Reflection in PTC Chapel – 1 August 2016

Reading – Isaiah 1:1, 10–20

1 The vision of Isaiah son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah.

10 Hear the word of the Lord,
you rulers of Sodom!
Listen to the teaching of our God,
you people of Gomorrah!
11 What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?
says the Lord;
I have had enough of burnt-offerings of rams
and the fat of fed beasts;
I do not delight in the blood of bulls,
or of lambs, or of goats.
12 When you come to appear before me,
who asked this from your hand?
Trample my courts no more;
13 bringing offerings is futile;
incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation—
I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.
14 Your new moons and your appointed festivals
my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me,
I am weary of bearing them.
15 When you stretch out your hands,
I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers,
I will not listen;
your hands are full of blood.
16 Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doings
from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
17   learn to do good;
seek justice,
rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
plead for the widow.

18 Come now, let us argue it out,
says the Lord:
though your sins are like scarlet,
they shall be like snow;
though they are red like crimson,
they shall become like wool.
19 If you are willing and obedient,
you shall eat the good of the land;
20 but if you refuse and rebel,
you shall be devoured by the sword;
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.


I was not scheduled to be doing chapel today and this is not the scheduled reading either. The original reading assigned for today was one on which I have already preached, so I swapped it for this one from Isaiah.

I imagine that this is not a popular reading in the church, but I assure you that it’s on the lectionary. The reasons why I think this reading is not popular should be self-evident. Why should we gather to worship and praise God and then read that God hates our “solemn assemblies”?

Another reason this text might not be popular is that it might be described as self-preaching – in other words it is a text that preaches itself. The message appears so obvious that, once read, the preacher is left with little to do. But is that really the case?

The prophet does not begin with niceties; he starts by addressing the people as the rulers of Sodom and the people of Gomorrah. These are terms of abuse. Yet this form of address sums up the message; these are people for whom condemnation is coming. The people of Sodom and Gomorrah were burnt up for their sins. It is worth remembering what sins they were guilty of. To jog our memories, we turn to Ezekiel 16:49, which reads:

“This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.”

This sets the tone and outlines the message to come, that combining pride and vanity with disregard for the poor and needy is sure to gain God’s condemnation.
God rejects the sacrifices of such people. Their feasts are worthless. Their worship meaningless.

The temptation we all face, reading this in our own solemn assembly, is to read this as God addressing bad people who have turned away and who yet strive to be justified by God through worship, rituals and sacrifices and nice words about God. Such harsh judgments are not for us; they are for other so-called “Christians” who have blood on their hands and do not worship with a good clean conscience. We are better than them surely? Aren’t we?

Let’s read further. In verse 12 God speaks “When you come to appear before me”. This is indicative of the attitude of the hypocrites. They come to appear before God as though God is somewhere where we can go to present ourselves to God. But God does not live in some temple or church. God is everywhere, and sees our corruption day by day. God sees both the bad we do and good we left undone.

God also sees how we try to present ourselves in church on Sunday, wearing our best clothes and carrying our Bibles as though God will be pleased that we have ironed our shirt or dress, placed some money in the collection plate, and sung in the choir.

No! God is not impressed by our staged appearances. We are before God all the time. What, then, is the point of all these pretensions and posturing before God?

Is it self-justification? Are we trying to cover up our sins? If so, we take the Lord’s name in vain – we utter the right words, but have instrumentalized worship and in doing so we reduce God to be something less than God. If we do this, we are trusting in our works and deeds more than God. And we have created a reason for worshiping God.

This is should be a great caution in our nations today. There are false prophets and pastors offering reasons to come to their church. “Come to my church and be blessed”, they might say. Or, “Come to my church and be healed”, or “Come and gain a new purpose in life”.

But the truth is that we cannot make true worship serve us and our needs; true worship serves only God, it cannot be made by humans into something that benefits us. To make ourselves into the end or point of worship, inevitably means turning God into a mere means.

This does not mean that we cannot enjoy worship or that we get nothing out of it. But anything we get from worship must not be sought intentionally, even with a good will. Anything we gain from worship must come as the free gift we receive from God when we serve and worship him alone. It cannot be promised, anticipated, or manufactured in advance.

Further on, we read that “bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me.” Here we see God making a double criticism of our worship.

Bringing our offerings to God is important. It helps the church and the needy, and puts money in its rightful place as something we can freely part with. But if we are giving to bribe God to turn a blind eye to our sins, we are fools. We cannot bribe God. God sees through such shallowness. God doesn’t want or need our money. God wants our lives. As Jesus said, we should love God with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our mind (Matthew 22:37). In other words God wants our whole being to be be focused on God.

Incense, as used in worship, is sometimes thought of as carrying our prayers up to God. But the real use of incense was to mask the stench of a sinful humanity. But incense cannot disguise our sin from God. God sees our sinful hearts directly and cannot be deceived in this way. Incense cannot shield the stench of our hypocrisy or be a smoke screen to hide our iniquities. To think we can hide our sins from God is to only fool ourselves.

When we persist in our hypocrisy God even indicates that God will turn away from our us, even if we reach out to God and say our pious prayers. God will fall silent in face of our hypocritical piety.

But we should not despair, God’s silence can be broken when we return to God in due humility. We can and must try to break God’s silence toward us through repentance and true worship.

How can we do that? In verse 16 we see God demand that we clean ourselves up before he will turn to us. We must repent. The verse reads “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean”.

This poses a theological problem. Can we really cleanse ourselves in such a way as to be acceptable to God? Christians usually say that we are washed clean in our baptism, or by the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. Isn’t it Christ alone who can wash us clean and make us whole?

Christianity rejects the idea that we can reach up to God through any human means. This is what seems to be denied by the first half of our reading which condemns our human efforts at self-justification. Rather God reaches down to us to bring us to him.

Martin Luther, no fan of salvation through works, simply states that this verse says that we should follow the advice of the Psalmist in 37:27: “Depart from evil, and do good”.

That is what is required. We clean ourselves up by turning from evil and doing good. And we can always make a fresh start in doing so. We must turn from evil. That is the first step – do no harm and refrain from evil. But this is not enough. We must pursue the good and justice. This is obedience to God.

Well I could end here and my message would have been simply that we ought to worship with right intention, avoid evil and do good. We might add at this point that the ancient Israelites were foolish to try to justify themselves and deceive God. We might be tempted to think that we are better than them. But before we pat ourselves on the back, we should make sure that we don’t commit a worse sin.

In their attempts to be justified, the Israelites were addressing God, and in doing so were at least recognizing God’s importance. A potentially worse sin is when we try to justify ourselves in the eyes of other people. It is one thing to try to justify oneself before God. It is worse to ignore God and try to justify oneself before one’s peers, leaving God out of the picture altogether. This happens when we try to keep up appearances and live in line with human values and rules. But adherence to cultural and social norms which place us right in the eyes of our neighbor does not put us right with God.

God is not deceived by this posture. It creates another god to which we give all of our selves. This god could be culture, money, technology, or work. But neither God nor society are deceived by this stance either.

Let’s focus on the one true God with our whole being, avoid evil and do as much good as we can under the continual guidance on God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.


Research into Climate Change and Democracy in Fiji

I have been invited to deliver a conference paper at the triennial consultation of the Global Network for Public Theology in Stellenbosch, South Africa. The conference dates are 24-26 October 2016.

The theme of their meeting is “Democracy and Social Justice in Glocal Contexts“. The details of my proposed paper are:


Public Theology in the Context of Climate Change and Fiji’s Unchanging State of Exception


Applying the theory of the “state of exception” from Carl Schmitt and Giorgio Agamben to Fijian public life, this paper examines whether the crisis of climate change facing this island nation could strengthen the case for the Fijian government’s current state of exception to the detriment of constitutional democracy.

Following democratic elections in 2014, the international community once again recognizes Fiji as formally democratic. Yet the constitution sometimes finds itself overruled in favour of decrees made by the government of former coup-maker and elected Prime Minister Josaia Voreqe Bainimarama. In this way, Fiji public life lies suspended in a “state of exception” between democracy and dictatorship.

Fiji is also facing the effects of climate change, which may include sea-level rise, more devastating cyclones, and lessened food security. In February 2016, Fiji was hit by Tropical Cyclone Winston, which claimed 44 lives and destroyed more than 40,000 homes. In the wake of Winston, the government declared a temporary state of emergency and imposed curfews. This paper investigates whether the ongoing and increasing threat of climate change to Fiji may reinforce or strengthen the exceptional nature of Fijian political life, giving further reasons for additional decrees and the continued denial of full democratic rule.

Finally, the paper will examine what prospects there are for public theology in this political atmosphere. Some people see climate change as something that only states can deal with adequately and are willing to give the state increased power to do so. Public theology might suggest that the issue of climate illustrates state failure and offers great potential for the church, as a leading actor in Fijian society, to do public theology in such a way that deals with climate also as a faith issue, and in this way decentralize the Fijian response to this threat.

Support Me

If you would like to support this research then I have a page where you can make a donation toward my expenses to present this research.

Reflection in PTC Chapel – 2 May 2016


Paul and Silas in Philippi – Pieter de With

 Reading – Acts 16:16–34 (NRSV)

16 One day, as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slavegirl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling. 17 While she followed Paul and us, she would cry out, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” 18 She kept doing this for many days. But Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, “I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And it came out that very hour.

19 But when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the authorities. 20 When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, “These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews 21 and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.” 22 The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods. 23 After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. 24 Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.

25 About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. 26 Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened. 27 When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, since he supposed that the prisoners had escaped. 28 But Paul shouted in a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” 29 The jailer called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. 30 Then he brought them outside and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” 31 They answered, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” 32 They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. 33 At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. 34 He brought them up into the house and set food before them; and he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God.


Our long reading this morning begins with an exorcism of a demon from the slave girl, features a court trial, jail scene, earthquake, dramatic conversion, and ends with a household baptism.

It is an exhausting text to read and hear. More happens in these few verses than happens in my life in weeks.

This morning, however, I wish to focus on the exorcism of the demon from the slave girl.

I find this passage very curious, as have many others. We note that Paul does not cast out the demon when he first encounters the girl. He only casts out the demon once he becomes annoyed. And then he impatiently exorcises the demon. Why does he do so? Is he annoyed with her calling out, or is he concerned with her claims about their God?

Both of these two possibilities focus on her effect on Paul. On the face of it, there is good reason to do so, as Paul is very much annoyed. But, one would have to infer, in the absence of any precise textual evidence, about what Paul was very much annoyed with.

Perhaps a better question could be asked: “Who was Paul annoyed with?” Was he annoyed with the girl? Or, was he annoyed with the demon, who might be said to posses the girl, and control her? A third possibility also exists: Paul was annoyed with the girl’s masters who possessed her in another way, and who were responsible for her being in his path on the way to prayer every day.

Perhaps Paul’s annoyance was a combination of these factors, which built up over several days. I prefer to think of Paul’s annoyance more as righteous anger at the injustice of this situation rather than petty annoyance at being followed and being shouted at. He put up with much more than that in the course of his ministry. In this light, it is interesting that the King James translation has Paul as “grieved” instead of being annoyed, suggesting he felt sorrow for the girl.

Another reason to think that the Paul’s annoyance lies in the state of affairs that affects the girl, is that in the exorcism Paul invokes the name of Christ.

There are two important points to note here about Paul casting out the demon in the name of Christ.

The first is especially important at this point in the church year at the end of Easter. Jesus has resurrected and ascended to heaven. He is not around to exorcise demons as he did when he was with the apostles. Recall that in Luke chapter 8 Jesus exorcises demons from a man and put them into the herd of swine.

No. Jesus is no longer around, but his name retains its power. Significantly, it is Paul who uses the name of the Christ here. While Paul never knew Jesus personally, he can, nevertheless, use his name to exorcise this demon. Jesus is gone, but the power of his name remains to all those who follow him. That includes us as well.

The second point to note about Paul’s use of the name of Jesus is the contrast he makes with the girl’s owners. Whereas they used a spirit and the girl to make money, Paul invoked the spirit of Christ, not for his own gain, but to liberate the girl, putting an end to exploitative moneymaking.

In doing so, Paul follows the example of Christ. For when Jesus used his powers in miracles and exorcisms, he did not do so for his own benefit, but to benefit others. For example, he did not turn stones into bread in the desert to satisfy his own hunger, but he was willing to perform the miracle of feeding the 5000. If Jesus did not use his power for himself, it is unlikely that Paul would be able to use Jesus’ name to exorcise demons merely so he could walk to a prayer meeting unmolested. No. Jesus’ name was effective for Paul because he was freeing the girl from bondage.

After Paul rids the girl of the demon, her worldly masters, having lost their source of profit, take Paul and Silas to court on trumped-up charges. They are found guilty, stripped beaten and put into prison.

Their treatment is parallel to the treatment of Christ before his crucifixion. The trial and judgment is unjust. Fortunately, they are not killed. But as at the time of the death of Jesus there is another earthquake. Instead of the temple curtain being torn in two, here the symbol of the civil authority, the prison, is torn apart and the prisoners could escape.

Paul and Silas do not escape, and by remaining put they have the chance to witness to the jailer and his entire household who were baptized that very day.

Returning to the theme of the slave girl, there is more that can be said on the alliance in the story between the exploiters of the girl and the legal authorities. Is there any more up to date tale for our time?

The exploitation of girls (and boys) is one of the tragedies of our time. Children continued to be enslaved by the greedy for the making of money.

The International Labour Organisation estimates that worldwide there are 5.5 million children in slavery, trafficking, debt bondage, forced labour, forced recruitment for armed conflict, prostitution, and pornography. [Source]

Paul frees just one child in such a situation, but sends a message of judgement against all such crimes. Yet it is he and Silas, not the slave-drivers, that end up in jail.

The fate of Paul and Silas is one that many activists have faced over the years. To interfere with the exploitation of children for the pursuit of profit is to incur is to disrupt those with earthly power. There are few things more dangerous in this world than to disrupt the flow of profits and money to the already wealthy. It does not matter whether those making money are a band of criminals, a legal corporation, or even a church. If you get in their way, there will be serious consequences.

It almost doesn’t matter what the charges were in this case as they bore no relationship to the so-called “harm” the girl’s owners had experienced.  The consequences for Paul and Silas were severe. They faced an unsympathetic court and were jailed.  Here we see the law operating in the interests of rich slave-drivers and not toward any recognizable form of justice.

This is also a factor of our world today, the law working for the rich and the powerful against the poor and the advocates of the poor and oppressed. Sadly many advocates of justice and peace are silenced and imprisoned in our world today. Often those who speak for those without a voice are killed. One estimate is that two people are killed each week defending the environment [Source].  Few of the perpetrators are brought to justice as it suits the powers in our broken world to keep making money at the expense of our children and our climate.

On Saturday, one my heroes died. Daniel Berrigan was Catholic priest and radical Christian. He became famous for his opposition to the Vietnam War and in one protest poured his own blood on military draft cards. He also initiated the modern plowshares disarmament movement. Taking the text from Isaiah 2:4, that we should beat swords into plowshares, as a command of God, Berrigan and friends broke into military bases and disarmed weapons of death and imperialism. His life’s mission was to cast out the demons of killing and violence; a mission which, upset the establishment and landed him in jail several times.

We might not have the opportunity to cast out the spirits of divination from slave girls. But as modern prophets like Berrigan, we have opportunities to resist the enslaving spirits of consumerism and violence that makes others rich and powerful.

We can also try to rid ourselves, our churches, and nations of the enslaving spirit of corruption where we invoke the name of Christ for the benefit of ourselves, rather than using the name of Christ to liberate others.

The ascended Christ is with us, supporting us and guiding us, just as he was with Paul and Silas. Our challenge is to witness to his power to transform lives and nations.


Picture credit:

Ellul on the 20th century decline of the church

The decline of the western Church seems fortunate to me in the sense that those who drift away from the church never really belonged to it. There was a crisis in this church. But it was a crisis dating back to the eighteenth century whose results appeared only in the nineteen-fifties. And it had to happen to purify the situation: now the truth of God can again be proclaimed, free from political and social compromises, from class distinctions, and above all, from the illegitimate use of the Christianity. By God’s grace, it is no longer useful to be a Christian or to make reference to the church and the Bible.

FROM: Jacques Ellul, In Season Out of Season: An Introduction to the Thought of Jacques Ellul (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1982), 210–211.

My Recent Writing on Climate Change in the South Pacific

I have recently published or given three papers on climate change in the Pacific. They are collected here for your convenience:

  • “The Rainbow Covenant, Climate Change, and Noah’s Exile,” The Pacific Journal of Theology Series II, 54 (2015): 37–44. [read PDF]
  • “The Commons: A Pacific and Theological Perspective on Managing Common Resources”. Presented to ECREA’s ‘Seminar and Deliberative Forum on Climate Justice in Rethinking and Reclaiming our Common Home’, at the Novotel. Lami, 13 April 2016. [read PDF]
  • The Politics of the City and the Sea—Revelation 21:1-6” Political Theology Today. 18 April 2016.


Ellul on forgiving and forgetting

“there is more mercy in the heart of the individual than in the memories of society or its information systems.”

SOURCE: Jacques Ellul, Living Faith: Belief and Doubt in a Perilous World (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1983), 73.

Ellul’s comment is true in an era like ours where the state captures and stores our data and records in massive databases. But this was a comment before the internet, and social media where we store things ourselves and often emails and posts which we would rather people forgot.


Ellul’s defense of the Occupy Movement

In 1968 when student demonstrations broke out everywhere in France, the great cry of condemnation of the participants was: “They don’t even know what they want. When you ask them what kind of society they’re looking for, all you get is confused stuttering or useless general ideas. They’re wholly negative and destructive. They have no plan; they propose no solutions.” We hear this same speech periodically today, sometimes aimed at young people when they happen to challenge the adult world (a rare event these days) or else at the leftists: “Look at them, they’re assassins. They want to destroy society, but what for? They have no idea. They have no solution for the difficulties we’re in now. Same thing with the ecologists. “They don’t want to have anything to do with nuclear power. They talk about alternate energy sources, but everybody knows they would barely provide ten percent of what we need. They’ve got no solution to the energy crisis, but they don’t want any more pollution. They’re just idealists.”

What an odd reversal. It’s the young, the leftists, the ecologists who seem to be dangerous idealists, devotees of irrational ideas, whereas their accusers are the realists, whose feet are firmly planted on the ground and who are not swept away by passionate belief. Well, in my view it’s just the other way around. It’s the leftists, ecologists, Third-World residents, and feminists who are the realists, who see reality as it is, who detect the dangers menacing us and bring them to light, who call our attention to new features of age-old questions. Their accusers are dangerous idealists and fantasts, because they believe (but that’s all it is, an idle belief) they have solutions – which are nothing of the sort.

Before accusing those sometimes vacillating movements of lacking a program, we ought to begin by asking whether we, the adults, the old-timers, have had real solutions over the last half century to the problematic situations that have sprung up. Did we come up with answers? Evidently not, which is just what the young are accusing us of. Well, that being the case, how could we have the gall to demand that such movements, now groping their way forward, have ready at hand something that we ourselves couldn’t find after a thousand studies and every kind of scientific, philosophical, and humanistic research?


SOURCE: Jacques Ellul, Living Faith: Belief and Doubt in a Perilous World (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1983), 37–38.

Books on Christian Anarchism

If you are looking for books on Christian Anarchism there are several places to start online. Here are just some of them:

What would you add to these lists? Do you have a favourite text in Christian Anarchism?

Anarchism and the Catholic Worker

There is a handy online archive of “The Common Good”, the magazine of the Christchurch Catholic Worker in New Zealand.

The archive includes this article: “Anarchism and the Catholic Worker” by Jim Consedine.

One of the principle guiding influences within the development of Catholic Worker philosophy has been the principle of anarchism. The three most influential figures of the Catholic Worker- Peter Maurin, Dorothy Day and Ammon Hennacy – all professed to being anarchists at some time in their lives. Since any discussion of anarchism usually produces huge negativity, it is useful to reflect on its influence within the history of the CW.