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Hallo again to all.

Our readings in some of the more remote byways of Anglican history took us recently across the life of Henry Aaron Stern (1820-1885), a German-born Jew who became an Anglican priest. Like Samuel Isaac Joseph Schereschewsky, of similar background and experience, Stern was an accomplished and prolific missionary, focusing his work on Jewish communities in Kurdistan, Palestine and today's Ethiopia.

Henry Stern and his fellow captivesIt was in Ethiopia, then called Abyssinia, that that ardent Anglican found himself in serious trouble. When the local king, Theodore II, never received a reply to a letter he sent to Queen Victoria, he imprisoned Stern along with his fellow missionaries and the British diplomatic staff. They were tortured, held captive, and — most harrowing for them — denied the ability to conduct unfettered missionary work for five full years. Stern and his nine fellow prisoners were only freed after a large-scale invasion by British and Indian troops known as the Magdala Campaign. About 12,000 soldiers freed the small group of prisoners, burned and looted the imperial capital, and killed about 700 Ethiopian defenders. King Theodore committed suicide, the diplomats and missionaries returned home, and the soldiers carried off their substantial treasures on no less than 15 elephants and 200 mules. Decorations and titles were bestowed, and books were written. So ended an incident that reminds us strikingly of an Anglican Indiana Jones or Alan Quatermain movie.

We were certain that this incident had faded into the mists of history well behind us, but the internet proved us wrong this week. Ethiopia still remembers its treasures and wants them back. An organised international campaign for their return has petitioned British libraries, galleries, churches and private collectors to return a royal crown, icons, more than 350 manuscripts, scrolls, processional crosses, religious artifacts, tabots (tabernacle-arks or representations of the Decalogue) and human remains to the country from which they were taken by force nearly 140 years ago.

JoyTo be sure, some items have already been repatriated. Queen Elizabeth returned King Theodore's great seal and royal cap on her state visit to Ethiopia in 1965. A tabot was returned not long ago by a Scottish Episcopal priest in a joyous ceremony pictured here. And the British Library has provided microfilms of its looted manuscript holdings for use in Addis Ababa. But reproductions are not originals, and memory becomes longing for people who feel themselves wronged by the continued loss of their heritage. We cannot help but think that in general the communities that created and loved religious and cultural objects should be able to visit and use them in their proper contexts if still they wish to do so.

The Obelisk WaltzWhen diplomacy breaks down and war begins, innocent people made in the image and likeness of God lose their lives. In the course of such conflict, cultural treasures are often destroyed or uprooted, too, causing religious or patriotic disorientation for generations to come. If the Parthenon / Elgin Marbles and the Axum Obelisk are any fair guides, it is always harder to give things back than it is to take them in the first place. (Cleopatra's Needles in London, Paris and New York apparently fall in a different category of monument, since they were technically gifts rather than spoils.)

Why mention any of this, however thrilling it is, when the headlines say (as they have been saying for many years now) that our communion is on the brink of schism? We mention this episode and its long, continuing aftermath because it shows us that wrongs in history, particularly wrongs in the religious world, return over and over to call us — and then our children and their children — to restoration, forgiveness, repentance and return. The stakes for our decisions in the present are actually quite high when seen in this light. Communities and cultures torn apart by force or division stay that way until someone works actively, with a pure heart, to repair them. In the words of John McLuckie, who with his parish returned one artifact,

In our own day, strong nations continue to assert their kind of order upon weaker ones. In our Christian faith, weakness is itself seen as strength when its recognition of vulnerability leads to the expression of mutual interdependence. The One who laid down his life to right wrongs may be calling us to live creatively in a world of change by responding to difference with understanding and by transforming hatred and violence through loving solidarity. In this small act of friendship, we hope that we may learn something of that call.

Hard words that became pure and holy joy when turned into action. See you next week.

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Last updated: 9 July 2006

(Click for the 14 July update on Cynthia's cancer.)

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