Wednesday, August 31, 2005


While media attention undestandably focusses on the fallout from televangelist Pat Robertson's recent hateful comments, it is worth reminding ourselves that responsible US Christian leaders (including people from key seminaries and academic institutions) earlier signed a powerful statement, Confessing Christ in A World of Violence, which gives a very different response to the use of force. Its signatories, up until February 2005, included ecumenicals, evangelicals and Catholics.

They write: Faithfully confessing Christ is the church's task, and never more so than when its confession is co-opted by militarism and nationalism.
* A "theology of war," emanating from the highest circles of American government, is seeping into our churches as well.
* The language of "righteous empire" is employed with growing frequency.
* The roles of God, church, and nation are confused by talk of an American "mission" and "divine appointment" to "rid the world of evil."
The security issues before our nation allow no easy solutions. No one has a monopoly on the truth. But a policy that rejects the wisdom of international consultation should not be baptized by religiosity. The danger today is political idolatry exacerbated by the politics of fear

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Tuesday, August 30, 2005


One of the most reliable sources of comment and perspective on religious issues in the news comes from Bartholemew's Notes on Religion. The latest entry (permalink here) concerns John Ware's BBC documentary on the Muslim Council of Britain and reactions to it, most notably Madeleine Bunting's in The Guardian, which I commented on earlier. Overall, and upon further reflection, I think Bartholemew has this right. However, if "McCarthyite" means, in general terms, hectoring and accusatory, I don't believe Bunting was "unbalanced" to raise it in the context of other things she says. Indeed, part of that context, I would argue, has to be awareness of the unprecedented levels of media attention the MCB and Sir Iqbal Sacranie have been subject to.

This isn't to excuse particular views (like those on suicide bombings in Israel and the Iranian fatwa against Salman Rushdie, with which I profoundly disagree). But it is to require realism about what it must be like for a tiny and previously little-known organisation suddenly to find its every breath attended to. This is something media professionals and commentators find it hard to come to terms with from the other side of the probing camera/microphone.

Moreover, as Bunting said (and as even some of the stauncher MCB critics admit), while the virtue of a broad umbrella group like MCB is that it is able to relate something of the breadth of opinion among different sections of its constituency, the corresponding disadvantage is that it can only really do this by being a ring-holder rather than an arbiter.

Having worked for Churches Together in Britain and Ireland, I have some experience in this delicate area. And from that vantage point, I also had occasional opportunity to see that the MCB (coming from a particular background, and without any equivalent of the lengthy history of Christian ecumenism) was genuinely trying to do discharge the resulting tension honourably. That doesn't mean, as Bunting pointed out, that it hasn't or won't make mistakes. Or that we are obliged to agree with it.

It is, of course, necessary and desirable in a plural society that religiously constructed opinions, especially those which turn out to be a matter of life and death for people they affect, should be open to careful scrutiny in media both internal and external to the community/tradition from which they arise. In that sense Panorama was quite justified in its enquiries. But I still believe that a greater degree of care, respect and circumspection should have been demonstrated - not least because building bridges rather than walls between Muslims and non-Muslims is especially important right now.... and because good journalism is compromised by media hype.

Meanwhile, here are some Bartholemew favourites. Wry, angular and informative. After all, being properly worthy doesn't mean being inexcusably dull.

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Monday, August 29, 2005


I have been wondering for some time about what it might mean for there to be a correlative to ‘leadership’ called ‘followership’, and if so how the former might be rescued from the unwanted imposition of individuated power and the latter from the mere self-encoding of patterns of domination.

This is a matter of importance to me for two reasons. First, because most of the time in life we are, whether we reflexively know it or not, followers; but sometimes we become leaders. And in both instances we are ill-equipped by the dominant discourses of our age to discharge these functions in ways which could be genuinely described as hopeful and liberative. Second, because, as a Christian, I am caught up in the multiple meanings of Jesus’ “follow me”, since I have discovered in the Way of Jesus a subversive authenticity which makes the path of discipleship (well realised by someone like Bonhoeffer, poorly realised by someone like me) a necessity for re-understanding and re-engaging the world in which I find myself. (Questions surrounding Pope Benedict XVI and the assumptions of Christendom are not irrelevant here, either.)

To put it differently, in seeking ways of following Jesus as Christ today, what I experience is not capitulation to ‘foreign occupation’ or the reduction of myself to some sheep-like docility, but rather a re-awakening, a disturbance and an (often painful) opening. But why is this so? And what could it mean for (say) the re-consideration of ‘religion’, the re-description of ‘secularity’, the re-expression of church and the re-doing of institutional life in a complex, urban culture?

For these and many other reasons, I have on my ‘must read’ list Robert P. Scharlemann’s The Reason of Following: Christology and the ecstatic I (University of Chicago, 1991), of which there is a small preview here. I have recently been reading the same author’s Inscriptions and Reflections: Essays in Philosophical Theology (University Press of Virginia, 1989), which I picked up at Unsworths Bookshop earlier in the summer during a sojourn in London. It’s fantastic. Scharlemann opens up new possibilities for understanding Christian formulae in the contemporary by re-understanding theology as what he calls an “afterthinking” (metanoiesis) based on the inversion of traditional ontology.

Anyway, in The Reason of Following, Scharlemann suggests that Christology represents a form of reason and an understanding of selfhood. To quote the blurb, he traces “the connections between the ‘I am’ of the God who spoke to Moses, the ‘I am’ of Christ, and the ‘I am’ of autonomous self-identification. How, he asks, can the self that spontaneously responds to Jesus’ ‘Follow me!’ be compared with the everyday, autonomous self? What is the nature of ‘following’ on the part of those who answer the summons of one whose name is ‘I am’?

“Pursuing these questions, Scharlemann develops a Christological phenomenology of the self – an account in which following means not the expression of the self in action or reflection but rather self-discovery in another person [emphasis added].”

“With a deep sense of both culture and philosophy, Scharlemann [also] distinguishes the forms of reason involved in ‘following’ from those in ethics, aesthetics, and other modes of religious philosophic thought. His … readings of nineteenth- and twentieth-century German theological and philosophical traditions provide an introduction to lesser-known thinkers such as Hermann and Picht as well as a profound critique of major figures such as Descartes, Heidegger, Fichte, and Kant.”

“Finally Robert Scharlemann outlines a program for a more systematic and rounded presentation of what Christian doctrine might mean in the contemporary world.”

Sounds fascinating, and an important preparation for immersion in management speak, organisational theory, leadership studies, change agency, and all the other disciplines that presuppose those patterns which theology properly seeks to unpick and re-weave – theology being, as Charles E. Winquist once put it, a “nomad discipline” which is a work against “the disappointment of thinking.”

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Saturday, August 27, 2005


The other day I chanced upon an interview with the Catholic theologian and sociologist Gregory Baum on the online journal Philosophy and Scripture, which examines the multiple relationships between the disciplines of critical reflection and communally authoritative textual traditions. What particularly attracted me was Baum's comment about the tension between esse and agape at the end of the excerpt below (see italicised section).

Here is more than a routine rehearsal of the theodicy conundrum. Baum points, whether consciously or not, to the genuine contradiction between the god of onto-theology and metaphysics, rightly critiqued by Heidegger, and the biblical God's character as pain-bearing love, affirmed by Bonhoeffer from his prison cell. To embrace the latter is necessarily to deconstruct the former, and to begin to speak of God 'beyond being'.

This takes us further along the road opened up by Kazoh Kitamori in his Theology of the Pain of God (John Knox Press, 1965) and subsequently by Douglas John Hall Hall -- a step beyond both the modified Hegelianism (though see Gillian Rose) and the separation of ethics and theoria to which Surjit Singh points.

[Incidentally, I note that Radical Philosophy didn't think that Rose's death-bed baptism was worth mentioning in its obituary; whereas arguably, and certainly for her, it was a singular event that made sense of her life's work. Agapic love is both the source and resource for our existence and for our capacities to give.]

OK, here's Baum:

"The mystics claim that in the process of opening themselves to God, there comes a time—sometimes a long time—when they are so much aware of the obstacles to God in their heart, so much aware of their inner fragmentation and outer superficiality, that God seems to disappeared altogether for them, so much so that they wondered if they had become atheists. They called this the dark night of the soul. But they also say that you have to wait patiently in the night, for it will end through the opening of a new and surprising window. Today, I have the impression, many Christians pass through a different dark night of the soul. They are deeply disturbed by the suffering in the world, the cruelly unjust maldistribution of wealth and power, and the indifference of the official churches to this scandalous situation that they find it increasingly difficult to believe in divine providence. They feel that they are becoming atheists. Some Christians—friends of mine among them—have never left the dark night. They became non-believers because they were inconsolable. They became agnostics for theological reasons—for which God will reward them. Yet other Christians pass through this night and eventually come out of it. They learn that God is in solidarity with the victims of history. A Jewish rabbi once wrote that the Holocaust has brought the end of “untroubled theism.” The more we believe that God is love, the more difficult it is to believe that God exists. We don’t want a faith that does not raise uncomfortable questions. We long for a faith that is both serene and troubled."

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Friday, August 26, 2005


A comment from the late philosopher Paul Ricoeur: "We are overwhelmed by a flood of words, by polemics, by the assault of the virtual, which today create a kind of opaque zone. But goodness is deeper than the deepest evil. We have to liberate that certainty, give it a language. And the language given here in Taize is not the language of philosophy, not even of theology, but the language of the liturgy. And for me, the liturgy is not simply action; it is a form of thought. There is a hidden, discreet theology in the liturgy that can be summed up in the idea that 'the law of prayer is the law of faith'."

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Thursday, August 25, 2005


In a manner that can only be described as reluctant, US right-wing televangelist Pat Robertson has been forced to apologise for comments that he made on Monday calling for the assassination of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. This isn't the first time that Robertson has advocated the use of political violence while exercising his ministry as a Christian preacher, either. And two days after the 9/11 attacks in New York, he concurred with Jerry Falwell that the American Civil Liberties Union, abortionists, feminists, gays, pagans and the liberal pressure group People For the American Way should "share blame" for the terrorist outrage, because they had "caused God to lift the veil of protection which has allowed no one to attack America on our soil since 1812." This too elicited what turned out to be a partial retraction.

Though the religious right is brimming with denunciations of "evil" and "violent" Muslims at the moment (making few if any distinctions between different strains of Islam), it seems that its chief spokespeople have a permanent beam in their own eye concerning what can only be called "redemptive murder". What is really shocking about this is how casual, ill-thought-out and immune to criticism it is. Tragically, some who use the name of Christ do so primarily as a cipher for their own nationalistic prejudices, co-opting misconstruals of Christian doctrine into a Manichean worldview that legitimates all kinds of abuse in the name of faith.

It is surely the duty of Christian leaders to speak and teach against the demonising theology and the religious roots of violence, every bit as much as it is the responsibility of those in Muslim communities to confront the legitimation of violent extremism among those who make dangerous use of Islam. The whole question of Christian Zionism is among the specific concerns involved in this.

A good source of general information on the US situation is TheocracyWatch, a project of the Center for Religion, Ethics and Social Policy (CRESP) at Cornell University.

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Wednesday, August 24, 2005


From Nicholas Lash's Three Ways of Believing in One God, SCM 1992/2002 (which I'm re-reading at the moment)...

"All prayer, all worship, all life lived in the discipline of discipleship, is, at heart and centre, dispossessive. We need continual and exacting schooling because, at every level of behaviour, language and imagination - from politics to private life, from business to religion - we seek some safety, some security through ownership and power. And yet, however much we kick against the pricks, we do not own the words we say, the things we do, ourselves, our friends, our circumstances (and, when we try to do so, there are always forces outside our control which mock all such Promethean ambition). In liturgy and attentive contemplation, praise and prayer, we may learn to give back our language and our understanding, and ourselves; [to] learn patience, the surrender of security, sometimes in darkness not unlike Gethsemane."

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Tuesday, August 23, 2005


For those more familiar with Vatican politics, Channel 4’s hour-long documentary last night about the new pope, ‘God’s Rottweiler?’, (3BM TV, produced by David Wilson and Grace Chapman) contained precious little by way of fresh insight into what kind of leader Benedict XVI is set to become. But it echoed a host of questions which continue to resonate in the struggle for authentic, outward-looking church in the twenty-first century.
Accompanied by a melodramatic orchestral backbeat and a somewhat incriminating, tabloid-style commentary, the programme charted the profound impact of both Nazism and the upheaval of 1968’s revolutionary stirrings on Josef Ratzinger, turning him from a relative moderate at the Vatican II Council to a convinced conservative on the Throne of St Peter.

I have written a longer, more discursive review / appraisal based on the programme, called After absolutism: the world, the church and the papacy. It has extensive internal weblinks and also looks critically at Philip Blond and Adrian Pabst's International Herald Tribune piece (19 August 2005), entitled 'Pope Benedict's Challenge to the Status Quo'. See also the earlier FinS piece, Why the Pope's Christendom Alternative Will Not Do.

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Monday, August 22, 2005


The tragedy of post-invasion Iraq is highlighted once again by a truly harrowing covert report from Haditha which "exposes the limitations of the Iraqi state and US power on the day when the political process is supposed to make a great leap -- a draft constitution finalised and approved by midnight tonight."

It ill-behoves those of us who always thought the war was a wrong-headed way of wrestling democracy from dictatorship to engage in any kind of "told you so" over such terrible events. Likewise, the importance of the current constitutional bartering, supremely difficult though it is, should not be dismissed. We must continue to hope and pray that politics can triumph over terror. But it is nevertheless grossly irresponsible for the Western coalition to go on pretending that it is "business as usual" in "the new, democratic Iraq".

Barring a miraculous result this evening, a radical re-think is needed about international involvement in the change process. And it has to go much further than simply following occupation with abandonment. The advocacy delegation report (*.PDF file) on Iraq from Mennonite Central Commitee is frank and concise. However, what is being discussed in alternative forums at present is, it has to be said, still piecemeal.

Meanwhile, Paul Rogers' weekly OpenDemocracy columns on 'the war on terror' remain among the best summaries of what is at stake globally. He is now an international security correspondent, having formerly been Chair of Peace Studies at the University of Bradford -- where Philip Lewis (a vital commentator on Islam in Britain) is also based. In addition, see the Oxford Research Group and the Global Policy Forum's Iraq crisis page.

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Media pundits and politicians are putting British Muslims under intense scrutiny in the wake of the London bombings in July. Every move they make seems only a breath away from the approbation of a commentator whose knowledge of Islam in Britain was probably next-to-nothing a few weeks ago. In a well-balanced article in today's Guardian, the paper's former religious affairs correspondent Madeleine Bunting examine's last night's BBC Panorama programme ('A Question Of Leadership') criticising the Muslim Council of Britain, which has been accompanied by some strongly-worded articles in The Observer.

The problem with this stuff is that in a drive to "uncover the truth" it falls prey to the kind of cartoon-style analysis which we ought to expect the BBC and broadsheet newspapers to resist. It is also counter-productive, perversely encouraging those who have an interest in portraying British society as "anti-Muslim", and disempowering followers of Islam who are genuinely trying to come to terms with the challenge in their midst and to develop effective responses from within their own tradition. In this context, the problem is not criticism per se, but ill-formed or sensationalist criticism. Panorama's centrepiece technique of "guilt by association" has unfortunate parallels with those used to discredit Professor Tariq Ramadan. As Bunting writes:

The tiny, volunteer-run MCB doesn't have the power to police the views of its disparate membership. [Sir Iqbal] Sacranie and the MCB have a tightrope to walk. On the one hand, the government and non-Muslim Britain are piling on the pressure that they deliver a law-abiding, loyal ethnic minority. On the other, an increasingly restless younger generation of Muslims criticise the MCB as far too moderate, a sell-out establishment stooge cosying up to Tony Blair.

There are plenty of legitimate criticisms to make of the MCB and Sacranie - and [Panorama presenter John] Ware details some of them - such as Sacranie's reprehensible refusal to attend the Holocaust memorial service last January and his decision to attend a memorial service for the spiritual leader of Hamas, Sheikh Yassin. The MCB bears all the characteristics of a diverse migrant community's struggle to develop a common voice - and it makes plenty of mistakes. But Ware has thrown so much mud around in the course of his programme that much more of it will stick than is deserved.

What is deeply troubling is how exacting British society is becoming of its Muslims. A new set of 'cricket tests' are being imposed on British Muslims - they are expected to sign up enthusiastically to every aspect of western secular society and to jettison any part of their intellectual heritage that is critical of the west. They are expected to keep their faith entirely out of politics (yet faith plays a crucial role in US politics). Set the bar high enough and all will fail - the consequences of that on the streets of Luton and Bradford will be disastrous, and not just for Britain's 1.6 million Muslims.

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Sunday, August 21, 2005


Having just co-edited a book, Consuming Passion, which explores different aspects of the meaning of the death of Christ in a violent world, I'm struck by the anger with which critiques of 'penal substitution' doctrine are met in some church circles. The reductive power of this imagery, incomprehensible to many in a post-Christendom and secular context, is such that it makes reading biblical texts in a different way almost impossible for some Christians. This is because, I think, it rests on endemic but elusive necrophilia within human culture -- something that is particularly vulnerable to 'religious' construals of the kind that legitimate the capital punishment to which Jesus was subjected.

The outstanding Catholic theologian James Alison (who has a chapter in Consuming Passion on 'the intelligence of the victim') provides a useful counterpoint to all this in his Thoughts on Atonement, derived from a talk in Brisbane, Australia, this time last year. Here he defends the thesis "that Christianity is a priestly religion which understands that it is God’s overcoming of our violence by substituting [Godself] for the victim of our typical sacrifices that opens up our being able to enjoy the fullness of creation as if death were not." The whole piece is well worth scanning, especially for those who have been raised to think of Christ's killing as the ultimate endorsement of a vengeful God who demands blood for honour.

Alison retorts: "All sacrificial systems are substitutionary; but what we have with Jesus is an exact inversion of the sacrificial system: him going backwards and occupying the space so as to make it clear that this is simply murder. And it needn’t be. That is what we begin to get in St John’s Gospel: a realisation that what Jesus was doing was actually revealing the mendacious principle of the world. The way human structure is kept going is by us killing each other, convincing ourselves of our right to do it, and therefore building ourselves us up over and against our victims. What Jesus understands himself as doing in St John’s Gospel is revealing the way that mechanism works. And by revealing it, depriving it of all power by seeing it as a lie."

Incidentally, I'm chuffed to see that Consuming Passion is in the Church Times Top 10 this week (well, it is August...) and that it has its first Amazon review in the US.

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Saturday, August 20, 2005


At last a senior figure in the Church of England has had the courage to speak out affirmatively on the matter of civil partnerships, and to criticize the mean-spirited and fearful response of the House of Bishops on the UK legislation, which comes into effect in December 2005. The person prepared to stick his head over the parapet (not for the first time) is Peter Selby, the Anglican Bishop of Worcester, with whom I had the pleasure of working in Southwark Diocese in 1991-2. His full statement can be seen on the Worcester Diocese site.

Back in 1999 I wrote a small booklet called Towards Communion: Recovering Human Sexuality as an Ecumenical Concern (Coleman Press) which offered a reframing of some of the core theological issues, and included reference to ways that Peter has also courageously sought to do that over the years. He is often characterized by the media as "a liberal", but for anyone familiar with his work, that is a vast oversimplification. His liberality arises from a deep intellectual and spiritual engagement with the Christian tradition and the demands of biblical interpretation -- in much the same way as Rowan Williams in The Body's Grace (slightly curiously reproduced by iConservatives!) and elsewhere. Its concern is not cultural accommodation, but the radical nature of the Gospel.

Incidentally, in addition to his Guardian column which I referenced earlier on FinS, Giles Fraser wrote a very good Church Times piece on civil partnerships, called "Why you need love and more". Thanks to David Wood for reminding me about it. The excellent Thinking Anglicans website has also been following the saga bit-by-bit, for those who want the whole scoop.

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Friday, August 19, 2005


Several obituaries for Brother Roger Schutz have pointed out, inter alia, that as well as being forward-looking in many respects, leading (male) members of the Taize community have also been generally uncritical towards inherited church structures - not least the Roman magisterium - on controversial issues like gender and sexuality. This is true, and indicates just how unadaptive our dominant labels are for handling the inevitable contradictions of actual religious life. Is Taize 'liberal' or 'conservative'? Well, yes and no and both...

When Taize began, it broke many of the accepted rules and was greeted with suspicion by both Protestants and Catholics. However, over the years it grew considerably in recognition and 'respectability', occupying a creative-but-loyal position on the shifting edges of the Church. This is a different location and role to that of prophetic counter-testimony or campaigning, to be sure. But both can be aspects of the movement needed to enable the tradition to recognise its vocation to be open and faithful.

As I suggested yesterday, in the ecumenical arena and in terms of prayer and peacemaking Taize has sponsored some giant steps forward. This should be celebrated. But of course it has its limits, and it is those that make InclusiveChurch, Catholic Womens Ordination, the Anabaptist Network and other more 'subversive' initiatives equally vital. It's not a zero-sum game.

Back in 1984, during a visit to base ecclesial communities in Italy (all of them living in the shadow of the Vatican), I remember somone from our British visitors' group asking a community member whether they saw themselves as being 'inside' or 'outside' the Church. The reply has stayed with me ever since, and went something like this: "We see ourselves as an element of the church, but oriented to the margins, like Jesus. As such, the institution needs us, whether it knows it or not. Without prophecy it will ossify and turn in on itself even more. On the other hand, our community needs the institution too, otherwise we risk losing our biblical and liturgical roots. And it's also important that we don't allow those who run the structures to substitute power for charism without noticing it."

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Thursday, August 18, 2005


It was only in the early hours of this morning, in the middle of a sleepless night, that I heard the appalling news on the radio of the murder of Brother Roger Schutz at the Taize community on Tuesday. I have never visited the community myself, but like millions of people across the world, I am familiar with its music, its liturgy, its place in ecumenical Christian hope, and its example of peacemaking in an era of continuing violence and revenge.

At a stage in history when religion is again in the news for most of the wrong reasons, many of those associated with Taize model the possibility of a Christian conviction which is at one-and-the-same-time rooted in the tradition, contemporary, thoroughly outward looking, and focussed on the alternative way of Christ for a troubled world.

As far as I can recall, my first contact with the work of the communitywas through a Good Friday liturgy about twenty years ago, as we sung the invocation of the crucified rebel, "Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom." No doubt that will be the prayer of many for Brother Roger right now.

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Wednesday, August 17, 2005


"Our technological civilization has cushioned life on all sides, yet more than ever before, people helplessly succumb to the blows of life. This is very simply because a merely technological culture cannot give any help in the face of life’s eternal tragedy; here only an inward foundation can help. Externalized as they are, too many people today have no ideas, no strength, nothing that might enable them to master their restlessness and dividedness. They do not know what to make of trials, obstacles, or suffering—how to make something constructive of them—and perceive them only as things that oppress and irritate them and interfere with life."

Friedrich Wilhelm Foerster (courtesy of The Daily Dig)

Foerster was an eminent German astronomer, Christian philosopher and pacifist (1869 - 1966). His work was ostracized and banned during the Nazi era. The agony of which he wrote was not just others', but his. And bizarre though it may seem, his is precisely the quotation that came to mind for me during the denouement of the latest Channel 4 Big Brother 'reality' series.

Yup, I know, 'enlightened' people are supposed to sneer at BB, or at least recoil in horror at the cruel, facile and venal nature of it all. It can indeed be sad, depressing, boring and annoying, as well as exhilerating and astonishing. It connects with the emotional lives of a huge number of people, and to understand nothing about why this may be is simply to choose one kind of padded cell over another.

Besides, people-watching is endlessly fascinating and illuminating. And as Germaine Greer famously commented, the point about the show isn't that it's "the end of civilization", but that it is civilization -- or a sizeable chunk of it.

In which case, you can't help noticing that the kind of reflectiveness and interiority that helps people to know themselves in relation to others, and as part of a larger pattern, is substantially absent. Not just in the BB house, but in our culture... perhaps even in ourselves, if we are courageous enough to consider it. (Much easier to condemn the BB housemates as 'vacuous', huh?)

On the positive side, even in this televised human jungle people can still recognise innate decency (Eugene) in the face of someone deemed 'criminally uncool' by the lifestyle police. On the negative side, there is no identifiable basis for forming community, little to sustain the see-saw of feelings or the bottomless quest for 'recognition', no way out of the hall of mirrors. Welcome to modern western culture, 2005.

But is the average church much better? More 'worthy', perhaps. Rooted in a (contested) tradition, for sure -- though not one that is much understood or explored, in many cases. Less frank about its own reservoir of darkness, pain, pride and passion, almost certainly...

And more of a zone of prayer? I wonder. Not prayer as in the superficial attempt to wrestle favour or meaning from a tribal god; but prayer as in "living life as gifted", abandoning the struggle for manipulation that finds its apotheosis in technological mediation and its nadir in the debasement of ourselves and fellow human beings.

For as Rowan Williams has suggested, prayer is the antithesis of grasping. It is a radical reordering which does not depend on performance, status, success or failure. And in that sense it addresses precisely the restlessness and dividedness which Foerster sees eating away at us, personally and collectively.

RW: "What a lot of the literature talks about is a sort of gathering in of awareness into yourself, which sounds a strange way of putting it but it simply means our thoughts and fantasies are usually all over the place and running off after this, that and the other, and part of the process that is going on is the sort of steady and quiet drawing in and settling of all these tentacles that are wriggling out to lay hold of the world - you gather them back in and that's a gathering into the heart which the Orthodox writers talk about, and what Western writers mean by the simplification of the heart in prayer. By this we simply become what we are and just sit there being a creature in the hand of God."

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Tuesday, August 16, 2005


In his first full-length broadcast interview over the weekend, Pope Benedict XVI called for a renewal of Europe's Christian roots - in a way that contained some echoes of the "Christendom awake" tendency in the Catholic Church, and beyond.

In an exchange which might be regarded as rather deferential in the more robust interview culture of the British media, the pontiff said some interesting and worthy things. But equating the Gospel message with "Christian society" and "Christian culture", which is his natural philosophical and practical tendency, is something I find profoundly worrying. (That's why I'm an Anabaptist kind of catholic Anglican, I guess!)

Referring to global challenges facing the West, the pontiff declared: "I believe civilization,with all its dangers and hopes, can only be tamed and led back to greatness if it recognises again the sources of its power" [emphasis added]. The Pope has a long-standing interest in Europe.

Although he has talked about the incompatibility of Christian faith with power and wealth, Benedict's latest comments will be seen by many as a reassertion of the Church's traditional commitment to Christendom, with its belief in the pre-eminence of Christianity in public institutions. His predecessor, John Paul II, similarly argued for a strong affirmation of God and faith in the now sidelined European Constitution.

But like many other Christians, Catholic and Protestant, I believe that an 'establishment' role for faith in England, as in Europe as a whole, weakens the subversive energy of the Gospel by privileging the church and compromising the plurality of public life - which is important not just to democracy, but to the integrity of Christian witness.

More encouragingly, the Pope also said to Eberhard von Gemmingen that it was a mistake to think of Christianity as "composed of laws and bans" and as "something toilsome and burdensome". Instead, it should be "like having wings", he declared. But Benedict's critics point out that the negative image is one he has himself strengthened through his resolute opposition to birth control, liberation theology, and open debate about gender and sexuality issues.

World Catholic News noted yesterday that an interview with a pope is a rare event. Pope John Paul II, during the 26 years of his pontificate, only gave a few media interviews. The most famous was the extended 1994 exchange with Italian journalist Vittorio Messori, which became the book 'Crossing the Threshold of Hope'.

Benedict XVI's Vatican Radio interview this weekend took place at the papal summer residence in Castel Gandolfo.

[adapted from Ekklesia: full article here].

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Saturday, August 13, 2005


In my experience, most cartoons in Christian publications are, to use a technical theological term, rubbish. An exception is the post-St Gargoyles Church Times strip by Dave Walker, whose po-mo irony may well be lost on some of its more staid readership. But not on you, I'm sure. Try his fabulous satire on the Windsor Report, for a start. Then immerse yourself in the wibsite.

Another long-standing (and widely syndicated) favourite of mine is Pontius' Puddle, by Mennonite artist and humourist Joel Kaufman. It's mainstream enough to connect with regular churchgoing audiences, and subsversive enough to get under their skin without overwhelming them with irritation. The tiny example on the left is for promotional purposes only... for as Joel himself says:

Notice! all the cartoons in this web site are copyrighted (though some shouldn't be) and may not be reproduced by any means, electronic or mechanical (memorizing and shouting the captions from a soapbox, however, is encouraged) without permission. Failure to heed this warning could invite legal action and a case of unsightly warts.

(And, as a footnote for the literally minded, I should add that God is not, contrary to popular rumour, a big bloke in the sky.)

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Since I'm about to hit FaithInSociety with some more "heavy stuff" (as one recent correspondent put it) on biblical interpretation, Bonhoeffer, post-metaphysics, apocalyptic terrorism and, er, Big Brother, I thought a relaxing smile might come in handy first. And where better to start than with Ship of Fools' lip-smackin' competition for the most off-colour religious joke?

In announcing the competition, the good Ship declared: "Ridiculing religious beliefs, criticising religious practices and offending religious people is surely a mission from God." Certainly much better than blowing people up or bombing their countries, I would have thought. But I'm not overwhelmingly confident that all of the Christian media will quite see it that way. Not if the Jerry Springer operatic fiasco is anything to go by.

There's serious point in all this, of course. It concerns, on the one hand, the division between religious offence and religious hatred; and on the other, the boundary between bad taste and bad faith. (I have written about the latter at greater length in a chapter called 'The cross, salvation and the politics of satire', in Consuming Passion.)

At the moment the jury is out at SoF, so you'll just have to weigh the merits of the 951 entries and wait with bated breath like the rest of us. Meanwhile, Steve Goddard, a Ship of Fools founder and commissioning editor, said he "wanted to get away from the stained glass Jesus who can't be laughed at or with ... The whole thing is a voyage of discovery for us. We are a conversation, not a campaign." He hopes the Christian church can learn from the Jewish tradition of humorous self-deprecation. Amen to that.

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Friday, August 12, 2005


"Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow. They do not toil, neither do they spin. And yet I declare to you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these." (Jesus, according to St Matthew). Interestingly this features on a Leeds Postcard, of which I have a few. Wonderful stuff - a king unfavourably compared with a humble plant.

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In yesterday's piece about the occupied territories and the land, I should of course have mentioned the vital Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine-Israel, which I was privileged to have some links with through my last job. The Middle East Forum of the Churches' Commission on Mission is the body within Churches Together in Britain and Ireland which has helped widen the base of support for EAPPI in these islands. Anyway, the encouraging news is that, for the first time, a Muslim woman from South Africa has joined the programme as part of the latest batch of mainly Christian workers to go out for a minimum of three months. The picture shows Huwara checkpoint near Nablus, by the way.

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Thursday, August 11, 2005


As Elias Chacour has often remarked, the tragic irony of Israel-Palestine consists in the enmity of two wronged and dispossessed peoples who can recognise their own wounds, but mostly not each other's. The resulting pain is seen again in this week's Israeli pull-out from Gaza and in the horror of Shfaram. For some the resettlement marks an agonising uprooting, for others the beginning of a rightful restoration. But there can be no "common ground" without a radical change of perspective.

At the heart of this running sore lie claims to land, and not least religious claims. "No-one can deny that God gave the land to us, and to us alone", a Jewish settler cried in a TV news broadcast I saw yesterday. Muslims make counter-assertions in the name of Abraham, too. All this is tragically wrong. The scriptural vocation is not about singular possession but justice and shared inheritance. The theology of the earth and the land, as Walter Brueggemann says, is complex and multifaceted. But Leslie C. Allen (once, briefly, my teacher) and Glen H. Stassen summarised the contemporary upshot well in Sojourners magazine:

Most Zionists claim that God's eternal covenant with Abraham and his descendants (Genesis 12, 15) means that Israel must have undivided political sovereignty over all the land mentioned there, which stretches from the Nile in Egypt to the Euphrates in what is now Iraq.

Their claim is biblically erroneous. God's covenant and promise of the land in Genesis is given to Abraham and his descendants, not only to Israel. Abraham is "the father of many nations," not only one nation (Genesis 17:3-6); Abraham's descendants are Jews, Arabs, and Christians. The mother of Abraham's son, Ishmael, was Hagar the Egyptian. Hagar produced descendants with Abraham and received a covenant promise: "I will so increase your descendants that they will be too numerous to count" (Genesis 16:1-15). Those descendants were Arabs, settling in Arab territory (Genesis 25:13-18). Furthermore, Paul writes that Abraham's descendants include Gentile and Jewish Christians: "all who believe"—both Gentiles who "have not been circumcised" and "the circumcised" (Romans 4:11-12).

The prophets of Israel announce again and again that if Israel does not repent and do justice, it will be driven into exile. True and effective support for Israel is to join the call of the prophets for repentance, justice, and peacemaking. That is what will make life more secure for the people of Israel and Palestine. As the prophet Jeremiah wrote, "If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly, if you do not oppress the alien, the fatherless, or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place...then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave your ancestors for ever and ever."

At the moment the trauma of the settlers is evident. But Gaza's 1.4 million Palestinians live in awful, cramped conditions in one of the most densely populated areas on earth - while Israel's 9,000 settlers have occupied 15-20% of the land by force since 1967. They have been offered compensation. Meanwhile the local Palestinian economy remains in ruins. Unemployment is over 70%. Families are surviving on aid. 85-90 % of Palestinians in Gaza are routinely subject to severe travel restrictions. The concern is that the pull-out will not end the suffering. And house demolitions continue elsewhere in the occupied territories.

But there is hope. Tikkun offers an alternative Jewish spiritual perspective. Jews are finding common cause with Palestinians and are cooperating for mutual justice. ICAHD is a fine example. Christian Peacemaker Teams are at work in Hebron. Acting and praying for change remains a demanding business...

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Wednesday, August 10, 2005


Via Maggi Dawn's excellent weblog, I came across a reference (on the equally valuable Prodigal Kiwis) to Stephanie Coontz's Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy. Looks well worth reading alongside Rosemary Radford Reuther's Christianity and the Making of the Modern Family, Stephen Barton's The Family in Theological Perspective, and the sadly-neglected Church of England report Something to Celebrate (Rosemary Dawson, Sue Walrond-Skinner et al) - well, if you are interested in puncturing beneath the deceptive rhetoric of "traditional values" that surrounds current intra-church argument about partnerships, civil and otherwise, anyway.

However, apart from wondering how these glorious people have time to track this stuff (for me, it's usually a question of delaying tactics on some other project!), the other thing I noticed with pleasure was that the Kiwis are currently reading Anthony Dancer's collection, William Stringfellow in Anglo-American Perspective. Now I have a vested interest here: I contributed a chapter to this book called 'Speaking Nonsense to Power: The Mission of William Stringfellow'. There's a brief excerpt here. But to be honest I didn't think anyone much would catch up with the book because, fine publishers though they are, Ashgate have issued it in a hardback-only edition at £47.50. Ouch.

About the only way I can think of boosting sales (which won't benefit me financially anyway, I should point out) is by mentioning that Rowan Williams, Ken Leech and Chris Rowland are also among the contributors. But there are actually other and even better reasons for taking a look at it. Namely, the subject himself. For those who don't know him, William Stringfellow was a lay US Episcopal theologian and professional lawyer. He forged much of his thinking in the poor black parish of East Harlem, influenced both Karl Barth and Jacques Ellul, helped pioneer contemporary application of Pauline language about the "principalities and powers" (now better associated with the likes of Walter Wink and John Howard Yoder), contributed to Sojourners, and with his partner Anthony Townes developed an almost liturgical love of circuses.

Stringfellow died in 1985, and has mostly been overlooked since then, with his books largely out-of-print. Which is a pity, because he has more to say about the collision of radical biblical faith and modern empire than almost anyone I can think of. His theology is an affirmation of the underside of America, a resurrection wake-up call to the church, and a challenge to rulers (secular and religious) who abuse Christian faith to legitimise oppression. What could be more timely?

Tony's book, substantially revised over the past seven years, originates with a conference about Stringfellow at Oxford in 1997, which I was able to help co-sponsor through the Churches' Commission on Mission. It was a memorable occasion. As the collection's synopsis says: Stringfellow did theology 'underground', in the shadows, amongst the marginalised, with the disaffected. Consequently, whilst highly regarded by many acclaimed theologians of his day, he has remained on the margins of the theological academy. As one of freedom's greatest allies, and death's fiercest adversaries, Stringfellow espoused a theology of Christian practice... Part I gathers writings of Stringfellow to offer a unique opportunity to encounter his work first hand, bridging the chasm between academic reflection and grass-roots theological practice with which Stringfellow was concerned. Part II presents contributions from leading theologians, pastoral practitioners, educators and lawyers and offers a unique exploration of contemporary anglo-american theology.

I'm pleased to say that Eerdman's also re-issued Stringfellow's An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land at the end of 2004. Let's hope more of his work comes into print -and that Ashgate can be persuaded to put out a paperback version of Tony Dancer's collection, once all the theological libraries have shelled out their dollars and pounds.

Incidentally, there is also a Stringfellow icon (in the same series as Dorothy Day's), beautifully produced by Fr William McNichols, and "commissioned by Bill's honored friend and fellow Prophet, Fr. Daniel Berrigan, S.J." Deo gloria.

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From Christine Hankinson: "I try to take one day at a time... but sometimes several days attack me at once."

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Tuesday, August 09, 2005


One of the scenes in last night’s Channel 4 documentary (Why Bomb London?) featured radical young Islamist activists leafleting a mosque. The narrator declared that the worshippers were being “encouraged to mix religion and politics”, as if this was some kind of inexplicable innovation.

Once again the assumptions of secular commentary struggle to comprehend the central components of religion. Fixed on the notion that faith is “a private matter”, they fail to notice that for most religious adherents across most of human history, such a concept has made little recognisable sense.

As far as Islam is concerned, for example, it is extremely difficult to separate out ‘the religious’ from ‘the secular’ – since Muslim belief, like all living belief systems, is about a way of life not just a set of abstract convictions.

The critical question, as always, is “which beliefs?” and “what kind of politics?”

The same question faces Christianity, too. In the USA, with some notable exceptions, the dominant political agenda is now significantly construed in terms of ‘the religious right’. Separation of state and religion may be a good idea, but even that is not enough to stop people’s influences being religiously shaped. Nothing is.

For both good and bad, religion in the political arena has to be faced and dealt with. To seek to ignore or suppress it isn’t a viable option. It is an act of denial – and one which can only benefit the forces of reaction, at the end of the day.

I have argued elsewhere about the responsibility of Christians and others to distinguish between a positive and a destructive political construal of religion. This is not a side issue; it is a matter of life and death. (I don't agree with Jim Wallis - see left - on everything; but he recognises this.)

Central to all ‘good faith’ (whether religious or secular in its origins) is the disavowal of domination. Plurality may not be a sufficient ground for the moral health of a political culture, but it is an essential component. The hegemony of any one force, party or interest group is the breeding ground of totalitarianism.

A key question for Christians, Muslims, Jews, humanists, liberals, conservatives (and others) is therefore: “what is it in my tradition and convictions that can support a genuinely plural political culture even while advocating for or against particular values, visions and approaches to life?”

I cannot answer that for others, but I can say that within the Christian faith, the case for plurality (and against ‘Christendom’, or other forms of religiously established political power) is the theological notion of a peoplehood founded on grace rather than privilege.

As Bishop Peter Selby pointed out in his book BeLonging: Challenge to a Tribal Church, St Paul used the language of ‘adoption’ to signify the basis of the Christian community precisely in this way.

That is, he suggested that the ekklesia is there to witness to the idea that what creates a genuine community is not privilege based on ethnicity, gender, class, money, ‘purity’ (or any other human construct of exclusion), but the fact of God’s all-embracing, non-manipulative love.

So the conviction that “in Christ there is no longer Jew or gentile, male or female” is the root of a radical egalitarianism to which the politics of domination is anathema, both within and without.

In many of its earliest forms Christianity was seen as a threat to empire, precisely because its community life unravelled the conceits of imperial order. But this was a politics of compelling example, not of state compulsion.

To seek to follow the way, life and truth of Jesus Christ today is clearly to be political (in the sense of construing power as shared rather than hoarded) and subversive (in the sense of developing practices inimical to exploitation). But it is that which militates against, rather than for, a religiously restrictive politics in the public arena.

There may be a lot more to be said about the relationship between ‘religion’ and ‘politics’, but to start somewhere else – in the way that Christian rightists, Zionists, Muslim radicals and even Blairites do – is a path to damnation.

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Saturday, August 06, 2005


Today marks the 6oth anniversary of the nuclear attack on Hiroshima, which killed 130,000 people (mostly civilians) and scarred generations with radioactive poison. It is also the Feast of the Transfiguration, when, in contrast to the blinding light of nuclear death, the radiance of God's love is seen in the face of Jesus, his closest followers, and two iconic figures of the Jewish prophetic tradition - Moses and Elijah.

That many Christians will probably make no connection between these two events is eloquent and disturbing testimony to the way faith has been domesticated within the private realm. It is also, ironically, testimony to the way this colludes with betrayal in the public realm. For when the crew of the Enola Gay went of to wreak death on Hiroshima, they and their evil weapon were 'blessed' by a Christian chaplain. Judgement is required first of the household of God, as the New Testament reminds us.

Fittingly, some senior British Christians have today signed a statement from the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament calling on the UK government to disavow nuclear weapons and to seek their abolition. At the moment Britain is set on a course towards a £10 billion Trident replacment.

But with the exception of the Methodists, most established church bodies have been silent about all this. Caught in the headlights of their own decay, their interest is focussed instead on unseemly internal squabbles and the mangement of decline. Today is a good day to pray for a recovery of vision and priorities.

John Davies' sermon from 2000 is also worth attention. As he suggests, in some terrible way the nuclear mishroom cloud (clouds also link the bomb and the epiphany) may be seen as an invitation to share in Christ's sufferings in the world, to echo Bonhoeffer.

Meanwhile, the always estimable Paul Oestreicher (Canon Emeritus of Coventry Cathedral and Quaker Chaplain at the University of Sussex) has written an excellent piece in The Guardian, 'The message of Hiroshima'.

Inter alia, and at a time when attention is (not unjustifiably) focussed on acts of killing carried out in the name of Islam, Oestreicher reminds us that Hitler's war had the support of the official church hierarchy in Nazi Germany. "God with us" was inscribed on every soldier's belt buckle.

[The picture is Rublev's famous icon of the Transfiguration, courtesy of Jonah House]

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Friday, August 05, 2005


This excerpt from my latest feature article on Ekklesia.

[T]he pathology that aggravates individuals or groups towards seeing death and martyrdom as a ‘solution’ cannot simply be laid at their portals alone and left there. It arises from deep wells within all human cultures, not least in their portrayal and practice of violence as cleansing.

The idea that sacrifice appeases wrath, that disorder restores order, that killing casts out evil, that war brings peace and that the gods themselves create through violence is one that is, as theologian Walter Wink points out, as old as civilisation itself.

In his book The Powers That Be: Theology For A New Millennium (Galilee, 1999) Wink summarises ‘the myth of redemptive violence’ in terms of one of its earlier archetypes: a Babylonian creation story (circa 1250 BCE), where a new world emerges from the cadaver of a freshly slaughtered woman.

He points out that the allegedly purifying and generative power of vengeance is universal, inasmuch as it is as central to Hollywood’s vision of the world as it is to the ancients. This is not irrelevant to the great popularity of the Rambo-fiction in rabidly anti-Western circles right now. We are all closer than we think.

At a considerably more profound level, anthropologist and literary critic Rene Girard has traced, through a whole series of important books, the origins of culture in the idea of ‘a founding murder’. He has then drawn our attention to the role of religion in both legitimating and managing violence through cultic sacrificial systems.

Without ignoring their violence, Girard also says that key elements of the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament constitute strong counter-narratives to the otherwise overwhelming assumption of salvation through divinely sanctioned killing.

As one contributor to the new book Consuming Passion (James Alison) points out, “[t]hat God is completely without violence, that God is love” is the truest revelation of “the self-giving death of Jesus”. This is an event which has frequently been interpreted in ways distorted by Christian complicity in violence, and then transferred onto God in an unrecognised way.

Religious conviction, in other words, always contains both the seeds of destruction and the seeds of life. No-one reading the Bible or the Qu’ran without eyes veiled by piety or ideology can easily avoid recognising that.

On the other hand, faith (whether that of Osama Bin Laden or George W. Bush) is not the only source and sanction of the practices of ‘cleansing violence’. Modern secular thought derived from Locke and Machiavelli (with their theories of fortune and ‘the state of nature’) also cemented it into the fabric of what is now seen as realpolitik.

To turn the challenge of terrorism into either a simplistic anti-religion rhetoric or a selective absolution of certain belief systems (religious or otherwise) helps no-one. [More]

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Thursday, August 04, 2005


One of my favourite books is undoubtedly David E. Jenkins' The Contradiction of Christianity, originally published by SCM Press in 1976, and re-issued twice since then. Jenkins, a creatively traditional theologian who gained a high degree of largely undeserved notority during his years as Bishop of Durham, when press ignorance and his own predeliction for colourful overstatement got him accused of all manner of heresy, wrote the book as a 'social' counterpoint to The Glory of Man - one of the most compelling, personalist statements of the dynamics of early Christology you are likely to come across.

In Contradiction, David Jenkins honestly explores the clash between the credibility of what Christianity claims to stand for and the often depressing behaviour of Christian individuals and Christian institutions. At the same time he specifically asks how belief in a universal Gospel is to be worked out from within a 'tribal' (white, Western, bourgeois) Christianity which almost - but not quite - suffocates it.

His answer is the trinitarian and incarnational paradox of the God who 'stands out' by 'standing in' through and as Jesus, and in the suasions of the Spirit. It is this unexpected 'transcendence-in-the-midst' that captures the essence of the Gospel's understanding of God and the world, as distinct from the over-easy resolution of contradiction in, say, Marxian dialectic, or its abandonment in disbelief. A truly compelling account.

I was reminded of this book by a rather different (but not wholly disconnected) 'Christian paradox' noted by ecologist and author Bill McKibben in the US Harpers magazine, of all places, recently. McKibben writes:

Three quarters of Americans believe the Bible teaches that 'God helps those who help themselves.' That is, three out of four Americans believe that this uber-American idea, a notion at the core of our current individualist politics and culture, which was in fact uttered by Ben Franklin, actually appears in Holy Scripture. The thing is, not only is Franklin's wisdom not biblical; it's counter-biblical. Few ideas could be further from the gospel message, with its radical summons to love of neighbor.

This is clearly one dimension of the 'suffocation' Jenkins warned us about. Thanks for the tip-off from the indispensible SojoMail.

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Wednesday, August 03, 2005


David James Duncan, quoted on the Bruderhof Daily Dig. This was originally sourced from Orion magazine, which contains Duncan's moving article on the search for real faith in the light of a fundamentalist upbringing, 'Are You Saved?'

True evangelism, based on the example of Jesus, does not suggest the "missionary zeal" of self-righteous proselytizers. It implies, on the contrary, the kind of all-embracing universality evident in Mother Teresa's prayer: "May God break my heart so completely that the whole world falls in." Not just fellow nuns, Catholics, Calcuttans, Indians. The whole world. It gives me pause to realize that, were such a prayer said by me and answered by God, I would afterward possess a heart so open that even hate-driven zealots would fall inside.

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