Compassion and the EU Referendum

Tom and JerryHaving a toddler in your house introduces you to all sorts of strange and colourful TV programmes with some intriguing titles – Twirlywoos, Hey Duggee, Messy goes to Okido, Rastamouse, and the list goes on. My two-year-old’s favourite show, though, is not so new-fangled – it’s the old classic Tom and Jerry. He avidly watches the original series from the 1940s and 1950s. Most Tom and Jerry episodes are the two enemies competing with each other. There are, though, a number of them that see the cat and mouse working together, to overcome obstacles. My son’s very favourite episode is, what he calls, the “baby one”, where the couple join together to care for a little baby who gets into all sorts of scrapes.

NewspapersAt our toddler’s insistence, our household is presently watching that Tom and Jerry episode on a continual loop. The care and compassion shown by the sworn enemies towards a helpless baby has provided a welcome break on our TV screen from the toxic atmosphere of hate and vitriol that the EU Referendum seems to have birthed. So much of the literature I’ve had through my door, not to mention the front pages of newspapers that I walk past in newsagents, are rooted in fear – principally, fear of outsiders who are, it is claimed, coming here to take our jobs, use our health service, and commit heinous crimes. This past week, the bishops of Church in Wales have issued a joint statement announcing their intention to vote to remain in the EU and noting that the emotive language of fear and distrust is overshadowing any meaningful discussion, with immigrants being ‘demonised’ in the debate.

Good Samaritan 1Certainly, the tone of the campaign has denigrated the weakest of our communities, and, in reflecting on Jesus’s parable of the Good Samaritan, those lying on the road to Jericho are not being ignored, but are being actively derided, as hate, divisiveness, and bigotry has been spread in our country. Our challenge as Christians is to model the Good Samaritan, and not to turn our heads to look the other way like the Priest and Levite. Jesus, of course, never referred to the ‘Good’ Samaritan. I find the word ‘good’ to be rather insipid and bland. These days, it’s used when a dog collects a stick you’ve thrown or when a toddler eats his greens – “good boy, good boy”. My own suggestion would be to rechristen the parable as ‘the Compassionate Samaritan’ – here was someone who entered the suffering of his neighbour, treating him as he would a brother or sister.

Good Samaritan 2It is natural to think Jesus himself would act as the Samaritan did in this story – he offers healing and wholeness to those whose wounds he sees and cries he hears. But the incarnation leads us also to see him in the wounded, dying man on the road to Jericho – “truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40). Jesus enters the suffering of the distressed and depressed. Our call is to recognise him in that suffering – in the eyes of the mother queuing at the Foodbank, the refugee pleading for hospitality, the so-called immigrants who feel unwanted and alienated by the rhetoric of hate; in the eyes of the poor, the disabled, the grieving, the ill. Our role is to see Jesus in each and every person and be ready to offer our own love and care to them, whoever they are.

Good Samaritan 3And yet too often the discussions around whether we leave or stay in the EU have not been about the unique beauty and worth of each person, but have been about what is best for us personally. Such fear and self-centredness was the response of the priest and Levite in this parable. The Compassionate Samaritan didn’t say, “wait there, before I do anything – what’s in this for me?” He didn’t ask the question, “what’s better for me – to keep walking or to stop and help?” He didn’t check whether the beaten body at the side of the road was a different nationality, different gender, different race, different sexuality, than he himself was. Compassion is not about individual satisfaction or personal gain. Neither is it about being comfortable. As Christians, our role in politics is not to ask what is best for us. Rather, we simply need to ask: “what’s the most compassionate thing to do?”

european-union-eu-flag-missing-star-brexitThere are undoubtedly Christians on both sides of the debate surrounding the EU Referendum. Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, maintains that leaving would harm the poorest in our society, while his predecessor, Archbishop Rowan Williams, and Archbishop Barry Morgan of Wales have noted that the EU has led to a “fairer, safer, and cleaner world”. Certainly the benefits it has brought in terms of peace, human rights, scientific research, animal rights, environmental care, reducing chemical pollution, and artistic and cultural interchange, relate directly to Kingdom values. Other Christians, though, have argued that we could continue to champion these values if we left the EU. Gillan Scott, in Christian Today, has written that “there is no reason why we cannot continue to show generosity, sacrifice and reconciliation to our European neighbours outside of the EU”. There is certainly truth in that viewpoint. However, just because we could build a more loving and compassionate society having left the EU, that doesn’t mean we would do that. As a football fan, I know that scoring a goal through individual brilliance is always possible, but most goals are scored as a team, working together. Many Christians purport that “Together Stronger”, the tagline of my beloved Welsh football team, is the more effective attitude in facing the deep-seated problems of our time – poverty, climate change, human rights, and so on.

hopeIn the past week, we’ve seen posters vilifying refugees fleeing war zones, English football fans chanting anti-European slogans while mercilessly teasing children who are begging on French streets, and a senseless and brutal murder of a devoted MP that may have been perpetrated because of her compassion for the downtrodden and helpless. My hope is that, whatever people vote for in this Referendum, their choice will not be rooted in the fear or distrust of the Levite and Priest on the road to Jericho, but in the peace, hope, and generosity of spirit of the Compassionate Samaritan. Our faith challenges us to expand our circle of compassion to all people and all living things, not merely those who are “like us”. There is a biblical imperative to care for each other, not simply as neighbours, but as family. This is what ‘good news’ is all about. Our country, and indeed our world, needs healing, not hostility; peace, not prejudice; freedom, not fear; hope, not hate. “A dark shadow of disappointment stubbornly follows our obsession with personal satisfaction;” writes theologian Miroslav Volf, “we are meant for something larger than our own satisfied selves”.

“Get down off the cross Jesus, we could use the wood!”: Speaking for those with no voice

crucifixBritish weather is certainly strange. Every time there is a hint that spring is about to burst through, another cold spell brings us right back down to earth! In one of the recent cold spells, I was on a retreat with a friend in a small house in the grounds of a convent outside Monmouth in South Wales. The house was beautiful, but it was freezing cold. I even took to wearing blankets around the house, which I imagine seemed a bit strange to those also on retreat there! At one point, my friend and I were desperately trying to light the fire in the large, icy living room, but the logs and kindling were cold and damp. In a cry for help, my friend looked up at the large crucifix above the fireplace and exclaimed, “get down off the cross Jesus, we could use the wood!”

poverty

Over supper that evening, I asked my friend about his somewhat inappropriate remark. He explained that it was a quotation from a Tom Waits song, later covered by Willie Nelson, and, far from being disrespectful, he maintained that, for him, this little phrase summed up the heart of his faith. After all, he continued, far too often we Christians get too uptight about our worship and our theology. Jesus, on the other hand, would be the first to give up a lofty, privileged view above a beautiful mantelpiece, to help the freezing cold, hungry, poverty-stricken families across the world. As he munched on his cheese-on-toast, my friend lamented that the Church overemphasises the importance of “good” theology and “correct” worship, but forgets how absolutely central our everyday actions should be in our Christian life.

I certainly wouldn’t want to diminish and devalue the centrality of prayer and worship in our faith, and, as a theology lecturer of almost twenty years now, I know that a solid theological underpinning of our beliefs is essential. I can’t help thinking, however, that my friend was making a crucially important point. Both of us agreed that if Jesus were here in front of us in physical form, he would do anything for those who are struggling and suffering. Perhaps we should be adapting the oft-used phrase “What would Jesus do?” (WWJD) to “What would Jesus do for others?” Admittedly, WWJDFO would not be as catchy(!), but the answer would be much more simple. What would Jesus do for others? He would do everything for them… even die for them.

Still Not Love Politics?This should inspire Christians to see it as their duty to speak out for those who have no voice in our society. In the Sunday Telegraph last weekend, 42 Church of England bishops signed an open letter protesting against the Government’s proposed changes to the benefit system – changes that will drive children and families into poverty. This is not an example of a Church interfering with politics, but, rather, is an example of the body of Christ doing exactly what Christ’s literal body would be doing if it were around today in flesh and blood. “We have a duty to support those among us who are vulnerable and in need,” stated the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby. Devotion to Christ, then, does not mean we become imprisoned behind stained-glass windows, worshipping Christ the King. Rather, it means we minister to those people, broken and impoverished, who need us the most and whom we regard as Christ (Matthew 25:34-45).

BeggingMartin Luther urged his readers to draw Christ into flesh. In other words, we must not spiritualise Jesus into something powerful and ethereal, but we must bring him into even the most mundane and troubling aspects of our everyday lives and of our society. He must be allowed to inject new life into people and structures and to transform individuals and societies. And the only way he can do this is by getting down off his cross of glory, giving the wood to those in need of warmth, and living among us in the hurt, grime, and mess of our everyday lives.

“I was walking down 125th Street, and suddenly I stopped. I looked at everything in amazement. It was like I’d just woken up from a dream that lasted my whole life. And I realised that, if God isn’t somewhere out there in heaven, he’s right here, in the dirt” (Jack Kerouac On the Road)

For more on this theme, see chapter 4 “Bringing Jesus Down to Earth” in The Compassion Quest.