When The Walls Come Tumbling Down!

There’s a wonderful spiritual, Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho.  It draws upon the images in the story from ancient Israel, where Joshua, following on from Moses, led the armies of Israel after they fled from slavery in Egypt into the Promised Land of Canaan.  Having crossed the Jordan River, before them lay the final hurdle, the city of Jericho.  The story tells of Joshua and the armies circling the city and on the seventh day, blowing trunpets and shouting as the ‘walls came tumbling down’ before them.

Whilst there is no archeological evidence to support the story being an actual event, that is not the point.  Before the people could embrace the freedom encompassed in the promise of new life in a new land after centuries of slavery, there is always one more hurdle; one final barrier that has to be overcome before their claim and experience of freedom can be realised.  The spiritual reflects this as the rising chorus crescendos through the repeated refrains of ‘Joshua fit the battle of Jericho, Jericho…’ until the final line of triumph – ‘and the walls come tumbling down’.  There are verses with story but it is this image of Joshua breaking through the barrier of the mythic walled city that stands before the final destination, that offers power and hope.

The African-American slaves of the Americas drew upon this image of liberation from slavery and deliverance into the Promised Land of freedom and life, to drive their own hope for deliverance from slavery, segregation and oppression.  The walls that they cried out against, blew their metaphorical trumpets against and prayed against, were the walls of racism, hatred, abuse and oppression – the laws that legitimated slavery and oppression.  Eventually, these walls ‘came tumbling down’!

The mythic ‘walls of Jericho’ stand before all of us as we journey through life, making our way in this world, seeking meaning, purpose and hope for our existence.  All of us face these barriers, final or otherwise, to freedom and new life.  In personal life there are barriers of fear, grief, guilt and shame, powerlessness, expectations (of self, family, soceity or culture), addictions and addictive lifestyle, living with disability or chronic ill, physical or mental, health or the presence of abuse, violence and other forces from outside that leave us trapped or oppressed.  We confront a barrier before or around us.

There are also walls that confront families, communities and nations.  For Australia, there are the (mostly) invisible walls of shame and guilt that lie below the surface as they are handed down through generations.  The struggle of our indigenous peoples exists as an hidden wound that contiunes to float through the sub-conscious of our nation’s life, occassionally surfacing.  The crisis is closely associated with land and spirituality versus ownership and domination.  It is a wall that we need to confront and break down to bring liberation and life to all people.  The ongoing critical issues surrounding refugees and asylum seekers, the puitive measures that have been employed to deny people freedom out of fear and political expediency, must be confronted.  The world watches on with the same disbelief we manifest towards other nations where human rights abuses occur.  There are very serious issues for those who are locked away on Pacific Islands without recourse to justice, proper health care, family connections or anything we consider basic human rights.  There are still children kept locked away in these detention centres, despite denials of government. They are not criminals but desperate people who have left desperate and fearful situations.  This ‘wall’ casts a pall over our whole nation and until freedom is established we will all feel the darkness and impact of the actions of our own governments.

The world faces the largest barrier ever confronting human life and freedom on this planet – the human impact on the earth and its environment.  Through exponential growth in the human population, the uses of outdated forms of energy and the vast destruction of habitats, especially huge forests, has wrought an irreversable impact.  We know it through Climate Change but there are myriad other effects of human habitation and abuse on the planet.  We have entered into a new geological era that is called the Anthropocene – the age in which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environement.  Despite copious overwhelming scientific reports, there is still denial and vested interests who would have us believe it is irrelevant.  It isn’t!  It is our ‘Jericho’, the walled city that has to come down before humanity can move into a new freedom and life through working with the earth and changing how we impact our environment.  This walled city surrounds us and entraps us as the ‘elegant tenacity of the status quo’ keeps us stuck in a moment we can’t get out of, to quote U2.  How will the walls come tumbling down?  Who will cry out, blast the trumpet and reveal the walled city for what it is?

There are many walls that we need to confront as we seek life and hope.

This week we continue to read of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem and the cross (Mark 10:46-52).  He comes to the city of Jericho, the last stage before entering the Holy City of Jerusalem.  Echoes of the ancient Israelite story resonate through Mark’s story.  There are barriers before them that need to be brought down, walls that block the ways of freedom and hope for people.  This story is one bookend of a section where Jesus seeks to turn human expectation and undertanding upside down.  The liberating power will not come through the typical means of violence and warfare, of a warrior king who will ride into Jerusalem, claim authority and lead the armies against Rome and bring victory under God.  This populist hope is not God’s way!  Jesus also confounds the human lust for glory and power, of being considered ‘great’.  Jesus reverses the ways of human deliniation whereby some are greater and others less, some of more valuable and others less, where we are driven to pursue fame, fortune, power and glory and only the beautiful, strong, wealthy etc are valued.  The greatest must become the least and those who enter God’s Realm become childlike.  Losing life and giving up the pretensions of cultural expectation lead us into new life and new freedom.  The walls come down when we shuck off the cloak of expectation and familiar ways of violence, accumulation and acquisition, power and glory and choose to become the least in order to serve.  It is this contradictory path of love that opens blind eyes and deaf ears and rigid hearts to embrace a communal way of life that lives with and alongside others in inclusive, gracious love.

The two bookend stories of this section are of two blind men receiving sight – one sees clearly and the other throws off the cloak of cultural expectation for the beggar and follows Jesus in this new way of life. Blind Bartimaeus sees what the sighted disciples cannot and offers an example for all of us to confront the walls of ignorance and resistance, of oppressive forces and enslavement by embracing the vulnerable love of God and walking in this new way of humble, gracious love!  Let us follow this life-giving, loving way!

By geoffstevenson

When Competition and Conflict Give Way to Inclusive Love!

This week many young people will commence their HSC exams.  As always there is pressure and it comes from many places from beyond the person and internally as they engage in this process to advance their prospects and hopes.  Their fears and anxieties collide with hopes and dreams as they submit to the ultimate test of their 13 years of learning.  Though there may be many future paths through the configuration of courses, a plethora of possibilities, to become who you can be, there is pressure to succeed in the narrow, limited manner recognised by populist notions.  Many will succeed in finding their way over the course of living but few will be recognised for their success in these exams because glory and honour are the prerogative of the elite.  Everyone will hope or dream of achieving something that can take them into the next place, the one expected and which will make them feel worthwhile, like they have achieved something significant.  Many will be disappointed.  They will be disappointed in their results, the raw numbers that express ‘failure’ of some sort because the pressure from beyond makes them believe that numbers are success and the only way is the direct way – despite there being intense competition and few places to accommodate everyone’s dreams, real or fantasy.

But this is the way we know and believe, the way we are conditioned.  In every sphere of life there is the competitive spirit that pits one against the other.  There is the myth of glory that is shrouded in the particulars of success as it is imbued within the cultural expectations and celebrations.  This narrow path to glory, honour and success seduces us as we are bombarded with a plethora of images, explicit, implicit and subliminal from media. Society, experience and the values we put upon people.  When we eulogise the beautiful, strong and poweful, wealthy, famous and notewaorthy in some mysteriously defined way, and plaster their image across screen or in print, we communicate who is valuable and what is really worth achieving.

In every which way of life there is competition and we are all eager to ‘make it’, whatever that means.  We all hope for something better for ourselves and our families but fail to understand or define what this ‘something better’ really is.  What is success?  Is it money in the bank?  Is it power and privilege?  Is it fame or positional status?  Of course, for many, it may be simply better access to that which gives us life – food, shelter, water, clothing, education, relationships…

The competitive edge that our society engenders as the natural way of things is what it is and we live in this reality.  For the most part it can be a normal part of life and we learn to accept the so-called ‘successes and failures’ of our lives.  We apply for a new job and either get it or we don’t.  There may be other jobs and so disappointing, but no big deal – unless this is the 100th or 200th job we have applied for and been rejected in and we are desperate wonder over our failure and the rejection we experience.  That is too hard!

Whilst much of this competitive seeking of a position or place in the world is relatively ordinary and we ‘just get on with things’, accepting what is, there is also increasing levels of violence and conflict as people compete for higher and higher stakes.  As we put more emphasis and pressure onto particular places of honour, glory, power and fame, the elvel of competitive drive grows exponetially and violence reupts.  It escalates through vocal abuse through mudraking and exposing the opponent’s past failures or flaws.  Personal and family abuse sometimes escalates into physical violence as people compete for places of control, power and honour and use violence to maintain control.

Of course we see this on the evening news as crime syndicates vie for territory and the control of drugs, prostituion, gambling and other money-making endeavours.  People shot in drive-by shootings or ‘hits’ in other places.  On the world stage we have certainly had our share of megalomaniacs who dominate the populace through fear and violence, killing those who threaten or question.  History is littered with such violent dictators who control power through any means.  Of course we see in our own time Vladimir Putin elevating this absolute control to new levels of sophistication that are equally violent.  In our own nation, the back-stabbing political machinations of the two major parties is as violent and abusive as anywhere else – just not physical.  As people yearn for power, glory, honour and control, they go to great lengths to achieve it.

The Gospel reading this week (Mark 10:35-45) continues Jesus journey south into the Holy City of Jerusalem.  He is heading towards confrontation with the powers and authorities of his world – the Jewish authorities controlling religious and national life and the Roman powers that dominate everything in their world!  Despite his revealing the natural outcome of this journey – his arrest and death – Jesus’ discipes fail to really grasp what is happening.  They hear his words and experience his charismatic power and vision.  They know him as holy, of God and he has be named ‘Messiah’ (or Christ), the anointed One of God.  Their expectations, the only frame work they can comprehend is that of Jewsih expectation that Messiah will liberate the Jewish people from Imperial Roman rule and deliver the nation as God’s people, powerful and independent once again.  The Messiah will be a Warrior-King in the line and image of King David and Jesus is going to Jerusalem to be anointed and elevated into this place of glory, honour, power and might.  He will lead in truth, faith, power and glory and God will deliver!  It is a glorious vision of God’s power thwarting the temporal powers, unleashing violent resistance that subdues Jewish enemies and Imperial might.  The only difficulty with this picture is that is is wrong.

Two disciples, James and John, see this erroneous vision and ask Jesus for the places of honour at his right and left hand when he comes into his glory.  They will be his lieutenants, strong and faithful, sharing glory and honour…  It is easy to ridicule these two men but surely they are only seeking to be part of what they think and hope will be.  They operate within a paradigm that we all know and experience and we, too, seek to be part of what can be.  We want a place at the table if possible.  James and John are you and I.

Jesus is patient and says it is not possible – largely because it won’t happen.  He isn’t taking up a place of glory and honour – he will die.  He asks if they can share his cup and his baptism and they believe they can.  These are images of entering into the way of God, the Reign of God but also images of embracing the suffering that Jesus will endure.  He affirms that these disciples will embrace his cup and baptism; they will suffer for their faith and faithfulness, even though they will not comprehend this for some time.  Jesus invites them, and us, into a way where competition and conflict are not the expected way.  He invites us into a way of love and grace where we all find our true place in a community that is inclusive and open and values the diversity of all people as loved in God!

By geoffstevenson

Walking the path of Love and Hope…

This morning Susan and I attended the launch of the ‘Fair Treatment Campaign’ Launch at the Sydney Town Hall.  Over 2000 people were there to hear profoundly moving stories from 3 women about the impact of current drug laws and the lack of treatment programs on them and their families.

One women shared the deeply distressing story of her 24 year old son.  She spoke of his background, which was reasonably normal.  He was a quiet, gentle boy who was affected by many things around him and experiences.  He turned, at some point, to drugs and overdosed in the presence of others.  They were able to get help = ambulances came and he was taken to hospital and his life saved.  As drugs carry criminal offence impiications, the police followed him to hospital and he was treated as such – a criminal.  It is important to note that his mother does not blame the police – they were simply doing what legislators expected!  The boy was frightened of the police and being a criminal and instead of being in a place where he could receive the treatment and help he needed he signed out of hospital.  When he overdosed a second time it was alone, isolated, hiding from people.  No-one was there to save his life.  He died because his addiction and associated problems were deemed criminal not health.

Dr Marianne Jauncey, of the Uniting Safe Injection Centre in Kings Cross, told the gathering that this story is repeated too often.  Lives are lost because they are considered criminals and hide whilst dealing with an addiction, the result of many complex life issues.  If someone has a heart attack, for example, which may be brought on by overconsumption of the wrong food and other indulgent (sometimes addictive!) problems, they receive instant health support.  In the Safe Injecting Centre, no lives have ever been lost!!  Therehave been many overdoses there but no deaths.  Those who use the centre receive support and when a window of opportunity arises for intervention and help, treatment and rehabilitation, professionals are there to respond.

Two other stories, also profoundly moving and courageous in the telling, were of two users.  The first has been through treatement and is getting on with her life.  Her story is painful and difficult and no young person should have to endure the struggle Liz has endured.  Drugs became a place to hide – from herself and the pain of her life, her self-hatred, her shame and so much judgement and abuse put onto her by others.  No-one chooses the life Liz and Chantelle (the other woman) have lived – anymore than we choose to be type-2 diabetic or succumb to cancer or any other illness that often have causes in lifestye.  When Liz chose a course of treatment, nothing was available for several weeks – a very difficult road but she has made it and now cherishes her relationship with her son, who previously lived with her mother, and her young daughter.

Chantelle, is on the road towards treatment, in a Uniting Bright Futures program.  She lives in a rural region and the nearest treatment facility is 400 km away.  Chantelle spoke through tears and pain to share what she wants in her life – an end to the pain and self-hatred, shame and despair that has sucked her into its deathly spiral of drug use and abuse, of desperation and hopelessness.

As these stories were shared and the church’s role in leading this cause was clearly articulated, I felt both the deep sadness of their plight and my ignorance and deep pride and hope that the way of Jesus was shedding light into the dark places of human suffering! Sir Richard Branson, Dr Marianne Jauncey and Dr Khalid Tanisti (Executive Secretary of the Global Commission on Drug Policy) were unanimous in calling for reform to drug laws – to treat personal drug addiction as a serious health problem not a criminal offence.  The Uniting Church agreed at its Synod 3 years ago that we would take a stand and push for the decriminalisation of situations where people are caught with small quantities of drugs for personal use.  The drugs would be taken from them and then appropriate health responses would be provided rather than police charges, court hearings and criminal records.  There would clearly be strong legal implications for those who are pedlling larger quantities of drugs and those who supply drugs.  These experts also pointed to other nations, especialy Portugal, where significant changes in approach has led to decreased drug problems, lower levels of criminality and the many social problems associated with drugs and addiction – and of course lower overdose deaths.  If we keep people alive they can receive help and these people are children, brothers, sisters, parents and friends.  They are ordinary people and struggle with health issues that are symptomatic of deeper emotional and spiritual issues – just like many other health and well-being problems.

This week in the Gospel reading (Mark 10:17-31), Jesus is approached by a man who is wealthy and wants to know what more he must do to ‘inherit eternal life’.  Jesus told him to obey the commandments and lists them off.  The man waves them off saying that he has done this all his life and that isn’t the way – there is something more he must do.  Does he feel the emptiness within himself?  Is that why he bows before Jesus and is desperate to know what the essential ‘thing’ he must do really is?  Jesus simply looked at him and loved him, and said: ‘There is one thing you lack.  Go, sell your property, give money to the poor and come and follow me.’ The man wandered off sad and lost as he was very rich and couldn’t it.

Jesus spoke to the disciples about the difficulty of wealth getting in our way of following him – it takes us in the opposite path, one of acqusition rather than generous giving.  When we give up so much of the acquisitive lives we are conditioned to live and desire, we find feedom, life and joy.  We are drawn into the place of compassion and justice, reaching out to people who are different, people who struggle and people who are lost.  We embrace them and their problems into our community that is grounded in love and sharing, not storing away for ourselves.  We are freed to see others as human beings, belonging to the human community, part of the human family.  Jesus affirms the ‘giving up and sharing life’ indicating that when we do, we gain everything this rich man desired in his being and spirit and which he was not able to fully grasp because his money held him bound far too tightly and oppressively.

I heard profound stories today of people who have been embraced as human beings into hope and life because someone given a dam, cared enough and reached out and offered love, compassion, help and hope.  I heard stories of the blossoming of people lost, now found; dead, now alive; hopeless and now beginning to hope.  I was proud to be part of the Uniting Church and amongst the other organisations who have joined this movement and reaching out with compassion and love in the way of Jesus.


By geoffstevenson

When Power Abuses Love…

The airwaves are replete with stories of sexual misconduct and abuse – generally male over female.  Whether the incarceration of Bill Cosby, the case of Brett Kavanaugh and the allegations against him taking a place on the US Supreme Court, to the allegations and questions over Cristiano Ronaldo.  These stories, amongst many others are difficult and complex as they deal with situations some years ago and often the only witness is the accuser – one person’s word against another.

Locally, women MP’s have decided not to continue in parliament, as they have been subjected to bullying and sometimes forms of sexual harrassment.  Many of these complaints are downplayed as ‘normal’ activities in a tough environment – robust discussion/debate or ‘friendly’ displays of support through touch or comment.  It seems easy to play things down, to play the ‘dramatic, over-reactive femaile’ card who mistakes the incidents or isn’t tough enough to survive in a tough world.  The US President has done his best to ridicule the woman at the centre of complaints against Brett Cavanaugh – an hysterical liar seeking to exact revenge or some such fantasy.

At the heart of much of these situations is the play of power, where powerful figures, generally male, use that power to believe that anything goes.  For some their ego is such that they believe they can do anything because everyone is subservient to them and everyone will want a piece of them; that they have a right to put lesser people in their place or abuse the bodies of lower people who would obviously ‘want them’.

Such power is expressed in every level of society and is usually dismissed as part of the natural order as our society remains conveniently ignorant of how power works and how it impacts people.  The notion of equality of all people is a continual struggle for the various groups of people who have lived without power in our society.  Women’s rights and equality of women has been a significant issue over many years as we continue to move out of a patriarchal paradigm where it was clearly understood that males are more equal than others.  It continues to be a struggle throughout society as women continue to receive less remuneration for the same work, have lower respresentation in places of power and responsibility across politics, corporate life and even religious life.  The pathways for women are more difficult than for males.  It is slowly changing but still a challenge.

When we add various other categories, such as race/ethnicity/skin colour, disablitiy, sexual orientation, class, age, education levels… those who have access to real power narrow considerably.   Our parliaments are dominated by white, middle-class (or higher), middle-aged males.  These aren’t bad people who are rorting the system.  Most are sincere, competent people seeking to make a contribution, BUT there are many equally (or more) competent women, younger and non-Anglo people who would and could also make a significant contribution.  As we have found in the Uniting Church, women ministers provide a significant leadership that is different and complementary to males.  Women on our committees balances male perspectives and we achieve better overall results.  Having youth, people of non-Anglo background and others who belong to various minorities enable us to make decisions that reach into more compassionate and just places.  When the full complement of human voice comes together, there is richer balance and wisdom.

In this week’s reading (Mark 10:2-16), Mark takes us into the most intimate of human relationships and how power works there.  Ostensibly  the story is about divorce and its legality or otherwise under Jewish law and within the broader culture of the 1st Century Roman world.  Religious people seeking to trap Jesus ask him to adjudicate on divorce, a current theme of the time as I understand it.

In the patriarchal society of the 1st Century, divorce was allowed under Jewish law for men only.  That is the male coule give his wife a note stating that he divorced her and that was it.  He could do this for any reason – that she simply didn’t satisfy him anymore, for example.  Under Jewish law it seems the woman had no recourse and could not initiate such proceedings against her husband.  Women in the 1st century had few rights and were essentially owned by their husbands.  Marriage was an economic arrangement between the fathers of the couple.  The groom’s father paid the bride’s family a sum of money to compensate for their loss of a household worker and provider of children to sustain the family.  The woman left her family and went to live with her husband’s family, joining in that household to work and bear children.

Jesus responded to the questioners in a way that subverts all attempts to buld and sustain power relationships through legalism and the institutionalisation of power.  He quotes the well-known verse from Genesis 2 (used in religious wedding ceremonies) that says ‘a man shall leave his family and a woman leave her home and the two shall become one flesh – let no-one separate those whom God has joined together.’  This is a quite radical statement because it suggests the man leaves his family and the woman her home and they are joined together as one new entity together and equal.  A new thing emerges from this union of two people and it is a union of equality with no power differential.  Profound!  This is a trully radical statement for the time.

At the heart of this intimate relationship between two people, there is equality, and love replaces the abuse of power.  For Jesus, this is the pattern that is intended for creation where equality is paramount and humans are valued for who they are – unique creations in God!  In fact all creatures are given respect and value and humans have a special responsibility to care for all creation and nurture the plants and animals that inhabit our world – rather than abuse our power! Those who find themselves in places of power have responsibility to exercise that power compassionately and justly, to support and protect the vulnerable, and ensure the needs of all people are met.

The story moves on to another encounter with children.  Children in the 1st century were completely powerless and helpless.  When some were coming to Jesus, his disciples inexplicably pushed them away.  Jesus rebuked the disciples saying that the Reign of God belonged to children and all who welcome children, little ones, the vulnerable, weak and powerless, welcome him and receive the Reign of God and all it brings.

In this story Jesus refuses to legalise power imbalance in secular or religious law.  He continually pushes us to embrace people as created and loved by God and unique in their being.  He calls us to love and this is so hard because everything in us wants to define, control and create divisions out of a need to be certain, sure, secure and out of fear of that which may be different.

God is love and those who live in love live in God and know God – because God is love!

By geoffstevenson