Don’t Shoot

We all like to think that, if Jesus were here today, we’d make him our friend.
Our priest.

Our President, our Prime Minister.

I’m scared that, if Jesus were here today, someone would’ve already painted a swastika on his front door.

That he’d’ve drowned in a sinking refugee boat off Egypt.

That he’d’ve been locked away without charge for upsetting the status quo.

I’m scared that, if Jesus were here today, someone would have shot him already.

I’m scared that, if we take Matthew 25 seriously, that’s exactly what’s happening right now.

Identity (Galatians 3:26-28)

There’s a beautiful moment in the Book of Galatians in which Paul affirms the unity of the people of God across all of society’s divides. “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free,” Paul writes, “Nor is there male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

It’s a way of emphasising our unity as Christ’s family, but there’s a risk here. Because it would be easy to read this and ignore the fact that our identities are rooted in our ethnicity, our gender,  our social context. These things are important, and while it’s true that faith in Christ will result in a restructuring of our personal identity, it takes a very privileged position to be able to dismiss out of hand our race, our gender, our sexuality and our class. 

Each of us have multiple identities, and we can’t pretend those identities don’t matter, not when the leading cause of death for young black men is homicide, not when so many transgender people commit suicide, not while rape culture is still a thing, not while…

Our identities affect our lives. They affect how we interact with the world, they impact how people respond to us, positively or negatively. We can’t fall into the trap of believing that our identities don’t matter; we can’t blithely erase someone’s identity because in doing so we erase a part of them and their story with God.

So when we quote Galatians, I don’t think it’s about erasing identity, it’s about erasing division. We’re called to come together as one, as equals before Christ, and sometimes that means acknowledging our differences and embracing them, not seeing them as something that divides but as a way of achieving unity in diversity. We haven’t always been good at that. But we need to figure it out, because as Paul says, we are one.

We are one…so we need to dismantle the structures that see innocent black men getting shot by police.

We are one…so women should be able to walk across a car park at night without fear of getting raped.

We are one…so children shouldn’t be sexual assaulted as their churches cover everything up.

We are one…so poorer communities need some support and investment rather than being written off.

We are one…so attitudes towards sexuality shouldn’t lead to a spoke in suicides.

We are one, so we need to be able to see the needs and feel the pain and listen to the lament of our brothers and sisters, and then work together to heal those wounds and demolish structures of injustice, because if we don’t the humanity of us all is eroded.
We are one, so the things that divide us need to be nailed to the Cross with Christ do that we can be transformed into his diverse and inclusive family, joined together through grace. 

And then our identities will no longer divide, and we can then begin to celebrate each other instead.

The Power of a Portrait

My evening commute is an interminable trek through traffic lights and down congested motorways, and one of the few things that keeps me sane is a sprawling collection of podcasts. One of those is Kind World, a series of stories about acts of kindness, the most recent edition of which tells the story of Michael Reagan.

Reagan is a Vietnam veteran who, upon his return to the US, started painting portraits of service members killed in action. Through this he discovered the power of his art to allow family members to grieve, to process, to say goodbye and, in the face of all this, to discover something about his own history.

And it’s only a six minute episode, but it stirs up questions, questions about the power and possibilities of art, about how we mourn, about how we treat those who return home once our wars end.

And yet beyond that I thought of the moment in Ephesians when Paul declares us to be God’s handiwork which, when you get behind the language means we’re God’s work of art. And that thought collided with Michael Reagan’s portraits and the thought of how we, God’s masterpieces painted in His image, are cut down in war and spit on each other when we return from the fight. And all I could hear beyond the podcast and the passing traffic was that this should not be how things are, and that when we can see the Imago Dei and another’s humanity in a work of art, we can start to be healed.

When a Community Hurts (Luke 13:1-4)

There’s a moment in Luke’s gospel when Jesus has to engage with the recent murder of pilgrims in Jerusalem and the aftermath of a tower collapsing in Siloam. And it ends up being a theological discussion, but it got me thinking – the people killed when the tower fell, the people slaughtered by the agents of state oppression, left behind children and partners, parents and friends and a community with wounds that may not have become scars. And the people of faith living in those communities would have to deal with those.
We only get a snapshot of Jesus’s three years of ministry. We can read through all the gospels in a few hours, and we know that things were left out. And so while we know of Jesus’s response in terms of the righteousness (or otherwise) of those involved in recent current affairs, we don’t get to see any ‘pastoral’ conversations he may have had about these same things.

But in our localised congregations we need to be able to deal with collapsing towers and sudden death. And we’ve not always been good at this in a communal sense – we work with individuals and relatives and friends,  but do we always tackle the wounds that rip through our communities as a whole?

An example. Years ago, Princess Diana died early on a Sunday morning. Only the person preaching at my church hadn’t heard the news and so didn’t mention it, meaning that it felt like there was a gap in the service. Days later, the streets were full of flowers, catching everyone unawares. A friend from university would later suggest that this was only partly our grief over Diana – it was also about Jamie Bulger and Dunblane and all the other horrors of the preceding years, all the things we hadn’t been able to process, flowers flooding the streets to heal open wounds. I think my friend had a point.

So.

What do our sermons sound like if we live in communities dependent on over-stretched food banks? 

What do our sermons sound like if a factory shuts down and a few hundred middle-aged workers suddenly feel dropped onto society’s scrapheap?

What do our sermons sound like when children are killed, by gangs, by classmates, by cops?

What do our sermons sound like when people feel threatened by immigration or by racism?
I’m not saying our preachers should become pundits, but we need to be able to speak into the wounds and the scars and the self-harm of our communities before fear and despair and hopelessness and grief and abandonment metastasise into cancers that will slowly and painfully kill us.

In a recent interview with NPR, Civil Rights activist Ruby Sales pointed out how we need to be able to offer public theologies in a range of different contexts – in black communities dealing with white privilege, in working class neighbourhoods facing profound economic changes, whatever – and figure out how to speak God’s word into a situation. Because the Good News has to be good news in church, in the queue to the food bank,  at a police call out and down at the job centre. And in the midst of this our churches should be an immune system, not an isolation ward.

People Are Not Demons

This whole business of demonization, I’ve been deeply concerned about it because it does not locate the good in people. It gives up on people.”
That’s a quote from Civil Rights leader Ruby Sales, and while the whole interview is worth listening to, this is the part that got stuck in my head. Because let’s face it, we live in a machine that oils its gears through the demonisation of others. Muslims or Mexicans, gay people or refugees, liberals or Trump voters, we turn individuals into a faceless swarm, the enemy at the gates coming to take from us all we hold dear.

And so we react to that by demonising our enemies. We give up on them; we assume no dialogue is possible, we assume that they cannot change, we assume that they need to change. We do everything we can to see the bad in them and nothing to see the good.

And that’s dangerous, because if our enemies are ‘demons’ then they’re an almost supernatural threat and nothing can defeat them except a full-on exorcism. Drive those demons over the cliff and then we can live in utopia.

Except utopia isn’t utopia I’d we’re constantly scared of monsters under the bed, or if it needs to be patrolled by monsters in jackboots. And that’s a consequence of demonisation, constantly living in fear of people who are more like us than we dare to imagine. After all, you run away from demons, or you shoot them with silver bullets. Anything other than talk to them, anything other than try to understand them and, in doing so, understand ourselves.

There’s a reason Jesus said we should love our enemies – it forces us to see that they’re not monsters. There’s a reason Jesus taught us to be creative in the face of oppression – it forces others to understand that we’re not demons from hell ourselves. Rather, we’re all human, all image-bearers of God, and that’s how we should treat one another.

Because in doing so we’ll see the good in each other, we’ll hear a thousand different stories and in the hearing we’ll be less likely to abandon each other, to shoot each other, to give up on each other. And if our churches can be spaces where we share stories alongside our sermons, then maybe we’ll be less scared of the dark.

There are hucksters who say they hunt demons out there but we don’t have to buy what they’re selling.