The Conversion of St. Paul

A sermon preached by the Revd. Robert Thompson, on 25th January 2015

There is a sense in which the picture I have chosen for todays pew sheet says, already, everything I want to say in this sermon. Its a woman at a rally in the aftermath of the recent brutal murders of 17 people at the offices of Charlie Hebdo and at the Jewish supermarket in Paris. She is holding a placard which affirms that she is Muslim, not a terrorist. Peace and love.

In the aftermath of the recent atrocities in Paris I uttered the phrase Je suis Charlie to myself. I wonder if you did too?

The Respect MP for Bradford West, George Galloway, in his usual ebullient style, did no such thing. In a fiery vent, on the steps of Bradford Town Hall, whilst condemning the murders, he argued that freedom of speech had its limits. He culminated by baying Je ne suis pas Charlie Hebdo. No one, he said, should be the target for violence or murder for anything that they said, wrote or drew. But Charlie Hebdo should be condemned for being a satirical engine for the stirring of Islamaphobia: These are not cartoons, these are not depictions of the Prophet, these are pornographic, obscene insults to the Prophet and by extension, 1.7billion human beings on this earth and there are limits.

One does not often think of George Galloway and Pope Francis as obvious bedfellows. But the Pope too stressed the limits of the right to freedom of expression when it came to insulting anothers faith. Whilst also condemning the violence he termed the cartoonists as provocateurs and said that they should have expected a backlash, since retaliation is often a result when religion is insulted. He argued that one cannot provoke, insult, or attack other peoples faith. When we actually consider the sort of cartoons that Charlie Hebdo often print we may see his point. When Muhammed is portrayed wearing a phallic headdress and other religious figures in sexual and scatological ways, one wonders at which point satire dissolves into toilet humour; when it becomes simply destructive without any real point or moral core.

What both Galloway and the Pope highlight is a sort of freedom of speech fundamentalism in which the idea or ideal is espoused and asserted without any thought of the consequences of what is actually said. In a letter published in the Times Nigel Biggar, the Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology at Oxford, unpacks this succinctly: 

In a liberal society there should a legal right to say things that other people may happen to find offensive. But morally responsible citizens of such a society will not say things with the intention of causing offence; they will say them with the intention of voicing valuable truths. Even if there is a legal right to spit on other peoples sacred cows for the sheer fun of it, there is no moral permission. Satirists and editors know their legal right, but do they know their moral obligation?

The relationship between freedom of speech, and what is legal and moral can be seen to break down into hypocrisy when we consider who actually took part in the rally in Paris in which all asserted: Je suis Charlie. Daniel Wickham, a student at LSE, in a series of tweets highlighted the representatives of governments taking part who kill, jail or limit the work of journalists: The Prime Minister of Turkey, the country which jails more journalists in the world than any other; the Prime Minister of Israel, the Palestinian President, the Foreign ministers of Egypt and Russia - all jurisdictions which regularly imprison journalists. The Saudi Ambassador to France, in whose country the blogger Raif Badawi has been sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes in sets of 50. But closer to home: the Prime Minister of Ireland, in which blasphemy is still a criminal offence. Our own Prime Minister, given that our security services destroyed documents obtained by the Guardian newspaper, and threatened prosecution in relation to material about Edward Snowden. Freedom is always limited by those who have power. Je suis Charlie; but only when is suits me.

Todays biblical readings may be of some help to us as we, in the wake of the 17 people who were recently brutally murdered in Paris, reflect on how we should respond for ourselves and our own communities as Christians. The themes of freedom, terror, violence, power, hypocrisy and even satire are all here.

Our first reading is the call of God to the prophet Jeremiah to begin his work. The work of a prophet is not that of a crystal ball gazer who foretells the future. Rather prophecy in ancient Israel was centred on the offering of both religious judgement and promise to the nation in the expectation of repentance and a change of personal, social and political action. So in todays text we hear that God will put words into Jeremiahs mouth so that he will be:
over nations and over kingdoms.
to pluck up and to pull down.
to destroy and to overthrow,
to build and to plant. (Jer 1.10)
Prophets, like Jeremiah, where the agents who, to use the catchphrase, spoke truth to power. They berated the people for their moral degeneracy, their social and economic injustice, their lack of hospitality and compassion, their failure to follow God, in short their hypocrisy. In this sense the prophets have much in common with the French tradition of satirical cartoonists. Whilst Charlie Hebdo has become famous for its cartoons of Mohammed, its prime targets are the Le Front National along with Le Pen family; political, financial and industrial leaders; religion in general; hypocrisy wherever it is to be found.

Terror and violence saturate todays second reading, which forms the textual heart of our celebration of this Feast Day of the Conversion of St Paul. We are told at the outset that Saul still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord went to the High Priest to see if he could persecute and kill a few more, beyond Jerusalem, in Damascus too. When he encounters Jesus on the road in the flashing light and voice it is the issue of Sauls violence that is addressed: Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? (Acts 9.4)   and I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting (Acts 9.5). The Jesus whom he meets makes him face up to and renounce his own violence and terror. But more than this, the one who was the agent of terror, violence and suffering, in his conversion is destined to be the recipient of the violence of others. Or as God tells Ananias: I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name (Acts 9.16).

Our gospel reading unmasks the ways in which the disciples conception of power and reward differs from that of Jesus. Todays text comes immediately after Jesus encounter with the rich young man who lacks the readiness to give up all of his possessions to follow him. Peter points out that they, the disicples, have left everything, so what will they get back in return? Jesus, at first goes along with Peters conception of sacrifice followed by just reward, but then he adds: But many who are first will be last, and the last first (Matt 19.30). Its as if Jesus too can be an iconoclastic; a satirist, who swiftly whips the carpet out from under the disciples feet and bursts our egocentric bubbles. Todays gospel reminds us that we, like Peter and the disciples, are always prone to hypocrisy. For whilst we say we hear the call of the One who asks us to take up the cross, the path of suffering, and follow on, we really want nothing of the sort at all. Rather we want to be assured that our service will be justly and appropriately rewarded.

As I meditate on todays readings I am not quite sure where to place myself in relation to the various responses to the atrocities in Paris. I did say Je suis Charlie although I wonder now what I meant by it. I am not fully with Galloway, the Pope or David Whickam. And yet I can see much that is true in what they have to say. On the one hand I think religious people of all sorts suffer far too often from a real sense of humour failure. But on the other, I do think that our moral responsibility as citizens of liberal, democratic societies does call us to responses that are more than simply asserting our right to do what is justifiably and importantly legal. And whilst it is both revealing and depressingly amusing for David Wickham to point out what we may see as the hypocrisy of a whole swathe of national leaders, the business of government always requires a balance of judgements and interests, which never leads to a clear cut, black and white action, but ones which are always grey and thoroughly morally problematic. What some unmask as hypocrisy can also be seen as necessary political accommodation or compromise.

I did say Je suis Charlie. On my part, initially, it expressed identification both with those who had died and a sense of the importance for a liberal, western society of 'freedom of expression'. When it seems that people like us, in societies like ours, Parisisan in France, are under attack its easy to make such quick identification. Its why many of us also felt very personally shaken by the nearly three thousand people who died in the twin towers on September 11, 2001. But as I uttered the words Je suis Charlie I remembered the statistic from an article by the theologian Leonardo Boff that still haunts me:  16,400 children under the age of 5 died of starvation and malnourishment died on 11 September 2001; twelve million under 5s were victims of hunger in that year. Boff acutely observed that no one was terrified then, nor is terrified now, in the face of that human catastrophe.

Todays readings remind us that in the season of Epiphany we remember a God who utters in the person of Jesus Christ, in flesh and blood: Je suis humain.' Its an utterance which calls us beyond Je suis Charlie Hebdo or I am Christian or I am a liberal westerner. God in Jesus Christ calls us to look beyond our own, families, tribes and nations, and to eschew all forms of violence. This God of Epiphany calls us even to care for those forgotten and starving children who bear little resemblance to us and who may even be the victims of our own 'liberal, western' greed and selfishness. God calls us to say with Christ I am human, and futher you are made in the image of God:

The Koran begins with Sura Al-Fatiha, The Opening, Its verses are a prayer for Gods guidance and stress the sovereignty and mercy of God. This chapter is fundamental in the Islamic understanding of God and it is recited at the start of each unit of prayer, or rakah in daily prayers Salat:

In the name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful:
All Praise is due to God, Lord of the Universe
The Most Gracious, the Most Merciful.
Owner of the Day of Judgement.
You alone do we worship, and You alone we turn to for help
Guide us to the straight path;
The path of those on whom You have bestowed your grace, not (the way) of those who have earned Your anger, nor of those who went astray

May God have mercy on all those who like Saul of Tarsus pursue their religious ends by violent and terrifying means. May God have mercy on those who murdered the 17 people who died in Paris. May God also have mercy on us all, for the violence that we all, unconsciously and continually, perpetuate against other. May God guide us in the straight path, which for we Christians, we see revealed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace.
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