‘What causes fights and quarrels among you?‘ asked James the brother of Jesus, writing to the twelve tribes scattered abroad. And then he proceeds to answer his own question:
Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.
And so he rails against selfishness, hypocrisy, pride, favouritism and slander. Wars and battles are as much within us as without; indeed, those raging without are often manifestations of those smouldering within, and there is no indication from James that much good can ever come of them.
As Labour MPs and Conservative MPs defect from the parties they have served for decades (and which, indeed, gave them so much) in order to join something called ‘The Independent Group’ (which is, let’s be honest, totally dependent on quite a bit), they all do so for manifestly different reasons, but each of them is persuaded of the rightness, indeed righteousness, of their individual cause. What unites them all is their opposition to Brexit: they simply desire to halt it; to kill it off completely. But their parties are seemingly intent on pursuing it, in accordance with the result of the EU Referendum 2016 (and the pledges of their manifestos in 2017), and so the defectors have to kill their erstwhile colleagues – not literally, of course, but when former Tory Heidi Allen says she wants to “destroy the party” which created her, there is clearly contempt and loathing in their hearts. What she and Sarah Wollaston and Anna Soubry appear not to understand is that to destroy the Conservative Party is to hand the keys to No.10 to Jeremy Corbyn, whom the Labour defectors are determined to keep out of office because he is “not fit” to be Prime Minister. So there’s an instant tribal division: the desires that battle within each faction are mutually exclusive, and, for want of a coherent vision, voters will simply become more cynical.
Speaking of cynicism, the Archbishop of Canterbury has also been railing against division. In his Presidential Address to the General Synod yesterday, he noted:
Yes, we argue, yes, we fail, yes, we disagree about inclusion and we let people down and we mess up, but do not leave the wonderful work of the Spirit of God out of the equation.
And thus, we have good news to share and show. Thus, as we journey towards Lent some of you may be considering what you might give up during the penitential season.
I urge you to consider especially as members of General Synod giving up cynicism and renewing love for those with whom you and I differ.
It is not easy. Some of them have views we find so obnoxious that we wish they were not in the church. We even convince ourselves that really, in God’s mind, because he agrees with us, they are not with us in the church.
Far, far easier to give up sugar or alcohol or sex for Lent than cynicism, which is the lifeblood of politics and the grit in the oyster of religion (and also of [interesting] political and religious journalism, if that isn’t too cynical a view). If those with obnoxious Brexit views have no place in the Conservative Party; and those with obnoxious Corbyn/Brexit views have no place in the Labour Party, then a fortiori those with obnoxious views about (fill in this gap) have no place in the church. It’s obvious, isn’t it? If you differ in the syntax of the divine-human relationship or deviate from the plainest meaning of obedience to Scripture and cavil over questions of obedience, then God agrees with you: those who argue against you are not Christians; they are not in the church, but friends of the devil (if that isn’t too cynical a view).
Speaking of friends of the devil, Pope Francis has also been railing against division and schism: “One cannot live a whole life accusing, accusing, accusing, the church,” he said. People who did, he said, were “the friends, cousins and relatives of the devil”, which is really quite an outrageous thing to say. If you were an altar boy raped by a priest and you accuse, accuse, accuse the church of chronic conspiracy and cover-up, you’re one of Satan’s minions. And so the church is cast as the victim, and the survivors of sexual abuse are raped again with the Pontiff’s tongue.
‘What causes fights and quarrels among you?‘
Deeply entrenched positions over ethical differences, moral imperatives and the political order. Each side brands the other ‘heretic’ (“spawn of the devil”) or ‘cult’ (“party within a party”), oblivious to their own false postures of virtue, beauty and holiness. What is lacking in all of this is humility: both politicians and Christians are called to serve. One doesn’t expect to see Anna Soubry kneeling to wash the feet of Jacob Rees-Mogg any time soon (though the reverse is more likely); or Chuka Umunna cutting Jeremy Corbyn’s toenails, but politics is concerned with the service of others, and Christians are called to love, to lay down their lives as a testimony to the world: ‘By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.’
Politicians, of course, are men and women of the world: democracy thrives on sectarianism; the cut and thrust of policy debate is iron sharpening iron. But the Church has a different vocation: if laity, priests and popes stopped pursuing the desires of their own warm hearts and pursued instead the hard graft of intracommunal love, all these defections, divisions, tribalism and schisms would cease.
But what, you may ask, if God has told you: ‘Come out from them and be separate… Touch no unclean thing, and I will receive you‘? If you read that question and instantly sought to justify your separation from the other, you might be a sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal.
One expects politicians to pursue the desires of their hearts utterly persuaded that that desire coheres perfectly with the pursuit of the common good, but the Church should be different. Christians are not called primarily to advance political agendas or further social causes (utterly persuaded, of course, that these agendas and causes cohere perfectly with the will of God): the vocation is to love and to serve and to be holy, in order that Christ may be seen in you. If you are loving God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might, you shall be loving your neighbour as you love yourself. The two are in tension, but they do not conflict. The principalities and powers in the universe might be at war; and nations and factions might be rising up against nation and faction, but the person who is loving and serving and holy will not be fighting and quarelling with his brothers and sisters, but speaking words of peace and performing acts of reconciliation.
Do we need to give up cynicism for Lent, or do we need to be more holy? Perhaps the two are not mutually exclusive: perhaps giving up cynicism is just demotic for being more holy? Or perhaps giving up cynicism lacks a certain transcendence? To be holy is to be set apart, to be consecrated to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly before God. To be holy is to apprehend the cause of wonder and astonishment, fear and trembling. It is to behold the glory of the Father in the Son. But that is a glory which washes feet and lays down its life.
Holiness requires us to work out our salvation with fear and trembling. Holiness, then, demands fear: the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Perhaps if we all feared God a little more (or a lot more), our petty squabbles and schisms would end. Alternatively, we can carry on persuading ourselves that we contend for our causes because we fear God; and that our spiritual beliefs are all God’s and our political beliefs are all for the benefit of humanity. And if you don’t agree, you need to leave.