‘The Fury That Breaks’, by Michelle Boisseau

trump-protestsAfter César Vallejo

The fury that breaks a grown-up into kids,
a kid into scattered birds
and a bird into limp eggs,
the fury of the poor
takes one part oil to two parts vinegar.

The fury that breaks a tree into leaves,
a leaf into deranged flowers
and a flower into wilting telescopes,
the fury of the poor
gushes two rivers against a hundred seas.

The fury that breaks the true into doubts,
doubt into three matching arches
and the arch into instant tombs,
the fury of the poor
draws a sharpening stone against two knives.

The fury that breaks the soul into bodies,
the body into warped organs,
and the organ into eight doctrines,
the fury of the poor
burns with one fire in two thousand craters.

[Source: Poetry, May 2013]

On recognising folly for what it is, and standing against it

in-consceince-i-must-break-the-lawAlmost 50 years ago, at the height of and in direct response to his own government’s involvement in the Vietnam War, one courageous theologian by the name of Robert McAfee Brown, compelled by a conscience captive to the freedom of the love and justice of God, and having ‘utterly lost confidence in the Johnson Administration’, explained why he had moved from ‘curiosity, to study, to mild concern, to deep concern, to signing statements, to genteel protest, to marching, to moral outrage, to increasingly vigorous protest, to civil disobedience’. His words are as relevant and as timely today as ever, and that not only in the United States:

With each act of military escalation, the moral horror of the war is escalated. We have been killing women and children all along; now, we kill more of them. We have been destroying the villages of civilians all along; now, we destroy more of them. We have been breaking almost every one of the rules that civilized men have agreed constitute the minimal standards of decency men must maintain even in the indecency of war; now, we break them more often.

This escalation of military power demands the escalation of moral protest. Those of us who condemn this war, who are repulsed by it and who realize that history is going to judge our nation very harshly for its part in it, must see more and more clearly that it is not enough any longer to sign another advertisement or send another telegram or give another speech or write another article. The ways of genteel, legal protest have shown themselves to be ineffective. During the time of their impact, escalation has not lessened, it has increased …

Military escalation has become our Government’s stock response to every problem, and in its exercise, our leaders have demonstrated themselves incapable of change. Their only response, now no more than a conditioned reflex, is to hit a little harder. They have become prisoners of their own propaganda. Their rationalizations of their policy become more frantic, their attacks on their critics more strident, their defense of their actions more removed from the realm of reality …

The decision to cast no vote at all cannot be justified by those who believe in the democratic process. All that is left, then, is to vote for a protest candidate who will not win … There comes a time when it is important for the future of a nation that it be recorded that in an era of great folly, there were at least some within that nation who recognized the folly for what it was and were willing, at personal cost, to stand against it. There comes a time when, in the words of Father Pius-Raymond Regamey, one has to oppose evil even if one cannot prevent it, when one has to choose to be a victim rather than an accomplice. There comes a time when thinking people must give some indication for their children and their children’s children that the national conscience was not totally numbed by Washington rhetoric into supporting a policy that is evil, vicious and morally intolerable.

If such language sounds harsh and judgmental, it is meant precisely to be such. The time is past for gentility, pretty speeches and coy evasions of blunt truth. Evil deeds must be called evil. Deliberate killing of civilians – by the tens of thousands – must be called murder. Forcible removal of people from their homes must be called inhumane and brutal. A country that permits such things to be done in its name deserves to be condemned, not only by the decent people of other countries but particularly by the decent people who are its citizens, who will call things what they are and who recognize finally and irrevocably that the most evil deed of all is not to do bestial things but to do bestial things and call them humane.

You can read the full article here. [Many thanks to George Hunsinger for drawing my attention to this article.]

Surrender: a reflection by Paul Toms

SurrenderA guest post by Paul Toms

I recently attended a gathering called Surrender. It gathers around a common Christian faith that calls us to seek justice in our world. The host partners put it on each year, and each of them have their own understanding of what this means and how it is done. A range of denominations, theological positions, cultures, and speakers make up this diverse community. I have a number of friends that have been instrumental in pulling together this unlikely coalition of people and know it is at times a challenge holding these differences together. I’m sure it would be tempting, in our economically-rational society, to reign this in and restrict it to a group that was more ‘on message’, particularly if this voice was willing to bankroll the event, but Surrender has worked hard to keep these differing voices in conversation. In doing so this gathering is a rich, diverse, and passionate meeting of people that, for me, is a unique practical expression of the Body of Christ that I have not experienced in many other expressions of Christian community.

One significant aspect of this expression is the way they take the words of St Paul seriously, that ‘the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable’ (1 Cor 12.22). This is embodied in their commitment, ensuring that many of the voices that are ignored or silenced in our society are heard.

Each year the majority of the people leading sessions over the weekend are on the ground practitioners who are part of small local communities. Room is made for people who are struggling with a range of challenges with their physical and mental health to not only be included in what is happening but are also given opportunities to lead. Stories are shared from communities in the developing world that encourage and challenge my western understandings of faith. And, critically, there is also a significant effort to engage indigenous Australians in respectful ways. This is much more than a tokenistic acknowledgement of country but a commitment to sit at the feet of the elders of this country to learn what it means to be a person of faith in our land. This is done through bible studies led by indigenous elders, a welcome to country which includes responses that last for over an hour (and routinely reduce me to tears), and the Saturday night programme dedicated to hearing from Australia’s first people as they lead us in worship and teaching.

What Surrender is able to achieve with a lot of hard work and persistence is something that I deeply value as both a community development worker as well as a Baptist. It is the creation of an inclusive community that is able to hold together a variety of expressions and ideas. This is not in a narrow, politically-correct ideal but a hard fought practical glimpse of the kingdom of God that Jesus spoke of. I am convinced that it is only when we struggle with the complexities, and at times the pain, of the holding together of differences within groups like this that we are indeed able to ‘have the mind of Christ’ (1 Cor 2.16).

My invitation to participate in the Body of Christ calls me to discover and express my own gifts within the community but it also requires me to ensure there is space for the unique offerings of my brothers and sisters. This at times requires the relinquishing of my comfort or control to allow those whose voices are often overlooked to be present and heard.

It is when I commit to working with others in this way that I resonate with the sentiments of Douglas Adams’ character, Dirk Gently, when he says, ‘I rarely end up where I was intending to go, but often I end up somewhere I needed to be’.

Testing the resurrection in our bones

Daniel Berrigan‘In 1980 and frequently since, groups of us have labored to break the clutch on our souls of wars and rumors of wars, of “inevitable” wars, of “just” wars, of “necessary” wars, of “victorious” wars. For us, repeated arrests, and the discipline of nonviolence in a religious tradition, have been summed up in the ethic of the resurrection surpassing all ideologies and justifications. Simply put, and daring to speak for others, some of whom are in jail tonight [including his brother, Phillip], we have longed to taste the resurrection. We have longed to welcome its thunders and quakes, and to echo its great gifts. We want to test the resurrection in our bones. We want to see if we might live in hope instead of in the … twilight thicket of cultural despair in which standing implies many are lost. May I add that in all this, we have not been disappointed’.

– Daniel Berrigan, SJ, ‘To Dwell in Peace: Unitarian Universalist Peace Fellowship Lecture’, Given at the General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalists Association of Congregations, 1999.

2022 World Cup slave labour deaths

wpid-wp-1405716695317.jpeg

Reading The Saturday Paper has become an exercise that I look forward to each weekend. (I read somewhere that exercise is supposed to be good for you, and I’ve noticed that lots of people seem to do it on the weekends as well.) It is mostly intelligent and well-written journalism which helps me to be a more critical and responsible citizen, something which is important to me. It’s also why I look forward to reading The Monthly, and why I hardly ever read The Australian – that dish rag which, according to Anthony Abbott, is Rupert Murdoch’s ‘gift to our nation’. All the time, I am trying to discern where the spirit of the age is in harmony with, and in discord with, that other Spirit.

Among this morning’s reads was Matteo Fagotto’s piece about soccer’s slave labour deaths, and how FIFA’s decision to award the 2022 World Cup to Qatar is already unmasking widespread abuses in that country. So Fagotto:

While the past two World Cups, in Brazil and South Africa, caused the death of nine workers, the International Trade Union Confederation has warned that the systematic abuses faced by labourers in Qatar could cause the death of up to 4000 people before the first ball is kicked in the Gulf nation in eight years’ time.

We’re become numbingly accustomed to reading these kinds of stories of human rights abuses surrounding big sporting events. Whether one recalls the NSW State Labor Government and the Sydney City Council’s shameful action of removing homeless people from the streets of Sydney prior to the 2000 Olympics, or about human rights activists in China being detained to prevent them from disrupting the Beijing Olympics in 2008, or about the reported 170,000 favela residents who were forcibly removed (by thousands of Brazilian militia) from their homes prior to the recent World Cup in Brazil (a country in which 80% of residents are afraid of being tortured by their own police force ), these stories are all too common. To the three well-publicised examples mentioned here, thousands could be added.

Reading Fagotto’s essay this morning made me feel powerless, and angry. It also made we wonder about the positive pressure that sanctions can provide, reminded me why I support trade unionism, reminded me why responsible theology is an imperative ingredient in the Christian humanist vision for just and flourishing societies, and why perhaps the greatest theological service that the church can provide through its various assemblies is to remind us all that the church and the basilea of God only very occasionally sing from the same song sheet. It also haunted me to think again about the hypocritical disparities in our world (and particularly in my own life) between a desire for just practices and for products (like sport) whose greatest cost is borne by the world’s most vulnerable. If only our power as citizens and consumers – and as theologians! – was matched by the kind of courage that justice seeks. I will carry these thoughts too to one of the texts upon which I will preach tomorrow morning – Romans 8 – about a creation groaning as in the pains of childbirth and hoping for what it does not yet have.

The Tendering of New Zealand’s Restorative Justice Services: Robbing Peter to Pay Paul

Restorative Justice New Zealand

A guest post by Janet Sim Elder

The recent announcement that government tendering of Restorative Justice (RJ) services throughout Aotearoa New Zealand to a smaller number of providers based here in NZ or from offshore is imminent. Judith Collins, Minister of Justice, has also announced there an increase of funding of $4.42 million in the May budget. Clearly this National Government wants to expand services.

A good thing you might say. Yes it is, but … and there is a large ‘but’. Ministry staff numbers entrusted with servicing the Restorative Justice groups around the country have gradually diminished over the last thirteen years since we in Dunedin and three other jurisdictions trained and were part of the world-first pilot of RJ as an alternative way of doing justice within the Justice system.

From a vibrant, forward-thinking, large group of public servants, the staff in this unit now number about five. The logic is, I suspect, that it is much easier and more cost efficient for a small group of Ministry staff to work with a handful of providers; the fewer the better.

Restorative Justice Aotearoa, the national grouping of all RJ services in NZ, is not in a position to put in a tender for all those services and is clearly not interested in doing so.

Nicola Taylor, the feisty Director of Anglican Family Care in Dunedin under whose umbrella we work as Restorative Justice Otago, providing long-term, highly professional and skilled work in bringing victims and offenders together to hear each other’s stories and to begin repair of the harms caused by offending, has decided we have no other option than to submit a tender ourselves. It’s risky because we have no certainty we will be successful, and because there is no contingency plan if we fail. Our story will be replicated throughout the country for the other RJ providers.

justice is what love looks like in publicSo we are committed to going all out for a strong bid to provide services in our Otago region. We have a depth and breadth of experience and are known and trusted by victims and offenders alike, as well as by local professionals working within and around the court system. This all has to be done in a few short weeks rather than months. Anglican Family Care is committing resources including in governance and making tenders to ensure we put in the best tender we can.

If you can help with brief letters of support for our bid, or for the RJ group near you elsewhere in the country in the same boat as we are, then, who knows, Peter does not have to be robbed in order to pay Paul and both might have a chance to live life in all its fullness!

To help out, please contact:

Restorative Justice Otago
c/- Anglican Family Care
PO Box 5219
Dunedin, Otago, NZ
email
p: +64 3 477 0801

Waiting for ‘Hannah Arendt’

Hannah ArendtIt’s been a while since I really looked forward to a film’s release, but I’m on the edge of my seat awaiting Margarethe von Trotta’s award-winning Hannah Arendt. The film’s focus is Arendt’s controversial reporting for the The New Yorker on the 1961 Adolf Eichmann trial, what Arendt named the ‘show trial’. Of course, one of the reasons for why this and other similar trials were so named by Arendt was because of her deep-seated conviction, expressed in a letter to her Doktorvater Karl Jaspers and published in Correspondence 1926-1969, that ‘the Nazi crimes … explode the limits of the law’. Indeed, ‘that is precisely what constitutes their monstrousness. For these crimes’, she continues, ‘no punishment is severe enough. It may well be essential to hang Göring, but it is totally inadequate. That is, this guilt, in contrast to all criminal guilt, oversteps and shatters any and all legal systems. That is the reason why the Nazis in Nuremberg are so smug … We are simply not equipped to deal, on a human, political level, with a guilt that is beyond crime’. As she would write in Eichmann in Jerusalem: ‘The purpose of a trial is to render justice, and nothing else; even the noblest of ulterior purposes — “the making of a record of the Hitler regime which would withstand the test of history” … — can only detract from the law’s main business: to weigh the charges brought against the accused, to render judgment, and to mete out due punishment’.

I’m really interested to see how von Trotta deals with these difficult themes in the film. By the way, for those interested in reading an outstanding and critical (here meant in both senses of the word) engagement with these ideas may I commend to you Lawrence Douglas’ The Memory of Judgment: Making Law and History in the Trials of the Holocaust, a book that I shall probably re-read in preparation for seeing the film.

The film’s synopsis reads:

HANNAH ARENDT is a portrait of the genius that shook the world with her discovery of “the banality of evil.” After she attends the Nazi Adolf Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem, Arendt dares to write about the Holocaust in terms no one had ever heard before. Her work instantly provokes a scandal, and Arendt stands strong as she is attacked by friends and foes alike. But as the German-Jewish émigré struggles to suppress her own painful asso- ciations with the past, the film exposes her beguiling blend of arrogance and vulnerability – revealing a soul defined and derailed by exile.

The film portrays Hannah Arendt (Barbara Sukowa) during the four years, (1961 to 1964), that she observes, writes, and endures the reception of her work on the trial of the Nazi war criminal, Adolf Eichmann. Watching Arendt as she attends the trial, staying by her side as she is both barraged by her critics and supported by a tight band of loyal friends, we experience the intensity of this powerful Jewish woman who fled Nazi Germany in 1933. The fierce, chainsmoking Arendt is happy and flourishing in America, but her penetrating vision makes her an outsider wherever she goes.

When Arendt hears that the Israeli Secret Service has kidnapped Adolf Eichmann in Buenos Aires and brought him to Jerusalem, she is determined to report on the trial. William Shawn (Nicholas Woodeson), the editor of “The New Yorker” magazine, is thrilled to have such an esteemed intellectual cover the historic process, but Arendt’s husband, Heinrich Blücher (Axel Milberg), is not so sure. He worries that this encounter will put his beloved Hannah back into what they both call the “dark times.”

Arendt enters the tense Jerusalem courtroom expecting to see a monster and instead she finds a nobody. The shallow mediocrity of the man cannot be easily reconciled with the profound evil of his actions, but Arendt quickly realizes that this contrast is the puzzle that must be solved. Arendt returns to New York and as she begins to discuss her groundbreaking interpretation of Adolf Eichmann, fear ripples through her best friend, Hans Jonas (Ulrich Noethen). Her philosophical approach will only cause confusion, he warns. But Arendt defends her courageous and original perspective and Heinrich supports her all the way. After two years of intense thought,

additional reading, and further debate with her best American friend, Mary McCarthy (Janet McTeer) her German researcher and friend, Lotte Köhler (Julia Jentsch) and of course, constant consultation with Heinrich, she finally delivers her manuscript. The publication of the article in “The New Yorker” provokes an immediate scandal in the U.S., Israel, and soon in the rest of the world.

HANNAH ARENDT provides an insight into to the profound importance of her ideas. But even more moving is the chance to understand the warm heart and icy brilliance of this complex and deeply compelling woman.

So far, I’ve been unable to find out any details about when the film opens here in New Zealand (only that it seems that Curious is bringing it out here) and have had to try and satisfy myself with watching the promos and reading a few reviews, including this one published in Der Spiegel. If anyone has any details about when and where I can see it south of the Waitaki, then please let me know.

 

Janet Sim Elder: Doing justice honourably

The focus of the next meeting of the NZ Presbyterian Research Network will be a lecture by my dear friend Janet Sim Elder on ‘The Challenge of Changing the Justice Landscape: How do we do justice honourably with victims, reduce recidivism and change public attitudes?’

Join us at the Knox Centre Seminar Room (Hewitson Wing, Knox College, Arden Street, off Opoho Road) on Thursday 10 November, 2011. We kick off with wine and nibbles at 5pm, and then Janet jumps into the hot seat from 5.30 until around 7.00. All are welcome.

Doing justice honourably

A guest post by Janet Sim Elder.

A crucial question in this election year is how do we do justice honourably with both victims and offenders? How can recidivism continue downwards and how do public attitudes change to being solidly evidence-based? How do we face the challenge of changing the justice landscape? Can we provide the moral courage to help our society take steps towards a more just and merciful society?

Biblical pillars of doing justice and loving mercy [Micah 6:8b] are heavily strained in NZ. We rush to apportion blame rather than ask who has been hurt by crime. We mete out a retributive ‘justice’ which perpetuates further injustices. We legislate for three strikes and there is no more mercy. Have we the moral courage to do the harder task? To ask the restorative questions ‘Together, how can we put this right? Are forgiveness and reconciliation possible?’.

Voices which have shaped increasingly punitive justice policies recently with both major political parties have come from a minority. Populist politicians listen to these voices above others. Shameful stripping of citizenship for all prisoners is the latest in punitive legislation in the news as I write.

Voices we might listen to more attentively as we prepare to vote include the Chief Justice, the Rt Hon Dame Sian Elias, Judge Sir David Carruthers Chair of the Parole Board[1], and Chief Family Court Judge Andrew Becroft – all with intimate knowledge of our justice system.

They all firmly support evidence-based change, and a better informed wider society, alongside the Silverstream Declaration soon to be released by the organisations which wrote the Declaration at the “Breaking down the Barriers” Conference in October 2010. Sponsors of this landmark gathering in Upper Hutt were Prison Fellowship New Zealand [PFNZ], Prison Chaplaincy Service of Aotearoa NZ, Pathway Trust, Pillars Inc. and the Salvation Army. National and international research was shared by experts in their fields, showing conclusively there are alternatives that do work to get prison numbers down.

The conference confirmed we need together to do more about the impact of crime on victims, that Restorative Justice works positively for both victims and offenders alike. When prisons treat people with more dignity and compassion, reoffending goes down. We could benefit from having open prisons like Norway where dislocated families have visiting rights over a weekend with their parent. Children see their dads on the weekend. Imagine that!

With an incarceration rate soaring over most other OECD countries[2], the most painful question is – could we become a less punitive society? There’s been a 35% increase in population in 187 NZ prison sites in the last five years! Corrections is now the largest government department. Fiscal sense? The Silverstream Declaration suggests it’s ‘fiscally irresponsible’ to be building more prisons.[3] Reputable international evidence is mounting that incarceration does not work for most offenders.

Working in Restorative Justice, I gain the growing conviction that victims’ stories of crimes (from burglary to rape and brutal murder) are stories to be told to offenders. To stand in their victims’ shoes is the darkest place to be, but easily avoided. Courageously telling stories, in a safe place, face to face, is what can turn both the lives of victims and offenders around towards life no longer dominated by painful pasts. The best apology victims say they want is when they know the offender will never commit the crime against anyone, ever again.

Offenders, male and female, find it very difficult to rehabilitate. Creative, hopeful ways forward were outlined at the conference: projects bringing church and community group resources together to address reintegration issues facing people as they return to life in the complex world outside the prison.[4]

What does the Gospel story teach about God’s ‘justice and mercy’ and how we act towards other human beings? The supreme example comes from Jesus on the cross.

‘Revealed in his dying prayer, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do,” is the conviction that justice in itself is not enough, that the humanity of the perpetrators of injustice must be upheld alongside the humanity of the victims, and that justice must serve still higher goals of reconciliation, healing and rehabilitation…’[5].

If we want to change the justice landscape, say ‘no more’ to quick-fix legislation, knee-jerk, non-evidence-based reactions embodied in flaky legislation, we must seriously become better informed. In the light of God’s generous giving to us in Christ, we cannot do less.

Janet Sim Elder is an elder of Knox Presbyterian Church, Dunedin, and convenor of their Social Justice Workgroups.

[1] A recent survey by the Board over the last ten years on serious criminals released on parole showed the number re-offending in any one month over that time was reduced from 100 incidents per month ten years ago to the most recent  average of 45 incidents per month.

[2] NZ has the fourth highest rate of any OECD country except  the USA (1), Mexico (2) and the Czech republic (3). Communication from Barry Matthews, CE Corrections [07/10/10].

[3] The average cost p.a. to keep one prisoner incarcerated is $90,000. It costs an average $3,600 for a year’s community service sentence.

[5] Graham Redding: Crime and Justice: a Biblical and Theological Perspective, from Crime & Justice (pub. PCANZ  October 2010)

Nota Bene

Revenge, justice and pleasure

While watching President Obama’s re-election speech this afternoon on the death on Osama bin Laden – and particularly while seeing the video footage of celebrating crowds – I was reminded of a few paragraphs from Don Carson’s Love in Hard Places:

‘Not that long ago on television we heard a soldier protest, “You must understand . . . it was our revenge!” The soldier was a Serb captured by the Kosovo Liberation Army. His words were broadcast in a television interview, nicely translated for the benefit of English-speaking peoples. He admitted that his unit had been involved in brutal acts of ethnic cleansing. Certainly he was frightened to be in the hands of his enemies, but he did not appear to be ashamed: “You must understand . . . it was our revenge!”

That is the trouble with revenge, of course: it does not feel like a sin. It feels like justice. Many of us have become inured to the distinction because we have watched so many movies or read so many books in which revenge, especially revenge that is adamantly pursued when the proper authorities either cannot or will not pursue justice, is itself just. It matters little if the hero is Clint Eastwood in a spaghetti western or a Dirty Harry film, or Bruce Lee in a martial arts flick, or Rambo getting even in Vietnam. In every case, we enjoy a cathartic release because we are made to feel the violence is just and therefore that the revenge is justified. When the right is on your side, revenge, no matter how violent, is a pleasure. It is just‘.

– Don A. Carson, Love in Hard Places (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2002), 72–3.

Auckland’s 1960s to Cairo’s 2011

Otago University’s National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies is hosting a public seminar by theologian and activist George Armstrong on the theme Auckland’s 1960s to Cairo’s 2011: A Half Century in the Struggle of Peoples for Peace with Justice.

When: Wednesday 23 February 2011, 12.00-1.30pm

Where: Commerce 2.20

According to the blurb, the Rev Dr George Armstrong (PhD, Princeton) came from Dunedin to Auckland in the 1960s and found himself shuttled between the Anglican Church and the New Zealand State, between Christianity and secularity. He came as lecturer in Systematic Theology to St John’s College and has been there – off and on – ever since. He has worked as a controversial and occasionally high-profile theologian in Maori, Pakeha, and Pacific sectors of Church and Society from the parochial to the global. He became briefly a public figure through the 1970s as a founder of the Auckland and New Zealand “Peace Squadrons”, flotillas of small boats who eventually made nuclear warship visits to New Zealand impossible. (The government – and eventually politicians of all stripes – outlawed them.)

Preaching on God’s justice as free grace

‘Preaching on justice means speaking about God in the indicative. Faced with the demand which God’s commandment places on us, our task is to deliver “the message of the free grace of God to all people” (Barmen VI). Because, in the Bible, justice is first and foremost a summarized rephrasing of God’s own good works. The Psalms declare: “How wonderful are the things the Lord does … his righteousness endures forever” (Ps 111:2f.). Hence, “the heavens proclaim his righteousness” (Ps 97:6) “and from one generation to the next … shall sing aloud of [his] righteousness” (Ps 145:7).

God’s justice (i.e., righteousness) – that is, his active caring for his creation – is his attentive accompaniment of his people; that is, his saving deeds and his good guidance. Justice – that is, his constant listening to the cries of the suffering – is his strong arm that liberates the captives; and in all this is God’s passionate love for his people, which can rage terribly about their wickedness and stupidity, but which can do nothing else except be “merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Ps 103:8). Where the justitia is blind, indeed inevitably must be blind to avoid being dazzled by the specific case at hand, it is said of the God of Israel: he watches, he listens and he yields – he applies the freedom of his love by doing justice to each of his creatures in a way that is conducive to his or her life in his or her particular situation. Justice: that is the way of our God through the time and space of his creation, the way on which he keeps his covenant and faithfulness to Israel unto eternity, and through Israel to the whole world, and never abandons the work of his hands. And hence: In the path of righteousness there is life (Prov 12:28a).

Also in the [Accra Confession], this prae of God’s justice takes precedence before all human endeavour. That is why the statements of faith always start with confessions of belief in God before going on to the rejections of economic injustice and ecological destruction.

In this context, I believe it is important to explicitly praise the confessional character of the Accra Declaration. For, in a very specific way, it corresponds to the fact that for us Christians standing up for justice is not a matter of political belief, but the response to God’s own words and deeds, through which we live and to which we, in faith, bear witness.

In order to make this clear, the sermon will, however, have to make the praise for God’s justice resound more clearly and comprehensively than the Accra Confession did or was able to do. I draw attention again to what was said at the beginning regarding the distinction between confession and sermon. Whereas the Accra Confession recalls God’s action in rather dry theological sentences, the sermon, guided by Bible stories, tells of the salvation work of God in such a way that it becomes clear: what happened at that time is also true today; the (hi)story of God with his people also embraces my world and my (hi)story. God is able to change my world and my life, and he will do so!

Hence, the sermon should avoid speaking “gesetzlich” (which means mixing gospel and the law) about the gospel (Manfred Josuttis). This always happens when the impression is given that human deeds could/should take the place of God’s action, as in: “Easter occurs when we rise up against death…” This kind of sermon does not offer much comfort, for it leaves those hearing it on their own, when they would in actual fact be in urgent need of God’s healing action …

After Accra, our basic task in preaching, and simultaneously our unmistakable Christian contribution is to keep making new attempts to tell about the justice of God and to offer it to our listeners as free grace so that despite all their fears and hardship they will become aware of their wealth; despite all their weaknesses they will become aware of their God-given power (cf. 2 Cor 6:3ff.; 12:9) and so become willing and able to stand up to injustice’.

– Peter Bukowski, ‘Preaching on Justice: The Question of the Homiletic Implementation of the Accra Confession’, Reformed World 55, no. 3 (2005), 236–7, 238.

‘What I see in Egoli’, Anonymous

What I see in Egoli
are tall buildings
smart cars
well dressed people
a whole scene
that has no place for me
no place for my wife
no place for my children.

Lord Jesus, where are you?
Are you in those smart white offices
those smart white houses
those smart white churches?

They think you are.
They talk about you the whole time
Just as if you were right there with them.
They are so sure
that you are guiding them,
that they are doing your will.
I like to think
that you are actually here with us
that you are one of the left out ones.

If that is how it is
if you are really here
with us, for us,
I think I could bear it
because I’d know
this wasn’t the end,
that you still come
to get prisoners out of gaol
and blind people out of darkness,
to get hungry people into the place
where they can feed their little ones
instead of helplessly hopelessly
listening to them cry.

But my son does not call you Lord,
Jesus,
let alone call on you,
Lord Jesus,
He uses your name as a swearword.
Jesus! he says,
Bloody white man’s Jesus!

I fear for him,
for us,
for those whites.

O Jesus, Jesus,
come soon,
clear up the barriers
open it all up, because if you don’t
something awful is going to happen.
Do you hear me,
one of those ‘homeland’ blacks
on the outside looking in?
RSVP
soon.

– Anonymous, cited in Margaret Nash, Black Uprooting from ‘White’ South Africa: The Fourth and Final Stage of Apartheid (Johannesburg: South African Council of Churches, 1980), 84–5.

Who said it?

It’s been around six weeks since our last ‘Who said it?’ competition, so probably time for another round (not that we need an excuse or anything). Here’s one from the archives:

‘Can it be just that God should bring beings into the world unprotected by an infinite armour of foresight against the infinite chances and temptations to wrong, and yet hold them liable to infinite punishment when they had gone wrong? … Punish a man for his sin, that is just; punish him for ages (if in that other world you can reckon time), that may be just; but make no end of punishing him for that sin, reduce him from a man to a devil and keep him there, let him become for ever vile, mainly because he was ignorant to start with, that is not just … Preach the eternal, unappeasable wrath of God upon lost souls and you offer men a devil to worship’.

So, who said it?

We’ll wrap it all up on Friday.

Australia, the Aborigines, and restitution

Yesterday I posted Barney Zwartz’s piece on Peter Adams’ weighing in on a national discussion on the relationship between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians. [The full text of Peter’s talk is available here]. Adams’ word to non-indigenous Aussies is essentially, ‘Get out or pay up’. Zwartz (who blogs here) has now followed this up with another piece titled ‘Australia, the Aborigines, and restitution’:

Anglican theologian Peter Adam thinks that unless Australia’s indigenous people give us belated permission, everybody whose forebears came after 1788 should decamp and return the land to its first inhabitants.

In a public lecture on Monday, he said that if the non-indigenous stayed they should have to provide whatever recompense the indigenous thought appropriate for the genocide and theft they have suffered.

Impossible! Absurd! Surely this is mere posturing? Neil Mitchell on radio station 3AW certainly thought so. He gave a 60-second tirade against Adam, apparently based on just the short Age report, saying it was the reason why no one should ever step inside a church again. And he thought Adam was melodramatic.

But there’s method in Adam’s madness. First, the Reverend Dr Peter Adam, principal of Ridley College, is a sober and sensible man, a conservative evangelical Christian, who thinks carefully about what he says. He knows very well how impractical and impossible it is for 21 million people to uproot themselves.

Probably Aborigines would not want us to – it’s hardly realistic for them to revert to a pre-colonial hunter-gatherer life. And how far back do you go? For the English would it be ”go home Normans”? Or Vikings? Or Saxons?

And who qualifies as an Aborigine? A Maori leader in New Zealand once said being Maori was a state of mind. ”Beethoven was a Maori,” she said. If being Aboriginal was a state of mind that brought instant reward, large numbers of Australians might self-identify.

But Adam wants to make two points. First is the gravity of what the indigenous people suffered. However impractical, mass emigration would be the moral response because ”what was done was so vile, so immense, so universal, so pervasive, so destructive, so devastating and so irreparable”.

The Christian concepts of repentance and restitution or recompense are profoundly radical. Adam’s idea is in keeping with the biblical concepts, even if these are honoured more in the breach than the observance now that Christianity is so institutionalised.

So it’s not merely rhetorical, however impractical. After all, the colonial powers returned India, Africa and Indonesia to their inhabitants.

The second point, the one that should gain traction, is that Australians need to grapple seriously with the idea of recompense – real recompense – perhaps for the first time. He wants to dispel the convenient fancy articulated by a former prime minister that we are not responsible for our forebears’ actions and owe no apology. Adam said: ”It is right to say ‘sorry’. For they were serious crimes and sins. They included the theft of land, which was not only the theft of livelihood but also the theft of home, identity and religion. They included murder and manslaughter, the destruction of social structures and culture, the breaking up of families, the desecration of the dead and genocide, with no legitimate justification.”

Nor are the churches exempt: their prosperity, he charged, ”has come from the proceeds of crime”.

He wants to rekindle the debate, move it beyond the relatively restricted arguments about apologies and native title. Of course, the broader Australian community has a vested interest in averting our eyes and wringing our hands over Aboriginal suffering. After all, we mean well but it’s so intractable. Adam’s point is, that won’t do – we must go much deeper and it starts with the indigenous telling us what they need. We need fresh eyes and an honest appreciation before we can grasp the gravity and really make amends.

And if Adam’s words are confrontational, that is thoroughly consonant with the ancient Hebrew device of hyperbole, found throughout the Bible. For example, when Jesus said ”And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee”, what he meant was take the notion of sin seriously; it matters what you do.

And that, surely, is Adam’s point: it matters what we do. It matters to indigenous Australians, it matters to the rest of us, and – for the religious among us – it matters to God.

All non-Aboriginal Australians should be prepared to leave the country

stolen-generationOn Tuesday, The Age ran a piece which picked up on some comments made in a recent lecture by Aussie theologian Peter Adam. [The full text of Peter’s talk is available here]. I’ve learnt much from Peter over many years, particularly about pastoral ministry (see his Speaking God’s Words: A Practical Theology of Preaching and Hearing God’s Words: Exploring Biblical Spirituality), and believe that he is always worth listening to, and no less in this case so germane to what it means to be human community (I have posted on issues relating to indigenous Australians elsewhere). Here’s the report from Barney Zwartz:

All non-Aboriginal Australians should be prepared to leave the country if the indigenous people want that, making restitution for the vile sin of genocide, an Anglican leader suggested last night.

If they stayed, they would have to provide whatever recompense indigenous peoples thought appropriate, the Reverend Peter Adam told a Sydney audience.

”It would in fact be possible, even if very difficult and complicated, for Europeans and others to leave Australia. I am not sure where we would go, but that would be our problem,” he said.

Dr Adam, principal of Ridley College – the main Anglican theological college in Victoria – was giving the NSW Baptist Union’s annual John Saunders Lecture.

Dr Adam said Christian teaching required either restitution – returning what was stolen, the land – or recompense. If those who arrived after 1788 did not leave, they would need to ask each of the indigenous peoples what kind of recompense would be appropriate. This would be complicated and extensive but must be done or the genocide would be trivialised.

”No recompense could ever be satisfactory because what was done was so vile, so immense, so universal, so pervasive, so destructive, so devastating and so irreparable.”

Dr Adam acknowledged that some people had done their best to remedy wrongs, including some government actions, but something ”more drastic” was required.

Dr Adam said churches shared responsibility because the land and wealth of churches came from land stolen from indigenous people. ”The prosperity of our churches has come from the proceeds of crime. Our houses, our churches, our colleges, our shops, our sport grounds, our parks, our courts, our parliaments, our prisons, our hospitals, our roads, our reservoirs are stolen property.”

He called for a co-ordinated recompense by churches that included supporting indigenous Christian ministry and training.

”We European Australians often claim that one of the strengths of the Australian character is ‘caring for the underdog’. That claim is hypocrisy – we do not act with justice, let alone care.”

He said his proposal would be difficult, complicated and costly. ”The alternative is to fail in our moral duty, to admit that for Australia, in Martin Luther King jnr’s words, ‘the bank of justice is bankrupt’.”

Growing up under militarisation

The Karen Human Rights Group has just released a 174-page report on the effects on children growing up in the context of violence – because of both ongoing armed conflict in Burma and Karen State (Kawthoolei; lit. ‘the land without evil’) and because of other more serious structural violence committed by the State. The report makes for sombre reading even while its very existence is a voice of hopeful protest; or, as Moltmann puts it, ‘There is already true life in the midst of the life that is false’. Here’s a blurb:

As the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), the military junta currently ruling Burma, works to extend and consolidate its control over all areas of Karen State, local children, their families and communities confront regular, often violent, abuses at the hands of the regime’s officers, soldiers and civilian officials. While the increasing international media attention on the human rights situation in Burma has occasionally addressed the plight of children, such reporting has been almost entirely incident-based, and focused on specific, particularly emotive issues, such as child soldiers. Although incident-based reporting is relevant, it misses the far greater problems of structural violence, caused by the oppressive social, economic and political systems commensurate with militarisation, and the combined effects of a variety of abuses, which negatively affect a far larger number of children in Karen State. Furthermore, focusing on specific, emotive issues sensationalises the abuses committed against children and masks the complexities of the situation. In reports on children and armed conflict in Karen State and elsewhere, individual children’s agency, efforts to resist abuse and capacity to deal with the situations they live in, as well as the efforts made by their families and communities to provide for and protect them, tend to be marginalised and ignored. Drawing on over 160 interviews with local children, their families and communities, this report seeks to provide a forum for these people to explain in their own words the wider context of abuse and their own responses to attempts at denying children their rights. With additional background provided by official SPDC press statements and order documents, international media sources, reports by international aid agencies, as well as academic studies, this report argues that only by listening to local voices regarding the situation of abuse in which they live and taking as a starting point for advocacy and action local conceptions of rights and violations can external actors avoid the further marginalisation of children living in these areas and begin to build on villagers’ own strategies for resisting abuse and claiming their rights.

The full report can be downloaded here as a pdf.

As for Burma’s ruling junta, that trinity of evil – Maung Aye, Than Shwe and Shwe Mann – convert or kill them Lord. How long, O Lord? How long?

Theodicy: The Justification Of God – 2

UNREALISTIC EXPECTATIONS

AND THEIR OUTCOME

Study 2

A guest post by Trevor Faggotter

WHY THEODICY IS AN ISSUE

Analysis and commentary upon the major problems in the world, nation, city, family or environment, can be heard daily on radio talkback segments across the globe. The blame, for our current or impending woes almost always rests with someone else. Cynicism abounds. Theology within the Christian church can all too easily become more a reflection of the popular, or dominant culture of the day, than a proclamation of the mind, and action of God – as revealed in Scripture. Only a thoroughly biblical theodicy can meet the world with the Word of grace, amidst dire judgments, as the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness (Romans 1:18).

From Genesis 3 we hear that ever since the entrance of sin into the world, human beings have sought to place the blame for their circumstances upon someone else – mostly God, but also other people and other creatures. Guilt is deeply at work in every human heart, provoking a skewed view of the truth, globally. This is especially so, as God draws near:

They heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden. But the LORD God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” He said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.” He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” (Genesis 3:8-11)

The reflex response to God’s simple, but probing, existential question ‘Where are you?’ finds expression in the deflecting the blame onto another. The man quickly pointed to the woman as the leading cause of his present fear. He also blamed God – who gave the woman to be with him. The woman in turn, blamed the ancient serpent, the devil:

The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.” Then the LORD God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent tricked me, and I ate.” (Genesis 3:12-13)[1]

Human beings will view God very differently, depending upon whether they have a pure or an impure heart. Where a person has a pure heart, or cleansed heart, God reveals himself to be pure. Where genuine faith is not present, God’s wrath acts against the conscience of the guilty person, so that God appears to be unjust, unkind and wrong.

…with the pure you show yourself pure; and with the crooked you show yourself perverse (Psalm 18:26).

Sinful human beings frequently view the world by placing God in the Dock[2] in order that he may give account of himself. In our humanly devised, God-blaming kangaroo court, we human beings exercise the self-appointed role of prosecutor, and judge. If God is creator, we reason, then he must answer for the state of the world he has created! However, the Lord sits in the heavens and laughs (Psalm 2:4).

In his Foreword to our text, The Justification of God, Dean Carter exposes the heart of sinful humanity in asking erroneous questions. Dean writes – in brackets:

(after all, theodicy is only an issue where there is a rejection of the light).[3]

This comment reflects the teaching of Jesus, in John’s gospel, who said:

And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed (John 3:19-20).

Facing the plain truth concerning God, humanity and the world is terribly confronting, if ultimately gloriously liberating. In the day that you eat of it [the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall die. Yet, everyone who lives and believes in Jesus will never die.

MAN-CENTRED CULTURE INSTEAD OF GOD-CENTRED FAITH

Man-centred cultures and religions, rather than God-centred faith in Christ, seeking his Coming Kingdom, are at the heart of all human evil and mayhem. A world that ignores the redemptive gift and gracious will of the Living Father soon becomes addicted to the narcotic agendas of progress, technology, escalating wealth, cultural mysticism, religious escapism, substance and environmental abuse and a yearning desire for more power.

Everything has come to turn on man’s welfare instead of God’s worship, on man with God to help him and not on God with man to wait upon Him. The fundamental heresy of the day, now deep in Christian belief itself, is humanist.[4]

Humanism had a bitter outcome for those who had embraced it, in the years prior to and during World War 1, as Forsyth points out:

I say it is inevitable that world calamities should encourage the denials of those who denied before. Their shock also makes sceptics of many, whose belief had arisen and gone on only under conditions of fine weather, happy piety, humming progress…[5]

Elated by our modern mastery of nature and cult of genius, and ridden by the superstition of progress (now unseated), we came to start with that excellent creature, man, his wonderful resources, his broadening freedom, his widening heart, his conquest of creation, and his expanding career. And, as with man we begin, with man we really end. God is there but to promote and crown this development of man, if there be a God at all…. The Father is the banker of a spendthrift race. He is there to draw upon, to save man’s career at the points where it is most threatened.

He is Father in a sense that leaves no room for love’s severity, its searching judgment … He is Father only so long as He meets the instincts and aspirations of man’s heart.[6]

GOD ENTERS THE PULPIT AND CASTS US

UPON A GOD OF CRISIS

It takes enormous discomfort in order for humanity to come to grips with the necessity of the cross of Christ, and with the seriousness of the evil in our own human hearts, and the evil endemic among every nation. The sheer kindness and mercy of God, we so badly underestimate. Forsyth recounts something of the type of public conversation that took place prior to World War One. It sounds all too familiar. He says:

World calamity bears home to us the light way in which, through a long peace and insulation, we were coming to take the problem of the world, and especially its moral problem. ‘We do not now bother about sin’ was said with some satisfaction. The preachers protested in vain against that terrible statement – those of them that had not lost their Gospel in their culture. But they were damned with the charge of theology.[7]

He then goes on to include the war itself, as God’s way of dealing with the human race; it is the disaster that ends dainty and dreamy religion:

And now God enters the pulpit, and preaches in His own way by deeds. And His sermons are long and taxing, and they spoil dinner. Clearly God’s problem with the world is much more serious than we dreamed. We are having a revelation of the awful and desperate nature of evil.[8]

The task which the Cross has to meet is something much greater than a pacific, domestic, fraternal type of religion allows us to face. Disaster should end dainty and dreamy religion, and give some rest to the winsome Christ and the wooing note…. It is a much wickeder world than our good nature had come to imagine, or our prompt piety to fathom.[9]

We, who have known much of the grace of God in our personal lives, know that God has both spoken and enacted a great word of hope, for the nations of the world in the death and resurrection of Jesus. It is a great victory. It is a very great victory. It is The Victory. A godless world needs yet to hear this word, and respond. The church needs to rediscover not only the God of order, which Christendom has enjoyed, but also the God of crisis, who is God most chiefly in the chief tragedy of things.[10] He alone is the One who from the nettle of perdition plucks the flower of salvation.[11]

THE GLOBAL DIMENSIONS OF THE GOSPEL

It was World War One, which drew from Forsyth the rich insights he imparts. We too are faced with many a crisis, on a global scale. We are equipped with the same cross, and the same Christ, and the same gospel, to which we must make recourse. The gospel has always been of global proportions. We need a theodicy, which is adequate to the task. Let’s take Forsyth words slowly, again and tease out each of these important points:

We begin and end with a faith, not in Jesus simply but in His world work…[12]

We begin with the faith in which our own soul calls Him its Saviour from what seems an infinite and hopeless evil. He delivers us from a sin whose guilt lies on our small soul with a pressure from the reservoir of all the high wickedness of the world.[13]

It is not from our moral lapses nor from our individual taint that we are delivered, but from world sin, sin in dominion, sin solidary if not hereditary, yea, from sin which integrates us into a Satanic Kingdom … An event like war at least aids God’s purpose in this, that it shocks and rouses us into some due sense of what evil is, and what a Saviour’s task with it is.

While the Church cannot begin to measure the problem of evil, we need the assurance of its defeat in the cross. For evil affects and invades every area of human life, and the theology of the cross always applies as God’s Victory, and the only true victory:

Is the principle of the war very different from that of a general strike, which would bring society to its knees by sheer impatient force, and which so many avoid only as impolitic and not as immoral?[14] … It is impossible even to discuss the theodicy all pine for without the theology so many deride.[15]


[1] Rev. 12:9 … that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world…

[2] C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock, Eerdmans, 1970, is a book, which contains a series of short articles.

[3] P. T. Forsyth, The Justification of God, NCPI, 1988, p. 4.

[4] P. T. Forsyth, The Justification of God, p. 24.

[5] P. T. Forsyth, The Justification of God, p. 24.

[6] P. T. Forsyth, The Justification of God, p. 25.

[7] P. T. Forsyth, The Justification of God, p. 28.

[8] P. T. Forsyth, The Justification of God, p. 28.

[9] P. T. Forsyth, The Justification of God, p. 28-29.

[10] Ibid. p. 30.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid. p. 30-31.

[14] Ibid. p. 34.

[15] Ibid. p. 37.

On Bastard Philosophies, Stolen Generations, and the Forgiveness of Sins

Writing of Bacon, Locke and Scottish common sense philosophy (uncritically lumped together), Nevin writes: ‘The general character of this bastard philosophy is, that it affects to measure all things, both on earth and in heaven, by the categories of the common abstract understanding, as it stands related to simply to the world of time and sense’. – John W. Nevin, Human Freedom and a Plea for Philosophy: Two Essays (Mercersburg: P. A. Rice, 1850), 42. Cited in Alan P. F. Sell, Testimony and Tradition: Studies in Reformed and Dissenting Thought (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005), 173.

This leads me to draw attention to a recent reflection by Aussie theologian, Frank Rees, on what it means for the new democratically-elected Australian government to say sorry for past and not-so-past sins, and why ‘sorry is not the hardest word: indeed, it will be a word of life’. Frank’s post is a timely reminder of how ‘bastard philosophies’ don’t bring life, but only death; in this case that death bred of fear, misunderstanding (of the issues, of people, and of the gospel itself) and mistrust, the wounds of which will probably take decades, if not centuries, to heal.

In a related post, Rory suggests that the apology to Australia’s stolen generation should be made on our behalf by the Governor General rather than by the Prime Minister. He writes: ‘He is the head of government in Australia, and he holds a position that is above party politics. Whatever you think about the virtues or otherwise of the current government, surely addressing this part of our history is bigger than who won the last election. I can only think that an apology coming from the GG would better speak for the nation, and it would allow the apology to loose itself from any particular party’.

I think I like this (Are there any good reasons – constitutional or otherwise – for why this cannot, or should not, happen?). But regardless of from whose vicarious lips the apology comes, one hopes that it may also model and encourage the way of life and a softening of heart (and a less bastardly-informed philosophy) for other people, governments and organisations. One hopes … [I confess to having no such confidence in human nature of itself to bring about such a change of heart. This too must be a work of the Spirit].

Frank’s and Rory’s posts reminded me of Stevan Weine’s book, When History Is a Nightmare: Lives and Memories of Ethnic Cleansing in Bosnia-Herzegovina, a volume which includes some powerful documentary of those closely affected by the tragedies attending the recent conflict in the Balkans. One such testimony witnesses:

I remember Bosnia as a beautiful and peaceful country. We all lived together. Before the war, it was unnecessary to know if your neighbor was Serb, Croat, Muslim or Jew. We looked only at what kind of person you were. We were all friends. But now I think it is like a kind of earthquake. A huge catastrophe. After this war nothing will be the same. People will live, but I think they will not live together. they will not share the same bread like before. Maybe they will be neighbors, but I think the close relationship will not exist any more. Because the Bosnian people, especially the Muslim people, had a bad experience, partly as a result of our attitude. (p. 13)

In his brilliant treatment on forgiveness, The Cleansing of the Memories, Geoffrey Bingham reminds us that ‘memory has always been a problem with mankind. It may seem a curious thing that man can be troubled by his past, as also delighted by it. Some memories bring a renewal of shock and trauma when they come unbidden’. Bingham proceeds to speak of ‘God’s holy amnesia’, of ‘the Divine forgetfulness’ or ‘the Divine non–remembering’. ‘God refuses to remember our sins! If then God refuses to remember our sins, why should we choose remember them?’ While our consciences never let anyone off the hook, Bingham writes, ‘God–through Christ–has so purged our sins, that they have been worked out to exhaustion and extinction, and all their power of guilt, penalty and pollution has been erased. In other words there are–effectively –no sins to remember! God has not simply ignored our sins. He has destroyed them, forever! … Of course–from time to time–we will remember the sins we once did, but we must not make them back into substantial things. God has denuded them of substance, of guilt, power and pollution. If they come to us in memory, then in faith in the Cross we should say, ‘Whilst you represent the sins I committed, you have no substance. God has emptied you, purified you, and taken away the guilt which accompanied you. You are wraiths, ghosts of the past come back to haunt me via the accusations of Satan and his hosts, but you have no substance’. [See The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World by Miroslav Volf, and my post here on Redeeming Bitterness – An Interview with Miroslav Volf].

I have just finished reading Wilhelm Herrmann’s Systematic Theology (Dogmatik), which I recommend. At one point, he notes that ‘It is the realization of the impossibility of friendship with God that creates in us the religious consciousness of guilt. Obviously we cannot be quit of this burden of guilt by any effort for our own betterment; for the sense of guilt before God will paralyse our courage to start a new life’. To all who have tried to be quit of the burden of guilt by their own efforts, Herrmann’s words sound out as a prophetic rebuke and caution against the futility and arrogance of such resolve. This is one of the reasons why in the final chapter of his The Wondrous Cross (reviewed here), Steve Holmes suggests that the message of penal substitution remains an important one to teach us about God’s love, about forgiveness and about justice – for both victims and perpetrators. He writes:

Penal substitution will, of course, teach us something about justice and guilt. It will teach us first that justice cannot and will not ever be set aside. Not that there can never be forgiveness – of course not – the point of the story is precisely that there can be, and is: while crimes cannot be forgotten, yet at the same time they must also be forgiven. Cases of child abuse, where the abuser has used shaming mechanisms so successfully that none of his victims ever speak; cases of corruption, where the politician has cynically sold favours and hidden her misdeeds well enough never to be discovered; cases of war crimes, where the military officer has callously committed certain deeds, feeling secure in the knowledge that they will not come to light: these are the types of cases and situations where penal substitution becomes an important story to tell.

For the victims in such situations, the story of penal substitution holds the promise that there is justice in this world, even for the worst crimes, or the best-hidden atrocities …

For the perpetrators in these situations, the story of penal substitution holds out the invitation to stop trying to escape their crimes by their own efforts, and to find, if they dare to face up with honesty and repentance to what they have done, full and free forgiveness in Christ.

In a recent paper I heard, Alan Torrance bore witness to the truth that it is only by virtue of Christ’s vicarious humanity that we discover the two forms of liberation that are intrinsic to atonement: first, liberation as victimisers for our sin of victimisation; and second, liberation as victims from the bitterness and hatred that attend the sense of irreversible injustice, the hurt of damaged lives, irretrievably lost opportunities, and all the other evils that result from sin. There is liberation here, he said, because precisely at the point where we cannot forgive our enemies the Gospel suggests that our sole representative, the sole priest of our confession, does what we cannot do – he stands in and forgives our victimisers for us and in our place as the One on behalf of the many – and then invites us to participate in the very forgiveness he has realised vicariously on our behalf. On these grounds we are not only permitted to forgive but obliged and indeed commanded to forgive others. Alan said, ‘Where we are not entitled to forgive, the crucified Rabbi is. And where we are unable to forgive, we are given to participate in his once-and-for-all forgiveness and to live our lives in that light and from that centre – not least in the political realm’. He cited his dad (JB Torrance), who defined worship as ‘the gift of participating by the Spirit in the Son’s communion with the Father’. The consequence of any ethic, therefore, that warrants the name ‘Christian’ must be conceived in parallel terms, namely as the gift of participating by the Spirit in the incarnate Son’s communion with the Father. ‘Forgiveness’, Alan stressed, ‘is the gift of participating in a triune event of forgiveness. In an act of forgiveness, the Father sends the Son, who, by the Spirit, forgives as God but also, by the Spirit, as the eschatos Adam on behalf of humanity. The mandate to forgive must be understood in this light.’

The ‘apology’ that will be made when the federal government next sits is ultimately possible because in Christ, God has already confessed humanity’s sins and forgiven all parties. To say ‘sorry’ is to take up Christ’s invitation to us to ‘participate in that forgiveness that he has realised vicariously on our behalf’. It is, as Alan presses, to participate in a triune event of forgiveness in which the Father sends the Son, who, by the Spirit, forgives. And, it is to participate by the Spirit, in the action of the last Adam on behalf of humanity, to the joy of the Father. Whether or not the Australian Government (or Governor-General), those of the Stolen Generation (and their families/nations), and all Aussies (even Faris QC) know that this is what it means to say ‘Sorry’ and ‘Receive the forgiveness of sins’ does not undermine the reality that the very human actions of confession and forgiveness are at the heart of what it means to be imago dei, and to participate in the ministry of the Triune God in our maimed and besmirched world.

‘For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility’ (Eph 2:14).

‘See to it’, therefore, ‘that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ. For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority. In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him’. (Col 2:8-15)