Wednesday, 30 December 2015

'Radical Grace' in Christian-Muslim Relationships

I’ve written previously about the scrutiny placed on Muslims in the US and Europe, the nature of the word ‘moderate’ (how it is seen as a desirable trait in Muslims by Christians who’d probably not want the word used in reference to their own Christianity), and the need to practice radical inclusiveness in the face of violent extremism.

I’ve been thinking about it a bit more (what else can one do around the holidays?) and since my field of research and work is theology, I’d frame this around the theological concept of ‘grace’, although the term extends into the realm of public discourse as well.

Grace is central to the Christian faith. Christians believe that their salvation is the end result of the grace shown to them by God.

Out of this grace shown to us, we then extend that grace to others. But the true tack of grace, as I see it in the biblical text, is never simply about a solipsism of personal salvation and spiritual renewal. 

Grace- and all other spiritual attributes- must always have an outward-facing vision, a social component.

This is what I might call ‘radical grace’- forgiveness, compassion, works of mercy directed toward fundamental social change.

‘Radical grace’ is a praxis of reflection and action toward actively building the Kingdom of God- truth, justice, life, and light- in the world.

But for the Christian conception of grace to become a truly ‘radical grace’, it must also include a degree of critical reflection on the rather privileged position that Christianity holds in the social and cultural milieu of the US.

Since Christianity is the predominant socio-religious position in the US, it is extended a level of grace in the sphere of social-political commentary (certainly in the media) that is not extended to followers of Islam.

In the wake of tragedy or terrorism, Muslim Americans immediately come under a level of scrutiny and commentary out of all proportion to that given to Christians in the wake of extremist Christian actions.

Simply put, it is naturally assumed from the outset that all Christians don’t support the views of the Westboro Baptist Church, the actions of Dylann Roof, Robert Lewis Dear, the Klan, the militias, etc.

There is no public debate about the intrinsic nature of Christian theology, thought, or practice regarding social views, extremism, or terrorism; pundits on the nightly news shows are not parsing over whether or not Christianity is a ‘religion of peace’, whether or not its stance toward women is healthy and progressive or not, or whether or not Christians can be fundamentally trusted in the public arena. 

In the civic forum, Christianity’s intrinsic ‘goodness’ is assumed, not debated.

Moreover, Christianity’s intrinsic diversity is assumed as well. Everyone assumes that Christianity is a broad house with a variety of views and expressions, mostly positive or benign, some dubious… but rarely any Christian views are immediately labelled a clear and present danger, much less a national security threat. The religious faith of Robert Dear might be reported on in passing, but it is never held out as reason to suspect the Christians living in your neighbourhood, what’s being preached from their pulpits, or whether you, as a citizen, need to be concerned about the amount of Christians living in your area.

Basically, a Christian may, or might not choose to condemn Christian extremism if they so desire; one might even think it would be good if they did…

but there will not be a near-continuous clamoring for them to do so, and no calls for their monitoring, incarceration, or deportation if they don't. 

The news shows will not have endless commentary from panel shows demanding, ‘where are the voices of moderate Christianity? Why do they not condemn these people? Why would they choose to stay silent, other than that they silently agree?’

This is a distinct privilege that Christians in the US and Europe have that Muslims do not.

‘Radical grace’ will be found, not so much in Christians condemning their extremists more (though that would be nice…) but in cultivating a public discourse where the majority of Muslims will need to condemn their extremists less;

Where their public good will, civic participation, and dedication to right and justice are inherently assumed rather than immediately doubted;

Where trust overrides suspicion and love overcomes fear.

Jesus said, ‘From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.’

We have been given much grace. We have been entrusted with much grace;

It is time to extend it with the same reckless abandon that it has been given to us.

Sunday, 27 December 2015

The Feast of the Holy Innocents: Violence, Terror, and the Refugee Jesus

Today is the Feast of the Holy Innocents, when we remember the children of Bethlehem and the surrounding areas murdered by Herod in his maniacal attempt to kill the newly-born Jesus.

Joseph had to quickly flee Bethlehem for Egypt with his wife and child.

It’s safe to assume that other parents ran with their children as well, as men with weapons went house to house, butchering children as they went.

My work as a peace and reconciliation practitioner has taken me to several places around the world where similar atrocities took place.

When I was in Rwanda, I met children- now young adults- who only survived because their parents managed to throw them over a wall into the neighbouring house seconds before they were hacked to death;

In Belfast, I worked with children of families who had fled their homes during feuds between rival paramilitary factions. Some had watched their family members being dragged into the street to be beaten and shot;

In the occupied West Bank, I met families who had their homes bulldozed, their olive farms repeatedly destroyed, their city invaded by the Israeli military over and over, their businesses ruined, their family members shot;

When I was a postgraduate student at Trinity College Dublin, a close colleague had worked in the Balkans, often with people who fled their homes with only what they could grab in the moments before their towns were overrun…

What I and my colleagues learned over the years is that refugees have very good reasons to run. They run for their lives and for those of their family and children. No one abandons their home, all they own, their job, their children’s school, and their extended families on a whim…

The Feast of the Holy Innocents- and the Matthew 2 texts on which it is based- are our reminder that, at the very centre of the Christian religion is a refugee family;

At the very heart of our faith is Jesus the refugee, forcibly displaced, and the survivor of state terror.

But this is more than simply a metaphorical remembrance; we must remember that at the heart of the Christmas story is the incredible mystery of the incarnation, God invading creation, becoming all that we are, becoming human…

Becoming Emmanuel- ‘God with us’.

We do not simply worship Jesus as the divine Christ;

We worship the humanity of Jesus in his human life- and in the whole of humanity, in the life of every human, the very archetype of the incarnation.

The incarnation of the divine Son, the second person of the Trinity, into the man Jesus is the first act of humanity’s salvation- and of the salvation of the whole of creation.   

From a theological standpoint- particularly those theologies emerging from the legacy of Latin American liberation theology- this is why human life, human value, human dignity, and human rights are so absolutely critical-

Because God became human- and even more critically Jesus retains that humanity even in his post-resurrection/post-ascension being.

We seem to have no problems at all worshiping the divine Christ, with our vaulted church ceilings, pomp, ritual, and declarations of grandeur...

but how do we worship the human Jesus?

We worship the human Jesus by recognizing his incarnate presence in every human being.

At the other end of the Gospel of Matthew in chapter 25, we hear the human Jesus- Jesus the refugee- give his criteria for our salvation:

I was hungry and you fed me,
thirsty and you gave me a drink;
I was a stranger and you received me in your homes,
Naked and you clothed me;
I was sick and you took care of me;
I was in prison and you visited me.

The human Jesus- Jesus the refugee- also gives his criteria for our condemnation:

I was hungry but you would not feed me,
thirsty but you would not give me a drink; 
I was a stranger but you would not welcome me in your homes,
naked but you would not clothe me;
I was sick and in prison but you would not take care of me.

To attempt to honour and adore the divine Christ in chapter 25 while ignoring the refugee family in chapter 2 is absurd and impossible.

What does this practically mean?

The refugees languishing in Calais,

on Lesvos,

drowning in the Mediterranean,

those millions in Lebanon and Jordan…

Those who have made it, by some miracle, as far as Europe and America,

the refugee families in our cities and towns, accosted by aggressive ideologues demanding they go ‘back where they came from’…

They are not quite like Jesus and his family;

They are Jesus and his family.

Let me be very clear:

It is impossible to be a Christian and not feed, clothe, house, and seek justice for those refugees fleeing war, terror, starvation, and injustice.

If we close our hearts- and those arbitrary lines in the dirt that we grandiosely call ‘our borders’- to those with nowhere else to go, we reject Jesus and his family and we pay homage to the satanic Herod.

The choice is hard, stark, and entirely up to us.

Monday, 14 December 2015

'(Insert Terrorist Here) High School': The Courage of Naming...

The 1998 sci-fi film 'Deep Impact' tells the story of a comet on target to hit Earth and a crew of astronauts sent to destroy the comet with nuclear weapons. 

After several failed attempts to carry out the mission as planned, and an enormous chunk of the comet now guaranteed to crash into the Earth, the captain of the mission hatches a last-ditch plan: a suicide mission, deliberately piloting their craft into the comet and detonating their remaining nuclear weapons.

After a long, sombre pause, one of the crew muses, ‘well, look at the bright side: we’ll all have high schools named after us.’

It’s true; we tend to name our schools, universities, public buildings, parks, and landmarks after heroes- incredible people, great achievers, people who proved they were role models…

We name things after people in which we recognize greatness.

That’s certainly what was probably on the minds of the students of Queens University in Belfast when they voted to name their student union after Nelson Mandela.

It doesn’t seem like that interesting a fact until you realize they did so in 1986, when Mandela was in prison serving a life sentence for sabotage and conspiracy to violently overthrow the government and his political party, the African National Congress, was illegal.

It would be 4 more years until Mandela was released from prison to begin negotiations with the South African government to end the Apartheid system;

three more years before he received, along with then-South African President F.W. de Klerk, the Nobel Peace Prize;

another year for him to win the presidency of South Africa in a landslide;

16 years for the US government to grant him the Presidential Medal of Freedom and Queen Elizabeth II to give him a knighthood;

and 23 years for the UN to declare 18 July ‘Mandela Day’.

Today, naming things after Nelson Mandela is a no-brainer.

It doesn’t take much courage to name a school after a person that conventional wisdom holds to be a hero;

It takes significantly more courage to name it after a person your government has officially declared a terrorist…

Did Mandela deserve the honour in 1986? Lots of people at the time would’ve probably said ‘no’. With hindsight, an overwhelming majority would probably say ‘yes’.

Which begs the question:

Who living today- declared by our government to be a terrorist, a dangerous criminal, or a national security risk- should we be naming our schools after?

Who is our unrecognized ‘Mandela’ now?

Who deserves our courage now?

Chelsea Manning?

Edward Snowden?

Shaker Aamer (Google him…)?

Adel Noori (Google him…)?

Veronza Bowers Jr. (Google him…)?

Jeremy Hammond (Google him…)?

Eric McDavid (Google him…)?

I honestly don’t know…

I make no claims for or against these people deserving such an honour.

But America locks up a greater proportion of its population than any other nation on Earth, and its 'terror watch list' includes over a million people; 

There’s got to be a few in there who deserve a school name...

The question remains:

Who has the courage to even bring it up?

Saturday, 5 December 2015

'Are You a Moderate?' Looking at the Language of Evangelicalism

In the wake of 11 September 2001, 7/7 in London, the Paris attacks, and everything else surrounding the ‘war on terror’, there has been much discussion and debate about Islam- whether or not it is a ‘religion of peace’, whether or not it condones violence, whether or not it is oppressive to women and other faiths, the meaning of the word ‘jihad’…

I won't go into the weaknesses underlying much of this debate, or the dangers of trying to make generalizations about a staggeringly diverse faith spread across dozens of nations, cultures, and political systems. That’d take too long and give you and me a headache…

I want to reflect on one word that keeps appearing:


Where, it's asked, are the voices of ‘moderate’ Islam? Why don’t ‘moderate’ Muslims say more, do more, condemn more? How do we make Islam more ‘moderate’?

Of course, underlying these questions is the assumption that moderation is an intrinsic good, and who would argue with that? Moderation is the voice of reason, of control, of discipline.

‘Moderate’ Democrats, ‘moderate’ Republicans, ‘moderate’ public opinion, and all that…

Who would ever be uncomfortable being called a ‘moderate’, right?

Actually, I can think of one group who I think might react very negatively at being labelled ‘moderates’, and ironically it might be a good portion of those calling for Islam to be more moderate:

Christians, particularly Evangelical Christians.

I spent many years in the Evangelical Christian subculture, attending an Evangelical Baptist school, getting my BA from an Evangelical Christian university, and working for many years for an Evangelical Christian missions organization.

While I remain a Christian, I have rejected the ‘Evangelical’ label for many years and struggled with much of Evangelicalism even while immersed in it.

But out of that lifelong experience, I can definitely say this: nothing within Evangelical Christianity ever led me to believe that being ‘moderate’ was a good thing.

Quite the contrary, we looked down on ‘moderate’ Christians; 

they were ‘lukewarm’; God had rejected them.

We were constantly told we needed to be more excited, more committed.

The end was near, and time was short.

Real people were going to a real hell, real soon.

America was corrupt and crumbling... and don't even get started on Europe...

Most people, we were constantly told- most Christians, in fact- had rejected God, turned away, gone soft.

                                                                                       DC Talk, 'Jesus Freak'

Most Christians didn’t preach the ‘real’ Gospel for fear of giving offense.

We needed to stop caring so much for unbelievers’ feelings; in fact, if unbelievers weren’t angry and offended, we were probably doing it wrong.

We needed to be more ‘sold out’;

We needed to ‘press in’;

We needed to ‘go deeper'. 

We were not simply a faith; we were an army- and not the logistical parts of the army, but the fighting part, and make no mistake, we were in a 'war'...

                                                                                    Carmen, 'God's Got an Army'

We needed to be louder;

We needed to be more fervent;

We needed to be more visible; 

We were to be unashamed;

                                                                                     Newsboys, 'I'm Not Ashamed'

And we must never- ever- compromise.

In short, we had no desire to be moderates, thank you all very much…

This is the problem of assuming that words mean the same thing to everyone, and assuming all issues within all faiths are solved with the same solutions (I’m thinking about all the rhetoric about Islam needing a ‘reformation’…)

But regarding the issue of ‘moderation’, what do I think needs to happen?

Extremism of rhetoric and action is a grave and complex issue for people of all faiths and none. We all need to be thinking together and acting together to confront it.

Evangelical Christians might need to examine their own faith- and how it might come across to others- before weighing in with their opinions about how other faiths should improve themselves;

Evangelical Christians might need to begin to engage more with members of the Muslim communities in their midst, being willing to listen and learn before presuming to teach;

Crucially, Evangelical Christians need to engage with Muslims as Muslims, free of agenda or mission; 

to be blunt, discover who people are - and why they might feel good about who they are- before launching into the process of making them more like you…

I’d say something here about taking care of the log in Christianity’s eye before we nag Muslims about the speck in theirs, but that might be taken as needlessly messianic…

Anyway, let’s all think before we speak, listen before we pronounce, and think before we act.

That sounds eminently moderate to me...

Thursday, 3 December 2015

'Seeing the Great Light': Preparing for a Radical Advent...

For Christians, we are now in the season of Advent.  

Advent (from the Latin adventus, meaning ‘arrival’ or ‘coming’) is the season that precedes Christmas in the Christian liturgical year. It consists of the four Sundays before Christmas Day, beginning on the first Sunday after the feast of St. Andrew the Apostle (30 November) and continues until the 24th of December.

Advent is a time of preparation and reflection. Traditions involve the lighting of candles on each of the four Sundays leading up to Christmas, usually in church but also in the home.

Similar to the season of Lent in the lead-up to Easter, Advent is also a traditional time of fasting, self-examination, and prayer.

Reflections during Advent often draw on the biblical texts from the long centuries before the birth of Christ.

It is a time to remember the prophecies of the Hebrew scriptures that tell of the eventual coming of God’s messiah, which Christians believe refer to Jesus.

It is a time to reflect on the coming invasion; 

The invasion of God into his creation.

Ultimately, Advent prepares us for Christmas, the celebration of the incarnation, 

‘God with us’.

The incarnation is the central theme of the ancient Hebrew prophets. No matter what was going on-

invading armies, corrupt officials, unjust structures, inhumane systems, the devaluing of human life and human goodness-

the prophets asserted that God was not blind, nor did he sleep.

God’s Messiah would come, and all would be put right:

And it would not be put right in some mystical, fantastic reality beyond this world;

It would be put right here, now, in history, in time.  

On the first Sunday of Advent, we read from the ancient Hebrew prophet Isaiah:

The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light.
They lived in a land of shadows,
but now light is shining on them.
You have given them great joy, Lord;
you have made them happy.
They rejoice in what you have done,
as people rejoice when they harvest grain
or when they divide captured wealth.
For you have broken the yoke that burdened them
and the rod that beat their shoulders.
You have defeated the nation
that oppressed and exploited your people,
just as you defeated the army of Midian long ago.
The boots of the invading army
and all their bloodstained clothing
will be destroyed by fire.
A child is born to us!
A son is given to us!
And he will be our ruler.
He will be called, “Wonderful Counselor,”
“Mighty God,” “Eternal Father,”
“Prince of Peace.”

God had revealed himself as the God of life and liberation; 

the God of transformation.

Thus, the Christian liturgical year begins by putting the world on notice that we await transformation-

Not just of hearts, minds, and souls, but of historical conditions;

Of structures, of hierarchies, of the status quo.

With the coming of the messiah, the prophets declared, nothing can- or will- remain as it is.

For the poor, the marginalized, the disenfranchised, and the oppressed, this is good news;

For the wealthy, the influential, the disenfranchising, and the oppressors, this is a warning…

This is the radical Advent.

And those who hold to this spirit of transformation are a radical ‘Advent people’.

This is why it would be such a mistake to see Advent in only spiritual terms. Though for centuries, religious and political structures colluded to assure us that misery on Earth was a prelude to a glorious heaven, the world has rightly risen in protest against such sentimental piety.

The ‘Advent people’ cultivate hope- for peace, for justice, for equity, for equality.

The ‘Advent people’ prepare for what is coming- for who is coming…

The ‘Advent people’ proclaim that, yes, we have walked in darkness;

Darkness of violence, war, oppression, injustice…

But we have seen a great light.

And that light will light our transformation…

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

Fr. Gerry Reynolds: Remembering a Blessed Peacemaker...

I was stunned and personally devastated to wake up Monday morning to the news that Fr. Gerry Reynolds, of the Redemptorist community at Clonard Monastery in Belfast, had died. He was 82.

I’d known Fr. Gerry for years living and working in Belfast. While we were not close friends, on several occasions he’d worked with or spoken to groups that I was part of or helping to facilitate. He also very generously gave his time to me while I was researching for my doctorate.

He was a quiet, deeply spiritual man, and his core belief in the unity of all Christian people, regardless of how many ways they thought up to divide themselves, was rooted in a deeply mystical understanding of the person of Christ, our bread and our body.

I have two vivid memories of Fr. Gerry that have stayed with me over the years:

The first is of a cold night in November 2005 in the church hall of Fitzroy Presbyterian Church in South Belfast, at a public meeting with the Methodist minister, the Rev. Harold Good, and Fr. Alec Reid, the two official witnesses to the decommissioning of the Provisional IRA weapons. It was a tense night, full of suspicion and bad feelings. When questions were being taken from the crowd, Loyalist activist Willie Frazer made several badgering and hectoring comments directed at Fr. Reid. Reid lost his temper, accusing the Protestant community of treating the Nationalist community no better than animals and like Hitler treated the Jews. Frazer stormed out of the hall, leading many of his supporters with him. The event was hurriedly drawn to a close; Fr. Gerry, who’d also been on the platform, stepped forward and closed the evening with a call for prayer, particularly, he said, 'for those that had walked out, that the grace of God would bear their hurt and bring healing to their hearts.’

The other memory is more personal; ironically, it was another cold November day.  I was taking a group of people from various religious backgrounds up to Clonard Monastery in West Belfast to meet with Fr Gerry as part of a programme I was helping to facilitate. I had other errands to run and was going to be a wee bit late, so a colleague got them there on time. I arrived about 15 minutes late, found the large room they were meeting in, and slipped in quietly along the wall. Fr. Gerry kept chatting away with his slow, quiet Limerick accent. Then, about 10 seconds later, he paused and looked at me over his shoulder:

'You're very welcome, Jon. You're very welcome'... He then went on speaking.

Both of these memories, I think, give glimpses at the quiet greatness of this man;

In the former, there was his unwavering belief that the heart of Jesus- and only the heart of Jesus- was capable of healing the hurts of humanity;

in the latter, there was the feeling I had- every single time I was with him- of a welcome in this world that was absolute.

Everything that Fr. Gerry ever said to me in some way reminded me of my value in the eyes of God...

What more epitaph can any human ever ask?

Fr. Gerry, though from Limerick, made Belfast his home-
not simply where he lived and ministered; 

his home.

Ronald Wells’ 2005 book ‘Friendship Towards Peace: The Journey of Ken Newell and Gerry Reynolds’, details the story of the Clonard-Fitzroy Fellowship, a group of Presbyterians and Catholics who regularly met together for fellowship and prayer from 1984 to the present, through some of dark years of the conflict in Northern Ireland. 

Ken and Gerry’s genuine friendship was the linchpin for much of the Fellowship’s work.

Much of that work was done, if not in secret, then with care, quietly, and without much publicity. They were a small group- most people in their two churches did not participate, and their various church leaderships and hierarchies gave them only muted, tacit approval- if they approved of it at all.

Nevertheless, Fr. Gerry’s and Ken Newall’s work was recognized when they were awarded the Pax Christi peace prize in 1999 in recognition of the Clonard-Fitzroy Fellowship.

Personally, I think Wells’ book is a classic of peace literature- and particularly in Irish terms- for the simple reason that it draws attention to the role that civil society played in the building of a peace process. Most of the attention on the Irish peace process tends to focus on the role of politicians, political party leadership, and ex-combatants; these are the actors who are most often described (often by themselves) as indispensable.

While it’s certainly true that the role they did play was absolutely vital, it was no more vital than the one played by trade unions, community groups, faith-based organizations, academics, authors, journalists, artists, student groups, and locally-organized peace and reconciliation organizations. In the Irish context, it was very often these types of organizations- and the work of committed individuals within them- that laid important groundwork in paving the way to talks, the ceasefires, multi-party negotiations, and the Agreement.

It is also worth noting that much of the work done by those civil society groups was actively opposed, mocked as naïve, and sometimes violently attacked by the very politicians and combatants who were eventually held up as the ‘heroic’ figures once the negotiations were completed and the Good Friday Agreement signed.

Much of the work of civil society has been overlooked or never adequately recorded.

I was part of a project by the Corrymeela Community called ‘Up-Standers’, designed to record and make available as educational resources the actions of brave individuals during the conflict who made the courageous decision- often at the spur of the moment and at great personal risk- to do the right thing, save a life, diffuse tension, and build the peace. Many who took part were extremely humble, rarely seeing the importance of the small acts they did. Some were hesitant to speak, saying, ‘Ach, sure anyone would have done it.’

But few did. That was the point.

Some in Northern Ireland actively made the conflict worse;

some ignored the conflict altogether, saying it had nothing to do with them; 

most just kept their head down and lived life as best they could. 

Then there were those who actively worked to bring the conflict to an end, build the peace and, when the peace process moved forward, worked to foster reconciliation and to dismantle the sectarian infrastructure.

These are the Peacemakers.

Trevor Williams,

Fr. Michael Hurley,

Ray Davey,

David Stevens,

the Rev. Ken Newall,

Tomás Ó Fiaich,

John Hume,

Geraldine Smythe,

Anne Odling-Smee,

Betty Williams,

Ciaran McKeown,

Mairead Corrigan,

May Blood,

Enda McDonagh, 

Fr. Gerry Reynolds…

These and so many other men and women were- and are- true peacemakers in Ireland and Northern Ireland.

Yet many of their contributions to peace- what they did and still do- are marginalized, sidelined, written out of the history.

The real peacemakers of this island are an inconvenient embarrassment to those who for decades blustered and blocked, who wrecked and ruined, and are now praised for their late- very, very late- contribution to making ‘peace’.

The latecomers to peace often refuse to acknowledge their own actions as destructive or violent, or when they do, are quick to rationalize their violence as ‘just’ and ‘inevitable’.

The real peacemakers bear witness to the idea that there were always alternatives to war, even as war and injustice were inflicted on us.

It indeed takes courage to lay down weapons; it also took courage to have never picked them up.

Fr. Gerry always acknowledged the courage of the former; not enough of them have acknowledged his and others’.

It is time for the full story of all of the peacemakers during the conflict to be told.

The death of this quiet, holy, courageous man is a chance to do that.

Rest in peace, Fr. Gerry…

Blessed are the peacemakers…