Tuesday, February 07, 2006
Jesus - the streetwise poet
Try as we might to break free from the cultural masks which drive and form us, it is surely time we invested in the wide cultural differences of the streetwise poet to somehow allow us to transcend our restrictive mind sets. Do we react to a place or person or engage with it, or them? Do we become part of the landscapes, or do they become part of us? I am sceptical and rather uneasy around Christian things that glitter and I certainly don’t subscribe to the ‘Church of personal gain.’ G.K. Chesterton once said that, ‘One sees great things from the valley; only small things from the peak.’ It just might be possible those epiphanal moments of struggle act as possible vehicles for the ongoing work of sanctification. I am also tired of the didactic approach to proselytising. Dialogue with people genuinely needs to be two way. God can never be encompassed wholly by human understanding, so who are we to exclude those who just happen to come at faith from a slightly different paradigm of thought?
I ask these questions because I am again off to Belfast next week, and the great light of this world is stirring my soul once more. My first visit was 3 years ago and as I walked the Shankill road with its houses adorned with their sectarian murals I felt a long way from home. I remember being driven from Cuan Parade, situated by the Peace Wall, and we hit a road block. Eight intense looking gentlemen with automatic weapons surround a house. I asked my friends what was happening. They told me that either the Army was raiding the house, or that a ‘hit’, by one faction of the Paramilitaries, has been put on someone, and they are actually there for that persons protection. I was uneasy, but not sure why. Although personally I didn't feel in danger, I suspected collectively, we all were. My question on arriving in Belfast for the first time was not; is there hope? It was, what is the right question to ask?
I realised I was a sojourner in a foreign land – it was time for me to shut up and listen. It seemed that the deeper roots of conflict in what has become Northern Ireland lie in the Seventeenth-Century plantation of the Northern Province of Ulster. English and Scottish Protestants colonised the land previously held by the Catholic ‘Old English’ and Irish natives. On, through the ‘Cold War’ (1928-1962), where Northern Ireland’s economy was heavily dependent on the markets of the British Empire, which gave birth to the civil rights and civil state movement (1963-69). With the collapse of the 1920 Settlement with the rise of the Provisionals came the long war (1976-96), where Northern Ireland has been governed by a Secretary of State. Coupled with the inability of warring parties to find an acceptable political settlement, Northern Ireland found herself amidst the entrenchment of direct rule as the least unacceptable form of government.
This is a land where the price of freedom is high. When everything goes, anything is allowed, and idealism it seems, is a dream that once was. But where is the land where the constraints of tradition and oppressive history are healed? Most people in Belfast don’t have a problem believing in God. Their difficulty is how the idea of God affects their harsh everyday life. In other words it’s ideology versus experience. But for those who know their inner chaos, nowhere is close - every bone it seems is sore. There is a deep bloody scar on the landscape of Belfast. Northern Ireland’s self appointed PR agents shout such encouragements as ‘The Protestant Reformation was the work of God, but the Roman Catholic Church is an apostate Church.’ It’s like Freddy Kruger promoting Kleenex tissues. The real skill of the streetwise poet is in the profound understanding of the contradictions of contemporary Belfast. It seems to me that there is much more than just principles at stake – faith itself is on the line. There is a need to reach into the heart of the mundane and allow love to enable people to live alongside a community that historically they have been told not to trust. Otherwise much more than political agreement is jeopardised – faith in community itself just maybe lost.
Gone are the monolithic empires; maybe the frontier is identity politics of faith for the building of Christian community. For surely we can’t love God to make a point! Uncertainty in the pressure of vivid hopes and fears is painful, but must be endured if we wish to live without the support of manipulative ideologies. The true impact of the Christ on our social behaviour points to a specific kind of pacifism. As the theologian John Howard Yoder suggests, ‘the cross of Christ is the model of Christian social efficacy.’
Following Christ doesn’t mean we have to sacrifice effectiveness, nor does it mean we have to forfeit liberation for the socially oppressed with some weak theology that favours delayed gratification in heaven. More than this, re-birthing the streetwise poet brings forth causation for the kind of community building revealed in the gospels. Faith it seems is usually found among the unclean and unacceptable - the paralysed man, prostitutes, bleeding women, lepers and blind people. Who are today’s equivalent? As I visited Bombay St. and Madrid St. I began to wonder if maybe some suspect faith wasn’t the answer. I suppose the streetwise poets are the kind of people who just might be able to persuade them to think again.
So, what is the language of the streetwise poet? What is it that He can impart? I would submit parables – the small stories with big points. The parables of Jesus are more persuasive than his miracles. They hold a strange dichotomy, part sad, part funny –culminating with the sting in the tail. Yet the thing about a parable is this; if you’ve got to explain it, don’t bother. Ben Okri suggests that the poet is one who inspires far more than the one who is inspired, the one who remoulds so that the world becomes transformed.
Maybe we all need to be fools who care too much, and remind others from time to time of forgotten higher things...maybe