Saturday, 6 October 2018

Christian Today - Opposite-sex civil partnerships are a Bad idea

The news site Christian Today has kindly published an article by me on why Theresa May's plan to introduce opposite-sex civil partnerships is a bad, unnecessary idea.

Read the whole argument here:
Opposite-sex civil partnerships: Divisive, pointless and an all-round bad idea

Basically, the commitment in marriage is a good thing. And we can't encourage more stable relationships by watering down the idea of commitment involved in marriage and by dividing a common institution in half. Also there is no other example of parallel, identical legal institutions that do the same thing. The government should be promoting marriage, and helping people be prepared for stable, long-lasting marriages not undermining it. 


Sermon on Acts 4:1-22 - Peter and John arrested by the High Council

"Then they called them in and commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John replied, “Which is right in God’s eyes: to listen to you, or to him? You judge! As for us, we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.”" Acts 4:18-20.

These words are the core of our reading today. In the choice of the Sanhedrin, and the response of Peter and John, we see totally opposite approaches to the same facts, the same events. Two options we have today, two options our whole country, our whole world has today and in the years to come.

Peter and John healed a crippled man in the name of Jesus Christ, and preached the news of his resurrection to the crowds. For this they were thrown into prison by the Sanhedrin, the High Council or High Court, of the Jewish people at that time, the same council that had convicted Jesus, and now faced his disciples confidently preaching the news that he had risen to new life. When this High Council, sent Jesus to die they must have thought their problem was solved. Killing a man tends to stop him causing you any more trouble. And movements built around one charismatic man or woman tend to disappear when that person is dead. But months later, they are faced with Peter and John leading a growing movement, preaching and healing through that same Jesus Christ. And the response of the Council shows they are confused, "What are we going to do with these men?", they ask.

Like many politicians today that have to deal with problems all the time, but still, they have surprisingly few ways to do it.  They can't bribe Peter and John, that clearly won't work, and they don't have an excuse to kill them, so they're fresh out of ideas.  If you're a ruler in an ancient, undemocratic society, paying people off or killing them is usually the solution. So the Council tries their backup plan, they try to order them around, threaten them, intimidate them, and hope they're scared into keeping quiet. But if they hoped Peter and John would be scared into silence, they have no idea what kind of men they are dealing with.

For these are not the same men they were before. In the Gospels Peter was brash, he was enthusiastic, he always ran in first without thinking. But at the most important moment he was brittle too. When they came to arrest Jesus, Peter ran away, and when Jesus was held prisoner facing death, in fear Peter denied knowing Jesus three times. Peter talked a good talk, and when the going seemed good he was enthusiastic, but when things turned sour he flunked the real test of commitment and loyalty pretty bad.

Jesus never gave up on Peter though, not after the Resurrection, not on the Cross. "Forgive them Lord, they do not know what they do" - I wonder if that was meant for Peter too, who did not kill Jesus, but had gone back on the commitment he had promised to his friend. Indeed, often our friends abandoning us hurts more than our enemies actively trying to harm us. And after the Resurrection Jesus welcomed Peter back: Jesus practiced exactly what he preached, he forgave Peter and restored him to a position of trust, by challenging him to raise himself up through taking responsibility for Jesus' followers the way he had - Peter "take care of my sheep", he said.

Jesus knew Peter's potential despite the weakness and fraility in his personality, but in total difference to the High Council, Jesus does not seek to lead by ordering or threatening people but as a true leader, one who shows his example of integrity, compassion, and sacrifice, and so inspires and invites people to choose to follow after him. And of course, this doesn't just apply to Peter, the same Love Jesus had for Peter is the love he has for every one of us, every day. He has no wish to hold our sins against us, or our shame, our guilt, or our fear, but holds out a hand every day saying 'follow me', rise to the challenge, be a little more the person your best moments show you can be. Follow me, not on your own, never on your own, but with God's help and grace, filled with power by his trust and love.

And so Peter stood up, a bit taller, and allowed himself to be inspired to rise to the challenge and take responsibility for that community he had around him. But even all that, Good Friday and those Resurrection meetings, that's not all that transformed the old Peter, enthusiastic but uncertain, into the new Peter we see in Acts. Even in the book of Acts we see the disciples still uncertain about what is going on. Just before Jesus ascends into heaven they're asking him, "‘Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?’" and for the last time on this earth he has to lovingly correct them.

But then, on Pentecost, Fire comes. Fire comes down, the Holy Spirit of God comes to live in the disciples and everyone who puts their trust in Jesus. And these people, they are not the same.

So now they are standing before the Council that condemned Jesus, being threatened and commanded, with genuine reason to fear for their lives, What are they like? Certain! Clear! In fact, totally unfazed! I'm sure they felt fear inside, they're still human after all, but their conviction was so great that it overwhelmed their fear. And so they stood utterly solid, their heards held high and their backs straight, and spoke the simple and utter truth. I-mean, what a revolutionary thing to do, no embellishment, no beating around the bush, just the plain truth - "As for us, we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard". And the Council couldn't believe it. "When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realised that they were uneducated, ordinary men, they were astonished." Astonished! But why were they astonished?

It might need fancy degrees, and training in rhetoric and debating, to come up with complex justifications for things that probably shouldn't be justified. But it does not require any training at all to speak the plain truth about what you have seen and heard, and nothing more. Jesus talked about the "wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the water rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; but it did not fall down", because its foundations were deep in that solid rock. Peter and John were those wise men that day, because they had seen and heard the truth, that Jesus is risen, and they set their foundations, their words, in the deep and solid rock.

I'm sure they still felt fear, that's a totally understandable physical response to knowing you're under threat, but they were not afraid. After all, why should they be afraid, knowing what they knew. All the High Council could do was threaten their bodies with physical violence, to beat them or even kill them. But what do those threats mean to men who have seen their Lord pass from death to life again, and know he has gone "to prepare a place" for them? And this is true in their speech - clear, direct, honest. No need to lie, or embellish, or circle round the point. What more needs adding to Jesus' words, or taking away from the truth of what God did in those 50 days from Good Friday to Pentecost, was doing through Peter and John then, and is still doing now?

And there is freedom in that. Many times in our wider Church, our Society, our Politics, we get bogged down in too many words, tieing ourselves up in complex arguments about things that actually are distracting us from what really matters. For the apostle John, who stood beside Peter, what really mattered was summed up like this- "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that all who believe in him should not perish, but have eternal life", and elsewhere he said it even more briefly, "God is Love". Not because that's the only thing that matters, but because everything that does matter connects to that. Now, at times we need more words, this sermon is not 3 words long. But the more words we pile up, inevitably the further away we get from words that really matter, and we run the risk that each additional word means less and less. Our words and thoughts are freed this when we know what really matters and we keep it at the front of our mind.

Of course this freedom doesn't just free us from needing too many words. More importantly it defines how our words can be spoken. I-mean, what emotional place our words come from. Peter and John were now living in the sure and certain hope of the Resurrection, and with that we can be powerfully changed. They knew that if they fell in this world then God would catch them. Even if they died in the flesh they would rise in the Spirit to their Lord who waited for them. So they were  not afraid, and more, they had no trace of all the terrible feelings that come out of fear, and damage us as individuals, and our wider society.

There was no bitterness in Peter and John, and the other disciples, no hatred, no deceit, no cunning, no worry, not even really any anger. Because like fear, what need do they have for those things? A few chapters later in Acts, St Stephen, my namesake, was stoned to death by an angry crowd, the first Christian to die for speaking about Jesus. But even as the stones fell his last words were "Lord, do not hold this sin against them." He had no need for bitterness too, he had seen Jesus sat at God's right hand only moments before. I'm not saying it's easy, or we can all do it instantly, most sadly not, but we can all have that knowledge before us, and over time let it slowly soften our soul.

In the end all our negative emotions are attempts to defend ourselves by forcing the world into the shape we want through sheer force of will. When people watch a football match, they often feel all sorts of fears and doubts, they get angry about a decision or an event while the match is going on, because they want to make the result go how they want it by their own sheer emotional effort. That's why we yell at the TV. But if we already know the final score, because it's a recording or whatever, if we already know the final score then none of that anger, rage and doubt are there.

Peter and John, and all of us, we know the final score of this world, proved through the death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the coming of the Holy Spirit. We know, we should know, that God will catch us if we fall, and with that knowledge we can let go of the fear and tension and doubt in ourselves we hold inside. We still have to act, of course we do. But in everything we do we can let go, and let God. No need to cling to our schemes and strategies, that consciously or unconsciously we use to try to fully control the world around us. Beause it won't work anyway, and we don't need it.

This can lift a heavy weight off our shoulders. Jesus said “Come to me, all you who are tired and burdened, and I will give you rest",  come to me, "For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” How could he say that? Jesus was murdered, his disciples were almost all murdered, he calls us to be willing to give everything, to devote our hearts to God and to our neighbour before ourselves. How is this a light burden?

Well, we see the answer clearly in Peter and John, because they have lost the weight of bitterness, of hate, of needing to fight to defend ourselves, of being afraid; because beyond the veil of this physical world around us they know their Lord, Our Lord, waits for them with all the power of Heaven. The Council can threaten their bodies, but that is all they can do, and with God's power filling their souls, that is not very much indeed; and with that all stripped away there is no reason left to be afraid, they are left with what is truly real - the presence of God and his Love. And that is an easy burden indeed.

So that is Peter and John, but what about the Sanhedrin, the High Council they're facing?  We see in them a mirror-image, the opposite of what we see in Peter and John, and sadly one that is all too common in our world. They threatened Peter and John, and what a waste of time that was. But what was the reason that they had dragged the Disciples before them to be imprisoned, threatened and intimidated? Peter had healed a man who had been sadly unable to walk for many years and when people demanded to know how he did this, Peter replied that it was not through their own power or holiness, but God who had done it through the name of Jesus Christ. And for this they were arrested.

The High Council knew as well that this was at least partially true. They could see the healed man standing there, an act of great kindness to that man, physically changing his life. That was a fact. They knew something incredible had happened, even if they didn't believe it was Jesus who was the true cause of it. And when we're faced with any new fact, we always have the choice, the option of learning something from it. Even if they didn't accept Jesus right then and there, they knew something very special, of goodness and power, had happened in front of them. So what did they learn from it? Nothing!

Jesus came preaching love, and 'turning the other cheek', and doing miracles of healing, and they had him killed for it, and assumed that was the end of it. Then Peter and John came healing a man crippled for many years, speaking love and truth, and the hope of salvation in Jesus' name, and they threatened them too. Jesus said "by their fruit you shall know them", but these politicians refused to learn anything from the good fruit Peter and John were producing. The High Council knew it was a miracle, but they learnt nothing from it. But why did they learn nothing from it? Because they were already sure they knew everything they needed to know. They thought they knew how God would act and who he would choose to act through, so sure that when some piece of miraculous goodness happened in front of them they could not see it.  They were so sure, they thought anyone who argued or acted differently was obviously a troublemaker up to no good. And that certainty meant they did not care if they had to use low, evil methods to get rid of them, for they believed it was ultimately in a good cause.

Does that sound to you like any problem we have in society today? My friends this is what partisanship, and tribalism, and ideological bubbles do to people throughout history. All of us can fall victim to it if we close our minds to the possibility that we could learn from someone different to ourselves. And that doesn't matter if they're different politically, or religiously, or ethnically, or different in age, or whatever.

Now in our society we don't generally go around threatening people with violence, though it does happen, but too often people go immediately into a defensive position when their side, their group, their team is challenged. We are too willing to assume bad faith in our opponents, to attack the man rather than the issue that has been raised, to automatically defend things if it means defending our side, and to attack any statement, idea or person that we see as on the wrong side, the other side. If we close our eyes and block up our ears, like the High Council did before Peter and John, then inevitably we miss part of the good that appears in front of us, and find ourselves defending or ignoring part of the evil, or responding with low and devious methods, because we believe the ends justify the means.

The answer is simple my friends - Like Peter and John we know the truth that God's infinite, eternal, over-powering Love for each and every one of us cannot be harmed or damaged by anything this world can throw at us. We know the truth that they killed Christ but he rose again and brings Resurrection to every one of us, and that turns all the threats of violence and deceit of this world into a pathetic nothing.

We know God's eye sees all good and all evil, that his word is the last and ultimate word, and that God never seeks to condemn a person because that person has a flaw within them. So we are free from any need to lash out defensively, to cling on and protect what we see as good with evasion, with bitterness, with slander, with abuse. We have no need for any of that, but can admit every fault with ourselves, or with our group, or with the world, without any trace of fear it will be used against us, and be open to see every piece of goodness wherever it may be found, in the knowledge Peter and John had, that God will catch us if we fall.

I believe that's our best hope, and the best hope for our world as well.

Amen.           


Image borrowed with thanks from http://millersportcc.com/sermons/bold-and-courageous/

Saturday, 28 July 2018

Mandalay (by Rudyard Kipling)

By Rudyard Kipling



















Read by Charles Dance at the 70th Anniversary 'Victory Over Japan' Day Commemorations


I've long been a Kipling fan, without any one of his poems leaping out at me. Kipling was a complex and brilliant writer, possibly the greatest phrase-turner since Shakespeare. Nobody could doubt his grip of rhyme, rhythm, and meter either, but at the same time the so-called 'vulgar' 'vitality' of his poems meant critics have struggled to classify him as a poet.

T.S.Elliot talked about Kipling writing more 'verse' than poetry, and Orwell called him a Good bad poet. Reading his poems you know what they meant, Kipling wrote with immediate, crude force - both serious and vivid, designed to hit home rather than ascend to fine art. His poems are a fiercely individual voice, whether his own, or representing a private British soldier, giving an experience or view intensely felt, and so stick in the mind longer than many more refined, delicate works.

On Kipling's politics one can't beat around the bush. He was a Tory supporter of late 19th Century British Imperialism, specifically as a civilising mission. He was also, in Orwell's words, neither a "yes-man or a time-server", and from the perspective of someone born 'out there' in the Empire, a bitter critic of Britain's government, its home population, and their failure to understand what Empire actually involved, particularly for the soldiers who had to defend it.

The British Empire was not what Kipling imagined it to be. But his own work was often too honest and concrete, even brutal and pessimistic, and in its own way sympathetic, to back up his personal enthusiasm. Even his most jingoist poems like The White Man's Burden sounds more like a warning of what a Vietnam or Iraq would turn into than a starry-eyed rhapsody about the joys of colonialism. He was an Imperialist but no bigot, without hatred or contempt for non-white peoples, and, for example, spoke far more harshly about the evil of German militarism than anyone the British fought in the Empire, and at the same time with real sympathy for the world he knew 'East of Suez'. Reading Kipling one has to disagree with his conclusions, but almost never feel like he is just lying about how the world is.

Most of his work is not pushing politics though, but describing an experience. It can exist on its own, regardless of the views of the man who wrote it. He does this with great artistic force, which can feel like it expresses us better than we can express ourselves, even if it literally describes a situation we've not known, in a place we've never been.

The video above is from the 70th Victory over Japan Day commemorations, with Charles Dance reading Mandalay, one of Kipling's most famous and beautiful poems, about a Victorian soldier remembering a love he left in Burma. Some of the lines are near perfectly, balanced, memorable and vivid. Unlike some poetry Kipling often comes across better heard aloud than on the written page. Charles Dance brings it alive, he doesn't just read it, he acts it out, and the result is like the difference between Shakespeare on the page and seeing it performed live. The music and setting just gently adds to this. It describes a world that no longer exists, but still speaks familiarly of loneliness, loss, love, joy remembered, new places and wonders experienced, and choices or changes we desperately wish we could make not so, but know we can't.

In the text I give below I have changed the semi-phonetic cockney slang Kipling wrote it in to standard English. For me at least, I agree with Orwell, that this makes it yet more beautiful, and easier to absorb and appreciate. Dance's accent in the video gives the sense of how Kipling intended it without needing the phonetic spelling, and the original version with "the aitches carefully dropped and final 'g's omitted" can be found here. (There is also a charming folk song version put to concertina by Peter Bellamy in the 1970s on youtube here.)



By the old Moulmein Pagoda, looking lazy at the sea,
There's a Burma girl a-sitting, and I know she thinks of me;
For the wind is in the palm-trees, and the temple-bells they say:
"Come you back, you British soldier; come you back to Mandalay! "
Come you back to Mandalay,
Where the old Flotilla lay:
Can't you hear their paddles chunking from Rangoon to Mandalay ?
On the road to Mandalay,
Where the flying-fishes play,
And the dawn comes up like thunder out of China across the Bay!

Her petticoat was yellow and her little cap was green,
And her name was Supi-yaw-lat - just the same as Theebaw's Queen,
And I seen her first a-smoking of a whacking white cheroot,
And a-wasting Christian kisses on an heathen idol's foot:
Blooming idol made o' mud
What they called the Great God Budd
Plucky lot she cared for idols when I kissed her where she stood!
On the road to Mandalay,
Where the flying-fishes play,
And the dawn comes up like thunder out of China across the Bay!

When the mist was on the rice-fields and the sun was dropping slow,
She'd get her little banjo and she'd sing "Kulla-lo-lo!
With her arm upon my shoulder and her cheek against my cheek
We used to watch the steamers and the hathis piling teak.
Elephants a-pulling teak
In the sludgy, squdgy creek,
Where the silence hung that heavy you was half afraid to speak!
On the road to Mandalay,
Where the flying-fishes play,
And the dawn comes up like thunder out of China across the Bay!

But that's all shoved behind me - long ago and far away
And there ain't no busses running from the Bank to Mandalay;
And I'm learning here in London what the ten-year soldier tells:
"If you've heard the East a-calling, you won't never heed naught else."
No! you won't heed nothing else
But them spicy garlic smells,
And the sunshine and the palm-trees and the tinkly temple-bells;
On the road to Mandalay,
Where the flying-fishes play,
And the dawn comes up like thunder out of China across the Bay!

I am sick of wasting leather on these gritty paving-stones,
And the blasted English drizzle wakes the fever in my bones;
Though I walks with fifty housemaids out of Chelsea to the Strand,
And they talks a lot of loving, but what do they understand?
Beefy face and grubby and -
Lord! what do they understand?
I've a neater, sweeter maiden in a cleaner, greener land!
On the road to Mandalay,
Where the flying-fishes play,
And the dawn comes up like thunder out of China across the Bay!

Ship me somewheres east of Suez, where the best is like the worst,
Where there aren't no Ten Commandments and a man can raise a thirst;
For the temple-bells are calling, and it's there that I would be
By the old Moulmein Pagoda, looking lazy at the sea;
On the road to Mandalay,
Where the old Flotilla lay,
With our sick beneath the awnings when we went to Mandalay!
On the road to Mandalay,
Where the flying-fishes play,
And the dawn comes up like thunder out of China across the Bay!


Monday, 18 June 2018

How many did Communism kill?

This article calculates the total numbers of victims murdered by Communist regimes and movements from 1917 to the present day. It tries to give a comprehensive figure by listing all the specific, distinct instances of Communist atrocities that can be identified and adding them up. This is obviously a question that has been covered before, the canonical work being The Black Book of Communism (The Black Book) published in France in 1997. On the other hand, that book is 700 pages long, so this article tries to summarise the same question in a couple of pages. At the same time it breaks a total figure down as far as reasonably possible, rather than giving one hand-waving total. Summing reliable historical estimates for specific, identifiable crimes will hopefully increase the accuracy of the final total.     

Calculating the total victims of Communist governments and movements is a complicated business, almost certainly more complicated than calculating the victims of Nazism. While Nazism killed in vast numbers from 1939-45 in a relatively contained part of the world, Communism's crimes have been far more spread out: in time, over a century from 1917 to the present day; and in geography, from Berlin to Korea (to Peru). And while the Second World War is possibly history's most studied episode, Communist atrocities have never received the same attention.

This means we can say with confidence that Nazism had about 30 million victims, of which around 6 million were Jews killed in the Holocaust. But how many victims has Communism had in 100 years? And why should we care? And is it even fair to talk about a single total of victims of Communism?

The individual crimes listed below amount to some 65-70 million victims in 100 years. In this article I take a conservative methodology, in every instance hedging my bets in the middle of respectable historical estimates for numbers of victims. My figure can be compared to the 95 million victims suggested by The Black Book, which is at the top end of reasonable, scholarly estimates. I have not seen any thorough historical totals that come to less than 60 million, or over 100 million. This difference is not just a matter of different historical estimates but one of moral judgement; not just which wars, famines and murders happened, but which were crimes, and which were the responsibility of Communist aggression.

We should care about this because it is not just some dry statistical exercise, but a record of a large part of the history of the 20th Century and the modern world. Of the three great wars that defined the 20th Century, Communism was born from the chaos of the 1st World War, and defined the 2nd World War and the Cold War. Far more importantly, the reality is that 65 million is not just a 'big number', it is 65 million individual lives destroyed; 65 million fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, husbands, wives, children, loved ones. These people are shrouded in silence, invisible, disappeared, unless we remember them. I hope this article prompts you to read more about the individual crimes listed. And although here I focus on the dead, the dead are only the beginning. Consistently in country after country records show that for every person killed three or more were imprisoned, tortured, beaten, or devastated by the loss of dear husband or wife, or family member.

But is it reasonable to calculate a single total of victims of Communism as a phenomenon? I believe it is. Yes, Communist regimes covered different countries and governments over 100 years, some of which were even hostile at times. But there is a direct and clear line of historical cause and effect from the original Bolsheveik revolution in Russia to each of the Communist regimes that followed it. These subsequent regimes were almost all created due to direct support from existing Communist states. Each overwhelmingly received military, political and economic support and trade only from other Communist states. And each explicitly declared loyalty to Marxism-Leninism and the 'principles' of the October revolution. Again and again, each instituted a political programme that sought to directly emulate Bolsheveik Russia - one party rule, repression of class enemies, mass nationalisation, militarism, collectivism of agriculture.

One of the key criticisms made of The Black Book was that one could collect a similar book of the crimes of 'Capitalism' or 'Colonialism', to which I say, feel free. But the links between all the examples of those phenomena are much weaker and vaguer than the real links: historical, political and ideological, between Communist states, which allows us to talk of a 'Communist' phenomenon as a single entity, if a multi-headed, multi-generational one.

The final criticism that needs answering concerns who has been counted as victims. Below I have counted those directly murdered, or killed by terrible conditions in prison camps and deportations, the casualties of wars of aggression by Communist states, and the victims of famines directly caused by idiotic Communist agricultural policies. Critics of this kind of approach (used in The Black Book and elsewhere) have claimed in response they could count every person who died 'due to' poverty, or a lack of universal healthcare, or industrial accident, in a capitalist country, and come to an even greater, ghastly total of victims. But this is a false comparison. Communist countries suffered ordinary deaths due to industrial accident, pollution, poor healthcare, etc, as well. These deaths are not the deaths counted here.

Those counted as murdered are those shot out of hand by Communist regimes, or those who died in scurvy concentration camps, or while being deported thousands of miles in horrific conditions to such places. Those counted as victims of War are not just all the casualties of wars in which Communists were involved, but specifically the casualties of wars caused by Communist aggression. These famine victims are counted because the famines they died in were directly caused by ideological Communist policies of state control and mass collectivisation that devastated farming. These famines were then made worse by the cynical paranoia that labelled any criticism as treason, and any warning of failure as sabotage, and responded with military repression aimed at crushing fictional class enemies and saboteurs presumed responsible. Any similar situations in capitalist countries should be rightly blamed at the governments there too.

This is a matter of historical and moral judgement. This is particularly the case in a few instances where I place a proportion only of the victims of a war or crime in the Communist tally. For example, in some wars mentioned I have only included casualties inflicted by the Communists, and not those killed by reckless action of the other side. The most controversial such case would be placing the blame on Stalin for 3 million of the Soviet casualties of the Second World War. I discuss the reasons for this special case in another article linked here.

I have labelled and dated every crime referred to below, and using these labels you can find more information and the sources for these estimates in online encyclopedias, The Black Book itself, and other articles online on the specific crimes. This article contains no original research, it seeks to catalogue a conservative, consensual historic view of the incidents and death tolls listed. I apologise for not being able to source every figure internally here, but doing so would make this article several times longer, and it is already probably too long. Any constructive comments are gratefully received.





Thursday, 7 June 2018

Stalin's guilt for Soviet Casualties in the Second World War

Among the questions of Communist criminal responsibility, Stalin's culpability for Soviet casualties and German POW losses in WW2 is possibly the most difficult one. Soviet losses were around 25 million, of which 8 million were military in battle, and 3 million were dead POWs. From 700,000 - 1 million German POWs also died in Soviet custody particularly from 1941-1943.

Soviet military losses were horrendous, especially earlier in the War.  In the 2nd half of 1941 alone, a series of huge Nazi encirclements and disastrous Soviet counter-offensives gave more than 3 million Soviet killed or captured, and another 3 million in 1942. German losses over the same 18 months were less than 1 million. In 1943 and 1944 Soviet losses were still 2 to 3 times as high as German losses, due to Soviet tactics and approaches that were incredibly wasteful of human lives.

Despite official Soviet propaganda Stalin bore great responsibility for the losses of the Soviet people. Stalin's insane purges weakened the Red Army in the late 1930s. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact gave Hitler carte blanche to invade Poland, the Balkans and France. The 1939-41 economic pact transported million of tonnes of vital raw materials to Germany without which the invasion of the Soviet Union would probably have been impossible.

Stalin's refusal to believe invasion was imminent, despite repeated intelligence warnings and German reconissance, left the whole Soviet Air Force and over 3 million men helplessly exposed when the Gemans invaded. Almost that entire 3 million would be taken captive and then starved to death by the Nazis over Autumn and Winter 1941. After the invasion through 1941 into early 1942 Stalin ordered repeated counter-attacks that cost millions of further Soviet losses dead and captured.

Reckless Soviet partisan activity killed large number of civilian 'collaborators' and sparked brutal Nazi repression that killed hundreds of thousands more. Scorched Earth policies ahead of the Nazi advance led to hundreds of thousands more deaths as peasants lost their precious food stores ahead of winter.

German POW losses fall into a different category, while Soviet policies were nothing like the mass extermination carried out by the Nazis from June 1941-Jan 1942, they still led to the death of around 1/3rd of German POWs, up to 1 million people. This was in line with the much higher death toll in the Gulag during the early half of the war.

The guilt does not just apply to Stalin personally though. It was the Bolsheveik system in its entirety that gave almost no value to human life, on the battlefield or off it. It was Bolsheveik and Stalinist aggression, first against Poland in 1920, then later, that led Stalin to risk using Hitler to allow USSR to absorb Eastern Poland and the Baltics. It was the suspicion and fear of Stalinism that poisoned efforts to form a Polish-British-French-Soviet alliance against Hitler in 1939. It was the Soviet guarantee that gave Nazis freedom to invade Poland and plunge the world into War, it was Soviet trade with Germany that gave them the material resources to be able to invade the Soviet Union in the first place; then it was Stalin's stupidity that left millions of Soviet troops exposed, betraying them to captivity and extermination.

In the 1st World War under the Tsarist govt Russia suffered 3 million dead out of 20 million total losses in the War.  In the 2nd the Soviet Union suffered 25 million dead out of 40 million in the European theatre. In fact the astonishingly higher Russian death toll accounts for the entire increase in deaths between WW1 and WW2, even given Nazi murderousness in Poland and elsewhere.

It is certain that the blame for some proportion of Soviet losses lies with the idiotic incompetence and aggression of Stalin and the Communist system. Picking a figure however is basically guesswork. How do you turn moral responsibility in such a complex situation into a percentage?

My mind returns again and again to 3 million. 3 million was the number that were basically offered up to the Germans at the start of the invasion, then killed en masse. 3 million out of 25 million or 12%, as good a number as any, and so the number I include in my total tally of Communist crimes to represent the horrendous Soviet losses in WW2. The overwhelming blame lies with the Nazis and always must, but Stalinist aggression, stupidity and disregard for human life killed millions of Soviet citizens.

Sunday, 8 April 2018

Sermon on Luke 5:17-26 - The Paralyzed Man comes in by the Roof

Good morning everyone. Let me say what a privilege it is to be here a week after Easter Sunday. I pray that the joy of the Resurrection will be in what I say today.

I want to start by talking about the context of the wonderful story in our reading. Today's reading occurs shortly after Jesus begins his ministry of teaching and healing. To understand our reading we need to turn our minds back a few pages to the previous chapter of Luke's gospel where he records how Jesus began in the most dramatic manner. It was in Nazareth, his home town, he goes to the Synagogue on the Sabbath, like us coming to Church on a Sunday.

He goes to the synagogue, marches up to the front, stands up in front of basically his entire community, and reads the words of the Prophet Isaiah, written 500 years before:

"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
and to proclaim the Lord's Jubilee”.

And the Bible says "the eyes of all the people were fixed on him".  From the response I don't think that was the planned reading. And they're all looking at Jesus, thinking  'What is he doing, what did that mean?' And Jesus doesn't make them wait “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” I imagine there was stunned silence, followed by everyone talking at once. "And the crowd went wild" as they say in sports.

After this dramatic episode in Luke chapter 4, Jesus immediately begins to make good on his words. He heals the sick: people with fevers, with leprosy, and other diseases, he frees people from demons and now, in our reading today, forgives and heals a paralysed man.

This is one of the most memorable stories of Jesus' healing miracles. Jesus is preaching in a house, and a great crowd has gathered to hear him. Four men come late, carrying their paralyzed friend on a mat, one at each corner. But because of the crowd, and the close space of the house, they cannot get near enough to see Jesus. But the man's friends refuse to be deterred. They climb up on the roof, and physically dig through the roof: they pull up the tiles, they dig out the mud and reeds that would have been below and they break through. And they don't just make a small hole, they pull up an area large enough to lower a man lying on a mat, down through the roof seven, eight, nine feet right at the feet of Jesus. But Jesus is not fazed for a minute. "when Jesus saw their faith, he said, "Friend, your sins are forgiven". And the pharisees and scribes accuse him of blasphemy, because they know only God can forgive sins, and by doing so in front of a large crowd Jesus is claiming to speak with God's power and authority, even to be God himself.

So what was the purpose behind this burst of healing and miracles that we hear described by Luke. Well, with the start of Jesus' ministry we see an incredible outburst of the Kingdom of Heaven onto earth. As Jesus said "today this scripture has been fulfilled", and it is God's very nature that creation and healing and life in all its fullness will break out wherever God is powerfully present.

First and foremost he is creator and sustainer, who made everything we have and are. He is also Justice for the poor and oppressed, and, in Christ the Son particularly, is redeemer, healer, forgiver, rebuilding creation and life wherever it is damaged and distressed. And this is as true today as it ever was. With God the manifesto never changes. When we look back through history, and the world today, we can know and see where Christ is truly present, where the Father is truly present, where the Spirit is powerfully moving.

Where are people proclaiming good news to the poor, relief from fear, debt, and worry?
Where are people struggling to release those imprisoned by evil govts, by tyrannical families, oppressive social customs, by criminal gangs, by loneliness, and poverty?
Where are people working for new ways to free people from physical blindness, and disease, malnutrition, pain, and mental ill-health?
Where are people being freed from spiritual blindness, from emotional blindness, being freed to see themselves with dignity, and self-respect?
Where are the oppressed of every kind having their heavy burdens lifted from their shoulders, by generous and imaginative action, and brought to realise they are loved, valued, forgiven children of God, with the rich potential that God sees in all of us, and delights in?

These are where God is breaking through and building the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth. And if Jesus is truly present in a place we will see these things happening today. Maybe in small and quiet ways, maybe in large, unmissable ways, but always it will be there.And this is what we see in our reading today with the paralysed man. Jesus gives him new life twice over. But we should not just jump to the healing. Again and again Jesus heals those who come to him. But this man could not come to Jesus by his own power, he was paralysed. Instead we have the wonderful news of his four friends, who brought this man to Jesus.

I assume when they left the house that morning, those four men carrying the fifth, their friend, they had no idea what they would be getting up to. They knew what they had to do, they had to set their friend before Jesus, but presumably they had no idea how. You can imagine their mixture of hope for their friend, determination to carry him, maybe some of their doubts. Their friend lay paralyzed, unable to stand. Would this Jesus really be able to help them? But they were determined to try. They probably thought it would be a simple operation. Carry their friend to the house and set him before Jesus. But when they get there they are dismayed, the crowd is so large and dense, and Jesus is surrounded by the building, that there is no hope of Jesus seeing their friend. At that point some people might have given up and thought "well, we tried".

But not these friends, they refuse to be defeated. They immediately set their imagination to work and conceived a way they could bring their friend to Jesus, by hook or crook, where there's a will, there's a way. It wasn't the usual way, it wasn't the standard way, but they thought of a way to bring their friend to God. I pray that we might never be caught clueless if the usual way won't work. I hope we won't give up on bringing people to Life in all its fullness, to that easy burden, and light yoke, the cool, refreshing water that is truly knowing Jesus Christ. The world is changing every day. One day there is a clear passage into the house, and the next day the way is blocked by a crowd. One day people are living in close communities their whole life where everyone knows their neighbour, the next day people are travelling and working in six different places by the time they're thirty and spending half their life on social media.

But with God's Grace there will always be a roof available, another way to bring people to Jesus, to healing, to knowing they are profoundly loved and wanted by God; if we have the imagination to come up with new ideas, if we're prepared to take the risks to try them out. This story reminds me that we must always be willing to try something different, to understand our situation and then to adapt to it, if we are to do what we need to do, to bring people to Jesus.

I wonder which man came up with the idea of breaking through the roof? He may have thought it, then thought, no that's crazy! But still he had the courage to speak up. Please, if anyone here has a new idea about how we can serve our community better, to help love and support people. Don't keep it to yourself! Speak up! You never know when you might have the idea we all need. Don't let a good idea God has given you die in your mind, because you never share it with anyone.

And then we have the other three men. Once that first friend had spoken saying, "if we can't go through the door, let's go in by the roof", they could easily have dismissed it straight away as a stupid idea.  But they clearly didn't, they clearly listened and were willing to try.  I pray that we will listen, really listen to each other, when someone speaks up with a new idea, or just when they really need someone to talk to. I hope we won't reject an idea out of hand just because we've never done it before, or it seems different or difficult, even if there's a solid wall or roof in the way. I hope we will encourage and support our friend, be willing to say, yes I'm with you. I'll share the work, I'll take the risk alongside you, and with God's grace, whether big or small, we'll make your vision a reality.

It must have been a risk as well. I've never tried to carry a man lying on a stretcher onto the roof of a house, with or without help, but it doesn't sound easy.  I'd guess it needed all four men to get him up there safely and then to open up the roof. The paralyzed man on his own could never have got himself to Jesus for healing. I think it's highly likely that even with one or two friends he couldn't have got there, but with four working together, despite crowds and walls, they achieved their goal.

It's a pretty obvious cliche to say that when we work together we can do more than we can alone.  But it's still worth saying. It's not just working along-side one another either. I work alongside people in my office, but I do my work at my desk, and they do their work at theirs, largely separate. The four men in our Gospel were lifting together, at the same time, for the same aim, united by a shared love and determination. And they must have been communicating constantly, paying close attention to each other, or they would certainly have tipped their paralyzed friend out of his bed entirely. Anyone whose ever lifted a sofa with other people, or a wardrobe or a bath will know the truth of that. It is when we are joined in heart and mind with the same goal, and the same aim, when we are paying attention to each other and lifting together that community really becomes powerful, that we can do great things.

Four men in the Gospel were enough to bring their paralyzed friend to Jesus, and through their faith and hard work see him healed. There are a hundred people in our church community, and to be honest, I think we do a great deal already, and we should be proud of that But I'm sure that through the power of the Holy Spirit we could do even better, in love and faith.  The lesson here is not necessarily about just doing more. It's about working together, in smoother harmony, it's lifting together, and so managing to do what we do better. Though I believe the more we become an even deeper community, a loving, trusting co-ordinated community, we will find ourselves becoming a bigger community too. Four friends were enough to carry one man to Jesus and do it right, despite obstacles in their way. If they'd tried to carry two men to Jesus, why, they might not have had enough strength to get there at all.

We shouldn't just be thinking about our church community here in Wolston either. There are perhaps fifty thousand Christians of all kinds across Coventry and Warwickshire. Around 3 million in our country, and 2 billion across the whole world! If we waste our energy bickering and arguing then we get nowhere. If we join together in love with a common goal, and trust and listen to each other; if we lift together, then through the Grace of our Lord there is no limit to the miracles we can see achieved.

We can't just stop disagreeing, and we shouldn't. Different ideas and viewpoints are good, but we can be even more determined to try to understand where each other are coming from, to have sympathy with their motives and aims, to really listen with the hope of learning, in a word, to love one another as parts of the same body of Christ.

Now with holy ingenuity, hard work, and quite a bit of digging the four men overcame their obstacles and brought their friend down right at the feet of Jesus. For the people listening to Jesus it must have been quite a sight as the roof suddenly began to vanish above them, and quite a shock as this man appeared down, as if from a very dusty heaven. But Jesus wasn't fazed, with God's sight he alone must've known the man was coming, he must have seen them up on the roof and smiled, even while he continued to teach. Can you imagine the look on people's faces when the roof literally came crumbling in, Jesus must have struggled not to laugh out loud.

So the men are peering through the hole, their paralyzed friend is lying there on the ground and Jesus takes charge of the situation. "When Jesus saw their faith, he said, “Friend, your sins are forgiven.”" Nothing more was needed. He knew why they were there, and he acted immediately. They had shown their faith by their action, by their willingness to take a risk, not just from climbing up onto the roof, but also presumably there being an angry owner of the roof. May we all be at least as willing to take a risk on our faith in Jesus.

It is very interesting as well, isn't it. When he saw THEIR faith, he said "friend, your sins are forgiven". We tend to take a rather individualistic view of faith, if I can put it that way. Of course it is true that your faith is all you need to be saved, all you need for a deep and loving relationship with God.  As was very wisely said in a previous sermon in this church only recently, even a mustard seed of faith is enough. God delights in taking our mustard seed, our crumb of faith, and, if we let him, using it to move mountains.  But this does not mean our faith has to live and die entirely on its own. No, rather we gain from the faith of other people around us. We can lean on our brother or our sisters' faith and be strengthened. We all need some faith, but as St Paul says in his letter to the Corinthians, some people have a special gift of faith from the Holy Spirit. I'm sure you must know someone like that, someone who seems to find faith easy, someone who seems to have a special, remarkable overflow of faith, especially in trouble and difficult times.

Well it is good for the rest of us to take inspiration from that person, to feel, 'well, I'm struggling a bit right now but I'm going to be encouraged by that person's faith, I'm going to be inspired by that gift right in front of me', and by hanging on to their faith, hopefully in time I'll be able to see what they see, and my faith will feel more solid too. That is a good and natural thing in a Christian life, it's part of being not just an earthly, but a heavenly and a spiritual community; to share, not just food and drink and heat and a building, but our spiritual, holy gifts as well. And I'll be sure that while I may not have that gift of remarkable faith right now, I'll certainly have another gift of the Spirit, and so does everyone here, that we can share and that other person can lean on and benefit from. And so we all benefit from the spiritual diversity among us, and I thank God for that, because it's a wonderful thing. We're not alone , and we don't have to do it alone, not in physical things, not in spiritual things. "When he saw THEIR faith, he said "friend your sins are forgiven".

In another sense that's a curious thing for Jesus to say first: "Friend, your sins are forgiven". The man didn't come to have his sins forgiven, at least not mainly, he came to be physically healed. And Jesus does heal his body too, but he heals his soul as well. Because Jesus knows that we are not just our physical nature, and we're not just a spiritual nature. We are both and more, we are body, mind, heart and soul all together. God isn't just interested in a bit of you, he's interested in all of you. When he talks about life in all its fullness, he means that healing and forgiveness, use and growth, of body, and mind, and heart and soul, are all in God's plans.  And the Christian Church must never forget it either.  We can't heal people's souls but leave them freezing and starving. That's not the Gospel!  And we can't just feed and clothe them, but leave them without God's forgiveness and love for their heart and soul.  That's not the Gospel either!

So Jesus forgives the man's sins, and heals his body. He does this because it is God's very own nature and being to create, to give, to forgive, to bring joy and to heal. That is the Kingdom of God on earth. He also does it because there's a large crowd there, of both ordinary people and the learned scribes and pharisees, who had come to to see what this preacher and teacher was about, and it is important that they see that "the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins".

And of course anyone can claim to forgive sins, though it was blasphemy under Jewish law, but by the power of his healing Jesus proved that he was indeed master of both body and soul with the power and authority of God. And he proved that the faith those four friends had in him was justified.  And, though he did not openly claim it yet, he pointed to the fact that he is indeed God himself, full of grace and truth. He probably thought the people had enough astonishing things happen that day without making the full claim of who he was. And indeed "Everyone was amazed and gave praise to God. They were filled with awe and said, “We have seen remarkable things today.”" I wonder which was more unexpected, the paralyzed man coming in by the roof, or the same man walking out by the door on his own two feet, praising God as he went.

Thank you, and Amen.


Thanks to http://www.intothedeepblog.net/2018/01/the-last-ditch-effort.html for the wonderful image showing the dramatic moment from this reading.