Monday, December 16, 2019

Minutes that Matter: Tuesdays in December, 2019

Here is the third of my talks for RTHK Radio 4's Minutes that Matter programme.

Talk Three: The Scream of the Lost

We like to think that there are no limits to what we are capable of as humans.  The Financial Times, for example, recently reported that Google had built the first 'quantum computer' that can carry out calculations beyond the ability of even today's most powerful supercomputers.  A calculation that would take the present most advanced computer 10,000 years to perform took the Google computer 3 minutes 20 seconds!  This sounds to me like the equivalent of the first-time scientists split the atom and the consequences will probably be as far-reaching.

Materially speaking, the generation growing up in the developed world at the moment has never had it so good.  Not so long ago, many would have died in childbirth and many more who didn’t would not have lived much beyond childhood.  And those who survived childhood could expect to die young from a whole range of diseases that can now be cured with a simple course of treatment available from the local pharmacy.  We live longer than ever and machines and a whole raft of discoveries and inventions make that life easier.

But before we over-reach ourselves in self-congratulation as a species, it is also worth reminding ourselves that our discoveries and inventions have also set our species on the path of self-destruction, and I am not only thinking of the nuclear bomb.  We have also seen this year protests around the globe over climate change with scientists warning that this same well-off generation growing up now could be the last unless something drastic is done soon. 

And it is not just nuclear destruction and climate change that threaten today’s generation.  A recent report has shown that rates of moderate to severe depression amongst American undergraduates have basically doubled in the past ten years or so.  It is the same in most developed societies.  Being better off materially has not, it seems, made us happier.

If you were to do a poll of people's favourite hymns, it is certain that 'Amazing Grace' would be one of the most popular - if not the most popular.  It is known and loved by people inside the Church and out.  It is frequently requested at both weddings and funerals and has been sung and recorded by many artists.  All of which is all a bit of a mystery.  For when you look at the words of the hymn, they completely go against how people want to think of and see their lives.  This is the first verse, for example:

‘Amazing grace (how sweet the sound)
that saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
was blind, but now I see.’

The last thing that people want to admit is that they are wretched, lost, and blind in need of someone else to save them, without them being able to do anything to help themselves.  But the word LOST is the word that best describes the human condition.  One of the most iconic pieces of modern art is Edvard Munch's the Scream.  It depicts a figure with hands to its head screaming.  Munch describes how he came to paint it:

‘I was walking down the road with two friends when the sun set; suddenly, the sky turned as red as blood. I stopped and leaned against the fence, feeling unspeakably tired. Tongues of fire and blood stretched over the bluish black fjord. My friends went on walking, while I lagged behind, shivering with fear. Then I heard the enormous, infinite scream of nature.’

The Scream symbolizes the scream of all those separated from their Creator through their wretchedness and spiritual blindness. 
Sadly, while we don't mind singing about it, we don't want to admit it, and still less do anything about it.  There is a challenge to the Christian Church here, especially as we approach Christmas.  We really have as Christians got to stop worrying about making ourselves unpopular and start telling it as it is.  Human beings are lost.  And no scientific, political, social, or emotional response devised by humans is going to provide the answer except perhaps temporarily to dull the senses in the way a drug does for an addict.  We need someone who cares, even though we don't deserve caring for; someone to find us, and give us sight.

The Gospel message this Christmas is that this is what God has done for us and is what he offers us in Christ. 

And this is a message we urgently need to hear - and now especially here in Hong Kong.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Minutes that Matter: Tuesdays in December, 2019

Here is the second of my talks for RTHK Radio 4's Minutes that Matter programme.

Talk Two: None so blind as those who will not see

Until comparatively recently, human beings just took it for granted that the world they lived in had a spiritual dimension.  People in all cultures simply assumed that there was a spiritual dimension to their life.  This was expressed in all sorts of ways through religion, magic, spells, rituals, and belief in various kinds of spiritual beings from angels to demons.  We can still read about them in so-called 'fairy tales'.

Nowadays, in developed societies like our own, we regard these practices and beliefs as mere superstitions; part of the ignorance of the past that, thankfully, we have now left behind.  We dismiss such things with a knowing superiority.  And yet, these practices and beliefs were at least part of a realisation that there was more to reality than what we as humans can see, hear, touch, and taste with our physical senses.

This attitude to, and dismissal of, the spiritual practices and beliefs of previous generations contrasts dramatically with how we regard the 'physical' – or, if you prefer, ‘scientific’ - beliefs of the past.  In the course of our history, humans have believed many different things about the physical world around us.  In the history of science, these attempts to explain the physical world are normally regarded and hailed as part of humankind's quest for greater understanding, even when subsequent generations found previous scientific explanations wrong, inadequate, or lacking.

Rather than simply dismissing or making fun of early attempts to understand explain the physical world, we regard them instead as steps on the path of progress to greater scientific knowledge and insight.  We see primitive machines and inventions, for example, as a necessary part of our development of better, more efficient machines and acclaim their creators as pioneers and geniuses.

In their understanding of the spiritual world, previous generations may have got many things wrong, but they were in their own way, like the scientists of the past who were exploring the physical world, at least attempting to understand a spiritual world whose existence they were as sure of as we are of the physical.  Christianity rightly sought to show how these spiritual practices and beliefs were wrong as later generations of scientists sought to show the inadequacies of the understanding and explanations of those before them who sought to explain the physical world.

Instead, Christians tried as best they could to present the truth as it had been revealed to them in Christ and to convince people of it.  Just as scientists did not advance their understanding by suggesting that the physical world did not exist, so too Christians did not seek to show the error of superstition by arguing that the spiritual world itself did not exist.  In the same way as scientists built on the understanding and explanations of those who had gone before, so too Christians tried to show that what people were seeking in their spiritual practices and beliefs could be found only in Christ.

Ironically, Christianity's success in getting rid of what we now regard as the superstitions of the past has now been used against it.  Christianity (and other religious belief) is now itself seen as part of the superstitious nonsense which humankind must leave behind.  Rather than seeing the possibility that we may come to a right spiritual understanding in the same way as we can come to a better scientific understanding by learning from the past, we deny instead the existence of the spiritual world altogether.

As human beings, we are increasingly narrow in our vision and seem determined to narrow it still more.  Telling each other that the only reality that needs describing is the physical may comfort us in our blindness and ignorance, but it doesn't mean that other realities thereby cease to exist.  It just illustrates our foolishness all the more.

St Paul wrote: 'because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.' (2 Corinthians 4:18)

Human beings have undoubtedly achieved a great deal during their existence and some of our discoveries and inventions have been truly remarkable and life-changing.  We are, however, often so pleased with ourselves and our achievements that we fail to see how limited our knowledge really is.  There are many areas of knowledge that we are simply blind to, and not least amongst them is our knowledge of ourselves and of God.

Minutes that Matter: Tuesdays in December, 2019

Tuesday, December 03, 2019

Minutes that Matter: Tuesdays in December, 2019

I am giving the talks in December for Minutes that Matter on RTHK Radio 4. The music for each talk is from the Sistine Chapel Choir's recording of music for Christmas and Advent with the mezz-soprano Cecilia Bartoli.

Talk One: Not as clever as we like to think we are

Humankind universally believes in the idea of human progress. At its simplest, this is the belief that things are constantly getting better and improving. There is evidence for this. You only have to look at the advances in science and technology, in medicine, and in human knowledge generally. It is true that these advances have had some negative side effects - climate change being one of the most dramatic - but people undoubtedly live longer today than they used to and diseases that were killers only a generation or two ago are so no more. Fewer people are living in absolute poverty and, incredibly, more people now die of over-eating than starvation.

It is no surprise, then, that we apply this idea of 'progress' more generally than simply to scientific knowledge and discoveries. We simply assume that because we have demonstrably progressed in some areas of human knowledge and endeavour that the same must be true in all areas. In social and moral attitudes, for example, it is taken as obvious that what we believe now must be superior to what was believed in the past. We see this particularly, but by no means exclusively, in the area of sexual ethics.

The idea that what we believe now must be an improvement on what was believed in the past is written into the DNA of developed societies, even if some living in them still mistakenly insist on clinging to the outdated attitudes of the past. Spiritually, therefore, what we believe now, must, we think, be an improvement on what past generations believed. As evidence we point to the fairy tales, superstitions, and myths of the past. Increasingly included in these fairy tales and myths of the past is any belief in a deity.

In the past, humans have believed in spirits inhabiting trees and plants, then in various gods of different kinds, and then, more generally, in one god of an organized religion. Now, in so-called developed and ‘educated’ societies, we increasingly believe in none. While we still - albeit somewhat reluctantly at times - acknowledge the right of people to believe and practise whatever religion they wish, religion is not seen as being about truth, but about personal choice and preference. Religion is kept out of the decision-making processes of society in a way that would have been inconceivable in the past, and still is in some societies at least today.

The message is clear, however: just as science has progressed, so too we as a species have, and are, progressing spiritually. As we progress, we will have less and less time for God and religion, even on a personal level. It is hard not to succumb to this understanding and even Christians are buying into it and reshaping their faith - if it can be called that - accordingly. The result is that religion is not seen as being about finding God and obeying him in this life so that we will live forever with him in the next, but about how we find fulfilment now and work to make this world an ever better place in which to live for the short time we are here.

The Bible’s view of human history, however, is not one of progress, but of decline; of an ever-increasing descent into darkness and ignorance. St Paul wrote: ‘For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse ... ' (Romans 1:19-20)

The wonder of the physical world in which we live that science has discovered and revealed to us was meant, St Paul believed, to lead us to seek God.

The incredible irony is that what was meant to lead us to God has only led us to move further from him. Rather than being amazed at the vastness and wonder of creation and worshipping the Creator, we have instead become amazed at our own cleverness in observing and describing it all.

The Bible’s message is that our only hope is for us to return to the One who made us. But to do that we need to abandon our pride and belief in ourselves. Until we find God, we will not find ourselves. We may tell ourselves that everything is getting better, that we are progressing well and advancing. The truth, however, is that without God, we are lost. What we all are in need of is not greater knowledge, but the forgiveness that can only come when we turn to Christ in repentance and faith.

But that means that we first need to admit that we are not nearly as clever as we like to think we are.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Minutes that Matter: Tuesdays in July, 2019

This is the transcript for the fifth of my talks for RTHK Radio 4's Minutes that Matter programme on Tuesdays in July.

Talk Five: Never Again

Jesus’ family were devout Jews.  Jesus and his first followers were all observant Jews.  The person credited in the Church with leading the Church in reaching out to non-Jews was the most observant Jew of all.  The writings the Church used as the basis for understanding their Lord, faith, and mission were all Jewish.  Our Bibles, as Christians, are predominantly made up of the Hebrew Scriptures, and even that part of it that we don’t share with the Jewish people was written by Jews.

We can understand there having been arguments between Christians and Jews as there always are in any family.  You would think, however, that, with such a background, it would have been impossible and inconceivable the Church could turn on people, simply because they were Jews.  Nevertheless, the unthinkable happened.

The story of the parting of the ways between Jew and Christian is a complicated one and more nuanced than it is often presented as being.  At the beginning, some Jews didn’t like Christians any more than some Christians liked Jews.  But this sort of mutual dislike is hardly a new phenomenon.  The systematic persecution of a people, however, solely because of their religion and ethnicity, and the attribution to them of crimes more imagined than real, is something else altogether.

This hatred of the Jewish people, and hatred is not too strong a word, was to be exploited in the twentieth century by the Nazis and was to reach its awful climax in the Holocaust.  This was an unprecedented event in which, tragically, many Christians at the time were complicit.

Six million lives were lost in the Holocaust.  As if that were not bad enough, also lost was a culture that was rich and which had much to offer a world that, in the mid-20th century, was entering a new age.  The music I have played during these talks was composed by Gideon Klein, a Czech Jewish composer.  He was sent to the Terezin concentration camp where he continued to compose until he was sent, first to Auschwitz, and then to the Fürstengrube labour camp where he died in 1945.

Many do not believe that anything like the Holocaust could ever happen again.  That, however, is not good enough.  It must never happen again.  And yet, despite all we know, antisemitism is still with us.  It is in the headlines every day.  It may be taking on new forms and disguises, but it is the same evil.  This time Christians must stand with the Jewish people against the antisemites and not with the antisemites against the Jews.

On my recent visit to Yad Vashem, I had the privilege of spending time with Jewish friends there studying more about the Holocaust and its causes.  While there, I wrote to Christian friends about what I was learning.  One of my Christian friends wrote an email back asking me if I had thought of being circumcised.  He meant that if this was how I felt, why didn’t I become a Jew.

I am a committed and convinced Christian.  I am a follower of Jesus whose message I believe is good news both for Jews and for all who will hear and respond in faith to it.  I am, however, deeply ashamed of the indifference of many in the Church to the suffering of the Jewish people, both past and present, suffering that we Christians must bear some of the responsibility for causing.

Gideon Klein, Madrigal 1 pour soprano, Alto, Ténor and basse]

Christians too are children of Abraham.  Isaac and Jacob are our ancestors.  The Lord we worship and follow is of the tribe of Judah, the son of David; a Jewish child of a Jewish mother.  We call him by a Jewish title, Christ, the Messiah.  The privilege of belonging to the people of God is ours.  Nevertheless, as St Paul wrote, the gifts and calling of God to his ancient people, the Jews, are irrevocable.

May God grant then to those of us who are Christians not to be proud or arrogant, but grateful to God for his mercy.  And may all of us, as we remember the Holocaust, commit to making sure that it really will be ‘never again’.

Thought for the Week - August 4

I had the privilege of giving the 'Thought for the Week' on RTHK Radio 3 today. This is a transcript of the talk with a link to the broadcast in the Radio 3 archive.

Anne Frank

Many of you will know the story of Anne Frank.  Anne; her parents, Otto and Edith; and her sister, Margot; together with four others went into hiding in a secret annexe of a building in Amsterdam during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands during World War 2.

On her 13th birthday, just before the family went into hiding, Anne was given a diary.  During her time in the annexe, she wrote about her life there describing her thoughts and feelings.  Those in the annexe kept in touch with what was going on in the outside world through those who were helping them and by listening to the radio.  One day on the radio, Anne heard the Dutch Minister of Education, who had escaped to England, appealing to people to keep hold of any diaries or documents they had for use after the war.  Anne was inspired to go over her diary and rewrite it into one running story of her life in captivity, hoping it would be read when the war was over.

Before Anne had completed her rewriting, however, on this day, August 4 in 1944, Anne and her family were discovered in a police raid on the building.  Anne was taken to prison and then transported to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration camp.  Otto was sent to the camp for men.  Anne, Margot, and her mother to the labour camp for women.  In 1944, Anne and Margot were deported to the Bergen-Belsen camp where they died.

Anne’s writings were discovered and looked after by those helping the Franks.  Her father, who alone survived, published an edited version of her diary after the war.  It was an immediate success.  Later a fuller version was also published.  The Diary has made Anne famous, and the house where they went into hiding is now a major tourist attraction.  A quote from Anne’s diary is well-known: ‘I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.’  This positive outlook in the face of adversity appeals to us and Anne’s story has been made into a universal story of youthful optimism and the triumph of the human spirit.  This, however, will not do.

We like to think of Anne in the annexe full of life and hope.  But hers is not a story of any girl, it is a story of a Jewish girl who suffered like millions of other Jews for no other reason than that they were Jews.  Anne’s final words in her diary were: ‘if only there were no other people in the world.’  But there were.  And many of them were anything but ‘good at heart’.  We pass over the awfulness of Anne’s death in our desire to read of her life, but as we read in her diary of her life, we need also to remember how it ended.  This is a description from an eye-witness at the Concentration camp:

‘I saw Anne and her sister Margot again in the barracks … It was winter and you didn’t have any clothes.  So all of the ingredients for illness were present.  They were in bad shape.  Day by day they got weaker … You could see that they were very sick.  The Frank girls were so emaciated.  They looked terrible.  They had little squabbles, caused by their illness, because it was clear that they had typhus … They had those hollowed-out faces, skin over bone.  They were terribly cold.  They had the least desirable places in the barracks, below, near the door, which was constantly opened and closed.  You heard them constantly screaming, “Close the door, close the door,” and the voices became weaker every day.  You could really see both of them dying …’

Anne and Margot may have died in the camp of typhus, but it was antisemitism that killed them.  As we see antisemitism on the rise again in our world, we need to read these words, heart-breaking though they are, and make a simple promise:

Never again.

Friday, July 26, 2019

Minutes that Matter: Tuesdays in July, 2019

This is the transcript for the fourth of my talks for RTHK Radio 4's Minutes that Matter programme on Tuesdays in July.

Talk Four: A Wild Olive Tree

Jesus was a Jew. He interpreted his life and ministry in the light of the Hebrew Scriptures. His mother and followers all believed that he came in fulfilment of promises made to the significant figures in Israel’s history. So important were his own people to him that Jesus made no attempt to reach out to anyone else. ‘He came only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel’ as he himself put it. All this should have made antisemitism inconceivable in the Church. As history shows us only too clearly however, it didn’t. So what went wrong?

The Church began as a grouping within Judaism. The apostles were all based in Jerusalem and continued to live as observant Jews, observing the Jewish times of prayer and going daily to the Temple to pray. The credit and the blame for the Church becoming more than a group within Judaism is given in equal measure to Saint Paul.

In popular histories of the Church, it is under the influence of St Paul that the Church reached out beyond the confines of Judaism and left behind its Jewish roots to become a universal faith and religion. There is no question that St Paul was an amazing evangelist for the Christian faith and no doubt either that he believed that the Gospel was not only for the Jews, but for the Gentiles also. St Paul, however, wouldn’t recognize himself from the descriptions of him and his teaching in many accounts of his life and theology.

Yes indeed, St Paul did believe the Gospel was for the Gentiles as well as the Jews, but as he himself puts it, it was for the Jews first. He was after all a devout, observant Jew himself. He describes himself in this way: ‘circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews’. And while he came to see his birth and upbringing in a new light when he became a follower of Christ, he didn’t stop being an observant Jew. He still understood both the Lord he followed and the Gospel message he preached in the light of the Hebrew Scriptures. He still went to the Temple when he was in Jerusalem and still believed that God’s promises to Israel stood. He says so explicitly in his most important letter to the Christians in Rome.

Ironically, it is also in his letter to the Romans that he has to combat an increasing tendency in the Church, a tendency which has now become the norm in the Church. As Gentiles came into the Church, and more and more of the Church’s members were ex-pagans rather than Jews, the Church became less and less Jewish in character. This led the non-Jewish majority in the Church to look down on the Jewish minority and take a superior attitude toward them.

St Paul is horrified at this attitude. Apart from the fact that such pride and arrogance should have no place in the Church whatever the reason, in this case it showed a complete lack of understanding of the Gospel itself and the role of the Jewish people. Describing the people of Israel as an ‘olive tree’ that the Gentiles have been grafted on to, he warns the Gentiles:

‘do not boast over the branches. If you do boast, remember that it is not you that support the root, but the root that supports you.’ He continues: ‘So do not become proud but stand in awe.’

We do not know whether the Roman Christians listened to St Paul’s warning, what is certain is that, tragically, the Church historically did not. It was not long before the Jewish roots of the Church were all but forgotten and the two faiths that St Paul saw as belonging to the same root had parted ways. 

Gideon Klein, Duo pour violon and alto en 1/4 de ton: Andante]

The parting of the ways between Jew and Christian was to have tragic consequences. Doubtless there were faults on both sides; there always are. But, as the saying has it: ‘to the victor the spoils’. With the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple by the Romans in the Jewish War of AD 66-70, Jewish Christianity was to lose all influence in the Church and, with the conversion of the Emperor Constantine, Christianity was to become the dominant force in the Empire and, with its dominance, the pride and arrogance that St Paul warned against was given free rein.

The Church of today can’t put the clock back – would that we could! We can, however, work hard to make sure that never again is antisemitism allowed a place in the Church and that the warning of St Paul, unheard in his own day is, at long last, heard in ours.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Minutes that Matter: Tuesdays in July, 2019

This is the transcript for the third of my talks for RTHK Radio 4's Minutes that Matter programme on Tuesdays in July.

Talk Three: Jesus the Jewish Rabbi

Christians will only be able to combat antisemitism both in the Church and the world if we better understand where we ourselves come from.  In my last talk at this time, I pointed to how our history as a Church begins with the promises of God to Abraham, promises which are repeated throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, culminating in the promise of a ‘son of David’, the great King of Israel.  Such an understanding may not prevent us falling into the sin of antisemitism, but it may at least make us pause for thought.

While we pause to contemplate where we have come from, we may also like to consider the example of the Lord we follow.  Nowadays, most of those of us who are Christians are Gentiles.  We are not Jews.  Most of the work we do as a Church is directed towards other Gentiles.  Jesus himself told his disciples to ‘go into all the world and make disciples of all nations baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit’.  No matter what mistakes we may have made in the process, we have, as a Church, sought to do this.

In our attempts to bring people to believe in Christ, we have sought to make him as attractive to people as possible, and this has resulted in us leaving out those bits that we ourselves find unattractive or those bits that we think they will find unattractive.  So, for example, today we seek to show people how welcoming, inclusive, and forgiving Jesus was - which is true, he was - but we leave out the fact that he said that anyone who didn’t leave all that he had could not be one of his followers.

We also don’t tell them that he was a Jewish Rabbi who saw his ministry as being to the Jewish people in fulfilment of the Jewish Scriptures.  Instead, we make Jesus into a universal religious teacher whose teaching is for all people whatever their background.  This, apart from making Jesus’ teaching sound no more than pious platitudes of the kind that you might find in a self-help manual, also distorts who Jesus really was.

His mother pointed out that Jesus’ birth was in accordance with the promise made to her Jewish ancestors.  Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, the one who was to prepare the way for Jesus, was told that John would ‘turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God.’  Rather than being a teacher of universal truths, Jesus’ teaching can only be understood in relation to the Hebrew Scriptures.  Jesus sought to explain and interpret them.  This may at times have been in a radical and shocking way, but he would have nothing to do with any suggestion that he had come to get rid of the Hebrew Scriptures:

‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets;’ he said, ‘I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.’

When asked by a lawyer what he must do to inherit eternal life, Jesus replied that the lawyer must keep the ten commandments.  When asked what is the greatest commandment, Jesus recites the Shema, which was and is at the heart of Jewish prayer and worship.  Jesus dressed as an observant Jew, prayed as an observant Jew, and lived as an observant Jew.  He also avoided contact with Gentiles and confined his ministry to the historic boundaries of Israel.  For the avoidance of any doubt, on one occasion he specifically states: ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’

Gideon Klein, Duo pour violon and alto en 1/4 de ton: Lento]

Clearly Jesus’ life and ministry was to have significance for other than his own people.  But that was to come later.  First, he came to his own. 

After his resurrection from the dead, Jesus says to his disciples:

‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.’

As Christians this is where we need to begin. We will only understand Jesus’ teaching and significance when we understand not only who he was, but also the people to whom he came. When St John in the Book of Revelation has a vision of the exalted Jesus in heaven, he sees: 

'the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David’

This is not only who Jesus was; it is who he still is.

Tuesday, July 09, 2019

Minutes that Matter: Tuesdays in July, 2019

This is the transcript to the second talk in my talks for RTHK Radio 4's Minutes that Matter programme on Tuesdays in July.

Talk Two: Beginnings

How can Christians respond to the rise of antisemitism that we are witnessing at the present time?  How can we avoid being complicit in it as, to our shame, we were during the dark days of the third Reich?  How are we to avoid a repeat of the Shoah, the Holocaust in which six million Jews were murdered in concentration camps such as Auschwitz, while many endured unbearable pain and suffering?

Others are more competent than I am to describe the causes and events that led to the Holocaust.  The Yad Vashem website has many helpful resources for any who wish to know more.  Hopefully though, as a Christian leader, I am in a position to talk about the history of Christianity, and at least to express an opinion on how we should react to antisemitism today.  In what follows, then, I speak unashamedly as a Christian.  I am not a Jew, and I realize that my Jewish friends will not agree with some of what I have to say.  What I hope is that they will be able to see that in speaking about my faith, I am not speaking against theirs.  And, from the outset, I wish to distance myself as far as possible from the attitudes towards Judaism that have characterized many Christians in the past.

Ask most Christians to give a potted history of Christianity and they will, as likely as not, begin with Jesus’ baptism and his ministry in Galilee.  This is not unreasonable.  It is how St Mark, the first to write an account of Jesus’ life, begins his Gospel.  Others will perhaps go back to the appearance of the Angel Gabriel to the Blessed Virgin Mary and to the announcement to her that she is to give birth.  Again, it is not an unreasonable place to begin.  However, it is the Blessed Virgin Mary herself who gives us a clue as to where we should begin.  In giving thanks to God for what has happened to her, she says:

‘He has helped his servant Israel,
    in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
    to Abraham and to his descendants forever.’

These words are part of what has become known as the Magnificat, a hymn which is said or sung in Church services all over the world as part of Christian daily worship.  We listen to many famous musical settings of it by the great composers here on Radio 4.  Of course, Christianity centres on Christ.  The clue is in the name.  But it doesn’t begin with Christ, at least not in the sense that this is normally understood.  Its specific earthly history at least begins with God’s promise to Abraham and with his dealings with Israel.

This, indeed, is how St Matthew explains it in his Gospel.  St Matthew’s opening words are: ‘An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.’  He identifies Jesus using a Jewish title that comes from the great King of Israel, David, and traces Jesus’ ancestry back to the father of the Jewish people, Abraham.

Once Summer is over, we will start to look forward to Christmas.  Christians believe that in the history of the Jewish people as recounted in the Hebrew Scriptures, there is a looking forward to the coming of Christ.  This is why readings from the Hebrew Scriptures feature so prominently both in the New Testament accounts of Jesus’ birth and in the services that will take place in a few months’ time.

Gideon Klein, Divertimento: Tempo di marcia]

The Christian name for the Hebrew Scriptures, the Tanakh, is the Old Testament.  Most Bibles are divided using this title.  Fair enough.  Christians believe that God did something new when Christ came.  But old can also be understood in the sense of being no longer relevant, out of date, or even wrong.  That is not how the first Christians thought of these writings.  These were their Scriptures, they were all Jews themselves after all.  They believed that what God was doing in their midst, through the person in whom they believed, could only be understood by studying and learning from these Scriptures.

Christians can only hope to understand their history by going back to where it all began in what we may call the Old Testament, but which remains strangely new and relevant to us today.

Monday, July 08, 2019

Minutes that Matter: Tuesdays in July, 2019

I am giving the talks for RTHK Radio 4's Minutes that Matter programme on Tuesdays in July.  This is the transcript of the first talk with a link to the audio on the RTHK website.

Talk One: Antisemitism

Recently, I had the very great privilege of being invited to attend a Seminar organized by Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.  Yad Vashem is the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem whose mission is not only to inform people about what happened in those terrible days of the Third Reich in Germany, but also, through education and outreach, to help people learn the lessons of the Holocaust and to combat the rise of antisemitism today.  There were 30 of us there, Christian leaders from 13 different nationalities, with the majority from America.  We all shared a commitment to Christ and a desire to learn more about what had led people, brought up in a Christian culture, to take part in such an unprecedented programme of hate and mass murder.

We all felt deep shame at our part as Christians in the horrors that we were studying, moved both to tears and, hopefully, repentance.  We also felt, I think, a sense of responsibility to join with our Jewish brothers and sisters to work together to make sure that it could never happen again, while seeing with horror that antisemitism refuses to go away.  Sadly, there seems to be truth in the saying that ‘the only thing history seems to teach us, is that history doesn’t teach us anything’.

Since returning from Jerusalem, I have read headlines reporting acts of violence against Jews in America, Nazi swastikas painted on photographs of Holocaust survivors in Vienna, and the toleration of antisemitism in one of the two major British political parties in the UK – the country I come from.  And this is to give just three examples from many.

One of the observations that has been made of Jeremy Corbyn, the present leader of the political party in the UK that I have referred to, is, that when asked to condemn antisemitism, he always replies that he condemns antisemitism and all other forms of racism.  At first, this seems entirely reasonable.  Christians, in particular, should surely be against all forms of discrimination.  The problem is that this response, while it cannot be faulted for what it affirms, gives the impression that the person responding in this way wants not so much to condemn racism as to minimize the seriousness of antisemitism.  It is, after all, just one form of racism.  That may be unfair, and not what is intended, but it remains an impression, nevertheless.

Friends in the Church I have shared my experience in Jerusalem with, interestingly, have had a similar reaction when I have talked with them about antisemitism.  Their first reaction hasn’t been to share my repulsion towards this specific evil and join in condemning it, but to ask me how I feel about other evils.  Why won’t we face up to this evil I wonder?  Could it be that we still don’t see how evil it is?  Could it be that the seeds of antisemitism still remain planted in the soil not only of Christianity, but of the culture of our own times?

I would like to think not.  But, if we want to avoid an enemy planting them there once more, we, and again particularly those of us who are Christians, have to face up to the reality of antisemitism and of the Church’s responsibility historically for it.  Bishop Otto Dibelius, who became the President of the World Council of Churches after the war, said in 1928:

‘Despite the evil ring that the word has acquired in many cases, I have always considered myself an antisemite.  It cannot be denied that Judaism plays a leading role in all the corruptive phenomena of modern civilization.’

Gideon Klein, Mouvements pour quatuor à cordes, Op. 2: Largo]

Bishop Dibelius was by no means alone in thinking this way.  Thankfully, I know no Church leader or Christian who would say that today.  But, to quote Martin Niemoller, another Church leader from those dark days:

‘First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out —
     Because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out —
     Because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out —
     Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.’

It is not enough for us to be against antisemitism, we need both to speak and act.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

I had the privilege of giving the 'Thought for the Week' on RTHK Radio 3 today.  This is a transcript of the talk with a link to the broadcast in the Radio 3 archive.

Thought for the Week: April 21, 2019

Easter Sunday

Today is Easter Sunday.  This is the highlight of the Church’s Year.  It is the day when Christians all around the world celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  It all began when, nearly 2,000 years ago, a group of women who had followed him went to the tomb where he had been buried after his crucifixion by the Roman authorities.  They found it empty.  One of them, Mary Magdalene, claimed that Jesus had appeared to her.

His closest male disciples also claimed that he had appeared to them and other appearances followed.  It wasn’t long before the disciples were telling everyone that Jesus was alive and people were believing them.  The fact that the authorities couldn’t produce his body, which would have shut everyone up, only gave added credence to the reports that he was alive.

The rest, as they say, is history and the Christian Church was to go on to greater and greater success, eventually becoming the dominant force in the growth and development of western civilization although its influence has been felt all over the world and the Church today is strong in both Africa and Asia.

It’s a great story of success and the Church is right to celebrate it.  It’s just the sort of story for this time of year as well when, in the northern hemisphere, we are enjoying the arrival of Spring and looking forward to Summer.  In my own Church today, the Church will be decorated with lots of flowers as we celebrate Jesus being alive.

So far, so good; and far be it for me to say anything to spoil it.  However, it’s one thing to celebrate Jesus being alive and another thing altogether to understand what it means.  And this is where even Christians have some difficulty.  In the Bible, Jesus’ resurrection is linked inseparably to his death, not in the obvious sense that you can’t come back from the dead unless you first die, but in the sense that his death was for a purpose: it achieved something, something more than someone dying for what they believed.

This may be why Christmas, for most people, is the more popular Christian festival.  What’s not to like about celebrating the birth of a baby?  We can all get our minds around this and get together because of it.  And this too may be why Christians prefer to focus on the events of Easter Sunday rather than the events of Good Friday.  My Church will be full today.  It wasn’t full on Friday.

This isn’t just because death is something that we don’t want to think about – although there is that in it – but because of the Bible’s unremitting message that the responsibility for Jesus’ death isn’t down to those like Pilate and the governing authorities who arranged it, but because of you and me.  How on earth can we be held responsible is the obvious question?  The answer lies in the earliest explanation of Jesus’ death given by his first followers.  Their message quite simply was that: ‘Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures’.  In other words, that Jesus’ death was an event designed and determined by God to bring forgiveness for sin: yours and mine.

The universal symbol of Christianity is a plain Cross.  Jesus may have died on the Cross, but the Cross is now empty.  Christ is alive!  At the front of my Church, however, is a large Crucifix – a wooden Cross with the figure of Christ nailed to it.  A reminder that there is no escaping the death of Christ as much as we might like to.  The Risen Christ who Christians celebrate today is the Christ who died for us and who now today invites us to find forgiveness through his death for us.

And that really is something worth celebrating.