No man is an island – Collective responsibility
Sermon for the poor
It was the Psalm (119:121-136) that resonated with me today. The psalmist seems to me to be whingeing a bit here. ‘I obey your Laws, Lord, but other people don’t –don’t let me suffer because of other people’s wrong-doing.’
We’ve just sung this Psalm, does it express our feelings?
We do all the right things and if people suffer because other people break God’s law that’s not our problem?
So what Laws do we perhaps not keep? And what Laws are other people not keeping?
Remember, when Jesus was asked by the rich young man what he should do to enter the Kingdom of Heaven he said to sell everything he owned and give to the poor. It seemed that merely keeping all the laws was not enough. Perhaps not everything that God wants of us is actually written into his Law?
I’m not saying that we should all go out and sell our houses, making ourselves homeless so we can give to the poor – that would only add to the number of people suffering not decrease it. But Jesus is making it clear that simply avoiding doing evil is not enough – we have to care about others too.
John Donne, in his most famous sermon, ‘No Man is an Island’ was talking about our collective responsibility for what happens in the world around us. Are we noticing what is happening around us?
So what is ‘collective responsibility’ about then?
Start with a simple one. If I’m walking down the street and I see a couple of teenagers beating up a small child – am I responsible if I do nothing about it? I think that’s fairly clear. If I took no action to stop it, then I definitely share responsibility for the harm done.
What about if my neighbour falls down the stairs? I might hear the thump but then I might not. Supposing I know that my neighbour is a bit infirm and I usually see her in the mornings at some particular task that takes her to the garden. And I haven’t seen her this morning. If I don’t act, am I responsible if her hurt goes untended?
What if an elderly man or woman can’t get treatment at the local hospital because the staff have been cut and the ward has been closed. Am I responsible?
What about if my neighbour’s children are going hungry? It’s getting a bit more complicated now.
Collective responsibility doesn’t just extend as far as the people who live next door. Jesus made it clear in his story of the Good Samaritan that our neighbour is not limited to the people we know, or even the people who are like us.
We are responsible for the act of noticing what is happening to the people around us. How can you love your neighbour if you don’t notice when your neighbour is in serious difficulty? And having noticed what do we do?
Of recent times we have had a whole raft of policies which are affecting, or will affect, the people around us: cuts to services, cuts to public service staff, cuts to Local Authority funding which will result in more cuts in services, cuts in sickness benefits (by means of assessments which appear to be injust, many who have been found fit to work have actually died shortly after, many others are now destitute because they are clearly not fit for work), cuts in housing benefit and now cuts in council tax rebate for those on benefit.
But this is politics! You might say. And many people would argue that the church shouldn’t meddle with politics. And certainly I would not tell you what political party you should vote for!
What I am saying is that we should all notice the policies that come from government and think about how they will affect the people around us.
Martin Niemoller lived through the horrors of Nazi rule – you will have heard this short and simple poem of his before:
First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a communist;
Then they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a socialist;
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a trade unionist;
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Jew;
Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak out for me.
What does the Bible say that is relevant to all of this?
There were so many quotes I found it hard to choose just a few:
The LORD defends the rights of orphans and widows. He cares for foreigners and gives them food and clothing.
When I was hungry, you gave me something to eat, and when I was thirsty, you gave me something to drink. When I was a stranger, you welcomed me. Then the people will ask, “Lord, when did we fail to help you when you were hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in jail?”
So how are we responsible for what the Government does? Governments, of all shades, colours and ideologies, govern by the consent of the people. Do we, should we, as Christians, withdraw our consent? And if so, how do we do so?
But, you may say, we give to charity, it is for the charities to support these people who suffer. I can reply to that in the words of St Augustine:
Charity is no substitute for justice withheld
Justice – what is the Justice that the Lord asks of us? Turn again to the Bible:
The LORD told me to say: I am the LORD, so pay attention! You have been allowing people to cheat, rob, and take advantage of widows, orphans, and foreigners who live here. Innocent people have become victims of violence, and some of them have even been killed. But now I command you to do what is right and see that justice is done. Rescue everyone who has suffered from injustice.
And that, my friends is why, last Saturday, I went on the TUC rally to London. I am not a member of a union, I am not worried about losing my job since I don’t have one, I am not worried about losing my benefits because they are due to stop at the end of this month anyway and would have been under any benefits system this country has ever had. I went because I felt a desperate need to withdraw my consent to a series of policies which will have a terrible impact – reducing many people who were managing ok to poverty, and many who were poor to total destitution. Policies that will reduce our public services making life more difficult, and our quality of life as a society much poorer.
What made me terribly sad, was that among all the Union banners, and the political banners and the placards I didn’t see a single parish banner.
Where, I asked myself, is the Church?
So, when you see an ever increasing number of beggars on the streets, more and more homeless people coming into the church seeking help, when you get more and more urgent requests from the Food Bank. Will you cry to the Lord as the psalmist does, ‘I obey your Laws Lord, I can’t help it that others don’t’ – or will you take to your heart the cry of the poor. And if when you hear that cry, you feel that the Lord’s Laws are not being obeyed – will you speak out? I know that I will always have to.
For, as a variety of people seem to have said with various slight differences;
All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing
May we, Lord, be strengthened and empowered by you, to choose not to do nothing when there is evil happening to those around us.