“Radical Evil demands Radical Change.”
Reading: Micah 3: 5-12.
Why do we engage with the past?
Well, there are the friendly ghosts. I often look up at the rafters of this church and sense, caught up there, the prayers and hopes, doubts and despairs of all the generations before us every reach of human emotion. We are not alone.
But the reason I want to focus on today is that we learn from the past about the dynamics of change.
I’ll never forget my desolation, in my teaching days at Knox trying to get across to a class of future ministers my conviction that after Hiroshima, after Auschwitz, nothing could ever be the same again; remembering my father speaking to the first ever anti-nuclear march in Dunedin in front of Marama Hall in 1959 and saying: There are limits which we cannot transgress if we want to remain human; We have transgressed them.
And Auschwitz - symbolic of the fact that any atrocity imaginable has become banal reality in our midst
And this student voice from the Heartland; but, Peter, these are all European obsessions; they don’t concern us…
We live in a presentist age where nothing matters except the latest fad or sensation. “History is bunk”, as Henry Ford said, and most of our media and politicians today seem to agree.
One corollary of this is that radical evil, as the philosophers call it, can be dismissed. Another corollary is that anything like radical change is impossible.
The Reformation, or rather reformations, of the 16th century - catholic, Lutheran, Calvinist, Radical, diagnosed the situation of church and society as radically evil, requiring root and branch change.
Anticlericalism one sign of this, apocalyptic horizons the other.
Anticlericalism a people’s movement; not just a few lonely geniuses like Luther; directed not against the sexual and other abuses of the clergy so much at their grab on power over body and soul;
The Reformations went arm in arm with one of the liveliest movements of the arts and sciences Europe has ever seen; humanism. Religious renewal tends to flow as one tributary accompanying many others of the human spirit
Apocalyptic. Evil, as the prophet Micah the evangelist Matthew say, has crept right into the heart of religion, the synagogue, the church. The pope, as Luther put it, has become Antichrist. The beast of Revelation is taking us over and now sits in the holy place.
Open your eyes, says the reformer, Argula von Grumbach in 1524 , She’d have enjoyed Bob Dylan’s: The times, they are changing. The cautious Regensburg magistrates had closed down the printing shops to avoid offending the emperor and the bishops. Closed down dissent. Put the lid on the word of God, as far as Argula was concerned. So she, a woman, a laywoman, did the unthinkable. Put her life on the line. Spoke out against all this.
Woman and, as she said, peasants wising up. Note that this utopian hopefulness helped to spark off the Peasants’ War, the greatest social upheaval in Europe before the French Revolution.
Lesson two: Religious reformation tends to be inseparable from the quest for freedom and human dignity.
Reformation, means engaging with the troublesome God of all truth and all justice.
Radical Evil. Creeping right into the heart of our most sacred institutions. These days, chopping wood, digging the garden, my back gets sore quickly; I realize I am stiffening up, getting old. Institutions, too, stiffen up, get old. Lose the place. Have to be subverted.
one sign of this evil is the double tongue: the radical preacher, Thomas Müntzer, quoting our passage, Micah 3, points to the hypocrisy of those who ‘flay and fleece the poor farm worker, tradesman and everything that breathes, but want to be tough on crime. Whom do we trust? To whom has God given the Spirit??
Crisis of authority. Whom do we believe? The Reformations remind us that every institution is fallible, popes, councils, bishops, presbyteries, ministers like myself.
And note the corollary. Trust the layperson. Trust the peasant. Trust the woman.
Trust the little people. But as for me, says Micah, I am filled with power, with the spirit of the Lord.
Our most sacred institutions full of dry rot, corrupted. Is democracy itself a lost cause in our instant gratification society? Micah is on about politicians as much as about priests. Whom do we trust, pre-election 2011?
We used to say: safe as the Bank of England, Who trusts bankers today? Meanwhile the young people of Athens, and Madrid and in our own Octagon make their protest? The little people.
What’s the answer to radical evil?
The reformations were fired by a vision of a simpler church, a godlier world. But they offered no slick solutions, no cut and dried programmes
We start with God. We start with our obsession with ourselves The unpalatable message of a Luther is that there is no way around despair, doubt. We are far too smart to be educable. Far too clever at finding a thousand reasons to stick in the rut of our comfortable thinking. The reality of what Micah is on about: structural injustice. How to we face that?
How are we redeemed from that? Je gelehrter, je verkehrter. A proverbial saying at the time: “The more learned, the more perverted. “ An awful warning to us professors! We have to be like a fish, says Müntzer, and dive down into the black, dark depths Nice, liberal common sense will get us nowhere. Never has.
Doubt is healthy for faith.
Atul Gawand has written a marvellous book, Complications, about combatting the horrendous proportion of medical misdiagnoses and surgical mishaps; one of his many positive observations being that medical professionals are becoming much more ready to say: I do not know. An acknowledgement of limits and of mystery.
In his protest against the all-knowing academic theology of the time, rational through and through Luther said crisply: Philosophy is a whore. Our access to God is not by logic-chopping, not by our right thinking and right acting but is always the miracle of gift, faith in the child in the manger. In God stretching out to us…
So it’s a scary thing to be a preacher. To be a Christian. For our deepest intuitions pattern reality according to what is emotionally convenient to us, to our inordinate affections.( Loyola) The Jesuits knew this, and used all the resources of imagination, will, reason, to nudge would be disciples out of their emotional rut. . How do we give room for the spirit of God to work in the abyss of our souls?
If I’m sure I’m right, you know I’m wrong.!
I’ve used the two jargon terms, anticlericalism and apocalyptic. Anticlericalism was not about the sexual deviancy of priests, but about the misuse of power by the clergy Puncturing the arrogance of power. Any greater challenge today?
Apocalyptic an insistence on the grand narrative; an awareness that there is a awesome battle going on; between infinite good and radical evil. Let us fight chivalrously against the enemies of God and he will slay them with the breath of his mouth. The word of God must be our weapon. We must not hit out with weapons, but love our neighbour. Argula again.
One last jargon word for you: recapitulation. Meaning a sort of genial harvesting of the past. To question present priorities. We integrate, as the psychologists say, by first disintegrating the false synthesis. To remember the past means to dismember our present selves. Confronting stuff!
So, we Christians go forward by first going backward. As the prophets went back to Moses; as Jesus went back to the prophets, Paul to Jesus, Augustine and Luther to Paul. We to Argula.
Each recovery of the rock from which we are hewn, is of course, a rediscovery. Traditionalism, the dead faith of the present, forgets that. All fundamentalisms forget that. Tradition, the living faith of the dead, offers us new possibilities of being.
What wonderful German Jesus speaks, said the weaver Utz Rychssner in Augsburg, reading the gospels in his own language for the first time. He, too, went back to basics. AMEN.