Shrove Tuesday: The Party’s Over

Traditionally Shrove Tuesday represents the last day before Lent, a time to wolf down all the food from which the devout would fast over the coming 40 days. The tradition of eating pancakes stems from this, as does Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday, the end of the Carnival season that runs from Epiphany through to Lent. The message remains the same even if the traditions are radically different: we’re heading into a time of repentance and absolution, so drink up, it’s closing time for a while. The party’s over.

But there’s an issue here. We’re comfortable, we’re well-fed and warm, we don’t want to surrender anything to Lent, at least nothing that actually costs something. And while this is true for us as individuals, it’s exponentially true of the church as a collective. We stand at the edge of our forty days in the wilderness, eating our pancakes and watching the technicolour dancing, reluctant to join Jesus out in the desert. Because we know the temptations he faces out there in the scorching, hungry heat, and we’re ever so concerned that we’ve already given in to every. Single. One.

There’s a danger, this close to the Cross, of getting greedy – greedy for power, greedy for influence, greedy for status. And even though we’re standing at the edge of Lent, we don’t want to give these things up; we think they’re going to build the Kingdom, so much so that we don’t stop to think about why Jesus rejected his temptatons so roundly. Instead we walk the corridors of power, thinking we’re changing the world when instead the world is changing us, a city on a hill, yes, but one decorated with barbed wire and machine gun nests. We say our King is on the throne but maybe, just maybe, he’s still being crucified outside our walls.

Lent offers us the opportunity to let go of things that hold us down. Sometimes we say that’s chocolate or cigarettes or Twitter, but collectively they’re more insidious habits – complacency, injustice, idolatry, riches, self-righteousness… Maybe this year, as the world trembles, we need to take the next forty days seriously, we need to be transformed by Lent rather than coopting it for our own agendas.

The food is eaten, the party’s over, and we’re faced with two potential destinations – our palaces or the desert. One will keep us safe, even at the expense of others; one may allow us to meet Christ in the wilderness. The choice we make affects not just us but everyone around us, so as the music of our carnivals fades, may we hear the whispering of the Spirit, showing us the way to go.

Powers and Principalities (Ephesians 6:12)

swordIt’s quiet tonight; the kids are in bed, my wife’s out with friends. The lights are dim, the TV is silent, so in the quiet, let me whisper this confession: I believe we’re in a spiritual battle.

This isn’t something I talk about often. The idea is there, but it’s not something I readily admit in public. It sounds strange to contemporary ears, the whole notion of a spiritual conflict feels at odds with a modern world of electricity and atoms and seismic geopolitics. And yet these are strange times in which we live, and the Church faces threats from all corners, and people are suffering and dying, making all this literally a matter of life and death.

I don’t altogether know what to do with this. But we’re heading into dark waters where the very nature of truth is is being eroded, where the humanity of others is constantly being challenged, where Swastikas are enjoying a comeback. And that means combating the spiritual darkness behind all that. Used to be that spiritual warfare remained the territory of Pentecostals and Prayer Warriors; now we all need to get into the fight.

That’s where I get nervous. Because all of this is rooted in prayer and my prayer life can be lacking to say the least. But this has to change, because the first person who needs to be delivered from the Powers and Principalities is me.

Because I don’t love my enemies. I give in to despair and anger more than I should. I demonise people even though I know that people are not demons. I want others to changer,  desperatEly,  but I’m less willing to change myself.

That’s why this whole thing is so insidious, the classic distraction trick of looking over there so you don’t realise what’should going on  right here. That’s where the praying needs to start – with my own heart. Get inoculated before even pretending to help someone else.

But our battles still have to be bigger than that. There are forces out there, forces of greed, forces of hatred, forces of idolatry, a lust for power. They must be fought, but on the right battlefield, prayer alongside protest and always starting with the war in my own heart. 

I confess this now, in the dark and the quiet; may I remember it in the daytime and the noise. And may I stand and fight, and in the process be transformed. 

Stop the Antisemitism

I originally wrote this over a year ago; now, with the terrible news about the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, it feels like things are getting worse…

There’s a cemetery in St. Louis where the headstones are overturned and smashed. The name of the place is Chesed Shel Emeth, ‘true kindness’, referring to the act of compassion and dignity of burying someone after death. You’d expect a place like this to be a place of peace but yesterday it was targeted for the same hatred that keeps resurging across history. Police haven’t yet said if they’re treating this as a hate crime, but as 69 other Jewish facilities have received bomb threats over the last month, it’s difficult not to see this as yet another manifestation of an ancient prejudice.

It’s not just the US. Similar things have happened in Manchester, in Ottawa, in Austria, in Germany… Swastikas never go away, and while we can be shocked by the vandalism and the threats of violence, the fact is that if you normalise Nazis, you get antisemitism.

It’s a prejudice with its own vocabulary: blood libel, Dreyfus, Irving vs Lipstadt, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Globalists and ZOGs. Read a few conspiracy theories and sooner or later someone will trace the Evil Other back to ancient Israel or a family with a Hebrew name or dogwhistle-lizard people standing in for Jews. Antisemitism, like many other prejudices, has its own mythology to sustain it. It’s a mythology that’s led to pogroms and internment and exile and genocide; it’s a mythology that once consumed Europe and it’s a mythology that’s now threatening cemeteries and community centres and synagogues.

And much of this mythology has been transmitted by the Church. Sorry, but it’s true. We honour Bonhoffer because so many other German pastors were complicit with genocide, and that’s a family sin we have to confront.

We can’t change history, that’s sadly obvious, but we can stand up to the present and choose our future. We don’t have to tolerate anti-Jewish hate, we don’t have to give antisemitism any more oxygen, we don’t have to re-release Medieval paranoia every time society’s shadow makes the soil fertile.

Because in our conspiracy-saturated alt-truth world, the old mythologies are on the march again, and after the mythology comes the icons; the stars and the Swastikas, then the broken glass and barbed wire, the gunshots and the ovens. It can happen here in a heartbeat; sometimes we even vote for it.

But we can stand. If someone who once lived seven miles from my parents can save thousands of Jews from the Holocaust, the absolute least I can do is speak out against prejudice and antisemitism. That’s the least any of us can do. History always wants to repeat itself; we don’t have to give it the satisfaction.

The Bible is a Refugee Narrative: The Church and Migration

The Bible is the sweeping story of a refugee people.

It’s sometimes hard to see it as such, when bishops sit in the House of Lords and American evangelicals have access to the corridors of power. But without the stories of liberation from Egypt, and the Exile in Babylon, and the Roman oppression of Israel, the whole narrative of the Scriptures falls apart. Even the words in black and white come to us not from the rarefied atmosphere of some ancient theological powerhouse but from immigrant communities remembering the destruction of their cities, their journey into exile.

And so there’s a direct link across the ages between the antisemitic plots recorded in the Book of Esther and the refugees who arrived in the UK as part of the Kindertransport; there’s a link between those fleeing Aleppo and the Book of Lamentations; people looking for economic security and the Book of Ruth.

The idea of oppression and liberation is even baked into our metaphors; “They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance,” says Hebrews 11, “admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth.” We’re called to be spiritual strangers in a strange land – doesn’t that sound like refugees, immigrants, exiles? The Bible is a story of migration with it’s roots twisting through every page. The Hebrew Bible was first written down during the Jewish exile in Babylon, and the influence of that is woven throughout.

This, then, should influence how we look at issues such as migration and the refugee crisis. After all, the Church in the UK is strengthened by immigration; the 2011 census reported that Christianity in England had declined by 10%… but was boosted by 1.2 million Christian immigrants. That’s not valuable because of the numbers, it’s valuable because of the contribution, the experience and insight of people from Poland and Africa and from across the rest of the world. Two of the ministers in my Methodist circuit are African. Two of the youth workers are Brazilian. We have an active Chinese congregation. The churches I’m involved with aren’t weakened by diversity, they’re strengthened; we need to see immigration as a Pentecost, not a Babel.

The Church can’t run scared from immigration, and must stand against the cacophany that suggets that ‘outsiders’ are a threat. We have brothers and sisters from every nation, every tribe, and we need to proclaim that strength, standing with each other when that family is threatened.

Don’t run scared. Embrace your family. We’re stronger together.

(For an excellent overview of the Bible as a refugee narrative, check out this recent episode of the Broken Book podcast.)

All The Never Agains

As a Brit, I first learned of Executive Order 9066 through George Takei’s autobiography. Best known as Sulu from the original Star Trek, George grew up in one of the Japanese-American internment camps established across the US in the aftermath of Pearl Harbour. It’s a warning from both history and memory rooted in the imprisonment of people still alive today; this isn’t black-and-white images of something that happened ten generations ago, it’s the lived experience of someone I follow on Twitter.

That’s a lesson that never gets old: all the ‘never agains’ we talk about aren’t that far away; the locations change, and the focus, and the words and the images on the propaganda posters, but the underlying fear and prejudice remain constant. Because fear gives us motivation and prejudice gives us targets, and suddenly ‘never again’ is being replayed once more. We’ll vote for imprisonment and internment, we’ll cheer on deportations, we’ll read the dehumanising editorials in the newspapers. We don’t sleepwalk into the darkness, we dance with it.

EO9066 was aimed at neighbours, not enemy combatants. So was the Holocaust. So was the Rwandan massacre, so are the attacks on Royhinga in Myanmar, so are the ways in which we talk about Muslims in the West. When we say “Never Again” we vow not to turn on the people next door, we vow not to turn on our brothers and sisters. And yet too often those vows are broken. Maybe they’re in the process of being broken right now.

In times in which this is a recurring truth we have to make a conscious choice over how we live. We live in a world of Never Agains, creeping around the edges of our societies and our discourse, and we have to draw a line against them. The borders we have to protect are spiritual, psychological, they’re the borders between us and our own darkness, between our neighbours and internment camps, they’re the lines we refuse to cross lest we turn into monsters.

It’s our side of our walls we have to protect. Walls can hide a multitude of horrors, the horrors of our own hands. It’s easier than we’d think to become a picture in a meme that an activist in the future uses to say Never Again.

That picture could be our neighbour.

That picture could be us.

The camps and the exiles and the violence are never far away.

The Never Agains are always in our hands.