Some thoughts on ISIS and non-violence

(I wanted to write this post over a week ago, but with building work going on and the house in chaos, I didn’t get a chance. Things are now calming down a little, so I hope to now be able to resume normal service.)

TOPSHOTS-IRAQ-UNREST-ARMY-EXECUTIONFor the past few weeks, social media have been alive with justified outrage over the atrocities committed by the ISIS radical jihadist movement in northern Iraq. This grouping, the latest in a series of factions seeking to spearhead the re-establishment of an Islamic Caliphate spreading from the deserts of Iraq to the western border of Turkey, has been steamrolling through remote areas of northern Iraq forcing all who will not swear allegiance to its radical brand of Islam – including but not limited to Christians – to convert, pay a religious levy or be killed. Thousands have fled their homes and headed towards an uncertain and precarious future in Syria, while others – including women and young children – have been brutally mutilated and slaughtered. According to reports, some of those not willing to meet ISIS’s demands have been crucified, their bodies left hanging on crosses for weeks on end to serve as a chilling example to any who might entertain notions of dissent.

While questions have been raised over the veracity of some of the images being circulated, there appears to be little doubt that the situation in the affected corner of Iraq is at the very least a humanitarian catastrophe, if not an outright genocide.

As I indicated above, the general response to this awful situation has been one of widespread moral outrage. This, it seems to me, is entirely justified and appropriate. And, of course, it’s a short step from moral outrage to cries of “Something must be done!”… leading immediately to the question of what, precisely, can or should be done. Which is where things get particularly interesting for anyone seeking to be a follower of Jesus in this violent age.

The decision as to whether to provide humanitarian aid in the form of air drops of supplies to fleeing populations is uncontroversial. Where things get trickier is when Christians unite with non-Christians in calling for military action against ISIS. Continue reading

The answer to sin

Forgive prisonEarlier this week I wrote a post suggesting that we can often fall into the trap of viewing Jesus’ death on the cross, and the sacrament by which we remember it (commonly referred to as communion or the eucharist), as a kind of repeated scapegoating of Jesus. Just as ancient Israel’s sins were expunged by symbolically transferring them onto a goat that was then sent out into the wilderness, so we deposit our sins on Jesus and trust him to carry them away.

Now, we know that Jesus only died on the cross once: we’re quite happy to state with Peter that Jesus died once for all. However, when we treat Jesus’ death and our remembering of it as outlined above, in effect it’s as though he were having to be put to death again and again, each time we need our sins carried away and our consciences salved.

This, to me, is the fundamental problem with any theology in which salvation is essentially an abstract one-time event: it doesn’t deal with our ongoing sin problem. We may feel temporarily relieved of our burden of guilt, but — all other things being equal —the same patterns of sin continue to entangle and ensnare us, leading us back over and over to the same need for absolution… and thus the need for Jesus to be symbolically re-crucified again and again. Rather than being a journey of progressive transformation into the image of Christ, the Christian life thus becomes a continual cycle of guilt management.

Another way of stating the problem is that salvation has become detached from sanctification. Salvation is commonly understood to mean a place in heaven for us when we die, secured by means of a transaction in which God acquits us of our guilt by declaring Jesus guilty in our place. However, salvation conceived of in this way can do nothing, in and of itself, to free us from the grip of sin in the here and now. It might give us some kind of mental assurance as to our eternal destiny, but it is powerless to effect change in the present. So we end up struggling on in the same old ruts while trying desperately to feel like we’re saved. Continue reading

On Jesus’ death, communion and scapegoating

GoatIn church last Sunday we took communion. As I was sitting holding the bread and wine (well, okay, the bread and juice) and thinking about the meaning of the eucharist (literally “thanksgiving”), a thought came to me that I’d like to explore a little today.

If you’ve been reading along here for a while, you’ll know that my understanding of Christ’s death on the cross has evolved significantly in recent times (see this post in particular). Specifically, I no longer buy into the notion that Jesus died to endure God’s wrath in my place – a notion I’ve come to see as little more than a Christianised version of a pagan sacrificial cult to an angry deity. Rather, I believe that Jesus died at the hands not of an angry God but of an angry mob, and that in his death he decisively demonstrated the all-enduring, all-forgiving love of God. (There is much more that I believe about Christ’s death than this, but this brief account goes some way towards explaining the core of the shift that has taken place in my understanding.)

One of the things that has shaped my thinking in this area is the work of French Christian anthropologist René Girard. Girard has written many books in his ninety plus years of life, and one of his central themes is the foundational role of scapegoating in human culture. An essential thesis of his is that human societies typically form, cohere and sustain themselves by identifying an enemy “other” who is then blamed for various evils and sacrificed (whether literally or metaphorically). In sacrificing a victim (which may, in practice, be an individual or a group) in this way, cultures are able to unite against a perceived common enemy and purge themselves of evil. (There is much more to Girard’s understanding of the foundations of culture and religion, but this will do as a basic introduction.)

It seems clear to me that, in his death, Jesus functioned as a scapegoat. The High Priest Caiaphas understood that it was better for one man to die for the people than for the whole nation to perish, while Pilate and his Roman cohorts undoubtedly saw Jesus’ death, at least in part, as a way to assuage an angry mob and thus defuse a highly charged atmosphere that was dangerously close to veering into open revolt. When we stand back and take a dispassionate look at the events surrounding Jesus’ death, then, it’s not difficult to discern this scapegoating dynamic. And, in discerning it, it’s not difficult to name it and condemn it as evil. Continue reading

On Israel and Hamas, partisan Christianity and the misrepresentation of God

This will be my final post for a week or two. I’ll be away on holiday and will have more important things to think about — things like sunbathing, reading, relaxing and having fun with my family.

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As no reader can fail to be aware, military violence between Israel and Palestine (specifically Hamas) has escalated in recent days. Hamas has been tossing rockets into Israel, while Israel has been sending guided missiles into Gaza.

As soon as these kinds of events begin to unfold, it’s generally only a matter of a few hours at most before related posts begin to pop up in my Facebook newsfeed. These are invariably posted by Christians, and are always urging support for Israel. I can’t tell you how many posts I’ve seen in the past three or four days with slogans like “I stand with Israel, and so should you!”

Such posts trouble me greatly, and I’d like spend just a few moments unpacking why. I don’t have long, so I’ll try to be brief. (Ha ha, I hear you say.)

First, apart from any theological considerations, such posts espouse and propagate a simplistic worldview in which there is always a hero and a villain, a clear-cut case of right and wrong. Anyone who honestly thinks there isn’t a lot more to this situation than meets the eye — or rather, than our extremely biased media, which use fear and drama to sell stories, would have us believe — is seriously living in La La Land and needs to wake up and smell the coffee.

There is always, always, always more going on than the media-fuelled propaganda would have you believe. The back-story to any news item is always far more complex and messy than the headlines suggest. To get more of a feel for just some of the complexities that lie behind the current morass in Israel and Gaza, just read this article in the New York Times. Sadly, Christians often seem to swallow the simplistic headlines more quickly than anyone else — especially when doing so fits their judgemental, God-will-slay-the-infidels paradigm. Continue reading

Hope to hold onto

CryingWe live in a world filled with pain.

Yesterday evening, as I sat browsing through my Facebook feed and pondering the events of the day, I was suddenly and without warning overwhelmed by a deep sense of sadness, to the point of tears. I’d been thinking about the escalating military action in Israel, about the plight of cross-border refugees, and about a private disagreement that I had seen spill over onto Facebook in public fashion. Here are some words I shared on Facebook to try to capture what I was feeling:

There are times when my heart hurts. For the forgotten, starving child; for the rejected immigrant who seems to be little more than a political pawn; for the mothers, fathers and kids trying to peacefully get on with their lives who suddenly become collateral damage in an age-old territorial dispute; for the never-ending cycle of one-upmanship and rivalry that puts being right above being together. And, most of all, for my own selfishness, judgmentalism and lack of love.

This deep feeling of sadness really took me by surprise. I guess we’re so used to living in this world of pain and injustice that we become very practised at ignoring and burying all the sorrow and suffering that surrounds us and putting on a brave face so we can continue to live as good little citizens and consumers. Not to mention good little Christians. I mean, “the joy of the Lord”, right?

Once in a while, for whatever reason, we find ourselves in a place where events, thoughts and feelings coalesce in such a way that some of this buried pain breaks through the surface of our practiced indifference and we find ourselves deeply moved. This, I think, is what I felt yesterday evening. Continue reading

Finding out who we are

Who we areI do not know who I am.

As part of my morning devotions, I’m currently reading through late Irish poet, author and priest John O’Donohue’s wonderful book Divine Beauty: The Invisible Embrace. This morning, the following lines stopped me in my tracks:

If we were to live everything, we would be too much for ourselves. Yet the life within us calls out for expression. This is what creativity serves. It endeavours to bring some of our hidden life to expression in order that we might come to see who we are.

What really arrested me was those final few words: “… that we might come to see who we are”. I would say we’re typically so keyed in to the notion that we’re each in control of our own existence and destiny that the idea of coming to see who we are — as though this were a journey whose destination we do not know — appears peculiar.

But isn’t this the truth? If I had asked you, dear reader, five years ago to predict who you would be today — by which I mean not just what experiences would have shaped your self-perception, but also how you would have changed in your beliefs, your attitudes, your worldview, and so forth — I’m reasonably confident that any answer you might have given would have been wide of the mark by at least some margin. In spite of ourselves, we are evolving creatures; moreover, our evolution, both physical and spiritual, is largely beyond our control. Continue reading

God is

God is doodleThe other day, for a bit of fun, I posted an A to Z list of words describing what I have come to believe God is not like. The purpose was to illustrate the journey of theological deconstruction upon which many of us are fellow travellers. There is much to unlearn.

But after deconstruction, if we are not to be left with a vacuum, there must come reconstruction. Having unlearned all (or, at least, many) of our false and damaging beliefs about God, we must replace them with good, healthy, properly informed beliefs about him. And so, to complete the exercise, I offer you my A to Z of what God is like. Continue reading