One of the many ironies of modern life is that, wired in the technology of recognition and representation, we find it ever more difficult to perceive others, the world and ourselves in any kind of hopeful way. After God – as many see it – we are not just wallowing in the dark, we are also blinded by the light.
Recently I watched the extraordinary film version of Philip K. Dick’s noir fantasy, A Scanner Darkly, which draws its title (via St Paul’s “through a glass darkly”) and several of its key verbal references from a scriptural storehouse of language which fewer and fewer people now recognise in its traditional context – but which may still turn out to be vitally important to human flourishing as it is rediscovered in fresh ways.
The book and the movie concern a dystopian, reverse world in which the ability to view everything leads to top-down control and paranoia, where people end up spying on themselves, where identities are ‘blurred’ physically and mentally, and where the one agency that is supposed to be combating the evil of narcotic dependency is actually promoting it.
The readings for the 14th Sunday after Pentecost (Isaiah 35:4-7a, Psalm 146, James 2:1-13, Mark 7:24-37) also contain a whole series of dramatic reversals concerning darkness and danger. But in a remarkably different way.
In the ancient Hebrew tradition, from which Christian as well as Jewish understandings are forged, the prophet is above all else a ‘Seer’, a visionary – one whose vocation is not so much to predict the future (that belongs to God alone) as to enable us to see the fullness of reality, the world as it really is or could be.
What the prophetic imagination does is to “re-describe reality” with what is missing filled in. It suggests that if the present could be seen truthfully, the transforming possibilities of God would be all too apparent, inviting us to repentance – a radical change of heart and direction.
In this sense the vision of shalom presented by Isaiah and by the Psalmist reveals the opposite of what now is, in the form of a promise. A world of oppression, injustice and suffering is neither inevitable nor necessary. To defy the order of death and to envision a realm of peace based on the restoring of right relationships among people, with the natural world and with God is – despite all appearances to the contrary – to go with the final grain of the universe as sheer gift.
If only we could recognise it, say the biblical writers, there is a divine reversal going on. When mercy is shown, when the stranger is welcomed, when right is done, when abusive power is resisted, when the hungry are offered food, the prisoners release and the homeless shelter – in those moments of faithfulness to God’s underlying purposes, despite the suffering and brutality around us, a new world beckons.
In Psalm 146, the divine call is clear: to exalt the humble, and to watch over the most vulnerable in the land (the sojourner, widow, orphan). The creative God is also a redeemer. The final verse sets the cry for justice and a dramatic reversal of fortune – the plans of the wicked are thwarted – within a vision of the gentle realm of God.
In Isaiah 35 the Day of the Lord, the moment where right judgement trumps false pretensions, means deliverance from the confinement of despair, hopelessness, and God-forsakenness. The context, as in chapters 40-55, is one of exile and longing. The theme is not so much vengeance as vindication. Those who have followed a thorny path, refusing to believe that all is lost, are proved right after all. Those who put their trust in thrones and chariots were actually staring at themselves in distorted mirrors, rather than finding their true selves within the image of God.
Likewise, says the Epistle of James, when Christian communities are bolstered with self-regard, when they bask in the approval of the rich and powerful and convince themselves that the correct belief alone will justify them, they deceive themselves. This is especially the case when they simultaneously deny justice and dignity to those on the margins, to labourers, to people living on the edge – those who present to us the tangible judgement of God on the way we arrange our lives and our world.
In his 1977 book Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, which prefigured much of the more recent concern among evangelical churches for people and planet, Ron Sider tells the story of a US pastor who causes great offence in the pews by delivering a fearsome manifesto denouncing the wiles of the rich and the mistreatment of poor people and workers. His congregation in turn accuse him of sedition and of ‘pulpit politics’. But he points out to them that, in fact, every word he has used is sourced directly from the likes of Isaiah, from Amos and from James. They call themselves biblical people, but the Word is apparently unknown to them when it comes to acting justly, seeking mercy and walking humbly before God as a social reality.
Yet the uncomfortable fact is that more often than not the Gospel reverses our ‘normal’ judgments, our idea of what is ‘natural’ and ‘right’. If we are to judge correctly, and not find ourselves hoist with our own legalistic petard, we need to discover what it is to live and to have faith with integrity, says the Epistle of James. This means seeking the knowledge of God that comes to us through merciful action, not through pious sounding words or recourse to the protection of religious tradition. In these terms, the Christian message is un-common sense – something rare and precious – rather than mere ‘conventional wisdom’.
Writing about the recent row over the decision by a Scottish court to allow the terminally ill Lockerbie bomber, Ali al-Megrahi, to die at home rather than in prison, Quaker writer Jill Segger (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/10119) cuts to the heart of the matter for those of us who would dare call ourselves Christians. “Mercy reflects God to us in a unique manner,” she says. “It invites us to share in the wholeness for which we were created. If we permit ourselves to become caught up in the power games between Holyrood, Westminster, Washington and Tripoli, we will miss the truth.”
The Seer stares long and hard at reality with all its agonising contradictions, but without losing sight of the deeper reality we call love. That is incredibly hard to do. Sinking to fashionable cynicism and resorting to realpolitik are much more acceptable paths, though we often pretend to decry them when it is convenient to us.
Scottish justice minister Kenny MacAskill is, in the eyes of many who see the world primarily through the lens of vengeance (either because of their suffering, or less creditably because of their worldview), a scoundrel or a fool. But there is surely genuine courage and insight in his way of trying to weigh the true odds: “Our justice system demands that judgement be imposed but compassion be available. Our beliefs dictate that justice be served but mercy be shown.”
Of course when we seek to act in the light of the Gospel’s way of seeing, we will not always know whether what we are doing is right. Sometimes we will mess things up. The facts and fallibilities of any given situation will always be questionable, ‘open to judgement’. What is most important is that we too are open to judgement, and that we are clear about the character of right-dealing tempered by mercy that lies at the heart of flesh which is God’s, made available to us in Christ and in the quality of community that bears his name.
Which brings us back to Mark’s Gospel. Here Jesus, operating on foreign territory (the Roman-ruled Decapolis), finds himself on the wrong end of a conversation with a woman who – the writer makes abundantly plain – is both a Gentile and, according to the more rigorous religious beliefs of the Jewish community, ‘unclean’ (because outside the Law).
So Jesus rehearses to her the conventional judgement on her status in the starkest terms imaginable. Ironic or not, it is little short of an insult. But the Syrophoencian woman turns the tables and demonstrates a true understanding of the mercy of God towards those outside the system, those in desperate need.
Her faith brings Jesus up short, and contrasts vividly with the legalism of some of his own inheritance. But perfection for God is found in brokenness restored, not in infallibility and immutability. As Leonard Cohen sings, “Everything has a crack in it. That’s what let’s the light in.” So it is that (remarkably, in our limited vision, perhaps) Jesus allows this woman both to shape and to participate in the Messiahship that people rightly come to recognise in him. A new kind of wholeness is achieved – one that was not available at the beginning of the encounter. A divine reversal takes place.
What we discover here is that, in God’s household, one ordered by grace rather than mortgage, everything that stands in the way of abundant life and the sharing of that life is cast aside. This often causes scandal to the conventionally religious.
In Mark’s account, Jesus offers healthcare to all, including those outside the Law, and cautions those he heals not to let on lest the authorities find out. But the Good News and the threat it causes to those who wish to control God’s mercy for their own purposes will not be contained.
The question we need to ask of ourselves, of our churches, and of the plans we have for the future, is therefore something like this: Are we willing to receive the pattern of ‘divine reversal’ that is God’s way in the world? Are we willing to be vehicles for a love that crosses boundaries, breaks barriers and inconveniently opens our hearts to others? Or do we prefer the safety that comes from trying to wrap up the Gospel in institutions and practices that protect us from the disturbing Word we meet in Christ?
(c) Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. www.simonbarrow.net This article is adapted from an address given at St Stephen's Anglican Church, Exeter, on Sunday 6 September 2009.