Atonement

 

Friends,

Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, began yesterday evening and will conclude this evening. Rooted in prayer and fasting Yom Kippur centres on  confession. Confession is the terrifyingly liberating work of truth telling. Truth telling to another. Truth telling in community. Terrifying, because to reach the truth we need to lay down our defence mechanisms that protect us from the truth and that enable us to live comfortably with falsehood. Numb and blind. Yes we have an almost endless ability to lie to ourselves. We self-deceive. Confession admits this before it admits anything else. And this truth is piercing, leaving us feeling exposed and vulnerable. In other words confession takes courage. Great courage.

The truth is we need help to be truthful. We need help to confess. For this reason, every Yom Kippur the words of Isaiah are read. We read of an ancient people’s vulnerable exposedness to the truth to stand in their shameful shoes and to expose ourselves to our truth.

Please note the communal (systemic) nature of the confession. The confession of neglecting the poor and vulnerable of society and the deathly consequences that follow. The confession goes deeper, reaching to the primary sin of the religious and that is believing that one can have a relationship with God while by-passing one’s neighbour through the conduit of religious ritual. Note too that the moment we prioritise the poor through just policy the light of the nation will shine. In other words there will be no more load-shedding. Anyone want to say, Amen?

Isaiah 58
Shout out, do not hold back!
  Lift up your voice like a trumpet!
Announce to my people their rebellion,
  to the house of Jacob their sins. 
2 Yet day after day they seek me
  and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that practised righteousness
  and did not forsake the ordinance of their God;
they ask of me righteous judgements,
  they delight to draw near to God. 
3 ‘Why do we fast, but you do not see?
  Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?’
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast-day,
  and oppress all your workers. 
4 Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
  and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
  will not make your voice heard on high. 
5 Is such the fast that I choose,
  a day to humble oneself?
Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,
  and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Will you call this a fast,
  a day acceptable to the Lord? 
6 Is not this the fast that I choose:
  to loose the bonds of injustice,
  to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
  and to break every yoke? 
7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
  and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
  and not to hide yourself from your own kin? 
8 Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
  and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
  the glory of the Lord shall be your rearguard. 
9 Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
  you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am. 

If you remove the yoke from among you,
  the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, 
10 if you offer your food to the hungry
  and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
  and your gloom be like the noonday. 
11 The Lord will guide you continually,
  and satisfy your needs in parched places,
  and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
  like a spring of water,
  whose waters never fail. 
12 Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
  you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
  the restorer of streets to live in. 


13
 If you refrain from trampling the sabbath,
  from pursuing your own interests on my holy day;
if you call the sabbath a delight
  and the holy day of the Lord honourable;
if you honour it, not going your own ways,
  serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs; 
14 then you shall take delight in the Lord,
  and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth;
I will feed you with the heritage of your ancestor Jacob,
  for the mouth of the Lord has spoken. 

With grace, Alan

Jubilee Justice

 

Sunday 12 September 2021 Prayers

Please click here to download the Opening Prayer by Terence Parker.

Please click here to download the Prayer for Peace, Hope and Justice  by Rose-Anne Reynolds.

 

Friends,

This is the week of Rosh Hashanah. Hebrew New Year. Rosh Hashanah is in fact more than New Year; it is the commemoration and celebration of creation. Rosh Hashanah starts 10 days of awe and reverence concluding on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Awe and reverence for creation and the Creator that invite our introspection and call us to repent (change) and realign our living in honour of the Creator and care for the creation.

According to the ancient biblical calendar this week is not only the celebration of Rosh Hashanah, but the celebration of a Jubilee Rosh Hashanah. The 50th year of release and rest. The Jubilee year is called Shabbat Shabbaton, when the tired Earth is given time to rest and restore (Leviticus 25:1-7) and called Shabbat Shmita, when those who are suffering under crushing debt are released from the burden (Deuteronomy 15:1-4). Jubilee is the great re-set of the economy and environment towards Justice. Jubilee is an economy of jubilation for the poor and the most vulnerable. It courageously and creatively contrasts the status quo economy of exploitation, exclusion and extraction.

Jubilee is not only the most radically just piece of legislation ever thought of, but it is also the most humble. In Micah 8:6 we called to “do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God”. Emphasis is most often placed on justice and mercy forgetting about humility, but humility is crucial for there to be justice and mercy. Jubilee is the humble recognition that even our best efforts will fail over time. Missing the mark of justice and love by one degree today and another degree tomorrow adds up over 50 years. The great fear of the freshly freed Hebrew slaves was that it would add up to slavery again which is what they feared more than anything else. Their honesty about the human condition humbly acknowledged that after 50 years the economy would be skewed in favour of some while others would be at risk of becoming debt slaves, which was the first step to chattel slavery. In order to mitigate against this they built a reset mechanism into their system of governance. The Year of Jubilee is the reset mechanism when the gap between those who have too much and those who have too little is formally closed. It is also known as the Year of the Lord’s Favour. Yes, the Lord favours equality among people and a restoring and regenerative relationship between humans and the environment.

The question for us is: how can we honour this Year of Jubilee? In what ways can we contribute to the re-distribution of wealth in general and our wealth in particular? Who and how can we gift with release and rest? How can our relationship with the environment – the soil, air, water, and all creatures great and small – be more just, merciful and humble? What systemic change is needed beyond our individual change? What does living this year deliberately look like for you? I look forward to having these conversations with you.

In grace, Alan

P.S. Don’t forget to email welcome@cmm.org.za for the Sunday Service zoom link. This Sunday 12th September Brandan Reynolds – the cartoonist – will be sharing his creativity with us and on the 19th September Tim Attwell will be opening our eyes to the wonders of Western Cape fynbos. Siphiwe Ndlovu will be preaching on the 26th September. All in celebration of creation and the Creator.

P.S.S. Due to a kind and generous donation we are in the process of up-grading our tech. We hope to provide a stable platform for all our services going forward. This remains a learning for all of us. Thank you for your understanding when things have not always gone as planned. The fine-tuning of this process will take place during the Sundays in September while we are led by people via Zoom from their homes.

I will be back in the pulpit on 3rd October and my hope is that we will re-open for in-person services on this Sunday. To this end I plead with you to make sure you are fully vaccinated so that our gatherings will be safe. The opportunities to be vaccinated are now unlimited and the evidence of their life-saving effectiveness is beyond doubt. For our own health and the health of those around us please vaccinate. Being vaccinated is the least we can do to honour the incredible healthcare workers who have selflessly given of their lives to save ours over the last 18 months. Being vaccinated is probably the best gift of thanks we can give all our healthcare workers because it spares them of over full ICUs and having to go through the trauma of triage day in and day out.

 

The Buried Giant

Friends,

While referring to the story of Saul and David, biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann, notes: “We do not know if we are dealing with … historical report, theological conviction, or literary strategy. Perhaps all these factors are operative.” This is worthy of remembering as we read scripture. In fact, it is worthy to remember regardless of what we are reading. Seldom is anything simply a historical report. Convictions, be they theological, ideological, cultural, or economic are most often lurking just beneath the surface. And all writing comes to us in some form or other and as they say, the medium is the message. So indeed “perhaps all these factors are operative” all the time in all writing. Part of our reading work is to understand how these three factors are rolled into one, and to discern the due emphasis of each.

Sunday past I referred to Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2016 novel, The Buried Giant. The reviews are so spectacularly varied, leaving us asking what this book is about!

Here are some of the reviews:

  • “Lush and thrilling, rolling the gothic, fantastical, political, and philosophical into one.” —The New Republic
  • “Devastating. … As emotionally ruinous an ending as any I’ve read in a very long time, and it made me circle back to the opening pages, to re-enter the strange mist of this sad and remarkable book.” —Mark O’Connell, Slate
  • “Splendid. … The Buried Giant is a simple and powerful tale of love, aging and loss.” —The Wall Street Journal
  • “A beautiful, heartbreaking book about the duty to remember and the urge to forget.” —The Guardian(London)
  • “A novel of imaginative daring that, in its subtleties of tone, mood and reflection, could be the work of no other writer.
    … In the manner of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Ishiguro has created a fantastical alternate reality in which, in spite of the extremity of its setting and because of its integrity and emotional truth, you believe unhesitatingly.” — Financial Times
  • “Ishiguro is a deft gut-renovator of genres, bringing fresh life and feeling to hollowed-out conventions. … The love story at its center shimmers with a mythic and melancholy grace.” —Vulture 
  • “A literary tour de force so unassuming that you don’t realize until the last page that you’re reading a masterpiece.”
    USA Today
  • “A profound meditation on trauma, memory, and the collective lies nations and groups create to expiate their guilt.”
    The Boston Globe

 

I invite you to read The Buried Giant to see for yourself, and don’t be surprised when you reach the end of the book that you discover that you were reading a totally different story to the one you thought you were reading. This new story may awaken you like a splash of cold water awakens a sleepy face in the early morning, or it may emerge slowly in the days and weeks after having long finished reading, like a bud stretching slowly toward summer.

Now why would it be any different with the Bible? The stories in the Bible are as multi-layered and therefore carry the potential to provoke as spectacularly varied insights and interpretations? All being worthy to the extent that they bring justice, healing, and freedom in the world. I am willing to wager that not one person who reads The Buried Giant will ask if it is true or not? As in, is it factual? As in, did it happen or not? Why? Because intuitively we know that truth is larger than fact. Some truth is so large it can only fit into fiction. With fiction we do not ask if it is true or not, but rather what truth is in the story? We ponder for days, months, even a lifetime, what this or that symbolises? Again, why would we think the Bible is any different?

In grace,
Alan

Love and Truth

 

Friends,

A follow on from a few weeks back …

What can we do? We can fast and pray.

I know fasting and praying sounds like religious escapism, and of course it can be, but it can also be just the opposite. To fast and pray can be radical engagement with the world. Not least because we are part of this world. If we are attentive, we will see that what is happening outside in the street is taking place inside the corridors of our own heart. To clean the one is to make a difference to the other. Therefore, any healing and liberation within us, is healing and liberation of the world.

We heal and liberate the world from where we are. One place where we all are, is who we are. In our own life we carry more responsibility than anyone else to engage the principalities and powers within us, because these principalities and powers carry our name. “Naming, unmasking, and engaging” these powers is our lifelong liberation struggle. These principalities and powers are the stubborn patterns of self-deception and comfortable self-centeredness within us. They constantly confuse death with life and good with evil. As we come to realise that patient persistence together with fierce determination is demanded of us in the struggle within, so we realise no less is demanded of us to bring life-giving transformation to our communities, country, and world.

Through prayer and fasting we gain sharper insight into our own demons. We are moved to make the ancient confession our own, “that I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do” [Rom 7:19]. In this we admit we are complicit with all that needs changing in the world. Complicit even regarding all we are opposed to in the world, and that we want to change. Knowing we are not innocent; our fierce determination is transformed by humility into a merciful determination. We therefore address the principalities and powers with love and in truth trusting that regardless of whether our ends are ever achieved, the very means we have employed make for a more beautiful, just, and peaceful world.

Fasting and praying, in the sense that I refer to here has nothing to do with trying to get God to act, change, wake up or be moved in any way. The One who loves the world with “an everlasting love” does not need changing, and nor does the One who “neither sleeps nor slumbers” need to be woken up. It is you and I that need to wake up, change and act differently, and therefore we fast and pray.

To fast.

To fast is to voluntarily go with less.
It is to taste a tiny morsel of hunger.
To voluntarily feel a fraction of the hunger of the hungry.
To be moved into the slightest of solidarities with the poor and marginalised.
To have our conscience pricked as much as our stomach pinched.
To go with less to have more to share.
To carry within us an everlasting hunger and thirst for justice … that those who have much do not have too much and those who have little do not have too little.
To attain the blessedness of a world where all have enough.

If we cannot bring ourselves to go without food for a day, or in the very least to intentionally miss a meal, then let even this be our teacher. Not for guilt’s sake, but for truth’s sake. What grace and truth lies buried in us not fasting? Surely if we are not willing to embrace the irritable discomfort of missing a single meal, then we can begin to understand the deepening despair and growing rage of those who miss multiple meals without choice? Therefore, let even our reluctance to fast move us to hunger for justice.

To pray.

What is it to pray? I never stop asking myself this question. I wonder some days whether this question itself, is not a type of praying “without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). I could forward you a booklist of those who I have found wise in matters prayer, but they will not satisfy. Indeed, they are not meant to satisfy and we best fear if they do. Their insights may enlighten us, but they will not nourish us. They are gifted with words to speak of these things that lie beyond words, but when it comes to prayer, we cannot live by the words of others alone. At best their wisdom may awaken a hunger within us to prepare our own meal of prayerfulness. Their answers cannot be our answers. Yet, their answers can be where our questions are birthed and is this not the most hope-filled gift of any author or teacher?

“Prayer is being present to the presence of God.” I remember highlighting these words in a book, the name of which I have long since forgotten. Aaah that’s it, I thought. I have the answer. Yet, this answer soon spawned questions: “What does it mean to be present?” “What is God’s presence?” These questions, however, were not looking for answers as much as they were inviting me into a practice of my own. A place to discover and describe prayer for myself. Simply put: the meaning of prayer will not be decided outside of a practice of prayer.

From within the limits of my own practice I have discovered that:

To pray is to be present to the presence of Love and Truth.
This Love and Truth is the Real Reality of all that is.
This presence of Love and Truth is within me and beyond me.
To pray is to be drawn within myself.
To pray is to be drawn out of myself.

To be present is to take up a posture of attentiveness.
Attentiveness as focus and openness.
Attentiveness as longing and surrender.
Attentiveness as grief and gratitude.
Attentiveness as aching desperately for transformation and of accepting myself as I am and the world as it is. With wonder.
Attentiveness is ultimately a posture of vulnerability.

To pray is to become vulnerable to Love and Truth.

This is what I hope for when I sit in silence. This is my prayer for my prayers.

In these draining days of lockdown, filled with grief and loss and change, I encourage you to deepen your own practice. Your own embodied practice of fasting and praying, even if they are known to you by a different name. A practice that you discover for yourself and can describe in your mother’s tongue. A practice that grounds you in Love and sets you free by Truth. A practice that becomes a life sustaining reservoir from which you can draw strength to remain open and vulnerable. A practice that makes you brave because it fills you with love. A love that casts out fear.

Hear the words of John Wesley. They are words that nourish a hunger within me to begin … and to begin again and again.

“Oh begin! Fix some part of every day for private exercises … whether you like it or not, read and pray daily. It is for your life; there is no other way; else you will be a trifler all your days … Do justice to your own soul; give it time and means to grow. Do not starve yourself any longer.”

In grace,
Alan

 

 

God

 

Friends,

Another poem for you: God, by Kahlil Gibran.

Even for a poet, it takes tremendous boldness to title a poem, ‘God’.

Yet, look closely, the poem moves slowly. So humbly. In 1000 year segments of time. The poet acknowledges that this poem has literally taken him 1000’s of years to write. The poet is bold but also humble. And when it comes to matters ‘God’, one must be both.

Insight spoken, is met with Silence. Repeatedly. A Silence that invites further wrestling and deeper knowing. A Silence that creates space for unlearning, the most difficult learning of all…

In grace,
Alan

 

God

In the ancient days, when the first quiver of speech came to my lips,
I ascended the holy mountain and spoke unto God, saying, “Master,
I am thy slave. Thy hidden will is my law and I shall obey thee
for ever more.”
 
But God made no answer, and like a mighty tempest passed away.
 
And after a thousand years I ascended the holy mountain and again
spoke unto God, saying, “Creator, I am thy creation. Out of clay
hast thou fashioned me and to thee I owe mine all.”
 
And God made no answer, but like a thousand swift wings passed
away.
 
And after a thousand years I climbed the holy mountain and spoke
unto God again, saying, “Father, I am thy son. In pity and love
thou hast given me birth, and through love and worship I shall
inherit thy kingdom.”
 
And God made no answer, and like the mist that veils the distant
hills he passed away.
 
And after a thousand years I climbed the sacred mountain and again
spoke unto God, saying, “My God, my aim and my fulfillment; I am
thy yesterday and thou are my tomorrow. I am thy root in the earth
and thou art my flower in the sky, and together we grow before the
face of the sun.”
 
Then God leaned over me, and in my ears whispered words of sweetness,
and even as the sea that enfoldeth a brook that runneth down to
her, he enfolded me.
 
And when I descended to the valleys and the plains God was there
also.

by Kahlil Gibran

 

Poets are the brave ones

 

Friends,

When our own words feel so thin and brittle that we fear they may break for lack of meaning the moment we speak them, then it may be wise to turn to the poets. The poets are the brave ones, unafraid to pen their hearts down to paper for the world to poke and prod, looking for signs of life and searching line by line for love. The poets whose imaginations forever outsmart the intimidations of the “this is how it will be, because this is how it has always been” brigade. The poets who so beautifully voice our questions that we are no longer tempted to have a quick fling with an answer. The poets who so intricately and intimately describe our wounds, that we are healed by their understanding of them, and are able to wait less anxiously for a cure, or even surrender to there being no cure.

Here are four poems for you. The first poem makes a case for poems (well, “certain poems”). I hope the others prove the case.

In grace,
Alan

 

“Not many of them, it’s true” ~ by Gregory Orr

Not many of them, it’s true,
But certain poems
In an uncertain world—
The ones we cling to:
 
They bring us back
Always to the beloved
Whom we thought we’d lost.
 
As surely as if the words
Led her by the hand,
Brought him before us.
Certain poems
In an uncertain world.
 
 

A Blessing for one who is exhausted ~ by John O’Donohue

When the rhythm of the heart becomes hectic,
Time takes on the strain until it breaks;
Then all the unattended stress falls in
On the mind like endless, increasing weight.
 
The light in the mind becomes dim.
Things you could take in your stride before
Now become laboursome events of will.
 
Weariness invades your spirit.
Gravity begins falling inside you,
Dragging down every bone.
 
The tide you never valued has gone out,
And you are marooned on unsure ground.
Something within you has closed down;
And you cannot push yourself back to life.
 
You have been forced to enter empty time.
The desire that drove you has relinquished.
There is nothing else to do now but rest
And patiently learn to receive the self
You have forsaken in the rush of days.
 
At first your thinking will darken
And sadness take over like listless weather.
The flow of unwept tears will frighten you.
 
You have travelled too fast over false ground;
Now your soul has come to take you back.
 
Take refuge in your senses, open up
To all the small miracles you rushed through.
 
Become inclined to watch the way of rain
When it falls slow and free.
 
Imitate the habit of twilight,
Taking time to open the well of colour
That fostered the brightness of day.
 
Draw alongside the silence of stone
Until its calmness can claim you.
Be excessively gentle with yourself.
 
Stay clear of those vexed in spirit,
Learn to linger around someone of ease
Who feels they have all the time in the world.
 
Gradually, you will return to yourself,
Having learned a new respect for your heart
And the joy that dwells far within slow time.

 

The World Has Need of You ~ by Ellen Bass 

everything here
seems to need us ~ Rainer Maria Rilke
 
I can hardly imagine it
as I walk to the lighthouse, feeling the ancient
prayer of my arms swinging
in counterpoint to my feet.
Here I am, suspended
between the sidewalk and the twilight,
the sky dimming so fast it seems alive.
What if you felt the invisible
tug between you and everything?
A boy on a bicycle rides by
his white shirt open, flaring
behind him like wings.
It’s a hard time to be human. We know too much.
The cliffs? The gulls?
If you’ve managed to do one good thing,
the ocean doesn’t care.
But when Newton’s apple fell toward the earth,
the earth, ever so slightly, fell
toward the apple as well. 

 

The Eye ~ by Kahlil Gibran

Said the Eye one day, “I see beyond these valleys a mountain veiled with blue mist. Is it not beautiful?”
 
The Ear listened, and after listening intently awhile, said, “But where is any mountain? I do not hear it.”
 
Then the Hand spoke and said, “I am trying in vain to feel it or touch it, and I can find no mountain.”
 
And the Nose said, “There is no mountain, I cannot smell it.”
 
Then the Eye turned the other way, and they all began to talk together about the Eye’s strange delusion. And they said, “Something must be the matter with the Eye.”
 
 

Loving Generosity

 

Friends,

It was Henri Nouwen who said: “Our greatest fulfilment lies in giving ourselves to others … beyond all our desires to be appreciated, rewarded and acknowledged, there lies a simple and pure desire – to give.”

This should not surprise us. Our faith invites us to trust that humanity is born in the image of a lovingly generous and generously loving God. In other words, we are born to be lovingly generous and generously loving. Is this not why we feel more in love with life when we choose to be generous and why we feel shrunken within ourselves when we decide against being generous? The generous choice is commonly motivated by love, and its opposite by fear. Deciding to pay someone the most we can afford tastes different to paying someone as little as we can get away with. Love is sweet on the tongue and nourishing for the body, while fear tastes sour in the mouth and fails to fill the stomach.

If there is any truth in what I’ve just written, then we would be wise not to leave our generosity up to “chance”, but rather do some planning. We make plans to earn money so why not make plans when we give money? Planned generosity actively searches for opportunities to be generous. Where our passions meet the pain of the world is a good place to start. And once we know where we want to give then we can set out to grow our generosity. For some, 10% of income is a good place to start, for others 10% of income is a good goal to aim for.

CMM as a community sets aside 10% of all offerings received. Over the years even when we did not actually have the cash in the bank, we kept the tithe amount on the books to remind us  that 10% of everything that comes in, must flow out for it simply does not belong to us. The giving plan of CMM works as follows: 80% of CMM’s tithe go to the following 6 areas: HIV/Aids; Education; Informal Settlements; Violence/Peacemaking; Poverty/Unemployment; Youth. 20% goes to miscellaneous concerns or emergencies. We also favour local (Western Cape) versus not local on a 70 – 30% split.

Recently we have been privileged to give R200k to pre-school education (including schools within informal settlements and the city). Another R50k will soon be going to pre-schools in Namaqualand. A remarkable organisation working to alleviate poverty and unemployment in the city received R50k on top of the R60k that they already receive annually from CMM. An organisation that has responded quite miraculously to the hunger crisis as a result of COVID-19 also received R50k. We continue to offer sustainable finance to city traders in the vicinity of the Church office. We foresee that these instalments of around R10k will need to be repeated a few more times to help traders keep their stores open until the passing foot traffic increases once again.

At CMM we are not taught to give to the church per se, as if funding a church equals “giving to God” (this teaching at best forgets that God so loved the world – not the church – and at worst it can be a manipulative disguise for personal and institutional greed). Instead, we are simply taught to be generous and to grow in a generosity that is good news to the poor. We do not give in order to get, but there is a definite reward in giving. The reward: We come alive when we give. We come alive because we honour the image of God at our core of who we are, and we honour our neighbour with whom we are one. The preacher’s task is to constantly invite us to come alive through generosity rather than determine the destination of our generosity.

I trust that every act of generosity that is good news for the poor and vulnerable is an act of life-giving partnership with the Lover-of-the-world-God. Writing out a cheque to care for vulnerable children; putting food into hungry bellies through Gift of the Givers; supporting an anti-gender-based-violence campaign; enabling reforestation to take root or for investigative journalists to continue to courageously expose death-creating corruption are all holy acts. As holy as any Sunday offering.

For this reason, I am aware that CMM is just one avenue for the gift of your generosity and therefore I write with gratitude to you. Your giving enables CMM to give. We do so with the hope of touching some of the pain of this world that God so loves with a loving generosity that heals.

Please continue to practice the COVID Trinity: [1] wear a mask [2] regularly wash hands [3] keep physical distance. As the 3rd wave surges to dangerous and deadly levels, please take this seriously. Attached is a letter from the Bishop (Synod COVID task team).

Please note that the  safest way to attend CMM’s Sunday service is via zoom (Zoom link available via welcome@cmm.or.za).

In grace,
Alan

 

God of the Oppressed

Friends,

Those of us doing the online Manna and Mercy course at the moment have been reminded that the Bible was not written into an empty void, but rather to contest an already existing and prevalent theology. This existing theology endorsed a hierarchy of human worth as God’s natural order. Starting at the top with the king. The only proof needed that the king was God’s favoured one was that he was the king. (The king demands you just ignore the circular argument of the last sentence.) The king alone had God’s ear as well as a military on tap, to pour out state-sponsored and spirit-sanctioned violence (a proxy for God’s wrath) on any and all who dared question the structured hierarchy of society – after all (so the theology proclaimed) it is God’s ordained ordering of the world and must not be challenged or changed. Those in power generously supported the seminaries that promoted this theology and therefore not surprisingly it dominated the religious market … and still does … be it in different ways.

The Bible on the other hand, introduces a God who has ears for the oppressed. A God who sides with slaves in their struggle for redemption*, demanding that the king let them go. A God who chooses the so-called “least” as partners, forever whispering to them: “you were born to be free … you were born to be free”. Called and convicted by God to freedom, they begin their long walk to salvation*. Bravely and imaginatively continuing to walk despite oceans of impossibility that lay before them. And oppressed people throughout history continue to respond to the whisperings of this liberating God while singing of God’s ordained ordering of the world as one of justice and equity for all.

Salvation used to mean ‘life before death’, and for that reason the Pharaohs of the world feared it, because it meant giving up their undue privilege and power. Then they co-opted the word … literally kicking the promise of life down the road into the next life. Now that it means, ‘life after death’ the Pharaohs smile and say ‘Amen’ and then remind us to read Romans 13:1-7 before we go to sleep at night so that we can wake up obedient to them in the morning.

This week’s psalm boldly declares:
“The Lord is a stronghold for the oppressed…” Psalm 9:9.

 

For this reason, James H. Cone correctly states:

It is my contention that Christianity is essentially a religion of liberation. The function of theology is that of analyzing the meaning of that liberation for the oppressed so they can know that their struggle for political, social, and economic justice is consistent with the gospel of Jesus Christ. Any message that is not related to the liberation of the poor in a society is not Christ’s message. Any theology that is indifferent to the theme of liberation is not Christian theology.

In view of the biblical emphasis on liberation, it seems not only appropriate but necessary to define the Christian community as the community of the oppressed which joins Jesus Christ in his fight for the liberation of humankind. The task of theology, then, is to explicate the meaning of God’s liberating activity so that those who labor under enslaving powers will see that the forces of liberation are the very activity of God. Christian theology is never just a rational study of the being of God. Rather it is a study of God’s liberating activity in the world, God’s activity on behalf of the oppressed.

Theology can never be neutral or fail to take sides on issues related to the plight of the oppressed. For this reason it can never engage in conversation about the nature of God without confronting those elements of human existence which threaten anyone’s existence as a person. Whatever theology says about God and the world must arise out of its sole reason for existence as a discipline: to assist the oppressed in their liberation. Its language is always language about human liberation, proclaiming the end of bondage and interpreting the religious dimensions of revolutionary struggle.

~James Cone: A Black Theology of Liberation – Fortieth Anniversary Edition.

 

A question to guide our biblical and societal interpretations is simply: “Who benefits?” Who benefits from this interpretation? From this narrative? From this proposed action? Those in power or those oppressed by power? If it is not benefiting the oppressed, then it is not of God, for let us not forget that whatever we do to the oppressed we do to Jesus.

In grace,
Alan

*NOTE: Before the words redemption and salvation became “religious” words, they were political words for freedom.