It was 20 years ago yesterday, on 18 October 2001, that a small, overcrowded fishing boat set sail from Sumatra, Indonesia. On board were well over 400 asylum seekers—far too many for the small boat—who had fled the terrors of life in Iraq and Afghanistan. The boat was headed for the Australian territory of Christmas Island, a few hundred kilometres away. Asylum seekers sought to reach Christmas Island so that they could then claim asylum in Australia.
Unfortunately the boat, which was seriously overloaded, sank the next day, 19 October 2001 (20 years ago today). This mean that 353 people drowned (146 children, 142 women and 65 men). The actual name of the boat is not known; it is known today as SIEV X. SIEV is the acronym used by the surveillance forces for a Suspected Illegal Entry Vessel Unknown. The Roman numeral X designates this as the tenth such boat so categorised by Australian authorities. The acronym dehumanises those on board the boat and generalises the tragedies of all those fleeing their homelands.
According to survivors,more than 100 people remained alive in the water that night. Two vessels arrived and shone searchlights across the ocean, but they failed to rescue anyone. Some time later, 45 people were rescued by fishermen in the area.
In 2002, a Senate Select Committee had been established to investigate “A Certain Maritime Incident” (the “children overboard” incident in the whole Palapa—Tampa affair). The committee also investigated the SIEV-X sinking. It concluded that “… it [is] extraordinary that a major human disaster could occur in the vicinity of a theatre of intensive Australian operations and remain undetected until three days after the event, without any concern being raised within intelligence and decision making circles.” (See “Findings” under “SIEV X -Chapters 8 and 9” at https://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Senate/Former_Committees/maritimeincident/report/a06)
On the weekend almost five years after the sinking (15 September 2006), a memorial to the 353 people who died in that event was opened in Weston Park in Canberra, ACT. The memorial had 353 white poles, each of which had been decorated by a community group, a school group, or a church group, drawn from right around Australia. Each pole represented one of the deceased.
The Uniting Church has a strong connection with this memorial. The artwork for the 353 poles was gathered by a national competition. Pieces from this artwork competition were first displayed at Pitt St Uniting Church in Sydney, and then at Wesley Uniting Church in Melbourne, before being put on display in Canberra at the Canberra City Uniting Church. At that event in Canberra, the design for the memorial was announced—the poles were to be put into the ground in a design that represented the outline of the vessel, when viewed from above.
The then Prime Minister indicated that the Federal Government was opposed to the project, but the ACT Chief Minister, John Stanhope, opened the project in 2006. Permission had not been granted to make the memorial permanent, so a crowd of people carried the poles into the places designated for them. The event received strong national coverage. Public opinion was galvanised against our inhuman national policy regarding refugees.
The next year, 2007, the memorial became permanent. It remains to this day as a reminder of the willingness of the Australian people to assist our neighbours in need; and the intransigence of our federal leadership (sadly, a bipartisan intransigence) when it comes to such matters.
The need to be a welcoming country to people who are rightly fleeing the persecution and violence being perpetrated against them in their homelands, is still an issue today, as the Christians United for Afghanistan project indicates. See https://www.unitedforafghanistan.com/#sign
The photos I have used were taken just recently (October 2021) by Willem Kok, a member of the Yarralumla Uniting Church, which is the Uniting Church Congregation that serves the area that includes Weston Park and the SIEV X memorial.
The man sits on the ground, beside the road leading into Jericho. Sensing what was happening, who was passing by, what was being spoken about; unable to use his eyes, he was undoubtedly attentive through his listening ears, through the sounds he could hear, as well as the fragrances he could smell. Because of this, he knew the identity of the person passing by, so he calls out with confidence, “Jesus of Nazareth, Son of David, have mercy on me” (Mark 10:47).
Jesus pauses, engages with the man, and responds to his plea. “Go; your faith has made you well” (10:52). The man, all of a sudden, could see; all was clear, so he took his place among those following Jesus on the way (10:52).
The scene is familiar. Some chapters earlier, in Bethsaida, another blind man also engages with Jesus; and Jesus heals the man. “He saw everything clearly” (8:25), just as the second man “immediately regained his sight” (10:52). Yet the two scenes are remarkably different. The first man healed is not named; whilst the man outside Jericho is identified as Bartimaeus (10:46).
The unnamed man is brought to Jesus by some friends, begging Jesus to heal him (8:22). By contrast, the later man is initially is hindered from engaging with Jesus by the crowd, demanding that he remain silent (10:48). And whilst the restoration of sight takes place immediately in the Jericho scene (10:52), in the Bethsaida scene it takes two attempts by Jesus before the man can see.
A number of interpreters have commented on the similarities and contrasts in these two scenes. They provide, it is felt, bookends to the important central section of this earliest Gospel (8:27–10:45). There are some key events that take place within these two bookends.
First, there is Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah (8:29). This is one of the high moments at the mid-point of the whole narrative of this work. It serves to remind the readers what was already declared to them at the very start of the gospel: that it was about the good news of Jesus, Messiah, Son of God (1:1).
The other key moment in this section comes almost immediately after Peter’s confession: the scene of Transfiguration (9:2). This takes place on the top of a mountain, a traditional place for encountering the divine in Israelite stories (think Moses on Mount Sinai, Solomon’s Temple on Mount Zion, the vision of the prophet Isaiah that all the nations would stream to Mount Zion, and the place where Matthew locates the teaching of Jesus in the “Sermon on the Mount”).
This key mountaintop moment contains the words from the heavens about Jesus, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” (9:7). These words link back to the initial baptism of Jesus, when the same words were heard (1:11) and forward to the final scene of crucifixion, when a centurion at the foot of the cross witnesses Jesus’ death, and declares, “Truly this man was God’s Son!” (15:39). All three scenes contain the foundational statement, recognising Jesus as Son of God, reiterating the other important element in the opening verse (1:1).
There are other significant components within this central section of the Gospel. Three times, Jesus makes clear predictions of what lies in store for him in Jerusalem (8:31; 9:31; 10:32–34). This triple passion prediction is actually the central spine of the whole narrative. The cross is the climax of the story; the road to the death of Jesus has been in view since early in the narrative, when “the Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him” (3:6). From that moment onwards, the likelihood that Jesus would be caught and dealt with was strong.
Finally, after each one of these predictions of his fate, Jesus provides clear and direct teachings about the cost of discipleship. We hear “take up your cross” and “lose your life” in the first set of teachings (8:34–9:1). “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all” is spoken in the second set of teachings (9:33–37), followed by guidance about taking care of “the little ones” (9:38–50).
“Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all” is uttered in the third set of teachings (10:35–45), an expanded saying with synonymous parallelism reflecting back to the earlier teachings. And the final set of teachings ends with a clear statement about the role of the Son of Man as the model and the means of redemption for his followers (10:45).
So this story of Jesus, blind Bartimaeus, and the crowd in Jericho (10:46–52) brings to a close a rich and deeply significant sequence of scenes, which began back in Bethsaida with Jesus, an unnamed blind man, and the crowd in that town (8:22–26). The two outer scenes provide a carefully-crafted literary framing for the central sequence of scenes.
The symbolism is significant: two scenes with people unable to see, reaching out to Jesus, experience the piercing light after their years of blindness—these two scenes surround the confession of Jesus as Messiah and his transfiguration, the three predictions of what lies in store for him in Jerusalem, and the three blocks of teaching about the way of discipleship.
What was not able to be seen, is now made manifest. What was hidden, incomprehensible, is now revealed. For the disciples, there can be no excuse, and no turning back. Jesus no longer will ask, “do you not understand?” (4:22, 13; 6:52; 7:18: 8:17, 21; 9:32), for understanding has been provided. The pathway is set. The way of discipleship is clear. As Bartimaeus joins with the disciples to follow Jesus on that way, so we who hear the story are invited also to “follow him on the way”.
A sermon preached by the Rev. Elizabeth Raine at Tuggeranong Uniting Church on 17 October 2021
This week, there have been many school students striking around the world for something to be done about climate change. Young people are very concerned about the impacts of climate change, and the future of life on our planet.
Despite the growing evidence of the consequences of climate change, such as huge fires, floods, rising seas and extreme weather events, many governments and corporations around the world continue to subsidise the fossil fuel industry, putting all of us at risk.
Young people (and many of the rest of us!) believe that if we don’t take action now and transition swiftly away from fossil fuels to 100% renewable energy, things are just going to get worse.
Climate change is the greatest challenge we have confronted as a human species. To stop emitting waste carbon dioxide completely within the next five or 10 years, we would need to radically reorient almost all human economic and social production, a task that while it looks almost impossible, really does need to happen if human and other mammalian life forms are to continue existing. It will demand an agreement and global coordination between nations on a scale never seen before.
Despite this, much of our world still pursues a decidedly unsustainable environmental course. Even worse, a disproportionate share of the consequences of climate change is borne by the very poor, those 40% of our fellow human beings who live in “poverty” (1.5 billion people) or “extreme poverty” (the 1 billion people who earn less than $2 a day).
We have island nations that will be consumed by a rising sea, nations where subsidence farmers will no longer be able to grow food and climate refugees from places like Bangladesh who will see their land flooded and become uninhabitable. Without significant changes, planet earth will exact a heavy price for our choices.
But what does our scriptures have to say about this? Is there a faith imperative to act? There are many parts of the Hebrew bible that celebrate creation, and that emphasise that its gifts are God-given. In return for this gift, the human creature is meant to care for creation.
So as well as science and environmental expertise, our scriptural tradition is also informing our motives and choices. If God created the world and called it good, and then made a covenant after the flood narrative with every living creature, all life, and with the very earth itself, then surely we should be reaffirming our commitment to creation as its caring stewards.
Starting right at the beginning of our scripture with the creation narrative, we might note in Genesis that God states that God’s creation is “very good.” If the human creature is created in the image of God, and not only looking like God but having something of the character of God, then surely our purpose would not be to destroy the creation that God declared as ‘good’ but to keep it that way.
Two of the passages on the lectionary today take a different, but very important direction. Both Psalm 104 and Job put forward the notion that the human creature is but one among many creatures, and all are seen as equally important within the framework that is creation.
Psalm 104 makes it very clear that all creation is not only dependent on God, but there are many parts of it dependent on each other. God holds it all in balance, and each of the component parts interact with each other in necessary ways. Some would say it is a poetic way of describing an ecosystem. The creation is represented as a living, breathing entity, where all creatures are nephesh and filled with the breath or spirit of God. All have their place, none is more important than the other.
Our next reading from the book of Job describes creation as a delicately balanced system that God takes care of, including animals and isolated geographical areas, not just the human part of it. God provides food and shelter for wild animals that have nothing to do with humanity as such, and God causes it to rain in wild and desolate areas where humans are not.
This particular verse is very striking, as unlike Genesis, God is emphasising to Job that mortals like him are no more important in the creation than anything else. Everything is equal and all contribute to the goodness of the created. The book of Job has defined and marked the extent of things like rain, wind, snow and sunshine.
God in Job makes it clear that the creation of the earth and heavens runs on specific laws that allow the whole system to function for the benefit of everything. Therefore, the book of Job raises the question about whether it is advisable for humanity to irrevocably alter the creation as God has set it out. What will be the consequences if we do so?
So here we have two readings where humans are not the centre of God’s story and all creatures are — literally – created as our equals. The relationship appears to be non-exploitative, with all creatures secure in the place or habitat God has created for them.
Far from maintaining the delicate ecosystem balance set out by God that these writings imply, the earth’s capacity to sustain life is threatened by an ever-expanding human population and growing material demands. We are depleting earth’s nonrenewable resources and exceeding the environment’s capacity to absorb the pollutants we discard. This is particularly true of C02, the main gas driving climate change.
If nothing else, simple self-interest should remind us that all life remains fundamentally dependent upon being an integral part of a functioning ecosystem. Our fate is bound up with the fate of the planet.
Unless some miracle happens, the next 20 years are going to see increasingly chaotic global climate patterns, unpredictable biological adaptation and human responses that includes scapegoating and war over scarce resources. By the middle and later decades of this century — my grandchildren’s adult lives — this could look like a Mad Max story that should be filling us all with horror.
Our children and grandchildren will confront a range of outcomes that will be determined by the choices we make now. Whose voices will be heard the loudest? The fossil fuel industry and those whom it enriches? Or the voice of those who research the scientific evidence and those who are watching their homelands sink beneath the waves?
The worst outcomes of our consumptive lifestyles could be avoided if we did something concrete now. Are we willing to not only change our own habits, but to actively lobby our government to change theirs, and develop policies which will nurture and create life, rather than destroy and de-create it? Do we care enough to stop the sixth great extinction of species on the planet that God created and called “very good”?
The Christian Church has a particular calling to re-vision a much more holistic view of how we see and use God’s world, and how we look after the life that God has created on our planet. If we see the whole world and everything in it as the house of God, as the psalmist writes in Psalm 24, we may be more likely to treat everything and everyone with dignity and respect.
We need to value the things that cannot be counted, such as the beauty of a wilderness, river or forest. Consumer choices and economic growth should not be the only measure of good stewardship and well-being. Surely God intended us to treat our neighbours, including our fellow creatures, fairly and with love, and his creation with care. If members of God’s family continue to suffer because some of us are taking too much or many of God’s wild creatures continue to experience the threat of mass extinctions, we are not growing a more holistic household of God on our planet.
We are at a critical point in history, facing some considerable challenges including the damaging effects of human-induced climate change, the depletion of cheap abundant energy and a global food shortage. These challenges are global and they are connected to each other as both cause and consequence.
They are the results of social, political and economic systems that have come to do more harm than good; systems built on values of greed, power and materialism. We have developed a global economic system that is now diminishing, rather than improving our capacity to live sustainably on our planet.
The Christian life is not judged by comfort and prosperity and reward by God – especially not financially – but by suffering with the Christ and by the giving up of those things that distract or impede us. It is a challenging message. I hope that we, as the Uniting Church, can re-imagine a world where creation is treated with respect and all peoples are seen as equal.
And I hope that by doing so, we can tackle the cause of climate change appropriately and ensure the future of our planet and its fragile ecosystems for the grandchildren and great grand children of all the peoples of the earth.
However, in this particular saying, Jesus indicates that the laying-down of his life is to be seen, not just as the model for his followers to emulate, but as “a ransom for many” (10:45). Each word needs some exploration.
Ransom is a term that we associate with the forced kidnapping of a person and the demand for a payment in order for them to be released. This is not the way the term is used in biblical texts, where payment in return for release of a captive is not in view. Rather, the orientation is towards the idea that there is a significant cost involved in the process of ransoming.
The Greek word used in Mark 10:45, lutron, comes from a verb, lutrein, which means “to release”. It was a common term for the payment needed to secure the release of slaves, debtors, and prisoners of war. The noun, translated as ransom, occurs in the Septuagint. It identifies the price paid to redeem a slave or captive (Lev 25:51–52) or a firstborn (Num 18:15). It also indicates the price to be paid as recompense for a crime (Num 35:31–32) or injury (Exodus 21:30). In these instances, it translates the Hebrew word kipper, which has the basic meaning of “covering”, from the root word koper.
Another form of the word koper appears in the name of the Great High Holy Day in Judaism—Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement (see Lev 16:1–34; Num 29:7–11). On that day, as the cloud of incense covers the mercy seat (kapporeth, Lev 16:13), the mercy seat is smeared with the blood of the sacrificed bull (16:14) and then the blood of the goat which provides the sin offering (16:15). According to Leviticus, it is these actions which “shall make atonement (kipper) for the sanctuary, because of the uncleannesses of the people of Israel, and because of their transgressions, all their sins” (16:16).
The process of atonement in the Israelite religion was to cover up, to hide away from view, the sins of the people. This is developed to some degree in the fourth Servant Song of Deutero-Isaiah, when the prophet honours the servant because “he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities” (Isa 53:5). His life was understood as “an offering for sin” (53:10) which “shall make many righteous” (53:11).
Indeed, as the Song ends, it affirms that “he bore the sin of many” (53:12). The Song resonates with the language and imagery of righteous suffering as the means of dealing with, and perhaps atoning for, sins. In addition, it indicates that this function deals with “the iniquity of us all” (53:6), and through his role, “he shall make many righteous” (53:11); “he bore the sin of many” (53:12).
The notion of one atoning for many is further expounded in a later text which provides an account of the way that a righteous man, Eleazar, was martyred during the time of upheaval under Antiochus Epiphanes (175–167 BCE). The death of Eleazar was understood as a ransom; “be merciful to your people, and let our punishment suffice for them”, he prays; “make my blood their purification, and take my life in exchange for theirs” (4 Macc 6:28–29).
The Greek for “my life in exchange for”, antilutron, is a compound word, joining the same preposition anti and the same noun lutron which we find in Mark 10:45. The preposition clearly denotes a process of exchange, in which one person performs an action on behalf of, or in the place of, another. That notion feeds into a theory of atonement known as substitutionary atonement—that one person (Jesus) stood in place of many people (humanity). However, this isn’t a strong motif in either the fourth Servant Song in Isaiah or in New Testament passages.
However, there has been debate with regard to the word “many” in both the saying of Jesus, and the Servant Song of Isaiah. Does this refer, quite literally, to lots and lots of people, or does it refer to every human being? The way that “many” appears in the Servant Song (Isa 52:14–15; 53:11–12) places it in parallel with “all” (Isa 53:6). Here, the “many” quite clearly has a universal reference, to all human beings.
The interchanging of “many” with “all” can be seen, also, in Paul’s discussion of Jesus and Adam, where “all” (Rom 5:12, 18) and “many” (Rom 5:15, 19) have the same point of reference—the totality of humanity. Indeed, this is consistent with the overall argument running throughout Romans, where the Gospel is a universal good news of righteous-justice for all. (See https://johntsquires.com/2020/07/11/the-righteous-justice-of-god-a-gift-to-all-humanity-romans/) The same universal scope, by analogy from Isa 53 and Rom 5, is applicable to the words of Jesus in Mark 10:45.
In another later Jewish text, Philo of Alexandria observes that “every wise man is a ransom for a worthless one” (Sacrifices of Abel and Cain 121). The idea of an act of one person which serves as a ransom for another then appears in New Testament texts which describe the effect of the death of Jesus for those who have placed their trust in him. Paul uses ransom language tells the saints that they were “bought with a price” (1 Cor 6:20; 7:23).
Paul also uses apolutrosis, a compound word but from the base word lutrein, to describe the redemption which was accomplished by Jesus, both in a formulaic way (1 Cor 1:30) and in a more discursive manner (Rom 3:24; 8:23). The term recurs in later letters which likely were not written by Paul (Col 1:14; Eph 1:7, 14; 4:30), as well as in the Lukan redaction of the final eschatological speech of Jesus (Luke 21:28).
In another later letter attributed to Paul, most likely written by one of his students, we read of “one mediator between God and humans, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all” (1 Tim 2:6), using the term lutron. In another later work providing guidance an account of Paul by an author at some remove from him, the book of Acts, Paul was said to have declared of the church that God “obtained [it] with the blood of his own Son” (Acts 20:28).
At the start of the book of Revelation, Jesus is identified as “the one who loves us and released us from our sins” (Rev 1:5). The verb translated “released” or “freed” in English versions is the participle lusanti, from the root verb luō, which is cognate with the noun lutron, meaning ransom.
It was the combination of such passages that led the third century scholar, Origen of Alexandria to develop an idiosyncratic theory of the atonement (the way that Jesus enables God to deal with human sinfulness). Origen’s ransom theory of atonement reads Genesis 3 as an account of Adam and Eve being taken captive by Satan; this state was then inherited by all human beings. The death of Jesus is what enables all humans to be saved; the means for this was that the blood shed by Jesus was the price paid to Satan to ransom humanity (or, in a variant form, a ransom paid by Jesus to God to secure our release).
However, none of these texts—and particularly not Mark 10:45—require this overarching theological superstructure to make sense of what they say. Origen’s ransom theory held sway for some centuries, but was definitively rejected by the medieval scholar Anselm of Canterbury. It is not a favoured theory of atonement in much of the contemporary church (though it is still advocated in various fundamentalist backwaters). Certainly, none of this should be attributed to the saying of Jesus in Mark 10:45. It is far more likely that he is drawing on the Jewish tradition of the righteous sufferer in his words.
“The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:35-45). So Jesus instructs his followers, after a bruising encounter with James and John, two of the leading followers of Jesus (10:35-40) which enraged the rest of the disciples (10:42).
The dispute was over status; James and John wanted to claim the places next to Jesus: “one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory” (10:37). This was not unusual in the world of that time (indeed, this is still the case in our own times). Public debate that was intended to best the other person was common in ancient Mediterranean societies. Seeking greater honour (higher status) by getting the upper hand, or the last word, in public debate, was common.
In an honour—shame society, such as that in which Jesus, James, and John lived, the culture was characterised by a constant and ongoing “challenge—riposte,” enacted in the public arena. Jesus engaged in such challenges on a regular basis; see the disputations of 2:1-3:6, early in Jesus’s time in Galilee, and later in Jerusalem, in 11:27-12:34.
Such challenge—riposte encounters typically involved the challenger setting forth a claim, through either words or actions; a response to the challenge by the persons who was challenged; then, after further back-and-forth amongst the participants, once the challenge and riposte has run its course, the verdict is declared by the public who was watching the encounter. (See a clear description of this process, as it applies in Mark 11:27–12:34, using the analysis of Jerome Neyrey and Bruce Malina, at https://www.etsjets.org/files/JETS-PDFs/43/43-2/43-2-pp213-228_JETS.pdf)
At this moment, Jesus critiques the common process of public disputation; he distances himself from the common cultural practice of seeking honour and working for a higher status. Those who lord it over others, who act as tyrants, are not to be the role models for his followers; “it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all” (10:43–44). Indeed, Jesus rubs salt into the wound by inferring that James and John were acting like Gentiles (10:52). That was an insult, to be sure, for good Jews (see the sayings attributed the Jesus at Matt 5:47; 6:7, 32).
This was the third time, after demonstrating their misunderstanding of what Jesus was teaching, that his disciples were directly rebuked for their attitude. First, Peter represents the disciples’ lack of clarity about Jesus (8:27–38); then a number of the disciples arguing about being great, and John fails to welcome the activity of a person casting out demons (9:33–48); and now, James and John demonstrate their continued inability to understand the attitude of Jesus towards status (10:35–40).
At least in this last scene, the other ten disciples are angry about what James and John have asked for (10:41). Far too often, on earlier occasions, Jesus has lamented that the disciples failed to understand (4:22, 13; 6:52; 7:18: 8:17, 21; 9:32). It seems that finally, at this moment, things had fallen into place for the disciples. (Or were they simply annoyed at the way the brothers promoted their own interests over the hopes of the other disciples?)
On this occasion, Jesus goes one step further. His own life—or, more precisely, the laying-down of his own life—is to be seen, not just as the model for his followers to emulate, but as “a ransom for many” (10:45). There are important observations to make about this short statement. Those matters will be the focus of a subsequent blog post.
“You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek” (Heb 5:6 and 7:17, quoting Psalm 110:4). This is a distinctive teaching, found only here in the New Testament. What are we to make of it? Who is Melchizedek? How is he relevant to Jesus? Why is this relevant for us today?
The book we know as “the letter to the Hebrews” is a most distinctive work. It is regularly described as a letter, but it doesn’t follow many of the conventions of a Hellenistic letter. It claims to be a word of exhortation, but many long sections in the work are in fact didactic expositions, not pastoral encouragements.
Whilst Paul describes Jesus as a sacrifice, whose death offers us forgiveness of sins and reconciliation with God, only Hebrews portrays Jesus as the priest who makes the sacrifice, slaughtering the sacrificial beast (2:17; 3:1; 5:1–6; 6:20; 7:26–28; 8:3; 10:12) and simultaneously as the victim, lying on the altar as the one whose blood is being shed (9:11–14; 9:26; 10:19; 12:24; 13:20). And only Hebrews makes the declaration noted above, that the nature of the priesthood of Jesus is that he is priest “according to the order of Melchizedek”.
Melchizedek is a Semitic name which is comprised of two separate words: melek, meaning king, and zedek, from tsedeqa, the Hebrew word for righteousness. These terms bring together two key aspects of life and faith for the ancient Israelites. The king was the ruler and leader, through whom the people were in covenant with God (2 Sam 7). Righteousness was the central characteristic of God, which was to be the central commitment of the people of Israel (Gen 18:19). So the king was to rule by righteousness (Psalm 72:1-4).
We meet Melchizedek, the king of righteousness, early in Genesis, when Abram is making his way from Egypt, where he went during the famine (Gen 12:10), through the Negev (Gen 13:1). Abram meets Melchizedek in a place named as The King’s Valley (Gen 14:17). It occurs after God had called Abram and Sarai from their life in Ur of the Chaldees (Gen 11:31) and before God makes a covenant with Abram (Gen 15), which Abram (at the ripe old age of 99 years) seals through the rite of circumcision (Gen 17).
The encounter with Melchizedek is a short interlude in the saga, immediately after Abram has recused his son Lot from a coalition of kings in the Mesopotamian region (Gen 14). Salem, of which he is said to be king (Gen 13:18), is very probably Jerusalem—Psalm 76:2 places Salem in parallel with Zion, pointing to this identification. And Jerusalem was the seat for King David and his descendants, so it makes sense that The King’s Valley would be in this area.
Melchizedek offers Abram bread and wine, and prays over him, conferring a blessing on him (Gen 14:19–20). It is the blessing of “El ʿElyon,” which is a name of Canaanite origin, probably designating the high god of their pantheon. Abram responds by offering Melchizedek a tithe (Gen 14:21), and is insistent that Melchizedek accept all that is offered.
In Roman Catholic tradition, the offering of bread and wine by Melchizedek is regarded as a “pre-presentation of the Mass”—a prefiguring of the sacrifice of Jesus celebrated in their liturgy. He is mentioned in the First Eucharistic Prayer of the Mass, and is remembered as a martyr each year on 26 August. However, the offering of a meal to troops returning from battle was simply a common practice at the time; see, for instance, the lavish meal provided for the returning troops of David at 2 Sam 17:27–29.
The portrayal of Abram as the leader of an army (Gen 14:13–16) which was able to defeat the forces of a coalition of many kings (Gen 14:8–9) is recognised as an anomaly; elsewhere in the section of Genesis recounting the saga of Abraham (Gen 12–25), there is no indication at all that Abram had any any warmongering tendency or any capacity to fight battles.
Because of this, Old Testament scholar Joseph Blenkinsopp has suggested that the story of Melchizedek was inserted into the narrative about Abram to give validity to the priesthood and tithes connected with the Second Temple, after the Exile (which was the period when the book of Genesis was compiled). The links are made in that the King of Salem blesses and breaks bread with the ancestor of David, king in Jerusalem, and confers a priestly blessing from one of the gods of the land on the ancestor, Abram, from whom the Levites descended and amongst whom the sacrificial system and tithing requirements evolved.
The story has a clear validating purpose for the patterns that are being (re)established amongst the returned exiles in Jerusalem. It explains why David set up his headquarters in Jerusalem, and established a priesthood there which would receive offerings from all the people under his control. That validated the claims of the priests as the administered and oversaw the sacrificial system of the Temple cult, for they were seen to be adhering to the pattern established long ago under David—and, indeed, demonstrated long before that, by Abram.
There is nothing else known about Melchizedek, either in the Hebrew Bible, or in other ancient texts. We have no genealogy of Melchizedek; he simply appears, blesses Abram, and disappears from the story. He serves his single purpose, and then is heard of no more.
Certainly, the unique role and distinctive character of Melchizedek—and perhaps his mysterious origins—have made him a character of fascination. And that has been intensified within Christianity, because of the way that the book of Hebrews equates Jesus with Melchizedek and puts them into parallel with each other.
Thus, Jesus is decreed to be son of God (Psalm 2:7, cited at Heb 5:5) and then “a priest forever” (Psalm 110:4, cited at Heb 5:6). Both psalms which are cited are royal psalms, considered to provide messianic indicators, and thus are picked up within New Testament writings to claim the significance of Jesus, son of God, priest of the new covenant.
These psalms feed into the line of interpretation which sees Jesus in exalted terms—in this book, at least—as the great high priest, the superior high priest, the perfect high priest, the one who is pioneer and perfecter of our faith. And that line runs on beyond the New Testament, into other sects and cults that accord prominence to Melchizedek.
Viewed in this light, some interpreters press the point, making the analogy claim that, “just as Abraham, the ancestor of the Levites, paid a tithe to Melchizedek and was therefore his inferior, so the Melchizedek-like priesthood of Christ is superior to that of the Levites. Furthermore, just as the Old Testament assigns no birth or death date to Melchizedek, so is the priesthood of Christ eternal.” See https://www.britannica.com/biography/Melchizedek
But for myself, that is pressing the point too far, and wringing every tiny drop of significance out of something that I see more as an exotic reference to an ancient tale—a story that is not historical, but was crafted for its own apologetic purposes amongst the returned exiles in Jerusalem. It’s a little bit of New Testament exotica. Thanks, Hebrews!!
See also ten facts about Melchizedek:
1. Only three books of the Bible mention Melchizedek
2. The New Testament says more about Melchizedek than the Old Testament
3. Melchizedek is a contemporary of Abraham’s
4. Melchizedek has no recorded family
5. Melchizedek was a priest of God Most High
6. Melchizedek gives blessings (or at least one)
7. Melchizedek is the king of Salem
8. Melchizedek’s name means “king of righteousness”
9. The order of Melchizedek is royal and everlasting
10. Melchizedek was greater than Abraham and Aaron
My ancestor James Jackson arrived in the colony of New South Wales on the ship Mariner 205 years ago today, on 11 October 1816. James was my great-great-great-great-grandfather on my father’s maternal line. He is the third reason that I was born in Sydney.
James Jackson first appears in the records in a list of men who appeared at the Chester Quarter Sessions on 17 October 1815. He is identified as a Labourer and Brick Moulder. He was aged 30. He was found guilty (the crime was not specified) and sentenced to transportation for 7 years.
The court record describes him as being 5 feet 1 1/2 inches, with a fair ruddy complexion, flaxen hair and grey eyes. James is recorded as being 30 years of age, meaning that he would have been born in 1785 in Cheshire. (This is corroborated by the record of a later marriage, noting that he was 46 when he marred Bridget Ormsby in 1832.)
James was one of many convicts transferred to the ship Mariner in May 1816, and the ship set sail for NSW in June 1816, under Captain John Herbert, with 146 male convicts on board. John Haslam was the Surgeon Superintendent; under his watch, all convicts arrived in a healthy state in NSW.
Those on board had experienced an eventful journey which included weathering “one of the most dreadful hurricanes remembered for the last 60 years” off Cape Logullos, in which she lost a topmast. (This was noted in the Sydney Gazette of 12 October 1816, reporting on the arrival of the ship at Sydney.)
Surgeon Haslam kept a very detailed account of the journey, which survives today in the State Library of Victoria. He described some of the events in September: “On the 3rd September when we were off the Cape of Good Hope, a heavy squall came on during the time I was officiating in the prison. There was a general apprehension that the vessel could not long withstand its fury.
“This appeared to me to be the favourable opportunity to impress the minds of the convicts with a due sense of their awful situation; and, as well as I was able from my own apprehensions I endeavoured to exhort them to a consideration of the necessity of employing the short time that probably remained in prayer and repentance – but in vain; the violence of the tempest had inspired them with additional excitement, and my admonitions were drowned in a roar of blasphemy.
“They recollected that it was the time of Bartholomew fair, and began a song commemorating the scenes of its licentiousness; and compared the rolling and pitching of the vessel to the swings which are employed during that festival.
“Notwithstanding the utmost vigilance was exerted to prevent their confederation for the purpose of seizing the ship, yet they made the attempt at a time when it was least expected. On the 8th September they contrived to open the prison door communicating with the forhold; this was speedily detected, but not until several articles had been stolen.
“On the 28th of the same month, during a tremendous storm at night, which excited the greatest alarm amongst those who navigated the ship; they found means during the general distress to cut a hole in the deck of the prison communicating with the hold, by which in a short time they might have rendered themselves masters of the arm chest, had they not been discovered. When I went into the prison accompanied by the master and a sufficient guard, they pretended the most perfect ignorance of the transaction, said they had been asleep and wondered how it could have been effected.”
James arrived in Sydney on the ship Mariner on 11 October 1816. The Mariner was one of nine convicts ships arriving in New South Wales in 1816, the others being the Fanny, Mary Anne, Ocean, Guildford, Atlas, Elizabeth, and Surry. Approximately 1,415 prisoners arrived in NSW in 1816.
James was to marry three times in the coming decades. A few years after arriving in the colony, he married his first wife, Elizabeth Crasby, on 5 June 1820.
Elizabeth had come to NSW on the Lord Wellington, which arrived in Port Jackson on 19 January 1820, with 120 female prisoners and 45 children. Further information about Elizabeth is lacking at the moment.
At the age of 46, James Jackson married Bridget Ormsby, aged 24, on 19 March 1832. The ceremony was one of three for convict couples conducted on the same day by Rev William Cowper in Sydney. The couples being married were all identified by the ship on which they had arrived (James Jackson, Mariner; Bridget Ormsby, Hooghley).
The couple had a son, James, born in 1832. This son, James Jnr, married Margaret Jane Crowley in 1856. Their daughter, Maria, born in 1862, married Joseph Pritchard in 1880. Two further sons were born: John in 1834, William in 1836. I am descended from this 1880 marriage, of Joseph and Maria Pritchard.
Two years after she gained her Certificate of Freedom in 1837, Bridget was cross-examined in relation to a crime. The interchange is recorded in the Sydney Monitor & Commercial Advertiser, on page 2 of the issue of Monday 26 August 1839.
Eliza was born Eliza Davis; she had married George Onslow in 1826, then George had died in 1841. James and Eliza had a daughter, Emma Jackson, born 2 June 1850. Eliza Jackson (née Davis) died on 13 September 1879. Emma Jackson died 30 Dec 1923 at Marrickville.
James Jackson died at the Liverpool Asylum on 30 May 1868. This death is registered at 4506/1868 and notes that the deceased was aged 77 years.
The second in a series of sermons on the book of Job, by the Rev. Elizabeth Raine; Tuggeranong Uniting Church, 10 October 2021
Last week, we left Job engaged in the task of theodicy, the theological examination of why a just and all-powerful God could allow suffering and evil to exist. Job had become convinced that God was not particularly reasonable and was personally responsible for the suffering of the world. Just to remind you, Job’s words about God were as follows:
To paraphrase the words of David Hume, Job seems to have accepted that God must be somehow malevolent (able, but not willing to prevent evil), as he doesn’t understand why suffering should exist if God is able and willing to prevent it.
When Job’s friends arrive to comfort him, this spirited debate continues as they all decide join in the exploration of theodicy and whether God is just, as well as defending Deuteronomy’s assertions that the wicked are punished and the righteous are rewarded.
The lectionary has made a big jump here from last week with 21 intervening chapters left out. These chapters have largely been poetic speeches by Job and his friends, where they assert Job must have some secret sins, and where Job responds by strenuously denying this. Job’s friends are convinced that God rewards the righteous and punishes the guilty, so they try to convince Job that he must repent of his secret sin. Job, however, refuses, as he believes that he is innocent, a fact we readers know is correct.
This lament of Job reveals his anger, loneliness and frustration. God has become very distant to him, and he cannot find God no matter where he looks.
His grievance at his suffering spurs him to call out to God to demand a day in court where he can put his case to God about the injustice of his treatment, and he is convinced that he will be vindicated. His well-intentioned friends have failed to satisfy him with their orthodox answers, indeed have failed to listen to him.
So even if he is being rebellious, Job decides that he needs to take a risk and deal with God directly, and he therefore becomes much more insistent and increasingly frustrated as God refuses to answer. Karl Jacobsen, in his article on Working Preacher, points out that “Job is clearly ready for his day in court. But therein lies the problem; Job can’t find his way to the courthouse…[and] God is nowhere to be found. God’s hand, it seems to Job, neither leads him nor holds him fast.”
Until God appears in the whirlwind, we have an impasse. Job has scorned the counsel of his three friends. He has decided that he they see blindly and listen deafly. They, on the other hand, cannot understand his stubbornness. They do not recognise that in his suffering, it is Job who actually approaches a closer understanding of God, as distasteful as that understanding might be. Though God might crush him, Job, almost defiantly, still declares his trust in God.
Throughout Job’s speech, there is a great sense of longing for God’s presence, for God’s attention and for God’s caring. This is surely a feeling that can resonate with us all and many of us may have experienced in tragic circumstances.
All of us have sought comfort in disturbing times through prayer, and even today, in the uncertain times of climate change, pandemics, warsand natural disasters, we continue to seek the presence of God in the midst of suffering and injustice. Suffering will always challenge a person’s sense of relationship with God, but it does not need to destroy that relationship. As Christians we believe that, in the midst of suffering God, does come to the afflicted and affirm the presence of grace.
Spill the Beans this week suggests that Job’s anger, like that of the author of Psalm 44 (“Wake up, Lord! Why are you asleep?”), raises important questions about what is and is not permissible to say to God in prayer. Are we honest with God? Do we allow ourselves to lament to God about the unfairness of the tragedies we encounter in life?
Surely it is important that such questions can be voiced before God. There is an honesty in Job’s story that challenges the superficial type of faith that crumbles when tragedy strikes, and there is a freedom here that gives us permission to say what we need to say to God even if we need, like Job, toapologise later. God can take it, and surely God’s grace and love will be there waiting for us.
Part of the power of the book of Job is the fact that it realistically addresses addresses the painful questions of life. Tragedy and suffering are never simple issues; they challenge faith and can create a sense of helplessness and hopelessness. Like Job, we often find that there is no shortage of opinions from others trying to explain the pain they are not suffering, and simplistic answers are offered in response to life’s most painful questions.
The strength of Job’s book is that it allows all sides of the issue – the simple answers of the friends and the emotional turmoil of Job – to be heard and heard again. So though it seems to go on and on, repeating the same arguments over and over again, and then failing to provide any answers, this is often the way the problem of suffering is experienced, especially when it comes to the enormous issues of world poverty and economic injustice.
We need to sit as long as we can with those who have suffered and are suffering from injustice and immense suffering. And perhaps, as we ponder our own tragedies, and the fate of the uncounted and unnamed men, women and children who have died in war or ethnic violence, or pray for the current victims of poverty, famine and disease in our world, we might find our thoughts connecting with experiences and the suffering of Job.
And while we cannot measure how God heals, or answers every sufferer’s prayer, or upholds us in the experience of pain, grief or fear, as Christians who understand the grace of God we can surely still believe that God is there waiting for us, even if God seems momentarily absent, in the midst of God’s suffering people.
So from the paradox of faith, we remember:
from silence, comes the song of praise;
from darkness, shines forth the light;
from mystery, comes the kingdom of God.
It is this that allows us to continue to praise God, and to continue to seek out hope in a broken world.
Every year in Australia, the month of October is designated as Mental Health Month. It encompasses World Mental Health Day, which is 10 October. This year, Mental Health Foundation Australia is running an Awareness Campaign with the very relevant theme of “Mental Health: Post Pandemic Recovery Challenges and Resilience”.
The focus for this month provides an opportunity to bring mental health out in the open, to improve understanding of mental health issues, and to remove the stigma associated with mental health. The aim is to showcase mental illness as a source of strength for people.
Each year 1 in 5 Australians experience a mental health issue. Approximately half of all individuals (45%) will experience issues with mental health in their lifetime. This could be anyone we know: a loved one, a family member, a friend, a colleague, a neighbour. It could well be ourselves.
People struggling with mental health issues often find themselves isolated, lonely and left to cope on their own. This month reminds us how important it is to reach out and support those in the community who suffer in silence. Simple things, like paying attention, listening carefully, and offering support, can mean much to someone having a mental health episode.
The best guidance for attending to someone struggling in this way is not to judge, not to dismiss their concerns as trivial, and not to try to cheer them up. Deep listening, quietly empathising, compassionate support, are the best things to offer such a person.
Curiously, recent data released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics indicates that suicide rates are the lowest they’ve been since 2016. This aligns with what is being observed in many countries around the world, reversing a climbing trend prior to COVID-19. It is thought that the pandemic has fostered a deeper sense of connectedness or shared societal worry about facing the pandemic together. Alongside that, the JobKeeper payment and other economic support measures provided by governments may well have had a protective effect.
A recent ABC report indicates that younger people have been disproportionately affected by many of the pandemic’s negative consequences, with declining mental health outcomes reported by an increasing number. They are more likely to be unemployed or in insecure work, given they account for a larger proportion of the casual or gig workforce. Younger people have also had to encounter mass upheavals to their education, social connection and future employment or study prospects. This trend was already evident before the pandemic. It has increased over the past 18 months.
The Black Dog Institute, in partnership with Mission Australia, reports that one in four young people reported experiencing psychological distress in 2020, with the prevalence of this twice as high for young women than young men.
We have known for a long time that more men take their life than women each year. However, the data indicates that women engage in self-harm at a higher rate and make more suicide attempts than men. While rates of suicide overall have declined in the 2020 data, sadly the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people dying by suicide has increased in the past year.
Within the Uniting Church, we have a long partnership with Lifeline, which provides Australians experiencing emotional distress with access to 24 hour crisis support and suicide prevention services. In fact, Lifeline started as a ministry outreach from the Methodist Church, a precursor to the Uniting Church; it began in Sydney as an initiative of the late Alan Walker, superintendent minister of the then Central Methodist Mission. Lifeline (13 11 14) is always just a phone call away. See https://www.lifeline.org.au/
On their website, Lifeline states that when you ring them, you will talk with a person who will: “Listen without judgment — Provide a safe space to discuss your needs, worries or concerns — and Work with you to explore options for support”. That’s a model that we each can seek to implement in our own interactions with people we know who may be experience a mental health episode.
Miriam Parker-Lacey, Minister in placement at St Columba’s Braddon and Canberra City, and UCA Chaplain at ANU, is a Mental Health Matters trainer, and she has provided this training to people within the Presbytery in recent times. Being aware of how we can help friends or family who are facing the challenge of mental health is an important skill for us to learn.
A guest blog by theRev. Dr Geoff Dornan, minister with the Wesley Forrest Uniting Church Congregation in Canberra, ACT.
COVID-19 has turned the world upside down. Its impact upon the way we reason ethically has been immeasurable. There were the portentous signs in the first wave of infection of 2019-2020, especially in Italy, as clinical practice was tested as never before. I recall the Italian peak body for anaesthetics and critical care issuing a divisive guideline about the allocation of intensive care resources, suggesting an upper age limit for ventilator eligibility, the implicit condoning of ventilator withdrawal if necessary, and a ‘pragmatic’ focus upon maximizing clinical outcomes.
It could be said that there was little new in this. After all, much of it had been anticipated in longstanding clinical policy about the allocation of scarce healthcare resources, in what was known as the “fair innings” argument. The point, however, was not the clinical theory per se, but rather the shock of having to actually put such theory into practice on a wide scale.
Another clinical issue, as the virus spread across the world, was the relationship between patients and healthcare providers. Hospitals cancelled elective surgery to save on PPE supplies, beds, and human resources. Access to ICU level care was restricted and strict infection prevention controls were also put into place. Many patients faced prolonged precautionary isolation without the reprieve of visits from friends or family.
As if these challenges to clinical ethical practice, were not enough, COVID has also tested public health policy. As governments implemented biosecurity powers to ensure compliance with business closures and social distancing measures, available technologies were deployed to ensure adherence to new laws and contact tracing of those who contracted COVID-19. The use of phone metadata to locate and track individuals, occurred even in liberal democracies, as the seriousness of the pandemic intensified.
Phone applications were also introduced by governments in several countries to communicate with surrounding phones through Bluetooth, so as to record those with whom a person had been in close contact. In some cases, GPS tracking was also utilized: something generally restricted to police functions.[i] The public health emergency powers enacted in liberal democracies during the COVID-19 crisis have permitted to some extent a power imbalance between governments and citizens. Moreover, and most importantly, the framing of public health as a security issue, continues to allow exceptional actions to be taken, beyond what would be normally politically acceptable.[ii]
The Church’s Conundrum: Inclusion and Safety
While COVID-19 has ‘set the cat among the pigeons’ in the ethics of clinical practice and public health policy, the impact continues, raising new issues and challenges for many institutions, not least the church. Most recently, as countries open-up, and governments set policies which distinguish between the vaccinated and unvaccinated, denominations have made their own responses. Roman Catholic and Anglican leaders of Sydney have been quite clear about their reservations in following public policy.
The Roman Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, Anthony Fisher OP, in his message of September 9th, declared, “I would insist that ‘Jesus is Lord of all, and his gospel is a gospel for all. A ‘No Entry’ sign at the door of the church is wholly inconsistent with the Gospel preached inside.’ Race, gender, ethnicity, age, education, wealth or health status (including vaccination) must not be points of division within the Christian community or barriers to communion with Christ Jesus.”
The motivation for this stance is the high view that Catholicism harbours of the Church and the centrality of the Mass as the fundamental liturgical expression of being church. Moreover, speaking broadly, as evidenced in recent statements of ‘push-back’ from the Polish Catholic Bishops’ Conference, the Catholic Church is wary of the extension of state powers as a weakening of democracy and a slide into authoritarianism. Something we have seen as not entirely without foundation.[iii]
There have also been evangelical responses, such as the “Ezekiel Declaration” recently published by three pastors from Queensland, directed to the Prime Minister Scott Morrison, which states concern for those suffering mental and emotional stress from lockdowns, and which appeals to Morrison to resist the policy of vaccination passports on the basis that such a practice “risks creating an unethical two-tiered society”.
In spirit and mood, the declaration reflects not a high view of the Church in the Catholic sense, but a libertarian ethos with a strong inclination toward a priority for individual freedoms. More disturbingly, the document raises questions of soundness as it slides into a barely concealed ‘anti-vaxxer ethos’, and mistakenly implies that vaccination will be made mandatory. The declaration appears to be primarily ideological. [iv]
For the Uniting Church in Australia, thinking our way through the current challenge of the conundrum of the ‘vaccinated-unvaccinated’ as we prepare to ‘open up’ is confronting. Rather than seeing the issue in the singular terms of inclusion, for us, there is also the issue of safety.
John Squires, in an article ‘On Vaccinations, Restrictions and Fundamentalism”[vi]https://johntsquires.com/2021/09/20/on-vaccinations-restrictions-and-fundamentalism/, notes that there is a strong defence of the priority of vaccination, and by extension mandatory vaccination, plus the need for that priority to be exercised in deciding who attends worship and who does not. Of course, within the opinion piece, the author accepts that there may be good reasons for people not being vaccinated, especially underlying health issues.
He also argues for the continuation of on-line worship to serve the unvaccinated from the safety of their homes, so that the principle of inclusion can still be maintained in unison with that of safety. He concludes, “So, at the moment, I will advocate for complete adherence to government restrictions. My faith calls me to work for the common good, to care for the vulnerable, to love my neighbours, both near and far. Minimising risk of transmission as we gather is our first duty. Ministry takes place in many ways other than sitting in an enclosed space for an hour once a week!”
Considering the Problem through the Lens of our Ethical Traditions
Given the various Christian responses, which range from a priority for unrestrained inclusion of all comers to a physical place of worship, to a priority for safety, limiting physical presence at worship to the vaccinated alone, at least until the danger of COVID subsides, I think we need some help. My suggestion is to appeal to and examine the three major ethical traditions which have shaped and continue to shape the way we moderns think about ethics. My question is simply this: what would each have to say to us about this problem?
There are three traditions that I shall briefly examine: the Ethics of Duty, the Ethics of Consequence, and the Ethics of Virtue.
Ethics of Duty
The ethics of duty are not concerned with the consequences or results of actions, but rather their inherent rightness. The point is do the right thing, do it because it is the right thing to do, irrespective of the results; after all results or consequences cannot be entirely foreseen or controlled. The father of the ethics of duty was Immanuel Kant, whose august figure you can see below.
Within the ethics of duty there are what are called categorical imperatives, one of which you would already know: “act so as to treat people never only as a means, but always as an end”. There is another categorical imperative which you may not know. In it, Kant points out that you should not do something if it cannot be done by everybody. Put another way, “you ought not act according to any principle that cannot be universalized”.
A simple example has to do with cheating. What a cheat wants is not that everyone else should do what they do, but that an exception should be made in their case.
Turning to the issue of the vaccinated and unvaccinated, of course people have a right to remain unvaccinated as a question of individual conscience, but it does not end there. The question must be, what if everyone were to do the same, to remain unvaccinated? Clearly the results would be catastrophic, with immeasurably more sickness, substantially more deaths, the collapse of medical systems and glaring economic damage. Moreover, communities and organizations have the duty to protect people from such a scenario. Short of mandating vaccination, the ethics of duty would tell us that it is both reasonable and necessary that a community differentiate between the vaccinated and those who choose in conscience to remain unvaccinated; and this for reasons of the community’s wellbeing and safety. That said, such measures should always be taken treating people, all people – to quote Kant – as ends not just means.
Ethics of Consequence
The ethics of consequence think about ethical issues, as the name suggests, from the perspective of what results from an action. Utilitarianism, a school established and shaped by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, the latter caricatured below, embrace this idea. Central to its understanding is that good ethical policy should seek to maximize the good or utility in a society.
Bentham and Mill explained that good as “happiness”. In other words, the broader and greater the happiness, the better. This ethics that focuses upon results, correlates closely to the way Christianity thinks about ethical issues: for example, the Golden Rule – “do to others what you want them to do to you” (Matt 7:12, Luke 6:31).
As an ethics for maximizing happiness, the ethics of consequence is particularly important for thought and decision making about public welfare and social reform: pensions, benefits, health, education; fundamental dimensions of what we refer to as the common good. This idea of maximizing happiness through welfare, was significant in the post-World War II reconstruction of many societies, including the establishment of the welfare state.
In broad terms, the ethics of consequence which focus upon the welfare of a community, would support the comprehensive vaccination of a society as a means of protection for its members. On the other hand, it does not do especially well when considering the rights of minorities, simply because they are minorities. Because it focuses upon the bigger picture of collective gain, particular heed needs to be paid to what it is prone to ignore: as J.S. Mill put it, “the rights of freedom of expression”.
This deficit serves as a warning in our current circumstances, to understand that ethical policy and practice – to be ethical – requires a committed balancing of majority rights with those of a dissenting minority. In this sense, any church practice that brusquely favours safety over inclusion, meaning the ‘exclusion’ of the unvaccinated, needs to be rebalanced.
Ethics of Virtue
Virtue ethics is quite different to the ethics of duty or consequence in that they focus upon the individual character with the question, “what and who ought I be?” Going back to even before Aristotle – the gentleman we see below – virtue ethics dominated ethical thought for centuries. Thomas Aquinas was particularly important in developing a Christian ethics of virtue, in the light of his theology built upon the shoulders of Aristotelian thought.
In recent times there has been a return to virtue ethics as a way of completing the more modern approaches of rules-based ethics of duty and situational ethics of consequence. In a sense virtue ethics offers depth in that ethics are understood as a way of life.
Virtue ethics address two very human issues: the first, the emotions and the second, wisdom. In developing the virtues, the emotions are trained to serve the virtues, not undermine them. Likewise, in developing the virtues, practical wisdom (phronēsis) is cultivated, meaning that it is not sufficient to only do what a just person does, but to do it in a way that a just person does it. In other words, the emphasis lies with the how as much as the what.
Moreover, the content of the virtues changes depending upon the purpose (telos) that a person lives for. For the Christian, the primary virtues have been considered to be charity, patience and humility as pathways to living out the kingdom of God. For Aquinas, charity reigned supreme: “Charity is the form of all virtues”.
Finally, conscience constitutes a significant aspect of virtue and the moral knowledge entailed in living virtuously. That said, the virtue tradition insists that conscience can never be lazy, for we are bound to subject our conscientiously held views to rigorous analysis.
As we consider the question of how to proceed with the challenge of giving expression to the values of inclusion and safety in our services and liturgies, the ethics of virtue would counsel us to do so aware of the priority of charity and the need for an informed conscience.
What is it that these ethical traditions offer to us as we find ourselves on the horns of a dilemma, caught between two noble and necessary practices: inclusivity and safety? All suggest, either explicitly or implicitly, that a good decision will likely need to include a balance of each.
Unconstrained inclusivity alone, will open congregations to the possibility of infection. Safety alone, will open congregations to excluding those for whom they love and care. After all what good is safety if it cuts us off from each other?
Additionally, for those who refuse vaccination in conscience, the challenge is to ensure that their conscience is well informed, not determined by ideological bias or irrational partisanship.
Of course, there are multiple ways to balance these requirements. Each congregation, presbytery and synod will need to do just that, accessing and utilizing the knowledge of their specific contexts and the technologies to which they have access, keeping in mind that how we do things is every bit as critical as what we do.
Rev. Dr. Geoff Dornan, October 3rd, 2021
Geoff Dornan is minister in the Wesley Forrest Congregation in Canberra, ACT. He holds a PhD in Philosophy, Theology & Ethics from Boston University, USA.
[i] In March 2020, the government of Singapore, launched a smartphone application to assist in monitoring COVID-19 by enabling public health authorities to investigate infections and limit further transmission. In May 2020 the Australian government announced it would implement similar technology.
[ii] Kamradt-Scott, A., & McInnes C. (2012), The Securitization of Pandemic Influenza: Framing Security and Public Policy. Global Public Health, 7, 95-110, 106.
[iii] Jonathon Luxmoore, “Polish Archbishop criticizes anti-church Covid measures”, The Tablet, August 11th, 2021.