Yesterday we reflected from a Christian’s perspective on the question of what is wrong with the world. Today I want to look at it from the honest, intelligent non-Christian’s perspective. In The Sunday Times this week Neil Oliver had a fascinating and brilliant article entitled “Football Tribes Have Never Left Hatred Behind”
(For those who don’t have access behind the Paywall I have attached the text of the article below) . I love this kind of reflective writing – which although not free from the partizanship it decries, nonetheless is about as honest as you are going to get – and more realistic than much of what passes
Oliver makes some astute observations – which help us grasp what is wrong with the world.
- He reaffirms the doctrine of original sin. Racism, tribalism, war, hatred….these are all things that are wrong with the world – and they are all expressions of humanity. I was once asked by a young man in a bookshop meeting “you have such a low view of humanity…(the irony was that ultimately it was his view that was low – reducing us to being just physical properties whereas I was teaching that we are eternal beings made in the image of God)…can you prove that human beings are fundamentally bad”. I explained to him that human beings were good in that we were made in the image of God, but that that image had been soured by sin. As for proof? That was easy. I just asked him to go to the history section and pull out any book!
2. People cannot change – The rot is in too deep. “More perhaps than anything else, the immortality of racism and sectarianism in football should help to expose a greater truth: those that puff themselves up with the thought they can change how people think, what people believe inside their own heads, are deluded.”
I remember meeting with a group of people who had just undergone ‘diversity and equality’ training for their employers. They had all the right language and could tick all the right diversity boxes (including attacking yours truly), but meeting in the pub afterwards they were as racist as anyone else. The fact is that racism is an expression of human tribalism, greed and pride. “What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you?” (James 4:1). Governments can make laws, companies can have ‘values’ statements, schools can indoctrinate…but none of them can change people’s hearts. Rousseau’s statement “man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains” is only partially true. We are not born free – but we are in chains.
The Verve expressed this truth brilliantly – “I’m a million different people from one day to the next….I can’t change, I can’t change…”
3. Hypocrisy is the norm – “In private life, behind closed doors and in their hearts, people are as they have always been. Still tribal. Safe inside their own heads, folk think what they have always thought. Nothing changes”
We are all too familiar with the stories: The politician talking about ‘family values’ whilst having an affair; the preacher who warns about sin and yet does the things he is preaching against (Romans 2:3); the green activist flying first class to protest about flying…the Waitrose Yummy Mummies lying down in their designer clothes to protest against capitalism and wealth…Hypocrisy is everywhere. Including in me. And you. Be honest. Is the whole of your life lived honestly and openly? Would you be ashamed or embarrassed if every thought of your heart was made public? I would. One of the problems with Oliver’s article is that he gives the impression that it is ‘humanities heart’…or other people’s hearts that are the real problem. He needs to recognise (as do we all) that each of us as individuals are part of the problem.
4. The problem is the evil within – “The races, the religions, those born in the right body and those not — no peace for any. Solzhenitsyn said the line separating good and evil passes through every human heart. So it goes.”
As John Betjeman wrote in his poem, Huxley Hall:
“Not my vegetarian dinner, not my lime juice minus gin
Quite can drown a faint conviction that we may be born in Sin.”
Oliver gets the problem. But he doesn’t have an answer. Indeed he writes almost in despair. Politics is not the answer. Religion is not the answer. Self-help gurus are not the answer. Science is not the answer. Money is not the answer. Family is not the answer. Comedy is not the answer. Music is not the answer. You are not the answer. I am not the answer. Despair is not the answer. Darkness is not our only friend!
The problem is the problem of the human heart – and who can change the heart? We can change external appearance and modify behaviour – but the fundamental problem still remains. It’s as though we have a house with dry rot within….we can repaint and restructure so that all looks well and renewed – but the same old problem will resurface. We can pull up the weeds in the garden of our heart, concrete it over, but inevitably they will resurface in our lives. O wretched person that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?! (Romans 7:24).
“Thanks be to God, who delivers me through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 7:25).
Christ is the answer because of who he is and what he has done. He is the one human who has lived a perfect life without a hint of hypocrisy. He is the one human who has lived and given his life for others. He is the one man who has always spoken the truth. Not a word from his mouth was false. He is the one who gave his life as an atonement for our sins. He paid it all. He is the one who was declared with power to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead.
This week I listened to a series of talks from a Christian conference – Christ was mentioned only in passing – as an illustration. What really hit me then was turning to this article on Premier about Rob Bell’s Introduction to Joy tour. There was not a single mention of the source, reason and object of our joy – Christ! How do you have joy without Christ?
It’s great that Oliver is asking the right questions. We cannot point to Christ as the answer until people ask such questions. But when they do I hope that we are ready to give ‘a reason for the hope that we have” (1 Peter 3:15). That’s why I wrote Magnificent Obsession. It was partly as an apologetic answer to Christopher Hitchin’s ‘God is Not Great”; but mainly as an answer to a couple of questions I was asked by an atheist at the University of Stirling – ‘Why do you believe?’ – to which the answer was a series of evidences followed by “no – actually the main reason I believe is because of Jesus – without him I would not believe”. To which the reply was “Who is Jesus?”. I was struck then, as I am now, that we are too often presenting Jesus as the answer – when people are not only not asking the question – but they don’t know who Jesus is!
I sometimes fear that we as Christians are so ineffective in our witness because we have lost our desire to know Christ and our love and passion for Christ. ‘I want to know him’ has been replaced by ‘I once knew him’ – a distant and fading memory. Perhaps the greatest boost to our own witness will be when we get to know the One we are witnessing about better.
I leave you with a couple of quotes from Magnificent Obsession. I did a programme with the comedian Marcus Brigstocke who in his book about his search for God wrote:
“I want a personal God who loves us all in a way that goes beyond words. A God who fills with a sort of reassuring and magical light. A God who is the very expression of love so perfect that to feel all of it at once would be to lose yourself in a place of sublime happiness” (P212. Magnificent Obsession)
And one from a 16th Century Frenchman:
“For in Christ he offers all happiness in place of our misery, all wealth in place of our neediness; in him he opens to us the heavenly treasures that our whole faith may contemplate his beloved Son, our whole expectation depend upon him, and our whole hope cleave to and rest in him”. (John Calvin – Institutes of the Christian Religion)
Please take a couple of minutes and listen to both the reading and song below….it will do your heart, soul, mind and body good!
I love the Lord!
“Football Tribes Have Never Left Hatred Behind”
I am no football fan. All my life I have been mystified by its appeal. I’m inclined to doubt our species will progress to the sort of future where we all have space travel and anti-gravity boots while millions of people invest so much meaning in watching multimillionaires spit.
It is a sport that has attracted much ugliness from its supporters. For the whole of my lifetime, football has been attended by blood-curdling violence and other unpleasantness arising from the well-stoked tribalism without which it’s hard to imagine football attracting and holding the hordes that it does. Here in Scotland, we have an especially sparky brand of religious sectarianism in the mix too. The beautiful game.
So the latest unedifying spectacle of another black player being the target of racist abuse — albeit on social media rather than flung directly from the terraces in the good, old-fashioned way — is, more than anything, hopelessly sad.
The behaviour of those responsible has been condemned. It always is. But so what? It will never, ever stop. Paul Pogba of Manchester United is only the latest to suffer.
Remember I am no football fan, as I have already made clear, and yet I remember John Barnes having bananas thrown at him while playing for Liverpool in the late 1980s. A more graceful and beautiful sportsman than Barnes it would be hard to imagine. And yet there he was, back-heeling banana skins hurled his way during a match at Everton.
The treatment of Pogba, more than 30 years later, surely makes it clear that nothing changes, not really. The surprise to me is over how so many pundits and supporters still manage to find the energy for outrage. Spare me.
More perhaps than anything else, the immortality of racism and sectarianism in football should help to expose a greater truth: those that puff themselves up with the thought they can change how people think, what people believe inside their own heads, are deluded.
During my lifetime, a majority of people have learnt what not to say in public now. That is all. For sure, a whole range of words has fallen from common usage. Whole styles of comedy have been driven from screens, stages and pubs. But that is all.
Our species is adaptable par excellence. That is how we have survived, come so far and done so much. Yet the same skill-set that enabled our ancestors to colonise every corner of the globe also makes sure that most folk are quick learners when it comes to self-preservation. For anyone with a mind to get on, even just to survive a career, there has been a new orthodoxy to absorb, new people to accept, new phrases to utter, new opinions to mouth whenever such are required. Some mean it, some don’t. In private life, behind closed doors and in their hearts, people are as they have always been. Still tribal. Safe inside their own heads, folk think what they have always thought. Nothing changes.
However, that is not the greater truth. What I’ve been thinking about in this year of 2019 — the centenary of the signing of the Treaty of Versailles and the ending of the First World War — is how our species has recovered from that horror hardly at all. Look at us and look at the continent of Europe and beyond, and ask yourself whether we’re over all that. All that hate and consequent hurt.
And if the wounds of the First World War are still poisoning our international relationships, what of those of the Second World War? The world wanted the European Coal and Steel Community, the foundation myth of the EU, only so neither France nor Germany could get their unilateral hands on the stuff of war. Within a single lifetime, it is all fracturing anyway — not on account of Brexit but because of war wounds and tribal hatreds.
The Holocaust is in living memory and yet still Jews in Britain and across Europe have cause to fear, cause to flee. Anti-semitism is as ripe as ever, even in Her Majesty’s opposition. We’ve had a hundred years of communism too, and its cousin socialism. A hundred years of one genocide after another — in the Soviet Union, in China, in Cambodia — perhaps as many as 100m murdered by an ideology and the fantasy of Utopia.
The races, the religions, those born in the right body and those not — no peace for any. Solzhenitsyn said the line separating good and evil passes through every human heart. So it goes.
Neil Oliver – The Sunday Times – 26th August 2019