Archive for June, 2006

does god actually make a difference?

Does God actually make any difference at all to our efforts to transform the world into a place of justice and peace? This isn't a question about whether or not we ought to be doing it: we ought! The question is, what difference does being a Christian make to our work of transformation, compared with other people and groups who are working towards the same goals but with no Christian reference. What do I say to the young man I know who is passioantely committed to making a difference in the world, but sees no need whatsoever to do is "for Christ's sake". He cannot see that Christian faith adds anything, nor does he see any evidence for some notion of the work of the Spirit that means there is some sort of appreciable difference in either the quality or effectiveness of Christian participation in the struggle for justice. What's the answer here, folks? Is there an answer? And if there isn't, why do we bother about the "God" bit?

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22 June, 2006 at 10:05 am 11 comments

israel and palestine: the new apartheid (3)

One of the questions provoking serious debate within Israel at the moment is the relationship between Israel's counter-terrorism strategy, democracy, and the rule of law. It is a serious issue and is being taken seriously. It is causing a great deal of heart-searching and opinion is deeply divided. I quote here from a letter by Dan Shaham, Director of Piblic Affairs at the Israeli Embassy, London (ie the person in charge of PR!):

The impact of this dilemma, was recently demonstrated when Israel's Supreme Court was divided six votes to five over the 'Citizenship and Entry to Israel Law' (temporary provision – 2003). The law currently halts granting legal status in Israel to Palestinians residents of the West Bank and Gaza who are married to Israelis. The law was initially passed in 2003, when Israel found that dozens of terror attacks were being carried out by and in collaboration with Palestinians who gained entry and residency in Israel by marrying an Israeli citizen.

Five of the Supreme Court Justices argued that Israel, as a sovereign state, has the right to prohibit the immigration of foreign nationals to its territory, and since Israel is in a state of war, the law, as it stood was in proportion to the threat. However, a further five Justices, led by the President of the Supreme Court, Aharon Barak – a champion of human rights – voted against the law, claiming it is a citizen's constitutional right to live with his/her family in Israel. The vote was, therefore, decided by Justice Edmond Levy, who recognised that the law violated constitutional right to family life, but considering the ongoing threat of terrorism, he rejected the petitions and gave the state a 9-month extension to amend the law

It is worth following those links. Aharon Barak's paper is well worth reading. What is clear is that the apparatus of the Security State (which Israel has become) is disturbing and dividing the people as it becomes more visible. I remember working with Mossad in Rhodesia in 1979 (that sounds grandiose: what I mean is that the Rhodesian and Israeli intelligence services worked closely hand in hand. At my level, it meant that I mainly got to read regular intelligence analysis reports). Israel was already and always a security state: it's just that in the world of the late 70s, Palestinians were terrorists and the Israelis were the embattled, courageous little nation that stood up to concerted Arab aggression and bit back with a vengeance. We Rhodesians admired the hell out of them! In fact, the admiration was mutual. But I digress!

The point here is that, no doubt as a fact in many Israeli minds (and it is certainly the position pushed in Israeli government propaganda), the present situation is presented as a new thing. It's as though there is somehow a new form of the "terrorist threat" faced by Israel. Much Israeli security rhetoric rides on the back of American post-9/11 "War on Terror". Subconsciously, the Intifada plays as a manifestation of a new global terror threat faced by all democratic countries. However, there is nothing new about it. What is new is the degree of radicalisation of the Palestinian community which has happened in response to Israeli terror tactics and the deafening silence of the western world over their plight, which has bred deapair and desperation.  It is not a new conflict: what is new is the level of visibility.

The parallel with South Africa is the escalation in the struggle against Apartheid, which happened in the mid-80s. When these sorts of conflicts escalate, the nature of the problem becomes nakedly visible. That creates problems for the government which is administering a policy of aggression and repression under the guise of separation. There is benign logic to separation: it needn't mean the same thing as oppression and exploitation. That is the rhetoric of acceptability that keeps otherwise decent citizens quiet about gross injustice. It enables the state to portray resistance as surprising, shocking, atypical, unrepresentative and immoral. The more naked the conflict, however, the more difficult that fiction is to sustain. That is what is happening in Israel at the moment.

Let's be clear: it is the duty of a sovereign state to protect itself and its citizens against terrorism and incursion. And in the contemporary climate, any democratic state is faced with the trade-off between security legislation, democracy, and civil liberties (please note, in parenthesis, that I do not include "human rights" in that list: by definition, these are simply non-negotiable). What I object to in the Israeli situation is what caused such outrage in the western democracies during the Apartheid era in South Africa: Israel illegitimately describes itself as being "at war", and casts the Palestinians as foreign aggressors. This is not a war between two states! It is a form of war – but it is the warfare of oppression and the conflict is caused by Palestinian resistance to that oppression. It is a civil war, in which a government is waging war upon a section of the populace – just as Saddam Hussein did against the Kurds and the Apartheid regime did against Black South Africans.

One way of trying to legitimate a war is to deprive the victim group of residency and citizenship. If you make them stateless, or "foreign", then you can claim that it is vital to put up a "security fence" to protect your borders. The South Africans created so-called Independent Homelands. They were neither viable nor self-governing. They had puppet regimes and were entirely dependent on South African funding for existence. They were often geographically scattered, so that one continually passed between sections of Bophutatswana and South Africa (for example), in precisely the same manner as one does between Israel and the areas nominally controlled by the Palestinian Authority. The measure of autonomy enjoyed by the Authority is seen in the fact that Israel is refusing to pay PA salaries while Hamas is in power!

Palestinians are not foreign aggressors. They are refugees in their own land. If that is not enough, they are subjected to a panoply of laws that any of us would find absolutely intolerable. What land they do have is expropriated at will by the Israelis. Their water has been cut off. They have intermittent electricity supplies. Their lands have been annexed, their houses bulldozed and their communities made into ghettos by the Wall and the checkpoint system. Their communities are invaded at will by the Israeli military. Any resistance is met not only with massive reprisal, but is branded as terrorism and condemned throughout the western world. They are the price that Israel demands fort the protection of US and British interests in the regions – and that Israel receives!

The point of these three posts is simple. For some reason, it was easy to see Apartheid for what it was. Nelson Mandela and the ANC were not regarded as terrorists (by in large), but as heroic resisters – freedom fighters. Of course, some of the methods of resistance were particularly hard to stomach – such as the gruesome necklacings in which vehicle tyres were paced around the necks of suspected sell-outs, filled with petrol and set alight. We in the west like our conflicts "tidy" – guns, warplanes, tanks, rifles, chemicals and missiles at dawn are all perfectly acceptable. Necklacings and suicide bombers are far to messy, up close and personal. It's a cultural thing – we know how to "do" war, and those other ways of resisting are just frightful – too primitive! "Won't do, my boy – won't do at all!"

Yet the parallels between the structures of Apartheid and the situation in Israel and Palestine are real. They are not strained, overly-pressed or only vaguely analogous. We ought to see Palestinian resistance for what it is – the response of a people who are being made war on. It is simply not true that all parties to a conflict must bear equal blame. A bullied child who stands up to the bully is not violent in the same way as the bully! People who defend themselves and their communities are not terrorists. And not every government of a sovereign state is legitimate – even if it is has been democratically elected! Hitler was elected, and look what he did with his Aryan policies! When is the rest of the world going to shrug off this ridiculous paralysis that says, "We don't know everything, so we can't choose sides"??? The ignorance on many aspects of South African political and economic life under Apartheid was sometimes encyclopaedic – yet that didn't stop people getting involved, protesting and boycotting. It didn't stop them being right, either! They got involved – and Apartheid crumbled. The sad thing is that, like anti-Semitism, we all thought it had been consigned to the dustbin of history. It hasn't … yet! It's alive and well, and living in the Middle East.

9 June, 2006 at 12:17 pm 8 comments

social exclusion, the church and proclaiming the gospel

Here's something to read: the Archbishop of York's letter to The Guardian, and an article by Fran Beckett about the Church and social exclusion. One of the things we're bad at as churches is blowing our own trumpets. Now, that's an obvious virtue. But what's the balance between blowing our own trumpets (hiss! boo!) and proclamation (hooray!)? We are in the business of proclaiming Good News. Good News in a Christian sense doesn't exist as some sort of free-floating message. It is Good News – Gospel – to a world governed by Bad News. It has to become incarnate, which means that it needs to take shape on the ground. The Good News about Jesus is not about escaping to heaven but about heaven coming down to earth. It is about our reality being transformed – our world becoming the kingdom of God.

There's a direct relationship, in other words, between our disciplehip of and faith in Jesus and our actions in the world – between proclamation and mission. To be a disciple of Jesus Christ is to be involved in God's story of salvation for the world. That is why we do what we do. We cannot neglect either aspect of it. The missiologist, David Bosch, distinguishes helpfully between evangelical dimension and evangelical intention. Not everything we do is explicitly aimed at calling people to faith in Christ (intention). But everything has an evangelical dimension because it is intimately connected to the story of God in Christ.

A vital part of mission is therefore always to make explicit the connection between what we do and our faith. The task of proclamation is to establish the congruence between our living and acting in the world in the light of the kingdom, on the one hand, and our faith that God has acted in Christ to save the world. That is when our actions to combat social exclusion, feed the hungry, clothe naked, comfort the suffering and liberate the oppressed truly become the Good News of Jesus Christ.

7 June, 2006 at 2:40 pm Leave a comment

israel and palestine: the new apartheid (2)

At the height of Apartheid, the standard of living for white South Africans was exceeded only by that of Californian Americans. I was staying with my parents in Cape Town in 1989. It was a beautiful place to be. Dining out was a pleasure – huge portions of delicious food (especially beef and seafood) – and so cheap by comparison with the UK! Yet at the same time, not 30 miles away, in the so called "Independent Homelands", black South Africans were literally starving to death. Bishop Malusi Mpumulwana told a conference I hosted in Cambridge of his experience of a Eucharist held in one of these areas just outside Cape Town. A woman brought her baby to the altar, and held it up to Malusi not for a blessing, but for the bread. He told her gently, "Daughter, our tradition does not allow children to eat the bread and drink the wine. But I will happily bless your baby!" The woman retorted, "Father, this bread will be the only food my child eats all weekend! We are starving – and you would refuse this? And yet you tell us that Jesus is the Bread of Life!"

The reason for black starvation was that the South African government controlled the access to and distribution of resources. So called "separate development" had nothing whatsoever to do with equality. It meant annexing resources and benefits for white South Africa. Whites enjoyed the standard of living they did because a panoply of laws excluded 35 million people from a slice of the economic cake!

Something similar is happening to the Palestinians. The Wall has annexed the water supplies. Israelis and settlers fill their swimming pools and water their lawns while Palestinians have to buy water by the tanker load because supplies have run out. Bethlehem is out of water, and it is summer – desperately hot. There are no regular supplies of electricity. People are desperate for food and the shops are empty. Cut off rom their fields and olive groves, they can neither grow or earn money to buy food. Food has to be transported in, and that means trying to pass through the Israeli checkpoints. Israel, the paymaster, has refused to pay any salaries to the Palestinian Authority since Hamas was elected, on the grounds that they are a terrorist organisation and any salaries would amount to state funding for terrorism. That means, in effect, that most other salaries also remain unpaid. Charities are being asked not for money, or clothing, or other items, but for food. New legislation in the US means that charities there demand astounding, impossible amounts of information and paperwork from any Palestinian recipients of funding, so that aid is drying up to a trickle.

Whatever our politics, we need to recognise that this is a humanitarian crisis. People are dying for lack of food and water. What is particularly obscene is that this is a crisis created quite deliberately. The Palestinians are a community under seige. The Israelis can act with impunity because there is a deafening silence from the international community. Not only that, but they receive the active backing of the US because of the power of the Christian and Jewish votes in that country. The Christian and Jewish communities. These are the two faith communities whose God is Yaweh – God of the Exodus, liberator of slaves, enemy of oppression. Jesus is the one who announced the Good News that the kingdom of God is for the least first; who said "Blessed are you poor; woe to you who are rich! Blessed are you hungry; woe to you who are filled!" How is it that this same God and same saviour can be enlisted to justify cruelty and oppression, and blindness to the plight of the helpless, save by some demonic sleight of hand?

"Love your neighbour as yourself", Jesus said. That means putting ourselves in the place of our neighbour. How would we feel if we had no water, food, electricity or money? And what would we be asking of our brothers and sisters? Whatever our answer, that is what is being required of us.

3 June, 2006 at 1:26 pm Leave a comment


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