Stations: Malchus

So the mob moves in and panic erupts and Peter draws his sword and suddenly the servant of the High Priest is clutching his ear. First blood spills and Malchus screams and Peter prepares to strike again, because let’s face it, he wasn’t aiming for an ear, he was aiming for Malchus’s head and missed.

It’s not an unusual scenario, lashing out when angry and cornered and scared. Every fist fight, every beating, every glassing in a pub car park,  every shot fired in panic, every indriscriminate carpet bombing… Someone lies bleeding on the ground, someone else vows revenge. Violence never ends anything.

Jesus, of course, calls for this to stop, tells Peter to put away his sword; they haven’t needed weapons in the three years so they’re not going to start now. After all, when Jesus rode into town a week earlier, he did so on the back of a donkey,  not waving from the back of a tank.

But it doesn’t end there, can’t end there. Jesus cannot leave Malchus bleeding in the grass, moaning with pain. The Cross inaugurates a Kingdom built on peace and grace and defeats the violence of the world. For this to be true, Malchus cannot be mutilated in the name of Jesus; the Cross of Christ can’t give his followers an excuse to crucify everyone else.

And so Jesus reaches out and Malchus is made whole again. And Malchus fades from view at this point, but this is an invitation to reflect on how he felt, how he responded to an act of grace from the revolutionary he was there to arrest. In the light of one last miracle on the road to the Cross, does Malchus see the sword swinging down, only to be replaced by an act of compassion from an enemy and a rewriting of all the rules, even as Jesus is dragged away towards trial?

The other posts in this series can be found here.

Dispatches from the Ploughshares Factory: Issue 2

Somewhere in Shropshire there stands an angel born of knives, 100,000 surrendered weapons transformed into art and beauty and memory. The sculpture was made by artist Alfie Bradley, using knives confiscated by over forty police forces across the UK. Britain doesn’t have much of a gun culture, but knife crime remains a lethal problem. The angel stands as a monument to lives lost, a beautiful sculpture, yes, but also disturbing, reminiscent of something from Game of Thrones or Doctor Who. Somehow that’s appropriate; we can reject the tools of violence and war, turn them into things of beauty, but maybe the sharp edges that remain remind us where the art came from, reminds us that peace in a broken world is an ongoing process, an ongoing battle rather than something to take for granted.

Because peace is something worth fighting for; after all, it’s so easily taken away. We saw this only a few days ago, when a white supremacist gunman opened fire on worshipers at a mosque in Quebec. Six people were killed.

And so, last Friday, rings of peace surrounded Canada’s mosques as people stepped forward to defend the right to worship without fear. “Houses of worship are sacred and must be protected,” said the organiser, Rabbi Yael Splashy,  but they’re sacred because they’re full of people made in the image of God. We need to protect that inherent dignity rather than allow us to be consumed by demonised language, dehumanising rhetoric.

Of course, dehumanisation is an attitude born out of seeing people as problems to be ‘fixed’ rather than individuals of intrinsic worth. Just look at how much money is spent on keeping the homeless at bay rather than helping them; defensive architecture is big business. In Manchester, spikes were placed in a doorway to deter rough sleepers. Humanity wins through, however and the spikes have now been removed because locals kept covering them with cushions. A similar thing happened in Liverpool, when an anti-homeless ramp was turned into a tea stall. I see that and I see hope, but I also remember the Homeless Jesus statue, and hope and apathy in an awkward dance.

A different Kingdom breaks through, shines out of the cracks, and swords are turned into ploughshares. And yet we can’t stop, can’t relax; harsher visions soon take hold and peace needs to be proactive. But still we proclaim a better world; the ploughshares factory remains at work.

The original post in this series is here.

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.)

Advent 2016: Be Still

Be still.

Advent is a time of expectation, so they say, a time of hopeful waiting. We light the Advent candles to guide us through the dark and hope for the coming of Christ at the end of it all.

That’s the theory. That’s the liturgical expectation. But Christmas is a busy time, pausing and waiting doesn’t feel possible because the festivities bear down on us like a freight train. We get so stressed out trying to find room at the inn that the stable is easily forgotten.

In the dark of a winter morning, I’ll be honest: these last few months have been hard. They’ve been stressful and frightening, the noise of hundreds of voices and demands all speaking at once. Details aren’t important, but it feels like a maelstrom, a whirlpool of emotion and fear, a babel of randomess that starts to feel conspiratorial. The storm rolled in, and there was nothing I could do to stop it.

The rational part of me knows that this storm is transitory, that it’s a downpour rather than a hurricane. But the rest of me sees the clouds, and the lightning, and the rolling, hungry waves.

Psalm 46 encourages us to be still, and in that stillness to sense and hear that God is present, that he is with us, that he’s on the throne. In the stillness we can find hope and start to trust. Maybe that’s part of the problem: knowing how to let go of it all and just trust. I’m still wedded and welded to the idea that there’s something I’m missing, some trick or hack or insight that would make everything right, that I’m just not smart enough to see.

I know that’s crazy. I know that’s not really the case. But I’m still scared of what will happen if I don’t figure out the secret incantation, the life goals ninja move that would make everything right. And that fear, that stress, that unexpected arrogance, keeps me from the stillness, keeps me from knowing that God is there, and that that’s enough. I want everything to change, to calm down, to stop being so damn noisy that I can’t hear God.

But that’s backwards, isn’t it? It’s hard to trust someone you don’t know. And knowing the theology and the dogma and the atonement theories isn’t a substitute for knowing God himself. Don’t get me wrong; I still follow Jesus, stumbling and fumbling along the way. It’s just that, when the rubber meets the road, he gets crowded out. Everything else looks bigger, more intimidating and imposing, even if it’s just an image of the Great and Powerful Oz rather than the conman behind the curtain.

And yet “Be still!” isn’t just a devotional suggestion; sometimes it’s salvation. “Be still!” is what Jesus commanded the storm when the disciples felt sure they were all gonna drown. And maybe that’s my calling throughout this Christmastide; to trust that the storm will eventually calm, and even if it doesn’t, to look into the eye of the hurricane anyway and see Jesus inside of it, letting him be the stillness in the squall, letting him drown out the words of the man behind the curtain.

Even when the man behind the curtain is me.

Dispatches from the Ploughshares Factory

There are times when it feels that we’ve turned some of the most powerful, beautiful themes of Christianity into empty cliches, pious memes that are gutted of their ability to change the world just at the moment we need their power the most. So we talk about something as radical and transformative as beating swords into ploughshares and make it a nice, utopian promise for a future world rather than something that could upend the violence that underpins our society in the here and now.

raw-tools-106-300x200So I wanted to recognise the times and places in which Isaiah’s great prophecy has been put into practice. Because these are places where the Kingdom breaks through. Sometimes that’s literal – the picture to the left is of workers at RAW Tools turning a rifle into a farm implement. RAW takes seriously the words of Isaiah and Micah, and sees them as a way in which a society scarred by gun violence and mass shootings can start to pursue a more peaceful path. That’s not just through engineering – it’s through giving people the metaphorical tools they need to reject violence. After all, if the only tool you have is a gun, the answer to everything starts to look like a target. We need better tools.

But this isn’t just about getting rid of our guns, not just about the repurposing of weapons. There are other kinds of violence, with the internet becoming a breeding ground for violent words, violent attitudes. Much of this is aimed at women, where what should be simple disagreements and debates end up being accompanied by misogynist language. To our shame, this is often the case among Christians; we fail to disagree well.

rhe-origamiSo when writer Rachel Held Evans found herself on the receiving end of some pretty unpleasant emails, she resolved to take this ugliness and turn it into something more beautiful. Using the art of origami, she turned hate mail into swans and cranes and ships, and in doing so it led to fellowship, freedom and forgiveness. Because when we reject the weapons and words of hate and replace them with creativity and imagination and peace, they can begin to heal.

These examples are faith-based, but that’s not always the case. Germany, like many other European countries, has seen a resurgence in racism, tensions within communities metastasizing into far-right violence and racial abuse. Swastikas have started to reappear, spray-painted in urban spaces, old wounds reopening. Street artist Ibo Omari is fighting back, not by painting over the graffiti, but by tracukwzyrxeaao59dnsforming them into something more positive, something more beautiful. And so, thanks to the Paintback campaign, strangely angular plants and animals have started appearing where there were once ghosts of a dangerous past, because even when our swords are transformed, they can still help us reclaim ground that was once lost to those with darker agendas.

There are other examples I’m sure; the world’s crying out for peace, and the Kingdom will break through like green shoots from pavement cracks. We need to look out for them, we need to encourage and build them and take them seriously, because these aren’t neutered cliches, they’re moments that point to a different, greater, better world. And those sounds you hear and the beauty you see are swords being turned into ploughshares; they’re signs that another world is possible, another world is breaking through.