Friday, May 29, 2020

The odour of sanctity

The last few months have been hugely challenging, and for most of us I would guess very draining in different ways.  The stresses and strains thrown up by pandemic and lockdown have been varied, but I guess there are very few people who have not found themselves under pressure in one way or another.  If nothing else, the general background anxiety has been exhausting.  We're tired, aren't we?

Which is unfortunate, because I think the next bit is going to be hard and draining in different ways.  At least going into lockdown there was a sense that we were all pulling together, that it was a response to an emergency in which we were all involved.  That sense has largely dissipated now.  Partly I think that's just a natural thing; as lockdown has dragged on beyond what many were expecting, the goals have become less clear and frustration has set in.  Then again, our leaders don't seem to have set shining examples in every case, which undermines the sense of being all in it together.  And of course, we ourselves have begun to divide into those who have been applying rules and guidelines more rigorously, those who like to think they've been maintaining the spirit of the law whilst using their own judgement as to the details, and those who have just given up being locked down altogether.  Since all three groups tend to look down on the others, an increasing sense of division is probably inevitable.  Added to that, as we gradually emerge from lockdown there will be those who want to move faster (and those who de facto do move faster, whatever the official line) and those who are still too anxious to leave the house.  Then again, as the sense of immediate crisis passes, and the analysis of what has happened takes over, there will be differing views on what was done right or wrong, ranging right from a sense that lockdown was pointless and damaging through to lockdown was too late and insufficiently rigorous.

All this is going on, and I am anticipating more difficult and tiring times ahead.

Now, we can't control the times, but we can control to some extent our reactions to them.  I am not in the business of political or social punditry, so I don't have to offer opinions on everything, thankfully.  But I do have some observations on how Christians have been reacting and ought to react.  I advance them somewhat hesitantly, and with a genuine sense that I have not myself worked out what an adequate reaction would look like in practice; nor have I fully lived up to what I do know to be right.  But I also feel these things increasingly as an urgent burden.

Firstly, Christian responses should be characterised at every stage by humility.  There should be humility at every stage.  We should be humble about our own knowledge - do we really know and understand the full story in any given case?  Have we got a grasp of the details?  Our culture is quick to react, and tends to react emotionally.  Humility demands a brake on my reactions, a refusal to allow my immediate emotional response to determine my overall approach.  That doesn't mean being unemotional, or suppressing our emotional responses.  It just means recognising that our first response may not be the best response, because we may not - indeed, we probably do not - see the full picture at first.

Then again, humility is necessary as we think about other people.  Whether they are people in government, the neighbours who we see breaking the rules, or the friends who won't move as quickly back to normality as we would like, we need to react humbly.  With people in power, in particular, where there is a civic duty to hold them to account for their use of power, it is easy to act with pride.  Can I be honest and say I see that in a lot of responses from Christians to government in particular?  It is not that we should never be angry, but our anger should be tempered by the fact that we know we are not dealing here with monsters or demons, but that more tricky class of being: fallible and sinful human beings.  It might be worth asking ourselves how certain we are that we would have done better in the circumstances.  Would I definitely have been more competent?  Would I definitely have been more righteous?  I don't feel that I can tread with confidence here.  Certainly I don't feel I can react only with anger towards those who have tried and failed, or even towards those who haven't really tried.

Second, alongside humility we need to show hope.  How does it come across in our response that we have an ultimate hope that God is working everything - everything! - together for good?  In our response, does it look like we believe in the resurrection?  The unique Christian hope ought to enable a unique Christian response here.  The world swings back and forth between shallow hope on the one hand, and grief and anger on the other.  Christians are called to grieve as those with hope, to be angry as those who know that underneath are the everlasting arms.  This is not meant to be a background hope, against which we carry on much as everyone else.  It is meant to be transformative.  We are Easter people.  Our hopes are not in this world, but in the resurrected Christ.  But that hope, securely grounded in heaven, is meant to transform our response to what happens on earth.  I'm not seeing that, in me or in others, to the extent that I think the gospel demands.

Third, and this one is a bit more vague and sadly doesn't begin with 'h', we need some better content to our responses.  Not all, but a lot, of the response I've seen from Christians has been in content identical with the response of  (particular sectors of) society.  To be very blunt, if the content of our response to this crisis reads like a Guardian editorial, it is a political and not a specifically Christian response.  I am not here making a party political point; nor am I saying that Christians shouldn't be engaged in politics.  But I worry that our response is indistinguishable from that of the world.  We don't seem to have anything more to say than can be said by any 'progressive' person; and it seems to me that Christians who don't subscribe to 'progressive politics' have nothing whatsoever to say.  I am glad this isn't universal - I'm glad that there are responses looking for hope in a Covid world - but I feel the lack of distinctively Christian shape to my own responses and thoughts.

Distinctively Christian shape.  That's what I miss in myself and in much of what I see online.  I feel that we - that I - have failed to communicate into this crisis the weighty, solemn, joy of the gospel.  I don't think that people would look at me, and see someone who is set apart from the world, someone whose hope is in heaven.  I worry that the church doesn't have the odour of sanctity, that we don't reek of Christ in this crisis as we ought to do.  I don't think anyone would look at us and think that we actually live in a different world from them - and I think that ought to be the case, even as we work hard to get alongside people and to prove that we are committed to serving this world which we share.  The paradox of the gospel - that we are separate from the world and therefore committed to the world in Christ - I don't think that is coming across.  We're not strange enough right now.

As we approach Pentecost, I want to properly pray, that in the midst of the mental, physical, emotional, spiritual weariness of this time, we would be refreshed by the power and presence of the Holy Spirit of God, bringing the presence of Christ to us, giving the reality of the gospel to us, making us - making me - different.  Veni, Creator Spiritus.


  1. I recently posted the quote below from Ellul because it seems pretty apt for these discussions... I think it might capture something of what you're angling at? Feel free to edit it down if too long.

    'With this in mind we are obviously able to put all our irony into the contemplation of man's efforts to build - but at the same time we participate in them... What keeps us from transforming our active pessimism into a sterile catastrophism is the humor I mentioned, a form of Christian liberty in our participation, for it must not be kept within us, a secret, but rather lived out and made known... So we must put our heart into the city, but keep it ours by humor. But then the question arises, will the men building Babel accept working with us if we refuse to bury our hearts there?' - Jacques Ellul, The Meaning of the City, Wipf and Stock, pp. 180-181.

    1. Ellul is very good, isn't he? I might have to revisit him over the summer. I do think that quote is hitting near what I'm trying to articulate. That sense of actually being fully *here*, absolutely this-worldly, but only because we are really fully *there*, grounded entirely beyond this world.