Advent 4: Liberation!

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!


Post-election reflection on reviving exuberant hope

As the British election results sink in and we move on into the unknown but highly speculated upon future, there is little doubt that the mandate of those of us who profess to Hope, to Love and to have Faith, is largely unchanged…whatever our particular political convictions are. That mandate includes being salt and light; preserving and keeping fresh all that is good in our society and protecting against the toxic ‘social infections’ which ravage and destroy well-being. And, in addition, faithfully bringing revelation, insight and truthfulness into the public square to enable vision and expose lies. We certainly must neither lose our saltiness nor let the light dim and Jesus encourages us to remain in him in order that we ‘bear much fruit’ and stay salty and full of light; in fact his assertion was so strong he added ‘apart from me you can do nothing'(John 15:5). It is a good reminder to keep humble but it is also an urgent call to keep engaged and effective…Thomas Merton, in his reflections of Christian presence and resistance to evil in the chapter The time of the end is the time of no room, in his book Raids on the unspeakable, puts it this way:

It is therefore very important to understand that Christian humility implies not only a certain wise reserve in regard to ones own judgements-a good sense which sees that we are not always necessarily infallible in our ideas-but it also cherishes positive and trustful expectations of others. A supposed “humility” which is simply depressed about itself and about the world is usually a false humility. This negative, self-pitying “humility” may cling desperately to dark and apocalyptic expectation, and refuse to let go of them. It is secretly convinced that only tragedy and evil can possibly come from our present world situation. This secret conviction cannot be kept hidden. It will manifest itself in our attitudes, in our social action, and in our protest. It will show that in fact we despair of reasonable dialogue with anyone. It will show that we expect only the worst. Our action therefore seeks only to block or frustrate the adversary in some way. A protest that from the start declares itself to be in despair is hardly likely to have positive or constructive results. At best it provides an outlet for the personal frustrations of the one protesting. It enables him to articulate his despair in public. This is not the function of Christian nonviolence. This pseudo-prophetic desperation has nothing to do with the beatitudes…No blessedness has been promised to those who are merely sorry for themselves…the meekness and humility which Christ extolled in the Sermon on the Mount and which are the basis of true Christian non-violence are inseparable from an eschatological Christian hope which is completely open to the presence of God in the world and therefore to the presence of our brother who is always seen, no matter who he may be, in the perspectives of the Kingdom. Despair is not permitted to the meek, the humble, the afflicted, the ones famished for justice, the merciful, the clean of heart, the peacemakers…They refuse to despair of the world and abandon it to a supposedly evil fate which it has brought upon itself. Instead, like Christ himself, the Christian takes upon his own shoulders the yoke of the Saviour, meek and humble of heart. The yoke is the burden of the world’s sin with all its confusions and all its problems. These sins, confusions, and problems are our very own. We do not disown them. 1.

So how do we go about ‘owning’ the ‘burden of the world’s sin with all its confusions and all its problems’? Even for those who are rejoicing and relieved at the outcome of recent elections and certainly for those who are tempted to despair at the results, there can be no doubt that over the course of the next 5 years our nation faces considerable challenges to social cohesion; the possibility of growing outbreaks of instability rooted in growing inequality has neither evaporated nationally, nor even more significantly, globally and I find Walter Brueggemann’s insights on how we can participate constructively very helpful. In his book Deep Memory Exhuberant Hope: contested truth in a post-Christian world Brueggemann speaks of how we identify the dominant, destructive narratives of our time, their effects in society and how we can imagine and enact alternative narratives which subvert them.  He nails the dominant narrative, or version of reality as one of VIOLENCE:

This can run all the way from sexual abuse and racial abuse to the strategy of wholesale imprisonment of deviants to military macho that passes for policy. It eventuates in road rage and in endless TV violence piped into our homes for our watching pleasure. I suspect that underlying all of these modes of violence is the economic violence embedded in free-market ideology, which denies an obligation of openness to the neighbour who is in truth a deep inconvenience and a drain upon resources. (p6)2.

He suggests that a resistance to this Dominant Version of reality will require acts of ‘sustained imagination’ in 3 main areas: The first area is that of MATERIAL DEPRIVATION  ‘fostered by a myth of scarcity,the driving power of market ideology’ (p6) the antidote to which is a generous sharing and affirmation of abundance which is rooted in the faithful generosity of God the PROVIDER. The biblical account of the provision of enough in the wilderness and Jesus’ feeding of the thousands were subversive counter-narratives to the social myth of scarcity which breeds fear, insecurity and violence. In Brueggemann’s paraphrase, Jesus was demonstrating that even in times of oppression ‘where the gospel is trusted, loaves abound!’ (ibid) The second area he highlights is the BREAKDOWN OF CONNECTIONS-the ‘severing of elemental social relationships’ which drives people into isolation and defensive fearfulness. The antidote to alienation is the affirmation of covenantal community and solidarity which is precedented in the ‘offer of covenant, a vision, a structure, and a practice that binds the “haves” and the “have nots” into one shared community, so that we are indeed members of each other… where one suffers all suffer and when one rejoices all rejoice together…the only available alternative to the dissociation that fosters and legitimates and thrives on violence from below and violence from above.’ (p7) The third and final area he notes as being an important ‘breeding ground’ for violence is the SILENCE ‘of being vetoed and nullified and canceled so that we have no say in the future of the community or of our own lives’ (p.7). The antidote to silence is the legitimation of speech  a ‘speech that breaks the silence of violence and the violence of silence’ which often comes officially unlegitimated ‘from below in the daring speech of the silenced.’ Brueggemann notes a function of the Psalms as legitimating the voice of the oppressed and in doing so breaking the collusion of silence ‘speaking truth amidst power, speaking truth to holiness and evoking newness’ (ibid)

1.  Merton, T. (1994) Raids on the unspeakable, Burns and Oates Ltd.

2. Brueggemann, W. (2000) Deep Memory Exhuberant Hope: Contested truth in a post-Christian world, Mineeapolis: Augsburg Fortress

It’s the river of hope from the pool of tears…

Water Lilly Pond and Weeping Willow by Claude Monet

If justice leads to anything it should lead to Hope.

This is certainly the biblical story of justice; a story which weaves the bright white threads of the Creative Desire of a God of Love through a tapestry of colourful and diverse patterns of human history.

For hope to exist there must first be despair or at least, the distinct possibility of it…for why and what would we hope for if we have nothing to hope against?

This is perhaps, what the late Stuart Adamson is getting at when he wrote his refrain ‘It’s the river of hope from the pool of tears’. While his own struggle for life-sustaining meaning ended pre-maturely, he -like many other artists before and since- makes vital links through his lyrics and music with the big questions of life; questions about justice which touch us all; rural and urban, poor and rich:

High above the forest in an unseen place
Where the clouds will gather on another race
In the dungeon depths of an unknown cave
There’s a stream that springs with a world to save

And it gathers up strength as it rolls along
And it gathers up hope for everyone
But it runs to plains where the farmlands weep
Through the brand new gardens where rich men sleep

He perceived that Hope connects us all as injustice connects us all. We each connect to Hope at different times and in different ways on our Journey when we encounter for ourselves the Life-denying, Breath-taking impacts of injustice. The penetrating question he asks: ‘will we know how to use Hope to good effect?’ echoes eerily down the corridors of human history. Sustained Hope is deeply transformative. Borne out of an encounter which often provokes and requires a change of direction in our thinking, attitudes, emotions and not least, our behaviours and patterns of life. Importantly too, it requires a lively imagination. Injustice has a habit of squashing imagination and suffocating Life-Breath. We forget how to dream the Dreams of Justice and Shalom; we forget to believe that they are Gifts which are contingent on our unwrapping of them. Hope awakened and energised by the lament of anger and tears reconnects us to Life-Breath:

I’m gonna find it, I’m gonna prove it
And show the whole damned world how to use it
When I find it, when I prove it
I know that some damned fool is gonna lose it
For it’s the river of hope, from the pool of tears
It’s the river of hope, it’s the river we lost for years

The ugly consequences of injustice in our world can help to wake us up from our False Rest and we need to find and enter the River of Hope to lead us to our True Rest. Hope isn’t blind, but rather clear-eyed, tear-washed vision:

Past the chemical plant where the junk flows in
By the nuclear project where the children swim
Under bridges in a city where the bodies float
And the summer smell keeps the flies remote

…When we are awake, we cannot not see; we cannot be blind in the face of the reality which we perceive and we cannot fail to ask the question ‘why?’:

Through the swamp of a ghetto where the mission was lost
Where the dope is king and the silver boss
Past the trash and wreckage from the garbage trucks
Past the oil slick where the jail boat docks

…When we are awake, we cannot be lulled into a false sense of security by the false prophets of peace who promise power and force will secure Hope and Shalom-Peace:

To a home in some sea at the nations end
Where the submarine is freedom’s friend
If we need that river like we did before
There can be no need for it lives no more

This clear-eyed vision is one which sees injustice for what it is-a travesty of lost human opportunity to be Creative, Connected and truly Alive; an ugly hole in the tapestry of life which provokes grief and despair; a Party-Spoiler of the highest order:

For it’s the river of hope, from the pool of tears
It’s the river of hope, it’s the river we lost for years

For it’s the river of hope, from the pool of tears
It’s the river of hope, it’s the river we lost for years

A recent interview with Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann, highlights the biblical tradition of prophetic lament which  both recognises and mourns the disasters of injustice precisely because it has sourced its clear-eyed vision of  what the Community of Shalom-Peace should look like in scripture and revelation:

…the laments in the books of Psalms and Lamentations are all an expression of grief but they are also an expression of hope. They are an insistence that things cannot remain this way and they must be changed. Such prayers are partly an address to God but they are also a communal resolve to hang in and take transformative action. Unless that kind of grief and rage and anger is put to speech, it can never become energy. So I believe the transformative function of such prayers is that it transforms energy and rage into positive energy.

Brueggemann refers to ‘honest speech’ as a mode of waking us up to ‘honest action’ which has the energy to transform:

We live in a bourgeois cocoon of niceness and anything that breaks out of that is very threatening and disruptive to people. We have to work towards having honest speech with each other. When we have honest speech we have to speak out about the things that are unjust and unfair. We need a more honest and abrasive speech to bring our talk into connection with our social reality.

Whilst he recognises that we all have different responses and functions in response to the injustice and brutality in the world around us, he nevertheless draws our attention to the authorising of scripture of those who pursue ‘honest dialogue’ at a time when manipulative monologue, smoke screens and chimera have become the norm:

It is in the narratives and the psalms. Beginning with the Exodus narrative and the Elijah narrative and the Jesus narrative, they are all storied about public transformation that happened by courage of uncredentialed people. These kinds of narratives feed our imagination and give us energy and courage.

He also reminds us that ‘honest speech’ often erupts on the margins, where the encounter with the brutality of injustice and the brightness of hope are most keenly experienced; artists frequently encounter their truest voices at the margins as I’ve highlighted in previous posts here and here and here:

If you think about the Song of Miriam or those dangerous songs (many of which are in the mouths of women) we are invited to join that kind of singing which is a refusal to accept the dominant definitions of reality. Such singing and storytelling is an insistence that there is another way to experience the world and there is another way to act in the world. These are very important models and authorizations for us.

Importantly too, Brueggemann recognises that Hope, to be effective, has to be contextually relevant and imaginative in its response to injustice; which is to say that Hope dreams in Colour:

It is highly contextual. There are a variety of strategies that run from face-to-face engagement to pressure on public policy. We have to engage on every front because the issue is so urgent and the problems are so complex that there cannot be a single strategy. As we grow in our commitment to racial equality or social justice we have to be very imaginative. We have to find ways that have transformative potential.

Hope, like a river, can transform a landscape, but it needs to be channelled by vision which flows from the pool of tears and encounter at the edge of Goodness.

[Please enjoy listening to The River of Hope by Big Country and read Walter Brueggemann’s full interview below]

View story at

Questions…how shall I know?

Bridge of Europe, Strasbourg
Theodore Zeldin

Theodore Zeldin, Oxford historian, wrote the following as a contribution to the art installation,  Writing the borders, the Bridge of Europe, Strasbourg.


How shall I know that we have something to say to each other, that we ought to meet? How can I guess that you too believe that humanity’s most memorable achievements in extending knowledge or creating beauty have been the result of meetings between people and ideas that have not met before?
How shall I know that you wish to go beyond the language of politeness, beyond repeating what you have said before? How will you reveal that it is not mere information that you would be willing to exchange, but questions, doubts and dreams, the dreams which refuse to die?
How shall I know that, just as this garden is a work of art made out of plants whose history began in distant continents, you too are trying to shape your life into a work of art, however modest? How will you tell me that you welcome into the garden of your mind everything that civilisations all over the world have discovered about wisdom and folly?
How shall I know that busy and stressed though you are, you do sometimes find the time to pause and think, to ask whether they world has to be the way it is?
How shall I know that, just this bridge was built by people who wished to stop ancient enemies hating and fighting each other, you find it rewarding to be a bridge yourself, between individuals who fail to recognise what they have in common, and what they could do better together than alone?
How shall I know that you do not judge people by their religion, or even by their beliefs, and that you are much more impressed by how they put their beliefs into practice, whether with dogmatism, or humility, or compassion?
How shall I know that you applaud people not for their victories over others, but for the thought they have given to their failures, for the courage with which they handle their disappointments, for their ability to continue to laugh and hope?
How shall I know that you are not a prisoner of the prejudice which separates people of different sex and age? Or that you are more interested by what a person’s appearance conceals than the first impression it creates?
My answer. We can only discover who we are, and what we would like to be, by having conversations with one another. There are so many possible links between us, and we have to search behind the fashions and facades for them. That is why I rejoice that this garden has been created as a place, I hope, where people will meet to start long conversations, not just to pass the time, but to become clearer about what matters most to them, and what they can achieve together.
What is your answer?
Theodore Zeldin

Justice starts at home: A profile on Hope for Justice

Hope for justice is a newly founded charity working within the UK context to rescue victims of the global human trafficking trade. Its founder, Ben Cooley, emphasises the need to get angry about injustice and brutality and then to do something about it; he says:

  ‘Who are these traffickers anyway who dare to destroy innocent lives and sell them for sex; who are these traffickers anyway who are raping our women and children; who are these traffickers anyway who defy us and continue with their evil trade?’ It is time for us to get passionate, to get a godly anger against what is happening in our own country, cities and communities and take radical action.”

But what is “radical action”? Radical action involves a process of understanding the social, economic and ideological roots which enable injustices to flourish.  It’s important to actually get to the root and dig it up so that the plant (in this case the evil trade in human life) can be destroyed. But what are the roots of human trafficking and why is it flourishing now more than ever as the third largest illegal trade after arms and drugs trading?

Here at the jusTice initiative we are committed to looking at radical problems in an academically rigorous way in order to contribute good thinking to radical interventions where it matters.

You can check out more detail on Hope for Justice’s own work here  and below we have copied a page from their website.

Human Trafficking

Human Trafficking is the sale, transport and profit from people who are forced to work for others against their will. This trade in human life is taking place on a vast global scale and is the world’s fastest growing crime. The statistics are shocking.

  • 1.2 million children are trafficked every year, two every minute
  • The average age of a trafficking victim is just 14 years
  • $9.5 billion is made through human trafficking each year
  • The UN estimates that 80% of people trafficked are taken for sexual exploitation.

Definition of Human Trafficking:

‘Trafficking in human beings” shall mean the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs.’