I don’t know if you caught any of the Assisted Dying Bill debate on Friday, but I thought it showed Parliament at its best. Most of the speeches I heard were compassionate, well reasoned and thoughtful. Many spoke from personal experience, either as a medical practitioner or as someone who had cared for a loved on in their dying moments. The pain of what was at stake, for both those in favour and those against the Bill, came out thoroughly, and I could see merit in both arguments, though for my mind I think Parliament made the right choice on this Bill. There were one or two moments when a particular MP was less sensitive and more combative in their approach, but in the main they knew that this was a moment when it was possible to disagree well and recognize the integrity and good motives of those who took a different view. We regularly pray for those we elect to Parliament and this was an occasion when those prayers for wisdom and justice were particularly important.
The words we choose matter enormously. They can persuade, they can incite strong reactions, they can sooth and they can injure. They can, in the words of our Epistle reading from James (3:5-6), ‘set a forest ablaze’. This week I attended a training workshop in London on ‘Email, Social Media and Conflict in the Church’. It was in part about how to deal with those emails and social media comments that get the hackles up. There is a mantra for Twitter, ‘Don’t feed the Trolls’. We have to exercise caution when on the receiving end of comments that can be placed on a spectrum from the badly or roughly worded to an outright assault. Sometimes the best course is to leave it a bit and whenever we don’t we usually regret it later, certainly if it gets the better of us and we bite back. Some clergy present, notably a young woman, had had to deal with some pretty offensive stuff. There is a resilience which we have to develop and some of those who speak on behalf of the church with a higher profile are on the receiving end of some pretty vile abuse. When we pray for our bishops, when we pray for Justin our Archbishop, they can be at the sharp end of some unsavoury comments, as indeed can their colleagues and office staff.
Disagreeing well is a theme which Justin Welby is encouraging the church to take seriously. He is also sharing this as an approach over the forthcoming European debates. There is a blog called ‘Reimagining Europe’, which isn’t arguing for a particular outcome, but is calling for a respectful debate, one that honours the view of the other. How we disagree says a lot about how we are as a community. One of the problems with social media is that it is not always very sociable. The political columnist for the Guardian Rafael Behr has described it as a place where our prejudices and pre-existing views are reinforced and massaged by those who agree with us, or see it our way. This means that we edit out the challenging and contradictory voices. Society becomes a place where we see the likeminded. The more this happens, the less we become able to deal with dissent, disagreement and the ensuing conflict which difference of opinion brings. So learning to disagree well is prophetic and goes against so much of the prevailing mood. It also opens us up to new ideas, to challenge and to growth in our understanding.
One of the hot topics at the moment is the migrating peoples seeking to enter Europe. Some of these have come from the most violent places in the world: Syria, Iraq and Eritrea. They are traumatised as well as in desperate need of shelter and a place of safety – the true meaning of Asylum; they will present multiple needs. We have a duty to be hospitable. It is a biblical standard and we have a noble history of it. Some others are in search of a better life and their applications will be assessed. Some are trafficked for others’ gain and are abused. All of them have stories to tell and these stories move us beyond labels to the people concerned. My disappointment with the BBC Songs of Praise broadcast from the Calais camp during the summer was that it didn’t give as many stories as I’d expected, probably due to the new magazine-like format of the programme. The debates around these are very quickly polarized, and some comments are outrageous and encourage hatred. It is possible to raise questions about what provision will be needed and capacity without dehumanizing and it is possible to encourage a generous response to take the human need seriously. There is a humanitarian crisis and I’ve put out the milk churn at the back of the church for donations towards the UNHCR appeal.
The words we choose for any debate or discussion make a tremendous difference to how that goes. So often the writings in the Bible encourage us to use our words as a source of blessing rather than cursing. Our aim should be to build up, to encourage, to seek the Kingdom of God and for us all to be formed into the likeness of Christ. The words we choose reveal or expose us for who we are, whether we are really people who seek this or are consumed with something else. The hitting back is a sign of fear and anxiety. And other people do have a way of finding where our weaknesses and vulnerabilities are. When people are incited to riot or react with anger at words, when they take offence, it is because they feel attacked and this shakes their sense of security and worth. If I am feeling sensitive, vulnerable and insecure, I will react very differently to when I’m not. The power dynamic can change how we are in this. The resilience that we need to develop comes from the trust that we have in God and the confidence we have in his truth and victory. A faith in one who dies on a cross and rises in glory is not one to place too much store by feeling offended or the transitory insults. A faith that calls on us to take up our cross in order to follow, is not one that looks for getting the upper hand all the time (Mark 8:27-38). This is God’s world, we are his and there is nothing that can separate us from his love and purpose. Under attack, the challenge is to find words that heal, that call to a new way of looking and loving, that call us back to what blesses and restores dignity, honour and hope.
So words not only matter, they also reveal the hope that is inside us. If we are to bless we have to know that we are blessed. If we are to be gracious, we need to have grace, the joy of the gift of love within us. Above all our trust is in the Kingdom of God which matters more than our own purposes and that may require admitting that we are wrong at times because truth matters more. Disagreeing well means that we know the truth is bigger than us and it needs to possess us, not us it.
Sermon preached at Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 13th September 2015