in blunt language. One of the things he accuses them of (verse 24) is their failure to see things that they should have seen: “You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.”

What was the problem? The verse before explains what they had been doing wrong:

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.”

They had some things right. Some of the things that they were concerned about were things that they should, indeed, have been concerned about. They were not very important – but they were still important. And so they took appropriate action. And that was good.

The problem was that there were some things that were much more important – much bigger, much weightier – that they were simply ignoring. In other words, they didn’t have things in their proper perspective. Things that were, in reality, very big didn’t seem big to them. And things that were not so big seemed huge.

Manchester and Syria 

So – how big was last week’s Manchester attack? The answer is that it was big. Twenty-three adults and children, including the attacker, were killed and 116 were injured, some critically. The dead included ten people under 20, the youngest an eight-year-old girl. For the families of the dead and injured, the incident has brought great grief.

Let us take the raw figure of 23 dead. How significant is that figure? If only one person had been killed, would the UK have observed a minute’s silence on the 25th? If not, how many people need to die before a minute’s silence is held? If only child died, would the grief felt by the parents would be less than if their child had been one of 23?

In other words, 23 dead is a lot. Especially if 10 are children. But what about the death of 44 children? What if bombers killed 44 children? And what if the total death toll was much higher than 23? In fact, bombers did kill 44 children last month – in Syria. Air strikes carried out by the US and its coalition partners in Syria killed A total of 225 civilians, including 36 women and 44 children in the period between 23 April to 23 May, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

 

And these people feel grief as well. They are real people, and have real stories. According to The Intercept,

On April 24, a group of Syrian women bundled themselves and their children into a car and attempted to flee the small town of Tabqa, outside of Raqqa. In recent months the sleepy principality had become the site of raging battles between Islamic State militants and U.S.-backed proxy forces, waging a campaign to drive ISIS from the country. Packed into the fleeing car were 11 people, including eight members of the al-Aish family: three women between the ages of 23 and 40, and five children, the youngest one just 6 months old.

The al-Aish family’s flight from a war zone was similar to millions of other desperate journeys made by Syrian civilians over the past six years. But they would not make it to safety. As they fled Tabqa, their car was hit by an airstrike, reportedly carried out by the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. All 11 people were killed in the strike, in what local reports described as a “massacre.”

A U.S.-led coalition warplane targeted heavy machine guns at civilians trying to flee the city of Al-Tabaqa, which is witnessing heavy clashes between gunmen,” reported the local anti-ISIS activist group Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently. The air raid led to “the death of a whole family.” Following the attack, photos of the young children from the al-Aish family circulated widely on social media and local news sites, including pictures of 3-year-old Abdul Salam and 6-month-old Ali.

And yet despite all this grief, the amount of coverage in the British press has been negligible. There has been no minute’s silence. And not much rage against the bombers. Of course, the UK is part of the coalition that is killing these children. And by the way, it isn’t just 255 civilians.

The strike that killed the al-Aish family was just one of an estimated 9,029 strikes carried out by the U.S.-led coalition in Syria since 2014. The independent monitoring group Airwars estimates that coalition strikes in Syria and Iraq over the past several years have killed between 3,681 and 5,849 civilians, compounding the suffering of people who have already endured years of civil war. In recent months, local media have reported a steady stream of airstrikes that have hit civilian targets, including several particularly egregious strikes on packed schools and mosques.

. . . and Yemen

And then there is Yemen. Mention of the fact that the youngest person killed in Manchester was an eight-year-old girl reminds one of another eight-year-old girl. Nawar Awlaki bled to death after being shot in the neck by American forces. She was one 25 civilians, including 10 children and 6 women killed during an American raid on the village of al Ghayil in the Yakla area of Yemen in January.   It was not the first time residents of the Yakla area had lost family members to a U.S. attack. In December 2013, a drone strike on a wedding convoy killed 12 civilians.

And while we are on the subject of Yemen, according to the United Nations, there had, by January this year, been 10,000 civilian deaths in the two year old civil war.  And a lot of those deaths have been caused by Saudi Arabia, who, with the active support of the American and British governments, have repeatedly bombed hospitals, schools, funerals, and other civilian targets.  (Yes, that is what picture at the top shows: a Saudi raid on the Yemeni capital, Sana’a.)

Twenty-three dead in Manchester is horrible. The bombing was an act of great evil, and has caused real grief. But compared to what has been going on in Syria and Yemen . . . Well, let’s just say that things that are, in reality, very big, don’t seem big to the media in this country. And things that are not so big seem huge.

We should grieve with those who grieve. And particularly with those who are close to us. And I suppose, in some sense, people in Manchester are closer to us than people in Syria or Yemen. But what about those people in Manchester who who lost loved ones last week as a result of disease or accidents? There was no national minute of silence for these deaths. Is that just because the Manchester bombing was newsworthy, and what we grieve over is largely determined by the media?

The fear of terror

Of course, a big part of the effect of the Manchester bombing is that not only did it produce grief and shock; it also caused fear. In the wake of the attack, politicians immediately started talking about what needed to be done to stop such attacks. Again, I think they are getting things out of perspective.

Let’s look at death rates. Let’s start with terrorism.

Since the year 2000, there have been 173 deaths in the UK as a direct result of terrorist acts (excluding the perpetrators).  80 of these are connected with Islamic extremism. That’s 4.7 deaths per year. In the same period, there have been 93 deaths as a result of the sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland. That’s 5.5 per year.

So terrorism-related deaths are running at 10.2 per year.

In the 10 years before that, the 1990’s, terrorism-related deaths were running at 46.2 per year.

In the 1980s, they were running at 78.2 per year.

In the 1970s, they were running at 204.2 per year.

The statistics don’t lie. And they tell us that terrorism in Britain has declined spectacularly. It is not the problem it used to be.

And, as I pointed out, deaths as a result of terrorism are not the only deaths that leave people shocked and grieving. Over the past decade, the number of people dying as a result of road accidents in the UK was running at 2,025 per year. And while that figure is in decline, it still dwarfs the number of people killed in terrorism-related incidents.

And the figure for suicides is even higher. Over the past decade, in the average year, 5,849 people in the UK take their own lives. Sadly, that figure is not in decline.

The Manchester bombing was evil and terrible. But the number of people directly affected was tiny. The number of terrorist incidents and the number of terrorism-related deaths in Britain are in decline. Terrorism is actually a less serious problem than it used to be. But you would never guess that by listening to politicians and the media.

And if it is true that one of the aims of terrorists is to strike fear into people, then it seems that all the attention being given to the Manchester attack is actually doing exactly what terrorists want. I suspect the decision by the government to hold a one minute silence on the 25th should be seen as a victory for Salman Abedi. I fear that under the circumstances, “Blind guides” is actually a remarkably good description of Britain’s political leaders.  

Let’s get things in their proper perspective.

Thinking about suicide at the General Assembly

This week I was at the General Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland in Edinburgh. I have been to several General Assemblies in my time, but this was my first time as a commissioner at the Free Church General Assembly.  It was excellent – easily the best General Assembly I have ever been to, and I found it very encouraging – as, I suspect, did all the others commissioners.

There were, however, two clouds over the Assembly – and they were both suicides.  As suicides go, they were about as different from each other as they could have been – in terms of motivation, effect on others, and the situations that led up them. In one case, a minister of the Free Church died in Glasgow.  That was, in a sense, the big cloud over the Assembly.  In the other case, someone who had no connection with the Free Church died in Manchester.  And because that case cast a cloud over the whole country, we, in the Assembly were also very much under its shadow.  Every suicide is a tragedy, but these were worse than most, for they resulted in much horror (and grief) to many people.

How have people responded to these suicides? Grief, anger, and horror are the probably the most common responses. But oddly enough, as I reflected on them, I must confess that I had another response: gratitude – perhaps mixed with fear.  I thought “There, but for the grace of God go I.” On one level, that may seem like a strange response. In terms of my experience, I have never been in or (as far as I know) near the situations those two men found themselves in that led to their actions. But then that is all part of the grace of God.

When Adolf Eichmann, one of the great organisers of the Holocaust, was arraigned in Israel, in 1961, one of the witnesses was Yehiel Dinur, a concentration camp survivor. When he saw Eichmann in the dock, stripped of SS garb, Dinur’s reaction was fear – but not the fear we might have expected. He later recalled, “I was afraid about myself. I saw that I am capable of doing this….”

Most of us will never be tempted to do what Eichmann did, and probably not what either of those two men who committed suicide did. Not being tempted to something terrible is a great part of the grace of God. Temptation can prove surprisingly strong.

In other words, there is a very good reason why Jesus taught his disciples to pray “lead us not into temptation.”   It’s a pretty important prayer for all of us.

What does Jesus want us to do with Leviticus?

Recently, I was asked some interesting questions:

Do you think that gay people should be put to death?

And since that verse doesn’t say anything about women lying with other women – are lesbians ok?

What about putting adulterers and anyone who curses their parents to death?”

The questions were asked because, in a previous post on this site, I wrote:

“If the Bible gave the impression that same-sex sexual relationships were something which God was not particularly bothered about, one could be forgiven for not being too concerned about this. The Bible, however, makes it clear (Leviticus 20:13) that this is something God takes seriously. “

Now, someone might read that and say “But – hold on. That’s in Leviticus. Surely Christians don’t take Leviticus literally?”

Indeed, all the passages mentioned in the questions I received come from Leviticus:

Leviticus 20:9 “For anyone who curses his father or his mother shall surely be put to death; he has cursed his father or his mother; his blood is upon him.”

Leviticus 20:10 “If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbour, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death. “

Leviticus 20:13 “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them.”

In other words, the basic question is “What are Christians supposed to do with Leviticus, and especially with some commands in it that sound very strange to modern western ears?” Or, to put it another way “What would Jesus tell us to do with Leviticus?” And I believe that is an extremely important question – and one that is not asked often enough. And I think the reason for that is that it is not an easy question.

Jesus and the Scriptures

My starting point is “What did Jesus say about the Old Testament? What was his view of Scripture?” I set this out in my earlier post, referred to above:

The words of Jesus, as we find them in the New Testament, point us to the Bible as the way to know what behaviour is pleasing to God. When Jesus is tempted by Satan and, in reply says “It is written” and then quotes the Bible (Matthew 4:4, 4:7, 4:10), he clearly means “What God has said in the Scriptures is the final word, and there is no arguing with it.” We never find Jesus saying “It is written that thou shalt not, but I say unto you that it is OK.” On the contrary, he condemns those who permit the written word of God in Scripture to be set aside. And so we read in Mark 7:6-13: “He replied, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: ” ‘These people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.’ You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.” And he said to them: “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! For Moses said, ‘Honour your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.’ But you say that if a man says to his father or mother: ‘Whatever help you might otherwise have received from me is Corban’ (that is, a gift devoted to God), then you no longer let him do anything for his father or mother. Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that.”” For Jesus, what is written down in Scripture is the word of God, and it is not negotiable. Scripture is the supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined. For Jesus, holding fast to God’s word in Scripture is crucial; setting it aside is unacceptable.

So what about Leviticus?

If that is Jesus’ view of the Old Testament in general, what does he say about Leviticus in particular?  e.g. Does he ever quote Leviticus?

In fact, there are eight verses or passages from Leviticus that Jesus quotes or refers to – most famously Leviticus 19:18 “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself: I am the LORD.” But the important one for our purposes is Leviticus 20:9. (The others are 14:1-32, 18:5, 19:12, 24:9 24:20 and 27:30.)

Leviticus 20:9 (“For anyone who curses his father or his mother shall surely be put to death; he has cursed his father or his mother; his blood is upon him.” ) is quoted by Jesus in the passage quoted above from Mark 7 (and also in the parallel passage in Matthew 15):

“And he said to them: “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! For Moses said, ‘Honour your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.’ But you say that if a man says to his father or mother: ‘Whatever help you might otherwise have received from me is Corban’ (that is, a gift devoted to God), then you no longer let him do anything for his father or mother. Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. “

The key words here are: “the commands of God”, “For Moses said”, and “the word of God”. Jesus uses those phrases to describe the words he is quoting – including the words “Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.” Which raises the obvious question “Does Jesus believe that anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death?” And, following from that, does this mean that Jesus expects his followers to think that anyone who curses their parents should be put to death?

On the face of it, it looks like the answer to those questions must be “yes”. The accusation that Jesus is making against the scribes and Pharisees is that they hold their own tradition in such reverence that they are prepared to ignore and hence set aside what God says. The unspoken assumption is that what God says in his commandment is correct and not be set aside. Jesus states that the commandment is from God, and hence he clearly believes that it is correct. It seems pretty clear from these verses that Jesus believed that the death penalty was commanded by God, and that what God commanded was correct. And it certainly appears on the surface that he believed in the death penalty for those who cursed their parents.

But didn’t something change with Jesus?

However the matter does not end there. Acts chapter 10 records an incident that took place a few years after the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. Simon Peter, by then the leading figure among the followers of Jesus, had a vision. He was hungry at the time, in his vision, he saw “the heavens opened and something like a great sheet descending, being let down by its four corners upon the earth. In it were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds.” A voice said “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.” Peter replied, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.” And the voice came to him again a second time, “What God has made clean, do not call common.” The upshot of all this was the Peter realised that God was showing him that he should not call any person common or unclean. The barrier between Jew and Gentile that was a basic part of Old Testament law had been done away with by Jesus. At the same time, it was clear that all the food laws in the Old Testament – which categorised several foods as unclean, and therefore off-limits – were also done away with. And where in the Old Testament were most of those food laws found? The book of Leviticus!

In fact, even in the gospels, Jesus had effectively said that all foods were clean. And he did it in the very same passage in Mark 7 in which he strongly upheld the instructions in the Old Testament about honouring one’s father and mother. He says “Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?” and then Mark adds an explanatory note: “Thus he declared all foods clean.” (Mark 7:19)

In other words, Jesus does not treat all Old Testament commands in the same way. Some he stands by, others he appears to actually tighten up on (see, for example, Matthew 5:21-22, 5:31-32), and others he sets aside. What are we to make of this? And specifically, what about putting to death adulterers, men who lie with men, and those who curse their parents?

Which laws stay? Which laws go?

At this point we run out of easy answers. However, a lot of great minds have pondered this question over the last 2000 years. The Westminster Confession of Faith, which dates to the 17th century, condenses a lot of that wisdom in its chapter entitled “The Law of God”. It says that the Old Testament laws can basically be divided into three categories, which it calls “moral, ceremonial, and judicial.” Moral laws are about what is morally right and wrong, and include the 10 commandments. These are about our duty to God and to other people. The ceremonial laws included the laws about things that were “clean” and “unclean”. They also included all the regulations about the temple and about sacrifices.  These laws, according to the Westminster Confession, have been done away with, for, as New Testament makes clear, these things have been superseded by Jesus. All the sacrifices in the Old Testament foreshadowed his sacrificial death on the cross. Once that had happened, there was no need for those sacrifices.  And so, in the words of the Westminster Confession, “All these ceremonial laws are now abrogated under the new testament.

The third category of laws is the one that interests us here – the judicial (or civil) laws. The Confession does not define these closely, but says that God gave these laws gave to the people of Israel as “a body politic”. In other words, these laws were for the administration of justice. The confession says that they “expired” when the ancient state of Israel as a political entity expired (presumably with the capture of Jerusalem with the Babylonians), and place no obligation upon anyone now, except as they embody general principles of justice.

And it seems to me that this judicial law presumably includes the penalties for various crimes – including the death penalties for adulterers, men who lie with other men, and those who curse their parents.

There are a couple of questions that arise here. One is about whether it is really that easy to divide Old Testament laws into those three categories. The answer is that while it isn’t really possible to do it neatly, the general principle does make a lot of sense, and works pretty well for most of the Old Testament law.

The kingdoms of this world – and a kingdom that isn’t

The other question is more important. Where in the Bible does it say that these judicial laws have expired? The New Testament speaks clearly about the end of the distinction between Jew and Gentile and clean and unclean – and it also speaks plainly about the end of the Old Testament sacrificial system. Does it say anything about the end of judicial laws?

And here it seems to me that, while the Bible does not say so in so many words, it does hint that this is the way it is.

It starts even before the fall of Jerusalem. With Jerusalem under siege, the prophet Jeremiah tells the city to surrender: “Serve the king of Babylon and live.” What that meant, of course, was giving up the independence of the Israelite kingdom of Judah – the people who had been given the judicial laws. And, more importantly, it meant serving a pagan king whose laws would be quite different from the judicial laws given by God in the time of Moses. To serve the king of Babylon was to say good-bye to those laws.

And after Jerusalem fell, we find the same thing. We read about people like Daniel and Nehemiah, who live in exile and serve the kings of Babylon and Persia, and who are politically loyal to them. Indeed, Nehemiah was accused by some of wanting to rebel against the Persian Empire, and he protested his loyalty. There was no question of wanting to break free and set up an independent nation with its own laws.

And this continues on in the New Testament. In New Testament times there was plenty of hostility to the Roman Empire from the Jews, and there were revolts against Roman rule. Jesus gave no encouragement at all to that sort of sentiment, and early Christians also rejected it. Roman emperors may have been deeply flawed tyrants, but Peter nonetheless wrote: “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people.” (I Peter 2:13-15)

And the key moment comes in the trial of Jesus before Pilate, when Jesus is being accused of being a rebel against the emperor, and Pilate asks “Are you the king of the Jews”, and Jesus answers “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would fight, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” Jesus is not interested in assuming worldly political power, and the authority that goes with it – authority that would mean he could replace the questionable laws of the Romans with God’s just laws. And the evidence that his kingdom is not of this world?  The fact that his servants do not fight. Political authority in this world depends on the use of force. Followers of Jesus do not use force to set up his kingdom, and impose his laws.

And that is because followers of Jesus have a different agenda – the agenda of Jesus. Our agenda is not about political legislation and imposing God’s laws on people. Rather, as Jesus told Pilate “For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” The purpose of Christians is to bear witness to the truth. That is about proclaiming a message – a message that calls people to have Jesus as their king. It is about invitation rather than imposition.

What did Jesus have to say about public policy?

Two other comments.

First, I think it is very significant that Jesus never spoke about how kings should do their jobs. That isn’t because he thought they were doing a good enough job. He clearly wasn’t impressed by Herod, and called him “that fox”, which was pretty scathing. It is as if Jesus wasn’t particularly interested in talking about what laws rulers made and what the punishment was for various crimes. And it wasn’t just Jesus. Daniel and Nehemiah didn’t feel inclined to tell the pagan kings they served under how to do their jobs, and neither did the apostles. It is, perhaps significant that the only New Testament figure who criticized a king was John the Baptist – who didn’t criticized Herod for the way he was ruling, but over his personal relationships: “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” The important thing was not whether Herod was, as king, keeping to the Old Testament judicial law; it was whether he, as an individual before God, was keeping to the Old Testament moral law.

Second, it seems that the only matters of public policy that the New Testament has much interest in is that rulers would preserve order and freedom. Paul, writing to Timothy (I Timothy 2:1-2), says I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.” The big priority was basically that rulers would allow people to lead a peaceful and quiet life. In other words, pray that we would be spared tyranny, war, and a breakdown of law and order. These seem to be the only real political concerns of the New Testament.

And so . . .

So what does Jesus want his followers to do with these verses in Leviticus? I think it is pretty clear that he wants us to think about how they apply to us as moral laws. In Mark’s gospel, his interest was in people honoring their parents, not the punishment for those who didn’t. I think that it is pretty clear that it is the same with the other two verses. They are about what is morally right and wrong, about the kind of sexual relationships God wants people to have.

And yes, it is true that Leviticus doesn’t say anything about same-sex relationships between two women. But we need to remember the way that Jesus addressed moral questions, by basically asking people to look at the principles behind the laws. So, in the Sermon on the Mount, he says (Matthew 5:17-22)

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

And having warned them against relaxing the commandments of the moral law, he then proceeds to tighten them – by going back to the principles behind the laws:

“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgement.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgement; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.

And so, later on, when he is asked “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?“, he responds by calling them back to the principles behind the law. “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’?” The fact that God made people male and female is the basis for marriage, and for sexual morality. And hence the early Christians understood that the principles laid down in God’s law about men lying with men also applied to women lying with women. Paul speaks (Romans 1:26-27) about dishonorable passions, by which he means: “their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another.

So – do I think that Jesus wants his followers to advocate the death penalty for the activities described in Leviticus 20?  Do I think he wants his followers to advocate that those activities be criminalized? No, I don’t. That was not Jesus’ concern. His concern was that his followers look at themselves, and seek to live righteously before God – not seek to impose righteous judicial laws on society. And that is closely connected with the fact that his kingdom is not of this world.

Further thoughts on the last days

A few days ago I wrote a post entitled “Are we living in the last days? (What the New Testament actually says.)

The answer to the question is “Yes – because when the New Testament uses the phrase ‘the last days’, it means the time that began with the coming of Jesus Christ 2,000 years ago.

The question came up because I was reading II Timothy, where Paul writes

But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people.”

Another question

However, the opening words of that passage raises another question. If “the last days” means “the time that began with the coming of Jesus Christ”, then why does Paul bother putting in the words “in the last days”? Why didn’t he just write “But understand this, there will come times of difficulty“?

Now, obviously we cannot read his mind. And nothing else that he writes in this passage tells us the answer. So at this point we just indulging in guess-work. Why does he say (effectively) “In these days we live in there will come times of difficulty“, rather than “there will come times of difficulty“?

What people will be – or what people are?

It seems to me that part of the answer is probably because Paul believed that Timothy was underestimating how bad things would be. After all, why say “There will be times of difficulty” unless you think that the person you are speaking to may not realise this? Since Timothy will know (he had spent years in Paul’s company) that these are the last days that he is living in, the implication is, therefore, that he does not realise how bad the last days will be. But when we read Paul’s description of what people are going to be like – and if we pause and think about each of the things he says about people – we will see that none of them are particularly shocking. They are very ordinary failings – the sort of failings that one could expect to find in respectable people.

In fact, as I looked at the list, and considered these failings, another question occurred to me. Surely these failings are things are not unique to the last days. People have not just been like this for the last 2,000 years. They have always been like this. Read the Old Testament, and look at the history of the people of Israel. The characteristics that Paul describes in this passage (“lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, etc. etc.“) were found in Old Testament times as much as in New Testament times.

So – if people have always been like this – why would Timothy expect anything else? And this is where the guess-work comes in. My guess is that Timothy thought, or at least hoped, that the last days would be better than the former days.

A new day dawning?

Why would he think that? Because these were the days of the Messiah. The Messiah had come, he had conquered death, he had ascended into heaven, and was now seated at the right hand of God. In other words, he was reigning as king. He had sent the apostles into all the world to preach the gospel to the nations, and promised that he would be with them. Paul and Timothy knew that they were living in great days – because they knew that the last days were great days. And so Timothy needed to be reminded that even though he lived at a great time, human nature had not really changed – and difficulties would still have to be faced.

And the gospels paint the same picture: the coming of Jesus was something to be excited about. It marked a new dawn. This is how the beginning of the ministry of Jesus is described in Matthew’s gospel (4:13-16): “And leaving Nazareth he went and lived in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: “The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— the people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned.” Similarly, John’s gospel (1:9) describes the arrival of Jesus with the words “The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world.”

In other words, I suspect that when Paul wrote “But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty,” what he was really meant was “Timothy – you need to understand that even in the last days there will be difficult times – even though we have the great privilege of living in the age of the Messiah, it is not always going to be easy.”

After church last Sunday, a lady told me that she had been reading my post on the last days – and commented on how helpful it was – because it made clear that the last days were not all about doom and gloom. She was exactly right. Most people in our time think of doom and gloom when they hear the phrase “the last days”. Among New Testament Christians, the opposite was the case: when they heard the phrase “the last days” – they thought of the light dawning, the end of the reign of darkness, and the coming of a glorious new age.

We live in great days. And the Bible tells us that even greater days are ahead, after Jesus returns in power, and brings in his kingdom in all its fullness. In that kingdom, human nature will have been transformed, because the former things really will have passed away. In the meantime, life in this world will have plenty of difficult times. And we do have to live in this world at present. But we also need to look to the future, and have our eyes firmly focused on it.

Are we living in the last days? (What the New Testament actually says)


I was reading II Timothy recently, and came to chapter 3. It opens with the words “But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty.” The question I immediately asked was “When are the last days? What does Paul mean by that phrase?” So I investigated.

The first clue is found in the passage. I read on.

For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people.”

Those words told me two things.

First, the reason that these times in the last days will be difficult is because of the sort of people that will be found in them. Strangely enough, they sound pretty much like the kind of people one would meet at any time in history. Nothing unusual about them. In fact, someone could be all those things and not really attract attention. As bad qualities go, these failings are pretty common.

Second, Paul tells Timothy to avoid such people. In other words, Timothy is going to meet these people who are going to be found in the difficult times in the last days. And that suggests that Paul expects Timothy to be around in these difficult times – and in the last days.

Other New Testament passages

I did a bit more digging. I discovered that the phrase “last days” is used five times in the New Testament.

The first is in Acts 2, when Peter explains to the crowds how it is that the Christians are able to speak in other tongues, as enabled by the Holy Spirit:

“”Men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and give ear to my words. For these people are not drunk, as you suppose, since it is only the third hour of the day. But this is what was uttered through the prophet Joel: “‘And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; even on my male servants and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy.”

Peter quotes Joel’s prophecy about what will happen in the last days, and says, in effect: “That is what is happening now, before your eyes.” In other words, as far as Peter was concerned, he was living in the last days.

The second is in the opening of the letter to the Hebrews:

Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.”

It’s a slightly different phrase – it says “these last days” rather than “the last days”, so it is possible that it could simply be a way of saying “In the last few days” or “in recent days”. Equally, it could be saying “in these days which we are living in, which are the last days”. But either way, it is talking about New Testament times.

The third is in the 5th chapter of the letter of James:

Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have corroded, and their corrosion will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure in the last days.

Again, James when James uses the phrase “last days”, he is, again, speaking about his own day.

The final one is II Peter, chapter 3:

This is now the second letter that I am writing to you, beloved. In both of them I am stirring up your sincere mind by way of reminder, that you should remember the predictions of the holy prophets and the commandment of the Lord and Saviour through your apostles, knowing this first of all, that scoffers will come in the last days with scoffing, following their own sinful desires. They will say, “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation.”

Here, there is not much evidence to suggest whether or not Peter sees his own time as being part of the last days. But there is certainly nothing here to suggest that he definitely doesn’t.

In short, in four of the five uses of the phrase “last days” in the New Testament, it is clear that the writers believe that New Testament times were part of the last days, and the fifth does nothing to say otherwise.

What do the scholars say?

I also had a look at what a few commentators had to say on the subject.

Gordon Fee says

For the term ‘the last days’ as referring especially to the beginning of the Christian era, see Acts 2:16-21 and Hebrews 1:2″ and adds that Paul believes “that the last days are already upon us.”

George Knight says

“‘. . . last days’ is used here as elsewhere in the NT … to refer to the time of the Messiah, that last period of days before the final messianic action takes place. Here, as in I John 2:18 [Children, it is the last hour,] the phrase does not designate some yet-to-come period of days. Rather Paul is reminding Timothy that the Christian community is living in the ‘last days’, and, because that is true, he must come to grips with what characterizes those ‘days.'”

John Stott says

Next, Paul refers to ‘the last days’. It may seem natural to apply this term to a future epoch, to the days immediately preceding the end when Christ returns. But biblical usage will not allow us to do this. For it is the conviction of the New Testament authors that the new age (promised in the Old Testament) arrived with Jesus Christ, and that therefore with his coming, the old age had begun to pass away and the last days had dawned.”

So – total unanimity there. None of them treats this as a controversial matter. It isn’t something about which there is disagreement or scholarly debate. When the first Christians used the phrase ‘the last days’, they meant the time that began with the coming of Jesus Christ 2,000 years ago.

Which raises a question . . .

This raises a question in my mind. It seems to me that when the Christians I meet speak of “the last days”, they mean something quite different from what the first Christians meant. I get the impression that when I hear people in the church talking about the last days, they mean a period of history that probably has not yet arrived. In other words, Christians today almost never use the phrase the way the Bible uses it. Why?

If this is indeed the case, it should concern us. Do Christians realise that what they mean when they use the phrase is very different from what the first Christians meant – and what the Bible means – by it? If not, that is a problem. And if so, why do they insist on using a phrase (in conversations about the Bible) to mean something very different from what the Bible means by it? That can only confuse people. Either way, this isn’t exactly healthy.

Surely, when Christians discuss matters of faith and the teaching of the Bible, we should, as much as possible, use words and phrases the way the Bible uses them. Shouldn’t we?