Friday, April 30, 2010

Perhaps Lord Carey should just shut up.

I assume Lord Carey, former Archbishop of Canterbury, believes he is defending Christianity. An alternative perspective would be to suggest that he is bringing it into disrepute. This dinosaur of English Christianity is likely to find himself on the wrong side of morality and the wrong side of history with his special pleading for the "rights" of Christians. Or as Dr. Christian Troll would say: It’s vital to understand that the reason God tortured His Son to death was so that Christians could today display a mean-spirited lack of compassion to everyone lacking their own sinless self-righteousness. HERE

A couple of weeks ago he intervened in the case of nurse Shirley Chaplain, who had been told that she could not wear a cross on a chain in a medical environment for health and safety reasons. I posted on this HERE

Today, in the High Court, Lord Justice Laws, dismissed a Christian marriage guidance counsellor, Gary MacFarlane's challenge to his sacking for refusing to counsel gay coulples. He alleged unfair dismissal on the grounds of religious discrimination.

Dr. Carey warned of civil unrest. I look forward to the day when the provisional wing of the Church of England, the Mothers' Union, takes to the streets with petrol bombs in defence of a Christian England, but I digress.

Lord Justice Laws noted in his summing up: In a free constitution such as ours there is an important distinction to be drawn between the law's protection of the right to hold and express a belief and the law's protection of that belief's substance or content. The conferment of any legal protection upon a particular substantive moral psition on the grounds only that it is espoused by the adherants of a particular faith, however long its tradition, however long its culture is deeply unprincipled. It may, of course be true but the ascertainment of such truth lies beyond the means by which laws are made in a reasonable society. Therefore it lies only in the heart of the believer, who is alone bound by it. No one else is, or can be so bound unless by his own free choice he accepts its claims.

Lord Carey saw this as another sign of the courts' trend to downgrade the right of religious believers to manifest their faith in what had become a deeply unedifying collision of human rights. The judgement heralded a secular state rather than a neutral one... and says that the sacking of religious believers in recent cases was not a denial of their rights even though religious belief can not be divided from its expression in every area of the believer's life.

The Christian legal centre who supported Mr MacFarlane's case commented: It seems that a religious bar to office has been created, whereby a Christian who wishes to act on their Christian beleifs on marriage will no longer be able to work in a great number of environments.

Terry Sanderson, President of the National Secular Society, noted that the right to follow a religion was a qualified one and must not be used to legitimise discrimination against gay people who are legally entitled to protection against bigotry and persecution....The law must be clear that anti-discrimination laws exist to protect people not beliefs. He further accused "fundamentalists" of trying hard to undermine the laws that protect people from discrimination and seeking to create a hierarchy of rights that places Christian dogma over the rights of people to fair treatment.

Derek Munn of Stonewall added: You can not refuse service to a person based on thier gender, race or disability, and you can't on the basis of their sexual orientation. People delivering public services mustn't be able to pick and choose who they will serve on the basis of personal prejudice.

This case comes after a series of court defeats by Christians who say they have been badly treated because of their beliefs. They include Lillian Ladele, a registrar sacked by Islington Council after she conscientiously objected to presiding over civil partnership ceremonies.

When her case reached the Court of Appeal Lord Neuberger, the Master of the Rolls, decided that she had broken the law. The court ruled that the right to express a strong Christian faith was secondary to the rights of individuals not to be discriminated against under equality legislation.

Lord Neuberger said that the European Convention on Human Rights which protects the right to religious conscience, could be invoked to defend only those beliefs which were worthy of respect in a democratic society and are not incompatible with human dignity.

Melanie Phillips writing in the Daily Mail said that such a ruling came very close indeed to criminalising Christianity. She said: If putting Christian belief into practice is outlawed it won't be long before Christian believers find themselves outlawed. What a ridiculous statement and, with respect, only one that an employee of such a champion of civil liberties as the Daily Mail could make.!

The issue here is not the beleagured nature of Christianity in modern Britain, it is the nasty and insidious claims of some Christians to be above the law when it suits them. Christians are not persecuted here: if they think they are, they have no idea what religious persecution is. It is the unwarrented sense of entitlement that comes with a changing environment some Christians can not adapt to that is the real issue and Lord Carey - and those of his ilk - do nothing to enhance the reputation of the church when they align themselves to this paranoia.

There are certain duties that come with certain jobs. If an individual can not with good conscience perform those duties they are in the wrong job.

Lord Justice Laws said We do not live in a society where all the people share uniform religious beliefs. The precepts of any one religion - any belief system - can not by force of their religious origins, sound any louder in the general law than the precepts of any other. If they did, those out in the cold would be less than citizens and our constitution would be on the way to a theocracy which is, of necessity, autocratic.

I have yet to understand the rationale behind why some Christians believe they should be treated differently to other people. Let's be clear: this isn't Christianity. It certainly isn't any manifestation of Christianity I wish to be associated with and yet, because I am a Christian, I run the risk that people will assume that this madness is also my position.

You're retired George. Get an allotment eh?

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Revision time. Or not!

Lesson 1: A top set. Twenty nine on the register and twenty seven present. Right guys. The exam's on May 18th as you know. I thought we'd do some silent revision today.

Howls of laughter.

No. Seriously. I'd like you to do an hour's worth of silent revision. Now. In here. With me as specialist consultant. I can't force you to revise at home but at least I can make sure that you do something constructive today.

They did!

There was a quiet buzz as some kids chose to work in pairs and test each other. There was a little quiet movement around the room as others got up to collect a variety of text books. I did a quick sweep of the room to see who was doing what: religion and prejudice here, beliefs about God in this pair, abortion, suffering and evil, peace and conflict, science and religion, teaching on love and forgiveness.

All on task.

Period 5: A bottom set. Twenty two on the register and nine present. Right guys. The exam's on May 18th as you know. I thought we'd do some silent revision today.

Howls of laughter.

No. Seriously. I'd like you to do an hour's worth of silent revision. Now. In here. With me as specialist consultant. I can't force you to revise at home but at least I can make sure that you do something constructive today.

They did.

For five minutes.

Scott. Stop touching Keiran. There's too much touching amongst the boys in this group. Just go out with each other and be done with it.

"I'm not gay."

Then leave each other alone.

There is ten minutes of quiet.

Sir. do you know who I fancy?

I've a feeling you're going to tell me whatever I say Ellie.

"I fancy Luke."

There is a groan from the other side of the room. It is Luke. "Sir. She's stalking me."

"Yes but you know you like it. I'll wear you down."

"For ****'s sake." (muttered, so I don't hear it.)

Anyway! Revision.

"Sir are we doing worship?"

No. Use the contents page in the revision text book. It'll tell you what to revise.

"Are we doing family life?"

No. Use the contents page in the revision book. It'll tell you what to revise.

"Are we doing Lesbians?"

No. use the contents page in the revision book . It'll tell you what to revise.

"Are we doing..?"


"Do you fancy me Luke?"

"No! Sir, tell her."

You tell her. She's not trying to get off with me.

"You do Luke. You just don't know it yet."

"You're an ugly slapper."

Enough already. This is supposed to be silent revision. Scott! Stop doing that.

Another five minutes pass.

"I'm bored."

Just a suggestion here. HOW ABOUT DOING SOME REVISION?

"I can't revise, me."

That's why we are doing this. You don't even have your book open...

"I don't like reading."

"Where's your exercise book?"

"I've lost it."

Right. How about the school's Virtual Learning Environment? I've put loads of revision notes on recently.

"I don't like computers."

You haven't asked me any questions. That's why I'm here.

"Yes I have. Loads."

All about topics we aren't doing.

"Was Jesus a Buddhist?"

More time passes.

"Do you think I'm manly?"

Are you asking me?

"It was more general"

O.K. Scott, you're five foot three. What else can I say?

"But I've got a six pack. Do you wan't to see?"

Screams of dissent.

Do your shirt up and sit down.

"I'm bored. Why do we have to do this?"


More silence.

Scott. Don't do that.

The final bell rings.

"Luke. Wait for me honey!"

Monday, April 26, 2010

Really don't

Now I say hello to all sorts of folks, young and old, male and female, pretty and rough. For just about all of those folks, I try and greet them with an "evening" sometimes followed up with an "how you doing?" or an "y'alright?". Not brilliant or witty but sincere on the most part and a good way of establishing some social contact which can stand me in good stead for later in the evening.
If I know the punter, either as a friend, or a regular, they might get a handshake or a "how's it going?". I'm not one of life's great conversationalists when I'm working, at least not within earshot of the punters.
What I really don't want is punters, female or male, hugging, frotting or mounting me as a form of greeting. I've worked gay night enough that this happens from men and women, even at 'straight' venues. It's not my style, it's not very professional looking and quite frankly I'm embarrassed by this ridiculous show. If out socially, this might be acceptable, but even then it'd be unlikely. The running jumping, hugging hump is not an acceptable greeting to any person at work unless you're a disney animal or a cup winning footballer. I'm neither.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Good Grief!

Sunday Sermon: The widow of Joppa

As delivered to Dr. Bob's congregation in Doncaster.

Acts 9.36-43
Psalm 23
Revelation 7.9-17
John 10.22-30

I'd like to give you some context, if I may, to explain why you have a Lutheran in your pulpit this morning and to do that, although he will hate me for this, I need to tell you something about my friendship with your curate Richard Walton.

Richard and I studied together on the Yorkshire Ministry Course and graduated at the same time. I say that we studied together: that would be in the sense that while we both bought books for the course, Richard read his.

I used to look forward with some anticipation to Richard's arrival on a Wednesday evening. He, not doubt, believed that was out of pure affection on my part but I had a little plan.

"Now then, Richard, what was the thing that most struck you in our preparatory reading this week?" Every week Richard would deliver up this nugget of deeply thought through, perceptive and theological insight which I would then drop into the tutorial publicly and very early on so that I could then sit back and switch off. My work here is done.

Richard was deferred to by all of us in our year group as the fount and source of knowledge: our tutor would ask a question and Richard would wait graciously for the rest of us to have a stab at answering before he would say, very tentatively, "I think I know the answer to this." He invariably did. Then one day to everyone's shock and horror, he said "I don't think I know this." The consternation subsided and the discussion continued until a quiet little voice offered "Actually, I think I may know the answer to this after all." And he did. The natural order of the universe had been restored.

Richard become known as Dr. Bob very early on because one of our tutors, a lovely person, but a bit dippy - the quality of her photocopying is legendary throughout Yorkshire - referred to him consistently throughout our first year as Robert. He was too self-effacing to consider that it was appropriate or significant enough to put her right.

One thing you need to know about Richard: during the peace, when he approaches you with that bluff, manly handshake, give him a warm hug instead. He loves that.

I’d like to concentrate on today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles. In the Roman Empire of the first-century, women without men topped the list of vulnerable populations. A widow had little access to economic structures. The recurring biblical theme of charitable concern for widows reveals their inferior status and poor treatment in the community. They were marginal people outside of the traditional male-headed households. Worse, their livelihood was often at risk unless they had children who could provide for them. Very often they would have to band together for survival.

The widows of Joppa, we read, had only Tabitha, also known as Dorcas, and her faith-based initiative. The only woman, interestingly, in all of scripture to be called a disciple, she cared for other widows, apparently out of her own resources and in the most practical of ways - she sewed their clothing. Her death was such a crisis that they sent for Peter.

Alone with the body, Peter prayed and then commanded her to get up. And she did. This was the first time in the postresurrection church that a disciple had exercised the authority of life over death in this way. Now Biblical scholars argue amongst themselves about whether this death and resurrection is literal in the sense that Peter utilised the gifts that Jesus bequeathed him and the other disciples, or symbolic in that it has something deeper to say about the nature of death and resurrection. Well, to concentrate on that part of the story can take us down unhelpful theological routes that we don’t have the time for this morning and we so I’d like to concentrate on something else of significance in the story that we could easily miss.

Why Dorcas? What is it about her that made her death the occasion for Peter to do what he did? My hunch is that Peter acted as he did because of who Dorcas was, and also because of who she was not.

Certainly she was an important woman in her own small community, but a social nobody everywhere else because of her gender and her status as widow.
So what? What has this to with me? And let’s be clear: it needs to have something to do with me – with us - or it’s just a little piece of history.

Note the double identity of Tabitha/Dorcas in the story: we don’t know if Tabitha or Dorcas is a Jewish woman who was given a Greek name, or a Gentile woman given a Hebrew name. In any case, the fact that this woman is of ambiguous identity makes her a theological conundrum in this story: marginalised for being a woman, for being a widow and possibly for being a gentile convert. Those issues were still causes of contention within the church and were not easily resolved. There is a message here for you and I to apply to the lives that we lead and especially to our dealings with others.

Lutherans like me talk a lot about God’s grace: we know that it is through that grace that we are saved and not through good works lest any man should boast, but what we may be less clear about is whether there are limits to that grace and that’s a question that echoes through time and through Scripture itself: who’s in and who’s out of the lifeboat of salvation? Is it about baptism or personal conviction, about conversion or discipleship or some combination?

There is a story told of a Lutheran who went to Heaven. He was, of course, met by St. Peter and shown around until he came to a walled off section. “What’s behind there?” he asked. “Well,” replied Peter “that’s where the Anglicans are. They think they’re the only ones here and we don’t like to disillusion them.” It works, of course, with any denomination but a lot of Christians have that mindset.

Jesus’ ministry was originally to the Jews but he would broaden those “boundaries” to include non-Jews in ways unimaginable to the disciples around him – and unthinkable in general to those of his own people at the time. It took an immense struggle to expand the horizon of thinking about these boundaries on the part of his disciples and those who followed them.

Nor has this struggle been overcome to this day. Over and over the people of God have had to recognize anew how old limits are pushed out by the grace of God to include still others. Sometimes the struggle has been obvious: racial divisions, gender differences, issues of sexuality, national and cultural differences have had to be overcome time after time, and often in the face of real opposition, in order to recognize the far-reaching nature of God’s grace. At other times they have been much more subtle: which of us would really welcome the alcoholic tramp into the seat beside us. We keep wanting to establish limits on God’s grace and God keeps pushing on them. We seem to like neat, cosy, clear-cut boundaries to our lives, and God’s grace challenges them at every turn.

Today the deepest meaning of the Gospel is often disclosed by the courage of the “outsider,” who is driven by loving concern for the marginalised like the widows of Joppa: Bonheoffer, Luther-King, Mother Theresa, Desmond Tutu and others. Often they have been met by stony silence or rude rebuff by Jesus’ followers.

We can’t afford to be triumphalist in relation to God’s grace. I regularly meet Christians who are so certain that they know the mind of God that they are incredibly confident about the fate of others come the final judgement. People they have never met, including a fair few Christians, are all consigned to eternal damnation in their view because those people don’t accept to the letter their understanding of Christianity and the conditions they demand as evidence of “true discipleship”. But in the end the eternal fate of others is down to God’s grace and not our judgement. God may well choose to act towards others in ways which surprise us and it is not for us to set limits on God’s grace.

Just to conclude then. Did you notice what didn’t happen in the story? Nobody performed an act of contrition. No offering was made nor any sacrifice. There was no promise of leading a new life, no agreement to change one’s ways, no pledge of future faithfulness. This is a clear and powerful reminder that God’s grace is showered on all of us, whether we have earned it or not. And let’s face it: none of us deserve it.

So, as we make our contribution towards the establishment of the Kingdom of God in our obedient discipleship, let us do so in the knowledge that we have done nothing to earn God’s grace. Let's be careful how we are seen to apply that same grace to others. Just consider for a moment: if we were in Joppa we’d be looking down on the widows, particularly the gentile widows. But we’re not, were in Doncaster. Who are we looking down on?

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Hard Questions

I'm not often asked too many hard questions by the punters. They're normally too drunk or inane to interest me. Every now and again wisdom does fall from the mouths of babes. The usual complement of mentally impaired through alcohol does occasionally include a moment of clarity and insight. Sometimes these cannot be answered with a short concise response or a shrug.
The observation that we can't let you on to the street with your drinks at exactly the point a pair of habitual tramps drag each other and their large bottle of cider around the waiting police vehicle is one of those. No easy answers, just an internal anger at the stupidity of the implementation of some laws and an answer which even as I was saying it sounded more hollow than a robbed out easter egg.

Jesus would vote for....

....well it rather depends on who you are of course. The far right British National Party believes Jesus would vote for them on the basis that he identified with the marginalised and there is no greater marginalised group in modern Britain than the white working classes.

Christian Voice...sorry..."Christian" Voice claims he would vote for the United Kingdom Independence Party on the basis that they are anti the Europen Union which has long been known as the Great Satan who will not have God at the centre of its constitution and which promotes such political correctness as the equality of women and gays.

Has anyone heard of any other Christian madness?

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Liberal Democrats, the British General Election and issues of free speech.

I came across a headline recently and it grabbed my attention: Nick Clegg's rise could lock Murdoch and the media elite out of UK politics. Intrigued I read on. The author, David Yelland, former editor of The Sun, went on to say Make no mistake, if the Liberal Democrats actually won the election – or held the balance of power – it would be the first time in decades that Murdoch was locked out of British politics. In so many ways, a vote for the Lib Dems is a vote against Murdoch and the media elite. Read the whole article here Now I am really interested.

As I read on I was shocked to discover that ignoring the Liberal Democrats has been a deliberate policy of the Murdoch empire. We did not send a single reporter for fear of encouraging them......They are the invisible party, purposely edged off the paper's pages and ignored. But it is worse than that, because it is not just the Murdoch press that is guilty of this. The fact is that much of the print press in this country is entirely partisan and always has been. All proprietors and editors are part of the "great game". The trick is to ally yourself with the winner and win influence or at least the ear of the prime minister.

The consequence of this has been that the middle party has been ignored, simply because it was assumed it would never win power. After all, why court a powerless party?

We are in a time of change. Clegg has done well so far and the British public is in the mood to punish both major parties for a wide variety of transgressions which have lost them public trust and confidence. Both major parties recognise this and they are publicly wetting themselves: every statement that is supposed to reassure the public and dent the rising reputation of the Lib Dems, and Nick Clegg in particular, reeks of fear, desperation and scaremongering. The tone oscillates between lecturing the public about the dangers of a hung parliament and dismissing the Lib Dems as a credible potential government. The public are in a dangerous mood though, and that mood is not one which will accept lectures which are themselves becoming increasingly counter productive. If Glegg does well in Thursday's televised debate, the band-waggon may be unstoppable.

Mark my words: it'll be media slurs and smears next. And who do we think will own those media outlets? You got it!

The two major parties talk about change but the change they offer is within a traditionally two party system, so are not actually offering much change at all. Clegg offers the prospect of real change to an angry electorate that is about as disengaged from the political process and the legacy of two part politics as it is possible to be but who are increasingly being roused from that torpor by the energising discussions on the third party and its leader that the media has conspired to marginalise. What few are saying, but what everyone knows is that Labour and Conservative alike are terrified of Clegg in power, or wielding significant influence in a coalition, because a long-standing policy of the Lib Dems is electoral reform and the replacement of our first-past-the-post system with proportional representation. This would, indeed, change the face of British politics in the long term and might well keep the Conservatives out of government again.

Could this be the start of a very British political revolution?

Well, the icing on the cake would be two fingers up to Murdoch. How delicious!

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Sunday Sermon: Breakfast on the beach.

Easter Three:
Acts 9.1-20
Psalm 30 1-12
Rev 5. 11-14
John 21. 1-19

Well, here we are: the third week of Easter and the Easter Day service seems like an eternity away. Life has moved on inexorably and so have we with our other concerns and issues and in many respects this is the theme of today's gospel reading.

This Easter season provides us with readings that focus on aspects of the Resurrection and today we consider one of Jesus’ post resurrection appearances.

All the resurrection appearances of Jesus have a mysterious quality to them. They are scenes of mystical encounter, usually in tranquil settings, yet just beneath the surface they are charged with meaning: of revelation and the promise of transformation. What we also need to remember, as readers of the English version, is how nuanced the story is in its original language and, therefore, how much of its meaning can go over our heads.

Act One of today’s gospel drama finds Peter and a group of disciples on a beach at night. Seven disciples actually, out of the eleven remaining. Is the New Community already breaking up after the death of Jesus?

Peter decides to go fishing. There’s nothing odd in that, given that fishing was his job, but it seems to indicate that he intends to return to his old and familiar way of life. Disappointingly the world hasn’t changed as he had once hoped and life has to return to business-as-usual. The other disciples join him. We are then told that it is "night", a major symbol in John’s gospel, representing dulled perceptions, closed consciousness, spiritual immaturity and the world without the "Light." Not surprisingly, then the disciples caught nothing. That is, business-as-usual isn’t delivering.

But morning was coming and we have again the theme of light that stretches all the way back to the first chapter of the gospel: as the Prologue had said, “The Light shines in the darkness” and with the light comes its own voice. With the dawn Jesus stands on the shore of the Sea of Tiberius. It must’ve been a calm morning as the disciples heard this stranger call to them from a hundred yards away. Jesus stood on the beach and the disciples didn’t know who he was. How mysterious, especially since in the previous chapter Jesus had already appeared to the disciples, and, of course, to Mary Magdalene.

Then, like now, Jesus wasn’t immediately recognized. In his appearance to Mary, John’s gospel explains that she mistook him for the gardener. In the first appearance to the disciples Jesus was recognized on the basis of his wounds rather than his familiar face. And here, he will be recognized on the basis of his fish-catching power.

Then Jesus said to them, "Children, you have no fish, have you?" They answered him, "No." He said to them, "Cast the net to the right side of the boat and you will find some." So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish.

Of course, we could take this literally: there were simply too many fish, but the symbolism is important here too. Remember all the talk of the disciples as “fishers of men”? Is John saying that up until now the disciples were not yet able to complete either the task of mission, or the task of their own spiritual maturity? Then we hear:

The disciple, whom Jesus loved, said to Peter, "It is the Lord." When Simon Peter heard that it is the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and threw himself into the sea.

In his exuberance and excitement, Simon Peter puts on his clothes and dives into the sea. What an odd thing to do. Why put your clothes on to jump into the water? Who does that? Probably, he was wearing a loin cloth or some such so he put on an outer garment. Nothing in John’s gospel is random or without some symbolic meaning: at a spiritual level, Peter’s throwing himself into the water was a way of cleansing himself. He’d already been declared "clean" when Jesus had washed his feet but a lot had happened since then. Peter had denied Jesus, did not know what to make of the empty tomb and had gone back to his old profession. New Testament scholars tell us that putting on his clothes to jump in the water is a way of saying that Peter wants to "cleanse" the entirety of himself.

The disciples knew that Jesus was dead, but here he was, alive and serving them breakfast. Bread and fish. Not unlike the meal he earlier served to the large crowd on the mountainside and now, with “eucharistic” gestures, breaks it and gives it to them. Why did he linger on earth? Why not return to God and leave these fishermen to return to fishing? No, the risen Lord had something else in mind for them.

The major thrust of this part of the story is that the risen Jesus comes again to commission his disciples to spread the Gospel.

So let’s regroup. What has any of this to do with us?

Are we in a state of darkness, of closed consciousness, of dulled perception, of spiritual immaturity following the Easter experience? Have we returned to a business as usual mindset?

It strikes me that a great many Christians act as if nothing has changed and are back to business as usual by now – or haven’t realised that there has been a seismic shift. They’re Christmas Christians, not Easter Christians: the maturity of faith that should come with the understanding of Easter and its implications has not come. This central event in Christianity, this event which shows God’s undeserved grace to us, has not been fully grasped. Are we sitting here with the Sunday School understanding?

Act Two then narrows to a dialogue between Jesus and Peter. Having been denied three times by Peter, Jesus asks him directly whether he loves Jesus, and Peter becomes distressed after the first two protestations of his love. What’s going on here?

This is where the subtleties of the original language help us: In the first two instances, Jesus uses the Greek word agapas - unconditional love. In the last question, Jesus shifts the meaning and uses the word phileis - brotherly love. Why? Well each time, Peter responds that he does love Jesus, but with a brotherly love, not an unconditional love. Do you love me unconditionally? I love you like a brother. Do you love me unconditionally? I love you like a brother? So you love me like a brother? Yes, I love you like a brother. That’s an entirely different conversation to the one translated into English. In other words, Peter's "love" is not at the same level as the "love" in Jesus' question.

This seemed to be one of John's main points of dispute with Peter: Peter doesn't love Jesus enough. Indeed, the first question Jesus asked, "Do you love me more than these?" would indicate that Peter may love "these," the disciples or perhaps the implements of his fishing craft, more than he loves Jesus. That's something of a wake-up call for us surely? What are the things that we love more than Jesus? And what about unconditional love? I have often found it helpful to think of Jesus as a brother but it's clear that isn't enough. Jesus' love for me is unconditional and therefore my love for him should be the same. There is obviously a huge mismatch which I'd always known intellectually somewhere in the back of my mind, but which I'd never fully examined before now - and I don't like what I find.

The last time Peter was at a charcoal fire, he was there with slaves and the temple guard and he denied three times that he was a follower of Jesus. At this charcoal fire, he is with Jesus and the disciples, but still doesn't quite get that discipleship is about unconditional and intimate love of Jesus. Nevertheless, in spite of Peter's disappointing performance, Jesus calls him to the central task of discipleship which is tending and caring for the faithful like a shepherd tends and cares for his flock.

Three times then Jesus commissions him, Feed my lambs, tend my sheep, feed my sheep. Then, Jesus said to Peter, "Follow me." This is the only time in the fourth gospel where Jesus asks Peter to follow. Peter needed the instruction of the entirety of the fourth gospel, plus Jesus' specific words of inquiry and instruction at the end, before he is asked to follow the path of being a follower of Jesus.

What’s that to us? Well, this story is for us as much as it was for Peter and it is about us as much as it is about Peter. The community of disciples as a whole is involved in spreading the Gospel; including Peter, the forgiven sinner - and including us today, also forgiven sinners. This passage goes well with the reading from Acts where we see the importance of both teaching and witnessing. We all teach, some formally, others informally. And we all give witness by the way we live. This is Jesus’ commission and we are disciples as much today as they were then. It’s a commission to us too.

It is not enough to affirm: I believe! We have all been called to witness to that faith. Whether we realize it or not, our daily lives cry out as loudly as did the preaching of Paul in the synagogues of Damascus. This includes our interactions with family members and neighbours, co-workers, even strangers on the bus or train. Faith in the resurrection of Jesus influences the decisions that we make about everything in life. Jesus extends the invitation: “Follow me.” Our manner of living reveals how we have responded. That is the discipleship to which we are invited.

For my American friends. I give you: The British General Election

It's terribly boring: they were all born in Britain, they all go to tea parties, none of them is a secret Muslim, none of them has a photogenic but certifiably bonkers running mate and everyone expects one of them to be an ACTUAL Socialist - and it's not an issue.





Not much more to say really.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Know your enemy: another instructive lesson on the tactics of the far right.

I often receive e-mails from an anti-fascist group called Hope Not Hate. (You may remember that because of them I turned out against the "English Defense League" in Leeds City Centre last year. HERE)

In the run up to our General election they are concerned about the rise of the Far Right. Yesterday I received this by e-mail:

When I enlisted in the army 66 years ago, I did it for Britain.

Now I need you to do something for me.

The BNP is trying to strangle our great nation with the same extremist and fascist agenda that Hitler's Nazis threatened us with decades ago. Today, the war isn't being fought on the battlefield - but in the ballot box.

Hope Not Hate is on the front lines of our fight. They're organising to make sure modern-day Nazis aren't elected on 6 May and to preserve the Britain for which I fought so hard. If I had my health I would be out there with them. But I can't - so I'm writing to ask you to volunteer for me.

Please join Hope Not Hate's Day of Action this weekend.

I was barely in my twenties when I went to fight for Britain. I left home with friends - all young lads like myself - and many never returned.

Today, the BNP salute and say "Heil Hitler" - and they support the same all-white Britain. They're proud of what the Nazis did to my friends, and what they did to millions of innocent people throughout Europe.

We didn't fight with our lives on the line years ago just to be right back here today.

We need to do everything we can to stop the BNP from being elected to local councils and to Parliament. Those boys lost to the war would proudly go door-to-door with Hope Not Hate to fight against the fascist BNP today.

There are no tanks and no guns in this fight - but we still need your courage to speak out.

The elections on 6 May are personal to me - and I hope they will be to you. I'd like to thank you in advance for your service.


Kenneth Riley
Normandy Veteran - Tank Division

Today Mr. Riley e-mailed me again.

The Nazis have taken shots at me before - but they've never stolen my words.

Yesterday, I opened my heart to tell you about my experiences in the Second World War. I spoke of the pain and suffering that my friends and I endured to beat the Nazis.

Just a few hours ago, I found out that the BNP lifted my words of hope and plagiarised them for hatred. The BNP literally stole my message, changed a few names and dates, switched the organisation from "Hope not Hate" to "British National Party", and used my story to raise money for the Nazis.

How could decent people do such a thing? Do the BNP value nothing?

Don't let the BNP fool people. They preach the same hate as the Nazis. They stand for everything we fought against.

And they'll do anything - even steal the honest words of a WWII veteran - to spew their hate.

I've never retreated from a fight, and now I'm more dedicated than ever before to stopping the BNP.

I hope you'll join me on the front lines.

Look at the BNP's stolen message below. It's disgraceful.

Dear Fellow Patriot,

When I enlisted in the army in 1942, aged 18, I did it for Britain.

Now I need you to do something for me.

The old-gang parties and their fellow cohorts in the media are dismantling and destroying the Britain we fought so hard to defend and preserve. Today, the war isn't being fought on the battlefield - but in the ballot box.

The British National Party is on the front lines of our fight. Our party and our courageous activists are working around the clock to save the country that our War Heroes fought and died for. If I had my health I would be out there with them. But I can't - so I'm writing to ask you to volunteer for me.

I was 18 when I went to fight for Britain. At just 20 years old I was involved in the Normandy invasion, and spent the last year of the war fighting with my fellow heroes through northern France, Belgium and into Germany.

I was attached to the 51st Highland Division under the command of the legendary General Bernard Montgomery ('Monty' as he was affectionately known). I also took part in the Battle of the Bulge in late 1944 and Operation Market Garden.

Today, look at the terrible state of our country! Many cities and towns resemble third-world slums, crime is out of control, pensioners are freezing to death in winter, we are ruled by the EU, our politicians are greedy and corrupt, and our British national identity is being dismantled and abolished!

We didn't fight with our lives on the line years ago just to be right back here today. Our War Heroes have been betrayed!

We need to do everything we can to help the BNP get elected to local councils and to Parliament. Those heroes lost to the war would proudly go door-to-door with the British National Party to fight against the destruction of our beloved Britain.

There are no tanks and no guns in this fight - but we still need your courage to propel the British National Party to its goals. Get active, leafleting, canvassing, speaking to people, get the word out!

Could you spare £20 towards our election campaign? £20 is not much, but it could be crucial to the BNP's chances of winning:

If you are not a member, then don't you think now is the time to join? Us veterans fought for this country, now it's your turn:

The elections on 6 May are personal to me - and I hope they will be to you. I'd like to thank you in advance for your service.

Yours sincerely,
Bob Head
Normandy Veteran
51st Highland Division

Comment: Well there's low and there's lower than low! Still, no doubt this will be picked up by the media and it will turn out to be an own goal.

Larchmont, New York: Identify yourself.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Louth, Republic of Ireland: announce yourself.

You have been a long-time lurker. It's time to come in from the cold and join in.

Also: how not to be a burglar: HERE

Monday, April 12, 2010

Full speed ahead

Flying into an energetic situation from the front door you kind of hope that it's either a big one, worth the running in from the door or an easy one that someone panicked on and the whole thing is well under control on arrival.
If it's all over apart from the walking to the door, you get to slam the brakes on full, you get a 2 second briefing shouted over the sound system while you find suitable bits to hold the separated parties by as you spin them around and head for the nearest exit.
If you get lucky and it's a blurry carnage of limbs, glass and anger you can use a little bit of physics to your advantage. A large body moving at speed can transfer momentum very effectively. By identifying you first target and your ideal ricochet. With good fortune, good balance and enough space you can splat one forward faster than they think they can move. A little work on the rebound and you end up wrapped around another one before either sees you coming. That's what you want to happen as you start pegging it in from the door.
More typically, you fly in to a find a partially controlled scuffle. No idea what's gone on, no idea who's still fighting, fighting back, holding back or just holding on to their mates. All the lovely momentum is poured away squeezing through a busy club to a poorly accessible corner. Grabbing the nearest limbs and trying to assert control from there is not a winner but it's often the best you get. Add in the few you missed in the round up trying to get in a cheap one as you've both of their enemies arms or try and bottle you as you carry their splattered mate out. Every now and then you get option one, only once in a blue moon do you get the second. Far too bloody often its the third one, all the run, none of the fun.


A colleague of mine gave me a photocopied article from last week's Radio Times (which I don't seem to be able to find on Google) about Nick Baines, the Anglican Bishop of Croydon who is a blogger. The piece was entitled Why I am an e-vangelist. My colleague was in two minds whether or not to give this to me: he is a bit perplexed by the blogging phenomenon and is yet to be convinced of its value. About six months ago, a mutual colleague noted with some distaste but anyone can know what you're thinking.

Bishop Nick comments I am still amazed that so many people engage online with the things that interest me. When I started blogging, I decided that it was pointless to play it safe or simply propagate the usual stuff to the usual suspects....I wanted to be "out there", engaging in public debates about the world, politics, the arts, the media, ethics and theology. Now this motivation is also mine. This blog started as a learning journal to chart my experiences through the training process to ordination: those aspirations are still to be found expressed in the various sections on the side bar, but the blog developed beyond that in small incremental stages. I think I have explored those processes as much as I am able at the moment, particularly as the formal training process finished and the rich seem of weekly training and occasional residentials can no longer be mined. In common with a number of friends in the blogosphere, there have been times of reappraisal: why am I still doing this? What is the function of this blog? Who is my target audience?

Reading Bishop Nick's article has helped me to see things more clearly. My starting point is an insatiable curiosity about the world and the way people are. At the heart of Christianity is the understanding that God has opted into the world and not exempted himself from it: that Christian living means engaging in at every level with and for that world. That would certainly echo my own feelings. I am interested in the wider world, and not just when it impacts on matters of faith, although that is a particular concern of mine. I enjoy posting on my secular life as a high school teacher, on random items of humour and on things I read, on the music I listen to and participate in as a member of a prestigious choral society, on things I discover on the INTERNET and on what I watch on T.V. or see in films. I'm quite eclectic.

I enjoy the process of dialogue - mainly - and I feel that I have found my own blogging voice, but I can certainly identify with Bishop Nick when he says This means I've had to grow a thick skin. The glory and agony of blogging - which I see as the first word in a conversation, not the final word of judgement - is that anyone is free to to argue with me, question me, ridicule me or be abusive. Well, with the exception of the last one perhaps which I don't enjoy, but folk mainly save that sort of unpleasantness for commenting about me on their own blogs rather than to me directly on this one. I do keep an open comment section and delete very few comments - other than those which occasionally appear in Chinese script - provided they don't go against the protocol I have left on the side bar. I do, however, delete comments which attempt to hijack my blog. This is my blog and I choose the topics and I set its agenda.

Dialogue is important and while I do have a religious world view and positions on any number of issues, I have often found myself challenged by the comments and ideas of others: challenged to go away and think or read; challenged to be clearer about how I express things; challenged to justify the statements I have made and so on. While that isn't always comfortable It has been a process that has contributed to spiritual growth.

Bishop Nick notes, I don't know most of the people who comment on my blog - some I hope never to know, others I might like to befriend. That is true for me too, although less so perhaps as he receives about five thousand hits a day and I get about twenty five which translate to half a dozen comments if I'm lucky. Nevertheless, what has also contributed to both my spiritual growth and my sense of personal well-being have been the ongoing support I have experienced from a group of people who have encouraged me and pointed me in various directions - some of whom I have even managed to meet. Yes, like Bishop Nick I have encountered my fair share of unpleasant characters out there and I don't miss them at all although I certainly shan't forget some of them easily. I haven't shied away from taking the dabate to their sites on occasion and have found myself banned more than once, but I feel that I have maintained my integrity and have not resorted to the sort of unpleasantness they all too often display, therefore maintianing something of a phyric moral high-ground.

I have often wondered why Christians fall out so easily. To quote Bishop Nick again, I don't regard it as a bad thing for any leader to think openly, change his mind when appropriate, apologise when he gets it wrong (in substance or in tone), or to be unafraid to be thought inadequate. I hope I reflect that position in my own blogging and am often taken by surprise when others hold a more robust view of the rightness of their cause and therefore the wrongness of any other viewpoint. We live in a culture in which politicians and others feel compelled to appear watertight in their consistency and always incontroveribly "right", but I think there is a place for a different model of "learning leadership". Christian leaders should be unafraid to to offer an alternative model of what I often call a "confident humility". I hope that is my model too, although sometimes the outward model follows a quite different inward rant.

On a couple of occasions people have told me I have a prophetic ministry. Now a prophet is someone who speaks God's word to his or her generation and that's a bit grandiose for what I do. What I do, more often than not, is to seek to redress a balance in the way that particular issues are presented: too often there is a perception that a particular stance is the "orthodox" position for Christians to take - or there are those who would like to assert so - and very often I find myself not holding that position at all - indeed often quite the reverse. What are my options then? Well, to challenge; to put that alternative perspective and to argue it through. It's down to the Holy Spirit after that.

I have engaged with people on religion in general and Christianity in particular; on hermeneutics, the inerrancy and authority of scripture; issues of human sexuality, climate change, women's ministry, the role of Islam in the West, and the feeling I have that amongst First World Christians there is a sense of entitlement akin to special pleading. I have even dipped my toes into the vexed issues of American politics.

An area of challenge relates to the athiests in the blogosphere, particularly those who represent perfectly what their prejudices tell them is the preserve of religious people. I would add into that bloggers from the religious and/or political right who express fundamentalism and an unswayable confidence in their own unargued-for-assumptions about the the world and human meaning. This frequently leads to clashes, but the robustness of these is, if not always enlightening - usually entertaining.

I don't see myself as an e-vangelist like Bishop Nick: it has never been my intention to use this medium as a means of outreach as such, although I do recognise that for some people it may turn out to be that. I am, however, very aware that there are those out there who, for whatever reason, do not have a Christian community they feel they can belong to just now. I know of people who use a variety of blogs in combination as their on-line spiritual community and if I can contribute to building someone up in that way I feel that I have done some good. In that respect I take my blog stats with a pinch of salt. Not everyone who visits here comments but I have identified a number of long term, regular visitors. There must be something that draws them back.

When I look at my stats what I find interesting are the topics I have posted in the past which people still use search engines to find: the Syrophoenecian woman; the I AMs of John's Gospel; Myers-Briggs, personality types and preaching; Thomas the Doubter; hermeneutics and sola scriptura; Off to Whitby and Our Big Day Out seem to be very popular and enduring.

The blogosphere isn't for the fainthearted. But what's the point of simply talking to those who agree with you, when you could be arguing your way to a better understanding of God, the world and people (as well as yourself) "out there" in the rough new world of instant media?

Sunday, April 11, 2010

For our Polish friends: In Memorium.

My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?

Psalm 22v1

Thursday, April 8, 2010

So, are Christians discriminated against in Britain?

One of the things I took exception to in the wider blog discussions of nurse Shirley Chaplin and her cross (see previous post) was her claim of religious discrimination. On a number of other sites, as well as in some branches of the tabloid press here, Mrs. Chaplin's situation was compared to Muslim health staff. It became clear to me that Mrs. Chaplin's situation, a Health and Safety issue at heart, was being subverted by those with another agenda: this became "another example" of how Christians in Britain were being disadvantaged while other ethnic groups - allegedly out of fear of upsetting them - could do as they please. The message contained the usual gloss of the Right Wing, based on half-truths and disinformation as ever.

The photo above was featured on an American blog. I could find it again by doing a google image search. The message was clear: in Britain you can't wear a cross but you can wear a burqa and all sorts of conclusions were drawn about the embattled nature of Christianity and the islamisation of Europe - a common theme on many American right wing blogs.

I traced the photo to a discussion board on a nursing website,, where it had been posted in response to a question by a Muslim theatre techinician about what she might wear in her duties.

Hi, I'm a Muslim and I am considering becoming a surgical tech. I wear hijab and I was wondering if there's any Muslims here who are surgical techs who I can ask some questions about how you wear hijab in the OR. And if anyone else knows how a muslim scrub nurse wears hijab or has any suggestions I would greatly appreciate it. Beyond that I don't know its provenance. Does anyone have any ideas?

The outcome of the Mrs. Chaplin's case was "a sad day for Christianity" and Christians "should be frightened to go into the workplace." Several Anglican Bishops have expressed concern that Christianity is being marginalised in Britian - not exactly discrimination but, presumably not far off.

Are they right?


TEXT OF BISHOP'S LETTER HERE Note the factual innacuracy about Mrs. Chaplin being told to remove her crucifix.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Here we go again: Christian nurse "Discriminated against" after being told "not to wear cross" at work (shock, horror)

This issue comes around a couple of times a year here and all sorts of people jump on all sorts of bandwagons that reveal a lot about their misunderstanding of the religious issues and all sorts of prejudices that would be better off being kept hidden. In short, nurse Shirley Chaplin has been told by her employers that she can not wear her cross in a visible way on duty. Story Here I must point out that I wouldn't normally recommend this newspaper but the way it deals with the story is interesting. It's banner summary is actually misleading to start with.

Note straight away the comparison between Mrs. Chaplin and other workers at the hospital. Is it too interpretive to read between the lines and see White, British and Christian Mrs. Chaplin is denied the opportunity to wear her cross while foreign, brown Muslims may wear their headscarves? To me this is the subtext, especially as you get a lot of this sort of thing in The Star

Everytime this story in all its infinite varieties appears my first question is simply to ask, where in Christianity, its scriptures or its church traditions is the wearing of any item of clothing or jewellery mandatory? The answer is nowhere, so Mrs. Chaplin is on to a loser straight away. But, she notes, she has worn the cross since her confirmation and to hide it would "violate her faith". Violate? Good grief. She is a bit light on details and specifics at this point and if I met her I would want to press her on that. (I'd also want to ask what visible symbols Jesus wore so that people would know what he stood for.)

Note that her employers haven't asked her not to wear the cross, merely to wear it under her uniform. The NHS Trust correctly pointed out that the wearing of a cross is not mandatory in Christianity but against all logic her response was to assert I view this as a clear discrimination against Christians. The Trust clearly regard themselves as experts on religious manifestations of all faiths. As in If you don't agree with me you are wrong! Mrs. Chaplin sees herself as the victim of politically correct persecution, particularly as other hospital staff have been allowed to carry on wearing the Muslim hijab or headscarf. Hasn't she missed the point then?

So let's regroup here: my Sikh colleagues should wear the little steel bangle. It is mandatory in Sikhism but actually most have chosen to remove them. My female Muslim colleagues should wear headscarves in observance of Islamic teaching although some have chosen not to. Mrs Chaplin has no mandatory requirement to wear a cross but she insists on doing so while complaining about Muslim, and presumably Sikh, expressions of religious faith and somehow this is discriminatory but she can not say why other than to repeat that the groups are being treated differently.

My experience of Muslim nurses is that their wearing of headscarves can be accommodated within the hospital's uniform rules. The Sikh bus drivers around here wear turbans in the bus company's colours. Where are the health and safety issues there? There are none. At school our pupils are told they should not wear jewellery other than watches and discrete ear studs and they must remove those for P.E.
The Muslim boy who wanted to wear a ring he bought in Mecca was given short shrift: it wasn't mandatory. The Sikh boys remove their bangles without fuss. Were they discriminated against? No. Health and Safety is as important in a school as it is in a hospital setting. Visible jewellery harbours germs and can be dangerous to patients - rings, broaches, other pendants are not acceptable, so why should a religious item be?

Now doesn't this also become a gender thing at this point? I have a little cross made of sea glass which I sometimes wear. No one can see it because I am a man and men don't tend to wear crosses outside clothing. If I were a Christian male nurse then, there would be no issue presumably: I'd be wearing it, no one would see it - even if they knew about it, so everyone would be happy. My faith would not be violated. If I took it off it wouldn't be violated either. It is a religious symbol: to see it otherwise is to head down the road of idolatry.

Am I right in sensing a personal agenda here? This isn't about Christianity, this is about me, me, me and my rights Mrs. Chaplin. It seems to me that this cross has become a real stumbling block to the real expression of her "devout" faith. What sort of public witness has this story conveyed? In a time when Christians should show the value and reality of their faith in the lives they lead, to the cynical non-churched public, expressions of Christianity are reduced to the wearing of a bit of religious bling. Being told to hide your cross is NOT the same as being told to hide your religion. If you need to wear a cross so that people know what you stand for then you've already lost the argument. If people know what you stand for then you don't need a cross.

Own goal, Mrs. Chaplin.

Then we get The Daily Mail also misrepresenting the issue Every Christian at work will now be afraid to mention their beliefs. Well despite the Mail's attempts at scaremongering and whipping up the vitriol of Middle England I shan't be going to work afraid that my students and colleagues know I am a Christian. What a ridiculous idea.

The trust may have won the legal argument today, but its reputation has been damaged, as the moral argument was won before I even entered the tribunal How self deluding. It is Christianity's reputation which has been tarnished here and there was no moral argument to be won on this topic. To make an issue of this was about as self-defeating as it gets.

It is at this point that the Archbishop of Canterbury throws in his weight, referring to wooden-headed bureaucratic silliness. You'd think he'd know by now to be careful about what he says in public. Perhaps health and safety isn't an issue at Lambeth Palace.

The cross as a stumbling block to real expressions of faith? That's a difficult one but I am put in mind of a story Jesus told in Matthew's Gospel: Jesus encounters a devout young man: the man was a spiritual person. He asked Jesus what he should do to inherit eternal life. He was genuinely interested in growing closer to God. He had kept all the commandments from his youth. However Jesus identified his stumbling block - possessions: Jesus answered, If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.

UPDATE Mrs. Chaplin has lost her appeal to an Industrial Tribunal. The legal judgement is that there has been no discrimination.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

He is risen indeed Halelujah!

Mark 16.1-8 Without Easter, we wouldn't know about Jesus: if his story had ended at the crucifixion he would probably have been forgotten other that for passing references in contemporary sources. There would have been no community memory to pass on.

What kind of stories are the Easter stories, then? What language do they use? Are they intended as historical reports and thus to be understood as history remembered or do they use the language of parable and metaphor to express truths that are much more than factual? Or is it a combination?

Those of us who grew up as Christians in in overt Christian environment have an awareness of the Easter message, albeit an amalgam of the entirety of the four gospels and the gloss of Acts and the epistles.

Borg and Crossan use the terms "hard" and "soft" interpretation. The hard form, affirmed by Christians committed to ideas of biblical inerrancy, sees every detail as factually, literally and infallibly true. Many other Christians affirm a softer view: aware of differences in the accounts, they do not insist on the factual accuracy of every detail and recognise that witnesses to any event can have quite different recollections depending on a number of factors. In my own classroom last week thirty fourteen year olds were unable to agree on the exact sequence of a simple cause and effect process. Those who affirm the softer view are not concerned whether there was one angel (Mark and Matthew) or two (Luke) at the tomb and may disagree amongst themselves about the meaning of the word angel and therefore the nature of angels. They don't worry about where the disciples hid out after the crucifixion: Jerusalem (Luke) or Galilee (Matthew) but they do affirm the historicity of the basics: the tomb was really empty, this was because God transformed the body of Jesus and Jesus did appear to his disciples after his death in a form that could be seen, heard and touched.

So central is the historical accuracy of the stories for many people, that if they didn't happen in this way, the foundation and truth of Christianity disappear. If Christ has not been raised then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. (St. Paul 1 Cor 15.14) At one and the same time some of us assent to Paul's statement while not necessarily assuming that it intrinsically points to the historical accuracy of a tomb empty of a physical body. When I was an undergraduate my Professor of Theology, David Jenkins, left to become the Bishop of Durham and he got in deep water for saying such things and was roundly condemned as an atheist Bishop amongst those who followed the hard interpretation. He is still a byword for apostasy and heresy in certain circles of the CofE, unjustly so. The Resurrection is more than a conjuring trick with old bones he said. I was constantly amazed and disturbed that the words more than were excised from the text of his address.

It must be the case that an emphasis on the historical facts of the Easter stories, as if they were reporting events that in another time could have been filmed as they unfolded, gets in the way of understanding them. On the one hand, it is a stumbling block for those who have difficulty in believing that the stories are factual. If such people think that believing these stories to be factually accurate is essential to being a Christian, then they can't be Christians. The issue is not simply whether "things like this" ever happen. Rather, the issue is generated by the stories themselves; often the differences are hard to reconcile, and their language often seems to be other than the language of historical reporting. We often do not get beyond the Did they happen? reply to the What do they mean? question.

When these stories are seen as history, their function is to report publicly observable events that could have been witnessed by anyone who was there. When we see these stories as parable we need to use the model of parable Jesus himself used - the truth of the story is not dependent on whether it is historically accurate: there was no Good Samaritan. Does that render the story meaningless? Parables can be true - truth filled and truthful - regardless of their factual accuracy and to worry about factual accuracy misses the point. The point lies in its meaning and in you and I getting that meaning.

Seeing the Easter stories as parable does not involve a denial of their factual accuracy. It's quite happy leaving that question open. What it does insist upon is that the importance of these stories lies in their meanings. As an example, an empty tomb without a meaning ascribed to it is simply an odd event. It is only when meaning is ascribed to it that it takes on significance. Parable can be based on a particular event (there could have been a Good Samaritan whose actions Jesus based his story on) but it need not be.

Effectively we are saying: believe, if you want, that the events strictly happened in that way. Now lets talk about what they mean. Equally, if you're quite sure they didn't happen quite like that, fine. Now let's talk about what they mean.

Importantly parable and parabolic language can make truth claims: we should not think of history as truth and parable as fiction and therefore less important. Indeed, this identification is one of the central characteristics of modern western culture. Both Biblical literalists and people who reject theism completely do this: the former insist that the truth of the Bible depends on its literal accuracy and the latter see that the Bible can not be literally and factually true and therefore don't think that it is true at all. What both miss is the fact that parable can be profoundly true independently of its historical accuracy. Asking the parabolic meaning of Biblical stories is always the most important question. The alternative of fixating on whether it happened in this way will likely lead one astray.

Mark's Easter story is very brief but he provides us with the first narrative of Easter. He does not report any appearance of the risen Jesus and the story ends very abruptly. His story starts with the women who saw Jesus' death and burial going to the tomb to anoint his body, concerned as to who will roll away the stone covering the entrance to the tomb. As they arrive, their question becomes irrelevant. They saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled back. They enter the tomb, somewhat tentatively we might guess, to discover a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side. We generally interpret that young man as an angel, but even that word is loaded with countless unhelpful images of wings and harps and halos thanks to medieval artists. Let's be clear: an angel is God's messenger. Let's strip away the fanciful appearance. He says to them Do not be alarmed. You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified. He has been raised. He is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him.

Mark then tells us that the women were given a commission: But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you. Though Mark does not recount any stories of the risen Jesus the stage is nevertheless set for such events. Then Mark's story abruptly ends. So the women went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone for they were afraid. This ending was deemed unsuitable as early as the second century and so a second ending was added in vs 9-20.

Without denying any factual accuracy of the story, let's look at this section as parable. It is powerfully evocative.

* Jesus was sealed in a tomb, but the tomb could not hold him and the stone has been rolled away.

* Jesus is not to be found in the land of the dead. He is not here. Look this is the place where they laid him.

* Jesus has been raised. God's messenger tells the women this. Jesus who was crucified by the authorities has been raised by God.

* God has said Yes to Jesus and No to the powers who killed him. God has vindicated Jesus.

* His followers are promised You will see him.

* The command Go back to Galilee means go back to where the story began, to the start of the Gospel.

What do we hear at the start of the gospel? We hear about the way of the kingdom.

Without the emphasis on Easter as God's decisive reversal of the authorities verdict on Jesus, the cross is simply pain, agony and horror. It leads to a horrific theology: God's judgement means that we all deserve to suffer like this, but Jesus died in our place. God can spare us because Jesus is the substitutionary sacrifice for our sins. It also leads to a skewed view of the current world where we conclude that the powers are in control and Christianity is about the next world, not this one.

Easter as the reversal of Good Friday, on the other hand, means God's vindication of Jesus' passion for the Kingdom of God, for God's justice and God's "no" to the powers who killed him, powers still very much alive in our world. Easter is about God as much as it is about Jesus. Easter discloses the character of God. Easter means God's great cleansing has begun, but it will not happen without us in terms of personal transformation and political transformation: dying to the old way of being and being reborn into a new way of being. In short, being born again.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Holy Saturday

After detailing every day from Palm Sunday through to Good Friday, Mark says nothing at all about the Sabbath then picks up the story on Easter Sunday with the finding of the empty tomb. What about the day we call Holy Saturday? Was there nothing to say about that day in earliest Christian tradition? If we, as Christians, have followed Mark's silence about today, have we lost something in the process?

We can see very clearly what Mark has omitted by looking at the Apostles Creed

Friday Suffered under Pontius Pilate; was crucified, dead and buried.
Saturday He descended into hell.
Sunday The third day he rose again from the dead.

The descent into hell is not to the later Christian place of eternal punishment, but the Jewish Sheol, the afterlife place of non-existence, the grave writ large. What is the meaning of that event?

As Mark set out to describe Jesus' execution he was working within Jewish tradition that had always emphasised how God vindicated those righteous Jews who remained faithful under persecution and were ready, if necessary, to die as martyrs for their faith in God. In the Apocryphal book of Wisdom we read But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God and no torment will ever touch them. In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died, and their departure was thought to be a disaster, and their going from us to be a destruction; but they are at peace. For though in the sight of others they were punished, their hope is full of immortality. (3.1-4) It is such theology which is behind the gospel stories of Jesus death and vindication. First Jesus is mocked by passers by, by the authorities, and even by those crucified with him for the lack of preemptive divine intervention to save him from death on the cross.

Then we recall future vindication from several places in Mark's text. Apart from three prophecies of death by execution and vindication by resurrection in 8.31, 9.31 and 10.33-34, the promise of vindication is repeated in 13.26, They will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory, and again in 14.62, You will see the Son of Man at the right hand of the Power and coming with the clouds of heaven. This is post-death public vindication which was in accordance with the scriptures for all who knew their tradition.

Scholars have debated whether that divine salvation refers to the immortality of the soul or the resurrection of the body. If, as in Biblical tradition, your faith tells you that this world belongs to and is ruled by a just divinity and your experience tells you that that the world belongs to and is ruled by an unjust humanity, eschatology becomes almost inevitable as the reconciliation of faith and experience. God, you believe, will transform this world of violence and injustice into one of nonviolence and justice. God will act - indeed must act - to make new and holy a world grown old in evil.

Eschatology is absolutely not about the end of this world, but rather about the end of this world's subjection to to evil and impurity, injustice, violence and oppression. It is not about the evacuation of earth for God's heaven, but about the divine transfiguration of God's earth.

How then did the claim of general bodily resurrection, surely the most counter intuitive idea imaginable, become part of that scenario of cosmic transfiguration? The general reason was because the renewal of an all-good creation here below upon this earth demanded it. How could you have a renewed creation without renewed bodies? That magnificent vision of a transformed flesh as well as as a renewed spirit, demanded transfigured bodies as well as perfect souls.

The specific reason for bodily resurrection became part of the scenario was related to martyrdom, particularly in the 160s BC in the Seleucid persecutions. The question was not about their survival but about God's justice when faced specifically with the battered, tortured and executed bodies of martyrs. Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. (Daniel 12.2)

Those general and specific reasons had come together in apocalyptic eschatology and Pharisaic theology at the time of Jesus. When God's great cleansing happened the first order of business was the general resurrection. Since God's purpose was to establish a just and non-violent world, it had to deal with the past before it could deal with the future and there was already a great backlog of injustice that had to be redeemed, a great crowd of martyrs who had to be vindicated.

If you believed as Jesus did and as Mark wrote, that the Kingdom of God was already here on earth, you were claiming that God's great cleansing had already started, then the bodily resurrection and vindication could indeed begin with Jesus at the head of those others who had died unjustly, or at least righteously before him. This is what Jesus' descent into hell was all about. That is what Jesus had to do on Holy Saturday.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Good Friday: a day of pain and suffering

Mark 15.1-47. We refer to today as Good Friday out of sheer habit and familiarity. There was nothing "good" about it in one sense, but in another today was the day, as Christians have affirmed for centuries, when, despite its horror, the redemption of the world was accomplished. Many of us have a preunderstanding about today based on a cultural exposure to Christianity, arising out of centuries of Christian observance and of theological reflection about the death of Jesus, although that is less and less the case with each passing generation.

The best known understanding of Jesus' death emphasizes its substitutionary sacrificial nature: he died for the sins of the world because we are all sinners. In order for God to forgive sins, such a sacrifice must be made but it would not have been adequate for any ordinary human being to have been the sacrifice, because such a person, as a sinner, could only be dying for their own sins. Therefore the sacrifice must not be a sinner, but a perfect human being. Only Jesus, who was not only human but the Son of God, was perfect, sinless and without blemish. Thus he is the sacrifice acceptable to God and the sacrifice which makes our forgiveness possible.

For most of us this understanding is part of the landscape of our religious upbringing and is reinforced by our hymns and liturgies which commonly use the language of substitutionary sacrifice. It has become the official line and is defended by the church, including many who hold a degree of scepticism towards it.

We need, therefore to recognise that this is not the only Christian understanding of Jesus' death and that it took more than a thousand years for it to become dominant, appearing in its current form for the first time in a book by Anselm of Canterbury in 1097. This common Christian understanding goes far beyond what the New Testament says, even given its use of sacrificial language: the N.T. writers also see Jesus' execution as the domination system's "no" to Jesus (and God), as a defeat of the powers that rule this world by disclosing their moral bankruptcy, as revelation of the path of transformation, and a disclosure of the depth of God's love for us.

As we approach today, then, we might need to aware of how our theological preconceptions can get in the way of what Mark is saying. Perhaps it would help us to recognise that we often see Jesus' death as a composite of the gospels as we do with Christmas, getting our inns, angels, shepherds and wise men all mixed up. Each narrative differs in some respects: only Matthew has Pilate washing his hands of Jesus and the cry of the crowd His blood be upon us and our children. Only Luke has Jesus appearing before Herod Antipas as well as three of the "last" words of Jesus. In John's gospel we have much more dialogue between Jesus and Pilate and John also adds more "last" words as Jesus addresses his mother and John. In addition our composite understanding is informed by the language of St. Paul (whose letters predate the gospels) and the author of the letter to the Hebrews where Jesus is the Great High Priest who offers himself as a sacrifice. Paul's letters are not narratives, though, and thus do not include a story of Good Friday. Indeed Paul's language contain a number of interpretations of the significance of Jesus' death.

Borg and Crossan argue that in order to understand Mark we need to set aside all these filters.

Even so, although Mark's Gospel is the earliest, we must not imagine his story to be free of post-Easter interpretation because it combines retrospective interpretation with history remembered. However, there is no theology of substitutionary sacrifice in Mark's gospel: dying for the sins of the world is not there at all in Mark. Even when Jesus says in 10.45 that he came to give his life as a ransom for many the Greek word translated as sacrifice (lutron) is used in the Bible not in the context of payment for sin but to refer to payment made to liberate captives or slaves. A lutron is a means of liberation from bondage. So now we have The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a means of liberation for many. The difference may seem subtle, but it is there. Could this be semantics and the liberation is actually from sin? Of course that interpretation could be made, but it is not what Mark is saying.

Mark tells his story in bite-sized chunks of three hours to reflect the Roman military watches (or maybe his original audience had a limited concentration span.)

6am to 9am: As day breaks, the local collaborators - chief priests, elders and scribes - hand Jesus over to Pilate who interrogates him. Are you the King of the Jews? with some mocking emphasis on you no doubt. We might also hear a mocking tone in Jesus' response You say so. Jesus says nothing else which would surely have enraged a man like Pilate, unused to insubordination. Jesus shows courage in this strategy.

Pilate then offers to release Barabbas instead of Jesus. This seems an odd thing to do with its risk of releasing a known rebel. Perhaps we need to remember who the first audience was for Mark's Gospel in AD70. Both Barabbas and Jesus defied imperial authority: Barabbas advocated violent resistance and Jesus, non-violent resistance. By the year AD66 the Jerusalem crowd had chosen Barabbas' way and the Roman destruction of the temple would still have been fresh in the minds of Mark's audience. Mark uses this "incident" to underline a point.

Mark tells us the the temple authorities stirred up the crowd to have him release Barabbas for them instead. These were not the same crowds who had heard Jesus with supportive delight during the week: Mark gives us no reason to believe that this crowd had turned against Jesus, indeed it is highly unlikely that the earlier crowd, so supportive of Jesus would be allowed into Herod's palace. This crowd, stirred up by the chief priests, would have been likely to have been much smaller and was probably a version of rent-a-mob provided by the authorities. So when Pilate asks Then what do you want me to do with the man you call King of the Jews, the crowd respond Crucify him.

Jesus is handed over to Pilate's soldiers who, in time honoured fashion, torture and humiliate him. Then they conduct a mock coronation, dressing him in a purple robe, placing a crown of thorns on his head and hailing him King of the Jews. Then the humiliation continues as they strike him and spit on him, then they undress him again and lead him out to be crucified. Exhausted as he was, Jesus was unable to carry the bar of his cross to the place of execution and a passer by, Simon of Cyrene, was press-ganged to help.

9am to Noon: Mark doesn't bother with the details of the crucifixion. He didn't need to because his community were all too familiar with this process of imperial terrorism. This was a barbaric, agonising and drawn-out punishment, its public nature aimed to be a deterrent. What made it the supreme punishment was not just the amount of suffering or even humiliation involved but the idea that there might not even be enough left for burial: victims were often crucified low enough to the ground that not only carrion birds but scavenging dogs could reach them and they were often left on the cross until little was left of their bodies for burial.

On the cross an inscription was placed: The King of the Jews. Pilate surely intended it to be derisive although it has served to be accurate from the vantage point of Christianity. Mark tells us that Jesus was crucified between two bandits, not robbers or thieves. Bandits is a term commonly used for guerrillas or freedom-fighters so their presence in the story reminds us that crucifixion was used specifically for those who systematically refused to accept imperial Roman authority. Ordinary criminals were not executed.

Noon to 3pm Jesus has been on the cross for three hours and the next three hours are dealt with simply in the phrase When it was noon, darkness came over the land until three in the afternoon. As astronomers can tell us exactly when and where eclipses have taken place Mark can not be referring to such darkness. We could argue for a particular intervention by God at this point but such a darkness would not have gone unremarked in contemporary writings and there is no such reference. Instead the darkness is a byproduct of Mark's use of religious symbolism. In the ancient world, highly significant events on earth were were accompanied by signs in the sky and such images appeared in Mark's own sacred text, the Jewish scriptures. What was Mark's intention? To convey grief? Suffering? Mourning? Judgement?

3pm to 6pm At 3pm or shortly thereafter Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. Mark has Jesus uttering a cry of desolation My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? in a quotation from Ps 22. In another piece of symbolism Mark gives us the curtain of the temple, the curtain which separated the holiest place from the rest of the sanctuary, tearing in two - access to the presence of God is now open and Jesus has allowed access to God apart from the temple.

At the same time the centurion guarding the cross exclaims Truly this man was the son of God. This is most significant because according to Roman imperial theology the emperor was Son of God, one who brought salvation and peace on earth. Now, however, a representative of Rome affirms that this man Jesus, executed by the empire, is the Son of God.

Where are Jesus' followers at this point? The men have fled leaving the faithful women who can only watch from behind the barriers. It is these and other women disciples who are the key players in the story from now on. They witness Jesus death; they follow the body and note where it is buried; they are the first to go to the tomb on the Sunday for completion of funeral rites and experience the news of Easter. Are they there merely because they would not arouse the suspicion of the authorities when the men would have, or is there another reason? Jewish and Gentile women of this period were subservient. Jesus and the early Christian movement subverted the conventions of the day. Sadly the church has denied this subversion but it is prominently here for all to see in this most significant of elements in the climactic events of Jesus' execution.

There is a remarkable departure from the standard practice as Joseph of Arimathea seeks and gains permission to take the body down and remove it for burial. Mark has Joseph as a respected member of the council who was also waiting for the Kingdom of God and we can perhaps surmise a sympathy for Jesus here. In the other gospels his status is changed to that of an active disciple. Whatever Joseph's history the stage is now set for Easter morning.