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Clergy Briefing: The Alternative

It’s that time of year when we focus on the Angels, the Shepherds and the Three Kings and the birth of the Prince of Peace and Lord of Lords. I want just for a few minutes to draw you away from the stream of events, candles, orders of service and song sheets.

Christian faith offers us with this feast of the incarnation an alternative. There are two stories of Christmas: one is a story of the Pax Romana and the other of the Pax Christi.

The Christmas stories that we read about in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, and the prologue to John’s Gospel are specific rejoinders to the idea of the Pax Romana. They assert boldly and clearly that it is not Caesar Augustus’ who is Prince of Peace and Lord of All but rather Jesus the Christ. Not peace through force and oppression, and the destitution and depredation of the people but rather peace through freedom, equality and justice, through respect for the dignity and value of every human being.

The disciples are a movement of people who want to live in a new way. They commit themselves to live according to this radical alternative to the Pax Romana, the Pax Christi – the peace of the kingdom of God.

There are some very real parallels with our own time. We too live under a kind of peace. The market led approaches to peace we have seen over the last few generations no longer provide us with quite the peace we need however.

This market-shaped peace has had a particular way of understanding what it is to be human.

First that we are individuals complete of ourselves where we emerge into a world which we manipulate so as to maximise our own personal happiness: our relationships, the responsibilities they give us, and the way they shape us are all secondary.

Second that we are simply and inherently competitive, and that we will as a matter of instinct always pursue our own interests. And further, in some miraculous way, it is purported that this endless pursuit of self-interest will lead to the common good. There is no room here to acknowledge that we are also naturally cooperative and can be sublimely selfless.

On the one hand this makes us consumers seeking more and more ‘things’ to make us happy and on the other we become commodities, useful only in so far as we are able to produce.

Of course markets and prosperity are important but God knows that we need an alternative to save us from what can only be described as a wasteland. What then in our own time does Christian faith have to offer? What is our alternative story?

Well first, that all of us from HM the Queen, to the Governor of the Bank of England, to the CEOs of big investment houses, the homeless asylum seeker, the person with chronic and debilitating mental health problems and those who will this year get their Christmas dinner from a foodbank, have an intrinsic and unalienable dignity. Our status as human beings is nothing to do with our usefulness or social standing: rather, it comes from that fact that without reserve and without remainder God loves us. Further, we are all equals. Our equality with one another is affirmed time and again throughout scripture.

Second, and building on the idea of our dignity, is the idea that its God’s intention that we should all be free. That we have an inherent capacity to love and to be loved, and to shape ourselves and our relationships to the good. Of course, this might involve competition, but it will also certainly involve collaborating and cooperating with others. We are not passive recipients of the world around us; we are active participants in shaping it. For me some of the most powerful words in the New Testament come at the end of that Prologue in John’s Gospel: ‘To as many as believed in him he gave them the power to become…’. The power to become is indeed a great gift.

Then third, that there is an order to things. Life is not a wasteland upon which we are forced to compete in a market place for our survival, where we are constantly exposed to forces beyond our control. To have too much when others have too little is, in the order of things, simply wrong. The grain of creation is shaped towards the good and the lifegiving and we align ourselves with the grain of creation when we act justly, considering the interests of others as well as ourselves.

This next year will see a new understanding of what it is to be British begin to emerge. Whatever we believe about Brexit, in or out, we need to make sure that this is a new beginning. Where, at the very least, all are included and treated respectfully, and where we have a collective vision of a better world. Maybe the gift we Christians bring this Christmas as we celebrate the coming of the real Prince of Peace is to seek new ways to live out this alternative – its desperately needed in our nation today.

I look forward to your comments and feedback

Canon Paul Hackwood
Executive Director
Church Urban Fund

December 2018