On Public Kindness

Sunday 20th July 2008
Year A, The Ninth Sunday after Trinity
John The Baptist, Clayton
Wisdom 12:13;

The Righteous should be kind.

How do you assess the relative wickedness of an addict who breaks into a house, steals a diamond necklace and sells it for drugs, over against the occupant of that house whose wealth derives from exploiting his workers, paying less than the minimum wage, wrecking their family life while applauding its virtues and, of course, his own virtues and driving them into addiction?

Of course, the real answer is that this is an impossible comparison for three reasons: first, we do not know the circumstances of the two individuals in detail, what hand each was dealt by God and how well each is playing it; secondly, trying to make a comparison is like being asked to compare land mines with torture, the addict, like the land mine, hurts us more obviously than the torturer whose deeds are done in the dark; and, thirdly, our sympathy is likely to be coloured by the kind of people we are and the lives we lead. The social worker is more likely to sympathise with the addict and condemn the rich man whereas the woman who fears for her diamond necklace is more likely to fear the addict and sympathise with those who dedicate their lives successfully to running businesses.

I have begun with this idea because, in spite of the difficulties - indeed the impossibility - of making such comparisons, we do it all the time: First, we do it in the positive sense that we have to decide which good causes to support; but, negatively, we are all too apt to make judgments about the evils of society, to rank them and to spend what energy and political capital we have on getting something done; or, rather, getting "them" - somebody else - to do something.

There is currently a great deal of agitation to get something done about knife crime; and as the economy continues to slow and unemployment rises, crime will inevitably rise and the calls will get sharper. People in places like this, who live at a level of safety unimagined in our inner cities, will be at the forefront of the call for harsher and longer sentences; and there are still many in these parts who would like the death penalty restored. They are, of course, hankering after a golden age that never was; the brief period of massive social control and self restraint that characterised "The West" from 1914 to 1970 was the result of the need to fight two world wars and that, I think, was too high a price for the marginal benefits of social control.

At a fundamental level, we all know that it is not for us to judge. We were created to love God freely and to leave it at that. Yet there is another reason why we should be careful, over all those that I have so far given. One of the trends which is noticeable in our society is the tendency to split private experience from public pronouncement: there is a terrible fear of crime in places where hardly any crime is committed; there is brutal criticism of the NHS when personal stories are glowing; there is a chronic whining about how things are getting worse, as we plan foreign holidays of which our grandparents would not have dreamed. On this basis, our judgments of public policy are in danger of being deeply flawed, accepting some abstract negativity instead of applying our own direct experience.

The same distinction is, sadly, true of our attitude to kindness. We have remained, as individuals, overwhelmingly kind, giving our time and money to good causes of every sort, helping our neighbours to shop, giving lifts, moving chairs, stocking stalls, making tea, working on a community project with no expectation of any kind of reward except the completion of the job itself; and yet our kindness deserts us in the public domain. Who among us would turn away a starving asylum seeker from our door; but who among us would publicly support the morality of granting asylum? In a way that is dangerous to the health of society, we have privatised kindness, keeping it to ourselves, inside our families and communities, while denying it to society which has never stood in greater need of it. Some people would say that we have become cowards, not daring to voice the moral outlook which we have learned from Jesus; and others might say that we have given up being missionaries of Jesus Christ; we have our church, our worship, our values, our God; and we shall sit in our comfortable ecclesiological cocoon and condemn the world outside. But perhaps the worst that can be said of us is that we have bought the atheist agenda that religion in general and Christianity in particular should be privatised, that we might have all kinds of scruples which we can exercise in private but that these have no place in public life.

So far, I have dealt primarily with the idea of kindness but the text we are considering is highly conditional; it says that the righteous should be kind and that leaves open the question of who is righteous. On this point, instead of making the proper, radical separation between secular justice and Christian principle, we tend to mix the two together, like taking a tin of yellow paint and a tin of blue paint and crating two tins-worth of green paint. Although secular justice takes motive into account, it has to be concerned primarily with outcome, what people have seen or heard which is defined as criminal. The Christian principle which bars us from judging is that we honour the primacy of motive exercised in the context of conscience; in other words, why people do things is much more important than what they actually do. On that basis - and against deeply ingrained English sentiment - the only people we are entitled to describe  as righteous are ourselves; only we can really know how well we have measured up to Christ's calling and, having made that assessment, the more righteous we feel, the kinder we should be.

Yet I fear that we may have allowed ourselves to live in a world of illusion as self appointed judges; for it is my impression that the more righteous we think we are, the less kind we are; and, conversely, if we want to find kindness we are best off looking for it among those who count themselves weak and even broken. And there is the clue, for in spite of what we think about ourselves, or what others think about us, we are all weak and broken. For the writer of Wisdom, the righteous were being asked to exercise mercy and benevolence but we, who are Easter people, have a profoundly different view of righteousness; we know, in the common phrase: "There but for the Grace of God, go I."

And so, in our private and family lives but, even more in our public lives, as Christians we are called upon to imitate the kindness of Jesus our Brother and, as he so clearly told us, to reserve judgment to God Our Parent. We are all broken, every one. Only in the love of God are we made whole.