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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Saturday, 26 April 2014

That Jew Died For You: a reflection

A video produced by Jews for Jesus hit the national headlines yesterday. It shows Jewish holocaust victims being transported by rail to the gates of Auschwitz. Here the infamous selection takes place. Some go to the right - the ones spared to work. Others go to the left - to the showers (i.e. as the film helpfully explains in parentheses, to be gassed).

It is all tastefully done in black and white. The effect, enhanced by the musical score, recalls Stephen Spielberg's Schindler's List. That film, unforgettably, has a single person depicted in colour, the little girl in the red coat. Here too, Jews for Jesus offer hommage. But this time, the figure in colour is a man who has taken his place in the line. He carries a cross. There is a momentary pause as he comes up to the selection guards. Then he too goes to the left - voluntarily. 'Just another Jew.' The video ends with a quotation from Isaiah 53 and the strap line: 'That Jew Died For You'.

I watched it with a growing sense of unease. Surely no-one would use the Holocaust as an evangelistic tool? Perhaps I hadn't grasped what Jews for Jesus were trying to do. As I tweeted yesterday, I was trying to understand my bafflement, still wondering if the vociferous denunciation of it in the media was a trifle hysterical. But as I went on thinking about it, as a person of Jewish descent myself, I began to see it more clearly for what it is. Here are three points to consider.

First, it seems to me that the video tramples heavily over holy ground where we ought to take off our shoes and tremble. To many, it simply lacks sensitivity to the victims of the Holocaust. This place of awe demands a particular kind of silence. Words should only be spoken, if at all, with the utmost reverence and carefulness. To colonise and exploit the suffering of so many millions in this way is extraordinary. You are surprised to see it done at all, especially by people who claim the title 'Jew'. 

Secondly, the film is theologically flawed. I don't argue with the words 'That Jew Died for You', even with their calculated offensiveness: as a Christian, the belief that (however I understand this greatest of mysteries) Jesus' death was 'for me' is basic to my faith. But the idea that the Father exacts wrath on his beloved Son is one which, if I accepted it once, I can no longer make sense of, still less subscribe to. What is more, if the doctrine requires Jesus to be 'punished', the implication is that the gas chamber where he goes with his cross is a 'punishment' on all its victims, an idea which once stated is patently offensive, for it colludes in precisely the distorted mentality of the oppressor for whom Jews are punished simply for being Jews. If the film had simply intended to show that in solidarity with the pain of humanity, Christ continues to bear the marks of crucifixion in his own body, it would have been different. But the assertion of a doctrine of atonement at the gates of Auschwitz is understandably perceived as dishonouring the memory of those who perished there. To the religious instinct, it's not the statement of a doctrinal formula but articulating questions like 'Where is God in all this?' 'How can we speak any more about God's justice and love?' that demonstrate spiritual empathy and that mature faith, like the Book of Job, stays and wrestles with.

Finally, and this isn't a point I've seen discussed, there is plenty of New Testament evidence about how the first Jewish converts shared their new-found faith in Jesus. St Paul is especially articulate. He knew how his own Jewish people had suffered a couple of centuries before in an era of fierce perscution under the Hellenising Seleucid ruler Antiochus Epiphanes. During the 2nd century BCE Jewry underwent a holocaust that is vividly recorded in the books of the Maccabees and testified to in apocalyptic works like Daniel. Many Jews suffered terribly for their faithfulness to the Covenant. Yet although Paul can place Jesus in the line of Jewish martyrs or 'witnesses' who suffered for the covenant, he does not elide its meaning with suffering from a different era whose own integrity must be honoured. He does not place Jesus among the Maccabean martyrs and say 'whatever was the reason they died, that Jew died for you'. His belief in the historical as well as the theological uniqueness of Jesus' crucifixion makes him careful not to overstate the precedents. We should learn from his reticence, always the mark of a responsible theologian.

So I wish those who made this film had thought better of it. Intelligent Jewish-Christian dialogue has never been more needed than now, not least in relation to the Holocaust. I can't see that this video, however well-meant, will help foster friendship and respect among the Abrahamic faiths. Neither Jews nor Jesus have been well served. 

Sunday, 20 April 2014

A favourite Easter hymn in a new translation

My translation from the French of ‘Thine be the Glory’, sung in Durham Cathedral.   

Glory to Jesus, risen Son and King,
Lord of life who frees us, your new song we sing.
Radiant in the morning, angels bright come down,
Greet the day that’s dawning, hail the conqueror’s crown:
Glory to Jesus, risen Son and King,
Lord of life who frees us, your new song we sing.

See Jesus meets you, see your Lord appear!
Hear the word that greets you, tells you love is here.
Dance with joy and gladness, people of the Lord.
Banish grief and sadness, tell the news abroad!

Fear flies before him: evermore he lives!
O my heart adore him! peace and joy he gives.
Christ my mighty conqueror, Christ my gracious friend,
Christ my life and glory, till all ages end:




Friday, 18 April 2014

On Good Friday Afternoon

In the Chapel of the Nine Altars in Durham Cathedral, there is a striking sculpture by local sculptor Fenwick Lawson. His Pietà shows Mary at the end of a long and terrible Good Friday. Stretched out at her feet lies the body of her dead Son rigid after his ordeal on the cross. His left arm is slightly raised, stretching out towards his mother whose hands in turn are opened towards him. In his wrist is the mark of the nail of crucifixion. She is depicted as the woman who has undergone sorrow beyond words. Her face is worn with grief and with the scars of ageing that great suffering incises on the human body. I have tweeted some images today: @sadgrovem.

Large numbers of worshippers come here on Good Friday afternoon for a simple service of evening prayer. A few years ago we decided to make the Pietà the focus of our last act of worship on this solemn day. It is the traditional office of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, very simple and spare with no words wasted and plenty of silence for thought and meditation. It needs to be understated like this, almost empty, coming as it does after three hours of profound spirituality and high emotion in the Good Friday liturgy. In liturgical time, Jesus is being laid to rest. His mother, his disciples are exhausted, numbed, and so are we.

How to bring the service to an end? We do it by listening to the Stabat Mater read aloud. This 13th century Latin hymn enters into Mary’s experience as she watches her Son die.

At the cross
stood the sorrowful mother in her grief
while her son hung there.
The genius of the poem is to recognise that Mary’s grief is the same as any mother would feel. Even if he had not been the Son of God, he would still have been hers, and how could she love him more than in the hours of his suffering and dying?  There’s a moment I find especially poignant:

She watched her own sweet child
dying in desolation

giving up his spirit.

This is ‘the sword that shall pierce your own heart’ that Simeon had warned Mary about when she brought her 40-day old infant into the Temple to present him to the Lord. Death can have the effect of reawakening childhood memories and what mother would not remember her precious son’s infancy at a time like this?
When I wrote my book Lost Sons, I introduced it by meditating on this corner of the Cathedral. I have always been struck by two other presences near the Pietà. One is a painting by Paula Rego that shows Margaret, the 11th century Queen of Scotland, with her son David sitting at her feet. This time, it’s the mother who is at the point of death, but the mother-son image is a striking if unconscious echo of the sculpture (I put it that way round because the Pietà was here first). The other feature is a simple early 19th century memorial plaque to two sons who died in early childhood. It was placed there by their ‘afflicted’ parents to commemorate their beloved boys John and Francis. Were they their only children? We don’t know, but underneath the simple words the emptiness of a bereavement two centuries ago still speaks powerfully.

To me, the Pietà helps to make sense of what must be the worst human loss a parent can ever experience, the death of a son or daughter. Christians have always seen in the suffering of Jesus God’s loving identification with all human suffering: the divine Victim knows what every victim is going through. The Pietà says the same. But it does this by focusing specifically on how death severs human intimacy, strikes at the heart of the love and friendship that we need if we are to flourish and be happy. The thought that God understands and cares gives solace in our darkest times.
In his Good Friday sermon, the Bishop spoke about Jesus’ last word from the cross in St John: ‘it is accomplished.’ That sounded like an ending, he said. He went on: ‘how and why it is not an end but a beginning, I cannot know on this day - yet.’  The Stabat Mater is a sombre poem. But at the end of its long and gloomy day, the sun comes out once more. Like today’s sermon, its conclusion hints at Easter in a last line that speaks of glory and paradise. Tomorrow, on Easter Eve, we imagine a Sabbath rest for the Christ who has finished his work. And then, early on the first day of the week, he will stride through the grave and gate of death into the glory of resurrection blazing the trail where in God’s time, we hope to follow.  

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Saying Sorry in 31 Seconds

There is something not quite right about the post-mortem over Maria Miller’s resignation. It smells unpleasantly sanctimonious.

I am not for a moment saying that she didn’t make serious mistakes. There are misjudgements that someone in public office can’t afford to make. This has always been true, but scrutiny is especially thorough nowadays in the aftermath of the parliamentary expenses debacle. It’s understandable that the public is not in the mood to be lenient. We are right to expect the highest possible degree of accountability. And it’s a pity she didn’t offer to repay the higher sum about which questions had been asked, even if technically she had been cleared of the requirement to do so. It would have been a welcome sign of good faith.

What I find disturbing is how Ms Miller’s apology to the House has been endlessly picked over since she spoke. Someone on Any Questions called it (if I remember aright) the worst speech from a parliamentarian he had ever heard.  Why? Because (I am paraphrasing) it was perfunctory, insincere and lacking any real sense of contrition. The assumption is that an apology lasting a mere 31 seconds cannot possibly be genuine. Ergo it didn’t do the job. ‘It wasn’t fulsome enough’ I’ve heard it said – by people who clearly don’t know what that word really means.

There’s a lot I don’t know about what has gone on in this affair, but I can’t help thinking that it’s dangerous to make judgments like this. For one thing, how long would Ms Miller’s speech have to be to carry conviction? Two minutes? Ten? Half an hour? You see the difficulty. You can’t calibrate the quality of an apology with a stop-watch. In one of his parables, Jesus compares the attitudes of a Pharisee and a tax-collector. The Pharisee offers a long platitudinous (fulsome, indeed) address to his Maker. The tax-collector simply beats his breast and says ‘God be merciful to me a sinner’. That’s a lot shorter than 31 seconds. Yet Jesus commends him for those few words. When the Prodigal Son returns to his father to make a long contrite speech, his father cuts him off in mid flow and embraces him.

I once had to apologise to a friend I’d hurt. I tried the Prodigal’s long speech but the words would not come. All I could whisper was: I’m really sorry’. Then there was silence. I did not trust myself to speak. ‘It’s ok’ he said after a bit, and put his arms around me. Just then he didn’t need to know more than that I’d said it, and I only needed to know that he had heard. Yes, it can take a lifetime to work through the consequences and make reparation. It’s hard to say sorry but harder still to forgive, if my limited experience is any guide. What mattered to me all those years ago were the few brief words that enabled something important to begin. Saying sorry is a speech-act that opens a door.

So who is going to peer into Ms Miller’s heart and say, on the basis of what she said to Parliament, that she didn’t really mean it when she said she was sorry? We can never know what goes on inside another person; it’s hard enough when we try to look into our own hearts. Is this why Jesus says that we should not judge others, lest we come under judgment ourselves? Queen Elizabeth I wisely said, against the puritans of the 16th century, that she would not make windows into mens souls’. Nor should we.

It’s seductive to obsess about feelings and inner motivation. In today’s Guardian, Loose Canon Giles Fraser says that when it comes to forgiving other people it’s what we say and do that matters, not what we feel. ‘Forgiveness breaks the cycle of revenge and makes possible a future that is not trapped in the violence and hatred of the past.’ We can extend that to all the remembered and forgotten failures and flaws that haunt the present and get in the way of reconciliation.

Perhaps we should take an apology at face value, not try to analyse its level of sincerity but simply say: wrong has been acknowledged and publicly apologised for. The words we needed to hear have been said. It’s not cheap grace to recognise when it’s time to move on.