Who Belongs?

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A couple of years ago I was on a panel interviewing new ministers for a local church, and as part of that process we asked candidates what they felt was the greatest question currently facing the church. You can probably guess the answers, but the whole process got me thinking about that one question. And after all that time, I think I’ve got an answer:

Who belongs?

It’s not just relevant to the church, of course. The question of who belongs where is something that informs everything at a fractious time such as this, although it’s normally framed in a more negative sense – who doesn’t belong?

We try and convince ourselves that our communities, our politics, our institutions, our very hearts are inclusive and open, but the reality on the ground is often very different. We have dark urges pushing us to declare some of us on the inside while others – the Other – remain outside the gates. Because, after all, some of us just belong, and therefore deserve all the perks and privileges that entails. Others don’t quite belong – they look like us, but there’s something about them that means they don’t fit in. And to accommodate them is just too expensive or too difficult or too resource intensive. And bad things keep happened to them, but it always seems to be their fault, so what are we supposed to do about that?

There are others, of course, we’d rather shun, that needs to be ostracised for the good of the whole. They live among us, but we wish they were just a little more like us. Some of them will never really be like us though, and while we’re benevolent, we’re not foolish. So we decide they belong fractionally less than the rest of us – say two-fifths? Because civilisation belongs to those with the wherewithal to win, right?

Some of us are just too different, or just too in the way. So we try to concentrate them in one place, where we can keep an eye on them. Others are just a drain on resources, so we go with the deportation option. They get to live, but somewhere else.

Others we just herd into ovens, or in front of bullets, or at the business end of a machete. And the generations after us will say “Never again!”, but there’s always someone who doesn’t belong…

Who belongs?

Terrible, terrible things are wrought as a result of that question. And the reason that it’s the most important question facing the church, and our societies, is that too many of us gleefully act as cheerleaders and enablers of policies and attitudes that ultimately treat other people as less than human, as less worthy of justice and dignity, of happiness and opportunity, as less worthy of their very lives.

We don’t ask the question enough, we don’t ask it seriously, we make assumptions and in those assumptions are born both nightmares and apathy. And if our churches are rooted in the love of God and the grace of a man who stood between mobs and demons and those who allegedly didn’t belong, then our answer to this question needs to be as compassionate and as expansive and as merciful and as loving as the Spirit will empower us to be.

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Putting Out The Fire Of The Prophets

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Look, the last thing the world needs is another white guy talking about Martin Luther King. I get that. But thoughts have got lodged in my head, and I keep going back to words spoken by Jesus in the last few days of his life. In a searing attack on the Pharisees, he yells “You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous”, even though they’re complicit in the acts that put the prophets and the righteous in the tombs in the first place. And Jesus is rightly furious at this, because it’s hypocrisy of the highest order.

Martin Luther King is a towering figure of the 20th Century. “I have a dream” isn’t just a great speech, it’s a prophecy, a glorious, beautiful vision casting that’s rightly remembered decades later. But the tragedy is that King gets frozen in amber during the March on Washington. He’s considered a Great Man, and we learn about him in schools, and Americans have a day dedicated to his memory. He’s an icon.

But he was more than that. He was a flawed man who found himself caught up in history, and he made mistakes, and by the end of his life, people were questioning his relevance and noting the tensions inherent in his message. He was also a prophet, but not in the sense of a plaster-cast saint; he spoke words of righteousness, against racism and inequality and violence and war. And so the FBI wanted to destroy him, and people beat him and firebombed his house; he got thrown in jail and, ultimately, he was murdered. We like prophets who talk about non-violence, because we can be violent towards them in response.

That’s what happens to real prophets. We like them once they’re dead and gone and we can sanitise their message, but while they’re actually running around on earth, we’d much rather just shoot ‘em. Two thousand years ago, Jesus railed against how we treated prophets and just a couple of days later he was nailed to a cross. If we think about it long enough, we can probably come up with the names of prophets who are being persecuted right now.

The worst of it is, we then erect statues to their memory and publish their words in nice little gift books, and the rage and the fire and the Spirit that danced through their words gets extinguished. We praise Martin Luther King for his vision of an integrated word, but we’re still cheering on wars, we’re still a grossly unequal society, we’re still seeing unarmed black people shot by police. And the prophets will still rage, and they’ll still get killed, and we’ll still use them as inspiration porn in an effort to quiet their cries and put out their fire.

Maybe we should just start listening and changing instead.

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)

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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.