Friday, August 26, 2016

Vanishing into Glory: Saint Bartholomew

Gary Oldman as Sirius Black,
from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenis.
Popular culture is filled with evidence for the persistence of heroic myths of suffering and deliverance, of dying and rising. You can take your pick even of contemporary movie franchises: The X-Men or the Avengers, Thor and Loki, Gods of the Egyptians, Superman and Batman.

But of course there is an older story, a deeper myth, that came before and that will remain after these have long been forgotten:

I refer, of course, to Harry Potter.

There are many significant moments of pathos in the Harry Potter books, not least moments of actual death. For me the most fearful and confronting of these was not Snape's death or Cedric Diggory’s death, or even Dumbledore’s death; it was the death of Sirius Black.

If you haven’t read the Order of the Phoenix book someone else may have to spell this out for you in detail afterwards, but during a battle among wizards Sirius falls or is pushed through a portal, a crumbling ancient doorway that stands by itself in a room in the Ministry of Magic with a ragged curtain hanging in it, but that seems to go nowhere. In fact that is all too true - it is a door to oblivion, through which no-one who passes can return. Falling through, Sirius has ceased to be, is annihilated.

Oblivion may be our greatest fear. Our efforts to protect or enlarge our personal empires - of family, profession, intellectual achievement, or material wealth - are efforts not merely to protect ourselves from outrageous fortune but in particular to be remembered. We may even have come to terms with death, in the straightforward sense, but we are scared of an oblivion greater than death itself.

One of the things regular users of Lesser Feasts and Fasts become used to is a phrase something like this in certain of the biographies of saints it provides: “little else is known of Saint X.” This is a strange challenge, an implicit rebuke even I suggest, to current efforts to reform the sanctoral calendar into an adequately didactic or informative and representative collection of people about whom we are supposed therefore to know enough to count them worthy of emulation. In any case, if early one morning as Morning Prayer lurches into motion in this Chapel you hear words like these through the gloom of semi-consciousness, there is one thing you can be fairly sure of about a saint so described: it is an apostle.

This is a strange thing to consider. If we asked a different question of our collection of saints, something like “which of these are the foundational figures, those to whom the Gospel was first and definitively committed, those by whose witness the faith was first commended to the world” and so forth, we would give the same answer surely: the apostles.

St Bartholomew whom we commemorate today is one of these shadowy apostles, a name in a list only, and otherwise a figure quite lost to us - and certainly no more accessible through the collection of embarrassed legends devised later by well-meaning Christians who could not abide this stark vacuum.

But the oblivion of Bartholomew, his vanishing from memory, is not or not only a failure of the historical record. It is a sign to us of the character of apostleship and how it differs from our attempts to avoid oblivion and be remembered, even in the life of faith. Jesus describes this truth in today’s Gospel clearly enough: “A dispute also arose among the disciples as to which... was the greatest. He said ‘the kings of the gentiles lord or over them and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so among you…'” (Luke 22: 24-26) And Paul provides a striking job description of the obscure apostolate: “hungry and thirsty…poorly clothed and beaten and homeless…the rubbish of the world” (1 Cor 4).

Apostleship does not seem to be about establishing name or reputation or leaving a legacy in any recognizable sense; and what we have observed about the fate of the actual apostles bears this out in a striking way. Apostleship is not about being remembered - or not, at least, about being remembered by us.

There is of course another whose memory has an altogether different character and significance. The prayer attributed to Sir Jacob Astley before the Battle of Edgehill is telling:

“O Lord, thou knowest how busy I must be this day. If I forget thee, do not forget me."

Our truest and deepest need is not to fend off oblivion by our remembered achievements, but to be remembered by God. This is the one to whom Jesus himself, facing his own oblivion, offered his memory and who was thus called back from beyond that portal into our remembrance.

This then is the apostolic call: to abandon fear of oblivion and the false forms of achievement to which it leads, living our lives in love to be remembered by God, and thus like Bartholomew vanishing into glory.

Friday, August 12, 2016

The Sacrifice of Humayun Khan

Abraham and Ishmael; Brooklyn Museum
When Khizr Khan, father of a soldier killed in Iraq in 2004, took the stage at the Democratic National Convention in July to contest Donald Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric, he invoked the language of sacrifice to upbraid the Republican candidate:

"Go look at the graves of the brave patriots who died defending America — you will see all faiths, genders and ethnicities. You have sacrificed nothing and no one."

Trump’s spluttered response was shallow: "Did Hillary's script writers write it? I think I've made a lot of sacrifices. I work very, very hard."

Hillary Clinton’s own comment pulled the focus on sacrifice back to those who died in war: "this is a time to honor the sacrifice of Captain Khan and all the fallen. Captain Khan and his family represent the best of America, and we salute them."

The noise surrounding the contest over the US presidency itself is such that some important issues in this exchange may get lost. One is just what “sacrifice” is. Mr Trump certainly misses the mark, but it is not hard to see how he slid into his claim; he identified his own hard work as “sacrifice" because he made certain choices, giving up certain goods or goals for the sake of others. This is part of a typical modern and metaphorical "sacrifice," but Trump's attempt to climb the altar falls short at the step where Khizr Khan and Ghazala Khan - and their son Captain Humayun Khan - stand. Mr Trump may have given up certain things for the sake of other things, but it is no sacrifice merely to make choices, or even to exercise discipline. Going to the gym is not sacrifice, and neither is single-minded aggrandizement. The Khans gained the higher ground at a cost.

The idea of “sacrifice” itself deserves to be interrogated further, though. The nobility exhibited by the Khan parents and the bravery shown by the son may exemplify what it means in modern terms, but ironically this is not quite what Islam otherwise means by sacrifice, nor was it originally what Christianity or Judaism meant.

Among these traditions Muslims are unique in actually still sacrificing literally, on Eid al-Adha, slaughtering an animal and distributing the meat, a third going to the poor and the other two-thirds being retained or shared with family and friends. This ritual has something of the character of gift and divine service, but does not carry redemptive overtones as Christianity might expect of sacrifice; a degree of altruism is also involved in Eid al-Adha, but the cow or camel bears the greatest burden, rather the family itself.

Yet the Muslim holiday, to be celebrated in a few weeks from the time of writing, does refer to a story more like that of Khizr, Ghazala, and Humayun Khan; it commemorates Abraham’s not-quite sacrifice of his son (in Islam the almost-victim was Ishmael, not Isaac). With that story in mind, one can actually hear Khizr Khan presenting himself and his son as a modern Abraham and Ishmael to the DNC; the father offered his son in obedience to a higher power, but here no angel stayed his hand. Khizr, not Humayun Khan, made the sacrifice.

This is slightly different from the usual Christian or post-Christian western view of how sacrifice works. Clinton’s further comment, wherein the fallen is the sacrificer as well as the offering - just as Jesus, the sacrifice par excellence, is both priest and victim - is more typical of the "deadly altruism" that has come define sacrifice in most modern western use. Here Humayun Khan offers himself.

Mrs Clinton’s more familiar figuring of Humayun Khan’s death allows him agency at least; his sacrifice is his own choice, whether made rightly or not. For all its dignity, Khizr Khan’s view of sacrifice is one in which the father, Abrahamically, gives the son to God. For many Christians, ironically, this view may also be resonant with a popular if pernicious quasi-trinitarian dynamic in which the Father offers up or demands the life of the Son, and where divine life seems more like domestic violence than cosmic love.

So there are at least two kinds of sacrificial logic, even in this one story, not counting Trump's; despite claims by some social theorists and theologians that all sacrifice has one origin and meaning, in reality sacrifice is a complex field of thought and practice, not just one idea. Ancient sacrificers, like modern Muslims at Eid, were not typically focussed on human victims, scapegoats, or redemption. Yet both these recent uses of sacrificial image and story reflect a modern tendency for sacrifice to have become a way of talking not about gift, celebration, and sharing, but about violence and voluntary suffering.

What do we learn of the meaning of Captain Khan’s death by this language? Both Khan's and Clinton's statements deserve scrutiny, because both in fact use the metaphor of sacrifice to interpret or even to justify violent death and war - and a problematic war at that.

Both sacrificial reflections name a sacrifice, but only imply a God. The God to whom Humayun Khan's life was offered is of course not the one worshipped by either religious tradition to which the speakers adhere, but is the nation and its policies. The fine line between the two here is sobering. In modern times, Christians have often allowed or encouraged the confusion of civil and divine orders in sacralizing war, or at least the tragedy of death in war, in terms that - to be as sympathetic as possible - allow meaning to be sought in the midst of violent death and tragic loss. Captain Khan’s death however has become not merely a matter of personal bravery to recall as a moral example, but an offering placed before the specific altar of the Iraq War, as much as of the US Constitution.

By figuring Captain Khan’s death thus, the speakers at the Democratic Convention have demanded a high price of the American people too. One of the few positive things one could say about Mr Trump’s campaign—and it is a struggle to find many—is that at least on some days he has questioned US foreign policy in the Middle East, when the Democratic candidate has not. The incoherence of Trump's statements, among other things, prevents them from being a serious critique, but such is still necessary. A war whose causes and effects are deeply questionable - even for those who accept the possibility of a just war - a war whose scandalous origins have recently led to a scathing and important analysis in Britain through the Chilcot inquiry, requires fearless scrutiny rather than have its ugliness covered over with words of sacrifice.

Here however the system has failed Americans in general. But it may have failed Humayun Khan and other Americans who have borne the cost of the Iraq War for the US (not to mention Iraqis themselves groaning under the weight of civil war and the repellent rule of ISIS) more specifically. Through this sacrificial rhetoric, Humayun Khan has been offered to the cause of multiculturalism and liberal democracy - or is that multiculturalism and democracy have themselves been drafted for the war? Did Captain Khan, a brave man who loved his country, die to prove that Muslims and migrants can sacrifice to the same false gods too? His memory and his sacrifice may still require a different kind of service; an increasingly diverse American nation may still need learn to exist with itself, as Khizr Khan scathingly demonstrated to Donald Trump; but however diverse it may become, the USA also needs to learn how to exist with others and to make its truest offerings at the altar of peace.