A Library of Life – the 2000s

IMG_0966As I reflect on the 40 years of my ministry and the books that have made an impact on me I come to the first decade of this millennium. I have chosen two books. One emerges from the most intransigent and notorious conflict in the modern world and the other, by an influential Boston rabbi (here), reflects on the appeal of an Old Testament book Ecclesiastes to our broken western society.

Justice and Only Justice

 “John I am not surprised you were troubled by what you read. You English have never been oppressed but we Scots have; I can see exactly what he means”.

The speaker was a lowland Scot who had just listened to me introduce Ateek’s book about the way a Christian Palestinian reads the Old Testament. Ateek makes two points:

  • When a Palestinian believer living in the Occupied Territories of the West Bank reads the account of Old Testament Israelites taking over the land and cities of others peoples. it is hard to see how this might be deemed the blessing of God and history seems to be repeating itself.
  • Compassion without justice is an incomplete compassion.

She immediately tuned into his discourse. The experience of her people was a kin to the experience of the Palestinians. She knew that I had led pilgrimages to Israel regularly over the years but it wasn’t until I stayed in East Jerusalem at St Georges College and met Naim Ateek for the first time that my perspective on what was happening in that land was challenged. She recognised the change in me. Following in the footsteps of Jesus has never been the same since and neither has my reading the Old Testament.

 “This land of three faiths cursed by its ‘holiness’ can become a land of blessing only when it becomes clear to all three that it is a land that cannot be claimed by one people only”.

Rosemary Radford Ruether in her foreword to his book sums up the problem neatly. Ateek answers:

“What is at stake today in the political conflict over the West Bank and Gaza is nothing less than the way we understand God”.

Arising from this Palestinian Theology of Liberation, Ateek founded Sabeel – a Christian centre of ecumenical encounter which seeks to empower the Christians of the West Bank with a theological underpinning to enable them to live as people of peace in a place of violence.

I do not share their experience but the book had a profound effect on me. It provided a similar foundation which made me examine my assumptions about how the Old Testament should be read by Christians. It also provided the connection between my belief system and any political solution or humanitarian support I might give to the peoples of the so-called ‘holy land’.

I chastise myself that I fell into the very trap which Ateek warns against in my recent post about what has happened in Gaza. I talked about prayer and compassionate action for victims but I did not suggest what might be political action in search of justice for the Palestinians.

This is all too common among Christians I fear. We follow two of Micah the Prophet’s commands – we act kindly whilst walking humbly with our God – but do not act justly.

I think we fear this step. It invites controversy. Kindliness may warm the heart of our enemy, but justice is needed to change his mind. So a boycott of goods grown on occupied land which benefits the retailer more than the landowner might be needed for the sake of justice. So might a challenge to our fearful politicians who trot out ‘the two state solution’ knowing full well that the time for that appeal has gone.

When All You’ve ever Wanted isn’t Enough

I came across this book by chance. The title was attractive and so were the chapter headings: ‘The loneliness of looking out for Number One’ and ‘Was there something I was meant to do with my life?’

Just what a man in midlife needs! Well, at least this one. What I didn’t realise was that the book was a commentary on the book of Ecclesiastes. This is a notorious book. Christians have questioned from the beginning whether it should have been included in their holy book. Its material hardly appears in any Christian lectionary. It is only known for the ‘There is a time for everything‘ passage which can bring a lump to the throat even with the most casual of reading.

But as I read Kushner’s book I came under the spell of Qoheleth, the eponymous writer, of a series of searing exposes of religious cant and delusion. The themes of the book have been summed up in the following way:

Life is a divine gift.

Life is messy.

We cannot know what we are to do for life lacks any discernible moral order.

Given life’s incoherence, all attempts to master life by our own efforts

are simply futile.

It is best to accept life’s small joys as they are offered; enjoy the transitory.

So look more deeply at life.

Life is not a project to be solved; it will defeat any ‘rule of life’.

Death is our common fate, learn to live with it.

 Dissatisfaction is a way to find God and it is also a way to live by faith in God.

It has been said that this book will prepare you to receive the good news of Jesus Christ. Maybe. But I need to listen to the faith of the writer in its own terms for he too was seeking good news. He just did not think it would be found in the self-absorbed pretence of too much religious thought. There is a profound trust in God here. We are part of more than we know and must learn to enjoy the little we might achieve for it might not get any better.

For a number of years Qoheleth became my muse to the extent that I could only teach the themes of the book in character. It did me good but I think it was too disconcerting for many of my hearers.

Kushner returned to the meaning of belief in God in one of his later books about the story of Moses: Overcoming Life’s Disappointment.

“When Moses says, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh?” God answers not by telling Moses who he is, but by telling him who God is, saying, “I will be with you” (Exodus 3:12)”

Like Ateek, Kushner believes it is the God whom we are prepared to trust that will reveal the virtues and priorities of our life.

Perhaps it is that too many of us find ourselves trapped in our own occupied territories where we feel a stranger to ourselves. Strange gods roam in such places and it is the honest person who will survive.

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