Pushing on the Door of God: Patience in Suffering

(Short homily delivered at Trinity Theological College, Singapore, 14/10/16)

The description of ‘patience’ and ‘endurance’ in today’s James chapter sounds a lot like a description of faithfulness: we are to stay faithful in our suffering. But how? I have had some truly terrifying moments in my life when it felt like I could not endure anymore and I wished my life would end. How do we keep faith through those times? It seems impossible. Perhaps this is because we have the wrong idea of how to stay faithful, or ‘patient’ in our suffering.

We talk about God being ‘full of faith’, ‘faithful’; and what we mean is that He is committed to relationship with us, no matter what. If faithfulness is a relationship, I think our biggest mistake when it comes to pursuing patience in suffering is trying to endure alone. If you’re like me, you heard this passage in James and read it as an individual, not as a community member. But at the same time, if you’re like me, some of the moments of true encouragement in your faith have been when you have gone from feeling alone to remembering that you are not, because you shared your suffering with someone. The experience of faith is not meant to be a solitary one. As Christians, we have put our faith in the only person – the Son of Man – who ever suffered completely alone – and He has not permitted anyone to suffer alone since.

I was diagnosed with clinical depression when I was 16, after a series of traumatic events. I have been on different forms of medication for anxiety and depression ever since. One of the hardest things about depression is how alone it makes you feel – even when you’re not. People seem like strangers – you fear that they are distant, and then you want them to be. There comes a point when you start feeling guilty for even existing. There is this feeling of disconnectedness to the rest of the world, a longing to feel part of it in a way you don’t feel you are. A wall of numbness seems to separate you from everyone else. And sometimes people in the church have reinforced that loneliness, with their fear of my diagnosis, or their unwillingness to understand, or their advice to just pray more, and harder, and to have more faith, and all will be healed. But I have also been surrounded by Christians who have allowed me to name my depression as it is, and they have loved me. Their willingness to take some share of my pain was a covenant, a promise to love me, even though it was no light burden that they were offering to carry. We must not only be patient in our own sufferings, but patient in bearing the sufferings of others. We are never alone, and as Christians we can remind each other that God is there: there is no ‘I’ in our endurance of suffering.

God comes to us gently, with human hands that hold us when we cry, and it is only later that we realise that God was there in the touch of others. That is not to say that humans can replace the divine. But we can present the divine to each other. If we are to be the body of Christ, then that seems exactly what we are called to do. Loving those suffering begins in being willing to listen without restriction as they share pain, and trusting that God is present with us.

Imagine the loss of God’s presence! Jesus’ suffering on the cross was under true conditions of utter loneliness: no one with whom to share his pain – not even his heavenly Father, in the end. Picture the world’s suffering on His shoulders, unable to tell even His closest friends the huge burden He bears. And, worst of all, the one person who might know, who might hear, who might share in this torment, has shut the door: Eloi, eloi, lama sabachthani. The door of God had never been shut before. Praise be to God, the door has never been shut since.

In some ways, the love I have received in the midst of my mental illness has convinced me of this. God’s door has never been shut for us. Sometimes it is hard to see it open, because we convince ourselves that the door should look like cosmic signs instead of human faces. But if the Door of God can be found in the comfort of human touch – if Christ can be found in human arms and hands – we are not only able to stand like welcomed beggars before the Door, clutching our suffering and knowing that it will be received, but we are able to help each other come to the Door of God. As Paul writes in 2 Corinthians: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ… who consoles us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God.” What a privilege! May we all learn what a privilege it is to bear with each other as we seek patience in suffering!

Assisting the Dying

Last Friday, the United Kingdom witnessed another defeat of an ‘Assisted Dying’ Bill, this time in the House of Commons. The cries of dismay from the ‘pro’ corner were predictable – this was a cruel denial of the right to self-determination, another classic case of religious people imposing their beliefs on others, and a sentence of serious suffering on those at the end of life. In wanting to propose a response to these accusations, I find myself in a tricky position: while I shudder at the way the media has used the case studies of real, suffering people to provoke morbid fascination with this debate, I am also reluctant to detach the existential argument from its context, since our socio-ethical positions do not come from nothing. Our choices do not exist in a vacuum.

But still – my response will reference no case studies. For every story of someone falsely diagnosed but then went on to several more years of health, or who died peacefully, with their family able to cherish those final months, there is another story of horrific suffering and decay and abandonment in a filthy hospital bed. Instead, consider the following question: why is it that we have got to the point where it seems preferable (or at least more realistic) that the latter group should end their lives, rather than working to grace them with the experience of the former?

The expression ‘assisted dying’ is a helpful entry point. An ideology of self-determination – or, as a ‘pro’ friend of mine put it, a belief in ‘sovereignty of the self’ – is a rather ironic basis for supporting something which, even in name, implies dependence on another. There are some things we just cannot do alone – and for the most vulnerable amongst us, this can include ending our lives. But assisted dying is a warped version of the sacred relationship of neighbour love – the extension of help is an end to your life, rather than the improvement of it. Regardless of one’s belief or not in a God-ordained moral system, our choices do not exist in a vacuum. They not only impact others around us, but also reflect our understanding of relational responsibility. When it comes to cases of people seeking medical options which would end their life, this goes both ways. Not only do we have a responsibility to care for those enduring terrible sickness or disability, but we must also learn to see the goodness in being dependent on another when we have nothing to offer them. This is a Good not only for ourselves, in that it mirrors our relationship to God, but also a Good for the person on whom we depend. It is good for humans to be ‘burdened’ by another human’s needs. In fact, it is precisely the kind of burden we should seek.

And this leads us to a second warped ‘Good’ made manifest in Assisted Dying legislation: the sacred act of self-sacrifice. If the guiding societal principle at hand is that your death would be of greater benefit to the people you love than your continued existence, it is little wonder that a driving motivator behind end-of-life wishes is to ‘unburden’ family members and friends. And perhaps that should disturb us most of all; that the very act we are called to embody as disciples of Christ might be prescribed to the weak so as not to inconvenience the strong.

Perhaps I am expressing a religious value as the basis for my argument here, but it is no more ideologically driven than a belief in ‘sovereignty of the self’. The irreligious and religious alike hold ‘sacred’ values, and both should be heard in the law-making forum. However, these ideological positions must come into conversation with practical consequences – consequences which can, in turn, shape ideological positions, perhaps with alarming outcomes. For example: while I am ideologically opposed to abortion, I know that, practically, it is very dangerous to make it entirely illegal, and so wouldn’t support that kind of legislation. Those who are ‘pro’ assisted dying must think carefully about a similar tension. Perhaps self-determination appeals, and has its logical end in being allowed to choose when to end your own life. But what is the practical result? What is at risk?

The case of ‘assisted dying’ is a rare instance in which slippery slope arguments are helpful – even essential. We have the example of countries where it has been made legal, and watched the rapid shift in the relationship between doctors and patients. The impact it has had in European countries is particularly alarming. It is no wonder, then, that the overwhelming majority of British doctors (see the BMA) are against its legalization. Nor is it surprising that major disability and mental health campaigners have spoken out against it: as someone who suffers from depression and related mental health difficulties, I know what it is like to feel that things are hopeless, that your life isn’t ‘worth’ living, and that people close to you find you a nuisance or don’t care for you – and I am young and physically healthy. The belief that humans who have just found out that they might not have long to live, or seem incurably depressed, or who are watching their family struggle to arrange care for them in their old age are able to make a sound, personal judgment about whether or not to end their lives is a rather naïve position to take. The need for a doctor to establish a ‘voluntary, clear, settled and informed wish’ to die sounds far more straightforward than it is. Human choices are messy, and are at best only ‘informed’ by their own perception of the past and present, with little to no knowledge of the future, short-term or long.

Of course, I write with a sigh of relief – assisted dying is still illegal in the United Kingdom. But this doesn’t mean that this piece isn’t also accompanied by a warning. Self-examination is required. If we are determined not to allow the most vulnerable amongst us carry the burden of the strong, and if our position against assisted dying is born out of a desire to prosper life rather than just prolong it, we have work to do. We need to protect our National Health Service, ensuring that one’s wealth is not a barrier to quality pain management and care. We need to make it easier for people without disposable income to care for elderly relatives at home. We need to invest in whole person care, not just numbing pain with drugs and leaving people alone in hospital beds. We need better understanding of and treatment for those struggling with mental illness. And we need to examine ourselves, and our attitude towards those who don’t appear to have things to ‘offer’ society. How are we measuring their worth? How are we measuring ours?

Islamic Extremism and the Guardian’s Sin of Avoidance

I’m back at home after my summer working for Theos Think Tank, but managed to sneak in one last blog post before they could be rid of me. So here it is: my take on the Guardian’s recent coverage of radical Islam.

…and while you’re just hanging about here, why not read the piece I wrote after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, on some similar themes?

and one I wrote on killing ISIS?

I can’t think of any more shameless self-promotion that would fit here, so I’ll leave you with that for now.

‘In touch with God’s feminine side’: (Re)gendered Liturgy

I wrote a thing somewhere else! More specifically, I wrote a blog post for Theos Think Tank about the recent discussions on gendered liturgy in the media. I’m working for them this summer.

Fancy reading it? Follow the link:

In touch with God’s feminine side? – Theos Think Tank

Also, check out the other things they do. Don’t let the fact they hired me soil your opinion before taking a closer look.

Obama, ISIS, and All That: How To Feel Better

A Roman Catholic Archbishop in Iraq has asked for military intervention. 

And there’s that little part of us that says “oh good, if they’re asking for it, then all that death is justified, isn’t it? Now we can put our white saviour anxiety to rest and do the drone thing.”

Doesn’t that internal response make you feel uneasy? I’ve felt uneasy about this for a while.

I suppose it began with the death of Osama Bin Laden. I saw the images of chanting Americans, gathered in rabid triumphalism around the White House, unified in shouting their own country’s name, thereby declaring it to be a name implying death. And I began to feel uneasy – deeply uneasy – at how the death of this man made these Americans feel. And I wondered whether they really understood that he was a man at all.

I suppose (like most of us, deep down) I am, when pushed, a functional utilitarian to a certain degree – if a few men (and women) wielding guns and torturing children must die in order to protect thousands, then I will probably support a decision to kill them.

But let’s call it what it is – we are not ‘eliminating a threat’ or ‘neutralising a movement’ – we are killing humans, who at some point in their lives had never heard of IS, had never held a gun, and had clung in fear to their parents or siblings after waking from a nightmare in their beds. And there was a first time they held a gun, felt a rush of adrenaline and fear and anger, and did what they had been taught to do. Like all humans do, at some point. No one is born a war lord.

Perhaps drone warfare makes it easier to forget that, but the process of forgetting starts long before the buttons are pushed. It starts on the television, in newspapers, where IS is an entity, an ideology, an evil structure – and we somehow conflate the men and women who exist within it with the ideology itself.

This is not unique to the West. Humans have been in the habit of conflating people and principles since forever. The idea which we find disagreeable quickly – almost instantly – translates into the personhood of the other being disagreeable to us. We can no longer find any common humanity – or, at least, we don’t want to. The idea repulses us, even, that we might share something with IS, and so we scramble to disassociate.

Then, when they die, we feel better.

But we shouldn’t be trying to feel better. An attack on IS rooted in making us feel better is a horrifying thought. There should be no glee, not even any relief, that a military response has become so necessary.

We need to stop trying to feel better, and start asking ourselves to feel better. If you feel anything but sorrow at the loss of human life, even if that human life has done terrible, unspeakable things, you have managed to stop seeing anything human in them at all. And there lies the path to doing terrible, unspeakable things in return. Has our compassion fatigue led to outright apathy at the destruction of human life?

I follow a Christ who was in the business of humanising, through the process of forgiveness. He condemned movements and ideologies, and then willingly met with individuals within those ideologies, as one human meeting another.

He was swiftly ‘neutralised’ by his opponents. They stood around him, shouting ‘CRUCIFY! CRUCIFY!’

Did they see a human before them, or an ideology?

U.S.A. U.S.A.

Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.

And do I see humans wearing black masks?

Why I (finally actually) deleted my Amazon account.

I did it. It’s gone. And, to be honest, they seemed a lot less cut up about it than I was.

It all began with Barack Obama’s SOTU address. After watching Obama promise America a big gay wedding between Republicans and Democrats (a quiet service on Mars, with complimentary Cuban cigars for all the guests) and that he would finally put down Gitmo, that badly-trained-now-actually-rabid animal that Congress just can’t quite say goodbye to, I couldn’t quite bring myself to join in the clapping, and the pencil waving, and the congenial winking.

Admittedly, that’s partly because I’m a cynic, and I’m British, and I started watching it wanting to find it ridiculous, so I could tweet snide remarks.

But it’s also partly because I just kind of think that America deserves an angrier President. There’s an awful lot of things to be angry about, after all – and, while his speech was full of winning ideas, and bold, bright, futures, he seemed more proud of the fact he’d won two election campaigns than aware of the class/race related outrage America is experiencing. In the words of Cornel West: “My dear brother President, you need to get off the symbolic crack pipe”.

So I let myself get all riled up about government hypocrisy, and then I went to a conference on economic inequality held on Wall Street, of all places (Trinity Wall Street: Creating Common Good. It was great. Watch online) and I heard a lot of intelligent, reasoned speakers on lively, engaging panels – and I also heard a lot of liberal buzz words and finger pointing – and I decided that I would go home and buy ‘Nickle and Dimed’ by Barbara Ehrenreich immediately and educate myself on the problems of class in America. And then I was struck by the deep, unsettling irony that I would go home and buy it on Amazon.com.

*Insert something Jesus said about planks and splinters here.*

Anyone who is my friend on Facebook or followed me on Twitter for more than about a week is well aware that I’m a high-functioning keyboard warrior who is angry about a lot of things and also actually *enjoys* being angry about a lot of things. Unfortunately, it’s almost impossible to be angry about those things without being an enormous hypocrite, because the very computer I’m typing this on is a product of so many of the things that make me angry.

But there are degrees of hypocrisy, and I’m committed to reduction by degrees.

Giving up Starbucks was easy – I don’t like coffee. Giving up buying many of my clothes from chain shops was also (somewhat) easy – I don’t like shopping, and I’m not interested in fashion. Even switching to fair-trade was pretty easy, because Dairy Milk is fair-trade in Britain, and fair-trade tea is so ubiquitous now that there really isn’t any excuse. But cheap books. Cheap. Books. There lieth my downfall. To be able to get a book I want within two days, without any human interaction, at an absurdly low price – oh, Amazon. We had a beautiful thing. We understood each other. It breaks my heart to leave.

If only you’d pay your taxes. And your workers.

Maybe I could have just stopped using my account, but I had to actually delete it – consider it the equivalent of deleting an ex’s number so you can’t drunk text them in a moment of weakness.

N.B: This isn’t a blogpost designed to make you feel bad about shopping at Amazon. I just know that I can’t get angry with big corporations to the degree that I do and still be actually giving them money. And I *do* enjoy my righteous anger. Consider this one step along my personal road of hypocrisy reduction by degrees.

Full disclosure: the reason this is a blogpost and not just a private lifestyle choice is to get you (if you’re in the UK) to consider signing this Tax Dodging Campaign from Christian Aid.

And also so I could make that joke about gay weddings on Mars.

But seriously. Sign that campaign.

Charlie Hebdo: The Art of Being Offended.

I wonder what it’s like waking up as a Muslim in Paris this morning. You’re one of a significant but clear minority in France (about 5-10% of the population) and yet your very presence (and the scarf you wear over your head) has become repeatedly symbolic of the tension between religion and state and the growing suspicion of immigration laws. And sometimes it feels like there just isn’t a clear line between suspicion of the laws and suspicion of the immigrants anymore. Your country just voted in large numbers of far-right representatives to the European Parliament, and now the crude, ugly pictures of the Prophet Muhammed printed by a local satirist newspaper (which you have routinely ignored) are everywhere, being waved as flags of freedom after a massacre carried out by radical Muslims – with whom you feel little to no identification. You just want to get your children to school without other little boys and girls calling them the children of terrorists. And you’re afraid.

Because here’s the thing: I’ll defend your right to say a thing, but that doesn’t mean what you have to say is any good. And no, I’m not misquoting the almost infamous comment from Voltaire: “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” Because I just don’t think that’s true anymore. We must all be a Charlie – we all have to agree now – not just be horrified that Charlie came under gunfire – so the #jesuischarlie declares, as does the repeated pressure on newspapers to reprint the images. Of course, there will be plenty of other commenters who are saying similar things in a much more articulate, well-thought out way. But I saw that the Guardian Media Group has pledged a £100k donation to Charlie Hebdo to help ensure it’s not silenced, and Google has pledged $300k, and I couldn’t help but stick my oar in, if only to stop the words from going round and round my head. That’s a lot of money for a cartoon which, to be honest, I just don’t think is very clever, and which I also suspect is somewhat racist. Particularly if one bears in mind the fact that the Muslim population of France is one that is heavily put upon, and is regularly subject to mockery and stigma. Around 60% of the prison population of France is Muslim. I wonder what that kind of money would do if it were given to reconciliation organisations trying to bring together Muslim and non-Muslim communities in France.

Somehow, we need to develop the subtlety of thought to acknowledge that one man’s evil action doesn’t automatically trigger the moral high ground of another. In the words of Will Self: “Good satire should comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Does Charlie Hebdo do this? To be frank, no. Muslim extremists (as, ISIS has, if nothing else, insisted we learn) are a threat to other Muslims just as much as to the West. These are people who love to hate. Any excuse will do, because they have successfully dehumanised those who are not like them. This is a crime for which all civilizations have been repeatedly guilty: the very ‘freedom’ which is being espoused as the rallying cry for Charlie Hebdo was the same word used to define our humanity by the ‘enlightened’ west – just as we were gearing up to enslave the rest of the world.

So, first of all, we need to measure the words of our response. The massacre that took place was utterly horrific, inexcusable, evil violence. But that doesn’t mean the cartoons themselves are worthy of praise. What are we applauding when we say that we are Charlie? A society that allows us to say whatever we like? Or a society that still has, running beneath its veneer of freedom and tolerance, a certain malice towards those who are not like us? After all, if we love to hate, any excuse will do. The death of cartoonists is as good as any for anti-Islamic (which seems to very quickly merge into anti-Arab) rhetoric.

welfare

Take a look at this Charlie Hebdo cartoon as an example: it depicts Boko Haram sex slaves as welfare spongers (“Don’t touch our welfare allocations!”). Is that comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable? No. No it is not. Nor, indeed, do I think that depictions of Muhammed as a porn star, for instance, say anything particularly worthwhile. We get it: Muslims don’t like depictions of their prophet, and sex is shocking. Very clever.

And now here’s my religious angle, and my experience of being offended. I don’t like crude, mocking depictions of Jesus Christ. I really don’t. They actually kind of hurt me, because I believe that, out of love, He died for a world which mocked Him until His last breath. It feels like a continued crucifixion. I don’t think non-religious people can really understand what that’s like. But I am also aware that there are different kinds of being offended. I could be offended because something someone is saying is being said for the sake of upsetting me, with very little other gain – or I could be offended because someone has said (or drawn) something which makes me uncomfortable, makes me question myself, and makes me consider a worldview or experience outside of my own. That is a good type of offense. I’m just not sure Charlie Hebdo is doing that. Of course they should be allowed to make as many cartoons as they like, and not be in danger of death, but, if their deaths make them martyrs of the West, what have we reduced the West to?

To present a positive example of being offended: I suggest you all go and look at the work of ‘Polyp.org.uk’, a satirical cartoonist who not only (in my opinion) offers up much better drawings, but also lampoons religion in a way which is useful. And here’s a handy link for you: http://www.polyp.org.uk/cartoons.html

So, a question to ask yourself as you flick past yet another Charlie Hebdo article: if you were to draw a cartoon satirizing Islam, what would you draw? Why? Would you show it to your Muslim friend? What would you be challenging, and would it make them think? Does the picture make you feel superior?