Iconic Delusion and Reality

Sunday 27th December 2009
Year C, The First Sunday of Christmas
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Family Eucharist

During the last year we have heard a great deal about "Broken Britain". This term refers to that part of our society which is deemed to be "dysfunctional", which attracts a simultaneously high level of public sector intervention and opprobrium, as if those who act on our behalf resent the expenditure rather more than they regret the conditions under which these people live, always supposing that they have any idea about how these people live. For all its faults, feudal society, based on a rigid set of mutual obligations, put the poorest in contact with the richest; nowadays, as Polly Toynbee noted in her book, Hard Work there is just about no contact between the rich and the poor; the poor are not real people. They might be toilet cleaners, beggars, vandals, feral hoodies, binge drinkers, drug abusers, a threat to society, but they are not real people!

On this Feast of the Holy Family it is important that we know where we are; and I am going to start by saying where I am, to see if that helps us to look into ourselves.

I will start with some fairly sharp political points: first, it is beyond any reasonable doubt, no matter what the Daily Mail says, that poverty and crime are linked. Yes, there are rich criminals, but very few of them, and there are millions of law-abiding poor people but, nonetheless, the level of criminal activity relates closely to the economy; the bigger the boom, the lower the crime rate, the bigger the bust, the higher the crime rate. It follows from this, that the way to reduce crime is to reduce poverty; which leads to my second point: politics is, fundamentally, is a split between those who think the poor should have more money and those who think that they should have just about everything except more money: social workers, sermons, ASBOs, food stamps, Care Orders, patronising, segregation, anything but money. For the record, I think poor people need more money, that's why they are poor. And that leads directly to my third point: I'm not, frankly, very impressed by millionaires giving lectures on "Broken Britain"; indeed I'm not impressed, come to that, by millionaires per se. If, incidentally, international mercenaries will only work in the banks with the highest  bonuses, they can leave here any time they like; whatever skills they may have to improve investment performance are outweighed by the damage of their greed.

Conversely, a government that thinks, as New Labour apparently does, that we should all be able to buy pornography in the name of the freedom of speech but should be protected from Christians peddling the Sermon on the Mount is profoundly sick. When it comes to organised religion, the Government oscillates between militant secularism and indifference.

We have come to the end of the outright politics but, at this point, we ought to observe the way we behave as social beings. Because of our natural love of family and our innermost, fundamental desire to see our genes propagated, we find it quite natural and proper to see that those closest to us benefit most greatly from our income and wealth, from our talents, energy and care. If there is a choice between giving a charming Christmas present to a grandchild who has just about everything rather than putting the money into a charity envelope, we choose the grandchild; the charity envelope is there to take some of our surplus but not to bite into our committed expenditure.

But that is not what Jesus asks us to do. Time and again he is confronted with the choice between family and doing the right thing and he chooses the right thing; and the thing which he says is right is Oh, so difficult to swallow. We are here for two purposes: to love God through Jesus and to love our neighbour and, in this context, particularly in Luke - whose year this is - our neighbour is the poorest sector of society.

Starting from there, we can begin to reverse social ills. Christians are too quiet about social injustice and the elimination of poverty and that is perhaps because, referring to something I said earlier, we are well known for expending most of our energy on issues of sexuality.  We are not all that good at living out, as well as proclaiming, the Sermon on the Mount. Last Sunday the Gospel contained Mary's Magnificat, until recently one of the most cited prayers in the Church of England, occurring as it does, in the Office of Evening Prayer. How ironic it is that the places where the Magnificat still flourishes are the great cathedrals of England, so far, geographically and often temperamentally, from the habitations of the poor.

And so, on this day, the key point to bear in mind is that we should not be sentimental about the family: first of all, it never has enjoyed a golden age upon which we can look back and whose perfection we can use as a weapon against our offspring; secondly, the family is not only a private system of mutual support and child rearing, it is also a necessary component of our lives as social creatures and we therefore need to sustain it by ensuring such a degree of economic and social security to all families as we would want for our own family; thirdly, in order to ensure that all families are free from poverty we will have to modify the practice of always putting our own family first.

What we must not do, at all costs, is to sentimentalise the Holy Family and to use it as an icon of delusion to protect our eyes and our consciousness from the real world: Mary said "Yes" to God, regardless of what her family thought, and even risked becoming branded as a loose woman and being, literally, outcast; Joseph trusted Mary and God in spite of the terrible risk he ran of both being ridiculed as a cuckold and being responsible for the death of his partner and child; and Jesus was the most revolutionary moral teacher who ever lived and who suffered the ultimate casting out of humiliating crucifixion. This was some family, which should act as the pattern, as the icon, not only for our personal behaviour but also for our social action. The Holy Family is not only the cosy family of the house and hearth but is also the family of the foundry and the forum.