Humility and Courage
Speaker: The Rev'd Geoffrey M. St J. Hoare
I have been enjoying Alex Ryrie’s book called Protestants: The Faith that Made the Modern World. It touches on all the great figures but is really more of a history of Protestantism as a movement from Reformation to our own day. One of the points he makes in his introduction, and which is borne out throughout the book, is that Protestantism has proven enduring by virtue of its flexibility and adaptability in varying historical circumstances. The downside of this flexibility and adaptability is that all too often Protestant theology has been used in the service of violence, world wars, racial purity, slavery and apartheid to name a few. We have heard some Protestants declare natural disasters to be God’s judgment on this or that. God spare our friends in Texas from that kind of nonsense. It is also true that Protestant theology has been in the forefront of challenging the very evils espoused by others and frequently instrumental in bringing about their end. Certainly, that was true of William Wilberforce and the evangelicals who brought an end to the slave trade.
Here is how it worked in the instance of apartheid in South Africa. The Afrikaner National Party developed, in part, to secure and promote Afrikaner identity which was threatened in some respects by the British conquest of South Africa and subsequently by the fall of the Nazis (somewhat admired by many Afrikaners) at the end of the Second World War. Ryrie acknowledges that “Apartheid was of course more about money, power and fear than it was about religion.” The white minority that controlled most of the land, industries, mines and cities feared that if they loosened their grip, the result would be that they would be swept away in a tide of resentment. But they also needed to believe at some level –as is true of all of us-- that what they were doing was right and good and holy. Apartheid was justified theologically based on the clear and obvious Biblical principle that diversity is God’s will. The Hebrew Scriptures not only make that obvious but also implies that the primary unit of that diversity is the nation. Ryrie writes: “A nation is a spiritual entity, defined by its common culture and way of life. It is easy to conclude that not only nations themselves but their cultures are created by God, and it is their duty to preserve those cultures to the glory of the God who created them.” It was a small step for the threatened Afrikaner “nation” to see the Bantu or South African blacks as a separate “nation”. The principle was enshrined in the Dutch Reformed Church by a group of theologians from Stellenbosch University who saw themselves as promoting Christian values including a ban on interracial marriage. Ryrie comments: “It was possible to say, with a straight face, that none of this was about racism.”
I share this because it is all too easy for us to condemn such thinking with hindsight while being blind to the theologies that are in the air we breathe and which shape our responses to all manner of challenges today. One of those is sometimes called the ‘myth of redemptive violence’ or the idea that violence is somehow part of God’s plan and purpose for the world. The violence I am talking about takes many forms from bullying and coercion to capital punishment and war. Certainly, the Hebrew Scriptures are filled with examples of how God allegedly used bloodshed to bring about godly purpose. But it is also the case that we can see theological development over the historical periods covered by our Old Testament in all kinds of ways, some of them finding their culmination in the story of Jesus. Today we read: “Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering…and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” It is that ‘must’ about which we have to be careful. I suspect that the majority of our co-religionists hear the word ‘must’ as meaning that Jesus’ suffering and death is somehow desired by God, planned by God or otherwise brought about by God in order to secure some greater good. This is the theology that hears “Jesus died for our sins” as “Jesus died in our place to save us from the consequences of our sins.” Somehow the proper response of God to sin is understood to be violent punishment and death. This theology believes that God brings about this ghastly story as the means by which we can have eternal life and avoid the eternal punishment we deserve because Jesus took the chop for us at Calvary. If you believe this and believe that such a God is worthy of worship, then it is a very small step to justifying all manner of violence as somehow right and good and holy.
I do not believe that the word ‘must’ in our gospel implies that what has to happen is of God. I believe that ‘must’ is an inevitable consequence of Jesus’ life of absolute integrity (which our tradition calls being ‘without sin’). Jesus’ confrontation with the powers that would keep the poor in their place and govern who and what is righteous will lead inevitably to his violent death as a kind of scapegoat at the hands of the authorities. Part of what happens in the story of Jesus is that our violent ways of managing our anxieties are unveiled or shown for what they are and so part of our salvation because we are freed from the necessity of continuing the cycle of believing the violence can ever be redemptive. ‘Jesus died for our sins’ becomes not ‘died in our stead as a substitute for us’ but rather ‘died as a consequence of our sins as a participant in our lives making possible a new way of living.’
The God revealed here is the same one shown to Moses from the burning bush: Yahweh which means something like ‘I am who I am’ or ‘I am who I’m becoming’ or ‘I’m becoming who I am.’ In other words, God is shown to be a God that cannot be governed or controlled or used as a tool in our theological justifications that make wrong into right. This is the God, the motivating and Holy Spirit behind the Anglican resistance to Apartheid under the leadership of Trevor Huddleston in the 1950s and Desmond Tutu in the 1980s. It is that same Spirit that led the Dutch Reformed Calvinist colleagues throughout the world to get clear about the evils of apartheid, with the World Alliance of Reformed Churches declaring in 1982 “that apartheid is a sin, and that the moral and theological justification of it is a travesty of the gospel, and in its persistent disobedience to the Word of God, a theological heresy.”
Resistance to norms that seem acceptable to so many requires both the courage of our convictions and, at the same time, profound humility in the recognition that we too could be wrong. Both courage and humility are necessary for those who would “deny themselves and take up their cross and follow in the way that Jesus has led. The implications of this understanding of the gospel are many and are the stuff of sermons yet to come, classes yet to be taught and books yet to be written. For now, in our time of silence for prayer, can we recommit ourselves to the way of non-violence whenever possible and determine anew to act on our most cherished beliefs with both courage and humility in the days to come. In silence and in response to the gospel, let us pray…
 Alex Ryrie, Protestants: The Faith that Made the Modern World (Random House 2017) p. 568 in the electronic version.
 Ibid., p.569
 Ibid., p.573
 Ibid., p.589