I confess that I feel an overwhelming sadness at the extent of discontent, division, conflict and violence that seems to pervade much of human life. This week we remember 298 people who died in Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 when it was shot from the sky. Among the 298 passengers and staff who died on that flight were mothers, father, sisters, brothers, grandparents, children, mates, colleagues… They were innocent people on their way to conferences, holidays or just returning home. They were in the quiet post lunch time when in an instant their plane exploded and crashed 30,000 feet into the Ukraine countryside. Amidst the multitude of sunflowers, the wreckage fell and lay until friends were allowed in to claim the bodies and any luggage they could find. It was a difficult task made more intense by the Russian Separatist rebels watching on with disdain and mistrust.
Amongst this chaos was a young man I knew from a small child of about 6 or 7 when I began at Northmead Uniting Church. Jack was a great kid who grew into a great adult with the world before him. He was always a serious young man but also fun and passionate – especially about football (the real kind with the round ball). Jack attended local schools, played in a local football team and loved the Western Sydney Wanderers. I remember Jack and a another boy, Ben, coming up to me as the Minister and asking if they could have a treehouse in the church grounds because the room they played around in was claimed by the then young adults for a worship space. I told them they had to write a letter to the Church Council and we would look at it. They did it and came very seriously to the members of Church Council after church one Sunday and presented the letter and spoke to it. We couldn’t not say yes. The challenging part was how we would do it. A couple of the blokes from the church gave some time and built the treehouse – Fort North. It was a hit and Jack and Ben shared it with the younger kids and watched over them. I remember Jack’s 21st, shared with his father’s 50th – a combined cricket match. It was a fun day but very competitive and Jack’s team won. I also remember the last conversation I had with Jack as he wrestled with an illness that he overcame through discipline and effort. We sat on his family’s veranda and chatted. Jack was very spiritual but not exclusively Christian. He was searching and questioning and had moved from his child hood faith. He meditated and looked after his body – exercise, diet and rest. He had questions and didn’t like the simplistic answers he found in much of the church and other spiritual places. Jack wanted to live life fully and enter into it with all his being – and he did!
So why is Jack no longer with us? Why did this innocent young man, along with 297 others die in the plane? Those responsible, acting and hiding anonymously, are free, free to carry on with their evil, murderous ways. The last year has been hellish for Jack’s family and it has been a very difficult for those around them – friends, family and mates It is not only Jack, though. Murder, violence and conflict ravage the world and enter our lives daily, if only on screens or page carrying the daily news. .Domestic violence, long a scourge upon innocent women and children in particular, has begun to receive more attention. It is scandalous that 1 woman dies every week in Australia from domestic violence and the police respond to a domestic violence incident every 2 minutes!
The rhetoric of Australian leaders across the board adds to the culture of violence, victory and domination and control over others. When we continue to demonise people of particular culture, race or difference and promote exclusive actions that discriminate against people, it reinforces the culture of violence and hatred, division and conflict.
This week our readings (Mark 6:30-34, 53-56 and Ephesians 2:11-22) speak into this culture of violence and division. Jesus’s story stands over and against the story of Rome and its Emperors, a story of peace through victory and violence. Jesus brings peace through the vulnerable sacrifice of himself in the way of God. It is through defeat that Jesus rises above the violence and abuse of power in the culture of the world around him. He draws together people of different backgrounds, cultures and struggles and presents them with another way, a way that brings unity and peace. Jesus epitomises the reconciliation of God who draws all creation into a unity of being and purpose and life. The dream of God is for all to belong and be in the Divine Being. It is a dream of life for all people and all creation that languishes under the weight of human abuse. In the Gospel reading Jesus invites the disciples into a way that is simple and puts one’s faith in God to lead and open the way. It builds relationships and offers healing and good news of inclusive, joyful community. When Jesus encounters the crowds (the ordinary and poor people) and recognises they are hungry – in body and spirit – he offers them food for the soul and belly. They are filled, renewed, hopeful and alive! When they are up against it he comes to them across the spaces, the sea and offers strength to keep going.. When they have lost hope and feel lost through illness, grief or exclusion, Jesus welcomes them into a healing space where life is renewed and they grow strong nd are healed in their being.
In the Ephesians reading we are reminded that God draws us into a unity of peace and common humanity. From the diversity of our culture and even religious ways, God has drawn people into the place of grace, renewal and life-giving faith. In Jesus, God is reconciling all into the heart of the Divine; the place where we discover freedom, a place of belonging. We discover liberty to be ourselves and to allow others to be true to themselves as all find their truest sense of being. We discover the uniqueness and beauty of each person and creature and that we all contribute to a better, richer future that can be creative, peaceful and joyful.
Imagine a world where we spend less energy, time and money on fighting one another. Imagine a world where we allow difference to produce a creative tension that brings out the best in all people. Imagine a world where you are free to be the truest and best expression of who you are and valued for who you are and what you offer. Imagine this for each other person you meet; that they can be the creative, unique people they were created to be and we experience them with grace and openness rather than being defensive or aggressive, jealous or suspicious. That is the dream of God and the way of Jesus in giving of himself for the sake of God’s Reign in the world, the way of peace and vulnerable grace that accepts and loves all people.
I think that this is the kind of world that Jack probably would have felt had integrity. I think it is the kind of dream and vision he had passion for – and he would be alive!
The history of the world, at least that which is written and recorded, is largely the history of power used over and against the weak. As they say, the winners, the victors write the history and it always sounds pretty, fair and reasonable. This week we have celebrated NAIDOC Week and heard stories predominantly from the underside – the losers and vanquished. We have heard and experienced stories and culture from those who have been overrun by the more powerful colonists of White Australia.
The stories aren’t all pretty. There are massacres and abuse; the treatment of Aboriginal people as savages and part of the ‘faunal life’ of this land rather than as dignified human beings with a different culture. Disease and superior violence severely reduced the Aboriginal population in the early colony. The policies of the colonial regime denied Aboriginal people rightful possession of their traditional lands, including sacred sites, rivers, lakes and their natural habitats and homes for food and living. They were herded into missions and access and movement across the land was severely limited. They were denied much of the natural culture that sustained them and gave them meaning and purpose. The result? A people who have lived with shame and despair in the face of superior power. Some have fought and been taken down, sometimes after small or significant victories but little has really changed.
On the face of it, the Western culture that has dominated this land seems to be far more successful and powerful as it has overwhelmed and marginalised the weaker and made them vulnerable. We have celebrated power, strength and success and are largely oblivious to the continued struggle of this ancient race and culture who have been good stewards in this ancient land for millennia. In fact we often look upon their shame and poverty with distaste and judgement. Consecutive governments have made promises but do little that is meaningful – or truly compassionate. The idolatry of success, wealth and power in our own culture ensures we are fearful of any potential threat of recompense or loss of exclusive control or rights to land. We don’t know how to live together and share resources. We only know ownership and possession, accumulation and control. It’s in our culture and our significant leadership, political and the dominant cultural voices in media, business and community, reinforce this story and maintain the status quo. It echoes through asylum seeker debates and reduction in foreign aid and services for poor.
Woe betide those who speak up and challenge this dominant voice! Woe betide those who would ask questions or offer an alternative version of history! If it comes from Aboriginal voice they are often ignored as radicals and troublemakers. If it comes from sympathetic white voices they are considered ignorant, gullible or worse. This is the way power works and is the story of the world. The powerful lord it over the weak, instead of providing care and protection. The stories of ruthless despots in poor nations who steal international aid money and deny the true recipients are legendary. The greedy and powerful grow fat at the expense of the poor and desperate under their care and protection; they are left to struggle, suffer and die.
This week’s gospel story (Mark 6:14-29) is such an awful story of political intrigue that results in the unjust death of John the Baptist by beheading. It is gruesome and horrific and I sought to avoid it until I watched the evening news and realised it was life. Next week is the first anniversary of the death of 298 innocent people on Malaysian Airways flight MH17. It was brought down by a missile fired by Russian Separatists over the Ukraine and a friend of ours was on that plane. Such an event rocks your world and makes you think about the truth of the world. It brought terrorism home but this terrorism has its authority in the evil face of the despotic leader of Russia, Vladimir Putin. His way in the world is one of power over anyone he wants. Nine people who have opposed Putin have met with suspicious deaths and eight people/groups have been imprisoned, again suspiciously when they spoke out against Putin.
Mr Putin is very much like the figure in Mark’s story, Herod Antipas, one of the sons of the despotic, mad and violent Herod the Great, ruler of the Jews, under Rome, at Jesus’ birth. Herod Antipas locked John the Baptist away after he spoke out against Herod and accused him of both breaking the Jewish laws and of using marriage for political gain – both in his first marriage to a Nabotean Princess, daughter of a potential enemy, and in his second marriage to his brother’s wife partly, perhaps for gain.
Herod was intrigued by John and feared his authority amongst the people. He didn’t like all that John said but something in his words and hope, the spirituality of his message touched something deep in Herod that he couldn’t ignore but wouldn’t give in to. It all came to nought for John when Herodias, the second wife, had her opportunity to exact revenge on his words. Her daughter danced before a party Herod hosted, a drunken celebration for the elites of the land. She entranced the crowd and Herod promised her anything her heart desired – her mother demanded John’s head on a plate. Herod feared this but couldn’t lose face before the crowd and gave her John’s head. Such is the way of the world with voices that speak against the powerful and embarrass them or call them into question. Herod’s action wasn’t the first and won’t be the last – it is the story of the world. I saw it on the nightly news – again. A person who had some power and sought revenge of to save face, murdered his opponent. A wife has her husband murdered. A man overwhelms his wife/girlfriend and is malevolently violent – this is all too common and a scourge on our ‘sophisticated’ society.
I was curious as to why Mark would include this brutal story. It makes a sudden appearance, interrupting a story of Jesus’ disciples engaged in a mission of compassion through proclaiming the good news that God’s Kingdom/Reign/Realm is here and open to all regardless of who you are or what you’ve done! There are no barriers in this Reign of God because it is an inclusive Reign of love, grace, peace and justice. These words spoke into the harsh life and struggle of so many people deprived by injustice and abuse of power of those who ruled over them. Accompanying these words were acts of healing that embraced marginalised and outcast people into God’s family and participation in a life denied them due to the religious and social impact of disease, disability or mental illness. Finally they cast out demons, those realities of life that haunt people and deny them life. Demons of life such as grief, guilt/shame, addiction, poverty, greed, lust and so much else that denies people life. Over and against Herod and his ruthless, violent power is another story, one of courageous love, grace, hope and inclusive community.
Two stories – one violent, exclusive, unjust. The other love, justice and peace
I just finished reading The Secret River, Kate Grenville’s book recently televised on ABC TV. It is a moving story of human struggle and one man’s journey from the poverty and struggle of 18th century London to making his way, with his family, in the penal colony of New South Wales. The book opens in London and describes the struggle of those who are powerless and poor to merely survive. In this place, William Thornhill grows up with perpetual hunger in his belly and cold in his bones. Life is always lived on the fringe and they live hand to mouth, barely getting by. The powerful and wealthy lord it over the poor, uneducated and lowly. The little ones are used, abused and cast aside with never a hope of truly improving themselves or their lot.
William works hard and makes his way for a bit but the forces of the world overwhelm him and take away everything he thinks he owned. Desperation for his wife and child leads him to steal the little he can to feed them until he is lured into thieving something more substantial and is caught. He is sentenced to death but his wife finds a way to get his sentence commuted to life in the penal colony and off they go. It is 9 months across the seas, he with the prisoners, she and their child amongst the free settlers. Another child is born en route and they arrive in New South Wales, a world away from anything they have ever known. William carries the demons of his life, the poverty and powerlessness, the sense of him being a lesser man and the near death experience. He is a felon, a criminal, and wears this badge of shame in the new colony.
William works hard and is a good man. He works the waterways, especially the Hawkesbury, the Secret River, and earns his way. He buys his own boat and serves the colony and all the time dreams dreams he never believed he could dream. William Thornhill has his eye set on a piece of Hawkesbury land – 100 acres of bush that has captured his imagination. He convinced Sal to go with him and they made their way with the kids – into nowhere. The put up a tent, clear some land and plant a small crop – that is all they need to claim this piece of land. A hut eventually replaces the tent and then a more permanent dwelling. They clear more land, plant some crops and William continues to ply his trade on the river.
There are scattered neighbours of varying background and character, all rough and unique and all with histories and demons that rattle around in their bones contorting their minds. The Aboriginal inhabitants come and go mysteriously. There is little real interaction but some happens. Culture and language are barriers that few can cross and a strained conflicted relationship develops as the two sets of people seek claim upon the same land but in different ways and with different expectations of ownership.
Thornhill’s dreams grow with the settlement and the struggle between Aboriginal and non-aboriginal people escalates through various forms of violence and atrocity until the colony establishes the might of Empire upon the region and the white settlers make the final claim. Thornhill’s business grows under this new found freedom and he becomes everything he could never have been at home – rich, respectable and powerful. His own personal story morphs into something more respectable befitting his new status. Thornhill has a big, solid stone house that has the luxuries of wealth and from his veranda he surveys his protected garden and 300 acres of land, with crops and cattle. He looks down to the beautiful river in wonder, disbelieving that this could be his.
In his heart, though, is a loneliness or yearning, something lost and missing. He has gained the whole world but something of his soul, his being was given up in the transaction. William Thornhill, along with other settlers, participated in the violence against their fellow humans. Life was sacrificed and conflict divided people, Aboriginal and non-aboriginal. Each act of violence and rage took something of their humanity away. Thornhill has much but much has been taken away. Demons rattle through his mind, his being, as it does through all the colonial settlers, free men and convicts.
I read this deeply moving and human story and couldn’t help but wonder. One character, Thomas Blackwood, constantly repeats the refrain ‘if you take a little, you’ve got to give a little,’ throughout the book but it is never understood by his fellow men. I also heard Jesus’ words echo through this story: ‘What does it benefit a person to gain the whole world but lose their soul?’ His repeated words of dying and rising, of giving up in order to receive, echoed in my mind as I read and watched this story.
This week the Gospel story (Mark 6:1-13) is intriguing in that Jesus goes into his home town village and the people refuse to take him seriously – he’s only a lowly peasant, one of them. There is no faith or trust, no hope or enthusiasm; only small-minded bickering that does not get the way of God. Jesus left there and went into other villages where there was desperation and need, where faith was fragile but real and offered himself and the grace of God. He sent his disciples out in pairs to share the work and told them to take nothing with them but what they wore or really needed for the journey. They were to go out and cast out demons, heal the sick and proclaim the good news of God’s Reign in their midst.
I thought about this, the going out to exorcise demons and heal especially. I thought of the demons that were William Thornhill’s constant companions and distorted his thoughts, influencing his decisions. The demons of poverty and grief, of worthlessness and despair. The demons grew into rage, fear and desperation and led to all manner of decisions to act – especially through violence. These actions were sometimes sub-human and brought their own demons to overwhelm him. What might have been if William Thornhill had heard this good news and received the words and ministry of grace to free him from the demons that pervaded through his life? What might have been in the colony of New South Wales if the demons of human life and suffering had not been reinforced but exorcised and people liberated to live the communitarian life of Jesus, of God’s Reign? What if healing had flowed and coursed through human heart, mind and spirit and brought hopeful life, generosity and peaceful existence? What about you and me? What are the demons of life – anger, fear, insecurity, violence, greed…– that afflict us? How do we respond to the story of Jesus’ mission of love and freedom, liberation and healing? Are we able to embrace this or will we reject it? What about the call to live out this agenda of love and compassion, of healing and justice? Can we put greed and violence aside and live with generous, hospitable peacefulness with one another and those we encounter on our journey? What is it we stand for and offer to others in this strange world we inhabit?