My open letter to the Hon. Julie Bishop MHR


Dear Ms Bishop

I am presumptuously early in congratulating you both on your election, the Coalition’s accession to Government and your appointment as our Foreign Minister. But I do wish you well in representing all of us in the wider world.

Like you, I am appalled by the use by the Assad regime of chemical weapons. I am appalled that they should use such inhumane weapons and I am dumbfounded that they should use them against their own people.

I agree that the rest of the world cannot sit by and by silence condone their use.

However, I cannot see the logical step by which President Obama and the Australian Government believe that the appropriate punitive response is a response of force. A military response, apart from the illegality of attacking a sovereign nation that is not attacking us, reduces us to the level of the Assad government.

Non-violent response to the use of chemical weapons makes a more powerful and far more ethical statement. The rest of the world should not bomb, strafe or murder Syrians. Rather we should

° firstly state our opposition and disgust in response to the Assad regime’s actions through diplomatic channels.

° Secondly the West should better target humanitarian aid so that the real victims of the civil war can at least survive in safety. Standing by the least powerful Syrians, whether in refugee camps or cowering in suburbs in Damascus or Aleppo is a strong condemnation of the war.

° Thirdly the world can use mass media and social media inside and beyond Syria to condemn the actions of the Assad government. Humiliating a tyrant with words is more effective than killing his cousins, which only inflames the situation.

As our future Foreign Minister, Ms Bishop, please avoid adding to blood-shed by urging the world to act ethically and non-violently.

Yours sincerely

(The Rev’d) Ted Witham
Busselton

Episcopal theologian Frank Kirkpatrick has a similar take on Huffington Post.

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Killer planes and Christians


One cheer for the Americans. It is reported that a drone aeroplane killed Abu Yahya al-Libi, Al-Qaeda’s number two. Oh, and by the way, probably six other militants were killed in the same strike.

The world is probably better off without al-Libi and his like. They plot terrorist acts against Westerners, and I have no cheers for terrorists.

But our Christian moral tradition calls this extra-judicial taking of life by its proper name. It is murder. It is a violation of the sixth commandment: “You shall not kill.” It happens that my personal Christian commitment is to non-violence, and I am against all killing including killing in war and killing by the death penalty.

But I respect those who fought in wars. I think of my grandfather and the difficulty he had in re-connecting with his children after nearly three years away on the Western front. I think of my uncle Sim, his body racked with the shakes of Parkinson’s and a fragile mind, pushed to its limits by the memory of an engagement on ‘No-Man’s Land’ between trenches.

As soldiers, they were involved in killing. But they were fighting to keep our kind of society: they wanted a free society; a society where there is due process; a society where the actions of criminals are tried before punishment is pronounced.

Killing bin Laden and killing al-Libi without a trial makes a travesty of our democratic way of life. It is the behaviour not of a true democracy, but the actions of a vigilante group.  We Christians may not agree on the specifics of these targeted strikes against individuals, but we should agree on the desire for justice and the care necessary for every human being if true justice, the justice envisaged by the prophet Isaiah is to be the real experience of our society.

Do you think it was right to kill this man? And what would you say about this to President Obama if you met him … or if you decide to write to him. (Go online to http://www.whitehouse.gov/contact, or address the envelope to The White House, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20500, USA, and (from Australia) put a $2.35 stamp on it).

First posted at Dunsborough Anglican Church

The ghost of Melchizedek


At my ordination as a priest in 1975, one of my Anglo-Catholic friends gave me a card congratulating me that I was ‘a priest for ever, after the order of Melchizedek’. This is quite a common sentiment among the more catholic of my friends; and, as far as I can judge, for many of them, is no more than a sentimental statement that priesthood is for ever, or ‘indelible’ in the jargon of sacramental theology. And for Anglo-Catholics there is the additional frisson of belonging to an ‘order’.

I know enough Hebrew to know that the Psalmist (in 110:4) was not thinking of a religious order. ‘You are a priest forever according to the word of Melchizedek,’ is the literal translation, and in this case the Hebrew dibrati דִּ֝בְרָתִ֗י (from dabar) more likely means ‘in the manner of’, than any idea of a company or group.

But to be a priest ‘for ever’ binds one psychologically in a fascinating way. From the moment Archbishop Sambell laid his hands on my head, my identity changed. From then on, whatever else I might become, I would be always a priest. That sense of being called to communicate God to people has indeed remained with me for these 36 years.

And so has Melchizedek, that strange priest-king who appears to Abram to offer him bread and wine. (The account appears in Genesis 14:18-24). Melchizedek has been haunting my prayers, not least because I am reading through Hebrews at Morning Prayer and Melchizedek has quite a role there.

When I re-read Genesis, I am struck by how little can definitely be said about this king. His name, made up of two parts, means literally ‘my king-righteousness’. Some of the Rabbis take this to mean ‘Righteousness is my King’, and I would be proud as priest (for ever) and a human being (for ever) to take this a motto.

But other commentators differ: for them, ‘Melchi-‘ refers to the priest’s actual status as a King. He is named as King of Salem. No-one knows where this ‘Salem’ is. Is it Mount Gerizim (the sacred mountain of the Samaritans), or is it what Jerusalem, Jeru-Salem, was known as before David named it? In any case, the word ‘Salem’ is related to ‘shalom’, the peace and prosperity that we will know when God restores Israel.

So for me, a priest after the manner of Melchizedek, the second connection is with ‘peace’. I am to be one who is a catalyst for God’s peace. I am called to bring people together – with each other and with God, to be a channel of God’s peace, as that wonderful Franciscan prayer expresses it.

Righteousness, peace: these accompany the ‘ghost’ of Melchizedek, and I am glad of their company.

Melchizedek offers Abraham ‘bread and wine’. These are the common tools of my priesthood too. The Eucharistic bread and wine, and the hospitality that they symbolise, are the means by which I can live in righteousness and peace. My purpose in life is to invite people to feed on the rich generosity of God Most High.

In a striking image, the Rabbis also believed that Melchizedek brought to Abram the letter he (ה֥) which completed Abraham’s name. As a priest after the manner of this Melchizedek, I may also have the opportunity to reveal to people their true name, to complete something about their self-understanding. What an extraordinary privilege! God Most High, help me discern the letter ה֥ when I need to bring it into a person’s life.

In Psalm 110, and on my Anglo-Catholic friend’s card, I was told I was a priest ‘for ever.’ That is a wonderful affirmation. For all of us, the new identities God gives us in baptism, in ordination, in confession and reconciliation are not passing gifts: they are permanent. I rejoice in the ongoing nature of my priesthood. But the text is not as clear-cut as that. ‘For ever’, in Hebrew le-olam (לְעוֹלָ֑ם) can indeed mean ‘eternal’. But is also means ‘for the Eternal one’. I can grasp too greedily at God’s gifts. God is generous and will not revoke his gifts; but it’s not all about me and my status before God. My service as a priest is for God, le-olam, and it is God who benefits first from it.

Melchizedek sits with me in my prayer-room recalling me to the generosity of the Most High. His presence speaks to me of:

• The righteousness and peace that I receive from God and am to channel in the service of God’s people.
• The hospitality I am invited to bring to others; in some people’s lives, maybe even bring the letter that will complete their name; and
• the privilege of serving the Eternal one.

May I be grateful that the Most High calls me to be a priest for ever in the manner of Melchizedek.

Vignette IV on Peace


VIGNETTE IV ON PEACE.

Wading birds on leg extensions delicately pick their way through the thrice-salty shallows of the Rottnest lake as if fearful that the hyper-salinity might bite or burn it. They dip their long beaks quickly to harvest a shrimp or tiny insect. Gently they cross the shallows. This is home and they are at home. This is the eternal present of their lives, the way it always is.

We rarely see the massed take-off when they leave for Siberia.

We never see them feeding, breeding on the snowy wastes of the far northern hemisphere – equally their home.

We see only one moment. We see what is.

Vignette III of Peace


VIGNETTE III OF PEACE

The email screamed, “Nine thousand Muslims are coming! Keep them out of our Christian country! They will pervert our children and destroy our way of life.”

The chaplain should not have forwarded the email to me, her boss, whether or not she knew my views on immigration and on Islam.

I should have ignored it.

But I had a gnawing unease. Unless I did something about it, I would go on thinking that way about that chaplain. She had lost my respect, and it was important for me to restore it.

I started refuting the email line by line. Bad plan. That made me angry and made me write angrily. That way inflamed the situation. My first intuition to ignore the email had reason. I stopped writing. I waited a day. I prayed.

Then I wrote back to her, “I am sorry I cannot agree with your email,” I said, “but is it not possible that God wants 9,000 Muslims to come to Australia so that we can share our Christian faith with them?” I sent the email and waited two days.

She sent one more email, “I hadn’t thought of that. You may be right.” And then she apologised, “I am sorry I sent you that email without thinking first.”

Next time I saw her, I thanked her publicly for the commendable work she was doing in a difficult school. In praising her, I felt good about myself.

Vignette I of Peace


VIGNETTE I OF PEACE
The sun warms the western end of the shearing shed, and my back, leaning on the iron corrugations, soaks up the warmth.
Inside, rouseabouts shout, “Ho! Ho! Move up there!” and the shed rumbles with the penned sheep shuffling each other.
The diesel engine throbs on and on, and I hear it whine as a shearer engages the hand-piece on a long blow across the sheep’s back. The shouts of shearers and wool-classers are indecipherable sharp noises above the never-ending rumble. The shearing shed shuffles about on its footings; a machine at work.
But the warm wall, a smoke and a strong cup of tea in my hands, keep it at a distance. Moisture rises from the lush marshmallow plants. Yellow dandelions and green clover carpet the paddock in front of me. A bee buzzes lazily somewhere nearby and I drift drowsily in the afternoon’s warmth.