The divine actor

We are in the last times before Jesus returns again writes Evangelical Christian Alex Monro

Evangelical ("good news") Christianity celebrates a God of speech and action who is involved in the world. Evangelicalism puts God at centre-stage in the drama of human history, which it depicts as a story of unrequited love.

This God spoke to humanity through history in a crescendo of revelation that climaxed in the life, words, death and resurrection of Jesus.

Evangelicals believe God's authorship of the universe is already communicated to us in the order, complexity and beauty of the material world. Moreover, he has made himself known through a people he chose, through prophets he appointed and, finally, through Jesus of Nazareth, "the word made flesh". (The biblical God is Trinitarian, father, son and spirit - from the first book of the Old Testament God often uses the first person plural and Genesis 1 verse 2 refers to the spirit of God "hovering over the waters" - but the perfect unity of the three persons means he can only be counted as one God).

God's authorship of all is the essence of evangelical faith. Hebrews 12:2 described Jesus as "the founder and perfecter of our faith". We believe that life, salvation and hope come from him.

Humanity plays its part in this divine drama too, but as Goneril, the ungrateful daughter who takes all her father gives him before turning her back to him. No prayers, pilgrimages, religious observance, social action or costly acts of generosity can mitigate humanity's guilt before this perfectly just God. This is the low point in the history of God's world, and the hallmarks of it are plain - discord, decay and death.

God is far from finished with mankind, however, and chooses Abraham as the first player in a new plan for the fallen creation - Abraham has righteousness "credited to him" by God because of his faith (and, crucially, before he is circumcised). The books of the Old Testament tell the stories of many such men and women of faith, and Hebrews 11 lists a number of them for us - Abel, Enoch, Noah, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Rahab and others. The writer of Hebrews says they were approved thanks to their faith in God, not to their works or ethnicity - yet even faith is from God, as Paul's letter to the Ephesians explains: "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith - and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God - not by works, so that no one can boast"

But all these sinners are only a shadow of the climax of God's earthly play, which comes to life with an unprecedented deus ex machina that flies in the face of human religiosity. God the son becomes man, is born in a disreputable town, lives as a refugee among an occupied people in a far corner of the Roman Empire and is unjustly killed as a common criminal, rejected by his followers and his friends. He is the antithesis of a manmade God - earthly political ambition (such as Zionism) is not a feature of truly evangelical Christianity.

This shameful death is Jesus' crowning glory, as he himself pays the blood price for the sins of those who rejected his rule and his plan. He does it for no good reason, except that his justice and his love demand it as the only solution. The result is that Christ takes on human sinfulness so that humanity can take on Christ's purity, and be restored to God. The biblical accounts describe how, at the moment Jesus breathed his last, the temple curtain that had divided sinful man from a perfect God is torn in two. The curtain, it says, is torn from above - humanity has done nothing to earn its salvation. The resurrection is the display of God's final victory over sin and over its Siamese twin, death.

The play has reached its penultimate act. Christ has risen and returned to the father and these are "the last times" before he returns again. It is in these last times that Christians are called to take to heart Jesus' final words to his closest followers. "Go and make disciples of all nations", before God calls human history to an end so that justice can finally be done and followers of his "from every nation, tribe, people and language" be brought into his presence forever.

Alex studied French, then Chinese before pursuing a career in journalism. He now works for Trusted Sources, a political and economic risk consultancy, where he is a China analyst
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Murder by numbers: the legacy of the Grenfell Tower fire

It is difficult to refute the reality of suffering when the death toll is still being reckoned.

How do we measure human malice? Sometimes it’s all too easy. This summer, British cities are struggling through the aftermath of successive terrorist attacks and hate crimes. The Manchester bombing. The Westminster Bridge murders. The London Bridge atrocity. The attack on people outside the Finsbury Park Mosque in north London and on other mosques. The unidentified young men who are still at large in the capital after spraying acid in the faces of passers-by, mutilating them.

In Britain, we are commendably resilient about these things. Returning to London after some time away, I found my spirits lifted by an issue of the London Evening Standard magazine that celebrated the ordinary people who stepped in to help after these atrocities. The paramedics who worked through the night. The Romanian chef who offered shelter in his bakery. The football fan who took on the London Bridge terrorists, screaming, “Fuck you, I’m Millwall!” The student housing co-ordinator who rushed to organise board for the victims of the inferno at the Grenfell Tower and their families.

Wait. Hold on a second. One of these things is not like the others. The Grenfell Tower disaster, in which at least 80 people died, was not a terrorist or malicious attack. It was the result of years of callous council decisions and underinvestment in social housing. On 14 June, entire families burned alive in their homes partly because, it is alleged, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea would not pay the extra £5,000 or so for fire-resistant cladding. Nor could it find the cash, despite a budget surplus, to instal proper sprinkler systems on the rotting interior of the building.

Kensington and Chelsea is a Tory borough that, in cash terms, cares very little for poorer citizens who are unlikely to vote the right way. In 2014, while the Grenfell Tower residents were refused basic maintenance, the council handed out £100 rebates to its top-rate taxpayers, boasting of its record of “consistently delivering greater efficiencies while improving services”. Some of those efficiencies had names, and parents, and children.

This is a different sort of depravity altogether. It’s depravity with plausible deniability, right up until the point at which deniability goes up in flames. Borrowing from Friedrich Engels, John McDonnell described the Grenfell Tower disaster as “social murder”. The shadow chancellor and sometime Jack Russell of the parliamentary left has never been known for his delicate phrasing.

Naturally, the Tory press queued up to condemn McDonnell – not because he was wrong but because he was indiscreet. “There’s a long history in this country of the concept of social murder,” he said, “where decisions are made with no regard to the consequences… and as a result of that people have suffered.”

It is difficult to refute the reality of that suffering when the death toll is still being reckoned from the towering tombstone that now blights the west London skyline.” As the philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote, “The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.”

Market austerity is no less brutal for being bloodless, calculating, an ideology of measuring human worth in pennies and making cuts that only indirectly slice into skin and bone. Redistributing large sums of money from the poor to the rich is not simply an abstract moral infraction: it kills. It shortens lives and blights millions more. Usually, it does so in a monstrously phlegmatic manner: the pensioners who die early of preventable diseases, the teenagers who drop out of education, the disabled people left to suffer the symptoms of physical and mental illness with nobody to care for them, the thousands who have died on the waiting lists for state benefits that they are perfectly entitled to, the parents whose pride disintegrates as they watch their children go to school hungry.

We are not encouraged to measure the human cost of austerity in this way, even though there are many people in back offices making exactly these sorts of calculations. This year, when researchers from the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine claimed that “relentless cuts” to the health service could explain as many as 30,000 “excess deaths” in England and Wales in 2015, the government denounced this as “a triumph of personal bias over research”, which, however you slice it, is a callous prep school debater’s response to the reality of 30,000 fresh graves.

There is a species of evil in which an individual allows the dark and yammering corners of his mind to direct him to put a blade in a bystander’s belly, or a bomb in a bustling crowd of teenage girls. That sort of monstrosity is as easy to identify as it is mercifully rare, though frighteningly less rare than it was in less febrile times. But there is another sort of evil that seldom makes the headlines. This comes about when someone sits down with a calculator and works out how much it will cost to protect and nurture human life, deducts that from the cost of a tax rebate for local landowners or a nice night at the opera, then comes up with a figure. It’s an ordinary sort of evil, and it has become routine and automated in the austerity years. It is a sort of evil, in the words of Terry Pratchett, that “begins when you begin to treat people as things”. 

The Grenfell Tower disaster was the hellish evidence of the consequences of fiscal ruthlessness that nobody could look away from. Claims that it could not have been predicted were shot down by the victims. The residents’ association wrote on its campaign website after years of begging the council to improve living conditions: “It is a truly terrifying thought but the Grenfell Action Group firmly believe that only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord.”

That catastrophic event has happened, and the ordinary British response to tragedy – brave, mannered dignity – is inappropriate. When the Grenfell inquiry launches next month, it is incumbent on every citizen to call for answers and to call this kind of travesty by its name: murder by numbers.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder