HATE-BUSTERS & NEIGHBOUR-LOVERS – A sermon preached at St Mary’s, Fordingbridge on Trinity 13, August 21st, 2016
Canon Gary Philbrick
Heb 12:18-29, Lk 13:10-17
O God, who commanded light to shine out of darkness, shine in our hearts to bring us to the knowledge of your glory shining in the face of Jesus Christ our Lord. AMEN. (St Paul, II Corinthians 4:6)
It’s a stinging rebuke that Jesus gives to the leader of the synagogue and the others who criticised him for daring on the Sabbath to heal the women with what sounds like severe spinal curvature – ‘You hypocrites!’ [Lk 13:15]. ‘You’ll untie your donkey on the Sabbath so it can have a drink, but you’re not rejoicing that this women has been freed from her crippling illness’.
It’s a severe warning to all of us to get our priorities right! And it’s interesting that the rebuke is chiefly directed to the leader of the synagogue – to the Rector, we might say. Presumably he is someone whose task is to uphold the rules, to make sure that things are done properly, to keep up standards. And yet, by doing that, instead of doing God’s will, he’s ended up doing the opposite – he’s working against God’s clear intention for people to be made whole, to be healed, to receive salvation – those three words, wholeness, healing, salvation – have the same roots. As I say, a severe warning to all of us to get our priorities right!
Part of my light summer reading has been ‘The Road to Little Dribbling’, by Bill Bryson. It’s a follow-up to his book of twenty years ago, which I enormously enjoyed, ‘Notes from a Small Island’. Bryson is an American who had been living in this country for about twenty years when he wrote the previous book, but was about to return to the States. Since then, he’s divided his time between here and there. Once again, in ‘The Road to Little Dribbling’, he travels around the country, visiting places, some well-known, and some less so, and writing about them in his own inimitable and most entertaining style. I think he’s got a bit crabbier over the years, but it’s still a good read, and he visits all sorts of out-of-the-way places.
At the very end of the book, on a visit to Indianapolis, a sales assistant asks him in amazement, ‘England? Why do you live in England?’ And that leads him to ponder what the reasons could be, and so he makes a list: Boxing Day, Country pubs, Jam roly-poly and custard, Ordnance Survey maps, Cream teas, The 20p piece, and so on. One of his more serious points is that Britain is fundamentally sane on important issues like capital punishment, gun control, abortion and so on. Another is the pace and scale of British life, on what he describes as ‘an ideal-sized island’, and especially an appreciation of small pleasures. He writes, ‘the British are the only people in the world who become genuinely enlivened when presented with a hot beverage and a small plain biscuit’ [p.472] – a cup of tea and a plain digestive! And his final reason is the beauty of the countryside, and the amazing amount of history we have.
Now I’ve described all of this because at the same time that I’ve been reading Bill Bryson’s book, we’ve been hearing reports in the media of the rise of anti-immigrant hate crimes since the EU Referendum in June [http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/brexit-hate-crime-racism-immigration-eu-referendum-result-what-it-means-eurospectic-areas-a7165056.html]. At the end of last month, in the more Eurosceptic parts of the country, local police forces were reporting a doubling or tripling of hate crimes in their areas, and the new Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, has announced an investigation into how to respond to this.
I’m sure that for the vast majority of people this is an entirely unexpected consequence of the Referendum, but it has exposed a rather unpleasant underside to our society.
I was listening to a report on the World Service the other morning. An interviewer and a Muslim woman were sitting outside a café, in London I think, discussing these issues, when suddenly a man’s voice can be heard in the background shouting at them about Sharia Law. When they asked him politely why he’s doing that, he says he’s just exercising his free speech, and that he’s fed up with political correctness telling him what he can and can’t say. The Muslim interviewee said afterwards that that was just something that happens, and one has simply to get on with life. It was a pretty shocking encounter, and the sort of thing which doesn’t usually get recorded.
On Thursday¸ the Equality and Human Rights Commission released a report called ‘Healing a Divided Britain’, in which they said ‘Our nation’s hard-worn reputation for tolerance is arguably facing its greatest threat for decades, as those who spread hate use the leave result to legitimise their views’ [http://www.ibtimes.com/brexit-hate-crimes-britain-faces-high-inequality-racist-anti-immigrant-views-after-2403526]. I’ll say again, for most people an entirely unexpected and unintended consequence of the Referendum result.
So, bearing in mind Jesus’ rebuke to the leader of the synagogue about being a hypocrite, is there anything we as Christians ought to be doing about this?
Well, the Church of England thinks so. The Mission and Public Affairs Division of the Archbishops’ Council has produced a short report at the beginning of the month called ‘Hate-busters and Neighbour-lovers’ – I’ve put a link to it on our website, and have brought a copy with me in case anyone would like to see it.
It begins with a digest of actions from different Dioceses around the county. Leicester Diocese has been working with ‘Hope not Hate’, which I’ve mentioned before, and has held public vigils. Liverpool Cathedral has produced a booklet called ‘Welcome the Stranger’. In Manchester, faith community leaders have jointly responded with advice on how to report hate crimes, and promoted a social media campaign called ‘We Stand Together’. Lichfield had a ‘Love your Neighbour;’ event, and Birmingham’s response is called ‘Stand Together’.
One of the most interesting responses was from Allison, an American woman living in London, who was dismayed by the outpouring of racist abuse following the Leave vote, but has come up with a clever way to tackle it [http://indy100.independent.co.uk/article/safetypin-the-simple-way-to-show-solidarity-with-the-uks-immigrant-population–ZJzeRPz6kHW]. Like many of the best ideas, it’s really simple. She’s started a campaign asking people to wear an empty safety pin as a badge to symbolise solidarity against racism – and let any potential targets know that the wearer is a friendly face. It is simply called the ‘Safety Pin’ Campaign. The idea of wearing a safety pin is to indicate that they are a safe person for a migrant or EU citizen to turn to for help or support in the street. Even if no one approached you for help, the empty safety pin might provoke discussion when someone asks you why you are wearing it.
I’ve put a bowl of safety pins by the main door, so that you can pick one up on the way out if would like to – they even come in a variety of sizes and colours! It’s an invitation to add your voice, in a tiny way, to those who believe, like Bill Bryson does, that ‘Britain is [fundamentally] calm and measured and quite grown up, and for him, [he says] that counts for a great deal’ [ibid.].
Perhaps there is more you can do – making an effort to get to know someone of a different nationality who lives near you – whether from the EU or further afield; making sure you challenge statements or views which are racist, especially when people say, ‘I’m not racist, but…’; explain that ‘free speech’ has never meant you can just say anything you like, and that criticising political correctness shouldn’t be used as an excuse to say things which are unpleasant or un-Christian. Free speech is a very important right, and we have the right to offend others by what we say – that is not the same as being racist, or inciting racial hatred by what we say or do.
Our faith should always offer us a wider view of what it is to be a human being, as well as what it means to be a Christian. Jesus, in his day, was encouraging people to become more what God intended them to be. It is the same now.
Jesus said, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’. ‘And who is my neighbour?’, he was asked, going on to tell the story of the Good Samaritan. After telling the parable, he turns the question back to the lawyer – ‘Who was neighbour to the one who fell among robbers?’ ‘The one who showed him mercy’, came the reply. ‘Go and do likewise’. AMEN.