Monday, 25 July 2011

Extinguishing the Flames of Hatred.

"And let them make unto Me a sanctuary; that I may dwell among them."
Exodus 25:8

Norway is in deep mourning after the terrible atrocity that took place there only a few short days ago. Much of the world looks on with immense sympathy and shock, as people struggle to understand how a human being can behave with such wanton cruelty towards innocent people.

Much of the religious Jewish world is also in mourning at the moment, at least symbolically, as the annual cycle once again arrives at the period of commemoration and mourning for the destruction of their Temple in Jerusalem and their subsequent exile, years of wandering and suffering. All too apposite is the ancient sages attribution of the cause of that destruction to one terrible sin: sinas chinam or in English: baseless hatred, as it would appear that baseless hatred was what most likely led to the loss of lives in Norway and which so often underlies the rifts in our own society which are always there in the background threatening to tear down our own temple of liberty, co-existence and tolerance.

Anders Behring Breivik, seemingly motivated by loathing and what can only be described as monumental vanity, claims to have been defending a Christian Europe and specifically a Norway, under threat from Islam and immigration. Like all totalitarians he claims that those who disagree with him are facilitators and conspirators of this threat and that they must be destroyed. How ironic that a man who claims that Islamic jihadists are the biggest threat to Norway, himself carries out the biggest act of violence on that soil since the Second World War. How telling that a man who rails against Marxists, reflects the very worst of their excesses by he himself seeking a revolution to snuff out liberty and acting towards that goal by ending the lives of those who disagree with him. Also this defender of Christendom most certainly did not have Christ's teachings in mind while he was plotting and carrying out his nefarious actions upon those whom, in his distorted mind, were his enemies. For was it not Jesus who said:

"But I say unto you which hear, love your enemies, do good to them that hate you. Bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you. To him that smiteth thee on the one cheek offer also the other; and from him that taketh away thy cloke withhold not thy coat also...
But love your enemies, and do them good, and lend, never despairing: And your reward shall be great and you shall be sons of the Most High; for He is kind towards the unthankful and evil. Be ye merciful even as your Father is merciful. And judge not, and ye shall not be judged: and condemn not, and ye shall not be condemned." Luke 6:27-29 35-37

But while the events of last week were the work of one man, embracing the most extreme of ideologies, elements of his thinking are to be found throughout society and similar arguments are to be found directed at different "enemies" throughout the political spectrum. It behoves everyone to think carefully about how they express their views and beliefs and to conduct themselves with the greatest caution lest their words and ideas feed into a mindset that, at its most extreme, rationalises cruelty and hatred. In this regard I am reminded of the words of the first century Jewish sage Avtalyon:

Scholars, be very careful with your words for you may be exiled (drift) to a place of evil-waters (dangerous teachings) and students will come after you and drink (learn from you) and be destroyed, and the Name of Heaven will be desecrated.
Pirkei Avos 1:3

Nothing however, should preclude the necessary debates on subjects that concern people, and neither should people rush to label as "extremist" or "bigoted" views with which they disagree or the people who hold them. Discourse that inflames or increases the often distorted view held by sadly far too many people on a variety of issues must however be challenged and revealed for what it is. The views one sometimes hears from otherwise good and decent people, about immigration for example or about those seeking asylum are frequently dispiriting to say the least, and very far from the compassionate, and humane spirit which, I believe, should characterise our nation and which I find embodied in the following words:

"Take the stranger. Trustful does he enter your country, your city, your community, confident of finding people who will respect him as their fellow-man and not begrudge him a place among themselves where he can live, and live like a human being; he has no other letter of recommendation than his human countenance, nobody to introduce him but God, Who presents him to you as His child, and says: 'He is like you, may he do as you do - grant him equal rights- he is My child, My earth is his home; I have called on him, just as I called on you, joyfully to fulfil his task as a human being; do not curtail that right of his do not spoil his joy of life, do not abuse his helplessness; show that you feel that your soil is God's soil, and that man is God's child."
Horeb Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch 1837

There are of course issues that surround immigration that must be resolved in the interests of both those that have chosen or been forced by circumstances to settle here, and the host nation. These should be debated without fear or recrimination, in a calm and rational fashion free from passion or zeal. I myself am personally delighted and heartened to hear that the sentiments, so eloquently expressed by Rabbi Hirsch, are alive and well in the work that Reverend Bob Pounder of Oldham Unitarians, is doing in assisting asylum seekers. May his efforts be blessed with much success.

Sorrowfully it would seem that the temptation to engage in vituperation against anyone that does not share the same beliefs, be they political, social or religious is very strong. It can be seen in the way that bankers are regarded and spoken of routinely as the epitome of greed, selfishness and wickedness. It can also be seen in the language and conduct on display during protests against President Bush or Tony Blair. It is graphically manifested in the contorted faces and rage filled cries of participants of English Defence League protests and most tragically it was displayed in the ravings of Anders Breivik who regarded young people associated with the Norwegian Labour party as traitors. And it can often be seen in the snide remarks, put-downs and gossip which we all engage in. It would seem that we have all much to learn about the true meaning of human dignity and liberty and that an argument is lost the very moment it becomes about the person/people instead of the issue.

As Unitarians we often pride ourselves, and certainly present ourselves, as the paradigm of tolerance and liberal thought. This is certainly a good goal for us to aim for and one that is worked hard at, but we are still I feel, far from achieving it. Indeed this very claim is often used by us to wrap ourselves in a mantel of self-righteousness in order to pour scorn on others whose faiths or attitudes are not (on paper) as magnanimous as our own. I know of one congregation that is on the verge of collapse due to the inability of its members to accommodate each other's ideas and beliefs. I also know a person who was an avid contributor (and still wishes to be) to the musical life of her congregation until a controversy arose because several people found her use of "He" in reference to God, to be unacceptable! I am sure many Unitarians have experienced or know of those who have experienced a degree of intolerance from their fellows in the faith. It is relatively easy to argue for tolerance on the big political and social issues of the day, but much less, so it would seem, to embody tolerance in the mundane life of our communities.

Now, as always, our world is riddled with divisions and hatreds, some bigger and more violent others smaller and parochial but both ultimately destructive. We whose name speaks of unity, which testifies to the unity of humankind under the unity of God, must truly exemplify it in everything we do and in how our chapels, churches, meeting-houses and denomination conduct themselves internally and externally. With endeavour, co-operation with others and God's help, we can surely play a part in softening the edges of human interaction, creating a society of kindness, benevolence, grace and liberty. A society which will be a shining temple, a sanctified abode in which the Almighty may dwell forever in our midst.

"Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!.....For there the Lord commanded the blessing, even life for evermore."
Psalm 133

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