An Advent Reflection on Current Anxieties

We live in unsettled times.  It may be that our instinctive reaction to the news of terrorist attacks in Paris and elsewhere is to primarily think about our own security and safety.  So our reaction to the stranger is to treat them with suspicion and even hostility, as if they carry a threat to us personally.  The difficulty with this is that our suspicion in itself leads to a parallel reaction in the other, which in itself contributes to an increasing environment of fear.  Our behavior not only governs our reactions in the street, or in our places of work, but also dominates our conversation and the attitudes we express when we talk about the other (refugee, Muslim, foreigner)

This reaction not only affects us at the individual level, but also at the collective level, as we can see in the political debates going on at present.  We want to find ways of making ourselves secure by removing or destroying the enemy.  We also are angry at the violence and our immediate reaction may be to seek revenge.

However, we must ask the question whether this the only way we can react.  Although our instincts have a purpose, they also can trap us and prevent us from changing things or making things anew.  Our fears are too often based on misunderstanding and even ignorance.   Our fears also reduce our potential for growth and for experiencing the world as a place of hope and of promise.

As we enter the season of Advent, we are challenged by our Christian understanding to see things afresh and to act differently.  Some of our readings during the season of Advent demonstrate that the violence we witness around us is not something which is new; the early Christian communities also lived in an atmosphere of fear and foreboding as they faced persecution and the threat of death.

But the Advent message is one not dominated by fear, but rather of hope and promise, hope of the Prince of Peace coming amongst us, the promise of a time when “the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid” In one of the readings heard in this season of Advent, The prophet Isaiah speaks of the promise of one who is to come who will carry the spirit of the Lord upon him.   Isaiah describes the qualities of this person “he will not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear, but with righteousness he shall judge for the poor and decide with equity for the meek of the earth”  Of course Christians believe that this prophecy is fulfilled in the birth of Jesus.

As Christians we believe that we should seek to live out our lives governed by the mind of Christ; how then do we demonstrate those qualities ourselves?  In his teaching and action we discover that Jesus sought to restore community wherever those bonds had been broken, and to challenge the prevailing mindset when it came to speaking of and treating the stranger and outcast.  [see for example the Healing of the Leper: Mark 1.40 – end), the welcoming of children (Mark 10.13-16), the dialogue with the Samaritan Woman at the well (John 4)]

We also find in Pauline passages a vision of a church community where the distinctions based on ethnicity, nationhood, gender and status are unimportant; all are one in Christ (see for example Galatians 3.1-4.11, I Corinthians 10.17, 1 Corinthians 12.12-13, Romans 12.3-8). If this is a vision of the church in Christ, is this not a vision of the world in Christ.

Let me share a little of our experience of “meeting the stranger” here at London Inter Faith Centre.  During National Inter Faith Week recently we ran two conferences with school children from a range of faith schools, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and Hindu.  The children spent most of their activities in mixed groups sharing their experiences.  There was chatter, laughter, and genuine interest in finding out about and understanding each other’s differences and in discovering what they shared in common.   This is a model of interaction very different from that of fear and distrust.

We also engage with adults of different faiths in seeking to listen to each other’s explanations of their scriptures, and the beliefs that come out of such writings.  And we engage collaboratively with people of different faith backgrounds in seeking to better life in our local community and in London.  Again a model of cooperation which challenges that of distrust.

What we learn from talking to “strangers”, is that firstly they too share our concerns about the level of violence in the world, and the desire for peace.  They too are shocked by the actions of those who have no respect for life.  They however also ask that we try and see the world in the way they see it, where they too have often been victims of war and violence and injustice.  What they desire in seeking to work with us is to build a world which demonstrates the Advent hope of peace and justice for all.

Another prophecy from Isaiah speaks of a great feast on God’s holy mountain, a feast for all peoples of rich food and well matured wines, “of rich food filled with marrow, of well-matured wines strained clear” That is a vision of promise which counters our prevailing atmosphere of trust, one which we may place our trust in if we are prepared to accept the Advent hope into our hearts and minds.

Laurence Hillel

November 2015