Month: September 2018
It would be perverse on the feast day of St Matthew, the Bible’s most famous tax collector, not to mention the Archbishop of Canterbury’s recent controversy with Amazon. In case you’ve missed the news, Archbishop Welby is concerned that the company is exploiting loopholes to avoid paying their due.
For those of us still acquainted with the Authorized Version, “render unto Caesar” is the most obviously apposite maxim. But does this not depend somewhat on what Caesar does with whatever it is we render?
There is a strong, biblical case to yield “the first fruits of our increase” to aid the widow and orphan, to heal the sick, to maintain the rule of law, and to defend the weak – so long as we heed the caveat of Proverbs that this be done foremost to “honour the Lord.”
And we must admit, the ends of much of our taxation seem somewhat distant from honouring the Lord. One might object to funding, say, parts of social services actively hostile to Christians adopting children, schools openly eschewing mandatory Christian worship, public services crippled by corrupt and bloated bureaucracy, inefficiency and waste: to cite Proverbs again, cases of the State “leaning unto its own understanding” rather than letting people “trust in the Lord with all their heart.”
I am not presuming to preach politics here. The due balance of socialism and capitalism in our economic polity is a matter for the individual conscience, despite protestations to the contrary from some pulpits. Nonetheless, we cannot escape the fact that taxation is forced on us by the threat of physical incarceration: an act of collective will, rather than the individually, freely offered gift which Jesus demands.
So, perhaps the Church should be more qualified in its support for taxation, focussing as much on its proper use as its evasion; and while the State rightly and necessarily focuses on systematic provision of welfare support, perhaps the Church might prioritise promoting the conscientiously chosen gift of charity, to those whose work is most clearly in accord with God’s will.
Having wealth need not mean thraldom to it, dangerous a temptation though that be. Those do possess much have the greatest responsibility to use it for the good of all, but they cannot simply sign that responsibility off to the State by handing it over to the taxman. Their consciences may dictate that using it to provide jobs for others or to enrich charitable foundations is in fact the better way, and they should be allowed the opportunity to invest their wealth accordingly.
As for us? St Matthew might exhort us to consider how we might give liberally to just causes; how we might live as those who are not attached to the wealth we have, but who rather use all that we have and all that we are to God’s greater glory, so that we might say with St Peter, “we have forsaken all, and followed thee.”
A talk given at the 2018 Reconciliation Eza, Three Wheels Temple, Acton
It’s 1985. Suren Ter-Grigoryan gets married – in a church. Surely, you’d think, this is uncontroversial. The trouble is, Suren works as a cameraman for Armenian state TV, and Armenia is under Soviet rule. So, he is summoned up to the Communist Party Regional HQ, where he is chastisted, ridiculed and ultimately fired from his job.
But then, if he had done the same thing 50 years earlier, he might have faced far worse consequences. Stalin had 14,904 Armenian civilians killed, among them 500 priests, and innumerable churches were destroyed or converted to secular use.
The Armenian Church endured 80 years of suppression; now she thrives again.
But how? After the deliberate attempt to obliterate all trace of her tradition from the memory of two or three generations?
I think it can only be the potency and richness of that tradition, the beauty of its liturgy and music, which kept the memory alive in the heart of Armenians for so long – a tradition which they claim reaches all the way back to the Apostle St Bartholomew, one of Jesus’ first followers, who was skinned alive in Armenia by the ruling Persians and so martyred.
You may be wondering now why I raise Armenia and St Bartholomew at a Japanese Buddhist service of reconciliation. Well, Bartholomew’s feast day, the date of his martyrdom, was only just over a week ago, on 24 August, and it set me thinking about the interplay of faith and persecution.
The Armenian example offers a clear case of oppressor and oppressed, where the Church is the victim. There are, of course, equally clear cases where the Church has been the direct instigator of oppression. But there are also murkier areas where the Church’s role as an accessory to oppression remains conveniently obscure.
It is easy to paint the Pacific War in terms of goodies and baddies, oppressors and oppressed, with the Japanese perpetrating atrocities according to an inscrutable and incomprehensible martial code. Yet this ignores the lead-up to the War, and the role of the Church in it.
We will have to leave the causes of the War to the historians for now; but while I was doing some work for the Church in Japan this summer, I discovered some uncomfortable truths about the role of the Anglican churches in Japan’s colonial history which I think bear consideration today.
It has become clear that the Church of England and related missionary societies at least tacitly, and in many cases openly, supported Japan’s imperial ambitions in Korea and beyond. Our leaders focussed on evangelising the Japanese with the express hope that the newly converted invaders would ‘civilise’ and subsequently convert the Asian populaces which they subdued. It was, after all, only an extension of what Western nations had been doing in Asia for a decades. Later on, things changed, of course, as all-out war erupted; but in those early days, the Church supported the forced Japanisation of Asian peoples for the sake of the propagation of the Gospel. Their native cultures, their languages, even their own names, would be replaced with Japanese ways.
This raises an awkward question for someone like me, who goes out to Japan and preaches in Japanese for Japanese Christians, and who does aim to further the Church’s mission by proselytism and conversion.
That question is: what if we succeed?
To put it another way, I cannot very well stand in solidarity with the Armenian Church, and eulogise the way the beauty of her native tradition kept the flame of faith alive through decades of persecution, if I am complicit in a movement which seeks to suppress or replace the beauty of another native tradition with something new. It is, in a way, the problem of Endo Shusaku’s Silence. So, what if we succeeded – in supplanting the beauty of today’s Japanese Buddhist liturgy with a Christian import? Worse, what if, as Christians are doing in other Asian countries, we were supplanting ancient Asian musical and artistic traditions with the consumeristic banality of four-chord pop music? Is this not just as much a collusion with modern commercial powers as the older collusion with military-industrial regimes?
My brief was to speak about interfaith dialogue in the context of reconciliation. So, I will conclude these ruminations with an open-ended question. I stand here as a representative of the Christian Church which does indeed seek converts in Japan, in a Japanese Buddhist temple which likewise seeks converts here in England.
My question is: how can we remain true to our callings as Christians and Buddhists in a way which does not destroy the beauty of one another’s inheritance – and the truth to which such beauty alludes – but rather strives to preserve and augment it?
Gratia non tollit natura sed perficit…