Missional Justice (Reflection 5) Missionary

Last week a series of ‘Read Reflect Respond’ reflections on the theme of ‘missional justice’ that I’d been asked to do for TIDES, a daily devotional within the the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, were sent out to subscribers. Reproducing them here for anyone interested – hope they are of some help.

FRIDAY: The missionary and missional justice
READ – Galatians 2:9-10

James, Cephas and John, those esteemed as pillars, gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship when they recognised the grace given to me. They agreed that we should go to the Gentiles, and they to the circumcised. All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I had been eager to do all along.

REFLECT

What is the passage saying and what does this mean for us?

Remembering the poor was a key strand of agreement between Paul and the other apostles. It was a defining mark of early Christianity. In an important book on Paul, New Testament scholar Bruce Longenecker has argued that that

“economic assistance of the poor was not sufficient in and of itself, nor was it exhaustive of the good news of Jesus; but neither was it supplemental or peripheral to that good news. Instead, falling within the essentials of the good news, care for the poor was thought by Paul to be a necessary hallmark of the corporate life of Jesus-followers …” (Remember the Poor: Paul, Poverty and the Greco-Roman World. My emphasis).

Gal. 2:10 fits alongside Gal, 5:13-14 “serve one another in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’”

Paul ‘put his money where his mouth was’ by committing several years to organising the collection from among the Gentile churches for the poor in Jerusalem. We could even say that this task eventually cost him his life for it was in Jerusalem that he was arrested and sent to Rome.

RESPOND

Read Romans 15:23-33 about Paul’s desire to go to Rome with the contribution to the poor and his prayer request that he might be kept safe from unbelievers there. What does this tell you about his commitment to the poor within his ministry?

Read 2 Corinthians 8:1-15. Paul’s appeal for the giving to the poor is patterned on Jesus: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.” How does this challenge you to ‘do justice’ with what God has blessed you with?

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Missional Justice (Reflection 4) Messiah

Last week a series of ‘Read Reflect Respond’ reflections on the theme of ‘missional justice’ that I’d been asked to do for TIDES, a daily devotional within the the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, were sent out to subscribers. Reproducing them here for anyone interested – hope they are of some help.

THURSDAY: The Messiah and missional justice
READ – Luke 4:16-21

He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

‘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 favour.’

Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, ‘Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.’

REFLECT
What is the passage saying and what does this mean for us?

This is one of the most dramatic texts in the Bible. Jesus’ ministry of healing and authoritative teaching was fermenting ‘messianic mania’ – could this Galilean Rabbi actually be God’s promised Messiah, come at last to liberate Israel after hundreds of years of waiting? Standing in his home synagogue, Jesus reads from Isaiah 61:1-2 and unambiguously claims to be the one they were waiting for. Like King David, the Messiah would be anointed and empowered by God for his task. What’s fascinating in this text is what form that task takes. It is the poor, the prisoners, the blind and the oppressed that he comes to liberate and restore. The king is inaugurating a kingdom of justice, open to all. Missional justice is central to the mission of the Messiah.

Yet, today it often seems that those who do pour out their lives in service to the poor are seen as admirable but exceptional. It is a fact that that within most churches in the West direct engagement with the poor and marginalised is itself a marginal activity. Why is this? Is it because we tend to individualise the gospel in terms of personal salvation and see missional justice as an ‘add on’ to the ‘core business’ of the Christian life?

RESPOND

The gospel (good news) in Luke 4 revolves around two things: (1) the identity of Jesus as God’s Spirit-anointed Messiah; (2) who will ‘proclaim good news to the poor.’

What God has joined together, let us not separate. We need to proclaim and demonstrate a holistic gospel, one which tells the good news of the Messiah and pursues justice in his name.

Missional Justice (Reflection 3) Means

Last week a series of ‘Read Reflect Respond’ reflections on the theme of ‘missional justice’ that I’d been asked to do for TIDES, a daily devotional within the the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, were sent out to subscribers. Reproducing them here for anyone interested – hope they are of some help.

WEDNESDAY: The means of missional justice – generous sharing

READ – Isaiah 58:6-7
Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter— when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood

REFLECT

What is the passage saying and what does this mean for us?

This hard-hitting text is emphasising, in Old Testament imagery, that ‘faith without works is dead’. A religious practice like fasting is a waste of time if not accompanied by a life of justice. Doing justice in the Bible is treating people fairly; injustice is treating people unfairly, either exploiting them in some way or neglecting to help those powerless to help themselves. Here in Isaiah, injustice takes two forms: that which oppresses and imprisons people (probably something like unpayable debt that enslaves the debtor); or failing to meet basic physical needs of food, shelter and clothing. The comment about ‘your own flesh and blood’ refers to how, within a land gifted by God, Israel was to have ‘no poor among you’ (Deut 15:4). This radical commitment to each other within the people of God is reiterated again and again in the Old Testament (e.g. Micah 6:8 ‘And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.’) and the New Testament (e.g. Matt 6:1-2; Acts 4:32-35; Gal 2:10; James 1:27 ff).

This means that a Christian’s identity is not to be that of capitalism’s self-made individual consumer who has no responsibility to anyone but himself, but that of a brother and a sister with practical obligations to those less well-off than ourselves since all we own is a gift from God.

RESPOND

How is God calling you to loose the chains of injustice and set the oppressed free?  Can you think of specific people and situations where you can make a difference through generous giving of your time and money?

Have you heard a sermon in the last 5 years about how the beliefs and values of capitalism collide head-on with a biblical vision of justice? If not, why might this be?

How can the church be an alternative community of justice in a capitalist culture that idolises power, money and success?

For further study see Tim Keller, Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just (Hodder & Stoughton, 2010). Excellent.

Missional Justice (Reflection 2) Model

Last week a series of ‘Read Reflect Respond’ reflections on the theme of ‘missional justice’ that I’d been asked to do for TIDES, a daily devotional within the the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, were sent out to subscribers. Reproducing them here for anyone interested – hope they are of some help.

TUESDAY: The model for missional justice – God

READ – DEUTERONOMY 10:17-19
17 For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. 18 He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. 19 And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.

REFLECT

What is the passage saying and what does this mean for us?

We return today to Deuteronomy 10 and zone in on verse 17-19 in a bit more detail. They are truly revolutionary. The ‘way of the (ancient) world’ was power and violence – and it is not much different today. The gods fought amongst themselves. Human rulers used the gods to legitimise their own authority. Those in power prospered at the expense of the powerless. From this perspective, these verses are like a shaft of pure light penetrating a pitch-black room. The God of Israel shows no partiality. It is his very nature to love all humans equally and this means that he even defends the fatherless, widow and alien – categories of the most vulnerable people in the ancient world. There is no other god like this! As John would much later put it, God is love.

Seeking to ‘do good’ to others can be done out of a mixture of motives. They can include guilt – making us feel better about ourselves by helping others less fortunate. Or it can be unconsciously patronizing – a handout to the ‘deserving poor’. Or it can even be a form of ‘empire building’ – gaining reputation and funding for ‘our’ ministries. But authentic missional justice begins not with us but with the love of God himself.

RESPOND

Here in Deuteronomy caring for the powerless is modelled on God himself who cannot be bought. Such impartiality subverts the power structures of the world.

How can the church challenge the power structures of our world through generous ‘no strings attached’ love of the most vulnerable people in our society?

Read James 2:1-12 for a New Testament perspective on God’s impartiality.

ABORTION THEOLOGICALLY CONSIDERED (6): the Church as a Community of Life

Ireland and Abortion
Credit: RTE

This is the final post in a series on abortion, engaging with Richard Hays’ chapter on the topic in his The Moral Vision of the New Testament, in light of the upcoming Referendum on 25 May 2018.

This post will focus on the practical implications of the theology outlined in the previous posts.

What does it look like for the church to be a ‘community of life’ within a ‘culture of death’?

Hays argues that if the biblical paradigms (post 4) were put into practice within the church, then abortion would hardly ever be necessary within the Christian community.

There could be some exceptions. Can the Church act ‘in fear and trembling under the guidance of the Spirit’ to identify those extreme exceptions? Hays suggests such cases: pregnancy as a result of rape or incest [not allowed under Irish law]; and abortions performed to save the life of the mother [are allowed under current Irish legislation].

He also raises the issue of disability. Advances in prenatal testing have been significant since Hays wrote (1996). In the UK, non-invasive screening for Down Syndrome and other genetic conditions is becoming standard.

His position is that

the New Testament summons the community to eschew abortion and thus undertake the burden of assisting the parents raise the handicapped child.

Where abortion is practiced, he argues that

The tragedy is primarily the tragedy of a church that has abdicated its call to “bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ (Gal 6:2). The New Testament envisions a more excellent way.”

The Church in the World

But how then is this community of life to live and witness within the world?

This is a question that tends not to get asked when it comes to Christian campaigns against abortion.

I may be wrong and am happy to be corrected, but it seems as if there is little reflection on the distinction between the church and the world. This suggests to me that there are deep unexamined Christendom assumptions at play like Ireland is, or should be, a ‘Christian country’. This leads towards urgent calls to action that I saw somewhere recently that Christians have a few weeks to ‘save’ Irish society.

Hays calls for Christians to recognise some realities. He writes in an American context.

How does what he writes apply to contemporary Ireland do you think? What are your reactions to these points?

1) Christians “cannot coerce moral consensus in a post-Christian culture.”

2) Christians should “recognize the futility of seeking to compel the state to enforce Christian teaching against abortion.”

3) This is not to advocate withdrawal from society or to propose some sort of dualistic spirituality of the sacred and secular. It is to recognise that Christian rejection of abortion is dependent on the gospel of Jesus Christ and the teaching of his Word – and that the world will never share that rationale for terminating abortion.

4) Christians in post-Christian Ireland need to recognise that we stand as outsiders to our culture. Our primary task is to be a counter-cultural witness. In other words, a community of compassion and love that acts as a neighbour to the desperate, weak and vulnerable; which bears the burdens of others and imitates Jesus in his inclusion of the marginalised.

5) This means that the calling of the church in regard to abortion in Ireland is to show the world an alternative way of life to one in which abortion seems an ‘obvious’ choice. Hays proposes that

“The world needs to be shown another way, not forced by law to abandon something it perceives as a ‘right.’”

I think this is relevant when it comes to the 8th Amendment. From its inception it has been a controversial piece of legislation designed to enforce and copper-fasten Catholic morality on abortion on Irish society in perpetuity. That was the whole reason to add it to the Constitution. I’m not at all questioning the sincerity of those who supported that move – their motive was to protect the unborn from abortion ever arriving in Ireland. But I suspect part of the groundswell of opposition to the 8th today comes from its ethos of legal imposition on what is now a post-Catholic / post-Christian culture.

In contrast to using the power of the law, Hays proposes that the

“The first and most basic task is for the community to act in ways that embody its commitment to receiving life as a gift from God.”

And he closes the chapter giving several examples of the deep cost such a commitment would entail. Here is one, written by William Durland

We should not look to the state to compel women to complete, nor allow them to terminate, a pregnancy. Rather, God calls us to be our own people and our own community – to witness to the world’s scandal, to love and bind up those harmed by its values. If the energy now being poured into attempts to affect Supreme Court decisions were dedicated to establishing viable alternatives to abortion and substantive support and long-range care for victimized women, “unwanted” children and families struggling with poverty, mental illness and domestic violence, perhaps we would begin to see Christian community being born in our midst – a light to the nations and a sure refuge for these needy ones.

Young Irish Christians I talk to have been profoundly alienated from both pro-life and pro-choice politics. It is precisely this sort of voice that they say they have not heard in the Irish abortion debate. As a result, I suspect a surprising number of young Irish Christians may vote ‘Yes’ on 25 May. If so, I think this represents a tragic failure of the church to articulate – and embody – a loving and theologically informed response to the challenge of abortion.

The commitment Durland calls for cannot be made lightly. It calls Christians to inconvenient self-sacrifice, generosity and willingness to open up their lives and communities to those in need. As Hays says

“In other words, it would find itself living as the church envisioned by the New Testament.”

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Accipiter nisus

Maybe once a year or two a Sparrowhawk visits our garden (or that’s how often we happen to see one).

This one lived up to his name and ate one of our large family of sparrows today. This made us somewhat sad since they are fun and social company. On the other hand it was great to capture this photo, with which I am rather chuffed.

Sparrowhawk 020418b

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri: suicide as altruistic love

SPOILERS AHEAD

Photo: Merrick Morton / AP

I went to see Martin McDonagh’s latest in the best cinema in Dublin (The Lighthouse) with some good company who are also good critics.

This isn’t a review – there are far better reviewers than me out there who can be read with a couple of clicks. It is a reflection on one particular scene in what is a pitch-black look at life, death and hate in small town Missouri.

McDonagh’s dialogue is brilliant, profane, darkly funny and utterly depressing all at once. Someone I was with said she’s seen the film a few days before and the audience in Belfast laughed throughout. There was hardly a peep in Dublin … the tragedy trumped any comedy it seems. Now what to make of that inversion of caricatures of dour sober-sided northerners and fun-loving southerners?!

I digress. Here’s why this post.

Woody Harrelson’s Police Chief Willoughby has pancreatic cancer and has months to live. Much is made of how he is practically the only main character who is not in some way consumed by hate and bitterness. His nemesis is Frances McDormand’s Mildred Hayes, a scorching performance as a mother engulfed with grief and driven by rage at her daughter’s killer, the police, her violent ex-husband and very possibly herself.

Compared to her, Willoughby is a saint. He’s done his best on her daughter’s case but has no leads. He’s an older husband to his picture-perfect young wife Anne (at least 20 years his junior, over the top on the schmaltz here) and a doting dad to two lovely young daughters. There is time given to an idyllic family picnic; of the girls left to play a fun game set up by their dad beside a lake while their parents sneak off to make love (one last time as it turns out).

Willoughby (as we later learn) shows remarkable grace to, and belief in, Sam Rockwell’s vicious racist, homophobic and stupid policeman by writing him a letter (they must still do that in Ebbing Missouri) telling him (despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary) that he is at heart a good man who needs to learn to love rather than hate. He also makes peace with Mildred despite her hounding of him in the in final weeks of his life (the three billboards of the film’s title ask why Willoughby has made no arrests for the murder and rape of her daughter). He writes her a letter too, hoping she catches the killer and regretting that he was not able to. He even pays for her three Billboards for another month.

I mention all of this because it sets Willoughby up in maximum sympathetic terms. Which all goes to make the scene which follows all the more horrible. After writing a third and final letter – this time to his wife after their day at the lake – he goes out to the stables, puts a black bag over his head, and shoots himself in the head. A message for Anne is written on the bag – something like don’t look, and call the boys at the station.

The letter to Anne is voiced by Harrelson. In it he explains why he has killed himself. I’m paraphrasing from memory, but he won’t have her watching him waste away and die a slow death. He wants to spare her that. He acknowledges she may hate him but he hopes only for a while. In time, he hopes she will come to see it was the best thing. The tone is tender and loving.

I gotta say I detested this scene. It made me feel sick. It was not only manipulative and fake, but the whole narrative arc was set to make Willoughby’s suicide a heroic act of love, wanting to spare his wife and children suffering. The note on the bag was obscene – as if it was one last act of kindness. Yet she still finds a bloodied corpse of her husband with his brains on the stable floor – an executioners bag over his head hardly makes a difference to the brutality of the act.

In Ireland, rates of suicide, especially in young men, are shocking. The impact is devastating. Somehow it is seen as ‘a way out’ of a hopeless future. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri plays right into that destructive narrative by dressing up suicide as a brave act of altruistic love.

Yes I know it is a film. Yes, it is ‘just’ telling a story and it is not necessarily ‘endorsing’ or promoting suicide. Yes, it shows the subsequent agony of Anne who asks ‘What are you supposed to do the day after your husband shoots himself?’ Yes, it advances the plot, because it raises the question in the public mind of whether Mildred’s billboards drove him to take his own life.

But, for me, McDonagh’s script glorifies suicide. The context portrays Willoughby as beyond reproach. He is not mentally disturbed or depressed. He calmly and almost naturally takes his own life, as if it was an obvious next step. The reading of the three letters after his death all portray him as noble.

Yet his supposed act of kindness was one of the most aggressive and violent scenes in a very aggressive and violent movie. Anne is left not only not knowing what to do for one day, but for the rest of her life as the widow of husband who blew his brains out. His children are left with the trauma of a daddy who killed himself. His suicide robbed them all of the time to love him, care for him and be with him when he died. To say goodbye and grieve with dignity. It left them victims of a violent crime. It was far from a loving, kind, considerate act.

I have known someone die from pancreatic cancer. It was awful but that person died with joy, faith and love, surrounded by family and friends. The Christian funeral was suffused with hope and thanksgiving for a life well lived. Pancreatic cancer, and the death it caused, did not, and does not, have the last word. There was no need either to play God by taking life, or grimly clinging on to life at all costs.

I hope, that when I die, I can do so with a little bit of that person’s faith in the God of life.

In other words, to be able to trust that dying is not the worst thing in the world.

Comments, as ever, welcome.