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Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Christmas as revolution

A reminder as I move into this new year from a christmas sermon by Simon Barrow:

... the Christ who is born quietly, humbly, almost insignificantly on this Holy Night speaks first to ordinary people – like you and me. He begins his revolution by disturbing our certainty, giving us hearts of flesh rather than stone. Then he invites us to join a small company of friends who will go into the world’s darkest places, not with weapons of war and large corporations (as we have seen in the region of Jesus’ birth in recent years), but with something much more costly.

I am talking about simple but life-changing actions like forgiveness, hospitality, reconciliation, the sharing of goods, and human solidarity – what the Bible calls love of neighbour: treating the stranger and even the enemy as you yourself would wish to be treated. This is the way of the Prince of Peace whose coming we celebrate.

What is true of Christ’s challenge to the way we live, the way we relate to each other and the way we see things is also true of the way we understand faith and the way we perceive God. In an often bruised and hurting world, in the midst of the doubt and confusion we all feel, where is God to be found? Not in opulent palaces, not in remote splendour, not in complicated formulas – and not (if you read the gospels) with those who go around boasting about how ‘spiritual’ or ‘religious’ they are, either. That is some comfort to those of us who count ourselves neither especially smart nor notably righteous!

Instead, according to the topsy-turvy Good News announced to those shepherds, the ordinary working people of the time, God is to be found in the most unlikely of places: in a stable, off the beaten track, and in the vulnerable flesh of a baby born on the edge of empire, miles away from the rich and powerful. It is this Jesus, now lying in a cradle, soon mixing with the crowd, and eventually confronting one of the murderous crosses we have built in the world – it is his life which truthfully embodies who God is, what God is like, and what God’s agenda is about.
Cradling a Revolution

Organised and Disorganised Christianity - some thoughts from Wendell Berry

Reading and rereading lots of Wendell Berry these holidays. His essay "God and Country" in his collection of essays What are People for?(North Point Press, 1990) starts out a discussion Christianity and ecology, with some interesting analysis of why the churches have been so ineffective in engaging on this issue.

... the fact simply is that the churches, which claim to honor God as the "maker of heaven and earth," have lately shown little inclination to honor the earth or to protect it from those who would dishonor it.

Organized Christianity seems, in general, to have made peace with "the economy" by divorcing itself from economic issues, and this, I think, has proved to be a disaster, both religious find economic. The reason for this, on the side of religion, is suggested by the adjective "organized." It is clearly possible that, in the condition of the world as the world now is, organization can force upon an institution a character that is alien or even antithetical to it. The
organized church comes immediately under a compulsion to think of itself, and identify itself to the world, not as an institution synonymous with its truth and its membership, but as a hodgepodge of funds, properties, projects, and offices, all urgently requiring economic support. The organized church makes peace with a destructive economy and divorces itself from economic issues because it is economically compelled to do so. Like any other public institution so organized, the organized church is dependent on "the economy"; it cannot survive apart from those economic practices that its truth forbids and that its vocation is to correct. If it comes to a choice between the extermination of the fowls of the air and the lilies of the field and the extermination of a building fund, the organized church will elect—indeed, has already elected—to save the building fund. The irony is compounded and made harder to bear by the fact that the building fund can be preserved by crude applications of money, but the fowls of the air and the lilies of the field can be preserved only by true religion, by the practice of a proper love and respect for them as the creatures of God. No wonder so many sermons are devoted exclusively to "spiritual" subjects. If one is living by the tithes of history's most destructive economy, then the disembodiment of the soul becomes the chief of worldly conveniences.

There are many manifestations of this tacit alliance between the organized churches and "the economy," but I need to speak only of two in order to make my point. The first is the phrase "full-time Christian service," which the churches of my experience have used exclusively to refer to the ministry, thereby at once making of the devoted life a religious specialty or career and removing the possibility of devotion from other callings. Thus the $50,000-a-year preacher is a "full-time Christian servant," whereas a $20,000- or a $10,000-a-year farmer, or a farmer going broke, so far as the religious specialists are concerned, must serve "the economy" in his work or in his failure and serve God in his spare time. The professional class is likewise free to serve itself in its work and to serve God by giving the church its ten percent. The churches in this way excerpt sanctity from the human economy and its work just as Cartesian science has excerpted it from the material creation. And it is easy to see the interdependence of these two desecrations: the desecration of nature would have been impossible without the desecration of work, and vice versa.

The second manifestation I want to speak of is the practice, again common in the churches of my experience, of using the rural ministry as a training ground for young ministers and as a means of subsidizing their education. No church official, apparently, sees any logical, much less any spiritual, problem in sending young people to minister to country churches before they have, according to their institutional superiors, become eligible to be ministers. These student ministers invariably leave the rural congregations that have sponsored or endured their educations as soon as possible once they have their diplomas in hand. The denominational hierarchies, then, evidently regard country places in exactly the same way as "the economy" does: as sources of economic power to be exploited for the advantage of "better" places. The country people will be used to educate ministers for the benefit of city people (in wealthier churches) who, obviously, are thought more deserving of educated ministers. This, I am well aware, is mainly the fault of the church organizations; it is not a charge that can be made to stick to any young minister in particular: not all ministers should be country ministers, just as not all people should be country people. And yet it is a fact that in the more than fifty years that I have known my own rural community, many student ministers have been "called" to serve in its churches, but not one has ever been recalled" to stay. The message that country people get from their churches, then, is the same message that they get from "the economy": that, as country people, they do not matter much and do not deserve much consideration. And this inescapably imposes an economic valuation on spiritual things. According to the modern church, as one of my Christian friends said to me, "The soul of the plowboy ain t worth as much as the soul of the delivery boy."God and Country

Thursday, 24 December 2009

Cry of a tiny babe - Bruce Cockburn's Christmas carol

Mary grows a child without the help of a man
Joseph get upset because he doesn't understand
Angel comes to Joseph in a powerful dream
Says "God did this and you're part of his scheme"
Joseph comes to Mary with his hat in his hand
Says "forgive me I thought you'd been with some other man"
She says "what if I had been - but I wasn't anyway and guess what
I felt the baby kick today"

Like a stone on the surface of a still river
Driving the ripples on forever
Redemption rips through the surface of time
In the cry of a tiny babe

The child is born in the fullness of time
Three wise astrologers take note of the signs
Come to pay their respects to the fragile little king
Get pretty close to wrecking everything
'Cause the governing body of the whole [Holy] land
Is that of Herod, a paranoid man
Who when he hears there's a baby born King of the Jews
Sends death squads to kill all male children under two
But that same bright angel warns the parents in a dream
And they head out for the border and get away clean

Like a stone on the surface of a still river
Driving the ripples on forever
Redemption rips through the surface of time
In the cry of a tiny babe

There are others who know about this miracle birth
The humblest of people catch a glimpse of their worth
For it isn't to the palace that the Christ child comes
But to shepherds and street people, hookers and bums
And the message is clear if you've got [you have] ears to hear
That forgiveness is given for your guilt and your fear
It's a Christmas gift [that] you don't have to buy
There's a future shining in a baby's eyes

Like a stone on the surface of a still river
Driving the ripples on forever
Redemption rips through the surface of time
In the cry of a tiny babe

John Bell - revisiting Christmas carols

Enjoying John Bell's 10 Things they never told me about Jesus (Wild goose publications, 2009)

His rewriting of 'O Little Town of Bethlehem is a gem'. the last couple of verses in particular:

Christ was not born at Christmas time
invoked by practised choirs,
embraced by plastic mangers and fulfiling our desires.
no kindergarten was his home, no drummer boy his page,
no earth had frozen snow on snow
when God had come of age.

Instead, on the periphery,
eccentric through decree,
the ower behind the universe was born a refugee;
a refugee from heaven above
became the world's creator,
and chose an unknown peasant girl
as host and liberator. (p.36)

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Responding to the climate change debate

I have been browsing some of the Australian blogs on politics looking at the arguments over climate change. Mostly the debate seems to get stuck on the issue of measurement of global warming and its explanation.

The case for climate change does not depend simply on the evidence of global warming. Michael Northcott in his strongly argued book A Moral Climate: the ethics of global warming makes the point that the case for climate change driven by the increasing scale of human industrialisation is cumulative for climate system change, resting on triangulation of increased temperatures, extreme weather events and widespread ecosystem change evident in species behaviour, including migration, earlier ripening of crops etc over recent decades.

The climate change denial case seems to depend almost solely on critiquing the measurement, motivation and character of the scientists who are in some deep complex conspiracy with government.

I have seen very little debate around the other vectors of evidence pointed to by Northcott.

The three vectors which are separately and independent in terms of the measurement processes when intertwined provide a case that is cumulatively stronger than each single strand of evidence taken on its own. Human causation shifts to a very high probability level when the evidence of all three vectors is taken into account.

Sunday, 20 December 2009

Fourth Sunday of Advent

The reading for this last Sunday in Advent includes some striking words from the prophet Amos and the Mary's prophetic outburst that we have managed to soften the edges off and conveniently forget its prophetic politically disturbing character. Thomas Cahill locates Mary in this prophetic tradition:

Prophets are, by their nature, inconvenient party-poopers. It is a mistaken notion that prophets can see the future. Rather, they tell us what is true right now. Amos is the first in a long line of Hebrew prophets who tell the people the truth, however unwelcome, about how they actually stand with God.

A decade or so after Amos' time, another prophet, Micah, finds himself confronted in the southern kingdom of Judah with the appalling Canaanite tradition of sacrificing children to the god Moloch. This practice had begun to attract even some Israelites. Micah, sickened, tells them in no uncertain terms that God "has already shown you what is right: and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God?" (Micah 6:8).

The ancient Jews had an amazingly unitive view of life. They did not need to distinguish prayer and moral action as if these were separate movements: to do justice, to love mercy, to walk with God—that is, to be moral and prayerful—were all simply aspects of the same process.

Mary, the Muscular Prophet
A third example of prophecy comes from early Christian tradition. Luke reports that "it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that the whole world should be taxed" (Luke 2:1). Despite the decree, it wasn't really the whole world—just the poor and lower rungs of the middle class, because in ancient Rome the rich only pretended to pay taxes, while everyone else bore the brunt of supporting the state...

Joseph had to travel all the way from Nazareth to his birthplace, Bethlehem, "to be taxed," as Luke tells us, "with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child." If you lived in one of the better neighborhoods, you didn't need to be saddled with such inconveniences. But if you were poor or a member of a minority group, a 100-mile journey by donkey when you were nine months pregnant was just the way things were.

Were Mary and Joseph bitter? Did they wonder if God had abandoned them to be permanently oppressed by the rich and powerful? No, their lives were not confined to the politics or circumstances of the moment, however appalling.

In her song of celebration about the baby she was about to give birth to, Mary spoke eloquently in the Jewish prophetic tradition—by seeing beyond the surface realities to the deep truth of human affairs. "My soul extols the Lord," she exclaimed,

and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, because he has acknowledged his servant's humiliation. Look: from now on will all ages call me happy because the Almighty One (holy his Name) has done great things for me! His mercy falls on every generation that fears him. With his powerful arm he has routed the proud of heart. He has pulled the princes from their thrones and exalted the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty (Luke 1:46-53).

Peace on Earth? A Christmas reflection

Gene Stoltzfus, a founder of the Christian Peacemaker Teams, reflected this week on"Peace, War Nobel Prizes and Justice" on the acceptance speech by Barak Obama of this year's Nobel Peace Prize. The full speech is available at:

A couple of paragraphs near the near of the speech I thought were a challenging and helpful basis for reflection as run up to the season of Christmas in which a key element of the announcement of the messiah relates to the call  "Peace on earth".
For many peace people, church members and third world nations, Obama’s speeches on Afghanistan and his acceptance of the Nobel prize, despite their eloquence, were a disappointment. This was the moment when I realised that my long term hope for ending the practice of war, in say a century, will require harder, more focused work than ever. I believe I can use this experience as a time to bound forward. The speeches remind me that the Lamb of God, with even wider reach in the stretch for justice, can overcome the god of empire that imposes chaos and destruction under the guise of democratic order.

The speeches remind us that fundamentalist preachers or pundits are tethered together with the liberal establishment on the question of war. Both stumble through various versions of just war ethics as the Predator drones drag us into a scary future. Above all, the speeches remind us of the very limited options that are available to an imperial President in matters of peace and war. This is the moment to pull up our pants, turn off the TV, awaken our imaginations, listen to God’s spirit of compassion for all human kind, and get on with our work.

Some of us will be called to unexpected sacrifice of time, career, and life itself. The goal of a world without war is worth all of the sacrifice of a great army of unarmed soldiers. This dream of a nonviolent world may be the only realistic vision now, despite the fact that our leaders doff their hats to just war. The renewal of our spirit will come one step at a time in fresh and even larger ways as our spirits are awakened to the politics of renewal and hope, a politics, like Jesus himself, that is never dependent upon a president who is often powerless to transform an imperial culture that devours good policies and strong words.

The universality of this season’s mantra, “Peace on Earth, Good Will Towards People” is a good place to start and it gets the best angels involved. If the mantra is going to bring down the institution of war, we had better be prepared with discipline and armfuls of imagination infused with love. When we are called idealists, we do well to give the realist answer, all of creation is groaning for something better. That is where we will put our energy.

Saturday, 19 December 2009

Third Sunday in Advent - Moving beyond fear and resisting greed

Luke's account of the preaching of John the Baptist suggests that John would not have got many repeat invitations to churches in Australia.

3:7 John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?
3:8 Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our ancestor'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.
3:9 Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire."
3:10 And the crowds asked him, "What then should we do?"
3:11 In reply he said to them, "Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise."
3:12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, "Teacher, what should we do?"
3:13 He said to them, "Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you."
3:14 Soldiers also asked him, "And we, what should we do?" He said to them, "Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages."
3:15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah.

Walter Brueggeman links this passage with the other readings for this third Sunday in Advent with their contrasting focus on rejoicing and getting beyond fear in his comments on the readings:

Advent is rooted in Israel’s deep hope, here voiced by Zephaniah. In time to come, God will be allied with the lame, and the outcasts will be gathered home to well-being. The prophet anticipates a time to come that will be completely contrasted to the present, wherein the disabled are rejected and the outcasts are forever displaced persons, and oppression is the normal order of the day—so routine we do not notice.

The folk who heard John the Baptizer had a tough decision to make. They could easily collude with the dominant system of exploitation that features Tiberius, Pilate, Herod, Philip, Lysanius, Annas, and Caiaphus (Luke 3:1-2). The narrative names the entire power structure of the military-industrial-financial-ecclesial system of exploitation that was impressive and all-powerful. The news from John, then and now, is that we do not need to collude, need not count on pedigree or entitlements. What counts is deliberate, concrete, countercultural action. John offers three examples of such actions that are against collusion; they concern coats, taxation, and extortion. Such actions refuse the world of violent greed defined by subprime loans, foreclosures, and “market reform.”

Paul, echoing the “do not fear” of Zephaniah, knows that those driven by anxiety will collude. Those without fear and worry are free for the alternative (Philippians 4:6). Imagine—in Christmas “the Lord is near.” The Christ-child is the God-given antidote to colluding anxiety.

Sojonet Sermon preparation

Non-violent struggle at Al Tuwani

A Palestianian village struggles to get electricity connected - this video released by the Christian Peacemaker Team at al Tuwani documents the nonviolent struggle by the villagers at Al Tuwani to get electricity connected to their village. Eight years after the first application to the Israeli authorities the erection of pylons initiated by the villagers is stopped by the Israeli military.

The surrounding Israeli settlements all have connection to the power grid.

Bishops and the Armed forces - the difficulty with loving your enemies when you are responsible to care for those comissioned to kill the aforesaid

Jonathan Bartley had some acute comments earlier this week on the difficulty of trying to follow the call to Love your enemies when you are responsible for caring for those commissioned to kill the said enemies. here's what happened when Stephen Venner, Bishop to the Armed Forces in the United Kingdom, managed to get himself into  of hot water over comments he made regarding the Taliban, and this against the background of ongoing public debate about whether the British Army should be in Afghanistan.
Stephen Venner
the story unfolded as follows as reported by Jonathan Bartley in Ekklesia:

This is what the bishop said:
“We’ve been too simplistic in our attitude towards the Taliban.”
“There’s a large number of things that the Taliban say and stand for which none of us in the west could approve, but simply to say therefore that everything they do is bad is not helping the situation because it’s not honest really.”
“The Taliban can perhaps be admired for their conviction to their faith and their sense of loyalty to each other.”

He has now apologised although it has an element of the “I-have-been-misinterpreted-by-the-media” line which we hear from so many bishops these days (sometimes justified) which is wearing a little thin now for many people.

You can see what the bishop was trying to do. He seems to have been attempting an intervention, urging a reassessment of how the Taliban are viewed. It was an attempt to move away from the demonisation of enemies toward a fuller understanding of what orthodox Christianity teaches - that all are made in the image of God.

But the problem he faces is institutional. As Bishop to the Armed Forces he stands at the centre of a far-too-close relationship between the church and the military, which compromises the Christian message, and results in fudges ...

The Church has been kidding itself for years that it can easily square its current position with Jesus’ teachings about war, forgiveness and violence. It can’t. Jesus was unequivocal in his command to love enemies, forgive and turn the other cheek. This has of course been wrongly interpreted down the centuries as appeasement and passivity in the face of evil, rather than active, nonviolent resistance.
But even 'just war' theory acknowledges that war is always an evil. However, as bishop to the Armed Forces he can’t say this – particularly at a time when military leaders are propoing that in order to support the armed forces you have to support the mission in Afghanistan too. So what he has ended up doing is trying to scrabble around to find some things that we might be able to love enemies for such as their “loyalty” or “conviction”.

But the point of Jesus message is that we are called to love when there is absolutely nothing to praise enemies for. When they are committing the most heinous acts of evil, then that is when Christians believe that we are called to forgive. This is after all what Jesus did as soldiers nailed him to the cross. It was not “forgive them father, because these Romans are really loyal to their cohorts” or “forgive them because they believe that I really am a danger to the empire”. Rather it was “forgive them for they don’t know the evil they are committing”.

When you aren’t able to stand up, stand up for Jesus, as the “soldiers of the cross” are called to do, then you end up with fudges which are always going to cause trouble, doing more damage than good.
The bishop's message was neither distinctively Christian, nor helpful. The church does have a scandalous message. But it’s scandalous for a different reason. And it won’t be able to deliver it until the church stops being theologically hamstrung and puts a greater distance between it and the armed forces.

This needn't mean abandoning its pastoral role. Indeed, care and love for members of the armed forces should be entirely compatible with active peacemaking. But it would involve reimagining that relationship in a way that gives more space to a Christian perspective on peace and war. We have suggested that a good start would be to have a bishop to the 'unarmed' forces too, to recognise the work of many Christians and churches in peacemaking and conflict prevention.

The Bishop will now backtrack and feel he has to throw his support behind not just the soldiers in Afghanistan, but the mission itself. But let’s give Stephen Venner a break and a bit of forgiveness. Like those before him, he too “knows not what he does”.