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Monday, 28 March 2011

A poetic take on theology

Kristin Jack, from the Servants to Asia's Urban Poor, in his powerful collection Poetry and Prophecy  observes:

I am so weary of creedal system,
even more of doctrine,
for spirit will not slide
underneath a microscope,
or flow inside a formula
no matter how elegantly precise.

But I am all ears to Poetry and Prophecy,
the wild song that rides
upon the Wind and on the Light,
as ode to Love and Wonder
sung to the One and only Word
that ever truly took shape. ("Theology" p.39)

Monday, 21 March 2011

Tertullian and Christian non-violence

Dipping my way through Jean-Michel Hornus's fascinating source book on early Christianity It is Not Lawful For Me To Fight: Early Christian Attitudes Toward War, Violence and the State (Herald Press, 1982) brought to my attention his conclusion that Tertullian, Origen and Lactantius during the early centuries of the Christian movement were developing a doctrine of positive non-violence. Hornus is a church historian from the Reformed church so he could not be accused as an Anabaptist might of reading back his/her commitments into the original sources.

Hornus argues that their approach was rooted in a conviction that there was another power at work in history beyond that of brute force. He finds in Tertullian an account of how believers might resist injustice without having to resort to unjust methods. Tertullian in his admonition to the proconsul Scapula referred to a historical precedent.
In Asia, under Arrius Antonius, the Christians had responded to persecution by going en masse to the tribunal o be condemned. The prosecutor's embarrassment and confusion had been comical. What would Scapula do "if thousands of those under his administration men and women of all ages and conditions , were to come and offer themselves voluntarily for martyrdom?"(p.215)

Thursday, 3 March 2011

A tourist's reflections on the Christchurch earthquake

The Christchurch earthquake occurred close to the end of a wonderful holiday that my wife Jillian and I had been enjoying on the North Island of New Zealand . After the earthquake, for the last few days of our visit we found ourselves at the bookending each day of sightseeing with the continuous live TV coverage of the impacts of the earthquake on the lives of people in Christchurch and the search and rescue process.

Beyond the ongoing feelings of horror at the devastation both physically and of the fabric of people's lives and awe at the instinctive and generosity of ordinary people that was on display we found ourselves referring back to several visits we had made during the previous ten days of our visit in which the reality of earthquakes in re-shaping the landscape and communities across New Zealand had been on display as part of the tourist experience.

It had started for us in Wellington at Te Papa, as the wonderful National Museum is affectionately referred to, where New Zealand's location on the Ring of Fire was visually demonstrated and explained. At Rotorua we learned about a series of earthquakes prior to the eruption of Mt Tarawera in 1886 that led to the destruction of several Maori villages, the deaths of probably more than 120 people, and the vast expansion of Lake Rotomahana to twenty times its original size.

Our visit to Napier on the east coast was particularly poignant in retrospect. We had visited the city just a few days after the eightieth anniversary of the Hawke's Bay earthquake. On 3 February 1931 an earthquake of magnitude 7.8 on the Richter scale devastated Napier as well as causing widespread damage in the neighbouring town of Hastings.At least 256 people died in the earthquake that remains in absolute as well as proportionate terms given the population of New Zealand at that date.

The central business district of Napier was completely devastated by the quake and the resulting fire. The national response was to embark on a rebuilding of the city centre, intereswtingly the in art deco style, a reconstruction that was completed within two years. The resulting distinctive character of the city has been maintained by the residents and is a source of civic pride, community identity and most helpfully, a substantial flow of tourists.

With these experiences fresh in our minds, we quickly became aware that the commentary accompanying the television coverage displayed an almost total lack of awareness of the history of large scale devastation and loss of life in New Zealand from earthquakes. The framing of the narrative as though there had been no previous history of major disasters in New Zealand, occluded from view a possible source of encouragement; that is accounts of how the New Zealand community had responded in creative and compassionate ways to  disasters of this scale in the past.

The other issue that emerged as we listened to the interviews with people in Christchurch related to the language used to describe the terrible devastation of the Cathedral and the destruction of the spire -at last count probably 22 people died in the Cathedral as a result of the earthquake. The use of the term "iconic" was repeatedly used to describe the Cathedral and its destruction was described as "tearing the heart out of the city". Remnants of the Christendom settlement were clearly evident in this expression of grief over the destruction of the building. In the midst of this the Dean of the Cathedral struck the right note when interviewed in the early days after the quake with his focus on the question of the safety and survival of the missing people ahead of questions about the building.

It was, however, I thought a significant use of language by the media and civic leadership in a country in which church attendance and affiliation is probably even lower than in Australia, and points toward a significant issue that is likely to emerge when the question of restoration or rebuilding of the cathedral comes to the fore. The question will be who pays and who will determine the shape of the rebuilt cathedral? If it is indeed a community icon, then the wider community will want a say in shaping the new building.

I acknowledge that his may seem preemptive at a point when grief and dislocation are the issues that need to be dealt with by those on the spot. Let me at least put the issue on the table for consideration when the time is ripe.

I would doubt that the Anglican Church of Aotoerea even with whatever insurance it might receive will have the funds by itself for a reconstruction along traditional lines. If reconstruction is publicly funded then the general public is likely to want something that looks recognisably like a the previous cathedral, or a "real church"in that location. I would guess that there will be a substantial group of engaged Anglicans who are likely to see the rebuilding of the Cathedral as an opportunity for a building design that represents a more contemporary understanding of the church, and its role in the community, as a creative minority in a post-Christendom environment. These respective visions are almost certainly bound to come into conflict and the pastoral effort and wisdom required by Church leadership in dialogue with their faith community in discerning how to move forward is likely to be considerable.

Beyond this specific issue, the damage to the fabric of the churches across Christchurch and the engagement by Christians in the recovery phase over the next couple of years offers a substantial opportunity to reconsider the shape of Christian mission across the city. I would hope that the leadership of Christian communities will see this as an opportunity to reassess the shape of church life and the infrastructure needed to support it and check the rush to automatically commence rebuilding what was destroyed. Hopefully too the experience of engaging with people where they are and focusing on being present with people outside the safety of traditional "sacred" spaces during the process of recovery might provide some clues as to the future shape of a church in Christchurch which demonstrates the presence of Christ in the everyday.

In the meantime, we can  continue to pray for all those in Christchurch who are grieving with those who grieve and sharing the relief with those who are relieved that their losses are less than others.