Monday, 21 July 2014

Witch-hunts and Scape-goats

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
20th July 2014, 11.00am

Matthew 13.24-30, 36-43
He put before them another parable: "The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field;  25 but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away.  26 So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well.  27 And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, 'Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?'  28 He answered, 'An enemy has done this.' The slaves said to him, 'Then do you want us to go and gather them?'  29 But he replied, 'No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them.  30 Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.'"
Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, "Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field."  37 He answered, "The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man;  38 the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one,  39 and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels.  40 Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age.  41 The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers,  42 and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.  43 Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!

Revelation 14.2-5, 14-16   And I heard a voice from heaven like the sound of many waters and like the sound of loud thunder; the voice I heard was like the sound of harpists playing on their harps,  3 and they sing a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and before the elders. No one could learn that song except the one hundred forty-four thousand who have been redeemed from the earth.  4 It is these who have not defiled themselves with women, for they are virgins; these follow the Lamb wherever he goes. They have been redeemed from humankind as first fruits for God and the Lamb,  5 and in their mouth no lie was found; they are blameless.

Then I looked, and there was a white cloud, and seated on the cloud was one like the Son of Man, with a golden crown on his head, and a sharp sickle in his hand!  15 Another angel came out of the temple, calling with a loud voice to the one who sat on the cloud, "Use your sickle and reap, for the hour to reap has come, because the harvest of the earth is fully ripe."  16 So the one who sat on the cloud swung his sickle over the earth, and the earth was reaped.

Alice Nutter, Pendle Witch

On holiday recently, Liz and I went on the trail of the Pendle witches.
            It was a story I knew I’d heard of, but I didn’t know the details.
On the Witch Trial trail (which is harder to say than you might think),
            we discovered a fascinating tale of murder and dark deeds in deepest Lancashire.

In brief, 400 years ago, in the shadow of Pendle Hill,
            amid the pretty villages and sleepy fields,
suspicion started to grow that something wasn’t right
            with some of the people who lived there.

Some women, probably medicine-women with skills in herbal healing,
            were accused of witchcraft.
It’s possible that these women had actually come to believe
            that they had the power to curse people,
                        and to access strange powers,
            so there may at one level have been some truth in the accusation.
However, others got caught up in the accusations,
            and in the end, twelve people were charged
            with using witchcraft to commit multiple murder.
After a trial at Lancaster Castle, ten people were led outside and hanged.

The Pendle witches weren’t the only people charged with witchcraft in this period,
            and the best estimate is that during the middle ages
            approximately 500 people were executed for witchcraft.
This context of suspicion, which led to the ‘rooting out’ of the witches,
            gives us the phrase ‘witch-hunt’,
which we continue to use to describe any such attempt to rid society
            of those who represent a specific and feared practice or ideology.
From the Spanish Inquisition, which apparently no-one expected;
            to the Salem Witch Trials of Massachusetts;
            to the omniscient thought control of George Orwell’s fictional ‘Big Brother’;
            to the McCarthyite ‘reds under the bed’ fears of the Cold War period
 - the tendency seems to be for us to reinvent the witch-hunt for each new generation.

In Pendle in Lancashire, 400 years ago,
            a largely rural culture took its worst fears, paranoia, and guilt,
            and focused these on targeted individuals who were declared guilty
                        of the crime which most revulsed the population.

I found it particularly interesting that one of the guide books to the Pendle witch trials
            says that "The evidence against them was based on memories,
                        hearsay and superstition."
In other words, whilst it appears to be important that the rule of law is followed,
            actually the most important thing is to make the guilty pay.
The role of the legal process becomes less about
            establishing truth beyond reasonable doubt,
and more about allowing society to believe
            that the witch-hunt has not taken it beyond the bounds of normal process.
One of the characteristics of legal processes in a witch-hunt scenario
            is that once accused, someone is popularly presumed guilty until proven innocent,
            rather than the other way around.

The philosopher Rene Girard suggests that what we encounter
            in situations such as the Pendle Witch Trials
            is an example of a social phenomenon known as scape-goating.

The term scape-goat has its origins in the Old Testament,
            in the book of Leviticus (16.21-22),
            where we find a ritual described which has as its purpose the purification of society.
In this special ritual, the sins of the people
            are symbolically laden on the head of a goat,
            which is then driven away into the wilderness.[1]
This goat has become known as the ‘scape-goat’,
            because it is sacrificed to atone for the sins of the whole population.
In modern language, we still speak of a scape-goat,
            usually as a human victim, who is identified as an easy target
            on which to discharge the accumulated hatreds of a community.[2]

Rene Girard says that the act of scape-goating isn’t simply a religious ritual,
            but that it is rather an example of a universal human tendency.
Girard argues that at the base of human society is a drive, or instinct,
            to imitate, to copy, to want to be like another person,
            or to have what another person has.

This desire to imitate creates rivalries between people
            that then have to be contained,
and Girard suggests that the rules of society
            are attempts to contain the rivalries that would otherwise lead to violence.

Think of the child who has not yet learned to say ‘please’
            – if they want something, they will attempt to just take it.
Eventually, and hopefully before they are strong enough to take it by force,
            they will learn to say ‘please’,
                        and they will learn the rules of sharing,
            and that sometimes you don’t always get what the other person has,
                        no matter how much you want it.
In other words, they learn the rules of society.

However, the rules just contain the desire, they don’t make it go away.
            This is why capitalism is such an addictive ideology – but I digress.
The rules of society don’t banish the capacity for acquisitive violence
                        that lies within each human soul,
            they just contain it,
                        and allow it to be exercised at a societal rather than individual level.

If I kill you because I want your stuff, society judges me guilty.
            But if we all agree, as a nation,
                        that we want the land currently occupied by another group,
            we justify together our military action to take it.
Which is why our headlines are full of horrific news from Gaza this week,
            but again, I digress.

By this way of looking at things, violence between two people
            – me using violence to take what I want from you – is contained.
But violence exercised on behalf of the many against the individual is sanctioned,
            and even necessitated, as the legal system asserts its communal rule of law.

By the same token, violence exercised by the many
            against another societal grouping is also justified.
In other words, if enough of us agree that it’s OK to go to war, then it’s OK.
            And also, interestingly, if we do go to war,
                        there is then huge pressure to conform to that decision,
                        to cheer on and support ‘our boys’. But again, I digress.

Girard goes on, and takes his argument one stage further,
            and this is where he starts to shed light on the language of the scape-goat,
                        on the practice of the witch-hunt.
Sometimes, he says, the conflicts within a society
            cannot be contained by the civilising rules that the community has developed.

An atmosphere develops of fear, suspicion, and distrust
            between members of the society.
Mob rule threatens, and riot is just below the surface.

At this point, Girard notes that the crisis is only resolved
            when two or more individuals converge on the same adversary,
                        and then others mimic them in this,
            so that in the end everybody gets drawn into a united hatred
                        of the targeted adversary.

As Stephen Finamore puts it,
            ‘The undifferentiated and unified mob converges
            on one arbitrarily selected individual.’[3]

The murder of the one, or possibly the few,
            acts as a catharsis for the wider society,
                        expelling hostile and violent emotions from the group,
            and producing a sense of calm, harmony, and peace.
The group agrees that the scape-goat must die,
            the group enacts the sacrifice,
                        and the group feels better as a result.

By this understanding, the scapegoating of the few serves a wider sociological function,
            by assuaging the guilt of the many.
And so there is an inbuilt human tendency to scapegoat,
            to witch-hunt, to name certain people as ‘other’, as ‘evil’,
                        and to destroy them.
            Because if we all unite in hating them,
                        maybe we won’t hate each other as much, at least for today.

And so we love to root out the evil,
            to leave no stone unturned in our efforts to rid society
                        of the ones we have deemed unrighteous.
We embark on a crusade, we condemn them to hell,
            because by doing so we rid ourselves of that which makes us most afraid.

There is a certain type of religious person
            who longs to root out evil in all its forms,
            and to establish the rule and reign of the righteous on the earth.
They have always existed, and they probably always will.

The parable of the wheat and the weeds,
                        or the wheat and the tares as it is more traditionally known,
            has its origin in a society that knew all about such religious extremism.
From the Zealots, eager to rid the land of the polluting and corrupting Romans;
            to the Pharisees, eager to fight against pagans on the one hand,
                        and against compromised Jews on the other,
            there were plenty of people around in Jesus’ day
                        who were desperate to rid society of evil.

In the parable of the wheat and the weeds,
            Jesus offers a direct challenge to the mindset of scapegoating,
                        to the practice of the witch-hunt.
There’s no point, says Jesus, in trying to root out all evil from within human society,
            because it can’t be done.
All you will do is damage the good that is growing there alongside the evil,
            and the whole harvest will be lost.

So at one level, this is a parable that urges patience, forbearance, and perseverance.
            However frustrating it may feel
                        to have to continue living alongside the unrighteous,
                        it’s not our job as humans to purify society.

But at another level, the parable offers a deep insight
            into the nature of the human soul:
the reason we cannot root out evil from our midst
            is because the evil is within each one of us.
It’s not just society that’s a mixed field of wheat and weeds;
            it’s me, and you, and each and every complex person on this complex planet.
As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn put it,
            ‘the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human.’

The task of the religious extremist
            is shown by Jesus to be an impossible task,
because one cannot ultimately purify the human soul
            through the exercising of violence,
                        however well intentioned,
                        and however legally mandated that violence might be.

People keep trying, of course, because it seems so enticing;
            when we scape-goat the ‘other’, when we embark on a witch-hunt,
                        we feel so righteous;
            we know we are right and innocent,
                        and they, whoever they are, are guilty and deserve their fate.
And yet, of course, none of us are innocent.
            All of us desire that which belongs to the other,
                        all of us want what it not ours to have,
                        all of us long to reach out and take, by force if necessary,
                                    that which will make us complete.
And so the crusade doesn’t work.
            The inquisition doesn’t work.
                        The holy war doesn’t work.
There must be another way.

Well, says Jesus, there is.
            Let the wheat and the weeds grow side by side.
            Don’t spoil the harvest by rooting it all out too early.
                        Let God be the judge of what is of value and what has no value.
The thing about weeds and wheat is that,
            until the harvest is mature,
            it is very hard to tell the one from the other.
You get some wheat the looks like weeds,
            and you get some weeds that look like wheat.
So don’t judge others, lest you yourself be judged,
            as Jesus puts it earlier in the gospel (Matt. 7.1).

Each of us is a mixed bag of wheat and weeds.
            There are things in my life that have no eternal value,
                        and which need to be consigned to the flames for all eternity.
            There are things in my life that are pleasing to God,
                        and which he will hold safe in his eternal storehouse for evermore.
            I am weeds, and I am wheat.
                        As are we all.

The only purification of the human soul that carries eternal value
            is the judgment of God.
The only purification of the societies we construct
            that carries eternal value is the judgment of God.
All human attempts to enact that judgment on his behalf
            become scapegoating and witch-hunting,
                        temporary fixes to assuage our guilt that ultimately damage us all
                        as the weeding out of the few destroys the harvest of the many.
The only scapegoat that has the capacity to take the sins of us all,
            and remove them from us for all eternity,
is the sinless one who was sacrificed on the cross
            for the forgiveness of the many (Heb. 13.11-12).

And yet, still human society attempts to purify itself,
            to scapegoat the hated and feared ‘other’
            in a desire to unite against the common foe for the good of us all.
Some seek to purify humanity by planting bombs on planes and trains.
            Some by naming and shaming.
                        Some by manipulation.
Certain quarters of the press and media take great delight, it seems,
            in dwelling upon the sins of others;
all in the public interest, of course,
            for the good of the many.

Sometimes those who are scapegoated are entirely innocent.
            They have done nothing to deserve their denigration,
                        and they are simply declared guilty in the absence of evidence of innocence.

The language of ‘disabled scroungers’,
             - yes, Google it if you don’t believe me – is now rife.
These people, we are told from certain quarters,
            claim Disability Living Allowance despite being work-ready.
The consequent and distressing rise in disability hate crime
            has all the hallmarks of a witch-hunt.[4]
As does the language of ‘illegal immigrant’ being used
            to describe those who have come to the UK as refugees to seek asylum.
The designation of them as ‘illegal’ offers a justification for incarceration,
            and for inhumane or sub-human treatment
            through forced destitution, detention, and deportation.[5]

However, sometimes there are those who are guilty of a crime,
            those who deserve to be brought to account before the law.
But the culpable guilt of an individual
            doesn’t stop their treatment by society
            taking on the characteristic of a witch-hunt.
Think, for example, of the language used by David Cameron recently,
            where he promised there would be ‘no stone unturned’
                        by the enquiry into allegations of historic abuse.[6]
            It will be rooted out, weeded out, at any cost.

I want to be very clear here: child sexual abuse is an horrific crime,
            and those who perpetrate it need to be brought to account,
            for the sake of their victims and for society as a whole.
But the way in which the media has reported and represented this issue in recent years
            has bordered on the prurient, the salacious, and the voyeuristic.
It has seemed on occasions as if there have been those
            who have taken comfort if not delight in the ‘othering’ of those named.
And I find myself wondering whether,
            in a culture that has normalized sexual objectification,
                        and embraced sexual exploitation,
            we are actually seeking to deal with the incipient guilt that this imparts,
                        by drawing a boundary around certain types of sexual transgression,
                        and then scapegoating those who have so transgressed.

As Paul puts it in his letter to the Romans,
            ‘all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’ (Rom. 3:23).
Each of us is wheat and weeds.
            Each of us wants that which it is not ours to take.
                        Each of us is in need of mercy, and forgiveness, and grace.
Each of us has the capacity to join the mob,
            to assuage our guilt through the scapegoating of the few.

Yet each of us receives forgiveness
            from the one who went to the cross for the sins of the many.

Each of us receives forgiveness from the only one who is in a position to judge us.

Each of us is touched by the grace of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus,
            who has set us free from the law of sin and of death. (Rom. 8.2).

[1] Eerdman’s Commentary on the Bible, p. 114
[2] Eerdman’s Commentary on the Bible, p. 115
[3] Finamore, God, Order and Chaos, p. 72

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

I do believe

God help me, I do not believe...

I do not believe in God the Father.

I do not believe in a virgin birth.

I do not believe in three wise men, choirs of angels, or singing shepherds.

I do not believe in a reanimated corpse.

I do not believe that praying changes God, or his mind.

I do not believe in eternal damnation, or in hell as the eternal destiny of the faithless.

I do not believe in Heaven as the eternal destination of the faithful.

I do not believe that Jesus will come again.

I do not believe people are called to do anything.

I do not believe in a God of war, violence, hatred or division.

I do not believe in a God who is angry, vicious, vengeful, or wrathful.

I do not believe eternal life is the spiritual equivalent of a final salary pension scheme; a person's state of grace at the point of death is not the ultimate determination of their eternal soul.

I do not believe that on the cross Jesus died to pay the price for my sins.

I do not believe that speaking in tongues is the indicator of the Spirit's presence.

I do not believe you have to be 'born again' to be saved.

I do not believe in original sin.

I do not believe the Bible is the word of God. If you want God's words in written form, read the Koran.

I do not believe that marriage must be between one man and one woman.

I do not believe in 'creation', with or without an 'ism'.

I do not believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church.

But I do still believe, God help me...

I believe that God is the mother and father of us all, the ground of our being, and the source of all that makes us human.

I believe that God is love, and that in God there is no darkness at all.

I believe in resurrection through Christ Jesus, and that death does not get the final word on life.

I believe that those who are in Christ are daily born again from above.

I believe in hell as a present reality; as, I suspect, do the countless multitudes who find themselves trapped there.

I believe that idolatry is the root cause of all sin, and that wherever God is displaced from the centre of the cosmos, the path to hell opens before us.

I believe that through Christ's body people are redeemed from hell and released from satan's power.

I believe that the eternal value of a person's life does not depend on their appreciation of their own eternal worth.

I believe that God is most fully and uniquely revealed in the person of Christ, and that those who know Christ, know God.

I believe that the Spirit of Christ is with all those who follow him, revealing him in and through those who bear faithful witness to him.

I believe that Christ died to save humanity from the twin powers of sin and death.

I believe that prayer changes everything, starting with me.

I believe that people are called to be, and then to live out that calling.

I believe that the kingdom of heaven is an in-breaking reality of transformation.

I believe that Jesus comes again, and again, and again.

I believe in the possibility of peace, and that peace is a blessing to the world.

I believe that the cross is God's nonviolent embrace of humanity, and that all human violence finds its end at the cross of Christ.

I believe that speaking in tongues is a gift of the Spirit; freeing our minds from the trammels of rational thought to commune with God's Spirit in ways too deep for words.

I believe the Bible offers a revelation of God's truth, and that it does so through a series of thought experiments concerning the existence of humanity before God. 

I believe in marriage as an expression of loving, faithful, equal, covenant commitment, between two people, for the blessing of all.

I believe that the earth is a gift, and that we have a responsibility before God to tend it care-fully.

I believe that wherever the new humanity in Christ are present, the old humanity under death is challenged, and people are offered transformation to life in all its fullness.

In heaven's name, and for goodness' sake, so help me God, I do believe.