Last week, I posted an interview that a prominent law blog had conducted with me on the subject of “Compassion and Crime”. I suggested that, however difficult it is, we are called to show compassion to all. Largely, the responses I received were positive, but one or two were angry and vitriolic, suggesting that some criminals were beyond redemption and, for people such as the recently-convicted Mick Philpott, the question of capital punishment should be reconsidered in the UK. I would be the first to admit that my theology is idealistic, utopic even, but surely all Christians are called to idealism. Why else do we cry ‘thy Kingdom come’ each time we pray the prayer Jesus himself taught us? As Reinhold Niebuhr put it, the Kingdom is all about ‘the relevance of the impossible ideal’.
While I would embrace the term idealistic, the uncompromising challenge of the incarnation is clear. It’s not only about recognising Jesus in people that we get on with, in our friends or our family. The real challenge of the incarnation is something we Christians are called to live with, often uncomfortably, every day of our lives. This is the challenge for us to recognise Jesus in everyone. As the parable in Matthew 25 puts it: “‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ He will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me’”. In other words, we are even called to serve “the least of these” as if we were serving Jesus himself. This demands that we recognise Christ in even the most needy, the most corrupt, the most depraved, the most lost, the most wretched, the most hated. As Rainer Maria Rilke put it, recently quoted by Colin Farrell in the film London Boulevard : “everything terrible is something that needs our love”. That’s a huge challenge. Christian love is certainly not unrealistic. In fact, it is very often all too realistic, as it recognises that the path of compassion is also the path of crucifixion.
An American friend of mine, Ben Irwin, wrote a thought-provoking blog post this week, reflecting on the untimely death of pastor and author Rick Warren‘s son. He notes that St Paul makes a similar challenge to Matthew 25 in his letter to the Romans. In Romans 12, St Paul urges us to mourn with all those who mourn and to bless those who persecute us. Although my friend’s post was written before Thatcher’s death, both Matthew 25 and Romans 12 hold a particular challenge to us all this week.
I personally found Margaret Thatcher’s policies detestable, not least because many of them go against what I hold to be the Christian ideal. Still, I know that I am called to recognise Jesus in everyone and to show compassion to all, especially those who grieve and mourn. Likewise, those who see the positive in Thatcher’s legacy should equally be challenged to show compassion towards those who suffered, and still suffer, as a result of her policies and towards those who continue to protest against her legacy. As my friend concluded his post:
“St Paul wasn’t just talking about how we treat other Christians, those who think exactly like we do, or those we find it easy to like. We bless, we rejoice, and we mourn with any and all, because we believe that no one is beyond redemption. We believe that no one is beyond God’s love. It’s not easy to mourn with those we dislike. But perhaps the true test of our willingness to follow Jesus is not our ability to grieve at the suffering of our friends, but at that of our enemies. So today, I will grieve with Rick Warren. But I’ll be honest and I’ll admit that it’s easy for me to do so. It’s easy to grieve with those whom I like. So I will also pray for the strength to grieve with my enemies when they stumble or when they suffer loss.”
Another sad passing this past week has been that of Brennan Manning, the author of the wonderful The Ragamuffin Gospel which has had a profound influence on many of us. I’m quite sure he won’t be getting an ostentatious, ceremonial funeral. We would do well, however, to remember this week, and every week, his aim of trying to see grace in every situation. “What makes a genius?”, he wrote. “The ability to see. To see what? The butterfly in a caterpillar, the eagle in an egg, the saint in a selfish person, life in death, unity in separation, God in the human”. He might well have added: “Jesus in everyone”.