IT STOPS WITH ME!
Shortly after the American election last year, I was having dinner in a restaurant in London with my husband and sister-in-law. We were chatting with the Iranian restaurant owner about the uncertainties generated by Britain’s decision to leave the European Union as a result of the Brexit referendum, and the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States. We talked about the growing hostility towards migrants across the western world, and the sense of a deepening political crisis that leaves us feeling helpless and afraid. He shook his head. ‘Where will it stop?’ he said. It was a rhetorical question, but I surprised myself by my response. ‘It stops here,’ I said, jabbing my finger at myself. ‘It stops with me.’
This hubristic declaration may have been fuelled by a few glasses of wine, but it stirred my conscience so that it has become something of a personal mantra. As I travelled to work on a London bus the next morning in the usual cosmopolitan mix of passengers, I reflected on what it would mean to live in a way that would entitle me to say ‘It stops with me’. I realized it would take a heroic act of commitment to apply that principle across every aspect of my life, but I began to see that I could begin with small daily acts of kindness, patience and welcome. A smile or word of friendship might brighten a refugee’s day. A moment’s eye contact and a brief chat might make all the difference to somebody begging in a doorway.
As the western liberal democracies implode, our options for changing society for the better through the ballot box have become limited almost to the point of non-existence. In Britain, the Labour Party is disintegrating, apparently more concerned with its own internal politics and rivalries than with its wider policies and political responsibilities. The British electorate is faced with a choice between an increasingly ruthless and isolationist Tory Government headed by an unelected Prime Minister, and the Far Right nationalism of UKIP. Meanwhile, Brexit might lead to the break-up of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Scotland might have a second referendum, seeking independence in order to remain in Europe. Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland are facing a crisis over the Good Friday agreement which was brokered by way of the common EU membership of both countries. They now face the prospect of being divided by a European border with potentially devastating implications for the peace process.
Meanwhile ‘across the pond’, as we say in the UK, President Trump’s cavalier disregard for the responsibilities and dignity of the presidential office is plunging us into a dystopian post-truth world of ‘alternative facts’ and dangerous populist rhetoric. It is hard to forget that one of those pudgy presidential fingers hovers only five minutes away from the nuclear button.
‘It stops here’. What a ridiculous thing to say in such a world – and yet, what change might be possible if every one of us said that and tried to live it to the best of our ability? Edmund Burke’s saying has been widely quoted, that the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing. After the tyrannies, genocides and ideologies of the last hundred years, we know all too well what happens when good people allow themselves to be intimidated and silenced by tyrannical and undemocratic regimes.
‘It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness’. That is supposed to be an ancient Chinese proverb. (I sometimes think that every unattributable quotable quote is put in the category of ancient Chinese proverbs!) Lighting candles is a powerful symbolic act. No wonder it finds a place in so many religious rituals and traditions. Lighting one candle from another reminds us that light and warmth can be shared and spread without any loss to the original source. The candle flame burns just as brightly after it has lit others around it, and together they create a radiant glow that pushes against the gathering gloom and holds it at bay. I think of the Easter vigil, when we process into the darkened church behind the paschal candle, each carrying an unlit candle. As we pass the candlelight between us the church slowly fills up with the light that spreads out from the flickering flame of the Easter candle.
Jesus tells us that ‘where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.’(Matt. 18:20). I think of that small huddle of terrified disciples gathered in the upper room after the crucifixion. Nobody would have believed that those disillusioned and frightened disciples and their crucified leader would be the start of the greatest religious transformation in the history of humankind. A small candle glow of hope was kindled in their hearts when they encountered the risen Christ, and as it passed from person to person it began to light up the world. A similar thought occurs to me when I think of Ann Frank, a young Jewish girl writing a diary full of teenage hopes and dreams in her hiding place in an attic in Amsterdam, while the vast might of Hitler’s armies rolled across Europe. Ann Frank died in a Nazi concentration camp, but today her diary remains one of the world’s most widely read and best loved books, while Hitler’s Mein Kampf is at most a historical curiosity and at worst a text read only by zealots and fanatics.
As Christians, we are called to believe that the Holy Spirit is with those who are small and weak and powerless in the eyes of the world, and that Christ’s power is made perfect in weakness (2 Cor. 12:9). If we extend the metaphor of the candle flame, we might take comfort in the promise that, however feeble our efforts, ‘a smouldering wick he will not snuff out, till he has brought justice through to victory.’ (Isa. 42.3, Matt. 12.20) Each of us is called to become the small flame of hope that shares its light with those around us.
Yet our religious communities are not immune from the divisive and disruptive upheavals of recent events. The political landscape is fissured by deep fault lines that divide families, neighbourhoods and communities, including religious communities. In the United States, President Trump’s election has had this divisive effect, and in Britain so has Brexit.
‘It stops here.’ If that is to become a rallying call, we must forge new alliances across cultural, religious and national boundaries, in order to create communities of resistance wherein fresh political visions might be nurtured. Those of us who believe that a different world is possible can and must stand together, as women around the world did when we took to the streets in the name of human dignity and equality in January 2017.
Perhaps, as we gather in resistance and hope, we might take Leonard Cohen’s Anthem as our own, as a tribute to a great poet of resistance and hope who died in November last year. ‘But they’ve summoned, they’ve summoned up a thundercloud,’ sings Cohen, ‘and they’re going to hear from me.’ The chorus to that song has brought consolation to many in situations of failure and loss: ‘There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.’ Those lines remind me of the Japanese art of Kintsugi – which is the art of repairing broken pottery with gold. This transformation of broken shards into works of art, allowing the cracks and fractures to become spaces of healing beauty, is the challenge we face today, as we survey the demolished ruins of modernity’s dreams of progress and seek to put the broken pieces together in new configurations of grace.