Garry will be starting a new series looking at topical issues (‘Talking Point’) next Sunday evening. There are all kinds of issues facing us today which may seem bewildering and confusing. Where do Christians stand on abortion and euthanasia – and why? What does the Bible have to say about gay marriage? What can God know about modern science?
The Bible is relevant to us today and can help us to think through difficult issues. Come along to find out more!
My granddaughter has recently discovered the joys of a warm summer and public fountains… At the same time, however, she was initially nervous of these fountains because they were pre-programmed to disperse water at different speeds and heights and she was wary. She needed encouragement to jump in and get wet! (Once in, she loved it!)
In many ways, I think we are the same when it comes to letting others know the good news about God. We are wary. What if people think we’re weird? What if people don’t listen to us? What if they have questions we can’t answer? What if they don’t want to know?
There’s always a risk when we take that step of faith into the unknown and introduce faith into a conversation that perhaps wasn’t expecting that response. But, as we will be considering the next time we look at ‘the wells of salvation’, there’s a difference between paddling and swimming. We need, perhaps, to learn to get wet for God! Taking every opportunity to speak of the God who has saved us is a liberating and exhilarating experience… but you have to get wet!
Garry continued his ‘Talking Point’ series tonight, looking at transgender issues. Gender is generally understood as ‘the state of being male or female’, and transgender is defined as ‘denoting or relating to a person whose sense of personal identity and gender does not correspond with their birth sex.’ This is very much an issue in the news at the moment, with examples given including a 10 year old girl who declared that because she did not like ‘girls’ toys’, she was not a girl and deserved surgery to make her a boy (a view which the Times columnist, Janice Turner, said indicated the BBC was allowing a ‘pernicious ideology’ to enter the mainstream media unquestioned.) It is easy to believe that this issue affects very many people, although the statistics indicate that only 0.6% of the UK population would consider themselves transgender. Nonetheless, as Christians we must consider our response to such issues.
Transgender is not the same as intersex, which refers to people who are born without genitalia or with damaged genitalia or those affected by Klinefelter syndrome (XXY chromosome in men). Intersex people have a physical problem, but trans-sexual people feel as though they have been born into the ‘wrong body.’ According to GLAAD (formerly the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation), ‘transgender is a term used to describe people whose gender identity differs from the sex the doctor marked on their birth certificate.‘ Their problem is largely a question of what they believe; under the 2004 Gender Recognition Act, an adult who has been diagnosed with gender dysphoria and lived for 2 years as a person of the opposite sex can apply for a gender recognition certificate.
Transgender issues are high profile (which toilets and changing rooms should a transgender person use, for example), but we have to acknowledge there is a significant minority of people who have had operations to ‘change gender’ and later express regret about this (see here for further details.) A Home Office report from April 2000 said, ‘Many people revert to their biological sex after living for some time in the opposite sex.’ Clearly, the issue is not as clear-cut as some in the media would like us to believe.
It appears that underlying the transsexual movement is a radical form of self-determination, where the assumption is that a person’s subjective feeling overrides objective, biological reality. God made us male and female (Gen 1:27); this is the reality of our world. As the Church of England’s 2003 discussion document comments, ‘we are not simply people who inhabit bodies, rather our bodies are part of who we are.’ Christianity deals with truth (Jn 1:17, Jn 8:31-32, Jn 14:6). Paul declares that the truth is crucial (‘if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.’ 1 Cor 15:4) We must hold on to the truths of the Christian faith whilst showing love and kindness to all, for truth is liberational. It’s not surgery which transforms people’s bodies that is needed, but the truth of the Gospel which transforms people’s hearts and minds which is required. Christ alone can transform people and give them liberty, since those whom the Son sets free are really free. (Jn 8:36)
Graham Kendrick captures the value of an individual in this song:
‘Is a rich man worth more than a poor man?
A stranger worth less than a friend?
Is a baby worth more than an old man?
Your beginning worth more than your end?
Is a president worth more than his assassin?
Does your value decrease with your crime?
Like when Christ took the place of Barabbas
Would you say he was wasting his time?
Well, how much do you think you are worth, boy?
Will anyone stand up and say?
Would you say that a man is worth nothing
Until someone is willing to pay?
I suppose that you think that you matter
Well, how much do you matter to whom?
It’s much easier at night when with friends and bright lights
Than much later alone in your room
Do you think they’ll miss one in a billion
When you finish this old human race?
Does it really make much of a difference
When your friends have forgotten your face?
If you heard that your life had been valued
That a price had been paid on the nail
Would you ask what was traded,
How much and who paid it
Who was He and what was His name?
If you heard that His name was called Jesus
Would you say that the price was too dear?
Held to the cross not by nails but by love
It was you broke His heart, not the spear!
Would you say you are worth what it cost Him?
You say ‘no’, but the price stays the same.
If it don’t make you cry, laugh it off, pass Him by,
But just remember the day when you throw it away
That He paid what He thought you were worth.’ (‘How Much Do You Think You Are Worth?’, Graham Kendrick)
Garry’s ‘Talking Point’ sermon tonight looked at the subject of celebrity culture. Celebrities seem to enjoy incredible importance and influence in the Western world, be they film stars, sportspeople, talent show winners or Internet celebrities.
Their fame,wealth and success are things ordinary people aspire to; indeed, many young people today cite ‘being famous’ as their life goal, even if they have no idea what they want to do to achieve fame! Often, this failure to achieve celebrity status breeds resentment and a sense of failure, but social media can create the illusion of fame even for the most ordinary of people. Some will go to extraordinarily dubious lengths to achieve fame (e.g. the Ukrainian mobster, Leonid “Tarzan” Fainberg, whose ‘claim to fame’ was as a sex trafficker who said, “You can buy a woman for $10,000 and make your money back in a week if she is pretty and young. Then everything else is profit.”)
What is also significant today is the increasingly varied roles that celebrities play in contemporary culture and the cultural authority that they are granted in those roles: we see celebrities serving as heroes, cultural commentators, charity spokespeople, role models and political candidates, to name just a few. It is truly frightening when politics, education, and our most intimate relationships become entertainment left to the dictates of a few celebrities.
Celebrity culture is founded on the Western lie that people have no intrinsic value set by God. If God is thrown out of the equation, then the value or worth of individuals becomes a commodity to be traded and fame and wealth become the values we live by. Katie Price once said, “No one can live without money. Money and religion are the big things, and that’s it, and I stay away from religion. We love to earn money, who doesn’t? It gets you things and it’s security.” Stephen Bayley and Roger Mavity’s book ‘Life’s A Pitch’ argued that the most important thing anyone could sell is themselves, which celebrities do with startling success.
Celebrity culture cannot give people the security and worth they all desire, however: only God can do this. Gen 1:26 reminds us people are made in God’s image and mean so much to Him that He sent His only Son to die for them (John 3:16, Gal 2:19-20). Christ gave Himself as a ransom for people (1 Tim 2:5-6). Our worth is priceless; we are worth far more than the market price for a bag of heroin. Dr. Eric R. Pianka may claim people ‘are no better than bacteria’ and can therefore be destroyed on a whim (see here), but the truth is that God places great value on people and we have a hope that cannot be measured by culture. No matter what others say we are worth, God’s value of us gives us dignity, hope and security. We don’t need celebrity endorsements; we have God’s approval, love and grace.
The Bible has much to say about foreigners living in the land of God’s people, with the laws applying to both native born and foreigners equally (Numbers 15:13-16; see also Lev 18:26, Lev 24:16). Foreigners were to be treated well (see Lev 19:10,34; Lev 25:35). Lest anyone think that foreigners are somehow inferior to the native born, we should remember that in the lineage of Jesus, two foreigners are specifically mentioned: Rahab from Jericho and Ruth from Moab (Matt 1:5) The parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) also reminds us that Jesus broadened the concept of ‘neighbour’ to include all people.
There are incredible opportunities for Christians to share the love of Christ with immigrants and refugees. Lebanese church leaders Camille and Stefan, for example, are seeing hundreds of Syrian refugees arrive destitute on their church doorstep, turn to Christ, experience miraculous healings and even express gratitude for their trauma – because it has enabled them to discover a God of love. Stefan’s exhortation is worth pondering: ‘I have a word for Europe,’ he says. ‘They are going in millions to Germany, to Britain, to all Europe. You should now move quickly for them, show them love. Tell them about Jesus. If we don’t do it quickly, their hearts will become rocky. There are Islamists there; they will reach them. There are fish; go fishing now. If you wait, they will become sharks later. We need to go quickly and help them before ISIS take them and send them to fight you, and send them back to fight us here. You couldn’t go to Iraq or Syria to reach them, but now God is sending them to you.’
We often feel helpless to do anything, believing that political solutions are beyond our grasp. Change can only start from within. In 2013 the Independent reported that the UK made £12.bn from arms sales to repressive regimes around the world, most of which are in the Middle East and Africa – such behaviour cannot help an already explosive situation. Christians need to be involved with politics and seek to campaign and work for righteousness at all levels. On a personal level, we often feel there is little we can do to effect change. Matt 10:16-17 reminds us of the need for wisdom, but Jesus also commands us to show mercy to all, even those with whom we might feel little affinity (see Luke 10:36-37). We are called to be peacemakers (Matt 5:9) who love even our enemies (Matt 5:43-48). The standard is high.
Garry’s ‘Talking Point’ topic tonight was on the contentious and highly topical issue of immigration, one of the major debating points during the recent EU referendum. Many people in the UK are afraid of the rise in numbers of immigrants and refugees entering the country, often associating these with an Islamic agenda and being angry that these people are ‘taking our jobs’ and using our services (such as the NHS and claiming social security benefits.) Some of the prejudice against immigrants borders on xenophobia and certainly this topic arouses feelings to an extent few others do.
Britain has a long history of people from other countries settling here, most recently Jewish refugees during the period 1930-1940 (70,000) and Hungarian refugees in 1956 when Hungary rose up against Soviet rule. Asian Ugandan refugees fled here from the dictatorship of Idi Amin in 1972 and the Vietnamese boat people fled from the incoming Communist government in the 1970s and 1980s. Kosovar refugees settled here in the 1990s and since 2011 over 5,000 Syrian refugees have fled to the UK. A refugee is someone who flees persecution, conflict or war, whereas a migrant is someone who voluntarily moves to another country, intending to live for at least a year there. Net migration in 2015 in the UK form the EU was 184,000 and from non-EU countries was 188,000.
Thursday’s EU referendum vote for the UK to leave the European Union will obviously have an impact on this situation, for according to EU laws, one of the four freedoms enjoyed by EU citizens is the free movement of workers. This includes the rights of movement and residence for workers, the rights of entry and residence for family members, and the right to work in another Member State and be treated on an equal footing with nationals of that Member State. Restrictions apply in some countries for citizens of Member States that have recently acceded to the EU. The rules on access to social benefits are currently shaped primarily by the case law of the Court of Justice. EU citizens living and working in the UK are estimated to be about 3 million, with Vote Leave giving unequivocal assurances that any new immigration system would not affect EU citizens already in the country. “There will be no change for EU citizens already lawfully resident in the UK,” it said, promising on its website that such people would “automatically be granted indefinite leave to remain in the UK and will be treated no less favourably than they are at present.” Such guarantees will not necessarily apply to UK citizens living and working in other European countries after the referendum.
There is no doubt that a simplistic view of immigration may seem to offer easy answers, but the true situation is more complex. Fears of infiltration by ISIS members are real; the terrorist attack in Paris last November demonstrates that clearly (see The Washington Post.) Nonetheless, many of those fleeing persecution are Christians, and it should be noted that being granted asylum is by no means a foregone conclusion (only 43% of asylum cases were successful in 2015; indeed, the UK is home to less than 1% of the world’s refugees, according the UNHCR.) Many UK Christians would fail the asylum questions on Christianity, and it does not help that the Home Office answer to the question ‘Why did God send Jesus to earth?’ is to ‘teach us how to behave’, rather than to ‘save us from our sins.’ Though the political situation is clearly fraught with difficulties, it does not help to treat all immigrants and refugees as enemies, and as Christians, we are called to look beyond the surface to the individuals for whom Christ died. There can be no place for hatred towards people in our debates on immigration, even though we may deplore the actions some take. As Paul wisely reminds us, our struggle is not against flesh and blood (Eph 6:12) and our opinions and solutions to problems must be rooted in Biblical thought.