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Preparing to say goodbye

23 March 2015

In less than a month we will be saying goodbye to Father Athanasius Akunda, who will be returning to Kenya after Pascha to teach in the theological seminary in Nairobi. He has been in South Africa for 13 years, and will be sorely missed, and very difficult to replace.

We have been having a series of meetings with him so that others will know what he has been doing, in order to be able to continue his work, and one of the things we are planning is a farewell service and party and mission rally on Easter Saturday, 18 April, at the monastery at Gerardville, which we hope will be attended by people from all the parishes and congregations where Fr Athanasius has served.

Fr Athanasius Akunda, Deacon Stephen Hayes, Simon Shabangu, Fr Elias Palmos, 23 March 2015

Fr Athanasius Akunda, Deacon Stephen Hayes, Simon Shabangu, Fr Elias Palmos, 23 March 2015

Today four of us went to Soahanguve, where Fr Athanasius started his ministry in South Africa in 2002, to look at some land which Simon Shabangu has been trying to arrange for us to get to build a church, after years of worshipping in school classrooms and houses.

We looked at several pieces of land, but the most interesting was on a hilltop in Soshanguve south.

This one was high on a hill, with a ZCC Church over the road.

This one was high on a hill, with a ZCC Church over the road.

It has magnificent views on three sides, and room for a church and a community centre and other buildings.

Land3We took Simon home to his family, and Johanna Ramohlale was one of the youth members of our Mamelodi congregatio0n back in 2002, when Fr Athanasius first came, and was still at school. She recently qualified as a doctor.

Fr Athanasius Akunda, Johanna Ramohlale, Simon Shabangu, 23 March 2015

Fr Athanasius Akunda, Johanna Ramohlale, Simon Shabangu, 23 March 2015

Armed robbery at the monastery

8 March 2015

On the night of 6-7 March 2014 armed robbers broke into the premises of the Monastery of the Descent of the Holy Spirit in Gerardville, south-west of Pretoria, and shot Artemius Mangena, the caretaker. They robbed him of his clothes and cell phone, broke several windows, and took a few other things, and left.

After they shot him, Artemius stopped fighting the robbers, and lay on the floor bleeding, pretending to be dead. He was found the following morning by Victor, who was also staying there, and Victor ran to the neighbours for help, and they phoned the Neighbourhood Watch and the police. They learned that there had been several other robberies in the area that night, possibly by the same gang, and that in one of them someone had been shot and killed.

Artemius was taken to the Kalafong Hospital in Atteridgeville, and Fr Elias Palmos and I visited him this morning after the Divine Liturgy at the monastery church.

Fr Elias visiting Artmius Mangena in hospital after he was shot by robbers

Fr Elias visiting Artmius Mangena in hospital after he was shot by robbers

Artemius told us that there were about six robbers altogether, though he fought with only two of them who came into the room where he was sleeping and shot him, The others went around breaking windows. He said they were speaking Shona, which suggests that they were probably Zimbabweans. The broke one window in the church, but do not seem to have taken anything from it. The took food from the kitchen, however.

Artemius is being treated for bleeding in his lung, and is in considerable pain. He lost quite a lot of blood, and we are grateful that he is still alive and with us. He serves as a reader at the Atteridgeville mission congregation, when he is not looking after the monastery.

Buildings at the monastery at Gerardville that armed robbers broke into.

Buildings at the monastery at Gerardville that armed robbers broke into.

There is a lot of crime, and and so incidents like this are not all that unusual, and as I said, there were other robberies and a murder, probably by members of the same gang, on the same night. About a week earlier there was a hijacking of a bus at a spa not far away, and the passengers were robbed. This was not necessarily by the same gang, but it shows that there is a lot of crime in the area. There have been break-ins at the monastery before, but this is the first time anyone has been seriously hurt.

We have asked people to pray for Artemius, and for his recovery, and for safety of people staying at the monastery. There are no monks staying there now, though there have been in the past, and we hope there will be more in future.

Apart from its immediate effect, this incident also highlights some of the problems related to crime in South Africa, apart from the crime itself, which is a serious problem that needs to be tackled.

One problem is that the robbers were apparently Zimbabweans, which reinforces the perceptions of many South Africans that immigrants are responsible for the increase in crime. This is not peculiar to South Africa. Some years ago we stayed at a guest house in Mitikas, on the west coast of Greece, and the owner, locking the door for the night, brought his motorbike inside, “or else the Albanians will steal it”. We deplore the level of xenophobia in South Africa, and the violence that it sometimes leads to, but violent crime committed by foreigners also leads to an increase in xenophobia.

There is also something even more disturbing.

If Artemius had been white, he might have been added to the statistics collected by bodies like Genocide Watch, who publicise such incidents, but only when whites are the victims, to bolster their claims that there is genocide of white people in South Africa. Web pages like that one at Genocide Watch are clearly calculated to fan the flames of racism and racial hatred, and are used for that purpose.

So there is not only the harm caused by the crime itself, but also the racism and xenophobia that such crimes tend to stir up.


Not all atheists are militant atheists

7 March 2015

Militant evangelising atheists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris have been in the news a lot recently. They obviously care, and care very deeply, about the gods that they think people should not believe in. It is therefore good to be reminded that the vast majority of atheists couldn’t give a toss.

What scares the new atheists | John Gray | The Guardian:

Roughly speaking, an atheist is anyone who has no use for the concept of God – the idea of a divine mind, which has created humankind and embodies in a perfect form the values that human beings cherish and strive to realise. Many who are atheists in this sense (including myself) regard the evangelical atheism that has emerged over the past few decades with bemusement. Why make a fuss over an idea that has no sense for you? There are untold multitudes who have no interest in waging war on beliefs that mean nothing to them. Throughout history, many have been happy to live their lives without bothering about ultimate questions. This sort of atheism is one of the perennial responses to the experience of being human.

bolshevikThere have been militant atheists around for quite a long time, of course, and militant atheism has been quite popular, especially when that position has been regarded as politically correct, as it was in the USSR, where the League of Militant Atheists saw its membership grow into millions.

But it would be a mistake to see all atheists as a kind of organised irreligion.

Militant atheists, who are very vocal, might give the impression that there is such a thing a organised irreligion, but as the author of the (very good)  Guardian article points out, atheism is characterised by an absence of something. As someone pointed out, if atheism is a religion, then bald is a hair colour.

If you want a comparison, atheists are a bit like people who don’t like ballet, and can’t see the point of it. So most people who don’t like ballet won’t buy tickets to see the shows, they won’t talk about ballet, and will tend to regard ballet fans as eccentric at best and as rather tiresome bores at worst. The last thing that most of them would do would be to campaign for bans on advertising ballet shows and ballet classes, or write books and give lectures on the evils of ballet. In the same way, common or garden atheists, the non-militant ones, are quite happy to live and let live. The word atheist means someone who is without God or gods. It is an absence rather than an antipathy.

There is a tendency for extremists to get more publicity in the world today. Militant Islam gets a lot of publicity in the Western media, so people in the West tend to think that all Muslims are militant. They’ve even coined a new word for militant Muslims — Islamists. Perhaps the militant atheists should rather be called “antitheists” to avoid giving the common or garden atheists a bad name.


The new martyrs of Libya

24 February 2015

The first ikons of the 21 new martyrs of Libya have already begun to appear on social media sites on the internet. Here is one posted by Rijo Geevarghese on Facebook.

The 21 martyrs of Liby

The 21 martyrs of Libya

Rijo Geevarghese also notes

ISIS announced the execution of 21 Copts but only 20 names were confirmed, most of them were from the province of Minya (Upper Egypt). There was an inaccuracy in the number of Egyptian hostages; there were only 20 Egyptians (Copts). Then who was this remaining one non-Coptic victim?

Ahram-Canadian News was able to gather information about this man. He was a Chadian citizen (darker skin shown in picture) who accepted Christianity after seeing the immense faith of his fellow Coptic Christians to die for Christ. When the terrorist forced him to reject Jesus Christ as God, looking at his Christian friends he replied, “their God is my God” so the terrorist beheaded him also.

Such things are nothing new.

Some of the 21 new martyrs of Libya

Some of the 21 new martyrs of Libya

Many Christians have been killed for their faith in Egypt and Libya, from the beginning of the Christian faith in those parts until now.

Such things have also been happening in neighbouring countries for centuries. Westerners often forget that Christianity is a Middle Eastern religion, and speak of “Christendom” as if Christians were powerful. But Christians have long been an oppressed minority in the lands where Christianity first spread, mand many have been called on to die for Christ.

Perhaps a fitting memorial for the new martyrs is an anthem composed for the martyrs of many centuries ago:

Let thy servants praise thee, O Lord.

O holy martyrs and teachers of faith, pray that there may be peace in creation.
Let wars be brought to naught and contentions cease among us.
And may the church sing praises by the mouth of her children.

And thy saints give thanks unto thee.

May the holy martyrs who confessed thee in their afflictions
and propitiated thee by the blood which their necks poured forth
make request for sinners to thee, O our Lord
that in the day of judgement thou mayest forgive their trespasses.

Let them speak of the glory of thy kingsom.

The martyrs saw the glory of the kingdom in their minds
when they were being killed by their persecutors
and they joyfully endured the tortures in their bodies
and our Lord Jesus Christ received their spirits.

Honoured is their blood in his sight.

Let us diligently honour with songs of the Holy Spirit
the bones of the martyrs who endured afflictions
that we may find help in the day of recompense of their labours
from the goodness of the mercies of God.

The Lord on high is glorious.

On high are your crowns and in the world are your assemblies
O martyrs, preachers of Christ the King.
On high, and to the deep, lo your feasts are celebraterd.
O sowers of peace in the four quarters of the earth.

Seek the Lord and be strengthened.

O martyrs, seek for mercy from the merciful God
that he may make his peace to dwell in the four quarters of the earth.
And when our Lord is revealed and the clouds bear up your bodies
pray that with you we may inherit the kingdom.

My voice shalt thou hear in the mornings, O Lord

In the morning the martyrs cried in the judgment hall before the persecutors
We will not deny the Heavenly Bridegrooom
For it is he who delivereth us from the hands of the ungodly
and clotheth our bodies with glory in his kingdom.

(from East Syrian Daily Offices: Wednesday Matins)

The Expulsion of Eve and Adam from Paradise

22 February 2015

Originally posted on Fr. Ted's Blog:

The Sunday before we enter into Great Lent has the theme of the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise.   Early church writers imagined that Paradise was a temple which God had built so that we could worship Him.  God’s expelling Eve and Adam from the Edenic temple was not done for punishment but rather to make us long for God and our lost relationship with Him.  On earth, we experience the absence of God and so seek for Him.  Liturgy and the church sanctuary are where we look to find God.

So repentance and the prayer life are natural ways which God provided for us on earth to seek Him and to work to re-establish the proper relationship with Him.   Priest and Professor Baby Varghese writes about the wisdom of St. Ephrem the Syrian regarding the Fall:

“When Adam and Eve trusted the word of Satan instead…

View original 284 more words

Un-kudos to the City of Tshwane

18 February 2015

Advice to the city fathers (and mothers) of the Great City of Tshwane: when you send out notices to people saying that their light and water accounts must be paid by a certain date, then cut off their electricity three days after the due date, not three days before. This is not rocket science, it is common sense.

A few months ago we said kudos to the City of  Tshwane because of the good things they were doing, saving jacaranda trees and helping residents whose houses had been damaged in hail storms. Now we would like to withdraw some of that kudos.

I’m not sure whether kudos can be quantified like that. Strictly speaking you either have it or you don’t. But this week the City of Tshwane switched off our electricity for several days.

It was another of the good ideas that they had, but this time it went wrong.

Towards the end of last year there was a post office strike, which meant that, among other things, municipal light and water accounts were not delivered. At the end of each month we paid about R1400, which was about the average of earlier accounts that we had received,

The municipality had a good idea: they sent Val and SMS on her cell phone to say that the account needed to be paid by the 19th of February. That bypassed the post office strike. Good thinking.

So on Monday 16th we paid the account, three days before the due date. And on that very day they cut off the electricity for non-payment, three days before the date they had given as the due date. Good thinking, bad implementation.

And though they jumped the gun in cutting off the electricity, they were very slow off the mark in restoring it.

We phoned them, and they said they wanted proof that the account had been paid. Val drove to the nearest Internet cafe, scanned the autoteller receipt and sent it to the e-mail address they gave. Several hours later there was still no electricity. She phoned again. Different bloke answers, Says they haven’t received it, send a photo of the autoteller slip from your cell phone, to a different address this time. Val did so, though the battery on her cell phone was dying. But it seems that the City of Tshwane’s e-mail system doesn’t like attached photos and bounces it back.

Val cooking macaroni & cheese for supper

Val cooking macaroni & cheese for supper

Next morning Val goes back to the Internet cafe, sends copies to both blokes, this time with photos of the slips in zipped files. Also sends it by fax, and goes into the “Customer Care” web site and explains what has happened, and tries to fax it to them as well. The fax number given on the web site is apparently not working. The kudos drops still further.

She gets home and phones them from the landline, and they say that yes, they see that payment has been received, and a technician has been informed to turn the electricity on again. There will be a reconnection fee of R655.00.

Well, I’m typing this the following morning, 18th February. According to the notification sent by the municipality, the account is due to be paid tomorrow. It was paid two days ago, and we still have non electricity. My laptop battery has 24% remaining.

We read in the newspapers that other municipalities, like Johannesburg have problems with the municipal billing system, and that people have been complaining. Up till now we have had no complaints about the City of Tshwane. Yes, we haven’t received accounts for several months, or received them late, but you can’t blame the municipality for a postal strike.

We also read that municipalities and Eskom are owed millions in unpaid electricity accounts.

In the case of the City of Tshwane, at least, I don’t believe it. They are cutting off the electricity before the accounts are due, and must be making a fortune in reconnection fees. They can’t be owed any money, if that is what they are doing to all their customers. Scratch the kudos;. Boo. Hiss.

The new crusaders of the West

10 February 2015

In the last few days lots of people seem to have been posting links to articles about the Crusades on Facebook. The first one I saw was The Real History of the Crusades | Christianity Today:

within days of the September 11 attacks, the Middle Ages suddenly became relevant.

As a Crusade historian, I found the tranquil solitude of the ivory tower shattered by journalists, editors, and talk-show hosts on tight deadlines eager to get the real scoop. What were the Crusades?, they asked. When were they? Just how insensitive was President George W. Bush for using the word crusade in his remarks?

That was actually quite an old article, published in 2005, and referred to US President George Bush calling his “war on terror” a “crusade”.

Then came a link to this book review Inventing the Crusades by Thomas F. Madden | Articles | First Things:

It is generally thought that Christians attacked Muslims without provocation to seize their lands and forcibly convert them. The Crusaders were Europe’s lacklands and ne’er-do-wells, who marched against the infidels out of blind zealotry and a desire for booty and land. As such, the Crusades betrayed Christianity itself. They transformed “turn the other cheek” into “kill them all; God will know his own.”

Every word of this is wrong. Historians of the Crusades have long known that it is wrong, but they find it extraordinarily difficult to be heard across a chasm of entrenched preconceptions.

I’m not sure about “every word” being wrong, but certainly the first four words are: “It is generally thought…”

With even a rusty undergraduate knowledge of the crusades, that looks like a straw man to me. “Generally thought” by whom?

crusaders2Everything I learned about the crusades, from primary school to university, made it clear that there was Muslim provocation that sparked off the crusades.

Such statements look more like polemics than history.

The book being reviewed there was The Crusades, Christianity, and Islam by Jonathan Riley-Smith. I haven’t read it, so I can’t say whether the author takes the same line as the reviewer; my comments here pertain to the review, rather than to the book itself.

One of the things one learns about historiography is that most historians, even the most academically respectable ones, carry “the burden of the present”, that is, the need to interpret the past in such a way as to justify or advocate4 some present course of action. It is only to be expected that we interpret the past in the light of the present — after all, we3 know what happened next, which people at the time did not. Few people read stories about the past that have no bearing on the present.[1]

But when the article goes on to say,

One of the most profound misconceptions about the Crusades is that they represented a perversion of a religion whose founder preached meekness, love of enemies, and nonresistance. Riley-Smith reminds his reader that on the matter of violence Christ was not as clear as pacifists like to think. He praised the faith of the Roman centurion but did not condemn his profession. At the Last Supper he told his disciples, “Let him who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one. For I tell you that this Scripture must be fulfilled in me, And he was reckoned with transgressors.”

St. Paul said of secular authorities, “He does not bear the sword in vain; he is the servant of God to execute his wrath on the wrongdoer.” Several centuries later, St. Augustine articulated a Christian approach to just war, one in which legitimate authorities could use violence to halt or avert a greater evil. It must be a defensive war, in reaction to an act of aggression. For Christians, therefore, violence was ethically neutral, since it could be employed either for evil or against it. As Riley-Smith notes, the concept that violence is intrinsically evil belongs solely to the modern world. It is not Christian.”

… then what we are seeing is not a historian’s study of past events, but a theological framework, and the theological filters through which those events are seen by someone writing in the present in order to justify a present agenda.

It seems to me that the “burden of the present” carried by this article, and other similar ones being circulated on the Internet, is the need to justify the increasing belligerence and warmongering by the West that we have seen in the last 25 years.

crusader_1600Western imperialism has been around a lot longer than the last 25 years, of course, but it “went underground” to some extent during the Cold War. There was no Nato bombing of Allende’s Chile, for example. One could say that naked imperialism became less fashionable after 1914, when many colonised countries struggled for independence, and the rise of Nazism and Fascism (and to some extent Bolshevism) made the ugly face of imperialism plain for all to see.

That lasted until 1989, the annus mirabilis, when there was a brief flowering of freedom around the world, symbolised by the fall of the Berlin Wall. It lasted about 6-8 months, until it was overtaken by the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the Wars of the Yugoslav Succession. And since then Western imperialism has been growing again, and growing more visibly, so now there is a need to justify it, inter alia by rewriting the history of the crusades.

The review seems to be aimed at discrediting Christian pacifism and promoting Christian militarism.

I can’t argue about what happened during the crusades with specialist scholars like Jonathan Riley-Smith, whose bibliography on the subject is pretty impressive. What I do take issue with is some of the assertions about what is “generally thought”. This is akin to the clickbait you see on Facebook “Eight things you didn’t know about….” and when you click on the link you find that you did know all eight and a few more besides.

I learnt about the crusades in history in primary school, and I was called upon to write undergraduate (and a couple of postgraduate) essays on the crusades about every year from 1961 to 1968, and often answer exam questions about them too. That obviously can’t compare with the erudition of specialist scholars, but one thing I clearly recall from all those efforts is that the first crusade was  sparked off because the Muslim rulers of Jerusalem had barred access to Western pilgrims, and that at a time when pilgrimage was a Very Big Thing among Western Christians. That was clearly provocation, and the idea that the crusades were “unprovoked” was the last one that anyone could get.

And that is why I think the “generally thought” bit is a straw man.

If you want to go into more detail, it was the Seljuk Turks who conquered the Fatimid (Muslim) and Roman (Byzantine) rulers of Anatolia, Syria, and Palestine, and massacred Christian pilgrims after they had taken over. The change of policy towards Christian pilgrims was occasioned by a change of rulers. It wasn’t so much that they were Muslims as that they were Turks. The Fatimids had generally had a policy of religious tolerance towards Christians, Jews, and other Muslim sects; the Seljuk Turks did not. So it wasn’t so much Muslim provocation as Turkish provocation that led to the first crusade. But it was provocation, as even history books written for 10-year-olds made clear

The Crusades also made a big impact on Western culture, in a way that I did not fully appreciate when I was in primary school, and only discovered much later. For example, as a child I read stories about King Arthur, and all the illustrations showed them dressed like crusaders. Of course the Arthurian stories were gathered, edited and published at the time the crusades were at their height, and so they too carry the “burden of the present”.

The impact of the crusades in Eastern Christian culture has been somewhat different. The Roman Empire, under attack from the Seljuks, asked for help from Western Christian rulers, but the so-called “filioque” split of 1054 was still a living memory at the time of the First Crusade, and the crusaders appointed their own Latin bishops to the lands they conquered, and regarded and treated the native Christians as heretics.

So Orthodox Christians might well look askance at this new enthusiasm for the crusades in the West.

[1] see Wright, Harrison M. 1977. The burden of the present: liberal-radical controversy over southern African history. Cape Town: D. Philip.
Dewey: 968.0072 WRIG
An examination of historical revisionism in Southern Africa.


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