by the Right Revd Dame Sarah Mullally, Bishop of London
It has been a long year. So many of us have suffered, whether through loss of those we love, loss of financial stability, loss of the freedom to see our family and friends, loss of freedom of movement or loss of our mental, physical and spiritual wellbeing. One way or another, we are all reeling from the sense that much has been removed from us. And this cannot help but raise questions of meaning, identity and belonging.
In the midst of all this loss, it has been my observation that we are in danger of losing something else: the way that we relate to one another seems to be deteriorating.
In particular, we have seen a rise in binary narratives. One of the implications of this is that by definition you are either on the “right side” of the argument or the “wrong side.” The belief that I am right, and you are wrong, can so easily slide into being “I am good and you are bad.” From here, it is a short step to hate speech and violent isolation of those who hold different views.
Perhaps it’s no surprise that, in this kind of climate, we hunker down with our own and, in consolidating our sense of belonging within our own communities – of whatever kind – we differentiate ourselves from others, setting ourselves apart. The Church is not exempt. We can use language which not everyone may understand. We have sometimes been quick to form different Christian tribes. We have too often shut our doors to those we should have flung them open to. And as we do, we draw explicit and implicit categories which indicate who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’.
Our challenge in this time is not to pretend that we are all alike. We clearly are not. But to recognise, and hopefully learn in some small way to overcome, our intrinsic nature which pushes away others and tries to carve out territory only for ourselves and to see our circumstances in the wider context of God.
Maybe the biggest reason for wanting to hunker down with our own is fear.
I have reflected over the last few months since the publication of Living in Love and Faith that fear is the emotion that can hold the biggest risk in preventing us from listening to each other.
I wonder what it is that we fear because of the process? We may fear not being listened to, we may fear being marginalised, we may fear being misunderstood, we may fear for the future of the Church of England; we may fear abuse or bullying. And our flight or fight response can so easily turn to getting in our pre-emptive attack, as a form of defence, before we are attacked.
Defence can look like denial – as Eli did with his wicked sons (1 Sam 2:22-25). In the end though it proves temporary and only makes matters worse. It can also look like flight – as Hagar was forced to do from Sarai (Gen 16:6-8), but again fails to resolve the real issues.
On the other hand, attack can look like assault – gossip, slander and efforts to damage people’s reputation as some did towards Stephen in the early church (Acts 6:8-15). Too often, this is precisely what we see on Twitter. It seems to increasingly be the default option and has led to a culture where it is deemed acceptable to publicly shame people, irrespective of the facts.
Neither defence or attack leads to reconciliation or peace. Defence pretends that there is peace when there isn’t, attack gives up on peace for the sake of getting what they want.
The Bible pushes us in a different direction. Before running away in defence or lashing out in attack, it urges us to look within. It warns us that often conflict grows out of our sinful desires to have things our own way (James 4:1-2). Many conflicts would be far more quickly resolved if we were prepared to take the log out of our own eye before trying to take the speck out of somebody else’s (Luke 6:42).
Despite the gravity of these words, they also mean that conflict is an opportunity – an opportunity to act in a counter-cultural way which reflects the love of God and brings God glory. A way that leads to peace. Paul writes to the church in Corinth, mired in religious, legal and dietary disputes and says:
“So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God—even as I try to please everybody in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved. Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ. 1 Cor 10:31-11:1”
In other words, see conflict as an opportunity to glorify God by pursuing peace. This is a God who calls us to trust that His ways really are best (Prov 3:5-7), to serve others by putting their interests ahead of your own in love and mercy (Luke 6:27-28, 36) and to grow like Christ who not only said “love your enemies” (Luke 6:27-36) but loved us to the point of death (Luke 22:41-44).
This does not come naturally. It requires brave people to step outside of the cultural norm and behave differently. People who are prepared to do the slow hard work of reconciliation where it is necessary. To head into difficult conversations with a humble, loving and hopeful heart. To walk the careful, slow, and sometimes painful path towards peace.
Wouldn’t it be a breath of fresh air – if the tone of our debates focussed less on showing people how right we are but on how to care for those most vulnerable, those most likely to be hurt?
Wouldn’t it be great if we could hold what is considered a minority opinion without being ridiculed or vilified as a traitor or troublemaker?
Wouldn’t it bring great glory to God if we could avoid a culture in which we demonise each other for dissent?
Wouldn’t it be a powerful witness to a watching world if we allowed each other the safe space we need for all views to be expressed and discussed in an atmosphere of compassion and respect?
But as we gulp at the challenge, remember that we have a great ambassador who went before us. Jesus was stripped naked, mocked and shamed in a way so brutally humiliating, that Western art has shied away from depicting it. He endured more public shame than any of us ever will. He did it to welcome us into a community where boasting was ruled out, servants were now served and outcasts became children, where the status that he gave us mattered far more than the status we had on social media. He did it to transform us into people who count outward fame as rubbish, compared with gaining Him (Phil 3:4-9).
For it is within Him that we find the answers to the questions of meaning, identity and belonging.