Salt in the world

Week of Sunday May 24
Bible: John 17:6-19

Salt is good; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? Luke 14:34

6 ‘I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. 7Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; 8for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. 9I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. 10All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. 11And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. 12While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled. 13But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves. 14I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. 15I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. 16They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. 17Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. 18As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. 19And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.

This morning's breakfast reading, courtesy of The Saturday Australian, was a series of personal reflections on the massacre at Tiananmen Square, twenty years ago. At that time, Bob Hawke, our Prime Minister extended immediate visa protection to Chinese students in Australia. These people were obviously deserving of refugee status.

In the years that followed, some ninety percent of the boat people who arrived in Australia from Indonesia, and other countries, were also granted refugee status. Under a different government, although it began with Labor, immigration policy and mandatory detention became an electoral tool, using xenophobia as a strategy to maintain power. How corruptive this was. Good honest Australians became lesser versions of Abu Ghraib guards. Australian citizens were left, desperately ill, to sit eating dirt. A culture of fear prevailed, with the government appealing every granting of refugee status, as I remember it, on principle.

The criticism was enormous. Time and again the stories of deprivation, and detention induced illness were brought to the public press and ignored. People were forced back to their country of origin, and some killed.

At the time, Margo Kingston wrote

John Howard carried the majority of the Australian people with him as he thumbed his nose at international norms in handling refugees, as he turned their boats back and excised parts of Australia to avoid our legal obligations... Fortress Australia. Australians loved it.

The Tiananmen article refers to the Chinese government's effort to hide the truth of what happened, and to the refusal of many people to believe the eyewitness stories they did hear. Even here in Australia, many of us seek to minimize or deny the brutal reality of our human rights violations. So here is some minimal linking:

Censorship to get reelected
Compassion - The slave ships of Ashmore reef
Suffer the little children ,
War Zone... or concentration Camp
These and other articles can be found at One Man's Web, and in many other internet sources.

The notion that detention and other immigration policy has electoral purposes of detention is well accepted. For example:
The term ´border protection´ is too often used as a weapon against extremely vulnerable people escaping life-threatening situations,¨ Fr Mostowik said. ¨These can and have been used by Australian governments to create scare campaigns. Human lives should be beyond short term political capital", he emphasised. ERC

I'm guessing that twenty years ago, some Chinese in Australia were found not to have any claim to refugee status, and were repatriated. But what a difference of spirit, one policy compassionate, the other doing evil to maintain comfort and power.

I've heard it preached in an unworldly way. In this scenario the followers of Jesus are of the elect. They are offered ‘strength' based upon delineating themselves over and against the evil world. They are the chosen ones, united with God, who must live in the world for a while, but who have eternal life.

They are not so removed from the Howard years of Australian Government, with its "We will decide who comes to this country, and the circumstances in which they come." because fear, self interest and personal comfort, win over compassion and gospel. Bill Loader has written an excellent commentary on this week's lectionary from John, which I recommend reading in full.  He says in part,

While John's gospel portrays God's love for the world of people (3:16!) as the basis for Christ's coming, it also sees grave dangers for believers in the value systems of the world.... One response to such dangers is for Christians to live in a world of their own, to withdraw, or to make forages out into the hostile environment in mission, but constantly to return to a reclusive huddle. The greater danger for most today is probably the opposite: not withdrawal from the world but conformity with its prevailing values and politics. It is to surrender to the norms of what it commonly means to be a good and patriotic citizen, which usually includes religious (Christian) sponsorship of some kind to make it all feel right. It usually means reinforcing the status quo and, where that is oppressive and unjust, collusion in injustice. It is not as dramatic as Judas' act, but probably far more serious in its consequences.

Evil spreads. Guards in detention centres did evil things that would never have been done if it were not for our lack of compassion in this country, and our falling prey to John Howard's fear mongering. It is not just the evil of the big issues. It spreads in our Synod meetings, when we give in to scare tactics, and retreat from honest discussion; when we won't name bullying and black mail for what it is, or when we don't care because it serves our purpose. It spreads into the school yard; "Why don't you tell the teacher on yard duty that you are being bullied?" they ask, when he hits back. " Because they put people around the teacher, so you can't get to them!" But nothing is believed or done, and other children join the coterie of little tyrants, and take their learning on into high school, and out into the workplace. This school used to boast about its anti-bullying policies!

We do not need to be told the world contains evil. We do not need to be told that we are not to be of the world. But we need to hear again, and re-consider the meaning of, the relationship with Jesus that distinguishes us from the world. To lose holiness, says Loader, is to lose touch with God. Our holiness is not measured by our distance and separation from the evil of the world. It is measured by the depth of our relationship with God. We are the friends of Christ (John 15:12ff) We are to do his commandments; this is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. (15:12)

At church last Sunday we joked that if we could really love each other, knowing all our warts and pimples, we could love anyone. That's why Jesus only needed to make one commandment! If we truly are just and compassionate with each other; if this is what humans are worth, and what being human means; how can we deny that love and justice to the world around us? As Bill Loader puts it: John's gospel portrays God's love for the world of people (3:16!) as the basis for Christ's coming... (my emphasis.)

The prayer of John 17, concerned with our safety and sanctity (holiness) is also concerned with our unity.(17:21)

Unity can be a collusion of betrayal. There are many crazy ideas about Christian unity. For some, unity is an embodiment of the principle of peace according to which everyone is always nice (and therefore usually dishonest) and conflicts are not tolerated (and, so, go underground, and turn demonic). True love and peace, by contrast, is about making and having space where conflicts can be dealt with, worked through and, if need be, lived with, but in a way which does not turn them to destructiveness.

There is also a kind of "stalemate unity," again dishonest, where things brew underground, until one side of the other feels it can win the argument. Or there is plain bullying, where the losers are "given the left foot of fellowship."

We are the church, the people of God in the world. We are not of the world, but in the world. We are called to sanctity/holiness (17:17) and to deep union in our relationship with God. We are able to make great compassionate choices, despite our failings and compromises, like our country's response to Tiananmen Square. And we can descend to the level of later immigration policy, where there is no discernable difference between us and the world. We get to choose. We get to live in the tension.

My sense is that the tension is what we need. It is to be alive to the balance of competing claims: the claims of holiness, the call for unity, the courage to stand over and against. Where we are finding these claims really do compete- when we have to struggle with them- I suspect we are truly maintaining a relationship with God; we are listening to the Spirit. Where we are comfortable, and unstressed, I think probably we have slipped off in one direction or the other; we have acquiesced to the world, or we have withdrawn. It is then that we also withdraw from God.

Andrew Prior

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!





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