Saturday, 23 September 2017

Reflections on Jonah 3:10-4:11 (For Peace Sunday - 24th September 2017)

I wrote this reflection on Jonah as a contribution to the Fellowship of Reconciliation's resources for Peace Sunday 2017.

Jonah 3:10-4:11 (NRSV)

10 When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.


Jonah’s Anger

But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord and said, ‘O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.’ And the Lord said, ‘Is it right for you to be angry?’ Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city.
The Lord God appointed a bush,[a] and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush. But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, ‘It is better for me to die than to live.’


Jonah Is Reproved

But God said to Jonah, ‘Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?’ And he said, ‘Yes, angry enough to die.’ 10 Then the Lord said, ‘You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labour and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. 11 And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?’


God calls Jonah to give a prophetic message to violent empire – The wickedness of Nineveh, as the capital of the Assyrian Empire, was its violence and injustice. Israel, and therefore Jonah, regarded the Assyrian Empire as an evil and brutal enemy. Violence and injustice brings its own destruction. It does not require God’s intervention (see Matt. 26:52), whereas repentance from violence and injustice leads to an abundant life. God asks Jonah to call the people of Nineveh to repent of their evil ways and, although he tries to avoid such a difficult and dangerous job, in the end he is successful.

God reveals divine Justice as unconditional love and forgiveness – God’s generous love and forgiveness extends to all people, even those we regard as unworthy or evil (see Ps. 145:7-8 and Matt. 20:1-16). This is what makes God perfect (see Matt. 5:43-48). What does this story tell us about God’s justice? Is it characterised by violent condemnation and punishment or by nonviolent mercy and forgiveness? Is God merely a tribal deity, only concerned about ‘us’, or is God the loving and nonviolent parent of all people and all creation?

Jonah shows us that we find God’s merciful justice hard to accept – As humans, we tend to desire revenge and punishment, rather than mercy and forgiveness. We happily accept God’s love and forgiveness for ourselves but recoil when such love and forgiveness is shown to ‘undeserving’ others. If, like Jonah and Israel, we have benefited from God’s mercy and care (see Jonah 1:17, 2:10 and 4:6, Exodus 16:2-15), should we not respond by offering such mercy and care to others, even those we regard as unworthy or evil? Like Jonah, Jesus was called to bring God’s call for repentance to the very heart of a violent and unjust empire. Unlike Jonah, however, Jesus consistently revealed the nature of God’s justice as unconditional love and forgiveness (see Luke 23:34).

In Summary – The book of Jonah characterises human brokenness in terms of violence, hatred and a lack of mercy – justice understood as violent retribution. The solution to this problem is God’s unconditional love and mercy – justice understood as nonviolent and restorative. This kind of justice is revealed most clearly in the way of Jesus. When we divide the world into ‘us’ and ‘them’ and expect God to forgive and bless ‘us’ while condemning and destroying ‘them’, we perpetuate the very spirit of evil that makes life a hell on earth for so many people. Jonah was spectacularly successful as a prophet, but he simply couldn’t accept the nonviolent and merciful nature of God’s justice.

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Book Review - 'Transnational Networks and Cross-Religious Exchange in the Seventeenth-Century Mediterranean and Atlantic Worlds: Sabbatai Sevi and the Lost Tribes of Israel' by Brandon Marriott

This review was first published in Quaker Studies (Volume 21, Issue 2, 2016)

In this detailed and interesting book, Brandon Marriott attempts to trace the transmission of news and rumours across Europe, the Levant and the Americas between 1648 and 1666 in the context of heightened Jewish messianic and Christian apocalyptic expectations. He shows how these stories and rumours were often transformed as they were transmitted and how their reception and interpretation differed in specific geographical locations and religious communities. Marriott notes that ‘historians know a good deal about the global flow of trade, but are just beginning to consider the global circulation of information’ (p.134). His work seeks to contribute to this emerging research and ‘responds to the calls by historians for the study of history from a larger perspective’ (p.8). The book is written in a dense but accessible style and is primarily addressed to an academic audience. It will be of particular interest to scholars of history, religious ideas, interfaith relations and print culture within the early modern period. The book includes an introduction and conclusion, four main chapters, one of which focuses explicitly on a Quaker theme, a concise index, an extensive bibliography of archival, primary and secondary sources, and a helpful parallel timeline covering each of the main regions considered (the Americas, Iberia and Italy, Northern Europe and the Levant). The four central chapters of the book each deal with a specific case study. Chapter one explores claims emerging in the late 1640s that the Lost Tribes of Israel had been discovered hidden in the Jungles of South America. Chapter two focuses on the story which circulated in the late 1650s about the ‘Quaker messiah’ James Nayler. Chapter three considers the rumour that spread widely during the mid-1660s that Mecca had been sacked by the Lost Tribes of Israel. Finally, chapter four addresses the story of Sabbatai Sevi, a Sephardic rabbi living in the Ottoman Empire who claimed to be the Jewish messiah but later converted to Islam.

Marriott’s careful plotting of information transmission during this period reveals a number of important insights. He notes how a vigorous print culture, the emergence of a news industry and the development of global mercantile and scientific networks enabled a major expansion of the production, transmission and circulation of information. Indeed, this seems to have resulted in a bewildering experience of information overload, where a deluge of news and rumours often proved disorientating for its recipients. The circulation of misinformation was particularly pervasive at this time and could link individuals and groups across national, religious and continental divides. This included ‘the intertwining of Jewish, Christian and Islamic eschatological beliefs against the background of an increasingly global exchange of news and rumours’ (p.132). However, direction of travel and influence were not symmetrical. Marriott concludes that, while news from the Ottoman Empire spread across Europe, news from Europe and the Americas was less likely to travel in the other direction. Similarly, he concludes that events in the Jewish world often had a strong impact on Christian communities, whereas Jews appeared to have been relatively unaffected by news coming from the Christian world. In addition, the way news was received and interpreted depended to a large degree on the characteristics of local religious cultures. Amsterdam was a place of religious toleration, and so information could be discussed openly by Jews and Christians and such cross-religious interactions promoted millenarian and messianic ideas. In Italy, on the other hand, such information was interpreted quite differently because Italian Catholicism was not inclined to apocalyptic speculation. In Germany, instead of generating excitement, messianic Jewish rumours provoked great fear, due to the spectre of the ‘Red Jews’ within German culture, who were regarded as an epochal threat to Christendom.

A key benefit of conducting history from a larger perspective is that it enables us to see connections and trends that are not necessarily discernible at the micro-level. However, such a big picture perspective can also mean that the nuances and complexities of a particular situation are neglected. Marriot’s treatment of the James Nayler story reveal this limitation. He helpfully demonstrates how the story spread more widely within Europe and the Americas than had been previously thought. However, he tends to take the version of events that was formulated and circulated by anti-Quaker sources at face value. Indeed, he suggests that the messianic claim made in Bristol in 1656 may well have been prompted by the impact of Rosicrucian and Fifth Monarchist ideas on Nayler and his followers. His justification for this claim is the connection that existed between Martha Symonds, one of Nayler’s followers, and Giles Calvert, who published tracts by these groups. This proposition fails to take account of a number of important factors. Firstly, it under-estimates the fiercely sectarian nature of radical religion in the 1650s. Quakers defined themselves very clearly over and against such groups. Secondly, it disregards the fact that Calvert was the principal publisher of tracts by a whole range of radical religious groups, including those of Friends. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it ignores a crucial feature of early Quaker theology: the belief that Christ had returned in Spirit, was available to all, and would be revealed in anyone who turned to his inward teaching and transformative power. Friends proclaimed that Christ was now appearing in his people and was mobilising them in the Lamb’s War. The idea of an individual messianic claim was therefore inconsistent with the early Quaker witness. That said, such a detailed analysis of one particular event is beyond the scope and purpose of Marriott’s research. For Quaker historians and theologians, this work offers a valuable insight into the complex cultural and religious context in which early Quaker apocalypticism developed. In particular, it should prompt further research into the cross-religious exchange that took place between Quakers and Jews in the seventeenth century.

Brandon Marriott, Transnational Networks and Cross-Religious Exchange in the Seventeenth-Century Mediterranean and Atlantic Worlds: Sabbatai Sevi and the Lost Tribes of Israel (Farham: Ashgate, 2015), pp.xiii +167. ISBN 9781472435842. Hardback, £65.

Sunday, 10 September 2017

Book Review - 'Treasury of Blessings: The Servants of Christ the King, 1943-2014' by Brian Bridge

This review was first published in The Friend in 2016.

Brian Bridge, a member of the Russian Orthodox Church and an attender at Epping Local Meeting, has written a fascinating history of an Anglican group with strong Quaker connections and affinities. The Servants of Christ the King (SCK) was formed in England during the Second World War, and adopted a practice of waiting on God in silence.

SCK was founded in 1943 as a ‘fellowship of fellowships’ with groups around the English-speaking world. The original vision was of an Anglican lay order with an evangelising focus, acting in obedience to local Anglican churches and living by a strict rule of devotion and fellowship. SCK did not become an Order, and was known instead as a ‘movement’. The primary unit of SCK was a company of between four and twenty people. There were two types of company: parochial, based in local congregations with a focus on the parish; and vocational, based in the world of work.

Bridge argues that “the basis of SCK is, put simply, to wait on God together in whatever situation a group finds itself and to obey the divine imperative if and when that was discerned” (p.viii). A company would find out what it had to do by waiting upon God in silence. In this process, careful discernment was recognised to be an essential discipline, because not every spirit is of God. “By putting the practice of waiting on God at the very centre, SCK recognised that any group which wishes to be obedient to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit must be prepared to let go of its presuppositions and to give its first attention to learning to be people whom God can guide” (p.13). In the SCK movement, small autonomous companies met to wait on God based on a conviction that there is an indivisible bond between contemplation and action. The method involved a cycle of prayer and discussion consisting of silent prayer, controlled discussion, free discussion, further silent prayer, further discussion, the testing of unanimity, the making a record and the offering of the record. Unanimous decisions were to be binding on all members of the company. However, a priest-advisor had the ultimate power of veto, indicating the movement’s obedience to the wider Anglican Church.

The founders of SCK hoped that it would reach people whom the English parish system had been unable to touch. This suggests that SCK was, at least in part, a response to the apparent decline of Christendom; “its purpose would be to recruit a sufficiency of believers for the building of a Christian England” (p.3).  The focus on companies indicated a desire to foster deep fellowship between people within an increasingly individualist culture. As we have already noted, SCK sought to bind together contemplation and action. The SCK approach aimed to encourage the ‘naturally contemplative’ to act after contemplation and the ‘naturally activist’ to practice contemplate before acting. Gonville ffrench-Beytagh, who was the Warden of SCK during the 1970s, argued that “Waiting on God does not exist only for our own spiritual advancement but is designed to explode into action” (p.133).

The SCK movement started out with much hope and enthusiasm. At the founding conference in January 1943, the practice of waiting on God in silence galvanised and gave direction to the group. By 1944, there were forty active SCK companies. In July 1953, founding member Roger Lloyd published An Adventure in Discipleship: The Servants of Christ the King, which was an important and influential exposition of the SCK way. However, although SCK companies flourished in parishes, this was not replicated in other areas, and by 1959 there were still fewer than one hundred and twenty active companies in Britain, with about one thousand members. During the 1960s, the Warden, Olive Parker, urged greater public promotion of SCK, and the movement became more ecumenical in outlook. However, it wasn’t until 1996 that a non-Anglican was appointed as Warden. During the 1970s, Gonville ffrench-Beytach attempted to expand SCK by drawing inspiration from the emerging charismatic movement and renewed interest in the mysticism of the Eastern Church. However, although it had been a youthful movement in the early days, by the 1970s, SCK’s membership was aging. In 2005, SCK appointed its last Warden, Wendy Robinson, and by 2013, the organisation had no treasurer and the average age of its remaining office-holders was over eighty. Robinson arranged for Rowan Williams to speak at the final SCK conference in 2014, but sadly died before this could happen. It is clear that the evangelical objectives of the SCK founders’ vision had not been realised.

Although Bridge asserts that the Quaker influence on SCK was “indirect and had already been filtered and adapted to an Anglican understanding of church and sacraments before SCK began” (p.59), many interesting similarities and interconnections can be observed, the most obvious being that both groups have given a central place to waiting on God in silence as a practice of corporate discernment. This is also linked to a shared conviction that contemplation leads to divine guidance, spiritual empowerment and action in the world, and that no decision should be taken without unity or unanimity. The concept of ‘concern’ has been important to both groups. However, while Friends understand concern as an individual calling, in SCK, it was seen in terms of a whole-company vocation. In addition to the similarities, the involvement of a number of individuals further reveals the connections. Edmund Morgan, who was later Bishop of Southampton and Truro, and one of the founders of SCK, met Quakers at Woodbrooke when he was the Warden of the College of the Ascension in Selly Oak, Birmingham. In 1934 he brought together a small group of college staff to meet for shared worship, discernment and decision-making using the Quaker method. Over the years, a number of SCK Wardens have had Quaker connections. Robin Bennett was appointed as Warden in 1984. He was an Anglican Priest, but became a Quaker during his term of office. Two other Wardens, Brian Bridge (appointed in 1996) and Wendy Robinson (appointed in 2005) had both been Friends and later joined the Russian Orthodox Church.

The SCK story highlights a range of issues which are relevant to Quakers and the wider Christian church. These include the dynamic tension between individual spiritual freedom and accountability to the wider community, between the autonomy of individual groups and loyalty to a larger corporate body, between spiritual openness and pre-determined purposes and between contemplation and activism. In addition, the experience of SCK raises a key question about inclusivity. Can this kind of discipline include everyone or is it only suitable for those with a special vocation? Similarly, is this sort of practice only meaningful within a religious context, or can it be applied within other settings? Finally, this history of SCK makes a valuable contribution to the on-going story of small religious groups who feel called to a dedicated practice of prayer and discipleship. This includes, amongst others, the monastic orders, Anabaptist congregations, Quaker meetings and Methodist classes and bands. I recommend this book which is published as a quality hardback, sold at a paperback price.

Bridge, Brian (2016) Treasury of Blessings: The Servants of Christ the King, 1943-2014 (York Publishing Services), £10.00.