Fingerprints of Fire, Footprints of Peace is no page-turner, it’s a page-stopper! It constantly made me want to jump up and shout “Yes! That’s it!” and relay Noel’s way of looking at the Christian faith to the nearest person. The book is full of new insights to familiar concepts.
Don’t be surprised to find things that resonate if you have a heart for justice. Noel's input to SPEAK gatherings, in particular the Day of Action, had us singing and dancing on the streets in hope.
One of the most important things Noel does, is interrogate commonplace words and let us know exactly what they mean. For example did you know that the word ‘blessed’ (as in blessed are the peacemakers) means “to set yourself up on the right way for the right goal” in the original Aramaic? (p. 43). It's not just familiar Christian words, but words used in other faiths are given meaning. Like the Indian greeting ‘Namaste’ which means “I recognise the divine in you” (p. 9). Or even everyday language, such as the word ‘with’ can be understood as “conveys a strong sense of close association in friendship without any hint of hostile confrontation.” So Jesus was with the wild animals in the desert, the animals went in to the ark with Noah (p. 78-80).
In both pop-culture and faith communities we are bombarded with glib terms. It is therefore refreshing to read something where each word takes on its full importance. The chapter headings Noel uses to describe his own faith are more than just catchy phrases. As you read through each chapter, go back and ponder the titles; you will realise that they are about as far from banal as is possible. This book shows time and again, that to dig deep into the history and meaning of a word can bring a new perspective on something you thought you understood. Be warned!
These new perspectives bring to the fore lots of radical ideas that are conveyed with boldness, both about what Noel believes, and where he sees the failings of the church. That might make you think it’s another excuse to stick two fingers up to the mediocre church experiences you’ve had with a bit of a smug smile that you now know better (let’s be honest, we’ve all done that!). But you’d be mistaken. Noel is concerned that we live an authentic spiritual life. His own is completely centred on the person of Jesus, but he is not afraid to respect people of other faiths whom he sees as truthful to their understanding of the world.
The book is full of questions for the reader, challenging you to listen to what is being said and figure out what it means in practice for you – not simply agree or disagree with the ideas and reject what you don’t like about institutionalised religion. Noel looks at the history of the “Peacemeal”, which you may know as Communion or the Eucharist. He states that it neither becomes nor represents the body and blood of Jesus. It simply is. The mystery of this meal, centred around a table is what Jesus left his followers to build their community. It became the ‘love feast’ or ‘agape meal’, in which food was shared among the community so no-one went hungry. So even if you struggle with and question your own tradition, Noel points us towards a deeper commitment to sharing Jesus through this meal with all who we find at the table. A much more difficult and challenging position to take! (Ch. 11)
So what else is in the book and why is it relevant for SPEAK? Anyone who has an inkling that Jesus was committed to challenging injustice and oppressive power structures should read this book.
- Noel centres everything around the concept of shalom. He describes himself as a ‘shalom activist’; someone who is committed to struggle for peace and justice. For Noel, the secret of the Kingdom of God is wrapped up in this concept, which means right relationships between God and us and creation. In other words, peace, material sufficiency and living in harmony with nature (Ch. 4) SPEAK’s first core value is to be Jesus centred – if Jesus was speaking about and embodying the kingdom of God in his life. With this as the description of the kingdom of God, do you need any more reason to commit to struggling for peace and justice as part of a community of Jesus-centred activists?
- Noel calls himself a ‘messianic anarchist’ and sets out why he thinks the concentration of power in the state (and presumably any large power structure, like a corporation) is both dangerous and the antithesis of Jesus inspired living. ‘Anarchist’, means “once free from the powers” and as we read in Colossians 2:15 “this was the purpose of Jesus’ death and resurrection”. It is about a faithful commitment to the values we find embodied in Jesus. It is about being directed by the Holy Spirit rather than dictated by unjust power structures (Ch. 7). In each of SPEAK’s campaigns we are encouraged to think about the political and economic philosophies and values systems underpinning what we seek to change (for example, the structure of global trade which influences corporate behaviour). Whether you see yourself as an anarchist or not, you will find a framework to begin working with (and a lot of important references both to the Bible and other theologians) that will help you think about how your faith informs your approach to the underlying assumptions in our society.
- If you have ever been inspired by SPEAK’s value of faith sharing, you will find every encouragement you need to invest in this as part of your “shalom activism.” SPEAK’s values are about living out a transformed life as an individual and transforming others as well as unjust structure. But it is also about understanding that those who struggle for justice from whatever background, bring an authentic commitment too. Respecting and learning from everyone is important since Jesus refers to all our brothers and sisters in the struggle as ‘people of peace.’ It is exhilarating to be encouraged in a theology and praxis that encourages you to stand firm in your own beliefs but enter in to conversation and partnership with others. (Ch. 13)
- Noel is keen to communicate that the early church’s name for itself was the ‘Ekkelsia’, a term referring to a political gathering, not a religion (Ch. 13). This is a great way for thinking about your SPEAK group. You are Jesus centred activists, aware of the politics of your faith. It is not just personal – a commitment to working out how the shalom of God is going to affect your ethics and your habits, but also your communities, our nation and the world. As our Core Values say, our walk of discipleship, is not about being or encouraging “individualistic, half-baked western Christians” but about the total transformation of individuals (ourselves and others), and corporate structures. Let’s get political and stay faithful!
Despite its relatively small size, this book touches on many other important issues for people who want to live authentic spiritual lives. If you are a Christian, you will find old ideas torn apart as you follow Noel’s thinking. You may find some of the ideas disturbing and challenging. But whether you are a person of faith or not, you will be challenged to think deeply and critically about the beliefs you hold. I recommend reading it as part of a group and discussing the implications of Noel’s conclusions, using the online study guide for more ideas: www.workshop.org.uk/fingerprints.
Regardless of whether you agree with the ideas or not, this is a fantastic handbook for a Jesus centred activist; probing you to think deeply about why you take that action. So get hold of a copy and read it. Take time to let the phrases sink in. Wrestle with the ideas. Use the footnotes to follow up on things that stand out for you. Noel is not afraid to speak the truth as he sees it. But his gentle approach and voice of grace shines through and invites you to reach into yourself, grapple with your convictions and be energised for the journey ahead.