Why Should We Care?

Brenda Rockell
Sunday, 17 July 2005

I feel a little uneasy about some of the things I’m going to say today, in the context of Thursday’s London train bombings. But, as Tony Blair returned to the G8 summit, so I return to my reflections and find that what I believed on Wednesday when I wrote this sermon is still what I think now subsequent to this latest attack on Western security. So, I’ll press on…

In the last couple of weeks in the media there has been a lot of attention on the interaction between the developed and the developing world. Along with the G8 summit, there’s been Live 8, and the Make Poverty History campaign. If you have read any of the stuff coming out of this campaign, you will know the distressing statistics, and the call on wealthy nations to make changes to debt, trade and aid. You would know, for example, that more than 300 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa subsist on less than $1 a day. You would know that the governments of African nations are paying out billions of dollars of debt maintenance each year instead of maintaining basic infrastructural needs for their incredibly poor citizens. You would know that every day, thousands of Africans die from AIDS, unable to access or afford medicines that would save them. You would know that the world trade rules are so skewed toward the already rich nations that countries in Africa have no means of profiting from trade relationships that could lift them out of poverty.

And so it goes on…a litany of dreadfulness, and if you’re anything like me, at the end of a news programme, or after a few minutes sifting through websites on this stuff, you feel helpless, overwhelmed, outraged, or simply bewildered. And yet there’s this assumption that as Christian people, we should care, and maybe even do something. Today I want to briefly ask the question ‘why?’

I think that one wrong answer to the question ‘why should I care about human and environmental tragedies in other parts of the world?’ is a sense of guilt-induced charity. Or pity…feeling sorry or sympathetic toward people and wanting to help them from my elevated position of security and wealth, while keeping a careful distance. The ‘prevention of future security threats from the developing world’ argument, which is being used about Africa at the moment, while pragmatic and persuasive, to me still doesn’t get to the core of things.

Instead, I would use the word identification, as more likely to generate meaningful action. By identification I mean the sense that I am somehow deeply linked to the suffering person or people, that they are part of my sense of self as a fellow human being.  I think that this way of responding to situations of need or distress is described in the gospels, where Jesus sums up the law and the prophets, the whole of the Hebrew scripture, with the commands ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength’, and ‘love your neighbour as yourself.’ Love God…love neighbour – as – self.

We might well join in with the questioner in Luke chapter 10 who, on hearing these words, asks ‘And who is my neighbour?’ Not only do we live in streets with literal physical next door neighbours, we also live in a big world…global communication has made us aware of people whom previous generations might have read about in books, but never saw dying on their TV screens the way we do. Jesus’ response to the questioner was to tell him a story about neighbourly action, where the person who acted as a neighbour was someone who crossed over a boundary between self and alien other, when confronted with a need. A Samaritan, who helped a Jew, when members of the Jew’s own community did not.

An interpretation of what it means to ‘love your neighbour’ which I find helpful is simply this: love that which God loves. If loving neighbour comes from loving God, then ‘neighbour’ is defined by all that is in relationship to God. Which includes this world that God made, its ecology, its plants and animals, as well as all the people in it. Because ultimately, my source of life and meaning is God, and in God, I am connected intimately to all else that God has made and loves.

There is a question here about where we draw the boundary line between ‘self’ and ‘other’ in terms of our sense of connectedness, identity, and recognition as ‘human, like me.’ Some people draw this boundary right round their own personal space…all that is not physically me, is alien other. Some might draw the boundary round their family, or their race, or their community. People I recognise, versus those who seem different, who are ‘outside’.

To some extent, this boundary drawing is inevitable and necessary. It is part of our genetic make-up to care for those within our family circle, and I don’t think that should be taken lightly. Also, our personal resources are finite, and nurturing family and community bonds are a way of making sure people are cared for, and their identity is recognised and developed. Today we have welcomed a child into our community…part of her identity is that she belongs here, and I believe this is a good boundary that will help Fern to have a place to stand in this world.

However, balanced with all this, is the fact that Jesus radically questioned the boundaries humans draw against one another – he questioned them by touching lepers, eating and drinking with sinners, letting ‘sinful’ women touch his feet and anoint him with their tears. He asked ‘who are my mother and brothers and sisters?’...and the answer was not those from his biological family standing anxiously at the door, but those who had heard his message and had become his disciples.  And in this Good Samaritan story of who is the neighbour, he quite deliberately says ‘there is no ‘other’ in this world that is not part of God’s sphere of interest and care’. 

I think that all communities, whether faith communities, religions, ethnic groups and political groups, even if they stop short of preaching hate for the ‘other’ still encode within their stories and activities a sense of who is ‘other’, who is in the too hard basket, or not ‘like us’ enough to love, as we love ourselves. Last week Simon used the word ‘grace’ to describe the capacity within us to mentally step into another’s shoes, and act accordingly. It is this grace which Jesus modelled, and this grace into which as followers of Jesus we are called. Sometimes it takes hard work to identify whose shoes we are mentally avoiding, when drawing the sphere of our empathy.

I’d like to suggest that seeing other people as neighbours, as well as being a definition of grace, is also at the heart of justice. It is now a commonplace to say that justice is at the core of what God desires. A call to faithful living is a call to justice – there’s no getting around it. And one way that we can identify justice on the world stage is to ask ‘would I accept this situation if it were happening to me, or someone I know and love?’ I think there is a lack of justice at the core of how we perceive and measure the significance of world events. Some kind of weird mismatch of response to situations that actually betrays who, for us, is ‘other.’

It seems that when an event happens somewhere in the Western world, or tourist circuit, the first and inevitable response is ‘that could have happened to me’. This sense is heightened when the event affects a place where we have lived, or people that we know. These situations have a strong impact on us…and that’s completely understandable, and I think, appropriate for reasons I’ve already mentioned. But I think that the gospel calls us to move beyond this initial reaction into a perspective that says ‘If it is happening to them (whoever ‘they’ are), then it is also happening to me, because they are my neighbour, whom I love as myself.’

And there’s also the inevitable difference in news reporting between something that happens out of the ordinary, something horrific and startling, something that perhaps threatens our sense of security – such as the bombings on the London underground – and the equally horrifying things that are going on day after day after day as a way of life for whole countries of people – it’s not news because somehow extreme poverty and disease epidemics have become ‘ordinary’ – just the way the world is. I wonder if there’s also something in that about responsibility…if something abnormal and shocking happens then those on the receiving end are ‘innocents’, but if there’s an ongoing problem then those who suffer are probably not doing enough to solve it, and it’s up to them to get themselves out of their bad rut.

So, we’re horrified and responsive when thousands are killed in the World Trade Centre attacks, but the fact that thousands of people die every day in Africa from AIDS only rates media attention if someone like Bob Geldof organises a concert. If ‘they’ attack ‘us’, it’s a tragedy, if ‘they’ just die quietly in a corner of the world, it’s sad, but possibly their own fault, or the fault of their government. If ‘we’ attack ‘them’, such as in the invasion of Iraq, it’s heroic…unless some of ‘our boys’ get killed in the process, which brings us back to the horror of ‘them’ hurting ‘us.’ 

We need somehow to find a perspective where there is no ‘us’ and ‘them’ but just ‘us’, ‘us’ and ‘us’ – all neighbours because all equally loved by God. It is this, I think, that’s at the heart of Jesus’ teaching to ‘love your enemies’…to love an enemy is to turn a ‘them’ into an ‘us.’

However, as I mentioned earlier, thinking about this stuff can leave you and I feeling overwhelmed, burdened. I think that there’s a particular kind of stress that we in the West carry…that of situations that disturb us, that we want to respond to because we do love our neighbours, but that we feel helpless to influence. Watching the news can simply exacerbate this stress, and while we may feel very keenly that suffering people in Africa, or bears kept in cages in China, or women being raped and stoned in Islamic states are our neighbours and that the only human response is to act on their behalf…what really can we do?

I have a few suggestions that might be of some help.

One that I’m considering is to choose one concrete issue, one group of people, that I can put my heart and my action behind.  I can’t do everything, and the more things I try to care about the more thinly my passion, time and energy are spread. When I consider the world, what is one situation that I can identify with, that speaks to me, and where I strongly feel a sense of neighbourly connection? Is there one organisation, or one initiative, or one situation of injustice that I can make ‘my’ area of activity… to get educated about it, and to offer my volunteer time, my money, my activism – or even to make it my sphere of employment? Then, as other situations come into my awareness, I can examine myself, and make a response to them as I choose, but with the knowledge that my primary commitment is to this particular thing, for as long as it is a ‘live’ issue. I don’t think this is an easy option, because I’m not just talking about money in an envelope from time to time, but a significant portion of my awareness and action.

Another is to focus on the idea of the neighbour in my day to day life. Do I know my actual physical next door neighbours? How do I as a consumer act responsibly with my purchases, and my waste disposal? Is there an ‘other’ or ‘alien’ in my immediate sphere of living and acting where bridges of human relationship and empathy need to be built? Is there injustice in my local area that I have the capacity to help offset?

And the third is to pray. With intercession and laments for situations in the world that need change or resolution. But also the deep silent prayer that lets God show me what I need to see about myself, and to become gradually aligned with the priorities and concerns that come from God, rather than the prevailing culture…to become aware when I have drawn a boundary with someone God loves on the other side of it, to confess my own enmeshment in practices of consumption that injure others…and to pray for God to nurture in me a softness and robustness…to care enough to participate in this world in solidarity with others, and yet not to be swamped and overcome by the sheer volume of need. To notice where God is leading me, and what unique responses are mine to make in this world, at this time.

So on that note, as our prayers of intercession this morning, let’s now take some time to pray for our world, for our neighbour and our selves…

I will pray, and I invite you when I say the words ‘we pray…’ to respond with the words ‘Bless us with compassionate hearts.’

God of unity, you have gathered people of many nations and races into one body in Christ. Guide and strengthen your church to serve faithfully in our day. We pray…
Bless us with compassionate hearts

God of the poor, forgive us when we who are rich are unable to see those in the developing world as our neighbours. Help us to respond to the cry of the poor for medication and health care, for education, for power and water, for communities of support. We pray…

God of mercy, many turn away from people with AIDS and other diseases out of ignorance and fear. Help us instead to turn towards our brothers and sisters, those who are an ocean away and those who live next door. Help us stand in solidarity with their suffering, in recognition of their worth. We pray…

God of the orphan, throughout the world there are whole villages where all the adults have died, and only children remain. Help us to create a global environment that will raise these children in love and hope into a secure future. We pray…

God of justice, our nation has the resources and power to contribute something to the fight against poverty and AIDS. Strengthen our determination to call our leaders to action that is wise and timely. We pray…

God of wholeness, there is suffering everywhere. The pain of those across the globe moves us, and so do the hurts we carry in our own hearts this morning. We ask your healing touch on all those who are sick or sorrowful today. We pray…

God of Resurrection, in you is the well of life. Bless us and all your people, O God, with compassionate hearts, and strengthen us to live the things we have asked of you. We pray this in Jesus’ name,