Iconoclasm

jpgThe line between hero and villain is often so thin that it’s transparent, sin and virtue written on either side of a piece of glass, a double exposure of virtue and atrocity. History is complicated, messy, and should come with a health warning: handle with care, lest the contents burn you, lest they carpet-bomb the idyllic images we’ve constructed of our past.

I woke this morning to tabloid outrage: protesters have, apparently, defaced the statue of Winston Churchill in Parliament Square. ‘CHURCHILL WAS A RACIST’ the epithet now reads, a reference towards his attitude towards Indians. Meanwhile, in Bristol, a statue of slave-trader Edward Colston was torn down, protesters kneeling on its neck in reference to George Floyd before throwing it into the harbour. In Richmond, capital of the state of Virginia, a statue of the Confederate General Robert E. Lee is to be put in storage, and while actions such as this often generate spittle-flecked outrage, it feels like something else is going on. Some claim that this is vandalism or cultural erasure, but what if it’s something deeper? What if it’s iconoclasm?

Let’s not kid ourselves; we live in a secular society, and because of this we have secular icons. The reason the tabloids are so angry about the vandalism of Churchill is partly because of the mythic status of the Second World War in British culture, part of the whole ‘Two World Wars and One World Cup’ thing. To draw attention to Churchill’s failings is, in some way, to expose the failings of Britain at the same time, and alongside the political and social implications of this, there’s also a spiritual element. After all, we’re in a time of change, when plague, violence and greed are shaking our foundations. It’s been said that the times feel apocalyptic and that’s true, not because zombie hoards stalk the streets but because much that was hidden is now being revealed. And because that trashes some of our most sacred icons, the pain it brings may seem brutal. Brutal, but ultimately necessary, because all this forces us to ask questions, to see things anew, to change course.

A preacher I know once did a sermon on a famous biblical villain – King David. Because the man who wrote the 23rd Psalm and killed a giant with a slingshot also became a murder, a rapist who didn’t deliver justice when his daughter was herself raped. The biblical writers could have left these latter stories well alone, stuck with the giant-slaying and the action movie bad-assery. But no; there are the failings of our heroes in black and white. It’s an invitation to live in the tension, to accept that history is messy, difficult, problematic. To not get too comfortable in our constructed histories but to be moved to change, to embrace grace, to recognise that sometimes the truth gets spray-painted on the side of a statue.

But, in the words of Homer Simpson’s review of the Bible, “Everyone’s a sinner! Except that guy.” I have to have faith that there’s one person who doesn’t fall short of the glory, who I can trust, who can provide a way forward in these times. The world is shaking, but there’s still hope. There can still be justice. We can still change.

And Jesus once vandalised a Temple.

Black Lives Matter (And They Always Did)

I hesitated to even start writing this post. After all, I’m a white guy in England – what do I have to add to the debate, the conversation, the placards? A large part of me thinks that I should just close my laptop, to shut up and listen to the voices that need to be heard. There’s a huge list of names, people of colour killed by American police, but I don’t know how to speak into that, don’t know how to heal the effects of this trauma on young black men and their families. It feels like another world at times; that’s probably part of the problem.

But in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King spared his greatest criticism not for the ardent segregationists, but for the white ‘allies’ who thought that his protests were foolish and needlessly provocative and who hoped that the whole Civil Rights thing would quietly work itself out. It didn’t then, and it won’t now. Peaceful actions are ignored, riots are condemned, the wheel keeps turning.

We celebrated Pentecost last week, the time when the Church was brought together by the fire and the breath of the Holy Spirit, when people from all around the known world heard God speaking in their own language. And yet we celebrated that when American cities burned in the outrage of communities who have been ignored for too long, burned in the counter-rage of those who wanted to make protesters into demons. A week later, two thousand years later and we’re still confronted with the duty as well as the gift of Pentecost; this feels like a time of repentance and confrontational justice and, I hope, a time of deep and genuine healing. It’ll take time but there have already been too many wasted and unjust years.

Jesus traveled through Samaria, despite local racial tensions, because Samaritan lives mattered; the early church had to confront its prejudices towards parts of their community because the lives of Greek widows mattered; Philip baptised the Ethiopian eunuch, despite him being a social outsider, because Black lives matter, and they always have. But throughout our history, we’ve failed to remember that simple truth, that lesson in basic humanity.

So Pope Nicholas V baptised the Doctrine of Discovery so that European Christian empires could take control of any lands they found, no matter who was already living there. That led to the Transatlantic Slave Trade, the American Civil War, the Ku Klux Klan. It led to overflowing coffers for cities like Liverpool and Bristol; it led to ‘Negro collars’ and chains and cuffs being forged in the area in which I grew up, it led to newspaper readers in the city I now live cancelling their subscriptions because the editor called attention to the horrors of slavery. It led to the theologian James Cone drawing comparisons between the Crucifixion and the lynchings that scarred the American south. And, in many ways, it led to more modern words that speak to toxic ideologies and theologies that move virus-like through our society’s DNA: Grenfell, Windrush, Hostile Environment.

Words, of course, have layers of meaning. It’s easy to say, like so many do, that “All lives matter”. It’s a phrase that, on its surface, sounds true. But we live in a world where some lives seem to matter more than others. Some lives are more likely to end up in prison. Some lives are more likely to be animalised by Google’s algorithms. Some lives are less likely to have clean water to drink. Some lives are more likely to be ended by COVID-19. There’s a pattern here that suggests that, actually, all lives don’t matter. And that’s a sin.

Ad so I come back to Pentecost, the birth of the Church, a Church that is made up of people of all races, all nationalities, all ethnicities, a Church that was born in an explosion of different languages. We are one Body, this Church, and if we look at that demographically, that Body is one of colour; if we look like our Saviour, then that Body is that of a brown Middle-Easterner.

Yes, I’m being deliberately provocative here, but it feels like this is a time not only for repentance but a greater appreciation of the Church’s diversity. Because we are brothers and sisters, and some of those brothers and sisters are scared right now, they’re angry and frustrated and traumatised and because we’re bound together by bread and wine, by Blood and Spirit, we can’t remain on the sidelines. We can’t fix this, not as individuals, but we can learn, we can support, we can stand in the gap, we can check our hearts. We can sing. We can amplify. We can pray.

Because Black Lives Matter. And it’s a sin to live as though they don’t.

Pandemic Pentecost

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Art by Mark Wiggin

Happy birthday, Church! It’s been a bumpy couple of millennia (could have done without that whole Constantine business, frankly), but here we are. It’s not the sort of Pentecost we’re used to – lockdowns and social distancing and Zoom galore – but maybe, like Easter, this gives Pentecost 2020 its own special authenticity. After all, two thousand years ago the disciples were hiding away, trying to figure out what to do next, waiting for God to make clear the way forward. And then the Spirit blows up their circumstances, wind and fire and a explosion of expression as suddenly the disciples are speaking languages they’ve never spoken before.

That last one is important. The Holy Spirit is a communicator, after all, and this feels like one of those moments in which the Church is learning to communicate all over again. It’s easy to get all Zoomed out, but look at the way congregations have been embracing the challenge of going online. And for many people who have needed to be part of an online fellowship due to the inaccessibility of many church buildings, this is an affirmation and a chance to show what the Spirit has already been doing.

Because behind all these Youtube videos and Instalives is code – language, if you will. And while Peter and the others couldn’t have even imagined Skype and Facebook as they spilled out onto the streets of Jerusalem all those years ago, the Holy Spirit could. Maybe this is its own little heresy, and if so forgive me, but I can easily imagine the Spirit biding his time to speak in a language of ones and zeroes, to send his fire through the wires and the broadband signals, to become the (Holy) Ghost in the Machine. This isn’t just theological musing – look at how many people have, in the midst of a lockdown, been able to explore issues of faith for the first time because so many churches have embraced technology? How many creative people – not just musicians and speakers, but coders and video editors – have been able to get involved in church services for the first time? All these new technologies, new expressions of art, suddenly they’re playing their part in the Church because the Spirit can bring together new languages and new creatives and make them shine.

Every year we hear the reading from Acts 2, and some poor soul has to pronounce the list of ancient nations correctly. But I think there’s a bigger idea within all this than we sometimes appreciate. Pentecost is a reversal of the Tower of Babel, language being used for unity rather than division, and in a world where so much much divides and isolates us, we need a big-brush approach to language. And so that’s a prayer for us – which languages do we need the Spirit to help us use? Sign language? Makaton? Braille? Many communities have been isolated from the Church because we don’t use their language, we can’t communicate with them effectively. May God forgive us for this; may God give us the wisdom and humility to learn from those communities that have already been led by the Spirit to embrace technology because it was the only way for them to form congregations.

The Spirit is a healer as well, and so may we use these strange and scary times to seek that healing – in terms of COVID-19, yes, but also in terms of attitudes and prejudices. I turn on my TV and America is in flames; I open my email and find that our local Chinese church is facing increased xenophobia as a result of the pandemic. Too many people thrive on Babel’s curse, and that’s something we have to confront. And then there’s the silence – of mental health, of domestic violence, of suicide, of injustice. Communication can help defeat those as well, as long as there’s power behind it and not just words.

The Spirit is big, really big. We can list his attributes – Healer, Communicator, Artist – but the whole is bigger than the sum of his parts. He can heal through art, heal through communication. He can make his people change and grow and signpost Jesus. He can make old things new again, and he can bring hope to the silence, even in lockdown.

Happy birthday, Church.

Holy Week: Easter Sunday in Lockdown

hallelujah-he-is-risen-wayne-pascall

Hallelujah, He is Risen, Wayne Pascall

Christ is risen!

It’s strange to say that without hearing the response, centuries of liturgy all left hanging. This isn’t how any of us expected to be celebrating Easter. We should be gathering and singing, but the virus is still circling and we need to be protecting the most vulnerable among us.

But here’s one of the great plot twists of the mad year of 2020: this may be the most authentic Easter many of us have experienced for a long time. After all, that first resurrection day wasn’t celebrated with parades and chocolate, it slowly emerged into a quiet garden, into locked rooms full of frightened and confused followers. Two thousand years later, and once again this feels like the sort of Easter on which Jesus sneaks up on us while we’re trying to figure out where to go from here.

The first person to meet the risen Jesus was looking for him through a veil of tears, and at first she doesn’t recognise him. There’s too much grief, too many broken expectations. Mary is broken by the moment, trapped in heartbreak and the what-happens-next, but she hears the footsteps, hears a half-familiar voice, and then hope raises from the dead, echoing outwards and forwards and backwards from one garden to another.

(I have a strange image in my head, Mary meeting Eve in some corner of Heaven, saying “I was in a garden too, it’s gonna be alright”).

Then there are the disciples, locked away in a room somewhere, to scared to go out onto the streets, trying to process what’s going on while getting under each others’ feet, too much mourning and testosterone in a confined space. But suddenly Jesus is in the middle of them and their lives are rewired along with the universe.

Thomas is late to all of this, so he doesn’t show up till later. He hears what the others say, sees the hope exploding on their faces and he thinks they’re crazy. The situation is, after all, hopeless; sooner or later reality will catch up with them. And I guess it does, for Thomas anyway, because he too will encounter Jesus, his doubts becoming part of a bigger story.

I’ll be honest, here in the quiet of Easter Sunday morning – I’m not always the most hopeful person; I worry, I fear the worst, I avoid thinking too far into the future because I don’t like not being able to see beyond the horizon, and the lockdown isn’t exactly helping that.

But it’s Easter, and Christ is risen, a guerrilla gardener sowing hope in places that need it most, walking quietly into situations and whispering our names to show us he’s still here. And that’s true even when we can’t meet together, when our celebrations pass through screens, when the world is fraying at the edges. If Easter isn’t good news while we’re all still on lockdown then it’s not the Good News. The Garden is springing back to life.

Christ is risen.

He is risen indeed.

 

 

“When the last star burns out, God’s love will be there for whatever comes after.” Brian Zahnd, Water to Wine

Holy Week: Singing on Calvary’s Tree

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Jesus gasps these words from the cross at the height of his suffering. We read them and hear abandonment, despair, a fracture in the order of things. This is, after all, ‘Good’ Friday, the day we took the artist behind the universe and smashed nails through his hands, sanitising our violence through theology and an act of nominative irony.

But to this blood-soaked hill, to this skull-shaped memento mori, to this violent, enraged species, to this lynch mob, Jesus sings. He sings to Calvary, he sings to all the persecuted, assassinated, disappeared down the ages. You can hear different rhymes in the song, different remixes, you can bring to it samples of an advocate in a courtroom, an unlikely champion, a doctor in the hospital. You can do all that but first you’ve got to hear a man in pain.


It’s easy to miss the singing, even when you know that Jesus is quoting Psalm 22. We’re a literate culture, we’re used to individualistically reading the psalms in our bibles. But Jesus would have recognised it for what it was, a song.

So when we picture Christ bloody and battered and bruised, maybe we need to hear him gasping out a song, finding expression and comfort in ancient lyrics. Music is powerful, after all, a source of empathy and visions. In the midst of pain and crushing despair we often turn on the radio and find hope in singing along; maybe Jesus was doing the same with the ancient songs of his people.

Or maybe the message was for us, for those who come to the cross and try to find glimpses of a future, any good future, in the asphyxiated, shattered saviour held in place by both love and nails scientifically deployed to prolong the agony. Maybe the message was for us, because while Psalm 22 begins in violence and defeat, it’s a musical journey towards hope, towards grace, towards a future. It begins with godforesakeness, but turns and heads towards conviction:

For he has not despised or scorned the suffering of the afflicted one;

he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help.

There are times when we don’t have the words and we need to borrow them, especially in times of great pain; why shouldn’t the fully-human Jesus do the same?

But let’s not race to the end of the song, let’s not ignore the suffering because we’ve caught a glimpse of a better world. For now it’s still Friday, and Jesus still hangs on a tree, surrounded by terrorists and lynchings and weeping and pain. This is the day Jesus dies; a day for sad songs and mourning.

But as we do, remember that even sad songs can crack open a door through which life gets in, even sad songs help us press through the pain, even sad songs help us see Sunday from the broken depths of Good Friday.