OUT OF STEP
The assumption that ours is a tolerant society should be tested more thoroughly; a genuinely open culture is one where people feel safe to express unpopular views
The opening to a story should grab the reader, set the tone and say something important about what follows. The Book of Psalms achieves this; indeed its first words are some of the canon’s best known and say:
Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers.
Personal holiness is interpreted in several ways; for some it involves a tangible need to avoid certain places to ensure they do not put themselves in the way of temptation. While there is wisdom in not frequenting crack houses and gambling dens, the boundary lines are often drawn quite arbitrarily either in people’s minds or in the rules they lay down for their dependent children. There is also the risk that the practice of Jesus is not followed.
The propensity of Jesus for eating and drinking with the wrong sort of people caused consternation but set a standard for his followers. He associated with people in a way some deemed reckless but is better seen as radical. To identify honestly with a person is not to condone everything about them, as his conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well shows. After the murder of Parisian cartoonists in 2015, French people everywhere sported Je Suis Charlie T shirts and banners. Theirs was a radical identification; it was also a little edgy for some. While defending freedom of expression, plenty of French people disapprove of the choices these cartoonists regularly make. In his incarnation, Jesus said I am human and I will live humanly. He did not rubberstamp whatever humans chose to do.
The NIV version of the Bible has the opening words of Psalm 1 as: Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked. There is the suggestion here of walking with people who do not share your beliefs and values but of not being in synchronisation with them. It is astonishingly hard to stand out from the crowd. In even the smallest of ways we prefer to blend in: try sitting on your hands when others are clapping or remaining seated when others give a standing ovation. We are deeply imitative beings. Occasionally we come across a contrarian, a person who easily and, it often feels, enjoyably takes the opposite view, but they are few in number and often pilloried.
There are new challenges in walking with others but out of step with them for what one believes. The increasing sense that opinions are being policed in the digital era, however informally, places pressure on people to assimilate unreflectively. Groucho Marx once said: those are my principles and if you don’t like them, well, I have others. In that inimitable way he put a finger on the instinct to conform.
The assumption that ours is a tolerant society now should be tested more thoroughly. A genuinely open culture is one where people feel safe to express unpopular views, but the irresponsibility, speed and anonymity of digital media has made Britain a less comfortable place to do this. The author G. K. Chesterton presciently observed that tolerance is all that is left when love has run out. Today’s mantra of the tolerant society may actually be the loud protestations of a people who are losing their capacity to love those who think differently.
In walking with others but not in step with them, it is not merely what they think that differentiates those who follow Christ from others, but the capacity to love and keep on loving those who are not like them in practical ways that shows a heavenly rhythm.
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