Thought for the Day: We are Family

In the style of my Lent Book Opening our Lives and Advent Book Real God in the Real World, I will be sharing occasional “thoughts for the day” on various subjects on this blog. Hope you enjoy.

Recently, I visited the ancient monument of Stonehenge for the first time. It is tempting to think we have nothing to do with the Neolithic Stone Age people who erected this huge stone circle, as we message friends on smart phones, catch up with world news on TV screens, and eat exotic foods shipped from faraway places. But, in reality, our emotions and feelings, along with the challenges that we face, are not unique to us in the twenty-first century. As I stood on that Wiltshire plain, with countless tourists who had travelled from different corners of the world, I felt there was a deep connection between the primitive, ancient people who erected these sacred stones and us modern, ethnically-diverse pilgrims who were standing with our backs to the monument taking selfies. All division and differences seemed to melt away. It didn’t matter that the Neolithic people with their seemingly-primitive ways lacked modern education and technological know-how, just as it didn’t matter that the tourists had different skin complexions and were speaking different languages. Rather, something drew me to recognising a connection between all people, past and present, spanning different eras and different parts of the world. It is that same oneness with others that I feel as I approach the altar each week during the communion service.

Yet, with increasing tensions and divisions in today’s world, our common humanity is too often ignored and overlooked. Academics talk about the neo-tribalism of recent years. We are told that communities are breaking down, with fewer and fewer people knowing their neighbours, fewer people joining clubs and societies, and church attendance dropping sharply. On top of that, people, it seems, are becoming more focused on what separates us than what we have in common and so are banding into new tribes that are far more antagonistic to others than they have been in the past. Rather than local, inclusive communities, we are organising ourselves into new “in groups” and “out groups”. This is neo-tribalism – there’s “us” and “them”, and, of course, we are always right and they are always wrong, whether it’s atheism and belief, Labour and Conservative, Republican and Democrat, Leave and Remain, or pro-vaccine and anti-vaccine. As our natural longing for belonging has lessened in our local communities, these new polarised groupings have become toxic and destructive as we look down on those who look, dress, think, or behave differently from us.

For Christians, though, our faith is a sharp reminder that all these divisions are human constructs that mean very little in the light of God’s eternal kingdom. While we can celebrate our differences in his kingdom, it is ultimately a kingdom of unity, parity, and equality. This is one of the powerfully beautiful things about the meal that Jesus left us. When we walk up to receive communion, we are challenged to remember that we are all loved and equal – we have one Father and we are brothers and sisters under one kingship.

Some of those at the altar rail with us may be our close friends, but others may well irritate or annoy us. Some may have similar interests and attitudes to us, but others will be very different characters. Some will have overflowing bank accounts, but others will be having sleepless nights about the cost-of-living crisis. Some will be single, some will have partners, some will be married, some will be widowed. Some will be young, some will be old, some will have different colour complexion to ours, some will have a different sexuality. Some will have conflicting political views to ours, others will have never voted. Some will thrive in the company of people, but others will be desperate to get home for some peace and quiet. Some will be fit and healthy, but others will be battling with pain daily. Some will have a naturally joyful disposition, but others will be struggling simply to force a smile.

The altar is a reminder that, in God’s kingdom, every single person is both loved and equal, however wonderfully diverse and different we are from each other. This has huge implications on how we view ourselves, how we extend God’s love to the people we meet each day, and how we care for the world around us. Everything we say and do should reflect the wonderful fact that we are one family. We are one.

Zombies and Thomas Merton: Waking from a dream of separateness

I’m writing this blog post from deep in the Bavarian countryside. I love visiting my wife’s family here in Germany – the weather is as warm as the welcome, the food is delicious, and I get to write this blog while looking out at deer grazing in a beautiful garden. Despite all this, I still feel rather disconnected with those around me, as I speak almost no German and many people in this small village speak almost no English. Last night I even found myself speaking Welsh to my mother-in-law, thinking that would get me understood better. It didn’t work, of course!

Quadrophenia Who

In reality, of course, disconnection with the world around us is something with which we all struggle at different times of our lives. We do speak the same language as our family, friends and neighbours, but whether they truly understand us is another question. “Can you see the real me?” screamed Roger Daltry at his doctor, mother, and priest on The Who’s 1973 Quadrophenia album.

Warm BodiesQuadrophenia, later made into a successful film, is a rock opera about a disenchanted young person. Teenagers, of course, often feel misunderstood and alone, as they try to make a connection with an often unforgiving world. The film Warm Bodies [2012] recently became a huge hit with young people. On the surface, it is surprising that a film about zombies would prove so popular with teenagers. In the first 100 words of the film, though, the film-makers make an immediate connection with twenty-first century teenagers through the narration of a teenage zombie, named “R” (played by Nicholas Hoult), who is himself one of the ‘undead’:

“What am I doing with my life? I’m so pale. I should get out more. I should eat better. My posture is terrible. I should stand up straighter. People would respect me more if I stood up straighter. What’s wrong with me? I just want to connect. Why can’t I connect with people? Oh, right, it’s because I’m dead. I shouldn’t be so hard on myself. I mean, we’re all dead.”

science connectednessThis is not a condition that is unique to teenagers, of course. This sense of disconnect with each other and with the world around us is something we all feel at different times in our lives. In my book The Compassion Quest I argue that, while disconnection is a frequent feeling for us humans, freedom and redemption can be found in recognising that we are all, in fact, intimately related to each other and to the world around us. Even scientists are moving from a paradigm that sees the universe as a mechanical system, made up of a disconnected collection of parts, to a paradigm that regards the world as an integrated whole. With approaches such as systems thinking and quantum theory, contemporary science offers a shift from an emphasis on ‘objects’ to the recognition that ‘relationship’ is integral to the world around us.

Likewise, Christian theology teaches that relationship is also what God is really about. God is relationship in his very core, which is what the complicated doctrine of the Trinity is all about, and he wants us to enter relationship too – with him, with each other, and with the natural world around us.

Warm Bodies LoveBoth our faith and contemporary science, then, suggest that relationship and oneness are at the heart of the created order; by ignoring this we miss not only the reality of existence but also the richness of life. In the film Warm Bodies, the teenage zombie “R” is brought to life, quite literally, when he makes a deep-seated connection with a human being. Love brings him out of his sleepy, lifeless cocoon. For Christians, love is also integral to rebirth and new life – God’s love for us, the love shown to us by others, and the love with which we bless others.

Thomas Merton“Why can’t we connect with people? Oh, right, it’s because we’re dead. We shouldn’t be so hard on ourselves, though. I mean, we’re all dead”. The next time we feel that way, we need to remind ourselves that our alienation from God’s world and from the people around us is something from which we can break free. By doing so, we are born again – viewing the world and everything in it with fresh eyes. As Thomas Merton wrote, when he himself came to this liberating realisation as he walked down a street in Louisville, Kentucky: “I was suddenly overwhelmed by the realisation that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another, even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness.”

Crime and Compassion: Does Mick Philpott deserve any compassion?

Certainly the crime committed by Mick Philpott, Mairead Philpott, and Paul Mosley was utterly deplorable and horrendous. The judge in the trial, Mrs Justice Thirlwall, concluded that the plot to set fire to the Philpott’s house and to rescue their six children was “a wicked and dangerous plan”, which was “outside the comprehension of any right-thinking person”. The tragic consequence was the death of six innocent children.

media-general-newspaper-images-3However, the reaction of some sections of the press and the media to the perpetrators of this crime leads us to consider whether “evil Mick Philpott”, as much of the press have now rechristened him, deserves any of our compassion? This question brought to mind an interview that I recently gave to a blog about the legal system in the UK. I am, therefore, posting below some of the questions posed by the The Law Map, a blog for people in the legal profession, and the answers I gave:

TheLawMap: Should the need for compassionate living require a more compassionate justice system? How could this be achieved?

At the core of a compassionate justice system is the way that we as individuals view those with whom we come into contact, whether they are victims or perpetrators. As such, the process of compassion must be one of recognising our common humanity with each other, and taking seriously the backgrounds that others hail from.

Compassion is certainly not a case of allowing people to avoid “justice” or letting people “get away with it”. Still, we should never forget that people are not open books. Situations, traumatic upbringings, and backgrounds are not always apparent to us, and so we should take care not to judge others directly on what we do see them do, how we see them act, or on what others tell us about them.

Dredd 1In the recent Hollywood film Dredd [2011], Judge Dredd is stopped from implementing the death penalty on an individual when his psychic sidekick is able to reveal the abuse and humiliation to which the character had been subjected. Life is not like a superhero blockbuster, but our role is still to take seriously the paths, often relating to broken childhoods, that people have trod.

Too often our politics, legal system, and especially the press want to separate people into saints and sinners. Compassion, though, demands from us a recognition that our inclination towards good and bad is, very often, related to suffering in our past. As such, we have to face the reality that if we had the same genes and the same upbringing as others, there is a good chance that we would be acting the same way. That is a huge challenge to the way that we as individuals, as well as every part of our society, including the legal system, treat other people.

The Law Map: Are there individuals locked in correctional facilities who could be beyond compassion & should compassion be the basis of a penal system that reflects the pain and suffering of the victims?

Certainly, the pain and suffering of victims should never be devalued, as our love and care towards them is paramount. But compassion towards the victim and the perpetrator are not mutually exclusive. As such, no one is beyond our compassion. After all, compassion challenges us to recognise our common humanity with all, even convicted criminals.

A few years back I took a group of students to a former Nazi concentration camp. At one point, as we all stood silent in the midst of our thoughts of the horrors the prisoners had faced, one student said: ‘imagine if we had been one of the guards here’. At that moment, it dawned on me that, yes we could have been one of the prisoners, but we equally could have been one of the oppressors. We are so used empathetically to putting ourselves in the shoes of the oppressed, that we forget that the oppressors are also human, just like you and me.

MirrorHowever heinous we regard the actions of others, our call should always be towards compassion. The sickening actions of Myra Hindley were clearly abhorrent. However, the reaction of our society after Hindley’s death reveals how little self-awareness we have of the capacity for the most horrendous evil, as well as the greatest good, that is present in us all. The Sun exclaimed that ‘Myra the Devil’ would never be forgiven, The Daily Mail bemoaned the fact that she had a peaceful death, while The Daily Express’s front page headline simply read ‘Go to Hell, Myra’.

The temptation is certainly to demonise offenders and regard them as ‘different’ from us and our loved ones. By doing so, we are led to believe that reform, redemption, and restoration are naïve and implausible. We, therefore, separate and stigmatize those who act in ways that go against our moral codes.

Beasts Of Southern Wild poster review

In my own Christian tradition, Jesus Christ certainly held a rich concept of justice, but he also clearly held that nothing or no one was beyond redemption. His love, acceptance, and compassion had no boundaries, a fact that even many parts of the Church today fails to live out. The recent film Beasts of the Southern Wild [2011] beautifully summarised the concept that our common humanity challenges us to show care for even the most broken and lost souls: “The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right. If one piece busts, even the smallest piece, then the entire universe will get busted”.

The Law Map: Does the technologically interconnected nature of modern living allow us to be more compassionate and concerned about human rights issues across the globe?

At the heart of life is relationship. We are as a species utterly dependent on each other. The French Cistercian monk Charles de Foucald suggested a concept of the ‘universal brotherhood’. In other words, all of us are intimately connected as one large family and should treat each other with this in mind. As Desmond Tutu put it: ‘I hope we can accept a wonderful truth – we are family! We are family!”

Mick-Philpott-on-Jeremy-Kyle-Show-1798447Yet, in our everyday lives, we often revel in our separation from each other. Television shows such as The Jeremy Kyle Show and The X Factor, for example, fail to recognise our unity and common humanity, but instead rejoice in our dissimilarity with those whom we are watching. We almost delight in the rejects of these shows, and enjoy the feeling that we are so very different to them. Our enjoyment at the appalling vocal performances of early contestants in the auditions for The X Factor, or the poorly spoken guests on The Jeremy Kyle Show, help to make us feel better personally, but always at the expense of the weak, powerless, or ignorant.

One might think that the technologically interconnected nature of modern living would help us feel more connected with the world around us, but, in fact, in many ways it serves to distance us from others. In our workplaces, we don’t have to see people face-to-face these days, or even chat to them on the phone, but we simply fire a quick email away to them. With regards to the law, this detachment from others has led to a new kind of criminal activity. Internet crime is the ultimate faceless disconnection, where the perpetrators do not have to look us victims straight in the eye when they carry out their crimes.

IMG_0215On the other hand, technology has been at the forefront of liberating social change, as shown in the prevalence of social media during the Arab Spring uprisings, and it is also helping to highlight the centrality of compassion and compassionate actions in our daily lives. Movements like the Charter for Compassion, Compassion It, Compassion International, Compassion in World Farming, and Compassionate Action Network themselves utilise technology either to advocate concern and care for the environment, human rights, and issues of poverty, or to simply to urge people worldwide to practice compassion in their everyday lives. ‘I know we are all pretty small in the big scheme of things, and I suppose the most you can hope for is to make some kind of difference’, muses Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt [2002]. He then asks two questions that all of us, whether we are working in the legal profession or not, should ask ourselves as we reflect on our lives and careers thus far: ‘What kind of difference have I made? What in the world is better because of me?’

For the full interview, please visit The Law Map.

See also Chapter 6 of The Compassion Quest.

We are Family, all my Brothers, Sisters, and Me!

Who is the most famous person you’ve met? My list is not particularly impressive, although I did once share a few drinks with Terry Jones of Monty Python, in the famous White Horse Tavern in New York. Earlier this week, I asked this same question as I led a Quiet Day in St Michael’s Theological College in Cardiff, Wales. After the college had appeared on the BBC’s Vicar Academy series recently, I was imagining that the students would simply point at each other, but some of the answers I was given were intriguing: Prince Edward, Johnny Depp, Katherine Jenkins, Jonathan Edwards (I presume the triple jumper, not the eighteenth-century evangelist!), Mark from Take That, Simon Cowell, Eddie Izzard, Shadow from the 90s TV show Gladiators (not even sure if that was a man or woman!), and Richard Dawkins… no, wait there, it was Richard Dawkins’ wife!

sixdegsepThese answers all brought to my mind the phrase ‘Six Degrees of Separation’. In 1929, the Hungarian author, Frigyes Karinthy, suggested that you could take any two people in the world and connect them with each other through six steps or fewer. In other words, a chain of ‘a friend of a friend’ statements could be made between you and Barak Obama, just as could be made between you and a factory worker in Beijing. Recent research has shown that our connection to each other may be even closer than six degrees. In 2011, researchers at the University of Milan had concluded, using the data of 721 million Facebook users, that there was, in fact, a mere 3.74 degrees of separation between us. And I can believe that. Facebook, which I see now has over 900 million users, often reveals mutual friendships that leave us startled – ‘how do you know that friend of mine?!’

We are certainly all connected in so many ways. Twitter and Facebook have extended our networks in ways we would never have imagined only a few years ago. I’m guessing blogs take us one step further, in that they allow us to share thoughts, ideas, values, and creativity with each other. Rather than creating false connections with others, as critics of social media would sometimes have us believe (“Facebook friends are not real friends!”), perhaps the world of social media reflects a deeper truth about our desire to connect with each other.

The most frequent word for ‘compassion’ in the Old Testament is related to the Hebrew term for womb, rechem. In other words, Judaism and Christianity teach us that we are all intimately connected as one large family and should treat each other as if we had shared the same womb. The French Cistercian Charles de Foucauld’s wonderful concept of the ‘universal brotherhood’ is rooted in such a realisation. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu put it: ‘I hope we can accept a wonderful truth – we are family! We are family! If we could get to believe this we would realise that care about ‘the other’ is not really altruistic, but it is the best form of self-interest’.