In Britain we find ourselves in challenging times. We have had an election in which the winners lost and where the losers feel they won, we seem to have regular acts of terror and we have had the most appalling catastrophe in London which has revealed incompetence and injustice at the heart of the nation. Finally, almost as an incidental, we have a weakened and divided government starting the most important international negotiations since the Second World War. In these troubled times we hear all around angry cries for ‘change!’ and ‘justice!’.
How do we respond? I’m afraid neither the overused mantra to ‘keep calm and have a cup of tea’ or the appeal to ‘the British spirit’ are really adequate. Instead, I find myself turning to some very old and very wise words: the Beatitudes of Jesus recorded in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 5. Here Jesus pronounces eight blessings and for each gives an appropriate promise.
‘Blessed are the poor in spirit’: this is a time for prayer and dependence on God rather than pompous pronouncements. There are issues here that are beyond trite and simplistic solutions.
‘Blessed are those who mourn’: at a time when there is a suspicion that behind public grief lurks private ambition we need to be those who mourn for no other reason than we stand because those who suffer are in misery.
‘Blessed are the meek’: crises bring out both the best and worst in people. One of the worst can be the pressure for ‘strong leadership’, for ‘firm measures’ or even ‘radical change’. In contrast, meekness presents no agenda: it listens, seeks wisdom and neither shouts nor screams.
‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness’: our society is full of cries. Some, out of a genuine desire that right be done, are for justice and explanation, and to these there must be an honest response. Yet amid these voices are similar cries which are driven by anger and the hunger for revenge. A legitimate demand for justice must not be diverted into revolt and disorder.
‘Blessed are the merciful’: to be merciful is the authentic and caring desire to put others first and seek their welfare. It’s encouraging what we have seen but there needs to be more and it needs to persist when the cameras have gone.
‘Blessed are the pure in heart’: motives for protest and calls for change can be complicated. We must be sure that in what we say and do we are truly seeking the welfare of others rather than seeking our own good.
‘Blessed are the peacemakers’: perhaps the most distressing element of these times is the sense of disunity; of factions, of communities talking in increasingly bitter terms of ‘them’ and ‘us’. Peacemaking can be a blessing.
And finally ‘Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.’ The last and longest of the Beatitudes is the sting in the tail. To do these things, Jesus says, is no easy path to popularity and acclaim. On the contrary, to be a peacemaker is to be assured of being mistrusted, hated and attacked by both sides. And as that rarest of things, Jesus, who lived out what he taught, knew what he was talking about.
These are challenging times but they are also times of great opportunity: opportunities to pray, to serve and – slightly less comfortably – to suffer for what is right.
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