Monday, June 29, 2020

St Peter's Day Pot Pouri

Professor James D.G. Dunn has died

One of the great privileges of my life was to have Professor James (Jimmy) D.G. Dunn as my supervisor when I studied for a doctorate in Durham, UK, 1990-93.

Jimmy was a prolific scholar, excellent teacher and communicator in written and spoken word, with his career summarised in this Wiki entry. Warm tributes have been flowing around the world over the past couple of days via Facebook and other internet comms. Good examples are here, from Scot McKnight and Jeff Wisdom.

I endorse everything everyone has been saying. Jimmy was simply one of those remarkable people in life who are gifted in ways most of us are not while also being a wonderful person to be around - warm hearted, hospitable and humorous.

Perhaps the best thing said is by Jimmy himself, because it glorifies God, captured in this Tweet by Bishop Helen-Ann Hartley:

‘I doubt if I could commend (or blame) any one book for who I am today and would rather attribute any praise (or whatever) to the Holy Spirit’

What is the Gospel?

I spent a bit of time over the weekend thinking about the Gospel.

Yes, again!

If we ask the question, What is the Gospel according to Matthew/Mark/Luke/John? we get a different answer each time if we focus on the programmatic statements near the beginning of each Gospel.

From Matthew, focusing on the Beatitudes, we see the Gospel as God's blessing of people against the normal criteria of life.

From Mark, the Gospel is the coming of the Kingdom which manifests itself in signs of power and wonder. (I acknowledge this is a summary of Mark, not a specific statement he tells us Jesus made).

From Luke, focusing on the first preaching of Jesus in the synagogue in Capernaum, the Gospel is the proclamation of liberation for the oppressed.

From John, the Gospel is the promise of abundant, eternal life, symbolised by the first sign of Jesus, changing water into wine.

We could also think about the Gospel according to Paul - the Gospel is the power of God to save every person, Jew and Gentile, reconciling humanity to God through the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Are there many Gospels? (Is Christianity confused? cf. ... many denominations ... or, worryingly, video memes doing the rounds this week as some American Christians argue against face mask wearing because God created us in his image and breathed his breathe into us ...)

I kept pondering through the weekend (you may be pleased to know!)

Notwithstanding the programmatic statements near the beginning of each Gospel, each Gospel is a rich array of events and expositions, of miracles and messages. No Gospel is solely defined by its basic programmatic message. Thus, I conclude, the there is one Gospel which is expressed in a variety of ways across the variety of the four Gospels (and the other New Testament writings).

The Gospel is Jesus encountering people and changing them for the better - where the change for the better is always a turning towards God, a transforming of lives in love and holiness.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

What can we say? Nothing and everything?

For the glory of God is a human being fully alive, and the glory of humanity is the vision of God (St. Irenaeus).

Fundamentally the Gospel is obsessed with the idea of the unity of human society (Masure).

Amidst the swirling, whirling controversies and contretemps of this present time (so e.g. Trump can hold a rally by virtue of attendees signing  that they will not sue him if they get the virus; we have heroes in NZ re the virus who are dramatically cast as zeroes overnight here when a mistake occurs re control of our borders; and, as statues around the world are toppled, even a statue of Gandhi is under threat), what are we to say? There are moods and mood swings in our world which seem impervious to rational discourse. Perhaps we should be silent?

Yet this fractured world of ours is in a terrible situation - noting not just the fractures induced by the Pandemic and police killings in the US, but also Syrian strife continues, North Korean posturing alarms and China v India horrifies. “Black Lives Matters” - whatever we make of this sentence-and-political programme (e.g. Mohler), it is simply not appropriate to be silent in the face of oppression and systemic violence. A ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5) is a ministry - an action, not a slogan - which must work with history and its tale of injustice which is not yet made just.

Look again at the two citations above (copied there from my permanent sidebar of quotations). Both speak to God’s great purpose for his beloved humanity. It is simply not possible to say that God’s purpose for a fully alive, unified humanity is being fulfilled in a divided world. Do we not have everything to say about this situation?

Is not the genius of the Gospel that it is a message of hope, joy and love for each individual and for all of us as humanity? The Gospel is personal and social simultaneously.

Of course often we Christians get the Gospel wrong because we focus on one to the exclusion of the other. (We shouldn’t beat ourselves up about this - it is difficult to keep both foci going at the same time.)

But at times like this in the life of the world, we could and should be clear: there is a lot going on which is simply wrong when measured against the insight of St Irenaeus and Masure.

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

A Kingdom theology for such a time as this?

A week or so on from my past post and our world (well, perhaps it is "the Western world" ... no statues being toppled in North Korea) is both as sane and as mad as ever.

The sane aspect is we are reflecting at a deeper level on the subtleties of endemic, implicit racism (e.g. where we white people think we have it all sorted but don't reflect on why it is that (say) the committee we belong to or the leadership structure we are part of is uniformly white). A Press column this morning by a local academic Mahdis Azarmandi captures neatly the difference between intention (to be racism free) and outcome (everything remains dominated by the colour "white").

A further part of the sanity is questioning whether we have fully understood the complexities of the historical background to present situations (e.g. does this statue or that street name over simplify the past through focus on success or virtue rather than on failure or flaw of some historical personnage).

I also appreciate the sanity of comments made here on ADU - thank you!

The mad aspect of the past week or so is a global Western society seemingly willing to turn on itself, to accuse itself of failure without sober estimation of success and to make hasty decisions on the basis of a minority approach to matters which otherwise would be maturely handled with debate and democratic process.

A further part of the madness, however, is yet another black person killed by police in the USA, and the deterioration of democratic process in the normal world leader in democracy, the USA. A Trumpian approach to democracy can scarcely complain about mob rule raging through US cities!

But what is a Christian to do and to think through these weeks?

Is it all a debate between Romans 13 and Revelation 13? (Is that debate even needed when it is city councils voting to "defund" the police? If Trump is your president, has he really been appointed by God? But if he hasn't, he is so bizarre that I found myself - rereading Revelation - unable to see him as a simple beastly manifestation of evil?)

Is it (per one post I read) a neat conceptual analysis in which I refuse to "bow the knee" for Black Lives Matter (because I discover this movement includes lots of socialist-come-communist type agenda) but will "bow the knee" for Jesus? Apparently bishops and politicians around the world have been arranging photo opportunities for the former when the bishops should have been focused on the latter.

Is it possible - it seems it is - that almost any thought I have about these matters, on second thoughts and closer inspection turns out to reek of privilege and shine with whiteness?

My humble (as a not entirely up with the play pundit) but probably privileged (as a white person with a certain set of advantages through education etc) thought is to ask what the Kingdom of God might be in this situation? I hope it is okay to ask this question.

What is the Kingdom of God like?

Jesus gives the answer in a number of parables which is kind of not an answer because we have had 2000 years of debating the meaning of some parables! Some unkind observers might say that we have also had 2000 years of avoiding application of the meaning of the parables we have not debated.

But the Kingdom of God is about life with the King - with Jesus as the centre of society - God's new society. In this society the first will be last and the last will be first. Jews and Greeks, Samaritans and Romans, all from east and west and north and south are welcome. There is no racism in the Kingdom (e.g. Galatians 3:28) because the King is equally King of all in his kingdom. There is no racism in the Kingdom because there is no people group Jesus did not die for.

Yes, many Christians have misunderstood this, from infamous examples like Afrikaners touting the Bible as supporting Apartheid through to all the not famous examples of you and me inadvertantly contributing to the kinds of outcomes Mahdis Azarmandi writes about in the column linked to above.

Also, Yes, when we understand the Kingdom better (as, e.g. Simon Peter did, through the testimony of Cornelius), we cannot go back, only forward towards the realization of Galatians 3:28.

But the Kingdom of God is also like this: In the Gospel according to John, "kingdom of God" becomes "eternal life" (read John 3) and eternal life (also "abundant life", John 10:10) is the complete - satisfying, fulfilled - life of the believer in Jesus Christ. That is, in a situation such as today's, when "action" - protests, statue toppling, statute revision, name changing (to say nothing of counter-action and resistance to change) - is to the fore, the Kingdom of God in this situation is not only about social change towards God's vision for a new, ideal society. It is also about each human person finding their best life in God - Jesus the centre of each life as well as the centre of society.

A whole of gospel witness to the Kingdom cannot see "action" as the sole demonstration of the transformative power of God in the political realms of today's world.

A whole of gospel witness to the Kingdom sees the need for all people to be transformed by God's power: to be free of racism is not yet to be free of all sin - of the flaws within which damage our neighbours and fracture our relationship with our Creator.

When we debate here in NZ whether statues of Captain Cook should remain standing or towns such as Cromwell (named for Oliver not Thomas) should be renamed, isn't King Jesus more interested in who we, today's flawed characters, are, and what we are going to do about our flaws?

Might we also say that a Kingdom perspective would also raise questions about "realms" and "reigns" as the presence of "other kingdoms" is felt by Christians?

There is something chilling in the air these days when not only statues but also other viewpoints are "smashed". When dissent is not tolerated, freedom to preach the gospel of the kingdom is threatened. Whether we are in the realm of Trump (suppressing the truth, dismissing dissenters, making fun of worthy opponents), or the reign of Xi Jinping (cracking down on protestors in Hong Kong, imprisoning Uighur Muslims, playing games with the Vatican) or in the kingdom of protest feeling pressed to change the name of a pub, we Christians have a lot of work to do between Romans 13 and Revelation 13 because, frankly, I am not sure that any of these realms are addressed comprehensively by either chapter!

What does it mean to be in the Kingdom of God in the kingdom of this sane and mad world?

Monday, June 8, 2020

Eradicating racism (and history)?

Both on Psephizo: Adrian Chatfield and Ian Paul.


The death of George Floyd in Minneapolis has spawned uncountable news stories, many, many opinion pieces, and thousands upon thousands marching in protest across America and around the world.

Last week, Christians had cause to be shocked that President Trump used armed forces and tear gas to create a path through protestors to make a photo opportunity of him standing in front of an Episcopal church holding a Bible. (Literally "a Bible" because when asked if it was his Bible he said, No, it was "a Bible." One of the few true statements to come from his lips!)

(A subsidiary shock for some of us was that some Christians turned on those who condemned Trump for his behaviour.)

The protests have raised the question, not only in America, but here and elsewhere, with Coronavirus as a backdrop, When will we eradicate racism from the human story?

The vaccine, it has been observed, already exists, and each of us have access to it.

Certainly, for Christians, observing Trinity Sunday yesterday, there is much to reflect on:
- The Trinity as a community of love provides no basis for racism;
- The Gospel is always a call to repentance from behaviour and attitudes which are imperfect in their imitation of the holiness and love of God.

Overnight another question has emerged (albeit not an original question) as news reports from the UK tell us of a statue of a slave trader in Bristol being shifted by protestors and thrown into the sea, and also of a statue of Churchill being defaced with graffiti describing him as a racist.

Does eradicating racism today necessarily involve erasing historical memory of past sins of racism?

(In New Zealand, for example, we are in the midst of a period, 250 years after Cook's voyages of "discovery", of revising our estimation of Cook. In this case the direct charge against Cook is less about his racism (e.g. to the extent that he assumed the British were superior to all races met along the way of his voyages) and more about the racism he spawned (e.g. flowing from his voyages were the European settlers of these islands, we, their descendants today, have a natural tendency to celebrate Cook while not celebrating the Polynesian navigators 800 or so years before Cook who found their way here, back to the islands they came from and then back here with the firsts settlers of these islands).

My own instinct is not to remove and/or destroy statues - they are a monument to times past when things were different and thus a reminder to us of past wrongdoing and of present need to maintain our repentance of that wrongdoing.

But I imagine I have my limits - if I visited Germany or Austria I suppose I wouldn't be thrilled to find a statue of Hitler still standing.

But perhaps we can make useful distinctions?

There is nothing good to say about Hitler.

Churchill by contrast, for all his ill-chosen words about other races, did lead the fight against the scourge that was Hitler. That is, one can say good things about Churchill even as we reckon with his faults.

We might also observe that nobody is perfect.

If perfection is a criterion for erecting monuments to men and women, there should be none. But that seems a shame, for some of us humans have lived remarkable lives and leave treasured memories and memorable achievements.

Back to racism.

We should pray for America. Especially here in NZ. If the Treaty of Waitangi as a foundation document for our nation teaches us anything about racial harmony it is that it is very, very hard to achieve. Even with the Treaty as a starting point, we have made some terrible misteps, not least because for a long time we forgot about the Treaty!