As the Presidential Address of the Church in Wales' Governing Body
In July, nearly eighty members of the Church in Wales spent ten days in the Holy Land on the Pilgrim 2,000 trip that was planned in connection with the launch of our Jubilee Fund. Despite temperatures like the interior of a microwave and far-reaching disturbances in nearly everyone's intestines, we returned feeling that our inner lives had been affected in a rather more serious way. We were able, as planned, to visit some of the projects that we have supported through the Jubilee Fund and other initiatives; and seeing and hearing what was happening was, for many of us, a genuine moral shock. In Gaza, we saw at close quarters the conditions in the refugee settlements (and experienced the extraordinary courtesy and hospitality of local people). In and around Jerusalem, we visited clinics for children and the disabled, and were taken around some of the sites that have the most painful associations for the Palestinian people - including Deir Yassin, where almost the entire population of a Palestinian village was massacred in 1948. It is impossible to come away from such places without a sense of anger and heartbreak about the Palestinian situation - and a sense of impotence, since there seems no possible peace plan that will give them the assurance of ordinary care, stability and justice.
Just before we went to the Holy Land, though, some of us were made aware that the Church's involvement with Anglican Christians in Palestine was being represented in some quarters as anti-Semitic. We were accused of accepting without question one side of a complex story, even of undermining the Israeli Government's efforts towards peace. And an afternoon at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, the museum of the Holocaust, was an almost unbearable reminder of just why Israel exists, and just why any suggestion that the Israeli state lacks moral or political legitimacy creates such anger. Any visit to the Holy Land that is more than superficial ought to raise for us some hard questions about how we think about victims.
If you ask, who are the real victims in the Holy land, you have to think very carefully before answering. At present, the Palestinians suffer outrageous privations in the shape of restrictions on their movements, their access to fresh water (a far too little known problem), and their rights to social and medical welfare. There can be no dispute that they are the victims of day-by-day Israeli policy. Yet Israel exits - and this can't be too often stressed - because Jews in both the Christian and the Muslim worlds cannot feel safe, because they have been outsiders and victims for centuries of bloodshed and torment. For the contemporary Jewish Israeli, the Palestinian situation may be regrettable, even deplorable, but it is ultimately the result of the tragic necessities imposed by history: Jews have been victims for too long, now they must learn to be agents of their own destiny.
Two histories of appalling suffering, and when they are discussed, how tempting to get into the terrible game of comparative atrocities: my suffering is greater than yours. It's the same story as we find in the Balkans or in Rwanda, or even in Ulster. Where history is soaked with injustice and outrage, we long to find a place beyond all the guilt, a moral high ground. But the truth is that this never works; history leaves blood on everyone's hands. What is surely undeniable now is that the two communities, Israeli and Palestinian, can have no security that this is not a shared security. A strong Israel, free from the constant, high-pitched anxiety that it will be pushed into the sea by its neighbours, needs a secure Palestinian population not seething with bitterness, an easy target for the wildest propaganda of Islamic militants. A strong Palestine is bound to be dependent on Israel's prosperity in the short to middle term; it needs a secure, non-paranoid Israel. And the most important step to peace is that from argument over who has suffered more and has a more powerful moral claim to reparation, towards recognition that the only strength that matters and lasts is a shared strength.
Perhaps practically all conversion is like this, the recognition that the real strength, the real good, has to be a common one. And conversion is difficult, because we dread letting go of what's good for us, we don't trust anyone else to secure it for us and with us. Think of the astonishing muddle over incomers into the UK. One week, they are asylum seekers (probably 'bogus'), human wreckage, frauds, spongers, who make us 'victims' by exploiting our social services and taking our jobs. They clearly interfere with what's good for us. Then we suddenly hear about 'economic migrants' who are so very good for our economy and need to be encouraged because they don't threaten what we know we want or need. They will fit into our story and play out our script. There is no sense here that we might have to discover a good or a welfare that is neither just mine or just theirs in the process itself of hospitality. And I don't think I need point the moral as it affects the life of the Church, where we seem just as liable to take narrow views of what's good for Christ's Body in terms of what suits our current loyalties.
We all love to see ourselves as victims sometimes; it's quite a comforting place to be, to know that we are the righteous who are being pushed out by the powerful - even when, in the immortal phrase of C.S. Lewis, it's a case of the frail and trembling wolves trying to protect themselves against the ravening sheep. Quite rightly, we have grown away from the idea that suffering is something to be endured in silence, however degrading it is. We have encouraged the battered wife, the abused child, the racial outsider to find a voice, and so we should. But we are in danger of swinging to the other extreme, where in order to be heard at all in any community, you have to have a claim based on the greatness of your suffering. Look at me, I'm a victim too! Nothing is more lethal to the hope of a conversation that might lead to shared strength, shared welfare or justice.
I labour this point because last week's events bring these issues sharply into focus (and because I suspect I wasn't the only Christian in Wales or the UK to feel rather at a loss to know what to say or think). The fuel protests had a legitimate base in one sense. Probably all of us here know what current fuel costs mean to farmers (the issue of subsidised tractor fuel is irrelevant to the unavoidable burdens of ordinary vehicle usage in the country; some national journalists clearly have not the slightest idea of the difference between what you can do with a tractor and what you can't...); present prices are one more turn of a screw that is literally killing the life of the countryside. The case is less clear for hauliers, though there is little doubt that the small to medium haulage company struggles intensely these days, and there is a proper question about rebates for commercial fuel users above a certain level.
Then of course things start to get less simple. A raft of other issues appears and the campaign is fuelled further (if I can put it that way) by the sheer lack of realism among many road users, who want low, petrol prices to sustain a lifestyle that that is environmentally disastrous; who want better public services without realistic taxation. And last week we veered dangerously close to the rhetoric last heard in the seventies: yes, we know these actions damage the most vulnerable, but that's not our affair, because our imperative is to draw attention to our righteous cause and our suffering. All credit to the protesters for drawing back from that brink. Two cheers for the government's refusal to be bullied; it might have been three if they had been more forthright about the environmental effects of indiscriminately lowering fuel prices. No cheers for the silly left-wing journalists who sneered at the 'subsidised' farmers or the silly right-wing journalists who suddenly discovered their commitment to non-parliamentary direct action. Three or more cheers for those who did a bit of lateral thinking and asked about road taxes (rather than fuel taxes only) and the crying need for subsidy to public transport.
If there is any Christian perspective to be formulated here - and there surely must be - it has to rest on two basic Christian beliefs, beliefs which the daily life of the Church should constantly show. First there is the essential vision revealed in the community created by Jesus's resurrection, that no-one lives or dies to themselves alone. Our strength is always shared; which means that it always demands of us, each one of us and each group of us, an acknowledgement of our weakness - our capacity to misunderstand what's good for us and others, our tendency always to slip back into selfishness, our conviction that we have nothing to learn or receive from strangers. It means too that being painfully aware of one group's need and pain can't finally be an alibi for ignoring someone else's (which takes us back to where we started, to the moral strain of visiting the Holy Land).
Second: believers in the crucified Christ are those who recognise not that Christ suffers just like me, but that Christ suffers for me and because of me. He suffers outside the walls; outside the territory that I mark out as mine. And one of the countless implications of that is that I shall see and find him on those outside whatever walls I am busy building. He does not hang in his cross to signify only his fellow-suffering with me; he tells me to recognise the vulnerability of the other as deeply as I know my own. It is the other side of the shared strength we spoke of. Suffering is not to be hugged to myself, an endless treasury of resentful power, it is a way into the heart of another vulnerable person or group, into the understanding of their memory and their fear.
Israel and Palestine; truckers and ambulance drivers; the mob around a suspected paedophile's house; we as believers have the unenviable job of trying to hear and interpret the wounds of everyone involved and to ask not simply for justice in the sense of reparation or retribution, but for the justice of the Bible, a situation in which each acts for the good of the other. And this, believe it or not, is what the Church is supposed to be and show, a place of justice.
Sometimes we hear the gospel from outside the doors. Let me end with a passage from Homer's Iliad. King Priam has gone to Achilles, who has just butchered Priam's son Hector, to ask for the hero's body; Achilles, seeing Priam on his knees suddenly remembers his own dead father and his dead lover, Patroklos, and is unexpectedly overwhelmed by a 'passion of grieving'. 'He took the old man's hand and pushed him/gently away, and the two remembered'.
Achilles agrees to give Priam the body and sits him down to eat and drink. For a brief moment, the two look at each other in wonder and joy. Priam says, 'Now I have tasted food again and have let the gleaming/wine go down my throat. Before, I had tasted nothing'.
Well, it is a very brief moment; revenge takes over again, and both Achilles and Priam will die soon in the war. But the veil is torn for a moment: 'the two remembered'. Out Christian task is to keep it torn, remembering and recognising how Christ suffers in the stranger, remembering and recognising how Christ is to be seen, in wonder and joy, in the stranger, whose life is now bound up with mine.