Rebuilding the Broken BodyJenny Sinclair

From a feature article in The Tablet, Jenny Sinclair writes:

So many people didn’t see Brexit and Trump coming. Some are still unclear about what happened. Both were symptoms of our broken body. What can be done to heal these divisions and estrangements in our national community? The causes have been building for years.

Faith in the City, the Church of England report published in 1985 in which my father, David Sheppard, the Anglican bishop of Liverpool, was closely involved, focused on “communities of the left behind”. It reminded us that ‘Poverty is not only about shortage of money. It is about relationships; about how people are treated and how they regard themselves; about powerlessness, exclusion and loss of dignity.’

Today, we hear a lot about giving “a voice to the voiceless”, rather less about the patient work of forging a common life together.

The Beatitudes teach that the “poor in spirit” are blessed. The churches do their best to honour this. But we must look closer at the relationship between the Church and “the poor”. Could it be that, inadvertently, while focusing on the interests of the destitute or of refugees or migrants or other minority groups, some of us have been swept along, and overlooked the interests of the struggling working class families in our own neighbourhoods?

Who are “the poor”?  Pope Francis has said they are people who live with the experience of “non-power”, whether economic, social, material, relational, educational or spiritual. Someone who is living with the experience of non-power has a sense of their need for other human beings, their need for community: the very opposite of individualism. To be in a friendship with a person who is poor is to build a common good. This beautiful truth is at the heart of our faith, which is why Francis wants the Church to be outward-facing, to be not only a Church for the poor, but a Church of the poor.

But sometimes the traditions, opinions and cultures of people who are poor cut across what many in the liberal mainstream are comfortable with. Is the Church ready to embrace everyone who is poor? Not with a patronising embrace, or speaking for, but working with, on the basis of reciprocity and respect. As Rowan Williams has said, meeting another human person is to be on sacred ground.

Jean Vanier shows us that, to be fully human, we need to live, like Jesus, in relationship with those discarded by the dominant culture, no matter how difficult that may be. Vanier’s experience living with profoundly rejected people has taught him that humiliation can lead to anger, and, sometimes, to violence. Those with no power may well be angry. But anger is energy: misdirected it can be divisive, but disarmed in friendship it can be mutually transformational. Indeed, Vanier talks about the “gift of the poor.” He says often it is they who can reveal to us, with stunning clarity, the needs, the pain and the beauty of the whole community.

While those with power (that is, most of us) are estranged from people who experience non-power, all are impoverished. Shaming the poor even further into silence will eventually hurt us all.

Our task, as people of the Church, is to step outside of our echo chambers, to leave the comfort zone of like-minded friends. All of us in our country are “members one of another”. Rebuilding the broken body involves listening and humility; it is not a matter of persuasion but of encounter. In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul says we should “Tell each other the truth, because we all belong to each other in the same body.” He is calling for the unity and reconciliation of the whole of creation through the agency of the Church. This challenge brings the potential for the healing of our fragmented society into convergence with the Church’s mission.

This moment of political turmoil is an opportunity. The old orthodoxies of left and right have been in decline for some time. A new settlement is being formed, and, if it is not founded on relationships between groups currently so estranged, our democracy will remain in crisis. The Church could be a blessing to our national community in this great challenge: the common good correctly understood is never partisan or sectarian. But if it cannot reform its relationship with the poor, the Church risks a sterile internal conversation, sidelining the very person of Jesus.

Jenny Sinclair is the founder/director of Together for the Common Good (T4CG)
Original article from The Tablet, April 2017:
Jenny Sinclair expands further in Good Neighbours and the Common Good (podcast) at a National Justice and Peace Network conference
Calling People of Goodwill: the Bible and the Common Good - the new bible study booklet from T4CG and Bible Society:

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