Tuesday, 27 November 2018

Towards a missiology of edges

Questions of territory are everywhere. Not just at national and international levels (Brexit, anyone?!), but also at a much smaller, much more local scale. From the little tetchinesses of different groups sharing a kitchen (who used what pan from which cupboard?!), to fractious conversations about who's allowed keys to which rooms (or access to the heating controls) in the church, questions of territory bubble up repeatedly.

In our wider community-building work locally, we've begun talking about a 'neighbourhood ecology' or 'ecosystem' - with different people and groups, spaces and buildings, growing and flourishing not as separate entities, but as interconnected, interdependent organisms within the ecology. But even within this picture, some people and groups have more enthusiasm than others for being part of an 'ecosystem' than others. Some would much rather stick to tending their own, carefully demarcated 'allotment'. And are those of us (the 'we', above) who are advocating the 'ecosystem' narrative in some sense attempting to 'out-narrate' other ways of describing (and sometimes, attempting to 'manage') our area - in our own way seeking a bit of (discursive) territorial control?

In the wider church, territorial ambition may not be explicitly acknowledged in 'church growth' strategies, and neither may anxieties about 'shrinking'. But it's hard to listen to much that is spoken about evangelism and 'impact' - Liverpool diocese's strapline, 'bigger church, bigger difference', for example - without hearing at least echoes of a territorial imagination at work.

And yet...

I have been living and wrestling, for some years now, with a phrase of Rowan Williams' (picked up by political theorist Romand Coles): that Jesus did not come to be "a competitor for space in this world". The kingdom of God that we so often talk about, wait and watch and pray for, seek to get involved in 'building' or 'growing' - this kingdom is not one that can be mapped onto any idea of 'territory'. And so, by extension, the church of Jesus, if it is to be faithful to him and faithful in seeking God's kingdom, should also be resistant to territorial language, and a territorial imagination.

So when thinking about church, and neighbourhood, and God, and politics (and a whole host of other things that are so often caught up in territoriality), I've found it increasingly helpful to think not about territory, but about edges.

One kind of 'edge' is the experience of marginalisation. We're pushed to the edges of the group, the community, the society, because of who we are - or rather, because of how others see us, talk about us, label us, treat us. We're rendered invisible, inaudible. We're overlooked, patronised, stigmatised, devalued, demonised. Our contribution is treated as worthless - we're seen as lacking, a 'problem' to be fixed, 'waste' to be thrown away.

And the dynamics of marginalisation can sometimes push us to a different (but related) kind of edge: 'cliff-edges' where, with one more little push, or a stumble, or a gust of wind, we're falling over the edge. The cliff-edges are very real, and they destroy lives. The unpaid bill that leads to eviction and homelessness. The letter in the post that is the last straw for someone's already-brittle mental health. The final argument before the family splits in two. The accident that means you can't do your desperately-needed job any more...

A third kind of 'edge' can be just as destructive: the border fence that says 'keep out', defended with barbed wire and guards with guns, or polite but firmly unwelcoming immigration officials (backed up by guards with guns), or a 'hostile environment' on the 'inside' of the border fence, sustained by hostile policies, hostile political rhetoric, hostile media messages, hostile attitudes, hostile gestures, hostile stares...

There is a fourth, more positive kind of 'edge', however. It's related to the 'ecosystem' metaphor I mentioned earlier, that some of us have found us using to describe our neighbourhood. But where the 'ecosystem' suggests a bounded space, a territory with edges, the 'ecotone' (from oikos + tonos = habitation + tension) is precisely about the edges themselves. It's the environmental 'contact zone' between two different kinds of habitat, where intermingling and interaction happen - and which is almost always remarkably fertile, generative of diversity and even new species of life.

I want to suggest it as a potentially fertile metaphor for our society, and our neighbourhoods. Especially (but certainly not only) our urban neighbourhoods: where the 'contact zones' between people - people of different ethnic and class backgrounds, people with wildly different life journeys and politics, people of different faiths and cultures and passions and habits - are everywhere.

My teacher here is again the political theorist Rom Coles, himself quoting cultural theorist Mikhail Bakhtin:

"One must not … imagine the realm of culture as some sort of spatial whole, having boundaries but also having internal territory. The realm of culture has no internal territory; it is entirely distributed along the boundaries, boundaries pass everywhere, through its every aspect... Every cultural act lives essentially on the boundaries..."

The edges, the ecotones, the fertile contact zones are everywhere: cutting through our neighbourhoods in every direction, running through our lives and our relationships, our daily movements and interactions. They are not 'territory' in their own right - they are, by definition, not spaces that can expand (make an edge 'thicker' and very soon it is no longer an edge), or compete for space, or be fenced off (if there is no longer intermingling, then it's not a 'contact zone').

What you can do to an ecotone is tend it. This can only ever be quite a humble task, because the real action is in the interactions and intermingling that go on between those who co-habit in this borderland, who bump into each other in this contact zone. Such interactions can't be forced, or engineered. But they can be enabled and encouraged by those who gently tend to such edge-places, who hold them open and refuse the encroachment of the fences and the exploitations of the territorial.

And although they can't be 'expanded' ('thickened', 'enlarged' so that they fill more of the space than before) they can be extended, lengthened, into areas where they have not yet run through. Welcoming new forms of diversity into a space, new contact zones can 'pop up', new interactions and interminglings can be nurtured into life. This is the work, in our neighbourhood, that we call 'street connecting', and which my friend, neighbour and colleague Paul Wright has described so vividly and reflectively in his recent blog post.

And here's an interesting suggestion for Christian missiologists (and others with a similar concern for the 'mission' of their organisation): rather than thinking about 'growth' as 'expanding (our) territory', what if we were to shift our focus to 'extending the edges'? Rather than concentrating on trying to 'get more people in', what if we were to invest our energy (and other resources too, perhaps) in 'getting more people encountering each other', across our many differences? (There is more to be said theologically, from this suggestion, about the difference that might be made by thinking less about the 'internal volume' of 'the body of Christ' and more about the tending and extending of its 'edges' - what we might call 'the flesh of Jesus' - but that's for another time.)

Beyond tending and extending there is then the vital work of attending. Attending to one another, in our encounters in these ecotones / contact zones. Attending to the encounters happening there. Attending to the new life that is springing up in those places and through those encounters. Attending deeply, in a way that looks and listens expectantly for something more than what is obvious or readily accessible. Attending with the kind of quality that Otto Scharmer describes of deep, "generative listening" - offering a space within which something new, something as yet unsaid or unseen or un-done or unacknowledged can begin to emerge. "Hearing to speech", as feminist theologian Nelle Morton famously put it.

This attending is what we mean, locally, when we talk about trying to help people discover their passions and gifts, knowledge and skills. But it is embodied most vividly in 'wow moments' like our first community talent show, 'Firs & Bromford's Got Talent', that happened earlier this year (that I've written about previously in this blog):

talent and creativity (children and adults alike) on show was impressive by any standards. What left me an emotional wreck by the end of the night, though, was much more than the stunning talent. Knowing
even a little of the journeys and battles that many of the contestants (both adults and children) had been on to get onto that stage on that Friday night, I was in awe and wonder at their courage and determination, their raw vulnerability and yet the sheer dignity and pride of standing up there, showing us something of their spirit, their soul, their God-given essence. Some of those who got up and performed had fought more than just nerves to do what they did. And in the end, the 'competition' wasn't really a competition at all: each and every one of them was cheered on - willed on, hoped and prayed on - by each and every one of us in the audience, and we were heart-burstingly proud of all of them - we'd have made them all joint winners if we could have done. Our role, collectively, was encourager, cheerleader, celebrant of the wonderful gifts of our neighbours - the wonderful gifts that are our neighbours.

And this is where I get properly theological. Because there is something about this practice of attending, this quality of attention, that becomes, I want to suggest, inescapably theological. No one I have read has expressed this better than the theologian of St Francis and St Clare, Gillian Ahlgren, in her radiant book The Tenderness of God.

Some would call this process “incarnation” – a way of life constantly sensitized to the presence of God within the human community, a recognition and affirmation of the presence of God in our midst that helps us deliberately orient ourselves to becoming the kind of human community that God wants.”
In conversation with Francis and Clare, Ahlgren develops a theology of encounter that begins with simple human interaction but, with tenderness and patient attention, plumbs its divine depths:

“For Francis and Clare, encounter became an arresting way of life, open to all. In their experience, there was no one whose life would not be deeply enriched by deeper dedication to the way of encounter. Engaging the other with the intention to listen, to learn, and to connect is a mutually transformative practice that slowly changes everything. Encounter teaches us to honour the fragility and sacredness of our own humanity, especially as we come to know our common humanity together. When done in the conscious presence of the love of God, encounter creates sacred space in the human community. Encounter moves us from observers of life to collaborators, with God, in the building up of the human community, the creation of a common home.”

There is, of course, a more uncomfortable side of interaction and encounter in the 'contact zones' - especially when those interactions and encounters are extended and deepened over time. We fall out with each other, we let each other down, we mess up, we hurt each other, we slip back into territorial thinking and battle with each other over control, we retreat back into our well-defended comfort zones.

So alongside tending, extending and attending I have to add the hard labour of mending. The work of forgiveness and penitence, mediation and reconciliation - and the equally hard work of patiently living with the unresolved and the unhealed - this too is an ongoing task in the ecotones of community.

There is one more 'activity' in the ecotone to mention. It offends my desire for neatness by refusing to rhyme with the others. But that is perhaps appropriate, because unlike the others it is not in any sense 'work' or 'labour'. It came to the foreground for me thanks to the invitation (which Paul describes in the blog that I've referenced already) for three of us from Firs & Bromford to go and share our stories with the Church of Scotland 'Priority Areas' gathering just outside Glasgow last month. One of the two Scriptural texts the organisers had chosen for the gathering was a section of Isaiah chapter 65 (quoted above). The passage does some vital that I'm not sure had ever completely sunk in for me before: it ties labour and enjoyment together. And this, perhaps never entirely explicitly, has been one of the intentions of our community-building work in the Firs & Bromford: rather than looking to external 'service providers' to build community for us to then enjoy, we realised as neighbours that we had the power to build community for ourselves, together; but equally, rather than spending all our time in the labour of the building of community, Isaiah's prophecy invites us to also enjoy the fruits of our labours. Planting and eating are two things that we're managing, more and more, to tie together here. Who knows whether we'll be able to build our own houses here in years to come - I truly hope so - but it's a profound reminder, especially to some of us with activist tendencies, that we're called not just to the work of 'building a common home' - but to enjoy living in it together, too.

Thursday, 15 November 2018

"Having Nothing, Possessing Everything" (by Mike Mather): a review

I met Mike Mather and first heard his story 3 years ago today. I'd read a little of his story - and that of his church, Broadway United Methodist Church, Indianapolis - a few months before, in the inspiring article, 'Death and resurrection of an urban church'. Mike's stories of how the congregation at Broadway had discovered new, abundant life in making the simple, revolutionary decision "to see all their neighbours as children of God", at the time rang huge bells with our own journey here in Hodge Hill, the early steps of which I'd written about in 2013 in this brief article for the Church Urban Fund. But if Mike and Broadway were on a similar journey, they were some 25 years ahead of us - and so when Mike came to visit us, there was a vast ocean of wisdom that he invited us to dip our toes into.

Mike's newly-published book, Having Nothing, Possessing Everything: finding abundant communities in unexpected places, makes that ocean of wisdom accessible to the world. We are invited not just to dip our toes into the waves, but to dive into a different way of seeing that will change us, our churches, and our neighbourhoods utterly. Writing this from Birmingham, UK, about a book written in Indianapolis, USA, I am conscious of contextual and cultural differences between us (to which I'll return towards the end), but I'm equally struck by some profound contextual commonalities: each of us lives and works in a 'low-income' neighbourhood within a desperately unequal society, and each of us is employed by a Christian denomination which for decades has been becoming increasingly anxious about institutional survival and increasingly hungry for those elusive, magical techniques for 'church growth'.

From before page 1, Mike is crystal clear: the story he tells 'is no model, no replicable system to be imitated in community after community, no summons to multiply something that worked well somewhere else'. It is nothing more or less than a call to conversion: 'the invitation to pay attention to the wondrous children of God (especially low-income, low-wealth persons) around us and to the gifts they bring to the world'. Mike's story is a testimony to what he has learnt, and what he continues to learn, having begun to pay attention differently: 'I now tune my eyes, my ears - all of my senses - and my heart to see abundance instead of poverty. I'm not successful all the time. But my re-tuning caused me to re-think how I spend my time. What will I lay aside, and what will I pick up? I used to do things for people that people can in fact do for themselves. No longer. I expect more from people than I used to, and wonders pour forth.' (pp.xii-xiii)

Mike describes his discovery of the role of witness: '[n]ot only one who observes, but one who announces and testifies to what is happening. I was being invited to see the people - people I had once thought of as helpless - as powerful, brave people with both extraordinary and ordinary gifts'. He describes in poetic detail the process of 'recalibration' of his life, his work, his practices as he sought to shift his place in his community towards something 'more than a spectator, but not the lead actor': 'most of the time, the action needed from me was shining a spotlight on the glories of the people in our neighbourhood' (pp.6-7).

Despite resisting presenting a 'model', there is a wealth of practice shared in the 140 pages of this gem of a book. Among them are questions to shape conversations with neighbours:
  • tell me a story!
  • what three things do you do well enough that you could teach them to someone else?
  • what three things would you like to learn that you don't already know?
  • who besides God and me is going to go with you along the way?
  • who celebrated your last birthday with you?
  • who loves you, and what do they say about you and the gifts you have to offer this world?
  • what do people who love you say you're best at?
Mike describes too the work of Broadway's first 'roving listener', the wonderfully gifted De'Amon Harges, who would knock on doors around the neighbourhood, discovering people's gifts and finding ways to connect them together and cultivate them. The church paid De'Amon, but very quickly he discovered something significant: "Before starting the job, he had knocked on doors as a neighbour, and people had talked with him easily, welcoming him into their homes. But when he began this new job by introducing himself as a representative of the church and the development corporation, people weren't very welcoming to him. So he went back to what worked. He told me that people didn't trust institutions, but they trusted neighbours' (p.24). De'Amon's work was one of the formative factors behind our own development of 'Street Connecting' in the Firs & Bromford over the last 3 years. Paul, our Street Connector Mentor here, has many of the qualities Mike describes of De'Amon, as do the growing team of local connectors that Paul has unearthed and encouraged. Paul's recent blog post is the best articulation so far of how we understand 'connecting' here - and there are more than a few resonances with the kind of stories told in Mike's book.

There was much in Mike's book that rang bells, struck chords, resonated deeply with our journey into community with our neighbours in Hodge Hill. There was much that affirmed, encouraged, and enriched with new insights the efforts to 'step out' - and often to 'step out of the way' - and to pay better and more profound attention to our neighbours, that we are continue to experiment with and learn from here. But there were also, as you'd expect from someone who's been at it more than 2 decades longer than us, some invitations and challenges to go further. Four, in particular, struck me and will stay with me:

1. Money

Thanks in large part to Big Local funding on our estate, we've been able to develop ways of getting money into the hands of local people, to start and develop new groups and activities. Money for equipment, running costs, venue hire, you name it. Small amounts, through our 'PIE' events (they were 'SOUP' events, an idea developed in Chicago, but no one liked the soup here, so we offer a 'slice of the pie' instead!), go to people with a bright idea, who we support to make a bid for the money as 'start-up' funding, and who in the process make connections and friendships that can support and help develop the idea. It not only gets new things off the ground, and supports local people to grow in confidence and leadership - but it also helps to keep money circulating locally, rather than leaking out to external service providers. When we need catering for a local event, for instance, we're now always in a position to use local caterers - small groups and fledgling enterprises that have germinated in and through the growing community in our neighbourhood.

Mike and his neighbours in Indianapolis take this several steps further. Ending poverty, Mike realised, wouldn't happen by pouring money into 'programmes'. It might happen, though, if that same money actually went into the pockets of those who were poor. So now they've stopped collecting money to give out to people in emergencies (e.g. to pay utility or rent bills), and instead they regularly pay local people to do things that build community. If the thing that people love doing is something practical - if they make a product or provide a service - then they offer to try it and pay them for it. One woman who said she made great cookies, they asked to make some for a neighbour who was ill - they paid her to make the cookies, take them to her neighbour, and spend time visiting her. 'Paying the baker for her work was the point, and getting two neighbours to meet and share together was the point. The "helpers" of the church didn't have to put themselves in the centre of this "assistance". The baker never mentioned our encouragement of her, or our paying her, and that was perfect' (p.69).

The "School of the Spirit" that began in their food pantry, invited participants who wanted to teach something - cooking, car repair, song-writing - to find at least three willing 'students', and then all their materials would be provided, and any donations from the students would go directly to the teachers. Over time, some of the most successful courses were delivered as 'Broadway University', students were charged for tuition, and the teachers were paid for giving of their time, knowledge and skills. Money, as Mike puts it, is 'a powerful tool' - 'something that shows people what we value in our society... What caused my whole world to change … was realizing that I could use money to support the gifts, talents, and dreams of people whom I had thought of as needy' (p.76).

2. Young people

In Firs & Bromford, increasingly our focus has been on intergenerational community-building: finding ways to bring young people and adults together, to make friends across the generations, to work together to change our neighbourhood for the better, and to enjoy together the fruits of our labours. A keystone of our TogetherWeCan! work currently is what for some years we've called 'youth social action' projects: making spaces for groups of young people to work alongside local adult residents to make a positive difference to our local environment, or to create new spaces for encounter, friendship and fun.

Mike's story summons us further, however. One of the most radical shifts in Broadway UMC's 'work' was to stop doing their traditional 'summer programme' of activities for young people, and to recruit young people from the neighbourhood to build on the work De'Amon, the 'roving listener' had been doing. They called this new 'summer experience' Name, Bless, and Connect. These young people would be paid (see point 1, above!) 'to name the gifts, talents, dreams, and passions they saw in the lives of their neighbours, lay hands on them and bless them, and connect them to other people (Both near and far) who cared about the same thing' (p.28). For each gift in the life of someone they visited, they would put a Post-it Note on a wall back at church. 'After just one week, the walls were beginning to fill up with names. The leaders gathered with the young rovers in front of the walls of Post-it Notes and mixed and matched people and their gifts. They used the arrows to literally connect the names of the people on the walls and talked about how to take that connection off the walls and into the streets' (p.29). Along the way, gifts were connected and multiplied, and young people made new, lasting and life-changing friendships. Neighbours began to see the young people 'not as troublesome teens, but as valuable connectors who made their neighbourhood stronger' (p.30). We run a summer programme here - still largely 'for' young people. Mike has set me wondering afresh how our local young people might be enabled to step further into community leadership - or, as we're learning to say here, 'connectorship'.

3. Prayer

This one's a bit more tricky. A lot of the community-building, connection-making work that has happened in our neighbourhood can be traced back to - or at the very least finds some of its roots in - the venturing out of church folk into our neighbourhood, listening to our neighbours, 'treasure hunting' our 'unsung heroes' and celebrating their stories and their gifts. Some of our neighbours are Christian too, but many more are Muslim, or pagan, or would describe themselves as having 'no faith'. As Christians, we have rejoiced every time we've recognised the God-given gifts in another one of our neighbours, but we've often been more hesitant about saying so. A lot of 'our' work now is done under the banner of Open Door Community Foundation, a charity founded by the church here, and with Christians among its staff and trustees, but not explicitly Christian in its work. So despite the fact our Street Connector team currently happen to be mostly Christians themselves, we don't offer to pray for, or with, people when we meet them on their doorsteps.

In Mike's context, it's quite different. The Church still directly sponsors much of the community-building work that goes on, and - I think I'm right in saying - many more of their neighbours would call themselves Christian, whether or not they attend Broadway UMC. But whatever the differences, as I read Mike's book I felt a deep longing for something of what they do: to lay hands on their neighbours and bless them for the God-given gifts that they have and that they want to share; to talk freely about God's call to them, to anoint them with oil, reminding them of that call embedded in their baptism; to offer God's forgiveness to those burdened by guilt and shame; and so on. I find myself wishing I could do that - and wonder if our cultural and contextual differences, while significant, might not be at least partly an excuse for my timidity.

4. Playing games

Lastly, and it's linked to the previous point, Mike points us to different ways of counting. His church, like mine, has to report back to its denomination numbers of attendees at Sunday services, and money collected in the offering plate. But at Broadway they've begun finding ways to count the abundance in their neighbourhoods around them in ways that pays attention to and celebrates that abundance. And they've turned it into a game. They've come up with twelve actions or practices that each score 'points'. And every month, whoever scores the most points buys cupcakes for all the other players. Here's a little taster:
  1. Count the number of people whose homes you went to, on whom you laid hands and blessed, and for whom you offered a prayer of celebration and praise for their vocation in their life, home, and workplace.
  2. Count the number of people you introduced to each other because "I see in each of you the same call and claim of God upon your life, and it seemed like it would be great for you to know that about each other."
  3. Count the number of people you prayed with in hospital rooms, on street corners, in alleys, in living rooms, in offices, and in car repair shops.
  4. Count the number of people to whom you wrote letters celebrating their discipleship / vocation in the life of the world.
  5. Count the number of people you journey with to visit someone else at home, at the hospital, or in the workplace.
  6. Count the number of times you threw a party to celebrate the presence and power of God's love in the people and parish around you.
  7. Count the number of times you posted on Facebook celebrating in concrete and joyful ways the discipleship / vocation of the people in your parish.
(and more!)

And finally...

Mike's book is encouraging, challenging, eye-opening. It's not a 'model' or a 'method', but a different way of seeing. It's about discovering the abundance in our neighbourhoods, but it's also a summons to the Church. 'Churches,' he concludes, 'could lead the way in making a real change. What if, in the city, we asked our denominational leaders to come to us, lay hands on us and bless us, and thank us for keeping our commitment to stay in the city when others have fled? What if, at annual church conferences, instead of celebrating only the church that grew by the biggest number of the largest percentage, we celebrated the faithfulness of those congregations? What if we gave awards to congregations that, despite all that has happened around them demographically - all the shifts, the white flight, the changing economic base - have stayed in the city to witness to God's goodness, grace, glory, and gifts in the people of God? What if we asked those congregations to name three neighbours they wanted to celebrate for the gifts they give in that neighbourhood?

'The issues our organizations and people face cannot be cured by technique (whether that technique is creating a new worship service, erecting a new building, storytelling, or establishing an economic and community development programme). But we do have the tools we need in our own hands. They are the tools of our faith - the tools that brought us to the point we are today. Our primary tool is trusting in the present abundance, the tool that so many of us have abandoned as we have grown afraid to die - and afraid to live. I try to remember those words that appear in Scripture so often: "Fear not"' (p.133).

That's what I call good news.

Sunday, 30 September 2018

Welcoming, barrier-removing & looking beyond the in-crowd (a sermon)

[Sermon preached in Hodge Hill Church, 30/9/18; Gospel reading: Mark 9:38-50]

I wanted to preach a nice, warm, encouraging sermon to reassure you all through this time of change, to ease any anxieties and stresses that might be simmering away at the moment, and to underline God’s invitation towards wholeness and peace that we remember especially in this 5th Sunday service…

And what does the lectionary give us? “Cut off your hand… tear out your eye… or have a millstone hung round your neck and be thrown into the sea…” – the good news is going to take a bit of getting to, this morning!

(Just a gentle warning: one or two of the things I’ll touch on in this sermon might for some of you be a little bit triggering – please do find someone you trust to talk to about any of it, if you need to.)

And so to the gospel reading:
“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones … it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.”
Stumbling blocks… obstacles… barriers…

Jesus is issuing the direst of warnings – but what is it that has triggered his concern? Reading this passage today, this warning seems to come quite unexpectedly, out of the blue…

Until we remember what has come immediately before this passage – the reading we had last week:
“they had [been arguing] with one another about who was the greatest… [so] he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes … the one who sent me’” (Mark 9:33-37)
Putting stumbling blocks, obstacles, barriers in the way is the exact opposite of welcoming – and welcoming, Jesus has been saying, is what it’s all about:
  • To welcome one of these little ones is to welcome Jesus – which is to welcome God – to receive what they bring and let them change us
  • To welcome one of these little ones is to welcome “in Jesus’ name” – to welcome in the way that Jesus welcomes – which is to welcome in the way that God welcomes – to place them in the centre, to embrace them, to accord them value and worth and love and dignity and honour
To put “stumbling blocks” in the way is to put obstacles, barriers in the way of a beloved child of God knowing that they are valued, loved, honoured; to put obstacles, barriers in the way of their gifts being received and their voice being heard.

And Jesus takes a child and puts them in the centre – talks about the “little ones” as the measure of our welcome – just as Gandhi once warned that “the true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.”

And we only have to look around at our society – at our immigration and benefits systems, at where investment goes into education and social care, at who is housed and in what conditions – we only have to listen to the pronouncements of our government and the opinions of our media (close to home, let alone looking further afield to the USA, for example), to get a measure of how we treat our most vulnerable members.

But Jesus doesn’t invite us to point the finger elsewhere – not in this passage, at least – “if any of you,” he says, looking his own disciples squarely in their faces – and we know, to our shame, that the Christian church, both locally and more institutionally, has failed the ‘stumbling block’ test again and again: marginalizing and silencing children; turning away people with mental health struggles; ignoring the gifts of people of colour; excluding and condemning people seeking to live faithful, loving same-sex relationships; perpetrating abuses of power and protecting their perpetrators…
In our intergenerational community-building work on the Firs & Bromford, we employ two people full-time (Paul and Dan) as ‘street connectors’ – seeking out young people and adults in our neighbourhood who care about their community and have got passions, gifts and skills that they can share with their neighbours.

We also employ two people full-time (Lucy and Flo) as ‘barrier-removers’ – to work alongside young people and adults to help them tackle some of the things that get in the way, obstacles to them feeling valued members of our community, barriers to them being able to participate in community activities, and share their passions, gifts and skills with their neighbours.

Our ‘barrier-removers’ sit with people to fill in immigration forms, support people to challenge benefits sanctions, help people access emergency money and food when they have nothing at home, and listen for hours with those struggling with confidence, anxiety or low self-esteem.

The point isn’t to ‘fix’ anyone – it’s to help get rid of some of the ‘stumbling blocks’, or if not get rid of them, to negotiate them so that they are not quite the overwhelming thing that prevents them finding places of welcome, and belonging, and community.

Today’s gospel reading invites us – commands us all, as Christians – to be ‘barrier-removers’; to ‘clear the way’ for all God’s beloved children to know that they are valued, loved, honoured; their gifts received and their voices heard.

This is what, behind the policies and procedures, we mean by ‘safeguarding’: making the paths as safe as we can, for even the littlest and most vulnerable to travel into welcome, and belonging, and community, without the fear that anyone will abuse their power to put obstacles, barriers, in the way.

This is what we meant too when we signed up as an ‘inclusive church’: that we would do everything we could here to remove the barriers that the Church too often puts in the way of people, because of their gender or sexuality, because of their physical or mental abilities or disabilities, because of their ethnicity or age or class

And even the language of ‘us and them’ isn’t helpful here – it’s not that some of us, already included by default, are actively including others – all of us are welcomed guests of our all-welcoming God

'Working on ourselves'

There is, then, a weighty responsibility placed on us in these words of Jesus – a responsibility that demands that we do some hard work as a church, to address the places where we are less than welcoming; and also do some hard work on ourselves, where we are blinkered in our vision, where we gravitate too easily to ‘people like us’, and where we too easily use the bits of power and privilege we have to maintain our own comfort and security – something those of us who’ve started engaging with the idea of ‘white fragility’ have just begun to grapple with.

That ‘work on ourselves’ demands that we try to be as receptive as we can to the challenges that come from our friends and neighbours who know better than us what it’s like to be overlooked, devalued, marginalised – and that we stay with those challenges even when, especially when, we start feeling unsettled, uncomfortable – because it’s in those moments that we will begin to be changed.

Sometimes that might well feel, to pick up Jesus’ shocking image, like we are having one of our limbs chopped off, or an eye torn out…

But “[t]he good news,” as one reader of this text has suggested, “is that Jesus knows we will stumble and expects us to show up in heaven lame and scarred by the inner struggle to be true to our loyalty to God as frail and faulty human beings” (George Hermanson).

Looking beyond the in-crowd

And there is more good news in this passage than that… because we could – and many Christians over the years have – turned that limb-chopping, eye-tearing perfection-seeking into a way of life; we could set the bar for ourselves and our fellow-Christians impossibly high and spend our life constantly hacking away at our failures.

Or we could notice, that in the midst of this gospel reading, even the simple gift of a cup of cold water is apparently enough for someone to enter the kingdom of God.

The disciples, we’re told, have spotted someone who was not ‘one of the gang’, doing something that they had thought was their job to do – casting out demons… “we tried to stop him,” they say to Jesus, “because he wasn’t following us”.

It’s so easy for us to get so caught up in our project, or activity, or building, or group, or whatever that we imagine we need to defend it: “this is ours – we do it like this” – “we’re doing God’s work – it has to be done our way”.

But Jesus gently bursts his disciples’ bubble: “whoever is not against us is for us” – the kingdom of God is springing up and growing through the most unlikely and surprising of people, in the most unlikely and surprising of places, way beyond anything we recognise as ‘church’ or ‘ours’ – don’t cling so tightly, says Jesus, especially when we look around us, wondering anxiously how the Church will keep going when we get old and tired and aren’t around any more to keep it going ourselves…

Look a bit further out, says Jesus, not just within the church but beyond its doors, and we will see, in our neighbourhoods, people of faith and people of no faith, passionate about welcoming and befriending and sharing and caring and encouraging and growing what looks, and sounds, and feels, and tastes just like the kingdom of God because – it turns out – it is the kingdom of God, springing up around us, energised by the Spirit, moving in the power of God that we call love.

When we've used the slightly strange word ‘missional’ in some of our recent conversations, that is what we mean: “whoever is not against us is for us” – when we share life with our neighbours, we discover that God is already there, ahead of us, challenging our defensiveness and control-freakery, and inviting us afresh to the party that we’d slipped into thinking was our show to run.

So let us respond faithfully to Jesus’ command to be ‘barrier-removers’, putting our every effort into getting rid of those ‘stumbling blocks’, those obstacles that prevent people from knowing God’s invitation, God’s welcome, God’s rejoicing in God-given gifts offered and shared.

And let us respond joyfully to Jesus’ invitation to recognise God at work in our neighbours and in our neighbourhoods, an invitation for us to re-discover the kingdom of God beyond us & in spite of us; offered to us as a thirst-quenching cup of cold water, drawn straight from the well of life.

Monday, 30 July 2018

CofE profits from Land Warfare? #DisarmChurchHouse

Church House, Westminster, the HQ of the Church of England, has for some years now been hosting the annual Land Warfare Conference, sponsored by various arms companies, including Lockheed Martin. Details of the conference can be found on the Fellowship of Reconciliation's page here.

This year Ven Martin Gorick, the Archdeacon of Oxford, attended the AGM of The Corporation (which runs Church House), and asked a question: ‘Is it ethical for the Church to profit from Land Warfare?’ He was told that the current policy had been approved by Lambeth Palace, that there was no evidence of widespread concern about it, and that it was ‘no different from a church hall hosting a scout group who were sponsored by BAE Systems'. It seems quite a few of us beg to differ. We've been writing to the CEO of Church House, Mr Chris Palmer. Here's my letter:

Dear Mr Palmer,
(cc: Lambeth Palace)

I imagine your email inbox will be somewhat inundated at the moment, so please forgive me for adding one more email to it.

I am writing regarding the Land Warfare conference that is hosted annually at Church House. In conversation with The Ven Martin Gorick, Archdeacon of Oxford, who attended The Corporation's AGM last week, I understand that (1) you see the Land Warfare conference as a positive booking in the conference centre diary, (2) you have said that on this specific booking Lambeth Palace have been consulted and have given their approval, and (3) you believe there is no evidence of widespread concern about this booking.

As I'm sure you're aware, there is a history of opposition to this, and similar bookings at Church House, including annual protests led by the Fellowship of Reconciliation. There have also, in more recent months, been questions raised at General Synod, as well as the Archdeacon of Oxford's question at The Corporation's AGM. Most recently, there has been an open letter, published in the Church Times, gaining at least 60 signatories. The contents of your Inbox over the last week will hopefully add significantly to the "evidence of widespread concern" that you have, up until now, not been aware of.

I want here to make just three points. The first is about the links - both legal and symbolic - between The Corporation and the Church of England. The second is about the principle of the CofE supporting warfare conferences. And the third is a pragmatic suggestion about balancing income to Church House and PR damage.

So firstly, it has at times been claimed that the link between The Corporation and the Church of England is distant - that the latter has little influence on, or responsibility for, the former, and thus decisions made by the former are largely autonomous of, and irrelevant to, the latter. Legally, the stated charitable purpose of The Corporation is that the buildings are "for use or letting … for any purpose connected with the Church of England", and all 467 members of the Church of England's General Synod are its Members. Symbolically, Church House is very obviously the "headquarters" of the Church of England, and thus even if the two organisations were legally entirely separate (which they are not), anything that happens at Church House looks very clearly like it is being hosted by - and, by extension, with the approval of - the Church of England.

Secondly, then, the question of the CofE supporting - or being seen to support - a Land Warfare conference. The Archbishop of Canterbury has repeatedly stated that the heart of the Christian gospel "is reconciliation". Warfare is, without needing to stretch any semantics, the precise opposite of reconciliation - and thus antithetical to the heart of the Christian gospel. To be sure, there is a long and respectable "just war" tradition within Christianity, but even that will only go so far as acknowledging that war can, in certain limited ways, be a "necessary evil" - never a "good". The Church of England's own ethical investment policy states that "[t]he NIBs do not invest in any company involved in indiscriminate weaponry.  Moreover they do not invest in companies involved in conventional weapons if their strategic military supplies exceed 10% of turnover." At least one of the sponsors of the Land Warfare conference, Lockheed Martin, would quite obviously fall under this exclusion were this an investment. For the Church to take money from Lockheed Martin, however indirectly, is surely just as unethical by its own standards. Where it is obvious that companies like Lockheed Martin have been supplying weapons used to kill and maim civilians in Yemen, for example, this is surely a "no-brainer" for the Church of England. How can we possibly profit from companies that have a vested interest in the death of civilians?

Thirdly, I want simply to pragmatically suggest that, however much The Corporation, or the Church of England more widely, is in need of sources of revenue, this is not the way to find it. There is a movement growing in strength and voice to oppose this ongoing booking, and it will, I have no doubt, continue to draw in increasing numbers of clergy and laity to attend and ask questions at The Corporation's AGM, to communicate with members of The Corporation's Council, to ask questions and to propose motions at General Synod, to talk with the press, and to seek maximum attention for its protests outside Church House if this conference is held again. The Church of England is going through a sorry patch exposing its structural failures in public - it would be a desperate shame, in the most specific sense of that word, if this conference continued to expose to the public an institutional prioritising of lucrative income, however unethical, over its witness to the good news of the love of God in Jesus Christ.

I look forward to response in due course, and to hearing that The Corporation will reconsider its position on this issue.

Warmest wishes,

Revd Dr Al Barrett

Thursday, 26 July 2018

Tending, (At)tending, (Ex)tending...

This is a transcript of my talk at the annual conference of the (Roman Catholic) National Justice & Peace Network, 2018. The conference theme was taken from the beautiful Irish proverb: “In the shelter of each other, the people live”.
If you can bear it (!), you can watch / listen to this talk on YouTube - or just read the text here!

“Can anybody hear me?”:
Christian discipleship in Brexit Britain, in the shadow of Grenfell Tower

I want to spend the next little while attending to some of our edges as a society, and exploring how we might inhabit them as Christians.

At the edge of an estate, at the edge of the city of Birmingham, underneath the concrete pillars of the M6, lies a place that we locally call the wasteland. Houses were built on it in the ‘60s, but it was a flood-plain, and they were rapidly sinking into the mud. It was cleared quite quickly, and then left, abandoned – much like the residents of the estate themselves. And it was in that wasteland a few years ago, on a snowy Palm Sunday, that we crucified Jesus. Our first Firs & Bromford Community Passion Play ended in the wasteland, with the scene of crucifixion and the cry of godforsakenness. And after the silence came some song. The song was the words of Maya Angelou set to music:

“Now did you want to see me broken
Bowed head and lowered eyes
Shoulders fallen down like tear drops
Weakened by my soulful cries

Does my confidence upset you
Don’t you take it awful hard
Cause I walk like I’ve got a diamond mine
Breakin’ up in my front yard

So you may shoot me with your words
You may cut me with your eyes
And I’ll rise... I’ll rise... I’ll rise...

Out of the shacks of history’s shame
Up from a past rooted in pain
I’ll rise... I’ll rise... I’ll rise...”

As the echoes of the singing resonated around the wasteland, the words of the song resonated with the stories of my neighbours. Experiences of abandonment, of being overlooked, and forgotten, and done-to and let down. But also of a defiant hope that would not die, and instead insistently claimed it would rise, and rise, and rise again.

Brexit – and precarious cliff-edges

We are living in times of profound fragmentation. In the United Kingdom, the referendum on withdrawing from the EU divided the country between ‘Leave’ and ‘Remain’ (with a wafer-thin majority to the former), but it also exposed divisions between people from different generations, different ethnic backgrounds, and different socio-economic classes. Politicians’ claims that ‘the people have spoken’ immediately begged the question, ‘which people are you listening to?’ While Leave voters were, overall, more likely to come from poorer than more affluent backgrounds, the so-called ‘squeezed middle’ might well have been more decisive for Leave than the ‘left out’ (Rosenbaum 2017; Antonucci et al 2017), and even clearer was the evidence that the Leave vote was overwhelmingly older, and more white, than the vote for Remain.

Waking on the morning after, I remember feeling shocked, but also unsurprised. Hodge Hill, our ward, was split just like the country – 52% Leave, 48% Remain. Many of my neighbours (especially my Muslim neighbours) were feeling more unsafe, less at home that morning; and yet many of my neighbours were also feeling happy & hopeful, especially white working-class folk locally, who felt their voice had been heard, for a change.

Further afield, and in the days and weeks after, we saw across the country more overt racism and attacks, and at the same time cosmopolitan middle-class people with accents like mine blaming ‘white working-class’ people, for voting Leave, for their anti-immigration attitudes, for their racism.

And underneath all of this, there were deeper issues emerging. An identity issue – what the postcolonial scholar Paul Gilroy calls a ‘post-imperial melancholia’, summed up in the football chant “2 world wars and one world cup, doo dah” (and yes, it is still only one!). Gilroy describes it as an ‘inability to face, never mind actually mourn’ the ‘profound change … that followed the end of the Empire’, the ‘loss of imperial prestige’, and ‘the shock and anxiety that followed from a loss of any sense that the national collective was bound by a coherent and distinctive culture’ (Gilroy 2004:98). Lurking under this melancholia, Gilroy goes on to argue, is a further inability to ‘work through’ the feelings of ‘discomfort, shame, and perplexity’ at the horrors of that imperial history itself, and its white supremacist ideology (Gilroy 2004:98, 102; cf also Reddie 2017).

But this was as much (if not more) a middle- and upper-class issue as a working-class issue. There were middle-class people blaming ‘white working class’ people for Brexit, or for racism, but that conveniently diverted us from the middle- and upper-class racism behind the Brexit campaign, and entrenched, and widening, class divides themselves – structural inequalities – effects not just of current austerity policies, but also the longer-term legacy of ‘Thatcherism, deindustrialization [and] the rise of the super-rich’.

And especially in areas like mine, the lack or loss of employment (or insecure, zero-hours contracts); poor quality, overcrowded and inadequately available housing; unyielding and punitive welfare regimes; and variable and uncertain access to food & healthcare; coupled with a lack or loss of voice in politics – all made a perfect storm.

And we might use the word precarity to describe it: a condition of uncertainty, insecurity that affects our whole livelihood. Feeling like you’re on a cliff edge, that at any time you could fall off. And the truth is that in our society that precarity is unequally distributed. Many people have to deal with a hell of a lot more precarity than others. In my bit of the West Midlands, Jaguar LandRover have warned that if Brexit goes ahead, they could pull out of the UK. Thousands and thousands of jobs, directly and indirectly, will be affected.

Grenfell tower – and our tragic disconnection

And then, in the early hours of 14th June 2017, a 24-storey tower block in west London caught fire. The fire spread with terrifying speed and ferocity, and despite a massive fire-fighting operation, 71 people lost their lives. The victims came from many different nationalities, many different backgrounds, but they were almost all poor. The helpers came almost immediately: Muslims coming back from prayers after breaking the fast in the middle of the night; and not long after, Christians at local churches throwing open the doors, offering hospitality, food and water, spaces to lament and to pray… and in the days and weeks after, brokering gatherings with politicians, and beginning to call for justice.

In the days that followed the Grenfell Tower tragedy, we discovered that residents of the Tower, members of the Grenfell Action Group, had been issuing repeated warnings for several years before, that ‘only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord . . . and bring an end to the dangerous living conditions and neglect of health and safety legislation that they inflict upon their tenants’ (Grenfell Action Group 2016).

And then slowly we discovered that the cladding was ‘insulation’ not from the cold, not from fire (in fact quite the opposite), but visually insulating rich neighbours in North Kensington from the poor housing and its occupants around them. It was a symptom of a wider disconnection. Why had the Grenfell Action Group’s warnings not been heeded? Why had their voices not been heard? In a lecture two months after the fire, journalist Jon Snow articulated the profound and dangerous ‘disconnect’ between those who are part of ‘the elite’ (within which he includes himself and his journalist colleagues), and ‘the lives, concerns, and needs of those who are not’:

“Amid the demonstrations around the tower after the fire there were cries of “Where were you? Why didn’t you come here before?” Why didn’t any of us see the Grenfell action blog? Why didn’t we know? Why didn’t we have contact? Why didn’t we enable the residents of Grenfell Tower – and indeed the other hundreds of towers like it around Britain, to find pathways to talk to us and for us to expose their story? . . . We can accuse the political classes for their failures, and we do. But we are guilty of them ourselves. We are too far removed from those who lived their lives in Grenfell and who, across the country, now live on amid the combustible cladding, the lack of sprinklers, the absence of centralised fire alarms and more, revealed by the Grenfell Tower.”

Jon Snow’s remarks bear more than a passing resonance with Pope Francis’ Laudato Si:

“…many professionals, opinion makers, communications media and centres of power, being located in affluent urban areas, are far removed from the poor, with little direct contact with their problems. … Their lack of physical contact and encounter, encouraged at times by the disintegration of our cities, can lead to a numbing of conscience and to tendentious analyses which neglect parts of reality.”

For Snow, from a profession of communicators, the Grenfell tragedy has brought the issue of disconnection into sharp focus. Rather than seeing their role as simply ‘communicating to’ the wider population, journalists – as part of what Snow calls the ‘narrow elite’ – should be bridging divides of class and background to get to know their audience – not as two-dimensional stereotypes, as victims or villains, but in all their three-dimensional complexity as fellow human beings. ‘So casually written off as nameless migrants, scroungers, and the rest,’ Snow remarks, ‘actually, and it should be no shock to us, the Tower was full of talent’ (Snow 2017). So my question for us is this: how might he and fellow journalists – how might all of us here in this room? How might the Church as the body of Christ stretching from North Kensington to Swanwick and far beyond? – have come to truly see the talent of the Tower’s residents, how might we have thoroughly heard their voices, in those years before the devastating fire – the years of what we might call ‘ordinary time’ – before Grenfell Tower became tragic headline news?

Poverty and edges of marginalization and expulsion

This question hits the ground for me in the Firs & Bromford estate where I live and work. That Passion Play, that story of abandonment – and yet in a place that some of us were just beginning to discover a few years ago was ‘full of talent’. In the left of the picture, the Roman centurion, is a man called Phil. Phil was a few years ago one of our ‘unsung heroes’ in Hodge Hill. We found him because some of his neighbours had nominated him as someone who had made a contribution to our neighbourhood. And when we gathered together our unsung heroes, we asked them, “if you could find a couple of people to join you, what would you start in your neighbourhood, what would you give a go?”. And Phil said “I want to start a theatre group”. The Bromford Theatre Group – it did its first Christmas panto a few months before the first Community Passion Play, that Phil sat down and dictated to me in my front room. A different story of our estate was beginning to be told.

Why does this matter? The Church Urban Fund has developed something it calls the ‘web of poverty’. It talks about not just poverty of resources, but also poverty of relationships, and poverty of identity – the kind of stories that are told about us, the kind of stories we absorb and believe and live out for ourselves, because others have said this is how we are.

It’s the kind of poverty that brings us to a different kind of edge. Less a cliff-edge, and more the edge of what counts as “normal”, what counts as “mainstream”. Pushed to the edge, we experience blame, demonization, marginalization and even expulsion.

The Scottish writer Alastair McIntosh reminds us that poverty is “structural, being systemic to the distribution of power, resources and educational opportunities in society. Second, it is a form of violence that comes from a deficit of empathy between those who have much and those who have little… [and] sustained by blindness to the full humanity of one another… a pathology of the rich and not just a deficit of the poor.” (Alastair McIntosh, Poverty Truth Commission commissioner)

And its within a wider Wester society that the philosopher of language Gemma Corradi Fiumara calls our ‘non-listening culture’: “the logos we inhabit is ‘halved’ … we know how to speak but have forgotten how to listen’. Our ‘non-listening culture … divides itself into separate discourses, which are free from the desire or obligation to listen to others’, and where ‘powerful’ discourses ‘seek to expand [their] territory through the silencing of others’ (and defining what counts as ‘truth’). And in such a culture, a common temptation is to what Fiumara names ‘benumbment’: the ‘refusal to listen or be listened to, as a means of defending one’s own discursive space against the predatory invasion of other discourses’.

Two common Christian responses: charity and advocacy

In that context, I want to suggest that there are two common Christian responses that both fall short.

The first is the response of charity – of ‘giving to’. It can reduce suffering, it can sometimes save lives, yes. But it treats people as individuals – and it keeps their ‘problems’ individualised too. It doesn’t address the causes that keep people in poverty, that keep pushing people to the edges and off the edges (cf Dom Helder Camara).

And so a second response is advocacy – ‘speaking for’. Public statements, protest, lobbying, organizing & marching in the streets… I took my 10-year-old down to London last Friday – his teachers were proud he took a day off school! It’s concerned with the causes, and not just the symptoms. It’s rooted in the prophetic tradition of the Hebrew bible. And yet, ‘too many advocates assume that they are somehow above or unaffected by the problem, merely seeking to help others who are less fortunate… the privileged supporting the underprivileged…’ (Rieger 2018).

And within both charity and advocacy I think we have an imagination of a particular kind of flow going on: from God, through the church, into the world. The church receives something from God to give to those needy outside it. We’re sent to serve, to wash feet, to grow the kingdom. We’re fed in the eucharist to feed others.

The words of Teresa of Avila:

Christ has no body now
but yours.
No hands, no feet on earth but yours.
Yours are the eyes
with which he looks
with compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.”

Or in more evangelical language, and found on wrist-bands for many years (although I think they’re fading in popularity now), ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ At one end of the axis, we imagine that we are the ones that are Christ to others. Or at the other end of the axis we might cite Matthew 25, and imagine Jesus in the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked – in the needy, facing us with open, empty hands.

And all of that is good, but it can be seductive.

Temptations in the wasteland

I want us to think for a minute about the story of the temptations in the wilderness. Journey with me, with Jesus, into the desert. The temptations raise the question, “who are you?” Remember Jesus has just been baptised. He’s just heard the voice of God ringing in his ears, “you are my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased”. And now, he’s slung into the desert, and the tempter says to him, “if you are… if you are the Son of God…” And that identity crisis is one that afflicts the Church today as well, and the temptations are similar.
The first is to what Bishop John V Taylor of the Church Mission Society [in his book The Christlike God] called “the power of the provider”. We hear language around us in Christian circles around the “golden opportunities” of the state withdrawing, of the invitation to the Church to “fill the gaps”. Providing for our neighbours is not a bad thing – but it construes our neighbour as lacking. And it can make us feel good, and useful and valuable, to provide for those who need – and that can be seductive.
The “power of the performer” is one that certainly in my denomination, the Church of England, where all the graphs are going in the wrong direction and the numbers and the money seem to be leeching away – the power of the performer can be tempting. “We must do something! We must demonstrate our impact. People should see what we’re doing, and maybe they’ll change their minds about us!” It can be seductive, and it construes our neighbour as a spectator to our performance, as a consumer of our product.
And lastly, the third temptation is to the “power of the possessor”. We hear talk of the importance of the church having “a place at the table”, of “the Christian voice being heard”, of remembering “the Christian heritage” of our society and “the Christian values” which underly things. And all of that is valid, maybe, but again, it’s the seduction of being in charge, of being in control of “our project”, “our activity”, “our justice movement”. And at its worst it construes our neighbour as being the one possessed, controlled.

(I’m sorry, this is going to get worse before it gets better, but I promise, it’ll end on a high!)

I’ve found over the last couple of years that there are, in the States particularly, a small but growing number of people who call themselves ‘critical white theologians’. White Christians who are beginning to be conscious of their whiteness and the damage that uncritical whiteness can inflict. Jennifer Harvey is one of them, and I want you, having seen that axis of where we put Jesus, to listen to these words:

“It just so happens that identifying with or as the central agent in the narratives we embody is one of the broken ways of being toward which white people are prone. It just so happens that being inclined to do “for” in postures that are paternalistic is another damaged side-effect of white racialization. And it just so happens that these tendencies are valorized in the social justice Jesus who is the central power-agent in his saga. Social justice Jesus is like a superhero standing up to evil forces around him and attempting to inveigh on behalf of suffering others. And, thus, while it is laudable that he stands with or works on behalf of the marginalized, it, therefore, just so happens that the broken ways of being toward which white people are already inclined are likely to be triggered, maybe even amplified, by identifying with such a figure. ... Simply put, identifying with the divine is about the last thing that a white person whose life is embedded in white-supremacist structures should be doing.” (Jennifer Harvey, ‘What Would Zacchaeus Do?’, 2012)

I am thankful to Donald Trump for just one thing. That he has highlighted, beyond reasonable doubt, that we live within white supremacist structures. In our society here in the UK as much within the United States.

But… how might these words be if we also translate them into the language of gender?

“Simply put, identifying with the divine is about the last thing that a man, whose life is embedded within patriarchal structures should be doing.”

And for good measure – and I can say this, as someone who is white, male and middle-class…

“simply put, identifying with the divine is about the last thing that a middle-class Christian, whose life is embedded within unjust economic structures should be doing.”

Do you see where I’m going with this?

I’ve found it helpful again, in recent times, to come up against the definition of what I suspect will be used more and more in the next few years as a helpful lens: white fragility. Again, it comes from North America but I think it applies to us too.

“White fragility is a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation. These behaviors, in turn, function to reinstate white racial equilibrium.” (Robin DiAngelo, ‘White Fragility’, 2011)

I think those of us in the room who are white may well recognise some of those descriptions, as something we don’t want to do, but something inside us does automatically. And I think again, we can probably translate quite easily into the language of gender, and the language of class. That defensiveness that those of us who are comfortable with privilege find welling up inside us when challenged.

So what do we do with the habits and seductions of privilege, with our fragile but fiercely defended identities? I think we need to go back to the wasteland, back to the wilderness, and remember that at the end of the temptations story there were angels, and Jesus let them minister to him.

A third response: ‘deep solidarity’, listening and being interrupted

And so, after charity and advocacy, I want to suggest (with Joerg Rieger) a third response, one of deep solidarity, one of ‘standing with’, ‘living with’… “Deep solidarity … describes a situation where the 99% of us who have to work for a living develop some understanding that we are in the same boat. … Deep solidarity not only thrives on differences, it also brings to light otherwise hidden privileges and helps deconstruct them. … as we [develop power by] put[ting] our differences to [productive] use, we begin to realise that those who are forced to endure the greatest pressures might have the most valuable lessons to teach [us].”

So how do we do it? I think those of us in positions of multiple privilege need to learn to let go of our ‘centralness’, and move to the edges, perhaps literally, physically. We need to learn to resist those temptations – the power of the provider, the performer, the possessor. We need to learn to embrace real, intimate, mutual relationships, where we become open to challenge, learning and transformation.

That means learning to listen. Otto Scharmer suggests that there are four levels of listening, and often we don’t get to the fourth. The first is, well, just listening to hear what we were expecting to hear. The second is to hear and maybe noticing something that’s interesting, and maybe different to what we’ve heard before, to what we were expecting. The third is listening to inhabit the shoes of the other. But the fourth level, what he calls generative listening, is a listening that enables something genuine new to emerge. A ‘hearing to speech’.

  ‘Hearing to speech is political

  Hearing to speech is never one-sided. Once a person is heard to speech, she becomes a hearing person.

  Speaking first to be heard is power-over. Hearing to bring forth speech is empowering’

                                                (Nelle Morton, The Journey is Home)

(I’m sorry the way this talk works that doesn’t quite work in practice!)

Jim Perkinson, another critical white theologian, suggests that those of us who are white need an ‘exorcism’, a ‘shaking of our being to the core’ which we can’t do on our own. We have to be open to a ‘grace from without’, we have to be ‘dis-located’, pushed to the edges so that we can learn from others.

Like Jesus with the Syro-Phoenician woman. At the very edges of his travelling, in the region of Tyre and Sidon, a women challenges him and he says No and she will not give up. ‘Yes, but…’ she says. And for her ‘Yes, but’ Jesus is changed and turned around – a metanoia goes on. He heads back home, different. His mission expanded.
Jennifer Harvey suggests, that again, those of us who are white, maybe need to let go of the ‘What Would Jesus Do?’, and find ourselves on the other end of the finger of the black Christ who points and denounces, and invites us to work out ways of becoming ‘race- and class-traitors’, choosing the path of radical conversion, embodied in humility, repentance and reparation. Instead we should ask, she says, ‘What Would Zacchaeus Do?’

In Hodge Hill Church a couple of years ago, Phil and a couple of members of Bromford Theatre Group came and performed on Remembrance Sunday. It was profoundly uncomfortable for some in the church because the performance reminded us of the class divides of war. It unsettled the cosy nationalism that glosses over those divisions. It refused a ‘glory story’, to look tragedy squarely in the face.

And Phil in that Passion Play, playing the Roman centurion, asked us as the crowd, “Is this the Son of God? This man who turned over the tables in the temple, who turned the other cheek, who forgives his persecutors, is this the Son of God?” Phil asked us. It was a challenge to us, the Christians there, as much as to anyone else.

‘Tabling’: finding eucharistic spaces in our neighbourhoods
Later on in Mark’s gospel, 7 chapters after the Syro-Phoenician woman, another unknown woman breaks into the gathering where Jesus is, interrupts the flow of proceedings and pours costly ointment all over Jesus’ head. And Jesus receives it as a gift. She, the prophetic stranger, makes him the Messiah, the ‘anointed one’. She, the prophetic stranger, sends him on his journey to the cross.

In our eucharists, we may imagine we are being fed to feed others. We imagine that we are uniting spiritually and virtually [with those in need], in a crucible of passion, where we’re empowered to go out and speak for our neighbours. But what might a ‘deep solidarity’ that is eucharistically formed look like?

In Hodge Hill, the Real Junk Food Kitchen gathers food every week that is intercepted from supermarkets and restaurants who otherwise would throw it away, and turns it into a 3-course meal that every week around 100 people in our neighbourhood come together to enjoy. It’s not a soup kitchen, it’s a shared meal. It’s ‘pay as you feel’, so if you have money you can stick some money in the tin. If you don’t have money or don’t want to put money in the tin you can give your time or your talents or your gifts.
A couple of years after our first community Passion Play we did our first Street Nativity, and Soni (in the middle of the picture, wearing the King Herod costume) runs Atlantis Fish Bar. When we got to Atlantis Fish Bar with our three wise men following the star, Soni gave them a lecture about going to Bethlehem to find the child, and then coming back to report to him, and then he stripped off his robes and said, “free food for everybody!”. At that point, I get out my mobile phone and hastily tell the ladies at church, brewing the mulled wine, that we might be 45 minutes late! Soni’s generosity interrupted the church’s plans with an agenda that was straight from the Kingdom of heaven.

Over recent years, our Muslim neighbours have invited us to share Iftar with them – breaking the fast during Ramadan – and have shown us so much about what prayer, fasting and hospitality look like.

And in our neighbourhood most recently we have begun to reflect together on our journey of community-building over the years, of which the Passion Play was an early milestone. And in some of those reflective gatherings, the level of sharing and honesty that has happened, the level of excitement about what is happening in community, and wanting to tell others about it and invite others into it, has exceeded what most of the time I see in church.

So I want to suggest finally, that we need to ‘flip’ the christological axis: from ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ to ‘What Would Zacchaeus Do?’, and from seeing Jesus only in our neighbour as hungry, thirsty, stranger to seeing Jesus in those who come with abundant gifts and abundant challenges to us. And maybe identifying, if we must, with a Jesus who is receptive to the abundant gifts and abundant challenges in the women who come to him and change him.
A few weeks ago, we had our first community talent show. There was some real talent, and if you knew them, each who performed on stage also had real fragility – it took a lot to get them up there, to perform, not just on the night but in the years before of confidence-building, encouraging, nurturing, tending relationships and wounds and anxieties and stresses. And there was a quality about the audience: family members and close friends of each of the acts were there, but so were many others in the community. And it wasn’t really a competition – everyone cheered for everyone and encouraged them if they faltered and looked for the shining light even when the voices cracked or the nerves got shaky. Where ‘attending’ did not just mean showing up, but looking for something deeply hidden sometimes. Seeing the glory in the flesh – in the broken, imperfect, fragile flesh of those who were there, who put their bodies up on the stage.

The writer Gillian Ahlgren suggests that this process might be called ‘incarnation’:

“a way of life constantly sensitized to the presence of God within the human community, a recognition and affirmation of the presence of God in our midst that helps us deliberately orient ourselves to becoming the kind of human community that God wants.” (Gillian Ahlgren, The Tenderness of God)

Returning to the edge(s): discovering Christ in the ‘ecotone’
I want to introduce you to one last kind of edge. We’ve seen the cliff edge of precarity. We’ve seen the edges that people are pushed to through marginalization. I want to introduce you to the ecotone: it names that little stretch of earth between habitats, where immense fertility happens. The vital places where difference meet. We find them in our cities too, but we often don’t attend to them. Differences in race and class, of wealth and culture. Our cities are shot through with such edges, but they need tending and attending to.
I wonder, could it ultimately be profoundly unhelpful, in these times of deep fragmentation, to locate Christ on one ‘side’ or the other of our divides? Perhaps we are invited neither to ‘perform Christ’ nor to identify Christ with the neighbours who challenge us most acutely – but to discover Christ as ‘taking place’ in the space of encounter between us and our neighbours. It is Christ who draws us to our neighbours, and it is Christ whom we discover – both creative and unsettling – in the encounters with them. Christ in the ‘ecotone’ – in the edges between us.

And so perhaps we as the church should be concerned less with ‘expanding the territory’ of the body of Christ, and more with ‘extending the flesh of Jesus’ in those ‘contact-zones’, in those edges. Extending those places where we encounter each other across our differences, and discover that God is there.
I want to finish with some more words of Gillian Ahlgren, resonant with much that Pope Francis has been saying in recent years.

“For [St] Francis and [St] Clare, encounter became an arresting way of life, open to all. In their experience, there was no one whose life would not be deeply enriched by deeper dedication to the way of encounter. Engaging the other with the intention to listen, to learn, and to connect is a mutually transformative practice that slowly changes everything. Encounter teaches us to honour the fragility and sacredness of our own humanity, especially as we come to know our common humanity together. When done in the conscious presence of the love of God, encounter creates sacred space in the human community. Encounter moves us from observers of life to collaborators, with God, in the building up of the human community, the creation of a common home.” (Gillian Ahlgren, The Tenderness of God)

 Questions for further reflection:

  • What ecotones/edge-places are we being called to share in tending?
  • Where are we being called to attend more deeply to the gifts & challenges that come to us from our neighbours?
  • In what contact-zones might we be invited to share in extending?