The Death of John the Baptist (Mark 6:14-29)

“So David went and brought up the ark of God from the house of Obed-edom to the city of David with rejoicing; and when those who bore the ark of the LORD had gone six paces, he sacrificed an ox and a fatling. David danced before the LORD with all his might; David was girded with a linen ephod. So David and all the house of Israel brought up the ark of the LORD with shouting, and with the sound of the trumpet. As the ark of the LORD came into the city of David, Michal daughter of Saul looked out of the window, and saw King David leaping and dancing before the LORD; and she despised him in her heart.”
(2 Samuel 6:12-16)

You could be forgiven to asking why I’ve chosen to preach on this ancient story of David’s adventures with the Ark when the rostered Gospel reading for today was on the beheading of John the Baptist – a far more sultry tale.

The truth is that I am preaching in the death of John the Baptist, but I couldn’t resist starting with our reading from the Hebrew Bible as I see an important connection between the two stories, and the connection is not the dancing!

Yes, in both these stories people dance, and in both stories the dancers seem to be scantily clad, but that’s about where the similarities end. David’s performance (at least according to David’s own interpretation) was a deeply spiritual affair – an early attempt at liturgical dance, perhaps – whereas Salome’s dance seems to have been far more carnal in intent.

It’s not the dancing. The common thread I see between the two passages – the story of David and the ark, and the story of the death of John the Baptist – is that in neither case is it obvious what spiritual truth we are supposed to get from the story.

If you are a person of faith like me, you probably believe, as I do, that these stories were not simply given to us as good yarns to keep us entertained on cold Sunday mornings. The stories are part of God’s word to us, and God speaks to us through these stories. And, so I ask you, what is God saying to us through the David story?

The standard evangelical position in this regard is that what God is saying to us is whatever the original author of the text intended to say to us. That doesn’t solve the issue but it does reframe the question: ‘What is the author of this story trying to say?

Is the moral of this story that all of us should strip down and dance before the Lord? That’s one possible interpretation of the author’s intent, and that would certainly be a challenging conclusion to draw from the passage.

If we do take this message away from the passage and if we do try to be faithful to it, the results will probably be mixed. There would be some members of our church community who could quite likely grow the church through such performances. There would be others though, like myself, who would doubtless drive people away!

In truth, I don’t think this passage is a veiled exhortation to dance, or even a more general exhortation to honour the Lord in the best way that you can. If you ask the scholars what they think the author was trying to convey in this passage, interestingly, the consensus is that the author is trying to let us know that no descendent of Saul is ever going to be king of Israel again!

That message might not be immediately obvious, but the clue, apparently, is in the final verse (2 Samuel 6:16) regarding Michel, daughter of Saul and one of David’s wives, who we are told “despised him in her heart” when she saw David dancing.

The immediate sequel to this is that Michel and David have a shouting match over the incident, the result of which is that David cuts her off and, we are told, she remains childless to the day of her death! (2 Samuel 6:23)

Thus begins what scholars call the ‘Succession Narrative’, the main theme of which is the question of ‘who will be the successor to the throne of David?’ That’s certainly how Leonard Rost understood it, at any rate, in his seminal book of 1926 “The Succession to the Throne of David”.

From Rost’s perspective, the incident with Michel begins the process whereby potential claimants to the Davidic throne are gradually eliminated, one by one. No descendant of Saul (via Michel) will ever be on the throne. That is settled here. Subsequently, as we are told about the internecine rivalry between David’s children, others are gradually eliminated – Amnon, who rapes his half-sister is then killed by his half-sister’s full-brother, Absalom, who is also eventually killed. Then we have David’s affair with Bathsheba which produces a son, Solomon, and so, gradually, the succession narrative is resolved. That’s how the scholars generally see it, anyway.

My point is that if, in order to understand what God is trying to say to us in these stories, we need to understand what was on the mind of the original author, it’s not always immediately obvious. Who would have thought, initially, that this story about David and the ark was really, primarily, a story about succession to the throne?

Perhaps Leonard Rost is wrong, of course. That’s possible. Perhaps the author of this story in the second book of Samuel wanted to convey multiple things to us. That’s all possible. Either way, my point is that if God’s message to us in these passages is tied to authorial intent then God’s word to us is not always obvious.

I have exactly this problem with the story of the death of John the Baptist as recorded in Mark 6. It’s a gruesome tale, full of colour and vibrance, and great material for a movie, but what is the author trying to say to us through this story?

“When the daughter of Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.” And he solemnly swore to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” She went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?” She replied, “The head of John the baptizer.” Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” (Mark 6:22-25)

What is God trying to say to us through this story? What is on the mind of the author who gives us this story? It’s not immediately obvious. I don’t think anybody has interpreted this passage as an exhortation to dance, though it could be seen as a cautionary tale concerning the dangers of dancing.

‘Don’t let what happened to Herod happen to you! Don’t get drunk and invite your partner’s daughter from a previous relationship to dance lest, in your drunken and lustful stupor, you make promises to commit acts of violence that you’ll later regret!’

That’s a warning that I’m sure we could all take to heart, though I frankly doubt that many of the first readers of this story (or many of us) are really in much danger of following in the path of Herod.

The more obvious explanation as to why this account is given is as a record of the Baptist’s death for his many followers. We know that John had many followers. Even as the Apostles go out preaching the resurrection, they come across followers of the Baptist. No doubt all of them wanted know what happened to their beloved master.

It would make sense to give a detailed record of the Baptist’s death. What makes less sense though, if the author of our story was really writing his account for the disciples of the Baptist, is why he gives so little detail about John and so much detail about Herod and the horrible machinations of his court.

This story from Mark chapter six is not actually a story about John. It’s a story about Herod, Herodias, and Herodias’ daughter, Salome. If you’ve seen the movie version, the only appearance John makes in this story is as a prop. Herod, Herodias and Salome all have speaking parts in this scene. John says nothing.

I guess it’s obvious why John says nothing as he doesn’t have a head, and maybe the author of the Gospel knew nothing about John’s final days or any last words that he might have said. In that case though, was it really necessary to give all the gruesome detail about Herod, the dance, and the platter?

When I consult the scholars again I find, as I suspect, that this narrative is not generally understood as being primarily a story about John at all. Neither though is the author really trying to focus us on Herod or Herodias, let alone Salome. According to the scholars, the author is really trying to say something about Jesus!

The link is made at the beginning of today’s story:

“King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some were saying, “John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.” 15But others said, “It is Elijah.” And others said, “It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” 16But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.” (Mark 6:14-16)

Technically speaking, there are two passion narratives in the Gospel of Mark. The key one that we are most familiar with concerns the suffering and death of Jesus. This is the other one. The suffering and death of John prefigures the suffering and death of Jesus. Though they are obviously distinct, both are stories of humiliation, of the abuse of power, and of the lethal nature of the system.

John, as a prophet of God, was persecuted and suffered. Jesus, a prophet of God, would also be persecuted and suffer. Elijah, who also gets a mention, had his own history of persecution, of course, as did all the ‘prophets of old’, mentioned at the beginning of our passage. This, I think brings us to the heart of the message the author is trying to convey – namely, that the path of a prophet is a path of suffering.

Whether it be John or Jesus or Elijah or one of the prophets of old, you can’t speak the word of God without confronting the system, and you can’t confront the system without paying a price.

Some you may have heard the one-hour interview I gave last Monday as a part of the #Unity4J online vigil for Julian Assange. The vigil was made up of thirty-six one- hour interviews with a whole series of people, of which I was the final one!

I was glad to have the last spot, partly because it meant I got to close the vigil in prayer, but mainly because it meant I didn’t have to get up too early on Monday. I didn’t realise though until I saw list of the other participants afterwards what an esteemed group I had been a part of. Amongst the others interviewed were people like Cynthia McKinney, Chris Hedges, George Galloway, Ciaron O’Reilly, Caitlin Johnstone, Ray McGovern, Peter Van Buren, and Daniel Ellsberg.

If you don’t know all those names, you likely recognise some of them. They are politicians and journalists and former intelligence officers, all of whom, for one reason or another, at some stage, spoke out against the system, and all of whom, I think, if they haven’t been imprisoned have been threatened with imprisonment!

It was a great privilege for me to see my name listed in that group, but sobering at the same time, of course. I’m not suggesting that any of these activists, nor Julian, are Christ-figures, but they do have this in common with the group listed in our Gospel reading today – Jesus, John, Elijah and the ‘prophets of old’ – that they all spoke out against the system, and they all paid a price for doing so.

This, I believe, is at the heart of what the author of our Gospel reading intends to convey to us in today’s story – that the path of the prophet is a path of suffering – indeed, simply that faithfulness to God and to Jesus inevitably leads to persecution.

This, of course, has been such a common theme in our Scripture readings lately that you’d be forgiven for finding it all a little repetitive. We’ve had Saint Paul hammering away, week after week, telling us how it’s all the pain that he’s endured that shows the integrity of His discipleship, as Jesus Himself has talked repeatedly about how the Son of Man must suffer.

I think the Scriptures keep repeating all this to us because it is so counter-intuitive that we are likely to forget it unless we are constantly reminded. There is something elemental in us that says, ‘if you are doing the right thing, things will go well for you’. That just seems so logical and almost the essence of how good religion should work.

I’m not suggesting, of course, that God never rewards those who are faithful. Even so, what the Scriptures keep reminding us is that the opposite is also true – that the faithful struggle – and that if you are genuinely true to God and to Christ, you are going to get yourself into trouble. Things will go wrong for you.

I do believe that this is at the heart of what the author of Mark’s Gospel intends to convey to us in this story. Even so, I won’t take it to heart if you prefer to interpret this narrative, and the story of David and the ark, as being s simple guides on good and bad ways to dance.

In truth though, uncovering God’s word in Scripture requires more than diligent thought and academic prowess. It also requires courage. For ultimately our Scriptures point us not only to timeless truths about the universe but to things about ourselves that we might not want to face, and they bring us to Jesus, who is both a wonderful and a frightening person to meet.

first preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill on July 15th, 2018

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#Unity4J Online Vigil in support of Julian Assange

It was my privilege to be the final guest on this 36-hour online vigil for Julian Assange on July 9th, 2018. Be warned though, every one of the 36 guests shared for one hour each, so you might want to pour yourself a cuppa before settling in for this one.

To hear another 11 hours of interviews with people like Chris Hedges, Cynthia McKinney and George Galloway, click here.

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Stubbornness and Stupidity (2 Corinthians 12:1-11)

“I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows. And I know that such a person—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows— was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat. On behalf of such a one I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses.” (2 Corinthians 12:2-5)

And if you think that sounds bizarre, did you catch the story that made the MSN news page this week – “Priest Kicks Family Out of Church Before Mom’s Funeral”

The story was about the parish priest of Saint Mary’s Church in Charlotte Hall, Maryland (USA) – a Father Michael Briese – who apparently got so upset with the congregation who had gathered for the funeral of the late Agnes Hicks that he threw the entire gathering (reportedly, some hundreds of people) out of the church building and on to the street, such that the family had to carry the casket with them as they looked for somewhere else to hold the funeral!

Apparently, the problem was that a family member knocked over Father Briese’s chalice! “That’s when all hell broke loose”, said the deceased’s daughter. The priest “literally got on the mic and said, ‘there will be no funeral, there will be no mass, no repass, everyone get the hell out of my church.’”

I know people think I can be embarrassingly extreme in way I box and prance about sometimes but, take encouragement, I have yet to do anything quite as extreme as that! Of course, nobody has knocked over my chalice yet either, so who knows?

There was a great quote from the funeral director too, who claimed that “Briese was calling the funeral attendees “crackheads, prostitutes and thieves. I’ve been a funeral director for 30 years”, he said, “and I have never experienced anything like that.”

He needs to get out more, doesn’t he? He’s been living far too long in the refined environs of Charlotte Hall, Maryland. Church leaders haven’t always been well-groomed, genteel, and softly spoken, which, of course, brings me back to Saint Paul.

I’m not suggesting that St Paul made a habit of throwing people out of his church, though I wouldn’t be surprised if he did do that occasionally. Most certainly he had a penchant for coming out with statements that you never saw coming, and today’s reading is surely one of them – “I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven – whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows.” (2 Corinthians 12:2). Where did that come from?

Now, I know that most of us are probably familiar with this passage and so we’ve always associated this statement with Saint Paul. Even so, if we didn’t know it was Paul, and if you just heard someone read that to you, not knowing who had said it, what would you think? You’d probably assume these were the words of a Hindu mystic, wouldn’t you? Where is the ‘third heaven’ anyway? I thought there was only one? And since when did the Apostle start having out-of-body experiences?

I tried to read this passage as if seeing it for the first time. My first thought was ‘could this really be Saint Paul?’ to which came the obvious reply, ‘of course it is! Anyone wanting to imitate Saint Paul would not say something so out-of-character!’

Or perhaps it isn’t out of character for Paul to speak of bizarre experiences of the numinous and the holy? After all, he refers numerous times to his meeting with Jesus on the road to Damascus – an ecstatic experience that completely changed his life. This was another life-changing religious experience. Perhaps he had a lot of them? Even so, why talk about them here? Indeed, why talk about them at all if they were purely private affairs that nobody else would ever be able to understand?

This bizarre act of sharing is followed by what is possibly an even more bizarre and more personal revelation from Paul, where he talks about his ‘thorn in the flesh’.

“to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”” (2 Corinthians 12:7-9)

What is he talking about? Even more so than before, Paul is deliberately vague.

Christian people have speculated for thousands of years over what Paul’s ‘thorn in the flesh’ really was. It was, he says, literally, “an angel of Satan sent to beat me up”, but what does that mean?

Some suggest, rather mundanely, that it was his poor eyesight that was the issue, but that hardly explains why he spoke about his problem in such veiled terms. Others have suggested that perhaps he suffered from epilepsy, which would indeed have been a deeply embarrassing condition for a man in his position and might well have been the expected outcome of all the hits he took to the head.

Others suggest that his struggle was with his sexuality. I think even Calvin saw it that way. Calvin paraphrases Paul “to me has been given a goad to jab at my flesh, for I am not yet so spiritual as to be exempt from temptation according to the flesh.”

If Paul did struggle with his sexuality or with his sexual identity, that could explain a lot of things, including why he was so reluctant to talk about his struggle openly. The bottom line though is that we don’t know what Paul’s thorn in the flesh was, and so we have this bizarre testimony where Paul is sharing with us something that is deeply personal, but which is so personal that he can’t actually tell us what it is!

Now … I appreciate that if the role of the preacher is to help people understand the Scriptures, you might be feeling rather dissatisfied at this point. You could be forgiven for expecting that a sermon on 2 Corinthians 12 might help you understand what Paul was talking about with his mysterious visit to the third heaven, and that I might help to shed some light on what Paul’s ‘thorn in the flesh’ really was.

I confess that when it comes to understanding exactly what Saint Paul was talking about here, I haven’t got a lot of wisdom to offer. I do think that I’m on firmer ground though when it comes to understanding why Paul said what he said, and I think the ‘why’ question, in this case, may be even more significant that the ‘what’.

This dialogue is part of Paul’s attempt to defend himself against his many enemies by displaying his spiritual credentials. Paul had a lot of enemies. Indeed, he had so many that he must have wondered sometimes whether he had any real friends.

Paul probably managed to make enemies of all of the Jewish peers that he’d grown up with and studied the Torah with. If most of his fellow Jews hated him, it was the Romans who eventually killed him, so he didn’t have many friends there either. The opponents we read about most of the time though in his letters are his Christian enemies, and that’s where I suspect it hurt him the most.

As we find him here, Paul is battling for the hearts and minds of the church in Corinth against fellow Christians, and while he doesn’t name names in this letter he does use a sarcastic term to refer to his opponents in this same chapter of his second letter to the church in Corinth. Paul refers to them as the ‘super-apostles’.

“I have been a fool! You forced me to it. Indeed, you should have been the ones commending me, for I am not at all inferior to these super-apostles, even though I am nothing.” (2 Corinthians 12:11)

The term ‘super-apostles’ is a disturbing one, as when the word ‘apostle’ is used in the Gospels, we know exactly who it is referring to. It’s referring to one of the twelve disciples, and the term is generally used only of the twelve disciples.

In the Gospels there were only twelve Apostles. After the death of Judas there were only eleven which was why they drew lots to elect a replacement (Matthias) and bring the number back to twelve. Even so, they were a deliberately fixed group made up of persons who had lived and moved with Jesus during his earthly ministry.

Paul would later claim that he too was an Apostle since he too had met with Jesus (on the road to Damascus), but since this happened after the death and resurrection of Jesus you can understand why some people responded to Paul’s claim to be an Apostle by saying, “well … yeah … sorta”.

We need to appreciate the situation this created for the first Christians in Corinth. They had discovered Jesus and they wanted to follow Jesus but none of them had met Jesus in the flesh or heard his words first-hand. Hence, when the community was unsure as to how best to follow Jesus, what did they do? They couldn’t refer to the Gospels because they hadn’t been written. The best recourse they had was to talk to someone who had been with Jesus during His earthly ministry and had heard what He’d had to say first-hand. In other words, they looked for an Apostle.

Paul – whether those he was arguing with at Corinth were people claiming to represent the twelve in Jerusalem, or whether they really were Peter and James and John in the flesh – Paul did experience an ongoing tension with the twelve Apostles, and that must have made it almost impossible for him to have an effective ministry.

The issue, of course, was always the same. The issue was how inclusive the church of Jesus Christ was supposed to be. I’m sure that, in theory, everybody (even the super-apostles) agreed that the church’s doors were open to everybody. In practice though, Paul believed that his opponents wanted a church for Jews only, where non-Jews were treated as second-class citizens, and that wasn’t good enough.

One of things I most admire about the great German saint, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, was how early he drew the line when the Nazis started to exert their influence in Germany a century ago. When the church ruled, in 1933, that Jews were no longer allowed to be ordained as Christian priests. Bonhoeffer said, “the church that does not ordain Jews is not the church of Jesus Christ”, and there he took his stand.

It’s exactly the stand Saint Paul took. Of course, Bonhoeffer’s opponents would have said that the church was not rejecting Jews but only barring them from ordination. Bonhoeffer would have nothing of that. There were no second-class citizens in the church of Jesus Christ, which was exactly what Saint Paul was saying of non-Jews!

The issue doesn’t have to be race. The church has a long history of making second-class citizens of people, and we continue to do so today, regularly, on the basis of gender and/or sexuality! In whatever form it comes, the church that excludes people is not the church of Jesus Christ! As both Paul and Bonhoeffer and others have discovered though, this is never an easy truth to proclaim.

The thing I love about Saint Paul was that he stuck to his guns! Despite everything, Paul never backed down on his belief in the inclusiveness of the church of Jesus. When you think about the things that Paul had to battle with, this was incredible!

Paul had to fight against everything he’d been brought up with – with his belief in the Jews as God’s chosen people, where there was no place for the ‘uncircumcised’. Paul had to rethink and reinterpret all of that.

Secondly, he had to deal with the emotional pain of being a traitor to his own tribe. Little doubt Paul’s Pharisaic family would have disowned him, and who knows what happened to his first marriage?

Finally, having left his Jewish tribe and joined the Christian tribe, Paul must have never felt fully accepted there either. I don’t think he ever entirely resolved his issues with ‘the twelve’, and yet he continued to push for an inclusive understanding of the life and ministry and teachings of Jesus, even though, prior to the cross and resurrection, Paul had never met Jesus, and Paul must sometimes have felt, deep down, that compared to the original twelve Apostles, he was radically underqualified to give the final word on Jesus, even with all his intense spiritual experiences.

Some years ago, I read an excellent book by Steven Pressfield, entitled “Do the Work”, where the author suggests that we have two great assets in life – stubbornness and stupidity.

We like to call them ‘daring’ and ‘persistence’ or use other similarly noble terms but Pressfield suggests that we call them what they are – the stupidity to attempt things that we should never attempt, and the stubbornness to persist with them, despite the fact that common sense is screaming at us to give up.

What was it that empowered Saint Paul to display such an extraordinary degree of stubbornness and stupidity? According to his own account, it seems that he had some deep experiences of Jesus (whether in the body or out of the body, who knows) – experiences that empowered him for the long haul.

May God give us grace to enjoy similarly deep experiences of Jesus, so that we might be empowered to be as stupid and as stubborn as was the blessed Apostle.

first preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill on July 8th, 2018

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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!

Posted in Sermons: Gospels | Tagged , | Leave a comment

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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