Saturday, 26 November 2016

Christian Holocaust Theology

Stephen R. Haynes, “Christian Holocaust Theology: A Critical Reassessment,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 62/2 (1994): 553-585, focuses on a group of thinkers, primarily North Americans, who  locate the fundamental historical failure of Christendom in its understanding and treatment of the Jew. None of them has used the term “Holocaust Theology” to describe their work, and Paul van Buren at least explicitly disapproves of it. Haynes defines
Holocaust Theology as any sustained theological reflection for which the slaughter of six million Jews functions as a criterion, whether the Shoah displaces or merely qualifies traditional theological criteria and norms such as Scripture, tradition, reason, and religious experience...
Explicitly or obliquely, each approach communicates the message that the Holocaust signals the moral bankruptcy of any theological reflection which lacks an awareness of anti-Judaism’s deep roots in Christian faith and the ongoing complicity of Christians in Jewish suffering.

Haynes explores the question whether the Holocaust has revelatory significance and what such a claim might entail, welcomes the service provided by Christian Holocaust Theologians when they assume “the role of the theological bloodhound sensitized to the distinctive signs of Christian anti-Judaism” but notes that “approaches to the complex Arab-Israeli conflict” are sometimes “simplistic, even dangerous.” He observes that for Christian Holocaust Theologians the restoration of Jewish life and culture in the state of Israel is a providential miracle that carries a message for the church. Sometimes the Shoa and Israel’s restoration replace the death and resurrection of Christ as the central theological datum. These and similar claims partly explain the cold response from many in the pews to Holocaust Theology.

The limitations of Christian Holocaust Theology:
  • “the Holocaust Theologians’ compensatory Christian Zionism is often accompanied by a less than critical perspective on Middle Eastern politics” with the suffering of Palestinians frequently overlooked
  • “its proclivity for assuming continuity between Christian Jew-hatred and Nazi anti-Semitism in ways that are unnuanced or historically problematic”

Haynes notes that some of the more traditional, apologetic theologians can be accused of a similarly simplistic rhetoric of discontinuity, as if Christians were not at all involved in the murder of Jews. But this is not helpfully countered by wedding  Christian and Nazi brands of anti-Semitism in “emotionally powerful, but historically dubious” formulations.
Ironically, it is often Jewish scholars who note the historical inconsistencies which the rhetoric of continuity tempts us to overlook. In the 1970s, historian Yosef Yerushalmi responded to Ruether’s Faith and Fratricide by observing that her description of theological anti-Semitism in the Christian tradition could not account for the fact that Jews survived at all in Christian Europe. In his critique, Yerushalmi consciously stressed what Ruether had underplayed or ignored in her early work on Christian anti-Semitism: that there is a “preservation” element in the Christian attitude toward Jews that is always found in tandem with the “reprobation” element; that in general Jews fared better than Christian heretics in the Middle Ages; that the Jews were never rightless in Christian society; and that it was not forced, but eschatological conversion which Christian theologians and monarchs most often sought for Jews.
Haynes argues that we need to acknowledge both that the Nazi regime “represented a sharp break from traditional attitudes toward the presence of Jews in Christendom” and that “the Nazi propaganda war against the Jews pandered to Christian Jew-hatred” and often successfully so. The Holocaust did indeed create a credibility crisis for Christianity
But two other facts cannot be ignored by responsible theologians. First, official policy toward Jews was never one of genocide during the centuries the church might have had the power and influence to carry out such a policy. Second, although the anti-Jewish tradition in Christianity desensitized many Germans to Nazi anti-Semitism, Nazism’s amalgamation of fascist and racist notions was compelling largely because it comprised a response to the dual crisis of modernity and a lost war. Neither of these considerations diminishes Christianity’s role as a necessary condition for the Holocaust; but they help explain why it was not a sufficient condition (Rubenstein and Roth).
  • “A final limitation of Christian Holocaust Theology-its lack of empathy for the theological universe most people inhabit-is one it shares with much of academic theology.”

By way of conclusion, Haynes wonders whether it is “worth considering whether the impulse to remove from Christian confession in the post-Holocaust world all that offends or separates... actually enhances genuine interreligious dialogue. Many have concluded it does not.”
These concerns for Christian identity notwithstanding, theological adjustment in the light of Auschwitz is required if Christianity would maintain its relevance in the post-Holocaust world. Given the limitations of Holocaust Theology, we are left with a question: Is it possible to take to heart the advice of J.B. Metz to his students-that they avoid any theology that could have been exactly the same before or after Auschwitz (1981:28)-while also avoiding the excesses and pitfalls of Holocaust Theology? Let us hope this way is open, for the alternatives are unacceptable. Christians cannot miss their opportunity to acknowledge and learn from their anti-Jewish past, nor can they allow this past to overwhelm them or convince them to relinquish a prophetic Christian voice which speaks to all people. Neither way will lead the church where it needs to go-beyond the shadow of Auschwitz and into a new day of Christian faithfulness and responsibility.

Sunday, 20 November 2016

Akedah Darkness

By way of reflecting on Leonard Cohen’s song You Want It Darker and Genesis 22 (see also previous post), this is an imaginative exercise (not an exegesis), reading the song as Abraham. Genesis 22 is cited in italics in the translation offered by Robert Alter.
If you are the dealer
I’m out of the game
And it happened after these things that God tested Abraham. And He said to him, “Abraham!” and he said, “Here I am.” God asked Abraham to offer up his son Isaac as a burnt offering. And Abraham could have said, "if that’s the deal, I’m not playing."
If you are the healer
I’m broken and lame
He could have said, "if this is what healing looks like, I'm stuffed." Or maybe this could be the counterpoint to the first two lines, "if you promise to heal, I allow myself to be broken."
If thine is the glory
Then mine must be the shame
The glory belongs to God. Always. Protesting God's command would cover Abraham in shame; having for years trusted this God, can he now give up without losing face? Praising God's command would amount to praising death, surely a shameful thing!

So Abraham says nothing. He keeps schtumm
You want it darker
We kill the flame
If God wants to extinguish Isaac's light of life, Abraham gets ready to kill the flame. No need for words. Except for the words of the Mourner's Kaddish.
Magnified and sanctified
Be Thy Holy Name
Why does he do it? Later Jesus would claim, "Abraham your father was overjoyed that he would see my day, and he saw it and was delighted." (John 8:56). God's Holy Name, "I AM who I AM," I will be who I am, the ever present one. I AM, the light of the world
Vilified and crucified
In the human frame
It is not truly God who desires darkness but it is us, we who cannot stand the light. And yet need it. We light candles for those whose life has been extinguished, not least in the Shoa.
A million candles burning
For the help that never came
Abraham's sons and daughters died and God did not turn up. He did not command the darkness, but neither did he prevent it. And in this sense
You want it darker
God must accept responsibility. But so must we.
Hineni Hineni
I’m ready, my Lord
Ready to kill or ready to suffer? Abraham's first Hineni is spoken to God, the second to Isaac.Ready to execute God's command, ready to be attetive to the sufferer. Ready to go on a walk for God (verse 3), ready to walk with the sufferer (verse 9). What faith can reconcile this? Not a faith that necessarily knows how things will work out but that trusts, "God will see to the sheep for the offering, my son."
There’s a lover in the story
But the story is still the same
Love - the word is used for the first time in the Bible here in Genesis 22, as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out, your son, your only one, whom you love. Should love not make a difference? It does not change the story. The text does not say that Abraham loved God but the test is arguably one that relates to the ordering of loves. Our loves for others are rightly ordered when they are directed towards the love of God rather than takes its place. But then
There’s a lullaby for suffering
And a paradox to blame
How can love for God lead to such an hateful act? It seems unbelievable that our love for God should ever lead us to seek to kill someone.
But it’s written in the scriptures
And it’s not some idle claim
It must be true then that darkness has two causes
You want it darker
We kill the flame
Abraham sees beyond his own time and place. He sees the Messiah. He also sees the Shoa and murder before and after
They’re lining up the prisoners
And the guards are taking aim
Executions on such a grand scale put our own trials and temptations into perspective
I struggled with some demons
They were middle-class and tame
But not any more if a text gives me permission to join in
I didn’t know I had permission
To murder and to maim
If so, truly,
You want it darker
And what can I confess but
Hineni Hineni
I’m ready, my Lord
Magnified and sanctified
Be Thy Holy Name
Vilified and crucified
In the human frame
A million candles burning
For the love that never came
You want it darker
We kill the flame
 And yet. The songs ends
If you are the dealer
Let me out of the game
If you are the healer
I’m broken and lame
If thine is the glory
Mine must be the shame
You want it darker
Hineni Hineni
I’m ready, my Lord
But in Genesis 22 the third Hineni is in response to the urgent "Abraham, Abraham!" which heralds the end of the trial. The one who truly fears God sees the substitute ram and knows that there is a place in which God sees to it that justice is done, where he sees and can be seen, YHWH-yireh, "On the mount of the LORD there is sight." Light at last.

Friday, 18 November 2016

You Want It Darker

The title song of Leonard Cohen’s final album You Want It Darker (booklet here) features the voice of Cantor Gideon Zelermyer of Congregation Shaar Hashomayim*, singing Hineni – the words “Here I am” used three times by Abraham in response to God in the haunting story of the binding of Isaac (Genesis 22). The song addresses God. It is he who wants it darker but it us who kill the flame.

Andre Salles observes
For his entire career, Cohen has grappled with God, with his religious upbringing and his doubts and questions and longings as an adult. This album is a frank testament from an old man about to come face to face with whatever awaits him, and here he wrestles with faith like never before.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks suggests that Leonard Cohen has given us a precise commentary on this passage. As he has done before in Hallelujah, Leonard Cohen conflates two figures in the song. Here it is “Abraham and Isaac, father and son, the sacrificer and the sacrifice. It’s Abraham who says ‘Hineni’ and it is Isaac who in effect says ‘I am ready, Lord’ The second thing he does is he tracks the shape of the narrative.” The three choruses reflect the three occurrences of Hineni in the narrative (verses 1, 7, 11). 

Rabbi Sacks suggests further that the song echoes a Rabbinic tradition
Said Rabbi Abba: Abraham said to Him,“ I will explain my complaint before You. Yesterday, You said to me (above 21:12): ‘for in Isaac will be called your seed,’ and You retracted and said (above verse 2): ‘ Take now your son.’ Now You say to me, ‘ Do not stretch forth your hand to the lad.’
Like Abraham, Leonard Cohen rises up in protest against the “cruelty and wilfulness of the entire story.”

“There’s a lover in the story,” sings Leonard Cohen. It is Abraham. Indeed, Genesis 22 is the first time that the word “love” appears in the Bible (verse 2). “But the story is still the same” and the paradox is this, Rabbi Sacks observes, that “out of love for God we sometimes kill in his name.”  

“This is [Leonard Cohen’s] final message to us. He’s saying ‘God, I love you but I don’t love the world you created...I love the love that you have for us but I don’t like the hate that so often that love gives rise to. And if the binding of Isaac is a symbol of that faith, then ‘If you are the dealer / I’m out of the game / If you are the healer / I’m broken and lame’. And yet for all that Leonard Cohen continued to affirm life...in a very Jewish way.”

“In an extraordinary gesture he takes the biggest paradox of all, Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead...it’s a prayer for the dead but there is not one mention of death in it, it’s all about life, it’s all about God...Despite everything, in the face of death, Jews still praise God.”

“Even in the midst of darkness there is light. Even in the midst of death there is life. Even in the midst of hate there is love. And even with our dying breath we can still say Hallelujah. That is the power of love to redeem the brokenness of the world.”

“In this final song Leonard Cohen becomes Job, arguing with God, finding no answers to his questions but finding nonetheless the strength to sing and to affirm.”

It is worth listening to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in full. Leonard Cohen has clearly gone back to his Jewish roots for his final album. But this does not appear to be all that is happening. The next song (Treaty) opens with “I seen you change the water into wine” – a reference to what the Gospel of John records as Jesus’ first sign? Later the song It Seemed the Better Way confesses that “to turn the other cheek”
Sounded like the truth
Seemed the better way
Sounded like the truth
But it’s not the truth today
So when in the title song Leonard Cohen cites the Kaddish (“Magnified and sanctified / Be Thy Holy Name”) and then adds “Vilified and crucified / In the human frame” he seems to have the Christian conception of God in view as well. There is arguably still more to explore here.

PS: Rabbi Sacks often speaks of Cohen's final words. They are arguably not those of the title song which is also the opening song of the album but from the song Treaty reprised at the end of the album, "I wish there was a treaty / between your love and mine" - addressed to the one who changed water into wine.


*Shaar Hashomayim is the oldest and largest traditional Ashkenazi congregation in Canada, established in 1846. Leonard Cohen’s grandfather and great-grandfather served as presidents of the congregation and Cohen himself had his bar mitzvah ceremony there. It is there that Cohen recited Kaddish for his father whom he lost when he was nine.

Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Saint Pontius Pilate?

Discussing the proliferation of back stories for the Gospels among early Christians Simon Loveday comments: “Pontius Pilate is presented in such a positive light in ‘Paradosis Pilati’ that the Coptic and Ethiopian churches have made him a saint.” (The Bible for Grown-Ups: A new look at the Good Book, 179)

Pilate is indeed commemorated in the Ethiopian Orthodox church (see their synaxarium here under Senne 25), albeit not in the contemporary Coptic Orthodox church (search for Pilate in vain in their synaxarium, e.g., here).

Tibor Grüll examined “The Legendary Fate of Pontius Pilate” in Classica et Mediaevalia 61 (2010): 151–176, and offers some evidence for high regard for Pilate among Coptic Christians. He also notes that the Arabic version of Gesta Pilati has the Jews refer to Pilate as “the wicked foreigner from the land of Egypt.”

According to Josephus, Pilate was removed from his post after sending soldiers to Samaria to suppress a rebellion, resulting in a massacre at Mount Gerizim. The Samaritans complained to Vitellius, legate of Syria, who recalled Pilate to Rome where he seems to have arrived shortly after the death of Emperor Tiberius. (Whether Pilate did in fact have to face any negative consequences is unknown and in Grüll’s view unlikely.)

Within the Christian tradition there seem to be “fifteen texts of various languages, ages and affiliations” that seek to tell us more about Pilate than the Gospels (see Grüll, “Legendary Fate,” 159-160 for a list, from which also the information below is taken). Seven texts mention the later fate of Pontius Pilate; in three he becomes a true follower of Jesus and suffers martyrdom, in four “he is presented as a diabolical figure who was sentenced to exile or death by the emperor” (Grüll, “Legendary Fate,” 160).

The divergence of tradition is also geographical. The four texts that present Pilate as a diabolic figure are Latin documents, except for Tiberii rescriptum (Greek, Old Slavonic – fifth century?). The three that present the later Pilate in a positive light are
  • Paradosis Pilati (Greek; fifth century)
  • Homilia de lamentis Mariae (Evangelium Gamalielis) (Arabic, Ethiopian, Coptic – medieval?)
  • Homilia de morte Pilati (Martyrium Pilati) (Coptic, Arabic, Ethiopian – medieval?)

The Paradosis Pilati has the Emperor condemn Pilate to death for the crucifixion of Christ. Pilate prays to God before his execution, pleading ignorance and bullying by the Jews but acknowledging his sin. The answer from heaven is reassuring:
“All the generations and families of the nations shall count you blessed, because under you have been fulfilled all those things said about me by the prophets; and you yourself shall be seen as my witness at my second appearing, when I shall judge the twelve tribes of Israel, and those that have not owned my name.”
“And the prefect struck off the head of Pilate; and, behold, an angel of the Lord received it. And his wife Procla, seeing the angel coming and receiving his head, being filled with joy herself also, immediately gave up the ghost, and was buried along with her husband.”

I declare ignorance on the fate of Pilate in this world or the next but I observe that Pilate has not been counted as blessed by all that many people in history and that the legendary prayer of repentance is not a good example on which to model our own prayers.


Sunday, 16 October 2016

Am I better than Trump?

“Just to be clear, if we’ve understood the gospel, we know we’re no better than Trump. Anything I say about him is true about me. Do I hear an Amen?”
So a friend of mine recently on Facebook.

Disclaimer: This post is not about politics. My friend could assume that there would be wide agreement among his Facebook friends about the characterisation of Donald Trump as depraved. This might even allow for the belief that in some respects Hillary Clinton is more depraved. It only excludes people who see nothing much wrong with Donald Trump.

This got me thinking. Am I better than Trump? Without further qualification the question cannot possibly be answered. Better in what way?
Am I better than Trump at making money?
No.
Am I better than Trump at making women feel uncomfortable?
No.
My friend presumably means something like “better before God” – am I better before God than Trump? To my taste even this question lacks precision but I am inclined to answer yes. From what it looks like across the pond I am in Christ and he is not and this means that I am right with God and Trump is not.

More precisely, what my friend means is that we are “guilty, vile and helpless” apart from Christ. I am no less in need of God’s grace and mercy than Donald Trump or anyone else. Agreed.

And yet I am unsure whether it makes sense to declare that “on our own” we all are (would be) equally bad and wicked. It is hypothetical. None of us is, ever was, or ever will be “on our own”, as far as I can tell. All of us have been shaped by our heritage and upbringing; many people and events have impacted on us long before we can even begin to ask who we are.

To remind myself than in some (many) ways I am “no better than Trump” may strengthen my humility and if it does, it will do some good. (Of course, perverted as our hearts often are, it is also possible to take this along lines that bolster pride: I am so glad that I am aware of how sinful I am unlike this Pharisee over there who thinks himself better than Donald Trump.)

Still, there is something that bothered me and as I reflected on it further I came to the conclusion that it is probably this: the danger of nothing-buttery.

I am a bunch of cells, a mass of molecules. So is Donald Trump. No difference then, eh?

Nothing-buttery is usually a way of avoiding moral and theological questions. "Embryos? Nothing but a bit of tissue." It can be useful in some contexts to simplify and focus by way of deliberately ignoring some of the complexities of a situation, but maybe more often nothing-buttery sidesteps what is most important.

“There but for the grace of God” is a helpful sentiment. I remind myself regularly of my privileges. My upbringing and the contexts in which I lived my life enabled me to become less of a crook than I might have been. And the grace of God in Christ, through his Holy Spirit, has positioned me differently before God. Not only that but it changed my life down to ways of thinking, relating and acting.

I am what I am by the grace of God. If it helps me to remind myself of my ongoing need of Christ then saying “I am no better than Trump” fulfils a useful purpose.

And yet, precisely because Christ is everything should I spend much time thinking about me apart from Christ? It would be a reductionism, and in the end there can be nothing but the most general answer to the question what I would be apart from Christ. What would I be like if I had not married 24 years ago? Who knows? Who cares? What would I be like if I had not lived half my life in England? Is it not futile to speculate for more than a few minutes?

If I had been born in the USA and spent my life there I would be as American as Donald Trump. But I was not and I have not.

If I had spent as much time in unhealthy locker room conversations as Donald Trump apparently has, my way of relating to women might well be as corrupt as his. But I have not, and I am grateful for that.

I am German albeit maybe not as German as I might be if I had not made my home in England.

My ways of relating to others are less corrupt than Donald Trump’s although my life could have turned out very differently.

If I am better than Donald Trump, it’s not down to a splendid achievement on my part.


And yes, there are ways in which I am no better than Trump; my heart can still be pretty twisted. But I am reluctant to shout about it for fear of dishonouring the one who has begun a great work in me.

If it helps to magnify Christ, I will declare that I am no better than Trump. But to the extent that it obscures the real difference Christ makes in people's lives I will not agree to the proposition. Nor would it bear true witness to God to pretend that he does not know the difference between relative good and evil.

Friday, 26 August 2016

Tears in Heaven

Suggestions towards an interpretation of Eric Clapton's famous ballad in preparation for a funeral at which this was requested. It is well known that Tears in heaven was written in response to the sudden, tragic death of the singer's four-year old son Conor.

The first two strophes ask hypothetical questions.
Would you know my name,
If I saw you in heaven?
They are hypothetical questions because the singer confesses "I know I don't belong here in heaven." It is probably not only that his own time has not yet come ("I must be strong and carry on"), given that the second stanza ends with "'Cause I know I just can't stay here in heaven." There may be glimpses of heaven for him but heaven is not a place that suits the singer, or probably better, not a place for which he feels suited. Maybe a legacy of thinking that heaven is for good people and sweet little boys like his own son? The singer expresses no doubt that the person addressed in the song is in heaven.

But even if the singer could see his son in heaven. Would the son acknowledge him? This question seems to be a good part of his anguished grief. The singer has failed and, having apparently made up his mind only the day before to make up for this, he will now not be able to do so.

It is often said that "Time heals all wounds." The singer is not convinced.
Time can bring you down, time can bend your knees.
Time can break your heart, have you begging please, begging please.
The first half of each of these two lines expresses the belief that there is a lot of damage that can be done by time as well - it does not necessarily get easier, but the second half suggests that it can also lead you to prayer.

And this changes everything. There is now a different sort of knowledge, one that is no longer centred on what the singer knows about himself or wants to know about himself, and there is a certainty ("I'm sure").
Beyond the door there's peace I'm sure.
And I know there'll be no more tears in heaven.
How does the singer know that? He doesn't tell us but I reckon Eric Clapton had Revelation 21 in mind.
He will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.
Cf. Isaiah 25:8Revelation 7:17. Prayer helps us to look beyond ourselves and to trust God's revelation and so come to a new and better knowledge. The next step would be to ask God himself, "Will you know my name? Will you acknowledge me?" This is the most important question of them all.

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Bavinck on the Eastern Understanding of the Trinity

“For the Eastern church the unity of the divine essence and the Trinity of persons does not arise from the divine nature as such but from the person of the Father. He is the sole originating principle (αἰτια). The three persons, according to the Orthodox, are not three relations within the one being, not the self-unfolding of the Godhead; rather it is the Father who communicates himself to the Son and the Spirit. From this it follows, however, that now the Son and the Spirit are coordinated: they both have their originating principle (αἰτια) in the Father. The Father reveals himself in both: the Son imparts the knowledge of God, the Spirit the enjoyment of God. The Son does not reveal the Father in and through the Spirit; the Spirit does not lead [believers] to the Father through the Son. The two are more or less independent of each other: they both open their own way to the Father. Thus orthodoxy and mysticism, the intellect and the will, exist dualistically side by side. And this unique relation between orthodoxy and mysticism is the hallmark of Greek piety.”

Herman BavinckReformed Dogmatics, vol. 2: God and Creation (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004), 317.