One Body

There are times in history, more than you may think, when each one of us needs to choose. The nature of that choice takes on different clothing at different moments, but often it boils down to a simple decision: right or wrong, good or bad, love or hate.

Right now, over in America, there are white supremacists on the march. Their rhetoric is racist, their iconography inspired by the Third Reich and the Klan. They chant of blood and soil in a land saturated with the blood of genocide, in a land where the soil was worked by slaves.

At the same time, a line of clergy is singing ‘This Little Light of Mine’. This line is more diverse and it’s talking about how love has already won. That’s a difficult thing to say unless you’re talking theologically. If you’re talking politically or socially then a white supremacist march being normalised feels like something’s been lost. Or maybe something that’s been there forever feels emboldened.

St. Paul, writing millennia ago, described the Church as “one body”. This should mean something when churches are surrounded by Nazis, when dog collars face off against assault rifles. Each Christian is a brother, a sister to all the other Christians out there; one Body, one Church, one Lord. Faith should trump our other identities. Not that those identities aren’t important – this isn’t about erasing anyone. But it is about putting Jesus before our power, our privilege, our systems, our empires.

So this is a time for one of those choices. White Christians have to decide whose side they – we – are on. Because we can’t sit in pews tacitly accepting the intimidation, the oppression, of our brothers and sisters next door. We’re already too complacent about this globally – we cannot ignore it in our own communities. We can’t ignore it in our churches. We can’t ignore it in our own households.

Making this choice will be uncomfortable,  challenging, confronting. It will mean facing history and sociology and a host of stories and tears. It will mean recognising our privilege, it will mean having to change. But whichever way you go, you need to decide on which side of the line you’ll stand, you need to decide how you’ll answer some age old questions:

Who is my neighbour?

Who is my family?

Who is my Lord?

The Lights By Which We See (A post for the Transfiguration, a post for Hiroshima)


As we stumble through the dark we grope towards the light, a light, any light. We walk gingerly down the tunnel, a beacon at its end, a mass of voices walking with us, some hoping that the light is the light of Transfiguration, others hoping it’s a firestorm consuming their enemies.
August 6th is a day of tensions. It celebrates the Feast of the Transfiguration, the mountain-top moment in which the face of Christ shone like the sun and a greater reality broke through into dust and dirt and atoms. It also commemorates the day on which, in 1945, Hiroshima burned with a light as bright of the sun, a new world created though the sacrifice of 146,000 people, birthing Nagasaki and the Cuban Missile Crisis, Godzilla and MAD.

These lights still shape our world today. The Doomsday Clock ominous ticks towards midnight with every missile test, with every rattled sabre. We can wipe out everyone on Earth several times over with the push of a few buttons, and maybe, to some, that power is intoxicating, invigorating. We think our nations and our borders and our flags deserve that power, the apotheosis of security that leads to idolatry and blasphemy. Some of us walk down this path, feeling the rush of the firestorm, secure that our enemies can be turned to ash without a scream, and yet terrified that a different false God wrapped in a different banner will turn his wrath upon us.

We’re guided by the beauty of our weapons, as Leonard Cohen might say, but that beauty burns.

The Transfiguration also points to a different world; not a new one but a world which has always been with us, alongside us, a different Kingdom based not on ability to anilhilate everything (no matter how find we may be of that idea), but of life, hope, love, grace. On the mountain the light of that Kingdom burns through, more illumination than heat, a light at the end of the tunnel that we can run toward, desperate with hope, weary at the end of the journey. The light shines, not with the splitting of atoms but with grace; the light shines in the darkness, but the darkness doesn’t overcome it.

We can live in one light or the other, and though we might pretend to live in both we can’t; basing our security and our authority and our hopes on weapons that burn and poison is not the same as holding on to transfigured hope; these are two different stories, two different Trinities, water of Life and an acid rain, a false sun and a True Son. August 6th invites us to compare these two stories, to see where our futures lie: God or atoms, the bunker or the mountain.

Zipporah (Numbers 12)

Zipporah_art

Zipporah by Alan Jones

I’ve never heard a sermon preached on Zipporah. She never got mentioned in Sunday School, and is often airbrushed out of the Exodus story. But Zipporah is someone we need to pay more attention to, especially in a world full of racial tensions and an emboldened KKK. Because on the few times I heard her mentioned, no-one pointed out that she was black.

The daughter of a priest of Midian, Zipporah became Moses’ wife during his forty-year exile from Egypt, eventually accompanying him and the rest of Israel into the wilderness. But in Numbers 12 we encounter an uncomfortable story: Moses’ siblings, Miriam and Aaron confront their brother – he’s married a Cushite woman, an African, and they’re not pleased. They may be the spiritual leaders of a fledgling nation, but that doesn’t mean family dinners aren’t uncomfortable.

What happens next is dramatic – God himself descends, rebukes Miriam and Aaron, and curses Miriam with leprosy.

Knowing that Zipporah is African casts a new light on this punishment – leprosy turns Miriam’s skin “as white as snow”. It’s a form of poetic justice, made all the more shocking and heart-breaking because it’s Miriam, the prophet who danced through the Red Sea singing of liberation and freedom and God’s justice has a problem with her sister-in-law because she’s black. Two women who saved Moses’s life were at each other’s throats. Doesn’t matter how much of an ally someone might see themselves as, there are still underlying prejudices to confront, systems to dismantle. Black lives matter, and Zipporah matters as much as Moses, as Aaron, as Miriam.

(Note that God agrees with this, by the way: it’s the racism that earns a punishment, not the inter-racial marriage.)

But let’s not limit Zipporah to being the victim of racism and injustice; she’s also a hero in her own right. Either intellectually or intuitively she seems to grasp whatever the heck is going on in Exodus 4:24-26. She gets between her husband and the Wrath of God, saving Moses and getting things done; while Moses saved the Children of Israel from Egypt, Zipporah first had to save Moses. In that sense this woman of colour can be seen as a Christ figure. That’s not an image we see portrayed that often; maybe we should ask why not.

This would be a fascinating story in itself, but it speaks to us today. As long as Sunday services remain the most racially segregated time of the week, Zipporah’s story, and the reactions of her in-laws, remain relevant. As long as people of colour face prejudice and injustice, as long as the white church remains silent about its complicity in structures that enable that, Zipporah remains a woman whose story needs to be retold and reclaimed; this obscure story tucked away in Numbers becomes a story for our times.

Spreadsheets are Spiritual: A Post for Grenfell Tower (Deuteronomy 22:8)

The tragedy at Grenfell Tower is still raw, a cacophony of anger and grief and heroism and apathy played out in the shadow of a highrise, a beacon for a country struggling with inequality and terrorist outrages and an inconclusive election, drawing the focus to the very real testimonies of those who have lost everything: first their safety, then their voice, then homes, possessions, loved ones.

Stories of those loved ones are emerging: a Syrian man, Mohammed, who fled the civil war and who was studying civil engineering; an artist, Khalifa, whose work is currently on display in Venice; Isaac, a five year old boy. Firefighters wrote their names on their helmets as they walked into the fire; communities pulled together to provide shelter, supplies, support. All this took place in the face of a murderous injustice; while full details haven’t yet emerged, it seems that Grenfell Tower wasn’t safe, built with unsafe materials and no sprinklers and no answers. This tragedy shouldn’t have happened.

“The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil,” St. Paul once wrote, and profit margins and unit costs often show us where our hearts lie. The cost of a sprinkler system, or £2 extra per metre of cladding becomes a stake, a gamble that a fire won’t break out, with odds that apparently made it worth playing. I doubt anyone wanted these deaths to happen, but there’s a risk register somewhere that’s now exposed as a moral, even a spiritual document.

Millenia ago, and ancient law was handed down on top of a mountain. And among the commandments and liturgies and rituals, there’s a simple piece of construction advice – if you build a house, make sure the roof’s safe so that no-one falls, no-one dies. Elsewhere, there’s provision for priests to get involved in an environmental health situation. And yes, that’s a Bronze Age culture and I don’t think health and safety should be ecclesiastical, but justice persists, and the safety of the places we live and work is a justice issue. Lives are at stake, lives have been lost, and spreadsheets sometimes triumph over humanity.

But spreadsheets are spiritual. Building regulations are spiritual. Our homes should be safe and Grenfell shouldn’t have burned. We pray and mourn with the survivors, we honour the heroes. But let’s always remember that how we build and what we spend are moral decisions; humanity triumphs over portfolios.

Climate Refugees in the Bible

One day the rains didn’t come, and the next day, and the next. Then the herds began to thirst and die, crops crumbled into the dry ground, skies still parched and empty and bearing down on a family nearing starvation.

Salvation was at hand; one brother had found their way into Egypt, and through a series of misadventures he had the ear of Pharaoh. Joseph, blessed with insight as to how to distribute the Nile’s bounty during a time of famine, saved his family from the worst a changing climate had to offer.

But in times of crisis, opportunists will arise, and so Joseph became powerful and exploited the vulnerable, in the way that you can when you’ve got something everyone else needs. A couple of hundred years later his descendants found themselves slaves of the Egyptians. When the climate turns against you it can cast a long shadow.

Centuries later, another famine swept through Israel, forcing a particular family to flee to Moab, an ancient land now in modern Jordan. Soil turning to dust underfoot, Elimelek and his family took a look back at the Promised Land and made their way towards a new life. Only one of them would return, accompanied by a widowed daughter-in-law, and yet in the face of starvation and natural disaster, those poverty-scarred survivors would go on to become the line of King David, the ancestors of the Messiah. And throughout the narrative, names conjure images of emptiness and fulfillment, famine and harvest. The dust of a vicious climate coats the whole story.

There are other examples; a famine striking the Romans Empire in Acts 11, prompting the infant Church to pool together resources and distribute aid; the climatic conditions that drive Abraham into conflict with PharaohJoel’s locust swarm that forms the backdrop to his great prophecy of the coming of the Holy Spirit. The environment is Scripture’s silent backdrop that nevertheless shapes events and people and the work of God. We can’t ignore it.

Nor can we ignore the 20 million climate refugees thought to be on the move today. We can’t ignore those whose water supplies are polluted, or whose food sources are dying, whose homes have tides lapping at their door, whose churches are facing a Noah’s Ark scenario of their own. We argue about how and why these things happen, but we forget the people. When it comes to theology we seem to spend more time debating the eschatology of the Anthropocene, its mechanisms and its imagined idolatries, than we do in serving those most affected by a changing climate. Faith and history will both judge us for that.

In his latest book, Rob Bell highlights the danger of reading the Bible as if it’s about the past or the future but not the present. We can’t ignore how the stories we read throughout the Bible intersect with what’s going on in the world around us. That’said why we need public theology. That’said why we need to speak with grace and mercy and love rather than treating vulnerable people as problems to be confronted by our dogmatism

And that’s why your church needs an environmental policy, and see the footprints in the dust and in the mud, and to know they could be our own.