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Sunday, 29 May 2022

Losing Ourselves to Gain Ourselves for Justice

 Texts: Acts 16.16-34; Revelation 22.12-21; John 17.20-26

Five years ago, two hundred and fifty Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders gathered at Uluru to sign a ‘Statement from the Heart’ which called upon the Australian people to join with them in working toward a ‘makaratta’ or treaty between our peoples, built upon truth-telling and a constitutionally recognised Indigenous ‘voice’ to the national parliament. Two days ago, at a ceremony on Gadigal land in Sydney, nine national religious leaders signed a resolution calling upon the federal parliament to work towards a referendum on the ‘voice’ as soon as possible. The religious leaders represented Buddhists, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims. I’m grateful to God that there were also Catholics, the Uniting Church, the National Council of Churches and, yes, even Anglicans. Chris McLeod, our national Aboriginal bishop, represented our Primate, Archbishop Geoffrey Smith, on this occasion.

One of the pleasing things about this ceremony was the fact that none of the nine religious leaders gave a speech. Rather, they listened. They listened to an oration from Rachel Perkins, an Arrente and Kalkadoon woman, a prominent filmmaker, and the daughter of Charlie Perkins, the man whose 60s activism played a key part in the recognition of mob as human beings in the 1967 referendum.  Ms Perkins used her oration to call for unity – amongst mob, in the general community, and in the faith communities – unity in supporting the Statement from the Heart and the call of the religious leaders for a referendum on an Indigenous voice to parliament. For this is the only way, she argued, that we are ever likely to see something like justice arrive in our nation, the nation of Australia, for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

It goes without saying, perhaps, that you only have to call for unity if unity isn’t actually there. And it isn’t. Demonstrably. None of the communities Ms Perkins was addressing can claim to be agreed, even within themselves, on either the Statement from the Heart or the urgency of a referendum. I can tell you, with some authority, that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities are not agreed. Many mob do not even know what the Statement from the Heart actually says. And the same is surely true with the Anglican community. Perhaps even more so. The ministry conference I attended during the week made it quite clear to me that a voice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people – indeed, even as simple a matter as listening to the mob who are part of us, who live and work in our midst - is really the very last thing on our ecclesial mind.  The very last.  What seems to be uppermost in our Anglican minds are things like the intrusion of the state into our affairs and . . . you guessed it, sex (who can have it, and what kind).  Which, on my most buoyant days, attracts little more than a gentle eye-roll but, on others, a feeling of deep despair at just how tone-deaf and narcissistic we have become. Honestly!

That’s why I really feel for the Jesus of John’s Gospel, whose earnest prayer for unity appears in today’s lections. Let’s listen in to his prayer once more, the prayer he offered, according to John, just before he was arrested and crucified:

I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

(17.20-23)

Now there’s a few things in this passage which require some clarification. First, when Jesus prays for ‘those who will believe in me through their word’, the ‘their’ in this sentence is the disciples, the apostles, who will go out to preach. ‘Those who will believe in me through their word’ are therefore the Christian communities these apostles will found and, ultimately, everyone who decides to become a Christian because of the apostolic witness. So that’s us, my friends. Jesus is praying for us.  Not for someone else, some historical community on the other side of the globe. For us. For our conflict-ridden community.

A second and crucially important clarification. When Jesus says that he has given us his glory, the glory already given him by his Father, he is not talking about fame and fortune, or even about victory or success in any conventional sense. For when John talks about glory, in this his gospel, he is in fact talking about crucifixion and the sacrificial pouring out of one’s life for others. Allow me to quote from an earlier passage, that scene at which Judas leaves the supper to betray Jesus to the authorities:

So when he had dipped the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas son of Simon Iscariot. After he received the piece of bread, Satan entered into him. Jesus said to him, ‘Do quickly what you are going to do.’  So, after receiving the piece of bread, he immediately went out. And it was night . . .   When he had gone out, Jesus said, ‘Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once.

(13.26-27, 30-31)

 And an even earlier passage, in chapter 12:

‘Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life . . .

 

‘Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—“Father, save me from this hour”? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.’ Then a voice came from heaven, ‘I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.’ . . . Jesus said, ‘This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgement of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’ He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.

(12.24-25, 28, 30-33)

I share these passages at length to convey the sense in which John uses the concept of ‘glory’. For him, the pinnacle of Christ’s glorification by the Father is not, in fact, his resurrection or ascension to the Father. It is his crucifixion, that moment when he surrenders himself entirely to his Father’s will out of love for the people to whom he was sent. So let’s be clear, let’s make no mistake. When Jesus talks about glory, he is talking about sacrificial, cruciform, love. A love that bears fruit only at great personal cost. The cost, even, of death. So, this is what Jesus prays for us: that we might live into his cruciform glory; that we might suffer and perhaps, even die, for the sake of the world and our fellow Christians;  that we might be as one in such love, that the world might know and learn of God’s love by the way we pour out our own lives for others.

A third clarification, if you will indulge me. When Jesus talks about unity as ‘oneness’, he is not talking about ‘uniformity’. He is not talking about us all becoming carbon-copies of each other in body or mind, and thus simply unable to disagree with each other. No. The model Jesus uses for ‘oneness’ is not the cookie-cutter but the circular reciprocity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. In this earliest example of mature trinitarian thinking, John has Jesus pray that we might indwell each other – as the Father does the Son, and the Son the Father – not to the point where we simply become each other, without any hint of differentiation. For the Father is NOT the Son and the Son is NOT the Father. Each comes to ‘indwell’ the other, rather, in something of the manner that dancers and jazz musicians do, by their intuition about where the other is going next, and their choice to cooperate with each other out of a deep and abiding care and respect. That is why the Cappadocian fathers of the church called the trinity a circle-dance: a mutual yielding and cooperation of each with the other, even as the possibility for dissension and disagreement remains forever at hand.

This, then, is what Jesus prays for the church. And, if I may speak quite personally again, it is why I remain a Christian even though many of my fellow-Christians regularly wound and drive me crazy. It is why I am a Christian even though the church has never come to terms with its leading role in the attempted genocide of my people. It is why I remain a Christian even though the church remains racist. It is why I remain a Christian even when mob are ignored and rendered invisible by our Councils and theological colleges. It is why I am a Christian. Why? Because I believe in the sacrificial love of Christ for sinners as the only hope for us all. The only hope. The only hope. For I, too, regularly hurt my kin. I, too, am blind to the sufferings of others and too much centred in my own hurts and fears. I, too, am in desperate need of grace: the undeserved favour that is offered to us all for the making of the church, and of a society, and of an ecology that is finally reconciled, made one, whole and at peace.

That is not to say that we are equal in our sacrificial callings. We are not. It is incumbent upon the more powerful partner to do the lion’s share of the work to close the yawning gap between us, whether that gap be economic, cultural or theological. So let’s call a spade a shovel. The social and economic rules in this commonwealth, the cultural assumptions of this colony, and the theological imagination of this colonial church, are all those of white people, of colonists whose forebears are in Europe. If you are not from Europe, or your forebears were not – and especially if you are Indigenous to this country, with its 300 clans or nations – the only way to survive is to adapt to the colonial rules and imagination.  Doing so is enormously costly and regularly depletes and exhausts the personal and economic resources all of us who really prefer to live from and to country. Yet colonists do it with relative ease, and white people assume that there is no other way to live. The playing field is therefore deeply and structurally uneven. The fight is fixed, the mare has been hobbled, the dice have been loaded. And this is especially the case if you are ‘the wrong kind of black’. So, if we are really the church, if we are to take Christ’s call to sacrificial love seriously, it is incumbent upon the strongest to do most of the sacrificing. Which, let’s be honest, is deeply counter to everything we are taught from an early age.

I’ve not even attempted, today, to explore the other lections. I’ve not explored the ways in which the gospel frees slaves and interrupts the accumulation of wealth (as in the Acts reading). I’ve not explored what ‘washing one’s robes’ might mean in order to eat from the tree of life (as in the reading from Revelation). Strong hint, though. It has something to do with dying to the basic principles of this world and rising to a completely different set of values.

But let me conclude with this. If we are ever to be reconciled, if we are ever to come to terms with the hurt and the injustice we render, one to another, in this colony called ‘Australia’, we must discipline ourselves to live into the prayer of Christ to his Father. If there is ever to be something like justice, we must be prepared to put aside all our many forms of cheap and trivial grace, our many band-aid solutions and duct-tape fixes. Instead, if we are colonists, we must learn what it means to love at great cost, to embrace genuinely cruciform solutions to end our cultural and economic warfare against the last and the least. If Christ, whom we claim to worship, was willing to give himself entirely for our salvation - to pour out his life even to death, for the sake of all this world’s most little and vulnerable ones - what prevents us from so giving ourselves for this great work? What? What precisely? Is it the fear of losing ourselves? Losing our treasured control? Losing our sense of moral and intellectual superiority, our sense of being on the side of the angels? Is it a fear of losing what we believe is rightfully ours to possess?

Please, friends, don’t be afraid. Listen to the wisdom of country once more, the wisdom which Christ embraced and shared with his disciples: ‘Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.’ In reality, there is nothing to lose, my friends, nothing but fool’s gold and false promises. But look at what you can gain! Justice for the vulnerable, peace for the troubled, a home for the exiles. And friends. Friends who love you and have your back. A community in which you can laugh, and cry, and dance and sing. A communion of all creatures which includes the plants and the animals, the waterways, the starry host and the earth itself. A veritable body for Christ, who fills and embraces all that is alive. So, please, don’t be afraid to lose all you have for the sake of justice. For you will receive back a hundredfold everything you ever could lose.

Garry Deverell
7th Sunday after Easter, 2022

Preached at St Paul's Cathedral as part of our observance for Reconciliation Week.

Monday, 2 May 2022

When it comes to defending the flourishing of country, and of human life, I am no pacifist

The war in Ukraine is, of course, just one of the conflicts raging in the world right now. For the moment, the conflicts in Palestine, Yemen, Syria, Ethiopia, northern Iraq and many other places, no longer enjoy sustained attention from international media organisations. The extent to which the following comments about the war in Ukraine might pertain, also, to these many other conflicts, I will leave to the reader to decide. I am no expert on the geo-politics of any of these places.

I begin by pointing out that, in this world at least, we are dealing not with the ultimate and the perfect but with the penultimate and the imperfect. So whilst a more robust form of pacifism might suffice in the face of lesser forms of violence - refusing to fight in a morally ambiguous war in another part of the world, for example - pacifism of this kind does not seem sufficient when one's own land, livelihood and the lives of one's loved ones are under threat.  In the face of such clear and present danger, I believe the Christian has not merely a right, but actually a duty and responsibility, to mount some kind of defence.

My reasoning goes something like this. All life is sacred because it is brought into existence by the action of the creator. Inherent in the gift of life is a right and responsibility to maintain the conditions by which that life - within reasonable limits - can flourish and become what it was created to be.  Insofar as that is possible without, simultaneously, seriously curtailing the flourishing of other forms of life, we might speak in this context of a 'responsibility' to live and flourish. That word 'responsibility' suggests that a life is lived before the one who gives it. That 'one', I would posit  - as both a Christian and trawloolway man -  is the creator, the one who gives us life in all its myriad forms. We are responsible to our creator. We live our lives in a way which responds appropriately to what is given.

Now, it is clear that human beings have a responsibility to take life for the sake of our sustenance and our thriving. We may take from what is given in creation - its flora and its fauna - in order to sustain our lives. But there are limits to what we may take.  We may not, for example, hunt particular animals to the point where their own capacity to thrive and flourish is severely diminished. Neither may we do so with plant life. For if we do so, we risk compromising the entire biosphere's responsibility and capacity to flourish before, and to the glory of, our creator.

The same principle applies when it comes to human life, but perhaps in an even more robust form. Both the Jewish and Christian traditions put severe limits upon the taking of human life. 'Thou shalt not kill', whilst not an absolute command which applies in any and all circumstances, nevertheless inscribes a serious duty to do everything possible to avoid the taking of human life.

What this means, I think, when it comes to the theatre of war between human nations, is simply this: that one should avoid policies and practices that are likely to lead to war. One should never be the aggressor or the provocateur. One should never be the one who creates the conditions - whether these be political, cultural, economic or environmental -  in which war becomes the most likely outcome. We should do everything we can to avoid starting wars. For wars destroy life - not only human life, but also animal and plant life - on a scale which makes the likelihood of recovery exponentially difficult.

There are circumstances, however, in which war becomes inevitable. Having done all that is rationally and morally possible to avoid conflict with an aggressor, sometimes one simply has to take up arms in order to defend one's right and responsibility to live and to flourish before the creator is a way that is commensurate with the equatible distribution of that right and responsibility across the whole biosphere.

An example, from the recent history of my own people, is the way we took up weapons to defend our country and our way of life from the British invasion, which took place in ever more disruptive and devastating waves from 1802 until the present.  In the face of that invasion - which proceeded on the assumption that Aboriginal people enjoyed no right or responsibility to life and its flourishing - we had no choice. Before our creator-ancestors, and because of their injunction to care for country and for each other, we had to fight.

Now, the fact that we lost those wars and continue to sue for a more just settlement for our people and our country, means that the nation named 'Australia' by the invader is no longer the biospheric wonderland it once was. Thousands of specifies are now extinct as a result of the destruction of habitat. The ecosystem on which all of life depends is now either dead or dying in much of the continent. And the right and responsibility of Aboriginal peoples to life and flourishing - precisely as we care for country - remains of little consequence to our religious, commercial or political leaders.

But we had to fight. To preserve the way of life to which our creator-ancestors had called us. To prevent the destruction of that way of life by a people who had little regard for the call and injunction of the creator. We lost, obviously. But we had to fight.

To the extent that the war in Ukraine mirrors what we have experienced ourselves, I would argue that the people of the Ukraine also have to fight. Before God, they must fight. For the sake of the way and form of human flourishing which God has given, they must fight. For the sake of resisting an evil and destructive ideology, they must fight. And we who believe in the sacredness of all forms of life, precisely as they are given in creation, must offer whatever forms of solidarity we can.

Garry Deverell

With thanks to Dr Jonathan Foye, who provoked me to give this some thought.