Sunday, 8 September 2013

What kind of revolution?

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church 
8th September 2013

Luke 14:25-33  Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them,  26 "Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.  27 Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.  28 For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it?  29 Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him,  30 saying, 'This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.'  31 Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand?  32 If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace.  33 So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.

Deuteronomy 30:15-20  See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity.  16 If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the LORD your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess.  17 But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them,  18 I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess.  19 I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live,  20 loving the LORD your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the LORD swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.

I suspect that I am not alone in having watched
            the unfolding events in Syria over the last couple of weeks
            with a mixture horror, dread, and fascination.

I think it’s fair to say
            that the situation in the Middle East is not straightforward,
            as a recent letter to the Financial Times demonstrated:

Iran is backing Assad. Gulf states are against Assad!
            Assad is against Muslim Brotherhood.
Muslim Brotherhood and Obama are against General Sisi.
            But Gulf states are pro Sisi!
            Which means they are against Muslim Brotherhood!
Iran is pro Hamas, but Hamas is backing Muslim Brotherhood!
Obama is backing Muslim Brotherhood,
            yet Hamas is against the US!
Gulf states are pro US.
            But Turkey is with Gulf states against Assad;
            yet Turkey is pro Muslim Brotherhood against General Sisi.
            And General Sisi is being backed by the Gulf states!
Welcome to the Middle East and have a nice day.
[Financial Times: 23rd August 2013]

The civil war in Syria has already been running for over two years,
            and it finds its origins within the wider context
            of the Middle Eastern protest movement known as the Arab Spring.

However, it took a dramatic turn for the worse recently
            with the unleashing of chemical weapons
            on the civilian population of Damascus on the 21st August.
The crossing of this so called ‘red line’
            has provoked a number of heavily militarized western countries
            to consider their own response to the escalating crisis.

The recent vote in Westminster ruling out UK military action in Syria
            was merely the precursor to the discussion
                        happening in the United States,
            which goes to a full Senate vote next week.
Many commentators think it is very likely that the US will launch
            what are being described as ‘limited and proportional’ strikes
                        in the near future.

Meanwhile, discussions on Syrian intervention
            have provided an uneasy background
                        to this week’s G20 meeting in Russia.
Putin says that action without UN approval would be "an aggression",
            whilst Obama says that the credibility
            of the international community is on the line.

What to do? How to respond?

The calculations behind a decision to go to war are complex,
            and there are no easy or cost-free answers here.
Part of the issue, it seems to me,
            is what cost, and who pays?

Our lectionary passage for this morning
            contains a short parable told by Jesus
            which may be of relevance to our consideration:

31 what king, going out to wage war against another king,
            will not sit down first and consider
whether he is able with ten thousand
            to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? 
32 If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away,
            he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. 

The question which is haunting me,
            and which I think is a key question for all Christians
                        to ask at such a time as this,
is that of what a response to the terrible events in Syria would look like
            which took the teaching and example of Jesus
            and applied it to the real world of chemical weapons,
                        tactical military intervention, and civil war?

Jesus’ parable about going to war wasn’t offered in the abstract.
            Rather, it’s part of a wider passage
            which contains some of his hardest sayings found in any of the gospels.

26 "Whoever comes to me and does not hate
            father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters,
            yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. 

27 Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.

33 So therefore, none of you can become my disciple
            if you do not give up all your possessions.

A difficult and troubling passage, for difficult and troubling times.

What I hope is that some time spent with this passage this morning
            may help us towards an answer to the questions
            that the situation in Syria raises for us.

The context of Luke 14 is that Jesus is making his way to Jerusalem (13.22),
            travelling from town to village as he journeys south
            from Galilee to the ancient Jewish capital city,
                        currently under occupation by the Romans.

As he travels he draws a band of followers to himself,
            by preaching publicly, and engaging in actions
            that challenge the power of the religious and political status quo.
His sermons make frequent reference
            to something he refers to the ‘kingdom of God’,
                        eighteen times so far in Luke,
                        with another thirteen to go before the gospel reaches its conclusion.
He keeps telling people that the kingdom of God is coming,
            and he invites people to enter into the new life of his new regime.

One way of reading Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem
            would be that he was gathering a revolutionary army,
            readying them to march on the seat of power to overthrow the corrupt regime,
                        and to free the country from the external powers of the foreign empire
                        which was propping up the existing political elite.

Does this sound familiar?
            It’s the age-old story of popular uprising,
            and it’s the same story the world over,
                        from first century Palestine to twenty-first century Syria.
Others had tried it before Jesus,
            and others would try it again afterwards.
The crowd knew what they were getting when a revolutionary preacher
            started gathering followers on his way to Jerusalem:
                        they’d seen it before.
Previous attempts had failed, but maybe the next one would succeed.
            Maybe the Jesus uprising would finally break the power of evil over the land
            and free the people from the yoke of oppression.

The language Jesus uses to call his followers
            is certainly the language of revolution,
            it is the language of holy war.
His call to hatred of family, and life, and possessions
            has echoes in other ancient stories
            of people responding to a call to a new mission
            which required the giving up of all that was previously held dear.

For example, the classical Greek novelist Lucian, ironically a Syrian by birth,
            wrote a story called The Scythian or the Consul
            in which he described two characters named Toxaris and Anacharsis
                        who go off on a mission.
Toxaris is said to have ‘left’ his wife and children;
            while Anacharsis is said to ‘not remember’ his wife or children,
            and is also described as having ‘left all’ behind him.

Similarly, Diogenes Laërtius, the Greek biographer, tells the story of Crates
            who is persuaded by one of the cynic philosophers
                        to turn his property into money and distribute it to the other citizens,
            in order to follow the call to become a philosopher himself (Diogenes Laertius 6.87).

And in the Old Testament,
            the act of leaving money, family, and friends
            is described as an act of preparation for embarking on a holy war.
The holy tribe of Levi
            are said to be those who say of their mother and father
                        ‘I regard them not’ (Deut. 33.8-9),
and to have been ordained for service
            ‘at the cost of a son or a brother’ (Ex. 32.29)

It seems that when Jesus went through the towns and villages of Israel,
            recruiting for his new movement,
he did so in the style of a leader calling people to a mission
            from which they might not return,
a mission which required them to relinquish their attachments
            to their families and their possessions.

His use of the word ‘hate’ here
            is a deliberate overstatement to emphasise the seriousness of the cost
                        that following him will entail (cf. Prov. 13.24).
This isn’t hatred in the sense of the teenager who screams ‘I hate you’ at his parents,
            and neither is it hatred in the sense that I hate Marmite.

Rather, like the man in the story just a few verses earlier in Luke’s gospel
             – the man who excuses himself from the banquet of the kingdom of God
                        because he has just taken a new wife –
            Jesus is asking those who respond to his call
                        to be prepared to place their commitment to his kingdom
                        ahead of all other calls on their allegiance.

So far, so much a recruitment campaign!
            It all rather sounds like preparing a revolutionary army to embark on a holy war.
But it turns out that Jesus isn’t your usual run-of-the-mill revolutionary.
            It may be that he was gathering people for a battle,
            but it certainly wasn’t the war that most people were expecting.

Jesus tells his followers
            not only that they must be prepared to give up family ties and possessions,
            but also that they must be prepared to ‘carry the cross’.

These days, the phrase ‘carrying one’s cross’
            has entered into popular language
            to describe difficulties that we just have to learn to live with.
So, someone with a long term illness might say,
            ‘it’s just a cross I have to bear’.
But in Jesus’ day the image had a far more gruesome and graphic connotation
            – the person carrying a cross was a person on their way to crucifixion.
            They were on their way to suffering and death.

It seems that the revolution for which Jesus is recruiting
            isn’t going to be a revolution that ends with a glorious death-or-victory charge
                        on the capital city to overthrow the powers that be,
            but rather a revolution that ends in suffering and certain death
                        on the part of the revolutionaries.

This is why Jesus offers his parables
            about the man preparing to build a tower,
            and a king preparing to go to war.
At a surface level, they speak of the importance
            of knowing what you’re getting into before you jump;
            of the necessity of weighing the cost before you commit.

But they also offer a deeper meaning
            which is relevant to our question for this morning.
Because both parables are themselves military images.

People built towers as defensive structures.
            They were built to protect land, such as a vineyard,
            and to make a powerful and public statement
                        of the strength and might of the landowner and the tower builder.
Towers weren’t built by ordinary people,
            they were built by the wealthy and the powerful to protect their privilege.
From the tower of Babel onwards,
            towers had been symbols of empire,
            un-missable and inescapable, dominating the people.
Some have suggested that the tower may also be a reference
            to Herod the Great’s rebuilding project at the Jerusalem Temple,
                        which was still being worked on in Jesus’ time,
            becoming a compelling symbol of the Jewish state,
                        such that the Romans eventually felt the need to destroy it totally,
                        in order to suppress the Jewish nationalism
                        that threatened their own power over the region (cf. 13.35).

Similarly, the king preparing to go for war
            is another inescapable image of violence.
To defend territory from an aggressor,
            or to take territory from another,
            is the stuff of which empires are made.
And the calculation as to whether to enter combat or sue for peace,
            is a calculation based on human lives and human deaths.
Before a ruler commits to ‘boots on the ground’
            they need to be assured that this isn’t their Vietnam;
They need to know that they can kill more than they will lose,
            or else the battle is best avoided.

And this is the logic of battle, it is the logic of violence,
            it is the logic of kill or be killed,
            it is the logic of ‘them or us’,
It is the logic that demands action,
            it is the logic that cannot let wrong go unpunished.
            it is the logic that leads to targeted and proportionate responses.

And I want to suggest that however compelling this logic may seem,
            however ancient it may be,
it is a false logic, because it is based on a false assumption,
            on a false dichotomy.

It is the dichotomy that people who choose violence
            will always offer to justify their actions.
And it is the dichotomy that is always presented to discredit
            those who have made a commitment
            to attempting to live nonviolently in a violent world.

The false dichotomy is this, and it is very seductive:
            Do something, or do nothing.
            Either act, or don’t.
            Be courageous, or be a coward.

A terrible wrong has been committed,
            or is about to be committed.
What are you going to do?
            How are you going to respond?

The false dichotomy of violence
            whispers, speaks, shouts and screams it’s options to us:
            DO SOMETHING! Or do nothing!

I want to suggest that this dichotomy is false
            because it denies the third way.
The alternative to ‘doing something’,
            by which is meant, ‘doing something’ violent,
isn’t actually just ‘doing nothing’.

The way of Jesus is the third way,
            he was neither passively inactive,
            but nor was he violently interventionist.
Rather, he was non-violently energetic.

Jesus didn’t sit in Galilee healing the sick,
                        hugging lepers, and preaching nice sermons.
            Rather, his commitment to human wholeness,
                        and his outrage at the powers of evil at work in his world and his land,
            led him to embark on a mission to break the powers of oppression
                        that saw him enter the seat of power
                        and take decisive action to expose, oppose, depose
                                    the root cause of the evil system.

But he did not do so by gathering an army and swords,
            and entering the battle on the enemy’s terms.
Fighting violence with violence is not the Jesus-way to win the war.

Rather, the third way of Jesus,
            the way out of the false dichotomy of ‘do something violent, or do nothing’,
is to take action to unmask the vicious narratives that dominate the world,
            by showing, often at great personal cost,
            that there is another way of being human.

Jesus goes to the cross as an innocent victim of the violent regime,
            to hold to account all those who believe that the regime is right.
Those who call for the death of Jesus are not just the evil dictators of the world,
            they are the righteous and the religious,
            they are the sanctimonious and the sanctified,
            they are the ordinary and extraordinary,
            they are you, and they are me.
And the reason they, the reason we, participate so willingly in the violence of our world
            is that we too have bought into the false dichotomy
            that violent action is the only alternative available to right-thinking people.

A terrible wrong has happened in Syria,
            and it will happen again unless someone does something.
The narrative of the world says that that someone is us,
            and that the something we should do is to meet violence with violence.
Proportionate, targeted violence, perhaps,
            but still we must act.
But if we act, there will be collateral damage,
            and innocent people will be killed by Western weapons.
There always are when bombs are dropped.
            And then how does that make us any different
            from those who unleashed Sarin in Damascus?

A regime that can torture and kill an innocent man with impunity,
            will do the same to innocent women and innocent children.
And the evil multiplies.

Jesus holds us all to account,
            and presents us with a dichotomy of his own:
Are we on the side of violence, or are we on the side of peace?

But here is the challenge:
            If we declare that we are on the side of peace, this is not a cost-free choice.
To choose peace is to choose the kingdom of God
            and it is to put the way of peace ahead of our families, our possessions,
            our security, and even our own lives.

Will you still choose peace when they come for your family?
Will you still choose peace when they come for your possessions?
Will you still choose peace when they come for you?

This is the challenge of Jesus.

But the peace he invites us to choose isn’t passivity.
            It isn’t sitting tight and hoping others will keep the bad men from the door.
It isn’t the preaching of love and peace and hugs to all
            from the security of our living rooms or our church sanctuaries.

It is a peace that demands that we get involved.
            It is a peace that is active in the world,
                        exposing the lies of the narratives of violence
            and pointing to a different way of being human.

It is the peace of non-violent resistance.
            It is the peace of Desmond Tutu and Martin Luther King.

It is the peace that cries out in anger and horror
            at the hypocrisy of a situation where the Government votes
                        against military action in Syria
            and then two weeks later welcomes the arms dealers of the world
                        to the DSEi Arms Fair
                        held at the Excel Centre in East London this week,
            including those who supply weapons to Assad.

It is the peace that calls the world to
            “do everything possible to starve the fire of war
            rather than feeding it with further deadly armaments” (Rev Dr Olav Fykse Tveit)

There is a choice here, and it is a choice we have to make.
            Will we choose to heed the narratives of violence
                        and so take the action that such narratives demand of us.
            Or will we choose a different narrative?
                        Will we choose the narrative of peace,
                                    the narrative of Life.

The character Renton, in Danny Boyle’s film Trainspotting,
            memorably paraphrased this morning’s reading from Deuteronomy:
            ‘Choose Life’, he said, before telling us that he chose not to choose life

Or as the Deuteronomist put it:

19 I call heaven and earth to witness against you today
            that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses.
Choose life
            so that you and your descendants may live

As Jesus said in John’s gospel,
            John 10:10   I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

If we choose life, and choose the life that Jesus offers,
            then we choose not to choose death.

We choose to live by the narrative of peace,
            the narrative of non-violence,
            the narrative of the third way.

And I cannot say where this choice of life will take each of us.

For some of us it may take us to our knees in prayer,
            for some of us it may take us to the protests at the Excel centre next week,
            for some of us it may take us to war zones to be with those who suffer,
            for some of us it may take us to the ballot box with a renewed agenda for change.
            for some of us it may take us to our desks to write and campaign for peace.
            for some of us it may take us to parliament or Whitehall or local government,
            for some of us it may take us to our places of work or to our homes
                        to witness to our friends and family of a different narrative to live by,
                        of a different way of being human.

But when we choose life, we choose peace.
            and it is not the peace of inaction or passivity;


It is the peace that takes subversive and dangerous action
            to bring together those who will not talk,
                        so that each sees the humanity of the other
            in the conviction that out of their shared being
                        negotiated settlements may emerge.
It is the peace that talks to murderers,
            and embraces the perpetrators of genocide.

It is the peace that calls on governments to commit funds to aid,
            rather than funding the production and use of weapons.
It is the peace which enters into the suffering of 2 million displaced Syrian refugees,
                        including more than 1 million children,
            to expose the violence of the regime against the innocent,
                        and to point to a different way of being human
            which commits time and resources to the other
                        in defiance of those who would see the other diminish.

It is the peace which joins its voice with the representatives of
            the United Reformed Church (URC),
            the Methodist Church in Britain
            and the Baptist Union of Great Britain (BUGB)
who have said:

            “We are thankful that our MPs carefully considered the difficult matter
                        of military intervention in Syria – and decided to reject it."
            "Our prayers now are that all diplomatic means are used
                        to bring government and opposition leaders to the negotiating table
                                    and that divided parties are encouraged
                                    to seek a future they can inhabit together.
            "We urge that priority is given to a quick and effective humanitarian response
                        to the thousands of Syrian people affected by the violence.”

Signed by the Rev Roberta Rominger, General Secretary of the United Reformed Church,
the Rev Ruth Gee, President of the Methodist Conference,
and the Rev Stephen Keyworth, Faith and Society Team Leader at the Baptist Union of Great Britain.

The path of Christ is the path of the third way.
            We cannot be inactive.
            We will not be violent.
            We hear the call of the one who offers himself for the salvation of the world,
                        and invites us to take up our own cross and follow him.
And our conviction is that just as Christ’s death
                        was followed by the new life of resurrection,
            so the only hope for the resurrection of our world
                        lies in the difficult and costly path of Christ
            who calls each human being to turn from violence,
                        and to enter into the new way of being human
                        that is the dawning of the kingdom God on earth.