Christians and Jews co-existing in Torquemada’s Spain: an intriguing new novel


Michael Lynes, Blood Libel: An Isaac Alvarez Mystery.

ISBN 978-9948258667

Kindle: $1.57, Paperback from $9.99.

Available as an e-book through the Public Library System

Reviewed by Ted Witham

I was intrigued by this novel set in Spain’s Seville at the time of the Holy Inquisition.  Isaac Alvarez is an official in the city. As a Jew who has converted to Catholicism but is still secretly attending Jewish prayers, he and his family are vulnerable to being denounced. 

A boy is murdered, and the story is circulated that he was killed so that his blood could be drunk in some secret Jewish ritual – the blood libel of the title.

The story is told through the written testimony of Friar Alonso, the assistant to Torquemada, alternating with a third person narrative from Isaac’s point of view. This method of telling the story works so that the motivations of both characters can be explored. 

Occasionally this was spoiled by an attempt to be cinematic, for example, concluding a chapter with one-line descriptions of everyone’s predicament. ‘Isabel is locked in her cell. Isaac is in the bar. Alonso is praying in his tiny cell, etc’. As a means of building tension, I found the device superfluous. 

Generally, the story is professionally presented and edited; a pleasure to read, and a delight to be so carefully taken into 15th Century Spain just at the moment when Inquisitors like Tomas Torquemada were breaking down the fragile peace between Spanish Catholics, Muslims and Jews.

I look forward to reading more of Señor Isaac Alvarez as his work takes him closer to King Ferdinand in the next in the series.

Fire and Spirit


270758-x
Holy Prophets Elijah and Elisha

Sun-God

If god lived in the sun she’d send her friends
a chariot of bubbling gas ablaze;
wheels of turning heat and burning reins of haze:
dynamism to carry off her ends.

The seat fabricate from sheer brace of power,
the floor ignites with planes of burnished flame,
the sun gives power to shape and nail the frame,
all conflagration to extol god’s hour.

If god lived in the sun she’d thaw the one
hamstrung in the gospel frozen from fears,
love hobbled in the cold, paused and icy tears;
her church where nothing may be done.

Defiant, Elisha followed him to fire,
felt heat and life, blessed with fierce love entire.

Ted Witham

  • 2 Kings 2:1-12
elijahs-cloak-over-elisha
Elijah’s cloak over Elisha (sculpture by Betsy Porter — betsyporter.com)

Trust and Obey – leaders in the Australian Army


The Association of the U.S. Army, Trust and Leadership: the Australian Army Approach to Mission Command, University of North Georgia University Press, 2019

Reviewed by Ted Witham 

All organisations have leaders who organise and inspire their members to promote the mission of the organisation. Leaders should be accountable for their work as leaders continuously improving their actions.  

Trust and Leadership explores how well the leaders in the Australian Armed Forces have used the official doctrine of mission command. The concept is that leaders should provide orders that clearly state the end result of their troops’ activities. Junior leaders are left free to work out the methods and tactics by which these effects will be reached. The principle is that the closer they are to the action, junior officers will have a better understanding of the situation on the ground, so are the best to decide how to carry out the superior’s orders.  

This book is a series of essays arranged historically from World War I to disaster relief in Queensland in 2012.  The authors are both academics and officers providing a breadth of commentary from the practical to the theoretical. It’s worth noting that some of the serving officers who wrote these essays also have academic qualifications, resulting in a thoughtful and authoritative account. 

The thesis of the book is that the concept of ‘mission command’ has been used by officers since Gallipoli, even before the term entered official policy. Australian soldiers should be adept at taking responsibility at their level, partly because of the Australian character and its scepticism towards authority. 

This willingness of soldiers to forge their own way turns out also to be a weakness. The account of the 2RAR Battalion in Afghanistan is searingly honest. Colonel Chris Smith describes the disbelief of a few soldiers when he attempted to enforce discipline. Their passive-aggressive response to his orders arose from the soldiers’ sense of entitlement to conduct themselves as they saw fit without supervision. ‘It seemed as though some were confusing mission command with “hands-off” leadership,’ Col. Smith comments. (p. 291 Advanced Reader’s Edition).  

In recent weeks, Australians have been shocked by accusations of murder and mistreatment of Afghan prisoners by Special Services troops. These allegations have of course coloured my reading of Trust and Leadership. Is it possible that these attitudes towards mission command and supervision by superior officers created the culture in which crimes could be committed? I hope that leaders’ role in these prosecutions will be carefully examined by the prosecutors, otherwise the concept of mission command will itself be bankrupted.  

As a (retired) leader in church organisations, I found Trust and Leadership to be a helpful analysis of the role of leadership to embody the purpose of the organisation and to inspire others to work towards that purpose. In reflecting on leadership, former Archbishop Peter Carnley AO used a similar concept of ‘subsidiarity’ (decisions to be made at the lowest level possible).  If this book helps our armed forces to continuously improve subsidiarity, it will have served a useful purpose.  

Blessings

Being blessed, for Jesus, is owning your need. You are blessed if you know you need God’s mercy and safety, because God is present with love and protection.


Matthew 5:1-12

The bombers fly over. At this height, you can see that some are your Government’s air force, others come from one of the superpowers, Russia or the U.S.A., both, as far as you are concerned, as bad as the other. The noise and the dust when a bomb hits the apartment block next to yours is overwhelming. You utter a prayer of thanksgiving that, this time, you have survived. As soon as the drone of the bombers’ engines disappears, you sprint down into the street, looking for your brother, his wife and children. All are gone. Grief fills you like rushing water.

Devastation in Syria – AFP Photo

You go back to your apartment. Your family is there, thank God, but there is no water or electricity. The shops are bombed out, so there is no food. You pack up what you can, photos, documents, a few clothes, in a couple of suitcases and, with your family, start the long walk out of your city towards somewhere, anywhere, that it is safer.

That evening, you take out your tattered Bible and read Matthew 5:1-12. It takes a moment for you to realise that Jesus is directly addressing you: you, grieving the violent deaths of loved ones; you, with your nice life collapsed into rubble; you, without a home or a country you can call your own; you, you are blessed.

Matthew wrote his gospel for a community just like this. The Romans sacked Jerusalem in A.D. 70, killed many of the inhabitants, razed the beautiful Temple to the ground, and hounded the citizens out of the city. Jewish refugees spread out across the Empire looking for somewhere safer, the tiny group of Christians swept along with them.

Matthew believes Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount applies to these shell-shocked refugees with no possessions or place of their own.  They are blessed. Jesus turns upside down the usual idea of blessing. Normally, we think of blessings as things we have – family, personal talents, possessions, a peaceful life – but Jesus re-defines the blessed as poor in spirit, mourning, meek, lacking justice, wanting to make peace, above all, persecuted.

The Temple destroyed – fallen stones from the southwestern wall.

Being blessed, for Jesus, is owning your need. You are blessed if you know you need God’s mercy and safety, because God is present with love and protection. You are blessed if you know that you need to make peace with the world around you, because your neighbours too want to reach out and make peace with you. You are blessed if you know that you don’t have it all and God and God’s creation will provide for you.

For most of history, most of the world has lived in poverty and insecurity. 21st Century Australia, with our prosperity and peace, is an exception. Because we have so much, the power of the Beatitudes doesn’t register strongly with us.

I take these words of Jesus as an invitation, firstly, to enter imaginatively into the lives of the many who are fleeing danger, the many who are hungry, the many who have no shelter. They are more blessed than I am, according to Jesus: is there something I can do to incarnate that blessing for them? Can I use my power and prosperity to help provide safety, food, water, housing?

Secondly, I take Jesus’ words as a warning to me: in my comfortable life, I become complacent. I, too, can learn to see that I cover up my real needs with material comfort. I ask God to show my where are my needs, my lacks, my shortcomings, so that I can learn gratitude for all his blessings.

Love, only Love

Love God. Love your neighbour. In this volatile environment, the Great Commandment asks new action from me.


Matthew 22:34-40

Over the last couple of decades I have lost my confidence in taking part in a robust debate. I fear that my opponent and I will not be able to learn from one another, let alone find a solution that benefits both of us.

I have different conversations about live sheep exports with my farming family and with my animal activist acquaintances. Apart from a vague desire not to be cruel to animals, I find it frustratingly difficult to get one ‘side’ to hear the viewpoint of another.

And to have a conversation on climate change with people who disagree with you is bound to end in shouting or tears; yet this conversation, perhaps more than any other, is where we need to listen to opposing views, to learn from them, and to find win-win remedies.

We are learning how Facebook and other social media divide us even further. They manipulate us into an echo chamber where we hear only our views reverberate around us. They disgust us with outbursts of hateful trolling which cement our dislike of the trolls.

Jesus has a radical prescription for a society divided like ours: ‘Love God with all your strength… and love your neighbour as yourself.’ The two parts of the Great Commandment come from the Hebrew Scriptures (Deuteronomy 6:4-6 and Leviticus19:18) and were familiar to Jesus’ hearers.

The Jewish teachers defined love not as a feeling, but as an active commitment to better the lives of others. On that, they and Jesus agreed.

Jesus teaches in the Temple – St Vladmir Orthodox Icon

But Jesus made two profound changes to the Summary of the Law: firstly, he linked loving God with loving neighbour so that they always come together. Love God and you inevitably love your neighbour. Loving your neighbour is a way of loving God.

Secondly, he extended the idea of ‘neighbour’ beyond the circle of family and everyday friends. For Jesus, a neighbour is anyone you meet, anyone near you. It even includes your enemy!

For many Jews, that was a challenge too far. How could you love the Roman occupiers? It’s an affront for us too: how can we love the terrorist who beheads a teacher? How can we love the drunk driver who kills our daughter?

Love God. Love your neighbour. In this volatile environment, the Great Commandment asks new action from me. Loving the neighbour who disagrees with me means taking the effort to maintain a strong connection with her or him, building a friendship on things other than our disagreement.

Loving my neighbour means being careful about joining ‘tribes’. I resist the pressure to join a political party, not because I want to reduce its influence, but because my joining will be perceived as taking sides and not being open to new truth.

Loving my neighbour means I take great precautions around Facebook. It is seriously addictive; and it is designed to divide people from each other. It may be that I should close my account.

Loving God means seeing the humanity in people who disagree with me. It means being loved by God so that I may have the grace to love radically as Jesus did.

Whose Image Do You Bear?

…we are to be the images of God in the world. People see us and should see something, some aspect, some likeness of God.


Matthew 22:15-22

To consolidate his power, the Roman Emperor had coins minted with his likeness engraved on it. These reminded the people to whom honour was due. Like his forebears, Tiberias, the Emperor at Jesus’ time, believed that he was divine, and proclaimed this on his coins. Each silver denarius was a command, not only to pay taxes, but also to worship the Emperor as god.

So it’s a surprise in today’s story when his enemies were setting a trap for Jesus, that one of them produced a denarius. A Jew who took seriously the commandments would not possess such a coin, and certainly not produce it in the Temple. The coin was a ‘graven image’, a blasphemous object.

As soon as Jesus asked. ‘Whose image is it, and whose title?’ (v. 20), a Jew would immediately recall both the scripture forbidding graven images (Exodus 20:4) and the passage teaching that human beings are made in God’s image (Genesis 1:26).

So Jesus turns the question back onto the questioners. ‘Whose image is imprinted on you?’ Is it the Emperor’s, or is it God’s? Whom do you call on as God?

Because God had beat the Emperor to it. Every human being is like a coin. Each one of us bears God’s image. God sets us into circulation, and we should both recognise our family likeness in each other and acknowledge God as our common authority. Our task is like that of a coin which recognises the value of human labour. We too are to recognise the value of human beings in our interactions.

To be like circulating coins, we cannot remain pure and separate from the world. We must ‘pay back to the Emperor what belongs to the Emperor’ (Matthew 22:21). For example, whether we like it or not, a sizeable proportion of our taxes buys weapons for war. When we buy a shirt, it is difficult not to exploit a worker in Bangladesh. We circulate in the world and are caught up in its compromises.

But through all this, we ‘pay God what is God’s’ (Matthew 22:21), we are to be the images of God in the world. People see us and should see something, some aspect, some likeness of God.

The Bully King’s Party


Matthew 22:1-14

What a capricious king in this parable!

You wonder why the first group of invitees turns down the summons. Most people don’t experience a royal invitation, but if they do, they accept. They attend, even if only out of curiosity or to rub shoulders with wealthy and famous guests.

It may be that these invitees knew their king and were protesting his bullying ways.

The king invites a second group with a sales pitch, ‘Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ (Matthew 22:4). When this group turned down the invitation, some with indifference, some with violence, the king was enraged. He destroyed the rioters and burned down the city!

This king throws a tantrum if he doesn’t get his own way.

He then rounds up all the homeless, all the street people, ‘both bad and good’, to eat the banquet. But, instead of being happy that he has at last found people to party with, he is speechless with anger at the man who is not dressed properly. He orders his servants to ‘bind him hand and foot … and cast him into outer darkness, there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ (Matthew 24:13)

This king does not remind me of God. This man reminds me of King Herod, or perhaps one of the modern tyrants in our day.

The parable begins, ‘The Kingdom of heaven has been compared to a man, a king, who made a wedding for his son.’ (Matthew 22:2). Yes, some people may have compared the kingdom of heaven to Herod’s kingdom, violent and capricious, but the opposite is true.

The invitation to the reign of God right from the start is for everyone; not just the important people in the parable first invited to witness the son’s wedding, a political event. By contrast, the reign of God is not about earthly power, but about heavenly grace for all people.

Secondly, God does not respond with violence when people reject his invitation. There are no power-tantrums in the kingdom of heaven. If people refuse the invitation, God goes on inviting, leaving the invitee free to respond as and when they wish. This is surely good news for those of us with family members or friends who are yet to accept the Gospel invitation.

God does not destroy communities to bring people to God. The Good News is that God creates community. God fosters life.

Thirdly, God does not throw out of the kingdom anyone who chooses to attend his feast, even if they are not appropriately dressed. God makes every effort to put every guest at ease, even, in a parable recorded by St Luke, inviting the guest in the lowest seat to ‘move up higher’ (Luke 14:10).

It may be true that St Matthew intended this parable to help his own community understand why their fellow-Jews had rejected the invitation to the wedding of the king’s son, but for us, the parable shows what the Good News does not include.

I’ll heed the invitation to the peaceable kingdom any day, where God rejoices in all who come.

Heartfelt obedience?

If someone in authority shows empathy and cares, then we are more likely to want to do their will.


Matthew 21:23-32

None of us likes to be on the receiving end of direct orders. Even when the order comes from a legitimate authority, the moment the order is delivered, we bristle. Our autonomy – to do what we like when we like – is threatened.

Even in institutions which function by giving and following orders like the military, the wise officer only gives direct orders in the context of a shared mission: this order is for us, rather than for you.

We recognise in ourselves the two sons ordered to work in the vineyard. We too can say ‘Yes’ to an order and then work out how to get out of doing it. We too can say ‘No’, and then grudgingly turn to obedience. In our fear and timidity, we can also find a dozen other ways of passive-aggressive obedience or disobedience.

Jesus asks, ‘Which of the two did the will of the Father?’ (Matthew 21:31a) His listeners sided with the son who obeyed after initially refusing. But his was the ‘least worst’ option. Neither of the sons responded with a heartful ‘Yes’ and went out and diligently worked the vineyard. That would have been their father’s hope.

The father, the owner of this vineyard, got it wrong. God is not like this father. This father needs lessons in human resource management and parenting. Jesus is teaching a better way of leading than giving direct orders. If someone in authority shows empathy and cares, then we are more likely to want to do their will. This kind of authority neither the ‘chief priests [nor] the elders of the people’ (v. 23) could understand.

God generally does not give direct orders. God builds relationship and empathy. God invites and calls. God knows what we are like. God knows we trip over our autonomy when told what to do.  God always leaves us room for a free response.

We as Christian leaders can do better than the owner of this vineyard: we can lead by love and example, as Jesus did. People will respond according to the authenticity they see in us.

As Christian followers, our challenge is to discern God’s will and try to do it in heartfelt obedience.

Day Labour

This is a moment in history when we should stop treating people just as expedient labour and build a more just and caring community.


Matthew 20:1-16

For me to really get it, I had to be taken at 6 a.m. to the Post Office in Durham, North Carolina. The sun was up, and the day was already hot and humid. On the Post Office steps groups of men, about 30 in total, stood around, waiting. My guide said, ‘These are undocumented Mexicans. Some people joke that they are people who don’t exist.’

Eventually a farm pick-up truck drove by, pointed to two or three of the men, ‘You! You! You!’ and the men who were beckoned scrambled onto the back of the truck. Some minutes later, another truck arrived, and the same procedure followed. The rest of the men waited, waited. At about 7:30 a.m., the street began to wake up as workers on their way to air-conditioned offices glared at the men. It was time to disperse. Those remaining were unlucky that day.

These men were all desperate to feed themselves and their families. The picked workers would be given cash, $15 or $20, at the end of a ten-hour shift in the oppressive humidity of summer. This was day labour, southern U.S. style. I imagine that, 30 years on from then, day labour is still employed in much the same way.

The men were treated, not as human beings with needs, but as what they were worth to the employers. They were exploited.

Post Office, Durham NC

Jesus tells the story of an employer who goes back again and again throughout the day to the Post Office steps, employing as many workers as he can, and then insisting on paying them according to their need, not his economic advantage. No wonder he encountered resistance – from the workers who had ‘borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat’ (Matthew 20:12b), and most probably from other employers too.

This employer’s actions seem revolutionary. What he had done was to defy the economic realities which ignore the dignity of human beings. He treated the workers with worth and generosity.

Today’s news reminds us that Covid-19 has made many more people vulnerable, looking for a little work just to survive. Let us bear them in prayer and offer a practical hand to them when we can.

We also note that there are executives who ‘earn’ annual salaries of millions of dollars. These amounts cannot equate to value for work done, nor do they relate to people’s needs. Our economic system is currently not producing a fair society.

Eventually the world will get through this pandemic. Let us ask our leaders to re-build a world where people are not grudgingly de-valued, but where every person is treated with worth and generosity. We should encourage the Government to continue and expand programs like JobKeeper and JobSeeker. We should invite politicians to seriously look at new ways of caring for every member of society like, for example, Universal Basic Income schemes.

This is a moment in history when we should stop treating people just as expedient labour and build a more just and caring community.

The Pathway Out

For us Christians, the question might be, where is God leading us to through this pandemic’s Pathway Out?


Exodus 14:10-15:21

The Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament) is convinced of two things about God: one, God will show God’s people a pathway out; and two, God will lead God’s people back to God. Jews and Christians tell the story of “The Pathway Out” (The Exodus) at least annually.

Passover meal – telling the story of The Pathway Out

It is one of humanity’s great stories, bursting with the power of God to bring the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt by parting the Sea of Reeds to allow the Israelites to pass dry-footed to the other side, and pouring the waters back over the pursuing Egyptian army.

“Pharaoh’s chariots and his army he cast into the sea; his picked officers were sunk in the Red Sea. The floods covered them; they went down into the depths like a stone.” (Exodus 15:4-5)

The joy of this escape reverberates through the Bible. The Psalms sing of the joy of the Pathway Out, “for his steadfast love endures for ever” (Psalm 136)!

But the story of The Pathway Out does not end on the north bank of the Sea of Reeds. The Israelites have still to learn to follow God’s lead, and it takes them a generation to find their destination. God is patient with God’s people until they are prepared to battle through the wilderness and arrive where God is, a land of milk and honey that God has prepared for them (Deuteronomy 6:3).

Our political leaders are working hard to find a pathway out of the pandemic. We should pray for them; as Moses learned, leading people through the Pathway Out is taxing and personally costly. Part of our prayer for Premier and Prime Minister may be to email them messages of support.

To give us hope, our leaders are showing us the end point, the return to a “new normal”, with the community re-opened and again functionally healthily.

For us Christians, the question might be, where is God leading us to through this pandemic’s Pathway Out? What new world is God preparing for us? Where we can we follow God to assist in breathing new life into the community? How will we know that God has led us back to God?

Part of the answer may be for us to look further afield than our suburbs. Those who were already vulnerable at the beginning of 2020 are most vulnerable to Covid-19: the poor, especially those in crowded slums, prisoners and refugees. We are so blessed in Australia’s modern medical system and our public health response, but we must not be blind to nations which struggle to provide care for their people.

For example, we may give of our abundance through CBM, World Vision, or Oxfam or our favourite charity to their Covid-19 appeals.   

The Hebrew Bible has it right: God will show us the Pathway Out of the pandemic, and God will lead God’s people back to Godself. Are we willing to follow?