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Monday, 30 April 2012

Remembering Anzac Day

There has been much discussion across all forms of the media about "remembering Anzac Day", or was it "remembering" the soldiers who died and were wounded, firstly at Gallipoli and then World War 1 of who died for their nation, or who paid "the ultimate sacrifice". Note the theologically loaded language here. Christians should have problems with this term. It brings us back within whispering distance of attempts to explain the significance of Jesus' death as political victim of non-resistant messianic encounter with the Roman imperial power.

But I digress. All in all last week while there was a great deal about "remembering", much of it fairly vague until the consensus about who and what we were "remembering" was brought under question. First Nations peoples wanted to "remember"  those of their nations who were killed in the occupation of this country and in the frontier wars. They were firmly ruled out of the official process.  Previously women's attempts to" remember" those who were victims of rape in war were also excluded from participation in the official public ceremonies of "remembering". So who gets "remembered" was contested, though the apparent official guardians of the scope of our "remembering", the RSL, ensured that the boundaries were suitably policed.

But what are we doing in our "remembering"? There was, to judge from letters to the editor of the Canberra Times, very little clarity, or community agreement about the significance and meaning of the public ceremonies of "remembering". And this is interesting because it makes clear that the whole controversy relates to a public process, or ritual. Individuals after all can stop on any occasion of significance to them and "remember" those of their family and friends who were killed or suffered in war without official sanction. This "remembering"at an individual or family level involves a bringing someone to mind, and grieving for their suffering, that they did not go on to live life to its full extent, in some way or another, and that for those who were known personally to us, that we have been deprived of their presence.

But controversy there was about meaning. For some it was a moment to affirm the horrors of war and say "never again". For others it was about affirming the significance of the "sacrifice" of those who were killed and acknowledging how much we "owed" them, how we should be prepared to offer ourselves to our country in gratitude. The language used was religious to its core. It made very clear that as William Cavanaugh has argued that "the holy" has migrated from the church to the nation/state.

Christians should take note of this migration and be prepared to assess the claims of the state when they come clothed with the aura of "the holy" and the language of sacrifice. After all according to the earliest Christians, Christ's death meant the end of sacrifice and its claims on human life. The primary "remembering" to which Christians are called is to the meal shared which celebrates Christ's life, death and resurrection and the end of sacrifice, a meal in which the barriers that would divide those who are "holy" from the "profane" are broken down as we recognise Jesus in the sharing of bread with the stranger.

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Reflections on Anzac Day

...A few useful reflections on a variety of perspectives that dug through to varying degrees the prevailing largely unself-critical accounts of Anzac Day.

Stanley Hauerwas in The Sacrifices of War though not directly about Anzac Day provided a good many insights into the character and language of Anzac Day. He makes the important observation that... it is a mistake to focus - as we most often do - only on the sacrifice of life that war requires. War also requires that we sacrifice our normal unwillingness to kill. It may seem odd to call the sacrifice of our unwillingness to kill "a sacrifice," but I will argue that this sacrifice often renders the lives of those who make it unintelligible. The sacrifice of our unwillingness to kill is but the dark side of the willingness in war to be killed.

We are, Hauerwas acknowledges ... fated to kill and be killed because we know no other way to live. But through the forgiveness made possible by the cross of Jesus we are no longer condemned to kill. A people have been created who refuse to resort to the sword that they and those they love might survive. They seek not to survive, but to live in the light of Christ's resurrection.

Bruce Skates in a comment piece in the Age, Gallipoli is a global calamity, argues that The futility of war is best acknowledged by mourning the suffering of all nations, not just our own and draws attention to some of the silences in our celebration.
As we approach the centenary of the Great War, we should remember that Gallipoli was a global calamity, one that claimed the lives of soldiers across the British Empire and the world. And we should go further than that. As the Anzac Correspondent knew all too well, battles don't end when the guns stop firing. In the 1920s, and for decades later, Australia and a dozen other combatant nations lived in the shadow of war. It was not just that war visited grief on countless thousands of communities. The trauma of war was not confined to the battlefield or the casualty lists.
Now is the time to broaden our focus and examine the plight of families and communities who cared for the legion of crippled, blind and insane. ''War-wrecked men'' they were called, and they carried the conflict home to their communities. Sadly, (as Marina Larsson's haunting study of repatriation shows) domestic violence, poverty and alcoholism were as much the legacy of war as the legends many celebrate today. Finally, what of the broken promise of Gallipoli? The men and women who served were told the Great War would be the war to end all wars. What a Great Lie that has been.
It is time to see Gallipoli for what it was: pointless and obscene. It is time to look beyond that narrow beachhead at Anzac Cove, acknowledge the futility of war and mourn the suffering of nations other than our own. The Anzac centenary offers the opportunity for new forms of remembrance that are balanced and inclusive: ''bigger'' and ''more historical'', as our veteran put it. 
Jeff Sparrow doubts that the new forms of remembrance that Skates suggests is not likely. In Memory and the Anti-Politics of Anzac Day. Sparrow explains why. 

Conservatives, and most liberals, tell us that Anzac Day stands above politics. That’s true, in a fashion. But the event’s not apolitical so much as anti-political.

Where Carl von Clausewitz defined war as the continuation of politics by other means, Anzac celebrates the battlefield as a realm entirely removed from political life. The Great War spurred an unprecedented degree of social polarisation in Australia, and yet the obsessive retelling of the Gallipoli landing never corresponds to any equivalent interest in, say, the populace’s remarkable rejection of conscription in two ballots in 1916 and 1917. The Bush/Blair/Howard War on Terror rendered that period more relevant than ever, since obvious parallels can be drawn between the hysterical patriotism of the ‘Freedom Fries’ days and the jingoism during which most Australian cities renamed their streets (if you live in Victoria Street, there’s a pretty good chance it was once called Wilhelm Road), while the state-sanctioned suspicion of Arabs and Muslims after 9/11 corresponds to the widespread persecution of Irish and Catholics in the wake of the Easter Uprising, and the unparalleled freedom granted to security agencies echoes Billy Hughes’ promulgation of the open-ended War Precautions Act.
Yet Anzac Day functions not to celebrate but to prevent that kind of history. It lauds bravery yet allows no room for what Bismarck called ‘civil courage’, a trait that many non-combatants showed in abundance when, against all the newspapers, politicians and mainstream political parties, they opposed the slaughter in Europe.

Monday, 16 April 2012

Preaching at Easter

I listened to two sermons this past Easter. Both for different reasons left me disillusioned and as distant as ever from clerically structured religiosity. Both were from different theological strands within the Anglican church in the diocese of Canberra and Goulburn. I haven't got to write up my observations earlier, because for the rest of the weekend I was out listening to wonderful music at the National Folk Festival and being reminded once again of the importance of discipleship, communities of practice and handing on a tradition. All matters that are of foundational importance for the Christian movement. and for the week after I was teaching an intensive for distance education on Christianity and Australian Society.

Let's start with the sermon on Easter Friday. The setting was an extended reading of the passion narrative from the Gospel of John. The account of the meaning of the crucifixion in the sermon was set out in terms of the penal substitution account of the atonement. What we have in this account of the atonement is a God whose wrath is appeased by Jesus stepping in as the substitute to meet the punishment we deserved. The difficulty here is that we end up with a two-faced God. We have the God of wrath and we have Jesus who according to the Gospels reveals the character of God. Two quite different Gods.

What we have here in the sayings from the cross, notes Stanley Hauerwas in his mediations on these sayings, Cross-Shattered Christ, is a God who who refuses to save us by violence.
... God's love for us means he can only hate that which alienates his creatures from the love manifest in our creation. ... the Son of God has taken our place, become for us the abandonment our sin produces, so that we may live confident that the world has been redeemed by this cross.  
So redeemed, any account of the cross that suggests God must somehow satisfy an abstract theory of justice by sacrificing his Son on our behalf is clearly wrong ... there is no god who must be satisfied that we might be spared. We are spared because God refuses to have us lost. (pp.65-66)
 Simon Barrow unpacks this issue at greater length:
... how, we may ask, can wholeness, deliverance and healing possibly flow from a state execution resulting in the unjust, violent death of a good (if deeply subversive) person - one in whom his friends and followers felt they had met, not just a fine human being, but divine love at its most tangible and engaging? 
Some Christian theologies have sought to render the conundrum of the death of Christ through elaborate theories about the sacrifice of innocent blood to expiate or propitiate the righteous anger of a holy God who demands a 'price' for sin. Indeed this kind of explanation - though morally repugnant to very many (quite rightly, in my view) - is probably still the majority interpretation in most conservative Christian circles.
...  the problem with 'penal substitutionary atonement' theories is that they end up turning God into an abuser, they posit judicial murder as a divinely sanctioned method of redemption, and they propose an account of divine justice that is at complete odds with the unconditional love that Jesus exemplifies and exalts in his parable of the Prodigal Son (for example).
In fact judicially-patterned ideas of atonement (ways of effecting at-one-ment between imperfect human beings and the perfection of God) historically arose, in the era of St Anselm and others, in contexts where the forensic 'satisfaction of honour' was a strong cultural norm. It was this problem, rather than one intrinsic to nature of God, that they sought to resolve. 
Similarly, the New Testament language of 'blood satisfaction' around Christ is bound up with the need to resolve ancient religious patterns of sacrifice in terms of a fresh understanding arising from the community that encountered, and was profoundly changed by, Jesus of Nazareth. So the Epistle to the Hebrews, for example, pictures Jesus' death as sacrificial precisely in order to argue that in his 'one, perfect sacrifice' the entire sacrificial system of blood-for-honour has been abolished and applies no more. Forgiveness is no longer dependent on sacrificial offerings. 
The logic of this construal is that we should henceforth cease to interpret Christ in terms of patterns of sacrifice. On the contrary, we should recast our notions of sacrifice in terms of Christ - as self-giving and other-healing, not as an external burden requiring the suffering or death of another. 
That the wisdom of God requires us to reflect on a judicial murder at the very heart of our faith; that we are bound by baptism to Jesus the criminal (Mark Thiessen Nation); and that we are enjoined to "take up our cross" alongside the victims of wrongdoing, neglect and injustice in this world ... these are hardly matters of comfort or convenience. They are, personally and communally, extremely difficult. But they cannot be avoided - whether the challenge they present is one of intellectual wrestling in the face of scepticism, lifestance re-imagining in the face of a loss of hope, or verbal re-orientation in the face of loosely-worded piety. "What sense does it make to say "Christ died for us"? 
The second sermon on Easter Sunday morning was frustrating in a different way. The preacher did not attempt to address the Gospel reading, the account from Mark 16. This is a striking text in many ways yet the sermon did not address the strange disturbing quality of the text and its implications for our discipleship, indeed it hardly addressed the text at all.

When the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. And they were saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance of the tomb?” And looking up, they saw that the stone had been rolled back—it was very large. And entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe, and they were alarmed. And he said to them, “Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; he is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.” And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. (Mark 16:1-8 ESV)
Note here that the women are the witnesses, those who were called to announce the good news, though it seemed strange and terrifying to them. The other significant issue is that the announcement of the resurrection is the call to discipleship, to return to Galilee to take up again the call to follow Jesus. As Ched Myers has observed this is really scary as the disciples knew what the result of following Jesus entailed, a confrontation with the "powers that be".
An invitation to follow Jesus- again. To resume the Way, the consequences of which we now know all to well. Suddenly from deep within us, form that unexplored space beneath our profoundest hopes and fears roars a tidal wave of ecstasy, and terror, all at once (16.8). We race out of that tombs if we had just seen a ghost. And so we have: In Jesus' empty tomb there is nothing but the ghost of our discipleship past and our discipleship future. (Who will Roll Away the Stone? Discipleship Queries for First World Christians, 412)
Mark's resurrection narrative is not calling us to look for a heavenly, spiritualising Jesus, but a Jesus who will meet us in the earthly path of discipleship, back in Galilee, in a specific geography, a specific social and economic location. The geography of Easter is not other worldly. To respond to the invitation to discipleship is to join Jesus where he already is, on the way, not in the comfort of our peaceful churches but amid the storms of life.

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Confronting our own frailties

Rowan Williams in his reflection on the trial of Jesus in Luke draws our attention to the need to confront our own frailties.

Mark's account of the trial makes us think about the difference of Jesus in terms of God's alienation from almost all our language of meaning let alone success. In this court we are being cross-examined on our readiness to reduce God to a provider of meaning and usefulness in the terms with which we are comfortable. Matthew's trial probes the degree to which our religious fluency blocks out the divine Wisdom and it begins to ask us what we make of those who are left out, or left over by the systems we inhabit. Luke takes us a step further and challenges us not only to stand with those left out and left over, but to find in ourselves the poverty and exclusion we fear and run away from in others - to find in ourselves the tax collector in the Temple, the woman in Simon's house, and both sons in the parable of the Prodigal, with their different kinds of exclusion, guilt and fear. (pp.69-70)

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

From the point of view of the victim

A quote from Rowan Williams discussion of the trail in Matthew's Gospel.

... God's wisdom is 'kenotic'. It defines itself in the self-forgetting, self-emptying love of Christ the eternal Word, whole lives a human life for our sake and is obedient to the point of death. Such Wisdom will always be an exile, a refugee, in a world constrained by endless struggles for advantage, where success lies always in establishing your position at the expense of another's. The first step in acquiring God's Wisdom is therefore to search for what one recent writer has called 'the intelligence of the victim' - not because it is good or holy in itself to be a victim, far from it, but because looking at the world from the point of view of those excluded by its systems of power frees us from the need always to be securing our own power at all costs. The victim is the person left over or left out after a system has done its job, and is there fore an abiding challenge to the claim of any system to give a comprehensive solution to human needs and problems. {Public servants and politicians take note.} 
Standing with the victim means adopting a questioning stance towards such claims. In addition, as we try to move to where Jesus stands at his trial, we are challenged to listen to what we ourselves are saying. We use the language of God's unconditional love, of God's action submitting itself to be worked out in the history of weak and sinful people, of God's wisdom made flesh in the pain and failure of Jesus' death. "The words are your own' says Jesus. If you means them where do you stand? (pp.45-46)

Monday, 2 April 2012

The difficulty of speaking about Jesus

Rowan Williams' Christ on Trial: How the Gospel Unsettles our Judgement is my pre-Easter reading this year. It is challenging and evocative.

He commences with an account of Mark's retelling of the trial of Jesus framed by a question about the difficulty of speaking truthfully about who Jesus is.

Williams reminds us that ... the world Mark depicts is not a reasonable one; it is full of demons and suffering and abused power. How in such a world could there be a language in which it could truly be said who Jesus is? Whatever is said will take on the colouring of the world's insanity; it will be another bid for the world's power, another identification with the unaccountable tyrannies that decide how things shall be.  Jesus, described in the words of this world, would be a competitor for space within it, part of its untruth. (p.6)