Sunday, 28 June 2015

A Book of Witnesses

The sunset concert was attended by over 3,000 people. Some came early; some came late. Some came prepared, with rugs, others with fold-up chairs. Some had picnics in old fashioned style picnic hampers, others had a few beers, some sticks of French bread, and a little pate. And as the music played, more came, some moving as close as they could, some happy to sit at a distance. Some stood and chatted, some stood and danced. Quite a few left at the interval, and others just drifted away. There were the very young and the very old. There were no visible clergy, however; if present, they dressed casually just like everyone else. Some people didn’t come; they stayed at home, or they attended the Island Games opening ceremony.

I’m sure there’s a parable in there somewhere but I’m not exactly sure what it is.

That’s rather like life, rather than a clear cut story with a message, it is more like a story in which everybody can see themselves present in one way or another.

And that is very much I think how people find themselves in the modern world. They think of themselves as “spiritual” – except for the fervent atheists who stand out and seem rather more like people with some kind of belief. They may believe in god or some kind of divine presence. They have a vague idea of providence, and are upset when bad things happen to decent people.

Against this are the dark and very visible acts by fanatics. They may be Christians blowing up an abortion clinic. They may be Buddhists attacking a Muslim minority. Or, as at present, they may be fanatical Muslims, bent on destroying the lives of ordinary people, and laughing while they do it.

One of the strangest texts to emerge a few years ago was the “Gospel of Judas”. The press made quite a lot of noise about it, and in particular, about the sentence “Jesus laughs”. But when you read the whole paragraph in which it is set, it is not a nice laugh. Jesus is laughing at the disciples, because they do not understand him, or the vast cosmic designs. It is a condescending laugh, a sneering laugh, a nasty laugh.

The Gospel of Judas has a very twisted idea of God; an idea of a Jesus that is for those who have secret knowledge, those who are thereby apart from others, and can dismiss them as of no importance; it’s about condemning those who don’t fit to destruction and laughing at their ignorance.

The Gospel of Luke by contrast is all about Jesus being with the outsiders in society. The prostitutes, the poor, the unclean, the tax collectors etc. It is all about compassion and love for those rejected by society, pushed to the fringes. It is about the kindness of strangers.

How should we believe? Perhaps in today’s fragmented world, a better question should be: how should we behave? We may all believe different things, but we can all appreciate and give to others small acts of kindness. Individually, they may not seem much, but that’s because they are mostly invisible.

They may not always succeed against the fanatic. But they are the right way to live, and even if the fanatic takes our lives, we are witnesses to that truth. And that, after all, is the original definition of the word “martyr” – someone who witnesses. We can tell stories of the kindness of others, we can act with love and compassion ourselves. We can become a book of witnesses.

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