Connections August 17, 2009
Revd Donald Phillipps
In last month's penetrating Connections article Donald Phillipps sees "doing good" as being at the heart of the Gospel, and warns against the legalism of the pharisees - and politicians
In the very early days of the settlement of Wellington, the New Zealand Wesleyan District Meeting decided to send an extra missionary to the Wellington region. Gideon Smales duly went south, living for a year or so at Porirua, where there was a large Maori population. His brief stay would have hardly scratched the surface of missionary history had it not been for the fact that at an auction sale in Wellington, while his brethren there were away on business, he bought four 11lb kegs of gunpowder. “Horror!” shouted the newspapers, who claimed that he had sinister motives and would probably use the powder to trade with the local Maori for provisions.
Until the discovery of that bit of gossip I admit I had never thought of the missionaries having a use for gunpowder. But, of course, they did. Like the early settlers they needed a ‘fowling-piece’ to shoot birds for the pot. They would have said that owning a rifle was a ‘good thing,’ when it was used for that purpose. And equally, of course, they said it was a ‘bad thing’ when it was used as a weapon in tribal warfare. It’s not that a rifle is inherently ‘bad’ or ‘good’ - it’s the use to which it is put that carries the moral overtone.
I have come across a photo of a sculpture in wood, by Michael Parekowhai, in the Auckland Art Gallery. Just a series of items carefully and accurately carved in wood of what might be called everyday utensils - forks and shovels and saws and mallets; crutches and paddles and ladders and walking-sticks; rifles and swords and axes and arrows. What makes the sculpture even more memorable is the title the artist gave it: ‘And he went about doing good.’ (Acts 10:38)
Mr Parekowhai has very accurately caught the dilemma facing not just a missionary in the 19th century, but anyone who would want to be called a Christian in the 21st. The use to which we put the results of our creative skills always carries with it some degree of ambiguity - the things that were initially imagined as benefits to humanity can so very easily become bane rather than blessing.
The ambiguity doesn‘t stop there. The actions that one might believe are ‘doing good’ are seen by others as threatening the very fabric of society. Take Nelson Mandela for example. He spent 27 years in prison, much of it on Robben Island, on convictions for crimes that included sabotage committed while he spearheaded the struggle against apartheid. That was 1963, and it was not too long after his release from prison in 1990 that he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and was elected the President of the South African Republic. Doing ‘bad’ in 1963 became doing ’good’ in 1990.
When Luke wrote the Acts of the Apostles over 30 years had passed since the crucifixion. The setting of these particular words is the house of the centurion, Cornelius, and Peter is summarising the life of Jesus for a man new to Palestine and its recent history. How better to encapsulate the man from Nazareth - all those miracles and all that wonderful teaching and all those lives changed by his very presence - by calling it ‘doing good’.
At this stage in my own pilgrimage I am increasingly concerned about attempts to make discipleship more elaborate. Faith in Jesus, like living in community, should be as simple as possible. Beware of the burdens of the law-makers - they were called ’Scribes and Pharisees’ then, they have more familiar names like politicians and elected representatives these days.
The ’doing good ‘ of which Peter spoke wasn’t complicated - best seen and understood by standing back from whatever is in print - even, I dare say, the Bible itself. Read the stories, read the teaching, of course, but then close the book and think about what you’ve read. Then, I suggest, what is to be done, what is the ‘good’ that is to be done, will show itself to you in all its simplicity. And, maybe, while you’re thinking, you could read (and re-read) this extraordinary poem about simplicity by Gerard Manley Hopkins:
GLORY be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change: