This is a world of conflict
And destructive activity.
Humans down the ages
Have formed themselves into tribes.
We have our tribe
And they have theirs, we hear.
We are right
And they are wrong, we say.
It's a black and white world!
And even this metaphor raises the issue of race
When the world is full of grey areas
And races who have mixed.
Tribes and empires which once fought -
They have faded away.
So when we express faith
Let us not fall into the same trap;
The light of the flame
Is not just our light
But visible to anyone in the darkest places.
I make light in this bowl
So that it shines out
As a reminder in this dark world
Of what there can be.
And with a flame
We can keep watch,
And practice what we see,
And what we preach:
A light against tribalism,
Nationalisms of all forms;
Against people who practice terror
Against one people who oppress another;
And for toleration,
And for what is noble, good and true.
[Light the chalice]
Let us enter a period of prayer, meditation and reflection, considering the continued oppression and conflict in the Middle East, the British troops involved in active fighting in Afghanistan as well as peacekeeping and that we face a strong possibility in some months of war in that general region. I have adapted and combined a number of prayers from A. Powell Davies' The Language of the Heart.
We bow our heads, O God, in memory of those who lay down their lives so that others may live, and those who have to follow orders to lay down their lives. They loved the virtue that humankind should live by, the honour they love and the duty they know. A few are called upon to give so much when others seem to wait around. And yet we hope that they give for the right cause, because only then is a tomorrow the one that they were fighting for. We think of the people who loved and lost, to remind us of the power of love which cannot be lost.
We seek a world free from oppression, where all can participate, and where the religions we live by are not becoming distorted by repression and fear but lead on in freedom to visions of the highest. We want a world where people in their diversity can agree to live together, and it is of God to see the lives of others as valuable as our own.
We strive to resist all forms of tyranny including those of avarice and greed, we refuse prosperity that is built on the impoverishment of others, and our concern for the necessity of the other person is to be as important as that of our own.
Under the direction of God, a Godhead to whom we aspire but which seems beyond, we strive to kindle within all people everywhere, the love of peace and the urge to walk in the paths of peace.
We wish to plant the seed that leads on to the celestial time when war is no more, and all the peoples of the earth may live together as one. But we have real guides. Seeing in the past the good times, and good times now, seeing when people get along together, seeing the creative nature of humankind and not simply its tendency to destruction, bringing forward all that is precious from the past, we keep the dream alive of that many times made promise for the future happening, the city and kingdom of God, of happy service and liberty with justice.
Father, thy name be hallowed,
Thy kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins,
For we too forgive all who have done us wrong.
And do not bring us to the test. Amen.
(New English Bible, Luke, Ch. 11, vv. 2-4)
On Palm Sunday I took part in a group drama-reading in Goxhill Anglican Church, the next village to New Holland where we live. Mine was a small part as one voice among many as the disciples, strangely enough. The service was a collection of three Anglican congregations and one Methodist congregation, so it was a full yet large church on this occasion. I found myself as part of this collection of ten or so readers because I had met a retired priest in New Holland, who turned out to be no less than a descendent of James Martineau, the Unitarian leading minister and Manchester College Principal in the nineteenth century. He lost no time in recruiting me into taking part. Thus, as happens, I found myself taking part in a Palm Sunday procession and, within the church, this service and reading, a piece which I think went on for something approaching half an hour.
However, the delivery by everyone was so good that this section of the reading, derived from the Bible, struck me with its anti-semitism. I'll suggest how after I have read it.
|Narrator:||Now Jesus stood before the Roman governor, who questioned him.|
|Pilate:||Are you the king of the Jews?|
|Jesus:||So you say.|
|Narrator:||But Jesus said nothing in response to the accusations of the chief priests and elders. So Pilate said to him:|
|Pilate:||Don't you hear how many things they testify against you?|
|Narrator:||But Jesus refused to answer a single word, with the result that the governor was greatly surprised. (Pause) Now at every Passover Festival the Roman governor was in the habit of setting free any one prisoner the crowd asked for. At that time there was a well-known prisoner named Jesus Barabbas. So when the crowd gathered, Pilate asked them:|
|Pilate:||Which one do you want me to set free for you? Jesus Barabbas, or Jesus called the Messiah?|
|Narrator:||He knew very well that the Jewish authorities had handed Jesus over to him because they were jealous. While Pilate was sitting in the judgement hall, his wife sent him a message:|
|Pilate's wife:||Have nothing to do with that innocent man, because in a dream last night 1 suffered much on account of him.|
|Narrator:||The chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to ask Pilate to set Barabbas free and have Jesus put to death. But Pilate asked the crowd:|
|Pilate:||Which one of these two do you want me to set free for you?|
|Pilate:||What, then, shall I do with Jesus called the Messiah?|
|Narrator:||But Pilate asked:|
|Pilate:||What crime has he committed?|
|Narrator:||Then they started shouting at the top of their voices:|
|Crowd:||Crucify him! Crucify him!|
|Narrator:||When Pilate saw that it was no use to go on, but that a riot might break out, he took some water, and washed his hands in front of the crowd.|
|Pilate:||I am not responsible for the death of this man! This is your doing!|
|Narrator:||The whole crowd answered:|
|Crowd:||Let the responsibility for his death fall on us, and on our children!|
|Narrator:||Then Pilate set Barabbas free for them; and after he had had Jesus whipped, he handed him over to be crucified. (Pause) Then Pilate's soldiers took Jesus into the Governor's palace, and the whole company gathered round him. They stripped off his clothes and put a scarlet robe on him. Then they plaited a crown out of thorny branches and placed it on his head. They put a stick in his right hand, and they knelt before him and mocked him:|
|Soldiers:||Long live the king of the Jews!|
|Narrator:||They spat on him, and took the stick and hit him over the head. When they had finished mocking him, they rook the robe off and put his own clothes back on him. Then they led him out to crucify him.|
Obviously several voices doing such a reading very well brings out the drama better than me. But what a reading! We have to be aware that the Bible was written in several locations and under different influences, and this passage is bending over backwards to demonstrate the innocence of Pilate the Governor and goes so far as to say the whole of the crowd and their children are responsible for the death of someone regarded in this text as the saviour of the world. It is clearly reflecting a Roman influence against the locals. But Imagine the guilt that this text is placing on the Jews there and all their children, a text that is set down for all time to be read by generations. When we think of the holocaust carried out by the Nazis, we should not forget how one of the texts that stands in the background to terrible events of the twentieth century is in the Christian Bible itself. And I just do not think that these days a drama like this can be expressed without some commentary. After the holocaust some texts should carry a health warning.
This is a world of many religions. Zoroastrianism is a faith which still exists but is but a shadow of its former existence. Persia was the home of Zoroastrianism, a reform of ancient beliefs existing from the Russian steppes going south, by Zarathustra as far back as 1200 BCE. he promoted justice, law, kinship, friendship and hospitality, and principally one God eternal and uncreated from which all other divinities come, said to a Bronze Age people. This faith developed and the people of the Middle East will have been very aware of its existence from traders and thinkers, and yet when we look at Jesus himself he was only really interested in the fate of the Jewish people in a developing urban and rural society, so that what has been done since is to extrapolate his life and death and subsequent events into a universal and cosmic drama. In the 651 CE Islam got the upper hand in Persia with its Zoroastrian regime overthrown by Muslim Arabs. Islam saw itself as superior, and through a mixture of oppression and some toleration but control Zoroastrianism reduced, and was insignificant after the Mongol invasion of the thirteenth century. Zoroastrianism survived only really in the West of India. But I have a reading here of how Zoroastrian Persia dealt with the Christian population in its midst not long before the Muslims came.
This is a letter from Hormizd IV who ruled from 579 to 590 CE in Persia writing to a leading magi of the Zoroastrian faith.
Even as our royal throne cannot stand on its two front legs without the back ones, so our government cannot stand and be secure if we incense the Christians and the adherents of other religions, who are not of our faith. Cease, therefore, to harass the Christians, but exert yourselves diligently in doing good works, so that the Christians and the adherents of the other religions, seeing that, may praise you for it, and feel themselves drawn to our religion.
[From German from the Arabic; Noldeke, T. (trans.) (1879), Geschichte der Perser und Araber zur Zeit der Sasaniden aus der arabischen Chronic des Tarabi, Leiden.]
That was such a positive attitude from a ruler in a land where eventually just one of the two strongest religions was to become victorious, that is Islam.
Music now for reflection and meditation. In the seven minutes this plays, perhaps we can consider the nature of the world and both conflict on the one hand and toleration on the other, and special bonds between peoples, and if you can, think of perhaps places where you live and people you know about, where there are also displays of conflict, toleration, and yet love for one another too. You may want to consider too events regarding the British royal family.
Gabriel Faure (1845-1924) Piano Quartet No. 1 in C minor, Op. 15, Adagio (7:26)
The early middle period of the twentieth century saw the holocaust, the systematic attempt to wipe out a race based on fear, hatred and power. At the end of the twentieth century we saw mass killings in Rwanda between tribes and genocidal acts in the former Yugoslavia. And now we change century to find the threat looming of global war.
At present, in the land which is the historical centre of the three main monotheistic faiths of the world, there is nothing but strife. We have on the one hand suicide bombers, who blow themselves up and kill and injure the civilians around them in cafes and shopping centres of Israel. On the other hand we have had for decades, since 1967 in fact, the occupation by Israel of lands given to the Palestinians, Palestinians and others who once occupied all of the land including Israel but lost this after the Second World War. So it became that the nation set up to be a protection for the Jewish people has been for some decades an oppressor itself.
There was until recently a peace plan in operation, to recognise and deliver the rightful recognition of Palestianian claims and Israel's right to exist in security, a plan that was seen to be working at a time when the one in Northern Ireland was failing, and yet which now seems all but completely lost. In response to terrorism Israel has blundered itself into towns and cities given over to Palestianian local rule in the partial peace accords so far enacted.
Now we have an oppressed people, the Palestinians, even more oppressed. The Israelis say they are seeking out terrorists where they are organised, but they are now doing it by destructive methods against more people and property than the numbers and places of terrorism can justify. Ordinary, local people are held under curfew, who have but small opportunities to go out to get food, and where the food becomes unavailable, and the normal means of daily life are being denied. Israel has decided to give all Palestinians a bloody nose, and are dismantling the ability of the Palestinian authority to run its affairs and its people to enjoy a half decent life.
Now there is no doubt that a principle recent cause of this is political leadership on both sides. Whilst recenly Rabin and Arafat were able to make a breakthrough that led to the Oslo accords, it was after this that Arafat had an opportunity to gain more land for his people if not quite the final settlement. He held out for more and the negotiations failed. It has been said of Arafat that he never loses an opportunity to miss an opportunity. Arafat is also a long term leader of an opposition movement that was associated with violence against Israel and for the Palestinians under occupation and as refugees. Now he makes a lousy leader of his territories, and has been unable, or unwilling, to control elements within the authority who have helped made life difficult for the Palestinians themselves.
But we also have on the other side a leadership in Israel that is little short of appalling. Arial Sharon is, I suggest, little more than a political thug. Before he became Prime Minister, he caused mayhem by his own political demonstration through Jerusalem offending Muslim sensitivities. We could see what was coming, if he became Prime Minister and then he did. When as Defence minister he invaded Lebanon for some weeks, the forces stayed for three years until the incursion and occupation became so bankrupted and pointless that the Israeli forces had to withdraw. Now he is at it again, this time into the Palestianian areas. The Israeli cabinet meanwhile is hopelessly split, but because the politics of dealing with the Palestinians has gone nowhere, and because of continued suicide bombings, Sharon is able to take the initiative. Occasionally his foreign minister flies flags of a peace process, but they inevitably end up going nowhere. Bankrupt politics leads to military action, whose main victims seem to be ordinary people.
The reason that the victims are ordinary people is hatred. I know that Unitarians historically like to think the best of people, but they should never underestimate how powerful hatred is. Those people who visit Israel and Palestine, as we might call it, from the outside, often report just how huge a difference there is between talking to an Israeli and talking to a Palestinian. They each talk in huge stereotypes about the other; each classifies and demeans the other. Misunderstanding is normal. There is no bridge building whatsoever, except by a minority of people who stop to think this cannot be so, they cannot be like this. When a people seem to be under threat, they lunge back into ever greater tribalism.
This is what fuels the situation in Northern Ireland. Whilst it is easy to focus on rabble rousers like Ian Paisley and the continuing suspect links of Adams and McGuinness, one should not be surprised that at a time of relative co-operation across these sectarian divides within the political class, some of the people on the ground are involved in rioting and destructive behaviour. The Protestant people, so identified, feel themselves to be threatened now. After decades of repressive rule over Catholic nationalists, which led to the civil rights protest and the activities of the Provisional IRA and then Protestant paramilitaries, and a lack of balance from the British military, we now have more balance in the north across the board. The result is the Protestants feel threatened, and they are the ones rioting against the newly renamed Police Service of Northern Ireland. They even protested against Catholic children going to primary school, to the point where someone in his hatred set a bomb off.
Let is look at the role of religion in this. Religion is not, of itself, a cause of the tribalism and sectarianism of Israelis and Palestinians, or indeed Unionists and Nationalists in Northern Ireland. But religion is its feeder, is its extra-authority justifier, its divine sanction. Israel gives orthodox Judaism, not Reform or liberal Judaism, I might add, special privileges within its state, though other religions are free to practice. The democratic state, like our democratic state, has a cultural and religious colour, but whereas the British state's association with Christianity is somewhat weakening and losing legitimacy, the Jewish religious impact in the Israeli state is far more pervasive and has political expression through religious parties. So whereas in Britain the religion of the state appears in ceremonies, and in the double edged nature of commemorations, for example in the commemoration of wars, in Israel it appears in its political, civil and military actions. The Palestinians, meanwhile, are a mixture of Muslims and Christians.
Islam has given the Palestianians a weapon. Those who enter into its world of belief, and lose all sense of outside reference, outside criticism, even the interpretations of others in the religion, are told that if they become martyrs they can enter paradise, a paradise which includes a sexual paradise of available virgins strangely enough for a religion with its codes of moral conduct. So basically they can kill themselves for a cause. Instead of playing by the rules that say only combatants should be killed, their sense of oppression and hatred, translated into religious conviction, becomes a mission to kill themselves and thereby other civilians. We have seen the same with Al Qaida, in the aircraft attacks on to the World Trade Centre in New York.
In this case, of the attacks in America, schools of extremist Islam developed in an extreme Islamic state, Saudi Arabia, but one which propped up a rich and corrupt monarchy, and one which had American troops on its soil. These religious fanatics combined their hatred for the regime, and hatred for America, with their extreme interpretation if Islam. When an extreme Islamic state evolved in Afghanistan, these Saudi and Pakistani extremists infiltrated the very structures of the Afghani state. Remember when Militant infiltrated the British Labour Party? This is what extremists do. And so in pursuit of the religious and sexual prize of martyrdom, dedicated murderers hijacked planes and murdered civilians in hated capitalist skyscrapers.
Let us not be deluded that this cannot happen in Christianity. There are people now in the United States, and not without political clout, who think that if only a nuclear war can be generated, then people who are truly believing Christians will be raised up above the chaos and that this will herald the second coming of Christ. The true believers will be saved, and the sinners will properly be damned. This largely American ideology exists in wealthy churches, supported by and within some business enterprises, and with lobbying power inside the Republican party. Of course, the difference is they are not oppressed, but in a different scenario where such people were being oppressed, such a religious belief could justify carrying out actions to bring about Armageddon. In part Al Qaidi is trying to do the same thing - it hoped that the attack on the World Trade Centre would cause such chaos in the West and its demise that it would bring about the Islamic equivalent of paradise.
I have to say that it is particularly the monotheistic religions which bring about this support to idealised and reactive political behaviour, that give support to oppressors, like Israel, and oppressed, like the Palestianians, alike. This is because they are historical religions with paradise promised to the true believers, with history to be unfolded, with condemnation to the unbeliever, which can say "God is on our side." These religions are perfect for tribalism. Mind you, Buddhism, for all its peaceful seeking, became tribal in Sri Lanka, and Hinduism, for all its inclusivity, does a good job as identifying Hindus as a tribe, just as its caste system does within the Hindu people. No religion escapes this tendency.
What needs to be done, in my view, is to undermine this raw universal tendency to tribalism. If you look at a Serb or a Bosnian you cannot tell the difference. If you look at a Northern Irish Nationalist Catholic, you cannot tell the difference between that person and a Unionist Protestant. In some cases even their names are wrong - Gerry Adams himself has a Protestant surname, and many Unionists have Irish names. Somewhere the family lines flipped the boundaries. But even if you can tell the difference, like the Gibraltarian whose family line exists with the rock, and who speak English, unlike the Spanish all around, or between different ethnic groups, it is still for human good that we undermine tribalism.
One way to do that is by being critical about religious belief. We should say that there is a valid logic which is not religious, and that the religion to which we give cultural and meaning identity is flawed. When I hear journalists prattle the usual cliches about the church of the Nativity in Bethlehem being the birthplace of Christ that I think no, all that about a census was just a literary narrative to get the baby born in Bethlehem to fit in with the Torah. We don't know: he was probably born in Nazareth or abouts. It is just important to be critical.
We should also be critical about nationalisms, the contemporary form of tribalism. I read again and again on Ceefax letters a kind of English nationalism that pours itself out against the rather inefficient and sometimes stupid European Union. But what I like about the concept of a European Union itself is that it identified what went wrong in past wars, and how by co-operation and intermingling we can try to overcome nationalism and tribalism, that tendency on which Adolf Hitler fed so successfully to the point of his own and the cruel Nazi state's utter destruction. The European Union is flawed, but sovereign states sharing sovereignty is a noble idea, in my opinion; and in the wider context of the European Court of Human Rights, there is nothing wrong in a bad law against human rights which would be passed in one country being overturned from a Europe wide institution.
You may say that I am only being tribal myself. My advocacy of criticism and critical religion is just a form of Unitarian tribalism. I do actually hear a lot of Unitarian tribalism, and I dislike it intensely. Commitment is quite good, but not when it turns into stereotyping of, say, orthodoxy. I think my record regarding Unitarianism is a fairly critical one too, though I did once offer it my commitment back in the late 1980s. Now I broaden my horizons. Ah, but in the present context of this small life of mine, in this small society, this seems trivial.
So, just to leave this diversion into parochialism for a final and wider thought... There is a real urgency about the world at the moment. The scenario of the Iraqis supplying Palestinian suicide bombers with chemical agents is a very real one. The Israelis would not stop at striking on to Iraq. The Americans are already more than hinting at striking at Iraq because of the weapons development under Saddam Hussein, which I think we can be fairly sure is going on. Saddam sees himself as the Arab world liberator, the person who can do it. If American gives him no options, he may just go mad. The West and others so far have carried out a policy of containment, a flawed policy because of its effect on ordinary Iraqis. Once again, it's the ordinary people who suffer. There could be a very large war in the region, and one that could engulf everyone and far wider. We will have Muslims seeing their chance for their own paradise and that of the world, we will have some weird Christians shouting "praise the Lord" should the missiles start flying. What we have to do now is remind leaders to act rationally, that we won't be led like sheep, that the old patriotic tricks are not only wrong but harmful, that furthermore we have to undermine tribalism and make religion critical so that it at least feeds tribalism less. And most of all we have to tackle the basic grievances of the world, to promte self determination and co-operation, and stop the oppressors oppressing.
This house strives to be a house of peace.
As we return to the noisy world
Of argument and conflict,
May we carry into the world something of the peace to be found in prayer?
This house strives to be a house of fellowship.
As we return into the bustling world
Of difficulty and strife,
May we carry into the world something of the co-operation to be found in fellowship?
This house strives to be a house of love.
As we return into the difficult world
Of danger in so many hatreds,
May we carry into the world something of the purity of the love of God?