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Friday, 27 March 2020

On deferring Easter and diving more deeply into Lenten quarantine

As I write the COVID-19 virus is transmitting itself from person to person at an exponential rate. Much of the trasmission is happening 'under the radar' as people who do not know they have the virus pass it on to others. Governments are desperately seeking to contain the virus by enacting strict 'social distancing' rules and closing down venues where people might gather.  This means that many businesses are severely curtainling their activities and their workforces. Perhaps a million people have already lost their jobs, mostly those who were employed as casuals or 'gig' workers. The effects on the economy are already profound, with steep losses on stock markets not seen since the Great Depression. But the effect on social cohesion and mental health is likely to be even more profound. For we are social animals. Even those of us who are 'introverted' on personality scales will struggle to keep our 'positive' on as we are prevented from social intercourse except via video-streaming app or phone. (Many of the poor, of course, do not have even those means of communication). Every anthropologist will tell you that humans need more than digital reproductions of another's image or sound. We need physical contact - intimate touches, hugs, whispers, non-verbal cues, olfactory interactions - in order to feel that we are part of the tribe, that we belong, that we are safe, secure and loved. If the virus continues to divide us, the already-serious rates of mental illness in post-industrial societies like ours are likely to reach pandemic proportions outstripping the reach of the virus itself.

The church is not, of course, immune from any of this. Because of our foundational ethic to love one's neighbour as oneself we can see the sense in protecting the vulnerable through spacial distancing. We can see the sense in closing down public gatherings. We can see the sense in passing on public health messages about hygiene.  And, of course, we are seeking to mitigate the social-psychological affects of these lockdowns by connecting our people into pastoral care matrices and making resources available through various media to encourage prayer, worship and a continuing connection to the sacred story in which we find our communal sense of vocation.  None of this makes us immune, however, to feelings of bewildernment, hopelessness and even despair. Many in our communities will struggle terribly in the days to come.

Many of my collegues - both clergy and academic theologians - have been seeking to locate this current existential within the explanatory narratives of Christian faith, both biblical and liturgical. Some are saying that the lockdown of churches places us in something approximating the exile of Israel and Judah's aristocratic classes to Assyria and Babylon, respectively. We are at home, but we are not at home. Because we cannot meet and encourage each other, because many of the liturgical and missional imperatives we are accustomed to pursuing without inhibition have been forbidden, we find ourselves alientated from the symbolic sources of our communal identity and purpose. We are like the Jerusalemites who found themselves in a strange land where 'singing the Lord's song' seemed almost impossible (Psalm 137).  The irony here, of course, is that those who could not sing the Lord's song were actually singing the Lord's song. They were remembering their narrative genealogies and looking to them for guidance. As are our churches right now, in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis.

Before we travel too far down this rabbit-hole, it is important to note that the people of Israel and Judah were taken into exile very much against their collective will. A foreign power swept in from the north, a power with a superior army, and these small federations of God's people were simply overcome. That is not what is happening to our churches in the midst of this pandemic. For the most part, churches are cooperating with goverments because they want to, because their leaders are convinced that the public health measures represent the right - even the 'Christian' - thing to do. Are we, then, in a new form of 'exile'? In some ways, perhaps yes. In most ways, I suspect no.  In saying that, I fully confess that I am weary of the many other ways in which the churches invoke the exile whenever they are feeling 'got at' by their critics. I am rarely convinced by arguments that the church is being persecuted in the post-industrial West. We are being ignored and misunderstood. We are being dressed down for our many sins against the vulnerable, certainly, but that is far from the state-sactioned discrimination that Indigenous people, for example, continue to endure.

Others are turning to the liturgical narratives of Lent and Holy Week for a sense of location, and for good reason. I have heard colleagues speak about being in a 'long Lent' in which we shall not, perhaps, be existentially ready for a fulsome celebration of Easter until the statistical 'curve' on viral transmission has well-and-truly turned. I have spoken that way myself on social media and in local pastoral letters. It is instructive to note that there is a long-standing relationship between Lent and the notion of quarantine (Latin: forty days) as both a spiritual retreat in a place of wilderness and a paring-back of life in order that life might flourish again. Jim Crace's astonishing novel, Quarantine, is as fine a meditation upon this connection as I have read.

Others have located themselves and their communities more specifically still: at Good Friday or Holy Saturday, in the place of Jesus' torture and death, and/or his descent into hell. And there is no doubt that some people, especially those most vulnerable to the full devastation of the virus, might claim an experience that can genuinely sustain that comparison. For most of us, I feel, the analogy is a bit of a stretch. In any case, what people seem to be reaching for here is a sense that the ecclesial lock-down reminds us of the narratives of dislocation and disillusion that overcame both Jesus and the disciples in (some aspects of) the gospel narratives concerning the final week of Jesus' life.  And certainly, there are connections to be made, if you happen to possess what Roman Catholic theologian David Tracy called an 'analogical imagination'.

If we consider some of the key narratives presented us by the Revised Common Lectionary for Lent and Holy Week in Year A, we can note a number of analogies with our current existential. On Ash Wednesday we read of a terrible 'day of the Lord':
a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness! Like blackness spread upon the mountains a great and powerful army comes; their like has never been from of old, nor will be again after them in ages to come (Joel 2.2).
The army Joel apparently speaks of is an overwhelming military force. But many in our community, from the Prime Minister down, have spoken about the COVID-19 virus as a 'hidden enemy' against which we must do battle lest we, too, are overwhelmed. The passage from Joel goes on to call for a 'return' to the Lord with with 'fasting, with weeping, and with mourning' (2.12) out of a recognition that the people of God have themselves contributed to what is about to happen to them. They have abandoned the covenantal relationship with God and the swarming armies from the north form part of the consequence for having done so.

Some have speculated that pandemics such as the one we are living through at present are in some way a consequence for our species' lack of attention to sound environmental management. John Vidal, in The Guardian, writes that 'a number of researchers today think that it is actually humanity’s destruction of biodiversity that creates the conditions for new viruses and diseases such as Covid-19'. As human beings press further and further into rainforests and other places of extraordinary biodiversity, we are being exposed to zoonotic diseases carried by animals that human beings have had little contact with before. Kate Jones, chair of ecology and biodiversity at University College London, studies how changes in land use contribute to the risk. 'We are researching how species in degraded habitats are likely to carry more viruses which can infect humans,' she says. 'Simpler systems get an amplification effect. Destroy landscapes, and the species you are left with are the ones humans get the diseases from.' (The Guardian, March 18 2020). In addition, a large body of research has shown that pandemics often begin in places of poverty and hit those living with poverty hardest. Ben Oppenheim and Gavin Yamey of the Brookings Institute note that poverty is often the reason why people press into rainforests to harvest disease-carrying animals; that malnutrition and existing chronic conditions make people far more susceptible to catching new diseases; and that a lack of medical resources in poor-to-middle-income regions means that new diseases will transmit themselves more quickly and efficiently ('Pandemics and the Poor', brookings.edu). Scientists are confirming, it seems, that we are perhaps reaping what we have sown. Our lack of attention to the covenantal commands to steward the land and to care for the poor are making life difficult even for those of us who respresent the global rich. Perhaps a 'return' to these concerns, a return to the Lord with weeping and mourning and repentant hearts is precisely what is required.  Perhaps we should stop destroying the biosphere on which our lives depend. Perhaps we should start listening to Indigenous wisdom about managing our lands and waterways. Perhaps we should stop exploiting the global south's resources and impoverishing those who produce our consumer goods. Perhaps loving our neighbours as we love ourselves would actually make a huge difference. Who knew?


The lections that follow in the Lenten sequence might all be characterised as commentaries upon the difference between redeemed and unredeemed desire which, precisely because the COVID-19 has our communities questioning who they when they cannot do what they desire, have the potential to generate yet more analogical bridges into the viral existential. 

The Lent 1 lections critique various kinds of will-to-power, whether they be the yearning for God-like knowledge (Genesis 2.15-17; 3.1-7), a pretending towards self-righteousness (Psalm 32) or our complex fantasies about transcending creaturely finitude (Matthew 4.1-11). The COVID-19 virus, if nothing else, is surely teaching us about the very real limits of our human knowlege and power!  The Lent 2 lections propose a freedom that comes from faith in God's good election. Abraham trusts God's gracious promise, and this is credited to him as righteousness (Gen 12.1-4a; Romans 4.1-5, 13-17). Nicodemus is counselled by Jesus to be 'born from above', to be drowned in water and the Spirit and start life anew as if everything he has learned is wrong, except what the Spirit will then teach him (John 3.1-17).  When our 'normal' way of life is proving indequate even to human survival, let alone thriving, this story invites us to fall on our knees and look for the Spirit who alone has the power to re-boot the system in ways that will make for a more profound human flourishing. 

The Lent 3 lections discuss redeemed and unredeemed desire through the metaphor of water. The wandering Israelites thirst for water and grumble when it is not provided on demand (Exodus 17.1-7). The woman who comes to draw water at the well learns of a 'living water' that Jesus can provide, a water that is able to quench our many desires and wants in a way that ordinary (dead?) water never can. Switching to a food metahor, the narrative then describes precisely what this 'living' food (or water) might be: 'My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work'. (John 4.5-42). The Samaritan women, and all who hear the story through the evangelist, are invited to participate in Jesus obedience, to fix our hearts and minds only on what God asks us to do. For only if we empty ourselves of all pretence to self-knowledge, self-righteousness, self-generation are we empty enough to receive the gracious action of God in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who is poured out for us (Romans 5.1-11). God is then able to do the good in and through our newly-formed desire.  Can this 'living water', this 'food' that Christ gives be read as a kind of anti-viral, or perhaps a new kind of virus which has the potential to shut down and remake our human systems from the ground up? Is it like the messianic 'one' in the Matrix movies who is able to re-set our contaminated human matrices so that they are more godly in their aspirations?  Read this way, the COVID-19 virus might be both an angel of death and an angel of light at the same time. Like the French word poison, which can mean both 'poison' and 'medicine', perhaps the virus is like a cleanser which exposes what is wrong in order to make room for what is right.

The Lent 4 lections play with images of perception, with light and dark. The dark is a state of blindness, a blindness which can be brought on, somewhat paradoxically, by the brightness and attractiveness of exernal apperances. Samuel is told by the Lord not to look at the beauty or stature of the men who might be king of Israel, but at the godliness of their hearts (1 Sam 16.1-13). Indeed, and to flip the metaphor over, one can have the brightness of God's company and comfort even when you are walking through a very dark valley (Psalm 23). The long excursis in John 9.1-41 explores these themes with a poetic density rarely matched since. A man born blind is healed by Jesus so that he can see. Paradoxically, however, he remains blind with regard to who Jesus is, and how Jesus saves the world, until the point when he hears Jesus name himself 'Son of Man' and responds by declaring 'I believe'. The Jewish interlocutors, though they can literally see, are declared 'blind' by Jesus because they refuse to believe that Jesus is the Son of God. The passage concludes with these words:
I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind." Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, "Surely we are not blind, are we?" Jesus said to them, "If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, 'We see,' your sin remains.
Here again people of faith are asked to confess their blindness in order to really see, to renounce their faith in the commonplace and the obvious in order to make room for faith in God. Perhaps, in the midst of the COVID-19 crises, we are being called to account in exactly the same way Jesus' interlocutors in John's gospel are being called to account. Perhaps our faith in ourselves and our righteousness before God is being questioned. Perhaps our habitual complacency with regard to the covenantal responsibility to care for the earth and for the poor is being brought out of the dark and into the light? Perhaps our consumerist habits, and our scandalous comfort with capitalist notions of trickle-down wealth, are being exposed for the lies that they are? 
For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light-for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true. Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord.Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them (Ephesians 5.8-11).
I consider it the height of irony that when the rich are finally exposed to something that might actually hurt them, their stable of politicians is suddenly willing to introduce all the socialist policies that councils of social services and welfare agencies have been calling for in earnest since the late 1980s. A universal living wage, even if you are jobless.  Programmes to guarantee that folk have a roof over their heads. Massive funding boosts for essential services. Profound levels of support for small business and a return to the local manufacturing of essential goods. Perhaps the threat of a virus that can kill us all is what it takes to teach the rich the lesson of human solidarity: that we thrive together or we die together.

Of the marvelous lections for Lent 5, which reflect more directly on matters of life and death, I will say very little except by way of a poem sent me by a friend, and written to interpret the existential in which we find ourselves explicitly within the frame of John's gospel, chapter 11:
now,
it is no longer
an exegetical puzzle
to be solved in our study;
it is no longer a pericope
with which to wrestle;
it is no longer a (really)
long reading to get through;
it is no longer a story
we blow the dust off every three years.
now,
it is our story;
now
it is about us;
now
it is us inside that
dank, dark tomb:
stinking of fear,
wrapped in the bands
of loneliness;
blinded by the handkerchief
of weary worry.
now,
we hope,
we pray,
we yearn,
we listen
for just a footstep,
just a tear dropping on the ground,
just a whisper of Jesus
pacing before the stone,
growling in his spirit
in anger and frustration,
before he cries out,
in hope and joy and life,
"come out!"
now,
we are not casual bystanders;
now
we are Lazarus
waiting . . .
                                                (c) 2020 Thom M. Shuman
'Can these bones live?' asks the Lord of Ezekiel the prophet. The bones of economic systems which leave the poor on a scrap heap; the bones of ecological practices which exploit our rivers, waterways, oceans and lands until they have no life left in them; the bones of our education systems, which strip away the capacity for wisdom and replace it with technocratic forms of knowledge which leave us dry and gasping and empty; the bones of a church which has lost its way by preying on the weak and the vulnerable, by losing its prophetic voice, and by its nostalgic yearings for a rapprochement with the State and with power?  Ultimately God would have us long not for a resucitation of these deadly ways of life, but for a nailing of such idols to the cross with Jesus so that there can be a new beginning, a 'new experience with experience' as Jungel would say. We do not need a tweaking of what we have already had, in the mode of Nietzsche's 'eternal return of the same'. What we need is resurrection. The arrival of the really and genuinely new: a flash that is able to clear our eyes and make us see what we have never seen before. Resurrection is not something we can make. It is only something that we can receive. By dying to all our self-sponsored performances of faith. By trusting in Christ. By falling to our knees with him and saying 'Not my will, but yours'.

The corona virus has forced us to consider the possibility of a longer, more profound Lenten quarantine. Many of our church leaders are rushing around more busily than ever, as if by their increased activity they might become the messianic answer we long for, as if they might thereby 'induce' the new birth of Easter through the deployment of condensed ceremonial into people's homes via streaming technologies.  While such deployments are clearly well-intentioned, they are really most unlikely to address the sheer depth of our now-more-exposed-than-ever spiritual poverty and loneliness.  Lent has always been a time for hearing and owning the truth, for the confession of sins and the exorcism of false spirit - first for catechumens who might embrace the faith at Easter baptisms, but then, also, for all Christians to walk that way again through the act of sponsorship and solidarity. The existential into which the virus has thrust us is therefore an opportunity for a more thorough-going Lent, a Lent in which our privations are more real than imagined and therefore more profoundly effective as a school of faith. If we embrace the possibility before us, we might learn again to live as creatures of God rather than of the market. We might learn to be still and listen for God's voice, the voice that can give life to the dead, rather than to rush around with strategies ingeniously designed to avoid that encounter. We might learn to be humble again, to renounce our schemes for propping up the crumbling edifice of church and society, and look anew for the God who can animate even the poorest of soil with spirit. We might learn, again, a poverty which is able to renounce all that we think we know, all that we think we must cling to, in order to learn again the way of the suffering Christ.

If we rush, too quickly, to Easter, we might miss these opportunities, these riches. And our celebrations of Easter would, perhaps, feel even more false than usual.  As a catholic Christian, who believes very much in the spiritual profundity of the church year, I would normally be on the side of those who argue against any departure from the usual flow of the seasons or of the lectionary. But we are now presented with a once-in-a-century crisis and opportunity. If there is ever to be a time when we might defer our celebrations of Easter, this is most likely it.

What I am suggesting, more concretely, is an extension of Lent through engaging, for example, a more thorough examination of the pre-exilic and exilic prophetic narratives, especially Jeremiah, First Isaiah, Lamentations, Joel, Amos, Micah and Zephaniah. Each of these reflect upon the ways in which national life in Israel and Judah had seriously departed from the covenantal settlements contained in the Torah. These reflections might be accompanied by gospel narratives taken from the lections for ordinary time, which explore the concrete demands of living a life of faith, and with a more thorough reading of the Pauline books of 1 and 2 Corinthians, which reflect at length of what can go wrong in the church's relationship with the dominant social and political culture.  The books of Daniel and Revelation, with their apocalyptic reflections on faithfulness in a time of Empire, might also be thrown into the mix.

The readings and reflections of Holy Week (along with whatever ceremonial is possible) might be reserved, therefore, for the week immediately prior to the Sunday when churches can safely gather again for the first time following the ban on public worship.  This Sunday, whenever it might come, might then be wholeheartedly celebrated as the arrival of Easter, and the full ceremonial of the entire Easter season might follow, right through to Pentecost.  Can you imagine what that would be like, after all the privation, after all the spacial distancing, after all that living of a more circumscribed life? It would be brimming over with joy, the joy that comes with the arrival of the dawn after a long, dark, night of the soul. Can you see the anticipation on the faces of those who gather to process the new fire into the darkened church? Can you see their smiles as the exultet is sung and the resurrection is proclaimed in a sudden blaze of light? Can you see their laughter at the startling preaching of Chrysostom's Easter sermon? Can you imagine that laughter erupting again, spontaneously, at the renewal of baptismal vows and the asperges with water? Can you hear the chatter and imagine the hugs and kisses of renunion at the greeting of peace? Can you imagine the smiles of satisfaction and gratefulness as the sacrament is placed in human hands for the first time in many, many months? And the champagne, and the cake, and the general merriment afterward?  It would be an Easter like none other in living memory. It would be the Easter you can have if you've rediscovered Lent. Really rediscovered it. Like finding a treasure so incomparable in a field that you are willing to sell everything you have to obtain it.

Now, there is nothing more certain than my losing this particular argument on the grounds of historical precedent in time of plague, or else the necessity and duty of conservatism when discussing liturgical change. Some might argue, pragmatically, that there is no prospect in contemporary times of our calling an ecumencial council with sufficient authority to change the rules. Still, there is occasionally some truth in small voices that speak to almost no-one out there on the edge of the wilderness . . .

Sunday, 22 March 2020

The Hidden Light


1 Samuel 16. 1-13; Psalm 23; Ephesians 5. 8-14; John 9. 1-41 

I suppose a number of you have seen a shadow-play. The shadow-play takes place in the darkness. There’s this big screen with a fire lit behind it, and the audience watches as the puppeteers tell their story by casting silhouetted shadows on the screen. Because the characters are all in shadow, you can’t see their faces or the features of their dress, and there are no colours apart from black or white. Because of this, anyone who is watching must use their imaginations to fill in the gaps, to give form and emotional detail to the character’s faces as they make their journey’s through the highs and lows of the tale as it unfolds. Now, the story we read from John’s gospel just now works a bit like a shadow-play. The writer delivers his story not with colourful figures rich in detail, but with characters barely drawn, silhouettes in light and dark. And the reader, or the hearer in this case, is invited to read between the lines, to exercise discernment about the degree to which the story’s truth is visible for all to see, or secretly hidden in the shadows.

At first glance, what we have here is a simple miracle story about a Jewish man, born blind, whose sight is wondrously restored by Jesus on the Sabbath day and therefore cast out of the synagogue for his trouble. Eventually he becomes a Christian, a believer in Jesus. But look again. Is that all there is to this story?

Most commentators will tell you that the story is ‘really’ about faith, that faith is here represented as a seeing, with lack of faith as its opposite, represented here as a kind of spiritual blindness. Note that when Jesus finds the young man after he has been cast from the synagogue, he asks him a question: “Do you believe in the Son of Humanity?” The fellow replies, “And who is he, sir, tell me so that I may believe in him.” Jesus replies, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” At that point, the young man cries out: “Lord, I believe” and worships him. This passage makes quite a solid link between seeing and believing. When the man ‘sees’ who Jesus is, suddenly he has faith in Jesus, the kind of faith which falls to its knees in worship. Seeing is firmly established as a metaphor for faith. And the case is apparently strengthened further in the commentary that follows, where Jesus says: “I came into the world for judgement so that those who do not see may see, and those who do not see may become blind”. In other words, Jesus comes to give faith to those without it, and to expose the lack of faith in those who pretend to have it. Faith is seeing, and lack of faith is blindness.

But hang on a minute. I’m not so sure that this traditionally correct approach is nuanced enough. Consider, if you will, the following questions. First, if faith is seeing, then why doesn’t John have the young man make his declaration of faith when first he is healed by Jesus? Why the long lag between seeing and believing? Second, and intimately related to this first question: if faith is seeing, then why does the young man not ‘see’ into the true identity of Jesus until right at the end of the story? When first asked who Jesus is by the Jews, the young man replies ‘He is a prophet,’ which is true, but only partly true. In the gospel of John, Jesus is pre-eminently not a only a prophet but the Christ, the Son of Humanity, the pre-existent Word of God made flesh. And later, when he is questioned more thoroughly, the young man declares that Jesus must have come from God, which is true, but again not true enough. In John’s gospel, Jesus not only comes from God, but is God: he has been as one with the Father from the beginning. And there is a further point which the traditional reading cannot account for. When the young man finally makes his confession of faith, it is not a ‘seeing’ which makes the difference, but a hearing. Jesus says to the man, “You have seen the Son of Humanity, I, the one speaking to you am he”. And it is then, and only then, that the man fall to his knees in worship. Did you catch that? The man had seen Jesus before, but it did not give him faith. Faith finally comes to him only in the wake of this self-revelatory speech of Jesus: “I am he”.

Now, why am I telling you all this? What does it matter if faith is a matter of seeing or a matter of hearing? What does it matter how faith comes, as long as it is faith? Well, it matters quite a lot actually. Because if faith comes by seeing, then it is not really faith. It is knowing. And knowing is the means by which we try to reduce God to our size and make of God some kind of idol that we can get our heads around. But a God we can get our heads around is not the Christian God, the God who made the heavens and the earth, the God of Jesus Christ. It is a God of our own making, a version of our dreams or fears, projected into the heavens and given the name ‘God’, a God we can control and domesticate. A tame God who never asks us to change.

The Gospel of John was actually written, in part, to combat that segment of church and society that had begun to associate sight, knowledge and faith in this idolatrous way. These people, who were later called Gnostics, believed that one could know God up close and personal, that one could have a personal hotline to Jesus and his power, that one could ascend to a direct knowledge of God through a secret path of wisdom which left behind the limitations and sufferings of the body and of ordinary life. To these beliefs and practices, John pronounced a resounding “NO!” No, he says, one may not escape the body and its sufferings, because even the divine one of God took on flesh and suffered like the rest of us. Indeed, John has the divinity or glory of God coming to light not in beatific visions or specialist knowledge, but in the disfiguration of a crucified man, raised above the earth. Jesus is indeed the light of the world for John, but this light lies hidden in the enigma of suffering and of signs that are difficult to interpret. So faith is certainly not about seeing and knowing. On the contrary, as Jesus says to the disciple Thomas, “Blessed are those who do not see, and yet come to believe” (20. 29).

If only these Gnostic ideas had died out with the Gnostics. But they have not. They are alive and well and living in your local branch of Christian fundamentalism. Fundamentalism is dangerous to genuine faith because it has no humility. It believes not only in right doctrine, and the ability to know without any form of doubt what right doctrine is. It believes in wrong doctrine, and the ability to locate it in others. It believes that there is a war going on between believers and unbelievers, and that it can calmly discern the difference between the two. And it believes, finally, that God is on its own side, but not on theirs. Fundamentalism is based on a faith which can see and know, rather than on a faith which believes and trusts in a God who withdraws from our eyes in the figure of the suffering one.

Note this too, that fundamentalism is alive and well not only within the churches, but also beyond the church in the general community. It surfaces, for example, in the certainty of people who approach the church for a ritual service, in baptisms, weddings and funerals. Many of these folk get quite upset when the church will not order these services according to the customer’s already-determined demands and purposes. Why? Because, in many cases, the “customer” is a fundamentalist of the neo-pagan variety, who cannot accept that the church has a calling and a duty to resist this new kind of cultural orthodoxy in the name of Christ.

To these modern Gnostics, who ask as the Pharisees did, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” Jesus replies, “If you were blind you would not have sin, but now that you say ‘We see,’ your sin remains.” You see, for Christians the point is not to be able to see, but to believe that God sees us, not to claim a certain, unassailable, knowledge or experience of God, but to trust that God knows us. The interesting thing about light, as the writer to the Ephesians notes, is that it exposes and makes visible everything in the world but itself. So if Christ is the light of the world, we can trust him to make visible our own paths through life, including the sin that so easily entangles. But we should not expect to see or experience Christ with any sense of certainty until that day when he is revealed in all his fullness. To stare into the sun is to be blinded. But blindness, for Christians, is not such a big deal. “Faith is the intimation of things not seen,” says the writer to the Hebrews (11.1). And Paul says something similar: “We walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor 5.7).

The life of faith turns out to be, then, not a full-colour motion picture for those who can see clearly, but a shadow play in which the fully sighted have no significant advantage over those who see not so well. The things of God are hidden in the enigmas of the world, in parables and signs which are difficult to interpret; and pre-eminently in the sufferings of Christ and those who suffer with him and for him by their baptism into his passion. Remember that the ‘healing’ our young man received was soon transmuted into persecution by those who refused to share his growing sense of faith.

So it is for all who are baptised into Christ’s ways. For that is the way of things in a world that prefers the light of the Television and the enlightenment of three-minute-interviews to the dark light of faith, hidden in the career of a suffering God. It is the world in which ministers of the gospel, no matter how hard we try to make ourselves understood, will only rarely be understood—because the people whom we address are blind to the God and gospel to which he is bearing witness. It is a world in which, as for the Jewish leaders in our story, the message of the gospel falls upon deaf ears because of this all-pervasive belief that God and the ways of faith are ours to possess and manipulate for the sake of our own consumer ends. In a world such as this, Christians are called not to know, but to be known, not to see, but to be seen by God, who gazes upon us with a love so wide and long and deep that it surpasses all our imaginings.

We lived in deeply uncertain times. The COVID-19 is only just beginning to bite, but it is being transmitted at an exponential rate consistent with a scenario in which our capacity to respond to all who are sick or dying will be quickly overwhelmed. What we ‘see’ and ‘know’ in this scenario is not at all comforting! Now is the time to actually activate our faith in a God who loves us. To look to Christ for a word of healing. For Christ has indeed promised to heal us, but not in the way a doctor might. The salve Christ offers is far more profound. Indeed, it is salv-ation. Salvation. A medicine that can revive and remake us even if we die. So do not fear. Do not fear even death. For the last enemy is death, and it has been overcome by Christ in his resurrection. Cling to him and you will be saved. Believe in him, and you will share his glory.

All glory be to God—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—as in the beginning, so now, and forevermore.

Prepared for Lent 4 2020 on the First Sunday of the COVID-19 lockdown

Saturday, 11 January 2020

A prayer of confession in the face of ecological catastrophe: for use by settler churches


God of Jesus Christ
we come to you because there is no-where else to turn.
There is a famine in our land, 
a famine with regard to living and telling the truth.

We confess that we invaded this land and enslaved its peoples,
the people who have cared for this country and its waterways 
for thousands upon thousands of years.

We confess that we have wilfully ignored the wisdom of the First Peoples,
wisdom about how to live in this country in a way that honours and preserves all life,
that we have trampled their knowledge underfoot and treated it with contempt.

We confess that we have treated the land itself with contempt,
      and its seas and waterways also.
We have not cared for it as we ought to have done.
Instead we have exploited and raped it to feed our selfish appetites.

Now the land is sick.
It weeps and cries out in pain.
Its plants and animals, the rich tapestry of its eco-systems,
      are burning up for lack of nourishment and care.
And it is our fault.

Teach us, O God, to amend both our lives
      and the political and economic systems in which they are embedded.
Teach us to treasure the First Nations of this land
      and their wisdom about how to live here with respect and sensitivity.
Teach us to treasure the country and waterways on which we depend,
      its cycles and seasons, its plants and animals, its fragile and beautiful ecosystems.
Teach us to call our political leaders to account.
Teach us, O God, to live and tell the truth.

God of Jesus Christ,
We come to you because there is no-where else to turn.
Have mercy on us and free us from our sins.
Amen.

Offered to the settler churches
by Garry Deverell
a trawloolway man and Anglican priest
from trouwerner (Tasmania, Australia)

Wednesday, 11 December 2019

Communing with the Divine: a Trawloolway man reads the Song of Songs

    A reading of country

As regularly as I can, I venture into lonely forest walks around the coastal settlement of Bridport in NE Tasmania. Whilst I have no illusions about the flora and fauna bearing much relation to that of a time prior to European annexation, I nevertheless take great comfort in walking there, in following the contoured rise and fall of land and sea and communing with my pairebeenener ancestors as I do so.

I use the word 'commune' deliberately. For that is what happens when I walk. Something of myself flows into the ancestral aliveness of land and sea; the ancestral community - she or he or they - are changed by my presence, the specificity of my body in space and time, my odour and breath, my breathing and the soundings I make by sensual contact and by vocalisation.  And something of that aliveness flows into whomever I am, also. The shape and form of sea and land as he leads me toward secret grottos and streams; her breathy, salty atmosphere caressing eye and ear and skin; the sounds made by wind and sea as they flow around ancient trees and rockscapes; the thud and thump of furry kin as they pad their way, unseen, across the forest floor: a sign and a promise of occasionally more fulsome encounter, face to face.  By this communion, this asymmetrical exchange of greater and lesser selves, we are both changed. The ancestral landscape is enlarged to account for and address myself, my presence, my unique haecceitas. And I, myself, become 'all flame', as Abba Lot would have it, an instance in one time and place of the ancestral fire who inhabits and animates all times and places; a moment of rejoicing in which the ancestral song becomes a single singer; an instance, a momentary fluctuation, by which the ancestral ocean becomes a single ebb or flow of tidal movement.  In this communion I find, momentarily at least, some kind of healing, an ointment to sooth and to seal all the scars that I carry, in body and in mind. But the healing is far from complete. It is incremental and partial. It is real, it is effective; but it is unmasterable. It gives itself certainly, but only as a gift; it will not obey any law of necessity, annexation or measured exchange I might try to impose from the colonial imagination.

The ancestor I commune with has a name but cannot be fully and finally named with this name. The name I know, the name that has survived, is Moinee. Moinee is the creator-ancestor most widely invoked and revered by my people. He is the wombat-ancestor who initiated the formation of the land of lutruwita or Tasmania which, of course, is alive with the presence of many other ancestors as well. Amongst the lesser ancestors is Parlevar the kangaroo, the totem of my particular clan, the one on whom the first palawa or human beings were modelled, albeit with significant modifications. Both Moinee and Parlevar still appear to us in their animal forms: they are concretely and unmistakably there whenever we stand face-to-face with our sister wombat or brother kangaroo. And the times when I have done so over the years, the moments in which some kind of inarticulate conversation can be said to have taken place, are truly the most joyful and the most holy of my life. So, I know with whom I commune. And yet I do not know.

For really it is clear that the wombat and the kangaroo, for all their magnificence, are a lot like you or me: unique moments, instances, expressions or substitutes who are what they are because some greater life or power animates them and puts them in play. That life or power can clearly be named or even gendered in particular instances. Likewise, it can be communed with through the mediation of particular forms or material events in country, air or seascape. But can the Thou with whom we commune be named as she or he is, in his or her own being? Can she be named, as it were, comprehensively, without remainder or doubt, in her time beyond a particular time and her place beyond a particular place? Can he be named, as Jean-Luc Marion would have it, in her divinity beyond being? Not really. For every name is, as Jacques Derrida has taught us, a trace or cipher for an identity that is, in the fullness of its self-revelation, neither fully here nor fully now. 'Now we see in part and we know in part', said the Apostle Paul, 'as through a glass darkly'.  The time for knowing God's identity, as we are fully known by God, has not yet arrived.  We do not even know who Christ is, or we ourselves in Christ, not completely. Not comprehensively.  What we do know is that the name we do know evokes in us a desire or a longing to know more fully. Thus, the quintessentially eschatological season of Advent which some of us are trying to honour as we speak.

    A reading of the Song of Songs

The themes I've developed through my reading of ancestral country may also be found in the Hebrew Bible's Song of Songs. After all, the divine is never comprehensively named in the poem, not even as YWH, that most elusive and eschatological of names for God in the Jewish canon. Yet, if the poem is read within its thoroughly canonical religious context and the history of its reception by both Jews and Christians, this poem about the longing of the 'Shulamite' for her lover may also be legitimately read as a celebration of the communion between human beings and the divine as it is mediated by the particularity of landscape or country.

Let's first talk about landscape or country. The poem is full of phrases which describe the lovers' bodies as features of a cultivated landscape or else as the fauna that inhabits that landscape. Here are some examples:

My beloved is to me a cluster of henna blossoms in the vineyards of En-gedi. (1.14)

As an apple tree amongst the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among young men. With great delight I sat in his shadow and his fruit was sweet to my taste (2.3) 

Arise my love, my fair one, and come away; for now the winter is past and the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land. The fig tree puts forth its figs and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance.  Arise my love, my fair one, and come away. O my dove, in the clefts of the rock, in the covert of the cliff, let me see your face, let me hear your voice; for your voice is sweet and your face is lovely (2.10-14)

How beautiful you are my love, how very beautiful! Your eyes are doves behind your veil. Your hair is like a flock of goats, moving down the slopes of Gilead . . . Your cheeks are like halves of a pomegranate behind your veil . . . Your two breasts are like two fawns, twins of a gazelle, that feed among the lillies. (4.1,3b, 5) 

In my view, the landscape imagery of the poem is very often so dense and entangled that it is sometimes difficult for the reader to determine what image is standing in for what reality. Are the lover's breasts, for example, the reality for which twin gazelles are a signifier, or is the reality the gazelles and the lover's breasts their signifier?  Paul Ricouer, for his part, has argued that the intensity of these metaphors has the effect of dissociating the metaphorical network from its support in concrete materiality. This also means that the various characters or voices in the poem come to stand in for one another so echolalicly that it is often difficult to discern who is lover and who is beloved and who, indeed, are the friends who apparently discuss their love.

The poem is, in fact, laden to the brim with such signs of indetermination. Here are just a few:

(1) Pieces of dialogue often appear to include quotations from someone other than
the one who is speaking, with the result that it is difficult to identify the speaker
(1.4b, 1.8, 2.1, 6.10). 

(2) There are several dream-sequences that present a similar problem. Is the shepherd dreaming of being a king? (3.6-11). Is the Shulamite dreaming of being a peasant woman? (5.2-8), or is it the other way around? Or, are all these figures quite distinct from one another in the body?  

(3) There are evocations of memory that intertwine with the present in such a way
that it is difficult to tell which is which. The mother figure returns again and again in 1.6, 3.4, 3.11, 6.9, 8.1, and 8.4, but whose mother is she? Or is she the beloved as a younger woman? 

(4) The seven ‘scenes’ often referred to by commentators are said to begin with lover or beloved searching for each other, and to end with a consummation when they find each other. But these alleged ‘consummations’ are very difficult to find, in fact, because they are sung with a sense of longing rather than recounted with any sense of material gravity or traction. These features suggest that the Song is not a narrative in which characters can be readily identified, but a poem that explores the very formation of identity. The poem often asks the question ‘who?’ but the question is never entirely answered.

From the very beginning, the poem has been read as an allegory of divine human love. While the poem is certainly erotic in character, describing the mutual desire of a woman and her lover in radically fleshly ways, the canonical fathers and mothers clearly did not see the flesh, or erotic love, as somehow unworthy of God or God’s people. That this is so might appear to be something of an oddity when one considers that Judaism and Christianity alone, amongst all the ancient religions, appeared to have no sacred rites of a sexually explicit nature. Julia Kristeva explains this by reference to an analogy with the biblical canon as a whole. The Song of Songs imagines the desire of God as a desire without consummation. There is no love-making at the maternal hearth in this erotic poem. Therefore, the Song, as with the canon as a whole, imagines God as one who loves, and is desired by human beings, but who remains absent, or not entirely present. Desire is not finally consummated, and so remains desire.

Following Origen, who said that it is the ‘movements of love’ in the Song which are more important than the identity of its characters, Ricoeur argues for an interpretation of the Song in which the ‘nuptial’ metaphor for the relations between the lovers is ‘liberated’ from a purely human reference. The Greek paradigm of erotic love tended to see the point of sexual entanglement as a means of ecstatic escape from the body into some kind of self-less and unconscious communion with the divine One. But that is not what is happening in the Song of Songs. There the profound play of desire in the possession and dispossession of selves suggests, instead, a view of love that is transcendent and yet powerfully incarnational at the same time.  What happens here is not a doing away with the properly sexual reference but rather its putting on hold or suspension; this then effects a freeing of the whole metaphorical network of nuptiality for other embodied ‘investments and divestments.’ That possibility is further enhanced by the radical mobility of identification between the partners of the amorous dialogue, a mobility that smacks of the ‘substitution’ of one ancestral instance or character for another, as I propose above in my reading of country.

On this basis, Kristeva argues that the lover in the Song can be legitimately interpreted as the cipher for an absent or incorporeal God who is nevertheless made available to the human beloved in ritual, as well as in the very ordinary landscape of human life. Supreme authority, whether it be royal or divine, can be loved as flesh while remaining essentially inaccessible; the intensity of love comes precisely from that combination of received jouissance and taboo, from a basic separation that nevertheless unites—that is what love issued from the Bible signifies for us, most particularly in its later form, as celebrated in the Song of Songs.

Of course, that reading would only be possible if one were to read the Song in its canonical context as a book of the Jewish and Christian Scriptures. But that is what it is! In that context, one can see how it is that the appearance of God in the materiality of the burning bush of Exodus 3 might be amplified in the Song to include lover’s bodies and whole landscapes. Furthermore, Richard Kearney has made the important point that a canonical reading of the Song would also be an eschatological reading. In this view, the love between the Shulamite and her lover looks both back to Eden’s innocence and forward to a time when God and human beings will gaze upon each other ‘face to face’. Citing Rabbi Hayyim de Volozhyn (19th century), Kearney points out that the Song is filled with eschatological imagery. 5.1 speaks of love as entering a garden filled with milk and honey, an image of the Promised Land. Similarly, the kiss of 1.2 might be read as the promise that one day the revelations of God will be given mouth to mouth and face-to-face, rather than through the mediations of angel, fire, or ritual. Such eschatology is subversive, according to Kearney, for it makes the powerful erotic charge of the poem into something more than (but still including) the erotic. If this is the case, then our received understandings of both God and desire are transformed. Law-based understandings of both God and the obedience of God are swept aside in order to say that ‘burning, integrated, faithful, untiring desire—freed from social or inherited perversions—is the most adequate way for saying how humans love God and God loves humans. It suggests how human and divine love may transfigure one another.’

I would add, of course, that all of this erotic and eschatological charge is ignited in landscape, in country and in waterway; and that precisely because human selves come from ancestral country and are instances of the ancestral that are embedded in country, that we are most ourselves as human beings when we commune with the divine by communing with country. Country is like God, in that it cannot be possessed or domesticated, used or even finally and comprehensively named. Country is like the Christ of God, whose life is poured out for us and for our salvation only insofar as we are able to respect and treasure the gift, and take it to our hearts, and love it with all the power that country so generously provides. 


I suppose this means that I belong, also, to the school of Job as Mark has described it in chapter 8 of his book. Mark understands Job as a more fluid and poetic version of the Priestly Triteuch, which wants to locate God not simply in the cry for a merely human form of justice or liberation in the face of Empire, but also in the wise utterances of creation itself (p.127), in which God speaks particular words of wisdom for particular places (p.130). This would certainly sit well with my peculiarly Aboriginal sense of responsibility for country: we cannot care for a particular place unless we first listen to what it is telling us in its own unique voice. The particularity of that voice is for that country, and especially its caretakers, those who are related to that country as kin, as ancestral stewards. To listen, of course, is the very opposite of colonisation and its bully-boy shouting. For the sake of us all, I pray we shall learn, in time, to listen more deeply to what our lands and seas and waterways are telling us.


This talk was given at a symposium in celebration of Mark Brett's book Locations of God: political theology in the Hebrew Bible on December 12, 2019.

Thursday, 31 October 2019

All Hallows Eve (Halloween)

It is October 31 and I've just been out for an evening walk. Along the way I encountered a great many gouls and goblins, witches and warlocks, ghosts and zombies, along with many a house decorated with cobwebs, spiders, and jack-o-lanterns.  The festival of 'halloween' simply did not exist in the Australia of my youth. The evening before November the 1st passed by simply as the evening before November the 1st. For a Baptist family in an almost entirely Anglo-Australian rural town, there was, quite simply, nothing to be celebrated.


But 'Halloween' is now quite a big thing. Even in my home town. The change has come because of the power of global capital. There is a great deal of money to be made out of annual celebrations. And so the festivals of other countries - in this case, the USA - have now implanted themselves in the Australian psyche alongside the consumer festivals that were already here: Christmas and Easter, Mother's Day and Father's Day. The annual spend in richer countries around all these festivals is said to be so large that it is able to keep flagging economies going pretty much on its own. 

Of course, 'Halloween', just like Christmas and Easter, has its roots in a Christian festival that began early in the 4th century as a twin commemoration of 'all saints' and 'all souls'. Today, in the more liturgically catholic Western churches, All Saints in celebrated on November 1 and All Souls on November 2. 'All Saints' invites believers to remember and give thanks for the dead who have most clearly and consistently followed in the way of Christ, those who have most inspired others to imitate Jesus. 'All Souls' invites the same believers to remember and give thanks for all the baptised faithful who each, in their own very ordinary ways - and with varying quality! - also sought to follow Christ. 

The Christian festivals of the dead assume, following the teaching of St Paul, that the dead are really and actually dead. Their bodies have ceased to function, their hearts and brains have stopped entirely, and there is no longer anyone to talk to or communicate with. There is no surviving 'soul' or 'spirit' that has slipped into another metaphysical room or dimension, for the spirit - the essential character or personality - cannot survive without the body. All that is left of a dead person is the objects they possessed, their representation in word or image or textile and, most importantly, the precious memories of their loved ones and of God. But the person is simply no more. She or he has ceased to exist.

The consumer festival of halloween apparently finds this sober Christian realism just a little too dull. A more exciting story is apparently necessary to sell all those costumes and sweets. The halloween marketers have therefore revived certain pagan ideas about the dead still being alive in some sense: dwelling, perhaps, in another realm or dimension which can be accessed via certain rituals or on certain days (especially at halloween). One can therefore pretend to be such a dead person - a ghost or goul or zombie - or else one can pretend to be one of those who can help the living access the dead: a medium, a witch, a pagan shaman, priest or priestess. On the other side of the transaction one may pretend to be an ordinary representative of the living who is terrified of what the dead may do if they are not placated or bought off: you can offer a 'treat' - in pagan mythology an 'offering' or 'sacrifice' - to buy the dead's favour. In either case, the usefulness of this revived pagan metaphysics to marketers is twofold. You can sell the appropriate costume to represent the unfriendly dead. And you can sell the remedy for encountering the unfriendly dead: lots of lollies and other forms of sugary candy. Genius really. And incredibly lucrative.

As the tiresome bore I probably am, I tend to avoid the consumer festival of Halloween (along with those associated with Christmas, Easter and Valentine's Day). I am not inclined to fall for the consumer trick of creating a problem that buying a product will solve. Nor am I inclined to import a metaphysics of death that is entirely redundant to the Christian faith I hold dear. For me, and for Christians everywhere, the dead are dead. They survive only in our memories and in the memory of God. We can mourn their loss, we can give thanks for their influence in our lives, but they are no longer alive in any real sense. One day we shall all be resurrected, of course, the dead will be reanimated not as we were but as God intends us to be. We shall be different. The whole cosmos and we ourselves will no longer be ourselves in several crucial ways. The old will have gone and the entirely new will have arrived. We will have died to ourselves and become Christ. So whether it makes any sense to talk about being 're-united with our loved ones' except in the most general of senses remains an open question.

May your Hallowtide be blessed by the knowledge that God's love cannot be bought but is simply given, unconditionally.


Tuesday, 22 October 2019

Garry's speech to the Anglican Diocese of Melbourne's Synod in Oct 2019

Mr President, I seek leave to speak to the motion now before us, Motion 20, ‘Next Steps for Reconciliation’.

The Anglican Church of Australia is a quintessentially colonial church. As the colony of Port Phillip Bay was being carved out of Kulin country in the mid 1830s, the local colonisers as well as those who set colonial policy back in London were overwhelmingly Anglican. Lord Melbourne, after whom this city is named, was Prime Minister. William Buxton, George Grey, Charles Grant and James Stephen, key policy-makers regarding the colonies, were also Anglicans. Collectively they were the kind of Anglicans, though, who assumed that genteel Britishness and Anglicanism were pretty much the same thing. Buxton’s Select Committee on the Aboriginal Tribes consistently conflated the promotion of British civilisation, including its newly commercial thirsts and desires, with the missionary spread of Christianity. 

Of crucial influence in the deliberations of the Select Committee were accounts of the Tasmanian frontier wars of the previous decade from Governor George Arthur and the soon-to-be bishop of Australia, WG Broughton.  Despite having little experience of Aboriginal life outside of Sydney, Broughton had presided over what historian James Boyce has called one of the ‘great whitewashes of Australian history’: the Van Diemen’s Land Government Inquiry of 1830 to consider the ‘origin of the hostility displayed by the black natives of this island’. This inquiry had infamously concluded that ‘acts of violence on the part of the natives are generally to be regarded, not as retaliating for any wrongs which they conceived themselves collectively or individually to have endured, but as proceeding from a wanton and savage spirit inherent in them.’ Against all the evidence to hand, the Inquiry reported that it was bad people – Aborigines and convicts – who caused the conflict in Tasmania. The more genteel classes were portrayed not as perpetrators but as victims, even though it was clearly their thirst for land and wealth – Aboriginal land and wealth – that caused the war.  Broughton repeated these conclusions in his evidence to the Select Committee on Aborigines. And the strategies of Swanson, Batman, Lonsdale and the many colonists that followed them here into Kulin country – a great many of them formally Anglican - were demonstrably inspired by Broughton’s plainly false assertions regarding my truwunnan ancestors.

What followed was nothing short of an apocalypse for the Kulin peoples on whose land we meet today. In the Victorian frontier wars that unfolded over the next 15 years, Kulin peoples were raped, murdered, shot, and poisoned in vast numbers. Their lands and seas were stolen. Their complex land-management systems and agricultural riches were destroyed, along with habitat and wildlife, by the arrival of sheep and cattle in their millions. And, when the wars were over, the survivors of this Armageddon were herded into church-run missions where they were forbidden to speak their languages, to practise culture, or even to work for a living.  The damage to this country and to those who had cared for it for upward of 80 thousand years, was nothing short of catastrophic, and Anglican policy-makers were at the heart of both why and how it happened.  

The ongoing effects of colonisation are now regularly reported by the Commonwealth’s Productivity Commission. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people remain in every way the sickest, poorest, and most disadvantaged people in modern Australia. The statistics make for horrifying reading. But I would like to remind you that we, the Aboriginal members of your church, are these statistics. We, like the apostle Paul, wear the marks of crucifixion in our hearts and in our bodies.  We, like Christ himself, are the scapegoats outside the camp who bear in our very flesh the sins of the nation.

This Synod has visited the question of justice for our people, and Anglican culpability in the destruction of our way of life, several times before.  The last discussion, in 2013 and 2014, issued in the creation of a Reconciliation Action Plan. At the request of the Archbishop, the RAP Group reviewed that plan at the end of 2017 and concluded that the RAP was unfortunately doomed to failure due to the vast gap between what it said it would do, and the resources allocated to actually do it. The Report of the Review  – tabled with AiC in February 2018 and now made available to members of Synod – argued that the diocese had entered the RAP process prematurely. Instead it asked that AiC consider how a mature Aboriginal voice might be appointed to the senior leadership of the diocese. For it remains the case, after all these many years, that there has never been a secure or tenured Aboriginal voice within the senior leadership of our diocese, nor in its schools and agencies; nor even in its theological colleges. Without a voice, we cannot call for mercy. Without a voice we cannot call for justice. Without a voice, matters of truth and reconciliation will remain a distant, and increasingly forlorn, hope.

When there was no response to the RAP Group’s report, Glenn Loughrey and I decided to convene a meeting of the Aboriginal clergy of the Province. Chris McLeod, the National Aboriginal bishop, agreed to chair the gathering.  Our discussions, which took place in August 2018, were very fruitful. We formed an Aboriginal Council of the Anglican Province of Victoria and prepared a Statement to Provincial Leadership which Glenn tabled, in person, at the meeting of the Provincial Council in November of 2018. In this statement, which has now been shared with the members of Synod, we outline clearly and concretely our aspirations towards a modest form of justice and gospel healing for our people. We also invite the bishops and other leaders of the Province into an ongoing conversation with us about how that might happen.  To date we have not received any formal response to our invitation from Archbishop in Council.

This motion therefore seeks the Synod’s support in eliciting a nuanced and considered response from AiC to both these documents. Apart from that response, reconciliation is effectively on hold in this diocese. The motion is before you. I so move.

The motion and the reports referred to in this speech can be downloaded in pdf form from http://christologia.net/deverell_motion_synod2019.pdf

Sunday, 11 November 2018

Revolutions

Ruth 3.1-5, 4.13-17; Psalm 127; Hebrews 9. 24-28; Mark 12. 38-44

The book of Ruth is a parable, a story written in order to undermine the dominance of a certain kind of religious ideology that was prominent in Israel at the time of its composition.  You can read all about that ideology in the book of Ezra.  There you will read about the zealousness of a group of aristocratic religious reformers who returned from the exile in Babylon convinced that God had punished Israel primarily because its men had taken foreign wives to their beds, thus making it possible for corrupt (that is, non-Jewish) ideas and practices to flourish amongst the chosen people.  The reformers therefore forced or convinced thousands of ordinary men, most of whom had never in fact left Jerusalem at all during the exilic period, to ‘put away’ both their wives and their children as an act of religious duty.  Read against that background, one can see how the book of Ruth would have once been regarded as a revolutionary literature.  For in telling a story of the royal lineage of David, it also seeks to demonstrate that the God of Israel cannot be counted on to support such a programme.  In the verses we read this morning, the authors stress that Israel’s most lauded family only became what it was because God chose to bless and honour two revolutionary women who chose to buck the religious system of dos and donts.  Tamar, a Canaanite woman, disguised herself as a prostitute in order to get an heir for Judah, the great ancestor of the Davidic clan.  And Ruth, a Moabite woman with no firm legal or religious status in Israel, went out on a very thin and very dangerous limb in order to get a son for Naomi.  One must surely conclude, at least, that God is not one to honour our fear of ethnicities other than our own.  And perhaps we may also conclude that God will not be bound by any of our human fears or anxieties, no matter how deeply mythic or religious their origins seems to be.

Now, there is a message in this for our politicians, is there not? And for all those millions of Australians who support their current policies.  Allow me to paraphrase the Psalmist for a moment.  Prime Minister, Premier, unless God is in your vision for Australia, you dream in vain.  Unless God supports all your hard work in keeping the poor and the desperate from our shores, then you work for nothing.  In vain you rise early to plan for a strong and secure Australia, and in vain to stay up late to ‘protect’ our children from the poor and wretched, and so secure their future.  For unless God grants a future, in the sheer gratuity of his love and care, there is no future.  Unless God shares your vision, your vision will fail.  A happy and secure future, you see, is like having children.  It cannot be produced by our one’s will or effort, especially if such effort is motivated by such deeply held fears or anxieties.  Ask any parent you know, especially those who laboured anxiously to conceive for many months or years, and they will tell you that children come when they come.  They come from God, neither as reward for effort nor because of any sense of right or the privilege we could lay claim to.  They come as a gift, without reason or foretelling.  And so it is with our future, Prime Minister, Premier.  God will not labour with you to secure our children’s future by saving them from evil, dangerous immigrants.  Quite the opposite, I suspect.  Could it be, Prime Minister, Premier,, that in their arrival is our gift, God’s gift for a revolutionary future of peace and reconciliation amongst the tribes of the world?  If the parable of Ruth is to be believed, Prime Minister, Premier, then the gift comes always in the stranger, the one beyond the pale, the one who would cross a great boundary, a sea of impossibility, in order to reach us, in order to make the revolution possible.

But I am ahead of myself, for I wanted to talk about another of God’s revolutions, the revolution in which poverty becomes the most enriching experience in the world.  This is figured for us in the gospel story of the widow who gave all she had, all she had to live on, into the temple treasury.  Lest you think I am being romantic about her poverty, let me remind you of the situation such a woman would have faced in that time and place.  In a deeply patriarchal society, such as that of first-century Palestine, women are little more than goods to be bought and sold.  Upon marriage, they pass from their father’s ownership to their husband’s.  If that husband dies and there is no-one else, no other kin, who will marry her, then she reverts to the patronage of her father’s house.  But remember that we are talking about a desperately poor peasant society here.  Most men, because of hard labour and poor nutrition, could not expect to live beyond thirty five in ordinary circumstances.  Fathers and brothers would therefore be most unwilling, if they were still alive, to take the widows of their kin, especially if they had children already.  Jewish widows were, quite simply, at the bottom of the food-chain.  They were the ones left to fend for themselves when the going got tough.  And that often meant either Roman slavery, or prostitution, or both.  Often these options amounted to the same thing.  Now, add to all that the expectations of the religious elites who ran the temple, those whom Mark’s gospel calls ‘the Scribes and the Saducees’.  These groups had enormous power in Israel, in both religious and political terms.  They enjoyed the highest religious and social status because they were the heirs of the priestly casts.  But this also gave them enormous economic power, because, by declaring a person or place ritually unclean, they could also successfully blackmail any person who wished to claw their way back into a state of purity.  The phrase in Mark’s gospel, ‘they devour widows houses’ probably refers to precisely that practise.  It is likely that some of the priestly class, at least, were given to extracting money from pious widows in return for a declaration of cultic purity from sin.

Given all that, why does Mark record the story of the widow’s offering?  Wasn’t she being ripped off?  Why would she put in all that she had to live on, unless she was being blackmailed in some way?  Some commentators say that the story is told simply to highlight the evil practices of the scribes.  But I do not think this is so.  For later tradition will make explicit what is already right here in Mark’s text, namely, the intention to hold this woman up as an example of a truly revolutionary discipleship under very trying conditions.  For while it is true that the text does warn the reader against the false piety and moral blackmail of the priestly system, it does not propose an entirely socio-economic solution to the problem.  How could it?  How could a widow possibly be saved from economic ruin in such circumstances?  Is someone going to step in to give her more cash, or protect her from what the system makes inevitable?  There is no hint, in Mark’s text, that Jesus or his benefactors intend to do so.  So why is the story told?

The answer lies, I think, in a reading of the story which takes the whole flow of Mark’s gospel into account.  In chapter 1 we read that Jesus had come to preach the kingdom, to heal, and to exorcise.  In chapters 2 and 7 we read stories about Jesus’ willingness to confront or break the laws of the temple aristocracy in order to do so.  In chapters 8 & 10, Jesus tells his disciples that there is salvation only in being willing to die, to be baptised with his own baptism, to become the slave of all.  Also in chapter 10, in what I believe to be the key utterance of the gospel, Jesus declares that salvation, while impossible for human beings, is indeed possible for God.  Can you see where all this is heading?  By the time we come to this story of the widows offering, the reader couldn’t possibly believe that Jesus is offering some kind of socio-economic solution to the problems at hand.  On the contrary!  What Jesus seems to be implying is this:  that in order to overcome, to be saved, to be healed, to be liberated, or whatever, one must ultimately give the powers arraigned against us what they want:  our very lives.  Why?  Because Mark believe that it is in giving our lives over to the powers that be, that we shall ultimately gain our freedom from those powers.

Now, one can see how Karl Marx came to his stinging criticism of Christianity, can’t you.  Religion, he said, was an opiate to keep the poor in their place.  But this is of course to entirely miss the point of what Mark is trying to teach us!  You see, for Mark – and indeed for Paul who wrote before him – there are two powers in the world:  the power of religion or karma, which says that we get what we deserve, and the power of gospel and grace, which gives without reason or cause.  Now, in Mark’s world as in ours, it is the power of karma that appears to reign supreme.  We get ahead by paying our dues, working hard, and keeping our patrons happy.  Which implies, of course, that we want to get ahead, that we are happy to invest in the very system that enslaves us because we believe it will reward us.  But grace inhabits this world of karma in such a way that its power is stolen away.  The power of karma is death:  death is what the karmic system threatens us with in order to make us do and be what it wants.  But Grace says:  “in order to find yourself you must lose yourself.  In order to live, you must die.  In order to gain all things you must lose all things.”  In this way, grace promises that the moment of capitulation will ultimately become the moment of freedom, for it is in being willing to let go of what we cling to so desperately that we shall gain ourselves anew as a free people whose lives are hidden with Christ in God.  What seems ludicrous and impossible for human beings, is of course entirely possible for God.  This is God’s revolution:  the coming of a new and strange peace, at precisely that point when justice seems dead.

It is not surprising, therefore, that the new Matrix movie is called Revolutions.  In that story, it is at the precise moment when the new Son of Man, Neo Anderson, gives himself over to the power of inevitability - to the evilly karmic power of Smith who wants to repeat his banality over and over in the world until there is nothing left but the Same - that the revolution begins.  As he lies crucified upon the power of the machines, absorbed, it seems, into the power of the same old thing, a miracle begins to happen.  What was absorbed begins to absorb.  What was dead now begins to infect the whole system with life.  What had been given away now spreads through all the world, bringing light and life and peace where there was only darkness, death and enmity.  So it can be for us.  Jesus promises that if we give over to him that which controls us most, our desire to ascend the karmic ladder and become someone, then we can be saved.  Only in dying is there is life, only in stillness is there dancing, only in suffering the evil of what surrounds us is there freedom from it.  This is the revolution the gospel promises.  What is impossible for human beings, is possible for God.