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Thursday, 28 October 2010

27-28 October - some significant dates in war, peace and religion

30 October Remembering Marcellus Good blog entry by Tobias Winright on Saint Marcellus

Simon Barrow on the Ekklesia website has drawn attention to some significant events associated with 27-28 October, contrasting Imperial versus non-imperial Christianity.

... 27 & 28 October, are key dates in Christian history. Constantine's 'vision of the Cross' in 312, and his attribution of military victory at the Battle of Milvian Bridge the next day to God, was the beginning of Christendom in Europe - an era which mixed civilisation with bloodshed, saints with militarism, and faith with often brutal sacralised-secular power.

With the defeat of Maxentius, Constantine became the sole Roman Emperor. The subsequent decree of religious toleration, which established Christianity alongside others in the Imperial pantheon, spared Christians persecution - but embroiled them in power politics in a way which bypassed or reversed key aspects of the Gospel message. The Jesus who refused violence and favoured the poor, women and the despised became an embarassment. He was replaced with an imperial version of Christ, degrading both his humanity and divinity.

The disease involved in all this was widespread. On 27 October in 1553 Michael Servetus burned as a heretic just outside Geneva. On the same day in 1659, two Quakers who came to America from England, to escape religious persecution, were executed in Massachusetts Bay Colony for their beliefs.

Yet embedded in this disturbing history (not least in its victims) there is another, liberating story. The Anabaptists, the Quakers and other non-conformists refused state religion and violence. In the nineteenth and twentieth century Christians campaigned for social justice and helped form peace movements which had a worldwide impact.

On 27 October 1967 Catholic priest, theologian and activist Philip Berrigan and three others (the 'Baltimore Four') protestested against the Vietnam War by pouring their own blood on Selective Service records - a very different understanding of the meaning of the Cross to the one Constantine perpetuated.

Then on 27 October 1968, 120,000 marched against war in London, urged on by campaigning Anglican priest Canon John Collins, one of a range of clerical heroes of the anti-apartheid struggle.

Here we see the two sides of Christianity: not so much 'liberal' versus 'conservative', but an imperial version of the faith captive to earthly power, contrasting with a non- or post-imperial (and now post-Christendom) understanding of the Gospel, recovering the dynamic of the originating Jesus movement.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

The gods of war

One of the more disturbing and yet revealing themes introduced to justify Australian military engagement in the (civil ?) war in Afghanistan is the argument that we need to keep going with the war and succeed in our aims, whatever they are, or else the deaths of Australian soldiers will have been in vain.

The logic of this is that the more deaths there are the more we should keep going with the involvement, otherwise their deaths will have been in vain. the more soldiers that die the more deaths we should be prepared to envisage to justify the increasing number of deaths.

This is nothing less than worshiping death - military deaths demand ongoing participation in war. From a Christian point of view this is a form of idolatry - the gods of war having received the "sacrifices" of the death of young Australians demand further sacrifices to justify the initial sacrifices.

Where is the point at which we stop this ongoing spiral of death demanding death?

Sunday, 17 October 2010

What is religion?

The loose use of the term religion as though we all know and understand what the term refers to continues to infuriate and frustrate me. David Bentley Hart has a passage in an entertaining and instructive article "On the Trail of the Snark with Daniel Dennett" that explains why I am frustrated.  The article appears in a collection of articles and essays entitled: In the Aftermath: Provocations and Laments (Eerdmans, 2009).

And here, I think it needs mentioning - just for precision's sake - that religion does not actually exist. Rather there are a very great number of traditions of belief and practice that, for the sake of convenience we call "religions", but that could scarcely differ from one another more. Perhaps it might seem sufficient, for the purposes of research, simply to identify general resemblances among these traditions: but even that is notoriously hard to do, since every effort to ascertain what sort of things one is looking at involves an enormous amount of interpretation, and no clear criteria for evaluating any of it. One cannot establish where the boundaries lie between "religious" systems and  magic, or "folk science", or myth, or social ceremony. (Comment Anzac Day services?) There is not any compelling reason to assume a genetic continuity or kinship between, say, shamanistic beliefs and developed rituals of sacrifice, or between tribal cults, and traditions like Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity, or to assume that these various developed traditions are varieties of the same thing. One may feel that there is a continuity or kinship, or presuppose on the basis of one's prejudices, inklings or tastes that the extremely variable and imprecise characteristic of "a belief in the supernatural" constitutes proof of a common ancestry or type; but all of this remains a matter of interpretation, vague morphologies, and personal judgments of value and meaning, and attempting to construct a science around such intuitions can amount to little more than mistaking "all the things I don't believe int" for a scientific genus. One cannot even demonstrate that apparent similarities of behavior between cultures manifest similar rationales, as human consciousness is so promiscuously volatile a catalyst in social evolution. ...
Moreover, the task of delineating the "phenomenon" of religion in the abstract becomes perfectly hopeless as soon as one begins to examine what particular traditions of faith actually claim, believe, or do. It is already difficult enough to define what sort of thing religion is,. But what sort of thing is the Buddhist teaching of the Four Noble Truths? What sort of thing is the Vedantic doctrine that Atman and Brahman are one? What sort of thing is the Christian belief in Easter"? What is the core and what are the borders of this "phenomenon"? what are its empirical causes? What are its rationales? Grand empty abstractions about religion ares as easy to produce as to ignore. These by contrast are questions that touch on what persons actually believe; and to answer them requires an endless hermeneutic labor - an investigation of history, and intellectual traditions and contemplative lore ... (pp.192-193)
William Cavanaugh reaches a similar conclusion in his analysis of the difficulty of categorising what is and isn't a religion for the purposes of the flourishing scholarly industry over the relationship between religion and violence.  Cavanaugh makes clear in The Myth of Religious Violence  in a way that is not quite as clear in Hart's discussion the extent to which any consistent account of specific religions will end up drawing political and civic religions into the scope of scholarly work in this field.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Saying sorry is hard to do ...

Lutherans and Anabaptists in July this year took a big step towards tidying up some unfinished and deeply painful business from the Reformation. (I know, its October now but I only just got my head up from trying to put together a PhD proposal.)

Representatives from the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) asked forgiveness for the violent persecution of the Anabaptists in the 16th century and the negative portrayal of these Christian groups in their churches and theological institutions.

The interesting thing about the service of repentance and forgiveness was that it involved the Lutherans having to begin a process of teaching and re-interpreting their confessional documents, particularly the Augsburg Confession in the light of their seeking forgiveness for this violence. If you know how attached Lutherans are to their confessions you will realise what a big step this is.

The joint study report from the LWF and the Mennonite World Conference opens up the issue of how the story of that sixteenth century encounter in its violence and condemnation can now be retold.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Globalization of the church

Alan and Eleanor Kreider have done a great job with Worship and Mission after Christendom in providing an account of mission, worship and their connection that is reflective, informed by scholarship but is at the same time really accessible. Discussion of the contents in detail will haveto wait for another time.

A quote on the globalization of the church caught my attention.
Civil authorities may perceive the globalization of the church as subversive. The nation state attempts to constrict the freedom of affinity groups that come between the individual citizen and the nation, particularly if they are transnational. This is what the church of pre-Christendom was and the church of post-Christendom can be. William Cavanaugh rightly notes, "Christianity  produces divisions within the state body precisely because it pretends to be a body which transcends state boundaries." We Christians have a prior loyalty and a larger loyalty than the nation state. (p177)
Indeed. One other implication beside the relativisation of the claims of national identity is that the consumer capitalism shares with the nation state an interest in the creation of "the individual"who can more easily be shaped as a consumer if there are no intermediate bodies that might provide an alternative shaping of desires to that offered by advertising.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Travel Warnings

The latest round of public warnings by authorities in the US and the UK about potential terrorist attacks continues to leave me slightly puzzled. What are the relevant populations supposed to do with such warnings? What in practice can we do to respond to such warnings in any meaningful way?

Stay away from classy hotels that cater to international visitors? That's about all that I can come up with. Tough luck for the people who are employed in such facilities and cannot afford to change their job on the very slight chance that their might be a terrorist attack. There is a bit of a class bias there. Do we expect people in such places to resign their jobs in the face of ill-defined and statistically low level of risk?

What is the impact on the population at large of warnings that you cannot do anything much with? I am not a social psychologist but it seems plausible to me that the only result of such warnings can be to add to an undefined sense of fear and uncertainty.

The only value of such warnings is that they provide cover for the backside of government if their is a terrorist attack that enables them to say that they provided the public with a warning and justify the increasingly large and unjustifiable amounts of public funding spent on so called "security".

In a time where people are dying in large numbers from preventable disease that can be addressed at a relatively low cost, the expenditure of increasing amounts of money to prevent relatively small numbers of deaths in response to terrorist threats becomes increasingly hard to justify from a moral point of view,.

Monday, 4 October 2010

Resuming normal service...

Work on putting together a proposal for a PhD has slowed down my attempts at blogging with any regularity. As the end of that exercise is in sight ....

Brief note on climate change - the anticipated threshold for dangerous levels of impact might have been set too high at 2 degrees C.
... a study published in the September issue of the Journal of Quaternary Science suggests that the threshold may be lower than 2° C. (Click  for a press release on the research.)
“The results here are quite startling and, importantly, they suggest sea levels will rise significantly higher than anticipated and that stabilizing global average temperatures at 2˚C above pre-industrial levels may not be considered a ’safe’ target as envisaged by the European Union and others,” says study co-author Chris Turney of the University of Exeter in the U.K. (quoted in a press release).
This study has substantial implications for global policy making in terms of the targets that need to be met for cuts in emissions.