In news bulletins this week we have been treated to high drama and much public emotion. Most remarkable have been the scenes from Capitol Hill in the hearing for the vacant Supreme Court judge position. Dr Christine Blasey Ford struggled to contain her emotion as she alleged that she had been sexually assaulted by one of the nominees, Judge Brett Kavanaugh. He in turn struggled to contain his anger as well as his tears as he defended his reputation as a man beyond reproach. One respected commentator said it showed, in microcosm, a nation divided.
Meanwhile on this side of the Atlantic we find our own nation divided and rather confused. The fight over Brexit is moving towards some sort of finale - a finale for which no-one has the script. The referendum result of 52-48% may have shifted a little but probably not much. However much window-dressing they do, it is clear that there is almost as much conflict within political parties, as between them. There is a north-south divide. A Scotland-England divide. A divide between the generations since most young people voted to remain or didn’t vote at all. There’s division between blue-collar and white-collar. A nation divided.
Those divisions are mirrored elsewhere. In housing, some have luxurious holiday homes while others live – and die – in unsafe tower blocks. In health-care provision –there is a so-called post-code lottery of NHS services. Religious organizations do not escape the sharp edges of division. Some Catholics think Pope Francis far too liberal and even work for his removal. African Anglicans think the Church of England has sold its soul to liberal values. Our own church suffers precisely the same divisions. It seems that public conversations are so often couched in the language of conflict and aggression. Us and them.
All these public conversations between people who are claiming to be ‘right’ must give long pauses for thought to those of us who believe in the ‘good news’ of the gospel preached by Jesus of Nazareth. In the early church, the idea of ‘gospel’ or ‘good news’ was just that: ‘Guess what I have just heard…I’ve discovered something amazing and I am going to share my discovery with you.’ These days, so much religious discourse is, as they say, ‘weaponised’, imparted in a way that suggests that the sharer is ‘right’ and the hearer is ‘wrong’. The words ‘preach the gospel’ begin to assume undertones of ‘I’m going to tell you something which I know and you don’t. And my knowing of it makes me in some subtle way, better than you.’ If that implication isn’t there in the words, it is often there in the tone of voice.
In theory, of course, we religious types deny regularly that we are better than others. In our public preaching, we sometimes go to the other extreme and major on extreme human sinfulness including our own. There is a different call. It regularly beckons us to a quiet, personal and profound place where we recognise our own darkness. There, we know gratitude for the light and welcome of God. It’s there that new tones of voice come to birth. If we regularly and repeatedly know the levelling power of God’s acceptance and forgiveness deep within us, there can be no tone of ‘superiority’ as we share our faith and our values.
It was a Methodist pastor, Daniel Thambyrajah Niles who originally said, ‘Christianity is about one beggar telling another beggar where he found bread.’ If our talk about our faith is seasoned with new gratitude, isn’t it just possible that other hungry people will be more likely to listen to us?