I haven’t normally agreed with Peter Tatchell, the pro-homosexual campaigner, over the years since we appeared together in various TV discussions. But credit where credit is due. Peter has recently written in The Guardian that he has changed his mind about the prosecution of the Christian-run Ashers Bakery in Belfast over its refusal to produce a cake with a pro-gay marriage slogan for a gay customer. He commented: “Much as I wish to defend the gay community, I also want to defend freedom of conscience, expression and religion … on reflection the court was wrong to penalise Ashers and I was wrong to endorse its decision.”

He asked: “Should Muslim printers be obliged to publish cartoons of Mohammed? Or Jewish ones publish the words of a Holocaust denier? Or gay bakers accept orders for cakes with homophobic slurs? If the Ashers verdict stands it could, for example, encourage far-right extremists to demand that bakeries and other service providers facilitate the promotion of anti-migrant and anti-Muslim opinions.”

He concluded: “In my view, it is an infringement of freedom to require businesses to aid the promotion of ideas to which they conscientiously object. Discrimination against people should be unlawful, but not against ideas.”

I agree. The law is an ass for making this decision. But will the legal ‘experts’ and their political colleagues correct it? I’m not holding my breath.

The NT predicts that the “last days” will be characterised by what Jesus called an “increase of wickedness” including selfishness, materialism, arrogance, rebellion, resentment, slander, self-indulgence, violence and treachery. So we should be alert to a decline in standards in society.

Reduced trust

Only 30% of British citizens believe “most people can be trusted” and 70% say you “need to be very careful” about trusting strangers, according to a recent World Values Survey. Trust has declined remarkably in the UK over the years. In the 1950s almost 60% believed strangers could be trusted and in the 1980s the trust level was 40%. The UK lags behind Germany (44%) Australia (57%) Norway (73%) and Sweden (65%).

Priority of Mammon

David Halpern, a senior government adviser, has warned the government that this decline in trust could be very damaging. This concern for society sounds encouraging until it becomes clear that Halpern is worried about the damage to prosperity and economic growth. He said: “Social trust seems to be a powerful predictor of economic growth and a lack of trust can stunt national economic growth rates. This really is super important.” So, Mammon wins again.

Armando Iannucci, writing in The Guardian, said “Politics was once about beliefs and society. Now it’s a worship of money.” He continued: “For the first 70 years or so of the 20th century, politics debated the power and limits of the state: the manifestos of the parties reflected how much or how little each party felt the government should involve itself in the lives of the individual. Everyone accepted there was such a thing as society, and we were given regular chances to define it. Politics was about passion, and imagination, and foresight. Now it’s just accountancy … Education became all about getting us ready for jobs … Health became a mysterious and un-debated obsession to turn our hospitals into market economies.”

In July 2014 the Committee on Standards in Public Life said that many MPs show little interest in the principles drawn up in 1995 after sleaze scandals when John Major was prime minister. It recommended that MPs take an induction course on the seven principles of selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership.

Reduced importance for Human Rights

Human rights are no longer a top priority for the British government according to Sir Simon McDonald, Permanent Secretary at the Foreign Office. He said that “the need to concentrate on Europe, Eastern Europe and Russia has supplanted it to an extent.”

The Foreign Affairs Select Committee responded: “This is particularly disappointing after the progress made under the previous Foreign Secretaries, including William Hague who promised in 2011 that there would be “no downgrading of human rights”, as “it is not in our character as a nation to have a foreign policy without a conscience, and neither is it in our interests”. We wholeheartedly share the concerns of NGOs such as Human Rights Watch, whose UK director, David Mepham, commented: “This unwillingness to fully champion rights and fundamental freedoms runs counter to the best traditions in this country’s history and weakens the UK’s global standing and influence.”

Allan Hogarth, head of policy and government affairs at Amnesty International, commented: “When much of the Middle East is in flames and a refugee crisis is engulfing Europe, Sir Simon’s comments are as astonishing as they are alarming.”

Association with oppressive regimes

It is interesting that McDonald’s comments came on day 4 of the visit to the UK by Xi Jinping, the president of China.

It has come to light that Britain made a secret deal with Saudi Arabia to ensure that both countries were elected to the UN Human Rights Council. Yet Saudi Arabia has a bad human rights record. It has allowed over 100 beheadings in recent months. Hillel Neuer, executive director of UN Watch, commented: “Based on the evidence, we remain deeply concerned that the UK may have contracted to elect the world’s most misogynistic regime as a world judge of human rights.”

Jon Snow interviewed David Cameron on Channel 4 about this deal with Saudi Arabia but Cameron tried to avoid the question. Eventually he said: “We have a relationship with Saudi Arabia and if you want to know why I’ll tell you why. It is because we receive from them important intelligence and security information that keeps us safe.”

We have also been supplying arms to Saudi Arabia which it is using in a very destructive war in Yemen. A recent editorial in The Independent said: “Britain’s policy towards Saudi Arabia is a disgrace. It makes a mockery of our claims to have an ethical approach to bilateral relations with other countries, and it betrays a lickspittle way of dealing with autocratic regimes, which should be a source of embarrassment to people of any political persuasion.” The paper allows that the Saudi regime may be the lesser of two evils because of who might replace them. But it adds that does not mean we should give it “our patronising pat on the head.” Rather we should be holding it to account.

Cuts in welfare payments and inequality

Back in February 2014 the Bishops issued a statement criticising Government welfare reforms: “We must, as a society, face up to the fact that over half of people using food banks have been put in that situation by cut backs to and failures in the benefit system, whether it be payment delays or punitive sanctions … We often hear talk of hard choices. Surely few can be harder than that faced by the tens of thousands of older people who must ‘heat or eat’ each winter…”

In January 2016 a government Briefing Paper outlined that long-term unemployed people will either be required to attend the job centre every day for three months (which is ludicrous for those who don’t live near a job centre) or 30 hours voluntary work a week for six months. Those who don’t comply will face sanctions – losing their Job Seeker Allowance for four weeks in the first instance and for thirteen weeks in the second instance.

A report published by the Church of Scotland, the Church in Wales, the Methodist Church, the Baptist Union of Great Britain, and the United Reformed church, as well as Church Action on Poverty said the government is more concerned
with cutting benefits than helping people back to work, resulting in greater poverty and reliance on foodbanks. Over one million unemployed were subject to sanctions in 2014 – benefits being stopped for a few weeks up to three years. Barry Morgan, the Archbishop of Wales, said “The findings of this report are disturbing. It exposes a system that is harsh in the extreme, penalising the most vulnerable of claimants by the withdrawal of benefits for weeks at a time.” Niall Cooper, Director of Church Action on Poverty commented: “Most people in this country would be shocked if they knew that far from providing a safety net, the benefit sanctions policy is currently making thousands of people destitute. This policy must be reviewed urgently.”

In July 2015 the Chancellor wanted to cut tax credits linked to a national living wage, claiming 90% of families would be better off. The Director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies said it was “arithmetically impossible” for the increase in minimum wage to compensate for the loss in tax credits. The proposal was debated in the House of Lords and Baroness Hollis of Heigham said: “We can be supportive of the Government and give them what they did not ask for – financial privilege – or we can be supportive instead of those three million families facing letters at Christmas telling them that on average they will lose up to around £1,300 a year, a letter that will take away 10 per cent of their income on average. That is our choice.” The House of Lords defeated the proposal.

The danger is that in seeking to curb abuse of the benefits system (or simply to save money) genuinely needy people will be penalised. The government should ensure these people are catered for even if it risks others being able to abuse the system.

Inadequate response to the refugee situation

At the beginning of 2016 28 aid agencies and charities wrote to the prime minister: “Last year’s announcement that the UK will resettle 20,000 Syrian refugees over five years was a welcome first step, but given the numbers of people searching for safety across the globe, this response is clearly inadequate: it is too slow, too low and too narrow. The UK can and should be doing much more to ensure that refugees are not compelled to take life-threatening journeys or forced into smugglers’ hands.”

The letter demands safe and legal ways for refugees to reach the EU and travel across it, noting that in 2015 3,770 people died trying to reach Europe via the Mediterranean. It added that refugees should have “access to fair and thorough procedures to determine eligibility for international protection.”

It welcomed UK aid to Syria, Greece and the Balkans and agreed that tackling the root causes of the refugee crisis remains a priority. But it continues: “However, in the absence of peace, people will continue to flee. We must provide them with safe, well-managed escape routes and refuge.”

The letter concluded: “Over 64 years ago, soon after the horrors of the second world war, European governments adopted the refugee convention, an instrument of international law which British lawyers helped to draft. As a nation, we made a promise: that never again would refugees be left out in the cold to fend for themselves; that this country would protect them; that here, they would find safe haven.”

At the same time 123 economic experts, including former diplomats and Whitehall officials, wrote to David Cameron saying: “The costs in human wellbeing of the refugee crisis … are so extremely high that it is morally unacceptable for the UK not to play a fuller part in taking in refugees.” One of them, Jonathan Portes, a former chief economist at the Cabinet Office, said: “Integrating refugees into our society and labour market will be, as it has been in the past, challenging. But we have done it before – with enormous benefits, both economic and social, to the UK – and there is absolutely no reason we cannot do it again.”

Conclusion

So in Britain we live in a society where trust has declined significantly, money has become a god, human rights have been somewhat devalued, oppressive regimes have been inappropriately supported, support for the poor has been significantly undermined and care for refugees has been seriously reduced.

It is clear that there is a widespread disinterest in or antagonism towards religion in the western world. A report from the Pew Research Centre conducted in April 2015 showed that just 21% of British people regard religion as very important in their lives. Only some 20% of English people claim to be Church of England nowadays compared with 40% in 1983. China, France, Japan, Russia and South Korea are the only countries less religious than Britain.

However research carried out in 2015 by the Barna Group and ComRes found that 57% of people in England identify as Christians (9% are practising) and 43% of people believe in the resurrection.

A 2015 YouGov survey discovered that in Britain 14% of men and 6% of women believe they are destined for Hell. 48% believed they would go to heaven.

In the United States 23% of the population are unaffiliated religiously compared with 16% in 2007. 89% believe in God. 53% say religion is very important to them and 50% attend worship at least monthly.

It is interesting that Jonathan Freedland, Executive Editor of The Guardian, wrote an article in September 2015 in which he said that people like Aldous Huxley, Jules Verne and H G Wells would not have anticipated that religion would still be very much around in the 21st century. He added that their “prediction of the future proved wrong: faith is still here, apparently stronger than ever. For that reason alone, for the role it plays in shaping our world, religion has to be taken seriously – more seriously than Dawkins-ite atheists, who dismiss it with talk of ‘fairies at the bottom of the garden’ or ‘sky-pixies’ will allow … It cannot be explained or justified in the clear, stainless-steel language of pure reason. Some of it is absurd and bizarre. But you might as well ask a man why he supports this football team rather than that one. Ask a woman why she loves this man rather than that one. Reason is what separates us from the animals. But it does not account for all that makes us human.”

Non-religious spirituality

Many people now call themselves “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR). Science doesn’t satisfy the way many people feel about the universe. They experience awe, wonder and mystery, perhaps inspired by a beautiful sunset or moving music. They are not able to express these feelings in words. Professor Michael King of University College, London says about 20% of people in the UK are spiritual but not religious. In the West our enhanced physical quality of life has created spiritual hunger. Since the 1990s do-it-yourself spiritualities (“New Spiritualities”) have come to the fore, emphasising personal transformation and therapeutic healing. In terms of spiritual activity, spiritual but not religious people may be involved in meditation, focusing on nature or becoming deeply moved by music

So the picture is certainly not simply one of secularisation. Spirituality is alive and well alongside religion.

Britain no longer a Christian country?

David Cameron is clear that Britain remains a Christian country. In his 2015 Christmas message he said “we celebrate the birth of God’s only son, Jesus Christ – the Prince of Peace. As a Christian country, we must remember what his birth represents: peace, mercy, goodwill and, above all, hope. I believe that we should also reflect on the fact that it is because of these important religious roots and Christian values that Britain has been such a successful home to people of all faiths and none.”

However in 2015 the Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life, convened by the Woolf Institute and chaired by Baroness Butler-Sloss, published a report “Living with Difference: Community, Diversity and the Common Good.” It concluded that the UK is no longer a Christian country and that public life should therefore become more pluralist (multi-faith). The next Coronation should be multi-faith and some of the bishops in the House of Lords should be replaced by leaders of other religions. Schools should no longer be required to have collective worship.

The demise of the Church of England?

In October 2015 Simon Jenkins wrote an article entitled “England’s churches can survive – but the religion will have to go.” He referred to a report that over 25% of churches have less than 20 worshippers on a Sunday. He added: “Like millions of people, I don’t go to church, but I do go to churches -85% of the public visits a church every year. We regard them as the community’s ritual forum, its museum, its art gallery, its concert hall, its occasional retreat for peace, consolation and meditation.” This, of course, is additional evidence for spirituality in society.

Jenkins believes that churches should be handed over to local councils to be used for various purposes (village shops, farmers markets, Wi-Fi cafes, sub-post offices) and “The chancels could be allotted to local worshippers of all faiths.”

He concludes: “The secularisation of churches has been a long time coming. The reason is because the nationalised Church of England, so avid to reform others, is so averse to reforming itself. It wants public money for its upkeep yet closes its doors to other faiths.” (For the record the C of E does not receive any public money. Also some congregations, including small congregations, are growing).

Religious views can be ignored

In September 2015 the British parliament discussed a bill to allow Assisted Dying. Before the debate an editorial in The Independent stated that the debate should “be conducted on purely secular and not religious terms, drawing on the considered advice of the medical profession and of others directly involved in caring for the very ill. If the clergy want to weigh in again, so be it, but that does not mean MPs should attribute any particular force to their views.”

I am aware that in a democracy the majority opinion rules and that majority may be secular. But it is a sad evidence of the decline in Christian belief that such a statement should be made. As it happens the bill was rejected by 330 to 118 votes.

Religious education challenges

In November 2015 Mr Justice Warby said that the Education Secretary made an ‘error of law’ when she stated that the GCSE due to come into effect in September 2016 would “fulfil the entirety of the state’s RE [religious education] duties”. Three families supported by the British Humanist Association had taken the issue to court saying that teaching atheism must be included in RE.

The judge said: “It is not of itself unlawful to permit an RS GCSE to be created which is wholly devoted to the study of religion.” But the assertion that the new GCSE “will fulfil the entirety of the state’s RE duties” was incorrect.

The Education Secretary sidestepped this judgment and produced a document which said RE should “reflect the fact that the religious traditions in Great Britain are, in the main, Christian” and that “there is no obligation on any school to cover the teaching of non-religious views.”

The government also said that “Schools should promote the fundamental British values of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs.” But “It is not necessary for schools or individuals to ‘promote’ teachings, beliefs or opinions that conflict with their own, but nor is it acceptable for schools to promote discrimination against people or groups on the basis of their belief, opinion or background.”

However, Andrew Brown, writing in The Guardian makes an interesting point. He says: “Humanism gains its strength in Britain today because it is not taught. Instead it is simply assumed to be the only rational ground on which decisions could possibly be made. The tenets of humanism are taken to be facts, while other moral or metaphysical positions are simply beliefs. Humanism is approached in a completely ahistorical way, much as devout Muslims approach the Qur’an, as if it had no roots and could never be superseded by any other belief system. Teaching humanism as a belief system alongside Christianity, Islam or Hinduism is the first step towards getting people to notice that this is what they actually believe (and so are free to disbelieve).”

I certainly believe schools should teach that humanism is a belief system, as Brown says, rather than the only rational ground of thought.

BBC Cuts to religion

The BBC is making significant cuts to its religious broadcasting and has been criticised for side-lining faith at a time of massive global upheaval. The Bishop of Norwich criticised it for doing this at a time when we “need – as everyone acknowledges – more religious literacy in the nation.”

Sunday Trading

The government is in favour of giving local authorities freedom to extend working hours on a Sunday which is another sign of secularism as well as the tendency to put economic advantage above more important considerations. 64% of local authority executives in England and Wales favoured such extension. However the Union of Shop, Distributive, and Allied Workers (USDAW) revealed that 91% of retail staff in large stores are opposed to longer opening hours on Sunday, primarily because of the potential detrimental effect on their family life.

Anti-Semitism in Europe

37% of British people think anti-Semitism has worsened in the last ten years. A recent poll has discovered that 32% of the population think Jews always defend Israel, even when it has done wrong, and 15% think they talk too much about the Holocaust. However 89% believe Israel has a right to exist. Another British poll found that 21% think Jews have too much power in the business and financial worlds, 15% think they have too much influence in global affairs and 12% that they have too much power over the global media.

Shmuley Boteach, a prominent US rabbi who ministered at Oxford University, said in November 2015 that the “UK is known as a country that is hostile to Israel.” He added: “British academics are arguably the most virulently anti-Israel group in Europe today. It’s quite widespread throughout British academia. They come out constantly with these boycotts.”
The (Jewish) Community Security Trust reported that anti-Semitic incidents in the UK rose by 53% in the first half of 2015 compared with the same period the previous year. The Metropolitan Police reported that there had been a 61% increase in anti-Semitic attacks in 2015. These figures may to some extent be due to more reporting by fearful Jewish victims. John Mann MP commented: “I am confident that the UK is leading the world in efforts to combat antisemitism. However our parliamentary visits to France, Germany, Ireland and Holland last year gave serious cause for concern about European antisemitism. The meetings we had in Paris were particularly worrying, as in some cases members of the community feared for their lives.”
Dr Moshe Kantor, President of the European Jewish Congress said in October 2015 “Over the past few years, tens of thousands of Jews have left [the EU] to seek a safer home elsewhere, and today, one-third of Europe’s nearly 2.5 million Jews are considering emigration.” The EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency reported that 76% of Jewish respondents said that anti-Semitism had risen since 2009.

The President of the World Jewish Congress said recently that anti-Semitism in Europe is as bad as it was in the 1930s and that “European Jews live in fear.” However Jonathan Arkush, Vice President of The Board of Deputies of British Jews, says it is different from the 1930s when Nazis were stirring up anti-Semitism whereas “Today, anti-Semitism is strongly opposed and condemned by governments across Europe.”

Mark Gardner, director of communications at the Community Security Trust, which advises synagogues and Jewish schools, said: “The situation today is very different, but the anxiety felt by many European Jews about antisemitism and jihadist terrorism is real and justified.”

One evidence of the positive attitudes of European governments is the offer from the Spanish government that descendants of the Sephardic Jewish community which was expelled from Spain in 1492 would be granted legal rights to apply for Spanish citizenship. The government stated: “This law acts as a [historic] recognition of the pain and the damage that was suffered in Spain by the Jews after everything they had contributed here.”

ISIS threats

In October 2015 ISIS produced a video in Hebrew for the first time in which a masked member said: “not one Jew will remain in Jerusalem … Do what you want in the meantime, but then we will make you pay ten times over … “look what happens to you after a number of stabbing and car attacks from our brothers in Palestine. You’ve been turned on your head,” he said, using the Hebrew slang for losing control. You’re afraid of every speeding driver and every person holding something in their hand … This is not just talk, this will hit you from every direction, north and south, and our account with you grows daily.”

The New Anti-Semitism

Many commentators believe that anti-Semitism has changed. Irwin Cotler was Member of Parliament in Canada from 1999 to 2015. He was also Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada also Professor of Law at McGill University and a leading scholar of human rights. He speaks of the UN clearly condemning Israel far more than any other country in the world, including those guilty of great crimes against humanity. He wrote:

Globally, we are witnessing a new, sophisticated, virulent, and even lethal anti-Semitism, reminiscent of the atmospherics of the 1930s, and without parallel or precedent since the end of the Second World War … the new anti-Semitism involves the discrimination against, denial of, or assault upon the right of the Jewish people to live as an equal member of the international community, with the state of Israel as the targeted collective Jew among the nations ….
The laundering of anti-Semitism under the protective cover of the UN found dramatic expression in December, when the General Assembly — in yet another annual discriminatory ritual — adopted 20 resolutions of condemnation against Israel, and only four against the rest of the world combined.

And the laundering of anti-Semitism through the culture of human rights occurs each time the UN Human Rights Council singles out Israel for discriminatory treatment. This singling-out is starkly illustrated by the juxtaposition of the Council’s permanent agenda item 7 —“violations by Israel of human rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territories” — and permanent agenda item 8: “human rights violations in the rest of the world.” …..

The UN Human Rights Council, [has condemned] one member state – Israel – in 80% of its twenty-five country-specific resolutions, while the major human rights violators of our time enjoyed exculpatory immunity. Indeed, five special sessions, two fact-finding missions, and a high level commission of inquiry have been devoted to a single purpose: the singling-out of Israel.

Cotler lists nine aspects of the New Anti-Semitism:

1. Genocidal antisemitism: Calling for the destruction of Israel and the Jewish people.
2. Political antisemitism: Denial of the Jewish people’s right to self-determination, de-legitimisation of Israel as a state, attributions to Israel of all the world’s evils.
3. Ideological antisemitism: ‘Nazifying’ Israel by comparing Zionism and racism.
4. Theological antisemitism: Convergence of Islamic antisemitism and Christian “replacement” theology, drawing on the classical hatred of Jews.
5. Cultural antisemitism: The emergence of anti-Israel attitudes, sentiments, and discourse in ‘fashionable’ salon intellectuals
6. Economic antisemitism: BDS [boycott] movements and the extra-territorial application of restrictive covenants against countries trading with Israel.
7. Holocaust denial
8. Anti-Jewish racist terrorism
9. International legal discrimination (“Denial to Israel of equality before the law in the international arena”): Differential and discriminatory treatment towards Israel in the international arena.

Others stress that the old form of anti-Semitism is very much alive and well in the world. Some dispute that there is a new form of anti-Semitism but it is clear that there is a growing antagonism towards Israel (some of it created by Israel’s failings) and that the UN is comparatively unjust in its treatment of Israel.

The Vatican document on relations between Catholics and Jews

The Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews has published a paper entitled: “The Gifts and the Calling of God Are Irrevocable.” There are many good statements in this document. One thing is clear: the Catholic Church is strongly against anti-Semitism and also against “Replacement Theology” – the idea that the church has replaced the Jewish people because God has no continuing purpose for them. However I am profoundly disturbed by some of the statements it makes.

The document states that Jews are our “elder brothers” and we can’t understand the teaching of Jesus or the disciples without understanding its Jewish context. “Given Jesus’ Jewish origins, coming to terms with Judaism in one way or another is indispensable for Christians” (para 14). “Jews and Christians have the same mother and can be seen, as it were, as two siblings who – as is the normal course of events for siblings – have developed in different directions” (para 15). It goes on to disagree with Replacement Theology (also known as Supersessionism, i.e. the idea that the church has superseded and replaced the Jewish community) (para 17).

So, in these times of growing anti-Semitism it is good to have the Roman Catholic Church speaking very positively about the Jewish community.

However, I have to say that I find the Vatican document disturbing in certain aspects about salvation for Jewish people. It is important to say that it makes some statements I wholeheartedly agree with, e.g. “while it is true that certain Christian beliefs are unacceptable to Judaism, and that the Church cannot refrain from proclaiming Jesus as Lord and Messiah…” (para 13). “The theory that there may be two different paths to salvation, the Jewish path without Christ and the path with the Christ, whom Christians believe is Jesus of Nazareth, would in fact endanger the foundations of Christian faith … Jesus Christ is the universal mediator of salvation, and that there is no “other name under heaven given to the human race by which we are to be saved” (Acts 4:12) (para 35).

My problem is that the document goes on to say: “From the Christian confession that there can be only one path to salvation, however, it does not in any way follow that the Jews are excluded from God’s salvation because they do not believe in Jesus Christ as the Messiah of Israel and the Son of God … That the Jews are participants in God’s salvation is theologically unquestionable, but how that can be possible without confessing Christ explicitly, is and remains an unfathomable divine mystery” (para 36).

It also states: “God revealed himself in his Word, so that it may be understood by humanity in actual historical situations. … For Jews this Word can be learned through the Torah [the Law] and the traditions based on it. The Torah is the instruction for a successful life in right relationship with God. Whoever observes the Torah has life in its fullness … By observing the Torah the Jew receives a share in communion with God. In this regard, Pope Francis has stated: “…. Christians believe that Jesus Christ is the Word of God made flesh in the world; for Jews the Word of God is present above all in the Torah. Both faith traditions find their foundation in the One God, the God of the Covenant, who reveals himself through his Word. In seeking a right attitude towards God, Christians turn to Christ as the fount of new life, and Jews to the teaching of the Torah” (para 24).

It continues: “Judaism and the Christian faith as seen in the New Testament are two ways by which God’s people can make the Sacred Scriptures of Israel their own. The Scriptures which Christians call the Old Testament is open therefore to both ways. A response to God’s word of salvation that accords with one or the other tradition can thus open up access to God … Therefore there are not two paths to salvation according to the expression “Jews hold to the Torah, Christians hold to Christ” (para 25).

I have serious difficulties with the statements in paras 24, 25 and 36. The only way of salvation for both Jew and Gentile is through faith in Christ. The document does not refer to John 14: 6 where Jesus says: “Jesus answered, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Nor does it refer to 1 Jn 2:23 “No one who denies the Son has the Father” or 1 Jn 5:11-12 “And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.” I find it disturbing that the document doesn’t refer to these passages

Jewish people cannot be saved through the Torah. I have no problems with Jewish Christians (who call themselves Messianic Believers) celebrating their Jewish heritage, including festivals, as part of their commitment to Christ. But if they don’t have a faith commitment to Jesus Christ (Yeshua HaMashiach in Hebrew) they do not have eternal life.

The Vatican document goes on to say that in view of its statements in paras 24, 25 and 36: “The Church is therefore obliged to view evangelisation to Jews, who believe in the one God, in a different manner from that to people of other religions and world views. In concrete terms this means that the Catholic Church neither conducts nor supports any specific institutional mission work directed towards Jews. While there is a principled rejection of an institutional Jewish mission, Christians are nonetheless called to bear witness to their faith in Jesus Christ also to Jews, although they should do so in a humble and sensitive manner, acknowledging that Jews are bearers of God’s Word, and particularly in view of the great tragedy of the Shoah [Holocaust]” (para 40).

I’d be the first to agree that because of the dreadful way the church has treated the Jewish people in the past we have to be very sensitive indeed about Jewish evangelism – we are treading on egg shells. But as someone whom God called to head up a mission to Jewish people, I am bound to say I don’t think God agrees with the statements in paras 24, 25 and 36.

So, whereas I’m very pleased by much of what the Vatican document says and its clear witness against anti-Semitism, I think it is also a warning to those of us who are positive towards the Jewish people and believe God has a purpose for them that we must be careful not to compromise the uniqueness of Christ as the only saviour. We must combat anti-Semitism but we must not compromise the Gospel.

Report of the All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Antisemitism September 2006

I will end this paper by pointing out another danger in combatting Anti-Semitism. The All-Party Parliamentary Group against Antisemitism stated in it 2006 report: “Broadly, it is our view that any remark, insult or act the purpose or effect of which is to violate a Jewish person’s dignity or create an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for him is antisemitic. This reflects the definition of harassment under the Race Relations Act 1976. This definition can be applied to individuals and to the Jewish community as a whole” (para 4).

Obviously I agree we must combat anti-Semitism but the problem is that Jewish people can easily take offence at Christians who are sensitively proclaiming the Gospel and pointing out that Jesus is the Messiah and only way of salvation. Does this behaviour contravene the Race Relations Act? I fear it will eventually be seen to do so, even if it is not so regarded at present.

Conclusion

Anti-Semitism is demonic and we must strongly oppose it. But the worst form of Anti-Semitism is to deny Jewish people the Gospel.

It is obscene that 62 of the world’s richest people own as much as the poorest half of humanity combined, according to Oxfam. So, as the head of Oxfam said, one bus load of people have as much money as the poorest 3.6 billion people.

The wealth of the poorest half of the world’s people has fallen by $1 trillion since 2010 whilst the wealth of the richest bus load has increased by half a trillion dollars.

It is true that some of the bus load, such as Bill Gates, may be very generous, but many of them concentrate on avoiding tax by using tax havens. So some pay only 2-3% in tax.

Maybe the selfish rich should reflect on the eternal destination of the rich man who ignored poor Lazarus in Jesus’ story.

In a recent interview Dawkins said: “Christianity may actually be our best defence against aberrant forms of religion that threaten the world.” He added “There are no Christians, as far as I know, blowing up buildings. I am not aware of any Christian suicide bombers. I am not aware of any major Christian denomination that believes the penalty for apostasy is death.” http://www.christiantoday.com/article/richard.dawkins.says.christianity.is.worlds.best.defence.against.radical.islam/76416.htm

It is worth remembering that Dawkins experienced sexual abuse at his Christian school. However he commented: “Horrible as sexual abuse no doubt was, the damage was arguably less than the long-term psychological damage inflicted by bringing the child up Catholic in the first place.”

The price of freedom is eternal vigilance. I have read through the lengthy documents outlining the British Governments Counter Extremism Policy and related publications. Clearly there is a need for such a policy in view of the alarming number of people who have been radicalised by Islamic extremists in this country. Clearly the government has good intentions. But it is not its motives which are the concern. Rather it is the fact that it is trespassing into areas in which it is ignorant, such as theology. It is a cause of concern that already the government’s inspectors and other representatives have shown a certain amount of serious incompetence in this area. Then there is the danger of drift whereby well-intentioned legislation could drift into an abuse of people’s (especially religious people’s) human rights and freedom of speech.

The government want to scrap the Human Rights Act of the European Convention on Human Rights. This convention, has nothing to do with the European Union, but membership is a condition of being in the EU. It protects numerous rights including right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, right to freedom of expression, right to freedom of assembly and association. The government want to replace it with our own British Bill of Rights so that they have ultimate control of decisions.

Government reassurances

The government has published documents about its counter extremism policy which contain numerous reassuring statements. In its Counter-Extremism Strategy document it states: “All people living in Britain are free to practise a faith or to decide not to follow any faith at all” (para 2). “It is not government’s role to regulate faith leaders, but government does have a responsibility to ensure that those working in the public sector are suitably trained. The Government will therefore work in partnership with faith groups to review the training provided to those who work as faith leaders in public institutions” (para 87). “The powers will not be able to be used against privately held views or people expressing their religious beliefs. They will not curtail the democratic right to protest nor will they close down debate or limit free speech: these are rights we will always protect” (para 113).

In its Prevent Strategy document it states: “The ideology of extremism and terrorism is the problem; legitimate religious belief emphatically is not” (Foreword). “We remain absolutely committed to protecting freedom of speech in this country” (para 3:10). Prevent “must not seem to pass judgment on faith or to suggest only a particular kind of faith is appropriate or acceptable” (para 3:26). “The holding of extremist views is protected by Article 10 of European Convention on Human Rights and cannot be addressed through criminal law” (para 6:18). This latter quotation is not too reassuring however in that, as we have noted, the government is seeking to scrap the Human Rights Act of the European Convention on Human Rights. “It must not appear to pass judgment on faith in general or to suggest only a particular kind of faith is appropriate or acceptable” (para 8:1). It refers to “the difficulty of the Government taking a position on matters of theology” (para 8:36). It refers to the idea “that Government is taking upon itself the role of theological arbiter” as a misconception. It adds: “We will not want to engage in matters of theology but we recognise the imperative for theologians, academics and communities to do so. We will support their efforts by providing information on the texts which are being used to radicalise people in this country; we want to ensure that counter-narrative work is widely circulated and in a form that reaches as many people as possible” (para 8:56).

Weaknesses in the government’s position

We should take these reassurances seriously and avoid cynicism and paranoia. However we should also avoid naivety. A lot depends on how the people who activate the policy (OFSTED, police, etc) understand the policy and define extremism. We should also take seriously the growing ignorance of the Christian faith in society which could lead to fundamental beliefs coming to be regarded as extreme. In addition, whereas we shouldn’t “see demons everywhere” we would be naïve if we ignore the satanic opposition to the Christian faith. Jesus recognised this opposition and so should we. The devil won’t miss a trick in opposing the Gospel. What a great opportunity he has to use the necessary policy of counteracting actual or potential violent extremism to undermine the truth that Jesus is the only way of salvation and other religions are mistaken. Given human failings, this is no unrealistic threat.

I have been fair in quoting the government’s reassurances at some length. But there are other statements which cause concern. A lot depends on the definitions of certain key words. The Counter-Extremism Strategy document states: “there are concerns that some supplementary schools may be teaching children views which run contrary to our shared values, encouraging hatred of other religions” (para 73). But what is hatred of other religions. If a Christian believes other religions are false and influenced by satanic deceit is that hatred of other religions? Besides it is one thing to “hate” what another person believes and quite another to hate the person themselves. A Christian may legitimately hate beliefs that undermine the Christian Gospel and hinder people coming to eternal salvation. But to hate the person who holds those beliefs is quite wrong. It is hatred of people which matters not hatred of beliefs. Here we see the government, in its ignorance, publishing confused statements.

Having said that, I add that a Christian must be careful to avoid unnecessary offence in how he speaks of such differences of belief. The Counter-Extremism Strategy document refers to a video which “shows a speaker at an anti-Muslim rally in Newcastle describing Islam as a ‘disgusting, backward, savage, barbarian, supremacist ideology masquerading as a religion’” (para 11). That sort of grossly offensive terminology should be avoided.

The document continues: “In assessing drivers of and pathways to radicalisation, the line between extremism and terrorism is often blurred. Terrorist groups of all kinds very often draw upon ideologies which have been
developed, disseminated and popularised by extremist organisations that appear to be non-violent (such as groups which neither use violence nor specifically and openly endorse its use by others)” (para 5:34). In July 2015 David Cameron made a speech about countering extremism is which he said: “As we counter this ideology, a key part of our strategy must be to tackle both parts of the creed – the non-violent and violent. This means confronting groups and organisations that may not advocate violence – but which do promote other parts of the extremist narrative.” Yes, but could that be understood (or become understood) to include Christianity which does not teach violence but regards other religions to be false and influenced by satanic deceit?

Brendan O’Neill, who is an atheist, described David Cameron’s comments that the Government will “tackle” all those who “may not advocate violence” but who do promote “other parts of the extremist narrative” as a “step too far.” He said that non-violent extremism could even cover Christians who do not support same-sex marriage, because this could be seen as not having “respect for minorities”. He concluded: “What May and Cameron view as the pesky distinction between action and speech, between violent and non-violent extremism, is actually the foundation stone of all free, enlightened societies: we police criminal behaviour, but not thoughts, ideas, words.”

The Prevent Strategy document quotes the Public Order Act 1986 which “makes it an offence, amongst other things, to say or do something or to possess or display written material which is threatening, abusive or insulting and which is intended to stir up racial hatred or make it likely that racial hatred will be stirred up.” It also quotes the Public Order Act 1986 (amended in 2006 and 2008) which “makes it an offence to use threatening words or behaviour, or to display any written material which is threatening, if it is intended to encourage religious hatred ….” In the past such legislation would not have seemed relevant to orthodox Christianity. Admittedly both quotations refer to the intention to stir up racial or religious hatred. But experience teaches that such intention can easily be assumed (for example, it tends to be assumed that holding traditional views of sexuality is to be antagonistic to homosexuals). I certainly don’t favour “roasting people over Hell” but could a sensitive and compassionate reference to the reality of judgment and hell come to be regarded as “threatening”?

The document continues that independent schools must “promote tolerance and harmony between different cultural traditions” (para 10:14). It continues: “There is further evidence that some schools – and some supplementary schools – have used teaching materials which may encourage intolerance” (para 10:44). But what is the definition of tolerance and harmony? Does it require a view that all religions are legitimate ways to God – a view I believe to be incompatible with Christianity?

In 2015 it was revealed that the government intended to “require all faiths to maintain a national register of faith leaders” and that the Government would “set out the minimum level for training and checks” before faith leaders could go on the register. Haras Rafiq, director of the counter-extremism think tank Quilliam, described the proposal as “Orwellian and totalitarian.” Fortunately, the government appears to have gone back on this policy. However it shows the extremes to which the government was prepared to go.

Jonathan Dimbleby gave the 2015 Prix Italia lecture in Turin in September. He criticised the Public Order Act which criminalised using threatening or abusive language with the intention of causing “alarm or distress” or inciting “hatred.” He pointed out the crucial distinction between causing “distress” which may be a crime and causing “offence” which may not. He commented: “The distinction is not easy for the layman to define, and the two are only too easy to elide.”

He went on to quote Salman Rushdie as saying the law meant that, instead of being supported over The Satanic Verses he would have been accused of “insulting an ethnic and cultural minority.” He added: “We are living in the darkest time I have ever known.”

Dimbleby went on to express dismay that the Home Secretary had been considering “pre-transmission regulatory regime” for radio and television which he believed would muzzle them in the hope of stamping out extremism.

Whilst avoiding paranoia these facts are a cause of real concern. At the very least, the questions I have raised need to be borne in mind because. As I said, “the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.”

It was interesting to read a recent article by Sandi Dunn who claimed she was radicalised at her Catholic school. She quoted Sir Michael Wilshaw, head of Ofsted, who said his inspectors have found “appalling misogynistic, homophobic and anti-Semite teaching material” in textbooks being used by unqualified teachers in private schools. Now I’m certainly against misogynistic, homophobic and anti-Semitic attitudes. But how does OFSTED define them? Do they regard someone who opposes the appointment of women priests misogynistic? Do they regard someone upholding traditional views of sexuality homophobic (which is normally defined as against homosexuals themselves)? If so, they are mistaken. Such views can be held without any wrong attitudes to people.

Dunn went on the say that the school’s teaching about Hell meant she was radicalised. She added: “Abrahamic faiths in particular hold that women are inferior, teach homophobia, and often discourage marrying out of the community or ‘mixing’ in their most conservative forms. This anti-‘mixing’ ideology has to be seen for what it is: institutional racism.” That sweeping statement is based upon ignorance and prejudice. True Christianity does not teach women are inferior or legitimise antagonism to homosexuals or discourage mixing with non-Christians. The issue of a committed Christian marrying a non-Christian is a more complex issue. It means the couple cannot share in the most fundamental aspects of the life of the Christian partner, which is not good for the marriage.

Dunn goes on to say that she aims to petition UNICEF: “for a rethink of their Convention of the Rights of the Child (ratified by 194 countries). My request will be that all children, up to the age of 18, should have the right not to be given religious instruction under any guise, including in the home. The indoctrination of young minds, driven by the fear of Hell, is something that has to be cut off at the source if we want to avoid further radicalisation. Religious teaching is not proper education – it’s old-fashioned brainwashing. And having been exposed to that myself, I know how important it is to root it out and stop it becoming extremism before it’s too late.”

Dunn may seem extreme at present but recent developments in our increasingly secularised society suggest her views may not remain so. Things which at one time would have seemed impossible now happen.

For example, at one time it would have been unthinkable that a Christian bakery which refused to bake a cake which included captions promoting gay marriage would be successfully sued. But it has happened. This is an example of the increasing radicalisation of our secularised society. The judge said: “The defendants have unlawfully discriminated against the plaintiff on grounds of sexual discrimination. This is direct discrimination for which there can be no justification.” A YouGov poll in November 2014 found 56% of people thought the bakery was justified. 65% disapproved of legal action being taken against them.

Similarly, it would have been unthinkable that cinema chains would ban a Christmas church advert containing the Lord’s Prayer. It shows that the danger of our society oppressing Christians needs to be taken seriously. Even Richard Dawkins condemned this action: “I … strongly object to suppressing the ads on the grounds that they might ‘offend’ people. If anybody is ‘offended’ by something so trivial as a prayer, they deserve to be offended.” The assistant secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain, Shaykh Ibrahim Mogra, said he was “flabbergasted that anyone would find this prayer offensive to anybody, including people of no particular religious belief”.

Fortunately the banning will be investigated by the Equality and Human Rights Commission. The chief executive said: “We strongly disagree with the decision not to show the adverts on the grounds they might ‘offend’ people. There is no right not to be offended in the UK; what is offensive is very subjective and this is a slippery slope towards increasing censorship. We also understand why people were confused that a commercial Christmas can be advertised but the central Christian prayer cannot. We will therefore examine the issues raised by this case as part of our major review into the law protecting freedom of religion or belief, and publish our findings in the new year.”

Should we trust the government?

The Rev Dr Mike Ovey is a theologian and former lawyer. He was a parliamentary draftsman in the 1980s when anti-terror legislation to deal with the IRA threat was being framed. He expressed deep concern over the government’s anti-terror policy and said it would be easy to argue that there was a “clear trajectory” between, for example, teaching mainstream Christian ideas about subjects such as abortion and the actions of violent anti-abortion groups. He added: “They are going to say this is far-fetched and will never happen. That is essentially a government saying trust us with your civil liberties. I would say frankly human experience tells us the last thing you ever want to do is trust a government with your civil liberties. The Government is going around saying it is all a time of national emergency. I think I want to say we have been there before and got the T-shirt. It doesn’t work.”

Britain has joined in the bombing campaign against ISIS. This is a controversial decision. The traditional Christian definition of a Just War includes six conditions:

1. It must be fought by a legally-recognised authority. Government, not private individuals or corporations.

This has been fulfilled because the UN (as well as the UK Parliament) has approved it.

2. The cause of the war must be just.

Combating the Satanic evil of ISIS is a just cause.

3. There must be an intention to establish good or restrain evil.

This is the intention.

4. There must be a reasonable chance of success.

This is more difficult because many people do not believe that bombing alone will defeat ISIS, although it will weaken them.

5. The war must be a last resort.

It is difficult to see how ISIS will be defeated without military action.

6. Only sufficient force must be used and civilians must not be involved.

This is a controversial point as ISIS deliberately mixes with innocent civilians. It seems inevitable that many innocent civilians will be killed in the raids.

However, it is all very well to debate the ethics of the bombing campaign. But how are the nations to defeat this terrible evil? It seems unlikely that western nations will be willing to provide ground troops, having been stung by the difficulties resulting from the invasion of Iraq. If local ground forces were strong enough to defeat ISIS, supported by the bombing campaign and other non-military action by the western nations, that would be the best way forward. But it is not clear that they are strong enough.

The solemn fact is that the western nations don’t really know how to cope with the terrorists. The bombing campaign won’t be sufficient and the security measures at home will not be adequate. Terrorism is now much more sophisticated with modern communications, weapons and many other resources. For example, Detective Chief Inspector Colin Smith, a security expert and adviser to the Home Office Centre for Applied Science and Technology, warned that a small quadcopter could easily be used by terrorists for attacks and propaganda purposes.

War, in the form of terrorism, poses a very serious new threat to the nations. No country can feel secure because even more extensive surveillance (which, in itself, has negative consequences) is not adequate.

Nicolas Henin, who was held hostage by ISIS for ten months, says that ISIS are not superheroes but “street kids drunk on ideology and power.” They see all that is happening as an apocalyptic process towards the defeat of the “crusaders” by the Muslim army. He adds: “They will be heartened by every sign of overreaction, of division, of fear, of racism, of xenophobia.”

Dangers from immigration

I want nothing to do with the idiotic and offensive comments of Donald Trump. Nevertheless, there are dangers in the refugee movement. I have already mentioned the report that a Syrian ISIS operative has said 4000 covert terrorists have infiltrated the refugee movement into Western Europe. Such a report could be propaganda but it is also credible.

On a different level, the huge influx of Muslims is bound to make significant pro-Islamic changes in western nations. Over 2.6 million refugees from Muslim nations entered the US in 2014, according to the Center for Immigration Studies. That compares with 2.2 million in 2010 and 1.5 million before that. European leaders have said the “greatest tide” of refugees is yet to come.

There are now nine civil wars taking place in Muslim nations in the Middle East and North Africa (Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, SE Turkey, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and north-east Nigeria). Five of them have begun since 2011.

The Prime Minister of Hungary, Viktor Orban, commented on the influx of refugees: “Most are not Christian, but Muslim. Is it not worrying that Europe’s Christian culture is already barely able to maintain its own set of Christian values?” Donald Tusk, President of the EU, responded: “For me, Christianity in public and social life carries a duty to our brothers in need. Referring to Christianity in a public debate on migration must mean in the first place the readiness to show solidarity and sacrifice. For a Christian it shouldn’t matter what race, religion and nationality the person in need represents.” I agree with Tusk’s response but it would be naïve to ignore that having so many more Muslims, with a higher birthrate, will have a profound effect on western nations. Islam is a missionary religion which aims to win the world. Current events greatly further that mission.

Other threats

Boko Haram

Whilst we major on thinking about ISIS, it has emerged that Boko Haram, the Nigerian-based terror group, also known as Islamic State’s West’s Africa province (ISWAP), is the most deadly terrorist organisation. In 2014 it was responsible for 6644 deaths, as opposed to 6073 for ISIS.

Iran

It is reported that Iran has stopped dismantling nuclear centrifuges in two uranium enrichment plants due to pressures from the hard-liners who complained that the move was too fast. They produce low-enriched uranium for nuclear power plants but this can also provide material for bombs if refined much further.

Russia

Russia, under Putin, is reasserting itself after the US has dominated the world for over 20 years. In 2014 Moscow re-opened 10 former Soviet-era military bases which were closed in 1991. Russia is also flying more long-range air patrols off the US shores.

China

China is also flexing its muscles. I have noted before its reclamation projects on the Spratley Islands in the China Sea. It has built an air strip and harbour there. China is ignoring the territorial claims of Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei over this area. The US has decided to put a missile destroyer to patrol within 12 miles of disputed islands. China responded by saying that it will seek to “convince the White House that China, despite its unwillingness, is not frightened to fight a war with the US in the region, and is determined to safeguard its national interests and dignity.”

However, Xi Jinping, President of China, said recently: “War is like a mirror. Looking at it helps us better appreciate the value of peace. Today, peace and development have become the prevailing trend, but the world is far from tranquil. War is the sword of Damocles that still hangs over mankind. We must learn the lessons of history, and dedicate ourselves to peace.”

Nuclear threat

Russia’s actions in Ukraine and China’s expansionism has caused the US to look again at its nuclear arsenal. There are signs that US adversaries, especially Russia, want to be ready to employ nuclear weapons to deal with any escalating conflict with the United States.

We need to be alert and to pray about these threats.

God’s relationship with the world

The Lord sustains the whole cosmos and everything in it at every moment. The writer to the Hebrews makes this clear:
“The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word” (Heb 1:3). All that happens could not take place without him sustaining what causes it. Hence the prophets can say God performs all judgments in his wrath. But that is omitting reference to secondary causes, which is particularly the case in the Old Testament. He has given free will, desires and a sense of need to human beings which can lead to wrong action and negative consequences. Those consequences can be seen as judgment but they are not God directly intervening in judgment.

Not all divine judgment is by means of secondary causes. God has, of course, sometimes intervened directly in judgment. The deaths of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11) is surely an example of this.

God also intervenes positively, often in answer to prayer. He can intervene to protect people from negative events which threaten them. In his great mercy he often intervenes to protect the impenitent sinner from the negative effects of his sin. On the other hand, where someone is an impenitent sinner, he can decide not to intervene and so such people experience either the negative results of their behaviour or the negative events which threaten them. They bring it on themselves but it can be described as divine judgment because the Lord decided not to intervene in protection.

So God often works through “the changes and chances of this mortal life” – sometimes in judgment. Here are some examples:

• The sons of Eli were living sinful lifestyles and their father rebuked them. But they “did not listen to their father’s rebuke for it was the Lord’s will to put them to death” (1Sam 2:25). In other words, God decided not to intervene to protect Eli’s sons in battle and they were both killed.

• Amos says the Lord caused lack of food in Israel and withheld rain from crops. He struck the gardens and vineyards, with blight and mildew. He also sent plagues (Amos 4:6-10). It is unlikely that God did this by direct intervention. Rather, he simply did not intervene to protect them from these problems and provide for them.

• The Lord is said to have put Saul to death (1 Chron 10:14) But it was the Philistines who actually carried it out. Literally, “Saul died because he disobeyed God. God removed his protection from him.”

• Amaziah, King of Judah, wouldn’t listen to a prophet warning him against going to war and so he was defeated in battle. The writer comments “Amaziah, however, would not listen, for God so worked that he might deliver them into the hands of Jehoash, because they sought the gods of Edom” (2 Chron 25:20). Literally, because of Amaziah’s persistent idolatry God didn’t intervene to convince him of the truth of the prophet’s warning. Events took their course.

• Isaiah speaks of the Lord’s “work against Mount Zion and Jerusalem” (Isa 10:12). But he goes on to say that Assyria was an instrument in God’s hand (i.e. God allowed Assyria to conquer) and would be judged for arrogantly thinking it had conquered by its own power (Isaiah 10:24-25). God allows Assyria’s selfish, violent expansionism to punish Israel but then he punishes Assyria for it’s wrong attitudes towards his people, namely the Babylonians conquered the Assyrians. God worked through the military action of these powers.

• Jeremiah quotes the Lord speaking of himself carrying out the actions of Babylon – actions which would normally be carried out when a dominant superpower invades a country. He works through ordinary human events (Jeremiah 27:6-11). Similarly Jeremiah speaks of Nebuchadnezzar carrying Judah into exile (29:1) but then says God carried Judah into exile (29:4, 7, 14). So God uses the selfishness, pride and violence of human beings in his purposes but they are still free in their decisions and responsible for their actions. Jeremiah says God will respond to national repentance by averting destruction (Jeremiah 18:7-10). This must mean that when there is repentance God restricts human evil and selfishness and demonic activity but often allows them in cases of no repentance. Human selfishness and evil and demonic activity is widespread bringing trouble and suffering to others. God does not literally need to bring that trouble and suffering but simply not to restrict and hold it back.

• Paul said that “God gave [the Jewish people] a spirit of stupor, eyes that could not see and ears that could not hear,
to this very day.” Actually it is Satan, the God of this world, who blinds the mind of unbelievers. God simply didn’t intervene with many of them to bring them to faith.

How do we recognise God’s judgement in action today?

We need to be careful in concluding that some event is an example of God’s judgment, not least because God is very merciful, even towards persistent sinners. We can follow the approach taken in Scripture briefly outlined above, namely, recognising that God does judge people by not intervening to protect them from the results of their actions or “the changes and chances of this mortal life.”

If someone persists in wrong or unwise behaviour they may reap the result of that behaviour. This may simply be the natural result or, for example, human punishment of bad behaviour. On an analogy with Scripture, this could sometimes be seen as divine judgment. It could be in the sense that the person is reaping the result of flouting rules which God has written into creation, e.g. health rules. We often half-jokingly say when someone reaps a negative result from wrong behaviour “That’s judgment on you.” Or it may be in the sense that humans (police, law courts) are enforcing the law which is based on God’s order for society. Paul refers to this in Romans 13:1-5
Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2 Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 3 For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. 4 For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.

The New Testament specifies various failings which will lead to judgement. In many of them it is not clear if it refers to judgment in this life or after death. The following are specified as leading to judgment: selfish anger (Matt 5:22), judgmentalism (Matt 7:1-2), rejecting the Gospel (Matt 10:15; John 12:48), careless words (Matt 12:36), hypocrisy (Matt 23:13; Rom 2:1-5), sexual immorality (heterosexual and homosexual), idolatry, greed, drunkenness, slander, swindling, idolatry, stealing (1 Cor 6:9-10), witchcraft, hatred, discord, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions, envy (Gal 5:19-21, Eph 5:5-6) ungodly church leaders (1 Tim 3:5-7), grumbling (James 5:9), going back on commitment to Christ (1 Tim 5:11-12).

However there are two passages which clearly speak of judgment in this life. Paul teaches that taking Communion unworthily can lead to sickness or even death (1 Cor 11:29-34). Pauls writes: “For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves. That is why many among you are weak and ill, and a number of you have fallen asleep. But if we were more discerning with regard to ourselves, we would not come under such judgment. Nevertheless, when we are judged in this way by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be finally condemned with the world.” This “judgment” is divine discipline which is intended to have a beneficial effect on the believer.

Both Paul and Peter teach that judgment sometimes takes the form of the undeserved suffering of believers which can build them up (2 Thess 1:4-7; 1 Peter 4:16-18). Paul writes: “among God’s churches we boast about your perseverance and faith in all the persecutions and trials you are enduring. All this is evidence that God’s judgment is right, and as a result you will be counted worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are suffering. God is just: he will pay back trouble to those who trouble you and give relief to you who are troubled, and to us as well.” Again this is divine discipline which strengthens them as they endure it in faith.

Peter writes: “However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name. For it is time for judgment to begin with God’s household; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God? And, ‘If it is hard for the righteous to be saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?’ So then, those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good.” Again this “judgment” is divine discipline.

So we may recognise God’s judgment on the church. Many churches don’t really pray (beyond brief prayers at services), don’t preach the Gospel in any effective way and don’t seek to put into practice the New Testament teaching on the church. The result is decline. The church has sometimes not handled the tragic issue of sexual abuse properly. The result is scandal. The House of Bishops seems to be “generally speaking, generally speaking” over the issue of homosexual partnerships/marriage. The result is that society ignores the church. And so it goes on.

We may also recognised God’s judgment on the world when human failing leads to negative consequences. This will include such things as:
• Self-seeking politics and military action leading to:
o War
o Terrorism
o Oppressive regimes
• Irresponsible attitude towards creation leading to:
o Global warming
o Other ecological disasters.
• Turning away from Christianity leading to
o Breakdown of biblically-based morality.
o Increasingly dominant influence of Islam
• Immoral, irresponsible behaviour, including sexual behaviour, which causes:
o Disease
o Epidemics
o Pandemics
• Sexual immorality leading to:
o Undermining of marriage
o Breakdown of the family
o Harm to children

Of course, these negative consequences spread to many innocent people.

It is more difficult to speak of God’s judgment when it involves natural disasters: earthquakes, volcanos, floods, tsunamis, tornados, meteor/asteroid impacts. These are all natural events inherent to nature as we know it. Jesus speaks of earthquakes and disturbances in the heavens as signs pointing to his return but he does not say they are judgments. The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, which may have been caused by an earthquake, is, of course, seen as judgment, as is the Flood, so it is not illegitimate in principle to see natural disasters as judgment. But it surely requires a clear word from the Lord to recognise a particular natural disaster as judgment.

Judgment and Compassion

How do we reconcile the idea of God’s judgment (especially affecting innocent people) with divine compassion? There are various considerations:

1. God “judges” even faithful believers through suffering and persecution (2 Thess 1:4-7; 1 Peter 4:16-18) so no-one, even an innocent person, is immune from experiencing such “judgment.” All human beings are vulnerable to suffering but God seeks to build up character, faith and perseverance through suffering. His grace is therefore available to all innocent sufferers. We too must be available to innocent sufferers to give help and support.

2. God is merciful even to those who deserve judgment. We must be too. We should not limit our compassion to innocent sufferers. The guilty may be brought to repentance through our kindness. On the other hand, the very judgment they experience may help bring them to repentance.

3. We believe in a God who became incarnate to experience the worst human suffering in order to show his love and to bring us salvation. So even God, in his perfection, is not immune to suffering. Suffering is an inevitable part of human life.

The number of deaths per year from terrorism has risen nine-fold since 2000, according to the Global Terrorism Index. In 2014 32,658 people were killed by terrorists – an 80% increase on 2013. Steve Killelea, chair of the Institute for Economics and Peace said recently: “Terrorism is gaining momentum at an unprecedented pace. The Paris incident in many ways is a watershed within Europe.”

However the horrific terrorist attack in Paris has profoundly changed the situation. Although the highest death toll from terrorism has been in Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Pakistan and Syria, Europe now feels very vulnerable. Shortly after the Paris atrocity Brussels (a European capital city) shut down for several days because of intelligence about an imminent attack.

It is also clear that terrorists are mixing with the huge number of genuine refugees entering Europe, which heightens the insecurity felt by Europeans. BuzzFeed, an American internet media company, claims that an ISIS operative told them that 4000 terrorists had been smuggled into Europe.

I am convinced that some of most serious dangers in the world are not caused by totally evil actions but by good actions going wrong. These actions will further trends towards various End Time scenarios. For example, it is clearly right and necessary for governments to protect their citizens from terrorism, including by tightening security and strengthening surveillance. But these actions can go wrong in the hands of failing human beings. They can lead towards a totalitarian state. I do not believe that such a thought is paranoid but rather a serious concern we should pray about.