What you’d’ve done is what you’re doing

Today is Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Memorial Day. Today we remember six million Jews butchered by nationalism, extremism, an insanity of industrial scapegoating that also took people with disabilities, gay people, Jehovah’s Witnesses, anyone who didn’t fit Hitler’s jigsaw of crazed mythmaking.

And so the Holocaust now lives in our collective psyche, totemic names like Frank and Schindler and Auschwitz representing years of horror, a time in which the world broke, language spasmed, birthing showers that weren’t showers and humans made non-human by the stroke of a pen. We see it as a black and white world in more ways than one, maybe because the horror is too much to take otherwise. “It can’t happen here,” we say, a mantra to cast it all into the abyss, a relic of a unique historical breakdown. Maybe that’s why so many people are keen to say it never happened, maybe erasure makes the demons and the victims and the survivors of the past look a little less like us.

We’ve all asked ourselves what we’d do under those circumstances, whether we’d run or fight, whether we’d collaborate or resist, whether we’d hide someone in the basement or simply call the secret police. Some of us even have the privilege to pretend we could mind our own business.

But while the Holocaust was a long time ago now, we’re not divorced from it; what we would have done then is what we’re doing now. It’s how we respond to antisemitism. It’s how we talk about Muslims or immigrants. It’s how we react to gay men in Chechnya being rounded up by the government.

These things happen now. Those people in the pictures aren’t us, but their soundtrack rhymes with ours. You could end up in a camp. You could be an informer. You can join in a whole new Krystallnacht, you can resist.

Or, if you’re lucky, you can pretend it’s none of your business. That’s an option for some of us. No-one’s knocking on our door yet.

But there’s always someone knocking somewhere. “Never Again” can be a mantra, a prayer, a lie, but most of all, above everything else, Never Again is a duty.

Stations: Humiliation

1102014731_univ_cnt_2_xlAnd now Jesus ascends the hill; his long walk is over and the end is near, but there are still humiliations to come. The soldiers strip him of his clothes; forget all those works of art where Jesus wears a loin cloth, the fact is that people were crucified naked. This is, after all, a public spectacle; crucifixion isn’t just about killing someone – a dagger and a dark alley would deal with that with far less hassle – but about stripping them of their dignity and their self-respect and their basic humanity. And so no-one’s going to step in and spare the modesty of the Messiah – they want him naked and ashamed.

Maybe this feels like an humiliation too far. Pain and beatings are one thing, but this is more calculated. This is designed to show who’s in charge, to rob Jesus of his agency and his dignity. The fact that soldiers start gambling for his clothes is just another twist of the knife – imagine being stripped and seeing even your clothes being passed around as trophies. This is a part of the crucifixion we often overlook, but it’s one of its vilest elements.

The Australian church leader and activist Jarrod McKenna recounts how, during a protest over the rights of refugees, he and his colleagues were arrested and strip-searched, in what seems to be more of a calculated attempt at humiliation than any real security concerns. And in re-reading that story I’m confronted with the injustice and the dehumanisation that often takes place under our radar. Jarrod later staged a protest in his underwear as a way of drawing attention to what had happened; it’s confronting and challenges our concepts of public modesty, and maybe we need to remember that Jesus isn’t crucified in a way that makes him look good for the portraits, but in a way that takes on the worst the world has to offer.  And we should pause and recognise that, because we’re too close to the story, we know how this ends. We’re too quick to jump to Easter Sunday, or even the darkening skies of Good Friday. At least there’s power there, at least there’s hope.

But for now, Jesus stands naked and alone, smirking eyes catching him at his more vulnerable. And now one soldier leaves his group and picks up a hammer, as his comrades-in-arms continue to throw dice. The game goes on with no great urgency. Everyone knows who lost.

The other posts in this series can be found here.

The War on Easter

So. An Easter Egg hunt organised by Cadbury and the National Trust only used the word ‘Easter’ once in their marketing material and the internet has predictably broken. The Church of England are outraged, the Prime Minister is outraged, everyone’s outraged. The branding of admittedly delicious chocolate products has triggered something of a meltdown

It’s interesting the things we get angry about, isn’t it? Because, whisper it carefully, the link between chocolate eggs and the death and resurrection of Christ is pretty tenuous. I’ve heard that that the hollow egg represents the empty tomb, but eggs and rabbits feel more like a connection to Spring and fertility than anything else, and it’s not like they make it into the gospels. And let’s not start on the etymology of the word ‘Easter’…


I know this sounds like I’m being dismissive, and if someone told my church that we couldn’t celebrate the resurrection on Easter Sunday then yes, I’d have a problem. But that’s not happening; what is happening is a gradual erosion of cultural Christianity, whereby Easter and Christmas have become more about bank holidays and Santa and bunnies and less about markers in the life of Christ. And if we want to defend the bunnies, well, okay, but are they really doing much to communicate the message of the Crucifixion? There’s a disconnect between the cultural trappings of these great festivals and the heart of faith beneath them, and we really need to navigate that before the Church ends up part of Theme Park Britain, where men in funny hats pop up to sanctify our days off but have no relevance to the rest of the year.


Relevance arises out of engagement, or at least positive, constructive engagement. If all people see of us is our anger, if all people know of us is what we’re against, then are they really seeing Jesus reflected in us? Are we really building the Kingdom when we, from our privilege, claim persecution and yet ignore our brothers and sisters around the world who are dying for our collective faith? Are we going to be known for our love for others if we melt down Twitter over the National Trust, and yet don’t speak into situations like, say, the asylum seeker beaten by a gang in London while a larger crowd watched?


Which of these two news items will get the most coverage in sermons this Sunday?


The National Trust’s marketing department doesn’t represent a War on Easter. Christian extremists cannibalising Muslims in the Central African Republic? Churches covering up child abuse? The KKK? That’s something else entirely. Maybe our anger and our voices would be better employed standing against those who’d drive people from Christ by using his name to justify the unjustifiable.

But let’s not be characterised by our outrage, because at our best I don’t think we are. All the children’s clubs and bereavement groups and charity work, all the ways in which we use our blessings to bless others, all the ways in which we try to promote healing and hope and rebirth… These things speak more to the power of the resurrection, the presence of the living Christ, than chocolate. That’s the message we need to take out there; that’s the hope in which we live.


It’s not about the rabbits!

Always Listen to Old Ladies (Acts 6:1-6)

So, the early church – shining example of ecclesiastical perfection or not?

It’s easy to romanticise those first few years after Pentecost, but chapters like Acts 6 point to a far more complex situation. Here we read that, while the Hebrew speaking widows in the church were being looked after, Greek widows were getting overlooked in the distribution of food. This cultural faultline was a problem that festered away under the surface until eventually the apostles had to jump in and sort things out. But why did it get to be a problem in the first place? Because no-one was listening to the Greek speakers? Because no-one was listening to the women? We can admire how the apostles dealt with the situation, and that’s fine, but why was no-one talking to each other in the first place? Why were vulnerable people being overlooked over something as important as food?

Maybe this particular organisational problem was caused by everyone taking their eyes off the basics; no-one was looking out for a whole group of Christians, part of their own extended spiritual family. There were hungry people out there who weren’t being fed, and it seems that even the apostles had been dropping the ball. You’d’ve thought they would have been on top of things – after all, these were the guys who had picked up leftovers after the feeding of the five thousand and the four thousand. But hey, even then they only counted the men who ate; They weren’t so accuate about the women and children.

So yeah, the apostles eventually sorted out the logistics of distributing food to a whole bunch of widows who were at risk of starving. They had fixed an important problem, but take a step back: someone had to listen to those widows. Someone had to be relationship with them, someone had to advocate for them. I don’t know, this may be heresy, but I reckon the apostles found out about this problem because of some old lady, who’s already sorting out all the church’s cooking and cleaning in the first place, finally cornered Peter at the end of a meeting and wouldn’t let him leave until he promised to get the whole thing sorted.

(Always listen to busy old ladies. They know more about what’s going on than you do.)

(Don’the you think it’s odd that one of the people chosen to distribute food while the apostles focus on preaching the Word is, in the very next story, arrested and executed for preaching the Word? Maybe it’s harder to separate all these things than we might think.)

Problems begin when everyone’s busy having debates about, say, the mechanism for feeding vulnerable elderly people, but no-one’s actually doing the cooking, no-one’s loading up the van, no-one’s getting the food out there, no-one’s in relationship with the people they’really serving, no-one’s even doing the washing up. And by the time the gears of bureaucracy finally turn, there’s already been too many scared elderly people wondering where their next meal is coming from.

For the church to truly be the church we need to constantly have our fingers on the pulse of our communities. We can’t get so caught up in theological debates and organisational maintenance and political campaigning that we miss when someone living next door doesn’t have enough to eat. Because that’s where Jesus wants us to be, and sometimes the first to realise that aren’t priests or CEO’s.

It’s all those busy old ladies.

Stations: Conspiracy

 

Alt-Truth, Alt-Facts, fake news and tinfoil hats. Suddenly authority is a purely subjective concept and now it feels like up is down and left is right. The abuse of power wears us down, cynical maneuvering leaves us demoralised, and the engines of the world grind on.

The mob seizes Jesus, and he first becomes a victim of religion. An ecclesiastical kangaroo court the breaks its own rules and looks for false witnesses in order to condemn him for blasphemy, but the outcome’s never really in doubt – they’ve been looking for an excuse to get rid of him for months. He challenges their theology, he challenges their power, and so he’s lined up with all those before and since who asked the wrong questions, who sinned the wrong sins, who spoke out against abuse and paid the price. Ossified faith will work to crush the Son of Man himself.

Later Jesus finds himself before the 1%, the establishment, becoming a mild curiousity to the king who killed his cousin. Herod’s comfortable with the whole situation, seeing Jesus as less of a threat and more of a jester. He wants Jesus to show him a miracle, because he’s king of these parts and kings demand to be entertained. When Jesus won’t perform he’s mocked, an expensive purple robe thrown across his shoulders. He’s mocked with wealth, his identity belittled, and when the king gets bored he sends him away. The squabbles of the little people really aren’t his concern. But hey, it buys him a little more kudos with Rome.

Then on to Empire, the State, Pontius Pilate, a man who got where he is by moving in the right circles and now he’s there, he just wants a quiet life. He doesn’t particularly want to execute Jesus, he can’t find a legislative reason to end the man’s life. A couple of times it looks like he’d rather debate philosophy: “What is truth?” he asks, but he already knows the answer – it’s whatever he says it is. Pilate may see Jesus as innocent, but he’ll still treating him as an imperialist, a claimant to the Crown.  None of this is true, at least not in Pilate’s conception of the world, but he’s a politician, he needs to play the angles. And so he makes one last attempt to wash his hands of responsibility for this whole mess: he hands Jesus over to us.

Yes, us. He asks us to choose between Jesus and another leader, another worldview, another ideology. The mob makes its choice – some are paid off, some are silently scared, some are True Believers. But the end result is that Jesus is condemned. Because it’s not just the edifice of religion that becomes toxic, it’s not just those living in ivory towers who mock those they see as beneath them, it’s not just politicians that make decisions based on fear and expediency, it’s all of us. And the innocent pay the price.

And as we get closer to the Cross, things don’t get any better.

The other posts in this series can be found here.