Saturday, 3 June 2017

Watching Terror in London From Afar: Some Raw Thoughts...







The news coming from London of the terror attacks is awful. News of terror always is…

It brought some thoughts to my mind…

I remember the first time I met a terrorist. A former paramilitary in Northern Ireland. A murderer. 

I remember how odd it felt to sit at a table with someone and know for sure that this person had killed someone.

He had come out the other side and was working for peace and reconciliation...

I remember the first time I met a victim of terrorism. She had watched her husband shot to death in front of her.

She had come out the other side and had forgiven, even reached out and tried to meet the killer.

It seemed like a superhuman act for such a tiny wee woman...

I remember the first time I met a victim of genocide. In Rwanda. 

Then I met dozens.

I don't share their stories; I don't even know how. The Rwandan genocide was so savage, so cruel; I have advanced degrees in conflict and social reconciliation and even I don’t know how to talk about it.

Many of them had come out the other side…

I remember being in Israel and occupied Palestine, meeting people who’d had their children killed, their homes destroyed, their property confiscated…

It wasn’t easy for any of them, Israelis or Palestinians. The Israelis were often marginalized voices in a country run by the most militaristic and unreasonable elements; the Palestinians were still living under occupation, many of the injustices they sought to highlight and overcome peacefully simply ongoing…

Many of them had come out the other side, and were working for a just and negotiated settlement. 

I mention these people just to remind myself- and all of us- that there is the possibility of coming out the other side.

It’s possible to do the right thing, the just thing, the creative thing, the positive thing In the face of horror.

We need to remember that, because when incidents like this occur, we will be inundated by people who will insist that we must do the violent thing, the unjust thing, the narrow-minded thing, the negative thing.

They will be loud. They will be powerful. They’ll be attractive, forceful, and insistent that there’s no other alternative…

… and they’ll be wrong.

Be strong. Be kind. Be just. Be courageous.


Hopefully, I’ll see you on the other side…

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Why I (finally) Stopped Attending Church...






In 2014, I blogged about why, despite many issues with hierarchies, politics, and status quo culture, I still attended church:


I think, for me, it comes down to the deep love and devotion I have for the Eucharist itself, known by many names across many traditions- the Lord’s supper, holy communion, the holy mysteries, the breaking of the bread, an t-aifreann… I’ll struggle with teaching, doctrine, music, practice and people, but all that recedes into the background for me when I am in the presence of the elements- this bread and this wine that at the same time we believe to be so much more.
This is where I meet Jesus. 
If that connection to the Eucharist ever goes away- if that feeling of stability and connection to faith and history ever recedes- then I will indeed stop going to church…

(You can read the whole thing here.)

Well, I haven’t been to Mass in over a year now, so I think it’s safe to say that I am no longer a regular attender.

I don’t go to church any more.

And no one, I suspect, was more surprised than me to discover that, in the end, it had nothing to do with the reason above, the reason that I thought was my bottom line.

For the truth is that I still have a deep love and devotion to the Eucharist;

I still feel deeply connected to the body and blood of Jesus. I still think of it as the place I meet- I commune- with Christ;

I still feel a deep connection to my faith, my Church, the universal, eternal body spread across the ages…

But I don’t go to Church any more. And the pain from that is deep and awful.

So what happened? Why don’t I go? Why stay away when staying away brings such hurt?

While I don’t think it necessary or appropriate to go into minute details, it suffices to say that just about two years ago, an 18-year relationship came to an end and for about a year my world fell apart.

As anyone who goes through that kind of trauma will attest, everything warm and familiar, stable and secure vanished. Everything within me and without transformed into pain and loss, confusion and fear.

I had been attending my local Catholic parish for about two years previous to this, and had built some relationships there. I’d met people at suppers, meetings, prayer groups, and in my role helping to facilitate the RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults) programme. I felt close to a small but solid group of people in the parish.

The church was a bit of a culture shock coming from the Irish Catholic Church, and I had struggled a bit, but most of my struggles were, I thought, fairly mild. Again they weren’t really about my personal faith, but about aesthetics, emphasis, tone, and priorities. I still didn’t like the music; I still struggled with the fawning over John Paul II and Mother Teresa; I still didn’t like the careless talk and jokey homilies; and I still thought the teaching materials were too conservative.

But the liturgy was there. The elements were there. The one, Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church was there.

So I was there.

And in my moment of greatest pain and need I turned to the Church.

I reached out to the deacon of our parish, phoning him at the church. I told him what happened. He was kind and sympathetic, but I could tell from his manner on the phone that I’d caught him as he was going out the door. He told me that our former priest, who had just retired in his 80s and was in poor health, had just been hospitalized and wasn’t expected to live much longer. He told me that I should really get in touch with our new parish priest, who’s first Sunday had been the previous week.  

Now, I did understand that this man, who had a lot of responsibilities within the church on the best of days, was not going to be able to drop everything- particularly a hospital call. But he had handed me off to someone I didn’t know and didn’t know me and I never heard from him again. He had fallen back on the basic Catholic chain of command; in a strictly canonical and theological sense, my personal relationship with the priest was immaterial.

In his eyes, my problem needed a priest- any priest. But regardless of that, actually my problem needed a friend and a cup of coffee…

I reached out to an older couple who had had me over before. They cooked me dinner, which did feel good. But my guess is that our relationship wasn’t deep enough to be invited over more than once…

I kept going to Mass as I normally did, but I was an emotional wreck. I would just sit there in tears.

I was in tears as I passed the peace to those around me.

I was in tears kneeling for the Eucharistic prayers.

I was in tears as I went forward and received the elements.

‘The body of Christ.’ (weeping) ‘Amen…’

‘The blood of Christ, the cup of salvation.’ (weeping) ‘Amen …’

I was in tears as I returned to my seat and in tears as I knelt in prayer.

I was in tears after the service. I would sit or kneel in silence, in tears.

It was the same for four weeks. My emotions were real and raw. Yet in those four weeks, no one sat with me or comforted me. No one phoned. No one dropped by.  

Never had I felt so alone.

I wasn’t angry; I was too fragile to feel anything but grief.

But I was embarrassed and hurt.

The fifth week, I couldn’t face doing it again…

… Which pretty much brings us up to the present.

When it comes to that particular parish, I find myself not so much in a place of not wanting to go back as not really knowing how. I’ve lived in the Christian context my whole life, and I don’t want to feed one particular false assumption that many Christians have- that those who are ‘struggling’ may drift away, but they always come back, and their return is the sign that the ‘struggles’ are over.

But I don’t really know if my ‘struggle’ is indeed ‘over’. I’m no longer dealing with the depths of despair that I had at the beginning; my former wife and I see each other often, we like each other, we raise our two kids together, trust and respect each other, and are good friends.

But… I still feel loss now and again. I still feel lonely now and again… and my local parish wasn’t there for me when I needed them the most, and that weighs heavily on me. I don’t want them to be put in the position to see me arrive for Mass again and make the assumption, ‘oh, he’s back. He must be better.’

I am better… But they didn’t help me get better.

I haven’t left the Church; if I were back in Belfast, I’d be at Clonard Monastery. If I were in Jerusalem, I would kneel and kiss the Stone of Anointing in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. If I were in Bethlehem, I would join pilgrims in the Church of the Nativity. I pray daily. I’m regularly in the Prayer Book. I burn candles and incense in front of the icons often. I’m still moved by the same theological books, the same devotionals, the same biblical texts. I feel Catholic. I am Catholic.

I haven’t left the Church.

But I have left my parish…

And I don’t think I’m missed.
                                                                                        



Monday, 6 February 2017

Doing Theology In The Light of Executive Order 13769...








I’d like to talk about Executive Order 13769.

If you don’t know what that is, don’t feel bad; it’s rarely ever called that.

I’ve heard it called the ‘Travel Ban’, the ‘US Ban on Muslims’, and the ‘Muslim Travel Ban.’

But I’m an academic; word accuracy is important to me. So I’m going to refer to it by its official name. 

So, it’s Executive Order 13769, titled ‘Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States’, signed by the President the last week of January.

This order limits refugee arrivals to the U.S. and suspended the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) for 120 days. After that period, the program would be conditionally resumed and would prioritize refugee claims from persecuted minority religions;

(which many interpret as prioritizing Christians as opposed to Muslims; whether or not Christians fleeing the economic and political tyranny of Israel's occupation of the West Bank, or Muslims fleeing Christian militias in the Central African Republic, would qualify is anyone's guess...).

The order also indefinitely suspended the entry of Syrian refugees; nationals from seven Muslim-majority countries — Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen, and the aforementioned Syria- are temporarily barred for 90 days, at which point the list would be updated.

Outrage at the order was immediate and led to protests at several airports across the US. The days following have brought sustained protests and condemnations from several US-based Muslim organizations, as well as dozens of Christian and Jewish organizations and their leaders. A full list is available from ThinkProgress here:

https://thinkprogress.org/faith-groups-country-immigrants-muslim-b22798233c90#.yj3vey6zb

Of course, the order had its supporters, many of whom were influential Christian leaders, a few of whom serve on the President’s Faith and Cultural Advisory Committee. Dr. Robert Jeffress, the senior pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas, was one of them. He told Huffington Post that he ‘wholeheartedly” supported the president’s order.


President Trump’s actions are in keeping with the biblical mandate for government to protect its citizens. While Scripture commands individual Christians and churches to show mercy to those in need, the Bible never calls on government to act as a Good Samaritan.

Dr. Ronnie Floyd, a senior pastor of Arkansas’ Cross Church and another member of the President’s evangelical advisory committee, also stressed the supposed difference between the ‘God-ordained’ responsibility of the government and that of the church:


Government’s first job is to protect the people and the church’s first job is to serve people. Our church and many churches will continue our extensive efforts to serve the vulnerable here and abroad regardless of what government policy is. We don’t advise the government on questions of national security and they don’t advise us on who and how we serve people.

The Rev. Franklin Graham, son of Billy:


It’s not a biblical command for the country to let everyone in who wants to come, that’s not a Bible issue. We want to love people, we want to be kind to people, we want to be considerate, but we have a country and a country should have order and there are laws that relate to immigration and I think we should follow those laws. Because of the dangers we see today in this world, we need to be very careful.


It’s interesting that Jeffress and Floyd attempt to draw a biblical distinction between the individual and the government when it comes to social care for those in need, in this case the care for refugees. It’s not particularly unusual that they’d try, as many Southern evangelicals strongly hold a conservative political outlook that is usually hostile to interference from ‘big government’, particularly in social matters. But trying to back up that political ideology by appealing to the biblical text is problematic.  The ancient Hebrew prophetic tradition would have made no distinction between the people and the leaders of the people-whether they were priests, judges, or kings- when it came to God’s dual mandate for justice and righteousness. The laws of God were for all, certainly the laws commanding hospitality, comfort of the afflicted, and justice.

As for Franklin Graham, he ultimately falls back on the need for caution and security; after all, who could possibly argue with that? But his concerns (such as they are; more on that later…) are ultimately unfounded. I have a Masters in post-conflict studies, so I’ve looked into the issues surrounding refugees in detail, and I can assure you that the US has probably the most intensive screening process in the world for refugees and has a very clear idea about which refugees it allows into the country.

First, the US requires that refugees register and interview with the United Nations, which then must refer them to the US. That’s a very important point: refugees don’t get to choose where they go; they might want to enter the US, but might end up in Brazil, Argentina, Germany or any one of a dozen other countries;

Refugees who pass that initial screening then get interviewed by US State Department officials and have (at least) two background checks;

Then the applicant has three fingerprint and photo screenings;

Then US immigration officials review the case;

Then Department of Homeland Security officials interview the applicant;

Then a medical doctor gives the refugee a full physical evaluation;

Finally, several security agencies (including the FBI) perform one last check after the refugee has been matched with a resettlement agency.

The process takes anywhere from 18 months to two years. It’s rigorous, thorough, and judging by the fact that no refugee who went through the process has ever been convicted of a major criminal offense attests to the fact that it works remarkably well.

Even if I hadn’t studied this issue at a post-grad level, information about how the refugee placement system works is readily available to the public. Why the President and prominent Christian leaders around him would deny all statistical evidence and infer that a process that is working well is in fact not working well at all is anyone’s guess.

Then there’s the fact that Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Lebanon- the home nations of the 9/11 hijackers- were not included on the list. The reasons for omitting them are, again, anyone’s guess, but when you omit nations that actually have imported terrorists into the US  from an order that has the words ‘Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry’ in the title, you leave your motives open the suspicion.

But it’s in Graham’s appeal to the biblical text that I find his argument most seriously falls to the ground. He says ‘it’s not a biblical command for the country to let everyone in who wants to come’, and if ever there was an appeal to the letter of Scripture and a rejection of its spirit, this is it.

The Gospel of Matthew 25 has Christ, as the judge at the end of time, say, ‘I was a stranger, and you invited me in.’
The Greek word translated ‘stranger’ is ξένος (xenos) and it specifically means ‘foreigner’, someone from somewhere different. What that means is that it would be incorrect to use this verse when we reflect on our treatment of those from our own country or nationality who are poor, those of our own nation who are homeless, or those Americans without power or influence; ‘xenos’ refers to someone ‘other’. Christ explicitly refers to himself as someone who is not a citizen, an alien who does not speak our language, share our customs, or our culture… not ‘one of us’…

How are we to react to a ‘xenos’? The Greek word translated ‘invited me in’ is συνηγάγετέ  (synēgagete) and it means, variously, to gather together, to assemble, to receive with hospitality, and to entertain.  The term is pregnant with the ideas of warmth, comfort, and inclusion.

Executive Order 13769 is none of those things. It is cold, harsh, arbitrary, and vindictive.

This is why true Christianity and a commitment to a radical Gospel will always be at odds with the national state. It is the state that makes and controls borders; it is Christ and his followers who transcend them.

The words of Christ in Matthew 25 declare welcoming the foreigner to be a central tenant of our faith and our worship.

The words of Christ in Matthew 25 make it clear that there is no way of encountering him except in meeting the physical and spiritual needs of those in whom he has made himself manifest… and that includes foreigners fleeing war, terror, poverty, violence, and (increasingly) environmental collapse.

The words of Christ in Matthew 25 make it clear that meeting those physical and spiritual needs are of absolutely equal value; it was the Apostle James (2:16) who declared it worthless to bless someone with the words ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed’, and do nothing for their physical needs… So Franklin Graham saying ‘we want to love people, we want to be kind to people, we want to be considerate, but we have a country…’ is useless and insulting.

I’m positive that Jeffress, Floyd, Graham, and the whole list of 23 men and three women who make up the President’s Faith and Cultural Advisory Committee think of America as a ‘Christian’ nation and want it to be even more .Christian’.

How they think Executive Order 13769 accomplishes that is beyond me. To be honest, I don’t trust any of their motives in supporting it.

I think they just want to keep Muslims out of the US. Maybe they think it’s their Christian duty to do so. Maybe they think that will make America more ‘Christian’.

They’re entitled to their views. 

But in light of Matthew 25, they need to realize just who it is they are keeping out…


Saturday, 28 January 2017

We Need To Talk About The Word 'Support'...

I work as a ‘supply teacher’; in the US, it’s referred to as a ‘substitute teacher’ or simply a ‘sub’. Basically, I’m there if the regular teacher isn’t, taking the class, teaching the lessons, and making sure the work gets done.

I don’t mind the work; it can be challenging but also quite rewarding. In the best instances, I can be a pleasant break in continuity, which gives me the opportunity to speak into kids’ lives in ways more creatively and pointedly than a regular teacher might. I’ve had several kids over the years- in school or sometimes when I meet them after they’ve graduated- tell me that I was their favourite ‘sub’. That’s an amazing feeling.

Plus, the schools are always immensely appreciative of me; there’s rarely been a time when my appearance in front of a frazzled school office administrator wasn’t met with a relieved smile. After all, I’m solving a problem, sometimes at the last minute, and it’s nice to have a job where your employer is always pleased to see you.

Perhaps for that reason, schools are very accommodating of ‘subs’ and very often go out of their way to make the work environment as good as it can be. There’s never been a situation when I’ve had a problem- an unruly teenager, a faulty piece of equipment, needing a procedure explained- when the school administration didn’t go to some length to help me out.

I just needed to use the one, big, magic word: ‘support’.

Phone down to the office, or go down in person and say ‘I need support’, and it’s like you flip a switch on a well-oiled machine. Instantly, the matter is addressed.

Actually, the word ‘support’ is used all over the school. It also gets said to custodial and maintenance staff, who sometime joke that it’s basically a code word for ‘You cannot ignore me or put me off; drop whatever you’re doing and do this instead’.

I don’t ask for support very often; after all, I’m fairly confident in what I do, and don’t often need it. But it’s a very handy tool to have, and knowing that it always works is marvelous.

The one time I really, truly needed support was when I was spending the day as an ‘intervention specialist', which is a teacher who works with kids individually or in small groups on particular subjects where needs special help or individual attention is needed.

I arrived to work, as I usually do, a half-hour early; I do better when I’ve had a bit of time to wrap my head round what I need to do for the day. And as I’d never done an ‘intervention specialist’ gig before, that was particularly important.

I walked into the room and found the classroom notes left for me by the regular teacher.  Seeing as the job required working with lots of different kids on individualized projects, there were a lot more notes than usual- they ran to five pages, in very small print, and they were spectacularly technical:

‘1st period: Colton and Jessica are working on their I.S. (top basket). Drayson, Kaylee, and Tim are doing  XL on the computer (passwords in the blue notebook). Read ‘I Know My History’ with Ethan, Mya, Robbie, Sarah, and James (James needs a lot of help). Make sure Bobby works on his EXL work (bottom basket). If it's too much for him, let him do 'creative notes' (on the far table). The others can work quietly.’

‘2nd period’…

It went on and on and on and on like that, for five pages, for seven periods, every period at least as complicated and technical as every other one.

There were no explanations of the various terms or abbreviations; 

the locations of vital baskets and books in her filing system- which to someone unfamiliar with it resembled a cross between a Byzantine market and an episode of ‘Extreme Hoarders’- was indecipherable. 

I looked at the shelves on the four bookcases in her part of the room, which were crammed, top to bottom, with books, baskets, and notebooks… I looked at her table, which had several other baskets on them… I looked at the clock; Drayson, Kaylee, Tim, Ethan, Mya, Robbie, Sarah, and James (and the amorphous ‘others’) would arrive in about 15 minutes…

I was absolutely, thoroughly at sea.

I tried to ask for help from one of the other women in the room, but how exactly to you say, ‘Ummm… how do I do any of this?’ without looking incompetent?

There was nothing for it; I walked down to Carol, the office administrator, looked deep into her eyes and said, ‘I need support’.

She shot from here chair and went to work.

Within three minutes, it was decided by Carol, the school principal, and me that the best course of action was to move me from that classroom to a 4th grade class that also needed a ‘sub’. Rarely have I felt a greater sense of relief than at that moment. I know 4th grade; I can handle it with no problems.

The best support that could have been given to me was to get me out of a situation for which I had very little expertise, and which would have been a nightmare for me and the students. 

I’m telling this story to make a point about the word ‘support’.

Over the years, I’ve heard the word ‘support’ used as a mechanism to shut down debate and discussion around important issues. 

In the face of disastrous wars or foreign occupations, we’re told, ‘Well, you have to support our troops…’

In the face of a cruel, counterproductive, and unjust occupation of the West Bank, we’re told ‘Well, the Word of God says you have to support Israel…’

In the face of an arrogant, incompetent domestic or foreign policies, we’re told, ‘Well, the Apostle Paul said we have to support the government…’

When I hear the word 'support' used in this way, I always feel like quoting Inigo Montoya from 'The Princess Bride': 'You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means'...

What I learned in my half hour as an ‘intervention specialist’ is that sometimes the best way to ‘support’ someone is to get them out of the situation, fast.

So, in the days and weeks to come, don’t let people shut down your critiques, criticisms, and resistance to injustice, pride, arrogance, and bigotry by dangling out the word ‘support’.

The best support you can give to troops might be getting them out of a wasteful, useless situation; 

The best support you can give to Israel is demanding that they stop their war on Palestinian autonomy, end the illegal occupation, and constructively build the peace;

And the best support you can give to President Trump- and the nation- might be removing him from office… 

...fast.