Sunday, 27 July 2014

Beyond Identity politics part 2: a reflection on Luke 9: 51-55

As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem. And he sent messengers on ahead, who went into a Samaritan village to get things ready for him; but the people there did not welcome him, because he was heading for Jerusalem. When the disciples James and John saw this, they asked, “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?”  But Jesus turned and rebuked them. Then he and his disciples went to another village.
This story about Jesus and his disciples is easily missed - often glossed over as a narrative filler between the feeding of the 5000, the transfiguration and the sending out of the 72. There's so much else of significance going on in Luke 9 and 10 there's no wonder that I've hardly (if ever) heard a sermon on these verses. Yet since Luke did include it in his gospel account then you can rest assured it's significant - after all, there must have been so much material he could have included but didn't. This story is more than mere scene setting.

In my Bible (NIV) this section is headed 'Samaritan Opposition'. Interesting choice of words. Why not 'Jewish opposition'? After all, the Samaritans may not have welcomed the pilgrims but the disciples wanted to see the Samaritans destroyed. Hardly a proportionate response.

The key to this passage is the relationship between the Jews and the Samaritans. So what do we know about the rivalry between these people at the time of Jesus? It's pretty complex but here it is in a nutshell:

There were ethnic tensions: the Samaritans were descendants of those from the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh who had married outside the boundary of faith - a sin in the eyes of the ethnically 'pure'. There were religious tensions: Samaritans regarded Mount Gerizim rather than Jerusalem as the location of the Temple. Hence, the Samaritan villagers didn't welcome Jesus and his disciples because they were heading to the Temple in Jerusalem on their pilgrimage. There were political tensions: Jews and Samaritans had forever accused the other of colluding with the regular invading forces to their region.

History records that the rivalry had led to atrocities committed by both sides for many years. This was identity politics at its worst - complex historical disagreements played out in the present reality.

So what can we take from this story?

Firstly, you have to wonder why Jesus sent the messengers to a Samaritan village. Surely he knew what the reaction would be. Well, this is not particularly out of character. In John 4, he happily shares a drink with a Samaritan woman and from time to time heads into Gentile territory. Seems like he enjoyed crossing the generally accepted boundaries of the time - subverting the narrative. I often wonder what the world might be like if more people were up for that. It's the start of moving beyond identity politics - hanging out in other people's space, looking to build bridges, finding opportunities to build a relationship.

Next, the Samaritan villagers and James and John behaved exactly true to type. The Samaritans offered no hospitality and the disciples, predictably, got angry. As shocking as their call for 'fire from heaven' might sound to us, it made complete sense to them. It wasn't some random punishment they made up, it was a reflection of their own schooling in their scriptures. James and John were merely echoing the story of Elijah (2 Kings 1:1-17) calling fire from heaven to consume the soldiers sent from Samaria to arrest him. Everybody it appears was simply behaving in the way they had been taught to behave: by their parents, by their community and even by their religious leaders. So what of us? Might there be things that we simply accept as normal because it's been handed down to us? It's almost certain that the stereotypes we hold about certain groups of people cause us to consider acceptable some highly questionable behaviour and attitudes.

And finally, what about Jesus' reaction? It's the best part of the story. No doubt James and John were expecting Jesus to congratulate them on knowing their scriptures so well. But he didn't. He 'turned and rebuked them'. I can almost picture him in my mind's eye, staring them down and putting them in their place. Not for the first time, Jesus demonstrates that he will not merrily go along with the accepted narrative of the way things are. The Jews and Samaritans may well have hated each other for centuries, but Jesus wants no part of it. The Samaritans may have refused to take Jesus in for the night after a long and tiring journey, but he won't have anyone slander them. The Samaritans may have closed themselves off to accepting him, but Jesus doesn't take it personally - he'll be back. The challenge for us here is to resist any prevailing narrative that drives a wedge between us and others. Ethnic, religious and political differences can cause us to stumble - to diminish others, to scapegoat them, even. That path is not the way of Jesus - that path leads only to his rebuke.

Shortly afterwards, Jesus tells a story about a Samaritan. I'm convinced this episode is in his mind when he tells what has become one of the best known tales in history. In this parable the Samaritan demonstrates what it means to be a good neighbour by showing love, respect and care for 'the other'. And Jesus orders his (Jewish) listeners to follow the Samaritan's example. He subverts the accepted narrative. He resists the identity politics. He goes beyond ethnic, religious and political boundaries. It's time for us to do the same.

Saturday, 26 July 2014

Beyond identity politcs part 1: in the face of persecution

A week on and I'm still grasping for an appropriate response to the news of Christians being driven from their homes in Mosul, Northern Iraq. First it was shock at the swiftness and severity of the ISIS action, then I began to feel anger, before a sense of helplessness set in. What can I do about it? I tweeted Open Doors, Release International and Christians Solidarity Worldwide to ask if they knew of a public show of support. Only Open Doors got back - to tell me I could donate to their appeal and pray.

Pray, give money - it's always the same two options in the face of an international crisis. Both feel inadequate. I want to do something more - vent some anger at lack of public outrage, feel part of a movement that's going to actually change something. I believe prayer works but I also believe that we're called to live our prayers.

Meanwhile, the conflict in Gaza rages on. Muslim friends are going through the same emotions - shock, anger and helplessness. I see the same feelings expressed on social media and in conversation. Like me they call on God to intervene, like me they respond to calls for donations and like me they're itching to do more. Many of them head to protests in Central London. I'd be up for something like that about Mosul, but it looks as though most British Christians have forgotten how to do that kind of thing.

As time has gone on I've become increasingly aware of how easily I've been drawn into the identity politics. I find myself wanting to stand up for the Christian cause. I look enviously at how Muslims fearlessly make a noise and wonder why we don't do the same. But surely there's more to it than that - Christians and Muslims out supporting their own 'brothers and sisters'. What about 'the other'? Should it matter if they are a Christian or Muslim or whatever? Are we not called to be peacemakers for all of God's creation? Surely the deaths of the innocent in Gaza isn't just a Muslim issue or the flight of Christians in Mosul a Christian one? This is humanity's issue.

All this simply highlights the need for us to stop playing identity politics with our faiths. Wherever there is oppression, wherever there is injustice, wherever there is persecution, we need to stand together, rise as one and build a movement for peace. And we need to constantly remind one another of this. We need to challenge those around us who only support the cause of 'their own'. We need to stop publishing stories in our media (including our own social media) that only tell of persecution of our 'tribe'. We need to respectfully encourage organisations that focus on persecuted minorities around the world to work together.

We need an alternative narrative - one that looks beyond narrow identity politics and embraces genuine peace-making. Anything less and we risk being part of the problem. So, let's stand with the Christians fleeing Iraq, let's highlight the plight of Rohingya Muslims who are horribly persecuted in Myanmar, let's keep up the cry 'bring back our girls' in Nigeria, let's do everything in our power to bring peace in Gaza, Israel and Syria. In the face of persecution, war or oppression let us never remain silent. And let's keep praying - Lord have mercy.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Probably the Best School in the World

Today my daughter had her last day at her primary school in Stepney. She couldn’t have asked for a better start in life. Creative, caring and committed teachers; diverse, loving and loyal friends – she’s had it all. We often hear how divided Tower Hamlets is supposed to be. Not at Sir William Burrough School.

The Jewish head-teacher, Avril Newman, is one of the most inspirational people you’ll ever meet. She oozes presence and wisdom. Her influence seems to trickle down through the teachers, the classroom assistants and the support staff to the kids. There’s an almost tangible feeling of calm, optimism and family that spills out into the life of the community.

The school intake is very diverse with children from many backgrounds. The majority have a Bangladeshi heritage and there's a very high proportion of Muslims. The prevailing narrative would have us wonder if this type of school might be a ‘hotbed of extremism’. A need to keep a weather-eye for ‘Trojan-horse’ type plots, perhaps? Failing that, at least some deep religious and ethnic division, if not amongst the kids then surely the parents?
In 8 years we’ve seen virtually none of that. During our time we’ve come through two Tower Hamlets mayoral elections, numerous English Defence League demos, the Lee Rigby murder just across the river and the constant background drone reminding us that our values are supposed to be incompatible. The relationships in this school community have held firm.
Thank you Sir William Burrough for a great 8 years! Probably the best school in the world.

London's Most Misreported Borough: Tower Hamlets

Last week London's 'Evening Standard' published an article entitled: 'A culture of smearing, candidates badged racist and MP slurred as having bastard children. Welcome to London's most divided borough: Tower Hamlets.' I was approached by one of their journalists to make a response in less than 200 words. Here it is below. Sadly, it wasn't published (kind of proved my point, really!).

There’s a popular narrative about politics in Tower Hamlets - the place I love, my home. It goes like this: polarised, poisonous, prejudiced, corrupt – ‘the most divided borough in London’. Write it, blog it, tweet it, repeat it. It must be true, then. Not in my world.

It’s time to tell a different story.

Have you heard the one about 450 people queuing for an hour in the rain to get into the Tower Hamlets Citizens mayoral election assembly? Active, diverse, politically conscious citizens from mosques, schools, churches, unions and community organisations presenting a radical and democratically agreed agenda to candidates John Biggs and Lutfur Rahman? I doubt it.

Or the one about the Bengali Muslim woman in a niqab supported by a white male student challenging the candidates to tackle the borough’s housing crisis with a living rent? Probably not.

Or the time the 13 year old school girl received a standing ovation for looking the politicians in the eye and demanding they make our street lights as bright as Kensington and Chelsea’s? It’s unlikely.

Not enough slander? Too united a front? A narrative spoiler? Welcome to the most misreported borough in London: Tower Hamlets.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Interfaith Engagement is a lifestyle

A couple of weeks ago I was invited to contribute to Sarah Ager's 'interfaith Ramadan' blog. Take a gander...

Messing with my head and heart – a week from hell

It’s been a grim week. A week from hell.

First it was Gaza, then MH17, then the Christian flight from Mosul. Waves of human misery crashing down on my head and heart. Of course I only had to hear about it from the comfort of my own London bubble – I wasn’t experiencing it physically. But we’re all connected, right? Somehow we’ve got to process this stuff in a way that reflects light not darkness.
There have been times when I wonder if human beings are really that bad. This week has not been one of those times. It hasn’t just been unspeakable acts committed abroad that have left me shaking my head at our broken world – it’s been the response on social media from those closer to home. There has been finger-pointing, blame and counter blame, excuses and justification for violence, even celebration at the news of some killed in action. All this played out in my Facebook and Twitter feed between banal cricket score updates and rumours of football transfers. It’s been messing with my head and my heart.
In my darkest moments only 3 words seemed adequate.
Lord have mercy.
A prayer. A plea. An admission of guilt. A cry for help.

Of course a prayer is never enough - not unless it's embodied as well as spoken. But it's the start of an alternative narrative.
Lord have mercy on us all.