“We will never allow anyone to build an empire inside the Ukrainian soul”
These are words of Volodymyr Zelenskyy, President of Ukraine in a speech given a couple of days ago, foreshadowing a ban on churches affiliated with Russia. Given the laws protecting freedom of religion in Ukraine, this will present some complex questions, but the recognition that empire can set up strongholds in the soul of a people is a powerful one. Invasion of a nation and the processes of colonisation are promoted not only through the acquisition of land and the violence of warfare but through occupying the hearts, minds and spiritual imagination of the people. Powers and principalities can take up residence in the human soul, creating strongholds that bind the human spirit and surrender to oppressive systems. It can be difficult to say the moment when inner freedom is lost, but the fruits for those colonised are always the loss of empowerment and human dignity. The robbing of culture, language and story matters as much as the theft of land and sovereignty. All religion needs to be alert to when it ceases to be serving God and has instead become a tool for the self-serving gods of empire.
There are other parts of the world where freedom is being proclaimed at great personal risk. The slogan, “Women, freedom, life” is being shouted at demonstrations in Iran, displayed at world sporting events and taken up everywhere in social media. The demonstrations have been sparked by the death of 22 year old Mahsa Amini who was arrested for not wearing her hijab correctly and died in police custody, (allegedly after being beaten). This week, protestors have taken to wearing costumes from the series, The Handmaid’s Tale, evoking the power of story to reveal the character of systemic oppression and discrimination. Author, Margaret Atwood has created a dystopian fictional work which has captured the imagination of the globe in its capacity to reveal existing gender-based violence and discrimination, and the dangers of religious ideologies employed to serve the powerful. The slogan “Women, freedom, life” is energising the imaginations of those worn down by discrimination, helping them glimpse a future not determined by controlling powers.
We are in the middle of 16 days of activism against gender-based violence being observed across the world from 25 November to 10 December. These are days that seek to reveal not only the violence, but the nature of coercive power used against women. It is an issue which the church needs to face squarely in this time as popular opinion has tended to make perpetrators into isolated monsters who commit acts of physical violence. The real secret, as noted in a report by the Church of Scotland, is that domestic abuse ‘in the form of control, humiliation and degradation, sexualised abuse, the abdication of responsibility by the male abuser and the attribution of blame to the woman’ is widespread and that the perpetrators are regular and otherwise respectable men. The most recent research into domestic abuse in the Anglican Church of Australia reveals the same patterns.
These are examples of colonisation, control and coercion that have appeared in news bulletins this week, providing a study in the use and misuse of power, both politically and domestically. We gather on the second week of Advent with the strident voice of John the Baptist ringing in our ears, calling all to repentance. Advent is a good time for examining many of our old assumptions, uncovering our self-delusions, but also for reflecting on how we understand and use power. We may sit on the other side of the world appalled at the Russian invasion of Ukraine, shocked by the violent control of the Iranian regime andstartled by the prevalence of domestic abuse in our own communities, but we may not have questioned how we ourselves think about power. If we are honest, most of us will be able to relate to feelings of both weakness and aggression. Power plays that include coercion, manipulation and efforts to control others have been both perpetrated and suffered by most of us at one time of our lives or another. John’s call to repentance cuts to the heart of our relationship to power. If we are people who seek to follow the Saviour to whom John points, we need to be open to examining the freedom of our own soul- is it shackled in its envy or desire for power over others, or trapped by the coercive will of another? Is it colonised by a narrative that is more death-dealing than life-giving? The coming of the Christ is an anticipation of a soul set free to live and to love, to honour and to respect.
The hopeful reading of the prophet Isaiah begins, “A shoot shall come out of the stump of Jesse.” Jesse, of course is King David’s father, and this growing tree described is literally a family tree of the house of David. It is what is depicted in our altar frontal, and the children each week of Advent bring up symbols of the stories of this family- a family tree that looks retrospectively all the way back to creation. In this reading from Isaiah our attention is being directed to a new shoot- one that promises a descendant who will usher in the full reign of God on earth. As Christians, we read back into this text both a present reality and a future hope; that the anointed son of David has come into the world and is always coming into the world, offering forgiveness and bringing reconciliation…and we look to the final consummation of God’s peaceable kingdom yet to come.
The peaceable kingdom is how often these next lines in Isaiah are described;
The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
This takes an image of predator and prey and puts them together in everlasting peace. But to think literally only in terms of wolves and lambs does no justice to this beautiful image. This speaks of a conversion of hearts away from the kind of power where some are predators and some are preyed upon. It dreams of a world where colonisation, control and coercion no longer deface the dignity of humanity and empire does not own space in any human soul. To live into this peaceable kingdom we need repentance and a conversion of hearts that is just as much for the vulnerable as for the powerful. The “little child” in this text points to the leadership of the least amongst us, where perhaps the wolf can give up its habits of violence and learn to play again and the lamb would find its voice.
This new shoot will grow to manifest a power unlike any other- one of forgiveness and love that will change all the world’s assumptions about how power is acquired and enforced. Where war and destruction, oppressive regimes or familial violence have cut people’s lives off at the stump, this saviour who comes from Jesse’s tree will restore dignity and hope, offering power to the powerless and uniting peoples from every race and nation in a world as “full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” And what is this knowledge of the Lord? We may perhaps know it most easily by what it is not- not colonising, not controlling, not coercive. It is relational knowledge, creating a kingdom where peaceful, non-violent relationships are the norm and humanity is at peace with one another and the earth. Power as we understand it is turned on its head. The Lord has come, but instead of a conquering warrior promising peace on the empire’s terms, this saviour allowed himself to be crucified on a tree so that new life could grow in the space of his self-offering. This saviour calls us to be part of growing this new peaceable kingdom.
Jesus has shown us the way, so let us prepare anew for his coming into our lives. May we give up all our ways of colonisation, coercion and control, allowing the Christ to unbind all that is captive within us and setting our feet on the path of peace. This Advent, may we allow the coming of Christ to set us truly free, that we may love, serve and honour one another.