Monday 20 April 2015

Politics II: Why You Should Vote

Somewhat to my surprise, I've discovered that I've become an evangelist for democracy. Or at least for participation in the democratic system.

In my last post I highlighted some of the principle problems with that system and argued that a cynical electorate was at least part of the problem. Those problems, some of which are certainly genuine issues, will cause many people to opt out of voting at all in this election. The Electoral Commission estimates that 16 million voters chose not to vote at the last election whilst the number of eligible adults who aren't even registered stands at 7.5 million.

If you're in the latter category and you are reading this today then I would endorse you in the strongest possible terms to take 5 minutes (I've gone through the process; this is literally how long it takes) to register to vote. You're under no compulsion to use your vote if you do this but you will at least give yourself the opportunity to do so. This to-the-point (but under-watched) video from the Electoral Commission will hopefully be enough to persuade you of the importance of registering. If you're reading this after midnight on 20th April then you should register to vote anyway for future elections.

The argument for registering to vote is, in my view, pure common sense. I want to go a step further in this post and say that you should actually take part. These points are hardly new or revolutionary. They've been made countless times, undoubtedly by people who are much more eloquent than I am. But I wanted to make them myself, partly because it just might convince one or two people and partly because I can now feel vindicated that I have at least made the attempt.

I've even broken it down into three bitesize sections. Aren't I considerate?

Broken Trust Shouldn't Stop You Voting

Often people say that they're sick of politicians because they've broken their word in the past. Promises have been made before an election and the politician hasn't delivered once they've been voted in. This makes the people who voted for them feel betrayed and the voter opts not to participate in the next election as a result.

To anyone who feels that way I'd say that that's a perfectly legitimate reason to vote for somebody else. By all means, give a particular politician or party a thumping in the polls in you feel that they no longer deserve your trust or confidence. The last thing you should do is abandon voting altogether.

Part of the problem is that we sometimes have unrealistic expectations of what our politicians can actually achieve. That doesn't mean that politicians don't sometimes let us down in a big way. As a voter from outside the political system the biggest weapon you have is voting for another party (even one which doesn't stand a realistic chance of winning). Giving up that weapon is the one thing that dis-empowers you as a potential agent of change. It's the last thing that anyone who is disgruntled with the current set-up in any way should do.

Apathy Doesn't Change Anything

This is the key question anyone who doesn't vote has got to answer: what does my staying away actually achieve? We can all agree that there are some fundamental issues in the world that need addressing: climate change, inequality, housing, the economy, Europe, immigration, education, healthcare, energy, constitutional change. Failing to vote on these pressing issues won't lead to any change in policy from the big parties. They'll only listen to you if you actually vote. Having an opinion on any of these matters is contingent on your participation in the process. Staying at home won't change anybody's mind. This is the core part of what I'm saying:

Dissatisfaction with the way things are should always result in more political engagement, not less.

If you're unhappy with what a party's suggesting then tell them. Campaign. Lobby. Argue. Better yet, join a political party and fight for change from the inside. If you can't stand any of the parties, stand as an independent candidate. Whatever you do, taking part's a necessity.

Ignore, and Ye Shall Be Ignored

The big parties are clever. They know the demographics of people who vote and they target their policies at them. The danger is that those who don't vote end up in a vicious circle. Policies aren't aimed at them so they feel disconnected from politics and don't vote...which guarantees that policies aren't made with them in mind. Younger people, ethnic minorities and the poor are groups which generally vote in low numbers and which subsequently bear the brunt disproportionately in political decision-making. This has been played out time and time again in recent years. If these demographic-groups voted in larger numbers this year then the spin doctors and election strategists would take note and we might see some fairer policies being developed.

Policy direction is determined by the folk who turn up on the day. If those who didn't vote knew this then they might be more willing to vote. Politics is a complicated business; I can totally understand people who say that all the figures and laws go straight over their heads. I'm not saying that non-voters have to become experts in fiscal regulation overnight. Educating yourself on the basic issues and what different parties are proposing doesn't take all that long. Decide what issues matter to you, find out which party has the best ideas on those issues and vote accordingly.

You have 18 days to make your mind up. Election day's your big opportunity to take part is which direction we go in as a country. Make sure you don't miss it.

Part II: Why You Should Vote

Saturday 11 April 2015

Politics I: If You're Looking for Problems, Look in the Mirror

With less than a month to go until the general election in the UK on May 7th I thought I'd undertake a series of posts about politics: why we complain about it and why it's important. Conveniently enough, that's a succinct summary of the two posts I plan to write that I've just given you. This first post's about the problem with politics.

Nobody seems to have any doubts that there is something broken with politics at the moment. 'Disillusioned' - that's the buzzword, isn't it? People are disillusioned with politics. Although I'm writing this with an eye to my own society here in the UK this seems to be a fairly systemic problem in most democracies across the world. Politicians are increasingly viewed as out-of-touch, hypocritical, arrogant and predominantly interested in drawing their salaries at the taxpayer's expense. Politician-baiting is very trendy at the moment. It's quite fashionable to believe that the blame for the world's ills can be justifiably laid squarely at the doorstep of Number 10.

I'm going to say something controversial, something which isn't going to be universally popular: part of the problem is down to us.

There's a reason why blaming politicians is so commonplace. It feels good. It's cathartic to believe that the issues we face as a society could be fixed if only the politicians pulled their fingers out. It feels good to go on a rant about how they're not interested in anything but scoring points and winning arguments. It puts us at ease to feel that there's someone else out there responsible for things not being the way we want them to be. And that's because it stops us from looking at ourselves; it takes attention away from our own unrealistic expectations of our politicians or our ignorance about how to fix complex problems. It's the easy option. Simplification and anger will always be more readily available than hard questions and measured responsibility.

I'm increasingly convinced that this tidal wave of negativity isn't actually benefiting anyone. It doesn't benefit the politicians because as soon as a Prime Minister is sworn into office they become Public Enemy Number One. Where only a week before the election they were the saviour of the country, one week after it they've shipwrecked everybody's trust and expectations. Our press plays a large role in this finger-pointing opera. Bitterness sells newspapers - why would the tabloids give the PM a chance?

Then again, the coin has another side. We don't benefit from the blame game either. We buy into the hype every election and allow ourselves to get worked up with unrealistic expectations about what our politicians can actually achieve. Then when reality hits we dig in the claws. What do we really gain from making our politicians superheroes when in opposition and pantomime villains when in office? It seems to me that we need to revisit more sensibly what we genuinely want the job of an MP to involve, what we want our governments to do and how we want politics to work. If showbiz charisma is what we cheer for before an election, will we hold back our regret when we're confronted with policy decisions afterwards? Can we reign in what we hope for so that there's a chance that we might actually get it?

One complaint that annoys me is when people say that politicians aren't "ordinary people". They're trapped in a "Westminster bubble", detached from "ordinary people's problems". Who the heck is an ordinary person when they're at home? Do they just sit around the house, oozing ordinariness? I assume that what people who say this actually mean is that politicians live in London or that they spend most of their time working in Westminster. These seem like pretty weak critiques. Lots of ostensibly ordinary people live in London, or Westminster for that matter, without being tarred with the sort of disdainful brush that politicians find themselves on the end of. And, when it comes down to it, I'd actually prefer the people who write our laws and represent us at the highest level to have the time to be able to do it properly and to have some experience in the Commons so that they know how to do their job. Once again, the criticism levelled at politicians just isn't fair.

What I wouldn't want to do is pretend that people aren't justified in some of their complaints about politics. There are areas where the system is broken and in need of change. People aren't just making a fuss about nothing. The problems partly stem from the negativity of the electorate but they also stem in part from politics itself. Here are four key reasons why I think people are justifiably upset:
  1. There's a lack of truly local representatives. This corrodes trust in local MPs. When politicians like Boris Johnson parachute into a constituency because they want to further their career and they've spotted a safe seat people feel betrayed. They feel taken for granted and dis-empowered. This could be fixed by parties insisting that candidates must have been resident in the area they want to represent for at 10 years before they can stand. MPs must have at least some roots in their constituency.
  2. Politicians have broken their word too frequently. Few things are more damaging than a broken promise. Politicians have often been too quick to make pledges which are quickly disregarded or downgraded when in office. There needs to be more serious thought given to how realistic promises may be to keep before they get made in the first place.
  3. There's a lack of trust in politicians to register expenses honestly. The 2009 expenses scandal is still a sore point for a lot of voters. Yet, even more recently, politicians have been caught seeming to exploit the system. Tessa Munt revealed on Question Time recently that 281 MPs earned a combined £7.4m in the last year from taking second jobs. The Spectator masterfully showed how the general public's resentment on this issue can sometimes be misplaced. Nevertheless, there's too much greed and too little passion for public service amongst some MPs.
  4. We have a broken electoral system. At the last election the Liberal Democrats gained more than 850,000 votes and still lost five seats. The Conservatives gained 2,000,000 votes and won an extra 100 seats. There's a fundamental injustice about the first-past-the-post system wherein more than half of the electorate's votes, including a disproportionate number for smaller parties, effectively get thrown in the bin. If we want to rebuild trust in politics then we probably need a new voting system that better reflects people's choices.
For the Christian, no matter how valid the complaints are, there's a deeper principle which is supposed to undergird our attitude towards politicians. Exodus 22:28 forbids the cursing of a leader and Romans 13:7 invokes Christians to "show honour and respect to them all". The meaning's clear enough: you don't have to like your leaders, you don't have to agree with them, you don't have to vote for them - but you do have to honour them. All too often, the words spoken against politicians have tended towards cheap insults. We're allowed to take issue with what politicians say, and do it forcefully. Let's never allow our opinions to stray into disrespect.

In summary, politics may have its issues but we also need to recognise the frailties and errors in our own judgements towards politicians. We've got to adopt a different approach if our criticisms to mean something. We owe it to ourselves to be specific in our complaints: I have an issue with this politician because... Otherwise, politicians can afford to ignore our feelings because they have no substance. Anyone can throw an insult. Look into the issue. Be informed. And be involved.

Part I: If You're Looking for Problems, Look in the Mirror

Tuesday 31 March 2015

In Defence of YOLO

I usually have to confess to not usually being very #downwiththekidz but that doesn't mean that the newest cultural turn of phrases are entirely lost on me. For some years now I have been aware of YOLO: you only live once, for the uninitiated.

It doesn't sound very godly, does it? All this jumping off cliffs and making headstrong, impulsive decisions because, y'know, YOLO, man. (I'm going to stop with the 'I'm not a teenager any more' self-deprecation at this point). YOLO would seem to be a recipe for disaster - or, if not for disaster, at least for a shirking of the measured, principled and rather mellow life that ostensibly marks out the Christian as a man of virtue, not easily swayed by the tides of the world. A step made in haste, we would generally conclude, is a foolish one. No, no - the walk of Christ is instead marked out by patient prayer and humble submission.

A pirate's life for me? No, thank you. Or at least I'll pray about it.

As I've already hinted at, I wouldn't usually consider myself to be the foremost advocate for YOLO. Yet I'm not altogether convinced that the alternative which I've set out, somewhat clunky and satirical though it is, is a more Christian alternative.

When I was 16 I went to a youth camp where the main theme of the week was faith. Somebody gave a talk where they said that faith is spelled r-i-s-k. Part of me wants to dismiss this as a tossaway platitude. But I can't help feeling that, in much the same way as YOLO, it actually has something to contribute as a viewpoint. Or even as a slogan for life.

When did we allow 'thinking about it' to be a stand-in for faith? It's a really poor substitute! Does the Scripture say, "It was by faith that Abraham fully evaluated his options before eventually concluding that leaving the land of his forebears was actually the right thing to do"? (It doesn't, for the record). Faith doesn't bring with it any guarantee of success. Heck, for that matter faith doesn't bring with it any guarantee of dignity, security or an easy life. I think that often it's meant to be edgy, unintuitive, unnatural but still right. Often it calls for a trust which doesn't make any sense, which we wouldn't have if we gave ourselves half a chance to change our mind.

I don't want to endorse the other extreme either. I have no intention of embracing the aimless hedonism which YOLO often implies. There are plenty of actions which are stupid, and no less stupid because they were done with a devil-may-care attitude. The fact that the devil actually does care is one good reason why mindlessly applying YOLO to any given situation isn't a good idea. And there most certainly is a place for measured and careful decision-making, for treasuring wisdom above the superficially appealing. Thankfully, we don't always have to make our minds up in the blink of an eye. 

I think, though, that I'm in danger of being altogether too comfortable with my 'careful now' status quo. I'm reminded that our mortality as humans is not only a truth but a very Christian truth. One could even make the (pretty spurious) case that Jesus in actual fact coined the idea of YOLO 2,000 years ago. The principle that we only have one life to live should make us think more carefully, not more recklessly, about what we are in actual fact living for. "This is your life, and it's ending one second at a time" - so runs one of my favourite film quotes, from Fight Club. It may be morbid but it's as undeniable and it is unpalatable. The truth is that we do only get one life this side of heaven. Whether we spend it in manageable safety or radical trust has got to count for something.

Some time ago I jumped off the bridge that connects Zimbabwe and Zambia at Victoria Falls with nothing but a bungee cord keeping me from a 100m+ plunge into the icy depths below. A true YOLO moment if ever there was one. Whilst I was waiting to get to the front of the queue I saw quite a few people, including some friends of mine, successfully make the jump. Some people were certainly enjoying the luxury of time on the edge to psyche themselves up and put themselves in a proper frame of mind for what they were about to do. When you walk out onto the platform which you're about to jump off a certain tingling engulfs the stomach, no matter how determined you are to go through with it. I remember stepping up to the precipice and feeling a sense of blind panic as a man put his hand on the small of my back and said, "Right - 1, 2, 3...". All rather quickly. What?! What about getting my moment on the edge? The same moment you gave to that lady ten minutes ago. All those thoughts disappear very rapidly as your mind concentrates on the whole falling-through-air thing.

But how's that as a definition of faith? Making the jump, insane though you feel, with or perhaps especially without the time to weigh up your options, trusting beyond hope in the reliability of the bungee-cord that you're tied to and which will very shortly bear your full weight, wrenched utterly from the securities of having things under your own control.

Life doesn't always deal you rock'n'roll cards. But then YOLO needn't be about stories to tell the grandkids; it can be a lifestyle of healthy divine dependence which lasts all the way through this life and into the next.

Friday 2 January 2015

Forget Ye Merry Gentlemen - At Christmas We All Need A Rest

It's the time of year when many people are beginning to move back into the normal rhythm of things after a well-earned seasonal slumber. Christmas is supposed to be our annual period of national hibernation, where we retreat from the demands of our everyday lives to rest and to spend time with the people we care about. That's what it's supposed to be. Is it really most people's experience?

I spent most of Christmas Day morning this year asleep. My family and I had gone to a Watchnight service on Christmas Eve and I was pretty tired. I was also tired because of my Christmas job, which meant that I was working on both Christmas Eve and Boxing Day. I was in need of rest. Let me say in passing that you can only appreciate the true carnage of the winter sales once you've worked in retail on Boxing Day.

There are two common reproaches which are commonly heard within Christian circles regarding Christmas. One is that Christmas has been secularised, that we've lost the true meaning of the celebration over the years by editing God out of the story. That we need to 'put Christ back into Christmas'. The other is a complaint about consumerism, that all the shopping and the presents and the ensuing financial burden isn't healthy for us. We make these criticisms with a smile, of course, lest we be accused of being Scrooge-like party-poopers. The anti-secularisation and anti-consumerism agendas may have a lot to recommend them. But I wonder if, by coming back to them year after year, we may have missed an equally harmful trait about how we celebrate Christmas as a culture: a lack of collective rest. I'll stay clear of the other two complaints in order to focus on this third problem.

It used to be that Britain largely ground to a halt over Christmas. Doctors and nurses continued running our hospitals and the emergency services remained on standby. But, mostly, people were given time off to spend with their families (unless, of course, I'm pining for an ideal that never was?). Recently, however, the number of occupations that require people to work during the holidays has sky-rocketed - not just paramedics and support workers but droves upon droves of sales assistants.

If there's any indication of the corrosive lack of rest in our culture then it is the phenomenon of the Christmas Day sale (apparently partaken of this year by 8 million people). Call me traditional but the thought of minimum wage workers trudging around industrial warehouses, packaging parcels for overenthusiastic consumers, makes me more than a little depressed. It makes you wonder what the point of the whole occasion is. Are we meant to look forwards to Christmas Day itself, which the shops have been building up incessantly since October? Or to the sales which begin immediately afterwards? Are we supposed to have a day off to enjoy or should we spend it shopping on our phones during Christmas dinner? Perhaps between Super Saturday, Manic Monday and Slap-yourself-silly-and-buy-yourself-an-ipad Sunday we've failed to notice that the retailers have tricked us into getting worked into a frenzy. (OK, maybe I've allowed myself the tinniest of attacks on consumerism after all...).

What's the antidote to this mania of doing-things-ness? I believe that it's God's principle of Sabbath. The term Sabbath refers to the Jewish custom of stopping work - not just for the well-off but for the slaves as well - once every week (Exodus 20:8-11). In addition to this weekly Sabbath God ordained regular festivals throughout the year which would cause people to leave their agricultural work and travel to Jerusalem (Leviticus 23). The word 'Sabbath' comes originally from the Hebrew verb shabath, which means 'to stop', 'to cease', or 'to rest'. God instituted Stop-Days and Stop-Festivals to make sure that His people received rest. It's like that point in an exam when the examiner tells everyone to stop writing. Or like the klaxon that signals tools-down at the end of a working day (immortalised for me in The Simpsons titles sequence). 

Although it isn't overtly biblical, perhaps we should revert to making the Christmas period our national festival of rest. Where we forget buying things or organising things or going to work for a time and just stop. Perhaps we need to recapture the old sense of the 12 days of Christmas (and incorporate that into our employment law). Whatever we do, God knows that we all need a proper rest. He genuinely does - and that's as good a reason as any to make sure we get one.

Wednesday 19 November 2014

The Conversation

Sophie bit her lip. Mark stood with his back to her, loading the dishes into the dishwasher. For a few seconds she held back, just watching him. Then she forced herself to speak.

"Mark, we need to talk".

Mark stood slowly upright and then turned hesitantly towards her. Those are never good words to hear. After wiping his fingers clumsily on a teatowel, he walked over to the dining room table and sat down.

"What's up?".

Sophie drank a mouthful of the red wine that they'd been having over dinner and set down the glass. "I need to ask you a blunt question. Do you know that I love you?".

Mark looked downcast. "Soph, please. I wouldn't be with you if I didn't love you, if I didn't know that you loved me. Why are you saying this?".

"Because lately I've been feeling like we've been going through the motions. That things have become stale. We've been together for a while now and that's good - it is. But I'm just scared that you've forgotten that I'm crazy about you. I'm worried that you do things for me because we're in a relationship rather than out of love for me. Like when you buy me flowers or put on songs about how you feel about me. I love it when you do these things but I'd hate to think that you do them just out of obligation or habit."

A lone tear streaked down Mark's face. "So...are you breaking up with me?"

"Mark, no. Really, I'm not. That's not what I'm saying here. I'm not saying that I don't feel appreciated. I'm saying that I love you, and that I'm with you, regardless of any of the stuff you do. I'm saying that I love you for you. I cared about you before you started doing any of it, remember? I initiated things. And - trust me - I don't just care about grandiose actions. I actually enjoy spending time with you. You hear me? I enjoy it. The little things. I get excited when I wake up and find that I've got a text from you. I love the way in which you see things, the way you put things even when you don't know what you're saying. The things you tell me - the things which you think aren't perfect - are so, so precious to me."

Mark was staring at the floor and fiddling with a fold in his t-shirt. It might've looked to a bystander like he wasn't listening. But Sophie knew that he was hearing every word. And, beneath the surface, it was hitting home.

Sophie finished her glass of wine and looked intently at Mark. She gently moved over and put her hand in his.

"I knew what I was doing when I chose to love you, Mark. You might not have known anything about it. But I knew all the details of your life, knew it before anything. And the cross, the nails, the blood - I didn't do any of it by accident. It was all of it intentional. And it was all of it because I love you. Not you as you want to be. Not you as some other you. You as you are."

Sunday 9 November 2014

God Need Not Be Just

Allow me, as ever, to apologise in advance.

I'm afraid I've found a gaping hole in the traditional presentation of the Gospel message. This is a little awkward – sorry about that. Perhaps it will give you some reassurance that it’s not the biblical content of the Gospel that I've got an issue with. Instead, the problem’s in the way in which we sometimes break that story down into a narrative that can be explained in five minutes. Although it's obviously not the only way to tell the story, here’s the way I've often heard it told:

1) God created everything. He created humans out of love and wants to have a relationship with everybody.
2) Humans sinned/sin, spurning God’s love.
3) Because God is just, He cannot be in a relationship with someone who is sinful.
4) Jesus died on the cross in order to pay the price for our sins.
5) This means that we can now know God again. Because Jesus rose again we can have eternal life with God.

I wonder if that sounds familiar. This is, perhaps, a more charitable summary because it includes a reference to the resurrection, which a lot of Gospel summaries seem to file under ‘additional information that can be covered later’. As summaries go, though, it’s not so bad. It gives a clear impression of the alienating effects of sin, shows how Jesus’ death changes things and points towards eternity whilst leaving the ball in the court of the person who’s listening. I have no issue with points 1, 2, 4 or 5. But notice how point 3 provides a motive for why God does everything that follows. The cross and everything else are necessary because God is just.

I've got an issue with this. It seems to me that, under this construction, the sin-problem can be solved in one of two ways. Either we can stop being so sinful or God can stop being so just. It might seem ridiculous to complain about justice as a virtue. Justice is a good thing, right? But when that virtue is the thing that brings judgement for sin to pay upon humanity then it's a theological strut which is very much worth testing. Does God really see sin as a big problem because of some intrinsic aspect of His personality that leaves Him duty-bound to act in a certain way? Because the insinuation of the five-point summary is that God would really rather not judge people for sin, but that He somehow has to because that's how He just happens to be. Again, it prompts the question: is the problem with us...or with God?

These questions take us to the heart of how we perceive God's judgement, but also to the heart of how we perceive God Himself.

Over the past few months I have been reading, very sporadically, Richard Bauckham's Jesus and the God of Israel, which contains his landmark article "God Crucified". One of Bauckham's foundational claims is that Jews in the Second Temple period didn't think that God consisted of various aspects or qualities which made Him divine. Rather, they thought in terms of who their God was - His unique character or identity.
The God of Israel had a unique identity. [The biblical writers have] a concern with who God is. The value of the concept of divine identity appears partly if we contrast it with a concept of divine essence or nature. Identity concerns who God is; nature concerns what God is or what divinity is. Greek philosophy...typically defined divine nature by means of a series of metaphysical attributes: ingenerateness, incorruptibility, immutability and so on. [For biblical writers] the dominant conceptual framework of their understanding of God is not a definition of divine nature - what divinity is - but a notion of the divine identity, characterised primarily in ways other than metaphysical attributes. (p6-7).
In other words, for Jews, divinity wasn't so much a quality that had certain defining features. It was a specific God, whose character they knew by what He did and what He revealed about Himself. I find Bauckham's distinction between divine essence and divine identity to be useful in talking about God's justice. It points towards the chief enterprise of theology - to understand (in part) the God which we have, not to map out the essential qualities of divinity itself.

What I’m saying is that we can insist neither that God behaves in a certain way, nor that He has certain elements to His character. He created us; we do not create Him. The God who we have should dictate our understanding of God, not the other way around.

Now I’m not arguing that God is unjust. I believe in His justice passionately. I believe that He loves justice (Isaiah 61:8, Psalm 37:28), that, "when it comes to justice, no-one can accuse him" (Job 9:19), that He does what is right (Psalm 11:7) and that His justice is both as deep as the great ocean and as high as the sky (Psalm 36:6, Psalm 71:19). But what is important is that the the reason why I believe in that justice - namely, Scripture. In the passages cited above, and dozens of others which I could have cited, God's justice is proclaimed. The reason this counts for anything is because it forms part of God's self-revelation in the Bible. It's a case of basing our theology on what God tells us about Himself rather than predicating aspects of God's character from philosophy.

So Scripture declares that God is just. It does not, in my opinion, say that God judges because He is just. I believe that we need to allow God to take agency for the things that He does rather than putting Him in a straitjacket based on divine qualities. The way God acts does indeed stem from His character, but His actions and His character are determined by Him alone, not by theological presuppositions. If God judges the guilty for sin then it is because He wants to. And if He rescues and saves then it is because He wants to. All we can do is try to understand Him and His actions to a greater degree, and that's more than enough work for a lifetime.

Tuesday 14 October 2014

Why I'm Anti-Grace

Let me clear something up right off the bat. This isn't a post against the grace of God. That kind of grace is something that I am very much in favour of, especially as I am such a needy recipient of it. No, this is about the pre-meal ceremony.

Let me also say this: if the group of people who read this blog post in any way intersects with the group of people I end up having dinner with then please read this with a pinch of salt. If you invite me to dinner then I shall be incredibly honoured to be eating your food and more than happy to go along with meal-related prayers if you so desire.

That said, there are two reasons why I'm against the saying of grace, and three reasons why I think it's actually undesirable.

Grace doesn't lead to actual greater thankfulness. This is the big one. What I'm not saying is that we need to be less thankful - quite the opposite. We ought to be continually cultivating gratitude to God. "Pray continually, and give thanks whatever happens" - so says Paul (1 Thessalonians 5:17-18). What I've found, though, is that grace doesn't actually help me to cultivate that gratitude. Maybe that's true for me and not for others. Perhaps one reason that it doesn't have much meaning for me is that it's so quick that it's difficult for my brain to catch up with the words. Perhaps it's because it's a ceremony, a ritual, and one which is done with great regularity. Now this is true, to one degree or another, about everything that we do frequently. It's easy to slip into stale legalism. That doesn't mean that the thing itself is bad or that we should stop doing it. But I guess I've reached the point where if grace is being said then I try and make it mean something, but that I would overwhelmingly prefer not to have to try. As I've said, that doesn't mean that I want to be less grateful. In fact, I want my gratitude to extend beyond food and to be a whole lot more regular than only at mealtimes. But, as it is, grace doesn't actually make me thankful, even when gratitude is something that I want to express.

Grace doesn't lead to more ethical eating. The cynical part of me is quick to nitpick about this. Are people who say grace the same people who care most about making sure their food is sustainably sourced, fairly priced, low-carbon or produced so as to give dignity to the animals involved? There are so many issues to untangle there that it's perhaps unfair to make the complaint. And I'm probably not any less guilty than the next guy in how I shop. Yet there's an inherent part of me which is uncomfortable with giving thanks to God about the food in front of us and not caring about any of these issues. It's an act-out-what-you're-saying thing. A people who thank God for their food without caring where it comes from are like a people that God takes to task for fasting whilst mistreating their workers.

Grace is awkward. Seriously. Every time you have dinner with Christians you are left in an incredibly awkward no-man's-land where you're totally unsure whether people want to say grace or not. The shiftiness and playing for time that takes place between people getting their food and starting to eat is a social nether-land which is totally unnecessary. Now, whilst I'm a member of the 'no grace' camp, the real enemy here is uncertainty. Somebody making a firm decision on which way to go is best to avoid the Mexican stand-off.

Grace is exclusive. Can you imagine anything less inclusive for a non-Christian who's having dinner with Christians than said Christians stopping the entire conversation to pray to the God which that person doesn't believe in? The worst part of it is that the grace-sayer might be completely unaware that they've created an uncomfortable situation. They might not know the extra friend that somebody brought at the last minute sufficiently well yet to know whether they're a Christian or not. Grace is potentially an incredibly isolating experience that could leave someone feeling like they've fallen short of everyone else's moral standards. Even if the chances of someone having an experience like that is slim, it's worth not taking the chance.

Grace is primetime for inane Christian sayings. Let me pick out three to take down.
- "Bless this food to our bodies". I have no real idea what this means. Is it a request for divine assistance with digestion? If you have a problem with that then you should probably take a pill for it rather than sharing it with the room.
- "Be present in our conversations". Does this mean that we have to talk about God? Is that compulsory? Or is the suggestion that God would otherwise be absent?
-"Thank you for the hands that made it". If you're genuinely grateful to the cooks then you should probably tell them that directly rather than praying for them in the third person.

Ultimately, though, however awkward or exclusive or full of waffle I find grace sometimes, the first point is the most important. It's an issue of gratitude. Perhaps grace genuinely helps you to remember to be grateful. For me it doesn't so I'm opting out.