Sacrament of Otherness

by the Rt Rev’d Dr Michael Ipgrave OBE, Bishop of Lichfield
co-chair of MTAG

 

 

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For most British Christians, the figure of Martin Luther is a somewhat distant one, his religious legacy relatively unknown. The English Reformation followed its own course, and theologically was more influenced by Calvin’s Geneva than by Luther’s Wittenberg, and the Lutheran churches in this country have historically been quite small. It was therefore with an enthusiasm to learn more that this summer I set out to lead a group of pilgrims, most of us Anglicans but also including three English Lutherans, on a ten-day journey this summer through Southern and Eastern Germany ‘In the footsteps of Martin Luther’. We were marking the 500th anniversary of his initiating the Reformation through posting 95 Theses on the church door at Wittenberg. As we visited sites associated with the great Reformer’s extraordinary life and ministry, in churches, castles, palaces and houses in many great cities, we were made aware of the continuing importance through five centuries of German history of his courageous witness – including the ‘Peaceful Revolution’ of 1989, when demonstrators on the streets of Leipzig made their own Luther’s defiant words at the Diet of Worms: ‘Hier stehe ich; ich kann nicht anders: Here I stand; I can do no other’.

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Photo by ptwo on Flickr

But it was also in Worms that we first encountered the deep historical traces of another German religious tradition, one which has repeatedly intersected with Lutheran Christianity in a variety of ways, some of them shockingly painful. On the edge of the historic city of Worms lies the Heiliger Sand, the oldest surviving Jewish cemetery in Europe. Its historic graves, particularly that of Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg, make it a place of pilgrimage for Jewish people from across the world. Our encounters with the memories of Judaism continued across Germany: in Erfurt, a mikveh, a ritual bath, covered by a concrete platform beside the river; in Regensburg, the traces of a historic synagogue marked out in the market place, with plans to build a new one; everywhere in the streets of towns and cities, inserted into the pavements stolpersteine, raised brass plates carrying the names and life dates of victims of the Nazi extermination .

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Photo: storebukkebruse on Flickr
Gravestones of Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg (left) and Alexander ben Salomo, Wimpfen 

While the Reformation 500 anniversary offers much to celebrate in the renewal of Christian life, it also reminds us of much to lament in the division of Western Christianity. However, the first and deepest split within the People of God was not the Reformation, nor even the division of Eastern and Western churches; it was the first-century parting of the ways between synagogue and church. Moreover, no account of the church’s story can be complete without reference to the Jewish presence throughout European – including German – history. So often that has been a presence to which Christians have reacted in a profoundly un-Christian way. Centuries before Luther, the Rhineland communities experienced terrifying violence and dislocation around the time of the Crusades; their powerful poetic laments form part of the liturgy in Ashkenazi synagogues. In the late Middle Ages, a theologically inspired teaching of contempt for Jews and Judaism found expression in the disgusting image of the Judensau, showing Jews being suckled by a sow. Our group saw a Judensau sculpture outside the town church in Wittenberg itself, to which Luther refers in one of his writings. In his early works, he had in fact been remarkably friendly towards the Jews of his time, but later he turned against them with violent diatribes and calls for their destruction. There can be no doubt that this injected a further stream of toxicity into Christian thinking about Jewish people, creating the atmosphere within which nineteenth- and twentieth-century antisemitism could grow, with disastrous consequences.

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Photo: dierk schaefer on Flickr

Following the Shoah, Lutheran and other German Christians, and wider society, have painfully and honestly sought to face up to this shameful history, and to reappraise their theology in light of that. Beneath the historic Judensau image in Wittenberg, a new monument has been added, a broken paving stone thrusting up from the earth as a protest, with text recalling the murder of six million Jews under the sign of the cross. We saw and heard too something of the growth of Jewish communities in contemporary Germany, particularly strengthened by the arrival of people from the former Soviet Union. German Christians of today are well aware of the shadow side of their history, and of the need to build a new relationship with Jewish people.

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Bodenplatte Stadtkirche Wittenberg

But this is not just a Lutheran or a German issue. Over the centuries, Christians in the West have lived with Jewish people among them, the most significant other in our midst; and our record of building bridges of friendship, trust and partnership with them has been at best scanty, at worst non-existent. Yet we cannot hope to understand who we really are as Christians without acknowledging our relationship to the people of Israel, the first to be called by God, and still bearing witness to his Name in a plural and secular world. At root, this is a spiritual challenge at the heart of our faith: as Cardinal Kasper has memorably remarked, we need to become ‘aware that the faith of Israel is that of our elder brothers. And, most importantly, that Judaism is a sacrament of every otherness that as such the Church must learn to discern, recognise and celebrate’.

text: bishop michael

picture illustrations: anne richards

 

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Perfect Death

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In Iain M Banks’ Look To Windward a man called Ilom Dolince dies the perfect death. Aged 450, he decides he has had enough of living, so he arranges for a copy of his mind to be deposited in an archive of human personalities ‘in case anyone wants to ask me anything’ and composes the last moments of his life. This includes travelling gently along on a ceremonial barge, entirely alert and without pain or suffering, surrounded by loving family and friends who are all drinking and talking and generally having fun. The last sight he wishes to see is the great city of Ossuliera which appears before him, round a bend in the river, shimmering, beautiful, full of bridges and arcades and fountains and rainbows. His life now complete, the Hub, the beneficent and god-like AI which looks after all the humans in the Culture, closes his eyes and displaces his dead body into the heart of the local sun. The party continues.

For many people this utopian vision of the perfect death is what they aspire to and Banks manages to capture the elements of the death narrative which many people in our society claim as a right. Those elements include long life, perfect health until the moment of death, choice and decision about the right time to die, the presence of family and friends, beauty and peace attendant upon the deathbed and an easy, mess-less despatch into eternity

Unfortunately, the facts of death are not like this, but this narrative of utopian death has a powerful hold upon us. In the Culture no one has to die at all if they don’t want to, although there are those who choose to risk death for the thrill of its possibility and those who choose death as a fashion choice.

A little while ago it was reported that a businessman, Jeffrey Spector, who had an inoperable tumour, went to the Dignitas clinic to end his life. His family said in a statement that he ended his life with ‘dignity and control’ and a friend said ‘it was no-one’s decision but his own’. This generated further discussion about pressures to change British Law to allow assisted suicide so that people would not have to travel to Switzerland. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-lancashire-32881161

So is this a matter of liberation or entrapment?

One of the recurring issues in this debate is a discourse around ‘dignity’, a word which occurs again and again in arguments about how we die. But what exactly is ‘dignity’? It’s become a very tricky concept which conjures up the world of Ilom Dolince in which the processes of death and dying are replaced by control and autonomy. ‘Dignity’ means not becoming dependent on others; not becoming incontinent or too weak to walk; not having to endure the fast or slow fading of bodily function or memory. In other words ‘dignity’ can become a metaphor for cheating death by choosing death: a constant theme of Look to Windward. Is such a possibility a mark of utopia, Banks asks.

Yet in our own society we fear this loss of ‘dignity’ in dying because we are not exposed to dying and how human beings die. Few people have any real idea of what happens to dying bodies and what those changes mean, so they have little basis on which to make decisions at all. Discourse around the value of the end of life is difficult because most people cannot imagine it and have not experienced it in the lives of loved ones. There are fewer lived experiences of good death to be reported, shared, valued and passed on. This is not helped by the habitual discourse of ‘fight’ and battle’ (‘he battled with cancer’) which is eventually lost. Jeffrey Spector’s illness was described as a ‘fight’ which he decided to end on his own terms. Faced with the prospect of a losing fight, a (heavenly?) vision of Swiss mountains and a clinical, mess-free despatch of the deceitful body may seem like a liberating decision.

But we can argue that this discourse around ‘dignity’ is a form of entrapment, because it divorces human beings from the reality of the end of life, which in the end may not be controlled by our decisions, no matter what we wish. Jeffrey Spector should not have faced the prospect of dying with the fear his family said he felt. Dying can and should have value, meaning and purpose, not only for the dying person but also for those who love and care for them. We should understand that ‘dignity’ carries its own myth and that the processes of bodily dying are real consequences of God’s created order that have their own place in the interdependence of human relations and caring for one another. The dying and death of a loved person at the heart of the family can cement relationships, allow emotional healing and give the bereaved gifts to help with their grief. This is absolutely not an argument for making people endure suffering and intractable pain, but an argument for good, sustainable care and best quality of life until its end. Liberation in this context means addressing fear, knowing what is going to happen, and being supported through it. Faith supplies hope for the dying person’s future beyond death. Yet few people seem today to be able to hold this possibility in their imagination; instead they are trapped by imagining a losing battle, characterised by loss, pain, incapacity, hopelessness. Kate Gross, author of the blog The Nuisance, noted that often in cancer blogs the things she most wanted to know about her forthcoming death were the things not written about, the things left unsaid.

The Christian narrative can challenge the myths around ‘dignity’ and help people think more about what a good death might be. We have a liberating mission obligation to say the things that are unsaid and tie them unequivocally to the hope that lies within us.