Messages of Hope

I beg to differ

Published / by Sandy

It has been extra-ordinarily hard to prepare these reflections in the context of the tragic events that have unfolded this week. The story of Mary, her encounter with the angel, her ‘yes’, and her song of praise we know as the Magnificat, are a familiar pattern in our year as we head towards Christmas. I have read this story again in the context of the events of this past week and have been challenged by the story in new ways.

Mary’s was a song of praise and hope. Aspirational. A longing – and a confidence – that things could change, that God’s reign would upend the wealthy and powerful and the privileged in favour of the poor, the dispossessed. Her context was Roman occupation and her song was a song of defiance.

Someone once said, ”A candle is a protest at midnight. It is a non-conformist. It says to the darkness, ‘I beg to differ.’”

I beg to differ.

How long do we hold such hope? How long can we ‘beg to differ’?

This week the world witnessed one sole, mentally unstable religious extremist gunman take hostages and force a lock down in the Sydney CBD. We saw the faces of the victims who lost their lives, Tori Johnson, the cafe manager, and Katrina Dawson, a lawyer and mother of 3 young children. The Sydney paper screamed the headline, ‘The day we changed forever’, determined to change our thinking and behaving, because this moment had, apparently, become a defining moment – even before we knew any details. Australian gun laws started to be discussed again – how might we protect ourselves from a repeat of such a tragic incident? Australian immigration policies were discussed again – how could he have been allowed into Australia? The judicial system was being discussed – how could he have been allowed out on parole? Domestic violence was discussed – again. The word ‘terror’ was used frequently, as if to link the Sydney siege with acts of terror that have happened so frequently in recent years, including the horrific actions of the Taliban in a school in the Pakistani city of Peshawar where at least 132 children and 9 staff were killed.

As some link the Sydney siege with acts of global terrorism, our world view begins to be defined and shaped by an alternate world view where fear rules the day.

For Mary, her context was ancient Palestine with Roman occupation. Today, ours is an ‘occupation’ of a different kind. Our world view and the things we value – our sense of community, our commitment to care for others – are now threatened by the occupation of alternate world views. As the Christian church finds itself increasingly marginalised in contemporary culture, the defining values, hopes and aspirations it has embodied are also marginalised. And into this vacuum, other values take their place including violence, xenophobia, and wild speculation in the media. In this alternate reality, the ‘other’ who is different to me must become the one who I must distrust. In this alternate reality, faith traditions that are different to mine must be those that are denigrated and demonised.

I beg to differ.

The flowers left in Martin Place in Sydney began as a touching tribute to the innocent victims of the Sydney siege, but may now be considered indulgent. Tens upon tens of thousands of dollars will have been spent on flowers in a week when the Government announced further drastic cuts to the foreign aid budget. But the flowers are another form of protest, and say, ‘I beg to differ’. Of saying, we will gather with friends and strangers in a public place, and place our symbols of tribute and protest together as a way of saying: there is another way that is live-giving and hopeful and peaceful, and we will seek and follow that way and not be overwhelmed by sorrow and despair. We will stand with the stranger in our midst, and look for opportunities where the stranger may become a friend. The notes that have been left with the flowers represent an expression of solidarity, comfort, unity and empathy. They are also in their own way an act of defiance – there is another way to that of fear, violence and retribution.

Thomas Zinn, partner of Tori Johnson, said when he visited the makeshift memorial he could “smell the flowers through Sydney”. He said, “I think it’s amazing that he has been able to make our city smell like flowers. There is no more beautiful thing that he could have imagined”.

This week I went to the Marion Mosque, which was opened especially for prayers on the night of the siege, and also so that people of all faith traditions could gather to pray and to affirm solidarity in service and friendship across faiths. It was another ‘I beg to differ’ moment – that we were not prepared to make way for the occupation of an alternate world view where suspicion and violence would define relations between faiths. Rabbi Shoshana Kaminsky was there and was invited to read a psalm from the Hebrew Scriptures. A woman, a Jewish rabbi, without a headscarf, reading a psalm from the ancient Scriptures sacred to Jews, in a Muslim mosque. The moment was breathtaking. She said, ‘I wanted to show my support for the Australian Muslim at a time when I feared some would condemn this entire faith group. I hope and pray that Australians can distinguish between the perpetrator and a faith whose adherents in Australia are strong supporters of the values we share’.

They are small but significant moments of ‘I beg to differ’. If not for these moments, the vacuum in our global moral compass would allow for alternate world views based on division and suspicion to occupy and permeate our thoughts and minds and actions, our community, our nation and the world. And this alternate reality that is seeking occupation in our lives is as if we have chosen to say ‘no’ to God’s ways, and thus perpetuate the growing distance between the rich and poor, the unjust distribution of the world’s resources, and the destruction of the earth and its ecosystems. It is to give our ‘yes’ to greed and self-interest and neglect of the vulnerable and marginalized.

I was reminded about a wonderful children’s story book, The Never Ending Story by German writer Michael Ende. The film told the first part of the story, but it’s worth reading the whole book. I used to read it aloud to my classes when I was teaching. It was captivating with its imagery and ideas. Its central plot was the creeping nothing that was taking over the land, town by town. Person by person. One character described it this way: The creeping Nothing around you – and inside you – just grows and grows. It’s the emptiness that’s left. It’s like a despair, destroying this world. Because people have begun to lose their hopes and forget their dreams. So the Nothing grows stronger.”

The vacuum left by the marginalisation of faith in our contemporary society allows for such a ‘creeping nothing’. And allows for that vacuum to be filled with groups based on radical ideology rather than transformational faith. The ‘nothing’ is ‘something’, but it is not the reign of God.

Perhaps this invites us to strengthen our resolve to live by the values of God’s reign, just as Mary’s testimony defined her living. And let’s be clear – not simply the values of a ‘civil society’ that has adopted core values from the Christian faith, but by the values of the reign of God as embodied by Jesus. Love your enemies, forgive others, serve others, welcome others, clothe the naked and feed the hungry etc. These values and practices are what define the lives of those who follow the Jesus way.

Like Mary, you and I are God bearers. We will therefore resist the steady and insidious occupation of other values based on fear, violence, suspicion and speculation. Our lives as followers of the Jesus way give testimony to the statement, I beg to differ.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

posted 21 Dec 2014 by Sandy