Sunday, 7 February 2016

Genocide in the UK

I understand that Denmark expects to have eradicated Down Syndrome from births within its borders by 2030. Iceland is in a similar situation. This is through a programme of screening followed by abortion. As the non-invasive screening procedures become more and more efficient, this situation is likely to become the norm in other western countries too. 

It makes sense. Economically, the screening process pays for itself - each birth of a human being with Down Syndrome (or other detectable congenital problem) that is avoided makes a saving which more than pays for the screening of thousands of mothers and for the resultant terminations. Parents want babies who will be whole and healthy, able at school, able to do well in their careers, fit to take pride in, and perhaps to carry the family forward and be a support in old age. Governments want the same; not only are babies with chromosomal abnormalities a burden on health services at the beginning of their lives (and often throughout), but very few of them will ever be significant tax payers, let alone higher rate. In the world of the market, there is no case to answer: all sides benefit from being able to choose not to have abnormal babies. 

My own two children are perfect. They are immensely beautiful, stunningly intelligent, socially charming, brilliant in conversation. My daughter, after successfully working in publishing, has brought three equally amazing future tax payers into the world. My son is not yet a dad; he is a high earner, with a new job which gives him a role on an international stage when it comes to combatting some of the greatest evils facing the world today. I am proud of my two, and, to be honest, thankful that they are the way they are. Furthermore, and being brutally frank, I am not sure how I would have coped with them having major developmental issues, and I am grateful not to have faced that challenge. 

And yet... I have friends. I have friends who have children with various kinds of chromosomal and other congenital abnormalities. All through my life I have known such families. I think we probably all do - these things are common enough for us all to be aware of the issue. Some of the parents I have known have been exceptionally able, leading figures. Others would have regarded themselves as very ordinary people. All, without exception, have shown fierce love and protectiveness to all their children. And I have seen special joy and satisfaction and a tender radiance of love in the relationship with children where there is a genetic problem. This is especially in the case of Down Syndrome, but in others too. 

I was prompted to write because of two families. Both I know slightly rather than deeply. The daughter of one family has Down Syndrome, and I know they have passed through many periods of extreme health worries with her. She has recently left the family home and is living in her own place, though she does have her parents and others round to dinner sometimes. Her part-time hair salon job and her independence give incredible satisfaction to her mum and dad, which I suspect my own son will only deliver if he really does become prime minister. ;-)

The other family are Facebook friends through my work as a wedding photographer. I see their pictures of their own little girl frequently. She has very serious health problems - a different chromosomal issue than Down Syndrome, leading to significantly graver issues. She can't see, and I don't know what reactions she shows or will ever show to those around her. She is growing very, very slowly, and I understand that survival prospects beyond a year are not good. I guess she costs a lot in terms of NHS care. 

What is displayed before me every week in the pictures of that little girl is such love and tenderness, such concern and protection, such honouring of her status as one of the frailest human beings who has ever come into the light on our planet, that I cannot look without tears and thankfulness and prayers for the family. I am quite sure they have pain and heartache, and yet what I see most through them is love and joy. They challenge me daily and the contact with them makes a significant difference to the way I see life and people. 

Neither of these children - the baby and the young adult - would be here today if their parents had been screened effectively and had aborted them. Both have cost the tax payer a lot of money. Efficiency has not been well-served. And don't we want everything to be perfect? Why let the imperfect in? 

In a conversation about safety in the workplace this week, I heard of a man whose face was badly damaged in an industrial accident when a crane shackle snapped and the cable whipped him. His wife left him. Of course she did - for in our society of apparently attainable perfection, who needs to love that which is not perfect? 

Of course, this world is not perfect. My own children are not actually perfect, strange to say. Oh, they are healthy and bright and look alright, but those actually aren't the biggest things, are they? My relationship with them has gone through some depths of howling misery when in one way or another we have disappointed or hurt each other - especially my own behaviour which has caused appalling pain. Our love for each other has been challenged by each serious imperfection - and burns brighter as a result. For love isn't about perfection or achievement at all, is it? I don't actually love them because they are cute and smart - nor they, me, praise God! I am glad when they do well or have influence, but my joy in them is about just being together, talking, a hug, enjoying a gig or a car journey, not about being winners and prime ministers. Nothing they do can top them just being them. 

When the prenatal screening process is truly perfect, when the genocide really is 100%, when we never have to look again on a child with a chromosomal abnormality or congenital defect, who then will show us the extraordinarily beautiful love and tenderness of my friends to their little scrap of a daughter? Who then will model parental love to the imperfect, damaged, not-as-he-"ought"-to-be child? Who will move me to tears by seeing beauty and dignity where others see only damage and a drain on resources? Whose births will serve as perpetual reminders to our society that, for all our technology and medical brilliance, this world is not perfect, and that there are bigger issues than beauty and wealth creation, and that God sends some people into this world simply to be loved, not killed in the womb, and THAT is their contribution?

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The pictures above are not related directly to any of the families whose stories I touch on.  However, while looking for a few images marked as "labelled for reuse" I came across the above image of a mother and her baby. The family's story is here, and says more beautifully than I can what I have tried to say in this blog.

Amongst the "exceptionally able, leading figures" amongst parents I had in mind above is David Potter, who I have known for 40 years. He writes about his daughter Rachel here, and you can hear him speak a little about Prospects, the organisation he founded, here.

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Wrestling Jacob

The story of “Wrestling Jacob” in Gen 32 is a staple of evangelical piety. Interpreted as being about prayer, and tied in with the account of the “importunate widow”, it has been the basis for much teaching about perseverance in intercession, and the need to wrestle with God until he blesses us. 

I don’t want to question all aspects of that kind of teaching, although I have some doubts about elements of it. But I am sure that it is not really the subject of this passage. The problem is that when we attach a bit of popular piety to a passage, we end up not hearing what the text is really saying, and fail to take the shock or strangeness of the passage seriously. We read it through the spectacles of popular piety, rather than wrestling (pun intended) with the text. 

Interaction with non-evangelical readings can be helpful here, as they often hit us harder with the force of the text than do smoothed-out Sunday School bowdlerisms. As an example, although I really dislike Rachel Held Evans’ conclusions regarding the “Sacrifice of Isaac” in Gen 22, I seriously love the way she wakes people up to the stark horror of what is going on. We daren’t lose the shock of the text!

Gen 22 is shocking, and so is 32. What we have here is not a friendly bout of tag, a tussle between macho chums, even a moment of Old Testament horseplay. It is an alarming, even terrifying attack on a man who is already at the end of his resources, alone and afraid. It is the stuff of horror movies, and we domesticate it at our peril. How is it possible to avoid that domestication, to avoid contorting and squeezing the text, and at the same time treat this passage, as with all the Old Testament, as a book about Jesus, as he himself saw it (Luke 24)? 

When looking at narrative, it is good to be alert to any markers in the text itself as to what the writer thinks is significant. Not every biblical narrator does this, and not in every account, but where such markers crop up we would be foolish to ignore them. In the account of “wrestling Jacob” we have several elements that scream that Israel ought to remember what happened. We have two name changes (place and man), and we have an ongoing food taboo which would remind every Jew of this account as he/she butchered a carcase or roasted a joint. These elements tell us that what happened here is formative. Immediately we are alert – and perhaps looking for something deeper than “our nation got its name because our ancestor once spent all night praying.”
This passage is about the fundamentals of Israel’s (and our) relationship with God. Jacob’s own name means “heel grabber” – he has been wrestling since birth. There is a play on his name, the verb to wrestle and the name of the stream here – Jacob is jacobbing by the Jabbok. He has always tried to fight for his rights – and more than his rights, at times. He wants to win by his wits, by his cunning, by his deceit. 

Now he finds himself in a fearful situation. Behind him is Laban, the uncle from whom he stole, and to whom he can never go back. Ahead of him is Esau, the brother he cheated, who terrifies him. He has split all his wealth into two so as to cut his losses if Esau swoops to attack, and he has tried to sweeten his twin with gifts as they draw closer together. 

With all his family, people and possessions on the Esau side of the stream, Jacob finds himself alone, scared and weak. And in the darkness he is attacked. All night long, he fights for his life, until suddenly, when he finds he “cannot win”, the man who attacked him makes absolutely clear with just a touch that he can disarm, disempower, destroy Jacob at will at any time, and could have done so all along. All of Jacob’s strength and cunning, all his trickery and self-reliance, are overturned and shown to be utterly valueless in this terrifying encounter. The self-made man becomes the met-his-match man. With a lurch in the pit of his stomach he learns that, if he has appeared to do well for a time, it is only because his appalling adversary has come down to his level. The mystery attacker has allowed him to win, as a dad allows his three year old to beat him in a race. There is no true parity of power here, no close call, no photofinish. The fighters seem well-matched, but fleetingly, and only because one has chosen to limit his power. Jacob thought there was a contest – but actually, there is no contest, and he perceives who the Enemy is that has attacked him in the night. 

The horror of the encounter is obvious, but the shock of the passage comes in the tail end of the fight with that touch. And the striking thing is that, in the light of what it reveals about Jacob’s attacker, the surprise is then NOT in the sudden touch of power but in the fact that Jacob appeared to be holding his own at all. THAT is the mystery here: Infinity has robed himself in Finity.

Jacob is beaten and he knows it, but still he hangs on. He has met someone far more frightening than Laban and Esau, and yet he is alive! He even appeared to have had the upper hand for a while. This Adversary has chosen to come in weakness! So Jacob, defeated and knowing it, holds on and asks for a blessing. And he is blessed. For that is why this Mighty One attacked him. God, the Mightier Wrestler, has come vulnerably, to overthrow Jacob’s cunning self-reliance once and for all, and so to bless him truly.

If I were filming this, I would close with a huge zoom, dawn shot. As the massive sun comes over the horizon, it silhouettes Jacob, Jacob limping away from the scene, a changed man. That limp will always be with him – and with his people via the culinary reminder built into the passage. But the limping man is no longer simply Jacob, the Cunning Wrestler. He is Israel, the Limper who met the Conquering God and was blessed.

Here is the heart of the story, and the reason why it is formative for Israel as a people and normative for their understanding of God and his gospel. It is about their forefather, the self-reliant schemer, reaching the end of himself. He reaches the end not because he has just run out of steam, but because he has been attacked and overthrown by God. (This is the real, authentic God – Jacob has other gods – he has stolen Laban’s… was that purely for monetary value or as yet another way of hedging his bets, a clever move in the wrestling ring of appeasing possible divinities? ) In this power encounter with the Living God, in his overpowered weakness, Jacob has at last found true blessing, a changed identity, even a new beginning.

This self-reliant schemer is not just anyone, nor is he an Everyman. He is a patriarch, a nation-founder. As with his father and grandfather, his experiences are Israel’s experiences. What happens to him, happens to all, and all are to learn from it and live by it.

The Old and New Testaments are different. There is a discontinuity between them. But there is also massive continuity – that is the understanding of the NT authors and of Jesus himself. And this formative story for OT Israel is still a normative account for us. For what happens to Jacob in Gen 32 is still the shape of the gospel. This account is not to teach us about one (albeit crucial) element of piety. It is about the fundamental nature of our relationship with God. We can’t safely encounter him with our cunning or our strength. We can’t come with our clever arguments and self-justification. And we certainly can’t come with a few idols in our baggage as back-up!

Who is the most frightening person in the universe? The one who will judge the living and the dead, that’s who! He is coming... but he has already come, and at our size, vulnerably, woundably, even killably. For in that meeting, we did kill him. But he rose! When we perceive who That Man is and what he will do, we see our defeat. Like those who killed him, convicted of the horror of Christicide at Pentecost, we cry out, “What shall we do?” “Hang on in there”, says Peter – “Believe on this same name, and you will be blessed, you will be forgiven!"

What is a Christian? Someone who, awed by the power, majesty, holiness and justice of God in Christ, admits defeat, discarding their “goodness”, their strength, their cunning, their self-reliance, and clinging to the Saviour in powerlessness and yet the assurance that he has come close to bless us. That is what Jacob had to learn – and the whole nation in him. This moment was formative – normative – for him. The Cunning Wrestler was renamed after his Conquering God. The only hope of Israel, and us, is consciousness of weakness and awe in his presence, and thus confidence in his power alone, and in his desire to bless and save. Are you clinging on to him in defeat?

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Years ago when I began working on this story, I found some help from the commentaries, but it was only at the end of the process, when looking for hymns, that I realised how close Charles Wesley’s great hymn Wrestling Jacob is to the theme as I perceive it. Isaac Watts apparently said of this hymn “that sin­gle po­em is worth all the vers­es I have writ­ten.” It is a towering achievement as a religious poem, but best of all, I think it gets right to the heart of Genesis 32 as read in the light the New Testament.


Come, O thou Traveller unknown,
Whom still I hold, but cannot see;
My company before is gone,
And I am left alone with thee;
With thee all night I mean to stay,
And wrestle till the break of day.

I need not tell thee who I am;
My sin and misery declare;
Thyself hast called me by my name;
Look on thy hands, and read it there;
But who, I ask thee, who art thou?
Tell me thy name, and tell me now.

In vain thou strugglest to get free;
I never will unloose my hold:
Art thou the Man that died for me?
The secret of thy love unfold;
Wrestling, I will not let thee go
Till I thy name, thy nature know.

Wilt thou not yet to me reveal
Thy new, unutterable name?
Tell me, I still beseech thee, tell;
To know it now resolved I am;
Wrestling, I will not let thee go
Till I thy name, thy nature know.


Yield to me now, for I am weak,
But confident in self-despair;
Speak to my heart, in blessings speak;
Be conquered by my instant prayer;
Speak, or thou never hence shalt move,
And tell me if thy name be Love.

'T is Love! 't is Love! Thou diedst for me;
I hear thy whisper in my heart;
The morning breaks, the shadows flee;
Pure, universal Love thou art;
To me, to all, thy bowels move;
Thy nature and thy name is Love.

My prayer hath power with God; the grace
Unspeakable I now receive;
Through faith I see thee face to face;
I see thee face to face and live!
In vain I have not wept and strove;
Thy nature and thy name is Love.

I know thee, Saviour, who thou art,
Jesus, the feeble sinner's friend;
Nor wilt thou with the night depart,
But stay and love me to the end;
Thy mercies never shall remove;
Thy nature and thy name is Love.

The Sun of Righteousness on me
Hath risen, with healing in his wings;
Withered my nature's strength; from thee
My soul its life and succor brings;
My help is all laid up above;
Thy nature and thy name is Love.

Contented now upon my thigh
I halt till life's short journey end;
All helplessness, all weakness, I
On thee alone for strength depend;
Nor have I power from thee to move;
Thy nature and thy name is Love.

Lame as I am, I take the prey;
Hell, earth, and sin with ease o'ercome;
I leap for joy, pursue my way,
And, as a bounding hart, fly home;
Through all eternity to prove
Thy nature and thy name is Love.