Saturday, December 17, 2016

Crisp and Sanders on Historical and Systematic Theology

I came across this quote from material I used in teaching last year. It is from the Introduction of Crisp and Sanders, Christology Ancient and Modern: Explorations in Constructive Dogmatics. It was a useful discussion starter in a unit my colleague, Katharine Massam and I taught, The Cracking of Christendom. It was semester-long course exploring the Reformation from both historical and doctrinal perspectives. It is a good summary of the issues at stake in the relationship between historical and systematic theology, in the relationship between doctrinal retrieval and constructive theology.
Theology that ignores the tradition is a thin, insipid thing. It also runs the risk of repeating mistakes that could be avoided by developing greater familiarity with the missteps of our forebears. If theologians do not attempt to dialogue with the past, retrieving the ideas of past thinkers without asset-stripping them, paying attention to the warp and weft of historic theology and the way in which the past may fructify the present, then we risk cutting off our noses to spite our respective faces. We can learn history from those who have gone before us. But they can also teach us how we ought to think, and furnish us with concepts, notions and doctrines that will ensure our theologies are much healthier than would otherwise be the case.
Systematic theology is not the same as historical theology, of course. The systematician will want to make normative, not merely descriptive judgements. But resources for such ends can be furnished by attending to theologians of the past and engaging with them in a collegial manner in order to come to normative conclusions about theology today. Theology that steps back in time only to hide there from the problems to be faced in the present ends up hidebound and moribund. Or, worse, it becomes an empty scholasticism that refuses to attend to the needs of the present, accepting only what has been hallowed by time and use, as if it is sufficient to look backward without looking forward. The constructive theological task is not identical to theological retrieval, however. One must be alive to the differences that inform theology of the past and the cultural, intellectual, and scientific changes that have occurred between then and now.

Oliver D. Crisp and Fred Sanders, "Introduction" in Christology Ancient and Modern: Explorations in Constructive Dogmatics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013), Location 87-98, Kindle Version. 

Monday, December 12, 2016

Theological subjects at Pilgrim in 2017

The unit descriptions for the various offerings at Pilgrim  Theological College in 2017 are now available online, as is the timetable. It's a pretty impressive range of units covering a huge range of theological, historical, inter-cultural, missional and exegetical interests. You can access the list here with links to each unit.

I'll be on sabbatical and Semester 1,  but will be involved in three units in Semester 2. Each will be taught at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels.

Culture, Belief and Theology (Intensive): especially suitable for those starting out in theology and who want to do so by exploring the many-sided interface between Christianity and the culture at large. Watch the video here from Liam Miller reflecting on this unit when it was offered in 2015.

The Cracking of Christendom (Tuesday nights): co-taught with Kerry Handayside, this explores the social and doctrinal dimensions of the Reformation as well as its lasting impact, not only on the church but on the shape of contemporary Western culture.

Readings in Christian Doctrine (Extensive - four Fridays during semester): in this advanced unit, we'll be studying current trends in doctrinal theology, with a focus in 2017 on the doctrine of Scripture. The unit would be especially suited to anyone wanting to pursue postgraduate study in systematic theology.

Feel free to contact me if you'd like to find out more about any of these units.

Friday, December 2, 2016

An anniversary gift from Pilgrim Theological College: scholarships

To mark the 40th anniversary of the Uniting Church in Australia, Pilgrim Theological College is awarding 'Anniversary Scholarships' to eligible students who enrol in a GradCert (3 units) or a GradDip (6 units) in 2017. Check out the details at this link.

And if you wonder why theological education is a good thing to do, then read this piece from one of our current students.

Other relevant links:

Pilgrim Theological College
University of Divinity
Centre for Theology and Ministry

Monday, November 28, 2016

A statement of faith - for Advent?

Recently I spoke at Wesley Uniting Church, Geelong, on the statement of faith I published on this blog earlier this year. The statement was the result of some initial musings by me and input from quite a lot of people. This process of input continued during the discussion at Geelong when local UCA minister Peter Gador-Whyte suggested that the statement could be modified for particular seasons of the church year. This would involve deleting some of the sub-clauses and leaving in those that were more oriented to the particular season. Such reduction in length would also make the statement a lot more user-friendly in contexts of public worship. Following Peter's suggestion here's a possible Advent version.

* * * *

We trust the one God.

We trust the Love and Life who is the source and sustainer of all that was, is and will be.

We trust Jesus Christ, Loves Beloved, Life's Light, Eternal Wisdom, Israel's Messiah, God with us.
Sent from the very heart of God's love for the world, coming not to be served but to serve, Jesus became human in the womb of Mary.

Hailing from Nazareth, befriending outcasts, healing the sick, forgiving sinners, confronting falsehood, and showing mercy to enemies, Jesus proclaimed the long-promised reign of God.

We trust the Holy Spirit, the loving and lively breath of God, who blows where she wills: in, around and through the whole creation.

This same Spirit spoke through Israel's prophets, animated Jesus' ministry, and gathers a community, the church, which, like Jesus, is called to serve; it is an instrument through which Christ continues to command attention and awaken faith.

This is the churchs faith. It is the faith we confess. In this Triune God we trust. God grant us so to live and hope. Amen.
* * * *
 The above image is Igino Giordani's "Mercy in the Magnificat" and is reproduced from this website under a Creative Commons Licence

Saturday, November 26, 2016

What to expect of a theological education

There are many concerns about the relationship between faith and theological education. Some regard it as a sure way to lose one's faith. Some find it a pathway to liberations from the piety of their church or family. Some find it a way into the intellectual riches of the Christian faith they were previously unaware. The fact is a theological education produces all sorts of outcomes in those who venture into it. Pilgrim Theological College (the College where I teach) has recently posted this reflection from one of our students on what it means to take the risk of being theologically educated. It's definitely worth a read. And there's a good chance it will persuade some readers that it is well worth enrolling in a theological college. If so, think about Pilgrim.

Check out the piece here on the Pilgrim website.

And if you're in the vicinity visit us at out our physical home at the Centre for Theology and Ministry (below), 29 College Crescent, Parkville.

And this earlier post by me might also be of interest.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Letting go of 'contextual' theology

It was again my turn to contribute the Pilgrim Faculty column in our Synod's monthly magazine, Crosslight. I argue that it is time to let go of the discourse of 'contextual' theology and work instead with the idea that all theology is contingent. I think this would help us to be less preoccupied with (but not indifferent to) method and to more focused on theology in every context being a spiritual discipline. Near the end of the piece I write this.
As such, theology is as much a spiritual discipline as it is the implementation of a method.  Yes, it requires the self-awareness and discipline of method. It also requires the theologian – be she or he an academic teacher of theology or a congregational minister preaching sermons – to cultivate those contingent practices by which we live the Christian life: repentance, thanksgiving, praise, proclamation, speaking prophetically, love and mercy. Such practices and dispositions can’t be put on hold as we do the technical theological work of reading, interpreting, writing and speaking. 
The full piece can be read here. (It is a (very) short summary of the longer argument I make in Chapter 5 of Disturbing Much Disturbing Many, "'A unity which transcends': What's 'contextual' and what's 'theological' about 'contextual theology'?")

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

John Flett's Apostolicity

Today it was my pleasure and privilege to launch the latest book of my Pilgrim Theological College colleague and friend, John Flett, Apostolicity: The Ecumenical Question in World Christian Perspective (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2016). The following is the text of my comments on the occasion. It was one of five books being launched at the University of Divinity's Learning and Teaching Day, so I had only five minutes available. So much more could be said about the book, but I hope even these brief remarks generate interest in what is a very important book.

In 1959, the Joint Commission on Church Union, the body whose work led to the formation of the Uniting Church in Australia two decades later, published its first report. In it the Commission wrote this about apostolicity: “Succession in ministerial order is good; succession in apostolic faith and life is essential.”
I have always been encouraged by this contrast and have often used it as a springboard to defend a concept of apostolicity not determined by ministerial order. 
Apostolicity: The Ecumenical Question in World Christian Perspective has, however, woken me from my apostolic slumber and made me realise that I wasn’t being anywhere near as radical as I thought I was when affirming a an alternative notion of apostolicity.  
This book is the published version of John’s Habilitationsshcrift which he completed in Wuppertal in 2015. It follows his earlier ground-breaking work on Missiology, The Witness of God, published in 2010.
John’s meticulous, broad-ranging and impressively-documented argument confronted me with the fact that the concept of apostolicity in which I had put such confidence was, firstly, a reflection of a binary produced by Catholic/Protestant polemics and, secondly, completely uninformed by the realities of world Christianity.  
By ‘world Christianity’ John means a polycentric, culturally plural and institutionally diverse communion. The pluriformity of this communion does not simply represent accidental and diverse manifestations of a stable universal.
Rather, this pluriformity is itself of material theological significance. It informs an ongoing  and dynamic view of apostolicity rather than being measured for its faithfulness to some pre-existing definition of apostolicity.
John threads various strands of evidence and argument together to reach this position. There is a close reading of key ecumenical documents beginning with the 1971 text, Apostolicity and Catholicity and extending to the recent 2013 text, The Church: Towards a Common Vision.
There is a sustained rejection of the idea of Christianity forming a fixed culture, a rejection that is built around, to a large extent, a vigorous critique of  Robert Jenson’s claim that there is. There is also a fascinating political analysis of apostolicity when John brings colonisation and apostolicity into dialogue.
John’s constructive argument builds on, among many other elements, the cultural diversity and cross-cultural encounter evident in the New Testament. 
Above all, however, he develops a Christology as that to which any concept of apostolicity must be subordinate. He argues that Jesus Christ himself is the foundation of the plurality of apostolicity.
Let me illustrate some of the strands of this argument with just a few quotations.
On the link often drawn between the church’s visibility and the apostolic universality of its structures, John writes as follows:
…isolating  the discussion of apostolicity from cross-cultural engagement permits an abstraction of ecclesiology from the concrete conditions of the church even whilst grounding the apology for that abstraction within an account of the church as a continuous visible social reality. A fundamental inconsistency is in play here. The logic of the livedness of the church community, if rigorously applied, needs to account for the richness of structures evident in world Christianity and by extension their richness through Christian history. (p.101)

John refers to Bolaji Idowu’s analysis of the Nigerian church and its deep sense of needing to become Western in order to become Christian. This leads John to reflect on the link between the ‘foreignness of Christianity’ and the process of colonization – and the ecumenical movement’s apparent blindness to this link.
It is difficult to shake the conclusion that the dominant ecumenical model for apostolicity, that of cultural continuity, mandates colonization as the method of cross-cultural missionary transmission with all that this entails for uneven power relationships, paternalism, building relationships of dependence and, finally, maintaining a state of Christian infancy (p.181).

Finally, in a wonderful chapter on the Christological foundation of apostolicity, John draws heavily on the claim that the centre and identity of church lies outside of itself precisely because its centre and identity is Jesus Christ. I quote:
The church finds its identity beyond itself, in the history of Jesus Christ. In this resides the possibility of conversion, the possibility of multiple Christian histories (p.320).
…diversity is a direct correlate of the apostolate’s Christological ground and calling – not secondary or accidental, but part of the full stature of Jesus Christ’s body (p.326).

This is a fine book. It is bound to generate controversy – and so it should. The questions are pressing ones and to neglect them would be to risk ignoring the challenges of world Christianity.
I hope, too, that this University, drawing together different traditions with diverse understandings of apostolicity, might also find ways to engage the issues which John raises. We need to do so, I believe, as the Australian church inevitably find its own life shaped to an ever greater degree by the polycentric and pluriform Christian communion of which John writes so powerfully.
It is delight to have John as a colleague and one who I’m sure, both through this book and the others which will come, will provoke and encourage us in our faith and scholarship. I warmly commend the book to all of you.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

What on earth is the Bible for?

What on earth is the Bible for?

A sermon preached in the Chapel of Queen's College, Oct 16th 2016
(Queen's is a residential college attached to the University of Melbourne)

During the week I was driving through that most tranquil of middle-to-upper class Melbourne suburbs, Ivanhoe, with its comfortable houses, trimmed gardens and tidy footpaths. Suddenly a very angry looking billboard claimed my attention. In big bold letters: “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life.” And then below that in even bolder capital letters:  “READ YOUR BIBLE.”


During the 2013 election campaign, then PM, Kevin Rudd, was questioned on Q&A by a  ‘pastor’from Queensland who challenged Rudd on the issue of same-sex marriage. The pastor claimed that he couldn’t support Rudd since his policy was ‘contrary to what the Bible says.’
A couple of years ago, Andrew Bolt, someone who is probably not often quoted in the hallowed halls of Queen’s College, wrote a column about his discovery of the fact that there are two quite different creation myths in the Bible’s first book, Genesis.  For reasons that were not clear, Bolt was troubled by the content of this discovery, and the fact that he’d only just discovered this.
* * * *
Three little cameos that remind us that notwithstanding the decline in allegiance to Christianity in Australia in recent decades, the bible still has some vague kind of cultural presence, even some kind cultural currency.
I point this out not to gloat about the fact.
In fact I find each of these cameos quite disturbing.
I am indifferent to whether or not the bible still possesses any cultural currency.
But as a Christian minister and theologian, I am not indifferent to the way the bible is used.
The angry ‘Read Your Bible’ on the billboard assumes not only that everyone has a bible but also that you can pick it up, read it and that its meaning will be obvious.
The pastor from Queensland assumes that the Bible's words are clear and unaware that the bible is a text that needs to be interpreted before it can be used in Christian teaching.
Andrew Bolt appears to assume that the Bible should be more coherent than in it is, unaware that the bible is a collection of literature which derives much of its literary power precisely from the fact that is filled with tensions and diverse voices.
If there is confusion about how to use the bible, then Christians have to bear much of the blame.
Christians have been too quick to use the bible as a ‘rule book’, a ‘guide for living’, a kind of religious encyclopaedia, some sort of compendium of doctrine, or even as a divine oracle that conveys God’s voice directly to the reader.
More disturbingly, many have used it as a battering ram to inflict their own beliefs on others or to demand others agree with them.
Of course, during the 1700 years or so that what we recognise as the Bible has existed, it has been used and misused in all sorts of ways.
In this respect its fate has been no different than that of the authoritative literature of other communities.
Think how the American Constitution is used and misused, not least in discussions on its Second Amendment. Or listen in to Marxists making contrary appeals to Marx’s writings.  Or think how different directors instruct their respective casts to perform Shakespeare.
All authoritative literature bears its authority in the midst of disputes about its interpretation.
So can we say anything about how the Bible should be used?
Are their criteria for deciding some ways are legitimate ways of using it and some are illegitimate?
Well, what bearing does tonight’s reading from the text known as 2 Tim chapter 3 have on our questions.
This is one of the texts which has often been used as a battering ram to decide the question of what the bible is for.
All scripture is inspired (or God-breathed) by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correcting and training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.
It seems rather straightforward: teaching, reproof, correction, training, being equipped.
But is it actually quite so straightforward?
In fact there are all sorts of ironies here:
What this letter was written – sometime in the second half of the first century of the Christian era, neither its author or initial readers would never have thought of this text itself as ‘scripture’. The writer wrote it and the reader read it as an exhortation to read the Israel’s own scriptures. For when this letter was written, there was no Christian bible.
It is hard to take this, therefore, as a comprehensive answer to the question of what the Christian Bible is for. 
* * * *
An answer to the question of what is the Bible must be shaped in part by our knowledge of what it is and how it came to be.
So, a few facts and figures, and a plea that you put aside Dan Brown’s DaVinci Code explanation of the  Bible as an imposition on the church by the 4th century Roman emperor Constantine.
Perhaps the most basic thing to say about the Bible is it that it is a two-volume work. The first, 37 different documents, consists of the canonical literature of the Jewish people. The second, 29 different documents, consists of the the authoritative literature of the early Christian community.
The first testament includes literature generated over perhaps a millennium, but collated in more or less its present form when Israel was held captive in Babylon during the sixth century before Christ.
This literature draws on a vast range of genres: myth, law, liturgy, proverbs, history, prophecy, apocalyptic, doctrine, tragedy, and royal ideologies.
It is held together by a cluster of convictions that God had called Israel to a special vocation for the sake of the  world, and that despite Israel’s repeatedly dire circumstances, God would be faithful to Israel, and through Israel, to the whole world.
The second testament includes literature generated over , by comparison, an incredibly short period: at most five decades in the second half of the first century. It begins to be recognised as authoritative for the later Christian community in the second and third centuries. 
This literature of the second testament draws on a much more limited range of genres:  summaries of Jesus’ life (which we called gospels), letters from various Christian leaders to various Christian communities scattered around the Mediterranean, and some sermons and apocalyptic. 
This second testament is held together by a cluster of convictions that Jesus of Nazareth was crucified and risen, and that as such was Israel’s promised Messiah.
The two volumes are put together in the one collection because of the conviction that the story of Jesus told in the second testament was the climax of Israel’s story. This, of course, is a conviction that remains contested by Jews and Christians to this day.
So, the bible didn’t just fall out of heaven.
It’s diverse literature and its collation was driven – however informally – by certain convictions about God, Jesus, creation and the world.
This, I think, helps us, to answer the question ‘what is the bible for?’
* * *
When we read the bible, we are entering into a narrative of witness to diverse views about the events and ideas which generated Christianity.
And those ideas are often in tension with each other. There are debates going on within the pages of the bible about how best to be faithful to the events to which it points.
For instance, take the verse which last year Donald Trump declared as his favourite: Exodus 21: 25.
But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.
According to press reports, he applied the verse to mean that the government should treat in kind those who have taken American jobs, money, and health.
Quite apart from the fact that Jesus invited his followers to turn their back on this teaching, Jewish scholars will say that even in its Jewish context this text is not actually a straightforward teaching of retribution in the first place. In fact, they take it as a rejection other texts which seem to condone outright retribution. So, the very presence of this text is itself a kind of argument for some form of proportional justice.
On the basis of Jesus’ teaching about this very text, however, Christians are called to an even more radical restorative justice. But the point about the Exodus text is, I hope, clear. It has a context and it reflects that Jews were debating amongst themselves the very character and nature of justice.
It is possible to offer similar readings of the New Testament material.
The mere fact that we have four gospels, each with clearly different interests, also points to the fact that the early Christians were exploring the tensions inherent in their generative cluster of convictions. And they were quite comfortable in holding them in tension.
The coherence and consistency in the Bible, the absence of which was such a disappointment to Andrew Bolt , is not what the Bible provides. And, more importantly, it is no less persuasive for that.
The Bible emerged because people were re-shaping,  or re-imagining, their worldviews on the basis of these core convictions about Jesus as Israel’s messiah.
* * *
That helps to tell us what the Bible is for. It is collection of literature into whose diversity and tensions we are invited to enter to see how our own imaginations might be re-shaped.
The Australian writer Margaret Wertheim, has said:: “From Homer to Asimov, one the functions of all great literature has…been to invoke believable ‘other’ worlds.  Operating purely on the power of words, books project us into utterly absorbing alternative realities.” She includes the bible as an example of such literature.
One theologian has developed a similar line of thought.
…Scripture [is] itself a body of literature that does not primarily describe the world but rather imagines a world, and by imagining it, reveals it,
Please note that I am not proposing a sacrificium intellectus by which we retreat to a biblical cosmology and psychology and pretend that they are adequate to our present day sense of science.  Just the opposite:  I suggest that we expand our minds by entering into the imaginative world of scripture.
…To live within this imaginative world is not to flee from reality but to constitute an alternative reality. (Luke Timothy Johnson)

To understand the bible in these terms invites us to come to it with the question, ‘What if…”  What if God does exist….. What if God has entered the world in Jesus of Nazareth... What if in him there is reconciliation and new life. What if……
Then to read the bible is to re-imagine the world,  God, and our lives as something of inherent value and grounded in the love which is at the heart of all reality.
So, instead of an angry 'Read your Bible', there is an invitation to imagine the world of God and creation that the Bible imagines. And to read the bible like this is to begin, at least in part, to read it for what it’s for. AMEN.

Friday, June 3, 2016

What are we doing when we meet as a council of the church?

This morning, as part of an orientation session for the meeting of the UCA's Synod of Victoria and Tasmania, I presented a theological overview of the nature and purpose of meeting together as a Council of the church, specifically in the UCA with its commitment to interconciliar government. It's pretty much the same presentation as I gave at the beginning of the 2014 Synod. But there is one thing that has changed in my own thinking since 2014. The framers of the Uniting Church long argued that their work was not simply an exercise in ecclesiastical carpentry. I've never been fully persuaded that that was actually the case with respect to church government. But in thinking a bit more about comments made by Davis McCaughey and D'Arcy Wood (both of whom were involved in writing the Basis, and both of whom subsequently served as President of the national Assembly), I 've become less sceptical. It may not be quite evident in the surface of the Basis (specifically Paragraph 15), but both these framers of the church suggest that that Paragraph needs to be read as pointing us to something subtly different from what had been the practices of any of the uniting Churches or from any combination of those practices. It's worth trying to read that paragraph through the filter of that subtle nuance.

The text of the presentation is available here.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Zero Dark Thirty and the Morality of Revenge


A sermon preached in the chapel of Queen's College in the University of Melbourne as part of a Film Text series of sermons.
Film: Zero Dark Thirty
Biblical Text: Romans 12: 9-21

Theme: The Morality of Revenge

* * * * * * *

Zero Dark Thirty is a very dark film. It tells a very dark story.
Deception, torture, murder, children traumatised.

Yet the film is itself a chapter in a larger story of apparent triumph: the American killing of Osama bin Laden.

In the film, and in fact, the sheer darkness of the story was vanquished by the light that apparently came with the national – and indeed – international – celebration of bin Laden’s demise.

The film plays its own role in American patriotism – and made a lot of money for its producers in doing so.
As a Hollywood product, the film is, of course, embedded in a matrix of power, money and politics – an extension of the national matrix of  power money and politics.
Located in that matrix, Zero  Dark Thirty  is an one act in the drama of the politics of triumph – or more precisely the politics of revenge.


I lost no sleep over the death of Osama bin Laden.  Indeed, I recall responding to the news of his demise with a sense of relief and satisfaction. Although as to what exactly drove that relieve and satisfaction, I’m not quite sure.

I’ve also greatly enjoyed watching the dramatised and idealised version of the hunt for and murder of the leader of Al Qaeda. For the sheer force and the intricacies of its cloak and dagger plot, Zero Dark Thirty is riveting.
It’s the story of a young CIA operative (the character presented in the film apparently a composite character of several actual operatives) picking up the minutest of clues from a tortured Al Qaeda leader and running with it. She runs with it against suspicion, sexism and fear – all the way to the chief of the CIA – and through him to President Obama.

And I admit, I enjoyed watching it – its cloak and dagger rhythms and edge-of-the-seat plot – despite the film’s graphic presentation of deception, torture, murder and children being traumatised. I enjoyed it, also notwithstanding the fact that the director seemingly made no attempt to interrogate the morality of the deception, torture and murder. The film itself seems not to make any explicit moral statement. It simply echoes the morality of the political and patriotic decisions which produced this story.

And that, of course, raises a moral question in itself. How is it that we can find violence entertaining?

But that’s not the question I want to wrestle with tonight. In fact, there are a couple of alternative questions I’d like to put out there.

* * * *
I’ve already suggested that the film itself is a chapter in a larger story of revenge. It’s a celebration of the revenge that a nation took on one by whom it had been attacked.

Of course, for many, this was not revenge but justice. So, what is the difference between justice and revenge? Can something be an act of revenge but also just?

The other question is one that I must ask as a Christian. Even as I took that quiet satisfaction at Bin Laden’s demise, and even as I enjoyed the cloak and dagger plot of Zero Dark Thirty, I have some well-known words of Jesus echoing in my ears.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, ‘Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.’” (Matt 5:38-39)

But also echoing in my ears are the words of the early Christian leader, Paul, in the passage we’ve heard tonight. In a teaching which surely echoes Jesus, Paul instructs his readers:
“Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.  … Never avenge yourselves.” (Rom 12:17, 19) 
How might a Christian shaped by these teachings respond to Zero Dark Thirty and the story it tells?

Well, let’s pause from these questions and watch the trailer for the film – either to jog your memory or to give you a bit of feel for the film if you haven’t seen it. (You can watch the trailer here.)
* * * *
Of course, the trailer spares us the torture which makes the mission possible in the first place. And it also spares us the film’s climax.

The moment of climax is this: Bin Laden has already been shot. His wife is screaming. One of the marines takes aim at Bin Laden again, pummelling further bullets into his body. And then this same marine declares: “For God and country.”

And this was no script writer’s embellishment. From all accounts, these are the very words which rippled through the airwaves all the way to the White House to confirm the success of the mission.

And, of course,  those four words were an echo: the cry of Allah Akbar which we can imagine the Al Qaeda pilots declared as they guided their planes into the World Trade Centre a decade before.

Those two cries – 10 years apart – each its own declaration of triumph: a triumph in the name of God. 

Each cry so contrary to Paul’s exhortation: “Do not repay evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all”
Invoking God in violence is not unusual – monarchs and Generals,  presidents, patriots and priests have done it from time immemorial. To invoke God is to invoke the ultimate sanction of one’s violent cause.

Yet vast tracts of the Christian tradition are by and large deeply troubled by such invocations – and the teachings of Jesus and Paul we have already heard are the basic reasons for that.

"Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.”

Certainly in contemporary Christian ethics, ideas of retributive justice are seen to be basically unChristian. Yes, even though that same passage of Paul says something like, ‘Leave room for the wrath of God’. (And, that sentence warrants a sermon on its own.)

But it is nevertheless, a fundamental element of early Christian conviction that the ultimate moral ordering of the universe was God’s prerogative. Christians could not play God in terms of judging others.

And the resistance to revenge, to repaying evil for evil, is not a belief unique to Christians. Long before Jesus, Plato, for instance, had departed from Homeric values and argued that vengeance was always unjust.

Yes, it is true that some modern philosophers draw a distinction between revenge and retribution – revenge being emotive and retribution being a constrained but necessary response to evil.
But most contemporary social and legal theorists regard retributive justice as problematic. It is seen to be a vehicle for perpetuating violence. And so, in matters of justice, contemporary Western societies have a developed orientation to theories and practices of restorative justice prevails.

But can restorative justice be applied to disputes carried out on a global scale? Could restorative justice ever been applied to the relationship between the US and Al Qaeda? Was there ever any hope of it after9/11? Was there any ever hope of it after the murder of Bin Laden. Is there any hope of it today between the West and ISIS?

Are there disputes so deep, so embedded in violence, that restorative justice is simply naïve? Are there disputes so deeply mutually destructive that hopes for restorative justice will simply evaporate?

And are there disputes so embedded in violence, so mutually destructive, that the Christian invocation ‘not to pay evil for evil but to take thought for what is noble in the sight of all’ is not only naïve but also an expression of  indifference to the realities of violence and destruction.

Whilst historically you could make an argument that Christian teaching has helped Western societies develop notions of restorative justice and to have put in check some ideas of retributive justice, that Christian influence has not checked the world’s history of violence

 And when some Christians have been prepared to invoke God to sanction their nation’s violence, thy only make the problem worse. The marine standing over Bin Laden declaring, ‘For God and Country’, is hardly an isolated story in the history of war and terror.
Is it not the case that humanity seems trapped in a endless cycle of violence. Indeed, even an ever ascending spiral of violence? War, domestic violence, bullying, terror, colonial and imperial dispossession. 

Every generation seems to think it has reached some threshold of violence only to see that threshold broken by some yet more terrible horror.

Perhaps films such as Zero Dark Thirty keep that spiral spinning. It whets our appetite for the story of the world’s violence.

What then of Jesus’ teaching of turning the other check? What of Pauls’ echo of that teaching with his exhortation not to repay evil with evil?

The first thing that perhaps needs to be said is that Paul wasn’t addressing leaders of nations or policy makers. He was addressing a small group of first century Christians about how they should relate to each other and to those who were giving them grief.

It’s a reminder that the Bible is a book for Christians. Only by historical accident did it assume a kind of de facto cultural authority in the history of the West. (Remember, the next time you see someone quoting the Bible on Q&A telling this or that politician how to develop policy, you can be sure they are misusing it.)

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What then is the status of this Christian teaching in a violent world, and in a world (a world that includes people like you and me) which is happy to be entertained by films about the story of the world’s violence?
“Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”
For me, it is best understood as a dissenting voice. A voice that interrupts our dominant narrative about violence. A voice that resists the quest for revenge.  A voice that says no to soldiers and terrorists whenever they declare either ‘For God and Country’ or ‘Allah Akbar’.

It is also a realistic voice. Listen to something else in this exhortation from Paul: “If it is possible, as far as it depends you, live at peace with everyone.”  If it is possible.

Sometimes it is not possible. Perhaps this recognition explains why pacifism has never quite won over the totality of the Christian tradition – even though it is an honoured and authoritative element of that tradition.
Be that as it may, this note of realism is at least a kind of concession to forces that we can’t control.

What we can control is how we understand the use of violence in an inevitably violent world. It is a tragic consequence of whatever it is that is wrong with the human condition – what Christian call sin.

It must always be an act for which those humans who exercise it must take responsibility. No soldier, no president, no general, no priest, no terrorist can legitimately claim that God is on their side.
They can never claim that God sanctions revenge. They can never claim ‘For God and country’. That is what the Christian tradition calls blasphemy.

Zero Dark Thirty, for all its embellishments, tells a true story. It really happened. It has taken this powerful story of geo-political revenge into popular culture. It has allowed some to celebrate that story; others to be troubled by it. Christians will vary in their view of the morality of the act of killing Bin Laden. And they will vary in their view of the morality of making a film about it.

They will vary their view of how widely restorative justice can be employed in this violent world.
But, it seems to me, Christians who watch this film, and reflect on the story it tells of the world’s violence, must at least spend some time reflecting on the words of Paul: “Do not repay evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with one another.”  AMEN.