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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…

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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.

Andre Brink: A dry white season

7 February 2015

A Dry White SeasonA Dry White Season by André Brink

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I read this book 34 years ago, but with the death of Andre Brink it’s perhaps time to write a review of it. I will, however, have to write it from memory, because I lent my copy of the book to someone soon after I’d read it and never got it back.

The great merit of this book is that it tells it like it was.

It is an absolutely true-to-life story set in South Africa of the late 1970s. It is told from the point of view of an Afrikaner school teacher who gradually discovers what lies just under the surface, of society, which at first he can’t believe. He thinks there must be some mistake, this sort of thing can’t happen. But as he gets drawn in he discovers that such things not only can happen, but they do. And eventually they not only hasppen to other people, they happen to him.

In a way it is a South African version of Franz Kafka‘s The trial, though without the surreal element. Brink writes soberly, without exaggeration, without hype, but it is absolutely authentic. This is how it was. The incidents it describes are not factual, but they are utterly truthful.

A film was made of it, but because it was filmed in the time of apartheid, it is as inauthentic as the book is authentic, because it was filmed in Zimbabwe.

I think that is one film that really does deserve a remake, in a South African setting, with South African actors. Some remakes I’ve seen, like The taking of Pelham 1 2 3, or The flight of the Phoenix were unnecessary, and no better and in some ways worse than the originals. But this one cries out for a remake.

One of the problems with the film of A dry white season is that it was set in an English-style private prep school, where the kids wore English school caps, and the setting was horribly unlike an Afrikaans high school, and so missed the point. When I read the book I pictured the kids in the brown and gold blazers of Helpmekaar Hoerskool. I’m not sure what Andre Brink pictured when he was writing it, but Helpmekaar would have been an authentic seeting.

It will perhaps be more difficult to find an authentic black township nowadays, as many of the locations are very different from what they were like in the 1970s, so it needs someone to do it soon.

View all my reviews

Farewell to Father Athanasius

3 February 2015

Fr Athanasius Akunda, who has served in South Africa for nearly 13 years, will be leaving us after Pascha to serve at the Patriarchal Seminary “Makarios III” in Nairobi, Kenya. We will be sad to see him go, but wish him well in his new work.

Deacon Stephen Hayes, Fr Athanasius Akunda, Fr Evangelos Thiane

Deacon Stephen Hayes, Fr Athanasius Akunda, Fr Evangelos Thiane

The Dean of the seminary, Fr Evangelos Thiane, came to spend about a week in South Africa to meet Fr Athanasius. Fr Evangelos preached at St Nicholas, Brixton last Sunday. This was very good, for a number of reasons. Fr Evangelos was able to see the work that Fr Athanasius has been doing, which means that Fr Athanasius will be working with someone who knows where he is coming from, and what he has left behind. And people at St Nicholas, where Fr Athanasius has served since 2008, were able to see who Fr Athanasius will be working with in the coming years.

Fr Athanasius was born in Bunyore, in eastern Kenya near the Uganda border, and attended the seminary in Nairobi, where he was ordained deacon by Archbishop Seraphim, then Archbishop of Kenya. Fr Athanasius then went to study at Holy Cross Seminary in Brookline, Massachusetts, USA.

Fr Evangelos Thiane preaching at St Nicholas of Japan Orthodox Church in Brixton, Johannesburg, 1 Feb 2015

Fr Evangelos Thiane preaching at St Nicholas of Japan Orthodox Church in Brixton, Johannesburg, 1 Feb 2015

Archbishop Seraphim had in the mean time been appointed as Archbishop of Johannesburg and Pretoria, where a group of leaders of the African Orthodox Episcopal Church, led by Archbishop August Thamaga, had asked to be received into the Orthodox Church. They had originally asked to be taught Orthodox theology, of which they knew little, but the problem was that there was no one in the diocese who could teach them. Most of the priests spoke very little English, and in any case were busy with their parish duties. So Archbishop Seraphim asked Deacon Athanasius to come to the Archdiocese as a missionary teacher. Deacon Athanasius was multilingual, speaking Lunyore (his mother tongue), Swahili (the lingua franca of East Africa), English and Greek.

Johannes Baloyi, Archimandrite Athanasius Akunds, Protopresbyter Evangelos Thiane

Johannes Baloyi, Archimandrite Athanasius Akunds, Protopresbyter Evangelos Thiane

It also seemed appropriate, because the African Orthodox Church (AOC) in both South Africa and Kenya had been started by Bishop Daniel William Alexander of Kimberley. The Kenyan branch had become part of the Patriarchate of Alexandria in 1946, but the South African branch had split into at least six different deniominations, of which the African Orthodox Episcopal Church (AOEC) was one.

Axios! Ordination of Fr Athanasius to the priesthood at Pantanassa Church, Melrose, Johannesburg, by Archbishop Seraphim of Johannesburg and Pretoria. 14 July 2002

Axios! Ordination of Fr Athanasius to the priesthood at Pantanassa Church, Melrose, Johannesburg, by Archbishop Seraphim of Johannesburg and Pretoria. 14 July 2002

Deacon Athanasius arrived in South Africa on Ascension Day 2002, and found lodgings in Soshanguve, 30 km north-west of Pretoria, and began teaching the the local congregation there and other leaders. Within a few months he was ordained priest by Archbishop Seraphim and many people in Soshanguve were baptised. In May 2003 Fr Athanasius and I held a week-long course for leaders, mainly of the AOEC, but also from some of the established parishes in Johannesburg. This was very useful, but unfortunately was never followed up.

In May 2003 a Catechetical School was started, originally in Sophiatown, but it later moved to Yeoville, and Fr Athanasius was put in charge of it. It was a full-time residential course, and so Fr Athanasius was unable to continue his teaching ministry in Soshanguve. In Yeoville, however, the Catechetical School chapel also became the centre for a local congregation that gathered at the school, and Fr Athanasius led the students in outreach to the local community.

It was perhaps the wrong time for such a project, as none of the students at the school continued in active full-time ministry in the church, but it was a good witness in the local community in a time of xenophobia. Yeoville was a multicultural community and the Catechetical School was a microcosm, with students not only from South Africa, but from various other countries, including Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Eventually the school closed, as Fr Athanasius was the only full-time teacher, and all the others were part-time.

Teachers and students at the Catechetical School in Yeoville

Teachers and students at the Catechetical School in Yeoville

Fr Athanasius also registered to study for a doctorate in theology in missiology at the University of South Africa (Unisa), with a thesis on Orthodox dialogue with Bunyore Culture, on the inculturation of Orthodox Christianity in western Kenya. I was his co-promoter, and so he was my teacher, my student, my colleague and my friend. He graduated with a DTh degree in October 2010.

Fr Athanasius at his graduation at Unisa, 4 October 2010

Fr Athanasius at his graduation at Unisa, 4 October 2010

In 2008 Fr Mihai Corpodean, who had been the parish priest at St Nicholas of Japan Orthodox Church in Brixton, left South Africa for New Zealand, and Father Athanasius became the parish priest there. St Nicholas was founded as a mission parish, and Father Athanasius encouraged the parish in its missionary outreach in the neighbourhood, with youth activities and social service to the poor.

When the African Orthodox Episcopal Church was asked to be received into the Patriarchate of Alexandria in 1997 its Archbishop, August Thamaga, became a layman, and was baptised as Simon Thamaga, and he and his assistant, Johannes Rakumako, were later ordained as priests in the Orthodox Church when Fr Athanasius left Soshanguve to take charge of the Catechetical School.

Fr Simon Thamaga died in September 2004, and Fr Johannes Rakumako died in April 2011, and so Fr Athanasius resumed his ministry in Soshanguve, going usually on one Sunday each month to serve the Divine Liturgy there, and to teach the leaders in the congregation. His leaving will leave a grave gap there.

aakundaOn the positive side, Fr Athanasius’s rich and varied pastoral experience during his time in South Africa will surely be an asset as he teaches at the seminary in Nairobi, preparing students from various parts of Africa for ministry.

So we also pray for someone to replace him here, and with all that he was doing, it will probably need three people to replace him — a parish priest for St Nicholas in Brixton, a mission coordinator for the Archdiocese, and a travelling teacher and preacher, visiting places like Soshanguve, Bloemfontein and Maputo in Mocambique.

For more on different aspects of Fr Athanasius’s ministry in South Africa, see:

Berlin: whodunit with a difference

28 January 2015

BerlinBerlin by Pierre Frei

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a whodunit with a difference. Well, with several differences. It’s about a serial killer, and quite a lot of crime novels are about that.

The most notable difference is that it pays as much attention to the victims as it does to the killers or the cops.

In many crime novels the victims are simply dead bodies, and the police investigating the crime have to identify them to find out who they were, and very often the reader knows little more about them than the police. In this case, however the story deals with them as real people with a history. One effect of this is to make one conscious of the enormity of murder. It is not simply a puzzle to be solved. It brings to an end, unexpectredly and with little warning, the life of a person with hopes and fears and loves and relationships.

Another difference is that it is set in Berlin in 1945, immediately after the end of the Second World War. After so much killing on an industrial scale, it requires a change of mental gears to deal with peacetime crimes. When so many people have died violent deaths in the previous few months, what do one or two more matter? So it is about a society in transition, and seeking to recover mormality.

Another difference, related to the last, is that it gives a picture of life in Berlin, not merely at the time in question, but over the previous 20 years. It shows how ordinary people responded to the rise of the Nazis to power, their behaviour in power, and how they responded to the war. I think that, quite apart from the plot and the characters, which are very good, this aspect of the setting may be the best feature of the book.

How do I know this?

I was 4 years old in 1945, and did not visit Germany until 20 years later. So how can I judge that the picture of life in Nazi Germany is accurate and authentic?

I think I can know by extension. I know that A Dry White Season tells it like it was in apartheid South Africa, even though it is a work of fiction, because I lived through the period. And this book has the same flavour of authenticity. It shows the ambiguities and inconsistencies and contradictions of living in an increasingly authoritarian society, and is worth reading for that alone.

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