New Wine in New Wineskins

It’s not that Jesus ever asked us to like people; rather he commanded us to love others. And there’s a world of difference between liking and loving. Any woman in a violent domestic situation may love the man who regularly beats her up, but she probably has no liking for him or his actions, in fact it would be accurate to say she hates him and his actions. The love of God encompasses and enfolds all people, for all were created in God’s likeness, yet God cannot tolerate the sins we commit, privately or publicly.

The gap between humanity and divinity, between the Creator and the created ones, was growing steadily wider. As so often before, the voices of God’s prophets were ignored, and they were deemed to be troublemakers by those who wished the status quo to remain intact. The plight of the prophets, such as Jeremiah, attests to the treatment dealt out by those in authority to any who would speak God’s message of repentance and reconciliation. Religious and political leaders who made personal position, power, prestige and calculated control of others their goals and idols, had cast burdens upon the backs of God’s people no less heavy than those imposed by their taskmasters in Egypt. God had become an object of fear, the one who punished sins and demanded a heavy toll of sacrifices. Gone was the God who spoke often with Abraham, Jacob, Isaac and David. This concerned and loving God was replaced in humanity’s understanding by a god of vengeance. And so, in love, God acted. In human flesh, with the consent of an unmarried teenaged girl whose life could have been forfeited by this decision, God visited this planet and walked among us.

With his followers, during a period of about three years, God ­ in the form of Jesus ­ overturned the prescriptions ordained by those in authority, those who twisted a moral code, formulated to ensure the safety of a nomadic people, into fetters that all but strangled free thought and actions in Judaic society. When Jesus reached out to the Samaritan woman at the well at Sychar he challenged both the societal more that precluded speaking with women in public places, and the notion that Samaritans were a people to be despised. This action overthrew those barriers of racism and gender so important in maintaining the “them” and “us” attitude espoused and promoted by the Sanhedrin. In today’s society, when fear of the unknown is being promoted various governments and faiths, many are again bound by the fetters of racism and fear of those who differ from us. As Christian nations we could expect that our laws would reflect Christ’s teaching on loving obligation to ease the plight of minorities, lift the burdens of those who are hungry or homeless, no matter to which nation and culture they belong, and which demonstrate selfless love in all our interaction with one another.

Yet, just as the words of the song featured in the musical South Pacific, “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught”, detail, we are being taught by community or religious attitudes, or by governmental dictates, just which people we should hate. This is uncomfortably reminiscent of the propaganda broadcast during World War I and World War II, when we were taught to hate and fear the nations belonging to the Axis powers, while people governed by the Third Reich were taught to loathe Jews. The Vietnam War brought with it another wave of orchestrated propaganda, a hatred directed against the people of North Vietnam.

Once again the Old Testament teaching that one must extract an eye for an eye has taken favour among the leaders of our nations. But among ordinary people across the world has arisen slowly an awareness that what our leaders are proclaiming as the will of our nations does not reflect the opinion or will of the majority of citizens. No matter how contrived the rhetoric, deep down within each of us who have a social conscience, among those who meet and walk with God, is the conviction that we truly hate the lies we have been fed, and the fear these lies continue to generate. Little by little our questioning leads to disbelief in the status quo, as we begin to form our own opinions. We hold before our eyes the words of Isaiah 8: 12-13: “Do not call conspiracy everything these people call conspiracy; do not fear what they fear, and do not dread it. The Lord Almighty is the one you are to regard as holy, God is the one you are to fear, God is the one you are to dread, and God will be a sanctuary.”

It is at this point we discover God’s hand in our lives, for behind every event that added to our doubt is the Holy Spirit. We know from experience that when there are none who will affirm our worth, the Holy Spirit reveals our identity as worthy and beloved people whom God has chosen and called. In our understanding and acceptance of the act that God loves us and that Jesus died, by taking our punishment and shame, we become transformed. We begin to discover we are loveable ­ in fact worthy of love, and that we who are accepted by God will be accepted by others who have similarly been transformed. No longer scarred or disfigured by our imperfections we are changed, renewed and refreshed by our personal and regular interaction with God.

We know that we reveal very little of ourselves to the outside world. In fact, past experiences often condition us to surround our hopes, dreams, failures and intimate relationships with a heavy curtain of privacy. It is only as we become more familiar, more intimate with those we meet socially or in our work places, that we prise open the merest chink in the oyster shell of our privacy. Across the world, as well as in our own country, there are many people who also have learned to distrust intimacy, and who too hide their essential selves under a blanket of privacy. Since we are unwilling to open our lives and our love to people we know, how then do we react to those outside our personal experience? When we are reluctant to serve the physical, social and spiritual needs of people in our own street and town, are we able to project the concept of “neighbour” to encompass all who have personally abused us, and those who have contributed to the pain and destruction of lives of people outside our immediate community? By what justification dare we judge others when we know little about them, their lives, dreams, hopes and aspirations? How can we assess what is right, fair and just treatment for those living in other lands or in differing situations in our own country when we choose to insulate ourselves within our own community rather than simply accepting them as others that God loves just as much as God loves us? We tend to forget that apart from differences in ideologies, in skin pigmentation, in the country, nation or faith into which we were born, we are all the same. Perhaps we need to reread Shylock’s speech in Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice,” for we all have circulatory and respiratory systems, we all need oxygen to breathe, food and water to ingest, and other people to counter the isolation we would otherwise experience. As we think about suicide bombers it might be well to remember that, but for an accident of birth, this might have been our chosen destiny.

Nations following Islamic codes basically obey the same laws as may be found in the Old Testament ­ an eye for an eye, the removal of limbs that cause offence, and stoning as punishment for acts of immorality. These laws actively promote revenge. These are the laws that prompt the actions of individuals and governments that lie outside the influence of Christ. For Christian nations to adopt the same mores ­ retaliatory strikes against those deemed to be responsible for attacks on our own citizens and property ­ is to repudiate the new covenant God offers through the death of Jesus. This new covenant rejects retaliation and revenge, offering love and peace instead. Jesus asks that we love all people, regardless of their actions and words, and that we pray constantly for those who have caused us hurt or pain.

The good news that salvation cannot be achieved by anything we, or any other person, can do, that we are loved and accepted by God, is the new wine we carry. We are changed into new wine skins offering this precious wine of truth and love to all. We are called to offer our wine to those we have been taught to hate. And yet is this something new, a new truth for our generation? Paul urges us to “put aside the former things” and that indeed encompasses attitudes.

Drop by drop, water carves away all obstacles to its progress, and we are left with features such as the Grand Canyon in the USA and the limestone caves at Jenolan in Australia. The progress of these drops of water is almost silent, yet their persistent action erodes otherwise immovable objects. Love, persistent and pervasive, carves its way into the prejudices, opinions and attitudes of others, dissolving stony walls of prejudice, racism or nationalism as hearts and minds come under the influence of God. God never demands we change before we are able to receive the gift of love; God loves us unconditionally and eternally, just as we are. This is the love we are asked to live in our relationship with all others. Since God does not demand we become worthy of love, we may not demand that others change to become worthy of the love Christ pours out through our lives.

Just as ordinary soldiers or sailors are responsible only for their own actions rather than the outcome of specific battles during times of war, so we are asked to be responsible only for our own actions and thoughts. If we truly believe that the power of God is greater than that of any section of humanity, we should be able to demonstrate our faith by allowing God to work out the outcomes of regional or worldwide conflict. God will command our words and actions while ever we maintain a close relationship with our Creator. We do not need to pre-empt God by striking out at those whose actions have caused havoc in our lives or the lives of others. None of us was prepared for the deaths deliberately caused in the Locherbie disaster, any more than we were when the attack on the Twin Towers, the Bali bombings or the terrorism against Spanish trains occurred. We were not anticipating the suicide bombers currently seeking martyrdom through terrorist acts of violence. God alone has the capacity to heal the wounds this world and its peoples have suffered, and to bring peace among people and nations. But the hands of God are so often tied by our own actions, and God who has given us freewill is therefore unable to hold back the blows we choose to strike, or the rhetoric that pours from our lips.

We are the new wineskins carrying the message of love; we are the new wine skins fashioned by a new understanding of God’s desire for all people, and our inheritance of new attitudes towards all others. How then shall we love all who fall into Christ’s category of “neighbour,” when they continue to threaten our existence? We will love them because we choose to love them. Because this is the way of God, to love every individual, seeing in each the perfect soul created by God. It is not easy to love in this fashion, but is it any easier to live a life scarred and marred by hate, peppered with beliefs in retribution, retaliation and revenge? Which way will we, as inheritors of the eternal dominion of God, choose?

From a Mennonite Peace and Justice Newsletter, I offer “Keep the Faith, Share the Peace.”

“A frail black woman stands slowly to her feet. She is something over 70 years of age. Facing her from across the room are several white security police officers, one of whom, Mr van der Broek, has just been tried and found implicated in the murders of both the woman’s son and her husband some years before.

It was indeed Mr van de Broek, it has been established, who had come to the woman’s home a number of years back, had taken her son, shot him at point-blank range and then burned the young man’s body on a fire while he and his officers partied.

Several years later, van der Broek and his cohorts had returned to take away her husband as well. For many months she heard nothing of his whereabouts. Then, almost two years after her husband’s disappearance, van der Broek came back to fetch the woman herself. How vividly she remembers that evening, going to a place beside the river where she was shown her husband, bound and beaten, but still strong in spirit, lying on a pile of wood. The last words she heard from his lips as the officers poured gasoline over his body and set him aflame were “Father, forgive them.”

And now the woman stands in the courtroom and listens to the confession offered by Mr van der Broek. A member of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission turns to her and asks, ‘So, what do you want? How should justice be done to this man who has so brutally destroyed your family?’

‘I want three things,’ begins the woman calmly, but confidently. ‘I want first to be taken to the place where my husband’s body was burned so that I can gather up the dust and give his remains a decent burial.’ She pauses, then continues, ‘My husband and son were my only family. I want secondly, therefore, for Mr van der Broek to become my son. I would like for him to come twice a month to the ghetto and spend a day with me. And finally,’ she says, ‘I want a third thing. I would like Mr van der Broek to know that I offer him my forgiveness because Jesus Christ died to forgive. This was also the wish of my husband. And so, I would kindly ask someone to come to my side and lead me across the courtroom so that I can take Mr van der Broek in my arms, embrace him and let him know that he is truly forgiven.’

As the court attendants come to lead the woman across the room, Mr van der Broek, overwhelmed by what he has just heard, faints. And as he does, those in the courtroom, friends, family, neighbours ­ all victims of decade of oppression and injustice ­ begin to sing softly, but assuredly, ‘Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.'”