“Where are the Christian people today who see the status quo, who do not like what they see (because there are things in it which are unacceptable to God), who, therefore, refuse to come to terms with it, who dream dreams of an alternative society which would be more acceptable to God and who determine to do something it?” (John Stott: Issues Facing Christians Today)
It’s been a while since I’ve read something which touched such a nerve. Not that quote, though I come back to it later, but this Open Democracy article, ‘Isa Muazu, the hunger striker and us, the monster’.
The immigration detention estate may not be one with which you are familiar, and immigration policy may not be something about which you are particularly bothered. However, as the author talks about Isa Muaza, a refused asylum seeker who is hunger-striking in a detention centre by Heathrow airport and imminently dying of starvation*, she raises broader questions our society’s practices, questioning what they reveal about us as a nation and who we are becoming. She writes:
“This sorry saga of cruelty illustrates how we have been responding to Isa’s plight and foreshadows who we are becoming. We are hell-bent on keeping Isa in the detention centre, as if to make an example of him, for daring to be vulnerable and ‘hunger striking’. Detention being an administrative measure for the convenience of the state, we are signalling to him and to ourselves that it is more convenient that the man dies in detention than lives outside detention; that some types of people deserve death, rather than life […]. Daily, repeatedly we have practiced indifference. And these daily rituals are turning us into a modern monster.”
It’s strong language but, in the light of the UK’s culture and practices of suspicion and exclusion, it seems completely legitimate. And it’s true that what we do is inextricably linked to who we are and who we are becoming. “As we repeat these practices”, she suggests, “they will form, shape and consolidate our new identity. Everyday cruelty and indifference will become our norm. And we are blindly heading that way.”
When facing injustice which constructs some people as less valuable than others, unacceptable practices which marginalise and exclude people of worth made in the image of God, blindness concealing truth, death beating life, Jesus wept. Even if its topic is of no special interest to you, I challenge you to read the article and not do the same.
Jesus wept. And then he did something about it. He included. He touched. He enabled people to live. He promised to make all things new and he made a start. And we should follow in his footsteps; opening eyes that are blind, freeing captives and releasing those who sit in darkness. Shouldn’t we?
Isa is a captive who sits in darkness and I could tell you about many more known to me personally who are suffering the detrimental impacts of being treated as less than human right on our doorstep. Last week I cried, got angry, tweeted, signed petitions and wrote to my MP, but I felt sad and powerless at the same time. I know that light wins in the end, but sometimes darkness seems to prevail and no one seems to care.
Feeling disillusioned with us, the church, it was a relief to have a visiting speaker from International Justice Mission who put all this right on our agenda by sharing stories about the world’s poorest people who lack access to justice. Terry Tennens, IJM UK’s Executive Director, challenged the abominable deception of evil and the abuse of power that lead to so many being abused and enslaved by others, reminding us that Jesus ushered in justice for those denied it: “a bruised reed he will not break and a flicking flame he will not snuff out.” His stories were from around the world, but I kept thinking that we don’t even need to look that far: Isa, a flickering flame and bruised reed who ironically shares the Arabic version of the redemptive name on which we depend, is close to extinction just around the corner.
Injustice is here, there and everywhere. It’s so overwhelming. Can anything be done?
The article challenges the apathy that says not: “It is not true that ‘there is nothing we can do’: in fact, we have a choice between being a mere bystander or responding with the intention of changing things.” It’s the same spirit underpinning both Sunday’s sermon and the quote at the top of this post. Earlier in that chapter, John Stott calls for people of vision to pursue that change:
“So, what is vision? It is an act of seeing, of course, an imaginative perception of things, combining insight and foresight. But more particularly, in the sense in which I am using the word, it is compounded of a deep dissatisfaction with what is and a clear grasp of what could be. It begins with indignation over the status quo, and it grows with a quest for an alternative. Both are quite clear in the public ministry of Jesus. He was indignant over disease and death and the hunger of the people, for he perceived these things as alien to the purpose of God. Hence his compassion for their victims. Indignation and compassion form a powerful combination…”
Last week, indignation and compassion overwhelmed rather than inspired me. But on Sunday I was reminded of one whose love, power and light are deeper, stronger and brighter than all the negative forces which stand against him and us. My vision was rekindled and I became excited about leading a group of friends in discussion around these things a couple of days later, and was refuelled to step daily into dark corners of the world.
Advent is arriving and we remember the dawning of light on those living in the shadow of death. The breaking in of his alternative reality. The incarnation: God with us in the mess, refusing to be a mere bystander. The arrival of one who will not falter or be discouraged till he establishes justice on earth.
And so we continue.
And if the darkness is to keep us apart
And if the daylight feels like it’s a long way off
And if your glass heart should crack
And for a second you turn back
Oh no, be strong
And I know it aches
And your heart it breaks
And you can only take so much
Walk on, walk on
(U2, Walk On)
*since writing this, I had an email from my MP letting me know that Isa has been forcibly removed from the UK. Shocking. On a more encouraging note, it’s good to have an MP who responds to constituents and cares about injustice.