Sunday, November 29, 2015

A Painful Sermon About Syria and Iraq

            This morning [here at Lawrence Park Community Church], you might expect me to say we should approach the current Syrian refugee crisis with generosity. But of course you have. I’m amazed at how much you have contributed to the United Church’s refugee relief fund this year—over 23,000 dollars last month alone. I don’t really need to dwell on that this morning.

            Or, perhaps you expect me to say that we should do all we can to treat the 25,000 refugees coming to Canada from Syria as if they were our brothers and sisters. The Bible tells us so: “The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt." But no, I won't dwell on that this morning, though it is true. 

            In light of our New Testament reading from Matthew, you might expect me to say we should grant safe refuge to people that show up at our doorsteps just as the Egyptians showed Mary, Joseph and Jesus. But I won’t.

            What I really want to say is something that has been bothering me for a long time, something that leaves a pit in my stomach.

            What I want to say is this. We—that is our governments in the West, usually with the support of citizens like us—have done as much as anyone else in the world over the past 100 years (and much longer) to create today’s Syrian and world-wide refugee problems.

            To say so is not really controversial if you’re an academic, a historian, a journalist, or a well-informed citizen. But saying so is also very unpleasant, so we don’t hear this too often. But the facts (minus Jewish persecution, Ottoman Empires, crusades, Napoleonic adventures and British responses)—the facts go something like this:

            During World War 1, Western governments split the Middle East into three different spheres of influence—Russian, French, and British—without regard to tribal or religious realities on the ground, laying the groundwork for the irrational borders—including no Kurdish state—that still plague us today. ISIS lists this, for example, as one of the issues it is going to fix with its murder and mayhem.

            Before World War II, the West, and especially Britain, supported the rise of the Saudi monarchy. We have supported it through thick and thin since, especially since the discovery of oil there. But, in the words of the New York Times last week, "Born in massacre and blood, [Saudi Arabia] manifests itself in a surreal relationship with women, a prohibition against non-Muslims treading on sacred territory, and ferocious religious laws." The article goes on to point out what everyone knows to be true, namely that, "Saudi Arabia has been the chief sponsor of radical Islamist ideology," and thus, "the birth-place of younger generations of jihadists." As I speak these words, Canada is sending Saudi Arabia billions in new armaments while fifty Saudi's await beheading, mostly for what we would consider minor acts of political defiance.

            In 1953, we—well at least Britain and the USA—overthrew the democratically elected government of Iran to install the Shah’s dictatorial regime, mostly because the democratic government wanted to nationalize Iran’s oil industry. The Shah, of course, was a dictatorial and repressive disaster, and that set the stage for Khomenei’s rebellion twenty-five years later. And we all know how that turned out.

            We have supported with aid—mostly military, Egypt’s last two repressive regimes, those of Mubarak and Sissi. We in the West are largely responsible for the rule of repressive dictators like Saddam Hussein and half a dozen other dictators in countries like Morocco, Syria, Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Sudan, Tunisia—all in the interest, it was argued, of peace and stability and profits for us, never mind what it meant for the citizens of those countries.

            When the world rightfully helped Israel establish a State after World War 2, we did so without regard to the Palestinians the new State displaced, creating refugee camps in neighbouring countries that have sparked generations of hopelessness, anger and extremism. There are now five million Palestinians living in camps—and if you think the people living in those camps are going to be a force for peace given their lifelong experience of poverty, hopelessness, and political oppression, you might be wrong. In the meantime, we—including Canada--have mostly winked, and winked, and winked at Israel’s subsequent harsh treatment of Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank, and their annexation of more and more of Palestinian territory.

            Many ISIS soldiers and commanders are former Saddam Hussein soldiers, all of them helpfully fired and left footloose and fancy free by the USA and its allies after the Iraq war. Western military action: bombing, missile strikes, drone attacks—have created scores of casualties and nearly unlimited animosity against the West. You get the picture. It’s as the prophet Hosea said of ancient Israel’s disastrous military adventures:  “you sow the wind, you reap the whirlwind.”

            And here is the kicker. I don’t have any idea what we can do about it. Do you? I remember, as a child, taking apart a clunky child’s watch I received as a birthday gift. I removed  the back to see how it worked. I took out a little wheel to see how it fit. A spring fell out after it. I tried to put it back in but a little cog fell out. Within minutes all the watch’s workings lay on the table, and I could not put it together again. That’s our Middle East. We’ve tinkered with it and tried to fix it, we’ve hammered away at it and picked away at it and now there is no way we can put it back together again. Humpty Dumpty has had a great fall. And all the king’s drones and all the king’s bombs and all the king’s refugee visas cannot put Humpty together again.

            This tears me apart. There is no obvious, good, expert, wise way to fix this. Repentance might be a good place to start, but most political commentators have different ideas.

            Shall we keep on with the bombs and Special Forces on the ground? Or do we dare leave the spoils to ISIS? Stop meddling and let the Middle East find its own equilibrium without our forcing an answer on them they don’t want? Maybe training Kurdish militias help? Economic aid? Sanctions? A warm welcome for all the displaced among all the countries that have contributed to this mess?

            I don’t know. We do not know. There are no obvious answers. But this morning I will not be like the prophets Amos railed against, the prophets who said, “Peace, peace!” when there was no peace and no justice in all the land of Israel or Iraq or Syria or Libya or Sudan or Palestine or Lebanon or Yemen or wherever. I will not use our doing the right thing when it comes to refugees, here in Canada, as an excuse to ignore our complicity in creating this wave of refugees; I will not use my habit of wrapping up a sermon nice and neat and happy as an excuse for ignoring the fact that none of us has an inkling about what to do.

            What I can say is this. Once upon a time, as the story goes, a little baby fled to Egypt, and later back in Palestine grew up to be a prince of peace. It wasn’t easy. It eventually cost him his life. And now, no matter where everyone else in the world is headed off to, we, here, have decided to follow him. And the hard truth is that when it comes to the Middle East, peace in our time might cost us almost as much as it cost Jesus in his.

            Even though, for now, we don’t know what to do.

Monday, November 16, 2015

John Caputo's "Theology of Perhaps."

         I am reading a very difficult but wonderful book.

         The book is John D. Caputo’s The Insistence of God: A Theology of Perhaps.

         The book is difficult because after finishing each paragraph, I have to read it over again. It takes a long time to get through a chapter, and time always feels like the one thing I don’t have enough of.

         The book is difficult—painfully so, sometimes—because it is about me for about 80% of my life, and I don’t like what I see there. I grew up with what Caputo calls the “militant logic of omnipotence, the imperial logic of onto-logic and theo-logic.” And so, from Caputo’s perspective, throughout my career I’ve written and spoken, “the theology of an agent-God, [that] requires ventriloquists, people, up to now invariably men, who authorize themselves to speak in the name of God.”

         Caputo is right. I used to be so sure, so quick to tell others, so on guard for the benchmarks of orthodoxy, so free and easy with my “Christian” perspective on everything from politics to education, so eager to write editorials in the imperative. It’s what church leaders do.

         Many events in my life eventually conspired to rock my certainty. I’ve written about some of them before: travel to places like Hiroshima, Rwanda after the genocide, and Haiti; and relationships with people from other races, ethnicities, and classes all telling the same stories about white privilege, structural racism, and the power of wealth for the few. I started reading widely outside of the pool of approved Christian scholars I was schooled in. Teaching the Heidelberg Catechism kept me asking myself, “really? How can anyone be so sure?”

         Caputo’s book is difficult. It isn’t that the vocabulary he uses is unfamiliar. I understand the common sense meaning of Caputo’s favourite words, words like, “insistence,” or “perhaps,” or “existence,” or “event,” or even “prayer.” It is just that how Caputo uses these words stretches the contexts I’m used to, or sometimes turns them upside down. Reading Caputo is like the experience I had this summer, as a speaker of basic Dutch, trying to understand the Afrikaans speakers of South Africa. I think I get it, I think I get it, but then I don’t.

         Caputo is also hard because he’s a prose poet, using literary tools like rhythm and assonance and repetition to make his words sing. Along the way, though, his words become more evocative than definitive (if definitive writing was ever really possible). 

         Ultimately, Caputo writes in a different paradigm while still using theological and philosophical language that’s half-familiar. It’s disorienting. Thomas Kuhn famously said (something like) communication across different paradigms is incommensurate—that is, that people working and living in two different scientific paradigms couldn’t understand each other. When I read Caputo I do so with ears and mind trained in one paradigm straining to understand with a heart that has landed in another. It takes patience.

         But reading Caputo is both difficult and wonderful. Wonderful because he says things that suddenly break through my fog and move me: “What we call in Christian Latin ‘religion’ may be thought of as offering hospitality to God . . . and then keeping our fingers crossed.” Or this quote that made we smile and ache both: “No one who reads the New Testament slowly would ever come up with a theory that associates God with ‘natural law,’ not when irregularity, interruption, and lawless miracle are the very occasion of the appearance of God.” Every page of Caputo is full of these opportunities to stop reading and meditate instead.

         His book is also wonderful—for me—because it is heuristic. His writing inspires new ideas for preaching, and for thinking about old problems—like the problem of evil, or the problem of using Greek philosophical categories to talk about God in the creeds. His book also inspires all sorts of flights of fancy that may or may not go anywhere. He reflects, for example, on how the church fathers—always suspicious of the flesh—wondered of what use teeth or sexual organs or digestive systems could be in heaven when surely we would not need such things anymore. That got me to thinking about Jesus’ saying that in heaven we will be like the angels who do not marry. Is there an alternative interpretation of these words that doesn’t cater to the church’s historic suspicion of the flesh? God, after all, actually created that flesh, according to the Genesis myth. Could it be that in heaven we're all friends with benefits with everyone? That we could love others with perfect agapic selflessness, erotic pleasure, in a companionable manner? In such a heaven, marriage might be an outmoded and unnecessary institution!  We could enjoy the heavenly banquet and then romp. Sure, these are silly theological meanderings—especially if you’re no longer sure about heaven—but these meanderings also suggest that theology can sometimes be a playground rather than a battlefield.

         Caputo has a serious program that constantly breaks out into laughter. He challenges me with refreshing ideas like the notion that God needs me (rather than just me needing God), or that using the language of substance and essence (rather than insistence) to speak of God is fundamentally wrongheaded. I’m searching for something in all this to build on, a bit worried that Caputo might be better at deconstruction than construction. In fact, he is. But once he’s done, there is something new there that whispers to me. If only I knew what it was.

         Caputo is a very difficult, but wonderful writer!