Vinoth Ramachandra

Archive for December 2017

Christmas is about human exclusion as much as divine solidarity. “He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.” (John 1:11)

A couple excluded from the hotels and guest-houses of their home town, and later forced to flee as refugees from state persecution. A child who is excluded from his community and eventually from life itself, dying in solidarity with all who suffered the shame of crucifixion.

The best way to celebrate Christmas, therefore, is to reflect on- and repent of – the way we exclude other people and other voices from intruding on our comfortable existence.

I think today, Christmas Eve, especially of my Palestinian Christian brethren. They are caught in a vulnerable position between, on the one hand, an aggressive Israeli settler movement (backed up by an occupation army) and an equally aggressive Islamist militancy, on the other. Rarely, if ever, are their voices heard in mainstream secular news media.

The only exposure to Palestinians on “Christian” news channels is of stone-throwing children or the remains of suicide-bombers. How humiliated Palestinian Christians must feel by constant references on the part of Western Christians to “the Holy Land” (a sentimental phrase that is not found in the Bible) combined with a wilful ignorance of history and a fundamentalist abuse of “biblical prophecy”. The global Church needs to listen to their voice.

Any student of Middle Eastern history is familiar not only with the shameful story of European colonial interference in that part of the world, but also the tragic influence of “dispensationalist theology” (promoted by the Scofield Bible, Moody Bible Institute, Andover-Newton and Dallas theological seminaries) on American and British policy-makers in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Several of them, including Lord Balfour (author of the infamous Balfour declaration of 1917) were influenced by such theology, believing that the creation of a Jewish state would hasten the “return of Christ”. Such influence has continued under Benjamin Netanyahu who has frequent contact with Christian Zionist churches in the US as well as the so-called International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem.

It is now approaching 70 years since the creation of the state of Israel, and there is still no “return of Christ.”

I said in an earlier post (“A New Reformation”, 24 July 2017) that some exported forms of American Christianity pose a far bigger threat to the cause of the Gospel in the world than Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist persecution. This is because it undermines the moral and intellectual integrity of the Church. The misuse of the Bible by those claiming to be “Bible-believing Christians” is, I believe, more dangerous than ridicule of the Bible by atheists; for it turns away thoughtful non-Christians.

All that is necessary to debunk Christian Zionism is to show that (a) “the land” is not mentioned even once in the New Testament; (b) all Old Testament texts, promises and concepts (such as “Israel”) are to be read by Christians through the lens of the New Testament; and, therefore, (c) Christians have no theological stake in Jerusalem but instead look towards the New Jerusalem that is to come (cf. Heb. 11:13-16; Rev.21, 22).

What many Christian Zionists also fail to realise is that there are many more Jews living outside Israel than in the state of Israel; that many among them have decisively rejected Zionism as a political ideology; and that there is a courageous human rights movement within Israel itself, that is deeply critical of Netanyahu’s policies and of human rights abuses by Jewish settlers and the Israeli army.

A sane Palestinian Christian voice that needs to be heard by the Church worldwide is that of Munther Isaac, a Lutheran pastor in Bethlehem- ironically, the very town/village where the Christmas story begins. Several of his talks are available on Youtube, and I commend especially his talk “Christian Zionism as Imperial Theology”, given at the Christ at the Checkpoint conference in 2016.

As for the decisive rejection by the UN General Assembly of Trump’s and his acolyte Nikki Haley’s bullying tactics, best commentary I have read on this is by Hamid Dubashi, a well-known Middle Eastern scholar at New York’s Columbia University.

I wish all my American friends would read this. But I know that some will refuse, because it unsettles. That is the tragedy of Christmas.

In politics rhetoric, while a necessary skill, usually misleads. For instance, no country that carries the title “democratic” and/or “socialist” is either democratic or socialist in any meaningful sense.

Similarly, the United States and the United Kingdom are not only deeply divided politically, but are the most economically unequal among all the industrially developed (OECD) states. That economic inequality keeps widening at a terrifying pace every year. The wealthiest family in the US (the Wallmart owners) have assets amounting to $90 billion, which is the same as the combined income of the 40% poorest Americans or 120 million people.

Last week not only saw the U.S Senate endorse Trump’s egregious tax cuts for the rich (who hide their taxes in secret offshore havens, anyway), but also the resignation of the entire Board of the UK’s Commission on Social Mobility. The reason for the resignation given by the Commission Chair was the massive and frustrating gulf between political rhetoric and political action when it came to addressing the glaring inequalities in British society.

Those of us who were transiting in airport lounges last week would have been subjected to the unavoidable, relentless CNN barrage about Michael Flynn and the Mueller investigation into possible Russian involvement in the Trump campaign. All other news took a back seat. Why should the world care about Russian involvement in American presidential elections when the US has been interfering in the elections of several countries since the Cold War, even to the point of liquidating politicians thought dangerous to American interests?

Just take the case of Nicaragua. The Reagan administration armed and helped train the Contra rebels who were seeking to oust the democratically-elected Sandanista government. The Contras were hand-in-glove with Nicaraguan drug lords, from whom they got the funds to buy weapons from the CIA. The CIA, in turn, protected the drug lords from US law enforcement agencies while they sold crack cocaine on the streets of Los Angeles and other American cities. The Contra conspiracy was eventually exposed and Reagan’s plans failed. But his “war on drugs” achieved its real goal of removing young African-Americans from inner-city ghettos and incarcerating them instead.

When I asked the former leader of an American university Christian organization to help promote my books among his staff, he replied, “I am frustrated that my staff are not reading books”. But, then, he added, “There are also things in your writings that many Americans find difficult to accept.” I was rather taken aback and could only manage a weak riposte, “There are many things in the New Testament that I find difficult to accept!” But accept I must, or else I die.

Talking of death, my beloved wife, Karin, seems to be in the terminal phase of her cancer. We don’t know how much longer she has, but we are thinking of weeks and months rather than years. My prayer is that she will live the last days of her life the way she has always lived: with a clear mind, loving Jesus and caring for others, always reading books and learning, enjoying beauty in creation- and, of course, with minimal pain.

We have just celebrated our nineteenth wedding anniversary. What drew us together was a shared vision of the Christian life, which included a passion for social justice and an insatiable appetite for learning. We begin each day together with a time of Bible meditation and intercessory prayer, and instinctively seek to view the world and its unfolding events “from the underside”, to use Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s evocative phrase.

Karin often points out that the typical Christian books on suffering coming from the West deal with the middle-class questions, “Why Me?”, “Why do Bad Things Happen to Good People?” Suffering is an uncomfortable intrusion into an otherwise comfortable existence. But for the vast majority of humanity, suffering is an everyday reality that only makes the world’s headlines when a natural calamity exposes a gross injustice that has been festering unchecked for decades.

Ironically, I had to speak on “Hope in Christ” at an East Asian student conference in Korea in August (you can watch the video at https://vimeo.com/235359504/022027a994). I said nothing new, let alone original, but Karin loved the way I had put it all together and was moved to tears by it. She has been my biggest fan as well as most perceptive critic.

Now it is time for me to walk the talk.


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