Tag Archives: theology

Political theology and the “pivot to Asia”

In the fields of critical historiography, gender studies, world history, postcolonial theory, and so on, there is, it seems to me, a widespread acceptance in many circles that global and postcolonial perspectives are essential for any serious study.

For example, in recent times we might go back to Immanuel Wallerstein’s world systems theory from the 1970s for better understanding global economic systems, Edward Said’s 1978 Orientalism to explore the way imperial knowledge contributed to power structures, the alternative historiography of the Subaltern Studies Group initiated in the 1980s by Ranajit Guha and others, the various approaches at writing global history (one of my recent favourites is C. A. Bayly’s 2004 The Birth of the Modern World), global understandings of feminism and gender from Leila Ahmed, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak – and so on. If we approach what might be regarded as questions of religion more directly, we find similar global perspectives in the work of William Cavanaugh (The Myth of Religious Violence, 2009), Abdulkhader Tayob, Sabine Dedenbach and many more.

Of course, there are a great number of scholars in Western universities who manage to ignore all this, or resort to colonial constructions to discuss the global context, using terms such as “ethnophilosophy” (that’s basically the study of non-European philosophy not written by white men) or “ethnomusicology” (that’s basically the study of non-European music not written by white men) or “ethnohistory” (that’s… oh, you can work it out!). But serious, useful, and relevant scholarship increasingly looks at much wider perspectives. This is why I found Kwok Pui-Lan’s introduction to a recent issue of Political Theology rather depressing (version with footnotes; note that the links to the articles are broken, try here to read them).

Kwok Pui-Lan, writing for Political Theology (click the image to read the blog posting; the original article has footnotes)

Kwok Pui-Lan, writing for Political Theology (click the image to read the blog posting; the original article has footnotes)

To be clear: I regard Pui-Lan as a great scholar, and have read and learnt from her work over many years (and her occasional blog is very enjoyable). I am not criticising her at all. Rather, I am depressed that after so many years of global scholarship, it is still necessary in a journal such as Political Theology to go right back to the basics as Pui-Lan has clearly felt she had to do here, and highlight all that still needs to be done to make contemporary political theology relevant in a global world.

I studied theology for my undergraduate degree from 1986 to 1990 at Aberdeen in Scotland and at Erlangen in Germany. Both had a reputation as being somewhat conservative – and yet I was reading global theology from the beginning of my degree, if not always as part of my courses. By the end of my second year, I would say I had a solid grounding in the thinking of key Latin American liberation theologians (Gustavo Gutierrez, Leonardo Boff, Ernesto Cardenal, Miguez Bonino etc.), South African theologies of resistance (John de Gruchy, Allan Boesak, Desmond Tutu etc.), and increasing interests in the ways these global theological trends related to my own context in the capitalist West (Dorothee Sölle, Christopher Rowland, Alastair Kee etc.). In the midst of all this, I also read and engaged with Asian liberation theology, beginning with Aloysius Pieris (1988). And in amidst all of this, the impact of feminism and global gender theologies wove its way into my thinking in all these areas: Sallie McFague, Carter Heyward, Daphne Hampson, Audre Lorde, Rosemary Radford Ruether, Elizabeth Schüssler-Fiorenza, Luise Schottroff and so on. When Chung Hyun Kyung’s Struggle to be the Sun Again on Asian women’s theology came out in Britain in 1991, I bought and read it immediately. In much of this literature, there was a recognition that systems of oppression emanated not only from Western contexts, but more generally from alliances with systems of power, whether they be European, Asian, or race-, class- or gender-based.

I mention all these authors simply because they played a formative role in my early theological development. I was 18 when I started reading these texts (I’d no doubt benefit from revisiting them all now!), and for me, theology has always been global. In my own understanding as an early undergraduate, the ‘global turn’ for theology took place in the 1970s with Gutierrez and others – of course, I soon realised that that was not correct, but it shows that I was aware of the need for a global understanding, and I could see that it was already happening.

And yet, in 2016, three decades later, we still have an established journal in Western theological circles explaining from first principles why we need to look at what is happening globally to better understand what our political theology might look like. It feels rather patronising, but I actually feel sorry for Pui-Lan that she her concluding paragraph includes the lines:

In order to speak to the present situation prophetically, political theologians must decolonize our minds and disengage ourselves from Eurocentrism and the colonial syndrome.

The theologians I mentioned above were doing exactly this in the 1970s, 80s and 90s, and before – and they and others have continued to do so since then. But even the articles in this issue of Political Theology do not appear to do what Pui-Lan is asking for, being centred almost exclusively on traditional Western thought. Thank goodnesss Political Theology does not represent the status of political theology!

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Theology and architecture: ‘fencing the table’ in Tobha Mor

The Church of Scotland and related Presbyterian churches in Scotland have only two sacraments: Baptism and Communion (in other traditions, called the Eucharist, Lord’s Supper, Mass, Divine Service etc.). As with many traditions, the interpretation and practice underpinning these sacraments has changed significantly over time (a very gentle way of hinting at huge controversies that have dominated Western ecclesiastical history for centuries!).

One of the key disputes in Presbyterian tradition has been over who is allowed to receive the elements of bread and wine at the Communion Table (as it tends to be called in Presbyterian contexts). There are several understandings, which can be summarised as follows:

  1. open – it is understood to be the Lord’s Table, and not that of any one church, and therefore nobody may be excluded who regards themselves as Christian. Phrases such as “All who know the Lord” are often used in the invitation. Doctrinally, the contemporary Church of Scotland follows an open pattern, though this is a relatively recent development.
  2. guarded or close – only those who have been baptised and are members of a recognised church may participate in Communion. This can exclude children, for example, who might not be regarded as full members of a church.
  3. closed – only members of that particular church are admitted to Communion. The Catholic Church theoretically operates on a closed basis: doctrinally, only Catholics are supposed to receive the elements, though in practice I have often been invited to join at Mass, even though the priest knew I was not Catholic.

This third category is of interest to me here. In Scottish Presbyterianism, particularly in the 18th and 19th centuries, adherence to closed Communion led to a practice known as ‘fencing the table’: the minister would invite members of the congregation to the Table and would do so by describing the marks of grace of a Christian, as a form of encouragement. However, this also meant that there were those who did not have the right to sit at the Table, and appropriate descriptions of them were also given; texts such as 1 Cor 5:11, 13 were used in this regard:

11: But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother or sister who is sexually immoral or greedy, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber. Do not even eat with such a one.

13: God will judge those outside [the community of faith]. “Drive out the wicked person from among you.” (NRSV translation)

This invitation meant that in Communion season (often Communion happened just a few times a year at most) the elders would check up on every member, in a catechetical or teaching context, to verify that their lives showed evidence of appropriate marks of grace – rather than the opposite. Biblical verses such as 1 Cor 11:27-28 were used to argue this, with this kind of catechical approach intended to be an aid to self-examination:

27: Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord.
28: Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. (NRSV translation)

Members who were deemed to be suitably devout were given a Communion token, a small minted coin, that at the service was given to one of the elders who would then allow the person to sit at the Table in order to receive Communion. Whilst formally the minister’s invitation/admonition was known as ‘fencing the table’ it also took physical form: the Table would often be set apart from the rest of the church and physically fenced in, meaning elders could ensure only those with appropriate tokens would be allowed to participate. It is worth noting the opportunities for abuse that such a process of assessment gave ministers and elders, especially, perhaps, in the context of a patriarchal society that worried about women’s sexuality.

Gradually, as the Church of Scotland moved away from closed Communion and the practice of fencing the table church interiors changed to reflect this, and fenced Communion Tables were removed. In fact, despite having visited countless Church of Scotland churches over the years, I had never seen a fenced Communion Table, and I simply assumed they no longer existed.

Tobha Mor, Eaglais Na H-Alba/Howmore, Church of Scotland

Tobha Mor, Eaglais Na H-Alba/Howmore, Church of Scotland

My surprise, therefore, at hearing that the Church of Scotland church at Tobha Mor (Howmore) on the island of South Uist not only had a fenced Table but a centrally-placed one, meant that a visit was obligatory! It is apparently one of only two churches with fenced tables in the entire Church of Scotland (I don’t know where the second one is), though there may be examples remaining in the Free Church of Scotland or other denominations. We visited Tobha Mor last week, on Saturday 20. August, the day before the new minister, Rev. Lindsey Schlüter, took her first service there (her induction to the parishes of Barra and South Uist had just taken place). The following photographs of the church and the interior are from that visit.

Tobha Mor, Eaglais Na H-Alba/Howmore, Church of Scotland

Tobha Mor, Eaglais Na H-Alba/Howmore, Church of Scotland

Tobha Mor, Eaglais Na H-Alba/Howmore, Church of Scotland

Tobha Mor, Eaglais Na H-Alba/Howmore, Church of Scotland

The front of the church. Note here the empty belfrey: belfries of churches in the Outer Hebrides often lacked bells.

Alastair McIntosh has given this some thought, and is involved in Mhairi Killin and Hugh Watt’s project on Re-Soundings of church bells on the islands of Lewis and Iona, ‘focussed on the bell as a vehicle to move through a timeline of religious ideologies, from its presence in the early Christian period on Iona through its destruction during the reformation, to its absence, as exemplified in the present day belfries of the Presbyterian Church on Lewis.’ Their project is well-worth following.

Tobha Mor, Eaglais Na H-Alba/Howmore, Church of Scotland

Tobha Mor, Eaglais Na H-Alba/Howmore, Church of Scotland

The west coast of the island is very flat, and the white church, seen here from the back, stands out as a marker for sailors along the coast.

From the outside, this looks like a typical village church, but the interior is quite different.

Tobha Mor, Eaglais Na H-Alba/Howmore, Church of Scotland

Tobha Mor, Eaglais Na H-Alba/Howmore, Church of Scotland

This view is from the balcony, and shows the Communion Table between the pews.

Tobha Mor, Eaglais Na H-Alba/Howmore, Church of Scotland

Tobha Mor, Eaglais Na H-Alba/Howmore, Church of Scotland

The partition around the Table is at roughly the same height as the Table itself, with three doors on each side.

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There are doors on either side near the front, and two doors on each side near the back of the church, all of which can be locked shut with bolts.

Tobha Mor, Eaglais Na H-Alba/Howmore, Church of Scotland

Tobha Mor, Eaglais Na H-Alba/Howmore, Church of Scotland

The Communion Table and the benches are hinged at the doors, allowing easier movement – here both have been folded open.

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The view of the church when sitting at the Table, and from the lectern.

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From the pulpit, I had a sense of the Table appearing to be very long, even though the church itself is relatively small.

Tobha Mor, Eaglais Na H-Alba/Howmore, Church of Scotland

Tobha Mor, Eaglais Na H-Alba/Howmore, Church of Scotland

Whilst the theological significance of the partition is to encourage the Christian life and welcome those who live it, the inevitable exclusion of those deemed not to be worthy of receiving Communion becomes very apparent when standing outside the partition.

Tobha Mor Church is a fascinating example of a traditionally fenced Communion Table, and whilst ‘fencing the table’ is no longer a part of the Church of Scotland’s doctrinal position, I am intrigued as to why Tobha Mor has kept the central fenced table. Of course, sitting around an actual table for Communion – rather than in pews as most Church of Scotland churches organise it – undoubtedly increases the sense of a community meal, and there is something rather special about that kind of Communion. There may also be more prosaic reasons, such as a lack of funds to make the changes that most other churches have adopted.

My wife, Rev. Sigrid Marten, the minister of Balfron Church linked with Fintry Kirk, in Stirlingshire, wondered if the existence of central fenced Communion Tables perhaps explains why so many Church of Scotland churches lack a central aisle: there could once have been a Communion Table there that has now been replaced by additional pews. For example, it is easy to imagine that the central pews are a new addition to Fintry Kirk:

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This is clearly something to find out more about when I am home again and have access to additional resources.

If you know of another Church of Scotland church which still retains a fenced table, I’d be grateful if you could use the comments function to provide details.

The Church of Scotland’s ‘The Inheritance of Abraham’ report revisited

On 23 May 2013 General Assembly, the highest decision-making body of the Church of Scotland, discussed and agreed a report on ‘The Inheritance of Abraham’.

The next day, Ekklesia published the following article that I had written: ‘Assessing the Kirk’s report on theologies of land in the context of Israel/Palestine’.

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At today’s meeting of the Church of Scotland’s General Assembly, a report from the Church and Society Council on theology of land in the context of Israel/Palestine was discussed: The inheritance of Abraham? A report on the ‘promised land’.  There are two broader contextual elements to this report that are worth outlining in brief.

Firstly, the Kirk has a long tradition of engaging in one way or another with Palestine, and then Israel and Palestine.  In modern history, engagement in the 19th and first half of the 20th century was primarily in the context of missions, in the mistaken belief that (a) it could convert Jews to Presbyterianism, and (b) that this was a desirable thing to do (it should be noted they were largely unsuccessful).  Following World War Two and the genocidal destruction of European Jews, and shortly thereafter the creation of the State of Israel (1948), this position changed, and the Church of Scotland became broadly pro-Zionist and supportive of Israel, with no significant attempt to pursue evangelism amongst Jews.  Humanitarian aid aside, little attention was paid to the situation of Palestinians until the 1980s, when growing awareness of the political complexities of the illegal Israeli occupation of Palestinian land began to influence key debates.  By the 1990s, in substantial measure through listening to their ecumenical partners in the region, the Kirk had taken clear positions from an international law and justice perspective, abandoning the largely unquestioning Zionism of previous decades and supporting those seeking a just and peaceful resolution to the conflict through the two-state solution.  This change coincides with the 1987 intifada (Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation), the Madrid (1991) and Oslo (1993) conferences and the so-called ‘peace process’ that then developed.

Secondly, this year’s report places itself in a historical context of other reports from 2003, 2007 (both from the Kirk), and the 2009 Kairos Palestine statement, but it is also worth recalling the 2010 General Assembly debate that the Church and Society Council engaged in, regarding a proposal to boycott Israeli settlement goods.  Rev. Ian Galloway, then Convener of the Church and Society Council, famously withdrew the proposed boycott call as a result of the threat to the Church’s work in the region from Israeli laws designed to make boycott calls illegal: ‘The General Assembly “may take this legislation to be intimidatory”, said Mr Galloway, adding sorrowfully: “We are intimidated.”’  Of course, the Israeli government was not specifically targeting the Church of Scotland, but all civil society attempts to engage in nonviolent boycotts in protest against Israeli government policy, and the Kirk clearly felt intimidated.

The report that was discussed today is the second version of this report.  The first version (available here) caused considerable disquiet in certain Zionist circles, with acerbic comments in Israeli newspapers, and a number of negative reports in e.g. the London-based Jewish Chronicle.  There is certainly a case to be made that the Council approached this whole subject with some considerable naivety, and drafted the report in such a way that it could easily be misunderstood.  Two examples, one on content, one on the wider significance of the report, can be given to illustrate this:

  • One of the key areas that the Church failed to adequately address, even in the second version of the report, was the question of supersessionism: the idea that Jesus and the New Testament represent the ‘superseding’ of the Old Testament.  This poisonous trope has its origins in the centuries of European Christians’ anti-Jewish sentiment.  In the new version of the report the Council explicitly state that their approach ‘does not judge the faith of others nor suggest that one perspective supersedes another… [rather, it seeks to] challenge the manifestations of faith expressed by some on the question of land in these troubled places.’  This expression of their intent is sincere and laudable, but some parts of the report can and will still be read in a supersessionist light, and that is problematic.
  • I know that one of the key people involved was bemused that people beyond the Church would take such an interest in what he saw as simply an internal discussion document about the Church’s theology – it did not seem to have occurred to him that putting a PDF about the Middle East online might be of interest to people beyond the Kirk!

Whilst the report is about a theology of ‘promised land’ in relation to the Israel/Palestine question, the Jewish Chronicle was not alone in charactering this as a report ‘about Israel’ without any of the nuances that the Kirk sought to emphasise.  The Israeli Ambassador commented negatively on the report, and a meeting with the Church of Scotland was held on 9. May with representatives of the Scottish Council of Jewish Communities, the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the Movement for Reform Judaism, and Rabbis for Human Rights, at which it was agreed that the report would be withdrawn and revised (Church statement available via Andy Wightman’s site).  The revised report is what was discussed today.

The theologian Karl Barth argued that a Christian should read the Bible and the newspaper together, in other words, the Bible always needed to be read in relation to wider society.  This is what Rev. Foster-Fulton’s Church and Society Council sought to do in this case: articulate an understanding of ‘promised land’ in relation to an interpretation of the Bible AND the context of the situation in the Middle East.  It is asking a question: what emerges from interpreting the Bible and the situation in Israel/Palestine in relation to one another?  The Council report recorded different ways of interpreting Biblical texts, from literalism to more contextual approaches, whilst noting that they are ‘especially concerned at the recent actions of the Government of Israel’, explicitly commenting on settlements, the Wall, the blockade of Gaza, and the afore-mentioned anti-boycott law.

In the debate, Foster-Fulton, repeatedly highlighting what she described as ‘the huge imbalance of power’ in relations between Israel and Palestine, was very clear that the report is a critique of the Israeli occupation and not a comment on relations between the Kirk and Jewish people in Scotland.

This was given additional emphasis through passionate interventions from two Palestinian delegates, Rev. Na’el abu Rahman and Dr Bernard Sabella, who both affirmed the report of the Council.  Sabella noted that one could well regard the land as holy, but relationships between people were far more holy, and these were being harmed by the occupation.  Indeed, a number of commissioners spoke of personal visits to Israel/Palestine, and related harrowing accounts of the effects of the occupation on Palestinians.  These personal narratives appeared to play a strong role in commissioners’ voting patterns: most such accounts tended to be followed by supportive applause, and Foster-Fulton reminded commissioners that the report was about precisely how to understand the Bible’s ‘promised land’ texts in such contexts.

Has anything changed in terms of Church policy after today’s debate?  The Church’s relationships to those supporting a Zionist perspective will almost certainly have become more complex given the pointed rejection of key tenets of Zionist ideology and the potential for supersessionist readings of the report, but in broad terms, the report does not change the Kirk’s overall position on the conflict.  For a number of years now, as I outlined above, the Church of Scotland has backed a just peace between Israelis and Palestinians, whether Jewish, Christian or Muslim, whilst critiquing the fundamental injustice of Israel’s illegal occupation.  The report, which is being sent to local presbyteries and congregations to study, has the potential to raise considerable awareness of these issues, and for that, it is to be commended.  Rev. Foster-Fulton’s command of her subject on the podium ensured that the debate was mature and considered, and the report deserves to be widely read, including well beyond the Church of Scotland.

I note personal connections as follows: my spouse, Rev. Sigrid Marten, was part of the group that wrote the Church’s 2003 report, and following a request by Rev. Foster-Fulton, I provided some comments on the revised 2013 report.

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Of course, this saga can be viewed critically from a number of angles, and in the weeks after the Assembly I have spoken with a number of people about this episode and several issues have become clearer.  The rather astonishing naivety of the Kirk aside:

  • I am increasingly convinced that it would not be unfair to characterise the pressure exerted on the Kirk as simple old-fashioned bullying.
  • key elements of the 9. May meeting correspond directly to classical memes of Zionist hasbara, and I am not convinced that all the Church representatives involved realised the ramifications of some of the things that they agreed to (such as the unqualified acceptance of the problematic phrase about ‘Israel’s right to exist’).
  • equally, the readiness of the Kirk to capitulate on key issues it had thought-through in the face of such pressure, however poorly expressed they may have been, is of concern. From conversations I have had, I am under the distinct impression that key elements of the compromise agreement came from those near the top of the Kirk hierarchy, and not necessarily those involved in the Church and Society Council who had written the original report.

That the report’s writing and reception caused these problems at all is, I think, attributable to poor planning on the part of the Kirk’s Church and Society Council.  There was an obvious failure to engage sufficiently with individuals who had expertise in the issues being addressed, both in the context of the writing process, and the reception of the report. As noted in my Ekklesia article, the Kirk has a long-standing engagement in the region, and there are a number of people from church and academic backgrounds who could have been invited to help, both informally/unofficially in the context of the writing process, and more formally/officially at the 9. May meeting. I include myself in this, not in the sense that I expect the Council to necessarily want to draw upon my background and expertise, but simply in the sense that I had offered my services in December 2012 to the Council via its Secretary, but was told no external help was needed or being sought.

My engagement in the re-writing process happened in other ways: when the report first came out, I read it and was horrified: I could see what it was trying to do, but thought it was seriously flawed in many ways, and would have a very difficult time passing the General Assembly.  I immediately offered advice to the Convener, Ms Foster-Fulton, who would have to defend it in the Assembly.  She took me up on the offer right away, and also informed me about the 9. May meeting before it happened.  I was then tangentially involved with a small group of people involved in the numerous rewrites: key versions were emailed to me, and I commented extensively upon them.  This needs to be understood for what it was: panicked remedial work on the part of leading members of the Council, seeking to incorporate the thrust of the first report, whilst trying to reconcile it with the contradictory statements made on 9. May.  My role here was tangential: I would estimate that about 1/5 of the comments I made were incorporated in some form.

What next?  Theoretically the report (in the new, amended form) is to be sent down to presbyteries and congregations to discuss.  What they will make of it is hard to know, if they discuss it at all.  However, given the bruising experience that the senior Church and Society Council members have undergone with this report, I would be (pleasantly) surprised if they returned to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict any time soon.  That would be a shame, as it obviously raises numerous important theological and moral issues that the Church would do well to address.  If they do not re-engage with this issue, then I think it fair to say that the bullying they have undergone has clearly achieved something.

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Given that the Kirk has removed the first version of the report from its website, and the statement from 9.5. is gone too (thankfully it is still available on Andy Wightman’s site noted above), I have put both of the reports on my site.  I am also including a third file that someone I know compiled, contrasting the two versions: