Martyred Christians at Mosul


For the sake of our fellow-Christians in Mosul, we should keep our outrage burning brightly. The thugs of ISIS are murdering Christians by their tens, burning the churches. They mark their houses with “N” (for “Nazarene”) and occupy them for themselves. Some commentators claim this is the worst pogrom since the Nazis put yellow stars on Jews and rounded them up in Germany.

To bring Christianity in Mosul to an end is a tragedy of the worst kind: Christians have been there since just after the time of Christ. They still speak Aramaic, the language of Christ. ISIS is destroying the community’s ancient irreplaceable texts.

The purpose of ISIS is clear: to wipe our Christianity in Iraq and all historical traces of it. It is shaping up to be a massacre of a people and the death of a culture. As a Christian, I burn with a sad anger to see brothers and sisters in the process of becoming martyrs.

As a teacher of World Religions, I am aware also that for most Muslims, the actions of ISIS is shameful. Their casual cruelty is foreign to Islam, which values human life and respects the People of the Book.

ISIS, like some extreme Christian groups, believes shrines and images lead people away from God. On July 24 this year, for example, the Islamic State levelled the tomb of Jonah in Mosul. This is as incomprehensible to most Muslims as Cromwell’s wanton destruction of English churches during the Revolution is to Christians.

The respected Washington Post, for example, wonders whether the destruction of shrines is to gain media attention. The answer is, I think, only as means to teach Muslims of the perceived dangers of these artefacts. These fundamentalists believe that they deceive people by promising to help them get closer to God, and they are prepared to destroy even the most valuable so that people can have simple direct access to God.

There seems so little that we can do from here in Australia. But I would suggest three actions.

  • Appreciate our freedom to worship. Thank God for it; and, if the occasion arises, express our appreciation to our civic leaders.
  • Stand in solidarity with our fellow-Christians in Mosul. Pray for them and with them. Get on board with the Act for Peace (Christmas Bowl) campaign.
  • Spread the word. Talk about the massacre that is occurring in Mosul with your friends. Re-post this blog, or other blogs about it, or link to it.

 

Ted Witham
26 July 2014

Bishop Brian Macdonald: subito Santo?


Bishop Macdonald at the Citizenship Convention, Canberra, 1965. Photo: Courtesy National Library of Australia

If John Paul 2 can be made a saint, then I reckon Brian Macdonald can be made a saint too. Bishop Brian Macdonald was one of my heroes in the early years of my priesthood. I was fortunate to be in the same Deanery as the bishop in my eight years at Christ Church Grammar School and so we met up most months at Deanery meetings.

Bishop Macdonald had a quietly radiant and prayerful presence. He was not a man to use his rank to dominate. I remember his purple bishop’s shirt was blue rather than the usual scarlet, and I retain a strong positive regard for bishops with blue-purple shirts.

Like most spiritual leaders, he had something subversive about him. One day at a Deanery meeting, we were discussing something vitally important – legislation for Synod perhaps – when I heard him whispering to me, “St Francis didn’t write ‘The Prayer of St Francis’, you know.” When I eventually realised he was talking to me, I paid attention to what he was saying. Knowing my interest in all things Franciscan, he was having a gentle dig. “St Francis didn’t write ‘The Prayer of St Francis, you know.” I replied, “What do you mean, Bishop?” With a wicked smile, he repeated, “He didn’t write it, you know.”

I went home and researched the Peace Prayer and found that indeed, St Francis cannot have written the prayer that begins, “Make Me an Instrument of Your Peace.” It was written in only about 1912. I wondered why a Christian gentleman would take such pleasure in disillusioning me. Perhaps it was his delight in taking an interest in my spiritual journey.

Bishop Macdonald was in many ways a radical. At the Summer School of Perth Diocese one year, he claimed that Jesus had completely developed his feminine as well as his masculine nature. I know now that Bonaventure and other medieval theologians had taught similar ideas six centuries earlier, but to expound this notion for lay-people in the 1970s was a gentle shock. I learned that Jesus was a strong leader, willing to take the initiative, and to take his stand against evil. But equally, Jesus was nurturing, caring and intuitive, not afraid to express emotion and be vulnerable. Something like Bishop Macdonald himself. Masculine and feminine: a rounded human being.

Today, decades after the death of Bishop Macdonald, I was again reminded of the blue-shirted bishop when our diocesan bishop visited our parish. Bishop Allan Ewing wears a scarlet-purple shirt, so that’s not the point of connection.

Today is Easter V, and the Gospel is from John 14 with Jesus telling us, “In my Father’s house are many places.” Bishop Allan interpreted this to mean that there are for each of us places of safety and feeding for us now in the Kingdom as we live it out. It is not a promise for the future, but a statement for today.

Back in those Deanery meetings, Bishop Macdonald told us about trading caravans travelling back and forth across the Middle East, making 15 – 20 miles a day. Each night they needed a stopping place where there would be shelter, feed and water for the camels; a place to stop and sleep. The Greek word Jesus uses is “manoi” which does translate as “stopping places”. Jesus is stating, “In my Father’s caravan are many stopping places.” This is good news. And one man from those caravans rode ahead each day. He was called the dragoman. His role was to go ahead of the caravan and to make sure everything was ready at the stopping place. “I go ahead of you to prepare a place.” Jesus is the dragoman for us each day on our journey.

So I am grateful to Bishop Allan for recalling Bishop Macdonald for me, reminding me of his gentle humanity, his humour and his care for young priests. In a way, he continues to sit just out of view whispering encouragement and preparing the way for his fellow servants of the Kingdom. Thank God for him!

The end of history and the start of hope


Niels Peter Lemche, The Old Testament between Theology and History: A Critical Survey, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008.

From $AUD 45 online

Is held by some Australian libraries.

Reviewed by Ted Witham

Niels Peter Lemche claims that about 200 years ago Western Christians started asking the question “Did it really happen?” about events in the Old Testament. About the same time the Romantic idea of the nation state grew out of revolutions and rebellions. Kings no longer defined people. We began to speak of nations as “She”, and attributed actions to nations.

 

The combination of using the Bible as a source book for a history of Ancient Israel and the rise of nationalism was a disaster. Lemche claims that imperialistic nations felt justified in treating the inhabitants of places they conquered in the same manner as Joshua had treated the Canaanites. Because Israel, that ancient nation in the story had ignored, mistreated, dehumanised and only just tolerated the ongoing presence of the original inhabitants of the land God was giving them, so the English in Australia or the French in Africa could do the same.

 

It may be that the Holocaust happened partly because European Christians had asked of the Old Testament, “Did it really happen?” The German nation put to the ban the enemies of Christ, who were defined as not even really human beings. And paradoxically, the Israeli nation may be absorbing the same thinking when she continues to expand her settlements as if there were no Palestinians living where she seeks to build.

 

Lemche, who is Professor at the Department for Biblical Exegesis at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, reveals the process by which the critical-historical method of understanding the Old Testament has unravelled. Again and again he shows that proofs of historical events in the Bible are based on circular reasoning. No evidence for a wide-spread empire based around southern Palestine in the 9th or 10th Centuries BCE has ever been found. There is no evidence for Kings David and Solomon outside of the Bible. Lemche shows how hopeful scholars make their claims for David and Solomon from the Books of Samuel and Kings and then use the same books as evidence for those claims.

 

There is attestation outside the Bible in the 8th Century for a small “House of Omri”, which the Bible calls the northern kingdom of Israel. There is precious little other corroborating evidence for the events or the personalities described in the Bible.

The Amarna letters – evidence from the time

 

What then should we do? Discard the Old Testament as simply unreliable? Overall Professor Lemche calls us to look afresh both at the original purpose of the Old Testament and at the history of the area we call Palestine.

 

Lemche believes the Old Testament was written much later than scholars have previously argued, perhaps in the 2nd or 1st Centuries BC. It was certainly written in a time of diaspora and written for the Jews to respond to the fact that they were scattered from their land. They were in possession of two foundation myths, those of exodus and exile, so the purpose in writing was to weave these themes into an exhortation to stand apart from the people around them by turning to the God who led them out of slavery and alienation.

 

Their purpose was not to write a coherent documentary of the past; it was to create an expectation that God was continuing to act among God’s people, and that a Messiah would come to rescue them. The book of Psalms, for example, is ordered to reveal this messianic agenda.

 

The first Christians often quoted the Old Testament. In the time of Jesus, there was certainly no bound volume in Hebrew or Greek called “The Old Testament”. The New Testament authors quoted usually from the Greek translation of Old Testament books. The way Christians picked up from these books the themes of Law and Gospel, Promise and Fulfilment is covered briefly. These sections were tantalising. I wanted more on this.

 

In a lengthy Appendix, Lemche uses the tools of a modern historian to sketch a history of Palestine from pre-historic times to modern Israel: using the long perspective of the geography and fauna of the land, to the middle perspective of human occupation and land use, to the shorter perspective of the social and political groupings in Palestine. History is still important; but it is found from evidence, not from books that were always intended to be read as theology and for spiritual encouragement.

 

Professor Lemche describes himself and his colleagues in the “Copenhagen School” as “radical theologians”. He asserts that the “collapse of history” in Old Testament studies has liberated the Hebrew Bible. As he says, “We now have the stories unmolested.”

 

Niels Peter Lemche

In this volume Professor Lemche has written a comprehensive survey of Old Testament scholarship of the last 50 years. As I read it, I felt he was putting into this book his whole journey of scholarship and discovery. It is not always easy to read. He wrote it originally in Danish, and then translated it himself with help from Professor Jim West and the book’s American publisher. The result is uneven. It changes register abruptly from academic style to colloquial. The sentences are sometimes long and convoluted. For such a summative work, a thorough edit or a skilled translator would have been helpful.

 

But I found the book well worth persevering with. For some Christians, the idea of “the collapse of history” will be challenging; but for most of us, refocusing the Bible on its theological foundations and letting go of the need to find dates for the Exodus or prove Abraham existed clears the way to read afresh the Old Testament and its promise of a Messiah.

Psalm 114 for Noongar country


When Israel came into the Great South Land:
and the People of God among a people of an alien tongue.

Torndirrup became his sanctuary:
and Walyunga his domain.

The sea saw that, and fled:
Derbal Yiragan was driven back.

Pualaar Miial skipped like a ram:
and the foothills like young sheep.

What ailed you, O sea, that you fled:
O Yiragan, that you were driven back?

O Bluff Knoll, that you skipped like a ram?:
O little hills like young sheep?

Tremble, O Noongar country, at the Lord’s presence:
at the presence of the God of gods.

Who turned the rock into a billabong:
and threw sand into the waterhole to make it safe.

***

(Acknowledging Professor David Frost’s version of Psalm 114 in A Prayer Book for Australia)

 Torndirrup – the National Park on the south coast at Albany with the Gap and Natural Bridge.

Walyunga – National Park on the Darling Range near Perth with many sacred places associated with the Waagyl.

Derbal Yiragan – Swan River

Pualar Miial – Bluff Knoll (tallest peak in the Stirling Ranges)

Throwing sand – When Noongars arrive at a water-hole or river, they throw sand into the water so as not to disturb the Waagyl and make the water safe for drinking and swimming.

The Gap, Torndirrup National Park, courtesy pleasetakemeto.com

Psalm 108 for Noongar country


My heart is fixed, O God, my heart is fixed:
I will sing and make melody.

Awake, my soul, and awake, sticks and didj:
for I will awake the morning.

I will play the didj, O Lord, among the peoples:
its circle buzzing breathes our gratitude.

I will chip your clapping sticks among the nations:
its clicking claims your eternal praise.

For the dawn in the east rises in gold and scarlet:
robes of Easter and Pentecost overwhelm the sky.

Your faithfulness reaches to the clouds:
and the land is a body painted with white and ochre dreamings.

Be exalted, O God, above the southern skies:
and let your glory shine over Noongar country;

That all whom you love may be delivered:
Noongars and wedulahs, O save us by your right hand, and answer us.

***

(Acknowledging Professor David Frost’s version of Psalm 108 in A Prayer Book for Australia)

 The ‘didj’ (didgeridoo) was technically not a part of Noongar culture before the arrival of Europeans, but they have adopted it since contact with ‘wedulahs’ (white fellas) has brought them into contact with other Indigenous groups.  

My country of origin is Koreng country. I now live in Wardandi country.

Noongar country (Western Australia)

 

 

 

Psalm 148 for Western Australia


Praise the Lord. Praise the Lord from heaven:
praise him from the heights of Toolbrunup.

Praise him, all his angels:
O praise him all his hosts.

Praise him, sun and moon, rippling staircase across the sea:
praise him, all you stars of light.

Praise him you highest heaven:
and you Cross bright against the dark of night.

Let them praise the name of the Lord:
for he commanded and they were made.

He established them for ever and ever:
he made an ordinance which shall not pass away.

O praise the Lord from the earth:
praise him you golden super-pit and caves of glistening stalactites.

Bush-fire and hail, cyclone and heat:
and willy-willies fulfilling his command.

Mountains of iron and giant ant-hills:
gum-trees, and grass-trees, and grey-green plains of spinifex.

Dingoes and kangaroos:
creeping things and long loping emus.

Elders of tribes, and many nations:
refugees and boat-people, and all who’ve crossed the seas.

Young folk and children:
Seniors and toddlers together,

Let them praise the name of the Lord:
for his name alone is exalted.

His glory is above earth and heaven:
and he has lifted high the stocks of his people.

Therefore he is the praise of all his servants:
of the children of the West, a people that is near him. Praise the Lord.

(Acknowledging Professor David Frost’s version of Psalm 148 in A Prayer Book for Australia)

* Toolbrunup – second highest peak (1,052 metres above sea level) in the Stirling Range in the Great Southern region of WA

* Staircase of the Moon – in Broome and Meelup in February and March the rising full moon shines over the east-facing beach to create a spectacular light effect like a staircase.

* super-pit – open-cut gold mine near Kalgoorlie 3.5 x 1.5 km and 600 metres deep.

* willy-willy – local word for dust-storm or mini-tornado.

* spinifex – properly called Triodia, these arid grasses are endemic to outback Australia.

Willly-willy

 

 

Psalm 89 for Western Australia


Lord, I will sing for ever of your loving kindnesses:
my mouth shall proclaim your faithfulness throughout all generations.

Let the heavens praise your wonders, O Lord:
and let your faithfulness be sung by your holy ones in cathedrals and karri forests.

O Lord God of hosts, who is like you?:
your power and your faithfulness are all about you.

You rule the raging of the sea:
when its waves surge at Yallingup, you still them,
when its tides rush in at Hedland, you level them.

You created the Kimberley and the Great Southern:
Kununurra and Esperance shall sing of your name.

The endless array of the stars is yours:
and so are the far-dreamt deserts of the interior.

You founded the fertile valleys of the West:
and filled the rivers with gilgies and fish.

Happy the people who know the cry of the black cockatoo:
who walk, O Lord, in the paths of your creating.

They rejoice all the day because of your name:
because of your righteousness they are exalted.

Our land belongs to our God:
our country to the One who makes us.

(Acknowledging Professor David Frost’s version of Psalm 89 in A Prayer Book for Australia)

* karri – eucalyptus diverticolor trees which grow extremely straight up to 80 metres.

* gilgie – a freshwater crustacean found in West Australian waters.

Karri forest (courtesy Wikipedia)

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