To respond to violence


Many people dead…
Massive terror…
The borders of France closed…
Strong responses promised…

And how are we to respond?

I am a Christian, a person who attempts to follow the way Jesus of Nazareth taught and demonstrated in his life, death, and resurrection. That said, I recognize that the term “Christian” has taken on a number of loaded meanings in this highly politicized world, this world beset by civil, religious, and inter-ethnic strife. Far too many people who claim the name of Jesus Christ are espousing violence, and violent responses to others’ violence.

Events of a few years ago taught me the huge value in Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount,  particularly his teachings about response to violence. Note that I understand violence to include not just physical violence, but any assault on one’s person, including professional and personal insults.

Jesus said:
‘You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.’ (Matthew 5:38-41)

Turning the other cheek has often been interpreted to suggest that Christians should be wusses: lie down and let your attacker beat you again. Nothing could be further from the truth. Without going into a detailed exposition of the text, suffice it to say that this is better interpreted as standing up and requiring that you be treated as an equal. We expose the attacker for who he or she is by countering their hate with our selves: sons and daughters of the Most High, equally deserving of respect as those who present as enemies.

I had long believed this, but some events in my ministry a few years ago taught me its truth in a way that I could never have imagined before. It’s a long story, but let’s just say that I found myself under attack from some quite unexpected quarters. I had various people counselling me through this. Some urged me to fight back in kind. Others said I should go away for a while, and let things die down. Fight or flight, the classic responses to aggression.

I chose to do neither. Instead, I held my head high, and continued on in my ministry, doing my work in the best way I knew how. A year later, the parish had changed, as my co-worker observed. She had gone on a year’s leave just before the stuff blew up, and when she returned, she encountered a radically different atmosphere. Another friend told me later that my example had helped the parish turn the corner. I turned the other cheek, standing up and saying (by example) that you can’t treat people with disrespect as had been done to me.

That’s my story. Now on the world stage we find ourselves once again faced with appalling acts of violence against innocent people. The standard response — fighting back — has not worked. Read about it HERE. I believe with all my heart that we need to find a new way, one in keeping with the Gospel of Christ. A collective turning the other cheek and loving our neighbours. And yet, the words coming out of France can best be summed up as “REVENGE!”

There has to be a better way. Seeking revenge, even the limited revenge demanded by the Old Testament (“eye for eye, tooth for tooth…” cf. Exodus 21:23-25), perpetuates the cycle of violence. Revenge proves the attacker right, sucking us into an inescapable vortex. The last 14 years have proved this beyond any doubt. Revenge does not work; it does not stop violence.

What is the better way? It won’t be popular. Seeking with Jesus to halt the cycle of violence will inevitably lead to cries of betrayal and cowardice. My admittedly limited personal experience proved to me that loving our enemies is costly, but is ultimately of immeasurable value.

Let us seek to find that better way in our lives, our communities, and between nations. Let’s leave the last word to the prophet Micah:

For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
   and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between many peoples,
   and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away;
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
   and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
   neither shall they learn war any more;
but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees,
   and no one shall make them afraid;
   for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken. (Micah 4:2b-4)

Post-script: Bishop Pierre Whalon has written eloquently on the same topic. Read his comments HERE.




Remembrance Day 2015

Red-PoppyOur parish church is the regimental church of the Southern Alberta Light Horse. Their retired colours hang in the ceiling of the nave; a regimental memorial display sits at the rear of the south aisle, below the WWII Roll of Honour; and every November 11, we host a Remembrance Day service, beginning with prayers at the Church, followed by a procession to Light Horse Park on 104 St., where wreaths are laid at the cenotaph. I have participated in many different events for Remembrance Day, but the practice at Holy Trinity is special, bringing together in a highly explicit way the Christian faith and the public commemoration of our war dead.

Today’s service was better attended than any in the past, because Premier Rachel Notley attended and took a special role, reading a lesson from Micah, and a “Commitment to Service” at the end of the church prayers. It was standing room only. Ms Notley had attended our service for some years as the MLA for our area, and many of us had expected that she would be at one of the larger events around the city. Instead, she chose to continue her commitment to her constituency. I congratulate her for that. It’s too bad that the media mucked up the time, in one case announcing the service for 10:45 — we began at 9:45.

Another special element was the inspired preaching of our Rector. I have rarely seen him more passionate in the pulpit, delivering a truly heart-felt message of calling us to remember until the age to come is fully upon us.

It was a very good service, and many people commented on it. However, the thing that made it special for me was something very personal. My brother (the family historian) managed to find our grandfather’s service record on the website of the Royal Leicestershire Regiment. Grandpa Jack died one month before the Armistice in 1918. Our grandmother kept much of the story to herself: a very private person, for the rest of her life she grieved privately for the husband who had left her with three young children and a fourth on the way. A few years ago, my brother tracked down the location of his grave in France. We had hoped to visit it in 2013, in conjunction with a trip to a conference in Paris, which did not come to fruition. It remains on my bucket list.

His death had profound implications for our family. Granny moved from the Lake District in the north of England to Eastbourne, on the English Channel — about as far away as she could get and still be in England. My mother grew up with a horror of war, which I first really realized at the time of the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. She took to her bed for days, terrified that war was coming. Her feelings about war conflicted with my father’s sense of duty, contributing to my own very mixed emotions around this day.

We didn’t have much more than a few sketchy details about the circumstances of Grandpa’s death. The entry on the regimental website explains much that I didn’t know before, including a wonderful testimony to my grandfather’s character. What this gave to me this morning as I watched wreaths being laid, as we stood in silence for two minutes, as the piper piped the lament, was a focus to my thoughts I had rarely had before. William JackI found myself asking all kinds of “What if’s” What if he had not died? He would have returned to his medical practice, my mother’s life would have been vastly different. She would probably never have met my father — and I wouldn’t be standing here today.

The death of Cap’t William Boyd Jack in France on October 11, 1918 is in that sense one of the defining moments of my own life, even though it happened almost 30 years before I was born. How many others standing around that cenotaph had similar stories to tell? My Grandpa’s death seems at the same time heroic and futile — but utterly and profoundly important 97 years later.

Remembrance Day will never be the same for me again. I will always seek to remember, and to ask “What if?”

Why are the poor in poverty?

A sermon on Mark 12:38-44, with a nod to Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17
Delivered at Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Edmonton, November 8, 2015

When I meet someone from another denomination who asks me about what I do in the church, the title “Honorary Assistant” usually confuses them. I explain it by saying that I’m a retired priest who hangs around the church, helping out as needed and as I’m able. Retirement has its benefits, not least the freedom from some of the duties that full-time paid ministry entails.

Over my years in parish ministry I built up an archive of sermons. There have been times when I’ve simply pulled something of the shelf, touched it up a bit, and used it here or elsewhere. I confess to being tempted to do so once more for today.


Another benefit of retirement is the opportunity to reflect on past deeds, and in some cases, to repent of them. Today, I repent of most of the sermons I have preached on the Gospel story from Mark known as “The Widow’s Mite.” For a variety of reasons, I have almost always connected this to the theme of sacrifice and faithful giving, using it as the text for both stewardship and Remembrance sermons. Particular contexts pointed me in that direction and I failed to take account of what I have come to see as the story’s main point.

Let’s try to imagine ourselves in that scene in the temple. Jesus is talking to his disciples, watching a stream of wealthy people deposit their offerings. We see these folks dropping bags of coins noisily into the treasury boxes, making sure that others see them. Then we see a poor woman approaching the treasury, and dropping two tiny coins in, with an almost inaudible tinkle. Who else might be watching? Maybe she came with a friend or two, and maybe they’re saying something like, “What are you doing? That’s your last coin! Now how will you live?”

Notice that Jesus doesn’t actually commend her, but notes the same thing—she has given “everything she had, all she had to live on.” What might have led her to do this? What would it take for one of us to give everything—every last cent!—to a religious institution? And why is she so destitute? Why does she have nothing left but two small coins?

Jesus has already answered the question, in the first part of the story:

Beware of the scribes… They devour widows’ houses …

The people who were able to pour bags of money into the temple treasury were able to do so because they had made a great deal of money, very likely at the expense of the least able in the community. They participated in a system backed by the religious authorities which worked greatly in their favour. The widow was likely giving her two coins to the temple out of a sense of obedience to the dictates of this same system. God requires that you make your gift to the temple, but does God also demand that you leave yourself with no means of support whatsoever? I think not—and I believe this story suggests that Jesus also thought not.

Clearly the temple and its economic underpinnings had become corrupted in Jesus’ time. The story stands not so much as an affirmation of the widow’s sacrificial giving, but rather as an indictment of a social, economic, and religious system that abused those on the margins of society.

Throughout the prophetic writings in the Hebrew Bible, care for widows and orphans is one of the signs of the age to come. Widows and orphans had no standing in the community, having to rely on the generosity of others. The book of Ruth, from which we heard two excerpts, revolves around the plight of two widows, Naomi and Ruth, who use their slim resources (and some “feminine wiles”) to come under the protection of Boaz, who becomes Ruth’s husband. It is a story that moves from desperation to a renewed life, quite the opposite of the widow’s situation in the Gospel.

If Jesus challenges the religious and economic system of his time that has led to the utter poverty of this nameless widow, surely we are bound to challenge the systems of our world that conspire to keep many people in poverty. The fourth of the Five Marks of Mission of the Anglican Communion, now enshrined as part of our Diocese’s constitution, acknowledges this:

To seek to transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind, and to pursue peace and reconciliation.

The church is thus committed to challenging the ways of the world, seeking to live into the peace and justice of the Kingdom of God. It’s not always going to be popular. Dom Hélder Câmara, the late Roman Catholic Archbishop of Recife, Brazil, who was widely known for his work among the poor, famously said

When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.

The Diocese’s Social Justice Committee held a “Day on Poverty” just over a week ago. In the morning, we participated in the United Way’s poverty simulation, followed by an afternoon of theological reflection on poverty, including a presentation by Bishop Jane on the work of the Task Force on poverty which she co-chaired with the Mayor.

Another speaker spoke of the types of social ministry: relief, individual development, community development, and structural change. There is a role for the church at every level. It is fair to say that most church work in the area of poverty is on the level of relief. Relief work is necessary, but it will not by itself eliminate poverty, which is deeply rooted in society. Structural, systemic change must happen in order to make any real progress towards the elimination of poverty.

Some will quote Jesus, who said to Judas “The poor will always be with you…”, as if this somehow absolves us of responsibility for the poor and the hungry. However, as a Bible study we did at the Day on Poverty showed us, the out-of-context quote from Jesus refers to a passage from Deuteronomy which first states that there should not be any poor in the land, going on to say that because the will always be with you, you should never miss an opportunity to help them.

The Mayor’s Task Force has challenged us to work for the elimination of poverty. It’s a big goal, but it’s a goal that comes with Jesus’ own blessing. When the Kingdom of God comes in its fullness, there will be no poor in our midst. May God give us the grace to work towards that day.