In my last post I began to examine how Christians should relate to a time of political conflict. I argued that key to beginning to understand our relationship to the society around us is to see ourselves as guests – committed to seeking the good of the state and community in which we live but always remembering that this is not our home. Our ultimate allegiance and concern is the kingdom of God.
Today I want to explore how this works out in the way that we behave in a society that is divided or where there is conflict internally or externally.
This is not a new challenge. St Paul faced a similar situation when he wrote to the church in Rome. Indeed, compared to the divisions and difficulties within Roman society at that time, our present struggles seem insignificant.
This was a time when division and hatred in society was far worse than it is now. The church, let alone society, was divided along ethnic lines, within years many Christians would die for their faith, and it was only a couple of decades since the political and religious authorities had executed Christ. How did Paul instruct them to respond?
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.
Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord. On the contrary:
‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.’
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Paul’s comments reveal someone who is not particularly concerned with being right but rather with doing what is right. Whatever happens, Paul says, we are to behave with love towards others.
- If we feel like others have been unfair or harsh towards us, we should bless them.
- Whether we find people happy or sad, we should join with them, try and understand, empathise and join with them.
- We should be happy to associate across political and ethnic divides – having a tribe that we are ‘in’ and then make others feel like they are ‘out’ (no pun intended) is profoundly unchristian.
- We should not perpetuate conflict, bitterness and hatred but work for reconciliation, peace, and the welfare of all.
In doing so we are reflecting the character of God who, when faced with a division with humanity in which He was blameless, moved at His own cost to bridge that gap and reconcile His enemies to Himself. Put bluntly, if God so loved us, should we also not love others in the same way?
I am conscious that it is easy to say that we should love everyone; it is far harder to do it when we, and many of our countrymen and women, are afraid or angry.
The key is to be clear about where our security lies.We find a story in the gospels that helps us to think this through.
That day when evening came, he said to his disciples, ‘Let us go over to the other side.’ Leaving the crowd behind, they took him along, just as he was, in the boat. There were also other boats with him. A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped. Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. The disciples woke him and said to him, ‘Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?’
He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, ‘Quiet! Be still!’ Then the wind died down and it was completely calm.
He said to his disciples, ‘Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?’
They were terrified and asked each other, ‘Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!’
I think it is a mistake to criticise the disciples for being afraid of the storm. The storm was a real threat. Presumably they knew, or at least knew of, others whose lives or livelihoods had been claimed by just such an event. Now it was threatening them while their boat, the thing they knew intimately, controlled, relied upon and trusted, was being overwhelmed. Fear, even anger, was a reasonable response.
There will always be storms in life. If we are convinced that our future and our security depends on a particular person, or a political arrangement or movement then we will inevitably be let down at some point. These things are by their nature flawed, fallible and finite.
- The ‘wrong’ people will sometimes win elections.
- The ‘wrong’ policies will sometimes be implemented.
- There will sometimes be people who will be aggressive and cruel towards us.
If we’re trusting in our boat when the storm comes then it will be easy to succumb to fear, anger, or panic.
As Christians, however, our security is not found in the boat in which we sail but the One who sails with us. He is the same whether there are storms or calm seas. He is just as in control whether we’re happy or sad, scared or confident, hopeful or despairing. He does not change with the storm nor is He cowed by the failure of the boat in which we sail.
Our future does not ultimately depend upon whether we are in or out of the EU, whether the Tories or Labour win an election, whether it’s Trump or Clinton in the White House or anything else we can mention.
Jesus died for us, rose for us, and will one day come again to be with us.
We know that the storm cannot overcome us because He has already overcome it and everything beyond it.
Obviously this doesn’t stop us caring about the world around us, nor does it mean that nothing bad will happen to us. The storms are still there and sometimes the boat in which we sail may be overwhelmed.
But it does mean that we know that in the end it will be alright.
As Paul wrote earlier in his letter to the Romans:
[W]e know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.
I’m going to finish by offering some practical suggestions about how we can live out this vision of life.
First, we should pray, vote, and work for the good of the society in which we live but we should not obsess about causes or parties or enemies; this is not our home – we are just guests.
Second, where we are involved with a cause or in a debate, we should always act with love, especially towards those with whom we disagree. In practice this means:
- Being slow to speak (and post) and quick to listen.
This could be particularly applied to social media. Facebook and Twitter are terrible means of engaging in argument because they make it so easy to post, promote short and generally polemical and partial arguments, and are bad at promoting genuine engagement with other people’s ideas. In my view we should be extremely sceptical about using them to discuss controversial subjects.
- Not impugning other people’s motives.
It is vital that we are able to disagree with different arguments – that is, and always has been, how we collectively arrive at the truth (although we should ensure we actually engage with our opponent’s arguments in their strongest form). But we should never need to disparage our opponents’ character. None of us knows conclusively why people do what they do or believe what they believe and it is profoundly unhelpful to pretend that we do.
- If something could or would not be said to a particular person, face-to-face, then it should not be said at all, whether as a comment about a group or an individual.
- Don’t forget that even if someone is wrong or bad, they are still to be loved.
Finally, we should pray and commit the future to God.
Remember: It is not the boat that matters. Nor is it the severity of the storm. It is who is in the boat with you that deserves your attention. When we focus on Him, we find peace, hope and reconciliation with God and each other.
 Romans 12:17-21
 Mark 4:35-41
 Romans 8:28