The Nations Morals Are Like Its Teeth …

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THE NATIONS MORALS ARE LIKE ITS TEETH, THE MORE DECAYED THEY ARE THE MORE IT HURTS TO TOUCH THEM” – George Bernard Shaw

At the start of the year many of us made New Year’s resolutions and will do our best to keep them as the year progresses (lose weight; give up smoking; pass a driving test or embark on a new career etc, etc). Sometimes our thoughts are more reflective as we consider our place in the world and the lives of those around us, often culminating is a silent prayer for the world to be more peaceful, kinder and charitable than it was the year before. Sadly it doesn’t seem long before the very next calamity or personal tragedy pops up on our television screens or appears in our newspapers to dampen our New Year optimism. ‘What has the world come to?’ we say; ‘Doesn’t the world have any standards?’; ‘Things weren’t like this when we were young!’

What we are doing is lamenting the passing of standards or a moral code by which people commonly live; a moral backdrop, climate or culture which protects us from the negative excesses of society. And yet to speak about morals makes us feel uneasy. We don’t like it! We don’t like people interfering with the way that we live our lives or questioning our standards, or the way we behave – we just simply don’t like being preached at!

The problem is made all the worse because we don’t know or perhaps can’t agree on what standards are acceptable. This is because we have made relativity a virtue in its own right! There is no such thing as absolute right or wrong, just what is right or wrong for me. We are all like Humpty Dumpty in Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking Glass” who said “When I use a word …. it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less”. The problem with each person choosing their own set of values as if ‘no one else matters’ is, that ultimately they don’t – each person does their own thing and can’t be held responsible for going their ‘own way’ even if the effect is to hurt or grieve another.

You don’t have to be necessarily rigid or religious to appreciate the need for a common set of values, and yet as a Christian minister I can’t think of any better guide to live by than those found in Scripture, based upon the message of a loving creator who nurtured the understanding that each person ‘made in his image’ was therefore special. So special that through the life, death and ministry of Jesus, God demonstrated his love for the world and encouraged his followers to do the same. Perhaps the answer to the world’s moral malaise (at least in our own small corner) lies not just in what we do but in what we believe. It always, always starts with us.


“ Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength’ and ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ Mark 12.30-31

The Incredible Art Of Forgiveness

The Trial Begins Of Two Men Accused Of Murdering Stephen Lawrence

In the light of the recent chemical weapons attack upon the Syrian citizens of Douma, alongside March’s assault upon Sergei and Yulia Skripal when a Novichok nerve agent was used in Salisbury, one could be forgiven for thinking that the world has sunk to a new low and that the world had become a much darker and dangerous place. What has become of our moral values, common decency and respect for human life?

In recent weeks, we have seen the American, French and British authorities take military action against those who use chemical weapons, but there have also been two incredibly moving stories which perhaps given the circumstance have not been given the prominence that they rightly deserve. The first was the comedian Patrick Kielty’s BBC documentary entitled “My Dad, the Peace Deal and Me”, exploring the legacy of the Good Friday Agreement as it reached its 20th anniversary. Patrick’s story is poignant as his own father was murdered by paramilitary gunmen during ‘The Troubles’ – men who were subsequent released from prison as part of the agreement. Patrick’s view was nuanced, because although he admitted that he couldn’t forgive the gunmen, he accepted that their release was necessary if there was ever to be reconciliation. He was stunned by an interview with Richard Moore, who as a child had been totally blinded by a rubber bullet fired at him by a British soldier – and yet Richard had forgiven his assailant and had made great strides to find him in order to say so, resulting in a lasting friendship. How could Richard forgive the soldier so?

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[Patrick Keilty carrying his father’s coffin in 1988]

This was followed by an amazing interview given by Neville Lawrence, the father of the murdered teenager Stephen Lawrence, whose story has regularly been in the headlines for 25 years. Two men had been convicted of Stephen’s death and yet it’s understood that five were involved. Neville revealed how he had forgiven them all for the murder of his son. Like Patrick, Neville’s story was incredibly hard and painful, and described as a ‘life sentence’ that would never go away, and yet he had forgiven his son’s murderers. How could this be possible?

It seems that both Neville and Richard had discovered an ancient Christian truth which is that forgiveness is not dependent upon the perpetrator saying sorry or even being met with. It’s an act of the heart and mind which allows the victim to find peace, ‘to let go’, and won’t allow any anger, hurt or pain they feel to fester and become a well of bitter malice within them, which probably does nothing to bring about reconciliation, and may not even be known by the perpetrator, but simply mars and cripples their own life henceforth. It comes from a deep-seated understanding that you are not going to hold a grudge or allow hurt to define you. Naturally, this isn’t easy – and shouldn’t be remotely confused with ‘letting other people get away with it’ or not wanting justice. Neville Lawrence wants justice as keenly as ever he did – it’s just that he won’t allow his anger and hurt to corrupt and corrode his heart and soul.

True forgiveness isn’t ‘a trick of the mind’; it isn’t secretly hoping for revenge or holding on to resentment. It has to be genuine and is therefore both a true art and an act of grace. Whether forgiveness is or isn’t asked for, it certainly isn’t deserved – it can only be given. It’s therefore a beautiful thing – a gift, which allows the victim to find peace, and can wonderfully, occasionally lead to repentance and reconciliation by all parties.

The Christian will see clear parallels between this and the Gospel story – how our sin naturally makes us all perpetrators, leading to the death of Jesus upon the cross where he graciously and lovingly takes upon himself the punishment for our sins (justice demands it) so that we might be reconciled and freely forgiven by God when we turn to him in sincerity, faith and repentance.

The stories of Richard, Neville (and perhaps even Patrick, who began to wonder if he had actually forgiven his father’s murderers after all) demonstrate that by God’s good grace and mercy there is still a lot of love and light in the world – and the world isn’t quite as dark as it might be.


“Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us” Luke 11.4


 

Can Intolerance Be A Virtue?

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Recently, Newsnights Emily Maitlis discussed a report that had been published by the independent cross-party think-tank Demos as part of their At Home in One’s Past project. The title may sound fancy, but in a nut-shell it was trying to gauge public opinion about how people viewed modern British Society and culture by inviting people to reflect upon a series of typical statements (sometimes provocative) heard in modern society. The focus groups in question contained a diverse mix of citizens by age, socio-economic status and ethnicity. However, the vast majority of participants were white British people over the age of 55 and although the survey covered a wide range of areas those relating to cultural identity were particularly interesting. The common view was that all participants wanted to be treated with decency and fairness and took great pride in the fact that Britain was on the whole a fair and just society. However, participants also reported (and I quote) “feeling that British politics and the media now focus too heavily on the rights and needs of minority groups, and that there is an absence of ‘fair exchange’ of tolerance between minority groups and dominant White British, Christian Culture – which is expected to constantly adapt” (end quote). The report stated that Political Correctness was widely seen as having been overextended to such an extent that it was now not only hindering free speech and open debate but quickly changing British culture to the regret of our older citizens. One of the interviewees on the television programme reminded us quite rightly that we should be careful about the things that we say because our words have consequences, but another argued that the mood had changed to such a degree that people were reluctant to speak their mind because they were afraid of the backlash that their ‘out-of-step’ and perhaps traditional views might create. In other words, the ‘fair exchange of tolerance’ wasn’t working towards those who had suddenly discovered that their traditional values weren’t currently popular or mainstream.

So, what is tolerance and to what extent can it be described as a Christian virtue? The Cambridge Dictionary describes tolerance as ‘the willingness to accept behaviour and beliefs that are different from your own, although you might not agree with or approve of them’, but Don Carson in his book The Intolerance of Tolerance has noted how in recent times there has been a subtle shift from defending the rights of those who hold different beliefs to affirming all beliefs as equally valid and correct in which case it becomes increasingly difficult to say, ‘I disagree with you’.

Many would applaud such Christian values as ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ (Luke 10.27) or ‘do to others as you would have them do to you’ (Luke 6.31) which would seem to support a mutual sense of love and respect for one another, but statements such as these can’t be used to imply that anything goes or that there is no difference between right and wrong. In fact, most people including Christians should be prepared to passionately defend what they believe even if this appears on the surface to be intolerant to those who assume the cultural norm – not just in matters of fairness, social equality and justice but in matters of faith such as ‘salvation is found in no-one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved’ (Acts 4.12). People have every right to disagree with this statement but they have no right to suggest that it shouldn’t be viewed or aired for that would be equally intolerant and contrary to free speech, our traditional British values and Christian heritage.


“Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage— with great patience and careful instruction.” 2 Timothy 4.2