Thursday, April 24, 2014

Reverberating the Essence of Easter

After a busy Holy Week, Easter weekend and a nice public holiday to recover on Monday, I saw a small statement in one of our local newspapers. It read, “Easter is now behind us and we carry on with the daily grind of our lives.”

This statement got me thinking about how often the commemoration or celebration of a significant occasion becomes more about the event than the reason for the occasion. The emphasis on visual imagery, ceremony and ritual has become so great that simple messages, however profound can be reduced to shallow interpretations and displays.

In his seminal 1967 work, “The Church,” written in the wake of the Second Vatican Council,  theologian Hans Küng writes about the difference between the essence and form of the Church. Küng writes that this essence is drawn from the permanently decisive origins of the Church. He goes on to add that it exists and expressed only in constantly changing historical forms because the Church is a reality, a fact, an historical event and that therefore the real essence of the real Church is expressed in historical form. Küng warns of mixing or confusing the two, saying that while the essence and form of the Church cannot be separated and must always be seen as a whole, they are however, not identical and that it is only when we distinguish the changing forms of the Church, its permanent and not immutable essence do we glimpse the real church. The essence of the Church is therefore always to be found in its historical form, and the historical form must always be understood in the light of and with reference to the essence.

Discussing the issue of how the Church is an object of admiration and criticism and Küng points that admiration, or criticism for that matter, of the Church essentially has no reference to the Christian faith and is in fact directed to a façade, the exterior, superficial image of the Church in reference to history. While Küng is writing from a Christian perspective , he makes an important point that goes beyond religion and culture.

Often we are drawn by the superficial aspects of an event, we focus on the physical elements – the sights and sounds and we mistake that image for the essence of the event. We a bombarded with advertising, promotional campaigns and even programmes designed to change our values. Space and time filled with Easter sales, long weekend specials for hotels and resorts. Of course these things are part and parcel of the festive nature of celebrations and in Fiji and the rest of Oceania, we certainly do know how to celebrate. However, there is also a tendency for these things associated with the event of the Easter weekend to overshadow the essence of Easter. The same can be said for Christmas. The same can sadly be said for any other religious, cultural and even state holiday.

My daughter was having a chat with her older brother last week and was talking about school holidays, weekend holidays and public holidays as she attempted in her rather active mind to understand the concept of holidays and holy days. She had heard from her father and grandmother how, in the past, almost everything would shut down on Good Friday. As her mother explained about capitalism, economic globalisation and secularism (a class 4 version of course), she remarked, “So it’s becoming less of a holy day and more of a holiday now.”

The essence of Easter is meant to reverberate throughout the coming weeks and months, as it did nearly two thousand years ago. The living Jesus takes hold of our tired lives and breathes into us His power. He takes hold of our sinful lives and offers a wonderful new beginning through forgiveness. He takes hold of lives that appear lost and gives them new purpose and meaning even in the most difficult circumstances as we face in Fiji today. He comes to challenge a selfish world with the possibility of a new beginning which involves love and concern for others. This is echoed at the Ascension and amplified in the commemoration of Pentecost.

Among the Hindu community, the celebration of Diwali is understood from a number of different perspectives, one of which is the symbol of light overcoming darkness, good overcoming evil. Beyond the event of the celebration of Diwali, light continues to be needed to overcome darkness, good continues to be required to overcome evil. The celebration over, the essences continues.

The death and resurrection of Jesus may be a once in history event, but that does not mean that resurrection cannot take place in our lives, in our families, in our communities, in our nation and in the world daily. Hope may wither, it may die, but it can always be resurrected. Hope, like love and truth is eternal.

As we recover from long weekend of activity – be it religious, spiritual, leisure or work, let us not continue to embrace the essence of Easter: that life, not death; compassion, not hate; justice, not oppression and peace, not violence - will have the final say in this world.

“Simplicity, Serenity, Spontaneity”

The Lesson of Humility at Easter

Published in the Fiji Times' Off the Wall with Padre James 16th April 2014

It was wonderful to see all the children shouting “Hosanna!”on Palm Sunday, which for some churches was also Children’s Sunday. It marked the beginning of Holy Week or Passion Week for the Christian community. It is a time of reconnection with the key historical events of the Christian faith and is for many Christians a way of merging a lived faith with a living history of God’s salvation.

This week takes us from that triumphal entry and towards a glorious resurrection and appearances of the Risen Lord, first to Mary Magdalene and then to others. On the way Christians encounter the themes of love, rejection, betrayal, denial, pain, humiliation and death.
Many are familiar with the film the “The Passion of the Christ” in which we see manifested humankind's worst attributes. Last week I watched the Fiji premier of the film, Son of God” at the VMAX Cinema. Although not as intense as “The Passion” it is a reminder of the precious gift of God’s grace for all. As we are reminded of how low we can go, how greed for wealth, lust for power and the fear that causes us to brutalise those different from us, we a given glimpses of the strength of love. In the face of tyranny, we are shown humility. At the moment of injustice, we receive forgiveness. And surrounded by conflict we experience reconciliation.
Archbishop Emeritus, Desmond Tutu reflected on the Son of God:
‘Son of God’ is a powerful and beautiful movie which I hope and pray will be humbly watched by Christians and non-Christians across the world as a bridge for respectful dialogue. Most religions share a core Golden Rule: 'Do unto others as you would have others do unto you'. We are all sons and daughters of God, called to be vessels of healing balm to a wounded world tired of theological and dogmatic dogfights that too often lead to despicable carnage in the name of our respective and limited understanding of God. We are all, irrespective of the nametag we wear, called to be people of compassion, humility, justice and gentleness. These are the fruits of love and, in the end, they are all that matter. Why? Because God is LOVE.”
The compassion, humility, justice and gentleness of Christ during Holy Week is reflected in his washing of his disciples' feet.
To wash feet is a back bending task. One particular Maundy Thursday, when I invited the congregation to participate, I ended up washing everyone’s feet. I was grateful that it was only as small congregation of 30 or so. Yet it was a liberating task also. To have members who in our cultural contexts often place religious and spiritual leaders on a high status, allow me to wash their feet, meant to me that they were also allowing me to serve them and the community – as one of them. I noticed an old man was visibly moved as he watched me wash his wife’s feet. She was a woman who faithfully served in the church with little recognition.
At the end of the feet washing I was humbled when a senior deaconess in the church asked me to sit down and with gentleness and love proceeded to wash my feet. I was reduced to tears.
The washing of feet, when done out of love, is an amazing act of reconciliation and empowerment for both the person who washes and the person being washed. It is an intimate moment of non-verbally communicating love, respect and humility.
This is why the Methodist Church in Fiji has chosen the act of washing of the feet as part of its reconciliation process in its Golden Jubilee celebrations.
Christ performs a lowly task generally done by the lowliest servant in the household. We find in the pages of the gospels descriptions of how Jesus approached His relationship with God the Father. He was always submissive to the Father in everything. Beyond this, God the Father is the greatest servant in the universe. In our behalf, He sustains everything we depend on for our very lives.
In John 13:14, Christ says, "If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet."
The common explanation for this is that it teaches us to learn humility by doing good for others, by doing acts of service or kindness for our brothers and sisters, our neighbours and the stranger.
The lesson is one of humble servant-leadership.
I am reminded of the saying: “Humility is a low door. To go through it, one must bend down enough to smell the ground. Dirt wears the scent of past lives and reminds us that death captures all in the end. This is what makes humility necessary.”
As we prepare to make important decisions on leadership this year, perhaps this is a message Jesus has for His people in Fiji.
You are welcome to come and have your feet washed and wash the feet of others at the Maundy Thursday service tomorrow (Thursday) at Dudley Church at 7pm. You are also invited to join in the Fiji Council of Churches’ Easter Sunday Resurrection and Reconciliation Concert at Ratu Sukuna Park from 2pm.
Let us remember that the message of Easter is the loving grace of God and the humble service and sacrifice of God’s dearly beloved Son, for the whole world.

“Simplicity, Serenity, Spontaneity”

The Bible and Economic Justice

Published in the Fiji Times 9 April, 2014

A few weeks ago I shared a summary of a presentation by the Pacific Conferences of Churches on the Exodus formation for Israel on Social Justice.  The two key points were self-determination or political freedom and the covenant with God and it involves collective responsibility - Israel is to exercise social justice within itself and to ensure that no one is excluded from the shared graciousness of the community. Freedom requires responsibility and to be responsible requires freedom. “A society in which the few prosper but the many starve, in which some but not all have access to good education, health care and other basic needs, is not a place of liberty” (Sacks, 2000). Nor is it a place of collective responsibility. The Biblical narrative insists that a free society cannot be built on the rule of law alone; it must also be built on a just distribution of resources (Tzedakah). The greatest act of tzedakah is one that allows the person to be self-sufficient. In Mosaic Law: a person dependent on tzedakah must give tzedakah, highlighting the truth that giving is an essential part of human dignity.                The Biblical narrative understands equality to mean human honour and a society must ensure equal dignity to each of its members.

If social justice is the organising principle of the new social order, the economy and economic activity is the mechanism or the means for wealth creation and distribution. Last night’s final presentation at the PCC/FCC Lenten Talk Series was on Economic Justice. The Biblical narrative does not prescribe how the economy ought to be organised (or of any economic system). It does, however, provide moral guidelines as to its purpose, the values it should be premised, and examples of corrective measures. It is very important  to understand that insofar as the Biblical narrative is concerned, the economy is a means by which humanity creatively participate in producing wealth and the means by which it (wealth) is distributed. Central to it is the care for the poor. The fundamental moral principle is this: since we are trustees of God’s creation, we are bound by its requirements to ensure that the benefits of what we produce are shared.

The primary purpose of economic activity is precisely that since each one is made in the image of God and, therefore, sacred, is not to be excluded from the graciousness of the community (Gen 1:26). The earth and everything in it is the Lord’s and Israel is bound by the responsibility of trusteeship to ensure the freedom and creative participation of all, especially the poor, in the development and enjoyment of the community’s wealth (Deut 10:12-19).

The specific economic principle is that Israel is to be co-creators with God and they are to create and distribute the wealth they produce to cater for everyone’s basic needs. The Biblical story of humanity begins with the command: “Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it.” (Gen 1:28) Work is more than mere labour; there is a difference. Two Hebrew words: “melakah” which means “work as creation” and “avodah” which means “work as service or servitude”. Melakah is the word used to describe the arena in which Israel were to transform the world and, hence, become partners with God in the work and stewardship of creation. The creative God seeks creativity from His human creation. It is in this sense that the Biblical narrative sees the systems of economic exchange and trade as necessary because these allow for the creation of wealth through human creativity and competition. At various times in the Old Testament and the New Testament, Israel failed to remember these principles and Moses, the Prophets and Jesus chastised them for doing so.

The Covenant expresses God’s desire that: “There are to be no poor among you” (Deut 15:4). The Sabbatical Year (Lev 25:1-7; Deut15:1-11) and the Jubilee Year (Lev 25:6-17) set in place mechanisms to restore justice and greater equality in society.  These mechanisms were to remind Israel that, as a people freed from slavery and oppression, they were to be concerned for the poor in their midst and not to exploit and oppress (widows, strangers and orphans) and not to allow anyone to be downtrodden and treated as slaves. Even though the promise land was given to Israel, they were to share it with strangers who might come to live among them (Eze 47:21-22). The Old Testament Prophets  Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Elijah, Ezechiel and others often raised their voices to speak out in God's name when the dominant socio-economic system of their day stood in opposition to God's dream expressed in the covenant.  Jesus revived the covenant dream under a new name - what he called "the Kingdom of God" (Luke 4:43).  The Kingdom envisaged a time of reversals and alternatives to the existing socio-economic regime.

Economic activity is necessary because it gives expression to human freedom, creativity, although the biblical narrative insists that there must be limits to how far economics can interfere with nature and equity in the participation of wealth creation and wealth distribution. God seeks the free worship of human beings, and two of the most powerful defence of human freedom, creativity and integrity are “private” property and economic independence. Moral dimensions of economics or the “market” as understood by the Biblical narrative as the medium of trade and exchange of goods
If anything has a moral dimension, economics does. Prophet Isaiah (1:17-23) makes the point that without political and economic virtue, religious piety or holiness is vain.

The Biblical narrative views wealth as a blessing is to be enjoyed as such. The reason is that this world is God’s creation, therefore it is good, and prosperity is a sign of God’s blessing
One of the recurring themes in Deuteronomy is: “You shall rejoice in all the good things the Lord your God has given you and your household.” (26:11). Economic growth has religious significance, first and foremost because of the degree (perhaps more than other economic system in the past) to which it allows us to alleviate poverty. Yet the Biblical narrative is aware that economic gain and interest is not from benevolence but from self-interest. “I saw that all labour and all achievement spring from man’s envy of his neighbour” (Eccl 4:4). “Were it not for evil inclinations, no one would build a house… or engage in business” (Genesis, Rabbah 9:7)

The great concern of the Biblical narrative was the elimination of poverty by creating a society which the poor have access to help when they needed it, charity for sure, but especially through job creation. Therefore, while wealth is seen as a blessing, it comes with great responsibility. Successful business men and women (Prov 31 is essentially a hymn of praise to the businesswoman) were expected to set an example of public generosity and communal leadership. Conspicuous consumption is frowned upon. The key point is this: since wealth is a blessing, it carries a grave moral obligation to use it for the benefit of the community as a whole.

Jesus was strong in the challenge he issued to the rich of his time. In the Kingdom, he said, the rich must learn to share their wealth with the poor or they will face eternal condemnation (Lk 16:19-31). 
The poor, the hungry, the thirsty, the marginalized and the lonely must be at the centre of our concern otherwise we will be cast out of God's presence on the day of judgment (Mtt 25:41-46). 
Without putting into practice the kingdom values of caring and sharing and concern for others we can expect to hear Jesus’ harsh words:
"How terrible for you who are rich: you have had your easy life! How terrible for you who are full: you will go hungry! How terrible for you who laugh: you will mourn and weep!" (Lk 6:24f)

In other words issues of economic justice are very serious for us and we must give them very serious attention. Bryan Hehir notes that economic globalization has its own logic, but not its own ethic.  The ethical principles on which globalization need to be challenged are:  the dignity of every person, the common good, the option for the poor and solidarity.  He writes:
“No political system or economic system is self-justified: all social systems must be tested by what they do to and for the dignity of the person. … Whatever threatens that dignity becomes the business of the Church” (2001:1700-1702)
Of any economic system, we are challenged to ask these questions:
Does it enhances human dignity, create self-respect and encourages creativity?
Does it allow everyone to participate in the material blessings of this created world?
Does it sustain a climate of equal regard – for employees as well as employers, the poor no less than the rich?
Does it protect the vulnerable and help those in need to escape the trap of poverty, does it ensures that no one lacks the means for a dignified existence and do those who succeed share their blessings with those who have less?
Does the economic system strength the bonds of solidarity? Does it know its own limits – that the market is not the only mechanism of distribution, and that an economic system is a means not an end?

Food for the soul and food for thought as we approach the end of the season of Lent.

“Simplicity, Serenity, Spontaneity”

Stewards of God's Creation

Last week I went with my family to watch the film adaptation of the Biblical Story of “Noah” at Village Six. Watching the interpretation of the Flood event from the book of Genesis, it was easy (and perhaps the film’s aim) to find parallels between the destruction of the environment, lust for power and insatiable desire to consume everything  in the movie and in the world we live in today.

Last night the Pacific Conference of Churches and Fiji Council of Churches Lenten Talk session at Dudley Church in Suva, discussed stewardship of creation as part of the moral formation of Israel.

It is important to recall that the moral formation of Israel is a “formation to be different” in: Moral values; Governance; Social relations (social justice).There are two fundamental inter-related formation tracks that branch out from the Moral formation of Israel (not in order of importance). The first is the order (governance) and relationship (social justice) among the people of Israel. The second is Israel’s relationship with God’s created world – the natural environment.

Israel’s exercise of stewardship must be totally different from that of Egypt. If Egypt destroyed the natural environment in its pursuit of building and maintaining an empire, Israel was not to do the same.
Properly speaking the term “stewardship”encompasses governance and leadership. But these are means whereby we exercise our responsibility as stewards. The biblical narrative understood stewardship as the “proper and prudent ‘trusteeship’ of God’s gifts” and these include:
·         the people under our care;
·         the natural environment;
·         the wealth we create from the abundance of the natural environment;
·         the resources – land, money, etc. - at our disposal;

Being stewards means that we are trustees or custodians of God’s created world and everything in it. In its broader context, stewardship is the responsibility of a trustee entrusted to us to take care of God’s world and everything in it.
Its limited meaning (which is unfortunate because of the absence of its moral imperatives), as used today, is the management of finances and assets, and decision-making processes in a way that is transparent and accountable.

The first chapter of Genesis sets a momentous vision of the universe coming into being as the work of God. Humans, the last and greatest of His creation are given dominion over nature. (Gen 1:28; see also Ps 8:6-9; 115:16) Few passages in the Bible have had a deeper influence on Western civilisation than Genesis 1, particularly v.28. Genesis 1:28 and more explicitly in Psalm 8:3-5, portrays a sense of wonder at the smallness yet uniqueness of human beings, vulnerable but also unique in their ability to shape the environment.

It was Max Weber who argued that this idea – human beings, though small and vulnerable - is master of creation, the natural environment. This misinterpretation of Genesis 1 text, laid the roots of Western civilisation, and demystified nature - that nature is not sacred but to serve humanity’s desires and needs. Genesis 1:28, however, is only one side of the complex biblical understanding of stewardship.  It is balanced by a narrative quite different in tone in Genesis 2:15 in which the first human is set in the garden of Eden “to work it and take care of it” (see also Ps 104:14)

The two Hebrew words used in Gen 2:15 are highly significant to a proper understanding of our responsibility as stewards of God’s creation. The first Hebrew verb le’ovdah (translated as “to work it”) literally means “to serve it”. Humanity is both master and servant of nature.The second verb leshomrah (translated as “to take care”) literally means “to guard it”. This is the verb used in later biblical translations to describe the responsibilities of a guardian of property that does not belong to him or her. The person must exercise vigilance in his/her protection and is liable for loss through negligence. This is perhaps the best short definition of human beings’ responsibility for nature as conceived by the Biblical narrative. The point is that we do not own nature.

“Life forms are not inventions but discoveries. They do not belong to scientists or biochemical corporations but equally to all and none of us: they are God’s loan, entrusted to our collective care” (Sacks, 2000:165). In an original interpretation of Genesis 1, “Let us make man in our image after our likeness”, Samson Hirsch (19th century) puts it this way: “The ‘us’ refers to the rest of creation. Because man alone has the capacity to change and possibly endanger the natural world, nature itself was consulted as to whether it approved of such a being.” This original interpretation implied 3 clear moral messages:
·         Not only do we not own nature but we are duty bound to respect its integrity.
·         Human beings would use nature only in such a way as to be faithful to the purpose of the Creator.
·         The mandate to exercise dominion or mastery over the natural world is not technical but moral and is limited by the requirement to protect and conserve.

These 3 points are an integral part of Genesis 2 and 3 (the story of the forbidden fruit and the subsequent exile from Eden). Not everything is permitted. There are limits to what human beings may do and when they are transgressed, disaster follows as Gen 3:19 irrefutably says “Dust you are, and to dust you shall return”. The main point to remember is this: Creation has its own dignity as God’s masterpiece, and though we have the mandate to use it, we have none to destroy or despoil it.

There is little doubt that stewardship as understood by the Biblical narrative is about what we today call “sustainability”; that we are charged with conserving and protecting the world’s resources so that future generations would benefit.
The 3 great commands declaring periodic rest - the Sabbath, Sabbatical year and the Jubilee year – clearly state this point. They spell out that much of the biblical legislation on the natural environment (nature) and Israel’s relation to it is about sustainability.

On the Sabbath, all agriculture work is forbidden, “so that your ox and your donkey may rest” (Ex 23:12). It is a day that sets limits to our intervention in nature and the pursuit of economic activity. And remind ourselves that the earth is the Lord’s . For 6 days it is handed over to us, but on the 7th day we symbolically abdicate that power. It is a weekly reminder of the integrity of nature and the boundaries and limitations of human striving. We become conscious of our being creations, not creators.

What the Sabbath does for human beings and animals, the Sabbatical and the Jubilee years do for the land. The earth too is entitled to its periodic rest. Israel was warned that if they do not respect this, they will suffer exile:
“Then shall the land make up for its sabbatical years throughout the time that it is desolate and you are in the land of your enemies; then shall the land rest and make up for its Sabbath years (Lev 26:34)

This command puts forward 2 fundamental concerns. One is environmental. Land which is over-exploited is eventually eroded and loss its fertility. The Israelites were therefore commanded to conserve the soil by giving it periodic fallow years and not pursue short-term gain at the cost of long-term desolation. The second, and no less significant, is theological. “The land”, says God, “is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me” (Lev 25:23). In other words, we are guests on earth and we have a fundamental moral responsibility as stewards to protect and conserve what is not ours.

Jesus was very well versed with the Torah and the traditions of his people. His challenge parable about the master’s money (Matt 25: 14-30 and Lk 19:12-26 ) is a challenge about stewardship and how it is ought to be practiced. If Rome’s practice of stewardship of God’s gift of creation was through violence, coercion, bribery, interest, extortion and slavery (as in Egypt), then Israel's’ exercise of stewardship must be completely different.

Biblical religion (as all other great religions) embodies a deep sense of respect for the natural environment. This constitutes an important counterbalance to the indifference, bordering on arrogance, of empire worldviews.
One of the defining beliefs of modernity (and post-modernity) was that science and technology would unlock the riches of nature and would lead to open-ended progress towards unlimited abundance. Empires and indeed civilisations (past or present) at the height of their powers have found it hard to maintain a sense of limits. The Biblical narrative teaches a different wisdom with regards to the natural environment and our stewardship responsibility towards it: Reverence in the face of creation, responsibility to future generations, and restraint in the knowledge that not everything we can do, should we do.

The simplest image, and surely the most sensible one, in thinking about our ecological responsibility is to see the earth as belonging to God and us as its trustees, charged with conserving and if possible beautifying if for the sake of our grandchildren not yet born. Biblical religion is not a philosophical system; it is born out of real life experience and embodies truths made real in the life of the community. It is one thing to have an abstract conception of our ecological responsibility. It is quite another to celebrate the Sunday weekly – to renounce our mastery of nature one day in seven – and to make a blessing, as we do in our churches – over everything we eat or drink to remind ourselves that the “earth is the Lord’s and all that is within it, the world, and those who live in it.” (Ps, 24:1)

Prayer, ritual and narrative are ways we shape what Alexis de Tocqueville called “habits of the heart”. They form character, create behavioural dispositions and educate us in patterns of self-restraint. We will need to cultivated instincts of caution if we are to hold ourselves back from patterns of production and consumption that threaten the future of God’s creation. (Sacks, 2000:171)

(The above text is a summary of the presentation on Stewardship from the Pacific Conference of Churches Exodus Formation Series).

“Simplicity, Serenity, Spontaneity”.

God-Centred Social Justice

Published in the Fiji Times 26 March, 2014

Last week I shared with you some of what I heard, at the Pacific Conference of Churches Lenten Talk session at Dudley Church, on the topic of the Bible and Governance. Today I share with you some highlights of Rev. Francois Pihaatae’s presentation last night on the Bible and Social Justice.

The last two Lenten Talks focused on the central moral issue of “the stranger” and the insights “do not do to others what others have done to you” and on stewardship are the basis for biblical morality. This new morality shaped the way governance was perceived in the political formation of ancient Israel. They are not to be governed as they were governed in Egypt. This was the Biblical narrative’s key insight into governance:
·         All are equal because all are made in the image of God
·         All are to live in freedom in a free society with the right of citizenship
·         All are to be consulted, to participate and to give free consent on community matters
·         All are to share in the graciousness of the community

Rev. Pihaatae’s presentation introduced social justice as one of the key aspects in the Biblical narrative, and particularly on the protection and care of the poor, the oppressed and the unfortunate.  Broadly, social justice is the way in which society is organised in terms of wealth and poverty, labour and leisure, power and powerlessness and the values associated with this social order.

The terminology ‘social justice’ only came up in the 19th century in the writings of a philosopher named Luigi D’Azeglio. It was picked up in the 20th century, first by the church and later by secular political philosophers. John Rawls (1971) describes it as “… the primary subject of justice is the basic structure of society, or more exactly, the way in which major social institutions distribute the fundamental rights and duties and determine the division of advantages from social cooperation”. It is from this definition that social justice became known as distributive justice, which goes much further than the idea of justice as legal which is merely retributive.

The point is that if we understand social justice in its fullest sense - how society is organised around issues of wealth and poverty, access to power and so on - then the view of the biblical narrative on social justice makes direct and significant sense. Social Justice is at the heart of who God is; righteousness and justice are inseparable. The God who called a people from Egypt is God the creator and God of Justice.

An open economy does not guarantee just outcomes (deep concern to Moses and the prophets). A trace of the biblical legislations and prophetic speech reveals a commitment to an economic order that balanced freedom and equity.  A free society cannot be built on the rule of law (retributive justice) alone but must also be built on distributive justice.

The central concepts such as social justice (tzedakah), collective freedom (cherut) and responsibility confer human dignity and honour, and avoids humiliation – independence is a key value. Social justice is central to the life of the community and the covenant with God, hence, the legislative requirements to address poverty, indebtedness and inequality – so that no one is denied the right to participate in the graciousness of the community. To be responsible requires certain freedoms - that if people are denied their basic needs, a society cannot be said to be free. And freedom requires responsibility.

There are two key words in the mission God gave to Abraham and his descendants and these signify two forms of justice: “Right” (Hebrew - Tzedakah) and “Just” (Hebrew – Mishpat). These (Mishpat and Tzedekah) form what is called the covenant code or the “Torah” or the “Mosaic Law” or simply the “Law”. The “Law” which is understood not merely in legal terms but more substantially about the whole life of the community. It is to govern all aspects of Israel’s life and most importantly, it is to be seen from the perspective of the weak. This is the fundamental guiding principle of the “Law”. The fundamental point about the “Law” is that we cannot separate God from justice; righteousness and justice are central to who God is.

Mishpat means retributive justice (see Ex 21:12-13) or the rule of law. This system of justice replaces the older system of revenge. Leviticus 20 outlines the moral, ritual and civic laws that Israel should follow. The fundamental moral purpose of Mishpat is the legal protection of the poor, widow, orphans, the stranger against abuse and oppression. But this is a point often missed by biblical translations into Greek and English. Once we began to see the “Law” purely in its legal sense, we lose its purpose which in the covenant code: the protection of the weak and the powerless.The point about the new governance structure is the recognition that a free society must be governed by law, however, different it is. It is to be impartially administered, to punish the offender and free the innocent, and the freedoms for all people.It is for this reason, that the church developed what is called the “Option for the Poor” as a key aspect of its mission.

Tzedakah, by contrast, refers to distributive justice, which is less procedural but a more substantive idea. (It is an unusual term because it combines two ideas, normally opposed to one another: charity and justice). This arises from the Biblical reflections on their Exodus experience, which insists on the difference between possession and ownership. If there is absolute ownership, there will be a difference between justice (what we are bound to give others) and charity (what we give others out of generosity).

Social Justice is also a core theme in the prophetic tradition. The Biblical narrative understood the role of the prophets, not as foretellers but forth-tellers. In other words, prophecy is not about predicting what the future holds but about speaking the truth – about the past, the present and the future; they speak truth to power.They have different roles and at different times but all confronted Israel as a people, its leaders and those who oppress and exploit. For the prophet, the new social order must be just. The new governance system does not exist for itself but must ensure social justice in the social and political order.

In this regard, the view that religion is as much about the religious as it is about morality, social, political and economic make sense. It involves justice, not merely in the narrow sense of the rule of law but in a more substantive sense of conferring on all members of society an honoured place. Mercy is what is required because it honours the humanity of the other and acknowledges the bonds of human solidarity. What the periodic distributions of resources testify to is the awareness that an equal distribution will not emerge willingly and freely from the free working of the market alone. The sabbatical and Jubilee injunctions act as corrective measures to the market by restoring a level playing field to those who have been forced to sell either their labour or their land. They break the cycle of poverty and dependence.The core element in the covenant code – the protection of the weak and the powerless – is central in Jesus’ identity and mission.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu puts it this way beautifully by paraphrasing the beatitudes as follows: “One day Jesus told his followers about God’s dream of a world where all the children of God are loved and cared for, and no one is left out.
         Blessed are you who are poor, for all God’s world is yours
         Blessed are you who are hungry, for God will feed you
         Blessed are you who are sad, for God will comfort you and you will laugh again
         Blessed are you who feed the poor, for you are the hands of God
         Blessed are you who comfort the sad, for you are the arms of God
         Blessed are you who work for peace, for you are the voice of God
         Blessed are you who are loving and kind, for you are heart of God

The Lenten Talks are held every Tuesday at Dudley Church, Toorak from 7pm. Next week’s topic is “Formation in Stewardship.” All are welcome.

“Simplicity, Serenity, Spontaneity”

A Christian Perspective on Governance.

In what way is an issue such as governance connected to theology? How does morality connect with governance? Last week I shared with you the first of five Lenten Talks from the Pacific Conference of Churches , in association with the Fiji Council of Churches. Last night the second Lenten Talk was given at Dudley Memorial Church in Suva, focusing on formation in governance.

Recapping last week - it is important to remember that in the Bible, the moral formation of Israel is rooted in three key issues and insights: their painful wrestling with the problem of the stranger; the insight resulting from their painful Exodus experience - they are not to do to others what had been done to them; and the insight that their understanding and exercise of stewardship has to be totally different from the way it was understood and exercised within empire (Egypt).

Prior to the Exodus event, God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son. Abraham obeyed and, hence in Genesis 22:16-18 we find the first covenant made with an individual, a family who would later became a people and a nation. Although ideas of citizenship and equality were not as yet conceived, these were envisaged in the above passage. Eight centuries later, these ideas and more, were conceived through the Mosaic covenant. The context was the exile and slavery in Egypt, events that God foretold in His words to Abraham in Genesis 15:12-14.

The politics of ancient Israel began with an event that is inconceivable to the human mind: God enters into human history to liberate a group of slaves .It reached a climax in chapter 19 of the Book of Exodus with an event unique in religious history in which God revealed Himself to an entire people at Mount Sinai, and entered into a covenant with them. The Sinai covenant belongs to the political as much as to religious history (we tend to think of revelatory moments belong to something narrowly defined as “religion”). In Exodus 19:3-8, prior to God declaring the Ten Commandments, Israel and God enter into a covenant. What is happening in this encounter? Covenants are not new; it is common in the near East between neighbouring powers. The Bible narrative, however, took over and gave it an entirely new theological dimension. A covenant is being made which turned the Israelites from a people linked by history and biological descent into a body polity under God’s rule. In other words, Israel became a formally constituted political nation.

Three things are revolutionary in this encounter. First, one of the partners in the covenant is God himself. The idea that God might bind himself to a formal agreement with a group of human beings was unprecedented. This was the theological precursor of constitutional monarchy. Second, the other partner was not – as in all other ancient covenants – a leader or king, but the entire people, each one of whom, by given the right of assent or refusal, is granted the dignity of citizenship. Third, God, by inviting the people to signal their willingness to enter the covenant before communicating its terms, is in effect making it conditional on their agreement. In other words, it holds out three key governance principles:
         The participation of all
         The consent of the people

To put these in another way: “There is no legitimate government without the consent of the governed” (in the words of the US declaration of Independence). From its inception, Biblical morality was a living protest against hierarchical societies that give some, but not all, dignity, power and freedom. Instead it insisted that if any individual is sacred, then every individual is, because each of us is made in the image of God (Sacks, 2000). The covenant code or the Law (Torah) is fundamentally an expression of God’s demand for justice and the compassion as a central quality of God (Albert Nolan 1986). It is about how human life is meant to be constructed and lived. It includes all aspects of life as it was then understood and experienced by Israel. Jesus later proclaimed in Matthew 5:17-19 that he came to fulfil the law, not to abolish it. The essential two points about the “Law” are that: First, it is be a direct counter to how life was governed in Egypt. Second, it is to look after those who are being put in the wrong and who cannot do anything about being wronged. In other words: the Law, which is the guidance for Israel’s life, is based on the idea of anti-empire and on the protection of the weak and the powerless. Exodus 22:21-27 clearly highlights this. The point is that their way of governance must be the total opposite from the way they were governed in Egypt – oppression, injustice, poverty, etc.

From a Christian perspective, never before, and rarely since, has the dignity of the human person in the presence of God been so singularly elevated and rarely ever since until Jesus Christ. This was a historically unprecedented attempt to envisage and create a society as a covenant of equal citizens freely bound to one another and to God. About 700 years before Plato (The Republic) and the Greek Academy thought about democracy as we know it now, the Biblical narrative had envisaged such a system of governance. Ideas of equality, citizenship and free society emerged as key foundations in the construction of a nation.The “Law” or the Torah is essentially about the whole of life and its purpose is centrally about the protection of the weak and the powerless: the “Law” is to be a critique of the law.

Covenants are not new; it existed in the near East at the time of the Old Testament, but the Biblical narrative took over and gave it moral and religious significance.  A covenant is an attempt to create partnerships without domination or submission. “It exists because of one extraordinary feature of language: we can use words to place ourselves under obligation” (Noam Chomsky, 2008). A covenant exists because we are different and we seek to preserve that difference, even as we come together to bring our gifts to the common good. Pluralism is a form of hope, so says Prophet Isaiah (19:19-25). Precisely because we are different, each of us has something unique to contribute to the community’s common good is inter-generational. “Not with you alone who are standing here today in the presence of the Lord our God, am I making this covenant with its oath, but also with those who are not here today” (Deut 29:14-15); “between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” (Edmund Burke).

A covenant is an answer to the most fundamental question in the evolution of societies: “How can we establish relationships secure enough to become the basis of co-operation, without the use of economic, political or military power?” It is more foundational than contracts; it creates societies; it is like the declaration of independence. It defines the moral principles on which a nation is founded. It reaffirms the basic features of morality (Philip Selznick, 1994):
-        deference to a source of judgement beyond autonomous will
-        constructive self-regard
-        concern for the well-being of others
-        affirms that there is dignity in difference

The point is that without some form of covenants, it is doubtful whether we would even care. But the fact that covenants make us aware of the limits, scandals and our obligations. The “covenants” we make (marriage, church, cultural grouping, etc.) matter a great deal for they create communities. “The knowledge that you matter to others is a kind of security that money can purchase.” (McKibben, 2007:156). At the same time covenants “establish the principles of a particular way of life… it is not an abstract morality” (Philip Selznick, 1994). These, remind us that the covenant conditions we pledge to uphold extend our responsibility to the past, the present and the future; remind us that we are guardians of the past for the sake of the future and broadens our horizons to the claims of the generations of which we are a part; hold us accountable to the consequences of our actions: from how we treat stranger – the one who is different - among us, exploitation and abuse of the environment, condition of the poor and the neglected among us, exploitation of human labour and the those unemployed, abuse of women and children, or to discrimination against people living with HIV and AIDS.

The Lenten Talks are held every Tuesday at Dudley Church at 7pm. Next week the “The Exodus and Social Justice.”  

“Simplicity, Serenity, Spontaneity”. 

“The Moral Response to the Stranger”

Published in the Fiji Times 12 March, 2014

What do Christians learn during the season of Lent? How does all the fasting, giving up, taking on extra responsibilities – all the spiritual growth and transformation Christians hope to experience during Lent – bear fruit in our everyday lives and the life of the community in which we live in?
Last night (Tuesday)the Pacific Conference of Churches in collaboration with the Fiji Council of Churches held its first Lenten Talk. The series of talks are based on a series of Bible studies developed by the Pacific Conference of Churches around the formation of the people of Israel during the Exodus journey, and the implications of that formation on their moral life and their stewardship as the People of God. It connects the Exodus journey with the Christian’s Lenten journey. Formation in morality and in the different aspects on stewardship – governance, social justice, economic justice, and care for the environment – and into Jesus vision of the Kingdom of God are foundational in this journey.

Formation is about the schooling of a person or a group of people, or a nation on a particular way of life. Cultures and religious denominations are good examples, where we are formed to believe and see the world and God in a way that is different from those around us. Formation is a process and the biblical formation process spans the whole Biblical narrative.  For those joining in the Lenten talks and formation, this deeply personal and spiritual journey is also a journey to the kind of freedom that God wants demands of us a process of rethinking and renewal of:
– our morality as a church community and country;
– our stewardship responsibilities:
         political governance and what it ought to be as a nation;
• our view of social justice and our treatment of the poor;
• our view of economic activity and its purpose
• our view of and responsibility towards the environment;
– our faith in Jesus vision of the Kingdom of God.

In his presentation on Formation in Morality, Rev. Francois Pihaatae, PCC’s General Secretary introduced those present to the moral formation of Israel as a people and looked at 3 key moral principles. Ancient Israel’s formation as a people was based on 3 fundamental moral insights from their Exodus experience:
• The problem of the “stranger”
• They are not to do to others what was done to them
• Their way of stewardship must be totally different from that of empire

Rev. Francois made the point that Biblical faith was born as a protest against empires. This is because imperialism (and its successors, totalitarianism and fundamentalism), is an attempt to
impose a single idea on a plural world: to reduce “man” to “Man”, cultures to a single
culture, to eliminate diversity in the name of a single Universalist order. Discussing the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11: 1-9, Rev. Francois illustrated how such a foolish and arrogant undertaking  is an attempt to impose a man-made unity on divinely created diversity which is what is wrong with universalism.

As a result of the dispersion of people after the Babel event, God’s covenant with humanity remains, but from here onwards God will focus on one family, one people, to be God’s witnesses and bearers of the vision – He will ask them to leave all that is familiar and undertake a formative journey with God. They will be a people who will be different (the Hebrew word kadosh means different, set
apart). However the Biblical narrative recognised that Israel's formation journey would be among “strangers” and because t it would have to deal with the problem of the stranger,  it would need a prior experience of being a stranger itself. Exile and slavery in Egypt became their fundamental and formative experience of being a stranger in a strange land

The problem of the stranger is the central moral issue that the biblical system of morality is
build upon. Detail laws in the later Books of the Old Testament (Leviticus, Deuteronomy, Judges, Chronicles, etc.) are based fundamentally on this. The Ten Commandments was also based on Israel's painful experience of slavery.

The Biblical narrative of loving the stranger speaks to Israel’s own experience: “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the hearts of the stranger – you yourselves were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Ex 23:9). “When a stranger lives with you in you land, do not ill-treat him. The stranger who lives with you shall be treated like the native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God.” (Lev 19:33-4). In these two verses God is telling the people of Israel, “You know what it is like to be different, because there was a time
when you, too, were persecuted for being different.

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Israel had to undergo exile and slavery before their birth as a
Nation. They had to learn from the inside and never lose the memory of what it feels like to be an
outsider, a stranger (the ritual of the Passover every year is a reminder of this lesson). Moses had to undergo his own exile in Midian (“Gershom”, the name of his first son, means “there I was a stranger”. Only those who have felt the loneliness of a being stranger find it natural to identify with
strangers. The Bible’s single greatest and most revolutionary contribution to ethics/morality is this:
We encounter God in the face of a stranger.

The greatest religious challenge, therefore, is to see God’s image in the one who is not in our image. Moral dignity extends beyond the boundaries of any one civilisation or culture. The journey of exile and slavery, and wrestling with the problem of the stranger taught the
Israelites this lesson: “They are not to do to others what was done to them”. The call to be different belongs to the social and the political as much as it belongs to the religious.

One key aspect of being different is forgiveness. Forgiveness is a religious virtue; it is not part of human nature. Revenge, therefore, is a moral value, however repulsive it may be. This is because it keeps faith with the past. Because of this that forgiveness is difficult because it must compete with it.

 So how will forgiveness possible? It does not mean forgetting nor abandoning the claims for justice. It is rather an acknowledgement that the past is past and must not be allowed to cast its
shadow over the future. It heals moral wounds the way the body heals physical wounds .It is the only bridge from the pain of loss to reintegration to the present and its tasks.􀁹 It reminds us of our duty to the future no less than to the past – to our children as well as to our ancestors

Another key aspect is Hope. Hope is a human virtue; it is part of our human nature to hope after a sure future. However, the Biblical narrative took it and gave it theological significance that God is mindful of our aspirations, with us in our fumbling ways and has given us the means to save us from ourselves; that we are not wrong to dream, wish and work for a better world. Biblical hope is not born out of an expected heavenly promise but out of taking responsibility for the present on the reflections of the past and responsibility for the future.

 Israel's reflection on the stranger problem gave them 2 further moral insights:
• do not do to others what others have done to you (Jesus later summed these up into
two commandments: love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind, and your
neighbour as yourself)
• their ways of stewardship must be totally different from Egypt (governance,
social justice, economic justice and their care of the environment)

These key experiences and moral insights later became the basis of their understanding of
governance, social justice and stewardship. Much later, Jesus picked these formation insights and presented them in an all encompassing vision, the “Kingdom of God”.

The Lenten Talk series is held every Tuesday at Dudley Church in Toorak at 7pm. Next week: Formation in Governance.

May the rest of your week be blessed with love, light and peace between you and the strangers you encounter.

“Simplicity, Serenity, Spontaneity”