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Saturday, 25 April 2009

Anzac Day Sport and Religion

Anzac Day is as much about forgetting, forgetting about the horror of war and those both civilians and soldiers who were scarred by what they experienced and saw as it is about remembering.

"Lest we forget" is the mantra - lest we remember is probably a truer and more painful call.

And the sacred comes back in Australia, not as in the United States civil religion and nationalism glossed in a pseudo-Christian language, but in a strange unthinking blend of straining for national identity in which sport becomes "conscripted" - the Anzac Day AFL game at the MCG being a good example.

Ruby Murray provides some helpful perspective:

In a country as hungry for a founding mythology as Australia, it doesn't take long to establish traditions. The annual Anzac Day football match between Collingwood and Essendon began in 1995. By 1997 it was already 'traditional'.

Fourteen years on, the symbolism and hype surrounding the match has accumulated to the point that 'The Anzac Day Clash' has reached near-sacred heights, with every possible chance taken to exploit the links between football, war, and the Australian national identity.

Asking what it means to have football played on Anzac Day is almost as risky as wondering why the Digger has become the most powerful expression of Australian identity.

The privileging of both football and the Digger as positive statements of what it means to be Australian involves an incredible amount of forgetting on a day supposedly set aside for remembrance.

There's nothing new in worrying that the kind of Australian identity glorified by Anzac Day is restrictive. Over the last century, various groups and individuals have questioned what it means to have reified the 'Anzac Tradition' to the point that discussion of the complex trauma and evils of war is neglected.

The morphing of Anzac Day into an unthinking and religiously untouchable celebration of national identity is a problem and particularly with the ongoing co-option of the churches as chaplains to the nation state and the melding of the language of sacrifice in way with the Christian account of the killing of Jesus.

Ruby Murray argues that:

... Anzac Day is not a festival of nationhood, and as we stand in the MCG amid the yelling fans and perform its most recent 'tradition' we are letting it slide uncritically into a day of celebration. While remembering the dead is important, it's also important that we remember that not all wars are the same, that war in itself is ugly, awful, and traumatising.

It's important that when we applaud nobility in conflict we remember that we are applauding it not because noble behaviour is the norm, but because it is the exception.

It's important that we remember courage in all its forms: the courage of those who stay at home in times of war and conflict, the courage of those who speak out against violence and war, who refuse to be silenced, the courage of the bereaved, the courage of the traumatised, the courage of those who return with the memories of the atrocities committed by both sides.

No matter how we try to romanticise it, the trauma of war stays with those who fight in them, and those who are caught in the middle. Acts of war are only romantic in the florid writing of sports reporters. It's when we forget to remember the complex horrors of war that we risk turning Anzac Day into a celebration of nation.(The False Nationalism of Anzac Day and Football - Eureka Street)

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Violence and nonviolence

We are constantly being astonished these days at the amazing discoveries in the field of violence. But I maintain that far more undreamt of and seemingly impossible discoveries will be made in the field of nonviolence.

- Mohandas Gandhi

Sunday, 19 April 2009

William Stringfellow

Some useful articles on William Stringfellow, the radical Episcopalian lawyer and theologian on Faith and Theology - a blog by Ben Myers.

Stringfellow articles at:

I've just added a link to his blog. thanks to Simon Barrow of Ekklesia and FaithinSociety- links also on this blog.

Saturday, 18 April 2009

Refugees and Pilgram Marpeck

The recurrence of fear -mongering and mean spirited politicking by members of the Coalition over the tragedy surrendering the refugees at Ashmore Reef this week, brought me back to the appeal by Pilgram Marpeck the Anbaptist civil servant and pastoral theologian in his final response to the Strasbourg council, at the point where they were about to chuck him out of Strasbourg on an issue of conscience:

I hope that you completely avoid any persecution of the miserable people who have no place in the world and who flee to you, especially if they are innocent of crimes, to find a haven from their misery without any coercion of their conscience.

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

Michael Kennedy and the forgotten art of lament

Michael Kennedy Seed
(contact PO Box 58 Chewton 3451
Victoria Australia)

My friend Chris Marshall observes that:
A greatly neglected dimension in contemporary worship is the practice of lament, or God-directed complaint. Most popular worship songs cruise or hip-hop-bop along, with little reference to pain and with no hint of complaint about the state of the world. They function almost as a spiritual anaesthetic, dulling our senses to the extent of suffering in the world and to the deep paradoxes and ambiguities of human experience. Yet there is so much in the world we need to lament. There is much we need to cry out to God in protest against. War and violence, death and disease, poverty and prejudice blight the lives of countless millions. We need to recover ways of articulating, in the context of worship, our perplexity and distress over such things. (Crime, Crucifixion and the Forgotten Art of Lament)

I was reminded of the significance of lament at the National Folk Festival in Canberra this weekend in listening too the performance of Victorian folk singer Michael Kennedy.

In the course of a weekend of wonderful music Kennedy's performance stood out, a wonderful voice, a gentle manner and material that was poetic in form and touched the life and the land that he lived in.

Folk music often takes the prophetic mode of utterance and can come across at its worst with a strident self righteousness.

Kennedy's work characteristically (though not exclusively) took the form of lament that named the ills clearly and unequivocally but did so in a manner that owned out complicity in those ills.

It was a heart touching performance in which the character of the performer, the performance itself and the poetry and music being performed came together in a powerful engaging way that touched the heart and spirit of my wife Jillian and myself.

Late call on Easter Sunday and the Awefulness of Resurrection

A late call on Easter Sunday - an entry delayed because Jillian and I have spent much of the four day holiday (Australia for all its secularity closes down for Good Friday to a degree that is matched only by Christmas Day and Anzac Day and we get Monday as a public holiday as well) at the National Folk Festival here in Canberra - of which more later.

Ched Myers in his Closing Meditation on Mark's Gospel in Who will roll away the Stone? Discipleship Queries for First World Christians captures the awe-fulness of the resurrection. Commenting on the message of the young man at the tomb "He's gone on ahead of you" Myers observes:

Here is a possiblity we never considered, a prospect too terrible to contemplate. An invitation fo follow Jesus - again. To resume the Way, the consequences of which we now know all too well. Suddenly, form deep within us, for that unexplored space beneath our profoundest hopes and fears, roas a tidal wave of trauma, ecstasy and terror all at one. We race out of that tomb as if we had just seen a ghost. And so we have: In Jesus' empty tomb there is nothing but the ghost of our discipleship past and our disciplesship future. (p.412)

Myers reminds us that we can encounter Jesus only by following him. Whenever the church imagines that the resurrection introduces a new and different story that replaces the way of the cross it makes a fatal mistake and opens the way to the worship of the idols of economic success, social comfort, compliance with national real politic and the self referenctial comfort of Jesus in our hearts.

Saturday, 11 April 2009

Not the answer to our questions and troubles

We are able to live at peace, as God's agents of reconciliaion in a violent world says Stanley Hauerwas

... not because we have answers to all the world's troubles, but because God has given us a way to live without answers. (p.88 Cross-Shattered Christ)

Friday, 10 April 2009

Good Friday and the pain of oppression

“Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” is a black spiritual which has its fitting place in the worship of Good Friday. The black congregations in the US respond wholeheartedly with a yes. Yes we were there. But there is more to this yes than the congregation placing themselves again imaginatively at Calvary. They affirm that what happened then in the crucifixion of Jesus has and has being lived out in their experience of suffering first as slaves and then in daily discrimination.

In the passage in the prophet Isaiah where the servant confesses his trust in God and willingness to absorb the violence of his enemies, we can sense the connection with Jesus as the suffering Messiah.

The story of Jesus in its turn opens up and has shaped the witness to the redemptive power of suffering by a Gandhi or a Martin Luther King, or numberless others in oppressed communities across the globe who have sought not only justice for, and the transformation of their own people but the moral healing of their oppressors and enemies.

Isaiah did not know when he penned his oracle how it would be taken up by later generations. But once we hear the story of Jesus in his passion we can see and affirm the connection between what was done and said then by the prophet, what was lived out by Jesus on the cross on Good Friday and we recognise this pattern whenever we see it lived out in our own time.

What Easter is not about

Statements by Church leaders on Easter as about "Hope" as though it were some generic consumer offering sound abstract and detached. Salvation is all about us, as a fulfillment of our individual projects.

Not so - so far away from the heart of the matter.

"Father forgive them for they know not what they are doing" as Stanley Hauerwas puts it challenges all our presumptions of God and what salvation is all about.

We are made members of a kingdom governed by a politics of forgiveness and redemption. The world is offered an alternative ...

Such a politics is not constituted by vague longings for distant ideals but rather by flesh and blood. (p.31 Christ - Shattered Cross) - the flesh and blood of those drawn into the life of God as forgiveness of our enemies.

Thursday, 9 April 2009

Easter - Religion or Football in Australia

ABC radio announcer at the start of the call of the Collingwood vs Geelong AFL game (heard on my way to the Thursday evening service:

"Its Holy Thursday Evening here at the "Melbourne Cricket Ground"

That about sums it up.

The sacred doesn't disappear - it migrates?

Theology, Easter, Baghdad

Peter Dula reflects on the meaning of theology and of Easter in the light of his time in Iraq:

During Holy Week of 2004 I was in Baghdad, where I worked as coordinator of the Iraq program for the Mennonite Central Committee. That was the week that the stupidity of the Iraq war became unavoidably obvious, at least outside the Beltway. On Palm Sunday, the day the people of Jerusalem took to the streets to welcome a messiah they did not comprehend any more than we do, thousands of Moqtada al-Sadr’s followers shut down central Baghdad’s streets, protesting the arrest of a top aide and the closing of al-Sadr’s newspaper.

Later that week-the week when we celebrate Christ’s triumph over death, and forgiveness over vengeance-the American military unleashed an assault on Fallujah in which 518 Iraqis were killed, including 237 women and children. In an Easter Sunday letter to the Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship I wrote: “Jesus has indeed risen even if it was a hell of a long time ago and even if there is no evidence of it in Baghdad.” At a church the night before, I had listened to a priest preach on a story from St. Ephraim, then announce the times for the next day’s Mass, adding an ominous caution: “Please go directly home. Do not linger and do not walk home in large groups.”

Peter's conclusion offers little comfort but a reminder of the reality that the path to the resurrection is not one goes anywhere except through Good Friday.

Why is it a theological failure, if it is, to say that “Jesus is risen even though it was a long time ago and there is no evidence of it in Baghdad”? What is theology? Say that theology calls us to remember the eschaton, to remember that the end times are not on their way but began at Golgotha two thousand years ago. Say that theology means negotiating the edges between celebrating the already and mourning the not-yet, and confessing that we rarely know which is which-and still less whether to mourn or to celebrate that ignorance. Say that theology means wondering if the church is a two-thousand-year-old dance before the empty tomb or a two-thousand-year-old funeral at the foot of the Cross. Say that doing theology means recovering a sense of the world as shot through with grace and beauty-and hoping that world looks like a garden in bloom, but fearing it looks like the lawn outside Peter and Paul Chaldean Catholic Church. Say, finally, that discipleship means inhabiting such contradictions; that theology itself dwells in them, as evoked in Hebrews 2:7-9:

"You made him for a little while lower than the angels, you crowned him with glory and honor, you placed all things in subjection under his feet. At present we do not yet see all things subjected to him; but we do see Jesus, who was for a little while made lower than the angels, is crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death."

We do see Jesus-the broken and bloody body of Christ-scattered across the margins of the American empire. If that is helpful, it may be because we know who Jesus is and what his death meant and can therefore get a handle on what senseless death means. But I doubt it. I also doubt we know what senseless death means and can therefore get a handle on what the Cross meant. If theology is helpful it is not because it allows us to say anything, but because it pushes us toward silence; it unveils our ignorance and makes it hurt.

For the full article see Commonweal, 28 March issue:

G K Chesterton captured something of this in the lines of his poem, "The Ballad of the White Horse" (I think):

I tell you naught for your comfort
Yea, naught for your desire
Save that the sky grows darker yet
And the sea rises higher

Remembering Bonhoeffer

Today the Christian church throughout the world remembers the life and witness of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. This year the day falls on the eve of Good Friday. The closing verses of his poem "Stages on the Way to Freedom' are an appropriate text for reflecting on the significance of Jesus's final journey on Good Friday.

Wondrous is the change. The strong active hands are bound now.
Powerless and alone, you see the end of your action.
Yet you breathe a sigh of relief and lay it aside quietly trusting to stronger hands and are content.
Only for a moment did you touch the bliss of freedom, then you gave it back to God that he might gloriously fulfil it.

Come now, highest feast on the way to everlasting freedom,
death. Lay waste the burdens of chains and walls which confine our earthly bodies and blinded souls, that we may see at last what here we could not see.
Freedom, we sought you long in discipline, action and suffering.
Dying, we recognize you now in the face of God.

Monday, 6 April 2009

The Lamb enters the Dreaming

The Lamb Enters the Dreaming: Nathanael Pepper and the Ruptured World by Robert Kenny (Scribe, 2010) is a stunning piece of historical exploration.

Kenny explores the conversion of Nathanael Pepper of the Wotjobaluk people of the Wimmera region of Victoria in 1860 through the agency of the Moravian missionaries.

Exploration by Kenny of the conversion of Nathanael Pepper is tackled by an engagement not only with the historical sources but by exploring the possible meanings of those sources against the intellectual currents of the day and the moral commitments of the chief actors in the drama.

Kenny, avowedly agnostic, is impressive in allowing the possibility of agency to the Aboriginals in the story in the account of Christian conversion, and challenges along the way many of the orthodoxies of how Australians and the Europeans thought about one another.

This is an open exploratory piece of writing that engages with issues of moral change and forgiveness. Kenny also wades into the debates about the ambiguities of Darwinian thought in its undercutting of the commitment by Evangelical Christianity to the belief that all humanity was of 'one blood'.

Kenny concludes his many facted exploration that evokes the signficance of place in his journey to try and understand Pepper and his choices with the folowing challenging paragraph:

Far from being "agents of the flag", the evangelicals were the main European vocie of concern. It was not "enlightened science" that exclaimed the unity of humainity; on the contrary, the "men of the world" usually pronounced the opposite. The evangelicals of the late eighteenth and early ninetennth centuries directed their attention to the mystery of human diversity in an increasingly known - and thus diverse - world. They used their Scripture to prove "One blood". This was not an argument but stubborn assertion, a faith in our commonality, which may be still the only way for our salvation. (p.341)

Why developing counties might be the key to recovery?
Michael Mullins in Eureka Street notes:

The Economist outlines the case for directing money towards the world's poor. It argues that offering new sources of funding to developing nations makes good economic sense. It is not charity.

The Economist says that while these countries have far less fiscal room for manoeuvre than rich economies, 'they are also areas of the world where growth could rebound quite quickly, because households are not weighed down by the crushing debts typical in America and Europe'.

It is at once astonishing and heartening to consider that stimulating the economies of poor nations could kick-start the global economy.

Many of us have struggled to come to terms with the fact that the only solution to this crisis might be to put more money into bailing out the wealthy banks that caused the problem. Now that the G20 London Summit has uncovered a spirit of international cooperation, it is time for the G20 to take a few extra steps, and give currency to the idea of giving developing nations a pivotal role in remaking the world economy.

Sunday, 5 April 2009

Palm Sunday as Street Theatre

Palm Sunday can become an occasion to get the congregation briefly out of the church building and take the liturgy around the block - on one occasion I can remember in Queanbeyan with a real live donkey. Great fun for the kids in particular.

The full political force of what is going on gets lost in most sermons about this story from the Gospels.

Let’s try and break open this familiarity that conceals an uncomfortable strangeness by going back to look again at Mark’s account of Jesus’ approach to Jerusalem.

Mark's gospel was probably written just before or perhaps even during the uprising of Jewish nationalists against the imperial power of Rome in 66 AD. In a conflict that lasted till AD 70, Jewish forces sought to regain political and religious control of their nation in a bitter guerilla war that raged across Galilee and Judea ending in defeat following the Roman siege of Jerusalem.

This was a time of struggle for survival by peasant farmers with guerillas raiding the countryside making up for their lack of numbers and limited military resources by their tactics and their willingness to give their lives in God’s cause.

Mark recorded the story of Jesus for a church that was asking questions about what faithfulness to Jesus as the crucified and risen Messiah meant during this time of war and conflict. Should they support their fellow countrymen? Were they being disloyal if they did not join the military struggle against Rome?

Mark tells the story of Jesus’ approach to Jerusalem in a way that was intended to challenge his listeners and suggest a way of coming to some conclusions as to what their response should be.

Jesus approaches Jerusalem not on a war-horse as a conquering military figure, but on a colt, not a form of transport normally associated with royalty. No Jewish king or roman emperor would choose to ride such an animal when entering in triumph into a conquered city.

Yet that is what Mark is hinting at. Here is the conqueror, the Messiah. Certainly there are the crowds in the story during Jesus’ approach to Jerusalem. But after all the build up of having got to Jerusalem Jesus does not make a triumphal entry into the Temple. He simply looks around and then wanders off to supper with friends. It is a total anti climax – the scene is set by Mark you would think if not for a coup but at least for a confrontation with the authorities – but nothing happens.

What’s going on here?

Mark drops clues all the way through that point toward a warrior Messiah but doesn’t follow through to provide a stunning political conclusion in the way that his hearers would have expected. Sure we have the reference to David- the warrior king par excellence in Jewish history. Mark does not deny the political dimensions of Jesus as messiah but instead challenges the accepted conventions as to what the politics of the Messiah will be. Mark points to a Jesus who does not take up the role of warrior.

Jesus procession to Jerusalem is a form of street theatre which signals his claims as messiah, while at the same time pointing to a very different understanding of the character of the Messiah from that which was commonly held.

Mark’s account rhetorically challenges three groups:
➢ Those who were committed to getting rid of the Romans by military means.
➢ Those who withdrew into a spiritual response that avoided issues of economic injustice and Roman imperialism.
➢ Those who simply wanted to get along with business as usual whoever was in charge.

According to Mark none of these ways is open to the community of disciples. The way of Jesus is different. Jesus lives out a rejection of the politics of violence, the politics of withdrawal and the politics of accommodation. For Mark’s full account of this subversive messiah we will have to wait for the readings over the Easter week.