Monday, 29 June 2015

“The Law that Liberates: the Ten Commandments Today” (1) “The God who liberates ... or any old god” (Exodus 20:1-3)

At the beginning of the series of articles, I want to make a few general comments about this whole series.
 
It is timely to speak to speak of the Ten Commandments today. Politicians – whether religious or not - are referring to these ancient Jewish laws a great deal these days. It is interesting (but not surprising) that the secular world often gives more importance to these commandments as a key aspect to the life of faith than do people who attend worship regularly.
  • Traditionally, people who view religion mostly in terms of a set of moral rules and regulations are usually not the people who attend worship regularly.
  • Traditionally, people who attend worship regularly know that there is much more to the life of faith. God offers unconditional grace, mercy, compassion, and love to all people ... regardless of our ethical standing.
In a sense, this series of articles may be an example of the secular world setting at least part of the church’s agenda. Sometimes, though, the church needs to let the world set its agenda.
 
And, for all people of faith, there has traditionally been a tension between “law” and “grace”. I believe that this is an artificial tension. 
  • For each of the Peoples of the One God (for Christians, for Jews, for Muslims, and for others) God’s compassion comes first, before we do anything, before we can do anything. God’s compassion always precedes any response we would ever make. The one living God is always the God of radical grace.
  • But, as well, for each of the Peoples of the One God, God’s compassion calls forth our own response of gratitude. And a significant part of our response always includes the ethical quality of our lives. 
The two go hand-in-hand.
 
And, in all this, there are those who always see legalism as someone else’s problem.
  • Christians who see legalism as “a Jewish problem”, ... and not as our own problem.
  • Protestants who see legalism as “a Catholic problem”, ... and not as our own problem.
  • Mainstream Christians who see legalism as “an evangelical problem”, ... and not as our own problem.
Legalism is a temptation faced by all the people of God:
  • Christian, Jewish, or Muslim;
  • Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox;
  • Mainstream, evangelical, or “progressive”. 
Legalism is a temptation faced by us all. We can all say, with the writer of the comic strip “Pogo”: “We have met the enemy, ... and he is us.”
 
And there also may be issues here of how we view the origins of these Ten Commandments.
  • Some will view the giving of the Ten Commandments literally, in the way that the Book of Exodus describes it. Moses was up there on the mountain, getting the stone tablets directly from God. (Those of us who remember Cecil B. DeMille’s movie – with Charlton Heston as Moses and the late Yul Brynner as the Pharoah – may have very vivid visual images of Moses getting the tablets from God.)
  • Others may view the origins in another way, as the product of a community of people in exile, under great pressure in their life together. The community sought to state their deepest core values in a simple way. The community also sought to link these core values intimately to the God who liberated them centuries before. 
I’ll put my own cards on the table. I prefer the latter view. (So do the majority of contemporary biblical scholars, both Christian and Jewish.) But, in reality, with either view, we are still invited to honour these ten ancient Jewish laws and to receive them with the utmost seriousness for our own life of faith.
 
And so, we read from Exodus 20:
 
Then God spoke all these words: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.
 
To put capital letters in the right places, the passage reads:
 
Then God (big G) spoke all these words: I am the Lord your God (big G), who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods (little g) before me.
 
In this first of the commandments, God identified Godself. “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; ...”. The one living God identified Godself as the God of liberation.
 
This is not just any old small-g god. This is the big-G God, the God of liberation. This is the God who took a gang of slaves and made it into a nation of free people.
 
The command not to have any gods before the One God was developed in a time before the Jews were strictly monotheistic in their beliefs. They worshipped the One God but that did not mean they denied the existence of the gods worshipped by other peoples.
 
This command was first seen in these terms: “Of all the possible gods to worship, the One God whom we worship is the One who has liberated us. Worship this God, rather than any of those gods who have not liberated us.”
 
Since that time, our idea of God has developed. All of the Peoples of the One God believe that there is only the One God to worship.
  • The God whom we worship as Christians is the same God whom Jews and Muslims worship.
  • The God whom we worship as Christians is the same God whom Sikhs and Baha’is worship. 
There is only the One God to worship.
 
But, even with this later understanding, there are some people, in each faith tradition, who do not grasp the one basic reality about this One God. The One God is the God of liberation: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; ...”. 
 
I believe the commandment, “ ... you shall have no other gods before me”, tells us today that we should not be content with any lesser god, any small-g notion of god, that is not the Big-G God of liberation.
 
And there are many people in the community, and even some people in churches, who are content with a small-g notion of God. There are many people whose idea of God is somewhat similar to their idea of someone else, someone of whom we sing at another time of the year:
 
He’s making a list. He’s checking it twice. 
Going to find out who’s naughty or nice.
 
These people have a god who exhibits a selective love, a god who operates on a scheme of rewards and punishments, rewarding those whose behaviour meets certain standards and punishing those whose behaviour doesn’t. This is a small-g god, a godlet even, far smaller that the Big-G God of liberation. I believe that those who are content with worshipping this little godlet have put some other god before the One Living God.   
 
The One Living God calls all the people of God, all the Peoples of God, to a worthy understanding of God; a Big-G understanding of the One Living God
  • the One Living God who liberates slaves,
  • the One Living God who loves the whole creation,
  • the One Living God whose compassion, mercy, and radical grace are eternal. 
Then God spoke all these words: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.
 
  

Thursday, 25 June 2015

"To be ecumenical in Tasmania is to be very ecumenical indeed.": report of the Liaison Officer of the Tasmanian Council of Churches to the TCC's Annual Meeting (Saturday, 27th June 2015, Launceston).

As I prepare this report, I do so knowing that this is a report both on my past year as Liaison Officer for the TCC and on my past three years as Liaison Officer.  In many ways, this is also a reflection on a career of thirty-five years of ordained ministry with a strong personal commitment to the ecumenical movement, including a total of twelve years (in two distinct blocks of time) spent as an ecumenical staffer here in Tasmania. 

(Please note that any comments made in this report are comments I am making to the Annual Meeting, and are not statements being made by the Tasmanian Council of Churches.  As well, when I speak to this report at the Annual Meeting, I will make some appreciative comments about others which are not found in this written report.)

Anyway, I’ll try to be brief.

To begin with, to be ecumenical in Tasmania is to be very ecumenical indeed.  Tasmania is the spiritual home of ecumenism in Australia, and has been so ever since the friendship of the colonial chaplains Robert Knopwood and Philip Conolly in the early years of Hobart Town.  Over the years, Tasmania has thankfully escaped the worst of the destructive sectarian bigotries that have provided long-term damage to relations between the churches in some mainland capitals.  In 1970, the Tasmanian Council of Churches became the first ecumenical council in Australia (and one of the first in the world) in which the Roman Catholic Church is a member. 

Like many similar ecumenical bodies, this Council has experienced mixed fortunes over the years since those heady years of ecumenical optimism following the Second Vatican Council.  In many ways, like many other ecumenical bodies, we’re unsure about our task, our focus, and our future.  The current ecumenical malaise is not unique to Tasmania or to Australia.  It has many sources, not least of which is the fact that bitter and divisive internal arguments within many denominations have led to a general lack of emotional energy for ecumenical involvement on the part of many church leaders and other active participants in the life of the churches.

Here in Australia, this lack of focus for state-based ecumenical bodies has been complicated by the decision by Act for Peace a few years ago (in my opinion, a very unwise decision) to remove the “sharp end” of Act for Peace promotion (including Christmas Bowl promotion) from ecumenical bodies based in the states.  This decision has created an unnecessary geographical barrier between these excellent programmes and the lives of local congregations.  It has also removed one significant area of direct relevance for bodies such as the TCC in the lives of local congregations.

Nevertheless, I believe there is still a great necessity for a body such as the TCC within the life of the Tasmanian community.  To give merely two examples:

·        If we did not provide an institutional base for the ecumenical and interfaith Emergencies Ministry, such a base would need to be created.

·        If we did not provide a link between Jane Franklin Hall and the churches, such a link would need to be created.

But, at a broader level, the need for an ecumenical body such as the Tasmanian Council of Churches is grounded in the need for the churches to have a forum in which we can speak with each other in terms of the faith we share, the ministry we share to our community, and on our differing perspectives on our shared faith and ministry, and to take shared action within the community on the basis of what we have learned from each other.

And, sometimes, this process leads to public statements by church leaders.  In my observation, one of two things normally happens when a group of church leaders makes a public statement:

·        A group of church leaders makes a well-researched, well-argued, nuanced, and compassionate statement on indigenous people, refugees, asylum-seekers, immigration, the homeless, the unemployed, etc. … and the statement is ignored by most – if not all – media outlets. … or …

·        A group of church leaders (including many of those involved in the first statement) gets hot under their collars over an issue related to sex … and the coverage gets a huge amount of airtime and column inches.

The reason for this difference in coverage is easy.  The first example doesn’t make for an entertaining news story, while the second does.  And the reason the second example is considered so entertaining is that it reinforces the popular (and negative) fictional image that many of our neighbours have about those of us who inhabit the Christian churches in our communities. 

This situation is even more critical when we add to it the long-running public issue of child sexual abuse in religious, educational, and other institutional contexts.  None of our member churches are untouched by this issue.  It threatens our moral credibility in all areas of each of our churches’ lives.  All faith communities in this country need to realise that, collectively, our moral credibility with the wider community – and with much of our own membership - on issues of sex is now precisely zero, and that we need to rebuild our credibility on these issues from the ground up. 

In response to this, I personally believe that (until the day in the future when every faith community – Christian and otherwise – in Australia has fully dealt with issues of child sexual abuse in their own contexts) all faith communities in Australia need to establish a voluntary moratorium on any public comment on issues relating to sex.  Yes, let’s talk about these issues within our own communities and among our diverse communities, but let’s keep these conversations reasonably in-house until we’ve re-established our moral credibility on these issues. 

In terms of reporting on my own work as Liaison Officer, I’d prefer not to concentrate on the time spent sitting in front of a computer screen, or on the telephone organising meetings, or similar tasks.  I’d prefer to speak of a few events which were among the highlights of that part of my job description that deals with promoting relations among the churches.

1.     Soon after my return to Tasmania in 2012, I started to regularly attend the monthly Pints of Faith gatherings.  These gatherings are an opportunity to build community and discuss issues of faith and life in a casual setting over a meal.  While it was developed for young adults by Catholic Youth Ministry, a real diversity of ages and denominational backgrounds can frequently be found in these events.  Attending these gatherings provides a good opportunity to relate to some younger adults who are strongly committed both to their own church and to the wider Christian faith.

2.     As a result, initially, of being a member of an interfaith panel at one of these Pints of Faith gatherings (in which a leading Mormon was another participant), I’ve increasingly been receiving invitations to attend various regional gatherings of the Latter-day Saints.  In attending these gatherings, I find myself encountering a community that regards itself as profoundly Christian and is profoundly saddened by the fact that many Christians do not regard them as fellow-Christians.  I find myself encountering a community that seems earnestly sincere in its desire to build its ecumenical and interfaith relations, but which is saddened by the level of prejudice it sometimes encounters.  Despite the theological eccentricities and the excessive (in my opinion) social conservatism of the LDS, I see something profoundly decent about this community of Christians.  Those of us involved in ecumenical Christian bodies such as the TCC really need to get to know our Mormon neighbours.

3.     I was asked by the youth worker of All Saints’ Anglican Church in South Hobart to assist her in designing a programme on ecumenical and interfaith relations for the church’s young adult group.  In the process, we developed a series of gatherings in which people from various Christian churches – and from other faith communities – met with the group and shared some of the beliefs and practices of their communities, and enabled the All Saints’ people to do the same kind of sharing.

I personally believe that there still needs to be someone in Tasmania whose job description in her / his “day job” includes an active concern for the well-being of the relationships among the Christian churches in Tasmania and among the wider range of faith communities in Tasmania.  As the Tasmanian Council of Churches continues the process of searching for a person in this role, I wish my successor (whomever she or he may be) well in this task.

In this context, may I plead that whoever is chosen for this role is someone who already knows Tasmania well.  In my observation over the past thirty-five years (twenty-one of which were spent in Tasmania), many Tasmanian churches (and other areas of Tasmanian life) have been badly hurt by those in high profile roles who arrive from interstate with no local knowledge, and no real respect for the intelligence and wisdom already present among Tasmanians.  The “mainland guru” arrives with a sense of “I’m an expert; listen to me,” and frequently departs, leaving a great reserve of resentment.  I believe a track record of solid respect for Tasmanians needs to be a prerequisite for such a role.

In closing, the late Krister Stendahl, a Swedish Lutheran theologian who served as Professor of New Testament at Harvard, as Bishop of Stockholm, and as a participant in many ecumenical and interfaith dialogues, formulated “Stendahl’s Laws of Religious Encounter” in the 1980s.  These are as relevant now (both for ecumenical relations among Christians and for interfaith relations) as they were when they were first proposed.  In a simple way, and somewhat paraphrased, they are:

1.     When attempting to learn about another faith community, first listen to the community’s adherents, not the community’s enemies.

2.     Compare like with like.  Never compare your own community at its best with another community at its worst.   (Perhaps, for those of us who are inclined to be “ecumenical tourists”, we could also have “Faser’s Corollary to Stendahl’s Second Law”:  “Never compare your own community at its worst with another community at its best.”)

3.     Always leave room for “holy envy” (i.e., the feeling that there is something in the life of another faith community that you’d really want to see in your own).

For each of us, may we cultivate this “holy envy” in each of our lives and in the lives of our churches.

Grace and Peace,

The Rev. Dr. Bob Faser,

Liaison Officer.

Friday, 19 June 2015

Australian Prime Ministers as movie characters

Suppose Australian Prime Ministers were film characters.  Which characters would they be?  By whom would they be played?

Let's start with the iconic leaders of the two major parties:  Gough Whitlam and Sir Robert Menzies.  Each of these two dominated their respective eras (and the memories of their respective parties in the decades since their time) like Shakespeare's proverbial colossus.  They would need to be played as serious Shakespearean roles, by serious Shakespearean actors.  Let's say the late Sir John Gielgud as Ming, and the late Sir Laurence Olivier as Gough.

Looking at Whitlam's successor, Malcolm Fraser, this would involve an interesting casting dilemma. 
  • The Fraser of the Whitlam dismissal would be a menacing character on the scale of Star Wars' Darth Vader. 
  • On the other hand, the Fraser who first admitted the Vietnamese boat people, and who served as a voice of conscience for the nation on refugee-related issues (and other humanitarian issues) ever since he left active party politics would have been a character such as Gregory Peck's Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird
Darth Vader playing Atticus Finch?   Possibly.

With Bob Hawke, we move from drama to comedy; in particular, to British comedy of the Carry On tradition.  Bob Hawke (not only during his political career, but beforehand and afterwards) could most ideally have been portrayed by the late Sid James in any of his Carry On roles, a wheeler-dealer with the proverbial heart of gold, but with a definite eye for the ladies (not to mention an eye on his creature comforts).

Bob Hawke's successor (and party rival) Paul Keating seems to be a character from a "Spaghetti Western", the tall, thin stranger who rides into town with everyone remaining uncertain (frequently until well after the closing credits have rolled and the movie is being dissected over coffee) whether the character was a "good guy" (intentional or unintentional) or a "bad guy" (also intentional or unintentional).

John Howard, because his political career was defined by his relationship vis a vis George W. Bush in the aftermath of 9/11, needs to be in a "sidekick" role. 
  • One of the great movie sidekicks was the Lone Ranger's friend Tonto, but I think John Howard (given his policies on immigration and related issues while in office) would object to being cast in such a non-Anglo role as Tonto. 
  • Given the fact that Howard frequently spoke with nostalgia of life in earlier times in history, let's say John Howard could be cast in the role of that other classic sidekick, Barney Rubble from The Flintstones.

For the feuding ALP Prime Ministers who served for the two terms between John Howard and Tony Abbott, we get into the area of TV comedies. 
  • For Kevin Rudd, I'm thinking of John Cleese's Basil Fawlty from Fawlty Towers (very well-intentioned, but sometimes lacking sufficient people skills to accomplish his desired goals). 
  • For Julia Gillard, I'm thinking of any of the characters in Seinfeld (equally well-intentioned, but with a tendency to agree to requests which backfire spectacularly).

With the current incumbent of the Prime Ministership, Tony Abbott, we have a choice between a return to the Carry On films or a visit to the James Bond series of films. 
  • On the one hand, Tony Abbott could be seen as any of the characters played by the late Kenneth Williams in the Carry On series. 
  • On the other hand, Abbott could be a very convincing Bond villain.  (However, there are many convincing potential Bond villians in the current cabinet, many of whom are even scarier than Abbott.) 
Even better, why not think of Tony Abbott in terms of Kenneth Williams playing the Chairman of the Board of a corporation whose Board mostly consists of Bond villains.    It works for me.