Search This Blog

Friday, 3 March 2023

'Saved by the Cross of Christ'. But How?

 Text:  Romans 3.22b-31

According to the Apostle Paul, you and I are made right in God’s eyes not by our keeping of God’s law or commandments, but by our faith in God’s gracious gift of righteousness which, we are told, comes to us by way of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross. In this event, we are told, God reconciles us to himself, for the death of Jesus is not just any death. It is a sacrifice of atonement that puts aside the sin that estranges us from God so that we might be reconciled to God once more. Therefore, says Paul, there can be no room for boasting in the Christian community. Who we are and what we have is a gift, pure and simple. No one can brag about how much they’ve achieved, because the power to be right in God’s eyes is a power that comes not from the human person, but from the free sacrifice of God’s own son for our sake.

Surely we moderns would have a few questions to ask about all this, however. If God is willing to forgive our sins, no matter how good or bad we’ve been, why doesn’t God just get on and do that without any fuss? Why is it necessary to have all this complicated business about sacrificing Jesus on the cross? Wouldn’t it have been easier for God to say ‘I’m o.k., you’re o.k.’ and leave it at that? And wouldn’t Jesus himself have been significantly better off?

Well, a number of theories have been put forward to explain why Jesus had to die, some of them better than others. The one that has been most influential in our own Reformed tradition was championed by Jean Calvin and is often known as the theory of ‘penal substitution’. Here God is likened to a Lawmaker and Judge who, having made the laws that define sin and goodness, is now compelled to enforce that law for the sake of consistency, even if the consequences are catastrophic. For if the penalty of sin is death, then all are destined to suffer the punishment of death, for all have sinned. Now, that can be put in a more nuanced way, of course. One could argue that death is not a penalty that God imposes so much as the interior meaning of sin itself—i.e. that sin is the beginning of death in the midst of life, because it is a straying from God as the source of life—which I think is right. Yet the logical result, in the end, is still the same. That everyone who sins dies, and that God, having made a universe in which it works like that, is still ultimately responsible for the fact. What Calvin argued for, as a way of salvation for us all, was the death of the righteous man Jesus, in the place of the rest of humanity, who are sinners. Jesus is punished instead of us. Jesus dies in our place, so that we don’t have to be punished at all.

There are a number of rather obvious problems with this account. First, how is it possible that the sacrifice of only one righteous man manages to pay the debt of sin for all people? Isn’t there are serious mismatch there? Why would God, under his own rule of an ‘eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’ wipe out the debt of millions? Second, and more seriously in my view, isn’t there something a little immoral in letting people off the hook so easily? If people who are troubled by their own sins, or the sins of their world, turn up to church and all we have to tell them is that ‘God is no longer angry about your sin—all God’s anger was spent on Jesus’, I’m not sure that they’re going to be that impressed. Because the next day they’re going to be caught up in sin all over again, and they’re not going to feel that sin has been finally dealt with.

There is something deep in the human psyche that knows jolly well that sin cannot be entirely done away with apart from an act of the will, a deeply moral choice to turn away from one’s past and live differently. We all know that moral truth, deep down. From that perspective, then, a God who lets us off the hook apart from that moral striving would be an immoral God. Note that Paul himself, at the end of the passage we read just now, does not exempt Christians from keeping the law of God. Finally, then, the biggest problem with the penal substitution theory of atonement is that it is all so objective, and impersonal. It’s like ‘O, so Jesus suffered the punishment for my sin? Right. And all this happened two-thousand years ago? Right. Well. That’s great, I guess, but why don’t I feel forgiven?’ To summarise: we all know, deep down, that an objective transaction between Jesus and his Father a long time ago is of no real help for us right now, in this world, at this time, in the midst of the broken lives we are dealing with.

So, if Jesus didn’t die to take God’s punishment for my sins, what possible purpose can there be in his death? And, more importantly, what relevance (if any) has that death for us today, here in the midst of our struggles with sins both personal and corporate? Well, strangely enough, some of the answers can be found in the passage we just read. For what Paul says about the death of Jesus is this: that it is his sacrificial death that effects an atonement or a reconciliation between God and ourselves. Sacrificial. That word is the key. Let me dwell on that for a moment.

Now, any botanist or zoologist will tell you that in order for some kinds of lives to continue, other lives have to come to an end - in order for human beings to stay alive, for example, plants and animals have to lose their lives. This pattern is repeated a hundred times over in the biosphere of which we are merely a part. Now, this simple biological fact has been dramatised since ancient times by means of various rituals of sacrifice. For the Jewish people, a system of ritual animal and vegetable sacrifices served to remind them that their lives were made possible because of death. What the Jews added to this basic anthropological understanding, though, was a theology—a story about what this might mean for God. God, they believed, had made a personal sacrifice even in creating the world. For the existence of the world spoke of a God who had chosen to limit or sacrifice God’s influence and power so that another reality or power, a cosmos, could come into being—a cosmos inhabited by beings who were genuinely free to exercise an independent will and power over and against the will and power of God. Theologically, one could then say that life itself, especially human life, can only be because God chose, and continues to choose, to sacrifice something of God’s sovereignty out of a desire to form a relationship or covenant with a cosmos and humanity that are in no way simply puppets, playthings of divine power. What this Jewish theology means, of course, is that God can no longer be thought as a monarch or tyrant who always gets his way. On the contrary, this God is one who freely chooses to be vulnerable, vulnerable to all that we human beings would do. God sacrifices God’s power and will that we human beings might be capable centres of will and power as well. We do not, of course, use our freedom and power particularly well. By and large, we have used our will and power to turn away from God, making the world according to our own independent vision.

In this perspective, the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross should be seen, first of all, as a divine self-sacrifice. Not the killing of an innocent man to turn aside the wrath of an angry tyrant, but a potent and effective symbol of the way God was, and is, and always will be with the world. A God of costly love. A God who sacrifices God’s own will to create the possibility of relationship with his others, with you and me. For Jesus is not simply you and me. He is God, the divine Son who goes out from the Father to invite all to turn away from the terrible wastefulness of sin and be reconciled to God. Jesus is God’s invitation to turn, to repent, and to accept God’s ever-new invitation to be reconciled with God in making a world that is finally healed and whole, a world of peace or shalom. Jesus is God’s invitation to forgiveness which is, of course, nothing other than the making-new of a broken relationship.

But there is another aspect to the sacrifice of Jesus, and this is the bit of the story that Calvin and his followers have never, ever come to terms with. The sacrifice of Jesus, you see, is a symbol not only of God’s sacrifice for our sake, but also of humanity’s sacrifice for God’s sake. Let me repeat that. The cross of Jesus is a symbol not only of God’s sacrifice for our sake, but also of humanity’s sacrifice for God’s sake. Jesus, you see, is not only God. He is a human being who shares our nature in every way. He is one who has none of the privileges of his father: he does not see all, he does not understand all, he cannot do anything that he wishes to. Christ confronted his own future with nothing other than the resources that are given to everyone. In that, he was utterly and entirely human. Yet, and this is crucial, Christ is unique in the pantheon of human histories because he used his freedom, his will, and his personal resources, not to please himself alone, nor even to serve the collective will of his society and culture, but to do the will of his Father God. What Christ desired, more than anything else it seems, was to love and serve the one who loved and served him. In this perspective, the sacrifice of Christ is the sacrifice that any human being could make if they really and truly desired relationship with God: the putting away of all that keeps us from knowing and loving God, all those unhealthy addictions and allegiances, so that there is room in our lives for what God might will and desire. In that sense, Christ is what each of us might be if we truly loved and trusted God.

This, then, is how the death of Jesus saves us, right here and now, in the midst of the real world we must negotiate every day. It reminds us that God is no tyrant, but one who continually sacrifices God’s own life that we might be alive and free. It reminds us that God is continually inviting us to have done with evil and violence and turn, instead, towards a reconciled relationship with God, a reconciliation that makes for peace, justice and love in the world. But the death of Jesus reminds us, also, that there are no short-cuts to reconciliation with God. We, too, are called to make our sacrifice. For that is how it is with relationship. Each partner receives his or her life from the other, from the other’s willingness to be hospitable, to make space in their hearts for other’s desires and dreams. So let’s face the fact, squarely: in a world such as ours, making room for God’s dreams means, in the end, a very costly putting aside or sacrificing of many of our own dreams, those dreams bequeathed to us by family and society—the dream of a prosperity that doesn’t include people other than own family or tribe, for example. Without dying to idols such as these, says the gospel, without joining with Jesus in his deliberately counter-cultural lifestyle, there can be no salvation.

The grace offered us in Christ, you see, is not cheap grace but “costly” grace. I quote Bonhoeffer once more, of course. Yes, God has invited us to God’s banqueting-table. Yes, God has sacrificed God’s own self in order to make it possible for us to be reconciled with joy. Yes, God has shown us to the way in Christ. But no, we will never get there unless we struggle daily to make Christ’s way our own, to accept God’s grace in the shape of a daily discipleship that calls upon the power of Christ’s Spirit to resist the spirit of the world in which we live. That is how Christ saves us: by calling us to sacrifice ourselves, via a thoroughgoing participation in Jesus’ own sacrifice, so that in dying to this world and its sin, we might have done with such things, and share in the glorious future of the children of God.

Garry Deverell

St Paul's Catheral
Evensong, 7th Sunday after Pentecost

Sunday, 5 February 2023

The Law, the Prophets and Justice for First Peoples

Texts: Isaiah 58.1-12; Matthew 5.13-20

In the gospel reading we heard from just now, Matthew has Jesus say: 

Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.

Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.  For I tell you, unless your justice exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

So what is this ‘law’ that Jesus does not intend to abolish, and who are these ‘prophets’ whose oracles Jesus intends to fulfill? 

The law is the law of Moses, the law given to Israel after they have fled slavery in Egypt. You know, the ten words or commandments. You can read about them in Exodus chapter 20.  Amongst the laws are these:

You shall have no gods before Yahweh.

You shall not worship idols.

Keep the sabbath.

You shall not murder.

You shall not steal.

You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour.

You shall not covet what belongs to your neighbour.

‘Do not think, for one moment,’ says the Matthean Jesus, ‘that I have come to do away with this law.  I have not.  This law will stand until the age has reached its conclusion. Keep this law, and you will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. Break this law, and you will be called the least in the kingdom of heaven’.

The law stands, then. It has not be swept away by some cheap and unnuanced understanding of ‘grace’ or ‘forgiveness’, as some seem to believe. It stands. And you and I, who believe in the teaching of Jesus, are called to keep it.

The prophets, whose oracles Jesus came to fulfill, bear witness to the importance of the law. It was on the basis of this law that Isaiah, for example, passed judgment on the nobles and landowners of Israel in the 8th century BCE. 

Isaiah criticises the wealthy for abandoning the law of God in three respects. First, they steal from their own workers, those who labour in their farms and vineyards. They cheat their workers of their just wages. Second, they tell lies about one another and plan violent assaults upon one another in the hope of securing the wealth that belongs to their neighbours. Third, they are content to allow the hungry in their communities to remain hungry. They will not share their plenty with those who are poor through no fault of their own. They will not take such folk into their homes and tend their wounds. They remain aloof and uncaring. Thus, in these three respects, the wealthy are chided by the prophet for their lack of neighbourly care. For a neighbour who cares will not steal. A neighbour who cares will not lie and plan violence against othersr. A neighbour who cares, will not hoard what they have and fail to share it with those who have nothing.

Now, in the gospel of Matthew, Jesus is like a new Moses, a new Isaiah. He is Moses comes from Egypt to give the law again. He is Isaiah come to warn the wealthy Jewish collaborators with Empire – the Roman empire – that their greed and indifference will result only in their ruin.

‘Why’, he says, ‘can you not be like salt, which gives a meal its tang, and makes it attractive?’ ‘Why,’ he says, ‘can you not be like a light on a hill, paragons of justice that inspire others to be good, and to love, and to take mind of one’s neighbours?’

These are exactly the questions that face us as a church and a nation.

Australia is a nation that has become powerful by coveting, stealing,  murdering and slaving. Coveting Aboriginal lands, murdering those who sought to defend it, stealing that land and carrying its children off into slavery and domestic servitude.

Our church worked hand in glove with the colonial authorities. We participated in the stealing, the murdering and the slaving. Indeed, we actually ran the institutions that did a lot of the damage.

That, my friends, is why Aboriginal Australia is in such distress, even now. It is why we are the most incarcerated people on the planet. It is why our kids take their own lives at rates unrivalled by any other people group. It is why we regularly die in the custody of justice officials but no one has ever – ever! – been held accountable for such deaths. It is why we still have so little ownership or control of our own lives or the land that was given us by God. It is why we most of us remain sick and poor.

All because church and state broke every single one of those commandments that Jesus came to teach and to fulfill. All because the church failed in the duty to be a neighbour.

Now, for thirty years, I have seen the church pray for Aboriginal people. I have seen the church say sorry to Aboriginal people. I’ve even seen the church set up Aboriginal councils, ‘Voices’, if you will, to advise Synods and bishop’s councils on what to do about the Aboriginal ‘problem’. What I have not seen in those 30 years, however, is a church that will do anything much at all about justice, about the fulfilling of the law and the prophets after the way of Jesus. I have not seen a church hand back the land it stole. I have not seen a church compensate the families of those whose children it took away and sold into slavery or domestic servitude. I have never seen a church do positive things to reverse the trends: set Aboriginal employment benchmarks, or give to Aboriginal leaders real power in the church to do things differently, in ways that make sense to us, in ways that will foster pride and the healing.  I have not seen the church do any of these neighbourly things.  I have not seen a church that can even begin to understand what costly love might require.

I have only seen a church of thoughts and prayers, of words and glossy brochures.

In this way the tragedy of the church in this place, in this country, is related to the tragedy of my people. By failing to be the church – to love the neighbour rather than murder, rape and steal from the neighbour – the church guarantees that its neighbour will suffer rather than thrive.  The church carries the guilt of its original sin, and so fails to thrive. To be salty, to be a light for the nations.

But the good news is this: the story of our church and nations is not yet complete, it is not yet over.  I am here with you today to remind you of your power to change the story.  Allow me to quote from Isaiah once more: 

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?

 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.

Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.

If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,

if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.

As we prepare to enter the fast known as Lent, there is before us yet another opportunity for the church to turn around, to forsake its evils, and to walk the way of Christ. To embrace a far more thoroughgoing fast. To finally do some measure of justice, so that the oppressed can begin their long walk to freedom.  For in the freedom of Aboriginal peoples is your freedom. In the liberation of those whom you have long oppressed is your own liberation. 

So, write to your churchly leaders, if you have a care. Implore them to do justice on your behalf. Write to your national leaders, implore them to take care for the First People of this land. Implore them all to make treaty with us, to enact a more just settlement that is able to heal the wounds that rend us all.  If you do this, your light will finally rise and the gloom that afflicts us all will be replaced by the brightness of noon.

I stand amongst you as one who does not like to say these things because doing so places me in a vulnerable position. But, as a disciple of Christ who knows nothing but Christ and him crucified, it sometimes falls to me to say what needs to be said. So I encourage you, I implore you, I beg you: choose to walk with Jesus as he commends to us the way of the law and the prophets. In this way lies justice for First Peoples, and ultimately healing for us all.

Garry Deverell

St Paul’s Cathedral, Naarm/Melbourne
Fifth Sunday after Epiphany, 2023

Sunday, 11 December 2022

Hope, Patience and Justice

Isaiah 35.1-10; Magnificat; James 5.7-10

The letter of James, which we read just now, says:

Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient. 

This morning I want to speak a little about what it might mean to be patient as we wait for the coming of the Lord.  For quite clearly, the Lord has not yet come. Not in his fulness, not to transform the world and human community into the image of God’s lovingkindness. For if the Lord had already come in that way, we would not need to pray our prayers of intercession. We would not need to sing the Magnificat, the Song of Mary, as we do this morning and at evening prayer.  The despots would already have been removed from their thrones and the poor raised up. The rich would already have been sent away empty, and the hungry filled with good things. The swords would already have been beaten into ploughshares, and we would be at peace.

That this is not the case means, quite simply, that the messiah has not yet come. On that, and many other things, Jews and Christians are agreed.  So, what are we to do in the meantime?  What are we to do as we wait for the crops of justice to grow, as both Isaiah and James imagine? What are we to do whilst we wait for our hope to be realised?

Well, according to St James, there are two things we can do.  

The first, he says, is to stop grumbling against one another: to stop judging one another.  For, that is one of our finer skills as Christian people. Do we not look across the desk or the table or stare into our screens that those we disapprove of, and do we not ruminate upon the ways in which those people are unworthy, somehow, of love or affection? For all the problems in the world come from other people, do they not? Surely Jean-Paul Sartre was right when he said that ‘hell is other people’!  If only they were not around, we could fix things! If only they were not around, the world could be put to rights! We imagine, do we not, that when Christ returns it is they who will get their comeuppance, whilst we, the truly good and righteous people, will be received into the divine halls? Or perhaps it is only me who thinks that way. Perhaps it is only me who needs to hear the divine command ‘judge not, lest you be judged’.  But more of that later.

The second thing James says that we can do whilst waiting for Christ is to suffer patiently like the prophets. Which is something of an oxymoron. At least it appears to be. For the prophets, on my reading, were rarely patient. Indeed, one might more accurately describe them as paradigm examples of the impatient! They were impatient about the abuse of power, they were impatient about hypocritical religious types, they were impatient for the liberation of the poor and the raising up of the marginalised. And they expressed their impatience and frustration loudly, and in the places where they were most likely to cop a beating for their trouble. So, what’s patient about that?  A fair question, I reckon!

The kind of patience we are called to exercise as Christians is not, in fact, a ‘quietist’ kind of patience, patience understood as a meek and mild acceptance of all the wrongs in the world, as if there is nothing we can do to change things.  For, if the harvest of justice is to arrive, we are called to be farmers and horticulturalists, that is, people who not only wait for the seed to grow, but also work hard to prepare the soil, and plan meticulously to ensure that the most optimal growing conditions are in place. I have never met a husband of the land – least of all amongst mob – who sits back and does nothing when there are hungry mouths to feed.  For us, the care and nurture of the land remains a daily responsibility. For, to our way of looking at things, if we do not tend the land with loving care then we should not be surprised or angry if the land fails to be fruitful.  If the land is to be fruitful, it should be tended. Carefully, and with unhurried patience. 

So it is with the friends of God and the prophets of this current age.  If justice is to arrive, we must work at it patiently. If Christ is to arrive, then we must sow the seeds of justice with sobriety and regular, even ritual, attention.  Which is precisely what Christ did when he came around the first time. He went amongst the villages of Galilee giving sight to the blind, mobility to the lame, hearing to the deaf and belonging to the poor and excluded. All of which can be understood as a sowing of seed, a preparing of the ground. Because not all were healed, not all found themselves welcomed back into community. Not all were raised to life.  What was done was a sign and a promise of what is yet to come: justice and healing for all.  But now it is our turn. It is the special calling of the church to become these signs anew, in our community and in our politics.  It is we who are called to tend the land and sow the seed.  It is for God to make the seed grow and bring the harvest to fulfillment. But we each have our part in preparing the way.

That’s all well and good. But still I am troubled by a question, a question that hides between the two instructions James has left us, a question that hovers between the injunctions to ‘stop judging’ and ‘suffer patiently like the prophets’.  And it’s this: how can we name what has gone wrong, and work towards a more just alternative, if we are never allowed to judge other human beings? Is it not human beings who commit the crimes? Is it not human beings who make the policies that result in persecution, harm, and even death for vulnerable populations? Is it not human beings who exploit the earth and render it uninhabitable in so many places?  How, then, can we be prophets who cry out for justice if we can never judge our fellows for their crimes?

You will perhaps understand how I might struggle with this question as a trawloolway man, an Aboriginal person, a member of that people against whom much wrong has been done, and continues to be done.

Well, the way I see it (and I’m happy to be corrected) is that we are called to ‘hate sins, but to love humankind’ as St Augustine put it in one of his letters. We can work against what people do to harm the earth and each other, in other words, but this does not require us to condemn the people who do it to hellfire and damnation. The scandal of the the gospel is that no-one is beyond the love and mercy of God. All are loved, even if what they do is evil. And that goes as much for Hitler, and Pol Pot, as it does for the thousands of good churchmen who massacred our people. We must work as hard as we can to discern how evil is present, and to limit the effects of that evil in our hearts and in our world. But we simply do not have the authority to pass final judgement on any human being, least of all ourselves.  That is something for God alone. So we should leave those matters to God. We are not called to respond to hate with hate, but to love our neighbours as Christ has loved us.

So, allow me to summarise what James encourages us to do whilst we wait for Christ to arrive. Don’t judge or condemn anyone, lest you yourself are condemned. And work for justice with the patience, and love, and consistency of the prophets. If we do these things, we will have done our part. The rest is for God, and for the Christ who will come to recast the cosmos in the image and likeness of divine love.

Garry Deverell

3rd Sunday of Advent, 2022
St Paul's Cathedral, Naarm/Melbourne

Tuesday, 29 November 2022

'Wait without Hope': Contemplation and consumer society

In 'East Coker' (1940), the second of his Four Quartets, TS Eliot wrote this:
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.
Here Eliot names what is essential, I believe, to the apprehension of genuine contemplatives, whether they be Christian or more anciently Aboriginal in their ontology or phenomenology of expression. What Eliot names here is the interruption, the breaking, the ending or even the impossibility, of everyday life. For everyday life is indeed broken, is it not? In the wake of modernity, with its autonomic production of desires which gobble up and consume not only our sacred souls but also the very earth itself, are we not broken? Are we not spent? Are we not dazed, hazed, bewildered and confused, and are we not desperately, rapaciously lonely? And is this not the case even for those of us who seek to transcend this condition through practices and rituals designed to calm and soothe our flagging spirits? Do we not hope desperately, and prematurely? Do we not love forcibly and possessively? Do we not trust, blindly, in whatever phantasm we have conjured up from the ruins of our creativity?

The one thing moderns do not do, ever, is to pause, to stop, to empty ourselves, to cease with that endless churning through of problems and solutions, all smoke and mirrors and digital shadows. We never command ourselves to be still in the night time of modernity - so that we may give ourselves over to unthinking, to unknowing, to a genuine hollowing out of every idea or ethic, whether good, bad or indifferent.  We do not call for an end to desire, which forever threatens to consume every object, or person, or affect of light or of landscape that wanders into our orbit.  Not even in meditation, as it is most commonly practiced. For, as Slavoj Zizek rightly intuits, much of the consumer meditation industry is about patching up the tired and the stressed and the broken so that we can reengage in the very forms of neoliberal work, family and entertainment that made us tired, stressed and broken in the first place. 

What we need is a different form of life, a more deeply interfused weave of being, a more visceral form of relationship with each other and with the cosmos.  What we need is to get outside of our neoliberal, differentiated selves. We need to get outside of the world we have created through the endless self-production of desire. What we need is to get out of our heads and our hearts in the direction of a radical openness to what the Indigenous nations of this continent call, quite simply, 'country'. Country is, for we natives, both radically material and radically divine. It is the embodiment of the divine in pathways, waterways, skyways and the ritual songs that make them navigable. Country is, for us, a patterned network of reciprocal kinship with all living things: plants, animals, people, weather patterns and even rocks, which actually vibrate with ancestral presence. Each of us are born to a specific country, and there we belong. Country tells us who we are, to whom we belong, and what our part will be in the profound responsibility to care for country and its strong but fragile ecologies. For if we take our part in the communal vocation of caring for country, all of country will care for us. Crucially, this is not something we choose by virtue of  ourself-actualization as autonomous selves. It is simply given. It precedes and exceeds us. It gives us a unique and irreplaceable place in a patterned whole. 

In Aborignal perspective, then, as much as in the Christian mysticism of Mr Eliot, the answer to our woes lies not within, but without: in country, or the givenness of things in themselves, rather than in what we would forge from them out of selves that look only to possess, to consume and to colonise.  To walk on country is not, therefore, simply to bathe oneself in the sensuality of occasional contact with the wonders of 'nature' - wonderfully healing though this experience can be in itself - but also to stop and to stay, to engage in a more sustained waiting, to observe how each thread of the tapestry depends on each other thread for its life and its purpose.  To wait long enough to see that life and death and life again are woven into the fabric of the bush, just as Christ and his paschal self-emptying are woven into the persistent creativity of the cosmos.

Which brings me, at the last, to the very next lines in Eliot's poem:

Whisper of running streams, and winter lightning.
The wild thyme unseen and the wild strawberry,
The laughter in the garden, echoed ecstasy
Not lost, but requiring, pointing to the agony
Of death and birth.

Let us, like country itself, be contemplatives who are able to die to ourselves - to our hungry and self-serving desire for the phantasmic dreams of modernity - that we might be reborn to that more expansive self that is a deep and abiding kinship with all creation. 

Garry Worete Deverell

This brief talk was shared as part of a panel for the Contemplative Studies Centre (University of Melbourne) and the Australian Association for the Study of Religion, on November the 29th, 2022.

Sunday, 23 October 2022

The Kenosis Model: how the churches can reckon with their colonial legacy

Let me begin by acknowledging this country, Gadigal country, its ancestors and elders. Like my cousin Naomi, I am trawloolway. Our country is in the NE of lutruwita/Tasmania. We are privileged to walk on the lands of the Gadigal. Thank you for your gracious welcome.

Today I want to remind the churches you have a colonial legacy, and in five senses:

  1. You participated in, and still benefit from, the stealing of our lands;
  2. You have blood on your hands because those who participated in the massacres, the frontier conflicts, the genocidal policies concerning our people, were overwhelmingly Christian;
  3. You took the lead in the attempted destruction of our spirituality, our way of life, especially during the missions period;
  4. You participated in, and continue to be largely silent in the face of, the ecocide which accompanied the genocide: as you acquired country, you damaged it through your ignorance about how to manage it
  5. Many of you continue to deploy an imaginative terra nulius regarding our people by effectively pretending that we don’t exist. Our voices are not there in the policy-making bodies of your councils, your agencies and your educational institutions. You are uncurious about the country you walk on and the knowledge we have of its ways and its spirit. There continues to be a lack of curiosity about our theology, which is different to your theology in fairly fundamental ways.

This account gives rise to a fundamental question: how are the churches to reckon with this colonial heritage. Well, to answer this (at least in part), I will appeal to the Pauline tradition as we have it in the New Testament: first in the Christological hymn of Philippians 2 and then in the exhortation towards an equitable distribution of resources in 2 Corinthians 8.

So let’s turn, first, to Philippians 2, which says:

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.

And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord
to the glory of God the Father.

Now, I want you to notice three things about this passage.  

  1. It is addressed to a bunch of Christians who are divided, one against another, who are selfish – who look out for their own survival and wellbeing at the expense of others. Does that sound familiar, at all?
  2. The Apostle then contrasts this behaviour to that of Jesus. Who, though enjoying a certain ascendency in the cosmic order of things, empties himself (kenosis) of all such power and privilege in order to come amongst human beings as a slave who has no power at all (doulos). 
  3. The passage then creates a model, a pathway, which Christian communities are encouraged to imitate and follow in order to be truly alive and vital. It is the path of kenosis. A dying in order to rise to a rather more elevated – thoroughly more other-centred - mode of being. A dying to all that is power-over, power-acquisitive, power-for self-alone. And a rising to power-with, power-giving, power for the wellbeing of others.

Jason Mowry 'Kenosis' 2019
So, the question arises. How are you settler Christians, you immigrant Christian communities - you who have empowered and enriched yourselves at the expense of Indigenous people - going to let that power go? How are you going to redress the balance? How will you take the power you acquired by genocide and ecocide and return it to those you wronged, and continue to wrong?  (Note this: if you are Christians, then it can never be a question of whether you return such power. It can only be a question of how. For if you do not imitate Christ in this manner, can you really be called Christians at all?)

So, let’s turn to just a tiny bit of that ‘how’, beginning with some paragraphs from 2 Corinthians 8:

For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich. And in this matter I am giving my advice: it is appropriate for you who began last year not only to do something but even to desire to do something— now finish doing it, so that your eagerness may be matched by completing it according to your means. For if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has—not according to what one does not have. I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance. As it is written,

‘The one who had much did not have too much,
    and the one who had little did not have too little.’

Now, the context here is that there are two church communities, one that is very poor and another that is quite rich. And we’re talking actual, economic, resources here. Not so-called ‘spiritual’ resources, intangible things like wisdom or humility. We’re talking money. Money and property.  The apostle appeals to the rich church to share its abundant resources with the poor church by invoking, again, that kenotic Christology. The argument, in summary, goes something like this:

  • Remember the story of Jesus. He was rich, but he became poor for your sakes. So that you might acquire some of his riches.  (So far this could be about intangibles. But wait . . .)
  • So, like Jesus, I’d like you to hand over your wealth, your money, to the poor church.  I’d like you to act with the same love, the same generosity of spirit, as that you found in Christ.
  • Not, mind you, to the point where you become destitute and in need of help yourselves. Think, rather, that the excess you enjoy can provide what is lacking in the poorer community.  This is Paul’s ‘socialism’.
  • The goal here is something like a balance, an equality, so that you both have what you need.

Now, obviously, there is no hint in this text that the rich church gained its riches by stealing its wealth from the poor church.  But, this being so, how much more ought the colonial church consider the ways in which it might return its stolen resources to the people from whom it was stolen?

Now, I’ve given talks like this before. And the question that arises, right way, is usually ‘OK, but what would that actually look like for our own local church community, our own denominational organization?’  Well, the answer to that might become the substance of treaty proposals, ways in which the deeply uneven balance of power between colonial and Indigenous communities might be rendered more equal.  So, I invite you, the members of the colonial church, to consider the following:

At the denominational level, 

  • Make arrangements to hand the properties you were given by the crown, without fee or compensation, back their original Aboriginal owners, without fee or compensation.
  • Where properties were purchased from the Crown, or else from other colonial owners, make arrangements to vest the title of those properties in the name of the original owners under a lease-back scheme. This makes both the use, or the disposal, of those properties a matter of negotiation and careful agreement (or treaty) between Indigenous people and settlers. 
  • Where purchased properties remain in the hands of the denomination because local mob do not want to become owners, contribute half of the income on such properties to mob: 25% to local owners and 25% to Indigenous ministries run by and for our people.  Like Congress. Or the School of Indigenous Studies. The same would apply when properties are sold. Split the proceeds of the sale.

(for more on these matters, see another of my blog entries)

At the local congregational level,

  • Contribute 10% of your annual budget to ministries run by Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people, for Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people, in perpetuity. In the UCA context, that might usually mean the Congress.  But you might be aware of other ministries as well. Such as that of the School of Indigenous Studies.
  • Whether there is a denominational agreement for lease-back of properties in place or not, approach your local mob with the question: could we form a relationship with you that includes your use of this space for community gatherings and programmes without fee or compensation?

A more just sharing of the land you have stolen from us, including its commercial value, would obviously make a huge difference to the kinds of programmes Aboriginal Controlled Community Organisations could run to assist our people to escape from poverty and reclaim our rightful heritage as the sovereign peoples of this country.  It would also make a huge difference to our capacity to reclaim and pass on our practical wisdom and spirituality to the next generation, whether Indigenous or settler.  In the church, the sharing of these resources would provide a sure and reliable economic base for the work of our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ministries, and for our theological research and teaching.  The fruit of these ministries would make for stronger Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and higher profile for our spiritualities and theologies in the knowledge repositories of our nation. Knowledges that are desperately needed if we are to heal, and form a more mutually supportive relationship with Country. 

But land and resource justice is really just a beginning, a foundation.

At the same time, the churches would do well to allow us – for the very first time! - to set up camp in the centre of your corporate life: to allow us to migrate from the periphery - where we are out of sight, out of earshot, out of mind and heart - into the places where theology is formulated, and decisions made about ministry and mission. Because you need us.  Your churches are in decline because they are seen as either too irrelevant or too corrupt to make a meaningful contribution to solving the many problems that plague us.  Aboriginal knowledges, on the other hand, are on the up. Universities are including our wisdom about the earth, the stars, flora, and fauna, as well as the human body and mind, in their curriculums. Climatologists, botanists, and environmental scientists are consulting with us about how to better manage country. Fire authorities are seeking to learn about our fire-farming techniques. 

The churches need to get with the programme. You need us, and our perspectives, to help you deploy your theological and ministry resources in ways that help and do not harm, in ways that produce patterns of healing and care rather than wounding and indifference.  You need us. So why are we not on your councils, your boards, and your ministry teams? Why are we not amongst your bishops, your general secretaries, your moderators? Why are we not amongst your theological teachers and researchers?

For our theology is really rather different to yours. It is centred in:

  • the community of creation, rather than the reduction of community to the purely human
  • the ancestral divinity of country, rather than the restriction of divinity to a Palestinian Jew and (in some traditions) his followers
  • the ethics of caring for country, rather than a limiting of care to human beings alone
  • the governance of people by country (learning to imitate the patterns and processes of the non-human world), rather than the governance of everything by people
  • The mission of country together with human community, rather than the mission of Christians
  • Rituals which celebrate and make present the ancestral divinity of country, rather than a reduction of the divine to Christian symbols alone

Our theology is much older than yours, up to 120,000 years older. It is also deeply connected to how we live with the earth in general, but to this country in particular. If your theology is to ever leave the shores of the European enlightenment and come to live in this place, some really radical transformations need to take place. And you need us to help you make those transformation. Because to be frank, you don’t know what you don’t know.  And what you think you know is proving quite inadequate in the face of the damage you’ve done since you arrived.

So, let me be so bold as to suggest that the churches are at a 'kairos' threshold of decision: a right, critical or opportune moment. You are at a crossroads.  You can either continue on the path you have taken since you arrived here, the colonizing path: which is to make yourselves the centre of all things and therefore leading exploiters of both this land and its Indigenous people.  Or you can take a different path, a path which would mean decentring yourselves, giving up a lot of that power and status you have become accustomed to, and listening, instead, to the wisdom of country and its children; listening to those whom you have habitually harmed and ignored, to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, the people of this land.  

Allow me to conclude by citing the prophet Jeremiah (6.16):

Thus says the Lord:
Stand at the crossroads, and look,
ask for the ancient paths,
ask where the good way lies; 
and walk in it.
Then you will find rest for your souls.
Perhaps the churches might now answer the divine voice differently than did the ancient Israelites? I quote again:
But they said, ‘We will not walk in it.’
Garry Worete Deverell

Walking Together Conference
Gadigal country
October 22, 2022

Thursday, 15 September 2022

On mourning, the Crown, and Anglican coloniality

Since the 8th of September, when Queen Elizabeth II of Britain died, our local Australian media have been covering the fact, and its aftermath in church and state, on a 24/7, 7 days per week basis. The coverage has been total, a veritable tsunami of reporting on the minutiae of royal goings-on, along with opinion pieces in their thousands on the Crown, its legacy, its rituals, and its future.  The ABC, our national broadcaster, has even required its presenters to don black, as a sign of sorrow.

If it was never clear before, it is clear now: we are a colony.  Our head of state is the sovereign of Great Britain. Our politicians, along with our judicial and military officers, have to swear their allegiance to that sovereign. The legislation generated by our parliaments requires royal assent. When the Queen died, our Prime Minister suspended parliament and declared a national day of mourning, to be observed on Thursday the 22nd of September. He, the Governor General, the Leader of the Opposition, and a carefully selected group of prominent Australians, will attend the Queen's funeral in London.  We are a colony.

Most people I know personally, regardless of ethnicity and origin, seem able to distinguish between a certain sympathy for the royal family and the British people in their grief and loss, and the Crown as an institution and arch-symbol of empire.  This distinction enables them to generate real feeling for those who mourn, without, at the same time, losing the capacity for critical assessment when it comes to the brutal legacy of the Crown both at home and in the colonies.

I'm aware of many others, however, who will abide no critique at all, who see every word of critical analysis as an attack on the person of Queen Elizabeth herself.  Much of this sensitivity comes, in my observation, out of a belief that her late Majesty was a person of exemplary moral integrity who (unlike some members of her extended family) could do no wrong. This moral integrity is then able to, through some syllogism of the imagination which I struggle to comprehend, cover the institution of the Crown as well. Elizabeth was good. The Crown was Elizabeth. Therefore the Crown is good. Something like that.

Several commentators* point out that the imputed 'goodness' and homely 'ordinariness' of the Queen is not something that can be easily and independently established. For the almost hagiographic image we have of the Queen is most likley that which the Crown, and the Crown alone, has sought to project.  The Queen's image, in other words, has been carefully constructed by the Crown over decades with the willing complicity of Her Majesty's Government and the world's most influential media. In fact, very few people know the Queen as a person in much depth at all. And those people are most unlikely, given the positon of the Crown at the apex of power in Britain, to succesfully offer a counternarrative.

The 'goodness' of the Queen as a person, insofar as that can be independently established, contrasts rather starkly, however, with the institution of the Crown, which is clearly and incontestably one of the most evil and exploitative institutions to have ever walked this earth. Even if one were inclined to separate the Crown from the actions of the British government during the colonial period - during which millions of Indigenous peoples had our lives, lands and cultures stolen from us at the point of a gun - there can be no doubt that the Crown has benefited enormously from such exploitations. Forbes estimates the Queen's personal wealth at something like $500 million US and the total assets of the Crown at roughly $28 billion US. Amongst the many assets personally belonging to the Queen (and now to King Charles) are artefacts - jewellrey, for example - stolen from the colonies. Significantly, the Crown pays no land, capital gains or inheritance tax. And it receives substantial salaries for the principle royals from the government of the day.

The distinction (if there is one) between the person who was Queen Elizabeth and the Crown as the principal symbol and beneficiary of an empire that raped and pillaged its way across the globe, also seems largely lost on Anglicans, even Australian Anglicans. Of course, I can understand members of the Church of England doing so.  For they are bedfellows, with the Crown, in the Establishment. Their bishops sit in the House of Lords and their monarch is the 'Supreme Governor' of the Church of England, who must assent to the appointment of any new bishop. This means, amongst other things, that the Church is required to preside at many of the key ceremonies of State. Weddings, funerals, coronations and the like. It also means that the Church is culturally attached to the Crown. Its official liturgy encourages prayers for the sovereign to be said at least weekly. And the royal anthem, 'God save the King', a victory song of empire, is regularly sung in ceremonies presided over by the Church.

But I've been suprised at how much of this liturgical royalism also pertains to Australia, and to the Anglican Church of Australia. Apparently many Anglican cathedrals are quite happy to accede to the expectations of state, and especially of Governors and Governor-Generals, when it comes to the celebration of the Crown. St Paul's Anglican cathedral in Melbourne, for example, recently held a service of 'Solemn Choral Evensong to give thanks for the life of Her Majesty Elizabeth II' which was attended by the Premier and the Governor of Victoria, along with many civil servants. Bishops and cathedral deans from elsewhere in Victoria also participated in the service. The usual service of evening prayer was modified, in this instance, to include the following:

  • a lowering of the Aboriginal flag, at the entrance to the cathedral, to half-mast along with the flag of the Commonwealth of Australia;
  • a modification of the usual acknowlegment of country to exclude any reference to Aboriginal sovereignty or the illegitimacy of colonial annexation of Kulin land. The usual affirmation to work for a 'more just settlement for Indigenous people' was also removed.
  • the singing of two colonial victory songs at the conclusion of the service: the national anthem of Australia (which declares and celebrates the doctrine of terra nulius) and the 'royal anthem' (which celebrates the sovereignty of the crown in the territories of empire, and the victory of the sovereign over his/her enemies).
As an Aboriginal member of the cathedral congregation, these modifications shook me considerably. For the cathedral administration made it clear, in this instance, that a relationship with the state and its expectations was of more importance that a relationship with us and our aspirations towards justice.  In conversation with the dean afterward, it also became clear that he regretted that this was so, and was open to a conversation about doing things rather differently the next time around. And yet. The status quo became starkly and alarmingly clear.

Of course, I have no objection to Christian people praying for the royal family and the British people in their grief.  I'm just astonished that a church which makes no mention of the British Crown in its constitution would want to celebrate that Crown in ways that so unfeelingly rub British coloniality in the faces of those of us who have suffered most at its hand.  Particularly, I might say, in a service of evening prayer in which the revolutionary words of the Magnificat (as recorded in the Book of Common Prayer) are regularly sung:

He hath put down the mighty from their seat:
and hath exalted the humble and meek.
He hath filled the hungry with good things:
and the rich he hath sent empty away.

I'm aware, also, that the St Paul's service was by no means the worst example of such ongoing obesience. There are many others, services in congregations the land over, that went (and will go) much, much further in their royal fervour. One example is a 'Requiem Eucharist for Her Late Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II' held on Sunday morning, Sept 11, at St John's Church in Malvern, Victoria. In addition to the inclusion of the royal anthem, this service also displaced the ordinary for the day from A Prayer Book for Australia and included an intercession for 'our Sovereign Lord, the King'. There was no acknowlegment of country whatsoever.

These recent liturgical outbreaks of colonialism in fact reflect a deeper and more difficult problem in the Anglican Church: it's almost complete disregard for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and our attempts to be part of the church - not as honorary whites, but as ourselves.  Despite guarded acknowledgments of the Church's willing partnership in the genocidal actions of the Crown in days gone by, the Church struggles to do anything meaningful when it comes to designing a more inclusive and just future. 

Yes, the Church now has NATSIAC, a national council of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. But this body is massively underfunded and has no constitutional or practical power to do anything else than meet.  Individual dioceses, and the General Synod itself, can completely ignore what it says, and regularly do.  Most of the members of NATSIAC are also appointed by diocesan bishops rather than elected by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.  And the numbers are heavily weighted toward the north of the continent, where so many of our people still live out of a 'mission mentality' when it comes to relationships with the Church. These factors mean that NATSIAC remains a fundamentally conservative body when compared with the more progressive work of Indigenous organisations outside the church.

And, yes, we have a National Aboriginal bishop and upwards of twenty deacons and priests around the colony. But most of those priests and deacons work in mainstream white or multicultural congregations, because there are few mechanisms in the Anglican Church for supporting us to work in communities with higher proportions of Indigenous people, or even to work on special projects seeking to progress the fortunes of our people in the Church.  Those who work in remote communities, for example, are rarely paid. They depend upon aged or disability pensions to put food on the table.  The National Aboriginal bishop, himself, is funded for two days per week. Two days to offer care and encouragement to Aboriginal leaders across the entire continent. Two days!  And, despite the NATSIAC canon making provision for one, there has not been a National Torres Strait Islander bishop in many, many years. Apparently the money is simply not there, which is church-speak for 'not a priority'.

So we are a do-nothing church when is comes to improving the lives and meaningful participation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.  If the Church really cared for us, it would gather the resources to do at least some of the following:

  • pay our clergy a just stipend to care for our own Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, wherever they might be
  • mandate the presence of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices in every council or board of every Anglican organisation or diocese in the colony
  • fully fund both a National Aboriginal bishop and a National Torres Strait Islander bishop
  • fully fund NATSIAC (with staff and a secretariat) as a hub for ministry and leadership development for our people
  • mandate the teaching of Indigenous theologies in our clergy-training institutions
  • mandate the teaching of Indigenous knowledges in our schools
  • fund the development, authorization, and dissemination of liturgical resources which reflect a First Peoples perpective and experience
  • hand properties gifted to the church by the Crown back to local Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander custodians.
Just for starters. In the Province of Victoria, Aboriginal clergy put such things on the table back in 2018. Neither diocesan councils, nor the Provincial council, have yet troubled to respond.

'How could such ministries be funded?', I hear you ask?  By asking congregations, church organisations and dioceses to 'pay the rent' on stolen land by contributing 3.5% of their annual budgets to recognised Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ministries. And by contributing 10% of all property sales to recognised Indigenous ministries. 

We could do this, if we wanted to. If we really and truly believed in justice rather than in the continuing sovereignty of the Crown over those it raped and plundered.

Garry Worete Deverell

* For example: Edward Owens, The Family Firm: Monarchy, Mass Media, and the British Public 1932-53 (London: University of London Press, 2019); Christopher Hitchens, The Monarchy: A Critique of Britain's Favourite Fetish, Diamond Jubilee Edition (London: Vintage Books, 2012); and Tina Brown, The Palace Papers: inside the House of Windsor - the Truth and the Turmoil (Melbourne: Penguin, 2022).

Wednesday, 6 July 2022

A prayer for NAIDOC Week

Divine creator, who is known by many names,
this NAIDOC week we give you thanks that we are here, 
    that we have survived.
We give thanks for our ancestors, 
    those who formed country, 
    and now guide us in the myriad voices of 
    kangaroo and eagle, mountain and creek.
We remember our elders, warriors and prophets - 
    Manalargena, Truganini and Wooredy, 
    Tongerlongeter, Dolly, Fanny and many others* - 
those who resisted the invader and, when all seemed lost, 
    sought to make treaty with them.
We pray today that you would give us the strength we need 
    to resist the newest iterations 
    of colonialism and white supremacy,
that country and all her children may not only survive 
    but thrive and be glad.
Garry Worete Deverell

* these are important figures in lutruwita/trouwerner/Tasmania. But you may substitute names from where you live.