Saturday, 17 August 2013

Grow Up or Grow Wise?

At one level it would be impossible to disagree with Rowan Williams when he says that Christians in the USA and Britain who claim that they are persecuted should 'grow up'. It 's almost obscene to think the kinds of danger with which Christians in places like Syria, Iran and Egypt live have anything at all to do with the mild feeling of being ignored, ridiculed or disapproved that Christians in the UK sometimes experience. Of course.

The effects of the kinds of persecution Williams is thinking about don't just destroy life while they last. I met members of the Silent Church in the Czech Republic who had been imprisoned with hard labour during the 1950's. They witnessed many of their friends' deaths and if they were lucky enough to get out of prison, some had been tortured all over again in different ways in the 1970's when a fresh round of infiltration and persecution of Christians began. Their whole adult lives, almost, had been taken up with surviving persecution and their old age was dominated by memories of living with that and losing many of their comrades. Even at the end of their lives, their suffering continued because these experiences drove a wedge between their understanding of what it is to be a Christian and the vision of new young Christians, post the end of Communism. This was a further source of pain. Was there no getting away from this endless cycle of sorrow? Only an incredible, profound belief in the resurrection power of Christ could sustain them through all this. In the presence of such a belief one did, as Williams says, feel utterly humbled and chastened. Williams is right; there is nothing in the recent history of British Christianity that compares with this kind of experience, even remotely.

But I can't get away from the fact I feel an unease at William's remark. There's something here about ranking suffering, isn't there? And that can be very dangerous because it lets us off the hook as far as doing much about the sources of injustice and oppression that do occur in our own contexts in the UK. Just as we would not say to a victim of abuse, 'your abuse wasn't as bad as someone else's,' we ought to listen and take very seriously stories about the harm that comes of injustice and oppression in our own society. It seems from the context of William's words (an interview at the Edinburgh Festival with Rabbi Julia Neuberger here) that he was thinking about Western Christians who complain they are ostracised because of their beliefs or practices. I guess this means Christians feeling marginalised and attacked in a secular workplace or it could mean Christian homosexuals, lesbians, women or traditionalists who feel 'got at' because they are unacceptable in certain circles. However, some of the forces at work in such circumstances are the very same forces that we see in an infinitely stronger form in communities where unacceptability or difference is punished by violence. I am uncomfortable with Williams' remark (as it was reported) because it seems to introduce a kind of dualism where it does not belong. To take an example, women like Malala Yousafzai UN speech here, who are shot or beaten for attempting to engage in education suffer an extreme form of violence because of attitudes to female worth - but this is connected to attitudes that mark women out as second class in every society. It's no good saying that because of the degree of suffering inflicted the one has nothing to do with the other. The way to address this particular injustice, I think, is to listen and learn and to look to one another for support and solidarity across cultures. There are, I believe, common themes at play as there would also be in the cases of homophobia, prostitution, coercion of children or sectarian violence.
Malala Yousefzia
We can be guilty of down-playing the injustice and abuses that go on in our own communities. This is especially so if we ourselves are in the 'comfortable majority' or the position with most of the power. It's also especially so if we see the injustices around us as 'relatively mild' and so let them pass and even despise those who try to voice the problems. To dismiss the voices of those who 'make a fuss' as childish winging is to miss the point though it is, of course, taxing to take apparently smaller forms of oppression seriously when, like the former archbishop, you are in a position to witness great wrongs which sear the heart and mind.

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