There’s a bridge spanning the A38 near Burton-on-Trent that’s covered in bouquets and posies. I drive under it every day, dimly aware that the bridge is now a memorial, a means of remembering a young woman who fell to her death in September. For a few seconds during a long commute I’m reminded of life’s fragility, linking that bridge to all the other flowers tied to lampposts that mark the passing of a stranger’s loved one.

Today is Halloween, traditional day of kids donning fancy dress and adults ignoring the doorbell, but in the liturgical calendar it marks the start of Allhallowtide, a three day season celebrating All Saints Day and All Souls Day; in the UK the period is sometimes extended to incorporate Remembrance Sunday, red paper poppies joining graveside bouquets. In short, it’s a season for commemorating the departed, for celebrating the lives of those who’ve gone before us.

Certainly in my tradition we don’t do much with this, possibly due to suspicion over Halloween itself. But there’s something in the idea of a season of communal remembrance, a time in which our communities can come together and celebrate those we’ve lost. Maybe it provides a time of solidarity with friends and family who still grieve, be those scars new or ancient. “Mourn with those who mourn,” Paul once said. Allhallowtide might be a good reminder of that.

Sometimes this act of remembrance is tied up with justice. Speak the names of those killed by violence, by the abuse of power, by legislation that victimise the most vulnerable among us. Speak out against the school shootings and the bad cops, the beheadings and the vests full of explosives, the domestic abuse and the cluster bombs. Speak out and remember, because if our theology is divorced from justice and grace and love then it’s not worth the shelf space.

And if we end this season with Remembrance Day then we remember the fallen, both those lost in battle and those who fell but lived on. Remember the PTSD and the suicide rates and the homelessness. There are other kinds of loss that shouldn’t be forgotten.

It’s Halloween. The sun will be going down soon, and a largely forgotten season of memory will commence as the earth freezes over and dies and sleeps, awaiting its Easter in the spring. But in the cold of November, poppies and flowers tied precariously to lampposts could transform the dark; transform the memories of death, the memories of all saints and all souls and all wars into celebrations of life; could keep the fires of love and justice burning as we head ever onwards into winter.

Who Gets to Turn the Other Cheek? (Matt 5:38-42; Luke 3:7-20)

Gustave-Dore-Jesus-Preaching-the-Sermon-on-the-Mount-620x320“Turn the other cheek.” It inspires an almost visceral reaction. Images of the Civil Rights movement dance with fears of persecution.  I never knew what to do with this teaching – it seems too passive, reminds me too much of the time a dangerous, bullying classmate publically and repeatedly called me a fat b*****d and I had to stand there and take it because I was scared of what would happen if I didn’t.

I’m grateful for those who’ve taken the time to unpack this bit of the Sermon on the Mount, who’ve shown how Jesus confronts day to day acts of physical and social violence and offers ways in which those on the receiving end can reassert their dignity without perpetuating a cycle of violence. This makes sense, because we see how badly a violent revolution in that time and place would go in 70AD (TL;DR – Rome really knew how to slaughter a rebellious populace). Besides, Jesus is the Prince of Peace, right? That’s why he inspired non-violent revolutionaries like Martin Luther King and Gandhi.

Problem is, we seem to have limited this to the people who want to protest and revolt and throw off the shackles of social or economic oppression. We take the words of the Prince of Peace, words intended to inspire and craft a vision of a better word, and use them as a way of keeping people in line.

This is why you can’t take these things out of context. Jesus seems to be speaking to an audience who might find themselves getting slapped by a social ‘superior’, who might get sued for the clothes on their back by those with the means to take them to court, who a passing Roman soldier might intimidate into carrying his kit bag, and so he gives them ways to reassert their humanity in the face of those who’d take that dignity from them. But who’s pushing this gospel of peace to those soldiers, to the litigants, to those doing the slapping?

Well, Jesus certainly has plenty of run-ins with the establishment, and a couple of transformative encounters with local corruption. But the example that springs to mind is in Luke 3:7-20 – John the Baptist yelling truth to power. Here a bizarre, liminal figure, last of the prophets, tells tax collectors not to extort more than they’re supposed to collect. He tells soldiers to be content with their pay and to stop making false accusations. He calls out the king over his evil actions.

In other words, he’s railing against the violence of the elite. That’s partly because that seems to be his audience (he almost seems to end up becoming something of a jester figure to King Herod, weirdly enough), but also because that’s the only way to end a cycle of violence. We can’t expect the victims of violence and oppression to accept high-minded appeals to peace and non-violence without making the same calls to those in power; to use a current example, don’t expect Black Lives Matter protestors to following Martin Luther King without insisting that police are held accountable when the next person ‘accidentally’ dies in custody and have rigorous, ongoing training in peaceful conflict resolution.

This may sound like I’m making a political point, and I probably am, because our theology and spirituality has to be lived out in a political and social context. Jesus wasn’t just preaching hypotheticals – he was speaking to people who were getting punched in the face and getting their clothes stolen, and our discipleship is incomplete if we’re not going to condemn those doing the punching and the stealing, if we’re not expecting the privileged and powerful to hear the words of the Prince of Peace as well. Don’t go shaming a teenage girl who’s gotten pregnant and then make excuses when at least 400 church leaders sign up for Ashley Madison.

We forget that huge chunks of the Bible are written by the oppressed, the exiled, the occupied and the enslaved. For those of us who read it with a certain level of privilege, it’s easy to forget that it’s navigating a world where those within its pages need to figure out how to be faithful to God when the power structures of the world are against them, and while part of that is attempting to live peaceably but not passively, another part of it is refusing to accept the systemic evil that surrounded them. Heck, Jeremiah got both barrels for daring to condemn child sacrifice of all things. What sort of world do we tolerate when telling the oppression to stay peaceful while cheerleading the use of violence by the powerful?

“Turn the other cheek” is a beautiful teaching. But when we abuse that beauty to prop up evil, we commit a heresy of the powerful; we beat another nail into the hands of the Prince of Peace.

Giving Bartimaeus a Voice: Hearing those with disabilities in our churches (Mark 10:48-52)

BartimaeusSo Jesus and the disciples are heading out onto the pilgrim road to Jerusalem. They’ve fallen in with a large crowd, because you don’t go from Jericho to Jerusalem without expecting to go toe-to-toe with bandits, and this crowd attracts the attention of a beggar sitting by the road. He’s a blind man, by the name of Bartimaeus, and when he hears that Jesus Is coming, he starts shouting out to the Son of David. Of course, people tell him to shut up, because that’s what people do when tramps start shouting and embarrassing everyone.

Bartimaeus has been pushed to the margins. He’s living out on the edge of town, and when he tries to speak out, he’s immediately silenced. Maybe that’s due to his social status, maybe his disability, maybe both, but no-one expects him to have anything useful to say. No-one, that is, except Jesus.

Jesus immediately gives Bartimaeus the chance to speak – “What do you want me to do for you?” Now, some would think the answer to that is obvious: surely he wants to see again, right? And yes, that turns out to be the right answer, but notice that Jesus doesn’t assume the easy answer and he certainly doesn’t take Bartimaeus’s voice from him. That’s a lesson for churches to learn when facing disability – my son is deaf, and if Jesus asked a representative sample of the deaf community what he could do for them, they wouldn’t necessarily say they wanted to hear. They’d be offended at the very suggestion, because deafness is a part of their very identity, not something that needs fixing. Agree with that or not, the church isn’t here to take the voices away from those around us; churchsplaining isn’t a great prologue to the good news of Jesus.

There’s more to being welcoming communities than simply meeting whatever accessibility legislation happens to affect our local church. True accessibility begins with listening for all the voices in our community, giving everyone the opportunity to articulate their needs and difficulties, their hopes and their dreams. I’m not convinced the church as a whole has yet figured out how to make all the diverse voices around us heard.

Maybe that starts with refusing to wait for people to turn up before trying to make accessibility a reality. Make an effort. Take a leap of faith. Invest in a couple of braille Bibles, subtitle those video clips you’re using, give some thought to the impact of our services on those with sensory needs. These are first steps and the beginning of a journey, but if our churches are to be truly accessible, it’s a journey that needs to be made.

Jesus made sure Bartimaeus’s voice was heard. As his disciples, should we be doing anything less?

(If you’re interested in starting this journey, it’s worth checking out Disability and Jesus for user-led insight into these issues. I’ve also touched on these themes in a post about autism and the church.)