Tents Not Temples

Jesus the Refugee by Jason Chesnut

An attempt at a prayer/liturgy/meditation in solidarity with refugees…

In the labour camps of Egypt, God liberated his people;

In the dust of the desert, God pitched a tent with his people;

In the palaces of Babylon, God stood firm with his people;

In the ruins of Jerusalem, God wept with his people.

In the ancient scriptures we read of a God who would rather camp with his people than have them build a temple, who took on flesh to share solidarity in their suffering. And so, in the eyes of the refugee and the displaced we see:

The God who lay in a manger for lack of shelter;

The God who walked the streets in the face of oppression;

The God who was arrested on the word of an informer;

The God who bears the scars of conspiracy and lynching.

And because of the miracle of Incarnation, we know that God stands alongside:

Those who endure biting cold as their camps begin to freeze;

Those who trek a merciless desert in the hope of reaching a border;

Those who cling to rafts, as the ocean skies darken;

Those who wait in airports as dispassionate eyes assess their lives.

We join with these stories as their realities echo throughout the ages, as we accept our place alongside those who flee danger and those who seek sanctuary as we acknowledge we are servants of a different world and a different Word.

May we all be aliens and strangers as we build bridges rather than walls;

May we all be aliens and strangers as we extend a hand of friendship rather than violence;

May we all be aliens and strangers as we seek to reflect Christ rather than Empire;

May we all be aliens and strangers as we take on citizenship of a better Kingdom.



Stories as Resistance

We walk this world, millions upon millions of us, billions of lives intersecting in cities and villages, deserts and tundra. We build cities and machines, form relationships and communities, make art and make babies, each one of us an individual interacting with all the other individuals. We flirt and fight, sing and dance, fall in and out of love, and all the time we talk and write and sing and paint, all in an effort to understand ourselves and each other, and in doing so we give birth to stories.

Sometimes that becomes history, the stories of the past, the acts of kings and prophets, builders and farmers and scientists, the conquerors and the conquered. We pass these stories down through the generations, sometimes forming identity and bonds, sometimes resuscitating old grievances, resurrecting in the present. And when times are bad, we can find hope in those stories of the past, inspiration, strategy, inoculations against atrocity. In those times, we tell those stories to forge a shield, to assert the humanity of those around us.

Sometimes we tell stories of the future, or sidestep somewhere else entirely, we transplant our world into another to gain a different perspective, to issue a warning, to paint metaphors and symbols and to use them as a vaccination against toxic memes and seductive propaganda. We create heroes who can battle the things we think we can’t, and in doing so learn how to fight, to learn how to help, to learn how to stand.

Sometimes we tell stories of the present, we report, we blog, we photograph, we preach, we check facts and dig dirt and bring the truth out into the light. We do this and we start to break the power of lies and falsehood and their corrosion.

Sometimes we tell the stories of the voiceless, we repeat and we amplify, we yield the mic and make sure everyone gets heard, and that stops the marginalised being ignored or forgotten, even when that’s deliberate, especially when that’s deliberate. And that reminds us that of our shared personhood, we rehumanise the world because the tales of those around us can make us into their neighbours.

Sometimes we tell stories of darkness and despair, descent into the direst of circumstances, the depravity of abuse, the deepest of addictions. We do that because there’s encouragement, even in these testimonies, a shared experience, a spark of hope to light the way out. Life is hell, at times at least, but telling tales of conquering hell is an act of scarred defiance.

So tell stories – tell them whenever you can, tell them as if your life’s depending on it, or someone else’s. Tell them because they’re often the only weapon we have to push back the dark, tell them because it’s harder to force someone to their knees when you’ve looked them in the eyes and heard where they come from. Tell them before we’re silenced, write them across the Internet and in notebooks and on walls and in songs.

There are many ways to fight; if you don’t know how to do so, maybe it’s time to seek the words and let stories be your resistance.

Holocaust Memorial Day

I had this post all planned out. An outline sits there in my notebook, but it’s been overtaken by events. I wanted to write about the importance of remembrance, but that’s a privileged position to be in. After all, no-one’s painted a swastika on my door. I’m not facing down antisemitism and hate crimes.

I saw the fascist stickers while walking near work, all iconography and buzzwords so loud you could hear the dogwhistle above the noise of the traffic. It’s not like that area’s been free of far right activity, and bussed-in protesters once turned up to march through the town, but this has been the week in which the Internet took to its keyboards to argue whether we should debate the new fascists or simply punch them. That very conversation has seen something normalised that has been lurking and festering and growing in strength, until suddenly it hit a new stage of evolution and became a source of dapper fashion icons.

Here’s the thing about the Holocaust: it was never an isolated, sealed-off set of historic events that we can safely quarantine and say “Never again.” Europe’s Jews (and also Roma, trade unionists and Jehovah’s Witnesses, gay people and people with disabilities), shouldn’t be reduced to anonymous victims remembered only through their murder, weren’t merely a tally of stars and different coloured triangles; it wasn’t a case of that was then and that was them, those killed in the Holocaust were us. So were the perpetrators. It can happen here.

Millions of people died in Europe seventy years ago, industrialised mass murder of anyone who didn’t fit, driven by rhetoric and posters and language and weaponised prejudice. We remember this as an atrocity that scarred the continent, we see numbers tattooed on arms and feel the awful weight of a history that feels at once far away, but also spoiling for a resurgence. We hear its echoes in those stickers I saw, in swastikas sprayed onto synagogues, in hate crimes and hate speech, in every attempt to convince us there are monsters under our beds. We encounter it when we hear it said that Jews were hoaxing the Holocaust, that there were no gas chambers, that they’re in charge of everything behind the scenes. The whispered lies of the Protocols still haunt us.

But if the bad echoes down the decades, so does the good. Frank Foley lived and died just a few miles down the road from those stickers; during the war he saved tens of thousands of Jews from the death camps. The Righteous of the Nations still walk the earth.

So Holocaust Memorial Day presents us with a choice; not just to remember or forget, but a choice of who we become. Do we stand against the propaganda and the hate, whoever that’s targeted at this time? Do we allow ourselves to get swept along in its currents because it’s easier to go with the flow, no matter how many drown in the maelstrom? Do we draw the curtains, hide behind the sofa, make our mantra “It can’t happen here”, even as it does?

There will be those who choose the darkness; there always are. They must be fought. So take your pick of weapons: marches or mockery, stories or songs, politics, pictures, history, heroism, hope. There are so many ways to resist.

Choices, choices, choices have consequences, and the choice to march enthusiastically into the darkness or to draw a line in the sand remains ours alone. And never forget: the sum total of these choices, small but escalating, decides the future of millions of people; it marks the difference between Holocaust and hope.

Water is Life (2 Kings 2:19-22)

rh-healingspringatjerichoJericho had been inhabited for centuries, watered by springs that surrounded the town. The City of Palms was a fertile place, or at least it had been; now the water was bad, the life blood of the land poisoned, bringing death to crops and animals and people. The tainted waters, it was said, caused the soil to miscarry, and the people who lived there feared for their future and mourned their past.

The history of civilisation is, in some ways, the history of water – streams and rivers, irrigation and wells, sewage systems and canals. Water is essential, for farming, for hygiene, for life itself, and when water becomes polluted, when water dries up, civilisation starts to fade and move on.

The story of Elisha healing the water is a strange one, but let’s see it as a healing miracle for a whole community, rather than an individual; a resurrection miracle for the land rather than a person. Jericho is dying, but the prophet walks into town and brings the springs back to life in the power of God. Day to day urban practicalities sit alongside more spiritual concerns, the two not separate but intimately interwoven. There’s a darker side to that – in Joshua 6:26, Jericho is placed under a curse, with death promised to whoever rebuilds it. The weight of history sits heavily upon that community, but Elisha turns the situation round – the healing of the waters is also a healing of that curse, a new start for a community, an act of grace.

Nowadays, that healing would be a more controversial subject. Some of the biggest problems relating to the supply of water aren’t related to natural forces but to human greed and a refusal to consider the human cost of corporate ‘progress’. And, as with many issues relating to the environment, the forces of racism also loom large.

So, when the water supply to Flint, Michigan has been polluted by dangerously high levels of lead since 2014, we need to confront how those waters can be healed, but also why – especially as up to 12,000 children could have been exposed to what is effectively a neurotoxin, especially as the situation disproportionately affects black communities.

So, when the Dakota Access Pipeline is diverted away from the water source of the state capital and through the Standing Rock Sioux reservation lands, leading to assaults on protesters and the renewal of activity as the result of an executive order from President Trump, we have to see it in the light of the historic mistreatment of Native American tribes and a tendency for protests to be met with violence.

Like the story of Elisha healing the water, these are, on their surface, stories of anomalies, of problems that need to be fixed. But on the deeper level, they’re symptoms of a curse – of the way in which we’ve commodified resources as precious as water, of the way in which indigenous and black communities are often the first to suffer the ill effects of the way in which we manipulate our environment and disrupt our climate. And that’s a curse that needs lifting, healing, and while that still needs acts of grace all along the line, this isn’t just a case of Elisha throwing some salt into a spring; this is about working to heal the way in which we treat each other, the way in which we treat the land.

And so maybe, in these stories in which the corruption of water brings death, we can ask for the grace of healing, and see our communities resurrected. But that can only be done when the history of those communities is confronted, and present injustices fixed. Only then can the water be healed; only then can our lands start to prosper again.


Launchpad: Justice

Justice is a river running through the Bible, and if we don’t engage with that then our faith becomes impoverished, or even corrupted. Here is a collection of posts all about that:

We live in a world tainted by rape culture and the ongoing cover-up of sexual assault. The church needs to be able to speak to these things and, more importantly, do something about its own complicity in them. We have to engage with stories like those of Tamar and the woman caught in adulteryJephthath’s daughter and the woman at the well (twice), HagarMary Magdelene and Mary the radical Christbearer. At the same time, we should be asking ourselves why women are often airbrushed out of biblical history, like Junia.

Economic justice is also a theme, something that underpins the stories of Ruth and Boazthe widow’s offering and Joseph. We should see Jesus reflected through each of these and, by extension, in our own world (such as when Jesus queues at the foodbank). This connects to homelessness, with posts on the ‘Homeless Jesus‘ sculpure,  defensive architecture, and an encounter of grace between a homeless man and a mobile library.

We can’t ignore environmental justice either, be that through caring for the world around us, celebrating the new year of trees, or just having a church environmental strategy. We’re stewards of the earth, and that carries with it responsibilities.

The refugee crisis has had a huge impact on Europe, during which dehumanising language and negative attitudes have been poisoning public debate. We seem to forget that refugees, like everyone else, are made in the image of God, that Jesus himself was a refugee and went on the run, same as many other biblical figures. And that has implications for how we respond to the crisis; maybe that’s in remembering that the book of Esther is about genocidal threats to an immigrant community, or how an obscure medieval feast might remind us to help those fleeing for safety. Sometimes it’s simply about loving our enemies, even when they’re imaginary.

We live in a violent world, and that expresses itself in many ways – unarmed black men being killed by police, the murder of activists like MLK and other Civil Rights workers9-11LahoreOrlandoAleppo… Children are slaughtered and abusedpeople are martyred. We live in a world where these are regular occurrences,  and our reaction to all this needs to be informed by our faith.

Part of that is simply by opening our eyes and noticing injustice, by recognising when a community is hurting and responding to it in a healing sort of way. We need to respect the identities of individuals, and always remember that people are not demons.

How we react will also mark us out; we can take a stand against power, like the Hebrew midwives, or we can turn swords into ploughshares, sharing stories of that along the way. We can turn the other cheek, but there are those who would weaponise that concept, so we need to be careful in deploying it. We can be good Samaritans, but sometimes that means being subversive; we can be good Christians, but sometimes that means standing up to Christendom (or even going to war against maps). We can draw a line in the sand against the terrible things around us; we can kick at the darkness to let the light in.

The blog has also covered key events from the last few months, namely Brexit and how it has (literal) apocalyptic overtones – there’s a US version of this post for the Trump election. Feelings are high around all these things, and we need to recognise that people are mourning as a result; we need to work through that and find a way forward, together.

(For posts about disability, the church and some of the justice issues around that, go here.)