In recent weeks Facebook has been filled with anti-Muslim diatribes. They all share the conviction that there is only one form of Islam in the world, that it aims at the imposition of islamic law on all people, and is not afraid to resort to violence to achieve this objective. Anyone who is a committed Muslim is seen to share this conviction, and if they appear not to it is simply a clever ruse to get under the guard of non-Muslims.
We should name this for what it is: ill-informed bigotry. Bigotry thrives on the attribution of negative qualities to all people who share a particular culture, faith, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or the like.
The reality is that there are variations of belief about mosque and state within Islam. At one end of the spectrum are Islamic fundamentalist extremists such as those using horrific violence to carve out a so-called Islamic state in Syria and Iraq. At the other end of the spectrum are Islamic liberals who interpret their sacred writings to teach that wars of aggression are against the will of God, and promote liberal values such as gender equality, freedom of religion and democracy. Inbetween are a range of approaches.
What I fear is not religious but political fundamentalism. I grew up a religious fundamentalist. I was convinced I possessed the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, and that everyone should embrace it. I argued for many screwy things. But i was never a political fundamentalist. I never argued that those who rejected my version of Christianity should be forced to follow its tenets anyway. Many people I know remain Christian fundamentalists yet I know very few that are political fundamentalists. So it’s quite possible to be a religious fundamentalist but politically liberal.
I am quite comfortable living in a society that includes religious fundamentalists, whether they be Christian, Muslim, Buddhist or any other religion. What I will resist is political fundamentalism.
At the moment in some parts of the world Islamic religious fundamentalism is fused with a religiously justified political fundamentalism. This is a potent and dangerous mix. But to assume it is a necessary mix is a mistake.
I welcome my Muslim brothers and sisters, including those who are religious fundamentalists, religious moderates, and religious liberals. As we share life together, debate the perspectives of our faiths, bring our different cultural backgrounds together, and join hands as members of common communities our lives and our nation will be enriched, for it is in appreciating our differences that we discover our commonalities, better understand ourselves, learn to love one another, and grow into our humanity.
There’s an interesting episode in the Gospels where a woman brings a jar of expensive perfume, cracks it open and pours it upon Jesus. His followers, who have caught his concern for those living in poverty, grow indignant, protesting to the woman that the perfume could have been sold and the money given to those who were struggling. Jesus stops them, telling them that this woman has done a beautiful thing for him.
The episode is a healthy reminder that as well as working for the healing of that which is broken in myself and our world, I also need to make space to celebrate that which is good.
In recent years I have embraced what is commonly referred to as “Kingdom theology”, the idea that God is at work in the world to heal that which is broken. To this I need to include the idea that God celebrates and enjoys that which is good. In other words, God reigns over the world by sustaining and enjoying that which is good and healing that which is broken, and if that is so then I participate in his reign when I do the same.
Psalm 104 tells of God’s care for the entire creation and has this wonderful expression, that God formed the whale to frolic in the ocean. A few verses later the Psalm writer declares that God will rejoice in his work. I got a taste of what God must feel a few months back when I was fishing offshore and two whales swam by. It was thrilling.
The antidote to the hedonistic culture in which we live is not to deny myself pleasure, but to enjoy the good world God has made, and the people, places, the creatures God has placed in it, in a spirit of thankfulness and worship, at the same time that I remember these good things are to be shared, and that there are things that that are broken that God calls me to partner with him in healing. With God I want to be able to feel the sheer joys of the myriad of good and great things in life and the deep sorrows of those dark and broken places within myself and my world, and I want to make space to both celebrate and heal.
Last week I was reminded of a delightful anecdote from Dr Paul Brand, the medico who did revolutionary work on leprosy. Brand, who grew up in India, was sent to boarding school in England at the age of nine. When he was fourteen he received a telegram telling him that his father had died. The young Brand was heartbroken. A few weeks later a letter arrived that had been written by his father just before he died, but as it was sent by boat it arrived after the news had reached Brand of his father’s death.
Paul Brand’s father described the hills around their home and then finished with these words: “God means us to delight in his world. It isn’t necessary to know botany or zoology or biology in order to enjoy the manifold life of nature. Just observe. And remember. And compare. And be always looking to God with thankfulness and worship for having placed you in such a delightful corner of the universe as the planet Earth.”
Coming on the back of weeks of distressing news – the refugee crisis flowing out of Syria, war in the Ukraine, an ebola epidemic in West Africa, the brutality with which Australia treats asylum seekers – I found this a very helpful reminder. Neither Paul Brand nor his father were escapists. They were not people who retreated from the difficulties of the world, but spent their lives confronting them head on. Nonetheless, they also saw the beauty and glory of our world.
I cannot help getting myself involved with the injustices in our world. Something burns deeply within me that drives me to leave this world a better place than I found it. At the same time I find myself dancing crazily to the closing themes of the TV shows we have been watching, getting a buzz out of a brilliant sunset, feeling my spirit soar when a dolphin surfaces when I’m out on the water. The words in that letter sum it up perfectly, these things create within me a sense of thankfulness that I’ve been placed in such delightful corner of the universe as planet Earth.
It seems incongruous, even trivial, to celebrate a dolphin leaping from the water at the same time bombs are falling in Gaza. But I need to do it. I think we all need to do it. Thankfulness and worship enable me to not only see, but to feel in my bones the goodness in our world and in others. They create hope that the final word in history and in the causes I join will not be despair but delight. Far from representing an escape from the pain, thankfulness and worship provide me with the lens through which to engage it. So I will drink deeply of all the beauty I can. I need to, for without this all that is left is escapism and despair.
Today is my wife’s birthday, and it causes me to reflect on the extraordinary people we get to share life with. Sandy and I have been together since we were eighteen years old. She is without doubt the great love of my life, and I am humbled by the fact that she chooses to spend her life with me.
I want to say words that sum up who she is, but whatever I come up with seems inadequate. How do you reduce a unique human being to mere words? How can a few sentences capture the depth and breadth of who a person is?
What I can say is that my life would have been much diminished had Sandy not been part of it. She has been my friend, counsellor, companion, sounding board, and supporter; she has patiently listened to my ravings, gently (and sometimes not so gently) been my reality check; we have laughed together, cried together, fought together, made up together; she has graced me with her wisdom, her laughter, her fierce determination (do not be fooled by her gentle manner), her compassion, her generosity, and her time; she is to me a source of grace, love, hope, and encouragement.
In her I am reminded that the greatest gift we can offer to each other and to the world is ourselves, that we are each one of us quite extraordinary beings, that as we nurture our better selves we possess the power to help one another plumb the riches that life has to offer and traverse the challenges it poses, and that in the offering of ourselves we help others become the very best version of themselves they can be.
The last decade or so I have really enjoyed reading the works of “Jesus scholars”. They are part of a movement often described as “the quest for the historical Jesus.” The quest starts with the assumption that the Jesus pictured by the biblical writers and church tradition is quite different to the Jesus who walked the earth. So they try to peel away the layers of tradition that make up the “Jesus of faith” to reveal the “Jesus of history”.
I have found my understanding of Jesus shifting. The Jesus scholars have shown me that the image of Jesus of my childhood needs to be filled out, that he was much more than “God in a bod” who died to pay the penalty for my sin.
They have made the Gospels come alive for me by helping me appreciate Jesus in his historical setting. I have learned to see the Jesus who was a prophet of social justice; a teacher of subversive wisdom; a visionary of a new social order; a healer of broken minds, bodies , and communities; a leader of a politics of compassion over a politics of purity.
Many of the Jesus scholars lack confidence in the biblical accounts of Jesus, and so they do not refine, broaden and deepen their understanding of the “Jesus of of faith”, but abandon that Jesus. I don’t share their critique. I think the Gospels do give a reliable portrait of Jesus.
But they have helped me see so much more of Jesus, blessed me with a vision of Jesus that excites, inspires and challenges me, a Jesus I can follow.
“Justice didn’t do a thing to heal me. Forgiveness did.”
This is the closing sentence of Debbie Morris’s remarkable book Forgiving the Dead Man Walking. On a Friday night in the 1980′s sixteen year old Debbie and her boyfriend Mark were kidnapped while on a date. After shooting her boyfriend in the head and leaving him for dead in the woods, the kidnappers subjected Debbie to two terrifying days of rape and brutalisation. Debbie was not the first girl the pair had kidnapped, but she was the first to survive. There were many times she wished she hadn’t. She spent years struggling with pain, anger, depression, alcohol abuse and guilt. And in the end, it was forgiveness that was her healing.
The refusal to forgive him meant that I held onto all my Robert Willie-related stuff – my pain, my shame, my self-pity. That’s what I gave up in forgiving him. And it wasn’t until I did, that real healing could even begin. I was the one who gained.
Stories like Debbie’s remind me again and again of the power and importance of forgiveness. I have never been the victim of a monstrous crime such as that committed against Debbie Morris. I’ve never had to struggle with wounds so deep only forgiveness can heal. And so strangely, it’s easy for me to believe that forgiveness isn’t as important as it really is. It’s easy for me to hang onto anger, bitterness and resentment. Yet though they may not completely consume me, but a little reflection and I realise that they consume way too much of my emotional energy.
In Matthew 18 Jesus instructs his followers in how to respond when they are sinned against. First, he calls them to take the initiative in restoring the relationship, even when they are the innocent party.
If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector.
The setting for this teaching is the Palestinian village, where everybody knows one another and a serious breach in relationship has emerged. You can’t escape the other person. Rather than bearing a grudge or retaliating, the wounded person is to seek reconciliation, which can only occur when there is repentance and forgiveness, and speaking to the wrongdoer is the first step.
But what to do if the offender refuses to recognise his sin? He is to be treated as a Gentile or tax-collector. Some interpret this to mean he should be excommunicated, ostracised by the community. I find this an impossible reading, for Jesus’s teaching and example was to welcome the tax-collector, share meals, and show love. Jesus seems rather to be saying, “Do all you can to seek reconciliation, and if that is not possible, show grace.”
This is confirmed by the question Peter asks in response to this teaching:
Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.
Peter’s question reflects the sentiment found in rabbinic writings fom near the time of Jesus, which suggest that forgiveness should be extended up to four or five times, then withheld. There is no suggestion that the offender has repented. Rather he appears to be a repeat offender! Yet Jesus taught that even for the one who sins against me repeatedly, I am to offer forgiveness.
I learn the nature of forgiveness by reflecting on God’s forgiveness of me. At the core is the notion that God heals the breach in our relationship with him not by extracting compensation from us, nor by harming us, but by absorbing in himself the pain our sin creates and releasing us from any debt we might owe him. It is God saying “I will not treat you as your actions deserve. I will not hold you in my debt, I will not punish you, I will not withhold my love. I will offer you my friendship.”
In this light, Christopher Marshall defines forgiveness like this:
Forgivenesss is what happens when the victim of some hurtful action freely chooses to release the perpetrator of that action from the bondage of guilt, gives up his or her feelings of ill will, and surrenders any attempt to hurt or damage the perpetrator in return, thus clearing the way for reconciliation and restoration of relationship.
Forgiveness is not forgetting. To ask someone to erase a painful experience from their memory is not only impossible but can be quite harmful. Forgiveness is not a denial that something terrible occcured, but a determination that although something terrible did occur, we will release the offender from their guilt.
Forgiveness is not reconciliation. Reconciliation requires repentance on the part of the offender, as well as forgiveness on the part of the offended. Where repentance is lacking, where the offender refuses to acknowledge the pain he or she has inflicted and is unwilling or unable to change, there is no basis for a reconciling.
Forgiveness is not restoration. Where there has been a deep breach in relationship, restoration of a relationship to its previous state is often impossible. Wounds may run too deep to enable the wronged person to continue the relationship.
How then, do I go about forgiving? I find a number of things help me get there:
First, to reflect on God’s forgiveness of me, to realise the damage I have caused myself, others, and the earth, then hear God say, “I forgive you.”
Second, to be completely honest about how I have been impacted by the sin of the other person. How it made me feel, how it impaired me, how it shaped my life.
Third, try to understand the person who wronged me. What was it that brought them to do this? What needs were they seeking to meet? What had happened in their life that meant they acted in this way? In answering these questions I am not seeking to excuse their behaviour, but to understand it.
Fourth, identify the ways I am punishing, or fantasise about punishing, the person who has wronged me.
Fifth, identify what it would mean for me to seek the offender’s good.
Sixth, enact a decision to forgive.
More often than not, I find forgiveness is a process rather than a point, but as Debbie Morris and countless others who’ve experienced deep trauma testify, forgiveness heals.