POWER AND AUTHORITY IN CONTEMPORARY SOCIETY
One approach forms the classic thinking about Christian social involvement. This considers the purpose of the State to be to guard against sin, to keep order, to hold the ring, to make sure that contracts that are entered into are just and honest, and to provide 'Christian laws' for the sort of society we would like to see. Laws against slavery, laws in favour of keeping Sunday as a day of rest, laws that keep good order in society - so that we can then get on with the process of teaching the gospel and winning people to Christ in an ordered environment.
With that approach goes a particular approach to reading the Bible, by which I would deduce for you a number of principles from Scripture about power and authority, by looking at word studies or at particular passages that deal with the subject. Then I would leave it to you, as those who know about these things on the ground, to apply those principles in whatever way seems best.
A Suspect Tradition
That approach has a respectable tradition behind it. But Jesus warns us to be suspicious of the traditions of men - and I want to suggest that there are problems with this particular tradition.
One is that if you understand Christian social involvement as no more than guarding against sin, as creating proposals that would produce an acceptable society, and as having honest contracts, you can easily forget that at each end of a very honest contract could be very unequal partners. I was talking recently with the brother of a Christian, and a very senior accountant, who spends his time making very honest straight contracts for people in the Middle East. At the one end of these contracts is somebody who is ripping off somebody at the other end of that contract, and there is nothing he can do about it.
Reconciling Winners and Losers
A second problem is that God's way of putting things right is not, according to Paul, coming up with proposals for what would look like 'a good Christian society'. God's way of putting things right, of establishing justice (that is what the word righteousness means), is actually through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, who broke down the dividing wall of hostility between two groups who were at each other's throats - namely the Jews and the Gentiles.
Planners are in the business of winners and losers, of groups at each other's throats. God's way of putting things right between them comes through the death and resurrection of Jesus.
The book of Romans is about equality. In summary, Paul tells the Christians, 'You who are Gentiles, you think that Jesus Christ has made things right for you because salvation is by faith and not by works, but just remember, that the father of faith was Abraham. And you Jews who think that these Gentiles are getting salvation cheap and are neglecting the Law, you Jews, you can plead inheritance from Abraham but remember that Abraham was saved by faith and not by the Law. You have got a lot to learn from each other.' The whole of Paul's theology was about the barriers between different interest groups of the ancient world being broken down.
Many Christians think their faith is about their individual lives alone. We have formulated the gospel in our context to deal with individual problems, and we have neglected the fact that in the Scripture the context of faith is the public arena.
The Israelite creed in Deuteronomy 26 began by telling the history of Israel, whereby God delivered them from Egypt and brought them to the Promised Land; therefore I as an Israelite now make my offering to God. We think that Christian social involvement is just about making proposals for running a decent, ordered society, but that does less than justice to the problems we face, and it does less than justice to Scripture.
Where do we stand when we read the Scriptures?
There is a third problem with that way of reading the Bible. At a conference last year on War, we had three days of papers that started with the Old Testament and War and then went through the New Testament and War, then Church History and War, and the Reformers and War. On the last day we had two papers on present issues - nuclear disarmament or nuclear pacifism. At the end of those two papers someone stood up and said the conference had been the wrong way round: we should have looked at the current problems and then done our Bible study.
The problem that arises if I were to deduce for you by word or passage study what Scripture says about power and authority, is that there is an assumption, that I have correctly deduced the meaning from Scripture. That I stand in a neutral place, and merely use various technical skills to deliver to you what the Scripture says - and you apply it. But in reality I am pretending to stand on neutral ground, when in fact I am not. And if I sit in a library and do it I am still on committed ground. The question is where do we stand when we read the Scriptures?
We all stand in particular places: nobody has particular objectivity over against everybody else. We must share from our perspectives, from one another - so we must read Scripture with the basic questions that arise from our situations and contexts.
It is tragic that some people read the Bible today merely to see how they can be healthy, wealthy and happy with Jesus. To them the Bible is just a book that helps you be successful. The cultural captivity of the church is that the goal today is to be a successful, independent, autonomous individual. That is the goal of our society, not to be dependent on anybody, accepting no authority over you, making all your own choices. When the pressures come then the Bible will help you, but the goal is not to be questioned.
But it is not just any questions of our own choosing, that we can ask of this book. This book itself tells us there are particular questions that we have to ask. As we read this book it becomes very clear that God has a bias. When Jesus comes into the world he declares that he has been anointed to bring good news to the poor. Mark 1:14 and Matthew 4:23 say that Jesus came announcing that the kingdom of God was near. That kingdom is shown in Luke 4:22 to be 'Good News for the poor'.
These are the physically poor. In Luke 7:22 they are classed with the blind, the lame and the deaf and dead. When Jesus responded to the messengers that came from John the Baptist, he said, 'Go back and tell John what you have seen and heard, the blind see, the lame walk, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life and good news is preached to the poor'. These are physical categories.
The meaning of Good News for the Poor
As a footnote, what is the relationship between that and poor in spirit? It is that if you are poor, then you are open to help from God or from the supernatural power, you are open to receive God's help. It does not mean you are Christian, or that you are saved. It means that because you are physically poor no-one will help you.
The king is leading the attack against you, the judges are in his pocket, the law has been corrupted, there is nowhere to go. You are open to God's help. It relates 'poor in spirit' to the condition of being 'poor'. Poor in spirit is not about the humble rich. It is even less about what we define as spiritual poverty or bareness.
In the Old Testament, the focus of God's work was to deliver people who were being oppressed by Pharoah. In the New Testament Jesus spoke of his ministry as in Galilee of the Gentiles, the outcasts. He spent most of his time amongst the sick and the women and the disadvantaged.
His communication was that if you want to see what God is doing, look at what he is doing among poor people because that will tell you his good news for everybody. The meaning of good news for the poor, is not that good news is only for the poor but that it is focused for everybody by what it means for the poor.
Issues confronting Architects and Planners
Realising that God is biased to the poor, how are we to look at the issues confronting us as Architects and Town Planners? What sort of people are we designing for? What is the relationship between centralized authority and local initiative? Those are the issues.
But issues do not remain principles in the air that can be talked about, that we argue against each other. Issues are 'owned' by groups. Groups line up behind particular ways of doing things. We see in Jesus' ministry that Jesus identified groups of people with interests.
He had no sooner started his work than the Pharisees started sending folk down from Jerusalem to spy him out. The Pharisees were deeply threatened by Jesus' interpretation of the law. They believed that 'If the whole of Israel keep the law of God for one day God will deliver us from the Romans'. They were very specific about what keeping the Law meant, and the way they interpreted the Law was such that certain people could not keep it.
If you had any business dealings with Gentiles you could not keep it. If you made clothes for women, or if you had anything to do with leather and animals and skins, you could not keep it. If you had a full time job, you had not time to clean all your vessels. So they had an interest in a certain interpretation of the Law which they saw Jesus undermining, when he deliberately healed on the Sabbath.
The Sadducees were another group that Jesus addressed. The crowd was a group that Jesus addressed. They were not just casual onlookers. They were the mob - the word for crowd, ochlos, means mob. The London mob of the 18th century is a parallel.
Paul addresses groups. Jewish Christians who will have nothing to do with Gentiles, Gentiles who will have something to do with Jews, and Gentiles who will have nothing to do with Jews. The different groups were operating with their own world views.
What is our World View?
The Pharisees' world view was that if all of Israel keeps all the Law for one day God will drive the Romans out of our land. The Gentiles' world view was that those Jews who despise and hate us are pigs. The Jewish male would pray in the morning, 'Lord I thank you I wasn't born a Gentile or a woman'. Underneath the groups had their world views, the way they explained everything.
Charles Kraft's definition of a world view is
'A world view is a point of reference which gives cohesion to abstract thought, social norms and economic structures. It explains why and how things exist, continue or change, it evaluates forms of social life and behaviour which are proper and improper. It gives psychological stability in times of crisis and gives sociological identity in times of peace. It systematises and orders the very perceptions of reality in society into an overall perspective. It gives unified meaning to what happens in society.'
(Charles Kraft, Christianity in Culture, Orbis, 1979)
We all need a world view. We've all got a world view. It's a pair of spectacles through which we see the world and organise its various impressions into a unified whole. The poor had a world view in Jesus' time. The poor's world view is that nothing can change, things will only get worse.
That is why Jesus said to sick or poor people, 'Do you believe I can heal you?' Because the challenge to them was 'Do you believe that things can change and that I can help them change?' That was not Jesus' challenge to the Pharisees, nor his challenge to the Sadduccees, but it was his challenge to the poor.
So, in order to read the Scripture we must first consider a situation and identify the issues, groups, and world views involved. We then go from that situation to Scripture, read the Scripture and then go back to the situation with further illumination, and so on round in a circle. Each time we learn more about the situation, more from Scripture, more about the situation.
Case Study: St. Philip & St. James' Church, Oxford
A Town Planning case study is presented by the building you are now sitting in. This church building was declared redundant in April 1982. It was then offered for sale and various folk came to look at it. The Muslims wanted to turn it into a Mosque, the Roman Catholics were thinking about it as cathedral, the Simon Community were thinking about it as a doss house. We came along and said we could use it as a library and a study centre.
So we formulated our plans, and these were put forward to the various important bodies concerned with the conservation of Victorian church architecture. It very quickly became obvious that this group of people saw this building as a work of art, built in a particular time, in the particular ecclesiastical and liturgical tradition of the Anglo-Catholic form of worship. Since it was built as a work of art it ought therefore to be kept as originally conceived.
Now that view raises two questions. Firstly, given that it is a work of art, who is going to pay for it? Who is going to renew the roof? Repair the windows when the local people throw stones through it? Who is going to keep up the grounds around it? That question was never answered by the people putting forward the view that it should be conserved as a work of art. They did not have to pay for it - but they would make sure that we did.
Secondly, what was the original intent of the people who built the building? They planned it as a vehicle of mission. It was built by the diocese in connection with St John's College, who owned the land, when north Oxford was being built as a Victorian suburb for housing dons, who were at last allowed to get married.
The Oxford Movement of Anglo-Catholics had this very wise and important vision. They saw that if this suburb was being built it was going to need a parish church. They determined to build it to spearhead mission into this part of Oxford. The art was secondary, in the service of mission. They had the money and the talents to make a very beautiful building, but we must realise that it was art in the service of mission.
Therefore, we very strongly challenged the view that mission should now be subservient to art, and that therefore people for whom art was their priority should have the final say on what happened to this building and how it was handled. If one looks at the Scripture with those sorts of questions, what is the relationship between art and mission?
We see that art is very important in mission. God gave very precise details for building first the Ark of the covenant in the wilderness and then the Temple in Jerusalem, which was by any standards very magnificent. But we must always remember that that art was in the service of God's purpose for his people.
Once his people were unfaithful to God's purpose for them, he touched the Temple and destroyed it, twice - first the Babylonians destroyed it and then the Roman legions. Once obedience to God, the basis for which that building existed, was shifted, then no matter how beautiful it was, God destroyed it.
Preaching a sermon the Sunday after York Minster caught fire, I said I had been very interested to hear someone say they could not believe how God would destroy something as beautiful as that. I said I had every reason from Scripture to believe that God would indeed do precisely that if the basis on which he called his people together is removed - in this case, the virgin birth and resurrection of Jesus. No matter how beautiful the building, once the fundamental basis is gone God will touch it.
So it seems to me the sheer business of a Planning Application to get this building moving again as a centre for mission raised two very important issues.
Case Study: St. Margaret's Vicarage, Oxford
Another example is St Margaret's vicarage, which we are at the moment leasing from the diocese of Oxford as a hostel for our students when they are resident here. Oxford City Council has a policy which is very interesting for a city that makes its living by students. Its current policy is not to provide homes for students! There is the greatest possible difficulty in making anything in this city into accommodation for students.
We are at the moment (November 1985) in dialogue with Oxford City Council about a change of use, so that it can become a home for students. Now if the policy as set down is adhered to, it should 'remain' a private residence. But it has never been such! It has always been a church building, in multiple occupation. Whoever could afford it would pretty soon want to divide it into flats, live in the bottom flat, and rent off the top two flats to students. So the whole thing becomes self-defeating.
Again the same question is raised. The use of buildings - for what? The use of resources - how? These two case studies raise whole issues about uses of buildings, stewardship and so forth. Here we have groups and world views. This is why we can never subscribe to a view that the state just 'holds the ring'; that all we are in business to do is to make sure that honest contracts are signed. Our call as Christians, is to witness that Jesus is Lord of the whole of life: not just of our individual lives but of the whole of our life in society.
A very helpful statement about that witness was made at a conference two years ago on 'The Church in Response and Human Need', which identified Christian involvement in society as transformation:
'According to the biblical view of human life, transformation is the change from a condition of human existence contrary to God's purposes to one in which people are able to enjoy fulness of life in harmony with God. This transformation can only take place through the obedience of individuals in community to the gospel of Jesus Christ, whose power changes the life of men and women by releasing them from the guilt, power and consequences of sin, enabling them to respond with love towards God and towards others and making them new creatures in Christ.' ( Transformation, Grove Booklets on Ethics, 1986, section 11)
And so our calling is to transform everything in the world that is not in harmony with the will of God. Our calling is to affirm and promote those values that represent the Lordship of Jesus. If Jesus is Lord what should the world look like? There should be justice; a bias to the poor; de-centralized power. I am going to read you two passages that could be a charter for Town Planners.
'This is how your king will treat you. He will make soldiers of your sons, some of them will serve in his war chariots, others in his cavalry, others will run before his chariots. He will make some of them officers in charge of a thousand men and others in charge of fifty. Your sons will have to plough his fields, harvest his crops and make his weapons and the equipment for his chariots.
'Your daughters will have to make perfumes for him and work as his cooks and his bakers. He will take your best fields, vineyards and olive groves and give them to his officials. He will take a tenth of your corn and of your grapes for his court officers and other officials.
'He will take your servants and your best cattle and your donkeys and make them work for you. He will take a tenth of your flocks and you yourselves will become his slaves. When that time comes you will complain bitterly because of your king whom you yourselves chose but the Lord will not listen to your complaints' (1 Samuel 8: 10-18).
There was a very strong stand in Scripture against centralized power. It's in the condemnation of Pharoah, and in Samuel's warnings against the King. It is there in the structure of Israelite society. I refer you to Chris Wright's article, 'The Ethical Relevance of Israel as a Society', which was published in Transformation (Vol 1 No 4 1984) in which he writes:
'The patterns of political activity and power in the Old Testament were diffused and de-centralized. Power and decision making within the community, especially in judicial matters resided in the network of elders. The elders were the mainstay of Israelite socio-political life at the broadest level throughout the whole Old Testament period. Although there is no clearly stated description of the qualifications for eldership, they were most probably the senior male members of each household.
'The heads of fathers' houses. In the pre-monarchic period this plural and corporate leadership was supplemented in time of military need by individual charismatic leaders. Centralised power in Israel seems to have been strongly resisted until the external threat of the Philistines thrust it forcibly upon them. Even after the monarchy was established the system of elders survived and proved resistant to hierarchical and centralized government.
'Jehoshaphat's judicial reforms established royally appointed judges but they applied only to the fortified cities. The administration of justice in town and village communities by their local elders presumably continued unaffected by royal appointment. They were not unaffected by the economic forces that precipitated judicial corruption, the very thing Jehoshaphat's reform tried to eradicate but without success, to judge by the prophetic indictment of the judiciary in the following century.'
There was a resistance in Israel to centralized power and a preference for diverse and participatory politics which tolerated, indeed sought, the voice of criticism and opposition from the prophets even if some of them paid a heavy price.
That de-centralized power was focused on the family. We as Christians emphasise the importance of the family. But we cannot preach to people that they should summon up every sinew and strengthen their wills to be loyal to family life if we find all around us forces that make it more economic and more profitable to remain single and living together; or forces that make it very difficult for children to have a human existence, especially in some of our cities.
Professor Halsey, Professor of Social Administration at Oxford University and a member of the Archbishop's Commission on Urban Priority Areas, said the city is the number one enemy of the family. Our western society, as Germaine Greer said, hates children, because children are the great hindrance to being the independent, autonomous, self-sufficient, successful individual.
So the Bible affirms de-centralized power, affirms families, and children, affirms stewardship. Our calling and role is to be stewards. That's part of what 'made in the image of God' means. The image of God in Genesis 1:27,28, means to have dominion over the earth's resources - to be managers, to be stewards. So do we enable people to be stewards? Do we enable other people to fulfil their calling under God to be stewards?
That is the context of discipleship, because Paul says in Romans 8:29 that God's purposes are that we be conformed to the image of his Son. The term image means that Jesus was the ideal steward. And so are we going to empower people? Marxist ideology tells people that they are victims of structures: that there will be no justice or freedom until certain oppressive structures are removed. And that tells people, all the time, that it is other people's fault and they are victims.
Now the Christian gospel is that being a victim is not your final identity. You may be being oppressed by others, but your true identity is that you can be the son or daughter of God and that does not depend on changing the structures. That depends on what God has already done in Christ. Our role is to empower people to be stewards. People can be empowered to be children of God even before structures are changed. Once they are sons of God then they can work to change the structures. This means that it is very important that we consider the role of the people of God.
The role of the local church
What is the role of your local church in your work? Your local church is perhaps the greatest resource you have for being in touch with public opinion. They are a group of people who would be interested in what you are trying to do and yet they also represent interests of the local community. It is not enough to inform them of our work and ask them to pray for us.
It seems to me that if we are talking about empowering people as stewards, our calling is to empower them. It is actually to be part of a process of putting power in their hands. Now, these are the values of Jesus Christ, affirmed by, upheld and rooted in Jesus, and the reason we live in this way is because we say Jesus lived by these values.
The reality is the Resurrection
Some will say, 'The real world isn't like Jesus' values. The real world is about Tesco and Sainsbury's, fighting it out for a prime site. That's what the real world is about: international financing'.
Yes, that is what the real world is about - unless you believe that Jesus rose from the dead and brought the Kingdom, that this so-called 'real' world is but a sick distortion. We are those who know what the real world is about, are in tune with it, are part of it and are called to redeem the sick society we're in.
What would this mean in practice? For example, if you are called on to consider a planning application from a fast food outlet, how much will it matter to you that this may be one of those businesses who are in the business of employing young labour cheap, sacking them after two years and sucking money out of the community?
An Anglican Parish Church in one part of Oxford has gone into business building a new hall and office complex which has been financed by a leading bank. They have the most horrendous bright sign outside (which has ruined that part of Oxford). Does it matter that these people are one of the major financiers for the apartheid regime in Southern Africa? Or are we just 'holding the ring' for their activities?
You may say, 'I'm sorry, the real world is like that'. I am saying that if we believe in Jesus Christ then we say the real world is not like that.
Two areas for research
I would like to suggest two areas within which we might do well to research values. First, what is particular about our culture in the way it uses space?
This church building here is particular to our culture in the way it uses space. It speaks of transcendence. This style of church building was very powerful in the inner cities in the last century. To people who lived in back-to-back houses, these churches spoke volumes because they said, 'Life is bigger - the world is bigger - God is bigger' - just by the sort of architecture that one came into.
Or come into my back garden and go through all 80 feet of it, and open the gate into an area that all the houses on both sides open on to. It's about a quarter of a mile stretch of allotments. Some visitors from the United States walked up and down there one summer's evening and met people who were working in their allotments.
The visitors were shocked. They said, 'You English! This is incredible! How do you think of this?' By mistake the people who built that area came across a very important truth: that you need private space, you need public space and you also need intermediate space. Our kids can wander in and out of that allotment area, we can wander in and out, and meet people whom we know.
The area is very stable - people who move in there never move out because they have come across such a stable society, because it has been planned by accident very well. That's the English. We love our gardens. Allotments are part of our sort of way of thinking about things and doing things. What values are particularly English in our culture?
To sum up
I have not attempted to give you a blueprint because no blueprint can be given. I have suggested a way of involvement in Christian witness that points to the Lordship of Christ in your Planning 9 to 5, Monday to Friday; a way to be wholly and integrally Christian so that people will come to give their allegiance to Jesus Christ because of the way you do Planning.
The reason why this approach to planning for people is valid is because Jesus is alive. The kingdom of God has invaded, and one day is going to come and complete this world to be the City of God. We have the great privilege of being an advance party. People will come to believe and serve Jesus because the way we do our Planning is not centralized for other people but actually empowers others.
I would like to suggest that the way to use the Bible from Monday to Friday, is through the situations we find ourselves in. To ask - what are the issues here? Who are the groups? What are the world views they represent? What does this book say about it? And how can I make what this book says about that real on an Architect's plan? In a recommendation to the Planning Committee? And then what questions does this book ask about that?
From ACPA Newsletter No. 13 & 14, 1988-89, pp. 7-8.
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