Saturday, 10 December 2011

Repentance and hope

The call to repentance is an integral part of the penitential season of Advent because without the willingness to change and to be changed we cannot be said to have prepared ourselves for the coming of Christ. John the Baptist, with his outspoken message, can be seen an embodiment of the mad sage, a figure found throughout myth and literature, representing someone who lives on the margins of society yet who has a message for mainstream society, often confronting it with uncomfortable truths about prevailing attitudes and behaviour. People tend either to heed such voices or completely dismiss them, rarely is their reaction lukewarm.
When John says that he is a voice crying in the wilderness, make straight the way of the Lord, he is echoing the words of Isaiah which foretell the coming of the Messiah. In 1963, in his speech to members of the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King also drew on the words spoken by Isaiah and John to call people to a radical attitude of repentance. He said he had a dream that, " one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together"  and that his words would help to transform the “desert state of Mississippi” into an “oasis of freedom and hope”. King’s allusion to these two prophets was clear, he too was a voice crying out in a wilderness, and he too is drawing a comparison between inhospitable landscapes and the desert of our hearts. Our attitudes to God, ourselves and each other need to change in order to usher in the Kingdom of God and allow the glory of the Lord to be revealed.
     This Advent message of changing our attitudes to others truly needs to be heard. A study just recently suggested that our current economic downturn does not seem to have brought out a spirit of compassion or empathy. In marked contrast to previous recessions we seem more willing to blame others, in particular the poor. Rather than all being in it together, we seem much more interested in getting out of it unscathed, in the meantime feeling resentful about everyone and everything that “caused” the problems – except, of course, ourselves.
     The Advent message of changing our attitudes to ourselves also needs to be heard. Advent is often described as an “emptying “- as John says, “I must become less, he must become more.” We’ve lived for too long in a culture that tells we should take everything we can. We’ve been told to aspire to have and buy the best we can - because we’re worth it. No wonder we feel aggrieved, perhaps we might not be worth it after all? I suspect that at the root of a lot of our human anguish is the fear that we might be worthless. It sounds paradoxical, but emptying of the self allows us to find worth. I am really, really bad at the whole emptying lark by the way, but I know it is only when we make room within our hearts that we grow.
 Repentance opens up the potential for change and that paves the way to hope.


  1. Thank you suem,
    I like what you've said.
    I wish to make room for some more important things in my life...than what i can simply get! the emptying resounds with me, wishing is one thing doing is another, thank you for your encouragement.

    PS I like the snow's actually hot here today, so it gives me a contrast.

  2. I do think most of us do value things other than material, but then we are- most of us- pretty selfish. I really wanted to spend this weekend down in London with some friends, but at this time of year there is too much in terms of marking, present buying and wrapping, teenagers to ferry around etc. So I decided to forgo it. So this weekend I feel sort of sad and missing out because I do value that group of friends for fellowship, but it is something I just have to do without until later next year!

  3. I was invited and attended an event hosted by Theos at Parliament a few weeks ago entitled ‘Is the church addicted to the welfare state?’ (,_Hope_and_Charity_Is_the_Church_Addicted_to_the_Welfare_State.aspx?ArticleID=4931&PageID=14&RefPageID=14). Philip Booth from the IEA (ask no more questions...) and Jill Kirby (CPS – again, ask no more questions...) both made reference to the welfare state leading to immorality. Talking to a few people afterwards it became clear that many at the event saw the welfare state as something that other people use – particularly the poor and marginalised. In truth of course it is often the middle-class who get the best from state provided health care, education, arts and entertainment and tax breaks: but there was a real ‘ill-feeling’ evident towards those who happen to live on council estates or the like – and the state itself.

    This exegesis in blame-culture rather shocked me. The weak syllogism being employed was centred on the premise that a large welfare state results in increased immoral behaviour. To me this was just a convenient excuse to pay less tax and distance oneself from any tangible obligation to one’s neighbour. In short it was self interest veiled in piety. The USA has a very weak welfare state, high levels of church attendance and religiosity and yet has far higher levels of single-parent families, family breakdown, divorce, teen pregnancy and violent crime; whereas many north European secular, liberal democracies, with a large and inclusive welfare state have far lower levels of single parent families, divorce, teen pregnancy and violent crime. Suggesting Booth and Kirby’s argument was at best facile, if not utter nonsense. Booth and Kirby both employed that well-worn cliché that is endemic at present in some Christian circles: that things were better in the olden days! (The ignorance of social history was rather embarrassing on the part of some people at the event!). If the churches were so wonderful pre-1908, why did we need a welfare state?

    I think the attitude exhibited by many at the event was typical of what you note here – and that is there is a great deal of effort into blaming others at present. This is particularly true among Christians. The marginalisation of Christianity (real or perceived) is blamed on the liberal media or liberal thought; there is a great deal of rejoicing in the inverted pride of victimhood and on occasion plain jealousy rears its head – particularly concerning other faiths, especially Islam. (‘Muslims get preferential treatment in the media’ is the usual cry – tho’ we have yet to hear of the BBC or Channel 4 doing an undercover documentary in a mainstream Christian church, despite the fact they have done some pretty hard hitting (and maligning) ones concerning Islam!)

    What I think is particularly interesting about the present status quo, is that Christians may be having (or may be perceiving they’re having – there is a difference) a bad time of it, yet they are a good deal better off than the early Christians, who lived around the time of the writing of the New Testament. Yet you’d be hard pressed to find the Gospel writers or St Paul or St Peter moaning that the reason for difficulty in spreading the Gospel was because it was somebody else’s fault. Hence I think a good deal of the moaning of some present day Christians is because they don’t really want more challenging task of blaming themselves. It is easier, less challenging and a good deal more fun, to blame others for the real or imagined marginalisation of Christianity in present day society. Perhaps it is time to stop looking elsewhere and begin repentance a little nearer to home, as opposed to pointing fingers elsewhere – often at ‘easy’ targets (the poufs, the Muslims, the liberals – but so rarely at themselves...).

  4. I think some Christians have the attitudes you describe but I hope most ordinary Christians in the pews don't. I've met a lot of Christians who are very much in danger of giving Christianity a good name - from a range of different backgrounds and approaches. We're not all like Anglican Mainstream!
    I think Booth and Kirby should be ashamed of themselves if they spouted all that in the name of Christianity. Complete naivety is never a good idea, but Jesus is quite clear what our attitude to poverty - and wealth- should be.

  5. I also agree that the relatively wealthy and middle class get a pretty good deal from the welfare state. We get child benefit - which goes into a saving account and always has done save for the few years that I was at home and we only had one wage coming in. For about seven years we qualified for child tax credit, and we probably would have qualified again for it when Kev gave up work (we didn't check and it had lapsed by then.)We qualified for child tax credits even during some of the years when we weren't using our child benefit for day to day costs. This year, as Kevin is retired, we have received the winter fuel allowance - which we have no pressing need for despite the rise in fuel costs- though we are careful with putting heating on- but I am sure we don't qualify as being in "fuel poverty". Add to that the fact that the middle classes are best placed to get the best out of the education system (middle class parents know their rights and will fight for special needs kids or those strugglint to get extra help etc) and out of the NHS and we don't do that badly out of the welfare state at all!