On learning from Nineveh

One midsummer evening, many moons ago when I was still living in Bath, I left a wedding party and discovered that the extremely ugly shoes I was wearing were incompatible with the steep gradient of the streets below me. Descending and returning home evidently meant taking off those shoes. I never wear heels, so it was a once-off experience, an exciting journey of discovery across smooth Georgian pavements, gritty modern tarmac, the wooden boards under the old train station roof, a sense of intimacy with the place itself, feeling the very ground of my city beneath the soles of my feet.

Which of course is completely preposterous. Bath is not MY city. In Bath you can see all the layers of history and you have to know your place. Georgian Bath, with its elegant crescents and long-gone Assembly Rooms shenanigans, shows no interest in modern Bath with its shoe shops. Victorian Bath seems pretty oblivious to both, and underneath all of them are the green waters, worn stones and scratched prayers and curses of Roman Bath, which, one feels, might reasonably prefer to relocate to Rome proper if only it could. And beyond them all, dimly, is King Bladud with his pigs.


He was King Lear’s father, apparently.

Of course people of the present community in Bath should feel that Bath is Their City. People walking those streets every day should feel that they belong in their city. People who know that ground well from sleeping on it every night should feel that they belong in their city. Children playing and teenagers getting pissed on the Royal Crescent should feel that they belong in their city. But if anyone in Bath were to say, “I just want my city back”, history responds, “which city exactly? in what sense yours?”

Bell - Bath

This is the Bell Inn on Walcot Street in Bath, where Nigel Farage and a film crew were once told that they were welcome to come in for a pint but not to hold hustings.

As with cities, so with countries. In Italy, looking across the Strait of Messina to the lovely skyline of Sicily, I feel an odd disconnectedness. I hope this is just a lack of relationship: I haven’t got to know these mountains yet, and their presence still takes me by surprise. I hope it is not because of a lack of ownership. I hope my affection for English countryside is a matter of relating rather than possessing. But I wonder how you can be sure you’ve rooted out an ancestral instinct to swan around sticking flags in places, and whether that instinct might not also arise in relation to the place you first came from.

How did that song go?

We want to see Jesus lifted high
A banner that flies across this land
That all men might see the truth and know
He is the way to heaven

Step by step we’re moving forward
Little by little we’re taking ground
Every prayer a powerful weapon
Strongholds come tumbling down and down and down

I did not really need to ask myself how the song went. I know exactly how it went, and the actions too. I can’t think or remember now how much of the Christian discourse I’ve heard and spoken all my life has had this Onward Christian Soldiers bent, this impulse towards taking and claiming, winning the nation or the nations for Jesus. Not long ago, someone in a Prophetic Encouragement session looked at my Doc Martens and told me that God would give me every place where I set my feet. I have prayed this idea myself on behalf of friends who happened to be facing insuperable odds at the time. Of course we’re not talking about anything actually colonial, are we? We don’t mean real weapons or real armies, and calling the church youth group ‘Joshua Generation’ just means that you see them as strong, very courageous and younger than the Moses and Caleb generations. It’s meant spiritually, isn’t it? Ephesians 6 and so on?

Well, I’ve had enough of it. An overwhelming majority of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump. Mind-boggling numbers of my Brothers And Sisters In Christ were willing to put their support behind the idea that a rich man can have whatever he asks for, whatever his history of racism and misogyny, whatever the outcomes for vulnerable people and a vulnerable planet. It is not possible to think of all those who call themselves Christians as one united army standing together in love and unity for God and what is good. And I feel like anyway I should have stopped before now to question all this triumphantly marching forward seizing territory stuff. The children of colonists ought to question themselves at the very least before developing any metaphors about taking ground.

Do not get any gold or silver or copper to take with you in your belts – no bag for the journey or extra shirt or sandals or a staff.

Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst.

Take nothing for the journey except a staff – no bread, no bag, no money in your belts. Wear sandals but not an extra shirt.

I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling.

Take nothing for the journey – no staff, no bag, no bread, no money, no extra shirt.

Then Joshua fell face down to the ground in reverence, and asked him, ‘What message does my Lord have for his servant?’ The commander of the Lord’s army replied, ‘Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy.’

If we want to honour Jesus, we cannot stand in triumph over anything. We cannot look at any piece of territory and say, I’m claiming that. We cannot look at any nation, including our quote own close quote, and say, this is mine. Weakness, repentance, grace, is the one place we get to call our home. We cannot take ground, but we can take off our shoes.

What does repentance mean? What on earth does repentance look like when people like me go and fight a crusade, build an empire, turn away the stranger, trash the environment or vote in Donald Trump? This ought to be basic stuff, the groundwork the church goes over all the time, over and over as with unfailing determination we prolong our remarkable history of making a pig’s ear of everything. Instead, we seek out obscure connections between the EU and the Book of Revelation, notice that the quality of post-service coffee has substantially improved in recent weeks, or wrestle with anxiety about whether this or that person might have been offended by this or that thing we said. Knowing about repentance is meant to be our gift and our pilgrimage; instead we vaguely expect ourselves to be more moral than other people, and collapse entirely on finding that this is not the case – or never find out, which is worse. We need to know what we are commanded to bring to Jesus that we never knew we were collectively guilty of. Then we may be able to walk in weakness alongside the weak, stand with them, and be there with them when the strong are shamed and the mighty are cast down from their thrones.

Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.
Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.
Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.

Have mercy on the fact that I have written about what I don’t practise but only had some thoughts about while sitting on the lungomare watching the waves crash in the wind.


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3 Responses to On learning from Nineveh

  1. Mark Flowers says:

    Be careful about making a doctrine out of Luke 9:3 “Take nothing for the journey – no staff, no bag, no bread, no money, no extra shirt.” Jesus seems to have been speaking about a specific time, because later He says in Luke 22:25-36, “…“When I sent you without purse, bag or sandals, did you lack anything?”“Nothing,” they answered.36 He said to them, “But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one. “

  2. Gavin says:

    Not having a cloak to sell or wanting to buy a sword, Luke 9:3 for me.

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