This week I watched on DVD the film Zero Dark Thirty by Kathryn Bigelow. I had a serious purpose in doing this – my daughter Emily is writing an academic paper about how torture increasingly seems to be normalised and even justified in the American media and she is using this film as a discussion focus. I wanted to be able to enter into an intelligent conversation with her about it.
If you have seen the film or read reviews of it you will be aware that it opens with a scene of a suspected Islamist terrorist being waterboarded by a CIA officer. We have all heard about this procedure, but watching it acted out takes our discomfort to a new level. The CIA officer in charge of the interrogation repeatedly says, “I am not your friend. If you lie to me I will hurt you.” And one of the worst moments perhaps is when a young woman officer, new to the interrogation, pauses for a fraction of a moment and then picks up a jug of water as instructed to carry on the torture. In that action she takes a step into active complicity with what is going on. I don’t think it is possible to watch this scene without wondering if we would have the courage to walk out or say no in the same circumstances.
Remember those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured, says the writer of the letter to the Hebrews. Haven’t we all been agonising over that this past week, wringing our hands in anguish over the situation in Syria. The films of the victims of gas attacks have sometimes been too much to watch, and yet we feel compelled to watch them out of solidarity. Remember those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.
The question of what to do in response is of course as difficult to answer as the question of what to do for the best in regard to Egypt. Some of you responded very thoughtfully to the passionate letter from the Anglican Bishop of Egypt that I circulated at the suggestion of the Bishop of London. I am sure Bishop Richard, in accordance with the passage from Hebrews, wanted us to feel the pain of those Christians whose lives and churches are under threat in the present crisis. But finding the right course of action in these highly charged situations, where we are outsiders with a long reputation for heavy-handed interference, is a near impossible task.
I am not going to use the pulpit to suggest a political answer to the problems of Egypt or Syria. It is not, thank God, my task to decide whether or not to deploy the British military. It is not my job to decide how to interrogate suspected terrorists. But it is my task and yours to pray unceasingly for those who do have to make such decisions. And we also share a responsibility as Christian disciples to study the scriptures for guidance on how to live in a world in which we continually inflict suffering on one another.
When should we speak out? What do we want our elected representatives to consider when acting in our name? When should we refuse to comply with an order?
As Christians we have some very consistent instructions from God that should form the basis of our thinking about these matters. The bottom line is this: everyone who is in need is a messenger from God. That is what the word angel means. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. We are to identify with everyone in need and love them as ourselves. The suffering of one person is the suffering of all, because Christ bears the pain of each of us on his own shoulders, and we are his body in the world.
Do some of you remember back in the early days of the AIDS epidemic a controversial slogan, the Body of Christ has AIDS? Some people took great umbrage at this, because they believed the only people with AIDS were somehow deserving of their fate, and the Church was in no way responsible for their actions or their consequences. Somehow the Church had to be above all that sordid suffering.
But the slogan spoke a simple truth. If someone is suffering, then all suffer. Though we are many, we are one body, because we all share in one bread. We say it every week before communion. Do we mean what we say? It is not a statement about solidarity with good church-going Anglican communicants. It is an acknowledgement that all those for whom Christ died are our brothers and sisters. We dare not set limits on the membership of the Body of Christ.
The gospel reading makes this point in another of Jesus’ rather sharp parables. He really must have been a most disconcerting dinner guest. The comfortable rich who enjoy the hospitality of their hosts’ table are warned that they should make way for the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind, because those are the people who have priority in God’s eyes.
This was not a novelty in the teaching of Jesus: the writer of Ecclesiasticus warns that “the Lord hath cast down the thrones of proud princes, and set up the meek in their stead”. Next week we will celebrate the Blessed Virgin Mary, and you will all remember that she is credited by St Luke with the words of the Magnificat: “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”
Her words echo this passage from Ecclesiasticus and also the song of Hannah the mother of Samuel in the first book of that name: “The Lord raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honour.”
Perhaps a theme is emerging? It is clear what God thinks about those who have much lording it over those who have nothing, and those who are comfortably settled ignoring the suffering of the prisoners, the tortured, the sick and the homeless. So how do we as Christians respond to this urgent Biblical message?
We can’t just leave it to the politicians. They want our votes, and if we are content to let the most vulnerable suffer of behalf of the rest of us, they will do nothing to change that situation. Can we really sleep soundly in an unequal society, where a few have more than that know what to do with and the many have no security? What message is God sending us by means of the angels in prison and AIDS hospices, in rendition centres and besieged cities?
We are human beings, and so we would prefer to end all this suffering by dealing with it at arm’s length. Someone else can work in our name with the most challenging members of society. Soldiers can carry out swift and targeted strikes on the bad guys for us. Aid agencies can do the legwork in areas of major disaster.
Of course we can’t individually do everything. None of us can save the world. We don’t know all the facts and we don’t have all the answers. But I suggest there are two things that we can and must do:
First of all, we must pay loving attention to the messengers of God. We cannot ignore the angels that are among us. We must listen to their stories and not switch off the news when it becomes excruciating. As members of one body we must be aware of the needs of the whole body. And when we reflect on these needs in the light of God’s loving gaze, we are praying for them. That is what intercessory prayer is. That is the first thing we must do.
Our prayer will be taken up into God’s loving purposes and become a part of whatever solution God is preparing. But it will have an effect on us too.
The second thing we must do is allow ourselves to be used as part of God’s purpose. Your will be done on earth, we pray daily – God wants to equip us to do it. How we are used will be different for each of us, because each of us has a unique vocation, a calling from God that is for us and no one else.
But we can be sure that God calls us to make sacrifices for the sake of those in need. There are a couple of kinds of sacrifices that might help us to be part of the answer to our prayers for those who suffer:
The sacrifice of money – Out of our abundance, we are called to give not just what we can easily spare but the tithe we owe to God who gives us everything. We must prayerfully reflect what a tenth of our income, given freely and gladly, could do to further God’s loving purposes in the world.
The sacrifice of time – This is a big ask. We are busy, we have limited leisure, we have many of our own projects to pursue. But we can sacrifice some of our time to visit those in need and offer practical support, to write letters to politicians and bishops, even to set aside our career goals in order to do something different with our lives. Can we think about tithing our available time as we are called to tithe our money?
We are surrounded by angels. God warns us of this over and over again. We’d better make room for them at the table. If we offer them loving attention, and follow that up with the sacrifice of both time and money, we may avoid the danger of being the smug fools in the parable.