LOVE IS ALL WE HAVE
Address to the students, staff and parents of St George’s CE Secondary School, Gravesend
Are you an optimist or a pessimist? This isn’t simply a decision we reach about life: it’s informed by lots of different factors, like personality, family and practical experience. But we can make choices. Though hopeful about my own life, I am a complete pessimist when it comes to supporting my sports teams. It’s a kind of a tactic: if my team loses, I’m well prepared for it. If they win, I get the extra rush that those who assumed their team would win can’t get.
We seem to be living in the age of pessimism. Stuff is kicking off everywhere. Global politics has become more populist. Global religion more extremist. Loud mouthed men – and to be fair, it’s usually men – are sounding off in public about other people. They claim to speak for ‘the people’, but when you stop to pick it apart, you realise they are actually speaking for one cohort of people against another cohort which looks, sounds and thinks differently to them.
Social media is poisoned by the bitterness of people who think they can judge without being judged themselves. And we’ve all been on the receiving end of this. We have to learn to live with this craziness, because it may be here to stay.
Other things to be pessimistic about include climate change, where the evidence is mounting all around us, wobbly economies which haven’t properly recovered from the 2008 banking crash and….well, let’s not go on, because we know we could and it only makes us depressed. A happier challenge is to think of ways in which life is getting better, so here are a few.
More people have been lifted out of poverty in the last thirty years than we ever imagined possible, especially in Africa. We are connected to family and friends via the internet, no matter how far away they may be. Scientific advances which improve our lives are coming thick and fast. And, despite the loud-mouths, there is, in some places, greater understanding for difference between one another than perhaps at any point in history.
The funny thing about our era is this. It is an age of pessimism, but we are all expected to be optimists about our own lives. It’s a subtle thing, but we’re basically being told that it’s down to us to make what we can of our lives and that if we believe something is possible, we can achieve it. Our media is full of this kind of talk. At the gentle end, it’s found in the motivational posters of the eternally optimistic Sue Heck from Comedy Central’s The Middle, for whom every setback was an inspiration to try again. But there is another end that we don’t examine enough. You hear it when people say things like: ‘I won because I wanted it more than the rest’.
Let’s spend a moment looking at that one. There’s no doubt that perseverance is one of the greatest assets we can have in life. As basketball coach Tim Notke said: ‘hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard’. But there are often other factors at work when someone gets what they want in life. Inherited wealth and family contacts help people get on. Those who have these advantages often struggle to admit to them, because it shows that their success isn’t just down to them and that they may actually have had an unfair advantage.
So, when we say someone won simply because they wanted it more, we may be letting a skewed system off the hook. One of the most distinguished causes of our era, as the economy changes out of all recognition, is one that St George’s School and the Aletheia Trust are engaged in. Helping every student to turn the gifts they have been given by God, through hard work, into skills that are fitted for the emerging world. We all need goals in life. But the best people are those who know they reached them because someone else sacrificed something for them – at home, in school, at the sports club, music or dance class.
What makes things harder right now is that we have let go of much of the wisdom and many of the customs that have been handed down to us. These were meant to help people navigate their way through life, but now each person is expected to plot their own way through without support once they have left school. There are fewer boundaries now and as the US philosopher Harry Frankfurt has said ‘what has no boundaries has no shape’. Perhaps this accounts for two recent developments.
One of these is in the Church, where more people are choosing to live by a Rule for Life – a simple, uncomplicated statement of what is valuable and worth living by as a disciple of Jesus in this crazy, mixed-up world. The other development has come via a clinical psychologist called Jordan Peterson. His book, 12 Rules for Life, has been an unexpected publishing hit, appealing most of all to younger people. Some of his twelve rules make good sense: tell the truth, at least, don’t lie. Some carry echoes of the teaching of Jesus even though he is not coming at this from a religious angle: set your house in perfect order before you criticise the world. There are rules made especially for people like me: stand up straight with your shoulders back. And then there are the plain bewildering: do not bother children when they are skateboarding. In fairness, I have only skimmed the book, so perhaps this rule is cleverer than I imagine.
Seeing these developments made me panic recently when I realised that most of what I have learned in life has actually comes from Homer Simpson. Here are four of my favourites:
. Son, if you really want something in this life, you have to work for it. Now quiet! They’re about to announce the lottery numbers.
. I think Smithers picked me because of my motivational skills. Everyone says they have to work a lot harder when I’m around.
. Books are useless! I only ever read one book, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ and it gave me absolutely no insight into how to kill mockingbirds.
. Kids, you tried your best, and you failed miserably. The lesson is, never try.
And the one I have always tried to live by:
. The three little sentences that will get you through life. Number 1: cover for me. Number 2: good idea, boss. Number 3: it was like that when I got here.
You’re probably making a reasonable assumption I also follow Jesus’ teachings too. And it’s here we find a rule for life which is brilliant in its simplicity and its depth. The great minds of history have tried to get their head round the meaning of life and have bequeathed us books that have ruined many a night of homework, but a case can be made for saying there is one rule for life, and one only. And it’s only eight words long.
Love God and love your neighbour as yourself.
I want to unpack this, because in a funny way it uncovers three big modern crises.
The first is about God. To love God is a choice. No-one should be forced to do this. In fact, when you think about it, if God exists, he has clearly left it to us to make our choices about him. He is not one of these terrible dictators who demands that the people worship him and if they say anything nasty about the dictator, can expect to spend the rest of their lives with their families in the gulag, like you see in North Korea. I believe God is there, but he is whispering to us in our ears, not shouting at us through a megaphone on the street corner.
The trouble is, a lot of religion in the world today does not think people should have an option over whether to worship God, and they force communities to do so, often from the barrel of a gun. The big religious question today is, who speaks for God? A few years ago, committed atheists were convinced this question would just wither away when people stopped believing in God. But people have not stopped believing in God, and this question needs to be answered. Whatever our beliefs or views on God and religion, we need good teaching and debate in our schools to help students differentiate between good and bad religion, because both exist in our world and, without knowledge, people can be indoctrinated into thinking bad religion is good.
One of the reasons I am a Christian is because I love the way, right at the start, the followers of Jesus shared their faith openly and kindly with others. Not imposing it, but inviting people to inspect what they believe, while also looking actively to make their communities better places for everyone to live in. Good religion is not forced on others.
But what about the second bit: love your neighbour. Once again, we can’t make people love others. But we know that any community worth living in has to be guided by this. Public figures choose today to speak about tolerance. In and of itself, tolerance is a good thing, but when you look at it more closely, you realise we have to go much further than this. Who wants merely to be tolerated in life? Imagine saying that to someone else: I tolerate you. It’s barely one cheer, never mind three. The poet GK Chesterton said a long time ago, well before tolerance became a buzz word: ‘tolerance is all that’s left when love has run out’. We need to regain a richer, deeper understanding of what it means to love other people, especially those who are not like us and whom we do not particularly like. Good communities are built on tolerance; the best are founded on love. We need to do a lot more talking about what love looks like, but all around us, people are too embarrassed to do this, as if it’s kids’ talk and not a grown-up thing.
And we have the biggest of ethical challenges in working out who are neighbour is. Even in Jesus’ day, this wasn’t as simple as we might imagine. Yes, many people lived in villages, where everyone knew everyone else. But hospitality to strangers was also valued. If a traveller rocked up at your door, you were expected to help them. And Jesus’ people were also occupied by the Roman army. A cruel and unsentimental empire which didn’t care much for anyone who got in its way. So loving your neighbour wasn’t straightforward to the people around Jesus.
Today, the challenges are probably more complex. We look at thousands of people in the course of a week. Are they all a neighbour of ours? Do we owe them the same duty of care we do to our families? What about the people we relate to online? And what about the people we see on our TV screens: hungry, violated, frightened people who are out of home and out of luck? There’s no easy answer to that question. But we need to find a way through. Right now, we are far quicker to decide who is not our neighbour, based on fear or convenience.
The thing about loving neighbours, about caring for strangers, about being a good Samaritan, is that they belong to our Christian heritage, part of our shared memory. But when people decide they no longer trust this stuff, where do they turn to find their bearings? If we do not debate these issues properly in the years to come, the risk is that our common life will look more and more like everyone for themselves. I do not think the young people here today, and their generation, have been at all well served in this regard by the public figures today who set the tone for debate.
And finally there is the call to love ourselves. Jesus didn’t put it as simply as that. The way he expressed it: love your neighbour as yourself almost suggests he took it for granted that people would love themselves. But if this was ever true, we know it isn’t now. So many of us are in the grip of a terrible lie which feeds off our insecurities. The lie tells us that to be accepted by others, to be considered worthy in this world, we must look perfect and achieve perfectly. We look around us and see others who have managed this, but we haven’t looked closely enough. Take any example of human perfection and you’ll find a life which has been photoshopped and airbrushed, which has gone through twenty drafts before it is put out on social media.
We’re in some kind of arms race to perfection, not seeing what it is doing to us and the people around us. This is not a world created by young people. Those who say it is find it convenient to shift the blame onto another generation. Older generations have also been seduced by glamour and perfection. The problem today is that social media has weaponised perfection and pointed straight at us. As a Christian, I believe God wants us to love ourselves, because he made us this way. To cherish our bodies, because he loves them to bits. And to take the gifts he has given us so we can bless and improve the lives of others.
In the end, we each have to choose how to live. Some get by without a rule or two to guide them. Some have rules but haven’t really stopped to analyse them, almost as if the rules are written on their hearts. Others know exactly what – or who – is guiding them.
But if we want to live a good life, a worthwhile life, some attention to our purpose in life is called for. The beauty of Jesus’ rule: love God and love your neighbour as yourself, is that it’s about people, not things. Too many people make things their goal in life and lose sight of the people around them. You can’t measure love, like you can the size of a yacht or a private plane, but as St Paul said, the greatest lasting fruit of life is love.
Listen to your teachers, because underlying what you hear is a desire that you learn to bless others through the gifts you have been given and the skills you have learned.
To learn to love – by giving it away.
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