Collective Sin and Mrs Cook

My world-view is changing; or maybe the world is changing.

I always used to think that most people were generally good and occasionally did bad things and that there were a few thoroughly wicked people in the world who did terrible things. Now I'm not so sure. Every time I read the headlines or watch the news on TV, I begin to wonder whether in fact many people are generally bad and occasionally do good things, and that many more are thoroughly wicked and do terrible things. I hope I'm wrong!

As a 'baby boomer' I grew up in a world that was still recovering from two World Wars and living with the tension of the so-called 'Cold War' and the threat of nuclear annihilation.  But a growing  determination to learn the gruesome lessons of the recent past led to a renewed sense of hope and a determination to build a better future.  In my twenties and early thirties I watched this hope burgeon as fear and suspicion in relations between east and west gave way to Glasnost, as the Berlin Wall came tumbling down, as racism and sexism were increasingly challenged and society not only embraced, but positively celebrated, diversity. Britain became more cosmopolitan and the concept of the global village was born.

Born at a time when homosexuality was still a criminal offence, I lived through the slow dawn of the grudging tolerance  of the post-Wolfenden era when to be openly gay was still to invite a censorious response from most people, and the safest course of action was to hide in the closet. I lived through the raging storm of ignorance, stigma and the resulting increase in homophobia in the early days of HIV/AIDS when people talked of the 'gay plague'; but I emerged into the glorious sunrise of the twenty-first century where society began to not only accept but actually affirm Lesbian and Gay relationships, culminating in the introduction of Equal Marriage in 2014. So when I hit my mid-fifties, my sense of hope and my belief in the intrinsic goodness of people were optimised.

Rather depressingly, it has taken less than five years for this optimism to give way to a real sense of trepidation. Suddenly I find myself in a world where populism reigns and prejudice and bigotry are legitimised by an obviously corrupt and manipulative political class. In the world of Trump and Brexit, where blatant lies become acceptable, and even believable, if they're repeated often and loudly enough, we are encouraged to build walls rather than demolish them, to demonise those who are perceived as 'other' and to blame them for all that we perceive as being wrong with our world; all this so that our so-called 'leaders' avoid proper scrutiny and accountability.

As hate crimes escalate dramatically in the wake of the 2016 EU referendum, as views become increasingly blinkered and as an unhealthy nationalism is cunningly re-packaged as a healthy patriotism, I am fearful for the future. As a gay man, I am certainly more fearful for my safety now than for many years.

Has this change come about simply because people are suddenly rather less pleasant, caring and generous? If so, what has generated this change?

Most observers cite the cause as a dissatisfaction with a liberal political elite that has been unwilling to engage with the concerns of the 'ordinary' man or woman in the street and with a culture of greed in which the gulf between the 'haves and the 'have-nots' seems to widen day by day.

British society - from the top down - certainly feels less tolerant, less caring and less compassionate. Margaret Thatcher was either making an astute assessment of the process of degeneration or uttering a self-fulfilling prophecy when she famously said, 'There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families."  This, and the government's policies of the time, both expressed and spoke to the innate selfishness that I believe lies at the heart of every human life. The concept of society - of having responsibilities for one another and of needing therefore to build and maintain good relationships with one another - is what separates us from some other animals. (I say some, because many of the higher species actually have a profound sense of society). If there is indeed no society, there can be no resulting enrichment arising from diversity within that society. In fact in such a culture, difference of any kind is quickly perceived as a threat.

So where does this leave me in my thinking as a Christian?

It has certainly made me re-think my understanding of sin. My evangelical background left me with a very strong sense of individual sin. In my days as organist in a Methodist Church, I remember various firebrand preachers coming to lead Missions, denouncing those present in the congregation as being vile sinners. This was (and I guess still is) a commonly used evangelistic device; the preacher convinces his or her hearers that they are, every one of them, terrible offenders destined for the eternal fires of hell, and then offers them the only hope available to them - the love, forgiveness and mercy of the Christ who invites them into a personal relationship with him.

As I reflect on this, I remember Mrs Cook, a member of that congregation who used to sit in the middle of the front row enthusiastically nodding her agreement with the sermon. As the preacher uttered his or her fiercest denunciation, Mrs Cook would look disdainfully at the people around her as if to say, "Yes, you are all terrible sinners".

Having journeyed into a far more Catholic spirituality - and one that has always included the practice of sacramental confession - I guess I have continued to focus on my individual sins rather than the collective Sin of humanity. When I hear the confessions of others, they too tend to focus on their individual peccadilloes rather than recognising, for example, how their over-enthusiastic use of plastic or poor recycling habits damage our environment, or how their insecurities fuel political views  irreconcilable with the Christian Gospel.

Sin,of course is Sin, and individual sin contributes to collective sin. If I harbour resentment  towards migrants whom I believe are taking my job and being a drain on our NHS, then I contribute to the Racism and Xenophobia by which our British society is now increasingly characterised. So, whilst it is easy to be critical of our political leaders, the uncomfortable truth is that we get the politicians that we deserve. I believe the parlous state of politics, both in Britain and the USA,  is a direct result of our politicians playing to populist views. Motivated by self-interest, they cling to power by playing to the prejudices and insecurities stemming from the self-interest of the masses.

There is a role for the Church in all of this (although of course, the church itself is by no means immune to the same problem.)

Old-fashioned though it may sound, we need to call people to repentance.  This means calling-out our  politicians when they overstep the mark. I applaud those Church of England bishops who recently signed an open letter to our government highlighting the plight of those who would be most profoundly affected by a 'hard' Brexit, and those who have voiced concern over attempts to bypass our parliamentary democracy.

But we also need to do something at the local level. I often hear it said that the general confession at the beginning of Mass is an opportunity for every member of the congregation to express repentance of their individual sins, especially if they don't use the confessional; but I now see this confession more as an acknowledgment of our collective guilt and the part that we all play in making our country and our world a less secure, hospitable and caring place.

We can all be tempted to be like Mrs Cook, looking disdainfully at other people whether it's our politicians or those who voted differently from us in the Brexit referendum, but we should instead be looking objectively at ourselves as individuals, as churches, as communities and as nations, and acknowledging how our words, actions, attitudes or voting behaviours have impacted negatively upon our modern world.

All of us are a mixture of good and bad, but at the moment we are most certainly not at our best. We need to repent.

The word 'repentance' comes from the Greek word metanoia meaning to 'turn around'. It means not only a change in behaviour but a change of heart.  We need to turn our world around before it's too late, and to do that we need to turn ourselves around and break the spiral of hard heartedness that so disfigures our common life and can dim even the most positive world-view.                 

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