Childish Paradoxical Interfaces
I have had a most interesting week, during which the key to the heart of today’s gospel reading has turned in various directions. For at the heart of it lies the juxtaposition - the paradoxical interplay - the conundrum, if you like of the interface between reality and ideology. Of course this interface is something that politicians know about too. Jeremy Corbyn, now catapulted into the limelight by an adoring Labour Party electorate now has to confront the inevitable challenges presented by those who see his ideological vision as unrealistic. Political realism is a topical issue at the moment and perhaps always has been, as anyone with any kind of conviction about anything has to relate that to the world as it currently is. You can't start from anywhere other than the here and now. As the famous joke puts it, when a man asks ‘how do you get to Lands End?’, ‘well, my friend, I wouldn’t start from here’. And that seems to be the motto of the week, and perhaps even of this year, or even decade, if not for all time. For whatever it is that we try to do or achieve in the political, international or community-focused line is so often hampered by not really being in the right place to start with!
When it comes to building a new school; when it comes to solving the national debt, or the problem of personal debt, or the so-called migrant crisis, I wouldn’t start from here! And that being so, we are often forced to ask how we got to the rather inconvenient place where one shouldn’t start from, in the first place! In all cases thy are complex issues with both a past and future, and our attempts to determine or influence the future of them are fraught with difficulty.
On Tuesday I was privileged and honoured to be commissioned by Archbishop Justin Welby as a Credit Champion. In respect of my involvement with credit unions over the last 20 years and as a Director of the North London Credit Union, I and about 30 others were commissioned at a service in East London, where he said, with not insignificant humility, that he would be horrified to take any credit whatsoever for a groundswell of activity sparked off by what he considers to be a casual comment about the church out-wonga-ing Wonga and the moneylenders. Many people in the UK are crippled by spiraling cycles of personal debt, and some even take their own lives, so desperate do they become. And those of us who are trying to help and do something - we are not starting in the best place are we? The acceptance of debt is itself an ideology- affirmed at national as well as individual level, an accepting attitude that that pervades society.
But debts are dangerous and must be handed with care, lest they grow too big and devour you. Having debts is like having a pet python - it ain’t really a pet, but rather an animal that can squeeze you to death. So there is the constant challenge that realism presents to a hope and vision of freedom from the chains of debt. And yet there is hope, and we must not abandon it, ever.
Closer to home, Fairview Hones want to build on the land between here and Oakwood. I assume everyone knows something about it. In order to help their chances of doing so they have proposed that our education needs are met by accommodating space - on land which isn’t actually theirs - for a new school. We need that school, for sure. And if it is a church school, we want it as well, so that there is Christian education beyond the primary level in this part of the world. So there are competing needs and ideologies too. Building on green belt land is a bad thing - Green belt land is there to protect the environment, give London breathing space and prevent extensive conurbation. And various other benefits too I daresay. I don’t want green belt land built on.
But many do and are prepared for that to happen and will do everything in their power to make it happen, even if the local community rise up against them. There is no reason to see anything as a done deal, but there is also no reason to see it as not a done deal either. The polices is intense, and most of us don’t know the half of what is going on behind the scenes.
But there are three potential outcomes: all houses, no houses or some houses and a school. It is correct to campaign for no houses - that would be a good outcome, even if it would, logically be impossible to say for how long that would remain the case. Those who campaign against anything happening on that field are doing the right thing, and I applaud them. Their objections are mostly ideological.
Yet Fairview homes would fill that land with houses given the chance. And I know a few people - only a few mind - who would be glad for them to do so. But Fairview are realistic - for it seems a safe bet that they would never get that through. Effort and energy consumed on the purely money-making enterprise of filing that field with houses is probably wasted and therefore a waste of time and money. So they are being realistic.
Which leaves option three - a compromise position which does half and half: providing needed amenities, and reducing the amount of houses and keeping some free space. There is that blend of idealism and realism present. And also the element of realism that says, that whether we like it or not, there is a real chance that even in the face of huge local opposition, Fairview might actually win, and it might all happen. This is a possibility that cannot be discounted. So those of us who want to se a school there are not going to stop wanting it and working towards ensuring that it is a church school, just because the whole project should not or might not happen. If the local community win the battle to keep the field empty, then obviously the school will not be built either. But if Fairview do get the planning permission, it would be a tragedy to see a school built that was not a Church of England School, on Church Land, because the principle of not building on Green belt land had paralyzed us into inaction.
I say all this, basically to demonstrate how it is possible to support the local community in their campaign to keep that land empty, and to want to see a new school on that land. And if we have anything to do with it, it will be a very good school indeed. So here, I believe, we have a blend of realism and idealism. ideals for a serving the community in education, and realism about how things may well pan out.
Other examples of this kind of situation abound: Trident missiles: should we renew them or not? The age old conundrums about having weapons you hope never to use - intend never to use - refuse to use, is back among us. And where a national leader stands on that spectrum is a complex and revealing issue. Deterrents are not supposed to be used, and yet meanwhile the whole point of them is that they would be used, if, perish the though, the circumstances demanded it. The nuclear deterrent - which derives its origins in the school playground for sure - is a complex, and arguably thus far successful blend of idealism and realism. And to engage with it as a concept one has to hold idealism in one hand and realism in the other.
And take our migrant crises as some call it. Or refugees - what we call those poor benighted people struggling and straggling across Europe has some bearing on it too. We are shown dead children on the news, and we are told that some are just doing it because the Western European grass is greener. We have a sense of the horrors people are fleeing, and we would so the same, for sure. And yet, many say, there is a need for realism, in terms of what nations can cope with. I don’t have the answer to this - but what needs to happen as we continue to engage with and worry about it, is something that balances idealism with realism. Meanwhile we pray fervently for the suffering, the oppressed, the downtrodden, the victims of war, famine and disaster - and our prayers are tinged - if not driven by relief that it is them not us, and that heartfelt plea, of why can’t the world sort itself out so all can live in freedom, justice and plenty.
And then we hear today’s gospel reading and are reminded that the reality of divorce interfaces with the ideal of family life and marriage. Its a kind of both and… a personal version of the bigger issues I have been mentioning. There is a paradoxical juxtaposition of what look like opposing positions, but which ultimately have to be held together. We don’t live in a black and white context any more, even if some would want us to or pretend that we do. A similar thing is happening with the debate becoming very live as to how the church approaches, receives and welcomes homosexual inclination and practice. The idealism and reality needs to be handled, married together almost, in ways that are just, compassionate, affirming and honest.
So this is all to say, effectively that:
It is possible to accept divorce and teach that it is not the ideal.
It is possible to say that debts are wrong, whilst having a mortgage.
It is possible to feel sorry for those who are migrants and refugees while also worrying about the impact of it all.
It is possible to respect Christian teaching and tradition about sexuality without being bigoted or unwelcoming.
It is possible to say we have to have nuclear weapons while also having no intention of pushing the button.
It is possible to deplore the destruction of green belt land while also wanting to build a school on it.
This is sophisticated stuff, and the modern age has forced us into a public square with so many dark corners, and many people would not rather do the complex stuff, preferring the approach that some tabloid newspapers embody of just shouting the odds about one side of the argument. We need ideals, and convictions and moral backbone. But we also need to face reality, make plans and prepare for the future, such that losing one battle doesn’t mean losing all the ones that follow. You have to pick your battles. And it is possible to stand on slippery slopes if you wear the right shoes.
And yet, clever as Jesus is, he has a different take on all this. He blends simplicity with complexity, actually. Spin doctoring Pharisees are contrasted with vulnerable, perhaps even detested, children. It’s clear whose side Jesus is on.
Jesus will not be drawn by the Pharisees asking him what is yet another of their trick questions. Money to Caesar, woman caught in adultery, all these questions are traps. Because they attempt to force him into a dark corner where only lurks inconsistency. And being inconsistent is the great crime these days - if you contradict yourself, or hold paradoxical views you get dismissed. Even though, as we have seen, it is quite common, actually to do this, and sometimes being slightly inconsistent indicates a closer connection to reality than unthinking prejudice, self interest or the convenience of having a principle to hide behind.
When asked about divorce Jesus cannot win, because he will either appear lenient or hardline. He opts for hardline, because, even if they disagree with him, they know he is technically right. It is a clever answer, and probably not the one they wanted or expected - to them Jesus was a radical liberal, challenging their traditions. And yet, their actual approach to the problem was to rewrite the rules to suit their own ends - to temper their ideals with reality.
Jesus takes child and says - be like them. Don’t complicate things, don’t over do it. But children are vulnerable, and so becoming like them is not about becoming naive, it is about becoming vulnerable. Vulnerable to criticism, vulnerable to defeat, vulnerable to suffering and marginalization. And in Jesus’ time children were not valued as they are today. In the first century, there was not a very positive attitude about children. Some contemporaneous comments that express first century attitudes towards children from other writers of the period include, I quote:
A child is without understanding and self-willed.
A child acts like a fool.
A child is inclined to naughtiness and needs sharp discipline.
It is a waste of time for a scholar to spend time with a child.
One can see why people might have felt like that 2000 years ago, and perhaps still do… sometimes. But we have moved on a bit haven’t we and value children for their potential, for what they can learn, and of course we admire, and are even envious of their innocence and the way in which they look at the world. And we want them to have the best education we can provide. So here Jesus has a radically favourable attitude towards children that is perhaps more in line with ours than we might realise. At any rate putting them at the centre of the conversation, immediately after the Pharisees have tried to trick him, is a gesture that says more than the actual words used. With the woman caught in adultery, he writes in the sand. He could have done the same with the Pharisees’ question about marriage. It’s almost as if he is saying: “whatever you say”. It’s disarming and annoying to them, but then he points to little children, presumably in a spirit of frustration and says, ‘be like them’.
The point is, then and now, is that we spend a lot of time and energy making up arguments to support whatever cause we are batting for. The press do it, politicians do it, we do it in our own domestic lives: often defending the indefensible, trying to win, trying to persuade someone to think or do something, not so much because it will help them, but because it suits our interests. But Jesus isn’t interested in anyone’s interest: he is interested in truth, justice and peace. And he is not interested in self-righteousness, but simply in righteousness before God.
So he points to children as if to say ‘cut it out guys - be like them’. ‘For they understand what you do not, which is that the understanding you tinker with and twist to your own ends, is not understanding at all, but self-righteous nonsense’. This is of course very much in keeping with his general attitude toward the Pharisees, who were always out to catch him out.
All the best sermons - so we teach curates and students, should have a conclusion - an answer. A simple message. Well Jesus’ simple message is a gesture - ‘look at a child’ he says and does. But we know, it is not simple nowadays, so we might also - in that paradoxical interface approach, say like the great Philosopher Wittgenstein, that you never get there, but aim to reach a point at which you can stop, at least for the time being. The issues of our society are ongoing - so I will stop. Much is yet to come - it was ever thus. So let us stop for now. And try to be as children - not closed to complexity, but vulnerable to it, and open to the exciting future that lies ahead.
The Rev'd Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 04/10/15