“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God.”
Matthew ch 5 vs 9
On Saturday 6th July the Church of England’s General Synod, of which I am a member, will debate the issue of serious youth violence, including the provision of ‘safe spaces’ for young people in its churches in every community. The background paper is well worth reading, especially the last two appendices which give a good understanding of the issue at the ground level.
During the parliamentary stages of the Conservative leadership election, Rory Stewart put forward a proposal for National Community Service, a recommendation made in this newsletter on 11th March, and I intend to put forward an amendment to the Synod’s motion supporting that aim.
Youth insecurity is a very serious problem, as we have commented on in depth. However it reflects a society full of conflict and intolerance. So this week we look at the art of healing the wounds by ‘disagreeing well’, and find an extraordinary example of leadership in Rome.
Scarcely a day has gone by over the past week without reports of critical levels of tension, whether internationally (for example between the US and Iran) or locally (for example, at the Mansion House dinner), and whether in the political manoeuvring in the battle for No 10 or midnight rows between high profile couples. Sometimes it seems that only in the fields of sport and business are people able to challenge each other in friendly competition, and even then unpleasantry can break out.
A couple of weeks ago I attended a reception at Lambeth Palace, where Archbishop Justin Welby was talking about his work, particularly in reconciliation. It’s worth mentioning that the Church of England is not without its share of intense disagreement, which comes close to the point of schism sometimes. His predecessor, ++ Rowan Williams, is a fine and holy man, but found these strains almost intolerable. Archbishop Justin, on the other hand, doesn’t seek to get everyone on the same page: he focuses on disagreeing well and continuing to love our neighbour or indeed our enemy, while at the same time not abandoning our own convictions.
He gave a detailed account of a meeting in Rome, at which he and the Pope sought to reconcile the warring parties in South Sudan. He explained how, notwithstanding their murderous past, the Pope had knelt down and kissed the feet of both generals and rebel leader in turn, praying that they become peacemakers, and for them to tolerate each other’s existence with grace.
We so much need large doses of this unconditional love today, in so many fields of human behaviour. It is the only thing which can offset that Darwinian instinct of ‘survival of the fittest’, because it is the wisdom of God: and it is said that humans are indeed made in the image of God.
In our local politics we also need to experience this art of ‘disagreeing well’: for example, much better for Leo Varadkar and Arlene Foster to find reconciliation than rely on brinksmanship with the EU. And, following the hustings race for leadership of the Conservative party, we must hope that the new incumbent of No. 10 will talk generously and willingly with others both in his party and across the political divide.
But there is a still more fundamental reason to disagree well. Humans have been around for less than 200,000 years, compared to the hundreds of millions of years that the dinosaurs lasted: only then to be wiped out by a passing meteorite. However, until the last 80 years the damage that humans can do has been limited to their own generation. The power we now wield can massively impact future generations and is capable of threatening our own extinction.
So while ‘survival of the fittest’ may suffice for continued life on a generation-by-generation basis, when it wields the power to deny the existence of future generations it is a very dangerous instinct. In my audio piece ‘Love in Creation’ there’s this reflection:
‘Time moves forward at its steady pace, yet it is amazing how humanity has managed to turn its own evolution into an exponential experience. Perhaps the book of Genesis rightly identifies this process with the point at which humans become aware – going against God to seize the fruits of the tree of knowledge, and gaining the capacity to differentiate between right and wrong. For unless we can understand and live in the mind of God – of Love - the time for our existence will indeed be short. As we approach a full appreciation of the infinite power of God’s technology, we have to understand that it is only sustainable technology for us if we can all also aspire to God’s character: and that is Love. A moment’s thought on nuclear power proves this point.
So it is incumbent on any species with the capacity to live in God’s knowledge to also live in the Love which is God. Love has given us Time – some time - to allow us to re-shape ourselves in the image of God, but the exponential rate of our own technological progress is fore-closing that option for us. Time may be a great healer – it is Love’s way of providing healing grace – but this pre-supposes our own continued existence to be able to benefit from it.’
So the human race has now taken on itself a deep responsibility to learn Justin’s doctrine of ‘disagreeing well’ for the sake of future generations, and therefore for life itself.
Gavin Oldham OBE