Moral Evil and Another Haiti Earthquake (Thought for the Day)

Broadcast on BBC Radio 4 Today Programme, Saturday 21st August. You can listen to the recording (for a while at least) by clicking here.

A week ago today, a 7.2 magnitude earthquake hit the nation of Haiti. Since then, the death toll has risen to more than 2,000 people, with a further 12,000 injured and hundreds more still missing. I have watched with growing horror as days have passed without basic support reaching survivors, despite the efforts of agencies on the ground. With the country already in political turmoil, it is difficult not to recall the controversies which surrounded external aid after the 2010 earthquake, and to fear that a nation which has suffered so deeply will fail to receive the support it desperately needs.

Any philosophy or theology student can tell you that when faced with the problem of suffering you are supposed to divide it neatly into moral evil – human caused harm – and natural evil – so-called ‘Acts of God’. Earthquakes have long been offered as an example of natural evil, an event before which we are helpless – and so, we might think, blameless. But as the threads of human influence have woven their way into seemingly natural events, the lines between moral and natural evil become increasingly blurred. Climate change is an obvious example; we have increasingly loaded the dice towards weather extremes, whether flood, fire, or famine. But earthquakes also testify to these blurred lines. An earthquake of similar magnitude in Japan has comparatively little impact – the country’s warning systems and quake-proof buildings minimise the loss of both lives and infrastructure. By contrast, Haiti’s history of colonial-era debt and political instability has left its people exposed, and the international promises of safer buildings and contingency plans in 2010 seem to have been forgotten.

Our responses to an event of this kind can also contribute to suffering – whether in neglecting to offer compassion or in blaming the victims. In 2010 U.S. televangelist Pat Robertson infamously blamed the Haitian earthquake on what he called the country’s ‘pact with the devil’. But in the Gospel of Luke Jesus uses the example of a building collapse to emphasise that suffering is not administered as punishment. Instead, he urges his listeners to examine their own need for repentance in the wake of tragedy. In my own Anglican tradition, the prayer of penitence invites us to both repent of the evil we have done and the good we have left undone. The suffering of the people of Haiti is a testament to these two kinds of moral evil – acts of deliberate harm and acts of neglect. The question is now whether international repentance and compassion will follow.

Pilgrimage to COP 26 (Thought for the Day)

Broadcast on BBC Radio 4 Today Programme, 7th August 2021. You can find out more and join the pilgrimage here: https://www.yccn.uk/

In recent weeks we were once again reminded of the horrifying impact of sudden flooding: floods in Germany, Belgium, and China have claimed hundreds of lives and destroyed local communities and ecologies. As these events increase globally, fear sets in, and my own feeling of helplessness rises. A study published on Wednesday in the journal Nature indicates that, by 2030, around 50 million extra people will live at risk from flooding directly due to the impacts of climate change.

One year ago, a group of 20-somethings from churches across the UK established the Young Christian Climate Network, committed to living out our faith in the pursuit of climate justice. This week, the network’s pilgrimage from the G7 to COP26 sites – St Ives to Glasgow – is passing through London. Walkers gathered on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral under a banner which read ‘Same Storm, Different Boats’, highlighting the global disparity between poor and wealthy nations in facing the impacts of climate change. The pilgrims represent all ages and backgrounds, and as they travel, they‘re calling on the government to meet and exceed their own climate finance commitments, and to cancel the debts of poor countries. The relay of participants is accompanied by a boat whose sail bears fabrics from climate threatened places – pointing to the hundreds of millions of people whose lives are threatened by sea level rise, cyclones, and other climate related disasters.

What can a pilgrimage offer, given the scale of these threats? In the Christian tradition, walking a pilgrimage invites participants to practise holiness through devoting slow attention to the work of God in the world. On this journey, we’re learning how we might better participate in that work. As a member of the Young Christian Climate Network, I’m waiting for the pilgrimage’s arrival in the north-east, where we’ll tread ancient pilgrim paths together. As we walk the same ground as St Bede, St Cuthbert, and St Aidan, we’ll seek, like them, to witness to God’s love for all his creatures. It might seem strange to emphasise slow attention in the face of so much urgency. But the Japanese theologian Kosuke Koyama described Christians as following a three-mile-an-hour God – whose dwelling among us was paced at the average walking speed, whose love was unhurried, who was attentive to the powerless and forgotten. In this pilgrimage our hope is that many will join us in our witness to climate justice, redirecting our attention to those people and places who so easily go unheard.

Jackdaw

People tell me I shouldn’t feed the crows

That they are loud, rude, social

That they will keep coming back

But each morning I watch them on my garden wall

Awkward, black, hunched in the rain

And they did not choose to be crows

Any more than I chose this dark bird

Nestled in my chest

And so I give us breakfast.

Thought for the Day: 1st May

Script for Radio 4’s Thought for the Day, 1st May.

Good morning. Like many others I have followed the unfolding COVID crisis in India with a feeling of helpless horror. As the numbered dead grow, with thousands dying in a single day, it becomes more and more difficult to wrap my head round the loss – to see each number as representing a family member, a friend, a human life. While the vaccine roll-out offers hope here in the UK, uneven access means other countries still face devastating death tolls. Instinctively we shrink from attending too closely to disasters of this kind. They feel overwhelming, provoking feelings of powerlessness in the face of so much suffering. But perhaps it is precisely our attention that is required. 

This week I attended a prayer vigil for India after being particularly struck by the invitation given by one of the organisers, Revd Dr Raj Bharath Patta. He described prayer as ‘solidarity’. The idea of offering thoughts and prayers can feel like a cheap alternative for genuine action – and it has often been used that way. But as over 200 of us gathered online, our calls for God’s mercy were mingled with donation links, offers of pastoral support, and letters written to government officials demanding aid. 

In praying I am compelled to pay attention to suffering which I might otherwise be tempted to ignore. The philosopher Simone Weil described the act of unmixed attention as prayer. She proposed that in the act of prayerful attention our behaviours are changed; some courses of action become impossible for us. When I attend fully to the suffering of another, I find myself shaped by the priorities of divine compassion rather than by my own preferences or desires. 

And the human instinct to turn to prayer in the face of death is a shared one: following the tragic deaths of dozens of people at the Lag B’Omer festival in Israel on Thursday, rabbis have also called for prayers in support of those bereaved and injured. One of the pilgrims at the festival described it as rejoicing turning into mourning, light becoming deep darkness. 

The call to prayer requires a willingness to stay in the darkness. The Apostle Paul instructed the early church to ‘mourn with those who mourn’. Helpless though I might feel, I am invited into solidarity. So I turn my attention again to overwhelmed cremation sites, exhausted health workers, grieving families, breathless patients. I ask God to have mercy. And I ask that I might be made more merciful too.  

Thought for the Day 24th April

Script for TFTD, BBC Radio 4, 24th April. The following is inspired by all those who work faithfully on the Archbishops’ Anti-Racism Taskforce Report (which you can read here) and all who have shared testimonies of racism, whether in the recent BBC Panorama Documentary (which you can watch here) or elsewhere.

As someone training for ministry in the Church of England, for the last few months I’ve been waiting for the new Archbishops’ Anti-Racism Taskforce report. It was published on Thursday and it outlines the reality of institutional racism in the Church of England and calls for urgent cultural changes. It happened to come in the same week as a BBC Panorama documentary on the same themes. I watched clergy share damning testimonies of their experiences of racism in the church, including at the theological college where I study. 

When we’re confronted with collective failure – collective sin – the temptation that many of us feel is to create distance between ourselves as individuals and the wider accusation. The urge is to say that we weren’t present, that we didn’t know, that the incidents don’t reflect the whole. The church is adept at this kind of distancing. But this misunderstands how our bodies work. We’re constantly made and remade by the things we consume, by the spoken and unspoken cultures we inhabit. And as communities we carry these stories with us. 

The Apostle Paul described the church as the body of Christ. For Christians, the visible witness of Christ in the world stands and falls on the health and work of the collective whole. If one part of the body suffers, the whole body suffers with it. When a body self-harms, by some members rejecting or abusing others, the whole is damaged. This is as much true for a nation state as it is for a local parish church. The Taskforce report is subtitled ‘From Lament to Action’: perhaps we have begun to accept the harm racism has done, but we haven’t yet made a decisive move toward transformation. 

So how can a damaged body be transformed through action? The political philosopher Hannah Arendt describes action as emerging from the freedom humans have to make something new and unexpected. We can break away from what went before. But this freedom is conditioned by our shared humanity – for our action to be meaningful, it must be done openly, with others, as part of a community of memory. For my community – for my church – and, indeed, for any of us – to move from lament to action, we’ll need to see ourselves as we really are; members of a wider body, a plurality, both carrying stories of suffering and gifted with the grace to make something new.

How To Rage: Climate Grief and the Church.

Introductory comment for the Climate panel at SCM Press’s ‘How to Rage’ event, January 2021. The panel included Panu Pihkala, Anupama Ranawana, and Sophia Chirongoma.

If you are going to be angry in this time of climate breakdown you are going to need a long-term plan. I have said elsewhere that climate breakdown is a grief multiplier – there is not one climate grief that we will be able to solve, or find closure for, in our lifetime. It is our companion now. The same is true, I believe, of the kind of rage which climate injustice creates in us. Yes, rage is something that, for many of us, we can opt out of by simply turning off social media – but even for those of us who do not get to opt out, anger is an exhausting emotion, and if we are to clothe ourselves in anger, we must clothe ourselves carefully. Of all the passions the Church fathers described, anger was the one which made them most wary. Long before Jedi wisdom, St Augustine had observed that anger ultimately leads to hatred, and hatred to the dark side. That’s my translation – if you want the original, I can give you the reference. In perhaps one of his most convicting commentaries on the human condition, he points out that no one who is angry considers their anger to be the unjust kind, and that sweet, sweet feeling of being right means we are tempted to let it hang around until it sours into hatred of the image of God in another. In other words, we all assume our particular kind of anger is righteous, and since there is unrighteous anger in the world, some of us must be wrong. I am talking here about the anger of those whose sense of rightness becomes so loud in their ears that they cannot or will not hear the angry cries of others who have been left behind. And I talk about this because I believe it’s particularly important to pay close attention to our anger in relation to the ways we imagine our anger with, or on behalf of, the Earth.

Lots of biblical scholars have observed that the prophetic tradition treats the Earth as alive, as an agent, as a witness to human sin. It responds to us, it mirrors our sin, it measures human faithfulness. But other creatures also have their own worlds, and their own relationship to the Creator, of which we are not a part. It is tempting for those amongst us who are economically removed from intimacy with the Earth to try to tame it in our imaginations – to make it our ally against oppression, to pair its rage with ours. But the Earth does not lash out at the people we want it to. The Earth’s scars and groanings bear witness to the greed and power of a minority, but the result seems to be that a less greedy, less powerful majority are punished. How do we rage with the Earth when the Earth also seems to pose a threat? Like humans, ‘the earth’ is not one homogenous entity. Our relations to it differ, and we need to attend to these different – and sometimes competing – angers carefully if they are to shape our activism.

And just as our anger doesn’t necessarily mimic the witness of the Earth, as the church we must emphasise that God’s wrath – that is, God’s eternal opposition to the powers of sin and death – is not identical to our own. We are in danger of reading the wrath of God as communicated by the prophets as being similar to ours – we are the prophet, not those prophesied against. How often, by way of example, do we call on Jesus clearing out the temple as a model for our activism, rather than hearing it as a warning against us?

I make these observations because an anger which is not brought into obedience under love – and in particular a love of truth about the real state of the world and ourselves in it – will destroy us and turn us to despair. Activism for the Earth across our diverse experiences will require humility, and patience – a consistent attention to others. Has your anger stopped you from listening? It is no longer obedient to love. Activism requires a generosity of spirit towards failure and compromise. Has your anger made you a legalist? It is no longer obedient to love. And activism requires us to give up our own agenda to make space for others. Is your anger crushing another in order to burn? It is no longer obedient to love.

I hope that these three observations offer some context for careful attention to our panel today as we consider the nature of our activism. We are set up to offer you different testimonies, in conversation. We hope to honour points of tension with humility. And given that the majority of listeners to this panel will occupy positions of relative safety in relation to the Earth’s witness, we hope that attentiveness to the anger of others can guide our own anger not to self-justification, but to a longing for liberating truth. It is in this commitment to truth that our anger can bear the fruit of change.

Grieving the Earth as prayer: A wounded speech that heals

Article published for The Ecumenical Review‘s volume ‘Christ’s Love in the Midst of Pandemic‘.

You can read it here (if you can’t access it, send me a note and I’ll send you the PDF). With thanks to Simon Oliver, Carmody Grey, Caleb Gordon, Oana Marian, and Stephen Brown for their thoughtful comments and suggestions.

Abstract

‘The COVID‐19 pandemic is not so much a new kind of crisis as our most recent reminder of the dysfunction of human relations with the world we inhabit. This article argues that transforming our relations with other creatures begins with an examination of the call to be human: understanding the kind of creature we are and therefore how to live alongside other creatures with natures distinct from our own. It critiques the tendency to overemphasize human distinctiveness (anthropocentrism) or creatureliness (biocentrism, ecocentrism) to the detriment of our interpretations of human nature. Employing Jean‐Louis Chrétien’s phenomenology of prayer as wounded speech, it proposes that climate/ecological grief mediates the tension of our distance from and intimacy with other creatures. Speech expressing grief over the world therefore re‐embeds humans in our finitude and contingency while nevertheless treating human nature as containing a particular call to participate in Christ’s transforming work.’

Song of forgiveness

Sermon on Genesis 45, preached at Cranmer Hall, 10th December 2020.

When I was very small, the story of Joseph was my brother’s favourite Bible story – and not for the reasons you think. After I was born, his little world – where all affection and attention belonged to him – was shattered, and he became very attached to the idea of sibling disposal: if you don’t like them, throw them away. He would often ask his friends, the rubbish men, if they could take me away with the bin bags, and was particularly keen on finding a large pit to put me in. Let this be a warning to the parents among us who think bible stories are helpful moral lessons for young minds. You never know which characters they might find sympathetic. 

My brother was only two years old when I arrived, so perhaps he can be forgiven for not getting to the end of the Joseph story. If he had, he might have realised that it’s harder to get rid of your siblings than you might think. In this passage we are confronted with the hard question of what happens when we encounter those who have wounded us, or those we have wounded. As many of us will be painfully aware, those old hurts and sins that we wish to hide often appear again, unbidden. And when that happens, we are confronted with our own weakness, and our longing for peace. 

An insightful Russian once observed that each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, and we’ve been journeying with this particular cocktail of favouritism, deception, violence, and bitterness for weeks. We’ve arrived at chapter 45, the big reveal of the Joseph story. We’ve been sitting with the dramatic irony of knowing who Joseph is while his brothers don’t, cringing as he walks them through repeated tests. In chapter 42 and 43 we imagined the brothers’ nausea as they first find the money placed into the top of their sacks, and their 20-year-old guilt re-emerges as fear. Then in chapter 44, they find the cup, and we grapple with the genuinely creative revenge Joseph takes; where once his brothers chose between living with an irritating show-off or selling their brother into slavery, Joseph forces them to choose between starvation or once again making their little brother Benjamin a slave. 

But now, finally, all is made clear, and after the gradual build-up of many chapters, in this chapter mysteries are revealed, brothers reconciled, and loose ends resolved – as well as some theological commentary. You’ll be relieved to hear that in this sermon I don’t plan to offer an in-depth exposition on the doctrine of God’s providence, or on the nature of free will. But I do plan to come back to it at the end. Well – I plan to, but who knows what God has planned.

That was just a little providence joke for you. Let’s hope God doesn’t make me do that again.

Our passage this evening opens at the height of the drama: Judah has been pleading for Benjamin’s release, and when he invokes the name of their father it is finally too much for Joseph. He suddenly cries for the room to be emptied, leaving the brothers alone in front of the man who holds their family’s future in his hands – who can utter words of freedom or condemnation – who can forgive them for having the cup or can refuse to hear their sorrow. Little do they know yet the extent to which they owe this stranger their repentance and plea for forgiveness. 

‘Joseph’ – even when the brothers hear him say his name, they are unable to answer. As we read verse 3, I imagine an awkward, horrible silence falling. Is this another trick? What’s more likely: that this wailing Egyptian governor is their dead brother, or that somehow he has found out what they did and is trying to frighten them with their past? Is this a ghost? But no – this is their brother, the one they betrayed, abandoned, and sold. And he is standing in front of them surrounded by his own armed guards and sobbing out a monologue. The brothers are noticeably quiet for most of this passage – they are not directing events. This is not a mutual exchange of stories. They are in Joseph’s hands. Perhaps caught up in the rush of relief that has come from revealing himself, or perhaps used to speaking and not being spoken to, Joseph directs the conversation. No doubt his brothers are still frightened. At any minute Joseph would be well within his rights to turn on them: a nagging anxiety that, as we find out later in the story, rests with them for years to come. In these chapters we’ve watched Joseph try to work out reconciliation in real time. And what we have discovered is that his capacity for forgiveness is deeply flawed. He has been torn between tears of longing and the pull of power. Betrayed by his brothers, he has betrayed them. And it is only when he has been convinced of real repentance that he is willing to reconcile.  

Joseph, like all of us, is a product of his family – of the things he has been taught are normal. Truly his father’s son, even in this moment of reconciliation he still shows favouritism to Benjamin, whom he embraces first in verse 14, and who gets three hundred pieces of silver and more garments than the others in verse 22. And the effects of these limitations in this moment of reconciliation are real. For the purpose of this sermon series we’re treating this chapter as a sort of ending, with some kind of closure offered – but the book of Genesis continues to follow Joseph and his family for several chapters. In chapter 50, following the death of their father, it turns out that even after seventeen years in Egypt Joseph’s brothers do not know whether they are forgiven. Joseph has never said it. In chapter 50 verse 17, they tell Joseph they have a dying message from their father – that he begged Joseph to forgive his brothers. Either this means that their father has carried this wound his entire life, or the brothers – even at this stage – feel they have to manipulate Joseph in order to mend the relationship. My siblings in Christ, let us hear this as a warning. If there are people in your life with whom you have cautiously reconciled, but have not exchanged words of repentance and forgiveness, do so. Do not imagine that time will simply cover over those hurts. 

Of course, the way Joseph behaves is understandable, and what’s more, it’s believable. Despite his knowledge of God’s faithfulness, he is still wounded. Despite his power as advisor to Pharaoh, he is still the little brother who was rejected. Despite the longing to reconcile, he and his brothers are strangers now, and that can never be fully undone. In Joseph, we see the hurt, anger, and longing for healing that we recognise in our wounds. And in the brothers, we see the shame, regret, and fear that we recognise from the times we have wounded others. We know that we must forgive, and receive forgiveness, and yet there are so many things that limit our hope to do so: abuses of power, bitterness, fear, regret, shame. 

It is all too easy for us to confuse our experience of forgiveness with the forgiveness promised in the reconciling love of God. We imagine that because we are begrudging, and cautious, and limited, that God responds to us the same way. But while we might identify with Joseph’s flawed forgiveness, it is not like the forgiveness that we receive from God. My ability to forgive is like trying to hum a beautiful song I heard played by an orchestra, years ago – I am faint and faltering and I get notes wrong. But if I listen to the song again, and again, and again, my voice will strengthen, and grow more confident, and the notes will fall into place. But I will still not be able to recreate that triumphant, transcendent sound. My hum will never be an orchestra. As I pay attention to God’s forgiveness I can learn to better forgive, but my understanding of forgiveness will never be the same as God’s, and I mustn’t confuse the two. In Joseph, we see a longing to sing a song of reconciliation, and glimpses of its melody shine through. But it is a faint rendition of the song to which we are invited and will one day be able to sing fully: 

Joseph, the brother and lord, was tempted by his power, and used it to his own ends. But Jesus, our brother and our Lord, gave up power to dwell amongst us. 

Joseph sees that his brothers do not recognise him and hides his face from them, in order to trick them and test them. But Jesus knows us before we know him and does not hide his face from us or trick us. He reveals himself to us. 

Joseph’s willingness to reconcile with his brothers relies on evidence of their repentance. But our Lord and brother does not wait for us to come to him. He comes to meet us. 

Joseph invites his family to live nearby, though they are kept at arm’s length, forgiveness unspoken, anxiety lurking. But the welcome we are given is not just a nearby dwelling place. Jesus brings us into the presence of the Father, where we will dwell forever. Where our sins and hurts will not just be unspoken but removed, wiped away, forgotten. 

In just a few weeks, we celebrate once again that mystery of His coming to meet us, which is a mystery of a love we cannot understand – that God gives up power to be with us. That God does not hide his face but reveals it willingly. That God does not keep us at a distance but comes as close as can be – even into the womb, into the manger, into the arms of humans in order that heaven’s arms might be opened to us.

I said at the beginning that I would talk about Joseph’s brief commentary on God’s providence at work in his life: in verse 7 he reassures his brothers that ‘it was not you who sent me here, but God’ – ‘to preserve life’, and to ‘preserve for you a remnant on earth’. God, Joseph insists, has been at work all along. And yet we know from Joseph’s suspicion and woundedness that he doesn’t really believe that his brothers are guiltless or were just helplessly compelled by divine instruction. 

How do these hold together? In this Advent season I want to offer you this passage as a reminder that God’s providence and the free will we are given are both completely, mysteriously true – for Joseph, and for you too, amidst all the hurt you have received, and the hurt you have caused. And they are both completely true because this providence and this free will are both an outpouring of the love of God, who invites us to act, and love, and forgive, and at the same time enters with the greatest possible intimacy into the broken heart of this world: to become one of us, to transform the future we are promised, and to preserve life – and not just preserve it, but restore it, renew it, and offer it to us in all its fullness. 

Like the brothers, we have failed and need forgiveness. Like Joseph, we have failed to forgive. But God does not meet us in the way we meet each other. God will never withhold forgiveness from you.

In the coming weeks, my prayer for you is that you once again hear and receive this song of God’s reconciling love. A song echoed by Mary, by angels, by shepherds, and sung in its fullness in the cry of the child, Emmanuel, who did not wait for us to seek him out but arrived suddenly, mysteriously, as our Prince of Peace.

Amen. 

Grief and the Church: Recent Conversations

Recently I’ve had the chance to have several (virtual) conversations with other thoughtful people about climate/ecological collapse, grief, and theology recently. Here are the details of where you can find them:

Everybody Now – ‘podmarch’ on climate breakdown produced by David Blower, also featuring Rowan Williams, Gail Bradbrook, Kevin Anderson, Damaris Albuquerque, and others

Staying With The Trouble – William Temple Foundation Podcast episode on climate grief with Tim Middleton and Tim Howles

A Rocha Canada – Alone in a World of Wounds conversation on eco-anxiety/grief and the Church, with Anupama Ranawana and Brent Unrau