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Sermon for the Second Sunday of Lent, 17th March 2019

Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18, Philippians 3:17-4:1, Luke 13:31-35

As we woke up on Friday, to hear the news about the terrible shootings in the mosques in Christchurch in New Zealand, the New Zealand Prime Minister, Mrs Ardern, made a moving statement about the fact that it seems clear that the 50 people killed were the victims of a racist, Islamophobic terrorist. Mrs Ardern said, ‘Many of those who will have been directly affected by this shooting will be migrants, they will be refugees here. They have chosen to make New Zealand their home and it is their home. They are us.’

A bit later on, a picture appeared on Twitter [reproduced above] of a man who, if I can say this, did not look like a Moslem, but rather like Andy Capp in the cartoons, in a flat cap, standing smiling outside a mosque in Manchester with a placard which said, ‘You are my friends. I will keep watch while you pray.’

Terrible atrocities do sometimes seem to bring out beautiful and uplifting thoughts, like those of Mrs Ardern and of the man in the flat cap outside the mosque in Manchester.

In our Lent study groups we are going through the Beatitudes, the ‘blessed are they’ sayings which Jesus spoke at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5.

The second one, perhaps the right one at a time of tragedy, is ‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.’ This is one of those short sentences that contains impossibly dense and complicated ideas. On the face of things, for somebody to be mourning, to be sad, to be heartbroken, is not in any sense the same as to be fortunate, which is what the word translated as ‘blessed’ means.

How lucky for you that you are heartbroken; what a wonderful thing it is that you are in floods of tears. Clearly there’s something which doesn’t add up. Try telling the distraught people that were on the TV from New Zealand that they were in some way blessed or fortunate. But really it means, as it says, that those who mourn will be blessed, will be comforted in future: and that is a message of hope after all.

St Paul, in his letter to the Philippians, condemns those who live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Earlier in the chapter we had as our reading, he identifies the people that he condemns. He says, ‘Beware of those dogs and their malpractices. Beware of those who insist on mutilation – I will not call it ‘circumcision’’. Beware of people who tell you you have to become a Jew in order to become a true Christian.

Nevertheless, Paul was proud to tell everybody that he had been circumcised and that he was an Israelite of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born and bred, and a Pharisee [Phil. 3:5]. He’d thrown it all over, after his Road-to-Damascus experience, and in his letters, for example to the Galatians and to the Romans, he made the point that, in the kingdom of heaven, there is no difference between Greeks, (Gentiles), and Jews.

The Israelites had been the chosen people of God, and the others, the Gentiles, the ‘nations’, were the great unwashed. But St Paul’s mission was to bring the good news of Jesus precisely to those Gentiles, to those who were not circumcised. He said, ‘Our citizenship is in heaven.’ Ordinary nationality doesn’t apply in heaven.

But originally, Paul – and Jesus – were Jews, sons of Abraham, descendants of Abraham. The word of the Lord came to Abraham and said, ‘Look toward heaven and count the stars; because that’s how many your descendants will be.’ The sons of Abraham. They were Israelites, the chosen people of God.

The gunman is supposed to have said that one of his reasons for shooting Moslems was because he saw them as strangers, ‘invaders’. At the beginning of this week in morning prayers we were reading from the Book of Deuteronomy, where Moses speaks the words of the Lord, a prophecy about offering sacrifice of the first fruits of the land, the land of milk and honey, which the Israelites have been led into, the promised land. Moses tells them to say in their prayers that they are descended from ‘a wandering Aramean’, or from ‘a Syrian ready to perish’, that they have been led into Egypt and then eventually out of Egypt again, as strangers in the land. Even they, the chosen people, started out as strangers.

There are many passages in the Book of Deuteronomy, and in the Jewish Law generally, which St Paul would have been very familiar with, which impose on Jews a duty to care for a stranger that is within their gates, to care for strangers along with orphans and widows. That is the spirit that Mrs Ardern has so eloquently reminded us of. It is not a spirit of antipathy towards immigrants and refugees, not against strangers, not against people who are different from ourselves.

This is such a difficult area. There are so many apparent paradoxes. The Jews, refugees, made it to the promised land; they went to the holy city, Jerusalem, and set up the temple there. ‘Jerusalem the golden, with milk and honey blest’.

But Jesus points out that, because that is where the council, the Sanhedrin, is based, it is only in Jerusalem that he can be condemned, and that Jerusalem is a city that kills prophets, that throws stones at people who are sent to it.

Mrs Ardern was one of those world leaders, like Mrs Merkel in Germany, who has dared to extend a welcome to refugees. She still extends that welcome. But what about us? The challenge to us today is surely not to be fixated with ‘taking back control’, with restricting immigration and upholding national identity, however important some of those things might seem to be at first.

Jesus said, ‘Strive to enter in at the strait gate. Struggle to get in through the narrow door. For I tell you that many will try to enter and not be able to. You may stand outside and knock: say, ‘Sir, let us in.’ But he will only answer, ‘I do not know where you come from.’ [Luke 13:24]

Where do we come from? You could say that Jesus makes getting into the kingdom of heaven seem like a refugee trying to come ashore in Italy, or trying to get through at the Hungarian border or even being caught up in our own Government’s ‘hostile environment’ at Heathrow today. Contrast that with what Mrs Ardern said. ‘ … They will be refugees here. They have chosen to make New Zealand their home. It is their home. They are us.’

The challenge for us as Christians is to raise our sights above the earthly ghastliness which stems from narrow nationalism, and to seek what is truly heavenly. ‘Blessed are those who mourn, because they will be comforted.’ Let us pray that, with God’s help, we can become channels of peace, so that we too can say that they are our friends, and that we will keep watch while they pray.

‘But I thought you were our friends’, said a German friend when I was in Hamburg soon after the Brexit referendum in June 2016. ‘So did I – and you are’, I answered, churning with embarrassment.

Since then I have been puzzled and disappointed by the fact that not everyone, whom I would have expected to be, is solidly opposed to Brexit, which fact, in my view, flies in the face of the EU’s worth, as the most successful movement for peace, security and comity between peoples ever in Europe. 

I believe that the European Union has brought 70 years of peace in Europe; that it has brought about a consensus, which has become law in all member states, that human rights (defined by a British-drafted convention) shall be upheld and the exploitation of workers outlawed; introduced limits on working hours and requirements for the active provision of safe places in which to work and play. It is an area where students can study freely in any member country, and academics are free to work in whatever nationality of university they choose. The vision of Europe United seems to me to be profoundly Christian, in that it espouses the idea of a brotherhood of mankind, that all humans are children of God and dear to Him, irrespective where they come from. This is the ‘human values’ side of EU membership, if I can put it like that.

There are economic benefits of membership in the EU, based on free trade and the absence of customs duties for movement of goods between EU countries, as well as freedom of movement and common standards for food and various types of hardware: the ‘four freedoms’ – movement of goods, capital, services and labour – guaranteed by the Single European Act of 1993. The ‘single market’ this has created has become one of the biggest trading blocs in the world.  None of the proposed forms of Brexit would avoid major harm to the UK economy when compared with the status quo.  This is the economic side of EU membership. We are better off remaining where we are. It is true that the nations who are members have given up some of their individual sovereignty, but this is in return for being part of a much greater collective whole, and therefore they are actually more powerful as such than they would be on their own.

But yet there are people who, one would think, would agree with all this and be enthusiastic about it, but who favour Brexit. One such is Revd Canon Dr Giles Fraser, and another (probably) is Jeremy Corbyn. There has recently been a podcast discussion between Giles Fraser and Baron Glasman, Dr Maurice Glasman, the founder of the so-called ‘Blue Labour’ movement (listen at https://itunes.apple.com/gb/podcast/confessions-with-giles-fraser-unherd/id1445038441?mt=2&i=1000426741962) in which they both ‘confessed’ – or rather, celebrated – that they were both in favour of Brexit, despite both being generally in favour of the ‘human values’ side of the EU. Both are Labour Party members, and both practise their religious faiths.

This was – is – because they both see the EU as a powerful instrument of neoliberal economics, under which the rich get richer and the poor poorer, big corporations have unfettered power to harm our lives, and the values of the market trump all others. They both see value in nationhood and patriotism, and they believe that the rules of the Single Market would prevent a future Labour government from giving state aid including borrowing to invest in the steps necessary to rectify the effects of the current Conservative government’s austerity programme. They distance themselves from the overtones of racism and xenophobia which often seem to arise in the context of Brexit.

Fraser is, otherwise, a caring social liberal. His most recent article for the ‘UnHerd’ website created by the founder of ‘Conservative Home’, Tim Montgomerie, is ‘Why Brexit Britain should welcome more Refugees’ [https://unherd.com/2019/01/why-brexit-britain-should-welcome-more-refugees/]. 

As an aside, I am rather unsure whether I like ‘UnHerd’. Apart from Giles Fraser, its contributors all seem to be right-wing. In the body of Fraser’s article are suggestions for further reading. I show these links above. One gets an uneasy feeling that this is not really an enlightened, liberal publication in the way that Dr Fraser’s previous home, the Guardian, is. Some of the images used are quite disturbing. ‘Economic rationalists … immigration’ is alongside a picture of our leading black – British – politician, Diane Abbott. ‘How bigoted is Brexit?’ appears alongside a picture of orthodox Jews playing what looks like a playground game. In both cases, one asks why these images were used, if there is not some appeal to unenlightened instincts.

Pace what the Brexit faction alleges, the EU is democratic, and upholds democracy. There is an elected European Parliament and an elected Council of Ministers, which bodies are sovereign. The European Commission is the civil service, the administrative arm, of the EU. Its powers are analogous with those of our British civil service as between themselves and the elected bodies. We currently enjoy considerable influence on the policy-making of the EU. Brexit would deny us any representation or control of EU policy in future. In ‘taking back control’, Britain would risk being governed by people who are not so committed to human rights, for example. One recalls that when he was a justice minister, Dominic Raab wanted to abolish the Human Rights Act.

It seems to me that we would have more chance of being able to put right the cruel excesses of austerity if we are inside the EU and able to benefit from its collective strength. If Jeremy Corbyn feels that, if he were Prime Minister, he would be able to negotiate more favourable Brexit terms than those obtained by Theresa May, then surely he ought to be confident that, among his many socialist colleagues in European parties, if we remained in the EU, he would be able to build a consensus away from neoliberalism.  After all, just as neoliberalism has failed in the UK, it has clearly not succeeded in several parts of the EU: certainly in Greece, and probably also in Italy, Spain and Portugal, the case for a change to Keynsian economics is strong. Note, incidentally, that the leading economist and former Finance Minister of Greece, Prof. Yanis Varoufakis, does not think that either his own country, Greece, or the UK, where he teaches, should leave the EU. Reform from within is the better route.

The argument that EU rules on state aid would frustrate Labour policy on rebuilding a fair and humane welfare state has been demolished by the leading competition lawyer, George Peretz QC. See https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/dec/27/four-reasons-jeremy-corbyn-wrong-eu-state-aid. 

Now, with weeks to go before the date recklessly set by the government for Britain to leave the EU, I do hope that those respected thinkers on the Left such as Giles Fraser and Baron Glasman, as well as the Labour leadership, will come round to a similar view to that held by Yanis Varoufakis, that reform from within is possible, that the EU need not necessarily always be in thrall to neoliberalism, and that Brexit is ‘a disaster for Britain’ – see https://www.yanisvaroufakis.eu/2018/12/22/talking-brexit-bernie-and-left-internationalism-with-yanis-varoufakis-vice/. Then the Labour Party can solidly oppose Brexit and ensure that the Article 50 clock is stopped in order to allow a further referendum to take place, in which the people can decide whether they really want to make our country catastrophically poorer and less influential in the world, by leaving the EU (either under the current May ‘deal’ or without a deal), or whether, now that they can see what Brexit actually involves, they would prefer to remain in the EU.  Then I can hope to greet my friend in Hamburg and be recognised again as his true friend.

Hugh Bryant

5th January 2019