Tag Archives: Christ

Silent Witnesses

Sometimes being peacemakers is about grand gestures and loud voices. Sometimes it is about powerful people making difficult choices. And sometimes it is about the tiny gestures in the places where we are. The outstretched hand, the smile at a stranger, the cup of tea. The choice to love instead of judge, to forgive instead of retaliating. Sometimes peace needs to be loud. Sometimes whispered. Sometimes silent.

Silent Witnesses

These are the silent witnesses

Who stretch out a hand in love, Who feed the hungry so that they can live Who teach the young so that they can grow Who create a space so that you can be you And I can be me

These are the silent witnesses

Whose message is one of love That tells the forgotten ones they are not forgotten And the unlovely they can still be loved Whose message is shared in a smile A spark of the joy of life

These are the silent witnesses

Who say there is more to life Turning away from economic profitability Trusting rather in human value Who say You cannot put a price on love

These are the silent witnesses

Who say Though I cannot do it all Yet will I do what I can Who know they offer only a gesture But know that gesture is already enough The gesture that says I care The gesture that we call love

These are the silent witnesses

This is the silent witness Arms stretched wide on a wooden cross With a sigh of lonely abandonment And a waiting in silent love

We are the silent witnesses To the mystery of our faith.

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An Open Letter to Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury

Dear Archbishop Justin Welby,

I am writing to you following your intervention in the House of Lords in the debate about British Military Action in Iraq. Initially, when I heard you were attending the debate and going to speak, I was extremely pleased that this was one occasion when you had made an active choice to attend a chamber in which I know you are rarely present.

While I disagree with the existence of the House of Lords, at least, so I thought, here was an opportunity for a voice to speak the Christian message of peace and justice. Imagine then my profound disappointment when the only representative of the church to be given the opportunity to inform the debate chose to speak in favour of action which, as a committed Christian, I feel is abhorrent to the faith I follow and its founder, Jesus Christ.

When will we learn? Conflict is an interminable cycle downwards into the worst depths of the human condition; of which the most vulnerable victims are always innocent civilians and from which the only real winners are the arms industry and their friends in the finance sector. I mourn for an institution which calls itself church but which puts their interests ahead of the hope of a future of peace and justice.

Your claim that “ It is the role of the church I serve to point beyond our imperfect responses and any material, national or political interest, to the message of Jesus Christ and the justice, healing and redemption that he offers.” is one with which I strongly agree. As church we are, both individually and collectively called to be prophets, holding up a vision of hope that speaks of another way being possible. But to hear it immediately followed by the words “ But in the here and now there is justification for the use of armed force” suggests that the early part of your speech was merely an empty formulation; when in reality you have chosen to ally yourself, and by virtue of your position, the Church of England, with the temporal powers of this world.

To my mind, as followers of the non-violent Christ, there is no situation, no justification which calls for us to raise weapons of war. This does not mean that I condone the activity of IS: of course I am in full agreement that their barbaric actions (along with those of other armed groups, both those we support and those we don’t) are causing a humanitarian crisis. I agree entirely that now is not a time for inaction, for closing our eyes and ears to the cries of the suffering. But I do fear for a world, and a church, which has come to believe that violent action and total inaction are the only two possible routes when faced with a difficult choice.

For me it is part of the very essence of the Gospel, and not an optional extra, that, in the face of the violent oppression of a regime which victimised the innocent, the route chosen by Jesus was neither violent action, nor passive inaction. It is a route that many in the church are still courageously trying to walk, but which your words suggest may have been institutionally forgotten. It is the route of non-violent, creative resistance, the route of sharing a hope of peace and justice, the route of making visible the pain not to exacerbate it further but to explore and understand and heal it. It is, I believe, the route along which Jesus invites us to follow him.

When Jesus told his disciples in Gethsemane to ‘put down their swords’, swords which they had raised in good faith to protect the innocent and prevent a worse act of violence, I do not believe it was a one off commandment for a given historical moment. I believe it was a commandment he whispers to our hearts repeatedly through the ages: ‘when you hear the battle call, when you see the weapons of war being raised, however good the justification might sound, you my followers, put down your swords’.

My personal church history is a varied one, and these days I hold my denominational identity very loosely, but it was the Anglican tradition which formed my early faith and into which I was both baptised and confirmed. I still hold those roots as a part, though not the whole, of my Christian identity. That said, out of all the churches with which I identify, the Church of England is increasingly the one I struggle with most. I have long been concerned about the church’s choice to associate itself both with military might and financial power; which make words spoken on behalf of the poor look all too often like hollow insincerity. It’s vast wealth and its choice of unethical investment practices, it’s support of a political system where being born into privilege is considered acceptable, and its continued support for acts of state violence, to me are all contrary to the Gospel.

Your words in Friday’s debate did nothing to allay my fears that the Church of England has become corrupted by such associations; and that those members of it who continue to share the Gospel, of whom I know there are very many, do so almost in spite of, rather than because of, the church. My condemnation of your position is paralleled by my admiration of those who continue to  courageously witness to the hope of peace in the name of the church.

I look forward to hearing your response about what drove you to speak as you did and how you are able to understand the Gospel so differently to my reading of it.

You remain in my prayers.

Yours Sincerely

Stephanie Neville

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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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