Joy and the Narrow Path

This post is dedicated to the LGBTI community who were and are a prophetic voice in my life – I am forever grateful.
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On the 15th April it was two years since Dean Beck, Nathan Despott and I sat down at the Joy FM Radio station and recorded an interview to discuss the damage done to LGBTI people through ex-gay therapy programmes. This erroneous idea that LGBTI people are ‘broken’ and need to be ‘healed’ or ‘fixed’ goes a lot further than the programmes run through parachurch programmes or ministry. Rather, it is the very oxygen in most conservative, fundamentalist religious spaces that view LGBTI people of faith as ‘other’.

I should know this because I was part of one of the many people that held this idea that there was something ‘wrong’ with those who identified as anything but heterosexual. My paradigms were supported by ignorance, fear, and religious ‘experts’ who had very LOUD opinions and very little knowledge. My doubts and questions about this harmful exclusion started long before that interview.

Two years on and my world has changed … dramatically. The interview literally brought extremist religious leaders out of retirement. There was a bombarding of emails, letters and flyers. The board of the faith community that I was part of, supportive at first of my right to speak as an individual not representing the church, felt the pressure of lobby groups and found this rather difficult. It became easier to distance myself.

It was one of the more difficult journeys of my life. As I reflect back, I realise that anytime we endeavour to live true to our values we often come against strong power structures. Structures and ideals that are deeply embedded and share an umbilical cord with political agendas (similar to the apartheid ideals in South Africa, or the segregation ideals that spurred the civil rights movement in the USA).

I learnt a lot of things through this experience:

Perhaps the most important learning was the bravery shown by LGBTI people and people of faith. My exclusion and treatment shrinks into insignificance as I listened to many, many stories of heartache, rejection, condemnation, prejudice, and sheer hurtful behaviour by people who claim to hold to the Gospel of Christ, while condemning their brothers and sisters in a most saccharine “O-we-love-you-but-hate-your-sin” manner. I discovered friends and heroes on the margins – a magnificent and fierce rainbow clan that I am honoured to call friends.

I discovered a fairly lonely, narrow path. For someone who has spent a decent amount of time surrounded by loads of people, it was a strange experience. It brought its own significant anxiety. On this lonely path there was not much backslapping and grandiose talk about the modern church or its mission to ‘save the world’ – rather I came face to face with my own shadows, with my own insecurities, and with the painful process of detoxing from a hyperreality that creates religious addicts with a silo mentality.

I learnt that to let go is a death experience. I lost reputation, friends, status, power, influence, and all invitations to speak at other churches stopped rather abruptly. It is a dangerous thing to ask questions and make up your own mind. Letting go meant laying it all down and walking away … perhaps you know that space? Perhaps this is what you are walking through right now?

But I also learnt there is resurrection. There is hope. There is freedom and joy on this narrow path that is very hard to describe. When you no longer fear the threats because there is not much more to lose then, in a strange, paradoxical way, you begin to really live. There is an insanely, happy dance that accompanies those who refuse to be bullied into dancing to the tune of religious, cultural norms. You see, dear friend, the Gospel really is very good news.

I am not sure what the future holds. The life I thought I would lead has died many years ago. But this Easter, in an old Uniting Church in Richmond, I heard the whispers of Resurrection. This surprising narrow path of joy holds treasures I would never have found surrounded by the accolades and approval of others. This resurrection hope quietly beckons me to keep walking … and that I shall.

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Only Children and Fools Tell the Truth!

“Remember, there will be those among the powerful who try to make you say what you know is clearly not true because if everyone agrees to believe the lie, the lie can go on forever … If you want to be a leader, you, too, must refuse to tell the old lies. You must learn to say that those emperors have no clothes. You must see what you are looking at and say what you see.”
— Joan Chittister –
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It is in the mouth of babes that we often find the most profound truth-telling. A child has a way of looking at the world without firmly set prejudice, ideas or concepts. The German-Swiss psychiatrist and philosopher, Karl Jaspers, one of the founders of existentialism, writes,
 
“Children often possess gifts which they lose as they grow up. With the years we seem to enter into a prison of conventions and opinions, concealments and unquestioned acceptance, and there we lose the candour of childhood. The child still reacts spontaneously to the spontaneity of life; the child feels and sees and inquires into things which soon disappear from his vision. He forgets what for a moment was revealed to him and is surprised when grownups later tell him what he said and what questions he asked.” (Way to Wisdom)

The perception of a child is beautifully illustrated in the work of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes“. Anderson tells the story of a vain emperor who lived in exceeding luxury and spent all his money on new clothes. Two swindlers convinced the emperor that they had spun him magnificent garments. The audacious lie was affirmed by his old minister, town officials, noblemen and finally the whole town, all of them afraid to look foolish or be shunned if they admit that the emperor is starkers!

The crowd unanimously bought into the delusion, except a child. A child who was unaffected by social protocol. A child who was unaware that his or her belonging could be under threat if they spoke up. A child who had not yet learnt to tow the party line or follow the herd mentality. A child stated the obvious: “But he hasn’t got anything on!”

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Foudroyant! How can this little monster utter such truth? Scandalous! Then the ripple started from someone in the back row who just found his voice and a little bit of courage – “He actually is wearing no clothes!” It took a child to tell them what they already knew. The emperor, on the other hand, although aware of the gimmick, continued to parade naked because … well, the show must go on.

Nowhere is this story more applicable than in politics and religion. Currently, we are seeing another historical high of ridiculous political lies, or, *ahem*, “alternative truths”. It is like we have landed in the sewerage pit of global, political stupidity and perhaps it is time to listen to the little, dumbfounded inner child, standing trembling on the sidelines. It is time to wake up. The emperor is starkers and the religious elite is only a few steps behind.

When religion upholds a corrupt, fear-monger, prejudice-inducing political ideal that marginalises and scapegoats those deemed ‘other’,  it is like the old minister pissing into the emperor’s invisible coat pocket. From the time of Constantine, sectors of the Christian religion have played with fire as they have sought to muscle in for power, fame and wealth. This hypocritical, gospel-disfiguring stance must be maintained even when in a moment of gut-level honesty, they recognise what horrific pain they have caused through scapegoating those on the margins.

Richard Rohr would contend that without honest self-knowledge religion ends up being more part of the problem than the solution, resulting in a Christian populous that affirms racism, sexism, and greed with no questions asked. Religious leaders often play host to fear of losing ‘face’ or being ridiculed by those on the inner sanctum of religious power or influence. Rejection by the approval-posse is a heavy burden and it is easier to continue marvelling at the emperor’s magnificent, colourful, non-existent clothes.

I am writing this blog for those who are waking up in the matrix. I urge you to channel the inner child or inner fool, take a deep breath, and yell it loud and clear: “THE EMPEROR HAS NO CLOTHES!” Refuse to be part of a system that excludes others and lives in denial.

“No Emperor has the power to dictate the heart”
— Friedrich Schiller –
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Remember with Purpose

You must not mistreat or oppress foreigners in any way. Remember, you yourselves were once foreigners in the land of Egypt.
– Exodus 22:21 –
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Part of the problem in reading an ancient sacred text with modern minds is that there is a disconnect and dissonance in context, culture and thought. When reading the Bible, for example, it is easy to revert to a form of fundamentalist literalism that leaves us with naive absolutism. Some may miss the point that in the Hebrew culture “deed was always more important than creed” (Wilson).  For example, when Habakkuk speaks of the just living by ‘faith’ (emunah), it implies an unwavering hope or trust that is backed through deed and action, not just an intellectual acceptance of a set of doctrines!

The idea of remembering or to remember (zakar) in the Bible and/or Torah, has to do with far more than just a simple retention of information. Rather, remembering is always accompanied by action. For example, Shabbat, returns every week. She reminds devout Jews that Yahweh is their Creator and Redeemer. Shabbat calls to action and repetitive observance enforces remembrance. There is an emphasis made throughout this sacred text that purposeful remembrance is very important in everyday life, in the nurture of tradition, and in the shaping of worldview. Why this emphasis?

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People, or people groups, who forget or deny their past, their story or their language, forget who they really are. Our society’s infatuation with wealth, power and dominion keeps us hyper-active, anxious, and hurriedly forgetful. We, like Gollum in Lord of the Rings, obsessed with the ring of power, forget our name and our story, and with the forgetting we loose all connection with our past and our belonging in this world.  We forget that societies that focus on the ‘ring’ seldom find their way back to the ‘Shire’.

The study of history is an exercise in remembering. In the collection of our past narratives, we inform, guide, assist and shape our present and future. To forget history, or deny it, is to cut off our belonging through the corridors of time. All over the world today we find people remembering with purpose: through festivals, marches, holidays and holy days, memorials and solemn ceremonies, traditions and habits … We are made to remember.

Yet to remember is not always an easy task. Looking back we discover that the ancient paths did not just lead through green pastures and beautiful scenery, but there are also times of walking through deserts, storms, and very dark and treacherous moments. It is tempting to remember the good and forget the bad. Many Australian history books have done just that for decades – seeking to sanitise the past and educate another generation in a more palatable rendition of the atrocities committed under Colonial rule. My hope is that we will become far more active in recording an accurate version of what transpires on our fair isle. Our children’s children have a right to remember and lament these current days – where we house refugees in concentration camps and where we have allowed the fear, racism and propaganda spread by those in politics to shape our world.

Revising history in order to remember is one thing. Denying it takes us to a whole new level. It is heartbreaking to actively remember the holocaust. For many this path is shut. The grief is too overwhelming. For others the enormity of a horrible event in history can be so unpleasant that denial is preferable. It is much easier to ignore, rationalise or deny what has happened. There is a comfort in numbers and often people find each other and feed the denial. It is easy to pass harsh judgement on those who deny the holocaust, for example, yet many of us stand guilty of historical denial in some manner or other. Sometimes it is the denial of our own personal story.

So as the end of the year approaches, it is often a good time to spend some moments in reflection … to remember. Zakar, to actively remember, helps us to change our ways. The very action requires a transformation. It brings purpose both into our past, present and future. What are some things that happened this year that you would like to remember? In what active way will you do that? How about starting a journal? Begin to actively write down events, people, or circumstances that have made you who you are and that you want to remember. It takes courage to remember. At times there is much pain before there is any healing. May you be brave, dear friend. May you remember.

Without memory, there is no culture. Without memory, there would be no civilization, no society, no future.” –Elie Wiesel

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A Tribute to the Exiles Past and Present


“Exile is more than a geographical concept. You can be in an exile in your homeland, in your own house, in a room.” – Mahmoud Darwish

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I remember those in exile from my childhood days. They became outcasts because they protested when people were oppressed and marginalised because of the colour of their skin.
They were mocked and ridiculed as they marched.
The government and church set its face against them. People were persuaded by the lies and slander: “These people will destroy our land as we know it, our families, our homes, our future …” Fear ruled the day.

Many of these exiles never saw liberation. They died with only hope for a different tomorrow.
They fought for justice that they would never see.
We remember those exiled to the margins. We will not forget their tears.

This is my tribute to the exiles both past and present.

The marginalised ones. The forgotten ones. The ones held in contempt. The invisible ones. The ones who have been colonised, murdered, exterminated, raped and beaten, in the hope that they will lose or forget their song and story. The ones who have been displaced and rejected. The ones who have been used as footballs by those in politics and used as scapegoats by those in the business of religion.

This post is to remember those who had a dream: that all people are created equal. It is to remind those who are tired and weary from pleading with deaf ears and stone hearts that every step towards inclusion of people groups that were once socially exiled, both in sacred text and throughout history, was met with great resistance. It takes a long time for the walls of ignorance to crumble. Every privileged generation finds it hard to let go of the safeguards they have set in place that determines who is in and who is out, who is valuable and who is not, who belongs and who is exiled.

To live in exile is to live in a space that does not feel like home. It is standing on the outside looking in. It is yearning for belonging, to be seen, to be heard, to be understood. It is to suffer the disappointment of empty promises. It is to be the target of passive aggressive language by those who become offended when their lukewarm acknowledgement is not met with accolades of adoration from those who carry deep wounds and scars.

This is a tribute to the exiles past and present.

It is to remind you that the margins are sacred, that the Divine sings over those who lament in exile. That the One from whom people hide their faces, who was despised and rejected, familiar with suffering, that very One stands as a prophetic witness amongst the exiled ones to testify to their pain and walk alongside them. You are not forgotten.

This is a tribute to the exiles past and present.

May your path be blessed. Blessed in the truest sense, not the plastic gimmick modernity calls ‘blessing’.
As you are exhausted, with no place to turn, may you be blessed.
As you have lost so much, all that has been dear, may you be blessed.
As you walk with humility, may you be blessed.
As you show mercy to those who showed you no mercy, may you be blessed.
As you seek peace amidst inflated egos of entitlement, may you be blessed.
As you are persecuted for seeking justice, may you be blessed.

This is a tribute to the exiles past and present. You will not be forgotten.

“Our hearts of stone become hearts of flesh when we learn where the outcast weeps.” – Brennan Manning

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“He Should Get His Wife in Order” – Reflections on Religion and Patriarchy

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In April 2015, I recorded an interview with Dean Beck on Joy FM. It was part of the Inside Ex-Gay programme produced by Nathan Despott. I was there as someone who had been a Pentecostal minister for many years to reflect on the damage done to LGBTIQ folk who have experienced ex-gay therapy in conservative, evangelical churches. I was also there to apologise for my ignorance and for unwittingly being part of an ideology and practice that created so much pain and death. When the interview aired, some sections of conservative Christians world imploded like the bird on Shrek.

I received my fair share of fury. My partner did too. His, however, came in a different manner. He was criticised for not ‘controlling’ his wife. Surely, he should be able to ‘get her into order’ and have her ‘submit’ to him. Unfortunately, this sort of aggressive rhetoric did not just come from extremist fundamentalist groups, but also from people who should know better – from those who have observed the carnage left in the wake of such ideas. It brings to light an ideology that feeds the modus operandi of some religious institutions: a deeply embedded patriarchal misogyny disguised in religious piety.

Where did this idea, that when a woman in some Christian settings differs from her partner he needs to put her ‘in order’, come from? More importantly, how has this mindset outworked itself in organised religion, culture and society? Patriarchy has ‘worked’ because it has been economical. It also has to keep evolving in order to convince a new generation of its benefits. One of the ways it continues to be upheld in many modern church contexts is through the theology of ‘headship’ (a rather sloppy theology … but I get ahead of myself!) Headship theology has been around for over four decades. Some of the ideas surrounding it came from the controversial Presbyterian minister R.J. Rushdoony, in the 1960s, and was popularised by disgraced, Wheaton College professor Bill Gothard, who argued that it was “God’s chain of command”, in his famous Institute of Basic Life Principles.

Headship theology, part of Rushdoony’s Reconstructionist Theology, was devoured by conservative churches and Christian family groups as ‘sound theology’. It spawned endless amounts of books, video ‘teaching’, and seminars that continue to be popular in many churches to this day. Many of these groups are convinced that society is facing a cultural crisis based on the rejection of a biblical understanding of family, marriage and sex. It also serves their political views and aspirations. Their interpretation of the Bible, of course, is presented as ‘sound doctrine’ and who wants to question assumptions that are rendered as “God’s idea and that are not open for human re-negotiation or revision”? Well, actually, there are quite a few who want to question this paradigm and interpretation – including me. It is time to question. It is time expose some of the underbelly of this dangerous teaching.

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Christian conservative fundamentalists espouse patriarchy when they declare that wives must submit to their husbands. This practice and paradigm has greatly contributed to the abuse of women. The recent Mark Driscoll saga is a good example of such.  Some argue that most evangelicals practice a ‘soft patriarchy’, which de-emphasises male authority and defines male ‘headship’ in terms of ‘loving sacrificial service to one’s family’ and that the abusive rhetoric like that of Mark Driscoll or John Piper is simply ‘hyper-headship’. Cynthia Ezell counters this with: “Patriarchy is not responsible for an individual husband’s violent action towards his wife. It does, however, create an environment ripe for abuse … Patriarchal beliefs weaken the marital system so that the deadly virus of violence can gain a stronghold.” In other words, whatever form it takes, patriarchy and headship ideals, create environments more susceptible for abuse.

Feminist historians have compiled a large amount of historical data to demonstrate how patriarchy has provided the foundation for male domination which has often led to abuse. It is evident in ancient cultures, and despite the waves of feminism and endeavours of our modern age, this abuse continues. Church fathers contributed to the dilemma. And to this day we witness its effect on women all around the world. So when an individual or an organisation is motivated from a framework that does not just endorse gender hierarchy, but rather enshrines it as ‘God’s idea’, women face several challenges:

  1. They may themselves be entrenched in these paradigms based on their own personal desire to ‘please God’.
  2. Any abuse that may (not will, but MAY) follow has ‘God’ attached to it. Spiritual abuse takes a long time to recognise and a long time to recover from. It is difficult to untangle from an ideology presented as “the will or order of God” for those desperately wanting to serve God.
  3. Any serious critique or debate of people holding to ‘headship theology’ and patriarchal misogyny will be considered as an ‘attack’. Any debate is silenced with “the Bible is clear” (actually, no it isn’t!) or “She is a feminist” (well, yes, I am – you should be one too).

This blog is written for those of you who are have suffered because, for a myriad of reasons, you have sat under religious authority figures who have used theology to oppress you. I want to acknowledge your pain. Abuse of any form is not okay. It is also to remind people who hold positions of religious influence and ‘authority’, or for marriage partners, that to distort the sacred text and to oppress others in “the name of God” is repulsive. If you are experiencing abuse of any kind, including an ideology enforced upon you disguised as “God wants you to submit”, please find a safe place/person to receive help and support, resource yourself, and begin to detangle from toxic religion.

Beware of manufactured political patriarchal ideas peddled on the religious market, often by well-meaning, zealous folk. It is okay to question. Employ critical thinking in what you are being told to believe. You have one short life to live, dear friend. If you have a faith – may that faith bring you joy, freedom, grace and love.

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. Galatians 3:28

Epilogue: For those wondering … my partner and I are very comfortable holding differences. We see it as part of human relationship. We are partners in life, so of course we will discuss anything that impacts our lives – including a radio interview. Sorry to disappoint the detractors.

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Lazarus at Our Gate

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In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus tells a story to his predominantly devout Jewish listeners. It is a story of a rich man, “who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day.” Jesus draws a strong contrast in his story between this rich man and a beggar by the name of Lazarus, who lay at the rich man’s gate. “He was covered in sores and longed to be fed with the crumbs that fell from the rich man’s table.” Jesus continues the story and describes their respective deaths. The rich man ends up in Hades, a place of torment, while Lazarus finds himself at Abraham’s side, where he is comforted. Despite his pleas, the rich man was shown no mercy. “A great chasm has been fixed between us and you”, explains Abraham in the story. The rich man was beyond rescue.

The story leaves me uncomfortable. It is a relief to hear that the character of Lazarus is now in a place of peace. However, the rich man … this is a steep price to pay for being rich?! Wait a minute! Was that the problem? His opulent riches? Then, how the heck, did Abraham sidestep Hades? Abraham was describes as VERY wealthy. He had ample livestock, silver and gold (Genesis 13:1). It seems to me, that having riches alone is not the problem here. Perhaps the point of the story is that the rich man, with all his wealth, had the ability to help a dying beggar at his gate, but did NOTHING about it.

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In fact, it seems that the rich man’s ailment was the same as that of the pious and pristine religious leaders of that day. They went to great length to protect their pedigree, orthodoxy and pious devotion and missed the whole damn point! “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices-mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law: justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel (Matthew 23:23-24).” The rich man, like the religious lobby group of Jesus’ day, became blind amidst their power and wealth, and failed to notice the beggar at their gate with his horrific injuries.

I can identify with the rich man. I, too, live in opulence in comparison to over 80% of the world. I cannot recall a day in my life that I went hungry, or when I was thirsty, or cold and did not have extra clothes to put on. When I get sick, I find a doctor and buy medicine. At night I sleep in a warm house and a warm bed. In so many ways, I represent the ‘rich man’. This reality is brought home to me every single day – when I see the faces of distraught asylum seekers, when I notice the plight of my city’s homeless, when I study the horrific statistics provided by UNICEF – that 29,000 children under five die every single day due to poverty, when I talk to friends and others who suffer from mental health disorders, struggling to receive adequate care, daily facing discrimination from so many sectors of society, and as I listen to the stories of my LGBTIQ friends, marginalised by their churches and often rejected by their families who attend those churches. In comparison to the rest of the world, I am that ‘rich man’. The only question left to answer is how I will respond to Lazarus at MY gate.

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So is there an antidote to ‘rich man blindness’? Are we doomed to live our lives in compassion paralysis as we hoard our goods and safeguard our assets? Do we keep making excuses for our lack of involvement in the fate of Lazarus at our gate? Perhaps we can pretend Lazarus is a threat? Some ‘other’ that has come to invade our peace and quiet. Maybe we can change the language by describing a broken, destitute man as an ‘illegal gate squatter’. That will make us feel like we have a right to ignore his needs. It would even be better if we can dump him at our neighbour’s gate and let him become their problem while we safeguard our own borders. And while we tell ourselves all these lies, the rot continues to grow inside of us. But there is another way …

Woven through the sacred text is the virtue of Generosity. Not only is it a virtue, it is the very essence of the Divine. The offence of the rich man is that another human being lay suffering at his very gate and he withheld generosity and mercy. Generosity is displayed in so many ways – our connection to others; our willingness to listen, to understand, to help; the way we see, talk and behave towards those who are on the margins of society; how we treat all of God’s creatures; and the consideration we show to our planet. The list goes on. In a culture of fear and paranoia, to live with a spirit of generosity towards others is indeed an anomaly.

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In a world dominated by greed and violence, where the rich become richer, whilst feeling threatened and ‘persecuted’, and the poor continue to languish at the expense of our lusts, the story that Jesus told snaps us to attention. We need to consider our ways. Dr. Charles Birch once said that the rich must live more simply so that the poor may simply live. When we develop a generous heart and way of life we usher in a different tomorrow, one that brings healing to the wounded and hope to those in despair. Generosity, my friend, comes to us at the price of self-sacrifice. Just like the rich man we have a choice: fear or generosity. May we choose that which brings life.

“Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.”
— Simone Weil

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A Tribute to Elie Wiesel

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On Sunday, I woke up to several unpleasant realities: Australian politics was in chaos, Pauline Hanson had been returned to power, just like Voldemort, and the world has lost one of its most profound voices of conscience – Elie Wiesel.

Eliezer Wiesel was born to Shlomo and Sara Wiesel, on the 30th September, 1928, in Sighet, Transylvania, now part of Romania. Elie’s life evolved around family, community and religious study. He had three sisters. His mother encouraged him to study the Torah and Kabbalah. Elie was deeply influenced by his father’s liberal expressions of Judaism. He spoke Yiddish at home, but also learnt Hungarian, Romanian and German.

When Hungary annexed Sighet in 1940, the Wiesels, like many other Jews, were herded to the ghettoes. Then in May, 1944, they were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau, by the Nazi Regime. Elie was 15. He ended up in a sub-camp, Auschwitz III-Monowitz, with this father. They worked at a nearby Buna rubber factory. The conditions were hellish – starvation, beatings and despair, were all part of the daily routine.

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In 1945, the Russian Army drew near and Elie and his father were hurriedly evacuated to Buchenwald. Three months before the camp was liberated, his father was beaten to death by German soldiers. His mother and younger sister, Tzipora, also lost their lives there. Buchenwald was liberated in 1945. Elie and his two sisters, Beatrice and Hilda, were the only survivors from his whole family.

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 – Victims of the Buchenwald concentration camp, liberated by the American troops of the 80th Division. Amongst them is Elie Wiesel (7th from the left on the middle bunk next to the vertical post (Photo by H Miller/Getty Images) –

How do you begin to put the pieces of a life, gutted by violence and horror, together again? Very, very slowly. It took Elie ten years to begin to articulate some of his experiences in the death camps. Before that, he had studied in Paris and was a journalist for the French newspaper, L’arche. It was through the encouragement of Francois Mauriac, that Elie began to write about life in the death camps. His memoir and first book, Night (La Nuit), has become one of the most critically acclaimed of all Holocaust literature.

Night is the first in a trilogy – Night, Dawn, Day. The trilogy clearly illustrates Elie’s journey from darkness to light, according to the Jewish tradition of beginning a new day at nightfall. “In Night,” he said, “I wanted to show the end, the finality of the event. Everything came to an end – man, history, literature, religion, God. There was nothing left. And yet we begin again with night.” It is one of the most devastating accounts of the Holocaust. A young boy’s struggle for survival brings the senseless murder of millions shockingly close. Reflecting on his feelings upon arrival in Auschwitz he writes:

“Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget the smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky … Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as God Himself. Never.”

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Elie became an American Citizen after an accident left him unable to renew his French documents – documents which previously had allowed him to travel as a ‘stateless’ person. He settled in New York and became an increasingly prolific writer, authoring over thirty books. In 1978, he was appointed chair of the Presidential Commission on the Holocaust. He dedicated his life to the plight of persecuted people groups and ensuring that no one would forget what happened to the Jews. He was the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986. He was also honoured across the world with a number of awards which included the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom and the French Legion of Honor’s Grand Croix.

Elie and his wife, Marion, founded the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity to “combat indifference, intolerance and injustice” throughout the world. They had one son, Elisha.

A timeline of Elie’s remarkable life can be viewed here. He died on July 2, 2016, in his home in Manhattan, at the age of 87.

Elie Wiesel had a profound influence on my life. His book, Night, shook me to the core and I would recommend it as a must read for all who are serious students of human rights and the Holocaust.

I will finish this tribute with an excerpt from another of Elie’s masterpieces: the speech he delivered for Bill Clinton’s Millennium Lecture Series at the White House on April 12, 1999, entitled “The Perils of Indifference”:

“Of course, indifference can be tempting — more than that, seductive. It is so much easier to look away from victims. It is so much easier to avoid such rude interruptions to our work, our dreams, our hopes. It is, after all, awkward, troublesome, to be involved in another person’s pain and despair. Yet, for the person who is indifferent, his or her neighbor are of no consequence. And, therefore, their lives are meaningless. Their hidden or even visible anguish is of no interest. Indifference reduces the Other to an abstraction …
 
In a way, to be indifferent to that suffering is what makes the human being inhuman. Indifference, after all, is more dangerous than anger and hatred. Anger can at times be creative. One writes a great poem, a great symphony. One does something special for the sake of humanity because one is angry at the injustice that one witnesses. But indifference is never creative. Even hatred at times may elicit a response. You fight it. You denounce it. You disarm it …
 
Indifference elicits no response. Indifference is not a response. Indifference is not a beginning; it is an end. And, therefore, indifference is always the friend of the enemy, for it benefits the aggressor — never his victim, whose pain is magnified when he or she feels forgotten. The political prisoner in his cell, the hungry children, the homeless refugees — not to respond to their plight, not to relieve their solitude by offering them a spark of hope is to exile them from human memory. And in denying their humanity, we betray our own. 
 
Indifference, then, is not only a sin, it is a punishment.”

May we take a moment to consider this dire warning from a man who has seen some of the greatest horrors that this world can hold.

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RIP Elie Wiesel – You have run a great race.
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Apartheid and the Ideas about God that Upheld It

I still remember the feeling of stifling hot air hitting my face as we disembarked from our long journey at Jan Smuts International Airport (now O.R. Tambo International Airport), in Johannesburg, South Africa. It was the early 70’s. State President J.J. Fouché, Prime Minister B.J. Forster, and the National Party  were in power. We had started our arduous trek from Frankfurt, Germany, after many months of preparation to migrate to this southernmost African Republic. For a tiny seven year old, the world had just become a whole lot bigger.

IMG_1351Mum and I – Durban, South Africa

Amidst the many new experiences, language gaps, huge learning curves and cultural differences, one phenomenon stood head and shoulders above all others: Apartheid. Apartheid was a political and social system that protected the dominant rule of  the 20% white minority  through racial segregation. The term literally means ‘apartness’.  Although racial discrimination has deep roots in South Africa, it was D.F. Malan and the National Party who formerly established the racist system when they swept into power in 1948md1. It was toppled in 1994, with the appointment of South Africa’s first democratically elected, black President, Nelson Mandela.

The injustice of a system that discriminated people by the colour of their skin felt like a cultural tsunami to freshly arrived, wide-eyed immigrants. Yet for many people who had lived in and under that system, especially those who benefitted from it, it seemed a ‘normal’ part of everyday life. The memories of what I witnessed under apartheid do not diminish with time: the beating of a man until he was bloodied, bruised and motionless, by a neighbour who thought he should not be in the ‘white’ part of town; the anger directed at my friends of colour when they stepped too close to the drinking fountains that were designated ‘whites only’; and the squalid, overcrowded townships with their tiny ‘match box houses’.

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South Africa came under the rule of the English and Dutch in the seventeenth century. Christianity played a major role in the shaping of colonised South Africa. But it was in the twentieth century that many churches started actively promoting racial division. The largest of the various denominations, the Dutch Reformed Church (Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk – NGK), became the ‘official religion’ of the National Party during the apartheid era. Fear ruled the day. A white minority began to increasingly feel that their own existence was threatened. Church doctrine and beliefs were fashioned to uphold a political ideology of segregation.

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The Bible became the central tool for apartheid dogma. Genesis 11 was used to argue that God divided humanity into different races, with the white race being superior. Difficult Bible verses such as Galatians 3:28, where the apostle Paul presents the Gospel as breaking down barriers of division, were adapted to claim that he was addressing spiritual, not physical, equality. This teaching became so entrenched that many believed that South Africa’s apartheid was God’s will, that races should be kept apart, that whites had better opportunities because they were ‘favoured’ by God, and that above all, God was the ‘Great Divider’. One of the first laws to come into legislation under the apartheid regime was the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act, banning the marriage of a white person to a person of any other colour. It was believed that these relationships were sinful, an idea that had been fuelled by the passing of the 1927 Immorality Act, which prohibited sexual relations between white people and that of other races. During the late 1970’s and through the 1980’s, enthusiasm for apartheid theology began to wane amongst followers, yet many church leaders remained fervent adherers to the apartheid doctrine. At this point it is also important to mention that there were numerous churches and church leaders who stood in fierce opposition to apartheid.

Gradually societal paradigms began to shift. The work and words of many anti-apartheid advocates was beginning to fall on more receptive ears. The effect of having black South Africans form the majority in all church denominations, except the Dutch Reformed Church, cannot be underestimated. Slowly, and facing much criticism, more church leaders began to speak out against apartheid. The South African Council of Churches became one of the most effective anti-apartheid organisation. Pentecostal churches tended to be more conservative than the older, more established, churches. They expressed vague ideas about the racial dilemma, indicating that God was the only hope for the future.

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The Conservative Right, concerned about the growing acceptance of anti-apartheid ideology and the effect of foreign investment boycotts, organised themselves into new groups, like the ‘Christian Forum’, to protest sanctions. The founder of ‘Open Door Ministry’, Brother Andrew, distributed comic tracts in English and Afrikaans to South African defence troops, claiming  that the anti-apartheid struggle was an invasion of ‘communism’ against ‘democracy’, and the final contest between Christ and the Anti-Christ. His ideas, that South Africa had a mission to evangelise all of Africa, and that the international movement for economic sanctions was a ploy of Satan “to isolate South Africa to prevent it from fulfilling its divine commission”, resonated with many. Of course it is important to remember that pro-apartheid support was also found amongst many high-profiled Christians in the USA, such as President Reagan, Jerry Falwell, Jimmy Swaggart and Pat Robertson. To this day there are still pro-apartheid advocates who argue that the struggle against apartheid was sinful, and that people who were involved need to ‘repent or face the wrath of God’.

At the heart of it all, apartheid was a radical survival plan. It was the construction of a deeply nationalistic and religious Afrikaner minority group who were terrified of being subjugated by another people and culturally swamped by black Africans. It was this fear that gave apartheid its impetus. The renown Afrikaans poet, N.P. van Wyk Louw, supported apartheid because he, like many others, believed that integration meant Afrikaner National suicide. Fear propaganda reached fever pitch as the walls of segregation began to tumble rather quickly in the late 80’s. Pro-apartheid arguments became shrill and hysterical, a rather common occurrence when dominating powers begin to fall.

The rise and fall of apartheid shows the social and political power of religious movements. God is often claimed and ordained by the various religious voices seeking to present their perspective as right and true. “God is on my side” is perhaps one of the most comforting and often deceptive notions of the religious faithful. Deceptive, especially when it propagates oppression, violence and discrimination against other people in the name of God, claiming their suffering is unavoidable and “for the greater good”.

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Apartheid, at one stage in earlier South African history, was just an idea. An idea to control a large people group. An idea that would have been difficult to embody without the assistance of religion. Religion provided the ‘divine mandate’ that the idea needed to become a force – a force that brought years of injustice. We need to consider that Christianity, or an ideology based on Christianity, played a central role in this oppressive regime. This is rather ironic considering that Christianity itself began not as a religion, but with a persecuted minority group desperately trying to follow the teaching of a lowly carpenter. A man who became such a threat to the dominant social and political order that he was executed. It was not until Constantine that Christianity became acquainted with political power and a dramatic change occurred. Richard Rohr puts it this way: “Overnight the Church moved from the bottom to the top, literally from the catacombs to the basilicas.” Christianity became the religion of the empire and was no longer at the very bottom of society,  which is the best vantage point to “understand the liberating power of the Gospel for both the individual and society.” With power, wealth and nobility, Christianity began to deviate from the simple teaching of Christ, whose concern for the poor, downtrodden and marginalised, was evident in his ministry. Apartheid serves as an example of what happens when our ideas about God are driven by an agenda of control and dominion, conveniently hidden under religious robes of moral piety.

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This is a most chilling lesson indeed, that if we are not careful, our very notions about God can be misplaced, and instead of bringing life and freedom, become a tool in the hand of the oppressor. History is not short of examples.

For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others. – Nelson Mandela

 

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