My apologies for the different colours of font through this post, which I have entirely failed to fix!
A disquieting synchronicity.
Wolf Hall has been on the telly in the UK, a superlatively good TV dramatization of both Hilary Mantel’s novels Wolf Hall (and here for UK) and Bring Up The Bodies (and here for UK). Not being an avid follower of the Booker Prize-winners or indeed what goes on in the world generally, I had not read her books. But the dramatization is of such quality that I looked them out and found them spell-binding. Brilliant work.
The two novels trace the political career of Thomas Cromwell, a central figure in England at the time of the Reformation. Just over a year ago I read Henry Vyner-Brook’s (also excellent) novel The Heretic (and here for UK), looking at the same period of history.
As I’m sure you know, the Church of England was essentially built on a pile of dead bodies – beheaded, burned, disemboweled, tortured and terrified. One might think, an inauspicious beginning. Not that the Catholic church from which it emerged had any kindlier track record. Quakers, Puritans, Lutherans, Anabaptists – burned to a crisp all over Europe.
So that has been my reading material and my food for thought in recent days.
Meanwhile on the news has been the executions by ISIS of Kenji Goto (beheaded) and Moath al-Kasasbeh (burned alive in a cage).
The machinations of power harnessing political process of law and underwriting it with the name of God for good measure, just as in the Middle Ages.
But, lest anyone thought that between the English Reformation and 21st century Islamic political extremism there had been any respite, over on Facebook I find a friend posting a link to an article graphically detailing the spectacular lynching of African Americans – and it seems the States could have taught even the medieval torturers a thing or two in their gruesome refinements of pitiless cruelty and prolonged torture. Between 1882 and 1968 there were 4,743 recorded lynchings in the US.
But, in case we thought 1968 was plenty late enough, napalm, white phosphorus, drone attacks . . . it seems the arms trade has been doing brisk business in human suffering.
I cannot say I greatly recommend reading the accounts of these things, but I do recommend the awareness. So I will post links at the end of this article, for any who have the stomach for it.
It is important to grasp that, when it comes to agony and responsibility, ‘somewhere else’ doesn’t really apply.
Then what can we do? Whatever can we do? We send little gifts of money to those whom war has maimed and traumatised, children whose parents are blown to bits, families whose homes and farming land are destroyed. We pray for them in their terror and acute vulnerability, to a God whom we see in Jesus pinned naked in the midday sun to his cross.
Thinking through it all yesterday, I came back to the wise command of Jesus: ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.’ (Mark 12:28-31KJV)
I’ve quoted from the King James Bible here not from a fondness for cute archaisms, but because there’s an important difference between ‘you’ and ‘thou’ in terms of instructions the Bible has for us. ‘You’ is plural, meaning you the community. ‘Thou’ is singular, meaning you the individual.
So Jesus is not giving a general group instruction to us to take care of one another, but a direct personal charge to each individual one to ‘love thy neighbor as thyself’. And, no doubt you will remember, there had to be some tricksy lawyer in the crowd to pipe up with his sardonic question, ‘And who is my neighbor?’
To which Jesus responded with the story of the Good Samaritan. And when he’d told the story, he made the man answer his own question, made him confess with his own lips that it was the foreigner, the unclean infidel, who acted truly as a good neighbor. ‘So you go and do the same,’ said Jesus.
But it is my belief – otherwise the project is so huge I don’t know where to begin – that therefore my neighbor is, regardless of social or cultural difference, simply the person I come across. Loving my neighbor as myself means doing for the person I come across the thing that would be most useful, in that circumstance, if it were me.
My reach is not large and my opportunities not all that many, for which I thank God because I do believe we were intended to take this seriously.
And I cannot believe that war in any shape or form, or gun culture of any sort, or torture, or any type of persecution, has any place in Christ’s command to ‘love thy neighbour’.
In my own life in most recent years, the aspect of persecution I have been in a position to observe most intimately has been the relentless persecution of homosexual people by the church, and the merciless exclusion of homosexual Christians from the church community by their Christian brothers and sisters. They have been driven to suicide, pushed to the margins. And of course the attitudes of the church in Europe, America and the UK, sends strong signals to those countries where ‘corrective rape’ of lesbians, or torture, imprisonment and execution of homosexual people, are still seen as entirely acceptable.
And some say it is all the work of the devil, that it is end times and compassion grows cold and opposition is fierce. The devil? The devil could take it easy, sit back and read his newspaper, seeing what Christians will cheerfully do to each other for themselves, and call it the holy work of God.
‘Love thy neighbor’, eh? Perhaps it is time we begin.
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WARNING – the following links may include graphic images and descriptions of an upsetting nature.