Sunday, 20 February 2011

Lessons From Lark Rise.

"You shall not hate your brother in your heart. You shall surly rebuke your neighbour and not bear a sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself: I am the Lord" Leviticus 19:17-18

Quite unbelievably for me, considering my love for period dramas, I have only this week become familiar with the BBC adaptation of Flora Thompson's "Lark Rise to Candleford". I have become captivated by the series.

A significant difference between the 19th and early 20th centuries in which Lark Rise is set and our modern age it seems to me, is our fear of involving ourselves in the lives let alone the moral choices of others, even of our friends. The powerful anti-judgementalist approach which surrounds us, was quite absent from the world our recent ancestors inhabited.

The character of Dorcas Lane, the Postmistress, is synonymous with the classic stereotype of the Victorian do-gooder, one of the famed "army of busybodies." She displays genuine concern for the happenings in the lives of all in her circle and even those of strangers that come to her attention. In a quiet and subtle fashion she hints, advises and works wisely behind the scenes to resolve the personal problems and conflicts of the people of Candleford, and it's poorer relation the hamlet of Lark Rise. She also does not refrain from honest plain speaking when the need arises to give criticism and reproof, always of course, delivered with the tenderest of voices, simply oozing kindliness. Her approach is quite different from the devout Thomas Brown, her head postman, whose sharp and scripture laden reproofs, often raise heckles and rarely achieve their desired results, quite understandable really, as he is often motivated more by his personal dislike of a given behaviour instead of a deep regard and concern for the recipient of his censure, a malady of thought that afflicts us all much more than we care to admit.

This willingness to become involved in the lives and moral choices of others, and to express disapproval for wrongdoing, as portrayed in Lark Rise, and explicit in the many letters and accounts that have been preserved from those times, was not all good of course. The down side was intense nosiness and its unpleasant relation; gossip. (Although let's not judge that era too harshly as we can get our fix of other people's problems and happenings from our soap-operas or reality tv shows, they had none of this). Reputations could be destroyed and lives ruined by the willingness of people to broadcast and then judge each other's actions. But the plus side was powerfully positive. The sense of community and common duty to one's neighbour was constantly reinforced, creating a warm and supportive environment. One knew that people cared and had your best interests at heart, and that when the tarnished ball of misfortune came rolling at your feet, you had those on whom to rely. This sense of communality was strengthened at least in rural society, by the lack of movement from local to local and the need to work together. Only a few places in modern Britain can boast of such bonds of unity between neighbours. Sadly the majority of us live in rather dissociated societal company. Perhaps this itself is the prime appeal of depictions of earlier times, a longing for lost community.

In addition there was another significant benefit of people's involvement and judgement. Rabbi Moshe Ben Nachman (Nachmanides) the 13th century Spanish-Jewish scholar wrote in a letter to his son:

"Anger is a most serious character flaw which causes one to sin, whoever flares up in anger is subject to the judgements of Gehenna"

One of the principle reasons that anger leads to sin and divine judgement the commentators explain, is that when one is prone to outbursts of fury, others will cease to offer instruction or reproof out of fear, instead choosing to walk on egg shells and remain silent. And without such reproof and guidance a person is almost certainly doomed to sin.

We are all subject to biases, and very rarely see our faults as easily as we see the faults of others. Without the criticism, guidance and reproof of those who have our best interests at heart, it will be considerably difficult to regulate and improve ourselves. Our modern fear of being judgemental combined with the assumption that to think that one knows what might be good for someone, is akin to unacceptable arrogance, denies each of us a tried and tested tool for personal elevation. However, it is not only an ideological resistance towards judging the deeds of others that prevents us from doing so, it is also fear. Fear has led to some of our communities becoming increasingly distant from fulfilling the well known African proverb;

"It takes a village to raise a child."

I was once returning home by train, and having stopped at a railway station to transfer to another train, I became aware of a couple of children, I would say about 12 or so years old, openly trying to steal a bike from the opposite platform and when this failed, vandalising it instead. While what they were doing was visible to the several people on my side of the platform, nobody said a word or challenged them, all of us struck by the brazenness of what we were witnessing. I too, am ashamed to say, remained silent, mainly as a result of fear of what could happen if I did intervene. I can't have been the only one to hear and read about innocent people ending up seriously injured or worse for having become involved and to have had that image remain in the mind.

Clearly in this, as in many other areas of life, what is necessary is not always easy. And only wisdom combined with a little bravery will be successful. Is courage in short supply in our pampered times?

However, as followers of Jesus, do we not have some quite strong injunctions against judging the actions of others? Several teachings of our master would seem to confirm this:

"Judge not lest you be judged, for with what judgement you judge, you will be judged and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you" Matthew 7:1-2

"He who is without sin, cast the first stone" John 8:7

Verses expressing the same sentiment can be found throughout the Hebrew Bible also.

Are we to understand from this, that we are never to form or make known an opinion that judges the actions of our fellow man, let alone act on such an opinion? Is it wrong for us to sit in judgement, is this solely the prerogative of the Ultimate Judge, the Sovereign of creation? Surely this cannot be the case, as both reason and scripture testify for the need of human judgement and mutual improvement. Did the Nazarene himself not say:

"Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. But if he will not hear take with you one or two more that "by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established". And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church (congregation). But if he refuses even to listen to the church let him be to you like a heathen or tax-collector" Matthew 18:15-17

And Jesus practised what he preached, for he constantly went out amongst the sinners, reaching out to them, and bidding them to "sin no more".

So how do we reconcile this seeming contradiction? In my opinion it is reconciled with one single word; Humanity.

Whenever we look upon our fellow and his/her actions we must ever be cognisant of their basic humanity. People are complex and driven by emotions and responses that are often far from rational. We can never overlook the human context in which wrongdoing takes place, to do so is to commit a terrible injustice. While an action or behaviour may indeed be immoral or even wicked, the person who commits it may perhaps not be either. We have a duty to try and see ourselves in their situation and to honestly consider how we would act given the same circumstances. Ultimately we can never really know the heart of another, only He "who knows the heart of man" can judge a person. We must focus our reproof and disapproval on the actions that are wrong, attempting to guide the individual away from them. We must not be frightened from stating that we view certain things as wrong. But we must always, always be rooted in our love for our neighbour and not in a selfish, base desire to feel better about ourselves or to inflict pain through the criticism of others. There is very little else as ugly and abominable as hatred wrapped in the mantle of religious reproof, as I was reminded this past week while watching a documentary about the treatment of homosexuals in Uganda. The approach and language of some of the pastors of Ugandan churches, that of demeaning the image of God in man, resulting in the denigrating of the very Word of God and creating an environment in which violence and even murder takes place, is one clearly born of ignorance. But the scar it leaves on the face of religion is not an easy one to heal.

With our duty to reprove our fellow comes another duty should our reproof fail to elicit a change of behaviour. Namely tolerance. We must accept the freedom of others to ignore what we have to say, and follow their own path. Of course if we cannot accept what others do, we have the choice to distance ourselves from them and the negative influence that their deeds may pose, but ideally we should be there, always waiting for their return and in the event that their choice of action brings only sadness upon them we must swallow our desire to lord it over them with "I told you so's" and instead comfort them. If you feel that you have some wisdom to offer, why hold back? Share it, sensitively and respectfully.

A questions that has specific resonance to Unitarians is, should we attempt to offer reproof/instruction to others regarding matters of belief? Other denominations would answer yes as to them the correct belief is as important to a good life as correct action. But for Unitarians and others who put great emphasis on the freedom of thought, interpretation and belief, this issue is less clear. Robert Aspland 1782-1845 Minister of the Unitarian chapel in Hackney and head of the Unitarian fund, wrote a letter on receiving news that a minister in a General Baptist (Unitarian) congregation had, on refection of the scriptures, become convinced of the truth of Trinitarian Christianity, and as a result desired to separate himself from the Unitarian Fund. His words offer a valuable guidance and insight as to what approach we might take.

"Dear Sir, Your letter..I have read with very mixed emotions of mind; though, I assure you, with no angry or unfriendly sentiments towards yourself. So far, my dear Sir, from blaming you for your manly avowal of your dissent from the principles of the Unitarian Fund, I applaud your integrity and courage. While our society is intended for the promotion of what we consider the most glorious, but long-lost, truths of the gospel, we are not so inconsistent as to attempt to remove the fetters of reputed orthodoxy from men's minds, solely to put on our own chains in their stead. Our object is in part accomplished, if we set the human mind upon inquiry, whether inquiry lead to us or from us; and you, I conceive, will ever thank us, even if you retain your new and, as I must think, unscriptural and erroneous notions, for having incited you to think for yourself, and supplied you with the means of forming a rational judgement upon the gospel. We shall assuredly never disesteem you for using the liberty, which we are so forward to claim for ourselves, of free inquiry and independent judgement. With regard to ourselves, therefore, you may set your mind at rest; but there are higher obligations which you are under to Truth, and you are, I am persuaded, solicitous that you may not be negligent of these." (What follows are a long list of arguments in favour of the Unitarian position vs the Trinitarian).

We need not be ashamed of having beliefs which we regard as true, nor feel coy about sharing them with others if we feel that they would benefit them. In fact if you have a belief which you understand is true and which you feel could benefit someone, it is your duty to share it.

Jesus reminded us to remove the beam in our own eye before attempting to remove the splinter from someone else's eye. How very true, this must always be remembered. I like to think that our "own" eye, also applies to those causes and organisations we make our own. So let us embark on a journey of self-improvement while reaching out to those around us, strengthening the bonds the bind us all.

And then perhaps we can slowly recreate our society as one of unity, support, liberty and truth.

From Lark Rise to Candleford and then.....well beyond.

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