With the severing of heads in northern Iraq the elephant in the situation has been revealed. It was stated by the British historian, Tom Holland : “There are psychopaths aplenty loose in Iraq but not every head hunter ranks as a madman. The truth is altogether more disturbing……Victory cannot be secured militarily. This battle has to be fought and won by the theologians”. In other words, fundamentalist religion lies at the heart of the terrible situation in northern Iraq.
Regretfully, I agree. Religion is involved, and religious fundamentalism is a menace wherever it occurs. And we need to remember that religiously motivated violence is not the exclusive prerogative of Islam. It is found in the west and was evidenced in President Bush’s statement as he sent the troops off to Iraq “And may God bless America”. I was interested to learn also that when Saddam Hussein was killed Rev Graham prayed with Bush in the oval office “It is because of you, O Lord, that Saddam Hussein has been brought to justice. Jesus, your fingerprints are on this mission.” Religiously motivated violence is not exclusive to Islam. The elephant is just as much at home in the White House as it is in the ruins of Gaza and the killing fields of Srebrenica. The Koran may speak of “instilling terror into the hearts of unbelievers” and “striking off their heads” but it is equally matched by David striking off the head of Goliath, the Crusades, the burning of witches and the statements of American Presidents.
Notwithstanding the fact that fundamentalism is not an exclusively Islamic characteristic, it needs to be clearly said that it is as dominant a feature of Islam as it is of Christianity today. Allah is seen as having chosen and willed the violence in northern Iraq. One is tempted to comment on the single raised finger that is the symbol of the Iraqi Caliphate but that would demean what is a deadly serious issue.
What is the answer to the situation in which we find ourselves?
The quick answer is to get rid of religion. Although I can sympathise with those who think this way, I fear that the baby may go out with the bathwater. The problem is not religion per se. The problem is fundamentalist religion. In my book, as in his, Jesus was non violent and lived by the precept “Put up your sword! Those who live by the sword shall die by the sword”. The crucifixion was not some ghastly bargain with God by which salvation was achieved. It was an example of non violence, an example that he called his followers to emulate. There are those who see religion in terms of some kind of divine bargain that guarantees life in some kind of heaven (the motivation that incidentally drives many suicide bombers!) but please don’t count me within that number! Count me with those who believe that violence is dysfunctional as a political and social instrument. The violence in Iraq today is in no small way due to the redrawing of boundaries by Britain and France after the 1918 war. Violence simply begets violence.
I find myself thinking of the words of Tom Fox, a fellow traveler in Iraq. I never met him, although I feel I have known him all my life. These are his words.
“If I am not to fight or flee in the face of armed aggression…. how do I stand firm against a car bomber or a kidnapper? Does it mean I walk the streets of Baghdad with a sign saying “American for the taking”? No! But if Jesus and Ghandi are right, then I am asked to risk my life and, if I lose it, to be as forgiving as they were when murdered. I struggle to stand firm but I’m working at it.”
Tom did work at it, he was kidnapped, he was killed and he will be remembered as a follower of Jesus of Nazareth.
I am also reminded also of the words of Ron Sider “To rise to this challenge of history we need to reject the ways we have misunderstood or weakened Jesus’ call to be peacemakers; and we need to prepare to die by the thousands”.
(To the kind souls who fear that Sunday’s five minute sermon will put me in meta data land, let me inform you that ASIO already has a file on me and this will simply add to it)
This passage of scripture is for me one of the most important and most misunderstood passages in the bible. How widely misunderstood can be gauged by the fact that two of my patron saints miss the point. Bill Loader sees it in terms of Jesus learning a lesson of life. Nathan Nettleton speaks of Jesus being a product of his environment and having a bad day. I beg to differ with both of them on the grounds that they have breached a fundamental tenet of reading the scriptures: no text without a context. What is the context here? It is the disciples, the slow learning dopey disciples. What a bunch of twits they were – just as I believe we are today!
Let me explain. The woman in the story is identified as a “Canaanite” – one of the indigenous people whom Israel had conquered and taken their land on the basis that it was given to them by God. Canaan was the “promised land” for which Abraham set out, and Moses looked over, and which was conquered in battle.
This is the background in which the Canaanite woman comes asking help from Jesus and saying “Son of David, have pity of me”. David, of course, was the hero and high water mark of Israel. When the Canaanite woman says “Son of David” centuries of history are laid on the table. And here comes the context: The woman comes and says “Son of David have pity on me” and we read “Jesus said not a word in reply”. Jesus said nothing!
But the disciples, the dopey disciples, had plenty to say. “Send her away, they said!” Why? Because she was a Canaanite and as such was of no concern of Jesus. She wasn’t one of the chosen race. She wasn’t of the House of God. She wasn’t “a child of God”. She was a gentile. She was a foreigner. She was a heathen, one outside the grace of God to the extent of being less than human. She was to all intents and purposes an animal. Even today in the Middle East the words “dogs” is used as a racial and religious epithet. This was the basis on which the disciples said “Send her away”. And then, in this context we are told “Jesus replied”. We are not told to whom he replied. I would submit that he replied to both his disciples and the woman, for such is the context. Both the woman and the disciples are within his gaze when Jesus, bitterly disappointed with his dopey disciples, highlights the issue. “It is not right to take the children’s bread and give it to the dogs?” “I was not sent to any except the House of David?”
The disciples are silent. The Canaanite woman is not. “Surely the dogs can eat the crumbs that fall from their masters table”. It was repartee of the highest order, repartee that raised the whole issue of race and nationality. It is a scene that is vividly in my mind’s eye: Jesus smiling at the woman’s reply. “How right you are! How right you are! It is God’s universal love that I am on about, a love that goes beyond nationality, race and patriotism.” From an indigenous person comes a universal truth! The only sad thing on the scene are the dopey disciples. What a bunch of twits they were to think that race and nationalism and patriotism were of importance.
Last week, with newspaper articles and TV drama, we started the eight month pilgrimage to Anzac Cove, to the so called “birth of a nation”, the waving of flags and the singing of “I am, you are, we are Australian”. What arrant nonsense! The nation of Australia was not founded on the invasion of Turkey and the battlefield of Gallipoli. It was founded on the battlefields of this land, the subjection of the indigenous people by imperial Britain, and in the name of God.
The tragedy of our day is that patriotism, racism and national pride are still very much with us. The Canaanite woman still confronts the dopey disciples of Jesus, and Jesus still weeps over Jerusalem, and over Australia, with the words “If only you knew the way of peace, but you do not!”
What a dopey bunch of twits we are!