Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Islam is Not the Problem

If you were to watch the world news and listen to the pronouncements of our leaders, you would think we were at war with Islam.  Almost every night we see images of fanatical people brandishing flags with Arabic slogans and proclaiming Allahu Akbar (God is Great) alongside images of bombed out building, beheadings and abductions.  We hear stories of Christians and other religious minorities fleeing for their lives to avoid the choice of execution or forced conversion.  Is this an inevitable result of Islamic dominance in society, or is something else going on?

I have been convinced for long time that Islam is not the problem.  Not that Islamic extremism isn't a problem, but that this is an historical anomaly not an inevitable result of Islam. I want to try to explain briefly why I think this.

When these persecutions and religious cleansing efforts first became headline news and various commentators and friends started suggesting they were a logical result of the teachings of the Koran and Hadith, my first thought was that this didn't make any sense historically.  The Prophet Mohammed received his revelations in the early seventh century CE and Islam has been the dominant faith in the Middle East since the eighth century - 1,200 years and counting.  For much of this time the Arabic-dominated cultures of the Middle East and North Africa were the most powerful and advanced civilisation on earth, dominating and threatening their Christian neighbours.

Yet at the start of the 21st century there are still substantial, thriving Christian populations in places like Egypt, Syria, Sudan and Iraq.  There are also other historic faiths such as the Yazidi, the Samaritans and communities of Jews who remained in the Middle East after the fall of the Roman Empire and rise of Islam.  There is also a diverse set of minority interpretations of Islam - Shi'ites, Druze, Alawites, Sufis and so on.  If Islam is inherently intolerant, how has such diversity survived for 1,200 years?

The answer is that the level of intolerance we are seeing in the some parts of Middle East now is a relatively new development, imposed by a radical minority.  The majority view in Islam, and the view that has prevailed through most of history, is that minority religions, particularly "religions of the Book" including Christianity and Judaism, are to be licensed and tolerated.  This toleration has not always been totally benign and there have been instances of persecution throughout history, but these are the exception, not the norm.  The norm is the type of regime we now see just to our north in Indonesia and Malaysia - a regime in which Islam is dominant and demands to be respected as such, but followers of minority religions are permitted to practice their own religion provided they respect the sensibilities of their Islamic rulers.

We can also see this dichotomy in Australia.  There are currently around half a million Muslims in Australia.  Recent news reports suggest that there are less than 300 Australian supporters of Islamic State including 120 fighting overseas.  In other words, about 0.06% of Australian Muslims support IS.  What of the other 99.94%?  Every indication is that the vast majority are as appalled by IS as anyone else - indeed many of them have fled similar regimes.  This horror is the norm in Islam.

If the current radical activism is historically relatively new, and is a small minority position in Islam, why is it gaining increasing power and influence now?  What has led to this change?

Earlier this year I attempted to develop a framework for understanding immediate surface phenomena and their underlying causes through a simple pyramid diagram.  The diagram below reworks this to provide a context for the current Islamic radicalism.  Click on it so see it full-size.

At the top level is the phenomenon we are focused on - the rise of radical political Islam with its extreme fundamentalist interpretation of Islam, its radical intolerance and its use of terror as a weapon of war.  We are right to be frightened of this, but what has brought it into being after all these centuries?

Sitting just beneath this surface is a history of international tensions.  These are quite complex but we can think of them as being of two types.  The first is the long-standing ethnic and religious tensions that have developed through the centuries within the Middle East and North Africa.  There are tensions between Peninsula Arabs, Northern Arabs, Persians, Kurds, Egyptians, and so forth.  There are also tensions between the branches of Islam - particularly between Sunni and Shia - and between different interpretations within the Sunni majority.

In the past century these tensions have been further exacerbated by increased American and European intervention in the region's affairs.  The fall of the Ottoman empire after World War 1 saw the region divided between the victorious powers who created states and protectorates within their spheres of influence, often cutting across ethnic and religious divides and exacerbating existing conflicts.  This led to the creation of unstable states which degenerated fairly quickly into various forms of dictatorship.  At the same time, US and European meddling has sowed the seeds of our current problems - Al Qaida (of which Islamic State is a breakaway faction) and the Taliban were both covertly supported by the CIA in the 1980s as a way of undermining Russian rule in Afghanistan.

A preference for manipulation at a distance and the fighting of proxy wars has given way to increasing levels of direct intervention, beginning with the first Iraq War in 1991.  On the third level down we see an explanation for why these conflicts have escalated in the past 25 years. We are starting to hit a number of hard ecological limits and these are biting in the Middle East in various ways.  The approach of peak oil has led to greater competition for increasingly scarce oil supplies.  In particular, the dwindling of the US's own supplies at home has left it more dependent than it has ever been on Middle Eastern oil and hence more desperate to secure its access.

At the same time the processes of climate change have worked alongside the ravages of sanctions and war to impoverish large parts of the populations of countries like Syria, Iraq and Egypt.  Displaced farmers and rural workers have moved to the cities, escaping drought and joining throngs of urban unemployed.  These populations become hotbeds of dissent, attracting the wrath of dictatorial rulers.  A good deal of their anger is directed inwards, but some is also directed outwards towards the West as the US and its allies are seen as responsible for many of the problems they experience.  The further resulting breakdown in these countries is not necessarily an accidental by-product of Western intervention - Noam Chomsky, for instance, has suggested that the creation of weak and divided governments in oil-rich states serves US interests by removing barriers to oil wealth.

At the deepest level, what are the illusions that sustain this mutually destructive behaviour?  I would suggest there are two.  One is our absolutisation of our cultures, nations and "ways of life".  The Middle East and the West are in a symbiotic relationship over oil, reinforcing the mutual delusion that our economies and technologies can continue as they are.  We all know they can't, we are already bumping up against their limits, but we keep trying to eke out the current patterns for as long as possible, despite the damage they do, because they are making our elites rich.

Our rejection of the necessary fundamental changes - changes in technology, in wealth distribution, in food production - leads us instead to foster illusions about ourselves.  For us Westerners, it is an illusion about the present - our image of ourselves as enlightened and democratic.  This leads to us attempting to enforce a kind of moral ascendancy on the countries of the Middle East, to try to bomb them into being kinder and less belligerent.

On the Middle Eastern side, extreme Islam promotes an illusion about the past - an illusion of a pure, righteous form of Islam untainted by any compromise with the West, symbolised by such ideas as the Caliphate of Islamic State.  There was never such a pure state, Islam always compromised with those around it like we all do, but our 21st century radicals attempt to escape the humiliation of the present by returning to an imagined heroic past.

Neither the causes nor the remedies for complex global issues are ever simple.  My description oversimplifies and glosses over many things, but if I'm right it provides a framework within which we can begin to understand not only the day to day realities, but the bedrock of questions which underlies them.  It is not simply a matter of defeating Islam, nor even of defeating radical Islam, because so much of the problem lies within ourselves.

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Farewell, Tony

So, it's kind of strange to find that once again our government has changed leaders.

Not because it was a surprise.  Abbott has already been challenged once since he became Prime Minister, and put on notice that he needed to do better.  He didn't.  Rumours have been flying for weeks, Cabinet has been leaking like a sieve, polls have been plunging.

What is surprising is that Malcolm Turnbull is prepared to take the job.  When Julia Gillard deposed Kevin Rudd in the midst of his first term it went really badly.  She couldn't criticise a government of which she had been part, nor claim it did a great job in the light of the fact she had deposed its leader.  She was left clinging to the rocks as the waves of negativity battered her from all sides.

Why have our recent Prime Ministers (and indeed, Opposition Leaders) had such a short shelf-life?  One possibility is that politics these days is not a very attractive career choice, so we don't have the calibre of people we once had.  There is no Whitlam, Fraser, Hawke, Keating or Howard in the current parliament.

This may be true.  Our current leaders are not an impressive lot.  The shallowness of their pronouncements on important issues, their inability to focus on anything beyond the 24 hour media cycle, is a constant source of frustration for anyone who cares about where our country is headed.

I suspect this is a symptom, rather than the problem.  No one person can grasp the complexity of the issues that face a national government.  Good governance requires a team, a group of people with different skills, backgrounds and training who work together.  Small things need to be delegated, big things need to be dealt with collectively.

Rudd, Gillard and Abbott all forgot this, and tried to solve problems on their own.  Of the three, Abbott was the worst at it because he was the stupidest of the three by a long distance.  He made absurd calls on things he should have left well alone, like knighting Prince Philip.  He took policy positions to Cabinet that had not been properly researched, and tried to force them through without discussion.  He continually acted like his job was to destroy his opponents rather than govern the country.  When people asked him difficult questions about the economy he just talked about something else.

Yet, even if he had a brain the size of the planet, being a one-man-band still wouldn't have worked for him.  After all, look what happened to Rudd.  I know I bang on a lot about presidential politics and the Westminster System, but at last we have a Prime Minister who agrees with me.  Here is what he said in his first press conference after taking over the leadership.

The culture of our leadership is going to be one that is thoroughly consultative.  A traditional...a thoroughly traditional Cabinet government that ensures that we make decisions in a collaborative manner.  The Prime Minister of Australia is not a President.  The Prime Minister is the first among equals.

Music to my ears!  At last, a Prime Minister who understands how the system is supposed to work!

Still, I'm not getting too excited.  To begin with, for this approach to work the team needs to be reasonably united.  They don't have to love one another, but they have to be capable of working together.  There are 44 people in the Liberal Party who didn't want Turnbull to lead them, You can bet your bottom dollar that people like Joe Hockey, Matthias Cormann and Cory Bernardi will not just quietly fall into line behind Turnbull.  The leaks and destabilisation will go on.

Nor is Turnbull's record that encouraging.  After all, the last time the Liberal leadership changed hands was in 2009, and the issue was that Turnbull had unilaterally decided to support the Labor-proposed Emissions Trading Scheme over the heads of his own party members who were implacably opposed.  What has he learned from this experience?

The other reason I'm not very excited is that whether they work together or fight like cats in a bag, they are still a bunch of Tories.  Turnbull may be a more reasonable, articulate Tory, but that's as far as it goes.  They'll still be cutting welfare, screwing the workers, promoting the interests of big business, trashing the environment and imprisoning innocent asylum seekers.  Who cares if they are doing it collegially?

Friday, 4 September 2015

The Inescapable Love of God

Over the past couple of weeks I've been reading Thomas Talbott's book, The Inescapable Love of God.   I'm not really obsessed with the question of universal salvation but it does form part of my Christian faith and the question has come up in my church over the past year as some others move in a more Calvinist direction.  So I thought I'd provide a quick review just to keep the pot boiling.

The Inescapable Love of God was first published in 1999, but has been out of print for a number of years before Talbott and Cascade Books released a second edition last year.  Universalism aside the author appears to be a fairly orthodox and even conservative Protestant, perhaps in a similar mode to Robin Parry whose book The Evangelical Universalist was published in 2006 (under the pseudonym Gregory MacDonald) and dedicated to Talbott alongside my cousin Alex.

Yet while Talbott's influence on Parry is clear, his book is very different to Parry's.  Parry concentrates on the biblical case, providing an exhaustive treatment of the various passages that relate to the subject.  Talbott, who is primarily a philosopher rather than a theologian, provides a briefer summary of the biblical case followed by a more lengthy exploration of the philosophical issues involved.  At the time of its publication Talbott had already been arguing for Universalism for some time through journal articles and other short works, and the book serves in part as a more detailed response to his critics.

Like so many Christian Universalists, Talbott's impetus to explore the question came from his confrontation with the problem of suffering.  In his case, it was a philosophical rather than a personal confrontation - as a young philosophy student he took a course in which his skeptical lecturer presented the class with a series of arguments against the existence of God, each of which they were encouraged to explore and do their best to refute.  Talbott found himself stumped by the problem of suffering, and this started him on the path that led him eventually to Christian Universalism.

He starts his analysis of the question by presenting three commonly held foundational Christian ideas - that God loves all his creatures, that he is all-powerful and will ultimately triumph, and that some people will be redeemed while others are condemned to eternal torment.  All three ideas, he says, can be plausibly argued from the Bible, but only two of them can be correct.

For Augustine, Calvin and their followers the first proposition is modified - God loves some of us, but not others.  For Arminians, followers of 16th century Dutch theologian Jacobus Arminius, the second proposition is modified - God loves all of us but we are able to thwart his will by the exercise of our own, effectively condemning ourselves to hell.  For Universalists the third proposition is modified - all people will ultimately be reconciled to God.

Because all three propositions can be supported from the Bible, your interpretive procedure will depend to a large extent on where you start.  Which passages will you treat as foundational, and for which will you try to find alternative explanations?

Talbott begins with one of Paul's classic statements of universal reconciliation, Romans 5:18.

Just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life to all men.

This idea is repeated in 1 Corinthians 15:22.

As in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.

Since both these verses are paired statements, the most logical way of reading them is to see the "all men" (that is, all people) who were condemned or died as a result of Adam's sin as the same as the "all men" who were justified or made alive through Christ - that is, the whole of humanity. This was how many of the church fathers viewed the matter, including Origen and Gregory of Nyssa among others.

However, once the Empire-sponsored church of the fourth and fifth centuries imposed uniformity of doctrine it opted for the exclusivist view of Augustine and others, a view more congenial to an authoritarian Church and State which uses both physical and spiritual weapons to enforce obedience.  This meant these passages had to be interpreted in a less logical way.  Augustine, for instance, thought that the second "all" (but not the first) suggested all classes and nations rather than all individuals.  But why?  Not because it is the most logical reading, but because he (and others who came after) believed that the rest of Scripture taught that some people would be condemned to eternal torment.

Where in Scripture is this taught?  Talbott addresses three passages commonly referred to by his opponents - the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats (Matthew 25:31-46), the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) and 2 Thessalonians 1:9, "they will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord".

In relation to the two parables he points our first of all that they are parables, not literal predictions of future events.  Parables are typically designed to dramatise (often through the use of hyperbole) a central point.  The point of these two parables is similar.  The Sheep and the Goats teaches that we should see Jesus in the most humble and needy of those around us, and hence treat them with compassion.  The Rich Man and Lazarus teaches that those of us who have plenty should share our wealth with those who have nothing.  The purpose of the dramatic rewards and punishments is to reinforce this message, rather than to outline the future of a proportion of humanity.

His second point is that none of these three references talk about punishment that goes on forever.  The Rich Man and Lazarus simply refers to a present situation: "between us and you a great chasm has been fixed".  There is no indication that this chasm can't be bridged in the future - for instance, through the death of Christ.

The other two passages are more problematic - 2 Thessalonians refers to "everlasting destruction" while The Sheep and the Goats refers to "eternal fire".  Talbott's argument is that the Greek word aionios, translated "eternal" or "everlasting", does not mean something that goes on forever.  It means primarily something that comes from and belongs to God.  Hence the prevailing English translation of 2 Thessalonians 1:9 is misleading - it would be more accurate to render it as referring to the "destruction (or punishment) that comes from God".  For Talbott (and he says for Paul) such punishment is redemptive, a destruction of what is evil in us so that we can present ourselves before God with a cleansed conscience.

There are many more passages Talbott could have referred to but these are enough to illustrate his point.  Once you accept the clear universal intent of passages such as Romans 5, it is them possible - and in fact preferable - to understand passages such as 2 Thessalonians 1 and the condemnation scenes in Jesus' parables as consistent with this intent.

The second part of the book deals with a number of issues of religious philosophy.  The first is the nature of God and particularly the idea that "God is love", as articulated by John.  What part does love play in God's character?  Augustinian theologians often portray God as having a number of attributes - love, mercy, wrath, justice and so on.  God's love requires him to have compassion on us, but his justice requires that our sin be punished.

Within this framework it is easy to slip into a picture of God at war with himself and of the Trinity as divided - the Father expressing justice while the Son expresses love.  Talbott is aware that this is a caricature but this hasn't stopped it finding its way into popular piety, as shown in some of our more gruesome worship music.  Talbott suggests it makes much more sense to see God's nature as simple and undivided - God's love, mercy and justice are expressions of the one character - his love is just, his justice is loving.  Once we understand this it takes us away from a view of justice as retributive, towards a view of restorative justice guided by love.

This leads directly into what Talbott refers to as the "Augustinian paradox".  The paradox is this -  those who God elects will be admitted to God's presence to enjoy eternal bliss, while those he rejects will be consigned to eternal torment.  However, we are not isolated individuals and our happiness depends on the happiness and wellbeing of others.  If I am in heaven but my mother, wife or child is in eternal torment, heaven will not be heaven for me.  I will be tormented every day by the thought of their suffering.

If, as we are generally taught, we will be perfected in heaven and cleansed of our sin and selfishness, our torment will be all the greater as we think of those who suffer, even if they are strangers to us.  To avoid inflicting this suffering on us God will either have to hide it from us (perhaps also blotting out our memories of those loved ones - in effect, a kind of spiritual lobotomy) or teach us to enjoy it.  Neither option is consistent with the character of God.  Heaven can only truly be heaven if we are all there together.

These considerations apply more to a Augustinian view, but Talbott also deals with the question of free will which is central to Arminian theology.  For Augustinians God consigns some people to hell.  For Arminians some people consign themselves to hell by refusing God's mercy and God does not force them - as CS Lewis says, "the doors of hell are locked from the inside".  Is this position logically tenable?

The key question here is: Can God save everyone, even the most reluctant and determined, without violating human free will?  Talbott accepts that a certain level of alienation from God may be essential for us to become truly human - to grow up, as it were, as independent thinking beings made in God's image.  However, is it essential that such alienation always be possible?

Interestingly Lewis himself talks about his own conversion in terms of compulsion - of coming to the point, with great reluctance, where he felt he had no other choice.  Is this not possible with everyone?  In a cosmos where God is ever-present and the veils are removed, why would anyone deny God?  Even those who are reluctant or firmly rebellious, brought face to face with God and perhaps, in the extremities, sent into the "outer darkness", would eventually acknowledge God as all in all without any violation of their free will, even if there is an element of pressure and a stripping away of alternatives as happened for Lewis.

Now, as you know I'm a Universalist and I find Talbott's arguments helpful and convincing, as you'd expect.  He is clear-headed and thorough in making his case, and he has honed his arguments carefully over multiple controversies.  I doubt he will convince either confirmed Calvinists or confirmed Arminians but he has ensured that the debate can continue and given comfort to Universalists who frequently find themselves isolated within their churches.

However, it occurred to me that he hasn't solved his own problem.  He started his journey into Universalism as a result of the problem of suffering, but Universalism doesn't solve this.  Certainly it eases it a little in psychological terms with the promise of its eventual end, something neither Calvinism nor Arminianism can claim.  Yet in the meantime we still suffer.  I suspect the problem is insoluble, but I would love Talbott to explain how he has solved it....

Friday, 21 August 2015

Rumours of Glory

If you read this blog from time to time you'll know that I'm a big fan of Bruce Cockburn.  So you won't be surprised to hear that I was very excited about the publication of his memoir, Rumours of Glory,  which hit the shelves in late 2014.

I first heard Cockburn in the early 1980s and his music was a revelation to me.  He was the first singer I heard (and still one of a select few) who combined an overt Christian faith with a deep commitment to justice and an immersion in political and social issues.  He is a big name in his native Canada - winner of multiple Juno awards (the equivalent to our ARIAs) and inductee to the Canadian Music Hall of Fame.  Elsewhere he has a fairly low profile and a small but devoted following - especially from people like me.

I read Rumours of Glory over the Easter holiday as we travelled around western Victoria and New South Wales.  Among other things, it inspired me to fill some gaps in my collection of Cockburn CDS and I bought myself three - High Winds, White Sky,  In the Falling Dark and Nothing But a Burning Light.  I'll let them help me tell the story.

Bruce Cockburn was born in Ottowa in May 1945, while his father was on military duty in Germany.  His childhood was spent in Ottowa, a standard middle-class suburban family life with his father supporting the family with his job as a radiologist while his mum stayed at home and looked after the kids.  He was a quiet and artsy teenager with a healthy disrespect for the strictures of school curriculum which meant he failed subjects in which he was disinterested.  By the time he finished school he was already an accomplished musician and budding composer but his refusal to take maths seriously disqualified him from most universities.

Wanting to please his parents and at least attempt a university education and he enrolled in the Berklee College of Music in Boston, USA to study jazz composition.  He lasted 18 months before realising that actually he wanted to play music, not study it.  He is self-effacing about what he got out of the experience, claiming that he struggled with the discipline of the repetitive practice of jazz scales and the intricacies of the music.  However, the evidence of even his first recorded music suggests that the discipline, even if only partly absorbed, placed him far ahead of most of his contemporaries in musical skill and sophistication.

Be that as it may, he returned to Ottowa at the end of 1965 and began playing and singing in rock bands, firstly in Ottowa and later in Toronto.  None of them became famous although one of them did get to open a show for The Jimi Hendrix Experience.  Cockburn played guitar, sang and wrote songs.  As time passed he realised that the songs of his he liked best sounded better when he played and sang them on his own and so in 1969 he gave up on the bands and launched a solo career.  The rest, as they say, is history.

High Winds, White Sky is the second album of Cockburn's solo career, released in 1971.  In many ways it's not a bad album.  The songs are engaging, his guitar playing is already a cut above his folkie contemporaries, he sings well, he seems to have mastered a number of styles.  However, while all the bits are in place the package doesn't quite hang together.  He has not yet found his voice, in a number of different ways.

For starters his voice is literally different to what it was to become.  He has a natural baritone but in 1971 he was still yielding to fashion and singing in a higher register like everyone else.  As well as this, he has drawn on a number of musical genres - the renaissance-tinged folk music of the likes of Pentangle, the jazz of his Berklee days, the finger-style blues of players like Mississippi John Hurt.  These genres jostle for space, sitting side by side but not really communicating.  He seems unsure of himself and this leads him to do some odd things, like playing "mouth trumpet" on 'Happy Good Morning Blues'.  The bonus tracks even include an attempt at a comic song, 'Elephant Blues', recorded live in 1970.

Cockburn was also yet to find his voice spiritually.  Certainly he was already carving his own path.  His songs are steeped in the mystery and beauty of nature and the brevity of life.  He refused, or perhaps just failed, to play the commercial music game, like by disappearing for long wilderness holidays after an album release instead of touring relentlessly to promote it.  This gave him a kind of cachet as Canadian music's resident mystic.  He was also already married to Kitty and their wedding at St George's Anglican Church in Ottowa was a deeply spiritual experience.

At that moment, when I held Kitty's hand to place her ring, I became aware of a presence standing there with us - invisible to the eye but as solid and obvious as any of the people in the room.  I felt bathed in the figure's energy.  I shivered and said to myself, "Well, I don't know who or what this is, but we're in a Christian church, so it's got to be Jesus".

While Christianity was part of the mix and Cockburn was starting to appreciate a side of the faith he had not experienced in his family's 1950s duty visits to church, he was still uncommitted, still exploring different spiritual pathways.  The album is clearly spiritual but it's unfocused, if anything a kind of nature mysticism best heard on 'Let Us Go Laughing'.

My canoe lies on the water
Evening holds the bones of day
The sun like gold dust slips away
One by one antique stars
Herald the arrival of
Their pale protectress moon

Ragged branches vibrate
Strummed by winds from o'er the hill
Singing tales of ancient days
Far and silent lightning
Stirs the cauldron of the sky
I turn my bow towards the shore

As we grow out of stones
On and on and on
So we'll all go to bones
On and on for many a year

But let us go laughing
Let us go
On and on and on
On and on for many a year

A lot happened between 1971 and 1976, when Cockburn released In the Falling Dark. For a start, he increasingly allowed himself to sing in his natural voice, a warm baritone with a definite Canadian inflection.  This means that all his albums from the mid-1970s onwards are recognisable as soon as he opens his mouth.

The same goes for his music.  It moved from being a slightly awkward pastiche of styles to his own fusion of them, a jazz-influenced version of folk rock with complex finger-style guitar parts.

Spiritually, he also progressed from sampling a smorgasbord of spiritual ideas to a more definite identification as a Christian.  His conversion was born out of personal pain as tensions in his and Kitty's marriage mounted.

I wanted a healthy relationship with Kitty.  It wasn't long before I was begging on my knees, consciously asking Jesus to help me, to fortify my mind and salve my soul, to make me the person he wanted me to be.  I prayed like a child, without reserve.  Suddenly it was there, the same presence I had felt during our wedding ceremony, in the room with me, its energy filling the air.  I felt my heart forced open.  He was there!  And it was definitely he.  A male entity, more fraternal than paternal, radiant with calm power, a saviour showing up to save me because I'd asked.  I made a commitment to Jesus.  From that moment I saw myself as a follower of Christ.

It is important not to misunderstand this conversion.  Cockburn was never an Evangelical.  He never saw Christianity as the only truth, never set out to covert other people to it.  St George's, where he and Kitty were married and continued to attend through the 1970s, was a progressive Anglican church and he learned a form of faith that was humble and open to other traditions.  His view of such things is beautifully illustrated by his tale of a visit to Nepal in the late 1980s.  Prayer flags on every house, little shrines dotted all over the place, one of the most religious countries on earth.  There he chanced to meet an elderly Christian missionary.

The old man told me he had left his teaching job in the Midwest to come to Nepal twenty-five years earlier and bring the gospel to its people....  He proudly told me that he had taught Robert Schuller, of Crystal Cathedral fame, but he was bitter and seemed diminished.  In twenty-five years, he said, he had not made a single convert.  His words were "These people don't want to know God".  

I felt sad for him, as he appeared so oblivious to the spirituality built into the surroundings.  He had spent a quarter of a century wearing cultural blinkers, not seeing, not learning what he might have about the Divine.  If it's true that the attribute of God that is supposed to have the greatest effect on us is love, how can it flower in a soil of censure, tribalism, false pride...fear of the other?  But for Big Circumstance, that could have been me.

This means he did not abandon the lessons he had already learned prior to his commitment.  He continued to see God in nature, to appreciate various traditions, to see himself as a seeker rather than someone who had arrived.  He was quite open to the notion that the Divine who appeared to him as Jesus could appear to others in a different form.

Nonetheless, the songs on In the Falling Dark are clearly Christian.  The title track concludes, "Don't you know that from the first to the last we're all one in the gift of grace?".  In place of generic nature mysticism we have 'Lord of the Starfields', a hymn of praise to the Creator.

Oh Love that fires the sun
Keep me burning.

Perhaps clearest of all is one of the album outtakes, 'Dweller by a Dark Stream', written and recorded at the time but not released until much later.  Set to a simple country-style tune it sets out the idea of salvation in terms any evangelical would be happy with.  Nonetheless, if you listen closely you will see that even here there is a more progressive take on the story, like when he says Jesus "wanted us like you, as choosers not clones", and when, walking through the world, he longs for "a glimpse of your new life unfurled" like a shiny winged insect breaking out of its chrysalis.

It could have been me put the thorns in your crown
Rooted as I am in a violent ground
How many times have I turned your promise down?
Still you pour out your love
Pour out your love

I was a dweller by a dark stream
A crying heart hooked on a dark dream
In my convict soul I saw your love gleam
And you showed me what you've done
Jesus, thank-you joyous Son

You entered a life like ours to give us back our own
You wanted us like you, as choosers not clones
You offered up your flesh and death was overthrown
Now salvation is ours,
Salvation is ours

So when I'm walking this prison camp world
I long for a glimpse of the new life unfurled
The chrysalis cracking and moistened wings uncurl
Like in the vision John saw
The vision John saw

Another thing that is starting to happen on In the Falling Dark, although only in embryonic form, is the growth of Cockburn's social consciousness.  Even as his faith became more focused, he began to see more clearly the things in this world that seemed to pull against this "glimpse of the new life unfurled".  You see it most clearly on 'Gavin's Woodpile',  A series of meditations drawn from his time chopping wood for his brother's fire include, among pieces of nature mysticism from an earlier time, two very concrete images - one of a prisoner doing time, and the other of the catastrophic pollution of the English River in northern Ontario where contamination from a local paper mill poisoned the fish and the local indigenous people who ate them.

...Like the coloured slicks on the English River
Death in the marrow and death in the liver
And some government gambler with his mouth full of steak
Saying, "If you can't eat the fish, fish in some other lake.
To watch a people die - it is no new thing."

And the stack of wood grows higher and higher
And a helpless rage seems to set my brain on fire.

Cockburn didn't attend church regularly after the late 1970s.  He gives a few reasons.  One is that he moved from Ottowa to Toronto and never managed to find a church where he felt at home as he had at St George's.  It's not easy for someone who is both an introvert and a celebrity to just walk into a church, and it's hard for a musician who spends half his life on the road to become part of any stationary community.

However, I suspect that more telling is the fact that he moved to Toronto on his own.  His marriage to Kitty, troubled from the beginning, had ended.  He blames no-one for this but himself, acknowledging that he finds intimacy difficult.  This problem recurred throughout his life and he has had a number of relationships since which have gone the same way despite his best intentions.

He struggled to accept the idea that the vows he and Kitty had made in what he had experienced as the real, tangible presence of Christ could be annulled. His agony is written all over Humans, the album of songs he wrote during this time.  He was dealing, as we all have to eventually, with the problem of suffering.

Then there is the problem that from then on his love life didn't follow conventional Christian lines.  He recounts four other committed relationships as well as one steamy extra-marital affair.  This made for an uneasy relationship with the church.

In the early 1980s he got involved with a group called Jesus People USA, a hip and "alternative" but theologically conservative group based in Chicago.  He visited their church and got to know some of them, and their members attended his concerts and bought his albums.  However, when they eventually twigged that he was not only divorced but "living in sin" they dropped him like a hot potato, stopping their attendance at his concerts and advising members to get rid of his albums as if his marital status changed everything.  Naturally he was not keen to repeat the experience, and his knowledge that some of the people who follow the God of Love can be very unloving pushed him further in the direction of a tolerant, open spirituality.

Other things changed, too.  For one, he became more politically and socially active.  From the early 1980s onwards he started doing documentary projects and awareness raising for organisations like Oxfam.  This included visiting a number of global trouble-spots and observing first hand the plight of refugees, ethnic minorities and other victims of persecution.  He's been doing it ever since, starting with Guatemala in the early 80s and including  Nicaragua, Haiti, Nepal, Afghanistan and Iraq among other places, as well as ongoing support for the aspirations of Canada's first peoples.  All these experiences found their way into his songs by means of what he calls "reportage" - lyrics built from real, concrete scenes, events and images.  The book includes a number of diary extracts which later appear almost word for word as songs.  His songwriting began to take on a new life and vividness as he moved beyond nature mysticism to address suffering, resilience and hope not as theoretical constructs but as things affecting real people in real places.

Musically all this resulted in his moving away from acoustic music in the 1980s towards a more band-oriented electric sound.  He had never really been a folk musician but now not even the marketing department could call him one.  He picked up his electric guitar for the first time in a decade and his songs became louder, more jagged, more challenging.

You can hear some of this on Nothing But a Burning Light,  released in 1991.  In some ways the sound here is a little different from the albums before and after, courtesy of his brief working relationship with producer T-Bone Burnett.  It is more mellow, there is a rich warm keyboard sound prominent in the mix and a group of players a little more soulful than Cockburn's more usual collaborators.  Still it includes the elements - his distinctive vocals, the tight driving rhythm, the intricate and occasionally flashy guitar parts, the space for his collaborators to do their thing.

There is still Christianity here.  'Cry of a Tiny Babe' is a retelling of the Christmas story with a lovely chorus.

Like a stone on the surface of a still river
Driving the ripples on forever
Redemption rips through the surface of time
In the cry of a tiny babe

Other songs reflect this faith and hope, like the opening number, 'A Dream Like Mine'.

Today I dream of how it used to be
Things were different before
The picture shifts to how it's going to be
Balance restored
When you know even for a moment that it's your time
Then you can walk with the power of a thousand generations

The album also includes a rare cover, Blind Willie Johnson's 'Soul of Man', which also supplies the album's title in answer to the question "what is the soul of a man?".

Alongside this is a mix of more earthy stuff.  Tender love songs like 'One of the Best Ones' sit beside two acerbic songs about the uncomfortable history of the treatment of North America's first peoples.  'Kit Carson' deconstructs the legacy of this supposed hero of the Wild West, while 'Indian Wars' highlights how the war Carson fought is still going on today.

It's not breech-loading rifles and wholesale slaughter
It's kickbacks and thugs and diverted water
Treaties get signed and the papers change hands
But they might as well draft these agreements in sand.

You thought it was over but it's just like before.
Will there never be an end to the Indian War?

My favourite, though, is 'Mighty Trucks of Midnight'.

Used to have a town but the factory moved away
Down to Mexico where they work for hardly any pay
Used to have a country but they sold it down the river
Like a repossessed farm auctioned off to the highest bidder

Mighty trucks of midnight moving on
Moving on

Wave a flag, wave the bible, wave your sex or your business degree
Whatever you want - but don't wave that thing at me
The tide of love can leave your prizes scattered
But when you get to the bottom it's the only thing that matters

I believe it's a sin to try and make things last forever
Everything that exists in time runs out of time some day
Got to let go of the things that keep you tethered
Take your place with grace and then be on your way

Mighty trucks of midnight moving on
Moving on

It starts out a bit like a Bruce Springsteen song about America's post-industrial landscape as all the jobs are shifted south across the border, symbolised by the trucks rolling through the night importing cheap manufactures.  However, Cockburn's spirituality allows him to see further and deeper, to question the motives and to point the question back at the protagonists.

Religion, as he suggests, can be one one of many things used to oppress and rob, just as much as nationalism, sex or education.  However, those who are at the top of the heap can find their prizes scattered just as much as those at the bottom.  By the end of the song, the trucks have become a metaphor for a completely different kind of movement, an understanding of the brevity of life which makes our striving for wealth and our fetishisation of the economy seem not just criminal and exploitative but absurd and pointless.  In the end, love is what counts - not the soppy romantic love of the Beatles or their ilk but a costly love that has to be earned and learned.  You have to give up other things to have it.  You have to love actual people, not rob them.

The story continues. Cockburn takes it up to about 2008, but he is still alive and continues to make music.  If you want to know more read the book.  You could even do Bruce a favour and buy it.  Meanwhile, in the spirit of reflecting on a life well lived let me leave you with what is possibly my favourite Cockburn song, 'Strange Waters', from 1996's The Charity of Night.

I've seen a high cairn kissed by holy wind
Seen a mirror pool cut by golden fins
Seen alleys where they hide the truth of cities
The mad whose blessing you must accept without pity

I've stood in airports guarded glass and chrome
Walked rifled roads and landmined loam
Seen a forest in flames right down to the road
Burned in love till I've seen my heart explode

You've been leading me
Beside strange waters

Across the concrete fields of man
Sun ray like a camera pans
Some will run and some will stand
Everything is bullshit but the open hand

You've been leading me
Beside strange waters
Streams of beautiful lights in the night
But where is my pastureland in these dark valleys?
If I loose my grip, will I take flight?

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Farewell Michael Clarke

So, Michael Clarke has announced his retirement from international cricket, to take place at the end of the Ashes series.

It's kind of surprising and not surprising.  Surprising because he's only 34, still young for a cricketer, and because he had been so adamant that he was not retiring.  Not surprising, because his degenerative back condition always meant he would retire younger than most, and because over the past few months he has looked like his heart's not in it.

No-one in elite sport is universally loved even among among their team-mates, especially not while they're playing.  Elite sportspeople are driven and competitive and this often makes them abrasive and inconsiderate.  Still, Clarke seems to have copped more criticism than most considering his achievements.  So, in the interests of fairness, here's six things to remember him by.

1. 2012
In the 2012 calendar year, the year after he took over as captain, he scored 2,400 test runs including three double centuries and a triple.  He was like the energiser bunny, super fit, with supreme concentration, unthreatened by pace or spin, able to run up the steps to the dressing room after two days at the crease.  He was Bradman reincarnated.  Ricky Ponting experienced a late career renaissance just by following in his wake.  The deeds of the greats of the past - Chappell, Border, Waugh - all paled beside him.

Before and after he was not quite so great.  With one test to go in his career he has a touch over 8,000 runs at an average of just under 50, which is good but not as good as many other present-day masters.  But it's none too shabby either and he can retire feeling pretty pleased with himself.

2. The Golden Generation
Clarke started his career as the youngest member of a great team.  His team-mates in the early years included Hayden, Langer, Ponting, Gilchrist, Warne and McGrath.  They swept all before them.

This generation of players was so dominant that the Australian selectors have been reluctant to let them go, even though in the last few years all that has been left are the understudies.  Ever since Adam Gilchrist retired they have been loyal to Brad Haddin, notwithstanding a short preference for Matthew Wade and despite Haddin's up-and-down form with both bat and gloves.  They have shown even less explicable loyalty to Shane Watson, the promising allrounder who is still promising at 34 without ever having quite delivered.  They built their bowling attack around two veterans, Mitchell Johnson and Ryan Harris.

When they were worried about the batting for the 2013 Ashes tour they called in long-time opening batting bridesmaid Chris Rogers.  The gamble was so successful they rolled the dice again in 2015 with Adam Voges, proving that if you have a big win at gambling the law of averages indicates you should go home right away.

Clarke, the only one of this number who was not an understudy, was the only realistic choice to lead them.  It's not surprising that even his own superlative batting and tactical nous were not enough for this ageing B Team to match the feats of their predecessors.  Still, Clarke can be glad he was not Brian Lara, the last scion of the West Indies great generation forced to play alongside bumbling mediocrities as West Indian Cricket crumbled.  Clarke got to lead a decent team and they got some decent results.  Steven Smith will have a much sterner challenge, with all but Johnson set to exit stage left after this series as rebuilding gets serious.

3. Tactics
One of the reasons Clarke had reasonable success with a relatively modest team is that he is an astute tactician.  Under his predecessor Ricky Ponting, fans and critics got used to scratching their heads as he made odd, paradoxical and sometimes downright stupid tactical decisions.  His teams mostly won despite that because the players were so good.

With Clarke there were no tactical brain snaps.  He set clever, well thought out fields, he made canny bowling changes, he declared at the right time, his choices at the toss were carefully considered.  If his team lost, it was because the players failed to perform, not because the captain was a dill.

4. Lara and Kyly
Clarke was much maligned for his relationship with Lara Bingle, yet it is hard to see what he did wrong.  He fell in love with a beautiful and vivacious woman.  He missed cricket to support her when her father died, as any man should.  When it became clear the relationship couldn't last he ended it privately, face to face, missing more cricket to do so.  If she is a flighty drama queen that is hardly his fault.

You might have thought that his marriage to former schoolmate Kyly Boldy would settle all that down, but she is hardly less glamorous than Lara, although apparently much more grounded.  The marriage has served to cement Clarke's reputation as a playboy with an eye for beautiful girls.  Personally I think his detractors are just jealous that in his lifetime he could win the love of two such gorgeous women.

Still we all age.  Clarke has shown he has a strong sense of family and of personal responsibility.   I would be willing to bet that he will still be treating his wife with respect and dignity long after the bloom of their youth has faded.  I don't reckon it's an accident that his retirement coincides with the impending birth of their first child.  Who would want to travel the world hitting a leather and cork sphere with a lump of wood when the light of your life is growing up at home and you're missing all the best moments?

5. Team-mates
The one criticism of Clarke that does seem fair is that he has a very prickly relationship with his team-mates.  This problem first hit the headlines when he had a fistfight with Simon Katich in the dressing room. I'm firmly with Clarke on this one.  Katich was the designated singer of the team song, to be sung after each Test victory.  No-one could leave the dressing room until it was sung, and it could not be sung until the designated leader said it was time.  Apart from being a pretty dumb custom (and a stupid song to boot) in Katich's hands the dressing room celebrations got longer and longer.  Clarke wanted to go home.  Mentioning it politely didn't work.  He got cross.  Katich grabbed him by the throat.  Clarke just wanted to have a life.  Simon Katich needed to learn about work/life balance.

On the other hand, some of his conflicts show a level of inflexibility and even harshness which seems out of place in a leader.  He was the main instigator of the final banning of Andrew Symonds, effectively ending his career.  Certainly Symonds had disciplinary form but the final cause was his missing a team meeting during a rather pointless Top End series against a mediocre opponent.  Not only that, but Symonds had a good explanation - he didn't know the meeting was on.  It was supposed to be a free morning, so he got up early to catch the tide and was out on the water with his fishing rod when the meeting was called at short notice.  He got disciplined for wanting to have a life.  What's good for the goose...

Team meetings were once again at the root of the Homeworkgate saga in which Clarke also played a central role.  Team members were supposed to submit some written tasks prior to a team meeting during an Indian tour.  Some of them didn't, including then vice-captain Shane Watson and Mitchell Johnson, and all were suspended.  It was hard to know whether to laugh or cry.  That's not the way to build team spirit and get everyone working together.

6. Phillip Hughes
If we can be critical of some of Clarke's relations with team-mates, it's impossible to be critical of his response to Phillip Hughes' death.  He was clearly shattered.  He rushed to be at Hughes' bedside as he lay dying, visited his family at home and gave a moving, tearful eulogy at the funeral.  As with the passing of Lara Bingle's father, he showed that he is a man his friends can rely on in a crisis.  He may get the little things wrong, but when something big comes along he knows what to do.

For most of us, Hughes' death is in the past.  It was sad but after all he was just someone we watched on TV.  Not so for Clarke, who played with him at State and National level.  Imagine that a long-standing workmate is killed in a workplace accident.  From then on, every time you go to work you think of him.  Every time you do the task which resulted in his death your hands shake.  This is precisely what Hughes' death is for Clarke.

Initially, he was determined to soldier on.  Despite his own back troubles he turned out against India the following week and scrapped his way to a century before snapping his hamstring.  The determination kept him going through a difficult rehab and into the victorious World Cup campaign.

There is only so long you can grit your teeth and fight on.  Eventually the sadness will gain the upper hand and the tears will flow.  You come to understand that death is irreversible and that you can no longer see things the same way.  Clarke still wears his black armband.  I would be willing to bet that this grief is a much bigger factor in his recent poor form, and in his retirement, than he will ever admit.

I know cricket is not that important.  People are starving , millions are threatened by war, we are stuffing up the planet.  What is a bunch of men hitting a ball beside all that?  Yet what is life without art?  What is it without play, without fun, without learning a skill for the pure enjoyment of the challenge?  Michael Clarke has taken us out of ourselves as he performed his art on the world stage for more than a decade.  He has given us a chance to admire his dancing feet, his deft timing, his sheer concentration and determination.  He has made the near-impossible look easy.

Now it's time for him to move onto other things.  May he go well.

Saturday, 8 August 2015

Redemption Songs/Songs of Freedom

Over the last couple of years I've been listening attentively to all sorts of religious music in the process of rethinking my own practice.  There's been nothing systematic about it.  Often what I've been listening to is music I've known for a long time, but because I'm more focused on the question I'm listening with different ears.

How can we get past heavily theological, formulaic music and find something that creates a genuine emotional connection?  How can we get out of the atonement bubble and sing about everything that matters in our lives?  Are we prepared to weep and get angry as well as celebrate and praise?

I've expressed my frustration at the music currently promoted in my church and others like it.  I've contrasted this with the ancient Israelite practice shown in the Book of Psalms, and with some other Christian practices that are often unfairly derided.  But I've also found a lot of what I'm looking for in songwriters from other traditions, including Richard Thompson's Sufi songs and George Harrison's Hindu spiritual awakening.

Last Sunday I found myself playing music for evening church with the theme of redemption and a set of bleeding Jesus songs.  I even swallowed my pride and played 'The Mystery of the Cross', but only because I wasn't consulted before the songs were chosen!  Yet as I drove home I found myself singing this little gem from Bob Marley instead.

Old pirates, yes, they rob I, 
Sold I to the merchant ships, 
Minutes after they took I
From the bottomless pit.
But my head was made strong
By the hand of the Almighty.
We forward in this generation

Won't you help to sing
These songs of freedom?
'Cause all I ever have, 
Redemption songs, 
Redemption songs.

Emancipate yourself from mental slavery, 
None but ourselves can free our minds.
Have no fear for atomic energy, 
'Cause none of them can stop the time.
How long shall they kill our prophets, 
While we stand aside and look?
Some say it's just a part of it, 
We've got to fulfill the book.

Won't you help to sing
These songs of freedom? 
'Cause all I ever have, 
Redemption songs, 
Redemption songs, 
Redemption songs.

I'm sure most of my readers will know that Marley was a Rastafarian, a deeply spiritual man like Thompson or Harrison as well as an iconic musician and songwriter.  But how much do you know about the Rastafari?

The Rastafarian faith was born in Jamaica in the 1930s.  It takes its name from the Emperor Haile Selassie 1 of Ethiopia (who reigned from 1930 to 1974), who before his coronation went by the name Ras Tafari.  Ras is a title, roughly equivalent to "Duke", and Tafari was his given name, meaning "one who is respected or feared".  His dynasty traced its ancestry to King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba and saw themselves as the direct heirs to Solomon's throne.  The Rastafarians hold that the Emperor is the Messiah and Son of God, the second advent of Jesus.

This means the language and stories of the Bible are re-purposed as a tale and promise of liberation for exiled Africans everywhere.  The coming of the Emperor/Messiah is a sign to strive for freedom and work towards their return to "Zion" (understood as Ethiopia or more broadly as Africa) from their captivity in "Babylon" which is interpreted as the corrupt and oppressive regimes of Europe and America.  This journey can be understood literally as a physical return home, or spiritually as a personal and social transformation wherever they are.

The faith is highly eclectic, drawing on Christianity and on writers of African consciousness such as Marcus Garvey and the "Holy Piby", an alternative Bible written by Robert Athyl Roberts in the 1920s as the basis for an Afro-centric religion.  It started to take its current form with Haile Selassie's coronation in 1930, when a number of Jamaican preachers started teaching that he was the returned Messiah.

Haile Selassie himself was an Ethiopian Orthodox Christian and made no claims to divinity.  On the other hand he didn't go to any great lengths to discourage the movement which revered him.  When he visited Jamaica in 1966 he was greeted by over 100,000 devoted followers.  He granted audience to their leaders, to whom he gave gold medals, and ensured that senior Rastafari were part of any official party that greeted him as he toured the country.  A master of diplomacy, he didn't outright refuse to entertain their mass emigration to Ethiopia, but gently suggested that they should first devote themselves to the task of liberating Jamaica.

His death in 1975 following his deposition in a military coup did present a serious problem to the Rastafari.  Some still maintain that he didn't die, and that he is in hiding in a monastery from where he will return to reclaim his throne.  Others suggest that there is a further advent still to come.

Described in this way it sounds odd to Westerners like myself, but I suspect that this is because we are not descendants of African slaves. Rasta provides a spiritual basis for a form of African consciousness, a source of pride in their culture and identity, a framework within which to understand their current poverty and oppression, and a hope and goal for liberation and equality.  Its power is shown in the fact that it has as many as a million followers worldwide, not as a result of highly organised and well funded proselytisation but through grass-roots activism via a highly non-hierarchical and unstructured "church".

Rita Marley was among the 100,000 who greeted the Emperor in 1966 and her faith was confirmed by seeing stigmata on his hands.  She introduced her musician husband Bob to the faith and he became one of its most prominent activists and spokespeople. spreading the word through his infectious and joyful music and his social and political activism.

'Redemption Song' was written sometime in 1979 and recorded on Bob Marley and the Wailers' 1980 album Uprising.  It has become a much-covered standard for musicians of African descent and it provides an eloquent testimony to the power of Rasta and the poverty of the Christianity experienced by Marley and his contemporaries.

Rastafari are in the habit of saying "I and I" in place of "you and I", emphasising the unity of all people and the idea that if you suffer, I suffer, if you rejoice I rejoice with you.  Hence, at the beginning of the first verse he is identifying himself with his ancestors who were stolen from their homelands, sold to slave traders and brought to Jamaica to work the plantations of wealthy Europeans.  Despite this, God is still with him/them, making them strong and enabling them to survive.

The beginning of the second verse is drawn from a speech by Marcus Garvey.  Its import is that while their bodies had been freed from slavery, Jamaicans still needed to free their minds from the ways of thinking inculcated by their masters.  Only then would they be truly free to chart their own course.  Marley clearly believes that the time for this liberation has come and nothing can stop it, not even nuclear warfare or the slaughter of prophets.  The entire body of Marley's work is a joyous testament to this liberation and this hope.

The sting for practitioners of Christian music, and for Christians generally, is in the chorus.

Won't you help to sing
These songs of freedom? 
'Cause all I ever have, 
Redemption songs.

Because when "I" was being enslaved and oppressed, where were the Christians?  They were not singing songs of freedom, they were singing redemption songs, encouraging the oppressed to accept their oppression now and hope for freedom in the next life.  In the process they were providing comfort to the oppressors of Babylon, either actively supporting them or looking away while they abused "I".

No wonder they had to re-purpose and re-create the faith to find what they needed.  None but ourselves can free our minds, and Christianity was keeping "us" in chains.  It's sad because I'm convinced Jesus did not mean it to be that way.  This is what he did in his first public sermon in his home town of Nazareth.

He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” 

Will we dare to sing this?  It is much safer to stay in our atonement bubble, where no-one's cage will be rattled and we can dream of a happy afterlife without having to care about those who suffer here and now, or challenge their oppressors.  But if we fail them, those who suffer will just have to look elsewhere, to our eternal shame.  "Whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me".

Or as Bob put it so much more simply, "Set the captives free!".

Friday, 31 July 2015

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

I'm late to the party as usual but I've just finished reading Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, originally published in 2005, thanks to a tip-off from my clever niece Alisha.

The bombing of the World Trade Centre is becoming old news, but its effects are still with us and even more so still with our Islamic communities.  Last night I went to the launch of my friend Dave Andrews' book The Jihad of Jesus which deals with dialogue and common ground between Christianity and Islam.  That's a whole other subject, but  Dave's friend and local Islamic community leader Nora Amath shared her own story of how, in the wake of that event, she and her friends and family in Australia experienced increasing suspicion and aggression as they went about their daily lives.  They had nothing to do with it and were as horrified as everyone else, but were still blamed and vilified - and continue to be to this day.

How can we see this event in perspective?  Foer's lovely book gives us some important clues.  It is set in 2003, two years after the World Trade Centre was destroyed, and narrated mostly by 9-year-old Oskar Schell whose father was killed in the attack, with occasional interpositions by his grandmother and grandfather.

I think it must be incredibly hard to write an adult book from a child's point of view but some great novels have resulted - To Kill a Mockingbird, for instance, or Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time.  The trick is that the child must only know and understand what a child of that age could, while revealing enough for the adult readers to understand what the narrator himself does not.

Since this is a mystery of sorts I won't tell you too much.  Suffice to say that Oskar is not dealing well with his grief, and his mother, grandmother and counsellor are worried about him.  His bafflement seems to be made worse by some odd traits which suggest he may be a little further than most along the ASD spectrum, although this is not explicitly mentioned.

Going through his father's cupboard one day, he finds a vase on the top shelf.  He accidentally breaks it and inside he finds a key in an envelope with the word "Black" written on the front.  The key doesn't open anything in his apartment, so he sets out on a secret quest to find out what is is for, and what this might reveal about his father.  To do this he resolves to visit everyone in New York with the surname "Black", going through the phonebook systematically from A to Z.

What's important to me here is what this quest, and some of the other events that surround it and in which it is embedded, suggest to us about how we might respond to the World Trade Centre bombing.

The first important point is that the story never mentions Islam.  Not once.  It does not discuss politics, international relations, the motives for the attack or the wars that resulted from it.  This is not because Oskar is incapable of understanding these - Oskar is an extremely intelligent child - but because he is completely absorbed in his own grief and pain.  His loss blots out everything else.

The second point is that this is not the only atrocity in world history.  Two others appear in the story.  The firebombing of Dresden in  February 1945, in which British and American bombers dropped thousands of incendiary devices and killed over 20,000 German civilians, plays a pivotal role in the story.  Once again there is no political commentary - the story is just there, part of Oskar's family history and indeed its present although he doesn't know it.  In a brief cameo we also hear of an even bigger atrocity, the bombing of Hiroshima, told once again through a shocking personal story of grief which Oskar plays to his classmates.   He expands on the story by describing how nearest to the explosion people were completely destroyed but their shadows remained.  There is also the merest hint, no more, of the Holocaust.

The third point is that alongside these stories of mass grief are set the ordinary griefs of life.  Many of the people Oskar visits - a random cross-section of the New York population who share nothing but a surname - are dealing with their own grief - the loss of a partner, a divorce or separation, the loss of a dream.  None of these griefs are connected to the World Trade Centre.  They happen to us all.  Grief, Foer shows us, is one of the human constants.

So how do we deal with grief?  If the question is "how do we solve grief", the answer is clearly that we can't.  Grief doesn't go away.  Instead we find ways to cope with it, to make it part of our lives without destroying ourselves.  For some this is impossible - like for Oskar's grandfather.  There is a real possibility that grief can damage us beyond repair along with those we love.  Oskar experiences this possibility himself as he says hurtful things to his mother, and as he tells lie after lie to protect the secrets associated with his own grief.

Yet their are other options.  Some people build shrines to those they have lost, like the young woman who has done picture after picture of the same man.  Others create illusions to allow themselves to pretend that perhaps the person they lost is still alive, like the woman who spends her life at the top of the Empire State Building from where she can imagine her husband still signalling from below.  We can use our grief as a spur to do things we always meant to do, like the man who spends the time between his terminal diagnosis and his death writing letters to every person he has ever known.

Then there is diversion, Oskar's own strategy.  Oskar is a walking, talking bundle of diversions.  He is constantly "inventing": coming up with weird and wonderful technological ideas, like the birdseed coat which would allow its wearer to jump from a burning building and be carried away by birds, or the system of pipes which would collect the tears of the people who cried themselves to sleep into a giant reservoir.  He writes a steady stream of letters to famous people offering to become their assistant or pupil.  He writes to a famous naturalist researching elephants' memory asking if he can become her assistant.  He sends Ringo Starr a set of bomb-proof drumsticks and asks for drumming lessons.  But more than anyone he sends letter after letter to Stephen Hawking, author of A Brief History of Time, receiving each time a form reply assuring him that Hawking reads all the letters he receives and keeps them in the hope that one day he will be able to reply personally.  Will it ever happen?

Of course the quest for the lock which fits the key is itself a huge diversion, one of which he is possibly not aware himself but which is obvious to the adult reader.  Of all the possible ways he could go about his quest, he chooses the one calculated to take the longest and produce the most uncertain results.  Yet for all its seeming aimlessness it also serves as a survival strategy, giving him a sense of purpose and engaging him in the lives of others.

Or there is the one we use so often, and are still using, but which never seems to occur to Oskar or to Foer.  We can convert our grief to anger, and since we have no access to the actual perpetrators we can take it out on people who share a similar religion, or wear the same kind of clothes.  It doesn't help, it doesn't make us feel any better.  We just keep getting angrier and angrier.

As Foer shows us (oh, so gently!), Dresden, Hiroshima and the Holocaust show that Islam and New York have no monopoly on atrocities.  Each is  collection of thousands of personal griefs, adding their tally to the reservoir of tears.  We all need to learn how to live with this grief without multiplying it endlessly.  Everything else is just diversion.

Sunday, 26 July 2015

Resurrection 2: Meaning

The important thing about Jesus' miracles is not their factuality but their meaning.  Jesus' miracles illustrate and reinforce his teaching about the Kingdom of God.  The same goes for the resurrection.  Having summarised what I think the resurrection stories are describing, I'd like to talk a little about how the apostles used the story and what they made of it.

Whole books have been written about this.  I'm just going to give you the highlights under three headings - vindication of Jesus' life and message, a new life for his followers here and now, and a future hope.

In Acts 2, Luke reports a sermon by Peter which centres on the following words.

“Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know— this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power."

Peter goes on to relate this to Psalm 16, attributed to David, in which the psalmist says

You do not give me up to Sheol (the grave)
Or let your faithful one see the pit.

Reading this psalm without Peter's interpretation you would simply understand it as a prayer for protection, but Peter uses the established Jewish principles of interpretation to uncover its "hidden" meaning as a prophecy of the Messiah's resurrection.

A number of the sermons reported in Acts follow this pattern.  In Acts 3 Peter tells a crowd, "you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead".  In Acts 5 he says, "The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree."  That pattern is later repeated in both Peter's and Paul's messages to a variety of audiences.

The point here is that the resurrection is God's verdict on the conflict between Jesus and the Jewish authorities, and by extension the Roman Empire.  This conflict is shown in the gospels in Jesus' various arguments with Pharisees and Sadducees, culminating in Jesus' cleansing of the temple and finally in his arrest and crucifixion.  While his death appeared to end the question in the expected way, with the powerful triumphing once again, the resurrection provides a surprise ending, a plot twist in which the underdog wins out after all.

The practical implication of this for the disciples, and for those who come after them, is that they should keep going.  This is the chief message that Jesus gives them in the various gospel accounts of his post-resurrection appearances.  In Matthew 28 he says, "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations."  In John 20 he gives a more comprehensive commission: "As the father has sent me, so I send you".  This is also the main burden of the dialogue with Peter in John 21.  In a scene many commentators link with Peter's threefold denial on the night of Jesus' arrest, he asks Peter three times, "do you love me", Peter affirms that he does, and Jesus tells him, "feed my sheep".  The last time, he also predicts Peter's own execution.

The resurrection, whatever the apostles meant by it, reinforced Jesus' message of the Kingdom and the things he had taught them during his time with them.  It gave them the strength to continue in the face of opposition, indeed in the face of a real threat of execution by a ruthless and corrupt government, to proclaim the Kingdom which Jesus proclaimed and to continue the work he had begun.

New Life Right Now
The second practical application of the idea of the resurrection, which we have through Paul's teaching in particular, is much more symbolic and metaphorical.  The resurrection should inspire us to become new people.  Paul puts this most clearly in Romans 6.  Baptism, he says, is a symbolic identification with Jesus' death and resurrection.

For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall surely be united with him in a resurrection like his.  We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved by sin....  So you must also consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. 

A little later, in chapter 7, he extends the analogy to a discussion about the law, which he sees as the means of revealing and heightening our sin without having the power to overcome it.

In the same way, my friends, you have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead in order that we may bear fruit for God.  While we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death.  But now we are discharged from the law, dead to that which held us captive, so that we are slaves not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit.

He puts it more poetically in Ephesians 2.

But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ - by grace you have been saved - and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.

The resurrection offers us a new hope and a new beginning.  We do not need to go on being trapped in our old patterns of behaviour, our old failures, our old legalisms, our fruitless attempts at mending our lives.  He offers us the chance to put our old selves to death and begin again, to die only to live again.  This new life is freedom from the dead hand of law, freedom from our destructive ways, and freedom instead to be like Christ, in fact to become him or to become part of him in our new lives.

Future Hope
The final point is seen most clearly in 1 Corinthians 15, which I alluded to in the previous post.  The resurrection gives us hope for a future which will be better than the present, for a final escape from death and suffering.  After presenting the apostolic tradition about the resurrection he gets to the point.

Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead?

And later he goes on.

But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died.  For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.

We all have to face our own death, and the deaths of those close to us, We face the ending of things we hoped would go on forever.  We face the ending of our culture, the realisation that we won't achieve all our dreams, and the pain of a thousand griefs leading up to our final end.

The resurrection represents a promise to us that this is not all there is, that God holds out new life to us.  It reminds us not to eternalise things that are temporary, to put them into perspective.

Scientifically, this doesn't make sense, and we find it hard to really believe it.  We can't see how it will happen.  Paul struggles with this himself, groping for words and images which will get across what he means.  The relationship of a seed to the final plant.  The difference between us and the sun, moon and stars.  Earthly dust and the stuff of heaven.  He can't describe it adequately, but he has seen Jesus, and this gives him assurance that it is true.

Often as Christians we are very caught up in what divides us.  Is the resurrection a physical event, a series of visions or a later legend?  Is there a place called heaven, and what is it like?  These are all, in a sense, questions about what is "out there".  They are diversions which keep what is important to us at a distance, and relieve us of the need to talk about our doubts and fears, about what is "in here".

Yet these more personal and collective meanings are something on which we are much closer to agreement.  We all need the courage to keep going, to keep proclaiming justice and mercy when it seems hard, fruitless or even dangerous, just as Jesus' disciples did after their Master was executed.  We all need to begin anew, to be able to put our failures and weaknesses behind us and take hold of a new and better life.  We all need hope to save us from the despair which Paul puts his finger on: "let us eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die".

If our fears, failings and mortality is all there is, we may as well give up.  Jesus's resurrection gives us hope for more, and so we can keep going.