The theologian Frances Young describes her experience of driving through the lanes near her home in Birmingham, with her very handicapped son Arthur, and coming across a woman trying to lead a reluctant horse, tugging at its reins, next to a field. As they passed she said, “He can’t stand the Shetlands”. And there, in the field, was a group of tiny Shetland ponies. The horse had recognised that they were the same and yet different; and Frances Young reflected on that, and on her own reactions, and those she encountered in other people, to the disabilities of her son; the awkwardness and embarrassment that can be a part of our response to the ‘Other-Abled’ is mirrored in the reaction of that nervous horse.
This week, we have rightly celebrated the inauguration of Barack Obama as President of the United States of America; and I have been reading his autobiography, and in particular his account of community organisation among black people in Chicago, and how different and how difficult it is to be black in the United States (or, for that matter, in this country) today. This in turn made me reflect on my own experience of working for many years in South Africa, mainly with black students, under both apartheid and the present democratic arrangement. Some people speak of Africa and blacks as the white person’s dark twin, with whom we are inextricably linked, and whom we unconsciously seek to destroy, the Other who is also very close to us.
Last Sunday, Sol Campbell was booed, whenever he had the ball, at White Hart Lane, not because he is black, but because he is a former Spurs player who now plays for Portsmouth, and is therefore recognised as the Same and yet Other.
In November, there was a conference on disability in Lourdes, a place that has shaped my life over the last +40 years, and I was invited to give a Scripture input, in which I talked about Jesus’ attitude to the Other-Abled. Also speaking at the conference, and far more impressively, was the great Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche communities, where the people whom we label as “mentally handicapped” and “normal” live together in villages, and care for one another. He shared with us two very important, because hard-won, insights in his painfully honest talk. The first was that what we too easily call (and so dismiss) as “disabled” reveal to us something of what it means to be human, something at odds with the celebrity culture of Youth, Beauty and Fame, into which we can get trapped. Secondly, and very impressively, he shared with us how “disabled” people revealed to him the violence that lurks deep within him, and in all of us. Those who have had to look after the elderly, or the disabled, or babies who do not stop screaming will, if we are equally honest, recognise what he is saying.
We react, you see, in a very odd, and mistaken, way to what is Other and yet the Same. Oxford and Cambridge, Worcester and St John’s (or whatever college is your traditional enemy), Everton and Liverpool, Catholic and Protestant. There is that in us that looks at the Other, yet very Similar, and sees only that which is Different, and Dangerous and Wrong, that which must be eliminated: so I can and may employ violence against it.
This is simply a fact about us. The trick is to know what we are to do about it, and not just during this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity; but this is a good time at least to raise the question.
Well, for one thing, we can watch Jesus. Consider the two readings that you have just heard. The first is from Hebrews, presenting Jesus to us as “The Real Thing”. Jesus is the Same and yet Different. The author of Hebrews, in order to express this “real thing”, reaches for a metaphor, that of High Priest, and uses the metaphor to compare Jesus to the High Priests in the Temple in Jerusalem. Jesus, he says, unlike that priesthood, really is able to save, and to provide “access” to God. How? Because, in the words of that particular translation, he is “holy, innocent, uncontaminated”, which is to say that Jesus is not trapped in the violence and the insecurity that drives us to condemn others, and to mark them out as Different and Dangerous, like the horse alarmed by the Shetland ponies. So Jesus has, as he argues, no need to offer sacrifice for his own sins: Jesus is the Same and Different. He does not, the author points out, belong to the Right Tribe, if he is to be a High Priest (he is from Judah, they from Levi); nevertheless, Jesus is the real thing.
In the gospel that you have just heard, Jesus is beset by crowds from all over the area that we call the Holy Land. Why is this? Because he has power over everything that threatened them, and because he refused to exclude anybody. So much did this attract them that he needed a boat to protect him from being crushed. Mark lists, under two headings, those who came to him:
· the afflicted, including, of course, the ritually impure, who made Jesus in turn ritually impure by touching him; and he never turned a hair.
· And the unclean spirits who recognise him (in the way that we know our enemy who is the Same and yet Different).
So what of us today? What about our journey as Christians together? We too have to learn about the violence, born of insecurity, that lies deep within us. We too have to learn to reach out in love to the Other, and there recognise the human face of Christ.
Who or what, then, is your Dark Other? Is he (or she) Catholic, black, crippled, mentally handicapped, male, Welsh, or a supporter of the wrong team? Who is the person of whom you find yourself instinctively disapproving, when you pass them on Beaumont St, or shy away from in the Cornmarket? Who is the member of your year the mention of whose name is guaranteed to bring a sneer to your lips? They all carry to us an invitation from the God who is both Other and closer to us than we are to ourselves. That God always calls us out of our “comfort zones”, often into places, and towards people, where we thought we could not go, only to discover, with a shock of pleasure, that God was, after all, waiting for us there, and inviting us deeper into the mystery of what it is to be human. That is something we need to pray for, as we celebrate our week of praying for the unity of the body of Christ.
Fr. Nicholas King, Campion Hall
22nd January 2009