by the Rt Revd Paul Bayes, Bishop of Liverpool and the Chair of the Ozanne Foundation
One positive side-effect of the first lockdown was that I began regular exercise again, and I’ve kept it going. Every other day I jog (candidly it’s more of a shuffle) for 2.5K around the streets here.
There is only one fairly steep hill, which takes some will power to climb. Half way up the hill it’s easy to consider giving up. The hill is called Church Road (I know this story sounds like “Pilgrim’s Progress”, but I promise I’m not making it up).
Church Road takes you up, past the church hall where the Beatles first played together, and past the churchyard with a grave which was the inspiration for “Eleanor Rigby”, and on to the house where the present Rector lives, who played Father McKenzie in the recent movie “Yesterday”.
These facts might well help you in a trivia quiz (you’re welcome), but none of them makes the hill any easier. And by the time I reach the top I’m usually gasping for breath. It’s just at that point of maximum tiredness that I pass the parish church’s war memorial, facing the road at the top of the hill, with its simple message “Peace”.
Peace is a word with many meanings, but in my experience any peace worth the name comes after a climb. No climb, no peace. In this Remembrance season that is surely clear.
In his book “The Cost of Discipleship” Dietrich Bonhoeffer speaks of cheap grace and costly grace, the cheap grace that causes us to sleep spiritually, and the costly grace that assuredly calls us forward on the path of discipleship. In a similar way you might speak of cheap peace and costly peace.
Cheap peace exists, for what it’s worth. I could choose to suspend my run and instead to experience a peaceful moment at the bottom of the hill. The problem with doing that its that I’m no longer exercised, and I’m not one step closer to home. Alternatively I can face the exertion and climb the hill and pass the war memorial and receive its message of peace, and run on.
Speaking of the leaders of his own time the prophet Jeremiah was moved to say: “They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. ‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace.” (Jeremiah 6:14)
Jesus on the other hand came to his disciples there in the upper room, where the doors were locked for fear of the Jews, and he showed them his serious, indeed his mortal, wounds; and as a wounded and risen person he said “Peace be with you”. (John 20:19)
Cheap peace comes at the foot of the hill, where wounds are not taken seriously, on the near side of conflict. And costly peace is to be found where the seriously wounded One lives and breathes and blesses, on the far side of conflict.
It will not do to settle for cheap peace at the bottom of the hill, certainly not for those who follow the Prince of Peace. When I was a parish priest in High Wycombe in the 80s, and also one of the national co-chairs of Christian CND, I preached at the town’s Remembrance Day service, to an audience including senior USAF and RAF service people from the local bases, as well as some from the peace movement. At the end of the service someone drew me aside and said: “Well, Paul, it wasn’t easy, but you managed to get away without offending anyone today”.
I was profoundly depressed. It was evident that I had chosen words which had not reflected the truth as I understood it. It was evident that my discipleship itself had fallen short. I’m still looking for the bit in the Gospels where someone says to our Lord: “Well, Jesus, it wasn’t easy, but you managed to get away without offending anyone today”.
Of course there is nothing to be gained by giving gratuitous offence, and of course patience and compassion and self-control and endurance are virtues in the Christian way. But when a community seeks real peace, it is only to be found after the most profound exertion, and in the midst of honest speech and honest listening, and if necessary of honest and clearly-expressed disagreement.
To say that honest speech and honest disagreement matters is by no means to state the obvious.
As I write the “shenanigans” following the US election are ongoing, as the result is awaited and the President rages. Television commentators are interrupting the speeches of their own President to tell their listeners that he is not speaking the truth.
As I write the anti-lockdown and anti-vaccine movements, and even the insane fantasies of the QAnon conspiracy, continue to gather adherents in the UK – for some, joining them seems so much easier than climbing the hill of truth and walking on the stones of evidence.
The Coronavirus has squeezed our common life hard, and it has revealed fault-lines which continue to open. In the words of the Authorised Version of the Bible: “…judgment is turned away backward, and justice standeth afar off: for truth is fallen in the street, and equity cannot enter”. (Isaiah 59:14)
In such a world Christian people are surely called to exert themselves, and to seek the hard peace which is found at the summit of the hill. It is not enough to stay at the hill’s foot, where the grass is long and where we can agree with everyone, or at least agree to differ, and where the vulgar sound of struggle is pleasantly distant.
This is surely true in every part of our common life, as a church as well as in the nation.
Will we confront the lies in the public square which I have mentioned above, and take a stand for the truth, even if it means we will not get away without offending anyone today?
Within the Church will we exert ourselves to climb the hill to where the grass is shorter, and finally to address and not to postpone matters of contention, as for example in the area of human sexuality and relationships which hurts and marginalises and silences so many?
And in all these things will we be enabled by God’s grace to reach together for the costly peace which comes on the far side of a renewed honesty and a renewed public courage?
I can only hope.