(with thanks to Grace Cathedral, San Francisco)
(with thanks to Grace Cathedral, San Francisco)
Radical Islam currently has a near monopoly on religious violence in the Near East. But the violence itself goes back much further. My friend Nancy Kerr comes by to read Syriac and Greek with me once a week, and we have been working our way through the account of the Martyrs of Karkha d’Beth Selokh. The account covers events from the third to the fifth centuries AD; and, with one exception, the oppressors are Persian. The victims are Syriac-speaking Christians in what is now northern Iraq.
The persecuting religion was the established, state-sponsored form of Zoroastrianism—called, in Syriac, Maghushutha. And, then as now, politics were mixed up in the whole. Christianity was, after all, the state religion of the neighboring Romans, with whom the Persians were locked in a long-term imperial contest—one that ultimately left both sides exhausted and made them easy prey for the Arab armies who would bring Islam to the area in the seventh century.
Ironically, many of the Christians killed in these persecutions belonged to groups that were persecuted in the Roman realm as well for their theological positions. Another grim irony is that the ancient city of Karkha is modern Kirkuk, where their Christian descendants are now threatened by a new brand of the same violence.
It’s important to say that the Near East has no monopoly on religious violence. Nor do Moslems, even if Islam is particularly in the news at present. Modern Zoroastrians have no apparent hankering after state-supported violence. But plenty of other religious people do, including some Christians, who ought to have learned better from Jesus, and even, here and there, some Buddhists.
Contemporary atheists sometimes imagine that if humanity could only get rid of religion, it could resolve the problem of mass violence. Not likely. For one thing, religion, even if it waxes and wanes in different societies and periods, shows no signs of going away. For another, the great modern atheisms of Nazism and Communism have been the bloodiest persecutors of recent history, far outpacing anything radical Islam has yet done.
Nazism and Soviet Communism were as much faith-systems as any religion, with the same capacity to manipulate human emotions for nefarious purposes. Does this absolve religion? By no means. But it demonstrates that you don’t get rid of the human capacity for evil by getting rid of religion—even if you could.
The concluding passage of our Syriac document lays out horrible scenes that transpired over a few dreadful summer days in the fifth century: Christians were marched in from all over the province. They came in procession, the cross at their head, singing hymns. Their clergy were slaughtered first, then the rest—thousands of people.
The officer in charge was one Tahmyazdegerd, himself a priest of Maghushutha. One of his first victims, the bishop of Kirkuk predicted that he would one day stand in the same place as his victims. And after days of unending bloodshed, that is exactly what happened. A woman had just arrived, with her two sons, and insisted on joining the number of the martyred. He tried to dissuade her and, failing, ordered her and her older son beheaded. After they were killed, the younger son, a toddler, fell wailing on their bodies, and refused to be taken away or comforted. Tahmyazdegerd finally ordered him killed too.
Then, according to the narrative, he saw the heavens opened and all the people he had slaughtered mounting up to the throne of God. He immediately declared himself a Christian and was subsequently tortured and executed by the king.
The skeptic will think, “Yes, the brutality was eventually too much for him.” The less skeptical will at least think that the faith of the Christians, who went to their deaths singing rather than let the government violate their inmost being, made a deep impression on him. Even the reader most deeply in tune with the writer may be troubled to hear that God waited so long to provide the revelation.
There is no simple unraveling of religion and violence here. In real human history, there is seldom an easy way to disentangle all our complex social modalities. You cannot blame all the evil on a single world region or culture or religion—or on religion as such. Religious people have been great peace-makers as well as horrible agents of destruction. In this case, the Christians fought violence by refusing to become entangled in it.
I do not mean to suggest that that is the only possible Christian response. Martyrdom is not the only way of maintaining human dignity in the face of such evils. But it is one way—probably the only one available to the Christians of that place and time. And its power became manifest. Tahmyazdegerd eventually recognized that, to remain a human being, he himself had to become one of the oppressed instead of their oppressor.
This painting by Bellini is my favorite portrayal of the risen Christ. In the lower right background, you see the woman hurrying along. (Clicking on the picture may enlarge it.) Is this just before he meets them? Or just after?
Picture scanned from Grabar, Die Kunst des frühen Christentums, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8080658
Permission to reproduce has been requested.
[A sermon preached by Bill Countryman at Good Shepherd Berkeley on the Second Sunday in Lent, February 21, 2016. Readings (Year C): Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18; Psalm 27; Philippians 3:17-4:1; Luke 13:31-35]
And [Abram] believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.
We’re going to talk about faith today. Abram, after all, is one of the great examples of faith in the scriptures. But I want to start out by acknowledging that the topic of faith makes a lot of people, including church people, uneasy. That’s partly because we live in an era that’s pretty much divided between people who aren’t too sure what they believe and people who know too much about it. A lot of people, if pressed on the topic, would probably say something like “Well, I think there’s something important here, but don’t try to pin me down.” And, on the other hand, you have fundamentalists or some evangelicals or conservative Roman Catholics who know exactly what they believe, right down to the punctuation marks. You could easily get the impression that those are the only two options.
So what exactly did Abram believe that got him such good marks in our reading this morning? Well, first a word about the English language. You know, every language carries the scars of the history that it’s passed through. That’s definitely true of the English language of faith: there’s the verb “believe” and the nouns “belief” and “faith.” Because our language got shaped in a period of intense religious struggle—the Reformation, the Counter-Reformation, the battle between Puritans and Anglicans in the 1600s—”faith” and “belief” have come to refer largely to the business of doctrine. The question is What creed are you willing to recite—or, at times, even die for?
In the process, belief or faith came to be about asserting a particular list of doctrines as true, whether it was the Nicene Creed, or the Westminster Confession, or any number of other formularies. If somebody asks you, here and now, in the English language, “What do you believe?” it’s a good bet that they want specifics. And I suppose the most common response from an Episcopalian begins with something like, “Well, I’m not altogether sure, but . . .”
Well, don’t feel bad about that. It actually puts you right in the company of Abram, who didn’t have any of fancy definitions of faith to fall back on. No, in the case of Abram, words like “believe” and “faith” have to mean something else. And our story is actually pretty clear about what that is. It tells us that Abram has had a long history with God. It’s included taking some big risks—moving lock, stock, and barrel from the place where he grew up to this new country that God directed him to. But all these years have passed, and he’s getting old, and he still has no son to hand everything over to. In that day and age, that world of petty kingdoms and no real rule of law, this was a disaster for which there was no real remedy.
So what does it mean when scripture says that Abram believed God? It doesn’t mean that Abram had a creed to recite. It means that Abram decided to go on trusting God—trusting God because of the sense of companionship, even of friendship, that had grown up between them over the years.
Listen to the text again with that one word changed: “And Abram trusted the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.” It’s quite a different text, isn’t it?
Now let me say that the change I just made wasn’t arbitrary. The Biblical Hebrew word in question covers a whole range of English words: “trust” as much as “believe” or “have faith.” We use a form of that word in our prayers when we say “Amen,” meaning “It’s so, it’s worth trusting, yeah, way sure.”
The same is true of the corresponding Greek terms in the New Testament. Neither of these ancient languages had separate words for “believe” or “have faith” in our modern sense of “subscribe to a set of doctrines.” The next generation of translators should probably go back and purge them most places and replace them with “trust.” We need to hear scripture as talking about trust—not theological arguments.
Abram, after all, didn’t have any creeds. What he had was a friendship with God that had seen him through thick and thin for, we’re told, a hundred years or so. It hadn’t been an easy life, but it had been a good one. And Abram had a conviction that, however complicated and difficult and unpredictable life might yet be, God’s friendship was still the thing he could rely on. God might not fulfill all Abram’ss needs and wants in quite the way he wished; but God was still the deep source of strength and hope for his life. It may have been a bit vague theologically, but it was powerful.
It’s the same kind of trust that Jesus demonstrated when he dismissed the threats of Herod. He was ready to go on proclaiming the good news and take the associated risks, even though he knew where they were leading
And it’s the kind of trust that Paul called us to in our reading from Philippians. Other people, he says, trust in earthly things. Well, yes, celebrity, money, power do indeed offer short-term rewards, but if that’s what you trust in, they will end up destroying you as a human being. They are fickle at best and cannibalistic at worst. But “our citizenship,” says Paul, “is in heaven”—another way of saying that our deep trust is in our friendship with God. You have to be, to borrow a Yiddish term, a real mensch—a true human being—to live up to that kind of trust.
So if we are asked about our faith, we can honestly reply that we are learning to trust. It’s not a one-time thing. Abram had to keep learning it over and over. His greatness lay in his willingness to keep renewing his trust and his friendship with God. And this is the kind of faith or trust we hope to grow into, ourselves. It was good enough for Abram and it’s good enough for me.
And, happily, we also had in our readings today the perfect prayer of trust, one that we can keep returning to again and again as we learn to live in faith: Psalm 27. “The Lord is my light and my salvation,” says the Psalmist; “whom then shall I fear?”
And then the Psalmist goes right on to make it clear that life has been no picnic, that we still experience danger and fear. But against all that we set the intimacy and joy of a life that “beholds the fair beauty of the Lord and seeks him in his temple.”
“What if I had not believed that I should see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living!” cries the Psalmist. What if I had lost my bearings altogether? Who would I be then? Instead, he reminds us, “tarry and await the Lord’s pleasure; be strong and he shall comfort your heart; wait patiently for the Lord.”
That is what scripture means when it tells us that Abram trusted God and God reckoned it to him as righteousness.
The following poem is quite different from those that have appeared previously on this blog. For one thing, it’s longer (about 13 minutes). Instead of the brevity and sharp focus of a sonnet, it is an extended meditation on the Transfiguration of Jesus and what it meant for the three disciples who witnessed it: Peter, James, and John. The story (found in Mark 9, Matthew 17, and Luke 9) follows on Peter’s Confession of Jesus as Messiah a week earlier and leads, in its turn, into the story of the demon that the disciples could not cast out. This is a good time of year to post it, since the Transfiguration is the gospel reading for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany (February 7th this year), just before the church year turns toward Lent.
The poem is focused on the disciples’ inability to understand why Jesus kept talking about death, before and after this astonishing vision of his glory. There are some things we simply cannot understand in our lives until we go through some sort of transformation ourselves. My inspiration for narrating a Biblical story in this way, exploring what it means for the characters, comes from the sixth-century poems of St. Romanos, which can be quite frank about the the mistakes and uncertainties of their protagonists.
For the full series of poems read on this site, click the category “Poem” below.