Saturday for the City

Saturday for the City


Over the past few weeks, I have been avidly reading Alan Lewis’ magnum opus, Between Cross and Resurrection, and considering its substantial implications for authentically grappling with the life of the city.[1] In it, Lewis brings serious biblical and theological acumen to the much neglected Saturday that is imbedded in the climactic weekend in the passion story of Jesus. What are we to make of Matthew’s singular attention to it, that highlights the sober but calculated protective measures sought by the priests and Pharisees (Mt.27:62-66) to ensure that nothing subversive ensued from the death of this troublesome Galilean revolutionary?  Lewis is not satisfied with a perfunctory response, but suggests that perhaps “the precise locus of this Saturday, at the interface between cross and resurrection, its very uniqueness as the one moment in history which is both after Good Friday and before Easter” (investing it, therefore, with a high level of evaluative meaning) ought to be attended to with much more rigor and practical application to the world as it is. “The nonevent of the second day”, offers Lewis, “could after all be a significant zero, a pregnant emptiness, a silent nothing which says everything”.[2]

Some kind of hint at the transactional nature of this holy Saturday is perhaps intended by the Apostle Paul when he terms as ‘of first importance’ his commitment to deliver what he also received, “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3-4).  But we are still left to question how and what anything is transacted in such a state of historical and revelatory silence?  Or is it meant to convey anything at all, but rather is a chronological necessity? Are we over-reading if we extrapolate much more than the passing of time, the assurance of a truly dead body, or the simple fulfilment of a messianic allusion? Certainly death and resurrection are the decisive factors here, endued as they are with atoning and eschatological weight.  On the other hand, is it theologically healthy to avoid such decisiveness when it has the intervening Saturday in view?

Lewis suggests that this does not do justice to the story itself.  We would do far better, in fact, to allow the impact of the death of Jesus, “without or before his resurrection” to weigh heavily upon our hermeneutic experience and provide some level of existential meaning. What is the germane, pertinent, and applicable purpose of these “anonymous, indefinite hours, filled with memories and assessments of what was finished and past…”?[3] Are they really indecisive and meaningless? Or do they, perhaps, relate to the experiential reality of so much of the human story, a story that is freighted with dejection, fear, uncertainty and the precariousness of life, so much like the intervening Saturday, before the final stages of the eschaton?

I would argue that this kind of theological accounting of the passion of Jesus is particularly suggestive when it comes to advocating for what I would call a Saturday hermeneutic when it comes to understanding the place of the city in the missional purposes of God.  It encourages us to ‘wrestle,’ as Lewis further delineates, ‘with evil, sin, and death’ on the basis of vast reservoirs of hope precisely because we do know, in fact, that evil, sin and death are penultimate realities.[4]  We ought to have a healthy and ultimate eschatological perspective in view, in which the earthly city gives way to the City of God.  After all, our purpose, according to the writer of the letter to the Hebrews, is to seek “a city which has foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (Heb. 11:10).

The ‘social geography,’ as Saskia Sassen refers to it, of the present day urban landscape is more often beset with inequities too multitudinous to enumerate and account for. [5]  Sassen documents the unsettling coupling of growth in the international property market in the world’s foremost cities (along with the expansion of new growth industries) with “a continuation and consolidation of concentrated poverty and extreme physical decay in the inner cities”.[6]  This in no way excuses any theological pandering that simply encourages acquiescence.  It places these sorts of urban pathologies in a particular eschatological chronology that accredits their existential givenness a boundary within the truth of an intervening theology of holy Saturday that is decisive, rather than arbitrary. Far, in fact, from arbitrary, such a Saturday for the city deals with the realities of evil, sin, and death squarely and head on precisely because the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus guarantees that such plagues of the city are actually and only penultimate experiences in the unfolding of a new creation.

Dr Wesley White

The MA in Theology (Urban Mission) allows you explore this and many other factors relating to life, mission and culture in the cities of the world. Start studying this September, and take part in the next intensive study week in Glasgow in January 2018. Contact us to find out more.

[1] Alan E. Lewis, Between Cross and Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 2001)
[2] Lewis, p3
[3] Lewis, p31
[4]  Lewis, p263
[5] Saskia Sassen, The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001), p256
[6] Sassen, p260

Uncovering the Untold Urban Stories

Uncovering the Untold Urban Stories


We welcome Glenn Jordan as one of the presenters for our forthcoming day conference Renewing the City: A Christian Vision.  Glenn comes with the wisdom of many years of ministry in the inner-city area of East Belfast close to the former shipyards.  A vision of an ‘urban commons’ has marked his work, with the goal of demonstrating in both design and architecture the reality of God’s shalom amidst the sectarian ugliness that has been so prominent in the story of this city.

He also brings the insights of significant PhD research that relates to the reading of Third Isaiah in the context of various urban challenges, but particularly those that have become demanding in his own contextual environment of East Belfast.  The nature of a number of his theological contributions are especially noteworthy and will undoubtedly lend themselves to our discussion, reflection and practice.  These invariably move us to seriously consider how Scripture in general, and a storied approach to Third Isaiah in particular, can inform the means and goals of urban ministry today.

Foremost amongst those, I think, is his suggestion that Isaiah invites us to move from ‘the mundane to the mythological’.[1]  This borrows, as the author notes, from the idea of ‘rereading,’ credited to J. Severino Croatto, in which preterist leanings can and should be challenged by a hermeneutic of finding further meaning in biblical texts in such a way that relevant practice might be encouraged.[2]  This is not as subjective as it sounds, but actually serves to understand Isaiah not only as a prophet but also in an apocalyptic sense, where actual political events serve to honour God’s prerogative as to what happens next in our own story.  It inspires, in other words, a view to the future that promotes credible shalom action now.

Another notable emphasis gleaned from Glenn’s excellent study is his undaunted commitment to reading Isaiah in terms of stories that inform both the original and the contemporary outworking of an ardent narrative theology.  In this way, the story-laden character of the sacred text is held in high honour, but not in such a way that it diminishes the need to release its formative capacity into the treasured stories of urban congregations.  This is critical as it affirms that history and tradition actually matter greatly, not only in their biblical settings, but also in lived biographies of people in distinct times and places.  It encourages an essential element especially suited to and situated in the midst of urban realities, one that amounts to the purposeful uncovering of hidden or forgotten stories.  It acknowledges that these stories matter a great deal in and of themselves, but also that the honouring of them significantly contributes to healthy urban ministry.

Potent endeavours like these can achieve a movement from story to story, in which, as Jordan puts it, the ‘interweaving of themes and ideas across the final text of Isaiah may have actually been part of the strategy of Third Isaiah to secure support for a radical new vision of the city and the community.’[3]  Perhaps more of us can give attention to the hidden, forgotten and untold stories that demonstrate the specificity of the good news of Jesus for our cities.  These stories themselves, as they deliberately relate to the biblical narrative, cannot help but excite a new vision of shalom that must always be understood in terms of the radical peace that expresses the reign of God.  In that way, they activate renewal, hopefully more and more in Inner East Belfast and in many other urban settings as well.

Dr Wesley White

Join us for Renewing the City: A Christian Vision on Saturday 7th January 2017, 10am – 4:30pm, at the Parkhead Church of the Nazarene, Burgher Street Glasgow, G31 4TB.

[1] Glenn Jordan, unpublished PhD dissertation, ‘Renewing the City: Reading Third Isaiah in Inner East Belfast,’ (2016), p8
[2] J. Severino Croatto, ‘ “The Nations” in Salvific Oracles of Isaiah,’ VT 55 2 (2005), p160
[3] Jordan, Renewing the City, p184-85

Residential Youth Work – 125 years ago and now!

Residential Youth Work – 125 years ago and now!


Have you heard of the ‘Fresh Air Fortnight’?  Recently, our business manager has been going through the old archives of the organisations that formed the Glasgow United Evangelistic Association (GUEA), of which the BTI (Bible Training Institute), which after various iterations became SSCM, was one.

BTI was launched in 1892, and was “not intended to compete with the various theological halls where students are trained for the ministry, but for the practical instruction of Christian workers, both men and women, so as to qualify them for efficient service in the home or foreign field.”  The formation of BTI followed as a natural progression from the children’s and youth work that had been carried out for the preceding two decades.  This included ‘The Children’s Sabbath Dinner’ which commenced in 1874 and the ‘Glasgow Poor Children’s Fresh Air Fortnight’ started in 1884.

Fresh Air Fortnight

The Fresh Air Fortnight was established in 1884, during Queen Victoria’s reign, only 4 years after school attendance for 5-10 year olds was made compulsory.  In an age when almost all the homes in Glasgow were lit by candles, oil or gas and all heating was produced by burning fossil fuels in an open fire, the pollution levels were high.  It is no wonder then that in the 1890 funding appeal the GUEA wrote: “Those of you who live in Glasgow, live in comfortable homes, in healthy parts of the city, or in its suburbs; and yet it is necessary for your health that you go for a month or two in summer to the coast or country.  If you require this change, how much more do those poor children – living, many of them, in unhealthy localities and in hovels not worthy of the name of home – need, at least, a fortnight where they can be out of sight of Glasgow’s smoke and breathe the pure air of the country”.

In 1889, 3,531 children travelled to country villages (many of which have radically urbanised since then) such as Chryston, East Kilbride, Garelochead and Houston for at least a fortnight.  This investment of £2,073 (approximately £250,000 in today’s terms, never mind the bundles of clothing, hats and boots) was viewed as an act of social justice, not merely a holiday for free.  Even then, they realised that the Victorian urban smog was a factor in early deaths and therefore giving the children access to fresh air had health benefits that could potentially lengthen their lives.

Without access to fresh air, the children, over 600 or which living in single parent families or kinship carers, were being condemned to an early death.  Those involved in donating, volunteering or hosting the children were doing so either out of a sense of justice or as a response to their Christian beliefs.   They believed that these ‘poor children’ did not deserve to be condemned to early death sentence and therefore this was a very practical response to Jesus’ command to love one another, and by the time of the First World War had become so established that they owned 12 properties for the purpose.

Residentials today

Over 125 years later, the context is quite different.  Pollution may still exist in Glasgow, but this is vastly reduced in comparison to the 1880s.  The average family does not tend to go on a holiday from Glasgow to East Kilbride, but rather those families who can afford it will travel abroad to Western Europe or beyond.  Likewise, charities such as ‘Cash for Kids’ have replaced the ‘Fresh Air Fortnight’ as being the local charity of choice in the local media.

Despite this there are still Christian agencies providing residential experiences for young people.  Changes in legislation, in attitudes towards residential experiences and to the welfare system mean that there is not a need for the ‘Fresh Air Fortnight’ as it was originally conceived, But the original rationale is still there.

I will offer a snapshot of three local organisations that provide residential experiences for young people that otherwise would not be able to afford it: Junction 12, local YMCAs and theGKExperience.

Junction 12 is a charity based in the east end of Glasgow that works with young people who live in areas of social deprivation.  It “aims to establish and develop caring, nurturing relationships with 10-18 year olds in the east end of Glasgow and to enable them to make positive and healthy choices in every area of their lives” (  In order to do this, a key feature of their work is to arrange residential experiences for the young people.  These include Easter camps, summer holidays and weekend camps, all of which are run in connection with SU Scotland.  These residential experiences provide the fresh air experience, however they do much more through providing activities and games where they learn social skills in a fun way as well as having the chance to hear the Christian message.

Charities such as Junction 12 work in similar areas of deprivation as the Fresh Air Fortnight and take young people to similar areas of the countryside not far from Glasgow.  The style of residential more closely resembles that of the 1910s rather than 1880s, as they tend to go away to centres rather than family homes and have a very structured timetable.  Likewise the inclusion of a specific Christian message would also more closely like that of the 1910s.

Whilst local YMCAs work with young people from a similar background, they are more likely to provide overseas residential experiences. These allow young people to explore the world and broaden their thinking about how things are done in other places.  In order to prove their validity to those who may doubt their worth, these residentials tend to be themed focussing on areas like leadership skills or being an effective board member.

This approach to residentials is similar to the Fresh Air Fortnight only in that it provide a residential experience that is on par with those from a middle-class background.  Saying that, the emphasis on the empowerment of young people and their ability to equip with skills that could be transformative for later life, are elements that were lacking in the approach 125 years ago.

Working with young people over a sustained period of time in their local settings and then allowing the outdoor residential and wilderness experience to help them to thrive, is the model which underpins the work of theGKexperience.  The young people come from areas such as Ruchazie, Blackhill and Milton in Glasgow which again would be classed as areas of multiple deprivation.  Young people love the outdoor experience even if it is a bit scary – it helps them to bond, to trust and to thrive. As young people share their experiences, they do not just try out new things but also experience community in a more profound way.  TheGKexperience approach provides a similar wilderness experience as those of the Fresh Air Fortnight and having that community experience is one that would resemble the homely feel of the family home.

Whilst I have tried to emphasise some of the potential differences of these three organisations, it should be noted that some of these are slightly artificial.  Whilst each model is different, each has its merits and their value can be seen in the lives of the young people who return enthused, invigorated and energised.

Graeme McMeekin

Urbanism and Unfaith

Urbanism and Unfaith


One of the ideas that becomes clear when we survey the Biblical narrative as a whole, is how shalom must be understood and lived out always in the shadow of empire. Empire power almost always (some would say invariably) exerts its influence with both hubris and hegemony, through the agency of an urbanism that is more shadowy than light-giving (which we might have hoped for with ‘a city set on a hill’).  In other words, we are faced with much more than the exigencies of the fast-paced, ever-expanding complexities of the built physical environment.

From both an historical theology perspective and from a biblical-eschatological perspective, this takes on greater and lesser prominence depending on changes in culture around us, which are not at all beyond the purvey of God’s sovereign work in the world.  That is to say, it concerns our hopeful gaze into the future.  Walter Brueggemann poignantly suggests this when he contends that there are times “when church and cultural context can live in some kind of mutuality; but this is not one of those times, for gospel rootage requires resistance to such aggressive antihumanism.  Such resistance in turn requires intentionality, embodied in concrete disciplines of body, mind, and heart.  For without such disciplines, it is evident that the church community will either be massaged and seduced until it is co-opted, or it will end in the powerlessness of despair”. [1]

A healthy response can be seen in the poetic-prophetic ministry of the prophet Isaiah in the 8th and 7th centuries BC, in which Israel was intended to display an intentional distinctive community in a world dominated by Assyria.  Another way to say this is simply that Judah existed in the shadow of empire.  The poetry of Isaiah is centred around the notion of shalom as the contrast to all the hallmarks of what Brueggemann goes on to calls unfaith.

It is poetry, in fact, that evokes either gentle refreshing waters, or water that can exact a terrible toll, like a torrent, and leave horrific destruction in its wake.  Isaiah offers the following imaginative evaluation:
“Because this people has refused the waters of Shiloh (note the ‘shalom’ root) that flow gently, therefore the Lord is bringing against it the mighty flood waters of the River, the king of Assyria and all his glory; it will rise above all its channels and overflow its banks; it will sweep into Judah as a flood, and pouring over it, it will reach up to the neck” (Isa 8:5-8).

The very hopeful part of this deeply concerning contrast is, of course, the waters of Shiloh (הַשִּׁלֹחַ מֵי אֵת) and their referencing of the shalom of God’s better purposes.   These are those waters that are meant to be gentle and caressing, evoking all that refreshes and nourishes.  It is poetic-prophetic art at its best, as it anticipates a resistance to anything that is destructive.  Furthermore, the point of the metaphor is to accentuate the contrast, exhuming the more common urban alternative of unfaith and exposing it as ‘that which abandons the defining marks of loyalty to God’.  This alternative produces a world of anxiety, collusion and self-indulgence as authorized and defined by, say, Assyria.  It is a fear-based, wrong-headed response (to which the uglier brands of urbanism are particularly liable) in the midst of the shadow of empire, alarmed by such capacity for social and spiritual destruction, like the effects of uncontrolled flood water.

The intent of Jerusalem, on the other hand, is to demonstrate substantive faith that finds a pathway for the gentle waters of Shiloh, even through the streets and avenues of the city of peace.  The city, in other words, need not be the breeding place of unfaith.  Quite the opposite, in fact, from God’s perspective.  But it requires a commitment to shalom that is actively resistant to even the shadows of empire.

Dr Wesley White

[1] Walter Brueggemann (2000), Texts the Linger, Words that Explode: Listening to Prophetic Voices (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress), p73


The upwardly-mobile, syncretistic city

The upwardly-mobile, syncretistic city


Urban environments present their own unique challenges to the purposes of the gospel in bringing about lasting transformation. One of those is undoubtedly a syncretistic tendency that is particularly, and sometimes peculiarly, framed, shaped and nuanced by factors that make a city a city. They are usually quite subtle in their presentation, much more than the kind of blatant religious-tradition mixing that has no intent of camouflaging its agenda of social and theological blending for the purposes of easing caustic tensions or rendering a less demanding template of discipleship. Rather, they rear their head in the form of compliance with a form of liberal democracy that exonerates the wealthy and excuses them from more holistic social responsibility.

It is for this very reason that David Smith reminds us of the praxis orientation of some of the more noteworthy of the non-Pauline contributors to the New Testament (David Smith, Liberating the Gospel: Translating the Message of Jesus in a Globalised World, 109-115).[i] Smith approaches it with the urgent question as to “what saving faith in Christ crucified actually does”. The Letter of James, for example, does not hesitate to raise the economic stakes of gospel application by confronting the urban gentrification problems that follow in the wake of business purposes that blend in with the city and its culture, but in ways that leave the poor humiliated to an even greater degree (4:13). James decries this as an unacceptable mode of syncretistic mixing for those whose loyalties are to “the Lord of Sabaoth” (5:4).

John’s apocalyptic emphasis in Revelation, as Smith further and rightly suggests, has much of the same in view. Cultural blending in the Christian community, while John dwelt in exile on the isle of Patmos, had become not only commonplace, but was of such an insidious nature that it was not always easily detected, even though it was not any less extreme because of it. It took the form of accommodation to the necessary idols of a distorted capitalistic vision that was zealously caricatured as the fruit of the blessing of God, while at the same time giving scant attention to, much less critique of, the imperial motivations of Roman power that was its true beneficiary. This state of affairs was, in fact, the likely reason that John felt the necessity of resorting to an apocalyptic genre in the first place. It is not without significance, therefore, that John incorporates a serious note of stridency when he repeatedly refers to ‘Babylon’ in terms of her enticing (and money-exchanging) harlotries (Rev 17:5).

It is, in fact, the capitalistic susceptibility of urban modes of conflation that predisposes them, I suggest, to a type of mixing and matching that challenges a more rigorous understanding of the good news of Jesus Christ and its capacity to provoke transformation. Cities inherently promote the possibilities of entrepreneurial agendas that are rife with hopes of a better future. These hopes, however, are not always well placed and are certainly not always altruistic. They very easily deteriorate into solipsistic ventures that reap collective disparity in terms of rights, advantages, and the various factors that end up being determinative of who and who is not important. Pursuits of this kind require assessment, therefore, that does not hesitate to question both social and individual criteria of value.

The good news of the kingdom, among other things, is a hopeful enquiry into and an eventual declaration of ultimate value; where it lies and what is its source. It cannot concede, then, to the levelling effect of any form of syncretism, whether overt and programmatic, or to more sly versions that come in the guise of the reasonability of upward mobility that determines value solely on the basis of productivity. Concession of this sort may appear conciliatory and therefore advantageous. But it colludes with culture in such a way that robs the gospel of its central place in advocating for urban health and broader, more equitable happiness. The gospel, in fact, is emancipative in nature, freeing the imaginative capacity that continually seeks expression in the even nobler objective of the shalom purposes of God. It is a gospel, in other words, that rejects syncretistic temptations not in spite of, but in the interest of and for the sake of the city.

Dr Wesley White

Learn how to act bibically, theologically and reflectively in mission in the city by studying for our MA in Theology (Urban Mission).

[i] Use the code “SSCM” at the checkout for a 25% discount

Is there a Christian perspective on immigration?

Is there a Christian perspective on immigration?


Over a million Polish people have moved to the UK since 2004. European cities like London, Paris and Madrid have 60-70 nationalities living in single neighbourhoods. Jesus himself was an asylum seeker, and Abraham (the father of all who have faith) was an economic migrant. How (and why) should Christians ‘welcome the stranger’?

The population mix of the UK, along with almost every other European country, has changed dramatically in the space of two generations. Mass immigration began shortly after World War Two and really took off in the 1960s. In the UK, immigrants came first from Caribbean countries like Jamaica and Trinidad, later from the South Asian countries of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, and more recently from East and West African countries such as Kenya, Somalia, Ghana and Nigeria. Spain has received huge immigration from all across Latin America, as has France from its former colonies in North and Central Africa and the Caribbean. There are an estimated 3½ million people of Turkish origin living in Germany. Around 150,000 (mainly white) South Africans have moved to the UK in the last 15 years, and since 2004 almost 1 million Polish people have joined them. The 2011 census indicated that 13% of the population of England and Wales was born outside the country, with over one third of London’s population (3 million out of 8.1 million) having done so.[i]

This kind of migration is not new, of course, and has been going on for the whole of human history. In the last two centuries, millions of inhabitants of the British Isles emigrated to live in what we now call the United States of America, Canada, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, and more recently to the south of France and coastal Spain.

And such migration is not without its opponents. Immigration controls are frequently discussed and occasionally implemented by European governments, as we saw in 2015 after the massive influx of Syrian refugees into Europe through Greece. The electoral success of right-wing parties like UKIP, and the success of the Leave campaign in the referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union in June 2016, reflects the disquiet of many who consider themselves to be disadvantaged by such inward migration.

As we reflect on this and consider what our response should be as Christians to this reality, it is important for us to be clear in our minds about the difference types of migration that exist. Not every immigrant is the same as the other.

The first group, which sometimes stir up the ire of certain parts of the media, are refugees and asylum seekers. Not that they are really one group. The two terms are often used interchangeably, but they mean different things. Refugees are clearly defined by the 1951 United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees (further extended in 1967) as those who leave their country or are unwilling to return because of “a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion”. It does not apply to those who move within their own country for the same reasons, nor to those who leave their country because of armed conflict or famine. Refugee status is a legally-defined and protected status, for good reason. An asylum seeker, by contrast, is someone who has left their country for one or more of the above reasons and whose claim for refugee status is currently being assessed. Vulnerable and less-protected in law, yet making a journey to another country because of threats to their wellbeing, it is hard to understand why they are sometimes so vilified.

A second type of migrant is the person who has moved within their own country. Such people are sometimes referred to as Internally Displaced Persons, or IDPs. The term is usually used to refer to those who have moved against their will, for reasons of war or famine, for example. As well as the 3 million Syrian refugees in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq[ii] as a result of the ongoing civil war, there are an estimated 6.6 million IDPs within Syria itself [iii]. Other forms of internal migration might be freely chosen. There are an estimated 130-140 million Chinese people who have moved from rural areas to work in the booming industrial cities and who return home each February for the two-week New Year celebrations (and we complain about Bank Holiday traffic in our country!). Long-term internal migration in the British Isles is evident from the number of people who moved from the English regions or Scotland, Wales and Ireland to London and the southeast of England, mainly for employment reasons. As someone from the north of England who has lived both near London and in Scotland, I can confirm that I have felt like a migrant in both places.

This relates to a third form of migration, people who are usually called economic migrants. And there are several versions of this. These can be skilled professionals (such as the many doctors, nurses and other health professionals working in the UK’s National Health Service); they may be unskilled, temporary or seasonal workers (the UK’s agricultural industry would grind to a halt without the annual influx of workers from Eastern Europe and Portugal to pick our potatoes, sugar beet and strawberries); or they may be irregular migrants (the much-vilified “illegal immigrants”), who frequently end up in low-paid demeaning jobs on the margins of the ‘black economy’, with all the associated personal vulnerability and risk, and yet who endure this in order to earn money to send back home to their families.

In the modern nation state, ideas of citizenship divide people into ‘friends’ (us, on our side of the border) and ‘enemies’ (them, on the other side of the border). But migrants are ‘strangers’, because they cross the (border)line. So are they friends, or are they enemies? There have usually been two responses to this dilemma; assimilation or ghettoization. With assimilation, the migrant/stranger is invited to become “one of us”. In the 17th century, tens of thousands of Huguenots (French Protestants) fled persecution in France and settled in the UK[iv]. But today we do not have a large, indigenous, settled French-speaking minority in our country[v]. They have been thoroughly assimilated and integrated, becoming part of British society. In the 19th century, a similar number of Jewish people moved to the UK from central and Eastern Europe and a similar degree of integration has since taken place. Ghettoization, by contrast, is a form of quarantine, whereby migrants live closely together and there is less integration with wider society. The large and visible Pakistani and Indian populations in towns and cities like Southall, Hounslow, Leicester and Bradford would suggest that, on the whole, these migrants have ghettoised rather than assimilated. The very wide geographical distribution of recent Polish migrants to the UK indicates they may be more likely to assimilate over time. However, they are also likely to retain close links with family back in Poland, and so neither ghettoisation nor assimilation is likely to be successful. The ‘stranger’, it would seem, is here to stay.

The political, sociological and economic arguments around migration are complex, diverse and sometimes heated. So what does the Bible have to say to us about the responsibility of God’s people towards foreigners and other outsiders in their midst?


Abraham, the father of all who have faith (Gal 3:7) was a migrant himself, firstly from Ur to Harran, and later down into Canaan and Egypt. Much later, as Moses prepared the people of Israel to enter the promised land of Canaan, he told then to recite the following, “my father was a wandering Aramean” (Deut 26:5). It may seem odd that Jacob is referred to as such, but as Abraham’s grandson he had family links in Harran (or Paddam Aram, as the region was called at the time). Both his wives, Leah and Rachel, were his cousins on his mother’s side from that area (Gen 28:1-5; 29:1-30). The people of Israel were themselves a hybrid, mixed, multi-ethnic group and not all of them could claim direct descent from Jacob and his sons (Ex 12:37-38). They were instructed to remember their origins as immigrants in Egypt and nomads in the desert, and to treat immigrants among them accordingly (Lev 19:33-34; 23:33-43). When they would in future bring the firstfruits of the harvest to God, they were to remember their origins and ensure that foreigners among them shared in that blessing (Deut 26:1-11).

The Old Testament seems to make a distinction between different types of foreigner within Israel and allows for some kind of differential response, within limits. There were foreigners (nokrim), temporary workers (toshav), and those who came to stay (gerim), usually translated as ‘resident alien’ or ‘the foreigner residing among you’.

The LORD said to Moses and Aaron, “These are the regulations for the Passover meal. No foreigner (nokri) may eat it. Any slave you have bought may eat it after you have circumcised him, but a temporary resident (toshav) or a hired worker may not eat it …… A foreigner residing among you (ger) who wants to celebrate the LORD’s Passover must have all the males in his household circumcised; then he may take part like one born in the land. No uncircumcised male may eat it. The same law applies both to the native-born and to the foreigner residing among you”. (Ex 12:43-45,48-49)

Other distinctions could be made on historical grounds.  Deut 23:3-8 makes a sharp distinction between Moabites and Ammonites on the one hand, and Egyptians and Edomites on the other, largely on the basis of their behaviour towards Israel but also because of ethnic affinity.

Among the Hebrew words used for outsiders, nokrim refers to those who had no link to the land or people of Israel and who were generally regarded with fear and loathing (the Moabites and Ammonites being a case in point). They could not participate in Israel’s worship (Ex 12:43), they could be charged interest on loans (Deut 23:20), and these loans were not cancelled during Sabbath years (Deut 15:2-3). But they were not always viewed in the negative, as Solomon’s prayer of dedication for the Temple indicates:

“As for the foreigner (nokri) who does not belong to your people Israel but has come from a distant land because of your name – for they will hear of your great name and your mighty hand and your outstretched arm – when they come and pray toward this temple, then hear from heaven, your dwelling place. Do whatever the foreigner (nokri) asks of you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your own people Israel, and may know that this house I have built bears your Name”. (1 Ki 8:41-43)

The gerim, by contrast, were those who came to stay. Perhaps best translated as ‘resident aliens’, these were the outsiders who were committed to the social life of Israel and who are usually mentioned alongside the poor, the widow and orphan as being deserving of special care, perhaps because of their vulnerable place in society. They were included in Israel’s worship (Ex 12:48), were given equal rights to justice (Deut 24:17), were protected from economic exploitation (Ex 20:9-10), and were expected to conduct themselves in the same way as native Israelites (Num 15:29-30). Mistreatment of these ‘resident aliens’ is one of the reasons given for Israel’s exile (Ezek 22:6-7,29; Jer 7:4-7), and matters did not seem to improve in this regard after the return from exile (Zech 7:8-10; Mal 3:5).

These and other nuances are illustrated by the story of Ruth who, although a Moabite, was accepted into Israel (notwithstanding Moses’ command in Deut 23:3-8), and who ultimately became one of the ancestors of Jesus Christ (Matt 1:5). Her first husband Mahlon was an Israelite economic migrant from Bethlehem to Moab (Ruth 1:1-5) (showing that care of foreigners can work both ways). Once widowed, Ruth’s decision to join her mother-in-law in Bethlehem suggests a degree of cultural integration (“your people will be my people and your God my God”, Ruth 1:15-17). But this attempt at integration was not wholly successful (Ruth 2:6,10) until her second marriage to Boaz (Ruth 4:11-12). Perhaps immigration and social cohesion issues were as complex and varied in ancient Israel as they are for us today.

What can take from all this, for our thinking and actions as Christians in response to the issues around migration in the UK (and across Europe) today? Old Testament laws are not binding upon Christians, and still less upon the modern secular nation state. But those laws do reflect the first ever contextual attempt to live in obedience to God (by the people of Israel) and they also reflect something of God’s character. And so they can inform advocacy by Christians towards government policy, as well as action by churches. There is a concern for social cohesion and for the integration of the outsider, as well as for the social protection of the vulnerable migrant. There is however no obvious awareness of multiculturalism in the modern sense.

The New Testament

At first glance, the New Testament doesn’t appear to provide us with much help. Jesus’ short three-year ministry stands in stark contrast to the centuries of history we read about in the Old Testament. The apostolic letters to the churches scattered across the Roman Empire address the concerns of small and nascent Christian communities afloat in a sea of empire, rather than issues relating to national governance or civic community relations.

However, we could note that Jesus had his own early life experience as an asylum seeker (Matt 2:13-21), when his parents fled to Egypt from Bethlehem to escape Herod’s murderous paranoid rage. We don’t know if he was granted full refugee status, but on balance it seems unlikely. In his teaching, in the well-known parable of the sheep and the goats (Matt 25:31-46), he commends those who welcome the stranger. We use this Greek word xenos in our word xenophobia, and the inference in clear. Jesus expects us to welcome the foreigner, not to reject him or her.

“As citizens of heaven, live in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” (Php 1:27)
“Our citizenship is in heaven” (Php 3:20)

These two brief statements come from Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. In the first century AD, Philippi was a Roman colony near Thessalonica. It was populated by Roman ex-legionaries who on retirement had been given land around the city and who served as army reservists on the imperial frontier. Few, if any, Jewish people lived there. There was no synagogue for Paul to speak in (his usual practice) and there are few allusions to the Old Testament in his letter (since it would be unknown and meaningless to Paul’s readers). The language of the city was Latin, not Greek, and it was proud of its Roman identity. Just how important this Roman identity was can be illustrated by the consequences of Paul and Silas’ first visit there (Acts 16:12-24). Following the conversion of Lydia, Paul performs an exorcism on a fortune-telling slave. Distressed at their loss of a profitable income stream, her owners protested; “these men are Jews and are throwing our city into an uproar by advocating customs unlawful for us Romans to accept or practice” (v20-21). On both this occasion and later, Paul used his Roman citizenship to good effect. Imprisoned on a public order offence as a consequence of the above riot, the magistrate has to appease Paul when he learns that both Paul and Silas are both Roman citizens (Acts 16:35-39). This same citizenship later allowed him to escape a public flogging (and probable summary execution) in Jerusalem (Acts 22:22-29).

The power of Paul’s injunction to the Philippian believers thus becomes apparent. Loyal citizens who had been rewarded well for their service to Rome, Paul twice reminds them not to be too tightly bound to their national and local loyalties. This seems to me that it can sum up what is foundational to a Christian response to the kind of contemporary migration described above. Israel, as a migrant nation, was to show kindness to migrants. Jesus, whom we follow, was an asylum seeker himself. And Paul, the Roman citizen, recognised that he had bigger loyalties.

What then should we do?

God’s people are those who, like Abraham, are on the move, not rooted to this earth (Heb 11:8-10,14-16). We are expected to show kindness and compassion to the vulnerable, including the foreigner among us. In the light of this, how should Christians and churches respond?

Acceptance and friendship would seem to be a priority. I used to live near London, and had two Polish families among my near neighbours. They were keen to chat, to improve their English, and to accept hospitality when offered. Research indicates that what recent Polish migrants to the UK want among other things is acceptance by and friendship with the natives (that’s us, by the way). At the same time, a significant number of Pakistani families lived nearby and I coached a number of their children at football at a local primary school. This helped to establish relationships that continued with those boys for many years. Hospitality, it would seem, is an underappreciated and yet vital Christian ministry for those who wish to welcome the stranger. Churches can also provide help with English classes, as well as advice and guidance on access to welfare and housing services. Many migrants are very vulnerable in the event of personal setbacks, as they do not always have the knowledge or the social networks to support them through such times.

Perhaps our attitude and our behaviour can be summarised by Mathetes (“A Disciple”), the writer of the second-century AD Letter to Diognetus;

“(Christians) live in their own countries, but they do so as those who are just passing through. As citizens they participate in everything with others, yet they endure everything as if they were foreigners. Every foreign land is like their homeland to them, and every land of their birth is like a land of strangers” (Ep. Diog. 5).

As I read numerous calls on social media for us to pull together and work, post-Brexit, to make Britain ‘great’ again[vi], my reading of the New Testament and of early Christian writings suggests that such forms of nationalism are ill-becoming of us as Christians. Mathetes summarises in three short sentences an attitude, drawn from Old and New Testaments alike, which can inform, guide and correct us as we try, in the words of Gandalf[vii], to live well in the times we have been given.

Richard Tiplady

[v] The quarter million French people living and working in London, mainly in financial services, do not count because they are neither indigenous or settled
[vi] Not only do the unconscious echoes of Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” rhetoric make this unsettling, it draws on a common misunderstanding of the meaning of the term ‘Great Britain’. It’s a geographical term (referring to the largest of the British Isles), not a qualitative one. I blame the parents. And the teachers. And the media (probably).

Jamming a spoke in the wheels

Jamming a spoke in the wheels


Overturning unjust and oppressive structures (Luke 1:46-55, especially v51-53)

This final approach (of four) to Christian social transformation appears at first glance to be similar to the Reformed / transformative approach. But it is more radical and more confrontational; not transforming but overturning, not renewing but replacing. Of the four, it tends to be the least appealing to evangelicals, who tend to be socially conservative, but it has clear biblical support and so is a challenge to all of us who claim to accept biblical authority.

Mary’s song has strong Old Testament precedents, with the people crying out to God and the prophets railing against exploitation and oppression, all of them expecting God’s intervention on behalf of the poor, whether in psalms like Ps 73; 85; 86, or prophetic passages like Isa 1:18-25. The same emotion lies behind Mary’s song, with the Jewish people under Roman rule, the most powerful empire of the known world. Having previously been under Babylonian, Persian and Greek rule for 500 of the past 600 years (with only glimpses of freedom), they were longing for God to intervene and deliver them.

How does this affect us in the UK today? Perhaps less than it used to, although one does not have to go far back into history to find parallels. Robert Tressell’s novel “The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists”, which recounts the woes of exploited workers during the laissez-faire capitalism of early twentieth-century Edwardian England, was one of the most widely-read books by British soldiers during the Second World War, and is credited with playing a powerful role in post-war demands for a universal welfare state. Neither should the Christian socialist foundations of the UK’s Labour Party be overlooked. Perhaps the closest parallels today lie in unequal global trading relationships? There will be some who think that UK politics is heading in the kind of direction that might require such an approach closer to home as well.

Issues of injustice and exploitation can be complex, hard to understand and hard to decide what to do for the best. The challenge to the church is to keep the Old Testament prophets (and Mary’s song) in mind, and to have the courage to challenge and confront similar injustices today. As the German theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “We are not simply to bandage the wounds of victims caught beneath the wheels of injustice. We are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself”.


Earlier in this posts, I described churches as “communities of personal and social transformation”, empowering individuals to seek or work for transformation in their workplaces, neighbourhoods and families, with churches as bodies doing the same in their towns, nations and worldwide.

As we have seen, there are different ways of doing this – showing compassion and caring for those in need, working to transform politics and community life, demonstrating an alternative community, and confronting and overturning injustice. All four have strengths and weaknesses; all four have biblical support. All four should be in evidence in the mission of the church in Scotland today.

Richard Tiplady

The Church as an Alternative Community

The Church as an Alternative Community


“You are the light of the world” (Matt 5:14)

Christians are comfortable with the idea that Jesus is the light of the world (Jn 8:12). What is rather more challenging is the fact that he also described his followers as such, and as a city on a hill, which cannot be hidden. This is a solemn challenge, and one in which our lives together as his disciples matter a great deal, which is probably why it gets so much attention in the New Testament (e.g. Jn 17; Acts; Romans; 1 Corinthians; Galatians; Ephesians). We should also pause to note that Jesus said “you are …..”, not “you might be ….”.

The desire for transformative social impact is laudable, but our world is deeply fallen, corrupt, and under the influence of the evil one. It exhibits a brokenness that strongly resists being ‘fixed’. Utopian dreams often fall far short and become oppressive themselves.

In such a context, the church is an alternative community. We bear witness by who we are, not by what we do. There is a strong Anabaptist heritage to this idea, although it goes back to the early church itself, wherein the early Christians shared all their possessions and sold property in order to give to those in need (Acts 2:44-45). The North African theologian Tertullian wrote about Christians thus; “See how they love one another, and how ready they are to die for one another” (Apology 39.7), and the last pagan Roman emperor Julian the Apostate (who ruled briefly from AD361-363) wrote the high priest of Roman paganism to complain, “These impious Galileans not only feed their own poor, but ours also!”.

The main idea is that rather than trying to change the world through effort, one tries to influence it by showing an alternative. Often pacifist and non-violent, it tries to live by the Sermon on the Mount. It focuses on the cross of Christ, and on weakness and suffering (e.g. 2 Corinthians). And it is powerfully influential, as shown by the impact of just three people – Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Mother Teresa.

But the focus on community purity can easily degenerate into petty legalism, as the subsequent history of many early Anabaptist communities demonstrates. Jesus said the same when he criticised the Pharisees for tithing their dill and cumin while neglecting the weightier matters of the Law, such as justice, mercy and faithfulness (Matt 23:23). Perhaps this broken, fallen, corrupt and resistant world needs a more radical approach to change?

How do we create vibrant and human urban spaces?

How do we create vibrant and human urban spaces?


Stories and The City is a London-based initiative that attempts to promote the betterment of urban life by unearthing narratives that creatively expose experiences of both health and malaise that are part of the challenges encountered in any city sphere.  Their promotional material helpfully suggests that ‘a key principle of vibrant urban spaces is human scale and a sense of distinct character.’  Some of the more daunting aspects of city-dwelling certainly affirm that this is true, especially when the correlations between what enhances a sense of distinct character and the necessary humanness that accompanies it are so easily dwarfed by massive and (too often) mundane architecture, transport systems that unavoidably cater to cattle-like flow of bodies, systems technologies that can only account for numerical and, thus, monetary value, and so forth.

Noble aspirations of encouraging more ‘human scale’ functions and a variety of singular characteristics that define it are well and good, and are, admittedly, much needed in neighborhood cultures (local spaces and relationships) that are heavily influenced by urban realities.  The question, however, is whether or not such good and laudable objectives are achievable, and if so, how?  I want to suggest that theologically-laden contributions to concerns for the city ought to be resoundingly affirmative as long as the how side of the equation includes God’s triple focus on heart and spirit and Spirit.

This is precisely one of the burdens that the prophet Ezekiel carries in his message to Israel from Yahweh (יְהוִה אֲדֹנָי), the prophet’s favorite name for God that purposefully insists on the addition of ‘Lord.’  The ‘Lord God’ addresses the mountains of Israel in Ezekiel 36:1-2, that are further and pejoratively referred to by her enemies as ‘the everlasting heights,’ clearly reminiscent of Babel.  There is little question but that Hebraic use of the mountain metaphor (יִשְׂרָאֵל הָרֵי-אֶל) has urban prowess in view and, in fact, the enemies are correct in that the language of duration (‘everlasting’) and grandeur (‘heights’) carry clear overtones of hegemony that is too often the power-projection of any city.

It is in this context that the Lord God is concerned about vindicating the holiness of his great name (36:23), and thus he promotes the anticipation of a new covenant that is actually triadic in nature, involving human transformation that is described as a new heart and a new spirit (36:26), but also the result of the indwelling of his own Spirit (רוּחִי-וְאֶת) (‘My Spirit) that characterizes a collective people of distinctive faith.  However, a creational goal of renewing what could be thought of as ‘human scale’ attributes is surprisingly included by the prophet when the Lord God promises to ‘remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.’   The problem, from divine perspective, is not that the populace has become too human, but that they are not human enough.  The heart of stone (הָאֶבֶן לֵב-אֶת) is replaced with a heart of flesh (בָּשָׂר לֵב).  City hegemony that too often and too easily defies God has produced calcified people.

We are talking, of course, about spiritual renewal that works from inside out, especially as it has significant impact on urban structures and experiences.  It calls for a triple focus on the human heart and the human spirit and the Spirit of God himself precisely because God, in fact, is greatly invested in what accounts for the human scale of things.  I contend that it is only this investment (theologically verified) that can ever actually promote and enhance the distinctive character of urban localities and situations that are set free from the common default to what could be minimally labeled as the banal and monotonous.  It is, after all, not unlikely that the Apostle Paul had Ezekiel in mind when he reminds us that ‘where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.’ (2 Cor.3:17).

Wes White

A Taxing Challenge

A Taxing Challenge


In my home Church, we are working through the book of Luke and this Sunday we were looking at Luke 12: 32-34, which reads:

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father is well pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide yourselves purses that do not wear out—a treasure in heaven that never decreases, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

For most of us, the final phrase is very familiar, however the challenge of the opening verse is often forgotten and so it was with some irony that after looking at these verses, I went home and turned on the news. The key news report was on the Government’s motion, currently going through the House of Lords, to reduce Working Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit, systems put in place for the poorest in society. The proposals would mean that as soon as someone earns £3,850 (rather than the current £6,420) their Working Tax Credit would reduce, which given the current National Minimum Wage means that only those who work less than 11 hours a week would receive the full amount, however given that currently you must be working at least 16 hours to be eligible, then no-one is likely to receive the full amount.


As a policy, therefore these changes contrast quite dramatically from the call to ‘sell your possessions and give to the poor’. As Christians we need to consider how we will be counter-cultural, how can we move from a culture that longs to hoard for a rainy day, but rather sell our possessions, even becoming vulnerable in order to give to the poor. This is more than just giving our loose change, but a sacrificial giving that is modelled by Jesus Christ himself.


It is no accident that this call to sacrificial giving is preceded by the statement that ‘your Father is well pleased to give you the kingdom’, as this giving of the kingdom was a sacrificial act, in which his Son was brutally crucified in order that we could be given this kingdom. If we are the recipients of such a wonderful gift, then surely we should take seriously this challenge of sacrificial giving to the poor.