Good Friday: what does it mean to follow a crucified Messiah?

A reflection on Mark 10:32-45 this Good Friday

Monasterboice High Cross

As the disciples follow Jesus towards Jerusalem, he takes them aside once more to prepare them for what is ahead. The language and imagery is brutal.

“We are going up to Jerusalem,” he said, “and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles, who will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him. Three days later he will rise.”

Condemned by Jewish authorities. Handed over to ruthless pagans. Public shame, humiliation and undeserved violent death. This is what lies ahead.

Yes, these images are followed with a promise of resurrection from the dead, but the flow of the story suggests that pretty well none of this entire sequence was understood by the disciples. This is illustrated by James’ and John’s request “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.”

I have considerable sympathy for James and John! What Jesus predicts is inconceivable. If he is the anointed Messiah of God, shame, death and humiliation cannot be his fate. Rather, it should be glory and exaltation – hence the brothers’ request.

The other disciples’ indignation is not at James and John’s utter misunderstanding of Jesus’ imminent fate, but at their grab at glory for themselves. Like James and John, they have little idea what Jesus’ promise that You will drink the cup I drink and be baptised with the baptism I am baptised with would mean in practice.

So Jesus seeks to clarify, again, what it means to follow the Son of Man. He calls them together and says

“You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Discipleship within the kingdom of God means following Jesus. On the surface that sounds simple, but he leads his followers to take on a new and strange identity:

– Slave (doulos): become a slave of others rather than seeking a position of power, status or respect

– Servant (diakonos): become a servant of others, rather than be served by others.

This an uncompromising call to a difficult and demanding way of life. Jesus, as is his style as a terrible salesman, offers no possible evasions for his followers. There are no soft options. The norm for discipleship is the cross. Death is what it means to be a disciple – regardless of who we are.

The pattern for this other-focused service is Jesus’ willingness to give up his very life for others. A ransom liberates captives. His is a self-giving death so that many are set free. It is life lived for others, not the self.

Following Jesus is absolutely not the path by which to achieve glory, honour, respect and status. So if we hope to achieve those things in Christian life and ministry, like James and John we have completely missed what following Jesus is all about.

Among the Gentiles in the ancient world (the Roman Empire is probably in view here) the world worked according to strict hierarchies of status, prestige, position, wealth and political patronage. Those in power lorded it over their inferiors. This simply is the way reality was constructed. No other world could be imagined,

Until now.

Jesus’ death on a cross opens up a new way to imagine the world we live in. It calls Christians to belong to a different reality, a different kingdom, to follow a king like no other. A king who freely and courageously gives his life for others; who surrenders power without resorting to violence; who refuses to defend himself or his own rights before his enemies.

Good Friday is a day to reflect on the wonder and beauty of this king. And then to reflect on our lives.

How we are living them and who we are living them for?

If we are honest and realistic (or, to put it another way, if you are anything like me!) we will be reminded that we continually fail to live self-giving lives of service to others. We don’t want to be servants and slaves. At the very least it is inconvenient; at the very most it means suffering and death. Most of the time it is somewhere inbetween – a daily calling to an other-focused way of life.

And then, in our weakness, failure and sin, to come to the foot of that cross and to give our lives afresh to our crucified Lord.

Always remembering in hope his words, “Three days later he will rise.”

Comments, as ever, welcome

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Generous Love in Multi-Faith Ireland – Suzanne Cousins

Last week was a book launch at the Church of Ireland Theological Institute (CITI). The book in question was by Suzanne Cousins and called Generous Love in Multi-Faith Ireland: towards mature citizenship and a positive pedagogy for the Church of Ireland in Local-Muslim Mission and Engagement.

Speakers included the Archbishop of Dublin Michael Jackson, Shaykh Dr Umar Al-Qadri, the Head-Imam of Al-Mustafa Islamic Education & Cultural Centre Ireland and Suzanne.

Suzanne is a friend and an excellent theologian. She was ordained in 2015 and is parish ministry in Moville, Co. Donegal. The book is published as part of the CITI’s Braemor Studies Series – the best MTh dissertations of each year gets chosen and I can see why this one was in that category.

What I like about the book is that Suzanne faces head-on theological, missiological, relational and historical questions around Christian-Muslim relationships. In other words this is robust theology, backed up by detailed research (20 pages of bibliography for a 90 page book). Some of the issues addressed include:

  • Facing the reality of fear of syncretism by engaging in inter-faith dialogue
  • A call to “mature citizenship” for Church of Ireland Christians that equates to “challenging narratives of non-love” (10). Suzanne engages with Paul Ricoeur’ theology of generous love and Volf’s wonderful Exclusion and Embrace (1996) – which gave me the theme for my PhD back in the day. In other words, how can Christians counter public feelings of suspicion and antagonism towards Muslims in the West, and in Ireland in particular?
  • Is inter-faith dialogue incompatible with Christian mission?
  • If shared worship is beyond the bounds, is shared prayer syncretistic? (Anglican guidelines say that Christian participation is conditional on Christ being honoured. Christian worship is trinitarian and Christ centered)
  • Is Islam a religion of peace or of war?
  • Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God? Suzanne engages here particularly with Miroslav Volf’s Allah: A Christian Response (2011) which argues yes they do, but understood differently. This is a critical and controversial question and Suzanne engages with critiques of Volf. However it is answered, another follows “”Must the Church resolve these theological issues before mission and engagement is undertaken?” (53). Suzanne’s answer is no.
  • Does the Bible itself open up the possibility that “true worship may emanate from worshippers who are redeemed through Christ but not explicitly Christian”? (63)
  • Does the Bible point to a possible doctrine of universal reconciliation?

You can see what I mean about not avoiding tough questions.

The passion of the book is to resource (C of I) churches in building positive, hospitable and generous “partnerships of difference” with Muslims in Ireland that involve building relationships, conversation, collaboration and education. Referring to David F. Ford’s “Muscat Manifesto” Suzanne writes

Such partnerships do not require theological agreement, much less homogeneity, but mutual respect and mature co-operation. They do not require theological compromise that Christians and Muslims alike may fear. Not do they involve religious syncretism. Rather, the Partnership concept is based on Trinitarian Christian ethics and love. It offers Christian eschatological hope (Romans 8:21) being realised in local situations.

Such relationships may be challenging, risky and uncomfortable, but, Suzanne argues, are essential in a fragmented world. They also mirror something of God’s risky, love-filled action in the Incarnation.

Suzanne concludes her book with this – which is worth quoting at length.

The Christian virtues of faith, hope and love are ideally the defining marks of Christian people and the antithesis of cynicism, scepticism and fear (Romans 5:5; 1 Peter 3:15; 1 Corinthians 13:4-7). The Church’s relationships with local Islamic communities should be distinguishable by these counter-cultural marks. The anticipated outcome for Christians engaging in positive Christian-Muslim encounters is of growth in grace as well as in knowledge, growth in the ability to anticipate joy in encounter, in the ability to truly embrace the other as oneself, and so to participate in God’s bringing of healing, wholeness and salvation to individuals and communities. Remembering the Resurrection, the source of hope at the centre of the Gospel, reminds us tha it is not foolish to expect the unexpected. Reconciliation between polarised groups happens. There is hope because of grace and the economy of gift, and because there is God, who is generous in love. (98)

I was involved in the first meeting of a inter-Christian church dialogue group last week. Having happened to read Suzanne’s book just before it was a reminder that the principles of engagement she articulates can apply not only to Christian-Muslim encounters, but to many other contexts where two groups are separated by theology, history and fears of the other.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

St Patrick on love and obedience

On this St Patrick’s day a quote from Patrick’s Confession:

I hope to do what I should. I know I cannot trust myself as long as I am in this body subject to death. There is one who is strong, who tries every day to undermine my faith, and the chastity of genuine religion I have chosen to the end of my life for Christ my Lord. The flesh can be an enemy dragging towards death, that is, towards doing those enticing things which are against the law. I know to some extent how I have not led a perfect life like other believers. But I acknowledge this to my Lord, and I do not blush in his sight. I am not telling lies: from the time in my youth that I came to know him, the love and reverence for God grew in me, and so far, with the Lord’s help, I have kept faith.

It is hard not to read Patrick and think of Paul. His passion for the people he was called to serve. His single-minded focus on mission. His Christ-centered preaching. His self-distrust – in terms of a deep awareness of God’s grace and his unworthiness.

In this quote some of those themes emerge. He faces both internal and external opposition.

The internal is both physical and spiritual. Physically he is mortal and faces death. He is weak and finite. He faces temptations to act in ways that likely pursue short-term ‘this worldly’ pleasures that will lead him astray.

He also faces external opposition of some sort – those who attempt to destroy his faith – in the next paragraph he talks of those who laugh and insult him.

He knows he is far from perfect. He has failed. Others lead more Christ-like lives. But his understanding of grace means that this is not a cause for shame or pretence – he comes honestly before God without blushes, dependent on his mercy and forgiveness. He knows he needs the Lord’s help.

And, like Paul, he sees that the heart of living a life pleasing to God is not merit, or pay back or external behaviour motivated by fear or a pursuit of self-righteousness.

No.

Rather the heart of being a Christian is love. If is from love that obedience flows. It is out of love that he is willing to suffer. It is love which orientates his heart towards God and away from that which would lead him astray.

In other words, we might say that the core of discipleship, according to Patrick, is a deep love for God that issues in a faithful life of joy and gratitude.

Or, to put it in reverse, unfaithfulness, a pursuit of ‘worldly pleasures’ (money, sex, power), a lack of thankfulness, an arrogant self-defensiveness coupled with a lack of passion to share the good news of the Gospel are all merely symptoms of a life where love for God has either evaporated or never existed.

So a good question to ask ourselves this St Patrick’s Day – is ‘how is my love life?’

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Berlin, repentance and thoughts on Ireland

I had a few days in Berlin recently. Had never been before and had wanted to visit for a long time. I wasn’t disappointed. The whole history of Germany is there on display, from its monumental impressiveness, its awesome technological efficiency to its unimaginably dark past. A visit leaves much to think about.

cover-jpg-rendition-460-707Alongside the visit I read Neil MacGregor’s brilliant Germany: Memories of a Nation (2014) and the history parts of this post owe a lot to his book.

Way back in my PhD I studied nationalism and national identity, particularly the belief structures that are characteristic of ‘hot’ nationalisms.

They tend to construct a simple, glorious narrative of the past that legitimizes present political goals of ‘freedom’, ‘self-determination; ‘respect’, ‘autonomy’ and national pride. Alongside such political objectives are cultural markers like language, music, art, literature, food, and so on. Such a combination forms a potent mix that gives a sense of destiny, hope, unity and willingness to suffer – and inflict suffering – in the pursuit of the utopian nationalist myth.

Such memories are everywhere in Berlin. We stayed in Moabit, just outside the city centre in an apartment up 113 steps (!) with a great view of a huge prison across the road which is also Berlin’s central criminal court.

01 prison Moabit

Why mention this? Well, with a little bit of reading (i.e. wikipedia), I found out that this prison was rebuilt after the demolition of an older one just down the road. The memories of the Gestapo and prisoners murdered in the original prison were too awful – the old site is a now a memorial garden. The stories of two murdered prisoners stand out.

One is Albrecht Haushofer who wrote the ‘Moabit Sonnets’. Jailed for his involvement in the plot to kill Hitler, he had formerly been involved in the rise of the Nazis. He was executed by the Gestapo just as Berlin was falling. One of his sonnets was this one:

I am guilty,

But not in the way you think.

I should have earlier recognized my duty;

I should have more sharply called evil evil;

I reined in my judgment too long.

I did warn,

But not enough, and not clearly enough;

And today I know what I was guilty of.

The other was Klaus Bonhoeffer, Dietrich’s older brother, executed just two weeks after Dietrich’s hanging because of his part in the attempt to assassinate Hitler and just as Soviet troops were entering the city.

Germany only became a united Empire in 1871 under Bismarck. The Siegessäule (victory column) below commemorates this short glorious period of German unity.

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Yet, defeat in the first world war, subsequent humiliation, the rise of National Socialism and the evils of the Third Reich destroyed any narrative of national glory. The catastrophe of Hitler bequeathed immeasurable suffering on the Jews of Europe, cost millions of other lives and led to invasion, defeat and division of Germany between the Allies and Stalin’s Red Army.

Nowhere was this disaster more graphically played out than Berlin with the building of the Wall in 1961 – on one side a working democracy, on the other dictatorship, the Stasi and communist brutalism.

Berlin’s most famous building, the Brandenberg Gate, stood on the east side of the wall. This is where Napoleon entered Berlin in 1812, where the Nazi’s organised mass rallies and where the Russian conquest of Berlin reached its limit.

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Not much remains of the Wall. The longest section is in the east of the city and is decorated on its eastern side by art from a 2009 festival.

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Brezhnev and Honecker

What struck me is how pathetic a wall it was. Ugly, low and thin – it represented everything bad about Communism. Its cheap brutalism dividing people by pitiless and inhuman slabs of grey concrete.

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Modern Germany is therefore unlike any other Western European nation in its relationship to its past, present and future. What is, I think, tremendously impressive is how it has sought to reflect honesty on its shameful recent past – a past that implicated in some way pretty well every German family. As MacGregor says, that past is still highly charged, often silently so. Yet, there has also been a huge effort to deal publicly and corporately with its legacy.

As Berlin has been rebuilt there has been a conscious attempt to make public the most painful memories, the supreme example being the Holocaust Memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe …. I know of no other country in the world that at the heart of its national capital erects monuments to its own shame. (MacGregor, Germany, xxiii)

The memorials include this one

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IMG_8532And this one to the Jews of Europe

Holocaust memorial berlin

Another striking theme is the public commitment towards openness and transparency in government. I visited the Bundestag museum telling the political story of Germany, warts and all in how Hitler was democratically elected and his plans for the Jews known by all.

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One fascinating model was of Albert Speer’s planned Great Hall of the People – a vast monument to the glory of the Third Reich. That’s the Brandenberg Gate in the foreground. If built it would have dwarfed even the mighty neighbouring Reichstag.

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Given the history of National Socialism and of a police state in the East, there is a deep public sense that government needs to be kept in check. Unlike surveillance UK, there are very few CCTV cameras on the streets and when there are there are signs to indicate you are in a CCTV zone (like the underground).

But the most symbolic image of transparency is the re-built Reichstag, the seat of the unified German Parliament after the fall of the Wall in 1989. The huge building has a complex history. It was redesigned by British architect Norman Foster in the early 1990s. You queue up to get a ticket to visit – you need ID but there is no charge – the building belongs to the people (Dem Deutscher Volke). Foster erected a vast glass dome above the parliament chamber, a cupola where via a series of mirrors and glass panes, the public look down on the political process below. It is literally transparent – the imagery that of accountability of power to the people.

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Some thoughts and questions stayed with me:

It was Hannah Arendt who talked about the “banality of evil” – how ordinary people do extraordinarily bad things. The Third Reich is one stark reminder (among many) of the accuracy of Genesis 1-11’s diagnosis of the human condition. Created in God’s image, we have an inbuilt turn to autonomy, pride, violence and injustice.

Haushofer and the Bonhoeffer brothers all lost their lives in standing up (in quite different ways) to a ‘hot’ nationalism gone toxic. As one of the great Christian theologians of the century who died for his faith, Dietrich’s refusal to swear an oath of allegiance to Hitler stands as a challenge for all Christians if their national identity starts to claim ultimate allegiance. Christ is Lord, and that means Hitler and the Third Reich was idolatry.

The importance of public national recognition of past failures: of how rare it is for there to be a sense of humility and repentance in politics.  It takes huge political courage to confront the ghosts of the past. There are good reasons it happened in Germany, but what about nearer home?

What might be issues or events in 20th Century Ireland that need airing, discussion and some sort of ownership of past failures – not just past ‘glories’?

I’m not thinking of the failures of ‘others’ – the British Empire has rather a lot of its own past to deal with. I’m thinking of 20th Century Irish history – South and North.

Some starters for ten since we are in the decade of centenaries.

  • The “right to take life” by unelected republicans inspired by Pearse’s toxic brand of religious nationalism in 1916 was generally glossed over in the 2016 commemorations.
  • The Civil War was dealt with in silence for most of the century.
  • A consequence of 1916 was deep political ambiguity in the South about the IRA campaign in the North. This, I think, has never really been acknowledged or openly discussed, let alone owned.
  • And then there is the ‘dark side’ of Catholic Ireland, a culture that was freely chosen and almost universally embraced by the people as a whole. These days the Catholic Church gets all the blame, as if it staged a coup and took over the country like in Margaret Atwood’s Gilead of The Handmaid’s Tale. Yet such shifting of blame is too simple and too easy.
  • And year by year, month by month, day by day there are ongoing revelations of a deeply entrenched Irish culture of elites, secrecy, and ‘golden circles’ of business, bankers and politicians where practically no-one is ever held accountable.
  • Nowhere is the failure of the transparency of the Irish State more visible than the shambles that is the Garda Siochana. When the State Police force is itself involved in massive falsification of millions of pieces of evidence where no-one is held accountable (the breathalyzer scandal) it is a symptom of deep dysfunctionality. And that is just one scandal of a very long and very bizarre list. The current Charleton Tribunal heard eye-popping evidence this week of the then Garda Commissioner, his deputy (later Commissioner) and Garda Press Officer all conspiring to lie, misuse power and betray their duty (and country) in deliberately blackening the name of Sgt Maurice McCabe in order to discredit him and his allegations of Garda incompetence and illegality. No-one is holding their breath for anyone to be made accountable or for admission of failure or for the emergence of a deep-seated political will to effect reform and openness.

Then there is Northern Ireland.

Yes, there have been people of great courage and huge progress has been made. But the political culture is frozen. The past looms over the present. The Good Friday Agreement was a pragmatic deal that avoided deeper issues of reconciliation. That avoidance worked for a while but has run out of space. It will take acts of real political courage to confront failures of the past. And by courage I mean taking ownership of ‘my side’s’ participation in injustice. It is only humility and repentance that can unlock the future.

In terms of churches and Christians in the North – many have been outstanding and inspiring examples of courageous peace-making who have challenged their own ‘side’. But I am not at all so sure that Protestant denominations like the Presbyterian Church in Ireland (PCI) have really grappled with their relationship with political unionism. Back in that PhD (later published by OUP) I called a chapter on the PCI ‘At Ease in Zion‘ which concluded with this comment.

Volf has written that “the overriding commitment to their culture serves churches worst in situations of conflict. Churches, the presumed agents of reconciliation, are at best impotent and at worst accomplices in the strife.” Although it is apparent from my analysis that Irish Presbyterianism practised exclusion primarily through indifference rather than overt discrimination or domination, its spiritual bulwarking of the goals of Ulster unionism classify it as an accomplice during the Partition period and beyond. It can be said that the Church then represented a diluted form of belonging without distance. A significant reassessment of the PCI’s relationship with unionist identity has enabled Irish Presbyterianism to create significant distance from the ideology of its host culture. However, it seems that, as yet, the Church has only moved as far as a largely theoretical repudiation of a spiritual legitimation of national identity. As such, while no longer an accomplice, it continues to be, on this specific issue, largely impotent to confront the powerful emotive appeal of nationalism. It remains in open question whether distance, having once been lost, can be regained. (259)

Maybe you have your own suggestions?

Comments, as ever, welcome.