Sermon: November 20 2016 (Christ the King)

This sermon was delivered at Queen’s College, Oxford for evensong.

1 Sam 8.4-20
John 18.33-37
It’s been a rough year. Remember when the most heartbreaking thing about 2016 were the deaths of beloved celebrities?

And then Brexit happened. Look, I don’t care how you voted, and how you justified it to yourself to help you sleep at night, but that referendum dug up some proper ugliness in this country. The campaign disregarded facts, and exploited the insecurities of the economically marginalised in an effort to scapegoat people who looked and sounded different from the nostalgic visage of old Britannia. The aftermath included a burst of hate crime, against ethnic and religious minorities; it did not include more funding to the NHS.

Sovereignty!, we demanded. Whatever the hell that means. What I know is that life got a whole lot worse for immigrants and ethnic minorities over here. It’s hard not to take that personally.

And then Trump happened. And that was much worse.

Freedom!, our American cousins are wont to cry. Whatever the hell that means. What I know is that the Ku Klux Klan are celebrating over there, and diverse groups of people—immigrants, Muslims, Blacks, Hispanics, LGBTQ folk—are being intimidated, harassed, and even assaulted. Far from being the promised champion of the working class, Donald Trump has now populated his transition team with corporate consultants and lobbyists. If the swamp has been drained, it is being refilled with orange Kool-Aid.

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Christians almost invariably say insipid things about politics. The sovereignty of God, for example, is often used as a means to justify the current regime. Vox Populi, vox Dei, and therefore Donald J. Trump is God’s chosen, who works in mysterious ways. Render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar, for Christ’s Kingdom is not of this world, we say, as a convenient means to disengage from political action. But such sloganising—such memefication—is tantamount to the abuse of theological language. Make no mistake: there can be nothing Christian about casual and convenient complicity with bigotry and bullying.

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The Bible is iffy on the relationship between Church and State.

The First Book of Samuel narrates Yahweh’s—or, should we say, Samuel’s—displeasure at the shift from theocracy to monarchy. But it is not as though Israel became a secular state. Samuel is told to listen to the people…but also to tell them what they want. Samuel: the Steve Jobs of ancient Israelite realpolitik.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have Jesus, a Jew in Roman-occupied Palestine: he couldn’t be further from the centre of political power than Samuel was at its heart. There was no king but Caesar, and his vassals, including Herod’s family, who reigned over Judea at the pleasure of his majesty the Emperor.

Are you the King of the Jews? There was, of course, no such thing at the time. Herod the Great, to whom the title once belonged, was long dead, and his jurisdiction split among his male offspring: no surprises there. It was, in that sense, a trick question.

My kingdom is not from this world. There it is: the prooftext of Christian political apathy, which is really not so different from hipster cynicism. We are above the fray, too cool to believe that government can ever be anything but a stumbling block to be overcome by clicking things, or whatever people do these days.

And yet: You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.

With that, Jesus seems to come back to Samuel’s position. This political criminal, with the nerve to claim that—unlike the Herodians whose titles even required the Caesarian stamp of approval—the Christ’s kingship is his birthright, is truth itself, and we had better heed his voice.

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The Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe. That’s what this feast day is called, just in case we had any doubts about the scope of our moral and political concerns. You would be forgiven for mistakenly thinking that the Church is only interested in where one puts one’s genitals, given her well-publicised obsessions.

This is not to say that the Church should be the Labour-Party-at-Prayer. The sovereignty of Christ relativizes all our group alignments, whether to political party or nation-state or ethnic group, or even family. We are first members of Christ’s body, who was crucified and is now seated at the right hand of God the Father. And, even as the Feast of Christ the King marks the end of the Church’s year, Christ is our end, our goal, our bottom line; there can be no other. Therefore, Christian political action cannot be a means to any other end, least of all grasping for political power for ourselves. Rather, if Christ is our goal, then our political action—our voting, our campaigning, our protesting—must embody Christ, whose mission was to the poor and marginalised and oppressed, who gave himself up for their sake.

If Christ is King, we cannot vote to prosper ourselves at the expense of the poor and needy, either here or abroad.
If Christ is King, we cannot vote to take the lives of anonymous others far, far away, just to make us feel safe.
If Christ is King, we cannot vote to restore some imagined past, excluding those who fail to look or sound like us.
If Christ is King, we must stand with and for the poor, the marginalised, the oppressed, long before we fight for ourselves.

There will, of course, never be a political candidate or party or platform that is unequivocally good. After all, we are none of us unequivocally good. Christians make the mistake of thinking that our moral choices are between right or wrong, when they are in fact mostly damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t decisions. And yet, moral disengagement is not an option for us who are in the world, even though our kingdom is not from it. We are not called to be above the fray, but to be mired in the clay, to be an infant in a manger, a voice in the wilderness, leaven pervading bread, beaten and bloodied on a cross.

I make no apology to the 81% of white evangelical voters (58% of Protestants more generally and 52% of Catholics) when I say that Hillary Clinton was far and away my preferred candidate, for all the reasons I have stated, and that support for Donald Trump is unconscionable for Christians. But even had Clinton won, the Church would still have work to do, leaning, pushing against her government’s warmongering, delegating of power to corporate interests, and dilly-dallying over environmental protection.

But the next leader of the so-called free world is a buffoon who, regardless of his own views, demonstrably inspires hateful people and hateful actions. A lot of people are scared right now, and I don’t blame them. The UK and US is an increasingly hostile place for immigrants, Muslims, Blacks, Hispanics, women, LGBTQ persons. Economic disparities are ever widening here at home and elsewhere. There are a lot of vulnerable people. If Christ is our King, then our concern for the people he loves must not remain at the level of pious platitudes. Go, as we say at the end of every Mass; go in peace and love. There’s work to be done.

Sermon: November 13 2016 (Remembrance Sunday)

This sermon was delivered on Remembrance Sunday at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford.

Malachi 4:1-2a
Luke 21:5-19

What a week.
I knew a great old lady—she died just a few months ago, aged 105—and while she had no memory of the beginning of the Great War, she could remember Armistice Day. She also remembered the day she was brought by friends and family to a political rally in Bavaria, where she was on holiday in her early 20s. She was told to pay no mind to the buffoon speaking: he couldn’t possibly go far. The next year, he became the Führer.

What a week.
I remember 9/11 like it was yesterday. It’s one of those events that get seared into one’s memory. The coronation was one for many of a previous generation. The assassination of JFK. The first moon landing. The death of Diana.
I was up all night, waiting for the news that after 240 years, there would finally be a woman in the White House, leader of the free world. Given her training and experience, she was the most qualified presidential candidate in the nation’s history: the choice should have been easy. Instead, the American voting public, with the help of a bizarre electoral college system, chose a sexist, racist, xenophobic buffoon, whose ad campaign ended with two minutes of criticism of the financial establishment featuring video clips of prominent American Jews. It is no wonder that neo-Nazis and the KKK support Donald J. Trump.

I’m going to remember the morning of November 9th 2016 for the rest of my life, for all the wrong reasons.

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There is a curious ambivalence in the Bible. On one hand, there seems to be a sort of naïve optimism. The sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its rays., says the prophet Malachi. Everyone will hate you because of me. But not a hair of your head will perish. Stand firm, and you will win life., says Jesus. The same Jesus who, of course, gets arrested, beaten within an inch of his life, ridiculed, spat upon, nailed to a cross to die, and stabbed. As for his followers: by tradition (if not legend), all but St John were martyred. By the late second century, Tertullian could write that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church”. The rhetoric of triumphalism is therefore tempered, to say the least, by the reality of failure and death. Of course, the Church finally did triumph in the usual sense of the word: it became the Roman imperial religion by the later 4th century, and thereby spread both gospel and tyranny around the world. It turns out that we don’t behave well when we win.

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81% of White evangelicals voted for Donald Trump. The figures are 58% for Protestants more generally, and 52% for Roman Catholics.

If my Facebook feed is any indication—and, of course, we know what bubbles we live in—Christians say the most sanctimonious, condescending things when things like this happen. They tell us to play nice. They tell us—as, indeed, both Malachi and Jesus do—that it’ll be alright. God is still sovereign, they say; some might even say that Trump is in power only by the will of said sovereign God.

Perhaps it will be alright. But even so, this is no reason to acquiesce, to accept the new status quo. That convenient option is the luxury of those who can afford to wait for things to pan out in the long run. The convenient option is very rarely the Christian one. No. Stand firm, he says. Which is to say, don’t back down. Turn the other cheek, to be sure; speak the words given unto you, or remain silent, even as Christ himself was. But don’t you—don’t we—dare stand by, stand back and let bigotry win the day. You will win life, he says, and if his own life and death are any indication, it is the lives of others that we must put before our own.

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We must never forget the sacrifices that have been and still are made by the women and men who gave up their lives in unnecessary wars that they did not start. Today, perhaps more than ever, when we have outsourced our violence to the poor, we must not forget. It is the poorest schools that are most targeted by army recruiters. On both sides of the Atlantic, there is a socioeconomic gap between us and those whom we send to kill and die for us.

But this “not forgetting” is not a matter of entertaining pious thoughts about our grandfathers or the armed forces in the present day. Remembrance, Christianly conceived, is about changing the world. It is about changing the world so that nation shall no longer lift up sword against nation, neither shall we learn war any more.

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We have seen this kind of demagoguery before, which has pit peoples against peoples. Time and time again, we have blamed the Other for our woes. For the bubonic plague, we blamed the Jews. For the unemployment rate, we blamed the Polish. It’s the same play, over and over, sometimes even with the same characters. And the same is happening across the ditch. According to news reports, the violence has already begun, particularly against Muslim Americans. Again, this is familiar to us: Brexit was not so long ago, with its own subsequent spike in xenophobic hatefulness. Regardless of how you voted and why, we are all culpable for propping up the culture that has enabled such things. And as any social scientist worth her salt will tell you, and kindergarten teachers: violence begets violence. Therefore, the beating of swords into ploughshares, spears into pruning hooks, is not so much a symptom of the end of war as it is a remedy, a cure.

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We must not forget. And Christian remembering—eucharistic remembering—is about changing the world. Our celebration of the this most holy sacrament is, of course, our central act of remembrance and, at the same time, our central act of sacrifice, in which we are ourselves offered in Christ to be broken for the hungry and split for the thirsty.

We must not forget, but we must stand firm to win lives, allowing ourselves to lie down only if it is a laying down of ourselves for the sake of others.

This morning at Sunday School, the children were told about the brave women and men who were so brave and gave up their lives for us in times of war. And they were asked how they too could be brave. In our times, the answer could not be more obvious. We must be brave against bigotry and bullying, standing firm with and for those about whom the angry mob cries “Crucify, crucify—immigrants, Muslims, Blacks, Hispanics, LGBTQ—even if it, God forbid, inconveniences us. Their lives must win, must trump hate.

The mass ends with an exhortation to go, to go out into the world, bellies full of Christ, to go in peace, to love and serve the Lord. And what a world it is now. We have our work cut out for us.

Election Week Blues

It’s been a long week. I’ve spent much of it poring at voter demographics, reading and listening to political commentary anatomizing the election, talking and listening to my American friends, and just sort of vomiting my feelings on social media. It’s frankly unbecoming; it feels like walking into a formal meeting flushed and eyes raw with weeping. At the same time, however, I don’t want to forget how I feel now, at the disastrous end of two elections this year, the EU referendum in the UK and the Presidential election in the US. Both were very upsetting to me, and for much the same reason. They were clear messages to me that the English-speaking Western world in which I have chosen to make my home doesn’t really want me here. It’s not me personally, of course; I’m sure Brexiters and Republicans would be alright with a tax-paying academic psychologist who volunteers as Church of England priest. But the xenophobia, sexism, racism, and homophobia that characterised the political climate in both the UK and US are palpable. After Brexit, hate crimes against Europeans and Muslims rose. Right now, in the aftermath of the Trump victory, the same is happening here to immigrants, Muslims, Blacks, and others.

Here are some things I wrote, in the week of the election.

At this point, it might as well be over. From my perspective, anything but a Democratic landslide would’ve counted as a loss. Tomorrow, people will talk about how the political establishment have failed the American people, who have thus responded. And that may be true, despite the economic improvements during the Obama administration. But let’s not forget that the rhetoric of this election has been characterised by a disdain for facts, including economic facts; xenophobia; and reactionary nostalgia. Brexit, Trump, the rise of right-wing authoritarianism on the European Continent. These are not unrelated things. (Nov 9, 4.49am)

 

There had better be a fucking socialist revolution at the end of this shit tunnel. (Nov 9, 5.31am)

 

Dear white people,

It took under 24 hours for you to post links and messages about how the Trump victory isn’t “really” or “just” about sexism, racism, and xenophobia. You came up with counterfactual speculations about alternative Democratic candidates, particularly white male ones. You said it was class warfare. You blamed neo-liberalism.

Except that, it *is* about sexism, racism, and xenophobia. Maybe not “just” this, but then, no one said that. You protest too much. Some of your best friends are Black or Hispanic or Asian or queer or women. But if so, you have a funny way of showing it, by prematurely shutting down their experiences of this election.

Forgive me if my political anxieties are not primarily about the economic welfare of white people who have lost jobs because consumer goods can now be made more efficiently elsewhere. (And by the way, maybe think about that the next time you go shopping. You’re voting with your wallet.) My worries about Trump are about the minority groups he and his supporters and enablers are going to marginalise, persecute, and deride. It’s not that surprising. I’m non-White immigrant too. And judging by the experiences of others I’ve seen just in the past day, it looks like Trump-inspired prejudices have already reared their heads. (Nov 10, 8.06am)

 

It is certainly time to build bridges, to extend the arms of friendship, to embrace people different from ourselves. But might I suggest that we begin with the victims of our cultural ugliness? Ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities are being marginalised and vilified even more now than we have learnt to tolerate or ignore. (Nov 11)

 

In the past few days, I have come to feel a deep shame over what might be called the “Christian response” to the Trump victory. Not many of my friends cheered, but some certainly waved about platitudes about the “sovereignty of Christ” or even about Trump’s win being “God’s will”. They are calling vulnerable people to “accept” or “reconcile” with those who voted this bully into power. These are smug ways of appearing holy, as niceness is now our cheap imitation of holiness.

If Christianity had any moral authority left, it is responses like these that undermine it. We were called to defend the oppressed. We were called to be a city on a hill. And instead, we are cowards who are complicit with the oppressors. Instead, we hand over our ethnic, religious, and sexual minority friends to those who will persecute them. Instead, we tell victims to love their abusers, in the wholly misguided assumption that we are being like Jesus when we do so. And we rationalise, we tell ourselves stories to absolve ourselves. But we should be ashamed. I am. (Nov 11)

 

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Not being able to find very much to say that was uplifting myself, I also posted things from elsewhere:

  • Calls to actions, to support such groups as the ACLU, the NAACP, Planned Parenthood
  • Clinton’s concession speech, in which she says: “To all the little girls who are watching this, never doubt that you are valuable and powerful and deserving of every chance and opportunity in the world to pursue and achieve your own dreams.”
  • An article by a Parks & Rec writer in Leslie Knope’s voice, in which she says: “And let me say something to the young girls who are reading this. […] You are going to run this country, and this world, very soon. So you will not listen to this man, or the 75-year-old, doughy-faced, gray-haired nightmare men like him, when they try to tell you where to stand or how to behave or what you can and cannot do with your own bodies, or what you should or should not think with your own minds. You will not be cowed or discouraged by his stream of retrogressive babble. You won’t have time to be cowed, because you will be too busy working and learning and communing with other girls and women like you. And when the time comes, you will effortlessly flick away his miserable, petty, misogynistic worldview like a fly on your picnic potato salad. […] Now find your team, and get to work.”
  • Great photos of Obama, especially with kids.

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The election also pervaded my sermons and talks. I gave a long one at Christ the Saviour, Ealing Broadway, which was meant to be about psychology and the Church. Download a copy of the talk here. Similarly, my Remembrance Sunday sermon at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford is here.