Monthly Archives: April 2014

Crucifixion

As we approach Easter, Christians are struck with something of a dilemma. This ‘faith’ we ‘practise’ throughout the year, with a God we can identify and align with, with it’s comfortable, reassuring rituals, it’s (broadly speaking) agreed upon beliefs and structures and doctrines all suddenly, brutally, turns in on itself. We’re suddenly faced with the horror of a story in which our God – that we think of as the source of our meaning – is tortured to death. On the cross, we witness God abandoning God, “Eloi Eloi lama sabachthani?” – my God, my God, why have you forsaken me? – and as Christ dies, there is a shocking image, of the temple curtain being ripped in two; the very centre of the most holy space is shown empty. That which kept people distant, estranged from from God (and a path to God) was destroyed. God on a cross, denying the presence of God, and the structure that humans had constructed around God being emptied of it’s meaning.

How are we meant to even begin to understand this?

Maybe, that’s the wrong question. To ‘understand’ means to ‘perceive the intended meaning of’ –  to understand something means to appreciate why and how it works, but it can also mean to find something comfortable within the boundaries of our own lives, to incorporate an event into our world view. We understand each other only as much as we can make each other palatable; understanding means reconciling something with our own framework, within our own narratives. This is because, whenever we ‘perceive the intended meaning of’ something, we are seeing that thing – whatever it is – through our own lenses, from the benefit of our own journeys, through our own experiences, and we attach meaning onto the object of our gaze from all of those experiences and encounters. And of course, this is often a good thing; our ability to understand is an incredible function that helps us to interact with the world we encounter in a whole multitude of different ways, all the time, with barely a thought; we are incredibly good at understanding things!

However, we cannot, I believe, “understand” the crucifixion – the crucifixion cuts through our understanding, uncouples it, takes it away. At the heart of the Christian story is a radical death of meaning. There is something utterly beyond this story; rather than explaining it, understanding it, we’re faced with the fact we don’t know, that we’re lost, that we’re broken, that we’re alone. To make the crucifixion familiar – to understand it – is to miss the point entirely. To encounter Christ on the cross means to see our own temple curtain ripped in two. We’re exposed to the reality that the narratives we put together – and we see them all the time in our religions, in our cultural practices, in our economics – do little to fill a gap we believe exists between us and God; indeed, that the very gap has been taken away (that the curtain has been destroyed). The crucifixion shines a light back on to the very thing we believe will fulfil us, that will take us beyond the curtain – our Church, our image of God, our ethical or religious framework, our money, our jobs, whatever – and it declares that these things are no longer necessary.

This was something that the disciples encountered; right up until the garden of Gethsemene they were ready to tool up, to take Jerusalem, to rise up violently against the Romans. They had a very powerful story and narrative, and (literally) in the name of Jesus Christ they were sticking to it! However, at the very point that they went to defend Christ – or, perhaps, to defend their belief in that structure of meaning – Jesus turns to them and tells them to put down their weapons, that something different was going to happen. The crucifixion cut the disciples loose from the narrative – of, it seems, revolutionary violence – that they had built around Christ and what he was going to lead them to do. No wonder they ran away – I think I would have done too! The disciples were estranged from the dominant understanding within their particular group, they were left lost, broken, and meaningless, they were forced to encounter their Christ – who was ‘meant’ to lead them to victory – instead removing the very thing (their narrative) that they thought would save them.

I found myself thinking about the crucifixion last week when reading Tony Blair’s piece on the Rwandan genocide; on a day that perhaps we should have been encountering the senseless barbarity of that 100 day genocide – and reminding ourselves that any narrative we try to attach to it will fail to allow us to encounter the reality of it – Blair instead encouraged us to remember the 8% economic growth that Rwanda is enjoying, that the country is open to investors, that education is blooming, that the country is “healing”. Somehow, this grated; meaning and understanding were being drawn out of an event that was ultimately meaningless, beyond our narratives, beyond our comprehension. Blair was trying to make the most horrific genocide palatable, understandable and therefore – perhaps – forgettable. For me, remembering the Rwandan genocide means denying it meaning, remembrance means not trying to understand it, it means not compartmentalising it into something I can get my small little mind around.  For me, Blair (probably without meaning to) wanted us to think “we can’t understand this utter barbarism, but we can understand economic growth, so let’s think about that instead!” Instead, we should be reminding ourselves that we have no ability to grasp the reality of what happened there, and that, on some level, that that’s OK. To fail to understand, to be powerless in the face of reality, is a big part of what it means to be human. It is in that position that we might begin to encounter reality, with all it’s struggles, pains, incomprehensions, antagonisms. Rather than building a (new) construction of meaning, encountering the crucifixion is to demonstrate the weakness of our narratives, the destruction of meaning.

I’ll finish with this – the crucifixion-resurrection story is about hope, but rather than restoring our sense of hope (which I think is the most common reading), the crucifixion cuts us loose, it sends us spiralling off, it removes hope. To ‘have hope’ means to have hope in something; a story, a narrative, a construction of meaning that even in the overwhelming face of reality, it will all be OK  (“you never encounter an atheist in a foxhole.” – i.e. at the point where reality is becoming brutally real, we demand a narrative (“God”) that will remove us from it.) Instead, the crucifixion invites us to encounter a God of absolute weakness, of a a complete lack of hope – again, “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” I’m quite in to the Guardian’s weekend supplement, especially the “This Column Will Change Your Life” towards the back, which this week was entitled ‘The case against hope‘. After exploring how people react differently to different trauma’s, the writer quotes Derrick Jensen – an environmental activist – as saying “A wonderful thing happens when you give up on hope, which is that you realise you never needed it in the first place… you become very dangerous indeed to those in power.”

In peace.

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Resistance

To my eyes, resistance relies on the passion and conviction of the individual – you can’t legislate resistance, you can’t force it, you can’t conjure it out of thin air, and you can rely on larger systems of power for reassurance or support for it. There is a real temptation to turn to existing, powerful institutions to act alongside us, or on our behalf – perhaps because we’ve been brought up to believe in the power and morality of the state, the church, the media, the corporation, we abdicate power and responsibility, or seek tacit or active approval, from the structures we hope represent us. However, to my eyes, it so often turns out that the real acts of resistance – those rooted deeply in love and peace – come from individuals and small groups, often acting independently, and often in direct conflict with the institutions they are a part of.

A stunning recent example of this is found in the words and actions of Revered Christopher Senyonjo. Senyonjo is in Uganda, and continues to affirm and support the LGBT community there, despite the recent laws banning homosexuality in the country. By being openly supportive of the LGBT community in Uganda, Senyonjo has made himself exceptionally vulnerable, and it is the most vulnerable that he has aligned himself with. Senyonjo could be sent to prison for many years because of his open resistance to institutionalised hate and fear. While such powerful institutions, like the Ugandan state and church, support the ‘kill the gays’ bill – the original legislation pushed for the death penalty for open homosexuals – we can look to defiant individuals like Senyonjo for courage, for a story of hope. Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh wrote that the Kingdom of God is ‘now or never’; for me, there is little that resonates more than that than the brave actions of people like Christopher Senyonjo.

Another example – in recent months, John Dear has written powerfully on his reasons for leaving the Jesuit order; because of his regular and ongoing actions in pursuit of peace and justice, those in positions of authority and power have first sought to silence him and his peace work, before he finally took the decision to leave. Rather than being supportive of his work, it seems Dear experienced active opposition from the very institution that he joined, presumably for nourishment and leadership. Instead, he tells a story of an institution that succumbed to pressure from those who opposed his work, who he believes were ’embarrassed’ by it. And yet, there is real hope to be found in Dears’ refusal to be silenced, to act in a way that upholds his own convictions to love and peace.

In these – and so many other – stories, I see a common theme about acting with integrity, and passionate commitment to an order of peace and justice, despite the personal risk, and very understandable fear that so often blinds and neuters us. We are all on a similar journey, of finding ways that allow us to act, not without fear, because fear is something that is natural and normal, and exists for very good reason, but to act in a way that acknowledges, even loves our fear, and then finds a way to remember that there are other motivations to root our actions in, too. Our other sources lead us to acts of love for the persecuted and marginalised, to put our bodies in the way of the machines of war and death despite the risk of arrest and prosecution when we do that, to remember that we speak and act for something other – beyond – the dominant narratives of greed, power and violence that sometimes feel like they dominate our world.

In peace.

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The Path to Freedom

I said that I’d post here the passage we read and discussed last night in our Lent skpye conversation. Since the start of Lent each week one of us has chosen something to share from a book we have enjoyed or been inspired or challenged by, and then there is a time for all of us to discuss any thoughts that arise from that. It is part of our continued journey as a group exploring faith, nonviolence, community and ways of doing this when we live all over the UK.

The book I read from is ‘Becoming Human’ by Jean Vanier the founder of the L’Arche community. I read it a few years ago and was greatly inspired by his honesty, integrity and faith, and really like the way he writes. The chapter this is from is called ‘The Path to Freedom’

Signs of Freedom

What is this freedom? Read part of this poem by Rudyard Kipling. It is called “If.”

If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming you, If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you, But make allowance for their doubting too; If you can wait and not be tired of waiting, or being lied about, don’t deal in lies, or being hated, don’t give way to hating…..

Freedom is the freedom of truth. Jesus said, “The truth will set you free.” A lack of freedom equals fear – fear of reality, fear of others; lack of freedom means clinging to illusions and prejudices and sometimes even to lies. A lack of freedom means being governed by compulsions instead of governing them. It is imposing a vision on reality or wanting to change reality through force instead of forming a new vision of reality. Lack of freedom means thinking that you alone have the truth and that others are wrong or stupid. It means being controlled by prejudice.

In the previous chapter, I talked about people’s fear of those with intellectual disabilities and about the many prejudices against them. Frequently, these fears are groundless. Some of those who are frightened of people with intellectual disabilities may never have met anyone with disabilities. When they get to know them, however, their fears and prejudices usually dissipate. On the other hand, for some people, their fears and prejudices are so deeply rooted that they refuse to meet any person who has a disability. They already “know” that those with disabilities are “mad” and useless. Prejudices like these are frequently based on a great fear of change; people do not want to be disturbed in their security or have their value systems questioned. They do not want to open their hearts to those who are different. People with prejudices are not free.

To be free is to know who we are, with all that is beautiful, all the brokenness in us; it is to love our own values, to embrace them, and to develop them; it is to be anchored in a vision and a truth but also to be open to others and, so, to change. Freedom lies in discovering that the truth is not a set of fixed certitudes but a mystery we enter into, one step at a time. It is a process of going deeper and deeper into an unfathomable reality.

In this journey of integrating our experience and our values, and of what we might learn as we listen to others, there may be a period of anguish. We need to find links between the old and the new, links that will permit the integration of new, consciousness-expanding truths into what we already know and are living – our existing certitudes. As human sciences develop and the world evolves, we are called to grow into a new and deeper understanding of the Source of the universe and of life. As we participate in this, our sense of the true expands. Freedom is to be in awe of this Source, of the beauty and diversity of people, and of the universe. It is to contemplate the height and breadth of all that is true.

Freedom is to accept that when we belong to a group, a race, a tribe, a family, a community, a religion, that none of these is perfect, that each has its limits and weaknesses. Every community of humans has its light and its darkness. We are all part of something greater than ourselves. We all flow from a source that is unfathomable and we are all journeying towards it, carrying with us that light of truth and love. Each of us is called to be in communion with the source and heart of the universe. The infinite yearnings of our hearts are calling us to be in communion with the Infinite. None of us can be satisfied with the limited and the finite. Each one must be free to follow the Spirit of God….

…..My main teacher on the road to freedom is Jesus, and I am thankful to my church, which has brought me closer to Him. I am touched and attracted by His total freedom and yearn to find that. It is the freedom the apostle Paul speaks of:

Above all brothers and sisters you are called to be free; Do not use you freedom for an openness to self-indulgence, but be servants to one another in love…. The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, truthfulness, gentleness and self-control. No law can touch such things as these.

(Galatians 5:13, 22-23)

Jean Vanier, Becoming Human