Monday, 9 May 2011

Making Easter faith visible – some quotes

(from an article by Kathy Galloway, ‘Hope in a time of war: a religious perspective on peacemaking’, Annual Public Lecture of the Movement for the Abolition of War, London, November 11th 2008)

and see also

The Japanese-American theologian Kosuke Koyama writes:
What is love if it remains invisible, inaudible, intangible. ‘Those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.’ The devastating poverty in which millions of children live is visible. Racism is visible. Machine guns are visible. Slums are visible. Starved bodies are visible. The gap between the rich and the poor is glaringly visible. Our response to these realities must be visible. Grace cannot function in a world of invisibility. Yet in our world, the rulers try to make invisible the alien, the orphan, the hungry and thirsty, the sick and imprisoned. This is violence. Their bodies must remain visible. There is a connection between invisibility and violence. People, because of the image of God they embody, must remain seen. Faith, hope and love are not vital except in what is seen. Religion seems to raise up the invisible and despise what is visible. But it is the 'see, hear, touch' gospel that can nurture the hope which is free from deception.1

Bearing witness is about more than just making violence visible. David Stevens, the Leader of the Corrymeela Community in Northern Ireland, writes, (Christians) are called to make this reconciliation visible – visible in terms of a quality of relationships, visible in terms of openness and hospitality. It is a visibility which serves the same purpose as Christ’s visibility, namely, to reveal God and God’s reconciling love. This is true holiness and is the ministry of reconciliation.2 Bearing witness is also about making reconciliation visible, about making alternatives visible.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission,
April 1996, East London, South Africa
On the first day
after a few hours of testimony
the Archbishop wept.
He put his grey head
on the long table
of papers and protocols
and he wept.
The national
and international cameramen
filmed his weeping,
his misted glasses,
his sobbing shoulders,
the call for a recess.
It doesn’t matter what you thought
of the Archbishop before or after,
of the settlement, the commission,
or what the anthropologists flying in
from less studied crimes and sorrows
said about his discourse,
or how many doctorates,
books and installations followed,
or even if you think this poem
simplifies, lionizes,
romanticizes, mystifies.
There was a long table, starched purple vestment
and after a few hours of testimony,
the Archbishop, chair of the commission,
laid down his head, and wept.
That’s how it began.3

1. Kosuke Koyama, from an address given at WCC General Assembly, Harare, 1998.

2. David Stephens, from ‘The Land of Unlikeness: Explorations into Reconciliation', The Columba Press, Blackrock, Co. Dublin, 2004

3. Ingrid de Kok, from 'Terrestrial Things: Poems', Snailpress, Plumstead, South Africa, 2002.

What do we do now?

(notes from a sermon preached in Hodge Hill, 8th May 2011 – on Luke 24:13-35)

In Jewish tradition (in the Talmud), as the Israelites escape through the Red Sea and the waters come crashing down on the Egyptian army, the angels of God burst into songs of praise and celebration. And God silences them: “the works of my hand are drowning in the sea, and you would sing in my presence?”

There has been cheering, singing and flag-waving outside the White House this week, and claims inside it that ‘justice has been done’, because a man has been killed. Assassinated, it seems, quite deliberately. But what has really changed? Al Qaeda lives on, and martyrdom is in their bloodstream. There are threats of revenge attacks already. And what has the USA communicated clearly to the world? That whoever is strongest, wins. The spiral of violence continues. What do we do now?

Much closer to home, in Comet Park, just down the road from where I live, £30,000 of new play equipment was installed, some 6 weeks ago, after a long battle by local residents to get the money and see the results. On Palm Sunday, one of the three pieces, a big climbing frame, was completely destroyed by fire. Last Thursday, the huge 12-seater swing was totally destroyed in a similar way. Destruction seems to have won the day. What do we do now?

The two disciples walking back home to Emmaus are on no gentle afternoon stroll. They are going home because it’s all over. The one they followed, placed their hopes in, has been brutally executed by the authorities. Now they are running for their own lives. Their words to each other are full of fear, grief, and perhaps more than anything, crushing disappointment. “We had though he was the one…” But now he’s dead. It’s all over. What do we do now?

And then someone joins them on the road. A stranger. A strange stranger, by all accounts – one who seems to have missed the recent headline news, but has some challenging things to say of his own. And here’s a small miracle: these crushed, grieving, fearful ex-disciples dare to let this stranger walk with them, open their hearts to him, listen to his strange words, and invite him home to eat with them. This is brave hospitality in deeply troubling times.

And what do they discover? Their stories, as well as their bread, given back to them, broken open, re-told as if a different world had just dawned…

Firstly, that the judgment of the authorities, the ‘powers-that-be’ was wrong – that not justice, but scapegoating, had just happened: that getting rid of the troublesome one to make everyone else feel better; that division of the world into the ‘baddies’ and the ‘goodies’, that turns out to be a lie.

Secondly, that violence, and the powers that rely on death and destruction, don’t have the last word. However much the Empires and the lynch mobs may want to believe they can make full stops, dead ends, they’re deluding themselves. Here is a witness that says “it was inevitable… but…”.

But thirdly, and crucially, this victim returns without the faintest trace of victimhood, resentment, blame or vengeance. He is completely free of that whole destructive game. He returns to those who had given up on him, and to those who had betrayed, denied, judged and executed him too, breathing peace, gratuitously offering new life: ‘open your eyes, turn around, begin again, trust me, love me, follow me…’

This is why we need seven weeks of Eastertide, and year after year of repeating it. It’s barely believable, so alien to common sense, what is being given back to us here: our imaginations are being broken open, slowly but surely, to learn to live this different story.

We follow Jesus by following in the footsteps of those Emmaus disciples. Easter faith begins with a receiving what the risen Jesus offers us. But as Christ’s body, we, the community of Christians, aren’t just passive recipients – our actions and words and ways of living are also deeply shaped, ‘patterned’, by those of the risen Christ himself:

  • coming alongside the grieving, the disappointed and the fearful – in gentle humility, as guest
  • listening to others tell their stories, ‘hearing into speech’ the laments
  • finding God’s grace and imagination to gratuitously ‘give back’ what we have heard, what we have been offered (by our neighbours, even by our ‘enemies’), peacefully, creatively, within a bigger story, in a way that doesn’t close down, but opens up new life between us and beyond us
  • in the journeying, in the listening, in the re-telling, in the breaking of bread, making love visible, to ‘see, hear, touch’…

This ‘making visible’, this ‘telling’, this ‘bearing witness’ is perhaps the core ‘resurrection practice’ for Christians. It begins, often, with lament: making visible, heard, the suffering, the anger, the pain, the crushing disappointment, that is so often hidden, silenced; ‘watering the cracks in dry ground’ with tears shed and shared. And somehow, this lamenting makes space to make visible something new – something creative, hopeful, peaceful – reconciliation, restored community, new creation.

At dusk on Easter Eve, in Comet Park, half a dozen of us from church gathered for our Easter Vigil, making a circle of makeshift seats in the ashes of the burnt-out climbing frame, with lanterns to help us see each other’s faces as the sun went down. We had come armed, with ‘seed-bombs’, the weapon of guerilla gardeners – clay, compost and wild flower seeds – designed to bring splashes of colourful new life to otherwise inaccessible patches of waste ground. And we’d come with stories of hope to share – to remember the possibility of new life, even in the darkness of night. We’d planned to be here several weeks before the fires, but it felt all-the-more right to be here now.

And as we gathered, so too did a group of young people. Muslim young people, as it happened. They had come to the park to play, but they were intrigued by us – not so young, and here with no doubt strange accessories and strange purpose. We tried to explain. And the seed bombs we’d planned to spread around on our ways home, we shared with them, and they went away, with just a little hopeful excitement, it has to be said, that they might be able to grow something, from an unpromising grey ball. We went away, of course, with the great privilege of having made some new friends. One of the stories we told that evening was of a sunflower which once grew on a bomb-site, which was trampled into the ground in a fit of mindless, angry destruction – but which, entirely unexpectedly, a year later, was to leave a patch of waste ground covered in bright yellow life.

Monday, 2 May 2011

Judgment, resurrection and reconciliation

‘He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.’

‘We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.‘ (Nicene Creed)

These two eschatological clauses of the Nicene Creed name the two traditional dimensions of the transition from ‘this world’ to ‘the world to come’: ‘the last judgment’, and ‘the resurrection of the dead’. Miroslav Volf, in a carefully argued article, claims that these two — at least as traditionally conceived — are necessary but not sufficient to transform ‘the existing world of enmity into [in Jonathan Edwards’ phrase] a world of love’.[1]

Volf’s argument begins with Augustine’s conception of the ‘peace’ of the world to come (distilling the eschatological visions of both Hebrew and Christian Scriptures) as being the ‘perfectly ordered and harmonious enjoyment of God and of one another in God’.[2] If, for Augustine, ‘the last judgment’ is about separating ‘the good’ from ‘the bad’, and ‘the resurrection’ about ‘clothing’ weak flesh in immortality, then, Volf argues, ‘either only those who are already fully reconciled in this world could be admitted into the coming world’, or a third dimension to the ‘eschatological transition’ is needed: ‘reconciliation’. The first option, he suggests, is excluded by Augustine’s belief that complete peace is impossible in this life, and so it is the second (not explored by Augustine) which needs developing.[3]

Turning to Luther, who integrates ‘judgment according to works’ into the wider, ‘overarching judgment of grace’, Volf argues that, while ‘the final justification of the ungodly’ would, on its own, ensure that we would meet in the world to come even those whom we have not considered particularly lovable in the present one’, it would not, on its own, mean that we loved them. For that to happen, we would also, in some ‘carefully specified sense’, ‘need to receive ... “justification” from each other’, and more than that, we would ‘need to want to be in communion with one another’. In other words, ‘[t]o usher in a world of love, the eschatological transition would need to be understood not only as a divine act toward human beings but also as a social event between human beings; more precisely, a divine act toward human beings which is also a social event between them.’[4] This Volf terms ‘the final social reconciliation’: ‘the Holy Spirit’s perfecting of the inter-human reconciliation which God has accomplished in Christ and in which human beings have been involved all along in response to God’s call’.[5]

[1]M. Volf, ‘The final reconciliation: reflections on a social dimension of the eschatological transition’, Modern Theology 16:1 (January 2000), 92.

[2]Augustine, The City of God, XIX 17 (quoted in Volf, ‘Final reconciliation’, 92)

[3]Volf, ‘Final reconciliation’, 92-3

[4]Volf, ‘Final reconciliation’, 93 (my emphasis)

[5]Volf, ‘Final reconciliation’, 106. Volf’s work of ‘careful specification’ is worth spelling out in a little more detail here. ‘The divine judgment,’ he says, ‘will reach its goal when, by the power of the Spirit, all eschew attempts at self-justification, acknowledge their own sin in its full magnitude, experience liberation from guilt and the power of sin, and, finally, when each recognizes that all others have done precisely that... Having recognized that others have changed — that they have been given their true identity by being freed from sin — one will no longer condemn others but offer them the grace of forgiveness.’ Reconciliation will have finally been achieved when ‘one has moved toward one’s former enemies and embraced them as belonging to the same communion of love.’ (Volf, ‘Final reconciliation’, 103; 104, original emphasis)