Rondebosch 24 April 2012
Title: God is God’s Worst Enemy
Preamble: It is a very great honour to have been invited to give this inaugural lecture in memory of this outstanding and brilliant young theological leader, Steve de Gruchy and as I extend yet again our deepest condolences to his dear parents John and Isobel, we all mourn a wonderful life cut short so tragically. I must straightaway apologise that this will not be an academic lecture as it should have been. No, it is going to be the rambling musings of a decrepit octogenarian fast approaching dotage. It was Steve’s death that prompted my musings and that provoked my title.
I was General Secretary of the SACC when I first visited Taize in France. I was attending one of their hauntingly beautiful services with their distinctive Taize chanting when as it were out of the blue I was struck by the imagery of Revelation 7 of the 144, 000, the perfect number of the blessed – and inspired to think of sending 144 South African youth of all races on what would be a Pilgrimage of Hope – 144 would represent a reconciled South Africa and that they would be an anticipation of a non racial, non sexist, democratic South Africa. When I returned home this group of young South Africans, the nucleus, the first fruits, this adumbration of a South Africa at peace with itself was assembled, led by the late Bishop Bruce Evans and then Father now Bishop Mervyn Castle. They visited Taize, Geneva and the Holy Land. Steve was one of those pilgrims.
His father recently told me that that pilgrimage had a profound effect on Steve in shaping his views about what sort of country he wanted. You know he had a brilliant career as a student. He went to work in Kuruman and saw what suffering forced removals and the Bantustan policy inflicted on its victims.
My next encounter with him was when he wanted a foreword for a book in which he was collaborating about human sexuality where he was advocating as you would expect equity for gay men and lesbians. And then that young pilgrim gained a PhD at UWC and I capped him as the Chancellor. He was already establishing himself as a distinguished academic and leading scholar and activist. Knowing his parents one realized he had really chosen well to be endowed with the genes he had inherited. Lately he was becoming a leading environmentalist which explains this olive tree. I read a glowing tribute to him by the WCC. Now wouldn’t most normal people have said “Wow, this man is priceless – worth his weight in platinum. He is almost indispensable in an evolving South Africa that wants to be free, democratic, non racial, non sexist? This one who had experienced a Pilgrimage of Hope, had worked where we could see the devastation caused by policies obsessed with race instead of caring for people as human beings, with a brilliant intellect, who realized just how vulnerable our natural environment is – would you not want to draft him into your team?” But it seems God thinks quite differently. That, dear friends, is what provoked the title of this commemorative lecture. God is God’s Worst Enemy.
What would the Roman Catholic Church have looked like had Pope John 23 lived to see Vatican 2 to its logical conclusion? What would have been the state of ecumenical relations? We obviously don’t really know but could extrapolate and conjecture and say it is reasonable to think that they would have been other than they are today. But Pope John’s life was cut tragically short. We could multiply examples – John F Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr, Mahatma Gandhi, Chris Hani, Robert Sobukhwe, Steve Biko etc, etc. Do you understand the reason for my title?
Let us start with the biblical evidence. Virtually all those who are the stars in God’s drama are flawed, some almost to the point of nullifying their good attributes. None of those playing in God’s team is without blemish. Joseph, his doting father’s pampered favourite must have been a pain in the neck as he revelled in telling the stories of his dreams predicting his future prominence when his older brothers would end up fulfilling his dream predictions by their obsequious fawning. His aging father, Jacob was no better having cheated his famished brother Esau of his birthright with the help of a colluding mother both willing to deceive an ailing old man virtually on his death bed. Even their ancestor Abraham who was God’s friend thought nothing of passing off his wife Sarah as his sister to save his own skin. Moses had a foul temper. He smashed the tablets on which God had inscribed the Decalogue because he saw the Israelites dancing around the golden calf which his brother Aaron said had emerged marvellously from the molten precious stones he had thrown into the fire. David had been almost immaculate until he espied Bathsheba bathing and committed adultery with her and arranged for the killing of her husband Uriah. Don’t you think Elijah remarkably courageous standing up as he did for Yahweh against Queen Jezebel and her conniving husband King Ahab insisting that Yahweh alone was Israel’s God? But would you not agree sadly that he blotted his copybook spectacularly when he presided over the slaughter of the prophets of Baal. Would you not feel much the same about Samuel and Saul? Saul seems a much nicer person for sparing Agag while Samuel speaking for God is so bloodthirsty as he hacks Agag ruthlessly to death with all his household.
It really is not much better in the New Testament. It is one of his own disciples who betrays Our Lord and another, who was to become the chief of the apostles denied his master not once but three times. And they all abandoned Him, leaving Him in the lurch. The one who was to become the leading evangelist and theologian of the new movement started out as a persecutor of the movement he was to promote and even after his conversion was forever engaging in self justification.
And just think of the Crusades, the Inquisition, the burning of heretics at the stake. Christians, Muslims and believers in some deity or other have been responsible for slavery, lynching, for the Holocaust, for apartheid etc.
Someone observed that God’s servants were programmed to fail. It is in the texture, the make up of this universe that there will be suffering and failure and distress, a feature of the nature of things that evokes the heartrending, anguished cries “But why” or “But why me/us Lord?” Could this universe not have been planned differently to work out in a way that did not inflict so much and so frequently seemingly gratuitous suffering? St Theresa of Avila is reported as observing to God “ No wonder your friends are so few considering how you treat them!” We learn too how Mother Teresa of Calcutta experienced agonizing desolation in her prayer life for most of her life.
We have heard or even ourselves uttered the agonizing cry “But why….” In an ultimate sense I really don’t know. In the end for me as for most of us it is a mystery and I have to accept that I must have a reverent agnosticism. Why did God create precisely this sort of universe? I would have to be God to know the ultimate answer. But there are things that I have noted. Why would a good God permit such atrocities to happen when they happen? Most of us have our understanding of power. Most of us reckon it does mean not being frustrated in achieving your purpose. We have been socialized to understand that power enables you to get what you want when you want. We cannot really understand an omnipotence that can be frustrated in achieving its goal. It is one of the abiding mysteries that there can be the oxymoron of a weak omnipotence. But I think this is the wonder of the God we worship, that God says “I gave you a gift, the gift of free will and I will respect that gift”. God would not use God’s power to compel us to choose the right. We really are free to choose, to commit the horror of a genocide or whatever. And God will sit there weeping, making available God’s grace to enable us to choose the right. But it is grace, it is a gift which we are free to accept or refuse. It would be contrary to God’s nature to ram God’s gift down our throats. It would no longer be a gift. This God does behave oddly. God chooses not the powerful achieving ones, God chooses a motley group of slaves to be eventually God’s Chosen People to accomplish God’s purpose for the world. This is a God who sides with the poor, the downtrodden, the despised. That is not the way of the world. Those God chooses are not deserving. It is grace, it is a free, unearned, unearnable gift, for which no one can be worthy. The Christ died for us whilst we were yet sinners, not when we were die able for – no precisely when we did not deserve it was when God’s gift came. It is an extraordinary set up. The Good Shepherd goes not after the good sheep, not after the cuddly lamb as most of our pictures depict him. He leaves the perfectly well behaved sheep to go and find the obstreperous ram which, having found it, He carries joyfully on His shoulder home. And Jesus pronounces quite categorically that there is in this God’s heaven more joy over the one sinner who repents than over the ninety nine who needed no repentance.
There are other standards at work here. One might say “Couldn’t God have created a pain free universe?” I don’t know what it would have been like – how would we have learned to be compassionate, gentle and caring if there were none of those whose suffering evoked those attributes in us? Would a Nelson Mandela have evolved into the magnanimous moral giant he has become without the twenty seven years of anguish and imprisonment? He went to prison an angry Commander in Chief of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the ANC’s armed wing, believing in the efficacy of violence. The 27 years of imprisonment burned away the dross and he emerged to become the icon of forgiveness and reconciliation and is rightly feted by the entire globe. Would this metamorphosis have been possible without the anguish of 27 years imprisonment?
God has placed us in this universe and it is a universe precisely because it isn’t chaos and has laws that make it possible for those who live in it knowing to plan, to predict what to expect – that if a baby fell out of a window gravity would send it crashing to the ground and not miraculously to float upwards. Why did God not suspend that law to save the baby? If gravity was suspended we would have a chaos happening. The regularity of nature enables us to plan ahead knowing on the whole what is going to happen, but it comes at a cost, that generally miracles will not happen that see a suspension of the natural laws.
The Mystery of God
Looking at what has happened as we have made a mess of living in God’s world, God has not given good advice from a safe distance; God has staggered us by entering the fiery furnace because God is Immanuel, God with us. God with us in joy and in sorrow, in light and in darkness, in success and in failure, in life and in death, this God comes down and participates in our entire existence – this God is born and lives as one of us, the life of the poor and despised and dies, the immortal dies and we are called to share this eternal life. I don’t understand it. I just accept it. Julian of Norwich concerned about the fate of sin is assured that God will make all things well.
I want to end this by quoting a poem by Isobel who has written an anthology “Making all Well” inspired by her reading of Julian’s Revelations of divine love.
Poem 68 You will not be Overcome
In my deep distress, O Lord I turned to your promises:
I shouted them to you:
I flung them back at you:
“The Lord protects you;”
“The Lord will deliver you,”
“No evil will befall you, for his angels will bear you up so that you do not dash your foot against the stone.”
I clung to these, o Lord, but there was no protection;
no deliverance – no angels to lift our son up – only the stones dashing his head – the waters covering him, death claiming him.
What about your promises- O Lord, where were you?
Then I remembered those other promises:
Promises that Jesus made:
“The gate is narrow and the way hard.”
“You have a cross to carry daily.”
“The world will hate you.”
For he did not say, “You will not be tempted, You will not be troubled, You will not be distressed.”
But he did promise, “you will not be overcome.”
No easy ride,
no special privileges,
Cling only to his promise to love you:
Whether things are going well, or, everything is falling apart,
be strong in your faithful trust,
For you will not be overcome.