The sun crossed the celestial Equator on September 22nd and the equinox brought a balance of darkness and light to the Earth. The spring (vernal) equinox promises longer days of light and warmth for the Southern Hemisphere. For the people of the Northern Hemisphere, longer nights and the chill of winter will be theirs.
The descent into darkness has been most recently witnessed in the brutal violence and destruction wreaked by members of the Somali-based al-Quaida-linked terror group, al-Shabaab in the Israeli-owned Westgate mall in Nairobi, Kenya. The group say that the attack was carried out in retaliation for the Kenyan army invading southern Somalia. Kenya is an ethnically and politically polarised country. A third of the population live in overcrowded slums with no running water or electricity and the Somali population living there has been the victim of xenophobic violence. Meanwhile, the country's President Uhuru Kenyatta and his Deputy, William Ruto, are facing trials at the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity. After the 2007 election, more than 1100 people died - burned alive, hacked to death, chased from their homes.
In the same week, the devastation and deaths of Christian worshippers at All Saints Church, Peshawar, Pakistan was carried out by two suicide bombers from a Taliban terrorist faction, vowed to kill non-Muslims until the United States cancels its lethal drone strikes on the country.
Meanwhile, here in New Zealand, many people have distracted themselves with America's Cup, the richest sailing competition in the world. In a race series costing billions of dollars, New Zealand was the unsuccessful challenger. There are those here who want to spend a proportion of tax payer's money on financing a New Zealand bid to contest the next Cup. No matter that a quarter of our children live in poverty, that parents cannot feed their families on pittances of wages, that we have one of the highest rates amongst OECD member countries for all kinds of social problems and that national churches continue to obsess about missional strategies and engage in too much parochial navel gazing.
The first Pope from the Americas, Francis, is living his own equinox. In a recent interview he has said that he wants to find 'a new balance' in the Catholic Church. Six months in, he is already effecting real change, predictably ruffling feathers.
The writer, Paul Vallely, in his recently published book, Pope Francis: Untying the Knots, describes him as an icon of assertive humility, discarding the monarchical trappings of the papacy and bringing a fundamentally new perspective to religion. Francis intends to put love before dogma, serve the poor before doctrine and eschew the small-minded rules and obsessions of the Church in favour of building an inclusive Church which is a 'home for all'. The Church must grow in its understanding and be mature in its judgement, he says. This is powerful and radical stuff, not just for the Catholic Church but for all denominational churches and faiths.
The word religion means “to bind back together”. Yet how often has religion been used to tear apart, to divorce heaven from earth, spirit from matter, one people from another? Not just in the past, but now? My colleague, the Canadian theologian, John Philip Newell, argues that,
“ At the heart of the deep fragmentations, whether as nations and wisdom traditions or as races and societies are various forms of fundamentalism... and not... simply religious fundamentalism... we think that what humanity needs is our religious dogma...our ideal of democracy... the supremacy of our race...what people need in committed relationship is our pattern of sexual orientation. And the list goes on and on.” (Newell:15)
John Philip believes that we live at a costly moment. We have to radically change the way we view ourselves and how we live with the earth and one another if we are to become one. For Christian people, he believes that Jesus is a great gift to us of revelation, but he does not show us an exclusive truth. Rather, he shows us the most inclusive of truths, that we and all things are made of God, not by God.
“ We can share Jesus humbly with the world. We can offer our treasure in love. He discloses to us what is deepest in the life of all things, the sacredness of everything that has being. He can bring to consciousness the treasure that lies buried in our depths. Our gift as Christians is not opposed to the wisdom of other religious traditions. It is given to serve the wisdom of other traditions. We do not have to compete with one another. We can complete one another ..If we miss this moment, choosing instead to continue our patterns of wronging the earth and one another, there will be a degradation of life on this planet like none we have ever known. What will we choose? Which path will we follow?” (Newell:26)
On Thursday October 4th, Pope Francis will celebrate the feast of his namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, who, in the 12th century, heard the Holy Spirit say to him, 'Francis, go and repair my Church which is falling into ruin'. In his own way and in his passion for peace, quest for simplicity and respect for creation, Francis left a legacy of spirited and loving people who have lived and continue to live and affirm the power of love and faith in action.
Isn't it time though to break up the holy huddles that can exist in our faiths and churches and cast aside the religious internal obsessions which have little or no relevance to the rest of society and the world? Only then do we have the hope of finding a way forward. It is in sharing the struggles of the world – the beauty and pain, the injustice and struggle, the violence and redeeming love, that our engaged spirituality will challenge all that oppresses and degrades the human soul.
We are not to be distracted.
Vallely, P, Untying the Knots, (Bloomsbury 2013)
Newell, JP, A New Harmony, (Jossey-Bass 2011)
Holy Ground, Liturgies and worship resources for an engaged spirituality, (Wild Goose Publications 2005)
www.freefromharm.org, Beth Levine
©Hilary Oxford Smith
30 September 2013