Saturday, 14 November 2015

Paris, terrorism and a theological reflection

I went to bed last night with news breaking on the BBC of the latest atrocity in Paris and awoke this morning to radio news and newspaper headlines full of the appalling details.

It didn't take long for my Facebook newsfeed to be full of related posts both from friends of faith asking for prayers for Paris and posts from friends of no faith. The picture above is from the latter group.

I am always struck how such responses from both perspectives are inadequate.

Let's start with people of faith: "Pray for Paris" I am urged.


It's a serious question and at it's heart lies the conundrum of intercessory (asking for) prayer: what's it for and what does it say about my understanding of God? What does "pray for Paris" actually mean? Am I suggesting that God hasn't noticed such trauma and needs nudging into action? That's a preposterous idea, surely? As if God, if He exists - and I know that's a huge "if" for many people - isn't aware. Surely that goes against the belief systems of all Theistic faiths.

In this approach intercessory prayer becomes my wish list. "Dear Santa, could you fix it for me that ......"

Accepting then, that people of all faith groups believe God is All-Knowing and All-Loving what do I need to ask for, and am I not wasting my breath, if not my emotional energy in such an unnecessary process?

Well, I'd contend that I am not.

We are always told that prayer is a dialogue and if I don't take time to listen, (as very often in my rush to get my list out in the open), it isn't: it's a monologue. In my bit of the dialogue I am not making God aware of anything other than my own understanding of the situation. There is a meme that does the rounds on social media from time to time that goes like this:

Change the concern to fit the situation and to my mind you have the missing part of the dialogue. I am aware that there is an issue; I believe something needs to be done; why am I making the assumption that the "doing" should be done by someone else? What is my responsibility? What should I be doing having recognised a need?

To me intercessory prayer is a dangerous strategy for the person of faith because it makes us aware that if we want to see change we need to be part of it and it bothers me that in some quarters prayer is seen as an end in itself and if it is an end in itself are we not guilty of the worst piety?

As a rider to that I'd also ask "Why Paris?" as in why just Paris? I've been a bit queasy at the number of Facebook French flags that have appeared over the last few days. How does that gesture look if viewed from, say, Beirut, Baghdad or Homs? What's the sub-text? Only European "Christian" lives matter and need a show of solidarity? A Paris event happens in Syria and Iraq every day.

Now to my Atheist friends: firstly, get a grip. Some of your posts are so hate-filled you should be ashamed - not just those which deal with Islam but those which deal with the phenomenon of religion in general. I may have to block some of you. What also strikes me about posts from my most vitriolically Atheist friends is their misunderstanding of faith, or perhaps their certainty that people of faith believe things which, actually, they don't. Why am I surprised that Atheists misunderstand or deliberately misrepresent religious faith?

If that's what you really think religion is about I'm not at all surprised you have no time for it.

The picture at the top is a great example. It is a graphic I would have used it myself in other circumstances were it not for the speech marks around "prayer". What's that all about? Has this particular friend perceived my own misgivings about the piety of having said I'd pray for something? What's the overt message in that graphic? Prayer's a waste of time. Get on and do something useful! As I've outlined I think that's a misunderstanding of the nature of prayer.

What I do notice in the responses of my Atheist friends is often an anger - to my mind, a misdirected anger - about responsibility. "Why didn't God intervene to stop this dreadful act?" At a stroke the eight terrorists in Paris become demoted to bit players in the drama with their responsibility downgraded. We are angry primarily at God and while I understand the argument to a degree, it's not one I accept. No one is responsible for what happened in Paris but the eight terrorists and their helpers and backers.

Because He isn't interventionist people don't believe in God, seems to be the bottom line and I think that's deeply problematic. It's problematic because it takes away all human responsibility for moral failings. In this scenario God is seen as a sort of Mary Poppins figure who comes along with a smile, a song and a spoonful of sugar and puts everything right, clearing up our messes. If that's the sort of God people want I'd have to ask where they draw the line. So genocide and terrorism need divine intervention to stop them but, say, a bit of cyber-fraud can be left alone? What about careless driving? Political and financial corruption? Where does the intervention end?

I believe it's all or nothing. If God intervenes once to stop an immoral act, then surely he must intervene every time and if he does, how do we ever learn moral responsibility? If Mary Poppins God is always there to sort things out why do I ever need to worry about my morality? I can do as I please in the certainty that there will be no unpleasant consequences to my actions.

To go one stage further with this argument there are those who assert that if God exists he needn't clean up behind me because He has it in His power to stop me ever making wrong moral choices.

In this scenario God becomes the eternal puppet master forever pulling my strings, or I become a robot only pre-programmed to do good. Where then is my humanity? Surely my humanity is characterised by my ability to choose to do good or evil and that, of course, has potential consequences. If I have free moral choice, who is ultimately to blame when I get it wrong?

So, Atheist friends, I ask you, which would you prefer? Mary Poppins God or Programmer God?

Clearly then, I don't subscribe to the doctrine of an interventionist God and I don't think among people of faith that I am unique in that position. However, people who claim no faith are often taken aback by that position, assuming that our faith IS in an interventionist God.

However, I have a rider to that position: all the major faiths have a strong moral element and we believe that down the ages there have been key people who have grabbed the attention and imagination of their people and set out in clear terms what our moral responsibilities are to our neighbours. Those moral positions have become central to our various faiths and subsequently subsumed into our civil codes. We can't claim ignorance. We know the difference between right and wrong.

That's my view of God's intervention. How often do we need to be told?

There are wicked and dangerous people out there and they should be held to account but I can't accept the narrative that it is religion that is at the root cause. If that were the case we would only see such acts perpetrated by those claiming religious allegiances but that is clearly not the case. Can you imagine a set of circumstances where someone would say, "Look at those mad Atheists at it again with their drive-by shootings, their meth-driven excesses and genocides." No. Me neither. The wicked and evil are out there in all walks of life with their various agendas of opportunism, greed, power-hunger and a complete disregard for the sanctity of human life: they corrupt and destroy whatever they touch whether it be in the secular or religious realm and they subvert religion and politics to their causes.

It is, as one Atheist friend has been at pains to remind me, the role and responsibility of all people of good faith (and I don't here mean religious faith) to challenge them with words and actions.

How we respond at this point is the key. Will we respond with prejudice, fear and the isolation of the other in our society, or will we unite with generosity, empathy and compassion towards our beleaguered Muslim friends and neighbours and say, "We stand with you. Not in our name"? Let's be clear: part of the agenda of the terrorist is to cause a backlash; one that enables them to perpetrate the myth that there is a war against (in this case) Islam.

Thursday, 12 November 2015

Sunday Sermon Mark 13.1-8 The End Times


As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumours of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.

I really do feel as if I’ve drawn the short straw here: what a passage! End-times theology? Well out of my comfort zone. The problem is that down the ages every generation has had its prophets of doom announcing that the end-times are near. Only this week I read that a former American presidential hopeful for the Republican Party, Michele Bachmann, has gone on record as saying that she feels the end of the world is near. She says, “Events are speeding up so quickly right now, and we see how relevant the Bible is, and we’re reading our newspaper, at the same time we’re learning about these biblical events, and it’s literally day by day by day, we’re seeing the fulfilment of scripture right in front of our eyes, even while we’re on the ground. We recognise the shortness of the hour…” For the record, her pronouncements are based on the ongoing violence in Israel/Palestine. So, we’re straight into it, trying to fit the events of our age into some template of the fulfilment of scriptural signs. It’s tempting to dismiss her if only on the grounds that if her grasp on theology turns out to be as tenuous as her grasp on politics was, we should all be perfectly safe.

Of course you may also remember Harold Camping – another American – who announced the end of the world and the second coming of Christ that many times, with specific dates, always revised after each non-apocalypse, that you’d think public humiliation and ridicule would have led him to be more circumspect.

These people are not alone: a whole industry of spurious theology has grown up around the idea of The End Times: you may have heard of the Rapture, the belief that Jesus will gather up his faithful suddenly and dramatically, leaving the rest of the world scratching their heads as to where they’ve gone and of course this is good film material: we have the film “Left Behind” depicting what happens after the Rapture, “The entire planet is thrown into mayhem when millions of people disappear without a trace -- all that remains are their clothes and belongings. Unmanned vehicles crash and planes fall from the sky, overwhelming emergency forces and causing massive gridlock, riots and chaos.”

Only Nicholas Cage can save the day – if not the film from a critical panning.

What are we to make of all this?

It is true that scripture seems to drop tantalising hints about the end times but not in any credible, helpful timetable. Taken individually, or as a group of “prophecies” – and I put that word in inverted commas – they are as vague and misleading as the prophecies of Nostradamus, and he still pops up with monotonous regularity.

If I sound deeply cynical at this point … that’s because I am. In every Christian based Myers-Briggs type personality profile or on the Enneagram, I come out as a Thomas in my pattern of discipleship. (I am strangely proud of that.) Thomas the doubter, you may remember.

And yet there is a strong discipline of Biblical scholarship called Eschatology, the study of the destiny of humankind as described in the Bible. The major issues in Christian eschatology are death and the afterlife, Heaven and Hell, the Second Coming of Jesus, the Resurrection of the Dead, the Rapture, the Tribulation, the end of the world, the Last Judgment, and the New Heaven and New Earth of the world to come. Eschatological passages are found in many places in the Bible, both in the Old and the New Testaments. There are also many extrabiblical examples of eschatological prophecy, as well as church traditions so perhaps people like me need to curb the impatient cynicism that is our default position when the Michele Bachmanns and Harold Campings of our time take to the media.

So what are we to make of Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel passage?

When you hear of wars and rumours of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.

And this is the problem: every time there is an earthquake or a famine, are we to think of the end times? Every time there is a war?

Now it isn’t in today’s Gospel passage, but Jesus goes on to tell Peter, James, John and Andrew some disturbing things that would by anyone’s standards be seen as predictions – false prophets; false Messiahs; conflict; persecution; suffering; religious desecrations and the like and he suggests that they would live to see it – as has every subsequent generation. So should we seek to read the signs like Bachmann and Camping and seek to be Christian clairvoyants?

Well, as ever scripture needs to be seen in its own wider context. What else are we told about the end times? Or at least what are we told that is helpful? Later on in this chapter Jesus tells his followers, But about that day or hour, no one knows, neither the Angels in Heaven, nor the Son but only the Father. We also have Jesus’ words from the opening chapter of Acts, It is not for you to know the times and periods that the Father has set by his own authority. To put it another way, I think we are being told not to waste our time speculating because like Nostradamus or Harold Camping it is something of a pointless exercise. It is time wasted when we should be concentrating on other things.

We live in the in-between times. We always knew that, surely? We live between the start and the finish; between the start and the finish of God’s plan for the institution of his Kingdom, that reign of peace and justice ushered in by God’s intervention in history in the incarnation of Christ.

Yes we can look at the “signs” but to read them as any more than reminders of the fragility of human existence seems to me to be missing the point. Personally, I see such signs – if I register them at all – as akin to punctuation marks in a narrative, points to pause and reflect on before we move on.

So, there is a famine, an earthquake, a war and I am reminded of the fragility of human existence and, mindful of that and of the fact that there will one day be an end, I move on.

But it is how I move on – how we move on - after that period of reflection that is important, because we move on as Disciples. We move on in this in between time, conscious of the ultimate finality of the Kingdom of this world, as those called to the mission of bringing God’s Kingdom closer.

In some respects it is a shame that the Lectionary leaves Mark’s Gospel at this point as it heads to Christ the King and Advent in the coming weeks so I don’t feel too bad about looking a bit beyond today’s reading because I won’t be guilty of spoilers for next week’s preacher when I tell you that Jesus tells his followers to be alert because they don’t know when that time is coming. Remember, these were people who expected the return of Christ and the end times within their own generation.

Given the time lapse, such a sense of urgency seems rather lost on us – well, it’s lost on me anyway. I don’t live with the urgency of an imminent Second Coming ushering in the end times. I’m sure I should, but I don’t and I guess you don’t either, but we are still in the in-between times. So what is this sense of urgency all about? Remember too, the parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids: some were prepared when the bridegroom finally arrived and were admitted to the reception: those that had gone off to get more oil for their lamps missed his arrival and got left outside. It seems to me to be a similar warning.

But what is it a warning about? What’s the urgency about?

I always remember an episode of the Vicar of Dibley, where Dawn French has a postcard on her wall: Jesus is Coming – look busy! I’m sure I had a vicar who had that on his coffee mug too, but that is the essence of the warning to urgency: because we don’t know when it’s all going to get eschatological and apocalyptic we are in danger of not being busy about the Lord’s work.

What does that mean in practice?

We are all called to discipleship but beyond that the nature of that calling is individual and personal: our individual discipleship has different patterns and emphases so I am reluctant at this point to try to offer answers which will inevitably appear glib. This is a congregation noted for its spiritual maturity. What is it as a church and as individuals that you feel is your calling? And that’s the answer: do that. Carry on doing that, being that, whatever it is that the Holy Spirit has given to you as your template of discipleship. There aren’t many Christian congregations as aware of their sense of mission as this congregation. That’s your warning, that’s your urgency as we seek to grow the Kingdom of God while there is still time.

If there is anyone still in doubt about the nature of their call to discipleship, I would leave you with the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats: He will separate them “as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left” He says to those on his right, the sheep, “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me” The righteous will not understand: when did they see Jesus in such a pitiful condition and help Him? “The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25.31-46)