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Tuesday, 29 July 2008

On Earth as in Heaven

TEAR Australia National Conference and Festival at Stanwell Tops, just south of Sydney, this last weekend was a wonderful event. The conference organisers were almost overwhelmed by a conference attendance of 500 people - probably over half under 35 years of age.

Whatever is happening in the decline of the Christendom model of the church a socially engaged faith inspired by a range of influences from nineteenth century Evangelical reformers such as Wilberforce, through contemporary anabaptism to the new monasticism, is well and truly alive in Australia.

In the local TEAR groups, lobbying activities and community engagement many people are finding a faith community experience that is more coherent and in touch with everyday life than traditional forms of churching. This form of social/faith movement is characterised by leadership that is not constrained by denominational politics and is moved forward by the energy, gifts and skills of ordinary biblically and theologically literate people who are not waiting for clerical permission.

Your Kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven - the conference theme was underpinned by enlivening biblical studies by activist Ched Myers who drew our attention to the social, economic and political reality against which the prophets of Israel proclaimed God's critique and the realities of the empire against which Jesus' ministry was set.

Thursday, 24 July 2008

The problem with reason

The new atheists have been vocal about the need for "reason" and how the application of reason is all that is required for people to escape the illusion of "religion".

Romand Coles highlights the difficulty and the illusion of appealing to some pure idea of reason above and beyond the influences and sheer messiness of human life.

... our visions and arguments concerning the "reasonable" and "the public" (and for that matter "religion" I would add) are infused with and are significantly and discrepantly shaped by particular histories, doctrines, perceptions, and sensibilities with which we identify - in ways that seem powerfully to elude transparency. (p.246 Beyond Gated Politics)

Thursday, 17 July 2008

Deconstructing pretensions of power

John D Caputo has offered a deconstructionist reading of Jesus, a reading against the powers that be in What Would Jesus Deconstruct? The Good News of Post-modernism for the Church (Baker Academic, 2007).

Some passages are powerful, imaginatively challenging and shook loose the comforting familiar ways of reading the New Testament. At a couple of points he stumbles, particularly where he fails to recognise that John Howard Yoder is an ally of his project. A shadow of Christendom remains lurking as an unacknowledged ghost at a couple of points. Never mind - at its best Caputo is disturbing and subversive, not least of the church when it moves to comfortable conformity with the powers that be and moves away from the impossibility of the gift.

Caputo acknowledges that there is no straight line from the theo-poetics of the kingdom into public policy. That does not mean he argues that there is no connection at all. The way is by a transformation of heart and imagination as much as by analysis it seems to me.

What would a political order look like were the poetics of the kingdom able to be transformed into political structure? What would it be like if there really were a politics of the bodies of flesh that proliferate in the New Testament, a politics of mercy and compassion, of lifting up the weakest and defenseless people at home, a politics of welcoming the stranger and loving one's enemies abroad?


A politics of the kingdom would be marked by madness of forgiveness, generosity and hospitality. The dangerous memory of the crucified body of Jesus poses a threat to a world organised around the disasterous concept of power ... The crucified body of Jesus proposes not that we keep theology out of politics but that we think theology otherwise, by way of another paradigm, another theology, requiring us to think of God otherwise, as a power of powerlessness, as opposed to the theology of omnipotence that underlies sovereignty. (p.87-88)

Monday, 14 July 2008

World Youth Day - how it might renew faith

Contrary to The Australian newspaper's headline suggesting that the Pope's coming to Australia would renew the flame of faith, the real change to life of the Christian community in Australia arising from World Youth Day is likely to be located elsewhere, much closer to the grass roots and away from the headlines.

It will come, if it does from the reality of Christians from across the globe meeting each other, face to face and in small groups, receiving ecumenical hospitality from Australian Christians of other traditions and discovering our connections across the barriers of nations, institutional self preservation and ancient theological quarrels.

Let me offer a small testimony from an informal service that my wife and I attended last night.
Hosted in an Anglican chapel, using an Iona service for justice, we had musical accompaniment from members of Chemin Neuf, a Catholic community with an ecumenical vocation and were lead in a meditation on how Jesus might respond to the experience of Palestinians on the West Bank by a young couple of anabaptist persuasion who had recently been on a delegation with the Christian Peacemaker Team in Hebron.

It was a wonderful time of sharing, in making some of those connections that will work for life and gesture towards the freedom, challenge and love offered in the call of Jesus to follow.

Engagement with others part 2

To follow up yesterday's post on starting engagement from other from "The place where we are wrong' I promise to put up a link to the sermon when it goes up on the Canberra Baptist website.

In the meantime here is another attempt to sketch in an affirmative mode a form of Christian engagement, this time in the words of Roman Coles radical democrat activist and political theorist (re)interpreting the anabaptist theologian John Howard Yoder.

Witness to Jesus as Lord must not be read as a solicitation to strive for a singular and direct knockout victory over outsiders. Instead, it calls for multiple particular vulnerable encounters in which the strengths of the church body are little by little brought to light and perhaps themselves radically reformed and renewed. (p.127 Beyond Gated Politics)

Sunday, 13 July 2008

Interfaith engagement

Interfaith engagement has tended to take one of three major patterns in Christian history. We're right and you are wrong, a black and white view of the world which fails to do justice to kalidescopic colours of life. A successionist view of religions, which sees one succeeding the other - problematic for Christians engaging with Islam or a relativism which says that we are all heading for the some goal and it doesn't matter which way we go. This is an approach that evades the question of truth and similarly overlooks the fact that different religious traditions have very different views about the goal of life and the character of what virtues we need to develop on our way to the goal.

Jim Barr in his sermon on Romans 11 at Canberra Baptist Church this morning argues that the way to interfaith engagement begins with "the place where we are wrong". For Christians this means an engagement that begins with confession of our implication as a community of faith with the state use of violence through the Christendom era and into the period of colonialism.

Following from Jim's suggestion it would seem that we do not so much need a theory about other "schools of faith" whether liberal or fundamentalist, but rather a communal practice of confession and opening our hands to receive the grace of God's mercy and forgiveness - even from hands of those who have suffered at the hands of our fellow members of Christ's body.

Thursday, 10 July 2008

In a time of church conflict...

In a time of Anglican church conflict, the following comments by a political theorist Romand Coles and activist in grass roots radical democratic movements offers a helpful reading of the theology of Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder - a reading in favour of radical democracy. The careful attention Coles pays to Yoder in his reading demonstrates demonstrates a respect for someone from a differing faith trajectory, a respect and care that serves as a helpful model that could well be usefully practiced by some of the controversialists in the wolrd wide Anglican community.

What unity asks Coles does the church seek? According to Coles...

Yoder emphatically rejects notions of church unity based upon extant agreements that would proide a lowest -common denominator foundation for identity, direction and tolerable pluralism. Such understandings tend to construe every serious dispute as a call for division.

Far better Yoder argues to understand church unity as a commitment to dialogical processes of reconciliation figured by the early churchees' gathering discernment around Jesus's wisdom of the cross. This "racialises the particular relevance of Jesus, enabling dialogue through the content of his message: the love of the enemy, the dignity of the lowly, repentance, servanthood, the renunciation of coercion." (p.117 Beyond Gated Politics: Reflections for the Possibility of Democracy)

Saturday, 5 July 2008

Anglicans, property and why Sydney Diocese won't be part of a schism

Whatever their passion for getting the Anglican church on what they see as the right theological track we can I think be fairly certain that the leadership of Sydney Diocese will move cautiously in how this is all framed in terms of institutional arrangements with respect to their relationship to the Anglican church in Australia.

That at least is the view of this non-Anglican, bush lawyer and committed ecclesial anarchist.

If you are wondering why I sound so confident, I have one word for you - property.

Sydney Diocese is sitting on someone unknown amount of property, some estimates place it at about $4 billion, arising historically from the early land grants during the initial settlement in Sydney - grants that were made before it became clear that the Anglican Church was not going to become the Established Church on that fatal shore.

Anglican dioceses are rife with lawyers. Any hint that Sydney diocese was in any way moving to formally disconnect itself from the Anglican communion would see legal opinions flying right left and centre about the possibility of civil suits around the lawful ownership of that property.

An example of what such legal action might look like, on a somewhat smaller scale, can be found in the cases that followed the split up of the assets of the Presbyterian Church between those who joined the Uniting Church and those who remained to form the continuing Presbyterian church.

We can't say that we weren't warned by Jesus about the power of Mammon. In this case it looks like it will effectively constrain some church leaders who have strong theological commitments from following thos commitments to their logical institutional conclusion.

Thursday, 3 July 2008

What is important about being a Christian community?

In reflecting on the events over the schism, or coup in the international Anglican community in the past week (can Anglicans have schisms? I must seek guidance from my Anglican friends as to whether this is ecclesiologically possible), I found the following observations at the close of a sermon by my friend Simon Barrow of Ekklesia bracing in providing a helpful perspective:

Jesus, remember, was clear that the Spirit of the Lord was calling him to proclaim good news to the poor, not the self-satisfied; the sick and the subjugated, not the well and the worthy. In following this Jesus, we will take risks and make mistakes. But that is not the worst thing. The worst thing is to think that it is our rules, structures and institutions, rather than God’s capacity to remake lives, forgive sins and free us from bondage, that really counts. (Whose Mission is it Anyway? a Sermon on the Feast of St Peter and St Paul)

Speed and more speed

Advocates who are passionate for something to be done - cross jurisdiction sharing of information about children who may be at risk for example - can be blind to the realities of the world of institutions and the fact that very few things that matter can be done immediately.

The world of instant action, instant moral gratification and a crusading gnosticism that does not acknowledge that reality and recalcitrance of matter and people - that resources of people, time and money are required to make protection and care of children effective.

It takes time in the real world to set up systems appropriate money make software to talk, ensure legal protections and appropriate training of staff to ensure that the system actually works and continues to work and that appropriate care is taken to ensure that people's lives are not damaged by mistake and that bureaucrats exercising power over the lives of families, are accountable for the way they exercise that power.

But no none of this matters - damage is being done to children while all this goes on according to the advocates and there should be no tarrying. Nothing is more important, nothing else should receive the Prime Minister's attention.


Jesus announced "Blessed are the merciful for they shall receive mercy". Those filled with compassion for children, as the least the most vulnerable in our community might think about extending some compassion to public servants and politicians who cannot take immediate action on all fronts to prevent all the evils and tragedies currently in prospect.

Public servants too have families and children who need to be cared for or are they to be sacrificed on the altar of the need for speed in trying to prevent some anticipated evil?