November 2020

Us and them

In last month’s Newsletter, I wrote about the book Morality by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and his central contention that we have slipped from thinking about morality as something to do with ‘we’ to be something to do with ‘I’. And I feel his analysis is absolutely correct.

Thinking more about it, however, I can see that the word ‘we’ can be a slippery one: it can refer to ‘we’ in an inclusive sense ‘We are all in it together’ or in an exclusive one, as when we talk about ‘We Anglicans’, ‘We British’, ‘We English’, ‘We Welsh’, ‘We Brexiteers’, ‘We Remainers’, ‘We Tottenham supporters’, ‘We Arsenal supporters’: the list is pretty endless. But this is all too often what we really mean when we use the word ‘we’. It does not embrace everyone: rather it defines the boundaries within which the select group can be allowed. And all too often, the people beyond the boundaries are foreigners, refugees, asylum seekers, beggars, prisoners, people who are not like - for want of a better way of putting it - us.

That is not the way Jesus saw it. His ministry, especially his acts of healing, extended to everyone: Jews, gentiles, foreigners, lepers, members of the occupying force, tax collectors, all those despised or loathed by ‘his’ people. And that, of course, is all part of the heart of the gospel, which is a gospel of love. You don’t draw people to yourself by loathing them, or judging them or excluding them: you do so by offering them love. And that is exactly what Jesus did. And that is a lesson which we have never fully taken on board.

The Church of England would describe itself as an inclusive church. I think it would be at best charitable to describe that as work in progress, a point made all too clear in the recent report on abuse within the Church of England, where it is shamefully obvious that the attitude of the church was to protect its own people - ‘people like us ‘ - rather than the victims. 

I have used before the story about how the disciples felt that Jesus was looking a bit peaky, so they took him along to a football match between the Protestant Pioneers and the Catholic Crusaders. Early on in the match, the Pioneers scored a goal, and Jesus cheered wildly and threw his hat in the air. Five minutes later, the Crusaders scored a goal, and Jesus cheered wildly and threw his hat in the air. This confused members of the crowd, one of whom tapped one of the disciples on the shoulder and asked. ‘Here, which side is your mate supporting?’ Jesus heard this and said ‘I am not supporting either side: I am just enjoying the game.’

Boundaries, whether physical, mental or any other sort, are scars. They divide people from people. If we have our own boundaries, then we are dividing ourselves from others. If we do that, we are cutting ourselves off from the greatest part of God’s creation - our fellow human beings. For people are the richest part of creation, with their endless variety of gifts, talents, personalities, weaknesses, strengths etc, all of which, if working together, would make the whole world a richer, better and happier place. Boundaries can form all too easily without our realising it and they can be ingrained in the soil: just ask the people of Northern Ireland about that.

Boundaries cut us off from other people and prevent us from enjoying the huge richness of God’s creation. We would all lead happier lives if we used the word ‘we’ inclusively rather than exclusively. We would not be setting ourselves apart from - or above - others. And we would, of course, have a much better chance of enjoying the game.