Posts Tagged ‘Boko Haran’

In or out?

April 16, 2016

Easter 4 – 2016

Good Shepherd Sunday, John 10:22-30

Marian Free

In the name of God whose love is not limited but boundless, not exclusive, but absolutely inclusive. Amen.

During the week we watched the documentary I am Malala. The account of this most extraordinary young woman – who despite being shot by the Taliban has no trace of bitterness or hatred and who refuses to live her life in fear – is a most humbling experience. Malala was shot because despite the fact that the Taliban banned education, especially education for girls, she not only continued to go to school, but wrote a diary about her experience for the BBC. Her situation sadly, is far from unique. In Nigeria, Boko Haran (which means “Western education is banned”) routinely kidnaps girls from their schools and homes and forces them into domestic and sexual slavery. Both groups claim that their religion forbids the education of women and insists that women have a particular role in society that – if it is not observed – needs to be imposed by force.

Before we pat ourselves on the back and commend ourselves for being a more enlightened society, it is important to remind ourselves that it is only in recent history that girls routinely went to school or that women were allowed to graduate from university. In 1869 women were admitted to Cambridge University but were not allowed to be awarded a degree! Only in 1921 were women allowed to be rewarded for their efforts but only with a Bachelor of Arts. Arguments against the ordination of women made it very clear that there were (are) those who even today believe that the Christian bible insists that women are better placed to be in the home and to be subordinate to men.

It is no wonder that some people are put off religion when some of its adherents assert views that oppress and limits others, or when it uses violence or coercion to enforce behaviours. Often the groups that behave in this way are sects that do not represent the mainstream and the views that they promote are considered by the majority of adherents to be gross distortions of the faith that they claim to affirm. Most Muslims strenuously reject the expressions of the faith that result in terrorism and violence just as most Christians reject practices that limit or oppress others.

There are a number of factors that lead to the misinterpretation of religious texts. The most benign of these include naivety and conservatism – the naivety that leads to a simplistic and fundamental interpretation and the conservatism that results from a pattern of belief that confuses religious belief with the social attitudes and behaviours of a particular time and place[1]. At the other extreme, a desire for personal power that is often accompanied by an inclination to force others to completely submit to their will can result in scriptures being twisted to say what someone wants them to say.

One way to ensure submission to a conservative or abusive practice of faith is to convince followers that only by following a particular interpretation of the bible will they achieve salvation. Leaders of such groups argue that the only way to be saved, to achieve salvation is to belong to their group – which alone has access to the truth. In this way, such groups are able to ensure that those who are vulnerable or naïve, or those who simply want certainty and truth, accept what they are taught to believe and behave how they are told to behave.

How we interpret scripture can be something of a “chicken and egg” situation. If we believe that God is remote and punitive, we will read scripture in a way that is judgmental and exclusive. On the other hand if we accept that God offers unconditional love to any who would accept it, then we will see that love and acceptance on every page.

Today’s gospel reading is one that is in danger of being misinterpreted. At first glance it appears to suggest that there is an ‘in-group’ (those who hear Jesus’ voice) and an ‘out- group’ (those who exclude themselves because they don’t believe). Applied to our context, this text could be taken to mean that only those who believe in Jesus can be saved. A reading such as this ignores both the context into which Jesus speaks and the context in which the evangelist is writing.

The author of John’s gospel is concerned that there are some (in this instance the unbelieving Jews) whose arrogance and complacency mean that they are unable to accept Jesus as the Christ. They are so set in their ways, so sure that they are members of the ‘in-group’ that they are blind to the signs that Jesus does and deaf to Jesus’ teaching. In order to move from their position of comfort they want/need absolute assurance that Jesus really is the Christ. Others, those who do not begin from a position of certainty, have an openness to God and to God’s presence in Jesus. Because of this, they are able to see and to hear and to follow.

Jesus is not being exclusive – just the opposite. What Jesus does is to redefine what it means to belong. Belonging is not a matter of birth, nor is it a matter of clinging on to worn out practices and ideas, nor is it something that depends on adherence to certain views. Belonging demands an openness to Jesus, an ability to see and hear God even if what is seen and heard has no precedence. Belonging demands not so much obedience to the past, but an openness to the future, not pride in our heritage, but humility before God and an understanding that we cannot ever know all that there is to know.

What this means in our, as in any context, is that anyone from any faith and any nation can respond to the voice of God, can recognise the presence of God in their lives and chose to follow. This undercuts any claims to being special, it undermines the assuredness of those who think they have it all sorted, it forces everyone to accept that God will do things in God’s own way in God’s own time. It is not for us to determine who is in and who is out.

Jesus is not frozen in time and history. As the risen Christ, Jesus continues to be a live and vibrant presence in the world. He continues to call and those who are his sheep continue to respond. It is important for us to retain an openness to God and an humility that reminds us that we can never know the mind of God. Only in this way will we be free to hear the voice of Jesus in our age, and to demonstrate that we belong to his sheep.

[1] The requirement that women should cover their heads in church disappeared with barely a whimper, but the idea that those who were divorced could be remarried in church was more hotly contested.

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Changing God’s mind, changing our minds about God

September 5, 2015

Pentecost 15 – 2015

Mark 7:24-37

Marian Free

Loving God, free us from the arrogance that leads us to believe that we know all that there is to know. Fill us with holy awe such that we might tremble in your presence knowing that our understanding is both finite and limited. Amen.

I think I can safely say that the rise of ISIS in the Middle East and Boko Haran in Nigeria has filled us all with horror and that presence of the Taliban in Pakistan and Afghanistan – especially the terrible consequences for women and girls in those countries – has been a source of continuing concern. Fundamentalism (in any religion) is a very dangerous thing. Black and white thinking and literal interpretation of a few select scriptural texts not only damages and constricts spiritual development but it can give some people permission to behave in ways that most of us would consider to be not only cruel and oppressive but also ungodly.

One of the problems with fundamentalism is that it allows people to believe that they know all that there is to know about God and about their holy texts. Being convinced that they and they alone know the mind of God, such people believe that they are authorized to act on God’s behalf and to impose on others what they believe to be God’s law. In general fundamentalists have a very narrow view of faith and of God. They are blind to the inconsistencies and complexities of their scripture, unable to discern developments in the way in which God is understood and known and ignorant of the fact that scripture has been interpreted in very different ways in different times and different contexts. Very often, fundamentalists confuse true religion with social conservatism believing that the will of God was most fully expressed in a particular way and in a particular time and thinking that the only way to restore order to the world is to return to that time.

In many cases fundamentalism is as much about power and control as it is about faith in and faithfulness to God. At the moment we are witness to the fact that the worst excesses of fundamentalism result in violence against those who do not or cannot hold the same views.

While God – the same yesterday, today and tomorrow – does not change and God’s plans for humanity do not waver, our understanding is limited and finite and our knowledge is always incomplete. This means is that over time our knowledge of God and of God’s purpose for us changes and develops. A relationship with the living God is not static – as if God were able to be contained and defined in human terms. A relationship with God is always growing and changing – both collectively and individually. Different life experiences, changes in culture, developments in science and new tools in biblical interpretation all serve to deepen and enrich our understanding of God and of scripture and help us to live and behave in ways that reflect these new insights and understanding.

Different life experiences can cause us to rethink our relationship with God and God’s relationship with the world. As we learn more about ourselves and others we become more compassionate, more tolerant and more understanding – all of which enables us to see scripture and God from the point of view of our own limitations and frailty.

Of course the most dramatic, and for us most compelling, revision of our understanding of God comes in the person of Jesus who broke through all previous preconceptions and revealed God in a way never before conceived. Jesus was both a continuation of the Old Testament ideas and values, but also a radical departure from them. Jesus extended God’s love of the poor and vulnerable to tax collectors and sinners, he showed a blatant disregard for the letter of the law, he refused to unquestioningly submit to the leaders of the church and he interpreted scripture in a new and different way.

Not only did Jesus completely change the way we think about God, it appears Jesus himself was open to change. So far as we can tell, when Jesus began his ministry he had in view the people of Israel. Being a person of his time and place, Jesus understood that Yahweh was the God of Israel and as such concerned only with the salvation of Israel. As he saw it, Jesus’ role was to restore the relationship between Israel and God.

It should come as no surprise then that he refused to help the woman from Syrophoenicia. She and her daughter did not belong to God’s chosen people. They were not his responsibility. Undaunted by Jesus’ response and desperate that her daughter be cured, the woman persisted with her request, debating with Jesus and demonstrating that his point of view was unnecessarily narrow. The woman’s argument was so persuasive that Jesus was forced to concede that her point was valid. By helping Jesus to understand that God’s love and compassion need not be limited to a few, the woman opened his mind to a new way of thinking and pointed his ministry in a new and different direction. Her argument persuaded him that God’s love and compassion need not be limited to a few, but could be extended and offered to all.

It is true that God doesn’t change, but our understanding of God is continually developing and expanding. It is this that allows us to make changes in our practices and doctrine that help us to continue to open our hearts and our minds to new possibilities of relating to God and to others.

If we lock God in to one particular way of being, what we really do is to limit and confine ourselves. If we think that we have nothing more to learn about God, we have essentially elevated ourselves to the position of God and reduced God to an image of ourselves and to a set of easily understood formulae.

As Jesus demonstrates, God will continue to burst through the narrow confines of our understanding, confronting and challenging us, stretching our imaginations, forcing us to acknowledge new and changing boundaries, refusing to be defined and contained and reminding us that God is, and always will be, beyond the limits of human understanding.

Making a difference in the world

December 20, 2014

Advent 4 – 2014
Luke 1:26-36
Marian Free

In the name of Jesus who surrendered himself completely and in so doing became completely God. Amen.

What a year this has been. What a week! This week alone two people have lost their lives in a hostage situation in Sydney, 140 students and teachers have been killed in an attack on a school in Pakistan, eight children have been stabbed to death by their mother in Cairns, and (hidden away in a small paragraph of today’s paper) we learn that another 180 women and children have been kidnapped by Boko Haran in Nigeria. In the face of all this horror and violence it is easy to overlook the devastating news that the UN has run out of funds and that hundreds of thousands of refugees who have fled the violence in Syria and Iraq can no longer expect food handouts and so may have escaped the war only to face starvation. It might also have escaped our attention that currently in the Central African Republic something like 10,000 children – some as young as eight – have been recruited as soldiers and force to fight in a war they almost certainly do not understand.

And that is just this week and only the news items that particularly grabbed my attention. It is only the tip of the iceberg in a world that seems to be falling apart at the seams.

The week just gone is exactly the sort of week that might make a person ask “where is God in all this” and “why doesn’t God do something to stop the violence and destruction?” The reason is simple – God can’t intervene. At least God cannot intervene decisively and enduringly without stooping to our level and behaving just like us. If God were to use violence to put an end to violence either the world itself would be destroyed or the world would follow God’s example and the cycle of violence would continue. If instead God tried to impose God’s will, to dominate and subjugate the aggressors would resist God’s control and take out their frustration on others the situation might become worse rather than better.

So while God might despair at the state of the world today, God chooses not to intervene. If God does intervene God does so in a completely novel and unexpected way – without resorting to violence or domination. God knows that forcing us to do God’s will is not nearly as effective as working with us to achieve the same end. For this reason God refuses to coerce us, to bend us to his purpose or to subjugate us to God’s authority. Instead God waits. God waits until we are ready, until we recognise and are open to God’s greater wisdom and willingly submit ourselves to God’s plan for us and for the world. For it is only when individuals acknowledge God and allow God to direct their lives that they enable God to be effective in achieving God’s purpose. It is only when we relinquish our pride, our arrogance and our selfish ambitions that God is able to work in and through us to make real God’s hopes for all humankind.

And so we come at last to today’s gospel and the extraordinary story of an ordinary young woman whose selfless humility made a place for God in her life and therefore for God in the world. In order to respond to God, Mary put aside her fears, her ambitions, her desire for respectability and her need to be in control of her own life. Mary was less concerned with what was good for her, and more concerned about the greater good, less worried about her own future, and more worried about the future of humankind. Mary let go and gave herself and her life completely into God’s hands.

It was Mary’s willingness to submit to God that provided God with the opportunity to intervene in the world. It was Mary’s “yes” that led to Christ’s birth and consequently to the redemption of all humankind.

If then the world has not been redeemed, we need not look to God but to ourselves. While we continue to hold on to our own hopes and dreams, while we persist in trying to prove ourselves by competing with and striving over and against others, while we rely on our own resources to provide security for the present and the future, we effectively diminish God’s presence in the world while at the same time reinforcing our own.

Paradoxically, it was Mary’s submission, her giving up of her self, that not only allowed God to be brought to birth in the world, but made her most truly the person God created her to be. In giving up everything, Mary gained more than she could have ever imagined, by accepting ignominy, Mary gained the sort of fame which few have achieved and few can even imagine.

Mary is told: “Nothing is impossible with God.” Nothing is impossible for God, but in order for God to make a difference in this broken world, God needs our cooperation, our willingness to let go of ambition and self interest, our preparedness to relinquish our need for control and give ourselves completely to God’s will. There are few who are prepared to give themselves so completely and lose themselves so thoroughly and as a result the world continues its trajectory towards self-destruction.

God needs our ‘yes’ to join that of Mary’s so that in every age and every place, ordinary men and women will continue to bring Christ to birth. Our “yes to God might not transform the world, but it might change our small corner for the better.

Knowing uncertainty

October 4, 2014

Pentecost 17
Matthew 21:23-32, Mark 12:1-12, Luke 20:9-19, Gospel of Thomas 65-66
Marian Free

In the name of God who cannot be pinned down or contained by the limits of human understanding. Amen.

It is easy to be overwhelmed by the issues that confront our world in the second decade of the twenty-first century. Climate change, people trafficking, the Ebola virus, poverty, natural disaster and the displacement of people due to war or civil strife are among the many crises that are facing the world at the present time. Of all these concerns the one that is most exercising our minds and the one that has focussed the attention of our politicians and our media is that of fundamentalism and the violence that ensues as a result of a narrow view of religion and of the attempt to impose that view on others. At the moment our attention is caught by those who call themselves Islamic State in Iraq and Syria but we should not forget that the Taliban are still active in Afghanistan and that Boko Haran is still wreaking terror in Northern Nigeria.

Fundamentalism is a fairly recent phenomenon. It arose in the nineteenth century among the millenarian movements in the United States. According to the Oxford Dictionary it is a form of religion especially Protestant Christianity or Islam, that upholds belief in the strict, literal interpretation of scripture. Among Christians it is usually a reaction to social and political change and to the theory of evolution. Islamic fundamentalism arose in the eighteenth and nineteenth century as a reaction to the disintegration of Islamic economic and political power. I cannot speak for Islam, but for nineteen centuries Christians felt no need for a literal interpretation of scripture. Believers and scholars alike were happy to understand stories such as Genesis 1 as just that, stories. They saw no need to insist that the world was created in just seven days but were content to understand God’s creative energy behind the universe.

There are a number of problems with fundamentalism of which the most serious is a belief that the human mind is able to interpret the mind of God or that any human being can presume that they have the authority to impose the will of God on others. While I would in no way defend the violence and brutality of the militant Islamists, I would urge us to be cautious about feelings of moral outrage and moral superiority and remember of our own checkered history and the hurtful, harmful ways in which we have used our own scriptures – to engage in the Crusades, to defend slavery and domestic violence and to disempower women and children.

Today’s gospel is a good deterrent against fundamentalism if for no other reason than that there are four different versions of the story and, if Scott is to be believed, it is impossible to determine which of these is closest to what Jesus actually said or what he wanted us to learn. Those who have transmitted the parable have each added their own particular slant in the re-telling. Matthew, for example wants his readers to understand that the Jesus’ community are the true Israel, the ones to whom the owner of the vineyard will entrust it. Mark adapts the parable in such a way that it is very clear that it is a reference to the life of Jesus (the beheading of the second servant seems to point to John the Baptist and the language “beloved Son” is reminiscent of Jesus’ baptism). Both Mark and Matthew begin with a quote about vineyards from Isaiah. In the Old Testament, the image of a vineyard is often used of the nation of Israel. Luke omits this reference perhaps as verse 16 suggests, he wants to make it clear that it is not Israel as a whole that will be destroyed, but only the leaders of Israel. Luke also adds the detail that the son, having been killed, was thrown out of the vineyard – he wasn’t even afforded a burial.

The fourth version of this story is found, not in the Bible, but in the Gospel of Thomas – one of the documents uncovered by a farmer in northern Egypt in 1945. In the Gospel of Thomas the parable is only two verses long but it can be argued that whoever recorded it in this form also had an agenda. The focus here is on knowledge and on the failure of the tenants to recognise the messenger and therefore the one who sent him.

It is tempting to try tease out the differences between the four accounts to try to unearth the original. This approach is fraught with difficulty. Whichever way we look at the story, there are a lot of things that just don’t make sense. Why, when the first servant is killed, is another sent? And why, when the second servant is killed does the owner send his son and heir? If the owner has the capacity to destroy the tenants, why does he hold off until his son is killed? In a culture in which honour is paramount, the owner of the vineyard has been shamed not once, but three times and spectacularly so when his son and heir is killed and thrown out of the vineyard.

It may be impossible to discover the original parable or to determine exactly what message Jesus meant us to hear. What we can do is learn about the agenda of the various Gospel writers and the message that they wanted to promote and to understand the reason why a parable or a healing is told in a particular way. An acceptance that the Gospel writers have told the story in different ways to achieve their different ends, is a great deterrent against fundamentalism. It reminds us that we cannot be 100% sure about the meaning of any text and that we need to keep on exploring, seeking to know more about the God revealed by Jesus.

In today’s uncertain time, the very worst that can happen is that we react to fundamentalism with a fundamentalism of our own, that we respond the the present situation by ramping up our own claim to truth and to knowing the mind of God, that we resort to hurling cheap slogans or that we hide behind our own rhetoric and our own self-justification. Our answers should lead us not to certainty, but to new questions, which will lead to new answers and to new questions until at last we are drawn into the fulness of God when all will become clear and god will be all-in-all.


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