Sunday 20 January 2013

My God Laughs

Over the past few months I've found myself taking on a number of unfamiliar new roles: blogger, film critic and comedian. The latter can confuse people. How can a Christian do stand-up? Doesn't God disapprove of that sort of thing?

But one of the great joys for me about doing comedy is that it's both a profoundly Christian and a profoundly Biblical thing to do. If anything, it's us rather than the Bible who have the biggest difficulty with accepting that humour is wholesome. In their letter to the Phillipians, Paul and Timothy give the church this instruction: "Be full of joy in the Lord always. I will say again, be full of joy" (4:4). It's almost as if, even for its original audience, the command to be joyful can be easy to brush over and ignore. But it's deliberately restated. It's a message that we need to take on board. Following Jesus doesn't mean forsaking happiness for an existence of dour, lifeless self-sacrifice. Knowing God is actually the source of true joy and contentment. Let's be honest: some Christians haven't exactly been renowned for having a laugh. Some Christians have explicitly frowned upon any sort of humour whatsoever. But that sort of attitude tragically misrepresents the warmth and laughter of our God.

That's not to say that all humour is Godly. There are some things which just aren't funny, some times where it's genuinely inappropriate to laugh. I'm not advocating the taking-on of a guffawing persona with no sense of proportion - laughter no matter what. There are plenty of situations in life that require a response from us that's not laughter. And humour that exploits, humiliates or demeans others is, in my book, never healthy.

That said, I'm convinced that God Himself has a great sense of humour. Again, we're often the ones who reject this out of hand. For instance, in three stories told in response to those who criticised His radical acceptance of outsiders Jesus portrayed an exuberant, joy-filled, celebratory God. In each story, something of great value gets lost: a sheep, a coin, a son. After some sort of search the lost item/person is found. A huge party is thrown to celebrate. God? Partying? Well, yeah. Jeff Lucas writes about the partying God:
Risky though it might seem to some, God loves the imagery of a good party and consistently uses it in the inspired words of Scripture to point to his own nature and the reality that he calls his people to be a partying people...And God himself is not the wallflower, the stoic, unsmiling spectator or party pooper who sits every dance out because he is above that sort of thing. 
(Will Your Prodigal Come Home?, p152-153)
Jesus included parties in the stories to point to the truth that "In the same way, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God when one sinner changes his heart and life" (Luke 15:10). Lucas notes that, although it's often been taken to mean that it's the angels who are showing the joy, in actual fact they're just witnesses. The image in my head is of a God celebrating so loudly and emphatically that even the angels are a bit taken aback.

Broken clocks. They're so rude. They won't even give you the time of day.

I don't know whether you find that funny or not - it doesn't really matter. But we all know that feeling of finding something really funny, whether it's online, in a comedy act or just in everyday life. Quite simply, I think God's behind that. I'm encouraged to be among Christian comedians like Tim Vine who believe the same sort of thing. Laughter's from God. It's his invention. Why would we think that God doesn't laugh with us? I don't think that it's an exaggeration to say that anything funny that I come up with is actually second-hand material from God. They're His jokes (thankfully, I don't think He'll be suing me any time soon). He's the source of laughter and joy.

We have permission to laugh in God's presence. I can't overstate that. The Christian life is one of joy, the living out of the celebratory heart of God. I often think that your average guy on the street thinks that a sense of humour is extracted from Christian kids at birth ("We won't be needing this,  thank you, doctor"). But my God laughs. And every 'ha-ha' joke points to the complete and abundant joy that's only found in knowing Him for yourself.

Monday 7 January 2013

Is God OK With Slavery?

Christians often find it awkward to talk about slavery. It's seen as one of the fundamental injustices of human history and yet it's felt that we can't really speak out on it because...well, doesn't the Bible condone slavery? We're troubled by Old Testament passages like Leviticus 25:35-54 that discuss owning slaves but don't say that it's wrong. We might right that off as an obscure Old Testament passage. But then we're concerned to find Paul give advice in the New Testament like: "Slaves, obey your masters here on earth with fear and respect and from a sincere heart, just as you obey Christ" (Ephesians 6:5).

So is God OK with slavery?

It's obvious from the passages I've referenced above (and others which I haven't) that slavery was commonplace when the Bible was written, both for those who worshipped God and those who didn't. The Bible doesn't contain an explicit statement that slavery is wrong. Why might that be?

When we think of slavery today our minds tend to jump to the image of America and the slave trade. We think of cotton plantations and ships crammed to capacity with human cargo. And we're absolutely justified in being repulsed at the degradation of human dignity and barbarity that happened in the slave trade. We misunderstand what the Biblical authors mean by slavery, though, if we read this image into the text.

God is not OK with this.

In God's law the slave is very much part of the family. You thought of them that way - my wife, my daughter, my son, my slave. They were included in your household and as such you were responsible for them. You could draw a parallel with the domestic workers, doing cleaning and tidying, that are commonplace in some parts of the world today. Slaves did more work and could sometimes be treated cruelly but generally it was in your interest to treat your slaves well. If you beat your slave then he'll necessarily be unable to do his job well.

And the Bible contains the precedent for a radically compassionate treatment of slaves. Nowhere else in the world but in God's people were slaves entitled to one day off a week in law (the Sabbath). There are laws requiring you to release your slave if you mistreat him in certain ways. It was enshrined in law that Israelite citizens could only be enslaved for a maximum of seven years, no matter how great their debt. There's even an allowance for a slave to remain with a family upon release if he's grown attached to them (Deuteronomy 15:16-18). When you reach the New Testament the requirements are even more radical - treat your slaves like you'd want your real Master to treat you (Ephesians 6:9).

We can have peace with slavery as it's required to be practised in the Bible. When the master is fair and honest then the slave was little more than a domestic employee tied into a short-term contract. But what about modern-day slavery? Can't that be understood as Biblically wrong?

1 Timothy 1:10

As I said, there's no all-out statement condemning slavery in the Bible. But there is a passage that condemns trading in slaves. In a list of people who "are against God and are sinful" (1 Timothy 1:9) Paul lists those "who sell slaves" (NCV). The NIV and the NLT also use the phrase 'slave traders' whereas the NASB goes for 'kidnappers', the ESV for 'enslavers' and the KJV for the wonderfully archaic 'menstealers'. Why is there such a divergence of translations? The Greek word used (andrapodistes) appears to be a technical term stemming from the practice of enslaving defeated soldiers in war. It refers to those who stole other people's slaves in order to sell them on for profit, a practice already condemned in the Old Testament. This is slightly more than kidnapping. It's trading in human life for the purposes of money. And that is sinful and wrong. We can overstate the meaning of this - it doesn't say that owning slaves is wrong. But it does give us an indication about how God might feel about slavery today.

I think that Biblical authors like Paul would be horrified by human trafficking today. Enslaving someone for the purposes of sex or smuggling someone across a border with the promise of work and then exploiting them is sick, even by ancient standards. It's far from the family-based model of slavery practiced in the Bible. I'm proud that Christians were at the forefront of opposing the slave trade. Christians today have no reason whatsoever not to follow in their footsteps in rooting out slavery in the modern age.