Jasmine Chapman’s Prayer

Our young people led a moving service which included inter-generational dialogue. One of the unexpected insights from the dialogue was just how different life had been for those who are now older when they were young. Perhaps in the future life will again be much simpler, more austere, but the recollections of the past made it easier to see how fulfilling and rich that might be.

One of the highlights of the service was a prayer written by Jasmine Chapman. Here is what she wrote and so movingly read during the service.

I’ve always known that this world seems to suffer,

But it was small, irrelevant when I was younger. 

But as I grew older the threats became clear.

The climate’s heating up, distilling fear.

Fires roam where rain used to rule,

To humans this earth’s no more than a tool.

Ice turns to water at an increasing pace,

These problems are something we all must face.

For now, I fear the future, a dystopian sight.

If my children will live during a losing fight.

We can’t limit the future because we failed to save

God’s precious earth, which to us he gave.

We cannot let this world we have slip away

Or it’s a price that we all must pay.

So Lord, I pray, that action takes place

So the future isn’t something that we erase.

Because I’ll fight, until my dying days

Hoping this isn’t earth’s final phrase. 

Jasmine Chapman

Counting the Cost

At Box Hill Baptist we are exploring the Season of Creation. On September 8th it is our young people who are leading the service. We invited them to lead us early in the series because it is they who will live with the consequences of the environmental crisis that is climate change. We need to hear from them, and dialogue with them. The teenage activist Greta Thunberg has been a catalyst for people of all ages to mobilise around climate change, but young people especially have responded to her message.

Whenever I talk with younger people about climate and environment I feel guilty – guilty because I know I will probably not live to see the consequences of how my generation, and earlier generations, have lived – but they will. Perhaps that is why the one Bible reading they selected from the smorgasbord of the lectionary for the service they are leading is Luke 14.25-33, where Jesus warns about the cost of discipleship, and how sensible people count the cost of what they are doing, whether in building or in battle, if they are going to succeed. When it comes to the consequences of our opulent lifestyles and technical mastery of the world, have we really ‘done the math’?

For those who trust David Attenborough, that avuncular but doughty prophet, you might like to look at his documentary The Facts. For those with a brave spirit and a taste for more punchy academic approaches, you might try the work of Jem Bendell, Professor of Sustainability Leadership at the University of Cumbria. Jem’s blog is a fascinating resource that will introduce you to his work. His latest focus is the concept of Deep Adaption: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy. Deep Adaptation presumes that we are facing “an inevitable near-term social collapse due to climate change” (cheery news!) and seeks to prepare us for the kinds of adaptations and responses we will be called upon to make. He also engages with the kinds of social and psychological defenses (‘systems of denial’) that stop us from thinking through such challenging scenarios (which defenses then compound the crisis and make everything worse).

For those of us familiar with the Bible however, the category of ‘inevitable near-term social collapse’ is pretty much stock-in-trade. Think about the Exodus and all that desert wandering, homelessness and near starvation. What about David and his paid soldiering and hiding, and wars and adventures before he got to be king with all those wives and concubines? The Prophets and their warnings of desolated cities and barren landscapes. Esther and Daniel and all that genocidal plotting against the people of Israel. Not to mention all of Revelation and some of the ‘reality therapy’ handed out to struggling Christians in a few of the letters in the New Testament. We are comfortable western Christians who have been rather well insulated (until now) from the effects of climate change, but if we have been reading our Bibles we know the world is not always like that. And we also know that even in the most dire and dangerous situation, there is hope!

Bendell in his Deep Adaptation model, asks us to engage with three positive responses to what he calls the climate tragedy. They are resilience, relinquishment and restoration.

Resilience is the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress, involving the creative reinterpretation of identity and priorities.

Relinquishment is people and communities letting go of certain assets, behaviours and beliefs where retaining them could make matters worse.

Restoration is people and communities rediscovering attitudes and approaches to life and organisation that our hydrocarbon-fuelled civilisation eroded. This includes re-wilding landscapes, changing diets back to match the seasons, rediscovering non-electronically powered forms of play and increased community-level productivity and support.

(the above summary is from Barbara Lepani, Wild Mountain Collective Blog)

While Jem Bendell’s work is very challenging, I see it as an extended riff on Jesus’ teaching about counting the cost, complete with the warning that Jesus ended his speech with – that we are all going to be a lot poorer! But in other ways we may be richer, better off, happier, more engaged with each other. While looking squarely at the magnitude of the problem, and perhaps the inevitability of catastrophe, is very difficult to do, it is the only way to find hope on the other side of whatever is coming.

Jeremiah prophesied the end of his city (Jerusalem) and his society for decades before anyone took notice. They lived in denial and false hope. And then, when the inevitability of the disaster could no longer be avoided, and everyone was liquidating their assets and hunkering down, Jeremiah bought land and had the transaction publicly witnessed, and the deeds sealed and buried, as a sign that there was a future and generations beyond the present would someday build on what he had done. (What is it with prophets and their names – Jem/Jeremiah?)

We are in much deeper trouble than Jeremiah and his people, but Jesus urges us to ‘do the math’, accept the facts, look it square in the face and pray for the resilience to live through it, the courage to let go what must be abandoned, and the skill and hope to work for restoration into the future.

Jim Barr 8/9/2019

Language and Violence

I went to see the latest Tarantino movie Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood. Tarantino’s work I sometimes find confronting and a little intellectually overpowering, but this one I really liked. It’s his use of violence I find confronting. While Tarantino himself says he deplores real violence he certainly seems to glorify it (or should that be ‘gorify’ it?) on film. While the director himself may make fine distinctions, I wonder other his viewers are always able to pick up the subtleties he is seeking to communicate.

I googled ‘language’ and ‘violence’ to see whether there is a body of thought around how one might use violence as a cinematic language. What the search yielded was a lot of discussion as to whether ‘language’ can be ‘violence’ (mainly focussed on hate speech, white supremacy, vilification etc) but very little on whether ‘violence’ can be ‘language’. There were some articles on ‘Aestheticization of violence’ but very little on violence as a language.

This I found interesting as I am preaching this week on Hebrews 12 which mentions that ‘you have come’ (presumably in the worship of the church) ‘to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel’ (Heb 12.24). Here the metaphor of ‘blood that speaks’ certainly implies that violence is language. The violence implicit in the ‘sprinkled blood’ of Jesus speaks a more powerful and better (perhaps in the sense of goodness) word than the blood of Abel, which has been crying out to God from the ground ever since Genesis 4.

Does the language we use about the violence inflicted on Jesus ‘speak a better word’ than other blood that ‘cries from the ground’? The textual confusion over one word in Revelation 1.5 (lusanti/freed us from our sins cf. lousanti/washed us from our sins) led to several generations of earnest Christians who metaphorically bathed in blood and looked to the ‘fountain filled with blood, drawn from Emmanuel’s veins’. A narrow proclamation of substitutionary atonement lays the ultimate responsibility for the violence suffered by Jesus at the feet of God the Father. When I was the head of Spiritual Care in an Australian welfare organisation for several years I came across a number of social workers and other human services professionals who found ‘Jesus as sacrificial victim’ a message that disempowered their clients (many of whom have been severely victimised) and compounded the social blame for their own marginalisation that they experienced. For many, this language about blood does NOT ‘speak a better word’.

Another generation of Jesus’ followers saw the violence Jesus suffered as a form of victory, not victimhood. Christus Victor is an early, and enduring, view of Atonement (that is, what was achieved through the Cross) that sees the violence Jesus willingly suffered as a form of both triumph and transformation. There are a number of ways that Christians speak about the Cross, and ways of understanding how the Cross speaks to humans, that focus on love, surrender and victory. In this speech the sprinkled blood does indeed speak a better word than the blood of Abel.

Which kind of brings me back to Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood. The title does hint that this is all a fairy tale, and quite a dark one at that. In my reading of the story there is a contrast between the cinematic ‘good’ violence handed out by the heroes (Rick Dalton, played by Leonardo Di Caprio, and his sidekick Cliff Booth, played by Brad Pitt) which is always more powerful and effective than ‘real’ violence – whether it be the violence of the Charles Manson family, the violence of a succession of movie ‘bad’ guys and even the violence of a ‘real’ Kung Fu practitioner – Bruce Lee (played by Mike Moh). Once Upon a Time is true to the movie trope that the ‘good’ guys will always beat the ‘bad’ guys. The kicker is that the violence of the movies spills over into real life and the ‘virtual reality’ of cinematic violence overwhelms the historical reality of how life plays out.

For me this is confirmed bythe dialogue in the film between the Manson family members on their way to kill Sharon Tate and friends. One of the girls talks about how ‘we’ are the generation raised on television, and TV is all about killing. So now ‘we’ are going to kill all those people who taught ‘us’ how to kill. In this logic there might be a sense of balance, or a feedback loop, or even a morality tale, but the surprise ending is dark indeed, and ‘virtual’ violence proves far from imaginary and even more deadly than real violence. To my ear, the blood that Tarantino sprinkles (or should that be ‘splatters’?) over his closing scene speaks a worse and more troubling word than all the centuries of real blood that cry to God from the ground.

Jim Barr 24th August 2019