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Prayer, repentance and common humanity

We prayed today for the aftermath of the death of George Floyd at the knee of a white police officer. We prayed for his family, for the unrest across America, for the fears of black people and people of colour, and for the conviction and repentance of those guilty.

At times like this I feel I cannot hold all the pain of the world. News of suffering in one community triggers memories of suffering in my own (chronic illness) community, and the awareness that there are many communities I know little of beyond being aware that they are suffering.

I wonder what it takes to make someone look at these suffering communities and see a threat. In my own work, I wonder what makes good, compassionate people blame the poor for their own suffering: label them as workshy, or fob them off as hypochondriacs and attention-seekers. How do professionals engage repeatedly with these groups whom they slander, and continue to see only bad, where other people – often volunteers or community members – go in and see the good? How do you repeatedly interact with people and continue to other them, fear them and slander them?

I fear it is all too human a trait. We do it the instant we say, ‘I would never be like that’. I read a tweet some time ago – it may have been a quote from somewhere else – which raised this issue in relation to genocide. If you think you are not like those people who commit genocide, said the author (I paraphrase from memory), you have already passed the first stage: you have divided the world into us and them, and judged them as less worthy.

The world is a broken, hurting mess and identity groups help us to understand our own experiences and make sense of what has happened to us in our lives and how and why we think and feel the way we do. But identity groups can become harmful when we forget that those in other groups are human too; that we all share a common humanity and certain experiences, flaws, hopes, dreams and failures that come with it.

The world is a broken, hurting mess and I cannot solve it. The tears are so near the surface and yet they do not come. I am frustrated by the pettiness and futility of anything I can do. It irritates me that my body is broken, ill and weak; capable of very little even by normal human standards.

I wonder if God feels the same. Most of the time, it seems, he chooses not to act through immediate intervention in the world in a kind of poltergeist activity, but through the agency of his people. Does it frustrate him that we are so poor at being his hands and feet? That we persist in our petty sinfulness, our mistrust of the other, our name-calling and slandering, our myriad excuses for not stepping in or stepping up to protect and defend and provide and care? Is the church far more like my diseased, genetically-broken, worn-out, constantly-hurting body than it is the glorious, radiant, spotless bride of Christ?

God is very gracious in using people who continue to be broken and sinful. And yet, should we not be striving to become more and more like him in our actions, attitudes and characters? Should we not each, year by year, be able to say with increasing confidence with Paul, ‘follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ’? (1 Cor 11:1). How much does the church need to repent of all the times that we have been the ones who have slandered, mistrusted and abused anyone whom we do not know? How much does the church need to repent that there are any communities that we do not know well enough, live with deeply enough, love closely enough that we would never dream of treating them with any less humanity than we treat ourselves? How much must we apologise to God that we have slandered and defamed his name by showing the world a face that does not care?

The church should be the most loving community there is. We should not be afraid to call out sin where we see it, such as murder of a black civilian by a white police officer. We should not be afraid to go to these communities which those in power seem to despise, and stand with them, confident of their humanity.

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