Faith, Music and the World
On Palm Sunday we read from the bible the ‘triumphal’ entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. During the preach we briefly looked at the passage before which was Luke 19:11-28. This is the seemingly familiar story of the nobleman who went away and gave his lackeys money to invest and so on. During the sermon it was said, ‘Jesus is the nobleman and we are the slaves.’ Maybe it was my contrary nature but I thought ‘is it?’
Is Jesus the man who grabs for power? Does he only reward those who make money? Or those who get results? And does he slaughter his enemies?
For me the key is the start and end of the passage. ‘he was near Jerusalem… they supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately’. This is the key introduction to the parable. The passage ends with ‘he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.’
I can understand the consistent way in which we interpret a person in power within the parables of Jesus to be God or Jesus himself. It’s what we grew up with but isn’t it also convenient for those in power that God is like a king? But Jesus has consistently subverted the expectation of the coming kingdom that his followers expect will result in a political overthrow. I think this story goes with along with that subversion.
First the story starts with the nobleman needing to go and get royal power for himself. Herod in 40 B.C and his son Archelaus also went to Rome to get their approval. Doesn’t this immediately cast the nobleman as the ‘baddy’?
The nobleman then wants to know how his money has done. With those who have done well he gives more power. They take charge of cities according to the amounts they’ve made. If this nobleman is the baddy then it can be assumed that the money he’s got is through coercion and cheating. I think this because the passage just before this is the story of Zacchaeus who made his money dishonestly.
So in this reading the third servant tells the truth. He doesn’t do anything with this dishonest money. He doesn’t put it in the bank. He devalues the money by not doing anything with it. He says that the master is harsh and reaps what he doesn’t sow. This is hugely disrespectful. No one one would dare say such a thing to their master.
For uttering the truth that money is taken away from that servant and given to the one who’s the most slavish to his master’s ways.
Then the nobleman wants to slaughter his enemies.
Is Jesus giving us a warning? A warning in how evil power works and sucks people into its ways? Is he also saying that he will be slaughtered? He said it before.
I wonder if any of the disciples had that sick feeling in the stomach. It also points to our complicity with power that is evil. For why have we taken it for granted that the kings in the stories are goodies? The majority of Israelite and Judaic kings were rubbish. Most of the other emperors, pharoahs and kings are presented in not very flattering terms. So why do we somehow romanticise the notion of king? Especially when Jesus is doing everything upside down.
A woman was ‘caught’ in adultery. Nothing new there. The man wasn’t accused. Nothing new there. She was dragged to be stoned. Nothing new there except that nowadays it’s more metaphorical. She would be used as a pawn. Nothing new there. To trap a good man. Nothing new there either.
In the end the accusers left her. And Jesus said to her ‘No one’s condemned you?…. Neither do I.’
That’s new. In fact it still feels new. A woman who is in the wrong has all her accusers and accusations made to leave. And she is not condemned.
The rape case in India showed up the attitude of a certain section of its population. It’s the girl’s fault. She shouldn’t have been out late. She shouldn’t be so westernised… blah blah blah… and we have condemned many innocent girls to horrible fates through our prejudices.
Jesus in this story seems to go completely the other way. The system of condemnation that has dragged this woman in, is made to leave. He declares the entire system to be without validity. The system of condemnation and misogyny for that moment crumbles. In the end it’s just him and the woman. He addresses her directly. ‘Is there no one to condemn you?’ No, she replies. ‘Neither do I’ he says, ‘Go and don’t sin anymore.’ This is the freedom that Jesus offers. The woman acknowledges his act by accepting that there is nothing to condemn her.
I think that this is the Jesus we all need to embrace.
A lot of folk say that religion or any belief in God is a crutch. Interestingly believers without using the same terminology reinforce this assumption in the way they express the need for God. So often it is said that when we are in trouble, God will help us; or to go a bit further God will rescue you from hell.
Is that it? Is that all faith is? Is that all religion is? Any adherent of any belief system will proudly say, we are not really religious; it’s our way of life.
It’s a way of life. Get it? It’s not something we turn to when things go wrong. It’s alway around we. It’s our world view. It’s like water, which we drink when we are happy and satisfied after a meal or when we are dying of thirst. It’s not a crutch.
If anything, Jesus calls us to throw away all the crutches that we’ve built around us.
For those who care, in India, the last few weeks has opened a conversation about misogyny and the nature of male female relations in India and beyond.
I’ve since childhood been sensitized to the problem of misogyny. It’s a problem that so many refuse to even acknowledge. Yet we were made aware of it because of our militant school principal Mrs. Mary Roy. The mother of the marginally less militant Arundhati Roy fought so many battles for women. Some were famous, some were unnoticed. The larger than life personality that she is, we were often privy to the battles she fought. I didn’t fully understand all of it but I realised pretty early on there is a problem with how women are treated.
She got us to watch The Accused and asked for a discussion about it. When the then Chief Minister of Kerala said rape is… like drinking tea we had a special assembly and a discussion for it. Once there was a case of abuse in the school and she got the whole senior school together to talk through it.
However, knowing about all this didn’t really change my actions. I still expected my mother to do all the cooking and the maids to do the cleaning. In theory I supported feminism, deplored the misogyny in church but essentially all that remained in the head.
After marriage I did the classic ‘you’re better at it than me, dear’ excuse and got my wife to do most of the housework and I grudgingly ‘helped’. Thankfully my wife didn’t let me get away with it. Through persistent reminders of housework I slowly started doing it. Even then in my mind I was ‘helping’ my wife in her duty. After a couple years of marriage it dawned on me. When I did housework I wasn’t helping. I was just doing my bit in the house. That was a huge realisation. I slowly changed. Too slowly for the wife but we’ve survived.
Now we’ve reached a point where I do all the cooking and bins and she does all the cleaning. And we share the child care as our schedules permit. Thankfully we had the circumstances that allowed us to reach this point.
I think this is the starting point for the move against misogyny. It starts at the home, where boys aren’t allowed to get away without learning to cook and clean. Where husbands have to share the title of bread winner and child carer.
The question for me is, how do I as a man gather together with other men so that we can move towards allowing women to be full persons in society regardless of their gender? But I suppose small steps first.
‘Dad, I’m pregnant,’ is one statement, that whatever the context, I’ll be very mixed about. If she’s in a loving mutual relationship, I’ll be elated, at the same realising that my daughter is going to be yet another step away as her family becomes a more self-contained unit.
The other extreme would be a violent rape. Where I’d be desperately trying to hold my broken child, angry and filled with self-loathing for not protecting my own.
But what if she says, ‘I don’t know whether to keep it.’ ?
This hypothetical situation is important. Because it is a possibility. Hopefully beyond remote yet a possibility. The recent death of a woman in Ireland and Mehdi Hasan’s article brought to the fore my need to possibly try and get to the bottom of where my beliefs are considering the rather complex question of abortion.
There are two camps here on the issue known by very loaded terms. Pro-life often associated with right-wingers who believe that the foetus must be protected at all costs and Pro-life often associated with left-wingers who believe it is the mother’s right to decide at all costs. Of course there are large cross overs and gradations for this. Any blog post on such a topic will be simplistic!
Both the names of the camps are misnomers. I think at the centre quite literally the question is : what is the nature and being of this biological event that’s happening within a woman? Some pro-lifers say that from the instance of conception that this is human life and therefore sacred. Some pro-choicers say that until this biological entity can survive on its own it is not a person of its own but part of the woman’s body and therefore under the full sway of the woman’s decisions.
Guess what? I have sympathy for both sides. I don’t think that just because an entity can’t survive or speak for itself means that it can be dealt with any way. At same time women so often have pregnancy forced on them through rape and coercion. Then in some cases a lifetime of resentment against what becomes a human being.
The question that I’d like to look at is what a person is. The thoughts of Zizioulas have been quite influential in how I at least think about what persons are. The essential rational I reckon for what a person is, is defined by her network of relationships that she has. Zizioulas defines these relationships primarily with the Trinitarian God to which I agree but I think it’s more than that. I think the network of human relationships is also key to what makes a person.
So my relationships with my family, friends, work colleagues all make me who I am. I don’t think there is any ‘real me’ or ‘real you’ stored in some metaphysical hard disk out there. As a Christian I believe that the relationship with God is a key part of realising my personhood.
So what of this biological thing in the womb? I remember my lecturer Max Turner saying that Jesus at his point of conception was loved by the Father and the Spirit and so it opens up a set questions around the issue of abortion. This is quite interesting. If at the point of conception this biological thing is loved does it become a person and therefore wrong to curtail its existence? Reflecting further upon this, the one thing that we didn’t discuss is Mary’s part in the conception of Jesus
It’s interesting that Mary doesn’t just find herself pregnant one day. An angel comes and gives her a long spiel. (Sorry Gabriel). But she’s sensible. She wants to know how, since she’s a virgin. She’s practical. The angel then explains. Mary then says let it be as God says. There is a strong sense that Mary needs to agree. Joseph isn’t told of this plan. He only hears of it afterwards. So I think in some sense Mary chooses to have Jesus. She knows it’s going to be hard. Yet she chooses it.
Then she concieves. I believe that it’s Mary’s choice that allows Jesus to be an incarnated person. The cell that is Christ is fully dependant upon Mary’s body, and fully loved by the Father and Spirit, but Mary too loves him. And I think it’s the mother’s choice that makes Christ a person in the incarnated sense.
So the question comes up if Jesus wasn’t loved by Mary does that make him a non person. I think it’s a bit nuanced. The initial cell which is the basis of the human is responding purely biological initially. But as it grows it starts realising that there is an environment out there. I think all this constitutes a person. So obviously when a foetus is older it’s no longer an unthinking, unfeeling bit of biology but on the path to becoming an individual.
So from this rather simplistic and shortened view I regard myself to have some pro-choice leanings. I’m definitely pro-life too. I believe that the biological thing has the potential to be a full person but I think in the very initial stages of conception there is an ambiguity as to when personhood begins. From Mary’s story I believe it is the mother who initially confers personhood on this bunch of cells and later as the cells grow other factors outside the mother contribute in the conferring of personhood.
So when the mother has been forced to concieve through rape, I think that this hateful encounter does allow her not to love this biological thing in her. And therefore for the initial ambiguous time that is not a person. Now defining this ambiguous time does bring us back to these arguments about 24 weeks and 20 weeks and so on.
There’s another story in the bible that informs me about what I think of abortion. Jesus’ ancestor David went through his most disgusting phase when he had sex with Bathsheba and had her husband killed (2 Sam 11,12). I think it is fair to classify this as coerced sex. A child was born from this but then died. The circumstance of conception meant that this child died. Yes I know it’s after the child is born and from my viewpoint already had some sort of personhood however, the circumstance in which the child started it’s biology was the reason why it couldn’t survive. So I think definitely in the case of rape I think that the hateful nature of the conception allows the mother to not confer personhood.
Later in 2 Sam 12:24 it says that David comforted Bathsheba and made love to her. (NIV) Now the circumstances have changed. From this event Solomon is born who becomes an iconic king.
So to sum up I think that I’m both prochoice and prolife. I believe that from the point of conception that that cell is a person if the mother has been a willing participant in the consumation. Of course there are lots of other issues around this which I haven’t touched but this is the simplistic version anyway.
So what if my daughter comes to me with that question? Well first I would like to hope that I could do everything for that question not to come up. That she could live safely and would have a sex life that’s responsible and mutual and faithful. This requires education, open conversations and of course more maturity for both boys and girls. But accidents do happen and if I still have to deal with this question then I would hope that there is a safe way and supportive way to manage my daughter’s choice. I will offer all my love and support whatever her decision. I would have hopefully spoken to her about it much earlier and she’ll know where I stand. I would hope that there would be good support from hospitals and doctors. I would also hope that there is much more open research into understanding what life means at this pre-natal level so that in the event of a horrible event or a mindless accident we can be supported and helped through a difficult decision.
Recently on facebook an article was posted on leadership. I liked the article but a line at the top of the page made me a bit uneasy. It said ‘Whatever the problem, community is the answer.’ Really?
I wonder if ‘community’ has become a buzz word whose implications we don’t fully get. Community can be beautiful. Community can be dangerous. Community can be empowering. Community can be oppressive.
Maybe it’s the reaction to consumerist individualism and uncaring faith that makes community such an attractive Utopia. Many have tried to create this community, sometimes by force, sometimes by rules or sometimes by coercion. When something goes wrong we immediately look for a scapegoat. Rene Girard speaks of this powerfully in his writings and I am yet to read him properly. Yet it is interesting that blame seems to be such an individual category. But I think communities must be willing to take blame. For they have power and communities engage in good and bad acts. Who is to take responsibility for these actions whether good or bad?
Which is why the research of my friend Drew into the apology of the church of England for the slave trade is fascinating. After all the slave trade had such a wide participation of certain societies that even today the prejudices of that age are still echoing and resonating around the world.
The bible is quite ambiguous whether communities are good or bad. Many times it’s the single individual who is called to stand against the community. Yet the times of unified celebration and joy is definitely portrayed as good.
I think the word ‘community’ needs to be always qualified. We need to always refresh its meaning so that it protects and empowers the individuals in it. Otherwise we’ll be consigned to codes of silence, of abuses of authority and of excluding the slightly different.
An American football coach, a deceased British DJ and an American cyclist. What do they have in common? Well for one they are in the news. The stuff they have done pretty horrific.
Jerry Sandusky was recently sentenced for abusing countless numbers of boys. Jimmy Savile, a veritable British institution turns out to be the ultimate nightmare by abusing countless numbers young people. Finally, Lance Armstrong seems to have won all his titles and fame by cheating.
Now, what’s been done is terrible enough but something that binds these three people is the culture of cover up that protected them for so long. All of their acts were known in their circles for years. Yet a culture of silence followed it. The same with the abuse of children in the church. It doesn’t matter what institution or grouping of people it is, those who wield power are able to bend justice into injustice and drag those close to them into that injustice. So Sandusky’s employers knew but didn’t report anything. Savile’s associates and employers knew but didn’t do anything. Armstrong’s teammates definitely knew but didn’t do anything. No they actually did something. They colluded and reinforced the injustice that was occuring.
This is scary. Because it could happen to anybody. Have we ever been part of a group that suddenly turned on an individual an bullied them? I have. I’m ashamed of that. This is the spirit of people coming together that I want to avoid. How we see an injustice and yet can’t see it.
I follow formula 1 a lot and here’s what two of the better drivers in terms of personality and driving have to say.
For Alonso, Lance Armstrong is always a legend even if he cheated. This is something that a lot of Armstrong’s fans are saying. ‘He cheated. So did everyone else. He was the best of the cheats.’ Why do we choose to be blind?
Why do we do this? Why do we defend the indefensible? Why do we cover up uncomfortable and unjust happenings within the groups we are in? Is it because the image of what we believe, is more important than the reality that presents itself later? Questions, questions. I just hope that I’m brave enough not to be part of whitewashes though I fear I’m already part of some. Lord have mercy.
What is often dressed up as individualism is often a plain delusion. Advertising screams at us, claiming that if we buy that product which all the other millions have already bought then we will be truly unique and truly individual. So in effect we are encouraged to be part of the herd under the guise of being an individual. I wonder if being an individual is a huge sham. After all we are the product of the prejudices and beliefs of our times. The really different ones are mad, and/or unable to relate to the rest.
Great theologians like John Zizioulas and others have given us brilliant explanations of what constitutes a person. A lot of it revolves around the idea of a person being the network of relationships she is part of. Of course reading him would give a much better understanding. But I still don’t understand what an individual is. The problem is illustrated by a few musical examples.
In a symphonic orchestra there are many individual instruments or ‘voices’. Often the unity of a community is illustrated that saying that we are an orchestra playing our different parts. Agreed. But… the orchestra is considered successful only if each person performs exactly what has been pre-ordained for them. So in effect there is very little individuality. Yes each instrument is different but if they did their own thing it would be chaos.
So maybe we have to look at a jazz ensemble. Even there, with all the improvisation spaces there are still rigid traditions that dictate the place and space of each musician. I have heard of a few improvisational ensembles where they make it up as they go along which sounds absolutely amazing but there seems to be so few of them.
The time you truly hear an individual is when the others intentionally give space to the individual. Maybe that’s how we go. We live a life that in ourselves is always seeking to give others space in our own way. It is an other centred individualism where our primary concern is the development of the individuals around us to be more fully human in their own way. But of course this sounds very idealistic and I’m not sure how it fully works out in practice.
But through reflection I have to conclude that community is not the end to which we strive for. It is both. An other centred individuality and a community which ensures that its individuals flourish. After all Jesus is not the Holy Spirit. Father, Son and Spirit work for each other so much so that they not only seem one, they are one while being three. A mystery of course but it’s that mystery, that we are called to inhabit.
Last year while at a conference the principal of Spurgeon’s college spoke of his support for individualism. I sneered within. Typical westerner. Community is what we are meant to be. Isn’t that what a major portion of theology and the bible is working towards? And of course we Indians know about community compared to these poor individualistic Westerners. Ah racial prejudice! You’re like a nasty cold that never leaves.
The principal has a point. Over the past few years by reflection and observation I’ve seen and realised how oppressive communities can be. In fact so much of the radical steps of society, were in recognizing and safeguarding of the individual. The reformation for example allowed faith to be expressed in such individual terms as had rarely been before. The balance is probably the other way now especially in urban cultures where the individual is given so much importance that everyone’s a bit tired of it and wants to get ‘community’ back.
However communities can be dangerous. Amartya Sen in his brilliant book Identity and Violence speaks of how communities suddenly turn to violence when individuals consider their community identity as the sole way of expressing individual identity. History has shown this. All the Germans who supported the Nazis weren’t bad people. Yet as a community they seemed to be taken by a particular spirit that blinded them to horrors of Nazism.
Beyond the obvious examples of Nazism and Stalinism I’ve seen how communities suddenly unite to exclude certain kinds of people. Twice before because of disagreements with church leadership we suddenly found ourselves losing bunches of ‘friends.’ The people that are meant to love each other and the supposed community is actually a tribe which can’t bear for its superstitions and institutions to be questioned.
I think all groups of people have this herd mentality from choirs to churches, to political parties to the regulars at the pub. There seems to be a kind of spirit that descends on people when they are together and united. This ‘spirit’ can do great good and great harm. I think the question I’m grappling with is how the community can truly make us human when so often it dehumanises everyone in it.
How do we call ourselves a community without losing the individuality that is also core to our identity?
I’ve recently been listening to a lot of King’s X. Though I’d heard their stuff a while back just right now they’ve really hit the spot with me. If you go through the youtube videos of their music one particular comment comes out strong. “Most underrated band ever.” And I agree. For their time they were at the very forefront of rock. Jeff Ament of Pearl Jam reputedly said that King’s X invented grunge. Billy Sheehan the virtuoso bassist in this video says that King’s X should have been bigger than U2. Rock bands like Extreme, Mr. Big and later bands like RATM all seem to have got some inspiration from King’s X when you listen to their music chronologically.
Yet why are they so underrated? It can be said that many bands fall foul of the music industry but these guys worked very hard with the industry itself and yet they never hit the big time. I could be wrong but I think it’s because they are a mixed race band. We have to remember that in the early 80s MTV were still not showing many black artists including Michael Jackson. Significant numbers of Americans still think that mixed race marriage should be banned. I think in that kind environment marketing a band like King’s X would have to really rise above racial stereotyping. How many black frontmen are there in rock/heavy rock/metal bands? Not that many and I think those that are around are probably from more recent acts than King’s X was. So as with a lot of things it was a huge marketing issue. Racial prejudice would’ve dampened King’s X obvious rise to the top.
Obviously it’s sad. They are an astonishing band combining sounds that even today very few bands can authentically do. Yet they live on in the memories of their hardcore fan base. Long live King’s X.