Friday, 19 September 2014

Meditation: IN LOVE WITH THE EARTH by John de Gruchy


Song of Solomon 7:6-12
Romans 8:18-25
 "Come, my beloved, come let us go forth into the fields, and lodge in the villages; let us go out early to the vineyards, and see whether the vines have budded, whether the grape blossoms have opened and the pomegranates are in bloom.  There I will give you my love."

Next week there will be a United Nations emergency summit on Climate Change in New York and marches of support across the globe. Listen to this petition drafted by Avaaz for the occasion:

Scientists warn us that climate change could accelerate beyond our control, threatening our survival and everything we love. We call on you to keep global temperature rise under the unacceptably dangerous level of 2 degrees C, by phasing out carbon pollution to zero. To achieve this, you must urgently forge realistic global, national and local agreements, to rapidly shift our societies and economies to 100% clean energy by 2050. Do this fairly, with support to the most vulnerable among us. Our world is worth saving and now is our moment to act. 

Isobel and I have just returned from the Eastern Cape.  We travelled with our friends of many years, Larry and Nyla Rasmussen, who live in Santa Fe in New Mexico. They were here to participate in my colloquium at Volmoed and the conference that followed in Stellenbosch.  Before his retirement Larry was a professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York.  He is widely acknowledged as one of the most significant Christian theological voices on the environment.  His recent book Earth-Honoring Faith has been acclaimed as an "eloquent, comprehensive and  compelling articulation of a vision that is sorely needed for our emerging Earth Community."  So we were in excellent company as we travelled across the southern Cape.

We drove along the Garden Route, visited the Great Yellowwood Tree in the Tsitsikamma Forest, spent two days in Addo Game Park, and returned home along a very beautiful blossoming Longkloof Valley.  We rejoiced to see numerous wind farms and thousands of solar panels along the way, signs of a growing concern for the well-being of the earth. We admired the amazing environment in which we live, the  incredible variety of flora and fauna and millions of other forms of life to which we humans are all connected. 

Early one morning we were taken to a big watering hole where a large family of elephants was drinking -- there were grandparents, parents, teenagers and babies each drinking some of the 200 litres they need every day.  Suddenly another family of elephants came over a ridge towards the same watering hole. Soon they were seen by the group already drinking there.  Simultaneously they ran toward each other, greeting one another with excited sounds, dancing feet and flapping ears.  If they could have embraced they would surely have done so!  It was a joyous sight.  It was as though they were sharing the kiss of peace at an elephantine eucharist! The truth is, we might look very different from elephants, but we are all part of the same animal kingdom, creatures of the same earth, branches of the same tree of life, mysteriously connected to its source. We all belong together.  "Each human being," Larry reminds us, "is a little universe, a microcosm of the macrocosm.  We are at home in the cosmos; the cosmos is at home in us.  We're creatures of a planet on which the planet's creatures inhabit and sustain us, inside and out."  We would not and could not exist without all the plants, animals and microbes that inhabit the earth and sustain our bodies. 

Although the scientific evolutionary understanding of our humanity which connects us to all branches of the tree of life has only been established during the past two centuries, biblical writers and early Christian theologians were fully aware that all life is inter-connected and inter-dependent.  The creation stories in Genesis are not scientific accounts of how the world was made, but faith statements about this tree of life, the interdependent character of all life and human responsibility for it.  The story of Noah and his ark is not an historical account of the way in which everything from the dung beetle to the Rhinoceros was preserved on a boat, but a faith statement that our life on earth cannot be sustained unless all forms of life are protected from ecological disaster.  And the prophetic vision of the coming of God's kingdom is of an earth on which all forms of life are restored, where the lion and the lamb lie down together, and cosmic well-being is achieved.  From beginning to end, the biblical picture of God's kingdom on earth as in heaven is one in which all branches of the tree of life are restored to full life.

The bible is not, however, romantic about reality.  St. Paul speaks of the universe groaning because of its subjection to human folly and the bondage of decay, and the book of Revelation depicts the horrors of apocalyptic disasters that continually threaten the earth.  The story of earth's redemption is located in the saga of natural and human-made disasters from flood and earthquake to disease and war.  We increasingly contribute to this tale of woe through our mismanagement of the earth and its resources, not recognising that our salvation is inseparable from that of the earth.  The emergency UN summit on climate change is indicative of this.  Yet within this ongoing saga of humans abusing the earth there is, within Scripture, a love song which celebrates an alternative vision of God's intention for the earth.  To recover this vision, to live by faith in God's ecological and redemptive purpose, and to act in ways that express love for the earth. is central to the message of hope which, as Paul puts it, saves us. 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer once declared that "the earth remains our mother just as God remains our father, and only those who remain true to the earth are placed by her into the father's arms. Earth and its distress -- that is the Christian's Song of songs."  The Song of Songs (or Solomon) in the Old Testament is a love song of redemption sung to the earth in its distress. It is a joyous song which unites heaven and earth, celebrating the sensual love which God wants lovers to share with each other and the earth.  The Song of Songs is the theme song of our very own Hemel en Aarde Valley:

"Come, my beloved, come let us go forth into the fields, and lodge in the villages; let us go out early to the vineyards, and see whether the vines have budded, whether the grape blossoms have opened and the pomegranates are in bloom.  There I will give you my love." (7:10-12)

Our love for God and each other is located firmly on earth where the vines bud, the grape blossoms, and the pomegranates bloom.  That is why only those who love the earth as our mother, can really love God as our father.  This is what earth-honouring faith in God is about.  Our love for the earth motivates our inseparable commitment to social justice and responsibility for the environment. Our love for the earth is an expression of our faith in God and our hope for generations to come.  No to love God's earth is not to love God.

John de Gruchy

Volmoed  18 September 2014

Monday, 1 September 2014

Meditation: RESPECT FOR OTHERS by John de Gruchy


Ephesians 2:12-14
Matthew 5:38-39; 43-46
For Christ is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one,  and has broken down the dividing wall, that is the hostility between us.

The Marquetters were on Volmoed again last weekend!  Marquetters is the name we give to the students who come each semester as part of the Marquette University Study Abroad Programme.  The university is in the state of Wisconsin but the students come from all over the United States and from other universities as well. They are not theological students, but  are majors in a wide range of subjects.  Two groups of about twenty come each year, one in the first half and the other in the second.  They live together in Observatory, attend various classes at the University of the Western Cape, and work in services projects in the townships.  And they come to Volmoed for a weekend of retreat and reflection.  Originally set up by Judy Mayotte, a good friend of Volmoed, it is a great programme. good to have them here, and a delight for me to share with them in what I call the "Marquette Conversation." 

This means that they can ask any question they like to get the conversation going and to keep it rolling.  Some questions are prompted by what they have read in my books on reconciliation and on being human, but the conversation  develops in many directions: politics, history, spirituality, literature, sport, woodworking,  the bible and bungee jumping!  They also hike on Volmoed, have coffee at Anya's Mum,  and visit the whales in Walker Bay. But they always return to the big questions of life, their dreams and hopes, and what it means to be a Christian in today's world.  A leading question this past weekend was "What is fundamental to reconciliation?"  Justice I replied but then added: respect for others is even as fundamental.  If we do not respect others as human beings, we will treat them with contempt, regard them as an enemy, and if they threaten us we may kill them. 

Respect for the other is respect for each as an individual human beings, an affirmation of their personal dignity; but it is also respect for their culture, ethnicity, language, beliefs, and gender. Disrespect for the other, on the other hand, leads to racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, terrorism and witch hunts.  We give the "other" derogatory and dehumanizing names and value their lives less than our own.  It's OK for thousands of them to die,  but if one of our own is killed we take revenge and massacre more.  There can be no reconciliation, no justice, unless there is respect for the other, respect for life, both our own and theirs.

Of course, there is a problem.  It is easy to lose respect for someone because of what he or she has done, or what their nation or religion or ideology is making them do.  It is difficult to respect a rapist or a murderer, a corrupt official, tyrant, or a militant Jihadist who butchers his enemies.  There is truth in saying that people have to earn our respect, just as we have to earn the respect of others.  We cannot simply stand by when others are being slaughtered or oppressed, doing nothing "out of respect" for the perpetrators of crimes against humanity.  Yet even in doing so there are moral boundaries and conventions that should guide our actions.  Prisoners of war have to be treated humanely and civil prisons are meant to be run according to rules.  The fact that these conventions are flouted does not mean that they are naive; it simply demonstrates the challenge we face in keeping society humane for our own as much as the sake of others.  To dehumanize others soon leads to our own dehumanization.  Making enemies keeps us under threat.

Traditionally and still today, murderers are given the death sentence.  "An eye for an eye," as the ancient law in the Old Testament puts it.  Why, then has there been a move away from the death penalty in Britain, South Africa and elsewhere?  Is it not because we still acknowledge the humanity of murderers difficult as that may be at times.  We may lock them away for long periods but we don't starve them, beat them, or behead them as was the case not so long ago even in England and now in Middle East.  We find that abhorrent precisely because we respect life and the dignity of others.  We have heard  that it was said "an eye for an eye," but we have also heard Jesus tells us otherwise.  Not retaliation and vengeance but finding alternative ways to break the cycle of violence.  Jesus' teaching is not naive romanticism, nor is it the easy way, after all it cost him his life,  but in the end it is the only way to break that cycle.  Without mutual respect for each other as human beings, or love for your enemies as Jesus puts it, there is no basis to resolve conflict.  Israeli and Palestinian negotiators like many others consistently refuse to sit at the same table to resolve their problems.  They know that the moment they have to look each other in the face, they will have to acknowledge the other as human beings and not just the enemy.  We know that from our own South African experience.   

Shortly after my conversation with the  Marquetters, I watched a programme on BBC television in which the renowned Jewish musician,  Daniel Barenboim was interviewed about his famous orchestra which he founded together with Edward Said, the Palestinian author and scholar.  The orchestra is mainly made up of musicians from Palestine and Israel and exists to promote mutual understanding and reconciliation through music.  When the orchestra started, Barenboim said, it was easier, for relationships between Israel and Palestine had not descended into such appalling violence.  It is more difficult but even more necessary now because war has solved nothing, only intensified hatred and mistrust, and Israel's actions have spawned many more enemies.   Barenboim's orchestra is a reminder that it need not be like this if we learn to respect even our enemies, as human beings.  

The church is meant to be such an orchestra!  Here at Volmoed, perhaps without thinking, we express this every day when we bow our heads to each other as we say the grace.  For in this way we acknowledge each other as made in the image of God.  So, Jesus tells us, don't simply greet your family members, even pagans do that;  greet others and even your enemies in ways that affirm their humanity and dignity.  This is a very tough call, but it is part of our calling as Christians, to do so.  And when we do, even enemies can become friends.  This is the message of the cross.  This is what we celebrate at this holy table.  "For Christ is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one,  and has broken down the dividing wall, that is the hostility between us."

John de Gruchy

Volmoed    28 August 2014

Friday, 22 August 2014

Meditation: COURAGE IN LIFE AND DEATH by John de Gruchy


In memory of David Russel

2 Corinthians 6:9-10

We are treated as imposters, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet as well known; as dying, and see-- we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.

Bishop David Russel died of cancer last Sunday at his home in Cape Town at the age of 75. He was the brother of Hamilton Russel whose famous wine farm is one of our neighbours.  But David's life took a different path.  His story was one of deep Christian faith which found expression in the courage he displayed in the struggle for justice.   He put his life on the line in the service of the poor and became one of the humble heroes in the struggle against apartheid.   I was not one of his close friends, but I got to know him over the years years.  I first met him when, in  the late nineteen seventies, he was banned, and came to discuss with me the possibility of doing a doctoral thesis, which he eventually completed. The last time was here at Volmoed more recently when he came  with friends on retreat, and we shared together in the Eucharist.   

David was the son of a Progressive Party member of Parliament; he went to school at Bishops, then studied at UCT before going to Oxford and raining for the priesthood in Yorkshire. He began his ministry in the Transkei in 1969 as an assistant priest to an African rector.  His responsibility was ministering to those Africans who had been forcefully removed from urban areas and dumped in remote and dismal place like Dimbaza, where David himself lived and worked.  There were 10,000 people there. Few had work, and social grants were very meagre. David tried to live on the R 5 monthly grants given to women, but gave up after six months.  It was impossible.  In his first two months, he buried thirty-eight children.  Living simply and being fluent in Xhosa, David won the respect of the people.  He also became a thorn in the flesh of some church leaders, though others admired him.  For him the church was intended to change the world not just accept things as they are.  But government officials especially turned a deaf ear to his pleas for help for the people of Dimbaza. Like St. Paul he was treated as an "opstoker," but he spoke the truth; he lived far from the limelight but was well known to those who suffered; he faced death, but was very much alive; he was banned, yet liberated in himself; sorrowful at what was happening, but always rejoicing; poor, yet enriching others; having nothing  yet possessing everything.

Eventually out of frustration, in 1972, David organised a pilgrimage from Grahamstown to Cape Town to highlight the evils of migratory labour and the situation in the Transkei.  I was asked to take part in this long walk.  Several of my friends did, but I had a reasonable (and convenient) excuse.  We were going to Lourenço Marques on a family holiday.  The pilgrimage started on 16th December  when eight white members of the Christian Institute set off from Grahamstown to walk the 600 miles in order to raise awarness of the plight of rural black people and the devastating effects on family life of the migratory labour system.   After weeks on the road, times of worship and discussions with people, press conferences and meetings along the way, the group was joined by others as it neared Cape Town and came to an end at the Rondebosch Common.  There 4,000 people gathered to adopt the ‘Charter for Family Life.’  But the authorities still turned a deaf ear to the pleas of the pilgrims and those church leaders who supported them.  David then moved to Cape Town and continued his ministry amongst the poor, especially at Crossroads where he was continually engaged in protests of one kind or another.  He was banned in 1977 with other leaders of the Christian Institute, but defiantly continued working in Crossroads.  He was eventually elected suffragan bishop in the Diocese of St. John's in 1986, and a year later bishop of  Grahamstown. He retired in 2004.

I have told his story, because we need to remember it, along with the stories of others who, as Christians, have struggled so courageously for justice.  We also need to remember that the conditions in rural South Africa, despite the changes,  continue to afflict the lives of thousands of people who suffer as a result of the after effects of apartheid and continued mismanagement -- poverty, unemployment, lack of education and little health care.  No wonder people protest and  migrate to the Western Cape in search of a better life.  And if life in Zwelitsha is better than life in rural Transkei you must no how bad it is there.

But there is an additional reason for telling David's story.  David died of cancer like so many other people we know and pray about.  Yet we are told that he faced death with the same courage that he faced the evils of apartheid, and was at peace with dying.  David was an example of Christian courage both in living and dying.  Many of us find it difficult to talk about death and dying, especially our own.  It is a subject we tend to avoid even when, as we grow older, it comes closer each day for us as well as friends and family.  Every week, it seems, people we know die.  Death is never pretty, so let's not romanticise it.  And maybe we do not have the same faith and courage in facing death as David. But we can take encouragement from the way in which he exemplified the Christian way of dying.  

Another priest, theology professor and friend, Dan Hardy, also struggled with cancer before he died in 2007.  He wrote  these words shortly before he died:

I’ve been content ever since the onset of this cancer to be drawn into death, but I don’t take this negatively at all: it is also being drawn into life and the two are closely tied in together… I don’t know how? being drawn into death is also being drawn into life… Perhaps I am being a sort of sign of attraction, going ahead of you into the mystery, an attraction not into anything clear and unambiguous but into the light that is the mystery of death and life, and therein God.

We need models of Christian courage both in the face of and struggle against evil, and in the face of death and dying.  How good it is that there are those whom we have known who are models of such courage.  So today we give thanks for David Russel as we think about on our own lives and stand by others whom we know who are struggling with poverty or cancer and, either way, face death.  In doing so, may we  draw strength from our faith and trust in Christ in our weakness.

John W. de Gruchy

Volmoed    21 August 2014

Monday, 18 August 2014

Meditation: RELIGIOUS CERTAINTY? by John de Gruchy


John 14:1-7
James 2:14-19
You believe that God is one; you do well.  Even the demons believe -- and shudder.
Jesus said: "I am the way, and the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me."

These words of Jesus trouble many people, especially in the way they are interpreted within some circles --  that Christianity is the only true religion, the only way to know and come to God. This conviction is often expressed with great confidence, but it can be a dangerous certainty, a sign of insecurity not faith.  So beware of "true believers!"   "You believe that God is one; you do well."  But "even the demons believe -- and shudder." 

In my lectures to first year students I used to inform them about the words scholars use describe different beliefs about God or gods.  Those who believe that there is one God are monotheists; those who believe in many gods are polytheists; those whose views about God keep changing as one fades away and another comes into focus, are call henotheists; and those who don't believe in any god or gods, are atheists.  The Bible insists that there is only one God; as does the Quran.  For that reason monotheistic religions over the centuries have regarded polytheistic religions, like the ancient religions of the Egyptians, Indians, Greeks, Romans and the little known Yazidis in northern Iraq that are in the headline news at this time, as pagan.  This is the reason given by the IS militant Muslims today for slaughtering them on the plains of Nineveh, along with infidel Christians who, according to them, are tritheists who  worship three gods.  For these true-believing fighters, there is only One God, Allah is his name and Mahomed his prophet, and those who do not believe that, including Shiite Muslims, who don't believe it in quite the same way, must be put to death by the sword or the machine gun.  There can be no argument about it.  There can be no half measures, no doubts, no questions asked.  The holy book says it is so, therefore it is so.  Of that they are certain. There is only one way to the one God.  Their way.

Such religious certainty has caused more pain and suffering in the history of humanity than I care to recall.   It is a fundamental reason why religion has a bad reputation.  It has led to wars of religion, to sectarian violence, to Inquisitions and Crusades, all in the name of the one God.  Christian crusaders were no better than the Islamic State fighters in Syria and Iraq today.  In response to the call of the Pope, Christian knights spread terror across the eastern Mediterranean, pillaging, raping and killing Jews, Muslims as well as Orthodox Christians in Constantinople.  They then slaughtered the inhabitants of Jerusalem including children, and destroyed the city in a bloodbath.  Not only was Christianity the only true representative of the one God, but Roman Catholic Christianity was because the pope was the vicar of Christ, the only way to the God.  This God, they were certain, was the true God who licensed them to kill those who disagreed unless they became Christians like them.  But even if we do not kill our religious opponents,  we Christians too often turn Jesus into an idol, "our God," condemning everyone who does not agree with us.  Jesus is "our Jesus" not yours!   So what then, does John's gospel mean when we are told that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life, and that no one comes to the Father (not God, please note) except through him?  Is that not a certainty which we must affirm in order to be Christian? 

I am not a relativist who thinks there is no such thing as truth.  In fact, to believe in God as I do is to believe that there is ultimate truth.  But that means that every other claim to certainty must be relative, including my limited knowledge of the God in whom I believe.  Let me explain the difference.  Over the centuries scientists have continually told us that they are certain about some things which later scientists tell us they are no longer so sure about.  Certainties change, and are therefore no longer certain.   At one time we were certain Father Christmas existed, but that certainty disappeared when we saw our parents putting presents under the tree.  People were certain it was God's will that women should not be ordained Anglican priests and bishops; now there are both. There are equally things that we once regarded as certain, but do so no more.  Those who cling to such "certainties" even when they are no longer, are  insecure people who live out of their fantasies.  And the more insecure they are,  the more dogmatic they become.  They are not people of faith in the one God revealed in Jesus as the Father.

People who cling to certainties that lead them to attack others are not people of faith in this God Jesus reveals, they are people who have created a god in their own image in order to give them a sense of identity, of superiority, of being the chosen ones, of justifying their ambitions whether personal or political. They cannot tolerate difference.  They reject all ambiguity and alternative ways of seeing things.  And so, when driven to extremes, they kill those who are different and those who see things differently to them.  History is littered with people like this, and our own times are no exception.  Even in Hermanus there are, I am told, Christians who have advocate the obliteration of the Palestinians in Gaza because they believe that is God's will.

When John the evangelist tells us that Jesus "is the way, the truth and the life," he does not mean that Christianity as a religion is the only way, has the only truth, or alone brings life.  Christianity is not Jesus, nor do we have a monopoly on the one God.  No.  As Christians we believe in Jesus as the embodiment of a way of life that leads us to trust in God as the Father who embraces and gives life to the whole of creation.  Jesus' way is that of respect and compassion for the other, the way of embrace not exclusion.  This is the certainty of our faith that makes relative all our other certainties that exclude and discriminate against others, or even kills them in the name of the one God. This is the way, the truth and the life that is revealed in Jesus.  As Christians we trust this truth about the one God in whose image we are all created.  That is what we believe, the certainty by which we live, and the good news we proclaim. 

But this is not a certainty that makes us superior, or gives us privileges and rights; it is a certainty that challenges us not to trust certainties that make us secure in our own ghetto's and dogmas, certainties that tell us that it is right to hate and despise others who disagree with us.  The good news that we have come to believe is revealed in Jesus is that the one God is the Father of all, the mother who like a hen wishes to embrace everyone.   Because we believe this is the truth revealed in Jesus, we do  not reject people who disagree, we reject ideologies and religious claims that promote hatred, war, and  crimes against humanity made in God's image.  If you "believe that God is one; you do well."  The truth is, "evens the demons believe" that!  What the demons do not believe is that this one and only God loves everyone, not least those who find it difficult to believe that he exists.

John de Gruchy
Volmoed 14 August 2014