Rebuilding Through Kindness

Let me admit something right up front: the world seems pretty hopeless at the moment, mired in scandal and violence, prejudice and despair. I fear for the future of my children; I fear that I’m not the best example for them as they grow into adulthood. Things seem to be changing, not in a good way, and I don’t know how to fight back. Voting and protesting and petitions are fine, but we’ve still got to live the day after the ballots are counted and the marchers have gone home.

So each day needs a modelling of the society in which we want to live. We don’t have to be selfish, we don’t have to be apathetic. We can be compassionate. We can be decent. We can be kind.

That sounds like a kid’s lesson that can get forgotten during a few semesters at the sophisticated University of Life. But that’s nonsense; simple kindness is a lesson to relearn.

Because there are plenty of people who’ll tell you not to worry about being kind; they’ll tell you to look after number one, to grab what you can, and whatever you do, don’t encourage those people. Plenty of people will tell you that, but don’t listen. Push back. There are others out there who need us to assert their humanity, our humanity. And when others tell us not to do that, we still need to be kind, even in the face of criticism and propaganda and lies. Sometimes mere kindness is an act of resistance.

That’s because an act of kindness is an act of truth, an event in time that has more weight than hypocritical words morphing into alt-facts. “Ahmed from next door picked up my shopping yesterday” is something concrete, something tangible, a marker of memory, something we can hold onto; “That person was kind to me, and accepted no reward” can be a truth to cling to when the voices yelling for our attention get too loud.

Kindness is also an act of love, not the love of a boy band’s ballad but a thing of stubbornness and persistence, a moment of revolution in a dark place. To show love to someone is to respect them, value them, show them honour and respect to them. And we can talk about this all we want, but really those words are lived out in the small stuff, moments of kindness and love that transform a bad day, if only briefly.

And that transformation becomes an act of hope, a statement that the world hasn’t completely succumbed to despair, that we’receive not on our own, that yes, some of us are in this together, proving it not with a poster but with lived-out compassion and a thousand acts of kindness that rebuild the world every day.

So let’s just keep building.

Revolutionary Love (Matthew 5:43-48)

Love is a verb.

We sometimes forget that when we listen to the radio, when we focus purely on how we feel at any given moment. We fire up iTunes and let boy bands and crooners define love for us when really love is something that can shake the world, that sometimes needs to be radical and subversive.

Often that’s on an individual level – treating your beloved with honour and respect, no matter who’s dismissed and devalued them in the past, standing with them when hell closes in, annotating the past with a more hopeful present. But sometimes that revolutionary love has to be corporate, and that’s when people get nervous because the boy bands start getting drowned out by the chants of the prophets

There was a time when, on the side of a mountain, Jesus redefined love. Everyone’s heard the phrase ‘love your neighbour’, and that’s fine as far as it goes, but if all I do is lend my lawnmower to my neighbour who looks like me, if all I do is offer a shoulder to cry on to someone who sounds like me, believes like me, well, that’s not gonna change the world. No, Jesus says, you’ve got to also do all that with your enemies. Showing love for those around us doesn’t stop with some arbitrary line in the sand; we called to love our neighbours, love our enemies, love God and love ourselves.

There’s a call to subversion in this Them-and-Us world we’ve created for ourselves. We prefer to hate our ‘enemies’, strike against them, Tweet against them, go on lockdown and weed out the infiltrators. And if we want to do that, well, there are plenty of siren voices who’ll cheerlead us as we go. But it won’t change a damn thing; there’ll always be more people to hate, more people to fear.

No, the real revolution is showing love when everyone’s telling us to hate. It’s about finding those who are most abused, most vulnerable, seeing their humanity and embracing it. It’s about being able to show love for people in camps, in hospitals, sleeping in doorways, viewed with submission. It’s about recognising a divine image in everyone and acting on that.

This isn’t passive. Love encompasses challenge and advocacy and justice, and sometimes it’s an act of compassion to raid a few Temples and throw a few tables. Love can be an act of prophecy at times, the voice of God reordering the world with words. Everyone sings about love, but sometime love sounds like a protest song. And sometimes love looks like a cross, because it’s sacrificial and self-giving and sometimes the world honours that but sometimes the world targets it for assassination.

And so we fight and march, hug and shelter, rescue and respect. We stand and pioneer a better vision of the world, because the old visions and fables have metastasised around bullet holes and are killing us both quick and slow. And while this has been made to look clichéd and impotent by a thousand memes idolising power and weaponising prejudice, ancient wisdom stubbornly holds true, and three things emerge from the cracks once everything else has fallen. These three are faith, and hope, and love.

The greatest of these is love.

Dispatches from the Ploughshares Factory: Issue 2

Somewhere in Shropshire there stands an angel born of knives, 100,000 surrendered weapons transformed into art and beauty and memory. The sculpture was made by artist Alfie Bradley, using knives confiscated by over forty police forces across the UK. Britain doesn’t have much of a gun culture, but knife crime remains a lethal problem. The angel stands as a monument to lives lost, a beautiful sculpture, yes, but also disturbing, reminiscent of something from Game of Thrones or Doctor Who. Somehow that’s appropriate; we can reject the tools of violence and war, turn them into things of beauty, but maybe the sharp edges that remain remind us where the art came from, reminds us that peace in a broken world is an ongoing process, an ongoing battle rather than something to take for granted.

Because peace is something worth fighting for; after all, it’s so easily taken away. We saw this only a few days ago, when a white supremacist gunman opened fire on worshipers at a mosque in Quebec. Six people were killed.

And so, last Friday, rings of peace surrounded Canada’s mosques as people stepped forward to defend the right to worship without fear. “Houses of worship are sacred and must be protected,” said the organiser, Rabbi Yael Splashy,  but they’re sacred because they’re full of people made in the image of God. We need to protect that inherent dignity rather than allow us to be consumed by demonised language, dehumanising rhetoric.

Of course, dehumanisation is an attitude born out of seeing people as problems to be ‘fixed’ rather than individuals of intrinsic worth. Just look at how much money is spent on keeping the homeless at bay rather than helping them; defensive architecture is big business. In Manchester, spikes were placed in a doorway to deter rough sleepers. Humanity wins through, however and the spikes have now been removed because locals kept covering them with cushions. A similar thing happened in Liverpool, when an anti-homeless ramp was turned into a tea stall. I see that and I see hope, but I also remember the Homeless Jesus statue, and hope and apathy in an awkward dance.

A different Kingdom breaks through, shines out of the cracks, and swords are turned into ploughshares. And yet we can’t stop, can’t relax; harsher visions soon take hold and peace needs to be proactive. But still we proclaim a better world; the ploughshares factory remains at work.

The original post in this series is here.

Tents Not Temples

Jesus the Refugee by Jason Chesnut

An attempt at a prayer/liturgy/meditation in solidarity with refugees…

In the labour camps of Egypt, God liberated his people;

In the dust of the desert, God pitched a tent with his people;

In the palaces of Babylon, God stood firm with his people;

In the ruins of Jerusalem, God wept with his people.

In the ancient scriptures we read of a God who would rather camp with his people than have them build a temple, who took on flesh to share solidarity in their suffering. And so, in the eyes of the refugee and the displaced we see:

The God who lay in a manger for lack of shelter;

The God who walked the streets in the face of oppression;

The God who was arrested on the word of an informer;

The God who bears the scars of conspiracy and lynching.

And because of the miracle of Incarnation, we know that God stands alongside:

Those who endure biting cold as their camps begin to freeze;

Those who trek a merciless desert in the hope of reaching a border;

Those who cling to rafts, as the ocean skies darken;

Those who wait in airports as dispassionate eyes assess their lives.

We join with these stories as their realities echo throughout the ages, as we accept our place alongside those who flee danger and those who seek sanctuary as we acknowledge we are servants of a different world and a different Word.

May we all be aliens and strangers as we build bridges rather than walls;

May we all be aliens and strangers as we extend a hand of friendship rather than violence;

May we all be aliens and strangers as we seek to reflect Christ rather than Empire;

May we all be aliens and strangers as we take on citizenship of a better Kingdom.

Amen.

Stories as Resistance

We walk this world, millions upon millions of us, billions of lives intersecting in cities and villages, deserts and tundra. We build cities and machines, form relationships and communities, make art and make babies, each one of us an individual interacting with all the other individuals. We flirt and fight, sing and dance, fall in and out of love, and all the time we talk and write and sing and paint, all in an effort to understand ourselves and each other, and in doing so we give birth to stories.

Sometimes that becomes history, the stories of the past, the acts of kings and prophets, builders and farmers and scientists, the conquerors and the conquered. We pass these stories down through the generations, sometimes forming identity and bonds, sometimes resuscitating old grievances, resurrecting in the present. And when times are bad, we can find hope in those stories of the past, inspiration, strategy, inoculations against atrocity. In those times, we tell those stories to forge a shield, to assert the humanity of those around us.

Sometimes we tell stories of the future, or sidestep somewhere else entirely, we transplant our world into another to gain a different perspective, to issue a warning, to paint metaphors and symbols and to use them as a vaccination against toxic memes and seductive propaganda. We create heroes who can battle the things we think we can’t, and in doing so learn how to fight, to learn how to help, to learn how to stand.

Sometimes we tell stories of the present, we report, we blog, we photograph, we preach, we check facts and dig dirt and bring the truth out into the light. We do this and we start to break the power of lies and falsehood and their corrosion.

Sometimes we tell the stories of the voiceless, we repeat and we amplify, we yield the mic and make sure everyone gets heard, and that stops the marginalised being ignored or forgotten, even when that’s deliberate, especially when that’s deliberate. And that reminds us that of our shared personhood, we rehumanise the world because the tales of those around us can make us into their neighbours.

Sometimes we tell stories of darkness and despair, descent into the direst of circumstances, the depravity of abuse, the deepest of addictions. We do that because there’s encouragement, even in these testimonies, a shared experience, a spark of hope to light the way out. Life is hell, at times at least, but telling tales of conquering hell is an act of scarred defiance.

So tell stories – tell them whenever you can, tell them as if your life’s depending on it, or someone else’s. Tell them because they’re often the only weapon we have to push back the dark, tell them because it’s harder to force someone to their knees when you’ve looked them in the eyes and heard where they come from. Tell them before we’re silenced, write them across the Internet and in notebooks and on walls and in songs.

There are many ways to fight; if you don’t know how to do so, maybe it’s time to seek the words and let stories be your resistance.