Sunday, 28 December 2014

Disunity and Dis-Uniforms: Looking at the Feast of the Holy Innocents through an Irish Lens

Today is the Feast of the Holy Innocents, when we remember those children in Bethlehem and the surrounding areas killed by Herod in his attempt to kill the infant Jesus (Matthew 2:16-18). 

It is one of the most disturbing incidences in the biblical text.

What reflection can be derived from such an atrocious act?

I suggest that we critically reflect on how war, poverty, and political and social policies around the globe continue to destroy the lives of children, not just in ‘developing’ regions but in the ‘developed’ as well.

Separation barrier between the Falls Road and Shankill Road areas, one of over a hundred in Belfast

I, of course, tend to view this through an Irish lens, and reflect on what the 1968-1998 conflict over Northern Ireland and its aftermath did- and continues to do- to the region’s young people.

Northern Ireland is a ‘young’ region; 40% of the population is under 25. The effects of the 1968-1998 conflict and deeply-rooted, ongoing sectarianism and segregation affect children and young people in unique ways. It can be argued that children and young people suffer a disproportionate cost for the actions of the past and the ongoing segregationist and sectarian policies of our present. 

For example:

-          Most children in Northern Ireland live in segregated areas, and the segregation affects them in distinctive and more acute ways than adults.  Children in Northern Ireland wear school uniforms that immediately mark them as Catholic or Protestant. Thus, segregation extends from home, to school, and to social and leisure activities.

-          For many, the first sustained contact with the ‘other’ community may only come at third-level education or first employment. The fear of being identified as an ‘other’ limits young people’s movements more than adults, and thereby their opportunities and choices.

-          Young people from lower income and ‘interfaceareas (where one community’s territory is next to another’s) face greater obstacles in achieving either third-level education or sustained employment. Unemployment rates among young people in Northern Ireland tend to be higher anyway and, in interface communities, the levels are again increased. This then acts as an important driver toward substance abuse, mental health issues and lack of social capital and transport. Moreover, sectarian dynamics, as they are manifested at interface areas, exacerbate unemployment, acting as a ‘double penalty’ on young people due to the tendency to only feel safe within the confines of one’s own community and the hesitancy to leave it due to a more pronounced fear of physical attack. Youth recreation also suffers if one’s perceived area has no such facilities but patterns of fear and territorialism discourage travel to or through what is perceived the ‘other’s’ area.  

-          Children and young adults at interfaces tend to have more direct experiences of political violence than middle-class counterparts. Particularly, Northern Ireland’s history of conflict exerts more pressure on boys and young men, where masculine identity and violent behaviour are often seen as an essential experience of being young and male.

-          As well as more acute experiences of violence, interface children often display distinct patterns of distrust of the police. Even more disturbingly, the history of paramilitary control of many interface areas has led to the tendency for areas to ‘police’ themselves, usually through para-military intimidation and physical force. Through behaviour deemed anti-social, children and young people often found themselves- and continue to perceive themselves- the chief targets of this ‘irregular policing’.

-          68% of 18-25 year-olds had never had a meaningful conversation with anyone from the ‘othercommunity. Throughout the conflict and into the present, attempts were made to mitigate the lack of meaningful contact with young people from the other community through cross-community inter-group contact schemes. The effectiveness of such schemes, however, has been a matter of intense debate. Basically, no amount of infrequent and carefully orchestrated contact, can overcome the formative role played by family and community in a context of near-total cultural segregation. More problematically, many young people, particularly young men, reported that such schemes increased the chances of sectarian violence by making them more easily recognisable to elements in the ‘other’ community.


I was deeply moved by this video project produced in Derry, Northern Ireland’s second-largest city. In it, two secondary school girls, one from a Catholic background and one from a Protestant background, exchange school uniforms and walk through the city.

It brought back so many personal memories of young people I have worked with in schools, churches, community centres, and other projects over the years.

It is difficult for someone not from Northern Ireland to grasp the amount the courage needed to do what these two incredible young women did for this project. I believe it stands as an indictment of politicians, church hierarchies, and other community leaders who rarely show the same level of purpose, courage, or vision... 

It also stands as an appeal to those in power to critically reflect, both on what they have done, and what they have failed- and continue to fail- to do...

Holy Innocents, pray for us

Friday, 26 December 2014

St. Stephen, Patron of the Cruelly Punished

Today is the feast of St. Stephen, when we remember the cruel death of a young man by stoning, in his case for holding different religious views from the majority (Acts of the Apostles 7). 

If Stephen's death, and our remembrance of it in our Christian liturgies, is to mean anything, it must help us develop our praxis, helping us reflect and act upon our faith in the social reality in which we practice it. 

It should help us ensure that no one else is allowed to suffer pain or death for what Stephen said or did. or suffer death as he did. 

Stoning is a legal method of execution in 13 countries, and an extrajudicial method in several others. 

The process of stoning someone to death usually involves burying a man upright up to his chest (or a woman up to her shoulders). Islamic law dictates  that the stones used be of a size not so large as one or two strikes would result in death, but not so small that the stoning would take an undue amount of time. Preferred stones are therefore about the size of a hand; the process can take up to 20 minutes.

But this isn't simply an issue within Islam; several extremist Christian groups in the US and elsewhere, as well as individual clergy, laypeople, and politicians (posting or commenting on social media where, bizarrely, they seem to think no one can hear them) have expressed their desire to reinstate stoning as a 'biblical' punishment for a raft of crimes. 

St. Stephen is remembered as the patron saint of altar servers, casket makers, and- in what I think to be somewhat poor taste- headache sufferers. 

I prefer to think of him as the patron saint of those who must endure cruel and unusual punishment

Please support Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch in their efforts to ban both cruel and unusual punishments and the death penalty worldwide. 

Holy St. Stephen, pray for us.

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Making Mary and Joseph Comfortable: Looking at the Christmas Story from an 'Eastern' Perspective

I’m writing this on Christmas Eve. Advent is nearing its end and I’m looking forward to the feast of Christmas. Tonight I’m off to midnight Mass, where all of the readings and reflections will now focus on Bethlehem, the holy family, and the birth of our Lord. 

The story is so ingrained in our lives we can recite it from memory. The angel’s announcement, Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem, the birth of Jesus, the manger, the shepherd’s, the wise men…

However, I think we need to revisit the story a bit- not the biblical text itself, but how we read it, and critically reflect. What are we reading? How are we reading it? Are we leaving anything out? Are we needlessly adding elements that weren’t there? 

Much of my understanding of the events surrounding the birth of Jesus come from two personal experiences: first, I had the immense privilege to attend lectures by Dr. Kenneth Bailey, formerly Theologian in Residence in the Episcopal Church in Jerusalem and the Middle East (Cyprus) and Research Professor of Middle Eastern NT Studies (Jerusalem). Bailey’s extensive experience of Middle Eastern life and tradition directly informs his exposition of the biblical text, revealing elements that a Western reading of the texts can misunderstand or overlook. 

Secondly, I have been to the Middle East myself, have visited Bethlehem, and heard firsthand how the ancient Christian community there, drawing on long tradition and oral history, understands the accounts. 

From both these experiences, I’m convinced that our reading of the birth of Christ is so overlaid with our own dysfunctional culture’s prejudices as to be almost completely erroneous. 

Think of your immediate mental images of the birth of Christ as it is trotted out in every nativity play in every church or community centre you’ve been in: There’s Mary, nine months pregnant, loaded awkwardly and painfully on a donkey, being dragged door to door by Joseph, only to have every door slammed in their faces and eventually huddled in a dark and smelly barn, alone and abandoned. 

I'm not going to even ask about the snowmen...

This vision of the story is so familiar, we no longer even question any of the assumptions it makes. But most Abrahamic cultures in the Middle East- Jewish, Christian, and Muslim- would view it as absurd, even insulting. 

So, let’s look at the Christmas story again, this time through an ‘Eastern’ lens: 

There are two vital elements to that lens: family and hospitality. Almost all of Abrahamic culture revolves around those two elements, and they are much more broadly understood in those cultures than in our own. 

When westerners think of family, we tend to focus on ‘immediate’ family, the ‘nuclear’ family- husband, wife, and children. Abrahamic cultures in the Middle East focus on the ‘extended’ family- aunts, uncles, cousins, second cousins, third cousins, all of whom are often considered as close as brother and sister. The conceptions of family and community were- and are- much wider and encompassing in the East than in the West. 

Thus, when the emperor Augustus decreed his empire-wide tax, we can reasonably assume that Joseph was not the only man in Nazareth heading out to his home town. We can also reasonably assume that a good portion of Mary’s family traveled with them as well. Sisters, brothers, cousins, parents, friends… Westerners travel with their immediate family; Eastern families travel with the ‘extendeds’. 

We can also assume that Mary didn’t start out on this trip nine months pregnant; people of her culture didn’t go places for the weekend. Joseph and Mary would have gone for an extended period, probably several months. 

Why? Again, we need to remember that Joseph was from Bethlehem; not only that, he was from the house and lineage of King David- a very prominent family pedigree! It is completely reasonable to assume that Joseph and Mary stayed with family- Joseph’s family. Even if Joseph had no living relatives in Bethlehem (which would be nearly impossible in a culture where the concept of ‘extended family’ is so strong), he’d simply have had to say who his family was and ‘Eastern’ hospitality would have opened any door in Bethlehem to him and his family. 

Because of the tax, Bethlehem would indeed have been crowded, and it is quite likely that there was no room in the house- or, more likely ‘houses’- for Joseph, Mary, and the whole Nazareth clan. This would not have been a problem, though; Joseph and Mary stayed in one of the caves. 

Yes, a cave. If you travel to Bethlehem today, you will see the extensive use of caves for family dwelling. These are not dark, wet, cramped caves; they are roomy and comfortable, warm in the winters and cool in the summers- all the comforts of home… because they are home. 

A Bethlehem cave. Not 'too' shabby...

When it came time for Mary to give birth, one person would not have been present: Joseph. Men in that culture didn’t ‘do’ births then, and they don’t ‘do’ them now. No matter though; Mary would have been surrounded by women- lots of women; her mother, sisters, Joseph’s female relations- all of these would have been considered Mary’s relatives. It was noisy, feminine, caring. 

When the birth of Jesus is viewed though this ‘Eastern’ cultural lens, it looks completely different- warm, caring, close, and familial. Many Christians in the West would probably be amazed at it, maybe even uncomfortable. 

If that is the case, we need to ask, why? 

I think there are two reasons. First, Western Christianity is almost thoroughly alienated from its Eastern cultural roots, and because we are almost entirely divorced from Eastern culture, values, and understandings, our reading and understanding of the biblical text is impoverished. 

Worse, it has left Western Christians alienated from actual Middle Eastern people, particularly their Christian brothers and sisters. The near-complete abandonment by Western Christians of the Palestinian Christian community- the community who actually live in Bethlehem and the rest of the West Bank and Gaza- is the most shameful result of that alienation. 

Secondly, Progressive/left Christians in the West invest heavily in the traditional, erroneous images of the birth story, using them as the basis for a theological reflection on the need to care for the homeless and the stranger. 

Admirable as that is, it actually says more about the theological context of the West than it does about the cultural context of the Middle East. 

We need to find ourselves in the biblical text and the experiences its people, but we should be careful not to project our own culture's sins and selfishness backwards on to them. 

It is our culture that turns its back on the stranger, not theirs.

We are inconvenienced by those in need; they aren't. 

We live atomized lives focused on our own individual needs; they don't.

We have extremely limited ideas of family and community; they don't. 

But worse, our traditional reading of the birth of Christ often projects culturally thoughtless and racist images onto the events- rude, inhospitable, ‘innkeepers’, ‘dirty’, ‘stinking’ living conditions, and ‘smelly’ shepherds. 

That is not what people in the Middle East were like then, nor are they like that now. 

So, how do I think we should read the accounts of the birth of Christ? How should we then live? 

We can emulate their lives. We can allow the Abrahamic cultures of the Middle East to nourish our own religious and cultural lives. We can emulate their hospitality, their strong emphasis on the family, their attention to tradition and inherited values. 

We can rejoice that Mary and Joseph were not alone and abandoned but were treated with warmth and care. 

And we can dedicate ourselves to treating others- strangers, our families- with the same warmth and care that they received. 

A peaceful, hospitable, and comfortable Christmas to you all.

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Madre de los Decaparecidos: Mother of God, Mother of the Tortured

Today, the US Senate releases its report into the CIA's torture of detainees after the events of 11 September 2001.

Some rejoice when truth is made known; some tremble with anger or fear. The message of the Gospel of Jesus is: which side are you on?

In this icon, The Blessed Virgin Mary is the 'Mother of the Disappeared'.

She wears the white scarf of the Argentine mothers who stood for years in the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires, demanding to know what happened to their loved 
ones who were arrested, tortured, and killed, holding banners demanding 'Donde estan?' ('where are they?'). 

She holds the crown of thorns that remind us that she is the mother of a son arrested, denied justice, and tortured to death in public. 

The 'white hand' of the death squads of Central America defaces the icon. 

Jesus and his mother were- and are- every victim of injustice, torture, and death, every victim of power and money.

They are in our prisons, in Guantanamo, in our 'black spots'...

What we do the least of these, we do to him... and to her...

Lord Jesus Christ, tortured and murdered, have mercy on us and give us courage to speak and act. 

Holy Mary, Mother of God, Mother of the Tortured, pray for us.

Thursday, 4 December 2014

'Breathe...': A Theological Reflection on The Death of Eric Garner

Eric Garner, an unarmed black resident of New York City, was strangled to death by an NYPD officer. A grand jury ruled that the officer will not stand trial for Garner's death, regardless of the fact that the incident was filmed by a bystander at a few feet away and the death was ruled a homicide by the city coroner. 

For a nation with the history of deep racial and cultural divisions that the US has- with its indigenous population; with those brought here as slave labour; those Hispanic cultures still deeply resentful of the Mexican-American War’s land grab that left many on the wrong side of a border they didn’t help draw- the events have exposed festering wounds that, for many, have never closed, much less healed or even scarred. That all this has happened in the shadow of yet another notorious police shooting of an unarmed black male in Ferguson, MO with an identical grand jury decision, the situation was like pouring salt into those wounds.

Garner’s last words- repeated gasps of ‘I can’t breathe’- have become a rallying cry for many who have taken to the streets in outrage at the events.

Garner said ‘I can’t breathe’…

Those in the streets say, ‘We can’t breathe…

‘We can’t keep living like this.’

Personally, I ask myself, what can I do?

I believe that theological reflection has an important role to play in social transformation, in radical social change.

I believe the role of the radical theologian is to frame the process of social transformation using a spiritual paradigm, as well as helping to push it forward through the moral impetus of that framing.

Like so many others, I’m drawn to Garner’s last words, ‘I can’t breathe.' 

Genesis 2:7- 'God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.' 

Mark 15:37- 'With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last.' 

It is out of the creative love of God that we have our life and breath; it is out of the violence of the state that Jesus' breath- and Garner's- was taken away. 

In John 20:22, after Jesus was raised, 'he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit."' 

Through the resurrection, God overcomes the brutality of the state powers that murdered Jesus and through his restored breath once again blesses us with new life. 

In our own context, breathing is life, the evidence of our life in God, and the presence of the spirit of God within us.

By breathing, we bear witness to the resurrection, God's destruction of the structures of death and oppression. 

The antithesis of the resurrection, of the God of life is, of course, the reality of death- whether that death be immediate or drawn out through oppression, poverty, and marginalization. 

In any case, it is life taken; 

Stolen by oppressive power.

By living a life infused by the breath of the spirit of God- of peace, justice, truth, and mercy- we bear witness to the God of life and build resistance to the structures of death.

this way, breathing is, in and of itself, civil disobedience; 


Resistance to brutality, 

To power,

To cruelty...

Psalm 150:6- 'Let everything that has breath give glory to God...'