Faith and relevance in the 21st century

Category: Non-violence (Page 2 of 2)

Shane Claiborne on tearing down the walls

There was a wonderful sermon by Shane Claiborne this morning at Surrender. He spoke about tearing down walls in our lives and in the world, and how that is what the kingdom is about. Some of the other points Shane made were as follows:

  • The rich man and Lazarus – the rich man seemed to be a religious man. He knew the prophets, he referred to ‘Father’ Abraham.
  • The gates of hell will not prevail. We need to storm the gates.
  • God loves people back to life.
  • Referring to Ash Barker’s book, Shane said we won’t make poverty history until we make poverty personal.
  • Wounded people should be our greatest teachers. He reminded us that Henri Nouwen spoke about the wounded healer.
  • We need to be very careful not to think too highly of ourselves if we want God to use us.
  • Iraqi Christians are praying for North American Christians. They said Iraq is where it all started and that North America didn’t invent Christianity, they only domesticated it.
  • He knows some people who are working with Friends Without Borders.

During his talk Shane showed shots of the Israel/Palestine wall with moving paintings on it of people tearing down or opening up the wall. May it happen soon and may it happen peacefully. It happened in Berlin in 1989 and it can happen again with enough pressure.

The freedom of loving your enemies

More from Richard Rohr on the revolutionary nature of Jesus’ life, and how freeing it actually is:

Shame and honor, and the maintenance of these divisions, were, in fact, primary moral values in the culture Jesus lived in. As a result, required retaliation was the rule in Jewish culture, as it has been in most human cultures. Without it, a man lost all honor and respect.

For Jesus to walk into the midst of that and to say, “Do not retaliate” is to subvert the whole honor/shame system (Luke 6:27-35) in one blow. People who heard this would wonder, “How do I find my self-image, my identity? How would I have any respect?”

Jesus is pointing radically to God: Who you are in God is who you are, nothing more and nothing less. In that free space there are no ups and downs, no dependence upon families and villages and friends for self-esteem, upon wealth or good societal standing for our inner value.

You might think Jesus is asking too much, or being unrealistic; but he is actually freeing you from all of the emotional ups and downs, the ego dramas, that create almost all human violence, self-hatred, and unhappiness.

Adapted from Radical Grace: Daily Meditations, p. 371, day 384

I get frustrated when people say that these type of teachings by Jesus were not what he really meant, are meant in a metaphorical way, and are not to be taken literally. That’s rubbish. Why would he say them if he didn’t want us to live them out? The reason we shy away from teachings like this has more to do with the type of God we believe in than with what God is actually like. We want a God who will not bother us, a God we can make in our own image. It has been said by a few people that God made us in His image and we have been trying to return the favour ever since. Thankfully the liberating gospel of Jesus shows us otherwise.

Jesus and resistance

I found a great quote recently in Jayakumar Christian’s God of the Empty-Handed. It is from Walter Wink:

“Jesus, in short, abhors both passivity and violence. He articulates…a way by which evil can be opposed without being mirrored, the oppressor resisted without being emulated, and the enemy neutralised without being destroyed.”

Jesus is all about resistance, but it is always nonviolent. The fact we must get deep into our hearts is that Jesus is never about being walked over. Love is never about being trampled on. It is an active walking with Jesus in submission to God. Injustice is to be resisted because it is not of God. But, again, the resistance is always to be nonviolent. If that means having someone strike you on the cheek so be it; we offer them the proverbial other cheek as well (for a proper explanation of what Jesus was actually referring to when he said to turn the other cheek, and how his first century hearers would have understood it, see Steve Chalke’s The Lost Message of Jesus).

Many of us have grown up in churches where to be Christian is to be ‘nice’. But as Dan Allender has said, Jesus said we would be known by our love, not by our manners. Love always seeks the good of the other, and often that means being nice. but if you’re anything like me, your niceness will often be about protecting yourself from possible rejection. It will be more about people-pleasing than loving. Love doesn’t worry about what other people will think. It just goes ahead and does good. That’s why Jesus would let no one, not even Herod, get in the way of his work for the kingdom. He was not going to be sidelined by threats from the powerful.

It is not easy living the Christian life. We are constantly in tension with the ways of power and status all around. Sometimes people will see Christ in us and other times they will not. Sometimes we wil come across as the fragrance of life and other times we will come across as the fragrance of death. John Smith said once that a good measure of your walk with Christ is to look at who your enemies are. If your enemies are the powerful and those who exploit, then you will most likely be walking in the way of Jesus. But if your enemies are the poor, the weak, and the people often called ‘nobodies’, you are almost certainly not following the Jesus of the gospels. God give me courage to resist that which is evil and the humility to submit to You.

Blessed are the cheese makers? Misquoting the Beatitudes

The Beatitudes, those sayings of Jesus that make up part of his Sermon on the Mount, are the heart of his teaching on the kingdom of God. But I would guess that whether you are a believer or not, you would probably have rarely, if indeed ever, have heard a sermon on these most famous of Jesus’ sayings.

Throughout the 2,000 years of Christian history, there have been few people who have really taken the Beatitudes seriously as ethical guidelines. Dave Andrews offers a reason for this. He says that the Beatitudes are rarely taught in churches. And when they have been taught, more than likely people will hear that they are not to be taken literally because they are too unrealistic and can never work in the ‘real world’. This is such a common response amongst preachers that one of the most famous movie lines of all time takes it off. Check out this clip:

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However when you look at the people over the years who have taken the Beatitudes literally, people like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, these are the people who have made a real difference in the world and lived the Beatitudes out in their own lives. Other people who have lived them out in different ways have been Nelson Mandela, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Vaclav Havel, Lech Walesa, and Oscar Romero.

However it is not just the Beatitudes that have been misquoted and misinterpreted. The whole Sermon on the Mount has been taken this way, to the extent that it is pretty much ignored by many Christians. There is a scene in the movie Gandhi which expresses this in a way that brings shame on the Christian church. When Gandhi meets clergyman Charlie Andrews, he asks Andrews to walk with him, and pretty soon they are both faced with a real life situation in which the reality of the Sermon on the Mount is put to the test. As they are about to walk down a laneway (remembering that this is in 1890s South Africa, when apartheid is in full swing), they are both confronted by three white young men who pour scorn on the fact that a white man is walking with a coloured man such as Gandhi. Andrews quickly suggests they perhaps go a different way, but Gandhi reminds him that the New Testament says that if someone strikes you on the right cheek, to offer him the left as well. The Christian clergyman then displays the attitude that we have seen too often in the Western church: he stutteringly tries to explain that Jesus didn’t really mean these things literally; they are more to be taken metaphorically. Gandhi though, says he is not so sure, explaining that what Jesus meant was that we must display courage, and in doing that, we will earn the respect of the oppressor but also not be pushed aside. So, as they approach the young men, the larger one tells Gandhi in no uncertain terms to get out of the neighbourhood. As he does so, he is pulled up by his mother who asks from the floor above their house what he is up to. As his mother tells the young man to get on to work, Gandhi looks him intently in the eyes and calmly exclaims, “you will find there is room for us all.”

What this exchange shows is that the Beatitudes are not some fluffy teachings of Jesus that are fine in an ideal world but can never be applied in real life. To the contrary, when lived out in the here and now, they change the world. The Beatitudes take enormous courage to put into practise. They are not to be taken metaphorically at all. Nor are they, as those on the more liberal side sometimes say, to be taken as statements by which we attain a salvation by works. Neither position takes Jesus seriously enough. And I reckon that’s why everyone knows how many commandments there are but most Christians wouldn’t know how many Beatitudes there are (there are 8).

In this scene from Gandhi, the Indian leader – the non-Christian – lives out what Jesus said. The problem for Gandhi though was that he so respected Jesus that, as John Dear points out, he could never understand why Christians didn’t obey their Master. For over fifty years, Gandhi asked Christian friends. “Why do Christians go about saying ‘Lord, Lord,’ but not do the will of Jesus? Why don’t they obey the Sermon on the Mount, reject war, practice nonviolence and love their enemies?”

Gandhi once said that the Sermon on the Mount was the greatest teaching that has ever been given, but he decided not to become a Christian mainly because of Christians. Something else he said, which is just a great an indictment on us in the church, was that everyone knows what Jesus meant in the Sermon on the Mount except Christians. I would qualify that last statement and say ‘Western Christians’. Because for the first 300 years of the Christian church, the Sermon on the Mount was its guiding ethical framework. And look at the impact the church had in those days. It was only when Constantine became Emperor and Christianity became the official State religion of the Roman Empire and aligned itself with the powers, that it suddenly became impractical to oppose the State when it came to such teachings as ‘blessed are the peacemakers’, ‘love your enemy’ and ‘do good to those who persecute you.’ We have so lost sight of the message of the Sermon on the Mount that we now see bumper stickers like the one below reminding us of the obvious:

While there has been a shift in the church over the last 20 years or so (and the above bumper sticker was actually from a church in the US) sadly not a lot has changed since the time of Constantine. The church today generally lives by a different set of ‘Beatitudes’, as brilliantly expressed by Joe Abbey-Colborne:

Blessed are the well off and those

…with ready answers for every spiritual question;

…they have it all.

Blessed are the comfortable;

…they shall avoid grief.

Blessed are the self-sufficient;

…they wait for nothing, they have everything they want,

…and they have it now.

Blessed are those who are not troubled by

…the injustice experienced by others;

…they are content with realistic expectations.

Blessed are the ones who gain the upper hand;

…they take full advantage of their advantages.

Blessed are those with a solid public image

…and a well hidden agenda;

…they are never exposed and see people

…in a way that suits their purposes.

Blessed are those who can bully others into agreement;

…they shall be called empire builders.

Blessed are those who can point to someone else

…who is a worse person than they are,

…they will always look good by comparison.

Blessed are you when people praise you, give you preferential treatment, and flatter you because they think you’re so great. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, because it doesn’t get any better than this.

This is the way our church has always made celebrities of the best and brightest.

As with anything like this, I need to ensure first and foremost that I am not falling into the trap of living such a smug life. The fact is that I still tend to spiritualise the Beatitudes, living as if they are good aspirations which could not work in real life. But Jesus lived them out. At the end of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 7, it says that the crowds were impressed with his teaching because he taught as one who had authority. That means they saw that he lived out what he taught.

So let’s have a look at these troubling sayings of Jesus:

Blessed are the poor in spirit – This one has had a few different interpretations over the years. It is one of the main ones we have tended to ‘spiritualise’ because Matthew’s version adds ‘in spirit’ whereas Luke’s version just says ‘Blessed are the poor’ (Luke 6:20). This beatitude has generally been seen to be referring to those who see themselves as inadequate, whose only hope is in God. And the fact is that these ones are actually the outcast. Listen to what Athol Gill says about this:

“For Jesus…the kingdom of God belongs especially to the poor, the powerless, the outcasts, and the dispossessed – all those who have no standing within the community. Those who count for nothing in the eyes of their fellows are the very ones to whom the kingdom of God is promised. They come empty-handed, with no power or position of their own. Their only hope is in God, and that hope will not go unrewarded.”

So it happens that the poor in spirit are also the outcast and marginalised, those with no power or privilege. And these are always the materially poor. But notice that Jesus is not saying they are blessed because they are poor. This is not about having a poverty mentality. There is no glory in wanting to be poor, UNLESS God has specifically called you to a life of poverty. They are blessed because even though they are poor, in the kingdom of God they are loved.

Blessed are those who mourn – Dave Andrews points out that God does not bless those who are happy with the present state of affairs. He blesses those who mourn. Ridley College lecturer Dave Fuller talked once about having a holy dissatisfaction with life. You don’t have to look very hard at the world to see that things are not good. Deep down we all have a sense that something is wrong with everything.

Blessed are the meek – The main thing we need to keep in mind here is that meek does not mean weak. Being meek in Jesus’ day actually referred to the taming of a wild stallion, meaning those who have powerful emotions but who have them under control. This can mean channeling your energy in surrender to God and God’s will, not being out of control and running your life how you think it should be run.

Blessed are those who seek righteousness – This should really be translated those who seek justice, as that is what the original Greek translates to, but I think both fit, because righteousness can be seen in an individual sense which is like being pure in heart, but justice is seen more in terms of social justice. Jesus sought out justice for those who were being oppressed by the Romans and the religious leaders. He said they were of the same status as everyone else. And those who seek justice in the same way as Jesus did are blessed.

Blessed are the merciful – Jesus says blessed are those who seek justice (previous beatitude) but many who are into social justice are merciless. There is a constant anger about them. I’ve seen them at peace marches. There is not a lot of gentleness shown by these people at these marches. More problematically though, I see it in myself. I very quickly become resentful at politicians who go against what I think is right. But Jesus says ‘blessed are the merciful.’ Justice and mercy are often linked throughout the Bible. An example is another classic passage from the Old Testament, Micah 6:8 – do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God.

Blessed are the pure in heart – This beatitude refers to those who work for what is right but don’t bring attention to themselves. I saw a coffee mug once that had written on it, ‘integrity is doing what is right when nobody is watching.’

The pure in heart are those who want to be pure, not just in their actions, but in their thoughts as well. That’s why Jesus told the disciples and the crowds to not just not kill people, but that anyone who hates has done the same thing as kill their enemy. Jesus actually intensified the norms of the culture to their true meaning. It is about integrity. That’s why he also said that when you give, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, and when you pray, go into your room and lock the door, because God sees what you’re doing. It’s not about showing everyone how righteous you are.

It needs to be pointed out here too that the Beatitudes are very confronting statements. To say in this case that purity is what’s on the inside was a profoundly politically subversive statement to make by Jesus. For to say that purity is a matter of the heart was to deny that it is a matter of observing the purity system that the religious leaders obeyed in those days. The purity system was a strict code designed to exclude ‘outsiders’. It was all about how good you looked. But Jesus turned that right around and said that it is actually about what you’re like on the inside. And the Pharisees didn’t like that one bit because they knew that he was saying to them that they were rotten on the inside. I need to constantly be aware of this to ensure that I am not being a ‘Pharisee’ myself in my own life by doing apparently godly things which actually exclude others.

Blessed are the peacemakers – This is another beatitude that Dave Andrews has some good points to make on. He explains that Jesus says that only committed peacemakers have a legitimate claim to be called children of God. And notice too that it is not saying ‘blessed are the peace keepers’; it is blessed are the peace makers; those who actively and intentionally work for peace between people. Teachings like this highlight loudly and clearly that, even under the ‘just war’ principles put forward by Ambrose and Augustine when Christianity became the State religion, our current wars simply do not fit that criteria (are you beginning to see how the Beatitudes are relevant to the real 21st century world?).

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake – It is very important to note that this beatitude does not say ‘blessed are the persecuted’. There is no merit in suffering for suffering’s sake. It is about suffering for doing what is right, as Peter says in his letters later on in the New Testament. Just as I mentioned before that it is not about having a poverty mentality, it is also not about having suffering mentality or a martyr complex.

If we are to take the Beatitudes seriously, these sayings of Jesus call us to change ourselves. Dave Andrews says that ‘to quote the Beatitudes is religious, but to act on them is revolutionary’. Before calling on others to change, we have to change, ourselves. As we live them out, we change. The Beatitudes are about conversion – conversion to the way of Jesus. This is why the earliest Christians were called followers of the Way, because they lived out the way of Jesus, and literally thousands joined their ranks because they saw that these people were different. They cared when others didn’t. They were prepared to suffer for what was right, and they took outrageous risks of love when others didn’t.

The Beatitudes are the framework of the Sermon on the Mount, and the Sermon on the Mount is the framework of Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom of God. Remember that Jesus talks about the kingdom of God 110 times in the gospels, and he talks about being born again twice. Just something to remember for those of us who go on and on about the need to be born again while not stressing the real message of Jesus (and here I must stress that I am NOT denigrating being born again. I believe in the new birth. It is essential for a relationship with Jesus. And while Jesus mentioned it only twice, the fact is he did mention it and therefore it is to be taken very seriously. I am just saying that if we are to truly follow Jesus, we need to stress the kingdom of God much more than being born again, just as Jesus did).

In Jesus the kingdom of God has come into history. The Beatitudes are Jesus’ announcement of this coming kingdom, a time when those who mourn will be comforted, when those who hunger and thirst for justice will finally have found what they are looking for, to quote the U2 song, and when the merciful will receive mercy.

This is the upside down kingdom, when the first will be last and the last will be first (Luke 13:30), a kingdom which will finally be consummated, as we have described in that wonderful passage in Revelation, when the final coming together of heaven and earth happens and there will be no more tears or pain or death (Revelation 21:1-5). That is when all things will be made new. But here in Matthew’s gospel, with the coming of Jesus, the kingdom of God has broken into history and that is what Jesus is announcing in the Beatitudes. In him, in his life through his works of compassion, his healing, his including of those who have always been excluded, the kingdom has come. It has broken into history through this man.

So the Beatitudes are not about us. They are not just a set of values. They are about Jesus and who he is and what he is doing. This is the good news, that you who are broken, you who are last now, you will be first. It is the great reversal, and it has begun to happen in Jesus. It is the beginning of heaven coming to earth, which we see finally completed in Revelation 21 when heaven and earth come together fully and completely, never to be separate again, to make God’s consummated kingdom, where the characteristics of this kingdom reflect the character of the king – just, loving, peace, reconciling and restoring. These are all what God is like, and so it will be what life in the kingdom is like when it will finally be completed at the end of all things.

In Jesus the future has arrived; it is here. Remember that Jesus says ‘blessed ARE the poor in spirit’, not ‘blessed will be’; ‘blessed ARE you who mourn’, not ‘blessed will be’. You are blessed now, but it is not the type of blessing we often refer to in our churches. It is the blessing of the kingdom of God, of following Jesus and being drawn closer to Him. The kingdom has come, and we are called to live by its values, reflecting the king, being merciful, doing justice, loving our enemies, and living with integrity – being pure in heart, not just in outward appearance. We live like this in anticipation of the day when all things will be made new, when our hope will be made complete, when justice reigns, when peace reigns, and when love reigns, in our hearts, in our thoughts, and in the world. Amen.

Aung San Suu Kyi – free at last

What a wonderful day for freedom today was, with the release of the one they call ‘The Lady’ – Aung San Suu Kyi.

Widely respected for her dignified stance while under house arrest for 15 years, I believe she is the Nelson Mandela of the 21st century. Now, if only the Burmese junta can show the courage that F.W. De Klerk did after he released Mandela and initiate free and fair elections. Of course Suu Kyi’s release was specifically timed by the Burmese generals to happen just after elections when they had been confirmed in their power for who knows how long. But free she is, and hopefully this will be a catalyst for an unstoppable wave of pressure on the military junta in Burma.

Now is the time for the world to apply more pressure than ever to this suffering country and push hard for elections that are not the sham that the recent ones (and the ones before that in 1990 when Suu Kyi’s NLD party won a landslide victory) were.

This is a day to remember and a day to pray – to pray that the generals won’t find another pitiful excuse to put Suu Kyi under house arrest again and that they will show courageous leadership and have the elections that the vast majority of people in that country want.

Watch this news report of The Lady’s release, and rejoice:

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Voices for Justice – prophetic engagement with the powers

One of the workshops I attended on day 3 of VFJ 2010 was on prophetic engagement with politics and society. It was a panel discussion facilitated by Jeanette Matthews who is currently completing a PhD in Old Testament studies. The panel included Dave Andrews, Deborah Storie, and Phil Ireland. Jeanette opened the discussion by explaining that the prophets of the Old Testament were primarily spokespersons and not fortune tellers, which is pretty much the opposite of what I was told when I first became a Christian in my teens.

The prophets often performed strange symbolic acts. Ezekiel 4 is a good example of this. Generally, the prophets were into what you might call ‘shock and awe’, unlike the people in the wisdom books of the OT. The message that a prophet carries is a burden to them. But the point that really challenged me was that a prophet embraced the Word, that is, they lived out what they spoke. Some examples of prophetic actions from the OT are as follows:

  • Elijah and Elisha (1 Kings 19)
  • Ezekiel (3:1-3, 4:1-3, 24:3-13)
  • Jeremiah (chapter 19)
  • Zechariah
  • Jeroboam and the prophet Ahijah (1 Kings 11)
  • Isaiah (chapter 20)
  • Micah (1:8)

One of the questions Jeanette raised about this is about whether or not there is room for such prophetic action today. I have no doubt that there is, and as usual, Dave Andrews gave a wonderful example. He was once out in his home town of Brisbane when a young man had just smashed a window and vandalised a shop front. The owner came out, mad as a snake as you would expect, and demanded that the youth be dealt with severely. On hearing the fracas, others came out and also had a go at the youth. But then one man said, “I know what we should do. Why don’t we give him a hug?” What?!!! But the man persisted, and he went up and gave the youth a hug. Slowly and awkwardly, the others standing around also went up and gave him a hug. Eventually, after yet another hug, the youth dissolved into tears and blurted out in remorse about how he was so sorry and he just wanted to be noticed. It was a perfect example of prophetic action in practise. It was non-violent and saved potential further violence. It is highly likely that if the hug-fest hadn’t of happened, the youth would not have shown any remorse and would have continued his angry life of committing the same offences again. But this prophetic act of love (they weren’t condoning his vandalism remember) brought the youth to his metaphorical knees and caused a heart change that mere punishment never could. Dave then made the point that prophetic action needs to be colourful and creative, designed to engage people. Anger is to be a last resort. My first thought on hearing this was that Jesus expressed prophetic anger at times, particularly in turning over the tables in the temple. But Dave emphasised that this was one of Jesus’ last acts and it got him killed.

Following this, Phil Ireland mentioned that one of the most prophetic acts that anyone can engage in today is to participate in a church. And he emphasised the word ‘participate’. It is being active in a church, not being a pew-warmer. His point was that participating in a church community dismantles the individualist ethos so prevalent in our culture. He followed this up by saying that our primary prophetic actions need to be through the church. People in the church can also inspire each other. For instance, often it’s the little acts that nobody notices that can be the most prophetic, such as tending your garden, as it tears down the culture of consumerism and reconnects us with the earth. Dave added that the most effective acts are often the most unseen ones. The most important thing is to live the prophetic life.

One of the points that Dave made was that a distinguishing characteristic of the prophets was their sympathy with God. And in the example given by Jesus who was strong in relating to the powerful and gentle in relating to the powerless, the prophet is to do the same. Deb reiterated this in saying that prophets always treat people as human beings – as people with dignity, especially the people they are prophesying to. We need to remember what we are wanting to draw people to. Finally, Deb mentioned that we need to respect the non-Christian prophetic voice. God does not only work through Christians. God can and indeed does work through anyone he wishes.

One of the points that Deb Storie made was that not everyone is called to be prophetic, and similarly, sometimes to be prophetic is to make space for others to do the prophetic acts. Backing up Dave’s comment, she also emphasised that prophets see the world through the eyes of God. Another interesting point she mentioned was that often, people in the OT thought the prophets suffered from mental illness. It is pertinent to remember that Jesus’ own family thought the same of him. But we need to remember too, Deb reminded us, that if they do have a mental illness, then that is fine. Dave mentioned that Michael Leunig is a great example of this, as someone who has been public about his own struggles.

It is panel discussions like this that stay with me for a very long time. A colleague mentioned to me afterwards that it was dialogues like this that made her want to go back to the Bible. That of course can only be a good thing. We sing a song at our church sometimes which talks about being a prophet of hope. The term ‘prophet of doom’ has widespread use, so the term ‘prophet of hope’ sounds somewhat of an oxymoron. I think the prophets were both. They sounded warnings of judgment as well as the hope of what a future with God can be like. God help me to be a prophet of yours. Amen.

A brilliant defence of the non-violence of Jesus

Saturday’s Age had a brilliant article by Simon Moyle defending the non-violence of the Christian message, following the disturbing (to say the least!) revelations of Bible verses appearing on weapons that the US military has been using in Iraq and Afghanistan. I feel quite proud of Simon as he was a young lad when I ran a boys club that he was in back in the 80s. Great work Simon. Judging from most of the comments to this article, it has generated a lot of healthy debate.

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