Friday, August 08, 2014

Canon Andrew White: "You have got to be prepared to die for your faith"



"We have had people's heads chopped off. We are having people convert. We are even having children slaughtered and cut in half." And with these words, Newsnight's interview with Canon Andrew White ends, as he leaves the Baghdad studio to carry on ministering to his flock. "We are living in worst crisis I have ever known," he writes on Facebook. "Working day and night to meet the needs of those who have nothing. We are providing a huge amount and as you will see on this video we are all very tired, but our Lord is sustaining us."

And he does look rather tired. But there is no sense of bitterness, exasperation, or even a hint of indignation. His whole demeanour is one of peacefulness and serenity. At times he sounds almost like a soul in bliss, and perhaps that is what makes his ministry so vital in a region where every waking day brings an expectation of death.

Apparently, President Obama is bombing Northern Iraq to help save the 40,000 members of the Yazidi tribe stranded on the barren crags of Mount Sinjar, before more of them die of dehydration and starvation. The President said the US could not turn a "blind eye" to the prospect of violence "on a horrific scale", especially when the Iraqi government had requested assistance. He said the US would act "carefully and responsibly, to prevent a potential act of genocide".

This intervention is welcome. But one notes that it was the appalling plight of the Yazidi after the Islamic State took control of Zumar and Sinjar which has animated the politicians; not the desperate anguish of Christians after those same Sunni-Salafist fanatics butchered their way through Mosul. And now the Prime Minister has issued a statement:


The world must help them in their hour of desperate need? Why were the Christians not deemed worthy of the same level of concern and support? Why is the Prime Minister less burdened by their right to freedom and dignity? Are Christians worth less than members of a so-called 'sect'?

Baroness Warsi observed back in January that the persecution of Christians has become a "global crisis". But she did nothing. She said the UK Government was committed to standing up to such persecution. But she did nothing. She said majority Muslim nations have a duty to defend Christian minorities. But she did nothing. She assured us that she had elevated religious discrimination against Christians and other minorities to a key priority in the Government’s human rights work. But she did nothing. She visited the Pope and made a speech to the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy. But nothing came of it. She convened a committee to discuss the complex issues. But nothing came of that, either.

Words, words, words.

At least Canon Andrew White is doing something. And in his anguish are echoes of the passions and martyrdoms of generations past.

But the persecution of Christians throughout history has ultimately failed because it has tended to separate the wheat from the chaff and caused growth. Eusebius’ account of the martyrdom of Polycarp tells us: "When one governor in Asia Minor in the second century began persecuting the Christians, the entire Christian population of the region paraded before his house as a manifesto of their faith." The suffering of some Christians spurred others to more faithful living. Martyrs were perceived as having heroic qualities, and many peasants, onlookers, soldiers and members of the nobility became Christians through their witness. Tertullian observed: "The oftener we are mown down by you, the more in number we grow; the blood of Christians is seed." Tacitus agreed, after the persecutions of Nero, that "in spite of this temporary setback the deadly superstition broke out afresh, not only in Judaea... but even in Rome".

The blood of Christians is seed.

Muslims loyal to the Islamic State will do what they believe they have been called by their prophet to do. Presidents and prime ministers will try to bomb them to hell. But the Living God will strengthen His people to be courageous and fearless. And persecution is nothing to be ashamed of. On the contrary, it is one of the marks of true gospel ministry and discipleship. Sharing in the sufferings of Christ translates into sharing a future glory. As St Peter says, it is commendable if a man bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because he is conscious of God: "But and if ye suffer for righteousness' sake, happy are ye: and be not afraid of their terror, neither be troubled" (1Pt 3:14).

Canon Andrew White suffers with his people because Christ suffered for him, leaving us an example, that we should follow in His steps and in his steps. He is a bold and gracious witness to the whole world. 

Thursday, August 07, 2014

"We are being butchered under the banner of 'There is no God but Allah'"



It is impossible to hear the anguished wailing of this Iraqi MP and not be hauled to the depths of her misery and despair. You might shed a tear watching it, because it is harrowing. Her name is Vian Dakheel, of Iraq's Yazidi tribe (also Yezidi, Êzidî) - an ethno-religious group whose presence in the region pre-dates that of both Christians and Muslims. Ethnically, they are Kurdish; religiously, they practise a monotheistic syncretised fusion of Islam and Zoroastrianism. Beneath their one true god are seven deities - the Heptad - the most important of which is Tawsi Melek, which translates as 'Peacock Angel' or 'Peacock King'. Tracing their origins back to 600 BC, it is not unreasonable to say that they are the oldest religious community in what we now call Iraq.

Up until a week ago, there were around 800,000 of them living in the Nineveh province of northern region. But the Sunni-Salafist Islamic State have descended in their murderous droves, and the towns of Zumar and Sinjar have been cleansed of these devil-worshipers, for Tawsi Melek may also be rendered 'Shaytan', the Arabic word for 'devil' or 'demon'. And so they have suffered persecution at the hands of Muslims for centuries.

It is estimated that some 2,000 were murdered and as many as 40,000 have fled into the mountains to avoid the slaughter. The children are now dying of thirst. Exposed to the heat of Mount Sinjar, the elderly and vulnerable adults will soon follow.

This is genocide. The Yazidi are being systematically wiped off the face of the earth. Vian Dakheel demands that the Iraqi Parliament act to repel ISIS/Islamic State, which appears to have its advocates in the legislature. Another MP Haji Ghandour told reporters: "In our history, we have suffered 72 massacres. We are worried Sinjar could be a 73rd." And we read: “People were terrified,” said Ilias al-Hussani, 27, who had been trekking through the mountains for 10 hours. “They are savages. We’ve seen what they’ve done to people of their own faith. Imagine what they would do to us non-Muslims.”

Imagine, indeed.

This is another humanitarian tragedy. The appalling plight of the Yazidi has made the Independent, Mail, Guardian, Telegraph, Economist, Yahoo News UK, Al-Jazeera and the BBC.

You've probably guessed where this is going.

The Chaldean-Assyrian Christians, Maronites, Melkites and Copts are also being "butchered under the banner of 'There is no God but Allah'". They, too, are fleeing into the mountains for refuge, as Christ exhorted at the time of the end. They, too, are being reviled, persecuted, and their children murdered. But we're not hearing an awful lot about it.

Except via Canon Andrew White, who writes today:
The Massacre of all continues. We are now in Erbil supporting to various church leaders here. The Yazidis have now come under huge attack. This group is similar to the Zoroastrians and at the best of times they are a discriminated and despised minority. What we have heard from some of the Church leaders is more than horrendous. Just like last week a felt I could not show the pictures so today I fell I cannot tell the whole story especially about the children.

Now they head toward Erbil. This is supposed to be the one safe area in Iraq but yesterday evening the whole of Erbil went into total panic with news that ISIS was moving towards Erbil. It is not here yet but it may indeed be on its way. Meanwhile over a hundred people where killed in Baghdad last night.

There is one other person here doing what we are doing with his wife. Dr Plumb and his wife Peggy are both in their late 70's, they are Mormons have been here several months using all their own money. He is our closest friend here. All the time people say to me how can you work with a Mormon. Well he is the only other person here doing the work of Jesus caring for the poor and the dying and we love each other.
Our neighbour is the one who has need. Our brother is the one who helps us to meet that need - in this instance, caring for the poor and the dying. Louis Raphael I Sako, Patriarch of Babylon of the Chaldeans, writes:
..speeches are good for nothing, so too declarations that rehash condemnations and indignation; the same can be said for protest marches. In addition, while appreciating the generosity of our donors, we would say that donations and fundraising too are not what will solve our problems. We have to demand a large-scale administrative [governmental] operation on an international level. There is in fact the need for awareness, in conscience, regarding this simple human principle: the demand for real actions and solidarity because we are before a crisis related to our very existence, facing the fact that "we will be or we will not be."

This is an appeal from the bottom of the heart in the search for a solution that lies uniquely in the hands of the international community and above all with the great powers. We address ourselves profoundly to their consciences and that they should review their positions and to re-evaluate the impact of the situation of today.

These powers face a human and moral responsibility. It is no longer reasonable to take recourse to double standards. They are called to free themselves from their narrow interests and to unite themselves in a political and peacekeeping solution that puts an end to this conflict. These powers must vigorously exercise pressure on those who support financially and train militarily these factions and so cut short these sources of violence and radicalisation.

Concerning the Christians of Iraq, in our pastoral ministry towards them, we also call upon the international community: our Christians are in urgent need of humanitarian aid, as too they are in need of an efficient, true and permanent protection that reassures them that there is no end to their existence, whose origins are so deeply rooted in Iraq; this also concerns Christians in other regions of the Middle East that are burning and being torn apart.

We also appeal to our brothers and sisters around the world, that they too be truly with us in solidarity at this our time of suffering this terrible ordeal; that they live with us this feeling of solidarity as if belonging to the same family.
There is the heartfelt plea: "..the need for awareness, in conscience, regarding this simple human principle: the demand for real actions and solidarity because we are before a crisis related to our very existence.."

The Prime Minister has asked the Rt Hon Eric Pickles MP to assume the Faith portfolio previously held by Baroness Warsi. There have already been strong objections, though, in fact, Mr Pickles always had ultimate responsibility for DCLG policy, which includes matters of faith and integration. But the Baroness was viewed by many (and known to be by a few) as something of a hurdle to progress in this area: she convened a committee on religion and belief, but her view of Islamist terrorism was never quite that of the Prime Minister or the Prince of Wales. Now gone, we can expect to see not only changes in tone, but policy.

Secretary of State, there is an urgent need for awareness. And then there must be real actions. We pray you will hear the weeping and wailing.          

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Canon Andrew White: "The governments and media of the world may have forgotten us.."


It is a tedious seasonal metaphor, now clichéd to the point of political hollowness, but these "Arab springs", once hailed as the founts of liberty and democratic dreams, have become long, cold winters of turmoil, suffering, persecution and mass slaughter.

Egypt is economically unstable; Syria is is meltdown; Iraq is disintegrating; Libya has become the very bloodbath we tried to avert; Saudi Arabia is struggling with internal discord; and Iran is fomenting regional conflict. The Arab world is collapsing in painful spasms and convulsing in a series of existential catastrophes. The disintegration has been swift and inexorable.

The ensuing humanitarian tragedy is epic - one might almost say 'biblical'. Tens of millions across the Arab world are in need of urgent aid as they displaced, made homeless and hunger for their daily bread. Hundreds of thousands have lost their lives through civil war and sectarian strife. Now that the regional strongmen have fallen one by one, the vacuum is being filled by the Salafist-Jihadist Islamic State, and they have brought hell on earth.

Where is the Arab League in all this? How are they responding to the Caliphate? What are they saying about the apocalyptic death and destruction? Where are the declarations opposing Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi or uniting in their condemnation of his 'robust' interpretation of Islam?

Silence.

There are, however, a few causes of optimism. God's people are not mute; nor are they turning a blind eye. Here is the latest update from the Vicar of Baghdad, Canon Andrew White:
I can’t express how immensely encouraged I am by the huge amount of support we have received here for the persecuted Christians here in Iraq. People have prayed and sacrificially given. They have enabled us to at least begin to meet the crucial needs of the people. Dr Sarah and I have been working flat out on meeting these needs but we have to have more help and I pray that today we will find the help we need. Today I will head North to Kurdistan where Sarah is at the moment.

Helping Through The Iraqi Churches

The main way we are helping the massive numbers of internally displaced people is through the various indigenous churches. The different denominations know which of their people need help, and who they have who have fled Mosul and Nineveh. The money is received through our Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East (FRRME) and given through our one Anglican Church in Iraq. So the help is given from Church to Church. The Foundation is a 501C3 in the US and a registered charity in the UK. So people can give in tax beneficial ways.

http://frrme.org/get-involved/donate/
www.frrmeamerica.org

Daily Information

Daily information is provided through Face Book and on less regular email updates sent about twice a week. My personal face book page is full as I have 5000 friends and am thus not allowed anymore. I do however have a popular figure page that you can like and get regular updates there.

The message to those who want to be friends:

I would very much love to have you as a friend but I am afraid I have reached the limit of 5000 friends on my page there are two public figure pages that you can join that get my same updates. You can also sign up for my regular updates at www.frrme.org .Please do join one of these pages. These pages are:

https://www.facebook.com/CanonAndrewWhite
https://www.facebook.com/FRRME

Together We Have Hope

Everything maybe awful but we have such hope. HOPE because we are not alone the support from our friends around the world has simply been phenomenal. The governments and media of the world may have forgotten us but the people of G-d are with us Jews, Christians and Muslims the people who know that the Lord is here and His Spirit is with us.

With love thanks and blessings,

Andrew White
This is an encouraging epistle, the most notable sentence being the final one. But the media have not entirely forgotten: the Christian media are well informed. And even if Channel 4 News is consumed by Gaza and busy lauding the bravery of Baroness Warsi, the BBC is slowly waking up to the horrors being inflicted upon Christians by the self-styled Islamic State.

But we must remember that these Salafist extremists neither represent nor speak for all Sunni Muslims. As Canon White explains elsewhere, there are voices being raised against them:
Islamic Sunni Leader totally Condemns ISIS

I have spent much of the day with one Iraq's most senior Sunni Imams Sheik Khalid Al Mullah he has openly and clearly spoken out against the evil events, massacres and slaughters committed by ISIS. He not only stated they were totally demonic he said they were totally against everything Islam stands for. He stated that Christianity was the very root of Iraqi society, therefore Christians are at the heart of Iraqi society. We went to see the US Ambassador together and the Sheik was able to share these points with him.
And it must be observed that the Islamic State is not only persecuting Christians, but also Shia, Turkmen, Shabaks, Yazidis and others.

Our Government mutters about the need for regional peace and stability, but the FCO offers no solutions. They whisper in Whitehall as Christians are systematically cleansed from their ancient lands, but they give no assistance. As we witness waves of terror sweeping over the land and the emergence of a new hegemonic power, the geo-politics of the Middle East and North Africa are being irrevocably transformed.

The hope must be that space is eventually made in this turmoil for the Jews, Assyrians, Maronites, Melkites, Copts and other minorities whose presence in the region pre-dates those who are currently purging the land of apostates and infidels and claiming it for their malignant sharia, in the name of Mohammed and for the glory of Allah, the all merciful and most merciful.

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Warsi resigns over "morally indefensible" Gaza policy


As Baroness Warsi was extinguishing her candle last night in Westminster Abbey, symbolising the lights going out all over Europe a century ago, she knew that she was about to snuff out her political career. 

His Grace won't re-rehearse the praise he has poured out on Sayeeda Warsi in the past (time and time and time and time and again): she is undoubtedly brave, articulate and forthright in her beliefs. She glides through the complexities of Pakistani politics; confronts ‘honour’ killings, mandatory veils and the evils of forced marriage; exposes voter fraud and immerses herself in very relevant and pressing social issues which benefit more than her co-religionists. Contrary to the pervasive Muslim caricature, her eyes are not solely fixated on the glorification of Allah and the wellbeing of the Ummah. Indeed, she has long been a staunch advocate - in word at least - of the Christian faith and its importance for our foundations of liberty. She spoke well, even if she did not always understand.

But she has resigned from the Government over its policy on Gaza, which she says in "morally indefensible".

This is curious, not least because Foreign Secretary has not articulated any policy at all on the matter. Still green in the job, one gets the impression that he studiously straddling fences and balancing on pinheads in order to avoid offending anyone, possibly in order to bolster the Muslim vote.

But perhaps that is Baroness Warsi's problem. She clearly believes that HM Government ought to join in the global choruses of condemnation denouncing Israel, accusing the Zionist aggressor of war crimes and demanding sanctions. She insists that all arms exports to Israel must stop. And since the FCO isn't prepared to dance to that tune, she has decided to clear her desk and resign.

Perhaps that is a good thing.

For all the praise heaped upon her over the years by this blog, she has, of late, completely lost the plot. She lectures us about "true Islam", and mocks those who expose the paucity of her theological understanding. She tweets and tweets about Sharia finance, seemingly oblivious to the religio-cultural significance of the policy. She convened a committee to propagate global religious liberty, but it met only twice for coffee, said absolutely nothing and achieved even less. And she answered many of her critics with veiled allusions to 'Islamophobia', thereby shutting down any valid criticism of her incompetence and deficiencies.

There was a feeling, if not the perception, that this 'Senior Minister of State' had made something of a hobby out of being in the Cabinet, and was using her position in the FCO more for faddish personal interests than the weighty matter of implementing government policy. William Hague was prepared to indulge her and the Prime Minister humoured her: she was symbolically important for Tory detoxification, modernisation and Cameroon rebranding project. It was important that the first female Muslim in the Cabinet was seen to be happy, fully integrated and successful.

Her loss will be keenly felt - not so much in Government but certainly in CCHQ on the run-up to the 2015 General Election. As she agitates now from the Lords' backbenches, descends on chat shows and takes to the airwaves and blogs (it must be noted that she handed her first post-resignation interview exclusively to her co-religionist Mehdi Hasan), the impression will be given that Muslim interests aren't entirely served by or represented in the Conservative Party. And those interests, for many British Muslims, are inseparable from dreams of Palestinian statehood.
 
The reality, of course, is that Sayeeda Warsi's personal opinions increasingly found no place in the Conservative Party. But that distinction will be lost entirely in those constituencies where the Muslim vote is significant to the outcome of the next General Election, whence she will now doubtless receive dozens of invitations to speak about Israel's "war crimes", "outrages" and "massacres".

Hamas are terrorists, she insists. But Israel is an "occupying power".

And in that 'but' is all the justification Hamas ever needs to continue lobbing missiles at Israel's towns and cities, kidnapping civilians and bombing children on school buses.     

Perhaps, instead of dedicating her honoured position in the House of Lords to pontifications about Palestine or denunciations of HM Government, Baroness Warsi might follow the laudable example of Baroness Cox and turn her efforts to global acts of compassion and humanitarian relief. It's very easy to be "morally outraged" from the red backbenches.

Sunday, August 03, 2014

Bishops demand Government offer asylum to Iraqi Christians


From Canon Andrew White, Vicar of Baghdad: "We have just had terrible news that Baghdad International Airport has been shut down because of security risks. Without it we cannot go North to do the relief work or even leave the country. Please pray that we can get out."

As the Islamic State continues its programme of bloody executions and forced conversion, Canon White bears witness to the suffering: "You know I love to show photos but the photo I was sent today was the most awful I have ever seen. A family of 8 all shot through the face laying in a pool of blood with their Bible open on the couch. They would not convert it cost them there life. I thought of asking if anybody wanted to see the picture but it is just too awful to show to anybody. This is Iraq today. The only hope and consolation is that all these dear people are now all with Yeshua in Glory."

ISIS/Islamic State have released a 'promotional video' which is too, too awful to post here.

"We would be failing to fulfil our obligations were we not to offer sanctuary," says the Bishop of Manchester, the Rt Rev'd David Walker. "Having intervened so recently and extensively in Iraq, we have, even more than other countries, a moral duty in the UK."

And so we have. But the emphasis given to his reasoning is awry. "Given the vast amounts of money that we spent on the war in Iraq", he explains, "the tiny cost of bringing some people fleeing for their lives to this country and allowing them to settle – and who, in due course, would be an asset to our society – would seem to be minuscule."

It's a shame that the Bishop's sense of "moral duty" appears to be based on superficial financial comparatives. But this is a report by The Observer, one of the Bishops' favoured media for communicating homilies of gravity. And perhaps, given the scale of the trauma being inflicted upon Iraq's Christians, it seems churlish to quibble with the inference that the reason HM Government has not hitherto offered asylum is due to "Tory cuts".

The Bishop of Worcester, the Rt Rev'd Dr John Inge, makes an appeal to our Christian values: "I would be very disturbed if the government refused to do anything," he says. "The situation in Iraq is absolutely horrendous. It would sit very ill at ease with our values if nothing were to be offered. I am disappointed nothing has transpired so far."

As are very many of us. The burden has fallen largely on the Kurds, with a recent generous offer of asylum from France. But the rest of the EU is mute. And HM Government is more concerned with immigration curbs than acting justly and compassionately toward persecuted Christians in foreign lands.   

The Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Rev'd Nick Baines, articulates our moral duty incisively: "We have a tradition of offering sanctuary to people who are oppressed, and it's part of the Christian heritage of this country and the law we have established that puts an obligation on us. We also have an obligation to at least raise with the government the possibility that we should be offering sanctuary to Christians in Iraq who have been effectively expelled under the threat of death. The government cannot remain silent and you cannot just issue words – you've got to put something behind that. If we can't offer sanctuary to these people, then who will? Not doing so would be tantamount to the betrayal of our moral and historical obligations."

It seems bizarre that David Cameron refuses to grant immediate asylum to Iraqi Christians fleeing the religious cleansing in Mosul. He waxes eloquently about his Christian faith and his faith in the Church of England, and on this matter his faith and his church ought to be gnawing at his conscience. The Bishop of Leeds is absolutely right: the Government "cannot remain silent and you cannot just issue words".

Wars and fighting are a product of the cravings that are at war within individuals (Js 4:1-3). We cannot stop them, and they will not cease until the Prince of Peace returns and the government rests upon His shoulder. In the meantime, it is incumbent upon Christians to accept suffering rather than inflict it. If that means we have to sell our swords to buy cloaks, or give away one of our coats to those who have none, then that is what we are commanded to do. It is our mission.

There is no point preaching the word or hearing it if we are not prepared to offer goodwill or share hospitality with widows and orphans. We were warned by Christ to prepare for a time of rejection and persecution. And he told us to pack our swords with our belongings, which is a vivid symbol that we can expect to encounter opposition. That time has now come for the Christians of Iraq and throughout vast swathes of the Arab and Muslim world.

As Bishop Nick says, we have a moral obligation to act. The offer of asylum is part of our Christian heritage which is the fons et origo of our law. These three bishops bear prophetic witness against the persecution and murder of our brothers and sisters in Iraq. They are challenging the Government with the authority that belongs to God, and by doing so they highlight the sharp boundary between the church and the world; between the community of Christ and the cult of secular politics. The liberal society is premised on freedom of conscience, freedom of speech and freedom of worship. These are our values. It is immoral that we are not prepared to help those with whom we share so much.

Saturday, August 02, 2014

Psalm 118: “The nations surround me; in the name of G-d they will be struck down"


In today's synagogue service, Jews throughout the world will read the opening chapters of the book of Deuteronomy (1:1-3.22). Verses 1:41-44 recount the Jews' response to the admonishment of Moses:
Then you [the Jews] answered and said to me [Moses], we have sinned against G-d; we will go up and fight, as the Lord our G-d commanded us. And when you donned your armour, you made light of going up into the hill country.
And G-d said to me: say to them. Neither go up, nor fight, lest you be struck down by your enemies; because I am not in your midst.
So I spoke to you; but you would not listen, rebelling against the commandment of G-d, presumptuously going up into the hill country.
And the Emorites, which dwelt in that hill country, came out against you, and chased you, as bees do, and destroyed you from Seir, as far as Chormah.
His Grace was sent this exposition yesterday (by a Jewish communicant [before the onset of the Sabbath]):
The early mediæval Rabbinic commentator, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, universally known by the acronym “Rashi”, explains that just as bees die immediately after stinging, so did the Emorites die following their attacks on the Jews. Rabbi Yitzchok Zev Soloveitchik (1886-1959) asks the question: "Why does the Bible inform us (indirectly) what happened to the Emorites, when the principal purpose of the verses would seem to be to inform the Jews of the dire consequences of disobeying G-d’s word?" He answers that it is to tell us of the level of hatred the Emorites bore us, and that we should be under no illusions that the enemies of the Jews will never willingly decease from their attacks, irrespective of the consequences.

In similar vein, the verses in Psalm 118:10-12 read: “The nations surround me; in the name of G-d they will be struck down. They surround me, they also surround me. In the name of G-d they will be struck down. They surround me like bees. They will be consumed as a fire burns thorns. In the name of G-d they will be struck down.”

The commentators explain that initially the anti-Semites besiege us. If the initial siege looks as if it will be breached, they re-double their efforts by re-encircling the previous siege lines. If this too fails, they attack us with reckless disregard for their own safety. Our only protection is a recognition of the power of G-d; but with that, they can be destroyed as comprehensively as a fire destroys a dry thorn bush.

The symbolism of the thorn bush is perhaps that it appears impregnable, with devastatingly sharp thorns; it is unbelievably hardy with an ability to survive with minimal water (which itself represents Torah because of its life-giving properties as a channel between G-d and man). It also bears no useful fruit. However, when attacked through the appropriate medium, it consumes itself speedily and with ferocity, precisely because it contains so little water/Torah.
This is meaty stuff for the Christian, too. In Deuteronomy, Moses is not simply explaining the laws of God: he is earnestly enjoining them upon the consciences of his people, and urging them to pursue a holy life under the Covenant. Israel's greatest peril is idolatry, which is to be resisted and suppressed with uncompromising severity. Faithfulness to the Covenant will be rewarded by material benefits; violation and disregard of the Covenant will be punished by material disaster and, ultimately, exile.

The overriding lesson which pervades the whole of the Old Testament is that a nation that turns its back on the Lord will be judged. And God will use the enemies of that nation to mete out that judgment. You might think this absurd, but the work of the Holy Spirit in bringing judgment is ongoing:
Nevertheless I tell you the truth; It is expedient for you that I go away: for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send him unto you.
And when he is come, he will reprove the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment:
Of sin, because they believe not on me;
Of righteousness, because I go to my Father, and ye see me no more;
Of judgment, because the prince of this world is judged (Jn 16:7-11).
God, sin, righteousness and judgment are real and present: they determine the meaning of the life that we are given to live in this age. But this age repudiates God, mocks sin, scorns righteousness and laughs in the face of judgment. It is no wonder that the thorn bush is being consumed.

Friday, August 01, 2014

Psalm 137: “God, I wish you’d take the children of my enemies and smash their heads against the rocks”


There is perhaps no greater empathy aroused in times of war and strife than when we see the intolerable suffering of children; the desperate eyes of the innocent; the tears of orphaned babies, frightened, hungry, sapped of all hope and devoid of love. Their little mangled bodies lie on crimson sheets, spliced by shrapnel, traumatised by nightmares, soaked in the stench of their own urine. These images leave a wound far deeper than any weapon of mass destruction.

The newly-installed Bishop of Leeds the Rt Rev'd Nick Bains delivered yesterday's 'Thought For The Day' on BBC Radio 4's Today programme. He tells us on his blog - Musings of a Restless Bishop - that it was "written in the face of the horrors of Gaza, Syria, Ukraine and all the other bloody conflicts filling the news screens, and with a strict word limit". His subject was Psalm 137 - the well-known lament which begins "By the Rivers of Babylon". He takes us from Boney M's jaunty disco dance hit to the psalm's final line, which is a disturbing imprecation. He writes:
Now, Psalm 137 is not a comfortable song; nor is it a song for the comfortable. It ends with a shrill cry of pain and hatred: “God, I wish you’d take the children of my enemies and smash their heads against the rocks.” But, it isn’t there to justify an ethic. It isn’t there to suggest it is right to think such awful things of other people’s children. It is there for two reasons: first, to confront us with the reality of how deep our own human hatred can go, and, secondly, to tell us not to lie to God (thinking he can’t handle that reality or the depths of human despair).
Christians tend to focus on the messianic blessings and sing about the glories of Zion: we love the psalms of thanksgiving, kingship and confidence, and meditate on those of remembrance and wisdom. About a third of the Old Testament quotations in the New Testament are drawn from the Psalms, which highlights their theological significance and liturgical importance to the Early Church.

But the Psalter is also full of bitter imprecations which offend modern sensibilities. Curses against enemies abound, often in otherwise sublime settings of supreme sacrifice, humility and brokenness. The Christian will naturally feel that that the spirit of anger and hatred reflected in these sections falls well below Jesus' teaching and moral standards: it's hardly an expression of love for one's enemies to pray that God would take their children and smash their heads against the rocks.

But the intense suffering of the Jews in exile naturally aroused the desire for such horror: we want to hate our enemies, and rather enjoy wishing upon them all manner of suffering and strife. The parents of Gaza are teaching their children that Jews are lower than pigs; the Jews of Israel are teaching their children that Palestinians are all terrorists; the Sunni 'Islamic State' in Iraq are beheading the cultic Shia and slaughtering infidel Christians; the Shia are fighting back where they can. The dismembered Christians might be forgiven as they pray in their bombed-out churches for their enemies to die and rot in hell.

But we must bear in mind the fact that for most of the psalmists there was no meaningful afterlife, and so no vindication of the righteous or judgment of the wicked. Rather like today, when notions of heaven and hell are routinely dismissed with the goblins and fairies of Neverland, we prefer judgment to be seen to be done in this world. The final lines of Psalm 137 cannot really be understood without considering that the psalmist was passionate about and impatient for justice:
Remember, O LORD, the children of Edom
in the day of Jerusalem;
who said, Rase it, rase it,
even to the foundation thereof.
O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed;
happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us.
Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth
thy little ones against the stones.
Such laments take us to the depths of helplessness and forsakenness. They are cries of distress when there is nowhere to turn: God has abandoned us and our enemies mock and scorn - or terrorise, persecute and murder. Impulsively but genuinely we want their children to be fatherless and their wives to become widows (Psalm 109:8f). And we hope to God that their bastard offspring don't grow up to be another generation of murderous devils.
But Jesus said, Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven (Mt 19:14).
Those who are taught resentment and loathing will not easily find Jesus or enter the kingdom. Violence breeds violence and hate engenders hate. The way of Christ is peace. In our secular polis this may seem like sheer folly. But it is a choice we make in the hope and anticipation that God's love will finally prevail through the way of the cross, despite our inability to see how this may be possible when warring hearts are filled with grievances and pain.

There is nothing at all to be gained from smashing the heads of babies against the rocks. No, that way lies a world wracked by revenge and ever more violence.
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