Sunday, March 20, 2016

the return of a king

It is the story of the greatest military failure for any colonial power in the nineteenth century.
... a war begun for no wise purpose, carried on with a strange mixture of rashness and timidity, brought to a close after suffering and disaster, without much glory attached either to the government which directed it, or the great body of troops which waged it. Not one benefit, political or military, has been acquired with this war. Our eventual evacuation of the country resembled the retreat of an army defeated. (the words of an army chaplain who lived through the experience, as quoted on 489).
Or, in the words of the author himself:
It was ... an extraordinary defeat for the British and an almost miraculous victory for the Afghan resistance. At the very height of the British Empire, at a point when the British controlled more of the world economy than they would ever do again, and at a time when traditional forces were everywhere being massacred by industrialised colonial armies, it was a rare moment of complete colonial humiliation (388).
Remnants of an Army by Elizabeth Butler
Before I go any further, as an aside, let me get a couple things off my chest.

The person most responsible for this disaster is an upper class chap called Lord Auckland, who lent his name to my home city in New Zealand. His other name is George Eden which lends its name to two great cricket grounds, Eden Park (Auckland) and Eden Gardens (Kolkata). This guy Auckland was hopeless, dying 'in disgrace' in Kensington in 1849. 'Sent to rule a world of which he was completely ignorant', his leadership got lost in his own complacency and incompetence. In the recent spirit of tearing down statutes of Rhodes in Oxford, it almost makes me want to sign a petition for a name change to my home town?! However, rather ironically, in the very same month (February 1840) when it becomes clear that this invasion of Afghanistan was to provoke a mass uprising, or jihad, in another part of the world Britain was doing far better. Brokered by fine Christians (in Britain) and fine missionaries (in NZ), they were busy negotiating a treaty with the Maori of faraway New Zealand.

Moving from the chief protagonist to the author himself for a further aside. Many histories of the First Afghan War have been written - but no one had ever bothered to see if there were any Afghani records of the story. So off Dalrymple goes to Afghanistan (in 2008-2009 no less) and, eventually, is taken to an 'unpromising-looking book stall in (Kabul's) old city' where he 'acquires eight previously unused contemporary Persian language sources for the First Afghan War' (496) left behind by Afghan noble families who emigrated during the Soviet occupation. Here opens up that immeasurably important principle of life: the opportunity 'to see ourselves as others see us' (Robbie Burns). There is eye witness material - but also the most beautiful epic poems which Dalrymple seamlessly weaves into his narrative. How cool is that?! And, as you'd expect,
These rich and detailed Afghan sources tell us much that the European sources neglect to mention or are ignorant of ... The caricature 'treacherous Muslim' of the British sources transforms before our eyes into an Afghan matinee idol (498, 500). 
I guess it is about time I got to the book itself...

In Return of a KingWilliam Dalrymple tells the story of a regime change in Afghanistan where the global power at the time invades Afghanistan - 'an unjustified, unprovoked and unnecessary British invasion of an independent country' (143) - in order to install a different leader, one malleable to their own interests. Sound familiar? It is eerily familiar (see 490-491). Even the two puppet rulers (Shuja and Karzai are from the same sub-tribe...). The invasion is marked by incompetence and the subsequent retreat is marked by massacre. Although hundreds of British troops retreated from Kabul, only one single British person (a surgeon) stumbled into Jalalabad on horseback a few days later (as described in the painting above).

An 'unparalleled disaster' (468) with 'striking parallels' (482). I'll let the author tease this open a bit more in this short 3.30min clip. Needless to say, it would have been advisable for Bush and Blair, and other political leaders, to spend more time reading history. The most recent invasion of Afghanistan is the fourth and each one has terminated 'in an embarassing withdrawal after a humiliating defeat' (493).

A few other things that will remain with me from the book...

The importance of competence
This is not just about knowledge - although it is not less than knowledge, with a chapter in the book being titled, hauntingly, 'we fail from our ignorance' (270) - but also skills and character and wisdom. The British class system has a rather annoying way of promoting incompetence, particularly in the military. Maybe at half a dozen strategic times in this story alone. Scratch away and get deep into the story and a lot of it can be attributed to one man's (Macnaghten) abiding jealousy of another (Burnes).

The foolishness of opulence
I was staggered by what was involved in moving the British army from one place to another in South Asia. I had no idea. When the Army of the Indus was readied for its invasion (1000 Europeans, but also 14,000 'sepoys' - Indians in the British Army - and then 38,000 'Indian camp followers' (152)), 'one brigadier claimed that he needed fifty camels to carry his kit ... three hundred camels were earmarked to carry the military wine-cellar ... one regiment has two camels carrying the best manila cigars' (152-153). This opulence must have aggrieved the sepoys, made worse by the way that in both the height and the aftermath of battle, the British abandoned so many of them, with many dying or going into slavery throughout Central Asia. No wonder there was a mutiny by the sepoys in India just 15 years later (the subject of Dalrymple's The Last Mughal)...

The centrality of honour and shame
The longer I live outside the West, the more I see this one. It is such a big part of this story, both in the lines and between the lines - particularly with the sexual abuse of Afghan women by the British. There is a James Bond figure in the story - Alexander Burnes (cousin of the aforementioned Robbie). Brilliant, but flawed. The tipping point in the entire story was when Burnes played David with an Afghan Bathsheba - seeing her, stealing her, incurring the wrath, and far more importantly the dishonour of the locals. It was not long before 'the sharp blades of two hundred brave Afghans worked his body into shreds of bone (305, from one of the Afghan sources) and they were playing football with his head in the streets ... and 'all order is at an end' (another poignant chapter title).
This growing slight to Afghan honour was the biggest cause of the alienation of the Afghans from their new (puppet) government (226, quoted from an Afghan source) ... It is a consistent complaint in the Afghan sources that the British had no respect for women, raping and dishonouring wherever they went ... (as they are) depicted as treacherous and oppressive women-abusing terrorists. This is not the way we expect Afghans to look at us (500-501).
The futility of revenge
One of the repulsive parts of the story is how quickly the British mounted an Army of Retribution, headed by a nasty piece of work called George Pollock. They returned to Afghanistan for just two weeks, simply to set the place on fire, dynamiting beautiful places and murdering people ... in order 'to leave decisive proof of the power of the British army' (440). Ridiculous. At times I wanted to shut my eyes as I read. I am not the only one. 'We are nothing but licensed assassins' (458) is how one more noble British officer expressed it. It is the stuff of 'war crimes' (460). 'What we are staying here for I am utterly at a loss to know, unless it be to be laughed at by the Afghans, and the whole world' (461)

It makes me long for the return of the King of Kings, with whom suffering was absorbed, rather than inflicted ... and through that suffering, He walked the path to glory and victory. It is with Him, the Judge of all the earth, that revenge can be left - and it is only in Him that reconciliation with God and with all humanity can be found.

The power of story-telling
This is almost another post: taking Dalrymple's skill and applying it to preaching. Two quick points. One is the significance of using specific details. The other is embedding anticipatory comments in the early narrative which come to fruition later on. Maybe a character, or a place. Teasing the reader in this manner helps the narrative become a page-tuner. Dalrymple is a master of the craft.

nice chatting


PS: Because I don't want to lose it and because I am a child of the Himalayas (from Mussoorie, rather than Simla), here is a little purple patch in the Dalrymple narrative:
The existence of Simla was itself a comment on the astonishing complacency of the British in India at this period: for seven months of the year, the (East India) Company ruled one-fifth of mankind from a Himalayan village overlooking the borders of Tibet and connected to the outside world by a road little better than a goat path. Here, over the two decades since the area had been 'discovered' ... the Company had begun building on a long, narrow, high-altitude Himalayan saddle a small fantasy England, a sort of early Victorian theme park of their own imagination, complete with Gothic churches, half-timbered cottages and Scots baronial mansions. Simla was all about homesickness and the nostalgia of the exile for home: it was an escape from the heat, but it was also, tacitly, an escape from India. As one disapproving official later put it, 'Sedition, unrest and even murderous riots may have been going on elsewhere in India, but in Simla the burning questions are polo finals, racing and the all-absorbing cricket tournaments (130-131).

Friday, March 18, 2016

agonda beach

Trip Advisor rates it 22nd in their latest 'best beaches in the world' list, 3rd in Asia and ahead of anything in Australia and New Zealand (hmmm?!) - but we didn't know that until after we arrived here for a few days away together. It is Agonda Beach in Goa - and it is spectacular.

Here is the view from our little beachfront cottage:

The beach is 3km long - here is looking from the north and then the south ends of the beach:

I love the boats of Goa. I could take photos of them all day long. One thing I enjoy is the way their names reflect the plurality of religions in this former (Catholic) Portugese colony...

One morning we were woken before dawn by a barking dog. Eventually the cause of the commotion became clear. A turtle had come ashore to lay its eggs, just 20 meters from our cottage ... and then off it waddled back to the ocean.

The next morning I discovered that I had become a celebrity. I had made it into The Goan newspaper. That is me in the top right hand corner of the photo:

As always, the signs that inhabit the bazaars of India bring great joy - for all sorts of reasons. Here is just a sample. One can only imagine the impact of a '9-11 Super Store'. My favourite is 'spacial food'. Had a fair bit of that experience in my time in India...

For us it was a time for reading. I may have been in Goa, but my imagination was a long way away - in Afghanistan - after devouring another Dalrymple masterpiece ... (now with a little review here).

... eating dinners on the beach ...

... (with the coastline facing the west), enjoying the sunsets ...

... and even watching some cricket. The Sandy Feet (not to be confused with The Deep Fine Leg) was the neighbouring establishment. Not only did they enjoy playing a little cricket on the sand, using their menu as a wicket, they had a TV inside where we watched one of NZ's finest ever victories - over India no less ... and then a victory over Australia as well, just three days later.

nice chatting


a selfie in the setting sun

Thursday, March 17, 2016

trump - again?!

In my first post, over ten years ago, I laid claim to a 30:30:30:10 identity (India:USA:NZ:Southland (NZ)). Each of these worlds has shaped me. Because of this I tend to claim some right, even responsibility, to wade into these worlds and reflect on them critically.

Right now I am as concerned for the church in the USA as I am for the church in India.

The reason for my concern? A revelation about Revelation. The entire book is a letter (cf 1.4-8; 22.21) written to the seven churches and, like any other letter, it must make sense to its original recipients first. This is where it becomes interesting. Most people live under the impression that Revelation is only for the suffering, harassed and persecuted church. They are wrong. Why? Because when you look closely at these seven churches, not all of them are being persecuted. So how does this letter make sense to those churches? Only by affirming, with Ramsey Michaels, that the enemies of God 'are within, as well as outside, the Christian congregation' (20).

When we draw near to these churches in their cities we find one of two situations: either (a) it is a time of poverty and/or persecution where the enemy is more external and there is little hope for justice; or, (b) it is a time of complacency and/or compromise where the enemy is more internal and there is great need for warning. The book of Revelation is written into both settings. 'It is the complex relationship between the presence or absence of accommodation and persecution that drives this letter' (Michael Gorman, 25).

So, I say it again: I am as concerned for the church in the USA as I am for the church in India. India nestles, increasingly and alarmingly, into setting (a) above, while the USA settles, increasingly and alarmingly, into setting (b).

And yes, the rise of Donald Trump has focused these concerns. I was under the impression that there were enough fair-minded Americans, many of them genuine Christians, on the right side of the political aisle who would rise up, eventually, and send this outrageous, arrogant, ungodly, naive, narcissistic, ethnocentric phenomenon back to Trump Towers with his tail between his legs.

I was wrong. Why? One reason may be because Trump is articulating what people - many of them genuine Christians, apparently - are saying around their dining room tables and in the quiet corridors of their lives. Their response to him is positive because his spoken words resonate with their quietly-spoken thoughts. He appeals to them as courageous. But I wonder if there is a deeper reason behind this one...

[As a little aside... In my teaching of preaching over the years there has been a commitment to learning how to preach worldviewishly. Together we picture society to be like a tree, with its fruits and roots. The fruit tends to be visible behaviour. The root tends to be invisible assumptions. In class, we tend to focus on the fruit that is bad and then explore how to trace that fruit to its root, or cause, where the issues of worldview lie. Most people struggle to do this tracing. And yet, the invisible is the influential. The root is the real issue. It determines the fruit. Too much preaching is too shallow. Every sermon needs to make this effort to surface roots and engage them with the gospel].

I wonder if part of Trump's success - among many genuine Christians, apparently - lies with what is going on at the 'root' in the lives of these people. Gospel roots are mingling with roots that are far from the gospel. It is called syncretism and it is a worldview challenge for Christians in every culture. This mingling expresses itself in muddied conversations in those corridors and around those tables in people's lives.

Yes, there is confusion. Lots of it. People - including many genuine Christians, apparently - are not thinking biblically enough, or even clearly enough. American roots are mingling with biblical roots, producing fruits that are just bad. For example, the 'pursuit of happiness', mandated in the US Constitution, actually runs counter to the call of the gospel. Personal individual freedoms, so celebrated in the USA, are not unlimited. They need restraints placed on them, with an eye on the greater, even global, good. Social ethics is as important as personal ethics (and so addressing the evil of racism sits alongside addressing the evil of abortion). The Constitution does not carry the same authoritative weight as the Bible/Christ combo - in theory, or in practice. The right to bear arms is really about the right to bare arms, to roll up your sleeves, and give yourself in selfless service of others (!). And don't get me started on the wanton hijacking of the word 'evangelical' because I've been there before.

And I'm sorry, but the American people are not an extra special people in the eyes of God. The doctrine of 'American exceptionalism' and the 'make America great again' slogan, together with the patriotic, nationalistic fervour whipped up by them, have little to do with God's strategic rescue plan for the world. That plan is wrapped up with a global church, rather than a local nation.

Maybe the tide of people flowing towards Trump - many of whom are genuine Christians, apparently - has some source in this muddied thinking below the surface. Being American is not being separated adequately enough from being Christian. Even at their very best, they are not the same. Maybe that is partly why so many Christians are flocking to this obnoxious pagan. How can it be possible to soak in a biblical worldview and be a supporter of Donald Trump? I can't see it. I'd rather flock to the Duck, or to Ronald.

A better way forward is to call the church in the USA to get its eyes off politics as a route to 'wealth, power and might' ... and to sit humbly, graciously and courageously in Revelation once again and hear its message for them. It still speaks into a time of complacency and/or compromise where the enemy is more internal and there is a great need for warning. Such listening would open the door to many more genuine Christians living in a way that serves the purposes of God in our day - with no 'apparently' about it whatsoever.

nice chatting


Saturday, March 05, 2016

two martins

They even looked a bit alike. They were even diagnosed with cancer at about the same time. And now they have both died, just 11 months apart from each other. Having both enriched my life in such different ways, I took such delight in knowing that there was that day when they met each other, through a mutual friend, David Lyle Morris, who loved - and sung - his way into their hearts and homes.

My very favourite friend Martin (Lovatt). My very favourite cricketer Martin (Crowe).

I've mentioned Martin Lovatt a few times in this blog. There is the lovely photo of him at my 21st birthday party all those years ago. And a couple of posts around the time of his death last April (I was in China). I will always have an empathy now for those who endure grief at a distance and on their own. But God knew - and he sent an angel to me. Here is a little extract from a later sermon:

            At Hong Kong airport, on my way, I received the news
that my special friend from childhood
was in his final days in his battle with cancer.
          Off I went into a country with no gmail, no facebook.
           Martin died while I was in China. I experienced real grief. 
      Within an hour I was sitting around a circular table
having lunch with a group of people,
whom I had never met in my life,
who did not speak a syllable of English
& who kept an eye on my chopstick technique.
            They wanted me to say something about my work after lunch.
            ‘What could I say?’
 I decided to share about Martin, his friendship, his death
& the difficulty of being so far from home.

Afterwards one of the pastors stood up & through translation, simply said to me: 
“Today this is your home. We are your family. You are always welcome here.”

That taste of what it means to belong to the (global) family of God will never, ever leave me. Under God's gracious hand - and through an extraordinary series of events - I was able to get home to Auckland for Martin's funeral (four out of five nights spent on 10+hr flights and hardly noticing the impact) and to bear witness to his loyalty, his gentleness and his goodness.

I've mentioned Martin Crowe a few times in this blog. Quite a few times, actually. A big fan - ever since I saw him batting, at 14 years of age, in the school nets just weeks after my return to NZ from India, and concluding to myself, "if this is the level of talent in New Zealand, I am never going to play cricket here." My fullest reflections came in a review of Raw. I've lived overseas ever since I wrote this piece and a joy for me - from a distance - has been to see the rehabilitation of MD Crowe in the eyes of the NZ public. People have short memories! For most of his career, he was treated very poorly. Not unlike Brendon McCullum's journey. Does anyone else remember the vitriol around the Rutherford-Crowe captaincy debate? Or, the press coverage during the build-up to the World Cup in 1992? Some of these journalists change their colours pretty easily...?!

On the day after his death, it was amazing to find Crowe mentioned with the header on the front page
... and then to be the dominant story in the sports pages.
There have been a few other posts ... like his presence on my 'first eleven' list of cricket memories AND my passing moan about his deflated Test average AND his entry at Number One in the list of my all time favourite sportspeople (mind you, Lydia Ko was only 12 at the time!). One obituary speaks of his 'elegance and eloquence'. That is it for me, too. As the elegant batting drifted from view, the eloquent writing came into focus ... and my enjoyment of MD Crowe's talent continued on uninterrupted.

I am not really a 'Rest-in-Peace' man. Partly because I don't understand what it means. Sorry. Maybe someone can explain it to me. I am more of a 'Rest-in-the-certainty-that-God-will-receive-you-in-accordance-with-His-mercy-and-justice' man. But I hope my enduring prayers have been answered and that an encounter with the mercy and justice of God in Christ has brought to Martin Crowe the peace that I know Martin Lovatt experiences.

Now and then I ask myself why I have been drawn to these two Martins who are now both gone at such a young age. With the Crowe Martin, it does come back to the 'tortured genius' phrase (the title of an early biography). While the 'genius' drew us all forward in our seats, it was the 'tortured' that drew from me an uncommon empathy and, yes, even the occasional identification. With the Lovatt Martin, it is about liking him with a friendship that prevailed through seasons and separations - but also about a longing to be like him, following his example, as he followed Christ's (1 Corinthians 11.1).

nice chatting