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.