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Saturday, 10 September 2011

Whakapapa and the Magisterium


Readings: Exodus 14.19-31
Ps 114
Romans 14.1-14
Matthew 18.21-35

While there are schools of biblical interpretation that seem determined to demonstrate that almost all that we have that purports to be the sayings of Jesus are fabrications and creative imaginings of the post-Easter Christian community, I beg to differ. I am no scholar of oral tradition but I cannot be anything but aware of the remarkable ability of traditional and even to some extent modern rural communities to tell and retell stories in a form very close if not identical to the original. In our Territorian context where we can hardly but be aware of the power of dream-time legend we can, while acknowledging that it is likely that there have been some revisions and accruals over tens of thousands of years, nevertheless be fairly sure that the legends that are feeding indigenous communities today, legends that were all but lost in post-colonial myopia, are once more vehicles of ancient wisdoms about survival in and co-existence with this harsh red land on which we live. We might say the same of many ancient and indigenous mythologies, and as a Christian community we must never be afraid to listen and to learn from the ancients. We might learn, too, from the gracious spirit of forgiveness that many ancient peoples have exercised towards their colonisers: learn from but not exploit their forgiveness. We learn our lives from our stories, our narratives, whether they be stories of conquest or forgiveness. We practice what we narrate.

Jesus was a rural story-teller. At this point I do not want to engage in what else he was – the Son of God, the ‘revelation of the heart of God’ as I somewhat laboriously refer to him from time to time. He was those – and as such I want to set him apart from other great figures of wisdom like Confucius, Zoroaster, Plato – but just for a moment I want to acknowledge his ordinary yet extraordinary oratorical powers. As Middle Eastern scholar Kenneth Bailey spent a lifetime pointing out, this was a rural, itinerant speaker (I hate the word ‘preacher!) – who had an uncanny ability to pluck from around him simple and to his audience unambivalent imagery that would serve as a vehicle to convey the great message of the reign of God. By and large the sayings and images of Jesus need little enlargement, and interpretation of his tale of a forgiven and yet unforgiving servant is not restricted to rocket scientists or even biblical theologians: those who have known forgiveness better practice forgiveness, or it’ll bite them where it hurts.

Or something like that. We learn our lives from our stories.

I have mentioned in passing that biblical interpretation has often fallen into the hands of the institutionalised Church, the magisterium, and lost thereby its ability to pronounce compassion and justice to those most hungering for the transforming touch of God. In recent decades we have been pushed to the margins of society, and, while that hurts, it has done us no harm as we are forced once more to rely on the integrity of our message in order to be heard. Whether we have yet learned that lesson is another matter. Now though we must proclaim our message – our story – from a position of powerlessness. This surely is reminiscent of the powerlessness of the Crucified God, the Christ of the Cross who proclaims those ultimate words of forgiveness: ‘father, forgive them, for they know not …’. For as long as we were in the corridors of power we developed unhealthy amnesia, forgetting like a recalcitrant Narnia-child the power of divine love-touch. We heard stories of the overthrow of the Pharaoh, but heard them not from the naked powerlessness of the crucified Christ but from the shoes of authority, and we told anyone who would listen that they had to learn our ways (and adopt our amnesia), accepting all that we imposed on them. But the Spirit of God is bigger than the magisterium, the institutionalised church, and we are losing our social power so we can relearn God’s meek power.

When history is written by the victor it becomes a dangerous weapon, and we become trained in horrible response. Perspective is everything: we don’t need to be card-carrying supremacists to be deeply unsettled by the reminder that what we learned to call ‘settlement’ in this and other similar countries was soon to be known as ‘invasion’ by those who were there before us. We needed to hear that heart-cry if we were to discover again the Christ of the Cross and his gospel of forgiveness. We needed to hear again our need to be forgiven – to take our hands off the throat of the servant who were throttling for a few measly denarii. To say this, incidentally, is nothing to do with something called ‘political correctness’. I have no idea what political correctness is – it tends to be a pejorative term that we use to avoid compassion and justice to those in pain. I do know though that our scriptures show a bias to the poor, to the have-nots, and that the ‘haves’ face removal from their thrones.

But this can all be terribly big-stage, and few of us dwell on the big stage. Does it apply to our smaller stages, the stages of our small lives? Can we apply Jesus-compassion and cycle-breaking forgiveness within our smaller ambits – and does it matter? Forgiveness is one of our most unpopular doctrines, and rarest practices. We prefer tenacious anger – we only have to witness the lynch mobs that form when a paedophile is arrested – or even released from gaol – to know that long retention of memories is far preferred in society to forgiveness. This is not to suggest that we should smack heinous offenders over the wrist with a wet feather – the judge in Jesus story does not do that. It is to suggest, though, that it is harder to practice forgiveness than to practice the hate-breeding cycles of vengeance. We, as Christ-bearers, are challenged to practice forgiveness.

No one claims that is easy, whether the demand be in the context of personal or global atrocity. Ultimately every atrocity is personal, and the full weight even of a 9/11, or a Koota Beach is most meaningful when we encounter the personalised grief of the victims’ families. We might well ask the question though, ten years after 9/11: where is Christ in the events of this day ten years ago? Is he in the storm-trooping of Afghanistan or, worse, Iraq? Or is he there in the brave struggles of those who want Ground Zero, the Pentagon and Shanksville Pennsylvania to be shrines to forgiveness, to peace studies, and to reconciliation between Christians, Jews and Muslims (all of whom lost their lives that day). Do we effect reconciliation and hope with revenge, or, for example, in the brave attempt to feed and educate Muslim youth so that hatred of the west can be their creed no longer?

Forgiveness is possible. It is desperately necessary. We are challenged by the ancient prayer of Jesus – forgive us, as we forgive others. May we learn by the grace and with the help of God to grow into the second part of that petition: by the grace of God may we become a people who model grace and forgiveness in our own lives: seventy time seven is shorthand for infinity.

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