Crossing over the Road

Many people, I think, know the story of the Good Samaritan – the man by the side of the road in a deserted place who is ignored by the priest and lawyer and rescued by the unpopular foreigner. I remember learning a song that asked me if I would have walked by or would I ‘cross the road’? For me the only honest answer to that question is – it depends but I hope so.

In his beautiful reflection on Radio 4 last Saturday, the founder of L’Arche community, Jean Vanier, challenged people to cross the road. He asked his listeners to imagine a neighbourhood where all the rich people lived on one side of the road and those on the other side lived in poverty. What was needed, and what is needed in our sometimes fragmented and compartmentalised society, was for people to cross over the road. But then he added a warning – don’t go on your own – when you go to cross the road, take a few friends with you.

That is an image that will stay with me for a long time. It has already become for me an image of my ministry as a deacon. I don’t have a huge programme for mission, a single cure for inequality or a new mode of worship to roll out and revolutionize the church but I do have a feeling that crossing the road is central to our discipleship and it’s best done with a few friends.

There are many different roads we can choose to cross. My last few years of interfaith working have taken me across some perceived barriers to meet people who have shown me the incredible beauties of their faith, answered my stumbling questions and offered me friendship. It’s been a wonderful journey.

But in the last six months my work has subtly moved to focus on both interfaith work and work to build economic equality. In a way that second road seems harder to cross. (It’s interesting that a recent study in primary schools found that class [economic difference] not ethnicity or religion was the hardest barrier for children to cross.) I am really glad that I have friends who are well ahead of me on this journey.

At his recent book launch Archbishop John Sentamu said that in a strange way the consumer society is a way of creating and distributing unhappiness. I think it is also a way of creating and distributing divison and separation. Things, wealth and possessions mark us off as different from one another – they become our identity.

Meeting people of different faiths makes me reflect on what I believe, the truths that underpin my own religion and practice. I have found this hugely enriching.

Meeting people who have been sanctioned, who cannot work because of the asylum system, who live on zero hour contracts or who are paid too little to live on makes me reflect not on what I believe but what I have. It provokes me to think about my attitudes of entitlement, the waste of fast fashion, the food we throw away and the holidays we feel we need. At first sight this is less enriching.

But in her brilliant book Take this Bread, Sara Miles, reminds us that we are not crossing the road to rescue those less fortunate than oursleves, we are not coming to learn on a self-improvement programme but we come because our salvation and wholeness is bound up with one another.

She says; “I think we are being called to something harder than being conventional Good Samaritans. To understand ourselves, individually and as a church, being rescued by strangers and foreigners, by the wrong people. To understand ourselves, individually and as a church, as beaten, hungry, hurting, lost at the side of the road. Called to touch the parts of ourselves that are strange and damaged and needy. Called to receive love from people we don’t know and have no reason to trust. And only then, in turn, being called to the second part: to go and do the same thing – knowing it will change us in ways we didn’t plan and may not like.”

One of my favourite phrases about the ministry of a Deacon comes from the ordination service. It says; “They are to work with their fellow members… reaching into the forgotten corners of the world, that the love of God may be made visible.”

If the service said Deacons were to work alone, I couldn’t do it. If it said they were taking the love of God to forgotten corners of the world I couldn’t do it. But I hope that as I learn to give and receive from those I meet on the other side of the imaginary road, then the love of God may in some way be made visible.

Jesus said plenty about crossing roads, not hoarding things, sharing our resources and eating together. He didn’t send his disciples alone and he promised that wherever we go he will go with us. People like Jean Vanier, Sara Miles and the saints of the Church in Birmingham remind me that crossing roads is not only possible but it’s our calling and through crossing the road we will meet Jesus.

 

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We need more and better faith – not less faith

I am a Christian but I have never had to condem acts of brutality or hatred carried out by other Christians. I have not had to distance myself from the Klu Klux Klan or apologise for atrocities committed by Christians in the Balkans or closer to home in Northern Ireland nor am I asked to explain the behaviour of members of the brutal and violent Lord’s Resistance Army which grew out of the Holy Spirit movement and claims to be inspired by God.

For my Muslim friends condeming atrocities and distancing themselves from extremism is becoming an everyday occurence. My Facebook feed is full of statements from kind, peace-loving people making the point that this latest act of mass murder  is not in their name or the name of their religion. At the same time they are seeing an anti-Islamic fervour gathering pace in Europe with attacks on mosques and anti-immigration rhetoric becoming commonplace.

It is tempting to think that it is time for religion to be confined to the private areas of our life and be reduced to the status of other ‘life-enhancing’ activities such as shopping, going to the gym or collecting model trains. I am fortunate that over the last few weeks I have been reading Miroslav Volf’s excellent book, A Public Faith.

Volf describes a faith restricted to the life of the soul as an ‘idle faith’. He says: “If faith only heals and energizes, then it is merely a crutch to use at will, not a way of life. But the Christian faith, as a prophetic faith, is either a way of life or a parody of itself.

Volf contrasts the ‘idle’ faith of those who want to give their souls the occasional pampering with the ‘coercive’ faith which is so keen to impose itself on the world around it that the end begins to justify the means.  Violent protesters outside abortion clinic would be a good example of this. The fanatics in Paris seem to be another.

These two ‘malfunctions’ of idleness and coerciveness result in a ‘thinned out faith’ which allows people to have goals unrelated to their faith or to define their goals in accordance to their beliefs but not the means of achieving them.

Volf concludes: “If this is correct, the cure for religiously induced violence is not less faith but more faith – faith in its full scope, faith enacted with integrity and courage by its holy men and women, faith pondered responsibly by its great theologians.”

Good fervent faith does not lead to violence and senseless killings but it does shape our entire lives, our private thoughts and public actions. My faith influences how I vote, where I live, my job, my hopes and dreams and my parenting. Volf says: “Faith does its most proper work when it (1) sets us on a journey, (2) guides us along the way and (3) gives meaning to each step we take.”

I have heard a few Christian friends say recently that they are beginning to associate a fervent faith with extremism of one kind or another. But this kind of faith, which Volf calls ‘thick faith’ does not encourage or sanctify violence and brutality.  If God is giving meaning to every step we take and is guiding us on the way, the end outcome (righting a perceived wrong) cannot justify the means (violence).

Violence, whether it is firebombing a mosque in Sweden or a shooting in Paris, seeks to cause terror, fear and division. We all stand to lose if such violence dominates our imaginations, our stories, our relationships with our neighbours and our media.

Together we have the chance to create new stories, build new friendships, provide a safety net for those who feel excluded and forgotten and work out how we live our faiths publicly and privately to bring about the peace, wholeness and joy we are longing for.