by Paul Brett
from Signs of the Times No. 71 - Oct 2018
These twelve essays, with prologue and epilogue, emerge from a series of lectures at St Martin-in-the-Fields in central London. Some of the essays have been previously published elsewhere.
In his preface Sam Wells, Vicar of St Martin’s, himself the son of migrants, uses the Old Testament story of Ruth to show how migration, far from being a threat, can be a gift to a nation.
Rowan Williams follows this up with an insightful examination of the good Samaritan story. The ethics of global relationships is about defining ‘ourselves as neighbours’. Quoting Bonhoeffer, it’s about a readiness to ‘stand in for and stand with whatever human neighbour is around’.
The American ethicist Luke Bretherton argues that politics is a form of neighbour love, and that ‘building a common life with strangers and enemies is a profound act of faith’. Another American, the virtue ethicist Stanley Hauerwas, offers an extended critique of liberalism, pointing to its incompatibility with some forms of democracy. He is clearly worried by the Trump phenomenon.
Next comes the Cambridge theologian Sarah Coakley with a more spiritual meditation entitled ‘beyond fear and discrimination’. She points to the ‘painful learning of the processes of prayer, moral attention and personal transformation’. On a practical level Justin Welby’s chapter tells stories from around the world of reconciliation that he has encountered. It is to ‘treasure the identity of the other’, a ‘fragile flower’ that needs resourcing.
Back now to academia. Meg Warner, a post-doctoral researcher at Exeter, meticulously unpicks the Genesis story of Abraham, himself an alien in the land, entertaining strangers unawares. She notes that her native Australia, resisting immigrants, is itself ‘a nation of boat people’.
In a deeply moving essay London Rabbi Shulamit Ambalu asks ‘Is the rapist… the racist… the anti-Semite my neighbour? Were the Nazis my neighbours?’.
Her understanding of the Hebrew text is that ’one should love for one’s neighbour what one loves for oneself’, not as oneself, i.e. ‘wealth, possessions, honour, wisdom and knowledge… freedom from persecution, stability, security, citizenship and an upright way of life’.
Edinburgh ethicist Michael Northcott turns attention to the ecological crisis. He describes the environmental and social consequences of the ‘neoliberal economic revolution of the 1980s’ and gives numerous examples of the threats there are to the natural environment ‘whose non-human inhabitants are our fellow residents’.
Sarah Teather, director of the UK Jesuit Refugee Service and former politician, talks about her experience of working with refugees. Anna Rowlands, professor of Catholic social thought and practice at Durham, follows this with a reflection on discussion in a Sunderland pub about migration and the loss of a sense of the common good. Brendan Cox, husband of the murdered MP Jo Cox, looks in practical ways for a better kind of politics to overcome what he calls a ‘reduced social connectedness and civic engagement’.
In a final essay Sam Wells reprises his idea of the neighbour as ‘God’s gift’. We are overwhelmed by ‘an ocean of need’, but Jesus is the Samaritan offering mercy. And in his epilogue Richard Carter, on the staff of St Martin’s, tells detailed stories of people he has met in and around Trafalgar Square. ‘In discovering our neighbour,’ he writes, ‘we discover God’.
So, what are we to make of this rich miscellany? I would want to think very practically of that Samaritan neighbour as someone of other nationality and faith, who works with the natural world, who is a traveller, who uses resources beyond immediate need, and whose action challenges the political establishment for their lack of care.