Tuesday, 27 April 2010

The perils of basing your decisions on website quizzes

Exhibit 1:

2010 election

Exhibit 2:

Take the Who Should You Vote For? England quiz

Liberal Democrat     40
Green     30
Conservative     6
Labour     2
UK Independence -11    

Your recommendation: Liberal Democrat

Click here for more details about these results

?????

Sunday, 11 April 2010

The rights and wrongs of human rights

In my last post, I drew attention to the distinction between just and unjust forms of discrimination:

Suppose I am taking casting auditions for a film I am directing.  The film is a biopic of Devon Malcolm, and Mr. White is auditioning for the main role.  But Mr. White is white.  If I refuse to cast Mr. White as Malcolm, since whoever plays Malcolm has to be black, am I in the right?

Not all discrimination is unjust.  It’s generally taken as a rebuke against a person to tell him that he does something requiring precision ‘indiscriminately’.  Discrimination on the grounds of race, sex, religion, sexual orientation, age or whatever is unjust to the extent that those factors are irrelevant to someone’s ability to do the job in question or entitlement to the benefit in question.  So, while it would not be unjust discrimination to refuse to cast Mr. White as Devon Malcolm merely because he’s white, it would be unjust to refuse to pick Devon Malcolm in your cricket team merely because he is black, since his being black has no bearing on his ability to play cricket well.  That kind of discrimination has no place in a just society.

Ilíon disagreed:

This position is not exactly right. This particular discrimination is immoral ... but it is the sort of personal immorality which must be allowed by government precisely because we wish to live in just societies. For, governmental suppression if this particular immorality creates more injustice, and ultimately more immorality, than is solved by the suppression.

This is an interesting perspective that I have heard before and against which it’s not that easy to argue.  What I think it highlights is the fact that the more that rights and freedoms are enshrined in law, the greater the probability that these will come into conflict.  For example, has the right to freedom of association in this country been compromised when the British National Party is legally disbarred from having a whites-only membership policy?

Should any clarification be needed (I hope not), I do not support the BNP.  I just think this is a genuinely interesting case, since freedom of association has historically been a very important liberty, and surely must include the freedom to disassociate as well (otherwise it’s pretty meaningless) – and yet here we have an example of a situation where that freedom is denied.  Denied for good and well-meaning reasons, I’m sure, but denied all the same.

Tough questions here, with no easy answers.  I think the position one takes on questions like this depends largely on what one’s idea of the ideal society is; I mean, in terms of structure rather than of citizens (people are unpredictable, after all).  Someone who thinks that freedom is the ultimate good in a society will presumably support e.g. the BNP’s right to freely associate in a racist manner, while someone who think that equality is more important presumably won’t.

In my last post, I also said that Bible-believing Christians ‘want to work with you for the common good’ (and I meant it).  But what is the common good?

Friday, 9 April 2010

Christian faith and modern British politics, a layman’s view

This is the post where I attempt to draw together the lines of thought behind my other posts highlighting the myriad of recent petitions and declarations regarding Christianity in the public sphere in modern Britain.  It has been prompted by watching the programme Are Christians Being Persecuted? on BBC One on Sunday night, and by following some responses to the recent Westminster 2010 Declaration of Christian Conscience, which was the subject of my last post.  I am going to begin by looking at two recent political/legislative controversies concerning matters of Christian conscience, and then step back to see what generalisations can be made.

Hate and other thought crimes
nebehead My own view is that it is extremely puzzling for a government to legislate in such a way as to make ‘incitement to x’ illegal, when ‘x’ itself isn’t illegal.  Take incitement to murder (right).  Murder is illegal, and so for incitement to murder to be illegal makes sense, since it amounts to encouraging someone else to break the law – presumably on your behalf.  However, since ‘hatred’ isn't illegal, how can ‘incitement to hatred’ be illegal?

Our present government takes the view that it can, and hence as part of its Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008 created the offence of ‘incitement to hatred on the grounds of sexual orientation’.  On the face of it, I personally find this no better or worse motivated and justified than similar legislation that has been introduced to criminalise incitement to hatred on the grounds of race or religious belief.  Anyone hating anyone else is a bad thing (Galatians 5:19-21), and so anyone inciting anyone else to hate anyone else is likewise a bad thing.  But hatred as such is not illegal, and so I don’t see why incitement to hatred should be illegal.

Suppose, however, that I’m wrong about this.  Very well.  What remains as a concern in the minds of many Christians and others is just what is going to count as ‘incitement to hatred on the grounds of sexual orientation’ under this law.  For this reason, it seems, the bill had real problems making it through both Houses of Parliament, and only did so after certain amendments were made, a fact about which our Prime Minister is not happy:
I’m proud that thanks to Labour, incitement to homophobic hate will now be a crime. But the law we recently passed was watered down through the so-called Waddington amendment, which provides a ‘freedom of speech’ opt-out from laws designed to stop incitement.
The amendment was defeated by Labour MPs in the Commons four times - but Tory Lords conspired to force it through Parliament. That’s simply not acceptable, so the next Labour manifesto will contain a commitment to reversing Waddington, and we will invoke the Parliament Act to overturn the Tory Lords if we have to.
So, I hear my readers asking, what exactly is the substance of this nefarious-sounding Waddington amendment, painted by Gordon Brown as a licence to incitement?  The answer:
For the avoidance of doubt, the discussion or criticism of sexual conduct or practices or the urging of persons to refrain from or modify such conduct or practices shall not be taken of itself to be threatening or intended to stir up hatred.
That’s it.  Suppose I say, ‘When God calls us into his Kingdom, he also calls all of us to a radically changed way of life.  The Bible teaches that sexual intercourse between people of the same sex is a sin.  If you find that you struggle with this sin, I encourage you to seek out one of the dedicated ministries out there that are designed to help and support you’.  As far as I can tell, that’s the kind of statement someone in a free society should be at liberty to make.  That liberty seems to be  precisely the one that the amendment in question is designed to preserve.  So what’s the problem with the Waddington amendment?  I can only conclude that to oppose the amendment, one has to be in the firm grip of an ideology, one that insists on silencing voices that dissent from it.  And that ideology is insistent: a second attempt was made to repeal the amendment in the Coroners and Justice Bill 2008-09, although thankfully again defeated.

What’s wrong with discrimination?
Suppose I am taking casting auditions for a film I am directing.  The film is a biopic of Devon Malcolm, and Mr. White is auditioning for the main role.  But Mr. White is white.  If I refuse to cast Mr. White as Malcolm, since whoever plays Malcolm has to be black, am I in the right?

Not all discrimination is unjust.  It’s generally taken as a rebuke against a person to tell him that he does something requiring precision ‘indiscriminately’.  Discrimination on the grounds of race, sex, religion, sexual orientation, age or whatever is unjust to the extent that those factors are irrelevant to someone’s ability to do the job in question or entitlement to the benefit in question.  So, while it would not be unjust discrimination to refuse to cast Mr. White as Devon Malcolm merely because he’s white, it would be unjust to refuse to pick Devon Malcolm in your cricket team merely because he is black, since his being black has no bearing on his ability to play cricket well.  That kind of discrimination has no place in a just society.

Interpreted charitably, it was a desire to prevent unjust discrimination so defined that was the motivation behind the government’s consolidation of existing equality legislation in the Equality Bill 2008-09 to 2009-10.  However, there have been legitimate concerns that this bill actually goes beyond those bounds.

To be able to work for a church properly, you have to commit yourself to that church’s vision.  If that church’s vision includes (as it should) a commitment to strive for holiness, defined as adherence to God’s moral law as revealed in Scripture, then someone unapologetically living a life in contravention of that law is not cut out to work there.  It is, therefore, a travesty that a church could be prosecuted for refusing to employ someone engaged in a lifestyle, such as a sexual relationship outside of marriage, that is incompatible with that church’s teaching.  However, this was exactly what was threatened by measures in the bill.  Happily, these were later dropped, but pressure can still be felt from all sides. 

So much for those two examples.  I can’t begin to address the rights and wrongs of all the cases of conflict coming up between orthodox Christians and the power structures that exist in this country.

Where is all this leading?
^The question applies both to the political trends, and this post!
Reading the stream of vitriol directed at the Westminster Declaration and those who support it (as well as the article, check the comments there and here), I was placed in that familiar dilemma of how to respond.  As usual, I see three options:
  1. Ignore.
  2. Argue.
  3. Proclaim.
Most of the post above has been argument, and there’s a fair bit I’m ignoring, too.  It seems to be time for some proclamation.  First,

To my fellow British citizens who sympathise with the stream of vitriol
We love you.  We want to work with you for the common good.  We want to live at peace with everyone as much as we possibly can (Romans 12:18).  Yes, we want you to believe in Jesus, but not as a result of coercion, and not as the precondition for us loving you, working with you and living at peace with you.

I also have a newsflash for you: Biblical Christianity is not secular liberalism.  Bible-believing Christians are not closet secular liberals.  We are not, in your words, waiting to be freed from religion.  We are not, in our words, about to exchange our God for yours, ever.  We are not like this because we lack education or exposure to the real world.  We are like this because we have had an encounter with the living God, and we know that following his plan for our lives is infinitely better than drifting along with what society expects and/or being pushed along by our own instincts and urges.  I submit that, when it comes down to it, that is what you are doing.  Second,

To my brothers and sisters in Christ
Egypt seemed big to the Israelites.  Babylon seemed big to the exiles.  Rome seemed big to the early Church.  Communism seemed big to nearly everyone very recently.  Secular liberalism seems big to me right now.
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
                                                              - ‘Ozymandias’ by Percy Bysshe Shelley
Christ is bigger than all of this.  What the effort of writing this mammoth post has made me want to do more than anything is stop arguing about this and get back to the business of witness, serving the community, prayer and worshipping the Lord.

Monday, 5 April 2010

The Westminster 2010 Declaration of Christian Conscience

In the run-up to this year’s general election (expected on 6 May) in the UK, British Christians are being encouraged to sign the following declaration as a message to their parliamentary candidates:

Our beliefs and values

As Christians we reaffirm historic belief in God the Father (who created us and gave us the blueprint for our lives together); in God the Son Jesus Christ our Saviour (accepting his incarnation, teaching, claims, miracles, death, resurrection and return in judgment); and in God the Holy Spirit (who lives within us, guides us and gives us strength). We commit ourselves to worship, honour and obey God.

As UK citizens we affirm our Christian commitment both to exercise social responsibility in working for the common good and also to be subject to all governing authorities and obey them except when they require us to act unjustly.

Human life

We believe that being made in the image of God, all human life has intrinsic and equal dignity and worth and that it is the duty of the state to protect the vulnerable. We will support, protect, and be advocates for such people – including children born and unborn, and all those who are sick, disabled, addicted, elderly, in single parent families, poor, exploited, trafficked, appropriately seeking asylum, threatened by environmental change, or exploited by unjust trade, aid or debt policies. We pledge to work to protect the life of every human being from conception to its natural end and we refuse to comply with any directive that compels us to participate in or facilitate abortion, embryo-destructive research, assisted suicide, euthanasia, or any other act that involves intentionally taking innocent human life. We will support those who take the same stand.

Marriage

We pledge to support marriage – the lifelong covenantal union of one man and one woman as husband and wife. We believe it is divinely ordained, the only context for sexual intercourse, and the most important unit for sustaining the health, education, and welfare of all. We call on government to honour, promote and protect marriage and we refuse to submit to any edict forcing us to equate any other form of sexual partnership with marriage. We commit ourselves to continue affirming what we believe as Christians about sexual morality, marriage, and the family.

Conscience

We count it a special privilege to live in a democratic society where all citizens have the right to participate in the political process. We pledge to do what we can to ensure our laws are just and fair, particularly in protecting vulnerable people. We will seek to ensure that religious liberty and freedom of conscience are unequivocally protected against interference by the state and other threats, not only to individuals but also to institutions including families, charities, schools and religious communities. We will not be intimidated by any cultural or political power into silence or acquiescence and we will reject measures that seek to over-rule our Christian consciences or to restrict our freedoms to express Christian beliefs, or to worship and obey God.

Commitment

We call upon all those in UK positions of leadership, responsibility and influence to pledge to respect, uphold and protect the right of Christians to hold these beliefs and to act according to Christian conscience.

I have signed it and, if you want to, you can do so here.