Tuesday, 30 August 2011
Perfection and Peace
"A soft answer turneth away wrath: But a grievous word stirreth up anger."
During the last month our television, radio and newspapers have been filled with many tales of strife. Between peoples and their governments, between rioters and the police, and many other similar stories.
One of my favourite lines in the beautiful BBC adaptation 'Lark Rise to Candleford' is delivered by the character Dorcas Lane, the postmistress played by Julia Sawalha:
"There seems to be an attitude abroad of seeking out conflict, relishing it, to feed the worst in human nature. I am often accused of being sentimental, it's true, I cannot deny it. I just find it so much more interesting to seek out forgiveness and acceptance and those so easily mocked values such as generosity and loyalty and love. I know it is considered old fashioned in these oh so modern times, but I love my community. Write about love..I dare you".
I was reminded of these words while talking to a friend of mine whose church is somewhat afflicted by a dispute between several existing members and several ex members of the congregation. I struggled to understand how people who come together deliberately to share in fellowship, and to embrace and embody the values of forgiveness and generosity can fall into the same patterns of conflict that have torn and continue to tear communities and even whole countries apart. I am saddened by how many in our own Unitarian circles are disillusioned and turned off by the lack of tolerance often exhibited by our denomination which likes to wear its broad-mindedness and liberality on its sleeve. If religious folk who preach peace and communion are seemingly not without fault in these selfsame areas, should this cause us to give up in despair? I certainly know of those who think so.
One only has to look at all the literature ever produced by the hand of man, or even in the Bible itself to see how deeply entrenched in the human heart is the idea of discord with one's fellow man. For all our advancement and modernity we still suffer from war and ill-feeling amongst people. Should we think as does Mr Thornton in Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South:
"If only there where a mechanism to enable us all to live together. We can bring back marmosets from Mozambique but we cannot stop man from behaving as he always has."
There is, however, an alternative way and subsequently there is hope. We were informed long ago by our teacher, his words being as relevant today, that:
"Ye therefore shall be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect." Matthew 5:48
But what is this perfection of which Jesus speaks? Clearly it cannot refer to a complete absence of wrongdoing or needs. That type of perfection is only to be found in God's own unique existence, as we are told by scripture when it says that there is no righteous man upon the earth that doeth good and sinneth not (Ecclesiastes 7:20). We all do wrong. Jesus himself taught that there is no one, including himself, that truly merits to be called good. For only the Eternal One can ultimately be known by that description.
No, the perfection of which Jesus speaks is, in my opinion, that which comes from emulating God by pouring out our kindness and love even on those whom have caused us harm. To move beyond the wrong done to us and seek the welfare of those whose choice to upset us demonstrates their deep need for repentance, improvement and healing.
Conflict may be part of the human experience and will sadly be found even in the sanctuaries of the world's faiths, however we can aspire for better. We can aspire for better in our private and communal lives, and despite the guaranteed failures along the way, we can rejoice in knowing that each step in the right direction, each temptation for strife overcome, is an emulation of the Eternal's perfection that surrounds us and our world with glory.
Perfection is not always getting it right. Perfection is found in aspiring for the good and constantly battling forward in that direction.
"Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called sons of God" Matthew 5:9.