Posts Tagged ‘dignity’

Subversive and counter-cultural (politically correct)

December 30, 2017

Christmas 1 – 2017

Luke 2:22-40

Marian Free

In the name of God who does not discriminate, but who values each one of us just as we are. Amen.

What is sometimes disparagingly called “political correctness” has the ability to put some people’s teeth on edge. Yet if read or watch historical dramas like Jane Austin or The Duchess we are be reminded of the powerlessness of women and children in past eras. Or if we watch crime shows or read detective novels we can see how vulnerable and dependent the poor, the mentally ill and the disabled are and how much they depend on the goodness (or lack thereof) of others. Such reminders help us to understand that what some people refer to disparagingly as political correctness is in fact an attempt to build a more equitable and compassionate society that values the contribution and value of all its members not simply those who meet some predetermined standard. Today most of us would recoil in horror to hear someone called a “black” or a “spastic” or a “mongoloid”. Such terms are dehumanizing and discriminatory and they deny the individuality and personality of those so labeled. A majority of people today recognise that all people deserve to be regarded with dignity and respect regardless of their level of ability, their occupation, their race or religion. Unfortunately societal norms can be so ingrained and so unconscious that they can be hard to identify let alone alter. At times societal pressure and even legislation has to be brought to bear to bring about lasting change in values and attitudes.

I mentioned last week that Matthew and Luke tell the story of Jesus’ birth in completely different ways. We can look in vain for the magi in Luke and will have no success if we search for the shepherds in Matthew. No only is the content of the story different in the two gospels, but the way in which the authors relate the story is quite different. A characteristic of Luke is his use of doublets and his juxtaposition of male and female characters. For example, the parable of the lost sheep is placed side by side with the parable of the lost coin – two stories of the lost, in the first the kingdom of God is likened to a shepherd and in the second to a woman.

Both of these techniques are evident from the very beginning of the gospel. Luke’s account of Jesus’ conception and birth is paralleled with that of John the Baptist. The announcement to Zechariah is paralleled with the announcement to Mary and Mary’s hymn matches the hymn of Zechariah. The two stories contrast in ways that make the parallels more obvious. Elizabeth is old and barren whereas Mary is young and presumably at her most fertile. Zechariah receives the news from the angel with skepticism whereas Mary accepts that God can do what God intends. Zechariah and Elizabeth are from priestly families whereas Mary (and Joseph) appear to be of more humble origins.

In today’s gospel another couple are juxtaposed – Simeon and Anna. Both are old, both have prophetic gifts and both respond to the presence of Jesus by making a public pronouncement regarding his identity and his role. From the beginning, Luke is happy to give to women the same authority and prophetic role as men. Mary, not Joseph is the significant character in Jesus’ life, Elizabeth recognises Mary as the mother of her Lord, and Anna proclaims to all who will listen that Jesus is the one who will redeem Israel.

Luke makes it clear that women, as well as men play a significant part in the Jesus’ story. Without labouring the point, Luke also makes it clear that Jesus’ family have no obvious status or wealth but exist on the economic margins of society. Zechariah is a priest; Joseph (we discover later) is a carpenter. Jesus is born in a stable and his first visitors are not exotic men from the east, but shepherds who have no position in society and little income to speak of. When Mary and Joseph present Jesus at the Temple, instead of offering a sheep as stipulated by Leviticus, they offer two turtle-doves (a concession made for those who are poor).

Through his juxtaposition of men and women, priest and layperson and through his positioning of Jesus among the poor, Luke makes it clear from the very beginning that the gospel is for everyone – Jew and Gentile, rich and poor, the pillars of society and those on the fringes. As such the third gospel is perhaps the most inclusive of all the gospels as well as the most subversive and counter-cultural.

In Luke’s gospel the poor are privileged and the rich are castigated, women play an important role and Jesus himself is situated among the poor, their story is his story. Using today’s terminology, Luke could be accused of being politically correct – of giving dignity and honour in equal measure to all members of society in defiance of the societal norms of his time.

Luke’s record of Jesus’ origins are a reminder that we are called not to fit in with the world around us, but to critique it – to stand apart from the crowd by working for justice, trying to create a society that is welcoming and inclusive of difference and by showing compassion and understanding towards the vulnerable in our midst and to those who are on the fringes of our society. The gospel challenges us to expose and not to protect the elite and the powerful, to confront exploitation and abuse, and to challenge the miss-use of power and the oppression of the weak.

In other words, in his account of Jesus’ birth and infancy, Luke challenges us to put ourselves in God’s place and to see the world from the point of view of one who came not as a powerful warrior, a harsh judge or a despotic ruler, but as a helpless, vulnerable infant who could be put to sleep in a manger and held in the arms of Simeon and who identified with the poor and the helpless, stood with women and children, welcomed the marginalised and the outcast and who brought hope to the hopeless.

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Fighting is not the solution

September 9, 2017

Pentecost 14 – 2017

Matthew 18:10-20

Marian Free

In the name of God who, through Jesus shows us a way to confront wrongdoing without causing embarrassment or shame. Amen.

I would not be surprised to discover that more than a few of us have been made quite anxious not only by North Korea’s testing of a hydrogen bomb but also in relation to the world’s response to that test. An escalation of threats on one side has led to an escalation of activity on the other and so it goes on – a never-ending cycle in which each side tries to cow the other. It is difficult to see how the situation can end well. North Korea fires a bomb, the United States and others urge more punitive sanctions. North Korea threatens to bomb the United States, the United States threatens a massive military response and so on. Neither party wants to back down. Backing down would be a source of embarrassment and would be seen as a sign of weakness[1].

A willingness not to use force to solve a conflict and not put down the other party not only leads to a different outcome, but provides a solution in which neither party is made to look weak or is exposed to embarrassment or shame. On Friday, Richard Filder interviewed Jonesy – a single mother, truck-driver, trainer and company director. Heather Jones drives enormous B-double, or B-triple trucks in Western Australia. A few years ago, Jonesy was called in to mediate in a situation that looked as though it was going to get out of hand. A woman from Ballina had taken it on herself to expose truck drivers whom, she had concluded were all dangerous and irresponsible drivers. “Bothersome Belinda” as she became known, set up a website asking for people to dob in a truck driver. Her campaign caused distress among all the truck drivers who drove responsibly and carefully and who often put their own lives at risk to avoid accidents. Jonesy was called in by her fellow truckies to see if she could help – single mother to single mother.

At the first meeting, Belinda’s body language said it all. Her views were fixed: truckies were the enemy and she was not ready to give an inch. Jonesy was not deterred. Over a number of meetings she continued to reach out to Belinda until the point that they became good friends. The eventual outcome was that the offending website was taken down and, to Jonesy’s surprise, Belinda got her truck license and came to work for her.

Two quite different ways of dealing with offense and two quite different results!

In a culture governed by notions of honour and shame and in which aggression and tit for tat was a way of life, Jesus showed that there was another way.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus made the stunning claim that: “Blessed are the peacemakers,” and “Blessed are the meek”. He not only counselled against aggression, he also gave practical examples of ways in which his listeners could end disputes without exposing the other person or oneself to shame or dishonour. He said: “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.”

This is a theme that runs throughout Matthew’s gospel. Jesus refused to meet violence with violence, he refused to grandstand, to promote himself at the expense of others, and finally he submitted to violence and death rather than respond to hostility with aggression.

In today’s gospel Jesus provides a practical example of how conflict or sin within the Christian community might be dealt with without exposing the offender to embarrassment and without creating a situation that would lead to an escalation of the problem. Jesus does not appear to think that conflict is something to be avoided at all costs. It will occur in the Christian community as in any other. When it does, the matter should be addressed, but it should be addressed in a way that does not expose the offender or cause the offender to lose honour in the sight of the community. Jesus suggests three strategies that can be used if tensions arise, or if someone hurts someone else or behaves in a way that is contrary to the values of the community.

In the first instance the one who is sinned against is to speak quietly to the offender – thus causing no embarrassment. Only if this doesn’t work are others to be involved. The second stage involves witnesses, which suggests that it is more of a legal process. Again, the problem is dealt with privately so that the offender does not lose honour. Only as a last resort is the offender brought before the entire community. If the offender still refuses to acknowledge his or her fault, they have demonstrated that they do not really belong and, at least in the short-term, must be designated as an outsider – in the same class as a tax-collector or a Gentile.

I am not naïve. History has demonstrated that sometimes the only way to confront and to stop evil behaviour has been to react with force. What Jesus is suggesting is that this should not be a way of life. Confrontation and violence should never be the starting point, but rather dialogue and an attempt at mutual understanding. Only when these fail should we begin to seek out other means of resolving the tension.

Within the Christian community relationships are likely to be tested, people are going to rub up against each other in the church as in other situation and people are going to fail to live up to everyone’s expectations. What is important, is not that conflict is avoided, but that when it does occur it is dealt with in such a way as to avoid exposing people to embarrassment and shame and that it follows an orderly process to try to resolve the issue and, as we shall see as the chapter progresses, the Christian community should be more ready than other communities to forgive – not once but over and over and over again.

[1] To be fair, imposing sanctions has been used as a way of avoiding conflict and war, and it may be difficult to have conversations with the leadership of North Korea.

Dignity and worth

March 18, 2017
Chester Cathedral

Jesus and the woman at the well.

Lent 3 – 2017

John 4

Marian Free

 

In the name of God in whose eyes we have infinite worth, no matter what our life-style, our choices or our achievements. Amen.

During the week I read the extraordinary story of Bhenwari Devi an Indian woman from a low-caste potter Kumhar community. In 1992, at dusk, while Bhenwari and her husband were working in the fields, five men from the higher Gujjri caste (the most affluent and influential in her village) attacked them both. Two of the men attacked her husband and restrained him, the other three took turns in raping Bhenwari. As the news over the past year has informed us such attacks are not unusual. In India women and girls of a lower caste and especially untouchable women and girls are often raped and sometimes killed by those who come from a higher caste background, sometimes in retaliation for a perceived slight, and sometimes just because they are there. The shame and stigma associated with sexual crimes make it difficult for women such as Bhenwari to speak about their experience or to seek justice. Their gender and their lowly position in society only serve to exacerbate the situation.

When Bhenwari reported the rape, she was accused of lying. Her assailants told police that there had been a dispute but that the pair were not attacked. The police did not take the assault seriously, did not give her a thorough examination until the next day and ignored her cuts and bruises. Because she reported the crime, Bhenwari was seen to have brought shame on her community. She and her husband were shunned by their neighbours, who would not sell them milk or buy their pots. Their own families did not invite them to family weddings. For twenty-one years Bhenwari took her battle to the courts and while justice may have eluded her, her case has seen the government introduce legislation to prevent further such cases.

I’ll leave you to read the rest of the story for yourself[1].

It can be difficult for someone to hold their ground in the face of so much opposition, especially when they feel disadvantaged by gender, race, creed or their position in society. Even in relatively affluent and educated countries such as our own, there are those whose voices are more respected and those whose opinions hold little to no weight – the poor, those with a disability, victims of domestic violence to mention just a few. It takes courage and confidence to refuse to let such factors be a reason to stay silent.

In today’s gospel we meet a woman who would not be silenced. Like many of the New Testament characters, the “woman at the well” has no name. Never the less we know a great deal about her. This woman is triply disadvantaged. She is a member of the despised Samaritans, she is female and, probably because of her sexual activity, she is ostracised by her community – (which is why she is at the well in the middle of the day). Coming to the well at this time allows her to escape the censure and derision that would be levelled at her if she came earlier when most of the villagers would be gathering water for their families.

On this particular day though she cannot avoid Jesus. Jesus ignores all the social norms that would prevent him from speaking to the woman and he asks her for a drink. The woman is shocked, but not overwhelmed. She challenges Jesus: “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” As the conversation continues the woman refuses to let her cultural disadvantages hold her back. She questions Jesus, confronts him on questions of faith (where one should worship) and finally is so convinced that Jesus is the Christ that she convinces her fellow villagers – those who despise and condemn her – not only to believe in Jesus but to persuade him to delay his journey for two more days.

Bhenwari and the woman at the well are examples of people who, despite their disadvantages, their place in society and the ostracism by their communities have been able to maintain a sense of self-worth and a sense of dignity. Jesus doesn’t see race, gender, religion or morality. He sees a worthy debating partner. Despite their circumstances and their standing within their own communities, the woman at the well and Bhenwari have a strong sense of their own worth and refuse to be cowed and intimidated, by those who would shame, condemn and exclude them.

We, of all people, should know our own worth. After all, didn’t Jesus die for us proving once for all God’s boundless, unconditional love and that we are worthy of that love?

Lent is love. The unbelieving, timid Nicodemus is given a place in God’s story and the despised and ostracised Samaritan woman is given a voice. The stories of their encounters with Jesus remind us that there is no standard that we have to reach to take our own place in the story of God’s interaction with God’s people. It remains for us to believe in God’s love for ourselves, which in turn enables us to believe in ourselves and to understand that if God overlooks our shortcomings, then we also ought to overlook our shortcomings. Above all, it means that God’s opinion of us matters more than the opinion of those around us and that we should not allow our lives or our faith to be determined or limited by self-doubt , by our position in the world or by the attitudes of others.

 

 

 

 

 

[1] http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-39265653


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