In 2002 a muslim callled Abu Zubaydah was arrested by the USA and imprisoned without trial in Guantanamo Bay, where he is still held, still without trial. Although the USA authorities have dropped charges that he was part of Al Qaeda and involved in planning the September 11 attacks, he has been subjected to the most brutal and sustained forms of torture, especially repeated bouts of waterboarding and vicious beating. He was and still regards himself as, a mujahadeen, one of those who fought in Afghanistan against the Soviet invasion, receiving an almost fatal head -wound, which damaged his brain. He believes in the forceful defense of Muslims who are under attack, but utterly rejects the doctrine of ISIS that it is ok to attack civilians.

He is no danger except to those who are attacking or oppressing muslims. Yet there he is, tortured by Britian’s chief ally, in the name of western civilisation. I would rather invite Abu Zubaydah to my house than the scum who have tortured him, but I would rather invite even them than the US politicians who have ordered their vile actions. I hope that one day their crimes against Abu Zubaydah are exposed and punished appropriately, say by the daily “rectal rehydration” suffered by their victim.

What has this got to do with Jesus and my continuing attempt to reclaim him from the sweet piety in which he often gets wrapped?

It’s to do with the admission, late in life,  by the great atheist Bertrand Russell that in Jesus we sense the “smell of something serious.” The story of Jesus presents a man who was not interested in the minor sins of his fellow Jews, but rather in the terrible things done in the name of government, religion, righteousness, and wealth. He was against the neglect and isolation of the sick, the stigmatisation of the sinful, the oppression of the poor. He was for justice, compassion, friendship, forgiveness, discipline and the love of God and the neighbour.

Take Mark chapter 6, which tells of Jesus’ rejection by his own people in Nazareth, his sending out of the disciples to preach a change of heart, the murder of the prophet John the Baptist by King Herod under pressure from his new wife, the meeting of Jesus and 5000 men in the wilderness where he fed them, and finally hoards of people bringing their sick relatives to Jesus for healing.

Mark presents someone whose humanity makes him a dangerous alternative to the brutal government of his country. Here is the smell of something serious. In Jesus, change is actually happening: his ministry is not the enthusiastic preaching of a new religion, but the encounter of love, justice and compassion with their opposites.

The churches of course have the task of remembering the ministry of Jesus, of honouring it in worship, sacrament and community. I believe that this task is important, but not sufficient for the churches to fulfil their calling: they must also continue the ministry of Jesus, as communities and as individual believers. That need not show itself in very dramatic public actions, but rather in quiet, definite opposition to any kind of brutality or neglect. Many churches in Dundee offer free food to the hungry, and their provision is used and appreciated. Even this almost invisible rebellion against the coldheartedness of society is worthy of Jesus as is the support of one parent families, of people suffering addiction, of rough-sleepers. These are communal provisions, but the individual acts of caring for demented family members or neighbours, the volunteer work for charities, the patient political involvement which fights for the good of all, they too continue the ministry of Jesus.

These obedient ministries should not just be seen merely as the outworking of worship, but as its content: the inclusive love of God which engages the believers in the shared enterprise of the Spirit, making them children of God along with The Son, to honour the Father’s/ Mother’s perfecting of creation, that love is celebrated in ministry as well as in prayer and song and story – and the ministries themselves become part of a church’s storytelling, prayer and song.

Amongst these ministries action for social justice, nearby or far away, should not be neglected. I am a founder member of change.org which makes it possible for people to contribute to campaigns for justice anywhere in the world. Organisations like Amnesty Intermational have always made personal involvement practical and effective. It has never been easier to know about those who suffer oppression, and we are fortunate in the UK to be able to use all the varied avenues and institutions of  democracy to work on their behalf.

Our conviction that the goodness we desire has its source beyond the world should enhance rather than inhibit our active citizenship. In this way we honour the one whose ministry had the smell of something serious.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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This is another blog from my Lake District holiday, that I hope will not annoy readers who are busy in their work.

Patterdale is a busy walker’s village at the south end of Ullswater, with pubs and hotels that cater for active people. Even at 9 am Sunday the car parks are filling up, and their passengers putting on their hill- gear. As I ready myself, I nod at the guy in the next parking bay, who responds with a brief recognition of my existence. I am headed for Place Fell, a medium- sized hill which is also a stage in a number of longer routes.

I am maybe first on the track apart from two older women whom I soon ovetake. They are on the coast to coast walk, sponsored for an international charity, and committed to maybe 15 miles today and more tomorrow. I’m impressed and say so. They are just the first of many people I meet, mainly as I make my descent, which always gives one a slight advantage over those still toiling upwards. But we all exchange greetings as a matter of course, recognising our common citizenship of the nation of walkers. We might have passed each other silently in the village street, but here we are happy to greet and be greeted. Obviously this is a better realm in which strangers are taken as friends: a common humanity is being asserted. What’s going on?

We trust each other as those who value the ecosystem in which we exist. Today it is beautful, other days it is frightening, but always it is something of which we are a small and appreciative part. We have different knowledge of it: some of us have climbed these hills since childhood; others do so for the first time today; some have studied sciences which assist an understanding of this system, others know it simply like the back of their hand; but we all respect the knowledge of our fellow citizens, because all express a common affection for this landscape and its creatures. “Did you see the deer up there?” a man asks me, telling me he’d noticed them from below. A group of young mountain bikers are carrying their cycles up the fell so as to enjoy a rapid descent on a less rocky track to the north. They have never been here before but have a sufficient map of the landscape in their heads. Here all travellers affirm each other’s journey.

Of course, there are many sorts of artificial communities in which people are recognised and valued: work, social organisations like the Rotary Club,  charities, churches, sports and cultural associations, and so on, where individuals recognise and affirm each other. But these are communities of acquaintance, whereas the community of walkers is a community of strangers, who may never see each other again, but are pleased to greet each other in passsing. Their mutuality is only a momentary goodwill, significant precisely because it is impersonal, a recognition that each is part of something bigger. Less than half a mile from a botched society this grace happens regularly.

If I was asked what sort of nation I would like to belong to, I might well put this kind of civility as one of its founding customs.

Storm Ali has been pounding its way through Cumbria where I am on holiday, leaving in its wake everywhere a scattering of leaves and small branches.  Since it was not raining steadily, and there were occasional glmpses of sunshine, I decided on a morning walk beside the River Lowther, near Askham.

A good track took me through mature woods, beside the river. The wind was rarely less than 50mph, with occasional gusts up to 70mph which produced in the wood an extraordinary  noise, an amalgam of the thousand different movements of trees, bushes, water, grasses, birds and animals. If it were a quiet noise you could call it a stirring because of the movement it advertises; as it is, you would have to say it is a gigantic stirring, a stirring of every atom of earth, moved by the wind’s force in the same overall direction, but with the very different individual resistances of trunk, branch, leafage, stem, rock, pebble, water and embankment, all adding to the general clamour.

Often when walking I am able to think of myself as an individual in movement through a static landscape. Today the world is in movement around me; nothing is still. The beech tree ahead of me, a massive specimen of at least two hundred years growth, moves continually to the wind’s choreography: the trunk bends just a little, creaking; its lower branches sway horizontally back and forth; higher branches bend downwards and spring back up in a repeated thrash; the leaf-bearing twigs bounce madly along the branches, with an occasional assemblage snapping off and cartwheeling through the air.

Even the tightly packed blackthorn hedge is in motion, its top leaves in a continual shiver and the whole body flexing along is length, snakelike. The low blades of grass are pushed upright but resist being flattened, which may be why the grazing sheep move precisely into the wind, cropping them. The river below me runs its own  route as always, but in passages of white water, its droplets are caught and dispersed by the wind, which uses the watercourse as a tunnel. Every now and then a crow or a thrush explodes into the air near me as if arriving through a warp from another universe.

The world is in visible motion but I reflect that the great wind merely magnifies what is always happening as the earth utilizes the energy of the sun to maintain its biosphere. All this crashing uses the tiniest package of the energy flowing outwards from our star which occasionally glitters through the clouds that march above me,  an energy received and transformed into greenness and oxygen by trees and plants and grasses, and into bodily energy by countless living creatures from the very visible like the brown dairy cow in the next field and the barely visible like the leather-jacket below my feet, to the myriad invisible bacteria which aid the chemical reactions needed for healthy soil. On even the calmest of days these movements happen ceaselessly.

As they also do in me. I also am a creature of the sun, needing its energy to maintain my metabolism, to go walking and to write this blog. I also benefit from the unseen toil of bacteria in my body, as they contribute to its health. Even when I sleep their therapeutic movements continue.

The Greek philospher Heraclitus was right: everything flows ( Greek: panta ‘rei). Modern sciences suchas astrophysics and quantum biology confirm this insight: the regularities we experience are only apparent; the motion is real. Our culture rejects this truth: it likes stable things, persons and institutions. It dislikes change, particularly when it is unpredictable. So when we formulated our image of God, of perfection, we made him unchangeable, immortal, omniscient and immovable, untouched by the changes to which mortal creatures are subject:

“Change and decay in all around I see,

O Thou who changest not, abide with me.”

What might it mean to remake God in the image of the universal movement of which I was reminded today, as I walked happily and wetly in the storm?

 

As I’m about to stay in the Lake District for a week, I have been checking my maps of the area, which have already been well -used for my exploration of its valleys amd fells. I cannot imagine that any area of the UK is so covered with paths, some ancient, like the Roman High Street between Brougham and Ambleside, some mediaval, like the many “corpse roads,” others more modern, reflecting the recent sports of walking and climbing, but all of them are recorded in the Ordnance Survey maps of the area, although the appearance of a path on the map does not guarantee that it exists on the ground.

Such discrepancies are quickly discovered by those who are addicted to using map and compass rather than the various GPS navigation aids, which are increasingly popular. Using a good map with the help of a compass is adventure: the map may be out of date; landowners may have altered the landscape; weather conditions may be difficult for accurate map reading or direction finding; necessary skills such as taking and following a compass bearing may have atrophied; and incredibly, it’s possible to mistake one’s starting point.

On the other hand, there is great pleasure in recognising the features shown on the maps, the copses of trees, the course of burns or becks, the presence of ancient objects like standing stones, or more recent ones like abandoned mines, the small tarns, the  suddenly increasing gradient of a slope, the recognition of a particular summit as it comes into view. Naturally enough, there is ofetn disagreement between walking partners as to the correct interpretation of the map in relation to the reality, but these arguments have themselves become one of the traditional pleasures of this activity.

Of course, not all countries are lucky enough to have maps as good as British OS. I’ve found myself on Spanish, French or Italian mountains where the official mapping is so poor that it’s best to walk by one’s own understanding of the terrain, and to proceed with some caution. On those occasions the wisdom I’ve gained through using maps stands me in good stead for understanding what I see without them.

Many before me have compared the Christian tradition, the Bible, or the teaching of Jesus to a map, and I don’t want be trite, but it seems to be a reasonable metaphor which helps believers to maintain the real importance of say, the Bible, without becoming fundmentalist. And yes, that metaphor rests on a more fundamental comparison between the way of faith and a journey.

If indeed we see the way of faith as a particular journey through life, then we can see the Bible as a collection of maps, made at different times, for navigating a various kinds of terrain: our moral decisions for example; our dealings with negative emotions like hatred, lust or despair; our social and political belonging; our search for justice, or meaning; our defeats and exiles, and so on. These mappings are the fruit of others’ journeys in their own time and place, but if used well, they can help us recognise features of our “landscapes of life”, suggesting strategies which may be cautious or adventurous depending on circumstance, and which point towards some goodness. The Bible stories or commands require the reader to have skills of interpretation, as maps do of their readers, and to have courage in applying these to their own journey. The relationship between map and territory is not fixed: even more than is the case with maps of the earth, the territory may have changed, the circumstance of the journeyer in faith is always unique, and his/ her skills in navigation will vary, so that different travellers may take different routes, but the Bible/ Map is never irrelevant: it always offers guidance as to objective, direction and route, but it never imposes them: the will and skill of the traveller are always engaged.

There is absolutely nothing new in any of this, The Bible itself like many profound books, depicts true life as a journey, as for example, an exodus from slavery, a journey into the unknown or walking in the footsteps of a teacher, never more clearly perhaps than in these words:

” They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, 14 for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. 15 If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them,” ( Hebrews 11)

In a time when more and more the options for faith seem to be liberal vagueness or fundamentalist certainty, the metaphor of the map which does not determine each footstep but requires the adventure of faith, looks like a good option.

 

Today in Madrid the police arrested the actor Willi Toledo because he had not surrendered to a magistrate to answer a charge of “causing offence to religion.” Indeed he had written online, “I shit on God and on the doctrine of the sainthood and virginity of the Virgin Mary.” He did so in defence of three women who had carried in a public street a three metre cast of a vagina, in the manner of a religious procession, calling their action, “The procession of the rebellious pussy” ( I spare my readers a more accurate translation) for which they had been accused of blasphemy by the Society of Christian Advocates.

The vehemence of Mr Toledo derives from the still very great power of the Catholic Church is Spain, where in the recent past it collaborated with the fascist government of Franco who rewarded it with additional privileges. That does not in itself justify the vulgarity of his remarks, but it is likely that he chose these words precisely to cause maximum offence to the hierarchy of the church and its supporters in the Judiciary. It is also likely that the women’s action, which was perhaps modelled on the Russian group Pussy Riot, arose from the same protest against a church that demeaned their womanhood.

My guess is that when God’s good name has been trashed by a church which allies itself with oppressive powers in society, with priesthood over the people and men over women, He/ She probably chuckles at the naughty attacks made on the false image of  God, by people who see how harmful it has been. God is doubtless a good deal less shockable than some of his flock.

If the reason for a law of blasphemy is to protect the name of God, it is a very shallow interpretation of it that targets exasperated outbursts like Toledo’s, rather than focusing on actions which truly bring God into disrepute:  clerical child abuse, alliance with racist, homophobic, corrupt powers like Francoism or Trumpism, priests or ministers living rich in the midst of poverty, concern for religious propaganda rather than truth, these are all blasphemous, and the name of the false God they project should be attacked with as much force and vulgar wit as possible.

God’s reputation is wholly in the hands of believers.

These Spanish events would not happen here, I think, because religion has much less power in Scotland than in Spain. Probably nobody would think it worth their while to parody a religious procession (unless it was an Orange March) or swear at God. There is a popular view that religion as it has been known is on the way out, that it no longer controls the morals of society, so that blasphemy (apart from frequent abuse of the name of Jesus) is not a big temptation.

Some of the evident distaste for religion is to do with the past and present behaviour of religious people with power, but most of it is due rather to the onward march of secularism, that is, the force of technology and science, boosted by an all-powerful capitalist economy. If everything worthwhile can be achieved by capital equipped with technological development and scientific research, who needs God?

This is the dominant world view which has chased religion to the margins and given us nuclear weapons, sophisticated militarism, air pollution, global warming, mass instinction of flora and fauna, war games for five year olds, instant poronograhy and a world divided into rich and poor as never before. So maybe believers have a duty of blasphemy, not against God, but against what St Paul called the “forces of wickedness in high places” that is, against the ruling cultural and economic forces of our world. We should blaspheme against the World Bank, against the Davos Gathering, against the agribusiness that ruins the soil and disrespects its animals, against the climate change deniers who pay scientists to lie, against the respectable scientists who tell us that the world is a machine and human beings are genetically determined, against the atheists who assure us that humanity is responsible to no-one, against the education which makes success its fundamental aim. These and many more idols of our time could benefit from some pungent blasphemy on the part of those who, against the tide, still think God is real.

And if like Willi Toledo or the Spanish women we succeed in touching the raw nerve of power, we can remind ourselves that the first Christians were charged with blasphemy for refusing to treat the Emperor as a god.

Sceptical readers – and they’re the kind I want- will have noticed that in my blogs on reclaiming Jesus I have drawn my evidence of Jesus’ character from the memories of his life and teaching contained in the gospels, that is, from who he was. But of course the relevance of Jesus for Christian believers depends on who he is: namely, the risen Jesus, the Son of God. Indeed the story of Chrstian faith as told in the book of The Acts of the Apostles, starts with the bodily ascension of the risen Jesus to the “right hand” of God, where he is installed as the agent of God’s universal rule. In time this picturesque story was transformed into the doctrine of the Trinity whereby God is defined as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and Jesus becomes the only begotten Son, one person with two natures, divine and human, at some distance, you might say, from the carpenter of Nazareth.

So if I declare myself Christian, am I thereby declaring that Jesus is alive?

I think so. To believe otherwise would be to make nonsense of not just of traditional doctrine but of Easter for example, and of Holy Communion.

But exactly what do I mean when I say that Jesus is alive? I’ll start by saying what I do not mean.

1. I do not mean that the corpse of Jesus was reanimated, stuck around his old haunts for forty days, then took off into the sky like a rocket. The bones of Jesus or their residues, are in Palestine.

2.  I do not mean that Jesus is present with me or anyone else as a supernatural quasi- physical presence, a spook,  intervening in worldly events, by for example, curing disease.

3. I do not mean, nor does my church, that bread and wine “really” change into the body and blood of Jesus at Holy Communion.

4. I do not mean that at some point in the future chosen human beings will be rapt into space to meet Jesus

So what’s left? Well I have absolutely no trouble singing:

“Christ is alive! No longer bound

to distant years in Palestine

He comes to bless the here and now

and dwells in every place and time

(part of an easter hymn by Brian Wren)

For the Christian tradition, the fundamental fact about Jesus is that he is God. He did not become God when he was raised fom death, but was always God in his human life and death. God is the goodness which does not belong to the universe, but which is giving  birth to the universe and in which the universe exists. Although that suggests that God’s goodness is utterly separate from the universe, the truth is that this goodness is not isolated but shared. Shared goodness requires a partner, which is the universe and all its creatures. We should interpret cosmic evolution as the process of that sharing. I cannot know how that goodness is shared by galaxies and black holes, but I can glimpse it to some degree in the ecosysstem of which I am a part, and in the creatures with whom I share this life. With creatures who possess the capacity to choose, however, God’s sharing is limited by their willingness. All people have the special dignity of this relationship to eternal goodness, choosing whether and to what degree they will share it.

Jesus is the human person by whom God’s goodness is completely received. Or to put it another way, God is the one whose shared goodness is completely given to Jesus. In the adventure of sharing Jesus’ human life and death, God learns something new, just as God has always been learning through the sharing of her life, for sharing means the willingness to engage with what is not oneself: in God’s case, with her creatures. In Jesus God experiences the splendour and the agony of goodness in this world, while in God, Jesus experiences the goodness that goes beyond the worst the world can do. The resurrection and ascension of Jesus mean what God has learned through sharing his life and death; and what Jesus can teach his human brothers and sisters through sharing the creativity of God. Jesus is alive in God, whose shared life is also called the Holy Spirit.

This theology is my way of explaining my sense that Jesus is more than a historical person, that he is present to me in my relationship with the planet, my neighbour, the church, my mortality, when I choose to open my life to his; and that the gospels were written by people who already knew this. They could have simply recorded the life of Jesus as a past event which had a great influence. Instead they chose to trust the story of Jesus’ resurrection and ascension and to imagine the life of Jesus as God’s life on earth. They did so because it seemed to make sense of the faith community in which they lived and of their own experience as disciples of Jesus.

It’s the same for me. In my life I have known so many acts of kindness, compassion, honesty, doubt, humour, and courage, by good people that I am happy to imagine them as the physical presence of Jesus in my life. That is not to diminish the individuality of their actions: the more truly they are themselves, the more they are also Jesus. Of course, all this could be described without bringing Jesus into it at all. As a believer I have to use my imagination to see it this way, and I have no evidence to prove that I am right to do so. But maybe I am right, just as I may also be right to hear in the despair of the poorest families in Dundee, the anger and grief of Jesus’ demand for justice; or to feel in the beauty of a fresh morning in the Tay Estuary, the humour of Jesus who tells me I’m lucky that God makes his sun rise on the bad as well as the good. Above all, I may be right in imagining that when I’ve done things that damage others or myself, Jesus tells me that God is not interested in my sins, they are forgiven so that they can be left behind, as I once more open myself to the goodness that is God.

That may seem an awful lot of imagining, but through the disciplines of the Christian community – worship, prayer, bible reading, care of the sick and the poor – it has become second nature. It occurrs to me that this second nature, which is never a secure possession but always a gift, never perfectly formed but always existing in tension with my arrogant first nature, may be the promised salvation which made me a disciple in the first place.

 

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I am a founder member of change.org, a website which keeps updating me with the latest petitions on important national and international issues. It is continually dismaying in its information about those who cause injustices and continually inspiring in its information about those who oppose them. Sometimes I am irritated by being told of terrible situations because I cannot take action against them all, but more often grateful to be given a chance to do something however small.

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Today I received an update on a petition I had already signed to dissuade the Israeli government from destroying a village school in Khan al Ahmar, Palestine, to enable further Jewish settlement. I say Jewish, rather than Israeli,  because the government itself distinguishes between Arab and Jewish citizens. The threatened destruction of  the school and village is an example of the racist policies of Israel. No specious words about the historic suffering of Jewish people can justify a prejudice far more blatant than anything shown by Jeremy Corbyn. (If you would like to sign the petition go to change.org and The Tyre School)

I have been readng recently about the historical genome research of David Reich and others, who have been able to map the movements of human groups throughout prehistoric times far more clearly than has been possible until now. His conclusions are important:

1. All modern humans are descended from Africans.

2. Homo Sapiens groups moved out of Africa in several waves of emigration, and at least some mated with Neanderthals, so that all modern humans have some Neanderthal genes.

3. A completely different race, the Denisovians, whose remains were recently discovered, has also contributed its DNA to some modern humans.

Further research may disover other groups of modern humans. The uniqueness of “homo sapiens” has already been disproved, although the primary origin of humanity remains African. I very much doubt if any of those cultures which assert their racial purity would be pleased with these findings: all of us are mongrels.

But the same research can show whether historic cultural changes are matched by changes in DNA. It would appear that often change was triggered by the arrival of a group with different DNA from the host group. The movement of peoples in settlement and conquest brought about an exchange of thought and technology. These encounters, which add to the genetic inheritance of a group, also enrich its culture.

The tendency of human groups to define themselves as separate races is exposed by modern research as bogus: all groups are mongrel, almost from the start.

The Bible has two great stories that bear on the issue of race. The first is the story in Genesis of the Tower of Babel in which the division of humanity into diferent races and langauges is seen as God’s way of splitting humanity so that it cannot challenge his rule. This wonderfully ironic tale interprets the proud races of humanity as merely a divide-and -rule strategy of God.

The second is the Pentecost story in The Acts, which shows God’s Spirit cancelling the division of races in a new unity, which is the shared life offered by Jesus. The tongues of fire include the diverse languages of the world in the one multiracial community of Jesus, who, rejected by his own race, becomes the means of overcoming racial division.

Both of these stories challenge the racial ideologies of humanity. St. Paul who knew this truth, nevertheless believed that there was a divine purpose in the racial identity of the Jewish people. I do not agree with him. I cannot see it as anything other than a tragedy, first of all for the victims of Jewish aggression, and then for the Jews as victims of the aggression of others.

Racial pride is exposed by science as a fiction and by Christian faith as a sin. The exponents of British, English or Scottish nationalism should ask if their chosen identity may not be fundamentally racist. One test would be whether it welcomes people of all races. In many societies there are large numbers of people impoverished by the capitalist economy, but persuaded by the agents of their misfortune that it is due to the immigration of other racial groups. These sadly deceived people become the aggressive upholders of racial purity or worse, of racial cleansing.

For me the tradition of Jesus has been helpful in exposing the racism which thinks it OK to destroy a village and its school, because the land is needed by people of a better race.