Ready and Waiting to Serve – the Disposition of a Christian Political Option

Ready and Waiting: Peter’s Understanding of a Christian Way of Life

I Peter 5:1-11

Let me call upon the seniors among you, as a fellow senior myself, one who has been a witness to Christ’s suffering, as well as being one who shares [with you] the status of those who wait for what is yet to be unveiled. You should shepherd the flock which is God’s and do it not by pressure-tactics but voluntarily, just as God has done Himself. Not with dog-eat-dog competitiveness, but with the eager intention of helping, not with an approach that presumes you are boss over your patch, but rather by creating an example for the entire flock to follow, so that when the Chief Shepherd Himself appears you will be crowned, the brilliance of your true status will be perpetually displayed.
And to you who are younger, in a similar attitude [of willing, eager service] submit yourselves [mutually] to those who are more senior. So that, with you all presenting yourselves to each other in humility you will experience mutual submission, since God is truly on the offensive against the high and mighty attitude and instead lavishes [His] grace upon those who are lowly [in spirit].
So then, keep yourselves humble, take a lowly position under the all-powerful hand of God so that, just at the right time, he may lift you up. Unload all your anxieties upon Him because He has made whatever it is that concerns you His business.
Stay alert; keep watch. Your prosecuting enemy rages up and down like a lion seeking to devour whom he may, and therefore is to be decisively resisted in the same faith [by which you unloaded all your anxieties] knowing that the same kind of trouble is being confronted by your fellows the world over.
Now may the God of all grace, He who has called you to henceforth share in Christ’s status, will, after these little troubles, renovate, plant, empower and secure you. To Him from henceforth be all the power! So be it! 

The letter presents Peter’s straight-forward instructions. Clearly the community to whom Peter was writing was not at that point strictly defined in any organisational sense. It is composed of house-servants, spread out over a wide geographic region, and includes those who are marriage partners, those who are older and younger. There is a recognition of the responsibilities and communal authority of people who have been around longer than those who have been around for less time. We don’t know what they were doing together in any detailed sense, and whether and how they met together on any regular basis, if at all. But they were now made new, open from their hearts to each other. Peter also reiterates a view that derives from Jesus’ own comments about authority as service.

You know how it is with those people who carry on ruling the nations. They lord it over each other and their great ones act in a tyrannical way. This is not how things should stand between yourselves. On  the contrary, if any one would wish to be of high standing, that person must be your servant; if he wishes to have priority it must be as a slave. This is how things are done with the Son of Man who has now turned up not to be served but to serve and to give His life as a ransom paid on behalf of a multitude of people (Matthew 20:25-28 Adapted from Heinz Cassirer God’s New Covenant).

As we have discussed previously, the discussion of those who are older and those who are younger, relates to Peter’s address at Pentecost and concerns another “line item” of fulfillment in the prophecy of Joel:

I shall pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, the younger shall see visions, and those older shall dream dreams…

He continues to remind his readers that they, as believers in Christ Jesus, the ones on whom the Spirit has been poured out, are the ones who by their lives fulfill what has been foretold by the prophets. This discussion of the older and the younger, equally participating in God’s new covenantal community, that indeed they fulfil what Malachi had foretold about God’s great work before the final day of judgement,

… turning the hearts of the parents to their children and the hearts of the children to their parents (Malachi 4:6).

   We now also read this in the context of the final chapter of John’s gospel where Jesus calls upon Peter to serve as a shepherd, to “feed my sheep”, to “shepherd my lambs”, to “feed my lambs” (John 21:15-17). Does this not suggest that Jesus was calling upon Peter to exercise his responsibility in a way that recognises the flock’s generations? “The flock which is God’s” is in need of ongoing nurture and is made up of those who are older (sheep) and younger (lambs). They need to be cared for and the caring needs to be dispensed with sacrificial love and a deeply friendly approach both to the Lord and to the flock. But for such growth to be promoted in the flock, the Chief Shepherd first of all confirmed Himself as Friend to this fellow, Simon son of John. What Jesus was wanting to know was whether Peter loved Him, whether Peter considered himself to be a friend of the Chief Shepherd. It is when that friendship of love is established that those who will subsequently be responsible to the Chief Shepherd Himself will be able to truly submit themselves to each other, mutually. The entire flock must be nurtured, that is Jesus’ concern. And that will mean special attention to the youngest and most fragile, in order that they may grow into their full stature as members of the community. Eventually they will, when older, become “elders” who must also, in turn, contribute to the shepherding of the younger.

The Chief Shepherd has come once and will one day return. In the meantime His work is carried on by those who are privileged to do so. This is the ongoing nurturing responsibility for the people of God, those who have, by Divine action, been made safe by the work of Christ Jesus. God’s plans for His image-bearers include their ongoing growth and development, generation to generation.

Peter once more encourages those who are reading his letter to look forward to the time when it will all come together in the completion of God’s purposes. By living with such anticipation, they will maintain their own ongoing viability as an active serving community of faith. And that is how, in the meantime, before His return, the work will go on, and the task of older members of the flock made plain. As well, the task of younger members is to grow into fully mature members is also affirmed. The way of life is described as an ongoing unveiling as they heed the Good Shepherd’s voice – earlier on in his letter Peter had referred to this ongoing unfolding of God’s purposes in terms of the life of grass, of plants.

Give yourselves earnestly to the loving of one another without any hidden reservations, all because you have been re-born, not by seed which fails, but by that which is unfailing, the living word of God that endures on and on. Indeed [this is as it is written] all flesh is as grass, all its reputation is from its flower; the grass dries out and the flower falls. But what the Lord speaks endures now and  henceforth (1:22-25).

Here the message is the same even though the metaphor seems to have changed from that of plant (grass) to animal (sheep) life. [Earlier the metaphor of the Lamb and the flock relates to the stone and the temple of the Lord]. He returns to the floral image by reminding us of the perpetual and unfading [άμαράντινον – amaranthus, perpetuity] crown and does so by referring to what he has already explained as the purpose for his letter:

an inheritance which shall sustain its value, its integrity and its perpetual brilliance, especially ear-marked in the heavens for you (1:4).

So what is being reiterated and further elaborated here concerns the task of growing together in generation to generation terms. By faith in the Son of God, they (we) are to adopt the same humble demeanour which characterised Jesus Christ Himself, unloading all anxieties onto their Heavenly Father (Matthew 6: 25-34). The Lord God Himself has made it known that the concerns of His people are His concerns. And it is with that attitude that they will stay alert, resist the prowling tempter who would love nothing more than to see God’s children put on the wrack, or roasted on the spit. Peter has learned to be ready and [with perhaps some feint reference to the age-old story of Job in his suffering] anticipates this cruel resistance to godly living, thereby commending an alert and watchful attitude. We are all in it together, he says. No reason to think you are alone in your suffering.

It is to Jesus Christ that all power belongs and Peter concludes with a blessing that reminds his readers, and us, who they and we are and of the ongoing call to truly get in line with what God is purposely making them and us to be, the co-heirs of His Kingly rule in Jesus Christ. The Lord Himself is busy bringing His creation to its fulfillment and in this self-same process He is busy correcting, renovating, maintaining, securing, strengthening and  establishing the lives of His people.

Their concerns are truly His concerns. That is why they can live lives that are “ready and waiting!” This is a perpetual calling. It is not going away. Not now. Not ever.

BCW 23..4.17

Do I Have to Read This?

Elaine Storkey’s Scars Across Humanity: Understanding and Overcoming Violence Against Women SPCK London 2015.

This is a difficult book to review. I would immediately commend it to any reader of Nurturing Justice. However, I could well understand why any reader of this blog who, having linked to this page, and has got this far in reading, might then say to him or herself: “Do I really have to read this?”

Let me try to get at my problem in writing a review in another way. My best and most reliable critic has worked for decades in agencies supporting “at risk” families and in child protection. She reminded me that policy-researchers and workers in this field are inundated with reports and don’t need yet another book that tells them what they have had to deal with day by day, month after month, year by year and decade after decade. This book, to such faithful workers in a seemingly unrewarding field will, in all likelihood, not be needed. And having read Storkey’s masterly overview of the global situation, one cannot but wonder about the toll on those working to support such violated women in these extensive fields of human misery. I read her work and my respect is deepened for those who stave off what seems to me to be an  ever-threatening sense of futility ready to pounce on whatever support such agencies can bring. It seems that public policies are simply not having much impact; and the constant and sometimes upward trends showing the extent of such degrading and dehumanising conduct are evident at home and abroad, in the developed as well as  developing countries.

That perhaps is enough to indicate why, as I write this, I am sympathetic to any reader asking, “Is this a book I need to read?” If you are working in the midst of efforts to counter such human disaster then maybe this book is not for you. But if you are in training because of a professional ambition in health, welfare, law, education, to make a difference then this is probably a book that you should read.

But do so slowly and I am reminded of the words ascribed to William Wilberforce as he takes the opportunity to introduce the supporters of his fellow parliamentarian to the smell of the slave ships moored in the Humber estuary.

Ladies and Gentlemen. This is a slave ship, the Madagascar. It has just returned from the Indies where it delivered 200 men, women and children to Jamaica. When it left Africa, there were 600 on board. The rest died of disease or despair. That smell is the smell of death; slow painful death.  Breathe it in. Breathe it deeply. Take those handkerchiefs away from your noses … There now. Remember that smell … remember the Madagascar, ….

And there was that film Amazing Grace reminding us, through scenes like that, that God made men and women in his image, all men and women, equally in his image.

Well, if someone comes to you and asks whether you know a book that can help  them understand and begin to overcome the atrocities that are perpetrated around the world by violence meted out to women and girls, then this is that kind of book. But say to that person that they have to read the book slowly, even though this book has the smell of death and putrefaction. One cannot read this book and expect to put it down without being impacted by its dreadful message. Readers have to breathe it in, and breathe it deeply. They need to set aside an entire day to read it and to cry and to pray and to share their troubled thoughts about this human disaster with those they love … let me imagine a friend of yours, perhaps in your church, someone who has been required by the courts to only have visits to wife (or former wife) and children under strict supervision. Let’s go further and imagine that he has benefited from an “anger management” course and is “on the way”. If he would come to you and ask:

Do you know of any book that could tell me in some detail the extent of violence against women around the world …?

then, this may well be such a book that could help such a willing student appreciate how his own life has been part of the frightening and alarming picture that Elaine Storkey draws for us in this book of 220 pages in length. But also it is a book that might be just what a person needs to wake them up to an ongoing disaster – it may well be just a few doors up in your street.

And in that regard this is a book for any who would seek deepened appreciation for what is so destructively at work in this world of ours.

To put it another way: I would not suggest that this is a book to give to those who have already been immersed in the kinds of human degradation that this book documents. I’m thinking of those involved in, say, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. It is not a book to give as a present to those who, in their work, are already preoccupied with the victims of violence. We might have further comment on the final four chapters (10. Why gender-based violence? It’s in our genes: exploring our evolutionary heritage; 11. Why gender-based violence? Power and patriarchy; 12. Religion and women; 13.  Christianity and gender: a fuller picture) in a later post.)

But Elaine Storkey’s description of what she calls a “global pandemic” and the careful identification of the various dimensions of such female focused violence is a shocking chronicle of human depravity.

Here is Elaine’s own introduction to her book from her web-site.

And here, in conclusion, is the table of contents.

Scars-Chapter-Page

That is sufficient for this post. As I say this is a book – as is Elaine’s web-site – that should be read slowly. “Breathe it in. Breathe it deeply.”

BCW 19.4.17

 

When Public Trust is Broken …

The article from this link confirms any intuitive suspicion we might have that a lot of “fake news” is already under construction to increase the credibility of the US President. What are we to believe when our political leaders speak up and commend the US President for ordering strikes on Syria? We already have well supported evidence that tells us that the Iraq invasion of 2003 was accompanied by a strategic propaganda attack dispensing “fake news” to electors back here in Australia.

And so, it may be just a little tiring to even ask whether we are reliably informed about he whose metanarrative is well and truly within the realms of all post-modern incredulity. But here we go again. This article is probably indicative of many that will be reading in the days ahead …

And let’s face it, we probably find it hard to know how to read the speculative reports that Steve Bannon is now in the sights of the US President’s daughter and her husband because they are wanting “closest advisor to the President” status for themselves. Problem here is that even if the President says, “You’re fired!” to his “chief strategist”, we simply do not know whether he is simply throwing up and smokescreen to suggest he is on the path the Murdoch press suggested last week – in the wake of the US strike against the Syrian airforce base, the pundits were telling us he had turned the corner and was become a “normal” president. But the same incredulity arises: Isn’t this simply more “fake news”? Haven’t the pundits ignored the underlying behaviourism of the incumbent of US White House?

Could not the media whisper about Steve Bannon the strategist be merely a carefully devised diversion, “fake news” that is sent out as part of a strategic effort to counter the widespread incredulity – within the US and around the globe – directed to the US President? Meanwhile, there is ongoing implementation of a strategy. And so, why should say that now it is a “strategic impatience” that leads the way in US action in Syria, Afghanistan and North Korea?

The crisis of the compromised liberal-humanistic way of political life has been intensified since Donald Trump’s accession to the White House. But the mis-mash of point-and-counterpoint, of thesis-and-antithesis, is as it has been for decades. Those with an interest in keeping the political game going – maybe their careers are in the balance – continue to try to view our citizenship as a “choice”, taking a position somewhere on a spectrum between political extremes. And so we hear about how important it is to see the world in left and right terms. And when many begin to consider this a false choice advocates from both ends of the spectrum begin to change the debate and say:

Don’t listen to them because they are consorting with extremes! We need a politics of the middle ground!

But such “middling” opportunism simply confirms that the choice has become something else: one either commits oneself to one side or one quits paying attention.

It is the self-evidence of a political system that enhances individual “choice” that is evaporating. Instead, politics based on enhancing individual choice is no longer credible. And so, new forms of “certainty” come onto the political horizon.If we listen to what is called “news” we will also hear of that “certainty” that has affixed itself to the misguided fools who think that terror provides the path to life. Indeed, there are those who are sucked in. Nihilistic, psychopathic fascists sell their fantasy of a divinity pleased that they could blow themselves up into a billion splattered droplets by a cruel and mindless act, taking as many others as possible with them.

This is serious. A Christian political option is going to have to face this confused and highly compromised state of affairs. It is a question about how we are to live as Christian citizens. It has street-level, community, local, state, federal, regional and global dimensions. We are going to have to find ways of working on this concertedly and  prayerfully. We should also take heart. We are not on our own. We have a service to render in which we love our neighbours publicly with justice.

Lest We Forget Public Interest and Equity

Let us respond to the serious but whimsical provocation given to our recent post by our friend Allan Carter. Allan raises an important question of public equity that any Christian political option must, sooner or later, deal with in its comprehensive policy platform.

His argument goes like this: if football on a proclaimed public holiday like ANZAC day requires an ANZAC commemoration before the game begins, why shouldn’t a football game played on another equally proclaimed public holiday (Good Friday) likewise begin after a respectful “Good Friday” commemoration? Now, of course, many will rule out the possibility of such a Good Friday (religious) service at a (secular) event because they will see this as yet another illegitimate mixing of oil and water, substances that need to be kept strictly separate – moreover, it will offend the beliefs of those of “secularised separationist” persuasion by requiring their attendance at a religious ceremony.

But as much as that appeals to what many view as a self-evident separation between public life together and private religion, it does not address the question of equity that remains: if such public holidays are proclaimed – presumably because they have some historical significance attached to them – then, in the interests of public equity and due respect, the public-legal concession of a football game on such a day should indeed require rules that are publicly equitable, and not biased in terms of a “secularised separationist” interpretation of an event (ANZAC day) that is increasingly dominated by civil religious motifs.

Still, we know the answer they will give, I guess: such a lack of administered public equity, or more precisely the lack of any political interest in ensuring this be so, is, these days, part of our polity’s “way of doing things”, loudly respecting the asserted rights of those who do not wish to take part in formal religious events, but neglecting the non-asserted rights of those who prefer to avoid making their beliefs into a political problem.

Presumably “everybody knows” that even such a Good Friday celebration should not be held at a secular football event. Those with religious sensitivities should, before the game, treck on down to St Pat’s or St Paul’s or Collins Street Baptist or Scot’s Presbyterian or Wesley Church to have their needs for religious devotion satisfied. Would not even a minute’s silence before the Good Friday game – however that was announced – not make the AFL into a body that was biassed toward Christianity? But such a way of construing options is typical of a shallow and undeveloped line of political argument that proponents of such logic fail to develop in any comprehensive political manner. Are they happy to take the benefits (i.e. a Good Friday) but resist it’s full implications? If that line of argument is sound, and appropriate, then the least that should be argued by those of such “secularised separationist persuasion” is why they support Good Friday as a public holiday?

Now I am aware that as a “Christian blog” about politics, Nurturing Justice may attract non-Christian readers, as well. But at this point we are encouraging Christian readers to consider Allan Carter’s good humoured provocation to ask themselves whether, retaining Good Friday as a public holiday for all is necessary for living and developing a Christian way of life, let alone a Christian political option as part of that way of life. Can we, seeking a Christian political option, find a politically coherent answer to that question? Can we actually find a way to politically explain why we have such a holiday? Of course these are complex questions. Much else will be needed to be considered as well. I’m not at this point wanting my discussion to be sidetracked by the “cash-flow” problem of cash-strapped Christian denominations, congregations, parishes, let alone social welfare organisations, that rely upon the giving on these public days (Holy-week and Easter, Christmas), to remain viable. Such an aspect of the economic and financial management of churches and the community work they inspire cannot be ignored completely in our analysis of the way in which these holidays function in our nation’s political economy.

But the question Allan raises brings with it a whole raft of public policy considerations that will include the re-examination of the genuine public interest grounds upon which all public holidays are determined. Fijian Christian readers of this blog, for instance, might remind us (if not themselves) that with an increasing Muslim population the option might arise for  Australia to follow Fiji’s example and proclaim a public holiday to commemorate the birth of the Prophet of Islam? But more than this: what about penalty rates for those serving pies (or is it just fish?) at the MCG on Good Friday evening? Will there still be double-time penalty rates for Good Friday but not for Sunday?

At this point, Nurturing Justice would suggest to readers that they consider the typical justifications that are given when such historical anomalies arise in our public life. Of course we also have to endure the silly statements of the populist media (and not only Murdoch tabloids) trumpeting “Good Friday Footy” as some kind of historic breakthrough! Are there any spiritual descendants of Eric Liddell among those making themselves available to play for their teams this Friday (let alone on Easter Sunday)? The AFL, with all its managerial and advertising trickery tried to tweak a trans-Tasman ANZAC moment but this year, I hear, it has been abandoned.

But let us consider for a brief moment the manner in which ANZAC day “Lest we forget” ceremonies are justified. There are many who would still willingly give due respect on ANZAC day to those who have put themselves on the line to defend the country, and they will resist what they see as the counter-productive aspects of ANZAC day commemorations. One such counter-productive side of ANZAC Day commemoration is the nationalistic mythic tweaking of the carnage at Gallipoli as the true birth day of Australia (and New Zealand) as nations in their own right. But when the AFL allows the mixing of such a nationalist mythology with an annual clash between “traditional rivals”, (The Anzac Day Clash) their allowing for pre-football solemnity is simply populist blurring for a civil religious euphoria that clouds ANZAC day and means that ANZAC day also contributes to cloud what a football match actually is – a mere sporting competition for two hours to see which team has played better.

Our problem as citizens, in our allegedly “secular” polity, is that such blurring of public commemorations is self-evidently civil-religious in character. The ceremonies, particularly when, with the assistance of perpetual marketing of a sporting fetish, they gather large crowds, with children wearing the medals and colours of grandfathers and grandmothers who were on active military service, too easily promotes a latter-day nationalism, an Australia-first mentality blind to its own idolatry, a religious sentiment that is increasingly short-sighted, incapable of lamenting what it was and is we are remembering, to what is happening to us as a nation, as nations on a frenetic global scale continue to rise against nations.

And so Nurturing Justice calls for a prayerful and quiet respect, waiting upon the Lord, (Psalm 130 and then Psalm 131) to commemorate ANZAC day, and to do so in the knowledge that with Christ’s resurrection and ascension a future is promised in which men and women, boys and girls will “hang the trumpet in the hall and study war no more” (Isaiah 2:1-5).

We need as a distinct people, followers of the Suffering Servant, to identify and resist the civil-religious (blood and iron) motifs that may arise even in our own hearts at such pre-football game formalities. The last century of perpetual international conflict teaches us that, even at a moment of such pious remembrance, our hearts can too easily be captured and the integrity of any well-intended “lest we forget!” compromised by our faithless forgetfulness.

BCW 12.4.17

Easter, Beer, Chocolate and a Christian Political Option

I’ve been thinking. This Easter, at least in our neo-pagan West, our Christian call to worship for a reverent remembrance of the betrayal, suffering, trial, execution and resurrection of the Son of God, Jesus of Nazareth, should be nothing less than inspired by a reconsideration of the ministry of John the Baptist (Luke 3:1-21). And yet, such a proposed bending of ourselves that brings on repentant remembrance, and then holy living, is what Jesus himself called from us as his disciples every time we partake of the meal he instituted, the “Lord’s Supper”. So what’s so special about Easter? Why is Nurturing Justice making such a strange call as “Holy Week” draws near? Here we continue reflection on our earlier post about secularisation and Sunday. And this time it also involves beer and chocolate.

We may no longer be surprised by the secularisation of the way of life presupposed by the political parties that dominate the horizons of our citizenship but neither should we be ignorant of the relentless upswing in neo-paganism which is alive and well in all manner of populist projects these days. Are the politicians who were so keen to have their Facebook “selfies” launched showing their pious attendance among the masses at the Mardi Gras going to give us a feast of images of them kneeling at communion rails at Easter? We’ll wait and see.

Over the past decade we have often enough drawn attention in these pages to the post-modern fertility cult to which one prominent Liberal PM accommodated when he reneged on his pious pre-election promise concerning embryonic stem-cell research. That got him “Christian votes” but those “Christian votes” were happily ignored once he started talking with the pharmaceutical companies and their bogus predictions. But that just led on to other “body politic” uncertainty in his own side of politics, now joined inseparably by the other mob’s obsequious compliance with the latest polls. And let’s keep in mind that with films like the Marigold Hotel we have been given a subtle introduction to an Indo-Hindu view, not simply of “spirituality”, but also, in truth, of human sexuality, an artistic deconstruction, if truth be known, of marriage itself. And “rights talk” politics these days very quickly lands advocates of “same-sex marriage”, let alone of “gender fluidity” into worldviews that have hitherto been unknown and which make their own elaborated contribution to public debate uncomfortable if not distorted and deceptive.

But back to our “Easter celebrations”. We have a deeply anomalous public way of life in this country. We have grown to expect “Easter Holidays” – but what are they? Those pundits who tell us that we, as a polity, have to be brave and keep religion out of political life – as if political life can be somehow closeted from the rest of our life (can the conservative liberal gad-fly Tony Abbott tell us how this is done in his case, please?) – are not so brave themselves to advocate the reformation of our public holidays. They’ll comply with AFL Games being played on Good Friday, but why have a Good Friday holiday anyway, particularly if so many are claiming to have no ongoing religious affiliation, let alone Christian conviction? Is it all about tourism then – stimulating the holiday timetable so that tourist operations can stay afloat? Or is it simply to maintain a kind of regimentation that wants to maintain a brave front with distinct Christian trimmings in the face of militant Islam, let alone militant atheism? (I haven’t heard many militant atheists asking these kinds of questions, but they may be doing so.) Is it that we can’t really admit the paganisation of Easter without opening the door further to confirm entrance of the Islamic view that Islam is the way because Christianity clearly no longer has a hold on the hearts of western citizens? So is “Easter” simply more pretending, this time because we don’t want to be that kind of “religion”.

Well, consider the manner in which the West’s ongoing adherence to the keeping of Christian festivals has now reached ridiculous heights, manifesting inherent incoherence if not complete brain-dead stupidity, let alone apostasy. Why can’t we Christian people (at least those of us who still profess faith in Christ Jesus) face up to the fact that we are being confronted with ongoing religious efforts to transform our faith into yet another effort to make life meaningful, born of a presumed and unassailable human autonomy? Why can’t the Christian people, the sheep of the flock of Jesus Christ, resist the ongoing public construal of their faith as merely their own efforts to attain a mythic joy through a concocted self-transcendence – “Please pass the chocolates, Vicar!”

Consider the British Prime Minister’s pathetic lament about the Cadbury company’s rebadging of its advertising for its annual egg hunt. Now admittedly, the UK PM has got other matters on her mind, and we certainly are victimised these days by news media and twitter storms blowing all kinds of things, sentences that were breathed in paragraphs, out of context and way out of proportion. We know that already. And so we had better also be careful,and not get inappropriate exercise by jumping to premature mediated conclusions about what the Archbishop of York might have said about John Cadbury the Quaker (1801-1889). 

But then think about it.  By referring to this commercially sponsored chocolate egg-fest, the phrase “the joy of Easter” is a flagrant playing with words anyway. What Christian minister inspired by John the Baptist is going to mount his or her pulpit and take Cadbury’s Australia to task – not for “air-brushing” faith from Easter – but to insist that to be Christianly consistent, John Cadbury would have condemned the entire exercise as yet another superficial instance of modern paganism’s hegemony, an idolatry worthy of public condemnation.

I make this suggestion because John Cadbury was a Christian believer. But keep in mind that as a Quaker he held no remit for the “sacred” festival of Easter. We are told by his Quaker descendants that he didn’t subscribe to such paganising festivals.

So then churchpersons eager to get a piece of the chocolate from this “storm in an egg-cup”, need to take a deep breath and ask themselves, as we are doing, why the Churches that claim to be the repositories of the Good News of Jesus Christ’s resurrection, have for so long  “airbrushed” the idolatry that abounds each year when we are stopped in our tracks by the “paschal full moon”, a holiday granted by ancient Gregorian calendrical calculations. Now that the Cadbury company is embroiled in such a controversy and the British PM feels impelled to lament the passing of the name of a chocolate festival which no longer gives such prominence to its “Easter” badging, we need to ask how it is that churches continue to identify this part of their church year with a festival that has become more and more a festival of chocolate.

We used to observe that with the Christianisation of the Roman Empire we also witnessed the paganised Romanising of Christianity. Likewise with the Eastering of Bunnies and Eggs do we not now encountered the Bunnified Chocolatising of Christianity?

If what has been reported of the statements of the British Parliament’s Leader of the Opposition means that he wants the chocolate company and the UK National Trust to reassure faithful chocolate devotees that the removal of the sacred word “Easter” from the egg hunt will not compromise any eclectically devout participation in Easter celebrations then  … well you can see the problem I trust even before we try to raise a Christian voice heard in the midst of this firestorm.

Let’s be plain about this. We may have long discussed how we now face what are nothing other than pagan versions of Christmas festivals dominating the late-capitalist, post-modern market place. As soon as Christmas is over, on the 26th of December, Coles and Woolworths stock up with Hot-Cross Buns (“Buy Early for Easter”) and then the pre-Easter religiosity – “I shop therefore I am” or “Shop until you drop”) is interspersed with a “Don’t forget fish for Lent”.

This too is part of the everyday problematic reality we face. And if we are not wise we can too easily be provoked into making our own rear-guard advertising, making our own apologies in order to safeguard our precious niche in the market place … Recently Australia had it’s “Cadbury-type” moment with Coopers Beer coming out and apologising for promoting civic discourse about SSM in association with the Bible Society.

But Nurturing Justice keeps on posting because Christian citizens stand in need of a Christian political option. Christian citizens live coram Deo, so we do not function, as, not should we ever think of ourselves merely as, so many isolated individuals. Our task in life is something quite other than socially constructing own identities via our own paltry publicity efforts. But if any Bible Society, as a Christian commercial enterprise, or a beer company, along with churches, social welfare agencies, aid and development agencies, schools, households, or the man and the woman constituting a Christian marriage and family, want to maintain even a shred of Christian public credibility in this highly compromised and compromising phase of the roll out of the pagan-humanistic world view, then we had all better face the awesome and difficult responsibility of developing a genuine Christian political option. I’m not saying that subscription to Nurturing Justice is the answer. But as we have said – this is not and never should be about seeking to give a good Christian account by inflicting “our Christian biffo” in the public square. No. In the first instance we will need to learn how to view ourselves in a distinctly Christian way and stop the nonsense of assuming that identity is somehow religious neutral, and unrelated to how we drink our beer, frame our conversations and pass the chocolates (1 Corinthians 10:31).

And so, this communal work forging a Christian political option, is not so much for exercising “pressure” on parliament or even giving political biffo with respect to a whole range of coherent public policy issues held together by a faith in Jesus Christ the King of Kings … at least not in the first instance – we might say the “John the Baptist moment” is one of repentance and it will simply need a deepened appreciation of the Biblical call to love our neighbours with public justice. From that reassurance of our trust in the crucified, resurrected and ascended Jesus of Nazareth, our calling will be, as it has ever been, to develop an obedient stand in the public and private places the Lord has allowed to be opened up to us in which to love him with everything we have and our neighbours as ourselves. That is the first and crucial step in maintaining a lawful res publica contribution.

We simply do not have that kind of integrity at the moment if we are not receiving it with the hands of repentant faith. John the Baptist’s “preparatory” call to Israel in the day’s before  Jesus’ manifestation to Israel applies …

BCW

6.4.17.

Family Life, The Good News and Resisting Invasion

As we have written in this blog, again and again, Nurturing Justice is seeking to promote a Christian political option. And any reader who has followed what I have been trying to formulate over the years will be aware of my conviction that a Christian political option stands in need of a deeper and living reading of Biblical teaching by Christian citizens.

So in this blog, I’m reporting on something that I have begun to think about from considering what the Gospel tell us about the early years of Jesus, as well as what the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament tell us about the marriage of Mary and Joseph and their family life. And yet there is deep, deep denial of the Gospel record that Mary had other children in some prominent quarters of Christendom. The Gospels do in fact speak about Jesus’ siblings (Luke 8:19-21; Mt 12:46-50; Mt 13:55; Mk 3:31-35; Acts 1:14). I am suggesting that such denial is unhelpful in many ways, and has led to many misunderstandings and wrong paths. And that means problems for developing a Christian political option as well. A Christian political option needs to talk about the human task given by God, generation to generation, of raising and nurturing children to maturity. Jesus’ coming also has much to say about that intensely meaningful part of human responsibility coram Deo.

But Luke also tells us that in the years of their nurturing Mary’s first-born, Joseph and Jesus’ mother had only a vague glimpse of what Jesus’ coming into their lives meant. So as we read Luke’s Gospel, and keep in mind that he is reporting what he has uncovered in his investigations for Theophilus, we need to be alert to what we can learn from what is implied by Luke’s approach to how the child Jesus was nurtured within his family circle. And it’s not so much what we “hear”, it’s more like what we “overhear” as we attend to what is written. And for that we need careful, but at the same time, bold discussion to arise among those who wish to seek public justice in Jesus’ name.

From Luke’s account we hear that the story of Jesus’ childhood was kept as a family treasure by his mother. And just at the point in text where we might think we are being invited to view the family’s photo-album, we discover Luke telling us that what he has written is all we will get to know and, presumably, all that he knows too.

Just because this was the childhood of the One who would be resurrected and ascended to God’s right hand, does not mean that we have to know the full family history of these years. We do not find ourselves diminished in any way by not knowing Jesus’ family’s history.

We do know from Luke and Matthew of Jesus’ conception, we know of his birth, we hear of his presentation to the temple and we know of the event that occurred when the family crowd “went up” to Jerusalem when he was twelve. Luke and Matthew also help us understand something of the political context in which the lad was raised.

But what we mainly have are accounts of Jesus’ adult ministry, his works and teaching as the Anointed of the Lord. He was a poor Galilean preacher, teacher and healer.

Similarly, we do not have any accounts of the childhood of Jesus’ cousin, John, and there are only indirect inferences we can make about the experience of children from the reports of events that took place when, years later, Jesus’ ministry took him around Judaea, Galilee and Samaria. And I have noted that there may be something similar at work here when Jairus and his wife, and with them Peter, James and John, were instructed by Jesus not to tell the story of the little girl’s raising – there would be no internet site, no selfies of Jairus’ daughter put up on that synagogue’s web-site. Wasn’t the little girl’s ongoing health in view when Jesus gave that instruction?

And yet, Jesus instructed his disciples to give their full attention to children. This did not mean that the details of their young lives, their particular stories, were to be proclaimed as so much free information for whomever may have wanted to know about such details. And that is why I am saying that there is indeed something here for us to attend to. Particularly today with the epidemic of undifferentiated “data” being strewn around. We need to respect the tender plant which is a child’s life, to wait, and not presume upon its public blossoming. There are delicate facets of parent-child relationships that are just not for public distribution. Celebration and treasuring in one’s heart are not without a context of God-given human responsibility. And this is not just a matter to be respected after family life goes pear-shaped and falls into tragedy, or violence or break-up of marriages.

The coming of the Saviour of the world, did not mean that he left behind a family scrap-book or photo-album or diary for his followers to get all sentimental about and leaf through when they didn’t have anything else to do. In fact what he left them was a meal, a meal reminiscent of a broken body and a bloody execution – until he comes again. And it is a meal to which all family members who love him are all invited

 Jesus seems to have assumed that his followers would have their own family traditions and stories to tell, even when his command also required them to leave that all behind in order to follow him.

So what were the parents, Mary and Joseph, to do when they could not find their son among their fellow-travellers on their trip home? Did they not, as parents, have responsibilities for which they were accountable to God? What we have here is but one little excerpt, one corner or one page from what was, no doubt, a rather full  family scrapbook.

The young Jesus, in his reply to his parents, tells those who were present (and, via Luke’s account, us as well so many, many years later) that he was taking the initiative in learning more about the teaching of the Law and the Prophets, and doing so alongside his own family and extended family network. He took the opportunity of the Jerusalem temple visit at Passover time to do so. Was not a twelve year-old’s education part of that trip up to Jerusalem celebrating the Passover, the deliverance from Egypt? Family life is so important for nurture; but there is also life beyond the strict limits of the family network and household. Young people mature and become adults. Jesus was on the path to adult maturity, even as, as Luke tells us here, he was still submissive to his parents.

So Luke tells Theophilus – and he will repeat it later on as well – that Jesus was indeed on his own learning curve. This learning curve involved coming to an appreciation of the intersection between himself as a child of God – and as a child, conceived as no other child had ever been conceived – and the household in which he was called by His Father in Heaven to learn the way of life of his parents, subject to their care and nurture.

Luke might have recounted more of his investigations about Jesus’ childhood, although, as we have said, he doesn’t tell us anything about John’s childhood except the occasion of his naming when Zacharias had to confirm Elisabeth’s choice of “John” as name their son.

There is the implication here that a family “outsider” (like Luke, like Theophilus, like ourselves) needs to develop respect when confronting the public record of a neighbour’s family and its members. Even if that family is the one from which the Son of God came to us, an “outsider” is to remain respectful of what is kept “within the family”, of what is considered that family’s business. This what is beyond the responsibility (and gaze) of “outsiders” like ourselves, no matter how aligned we as “outsiders” may be with the person concerned, is beyond our gaze. Full stop.

So let us ask: when exactly did Jesus make this response to his mother?

Why have you been hunting for me, mother? Did you not know that I must be busy in the things of my Father?

Are we not hearing the the young man Jesus, saying to his mother:

but haven’t you been telling me all these years of how it was that God my Heavenly Father gave me to you?

When Luke says that Joseph and Mary did not really understand what Jesus meant by his reply, he has given us a brief hint, a merest glimpse of what had to be managed within that household.

Mary says to Jesus:

Your father (πατὴρ) and I have been searching for you …

He replies:

I would have thought that you of all people mother would have understood I have to be busy with the things of my father (πατρὸς).

Luke is (presumably) writing in Greek; we believe on good authority the language in which Mary and Joseph was not Greek but that they conversed with in Aramaic. Here we have just a glimpse and Luke reassures us that, likewise, Joseph and Mary too had a mere glimpse of what all this meant. They too would have to be patient. The young man in their care would grow into an adult and perform a ministry that was unlike anything anyone else had ever undertaken. Just like their son, they too were on steep learning curves.

When earlier we have read of Mary’s compliance with the angel’s news –

“Take note please. I am the maid-servant of the Lord. Let this happen to me. Just as you have said it would.” (Luke 1:38)

we are not wrong to read it as the expression of pious obedience by a young woman to the revealed will of the Lord. But it indeed became the “signature tune” of her entire life, and she would in time have to deal with the enormous emotional roller-coaster of the betrayal of her first-born, his trial and crucifixion and then his resurrection and ascension. And we are not wrong in seeing this as the onset of a life-long “event”, we might say that it is a learning curve, and one unprecendented among all the sons and daughters of Adam. And the comments of Simeon and the affirmation of Anna at the temple in Jerusalem must have been a profound pastoral support, preparing Mary and Joseph for their work as parents as they took on the task of nurturing this boy and the other children of their family and household.

With the four Gospels at our disposal, we now reflect upon how this part of Jesus’ story became clarified for his mother with his crucifixion and resurrection. Was it only later on that the real significance of the angel’s message, and of the prophecies of Simeon and Anna (let alone the Jordan River announcements of John the Baptist) would begin to make sense? It seems so.

And as we reflect upon these events, with the profound mind re-directing questions that inevitably arise, we might note the quiet respect of Luke, patently evident also from all other New Testament writers as well, for this faithful woman and her husband, and their family. We keep in mind that apart from Luke’s report of Jesus’ birth, and what he recounts about two visits to Jerusalem’s temple (Luke 2:21-40, and 2:41-52), that there are only very slight references to the life of Jesus’ familial household.

From pondering this “absence” we seek a wisdom to better understand what God is doing by having met with us in Jesus Christ. What God has done with Mary and Joseph and their family and household was presumably left by Luke for them to work out between themselves and God! We are left outside of it. Why? We have our own family stuff and family background and grandchildren (if we have any) to work with, to work and serve those God has given us, and to do so personally, intimately as members of God’s family and kingdom.

And as with Jairus and his wife and household having their “inside story”, so all other families have theirs and ours. And so I am suggesting that as we develop a Christian political option, in the context of a Christian way of life, that is something vitally important for us to think about. It refers to the peculiar nurturing that God in his creational wisdom is pleased to see develop in our lives – first between ourselves and our parents, then between ourselves and our siblings (if there are any), then between us a married person (whether a husband or a wife (if we get married), between us as parents and children. And from decree of glory to another.

And so here too, with a deepened sense of responsibility coram Deo we can, helped so gently by God’s Spirit, understand our own family’s distinctive integrity and  resist all invasive intrusions forcing themselves upon us, whenever and however they attack. And at the same commit ourselves to the service of our neighbour in Jesus name, to all, in our family networks and beyond to the whole world in the knowledge of the grace and goodness of the Lord.

BCW 5.4.17

Australia’s Sunday Suburban Secularisation

In our society, we used to refer to Sunday as the “day of rest”. This was taken for granted week-by-week in the 1950s. For the generation of my parents, the generation of those now twenty or thirty years senior to me (I was born in 1951), that was when Sunday was still the day of ‘going to church’. This didn’t mean that everyone went to church, but as the day for going to church it was still viewed as the day of rest, and respected as such by most people. Most people included my dad who never went but insisted I go to Sunday School even when I told him I didn’t want to go. Most of my school friends and neighbours, especially those who were not Catholics, went to Sunday School. The Catholics, as families, went off to Mass and during the week the Catholic children our age went to the local Catholic Parish school. But at my State School it seemed that Sunday School – whether Anglican, Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist or Congregational – was what we school-children did on Sundays, usually Sunday mornings.

By the mid-1960s, many of those who went with me to Sunday School in the 50s, had started to avoid church and even if they did the “right thing” and got confirmed, as many in my cohort did, they didn’t then stick around to become church members or regular churchgoers. Many who went with me to the local Anglican parish church and were confirmed in the 1960s, as I was later to discover, didn’t actually seem to believe what we said we believed in the liturgy when the Archbishop placed his hands upon our youthful heads. Those were the years that the brave ones began to say they didn’t believe all that religious stuff, and they were also the ones to ask difficult questions in the Religious Instruction classes that we still had to endure in State High Schools in the 1960s.

RI classes were a real trial, but as a consequence of becoming confirmed, I decided that I should join the lunch-time gathering of the Inter-School Christian Fellowship.

But it took some time for the true character of this ‘spiritual’ state of affairs to become evident to me and even to this day, I suspect, there were ‘spiritual’ changes in the lives of my fellow confirmation candidates that simply were not talked about.  My peers who had been confirmed developed a view of themselves in an inexorable drift away from believing what confirmation class had taught us we were doing by giving an affirmative answer in the confirmation service. (John Stott Your Confirmation Hodder 1958).

I may be wrong but I suspect that many have grown so used to a kind of secularised urban maturity, that they may not even remember what they were affirming in the confirmation service. And if so would it be surprising that they have simply become oblivious to the changes that were taking place in their own hearts. Some did notice, and some were embarrassed.

Some teachers seem to have been aware of these changes among students, for instance when I became ISCF leader in my Matriculation year. One teacher told me some years later that he noticed it and interpreted it kindly in terms my “getting religion”. But from his comment, many years later at an open day, I got the distinct impression that he thought it was merely the onset of an adolescent complex, an adjustment to an increased hormonal activity.

But then how would a young person respond when, having taken seriously the public affirmation of his or her baptismal vows at a service of “confirmation”, the confirmed candidate then became increasingly suspicious that that confirmation for many, if not most, of his fellow candidates, signalled the beginning of the end of their involvement with the church? Was it really the last stop before they drifted away altogether from any public allegiance to Jesus Christ? That is what it seemed to be. And if so, what did that imply about the entire confirmation process itself? How was the young Christian to interpret the significance of a public affirmation of faith in Jesus Christ in a church service that as the year’s passed seemed to mark the onset of a spiritual parting of the ways from many peers?

Now I am aware that my discussion has shifted somewhat. I started off this blog with a discussion of Sundays in the 1950s, and that brings us to the stark contrast to how Sundays are now lived in these early decades of the 21st century. When Sunday was so closely associated with the Christian way of life, and a “day of rest” at the end and beginning of the working week made sense in terms of a Christian way of life and Christian world-view.

What are we to conclude about that “confirmation” in the 1960s? The problem was that the sustained effort to retain the twenty or so confirmed candidates over a period of 2 or 3 years could not stop the drift away as many no longer saw any need to join in public worship. Of course, we cannot discern a general trend merely from my sketchy remembrances of what was and was not done with the youth of the parish after they were confirmed. But questions are raised and we have to  conclude that that particular parish, like many other parish churches and congregations in other denominations, has simply had to learn to live with the emergent lack of belief among those baptised (or ‘Christened’) and confirmed, So has the church then become the social source that has unintentionally produced a “been there, done that” sceptical spirituality from its former Sunday School students? The agnosticism of young adults of my generation was well and truly on the march, and our retrospective judgement is that the church in its variant denominational manifestations was simply unable to halt the declension from any profession of Christian faith.

To return to the question of Sundays: these days, Sundays seem even busier than Monday to Saturday as people rush here and there to find ‘rest’ and ‘recreation’. And this is especially so for young men and women who take advantage of what is thrown up to them in sporting opportunities. Many have chosen, and many more are in the process of chosing, sporting careers for themselves, playing their ‘fave’ sports to get their weekly pay packet. At first it may only augment their pay from their ‘other’ work, but for some it becomes a full time, even life-time, engagement. And in some sports the lure is indeed pure lucre.

That’s just one of the aspects of our life by which we say things have become ‘more secular’. Back in the 1960s, Sunday Television Sporting programmes (World of Sport) were broadcast only after midday. Now we are but ten days away from what one Murdoch tabloid robotically refers to as the ‘historic’ first AFL game to be played on Good Friday. These days Sunday morning television will only stop on Sunday morning for half an hour for the BBC Songs of Praise which still seems to hold its ABC rating. But my elderly friends, having experienced the drift for so long, anticipate its demise. They say it won’t be showing at that time slot in a decade’s time. They may be right, but the judgement itself – of the seemingly inexorable commercialised encroachment upon Sundays, as it is upon everything else Monday to Saturday – is something to which we should carefully listen.

I have three ‘hats’ at the local aged-care facility, what I prefer to call a village. For almost three years now I have convened a group of residents who have joined together to read the bible and pray together for themselves, their little community, and the world in which we live. As well, for a full decade I have shown films, first at Coorabin until it was closed in the face of much community and resident anguish, and then at the supervening for-profit facility. I have also been called upon to help with the community library service, first via the mobile library and more recently in a revamped supply delivered to the 4 year-old aged care residence. When Coorabin was so peremptorily closed, in my volunteering I took on what could be called a ‘pastoral care’ role as well, and so took the opportunity to convene the monthly Sunday morning bible reading and prayer ‘litany’.

When I talk with others about what I do at this aged-care residence, it is usual for discussion to consider films and the library. I am rarely put on the spot about why I continue in the first Sunday of the month to join together with a group of residents in reading the bible and praying together for their community. It would please me if that happened. And yet, I still have to think and pray about what I am doing. It is not just something I do today because I did it last month. It is not merely a formality, and it is not motivated by a desire to keep a 1950s version of Sunday morning alive for those who hitherto have been used to ‘church going’. As with the films and as with the library, it is important to be open and public about what we are doing when we  gather together to read the bible and to pray. In this ‘secularised’ culture, society, mindset, we Christian bible readers and pray-ers need to speak out clearly about what we are doing. We do what Christians have been encouraged to do wherever they are and whatever their circumstances may be.

So to close here is my attempt to formulate why we convene as a monthly gathering to read the Bible and to pray. We formulate this in the face of an increasing ‘social secularisation’, or at least the increasing evidence that the primary forces that shape our way of life on Sunday as much as Monday-to-Saturday are those of an individualistic, mechanistic and utilitarian ‘spirituality’.

We join together in reading the bible and praying together as disciples of Jesus Christ, God’s only son, Mary’s son, the one who redeems us and brings us to God. We join knowing we live today late in the human journey and we are very much aware of our needs, and the needs of those around us. And here we are , even as we live in these senior days of our life that God has bequeathed to us, closer each day to entering our rest and God’s kingdom, closer today than it has ever been before. But we believe Jesus has come and met us through His Spirit. And so, we meet together to pray that He continue to walk with us, just as He has promised, as He continues His rules over all things. And we meet to acknowledge this rule over all things in our life – including the all crazy things that are going on in our world – events far away and those closer to home, including us here in our retirement home with all that happens to us here, now, at this stage of our lives. Since all the things are under His watch, we can rely on Him all our days, since everything will find its completion when God decides it is time for His rest, His sabbath, the very good culmination that He has been intending for His work ever since the beginning. And so we meet in response to His persistent invitation which comes to us again and again.