Has anyone had a child ask them recently ‘how many weeks until Christmas?’
When our 4 were younger it usually came up about 2 weeks after they started back at school following the long summer break; like a beacon of hope, the promise of Christmas beckoned them onward, resolute through the Autumn term.
For most of us the central message of Christ’s birth, the incarnation, is not at the forefront of our minds as we busy ourselves in preparation… It is hard to balance the material reality of a traditional, Western Christmas with the extraordinary, life-altering message of God’s self-giving love which was expressed uniquely in the person of a small and vulnerable baby, born on the margins of a powerful empire.
Yet, the mode in which God chose to reveal himself is a starting point, an identity marker, for our discipleship as followers of Jesus.
The incarnation gives us key clues to the question ‘how then should we live as people of faith?’ which are explored in imaginative and practical depth in the Global Church Project
We highly recommend that you take time to explore the resources for yourself, your church, discipleship group, youth group or seminary class.
As we reflect on the Great Promises of the prophet Isaiah in Chapter 61 let us also remember that as people of faith we are called to manifest God’s love in each and every context we find ourselves. This may require us to cross uncomfortable boundaries in order to maintain faithful testimony to the call to be ‘New Humanity’ which the Apostle Paul spoke about in Ephesians.
The Advent of our God
Our prayers must now employ,
And we must meet him on his road
With hymns of holy joy.
The everlasting Son
Incarnate soon shall be :
He will a servant’s form put on,
To make his people free.
Rev. John Chandler, The Hymns of the Primitive Church (London: John W. Parker, 1837), Number 36, pp. 39-40.
In this mini Advent series we’ve reflected on three themes of advent encapsulated in this hymn: Advent as ENCOUNTER, Advent as SERVICE and in this final post I want to consider Advent as LIBERATION.
The theme of liberation or becoming free runs through the scriptures like a river course and is inextricably linked with what the Old Testament prophets identified as the justice and righteousness of God which manifests Shalom (wholeness, flourishing and peace) and what the New Testament writers identified as the saving and wholeness-making love of God which manifests liberation, restoration and peace- equivalent to the Old Testament concept of Shalom
The prophet Isaiah says this of the re-ordering, restoring and liberating hope which was to come in the person of Jesus Christ (Isaiah 11):
A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.
The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—
the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and of might,
the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord—
and he will delight in the fear of the Lord.
He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes,
or decide by what he hears with his ears;
but with righteousness he will judge the needy,
with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth.
He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth;
with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked.
Righteousness will be his belt
and faithfulness the sash around his waist.
The wolf will live with the lamb,
the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
and a little child will lead them.
The cow will feed with the bear,
their young will lie down together,
and the lion will eat straw like the ox.
The infant will play near the cobra’s den,
and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest.
They will neither harm nor destroy
on all my holy mountain,
for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.
Mary’s Magnificat prayer-song as she anticipates the birth of Jesus echoes this liberating theme (Luke 1:44-56) and in the eye-witness account of Luke, Jesus Christ himself describes his purpose in his reading of the scroll of the prophet Isaiah in the synagogue (Luke 4:18-19):
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
So, this ancient hymn of the primitive Church enjoins us during this season of Advent and beyond to continue to encounter, serve and live in the fullness of liberation which brings hope to our worlds. This year saw the publication of a new edition of the Bible which aims to highlight the river of liberation which courses through biblical scripture, to which we were privileged to make a contribution-it is called God’s Justice Bible and is well worth looking at if you have not already got or seen a copy.
It is thrilling to be part of a world wide family which is called to love beyond borders and to seek a kingdom or a way of life which is radically inclusive and governed by a God whose loving justice restores and brings wholeness to those who seek… I’ll leave you with another old song which I remember singing with gusto as a child which is based on Jesus’ invitation to all of us who want to follow him (Matthew 6) .
Warmest greetings to you this Christmas from Andy and I at the jusTice initiative!
David Benjamin Blower’s Sympathy for Jonah is a slim but by no means a light read. It is an elegant and succinct work of profound poeisis; the artistic creation of a powerful imaginative lens which dives deep into the narrative of the book of Jonah and emerges with some paradigm-shifting reflections on this very familiar but often under understood story.
Whilst not a read for the faint-hearted, by David’s own admission, “Only when we are shocked, horrified, and unmade by the story of Jonah can we begin to imagine that we have understood it” (Epilogue, p57), it is a book imbued with the hope-filled vision that Love’s creative resistance, insistence and interruptive power will manifest again and again “awkward pauses in time in which repentance becomes possible and another world imaginable” (p55).
The book opens with a real time explosion- the recent bombing by Islamic State Militants of Jonah’s alleged shrine in Mosul dramatically connects by way of a twist of explosive wire and a BBC camera this ancient story and the contemporary reader. As the “flameless puff of gray dust” (xvi) settles, the reader is plunged into a disorienting sea of shanties and dirges, monsters of the deep and humiliations. David invites the reader to consider “why is the image of a man on his knees in the belly of a whale so compelling to us?” (p4) His chapter exploring the ‘episode in the whale’ ends with the warning stage whisper: “God help the revolution that has not first known humiliation” (p.10)
In Sympathy for Jonah David has attempted a somewhat Ricoeurian resuscitation of traditional narrative in order to help us imagine and reconnect with a way of being present in and to our world which moves us hopefully into the future. He resolutely goes about the task of pushing the mythic fish tale off the sandbar of unimaginative, modern speculation and back into the mysterious depths. David then proceeds to tackle three key areas: our judgements about why Jonah did not want to go to Ninevah (was he really racist?), our beliefs about why he ended up in the belly of a large fish (is God really unkindly punitive?) and lastly our understanding of what those 3 days ‘inside’ were really about? (was it really just alternative transport?).
Sympathy for Jonah is an impactful read and its theological location is firmly in the heartland of radical non-violent love of Other. Jonah is a story of subversion- a literal ‘turning from below’ and David has taken its timeless message and enlivened it with a teacher’s attention to truth and application, a counsellor’s reflection on the inward and outward journey of reconciliation and a prophet’s call to an extraordinary type of non-violent, restorative justice:
Only by following him into the whale’s belly, by earnestly undergoing the death-and-resurrection of his baptism, and by allowing ourselves also to be unmade and dismantled, dislodged from the structures and obligations of the current order, and empowered with a strength to love that goes beyond ourselves, only then can we begin to adopt the Jonaic practice, the way of the cross and the call of the gospel: to go to the terrible other in search of the image of God.” (David Benjamin Blower, 2016, Epilogue, 57)
As David reminds us, “The book of Jonah is short. It takes up less than two pages of the Bible” (p.2) and though Sympathy for Jonah is also a short book the images it conjures speak thousands of words. In his Forward, Ched Myers draws attention to the bigger picture which David Blower’s reading of Jonah paints; the calling to journey towards the reconciliation of all things: “Ultimately, if humanity is to survive, the murderous logic of empire must be turned around. And nothing less is God’s will for history.” (Ched Myers, Forword, xi). David’s reading of Jonah insists that at key moments we need to be interrupted, however inconvenient, to be stopped in our tracks to examine whether we are living the narrative of empire or of the upside-down kingdom of Heaven: “One day there will be an interruption, and imperial time will stop as it has done many times before, and everyone will wait for it to start up again, but it won’t. It finally won’t be able to fool itself into being anymore, and all its machinery will be hammered into something good and beautiful, or thrown into the fire. And then we will know that the world to come is finally here.” (Blower, 55)
I highly recommend this book. It is at times a disturbing read-empire, domination, cruelty and violence are disturbing themes after all, but it carries profound prophetic relevance for the times in which we live.
 The Christian philosopher, Paul Ricoeur develops his ethical hermeneutic around the importance of reading and meaningfully connecting our past and its traditions with our present in order to bridge with integrity into the future: “The entire present is in crisis when expectancy takes refuge in utopia and tradition congeals into a dark residue” (Time and Narrative Vol. III, p. 235)
Before the war, I didn’t pay attention to how much water I used. But now, water is like gold for me. It’s practically holy. (29-year-old Ali)
Water sourced from underground wells in Aleppo (Photo: Aref Haj Youssef/Reuters)
Aleppo is heartbreakingly broken. Disembowelled by conflict and war, her treasures dismembered and her citizens fleeing since 2012, seeking refuge and hospitality in a world increasingly shaped by fear.
These images depict the devastation and ruin of Aleppo in Syria, an historic and globally significant city.
During a recent visit to the Pergamon museum on Berlin’s ‘Museum Island’ I saw, for the first time, a very personal slither of history which impacted me more than the museum’s centrepiece-the Ishtar Gate or Gate of Babylon.
The Aleppo room belonged to a prosperous merchant and Christian citizen of the Syrian town of Aleppo named Isa ibn Butrus (Jesus son of Peter). He commissioned the painted panels for the entrance room in his house at the beginning of the 17th century. These paintings make up the oldest collection from a Syrian dwelling house from the Ottoman period and have preserved the work of craftsmen from the best workshops of the time.
As a Christian, Isa ibn Butrus’ desire was to communicate inclusive hospitality to the many travelling merchants he would have no doubt hosted in this entrance room. The room was painted in a variety of themes which included Christian themes from the Old and New Testaments such as the depiction of ‘Mary with Child’ which sit alongside courtly scenes like those portrayed in Persian book illustration.
The selection of encircling Psalms, Arabic proverbs and Persian principles further add to the impression of a peaceful community of different religious beliefs living together.
Around the time that Isa ibn Butrus was hosting traders and brokers in the busy Silk Road trading city of Aleppo, another man, John Matthews ventured forth from Wales to make his fortune trading with Mercers in Aleppo- who knows whether their paths actually crossed?
We do know, however, that John Matthews did not take to farming on his return to Carno in the late 1620’s and that he turned the farmhouse into a Public House. The Inn he named ‘The Aleppo Merchant’ became an exotic watering hole for the surrounding farms and villages, licenced by the King to sell ‘spirituous liquors’.
So, history weaves on, shifting fortunes, forging alliances and connections in unexpected corners of the globe, displacing people from one side of the world to the other.
The current war which has engulfed Aleppo is complex and catastrophic. In the lull of the current ceasefire, 60 year old Abu Nidal describes the ongoing struggles to access clean water:
Everything is available to us except water
Watering holes, places where we can drink and be refreshed in community, are vital to life; be they merchant’s hospitality suites, rural inns or bore holes in the ground of a war-torn city. Today, entrepreneurial young men who remain are named the ‘Princes of Aleppo’ as they drive water-filled containers around the city helping others access the water they need to survive.
Other young men have already left in search of a safer place to live and build a future. ‘AlBsmehAl3Rbieh’, is a group of six rappers from Aleppo that formed in 2010, as Syria headed towards the civil war that has ravaged the country. The rappers all met while they were studying and made a song about the Syrian refugees’ journey to Europe. The video footage they shot with their phones as they travelled. I have not been able to source a translation of the lyrics (any offers?) but this is how they describe the content of the song on the youtube comments section:
…the major messages of the song talks about the way of the syrian megeration and how the guy in first section cant travel beacuse he cant collecting moeny and the sexond one is calling his friends to come back and the third section how he needs to work in turkey to collect money to travel to europ the furth talks about the journey crossing the see from turkey to germany crossing ” greece – macedonia – hungary – then germany … 🙂
The Christian understanding and practise of justice as ‘love and care of neighbour’ includes hospitality towards those who do not normally form a part of our close community, ie the stranger who may be studying, working or travelling. Christian hospitality is especially important and emphasised in the case of caring for those who are vulnerable and uprooted, fleeing violence or the effects of natural disasters etc.
Many of us do not associate justice with hospitality, but if we consider a facet of justice as sharing out the ‘goods of life’, then hospitality clearly has an important role in sharing material and relational ‘goods’ with those who find themselves vulnerable and stripped of both.
Not many of us are directly involved in forming refugee policy but almost every one of us will encounter, in the natural course of life, people who have been displaced from their usual ‘watering holes’. We can choose to reach out and connect and support, building acceptance and friendship. We will be changed in the process-for the better.
…When will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?
Jesus answered: “Watch out that no one deceives you. For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am the Messiah,’ and will deceive many. You will hear of wars and rumours of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains.
“Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me. At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come. (Matthew 24:3-14)
‘Birth pains’ are signs of impending birth and they reference the considerable anguish and labour which gives way to this new birth.
I was recently struck by the words of Antonio Gramsci, the Italian theoretician whose analysis ranged from linguistics to sociology to political theory. He made the following observation:
…the old is dying and the new is not yet ready to be born, in this interregnum there arises a great diversity of morbid symptoms.
Whilst his reflections were based on a specific period of Italian political history, they resonate deeply with so much we observe in our world today; there is much struggle and anguish to produce peace.
It is clear that the sour fruits of history- the abuse of power, political corruption, greed and fear amongst others, have produced enormous conflict in our world which is robbing us in so many ways of the joys of our shared humanity. There indeed arises in our time ‘a great diversity of morbid symptoms’; our world is sick and struggling in so many ways. In the prescient words of the apostle Matthew, the love of many does indeed seem to grow cold in the aftermath of divisive wickedness and evil of all kinds. We may well ask ourselves, as Gramsci did for his generation, if the new is ready to be born in our time?
Are we present in the sufferings of the world and is that suffering seeding something new in us or are we immutable and unchanging? Are we so sure of our rightness of formation that we refuse to go through the dying stages of the chrysalis, letting go of our fixed identities to enter the womb of growth and transformation in the hope of the emerging newness?
Jesus observed in Nicodemus, a learned teacher of the Jewish Law, a Pharisee, a profound need to enter the ‘womb of transformation’; even with his great learning and wisdom Nicodemus needed to be changed, transformed, re-birthed; to risk the travail of self-giving Love in order to enter into a new quality of Life.
The call to love even as we have been loved by God, is the call to hope in the promise of that love to birth a newness in the material substance of our lives. The fruits of this newness, this peace-in-the-material-substance, is what Gramsci and many others seek.
There has been a lot of focus over recent years on the importance of building resilience as if that were the only sustainable answer to the catastrophic impacts of structural inadequacy.
Resilience has to do with the habits and practises we all need to develop which help us to cope in times of stress and adversity; it has to do with survival in a time of crisis. This is well and good when we define crisis as a temporary episode of ‘intense difficulty or danger’ (Oxford English dictionary). However, when crisis becomes the fruit of an ideological position which severely and negatively affects, on a continuous basis, the lives of some and not others and we expect those affected to become resilient then it seems to me we have a problem; we are no longer talking about an unavoidable crisis to which a valid response would be to build resilience, but we are speaking of a state of affairs or a status quo which produces unequal and unfair outcomes for citizens of the same state/federation/planet. To promote resilience under these circumstances can in effect affirm the very structures which produced the crisis for some and not for others.
German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once said ‘That which does not kill us, makes us stronger’ and this saying settles easily, neatly and largely unchallenged in the stoical sub-consciousness of the post-industrialised mind, along with an array of modern idioms like ‘no pain no gain’ ‘you win some you lose some’ ‘take it on the chin’ ‘take the rough with the smooth’ and so on. These phrases have shaped the way we think about adversity and how we may respond to it, but they offer us no guidance as to what constitutes legitimate adversity to be endured and overcome and what constitutes (avoidable/illegitimate?) adversity, the causes of which need to be understood clearly and resisted or reformed. If Nietzche were to smoothly tut out his famous dictum to my son or daughter in the face of the latter’s protestations against the tedium and existential crisis produced by doing homework or learning to tie their shoelaces it would have wildly different resonance than if he were to belt out the same dictum to a line of child slaves weaving carpets. Yes, both the child slave and my own child would need to develop resilience but the reasons for the need for resilience are different; it is this which needs to be scrutinised.
When words and phrases become mobile and slip into use across an increasingly wide range of contexts they can become problematic, it seems to me. When they then fall into the hands of policy makers and politicians they can become dangerous. A word like resilience can, at best and in a legitimate context, be helpful and appropriate, but in another, it can take on rather ideologically-weighted meanings (I’m hoping that some of my socio-linguist friends will offer some further explanations!).
The mainstreaming of resilience in policy and politics coincided with the onset of – and long process of recovery from – the worst recession to hit the UK since the Great Depression of the 1930s. It also coincided with a sustained austerity drive from government; the first domestic manifestations of the catastrophic consequences of climate change, and a seemingly irreparable standard of living crisis. A generation came of age and abruptly learned to lower its expectations. Resilient communities, resilient sectors and resilient people are required to suffer these troubled times. In this context, resilience resonates more as a statement of survival than of aspiration – and one that entreats people to consider man-made crises as mysterious tests of character.
Whilst she concords with others that resilience, resistance and reworking are all useful contributors to social and political transformation, she goes on to warn that in the light of her own research resilience can prove to be less than effective in the longer term:
Resilience is a way of encouraging people to live with insecurity because the status quo is deemed insurmountable. Thus conversations about climate adaptation and economic adjustment are dominated by discovering how storms are to be withstood, for they are presumed inevitable. An ingenious disregard for living within limits is how people change the world; but energy diverted to resilience leaves little time for dissent and asking difficult questions. Resilience is reactive and distracts from legitimate indignation. It fixes people to the present, hiding the history that fashioned beggars and kings and proves all imaginable change possible.
It seems that the problems begin when we accept a state of affairs as an unavoidable crisis rather than an avoidable and reformable product of human decision-making; after all, who in their right mind would recommend that an undernourished child, no longer able to cope with the cognitive activity of a school day find ways of becoming resilient in the face of their parents gambling habit? Imagine if schools set up ‘dumpster-running’ as an extra-curricular activity for such children in order to re-skill them in urban-foraging for survival. Would that not seem oddly irresponsible and a failure to intelligently address the reasons for the child’s suffering?
What that child and what many who are currently being encouraged to become ‘resilient’ and ‘buck up’ need is for those who peddle resilience to turn their attention to the concept of ‘flourishing’ rather than ‘survival’. For too long it seems, we have been affirming the law of the jungle; ‘the survival of the fittest’ mantra has shaped the way we think about life in a detrimental way and has made us accept the unacceptable.
The biblical model of managing and imagining community repeatedly re-connects with themes of ‘flourishing’ and ‘well-being’ ‘wholeness’ ‘health’ and legitimate (ie. not by foul means and well-stewarded in the wider community) ‘prosperity’. In spite of the fact that the biblical community (the Israelites or in the NT the Jews), itself often endured periods of genuine and severe crisis, their guiding vision was one of flourishing and abundance for all. The principles of holistic stewardship and the disciplines of wisdom contributed to and maintained the ‘good life’ rather than ‘resilience’. Perhaps this is because, in the wisdom of the scriptural tradition, social and political crisis was not seen as an unavoidable threat or inevitable state of affairs to be endured but rather as a the outcome of a set of simple human decisions which could be resisted and reformed…even if…for rather a lot of prophets it meant losing their head in the process.
Of course, we are not operating in a theocratic state but we are nonetheless sharing the planet with billions of other people and we need to ask ourselves if the concept of resilience (rooted in a scarcity/survival or crisis paradigm) is an adequate or appropriate one to promote the kinds of changes which will be required to enable the flourishing not only of humanity but of all of creation? Of course, there are many aspects to life which are a blend of crisis and challenges and possibilities which need to be navigated wisely and where both moments of resilience and flourishing can rightly be anticipated.
I leave you with another quote from Kristina Diprose:
Resisting resilience does not mean giving up. Quite the opposite – it calls for more courage. Imagine if the time and effort invested in future-proofing ourselves was instead given to fully occupying the present, and to more determinedly realising the change we want to see. The road to recovery is not easy, but with so many people in our communities pushed to breaking point, what other option is there? We can do better than survive: we need to reconnect with our conviction, and bounce back from the brink.