Privilege and Persecution

Yesterday I popped along to the evening service of the church I went to on my gap year.  I don’t tend to go back there these days; my church-hood and spirituality have changed a lot over the last 3 years, but I didn’t go to a morning service and I try and pop in once a summer holiday to see which folk I recognise.

Not quite in this language, but in essence the preacher touched on Christian privilege and persecution and, sadly, I was horrified by what he said and the position from which he spoke.

His starting point was that the Church is to expect persecution; something I wholeheartedly agree with.  He also did not fall into the trap of claiming the British church is persecuted.  He acknowledged we have it easy for which I was very grateful.  (He didn’t quite go as far as saying we sometimes abuse our privilege, but oh well!)  So he started well, and many in his place would have done a lot worse.  I am sick and tired of being told the Church in the UK, or the Gospel, is being persecuted.  Bishops sit in the House of Lords, Schools are obliged to carry out acts of Christian Worship etc etc but explaining in utterly labourious terms how the Christian community in this country has it easy will have to wait for another time.

The preacher’s attention then turned to the genuinely persecuted church.  We were told an horrific tale of police brutality and institutional mis-treatment. My paraphrase  follows below:

In a central Asian country there was the daughter of a pastor. When the rest of her family was out she was visited by 3 police officers.  She refused them entry to her home, the police went to her family’s car, and fearing they would plant incriminating material to provide a pre-text for arresting her/them she tried to stop them.  In response the police grabbed the girl and repeatedly smashed her head against the vehicle causing brain damage.

Her parents returned home to find her body.  They sought medical attention for her at a state hospital but they were reluctant to treat her because her injuries were dealt by the police. When the hospital found out she was a Christian they discharged her.  She tried a few other hospitals but all were reluctant to treat her.  Eventually her parents decided to go private but even the private sector was reluctant.  She is currently in a Russian hospital being treated and is slowly regaining use of her limbs.

This is a horrifying story of vicious persecution, but also of oppression.  It is not a tale of a one-off attack against a woman, but a snap-shot of a police force without due care for its countries citizens, a state that permits its law enforcement agencies to commit civil right abuses, it includes state medical institutions that fear the state more than they care about providing quality care (not that I can blame them).  It is also, therefore, a reasonably safe bet that it is not just Christians who are subjected to this treatment.

I hear stories like this and I become angry, I guess some people might say my heart breaks.  Not because a Christian sibling is being persecuted but because fellow humans are being oppressed.  I get angry because a chain of humans in this central Asian country failed to see anything of themselves in this woman and so abused and then neglected her.  I get angry because countless other humans, my self included stand by and allow it to happen.  I think that God gets angry too.  I think he gets angry that anyone, Christian or not, is treated this way.

The preacher wasn’t best pleased by this story either.  He said it broke his heart. But institutional violence and systematic abuse didn’t anger him, what angered him was that a Christian was a victim of these things.

When will we wake up?

When will we see the bigger picture?

When will we stop caring about ourselves?

When will we start being people’s neigbours and “the creed and the colour and name won’t matter”?

As he told us how his heart broke, the preacher spoke from a very privileged position, and us in the congregation (predominantly, but not solely, white and middle-class)listened from one.  Christians in the UK do not suffer from religious persecution and we live in countries with a National Health Service who’s mission is to provide free, accessible health-care at the point of need, and do so without fear.  We in countries where our human rights and civil liberties are protected.  Yes, things could be better.  There is police violence, there is institutional discrimination, the privileged continue to oppress the less-privileged.  But he and we have it OK.  Our neighbour is unlikely to have their head smashed in by the police.

I think this blinds us slightly.  I think our privilege blinds us slightly.  We struggle to acknowledge the wider travesty that the story points to, because we cannot relate to living in a country where such things could happen.  So instead we focus in on how outraged we are that it should happen to someone we like because they share the same faith as us.

The Church needs to stop.  And it needs to wake up.  We cannot claim that God makes all humans with value, worth and dignity and yet only be angry when Christian’s rights are curtailed or only when Christians are abused.  Jesus came to “proclaim freedom for prisoners and …. set the captives free“.  We need to stop feeling sorry for ourselves and start opposing the wider, deeply-rooted injustices.  It won’t be easy, it won’t be fun.  We might look political, we might look to be buying into the agenda of modern, democratic liberalism, it might look as if we like civil liberties and like human rights, it might mean challenging earthly authorities.  SO WHAT?!  If challenging a country is political, so be it.  Human rights and civil liberties are good; they are one way of giving people value and worth; something Christians believe is important and Godly.  Yes, we’ll challenge authority, but Jesus did that too.

So, please, please can we stop feeling sorry for Christians and start protecting humans.  Rather than looking at stories of persecution as one-off attacks against a person’s faith and start seeing the real depth of the problems and the way the affect all of a country’s society and please, please can all of these injustices, regardless of the victims, break our hearts in the same way the cause God to grieve.


Holy Saturday: My Favourite day in Easter

Today is Holy Saturday (reliable sources tell me.  Apparently there is a kerfuffle as to when Holy Saturday and when Easter Saturday are) the day in between Good Friday and Easter Sunday.

The day after Jesus was killed, but before he was resurrected.

The day after (some) altars are stripped and before churches ring with alleluias.

I really like this in between time.  Usually I get very angry when people talk about the cross without the resurrection.  A view of God’s purposes that is so narrow it can only work by considering what happened specifically at the time of Jesus’ death is surely missing the point.  It is his incarnation. life, death and resurrection which holds the answers.  But Easter is the one time I don’t get angry about this.  At Easter I enjoy it being slow, and working it through.  I enjoy this time between the two points I usually fight to hold together.

I enjoy it from a position of hindsight.  I enjoy it from a position of certainty that the resurrection comes tomorrow, unlike the original disciples for whom the experience must have been a very different experience.

I enjoy the waiting, acknowledging the trauma of what has been left behind and waiting for the hope and new life to come, being reminded that sometimes life doesn’t have easy answers and sometimes arduous waits are necessary.

I like that we don’t rush from one to another, but allow time for reflection.  What did yesterday mean, why do I look forward to tomorrow.

I will enjoy tomorrow too, Alleluias will abound, the Risen Christ will be proclaimed, but I will be glad of today as well

Maundy Thursday Parker-style

The point of blogging feast days was to mark days which in “the real world” we commemorate.  This morning I started a post about feet-washing (a common, and I think beautiful practice on Maundy Thursday) but then I got a bit grumpy, and it would have been a bit long and I decided against it.  Instead it seems worthwhile to recount a way in which we marked Maundy Thursday in our house (i.e me, my sister, my mother and my father).

We like to sing hymns, and will miss out on the chance to sing some of the more mournful easter hymns, ones such as There is a Green Hill Far Away.  And mum thought this was a shame, so after tea, and before the holiday club meeting, we decided to have a bit of a sing.  The sister played piano, and the rest of us sang.  She sight-read the piano music very well and we enjoyed the words.  We than sang When I Survey the Wondrous Cross, which I enjoyed even more, because I was more confident of the part.

The four of us, singing together, sounding good together, retelling the story of our faith through song was a great experience and a lovely way of marking this special period in Holy Week.

Holy Week 2012: Monday

John 12:1-7  Six days before the Passover, Jesus therefore came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead.So they gave a dinner for him there. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those reclining with him at table.  Mary therefore took a pound of expensive ointment made from pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (he who was about to betray him), said, Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” He said this, not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief, and having charge of the money bag he used to help himself to what was put into it.Jesus said, “Leave her alone, so that she may keep it for the day of my burial. For the poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.” [emphasis, in green, my own]

This was the reading we had at the Monday of Holy Week communion and compline in Bishopthorpe.  The Spectacled Bear has an excellent imaginative contemplation on the whole passage but it was the second half that struck me as it was being read.

Firstly this scene reminds me of a number of discussions me and my friends have.  “Why do churches need big buildings, and all that finery?  Let’s demolish all the cathedrals, sell the land and use the money to set up homeless shelters” is a good enough synopsis of them all.  My friends ask this because they have a genuine concern for the poor, and one that I share.  I genuinely think the church needs to be doing more to help those in most need.  I do, however, also think that selling our churches, or even the ornamentation, of those glorious buildings is not the answer.

For me this passage has two implications; one that serving the poor, the oppressed, the disadvantaged, the oppressed, challenging injustice, privilege and systematic abuse or neglect is vital to the Christian calling … but so is honouring God, and worship, and acts of adoration.  The first have that sentence make up part of our worship,but they are not all of it.  They should not push out other expressions of honouring God.  Some people, Quakers, puritans being the strongest examples, but most of non-conformist Christianity too have plain places of worship, in order to put emphasis on the relationship with God.  It is a way of removing distractions.  Other elements of the Christian tradition; many Anglicans, the Roman Catholics, the Eastern Orthodox, for example have very ornate building.  Here the buildings themselves express worship to God.  Mary used an expensive resource in excess to demonstrate adoration of God, so too do churches use expensive resources; stone, Gold, embroidered fabric, land they own etc to express their adoration of God.

and in the passage Jesus permits and defends Mary.  Obviously we can stretch this too far, I would struggle to assert so plainly “Jesus permits and defends glorious cathedrals”.  It is not my place to speak for him, but the message is clear.  Abundant worship is right and proper and should be celebrated, and that is what these rich buildings are.

The second thing I noticed during the service, and it was more of an aside, was that the evangelist really didn’t like Judas Iscariot!  I struggle to picture a Jesus who has such obvious concern for justice permitting him to take money himself from the (implied) communal money bag.  Yes, Jesus built a community of love and acceptance, but he also came to right injustice, abuse, and to say “sin no more”.  To me this sounds much more like one broken human (or group of humans) struggling to love another broken human who caused them so much pain, and taking that anger out in personal attacks against them when writing up an account of their time together.

For more thoughts on Monday, have a read of these thoughts on Jesus in the Temple

January Services

Today has been another 3 service sunday!! A covenant Service, an Epiphany service and then Cafe Church.  Many of my friends are blogging about their experiences of these services and so I want to join that crowd!

The first thing that has to be done is to point you to Jessica‘s blog where she reproduces a sermon she delivered at her Covenant Service! (take a moment to be amazed by her preaching prowess to do the ministry of the word at service so dear to many Methodists – beyond that, I shall save her from blushing by abstaining from any further praise).

In Bishopthorpe, where I spend my holidays, there is a Local Ecumenical Partnership between the Methodists and the Anglicans, so it was a joint service.  This year, in particular, we had 3 people leading the service; the Methodist Superintendent, the Anglican Curate and a Student Deacon on placement in the Circuit, which was really nice.  The super did another fabulous sermon (they are often superb) Julie, the Student Deacon has a lovely way of leading worship and her prayers were lovely and the Curate lead the beginning bit well, handling a confusion in the order of service very graciously, so all in all a very nice service.

I now move to share some reflections on the covenant service.  They are not particularly new, or complete.  They are the ones that spring to mind!  Any number of Methodists could tell you this and a pile of more profound things beside, but I shall have plenty more Covenants to bore you with other observations.

The things that stuck me most keenly today was the interaction between the corporate and the personal throughout the service.

Some elements are personal bits.  In the liturgy the word “I” is used; they are between God and the individual saying it.  Most notably this is true in the Covenant Prayer; the commitment that we remind ourselves of during this prayer is a commitment to sacrifice our entire lives to God.  Rach make somes very good points that I think are almost as relevant in my life over at her blog.  As Jessica says it is an act of obedience. It is also an act of love; our love of God.  When fulfilled completely it is our offering of everything we have, and are, and will be, or might be, our gifts, our talents, or pet-hates, the whole shebang, our nature, our self, our character to God, for God to do as She wishes.  No one else can make that commitment for us.  It would be wrong, cruel barbaric for them to do so, and also, I would hope inefficacious.  Our lives our not for someone else to offer up.

Other elements of the service are corporate; they whole congregation do them together.  The call to self-sacrifice outlined above, is ultimately a call to discipleship, and discipleship happens in community.  (something those of us who are products of the reformation can easily skip over).  We need friends around us, the teachings of the Church, mutual support from those also trying at this discipleship gig and advice from those who’ve treaded the boards before us.  This was most clearly highlighted in communion, when the bread and wine were distributed to everyone where they sat and then we took them together.  I cannot think of a more “together” way of taking part in what should be a communal event.  And as my father said over coffee, the service was a nice reminder that the two denomiations, and indeed Christians as a whole, share more in common than divides them.  (disclaimer: That is in no way meant to belittle the differences, which I do hold to be very important)

Was next.  At this point I ought to say that Epiphany actually happened 2 days ago, but this is the sunday Bishopthorpe chose to mark it.  Epiphany is when we commemorate the coming of the wise men/magi type people to visit Jesus.  I point first to Simon who does some good myth de-bunking. Always helpful.  And then to Bx who writes a very potent reflexion with much that can be learnt from them, and finally Richard Hall over at Connexions uses a lovely quote.

Epiphany in Bishopthorpe is a very “High Church” event.  There are lots of robes, and processing, it is even one of the few services that the incense in cracked out!  Interestingly I quite like the smell of incense, but I can find it too much, and have to say it does not enrich my worship experience that much.  The service did raise some unfinished pondering in me; mainly around the use of symbol, or re-enactment in services.  In the order of services (although not in actual fact) the choir, a person carrying a cross, the person carrying the incense, the priest and “3 kings” process around the body of the church; this procession (which did occur with the priest, the incense, the cross-cum-King-1, and 2 Church-Wardens-cum-Kings) represents, re-enacts and symbolises the journey of the wise men.  We as the congregation are joined in this symbolic journey, just as our lives can be seen as journey of faith.  I enjoyed it, but was saddened that no explicit mention of this was made in the liturgy or the sermon.  (The sermon, in fact, missed many of the joys of Epiphany and seemed to act more as a coda to Christmas than a celebration of a feast in its own right).  For me this was a shame, there is much that can be said at Epiphany; about the Magi, about manifestation about all sorts of things, and no doubt I shall mull over these more.  But as for symbol, I found the symbolism of the service lovely and thought-provoking, but I come to the conclusion that we must be careful. It is entirely possible to forget to explain or contextualise our symbolism and then it appears to be ridiculous ritual and that is of little help to anyone.

Café Church
Café Church is the entire opposite; no symbolism or ritual there.  That is not to say it is an entirely culture-free zone, or that it is neutral in anyway.  Those at the Epiphany service would have felt very intimidated by the informality, the use of a game that required quick mental reactions and speedy physical movements, to be honest the use of a game in an act of worship at all would be new and possibly off-putting, and many other features of the service.  This is not meant as a critique but as a general tonic to the assumption that Fresh Expressions are neutral, and have stripped way all that off-putting churchy culture.  This may be so, but if it is, then they have replaced it with their own different churchy culture.

There was however, a nice sermon on the risk the Kings too and the risks we are called to take in our lives.  It was a nice culmination of the two major themes of my day!