Lectionary sermon for May 8, 2016 (Easter 7 C)on John 17:20-26

(Note for those looking instead for a Mothers’ Day sermon you might try Lectionary sermon for 13 May 2012 Easter 6 Year b (and Mothers day) on John 15:9-17) For the Gospel reading laid down for the lectionary for today – read on.)

Has John got this right? Jesus is reported here as praying a prayer which apparently remained unanswered.

The writer of John’s gospel has been criticised by many Bible scholars both for contradicting some key detail about Jesus in the other gospels (usually referred to as the synoptic gospels), and for his enthusiasm for oblique mysticism. *

Certainly a first reading of John gives an initial impression that he, or perhaps the apostle he used as his primary source, had been with Jesus for his mission – and he reinforces this impression by attributing the gospel detail to “the beloved disciple”, yet there are inescapable problems. For example he implies a two and possibly three year ministry for Jesus and records Jesus at three separate Passovers. The other gospels present a one year ministry and only mention one Passover. The Synoptic gospels highlight the baptism of Jesus, John has Jesus meeting John the Baptist but not being baptised by John. The others report Jesus’ parables and miracles as for helping people, John has no parables and sees only signs in the miracles.

John also gets some of the contemporary history quite wrong – or at least out of step with the work of other writers of the day. For example for the apostles and for the first few years of the Christian Church, Christianity was understood to be a sect of Judaism, yet for John, Jesus is portrayed as setting up a faith in opposition to traditional Judaism. Furthermore, the other great work officially attributed to John, namely the Book of Revelation, is written in a different style of Greek. And we could continue laying out why this gospel is widely accepted as a much later work, written we are told, by an unknown first century writer working from second hand sources.

Having said all of that, many scholars would insist that this gospel provides the most compelling theological presentation of all the gospels, and that includes those that did not make the final cut into the canon of the New Testament. John’s work, sometimes described as an extended essay on the centrality of love, is rightly praised in selecting phrases and metaphors which get to the heart of Jesus’ teaching. One of my friends calls John a portrait painter rather than a biographer and I can see what he means.

Today’s gospel lesson seizes on one of these critical ideas which have profound implications for current challenges to the current members of the divided Christian Church and a deeply divided world community. This is of course Jesus’ extended prayer for Unity amongst all who would follow his teaching.

As a prayer to produce a guaranteed result, thus far it appears at first hearing something of a failure. But when Jesus says he is praying that there shall be unity, it is a prayer of the sort where some very human responders, including Christians of our generation hold the key to the answer. Nor should we think of Jesus calling for something he was able to accomplish easily with his own disciples. In his own mission, Jesus encountered James and John competing to see who was worthy to sit beside Jesus in heaven – and another time, disciples who argued who among them was the greatest. Remember also Matthew the publican who had a collaborator record of working alongside the Romans as a tax collector, becoming a member of the same band of followers that included a zealot who was committed to getting rid of those like Matthew. Don’t forget too, according to the gospels, Judas was prepared to betray his master despite many months of being on the road with Jesus. Nor as it turned out, were things better after the events of that first Easter. Paul, as a new comer to the faith, was still to have his falling out with Peter and James.

However in Jesus’ prayer He was not simply focusing on his fractious and divided disciples. In verse 21, we find him praying for the disciples, He then prayed for all believers. And as self-claimed followers of Jesus we don’t need to look far before we encounter reason for embarrassment. Clearly, Jesus’ followers are still divided, just as they have been through the centuries, sometimes bitterly so. Can we not see and then begin to own this lack of unity?

Here I am not, as you might suppose, talking of joining the denominations into one unwieldy conglomerate. My concern is more for the lack of identification with others, an absence of identified unity offered to those who don’t share a common background. Jesus himself had modelled an acceptance of difference. He did not choose disciples for uniform background and nor did he accept traditional exclusions. Touching lepers, talking to the rejected of society, noticing the good in traditional enemies of Judaism; these things showed he was open to a unity of spirit and not a unity of re-jigged Church superstructure.

I remember some years ago putting some Teachers’ College students through an exercise whereby those not in the know were pressured by students in a set up situation, to agree with statements that were demonstrably untrue. For example I would draw two lines on the board and tell the class who were already present that they should pick the longest line as being the shortest when late comers came into the room. I would then wait for an unfortunate latecomer to arrive and ask the class to vote on the shortest line. Almost invariably, the latecomer on seeing the show of hands would uncomfortably agree with the nonsense option.

Imagine the nonsense of claiming to follow Jesus yet pretending not to see the governmental non-forgiving option when it comes to foreign policy. Imagine the nonsense of remembering a communion meal at which Judas was a guest, by celebrating the Eucharist in a form that could not be shared with some guests because they were not of exactly the local version of faith. Imagine celebrating a man who told the story of the Good Samaritan by pretending not to see the worth of the Red Crescent (the Muslim equivalent of the Red Cross). Or bringing it closer to home, imagine coming this Sunday to celebrate one who prayed for unity in his followers and following this with total lack of interest in serious attempts both to seek unity of spirit and also a lack of interest in finding good in those who dress and worship differently.

It is a poor excuse to say in this we are no different to others. I suspect the meek acceptance of bad majority opinions continues to confine and shape thinking which a moment’s reflection might reveal as nonsense.

Ralph Milton tells an oft quoted story about how John Henry Fabre, a French naturalist did an experiment with some Processionary Caterpillars.

In Milton’s words:
These poor little beasties will follow the next caterpillar ahead of
them, no matter where that caterpillar happens to be going. Fabre
arranged a bunch of his fuzzy friends in a neat circle, each one
touching the one just ahead. Faithful to their DNA, each one
followed the next one. In the middle of the circle Fabre put some
of the caterpillars’ favourite food.

Would they stop following, even for a moment, just for a bite of
lunch?

Not on your life. The food was there within inches, but they just
kept on following each other in circles until they collapsed and
died from hunger.

In the traditional Church, there is evidence that even now, processionary caterpillar thinking can dominate.

Jesus’ teaching is clear enough. There we find Jesus’ prescription for living in his way, his call for unity for his followers, his wish for total and generous forgiveness of enemies, compassion offered to neighbours ( even those who differ in belief), not building up treasures on earth and so on – all clear directions to those who might listen. Yet because we are bound by group traditions, we lose sight of the real food on offer. Time after time, woolly group thinking trumps our independent judgement about how we are progressing towards these goals.

If we felt free to choose from first principles, I suspect we would know to choose more helpful paths. Surely a society built on principles of unity, compassion and love would not only be true to Jesus’ prayer as recounted by John, but it would make more sense than the divided realities we are taught by our institutions to preserve.

When John defined God as Love, I believe this was a moment of great insight. When he records Jesus as saying 26 I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.” He is also putting us in touch with a method to act on his call for unity.

Whoever first coined the expression “Human Beings” was perceptive. I have heard it suggested that there are really two types: be-ers and doers. The be-ers are simply content to let things the way they are and trust that everything will turn out alright in the end. “Beings” certainly conjures up this common way of thinking. The do-ers take an active part in working towards what they believe to be the best form of action. I wonder if it follows that if “human being” is a helpful expression, we should, as some have suggested, call the other a “human doing”? But whatever the case, I suspect that this two-form classification is at best an over-simplification. Many of us are capable of being a continually changing mixture of the two. However, if you asked me which form I saw dominating, I would have to admit the evidence is clear that the Human being dominates, and our lack of unity is the consequence.

The Dalai Lama once suggested: “the whole purpose of religion is to facilitate love and compassion, patience, tolerance, humility, and forgiveness”.

Although I find this persuasive as an ideal, I do not entirely agree that this is necessarily how religion turns out in practice. Like the consequent ideal of unity, achieving the Dalai Lama’s purpose of religion assumes that the human do-ers will overcome the inertia of the be-ers. The resulting outcome is as likely or unlikely as those with faults or frailties like us are prepared to make it become.

To focus on the expression of love would seem an extraordinarily persuasive way of bringing about unity. When an individual or a group is kind to us we automatically warm to them. Conversely when they ignore us or worse appear to be waving a big stick in our direction it is probably human nature to respond with antagonism and suspicion. Time after time, it is the socially isolated who become anti social in response, as many of the killing rampages in the US have demonstrated. Even internationally, nations like North Korea or Iran only threaten those who have threatened them in the past. That should suggest to us a way of encouraging trust in others.

Human beings we may well be. The question is: are we satisfied to leave it there?

*For an introductory overview of the criticisms see for example the Wikipedia entry on the Gospel of John.

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Lectionary Sermon for Easter 6 C May 1 2016 on John 14: 23 – 29

The Second Coming? – (R Open minded): Parental guidance required.
Like health warnings on food and tobacco, it could be that sometimes even sermons should require a warning to flag potential discomfort on the part of the consumer.

Because this sermon is bound to upset those who hold to inerrancy and infallibility of the scriptures, it may be more comfortable for readers or listeners who share that view simply to switch off and stop following the sermon at this point. On the other hand, if you like to think your way through key issues, might I suggest you first consider and evaluate the argument of this address, then if you think it appropriate, contribute to the debate by adding an honest reaction.

We start with the lectionary text.

John 14:23-29
23Jesus answered him, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.24Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me.
25”I have said these things to you while I am still with you.26But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.27Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.
28You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I am coming to you.’ If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I.29And now I have told you this before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe.

When I read Jesus’ words encouraging his disciples for what lies ahead, I sometimes wonder if a good proportion of today’s believers have really thought through what we are expected to do with Jesus’ recorded teaching on the second coming.

Having heard a number of street evangelists on the topic, and in particular, some of the more conservative evangelists, I do understand that a reasonable proportion of those who see themselves as Christian, take the imagery of the Book of Revelation together with selected words from Jesus as literal prediction.

As a consequence many appear confident that soon, perhaps even any day now, Jesus will appear from the clouds to gather up the faithful and whisk them up to heaven to enjoy their rightful reward. Because what these followers are asserting is totally outside human experience, I acknowledge there is no certainty they are wrong, (or right for that matter!) and bluntly – no obvious way of testing what they claim. However in today’s reading at least, Jesus seems to be talking about a more accessible idea. There is still the underlying idea that “In my Father’s house there are many mansions” , but here, the dwelling places are strictly human.

Perhaps we should start by looking closely at the words from the start of today’s gospel.

23Jesus answered him, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them…..

This seems to be saying that in effect Jesus and or God or the Holy Spirit will be taking up residence in the person – or at least “the heart” of the one who takes Jesus seriously enough to follow his teaching. Whatever this is, it is not a one time, and for the whole world event. There are disciples in every generation and given that we sometimes sense in such people the emergence of warmth of nature and signs of essence of compassion, it may not be a second coming miracle in the conventional expected sense of the word, yet in another sense it may even be consistent with Jesus’ fulfilled prophecy. If these people have taken on the characteristic central to Jesus teaching, is this not Jesus entering their heart?

Not everyone would see this as being the second coming. In fact although there is plenty of evidence that the gospel writers and then St Paul and some of the other New Testament writers talked and wrote as if Jesus was coming physically at the end time – and specifically within a very short time frame, today’s reading give us a totally different slant.
But there is something we need to face squarely. Even if Jesus and the New Testament writers had intended to say that his disciples were going to experience all that Jesus was interpreted as saying about the second coming in a literal sense and in their lifetime, events proved otherwise. Despite predictions of most dramatic happenings within the lifetime of the readers and hearers of the contemporary audience of the day, there is no indication that these second coming events ever happened for that audience.

For example, if we contrast today’s measured description with the Luke version of the Armageddon which SHOULD have occurred for the generation of first witnesses in Luke 21:25-33, we see predictions which failed to materialize.

“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on earth nations will be in dismay, perplexed by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will die of fright in anticipation of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. But when these signs begin to happen, stand erect and raise your heads because your redemption is at hand.” ……..Amen, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. (Luke 21:25-33 NAB)

Well if it happened that way, it wasn’t just the disciples who missed it. By all accounts, the stars have remained apparently twinkling in the heavens, the seas did not roar and nor as far as we know, did those of Jesus’ generation, die in fright at those signs.

Even if the New Testament writers themselves got the second coming wrong, should that really surprise us? Like some of our contemporaries, they too were on a faith journey and faith has blind paths, as well as moments of insight. So what if Paul insisted end times were upon his contemporaries? And he did. And why not? He had never heard Jesus speaking in the flesh and was only repeating what others had told him. So for example:

In Philippians 4:5 Paul thought that the end was near and that Jesus would return soon after he wrote those words.

In Hebrews 1:2 Paul ( and remember this is two thousand years ago) Paul says he believes he is living in the “last days.”

In 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17 Paul stated: “For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: And the dead Christ shall rise first: Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air: And so shall we ever be with the Lord.”

Paul was in good company. James (James 5: 8) thought that Jesus would return soon.
Peter too believed that he was living in the “last times” and that “the end of all things is at hand.” 1 Peter 1:20 & 4:7
Yet if they did get it wrong on this score let us also admit they did us a huge service in other places. Thus the sublime writing of Paul in 1 Corinthians 13 helps us ground a concept like love in day to day practicalities.

In his account of true religion, James had a practical focus to faith that is just as relevant today as it was then. If the same Peter who led the disciples wrote first Peter, his continued leadership is evident no matter how he may have misinterpreted the end times.

This is not to say that the second coming should therefore be ignored. If for example the picture language was chosen to get our attention and encourage us to deal with some realities, then it starts to make sense.
For example Revelation was written at a time when the Roman Empire had declared itself on collision course with the Christians who were insisting on acknowledging one God – thereby challenging the Roman Emperor’s right to title himself a God. We might note for example that the author of the letter of John thought he was living in end times because he could see so many anti-Christs about (1 John 2:18). John also says the anti-Christ was present at the very time he was writing (1 John 4:3). If we see the Anti-Christ as any major leader who acts against the principles of Christ this then becomes poetic rather than literal, yet it still teaches an important truth.

As persecution increased the Christians needed encouragement and if this might be codified with signs helping those in the know to see the Beast of Revelation as the Roman Emperor – the leader of the current persecution, so much the better. That the Book of Revelation also talks of the eventual triumph of Christianity would have been extremely encouraging to those facing genuine danger.

We can see, if only from the four gospel accounts, in some cases, the same words of Jesus are given different contexts and in some include differences in detail. This establishes that editing was taking place and it is not unreasonable to suspect that in some cases the words being edited were not actually words of Jesus, but rather words written in the mouth of Jesus to support current truths that the gospel writers felt needed sharing.

I also happen to believe that if we were to find that the second coming literature was intended as poetry to draw our attention to key truth, I for one would still find this of value.

If, as mentioned previously, the second coming is at least partly a coming into ourselves as a human dwelling place, this is particularly helpful as we check where we are in our own walk of faith.

For example, notice that to qualify as a human dwelling place, popular labels like born again or Christian become less relevant. As far as Jesus appears to be concerned it follows that calling yourself Christian, a born-again – or even for that matter an atheist is not where it is at. He makes his precondition abundantly clear. “Those who love me will keep my word…..”

Can I suggest taking moment of reflection to consider if we have begun to attempt to follow the principles Jesus enunciates. I believe this would be time well spent. If we follow John’s text for today, it is only when we keep Jesus’ word that our love will be evident. In that sense Jesus may already have come for the lives of others. And perhaps his second coming was always meant to be interpreted that way. Our challenge might then be to consider if, for us, he has already come and is continuing to be found in our own life’s witness.

(Given the above may not represent consensus thinking, reactions would be most welcome. If you happen to think these predictions are for a yet unrealized prophecy I suspect you also need to make up your mind about the significance of 2000 years of failed prophecies: see my post End Times – this time it’s serious… again.)

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Lectionary Sermon for 24 April 2016 (Easter 5 ) on John 13: 31-35

Saying warm familiar words in the context of a Church service can indeed lift the soul. Unfortunately when those familiar words are a call to action in the outside world and when no action eventuates, those same well-loved words risk becoming trite and vacuous.

The scene here is the last supper. Judas has departed to do his work and the shadows are gathering. Jesus finds words of commission. “So you are to love one another, as I have loved you.” Perhaps Hollywood is partly to blame for us missing the hard edge to this most familiar text. Love, Hollywood style, is full of warm fuzzy happy ever after feelings. By contrast, love Jesus style is action born of compassion….and what is more action in the midst of life’s gritty realities.

Perhaps we need to get real and admit we should be uncomfortable both with the word “as” and with the tag Jesus has added. …. Does he really want us to do as he did when he added that bit about…. “as I have loved you“?

If we think of how Jesus showed love, it was anything but warm and fuzzy.

Where authority was showing lack of compassion, Jesus challenged that authority…and at every level. Whether or not we would be comfortable joining him in such a challenge is not so clear. Going in to bat on behalf of those who can’t cope is not a certain path to popularity. Where Scribes and Pharisees were using religion as a means of self advancement to parade their status and advance their social position, Jesus did not shrink from the confrontation. Challenging Church or government leadership may not get us crucified today but nor would it bring us public approval. Notice too, that where culture and tradition were used to exclude, Jesus stepped forward. The lepers were touched. He made time for the Samaritan woman, the tax collector and the prostitute. Today’s equivalent might be something like helping those with social diseases like AIDS, or speaking up on behalf of those belonging to unpopular racial or religious groups any one of which carries its own stigma.

As an outside observer and one at a distance I would have to say my current impression is that one major political party in the US (via the election positions of their candidates) and a considerable portion of the Bible belt (as portrayed in our media) leave me the impression that at least in the United States there is widespread rejection of this particular challenge by Jesus.

When Jesus dealt with those society rejected we may note his lack of condemnation. Remember the woman caught in adultery, the tax collector up the tree, the lepers…. Whether or not we can find the same lack of condemnation in our own words and actions today may not be so clear. Locally, I hear plenty of Church based condemnation of homosexual marriage and street prostitution. While I have often heard the catch cry, “we love the sinner but we hate the sin”, I can’t honestly say I have seen those identified by the Church as sinners congregating in Church in large numbers in response to the stated love. To refuse to get close enough to know the name or personal situation of the street prostitute, or to prefer to present a petition against homosexual marriage rather than become friends with a gay, these actions do not tell the prostitute or homosexual that anyone cares about their situation.

The contrast with quiet organ music or a civilised cup of tea with respectable friends at the end of a Church service could hardly be greater. This is not to say love does away with the need for the cup of tea and sharing time, but it strongly suggests we must never think that is all that is needed.

When it came to his disciples, Jesus took those he loved well out of their comfort zone. When the disciples entreated him not to return to an area where the crowd had been angry, he disregarded the disciples’ desire for safety. When they counselled against continuing towards Jerusalem, Jesus simply kept walking.

Doing what is best for people, does not always mean leaving them comfortable and unchallenged. Nor is the vision to which we are called the equivalent of a series of neatly predetermined GPS locations.

At best the analogy would be that of an occasionally glimpsed compass needle. We set up our course according to a general direction but the voyage itself is largely into uncharted territory.

Jesus left those he loved with genuine challenges. He had modelled attitudes of valuing justice, forgiveness and compassion – and wanted his followers to do the same. When Peter’s nerve failed him –according to the gospel, Jesus simply set him further tasks. “Feed my sheep” he said….At this safe distance in time we can think of it in terms of offering warm support to newcomers in faith, but when John was writing his gospel, Israel was in crisis and the wolves were eying the sheep. The new Christians were going to need support in their acts of witness and those identified as leaders of the new movement would be attracting anger and genuine danger.

Love, for Jesus, was never just a feeling. It was proactive and highly visible. “By this all will know you are my disciples”. And we can understand this point. If someone is hungry and lonely, knowing that a group from a well fed and comfortable congregation have said a passing Amen to a worship leader’s prayer of intercession mentioning the hungry and the lonely would never convince the lonely and hungry anyone cares. But someone prepared to make friends –to offer food and give the hungry and lonely the time of day …. now that would start to mean something.

We are very likely to fall short when the going gets tough, and nor I suspect could it be otherwise. Even the saints of history had their failings. Yet without the emphasis on acts of love the Church becomes an irrelevant social club. A moment’s thought reminds us that in some situations we are all atheists. By this I mean that with so many versions of God on offer, there will always be some we reject. The evangelists can preach all they like but unless what they are preaching is given integrity by lived lives why would we want to listen? As an Archbishop of Canterbury once put it : “We make our version of God believable to the extent we are the people we are”.

We can hardly relegate this instruction on how to love to an incidental requirement of the disciples because this verse appears 13 times in similar form in the New Testament. In today’s reading it was the also last wish of the farewell discourse to the Disciples at the last supper. It occurs several times in the Gospel of John, and the need to love one another is reiterated several times in John’s first and second Epistle with the theme of doing so in imitation of Christ, while Paul says in Romans 13:8 “He who loves his neighbour has fulfilled the law”.

The primacy of love as an ideal is easy to find in the New Testament teachings. “… The greatest of these is love”, said Paul in chapter 13 of first Corinthians, and elsewhere in Colossians 3:14, “above all clothe your-selves with love”. A great ideal, but if believe we appear so clothed, perhaps we might give passing thought to why those known to be prostitutes, drug addicts or habitual drunks rarely seem to seek out traditional Church congregations for acceptance. I suspect that it is at least partly the suspicion that in a church they are more likely to encounter judgement than understanding. I have heard it suggested that sometimes Christians confuse their ability to desire the best for themselves and reject the worst – with their tendency to judge others on the basis of their behaviour.

Even if we are non judgemental ourselves, (which from personal experience I would admit is far easier said than lived), the frequent publicity generated by some of the more vocal Church moralists as they lead their crusades against parole for serious criminals, against those who offend traditional religious mores and against those whose sins are visible to the community is its own advertisement.

No wonder the pariahs of society don’t automatically seek out the church as their first choice for solace or care. In practice the drop-outs and the unloved turn to the gang houses, the pimps and the mates at the pub – where at least there may be a degree of understanding and sympathy. And where they do turn to the Church, is it surprising that they turn first to those who set up the night shelters and those who help by providing showers and a change of clothes? If we fail to first find the unsurpassable worth in those to whom we wish to minister, how can our intended love be expressed with integrity?

Because we are not alone in the Church, it is also interesting to wonder how we might come across collectively. Because we are groups with commonality of purpose claiming the same teaching for inspiration, it is interesting to reflect on what we do as a group. Are we set up for others or ourselves? At the 2012 annual Church Conference, the New Zealand Methodist Church set up a ten year commitment to a new programme entitled Let the Children Live. This programme was intended first to draw attention to the growing percentage of children in the country whose future is blighted by poverty and associated problems, then to commit to action to address the problems.

There are already some hopeful signs, with individual congregations educating themselves and becoming involved with helping programmes at a local and national level. If I am honest, I would also have to say that thus far some congregations have continued exactly as before.

The call to love as Jesus first loved others, does not assume a positive response. When Jesus left the call to love with his disciples, each of them had to work out their own response in the days and years to come. Should we expect it to be different with ourselves. The call has to be a continuing challenge – and what’s more a challenge which promises genuine difficulties if we choose to accept. It is also a challenge of the sort that needs frequent revisiting, for yesterday’s journey is now behind us. Today and the weeks ahead have the potential to bring new possibilities. How we choose to respond, and whether or not we can find room for the actions of compassion, these cannot be done for us. It is, and always has to be, our response, because it is our journey.

Jesus said to his disciples – and I guess also says to us: “love one another …. as I have loved you” Now it is our move.

 

(A Note from Bill:   At present I am updating my year C sermons, but I suspect some of them need a radical rewrite.  I am putting out a plea to my regular readers to feed in comments suggesting new ways of developing some of the themes and grounding them in current situations. I also need reminding where my scholarship is incomplete or where I have overlooked important implications of the lectionary readings.   Remember your views are just as likely to be important to the readers of this site as mine are likely to be.)

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The Resurrection – Real or Wishful Thinking?

Although I have encountered many opinions and claims about the evidence for and against the resurrection of Jesus it occurs to me that it might be interesting to assemble some of the key ideas in a brief review to see if it stimulates thought. I am aware that some of the readers of the review may already have feelings of strong commitment either for or against the belief in resurrection but it would be helpful if readers were to consider ideas they don’t already share with a degree of courtesy if only to encourage other readers to offer questions or to express honestly held alternative views.

First a quick preliminary review:
The New Testament Gospel record describes the crucifixion in enough detail for the readers to conclude Jesus died on the cross. We know crucifixion was a Roman punishment and although it was reserved as a highly visible public warning to show what happened to those considered a threat to public order or those who challenged Roman authority, it was used commonly and liberally – and on occasion there would be hundreds of victims.

A series of post resurrection appearances of Jesus in which he is portrayed as meeting and interacting with a number of his followers and disciples is also described by the Gospel writers. Some of these described appearances suggested a normal bodily appearance – eg Jesus eating with his disciples – other appearances eg not at first recognized, appearing in a locked room, suddenly disappearing or for Paul a disembodied voice or sensation of light suggested more perhaps hallucination.

Whatever happened still served to set the basis for a good proportion of Jesus’ followers to agree to spread the story that Jesus was resurrected. The fact that a good number of these followers died as martyrs suggests a strong commitment to their beliefs. We also know that some like St Paul placed a very high priority on a belief in the resurrection although Paul’s own experience on the Road to Damascus was clearly different to the earlier descriptions of post resurrection experiences of the disciples.

Some other aspects of the post resurrection accounts should at least give cause for reflection. First although there are only minor differences between the gospel accounts in the New Testament, the other gospels which were eventually largely rejected by those assembling the final collection of books we now call the New Testament contain versions of the resurrection which are clearly at variance with those finally chosen after years of debate. This particularly applies to the so called “Gnostic Gospels”.

There is also a remarkable absence of post resurrection stories in contemporary histories of the time. Just to take one strange omission if the Biblical record is to be trusted – when Matthew describes other graves opening and hundreds of dead walking around (in an early version of some Zombie apocalypse? some verses normally overlooked for reading in Church around Easter time!!) that if intended as literal truth, to think this particular event would not have been noticed by others seems beyond the bounds of probability.

A more serious objection is that while Matthew, Mark and Luke had roughly similar versions of the post resurrection appearances there is strong evidence for substantial editing. Mark, the first gospel, had no detail of the post resurrection appearances – and the scholars appear to agree that this was added years later. Eg the last nine verses were not present in the early version and were added in a different form of Greek to finish the Gospel. Similarly the whole of Chapter 21 of the Gospel of John was added much later and is clearly different in style from virtually all the rest of this book.

As someone who has spent much of his life involved with science I also need to say that although science cannot make definitive statements about what might or might not have happened to Jesus after death upon the cross, the balance of probability leaves me strongly suspecting there was no bodily resurrection in any conventional biological sense.

The standard argument that the early followers of Christ would not have been martyred unless they were convinced of the resurrection is certainly persuasive, yet on reflection, since there is no detail from contemporary historians about why they were martyred, their execution might simply have been because they were following the teaching of Jesus at a time when communities were under pressure to support one another with common beliefs and actions. Remember the early martyrs (some of whom would have been following other non-mainstream religious leaders) would have been contemporary with the fall of Jerusalem.

While I acknowledge that a strong belief in the resurrection would be seen by many as worth dying for, since many have gone willingly to their deaths for much less, accepting martyrdom cannot be seen as a proof of belief in bodily resurrection. Killing happens because of the views of those who decree it should happen. We do know that some of the Christian martyrs were offered the choice of acknowledging the Emperor as Lord – and they refused to do so because they wanted to hold to a pre-eminent belief in God and/ or Jesus.

We actually have no way of knowing what they thought this belief meant. We might reflect that though history some martyrs have gone to their deaths because they simply had the wrong slant on some denominational beliefs and martyrs have included those who had the wrong haircut, those who had the temerity to translate the Bible into languages other than Latin and those who insisted on following a different Church leader.

Rather than sit on the fence on the issue I wish to explain that I have gradually changed my view on the resurrection and come to state I cannot honestly say I know what happened after the crucifixion. I do however greatly admire what I see as the essence of Jesus teaching. I note that others who admire Jesus’ teaching sometimes have quite different responses and some are prepared to step right outside what most of us would be thinking of as a comfort zone. To hold to a Jesus inspired pacifist stance when the nation goes to war, to insist that the underprivileged have a just share of wealth, to identify and speak out against injustice and work for peace are just some of the possible responses to a living Christ. However I do know that since it is quite possible for whole communities to live outside a Christian influence that if I am to make Jesus come alive for others I can only do so in the way I respond to his teaching.

What have I got right? What have I left out? What also needs to be said?

(Since the Bible has a great deal to say on the subject it would be helpful not to fill up the comments section with screeds of quotations!)

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Lectionary sermon for April 17 2016 (Easter 4) on John Ch 10: 22 – 30

THE SIREN VOICE OF SIN

The gospel set down for today looks like a no-brainer for Church goers. “Are you the Messiah?” they asked him. This may not have been post Crucifixion but it is a great question for us when reflecting on the meaning of Easter.

Notice Jesus recorded reply does not answer in terms of his teaching but rather refers to his works which he presents as providing their own justification. Then he uses the now somewhat arcane example of the shepherd calling his flock and only his sheep recognizing the voice. What he appears to be saying is that amongst all the similar sounding voices there is only one authentic voice, and those tuned to that voice will identify their shepherd.

At first impression this seems out-dated for our hard-nosed modern technological society, but on closer inspection of today’s gospel reading, we find Jesus is in surprisingly good agreement with modern psychologists and sociologists. The brain researchers now assure us there are always competing voices influencing our life choices, but if, as our faith teaches, tuning to the voice of Jesus can make all the difference in the world, then it follows we must recognize and be wary of these other voices. If we don’t respond to Jesus’ voice he is not OUR Messiah.

In practice, because we know there are many counterfeit forms of Christianity, we may need to consider carefully our reasons for choosing which voice to which we are going to respond.

Because religion is practiced by those who are less than perfect, it is unrealistic to hope to hear the voice of Jesus via leaders and fellow members of a perfect Church. However the attitudes of sincere followers of Christ are still likely to come through in their deeds. Just as Jesus invited those who questioned him to look at his acts to know what he stood for, that probably still remains the most helpful test of those  connected in an authentic way to the shepherd.

Now some of the scientific evidence is in, it seems that aspects of what the religious have called original sin is hardwired into our nature by many centuries of selective breeding. This tendency makes us very susceptible to head in a wrong direction. I remember encountering an article in the Science Magazine Focus (The human brain: Hardwired to sin. | Focus Magazine, Feb 5, 2010 which reviewed evidence which shows the automatic responses built into the brain as the standard temptations of lust, greed, gluttony, anger, sloth, envy and pride are separately stimulated. Different test subjects have the nerves in the same areas of the brain start to fire in response to the same stimuli, with different areas of the brain associated with each form of “sin”.

In fact from one point of view, when it comes to noting what the practice of religion is up against, the siren voices from biological and cultural evolution produce some serious obstacles. In many instances the appeal of the so called false shepherds may be nothing more than using an aspect of religion as an excuse to give voice to one or more of the evolutionary drives that may once have been needed for survival, yet which are now positively disastrous when trying to build a harmonious modern society and world.

For the human race to have survived so many years in such a variety of bleak and dangerous settings it is hardly surprising that nature might have selected for preference so many of what now look to be unsociable traits. Biological urges are inescapable and need to be carefully managed (as the Catholic Church has found to its cost with its required celibacy of priests). And if it comes to that, given that procreation was once essential to the threatened human species, the desire to mate at all costs presents a question. Is breeding with any encountered potential mate still the biological characteristic you would want to bring to a stable modern marriage? When a religious sect promotes polygamy or under-age sex with sect leaders although we are disgusted that sect members would be attracted to something that society considers immoral, at least in-built biological temptation makes it at least partly understandable.

There is also plenty of evidence that the human is a naturally belligerent animal with an intelligence honed by evolution to increase the potential for nasty behaviour. At one time this belligerence was a survival mechanism. A small community struggling to survive in a hostile environment needed its warrior hunters and the more deadly the better. But now the world population has grown so communities overlap and we need to find ways of getting on with one another. The urge for belligerence is still there which presumably is why young men can still be persuaded to march into battle for dimly understood causes.

The way I see it is that Jesus arrived at an opportune time to provide humankind with an offered alternative to mutual destruction. Unfortunately history reminds us that as a wider community we have been very slow to take up the offer and perhaps this is hardly surprising given the scientists tell us humankind has been developing its current characteristics for many thousands of years. It is also a voice that needs to be subdued. The inbuilt desire to ensure the safekeeping of one’s own family unit by destroying all who might threaten even in the most indirect manner does not make for natural peace-making or good race relations.

Again Churches in the past have often been associated with teaching that directly opposes Jesus’ direct teaching on forgiveness of enemies but if we can acknowledge the biological drive we can at least understand why Church members insist on supporting war even when they are familiar with Jesus’ take on the topic. It is almost certainly not Jesus’ voice to encourage crushing rivals or foes – or locking up prisoners and throwing away the key, but again it is subconsciously compatible with what our biology tells us is desirable.

Greed seems yet another non Christian characteristic that once helped our species survive. At a time when resources were limited it made perfect sense to try to gain a disproportionate share. Accumulating food at a faster rate than potential rivals is great for a time when unexpected plenty provided the insurance for the season when food was short. Unfortunately the inbred acquisitive fortress mentality rewarded the selfish and we don’t have to look too far before we encounter a marked reluctance to share.

Although I have the greatest admiration for Pope Francis’ insistence of the need for the Catholic Church to return to becoming poor church, having once visited the Vatican museum and seen a fraction of accumulated wealth through the centuries does create some practical problems in reverting to Jesus’ teaching.

In many cases there is a fine line between what Jesus advocated and what now happens in practice. Offering hospitality by sharing food is very much in line with gospel teaching. Where we might go wrong is to forget we also have the drive to engage in gluttony. Encouraged once as a survival tactic for those rare occasions where sufficient food presented itself, perhaps we should not be surprised gluttony is still alive in some Churches today. The sight of obese church members gorging themselves at Church feasts suggests that even here we may be distorting Jesus teaching.

The prophets and religious leaders before Jesus had already identified many examples of behaviour that needed to change as the Jewish society became larger and more stable. In terms of what Jesus was offering that was different, I guess it was more a question of a change of emphasis than a change of direction. Many of his teachings are foreshadowed in the Jewish religious literature, yet there is another sense in which the Jewish religion had already been hijacked by false teachings.

Love your neighbour (the positive form of the so called golden rule which appears in so many approximately similar forms in all the great religions) was introduced in rudimentary form in China and Egypt and later in the book of in Leviticus (19:18), yet by the time Jesus appeared on the scene, the oft times embattled Jews had convinced themselves that neighbours could only be fellow Jews. Stronger was the older appeal of the code of reciprocity whereby you returned like with like. An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth was the preferred rule. The story of the Good Samaritan found its novel impact precisely because the Samaritans were the heretics of the day. Notice too that Jesus is actually calling us to pro-activity. One commentator Dr. Frank Crane put it this way, “The Golden Rule is of no use to you whatsoever unless you realize that it’s your move!”

Perhaps we should reflect on what we have seen in modern times to ask if the biological and cultural drive to favour one’s own has continued to distort the central teaching which was the focus of Jesus.

The record of the separated Catholic and Anglican communions has not always reflected the love of neighbour. Think Henry the eighth ordering the sacking of the Catholic monasteries or the flying bricks and bombs in Belfast, Ireland. Interfaith dialogue is clearly an ideal, yet Communion is not freely offered or freely received when the priest at the front does not recognise the faith of some in the congregation.

Tribalism continues to trump brotherly and sisterly love in many places of the world and by way of example the Hutus and Tutsis, two Christian tribes in Rwanda have both at various times attempted genocide on the other. Nor is it love for neighbour when Christians attack Muslims in the Balkans. It is almost as if we learn nothing from history. Remember at least one of the earlier Popes told those Christians setting out on the bloodthirsty Crusades that taking up the sword in this cause guaranteed them an instant pathway to heaven. Does that remind you of what some of the suicide bombers of this century are taught?

Please don’t think I am implying that it is only the Christians who lapse from their ideals. The same desire to be selective in recognising neighbours might equally be directed at the extremist Sunni bombing the Shiite Mosques, the intolerance of extremist Hindus in India towards their Muslim neighbours or the minority Shia Alawite Government raining destruction on the Sunni majority in Syria. However we might also remember it is not Christian teaching to notice the sins of traditional enemies while turning a blind eye to our own shortcomings.

Jesus taught forgiveness of enemies and was himself called the Prince of Peace. We can therefore only speculate what he might have made of an US Army chaplain blessing the mission to drop an atomic bomb on Japanese city or for that matter whether he would have favoured the invasion of Iraq which, now the fiction of weapons of mass destruction has been put to rest, looks increasingly like a clumsy oil grab or even a geographically misplaced attempt to hit back at those who had sponsored the Saudi terrorists who destroyed the Twin Towers.

Like the recent Gun debates in the US and the countless instances of so called Christian countries sending troops overseas to enforce foreign policy there is an uneasy relationship between Christianity and force. Whether or not sanctioned military action is compatible with forgiving one’s enemies is a question that may not go away.

So there are competing seductive voices still. The true shepherd also continues to call down through the ages. As Jesus put it, only my sheep will recognize my voice. A stock-take of our attitudes and actions may yet reveal if we are authentic followers of the Messiah.

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Lectionary Sermon for 10 April 2016 (Easter 3) on John 21: 1-19

One unhelpful way to look at history is to find there a series of disconnected events, to be casually noted and recalled as a series of passing curiosities. One way to make history more alive is to place ourselves in the picture.

For example, we can sometimes make more sense of what we encounter in history when we to use our own experiences to come closer to understanding why characters in the narration behaved as they did, perhaps even seeing our motives and even weaknesses reflected in the choices and actions of others.

So if we were to ask why did a war break out? or: Why did ordinary Germans follow Hitler. Why did a religion start to go wrong?

Because we are no strangers to greed, desire for power, fear of those who are different and so on – finding evidence which relates these motives to what happens may help us get a feeling for why certain events took place. When it comes to Bible history it is not different. Our weaknesses help us understand the weaknesses of the main characters.

We would also do well to remember that the history was being set down for the intended audience with the idea that there they might find meaning in the path travelled by those who had gone before – and what was set down was often chosen as encouragement for the challenges that lay on the uncertain path ahead. This process was never intended as non participatory observation.

John Dominic Crossan once suggested that we search for parable in gospel narrative, because as he explained it, regardless of the degree of literal truth or alternately symbolic intention in the record, the events have been at least partly chosen and recorded for the principles they illustrate. If we follow Dom’s suggestion, when we read about Jesus’ post resurrection appearances for their contained parable nature, we may find there some hints and challenges for our own future decision making.

There is much of potential symbolism here. Peter says “I am going fishing“. Despite the recent events of great significance – and if we follow the gospel narrative, despite Peter previously encountering the risen Christ, now he is apparently reluctant to allow it to make any difference to his life. (Could you imagine learning about Jesus and then living as if it makes no difference…..hmmm…..) So Peter wants to return to his everyday familiar world and more to the point he can’t recognise Jesus in such a world.

One of the puzzles of modern versions of following Jesus is that so few see Jesus as having anything to do with the world outside the Church building. Yes in Church for one hour on Sunday we seem to follow Jesus. But who should we follow for the rest of the week? In the United States at present the Republicans who in terms of the number who describe themselves as born again usually self identify as Christian yet outside Church they want to follow potential politicians who are very unlike Jesus who taught love for neighbour and forgiveness of enemies. Politicians like Donald Trump teach the opposite and want to get tough on their enemies. And sure it is no better here. A majority in my country self identify as Christian yet outside Church, like those identified in the polls in the US, we apparently have no wish to elect politicians who go out of their way to welcome refugees.

Yet this is after Easter – and at least in one sense Jesus can still intrude. So for Peter as dawn breaks, the situation changes… Here we find an echo of the prologue of John’s gospel…. “the real light that enlightens men was even then coming into the world”.

Then Jesus is seen on the beach. He is not recognized. This should be unexpected in itself, because he has already appeared twice to the disciples, and yet it seems always he is hard to recognize. He talked with Mary Magdalene and she did not recognize him at first.(20:14) He appeared to his disciples – yet it was not his general appearance that helped them recognize him – it was the nature of his wounds.

Those disciples on the road to Emmaus had an extended conversation with Jesus and yet did not recognize him until they were prepared to share food with this stranger. Are the gospel writers then reminding us that the risen Christ is not readily recognizable but may be discovered in chance encounters with those who seem ordinary?

Even the fishing setting in today’s gospel may draw us into the story to wonder if the catch Jesus directed the disciples to take that morning might symbolically remind them of disciple-making as a potentially great harvest. Remember in another context with a virtually identical miracle Jesus was said to have introduced the notion of disciples being fishers of men, and the parallel with the other earlier miracle of showing the disciples where to fish seems more than a little coincidental.

Certainly this was different in that it was an encounter with the risen Christ. But notice it was not an “other-worldly” encounter. Jesus typically appeared reluctant to communicate via a so-called religious setting and instead found meaning in the ordinary. The farmer sowing seed, the gathering for a wedding feast, the act of baking bread, the shared meal, the fishermen at their tasks, breakfast on the beach, these were Jesus’ vehicles for the divine.

Our religious thinking is traditionally very different. For many, religious thinking is reserved for the artificial setting of a Church service. There we set up our religious formulae. We may for example think that because Jesus died on the Cross for our sins and somehow put everything right this was presumably why he got resurrected? So does this mean all we have to do is believe that this wonder of resurrection happened and humankind is somehow saved?

Surely it does not take a degree in theology to notice that in the intervening years all is not well with the world. Peace has not mysteriously broken out and if anything some of the wars are worse than they were in Jesus’ day. Disease is not a thing of the past particularly with the current fear of pandemics, environmental degradation is already contributing to localized famine and as a consequence we can now witness the relatively new phenomenon of large scale displacement of environmental refugees. If we are honest we should also admit that sin, even amongst Christians, is still a serious concern.

Well as it happens, we do not find the risen Jesus saying to Peter everything is now OK.

Remember the background. Even when Peter first recognized Jesus as the Messiah Jesus had warned him that he was going to fail at the critical time. (John 13: 36 -38) Peter, presumably and quite understandably is reported as trying to avoid being associated with Jesus after he had been taken for trial. Three times he had denied Jesus in accordance with Jesus’ claim that despite his protestations this was what he would be going to do. (18: 25 -27) And who could blame him. With the authorities out to silence Jesus and his supporters, it takes a particular type of courage to speak up when danger threatens.

So what does Jesus do? He provides a charcoal fire-this time for fish. Last time Peter was at a charcoal fire it was in the courtyard, the evening of Jesus’ trial, when Peter had been asked if he was a friend and supporter of Jesus. Please notice Jesus doesn’t now say everything is now OK. His three times repeated question “Do you love me?” is presumably intended to remind Peter of this three-fold denial – and we might at least understand Peter becoming very uncomfortable at the way the conversation was going. But notice Jesus is not so much forgiving Peter as giving him the challenge of a three-fold commission.

Nearly every time Jesus is recorded as appearing to his followers after the resurrection event there is a commission of some sort involved. So if Peter is genuine about his claim to love Jesus, we can understand Jesus saying by implication….. in that case you need to feed my lambs, tend my sheep and feed my sheep. Clearly Jesus is charging Peter with the commission to show caring leadership in the turbulent times ahead.

We need to acknowledge the call is not the same as to arrive at “mission accomplished”. Peter’s career as leader of the early Church was not all smooth sailing. I suspect the reason why his nature resonates with so many today is that Peter had a very human set of genuine strengths and serious weaknesses. Thus we find that Peter and Paul did not work smoothly together, so we find Paul identifying some of Peter’s areas of failure and weakness. That other significant leader of the early Church, James, eventually found Peter so frustrating that he moved him sideways in leadership.

Tradition finds Peter eventually sorting himself out and a number of the early Church writings have Peter dying for his faith in Rome.

Because we too sometimes find ourselves challenged into new areas, it is helpful to remind ourselves that in practice commissions are not always accepted, and even when they are accepted they are by no means all carried through. The Roman Church has always made a great deal of the Papal succession which they see as traced back to Peter. Yet history shows that, like with Peter himself, there is a mixture of success and failure in this succession. Some of the Popes were terrible, with age old weaknesses for power seeking, greed and even lust. The Borgias with their penchant for murder and corruption were hardly leading in the same sense of sense of Jesus’ commission to Peter. Yet at its best we can also see the potential of wise, humble and compassionate leadership.

I have been intrigued to see how Pope Francis has gone about working towards some very Christian sounding goals. As he has set about trying to refocus the Catholic Church on the teaching of Jesus not everyone has given him support. While some in his Church are clearly inspired to join him in his mission there are others who apparently refuse to be moved from a position of defiant immobility. Just because a leader gets it right it does not followers that his or her followers will do the same.

Peter’s commission was encountered in Peter’s every day world of fishing. Although our respective challenges will not necessarily be the same as that given to Peter, as with Peter our personal challenge is likely to start in our own setting.

We don’t have to restrict ourselves to theologians and Church leaders to gain insight into what it might mean to respond. But notice for Peter the tasks are not proscribed in detail. The commission may indeed be based on an older form of life and there is nothing wrong with that. New shoots can come off an old root. But the direction of growth will depend on where the source of light is to be found. … or as John put it, “the real light that enlightens”.

Some time ago I was introduced to the writing of Professor John Schaar from the University of California who identified one important human principle in the following:

“The future is not a result of choices among alternative paths offered by the present, but a place that is created–created first in the mind and will, created next in activity. The future is not some place we are going to, but one we are creating. The paths are not to be found, but made, and the activity of making them, changes both the maker and the destination”.

The one with the commission for our journey into that future may be the one standing there on the beach in dawn’s early light. Perhaps he is yet to be recognized.

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What Violence Doesn’t Achieve (Second version)

Donald Trump has been sounding off about terrorism calling for tougher measures. We have his call for more stringent border controls, for more violent treatment of potential terror suspects including use of torture and even his advocating killing members of the terrorists’ families. From the reaction in the polls, his diatribe against terrorism reflects a popular misconception.

Given the support for this aspect of his policies, perhaps it is time to remind ourselves his recipe for violence against those who rise up against the West is hardly compatible with the principles for which Christians claim to stand. We may not like it but the reality is that in the US the large percentage of Republicans who support Donald Trump strongly suggests that there are many who agree with Trump’s recipe of grim punishment. Regardless of those among his supporters who self identify as Christian, on this teaching at least, perhaps they should be reminded their brand of Christianity does not extend to accepting the Sermon on the Mount. Can we be certain New Zealand Methodists are more Christian on this viewpoint?

On the surface, at least in this instance, the Trump followers are responding to a persuasive argument. Terrorists, who stop at nothing to frighten civilized people into submission, have chosen the despicable tactic of surprise attack on the most vulnerable. A common reaction in the West to such action is in believing that the perpetrators will only give up their terror tactics in the face of the strongest possible reprisals. And after all isn’t that what is intended to happen when drone strikes or bombing raids are launched on ISIS strongholds or terrorist enclaves?

Against that proposal we might reflect on Mohandas Gandhi’s caution about violence where for example he claims:

“I object to violence because when it appears to do good, the good is only temporary; the evil it does is permanent.”

Given these alternate Trump versus Gandhi world views it is fair to ask which view is most plausible in terms of what we know about outcomes.
Presumably every person’s actions are at least partially chosen to deliver desired outcomes.

ISIS members for example have made it clear that they feel their mission is to create an ever widening region in which their favoured form of Islamic conservatism will gain ascendancy as a step towards a world-wide Islamic religious state. Because terror tactics are a cheap and accessible alternative to the expense of conventional warfare, all too often a surprise attack on a soft target can and does produce a maximum disruption. Where terrorism fails is seen in the Pew surveys on attitudes to ISIS among the Muslim nations. In the most recent surveys, in each of the sampled nations (apart possibly from Pakistan) there is a distinct and in some cases an overwhelming rejection of ISIS and their tactics. Maybe terrorism and violence will gain temporary power in some towns and cities particularly in Iraq and Syria but if the actions turn even Muslims away from sympathizing with ISIS such acts are likely to be counterproductive to the ISIS aims in the long-run.

If we turn the argument around and look at the current Western responses to terrorism, again the actions rarely have the desired effect. Each time there is a reprisal raid or drone attack by a Western power, because this is seen by local people as a foreign incursion, when the inevitable collateral damage occurs and innocent bystanders are killed or injured this strengthens a terrorist organization like ISIS because their cause feeds on resentment.

I have a suggestion. If instead of focussing on the punishment of terrorism we were to press for the use of the Pew surveys on the low level of support for Muslim terrorist groups to highlight the current disillusionment of observer Muslims, the terrorists should feel more reason to moderate their strategy.

The surveys are also useful to remind the rest of us that ISIS in no way stands for mainstream Islam.

If indeed we want money spent on fighting terrorism, instead of the incredibly expensive bombing raids which we know foster resentment, why not give practical aid to the very areas under contention. Even from the point of view of simple economics, pre-emptive non-military aid to friends and enemies alike would be cheaper than assisting with the rebuild of towns where Western weapons are used to turn buildings into rubble. We may need to acknowledge all the damage done in our reaction to terrorism to give us a sense of proportion.

For example the latest terrorist outrage in Pakistan was unforgiveable yet the total civilian casualties in Pakistan is currently averaging less than 1000 a year.   The total civilian casualties in Iraq as a consequence of the US intervention would exceed 20 times that figure.   Communities losing family members to military action are likely to be just as aggrieved as those who lose family members to terrorist acts.

We may also need reminding that the cost of resettling refugees displaced by punitive action far outweighs the potential cost of being good neighbours, particularly when the refugees include radicalized potential terrorists. Who knows, if the aid was overtly given in proportion to areas where there was a reduction in terrorism then there might be some motivation to win the advantage of aid by reducing the violence.

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