What Kind Of People Worship Here? Who Is Their God?
The sight of George Speight, leader of the Fiji coup, and his less-than-merry band of rebels taking Sunday off and gathering in the parliamentary grounds in order to attend a church service has been a particularly galling sight. While on the one hand he was all ‘humble in the sight of God’ and reverent, simultaneously he was holding 31 hostages under threat of execution in another part of the compound. Television is nothing less than graphic on such occasions and the images of hymn-singing, gun-toting, balaclava clad men (there appeared to be no women involved) was almost surreal.
This event took my mind back to the chilling words in a famous speech by Martin Luther King Jr in Birmingham, Alabama during one of the great civil rights marches of the 1960s. Speaking to a huge crowd in what was in essence a segregated city,, he declared, ‘I have travelled the length and breath of Alabama, Mississippi and all the other southern states. I have looked at their beautiful churches with their lofty spires pointing heavenward. I have beheld the impressive outlay of their massive religious education buildings. Over and over again I have found myself asking, ‘What kind of people worship here? Who is their God?’
The Fiji service reminded me of my reaction to scenes of General Pinochet and his entourage attending Mass celebrated by the cardinal archbishop of Santiago in the Cathedral in September 1973, shortly after the coup there. Thirty years on and more than 3000 deaths later, a subsequent government seeks to bring him to trial for murder, kidnapping and torture. What kind of people worship here? Who is their God?
I remember being in Brandtfort in the Orange Free State and seeing the churches full of white worshippers while less than two miles outside the town 50 000 black Africans lived in squalor – one water tap per street, no latrines, no electricity, disease everywhere, malnutrition rife. What kind of people worship here? Who is their God?
In 1982 I watched the July 12th parade in Belfast as it arrived at ‘the field’ after strutting six miles in the heat to celebrate the division of Christianity and the triumph of one religious group over another. There, marchers immediately conducted a religious thanksgiving service of such bigotry that one had to wonder what century we were in. ‘Let us drive the papists from our shores, so there will be no more popery, no more slavery, no more knavery’. This was in 1982, not 1682. Again the question. What kind of people worship here? Who is their God?
During the 1980s I fumed as the US governments of Ronald Reagan and George Bush, both professing Christians, waged an illegal war against Nicaragua because social justice was starting to be effective there. I watched in horror as the biggest empire on earth went to war against tiny countries such as Grenada, Libya, El Salvador, Panama, and Iraq. I have watched the war continue for 10 years against Iraq through the use of sanctions and daily bombings by US and UK bombers. More than one million have died since the war supposedly ended. It is now an issue of genocide. What kind of people worship here? Who is their God?
I watched in horror in 1991 when the New Zealand government, led by practising Christians in senior portfolios including Social Welfare, slashed benefits to the poorest and pushed thousands into poverty – all in the name of ideology. I have been dismayed so often by those same Christians in our parliament who have demanded tougher sentences for offenders, more prisons, tighter security, greater punishments, also in the name of ideology. This is done in the face of all the evidence now readily available that such an approach shatters family life, leads to huge re-offending rates, bonds like-minded individuals together and offers nothing useful to victims. What kind of people worship here? Who is their God?
The responsibility of Christians to know and understand the true God as revealed in Christ is a huge one. It is an even bigger responsibility for Church leaders. One must approach the quest with awe, humility and openness, lest arrogance take hold. Any old kind of faith simply will not do. About 80 percent of New Zealanders have a faith in some sort of God. A large proportion of them believe in the teachings of Christ. The Orangemen, the Chilean junta and the Speight mob also believed in God and Christ. But what sort of God? What sort of Christ? These are critical questions.
Post-Easter daily liturgical readings, particularly from the Gospel and letters of St John, give the best insights to the answer. The litmus test is not faith. It is not denomination or creed. John says it is love. The starting point for an authentic knowledge of and relationship with God is the recognition of God’s love for us, each and every individual among us. Each of us has value to one another regardless of origin, race or position in society – be it in prison, in parliament, in a church or out of one. As John’s gospel says, ‘those who hate do not know God.’ All the afore-mentioned leaders showed an antipathy towards their victims through their destructive policies, despite the perception TV may have given to the contrary. They did not know God.
The corollary to a knowledge and love of God is a genuine love for our neighbour. Down-to-earth gutsy, practical, everyday love. Not the romantic, candle-lit version of the advertisements or of so many C & W songs. This has its place but is largely sentimental, a parody of love. We are talking of the love that Father Zossima speaks of in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov: ‘Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams. Love in dreams is greedy for immediate action, rapidly performed and in the sight of all. Men will even give their lives if only the ordeal does not last long but is soon over, with all looking and applauding as though on the stage. But active love is labour and fortitude, and for some people, too, perhaps a complete science. But I predict that just when you see with horror that despite all your efforts that you are getting further from your goal instead of nearer to it, at that very moment you will reach and behold the miraculous power of the Lord who has been all the time lovingly and mysteriously guiding you.’
Understanding love as it is reflected in Christ and through the pages of scripture reveals the full tests of whether our God is real or one made in our own image and likeness. As American priest Emmanuel Charles McCarthy says, ‘Christians must choose between the homicidal and violent spirit of Cain and the Holy and Non-violent Spirit of Christ. Christians must not continue the pretence that they can serve two masters. One must serve either the infernal spirit of Cain or the Divine Spirit in Christ. To choose one is to betray the other.’
Pentecost celebrates the special blessings of the Divine Spirit on Christian believers. Only those open to the true understanding of God and the teachings of Christ will be recipients of the grace that accompanies such a celebration. That’s the way it was at the first Pentecost. Churches should be full of such people. But are they?
What kind of people worship here? Who is their God? It is a critical question for us all.