The death of George Floyd, made horrifyingly real by the video footage of the police officer compressing his neck with his knee, has shocked us back to an awareness that, beyond coronavirus, the world still suffers from many wrongs. The Syrian Civil War is still continuing. Coronavirus has exacerbated the appalling situation in Yemen, where cholera, Covid-19 and civil war are combining to create the biggest humanitarian crisis on the planet. We have rightly been humbled by the countless acts of kindness that have taken place during the lockdown in our own land, and our health and care services deserve every accolade they have been given. But we cannot fail to ignore or act upon, the desperate crises and structural problems, like racism, that mar our humanity in many areas of the world.
President Trump wafting a Bible in front of a boarded-up church, damaged by rioting, near the White House, confirms, if indeed it needed confirmation, that religion is not immune, or can be immune, from such issues. Religious issues can fuel conflicts as much as allay them, can inspire hatred as much as forgiveness, and many people are only too willing to co-opt God onto their side in any issue; certainly the president’s presence outside the damaged church has provoked much criticism from religious figures, but at the same time it has to be acknowledged that 81% of white evangelicals and 60% of white Catholics voted for him in 2016. So, religion can operate on both sides of the divide.
But this is nothing new. Jesus divided opinions from day one, and will continue to do so as we wrestle constantly with the meaning and significance of his life and his message. That may be a recipe for turning away from religion, and certainly there is a strand of modern thought that says that religion is a destructive force and that, as a species, we must reject it. And yet, two things stand out against such a move. Firstly, is the fact that no human being has all the answers or all the wisdom; we have from time immemorial looked beyond the horizon of our experience to seek a deeper truth than any one person can provide. And secondly, it is the very controversial nature of Jesus’s ministry that we have to engage with. Jesus did not bring a bland shoring up of the status quo, but in his teaching and ministry revealed that all of us need a radical new way of living is we are to be truly holy and righteous. It is all about making the Kingdom of God a greater reality in our hearts and lives, and that also means that we must speak out against injustice and a smothering of human flourishing at every turn.
I realise that that, in itself, is a ‘political’ statement, something I am giving my opinion on. But that’s the reality of the spiritual endeavour and quest we are all on; to make Jesus known in our generation, and if that means speaking out for the poor and the marginalised, the very people I believe Jesus spoke up for, then so be it. Put another way, Jesus will not cease to be a controversial figure. To pretend otherwise is to neuter his message and, indeed, his gift.