The Reverend Professor David Brown FBA
Preached on 6th August 2006
(The Transfiguration of our Lord)
by The Reverend Professor David Brown FBA
In the gospel reading, you have just heard Luke's account of our Lord's transfiguration. I shall come to that account in due course. But let me begin elsewhere, with another transfiguration that is also recalled this day. Whereas only those closest to Jesus saw what happened on the mountain, in this other case even at 1500 metres distance the effects were still all too palpable. Here is a nine-year old boy's description: ‘I was astonished to see my sister covered in blood. Then I looked at myself and saw the skin of my hands and legs peeling and hanging down. I started crying with fear.' Inevitably at only half the distance, at 600 metres, the experience was even more intense, as one sixteen-year old girl records: ‘My hands were red with blood, my skin hanging down. In my wounded flesh I saw black, red and white things appearing. I was alarmed and tried to remove them by taking my handkerchief from my pocket. But there was no handkerchief and no pocket. All the clothes below my waist were burned away.' As you may well have guessed by now, these are two descriptions from young survivors of the effect of the atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima, sixty-one year ago today. They survived, but over 200, 000 died, either in the immediate aftermath or more slowly from related illnesses. All the effect of a flash of dazzling white light, but so different from what happened on the Mount of the Transfiguration.
It is now more than thirty years ago that I was a research student at Cambridge, but I still remember the passion with which my philosophy supervisor, Elizabeth Anscombe viewed those events. At the time she had been teaching in Oxford, and not long afterwards that university proposed President Truman for an honorary degree. She bitterly opposed the proposal, labelling Truman nothing less than a mass murderer, no better than those whom he was opposing. You may think this an absurd exaggeration. But even some of America's generals took a not dissimilar view, among them Dwight Eisenhower and Douglas MacArthur. Certainly the Japanese had refused the Allies demand for unconditional surrender, but, as both men observed, that was wholly because of their, to us, strange views about the status of the Emperor. According to Eisenhower and MacArthur, allow the Emperor to continue to reign and surrender would follow immediately. In fact, that was the policy eventually adopted, but too late, as the bombs had already been dropped. In short, since other means were available, it is hard to see what the motivation could have been other than revenge, as seems also to have been so in our own case with the carpet bombing of Dresden. Bishop Bell of Chichester was one of the few people to protest at the time.
I mention all of this not to declare war wrong - it is sometimes a tragic necessity -but rather to emphasise how important it is never to sink to the level of the enemy, just because they are behaving badly. Christianity offers the image of a Saviour transfigured by the light of divine glory, not the light of an atomic explosion charring bodies and peeling the skin off children. That is why there is a long Christian tradition known as just war theory that attempts to provide rules of engagement that confine objectives to military targets and insists on the legitimate rights of civilians, in particular the basic idea that, however good an end, an evil means of getting there is never justified. Much of that reflection is now enshrined in international law.
Which brings me to the present conflict in the Middle East. It is precisely on those very resources - the Christian just war tradition - that the Secretary General of the United Nations and the President of France have drawn, in calling for an immediate ceasefire between Israel and Lebanon, insisting, as they have, that Israel's use of force in entirely disproportionate in relation to what provoked them in the first place, the capture of two of their airmen. In particular, the thousand or killed so far and the hundreds of thousands made homeless made nonsense of the Israeli claim only to be engaged upon attacking military targets. In all of this there is of course a sad and terrible irony. These are non-Christians using Christian reflection to plead for a better way. Meanwhile, George Bush and Tony Blair, two practising Christians, adamantly refuse to condemn Israel. Indeed, Britain continues to provide bases for transporting the weapons that Israel uses so destructively and so callously.
We all know the alleged justification, that such action is part of an international war on terrorism, and Hesbollah, like Hamas, is to be seen as a terrorist organisation. That much is true. But what has been forgotten is that one's foe acting like a terrorist never justifies one in acting like a terrorist in turn, and it is very hard to see what other description is possible for the Israeli state. The journalist, Anthony Howard, recently compared their present behaviour to that of the Nazis. While that was absurd in terms of the full range of Nazi atrocities, it is worrying how many other features of German state terrorism have been adopted with implicit American approval, among them confiscation of property without compensation and the creation of semi-permanent ghettoes that severely restrict not only Palestinians' freedom of movement but also even their provision of the basic necessities of life. Indeed, it is hard to see how else one might describe the blockaded and bombed Gaza Strip.
In response it is often observed that Hamas and Hesbollah do after all want the destruction of the state of Israel. That is true, but they have scarcely the power to realise this, and like the IRA they are unlikely be persuaded to a different objective so long as they see so many of their own people suffering under an oppressive government. Israel wants its three captured airmen returned, but there are more than 8,000 Palestinians in Israeli jails, half of whom have never been brought to trial and over 200 of whom are minors.
Some of you may have taken offence at such an explicitly political sermon. If so, I ask you to ponder what you think the Christian faith is really about, if it is not allowed to impact on every aspect of life. But in any case it is time for me to return once more to Scripture. It has important things to tell us about ourselves both good and bad.
Let me take the bad first. I remember being deeply shocked about twenty years or so ago when a professor of the Old Testament told me that he thought that the nearest biblical equivalent to Hesbollah was in fact the so-called Deuteronomic school, the group of writers believed responsible for much of the historical writing in the Old Testament, more especially the book of Deuteronomy; hence their name. Here is the relevant verse on which that professor based his judgement: ‘In the cities of these peoples that the Lord your God gives you as an inheritance, you shall save alive nothing that breathes, but you shall utterly destroy them' (20.16). As the surrounding verses indicate, that is to include women and children. So, to put it bluntly a policy of genocide is to be found in the Bible thousands of years before it ever was put into practice by the Nazis or advocated, in theory at least, by some members of Hesbollah. But note the book in which such curdling sentiments occur. It is the same book that advocates care for the stranger, the widow and the orphan. So, also with Hesbollah. It runs 4 hospitals, 12 clinics, 22 schools and 2 agricultural centres. Likewise in Palestine Hamas uses 90% of its income on humanitarian projects, including schools, orphanages, soup kitchens, and so on. Little wonder then that the secular and corrupt Fahah organisation was recently voted out of power.
Unfortunately, it is that mix of love and hatred, of great and small mindedness that is in all of us. The French government has corrected perceived that what is required is to bring out the best in Hezbollah, not to intensify its hatred still further. Tony Blair and George Bush have still to learn that lesson. Acting like a terrorist towards terrorists only makes the perpetrators still more resentful. Again, bombing the innocent may cower them in fear but it will also leave them in no doubt where the greater justice lies. So it is perhaps not altogether surprising that in the latest opinion poll from the Lebanon over 80% of our fellow Christians there now declare their support Hezbollah rather than the United States.
And yet, as today's gospel seeks to make clear, Christ came to reveal an altogether different way. The text is not just about indicating the divinity inherent in Christ, as even the greatest figures from the Old Testament, Moses and Elijah, acknowledge his authority. It is about so much more - about the possibility of the transformation of ourselves and our world. Yet that can so easily be missed. There are two important clues Luke gives us that this is the meaning he intends. First, note how the passage begins - ‘about eight days later.' It is highly unlikely that this is a factual reference. Rather, it is Luke's way of alerting us to the fact that what comes next will speak of a new week, in other words a new order, a new creation. As we all know, the story goes that God made the world in seven days. Now here on the eighth something even more extraordinary and wonderful is about to happen. Christ is transfigured, but, as this happens, he talks of his departure that was about to take place in Jerusalem. ‘Departure' is the English word you have in your text, but the Greek is ‘exodus.' Through that self-giving suffering in Jerusalem a new exodus is to become a possibility, one that will take us beyond the slavery and corruption towards which the human mind is ever tempted. Instead, we will he drawn through into God's own marvellous light. Hesbollah, ‘the party of God' as they call themselves, no longer imprisoned by hate like the thugs who oppress them, but both alike transfigured through adoption of a better way, one in which all are valued as God's children and never declared dispensable because of some allegedly greater good. The white light that no longer painfully peels off the skin of little children; instead the light that can give dignity to all. Pray for that day. Amen.