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Sunday, 12 July 2015

Lord, disarm violence and begin with me

Last year a poster for the children’s Horrible Histories stage tour attracted protests from parents. Horrible Histories, as many of you will know, describes itself as 'history with the nasty bits left in.' It is a series which has inspired millions of children to discover history because the books have ‘got ALL the yucky bits and foul facts that other books leave out.’

The posters, advertising the 'Barmy Britain' tour, featured a big picture of an executioner holding an axe and a bloody head and were labelled as being in 'shockingly bad taste' by furious parents in the wake of the beheading of Western hostages by ISIS militants. A father-of-two from Chelmsford, said: 'The posters are shocking in light of the recent events in the news and in really bad taste. The pictures are meant to be showing events in history, but sadly beheadings are still going on and are all too real.’ Neal Foster, director and producer of the show, said: 'It is unfortunate and we are sympathetic to anyone who is offended by the poster, but it was designed in July 2013, a long time before these recent incidents came to attention.’

These responses were interesting because they seem to suggest that as long as the nasty events of history are kept firmly in the past we can enjoy history with all the foul facts left in but as soon as those same events feature in our present we have a problem with showing and viewing them.

I wonder whether the same holds true for similarly violent Biblical stories such as today’s Gospel reading about the beheading of John the Baptist. This and other similar stories, such as that of Judith and Holofernes, have inspired graphic and gruesome images by great artists such as Botticello, Caravaggio, Guercino and Veronese, among others.

A recent visit to St Martin’s by Merchant Taylor’s School Choir to lead Choral Evensong coincided with a lengthy Old Testament reading in which Samson killed large numbers of Philistines, tortured animals and slept with a prostitute. How do we understand such passages? Should they be censored, as happened to the ‘Barmy Britain’ posters? Do we find the blood and gore attractive, repulsive, or are we immune to it?

The recent BBC1 drama A Song for Jenny focused on Jenny’s mother, Julie Nicholson, an ordained priest who quit her position because she could not forgive the suicide bomber who murdered her daughter. Sam Wollaston wrote in his review that the drama shows ‘the aftershocks of the blast – the tearing apart of the bond between a mother and daughter criminally prematurely, as well as of an underground carriage … It’s about the damage it does to other relationships, Julie’s with her husband, Julie’s with God. She too is not just a Christian, she’s a priest. But there is no forgiveness, there’s anger. Plus a desperate bleak emptiness that no faith, or family or friends can fill. And, though she never actually uses the word, it’s about hatred’.

In last Sunday's Radio 4 worship from St Martin-in-the-Fields, Barbara Brown Taylor spoke about ‘those who keep deciding not to hate the haters, who keep risking the fatal wound of love and teaching others to do the same—because that is how we prepare the ground around us to receive the seeds of heaven when they come.’ Our Autumn Lecture Series will explore both these perspectives reflecting on how faith can become both the cause and perpetrator of conflict and persecution, and also the victim. God can often appear impotent in the face of violence but is also perceived, in the Old Testament in particular, as the perpetrator of violence.

The first thing I want to say in the light of all this is that the Bible does not give us a sanitised version of violence. If anything, the reverse is the case and the Bible can easily be seen, like the Horrible Histories, as full of blood and gore. There is realism in our Scriptures about nature, and human nature in particular, being red in tooth and claw. This realism sees each one of us as having the potential for violence, whether we ascribe that to sin or the survival of the fittest. As studies examining complicity in the Holocaust tend to show, those involved were not monsters, ‘beasts or aliens’ and the overwhelming brutality involved appeared to arise easily ‘in the context of 1930s Germany, with its background of economic depression, political disenchantment and frustrated nationalist sentiment’. This suggests that we are all actually at different points on the same continuum between peace and violence and the saying, 'there, but for the grace of God, go I' carries a profound truth about which we need to be honest and repentant.

Our complicity with violence often leads us to make God over in our own violent image. Bob Dylan described this tendency well in the song ‘With God on our Side’. We begin with the belief that the land that we live in has God on its side and from there we interpret every change and challenge in our history as indicating that God is truly on our side. This, as Dylan notes in the 5th verse, can lead to the confusions of changing sides in war and peace. So, during the Second World War we believed that the German nation did not have God on their side but once the War ended and there was reconstruction with the German nation becoming our allies that changed and they now had God on their side, despite all that had previously occurred during the war.

Our human tendency to believe that God is on our side pervades the Old Testament and can be described as the core testimony about God. As this core testimony sees God as being on our side, it legitimizes and justifies our national interests. In this way of thinking our enemies are God's enemies and we petition him in prayer to smite and destroy those who are our and, therefore, also his enemies.

Also found in the Old Testament, however, is a counter testimony which, at times, can seem overwhelmed or submerged by the core testimony but which is, nevertheless, a thread running throughout scripture. The counter testimony says that God, rather than being about power and rather than being on the side of those in power, is actually most concerned about those who are crushed by the power-mongers of this world; those who are victims, those who are poor, those who are powerless, those who are excluded, those who are scapegoats.

These two testimonies about God are both present throughout the Bible with the core testimony often appearing dominant. But, we believe, at a particular point in human history God himself entered human history in the person of Jesus in order to show us in actions and words just what God is actually like. In Jesus, the counter testimony becomes prominent as Jesus lives, teaches, dies and rises not only as an example of compassion toward those who are victims, excluded and scapegoated but also becomes a victim, becomes excluded, becomes a scapegoat himself. When God is revealed in human history it is as a victim of violence, not as a perpetrator of violence.

God's revelation in Jesus continues a subversion of the human story of violence that actually began in the Old Testament. RenĂ© Girard suggests that the story of Cain and Abel reveals the way in which we consistently act as human beings. We desire something that is possessed by someone else and become disturbed through our longing for what we don’t have. We resolve our disturbance by creating a scapegoat of the person or people who appear to have or prevent us from having what it is we desire. When the scapegoat is killed we can gain what we desire and also release the sense of disturbance that we feel.

This is what we see acted out in the story of Herodias and Salome. The privileges that Herodias and Salome enjoy seem to be threatened and they identify John the Baptist as the threat to their continued enjoyment of their desires. John is therefore scapegoated and killed to remove their sense of threat.

This pattern becomes expressed in religions involving human sacrifices as scapegoats to appease their gods. It is out of such religions that Abraham is called to form a people who do not sacrifice other human beings, but instead use animals as their scapegoats and sacrifices. Jesus is later born into this people who have subverted the existing practice of scapegoating and he further subverts this practice because, as he is crucified, God becomes the scapegoat that is killed.

The crucifixion is, therefore, the logical outcome of the incarnation. To use the language of our Vicar, Sam Well's, Nazareth Manifesto, God is not simply for victims. God is with victims, because God is a victim. God is not simply for the excluded. God is with the excluded, because God is excluded. God is not simply for those who are scapegoated. God is with scapegoats, because God is a scapegoat. When God is scapegoated, there is no longer any god to appease and the necessity for scapegoating is superceded, subverted and eradicated.

This is the reality in which Christianity calls us to live. A world beyond Horrible Histories, beyond scapegoating, beyond victimisation and beyond exclusion. A world in which the mechanisms for justifying and acting out our violent desires have been dismantled and rendered null and void. A world, as Barbara Brown Taylor said, in which we ‘keep deciding not to hate the haters, … keep risking the fatal wound of love and teaching others to do the same — because that is how we prepare the ground around us to receive the seeds of heaven when they come’.

‘Violence did not surprise Jesus. He was prepared for it, and he tried to prepare his followers as well but few of them had ears to hear.’ ‘Even before the violent had come for him, he knew what had happened to God’s messengers in the past: silenced, exiled, outlawed, killed …Then King Herod threw John the Baptist in prison … and Jesus had to say it all over again: expect violence; prepare for it; never underestimate the harm it can do.’

Are we similarly prepared? Do we know ‘the power to resist the deadly force of violence’ by doing what Jesus taught and practised: ‘turn the cheek, pray for the persecutor, love the enemy, welcome the stranger. In everything do to others as you would have them do to you.’ Are we willing, like John the Baptist and Jesus, to be prophets who can see and name what does not belong with us and can shine the light of God’s truth in the night-time of fear and oppression?

If we do then our prayer must be: Lord, disarm violence and begin with me. As Barbara Brown Taylor noted last week, ‘Sometimes [the power to resist the deadly force of violence] actually works to disarm the violence in others, which is why we know the names of Gandhi, Tutu, and King. But that is not its main purpose. Its main purpose is to disarm the violence in us, so that we do not join the other team.’


Sinead O'Connor - Make Me A Channel Of Your Peace.

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