Political Correctness & Love

Sunday 20th February 2011
Year A, The Third Sunday before Lent
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Parish Eucharist
Leviticus 19:1-2;
Matthew 5:38-48

David Cameron's speech in Munich on 5th February attacking multiculturalism generated more heat than light, particularly from the people who felt able to condemn it on the basis of what they had been told he had said; but that isn't the main  point. The people who supported Mr. Cameron, again without reading the full text, did so on the basis that they are fed up of 'political correctness'.

So let's start there. The concept of 'political correctness' originated in United States universities in the 1980s when those institutions agreed to accord to every person equal concern and respect, regardless of race, gender, sexuality, belief etc. In the context of the United States this was particularly pertinent in respect of race. But when this perfectly reasonable concept crossed the Atlantic it was immediately taken prisoner by the nastiest elements of the press, notably the Daily Mail, which took it to mean that any regulation which tries to enforce any level of equal concern and respect is not only onerous but absurd and insulting to traditional English (presumably white, male, straight, Church of England) values. As a disabled person myself, I'd be extremely grateful for a modicum of equal concern and respect but I'm not in such a plight as Paul Maynard MP who was mocked in the House of Commons because of his cerebral palsy.

The regulation in the Book of Leviticus in today's First Reading couldn't be more 'politically correct'. The people were exhorted, among other things, to facilitate gleaning which is good for poor people and the environment; to pay fair wages; to refrain from gossip; to treat disabled people well; and to be generally fair minded. They are also, critically, to refrain from hating their neighbour. In other words, the Jewish people were to obey the law and a large element of that law was what we would call political correctness in its proper sense.

In the Sermon on the Mount, however, we hear a much more radical message from Jesus: we are to give more to others than they ask for; we are to turn the other cheek when struck; we are to love our enemies.

In some ways I should stop there. It's clear enough, isn't it? Just three things: give more than we're asked for; turn the other cheek; and love our enemies.

But, in John McEnroe's famous phrase: "You cannot be serious".

But I am.

The wrangling over political correctness is trivial compared with the radical call of Jesus. If the Daily Mail really thinks (I'm using the verb loosely) that its stance in any way reflects Church of England and, by origination, the values of Jesus, it's wrong. There is a necessary debate to be had about such topics as the extent to which civil law should trump religious conviction, a matter that affects Christians as well as Muslims; and we need a debate about how women and men are the same and how they are different and what that means; and, yes, we need a debate about how much we can and should spend to make the lives of disabled people less difficult; but these are, essentially, secular debates.

Our debates as Christians should be much more radical.

At root, at the core of our dilemma, lies the terrible sin of pride, cloaked in the positive secular word, individualism. We are  saying that, even as Christians, we know better than Jesus. We are saying that it's all right for a holy man like him to say these things but it doesn't work in the 'real world'. We are saying that we can somehow have our Christianity on the cheap, without the hardship, without the sacrifice and, above all, without the vulnerability and the risk.

And that's the point. We might be right. In the so-called 'real world' loving our enemy, turning the other cheek and giving all our money away might not work but then, at the very least, we have to be aware of what we're doing; that we are quite deliberately watering down the message of Jesus for our own, practical purposes.

And yet; and yet we know a deeper truth. We know that those achievements we most admire involve risk; we know that there is no such thing as true love without vulnerability. We know that a life without risk and vulnerability is a life wasted, even if we are more inclined to live out the extreme in films and books.

But, with the grace of God we are not called upon to be prudent, we are called upon to be brave, even heroic. To do otherwise is to doubt the power of grace.

What I am saying is, I know, too shocking to be taken in immediately. It shouldn't be; but it is. We need to think about the Sermon on the Mount and, in particular, these simple words of Jesus and, at the very least,  give ourselves a Christian health check.