No Jew or Greek but Plenty of Elephants (Galatians 3:26-29)

“There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Galatians 3:28

I like this verse. It speaks to the Star Trek fan in me , the Utopian; we can get beyond our differences and move forward into the future because we’re reconciled to God and we’re all his children. So let ‘s treat each other as equals and embrace a world in which we’re post-racial, post-feminist, a world in which sexism and racism are artefacts of seventies sitcoms. Our differences take second place to our unity.

But that’s not always true in practice, is it? Our differences do still matter; if they didn’t, would there be protests in Ferguson, Missouri?

There’s a danger that we end up using verses like this as a silencing tactic – “Paul said we’re all one in Christ Jesus, therefore I’m not racist. Please stop asking awkward questions.”

Now, I’m not arguing that, through Christ, we’re all God’s children, all joined together as a family in which, despite our demographics, we’re all equal. But if we are all spiritual siblings, then we don’t get to ignore or explain away the experiences of those outside the church’s power structures. We get to shut up, and to listen, to to join with our brothers and sisters as a force for justice.

We’re not always keen to do this. We don’t like to talk about race. We don’t like to talk about feminism. We don’t like to talk about abuse or mental health, inequality or sexuality. And if go on ignoring each elephant in the room, all we’ll end up with is a church full of elephants.

Here’s the thing. I like to think I’m not particularly prejudiced, but I’m a white, straight western male and I’m acutely aware I have no idea what it’s like to face police suspicion every time I walk down the street. I have no idea what it’s like to receive rape threats just for expressing an opinion online. I don’t know how it feels to be ostracised because of my sexuality, or how it feels to suffer in silence because I’ve been told that depression is just a lack of faith. I don’t go to church and feel a second class citizen because the wheelchair access is like something from The Crystal Maze. I’m not late for church because I’ve had to stop off at the local food bank.

I’m not going to apologise for who I am, but I do have to acknowledge that I benefit from a system that disadvantages others, and I do have to make sure I’m listening to the voices of those without my levels of privilege. Heck, my sons have autism. Life’s not going to be a picnic for them, and as parents we have to be their advocates, and that’s a hell of a fight at times. There may be no Jew or Greek in Christ, but there’s prejudice and bigotry and ignorance and apathy in society, and if we can’t advocate for our family, then all our claims about the unity of the church are empty rhetoric, soundbites for our corporate Facebook pages and about half as useful. We need to maintain a pastoral eye towards these issues; if we don’t, you can be sure the Holy Spirit is.

The people looked at him as if he was crazy. “When did we see you stopped and searched for no reason? When did we see you threatened with rape, or told not to report the man who abused you? When did we see you looking for the number for the Samaritans, or struggling to feed the kids? That sort of thing doesn’t happen in our church. Someone would have mentioned it.”

And Jesus replied, “Whatever you didn’t do for the least of these, you didn’t do for me.”

Weeping in the Silence: Depression and the Church

So. The news about Robin Williams.

How to respond to this? Williams was, by any measure, hugely successful. From the outside, his suicide is incomprehensible, and that’s when the comments start: he was selfish. He was stupid. Depressed? He should have cheered up (after all, he had lots of money and a shelf full of Oscars). And, for some reason, we think everyone needs to hear this opinion in blogs, on social media, in conversation.

Is this really the best response?

Job, in the midst of his suffering, met with three friends, and while their sermons and philosophies are ultimately empty, the greatest thing they do is sit with him, to be present even in silence. They show up and shut up and that’s the wisest thing they do in the whole book.

And then Jesus, arriving at the tomb of his friend, just bursts into tears. And yes, we know he raises Lazarus from the dead, but let’s pause here for a while, in this moment of empathy and grief, because incarnation is at it’s most powerful in times of vulnerability and pain.

That’s why, sometimes, the most pastoral thing you can do is shut up; shut up and listen and not try to give answers or explanations or facile attempts at a quick fix. And then you can weep, weep because the person in front of you is struggling under a crushing weight, struggling to fight through the fog, struggling to imagine a future. Now is not the time for a sermon on joy, now is not the time to talk about counting blessings or healing through faith. Now is the time to sit quietly amid the ashes; now is the time to weep with those who weep.

Mental health is surrounded by stigma, and if that’s something that compounded by our churches then our spaces need to become safer. We need to signpost to effective support, sure, but we also need to end a culture of silent condemnation that leaves those suffering from mental illness isolated and with nowhere to turn.

Too often Christian culture is focused on being right, or on being visibly successful, and when these things become paramount, we lose our distinctiveness and our ability to truly help those who sit next to us in our congregations. Amid the sermons and the rockin’ worship needs to be a place where people can be honest and vulnerable, a place where walls can be broken down. The older I get, the more I become convinced that this is the truest expression of church, a place where healing can begin with honesty and where the love of Christ is more concrete than abstract. A place that works with the Holy Spirit rather than getting in His way.

What happened to Robin Williams is a heartbreaking tragedy that’s given an opportunity to confront how we treat those with mental illness and how we either create or contribute an atmosphere that further isolates those living with depression. It’s a moment to be seized for the sake of our brothers and sisters: we can’t afford to let it pass by.

Thomas and Thaddeus, Jonah and Mosul

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Thomas is remembered as the doubting apostle, which always seems a little unfair, given that he went on to take the gospel to India, Iran and Turkey. A community of Christians in Kerala still bears his name.

Thaddeus, however, doesn’t have a defining moment like that. He’s something of a mystery, a man of many names, the other Judas who became known as Jude (for obvious reasons). Maybe he’s best know as the patron saint of hopeless causes, or the Patron Saint of the Impossible.

In the period after the gospels, a hazy time of history, tradition and legend, it’s said that Thomas and Thaddeus brought Christianity to Iraq and, in doing so, founded one of the oldest Christian communities in the world. Over the centuries, Christians lived alongside their Muslim neighbours, the ebbs and flows of history bring times of peace and times of persecution; despite this, the Christian presence in Iraq, particularly Mosul, has remained for over 2,000 years.

Until this weekend.

The biblical connection to Mosul doesn’t begin there. The city is located near to somewhere best known as part of the story of Jonah. Because this is where Ninevah¬†was founded, where the prophet was sent prior to, and after, his encounter with the whale, where he’s now buried. And yes, okay, he’s also buried in Israel and Lebanon, but tradition remains a powerful thing.

Until this weekend.

Because this weekend the Tomb of Jonah was destroyed. Because this weekend, the Christians of Mosul were given an ultimatum: leave, pay a protection ‘tax’ or die. Mass wasn’t said this weekend; congregants have been murdered or raped or driven to suicide instead.

It’s difficult to reconcile the two situation – 2,000 years or more of history vs a flurry of tweets. No time to take a step back to appreciate context or perspective. And maybe that’s a good thing – the people fleeing with nothing but the clothes on their backs don’t have that luxury.

But there’s still a shared heritage here, a common tradition and iconography, a brother and sisterhood based on being followers of Jesus. Christians in the west have it easy, but that should never blind us to the pain and persecution experienced by our family elsewhere. We need to recognise that unity, that membership in the one body of Christ, and when one heart breaks, all should break in response as we say the same prayers, sing the same songs. We remember the Christians of Mosul. We remember the Christians of Nigeria. We remember the Christians of Gaza. They are our family.

And of course that’s not to say we ignore everyone else. We are not called to celebrate the deaths of Arab children, we are not called to promote anti-semitism, we are not called to shame our neighbours or despise immigrants. We are called to respond to suffering as the hands and feet and voice of Christ and any other response is just our own politics and prejudice. We stand up for our family so our family can stand up for others. The cities we read of in the Bible are often still inhabited today, individuals walking among the Scriptures. And so often they need our prayers.

(Information on an Open Doors appeal to support refugees from Mosul can be found here.)

If David Becomes Goliath

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Who are you in that picture?

We often like to think of ourselves as David. He’s the plucky underdog who defeated a giant when no-one else had the guts or the faith to face Goliath. We like to see ourselves in his story; we face enormous odds, set upon by giants. We love a David and Goliath story, especially when we can cast ourselves as David.

But David didn’t stay there on the battlefield, a giant fallen at his feet. David got old, became king, became the father of a dynasty. And along with that he became complacent, an adulterer, a murderer. His successor is known for his wisdom; we’re less inclined to remember all those he forced into slavery.

Once David was a shepherd boy; then he became his own kind of Goliath and the kingdom deteriorated from that point forth. The same pattern emerges down through the centuries; the church in the west was the underdog until Constantine came along. Then we became legitimate and along came inquisitions and crusades.

We believe our own myth and inhabit the idea that we’re still the young boy with a slingshot going up against a relentless, enormous evil. We like to tell ourselves that even when by any realistic measure we’re loaded down with money and influence and nuclear weapons. If you’re bringing an aircraft carrier to the party, you’re probably not a David.

No, it’s Goliaths who trust in swords and power, and that’s a form of idolatry. “Some trust in chariots, others trust in horses,” says Psalm 20, “but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.” That Psalm’s attributed to David, who, near the end of his life, conducted a census to determine the size of his army. This is a man who genuinely loved and served God, but the temptation to become a Goliath is always present when power is involved.

Check your privilege. It’s become a bit of an internet cliche, but it’s worth keeping in mind. Maybe it’ll keep us from silencing genuine David’s . Because this much is true: if you have the capability to commit genocide, to unleash a war machine that can reduce cities and civilians to ashes, you’re not a David. If you can exert enough political power to get laws written in your favour, you’re not a David. If your church keeps you on a pedestal and in a mansion and thousands of people hang on your every word without question, you’re not a David. You’re a Goliath and you need to look at things differently. You’re not looking up at a giant; you’re looking down at a kid with a catapult.

Here’s a blessing of grace though: Goliaths can be disciples too. Power can be leveraged for good. But forget the source of that power, forget who you’re following, and that’s when trouble starts. Because you’re following God Incarnate, who came to earth and commanded us to do crazy things like love our enemies and feed the hungry and be a light to the world. You’re not going to do that while you’re obsessed with your chariots and riches; you’re not going to do that when you’re building your temples on the back of slaves; you’re not going to do that when you’re massacring your enemies instead of loving them.

Jesus could have acted like Goliath. His disciples even talked like that sometimes. But when they did, Jesus knelt and started washing feet. Out in the wilderness, he resisted the temptation to become a giant; unfortunately, plenty came after him to take that deal, and who blasphemously did it in his name.

David was a man after God’s own heart. There were times when that got obscured, when the boy with a slingshot and a reckless faith began to transform into a giant. There are times, when we’re blessed with resources and influence, that we run the risk of turning from saint to monster.

Lord protect us from that transformation.

The Sacrifice of Innocence

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Sunlight bounces off a blade on the peak of Mount Moriah as Abraham, with relief in the depths of his soul, hears a voice commanding him to spare his son. Against a cultural backdrop of child sacrifice, the patriarch sees something – a ram, yes, but maybe something more – that rewrites religion and proclaims that no, children should not be sacrificed on the altars of our dogma and our security.

80 children on flight MH17. Three Israeli teenagers found dead in a pit. 39 children killed in air strikes and the invasion of Gaza. Human shields, four kids bombed as they played on a beach, Mohammed Abu Khdeir burned alive. The last few days have been a relentless parade of violence and death, the paradoxes of the 24/7 news cycle connecting us and hardening us to drone strikes and rockets and shattered buildings. And in the midst of all this, as always, are children. Not that we call this child sacrifice any more – that would be obscene. Nowadays we call it “collateral damascene”, as if the euphemism hides the idolatry.

Abraham’s revelation didn’t last forever. We live in a precarious world, at the mercy of the harvest or the weather or the marauders at our gates. We look for ways to appease the gods, to earn their favour, and so, in the valley of Ben Hinnom, kings Ahaz and Manasseh burned their sons as an offering to Baal. Fortunately King Josiah eventually put an end to this, the valley became Jerusalem’s rubbish dump, fire burning trash day and night.

We don’t haggle with fertility gods any more, nor gods of the storm; we’re better at controlling our environment, millennia of technology under our belt. Now we sacrifice to more abstract concepts; security against The Other is one, power another – look at how the British Establishment has been shaken by accusations that it dismissed or concealed or empowered child abuse, leaving traumatised and neglected survivors in its wake. That in itself is a sort of sacrifice.

The shadow of Ben Hinnom lived with people through the ages, a reminder of the sins and idols tries of their forefathers every time they put out their bins. Thanks to the wonders of etymology, the name of the dump shifted and changed, taking on new meanings and associations. We know this because it was a word used by Jesus when he wanted to summon an image of suffering and horror.

Gehanna.

Hell.

Attacks on children are decried, of course, but still they happen. It’s a deeper sacrifice that we leave on the altar, of innocence, of compassion, of our great taboos. And if children are emblematic of the future, what does it mean for society when kids grow up wanting to avenge their murdered playmate, when abused children feel they can’t go to authorities for fear if being disbelieved?

It hurts to say this, but we know it to be true; there are times when religion empowers this; we join in with the blasphemy, and echo, in our own way the idolatry of Ahaz. Until we find a way to confront this, to repent of it and become a safe space and an advocate for the children around us, the sacrifices will continue.

Gehanna’s garbage keeps on burning.