‘You did the genocide really well’

Posted on April 21, 2011

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The title was my best review from this year’s Spring Harvest (Minehead week 1), offered by storyteller extraordinaire Bob Hartman. I had a much lighter load than previous years (we measure things in ‘contact hours’ in universities sometimes; the last four years I’ve run at 12-15 contact hours in a SH week; this year I had six), giving Bible studies on Malachi in the mornings, and with only one extra session – on justifying genocide.

OK, I exaggerate a little. The theme was Scripture, linking to the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible, and particularly to the BibleFresh campaign; a strand of the optional afternoon seminars was looking at points of difficulty, and one they picked, and picked for me, was ‘Terrible Texts: God and Genocide in the Old Testament’.

Yeah, thanks guys; really grateful for that…

(Not that this is anything new; in the last five years at SH I’ve spoken on the continuing place of Israel in God’s purposes, the rightness or otherwise of the Iraq war, hell as eternal conscious torment, and almost certainly some other stuff that I’ve blanked from my memory as just too painful. What did I do wrong?)

Someone asked me for a quote about the event, half of which (being a theologian, I was obviously a bit long-winded) ended up in the brochure for next year. Why do I keep saying ‘yes’ to the invitation to go? Our girls love it, of course, and grow visibly in their faith each time we’re there; but it’s not just that – I look forward to the week for my own sake, not just for theirs. I thought about it. I always get to work with some great people – the wonderful Abby Guinness and Amy Boucher-Pye this time around – but that’s not it, not really. I thought about that experience, before speaking about genocide or Israel or hell, of a room full of nervous energy – and full of people, people who have chosen to skip the beach or the funfair or the swimming pool because this matters to them. Given Israel, I did nothing special – a quick trip through Romans, read from a soft ‘new perspective’ a la Tom Wright.

For the rest of the day, people stopped me around the site to thank me, many of them actually in tears.

Their story was the same: Jewish converts, they had spent some of their lives being told they had no need to convert, and most of them being told that God’s ancient promises to their people were irrelevant, and their families were no better than idolatrous pagans. It was my privilege to be the one who told them there was another way of thinking about things, that took seriously both their own faith and their people’s heritage.

And that’s what I love about speaking at Spring Harvest: people care about the questions; they are not – as they are so often in academic settings – mere intellectual exercises; they actually matter. A seminar on genocide in the OT at Spring Harvest is not an opportunity to show how cleverly you can side-step a problem; it’s an opportunity to help people for whom this question is something that changes the way they live their faith in the world. Speaking on Israel, I carefully avoided current politics about the ownership of the land; inevitably it was the first question. ‘Why do you ask that?’ I enquired – the answer came back – he was an evangelist, working in Germany amongst displaced Arab people. The single biggest problem he faced in his mission was the injustice of Jewish settlement in the occupied territories.

That’s mission. That matters. I stopped avoiding the question, and did my best.

This time, genocide -I looked around the room – several hundred there, including half a dozen other members of the speaking team. This matters. We need an answer – and I had the privilege of trying to offer one. It wasn’t desperately original or clever, but folk seemed to find it eased a real problem, and so were enormously grateful.

That’s why I keep going – the chance to serve God’s people in something that really matters by exploring hard questions with them and for them. This year they gave me genocide, and it mattered to people, and so I could do something genuinely useful.

Thanks guys – I’m really grateful for that!

(And even more grateful that you gave questions of sexuality to the remarkable Andrew Marin, incidentally…)

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