Messages of Hope

Month: December 2019

Is this the greatest Christmas painting of all time?

Published / by Sandy
Scène du massacre des Innocents (“Scene of the massacre of the Innocents”) by Parisian painter, Léon Cogniet in 1894

(Michael Frost, originally posted on his blogsite)

Today the painting hangs in the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Rennes. If it’s not the greatest of Christmas paintings, it must be one of the most haunting and affecting. A terrified mother cowers in a darkened corner, muffling the cries of her small infant, while around her the chaos and horror of Herod’s slaughter of the children of Bethlehem rages.
Most painters of this scene turn it into a huge biblical spectacle, making it a revolting tableaux of death and mayhem. But Cogniet focuses our attention on one petrified woman, a mother who knows she is about to lose her child. She envelopes her doomed child, her bare feet revealing how vulnerable they are. There’s no way to run. She is cornered.
Wisely, Cogniet doesn’t show us the carnage. It is hinted at in the rushing figures in the background. Another mother is seen carrying her own children down the stairs to the left, running for their lives. But Cogniet shows a level of artistic restraint not seen in many depictions of this story. He forces everything to the background in order to draw our attention to the woman’s terrified face.
That face!
Staring at… us!
It’s as if we are one of Herod’s agents of death, and we have found her. She glares at us in horror.
Cogniet is making us a party to the massacre of the innocents.
Hear the words of Matthew 2:18, taken, in turn, from the prophet Jeremiah:
“A voice is heard in Ramah,
weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
and refusing to be comforted,
because they are no more.”
At the birth of Jesus, the heavenly host of angels had promised peace on earth and goodwill to all. But in Herod’s slaughter of the infant boys of Bethlehem, we see not peace, but evil being unleashed.
At Christmas we celebrate our belief that the king of the universe has come into the world, to wage peace and justice, to bring love and kindness to all. But we forget that the birth of Christ also released a malignant force, the unbridled power of empire, the jealous strength of a threatened monarch, meted out upon the most vulnerable of all people.
Cogniet’s Scène du massacre des Innocents asks us to examine ourselves, to consider why this woman would be so scared of us, to examine the ways we have been coopted by the forces of empire, and sided with the powerful over the weak and the poor.
On September 1, 2004, more than 30 armed Chechen militants stormed a school in Beslan, Russia, barricading 1100 children, teachers and parents in the gymnasium and wiring the room with explosives. What followed was a living hell for those caught in the three-day maelstrom. Denied food and water and forced to stand for hours in the stiflingly hot room, the children began fainting. Their parents and teachers feared they would die. By the time the Russians stormed the school and the Chechens started setting off explosives, many of the hostages were too weak to flee the carnage. Over 385 people died.
Can you picture the woman in this painting in that gymnasium? Hers could also be the face of a mother in Aleppo or Homs or Yemen or South Sudan.
Empires continue to clash. The powerful continue to victimize children to secure their political goals. Mothers still cradled doomed children in their arms all around the world.
This Christmas, by all means remember the angels and the shepherds and the magi and the little boy-child Jesus in his manger. But also remember this mother and her child on the streets of Bethlehem. And remember that the coming of the Christ was to set in train a revolution of love and justice that would eventually sweep away all tyrants and free all victims and end all wars.
This Christmas, remember that the followers of the Christ are called not to side with empire, but to sit with the terrified, to comfort those who mourn, to join the meek and merciful and pure in heart. And to hunger and thirst for the righteousness only Jesus can bring.

What is the Uniting Church for?

Published / by Greg Elsdon

What is the Uniting Church for?

by Geoff Thompson

This might seem a strange question to ask. After all, our very name tells us: we’re uniting. Yes, this tells us something about the ecumenical context of our origins. We are one product of the 20th century pursuit of visible church unity.

For a while, our existence was something of a beacon to other churches – a sign of what could actually happen when long-standing differences and mistrust were put aside. Indeed, we had a mandate to go on uniting.

But what now? The quest for visible church unity is no longer characterised by the energy it exhibited in the middle third of the 20th century.

Churches have found ways of respecting and supporting each other, and somehow co-existing, despite continuing differences. Church division doesn’t seem to be quite the scandal it once was. Moreover, the rise and proliferation of Pentecostal and independent churches in Asia, Africa and South America has completely re-shaped the ecumenical landscape.

The diversity of Christianity is now even more complex than anything thrown up by the conventional denominational differences associated with the historic European churches.

We and other ‘mainline churches’ are often little more than bit-players in those recent global movements.

Of course, over the last 40 years we’ve quite rightly taken up additional and new vocations. We shouldn’t expect it to be otherwise if we believe that we are being led by the Spirit. We demonstrate that in the way we quite frequently describe ourselves as a multicultural, inclusive, covenant-making, social justice-prioritising and diverse church. None of the commitments behind these adjectives are in question.

But look more carefully at what we do when we put any of those adjectives, including uniting, in front of the word church. We risk defining ourselves over and against other churches.

Given the reality of multiple churches, this is largely inevitable. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pause and look more deeply at what is going on. Are we in fact simply perpetuating denominationalism, albeit in a new form, by continuing to define ourselves over and against other churches?

What happens when we take those adjectives away and are left with ‘church’? Why is there a church in the first place and why should there continue to be a church?

My hunch is that, quite apart from the answers offered, the force of those questions will vary according to our generation and whether or not we are shaped by a Christendom or post-Christendom imagination. Let me explain this.

The generation which courageously voted for union was largely able to take the existence of the church for granted. It was part of the fabric of society. Being a Christian and going to church had cultural legitimacy. The existence per se of the church did not require social justification. Accordingly, there was cultural, spiritual and intellectual space to think about such matters as uniting divided churches, the social role of the churches, and even the finer doctrinal points of inter-denominational disputes. None of this was trivial, and without it union would never have happened. It was, however, the world of Christendom.

On the other hand, matters are quite different for anyone born after union, let alone in the last 20 years. They know first-hand, in a way that those of us of the older generation don’t, what it means to be in a culturally minority position and daily engaged with a level of cultural pluralism unimaginable 40 years ago. They have never known the church to be a major social player.

They have no memory of, and therefore no nostalgia for, huge Sunday schools and church sports clubs or the church possessing social prestige. Uniting Church congregations have simply not been big enough for their lives to be built around their church commitments the way the lives of many of us older Christians were.

For them, Christianity is something you have to step into with few cultural supports for doing so. Many of them will be the only point of contact with Christianity for perhaps most of their friends.

Recently, a sales assistant – probably in her mid-20s – asked me what I did. On hearing that I was a minister she responded by telling me that no one in her family has ever had any contact with religion. I suspect she and her family are far from alone. This is the post-Christendom world.

I believe that this post-Christendom world has largely caught the Uniting Church by surprise. The courage, hopes and aspirations which accompanied union and which have sustained us for 40 years were the hopes and aspirations which were needed in Christendom. We were right to show that courage, have those hopes and nurture those aspirations.

Yet, the remarkable thing is that the theology which brought union about was strangely anticipating post-Christendom. (This was not accidental. The authors of the Basis of Union had noted the declining influence of Christendom in their first Report in 1959.)  There is a sense in which we now have a chance to catch up to the theology of the Basis.

When the Basis describes the church as “an instrument through which Christ may work and bear witness to himself” it defines the church wholly in terms of its relationship to Christ. This might seem a straightforward matter, but it is exactly what risks being obscured when we don’t pause to ask what ‘church’ means and we emphasise instead any of the various adjectives we choose to place before it.

As we move more deeply into the post-Christendom context, the questions of the ‘what’ and ‘why’ of the church will press upon us more persistently. Starting to answer those questions with something like ‘an instrument through which Christ may work and bear witness to himself’ could prove very fruitful.

It also pushes us back to ask, ‘Who is this Christ for whom we are an instrument?’ And on such questions, I believe we need to listen to the post-union/post-Christendom generation of the UCA as they help us reflect on what the UCA is for.

Rev Associate Professor Geoff Thompson teaches Systematic Theology at Pilgrim Theological College in Melbourne.

This article was originally published in Crosslight on 20 August 2017.

Sing Freedom!

Published / by Sandy

And so we begin a new liturgical year, and Advent leads us into the Christmas season. Advent – a time of waiting, longing, hoping. We sing of our hopes.

In a post in October 2019 on his website, Mike Frost asks, Why isn’t Christian music more revolutionary? He writes:

Nearly fifteen years ago, I ruffled a few feathers when I criticized contemporary Christian music (CCM) for its highly romanticized – even sexualized – lyrics for expressing devotion to God. Other critics have emerged to say that CCM lyrics are too individualistic, too pietistic, too safe.

In a couple of recent interviews, U2’s Bono ripped into the CCM industry, calling it bland and predictable. Reflecting on the richness of the Old Testament psalms, he wondered why modern-day gospel singing wasn’t as concerned with laughter, tears, and doubt. He especially wanted to know why there’s no reference to injustice: “I want to hear songs of justice, I want to hear rage at injustice and I want to hear a song so good that it makes people want to do something about the subject.”

Christian hip-hop artist Lecrae has been more than willing to address systemic issues like racism and injustice in his lyrics, but he has been criticized for doing so. He wrote, “Christians saying that ‘preaching the gospel is all we need’ ignores how sin affects infrastructures and societal systems… True faith stands up for the oppressed and the broken.”

Christian worship should express our collective hope in Christ of a rescued, renewed and restored world, a world in which injustice, racism, hatred and violence have ended, once and for all.

My suggested alternative to romantic worship songs was that we ought to sing revolutionary worship songs. We need lyrics that call us into a revolution of love and justice. In fact, there hasn’t been a single revolution in history that wasn’t sung into existence. Social change has a soundtrack.
The revolutionaries of the French, American and Bolshevik uprisings all sang about the new nation they were forging, a song they were willing to die for.
The Civil Rights movement sang Christian spirituals.
The German democratic movement that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall began with singing and prayers for freedom in a church in Leipzig in 1980. (This week celebrates the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall on Nov 9th)
The anti-Marcos movement in the Philippines, the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, the anti-Russian movement in Ukraine – they all wrote songs to inspire their followers.

Even today on the streets of Hong Kong, millions of protesters resisting the controls imposed by Communist China have found the Christian hymn, “Sing Hallelujah to the Lord” as their anthem of freedom. The song has even been banned from Chinese streaming platforms.

And to underscore the point, today, across scores of cities in the US and around the world, secular Justice Choirs are being launched, where ordinary citizens can come together to sing for social justice.

Isn’t the radical teaching of Jesus as revolutionary as any of these examples of political upheaval? Hasn’t he called us to a revolution of grace, peace, and justice? And hasn’t he told us that if we love him, we will follow him, we will obey his commands? His message is a call to insurgency, to mutiny against the values of this, our host empire… We have been called by the Revolutionary One to demonstrate our love for him with action, with insubordinate acts of generosity and kindness, with a struggle against injustice, with an activist’s vision for a renewed world in which God is acknowledged as the one, true God, and every knee is bent in service to him.

The Bible is full of revolutionary songs, and not just in the Psalms. (There’s the familiar words of Mary’s song we call the Magnicat in Luke’s Gospel, for instance).

In Isaiah 42, we are told to sing a new song to the Lord, but shortly after that, God decides to sing a song to us! And it’s a doozy.
“For a long time I have kept silent,
I have been quiet and held myself back.
But now, like a woman in childbirth,
I cry out, I gasp and pant.
I will lay waste the mountains and hills
and dry up all their vegetation;
I will turn rivers into islands
and dry up the pools.
I will lead the blind by ways they have not known,
along unfamiliar paths I will guide them;
I will turn the darkness into light before them
and make the rough places smooth.
These are the things I will do;
I will not forsake them.
But those who trust in idols,
who say to images, ‘You are our gods,’
will be turned back in utter shame. (Isa 42:14-17)

Singing (wailing?) like a mother in childbirth, God’s lyrics concern a new world in which the unjust, the idolater, the oppressor, are laid to waste and a new world of peace, justice and joy emerges.

Can’t someone write some songs like that today?!

Related post:
Making an earthly difference: why it’s time to re-think our worship songs by Sam and Sara Hargreaves