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Monday, 26 December 2011

Christmas is not for children

Christmas is not for children. This observation seems at odds with the sights and sounds that have blitzed our senses in the shopping malls over the past few weeks, with children lining up for photos with Santa Claus and suggestions of both the cute and the glitzy manger scenes. 

The source of our confusion and our inability to grasp this reality lies in the fact that the Christian Church's celebration of the feast of the Incarnation has become completely overlaid by a celebration of family driven by the unrelenting consumer logic of late capitalism. Christmas for us is about family, therefore becomes centred on children, creating an immense source of pain for those whose families are dysfunctional, those who are single and separated.

A look at the readings for the Christmas service that I attended in Canberra yesterday will start to make the point about how little the whole festival is about family, middle class selection and generally having a good time. The reading in the lectionary for the Old Testament for Christmas morning strikes quite a different note:

The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,
on them has light shone.
You have multiplied the nation;
you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
as with joy at the harvest,
as they are glad when they divide the spoil.
For the yoke of his burden,
and the staff for his shoulder,
the rod of his oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian.
For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult
and every garment rolled in blood
will be burned as fuel for the fire.
For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and of peace
there will be no end,
on the throne of David and over his kingdom,
to establish it and to uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time forth and forevermore.
The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this. (Isaiah 9:2-7 ESV)

This is an account about politics and government. The debris of warfare and battle will be burned up and destroyed and what we are to look for beyond that is one who will bring a reign of peace, characterised by justice and righteousness. This is  a perspective that is supposed to frame the discussion of the Gospel reading in Luke 2 on Christmas morning, but I suspect usually doesn't. It certainly didn't at the church service I attended. The passage takes away any excuse for a sentimental account of the significance of the birth of Jesus and places it in a context of empire and exile.

As it is if you manage to ignore the political frame of God's project for the achievement of peace and justice in Isaiah, the account of the birth of Jesus in Luke Chapter 2 opens with a clear account of the political context. Debra Dean Murphy from the Ekklesia Project makes this very clear in her lectionary reflections on this passage:

In Luke, we glimpse what the tyranny of the imperium romanum meant for its subjects, especially those on the margins of empire geographically, ethnically, and religiously. In verses 1 through 5 it is clear that the events leading up to Jesus’ birth were no picnic – nothing like the familiar, beatific stuff of greeting-card sentimentality. Rather, despots and oligarchs populate the scene and the treacherous journey to the stable – labor pains upon labor pains – includes refugees on the run, authorities asking for papers, and risky border crossings.   
We can miss this, of course, and often do – especially when we rush to the later, more palatable and more accessible passages of Luke’s narrative. The Christmas pageant version of verses 8 through 14, for instance, has long colonized our imagination, with toddlers in bathrobes and bed sheets, coat-hanger halos on their wee heads.
But as Dorothee Soelle once observed, “the boot of the empire crushes everything in its way in the narrative from Bethlehem to Golgotha.” The terror of the shepherds was real and, as those among the poorest of the poor, the glad tidings they received from the angels (in whatever form these heavenly messengers appeared to them) signalled something of the radical politics of the infant king and his own future dealings, as one among the poorest of the poor, with the imperial powers.(The Logic of the Incarnation)

Tom Wright spells out the contrast between two kingdoms that Luke sketches in his account of the birth of Jesus:
Luke's scene ceases to be a romantic pastoral idyll, with the rustic shepherds paying homage to the infant King. It becomes a clear statement of two kingdoms destined to compete, kingdoms that offer radically different definitions of what peace and power and glory are all about. 
Here is the old king in Rome, turning 60 in the year Jesus was born: he represents perhaps the best that pagan kingdoms can do. At least he knows that peace and stability are good things; unfortunately, he has had to kill a lot of people to bring them about, and to kill a lot more, on a regular basis, to preserve them. 
Unfortunately, too, his real interest is in his own glory. Already, before his death, many of his subjects have begun to regard him as divine.
Here, by contrast, is the young King in Bethlehem, born with a price on his head. He represents the dangerous alternative, the possibility of a different empire, a different power, a different glory, a different peace. The two stand over against one another.
Augustus's empire is like a well-lit room at night: the lamps are arranged beautifully, they shed pretty patterns, but they have not conquered the darkness outside. Jesus' kingdom is like the morning star rising, signalling that it is time to blow out the candles, to throw open the curtains, and to welcome the new day that is dawning. Glory to God in the highest-and peace among those with whom he is pleased!
You see the two empires squared off against each other toward the end of John's gospel, when Pilate confronts Jesus with two questions: Don't you know that I have the power to have you killed? And, what is truth? That is the language of kingdom, power and glory that the world knows.The Most Dangerous Baby
Why Samuel Wells ponders do we turn Christmas,  into an event that is really just for children? After all ... 
 this is a story about political oppression, harsh taxes, displaced people, homelessness, unemployment, vulnerable refugees and asylum-seekers. That's the danger of performing it in a place like Delhi and having it acted out by adults who themselves know the very real possibility of any or all of these realities. We might have to recognize what it's really about.
And the truth is, we don't want to think about such realities. We don't want to think that our own political system and the demands of our own economy could have comparable effects on far-flung places to those brought about by the Roman Empire and its client regimes all those years ago.
We don't want the cozy Christmas story besmirched by such tawdry human and political realities. We don't want to spoil things by thinking of the oppressed - and more than that we absolutely can't face the possibility that we might be counted among the oppressors.
So we get youngsters to perform our nativity plays. We talk about how magical this season is. We say "Christmas is really for the children." How ... convenient. Christmas is really for Grown-Ups
If it is for children we can then evade all the hard and the difficult questions that follow if we read it for the hard disturbing tale that it is. We are then faced with the call to discipleship, the call to follow, to become people who are on the Way, no longer at ease with the world in which we are so deeply invested. And we in our churches provide a chaplaincy service to a society, giving a religious veneer with our affirmation of the importance of family and personal generosity to those who live and work on the margins every day of the year.

I got given this year the DVD of the movie Of Gods and Men, the disturbing story of the monks in the Atlas Mountains of Algeria who made the choice to stay and accompany the people in the local village in the midst of a dirty war between the Army and Islamist guerrillas. This story I think provides a parable of the Incarnation, of the costly choice of identification with the pain and brokenness of the world. As a parable of the Incarnation it makes it clear why Christmas is for grown-ups and not for children.

Thursday, 22 December 2011

An Advent Credo (courtesy of Daniel Berrigan?)

I found the following while doing an annual tidy up: I have no idea where I got it from, or the accuracy of the attribution to Daniel Berrigan. It seems appropriate as an affirmation for Advent, so here it is.

It is not true that creation and the human family are doomed to destruction and loss ...
This is true: For God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life;

It is not true that we must accept inhumanity and discrimination, hunger and poverty, death and destruction ...
This is true: I have come that they may have life, and that abundantly.

It is not true that violence and hatred should have the last word, and that war and destruction rule forever ...
This is true: Unto us a child is born, unto us a Son is given, and the government shall be upon his shoulder, his name shall be called wonderful, councillor, mighty God, the Everlasting, the Prince of Peace.

It is not true that we are simply victims off the powers of evil who seek to rule the world ...
This is true: To me is given authority in heaven and on earth, and lo I am with you, even unto the end of the world.

It is not true that we have to wait for those who are specially gifted, who are the prophets of the Church before we can be peacemakers ...
This is true: I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh and your sons and daughters shall prophesy, your young men shall see visions and your old men shall have dreams.

It is not rue that our hopes for liberation of mankind, of justice, of human dignity, of peace are not meant for this earth and for this history ...
This is true: The hour comes, and it is now, that true worshippers shall worship God in spirit and in truth.

So let us enter Advent in hope, even hope against hope. Let us see visions of love and peace and justice. Let us affirm with humility, with joy, with faith, with courage: Jesus Christ - the life of the world.

Sunday, 18 December 2011

Have churches in Australia "got over "christendom?

You would not want to conduct a prosecution on the basis of media reports, even if the report did appear in such a sober paper as The Canberra Times. Well more sober than say, The Daily Telegraph, or The Herald-Sun. However, the report on Christmas messages from church leaders, buried on P.9, of the December 17 edition, under the heading "Churches address contentious issues", rises some interesting questions of some theological significance about how churches place, or perhaps better, imagine themselves in addressing  Australian society, in a time after Christendom.

My suggestion is that the church in Australia has not yet really "gotten over" Christendom and is still assuming a location in society that gives it a particular position of power and responsibility for sustaining the social order. The news report gets to the heart of the issue with the observation of one church leader that "... rather than legislating morality the Church could help to unite society" and is followed by the comment that ...the gift of the Church is ... being the voice of Christ, especially to those who feel alienated from or dispossessed of the gifts that this nation has.

The comment about the Church "uniting society" betrays a lingering Christendom mentality in which the church and state are still linked together to uphold the social order, even if the church does not wish to proceed by way of legislation in achieving its goals. While it is one step away from the original Christendom arrangement, the next part of the statement assumes that there is still an important degree of linkage between church and state and that the church will play a "conserving" role in society as a chaplain to support the social order as it is. The observation about the Church being the voice of Christ "to" the alienated, assumes that the Church is in a position of power and can speak from that position "to" those who are on the margins as an upholder of social order and a source of "values", a term that usually remains curiously undefined. Everyone is in favour of "values", aren't they?

Unfortunately, the church leaders who were responsible for producing these statements have not, in my view anyway, being paying enough attention to the readings for the third Sunday in Advent. These readings are particularly unsettling to any presumption that the God that the prophets of Israel presumed to speak for can be easily corralled into support of  asocial and economic order in which it is business as usual. If God is in favour of "values" then they are very specific and disturbing values, not likely to be enthusiastically embraced by those entrenched in positions of authority. and power.

The readings from Luke and Isaiah caste into severe doubt the presumption that God is interested in upholding the social order as it is. Indeed they suggest that  those who wish to align themselves with God's activity will be unlikely to be found acting as chaplains to a society devoted to consumerism in its early twenty-first century manifestations.

Take the reading from the prophet Isaiah:
The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion-- to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, to display his glory. They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations. 
For I the LORD love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them. Their descendants shall be known among the nations, and their offspring among the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge that they are a people whom the LORD has blessed. I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations. (Isaiah 61: 1-4, 8-11)
That doesn't sound a lot like a recipe for maintaining the social order and business as usual to me, while the declaration by Mary, recorded in Luke's Gospel is positively rabble rousing in its political and social implications:
My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away emptyHe has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever. (Luke 1: 46b-55)
Yes I know these passages are read in the churches, but the problem is that they are read by the those of us who are in positions of relative social and political power, and economic and social comfort. We carry the assumptions a hangover from Christendom about the social location of the church and its responsibility for maintaing social order. As a consequence we remain largely oblivious to the way that our location in the comfort of middle class Australia obscures the radical and disturbing call of the passages. 

The voice of the churches in Australia will only start to take on the disturbing character of the prophets and Mary in addressing the world around us when they can begin to imagine themselves as being "other" than the chaplain to the state, and without the perceived responsibility for maintaining the social order and thereby supporting business as usual. When the churches can recover their identity as witnesses to the upside-down disturbing kingdom that Jesus came to announce and inaugurate, then they might begin to speak not "to", or even "for" those who are on the margins, but "from" the margins, as a community that has begun to practice justice, and depends for its life upon the faithfulness of a merciful, remembering God, not the support of the state and alignment with the "powers that be".

Friday, 16 December 2011

Good and Bad Religion

The following review originally appeared in St Mark's Review , No.217, August 2011 (3).

But what is religion?

Peter Vardy, Good & Bad Religion, SCM Press, London, 2010, paperback, 179 pages, ISBN978-0-334-04349-2, RRP $29.95

The necessary connection between religion and violence has become a familiar trope in both media commentary and the public polemics of the “new” atheists such as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins. Peter Vardy, Vice-Principal of Heythrop College in the University of London, has written, Good & Bad Religion to redirect the debate from being a purely defensive reaction on the part of religious people and as an attempt to find common ground between believers and atheists.

Good & Bad Religion is a brief, paperback, relatively accessible in style, targeted at a thoughtful, but non-academic audience. In a non-defensive even-tempered manner Vardy has sought to place the argument about “religion” and the contemporary critique of its dangers, and indeed its inhumanity, more clearly within the history of western philosophical and theological thought than has often been the case in the debate to date.

The organization of the book is simple. Vardy develops his argument in two distinct parts and at the end of each part he provides a clear summary of the argument that he has developed and the conclusions that hedraws.

In Part One, entitled The Challenge, Vardy sketches the critique of religion provided by contemporary atheists.  Religion can be bad, Vardy concedes to the atheists, but supporters of “good” religion should be at one with them in resisting “bad” religion. It may be, Vardy asserts, that … in today’s world there is a more important distinction between atheist and theist, namely that between those who pursue bad religion and those who stand for truth and what is right, whether it be within, or without a religious framework (p14).

Vardy then takes us through a discussion of the nature of truth and the good in the major philosophical traditions as an aid to assessing what “good” and “bad” religion are. The author concludes with an account of Aristotle’s approach to the nature of human flourishing which he argues is the most helpful way of distinguishing between  ‘good’ and ‘bad’ religion.

Aristotelian philosophy, Vardy contends … offers a partial solution to the problem of devising standards against which to judge religion and religious practices. … the natural law approach is compatible with the major world religions and indeed has been used by them in the past to extend and enrich their philosophies of religion … Further the approach may be acceptable to atheist philosophers as well.  …most normative philosophical systems rely on defining good and bad in relation to what it means to be a fulfilled human being.(p.67)

In Part 2: A Way Forward Vardy covers a range of issues that arise in the assessment of what is ‘good’ and ‘bad religion’, starting with questions of authority and textual interpretation, and then moving on to the topics of science and religion, justice, equality and freedom. From the discussion in each of these chapters Vardy provides us in The Conclusion with a summary based on an Aristotelian, natural law framework, of six broad conclusions, and 26 more detailed criteria that we can use to distinguish ‘good’ from ‘bad’ religion.

Given the natural law basis of his argument, the conclusions that Vardy draws are coherent, admirable and largely predictable. The major problem that I have with the structure and argument that he develops lies not in his analysis but in the underlying assumptions about the character of religion that are touched on briefly in the first chapter but are not systematically developed.

The brief references to religion that he provides do not add up to a consistent, or coherent account. Vardy starts out promisingly by noting that religion is the cord of ideas, beliefs and practices that hold communities together and that it is not a consistent monolithic phenomenon. However, he then goes on to affirm that religion can be used in damaging ways, but that it is important to the human psyche and cannot be eliminated, thus moving towards an essentialist and non-historical account of religion.

This is followed by the observation that religion has often been taken over for political purposes. A key question arises here. If religion is as he acknowledges, the cord that holds communities together, how could religion not be political in character, and can we then distinguish in any meaningful way between religion and politics?

The working assumption that I draw from Vardy’s references to religion, seems to be that we all know what religion is, and that it can be treated as a timeless generic category that can be evaluated in its specific manifestations as either ‘good’ or “’bad’.

The problem with such a generic account of religion becomes clear when Vardy refers to the early Christians as having taken a stand against “bad or debased religion”. This really will not do. The early Christians affirmed that they were followers of Jesus whom they affirmed as “Lord”, a term in with both political and the religious connotations and implications. What they took a stand against was not “bad” religion, but the specific political religion of the Roman Empire, because Roman officials sought a commitment to the Emperor that would overrode their primary and basic loyalty to Christ.

I would argue against overall thrust of Vardy’s project to distinguish between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ religion, that people are not committed to ‘religion’ in general. People are committed to living lives from within specific traditions, traditions that embody differing accounts of the world, and differing accounts of what it is to be human and how one should appropriately live and shape one’s life.

As William Cavanaugh argues in The Myth of Religious Violence, religion has a history … and what counts as a religion and what does not in any given context depends up different configurations of power and authority … the attempt to say that there is a transhistorical and transcultural concept of religion that is separable from secular phenomena, is itself part of a particular configuration of power, that of the modern secular state as it developed in the West. In this context religion is constructed as transhistorical, transcultural, essentially interior, and essentially distinct from public secular rationality. (p59)

Vardy’s apologetic is overall an eirenic and thoughtful response to the new atheists. He seems to share with them an account of religion as a transhistorical and transcultural phenomenon. If we do not accept his account of religion, the task before Christians and members of other faith traditions and communities is to interrogate the history of our own traditions, their specific beliefs and practices, both for their implication in encouraging violence at the individual, family and communal levels, and for their resources for witnessing to, and embodying shalom. This seems to me to be a more promising, though more difficult project than the one that Vardy has undertaken.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Marriage and the state

Theses for debate:

  • That the state has no business passing acts to do with marriage. It's only interest should be in the question of people's relationships in so far as it relates to ensuring justice and good order in the handling of matters to do with property and those who are vulnerable, such as children. 
  • that the issue of "marriage' and who is "married"and can or cannot be married with reference to that community is a matter for the communities with which people identify or to which they are committed.
  • That the entire debate in which we are involved in Australia is profoundly shaped by the legacy of Christendom and the shaping of common understandings of "marriage" informed by the use by the Christian church of the state to legislate the view of an established church across the community at the expense of dissenting community.