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Thursday, 9 April 2009

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

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