Mercy, not sacrifice

Like many of you I’ve spent the last week trying to process the events in Washington DC. Watching the church embrace the alt-right has been a huge source of anxiety these last four years. Not the greatest, the Pandemic holds that honour, but it has certainly been up there. I’m appalled, worried, saddened, and yes, even shocked, though frankly people should have seen this coming.

As the events unfolded, I was reminded of the lyrics of a Shawn Mullins song from the album Mercyland: Hymns for the Rest of Us. It’s called Give God the Blues (you really should check it out) and the verse makes a statement very relative for these times (emphasis is mine).

God ain’t no Republican
He ain’t no Democrat
He ain’t even Independent
God’s above all that

There is a real tendency among Christians to invoke the notion of a “Christian Nation.” Personally, I tend to balk at this. Mostly because the history of the so-called Christian nations has not been what I would call Christian in its character and actions. In the grand history of such nations and empires, from Rome through all of Europe through to America, more decent God-fearing people have been martyred by those acting under the authority of the church then by all the enemies of the church combined.

It’s completely understandable then that many people are questioning the validity of Christianity as a faith, as a religion, as a lifestyle, as… well… anything based on the behaviour of those who claim to follow Jesus and his teachings. Not surprisingly, Jesus had something to say about this.

22Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ 23 Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you workers of lawlessness!  (Matthew 7:22-23)

In my mind this verse (and others like it) should drive all the arrogance from any believer. Note that these people were doing all the things that we tend to associate with great faith. They cast out demons, they prophesied, they performed miracles, they did it all. So why does Jesus respond the way he does? I’m going to suggest they lacked one key ingredient to their faith.

But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ (Matthew 9:13)

On the surface this sounds kind of strange because didn’t God instruct the Jews in the offering of that would amount the thousands of sacrifices a year of everything from grain and oil to lambs and bulls? So, what gives? Paul puts it this way…

1If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a ringing gong or a clanging cymbal. 2If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have absolute faith so as to move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3If I give all I possess to the poor and exult in the surrender of my body, but have not love, I gain nothing. (1 Corinthians 13:1-3)

There wasn’t a whole lot of love or mercy on display in Washington this week.

Hate Begets Hate and the Cycle Never Ends

“They shot the children in each chair. I couldn’t watch it. When I grow up, I will destroy their world, I will destroy their children — I won’t let them be.” An unidentified child survivor of the massacre in Peshawar, Pakistan. (Italics mine.)

It chilled me to the bone when I read these words in this article in the Huffington Post. I can wrap my head around a father talking this way, as much as I recoil at the thought of such an act; but when I realize that these words are coming out of the mouth of a child the impact of the horror is so much greater. It staggers my mind and tears at my heart.

This is where hate is born; and it is why blood feuds, jihad, and crusades continue generation after generation. No one would deny the need for the men who did this to be punished, least of all me. These men must be found and brought to justice; swiftly and publicly. But these words are not about justice, they are about revenge.

I will destroy their children“—an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. The lure of revenge is strong, seductive even, and not without a certain level of justification. It seems only natural that the way to end the pain is to visit it upon the ones who caused it. I dare say that if I was in their shoes I would feel the same way myself. But it seldom works that way.

It has been said that every human weakness is a human virtue gone out of control. It starts as seeking justice for the victims, a good, proper and righteous act. But it seldom stops there. The quest for justice is wrapped in righteous indignation and morphs into vengeance. Vengeance unrequited quickly devolves into revenge, which is fuelled only by hate. This is because revenge cares not who pays the price as long as somebody does, and even then it is rarely enough. The hate continues long after the perpetrators are dead. The cycle continues.

“But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” Luke 6:27-28 English Standard Version (ESV)

This is hard—really hard. In fact, some would say it’s next to impossible; especially in this context. But there’s simply no other way to break out of the cycle of hate. For generation upon generation human beings have sought revenge to no good result. In these words Jesus shows us the way out. Now understand, he is by no means saying the guilty go unpunished. That is never the intention if this passage. But it must never go beyond seeking justice. “Vengeance is mine,” says the Lord and for good reason, we aren’t equipped to resist the lure of revenge. But to the one who burns with indignation Jesus words answer the question, “But what am I supposed to do?”

We must never return evil for evil, hate for hate, cursing for curses. It has never worked in all of human history and it never will. The solution is clear; battle evil with good, counter hate with love, return blessings for curses.

It is not easy, never has been. Not for me, or for you; nor will it be for the child who speaks of killing other children. My prayer for him/her and for all of us is that one day, when the physical wounds are healed, they and we will find the strength to turn aside from the way of hate and walk a better path.


Old Things are Passed Away…

ishtarThe picture at right is one that many of you have seen this Easter, it’s making the rounds thanks to Richard Dawkins and his Foundation and there’s two things that bother me about it.

First of all – it’s wrong! There’s a lot of myth and misinformation in it. I’d go into the details myself but fellow blogger Anne Theriault over at The Belle Jar does a wonderful job of that HERE. So I won’t repeat it all, please go and read her excellent article.

But to address my other complaint, let’s assume for a moment that it’s all true; that long before Christianity came along there was a celebration of fertility and sex that included bunnies and eggs and then got reworked when Constantine had a religious experience and found God. My response to this semi-etymological revelation…

So What?

Seriously! What difference does it make? Constantine, when looking for a time to note the death of Jesus and celebrate his resurrection the Emperor of Rome chose to cancel the sex, drugs and rock’n’roll party and deal with a far more serious occasion. That doesn’t mean the Easter celebration is about sex!

Time passes. Things change. Peoples, governments, empires and even religions come and go. “Old things are passed away; behold, all things are made new”, Paul tells the Corinthians.

Just as the love of Christ makes changes in the life of an individual, so too changes happen in the life of a nation, or an empire. Rome moved on; it stopped worshiping the ad hoc collection of gods it had gleaned from Greece and every other nation it had conquered and by royal decree focused on the God of Abraham,  Issac and Jacob, the Father of Jesus Christ. A wholesale change took place in the religious culture of the time.

Did a few of the old customs hang on, helping to shape the rubrics of the new religion? Possibly; people are people after all. It’s hard to let go of the past. Incorporating a few of the old bells and whistles can make the transition easier for the man-in-the-street who doesn’t fully understand the reason for the changes being made. That doesn’t diminish the new significance; it simply makes it a point of contact for the common person.

It’s a lot like the building where my home church meets each Sunday and throughout the week. It started it’s tour of duty as University Village Public School, an open concept building were the neighbourhood kids came to learn, play and prepare for the future.

Today, it’s called Kortright Presbyterian Church and the happenings within the building aren’t all that different. Now people of all ages come to learn, play and prepare for the future; only on the spiritual level instead of the secular. We learn about who we are, where we came from and, by the grace of God, where we are going.

In like manner, if I may be so bold, it may well be the same with Easter. Is it all that bad if the Easter celebration was once a festival of sex and fertility? Think about it: if life is to continue, if there is to me another generation after this one, then sex and fertility have to be part of the equation somewhere along the line. Human love, expressed in sex between an man and a woman, results in new life. The death and resurrection, an expression of God’s love at Easter, also results in new life; new spiritual life, and the haters in the world are never going to diminish the meaning of that.

Happy Easter!

Goodby Mr Brubeck. I’ll miss you.

Dave Brubeck has passed away at the age of 91.

Fifty years ago I watched the Dave Brubeck Quartet play “Take Five” on television and though at 8 years old I wasn’t sure why, I knew this music was different; mostly, I suppose, because of my parents reaction. There was just something about jazz. It would be some years before that seed would grow into a personal love for jazz, but grow it did, and Dave Brubeck was always there watering and feeding the music within me.

In 1991 Dave Brubeck and the Quartet flew to Moscow to meet and perform with Russian jazz masters and to perform his jazz mass “To Hope” with the Russian National Orchestra. The DVD of the documentary of that trip is the most played DVD in my house. It is a true mass, celebrating the Lord’s supper, in remembrance of his sacrifice.

In honour of his life and passing I present this clip of my favorite part of the mass.


Resistance vs Pacifism: a Biblical view

Jesus And Nonviolence: a third wayI would like to admit up front that I have always had something of a problem with the traditional pacifist interpretation of Jesus’ command in Matthew 5, “Do not resist an evil-doer.”  It has always seemed to me rather like the Prime Directive of Star Trek’s Federation; a convenient excuse to do nothing and just stay out of the way. Too often in the history of the church it has done just that, standing idly by while the downtrodden are oppressed all in the name of ‘turn the other cheek.”

I have just finished reading Walter Wink’s book “Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way” and I have to say few books have ever thrilled and challenged me so much. It’s only 103 pages (small pages at that) but each page caused me to rethink years of teaching that I have received on passive-resistance. Consider the following:

When a church that has not lived out a costly identification with the oppressed offers to mediate between hostile parties, it merely adds to the total impression that it wants to stay above the conflict and not take sides. The church says to the lion and the lamb, “Here, let me negotiate a truce,” to which the lion replies, “Fine, after I finish my lunch.

This message [Matthew 5:38-41], far from being a counsel of perfection unattainable in this life, is a practical, strategic measure for empowering the oppressed. It provides a hint of how to take on the entire system in a way that unmasks its essential cruelty and to burlesque its pretensions to justice, law, and order.” [Square brackets mine for clarity]

When we demonize our enemies, calling them names and identifying them with absolute evil, we deny that they have that of God within them that makes transformation possible. Instead, we play God. We write them out of the Book of Life. We conclude that our enemy has drifted beyond the redemptive hand of God.”

This is my first exposure to Walter Wink and that may be more of a statement to my reclusivity than his obscurity, but I will certainly be searching out his other titles in the future.

I highly recommend this book to anyone seeking a Biblical stance on social justice. Actually, even if you’re not looking you should read this anyway and start.


Jesus and nonviolence: a third way – Walter Wink – Google Books.