The Infinite Value of the Human Face

The recent decision of the government to block the Lords’ amendment to allow just 3,000 unaccompanied children to find refuge in the UK, despite the shocking reality of children homeless throughout Europe, sexual violence and trafficking, has forced me to think about me what is, in some ways, the most extraordinary aspect of the Christian faith: our belief in the inherent dignity of every human person. Today, with some significant exceptions, the idea that persons have an inviolable dignity and certain basic rights is
enshrined in international law and human conscience, but the world into which Christ was born was not like this. This short blog post is an attempt to remember where this belief came from and to express it with a distinctively Christian character.

In our daily lives we meet dozens of people: those we love with all our hearts, those we tolerate, those who barely tolerate us and those we actively dislike. This is the reality of our fallenness, a deeply rooted feeling that our life, and the lives of those we like, are more important than the people we don’t like. But, in God’s sight, all this is turned upside down – to him, every human person is infinitely precious. Every human face is worth everything, every human face is worthy of the great gift of God’s own life and love. There are no exceptions to this rule, no matter how twisted in on ourselves in sin and pride God infinitely loves who you are; he knows you, longs to bring you to life and has loved you for all time, even to death. The infinite scope of God’s shameless and extravagant love makes a mockery of our petty daily judgements about people: that sense that some people are more valuable than others, those pathetic judgements that say that the more useful a person is the more valuable they are to society (a judgement at the heart of the current UK government) – all this is revealed as the sin that it is because, for God, every single being is supremely worthwhile, they are of immeasurable valuable.

For most of us, although it’s a struggle (and I speak as a sinner to sinners), this makes sense in a way – of course, just because I don’t like Michael very much doesn’t mean God loves him any less – but, what about the members of ISIS? What about those who make martyrs of Christ’s sisters and brothers every day? This is where things gets tough – but the witness of the Messiah walking to Calvary bearing the Cross still stands; every human life is worthy of this supreme gift. The Lord sees the face of every suicide bomber, every rapist, every person that ever hurt us and sees the face of a beloved child who has forgotten him and who he longs to return to the arms of his Love.

isis.jpg
The 21 Coptic Christian Martyrs – executed at the hands of ISIS last year.

We face difficult decisions in the world at this time: how many refugees can we provide homes for? How do we deal with the huge threats to our civilisation posed by ISIS and those like them? But, as disciples of Christ, all of these discussions are framed in the context of God’s infinite and costly love for every human face: to kill is always a tragedy and never a triumph.

The Qur’an has one of the most profound reflections on this reality in its second chapter:

And [mention, O Muhammad], when your Lord said to the angels, ‘Indeed, I will make upon the earth a successive authority.’ They said, ‘Will You place upon it one who causes corruption therein and sheds blood, while we declare Your praise and sanctify You?’ Allah said, ‘Indeed, I know that which you do not know.’

The angels protest to Allah at the creation of humanity – don’t you realise all the violence and corruption they will bring? We, the angels, praise and bless you, why on earth do you need these humans to be your ‘successive authority’, isn’t that just a terrible idea? And God replies, ‘I know that which you do not know’. There is an infinite glory to the human race, a beauty which the angels could not comprehend (in our tradition we have the same insight in the tradition that Satan falls because he refused to venerate Adam). Despite all the horror of the human race, there is such capacity of love and self-sacrifice, such a hidden strength and power to do good that God created us in an act of pure love. He did not need us, the life of the Trinity is entirely sufficient, but he created us for his glory – he created us to incarnate his love and to praise, through messy broken lives, the one who is Life and Truth and Love.

In this season of Easter, where we celebrate the victory of Christ over sin and death we are reminded that our God has taken the immense risk of human life and has defeated all the arrogance and violence of this world through the witness of his vulnerability and obedience – in his love which suffers for the world, he has swallowed up our pride and hatred and burst from the tomb in decisive victory. This reality ought to frighten us: the world has changed, there is a new creation, and we long for that perfect day when his Kingdom is manifest.

Come, Lord Jesus. Alleluia.

With the Help of God: Conscience and Amoris Laetitia

Very hastily written thoughts on human conscience

‘Teach me to do what pleases you, for you are my God’ – Psalm 143.10

pope
Francis, Pope of Mercy

Pope Francis’ Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love) has rightly received much attention in both the Christian and secular press: it represents both a restatement of the extravagant and beautiful Christian doctrine of marriage and family life but also a significant shift in the pastoral focus of the Catholic Church. The Pope, fittingly in this Year of Mercy, encourages the pastors of the Church to meet people where they are and walk with those whose situation falls short of the demands of Christian marriage – especially the divorced and remarried. As one would expect, it retains an absolute condemnation of homosexuality (although, as I am arguing in an essay at the moment, there is a not insubstantial change in this teaching) but, this aside, I wanted to briefly discuss a central focus of Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation and one I think is worth holding in mind in the midst of current Anglican disputes over the recognition of same-sex marriage: the role of conscience.

 

The Pope’s exhortation repeatedly asserts the sovereignty of human conscience as ‘man’s most secret core, and his sanctuary,’ the place where the voice of God ‘echoes in his depths’ and the heart communes with God and seeks His will in our lives (quoted by Pope Francis from Gaudiem et Spes, §16). In the Christian conscience, God directs our hearts to what is right and helps us to make the demands of the Gospel our own as we journey as Christ’s disciples. Of course, we often act against our consciences, but God’s still, small voice always draws us back to the Way of Christ. It is for this reason, claims Amoris Laetitia, that the Church is ‘called to form consciences, not replace them’ [§37].

How does God’s voice make itself known in our conscience? In a myriad of beautiful, profound and often surprising ways! God deals with us as individuals and speaks to us as beloved children, there is no ‘one size fits all’ with the God who notices even a sparrow falling to the ground. In some people, God’s activity manifests as a sharp pang of conscience, reminding them that what they are doing is wrong. In others, it is an irresistible invitation to a new and fuller life. In other it is a comforting feeling of consolation which follows making a good decision. Sometimes it is a vivid feeling of closeness to the divine that comes to us in the midst of prayer. We cannot sum up the countless, varied and manifold ways in which God reaches into the lives of his people and stirs our hearts. Emotions, desires, insights, memories, feelings – all of these are ways God works through our hearts.

This may seem wishy-washy and critics of faith may dismiss all of this as pious-claptrap. But it is nothing of the sort. Thomas Aquinas famously said that ‘all that is against conscience is sin’ (Summa II.i.19.5) and even the teachings of spiritual hierarchs are to be ignored if they contradict our conscience. Of course, as Francis also affirms, we are not referring to our merely human understanding of right and wrong but to a formed conscience, which knows the Gospel and is shaped by a loving relationship with Jesus Christ in the sacraments of the Church, private prayer and the reading of Scripture. But, for those engaged in this lifelong process, the voice of our conscience is a powerful, God-given thing, calling us onwards in our discipleship and shaping us into Christ likeness.

‘What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.’ (1 John 3.2)

We ought to remember this when we discuss the difficult moral questions of our time, whether it be abortion, same-sex marriage or all those whose lives fall short of the ideal taught by the Church. In his always revolutionary tone, Francis reminds us: ‘A pastor cannot feel that it is enough simply to apply moral laws to those living in ‘irregular’ situations, as if they were stones to throw at people’s lives.’ [305]

All of this stems from the striking fact of Christian spirituality – that God works in all our lives, to bring us fullness of life and direct us. In the beloved words the Lord spoke to Jeremiah: ‘for surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.’ To every single person, Pope or prisoner, gay, lesbian or straight, faithful or faithless, God can speak these words and, as he forms our conscience in the ways of Christ, he continues to help, guide and comfort each one of us. Which is, I would argue, something the Church ought to remember as it ‘lays down the law’ on same-sex marriage.

What a friend we have in Jesus, 
all our sins and griefs to bear! 
What a privilege to carry 
everything to God in prayer! 
O what peace we often forfeit, 
O what needless pain we bear, 
all because we do not carry 
everything to God in prayer. 

Have we trials and temptations? 
Is there trouble anywhere? 
We should never be discouraged; 
take it to the Lord in prayer. 
Can we find a friend so faithful 
who will all our sorrows share? 
Jesus knows our every weakness; 
take it to the Lord in prayer. 

Read Amoris Laetitia in full here.

We Will Remember Them

At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

Armistice Day is a day of symbols and ceremony, wreaths are laid and poppies worn as soldiers don their uniform and old monuments which, while usually hurried past with nothing more than a glance, are given new life and our attention is drawn back to them. To remember is natural, of course, it is written into our humanity remembrance-day-11300115224KT9and into the very fabric of our society and townscapes and to remember those whose sacrifice made possible our common life today is an important aspect of our corporate remembering. However, as I stood on Sunday among a small crowd of students, fellows, staff and veterans in Corpus’ New Court, as the splashes of red and the solemn sounds of the Last Post sounded after the silence, I began to feel very queasy about all this remembering. The line between remembering and glorifying is indeed a thin one; the symbols which we use to remember, the poppy, the flag, the national anthem, feel like symbols stolen from us by Britain First and the far-right jingoists and the whole ceremony feels like it belongs in a previous time, where morality seemed simpler and the memory of two great wars was keener. And yet, our country clearly cares about Remembrance, you need only look at the (frankly ridiculous) detailed analysis of the profundity of Jeremy Corbyn’s bow to realise that we, on the whole, believe we ought to properly remember those who have died.

Despite my misgivings, I agree with the majority, we ought to remember those who have died in the cause of war and especially those whose sacrifice has made possible our freedom and liberty today, those who safeguarded our ability to bow at whatever height we like. However, remembering at its best is not just a recalling of the past, but allowing the past to enter into dialogue with the present and to allow it to help shape the future. As we remember those who have died in the cause of war, we are confronted by the thought of those wars which still tear our world apart: the war against ISIS in Syria and Iraq, the increasing tension jeremy-corbyn-wreathsbetween Israel and Palestine and in countless other places. To gather in Remembrance of those who have died in the past, is to allow ourselves time to be moved to action and compassion towards those who continue to live and die in war in our own time.

The cry of Remembrance, however, ought always to be one of sorrow, a solemn national cry that this should never happen again because every life lost is a tragedy and no war can ever said to be ‘won’. Remembrance services often feed in to a dangerous militarism, in which it is a glorified thing to die in the fight against so-called evil and ‘the old lie’, as Wilfrid Owen famously called it, is perpetuated and given fresh power by the clever recruitment adverts released by the Ministry of Defence. We should be cautious of any Remembrance service aimed at persuading those ‘children ardent for some desperate glory’, to quote Owen again, to sign up in order to make a name for themselves in a country which often fails to give young people any other inspiring options.

That being said, I strongly believe there are things worth fighting for. There are human values worth dying for and, although with sorrow and regret, worth killing for. In our own day, war has lost the morale clarity of the two World Wars; the enemies are impossible to fully understand or see, the threat seems less imminent, the demarcation between friend and foe is muddied, and the cause of action is unclear at best. However, in Remembrance services up and down the country we have a two minute opportunity to open our hearts and minds to these difficult realities and dream of a world where the futile loss of life is ceased and there is a just and lasting peace. We therefore have a duty to rescue the ceremonies of Remembrance from those who would use them to advertise a narrow-minded understanding of so-called “British Values” and refocus the attention on our shared human values. By re-emphasising the importance of Remembrance in terms of our shared objectives of equality, liberty and peace, we have an annual opportunity to spend a time of national reflection on these crucial aims and how we, corporately and individually, can contribute to bringing them about.

We have a moral obligation, as people who enjoy relative peace and prosperity, to do all we can for those countries who have descended into the blackhole of war or tyrannical government. We must remember the countless refugees pressed against the fences of Europe seeking our help as they flee from violence; we must remember the countries whose land cries out today with the blood of so many innocents; and we must remember those who suffer under the burden of structural injustice and poverty. These are not glorious causes, but they are critical ones and they are worth remembering and fighting for. As we observe that two minute silence or pin a poppy to our breast, we ought to do so in sorrow and gratitude for those who have died to secure our freedom but also to pledge ourselves to use our freedom and all we have, our money, our minds, our influence, to secure the peace and prosperity of all humanity. In this mission, freed from the limits of narrow-minded nationalism, we can truly do as John McRae asked of us in his famous poem, Flanders Fields:

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Article originally published in Varsity, read it here.

Home by Warsan Shrine

In this haunting and powerful poem, Shire opens our eyes to remember the desperation of those who are refugees. Lord, have mercy on our lack of compassion. 

Read my blog-post on the refugee crisis here.


Home by Warsan Shire4427921003_c12b7b7d8c_o

no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well

your neighbours running faster than you
breath bloody in their throats
the boy you went to school with
who kissed you dizzy behind the old tin factory
is holding a gun bigger than his body
you only leave home
when home won’t let you stay.

no one leaves home unless home chases you
fire under feet
hot blood in your belly
it’s not something you ever thought of doing
until the blade burnt threats into
your neck
and even then you carried the anthem under
your breath
only tearing up your passport in an airport toilets
sobbing as each mouthful of paper
made it clear that you wouldn’t be going back.

you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land
no one burns their palms
under trains
beneath carriages
no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck
feeding on newspaper unless the miles travelled
means something more than journey.
no one crawls under fences
no one wants to be beaten
pitied

no one chooses refugee camps
or strip searches where your
body is left aching
or prison,
because prison is safer
than a city of fire
and one prison guard
in the night
is better than a truckload
of men who look like your father
no one could take it
no one could stomach it
no one skin would be tough enough

the
go home blacks
refugees
dirty immigrants
asylum seekers
sucking our country dry
niggers with their hands out
they smell strange
savage
messed up their country and now they want
to mess ours up
how do the words
the dirty looks
roll off your backs
maybe because the blow is softer
than a limb torn off

or the words are more tender
than fourteen men between
your legs
or the insults are easier
to swallow
than rubble
than bone
than your child body
in pieces.
i want to go home,
but home is the mouth of a shark
home is the barrel of the gun
and no one would leave home
unless home chased you to the shore
unless home told you
to quicken your legs
leave your clothes behind
crawl through the desert
wade through the oceans
drown
save
be hunger
beg
forget pride
your survival is more important

no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear
saying-
leave,
run away from me now
i dont know what i’ve become
but i know that anywhere
is safer than here