Blog Archives

What I Wrote After 9/11

So today is the tenth anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. I’ll leave learned reflections on the interim to better commentators. In particular, I’ll point you to Will Willimon’s challenging reflection.

But I remembered something I wrote at the time. 9/11 (or 11/9 in British English) was a Tuesday. At that time, I wrote a regular Christian column in the local newspaper where I lived, the Medway Messenger.  The Messenger was published on a Friday, and I had to have my copy in a couple of days ahead. That week I had written something, but the magnitude of the terrorist attacks meant I needed to write something fresh and email it in.
I’m going to reproduce below what I actually wrote. All copy for newspapers risks being edited, and mine was. Savagely. It was cut only to leave the parts about the terrorists deserving the judgement of God. I think it ended with the paragraph that concludes, ‘there is no forgiveness for the terrorists’.

Why? There are two possible explanations. One is that my piece was published in a week when the paper was celebrating a relaunch, and they were keen to devote many trees to praising their own success. Some of that appeared on the same page as my article.

The other possibility is that they didn’t like the tenor of my piece. As you will see, it concludes that every single one of us needs mercy, and that God’s mercy can scandalously extend to the most evil of human beings. They may have been offended by the Gospel.

Would I change anything now? Certainly not the emphasis on mercy! We have a scandalous gospel, and it needs celebrating. In the following fortnight, I preached two sermons to help my congregations come to terms with what had happened. In the second one, I preached from Isaiah 30, with its message of woe to those who trusted in horses and went down to Egypt. Might there be a word of judgement from God on the West in what happened? I preached that sermon twice, and in one of them a worshipper publicly argued with me in the middle of the sermon about that. She then refused to share The Peace with me.

I might say different things about President Bush, and pick up on his offensive remark at the time that the way for Americans to respond to terrorists was to go shopping.

But see what you think. My full, unedited script follows below the asterisks.

************

Where were you when you heard that JFK had been shot? That was the question of my parents’ generation. I don’t know: I was only three years old at the time, and my family would not own a television set for another two years.

Where were you when you learned that Princess Diana had died? That’s easier: I had just moved into Medway, was living in temporary accommodation in Lordswood, and was due to start work here the next day.

Now the new question for our generation is, where were you when you heard of the plane attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon? I was sitting here at my desk, when my wife came in from work. I had not long emailed my regular column to the paper. “Isn’t it terrible, these terrorist attacks in America?” she called out.

“What attacks?” I asked. We turned on the TV and found ourselves affixed with a morbid glue to ITN. If only it were a Bruce Willis movie.

That original column seems less important now. Maybe it will be printed one day – who knows? I just had to write something different. My thoughts are all over the shop; perhaps yours are, too. But here goes.

Before anything else, let me plead with you not to assume that your Muslim neighbours are all secret terrorists. Whatever my own (quite fundamental) disagreements with the Muslim faith, I know enough to realise that many Muslims share the same abhorrence of terrorism. Do not stereotype them, do not stigmatise them, and do not take out your anger on them.

But then let me move on to the questions I am often asked as a Christian about justice, punishment, and forgiveness. In the Church we are often caricatured as being weak and namby-pamby when we speak up for forgiveness. The Bible speaks of justice as well as forgiveness. Criminals must be brought to book. But it is for justice, not revenge.

President Bush was right to say in one of his early addresses to the American people that there should be no distinction between the actual terrorists and those who harboured them. To the Christian, motive and attitude of heart are just as crucial as outward action. Jesus said that those who harbour anger are as liable to judgement as murderers, and those who lust in their hearts are as much sinners as adulterers.

But one distinction can be drawn between the terrorists and others involved in the planning of these unspeakably evil acts. Let me put it in a provocative way for a Christian: there is no forgiveness for the terrorists.

Why do I say that? We presume that the terrorists all perished on the hijacked planes. Unless there was a last-minute repentance, they will face the judgement of God. The Bible teaches that ‘it is appointed for mortals to die once, and after that the judgement’.

But their co-conspirators are still alive, we assume. They still have opportunity for repentance and forgiveness. Whether they do so is another matter, but there have been some remarkable precedents in history.

Take the end of World War Two. Hitler and Eva Braun committed suicide, and as far as we know there was not an ounce of repentance from the evil man himself. I may be wrong, but I do not expect to see him in Heaven.

But at the Nuremberg war trials, something remarkable happened. An American Army padre named Henry Gerrick was appointed to be a chaplain to those accused of war crimes. The Nazis had killed his only two sons: imagine how he felt in having to minister to them.

Of the twenty-one prisoners, sixteen requested his services. He gathered them together and told them of a God of mercy, whose Son Jesus Christ had died for their sins. Some, like Goering, sneered, despite the pleas of his own daughter. But others, including von Ribbentrop, Keitel, and Frick, went to the gallows, accepting their earthly punishment but saying their confidence was placed in the mercy of God and the death of Christ.

It is in that mercy that we all find our only hope in eternity.

Sabbatical, Day 78: Susan Boyle

Let me be the last blogger in the world to comment on the Susan Boyle phenomenon. This is the famous YouTube clip, with now somewhere around thirty million viewings in a week:

Visible Measures has more detailed stats. That clip is more popular than the Iraqi journalist throwing shoes at George W Bush, Tina Fey’s impersonation of Sarah Palin, and Barack Obama’s victory speech.

And here is the 1999 recording she made of ‘Cry Me A River’, uncovered by the Daily Record and thought to be her only CD recording so far:

She’s being reported on even across the Pond in the Huffington PostMashable speculates she might be the biggest YouTube sensation ever. And so on.

The core of the story is, of course, that she is a forty-seven-year-old single Christian woman who has ‘never been kissed’. Her appearance is not one that displays conventional beauty. Some have taken to calling her the ‘hairy angel’. Even the official website admits the judges had probably made up their minds negatively about her before she began singing. However, they were then blown away by her voice. Piers Morgan and Amanda Holden were on their feet before she finished her audition song. Simon Cowell added his imprimatur at the end. 

My thoughts? First of all, in my experience, the Christian church has got Susan Boyles tucked away all over the place. Whatever we have by way of cheesy worship bands or choirs filled with members who remember when they had strong voices, we also have a collection of people with Susan’s kind of talent. Not only in the sense of her singing ability, but also with their commitment – like her – to quiet community work that benefits not them but those they serve. Like Susan, it may be to elderly people who don’t matter in the demographics of the advertising world. But they are there, and as Christians we should celebrate these people – their talents used in the service of God, both directly in worship and through love of neighbour as expression of love for God. 

Secondly, the Huffington Post article linked above refers to her as an example of the meek inheriting the earth – so appropriate, considering her faith, and so pleasantly surprising from such a renowned secular liberal source. The writer and commenters celebrate the triumph of someone on the grounds of raw talent rather than image and physical beauty. So let’s think about that.

For one thing, yes, this is the way God sees people – God looks at the heart, not the outward appearance. How refreshing to see that the wider world is hungry and thirsty for such an approach.

For another, it ought to be grounds for repentance in the Christian music industry. View the CD sleeves from major stars in the Contemporary Christian Music field, especially from the States, and there’s little doubt good looks are required alongside the musical ability. Of course, they will be dressed modestly, because we wouldn’t want to think any of it was about lust, would we? That only happens when someone wears revealing or provocative clothes, doesn’t it? Yeah, right.

But I also wonder how long this will last. Britain’s Got Talent is the sort of TV show that works symbiotically with the tabloid newspapers of this country. Tabloid culture has got form in this area, and it’s not promising. It’s only sixyears since Michelle McManus won Pop Idol. Not being the conventional sylph, she was an outsider. However, she won. There was widespread public sympathy for a large woman. However, nineteen months after winning the contest, she parted with her management company, and said she believed it was to do with her weight. Not only that, sections of the popular media turned against her, and her weight became the reason to poke fun at her.

I think someone needs to be ready pastorally to support Susan Boyle whenever the populist tide turns against her. For knowing the cynical nature in some of our media, I fear it is inevitable. Once they have sold newspapers to those who love her, they will want to sell copies to the other camp and not lose them.

…………

Finally, how wrong can you be? A few weeks ago, I wrote about a family service in a church where a lot of long words were used. Today, one of the Sunday School teachers told me he had the same impression of that service. However, after reading my blog post, he asked every single child what they thought of that service. Every single one of them replied that they thought it was great. They were taking on board much more complex thoughts than either he or I had anticipated they could.

Let’s hope I’m wrong about the fate of Susan Boyle, too.

Carol Service Address: Who Is Christmas For?

Luke 2:1-20

Poverty
Father Christmas has let me in on the present my parents have bought for my wife. It’s the DVD of Mamma Mia. You may have heard that this has become the fastest-selling DVD or video of all time in the UK – faster even than Titanic. Maybe it’s more than the catchy songs of Abba.

Or it might have to do with the fact that when times are hard, we look for some good old-fashioned escapist entertainment. Admittedly the current revived interest in stage musicals predates the recession, but it would be nothing new for there to be a revival of them during a recession. Certainly that was true in the nineteen thirties.

In the current climate, how many of us are spending less this Christmas? Or are we putting even more on the plastic and postponing the evil day? Could the Christmas story have a message for people whose credit is being crunched?

I think it does.

Sometimes we get the wrong image of Mary and Joseph. Some people assume that Joseph as a carpenter is some kind of self-employed businessman with a decent income – rather like the reputation of plumbers.  Then we grab hold of the attempts to book into an inn and think of them trying to get into the Bethlehem Travelodge. It’s not quite what you’d expect from people on benefits.

However, the traditional English translations that say ‘there was no room at the inn’ are almost certainly mistaken. The word translated ‘inn’ from the original Greek of the New Testament is one that means a guest room. That could be a guest room in an inn, but it could also be a guest room attached to a typical single-room Palestinian peasant dwelling.

Given the Palestinian emphasis on hospitality, that is more likely. Joseph’s relatives try to do what is expected of them and take the couple in, but all they can offer is the raised area where they keep their livestock. And hence the baby is laid in a feeding trough. This is a picture of poverty.

And later on, when the infant Jesus has to be dedicated in the Jerusalem Temple according to Jewish tradition, his parents make the lowest cost offering, the offering prescribed for the poor.

What do we have, then, in the arrival of Jesus to his mother and legal father? We have the presence of God in the middle of poverty.

The recession will mean poverty for some (although not on first century Palestinian terms), and reduced standards of living for others. But Jesus promises to turn up in the middle of difficult circumstances. Focussing on his presence – rather than presents – will make Christmas a celebration, whether we have a lot of gifts to open or not.

So if you are struggling this Christmas, invite Jesus in. He’s probably hanging around somewhere close already. Ask him to make his spiritual presence known in your time of difficulty. He’s used to that kind of situation. And his love transforms it.

Exclusion
Something else about my wife. Until she married me, she had lived all her life in the town where she was born: Lewes in East Sussex. If there is one thing for which Lewes is famous, it is the annual bonfire. Six ‘bonfire societies’ produce amazing public displays for the Fifth of November every year. You may know that historically, as a town steeped in the tradition of dissent, the Lewes Bonfire has paraded an effigy of Pope Paul V, alongside one of Guy Fawkes and of contemporary bogeymen, such as Osama bin Laden, George W Bush, Tony Blair and Ulrika Jonsson in recent years.

But you might recall the national controversy five years ago when one of the bonfire societies from the village of Firle made an effigy of gypsies in a caravan. The effigies are traditionally burned every year to the cry of ‘Burn them! Burn them!’ A group of travellers had particularly annoyed the residents of Firle that year, and hence the choice.

But several members of the bonfire society were arrested by police, and an investigation was carried out into whether criminal offences relating to racial hatred had been committed.

Why talk about Bonfire Night at Christmas? Because if you get a flavour of popular disdain for travellers and gypsies, you will get a feel for how shepherds were regarded in Palestine around the time of Jesus.

We have cuddly images of shepherds from our nativity plays, Christmas cards and perhaps from our carols, too. But the reality is that they weren’t liked that much. Oh, the Bethelehm shepherds could supply sheep for the Temple sacrifices in nearby Jerusalem, but they wouldn’t be allowed inside the Temple themselves. Popular opinion saw them as thieves.

Yet the angels show up for a group of first century pikeys. Excluded people. A group that suffered discrimination and prejudice. Were the birth of Jesus to have happened in our day, we might imagine angels showing up in a deportation centre for failed asylum seekers or an AIDS clinic.

Perhaps there is some aspect of your life that pushes you to the fringes of society. Maybe it’s a reason for people rejecting you. If so, then the Christmas message is one of Jesus coming to offer his love precisely for somebody like you.

And …
But what about everyone else? It’s very nice to say that Jesus has come for the poor and the excluded, but didn’t he come for everyone? Yes he did, and the message of the angels to the shepherds is a message for us all. The newborn baby is a Saviour (verse 11), and the angels sing that God is bringing peace on earth among those he favours (verse 14).

Now if we’ve heard the Christmas story over and over again in our lives, these references to ‘Saviour’ and ‘peace on earth’ might become part of the words that trip off our tongues without thinking. But we need to connect them to one other detail in the story. It came right at the beginning. Who issued the decree about the census? The Emperor Augustus (verse 1). Who was described as a saviour, because he had come to bring peace and an end to all wars? Augustus. Whose birthday became the beginning of the new year for many cities in the Empire? Augustus’.

Did he bring peace on earth? What do you think?

I don’t mention all this just to give you a history lesson, two days after the school term has finished. I think it has important connections today. Having talked about the poor and the excluded, let’s talk about one person who this year has been far from poor and certainly not excluded. Barack Obama.

Remember his slogan? ‘Change we can believe in.’ As one magazine said, it sounds like Yoda from Star Wars came up with it. Change was the word he kept emphasising. So much so that even his ‘change’ slogans kept changing!

The same magazine that likened his slogan to Yoda also interviewed John Oliver, the British comedian who appears on the American satirical TV programme The Daily Show. The journalist asked him, ‘How long will we be living in an Obama Wonderland?’ Three weeks, or at most four, said Oliver.

Why? Because politicians can’t deliver peace on earth. Augustus couldn’t. Obama won’t. It will be just as The Who sang, ‘Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.’

Well, you might reasonably say that Jesus hasn’t brought peace on earth, either. Sometimes the Church has made sure of that, and we have a lot for which we need to apologise. It isn’t just the wars in the name of religion (although atheism and liberal democracy have a lot to answer for, too). It’s been our attitudes in ordinary relationships.

What we the Church have departed from has been the prescription of Jesus for peace on earth. Peace on earth means not only peace with God, because Jesus would die on the Cross to bring the forgiveness of our sins. That peace requires peaceable attitudes with one another.

The Christmas message, then, for all of us, is one not of indulgence but of sacrifice. In Jesus, God descends – even condescends – in humility to human flesh and a life of poverty, blessing the poor and the excluded. The descent continues all the way to the Cross, where he suffers for all. And having done all that, we cannot presume it’s just to receive a private blessing of forgiveness. It’s so that the peace we receive from him at great cost can be shared with one and all.

May peace be with us all this Christmas. May the peace of Christ be the most precious gift we give and receive.

Election

Not being American, it’s pointless to a degree my expressing a preference between John McCain and Barack Obama. Except that the winner will be so influential on the UK and the world that it matters.

So I was pleased to read this open letter from James Emery White to whoever the victor is. It is the measure of a Christian attitude. It is so different from what I have read elsewhere from some Christians. Take Focus On The Family Action’s hysteria-inducing hypothetical letter imagining what the USA would look like in 2012 after the first term of an Obama presidency. (One reaction has been a bipartisan Facebook group opposing it.) Or whole blogs like Ohnobama. Or the incredible nonsense that Sarah Palin prophetically is Esther.

Now I’m aware that all the stuff I’ve denounced above is from one particular camp – the religious right. I know that filth exists on the left, too. Certainly Palin (while she cannot be a modern-day Esther – who was the king and who were the other concubines? :)) has been the victim of misrepresentation of her faith. One article on Huffington Post comes to mind. It is a mixture of genuine research and tangential ‘guilt by association’ insinuation.

And I know too that none of this should be surprising. It exposes the gulf between claims that people want high office in order to serve others and the reality that it is a grab for power. If you want power for yourself or whoever you support, you’ll adopt a ‘by any means necessary’ approach. 

Nor is this about a Brit wanting to have a go at Americans. Whatever our more reserved characters, we know enough about aggressive politics. PMQ, anyone? And neither Biden nor Palin have ‘done a Prescott’:

And my complaint isn’t about wanting to treat politics as if it doesn’t matter. It does. Christians can’t disregard it. Just concentrating on evangelism and dismissing a so-called ‘social gospel’ is sub-biblical.

Surely as Christians we can model something different for the world, where we are passionate about what we believe, even when we differ among ourselves, yet do so with humility and love. It seems to me that James Emery White’s tone models such a spirit.

I can sympathise with some of the reservations about Obama. I find his stance on abortion awful. (Although if I am to be pro-life – and I am – then that extends after the womb and takes in issues such as war and poverty, too.) I also have concerns about McCain. His tax proposals appear to favour the wealthy. (Yet on the other hand I think his stance as a Republican on green issues is noteworthy.) So it’s easy to see why Christians with particular areas of concern gravitate strongly for or against a particular candidate.

What, then, has made many Christian voices so indistinct in tone from secular ones? We have a regular problem in the church of being squeezed into the world’s mould, as J B Phillips put it. But are there particular factors either causing or exacerbating the situation?

I suspect that at least as far as the religious right is concerned, we ought to take a look at the ‘prophetic movement’. It’s been in play for several years, and led to the view that George W Bush was God’s anointed, and woe betide any Christian who disagreed. A British Christian friend of mine who works in the States with a charity that is developing drug treatments for people with AIDS couldn’t believe just how true the picture was of evangelical alignment with the Republican Party.

Yet that wasn’t going on so much a few months ago in this campaign, if I understand correctly. Disgruntlement with how McCain viewed certain issues dear to the Christian right’s agenda meant was surely a major reason why evangelical and fundamentalist churches weren’t holding voter registration drives with such enthusiasm this time. My hunch, watching from a few thousand miles away, is that it all changed when McCain announced Sarah Palin has his running mate. Not seeing that McCain surely thought of her for pragmatic reasons: he needed to pull a rabbit out of the hat so as to bring a major Republican constituency into the voting booth, suddenly Palin was the person God had kept everyone waiting for. No wonder ‘prophetic words’ began to flow. (And, please note, I believe in prophetic words. But I also believe in testing them.)

Is it part of a lust to believe we are living in times that are comparable to biblical ones, and therefore they have to be graded as such by prophecies? Are these things some kind of sign taken to mean that we are in some sense more faithful to biblical spirituality? Are we just not content to get on with days of small things (Zecharaiah 4:10) and be faithful in a few things (Matthew 25:21, 23)?

Put this approach together with the ‘grab for power’ I mentioned earlier and we have a flammable combination that leads Christians to spend more time ‘praying against’ rather than the ‘praying for’ which White exemplifies.

I don’t wish to make it sound like White’s is the only sane voice around. That would be arrogant and ignorant. It didn’t take too long to find this sane post from Rob Harrison, a Christian Republican, arguing moderately in favour of the Grand Old Party, expressing deep reservations about Obama and explaining why he thinks Hillary Clinton would have been a better Democratic candidate. From a different stable comes Jim Wallis’ post, ‘My Personal ‘Faith Priorities’ for this Election‘. (Wallis has also called on James Dobson to apologise for the ‘2012 letter’.) I know Wallis is technically independent, but most of his faith priorities lean in Obama’s direction.

So it’s galling to keep hearing the nonsense when there are thoughtful voices in the debate. Somewhere a big section of us in the church has lost a grip on servant leadership and that we see through a glass darkly, not clearly.

There is something to be said for Derek Webb‘s view that you’ll never find ‘A Savior On Capitol Hill’

even if I don’t share what sounds like a cynicism in the lyrics towards all politicians. Nevertheless, it is a timely warning for all those who offer Barack Obama semi-messianic adulation or who see John McCain (but really Sarah Palin?) as God’s anointed.

Is it too late to hope for more Christlike tone as well as content to Christian contributions regarding the election, both in terms of an increase in quantity and a greater prominence to the careful voices that are in danger of being drowned out? It’s so close to the end of the campaign that for anyone to say this now is humanly a forlorn hope. I’d like to think it might be different in four years’ time. For that to happen, the church will have to have been chastened. That might mean a whole run of failed ‘prophecies’, but it would take a lot for even that to lead to repentance in some circles. My fear is that even something that goes against the grain will just lead to a reframing of them.

But you never know. We might learn humility one day.