Why do the nations rage
And the people’s plot in vain?
The Kings of the earth set themselves
and the rulers take council together
against the LORD and against his anointed
“Let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their cords from us”
He who sits in the heavens laughs
the LORD holds them in derision
Then he will speak to them in his wrath
and terrify them in his fury, saying
“As for me, I have set my king
on Zion, my holy hill”
I will tell of the decree
The LORD said to me, “you are my son
Today I have begotten you
Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage
and the ends of the earth your possession
You shall break them with a rod of iron
and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel”
Now therefore, O kings, be wise
Be warned, O rulers of the earth
Serve the LORD with fear,
and rejoice with trembling
Kiss the son
lest he be angry, and you perish in the way
for his wrath is quickly kindled
Blessed are all who take refuge in him.
Scholarly sorts aren’t agreed on when this song was written.
Was for some mad Israelite monarch who thought his tiny kingdom might one day smash the huge empires that ruled the known world? Or the wishful messianic ravings of a destitute people after their kingdom had been crushed into obscurity by the Babylonians?
In either case, coming from the margins, it makes little reasonable sense. It either speaks of someone who’s lost their mind, or, someone who who knows something we don’t.
The song was taken up by the Messianic movement after some were arrested for dissent (Acts 4). In an empire where Caesar’s title was “the saviour of the world,” they said the recently executed Jesus of Nazareth, who lead a movement of healing, forgiveness, reconciliation and redistribution, was in fact the saviour of the world, and that “there is no other name under heaven, given among men and women by which we must be saved.” Then they accused their own government (4:8) of collusion with the powers that had killed him. They were, in their own way, marching through the place of government, saying, Not my president. Not my government.*
When released, they gathered the community to pray, and they sing Psalm 2:
“Why do the nations rage
And the people’s plot in vain?
The Kings of the earth set themselves
and the rulers take council together
against the LORD and against his anointed”
Here, the song’s subversive core rings out. It’s not the tiny little resistance movement, still clinging onto its crucified leader, who are laughable – it is the imperial Powers and their collaborators. It’s not the community living under constant threat who should “be warned” – it is rather “the rulers of the earth.”
The rash tone here evokes a political hope that permeates the Psalms: the Maker will bring down the self-confident and corrupt Power. This conviction steadied the backbone of the small as they confronted the great. It gave them a quiet confidence and a peace. They didn’t protest merely as those who fight for their own rights. They announced a coming Peace, that would end the self-defeating folly of the Powers. And they did it as if they wanted to offer even these vain rulers and kings, an open door out of their own disasters. I think it might have been this quality of peace in their actions that really terrified the Powers – the peace that suggested that these nobodies knew something they didn’t.
For example, the disciples mentioned above who confronted their rulers. The elites “perceived that they were uneducated, common men” and were “astonished.” When given an order of silence, they refuse, saying “whether it is right in the sight of God, to listen to you or to listen to God, you must judge.”
Or Paul. On trial before King Agrippa, he wryly says “I would to God that not only you, but all who hear me this day, might become such as I am – except for these chains” (Acts26:29). This marvellously ironic statement, spoken by a prisoner in chains to a king on a throne, echoes with our psalm beautifully – where the powerless warn the powerful: “Be warned, O rulers… Kiss the son lest he be angry.”
Or such as the homeless Messiah Jesus, who is brought before the Roman governor Pilate, in his grand palace (John 19). Pilate quickly becomes unnerved. He begins to feel that it is he who is on trial… he who should be afraid. The governor’s wife sees it, and urges him to have nothing more to do with this frightening man.
Today, when every day seems to bring another vote or executive order from the Powers against any respect for God’s creation, or for the image of God in any but a privileged few, this song is a call to an unreasonable faith, in the light of whatever odds. As Walter Benjamin said; “every second of time [is] the straight gate through which the Messiah might enter.” To live in that expectation is to stand before the Powers with a twinkle in your eye.
* For context, the stir was caused by their having healed a disabled man. Their statements of dissent were not the political opinions that angrily bubble over whenever someone mentiones Thatcher. They were practicing a life of healing and compassion. When they were obliged to say what they were against, it was because they had demonstrated what they were for.
My radiophonic production of The Book of Jonah, narrated by N. T. Wright, and starring Alastair McIntosh as Jonah is out.
The cd artwork is fully hand printed, and includes the actual Book of Jonah in the booklet.
And of course it has a companion in my book published last year Sympathy for Jonah.
The world feels disoriented and afraid. I know so many people who can’t sleep these days. Here’s the first of some ancient songs of resistance and resilience for people and communities.
Blessed are they
who walk not in the council of the wicked
nor stand in the way of sinners
nor sit in the seat of scoffers
but delight is in the law of the LORD
and on his law they meditate day and night
They are like trees
planted by streams of water
that yield fruit in season
and their leaves do not wither
In all that they do, they prosper
The wicked are not so
but are like chaff that the wind drives away
Therefore the wicked shall not stand in the judgment nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous
for the LORD knows the way of the righteous
but the way of the wicked will perish*
On What We Choose to Listen to…
We’re drowning in bad news – and while I’m glad to know, but the political powers in the UK and US have become so absurdly cruel, they almost seem like caricatures of wicked politicians. There’s something addictive about watching the next absurdity announced.
I think of Rene Girard’s comment almost every day, that we should choose our enemies carefully, “because we will become like them.” While transfixed on the absurdity of evil, we are in danger of being sucked into the absurdity ourselves. We mirror it. Responses become hateful, social divides become wider and more dangerous, and the real work of resistance, resilience and goodness is neglected amidst satire, memes and mutual commiseration. Too much of the embittered opposition to the Powers today that be has become a noise that does nothing but blow off steam and help preserve the status quo.
To be clear, I don’t propose we put our fingers in our ears, but there is something to be said for taking a step back from “the council of the wicked… the way of sinners… and the seat of the scoffers” – lest we allow the Powers to dictate the terms of the argument. The barrage of their noise is overwhelming, and we can’t put roots down into this narrative. There is no sustaining vision here.
Our song offers an alternative source from outside the chaos: meditation on the law of the LORD. “Law” here is torah, meaning, not rules (A. A. Anderson suggests), but “the revelation of the will of YHWH, which is both demanding and liberating.” Here is a vision that feeds both our view of what is happening, and also our practice in the midst of it – the good hard work of liberating practice.** This grass roots vision outlasts the self-defeating absurdity of today’s wicked Powers. But how so?
On Resilience vs. Quietism
Martin Luther King’s statement that the arc of history bends toward justice, is a restatement of what the Psalms say constantly. The just community, like green trees, will outlast the malfunctionings of the wicked Powers, which will blow away like chaff – the part which history doesn’t keep. This isn’t a call to quietism, and it certainly isn’t a call to grin and bear it in the hope of a happier afterlife. The arena of the Psalms is creation and history. If “the way of the wicked shall perish” it will perish from the earth, just as “the meek,” (not the proud) “shall inherit the earth.”
What is said in this song is repeated through all the rest; the arc of history does bend toward justice, the Creator’s Goodness will outlast the wickedness of corrupt Power. It is with this defiant conviction that we are rooted in a vision greater than the todays absurd narratives. Drinking from this river we can resist evil without being sucked into mimicking its rationale, becoming fearful and hatefulness ourselves. From here, “the wicked” might even become the subject of our pity and compassion.
Today is Ash Wednesday (when Christian’s remember Jesus’ journey out of the hubbub and into the wilderness to overcome evil). A good day to come apart and be watered by a bigger vision.
*I hope no-one will mind too much that I have made this song (psalm 1) gender-neutral. I’ve also made it communal, which gives it something, but also takes something away – namely, its call to the individual to walk wisely when the crowd lose their head.
** The prayerful action of the NO DAPL movement is, I think, an extraordinary and beautiful example of this.
13.03.17 – ‘The Book of Jonah’ is released. Narrated by N. T. Wright. Starring Alastair Macintosh. Curated & soundtracked by myself.
You can pre-order here.
I was talking about Jonah at the FAITH & THE POLITICS OF ENEMY LOVE gathering in Mississauga, Canada a week ago – hosted by the brilliant folks at Meadowvale Community CRC.
Also up there are talks by some of my personal heroes, Brian Walsh and Wendy Gritter.
Somebody straightened my collar out after we finished.
The new book Sympathy for Jonah is out now. Its a book about meltdown, whale ingestion and Waitsian doom-musicals. Its a book about living in a time of escalating imperialism and terror. And above all else its a about how ordinary people live radical lives in world of apparently threatening Others.
Here’s some commendations…
“David Blower has written a marvelous reflection on what may be the Bible’s most subversive and misunderstood story. Not only are his insights incisive and needed, his writing is a delight to read.” —Brian D. McLaren, author/speaker/activist
“I picked it up, started to read it and couldn’t stop. It’s the kind of book that I would love to have written myself, but have neither the insight, the imagination nor the sheer literary skill or flair to do so. Its an irresistible, fanciful, terrifying book: brilliant, beautiful and colourful, but brutal, awful and confronting. It is a book about Jonah that does a Jonah on us: calling us to engage the brutal realities of the world we live in; not letting us run from our call by sending a whale of a story along to swallow us up; forcing us to face that which we fear most in the belly of the beast; then throwing us up into the clear light of day, without any illusions, to love our imperialist and terrorist enemies, by addressing ourselves to them with the same unarmed honest naked vulnerability that Jonah – and later Jesus – displayed. This is The Gospel According To Jonah for today.” —Dave Andrews, author of Plan Be, and Christi-Anarchy
“Elegaic in its writing and prophetic in its message, Blower’s study brings the ancient Biblical myth of Jonah back to life with fresh relevance for our times, especially so with Jonah’s city so much in the news, and for the same reasons as before: that to say, Nineveh, or Mosul in northern Iraq.” —Alastair McIntosh, Professor, School of Divinity, University of Edinburgh, author of Soil and Soul and Spiritual Activism
“Identifying the empire—not the big fish—as the real beast in the book, this powerful and poetic re-telling of the Jonah story brings a familiar tale to life in fresh ways, and invites readers to face the challenge of engaging creatively and vulnerably with the powers that be.” —Stuart Murray Williams, author of The Naked Anabaptist, Multi-Voiced Church and Church After Christendom
“Here he is again, ready for round two. His latest is about as unsettling as it gets. I’ve been following David’s work for some time now. I know how he operates, but he still catches me off guard. So put down whatever you’re reading, pick up this book, and brace yourself!” —Tim Nash, Nomad Podcast
“David Benjamin Blower brings us a renewed song of hope—in the shape of Jonah wrapped up in a whale. This is a work of imagination and erudition as well as an elegy that speaks of a way of being that for so long has eluded concerned Christians. At last God has given us a prophet who dares to tell us like it is. Listen up—let Jonah help us to see our task as Christians in troubled times. Read and listen to David Benjamin Blower if you dare—but with assurance that grace is so much in abundance our fretfulness will be transformed into passion.” —Ann Morisy, author of Beyond the Good Samaritan and Journeying Out
From September I’ll be touring lounges and gardens, faith communities, bars and halls, performing the Jonah musical and talking about the book. Please email me at email@example.com if you’d like to make a booking.
My dear friend Vincent Gould made this video for In Praise of Rome. It is made, appropriately, out of footage from the war in Yemen, which we British are quietly supporting; supplying weapons and logistical help to the Saudi regime.
All this got ugly for us last week, for reasons I’ll mention further down. But first, in keeping with song, I should say something theological:
This song is about the meaning of the term ‘gospel’ – euangelion in Greek – meaning literally good news or glad tidings. The first Christians did not coin the term as a benign catch-phrase to sell a new religion. It existed before anyone was called a Christian. It was a Roman political term for an imperial announcement: usually the birth of a new emperor, or the success of some conquest or other. In the ears of first century Jewish men and women, it meant self righteous lies and propaganda from the oppressor. The gospel of Rome routinely replayed the message: Caesar is lord and son of god. He brings wars to end and begins the new age. His divinely ordained peace comes at the righteous end of the Roman short sword. His conquering armies, occupying soldiers, blanket taxation and crucifixion of rebels were all justified by the Roman peace which they made possible. This was the Rome’s Good News.
So when Mark begins with “The gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God” he begins by giving Caesar’s empire the finger. While Christians today ponder what the gospel is the first readers would be immediately struck by what it is not. The gospel is a rejection Rome’s gospel of military might, security through force and peace through violence. It was, rather, committed from the start to enemy-love, non-violent resistance, grace and forgiveness. This commitment was held across the board for the first few centuries of the Church, and it was their open rejection of the Caesar’s gospel that lead to the political executions of countless men and women from this benign little sect of Judaism.
There is a book I keep returning to: Society Must be Defended,* a series of lectures by Michel Foucault. It begins by quoting Petrarch’s famous maxim “all history is praise of Rome.” The lectures go on to sketch European history and politics as a sort of perpetual war for power in which everyone appeals to fables of Roman lineage, and tries to re-create Rome in their own image. Ironically, the history of the “Christian” West has, according to Foucault, been forever infatuated with Caesar’s gospel, which the Christians defined themselves against. This is true once again today.
Our Quiet War in Yemen
Here is a morbid irony, that a country which whose Prime Minister declared it a “Christian country” sells billions of pounds of weapons to a regime who still consider crucifixion an appropriate punishment for rebels. We’ve been selling arms to the Saudi regime since Thatcher’s day. Under Cameron’s government we sold them 6 billion pounds worth. Last year the Saudi regime beheaded more people than Daesh did, but we still supported their appointment to the human rights council of the UN. When pressed on the matter. Cameron said it was because we rely on them for anti-terrorism intelligence. It is our British bombs they are dropping on the people of Yemen, and our British military personnel who are providing logistical support. And yet our quiet war in Yemen has hardly been big news. I keep speaking to people who didn’t know it was happening.
Meanwhile in Yemen, here’s a protest against the war that we’re supporting…
Last week, the day before parliament broke up for recess, a report into breaches of international humanitarian (IHL) law in the war on Yemen was quietly amended.
So, the statement: “we have assessed that there has not been a breach of IHL by the coalition”.. has been reworded like this: “we have not assessed that there has been a breach of IHL by the coalition.”
And, “our judgement is that there is no evidence that IHL has been breached.” has become: “…we have been unable to assess that there has been a breach of IHL.”
In short: are we our brother’s keeper? While the Middle East descends into war and chaos, we refuse to let in more than a handful of the many made destitute, while continuing to make money selling arms into the region. We hold to the Roman gospel that peace only comes at the end of a sword.
On a thematically related note – and since it’s also recent news – our new Prime Minister Theresa May just declared that she would use nuclear weapons. She says this because she knows that, here, Caesar is lord, and a leader who rejects the sword will be destroyed by the press, as Corbyn was when he said he wouldn’t push the button. I hope the larger point here will not be lost amongst names from the party political circus. The point is that our leaders are subject to the sword of Rome, as much as they wield it. It is an it, which must be obeyed by those who wish to hold power.
Why information like this? Why waste more time and more words on the constant orgy of online political discontent?
Firstly, I think we must begin by knowing who we are and where we stand and where we begin from. I think we ought to know, and not resent knowing, something of the violence, murder and bloodshed our country is complicit in. And that in spite of our continuing contributions to the violence shredding Middle Eastern countries, we continue to do very little for those who are displaced. Those of us who hold to the Gospel of Jesus ought to ask ourselves how, then, we stand against Caesar’s gospel, even as we stand within it. If our thoughts above hold, then our confession of the gospel must be a confession against our country’s arms trade, for one thing. I think prayers of sorrow, mourning, lament, dust and ashes would help us find ourselves where we really are (alongside Nineveh). We can’t begin until we know where we are.
Secondly, while I say that the Gospel stands implicitly against this militarised gospel of Rome, it is not, at its core, a negative concept. It is not merely anti-Rome, anti-violence, anti-imperialist etc (though it is also all of these things). It is also a thing in itself. The first Christians were very clever in subverting Rome’s propaganda, but they didn’t waste all their words slinging mud from the sidelines at the corrupt politicians of their day. They were far more interested in making space for another kind of politics to emerge; another kind of social order, another kind of life, in all its fullness. They made space for this with their own hands, since they knew it would not be forthcoming from the powers that be, who believed in the wrong gospel. This is, I think, the task. More on this another time.
*This book is fascinating from an anti-empire theological perspective, because the manifestation of empire in the NT is, of course, Rome; and Foucault’s lectures play on the notion that much of Western history has been a nostalgic desire to re-create Roman imperial greatness. So, the same Kingdom and Empire, both born within a lifetime of each other, have continued their antagonism ever since.
So, once again, the liner notes for a record turned themselves into a book (while the record itself died in the carcass of my old computer).
More about the book itself soon. For now I would like to mention two of my heroes involved in it.
The cover art is an illustration by Benjamin Harris. He drew it especially for the book (during his theology lectures, as far as I can tell). So much of the story is in this image: the leaves of the gourd surrounding his head, the twigs, which make peace signs, the Assyrian beard growing out of his face, representing his awful proximity to his loathsome enemies. But I think Benjamin has captured most of Jonah’s story in the eyes, which speak for themselves.
I am also honoured to have a foreword by the theologian Ched Myers, who is one of the first to unpack the anti-empire themes in the New Testament; themes which now dominate the work of so many theological thinkers. His political commentary on Mark, Binding the Strongman, was a paradigm shifting book, and certainly had a huge impact on me, and on my book on Jonah.
As for the book itself, we’ll say more soon…
Featuring, Adel: a young man from Syria who fled at the beginning of the war to avoid conscription into Assad’s army. He tells the story of his journey across the Sahara and the Mediterranean, to the squaller of Calais and over the English channel.
And Naomi, who works with child refugees in Nottingham and describes the complexities they face when while adjusting to life here.
Have a listen.