Advent 3: Himself a servant’s form puts on



The everlasting Son
Incarnate deigns to be;
Himself a servant’s form puts on

(Charles Coffin, The Advent of our God, Hymns of the Primitive Church, 1837)

The second theme highlighted in the Advent hymn is the servant nature of the incarnation of Jesus Christ.

The above quote, attributed to the Spanish mystic and Carmelite nun, Teresa of Avila,  connects the intrinsic dignity we share as humans created in God’s likeness with the dignity of service modelled by Jesus. For many of us it can be difficult to see dignity in service because we have often encountered, in either subtle or flagrant form, coercion, domination and fear. We also live in a world which prizes independence and self-actualisation and scorns vulnerability or perceived ‘neediness’. These cultural imbalances and misuses of power have sometimes distorted how we understand what it means to serve each other in love.

Yet at the heart of the gospel is a call to entering in, like a child, full of curiosity and openness to the way of living together which Jesus modelled.

Lee Loun-Ling, training director for CMS Asia importantly links the nature of leadership and service in her recent summary of the impact of Asian women in the growth of Christianity:

Pandita Ramabai (1858-1922) One of India’s most revolutionary thinkers of her time, she was known as a pioneering social reformer, defying the caste system and overcoming barriers to rescue outcast children, widows, orphans, and destitute women.


The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14)

Internally displaced girls, who fled a military offensive in the Swat valley region, help each other wash hands at the UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees) Sheik Shahzad camp in Mardan district, about 160 km (99 miles) northwest of Pakistan's capital Islamabad June 18, 2009.   REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro   (PAKISTAN CONFLICT POLITICS SOCIETY)
Internally displaced girls, who fled a military offensive in the Swat valley region, help each other wash hands at the UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees) Sheik Shahzad camp in Mardan district, about 160 km (99 miles) northwest of Pakistan’s capital Islamabad June 18, 2009. REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro (PAKISTAN CONFLICT POLITICS SOCIETY)

Book Review: Sympathy for Jonah: Reflections on humiliation, terror and the politics of enemy-love

Illustrator Benjamin Harris [1] 
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[2] 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.


[1] Illustrator, Benjamin Harris’ website

[2] 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)

[3] Author David Benjamin Blower’s website 


Global Compassion… Inside Out?

Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts… Colossians 3:12 (ESV)


Dr. Paul Ekman, Professor Emeritus in Psychology at the University of California, San Francisco, is best known for furthering our understanding of nonverbal behavior. He was also the specialist advisor behind Pixar’s widely popular movie Inside Out,  which cleverly explores how the 5 emotions of joy, sadness, disgust, anger and caution shape and influence memories and behaviour. The following video gives an interesting insight and review:

There is an enormous amount of research and focus on how we can become more effective compassionate, humane and joyful. How can we understand and engage ourselves and others in a way which enables us to be the best possible version of ourselves? From neuroscientists to social engineers, social justice activists to wellness coaches, religious teachers to spiritual advisers, there is an intentional pursuit of becoming the best we can be in order to make the world a better place. Below is an inspiring talk given by Lyn White, the Australian animal rights advocate whose primary impulse from an early age was to ‘become the best version’ of herself. Sadly, she found inspiration neither in the Church nor in her school to spur her on. She says this:

On reflecting on humankind’s extraordinary, in fact, incredible achievements don’t you think it is astonishing that we haven’t achieved something as simple as living in peace?… It seems that little is invested into finding a cause and a cure for the greater societal dis-ease which underpins violence whether in the family, in the home, on the street or between countries…

The Dalai Lama (whose recent book, Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World I reviewed here), has recently collaborated with Dr. Paul Ekman on the Developing Global Compassion project and together they have produced webisodes of their discussions here, reviewing topics such as unbiased compassion, why some people have global (distal and inclusive) compassion, whether compassion is genetically inherited or learnt, intelligence and compassion and so on. These and other projects are attempting to help move us forward as a human race, to engage us in a more hopeful, collaborative vision of the future; to become the best possible version of ourselves. There is certainly no lack of intentionality, but how far does this go in truly healing us, in creating peace and ensuring justice?

The biblical journey of becoming whole begins, as do many modern ones, with an act of recognition; in scriptural language this is framed as repentance. Recognition is an awareness that a breach (a gap) has taken place (opened up) which has alienated us from ‘the best version of ourself’. The biblical narrative indicates that this breach is one which alienates us from God, from ourselves, from others and from the rest of Creation. Many of us do not recognise (that act of recognition I referred to earlier) the extent of this breach and we thus limit the extent to which we become the ‘best version of ourselves’ in our context.  Biblical language can sometimes sound archaic and irrelevant in our modern world, but I like the concept of The Fall for 2 reasons; firstly, because it suggests that we are all in this together-it has corporate significance and secondly, because it suggests that we can get up again! But first, the act of recognition. The Bible refers to this act of recognition in a number of ways: as being like a sleeper waking up,  or as seeing clearly-as if scales have fallen from our eyes; becoming acutely aware and having a new perspective which changes the way we see ourselves, others around us, the natural world and God. This new perception impacts our behaviour, the way we treat ourselves and others, the way we treat animals and the whole of creation in fact. This is a process of becoming the ‘best version of ourselves’ that we can be.

But, the biblical narrative also indicates that we need assistance in this process of recognition and change. The apostle John in his gospel account connects Jesus’ words with this desire to be the ‘best version of ourselves’ in chapter 15:5: ‘I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing’. The apostle Paul a very religious man and punctilious in terms of doing the right thing, also acknowledged that he had ‘nothing apart from Christ’ (Philippians 3:5-8).

This ‘remaining in Christ’ is also part of the act of recognition; it is the turning towards, in faith, the example of the best version of ourselves. Paul speaks of this  as a transformative process in 2 Corinthians 3:18:

And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.

There is a great mystery in this recognition…indeed it is surely a matter of faith. Do we have the faith that enough of us will recognise the glory that we can become? Jesus himself asked

And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off?   tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”