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“Do not be conformed to this world.”
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth.”
The “world” can mean many different things. We speak of cutting ourselves off from the world, but that world not the same as the world of science, business, or sport. America is called the “new world” in contrast to Europe, and the Bible speaks of the “kingdoms of this world” as distinct from that of God’s kingdom. As a young Christian I was warned against “the world, the flesh and the devil,” but also read that God loves the world. Some theologians say that Christian faith is “world-affirming”, and Bonhoeffer wrote about “worldly Christianity” in a “world come of age.” If our mission as Christians is to tell the whole world that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself,” how does that square with Luke telling us in Acts that the first apostles “turned the world upside down?” So, then, what in the world does “world” mean, where in the world is the church, and why have I labelled this meditation “imagining a better world”?
During lockdown I have been watching the first part of “The Crown”, the TV series about the reign of Queen Elizabeth II. At times I thought I was watching one of Shakespeare’s historical dramas, for her reign has been as full of political drama and palace intrigue as any of the bard’s plays. But what has struck me most is the extent to which the Queen’s life was programmed by protocols to be preserved at all costs. At times, the palace resembles a posh five-star prison in which personal freedom, natural desire, and political dissent are denied, repressed, or frowned on. Understandably, some royals have fled the fold in search of happiness in a new world of their own making. Surprisingly, because living in a palace is the fairy-tale dream of many people on the outside. But is it the best of worlds we can imagine in which we would choose to live?
The “world” we can say is the historical and cultural context in which we live our lives, the world of human and social relationships that define who we are. This world is continually changing as generations come and go, but certain characteristics seem constant, largely because human nature is like it is whether you live in a palace or a township, in South Africa or Europe. For us, the “real world” is where we live and work, the world of social relations we daily experience, and this world is a mixture or the good and bad, the beautiful and the ugly. It is never the “ideal” world, but it is always the “real”. We can dream of living in a fairy-tale palace, or help make this one change for the better, but we cannot escape this world except through death which we traditionally call the “next” world in the hope that it will be the best of all.
The Corona pandemic reminds us how fragile this “real world” is, but it also shows us that it cannot stay the same. At the very least, we have to sort out our priorities, for so much in the world that we take for granted is skewed and wrong, if not downright evil. For example, how can it be that essential workers — nurses and nurse aids, hospital cleaners, policemen and women, street cleaners and rubbish collectors, school teachers, domestic workers, supermarket cashiers, farm labourers, miners and frail carers — are so badly paid? This alone should make those of us who are more privileged to imagine what we can do to make the world a much better place, even if a perfect world lies beyond our capability. And certainly, as Christians, we cannot, as St. Paul says, “be conformed to this world – a world that is so patently unjust – neither can we turn our backs on it as if it was not our concern.,
The world in which John the Divine, the author of the book of Revelation lived, was a broken or dystopic world like our own, but in writing his book, he vividly imagined the kind of utopian world that God wanted to create. He took many chapters of fearful apocalyptic visions before he gets to the point where he tells us that God is “making all things new”, and provides a majestic vision of a “new heaven and a new earth” of justice and peace where there is no more weeping or suffering. This is the best of all worlds either he can imagine, but it lies beyond our grasp because, in the end, it is God’s gift. But like all God’s gifts it is also a call to take responsibility for this world. Those who are “in Christ”, as Paul puts it, have not only already become part of God’s new creation (2 Cor. 5:17) but have been mandated to work for God’s justice and peace in the world in anticipation of the coming of God’s kingdom. We may not be able to achieve a perfect world, but we can prepare the way for its coming by constructing a far better one than what presently exists. But how?
In an article published in The New Yorker way back in 1986, Jonathan Schnell, tells us that we should start by imagining the kind of world we want to live in (not a fairly-tale palace world, or a perfect heavenly one, but a real one) and then act accordingly. “Do you believe in freedom of speech?” he asks, “Then speak freely. Do you love the truth? Then tell it. Do you believe in an open society? Then act in the open. Do you believe in a decent and human society? Then behave decently and humanely.” None of this is specifically Christian. So we can add: if we really believe that the most important things in life are faith, hope and love, then we must start by not conforming to this one, and acting in hope of a better world in which love of God, neighbour, self, enemy. Only in this way can we help construct it. That is why Paul not only tells us not to be “conformed to this world” but also to be “transformed by the renewing of our minds”, that is, to think differently to “this world” so that we may be able to discern what God wills us to do for making this passing world a better place..
Acting in this way is not doing something religiously separate from the “real world”; it is participating in God’s mission to re-create the world by doing what is necessary for the common good. This task might be large, or small, it might be achieved together or by us as individuals, it might be caring for a bed-ridden friend, composing music or painting a picture that brings joy, voting for someone committed to justice, protesting on the streets, servicing a community project, or financially supporting others that can make a difference to the lives of people and society. There is no end to what we can do, because until the end, there is no end to what needs to be done to make our world, the “real world” a better world for everyone.
John de Gruchy
Volmoed 9th July 2010
I John 3:11 (Anchor Bible)
“How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news…”
“For this is the gospel that you heard from the beginning: we should love one another.”
I am hungry for good news. Every time I switch on the TV, I hope to hear that there has been a reduction in the number of Covid-19 infections, fewer deaths than the previous 24 hours, and that a vaccine has been successfully tested. I am particularly disturbed when good news turns bad, when countries such as New Zealand report that the pandemic has ended, only to announce new cases of Covid-19 the following month. Just when we start to rejoice at good news, it turns bad. Perhaps it is better not to hunger for good news; simply resign oneself to the bad. Pessimism is seldom disappointed, the cynics say, and psychologists tell us not to watch too many newscasts because bad news is not good for the soul. But still, we keep on watching and hankering impatiently after good news because good news renews the soul.
No wonder then, that during the dark days of exile in Babylon, the prophet cried out in anticipation of the day when God would once again liberate Israel: “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news…” Yes, we feel like kissing the feet of anyone who brings good news during bad times even if those feet are smelly and covered in dust, and social distancing forbids us. We embrace, even if only virtually, all messengers of good news when bad news threatens to overwhelms us. But it must be truly good, not fake news which makes us feel good for political gain. We need good news that is trustworthy, news on which we can depend, news that strengthens faith, energizes hope, and enables love to prevail. News that is good for the soul.
So, week by week we listen to the good news told by Matthew, Mark, Luke or John because their good news stories are life-giving and redemptive. That is why we call them the four evangelists, a Greek word derived from eu meaning good and anggelion meaning message. Euanggelion became “godspel” in Old English and then eventually “gospel”. It is a beautiful word because it speaks about God’s love for the world, forgiveness, healing, hope, joy, justice, peace, liberation and salvation. The first letter of John tells us that we also become evangelists, messengers of good news, when we share God’s love with others.
Being evangelical thus means believing in and sharing the good news of God’s redemptive love for the world in Christ. But today, the word spells bad news, a beautiful word has become ugly, a true word has become fake new, and brought Christianity into ill-repute for bad reasons. To understand this let us take a step back into church history. In Medieval times, the “evangelical counsels” were the basis for the monastic life – poverty, chastity, and obedience, a “simple life-style” modelled on Jesus. Then during the Protestant Reformation, the word “evangelical” became associated with Martin Luther and his followers for whom the gospel was about God’s saving and forgiving grace which we receive by faith. So, the Protestant Church in Germany is officially the Evangelische Kirche, and theologians like Bonhoeffer identify themselves as evangelical theologians. In the English-speaking world “evangelical” is also historically associated with Protestants who hold fast to Reformation-teaching in contrast to Catholics and liberal Protestants, though the lines have become blurred over time. But during the twentieth century, especially in America, this beautiful word that speaks of good news, was captured – with the help of the media — by fundamentalists, many of them led by white supremacists and right-wing nationalists. Such “evangelicals” are now the core supporters of Donald Trump and his policies, to the dismay of genuine evangelicals.
So, the meaning of the word “evangelical” has morphed. It has become notoriously bad news spread by mass communication, money and missions which have ensured that this fundamentalist brand of Christianity has become global. Many of these latter-day “evangelicals” are undoubtedly nice, friendly folk, who love their families and neighbours, but their faith and actions have been distorted by fundamentalist preachers, newscasters and politicians who misuse the Bible in support of white supremacy, male dominance, individual liberty without social responsibility, rabid nationalism and a rejection of scientific evidence. Claiming to be Evangelical, their message has become toxic. For many of us who have long cherished the word “evangelical”, this is bad news because it is contrary to the good news of Jesus Christ. Indeed, if the Christian support for racism and individual self-interest are two modern heresies, so too is right-wing evangelicalism posing as Evangelical Christianity. “My country right or wrong” is not a Christian value, nor is worship of its king, president, or flag, or support for policies that are driven by the idea that one’s own nation is chosen and favoured by God to rule the world.
But there is good news amid all this bad news, because the meaning of “evangelical” might have changed in the minds of many and the media, but the “good news” of God’s love for the world has not changed, neither has the good news of grace and salvation in Christ changed, or the good news of God’s promised reign of justice, peace and reconciliation. This is the evangel in which we believe, the good news we proclaim, and the good news in which we put our hope. As we journey through this time of the new ordinary, let us not forget this extraordinary message which rescues us from the despair, pessimism and cynicism that destroy the soul. Each time we read or hear the gospel according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, led us continues to declare that this is the good news in which we put our trust. And so, week by week and day by day, even in bad times when bad news is in the ascendency, we reaffirm that the good news of Jesus Christ remains good, true and beautiful. And it is so because in a world of hatred, division, violence, and dehumanizing abuse, it speaks to us of God’s desire that we should love one another, be whole, seek justice, and work for peace. Now that is good news!
John de Gruchy
Volmoed 2 July 2010
“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers…All who believed were together and had all things in common. They would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all as any had need. And day by day the Lord added to their number.”
With these words, Luke, the author of the Acts of the Apostles, provides a snapshot of the life of the early church. First, he tells us, about their worship: they listened to the teaching of the apostles, had fellowship, broke bread together, and prayed. That has remained the model for the Christian liturgy ever since. Still today, we reflect on the teaching of the apostles recorded in the New Testament, have fellowship, share in the Lord’s Supper, and pray together. But Luke also tells us that those early Christians shared everything they had. They were not just a group of individual disciples getting together once a week to worship; they were an “intentional community” committed to a common life and purpose in which sharing what they possessed according to each member’s need was basic. Finally, Luke tells us, new members joined the community every day in response to the preaching of the gospel and the community life and care for others of those first Christians.
When Luke wrote Acts, around the year 85, the church’s pattern of worship was well established, but because it was scattered across the Middle East it was no longer an homogenous, largely Jewish, intimate community, but increasingly Gentile, culturally diverse and prone to divisions. As the letters of St. Paul also tell us,there were leadership tensions, cultural, economic and gender disparities, and different understandings of the gospel and its implications. That is why the apostle had to insist that in Christ Jew and Gentile, rich and poor, male and female, were equal; why he had to address leadership conflicts; and why he had to encourage congregations to care for the poor.
Luke wrote what he did in Acts to remind the church of his day of its origins and essence, and so provide a guide to help it retain its identity as it expanded across the world. But the picture he painted had wider social significance because, as Paul insisted, the church was a prototype of the new humanity established through the death and resurrection of Christ. This meant that the church was called to demonstrate to the world that people of different nationalities, cultures and classes could be reconciled, become united in love for each other, and serve the needs of society. Being a model of the new humanity was part of the church’s mission in the world. So if the church failed to be a community in which all people are equal, even though they may have different gifts and fulfil different roles, and if the church failed to share its resources and serve the needs of others, especially the poor, then it was no longer a faithful witness to Christ, serving God’s purpose for humanity. The salt, as Jesus said, had lost its savor and was no longer fit to serve its purpose.
In a previous meditation I referred to the Christian defence of racism as a heresy. But there is another heresy which destroys Christian community and witness, namely the belief that because Jesus calls each of us personally to follow him, and because he respects the dignity of each us as created in God’s image, therefore individualism is a Christian virtue. Certainly, we must defend the dignity and rights of individuals, encourage individual creativity and initiative. But the idea that individuals have a God-given right to “do their own thing” irrespective of the common good is a perversion of Christian faith. As Christians we must oppose the claim that some people have the right to exploit others and thereby undermine the common good in the name of “Christian individual-ism” and freedom. The pursuit of self-interest instead of the common good, destroys communities, whether in the church or in society. We have hopefully learnt this during the Corona-virus pandemic. You can’t selfishly relish your own freedom at the expense of the well-being of society.
Christian faith insists that, even in times of solitude, we humans only exist in relation to others. We are meant to be members one of another. Individual self-interest is a sin because it destroys these God-given relationships. By contrast, the doctrine of the Trinity in which “Father”, “Son” and “Spirit” represent three inter-related persons, not three independent individuals, teaches us that because we are in the “image of God”, we are meant to be persons-in-relationship. That is why Bonhoeffer tells us “that God does not desire a history of individual human beings, but the history of the human community.” Individualism is a heresy because it undermines human solidarity.
Once, long ago now, I was invited to preach at a prestigious boys’ school in Cape Town at a time when the full might of the apartheid regime was being unleashed. The occasion was the annual “old-boys” re-union service. Given the circumstances, I preached on the need for social justice. After the service I overheard one “old boy” say to another (referring to me), “he must be a communist!” That was not the first time I had been called that, but in truth I was being a Christian. Our witness to the gospel is not narrowly confined to individual salvation. Indeed, the good news expressed in Mary’s song, the Magnificat, at the birth of Jesus, is that God wants to “fill the hungry with good things” and will if need be, “send the rich away empty.” (Luke 1:53) So, just as Bonhoeffer also said that no one who did not stand up for the Jews in Nazi Germany should sing Gregorian chants, neither should we sing the Magnificat today if we do not work for a caring society in which individualism is uprooted and economic justice prevails. For starters, the church should itself be a community that is inclusive and economically just, caring for all in need, especially the most vulnerable, but it should work with others to achieve the same goals n society, and support government and communal policies that seek to achieve them.
Time and again throughout history Christians have rediscovered what it means to be the church by reflecting on what Luke tells us about the first Christian community described by Luke in the book of Acts. Whether it was in the rise of monasticism in the third century, the foundation of Benedictine and Franciscan orders, or later movements of reformation and renewal, this radical vision of the church as an “intentional community” of common worship, caring for each other, inclusivity and witness through serving the world and seeking economic justice, has inspired and energized Christians. So, it should be today in this “new ordinary time.”
John de Gruchy
Volmoed 25 June 2020
“The one who endures to the end will be saved.”
In the Christian calendar, we are now in Ordinary Time, the season between Pentecost and Advent. During this season we reflect on Christian discipleship, and the life and witness of the church in the world. But this is no ordinary time. The global Covid-19 pandemic, and global protest against racism. make it extraordinary. So just as we must think about life in the post Covin-19 “new normal”, we must also consider what Christian discipleship and witness means in this “new ordinary time.”
From early times, Christians learnt that the Second Coming of Christ and the arrival of God’s kingdom of justice and peace on earth, were delayed. Jesus said it would be so. “The end is not yet,” he told his disciples even if current events suggest it must be imminent. When it happens, everyone will be taken by surprise. Nevertheless, despite delays, there are always signs of the coming kingdom that keep hope alive, just as there are advances in finding a cure for Covid-19 and victories in the struggle against racism. But the struggle against both pandemics, as President Ramaphosa (including gender-based violence in the equation) reminded us last night on TV, is a marathon not a sprint. So, the struggle for justice, and peace, continue. But how can we be saved from fatalism, despair, and resignation when the end is not in sight? How do we continue to believe, hope, struggle for justice, witness to the love of God, in such an extraordinary time?
Normally when people hear the words “being saved”, they assume they refer to individual salvation after death. But Jesus’ words, “the one who endures to the end will be saved,” are not about that, for salvation in that sense is not dependent on our endurance. His words are about witnessing to the gospel in times of persecution when such witnessing is costly. Eugene Petersen’s translation of Matthew 10:22 captures the gist of what Jesus said:
“There is great irony here: proclaiming so much love, experiencing so much hate! But don’t quit. Don’t cave in. It is all worth it in the end … Before you have run out of options, the Son of Man will have arrived.”
The words echo the prayer Jesus taught his disciples: “save us from the trial and deliver us from evil” as we proclaim God’s love for a suffering world in which falsehood, injustice, greed, and hatred are rampant.
Even in the best of times witnessing to the gospel of God’s love for the world in Christ is difficult and sometimes dangerous. But in extraordinary times, when it is so easy to be overwhelmed by circumstance, fear, and acts of violence, it is understandable why some people cave in, lose hope for the future, and quit the struggle for a more equitable and just world in times such as this. It may be relatively easy for those of us who have the material resources to endure, but what about those who have nothing to fall back on when the going gets tough? What about those bearing the full brunt of the pandemic as they fulfil essential services? What about teachers who are fearful of the consequences of re-opening the classrooms? What about the victims of police and gender-based violence? When will all this end? How can we be saved from despair, from quitting the struggle, from caving in and giving up? How can we witness to the love of God in such times?
Sometimes we unthinkingly respond to such questions with “pious platitudes” — trust in God, pray more, go to church, and read the Bible! Such advice too often lacks substance and many people have long given up on taking them seriously. But such counsel need not be either pious or platitudinal. So, what do they mean? For starters, read Lamentations, Job, the Psalms, or the story of Jesus being forsaken on the Cross. If ever there were experiences of hell – the absence of God – they are to be found right there, at the centre of the biblical narrative. The Bible does not sugar-coat the bitter pill of human despair in God, or even anger directed at God for being absent when needed most. When we are most likely to quit the struggle.
So, what does it mean to trust in God? It means to live out of the conviction that, “in the end”, God’s love is more powerful than hatred, that hope in God’s purposes can help us overcome despair, and that God’s justice is more powerful than oppression. Such convictions cannot be proved or falsified, they are faith-based. But if we start living in this way – which, to repeat, is what faith in the God revealed in Jesus Christ is about – we discover that prayer becomes a conversation with God in which we can express our hopes and longings, as well as our complaints, anger, fears, and failures. And, in doing so, we are often surprised to discover that there is an eternal empathy and love that sustains us, empowers us to love others, and enables us to do what is right and just in the world. So we endure, hopefully to the end, not by gritting our teeth but by the grace that saves us.
But further, in such a time as this “new ordinary time”, when church doors in many places are still closed for fear of the virus, paradoxically many people are discovering what the church truly is outside the walls. The true church of Christ is a community in whose life we can participate even in lockdown. It is a community of compassionate people who serve others; a community of people committed to the struggle for justice and peace that is even found protesting injustice on the streets; a “communion of saints” whose prayers uphold us when we are tempted to despair and give up; a community in which “when one suffers all suffer, and when one rejoices all rejoice”; a community in which the words of the gospel come alive and speak to us in fresh and relevant ways, in which the Eucharist becomes a means of grace for endurance in love, in which we share the peace of Christ with “the other”, and are empowered by the Spirit to serve the world. In this way our weak trust in God and our inadequate prayers are sustained by countless others whose cumulative faith is stronger than our own and whose prayers are more constant. That is why we can by grace endure to the end, even though “knocked to the ground by suffering or grief” — as Isobel expressed in her poem based on Julian of Norwich’s Revelations written shortly after the death of our son Steve.
When we are knocked to the ground by suffering or grief,
left gasping and numb,
feeling we cannot go on,
Christ comes to us in the demeanour of his Passion,
showing us his face of suffering.
In our sorrow we see he has been there too:
in our pain we see his pain
knowing he can carry ours.
When we are under attack by forces outside ourselves,
Intentional or random,
Punch-drunk with violence, tragedy, evil,
Christ is there already in the demeanour of his Passion,
But now as victor over evil,
Fielding the assault, bearing the pain.
When we are brought low by our own sin,
left feeling wretched and worthless,
Christ comes to us in his demeanour of compassion,
showing us his face of sympathy and understanding.
He can protect us from ourselves
and set us on our way again.
And then there is the third demeanour,
that of his radiant face of glory,
given to us in brief moments by the Spirit,
to inspire and enlighten us:
caught as a vision of what awaits us,
For now we only see, as it were,
a poor reflection in a mirror,
but then we will see face to face –
Our Risen Lord.
John de Gruchy
Volmoed 19 June 2010
“Do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.” (NRSV)
Historians tell us that during times of plague there is a resurgence of popular belief in demons as people seek an explanation for the evil that has befallen them. Some may think this no longer happens in the modern world, assuming science and education have exorcised all demons. But the demons we fear are not little devilish beings that invade our consciousness, they are self-inflicted social constructs like racism. Because in times like our own, people seek scapegoats to blame for what is happening and then demonize them. These demons then control our consciousness, shape our perceptions, and fuel our fear. We become “demon possessed,” driven to irrational and harmful actions which some, shirking personal responsibility, blame on the Devil, the ultimate evil Other who lurks in the background pulling the strings like the Darth Vader in Star Wars or Sauron in the Lord of the Rings.
In biblical mythology, just as angels do the work of God, so demons do the work of the Devil or Satan (the “accuser”), the primordial archangel who fell from grace. At our baptism we Christians traditionally pledge to fight “the Devil”, yet the more “enlightened” among us have difficulty in accepting his reality. But if we had to exorcise the Devil from the pages of the New Testament, the poems of John Milton or the novels of Dostoevsky, we would leave gaping holes in the text. Did not Jesus struggle against Satan in the Wilderness, and teach us to pray that God would “rescue us from the evil one?” (as translated in the NRSV). A prayer we regularly repeat even if we deny the Devil’s existence. Yet we cannot easily expunge our sense and experience of evil as a constant force at work in the world, however we explain it.
Just as our images of God are usually totally inadequate because they are anthropomorphic, so are our images of the Devil. God does not literally sit on a throne somewhere above the clouds, neither does the Devil have horns. The idea of the Devil as a powerful being co-existing alongside God is rejected by Christianity. The word God represents the personification of ultimate love, beauty and goodness revealed in Jesus Christ, whereas the Devil represents the personification of absolute evil. This is revealed on the faces of the crowd bellowing crucify him, mobs lynching blacks, soldiers herding Jews into cattle trucks and gas chambers, guards torturing prisoners, and neighbours hacking fellow neighbours to death in acts of genocide. I certainly saw the face of the “evil one” when I witnessed vicious police dogs and their handlers attacking non-violent protesters during the struggle against apartheid.
We can also see the face of Satan on those who order the bombing of innocent civilians and hospitals in the Middle East, those who leave refugees fleeing terror to drown in the Mediterranean, drug lords plying their trade, police murdering innocent victims on the road-side, agent provocateurs instigating acts of wanton destruction, gangs raping women, and parents or priests abusing children. And let us not forget the complacent and smug faces of corrupt politicians and business tycoons who destroy rain forests out of greed, and those who lust for power for personal gain. And because, according to Jesus, the Devil, though often disguised as “an angel of light”, is the “father of lies” (John 6:44), the face of the “evil one” is seen among those who spread fake news and propaganda. Indeed, the Devil is both a “roaring lion” devouring whatever takes his fancy (I Peter 5:8), and an habitual liar. And, sadly, his face is revealed when political leaders, who start out as champions of the people, become despots and tyrants. All these, as Bonhoeffer put it, resemble the image of Satan, not God. For just as God works through human agents who share God’s love in serving others, so the power of evil becomes personified in the works of those who perform evil deeds.
But let us be aware lest we who claim to be the followers of Jesus might agents of evil even while claiming to be angels of light and love. Jesus does not only teach us to pray “deliver us from the evil one”, but also “do not bring us to the trial” or “lead us not into temptation.” God help us, so we are praying, that we do not become agents of evil, or silent bystanders and beneficiaries watching evil at work from a safe distance. God help us not to demonize and dehumanize others, even our enemies, for that is not loving them as Jesus requires. Indeed, may God save us from using the Devil’s tools in fighting the Devil! That was at the heart of Jesus’ own struggle when confronted by Satan in the Wilderness, the temptation to gain the whole world in God’s name but losing our souls. So, in our witness to social justice, in our ministry of healing and wholeness, and in our struggle for peace and reconciliation, we must resist self-righteous arrogance, otherwise we fail to see the face of the “evil one” when we look in the mirror. For the Devil is most sly in his attacks on ardent believers who end up burning heretics and killing prophets. After all, Jesus’ religious accusers called him the agent of Satan even while he was casting out demons! (Matthew 12:22-32).
But, in the end, if we take the Devil and fight him seriously, we need to learn how to laugh in his face. He may be powerful, but his time is up. He may take himself very seriously, but we need not take him too seriously for even a tiny virus can dethrone him. Like all bullies and tyrants, the Devil cannot laugh at himself, nor can he stand us laughing at him! Julian of Norwich knew that very well, as Isobel tells us in one of her many poems about Julian and her Revelations.
Dark and sombre the mood,
mother and siblings hovering,
wiping her fevered brow with cool cloths;
the priest holding aloft the crucifix
on which her eyes are fixed,
all watching for her last breath,
while longing for the next laboured one,
and the next …
when, suddenly, she laughs out loud,
so merrily, so spontaneously,
that they all are infected and
all of them burst out laughing.
In a moment the room is awash
with waves of mirth, death forgotten,
Hushing again as Julian talks,
for this needs some explaining:
“By this the Fiend is overcome!”
she proclaims, turning her gaze again
on the crucifix, “By Christ’s Passion,
by his blood pouring out so plentifully”.
We can laugh at the Devil,
that poor impotent creature,
and scorn him as nothing,
while we still seriously oppose
whatever he tries to do.
John de Gruchy
Volmoed.11 June 2020
I appreciate it when readers respond to my blog respond. Please continue to do so. I cannot respond to all of them as much as I might want to, but it is good to hear from old as well as new friends.
In the early 1930’s, when Nazism was gaining power in Germany, there were many Protestant Christians who gave their undying support to Adolf Hitler as the Leader (Führer) who would restore Germany’s pride and greatness, rebuild its economy and military, maintain law and order in the streets, and inculcate discipline and nationalism among the young. The more militant among these Protestants were labelled Deutsche Christen and they soon began to exert their influence in the life of the Evangelical Church, that is, the established Lutheran and Reformed state church. Inevitably they gave their enthusiastic support to Hitler’s anti-Semitic policies. After all, hatred of Jews was in their DNA. Jews, like other “outsider minorities”, did not belong in German society. At best, their existence could be tolerated, at least for the moment. But when this was also applied to the life of the church, requiring members of Jewish heritage – even if they were baptized Christians – to be expelled, a line was crossed.
It was then that two leading Protestant theologians of the day, Karl Barth and his younger colleague Dietrich Bonhoeffer, decided that the time had finally come to declare that the Christian support for such policies was heresy. They had already expressed opposition to Nazism, and well before Hitler gained power, they had spoken of the dangers that lay ahead. But the time had now come for the church to take a stand on the truth of the Christian gospel. Those who supported Hitler’s policies were putting themselves outside the “true church” irrespective of their piety. Indeed, they went further and said that the church ceased to be the church if it obeyed the non-Aryan decrees promulgated by a rogue state. The question of what was the “true church” and what was the “false church” had little to do with denomination, whether Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox, but everything to do with doing justice and defending human dignity. That is what faithfulness to Jesus Christ demanded.
The word “heresy” does not have a good history or appeal. It conjures up images of heretics being burnt at the stake, not to mention countless and seemingly endless heated debates about what is true belief and what is false. So, Christians today rightly tend to avoid using the word, especially more liberal Christians whose level of toleration of free-thought is higher than that of the more conservative. But as Barth and Bonhoeffer discerned so clearly, when beliefs lead to actions that are un-Christian, immoral, unjust, even demonic, then there is no other word in the church’s vocabulary to describe them other than heresy. This is not a matter of splitting hairs about doctrines that are, to many people, incomprehensible. Nor is it about putting heretics to the sword. But it does have to do with matters of life and death because it is about policies and deeds that lead to slavery, apartheid, pogroms, concentration camps, war, lynching, and even murder committed by police officers on duty on the streets.
The word heresy means making a false choice, and then justifying the dehumanizing actions that result as if they were Christian. Many white Christians made such a false choice in South Africa in the early days of colonialism, and then when they elected and continually re-elected an apartheid government. They wrongly believed that this could be supported with reference to the Bible and their beliefs. From the outset there were some white Christians who opposed such racism as un-Christian because unjust (all black Christians obviously did!), and then, during the church struggle against apartheid the battle lines were increasingly drawn. Apartheid, we said, was a false gospel providing false security to those who benefitted from it.
But then, finally, even if rather belatedly, in the mid-l980’s, a growing number of theologians and some churches finally declared that the Christian defence of apartheid is nothing but a heresy! It was not only unjust and sinful, as every black person instinctively knew, it was based on false teaching that had to be opposed. There could no longer be a debate about that, so there was no going back. Far too much damage had already been done to the integrity and witness of the church and, more importantly, far too many lives had been destroyed by policies and practices that claimed to be based on Christian principles. No longer could the president of the country stand up with hand on Bible and say that what he was doing was Christian, even if he was in a pulpit or outside the front door of a church. He was simply a heretic.
There are many Christians in the United States who are fully aware of the narrative I have shared, and I have learnt much from them. As members of the universal Church, we are all members one of another. Their struggle is our struggle, just as our struggle against apartheid became theirs as well. So, their pain and anguish at this time of racial intolerance and even murder, justified by some who claim to be “Bible-believing” and supporters of a messianic leader who defends Christian values, is also our pain and anguish. As in Nazi Germany and apartheid South Africa, the future not only of the church and the integrity of Christian faith, but also of a just and peaceful world is at stake and becomes less possible the more we tolerate the intolerable. That is why together in solidarity we must declare that racism in all its forms, indeed, all policies that disregard the dignity of everyone irrespective of who they are, must be rejected as a Christian heresy.
Certainly, we must love our enemies, as Jesus taught us, and tolerate those who disagree with us, for we all live in glass-houses, and we must respect even the rights of those who do wrong to a fair trial; but we cannot accept beliefs which lead to evil deeds. Those are nothing but heresies, and those who proclaim and defend them, like the Deutsche Christen, are excommunicating themselves from the community of Christian faith, hope and love.
Micah 6:8; Mark 12:28-34
“What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
“We can be Christians today in only two ways, through prayer and in doing justice…” Dietrich Bonhoeffer
The murder of George Floyd by the police in Minneapolis last week has graphically linked racial injustice and the Corona pandemic, something already evident in the fact that the number of black Covid-19 victims is proportionally much higher than white. But certainly, the tragic events we have watched unfold in the US demonstrate, as many have said, that racism has reached pandemic proportions. Like Covid-19, racism is a deadly virus. This is no homiletic exaggeration. The similarities are real and disturbing. Floyd’s agonizing gasp – “I can’t breathe” – like each Corona victim’s last gasp for breath and a planet choking to death, echo the same awful cry. This struggle for breath is a struggle for justice, and such justice is not achieved either through violence or by maintaining law and order through excessive force or military might.
The problem lies deep in the social history and realities that deeply divide the world along ethnic and economic lines. For just as Covid-19 is a new strand of an old virus, so present-day racism has a long pedigree going back to ancient times and, like the sin of Adam, it has infected one generation of Europeans to the next. Scientifically-speaking, race as distinct from ethnicity, is an unscientific figment of the European imagination, a fear of the unknown, the strange, the alien. Communicated by stereotyping “the other” as a threat, it has been used to justify colonial conquest and apartheid, and too often justified by a misuse of obscure biblical texts that reduce black people to hewers of wood, and accept slavery as God-intended and normal.
Isobel and I were students in Chicago when the Civil Rights Act was passed on 2nd July 1964 after months of protest similar to what we have witnessed this past week. It was a remarkable achievement after centuries of slavery and racial oppression. But sadly, the signing of that Act, important as it was, did not bring an end to racism in the United States. We in South Africa also know that the ending of apartheid has not meant that the virus of racism had been eradicated. The awful cry “I can’t breathe” is the daily cry of too many both here and across the world who live in squalor, are unemployed and unemployable, are poor and hungry, and who cannot breathe because of environmental pollution. It is not, however, a cry for handouts or cheap reconciliation; it is a cry for justice, for dignity, a cry for life.
We know that Covid-19 will keep spreading until a vaccine is found and it runs its present course. We also know, as epidemiologists tell us, that there will be subsequent pandemics and that these, as in the past, will often take the world by surprise. The same is true of racism except that even to this day, despite all legislation and policies, we have never found a vaccine that can root it out or prevent its insidious spread. For as long as I can remember the racial problem has been researched and written about; for as long as I remember there have been church resolutions condemning racism, and programmes designed to combat it; and for as long as I remember, racism has plagued society and, sadly, the church as well. It took centuries before it dawned on most white Christians that the enslavement of black people was unjust and unchristian. And many white people are still surprised when protest erupts, and often turns violent because we have thought it had been overcome. After all, don’t most white people insist: “I am not a racist”. If so, how does it persist?
Racism in the church is one of the most serious indictments against the church because it is fundamentally at odds with what the church is meant to be. That is why we who claim to be Christian have a special responsibility to fight the pandemic and find a cure. And that begins with us as individuals; it requires repentance, a fundamental change of heart, mind, attitude and commitment. But because racism is so systemic, so embedded in culture, none of us can do everything that needs to be done, that is why the struggle against racism has to be a social protest movement. (Much needs to be said about what this means for us and the church which cannot be said here, so I urge you to read Melanie Verwoerd’s article published this week on News 24 “We can and must be better – lessons from America.” To do so, you can follow the link: https://www.news24.com/news24/Columnists/MelanieVerwoerd/melanie-verwoerd-we-can-and-must-be-better-lessons-from-america-20200602?isapp=true)
But what do we Christians specifically bring to this struggle? Nothing more nor less than the good news that in Christ crucified and risen “God is reconciling the world to himself” and in the process creating a new humanity in which enmity between people is overcome. (II Cor. 5:11-20) The core business of the church is to embody this good news; that is our fundamental, though by no means our only, contribution to the struggle, and why Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in his prison letters, “the church is only the church when it exists for others.” He also wrote that words such as reconciliation lose their power when the church lives only for itself and insisted that we “can be Christians today in only two ways, through prayer and in doing justice.” In the same spirit, the prophet Hosea tells us that what God requires of us is “to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.” Which is just another way of saying that if we claim to love God, we must love our neighbour as we do ourselves. And do we not all cry out for breath, for justice, for mercy and kindness? This commandment to love our neighbours, that is, everyone we regard as “the other”, is not, however, an option; it is an imperative.
When the Bible speaks of the love of God and love of neighbour it means self-giving love, love which expresses itself both in acts of kindness which affirm the dignity of the other, and in doing justice in solidarity with those who are oppressed. It is not about liking someone or embracing someone who is like us. “It is doing to others – even to enemies –what you would have them do to you.” For that reason, Christian love means struggling against poverty, racism, and all other forms of oppression. Such love active in doing justice is the only vaccine we have to fight the racism pandemic. But it is a powerful vaccine when it is let lose on the world, for it is the transforming power of God at work through the Spirit.
John de Gruchy
Volmoed 8 June 2020
“See, I am coming soon…I am the Alpha and the Omega…the beginning and the end.”
“As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world…may they be one that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”
Living through this pandemic is like walking on a tight-rope. Having left the security of what was “normal” we traverse a dangerously narrow path towards an uncertain future. At any time, we could lose our balance between saving lives and saving the economy, and so fall into the abyss. We are only part of the way, but some are already starting to run in the hope of reaching the other side more quickly, while others take more care, trying to keep balance and not fall. But we all act in the hope that we will survive and arrive safely in the end.
But is it not true that we always live between past certainties and future uncertainties? When we are born, we leave the security of the womb, pass through a narrow gate into life, and begin a journey into the unknown. Along the way we also experience death – the death of grandparents, parents, family, and friends, and become aware that we also and always live under its shadow. We try not to be morbid and even joke about death, but we cannot escape its reality. Death stares us in the face even when we turn our faces away. That is part of being human, and even if in Christ we have “eternal life,” life in its fullness.
In the ninth century the Emperor Charlemagne divided history into two parts: BC (“before Christ) and AD (anno Domini, the “year of the Lord,” that is, the birth of Christ). As Western Christendom expanded across the globe, BC and AD became universal even if countries, like China, still observe their own calendar. For that reason, some scholars today speak of BCE (before the Christian era). Now some people are even saying that in future BC will stand for “before Covid-19” and, I guess, AP will mean after the pandemic. Certainly, living in lockdown has not only felt like walking on a tightrope from certainty to uncertainty, but living “between the times”; between the start of the pandemic and its anticipated end.
The first Christians also believed they were living “between the times,” but for them it was between the time of Christ’s resurrection, and his promised return which, as the book of Revelation (written during a time of great persecution) indicates, they believed would be soon. But whether soon or not, as it transpired, the question for them was not only about when the end would occur, but how they were to live in the mean-time in anticipation of the coming of God’s kingdom on earth. That is, living in the hope that God’s justice and peace would “cover the earth as the waters cover the sea.” (Habakkuk 2:14) Living and acting in such hope became, in fact, the motivation for Christian witness. As Christians broke bread in anticipation of Christ’s coming again, so they went into the world to proclaim the good news of God’s redemptive love for the world. The time “between the times” became the time of mission (“missio” Latin for “being sent.). And that remains true for us during this time of the Corona pandemic.
During this week between the Ascensions and Pentecost, the gospel readings from John 17 recount the “high priestly prayer” Jesus prayed before his death. His prayer was that his followers would remain one as “he and the Father were one”, and he declared that just as he had been sent into the world to proclaim the coming of God’s kingdom, so he was sending his followers to do the same. This is the significance of Pentecost – the beginning of the church as a community of people from every nation united in witness to the good news of God’s reconciliation of the world in Christ. This is how Christians are meant to live “between the times” – embodying reconciliation and so witnessing in the power of the Spirit to the good news of God’s coming justice and peace. That is how we Christians are meant to live “between the times”, whether during these times of the pandemic or once it is over.
The book of Revelation not only concludes by telling the first Christians, faced with severe persecution, that “Jesus will come soon,” but also that he is the “Alpha and Omega…the beginning and the end.” In other words, whether the end comes tomorrow or much later, the revelation of God’s love for the world in Christ remains constant because it is the creative origin of life as well as the redemptive goal of life. From beginning to end, then, the Christian life of faith is lived “between the times” – remembering Christ’s death and resurrection, and witnessing to the love of God for the world in anticipation of the coming of God’s justice and peace. That was never needed more than during this time of pandemic.
Thee pandemic has undoubtedly had serious consequences on the life of the church. Not only has it affected church finances and prevented people from coming together in fellowship, but it has also brought many church programmes of education and service to a halt even though much has still been achieved. But hopefully the pandemic is reminding us about what the church really is, and how it is called to live and witness “between the times.” The fact that most Christians throughout the world have been prevented from going to church buildings has not meant that the church has stopped being the church. The first Christians did not have church buildings; they gathered in homes for prayer and fellowship, and they did so in order to go into the world to proclaim the good news about Jesus. That is why at the end of the Eucharist we are sent into the world to love and serve. It is misleading, then, to say that once the pandemic is over, we can go back to church when we never stopped being the church.
In fact, being the church may not be about rushing to go back to those buildings we love in order to worship with others, as much as that may be what we desire, but it certainly is about acting responsibly at this time when the pandemic is far from over. For by acting responsibly we express our love for God, for each other, and for our neighbour. And that, after all, is what Christian witness is all about, an answer to Jesus’ prayer: “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.”
John de Gruchy
Volmoed 28 May 2020
Acts 1:6-11; John 16:12-15
“When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.”
“In God we trust” are words printed on every American dollar since1956. They may not be the official US motto, which since the 18th century has been “Out of many, one” (e pluribus unum), but the cynical among us say might say the god in whom the US trusts is the dollar. That aside, the question we need to answer is: who is the God we trust, not least during this Covi-19 pandemic? And, therefore, who is God working through and in what ways? Put differently, who do we trust to help us deal with the pandemic: politicians, economists, scientists, pastors or even a theologian or two? Who is telling the truth, whose word do we trust, whose guidance do we follow? Who do we believe are God’s agents?
We are moving into Stage 3 in our lockdown strategy to get the economy up and running as much as possible under the circumstances. But we know that the virus is still rampant and infecting increasing numbers of people. We also know that it is going to be with us for a long time, so testing and tracing, social distancing, hygiene, and medical preparedness remain vitally necessary. And while scientists are hard at work developing and testing vaccines, these will not be available for months. So, who do we trust to see us safely through the coming months? Can we trust the scientists? Are they God’s agents?
There are many Christians, especially in the US, who are skeptical about science and blatantly disregard scientific advice believing that God will protect them. But that is NOT what St. Paul meant when he said that we must be “fools for Christ’s sake.” It is just being and acting dumb. To claim that when we go to church God will protect us from infection because we believe in God, is misguided. If that were so, why does our faith not protect us in the super-market, taxi, or office where many infections take place? If faith alone can save us from the virus, why are we practicing hygiene, wearing masks, and praying for a cure? Why, have people of faith been infected and died? Faith in God does not make us immune any more than prayer prevents people from dying in a plane crash. Surely, we all prefer travelling on an airplane designed by scientists, rather than one built by priests and pastors, and prefer medicine tested by scientists rather than recommended by presidents?
The word science means knowledge, and natural science (what we commonly call science) is knowledge based on empirical evidence tested according to strict procedures. That is how science works. But scientists are not God, and like theologians, they don’t know everything, so we trust neither absolutely! Because people are good scientists does not mean they are also an authority on philosophy, art, sport, gardening, politics or religion, or a great partner, parent, or friend. Scientists are human like the rest of us. But what makes science trustworthy is the scientific method which enables scientists to get at the truth, solve problems, improve the quality of life, and respond to a pandemic. They may sometimes get it wrong, but I put my trust in them rather than in some politicians or pastors who reject their findings for their own ends.
So, what about our trust in God? Christian faith and science are not opponents or enemies, they are both gifts of God. But faith is, of course, a different way of knowing and arriving at the truth of “the mystery in which we live, move and have our being.” Faith in God, like hope and love, cannot be proved true or false by science. Hope is not based on scientifically derived economic data which reflects a rise in business confidence; hope is a way of being in the world despite the Corona virus, despite suffering, despite failures – it is a way of living that enables us to resist despair and overcome fear as we struggle for a better world. Likewise, love is beyond scientific proof. When you fall in love you do not explain what has happened to you as a neuroscientist might, you write a love poem or letter, sing a song, and prove your love by caring for the other. In the same way, faith is not wishful thinking, a clutching at straws, or what neuroscientists call confabulation. It is a way of seeing the world differently, a way of knowing based on the experience of the mystery we name God. Such faith is not irrational even if it cannot be empirically verified. It is affirming that there is a meaning and purpose to life beyond that which can be proved or disproved by science.
But if you want empirical proof, you may find it in self-giving love that is daily expressed and demonstrated by nurses, carers, doctors and many others at this present time. They may not be Christians or believe in God, but their self-less compassion and commitment to those in need demonstrates a profound truth that cannot be proven in a laboratory any more than it makes sense to many in our self-centered, greedy and individualistic world which puts its trust in the dollar. This is the truth we grasp by faith, the truth into which, as John’s Gospel tells us, the Spirit leads us. The truth that has been disclosed in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.
On Ascension Day we celebrate the Lordship of Christ in and through whom, we believe, the whole creation and all of humanity find fulfilment and restoration. Central to the message of the Ascension is that the Jesus of Nazareth who embodied God’s redemptive, suffering love for the world and brought healing and wholeness to people, is the cosmic Christ who is present with us today. And we believe that through the Spirit God not only leads scientists deeper into the truth through their research, but also leads us deeper into the truth of faith, keeping hope alive and empowering us to love one another, especially those crying out for compassion. This is not a scientific claim, but an acclamation that the world is saved by the suffering love of God in Christ expressed in human solidarity and compassion. This is the God in whom we trust and these are God’s agents.
If cynics and skeptics think this is foolish, so be it. Maybe we are “fools for Christ’s sake”, but it is our witness to the “foolishness of the cross” which is God’s wisdom at work in the world. And it is this faith expressed in hope and love that we so desperately need, not only during this pandemic, but also as we rebuild our society once it has been overcome. So, let us trust the Spirit to lead us all deeper into the truth. At the same time give three cheers for those scientists medics and others on the front-lines who are working so hard and honestly to help us through the pandemic — our prayers are with you, as they are for all people whose compassion brings hope to those in need and who are suffering so much. In them we see the Spirit of the ascended Christ at work in the world.
John de Gruchy
Ascension Day 21 May 2020