Tuesday, 29 January 2008

Social Capital: Doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God

Yet another thoughtful and thought-provoking piece in The Guardian is buzzing around in my head, especially in the context of last Sunday's Holocaust Memorial Day. Madeleine Bunting's argument is this: a pathological individualism is poisoning public life. Starting from seeing a mad scramble to get on board a school bus, her subsequent reflection leads her to voice a deep disquiet about the very nature of public life itself: "Amid such cacophony of attention-seeking "me, me, me", two things are in danger of being lost: first, the ability really to listen - rather than just wait with varying degrees of patience for your chance to spout off; and second, that grand old etiquette of liberal debate, the option to agree to differ. Both are vital ingredients of public debate as a process of learning and negotiation, both are much needed if the unprecedented diversity of our public spaces now is to produce civility or even conviviality." Christians should be profoundly disturbed by this. The ability and willingness to listen deeply to another person seems to me to be an absolutely crucial hallmark of anyone who claims to be a Christian because it entails a Christ-like disposition of mind and heart towards the other, which takes them seriously as a person who is precious to God. As Richard Gillard's modern hymn puts it: "Brother, sister, let me serve you, let me be as Christ to you."

In St John's gospel (John 13:34; John 15:12), Jesus cuts to the chase as to how his disciples are to behave: "I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another........This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you."  Loving as Jesus loves; its as simple and as daunting as that. Jesus is the human face of God, whom the Bible declares is Love. If we turn to the Book of Micah (6:8) with this in mind we find a simply stunning answer to the question, "what does God require of us?", an answer later embodied in the life and ministry of Jesus:

"He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
   and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
   and to walk humbly with your God?

Two extended quotes from the writing of the American feminist theologian Carter Heyward celebrate the truly radical nature of such godly love, within a theology of mutuality:

"To say I love you is to say that you are not mine, but rather your own. To love you is to advocate your rights, your space, your self, and to struggle with you, rather than against you, in our learning to claim our power in the world. To love you is to make love to you, and with you, whether in an exchange of glances heavy with existence, in the passing of a peace we mean, in our common work or play, in our struggle for social justice, or in the ecstasy and tenderness of intimate embrace that we believe is just and right for us - and for others in the world. To love you is to be pushed by a power/God both terrifying and comforting, to touch and be touched by you...To love you is to sing with you, cry with you, pray with you, and act with you to re-create the world. To say ‘I love you’ means - let the revolution begin!"

"Love is not fundamentally a sweet feeling; not, at heart, a matter of sentiment, attachment, or being "drawn toward". Love is active, effective, a matter of making reciprocal and mutually beneficial relation with one's friends and enemies. Love creates righteousness, or justice, here on earth. To make love is to make justice. As advocates and activists for justice know, loving involves struggle, resistance, risk. People working today on behalf of women, blacks, lesbians and gay men, the aging, the poor in this country and elsewhere know that making justice is not a warm, fuzzy experience. I think also that sexual lovers and good friends know that the most compelling relationships demand hard work, patience, and a willingness to endure tensions and anxiety in creating mutually empowering bonds. For this reason loving involves commitment. We are not automatic lovers of self, others, world, or God. Love does not just happen. We are not love machines, puppets on the strings of a deity called "love". Love is a choice — not simply, or necessarily, a rational choice, but rather a willingness to be present to others without pretence or guile. Love is a conversion to humanity — a willingness to participate with others in the healing of a broken world and broken lives. Love is the choice to experience life as a member of the human family, a partner in the dance of life."

Loving such as this is about building social capital; it is all about doing justice and loving kindness. Such a theology of mutuality is the counter to the me, me, me malaise about which Madeleine Bunting speaks so passionately, because loving like this confers and fosters dignity, which she says is something "as essential to human wellbeing as food and shelter, but in the public spaces of our lives it is in increasingly short supply. That prompts frustration and disillusionment and a retreat into our private worlds as we disengage even further from the brutal bear pit that so many aspects of our public life have become. The danger is that we withdraw into bunkers of the like-minded, vacating the territory of solidarity and common purpose. That's a brutally bleak picture, and that is exactly what the children in Edmonton bus station were being taught last week."

Loving such as this subverts the corrosive attitudes in society which do not see, do not listen to, do not value and do not cherish others. Lets make no mistake; such attitudes when taken to extremes have led to Genocide, be it the Holocaust, Rwanda, Bosnia or Darfur.  In his superb book "the dignity of difference", Rabbi Dr Jonathan Sacks asks these powerful questions: Can we make space for difference? Can we hear the voice of God in a language, a sensibility, a culture not our own? Can we see the presence of God in the face of a stranger? It seems to me that unless and until we can, we will really struggle to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God.

Wednesday, 16 January 2008


Type the word 'Epiphany' into a search engine and its meaning becomes obvious.  Its all to do with suddenly seeing, comprehending and knowing the essence or meaning of something.  Google aside, an epiphany is most often used to describe that instant when intuitively we suddenly realise that we understand a particular bit of our reality in a fresh way. In Christian understanding Epiphany refers to the season after Christmas, when we celebrate, variously, the visit of the Magi and the revelation of God-self in the birth of Jesus, and the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist. In different ways both of these are epiphanies, with the manifestation of divine reality coupled with the sudden insight by others of that reality.

This mix of divine encounter and human insight is very much the authentic texture of the Psalms and is readily apparent in these extracts from Psalm 40, which is set for next Sunday.

I waited patiently for the Lord; he inclined to me and heard my cry. He drew me up from the desolate pit, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure. He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God. Many will see and fear, and put their trust in the Lord. Happy are those who make the Lord their trust, who do not turn to the proud, to those who go astray after false gods.

I have not hidden your saving help within my heart, I have spoken of your faithfulness and your salvation; I have not concealed your steadfast love and your faithfulness from the great congregation.

Be pleased, O Lord, to deliver me; O Lord, make haste to help me.

Here too we find that in the Bible epiphany leads to action and that it entails change on our part. The Psalmist's experience of God leads him to share it with others. The honest telling of his story, his reality, his epiphany, is integral to the whole epidemic process of epiphany and hence of evangelism.

Consider the pictures of the dandelion. The seed head is a quite remarkable structure; each seed is itself an exquisite evolutionary piece of biological engineering. The fine filaments provide sufficient lift to carry each seed along on the breeze. The seed itself contains the biochemical and genetic machinery necessary for the seed to germinate in the right conditions. Either without the other would be pretty much useless.

The story of the baptism of Jesus in John chapter 1, the gospel for this Sunday, weaves together all these themes. The reality of God's love breaks through with the first appearance of Jesus. John the Baptist experiences an epiphany and he shares it with those close to him, his own disciples. Within the seed of this revelation lies the hope of new life. The story continues: The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see.”

John shares his understanding of the significance of Jesus, and it is this seed which germinates in the consciousness of the disciples. In the text I feel that it is the question "what are you looking for?" which is the key to their personal epiphany. It is a question which goes deep; a hidden question of longing which drew each of them to follow after Jesus in the first place, perhaps without either of them knowing quite why they were doing it. And the answer to the question will only truly become apparent when they go and see for themselves. Just looking at the dandelion - what is said about Jesus - isn't enough; just like the Psalmist, the seed of truth has to grow within the soil of their inner self.

For me this is the test of faith; not that the intellectual propositions stack up - or don't, but that having followed I have discovered and seen for myself the truth of what is said about Jesus as the human face of God. This epiphany is hard won and costly; it has all to do with the question "what are you looking for?" and the sense of emptiness and incompleteness out of which it arises. Inevitably this leads to the searing self-honesty of which the Psalmist speaks, and to the God whose love is revealed in Jesus. "He drew me up from the desolate pit, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure."

Tuesday, 15 January 2008

covenant with confidence

What a treat it was to pick up yesterday's Guardian and see that the regular  'in praise of' section of the Leader page was all about the Methodist Covenant service. What had caught the editor's imagination were the words of the 'old' covenant service: "Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will; put me to doing, put me to suffering; let me be employed for you, or laid aside for you, exalted for you, or brought low for you." The counter-cultural implications of such a radical attitude were affirmed as the Leader went on to write of the Covenant service that "Its nobility is the recognition of the accretion of great good through small deeds."

This chimes in with so much that is being written and said regarding climate change; that each of us is part of the solution, as we can each make a significant difference through changes in our behaviour. Margot Wallström, a Vice President of the European Commission, reflects on this truth when she speaks about 'absurd optimism', hope, climate change and our common destiny. It seems to me that our Covenant service is all about hope too; the irresistible hope which the gospel gives us that we can together make a difference.

Just before Christmas my attention was held by a piece on the historian David Starkey's series on Monarchy, which quoted him as finishing the final episode with these words:"Now there is a moral vacuum left by the sellout of the state to business interests, will King Charles step into the breach? ... Something new is required. Altruism, neighbourliness, the fruits of the spirit, are as important as ever. Who will speak up for them, if not the crown?"

As the reviewer noted, "You may not agree with his conclusion, but it's a serious question to ask." Quite so. That Starkey fails to look to the churches for leadership is not surprising in secular Britain; it would be tragic,  however, if we do not rise to the challenge with renewed vigour. Altruism, neighbourliness, the fruits of the spirit , these are core values, behaviours and experiences of the heart-warmed people called Methodist  who dare to say the words of the covenant each January. Changing the world, changing our society, begins with changing ourselves. In this it seems to me that our Covenant service sits well with much contemporary thinking about happiness and well-being. Richard Layard's book on happiness makes salutary reading for western societies who have bought into the mantra of prosperity and ever-increasing standards of living. As we have got richer, we have become no happier. The point is made even more sharply by Oliver James in his writing on 'Affluenza' - when he asserts that Selfish capitalism is bad for our mental health. What is required if we are to move towards sustainable, healthier and happier societies is a mind-shift. Writing in the current issue of Resurgence, Ray Anderson explores this. He says: "A sustainable society will depend on (among other things) a vast, ethically driven redesign of the industrial system, triggered by an equally vast mind-shift. This shift in values is the hard part, but it will happen, it must happen, one mind at a time, one technology at a time, one community at a time, until we live within sustainable systems...a sustainable society will seek higher levels of awareness and transcendent meaning in life - more true happiness with less stuff." One mind at a time. This is surely the genius of our Covenant service: one mind at a time, many lives commit together to make a difference and find new life, renewed life, for the benefit of all.

In this covenant God promises us new life in Christ. For our part we promise to live no longer for ourselves but for God.

Christ has many services to be done: some are easy, others are difficult; some bring honour, others bring reproach; some are suitable to our natural inclinations and material interests, others are contrary to both;
in some we may please Christ and please ourselves; in others we cannot please Christ except by denying ourselves. Yet the power to do all these things is given to us in Christ, who strengthens us.

I am no longer my own but yours. Your will, not mine, be done in all things, wherever you may place me, in all that I do and in all that I may endure; when there is work for me and when there is none; when I am troubled and when I am at peace.Your will be done when I am valued and when I am disregarded; when I find fulfilment and when it is lacking; when I have all things, and when I have nothing. I willingly offer all I have and am to serve you, as and where you choose.

If Methodism takes this seriously we can be in the vanguard of leading the changes the world so desperately needs. We will then truly deserve the appreciation the editor of the Guardian has given to us when he describes us as a  "small but hugely influential church".