Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Remind me who hates whom, again?

Moments after I pressed 'post', late last Thursday afternoon, I realised what I'd done. I realised I'd done just what I can't stand other people doing at moments like these: I had linked my lament at a horrific loss of life (the murder of Jo Cox) with my political prejudices (that Nigel Farage's latest poster was blatantly racist); I was, at worst (however unconsciously), 'using' this tragedy - this personal tragedy of the death of one woman, a wife, mother, daughter - to confirm what I already believed and had been saying about where our society is going wrong. I was called out on it by a good friend, who I'm glad is able to say such things to me, and I was sorry, genuinely.

And yet. All murders are political. They are never simply 'random acts'. They have histories, they are entwined in relationships. If not directly between perpetrator and victim, at the very least relationships and histories that have shaped a perpetrator, brought them to this moment of senselessness.

And perhaps senselessness itself is the wrong word, misrepresents: because although we dearly long (with St Augustine) to consign evil to the non-realm of meaninglessness, to label all acts of violence senseless is to conceal the meanings, however murky, that their perpetrators believe them to have. And those beliefs are themselves the products of meanings not merely fabricated by isolated individuals, but also absorbed by them: from messages they have received, consumed, from others; from family, or neighbours, or school, or prison, or religion, or the internet, or politicians, or the media, or corporate marketing machines, or...

We act because an action 'makes sense', even just for a moment, within the meaning-games we have absorbed, consumed, inhabited - as well as constructed for ourselves.

And so, when we try to 'make sense' of the most horrific of actions, we need to look to the meaning-games within which the actions, and the actors, are situated.

And therein lies the great danger for all of us. How quickly we 'join the dots', make the connections, add 2 and 2 and make... well, is it 4? Or is it 5?

The man who shot Jo Cox shouted 'Britain First' before shooting her, and was a vocal supporter of that far-right group, it seems. The man who shot dead 49 people in the Orlando night club was a Muslim, we're told. But the former, we're also told, had a history of mental health struggles. The latter, we're also told, was revolted at a gay couple kissing. Which dots do we join? Which connections do we make?

Every human being, one of my pastoral theology lecturers once pointed out, is in some ways like all other human beings; in some ways like some other human beings; and in some ways utterly unique. But in what ways? And how do we know?

Let's get some stuff straight. In a manner of speaking. Some people who call themselves 'Muslim' are violent, some are homophobic. There are also plenty of violent, homophobic self-declared 'Christians', and violent, homophobic atheists. But there are also - and I know some of them and am blessed to be able to call them family, dear friends, neighbours - many, many peace-loving Muslims, Christians and atheists who are either LGBTQ themselves, or love and ally themselves with those who are. And what's more, can point to places from within their own traditions of belief and practice which firmly ground those loves and solidarities. The labels of faith affiliation are big, broad labels - to the point that we can look at each other across the breadth within a faith tradition and barely recognise a shared faith. Many is the time I've looked at the words or actions of others who call themselves 'Christians' and responded with horror, disgust, wanting to put as much distance as I can between their faith and my own.

Let's try another one. Some people who have long-term mental health struggles are violent, and some have extremist, fascist views. There are also, quite obviously, are many, many people who have long-term mental health struggles who are passionately, painstakingly committed to working for a peaceful, just world for all. Some of these, again, I am fortunate enough to call family, dear friends, and neighbours. Again, the label is so, so broad - that blanket pronouncements about 'how we should respond to people with mental health problems' might, for one person, be entirely appropriate, and for another, be utterly, destructively wrong.

There is nothing - absolutely nothing - about being Muslim, Christian, atheist or struggling with your mental health, that makes you inherently more violent, homophobic, or fascist than anyone else.

However.

If you participate in meaning-games (in the most serious sense) that portray some human beings (whether because of their gender, or sexuality, or ethnicity, or religion, or nationality, or statelessness, or disability, or state of mental health, or low level of income, or way of dressing) as less valuable, less worthy of respect or reverence, less 'human' - then you are doing your little bit to legitimise fear, hatred, and violence against such people. If you laugh at the jokes, or tell them, if you write the news headlines, or buy them, if you create the images, or share them on social media, if you use the words, preach the theology, shore up the institution, buy the products, or 'merely' stay quiet when you witness any of this going on around you and let it go unchallenged - then you are part of the problem, you have your own share in the violence, the hatred me the fear-mongering.

And of course, 'you' means 'me'. I am part of the problem. My hands are not spotless, my words innocent, my actions pure. I am complicit in the fearful, hate-full, violent dynamics of our world. I cannot stand blameless lay 'outside' and point unambiguously to those 'others' whose fault it all is. This, simply, is what we Christians call 'original sin'. None of us can escape it. It touches us all.

The question is what we do with it. Do we jump into it with both feet and hate with the worst of them? Do we despair of the whole damned world and turn our back on it all? Or do we do our little bit of throwing beached starfish back into the life-giving water, loving those we can love, challenging those we can challenge, repenting where we can repent, learning where we can learn, befriending where we can befriend, forgiving where we can forgive, hoping where we can hope, that - against all the odds - love, ultimately, wins?

On the Sunday after the Orlando shootings, after Jo Cox's murder, I led a couple of services in Hodge Hill, as I do most Sundays. In one sense, we did something 'special'. We began the main morning service by gathering around an altar draped in rainbow fabrics, each of us holding in our hands a small piece of one edge. We lit a single candle in the middle. We said short prayers, we sung, we kept silence, we held hands. But in another sense, we Christians in Hodge Hill did last Sunday what we do every Sunday (and other days too): we gathered together the fragments of our lives and our world as it has touched us over the preceding days; we offered to God our penitence for our part in the brokenness of our world, the hatred and division which we know is even within our own hearts - and opened ourselves afresh to God's healing and forgiving love; we prayed in solidarity with the suffering and the bereaved, for healing and peace and justice; we joined consciously with that 'great cloud of witnesses' of those who have gone before us (sometimes dying violent deaths) in witnessing to God's kingdom of life and love and wholeness, longing for that kingdom to come 'on earth as in heaven'; and then we re-committed ourselves to turning that longing into a reality in our daily lives. Nothing unusual in any of that - but extraordinary nevertheless.

A good friend who is a chaplain at Warwick University shared with me another story of simple, faith-full human responses to last week's tragedies, in some ways much more extraordinary but no more 'superhuman' than our response in Hodge Hill:

"On Thursday night the societies at Warwick organised a vigil for the Orlando shooting; over a hundred went.  It was led by Pride but all sorts got involved, including one of our orchestral societies who played.  Faith societies were visibly present.  Afterwards, one of the Christian societies walked back to the chaplaincy with Pride members to light candles with those who wanted to, and the Muslim attendees went back to the prayer hall for prayers and to prepare food.  Later,  people from all the groups that night gathered at the Islamic prayer hall to break the fast together.  There were all sorts of blurred lines between the 'liberation' and 'faith' societies as we sat on the floor and ate curry together; people whose identities are complex and unique.  I joined just for the food but what I saw in my snapshot of the evening filled me with hope.  On Friday night, students from a Christian group came to mine to eat and pray - what they had taken part in the night before had been transformative for them.  They’ll carry that with them for the rest of their lives."

The words and actions we consume, in which we participate, form us and transform us. No simple labels will ever do them much justice, tell us much about their content and character - or ours. Our challenge, as human beings, and as societies, is discerning (literally, teasing out) the multiplicity of different meaning-games that form us - and finding ways of nurturing those which are good, and life-giving, and disentangling ourselves from those which are unhealthy, and destructive, to ourselves as well as to others. We might call that process of discerning, disentangling and nurturing 'faith'. We might call it 'politics'. I think it's probably both, and more. But I know, because I have witnessed it, that when it is done carefully, painstakingly, across differences and divides, and drenched in love, then it has the power to cast out fear.

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