The last few months haven’t been conducive to much blogging. And how enjoyable to have a restful and quiet day today this St Stephen’s Day.
And, in case this is the last post of 2014, warm greetings to everyone who has passed through here in 2014 and very best wishes for 2015!
Growing up in the North, the 26th was always ‘Boxing Day’ – I never really knew why. As a boy I always vaguely associated it with the sport of boxing but, confusingly, boxing never seemed to be on TV. Apparently (well, according to Wikipedia anyway) it has to do with a Victorian custom of giving a ‘Christmas box’ to tradesmen and servants.
Which also helps to explain why a British custom like ‘Boxing Day’ is never mentioned in the Republic of Ireland. In the ‘South’, it is always St Stephen’s Day – and a far better name too.
At first glance, locating the day of the first Christian martyr the day after the birth of the Messiah appears to be a rather crude mistake. Birth, joy, fulfilled promise, and hope one day followed by mercilessness, violence and execution the next?
Yet, whoever it was who got to choose St Stephen’s Day was inspired. For this day is an immediate reminder of how, while the Word has become flesh, the world into which the Word entered remains (until its final restoration) a broken, hostile, political and violent place.
Incarnation was followed by the weeping of mothers in Bethlehem for their slaughtered children. The birth of the Christ-child led to Mary and Joseph fleeing for their lives.
Deeply woven into the essence of the Christian faith is the ‘paradox of powerlessness’ – how God’s purposes are worked out in weakness, suffering and non-violence.
The Christmas story itself is full of such paradox. Jesus’ life and ministry is full of such paradox. And the cross is the place where that paradox climaxes in the violent death of God’s Son, Israel’s promised glorious liberator.
And the witness and lives of disciples of Jesus ever after are also to display that paradox.
As a follower of a crucified Messiah, Stephen deeply understood that paradox. He knew that the purposes of God will encounter violent opposition. He knew that a powerful experience of God’s Spirit was more likely to lead to death and persecution than to comfort, ease and peace. He knew that a deeply Christian response to injustice, violence and persecution was not to take up the sword in response, but, like his Lord, to pray for those who were about to take his life.
So self-evident is this paradox of powerlessness in the life and teaching of Jesus, in the life of Stephen, in the life and teaching of Paul and the rest of the NT writers, that it remains remarkable to me how many Christians, when they have a choice, routinely disregard the path of peace and non-violence for one of power, war and force.
Here’s a quote from a fine book I’m reviewing by Jeremy Gabrielson, Paul’s Non-Violent Gospel: the theological politics of peace in Paul’s life and letters:
non-violence in its many expressions is not merely an ethical implication of the gospel, but is itself constitutive of the politics of the gospel … This gospel challenges the status quo of the (Roman) political order but not in a directly subversive way. Rather, it creates an alternative political body that seeks to overcome evil and enmity not by subduing it (as Romans and their opponents would have it), but by reciprocating good for evil. Such a strategy does not promise to be effective, not does it promise to achieve desirable results by gentler means. Rather, Christian obedience to the command of Jesus to turn the other cheek and to love the enemy heralds to the cosmos that in God’s kingdom “the cross and not the sword, suffering and not brute power determines the meaning of history”.
It is as if the paradox of powerlessness is, when push comes to shove, seen as unreal, idealistic, naive and impractical in the ‘real world’.
The refusal to embrace the paradox of powerlessness is, I suggest, the greatest and most destructive temptation for the church, and for each individual Christian. For, at heart, it is a matter of faith and trust – in whom or what do we trust? In the foolishness of God and the power of his cross or in our own ability to protect ourselves and enforce our will on others?
The failure of Christendom through which we in the West are now navigating – where the [Western] church was in a position of authority and power for centuries to shape culture and impose its will – lies in its disconnect with the witness of people like Stephen (and ultimately his Lord).
I don’t think it is any co-incidence that the church is growing and vibrant and expanding globally in the very places where Christians experience and embrace the paradox of powerlessness; places where they are poor, excluded, persecuted and marginalised.
Yes of course these are not good things in themselves. Yes, we should work and pray against such injustice and violence. Like Pope Francis, we should speak out for and seek to help those enduring terrible suffering.
But we should also pray for God’s Spirit to empower believers to endure suffering in the name of Christ. That in their very powerlessness that the power of the gospel would be made manifest. That in their love for enemies, the love of God would triumph over evil.
And what we pray for others, we need also to pray in faith for ourselves this St Stephen’s Day.