August 22, 2017

The Clash of Civilizations and the Plight of Christians

This autumn marks the 20th anniversary of Samuel Huntington’s perceptive essay ‘The Clash of Civilizations’. Arguing that in Europe the ‘Velvet curtain of culture has replaced the Iron Curtain of ideology’, Huntington went on to predict that the future driving force for international conflict would be culture and religion, rather than geopolitics or economics. For example, the conflict along the fault line between Western and Islamic civilizations was likely to become more virulent and, ‘from the bulge of Africa to central Asia’, we could expect continued battles between Muslims and neighbours: ‘Islam has bloody borders.’

 

The essay, and book that followed, were treated with derision from many of the intellectual elite. Fouad Ajami was one of the first to insist that Huntington had ‘underestimated the tenacity of modernity and secularism’ in places where previously absent. This expanding mindset would ultimately prove stronger and act as a preventative force against civilizational conflict. Yet just eight years later, the optimism of these critics was put to the test as the ‘power of modernity’ idea was dealt a sharp blow by the carnage of 9/11.

There are problems, of course, with Huntington’s thesis. What defines a ‘civilization’ is unclear; its contours are fuzzy. Some civilizations are vast – ‘Western civilization’ envelopes countries and whole continents. Others – Japanese – are marked by a single entity. Some civilizations, like the Islamic, are religiously defined, with Arab, Malay, or Turkic subdivisions; others, like China, have old religious undertones and changing. And although civilizations have certainly clashed over the last twenty years, almost as many clashes have occurred within them. The death toll in the conflict between Sunni and Shia in Syria gives testimony to the fact that a single religion may have its own fault lines.

This week Catholic writer, John L Allen offers another perspective.[1] He quotes the International Society for Human Rights, a secular organization based in Frankfurt, who claim that 80 per cent of all acts of religious conflict have been actually directed at Christians. According to the Study of Global Christianity at Wenham, Massachusetts, this translates to an average of 100,000 Christians killed each year for the past decade. Huntington was right in that many of these are Christians who have suffered at the hands of Muslim militia. But he was also wrong in identifying Christianity simply as a subset of Western civilization. Christianity is a global movement of 2.3 billion adherents. The Christians who have been maimed, raped and mutilated are not those in North America or Europe, targeted by competing ‘civilizations’ but are indigenous in those civilizations themselves, sometimes speaking the same language and eating the same food, or as members of ethnic and cultural minorities.

Over the last twenty years two thirds of the Christian population of Iraq has gone: exiled, or killed. The Pew Forum suggests that from 2006 and 2010, Christians faced persecution in 139 nations. Allen cites recent examples from Pakistan, Kenya, Nigeria, India, Burma, and Korea to reinforce this point. But he insists that this is not ‘limited to a clash of civilizations between Christianity and Islam.’ Hindu radicals were responsible for 500 deaths and 50,000 homeless among Christians in Orissa.  The 300,000 Christians who disappeared from North Korea, feared dead, were persecuted for refusing to join the cult around founder Kim 1l Sung. Allen’s conclusion is ‘in truth, Christians face a bewildering variety of threats, with no single enemy.’

The debate over Huntington will continue, but a much more urgent need is to address the human rights violations and anti-Christian persecution across the world; vehement opposition to it has to be on the agenda of all civilizations.

 

 

 



[1] ‘The War on Christians’ The Spectator Oct 5th

No need for protection

Some years ago I was in Amsterdam to speak in an enormous celebration of Christian ecumenism. I breakfasted each day with a Catholic monk who was on his way to serve a community in the Sudan. The relaxed and warm atmosphere of the conference was very welcome to him; it provided a peaceful preparation for a future where he might be enveloped in conflict. On the third morning he disclosed to me that he was replacing a colleague who had just been martyred. My face must have registered shock and concern, as I asked what kind of protection they had. He shook his head at the word ‘protection’ and preferred to talk about ‘trust’, explaining, gently, that he was well aware that his own time there might end in death: ‘the brothers rarely come home, you see.’

His replacement of ‘protection’ with ‘trust’ sums up the commission Jesus gave to his disciples as he sent them out into the towns and villages (Luke 10). They were to go in faith and vulnerability, seek out the people of peace, receive from those they ministered to, and proclaim the Kingdom of God. The cultures they entered were not their enemies, but places where they healed the sick, and spread the Good News. What motivated the monk, and was commended to the disciples, was a trust in God which extended beyond suffering and death. For this trust alone, rather than concern for self-protection, could draw them into the life-giving service which changes lives.

I fear we see something rather different in the way we operate today in our Church. Over the last few years particularly, we have seemed pre-occupied with self-protection. We want to ensure that our views are safeguarded, our ways are heeded, and our power exerted. We become defensive in response both to secular culture, and to differences within the church itself. We are highly sensitive to being marginalised, unfairly treated, or wrongly perceived. We quickly feel persecuted or disregarded and respond defensively towards critics outside the church and to each other within it.

I can understand why Christians become defensive. There are forces in our world that oppose the Gospel and would love to see its power eliminated. But, surely, this is where trust in God must replace defensiveness. We need wisdom and maturity to respond. Especially within the church, trusting God enables us to listen to those who disagree, and look for ways of working together. We might even be able to acknowledge that though we do not get our way, God’s will could yet be being done.  But when we develop a siege mentality, we end the conversation and draw to a swift separation. This can harm our culture, but it is even more harmful within our Church. When we pull up the drawbridge, batten down the hatches, or retreat to the trenches we see other believers as those we need to be protected from, rather than brothers and sisters who love God and are called to love each other in God’s service.

Perhaps we need to gain more insight from the way in which Jesus refused to be drawn into self-protection. The Gospels record how he didn’t allow his family to protect him from the crowds; he overruled his disciples who wanted to protect him from the dangers ahead in Jerusalem and rebuked Peter who tried to protect him from arrest by violence. Everything about Christ speaks of vulnerability and trust in God, even to the point of crucifixion. It’s an enormous challenge to follow Christ, but even more challenging when we set off in the wrong direction.

 

 

Justice That The G8 Summit Can Bring

This was written for the Church Times in May 2013

Our world can provide enough food for everyone, yet one in every eight people on this planet goes to bed hungry. The problem is intensified because the rich of the world have found lucrative ways of using the assets of poor countries, stripping them of resources which are rightly theirs. In two weeks’ time, the G8 Summit will be meeting in the luxury golf resort of Lough Erne in Northern Ireland. Since the UK is hosting this summit, it is a vital opportunity for our government to ensure these massive issues of global morality and economics are fully on the agenda. The question is whether they have the courage and political will to bring change. Millions of people are hoping that they have.

Over 200 charities, including Oxfam, and Christian NGOs –Cafod, Tearfund, and Christian Aid – have highlighted two key areas of unscrupulous exploitation presently exacerbating global poverty and increasing hunger. The first is tax evasion. Tax revenue which should be going to poor countries from companies operating in them, is being siphoned off. Quietly nestling in major financial centres as well as in empty paradises in the Caribbean, tax havens provide the legal machinery to protect illegal tax evaders, thereby depriving many struggling economies of the tax money desperately needed for water and sanitation, hospitals, roads and schools. According to the OECD (Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development) developing economies lose three times more money in tax each year than they receive in aid. The fact that the UK is responsible for one in five of the world’s tax havens puts an extra responsibility on our government to take a lead, and end the anonymous ownership and secrecy of these havens. The very least we can ask is that they have the moral guts to ensure that abuse of power no longer lines the pockets of the rich and cheats the poor from their entitlement

The problems do not end with tax evasion. Unscrupulous companies and individuals can, and do, use their power dubiously to make other acquisitions. Global charities are urging the G8 also to address issues of ‘land grabbing’. It is estimated that, every second, poor countries lose an area of land the size of a football pitch to rich, private investors. In countries from Sudan and Liberia to Cambodia and Honduras, land which could grow food for local people is being bought up by exporters, Wall Street speculators and tourist providers. An Oxfam report disclosed that more than 60% of investments in agricultural land by foreign investors between 2000 and 2010 were in developing countries with serious hunger problems: 63% of the arable land in Cambodia went to private companies. But two-thirds of the investors planned to export everything they produce on the land, often first leaving it idle so its value increased. Nearly 60% of the deals were to grow crops used for biofuels, bringing rich pickings for the already rich speculators. The effect on those who live on the land has been disastrous. It no longer grows their food, and jobs, homes and livelihoods have been taken, sometimes violently, often without compensation.

The stark reality is that those with economic and political power can always override the poor. That is probably why Jesus warned that it is harder for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for the rich to enter the kingdom of God. Yet the G8 countries have both political – economic weight and legal jurisdiction. Christians across the world are urgently praying they will use their power to bring justice to the poor, and righteousness closer.

May 2013

A Moral Issue That Challenges Us

This was written for the Church Times in February 2013

Gender has been very much on the global agenda over the last few weeks. The ‘One Billion Rising’ demonstrations across the world on Valentine’s Day focussed attention on violence against women, calling for governments and legislators to give this priority over the coming year. The vision of a world where women and men experience equal respect, security and freedom from harm is crucial – and an essential part of Christian redemptive hope.

The same vision was behind a less public gathering I had attended earlier. Gender equality, respect and freedom were again central, but now the context was different. The Emerging Markets Symposium met quietly in Oxford, under Chatham House Rules, drawing together fifty or so global economists, diplomats, politicians and academics to exchange insights and explore strategies towards greater gender equality.  This Symposium was formed some years ago around the belief that the social and economic challenges faced by the middle-income emerging markets (China, Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, India, Turkey) are different from those which face both advanced and economically poor countries. So it encourages practitioners and theorists to share research and experience, acknowledging the connectedness of economics and ethics. This was very true in the area of gender.  Former Prime Minister of Pakistan, and Symposium Chair, Shaukat Aziz, articulated it succinctly in opening the Symposium: ‘Gender inequality is morally wrong, bad economics and bad for business.’

I was interested that the gathering included those for whom gender was unexplored terrain, as well as those who had done years of empirical work in the area. Yet as we poured over economic statistics, looked at growth and innovation, and discussed issues of production and reproduction, there was extraordinary unanimity in interpreting what we uncovered. We found that although the 22 countries identified as emerging markets are very different from each other, they overlapped in their patterns of gender inequality. Women staff were paid less than equally qualified male peers, they were under-represented in corporate hierarchies, and domestic roles often cut short women’s education and training. We also found when countries did become more gender-inclusive in areas of economics, health, education and decision-making they enjoyed faster growth, better health outcomes and less political instability.

Economic and development factors, however, are always interwoven with deep cultural – religious attitudes and practices. Take the dowry. Ostensively an economic transaction between families, it carries with it assumptions of value and ownership which have significant repercussions, not least in the practice of selective abortion of girl babies and the resulting uneven sex ratio at birth. And when we reflected on bride burning or female trafficking we inevitably moved into the same moral territory as the Valentine’s Day marches.

Even though many of the Symposium’s participants were avowedly secularist and accustomed to an overt secular approach, the organisers had included in the programme an examination of the impact of religion. For, of a global population of 7 billion, almost 6 billion are affiliated to a faith tradition, which deeply shapes culture and gender attitudes. My own contribution, as a Christian, aimed to open up the radical nature of the Christian Gospel for gender equality, and to identify both the failures and the faithfulness of the global Church in grappling with its redemptive vision.

The acknowledgement that faith traditions have something to contribute to a discourse on gender was encouraging. And I found delegates ready to engage with theological issues with the same rigour they had shown throughout. Yet, this inclusion leaves a bigger challenge for the Church – not just to proclaim God’s calling to gender justice and empowerment, but to live it out in our practices and communities: – celebrating women’s vocation in the home, the economy, the workplace, the pulpit – and the House of Bishops!

Sentencing the Violator

This was written for the Church Times in December 2012

The review of the Sexual Offences Act 2003, published last week, signifies a new breadth of awareness about crimes of sexual violation. For the first time, it moves away from focussing solely on bodily harm, to the deeper trauma that rape and assault have for the victim. It also puts the activities and motivation of the violator in a bigger context- recognizing that some offenders are calculating, persistent and ready to breach positions of trust. The review makes clear that the perspective of victims must be central, that sentences should ‘reflect everything the victim has been through and what the offender has done.’ Gone, it would seem, is the old ethos about victims not suffering very much, or ‘bringing it upon themselves’. Instead we find a more realistic assessment of the long-term harm. The review has already been welcomed by groups engaged in counselling or advocacy of survivors; they recognize all too well how the effects of sexual violence continue long after the physical scars have healed.

But the review is striking for another reason. The new guidelines reflect the rapid changes in our culture over the last nine years. The 2003 Act was drawn up before the mass market in mobile phone cameras, before the advent of Facebook and social networking sites, before potential victims could be chatted-up, groomed or stalked via the internet. There was little awareness in 2003 of the vast capacity of new technology to link people together, or of the dangers it posed for those vulnerable and exposed. We could not begin to anticipate the spread of networks for sexual predators, the level of intimidation, or the market for images of sexual cruelty. We had no idea of the scale on which assaults could be filmed for voyeuristic distribution, compounding even further the damage done to the victim.  New technology does not make the experience of rape any worse for those who suffer it, but it does widen the reach of the perpetrators and make safeguarding measures even more urgent.

So, the review recommends that sentences should reflect not just the physical offence, but the attitudes and tactics employed by offenders: the targeting of vulnerable victims, grooming, the use of intimidation and fear, involvement of alcohol or drugs, bribes, violent or threatening language, networking, filming, and abuse of trust. It offers guidelines for preventative treatment programmes for offenders, and  recommends that significant custodial sentences be available, with a tougher 19 year maximum for one-off rape. The suffering of the victim must never be lost in these ‘incredibly complex, sensitive and serious offences.’

As a sociologist I am grateful for the thoroughness of this review and the way it integrates the nature of sexual offence with an understanding of contemporary culture.  But I’m even more grateful as a theologian. For, from a theological perspective, sexual violence is a moral and spiritual attack on the wholeness and integrity of a human being. It disregards a person’s God-given worth and dignity, and treats that person as a commodity – a thing for the violator’s own use. It imposes power of over the body, mind and emotions of another, denying their real humanity, and ensuring that the damage done to their victim is deeper than physical injury, affecting both their identity and self-worth. That is why public acknowledgement and justice are an intrinsic part of healing.

The review implicitly recognizes all this and addresses the implications. It invites us now to make our own contribution in consultation.

We can do more. We can pray that it will have safe passage, and bring greater justice and new hope.

December 2012

The Cost of Courage

The Cost of Courage

This was written for the Church Times in October 2012

It only takes one shocking event to reveal to the world the ordeals suffered by human beings who struggle daily under oppression. That event can lay bare the stark issues of injustice, gender violence, fear and brutality which lie unresolved in the lives of millions. Such is the story of fourteen year old Malala Yousufzai in Pakistan. At one level it is the familiar issue of the suppression and subjugation of women- an issue which at some time or another has faced almost every society on earth. At another level, it is about the assertion of tyrants who believe that shooting a girl child is a justifiable way of asserting their control and silencing opponents.

Many of the journalists who have told the story paid homage to Malala’s fearlessness before the ruthless atrocities of the Taliban. But that description does not really seem apt. For people who are fearless rarely understand what it is to be afraid; they remain impervious to the way fear and anxiety can disable and de-stabilise ordinary mortals. By contrast, this girl has known fear only too well. She has spoken of it, described it, explained what it has been like for her. Everything about her situation has made her want to run, but she has stayed. It is not fearlessness but courage which defines her boldness and her tenacious resistance.

Courage is a very human quality. To start with, it does not ignore danger. Since the age of eleven, Malala seems to have been acutely aware of perils that have surrounded her, as she has lived consciously along the chasm of two incompatible worldviews. The worldview she inherited from her father embraces human rights and education; it urges respect, hope, peace, love and freedom for women. The worldview she rejects embraces power, torture and bloodshed. It is driven by an ideology which dismisses freedom, hates the West and denigrates women. Few children would see the gulf so clearly. Even fewer would have the enormous courage to face the implications of choosing to resist the powerful.

But courage lives with vulnerability. Malala had nothing to protect her as she spoke out against what she had witnessed, as she asserted her desire to be educated and travelled to the school that had been banned. No armed bodyguards surrounded her as she left her home or boarded the bus. The images splashed across our screens and newspapers illustrated her vulnerability: – the openness of her young face, the blood-soaked clothing on her body. In facing vulnerability she shared truth and drew us into her world and struggles.

Courage also reveals the true nature of evil, highlighting for us all the cowardice of her assailants, their hatred and inhumanity, their brutality and violence. Their faces were hidden. Yet vicious cruelty can never bear good fruit. Whatever just cause these men thought they were fighting, whatever power they thought they wielded, the courage of this child has exposed them as weak, cowardly bullies. Pakistani satirist, Nadeem Paracha summed it up perfectly: ‘Come on, brothers, be real men. Kill a Schoolgirl.’

For me, this story reflects not the power of Western liberalism, but the truths of the Christian faith. For vulnerability and courage are at its very core. Jesus incarnates  them. It was not fearlessness which he exhibited at Gethsemene the night before he died, but naked terror as he contemplated what lay ahead. We might never know what courage Christ needed for our salvation. But when we see the best of human bravery exhibited in the life of a defenceless young Pakistani girl, we begin to understand its power.

Cambridge

October 2012

 

 

Telling Another’s Story

Telling Another’s Story

This was written for the Church Times in May 2012

Many years of communicating had not prepared me for writing a biography. It is a sobering task to tell someone else’s story faithfully.

I met British born Lyn Lusi some years ago in D R Congo, when I stayed in her home in Goma. I was visiting the hospital founded by Lyn and her husband, ‘Jo’, a Congolese orthopedic surgeon. Their deep love for each other was cemented in mutual Christian commitment, and their longing for peace and justice for the Congolese people. It shaped their life’s work together. I was enthralled at how God led them to set up the Goma hospital to train young Congolese doctors. Jo was the only orthopaedic surgeon for ten million people in a population constantly battered by war and brutality. Characteristically, they drew on the goodwill of international Christian surgical specialists, who travelled voluntarily to Africa to enjoy the hospitality of their home, and help Jo deliver the training.Nothing seemed to deter them. Even when the hospital building was destroyed by a volcano, they rebuilt and refurbished, and developed the work of ‘Heal Africa.’  By last year they had trained 30 Congolese doctors, qualified in medicine and surgery.

It did not take me long to see Lyn’s vision. Her heart had been broken by the pain of the Congo, by the injustice heaped upon those who were most at risk. She oversaw administration as Jo and his team performed dozens of routine operations each day, sometimes working through the night if the militia had raided. One night she wrote asking for urgent prayer. Jo was ‘putting the liver and intestines back’ for the surviving son of a family mutilated by soldiers. His injuries were appalling. ‘Such cruelty is incomprehensible,’ she wrote.

Lyn found strength in the very word ‘heal’. It spoke of integration: ‘health, education, action, love.’ Heal Africa quickly became far more than a traditional hospital. Advocacy against injustice was part of healing. On any day people might be attending skills workshops, HIV/AIDS prevention training, counseling sessions, family planning –  even singing or dancing. In the midst of bloodshed and turmoil, rape and sexual violence, Heal Africa became a landmark for holistic care and compassion, attracting visitors like Hilary Clinton and George Cluny to see for themselves what could be achieved. More importantly it became home, a refuge, a place of recovery, a beacon of hope for thousands of broken people.

As I got to know Lyn I saw how clearly life was integrated for her in the twin realities of God’s love and human sin. She never hesitated to use the word ‘darkness’ for what she saw in the Congo. When I was there, women were admitted in the most awful conditions: raped, brutalized, blinded, disfigured, needing emergency surgery, fistula operations and months of therapeutic recovery. Lyn never underestimated what they were up against, yet had unfailing faith in the power of God’s healing love.

Lyn own life ended two months ago, through cancer. The loss is palpable in Goma.  People she never knew have written obituaries. Her work and Christian testimony was celebrated in the Economist, on American television, Capitol Hill.  I have to finish Lyn’s biography without her warmth, or the wit and poignancy of her emails.  But at Heal Africa there is a more powerful testimony. This week, a woman fistula patient is finally discharged from hospital after nine years of treatment, having regained her health, hope and means of livelihood (breeding livestock and making clothes). Irrespective of any obituary or biography, Lyn’s story will live, and transform generations through the lives of those she served and loved.

Cambridge

May 2012

Telling Another’s Story

Telling Another’s Story

This was written for the Church Times in May 2012

Many years of communicating had not prepared me for writing a biography. It is a sobering task to tell someone else’s story faithfully.

I met British born Lyn Lusi some years ago in D R Congo, when I stayed in her home in Goma. I was visiting the hospital founded by Lyn and her husband, ‘Jo’, a Congolese orthopedic surgeon. Their deep love for each other was cemented in mutual Christian commitment, and their longing for peace and justice for the Congolese people. It shaped their life’s work together. I was enthralled at how God led them to set up the Goma hospital to train young Congolese doctors. Jo was the only orthopaedic surgeon for ten million people in a population constantly battered by war and brutality. Characteristically, they drew on the goodwill of international Christian surgical specialists, who travelled voluntarily to Africa to enjoy the hospitality of their home, and help Jo deliver the training.Nothing seemed to deter them. Even when the hospital building was destroyed by a volcano, they rebuilt and refurbished, and developed the work of ‘Heal Africa.’  By last year they had trained 30 Congolese doctors, qualified in medicine and surgery.

It did not take me long to see Lyn’s vision. Her heart had been broken by the pain of the Congo, by the injustice heaped upon those who were most at risk. She oversaw administration as Jo and his team performed dozens of routine operations each day, sometimes working through the night if the militia had raided. One night she wrote asking for urgent prayer. Jo was ‘putting the liver and intestines back’ for the surviving son of a family mutilated by soldiers. His injuries were appalling. ‘Such cruelty is incomprehensible,’ she wrote.

Lyn found strength in the very word ‘heal’. It spoke of integration: ‘health, education, action, love.’ Heal Africa quickly became far more than a traditional hospital. Advocacy against injustice was part of healing. On any day people might be attending skills workshops, HIV/AIDS prevention training, counseling sessions, family planning –  even singing or dancing. In the midst of bloodshed and turmoil, rape and sexual violence, Heal Africa became a landmark for holistic care and compassion, attracting visitors like Hilary Clinton and George Cluny to see for themselves what could be achieved. More importantly it became home, a refuge, a place of recovery, a beacon of hope for thousands of broken people.

As I got to know Lyn I saw how clearly life was integrated for her in the twin realities of God’s love and human sin. She never hesitated to use the word ‘darkness’ for what she saw in the Congo. When I was there, women were admitted in the most awful conditions: raped, brutalized, blinded, disfigured, needing emergency surgery, fistula operations and months of therapeutic recovery. Lyn never underestimated what they were up against, yet had unfailing faith in the power of God’s healing love.

Lyn own life ended two months ago, through cancer. The loss is palpable in Goma.  People she never knew have written obituaries. Her work and Christian testimony was celebrated in the Economist, on American television, Capitol Hill.  I have to finish Lyn’s biography without her warmth, or the wit and poignancy of her emails.  But at Heal Africa there is a more powerful testimony. This week, a woman fistula patient is finally discharged from hospital after nine years of treatment, having regained her health, hope and means of livelihood (breeding livestock and making clothes). Irrespective of any obituary or biography, Lyn’s story will live, and transform generations through the lives of those she served and loved.

Cambridge

May 2012

Public honour – Private horror

Public honour – Private horror

This was written for the Church Times in March 2012

The dramatic suicide of 16 year old Amina Filali who drank rat poison rather than suffer ongoing brutality, has rightly brought Moroccan law under the world’s spotlight. Article 475 of that country’s penal code has been aptly described as ‘an embarrassment to Morocco’s international image of modernity and democracy.’  Yet it is much more than that. It is a process which condones injustice to women and allows rape to go unpunished.

Amina Filali was, by all accounts, a contented Moroccan teenager, until, aged 15, she was accosted on the street and raped. Afraid to tell her parents for two months, she might still have expected that when she did report it, the law would afford her some justice and protection from further violation. It did not. Court officials invoked Article 475, compounding the offence by recommending the family preserve their honour by marrying her off to the rapist. Extraordinarily, it did not seem to matter that she was under-age or anxious about this arrangement. Or that the violator refused until he faced the alternative possibility- up to 20 years in prison for raping a minor. Unfortunately, violent rapists who attack young girls are unlikely to make good husbands, and this one was no exception. After enduring five months of his prolonged beatings, with little family support, Amina took what felt like the only way out of unremitting misery. If witnesses can be believed, her final moments symbolise the horror of the whole story. They claim her husband was so outraged, that as she lay dying he dragged her through the streets by her hair.

Sexual violence to women is not unique to that country, but occurs everywhere. A survey this week by the social network, Mumsnet, disclosed that 10% of women in Britain had been raped, although most did not report the attack. This wall of silence is even more marked in Morocco. In 2009 the UN revealed the reported rate of rape in Morocco was only 3.6 per 100,000 women. That is hardly surprising, when one of the consequences of disclosure might be that she has to marry her rapist. A government study last year, found that around a quarter of all Moroccan women had actually been sexually assaulted. It seems that Article 475 effectively shields the violator.

In a patriarchal culture, however, it is not difficult to understand the reasoning behind this legal provision. For, sexual relations between men and women are very unequal. A woman’s loss of virginity dishonours her family, even if she has been the victim of rape, and they are unlikely then to find her a husband. The solution is all very reminiscent of the requirement in Deuteronomy 22 28-29 – that a man who violates a woman must be forced to marry her. A woman’s sexuality belongs to her husband, and such a man has already laid claim to it.

It is safer for women when legal provisions reflect later biblical teaching on sexuality and marital relations. For there is not the same endorsement of patriarchal practices in the Gospels and Epistles. In his first letter to the Church in Corinth, St Paul radically insists on mutuality and equality in marital sexuality. The woman is not the property of her husband, but each partner has the same ‘authority’ over the body of the other. (1 Corinthians 7  4).  The implications of this are enormous. Sexual relationships are to be shaped by mutual rights, respect, care, honour and love. And whilst laws alone can never prevent violence to women, or guarantee their safety, provisions grounded in these principles are surely a more compelling place to start.

Cambridge

March 2012

Remembering Henri Nouwen

Remembering Henri Nouwen

This was written for the Church Times in September 2011

This week saw the fifteenth anniversary of the death of Henri Nouwen. Had he lived he would still be only 79. His death may have seemed premature, but his legacy continues to expand. More than seven million of his books have been sold worldwide, translated into 30 languages. At the last count, all forty titles he authored in his lifetime were still in print. Even more remarkable, at least ten more books have been published posthumously and his lectures circulate globally on DVD. His influence goes far beyond the boundaries of the church. Hilary Clinton, US Secretary of State spoke of his book The Return of the Prodigal Son as the one which had the greatest impact on her life.

Nouwen was a Dutch priest-writer who lived most of his life in North America. Having studied both theology and psychology, he lectured at the universities of Notre Dame, Harvard and Yale. He spoke often of two competing desires in his earlier life – the yearning for success and to  ‘make it in life’, and the more humble longing to love Jesus more. Yet he knew the route he needed to take: ‘Success brings many rewards and often fame. Fruits, however, come from weakness and vulnerability.’

A restless Nouwen became emotionally distanced from academic life, publicly musing whether ‘proclaiming the Gospel to others wasn’t the best way of losing your own faith’. At the age of 54 he made a dramatic choice. Despite attracting the largest classes in the history of Harvard, he left the university world and became the pastor of L’Arch, Daybreak in Toronto. Living in a close community of people with physical and mental disabilities, he spoke poignantly of coming home, of finding here a deep sense of belonging.

His themes of solitude, community, compassion and brokenness have touched so many. He saw life as full of brokenness –‘broken relationships broken   promises, broken expectations’. He asks, ‘How can we live with that brokenness without becoming bitter and resentful except by returning again and again to God’s faithful presence in our lives?’ This pain was  reflected in his own life, which many biographers document as one of paradox and complexity. He had an enormous circle of friends (with whom he regularly corresponded in English, Dutch, French, German and Spanish), yet struggled persistently with intense feelings of loneliness. Fr Ron Rolheiser, his friend and fellow-writer saw him as torn between ‘the saint inside him who had given his life to God and the man inside him who, chronically obsessed with human love and its earthly yearnings, wanted to take his life back.’

Nouwen shares his journey deep into God’s grace. He invites us to see ourselves as God’s beloved. He urges us to reach out, to embrace vulnerability, to find that place where we have nothing to prove and nothing to defend. He exhorts us to open ourselves to Christ in prayer. But he never hides his own weaknesses.  And it is in the recognition that his struggles speak into the struggles of their own hearts that draws so many people to him. His Christian spirituality reflects the human condition, and articulates our longings. It awakens our desire to find our  identity in God and to know the freedom and generosity that brings. We glimpse the joy of a life well-lived. He says: ‘When we are people who are chosen by God — blessed, broken — we can give ourselves to others. Our life can bear immense fruit. The people who have lived as the beloved, continue to bear fruit generations after they have died.,,,’ This is surely his own epitaph.

Cambridge

Sept 2011