Student essay – The Bible and the politics of assisted dying

Today’s student essay invites us to reflect on the sensitive topic of assisted dying. It was written by Andrew Cardy, a recent graduate of the University of Auckland, as part of his course work for our popular General Education course, The Bible in Popular Culture (THEOREL 101G). Andrew has just completed a Bachelor of Fine Arts with Honours, and a Bachelor of Arts majoring in English and History. He is currently researching Pedagogical Games at the University of Auckland, and looks to complete his Masters qualification in the near future. As well as being a very hardworking student, Andrew is also a youth worker, a vestry member, and a synod representative of St. Andrew’s Epsom, here in Auckland.

Andrew’s essay considers the political debates around assisted dying, particularly the use of the Bible as a ‘cultural prop’ within these debates. I hope you enjoy.

assisted-dying

The Bible and Assisted Dying Bills

by Andrew Cardy

The Bible has been a popular point of reference in political discourse since its inception over 2,000 years ago. Within popular culture’s dialogue today the Bible serves as an authoritative, and at times instructive, tool that is widely appropriated by both the secular and religious alike. The current political rhetoric regarding euthanasia (henceforth referred to as ‘assisted death’) is indicative of this. Utilising this case study as a springboard, this essay will discuss the Bible’s use as a ‘cultural prop’ in contemporary politics today. After unpacking this term, focus will turn to the two key points of contention in the assisted dying debate, concluding with a brief summary of New Zealand’s current political rhetoric on the issue. The interest of this investigation is not in valuing one side of the debate over the other, but rather in assessing their various uses of the Bible in the creation of their claims.

Nations with a strong bond between Church and State often offer political discourse riddled with both implicit and explicit references to the Bible. The perception of the politician responsible is the primary concern, rather than the literal meaning of the text. The Bible is cited in order to prop up the individual’s public persona (Crossley 2014, 42). In this way the Bible is used as a ‘Cultural Prop’, defined by Yale Professor Joel Baden as a means of affirming certain personal religious values within a political context (2014). The Bible’s iconic form as a means of moral and ethical instruction informs such a use, as prospective voters or viewers are more likely to be persuaded by its insertion into political rhetoric. The recent political debates around assisted death have led to examples of this type of use as evidenced in the USA and UK especially, where explicit reference to the Bible was present in a majority of submissions made on legislature (Rae 2016, 264). However, engagement with the text is often irresponsible, as Reverend Jonathan Clatworthy noted on the Carter v. Canada case, “consistency lay in political affiliation rather than theological argument: theologians could adapt biblical text… to reach the desired conclusions” (2015, 137).

Certainly the most pronounced, and perhaps the most fundamental, point of contention is around the ‘sanctity of life’ idea, the belief that all life is sacred. For those opposing the introduction of assisted death the most unshakeable assertion of all comes from commandment, “Thou shall not murder” (Exod. 20.13). The political precedent for this was most strongly advocated by Pope John Paul II in 1980 when he said, “no one can make an attempt on the life of a person without opposing God’s love, [constituting a] violation of the divine law [and] an attack on humanity.” A cultural and religious figure of extraordinary influence, the Pope’s message has the power to shift public opinion, as was the case in 1980. Since this momentous statement, the impetus has shifted onto the right to take away life as being reserved only for God, “the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away” (Job 1.21). Excerpts like that of Job 1:21 are present in the submission made by the Catholic Bishops of Alberta who wrote, “killing is not a medicine” (Smith et al 2016). These interpretations by the Pope and Bishops are derived from what Hauer and Young coined as the ‘historical world’, the world behind the text, which accounts for circumstances that existed at the time of the Bible’s inception.

Those who are in favour of the newly proposed legisature legalising assisted death have disputed this use of the Bible as being out of touch, as Professor Ron Hamel wrote, “euthanasia is not new… what seems new is the cultural context in which the question arises” (Hamel 1991, 15). Those such as Reverend Clatworthy contend that these passages were meant for an audience familiar with gladiators and high mortality rates, rather than the context of overpopulation that persists today (2015, 136). The assertion of this view is that modern science and medicine has allowed human life to be extended beyond the expectancy of the Bible’s “seventy years, or perhaps eighty” (Ps. 90.10). Lord George Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, notably spoke in favour of Lord Falconer’s Assisted Dying Bill in the UK. Carey reasons that “statements that… life is ‘sacred’ and ‘thou shalt not kill’… are too broad to be relevant,” instead he describes these principles as “the backcloth to the debate” (Carey 2015, 114). Lord Carey and his colleagues are herein applying the rhetoric of the Bible through the lens of the “contemporary world,” the world in front of the text itself. Interpretations of this kind place greater emphasis on the context of culture today, as the ability to extend life differentiates from God “forming man from the dust of the ground” (Gen. 2.7). In their use of scripture, those such as Lord Carey employ a dynamic equivalence translation, rather than the formal equivalence used by Pope John Paul II. In this way they use the thoughts of the passages rather than the actual words themselves in creating their argument to better suit a contemporary world context.

Alongside the debate around ‘sacredness of life’, another main point of contention is the question around the biblical themes of compassion and protection for the vulnerable. Those who have opposed the recent assisted dying bills rely on inferences from the Bible, such as that of the commandment, “love your neighbour as yourself” (Mk 12.31). Compassion in this instance is interpreted as referring to the continuing caring for one another as a primary concern. The recently proposed ‘End of Life Choice Bill’ in New Zealand prompted such a response from the Catholic Bishop caucus: “Legalising euthanasia would place the lives of the vulnerable at risk… the mark of a good society is its ability and willingness to care for those who are most vulnerable” (2013). Compassion here is given from a care perspective, like that of the Hippocratic Oath, which advocates the continued assistance to people even if they are in dire circumstances. This use of the Bible is termed by Robert Myles as the “Cultural Bible” which “refers to the use of the Bible beyond its typical confines of institutional religion” (2016, 138; c.f. Crossley 2014). The assertions made seek to underpin debate in a shared identity and shared responsibility, creating what Professor Paul Badham referred to as a “caring community” (Badham 2015, 198).

Lord Falconer and Lord Carey disputed these claims in the recent debates in the UK, instead asserting that it is more compassionate to give someone decency in death. The foundation for this line of debate does not often come directly from scripture, but rather from developments in science and technology. The research used states that not all pain can be stopped, in which cases sedation into a vegetative state is inevitable. Dr. Atul Gawande wrote, “we cannot be endlessly trying to simply preserve life. If is to have a purpose,” as many see sedation to be an unfit methodology (Webb 2014). The leading politicians for these assisted death proposals believe that assisted death is in fact a more compassionate and caring path. Leader of the ACT Party David Seymour said in his initial address to parliament, “there needs to be a more compassionate option in New Zealand”, as similarly Lord Falconer opened his legislate with, “For a person facing this prospect… the choice is cruel.” Here the sense of a “cultural bible” acquires fresh meaning, as the inferences of biblical scripture are appropriated in paraphrased translations. This appropriation of the Bible has some resonance with what Myles referred to as the “Radical Bible” in its advocacy of change and support in relief of the suffering (2016, 132; c.f. Crossley 2014). Though there is very little in terms of direct reference to the text, the Bible’s interpreted themes of care and justice offer the foundation for this scientifically supported understanding.

The contemporary context in New Zealand is ripe with instances of these implicit references to the Bible. As Myles wrote, “political discourse in New Zealand is, for the most part, decidedly secular” for politicians avoid explicit reference in fear of “alienating a large proportion of the population” (2016, 138). Instead the rhetoric of politicians such as David Seymour focuses on directing debate away from discussion of scripture, and instead into ideals like that of choice. In Seymour’s line of argument the Catholic backgrounds of politicians like Bill English and Simon O’Connor act as roadblocks for the vehicle of change (Moir 2016). In this discourse around the right to choice, Seymour is implicitly referencing the “Liberal Bible,” in his affirmation of individualism and democracy (Myles 2016, 140). Liberal lines of argument spring up in all his public rhetoric, as he positions himself as a “representative in a democracy to support the will of my people” (Grant 2015). This use of the Bible had success in Canada, where by focusing on the polling numbers of the voters instead of “attempting to balance competing values” the bill would irrevocably be put through (Rae 2015, 260). The moral concept of a shared community are put aside in using the Liberal Bible, as individualism is instead at the forefront, giving people the full autonomy of choice in pursuing their own individual beliefs. New Zealand offers a complementary demographic, consisting of myriad cultures held together by capitalist ideals of individuality, presenting Seymour a plausible ground from which to propose his legislation.

On Friday 14th October, David Seymour debated his proposed legislation at St. Luke’s Church, a progressive Presbyterian Church in Remuera, Auckland. In the discussions that follow this over the months to come, one should expect to see various uses of the Bible, both implicit and explicit, in addressing the sanctity of life and compassion for the vulnerable. As witnessed from other contemporary debates overseas, each of these arguments will likely be founded in scripture in one way or another. While the focus and emphasis of the two sides differ, in using the world inside or outside the text, or adhering to traditions of the Cultural, Radical or Liberal Bible, the political incentive will remain consistent – that is to use the Bible like a “cultural prop” in order to “buttress politicians’ existing agendas,” which, as Yvonne Sherword remarks, “has little to do with the text” (2012, 2; c.f. Myles 2016, 140). This use of the Bible will persist in contemporary politics as long as a voting demographic upholds it as a source for moral and ethical guidance. So for the foreseeable future, and the assisted dying debates to come, pay close attention to the rhetoric used, and realise your own religious and cultural background as well as that of the speakers in divining your own belief.

holyrood-getty
Getty Images

Bibliography

Baden, Joel. “What use is the Bible?” The Nantucket Project. Nantucket, Massachusetts. March 28, 2014.

Badham, Paul. “Assisted dying: an international overview.” Modern Believing 2, no. 56, 2015. pp. 197 – 208.

Carey, George. “Re-assessing assisted dying: a personal statement.” Modern Believing 2, no. 56, 2015. pp. 105 – 132.
Clatworthy, Jonathan. “The dilemmas we face today: assisted dying, life, death, technology and law.” Modern Believing 2, no. 56, 2015. pp. 134 – 144.

Crossley, James. Harnessing chaos: The Bible in English political discourse since 1968. London, New York: Bloomsbury, 2014.

Grant, Nick. “Seymour begins his fight for End of Life Choice Bill.” Radio Broadcast. Produced by My NBR Radio. New Zealand, October 14, 2015.

Hamel, Ronald. Choosing Death: active euthanasia, religion, and the public debate. Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1991.

inthehouseNZ. “04.05.2016 – General Debate – Part 4.” Video Recording. Produced by Tandern Studios. Wellington, New Zealand: May 4, 2016.

Moir, Jo. “Euthanasia debate: what’s different about David Seymour’s bill?” Stuff. 28 January, 2016.
http://www.stuff.co.nz/national/health/euthanasia-debate/76021897/Euthanasia-debate-Whats-different-about-David-Seymours-bill

Myles, Robert. “Winston Peters ‘put his hand to the plow’: The Bible in New Zealand political discourse.” Journal of the Bible and its reception 3, no. 1, 2016, pp. 135-153.

“NZ Catholic Bishops message.” The Nathaniel Centre. 27 September, 2013.http://www.nathaniel.org.nz/euthanasia/23-campaigns/euthanasia/modal-windows/262-summary

Rae, Nicola. “New Zealanders’ Attitudes toward Physician-Assisted Dying.” Journal of Palliative Medicine 18, no. 2, 2015. Pp. 259 – 265

Richard Smith, et al. “Statement of the Catholic Bishops of Albertia on Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia.” February 11, 2016.

“Sacred congregation for the doctrine of the faith: Declaration on euthanasia.” The Vatican. May 5th, 1980.http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_19800505_euthanasia_en.html

Seymour, David. “Why I’ve prepared this Bill.” Life Choice. http://www.lifechoice.org.nz/

Sherwood, Yvonne. Biblical Blasphemy: Trial of the sacred for a secular age. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2012.

Supreme Court of Canada. “Carter vs. Canada” Attorney General. SCC 5, 2015.

Webb, Justin. “Reith lecturer and rock-star doctor Atul Gawande on life, death and how to cure the NHS.” radiotimes.com, 25 November 2014. http://www.radiotimes.com/news/2014-11-25/reith-lecturer-and-rock-star-doctor-atul-gawande-on-life-death-and-how-to-cure-the-nhs.

Advertisements

Advent – something a bit different

As some regular visitors to our blog will know, it’s been our practice over recent years to have an advent calendar of biblical art throughout the month of December. This year, as we are all off travelling in December, a daily post seemed impractical. So instead, we will take the opportunity to share some of our TheoRel student work with you throughout the month, betwixt and between our globe-trotting adventures.

To get us off to a good start, let me offer you this short play, ‘Jonathan and Absalom’, penned by Prior McRae as part of his assignment work for a course I taught this semester on I and II Samuel. Prior has just finished his BA at the University of Auckland, majoring in English and Latin. As well as being a stellar student, he is also a massively talented actor and writer, and hopes to continue dedicating his time to these pursuits in the future. In fact, he directed and starred in ‘Jonathan and Absalom’ at last week’s ‘You) Hear Me?‘ art and theatre event held in Auckland.

The play choreographs an encounter between two vital characters in I and II Samuel – Jonathan and Absalom – who actually never get to meet in the biblical text. What unfolds is a fascinating insight into their emotions and inner worlds, highlighting in particular the complexities of their relationship with David – Absalom’s father and Jonathan’s beloved. So read on, and I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

tree-man

Jonathan and Absalom

By Prior Tadhg McRae

We open on a dry, rocky plateau high in the mountains of Israel. Jonathan is sitting under an olive tree. After a while Absalom walks in looking confused. He sees Jonathan.

JONATHAN: (Looking up and smiling.) Hello.

ABSALOM: (Warily.) Hi. Who are you?

JONATHAN: No one important. You’re his son aren’t you?

ABSALOM: No. (Pause.) Yes. Maybe. A bit. So? Why?

JONATHAN: (Smiles.) No reason. You just look like him.

ABSALOM: No I don’t.

JONATHAN: Fair enough, I’m sure you know him better than me.

ABSALOM: You know my father?

JONATHAN: Once. We were very close.

ABSALOM: I’ve never seen you before.

JONATHAN: It was a long time ago.

ABSALOM: What are you doing here?

JONATHAN: The same thing as you.

ABSALOM: What do you mean? Where are we? What is this place?

JONATHAN: Do you really not know?

ABSALOM: I –

Absalom looks around.

JONATHAN: It’s OK. You’ll get used to it.

ABSALOM: Have you been here for a long time?

Pause.

JONATHAN: Yes.

ABSALOM: How did you get here?

JONATHAN: The same way as you.

ABSALOM: I don’t remember.

JONATHAN: (Gently.) Don’t worry. It will come back to you.

ABSALOM: (Suddenly suspicious.) How do you know him?

JONATHAN: We were young men together. He knew my father. My father – he cared a lot about David.

ABSALOM: Him and all the other sheep.

JONATHAN: He was different then.

ABSALOM: (Snorts.) Yeah, I’m sure.

JONATHAN: Don’t judge him too harshly. It isn’t easy being a King.

ABSALOM: I don’t think it would be that fucking hard.

JONATHAN: And I’m sure your dad would have loved to have seen you try.

ABSALOM: Like shit. He was too concerned with his own guilt to even notice. Everything I wanted I had to carve out of the world with my own hands.

JONATHAN: And you did it well.

ABSALOM: Not well enough, apparently. I was good, but I could have been brilliant. All it would have taken was his support.

JONATHAN: David was never very good at giving himself to others.

ABSALOM: Not the people he should have anyway.

JONATHAN: That’s not entirely his fault, though. People always wanted more from him than he could provide.

ABSALOM: Even you?

JONATHAN: I – (He stops) I don’t know. I could never figure out exactly how he saw me.

ABSALOM: I don’t think he sees other people at all.

JONATHAN: I don’t think he even sees himself.

ABSALOM: Not such a great attribute for a King.

JONATHAN: There are worse.

ABSALOM: Like what?

JONATHAN: Not being able to make decisions.

ABSALOM: I’m not sure he was so great at that either.

JONATHAN: You never met Saul.

ABSALOM: That was the guy who had it in for him wasn’t it? He couldn’t accept David was going to be a better King.

JONATHAN: Can anyone accept their own replacement? And Saul didn’t hate David. He loved him.

ABSALOM: Surprise surprise. So why did he try to kill him?

JONATHAN: To want to kill someone you’ve got to feel very strongly about them don’t you?

ABSALOM: I don’t know.

JONATHAN: I think you do.

ABSALOM: I never killed anyone out of love.

JONATHAN: Are you sure?

ABSALOM: I loved Tamar. I hated Amnon.

JONATHAN: Still, what if the person you loved and the person you hated were the same? What would you do then?

ABSALOM: That doesn’t even make sense.

JONATHAN: I don’t think sense was ever really Saul’s strong point.

ABSALOM: Did you know him well?

JONATHAN: In a manner of speaking.

ABSALOM: What was up with him?

JONATHAN: God. Being King. Being young, ignorant and innocent. Being weak. Being sensitive. I don’t know. He was a victim of his circumstances. He did some terrible things, but he wasn’t a terrible person.

ABSALOM: I don’t know. Is that possible? Was he really a good person?

JONATHAN: He may not have ended up that way, but there was nothing wrong with him when he started.

ABSALOM: When was that?

JONATHAN: You may not believe this, but he started in much the same way as your father.

ABSALOM: What, an arrogant little prick with a slingshot and a God complex?

JONATHAN: Well maybe not. But he was just a kid, like David, with no delusions of grandeur (Absalom snorts) no delusions of grandeur. Just a farm boy from a village who wasn’t asking anything more from the world than that it wouldn’t ask anything of him.

ABSALOM: That’s never a safe thing to ask.

JONATHAN: No it isn’t. But Saul was never very good at knowing the right thing to ask. He was a man plagued by a need for answers he never received.

ABSALOM: That sounds awful.

JONATHAN: It was. But so was he, in many ways. Although I don’t blame him for it.

ABSALOM: Do you blame anyone? I mean, sorry, but you seem pretty much like you just excuse everyone.

JONATHAN: I never excuse anyone. But I do try to be honest. There are reasons for everything.

ABSALOM: That’s easy to say.

JONATHAN: No it isn’t.

ABSALOM: How can you say people do things for a reason. Saul was a terrible King. He killed people just because they scared him.

JONATHAN: It’s never a good idea to scare a King. People are liable to do anything when they’re scared.

ABSALOM: Not me. I never killed anyone without a reason.

JONATHAN: Yes, well, forgive me but you weren’t around for very long were you?

ABSALOM: That’s not my fault.

JONATHAN: It never is.

ABSALOM: David killed me. I scared him. He scared Saul and now Saul’s dead and he’s King. I scared him and now I’m dead and he’s still King and I’m dead. I’m dead and I’ll never be King. Oh god.

Absalom starts to panic. Jonathan gets up and puts his hands on his shoulders.

JONATHAN: You didn’t scare David. And David didn’t kill you. Joab killed you. Joab was the one who was afraid.

ABSALOM: It doesn’t matter.

JONATHAN: It does.

ABSALOM: David let me die.

JONATHAN: David was proud of you. David wanted you to live. He wanted you to overthrow him.

ABSALOM: So why am I here!

JONATHAN: Because darkness lurks in unseen corners. We can’t always predict where it is or where it will come from or when. There are things we can’t provide for. Sometimes things just happen. It’s not your fault. And it’s not David’s.

ABSALOM: Why are you defending him?

JONATHAN: I’m not. I’m just saying that people aren’t magic. There are only so many mistakes we can stop ourselves making.

ABSALOM: He was a shitty King. And a shitty father.

JONATHAN: He was a good friend.

ABSALOM: I bet he abandoned you too.

JONATHAN: No, he didn’t. He never abandoned me. He just couldn’t help me in the end.

ABSALOM: Why not?

JONATHAN: He just had to be somewhere else.

ABSALOM: Why?

JONATHAN: It doesn’t matter.

ABSALOM: It does.

JONATHAN: Why do you care so much?

ABSALOM: Why do you think?

JONATHAN: What happened to me wasn’t David’s fault.

ABSALOM: I think I’d like to make my own mind up about that.

JONATHAN: I died in a battle. So did a lot of other people.

ABSALOM: And every one of them has a story to tell. Right now I want to know yours.

JONATHAN: Well, there was a war. Essentially. I mean, people don’t call it that but that’s what it was. And it isn’t over. I don’t think it will ever end. But at this point there was a battle. A final battle. The King died. Saul died. He killed himself.

ABSALOM: Why?

JONATHAN: What else could he have done? He had failed. His life was over. His army had lost, his Kingdom had collapsed, and his sons were dead.

ABSALOM: I’m not asking about Saul, I’m asking about you. How did you die.

JONATHAN: I –

Pause.

JONATHAN: It was just a stab wound. I was run through by a sword. I was a soldier. I was fighting, I lost. I died.

ABSALOM: And David was nowhere in sight.

JONATHAN: Yeah, well, he couldn’t be.

ABSALOM: Who are you?

JONATHAN: Jonathan.

ABSALOM: And who’s that? How do you know David so well?

JONATHAN: I grew up with him, I told you.

ABSALOM: That doesn’t make sense. David grew up as a weird harp playing soldier on the inside of Saul’s household.

JONATHAN: Yes, well, that’s where I was.

ABSALOM: What?

JONATHAN: I was inside that household. I was next to Saul. I am the son of a King just as you are.

ABSALOM: You’re Saul’s son?

JONATHAN: Yes.

ABSALOM: And you and David grew up side by side, right next to the King.

JONATHAN: It may have looked as if I was beside him, but everyone knew I was beneath him. All of us were. Even Saul. That whole Kingdom was just waiting in his shadow.

ABSALOM: You sound so dramatic.

JONATHAN: It was dramatic. It was devastating. He destroyed my father. But only because my father was too weak to handle him. That’s the thing about David. He causes people to destroy themselves.

ABSALOM: That’s why Saul killed himself.

JONATHAN: He killed himself because he had come to the end of the road. But he had destroyed himself far before that.

ABSALOM: I’m sick of this. Tell me why we’re here.

JONATHAN: We died.

ABSALOM: So does everyone. I don’t see anyone else behind that fucking olive tree.

JONATHAN: Why are you so certain that I have all the answers?

ABSALOM: Oh, well, I’m sorry, maybe it’s BECAUSE YOU ACT LIKE YOU HAVE ALL THE ANSWERS.

JONATHAN: I have social anxiety. I’m just trying to stay calm.

ABSALOM: Well maybe it’s time you freaked out a little! I freak out all the time.

JONATHAN: And look where it’s got you! On a little mountain top with me for all eternity. Congratulations.

ABSALOM: You’re one to talk! You just sit here moping about David without ever getting to the fucking point.

JONATHAN: And just what would that be, exactly, Mr I’m So Mature Suddenly.

ABSALOM: That you’re in love with David!

JONATHAN: EVERYONE’S IN LOVE WITH DAVID. We COVERED this!

ABSALOM: Not like you.

JONATHAN: All right! So I was in love with David. I fell in love with the man who took the throne, the Kingdom and the love of my father out of my hands. I gave up everything to protect and serve a man who, when it finally counted, wasn’t there. A man who was off by himself, off saving himself, off being David the Annointed One, while I died. I died. I died and he was doing something else.

ABSALOM: He was doing something else while I was hanging from a tree by my hair and his right hand man pushed sticks into my heart.

JONATHAN: Why are we here?

ABSALOM: Did David love you back?

JONATHAN: I’ve thought about it for a very long time, and I still don’t know –

ABSALOM: – what love is?

JONATHAN: I know what love is. I’m not sure he does.

ABSALOM: For what it’s worth, I think he probably did.

JONATHAN: Thanks. But there’s no way you could possibly know that.

ABSALOM: I know. But I just feel like it’s true. I can’t explain it.

JONATHAN: Well I know he loved you.

ABSALOM: It doesn’t mean very much. What good is love if you never show it to the people you love?

JONATHAN: Once I might have disagreed with you but now I don’t know. It hasn’t done me much good at all.

They fall silent. Absalom goes to the edge of the plateau and looks out. There is a sheer drop for miles but the view is beautiful. Jonathan walks over and stands next to him.

ABSALOM: I feel restless. (Pause.) Is there anything to do here?

JONATHAN: Not really.

ABSALOM: Don’t you get bored?

JONATHAN: (Shrugs.) Yeah.

ABSALOM: Jesus. Have you ever thought about escaping?

JONATHAN: Actually I have.

ABSALOM: And?

JONATHAN: It’s funny that you straight away leaped to ‘escaping’ rather than just ‘leaving’.

ABSALOM: I – hmm. I don’t know why.

JONATHAN: Well, I felt the same way when I first arrived here. I wasn’t sure why but I just felt certain I wasn’t allowed to walk away. I did try it, obviously, but it never worked.

ABSALOM: What happened?

JONATHAN: No matter what direction I walked in I always ended up coming back here.

ABSALOM: That can’t be right.

JONATHAN: It’s true.

ABSALOM: You must be able to get out.

JONATHAN: Oh right, I’m sorry, I must have just been trying it wrong for the last 20 years.

ABSALOM: You’ve been here 20 years?

JONATHAN: Yes. Well – I – I don’t know. It’s different here. I don’t feel like I’ve actually aged at all.

ABSALOM: You look the same age as me.

JONATHAN: I do not.

ABSALOM: You do.

JONATHAN: I look much more mature than you.

ABSALOM: Oh really? So mature you can’t figure out how to walk in a straight line?

JONATHAN: It’s not as easy as it sounds.

ABSALOM: Fine. I’ll try it myself. At least one of us will be able to get out of here.

JONATHAN: Go ahead.

ABSALOM: I will.

JONATHAN: Do it.

ABSALOM: I’m doing it.

Absalom walks determinedly away, stops, changes direction and walks out of sight. Jonathan watches him leave. After a while he goes and sits under the tree again. He puts his head in his hands.

After a few minutes Absalom appears again, still marching confidently. He stops as he realises he has come back to the clearing again. Jonathan looks up.

ABSALOM: I don’t understand.

JONATHAN: I told you.

ABSALOM: This doesn’t make sense.

JONATHAN: Tell it to someone else.

ABSALOM: (Starting to get upset.) THERE ISN’T ANYONE ELSE. It’s just me and you!

JONATHAN: AND UNTIL YOU ARRIVED IT WAS JUST ME. I was alone. I’ve always been alone. I –

Jonathan stops, choked.

JONATHAN: No one ever stays. I’m the only one who was always there. Saul was never there. He didn’t know how to be. David was always flitting around everywhere. He didn’t care. I was there. I was always there. I tried to hold everything together I tried to be there. To be where I was needed. But no one was there for me. I don’t know how it all went wrong. I did everything I could. I don’t – I can’t – why am I here? I don’t think I deserved what happened to me.

Jonathan starts to cry. Absalom stands, shocked.

JONATHAN: Why couldn’t David just love me? Why couldn’t he just be there for me? What was so fucking wrong with me? OH GOD I DON’T UNDERSTAND.

Jonathan stands in the centre of the plateau and tilts his head to the sky.

JONATHAN: TALK TO ME YOU CUNT! What – am I still too unimportant? Saul and David yes – sure – why not? But Jonathan? Oh no, no, I don’t need to talk to him. He doesn’t matter, there’s nothing special about him! Well maybe I need someone to talk to! Maybe I need you to help me? I don’t understand! I don’t understand! What did I do wrong? Why didn’t the people I needed to help me extend their hands? WHAT IS WRONG WITH ME? COME ON GOD TALK TO ME COME ON! YOU’VE PUT ME HERE, YOU’VE LEFT ME HERE, 2O FUCKING YEARS I’VE SAT HERE LIKE A PATIENT FUCKING PUPPET NOW I WANT ANSWERS. I WANT TO KNOW. What happened to me? What happened to Saul? Why did you choose David over us? What was so special about him? Why were his crimes forgivable but not ours? I don’t understand. It doesn’t make sense. I can forgive anyone anything, but I can’t forgive you for this.

Jonathan slumps to the ground. He rests his head on his arms. Absalom stares at him, stricken. The sky has clouded over. There is a crash of thunder overhead. Absalom stares at the sky. Jonathan doesn’t move. There is a moment of utter stillness.

Absalom opens his mouth to speak before but he can say anything rain starts to fall. Jonathan lifts his head. They both stand there getting soaked. Jonathan starts to laugh.

JONATHAN: He always does this.

Still laughing, he gets to his feet. Absalom stares at him, clearly unsure of what is happening.

JONATHAN: Don’t worry, I get it now. He thinks this is an answer. He thinks all we need is a ‘sign’, but really he just doesn’t know what to say. He doesn’t have any answers. Ha. God, we’re all such fools. Scrabbling around for his approval, thinking we’re all part of some higher plan. He’s just a confused, aging old dupe in the sky. He doesn’t understand life any better than us. (To the heavens) It’s not enough old man! I don’t believe in your stories. Nothing happens for a reason. There is no plan. And there is nothing keeping me here.

Jonathan walks over to the olive tree and places his palm on it gently, in goodbye.

ABSALOM: Are you…What are you doing?

JONATHAN: I’m leaving.

ABSALOM: How?

JONATHAN: Absalom, I have been sitting here for 20 years because I believed there was a reason for me to be here. When God turned his back on my father we all thought there must be a higher meaning. Some cosmic explanation that we just couldn’t see. When he anointed David and stuck by him through worse than…through anything, we thought there must just be something God could see that we couldn’t. But there wasn’t. Life is just like that. It doesn’t make sense, it isn’t fair, it just is. God can’t make it make sense. God doesn’t control things, he can’t even fix them.

Jonathan looks past the olive tree, the opposite side of the mountain from where Absalom came in. He makes a step towards it.

ABSALOM: (In a strangled voice) Wait!

Jonathan turns to him.

ABSALOM: (Controlling himself) Wait – don’t leave me here. Not yet.

JONATHAN: You can come with me.

ABSALOM: No, I can’t. We came here alone, we have to leave alone. But anyway, I can’t leave yet. I’m not ready. I’m not like you. I’ve never believed in God. The only thing I’ve ever believed in is the world I see before me and my own ability to take what I need from it. I can’t just follow you out.

JONATHAN: No, you’re right.

ABSALOM: I need to know why I’m here.

JONATHAN: That’s why you’re here.

ABSALOM: There must be another reason.

JONATHAN: There isn’t.

ABSALOM: I have to know that for myself. I can wait.

JONATHAN: I understand. I just hope you don’t have to wait as long as I did.

ABSALOM: Don’t take this the wrong way, but I don’t think many people do.

Jonathan laughs. He walks over and they hug. As they have been talking, the rain has petered out. Now it stops.

JONATHAN: Goodbye then.

ABSALOM: I hope you find what you’re looking for.

JONATHAN: I already have.

He turns to go, then stops.

JONATHAN: David is just a man, Absalom.

ABSALOM: What? I know.

JONATHAN: Just a man. He does not hold the key to our souls. Our fates are our own, they aren’t plot-points in ‘The David Story’. We are people just the same as him, with our own stories and our own minds. He is an incredible person, but that’s all he is. Don’t give him more power than he is capable of wielding. He didn’t break you, and he isn’t capable of fixing you. Don’t give him your soul. If you do you might never get it back.

Absalom stares at him, his face inscrutable.

JONATHAN: Goodbye Absalom. I’m so grateful we got to meet at last.

Jonathan lifts a hand in farewell, which Absalom returns and this time he doesn’t stop as he walks assuredly away past the Olive tree and out of sight.

Absalom stares after him for a while. Then he goes to the edge of the plateau and sits down. There is silence. Eventually he speaks.

ABSALOM: I’m sorry Tamar. (He stops. There is a long pause. He wrestles with something deeply emotional.) I’m sorry I never really helped you. (Pause). I didn’t kill Amnon for you. But it wasn’t for the reasons everyone said it was, I promise. I killed him because I couldn’t live with the fact that I had failed to protect the ones I loved. I thought if I could avenge you I could save you. But I had already lost you. I couldn’t accept it. And that…That is a real failing. (He stops and sighs.) I’m sorry Amnon. I’m not sorry I killed you, I’m just sorry I did it for the wrong reasons.

Long silence.

I’m sorry David. I’m sorry I blamed you. And I’m sorry I cared so much about what you thought. You weren’t a perfect father, in many ways you weren’t even a good father. But you didn’t kill me. I’m not like you. I don’t take the subtle route. If I believe in something I do it, even if it isn’t the safest or the cleverest way to do it. I won’t hide in the shadows. I won’t compromise just because things might end badly. I refused to live safely – why was it so hard for me to accept that I didn’t live for very long? At least I lived honestly. At least I lived vibrantly. Jonathan was different again, but he lived honestly too. We may be the ones who ended up here in death, but you, David, you’ve been trapped here your entire life. Or somewhere very similar. You couldn’t ever see past yourself. And now you’re alone. You’re alone even though you’ve had people throwing themselves at you your entire life. You will die soon, and I don’t know whether you will even notice. And I don’t know where you’ll go then but it won’t be like this. There won’t be any way out of that place. Oh god. Why couldn’t you use the power you had to help yourself? Why did you let yourself get so closed off? Oh well. (He sighs again and rubs his face). It doesn’t matter now. I’m done thinking about you. I can’t help you. I lived my life how I wanted to and I have nothing to regret. Thank you Jonathan. You’re a far more powerful man than my father. But I think you know that now. Maybe I’ll see you again someday.

Absalom wipes his eyes and laughs. He stands up and steps to the very edge of the cliff. The sky is clear again now, and is just starting to turn gold from the setting sun. Absalom stares into the sunset and opens his arms wide. It appears as if he is about to jump but at the last moment he stops and crouches down. He grips the edge of the cliff in both hands and swings himself over the side. Then, confidently, he starts to climb down.

The End.

two-men-dancing

Public Lecture recording

As you saw in our previous blog post, Professor David Tombs from the University of Otago delivered a public lecture recently here at Auckland TheoRel on the subject of ‘Acknowledging Jesus as Victim of Sexual Abuse’. The lecture considered the crisis of sexual violence in contemporary culture, focusing particularly on the theological implications of Jesus’ own suffering of sexual abuse during his crucifixion.

David was kind enough to let us record the lecture and share this recording for those unable to attend. To listen to this audio recording, follow this link. There is a Q&A session at the end of the lecture which lasts around 25 minutes. You may not be able to hear the audience’s questions, but David’s responses will allow you to work out what questions were being asked!

David Tombs

Advent offering 24 December

For our final advent offering of 2015, I thought I’d share some images of a gospel tradition that follows shortly after the story of the nativity. In Matthew 2.13-23, after the magi have paid their visit, God visits Joseph in a dream and tells him to take his family and flee to Egypt, as Herod intends to search for the child and kill him. This tradition has become very popular in art, with paintings from across the centuries showing these dramatic events as they unfold.

Often, artists have captured the family making this long and difficult journey, travelling through hostile territory, looking weary and unsure.

tanner flight into etypt
Henry Ossawa Tanner, Flight into Egypt (1923)
Hans Sandreuter Flight to Egypt 1885
Hans Sandreuter, Flight into Egypt (1885)
Carl Spitzweg, The Flight to Egypt (c.1879)
Carl Spitzweg, Flight into Egypt (c.1879)

Other artists have added to the gospel traditions, showing the family taking a rest on the journey, perhaps to emphasise how long and tiring their travels were.

Luc-Olivier Merson Rest on the Flight into Egypt 1876
Luc-Olivier Merson, Rest on the Flight to Egypt (1876)

Mary is snoozing with Jesus in the embrace of a Sphinx!

Rembrandt 1647
Rembrandt, Rest on the Flight into Egypt (1647)
Adam_Elsheimer_-_Die_Flucht_nach_Ägypten_(Schloss_Weißenstein)
Adam Elsheimer, Rest on the Flight into Egypt (17th Century)

Less often, we see the journey as it reaches its end, and the holy family arrive at their destination.

Edwin_Longsden_Long_-_Anno_Domini 1883
Edwin Long, Anno Domini (Flight to Egypt), 1883

One of my favourite images of this gospel tradition, however, has to be this modern take by Russian artist Ivan Korshunov.

Ivan Korshunov Flight to Egypt
Ivan Korshunov, Flight to Egypt (n.d.)

I love this visual interpretation of the story – Mary and Joseph are depicted as strong, confident characters, content in the knowledge that they are going to outrun any dangers that are snapping at their heels. On their motorcycle, they have speed and power. Mary smiles contentedly, her limbs wrapped around Joseph in a gesture of both comfort and desire. Even the infant Jesus seems blissfully unaware of his surroundings, snugly sheltering on his mother’s back. This is a family of refugees that exudes contentment and care, looking ahead to the safety of the life that awaits them in a new land, far away from Herod’s grasp.

Well, that’s it for 2015. From all of us at the Auckland Theology and Religion blog, health and happiness to you and yours over this festive period and we look forward to sharing more with you on the blog in 2016.

Advent offering 23 December

With only two sleeps to go, today’s penultimate Advent offering brings us another beautiful image of the nativity, capturing the moment when the shepherds come to pay homage to the infant Jesus. The artist, N.C. Wyeth, uses light and darkness to great effect here, bringing a sense of wonder to the scene. As the shepherds crowd into the dark space of the byre, the only light source seems to be the infant Jesus himself, whose tiny sleeping body is emanating a warm glow that brightens his mother’s face and radiates towards those who draw near to him.

NC Wyeth Nativity 1912
N.C. Wyeth, Nativity (1912)

Back tomorrow for our final Advent offering – see you then.

Advent offering 22 December

With only three sleeps to go ’til Christmas, we move from yesterday’s annunciation to the shepherds to another iconic image from the nativity – the adoration of the magi, who follow a star from the East until it alights on the place that they will find Jesus. Now, according to Matthew 2.1-12, it’s likely these magi visited the newborn Jesus a little while after his dramatic birth in the manger, yet this is usually the location in which artists like to portray them. Another artistic tradition is that, typically, three magi are depicted; the gospels do not say how many of these ‘wise men’ there were, only that they brought three expensive gifts – gold, frankincense and myrrh. For all we know, there could have been many more. Which is why I find today’s Advent offering so interesting, as it chooses to eschew artistic traditions and offer us a glimpse of the other possibilities for this rather splendid visitation.

A_Adoração_dos_Magos_(1828)_-_Domingos_Sequeira
Domingos Sequeira, Adoration of the Magi (1828)

In Domingos Sequeira’s beautiful work, Mary, Joseph, and the infant Jesus are standing out in what appears to be a public thoroughfare, rather than in the manger where Mary gave birth. Above them shines that star with a near-blinding brightness; and it appears to have guided a whole host of magi to see this special baby. If you look closely at this image (and you can enlarge it here), you quickly lose count of how many magi-like figures are jostling to meet the holy family, carrying their gifts and paying obeisance. There are also many others present too, including women and children, who have perhaps come out to see these rather exotic visitors. And, in the midst of all the melee, the infant Jesus is ignoring everything that’s going on and staring rather sweetly at the shiny star that continues to hover over his head.

Back tomorrow for our penultimate Advent image for 2015.

Advent offering 21 December

Four sleeps to go ’til Christmas, so only four more Advent offerings left. Today’s artwork follows on with our Nativity story, focusing on the annunciation of the shepherds, as narrated in the gospel of Luke 2.8-14. I’ve chosen two very different images for you that relate this tradition. First, a beautiful painting by  German artist Heinrich Vogeler, which captures the moment when the angel first appears to the shepherds.

Heinrich_Vogeler_Verkündigung_an_die_Hirten_1902
Heinrich Vogeler, Verkundigun an die Hirten (1902)

The colour of the angel’s garment and wings is divine (a lovely change from the usual white) and goes rather nicely with her copper hair. The shepherds (a taciturn looking bunch) don’t seem to know what to make of her, while the cow in the centre of the image appears rather unimpressed. Perhaps once they all turn round and see that shooting star heading towards the byre in Bethlehem, they’ll get a little more excited about the events unfolding.

The second image I have for you is very different, capturing that moment in Luke 2.13-14 when the angelic messenger is joined by a ‘host’ of fellow divine bodies, who then proceed to burst into song. In this beautiful painting by Abraham Hondius, a riot of cherubim tumble from the heavens like confetti, while the central angelic figure lifts her arm as though to conduct them in their singing. The shepherds in this image do look suitably amazed, although note that, once again, the cow looks decidedly blasé.

476px-The_Annunciation_to_the_Shepherds_1663_Abraham_Hondius
Abraham Hondius, Annunciation to the shepherds (1663)

Luke 2.8-14

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,

14 ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven,
    and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’

Back tomorrow with some magi and mangers. See you then.

Advent offering 20 December

As we are just five sleeps from Christmas Day, the Auckland TheoRel Advent calendar will follow the tradition of previous years and focus for this last week on artistic depictions of the nativity story. Starting us off, a beautiful image of the central event in the nativity – the birth of Jesus. In the gospels, this event is mentioned almost in passing (Matt 1.25; Luke 2.7). Mary gives birth to Jesus in the byre they are sheltering in, with only Joseph present to serve as attending midwife. It’s a little while before visitors arrive (more of which tomorrow), so the couple have a moment to sit and reflect on how this event will shape their future. And while this hiatus in the action is not given explicit mention in the gospels, it has been captured beautifully by the artist I spoke about in yesterday’s Advent offering, Henry Ossawa Tanner.

Henry_Ossawa_Tanner_-_The_Holy_Family c1910
Henry Ossawa Tanner, The Holy Family (1910)

In this image, Mary and Joseph look less like the jubilant parents of a newborn than two people caught up in a journey that was not of their own planning. Mary sits bathed in an ethereal light, not touching or looking at the infant by her side; instead, she stares into the fireplace, lost in thought. Joseph, meanwhile, stands a little bit away, his eyes closed, with an expression of uncertainty and even sadness on his face. Distancing himself from his family, he appears at a loose end, not entirely sure if he belongs.  He knows that the baby is not his – he knows that his wife-to-be has undergone an experience in which he can never fully share. Both he and Mary seem to apprehend that something monumental has occurred here – their lives have undergone a seismic shift from which they will never fully recover. And so, before the brouhaha begins – before the visitors start pouring in and the drama continues to unfold, they make the most of this quiet moment together, with its strange mix of intimacy and withdrawal, lost in their own, and each other’s, thoughts. Meanwhile, the infant Jesus, lying between them and glowing in the gloom, appears, at least momentarily, to have been forgotten.

Tanner also painted a picture of Mary herself with her newborn son, which again shows this mother deep in thought, and appearing to ignore the child that lies to her right. These images remind us that, while Jesus is the central character in the nativity story, there are two other crucial players within this narrative whom, in the excitement of the birth event, we all too often overlook.

Henry-Ossawa-Tanner Mary
Henry Ossawa Tanner, Mary (c.1900)

 

Advent offering 19 December

Today’s Advent offering comes from another of my favourite artists, Henry Ossawa Tanner. One of the things I love about his art is his incredible use of colour to portray the mood and atmosphere of a scene. Just look at the painting below, which depicts the tradition of Jesus walking on water (Matthew 14.22-33).

Henry_Ossawa_Tanner,_The_Disciples_See_Christ_Walking_on_the_Water,_c._1907
Henry Ossawa Tanner, The Disciples see Christ Walking on the Water (c.1907)

The figure of Jesus stands in the top left corner of the painting – Tanner has portrayed him with little detail, so that he looks rather like an amorphous blob, similar in colour to the surrounding sea on which he stands. The disciples stand uncertainly on the boat, looking towards Jesus – some seem to be cowering at the back of the boat, as far away as they can from this supernatural event, while one (perhaps Peter?) stands up as though to get a better view.

Compared to the biblical tradition, where a storm is raging, the water is as calm as glass here. Tanner has infused this image with a glorious turquoise wash that brings an air of complete calm to the scene – an attestation by the artist, perhaps, that Jesus can indeed calm any of life’s storms.

Contrast this, however, with the image below, which has appeared in our Advent calendar back in 2013. In The Annunciation, Tanner’s colour palette is a flush of hot oranges and reds – we can feel the heat emanating from the (rather vulval-looking) angelic presence and sense the immenseness of the event for a very young and apprehensive Mary, who has been cornered by this divine messenger.

Tanner The Annunciation 1898
Henry Ossawa Tanner, The Annunciation (1898)

Tanner shows us here how colour can affect our reading of a visual image – from cool waters to fiery angels, these paintings are designed to elicit in the beholder an emotional response, which reflects the interpretive intentions of the artist. The aqua tones in his depiction of Jesus calming the storm also soothes the viewer with promises of Christ’s power over chaos, while Mary’s unsettling encounter with the angel likewise unsettles us, making this annunciation event all the more awesome.

 

 

Advent offering 18 December

Today’s Advent offering will be a short one, as I’m heading off to do some Christmas shopping. As promised yesterday, I’m going to treat you to another portrait by that most wonderful artist Rembrandt van Rijn. I’ve chosen one of his most famous portrayals of biblical characters, Bathsheba at her bath (1654).

Bathsheba
Rembrand van Rijn, Bathsheba at her bath (1654)

Unlike the biblical narrative in 2 Samuel 11, Bathsheba appears to be bathing indoors, rather than on the roof of her house. There is therefore no figure of David in the background, watching with a lustful gaze. Instead, Bathsheba clutches a letter, presumably from the King, inviting her to visit him at the palace (the painting is known by the alternative title of Bathsheba with King David’s Letter). As she lets her handmaid assist her with her preparatory ablutions, her face looks sad and troubled, foreseeing perhaps the terrible events that will unfold in the near future – David’s (unwanted?) sexual attentions, her unplanned pregnancy, the death of her husband Uriah, and the loss of her and David’s infant son. And so, without David there, we are left, as viewers, to take his place as voyeur, gazing upon her vulnerable body and desiring it, regardless of the consequences.

Back tomorrow for another Advent offering!