In a wedding with a beautiful A-list celebrity cast, an aging Episcopalian Bishop, Michael Curry, stole the headlines with a passionate address about love. Why did he capture attention? Clearly he inspired many of the millions of listeners with that address, but what does it all mean?
The first question is relatively simple to answer. The Bishop, despite his Episcopalian denomination being known for staid tradition, addressed the audience of a royal wedding with the passion and zeal of a pentecostal preacher. It was always going to raise a few eyebrows and cause some amusement. (Episcopalian is basically the American branch of the Church of England incidentally.)
Moreover his message of love was hopeful, uplifting and timely.
Michael Curry’s sermon drew plaudits from across the board. According to The Sun Newspaper Michael Curry “Stole the show”. According to The Guardian the sermon will “Go down in history”. According to the Daily Mail, Curry was the “breakout star” of the wedding. The Daily Telegraph said he “stole the show” The Independent described him as “stunning” The Daily mirror picked up on Harry’s comment “wow”.
Notice how broad that appeal is? Broadsheet, tabloid, left, right…universal acclaim.
That, in this day and age of polarised politics is a really rather extraordinary thing, and deserves some consideration. What is going on here? It is unusual enough for a vicar to get any plaudits, let alone from across the board.
I think different people liked it for different reasons. It would be dangerous to assume that your friend who re-posts this sermon on facebook is doing so for the same reason that you are.
Committed, Bible believing, church-going Christians across the country were just pleased to see someone speak with passion and enthusiasm about matters of faith and make the world just sit up and take notice of a vicar in a positive way for once. Vicars are not usually on the front page of newpapers for happy news. Christians with wildly differing theologies from Curry’s are likely to at least commend him on that. Curry, while being known as something of a radical in many of his views, wisely kept the majority of what he said within the realm of that which is universally agreed on by all Christians, (at least on the most accommodating interpretation of his words he was orthodox).
All such Christians passionately believe that Christianity has love at its very centre, and many would maintain that, in fact, love is uniquely central to the Christian faith more than any other faith, and an “advert” for Christianity which laboured that “unique selling point” could surely only be a good thing.
They should be wary of Matthew 10:16 here though. “Look, I am sending you out like sheep among wolves; therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.”
An innocent message of love in the complex world of media and politics just isn’t that simple. They might want it to be, but it isn’t. Before the sermon was even off Curry’s lips, it was already a pawn in a wider political game. Curry hasn’t got the plaudits he has for this sermon simply because people across the board thought it was a great piece of oratory. It’s more complex than that.
For example, those who see everything through the lens of identity politics just loved seeing a black man lecture the white privileged classes on racism, talk about slavery and quote MLK in the most privilege of white privileged environments: A royal wedding. The internet is already full of memes laughing at the “shocked” faces of the royals. The aforementioned Daily Mirror article couldn’t resist a dig of that nature either. While an element of the humour is good-willed, there is also a meanness, a gloating, in some of those memes. Given this was a sermon about universal love, the fact that the very first thought of many is to weaponise it into snide internet memes against the royals or the “privileged” is unfortunate.
Some who had done a little bit more homework on Curry may even have been commending him because they know him to be “on their side” politically. Ed Miliband tweeted appreciatively Curry could “almost make him a believer”. I wonder, do we think Miliband was aware that Curry is an outspoken critic of Donald Trump? I suspect so, or, at least, do we suppose Miliband would not have tweeted appreciatively of him were Curry a supporter of Donald Trump, as many evangelical Christians in the USA are?
Which feeds into, perhaps, why Curry has managed to achieve such universal acclaim from both Left and Right in the media for this sermon.
A lot of “identity politics” boxes were ticked for people on the left which made them like Curry almost irrespective of what he said.
The right who generally champion the religious establishment were keen to have something good to report about religion for once, and as Curry was smart enough to keep his less orthodox views out of direct attention in his address, they were happy to draw a veil over them also.
The Curry Address In a Nutshell
So what did he really say?
I’d say his 13 minute address can boil down to three elements:
- That love is a powerful force in the world because it comes from God.
- That Jesus was sacrificial in his death and that this was “love”
- That if “Love was the way” in every aspect of the systems of this world (government, finance, business) then we would have a “new earth”.
He only very lightly touched on (2), so, it’s really impossible to establish from the sermon itself what he may or may not have meant by it. I can draw my own conclusions from a wider study his theology, but a casual listener need not take much more from what he said on this point than Jesus gives us a good example of a loving sacrificial life and death. That’s potentially a problematic oversight, but we shall return to that later.
That leaves us with (1) and (3).
I could boil this down further to simply this:
Love is powerful and good because it is a force that comes from God, and if everyone loved each other completely, and all our systems and structures of society perfectly reflected that love, the world would be a much much better place.
I don’t think I’m missing anything substantial from Curry’s sermon in that last sentence. Beautiful oratory and enthusiasm aside, essentially this is what Curry communicated. I have no qualms with what Curry is saying here as far as it goes, but, it leaves a lot unsaid, and what was left unsaid is crucial.
What Curry left out
One thing about Curry’s sermon, is you will get no clue from Curry on why Christians deem it important to go to Church on Sunday, or pray, or read the Bible, or sing songs of Worship to God. i.e. You will get no clue of why one would do anything which is distinctively Christian rather than merely good. Curry tells us we should all love each other more, but it’s not at all apparent, at first glance, why the Church, or Christianity should have any kind of monopoly on that, or even any particular greater insight then those outside it.
I can see how Curry’s sermon might encourage one to give to charity, or try to be a nicer person. I fail to see any reason why it might make someone think there was something to be gained from going to church. That might not necessarily be a failing, but it seems a point worth making.
Part of the reason Curry’s sermon was so popular is that, the message, as simplified above, is basically uncontroversial. You would struggle to find anyone who disagreed with it. An atheist would quibble at the idea that the power of love derives from God, but the thrust of the message isn’t really altered if you remove that aspect.
And one of the reasons why few would bother to disagree with it, is because it doesn’t cost anything to agree with that message in principle. David Beckham, Elton John, Camilla and the Queen, and Megan’s mum and a a billion people all around the world can all nod sagely and agree with phrases like “When love is the way, then no child will go to bed hungry in this world ever again“, but tomorrow the world will still be exactly the same, and children will still be hungry.
Curry wants us to imagine a world in which there is a love so wide that all of humanity is caught up in it, and our courts, schools, hospitals and everything down to our train services run on it, but we all know, deep down, what the problem with this is:
Think about the one person you love most in the world. Your spouse, your parents, your children. Now, you can probably think of some way in which you have failed to love them as properly or fully as you ought to have done within the last month.
In fact, if you really raise the bar, if you raise the standard of love to which you aspire, you can probably think of some way in which you could have loved them better within the last week, or even the last day than you have in fact done.
And that’s only how you have failed by your own standards of love. Imagine how far below the bar you have fallen if you were to be measured against a standard of perfect love, of perfect self-sacrifice.
Maybe you are reading this, and you don’t have a “significant other” that you love. Well, consider even yourself, most of us fail to even treat ourselves as well as we know we ought to. Have you given up junk food yet? Quit smoking like you told yourself you would do?
Curry wants us to run the world on pure sacrificial love indefinitely. Yet, we can barely even conduct our own households, or even ourselves on principles of sacrificial love for a straight 24 hours without screwing it up. What good is the advanced lesson Curry is teaching when we fail at even the elementary one?
I think we all know this. This is part of why Curry’s imagining of a New Earth where “Love is the way” is so popular, it’s not challenged by anything remotely close to reality. Despite his warning at the outset to not sentimentalize love, is that not exactly what we find ourselves doing here?
Suppose Curry had, instead of loftily imagining a whole new earth based on love, brought this down to the nuts-and-bolts level of the mundane lives of individuals. Suppose he had simply implored people that they really ought, for example, to just try loving their spouses a little better than they currently do? To give them more time and help more with household chores and to redouble your commitments to being faithful and sticking with your marriage even if it’s on the rocks or not nearly as enjoyable as you wish it to be, and divorce would seem easier and better for all involved. Would his sermon have been anywhere near as well received then?
I suspect not. If he took that tack, he’d have been cast as a moralising busybody, and people would ask “how dare he presume to speak into my unique circumstances?.”
You see what is happening here? What Curry proposes is like a Monet painting: Beautiful at a distance, but a mess when viewed up close. The same principle of sacrificial love which looks so attractive when held at arms length as a model for world government, is hard to be as enthusiastic about up close; when you apply it to the governance of your own household. It is nothing like as pleasant when you have to volunteer clean up the living room carpet after the the cat has been sick out of sacrificial love as it is to imagine a world of sacrificial love in the abstract.
We all know this is true of ourselves. We all know it’s why new years resolutions rarely make it to the end of January. We all know it’s why, even though you love your children dearly, you probably harbour some guilt or paranoia that you’re not as good a parent as you should be. We all know that it is why, beautiful and in love as they clearly are, the national statistics suggest there is a 42% chance that the Royal Marriage will end in divorce.
None of this made it into Curry’s address. Perhaps because one wouldn’t want to put a “downer” on a wedding day, but Curry himself told us we must not over sentimentalize love, and all of this is very much part of the reality of what needs to be addressed if “love is the way”.
He left the audience marveling at the beauty of the picture he painted. He left it as a goal that we should be aiming for, and it is good, and right, and proper that we do this. We need to fully envisage the beauty of what Curry is describing fully in order to fully appreciate the gravity and sadness of what needs to be said next, the part that Curry did not go on to say. The depressing “reality check:
The Reality Check
That utopia Curry spoke of? It’s not going to happen. Not ever. Not within this realm of existence at least. We cannot try hard enough, as a human race to make it happen, and even if we could, we will not, because we don’t really want to. You don’t want to, and I don’t want to. Not really. Not left to our own devices. We might think we want to. We might want to want to, but even that is beyond us a lot of the time.
Somewhere, some element of self interest, pride, conceit, corruption, arrogance or deceit will ruin it. Let us not kid ourselves that it will be “one bad apple” who spoils it for everyone. No, it’s the cumulative effect of all our failings which means that any enterprise humanity undertakes is ultimately always doomed to fail in the long run.
It is as if something is fundamentally broken, as if there is a fundamental bug in the system that just won’t be eradicated, no matter how times we build the system up in different ways. The more wonderful the system seems, the more catastrophically it goes wrong.
After World War I, the League of Nations was formed “to promote international co-operation and to secure international peace and security”. A quite wonderful idea, but within 25 years 50 million people would be dead from World War II.
Oxfam, was founded as the Oxford committee for Famine relief in 1942 by Quakers to relieve the plight of the starving citizens of Greece. Its intentions could not have been more honourable, and were all the more remarkable for arising in Britain during the height of World War II and rationing at home. Yet in 2010 its staff sexually abused women in Haiti while its CEO took home a six figure salary.
The litany of organisations and structures founded on good intentions which at best, failed, and at worst actively produced evil, is long and distinguished. Ultimately it’s always for the same reason; the failures of the people who run such systems, which always seem to spoil things.
The Software Bug in Humanity: Sin
Christianity has a word for this bug. It calls it “sin”. Sin is an intensely “religious” word, but the phenomenon that Christianity is really describing when it uses that word, is surely objectively true to anyone, irrespective of their religious persuasion: There is a kind of moral entropy at work in the human heart, we tend to fall to the lowest baseline standard of moral acceptability in any given circumstance, and only by will of effort do we temporarily rise above this, and often we fail to do so.
Humanity’s moral triumphs are infrequent peaks on a plataeu of moral mediocrity, with all too frequent chasms to the moral abyss.
And it is this “sin”, this fundamental flawed aspect of human behaviour, which prevents us from ever attaining the world where “Love is the way”. That is the problem to which the Christian Gospel claims to the the answer.
So it is in this sense, that I rather think the Christian Gospel really starts at the point Curry stopped.
Curry used the word “love” 67 times in 13 minutes. Once every 12 seconds. That’s impressive. The entire gospel of John only manages to use the word Love around 57 times. However, he only used the word “sin” only once in reference to a “sin sick world”.
That is a good term for it. I have spoken of sin as a “software bug” in humanity, but maybe sin is more like a disease within the condition of human society than it is anything else. It is contagious. It spreads. It can cause more symptoms at some times than others, but lurks beneath the skin of even those that appear healthy at the surface.
And it tends to manifest most when seemingly “healthy” individuals undertake an enterprise together. Even a good one. Winston Churchill once opined “You may take the most gallant sailor, the most intrepid airman, or the most audacious soldier, put them at a table together—what do you get? The sum of their fears.”. He was right. The sad reality is that the collective behaviour of human beings when they undertake to form a club, or a society, or charity, or a government, is liable to trend towards the sum of their vices rather than to represent the sum of their virtues.
The science of psychology has demonstrated this with disturbingly repetitiveness. The Milgram experiment and The Stanford Prison Experiment are probably the two best known examples.
What we see in these experiments is that the malevolent behaviour spreads, like a contagious disease in the group, who seem all too readily susceptible to it. Christianity teaches that this disease doesn’t just transmit from individual to individual, it is also like a hereditary illness. We are born into it. It’s innate. It’s already there from the start, handed down all the way from Adam, the first man, (whether you consider him literal or metaphorical is irrelevant to this point.)
What if there was some kind of vaccine that could make one immune, or at least, resistant, to this contagion?
The Christian gospel says there is. It says that the way, ultimately, to immunity from this, is to be a different kind of being altogether. Just as your dog does not catch your cold from you, because the disease cannot cross that species barrier, the cure to sin is to be of a kind of species which sin cannot touch. To be a new kind of man, a new kind of woman. It requires not merely a new will of effort, nor a simple repair job, but an entire re-birth.
Jesus called this being “born again”. In John 3v3 he says “Unless one is born again, he cannot see the Kingdom of God”. By “the Kingdom of God” he means that world where “Love is the way”, the world that Curry invited us to imagine. However, he recognises that the kind of people we currently are cannot get us there.
And if we are to be born again, what must that mean for our old selves? Well, that dies a kind of death. The Apostle Paul expressed this by saying in Galatians 2v20 “I have been crucified with Christ, and I no longer live”.
Which links in to that other rather strange thing that Curry said about Jesus dying to save us. Curry might have left one with the impression that this was merely an example of loving sacrifice, which it was, but that is not, primarily, why it matters in Christianity. The Christian belief is that when Christ died on the cross, and subsequently rose from the dead, he conquered death itself, and thus allows us all to do in a spiritual sense, what he did in a literal one, if we ask for his help to do so: That is, to die and rise again..as new beings.
Not that the Christians believe that this results in a total overnight transformation. Another reason for Jesus using the analogy of birth is because birth results, not in an adult, but a baby. Being “born again” means to be reborn, not in the the fully fledged “New Man” or “new Woman” that God intends for us to be over night, but to be reborn as a “Child of God”. To start to take the first baby steps in a new kind of life which we may scarcely get beyond the adolescent phase of before the end of our lives here on earth.
It also doesn’t mean we are instantly free of all sin in this life, but it does mean that sin is no longer a terminal illness, but a transitory one. It becomes something more like a cold than a cancer. Some of us remain more prone to more colds than others. Occasionally even the best of us can even get a dose of really rotten flu.
This difference matters, because Christianity has in mind the long game. It is about ultimate consequences far more than it is about the here and now, (important thought that may be). Alongside the ability to experience this rebirth, Christians believe that Christ’s defeat of death, by God becoming a man, dying on the cross ,and rising again gives us Eternal Life. That our spiritual new birth is a foretaste of a literal one; of a hope beyond the grave. (John 3:16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life“) And notice that this process, which involved (if we can grasp this) God himself undergoing great pain and loss was an act of Love.
This is the Love which will change the world. I fear that the casual listener of Curry’s address may have been led to believe that Curry thought the world would be changed by the love of one person for another person. It will not…or at least, not until those people are of the kind person that can give and receive love sinlessly. The thing that enables any of this “Way of love” to happen is that God has initiated, by love, and through love, this rebirth process, through the death and resurrection of Christ. This is why, elsewhere in the New Testament it says “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).
Against that backdrop, what matters is the trajectory of our development in this life, not necessarily where we get to. What matters is that we have the fundamental change of direction that this rebirth requires, and are moving and growing in accordance with that rebirth. That we are headed in the right direction, even if we are only taking the first few stumbling toddler-like steps down that path. Until we are “born again” as Christ described, we are very much not headed in the right direction.
The problem is we cannot do any of this until we first really wish to put that old self to death, and we cannot really do that while we continue to think that old self is really actually quite a decent sort of individual just in need of a little tweaking or fixing.
We need to first accept the bad news of how sick we are with this sin-disease, to genuinely ask for God’s help to put that old way of ourselves to a spiritual death and adopt a new way. Which is why the Bible says in 1 John 1v8 “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us”.
Then, and only then, might we be able to “make love the way” and see the Kingdom come that Jesus spoke of, or the “New Earth” as Curry put it.
This is not at all a pleasant thing to take on board. It wouldn’t make the majority of the cast of A-list celebrities at the Royal Wedding nod approvingly and smile. Indeed, it’s so insulting and offensive that a good deal of human history has involved governments and individuals trying to shut people up from spreading this kind message.
A stubbornness to believe that we can fix ourselves by our own efforts, rather than accepting this message is almost part of sin’s self-defence mechanism. An aggressive, often violent reaction against the message that we need to be fundamentally changed nearly always accompanies any individual’s first encounter with the gospel, much like the first dose of a necessary but unpalatable medicine may often induce vomiting before it is the cure to the illness.
All of what Curry envisaged in his sermon cannot and will not come to pass until all of the people of the world have undergone this kind of rebirth which finally does away with this destructive force of sin, and yet there is a tremendous innate resistance within us to the only cure. It is because of this that Christians believe this won’t fully come to fruition until the second coming of Christ when “Every knee will bow” (Romans 14v11)
There are two aspects of how I will conclude this post:
The first is to say, that if all of this is new, yet interesting to you, I strongly recommend reading Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis for a fuller and better explanation than I can possibly manage here. The ideas I have outlined in this blog post, are immeasurably the most important subject this blog has ever tackled.
The second is to those readers for whom this is not new. Those who consider themselves to be in the New Life that I have described, I would simply pose the following:
If really, all hope, the only hope of the world is aimed at getting as many people as possible into that new life, into that rebirth in Christ, then, what really, do we need from our government?
It seems to me, that we need the kind of society which maximises the potential for the communication, the understanding, the receiving, and the acting upon of the Gospel.
- This will certainly need to be a society with the most robust defence possible of free speech. I would go so far as to say that this comes at the expense of almost everything else as a value that the the Christian should support in society. In particular we must be very wary of restriction of free speech on grounds of “offence” in the absence of explicit threat. If offense is to be considered a reasonable limitation on free speech, then the Gospel will be restricted, for it is inherently offensive. If the state is to have nearly any kind of veto over speech, we must expect for that veto to be used against the Gospel at some point by some government.
2. We need a society which defends life maximally and seeks to preserve it, so that as many lives as possible may hear the gospel and come to new life through it.
3. We need a society that maximises literacy, numeracy and the academic disciplines of argumentation, reason and critical thinking, for these will allow for the understanding and defence of the gospel.
4. We need a society which protects the liberty of the individual from the state, rather than one that seeks defence of the individual by the state, because the lesson of history is that, the periods of time when states has been the friend of the Gospel are few and far between. We enjoy a period of a few hundred years of relatively benign interaction between the Church and the western states only by mere accident of history, and my instinct is that time is ebbing away.
5. A secondary aspect for being strongly defensive of individual liberty is that a genuine response to the gospel requires genuine freedom. There is little point in telling a man he is free to leave a room if you have locked all the doors. Liberty of action is inherently tied to freedom of speech anyway, and even if it were not, a society which allows the individual, as far as possible without impeding upon the liberties of others discussed here is required for the most authentic and genuine response possible to the gospel.
6. A society which seeks to defend the five liberties above is almost bound to find itself threatened on its external borders. It must therefore be robust in defence of itself from external threat. It should seek to interact in societies outside itself primarily in a manner which seeks wherever possible to share and encourage the five values listed abroad wherever possible by consent.
This sort of society would, I think, be inherently fertile ground for the gospel, and equally, hospitable to those that choose to reject it. It is, in essence, libertarian.
Finally, what we must not do, is engage in the folly of attempting to build Curry’s new world with the “old” kind of people. We must not think we can build our way to the new world by laws, by legislation, by organisations, by structures. This is the folly of the Tower of Babel. We cannot, ultimately, be successful in that mission.
Even if we could manage it for a short time, it would be of no consequence. Change all of a society, and it will one day be all for nothing. The empires of Egypt and Rome, were once mighty, but are now in the dust, and so shall ours one day be. We should never forget that.
Change one human heart however, with the Gospel, and you have changed something which will last forever.