Signing & Delivering Open Letter regards Julian Assange to the Australian Government

On Tuesday July 3rd. 2018, WikiLeaks publisher Julian Assange, born in Townsville Queensland Australia, turned 47!

Julian has been detained without charge in England, on behest of the U.S. government since he was 39!  In that time Julian was jailed (in solitary confinement in HMP Wandsworth) and  electronically tagged under house arrest, before finding asylum in the small five-room embassy of Ecuador (then under radical reformer, President Correa).

For the past 6 years Julian has be surrounded by British police in the sensory deprivation of the Ecuadorian embassy in Knightsbridge London. For the last 3 months, a day after a meeting with the U.S. Southern Command in Quito,  the Ecuadorian government (now under backslider President Lenin) has jammed the internet & phone in their own embassy and denied visits to Julian.

 Throughout these long years the Australian government has, at best, been negligent in its responsibilities & duty of care in relation to this Australian citizen. In truth, Australian governments – both Liberal & Labor – have proactively co-operated with the ongoing persecution of this heroic publisher – who has never published anything untrue. 

Julian consistently exposes high crimes against the poor executed by the world’s rich and powerful. Amongst other things, the Australian government presently refuses to re-issue Julian a passport

On Tuesday, July 3rd, acclaimed LGBT/ human rights activist Peter Tatchell (born Melbourne), London/ Camden Catholic Worker, Ciaron O’Reilly (Brisbane) sound engineer Rick (Sydney) and gardener Lorraine (Broome) ) approached the Australian High Commission on The Strand to deliver an Open Letter signed by Australians – home & abroad

Ciaron O’Reilly

Open Letter to the Australian government:

Mr George Brandis
High Commissioner to the United Kingdom
Australia House
Strand, London WC2B 4LA . June 2018

Dear Mr Brandis,

We Australians, here in London and from further afield, welcome the first ever visit to Julian Assange by Australian consular staff on 8 June 2018 as a sign of a new regard for Mr Assange’s human rights as you take the helm at the High Commission.

As of this month, Mr Assange has been confined six years in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, which the UN has deemed an arbitrary deprivation of his liberty: a grave human rights abuse which ought to end expeditiously and for which, according to the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, he ought to be compensated by Britain and Sweden.

We hope you share our deep concern at attacks on whistle-blowers and the danger posed to our democracy, security and good governance when whistle-blowers are thus deterred. As President Obama said in 2008, in relation to US government whistle-blowing, ‘We only know these crimes took place because insiders blew the whistle at great personal risk … [W]histle-blowers are part of a healthy democracy and must be protected from reprisal.’

The High Commission has a duty to ensure Mr Assange, an Australian citizen, is treated no less favourably than local citizens detained for similar offences. British citizens enjoy the protection of the UK Human Rights Act 1998 and the European Convention on Human Rights which guarantee their right to freedom of expression. ‘This right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers’ and to do so ‘without interference by public authority’.

He also has a right to be presumed innocent and given a fair trial and a right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health. As Australian High Commissioner, you must ensure Mr Assange’s treatment by UK authorities accords with those standards.

In light of the above, we, the undersigned ask you to convey our urgent and emphatic request to our Government to do its utmost to defend Julian Assange’s human rights and the free and lawful operation of Wikileaks. Specifically, we ask the Australian Government to:

  1. Promptly renew Mr Assange’s Australian passport following its recent expiry;
  2. Ensure Mr Assange is guaranteed full and timely access to all necessary medical and dental care;
  3. Respect and defend his right to receive information and impart information freely, without interference by any public authority;
  4. Robustly defend Mr Assange at home and abroad and object to threats levelled against Mr Assange by high-profile US citizens and others;
  5. Strenuously oppose any application to have Mr Assange extradited to the United States, where it is unlikely he would receive a fair trial; and
  6. Press the UK government to ‘facilitate the exercise of his right to freedom of movement in an expedient manner’ and both the UK and Swedish governments to compensate him for his arbitrary detention.
  7. We thank you for your attention to these matters of fundamental importance to a free and democratic society.


Current Signatories:

John Pilger, Sydney NSW, journalist & film-maker.
Shirley Shackleton, Journalist, mother, widow of slain Australian journalist Greg
Peter Tatchell, Melbourne Victoria, Human rights campaigner.
Ciaron O’Reilly, Brisbane Queensland, Catholic Worker, former anti-war prisoner of U.S.
Jo Valentine, Perth W.A., former Senator for Western Australia.
Tony Ansell, Asquith NSW, Salesperson.
Jeff Armitage Sydney NSW, Retired.
Dr Olivia Ball, Melbourne Victoria, Researcher.
Susannah Ball, Melbourne, Librarian.
Somerset Bean, Adelaide South Australia, graphic designer
Greta Bird Carlton Victoria, Teacher.
Simon Bliss, Brisbane Queensland, Teacher.
Dr Lisa Bridle, Brisbane Queensland, Social Worker/Disability Advocate
Eden Boucher,, Adelaide S.A. musician “Lovers Electric”, mother of 4.
Craig Buckley, Brisbane Queensland, Barrister.
Robert J. Burrowes, Daylesford Victoria, Cofounder ‘The People’s Charter to Create a Nonviolent World’.
Tim Carter, Brisbane Queensland, Retired Principal.
Gabriel Cerasani, Noosa, Queensland, concerned citizen.
Norman Close Brisbane Queensland, Pastor.
Pam Close, Brisbane Queensland, concerned citizen.
Janet Connollly, Brisbane Queensland, Nurse.
Ian Curr, Brisbane Queensland, democratic rights activist.
Dr C Dassos, Broadbeach Queensland, General Practitioner
Glenys Davies, Inglewood W.A., Physiotherapist
Jim Dodrill, Ipswich Queensland, President of Ipswich Ratepayers and Residents Association.
Ben Dowling, Brisbane Queensland, Coffee industry worker.
Franz Dowling, Brisbane Queensland, University student.
Jim Dowling, Dayboro Australia, Support worker.
Rebekah Dowling, Brisbane Queensland, Student teacher .
Paul Dyson, Sydney, Software engineer.
Simone Eclair, Deagon Qld, Comedian.
John Erickson (aka John Treason), Brisbane Queensland, Musician.
Terry Fisher, Brisbane Queensland, Solicitor
Stephen Fugate, Brisbane Queensland, retiree.
Rik Garfit-Mottram, Canberra ACT, Sound engineer.
Brian Gwynne, Brisbane Queensland, Manager.
Sandy Hay, Newcastle NSW, concerned citizen.
Alex Hills, Canberra ACT, musician.
Tom Hinchliffe, Brisbane Queensland, Primary school teacher.
Allen L. Jasson, Adelaide S.A.., Software engineer, former Australian Army.
Kylie Johnson, Ashgrove Queensland, Ceramist.
Angela Jones, Brisbane Queensland, Researcher.
Rev Fr Pan Jordan OP, Brisbane Queensland, Catholic Priest.
June Kelly, Tasmania, Stenographer and Independent Researcher Global Affairs
John Matthew Kelly, Sydney NSW, Former Broadcaster with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation
Michael Kennedy, Brisbane Queensland, Computer programmer.
Stephen Langford, Sydney NSW, Retired nurse. Order of Timor.
David Lazgo, Brisbane Queensland, Psychologist.
Rebecca Leech, Adelaide South Australia, concerned citizen
Suzie McDarra, Bardon Queensland, Massage Therapist.
CIaran MacLennan, Brisbane, Waterside worker.
Dr. Gary MacLennan, Brisbane Queensland, consultant.
Kay McPadden rsj, Sydney NSW, Religious Sister.
Kez Majkut, Melbourne Victoria, Public Servant
Teresa Marshall, Brisbane, Administrator.
Rev. Fr. Peter Murnane OP, Cobden Victoria, Catholic Priest..
Rev. Simon Moyle, Melbourne Victoria, Baptist minister.
Bob Muntz, Ascot Vale Victoria, Retired.
Darryl Nelson, Rothwell, Teacher.
Pat Nelson, Melbourne, retired teacher.
Dana Nicklin, Greenslopes Queensland, Brisbane, Mediator.
Brian O’Brien, Toowoomba Qld, Registered Nurse.
Catherine O’Brien, Toowoomba Queenlsand, Registered Nurse.
Ben O’Brien, Sinnamon Park Queensland, Registered Nurse.
Sarah O’Brien, Teacher, Sinnamon Park.
Sally O’Brien, Westbrook Queensland, Child Counsellor.
Michael O’Keeffe, Northern Rivers NSW, Ecologist.
Mary OReilly, Brisbane Queensland, Mother of 3.
Sean O’Reilly, Brisbane Queensland, Psychiatric Nurse, father of 2.
Anne Rampa, Dayboro Australia, Bus Driver.
Rev. Dave Smith, Sydney NSW, Anglican vicar, Pugilist, father of 4.
Beryl Scneider, Caboolture Queensland, Business woman.
Peter Shaw, Brisbane Queensland, Self-employed
Mary Sweeney, South Yarra, Victoria, concerned citizen.
Fleur Taylor, Melbourne Victoria, editor.
Kathy Thompson, Buderim Queensland, Registered Nurse
Kevin Traynor, Waterford Queensland, concerned citizen.
Sally Traynor, Waterford Qld, Driving Instructor.
Eliza Tree, Castlemaine Victoria, artist.
David Turley, Adelaide S.A., musician “Lovers Electric”, father of 4.
Michael Tysoe, Fairfield Queensland, Musician.
Jennifer Upton, Brisbane Queensland, Accountant.
Pat Ryan, Warick Queensland, Counsellor.
Dave Whelan, Melbourne Victoria, Lawyer.
Caron Lewis, Melbourne Australia, Small Business Owner
Christine Whitewood 104 Badger Creek Rd Healesville 3777 Retired

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Living the Dream! (A sermon on 2 Corinthians 6:4-10)

“But as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see – we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.” (2 Corinthians 6:4-10)

Yes, I’ve decided to persist with Saint Paul this week. That’s in part due to the inspiration I received last week from Steff’s treatment of Paul, but it’s equally because I find Paul an inspiring man. I love him.

I appreciate that Paul to this day has no shortage of detractors. Muslims tend to dislike Paul and blame him for distorting the original teachings of Jesus – making the Christian religion about Jesus rather than about the teachings of Jesus – and yet we don’t have to look outside of the Christian community to find opponents of Paul.

For a start, a good number of Christian theologians have agreed with their Muslim colleagues – that Paul did indeed invent a version of Christianity that was a long way from the original teachings of Jesus. Many feminist theologians, similarly, take a dim view of Saint Paul because he always seemed to insist on a male-dominated system of patriarchal control, whether he was talking about families or about churches. Inclusive Christians, similarly, often see Paul as exclusive. Catholics often see him as a bit Protestant.

Even the Apostle Peter had trouble with Paul. We know that they had a stand-up stoush in Antioch, early in Paul’s career (see Galatians 2:11-14), but even in Peter’s later letters we get a reference to Paul that has no parallel elsewhere in the New Testament. Peter says of Paul, “His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort.” (2 Peter 3:16)

I think that’s a beautifully delicate use of words by Peter. Yes, some things Paul says are “hard to understand” and, evidently, lots of people did misunderstood Paul – “ignorant and unstable people” says Peter, graciously.

It seems quite bizarre, when you think about it, that Peter, who probably had very little formal education, could be so delicate in his choice of words, whereas Paul – a trained academic – so often spoke in a sort of stream-of-consciousness monologue, and I envisage him speaking quite quickly.

“in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, 7truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute…”

When I first read that again last week, I thought ‘I don’t know anyone else who speaks like that’, and then it occurred to me that I’ve known plenty of people who speak like that, but they are all people we normally label as being mentally ill.

Not many of you would know where Ange and I met. Once upon a time, we were assigned to the same Bible-study group when I was in Miranda (two of the toughest years of my life). Meeting Ange wasn’t the tough part, of course, but the study group could be tough, largely because almost everybody in that group, apart from Ange and myself, turned out to be struggling with what’s now called ‘bi-polar disorder’.

I still remember very vividly one of our young men, standing on the balcony of what was then my house and speaking very rapidly. I don’t remember exactly what he said. Indeed, it would have been impossible to remember exactly what he said because he said so much and spoke so fast. Even so, the overall gist was that life was great and that things were getting better and better. He then ran off, and I found out that about half an hour later he threw himself in front of a truck, breaking almost every bone in his body, but somehow, he survived (thanks be to God).

Now, I’m not suggesting that Paul spoke exactly like that, and I’m certainly not suggesting that Paul suffered from pi-polar disorder. Indeed, if anyone were to suggest such a thing the immediate comeback would probably be “yes, but what Paul said made sense”, but did it?

‘We commend ourselves through afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger …’

Let me ask you, ‘How do you commend yourself to anybody through a riot?’

I’ve been involved in two riots in my life – one serious one and one not-so-serious.

The not-so-serious one took place out the front of our church building back in the 1990’s. I can’t remember what started it now, but it was our youth-centre community – a group of around 50 kids on the day, if I remember, and they all spilled out on to the street and it started with lots of loud and harsh words being exchanged.

Between myself and the youth-centre staff we managed to get things under control, but then one of the neighbours decided to get involved, and he pushed one of the young girls, in response to which one of the boys punched the neighbour in the face, and we lost control again. Shortly after that the police arrived, swinging batons, and then all hell broke loose!

That was the not-too-serious riot I was involved in. The more serious one took place in Dimona, in Israel, shortly after our dear brother, Mordechai Vanunu, was released from prison. There were thousands of people lining the streets that day, and most of them were screaming for his blood. The police and the army were there to keep control, but once the prisoner was driven out of the gates, the police-cordon broke and most of the military followed the vehicles, and the street descended into chaos!

I ended up being mobbed by a group of settlers who surrounded me and started cursing me, and then spitting on me and then punching and kicking me, and I really didn’t think I was going to survive that experience, and yet, as St Paul would say “See, I am alive!”

My point is that the riot at Trinity’s Youth Centre did not commend our young people to the greater community of Dulwich Hill in any way, and neither did the riot that I was a part of in Dimona commend anybody to anybody, so far as I could see. What does Paul mean – that he commended himself to the Corinthians through riots, and through imprisonments, sleepless nights, calamities, beatings and hunger?

I think we need to be honest here and acknowledge that if this is the wisdom of Paul, it’s a wisdom that makes very little sense when seen alongside conventional wisdom.

As you know, amongst the many things I do, I manage a remote property at the base of the Blue Mountains National Park. I’m now in my 16th year as manager of that property and I would hate to think how many sleepless nights that work has caused me. It has though forced me to learn how to run a business, and the one really good thing about running a business, in my view, is that at least it’s very straightforward – whether or not you are being successful.

If you are making money, you are successful. If you are losing money, you are not. You don’t have to be making a lot of money to be successful, but you do need to make enough to cover your costs. This is the straightforward conventional wisdom that I’ve had to learn as a business owner, and I think that after 16 years of hard work and hard learning I have finally worked this much out.

I wonder how Paul would have gone, managing a business?

“We lost a million dollars last week, Paul!”
“Oh!”, says Paul, “well done!”
“Well … at this rate the banks will foreclose on us pretty soon and we might even end up in gaol if we can’t pay off all our debts!”
“OK! It sounds as if we are on the right track”
, says Paul!

It probably wouldn’t have quite been like that, and yet Paul was capable of seeing all the normal signs of failure – poverty, imprisonment, bankruptcy, hunger, and even death – as KPI’s (key performance indicators) of faithfulness to Christ’s mission.

Paul was well aware, of course, of how counter-intuitive his thinking was, and he recognised that his preaching was considered mere ‘foolishness’ by the wise and educated of his day (1 Corinthians 1:23), most obviously because of his focus on the suffering and death of Jesus which, likewise, could hardly have appeared as a selling-point to his contemporaries.

Of course, the two are tied together in Paul’s mind – because Christ suffers, we must suffer, and so suffering becomes the mark of the genuine believer who shares in the life of Christ. Even so, I’m sure Paul didn’t think that suffering was necessarily a mark of piety – it could be a sign of criminality – and he certainly didn’t believe that there weren’t positive things that could also be bundled into the authentic life of discipleship. Indeed, in the list he offers us here, alongside afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, and imprisonments, he also lists purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit and genuine love.

What I think Paul is getting at here is that a faithful life doesn’t always have to be extremely painful any more than it always need be extremely rewarding. It just always tends to be extreme!

I think this probably summarises St Paul’s view of the Christian life – it’s a life lived to extremes – and the further I go on in life with Christ, the more I can identify with this.

I think of the places the Lord has taken me, even in the last 12 months or so:

  • Walking through the Christian village of Maaloula in Syria, where the signs of Jabhat Al Nusra’s murderous occupation are still evident everywhere.
  • Spinning around a coral reef off Manus Island in the middle of the night in a tiny boat with no motor, trying to avoid the search lights of the navy.
  • Boxing with the Iranian amateur champ in Mashad, despite the doctor telling me that I’d never box again after the brain haemorrhage I suffered last year.

OK, I haven’t been imprisoned or lashed as yet (thanks be to God) but I feel like I’m on the same path as Saint Paul here, and what’s more, I don’t think I’m the only one!

I look around at the various members of our church community and I see a lot of people who are likewise really pushing the envelope – living life to the extreme!

There are people here who haven’t eaten properly for a week, raising money and awareness for refugees. There are people here who have given up regular full-time work so that they can pour themselves into things they believe in. There are LOTS of people here who devote enormous amounts of energy and time to the work of ministry that they feel called to – being it fighting discrimination or feeding the food-insecure or supporting asylum-seekers and refugees or any number of other works.

Indeed, one of the things I’m most proud of as a member of Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill, is that I don’t remember ever having had a discussion over morning tea on the subject of home renovations. Forgive me if you were all prepped to tell me about your latest renovation project. I do recognise that such things need to be done BUT we live in a society where home renovation is high-rating TV entertainment, as it seems to be the most exciting thing some people have in their lives! How tragic!

When I listen in on things people talk about here over morning tea and over lunch, people are sharing ideas and dreams and letting off steam, and I’m not suggesting that we are always focused on some noble form of mission, but we’re almost always focused on building something bigger than a new kitchen. We’re living the dream!

I appreciate, of course, that not all of you have experienced as many shipwrecks or riots or beatings as I have, though I think some of you just do a better job of hiding your scars than I do too. At any rate, for those who haven’t been shipwrecked or imprisoned yet, give yourself a bit more time! We are on the same path!

This is indeed the point, I think. It’s not that we are looking for trouble, but that we are all on the same path, and it’s the same path Saint Paul was on because it’s the same path that Jesus walked. We live the life of Christ – His extreme life – and so, inevitably, we share in His sufferings as well as in His joys.

“We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see – we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything” (2 Corinthians 6:8-10)

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Through Chaos and Confusion (Mark 3:20-35)

“Then Jesus entered a house, and again a crowd gathered, so that he and his disciples were not even able to eat. When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, “He is out of his mind.” And the teachers of the law who came down from Jerusalem said, “He is possessed by Beelzebul! By the prince of demons, he is driving out demons.” (Mark 3:20-22)

Thus begins the passage of Scripture allocated to us this morning, and it doesn’t start well, in the sense that it is not a happy scene. As the story develops, things don’t get any better either. The conflict between Jesus and the teachers of the law escalates, as does the tension between Jesus and His family.

I don’t know when you envisage this scene whether a particular word or emotion comes to the surface for you. For me, as I read though this passage again this week in preparation for this sermon, one word came to mind for me immediately – ‘lonely’.

That’s the word that came to mind, though whether Jesus really lived a lonely life is hard to say. Jesus shared the mind of God in a way that we don’t share in the mind of God, and so it’s impossible, I think, to really enter into the mind of Jesus. Even so, what came through clearly to me in this scene was that, if it had been me in Jesus’ situation, I would have been feeling the isolation very intensely!

I see my life as broken down into a number of areas – the church, the campsite, the fight club, the websites, and my family – each of which are highly significant to me.    I find, in general, that something is always going wrong in at least one of these key areas but that, thankfully, they never all fall apart at the same time.

When, many years ago, my first marriage fell apart and I wasn’t coping on my own,  it was the church community here who helped me get through that with their love. When, at other times, I’ve been in tension with the church community, or have been struggling with other external pressures, I’ve generally had my family to fall back on, and the Fight Club has always been there to help relieve stress. What becomes really difficult for me is when I have to fight the battle on multiple fronts. It seems to me though, that this is exactly what Jesus was doing all the time!

As the story opens in Mark chapter three, we see Jesus in head-on confrontation with the demons and, at the same time, He is battling with the religious authorities. Does He get support from His family to help sustain Him in this conflict? Not a chance! On the contrary, his family, we are told, are a part of the problem. Instead of cheering Jesus on, they accept the evaluation His opponents have made of Him and conclude that He is mad! Indeed, by the end of the story, Jesus’ family are at the house where He is teaching, with a view to shutting Him up and taking Him home.

Jesus’ response to this though is even more shocking:

“Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asked. Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.”” (Mark 3:32-35)

This brings to mind for me a second word – namely, dysfunctional.

Yes, I’m referring to the family of Jesus – the Holy Family, which is generally held up for us as some sort of ideal that we are all supposed to try and emulate.

“Christian children all must be
Mild, obedient, good as He”

So say the words of the Christmas Carol (“Once in Royal David’s City”) but even if it were true of Jesus as a youth (and there are a number of good reasons to think that it was not) it is hardly a good description of Jesus as we see Him here, where Jesus is neither mild nor obedient, and where He seems to disown His own mother!

“Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother”” (Mark 3:35).

That was a very positive word of affirmation for the people who were encircled around Jesus, – identified as Jesus’ real family. At the same time though, it was a devastating attack on those who are NOT His family – namely, His flesh and blood relatives who are waiting for Him outside (and who must have continued to wait)!

It is bizarre, isn’t it, that Jesus is so often invoked as being the author and protector of the nuclear family, to the point where ‘Christian values’ and ‘family values’ are considered to be synonymous, and yet the scenes in the Gospels where we see Jesus interacting with His earthly family are hardly like episodes of The Waltons!

The earliest interaction that we see in the Gospels between Jesus and His earthly parents involves them losing Him, only to find they boy three days later in the temple, saying “did you not know that I had to be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2:49). At the other end of the Gospel story we have Mary watching her son die on the cross! (John 19). In between those two extremes, a series of encounters between Jesus and His mother and siblings are depicted, and yet they are all tense and difficult!

“What have you to do with me, woman?” we hear Jesus say to his mother in John, chapter two, and here in Mark, chapter three, and in parallel passages elsewhere – “who is my mother? Who are my brothers and sisters?”

As I say, that’s an affirming thing to say to those who you are recognising as your new family, and yet there is no escaping the flip-side. It’s a devastating thing to say to your own flesh and blood mother and brothers and sisters:

‘You are not my mother!’ ‘You are not my brother!’ You are not my sister!’

I don’t know if there’s another single word that can sum up the struggle between Jesus and the teachers of the law – ‘conflict’, ‘violence, or even ‘damnation’?

I suspect that all of us are familiar with this section of the text as these are well-known verses (Mark 3:22-30), and well-known because this is the only instance in the New Testament where we ever hear Jesus tell someone that they are NOT forgiven – indeed, that they cannot be forgiven, ever!

This reference to the unforgiveable sin has been the focus of a lot of discussion over the years. More significantly, it’s been the cause of a lot of unnecessary suffering, I believe, as numerous people, over the years, have decided, for one reason or another, that they have committed ‘the unforgiveable sin’.

Soren Kierkegaard’s father was one, I remember. If I recall the story correctly, the man cursed God one night during a terrible storm and was convinced afterwards that he had committed the unforgiveable sin. He subsequently became a very hard man to live with (and his son followed in his footsteps in that regard)!

I don’t know how many people have lived lives that have been plagued with fear at the thought of having perhaps committed the unforgiveable sin. I do remember being perplexed by this passage as a child, to the extent that I remember asking my Sunday School teacher whether this meant that swearing, using the Holy Spirit’s name, rather than swearing using the name of Jesus or simply saying ‘My God’ was unforgiveable. I was told that it was.

I remember, indeed, telling my father that my Sunday School teacher had taught me this, and I remember my father saying that he was going to have a word to that Sunday School teacher. That’s where my memory of those events ends.

Just in case though there are persons present who have lived in fear of having committed the unforgiveable sin, let’s pause and take an honest look at the text.

The context of the statement is Jesus’ ongoing work of healing and exorcism. People everywhere are having their lives transformed by Jesus, and this is affecting different groups of people in different ways.

For those who are sick or possessed, Jesus is exciting news. Jesus’ family, on the other hand, are worried about Him. Perhaps they just want Him to get a haircut and get a real job, or perhaps they are concerned about the social upheaval that He is causing and how it’s going to affect them. At the heart of the upheaval, at any rate, are the religious leaders, who are not only seeing their own authority undermined, but who are also seeing a level of agitation in their community that they fear might bring them into confrontation with their foreign occupiers – the Romans.

These religious and community leaders were in an awkward situation. They had every reason to be suspicious of Jesus and of the damaging effect He could have on their community. On the other hand, it was becoming impossible to deny both His words and His works! Not only was He teaching things that they must have known were totally in line with any real understanding of God that they had, but the miracles He was doing were becoming increasingly hard to ignore!

There comes a point where, no matter how much you don’t want to face the truth, the evidence becomes overwhelming and you have to eventually accept the facts.

I’m not long back from a conference in Iran where a number of my fellow speakers were American whistle-blowers – men and women who had started out working for their government in good faith, believing that they were helping to bring freedom and democracy to countries like Iraq and Afghanistan through wars of liberation.

It was fascinating to hear the testimonies of these men and women as they talked about their growing awareness of what was really going on and their desire to block it out so as not to disrupt the course they were on. For each of them though there came a point where they just couldn’t live with the lies any longer!

C.S. Lewis, you may know, described his own coming to Christ in similar terms:

“You must picture me alone in that room at Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England” (Surprised by Joy, chapter 14).

There comes a point for all of us, when we are faced with a clear truth, where we have to give in to the overwhelming evidence that confronts us, no matter how much pain that causes us. The only alternative is to enter some kind of schizophrenic state where we have to reshape reality to fit the absurd beliefs that we insist on continuing to cling to, and that’s exactly what we see Jesus’ opponents doing.

These teachers of the law – they are there. They have seen first-hand the work that Jesus does – how He heals the sick, gives sight to the blind and frees those who are possessed – and yet rather than admit the truth and align themselves with Jesus, they assert the ridiculous – that Jesus Himself is the devil, ‘casting out demons by the prince of demons’. Jesus’ diagnosis is that these people are beyond help.

Loneliness, dysfunctionality, conflict, aggression, violence – these are not the only words that come to mind as I think about this scene. When I think about the way in which that house was so crowded, such that they weren’t able to eat, I think too about the level of noise.

Whether we envisage the ‘demon-possessed’ as person whose heads spun around (like those in the movies) or simply as persons with regular mental illness, I imagine that they were loud and difficult to control. Words like ‘chaos’, ‘confusion’ and ‘mayhem’ come to mind. I do not doubt that Jesus was bringing order to the chaos. Even, the scene as I envisage it begins in chaos and confusion, and as the sun sets and his family gives up and returns home, there is still chaos and confusion.

Where’s the good news? That’s the question.

If you know me as a preacher, you know that I consider it my main role as a preacher to bring you the Good News, and at first sight there doesn’t seem to be a lot of good news on view in this passage. There’s plenty of chaos and confusion and conflict and disorder and pain on view, but I struggled for quite a while to see the Good News here, and then it occurred to me – the Good News is simply the fact that this story is in the Bible!

What I mean is that this story isn’t lifted from the Sydney Morning Herald. It’s not just another story of chaos and confusion. It’s a part of the story of Jesus, and the story of Jesus is the story of the liberation of the cosmos!

We know how this story ends. It ends with the Kingdom coming! Yes, there is lots of chaos and pain and loneliness and dysfunctionality first, but the Kingdom comes anyway! I think that is good news – really good news!

We struggle, we fail each other, we get overwhelmed, we don’t know how to handle the conflict and we don’t know how to handle the isolation, but God’s Kingdom comes, forgiveness happens, and love wins. Amen!

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The Sabbath was made for humanity (Mark 2:23-3:6)

“The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.” (Mark 2:27-28)

Anarchy is something we all fear – those of us who know what it is, anyway.

I say that as someone who was a devotee of the Sex Pistols when they brought out “Anarchy for the UK” in 1977, though I think my enthusiasm at the time was a consequence of the self-destructive rage I was then experiencing, combined with my youthful ignorance.

“Anarchy for the UK. It’s coming some time, maybe”. It was wise of Johnny Rotten to add the qualifying ‘maybe’. It hasn’t happened in the UK yet, and we can be thankful for that, as where it has happened in recent years, anarchy hasn’t been something worth celebrating

My mind goes immediately to what happened in Libya after the ‘humanitarian’ intervention of NATO that led to the brutal murder of Muammar Gadhafi and the more-or-less total breakdown of Libyan society that followed immediately in its wake.

I wasn’t there, such that I can verify what happened, but the reports of murder and rape and all-round mayhem suggested that life in Tripoli became terrifying for the civilian population once Gadhafi was gone and law and order broke down.

I think of similar reports that came out of Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein – the breakdown of law and order that cost so many lives and that, amongst other things, gave birth to ISIS and so many of the terrorist threats that we are dealing with today.

Again, I wasn’t there to personally verify the extent of the mayhem, but I did have lunch a couple of weeks go with Peter Van Buren, who was there as an American diplomat. He’d gone into Iraq, he said, believing the rhetoric – that his people were there to help the Iraqis find democracy and freedom, but then, he said, he discovered the truth. He wrote a book, entitled “We Meant Well”, which resulted in him losing his job and narrowly avoiding a goal term, though, on the positive side, it meant he got to speak alongside me at the conference in Iran two weeks ago!

The bottom line is that anarchy is not a good thing, and yet it seems to be the result of all our recent military interventions, however well-intentioned they may be.

Certainly, that’s the fear for the people of Syria, dreading the possibility of another humanitarian intervention from the West. We all know what the result of such a well-meaning intervention would be – anarchy, lawlessness, death and mayhem.

I give you this backdrop as we approach our Gospel passage today, where Jesus seems to flout the law, as I know we Christians are often tempted to snub our noses at the law and at legalism, and yet the truth is that when it comes to a choice between law and lawlessness, we choose law, and rightly so!

It’s easy to say ‘get rid of the horrible dictator’ but what do you put in his place? It’s easy to say, ‘don’t worry about law’, but what are the alternatives? Lawlessness is not an option that any of us are likely to feel comfortable with.

“One sabbath he was going through the grain fields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?” (Mark 2:23-24)

“Pedants!” That’s my knee-jerk response, and, yes, it’s probably yours too. These Pharisees are so preoccupied with their petty little rules and regulations! What is the problem with plucking a few heads of grain as you wander through a field – on the Sabbath or on any other day? What’s the difference?

The real issue, of course, for the Pharisees, isn’t this particular law so much as it is the law as a whole, which is a complex and interconnected body of regulations, and when you start treating some of those laws with contempt it’s a slippery slope!

Dare I confess that I regularly break the traffic laws covering pedestrians by crossing roads even when the ‘don’t walk’ sign is clearly illuminated. Just because there’s no traffic coming doesn’t make it right to flout the law, does it? What if everybody flouted the law when they felt like it? Do I really want to live in a society where traffic rules are totally open to the interpretation of the individual pedestrian or driver (as they are in Tehran and Beirut and any number of other places where I never want to drive)?

Jesus’ initial response to the Pharisees on this point seems, at best, dismissive

“Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.” (Mark 2:25-26)

It’s not normally considered to be a serious legal defense – to say ‘he behaved badly, so why shouldn’t I?’, though, notably, it was accepted at Nuremburg.

When Nazi war criminals were put on trial and charged with things like the deliberate targeting of civilians and civil infrastructure, the response that “we were only doing what the Americans and British were doing” was accepted as an adequate defense. Even so, we don’t normally consider the bad behavior of other people to be an excuse for lawless behavior on our part. Is that really what Jesus was suggesting?

It may be that Jesus was making a far more serious point, and that is suggested by the statement He makes that follows his retelling of the story about King David, and it’s a statement that I consider to be central to Jesus’ understanding of divine law:

“Then he said to them, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath”” (Mark 2:27)

It’s not immediately obvious, I think, how this statement about the Sabbath relates to Jesus’ citing of the story of David and his eating of the sacred bread, which didn’t take place on a Sabbath (so far as we know), unless we assume that Jesus is making a very general and broadly applicable statement – that the Sabbath and, by extension, all divine laws, are there to benefit humanity, and need to be understood and interpreted in that context, lest they be misinterpreted and misapplied.

Applying this principal to the case of the sacred bread then means that, however special that bread was in the eyes of God, human need (hunger, in this case) trumps sacredness every time! If that’s right, Jesus’ thinking was truly radical!

As you know, I’ve just come back from a week in Iran, where I had the privilege of mixing with some high-profile Islamic thinkers, and also spent some considerable time with someone who is often referred to as an ‘ultra-Orthodox’ Jewish Rabbi.

Rabbi Weiss did say to me, “I don’t know why they refer to us as ‘ultra-Orthodox’. All we are trying to do is to be obedient to the law of God. How does that make us ‘ultra’ anything?” I take his point, and, however you refer to the man, he was much-loved by our hosts in Iran, many of whom, I think, would describe their religious piety in exactly the same way – “We are just trying to be obedient to the law of God”.

It was me – the Christian guy – who stood out in this respect. I would not agree that ‘trying to be obedient to the law of God’ was an adequate description of my religious piety. I’m not sure how I would describe it, but I’m pretty sure that the word ‘law’ would not even appear in the description!

When a Christian becomes a Muslim, the Muslim community don’t refer to her as a ‘convert’ but instead as a ‘revert’, suggesting that these people have reverted to the true law of God that Christianity quite possibly lured them away from. Personally, I think this is quite a helpful description, as I agree that the church did indeed move away from any literal adherence to the written law very early in its history.

Most Muslim scholars I speak to blame St Paul for this movement away from the written law. I think ‘no’ – the departure from rigid adherence to the written code starts very much with Jesus Himself, and no where is that better illustrated than here.

“The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath” (Mark 2:27) – that’s a radical statement, and one that we should take time to fully absorb.

Without wanting to put words into the mouth of the Rabbi I was talking to or any of my scholarly Muslim colleagues, I do believe that if I were to ask any of them why we should be obedient to the written law of God, the answer would be “because it is written”, or something very similar to that.

Ours is not to reason why God gives us particular laws but simply to be obedient. Should the toddler question her parents when they tell her not to touch the stove or not to run out on the road? The proper response is not to argue the case but rather to trust the wisdom and beneficence of your care-giver.

Jesus though suggests that we can question why rules are given – indeed, that we should question why rules are given – indeed, that we already know why these rules are given and that we therefore must interpret and apply these divine laws in accordance with their deeper purposes, which always involve the enhancement of human life, rather than simply obeying laws unquestioningly.

“The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath”

If we take this seriously, it changes everything, religiously speaking. It means that we can no longer make pronouncements about marriage and the family and human sexuality, or anything else for that matter, simply on the basis of what is written. Instead, it means that every religious law and precept needs to be evaluated in terms of its divine purpose. To what extent does this law or principal enhance human life, justice, beauty and peace, or does it threaten to inhibit any or all of the above?

“Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him.” (Mark 3:1-2)

This last part of today’s story again fleshes out the type of confrontation that can arise between these two different forms of religious piety. A man with a withered hand appears in the synagogue and the religious authorities are all focused on whether Jesus is going to break the law. Jesus’ focus though seems to be somewhere altogether different. He is focused on the man!

I’m not suggesting that everyone who focuses on the word will always necessarily neglect people. On the contrary, I’ve known literalist fundamentalists and even ‘ultra-Orthodox’ characters who, guided by the Spirit of God, always seem to interpret the written word in ways that affirm life. Even so, if we imitate Jesus, we don’t need to follow any difficult or convoluted route in order to end up affirming life. We start with freedom and dignity, and we interpret the law accordingly.

There is a danger in this, of course. When you dispose of the dictator (the law in this case) what do we put in its place? If all we have to substitute for the law are our own very-fallible intuitions, we are not in a good place. If the choice is between legalism and anarchy, give me law! I think though that Jesus here shows us very clearly that there is a third alternative to legalism and anarchy – namely, compassion.

What was it that distinguished Jesus from his religious opponents (in this and every confrontation that we see them in)? It’s compassion. Yes, they interpreted some of the ancient texts differently, and they differed in the way they approached those texts but the key issue was never an academic one. The key difference was compassion.

At the end of this month Holy Trinity is going to host a famous Lebanese Islamic Sufi, and the plan is that we and he, along with other invited representatives of the greater Dulwich Hill and Marrickville community will publicly sign the ‘Charter of Compassion’

“The principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions, calling us always to treat all others as we wish to be treated ourselves. Compassion impels us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures, to dethrone ourselves from the centre of our world and put another there, and to honour the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect.”

Those are the opening lines of the charter – a document devised and launched by Karen Armstrong back in 2009, and subsequently signed on to by religious leaders and cities and parliaments around the world, and hopefully soon by us too!

Armstrong, for those who don’t know her, was once a nun, and I don’t think there can be any doubt as to where she found inspiration for her charter. Compassion may indeed ‘lie at the heart’ of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions. For Jesus, I believe, it was His heart. It’s what distinguished him from His peers. It’s what shaped His theology and thinking. It’s the essential legacy He left to His followers.

I began with a song by Johnny Rotten. Let me end with one from John Wesley:

Jesus, thou are all compassion.
Pure, unbounded love thou art.
Visit us with thy salvation.
Enter every trembling heart.

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Zionism and Biblical prophecy

The ideology of Zionism, which provided the philosophical underpinning for the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, was not initially a religious movement. Whether or not Theodor Herzl was an Atheist, his writings display no interest in religion, and he certainly made no connection made between his vision for a new Jewish state and the activities of the Almighty. Modern defenders of the state of Israel though are far less reticent in their use of religious language. Indeed, it is rare to hear any contemporary politician speak in support of Israel without making reference to some Biblical text or image! This seems to be especially true of politicians who identify themselves as Christians.

Over the last generation, Christian Zionism has indeed become a bulwark of support for successive Israeli governments – allowing the State of Israel to flout the mandates of the United Nations and to oppress Palestinian Arabs with increasing impunity. Zionist governments are shielded from the dictates of the UN and from international law by their Western allies – most obviously the United States – and the US gets significant domestic support for its pro-Israel policies from the church.

If Norman Finkelstein’s analysis in his book of 2012 – “Knowing too much – why the American Jewish romance with Israel is coming to an end” – is correct, Zionist governments can no longer take for granted the support of Jewish communities outside of their country. Bizarrely though, they seem to be on much firmer ground when it comes to support from the church, at least in the United States.

According to the Pew Research Centre, 63% of white evangelical Christians in the USA believe it is their biblical responsibility to support the nation of Israel, and Christian Zionist groups such as the International Christian Embassy (ICEJ), Christian Friends of Israel (CFI) and Christians United for Israel (CUFI) claim to have over 50 million members between them! These groups form a virtually impenetrable lobby when it comes to US foreign policy regarding Israel, and this is what allows the crimes of violence, such as those we see now perpetrated against unarmed protestors in Gaza, to continue, with Mr Netanyahu confident that no one is ever going to hold him to account.

As to the origins of this aberration of the church, I can do no better than refer you to my friend and colleague, Dr Stephen Sizer, who is an expert in this field. For today’s purposes, I want to focus not on the origins of Christian Zionism but on what keeps this ideology in place at a theological level, and I think the answer to this is reasonably straightforward. It is the appeal Christian Zionists make to their Scriptures – both to their New Testament and to the Jewish Bible – and most especially to a series of prophetic texts that they believe foretell both the establishment of the Zionist state and its victory over all its political opponents!

Armed with these prophetic texts, Christian Zionists claim that defending the state of Israel is a Biblical mandate for all believers, regardless of what injustices they might thus be sanctioning or how many people might be oppressed or killed. It is my contention though that not only have the Christian Zionists misread particular verses, but they have misunderstood their sacred texts at a deeper level and have failed to understand the way prophecy works in the both the Jewish and Christian Scriptures.

In terms of the texts these people appeal to, there are multiple sites on the Internet, (such as where they are laid out systematically. The starting point is generally the promise given to Abram in the Torah (in the book of Genesis) that the whole land of Canaan, which includes all of modern-day Israel and Palestine, will be given to his descendants as an everlasting inheritance:

“The whole land of Canaan, where you are now an alien, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you” (Genesis 17:8)

Indeed, the Hebrew Bible’s narrative of the people of Israel begins with this promise to Abram, which is a promise that has two other parts to it – namely, that Abram will also become the father of a great multitude and, most significantly, that through these descendants ‘all the families of the earth shall be blessed’ (Genesis 13:3)

The focus of Christian Zionists though is on the part of the promise concerning the land, which they see as still being in the process of fulfillment.

In the history of Israel, as related in the Jewish Scriptures themselves, the land is both conquered by the descendants of Abram and subsequently lost to them, though there are indeed various prophecies of a return to the land.

“Say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord God, “Behold, I will take the sons of Israel from among the nations where they have gone, and I will gather them from every side and bring them into their own land” (Ezekiel 37:21)

Christian Zionists will claim that this prophecy was not fulfilled (as is generally supposed) when the king of Persia, Cyrus the Great, allowed the Jews to return to their land – an event generally dated at around 538 BCE – but nearly 2,500 years later, in 1948, with the foundation of the modern state of Israel!

Once this leap is made, and prophecies that are normally thought to be related to events that occurred two and half thousand years are identified as finding their fulfillment in the modern day, it doesn’t take too much imagination to find a plethora of other contemporary events referred to in similar fragments of Scripture.

Hence, Zechariah 8:4 – “Thus says the Lord of hosts, ‘Old men and old women will again sit in the streets of Jerusalem” – is seen by Christian Zionists as being fulfilled not in the above-mentioned return from exile, but in the Arab-Israeli war of 1967 when the Israeli army seized control of East Jerusalem from Jordan!

Likewise, prophecies that speak of coalitions of armies conspiring against Jerusalem, such as Psalm 86 or Zechariah 12:3 – “all the nations of the earth will be gathered against it” – are taken as references to current hostilities between the modern state of Israel and its Arab and Persian neighbours.

Moreover, and most disturbingly of all, the victory of the state of Israel over all of its neighbours is seen as being clearly foretold by the same prophets:

Now it will come about that in the last days the mountain of the house of the Lord Will be established 1as the chief of the mountains, and will be raised above the hills; and all the nations will stream to it. (Isaiah 2:2 and Micah 4:1)

Of course, for Christian Zionists, the end-point of their story is not the victory of the state of Israel over its enemies but the return of Christ, which they see as being intrinsically linked to Israel’s military victories.

I won’t bother explaining in detail how exactly they connect these military and spiritual events, as even I find it a bit baffling, but the upshot is that Christ can’t return until Israel has destroyed all her enemies, which, they say, makes it incumbent on every Christian believer to get behind the state of Israel in its military ventures so that the plan of God for the world might come to completion!

I hope I’m doing Christian Zionism some degree of justice in my brief summary. When I have heard these people speak, they generally pull out a lot more verses from the Bible to buttress their case than the small number I have offered above. Even so, I’ve limited my presentation to a handful of prophetic texts as my main contention with Christian Zionism is not with their interpretation of any particular text but with the way these people approach the prophetic literature as a whole.

Christian Zionists give their support to the state of Israel based on prophetic texts that they believe predict the victory of Israel over its enemies. I consider their interpretations erroneous, but even if I agreed with their interpretations it would not affect my politics since prophecy in the Jewish and Hebrew Scriptures doesn’t work that way. Biblical prophecy is never normative. The prophecies themselves do not tell us what to do. Biblically speaking, it’s always the commandments that tell us what to do. The role of prophecy is to bring us back to the commandments.

This is one thing that both Christianity and Islam and, I believe, Judaism agree on. Being a prophet of God is not fundamentally about predicting the future. There is a big difference between prophecy and fortune-telling.

In the Jewish Bible, as in the New Testament, as also in the Qur’an, the role of a prophet is to call people back into a relationship with God. If the prophet’s message includes dire predictions about the future, this is because God’s commandments have been broken and the prophet is urging his hearers to avoid the judgement he foresees by showing repentance and faith and obedience to God’s commandments.

It is God’s commandments that are normative. It is the commandments that must be obeyed. Prophetic predictions about the future function to call us back to those commandments, but the predictions themselves do not tell us what to do.

When Amos proclaims God’s judgement – “For three transgressions of Israel and for four, I will not revoke the punishment” (Amos 3:6) – his purpose was not simply to upset people by telling them that they were about to be destroyed, nor was he inviting anyone to come and join him in destroying Israel. On the contrary, his purpose was to call his hearers to repentance so that the nation might not be destroyed.

When the prophet Jeremiah railed against the sins of Israel and predicted that
a ‘boiling pot from the north’ (Jeremiah 1:13) would spill over in their direction and destroy everything, this was not designed to shift anybody’s political allegiance from Israel to the northern nation of Babylon (or Assyria).

Jeremiah’s hope was always that the events he prophesied would not come to pass, and when things did take place just as he had predicted, Jeremiah wrote a whole book of Lamentations, mourning Jerusalem’s destruction.

Biblical prophecy is never normative. Jeremiah’s prophecies of doom did not make destroying Jerusalem a moral imperative, such that the correct response from his hearers would have been to enlist in the Babylonian army and join in the looting. Such prophecies were rather designed to function like shock therapy – jolting listeners back to a sober awareness of their spiritual plight.

Hence Biblical prophecies were never designed to shape 21st century foreign policy any more than they were given for the sake of satisfying curiosity about the future. Prophecies were given in order to call people to back to God and to God’s commandments.

Once we recognise this, the fundamental flaw in the logic of Christian Zionism is laid bare. They claim that the Biblical prophecies point to the triumph of the modern state of Israel over neighbours. Even if this were correct and that some prophet had predicted a military victory for modern Israel, this would not mean that either the prophet or the Bible endorsed such an event. Nor would it mean that believing people should support it, any more than Jeremiah’s dire warnings were intended to garner support for the destruction of Jerusalem.

In the Hebrew Bible, when a prophet gave dire predictions about the future, his hope was that his warnings would cause his hearers to come back into a relationship of obedience to God, and that this would result in his prophecies proving false. Prophecy thus always functions to lead us back to the commandments. The tragedy of Christian Zionism is that it gets the whole process back-to-front – urging us to follow the prophecy, even if this means breaking God’s commandments!

Prophecy has never been normative for people of faith. It’s the law of God that is normative. The commandments inform our actions and tell us how we ought to behave towards God and towards our neighbours. It is on the basis of the commandments that we might construct a Biblically-based foreign policy, which would require focusing, of course, on justice.

As a Sydney Anglican priest, I am privileged to be from a church tradition that has never been greatly influenced by Zionism. Indeed, I believe that at the Sydney Synod of 1948, when some people did stand up and suggest that the creation of the State of Israel was the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy, it was the principal of our theological seminary who corrected them, saying “No, no! It’s the fulfillment of the eighth commandment – ‘Thou shalt not steal’!”

This is indeed the great tragedy of Christian Zionism – that under the guise of faithfulness to Biblical prophecy, it justifies stealing and murder and any number of other crimes that are clearly contrary to the commandments of God.

A genuinely Biblical approach to the situation in Israel/Palestine must begin, not with prophecy, but with God’s unambiguous command to do justice – a justice that respects the rights of the Palestinian people to their land, to life and to liberty.

Father Dave – May 12th, 2018, New Horizons conference, Mashad, Iran

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The danger of Anti-Semitism

I want to thank the organisers of today’s event for privileging me with an invitation to address you. At the same time though, a part of me wants to say ‘thanks for nothing’ as you guys must know that by speaking at events like this I run the risk of having myself censored and disciplined and sidelined!

I do actually have a painful history of being targeted on account of the things I have said (either in writing or in speech) that are critical of the Israeli government. Indeed, I’ve had the privilege of being invited to address prominent groups of government officials and community leaders on topics completely unrelated to Israel/Palestine, only to find out afterwards that the organisers were subsequently warned not to deal with me again on account of my dubious stance I take on these issues!

I’ve had my websites and my Twitter feed and my Facebook posts gone through with a fine-tooth comb, and reports have been made to my bishop! My sites have been scoured for information in an attempt to indict me as being anti-Israel, even if not anti-Semitic, though I’ve had other people tell me that by being anti-Israel I am anti-Semitic, by definition, as criticism of the state of Israel is a form of anti-Semitism, and this is what I wanted to talk about briefly tonight. Is it OK to criticize the Israeli government, or is it actually a form of racism?

At first glance, political critique and racism seem to be entirely different animals. I am regularly critical of the Australian government. Indeed, I am vehemently critical of this country’s treatment of refugees and asylum-seekers and I believe our record in this regard is absolutely disgraceful – something that every citizen of this country should be deeply ashamed of! Even so, by expressing these sentiments I don’t get myself labelled as being a self-hating Aussie or anything like that.

Likewise, I take enormous exception to the actions of the government of the United States, most obviously over their ongoing murderous rampage through Syria, which I believe is inexcusable. I don’t expect everybody to agree with me on that, but I don’t expect anyone either to label me as being anti-American or anything of the sort, as those who know me know I do sincerely love that country and its people.

Why is it then that when I criticize the actions of the State of Israel, an entirely different dynamic seems to apply? For some reason, it seems that I can’t be critical of the way the Israeli government treats its Arab population nor the native people of the West Bank and Gaza without being accused of discriminating against the Jewish people as a race!

This is especially pronounced when it comes to support of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) of Israeli goods and services. This appears to be a very ethical form of non-violent protest, similar in nature to the boycott campaign used so effectively against the South African government in the Apartheid era. The accusation though is that is regularly levelled against BDS advocates is that their campaign is only a cover for a new form of Anti-Semitism, aimed at delegitimizing the Israeli government and its people.

Personally, I suspect that some people who support the BDS could, in part, be motivated by a vile hatred of Semitic people. I suspect too that there may be some who support BDS because they have shares in IBM and it suits them to boycott competitors such as Hewlett-Packard! Even so, I am fully convinced that the vast majority of those of us who support BDS do so simply because we see it as the best way of achieving the liberation of the Palestinian people, and of putting an end to the oppression, discrimination and unrelenting brutality they experience at the hands of the Israeli government!

The recent violence displayed by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) towards protestors in Gaza – shooting and killing numerous unarmed men and boys, and injuring thousands – seems to me to be such a horrendous crime that it cries out to Heaven for redress, yet this gets very little response from our political leaders!

Indeed, it seems to me the ultimate irony that those ‘leaders of the free world’ who displayed so much self-righteous anger over an alleged gas attack by the Syrian government said absolutely nothing about the undisputed cases of civilian murder that were being carried out across the border in Palestine! Our great custodians of the moral order felt it necessary to send millions of dollars’ worth of missiles into Syria, spreading an as-yet-unquantified amount of death and destruction because they just couldn’t stomach what happened to the citizens of Syria. The murder of the citizens of Gaza though didn’t even elicit a murmur!

How is this possible?  I do believe that in part it is because people have been cowered into silence when it comes criticism of the Israeli government. No matter how vile and violent the actions of the Israeli government, you don’t have to say much in defense of Palestine to be labelled an anti-Semitic racist!

Last week’s case of the disgracing of Mahmoud Abbas may be a case in point.

I’m afraid I haven’t been able to get access to the man’s full speech as I was very curious to find out exactly what he said that infuriated so many people. What is unambiguous though is that Abbas has been labelled as anti-Semite and even as a Holocaust-denier by the Israeli Prime Minister. From what I can see, Abbas did question why the Jewish people have experienced such a terrible history of persecution, and he seemed to suggest that it was because of the roles they played in society rather than because of their religion as such.

I don’t know if that’s true, and I don’t know if there wasn’t more to what Mr Abbas said. Even so, I found it hard to see that what was presented in the reports was racist, let along that it involved denial of the Holocaust!

I won’t comment further on that as there may be more to the story that I’ve found in my research thus far. Even so, I do see accusations like this thrown about all the time (most obviously online) where people are accused of being anti-Semitic or of being Holocaust-deniers simply because they express concern for welfare of the Palestinian people, and we do need to keep these things separate, for one of the great dangers in this climate is that this attempt to broaden the definition of anti-Semitism will inadvertently lead to a growth in real racism!

Racism is a vile curse and a hindrance to human-rights efforts in whatever form it comes, and I personally believe that there is a real danger of a growth in genuine anti-Semitism, and I believe that at the heart of the problem is the Israeli government itself.

Mr Netanyahu continues to enact policies of violence towards Palestinian people, and he does so claiming that his government acts on behalf of all Jewish people everywhere in the world! Most of us are smart enough to realise that no politician and no government can ever speak or act on behalf of a whole race of people. Even so, as less aware people buy into the lie, the danger is that the violence of the Netanyahu government will indeed be seen as Jewish violence, rather than what it is – the oppressive actions of a corrupt government.

There is no shortage of Jews around the world who cry ‘not in my name’ in response to these actions of the Israeli government. Indeed, in my only-ever trip to Israel in 2002, where I was at the centre of a riot and was almost killed, one of my most enduring memories was standing besides so many young Jewish men and women who were joining us in protest against their government. And while I had the privilege of going home after my ‘Holy Land experience’ those young Jews and Jewesses continued on in the work, enduring humiliation and violence for the sake of their beliefs.

According to Chicago-based Rabbi Brant Rosen, in an article entitled Anti-Zionism Isn’t a ‘Form of Discrimination’ and It’s Not anti-Semitism there are indeed a growing number of Jews around the world who identify themselves as anti-Zionists and are motivated “by values of equality and human rights for all human beings.” We need to keep this in mind, as we need to fight the propaganda that wants to conflate the political and religious and racial dimensions of the Israel/Palestine tragedy.

We must resist all temptations fall prey to racism, just as we must resist the temptation to stay quiet for fear of being accused of racism, for we must speak out!

There are powerful forces trying to shut down discussion about the crimes of the Israeli government, but we must speak out. For the sake of the unarmed protestors who were shot and killed in Gaza, we must speak out. For the sake of all the Palestinian children in Israeli gaols, we must speak out. For the sake of all those in the West Bank who have had their homes destroyed, and for the sake of all those around the world who wear the keys of their ancestral homes around their necks, waiting for their right of return, we must speak out. For the sake of justice and for the sake of God we must speak out.

As Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, “History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of he good people.” We must not remain silent. We must speak out – viva Palestina! God bless Palestine!

Delivered by Father Dave at UWS Bankstown Campus, May 5th, 2018

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Christianity and Politics

Father Dave and Rabbi Weiss address the faculty of Reza University in Mashad (Iran)

Father Dave and Rabbi Weiss address the faculty of Reza University in Mashad (Iran)

The relationship between the Christian faith and politics is not an easy topic for discussion, especially if we take our starting point from the Christian Scriptures – the New Testament.

Whereas both the other ‘religions of the book’ (Judaism and Islam) saw their sacred texts emerge in contexts where the faithful were in positions of political authority, the New Testament was written at a time when the church was a persecuted minority with no political power. Accordingly, while there is plenty of material in both the Jewish Scriptures and in the Qur’an that illustrates how a state should be run in accordance with religious principals, there is nothing comparable in the New Testament. On the contrary, the only references in the New Testament to political power, suggest that it is something that believers should avoid having any association with!

I suspect that the words of Jesus that most immediately come to mind when most Christians think about His relationship with politics is Jesus’ response to the question of whether his followers should pay taxes to the Roman occupying power. His response – “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s.” (Matthew 22:21) – suggests that God’s realm and the political realm are two separate spheres, and that one should not interfere with the other.

I do not doubt that verses like this have contributed to the current Western democratic dogma of the separation of church and state, and indeed that position is consistent with other statements attributed to Jesus, such as “my kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36), which is, significantly, said to have occurred in conversation with the Roman procurator, Pontius Pilate – a man of considerable political authority.

Whether words such as these should be taken as forbidding Christian believers to seek positions of political authority, or whether Jesus was just trying to keep the spiritual and political sphere’s distinct is open to debate. What is less ambiguous is that Jesus had a concept of leadership that was distinct from the model displayed by the political leaders of his day.

“You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. It is not to be so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant” (Mark 10:42-43)

This command of Jesus is recorded in all three of the synoptic Gospels and is particularly significant for our purposes as it explicitly distinguishes between the accustomed way in which political power is exercised – where rulers ‘lord it over’ their people – and the form of authority that Jesus Himself modelled, which was an authority embodied in service to others.

The language Jesus uses seems to be deliberately extreme. Literally, He says that we are supposed to be the slaves of those who are under our authority, rather than the other way around! Instead of manipulating those under our authority, we are supposed to serve them.

Countries like mine still display the legacy of this teaching in the titles we bestow upon our political leaders. We refer to our governmental leaders as ‘ministers’, which means ‘servants’, and we refer to our most powerful political leader as the ‘Prime Minister’, meaning the first amongst servants. Even so, we don’t see a lot of servile behavior amongst the political leadership in my country. Regardless of the language, we lord it over each other just as well as ‘the gentiles’ of old ever did!

My reading of the New Testament, and of Jesus’ life as well as His teachings, is that institutional power was something that Jesus Himself deliberately avoided, and whether or not He would have explicitly discouraged his followers from seeking political office, I think it is beyond question that Jesus expected His followers not to use positions of authority, if they had them, to manipulate and exploit others.

This is obvious, and the other thing that is equally obvious is that the church throughout its history has paid scant attention to Jesus’ teaching on this subject! On the contrary, the church over the centuries has shown itself time and time again to be as power-hungry and as manipulative as any of its secular counter-parts.

My feeling is that Constantine’s victory at the Battle of Milvian Bridge in the year 312 was the beginning of the end for the church! This was the battle through which the Christian religion was elevated from being an illegal religious sect, undergoing regular persecution from the authorities, to being the official religion of the empire.

Prior to Milvian Bridge, if you were a Christian and you received a visit from the local authorities, it might have been to have you arrested and fed to the lions. If you received that visit after the victory of Constantine, it was probably because you were being offered a privileged position in the new government!

I’m not suggesting that it was a bad thing that the persecution stopped, but the power went to our heads! As Lord Acton rightly said, “all power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. The church became too powerful too quickly and fell subject to corruption. Tragically, nowhere has that corruption been more obvious in the history of the church than it its persecution of the other peoples of the book – in the appalling violence displayed to both Jews and Muslims.

Recognising the historic failure of the church to engage creatively in the political process, it remains to be asked what role the church should play in politics today.

A popular solution amongst Protestant churches is to have nothing to do with politics. This approach is grounded in the ‘two realms’ framework that I mentioned earlier, and I agree that it’s better for the church to have no involvement at all in things political if the alternative is another Crusade or Holocaust. Even so, I do believe that there is an alternative between these two extremes, and it’s found in the teachings of Jesus that I’ve already quoted: “whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant” (Mark 10:42-43)

If the church is to engage with the political process, we must do so out of a desire to serve those around us and, I think, we must operate as servants – in other words, from outside positions of institutionalized power.

We tend to assume that the only way to fight a corrupt power is with an equal power that is less corrupt. The problem, of course, is that all power does indeed tend to corrupt.

When I think of movements that have made for lasting and significant social change in the last century, three great movements come immediately to mind:

  • The independence movement in India that was led by Mahatma Ghandi in the early 20th century
  • The Civil Rights movement in the United States of America, lead by Martin Luther King Jr. in the middle of the last century.
  • The Iranian Revolution in the late 20th Century.

All three were profoundly peaceful revolutions that avoided the use of violence to achieve their political goals. All three movements were deeply grounded in religious ideals and were headed up by spiritual leaders who were servants to their people.

I do believe that today, if we are going to confront the dark forces that are currently threatening to tear our world to pieces, we need another spiritual revolution, led by spiritual men and women, using the non-violent weapons of prayer and self-sacrifice.

The proper path for the church, I believe, is clear. The problem is that it has always been clear and yet we, the church, have never had the courage to follow it! I suspect that if we are going to finally prove true to our calling at this late stage of human history, we will need the support of other peoples of faith – support from our Islamic and Jewish sisters and brothers most especially.

Together we can make a difference. Together, if we remain grounded in our spiritual ideals and open to each other in love, we can combat the forces that threaten to destroy humanity. We, the church, will never be able to erase our checkered history, but together I believe we can step forward into a better future.

Address given by Father Dave at Reza University, Mashad on May 14, 2018.

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We are the answer we have been waiting for (a Pentecost Sunday sermon)

“When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.(Acts 2:1-4)

It’s Pentecost again – the birthday of the church – and it did occur to me this year that Pentecost may be where the tradition of the birthday cake actually started.

This is pure conjecture on my part, and I was on a plane when I started this sermon and this thought came to me, so I couldn’t research ‘birthday cakes’ on the net, but if you’ve ever seen some of the classic depictions of the disciples at Pentecost, where ‘tongues of fire’ come down and rest on each of them, the Apostles do often look like a row of birthday candles, each with a little flame appearing on the top of their heads.

I suppose I could have researched the history of the birthday cake after I got off the plane, but I didn’t really want to lose the image that I had in my head of God coming down and lighting all the candles on that cake, celebrating the birthday of the church!

I don’t really think anyone is sure what it was exactly supposed to look like, but what Luke, the author, is trying to make clear is that something truly exciting was happening at Pentecost. Just as a master chef takes various ingredients and mixes them together to create something spectacular, God is at work at Pentecost, mixing together wind and fire and human flesh to create something new and amazing – namely, the church! To understand why this new creation is so significant though, I think we need to recognise that something very ancient is on view here too.

I’ve just come back from a conference in Iran where I’ve (quite literally) given more TV and radio interviews than I can count, responding (among other things) to questions as to why the world is the way it is.

I don’t pretend to be an expert in analysing international political affairs, though I’ve learnt a lot over my 56 years (and over the last five or six years in particular) and the curious thing is that I find myself, more and more, going back to the Torah when I do these interviews, as I become increasingly convinced that the answers are all there at the very beginning of our Scriptures and that nothing has really changed.

Why is there still war in Syria? Why is the Israeli army shooting unarmed protestors in Gaza? Why is the US talking about invading Iran? Why won’t the Australian government treat the men of Manus Island like human beings and give them a chance to live normal human lives? Of course, these are each complex questions in their own way, but at their most basic level, the answer, I believe, is always the same – namely, it’s the human lust for power that is generating all this misery, and that’s all there at the beginning of the book of Genesis. We eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil because we want to be like God!

I don’t mean to be overly simplistic and, indeed, the problems facing today’s world do require careful analysis and solid thinking. Even so, while some things change, others remain the same and, in the end, we haven’t moved far from our spiritual ancestors. We still lust for power. We still want to be like God.

Those who knew my dad before he died (more than 17 years ago now) may remember that he became increasingly interested in these early chapters of Genesis as he got older too, though I’m not sure it was for exactly the same reasons.

One of the reasons I’ve become so fascinated with those ancient stories – the story of Adam and Eve in particular – is because I’ve read a number of books lately on the anthropological history of our hunter-gatherer ancestors – books that try to depict human life and society before the move to farming and settled communities, which took place somewhere between twelve and twenty-four thousand years ago.

A lot of recent work done in this area suggests that Thomas Hobb’s famous depiction of ‘primitive’ human life as being “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” is almost certainly erroneous. Analyses of life in contemporary hunter-gatherer communities, where they still exist, and the anthropological studies of our ancient forebears that I’ve read suggest that life in those days was relatively idyllic. People worked for two to four hours per day, spent many hours each day playing and spending time with their children, in communities that were relatively free of both disease and violence.

Certainly, it stands to reason that in a subsistence society, where survival is always a cooperative effort, there is no private property and hence no such thing as theft. There is therefore very little reason to fight, and no need for politicians or armies. One author I read suggested that humanity wasn’t so much thrown out of a garden as into one (if by ‘garden’ we mean a cultivated agricultural environment). Perhaps it would be equally accurate to say we were thrown out of a garden and on to a farm.

You’ll forgive me if I seem to be straying from the today’s text, but it’s all connected (in my mind at least). When Genesis depicts us as being thrown out of the garden and on to a farm – “in toil you will eat of [the earth]” (Genesis 3:17) it then traces the degeneration of the human species into jealousy and murder, and you can see this descent depicted over the first eleven chapters of the book of Genesis. This downward spiral ends at the tower of Babel, where people band together with a view to, again, becoming powerful. They say, ‘let us make a name for ourselves’ (Genesis 11:4) and set about building a city with a great tower in the middle of it.

This Biblical depiction of humanity’s movement from the garden to the city is surprisingly similar to the way anthropologists describe the evolution of the human community, from a nomadic lifestyle to settled agricultural life, which brings with it private property, greed, war and politicians. The Genesis narrative though covers a dimension of this evolution that the anthropologists largely neglect – namely, the way in which the up-scaling of human cooperation always seems to make things worse!

The more we band together, the worse we become. The sin of Adam and Eve is bad, but their children are worse, and it’s the team effort at Babel that is depicted as the end-point of this process of degeneration, all of which is true to human experience!

Jack the Ripper did some terrible things, but it took an entire nation working together to create the Holocaust. Individuals murder, but it takes armies and governments to commit genocide. What we do as individuals can be horrible, but it’s not until we all pull together that we really have the potential to destroy the entirety of creation.

From a Biblical point of view, when we all band together, we suck, and when a whole lot of us get together en masse, such that we are able to do really significant things on a grand scale, we generally suck even more.

This is the story of human history and the building of empires that allows for the growth of industry, the development of technology and economies of scale. All this is powerfully impressive in its own way, but we know too that there is a very dark side to all the wonderful history of human achievement. In the shadow of every great tower that we build there are populations who are subjugated and enslaved.

Nothing better embodies that truth for me than the Great Wall of China – surely one of the most magnificent testimonies to human industry present in the world today – but those who know the history of the building of the wall know that it was only made possible because of the enslavement of millions of indentured workers, who, as they died of exhaustion, had their bodies were thrown into the wall as building continued. There is always an underside to the history of every great human achievement.

As an aside, if I remember correctly, the wall was only crossed by invading armies twice during the reign of its initial builder. In each case, it wasn’t because any of the armies managed to breach its fortifications. They just bribed the guards.

The descent of humanity, at any rate, is captured, Biblically, in this ancient story of Babel and the tower (in Genesis 11), and it is Babel and the tower that form the background to the Pentecost event as we read of it in the book of Acts, chapter two.

In the Genesis story, people band together to ‘make a name for themselves’ and God, we are told, foresees their terrible potential and so limits their power by confusing their language, which, again, is true to human life.

The charismatic appeal of dictators is indeed limited by the fact that no one dictator speaks everybody’s language. The realities of linguistic and cultural difference do limit the appeal of any human individual. Truly, the curse of Babel is a blessing in the sense that it slows the process of empire-building. Even so, it is a curse, as ultimately human community is a good thing, or at least it can be.

And that’s what we see at Pentecost. That’s what the birth of the church is all about! It’s God’s way of bringing people together in community in a way that doesn’t suck!

“They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.(Acts 2: 4)

  • At Babel people came together to make a name for themselves and be great. At Pentecost God brings people together in order to create something great.
  • At Babel God confuses everyone’s language in order to limit their capabilities. At Pentecost God bridges the language divide to create new possibilities!
  • At Babel everything ends up breaking down into chaos and confusion. Pentecost ends in a fair degree of confusion too, but it’s a creative confusion!

The birth of the church at Pentecost is a spectacular event, but the tongues and the flame and the wind and the chaos are not there for their entertainment value alone. They are a volcanic eruption giving birth to a whole new possibility for the world!

Whenever I do these interviews where people ask me about why our world is the way it is, and what we can do about it, I always end up talking about the church!

That might sound ridiculous, as the church has certainly contributed its share of misery to humanity over history.  Even so, when we look at the church here in Acts, in the days before it became an institution with a bottom line, we see, I think, something of what we once were, and something of what we could be once again.

My reasoning, as I discuss this in interviews, is quite straightforward:

Our world seems to be controlled by powerful corporations and the governmental institutions that serve them. We aren’t strong enough to fight these great monoliths on our own as individuals. We need to come together. The problem is that whenever we come together, what we might call ‘the Babel effect’ kicks in, and we end up getting obsessed with making a name for ourselves, and we get corrupted by power.

The church though was founded as a community without a bottom line, uninterested in power. Yes, we have often succumbed to the lust for power, and yet we’ve never completely abandoned the beliefs and principles upon which we were founded either

What we have in the church is the possibility of true human community, given life by the breath of God, led and sustained by the Spirit of God, grounded in divine love.    If we can’t find hope for the world there, where will we find it?

We are the answer we have been waiting for – that’s the message today!

God didn’t put on a fireworks’ show at Pentecost because we lacked entertainment. Pentecost was God’s announcement to the world that true human community was again a possibility – a community that, while it doesn’t lust for power, has real divine power to undermine and overthrow tyranny and oppression in all its forms!

When I had the privilege of addressing the faculty of Reza University in Mashad a few days ago, I put before them three great peaceful human movements that have taken place within the last century that I believe have had enduring effects:

  1. The Indian movement for Independence, led by Mahatma Gandhi, that took place at the beginning of the last century.
  2. The civil rights movement in the US, led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., that took place at around the middle of the last century.
  3. The Iranian Revolution, that took place towards the end.

All three movements, it seems to me, were fundamentally spiritual movements, led by spiritual people, and they were each essentially non-violent.

I appreciate that not everyone would characterise the Iranian revolution of 1979 that way, as there was indeed a wave of violence following the creation of the new state, but the mass protests that led to the downfall of the Shah were made up of millions of people taking to the streets, led by their clerics, armed only with their prayers.

I believe this is the only kind of human revolution that can change our world for good. If we are to take on the forces of darkness, it will take an army of spiritual people, brought together by God, armed only with the weapons of prayer and self-sacrifice.

It needs to happen. I believe it must happen. Pentecost reminds us – it can happen!

First preached at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill, on May 20, 2018. 

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Embracing the + in the LGBTQI+ (Sermon on Acts 8: 26-40)

“Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, ‘Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza’ (This is a wilderness road)”. (Acts 8:26)

It gave me a bit of a chill this week when I looked at our reading from the book of Acts and saw it opening with a reference to the road from Jerusalem to Gaza. We are told explicitly there that it is a ‘wilderness road’ – a term which, when it appears in Scripture, generally suggests something more than it being just another dirt road. It was a desolate road – a forgotten road, one that is travelled by forgotten people. Certainly, it seems to be that today.

If you’ve been keeping up with the news, you know that at the end of that road today there are a battalion of snipers from the IDF (Israeli Defence Forces) who have shooting and killing unarmed protestors on the other side of a fence that designates the border between Gaza and Israel!

It seems inexplicable to me that while three of the most powerful countries on earth – the United States, Great Britain and France – were recently bombing the hell out of Syria in retaliation for an alleged gas attack on innocent civilians, allegedly carried out by the Syrian army, a stone’s throw away, at the end of that road from Jerusalem to Gaza, there were hundreds of innocent civilians being shot and killed by the Israeli Defence Forces – a crime that nobody was disputing, and yet no one threatened to bomb Israel in retaliation. Indeed, none of those self-appointed judges of humanity were even talking about it!

Why is there such a disconnect? How did our world get to be like this? These are difficult questions to answer, but one thing that is clear is that this part of the world has seen a lot of unjust and unnecessary suffering.

Ange and I had the opportunity to watch the recently-released movie on the ministry of St Paul. I confess that the movie brought me to tears at more than one point.

The image that continues to haunt me from that movie was of the Christians locked up in cells beneath the Colosseum in Rome – men, women and children all crowded together in adjoining cells.

The Christians, of course, had been accused of trying to burn down Rome – a crime which is generally believed to have been instigated by the Emperor Nero himself. Even so, the Christians were convenient scapegoats, and they are pictured in the movie as waiting in their cells, not having a clue what is going to happen to them until they receive the news that there are going to be games held there the next day, and then the penny drops, and people begin to cry and scream.

Thankfully the movie does not depict the games themselves, though there is a short scene of Roman soldiers pushing children out though the cell gates towards the central stadium, where you can hear the roar of the crowd in the background.

As I say, that image still haunts me, and I did find the movie as a whole to be a sobering reminder of what life must have been like for many of our Christian sisters and brothers in the first century.

How did our world ever get to be like this? Why does God allow innocent people to be tortured and killed like this? These are questions we continue to ask ourselves, and we might expect that if we were going to find answers to such questions in the Scriptures, we might find them in the Book of Acts, where Christian people are constantly being oppressed and brutalised.

Indeed, today’s story in Acts chapter 8 is inserted between two accounts of violence – the first being the story of the stoning of Stephen, and the second being the account of the persecution undertaken by Saul, who heads to Damascus hoping to arrest members of the church there and drag them back to Jerusalem in chains.

Not all these persecutions were successful, of course (Saul’s being an obvious case in point), but most were, and yet at no point does the author of the book try to explain to us why God didn’t step in to stop these things from happening. What we are told though, explicitly and bizarrely, is that every time the church experienced violence, the result was that it grew, and it grew not just in size but in breadth!

In Acts chapter 7 (the chapter preceding today’s one) we’re told of the aftermath of the stoning of Stephen – namely, that the persecution scattered the early church across Judea and Samaria, resulting in … a mission to the Samaritan community!

I’m sure we remember the reputation Samaritans had (from the Parable of the Good Samaritan amongst other things). These were those half-brothers and sisters of the Jewish community who were generally much despised by regular Jews. Taken in context, this inclusion of the Samaritans is all part of the gravitational movement of the early church away from the centre of religious orthodoxy towards the periphery.

The church begins as a small group of entirely kosher Jewish men and women. At Pentecost (Acts 2), Jews from every nation come on board. In Acts 7 the Samaritans join the party, and from there the news about Jesus starts penetrating the thoroughly non-Jewish world (largely through the ministry of St Paul). In the middle of it all though we have this little pericope about the conversion of a character who is without parallel in the Scriptures – a man very much on the ecclesiastical periphery, not only because of his ethnicity, but because of he is sort of gender non-specific!

Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship 28and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. 29Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” (Acts 8:27-29)

Maybe I’m not correct. Maybe the Ethiopian Eunuch considered himself very much a man. I don’t know and it’s very hard to work it out as there aren’t a lot of eunuchs around now such that we can hear from them as to their own self-understanding.

Mind you, some scholars do suggest that the term ‘eunuch’ could simply be a designation of the man’s office as a high-ranking official in the court of Queen Candace, but I think that if Luke (the author) had wanted to say ‘official’ he would have used the word for official. He deliberately uses the word ‘eunuch’, meaning a male who had been emasculated, and I believe he did so because he had Deuteronomy 23:1 in mind – “No one whose testicles are crushed or whose male organ is cut off shall enter the assembly of the LORD.”

I’m a little reticent to make pronouncements about persons whose sexuality puts them on the periphery. Indeed, when it comes to the LGBTI community, I’m not even confident that I’ve got the acronym right. I think it’s LGBTI, but I know some people add a Q or a Q+, though I’ve been told by others to drop the Q, and I don’t think you can add the + unless you have the Q, but I’m not entirely sure about that either.

I do fully respect the difficulty in settling on a fixed form of the acronym, as the goal is to be inclusive, and it’s hard to be sure if we’ve included everyone once you fix the acronym, though I appreciate too that not everybody who feels left out can be included or necessarily should be included.

I don’t think any of us want to include those who have a sexual orientation towards children as a part of the ‘+ community’ or as a part of any community we’re involved in, regardless of whether the ancient Greeks found that form of sexuality acceptable! We tend to make a clear distinction between activities between consenting adults and abuse, and that certainly resonates with me. Even so, the ambiguities about who should be included and who not to include don’t stop with pederasty.

I just completed reading what I thought was an excellent book on the philosophy of love by Canadian philosopher, Carrie Jenkins, who lives a polyamorous relationship. She’s a heterosexual woman with two adult male partners. At the end of the book she details some of the discrimination she’s received as poly-person, and it’s been extensive and, curiously, much of it has come from people in the GLBTI community!

According to Jenkins, a lot of gay and lesbian people feel that people like her are discrediting their efforts to be accepted by the mainstream, and so she finds herself labelled as immoral rather than as different by people who, until very recently, were themselves labelled as immoral rather than different by the broader community.

Where in this spectrum would the Ethiopian eunuch have found himself, I have no idea. What we can be confident about is that he would have been on the periphery of the Jewish temple community.

“No one whose testicles are crushed or whose male organ is cut off shall enter the assembly of the LORD.” (Deuteronomy 23:1)

That this man, who, presumably, was not a Jew, and would not have been allowed into the temple even if he had been a Jew, would nonetheless travel to Jerusalem to worship was itself remarkable! Evidently, somehow, this man had come to find in the religion and Scriptures of the Jews a form of spiritual integrity and truth that he could not find in his own culture and amongst his own people.

We don’t know his exact story, but we know that he travelled a long way to be near to the place where he felt God was, and we know he had his own copy of the Jewish Scriptures (or at least a section of them) and this must have cost him (or his queen) a small fortune, as in the days when these manuscripts were only copied by hand, they would have been hard to come by and distributed very frugally.

The other things we know about this man, and this is really the most remarkable thing of all, is that whatever understanding of the faith he had embraced up to the point where he met Phillip, he moved away from it completely and embraced the Good News about Jesus, all within the space of a short chariot ride!

What was it that so convicted this man as to the truth about Jesus? Acts chapter 7 gives us a clue by detailing some of the conversation that took place in the chariot:

“Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this: “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. 33In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.” 34The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?”” (Acts 8:32-34)

The passage the eunuch is reading is from is one of the well-known ‘servant songs’ of the prophet Isaiah (chapter 53), and Phillip, of course, takes this as a God-given opportunity to talk to his new friend about the suffering and death of Jesus who he no doubt identified as being the very suffering servant that Isaiah spoke of.

My guess is that for the eunuch (and I’m sorry to keep referring to him as ‘the eunuch’ but unfortunately, we never get to know his name) – my guess is that for the eunuch this is more than a ‘Oh yeah, that makes sense’ moment. This was rather the missing piece in the puzzle that he had been waiting for, because in Isaiah’s servant he would have seen (possibly for the first time) a depiction of a God who suffers.

As I say, we don’t know this man’s full story, but my guess is that, despite his money and high position, he was something of an outcast. Certainly, the only image we get of him, travelling half way around the world to be part of a religious community that would never fully accept him, is somewhat pathetic. What he finds in the church, of course, is immediate and complete acceptance. Philip has no hesitation at all in baptising him. He doesn’t feel any need to consult with the other Apostles first as to whether they should allow a eunuch into their assembly. He knows full well that, despite what is written in the law of Moses, the love of Jesus embraces everybody!

Those who know my sermons know that I like to make one point with one sermon, I seem to have made two with this one. I’ve been talking about the way God allows us to suffer and about the way God forms the church as an inclusive community. What I want to say in closing is that these are the same point for, in the Book of Acts at least, these two are one. We suffer in order to become more inclusive.

If you can’t immediately see the connection, read through the Book of Acts again   for yourself. It’s the pain and suffering of the early church that keeps pushing its members out on to the periphery, where they find Christ waiting for them, ready to introduce them to people that they had never intended to include in their fellowship. Likewise, God uses our pain to open us to other people. He brings us down so that we might encounter others at the bottom of the ladder who have nowhere else to go.

I’m not suggesting that all human suffering is simply a mechanism to build more inclusive communities. Even so, I do believe that God works through all suffering – through the martyrdom of unarmed protestors in Gaza as well as through the more mundane struggles of depression and relationship breakdown we experience here.

I do believe that through the violence and the pain, through the cross and through the humiliation of it all, God is at work to form us into a new humanity, and that through His suffering and ours, His Kingdom comes.

First preached at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill, on April 29, 2018. 

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