Tuesday 14 October 2014

Lives After Them

"The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones."Shakespeare

My last post looked at evil and grace from the angle that Jesus gives a way back for those who have made bad choices - he has paid the price to redeem the souls they have sold, if you like. The other side of the coin is dealing with the mess and pain which evil leaves behind.

Shakespeare's quote above is mostly intended to be about reputation, I suspect - slightly odd-sounding today given our culture's supposed reluctance to 'speak ill of the dead.' Nevertheless it is all too true in the sense that the consequences of evil for those impacted will often last far longer than the deeds themselves.

Ruanda, Bosnia, and South Africa all still bear the scars of evil, open wounds often, as do the victims of Jimmy Saville, and of the gangs in Rochester and elsewhere, and of the abusers in children's homes and orphanages, and of all the abusive family members and 'friends' who make children's lives hell. The evil lives on in damaged bodies, shattered trust and ruined lives.

Good lives on too, but it always seems so much more fragile.

As is often said: it is quicker and easier to destroy than it is to build up.

In the long term the Bible is clear that this will be reversed: those affected by evil will be healed, cleansed and comforted by God Himself. It also says that all good that is done for Jesus will have lasting impact, however small and fragile that good may seem.
I heard a loud voice shout from the throne:
God’s home is now with his people. He will live with them, and they will be his own. Yes, God will make his home among his people. He will wipe all tears from their eyes, and there will be no more death, suffering, crying, or pain. These things of the past are gone forever.
In the meantime there is work to do for God's people. We are called to be the hands and hearts and feet and voices of Jesus in the world. Our task is to do what we can to show God's Kingdom here on earth 'as it is in heaven'. Jesus said that the key marks of his ministry were:
The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have skin disease are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.
Jesus came to reverse the effects of evil, to transform sickness to health, and to bring fullness of life to all - that is now the task of his followers, in all our weakness and vulnerability. Like Jesus:
“The Lord’s Spirit has come to us,
because he has chosen us
to tell the good news to the poor.
The Lord has sent us to announce freedom
for prisoners,
to give sight to the blind,
to free everyone who suffers,
and to say, ‘This is the year the Lord has chosen.’”
Where there is evil, pain and injustice, there you will also find followers of Jesus working, in their small way, to bring comfort and healing. Because Jesus comes to those in need; and often that's through his faithful people. 

Thursday 9 October 2014

The Evil That Men Do

I came across a quote from Canon Andrew White - the 'vicar of Baghdad' - recently. He had been asked why IS hates Christians and other minorities so much, and he replied:
They hate because they hate. They hate because they are evil. It is not an issue of 'these are Muslims and they're radicals and that's what they're like'. They're like this because they're evil ... They don't know God at all.
Every now and again it seems people get an excuse and an opportunity to cast off the restraints of 'civilized behaviour' and some of them do things which can only be described as incredibly evil. We saw it in Ruanda, we saw it in Bosnia, now we see it in Iraq: people who had lived together comfortably enough as neighbours suddenly descend into anarchy and chaos. It is tied to dehumanising others - the Ruandan Hutus famously described the Tutsis as 'cockroaches' before going on the rampage - rather than religion (Orthodox Christians in Bosnia, Sunni Muslims in Iraq, and no real religious element in Ruanda) or race/geographic region (Africa, Europe and Middle East in these three examples).

That is 'chaotic' evil - where people seemingly just lose the plot and wildly act out the darkness within them. There is also a cold systematic evil, such as the Israelis deliberately killing civilians in neighbouring countries every few years. They dehumanise with terms like 'terrorist', yet their aim is to cause terror and to destroy - in the latest attacks on Gaza, hospitals and those who managed hospitals were targetted, to teach them a lesson.

I've also been reading (again) Steig Larsson's wonderful book, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. The four parts to the book are each introduced by a statistic about violence to women in Sweden:
"18% of the women in Sweden have at one time been threatened by a man."
"48% of the women in Sweden have been subjected to violence by a man." 
"13% of the women in Sweden have been subjected to aggravated sexual assault outside of a sexual relationship." 
"92% of women in Sweden who have been subjected to sexual assault have not reported the most recent violent incident to the police."
Currently in Britain various child sexual abuse scandals roll on. Last night Channel 4 news quoted a child support worker as saying:
"Rotherham is not the exception, it is more likely to be the norm."
Yet this is only the tip of the iceberg. According to NSPCC research the vast majority of child abuse happens in the home: their figures suggest that one in twelve children (around 8%) is sexually abused during their childhood, the vast majority by either family members or family friends.

It's about power and accountability. Where people have power but do not have to answer for it then some abuse it. Where they can shield their activity in darkness, anonymity and secrecy then some give way to the evil within. And some don't.

Maybe that is a working definition of that horribly degraded term 'sin': when we have a choice between what is evil and what is good, which do we choose?

Most religions, I think, follow most people in condemning those who choose such evil, who sin in this way. A distinctive about Christianity is that it also offers a way back.

When you have made the wrong choices, when you have sold your soul to evil, Jesus offers hope - light in the terrible darkness. Churches still struggle with what on earth that means in practice, and lots of churchgoers are really not keen on this idea at all, but following Jesus means little without it.

For someone who has sold their soul, Jesus has paid the price to redeem it. The Bible calls this 'Grace'. We all need grace ... maybe some more than others.

Monday 6 October 2014

Whose Image?

Then the Pharisees met together to plot how to trap Jesus into saying something for which he could be arrested. They sent some of their disciples, along with the supporters of Herod, to meet with him. “Teacher,” they said, “we know how honest you are. You teach the way of God truthfully. You are impartial and don’t play favourites. Now tell us what you think about this: Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”

But Jesus knew their evil motives. “You hypocrites!” he said. “Why are you trying to trap me? Here, show me the coin used for the tax.”

When they handed him a Roman coin, he asked, “Whose picture and title are stamped on it?”

“Caesar’s,” they replied.

“Well, then,” he said, “give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give to God what belongs to God.”
His reply amazed them, and they went away.

I don't know about other countries, but here in the UK all our money - coin and paper - has the queen's head on it; how little has changed in two millennia. But it makes the first of Jesus' points clearer: pay your taxes, don't cheat the government. The government prints the money and, these days, it gives it its value, so give to the government what is theirs. No tax evasion, no tax avoidance: the mean-spiritedness which pays accountants and advisors in order to avoid paying the government just shrivels the soul.

But that part of Jesus' reply is not what amazed his questioners and sent them away silenced.

"Give to God what is God's" - if money bears the Caesar's image, what bears the image of God? Or, more precisely, who? Way back in the very first chapter of the Bible, we are told "God created mankind in his own image. In the image of God he created them; male and female he created them". You and I bear God's picture, his image ... maybe somewhat messed up, but there nevertheless.

"Give to God what is God's" - that would be myself, and my neighbours. Jesus said elsewhere that we cannot serve both God and Mammon - money, wealth, possessions. Money is useful to live, and has its own rules, including payment of taxes due. But God takes priority over money.

Part of the background to the question was that people were struggling to pay both the Roman taxes and the taxes and tithes demanded by the religious authorities. Part of Jesus' answer is that these religious authorities - and the questioners - were wrong to be focussing on money as they did. Their focus should have been righteousness and justice - which would have messed up their cosy relationship with the Roman occupiers, of course.

The standard Anglican communion service has a quite remarkable line toward the end:
Through him [Jesus] we offer you our souls and bodies to be a living sacrifice.
Which is an amazing sentence, when you think about it, but it does take Jesus' 'Give to God' point very seriously.

Money is useful for living, but God must come first: his justice and his mercy. And how we spend our money (after taxes) reflects our priorities. Whether that is in spending a few extra pence on 'fairly traded' food (or not), or buying more expensive (in the short term) low-power light bulbs (or not), or reducing our use of our car - if we have one - in favour of walking, cycling or public transport (or not).

We are made in God's image; so are African farmers struggling against unfair global terms of trade; and so are Bangladeshi's at risk of being flooded out as sea levels rise due to global warming.

Giving to God what is God's means being careful of God's image, wherever it occurs, and acting in ways which benefit that image throughout the world.

"Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God."

Sunday 5 October 2014

Abortion, Contraception, Homosexuality and Divorce

According to the BBC those are the topics of the two-week Roman Catholic synod starting today.
According to the Vatican the purpose of the synod is to discuss the family. Spot the difference.

More specifically, the official title of the meeting is "Pastoral Challenges To The Family in the Context of Evangelisation". To put it in slightly plainer English, this meeting is to look at "proclaiming and living the Gospel of the Family in a credible manner", whilst a second meeting next year looks at "pastoral care of the person and the family".

It is important to note that the preparatory document puts relating the Gospel to the family in the context of "preaching the Gospel to all creation". Unlike much of the comment which has arisen from various pressure groups, this official position does not directly reflect the commonly held church prejudice that focuses on marriage to the exclusion of single people.

The preparatory document lists many new concerns about the family:
The many new situations requiring the Church’s attention and pastoral care include: mixed or inter-religious marriages; the single-parent family; polygamy; marriages with the consequent problem of a dowry, sometimes understood as the purchase price of the woman; the caste system; a culture of non-commitment and a presumption that the marriage bond can be temporary; forms of feminism hostile to the Church; migration and the reformulation of the very concept of the family; relativist pluralism in the conception of marriage; the influence of the media on popular culture in its understanding of marriage and family life; underlying trends of thought in legislative proposals which devalue the idea of permanence and faithfulness in the marriage covenant; an increase in the practice of surrogate motherhood (wombs for hire); and new interpretations of what is considered a human right. Within the Church, faith in the sacramentality of marriage and the healing power of the Sacrament of Penance show signs of weakness or total abandonment.
That's a long list and, creditably, it does not just focus on the concerns of relatively wealthy Westerners.

The classic church response to challenges has been to focus on rules and restrictions: "Thou shalt not". It is just possible that the new Pope's approach over these meetings will be different:
By simply calling to mind the fact that, as a result of the current situation, many children and young people will never see their parents receive the sacraments, then we understand just how urgent are the challenges to evangelization arising from the current situation, which can be seen in almost every part of the “global village”. Corresponding in a particular manner to this reality today is the wide acceptance of the teaching on divine mercy and concern towards people who suffer on the periphery of societies, globally and in existential situations.
"The current situation" quoted being that remarried divorcees are excluded  from taking communion in Roman Catholic churches. Focussing on divine mercy and concern for the marginalised is a new approach (in this context). Hopefully it will lead the Catholic Church, which has around a billion followers, onto a new path which is less focussed on social control than in the past, and more focussed on helping people where they actually are.

Personally I think it would be good to see that extending to an affirmation of committed gay marriages, and an encouragement for such couples to have children - whether by adoption or artificial insemination - and so form the faithful stable families that Roman Catholic teachings say they are so keen on. Although I suspect that would be many steps too far.

Not that a different approach is guaranteed. The (US-based) Catholic News Agency is busy reporting on (plugging) more conservative views on the family and pressing for simple restatement of old teachings. For example:
“Men and women need desperately to hear the truth about why they should get married in the first place,” the letter states. “And, once married, why Christ and the Church desire that they should remain faithful to each other throughout their lives on this earth.” The letter said that men and women need to know that in times of marital difficulty the Church will be “a source of support, not just for individual spouses, but for the marriage itself.”
In other words the pastoral needs of individuals should be secondary to protecting and promoting the institution. The letter they are reporting on also describes marriage and the family as "indispensible", a real kick in the teeth to the vast army of single people who faithfully serve Jesus as part of the Roman Catholic church.

So this synod is an opportunity for a major change of tone and focus for the Roman Catholic church (although not on the underlying fundamental values). However the forces of conservatism and authoritarianism are mobilising to stop that happening.

I am a bit dubious about the operation of the Holy Spirit through church denominations, indeed through organised religion in general, but if ever there was a time for prayer that the Spirit's movement might be truly effective, this is surely it. The lives of a billion people could be affected, for better or for worse.

Saturday 4 October 2014

Only Connect

Matthew's Gospel was originally placed at the beginning of the New Testament because long ago the people who decided such things thought that it was the first Gospel written.

These days it is near-unanimous amongst Bible scholars that Mark was actually the first Gospel (and that many of Paul's letters were written before the Gospels anyway). But Matthew is still considered the right choice to begin the New Testament.

The reason is that Matthew is the great connecting Gospel. Written for the community of Jewish Christians in Judea, Samaria & Galilee, it strongly emphasises Jesus as the Jewish Messiah - as the fulfilment of the hopes and promises of the Jewish scriptures. Matthew emphasises links between the things Jesus said and did and the writings of the prophets; he proclaims Jesus as the fulfilment of the Torah, the Jewish Law; and he starts his Gospel with a genealogy going back to Abraham.

Genealogies are important, especially in small-town life, because they connect you into the life of the community. A genealogy is not about genes or physical inheritance, it's about where you fit in. Whose child are you, what is your background, which family do you come from, which known figures are related to you.

I live in a town, Reading in England, with quite a transient population, so in many ways this sort of connectedness has broken down. Yet, even here, I often find myself classified as "you must be BlackSar's dad", or "BlackLin's husband", or sometimes "are you related to BlackJohn, the photographer?" (no, I'm not). The desire to connect and to build community through personal links and relationships remains, even if the impermanence of much of that community makes it difficult to sustain.

The genealogy given by Matthew starts from Abraham, the father of Israel, and is important for who it includes: King David of course, considered the founder of the line of true Godly kings, but there's also a prostitute (probably: Rahab), and a foreigner (Ruth), and Solomon (whose mother was stolen by David from Uriah, by adultery and murder), then a line of kings of Judea, and eventually Joseph, "the husband of Mary, and Mary was the mother of Jesus who is called the Messiah".

It's not important that the genealogy probably misses people out - it is who is included which provides the community connections - and it is certainly not important that Joseph was not Jesus' biological father. He was the husband of Jesus' mother and that is what matters to the community.

Jesus was an Israelite and a Jew (of the tribe of Judah) and a descendant of the line of David and fitted into his local community as the son of Joseph and Mary. He connected on many levels. For Matthew that is the foundation of his telling of the good news about Jesus the Messiah: saviour, teacher and the great high priest whose sacrifice finally opens the way for God to reconnect with his people.

I was at a teaching day/quiet day yesterday, led by David Winter. He views the Bible as being all about connection: God working to reconnect with people, eventually fulfilled through Jesus, and mankind seeking (more or less enthusiastically) to connect with God.

There is a great human longing for connection: with God, with one another, with our surroundings, even with our own inner self. Matthew's testimony is that Jesus is the key to that connection: he is the one who makes us whole, in ourselves and as part of God's people, God's community.

It is said that "no man is an island". Jesus brings that truth to life: may he do so for you whenever you feel the need for connection that goes deeper, to the heart and to the soul.