Monday, June 02, 2008

Bringing a Curse On Ourselves?

I've had a few responses to the paragraph in yesterday's sermon which refers to those people who are experiencing 'social' problems (drug addiction, unwanted pregancies, alchoholism etc) as 'having brought a curse on themselves'.

First let me say thank you to all those who have commented on this issue - either publically by published comment on the sermon (thanks Russell!), or by private question by email. The question people have been asking is whether I've been a bit too hard on people who suffer from those social problems referred to above, by suggesting that they have brought the misery they suffer on themselves. People are suggesting, I think, that I've failed to take account of factors like social context, family upbringing, genetic predisposition etc. Some have suggested that we must view people in these situations as suffering from an illness. They are not, my correspondents suggest, bringing a curse on themselves, as much as they are victims of a social or psychological illness.

Let me try to make what I was saying a little more clear....

First of all, I was attempting to deal with any suggestion that the curse under which such people live is one that is inflicted by God. I was trying to say - and think that I did - that God is a God of blessing, not of curses.

So, assuming that we can all agree with that basic proposition, to where should we look for the curses (of poverty, drug addiction, unwanted pregnancy etc) that people live under? I am more than willing to accept that such conditions are often influenced by social conditions and context. Poverty, for example, is often caused by the selfishness of the wealthy who refuse to re-distribute their wealth. Unwanted pregnancies are often influenced by a the promiscuous atmosphere which is prevalent in much of western society. Alcoholism can certainly be brought about as a result of wanting to escape from an otherwise intolerable situation. To that extent, people suffering from those conditions can most certainly be described as victims, or sufferers. A society which encourages high levels of credit card debt, as well as unfettered access to booze and sex, certainly bears a great deal of responsibility for the curse under which many people live.

However, I don't think that is the whole story. But I also tend to think that it is just too easy to blame our personal circumstances on others. The message of the bible is that we are responsible for the actions we take, and the decisions we make. Gamblers Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous will, I am certain, say that they can only help those who want to help themselves.

There are, of course, certain types of psychoses which render the sufferer completely unable to differentiate, morally, between different types of behaviour. But most people who are in the kinds of situation we are discussing do not suffer from such a psychosis. Most of them are simply people who, in a given circumstance, on a given day, have made a decision to do something that they know was 'wrong' (by which I mean contrary to normal moral law, or to the stated will of God). Perhaps they chose to rack up debt which they know they couldn't really afford. Or they have chosen to allow their drinking to get more and more each day. Or they have chosen to throw caution to the wind when in a sexual encounter.

Let me put it this way. Can you imagine asking a classroom of, say, 14 year olds, whether they thought that borrowing more than you can repay, or drinking 10 pints a day, or sleeping with a non-permanent partner without using contraception was a good idea? I can tell you from personal experience that the VAST majority of 14 year olds would be able to clearly identify all those actions as simply wrong...or at the very least extremely risky.

So what is it that drives so many of them, once they are a little older, to do precisely these things? I beleive that Jesus clearly points to a much more fundamental cause (than simply social conditioning, or genetic predisposition). Jesus says it all comes down to where we place our faith. Do we trust the words of God or would we rather trust the words of the marketing companies? This question is as old as the story of Adam and Eve. Will we be like them - imagining that we know better than God? (That's what the Bible refers to as 'sin'!). Or will we trust him when he says 'Don't touch..."?

I think that it is too easy to be influenced by people like Freud, who essentially claimed that all aberrent behaviour could somehow be linked back to a childhood experience, upbringing or fantasy. In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul famously states that when he became a man, he put away childish things. We need to challenge some people, frankly, to grow up. It is frankly time that we took responsibility for our actions.

I, for example, am genetically and socially pre-disposed to fancy having sex with every good-looking woman I see. But I don't. Why not? Because I make a choice to live live under the rule of the Topsy Turvy Kingdom of God.

In the long run, however, it doesn't actually matter whether the curse that someone lives under is entirely their own fault, or whether society or genetic predisposition bears a part of the blame. As Jesus said (blurring the distinction himself), "is it easier to say 'take up your bed and walk' or 'your sins are forgiven'?" The main thrust of my sermon was meant to be that the Church is called to help those who live under such curses to lift their eyes beyond the rubble and the sand on which they have built, and to introduce them to the Father God who says "don't touch...because I love you"

I'm deeply sorry if I didn't make this more clear in the sermon. Hopefully this response will help! Please feel free to comment further, by clicking on the 'comments' link below.

Best wishes to all,


  1. Anonymous2:50 am

    I'm sorry this has to be an anonymous post, it's not the way I normally like to do things but please believe me that in this instance it's simply the way it has to be.

    As you have opened this up for debate I hope you won't mind me making a couple of comments. I do disagree with a lot of the theology underlying what you said, not least because it appears particularly black and white. For example, the "Stated will of God" seems to me a phrase which neatly sidesteps about 100 years of Biblical scholarship. You demonstrate an astonishing lack of understanding of Freud, writing off an entire scientific discipline with a kind of tabloid word trick ('oh it's all about blaming our upbringing and not taking responsibility') and then go on to say you would like to challenge people to 'grow up' and take responsibility. It seems to me that to 'put away childish things' is also to put away an unrealistic world view in which it is possible always to know the 'stated will of God' and to accurately place blame and responsibility for the brokeness of the world with the right individuals. But my main concern was not the theology. My main and overriding concern was one which someone else hinted at in a comment here but which you didn't answer. My main concern is about the pastoral appropriateness of what you said in that sermon.

    You have just become Team Rector of an inner city church where it is more than likely there are, in your congregation, in that group of people you were talking to, people who will have understood you as saying that they had 'cursed themselves' by their actions. The distinction between whether God curses or whether we bring a curse upon ourselves will have been completely lost on someone sitting in the congregation that evening feeling a flush of shame hearing your words. But worst of all, you did it as if these people weren't there! If you are going to preach about alcoholism, unwanted pregnancy, drug dependency and so on in an inner city church (and no one is saying not to) then you must surely see that it is important to do so with the understanding that those issues are not 'out there', that you have to allow, in what you say, that you may be talking directly to people affected.

    When you describe lives as being built on rubble and sand you are talking about your fellow Christians in North End, the people you will be ministering, not just to, but also with, in the coming years. This is not just an academic debate about theology it is about the way in which words have an effect on people's lives. It is because words have a power to effect people that I am letting a little of my anger show here and not trying to remain on some objective and theologically abstract level. Your words from the pulpit in particular have an added weight and power. I wonder if you can put yourself in the position of a member of your congregation who has recently heard their new leader describe them as living in the rubble and sand of a curse wich they have brought upon themselves. I know you will think, 'thats not what I meant to do' - and that's my point!

    I genuinely do wish you well in this post I would just ask that you grant that in the kind of context in which you are now ministering that your people may know a great deal more about human brokenness than you do - let them teach you what they know.

  2. Hello Anonymous!

    Thanks for taking the time and trouble to contribute to this debate. (Incidentally, it would be great to know who you are - so that we could perhaps take the debate deeper on a one-to-one level. Why not email me at

    I hope you won't mind if I respond to at least some of your points here. let me start by responding to some of your more personal comments about my preaching...

    The first thing I would say is that we might be in danger of repeating (on a much humbler scale!) the recent controversy about the Archbishop's comments on Shariah law - i.e. taking one sentence out of a whole sermon and focusing on it to too great an extent. I think I would want to say that the main thrust of the sermon was that God blesses... that he does not curse... and that the congregation of St Mark's are well placed to help people in this locality to discover God's blessing (see the list of attributes that I see in the congregation, towards the end of the sermon).

    Secondly, I accept that the language of 'cursing' is very difficult language. You would have to ask members of the congregation who heard the sermon whether they thought that (in the context of the Lectionary's choice of reading - Deut 11 - and the sermon as a whole, the balance was about right.) We cannot, I think, pretend that biblical phrases and words don't exist. Moses definitely offered the people a choice between a blessing and a curse. We have to deal with these words and, as I tried to do, treat them where appropriate as metaphor.

    As for the question of who may have been listening, I certainly grant that there is a real possibility that some of my hearers last Sunday might well be those who are directly affected. That certainly does place an onus on me to ensure that offence is not given, and that my words build-up and encourage...not tear-down and destroy. A lot can be achieved in that regard through vocal inflection - and again, you would have to ask someone who actually heard the sermon whether I got that balance right. All I can say is that the sermon was very well received - judging by the comments I received afterwards. But I realise, of course, that those who may have been hurt or offended are not likely to come and thank me. I will certainly bear your comments in mind in the future.

    But that said, let me return to the more substantive issue. You seem to imply in your post that as the new Team Rector I'm a kind of new kid on the block who doesn't know anything about brokenness. To this, I would say that whilst I've spent the last 3 years in the beautiful suburb of Emsworth, the previous 20 years of my working life has been spent in close proximity to such brokenness. I worked for the YMCA for 15 years - in Brixton, and then Portsmouth. I was also, for 20 years, a lay minister in various Urban Priority parishes. And in all those situations, the one consistent theme has been that people choose the path of brokenness, time after time. I have encountered literally thousands of people who when offered the path of support to wholeness (a job, a family, financial security), have chosen to turn the opposite way.

    I fully accept that such people are influenced greatly by the brokenness of the society around them. But to assign all the blame for people's personal decisions onto the society around them simply won't do. Unless I suffer from a psychotic illness, I am responsible for the decisions I make. No-one else.

    Any other analysis becomes like the child caught with their hand in the cookie jar who says 'my sister made me do it'. That surely is the nub of the story of Adam and Eve?

    We might disagree with the Bible's analysis of this condition - but we cannot escape from it. What I mean when I refer to 'the clear message of the Bible' on this topic is that from Genesis (creation) to Revelation (judgment), the Bible consistently tells us that we are responsible for our choices...

    Must go now...but I might come back and add some more to this later today!

    Best wishes

  3. well, oh my, what a ball to have set rolling! sorry Tom ;-)

    There are a couple of things on both sides of this discussion that i'd like to address, the first is the power and choice of language.

    The word "curse" means according to the Chambers dictionary, 'to invoke or wish evil upon; to blaspheme; to afflict with; to damn; to excommunicate.'

    This description is indeed harsh when we apply it to the statement "people bring a curse on themselves by a refusal to live God's way". It's a fire and brimstone approach to the issue of "sin" that i'm not comfortable with. It does i think, as the anonymous commentator put it, make the issues surrounding alcoholism, drug addiction, debt, poverty etc all sound like a very black and white choice of two paths. And i have to agree also that part of "growing up" is a realisation that world is not so easily identifiable as black and white choices, good and bad, blessing and curse - there are always shades of grey just as there is no clear-cut definition of "Truth".
    The word "curse" is so loaded by our modern understanding of it (informed by potent imagery like Folklore witches cursing princessess out of spite for not being invited to a party!) that it is perhaps not helpful in a contemporary discussion about issues of personal choice and responsibility.

    I wouldn't go as far to say that there is no such thing as "sin" or that we shouldn't as individuals take responsibility for our choices and life paths. I whole heartedly agree with you Tom that it is too easy to always blame others for our predicaments, but I would make a distinction between intentionally or knowingly following a road to "sand and rubble" and finding that without intending to you've ended up there anyway. I don't believe that anyone who gets into debt despite knowing they can't afford stuff is actually thinking at the time I'm doing this to damn myself and to excommunicate myself from God. There is in this example, not so much a "sin" taking place, but an accute denial of consequences.

    Tom, you seem very fond of using the example of Adam & Eve (i've seen it a number of times in your blog postings). The 'original sin' of eating an apple from the tree of the knowlege of Good and Evil is certainly an image to conjure with! You will know that it was because of this story that for centuries Women's menstrual cycles have been described as 'the curse' - perhaps another reason not to use the word in a contemporary discussion about forms of brokenness or a rejection of God.
    The idea that sin is imagining we know better than God is an interesting one as it implies that there is a wilful arrogance on the part of Eve when she follows the serpent's suggestion to eat the fruit and that she does not trust God's word about the consequences of doing so. Is it not the case that in every child's life, there comes a point where they defy their father and make a decision or choice for themself? This example of "growing up" and becoming a person who makes decisions for oneself cannot be a sin, surely? If Eve had no prior understanding of death or punishment, why should she pay any heed to the warning about what would happen should she eat the fruit? Could i then summise that God was the arrogant one in this story to have assumed that his word on the matter was good enough! What kind of Father would deliberately put a delicious sweet treat in full view of his kids and say don't touch or else, without half expecting them to do so anyway? I'm not so sure that this Genesis story is so clear cut about the nature of "sin" as it may have been a test to see if Eve was actually ready to grow up and make free-will decisions for herself.(is that the sound of a cat among the pigeons i just heard???) I think the allegorical story of Adam & Eve, is not the best one to illustrate any contemporary discussion about the nature of "sin" or rejection of God.

    I would like to challenge the anonymous commentator however that a new kid on the block of an inner city parish couldn't know as much about brokenness as the people who've been here a while. The issues we face in urban and rural areas may be quite different in many respects, but to assume that someone coming from a rather more well-to-do background or quaint village situation wouldn't know about pain or suffering would be naive.

  4. Hi Russell,

    Thanks for another thought-provoking contribution! Good stuff!

    In many respects I agree with you. You are certainly right when you say that people don't set out to 'cut themselves off from God'. Certainly most self-inflicted/society influenced misery is creeps up on people.

    The key question is 'why'? Secular thought in general would tell us that this happens as a result of a range of external factors (e.g. social and financial circumstances, mental health, genetic pre-disposition). I don't deny the validity of such comments - I am not anti-scientific. But, as a person of faith, I feel it is important to look inwards, as well as outwards, for answers.

    The Bible, of course, addresses both issues - and keeps them in tension. On the one hand, the Bible warns that the 'sins of the parents will be visited on the children unto the seventh generation' - clearly a reference to the ongoing effect of our actions. If I squander all my income, then my family will be directly affected...and the chances are that their families will be as well. Poverty and poor parenting breeds more poverty and poor parenting.

    But, looking inwards, the Bible also asks us to consider our personal responsibility for our actions.

    If I fail to call people to look inwards for answers, then I think I would be failing fundamentally as a priest. If we only look to external factors, we might as well give up the task of being people of faith, and harness ourselves to a purely scientific rationalle. I would want to suggest that there is plenty of evidence to show that purely economic, or social-science-based solutions to society's problems have rarely been shown to be all that effective.

    Just a note on Genesis: Of course I agree with you that the Genesis account is allegorical. But it is a foundational story...and one which we need to ponder more if we are to understand the foundation on which the Jews, and then the Church Fathers, built our understanding of God in Christ. (I'm not saying, by the way, that I've understood it yet...I'm still pondering too!)

    On that topic, I really can't go with your 'cat-among-the-pigeons' suggestion that God was actually trying to see if Adam and Eve were ready to stand on their own two feet. I just don't think we can read that into the text...given his rather extreme reaction to the event! An old Bible-teacher once said to me "What is plain is main - and what is main is plain". I think, if I may say so, that we have to be very cautious of radical re-interpretations of the plain meaning of Scripture (that is, of course, where it is plain...which I willingly grant is not always the case!

    A final comment: I am genuinely grateful to everyone who has contributed to this debate - anonymously or not. I've obviously touched a nerve with this one! Perhaps there might be some interest from folks like you to starting a discussion group in the Parish? I certainly know that I am only feeling my way towards some of the answers about life...and I really value the opportunity to hear what others think!

    Best wishes to all