Sunday, 14 August 2011

After the Riots - Humanity and the Divine Image + Matthew 15.10-28

My summer holidays so far this year have consisted of a week staying in London. I had a great time. The weather was good, there was lots to do, we’d found somewhere both comfortable and reasonably priced to stay. And the location worked well - not in the centre of town, but next to a Docklands Light Railway station, and the bus to Trafalgar Square went from just a couple of hundred yards away.

A few years ago it was one of the poorest parts of the city - Limehouse in East London. But there is a Marina now in the Limehouse Basin, swish apartment blocks, and each night as we went back to our accommodation we’d look up and see the lights of the Canada Tower at Canary Wharf, just a mile or so away. Yet nevertheless, it’s in Tower Hamlets, which is, I think, still the poorest borough in the country. I suspect that if I’d gone onto the other side of the main street running through Limehouse, I wouldn’t have had to look too far to find all the tell-tale signs of poverty and deprivation.

I didn’t get into that part of our neighbourhood, but we did explore the next-door community of Wapping and Shadwell. In the nineteenth century it was over-populated, prone to disease and even epidemics of cholera, its workers depended on employment in the London Docks, much of it casual, so they could never be assured of regular wages. It continued to be poor throughout the 20th Century. And in the 1930s it found itself at the heart of tensions which divided many communities in many cities, but which focused here in the Battle of Cable Street when Oswald Moseley and the Black Shirts stirred up racial hatred. I’ve seen an estimate that 300,000 people turned out to resist the march along Cable Street by Moseley’s Fascists, even though 10,000 police were on duty to try to clear the way for the march. We went to see a mural painted to commemorate the opposition shown to fascism amidst the violence of the times. It took some finding... Anti-Semitism was at the heart of Fascism in the 1930s. Now the Jewish community might have gone from the area, but it’s even more racially-mixed. And - I want to say - it’s all the better for that. One of the things that surprised me in my visit to London is that people there on the whole are friendly. People on the bus in Wapping and Shadwell spoke, asked where we were going, told us where we should get off. Walking in the streets, people stopped to ask us where we were going and gave directions - some of them were probably on their way back from the mosque. When we found the mural we were looking for, it was on a building next to a park. In the park there were women, fully-veiled with face-coverings, and another woman sun-bathing in a bikini. Multi-culuralism, mixed race communities, good humour, tolerance and the sun shone. It was a wonderful week.

So I have to be glad we didn’t go a week later… This last week has seen riots in London, Birmingham, Wolverhampton, Manchester and elsewhere that can only be described as lawless violence and inexcusable, opportunistic criminality. Whatever might have sparked them off in the first place, what kept them going was the realisation that if you create a big enough disturbance then you can have more or less free rein to do what you want and take what you want. So start a fire, attack the fire crews when they turn out to tackle it, and you tie up the police in protecting the fire-fighters while you can go and loot shops. That seems to be the basic tactic. I don’t really need to say anything about how you follow it through in robbery, violent confrontation, arson, attacks on defenceless individuals and even murder. We’ve heard the stories told so many times - and seen it all on our television screens…

Someone summed up the view of Britain (or more correctly England) which has come to prevail in the United States media: “A few weeks ago we were the land of royal weddings and Harry Potter, but now it’s all phone-hacking and riots in the street.” Perhaps that sums it up - but neither perspective tells the truth. The looting and violence have been in particular places for a limited time - and we can be thankful for a response by so many more people who have come out to do what they can to help clear up the mess. And the rosy glow of a feel-good film and a wonderful royal occasion mustn’t mask the disaffection and alienation which have gone deep in our society.

It has been said to me several times during the last week that in the past people might not have had the things they wanted or even needed, but they made do with what they had. That may be true. But I suspect that it’s also true that they didn’t have to live with so much wealth and conspicuous consumption on display but out of their reach. Not just the bankers who pay themselves what they want and then add in the bonuses as well. Not just the celebrities in their fabulous homes when they’re not on a round of exotic holidays. But the fact that prosperity these days has come to be seen as requiring economic growth - and that means more and more consumption. We might see people turning out on the street with brushes and shovels to clear up but society as a whole has become fundamentally acquisitive. The Archbishop of Canterbury has put his finger on the problem when he spoke in the House of Lords, saying that we need to educate people to be citizens, not consumers. In the past people made do when they didn’t have enough. But now it’s there for the taking. It’s in their face - the media can survive only if they advertise it; the “have”s are conspicuous in their consumption of it; and why should they have it when others are excluded from it?

Something has gone fundamentally wrong in society. I wondered if those who went on the rampage could have any sense of generosity? Does the concept of humanity mean anything to them? But then - when politicians and the media refer to a whole section of society as an “underclass” what are they saying about these people? - that they’re less than human? The ideal promoted by so many people with political power is to work for a society in which people have “opportunity” - but that suggests that while some may make the most of it other people are never going to succeed; so what should they do?

People who take to the streets to riot and loot succeed only in destroying their own communities. And that can only add to the tragedy of an already-divided society. If we’re to make anything relevant to this out of the first part of today’s Gospel, perhaps it’s these words of Jesus: it’s “what comes out… that defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander.” We all need to take a good look into our hearts - what do we find there? how do we let it form us as the people we are? what do our actions say about us?

And then there’s that encounter of Jesus and the Canaanite woman. It happens in the region of Tyre and Sidon - so it’s outside the area inhabited by the Jews. But the Canaanites had lived exactly where the Jews were then living - the people of Israel had entered the land of Canaan and taken it by conquest. So in a sense she’s a displaced and alienated person. And when she comes to Jesus asking for the healing of her daughter, he seems to respond in terms which make the divisions between them all the more graphic: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

What do we think of other people? What do we think of their needs and aspirations? Do we see what they lack rather than what they are? - human beings made in the image of God.

This last week has seen just too much failure in humanity. Where do we want to draw the line? - not merely in terms of acceptable behaviour but in seeing people as God sees them. Jesus may start by saying that he is sent to work only amongst his own people, the Israelites. But even then he speaks of them as a lost people. We are all lost, we all need to be found and rescued. And it’s the Canaanite woman - from an alien society - who shows what faith truly is. She looks beyond the division of Jew and Gentile and argues her case. She shows what is necessary for the healing of her daughter.

We need the healing of our broken, impoverished society. As Christians we look to God who shows how he takes humanity seriously by sending his Son into the world in human flesh. Perhaps we can take a lead by being more human where we are - and displaying something of the divine image to which we are called.

Preached on 14 August 2011 in St. Cuthbert's Church, Shotley Bridge

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