Irish Bible Institute

At Irish Bible Institute we have just made (well Tiny Ark had a lot to do with it) and released a new video (3.25 long) giving a wonderful flavour of what goes on here.

Check it out – what do you think?

Do share with anyone interested – potential students /  supporters / those with a heart for prayer for Ireland

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An Irish Presbyterian night out: sandwiches, tray-bakes, harps, mythical objectivism, spiritual transformation and the grace of God

On Sunday evening a group from our wee church, joined with a three other Presbyterian churches in the wider area for a bit of a shin-dig in Drogheda.

A very convivial evening it was, with a generous surplus of sandwiches and tray-bakes, plenty of chat, worship led by a dynamic team of MCC musicians (including a harp and Be Thou My Vision in Irish); the service led by Rev John Woodside of Drogheda interspersed with people telling their own story of faith (i. e. testimony).

Listening to the stories was fascinating. Maybe I’m wrong but it seems as if someone telling their ‘testimony’ of what God has done in their life does not seem to happen very often any more? I wonder why?

Two things stood out to me:

First, how beautifully a woman spoke of the church.  This was a story of a specific experience of a particular community. The image used was from Luke 13:34

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.”

Dominus Flevit
Mosaic from Dominus Flevit, a Franciscan church at the foot of the Mount of Olives

She used this as illustration of how she had been ‘gathered in’, almost against her will: gently, without coercion or pressure or force, but with love, kindness, pastoral care and friendship. Her experience of church was of soft feathered wings protectively enfolding her and bringing her into a safe place.

Now, ‘the church’ in general gets pretty bad press in Ireland. But this was a reminder what authentic Christianity in action looks like. Love. Nothing as powerful nor as moving.

Second, the stories illustrated something that was mentioned on this blog a while back when discussing conversion and finding / losing faith. Namely, the fallacy of ‘mythical objectivism’  (the myth that objective truth is knowable, neat, tidy and can be acquired in a neutrally detached way by the knower).

Rather, spiritual transformation tends to be personal, subjective, storied, and nearly always deeply relational.

For some people it was a line in a hymn that suddenly became real, for another a Leonard Cohen song, or a post on Facebook by a virtual stranger, or a chance visit to a church that sparked off a journey towards faith in God. No one story was remotely the same.

One thing they did have in common was that they did not focus on unpacking rational arguments for the existence of God, the reliability of the Bible, or how the atonement works. Nor did they tend to focus on sermons heard or teaching received.

Now, this is not to fall into some Kantian dualism where ‘faith’ belongs to the realm of the subjective. It was clear that the faith shared by the speakers had become / was increasingly becoming ‘faith seeking understanding’. In other words, faith based on historical fact, coherent biblical doctrine, gospel truth and so on. Each was on a journey of faith seeking increasing understanding; some just starting out and others a good bit along the road.

But (for me anyway) they highlighted how most of us humans are no mere ‘rational minds’ working out ‘truth’ in a detached, logical manner before making a carefully, calculated decision to follow Jesus. Rather we are a whole mix of emotions, experiences, relationships, questions, thoughts and beliefs – and somewhere in that pot-pourri God graciously breaks in surprising and unexpected ways.

I say graciously, because the other thing the stories had in common was the joy and conviction that this new life was a good one: not without struggle or doubt or questions, but full of thanksgiving and joy and hope.

All in all, a grand night altogether.

Living gently in a violent world where cartoonists get shot

The graphic images of gunmen executing a helpless French policeman on a Paris street should shock. In conversation the other day, someone called this act ‘inhuman’ in its brutal callousness. Brutal and callous, yes; inhuman? No.

All too human in fact. I’m only stating the obvious (good at that) to point out that 2000 people were killed in violence in Nigeria last week. The nice, good, freedom-loving liberal West has killed thousands of people in Iraq and Afghanistan in the last 10 years: it’s alleged that the CIA tortured at least 14,000 Iraqi prisoners in the (terrifying for victims) ‘War on Terror’ along the way. Violent conflicts continue to rage at a fairly consistent level across the world, with particularly bloody examples in Syria and Iraq.

UCDPmap2013

And you don’t need to know much Irish history to be aware of the long legacy of the glorification of the gun on both sides of Irish politics.

I well remember sitting in a lecture class in Belfast as a student and hearing gunshots just outside the classroom window as the IRA ruthlessly executed Edgar Graham, a law lecturer and Unionist politician. It isn’t extremist Islamic violence that is somehow unique in its willingness to deal in death.

And then of course there is all the ‘common’ violence of domestic abuse and violent crime etc that don’t count in ‘war’ statistics. Or the innumerable ‘unknown’ stories of unimaginable violence that go on out of sight and mind: one a friend learnt first-hand of over Christmas was of Albino children in East Africa being hunted and killed out of the belief that drinking their blood or eating their body parts would bring wealth and prosperity, or having sex with an Albino girl would cure AIDS.

I could go on (and on and on) but the point is this: violence is embedded in the fabric of this fallen world; it’s endemic to human nature (mostly men of course but that’s another topic). It is primarily violence, especially against women, that hinders development in many parts of the world. And neither is violence limited to ‘backward’ cultures; indeed it seems that our capacity for violence climbs in line with our ability to develop technology to kill each other.

Today, it is primarily the democratic, liberal and free Western governments which make billions out of selling sophisticated weaponry globally. The top 100 companies worldwide sold $400 billion worth of arms in 2013. Two-thirds of those companies are in the USA or Europe. The USA makes over half of global arms sales, followed by the UK and France and even peace-loving Germany not far behind.

The causes of violence are complex: tribalism, ethnic conflict, hot nationalisms, religious extremism, political expediency; competition for scarce resources; ruthless greed, over-population – whatever reason you can identify, it is obvious that humans do not lack motives, means and the willingness to kill each other.

It has been ever thus (Gen. 4:8) and this is why the question of a Christian response to the reality of violence and war is a question posed to every generation of Christians in every culture globally.

And since Christians believe that the Bible is the Word of God, what the Bible teaches about peace and non-violence becomes pretty important.

Here’s my contention – and feel welcome to join a discussion: the New Testament witness is overwhelming and unambiguous in its commitment to non-violence. And that witness flows from the life and teaching of Jesus Christ. Any theory that justifies Christians engaging in violence inevitably therefore takes some form of theological or philosophical or pragmatic argument ‘beyond the New Testament’.

But what about Paul? Does he really have as strong and consistent committment to non-violence as Jesus? Doesn’t he live a more pragmatic grey-zone when it comes to (justified) violence?

Not according to Jeremy Gabrielson in his book Paul’s Non-Violent Gospel: the theological politics of peace in Paul’s life and letters. The longest chapter in the book is ‘Trajectories of Violence and Peace in Galatians’.

I suspect that, along with Romans, Galatians has been one of the most influential letters ever written in human history. Its huge themes of gospel, grace, justification by faith, law and life in the Spirit have impacted untold millions. What’s fresh here is Gabrielson goes beyond those usual Galatian themes, to argue how the letter also speaks of Paul’s deep and pervasive commitment to non-violence.

The ‘pre-Christian’ Paul is a violent persecutor (1:13) who tried to ‘destroy’ the fledgling messianic movement of Jesus-followers (1:23) – out of his zealousness for the law. While Paul does not go into details and we have to rely on Luke for an account of Paul’s role in the killing of Stephen, such zealousness linked to violence is seen in the writings of Philo.

Paul’s experience of the risen Christ, not only causes deep and profound ‘shifts’ in his understanding of the law, faith, righteousness and even his ‘theology proper’ of God himself, but also in his understanding of what sort of life pleases God.

Gone is the notion of ‘righteous violence’ – killing in the name of God. Rather he can rejoice that he has been ‘crucified with Christ’ and his former self no longer lives (2:19-20). However precisely understood (and there are debates over how much these verses are autobiographical), he rejoices in the humiliating and debasing horror of crucifixion. He is now a ‘slave’ (1:10) of Christ. As Gabrielson puts it,

“The violent Paul died when Christ was apocalypsed in him; now Christ-in-Paul shapes Paul’s life in the flesh in a cruciform existence. Violence remains a part of Paul’s life, but it is now violence inflicted on and received by the Apostle rather than performed by him.” (95)

He includes a significant quote from Michael Gorman’s excellent book, Inhabiting the Cruciform God (158-9)

“Seldom …. is his turn from violence qua violence (as opposed to his turn from persecuting the early church to promoting the faith) seen as a constitutive part of his conversion and life, or as paradigmatic for, and therefore constitutive of, Christian conversion and therefore new life generally. If the conversion of Paul, grounded in the resurrection of Christ, is paradigmatic, it is paradigmatic in multiple ways, not least of which is his conversion from violence to non-violence.”

In other words, the violent Paul ‘died’ upon encountering and then following the crucified and risen Messiah. The ‘new’ Paul was a man of peace. Now, IF this radical shift from violence to peace is paradigmatic for all believers, a life of non-violence is not just a personal ethical ‘choice’ for a Christian; it is an intrinsic part of belonging to the new age of the Spirit. Gabrielson puts it this way:

“The trajectory of violence for Jesus’ disciple is ruptured, and once they have been co-crucified, their transformed, newly enlivened bodies take on a power over violence which exercises its power-over-violence only because Violence cannot understand how it is defeated by weakness. The sway of the cosmos, the old-age modus operandi, led to Paul’s violence, but Paul’s new modus operandi, his new trajectory involves living into the new creation which has as its gravitational center the cross of Christ.” (99-100)

Gabrielson unpacks Galatian’s rich understanding of the Christian life – a life marked by the fruit of the Spirit in the overlap of the ages. I really like what he says here. It covers similar territory to a chapter I worked on last year on Paul and the Christian life, but with a focus on implications for Christian non-violence.

New life in the Spirit will embrace and overcome suffering. It will be a life of love and giving; bearing burdens and enacting forgiveness. It leads to the paradox of Christian freedom, where freedom takes the form of voluntary ‘slavery’ of love and obedience to the Risen Lord.

As I’ve argued elsewhere, the Spirit- flesh contrast in Galatians is talking of a cosmic reality, where the future is already here in the present and Christians to embody that new reality through life in the Spirit which overcomes the old life in the flesh. This new life leads to a new political order of ‘doing good’ to all, especially the household of God ( 6:9).

Yet, being peaceful, does not mean that violence will not come your way. This is why Paul warns his communities that the violent world would probably do its violent worst – they should expect suffering and trouble.  But their response was to repay evil with good; to embody a politics of peace in the face of a politics of violence.

For this was the way of their Lord.