A few days ago, on the centenary of the Armistice, the whole world vowed ‘never again’. Never again would we allow personal rivalries, political ambition or old enmities to divide us and lead us into war. For me, the most unforgettable image was that of Chancellor Merkel and President Macron walking hand in hand, the terrible conflicts of the past not forgotten but forgiven. This morning, alas, the world looks a bleaker and less hopeful place. The people of Yemen are being starved into submission; the turmoil over Brexit is proving endlessly destructive and bitterly personal; the new rift in Orthodoxy has dashed the hopes of further ecumenical rapprochement; the Catholic Church is riven by dissent and disagreement; and families without number are divided against themselves, even refusing to speak to one another. It is sad, bad and mad. In all these disputes one element stands out: consciousness of having right on one’s side (allegedly, at least) and therefore, by extension, the right to tell others what they should do. I wonder if it is ever as clear-cut as that.
Think about Brexit for a moment and the chaos that is descending upon Britain. I am genuinely puzzled by the frequent assertion that ‘this is not the Brexit people voted for.’ On the Referendum ballot paper I recall only a choice between ‘in’ or ‘out’. That was a decision we could take as a country. Anything more, crucially the nature of any actual Brexit, could only be decided in conjunction with all the other member states of the E.U. But one could be forgiven for thinking that was not the case when we have everyone apparently knowing what we did vote for, ministers resigning helter-skelter and M.P.s demanding that ‘May must go’ as though a change of leadership at this point would magically transform the situation. We are clearly not listening to the other E.U. member states. We are acting as though Brexit were all about us and we could dictate to others what they should do*.
Next, think about family quarrels for a moment. How sad and protracted they can prove! Someone does something, or fails to do something, and another member of the family takes umbrage and decides to deal with the hurt they feel by cutting themselves off or cutting others off (it amounts to the same thing in the end). I have seen at first hand the distress and pain caused by a parent’s refusal to accept a son’s choice of partner and the subsequent estrangement, not helped by the parent’s lecturing the son about his duty (as the parent sees it) and how he should behave. nor by the son’s angry riposte. I have seen also the sadness when family members die estranged from one another, unforgiving, alas, but convinced to the last that they are right. Can anyone really be ‘right’ if they are inflicting huge pain on another, a pain that can never be lessened in this life?
The prophet Isaiah give us the beautiful image of the unfurling of a clenched fist as a sign of reconciliation. A clenched fist can neither give nor receive; it can only destroy. An open hand is much more vulnerable, by definition, but it is also much more useful. It can give, receive, impart blessing and bestow comfort. It can stretch out across seemingly impassable gulfs. It may still bear the wounds of suffering, as the hands of Christ bear for evermore the imprint of the nails, but it is not limited by them. In the same way, shouting at one another, using words to wound and hurt, is a misuse of the gift of speech. St Benedict urges us again and again to be careful what we say, to bless not curse, but how difficult we seem to find it!
This morning most of us cannot do very much about the big divisions in the world, but there may be someone to whom we need to speak words of forgiveness or from whom we ourselves must seek forgiveness. It is not weakness to do so but true strength. May we all find the grace we need for that.
*I’d be grateful if readers would not use this illustration as an invitation to wage war over Brexit in the comments section. Please read my second paragraph in the context of the whole.