The central drama in Tolstoy’s great novel Anna Karenin is provided by the love of the passionate Anna for Count Vronsky. At one point Tolstoy writes
Vronsky was particularly happy in that he had a code of principles, which defined with unfailing certitude what should and should not be done. This code of principles covered only a very small circle of contingencies, but in return the principles were never obscure, and Vronsky, as he never went outside that circle, had never had a moment’s hesitation abut doing what he ought to do. This code categorically ordained that gambling debts must be paid, the tailor need not be; that one must not lie to a man but might to a woman; that one must never cheat anyone but one may a husband; that one must never pardon an insult but may insult others oneself, and so on….Vronsky felt at ease and could hold his head high.
Hearing that read, questions immediately arise in our minds. Surely the poor hard working tailor should receive priority over gambling debts to rich friends? Surely if it is wrong to lie, it is as wrong to lie to a woman as a man? And so on. We see at once that Vronsky’s moral code was the product of his class and circle and by our standards was deeply flawed.
Yet we all have a moral code which is the product of our upbringing and the circle we move in now. How will future generations regard it? I would like to suggest that the Christian faith both affirms the principles and values that have have gone into making us what we are now, and at the same time gives us a critical distance from them. God is in our early upbringing, shaping us through the love and support of those who cared for us, who share with us their values. God is in our growing up, and the standards imparted to us by our schools and any role models we were fortunate enough to have there. God is continuing to form us now, in this environment, through books and friends, teachers and colleagues. To much of this Christianity says a resounding “Yes” whether or not we have had a religious upbringing. At the same time there is a “No”, for the Christian faith gives us a critical distance from all that has gone into us, however much good there is in it. It is not, definitely is not, a question of black and white-but of moral discernment-and to grow in the Christian life is to grow in the capacity for moral discrimination . What is there in the influences that have gone into the shaping of me about which God says a resounding “Yes”. What is there that I am beginning to question?
If we take the teaching of Jesus, the critical distance in which he stands to all other moral codes is very great. It is true that the reading set for this evening ended with a moral injunction common to all religious traditions, “Treat others as you would like them to treat you” but what about the earlier verses? Love your enemies..pray for those who treat you spitefully…turn the other cheek and so on. And what are we to make of verses like Blessed are the poor, the hungry, those who weep: and cursed are the rich, the well fed, those who laugh now? The teaching of Jesus, lived out to his cruel end on the cross, puts a huge question mark against every human code.
Then we have to face the fact is that the church in all its forms has struggled with that teaching and in what way it applies to life now, and has never come up with a wholly satisfactory answer. We have recently had a vivid example of that struggle in what has happened at St Paul’s Cathedral in relation to the protestors. Read tonight’s lesson again if you would, and you will see what I mean-how difficult it is to understand how this should be worked out in what you might call common sense living. Yet would it not be a strange Christian who did not feel herself or himself continually haunted by that teaching and the question mark it poses against so much of what we take for granted?
How did Vronksy come to get it all so wrong? One reason clearly was the set he moved in. Amongst rich high stake gamblers paying debts does come top of the priority list. Tailors are little people who don’t count. Another reason is put by Tolstoy in the words “He never went outside his circle”. For the fact is that we take on the values and outlook of the circle we move in and if we stay in that circle long enough we lose sight of the fact that we have done this, and assume, like Vronsky, that these are absolute, certain principles.
Some of the most formative times in my own life, when I have been led me to question the standards I live by, have been when I have moved outside my own circle. One was when I had the great good fortune to spend time in and around Soweto at the height of the struggle against Apartheid in the early eighties. The courage, the faith and the joy of the churches there, epitomised by Desmond Tutu of course, significantly raised the bar of what I thought the Christian life involved. Another time was when my wife and I visited a squatters camp for some of the four millions rural landless poor in Brazil. Again, their extraordinary courage, faith, joy and dignity of the life they shared with one another, made gave me a glimmer of understanding into what Jesus meant when he said “Blessed are the poor”
Some of you have done a gap year perhaps teaching or working on a project in the developing world and you will know what I mean. Those who find it is possible to do something like this when you go down will discover a great truth.
All this poses a big problem to anyone who is seriously interested in following a Christian way of life. To put it starkly, the New Testament seems to suggest that the Kingdom of God belongs to the poor. How on earth can I who lead such a comfortable life possibly be said to be one of the poor to whom that Kingdom belongs? It is an unsettlling question.
There is a partial way into an answer by realising that when the Bible talks about the poor it does not simply refer to the materially poor. It refers those who lose out in the world as it is now, but who nevertheless put their faith in God and hope for the coming of his Kingdom. More of that meaning comes out in the other version of the Beatitudes in Matthew Chapter 6. This for example talks about “Blessed are the poor in spirit” or “Blessed are those who know their need of God.” However, this should not lead to the other extreme of taking the word poor in a purely spiritual sense, as some have done. It means more that this.
What it suggests I think is that even if we are not someone who is losing out in the world as I is now, we are called to stand beside those who are: imaginatively, prayerfully, economically and politically. For example, to ask about the outlook and policies of our own government or of Europe, what their effect will be on those least able to work the system to their own advantage? The word solidarity is not heard so much these days , but it can still work to express what is required of us-standing alongside those who lose out now, prayerfully and practically aligning our faith and hope and endeavours to theirs.
So at every stage of our life we have the task of moral discernment and to grow in the Christian life is to grow in Christian discriminadtion . For there will be that which has gone into our making, our outlook and values for which we will want to bless God. At the same time Jesus sets us at a critical distance from so much in every culture ; and he invites us to stand with our faith and hope and action beside those who are pushed to the edges in the world as it is ordered now; alongside those last, whom Jesus said are first in the Kingdom of God.
Lord Harries of Pentrgarth
30th October 2011