A profoundly disruptive prophetic ‘presence-in-the-world’

In a world where the Church no longer dominates Western culture and where ‘strong’ dogmatic statements are no longer heeded, the Christian is left to bear witness by faithfully following the way of Jesus as a prophetic ‘presence-in-the-world.’ … the story of Christ … is enacted rather than dogmatically stated and yet, in its ‘performance,’ is profoundly disruptive.

Thus Philip Sheldrake in Explorations in Spirituality: History, Theology, and Social Practice, summarising some thoughts of Michel de Certeau.

Not sure the Church has fully grasped this, but it seems to me what being a disciple entails.

To see through every regime

To be a follower of Jesus … means … to see through every regime that promises peace through violence, peace through domination, peace through genocide, peace through exclusion and intimidation. Following Jesus … means forming communion that seeks peace through justice, generosity, and mutual concern, a willingness to suffer persecution but a refusal to inflict it on others.

Brian D. McLaren, Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crises, and a Revolution of Hope

Homeless Jesus

I came across this amazing sculpture entitled Homeless Jesus in the April issue of Third Way.

Homeless Jesus

Apparently, it has been installed with a plague featuring words from Matthew 25:40:

Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.

What this picture doesn’t show is that the artist Timothy Schmalz (shown below) left room for one person to sit next to Homeless Jesus.

Homeless Jesus with artist

I have since discovered the following pictures of the sculpture in the rain and snow, which make it even more poignant.

It appears that the sculpture had to be moved from its original location because of objections by residents. One such objection is quoted in Third Way:

My complaint is not about the art-worthiness or the meaning behind the sculpture. It is about people driving into our beautiful, reasonably upscale neighborhood and seeing an ugly homeless person sleeping on a park bench.

Hmm, there’s a lesson in there somewhere …

Members of any race, nation, gender or social condition

Commenting on Isaiah 56:3-8, which talks about the inclusion of foreigners and eunuchs among God’s people, foreigners and eunuchs, that is, who keep the Sabbath and the covenant, Walter Brueggemann notes that:

the community welcomes members of any race or nation, any gender or social condition, so long as that person is defined by justice, mercy, and compassion, and not competition, achievement, production, or acquisition. (Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to a Culture of Now)

Quite so! Brueggemann is also right, it seems to me, to suggest that this ‘stance of generous inclusiveness’ is a direct contradiction of the Mosaic rules in Deuteronomy 23:1-8. Isaiah’s words are an example of prophetic critique of Israel’s ancient traditions, the kind of critique that Jesus was to continue some centuries later.

An alternative people, among whom inequality and violence disappear

Without an alternative people, among whom inequality and violence disappear, Jesus would not be able to be the Christ, the Messiah. The existence of this people is the convincing proof that Christian faith is not mere illusion, but is rather a valid affirmation about the true Messiah, dead but risen, and reigning today … The truth of our statements about Jesus as the Christ or the Redeemer must be based on the very existence of a redeemed people, as even Nietzsche insisted. … Does there exist now in history a people in whom the blessings of the messianic era are already being realized? … Is the Christian project of social change really possible in our time?

Thus Antonio González Fernández in his thought-provoking book God’s Reign and the End of Empires.

Stories

Stories. Mostly, as it happens, women’s stories.

One writes: ‘When I was forty-one I lost the ability to read. … I was trying to get myself and my two children free of a husband I had been with for twenty years who had become dangerous to us.’

Another talks about her sister leaving her friend’s house one night in order to take the bus home from Cheltenham, a bus she would never catch.

The third gate-crashes a party, having heard that Jesus would be among the guests, and she brings along some expensive perfume. [Click here, if you wish to read that story for yourself.]

What do these women have in common? Let’s find out.

The first is Wendy Farley, Professor in the Department of Religion at Emory University. Her book [see here for details] is not, as one might have thought, about coming to terms with the suffering caused by her husband. It is about transformation. It is about her becoming aware of her own destructive ‘passions’ – Farley uses the term ‘passions’ in the sense in which the ancients used it, as a designation of the destructive forces deep within us.

The second woman is Marian Partington [again, further details about her account can be found here], whose sister Lucy went missing on 23rd December 1973, leaving her family and friends in a hiatus of unknowing that would last for over twenty years. It finally came to an end on 4th March 1994, when Frederick West told Police investigators that Lucy’s remains were among those hidden in the basement of 25 Cromwell Street in Gloucester.

In contrast to Farley’s book, Partington’s account is about her long and arduous journey of coming to terms with what had happened to her sister. Her book, too, is about transformation, a process that would not have been possible had she not become conscious of the ‘murderous rage’ within herself.

Then there is our third woman, who sheds a flood of tears (the term employed by Luke is also used to describe rain showers). She bathes Jesus’ feet with her tears (almost literally, it would seem), dries them with her hair, kisses them continually, before eventually anointing them with her costly perfume.

So how does her story relate to the other two? Well, she, too, as Jesus’ parable suggests, had become conscious of the darkness within herself. Luke describes her as a sinner, a fact that the dinner guests are only too aware of. But so was the woman herself, which is why, in contrast to Simon, the Pharisee, she knew about the great debt of hers that had been cancelled. And she was profoundly grateful for the forgiveness she had experienced. As a result, she is the one who can go in peace and show deep and real love, the kind of love that leads to the excessive and rather intimate gestures that so upset Simon, a man who had not yet discovered his own depths of darkness, thus finding it all too easy to condemn that ‘kind of woman’.

As Jesus says, the debtor conscious of the enormity of her forgiven debt is the one who loves the most. This is why the books by Farley and Partington have made such an impression upon me. It would have been easy for these women to respond with blame, judgement, condemnation and hatred. As Marian Partington herself says, ‘it is easier to hate than to love’. And who would blame her? It’s an instinctive thing to do, an attempt to keep the pain at bay; it’s an act of self-preservation, or at least, it’s meant to be.

But Wendy Farley and Marian Partington did not run away from their pain. They allowed it to touch them, and that’s what made their transformation possible. Two things happened: first, as already mentioned, they became aware of the darkness within themselves, which made it impossible for them to blame others, including those who had inflicted that unspeakable pain upon them. As long as we continue to blame, judge, condemn and hate others, we are still in the position that Simon, the Pharisee, finds himself in. Unaware of the darkness within himself, he finds it impossible to love, forgive and be compassionate.

Secondly, having endured traumatic hurt and pain, and having been transformed by it, that transformation leads to the desire for the pain not to be passed on to others. Again Marian Partington expresses this beautifully:

There is a place that understands, deep within, that violence can only breed more violence and that this is where it must stop. It is not a place where justice means more pain, punishment and revenge. It is rooted in a strong instinct for this depth of pain not to happen to anyone else. … It is a place of insight which opens up to learning, hope and compassion. It is a place that yearns for healing, which is willing to sacrifice the immediate response of revenge. … It wants to say, just wait, stay with the pain, let it burn you into a place of renewal.

Luke’s story is about an awareness of that darkness within, an awareness of our own debt, but more than that, an awareness of the forgiveness of that debt, an awareness that leads to love.

The unnamed woman in Luke’s story expresses that love in a costly, intimate, yet public display, a display that left her fully exposed and vulnerable but which became an opportunity for those witnessing it to be led down the road to transformation themselves.

Jesus, while addressing Simon, is looking at the woman, thus helping Simon to focus on her acts of love. Luke, by including her story, is extending that opportunity to us, thus allowing that woman’s love to unfold its transformative power even a full two thousand years later.

The books by Farley and Partington are similar acts of love and indeed vulnerability. It takes real courage and strength to talk about those journeys and the depths of darkness that the two women discovered within themselves. But it is by means of those acts of love that love is spread and that others are enabled to experience transformation for themselves.

Marian Partington has become part of ‘The Forgiveness Project’, which works with ex-offenders and victims of crime, seeking to model a restorative process of justice. She regularly shares her story with perpetrators of violence in prison. In her book, she gives examples of how that courageous act of love can make a profound difference. How instead of transmitting our pain to others, which is what we do when we blame, judge, condemn and hate them, our willing suffering of that pain can lead to real healing and transformation.

The stories of these three women invite us to confront our pain, our hurts and fears, the darkness inside, and allow for transformation to happen. As Jesus says, ‘the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little’. Simon, who concedes Jesus’ point only grudgingly – ‘I suppose’, he says – is still locked in that destructive pattern of blame, judgement, condemnation and hatred, unaware of his own debt. It is the woman, the sinner, the sinner who is fully conscious of her debt, the sinner who has found forgiveness, the sinner who is filled with deep, uncontainable love, who is told to ‘go in peace’. Only she can truly ‘go in peace to love and serve the Lord’.

Love is expected of all of us. More than anything else, it is love that makes us most fully human. But if that is true in general, how much more vital is love in the context of the Christian ministry. How much more important, then, that we allow our hurts and pain to be transformed so that we are set free to love and forgive and not transmit our pain to others, regardless of how they treat us.

Those who prefer power and violence tend to portray the love that is vulnerable – and true love always is – as weak and powerless. Nothing, nothing could be further from the truth. In his aptly named book Strength to Love, Martin Luther King talks about a steely resolve to love. He talks about what I would call ‘defiant love’. This is what he says:

We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We shall meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will, and we shall continue to love you. … But be ye assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. … Love is the most durable power in the world.

In that sense, then, let us ‘go in peace to love and serve the Lord’.

An evil book? C. J. Sansom on the book of Revelation

Revelation was the first C. J. Sansom book I have read, primarily because the plot is built largely around the seven bowls (or vials, as they are called in the King James Version) of judgement found in Revelation 15–16. I shall say more about the novel in an upcoming post, focusing on some of its comments on the book of Revelation for now. These comments are of particular interest to me, as Revelation is one of the biblical books that I am working on at the moment.

Sansom, a historian by training, has interesting things to say about how the book of Revelation was interpreted during the troublesome times of Henry VIII, in the aftermath of the dissolution of the monasteries and during the bitter conflicts between the radicals (i.e. those influenced by the Protestant reformers) and the conservatives (those wishing to preserve Catholic traditions).

One of the themes that comes up repeatedly in conversations among the novel’s main characters is Revelation’s obscurity. Consider the following conversation between Barak, the assistant of Matthew Shardlake, the book’s protagonist, and the latter himself. They are discussing the seven bowls of judgement:

‘I remember our vicar reading about that once. I couldn’t follow it, it sounded like a mad dream.’
‘A mad dream. Yes, well put. …’

In another conversation they reflect on Revelation generally:

‘This book makes no sense,’ Barak said at length. ‘It tells the same story in different ways, different versions of how the world will end, angels and wars and vials. There is no …’
‘Narrative? I know. It is the only book in the New Testament that is so obscure.’

Indeed, the book’s obscurity is causing all kinds of problems, as Shardlake points out:

There are as many interpretations of Revelation as there are interpreters, each one saying his understanding is the true one. And most are ill-educated fanatics. This book is causing much trouble in the world.

It is Guy Malton, a doctor and ex-monk, who puts his finger on one of the key problems:

Thrown into a different world, where the Bible is interpreted as literal fact, its symbols and metaphors forgotten, and fanatics react with equanimity to the blood and cruelty of Revelation. Have you ever thought what a God would be like who actually ordained and executed the cruelty that is in that book? A holocaust of mankind. Yet so many of these Bible-men accept the idea without a second thought.

But it is not only the interpreters that are at fault. The book of Revelation itself is deemed to be deeply problematic, as both Matthew Shardlake and Guy Malton repeatedly suggest. This is how Shardlake characterises Revelation:

The last book of the Bible; full of wild, fiery, cruel language, hard to understand, unlike anything else in the New Testament. Erasmus and Luther both doubted whether Revelation was really the word of God …

He then goes on to stress how different this book is from the rest of the New Testament, especially ‘in its violence and cruelty, its representation of Jesus as God’s harsh judge, who holds the keys of hell and death’. Indeed, Revelation appals him:

I read its cruel barbarous message and I despair.

Malton, for his part, comments:

What an evil book it is, for it says that humanity is nothing, is worth nothing.

And so he concludes:

Christianity would be better without that book. It preaches nothing but cruelty and destruction. It teaches that the destruction of human beings does not matter, is even to be rejoiced over. It is evil.

That these characters express Sansom’s own views about the book of Revelation is confirmed by the ‘Historical Note’ that concludes the novel. Here Sansom talks about ‘a London increasingly divided between radical and conservative parishes’ and notes that:

the radicals, with their view of themselves as persecuted saints, often comforted themselves in the belief that Revelation foretold their eventual victory against the ‘Beast’ of Rome. Many believed then, exactly as Christian fundamentalists do today, that they lived in the ‘last days’ before Armageddon and, again just as now, saw signs all around in the world that they took as certain proof that the Apocalypse was imminent. Again like fundamentalists today, they looked on the prospect of the violent destruction of mankind without turning a hair. The remarkable similarity between the first Tudor Puritans and the fanatics among today’s Christian fundamentalists extends to their selective reading of the Bible, their emphasis on the Book of Revelation, their certainty of their rightness, even to their phraseology. Where the Book of Revelation is concerned, I share the view of Guy, that the early Church Fathers released something very dangerous on the world when, after much deliberation, they decided to include it in the Christian canon.

Most of what Sansom says, especially about fundamentalist interpretations of Revelation, is very well taken. But his novel also leaves us with the question whether the book of Revelation is indeed evil in and of itself. And that is one of the issues I shall have to ponder in the coming weeks, as I reflect, among other things, on ‘Revelation, Apocalyptic Worldview and Violence’.