Including the outsiders
I was struck by a Thought for the Day on Radio 4 the other morning – Monday morning. It was by the Rev John Bell, from the Iona Community – and it really struck me because it took us into a very difficult place, the child-abuse horror of the Church in Ireland, and made a very challenging and brave observation
Bell said that we have signs in public places telling people what to do if they suspect they have a propensity towards alcoholism. But what do you do if you suspect you are a paedophile? Then he told a story. At university in the seventies, he was elected president of the Student's Representative Council at a time when his university had no counselling service. One day a 20 year old student came into his office and asked if he could speak to him. He first told him that he felt called by God to the priesthood. And then he said that he wanted to admit to a sexual attraction to children.
"Why are you telling me this?" asked Bell. "Because," he said, "I can't keep this secret any longer. It's too dangerous. I need to tell somebody. And I need to promise somebody that I will never ever harm children." Bell asked on Thought for the Day what we, his listeners, would have done. He never knew the name of his visitor. Had he said he was a sex offender, Bell said his response would have been clear and straightforward. But this was different. This stranger had somehow found the courage to admit to a potential he swore he would never pursue.
Punishment after the event is not enough, observed Bell. Children will have been hurt. Yet, he said, we can't castrate or criminalise people who admit that there is within themselves a tendency they never wanted to be born with. And Bell concluded by asking this: Is it possible to affirm the potential for good that is in them, while holding them accountable for ensuring that they are the only ones who will ever deal with the demons inside?
I think that’s a very powerful question. It has so much in it. First, it affirms the potential for good inside everyone – even the most reviled among us – and, by extension, it implies the potential for evil in all of us too (worth remembering when our newspapers embark on their latest witch-hunt for child-abusers). Second, it suggests that the dividing line between the two is our ability to hold ourselves accountable for our demons inside – and, further, it suggests that it is ONLY we who can ultimately be accountable for those demons.
This is the start of the week that marks the climax of our Christian story. Today, just one day after the Jewish Sabbath, Jesus and his motley band of followers ride triumphantly into Jerusalem, amid hosannas and palm fronds, greeted as the saviour of the oppressed Jews there. In just a few days – and on the day before the next Jewish Sabbath – he is cast out of the same city, abandoned by those followers, to die naked in the heat, a criminal’s death, among criminals.
Both these events – the entry into and final exit from Jerusalem – tell us much about the character of Jesus of Nazareth. He was always an outsider: He comes from outside Jerusalem, from outside the establishment, and he is thrown out of it, onto the outside of it, to die a common death, on the human rubbish dump that is Golgotha. He is the welcome outsider at the beginning of the week – because they think he has come to save them – but by the end of the week he is the despised and reviled outsider, shunned and thrown out to die on that refuse tip of humanity.
In truth, he lived his life – and died his death – as an outsider. And it’s with the other outsiders of his day that he placed himself. With the unclean, the poor, the lepers, the lame, the whores and the quislings of the Roman Empire…women (Witness of Woman). And that’s why he dies where he does at the end of this week – out there with and as the lowest of the low. Because it’s out there, into the grimmest and darkest and most demonic recesses of our human existence that God is reaching at the crucifixion, to meet us at our worst, to do his transformative and miraculous work that will change the world forever. It is here, in human hell where things can’t get worse, that God has chosen to place himself to show that however low we go, his love is deeper still.
We often say that ours is a Christian country. We have an established Church of England. Christianity is the faith of our state. And I wonder what that means in the context of Christ the Outsider, who comes from outside our city walls and is thrown, this week, outside those city walls to die. I think that this week presents us with the profoundest questions about what it is to be an outsider, how we respond to our outsiders, because in doing so we respond to Christ the Outsider.
For most of us, the bar will not be set very high – the challenge isn’t really that great. We can kid ourselves that we’re Christ-like in embracing outsiders who present us no great challenge or problem: The person who annoys us, the immigrant neighbor, those who are a bit different from us by virtue of a disability or their disposition.
But what does it mean for a Christian society to embrace its outsiders, as Jesus Christ embraced the outsiders and as we are invited to embrace Christ the Outsider? That, I think, is at the heart of what John Bell had to say the other day, in his Thought for the Day. We may congratulate ourselves that we welcome the stranger, feed the poor, clothe the cold, feed the hungry, defend the defenceless. And, indeed, when we serve the least of these we serve the Christ.
But let’s push that challenge outside our comfort zone, outside our city walls. Let’s push it to where God is prepared to go, where we often are not, out into the darker areas, out to the Golgotha of humanity, where we dare not look. Can we recognize the Christ there, bruised, battered and bleeding where humanity is most reviled and despised? Can we extend our love and forgiveness and redemption where God is prepared to go, but we may not? For that is the challenge that is laid down this week.
So where and who do I mean? Well, try this: Does our Christian society reach out to the paedophile? Does it reach out to Jon Venables, one of the child murderers of another defenceless child? Does it reach out to the drug dealer, or the one who deliberately passes on the Aids virus through promiscuous sex, or the al-Qaeda terrorist with the bomb in a back-pack, the genocidal mass murderer? This is our Golgotha, the place of the skull, the worst of our humanity… are we prepared to go there, looking God’s redemption?
If the answer to any of that is No, then this week tells us we’re not going out with the Christ to Golgotha. We’re abandoning him to that hell, as his friends did – all except some of the women, whose nurturing instinct led them to witness to the end. And if we simply can’t go there as a Christian society, then we are like that Jerusalem society of long ago – welcoming Jesus the Outsider in when it suits us, throwing him out with the other outsiders when he becomes a nuisance. This week we ask the question of ourselves: Are we prepared to take the risk of going outside our city walls with him?