Monday, July 11, 2005

Right Reverend Wright Writes Right Rite

Okay, so it’s really an address rather than a rite, per se, but I couldn’t resist the title. A friend with an excellent theological mind and a gracious spirit tipped me off to an outstanding sermon by N. T. (Tom) Wright, noted theologian and Anglican Bishop of Durham, England. Bishop Wright was addressing the recent Anglican Consultative Council, which in effect temporarily disinvited the Episcopal Church (USA) and the Anglican Church of Canada from participation in the larger Anglican Communion.

Bishop Wright’s address is fairly long, but it will be one of the most rewarding reads of your summer. He models what it means for a leader of conviction to hang in there in a worrisome denomination, obviously keeping his faith intact and witness vital. Wright provides something sound for theological conservatives to hold on to and is eminently quotable. But he isn’t held captive to political conservatism, and thus even some theological liberals may find points of agreement, as well.

Following are some excerpts, for those of you who preferred Cliffs Notes in school:

· About evangelistic cold feet: “If you stop saying ‘Jesus is Lord’ out of deference to the private opinions of your friends and neighbours, Caesar smiles his grim smile and extends his empire by one more street.”

· About false tolerance: “The cooling of ardour which some have embraced as a virtue, leaving room for tolerance, for generosity of heart and mind, for openness to fresh truth – that is all very well when you apply it, as we have often done, in the world precisely of private opinion. But when you are in Caesar’s world, where truth comes out of the barrel of a gun, or in his day the sheath of a sword, tolerance can simply be a fancy name for cowardice.”

· About Christianity being more than personal opinion: “This is the framework within which Luke has told his tale [in Acts]: that Jesus is Israel’s Messiah and the world’s true Lord, and that in and through him the one true and living God has become king of the world, king in a way which ought to make Caesar shiver in his shoes, king in a way which sends his heralds scurrying out into the world, or for that matter languishing in prison as a direct result of their work, but still announcing his kingship with full, complete boldness and with unstoppable, Spirit-given power. We know all this, and it’s good to be reminded that Luke says it so firmly, and yet if we’re honest it sounds . . . well, somehow rather unAnglican [and we could say “unPresbyterian]. It’s a bit too enthusiastic, too definite, too many hard edges. What has happened, of course, is that our Anglicanism has often become just a bit too much inculturated into the world of western Deism, where all beliefs are simply opinions, where all statements of theological truth are reduced to statements of personal likes and dislikes….”

· About domesticated religion: “The great eighteenth-century virtue of tolerance was developed not least by those who were keen on extending their geographical or industrial empires, and who didn’t want God breathing down their necks to stop them. Keep religion in the private sphere and we’ll run the public square. And to that idea Luke says a clear No; and so must we.”

· About how radical Christianity is: “Early Christianity was not a matter of teaching people a new way to be religious. It was not about reconnecting with your own inner self. It was not even about a new means of securing a place in heaven after you died – since the new world, the new creation, and the resurrection which would bring you to share in it, was far more important. No: the central thing was this, that Jesus, the Jewish Messiah, was the true Lord and King of the world, and was calling everyone to account.”

· About liberalism’s internal weakness: “My brothers and sisters, is it surprising that, if every doctrine from the Trinity to the divinity of Jesus to his saving death and bodily resurrection and ascension has been dismissed as outdated, disproved or irrelevant, the church should then have no means of protesting against massive economic injustice, against the erosion and inversion of sexual morality, against rampant militarism – in other words, against Caesar and all his weapons?”

· About Jesus being Lord, meaning we’re not: “We know today better than for many generations that we have to announce to the principalities and powers that their time is up, that Jesus is Lord and that they are not, that the unchecked power of Mammon is an idol that has to be named and shamed, that the seductive blandishments of Aphrodite are a ghastly lie which has to be refuted and resisted, that the horrid trumpets of the war-god Mars appeal to all that is worst in us and will make the world a worse place.”

· About costly obedience: “We are starting to realize that the lies put out by the Enlightenment – that Christianity was disproved, outdated, and bad for your health – were the childish taunts of those who were anxious in case God’s kingdom might call them after all to costly obedience.”

· About expecting adversity: “We are on the threshold of a great new work of God, a work of wholistic mission and evangelism in which God’s kingdom will be announced, and Jesus will be named as Lord, openly and unhindered. And it is precisely at such points that we should expect the strongest winds and the fiercest waves to blow us off course, to turn the ship upside down, and to drown us all in the dark sea of postmodern amorality and factious in-fighting. And the answer is that we must keep up our courage and see the thing through.”

· About courage to name Jesus as Lord: “Never, never forget in the days to come: the reason you go through the storm is because you are carrying the gospel of God’s kingdom, to let the powers of the world know that Jesus is their rightful Lord…. Hold on; keep up your courage; don’t lose your nerve; ride out the storm, so that you can stand before the powers, announce God’s kingdom, and proclaim Jesus as Lord, with all boldness and unhindered.”

· About renouncing idolatry and sexual immorality: “And among those consequences [of announcing Jesus as Lord] are of course the controversies that the early church had to face, the greatest among them being the integration of Jew and Gentile into a single family. Notice how it’s done, in the famous chapter 15. The issue is faced. The scriptures are searched. The decision is made: of course the kingdom of God welcomes people from every family under heaven; but of course that family must renounce the twin dehumanizing evils of idolatry and sexual immorality. It is, after all, supposed to be the model of a new way of being human, a way inaugurated by Jesus and now enabled by the Spirit, a way which anticipates the way of being human which will obtain when Jesus comes again to put all things to rights.”

I am thankful that there remain people like Tom Wright, whose mind and pen so ably produce messages that feed our understanding and fuel our courage!

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

A Breath of Fresh Balance

Out of the Presbytery of New Covenant in Houston comes the kind of statement on the Middle East that I had only wished for from our Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy and the General Assembly a year ago in Richmond. A group called Presbyterians in Dialogue for Peace has produced an evenhanded, reasonable, informed statement about Israel (click here and open first item on “Misleading information…”). The statement balances the picture, compared to the statements that came out of General Assembly, which seemed strongly one-sided.

The group issuing the statement—in the form of a letter—was composed of elders, parish pastors, a former presbytery moderator, and the general presbyter. They actually WENT to Israel and Palestine to talk with persons on all sides of the issues. They traveled with and continued in dialogue with Jewish leaders and friends.

They did their homework, and the result was a far more sensible document, with such fresh and balanced observations as:
· “The main thing that we all learned is how complex the situation in the Middle East is. Slogans such as ‘end the occupation now’ are naïve and hollow.”
· “… it seems that only the Palestinian plight was considered [at General Assembly]. In fact, the divestment resolution said that the occupation ‘has proven to be at the roots of evil acts…’. We believe that the conflict involves many factors that could be attributed to both Israelis and Palestinians.”
· “Misleading information has been disseminated by our church.” And they provided concrete examples.
· “Instead of punishing one of the parties in the conflict, perhaps our church should be looking for positive ways to help both sides. Investment instead of divestment could be one positive method.”
· “Our church appears prejudiced against Jews when it chooses to listen to and address only one side of the situation. What we did not do in this case, in our opinion, was to extend hospitality and fairness to include all of the voices involved in the Middle East in our debates.”

The group offers modest proposals that ought to be self-apparent but actually would bring needed change, such as:
· “When testimony is given in GA committees, resource personnel should strive to include representatives from various groups affected by the motions being considered.” Yes! It’s well overdue.
· There should be a “statement recognizing that the purpose of the security barrier is to save lives without violence, that it is working, and that Israel has the right and obligation to defend its citizens….” It’s only fair to say so.
· And “the General Assembly Council should advise the MRTI Committee that the concerns presented by Caterpillar no longer exist, and therefore it should redirect its energy to a more positive investment initiative.” Israel has abandoned Palestinian home destruction as a tactic. Just the other day, bulldozers (I wonder what brand?) were razing former Jewish settlements in Palestinian territory, so Jewish settlers couldn’t reoccupy them, and months ago a bulldozer (could it be Caterpillar?) cleared a spot in Yasser Arafat’s courtyard for the MEDEVAC helicopter that sped him to treatment.

This is the kind of level-headed, realistic thinking we Presbyterians are so very capable of producing. I commend the leaders in Houston for the obvious effort and thought they put into their letter.

Now, is anyone listening?