Thursday, July 24, 2014

Unbalanced

Philip Hammond says that the UNHRC's decision to investigate potential Israeli war-crimes in Gaza is 'fundamentally unbalanced'.  I suppose what he means is that there is no similar investigation proposed of Hamas.  I've also noticed that there have been complaints on the Israeli side about 'unbalanced' media coverage, and an 'unbalanced' or biased perspective.

A few thoughts on not being balanced:

1.  Trying to be balanced about an unbalanced situation will always put you in a false position.  Balance is not, in and of itself, good.  Truth is good.

2.  In presenting certain facts, 'balance' can be used as a means to contextualise them away.  For example, it is a fact that the Israeli offensive in Gaza has killed over 700 people, most of them civilians.  Any attempt to add 'but Hamas fired some rockets too' on to the end of that is just an attempt to blunt the force of the acknowledged fact.  It ought not to be a required part of discourse that we always give all the facts.  Not only is this impossible, it is often simply a device to downplay one particular fact.  It leads into debates about the context (who, historically, is to blame for the situation in Gaza?) rather than about current events (why is Israel bombing children?).

3.  As a corollary of this, it cannot be demanded of anyone that they deliver unequivocal condemnations of Hamas before they are allowed to critique Israel.  One can be as critical of - and disgusted by - Hamas as one likes, but one is not required to establish this publicly and thus gain 'credentials' before one can say that the Israeli state is committing murder in Gaza.

4.  A call for 'balance' can just mean 'hey, try to see it from my point of view'.  In and of itself, this is a good thing.  It is good to see things from different points of view.  But in situations of injustice and oppression, not all parties have an equal right to demand that their point of view be acknowledged.  If you are the party in power, you do not have a right to demand that I see it from your point of view.  To give a relatively trivial example, if it is proposed to take money from some very wealthy people and give it to some desperately poor people, the rich do not have the right to demand that their point of view be taken into account.  In this instance, the power is all on one side (evidence for this: Palestinian losses versus Israeli losses; the years of the Gaza siege; the ongoing occupation...) and that side does not have the side to scream about their perspective being ignored.

The question the world needs to ask right now, irrespective of the wider issues, is this: is Israel indiscriminately killing Palestinian civilians?

Friday, July 18, 2014

A little bit less racist

A while back - say, 12 years ago - I would have been largely unmoved by the current atrocities being perpetrated by Israel in Gaza.   I like to think that even then I would have felt some basic human sympathy for people who have lost loved ones, and some sense of the injustice involved in the deaths of innocent children.  But it wouldn't have been the gut-wrenching, horrible feeling that I have today.  It wouldn't have left me wondering how we can all go on.  And it wouldn't have led me to desire, and in so far as it lies with me demand, the end to the system that stands behind this cycle of violence.  I would have been bothered, but not that bothered.

And this is why.

I was on the side of law and order.  It is funny how easily this works - it's a matter of language and perceptions.  Israel has an army - nay, a 'Defence Force' - whilst the Palestinians have 'militants'.  Israel has uniforms and organisation and rules, whilst the Palestinians have, well, Hamas.  My perception was that one side in this conflict upheld order and the rule of law, whilst the other represented chaos.  (I wouldn't have put it quite like that at the time, but there it is).

I was swayed by Biblical reminiscence.  I had been taught the Old Testament far too well to fall for the theological train-wreck that is 'Christian' Zionism, but I think looking back I was influenced by the fact that Israel was - well, it was Israel.  Although I knew that this was hardly the Israel of Scripture, still the name has resonance - and with it all the place names, all the bits of Bible that float in the back of your mind and seem to connect with something you're hearing on the news...

I was afraid of Islam.  I 'knew', back then, that Islam was the enemy.  I didn't know, because I hadn't bothered to find out, that there was a substantial Christian community in Palestine.  I also didn't know, as far as I can recall, a single Muslim personally, or at least not closely.  There was just a sense of background fear.  Christians spread this fear easily, and I had picked it up without doing any analytical thinking about it.

And fundamentally, I liked people who were like me.  This is what it comes down to.  Israeli society looked familiar.  I found Palestinian culture, in the almost-nothing exposure which I had through the TV, to be not to my taste.  In other words, I was a racist.

I hope that since then I have become a little bit less racist.  I know that in this particular case, I have come to see that it is my job to speak for those who are oppressed.  I try to do it, in my limited way.  It is my job to be heart-broken for every human being who suffers.  It is my job to see in each group of people those for whom Christ died, and therefore those who are of infinite worth.  It is my job to stand against those who would use power to keep others down, and then would use fear to legitimise their actions.

In this instance, it is my job to be against Israel, not as a group of people but as a state and an organisation which thinks that its own security is worth bombing children for.  Not because I've become all left wing (really, really haven't), or because of a general anti-colonial stance (it's all nonsense), or because I think Islam is okay after all (it isn't).  Just because of humanity, and fundamentally because of Jesus.

Thanks to all those who helped me along the way.  Sorry for who I was.  God help me be better.

And God have mercy on all those who suffer today.

Monday, July 07, 2014

Creation's choir


"And when man accepts again his destiny in Jesus Christ in the promise and faith of the future revelation of his participation in God's glory as it is already given him here and now, he is only like a late-comer slipping shamefacedly into creation's choir in heaven and earth, which has never ceased its praise, but merely suffered and sighed, as it still does, that in inconceivable folly and ingratitude its living centre man does not hear its voice, its response, its echoing of the divine glory, or rather hears it in a completely perverted way, and refuses to co-operate in the jubilation which surrounds him"

CD II/1, p 648.

Or, as The Jesus Storybook Bible puts it:

"Even though people had forgotten, the birds and the flowers had not forgotten - they still knew their song.  It was the song all of God's creation had sung to him from the very beginning.  It was the song people's hearts were made to sing: 'God made us.  He loves us. He is very pleased with us.'

"It was why Jesus had come into the world: to sing them that wonderful song; to sing it not only with his voice, but with his whole life - so that God's children could remember it and join in and sing it, too."

Friday, May 30, 2014

How he loves us!

"God's loving is an end in itself.  All the purposes that are willed and achieved in him are contained and explained in this end, and therefore in this loving in itself and as such.  For this loving is itself the blessing that it communicates to the loved, and it is its own ground as against the loved.  Certainly in loving us God wills his own glory and our salvation.  But he does not love us because he wills this.  He wills it for the sake of his love."

-CD II/1, p 279

If you start your definition of God with Father, Son, and Holy Spirit - not with a series of attributes...

If you allow your understanding of God to be shaped by the story of redemption, of Israel and the church and the world - not by philosophical speculation...

If you see God truly and fully revealed in Jesus Christ - not a God lurking in the shadows...

That is when you begin to see that loving is not something God does as a means to end, whether that end is the display of his glory or the salvation of his people.  Love is the definition of who God is, because for all eternity the Father has loved the Son and the Son has loved the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit.  The overflow of God's love to the world is simply God, being God.  It is his free love, it is grace, because there did not need to be anything outside of God to love at all, and given the fallen and rebellious state of what there is nothing is owed to the creation by God.  But when he loves it is nevertheless his nature.  This is who God is.

His love is first of all his eternal self-giving within the Godhead, and second of all his giving of himself in time in Jesus Christ.  He gives himself to us because he first of all gives himself to himself.  It is the love of God into which we are invited, in the unity of that same Holy Spirit who is in himself the love of Father for Son and Son for Father.

Behold, what manner of love..!

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Prisoners of Hope

Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope;
today I declare that I will restore to you double.

This little section from the Palm Sunday prophecy is really striking to me.  What does it mean to be a prisoner of hope?  At one level, I suppose just that being a prisoner does not necessarily deprive one of hope.  In this instance, the prophet encourages God's people to expect a great reversal in their fortunes.  When their King comes, righteous and having salvation, they will no longer be prisoners.

At another level, I think the prophecy denotes that God's people under the Old Testament are actually kept imprisoned by hope itself.  Why don't they just disappear, assimilate, recognise that they can do very well for themselves as individuals in the new empires?  All it would take is the dropping of a few quaint stories and odd habits.  It would be undeniably easier, the best way to your best life now.  But for whatever reason, Israel cannot avoid the burden of the hope which God has given them.  Israel cannot accomodate themselves to the way the world is; they are constrained (imprisoned!) by a picture of how life and the world and humanity ought to be.  Therefore they suffer.  They do not merely hope in spite of suffering; they suffer because of hope.

Isn't this also true of Jesus, who for the joy set before him endured the cross?

Is this where our daily wrestling comes from still?  We are imprisoned by hope, Easter people living in the world that is not yet raised, Jesus people living in the world that does not yet know him.  Stuff doesn't work.  We don't work.  Life isn't as it should be.  Disappointment, and striving, ultimately springs from hope, which still imprisons us here between the ages.

One little irony: many of those imprisoned by hope finally came to prefer the jail to the reality of freedom.  Their hope had been twisted, or perhaps deferred too long, and they could not bear the gap between their imaginations and the reality.  The gap is still there for most of us, I guess.  The lesson to learn from Palm Sunday is perhaps that we should be prepared to let our hopes - the little daily hopes and the great big kingdom hopes - be revised and refreshed again and again by the King who comes in humility.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Totally everyday church

I recently got around to reading Everyday Church by Tim Chester and Steve Timmis.  It is very much the sequel to their earlier Total Church, and so I'm bracketing them both together as 'Totally Everyday Church', or TEC.  They're both great books, and my reaction to both has been pretty much the same.  So this is not a summary or a review - if you  want to know what the books say, read them; Everyday Church in particular is very readable, and would give you a good feel for TEC.  This is my reaction to this particular attempt to rebuild the church from the gospel up.

Initially, TEC is enormously attractive to me.  It is without a doubt a radical proposal: essentially, what if we went back to basics, stripped the church back to just a community believing the gospel and living in response.  What if we cut out some of the programmes, the big ideas, the meetings - and just loved one another and the world instead?  (Again, this is not what Chester and Timmis have written, it's my response to what they've written).  How exciting would that be?  I love the idea of really sharing life with one another, really being available to one another, really reaching out and having an impact on people around us by showing and sharing Christ-like relationships.  Yes please.  Let's do it.  Let's tear the thing down and re-build.

Interestingly, not much of the enthusiasm extends to the particular way that Timmis and Chester suggest we should do and be church.  I'm not a fan of the Crowded House model, in so far as I understand it.  I've never been clear where the local church actually is in this structure - is it the small group, or the Sunday gathering?  And I worry about the lack of emphasis on church officers, which seems unBiblical to me.  And I am not sur preaching is getting the central role it deserves.  And a hundred and one other things.  But it doesn't matter, because the authors are clear that they are not really selling the model.  Totally Everyday Church doesn't need to look just like this, it just needs to look like radical living oriented around gospel, community, and mission - and in principle, I'm up for it.

Then I remember a few things.  Firstly, I remember that I'm a dyed-in-the-wool conservative.  Could I really stand to lose so much of the church tradition I love?  Then secondly, and much more importantly, I start to think about what it would really be like to have an open home in the way that is being talked about.  Now, I'm very definitely an introvert.  I love people, but I need alone time. If I don't get any over a prolonged period, I stop being able to engage with others and to give of myself in lots of ways.  How am I going to carve out that time from the totalising reality that is Total Everyday Church?  And then, I often only get ten minutes a day to really talk to my wife.  What if we're just settling down to our one dinner without children in the week when the doorbell rings?  And then thirdly, I remember that sometimes I just don't have it in me to be a Christian.  Sometimes I'm hanging on by fingernails, and it's all I can do to drag myself into the back of church and leave again as soon as it's over.  I suspect on any given Sunday that there are plenty of us in that situation.  At this stage, I can feel the burden, the huge unbearable burden, of TEC descending on me - it really is TOTAL, and I can't take it.

So I start to think, maybe Totally Everyday Church is not for me.  TEC sounds like it would work for activists, extroverts, and people who have it together.  But I can't see how I would fit in.  I think I'd ruin it.

In the end, I'm left feeling sad - thinking that there is better, more radical, more gospel-shaped church life out there which I will never be part of.  And I wonder how much of that is my temperament and character, and how much of it is my sin, and I can't unpick it.

But that's just my reaction.  Anyone out there doing it, following this sort of model, and finding that it works?  Anyone not following it got any pointers for how we take on board some of the passion and gospel priority without having to be people we're not?  Anyone just think I'm being daft and melodramatic?

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Times and Seasons

As I sort of semi-observe Lent, I've been holding in my mind two themes from the Apostle Paul.  On the one hand, in Galatians, Paul frets over his converts observing "days and months and seasons and years"; he sees it as evidence that they are turning back from their profession of faith in Christ and returning to old pagan ways.  I don't imagine that the Galatians are actually being tempted back into paganism.  Common consensus is that they were just being encouraged to add some Jewish distinctives to their Christian faith.  But for Paul it is all the same.  They are turning back to slavery under the weak and beggarly elements of the world.

On the other hand, in Romans, Paul sees the observance of particular days as a non-issue.  It is indifferent, in so far as it does not become a badge of some superior spirituality.  If seasons are observed in honour of the Lord, fine.  If they are not observed, because of the Lord, great.

Of course, in neither of these cases is Paul thinking of the seasons of the Christian year, which were centuries away from being thought of.  His target is primarily Jewish observance, and some of his anti-observance rhetoric comes from his clear desire to maintain the truth that there is no need for Gentile Christians to become Jews.  But the flexibility in his approach does, I think, point to something deeper.

For Paul, the important change in time and season is not in any annual round of fasts and feasts.  For him there are only two times: this age, and the age to come.  In Christ, the age to come has already invaded this age, and by the Spirit more and more people (even as they live out their lives in this age) are participating in the age to come.  The decisive change in time has already occurred, and is now being applied through Spirit-empowered gospel proclamation.

So long as that central truth about time is not obscured, Paul does not care whether his converts observe yearly festivals.  Perhaps that is a helpful way for us to think.  As human beings, we naturally mark the passage of time.  In some way, we are always going to structure the day, the week, the year.  This is a natural phenomenon.  But it can be pressed into gospel use, in so far as we relate our time - the thoroughly relative and relatively unimportant changes in the passage of time which we are compelled to mark - to the real time, the fulfilled time, the arrival of the age to come in Christ.

If I observe Lent to the Lord, as a way of remembering him, then I am blessed.  If I turn it into a way of acting as if the new day had not dawned, then I am heading back into slavery.