Mark 2. 14

Everybody hated me.  That’s not a whine of self-pity, it’s just a dispassionate statement of facts.  The Jews hated me because I was working for the Romans, the loathed occupying force.  And the Romans hated me even as they used me, because I was a despised traitor working for them against my own people.

I tried not to let it bother me.  After all, I carried some clout – people had to stay on the right side of me; if I reported them to the Romans it could have very serious consequences for them.  And I had a comfortable lifestyle.  When I was getting a bit short I just extorted more than the Romans asked for and pocketed the surplus.  But deep down there was a gnawing hollow in my soul.  It’s one thing to be despised by others, but when you secretly despise yourself you can never find peace.

I sat at my table every day watching the world go by, and I was intrigued by the laughing rabbi who often passed by with his growing band of followers and hangers-on.  He was young for a rabbi, no more than thirty, I should think.  Nothing escaped his gaze. I watched him, and I saw it all.  The child with a scraped knee, the mother with a heavy load to carry – I saw him notice everyone and everything.  He never hesitated to break his journey or stop his teaching to lend a hand to someone in need.  I could see why they all loved him, why he attracted such crowds wherever he went.

And then came the day he paused by my money table, waved his hand over the piles of money and shrugged, as if to say, “Do you really think this is what matters?”  And then, leaning over the the table towards me, he spoke very distinctly:  “Follow me.”

I looked down at the piles of money. I felt the void it had all made in my soul, and at once I knew I wanted to be part of what he was doing.  I abandoned my table with its piles of money spread out for everyone to help themselves to and I stepped up to this young man with the laughing eyes, his arm extended in invitation.  I took my place at his side and he clapped a welcoming arm around my shoulders.

And in that moment I discovered the money I had so carefully hoarded had been a wearisome burden from which I was suddenly free, liberated, and facing who knew what adventure!

On outrage and sadness


Back in September I visited the refugee camp known as the Jungle in Calais. I was outraged by what I saw. People condemned to live in conditions that would bring a prosecution if animals were being kept like this. Meagre shelters, ineffectual against the coming winter, no waste disposal management or proper sanitation, scant food, infected water, and sewage running between the dwellings of this “bidonville” or shanty town.

I blogged about it. I had thousands of shares of the blog post, dozens of comments in agreement and just one troll who embarrassed himself far more than he embarrassed me.

I wrote to my MP. I told him about what I had seen; I also sent him a link to this blog which describes children standing for days in a sea of mud until their feet are rotting, all because European governments have decided not to give them a place of sanctuary. I concluded my letter by quoting the words of Peter Sutherland, the UN’s Special Envoy on migration who had also recently visited the camp in Calais. He had responded to the suggestion that if we give these people asylum it will encourage more to come (as though what’s driving them is some mysterious “pull factor”, when clearly it’s the “push factor” of what they’re escaping from) by saying that it’s a monstrous idea that we mustn’t help suffering people for fear that more suffering people might ask for our help.

I asked my MP to draw my comments to the attention of the Prime Minister (which I know he has not done) and I made one constructive suggestion: allow people to apply for asylum at any EU embassy anywhere in the world. In that way, applicants can be vetted and their refugee status assessed in the countries where they are. Those whose applications are rejected will know there is no point coming to Europe. Those whose applications are successful can come here by safe and legal means. The rug will be pulled out from under the people smuggling racket, and we will know that those who come have been vetted and are genuine refugees with a real claim on our humanity and kindness.

My MP’s response? “Thanks. Peter Sutherland does not speak for us and would do well to mind his own business! The Prime Minister has struck the right balance on this very tragic and difficult issue.”

Really? That’s all? No comment on the eye witness testimony of children dying in appalling conditions, of the risk of a cholera outbreak being brought through the tunnel to our shores, on the desperate, skinny refugees wasting away through malnutrition? I was outraged.

I wrote to him again – always very politely, I wasn’t trying to troll or antagonise. He replied with a resolute disagreement to my next email, and ignored the one after that. He tweeted. I tweeted my replies, disagreeing with him, always politely, never hurling insulting epithets at him, but disagreeing robustly, and continuing to champion the cause of the refugees.

I remembered a doorstep conversation I once had with him in which he spoke of his active Christian commitment. So sometimes I tweeted him Bible verses which I believe Christians should allow to shape their thinking. “Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt.” (Exodus 10. 21). “You are to treat the resident alien the same way you treat the native born among you—love him like yourself, since you were foreigners in the land of Egypt.” (Leviticus 19. 34). “And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 10.19) “Do not neglect to offer hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some have entertained angels unawares.” (Hebrews 13. 2)

I read reports of persecuted Christians in Syria and Iraq, about how they are facing the most inhumane, appalling treatment at the hands of people infected by a barbarous savagery that does not see them as human. They are excluded by prejudice and hatred from most of the refugee camps in the region and many are living in hiding in unimaginable conditions. I felt outraged on their behalf.

And then came Paris. And I found my outrage subsumed in an overwhelming sadness for the hundreds of dead and bereaved, for the hatred that exploded in an orgy of violence and murder. And here’s what I’ve concluded. Outrage is an exhausting emotion, and it’s one that polarises. The last thing this world needs is more polarisation. Sadness is an empathetic emotion that reaches out and builds bridges.

And so I have relinquished my outrage. Yes, it’s still inexcusable that human beings are being left to drown, starve and freeze to death around our borders. Yes, I will continue to draw their plight to the world’s attention. Yes, I am going back to Calais to do some more volunteering when I can, and donating to those who are free to go more frequently than me.

But my feeling is one of sadness. Sadness for those who can close their hearts to the refugees around Europe’s borders. Sadness for the desperate people who came to us in need of sanctuary only to find our door slammed in their faces. Deep, deep sadness for the many who have lost their lives in Paris, in Beirut, in Baghdad, in Syria, in Nigeria, in the Aegean and Mediterranean seas, all over this world. An overwhelming sadness for those who cannot see that the ultimate blasphemy is to be merciless, compassionless and hateful in the name of the most merciful, the most compassionate, the most gracious God, and who one day will have to give account to him of why they associated his love and goodness with such evil.

And out of that sadness I will do what I can to help. I will write, donate, volunteer, pray, reach out and build bridges. I will love my Christian neighbour and my Muslim neighbour and my refugee neighbour and my Sikh neighbour and my Hindu neighbour and my Buddhist neighbour and my hard-hearted politician neighbour and my pagan neighbour and my atheist neighbour. But I will no longer allow emotions that polarise to find room in my heart. As one of the prophets of my own tradition has said, “We are all his (God’s) offspring.”

I’m not naïve enough to think that a warm fuzzy feeling will change the world. But I do know that polarising emotions can only make it worse. In the end, love wins. Love always wins.