Christian Today Digest – Issue 4 2019

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It was a culture of impunity that enabled the Easter Sunday attacks in Sri Lanka

The tragedy of Easter Sunday, which saw a series of explosions targeting churches and hotels in the majority-Catholic cities and towns of Colombo, Negombo and Batticaloa in Sri Lanka, was aimed to strike a devastating blow to the country’s million-strong Christian community as they gathered to worship.

Emerging reports indicate that a little-known Islamist local group called National Towheed Jamath (NTJ) carried out the Sri Lanka attacks, and Cabinet spokesman Rajitha Senaratne told the BBC that the authorities believe that the Islamist group had international help.

Most of the extremist groups targeting religious minorities have historically been Buddhist rather than Islamist, and it is too early to speculate about the group and any international links they may have while investigations are ongoing. It is, however, possible to comment on rise of religious intolerance in the country and culture of impunity that enables violent attacks such as this.

Christians are one of Sri Lanka’s smallest religious minorities, according to the Centre for Policy Alternatives, which reported that the majority of Sri Lanka’s population as measured in the 2011 census are Buddhists (70.2%), followed by Hindus (12.6%), Muslims (9.7%) and Christians at 7.2%.

In theory, Sri Lanka has an extensive national and international body of laws to guide the relevant judicial institutions to protect and promote freedom of religion or belief, including its accession to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR. The right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion is even enshrined in Article 10 and 14 (1) (e) of the constitution of the Republic of Sri Lanka.

However, the constitution also has a contradiction. Article 9 states that Buddhism should be afforded “the foremost place and accordingly it shall be the duty of the State to protect and foster the Buddha Sasana, while assuring to all religions the rights granted by Articles 10 and 14(1)(e)”.

The situation on the ground, as evidenced by the country’s human rights record, is worrying. Since the end of the three decades of civil war in 2009, civil society both inside and outside of Sri Lanka has recorded an increasing incidence of human rights violations, including of the right to freedom of religion or belief.

Attacks on members of religious minority groups in Sri Lanka, including Hindus, Muslims and Christians are not new. Religious intolerance has been on the rise in the country since 2000 and especially since the end of the civil war in 2009. Acts of violence motivated by religious hatred persist in an environment of impunity as the authorities are often reluctant to curb Buddhist nationalists and statistics on religious discrimination and harassment are often denied or ignored.

When prominent human rights lawyer, Lakshan Dias, quoted statistics from The National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka (NCEASL) indicating that Christians were subject to 195 incidents of discrimination, intimidation and violence between 2015 and June 2017, during a television interview he was threatened with disbarment unless he retracted his comment and apologised within 24 hours.

The situation also drew the attention of the UN Human Rights Council, which in 2014 adopted a resolution on reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka, noting its alarm “at the significant surge in attacks against members of religious minority groups in Sri Lanka, including Hindus, Muslims and Christians.”

The government of Sri Lanka must investigate and prosecute those responsible for the Easter Sunday bombings and take steps to ensure that the right to freedom of religion or belief is upheld and promoted for all Sri Lankans, ending the culture of impunity which fuels this violence.

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Jeremy Hunt ‘appalled’ by suffering of 245 million Christians persecuted for their faith

Foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt used an Easter message to express his solidarity with millions of Christians worldwide suffering for their faith.

Mr Hunt spoke of his commitment to promoting religious freedom around the world in 40 Lent letters sent out to Christians who have experienced persecution.

The first letter was sent to Open Doors founder Brother Andrew.  In it, Mr Hunt said it was his “honour” to send the first letter to Brother Andrew, a missionary from the Netherlands who used to smuggle Bibles behind the Iron Curtain.

Mr Hunt praised his “extraordinary and courageous support” for the persecuted church as he recalled reading about Brother Andrew’s story as a child in the book, “God’s Smuggler”.

“As a man of faith, free to practise in line with my conscience, I am appalled at the plight of the 245 million Christians worldwide currently facing persecution as a result of their belief,” he said.

“I want you to know that the UK stands in solidarity with persecuted Christians around the world and that British diplomats will continue to advocate for them, and for those who are being denied the basic right to practise their faith.

“Freedom of Religion or Belief is a human right enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It must be respected. People from all faiths or none should be free to practise as they wish. I will continue to make this case for the millions who suffer as a result of their beliefs.”

Henrietta Blyth, CEO Open Doors UK and Ireland said she was delighted Mr Hunt had chosen Brother Andrew as the recipient of his first Lent letter.

“Families are left scarred by the loss of loved ones and communities are devastated at a time when they should simply be celebrating the Easter message joyfully and freely,” she said.

“Easter is a time of hope for us all. Yet it is often a time when Christians are targeted for their faith.”

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The problem with plastic and how we can fix it

Environmentalist and theologian Ruth Valerio made a commitment this Lent to reduce as much as possible the amount of plastic she uses. It’s a commitment that clearly resonates with others as a Facebook group she set up on exactly this topic, called Plastic-Less Lent, has attracted nearly 4,000 people.

And it’s not only of interest here in the UK; members of the group are spread over 55 countries. Where they call home may look different but their concern is the same: how to cut plastic from their lives and make choices that will be kinder to themselves and to the planet.

It’s a journey together in which every day through Lent, they have been sharing their own tips, advice and experiences in going plastic-free.

Many of the suggestions are simple, such as buying reusable water bottles or shopping bags, and choosing loose fruit and veg at the supermarket instead of those come wrapped in plastic.

One post is from a mother who has committed to making her own hummus at home instead of buying the plastic tubs from the store each time. Another post charts one person’s first foray into homemade deodorant.

Other posts encourage simple activism, like contacting supermarkets and magazine publishers to encourage them to ditch plastic wrapping.

Far from being insignificant, Ruth is hugely encouraged because she says it is the small things that can add up to have a really big impact.

There’s lots of things people can do, she says, like switching back to good old bars of soap instead of bottles of hand wash and shower gel, and swapping plastic toothbrushes for bamboo ones.

“It’s so important for people to know that every little step really does make a difference because each thing we do is one less item of plastic ending up in the landfill or the oceans or in the rivers somewhere,” she says.

“And it also makes a difference because when we reduce our plastic usage, we will be sending a message to governments and businesses that this is something we care about and want them to take action on.”

It can sometimes cost more to buy products that are kinder to the environment, she admits, but she is asking those who can afford it to pay that little bit extra in order to move away from plastic.

At the same time, she suggests shoppers even speak to store managers to ask them about their pricing policies so that plastic-free items, particularly groceries, are priced the same as or less than those that come wrapped in plastic packaging.

“We shouldn’t be penalised for not using plastic,” she says.

It’s so important because plastic consumption is increasing around the world, not decreasing, she says.

The damage being caused by plastic in our oceans is well-documented, but there are other problems with the amount of plastic consumption.

“It’s harmful in terms of the energy it uses to produce the plastic and plastic, of course, is petroleum-based, so it requires oil in order to manufacture it. So all the way through from how it’s created and what it’s created from, to how it’s then used and thrown away, creates problems.”

There’s the impact on health too.

“Where plastic isn’t disposed of, it’s left sitting around and collects water,” she continues.

“These pools of water are breeding grounds for flies and mosquitoes, not to mention the rats. This all leads to increased dengue fever, cholera, malaria, diarrhea and typhoid. It causes so many problems.”

One of the causes behind the huge amount of plastic in our oceans is the lack of proper waste disposal facilities in developing countries.

“Something like two billion people in the world don’t have their waste collected, and uncollected rubbish causes death, disease, flooding, climate change – all of which are critical issues,” she says.

“One statistic I saw recently estimates that about 50–70% of plastic waste in the ocean is coming from developing countries. That’s not to put the blame on them but it highlights how important it is that we help them to put good waste management systems into place.”

That’s one of the reasons she is working with Christian development agency Tearfund in Pakistan, where around two-fifths of the country’s estimated 20 million tonnes of rubbish each year goes uncollected.

That rubbish is either burnt in the streets or thrown into the rivers where it builds up and causes flooding and health issues.

The problem is particularly acute along the Indus River, whose delta has become a collection point for uncollected waste flowing out from some of Pakistan’s slums.

According to one recent study, the Indus River carries the second highest amount of mismanaged plastic debris to the sea out of all the world’s rivers.

“By starting to tackle the issue at source, you start to tackle the problem in the oceans as well,” says Ruth.

Tearfund recently launched an appeal in aid of building new recycling hubs in communities along the Indus River. The campaign is being supported by the UK Government, which has pledged to match donations up to £3 million.

The charity has already seen huge success in its existing recycling hubs in the country, which, according to Ruth, have been recycling around 80–90 per cent of waste from surrounding communities.

“Within a few years, they’ve become self-sustainable and so we have this triple win of environmental benefit; the benefit to people’s health; and then livelihoods, because it creates jobs for people in a context where unemployment is a massive problem.”

As part of the Matched Giving Appeal, Tearfund has been inviting people to take the Plastic Pledge to give up one single-use item of plastic.

“The big issue we’re wanting to focus on is single-use plastic and our culture where it’s become so normal to buy something made from plastic and then to throw it away,” Ruth says.

“We want to see recycling increase but we need to take a step back before that and reduce the amount of plastic we use in the first place.”

There are positive signs that businesses are catching on to the problem of plastic. In the last few years, plastic bags have largely disappeared from shop checkouts, with the exception of reusable ones that shoppers have to pay for.

And coffee shop chains, which often use plastic lids and cutlery, are increasingly encouraging customers to order their drinks using their own reusable cups.

But governments need to step up too, Ruth says, particularly in light of the concerning IPCC report last year, which warned of a climate disaster if global warming is not kept to 1.5C of pre-industrial levels. The current trajectory is a global temperature increase of 3C.

“We need to see companies taking action and turning the tap off at source but we also need to see governments taking action and they can do this by putting into place policies that make it undesirable for a company to use plastic cheaply and they can use some of their aid money to support developing countries in putting into place proper waste management systems,” she says.

Advocacy is one area where Ruth believes Christians can play an important role.

“We need to care because this is having a devastating effect on people living in poverty and the world, and it’s an absolutely essential part of what it means to be a Christian, to care for the world and what God has made – this is not an optional extra but at the heart of our discipleship.

“So I want to ask everyone to be getting engaged in campaigns calling on our governments to take climate change seriously and to honour their commitments to the 2015 Paris Agreement.”

As for all those water bottles collecting at the sides of our roads and in our parks, beaches and oceans, she has these words: “We don’t need them! Let’s buy a reusable one and consign them to history!”

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Flying tankers and a rush for answers: a lesson from Notre-Dame

[Matt White on the moment he realised he had something in common with Donald Trump]

Like many I was shocked to see the images of Notre-Dame in flames earlier this week. Quickly, my social media timelines were filled with friends and family sharing pictures and memories of their time in this beautiful place of worship.

I always find the response to these type of events fascinating. In days gone by, the only thoughts given or prayers publicly offered would have been from world leaders releasing statements or taking over TV or radio schedules to share their condolences. Even they now turn to the quick and short opportunity of Twitter.

British Prime Minister Theresa May Tweeted:

“My thoughts are with the people of France tonight and with the emergency services who are fighting the terrible blaze at Notre-Dame cathedral.”

The Australian leader Scott Morrison wrote:

“I fondly remember standing outside Notre Dame with Jen almost 30 years ago. So sad to see this beautiful cathedral in flames this morning. Our thoughts are with the people of France and emergency services who are fighting this fire. They will rebuild as Parisians always do.”

Former US President Barack Obama offered:

“Notre Dame is one of the world’s great treasures, and we’re thinking of the people of France in your time of grief. It’s in our nature to mourn when we see history lost – but it’s also in our nature to rebuild for tomorrow, as strong as we can.”

Canadian Primer Minister Justin Trudeau Tweeted (in both English and French):

“Absolutely heart-breaking to see the Notre-Dame Cathedral in flames. Canadians are thinking of our friends in France as you fight this devastating fire.”

The Archbishop of Canterbury sent this from his official account on behalf of the Anglican Church:

“Tonight we pray for the firefighters tackling the tragic Notre Dame fire – and for everyone in France and beyond who watches and weeps for this beautiful, sacred place where millions have met with Jesus Christ. Nous sommes avec vous.”

It’s quite a skill to be able to convey so eloquently in just 280 characters how you or your nation or your denomination responds to an event of this scale. I imagine the list of proof-readers is a lot longer than the message itself. But amongst the prayers and memories, affirmation and solidarity, one world leader took a different approach:

“So horrible to watch the massive fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Perhaps flying water tankers could be used to put it out. Must act quickly!”

Yes, President Trump took the opportunity to offer some firefighting advice to the French both in terms of machinery and urgency. His suggestions were both unhelpful (flying water tankers might not only have caused more structural damage to the cathedral but also to anyone in the vicinity) and unnecessary (reports would tend to suggest they were acting incredibly quickly already, even if the fires location took some time to discover).

It would be easy to be cynical about this – my favourite response came from @SeriousCharly who Tweeted:

“Can you please teach us how to put a fire out? We the French have no clue, we’re currently blowing on it but it doesn’t work. Please help us o mighty world ruler.”

But what President Trump did here was something I’ve often been incredibly guilty of. You see, like the 45th President of The United States of America, I sometimes find myself facing someone’s situation or confronted with another’s problem and before I can help it, I’ve blurted out some unsolicited, unnecessary advice.

Problems at work – let me tell you what I know.

Problems in your family – let me tell you what I would do.

Problems with your kids school – let me tell you what I would write...better yet, let me write it.

It’s never done with any bad intention, I’m not trying to make things worse, but my instinct has often been to rush to “help” before I’ve stopped to listen. To offer up my “fix” before the other person has even had the chance to finish.

Over the past few years I’ve become more aware of this trait. And while it comes from a very real and genuine desire to help, I’m pretty sure there’s an unhelpful dose of ego in there that can lead me to believe that I have the answer.

This realisation has led me to reach out and apologise to some of those I now realise I didn’t support in the right way in the past. And whilst I still find myself jumping in from time to time with a three-point plan or a “strategic solution”, I try these days to offer less and listen more.

It’s funny how when something is pointed out in yourself you start to notice it more in other people, maybe that’s why President Trump’s response nudged me like it did. But I don’t think I’m alone. So, if like me and Mr President (a pairing of similarity that makes me more than a little uncomfortable), you find yourself offering advice no-one asked for and solutions no-one ordered, I’ve found two simple things that have helped me shift my mindset and slowed down my advice-reflex.

[In an attempt to escape the irony police I should also say, if you’re not like this, or even if you are and you have no interest in what I’ve learnt, feel free to stop reading...I wouldn’t want to be offering advice you didn’t want or need.]

Silence over speaking

One of the hardest things for me was learning to stop talking. I now actively tell myself that in situations like this, I’m not going to talk until I’m asked a direct question. That might seem extreme but it takes the pressure off my brain to be thinking of what to say when I should be listening and it means I’m actually listening without feeling any pressure to have “something to say”.

Questions over answers

This is totally obvious to anyone who does this naturally but I had never considered asking the question “why did you want to share this with me?”

It immediately makes things clearer.

If the other person says “I just needed to unload” then I know that my job is simply to listen and be present. If they say “I wondered if you might know anyone who can help”, I know that they’re not expecting me to have the answers, but would like some help to find someone who might.

Whatever the answer, it means whatever comes next isn’t being led by my own agenda or need to fix. On that, if the answer is “I wanted to get some advice from you”, that doesn’t give me permission to launch straight in. I’ve found that more questions are always the way forward. Asking questions unlocks other people’s answers and stop mine becoming the focus or goal. Questions like:

“How would you respond to someone asking you for advice in this?”

“What do you want the ending to look like?”

“What would be the worst outcome for you?”

As the fire subsides and the rebuilding begins, much help, advice, money and support will be needed. Already financial benefactors are making themselves known, and experts from across the globe are offering their services to restore Our Lady of Paris.

Funnily enough, I won’t be turning up with my tool set or writing to the billionaires suggesting other ways they could spend their own feels like in this situation, as I strive to do so more in others, I know exactly what is and isn’t needed of me.

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Brexit and the decline of Britain: lessons from the Old Testament

Did you know that what happens next with Brexit is clearly prophesied in the pages of the Old Testament?

That’s right. It’s all in the latter chapters of Ezekiel, and it can now be clearly understood thanks to ground-breaking new research that I myself have carried out. My pioneering investigation has involved a new system of Hebrew numerology based on winning combinations of figures from recent National Lottery results, combined with copious amounts of alcohol. And it puts a whole new spin on Ezekiel (sometimes literally) I can tell you.

Of course, believe that, and you’ll believe anything.

Some things are very specifically prophesied and foreshadowed in the Old Testament – such as the crucifixion of Jesus, for example. But Brexit is not one of them. However, that said, there are some surprisingly prescient lessons we can learn about Britain’s current situation from parts of the Hebrew Scriptures. Here are a couple from just two OT books:

1. Ultimately, neither the UK nor EU matter that much.

In Daniel 2, there is a dream in which there is a great statute – with a head of gold, middle of silver, legs of iron, and feet partly of iron and clay (from which we get the saying ‘feet of clay,’ incidentally). The different substances, it is subsequently revealed, represent different kingdoms, governments and power structures that will come and go over time.

The point is that each, in its era, seems permanent and invulnerable. But history will prove that not to be the case, as indeed the fulfilment of these words in the time after Daniel proved. And the same goes for the United Kingdom. Those of us who have grown up in it might feel it surely ‘must’ be there forever. But that is not the case. It’s possible Brexit developments will lead to the break-up of the UK in future years. And if it does, we may be sad, for we have been in decline for a while. But we should not be dismayed. Kingdoms come, and kingdoms go, as Daniel reminds us.

The same, of course, goes for the EU.

Whatever our views on Brexit, the European Union is not the answer to all our problems. It will face many challenges of its own in the next few years. Perhaps it will not survive, regardless of whatever the UK ultimately does. Like the seemingly unshakeable golden head of Daniel’s statue, one day it too will be toppled. Only God’s kingdom, represented in Daniel 2 by a hurtling stone, will survive until the end of time.

As the Old Testament commentator Dale Ralph Davis says of the book of Daniel: “Kings and kingdoms, presidents and dictators, democracies and tyrannies and monarchies come and go and enter the landfill of history... Jesus has a coffin for every empire and emperor; the only true security is in the kingdom of the carpenter’s son.”

2. The current wish for a strongman is futile.

Recent years have seen many countries opt for maverick ‘strongmen’ to lead their nations – Erdogan in Turkey; Putin in Russia; Berlusconi in Italy; even Trump, in a way, in America. And today in the UK polling by the Hansard Society indicates that 54% of voters would like “a strong ruler willing to break the rules”. Only 23% said they were against such an idea.

These are extraordinary figures, and yet the Hansard Society is a responsible organisation which one imagines conducts its polling to fairly high and rigorous standards. So we have to take the results seriously. Ruth Fox, director of the society, commented: “Unless something changes, this is a potentially toxic recipe for the future of British politics.”

Britain today in its moral and political turbulence is reminiscent of Old Testament Israel in the 11th century BC. That too was a time when there was no guiding consensus and “all the people did what was right in their own eyes” (Judges 21:25). But instead of looking to God, of course, Israel demanded a new system of government in the form of a strong man (1 Samuel 8v5) – just as many in Britain are now apparently doing.

As Dale Ralph Davis (again) comments in another of his commentaries: “We have a tendency to assess our problems mechanically rather than spiritually...”

We instinctively think “the need is for adjustment, not repentance; [that] there is something wrong in the system that needs doctoring”.

But, as Israel found, rejecting God’s rule and changing its system of government didn’t solve all its problems – it simply created new ones.

So what shall we take from all this? Perhaps the final words of the hymn The Day Thou Gavest, which are these: “So be it Lord, thy throne shall never, like earth’s proud empires, pass away; thy Kingdom stands, and grows for ever, till all thy creatures own thy sway.” Those words were sung when Hong Kong passed from British to Chinese rule in 1997. Perhaps we will sing them again before long when the UK and EU, like all powers before them, pass into history too.

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