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Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Blogging towards Easter 3 - being a Christian in private?

In Chapter 3  Wells hits home with a challenge to people who are comfortably well off and are at ease in the middle of empire - like me.

Is it possible to be a Christian privately, a rule by day and a worshipper by night?

This chapter explores the motives and behaviour of Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus as set out in the gospels, charactesr of whom the writers have varying estimates. Both of these characters fall between the power of Pilate and the passion of Barabbas. They are drawn by the figure of this Galilean rabbi and live in his shadow but are afraid to throw in their lot in publicly with him in the political contest of the time. They are paralyzed, complicit in the judicial process that Pilate manipulates to implicate the Jewish establishment in his execution as a troublemaker,

Only after his death do they appear again by night and perform a service of burial at a point where his other public disciples have disappeared.  What kind of discipleship is this?

For them faith in Christ is not a matter of transformed identity - baptism - but is an attribute they can pick up or put down as they choose. As political figures they are largely invisible, since when the key debates take place they are present but - at best - silent. As religious figures they are visible at the very moment the disciples have disappeared - the moment of Jesus' burial. They are celebrated religious figures but they expose the politics of those who could have been political but chose to be narrowly religious. It is a politics that shows reverence to Jesus' body. But on closer inspection it is a politics that puts Jesus to death.  (p.106)
Indeed - this is a reading of scripture that goes close to home.

Today people I know have entered a top secret military base as a protest against the ongoing war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Bonhoeffer 4

At 6am this morning, four Christian peace activists entered Swan Island, one of Australia’s most secret military installations near Queenscliff, Victoria, seeking to disrupt the war in Afghanistan.  
“Both Swan Island and the war on Afghanistan are out of sight, out of mind. It’s time to end further suffering of the Afghan people and our soldiers by bringing our troops home,” the group said.
Swan Island is a highly secretive military installation used by the Army’s elite Special Air Service (SAS) and the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS). Swan Island is said to be more secretive than Pine Gap in central Australia.

“In the week before the first Easter, Jesus blockaded the temple and turned the tables inside.   Today we are imitating Jesus’ disruption”,  the group said. “Sometimes you have to get in the way of injustice”. 
“War can’t bring peace, it can only bring further terror, death and poverty,” the group said.

Rev. Simon Moyle (Baptist Minister), Jacob Bolton (Community Worker), Jessica Morrison (University Lecturer) and Simon Reeves (Social Worker) have called themselves the Bonhoeffer Peace Collective after Kevin Rudd’s favourite theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was also an antiwar activist.
“The followers of Christ have been called to peace. And they must not only have peace but also make it. His disciples keep the peace by choosing to endure suffering themselves rather than inflict it on others. In so doing they overcome evil with good, and establish the peace of God in the midst of a world of war and hate.”— Dietrich Bonhoeffer

follow updates from the Bonhoeffer Peace Collective as it happens here:

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Blogging towards Easter 2 - the attraction of violence

The character of Barabbas in the Easter narrative brings us into contact with the question of why not use violence when injustice is rampant and the poor and marginalised have little by way of options to challenge the forces of empire.

The gospels present us with the range of political options that Jesus encountered in his life and ministry.

Collaboration was the only option for those who wished to achieve wealth and a degree of power in the world of the Roman empire. Rome mastered the art of engaging collaborators through the cooperation of local elites. Herod and the Saducees made this their political choice. surrendering effective control to Rome while maintaining a semblance of formal religio-political independence - a semblance that the gospel writers deconstruct.

The strategy of Reform relied on a theological reading of the history of Israel that called for a return to holiness and the call of the covenant. The call to purity was not an option for those who were poor. The Pharisees sought to interpret the call to purity for the masses in a way that built popular support from the masses without handing over religious and political power to them or politically confronting the powers of empire.

Withdrawal was the option of the Essenes that focused on withdrawing from confronting the reality of Roman occupation while practising some of the virtues, care for the sick and hospitality to strangers but no real vision for demonstrating the public character of God's kingdom.

Restorationism, the Zealot option, was the attempt to return to the golden age of Israel's empire and kingdom. They were about a change of government not the inauguration of a radically different social and political order.

The comparison between Jesus and the Zealots establishes two things. One is that Jesus had established a new for of life that others saw as a political threat. the other is that Jesus had no intention of translating that social program into a violent revolution. (p. 66)
While Barabbas is not formally identified as a Zealot, his identification with the option of violence places him in direct contrast with Jesus. the Gospel writers are all clear that the crowds all clearly choose his option rather than that of Jesus and the powers that be are happy for this choice to be made. Jesus represents a more fundamental challenge to their rule than does Barabbas.

 Barabbas represents a challenge that changes too little. Jesus comes to bring radical change rather than continue business as usual. Jesus challenges the endless cycle of violence. Barabbas simply wants to change the identity of who is in control of the political/social/religious power structure.

Monday, 29 March 2010

Blogging toward Easter: Passion and power

In approaching Easter this year I have decided to try blogging some thoughts on Samuel Wells' Power and Passion: Six Characters in Search of Resurrection (Zondervan, 2005)

The promised commentary on Will Campbell and his free-wheeling approach to ecclesiology will have to wait for a while.

Samuel Wells introduces his approach to Easter with a hat tip to John Howard Yoder.

What if we are called to follow Jesus in one specific respect above all others: his willingness to walk the way of the cross in contrast to a host of political and social alternatives available to him? This book seeks to take up Yoder's mantle and begin with the same assumption. It seeks to describe six political alternatives available to Jesus - and broadly to us - and to portray the power and the passion of Jesus in the light of them, in such a way that the nature of the power and the direction of the passion available to us become transparent. (p.17)
His assumptions for reading the Gospels:
  • there is no such thing as a plain reading that is not already an interpretation and thee is no single correct reading.  (p.18)
  • Some parts of the Gospels have a special significance - the accounts of the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus (p.19)
  • Christians always are and have been in the business of politics. Politics is the careful negotiation of passion and interest that pays respect to the different degrees and kinds of power and that the gospel of Jesus is about how individuals and groups use their power. (pp.19-20)
  • Power is not necessarily a bad thing. There are varieties of power, property. prestige and military power, sexual power and friendship and the power of God in creation and resurrection which assumes the abundance found in the gifts of time, companionship and forgiveness. the transformation of politics is about the transformation of the reality and perception of power. Jesus resurrection is about the politics of abundance transforming the reality of power.(pp.20-21)
  •  Passion is at the heart of the Gospel. passion is at the heart of politics and the heart of faith. (p.21)
Wells first character is Pontius Pilate whose character and engagement with power he reflects on through a reading of each of the Gospels, a reading which brings out the dynamics of power exercised by Pilate in the trial and crucifixion of Jesus.

People, Wells observes with executive power like to see themselves as honest brokers and are much more aware of the limits of their power than those outside are inclined to give them credit for.

Wells will not let those of us who are in positions of relative power get away with this rhetorical move to hide behind the ambiguities of public responsibilities or the assertion that "we", as opposed to "they" have no vested interests. the detailed reading that Wells offers us of Pilate and the dynamics of power demystifies the common reading of Pilate as an honest broker. Wells unpacks the gospel accounts to reveal the moves and counter moves of the power elites, for whom Jesus was a threat, stirring up the people as the gospels remind us. Here we have an account of the exercise of imperial power as the inescapable background to that week in Jerusalem.

Two critical threads emerge in the study of the first imperial character - the need to be sceptical of anyone who says "really there is nothing I can do - it's out of my hands - the cry of the realist politician and church leader. Pilate does have alternatives it is just that having established that Jesus is a threat to imperial rule his task is simple to deal with events so as to ensure Jesus is destroyed. The handwashing is pure 'spin' and very successful it has been too.

Politics begins when we realise that there are alternatives, there are things we can do rather than simply go along with a cynical realism and act to embody the truth that Jesus proclaims and lived out. In the run up to Easter it is useful to be reminded of those who imagined an alternative politics rather than conformity to the violence of empire. To remember Bishop Oscar Romero, Dorothy Day, the Mothers of the disappeared in Argentina, Pilgram Marpeck and Michael Sattler who sought to enact a different politics. To Jean Vanier, Ella Baker and Fannie Lou Hamer who all embodied a passion for justice and the beloved community.

Sunday, 21 March 2010

John Howard Yoder on Nonviolence

John Howard Yoder  Nonviolence: A Brief History - The Warsaw Lectures edited by Paul Martens, Matthew Porter and Myles Werntz (Baylor University Press, 2010)

John Howard Yoder’s Nonviolence: A Brief History, is yet another in what is proving to be an extended series of posthumously published books. The text is comprised of lectures that he gave in Warsaw Poland in 1983. To remind you of the historical context, at that time the Solidarity Movement had became a powerful nonviolent force trying to affect change in Communist Poland and Pope John Paul II was to visit Poland just a month later.

While the material contains little that is original it is good to have the lectures as they pull together in a simple accessible way a coherent overview of Yoder's account of the history and practice of nonviolence and its theological underpinnings. Hopefully the lectures might eventually be published in paperback as the hardback version is highly expensive for a book of 150 pages.

There is a good review by Andy Alexis-Baker at Jesus Radicals.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

Will D Campbell: Radical Baptist - Theologian of Radical Grace

For reasons that I am not totally clear about I have been dipping back into the life and writings of Will D Campbell a radical Baptist preacher from the south of the USA. If you dip into the history of the civil rights movement you are likely to find him popping up here and there as a fugitive presence. He was an activist, pastor, theologian for most of his life without a formal church position and with a habit of raising difficult questions for theological and social liberals who might have assumed that he was on their side.

For an account of his life check out Will Campbell - A man of the Word.

Richard D Goode has recently edited an anthology of Campbell's work, Writings on Reconciliation and Resistance (Cascade Books, 2009). The book contains some good extracts that catches the flavour of what Campbell has on about.

If prophets are called to unveil and expose the illegitimacy of those principalities masquerading as "the right" and purportedly using their powers for "the good," then Will D. Campbell is one of the foremost prophets in American religious history. Like Clarence Jordan and Dorothy Day and probably Wendell Berry in his own more gentle but nonteheless challenging way Campbell incarnates the radical iconoclastic vocation of standing in contraposition to society, naming the racial, economic, and political idols that seduce and delude. (Jacques Ellul is one of the influences lurking behind the scenes here)

In this anthology Campbell diagnoses a problem afflicting much of the church today. Zealous to make a difference in the world by acquiring the power of legislation and enforcement, Christians employ society's political science rather than the scandalous politics of Jesus. Although well-intentioned, Christians are, Campbell laments, mistakenly "up to our steeples in politics." Campbell's prescription is for disciples simply to incarnate the reconciliation that Christ has achieved. Rather than crafting savvy strategies and public policies, "Do nothing," Campbell counsels. "Be reconciled!"

Yet his encouragement to "do nothing" is no endorsement of passivity or apolitical withdrawal. Rather, Campbell calls for disciples to give their lives of reconciliation in irrepressible resistance against all principalities and powers that would impede or deny our reconciliation in Christ—an unrelenting prophetic challenge leveled especially at institutional churches, as well as Christian colleges and universities.

In sermons, difficult-to-access journal articles, and archival manuscripts and extracts from his books assembled here by Goode, Campbell develops what reconciliation looks like. Being the church, for example, means identifying with, and advocating for, society's "least one"-including violent offenders, disenfranchised minorities, and even militant bigots. In fact, in Campbell's understanding the scorned sectarian and disinherited denizen is often closer to the peculiar Christian genius than are society's well-healed powerbrokers.

Part 2 on Campbell's ecclesiology and Part 3 on Campbell's publications to follow

Waihopai Ploughshares Trial

The legal and moral issues around Australia's engagement in the Iraq war have never been fully debated or tested. The Australian Government has been content to wind down the engagement and have never been substantially pressed on the issues.

In New Zealand action by some anti war activists that is now going to trial is providing a public forum for consideration of these issues.

Bryan Law provides a good account of the debate in these reports:

Saturday, 13 March 2010

Thinking about Israel and the Palestinians, building, land...

When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.

- Leviticus 19:33-34

Saturday, 6 March 2010

Death, Government and an entitlement mentality

There seems to be an emerging trend in Australian public life that throws an interesting light on the attitude to death. Simplistically put it runs something like this: Australians shouldn't have to die, or suffer injury due to accidents and the government should do something about it and they are culpable if they don't. The media whip up the frenzy with little clarity about who really is or should be responsible for what.

The public storm over deaths related to the insulation installation program is a case in point. It did not actually matter that there was a certain death rate due to industrial accidents related to this sort of activity previously and that the accident rate after the program started was proportionately less than before the program began.

A similar mentality hs been displayed with respect to Australians arrested abroad and Australians subject to delay or discomfort due to natural disasters wile travelling overseas.

It is a bit hard to pin down but their is a sense of privileged entitlement accompanied by whinging on a large scale that seems to say this shouldn't happen to us and the Australian Government should be there immediately to sort it all out.

That life is dangerous and that in the end we do not get out of it alive is a truth that is fast assuming the status of the unthinkeable. Everything should be under control.

That life is a gift that we do not and cannot control but should live with open hands rather than with a grasping sense of entitlement becomes a heresy. The Beatitudes reflect a way of living that represents that awareness that we are not in control and should live gracefully out of control.

Turning the other cheek

Walter Brueggeman article that I missed in Ekklesia first time around. "How turning the other cheek defies oppression. Jesus' teaching in a quick summary is about not retaliating against violence with violence.

Christendom mentality

Thanks to Jon_Bartley Two good articles challenging Lord Carey: Frank Skinner (Times) Riazat Butt (Guardian)

This Christendom mentality displayed by Lord Carey former Archbishop of Canterbury is not unknown in Australia.