President Obama’s recent acerbic observations on Britain and David Cameron came as no surprise. Everyone knows what a mess we made in Libya and elsewhere, but the tone of the remarks will have irked many, despite the damage limitation exercise subsequently carried out by White House officials. The world is used to America telling it what to do and ignoring or downplaying other countries’ contributions. That is an American trait, and it is not likely to change any time soon. It can even be seen as endearing on occasion. I’m not sure, however, that it works the other way round. Does the U.S.A. take to heart the concerns raised by other nations? The bewilderment (and anxiety) experienced in Britain and the rest of Europe at the prospect of a Trump or Clinton presidency, for example, doesn’t seem to register. What is true of nation states is also true of individuals. Most of us are quite good at deciding what others should do and giving them the benefit of our advice, but we are not often so good at taking it. Why is that?
I think there are two possible reasons. One is that we are all reluctant to take responsibility for our actions. Ever since Adam, we have all looked for someone else to pin our guilt on. Blame Eve/Mummy/Daddy/the boss/the staff/the Conservative Party/the Labour Party/Uncle Tom Cobbly and all. The other is that we have genuine difficulty in seeing others’ points of view. We look out at the world from inside our own heads, and that perspective can never change. It can be widened, but it can never actually change.
To widen our perspective is to lay ourselves open to uncertainty, vulnerability even. When Jeremiah’s eyes were opened to the plots being made against him, he was forced to rely on the Lord absolutely (cf Jeremiah 11. 18–20). It wasn’t easy. It meant risk. The Chief Priests and Pharisees in today’s gospel, by contrast, were unwilling to expose themselves to risk. The new prophet from Galilee everyone was talking about could be no prophet at all, for none came from Galilee (cf John 7. 40–52). They were scathing in their condemnation, and they needed to be because any openness, any display of willingness to learn or change, meant a chink in their armour, a weakness.
Today would be a good day for reflecting on how we react to ‘home truths’ about ourselves and ideas that are unwelcome or expose us to risks we do not want to take. That doesn’t mean we should embrace every new idea or accept as valid every observation made to us — far from it. It means listening carefully and asking the Holy Spirit to guide us so that we can discern what is of God and what isn’t.
Note: This post is not about President Obama and David Cameron. I use their example as a peg for an argument.