‘As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love…My command is this: love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends…You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit – fruit that will last – and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. This is my command: love each other.
Select verses from John xv.
I want to share with you a prayerful offering from the heart as I reflect with you the tragedies in Israel and Gaza and processing our Prayers for Peace this past Tuesday at St George’s.
This is a continuation of sorts of the sermon I gave on Sunday touching on the intractable enmity and hatred on full display in Israel and Gaza. The gross injustices, the violence, the wounding and sundering of families, the grief of loved ones lost and not to be seen again in the circles of the world, is too much for the human heart to bear let alone the mind comprehend.
As I intimated on Sunday, I resist and resent the making of definitive moral evaluations of the present realities beyond the affirmation that the violence on civilians is demonic and can in no way be justified by any human moral reasoning. Due to the inheritance we receive from dying Christendom here in the West - our moral lives having been shaped by the incarnation of Jesus and its implications for a new human anthropology - the assertion that the killing of innocent civilians and children a blasphemy too guttural for words is a conviction few in our local and wider culture would decry problematic (theological wording aside). I remain thankful for this ongoing Christian moral legacy though I fear for the future in a growing secular culture that has no viable alternative moral reasoning that can articulate a coherent grounding for human rights.
I’ve appreciated Archbishop Justin Welby’s prayerful communications as news unfolds. He rides a fine line on how to communicate about the complexities of the history at play in the present violence precisely because many around the world and even in his flock persist in construing the crisis in a two-dimensional ‘these are the good guys, those are the bad guys, and I’m clearly on the right side’ simplistic moral assertions.
The reason why I have an aversion to this type of specious moral reasoning is that there’s a lot at play here. To speak on this with some sense we must take into account the historic and barbarous anti semitism in Western cultures for over a thousand years, the political fencing and actual wars between so-called Christian nations and Muslim kingdoms and nations for centuries, the heavy-handed paternalistic politics foisted onto the Middle-east after World War II by Western powers, our Islamophobic news cycle for years after 911, not to mention the realities of the Holocaust and how that haunts our moral visioning; we’ve replaced Hell with Auschwitz and Beelzebul for Hitler and when we consider how we’re implicated in that history we shudder and can’t see straight.
To think that as Canadians we can make fast moral proclamations that this group is evil or this group are the villains in cartoonish binary worthy of disney is to refuse to acknowledge how our very thinking is deeply embedded with anti semitic and islamophobic cultural lenses that need to be repented of and realigned. Ours is a slower journey and we need to hear other voices, very likely from Israeli and Palestinian voices on the ground with parity, and above all pray to Jesus Christ for wisdom and discernment.
But we often don’t want to do all this work. Because it is work. We want to declare justice now, and more importantly (to us, not actually) to be seen as speaking justice right now. And we mistake our narcissistic tendencies combined with our lack of understanding for moral clarity.
Where do you stand? This is what we really want to know. And we share on our socials with the right shibboleth’s that signal, above all, that we’re on the ‘right side of history’.
I end up making what I take to be informed guesses about friends and family depending on how many Israeli or Palestinian flags I see on their social media. I suspect some folks peruse my social media wondering when I’ll post something on this. Maybe in time. For now it’s just this letter because I’m your pastor and it’s important that I share my heart with you all.
And hear me out: something has to give way, something has to die for us to follow Jesus in the midst of this hard moment unfolding world-wide.
What must die for the love of God to live and reign in our lives? I don’t rightly know what to call it but it shows up in my mind as ‘Polite religion.’ Our platitudinal easy spirituality that doesn't challenge us, only plays nice with the Spirit of the Age, and weirdly only affirms our idiosyncratic desires no matter how banal or base. This type of superficial spirituality is born from the twin sources of syncretism with the Spirit of the Age as well as comfort and overconsumption so common in our lives we barely register it. And it blunts our moral sense to such a degree that we buy into the simplistic binary moral posturing by loud online and media voices that stand to profit, as they always do, from publicizing human tragedy.
An honest evaluation of what’s happening in the world right now should, by rights, shatter this type of spirituality. You know the kind, the kind that nostalgically sings ‘Imagine’ by Lennon and somehow thinks the answers are found in this pop song. That the message in Lennon’s song ‘Imagine’ is so bereft of any meaningful spiritual political or moral discourse can only be blamed on the sentimental middle-class capitalistic spirituality we’ve been repeatedly offered by the bubble of Western consumerism.
Unfortunately tragedy can be ignored. Fundamentally we know that. To resist the temptation to ignore the injustice and evil displayed in the Middle East right now we must turn to Jesus. We must confess our inability to sufficiently comprehend the realities at display in Israel and Gaza, let alone confessing our inability to solve the problem (likely because the answer would necessarily disturb our material comfort). We bring all this to Jesus and ask Jesus to show us how to follow him in the midst of our heartbreak and tears for the innocent lost and our admitting that we don’t know how to solve what seems like an intractable human problem. And this prayer (all this would have to be a prayer) is grounded in a recognition that this problem is beyond human solution. And this admittance is, contrary to despair, a source of hope because it’s only when we reach our limits in failure that God’s grace and healing power begin to heal our lives and indeed the world.
And when you pray this prayer, a conviction will be born in your heart, placed their by the Holy Spirit, and I’ll say it like this:
Followers of Jesus aren’t defined by our politics, we are defined by following the command of Jesus to love one another.
While everyone and their nephew are posturing online and all around us to increase their brand or whatever, and easily choosing side so the algorithm picks their content/to be seen as on the ‘right side of history’, the follower of Jesus first and foremost witnesses to the Hope brought to us by Jesus as the necessary starting point of all acts of Justice and Liberation we all need.
Because it is the Love of Jesus that sees us in our base weakness and sin, and the gaze of Jesus towards us is a gaze that humanizes us. Jesus doesn’t merely judge our sins and erase our humanity, he heals it. And when you follow Jesus and love as Jesus loves then your moral vision is one that doesn’t erase the humanity of others with cartoonish 2D moral denunciations, rather implicitly recognizes the humanity in others even and especially when you condemn their actions.
And we need that humanizing gaze more than ever. And this way of being is perfectly expressed, and most adequately grounded in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ our Lord.
If this seems to you a long letter that doesn't say enough, yes. You’ve caught me in the middle. I’m learning, I’m processing. This is also an invitation for coffee and discussing this further.
But for now, let us renew our commitment to Jesus Christ our Lord. Let our lives and actions and words be guided by the Spirit of Jesus, his love that heals all our wounds now and forever.