The war of 1948

Part of a series of post offering a perspective on the conflict in Palestine

Human rights and the future of Palestine | Location location | A time between empires | Zionism as a colonial project | Jewish migration to Palestine | Dividing Palestine | The war of 1948 | Wars and rumors of war | Palestinian resistance | Creating a shared future in Palestine

An Israeli soldier stop Arabs in a street in Nazareth, Palestine, July 17, 1948, as they are travelling after the allotted curfew time. Israeli forces had occupied the town earlier that day.

On 14 May 1948, David Ben-Gurion—who was then Executive Head of the World Zionist Organization and Chairman of the Jewish Agency for Palestine—proclaimed the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel. This was to take effect when the British mandate expired at midnight on the same day.

The declaration did not specific the borders of the Jewish State, but it was indicated that this new state would exist within the provisions of UN Resolution 181.

Military forces from Egypt, Transjordan, Syria and Iraq attempted to intervene to prevent the partition of Palestine as agreed by the UN plan, but their forces were defeated, and the 1949 armistice agreement saw Israeli control over a much larger area. That territory is commonly described as the “pre-1967 borders.” 

During the conflict an estimated 750,000 Palestinians were expelled from areas under Israeli control. Many found of them refuge in Gaza, East Jerusalem, the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. They came under the care of UNRWA, the UN Relief and Works Agency for the Palestinian Refugees. In 2021 UNRWA continues to support almost 6 million Palestinian refugees, including the children and grandchildren of those displaced in 1948 as they have not been allowed to return to their homes.

This left around 150,000 Palestinians inside the area of Palestine controlled by Israel, of whom around 35,000 were internally displaced persons. These IDPs found refuge in major Arab centers such as Nazareth, whose population grew from 15,500 in 1946 to 20,000 in 1951 and 25,000 in 1961. 

The Palestinian population within Israel lived under strict military rule from 1950 until 1966. Under these regulations, Palestinians could not leave their own village without permission from the military governor. Since 1966 there has been freedom of movement within Israel (and at times after the June 1967 war, within the whole of historic Palestine). In many cases their villages were razed, partly being used for military training to prepare for future conflict with Israel’s neighbors. The iNakba app provides details of some 500 villages which were erased by the Israeli state after 1948.

Neither the internally displaced Palestinians nor those who fled to neighboring countries to escape the conflict have been allowed to return to their homes or reclaim their property. In many cases their former homes were given to Jews who had also been displaced from areas remaining under Arab control or arriving from overseas.

As part of the wider disruption across the Middle East following the partition of Palestine, around 800,000 Jews relocated from Arab nations to Israel.

For Israeli Jews, the war of 1948 is known as the War of Independence, while for the Palestinians it is known as the Nakba (The Catastrophe).

Although the UN partition plan envisaged the creation of a Palestinian state alongside the Jewish state, this was not created at the time. Egypt remained in control of Gaza at the SW edge of Palestine, Syria held some territories in the far north, and Jordan controlled the West Bank, including the Old City of Jerusalem.

The Palestinian Declaration of Independence was only finally proclaimed on 15 November 1988.

Arab refugees stream from Palestine on the Lebanon Road, Nov. 4, 1948.

Human rights and the future of Palestine | Location location | A time between empires | Zionism as a colonial project | Jewish migration to Palestine | Dividing Palestine | The war of 1948 | Wars and rumors of war | Palestinian resistance | Creating a shared future in Palestine

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Dividing Palestine

Part of a series of brief posts offering a perspective on the conflict in Palestine.

Human rights and the future of Palestine | Location location | A time between empires | Zionism as a colonial project | Jewish migration to Palestine | Dividing Palestine | The war of 1948 | Wars and rumors of war | Palestinian resistance | Creating a shared future in Palestine

During World War One, Britain encouraged both Arab nationalism and Jewish Zionism as part of their military struggle with the Ottoman Empire. Both were promised national independence in Palestine in return for the support of the British war effort.

During World War One, the Great Arab Revolt against Ottoman ruled was led by Hussein, the Sharif of Mecca and his three sons Abdullah, Faisal and Ali. In return the British had promised support for an independent Hashemite state stretching from Syria to Yemen. 

Meanwhile, the Balfour Declaration of 1917 indicated that the British government viewed “with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people” and promised to “use their best efforts to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of the existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine …”

While this declaration had no legal status under international law, it did represent an explicit endorsement of the idea of a Jewish national home within historic Palestine. 

Delivering on the declaration was one of the terms for the mandate given to Britain by the League of Nations to provide “administrative advice and assistance … until such time as they are able to stand alone.” The British understood their role to include the establishment of a national home for the Jews while also preserving the civil and political rights of Palestinian Arabs, but this became increasingly fraught as tensions grew between the two local communities in Palestine.

In 1921—as a partial fulfilment of their promise to Hashemites, and despite their commitment to creating a Jewish homeland in Palestine—the British Mandate authorities established the portion of Palestine east of the Jordan River as the Emirate of Transjordan, ruled by Abdullah I as its first Emir. This emirate remained a British protectorate until 1946 when it gained its independence and adopted the name “Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.” 

With the establishment of the United Nations, Britain relinquished its mandate to develop the autonomous political and social infrastructure of Palestine.  Resolution 181 (II) on 29 November 1947 agreed to a partition plan to create separate independent Arab and Jewish states within Palestine, while reserving Jerusalem and its suburbs as a special International Zone (‘Corpus Separatum’) outside either national state. Although Arabs comprised 67% of the population, they were allocated just 43% of the territory. The partition was accepted (with some reservations) by Jewish groups but was rejected by the Palestinians and all other Arab nations.

After the war of 1948 (see next post), Palestine was divided: with 78% of historic Palestine under Israeli control and the remaining 22% split between areas controlled by Jordan (East Jerusalem and the West Bank) and Egypt (Gaza). Following the Six-Day War in June 1967, all of historic Palestine was under one power, although expressed through a Military Occupation in the areas beyond the ‘Green Line’ of the 1949 Armistice. The Green Line is widely regarded as the de facto international border between Israel and Palestine following UN Resolution 242

Under the Oslo Accords, the areas occupied by Israel in 1967 were divided into three categories: Areas A, B and C. Area A was designed to be exclusively administered by the Palestinian National Authority, while Area B was to be jointly administered by the Palestinian Authority and Israel. Area C was to be administered solely by Israel. These arrangements have not been fully implemented, as Israeli military forces routinely enter Area A.

During the Second Intifada (2000–2005), Israel constructed a physical barrier more or less along the Green Line to prevent easy movement of people from the West Bank into Israel and Jerusalem. The wall cuts deep into Palestinian lands on the West Bank to include Israeli settlements as well as natural water reserves, and in places separates Palestinians from their fields or other members of their family.

Human rights and the future of Palestine | Location location | A time between empires | Zionism as a colonial project | Jewish migration to Palestine | Dividing Palestine | The war of 1948 | Wars and rumors of war | Palestinian resistance | Creating a shared future in Palestine

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Jewish migration to Palestine

This post is part of a series offering a perspective on the conflict in Palestine

Human rights and the future of Palestine | Location location | A time between empires | Zionism as a colonial project | Jewish migration to Palestine | Dividing Palestine | The war of 1948 | Wars and rumors of war | Palestinian resistance | Creating a shared future in Palestine

Jewish community in Ottoman Palestine

There has been a continuous Jewish presence in Palestine from antiquity to the present time, with occasional waves of Jewish migration long before the rise of Zionism as a national movement. Similarly, there were ancient Jewish diaspora communities in many cities across the region, including Cairo, Aleppo, Damascus and Babylon. These Oriental Jewish communities had a very different historical and cultural experience from the Jews in Europe, as Christian anti-Semitism was not part of the Islamic outlook.

Towards the end of the Ottoman period there was a significant Jewish minority in Palestine. In 1880 the Jewish population was estimated at between 20,000 and 25,000 people. From 1890s onwards Jews were the majority group in Ottoman Jerusalem. 

Anti-Jewish pogroms in Russia triggered additional migration, with around 35,000 Jews arriving between 1882 and 1903. A further 35,000+ arrived between 1904 and 1914. These two waves of early Zionist migration were mostly from Russia and Eastern Europe.

By 1914 there were around 80,000 Jews in a total population of 722,000. The British mandate census in 1920 indicates a population around 700,000, of whom 76,000 were Jews.

Hopes for a Jewish national home in Palestine, together with the need to escape the genocidal policies of Nazi Germany and its allies during World War Two, triggered a significant increase in Jewish migration to Palestine during the period of the British Mandate. 

Around 40,000 additional Jews arrived between 1919 and 1923. These people were also mostly from Eastern Europe, whereas increasing numbers of Jews from Poland and across Europe more generally were a feature of 82,000 people who arrived in the period from 1924 to 1929. This rate of migration surged to 250,000 immigrants during the 1930s with the rise of Nazism in Germany and related anti-Semitic developments elsewhere in Europe.

During the 1920s and 1930s there was increasing tension around the rapid rise in the Jewish population, culminating in a decision by the British Mandate authorities to restrict Jewish migration during the early 1940s. Clandestine Jewish migration continued with an estimated additional 110,000 Jews migrating to Palestine illegally between 1933 and 1948.

By 1945, the total population of Palestine was 1,764,520, of which 553,600 were Jews. In 1944 Jews comprised about two-thirds of Jerusalem’s population. These were the numbers which informed the UN Partition Plan.

Human rights and the future of Palestine | Location location | A time between empires | Zionism as a colonial project | Jewish migration to Palestine | Dividing Palestine | The war of 1948 | Wars and rumors of war | Palestinian resistance | Creating a shared future in Palestine

Eugene Abeshaus (USSR and Israel, 1939–2008), Jonah and the Whale in Haifa Port, 1978. 
Creative Commons Licence
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Zionism as a colonial project

Part of a series of posts offering a perspective on the conflict in Palestine

Human rights and the future of Palestine | Location location | A time between empires | Zionism as a colonial project | Jewish migration to Palestine | Dividing Palestine | The war of 1948 | Wars and rumors of war | Palestinian resistance | Creating a shared future in Palestine

Photo by Haley Black on Pexels.com

As European powers asserted their freedom to act within the notionally Ottoman territories of Egypt and Palestine in the late nineteenth century, there was a growing sense in some circles that a Jewish nation state might be created in Palestine, on a portion of the so-called ‘biblical lands.’ 

One of those circles was an influential set of Evangelical Protestant beliefs known as ‘Restorationism.’ With roots in Puritan millenarian speculations between 1640 and 1660, this view proposed that by restoring the Jews to their ancient homeland the Protestant powers of Europe could defeat a feared (but non-existent) alliance between the Catholics and Turkey, while ensuring the conversion of the Jews to Christianity, and preparing for the return of Christ. That was quite an agenda and variants of it have been seen in recent Evangelical support for Israel. For a while fear of Communism displaced the Ottoman Empire, but fear of Islam persists among many Christian supporters of Israel.

Evangelical missionary groups such as the London Jews Society (LJS) promoted these ideas in leading British circles, including Lord Shaftesbury (1801–85), whose 1839 essay “State and Restauration (sic) of the Jews” in the Quarterly Review argued “the Jews must be encouraged to return in yet greater numbers and become once more the husbandman of Judea and Galilee … though admittedly a stiff-necked, dark hearted people, and sunk in moral degradation, obduracy, and ignorant of the Gospel … [They are] not only worthy of salvation but also vital to Christianityʼs hope of salvation.”

As a Canon emeritus of St George’s Cathedral in Jerusalem, I should acknowledge that the origins of the Anglican Church in Jerusalem lie in just such attitudes. The establishment of the Anglo-Prussian bishopric in 1841 was a Protestant political initiative to promote Jewish settlement in Palestine and oppose Catholic France’s close relationship with the Ottomans.

William Hechler (1845–1931) was a son of LJS missionaries and served as chaplain to the British Embassy in Vienna. In 1894 he published The Restoration of the Jews to Palestine in which he argued that rather than seeking to convert the Jews, Christians should assist them to return to Palestine. 

Hechler was an advisor to Theodor Herzl (1860–1904), who was the leading activist seeking to secure European support for a Jewish national home.  Herzl convened the World Zionist Congress that assembled for the first time at Basel in 1897, and he is widely recognized as the founder of Jewish Zionism. The anti-Jewish sentiments of Herzl’s Christian Zionist allies are not so widely recognized.

Palestine was not the only potential location for the proposed Jewish homeland, but it was eventually endorsed in preference to other colonial locations such as Argentina and Uganda.

A fund to finance the purchase of properties in Palestine for Jewish colonies was established by the fifth World Zionist Congress in 1901 although the idea had been under consideration since the very first Congress. Over time it has developed into a major instrument for Jewish colonization in Palestine, and it now known as the Jewish National Fund (Keren Kayemet LeYisrael, or KKL). It currently owns at least 13% of all the land in Israel and has become a major—if at times controversial—Jewish institution alongside the State of Israel.

Human rights and the future of Palestine | Location location | A time between empires | Zionism as a colonial project | Jewish migration to Palestine | Dividing Palestine | The war of 1948 | Wars and rumors of war | Palestinian resistance | Creating a shared future in Palestine

This post draws on lectures I gave as part of the “Apocalypse Then and Now” class for the Brisbane College of Theology Master of Theology program in 2008: Christian Zionism

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A time between empires

Siege of Acre (1799)

The third post in a series offering a perspective on the conflict in Palestine.

Human rights and the future of Palestine | Location location | A time between empires | Zionism as a colonial project | Jewish migration to Palestine | Dividing Palestine | The war of 1948 | Wars and rumors of war | Palestinian resistance | Creating a shared future in Palestine

For most of the past 5,000 years Palestine has been a remote province in a vast empire whose capital was far from Jerusalem. Despite the legends of an extensive empire ruled by David and Solomon, there has never been a powerful society based in Palestine with the capacity to project its power over anyone beyond a few small regional city states. Even then, the local warlords only had such opportunities when there was no dominant empire.

The empires which have dominated Palestine during the past 5,000 years include Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Alexander the Great and his successor empires (the Ptolemies in Egypt and the Seleucids in Syria and Mesopotamia), then Rome, the Byzantines, and a series of Islamic dynasties (Umayyad, Abbasid, Seljuk, Mamluk and Ottoman). The most recent of these great empires were the Ottomans, who dominated the area from 1517 to 1918.

The next empire is yet to emerge.

We are in one of the periods of chaos between empires.

It is just over 100 years since the final collapse of the Ottoman Empire, but as yet no new empire has arisen in the region. In this intermediate period the smaller powers are flexing their muscles and experiencing a brief moment of autonomy. 

In the case of Israel that has been based almost entirely on the strategic support of the US which has provided diplomatic cover for Israel at the UN Security Council while ensuring it has the latest weapons to maintain military supremacy within its immediate neighborhood.

Some analysts suggest that the next regional empire to control the Middle East generally, and Palestine in particular will be based either in Egypt, Iran or Turkey.

While Israel may survive as a nation state within the larger political arrangements of the Middle East, it will also need to come to terms with its location in that region and cease imagining itself as a European nation with a strange zip code. Sooner or later the longer term regional dynamics will reassert themselves after the short-lived interruption of Anglo-American supremacy following two global wars during the twentieth century.

Human rights and the future of Palestine | Location location | A time between empires | Zionism as a colonial project | Jewish migration to Palestine | Dividing Palestine | The war of 1948 | Wars and rumors of war | Palestinian resistance | Creating a shared future in Palestine

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Location, location

This is the second in a series of posts offering a perspective on the conflict in Palestine.

Human rights and the future of Palestine | Location location | A time between empires | Zionism as a colonial project | Jewish migration to Palestine | Dividing Palestine | The war of 1948 | Wars and rumors of war | Palestinian resistance | Creating a shared future in Palestine

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Due to the convergence of several tectonic plates, Palestine is part of a ‘land bridge’ which allows movement between Africa, Europe and Asia. For millennia this has encouraged migration, trade and military campaigns. The major river valleys of Egypt and Mesopotamia facilitated the development of highly-organized societies, which typically projected their power northwards into Palestine (in the case of Egypt) or southwards to the southern edges of Palestine (in the case of the northern and eastern powers).

In more recent times, European powers such as Napoleonic France, Great Britain, Germany and even Mussolini’s Italy have seen the strategic value of this region. With the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 the economic and political advantages deriving from easy access to the Gulf, India and the ‘Far East’ were clear. During the twentieth century, the vast oil reserves between Saudi Arabia and Iraq ensured continued interest in Palestine and Egypt.

During the 35 years or so after the end of World War Two, the global rivalry between the US and the USSR (often called the ‘Cold War’) ensured that both blocs invested in this region. While Britain, France and the US gave solid support to Israel, the USSR tended to support the Arab nations opposed to Israel. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, this global power competition has become less significant, but can still be seen in the Russian support for Syria as well the continuing American support for Israel.

Palestine in general, and Jerusalem in particular, also has some of the most significant religious sites for Jews, Christians and Muslims. It attracts pilgrims from around the globe, as well as locals for religious festivals.

1581 map by H. Bunting, Die ganze Welt in einem Kleberblat.

Human rights and the future of Palestine | Location location | A time between empires | Zionism as a colonial project | Jewish migration to Palestine | Dividing Palestine | The war of 1948 | Wars and rumors of war | Palestinian resistance | Creating a shared future in Palestine

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Human rights and the future of Palestine

Human rights and the future of Palestine | Location location | A time between empires | Zionism as a colonial project | Jewish migration to Palestine | Dividing Palestine | The war of 1948 | Wars and rumors of war | Palestinian resistance | Creating a shared future in Palestine

In recent weeks many friends have asked for my views on the tensions between Israel and Palestine.

I am conscious of the proverb about those who visit Jerusalem for a week and then go home to write a book about the conflict; and those who stay for a month and prepare a pamphlet upon their return home; while those stay longer remain silent after they go home.

As someone who has enjoyed extensive contacts with Palestine, Jerusalem and Israel over several decades—including time serving as a co-director for the Bethsaida Excavations Project on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee and various periods serving on the teaching team at St George’s College in Jerusalem (Dean 2015/2017)—I have tended to refrain from offering my opinion.

However, I have personal and professional connections with a range of Israeli and Palestinian people, including academics and religious leaders from all three faith traditions. Some of them are my closest and most intimate friends.

In this post I honour my relationship them them all, and seek to help other friends without such personal connections to Palestine and its peoples appreciate the dilemma faced by us all.

This post includes the opening section of a longer document which may never see the light of day. It passes no judgement, but seeks to offer some insight.

In what follows I presume what once would have been a novel idea, namely that individual persons and collective human societies have civil and political rights which derive from our dignity as humans and are not generated by a power advantage over others. A novel idea indeed, but one that is embedded in the international world order which has generated and sustains the conflict between Jewish and Arab societies in Palestine.

At the core of this conflict is not a competition for territory but a clash of identities. 

As it happens, the protagonists are people with common DNA. At the biological level they are the same peoples. Over the course of a lengthy shared and partly dislocated history, the peoples of Palestine (all of them descendants of the ancient Canaanites) embraced different identities. Some of them retained their Jewish identity despite dislocation and absence from Palestine. Others discarded their Jewish identity while remaining ‘on location’ in Palestine. During the Byzantine period most of the latter identified as Christians. Following the Islamic conquest of Jerusalem more than 1,300 years ago all of them now identify as Arabs and the vast majority of them are Muslims.

Their shared DNA reveals their common history while their unresolved conflict reveals their divided identities.

I take it as axiomatic that Jewish people living in Palestine may organize their affairs to enjoy their civil and political rights.

For me it is also axiomatic that Palestinians have identical civil and political rights, including the right to defend themselves when attacked or when those rights are denied.

It is also axiomatic for me that the indigenous Palestinians—with their unbroken history of continuous presence in the land—have a prior claim to undisturbed civil and political rights which constitutes a form of ‘Native Title’ (to use a term from current Australian law) which can never be extinguished. 

Palestinian sovereignty was implicit in the League of Nations Mandate given to the United Kingdom after World War One and was subsequently reaffirmed in UN Resolution 181 which approved the partition of Palestine. It has never been surrendered or extinguished. Indeed it is affirmed by almost 200 UN member states which formally recognize the State of Palestine.

Human rights and the future of Palestine | Location location | A time between empires | Zionism as a colonial project | Jewish migration to Palestine | Dividing Palestine | The war of 1948 | Wars and rumors of war | Palestinian resistance | Creating a shared future in Palestine

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True vine, authentic holiness

Fifth Sunday of Easter
Christ Church Cathedral, Grafton
2 May 2021

Ripe grapes close-up in fall. autumn harvest.

[ video ]

We are now very much in the second half of the Great Fifty Days of Easter; that “week of weeks” which stretches from Easter to Pentecost.

Over the first few weeks of Easter we listen to the appearance stories:

  • Easter 1 – Empty Tomb & Mary in the Garden
  • Easter 2 – John 20:19-31 (Doubting Thomas)
  • Easter 3 – Luke 24:36-48 (Emmaus) & John 21:1-19 (Lakeside)

Then the focus shifts to how the risen Lord is experienced today:

  • Easter 4 – John 10 (Good Shepherd)
  • Easter 5 – John 14 (Home with many rooms), John 15 (True Vine), John 13 (New Commandment to love on another)
  • Easter 6 – John 14:15-21 (Advocate), John 15:9-17 (Love one another), John 14:23-29 (Advocate)
  • Easter 7 – John 17:1-11, John 16:16–24, John 17:20-26 (unity with the Father)

The True Vine

Today we encounter a new metaphor in Gospel of John: Jesus as the true or authentic vine. This idea is not found anywhere else in John, and actually is never used by anyone else in the NT. It was not one of Jesus’ regular talking points, but it has been used with great effect about the midpoint of the extended Farewell Discourse in John chapters 13 to 16.

While this is not a common theme in the NT, it draws on ancient biblical tradition. Sometimes the vine is a symbol for the people of God, but most of the time it is a symbol for life going well. A healthy vine with lots of fruit suggests peace and prosperity, while a sick vine that is struggling to survive suggests hard times.

All this reminds us how the ancient symbols of our faith are derived from nature and agriculture, and perhaps also how hard it is to find new ways to speak of faith in our world of silicon chips and urban populations.

This is quite an intimate metaphor. At its heart is the idea of connection with God: of an essential harmony between our spirits and the sacred love at heart of all reality. As such it fits well with the theme of these final weeks of Easter.

The metaphor of the vine takes us beyond belief and action, to focus on simply being who we are as we allow the life of God to be passing through us for the benefit of others.

A misunderstood metaphor

As a teenager this metaphor freaked me out. In my conservative Evangelical church being fruitful meant converting others to believe like us. The pressure was on: to avoid being pruned and burned we needed to go get converts (“bear fruit”)!

BTW, we were not speaking about bringing people to faith for the first time. This was mostly about persuading Anglicans and Catholics to switch across to our little Evangelical sect, renounce their infant Baptism and their sacraments, and start all over again in the Christian life with us.

All that made me very uncomfortable. It seemed my spiritual status in that group was on the line, and that God was always looming with pruning shears and matches. 

Fruit of the Spirit

Yet when a grapevine is fruitful, we are not expecting it to be multiplying vines. Rather, we expect it to bring reflect the inner vitality of the vine in the form of leaves, buds and grapes. We want lovely sweet grapes from a grapevine, not dreams of expansion.

Eventually, I came to see that the result of God’s Spirit in us is our own transformation. Healthy holiness is not persuading others to think like me, not poaching people from one church to another, not converting people from other faiths or no faith. It is simply about being the best version of me that I can be with God’s help.

Paul’s words in Galatians 5 are very helpful, and I deliberately cite them in a longer form than we usually hear them:

By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another. [Galatians 5:22–26]

As these Great Fifty Days draw to us a close may we experience a deepening of our own connection with God, a fresh sense of God’s life flowing through us, a transformation of our character and profound inner renewal.

May we remain connected to the Vine and may the Father’s gentle touch help us to be even more responsive to the work of God’s spirit within us.

May we never forget that our task is not convert others, but ourselves.

Postscript: There is a beautiful poem by Malcolm Guite on the Vine, which a friend shared with me after reading this sermon after it was posted online. I encourage you to read that poem and reflect on its significance during the coming week.

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Living in two worlds

The Feast of St Mark
Christ Church Cathedral, Grafton
25 April 2021

By Vittore Carpaccio – Google Art Project, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=38019354

[ video ]

While almost everyone in Australia today is thinking about ANZAC Day, many Christians will also be observing the festival of Saint Mark. And those not doing so today will probably be remembering Mark tomorrow.

At first glance Mark has nothing to with the ANZACs.

Yet there are some interesting connections when we pause and think further about these two special commemorations which intersect for us every year.

For the most part, our religious calendar in Australia comes from the northern hemisphere, and Europe in particular. Our church year is out of sync with the place where we live and the patterns of this ancient land.

Instead of learning from the First Nations of this great south land, we cling to rituals and “seasons” which come from the “Old Country” and simply do not work here.

The festival for St Mark started out that way as well, but as it happened the holy day for St Mark was the day when the British forces—including the ANZAC troops from Australia and New Zealand—landed at Gallipoli.

As you may know from many ANZAC Day talks, that was not the day when the landing was supposed to happen.

It had been planned for 23 April (which happens to be St George’s Day), but bad weather slowed things down and the landing took place on 25 April instead (St Mark’s Day).

That was a Sunday in 1915 just as it is in 2021.

I do not imagine many of the soldiers were thinking about St George or St Mark on that terrible morning.

Yet ever since, for Australians and Kiwis, the feast of St Mark coincides with ANZAC Day.

We finally have a holy day that belongs to us!

Saint Mark has been conscripted into the ANZACs.

So, as we prepare to baptize Hamilton and Eddison, let’s think a little more about Mark.

We know very little about him, but here a few things we can list:

  • He was from Jerusalem
  • His mother had a house there
  • They had at least one servant (Rhoda) and perhaps others as well
  • The small group of Jesus people in Jerusalem met at Mark’s home
  • Mark’s mother ran a “safe house” for Jesus people
  • Peter goes to that house when he escaped from prison in Jerusalem
  • Mark knew people like Barnabas, Peter and Paul; and maybe also Mary the mother of Jesus, and James the brother of Jesus. Unless he was a very little boy at the time, he would also have known Jesus!

There is something else about Mark: he had two names.

We call him Mark which was a name he used when mixing with people from the wider community: merchants, soldiers, government officials, people who were not Jewish.

But inside his own culture and his own family he was known as John (Yohanan in Hebrew).

He had two names because he lived in two very different worlds: a Jewish world and a Roman world.

Mark was a young man, and maybe just a teenager, at a moment in time when everything was in the process of changing. As it happens, so were those young ANZACs who were landing at Gallipoli under hostile fire on this day in 1915. 

They did not know it at the time, but the world order was collapsing and everything was going to be different. We still have not put all the pieces back together in the Middle East since that war.

Mark did not realize at the time, but everything in the ancient world was about to change. A few weeks earlier, the Roman empire had executed Jesus. In less than 300 years’ time the Emperor of Rome would be a follower of Jesus, and instead of meeting in secret like the people who came to his mother’s house on a Saturday night, the Jesus people would be meeting in the town halls because so many people wanted to join their religion.

Hamilton and Eddison, you are alive in a time of huge change. Everything is changing around us. We do not know what the future will look like, but it will not be like the recent past.

In that sense, you guys and John Mark have quite a lot in common.

Mark did not have all the answers and he did not always get things right. But Mark had the courage to live as a person of faith in a world that was changing. He did not need all the answers, he just needed to know that Jesus’ message about the kingdom of God was the best way for him to live his life.

When you are baptized here in a few minutes time that is what you are doing as well.

You do not pretend to have all the answers, and I do not have them either. But you are saying YES to the opportunity to stand on the side of Jesus as everything in the world changes.

The rest of us here are standing beside you and Jesus as well.

We do not have all the answers either, but we have a hunch that by standing alongside Jesus we shall all be the right place and on the right side of history. We have a special word for that hunch: faith.

So let’s go to the font and say YES to Jesus, YES to God.

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The heart of the good news

Detail from Christ of St John of the Cross, Salvador Dali, 1951

Good Friday
Christ Church Cathedral, Grafton
2 April 2021

[ video ]

A week or two back, a colleague and friend from the USA shared with me some reflections on Good Friday and Easter through the lens of the killing of George Floyd, the African American man who was strangled to death by a white police officer on 25 May 2020. The officer knelt on George Floyd’s neck for 9 minutes and 29 seconds — yes, 9 minutes and 29 seconds — until he ceased to breath. He was dead. 

That essay offered some powerful reflections on lethal imperial violence against innocent oppressed persons and resurrection/resistance, but what struck me most was a simple observation Brandon Scott made concerning the emphasis which the Apostle Paul placed on the death of Jesus:

It is important to notice that Paul preaches the Anointed crucified (1 Cor 1:23). He does not say he preaches the Anointed raised.

Those words are quite matter of fact, since they simply quote Paul’s own words from our second reading this morning: “we preach Christ crucified …”

Yet they invite us to go deeper into the mystery of Easter, and indeed the meaning of the Gospel.

The Paul who says that he preaches Christ crucified doubles down on that point in the next chapter of his letter to the Corinthians:

When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. [1 Cor 2:1–2]

And a few lines later he writes:

But we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. [1 Cor 2:7–8]

This is the same Paul who, in this very same letter (1 Corinthians) will devote a whole 58 verses to asserting the centrality of the resurrection in chapter 15! He even says that our religion is meaningless if Christ was not raised:

If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. [1 Cor 15:17–19]

Yes, Paul is deeply invested in the resurrection, but the core of his gospel is to be found in the death of Jesus. Like George Floyd, it is not enough to say, “Jesus died”. We need to say, “Jesus was killed. Jesus was murdered. Jesus was eliminated by the empire.”

The student protestors in Myanmar these past few weeks, are not just people who died; but people who are being killed by their government, by the ruling elite.

When we say with Paul that Christ was crucified, we are not simply saying that he died. We are saying—boldly, plainly and as an act of resistance against those who control our world—that he was publicly killed and made an example of in order to keep people like us in our place.

George Floyd was murdered by a man wearing the uniform of the Minneapolis city government.

Jesus was killed by solders wearing the insignia of the Roman emperor.

The Indigenous people of this Valley—who were poisoned, shot, incarcerated, and raped—were victims of European settlers acting with the protection of the colonial government and often with the tacit blessing of our churches.

Paul never knew about George Floyd or the First Nations of Australia, but he realised that in the way the Jesus was killed we catch a glimpse of the ways things are and of the ways things are going to be from now on.

This Paul was himself a Roman citizen, someone who enjoyed privileges not available to many people in his society. 

As a Roman citizen, Paul had a “get-out-of-jail” card. Jesus did not have such a privilege. 

Paul could appeal to the emperor. Jesus was at the mercy (sic) of the mean-spirited provincial bureaucrat, Pontius Pilate. 

As a Roman citizen, Paul could never be crucified.

Yet he proclaims Christ crucified.

In this person and in this event, we can discern (if we have eyes to see) the ways the empire of God (basileia tou theou) is organised, and it is very different from the way the privileged elites of our world—then and now—see things.

Paul says as much in his fascinating comment in 1 Cor 2:8: “None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory …”

When “the rulers of this age” see Jesus hanging on a cross beside the main road to Jaffa, they think they have reinforced their power and their privilege. They have eliminated a threat. They have warned everyone else to toe the lines drawn by the people with power, or else …

But when God looks at the abused and battered body of Jesus strung up beside the highway, God sees someone who has said yes to the reign of God. 

God sees someone who has total faith that even in his death God will be shown to be in charge of the ways things work around here.

Don’t think for a moment that God wanted Jesus to die.

In saying that, I am reflecting the work of the Roman Catholic theologian, Elizabeth A. Johnson, in her essay, “The Word was Made Flesh and Dwelt Among Us. Jesus Research and Christian Faith.” in Doris Donnelly (ed), Jesus. A Colloquium in the Holy Land. New York: Continuum, 2001. Pages 146–66:

To put it simply, Jesus, far from being a masochist, came not to die but to live and to help others live in the joy of the divine love. To put it boldly, God the Creator and Lover of the human race did not need Jesus’ death as an act of atonement but wanted him to flourish in his ministry of the coming reign of God. Human sin thwarted this divine desire yet did not defeat it. (page 158)

Rather than being an act willed by a loving God, [the cross] is a strikingly clear index of sin in the world, a wrongful act committed by human beings. What may be considered salvific in such a situation is not the suffering endured but only the love poured out. The saving kernel in the midst of such negativity is not the pain and death as such but the mutually faithful love of Jesus and his God, not immediately evident. (page 159)

So, while we need not think that God wanted Jesus to die, we should never doubt for a moment that God’s response to the murder of Jesus was not only to enfold the dead victim of human evil into God’s own life, but also to embrace each of us and all of us in the same way.

For people of faith, the murder of Jesus was a tipping point in the cosmic story, a moment when we see what really matters and how the universe is actually structured.

The “curtain was torn,” and we see that those with privilege are not the ones with real power.

The knee of that police officer who killed George Floyd on 25 May last year not only killed George. He also showed us what is wrong with our world. He extinguished the life from one black man. But he shone a light on all the violence directed against black people by a system from which some of us here prosper and under which some of us here still suffer.

Good Friday is not just about happened to Jesus on 2 April (note the date) in year 30 of the Common Era. 

Good Friday is about the event in which we glimpse the brokenness of human power systems and the vindication of the crucified one (all of them, millions and millions of us, down the millennia).

This is the day when love checkmates hate.


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