Race and Christianity in Australia

Vernon Ah Kee, 'Austracism', 2003. Prints, digital print, printed in colour inks, from digital file, 120.0 x 180.0 cm. National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Vernon Ah Kee, Austracism, 2003. Prints, digital print, printed in colour inks, from digital file, 120 x 180 cm. National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

I have a new essay out: ‘Race and Christianity in Australia’, Post-Christendom Studies 4 (2019–2020): 25–74.

The opening paragraph reads:

The thesis of this essay is that racism in Australia has explicitly Christian roots. In particular, these roots find their beginnings in the European story of Christendom. To defend that claim, the essay does three things. First, it traces the history of racism in Australia, mapping how immigration policies and practices regarding assimilation following the Second World War expose longstanding commitments to the idea of an Australia that is both “white” and “Christian.” Second, it explores how the roots of such racism intersect with and are sponsored by the “biological heresy” of Christendom and its practice of both politicizing and making “barbarians” of “the other.” Finally, it offers three brief theological reflections on the possibilities of an alternative Christian witness amidst the conditions mapped in the first two sections. Here the concerns are with conceptions of power, with what it means to speak of the Christian community as “the body of Christ,” and with the theological task itself.

You can read the rest here.

Summoned to be Christian Amidst a Global Pandemic


A guest post by Trevor Hart

I’ve been reading a book by Timothy Radcliffe entitled Alive in God: A Christian Imagination. And it has raised some troubling questions for me about Christian response to the pandemic. But in one chapter he cites the third century Bishop of Alexandria, Dionysius, writing in the midst of a terrible plague in North Africa in 260CE which killed a third of the population there. In an Easter letter Dionysius writes as follows:

Most of our fellow Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbours and cheerfully accepting their pains. Many, in nursing and curing others, transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead. The best of our brothers and sisters lost their lives in this manner, a number of priests, deacons and laymen and women winning high commendation so that death in this form, the result of great piety and strong faith, seems in every way the equal of martyrdom.

Dionysius, Radcliffe notes, contrasted such behaviour with that of the wider public, many of whom, at the first sign of the disease, pushed its victims aside (even members of their own families) and left them to die alone or in colonies of disease, leaving corpses without proper burial, in order to protect themselves from infection.

It’s hard to read stuff like this in the current climate. Despite the very real differences between our situation and that described by Dionysius, there are just too many resonances. If parallels are sought, then it is not, in our case, Christians who are known and lauded for their willing self-exposure to risk, but NHS staff and many other (easily forgotten) ‘frontline workers’ who are doing so daily, because the demands of their work and their sense of duty respectively compel them to.

Why should the parallel be drawn at all, you may ask? And why should Christians even reckon with the possibility (unless, of course, they are already frontline workers) of making themselves available to be put at risk? What good would that do? What use could it possibly serve? That’s a comforting set of questions to ask, perhaps, for those of us doing as we are told by our political leaders and remaining for the most part behind closed doors. But what is troubling me is the growing suspicion that there are some perfectly good answers to them; answers that ought at least to be reckoned with rather than conveniently swept aside in a rush to social conformism.

Dionysius refers to his fellow-Christians’ bravery as ‘the result of great piety and strong faith’, and it is hugely significant, of course, that he writes his account of their behaviour precisely in an Easter letter to his diocese – Easter, the same season in which we find ourselves today. What, then, was the substance of this ‘strong faith’ and the driver for their ‘piety’? Not, I think, the wrong-headed (and finally selfish) lack of respect for life that thinks it can and will ‘earn heaven’ by stepping up and volunteering for an early exit strategy. But rather two convictions in particular: First, the conviction that, in the resurrection of Jesus from death, God has shown and promised us that death is, however unwelcome and unpleasant, nonetheless not something to be afraid of, for it has no final hold on us. And, second, the conviction that in Jesus God defines ‘godliness’ (‘piety’) for us not in terms of cold showers and clean thoughts, but in the willingness to face even suffering and death in order to extend God’s love to others by meeting their needs.

You can probably see where this is heading, and I don’t like it any more than you do. And you can rest assured that I’m not headed towards any firm conclusion – just sharing an uncomfortable question or two for those of us profess an Easter faith. Because I suspect that there are things that those who, while being frightened of suffering and dying (who isn’t?), refuse finally to be afraid of death, and who are called to place the lives and well-being of others (especially the most vulnerable and disadvantaged) before any attempts to secure our own, might in fact be able to do, and to do without being socially irresponsible.

There have already been calls for volunteers to assist with various public tasks, and so provide vital support for key workers. As the unpicking of lock-down gradually begins there are likely to be many more such opportunities as lots of people, we are already being told, are fearful of venturing out until they can know that they are ‘secure from the risk of infection and death’. Christians, it seems to me, cannot in good faith demand that security for themselves, and might be in an ideal position to respond to such calls, no matter what is involved. Of course, lots of others are likely to respond too. My point is simply that Christians have no excuse not to.

But let me be more radical still! One of the more distressing aspects of the pandemic so far has been the way the sick have been isolated from ordinary human contact, and the dying often compelled to die in circumstances where, for fear of infection, not just the presence of loved ones but even the ordinary touch of human hands has been denied them. Of course they are cared for with skill and compassion. But the sterile environment of barrier nursing cannot help robbing them of the sort of contact which matters so much to our basic sense of humanity. In Jesus’ day, too, sickness tended to result in the isolation of its victims from ordinary social contexts and ways of behaving. That’s why, when Jesus touched lepers in healing them he not only breached all manner of social and religious regulations, but gave them back their humanity in the process – refusing to leave them treated as though they were ‘untouchables’ and less than fully human.

Touch, being held, matters to us as human beings from birth all the way to death. And no one, if possible, should die with the indignity of being refused the touch of another human hand the opportunity to be held in their moment of dying. That COVID-19 victims are not currently permitted that comfort is of course, a sensible strategy to avoid the needless infection of doctors, nurses, and other NHS staff.

But what if there were people who, without placing undue strain on our health services, were willing to make themselves available simply to sit with the dying, doing nothing for them other than extending that last unprotected human presence and contact – a gauntlet-less hand and an unmasked face? People able to do this because, although they, too, longed to carry on living, they had no good reason to fear death, and so no good excuse for not offering. People summoned to do so, in fact, by a God who has himself ‘healed our diseases’ not by remote fiat or from behind a sanitary prophylactic barrier, but by touching us, ‘bearing our infirmities’, making his own life vulnerable to suffering and death in order to love us and hold us through dying and death, without letting us go. Loving us all the way into that new creation where neither suffering nor death will have any place. What if there were a people like that?

on white christendom

White Jesus.jpg‘White Christendom in America survives pathetically.

The traditions and ethics of the inherited, white denominations – as their adherents sense privately, and everyone else acknowledges openly – are moribund, nostalgic for a legendary past, extravagantly irrelevant to virtually anything to which one might attempt to relate them. White Christendom’s institutions are truly secular, that is, utterly preoccupied with their own survival, and hence dissipated in anxiety. Their human constituency is being visibly depleted by dropouts, deaths, and other departures. The people of these churches have been stunned by the renunciation voiced by their own offspring, bewildered by the long overdue rejection of their paternalism by the blacks, and so traumatized by their guilt that their conscience has been both perverted and paralyzed. They have feted a doctrine of achievement in work and in charity that is bereft of biblical authority and that now turns out not even to have the illusion of efficacy. After seeking a justification that proved futile, they grow frantic and afraid, increasingly tempted to an anger that only a false righteousness can spawn.

The condition of white Christendom is pathological; it is, I suggest, the state designated in the Bible as “hardness of heart.”

The reason for this bitter ailment is that the white churches in America have long doubted the very existence, much less the vitality, of the Holy Spirit. In these denominations, on the whole, it has never been seriously granted that God has freedom and discretion in being present and active in this world; it has never been conceded that God is not dependent upon human beings and, specifically, upon the white, American bourgeois. It has been presumed instead that God needs these churches, that God’s integrity requires their effort, that God’s existence in history is verified by their prosperity, popularity, and power. Today, with the legitimacy of their wealth under challenge, their reputation the butt of ridicule, and their power ineffectual, it becomes clear that their god is indeed dead and, even more threatening, that their god is not and never was God’.

Mr Stringfellow
St James’ Day, 1969
Block Island, Rhode Island

On not singing the national anthem

Anthem 1

A friend in Tweetland (and Zuckerland) is wondering whether his kids, who are Christians and who are about to start school, should be encouraged or discouraged to sing the Australian National Anthem – ‘Advance Australia Fair’. I couldn’t resist a quick reply.

I’ve threatened my kids with homelessness and disinheritance if I ever learn that they’ve sung the Australian national anthem, or encouraged others to do so. Even standing during such, were I to hear about it, would be met with their pocket money being docked.

First, there’s the idiocy of singing about being ‘young and free’ among and with nations that are the most ancient continuous civilisations on Earth. Strange as it may sound, I’m really not keen on encouraging public displays of historical ignorance and blatant racism.

Then there is the matter of our religion, and the incongruity between singing a national anthem and celebrating the Eucharist. Not only is the theological disconnect as huge (in a Pythonesque kind of way) as one could imagine, but bread and wine are simply so much more interesting than any anthem, and one should set one’s mind, heart, and voice unreservedly upon the most interesting things.

Short of not singing the national anthem at all, the only reasonable alternative I can think of is to deliberately sing the anthem very badly, as out-of-tune (how appropriate!) and as out-of-time (how appropriate!) as one can muster, to do with it what Carl Fredrik Reuterswärd once did with a Colt Python .357 Magnum. To do otherwise is to put your salvation in doubt.

There is also the matter of the song being an appalling and anaemic piece of writing. That a school should torment its students with such horrid literature is tantamount to nothing short of abuse (something, to be sure, that the country is getting very good at). That a Christian – a Christian for God’s sake! – would let such a situation pass as if it were neither here nor there is probably best explained by the fact that most churchgoers have been made immune to such heresy though years of being fed a liturgical diet of equally squalid and giddy songs and prayers. Mornings of the Lord’s Day might be much better kept by reading Shakespeare or Robinson or Flanagan while listening to Springsteen on the couch in one’s pyjamas than by enduring such torment; unless of course one believes that such activity might function as a kind of training ground, a kind of school perhaps, for the purgatory that awaits the saints. Indeed, this might be among the best of reasons to go to church. But that an institution set apart to teach literature (as laughable as that sounds in today’s climate) should promote the singing of such vacuity is reason enough to have the entire school’s curriculum reviewed by a state parliamentary committee. Her majesty could not possibly expect anything less of her government.

On another note, I understand that the anthem’s election was the fruit of a plebiscite. Enough said.

Some more perspectives on whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God

The Syrian Orthodox Church and the Omar Mosque, Old Town, Bethlehem, Palestine.

The Syrian Orthodox Church and the Omar Mosque, Old Town, Bethlehem, Palestine.

Two very constructive contributions to the discussion birthed from recent events at Wheaton College:

  1. Robert Priest, Professor of International Studies and Professor of Mission and Anthropology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, is concerned ‘over the way Wheaton [College] has framed the issues, over the repercussions of this for Christian witness, and over the failure to include missiologists and missionaries as interlocutors’. By way of response, he invited a number of evangelical and other respected missiologists and missionaries – those, in other words, whose insights have been mostly tragically absent in this discussion – ‘to write short essays addressing the following question: “What are the missiological implications of affirming, or denying, that Muslims and Christians worship the same God?”’ The result is a very helpful and much-welcomed resource, this Occasional Bulletin’ from The Evangelical Missiological Society (EMS).
  2. The Australian theologian Geoff Thompson, of Pilgrim Theological College, has posted ‘an observation, some other questions, a concern, and a personal reflection’ here.

I also really appreciated this brief and timely reflection from Matthew Milliner (of Wheaton College), delivered at the Islamic Center of Wheaton.

I commend these resources to you. And if you, dear readers, come across any other such resources on this subject, you are encouraged to draw attention to them in the comments box below.

[Image: Palden Jenkins]

On believing and confessing the one God, ‘although in different ways’

Gregory VIIBen Myers’s delightful and constructive offering yesterday to the discussion of whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God reminded me of Pope Gregory VII’s letter to Anzir, the King of Mauretania. In that letter, penned in 1076 (and so in the period between John of Damascus and Paul of Antioch, Ben’s two subjects), Gregory suggests that Christians and Muslims do indeed worship the same God, ‘although in different ways’. (Implicitly, he is doing what many recent commentators, in their noble efforts to seek intellectual coherence, have failed to do; namely, to indicate, albeit subtly, a distinction between ontological and epistemological claims vis-à-vis God.)

So Gregory:

God, the Creator of all, without whom we cannot do or even think anything that is good, has inspired to your heart this act of kindness. He who enlightens all people coming in to the world [Jn 1.9] has enlightened your mind for this purpose. Almighty God, who desires all people to be saved [1 Tim 2.4] and none to perish, is well pleased to approve in us most of all that besides loving God people love others, and do not do to others anything they do not want to be done unto themselves [Mt 7.12]. We and you must show in a special way to the other nations an example of this charity, for we believe and confess one God, although in different ways, and praise and worship him daily as the creator of all ages and the ruler of this world. For the apostle says: ‘He is our peace who has made us but one’ [Eph 2.14]. Many among the Roman nobility, informed by us of this grace granted to you by God, greatly admire and praise your goodness and virtue … God knows that we love you purely for his honor and that we desire your salvation and glory, both in the present and in the future life. And we pray in our hearts and with our lips that God may lead you to the abode of happiness, to the bosom of the holy patriarch Abraham, after long years of life here on earth. (Cited in J. Neuner and J. Dupuis, eds., The Christian Faith in the Documents of the Catholic Church. Bangalore: Theological Publications in India, 1982, 276–77. Slightly modified for gender inclusivity and correction of one of the biblical references.)

The backstory to this letter – and there’s always a backstory! – is that Anzir had sent Gregory a gift which included the freeing of some Christian (?) prisoners. Gregory’s response was this letter sent with a delegation as a sign of friendship, and the remarkable invitation to live together in the spirit of the Sermon on the Mount.

Bruce McCormack too has weighed into the recent conversation with a very helpful piece.

(And for those who may be interested, I touched briefly on the subject a few years ago in this post.)

On religion and civil society: a response to Simone Sinn

Church-MosqueLast week, I was again in Geneva participating in a colloquium on religion and state. The meeting had a particular focus on the ways in which Christianity and Islam conceive and negotiate their relationship with the state. It was, as I anticipated, a stimulating event. I was invited to give a response to a very fine paper by Simone Sinn of the Lutheran World Federation. I enjoy doing such things. The tricky bit about doing it this time, however, was that I first heard the paper at the same time as did everyone else; i.e., I never received a copy of the paper in advance. But like one of Alexander Pope’s fools, I braved upon ground where angels might think a couple of times before venturing, and hazarding a guess (which was pretty accurate, as it happens) at where Simone’s paper might go – and in a desperate state ripping shamelessly from Rowan Williams (especially his wonderful collection of essays in Faith in the Public Square) – I tentatively offered the following words (and some good discussion ensued):

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Taking some bearings

Ongoing deliberations about Turkey’s admission to the EU and, of course, what is being called ‘Europe’s refugee crisis’, have exposed even further all manner of concerns about what we might call Europe’s historic Christian identity and indeed about the idea of ‘Europe’ itself. As we speak, in my own country (which remains, in many ways, an outpost of Europe), there is widespread anxiety regarding the arrival of refugees, especially those from Muslim-majority lands, and concentrated protests going on regarding the building of mosques and the recent granting of a visa to a certain Dutch politician with a very interesting hair style who plans to launch a new political party in Australia. So, what a time to be thinking about these things!

The one thing that is certain in this current climate is that things are ‘deeply uncertain and fluid’. ‘There is’, as Rowan Williams has noted, ‘widespread impatience with transnational institutions, from the EU to the UN, yet equally widespread anxiety about the dominance of a single power. We are increasingly aware of the issues that cannot be solved by single sovereign states on their own – ecological crisis, terrorism, migrancy – yet are uncomfortable with any notion of global jurisdictions’. The global north is increasingly conscious of facing a highly critical, if internally diverse, Islamic world and is struggling to know how best to respond to its presence outside and inside its own borders. ‘Enlightenment liberalism, the self-evident creed of reasonable people, now appears as simply one cultural and historical phenomenon among others. Its supposed right to set the agenda for the rest of the world is no longer beyond question, however much the American Right or the European Left assume that their positions are the natural default beliefs of intelligent human beings, and that cultural and religious variety are superficial matters of choice or chance’.

As Williams also notes, the narrative, standard just a few decades ago, of a universal drift towards so-called secularization has had to undergo radical modification, a challenge severely hindered by the fact that so much of Europe seems to have developed a severe case of amnesia regarding its own complex history dating back at least as far as the Germanic, Turkic and Slavonic migrations that destroyed the Roman Empire between 376 and 800 CE. This is not a situation, in other words, that was birthed in the Enlightenment. Rediscovering this story, it seems to me, is critical if current challenges are to be responded to responsibly and constructively. I am grateful, therefore, for Simone’s paper and her efforts to locate more recent public discourse in some larger historical frames, with her two twentieth-century examples from Germany and Indonesia. This kind of work is important if we are to avoid the unhistorical and facile optimism that characterizes so much contemporary debate on all fronts.

Some theological commitments

Simone is equally concerned to bring other resources – explicitly, theological resources – to this task. This is highly proper, not least because the central and foundational convictions of political liberalism in Europe are an explicit fruit of its Christian history. Particularly, ‘the distinctively European style of political argument and debate is made possible by the Church’s persistent witness to the fact that states do not have ultimate religious claims on their citizens’.

Simone focuses on two theological commitments that, in her words, ‘enable an affirmative understanding of civil society’. She names here anthropology and political ethics. As important and fruitful and these two fields of enquiry might be, uprooted from some even more basic theological commitments I’m not convinced that they provide for the Christian community the robust ‘theological motives’ (to use Simone’s phrase) or theological muscle that the opportunities and challenges before us call for. More germane and fertile enquiry might be had by attending more explicitly to implications perhaps yet unearthed or unapplied to this new context in the following five areas:

  1. Incarnation. There are questions to be asked, for example about the character of Christ’s body as ‘extendible’ and ‘transposable’ and ‘unstable’, a body that can expand itself, for example, to incorporate other bodies and ‘make them extensions of his own’, as Graham Ward argues. What might be some implications for the church of its own claim that in Christ the world has been given a body that ‘can cross [all] boundaries, ethnic boundaries, gender boundaries, socio-economic boundaries’, and religious boundaries, for example, boundaries unpoliced by the church?
  2. Trinity. Recent decades have witnessed significant interest among theologians – both Roman Catholic (e.g., Karl Rahner, Jacques Dupuis, Gavin D’Costa, Raimundo Panikkar) and Protestant (e.g., Karl Barth, Wolfhart Pannenberg, Clark Pinnock, S. Mark Heim, John Hick) – to explore more intentionally ways in which the revelation of God’s triune mode of being might constitute a constructive basis or ‘roadmap’ for a positive interpretation of religious diversity and even religious pluralism from the standpoint of Christian theology. I understand that there has been a formal dialogue between French Muslims and Roman Catholics around this very question.
  3. Pneumatology. There are also questions to revisit here regarding the implications of the claim that the church has no monopoly on God’s Spirit but that the Spirit belongs to everybody, and to nobody; questions constructively explored some decades ago in the work of John V. Taylor.
  4. Soteriology. What bearing might faith’s claim that there can be no salvation apart from my neighbour, for example, have to our discussion on life together in changing territories?
  5. Ecclesiology. Are there not pressing questions also to be asked here about the strangely eschatological and provisional nature of the Christian community’s place in the world (something exposed, thank God, through the erosion of the Constantinian arrangements)? And then there are critical questions too about the alternative citizenship of the church and its sharing a common life with those who do not share that citizenship.

On the public commons

Simone champions the widely-held view that the notion of a ‘“civil society” presupposes a space … where citizens can organize themselves voluntarily around common interests or common goals’, a space, she says, where ‘active citizenship is experienced and exercised’, and, we might add (drawing on the work on John de Gruchy), a space ‘in constant need of broadening and deepening, and therefore of debate and [of] clarification’. Such a commitment need not, of course, be grounded in any consensus about what constitutes ultimate truth, or even agreement that such an oddity may exist. It requires only that citizens seek to meet in such a space, and a just state that will regulate its chaotically pluralist character. (I was at this point in Simone’s paper reminded of that pioneering Scottish architect and architectural theorist Alexander Thomson who, in the middle of the nineteenth century, championed a vision of public space that is both open and horizontal, and whose work was informed by a deep conviction that the so-called private life of the home be not divorced from the public space of the street where the community gathers to make and to carry out ideas together.)

Lest the liberal state loses its essential liberalism, that public space and ‘active citizenship’ of which Simone rightly speaks must engage also in a continuing dialogue with religious communities, and those with each other. Failure to do so would mean that the state would become ‘simply dogmatically secular, insisting that religious faith be publicly invisible; or … chaotically pluralist, with no proper account of its legitimacy’ except that ‘the state is the agency that happens to have the monopoly of force’ (Williams). Luke Bretherton, in his book Christianity and Contemporary Politics, argues much the same – that it is the state’s responsibility to ensure that ‘there is an increasingly constructive engagement between [itself] and minority religious groups’. To be sure, the source of our common life does not itself rest in the state any more than it rests in any other intermediate institution, guild, religious or civil association, each of which ought, in Williams’ words, to ‘have a natural liberty to exist and [to] organize themselves’. But the state is given a unique vocation to, to some degree, regulate this social variety and ‘chaotic pluralism’, a role that is an implicit outworking of any political philosophy that rejects a sacralized sovereignty. The challenge, therefore, is for the apparatus of the state to become what Williams calls ‘a reliable and creative “broker” of the concerns of the communities that make it up’.

The history of Islam, particularly outside of its historic-majority cultures, is a history characterised by the experience of negotiating and renegotiating its way in a great variety of settings. This is indeed the character of all living faith. Some Muslim scholars, such as the Swiss academic Tariq Ramadan (who teaches at the University of Oxford) insist that there is in Islam no absolute theological commitment to an imposition of specifically Muslim law even in majority contexts. In his book Western Muslims and the Future of Islam, he contends that Muslim identity need only be at odds with Western cultural identity where certain cultural habits are in direct conflict with Islamic precepts. This means, he argues, not only that there is no single ‘homeland’ for Muslims, but also that Muslims can be at home, can adapt in truly integrated rather than in ‘hodgepodge’ ways, in any geographical and political environment. And so they must, he insists, avoid ‘self-ghettoization’, avoid becoming ‘spectators in a society where they were once marginalized’, avoid retreat from the public commons and what Ramadan calls ‘the service of all, for the good of all’. ‘The “way of faithfulness”’, writes Ramadan, ‘compels [Muslims] not only to respect plurality but also to step outside the [intellectual, religious, and social] ghettos, [and to] know each other better’, to be constantly renegotiating the new public spaces, as must the church, and to act together to ‘ensure the fullest possible statement of shared moral goals and anxieties’ (Williams) in the public commons.

I share Simone’s conviction that viable civil societies in religiously plural contexts presuppose viable interreligious relations, with a high priority given to efforts at the local level where the freedom to engage in ‘convivial and cooperative relations’, however difficult and unstable, and to do so in ways that avoid what Luke Bretherton calls ‘religious vandalism’, yields – dare I say it – signs of the Spirit’s work, signs indeed that ‘the earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and all those who live in it’ (Ps 24.1). All this, for me, is an outworking of an implicit christology which resists existing in a vacuum, which rejoices in the fact that ‘dialogue among the religions is no longer a luxury but a theological necessity’ (David Tracy), and which welcomes the encounters, challenges, and fresh questions that a rapidly-changing Europe (and Australia) occasions.

The Indian theologian Stanley Jedidiah Samartha (incidentally, I suspect that we could learn a great deal from the Indian experience vis-à-vis religious plurality) sees in the coming of Jesus part of ‘God’s dialogue with humanity’. Our dialogue with people of other faiths, he argues, is part of our participation in God’s dialogue with humanity, and this, as Karl Barth insisted, is grounded in God’s own intratrinitarian dialogue. Of course, as Williams has suggested elsewhere, part of what happens in a good dialogue between people of different faiths is, one hopes, learning to see what the other person’s face looks like when it is turned towards God. To shut out that possibility is to reject the invitation to grow up, and it is to abandon the difficult gift of ‘hard silence – a stepping-back from the urge to solve things prematurely’.

Some concluding thoughts

Simone’s paper is a welcome invitation to imagine a space less threatened by the ignorance that engenders and nourishes fear, and to embrace the unforeseen possibilities that a future which must not neglect its past – lest Europeans (and Australians too, for that matter) become a thriftless people – ought neither to be yoked to it.

In 2005, Rowan Williams delivered a speech not too far from here at the Palais de Congrès de Lyon. His speech was entitled ‘Is Europe at its End?’, and he concluded, as will I, with these words:

In short, my hopes for the future of Europe are that it will continue to be a culture of question and negotiation – because I believe that this is the way it is truest to its Christian roots. But given the enormous dangers of a dominant secularism, a denial of the public visibility of religious commitment and its role in managing and moulding social identity, I hope for a political climate in Europe that is open to co-operation between state and religious enterprise. If this does not happen, the state becomes unselfcritical in its godlessness and religious communities become isolated and defensive; they too lose the capacity for critical awareness.

John Roxborogh’s A History of Christianity in Malaysia

A History of Christianity in MalaysiaThe Presbyterian minister and historian John Roxborogh has been accumulating research notes and scraps of information on Christianity in Malaysia and Southeast Asia for thirty years. Some of the fruit of that work is now available to us in his recently-published (and very-reasonably priced!) A History of Christianity in Malaysia (Armour, 2014). The volume comprises of a series of intelligent, well-researched, and accessibly-written reflections on how Christianity has been – is – part of the Malaysian story, not only from the beginning of ‘Malaysia’ in 1963, but through the centuries leading to the nation’s creation as well.

Roxborogh’s aim throughout is twofold: to offer a framework for further study, and to ‘provide an integrated narrative of how, as a universal faith, Christianity became a religion that was part of Malaysia at its formation’. Among the kaleidoscope of stories are accounts of some early generations of missionary scholars who felt pressure to recast stories in order to win support at home, while others worked to document more honestly the way of life of those they found themselves among and because of such better recognised the need to champion the cause of others rather than their own. This is, of course, a story that is not without echoes elsewhere. And part of the achievement of Roxborogh’s disciplined attention to its Malaysian contours is how it assists us to not only better understand the Malaysian parts of that story but also to interpret other contexts in more informed light.

The final chapter, ‘Praying and Belonging: 1989 to 2013’, owes some debt to Grace Davies, Kevin Ward, and others who talk about ‘believing and belonging’ as separable variables in European and Western Christianity. In Malaysia, praying and belonging is, according to Roxborogh, a fair description of the current situation. It also indicates something of the dynamic change in Christian self-identity and sense of mission that has taken place, in Malaysia and elsewhere, over the past 60 years. We need to know more about that story, about why it has happened and is still happening, and to think more deeply about what might be involved in faithfully documenting the story as it continues to unfold. Here in this book, Roxborogh shows us one way that this can be done.

I understand that some thought is already being given to a Chinese edition. Were such to eventuate, this may occasion an opportunity to consider additional themes and emphases, and to revisit too the ones that Roxborogh has already attended to but in a new light. For example, as Roxborogh is well aware, the challenges that attend being both ‘Malaysian’ and ‘Christian’ is mirrored in the dilemma of how to be both ‘Malaysian’ and ‘Chinese’, or ‘Malaysian’ and ‘Indian’ and ‘Eurasian’. Such questions remain pressing ones, and ones that are not to be discarded when the weight of being an indigenous church in Malaysia is now carried primarily by large groups of local Christians from East Malaysia.

Understanding Christianity as a global movement demands taking Asia and the Pacific Rim – its histories, practices, and theologies – seriously. Roxborogh’s study ably helps to serve this end.

On jobs for Christians

Article 16 of The Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus of Rome (c. 215) notes that there are (or were) some occupations that are simply deemed incompatible with being a Christian. (Parallel lists appear in Tertullian’s De idololatria (c. 211) and De spectaculis (c. 197–202)). What immediately strikes me about the catalogue of occupations that would render one ineligible from admission into the catechumenal process is the commitment to a non-violent ethic and an evading of the praxes of idolatry before you even begin the journey. In some ways, I guess it would be like refusing someone who works for one of the subsidiaries of News Corporation or for a bank who profits from usury from attending an Alpha Course:

If someone is a pimp who supports prostitutes, he shall cease or shall be rejected. If someone is a sculptor or a painter, let them be taught not to make idols. Either let them cease or let them be rejected. If someone is an actor or does shows in the theater, either he shall cease or he shall be rejected. If someone teaches children (worldly knowledge), it is good that he cease. [It seems that this prohibition, which is particularly strong in Tertullian’s thought, is based on the logic that teachers were required to teach about pagan gods and to observe pagan festivals, a bit like teacher’s today observing Anzac Day or Melbourne Cup day, I suppose.] But if he has no (other) trade, let him be permitted. A charioteer, likewise, or one who takes part in the games, or one who goes to the games, he shall cease or he shall be rejected. If someone is a gladiator, or one who teaches those among the gladiators how to fight, or a hunter who is in the wild beast shows in the arena, or a public official who is concerned with gladiator shows, either he shall cease, or he shall be rejected. If someone is a priest of idols, or an attendant of idols, he shall cease or he shall be rejected. A military man in authority must not execute men. If he is ordered, he must not carry it out. Nor must he take military oath. If he refuses, he shall be rejected. If someone is a military governor, or the ruler of a city who wears the purple, he shall cease or he shall be rejected. The catechumen or faithful who wants to become a soldier is to be rejected, for he has despised God. The prostitute, the wanton man, the one who castrates himself, or one who does that which may not be mentioned, are to be rejected, for they are impure. A magus shall not even be brought forward for consideration. An enchanter, or astrologer, or diviner, or interpreter of dreams, or a charlatan, or one who makes amulets, either they shall cease or they shall be rejected. If someone’s concubine is a slave, as long as she has raised her children and has clung only to him, let her hear. Otherwise, she shall be rejected. The man who has a concubine must cease and take a wife according to the law. If he will not, he shall be rejected.

While some may argue – and have indeed argued – that such a holding of the keys is the flip side of the church refusing to bury certain people because of their association with particular vocations, at the very least such a list invites us to not only consider what the church today might catalogue as occupations that render one ineligible for baptism and so for life in the community of God (of course, it is difficult to imagine how such a radically disparate and commercialised body not only outside of but also within Rome could today agree on anything, let alone pronounce on vocational anathemas), but also to think about how the call to repentance is among the first words that the kingdom of God proclaims. It also invites us to wonder more deeply about St Paul’s claim ‘where sin increased, grace abounded all the more’, and about the size and reach of Paul’s God.

On helping Tony Abbott to be a Christian

I am so encouraged that Australia’s opposition leader, the honourable Tony Abbott, takes seemingly every opportunity to publicly offer every indication of his sincere intent on being a good Christian. Praise the Lord! Furthermore, it’s great to know that Mr Abbott believes, and that with such costly passion, that ‘Christians’ should be concerned with doing ‘the right thing’. Unfortunately, it appears that Mr Abbot’s got no idea what ‘the right thing’ is; i.e., what is the demand that the gospel lays on him? To be sure, people like Malcolm Fraser and Julian Burnside are doing their darndest to try to educate the poor fella, and I wondered if some accompanying music might help Mr Abbott too. And here I can think of few better than kiwi musician Dave Dobbyn to assist brother Tony to get the ‘Christian’ message (surely he’s not chasing ‘the “Christian” vote’) that he seems so intent on expressing his unyielding fidelity to:

Tonight I am feeling for you
Under the state of a strange land
You have sacrificed much to be here
‘there but for grace…’ as I offer my hand.

Welcome home, I bid you welcome, I bid you welcome
Welcome home from the bottom of my heart.

Out here on the edge
The empire is fading by the day
And the world is so weary in war
Maybe we’ll find that new way.

So welcome home, see I made a space for you now
Welcome home from the bottom of our hearts
Welcome home from the bottom of our hearts.

Keep it coming now – keep it coming now
You’ll find most of us here with our hearts wide open
Keep it coming now – keep on coming now
Keep it coming now – keep on coming now.

There’s a woman with her hands trembling – haere mai
And she sings with a mountain’s memory – haere mai.

There’s a cloud the full length of these isles
Just playing chase with the sun
And it’s black and it’s white and it’s wild
All the colours are one.

So welcome home, I bid you welcome, I bid you welcome
Welcome home from the bottom of our hearts
Welcome home, see I made a space for you now
Welcome home from the bottom of our hearts
From the bottom of our hearts.

[Image: HT to Andrew Beeston, Jono Coates and Jesus]

‘Take this book back again’: the Bible and the development of a returns policy

While watching Bill Maher’s recent rant, I was reminded of, and challanged by, another, and much more impressive, ranter – Søren Kierkegaard – and the Dane’s tirade against Bible commentators:

‘The Church has long needed a prophet who in fear and trembling had the courage to forbid people to read the Bible. I am tempted, therefore, to make the following proposal. Let us collect all the Bibles and bring them out to an open place or up on a mountain and then, while we all kneel, let someone talk to God in this manner: Take this book back again. We Christians, such as we are, are not fit to involve ourselves with such a thing; it only makes us proud and unhappy. We are not ready for it. In other words, I suggest that we, like those inhabitants whose herd of pigs plunged into the water and died, beg Christ “to leave the neighborhood” (Mt. 8:34). This would at least be honest talk – something very different from the nauseating, hypocritical, scholarship that is so prevalent today.

The matter is quite simple. The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in the world?

Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship. Christian scholarship is the Church’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close. Oh, priceless scholarship, what would we do without you? Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God. Yes, it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament.

I open the New Testament and read: “If you want to be perfect, then sell all your goods and give to the poor and come follow me.” Good God, if we were to actually do this, all the capitalists, the officeholders, and the entrepreneurs, the whole society in fact, would be almost beggars! We would be sunk if it were not for Christian scholarship! Praise be to everyone who works to consolidate the reputation of Christian scholarship, which helps to restrain the New Testament, this confounded book which would one, two, three, run us all down if it got loose (that is, if Christian scholarship did not restrain it)’. – Søren Kierkegaard, Provocations: Spiritual Writings of Kierkegaard (ed. Charles E. Moore; Maryknoll: Orbis, 2003), 201–2.

Karl Barth on worship and the cost of discipleship (on Romans 12:1–2)

To celebrate my recent success, I awarded myself with a copy of The Early Preaching of Karl Barth: Fourteen Sermons with Commentary by William H. Willimon. Thus far, I’ve resisted the temptation to post on it, to rave about the homiletical energy of the twentieth-century’s greatest theologian, his exegetical insights and proficiency in what is arguably the preachers’ most difficult task, namely application. But I give in. Here he is on Romans 12:1–2, from a sermon preached on 3 March, 1918:

‘In the words “well pleasing to God” it is said that our thoughts, words and works are in need of God’s blessing if they are truly to be a worship of God. It is indeed right when we search for God and wish to bring about better conditions in the world, but God must also be able to say yes to the ways and means we have of doing it, for otherwise nothing will come of our efforts. It is indeed good, for example, to pray for and pursue the conversion of persons, but if one cannot put aside an evil way of being that pricks and stings, God is not in it. To give the needy from one’s surplus is also good, but whether or not God rejoices in it will depend, for example, on how one has gained the surplus. To turn the world upside down, like the Bolsheviks now want to do, would also be good and much needed, but when they wave around their automatic weapons, the blessing of God cannot be in it. Good, pure persons are needed in order to serve God in a good, pure way, a way that is well pleasing to God. What passes by this good and pure way of being can never lead to the goal.

I think that we now understand a little of what Paul meant when he said that a sacrifice is needed for a reasonable worship of God. Here we must look deeply into what is holy. Something must be brought, presented, given. In the words themselves we already notice something of that serious, radical, and personal decision that the Bible requires of us and before which we are rightly perplexed. It is difficult for us and even hurts to give something away, even if it were only a little money that we would rather keep, or a friendly word, when we would rather say something sullen or rude, or an hour of our time that we would rather have for ourselves. The word “sacrifice” always attacks us, like a sharp knife. We would rather serve God in some other way than through sacrifice. In what Paul calls a reasonable worship of God, the giving of a little money is not enough, nor is a good word, nor a little time. One must seriously question whether any of these is a “living sacrifice, holy and well pleasing to God.” In fact, they are holy sacrifices only when another and much greater prior sacrifice has taken place, so that it now stands behind them.

For there is only one sacrifice that God acknowledges and accepts from us, and if you do not make this sacrifice, the rest collapses like a house of cards. This one sacrifice, according to Paul, consists in “presenting your bodies.” What he means is your personhood, your own self, without making a difference between the outer and inner person or of what is spiritual in us and what is natural. He says expressly “your bodies!” and not “your souls!” What Paul means is that there is no difference, that when he speaks of the body he includes the soul. We like to make fine and seemingly intelligent distinctions, as when we say, “Inwardly I am also of this opinion, but outwardly I do not wish to show it”; or, “In my heart I stand on this side too, but with my person I would rather not confess it”; or, “In my soul I want to belong to God, but my body – which means all that I am outwardly in the concealment of my private life, in my family, in my business, in my position in the village – this body of mine may keep going along as usual and often goes fully other ways than the ways of God.”

The Bible does not make such fine and clever distinctions. Paul prevents them simply by saying, “Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and well pleasing to God.” Here none of those distinctions and the like are acknowledged, such as when one reads worshipfully in the hymnbook on Sunday morning, but on Sunday afternoon goes a completely different way, as many of our teenagers in the confirmation class do. Here one is not allowed to be an idealist that reads good books in the evening, but in the factory during the day acts on the basis of the same principles, or rather lack of principles, as everyone else. Here one is not allowed to be a child of God who today cannot boast enough of the glory of truly trusting God, but tomorrow gets entirely out of sorts when their store of goods has dwindled in some small way.

Such fine distinctions are not possible for Paul. “Present your bodies as a sacrifice!” Then God will receive what God wills to receive from you and what God can use. As long as we do not wish to present our bodies, we wish to give nothing of ourselves. If we have once understood the inner and the outer, what belongs to the soul and what belongs to the body, one’s personal human spirit and one’s physical person – then we will sacrifice what must be sacrificed; then it will be a living sacrifice, holy and well pleasing to God, just as God is living and holy; then we will give ourselves into the power of God!

That is what is meant by a reasonable worship of God. What a pity it is and what a distress that at bottom we all fear the gods so much that we are all so religious and full of endeavor, and yet understand so little of this sacrifice, of giving ourselves, our bodies, as sacrifices into the power of God. Oh, how would the doors that are now closed to us open – all the doors of sin and care before which we so helplessly stand; the doors of persons we do not understand nor they us; the doors of sad social conditions that we presently cannot change – how would truth and salvation come to light, how would the change of things that we wish for happen, if we would only break out of all our so-called worship of God, our religions, convictions, and endeavors! We would break out of all these prisons, over which is written, “My intentions are good,” and instead enter into what God intends, into that reasonable worship of God in Spirit and in truth. This is what the Bible places before us in such a great, natural, and healthy way!’ – Karl Barth and William H. Willimon, The Early Preaching of Karl Barth: Fourteen Sermons with Commentary by William H. Willimon (trans. John E. Wilson; Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 51–3.

A Symposium: Aspects of Māori Christianity and Mission

Maori Church

Aspects of Māori Christianity and Mission

Historical, Theological and Contemporary Perspectives

A Symposium, November 18–19, 2009

Last year a number of University of Otāgo academics formed a research group, Te Whakapapa o te Whakapono: Lineages of Faith, in conjunction with Te Wānanga a Rangi (the Presbyterian Church’s Theological College for Māori ministers) in order to further research into Māori interactions with Christianity. This research is multi-disciplinary, with a strong emphasis on both theology and history. The project aims to examine the encounters between the Christian Church and the Tāngata Whenua in New Zealand, to trace the growth and development of Christian faith among the Māori people, and to consider the ways in which that development has contributed to the shaping of New Zealand identity and society. To further the aims of the research project a Symposium will be held at Salmond College, Dunedin from November 18-19, 2009.

Speakers/topics will include:

  • Kathie Irwin, ‘John and Hōriana Laughton’
  • Hirini Kaa, ‘Tīhei taruke!: Mohi Turei and Ngāti Porou Christianity’
  • Bernie Kernot, ‘Translating the Gospel in the Māori Art Tradition: the works of the late Rt Rev. Hāpai Winiata’
  • Robert Joseph, ‘1. Rangatiratanga in the American West – The Hirini Whaanga Whānau Migration to Utah in the 19th Century’ and ‘2. Are Mormons Maori? Doctrinal and Historical Parallels between Māoritanga and Mormonism’
  • Peter Lineham, ‘Is Destiny Church a Māori faith or a faith of Māori?’
  • Nathan Matthews, ‘Kaikatikīhama – Tō tātou taonga whakahirahira. The role of Māori Catholic Catechists in the Marist Mission 1870 -1900’
  • Simon Moetara, ‘Māori & the Pentecostal Churches in Aotearoa-NZ’
  • Hugh Morrison, ‘Presbyterian children, images of Māori and imperial sentiments’
  • Keith Newman, ‘Rātana, the Prophet. Mā te wa; the sign of the broken watch’
  • Lachy Paterson, ‘Race, gender and te ao Māori: Pākehā women field workers of the Presbyterian Māori Mission’
  • Murray Rae, ‘Rua Kēnana and the Iharaira’
  • Wayne Te Kaawa, ‘The Contribution of James MacFarlane’
  • Hone Te Rire, ‘Hīhita me ngā Tamariki o te Kohu’
  • Yvonne Wilkie, ‘The Presbyterian Women’s Missionary Union and their response to Māori Mission’

For more information or to register, contact Murray Rae (before 12 November).

Karl Barth on the task of every Christian

‘Biblical study … is not merely the affair of a few specialists but fundamentally of all the members of the community. For none is infallible, and all need to be subject to the control of the rest. And again, it might some day be asked of any Christian to give an answer to those without concerning “the hope that is in you” (v. 15). For this no little knowledge of the Bible, and indeed some understanding and therefore study, are indispensable. The statement: “I am a mere layman and not a theologian” is evidence not of humility but of indolence … The Christian must also be in a position to see his way clearly and not to be constantly bewildered in the dramas, tragedies and comedies of the past and present history of the community … Hence there is need of the catechism and even of some memory work’. (CD IV/3, p. 870f.)

‘The task of every Christian … is his task as a bearer of the Gospel to the others who still stand without. To what end? To bring them into the Church, to make them Christians? In the event this too, but the real point is that to all those who by reason of their being outside demand an account of the living hope that is in him this account should be given by what he does and what he leaves undone, by his work and word. More restless than the most restless, more urgent than the most urgent revolutionaries in his immediate or more distant circle, he asks: “Where art thou, peace of all the world?” – and he asks it the more restlessly and the more urgently because he is sure of this future peace, because he consciously looks and moves forward to the future which is filled by it. To him who is thus endowed and blessed there applies the “go” of Mt. 28:19, not as a member of a Christian collective, but very personally. Here are the marching orders which are given directly and specifically to him’. (CD IV/4, p. 200f.)

On being a Christian

One of the books that I’m currently re-reading is Tom Smail’s, The Forgotten Father. I’d forgotten how remarkable this book is as it seeks to bring us to the heart of the Gospel in the Fatherhood of God. As Forsyth noted, we cannot put too much into that word ‘Father’ though we can, and do, certainly put too little into it. Smail begins his chapter on ‘The Father, the Son and the Cross’ by reminding us that it takes the Trinity to make sense of the atonement, and he ends the chapter by reminding us that it takes the Father to make sense of our humanity.

Here’s a quote: ‘To be a Christian is to believe that it is the Father who defines our identity and is to be believed against all inner and outer accusations to the contrary when he says to us, “This son of mine”. To know that is not to skulk in the back pew; it is to come forward with confidence to receive the inheritance. The robe which is the garment of sonship is accompanied by the ring which is the insignia of authority and the sandals that distinguish the free man from the slave. The son who comes home is invited back into his lost inheritance, to delight again in his father’s company and goodness and to rejoice.’ Thomas A. Smail, The Forgotten Father (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1980), 129.