“When they heard this they were cut to the heart.”
This morning’s New York Times magazine had me in tears. Ten years ago I spent just three months in Guyana, South America, from New Year to Holy Week. A country so poor its coinage had no value outside its borders and precious little within them. How do you describe the people of Guyana? Beautiful, divided, dignified, tired … above all poor. I kind of worked in a parish and loved it—I guess because people loved me. Then on Wednesday of Holy Week I had to leave. Whoever had bought the tickets whisked me away from Guyana to spend Holy Week in Barbados before jetting back to Britain. In Guyana the big stores have their empty aisles filled with the three local products—rank upon rank of bags of rice, of sugar, and bottles of the rum made from it. In Barbados you could buy anything. The riches of the whole world overflowing on every shelf and innocent smiling people to buy them. I ended up I tears. For the first time I was outside the world I’d come from, looking in—jealous, and angry, and hurt by its obscene good fortune. I wanted to go back to the poverty … but I didn’t.
This morning, in the paper, it wasn’t the faces of Albanian refugees that brought the tears, it wasn’t their stories, it was the elegant interiors and stylish furnishing of the upscale apartments for sale. I couldn’t tell you through the tears why I begrudge the interior decorating so much. In truth I don’t know. But that it should be paraded a few pages away from people who have lost lives and homes … Perhaps I begrudge the division it reveals in my own heart.
“Save yourselves from this corrupt generation,” preached Peter and thousands were baptized. But what about us who are already baptized what are we to do?
The gospel offers a promise and a puzzle. The sheep follow the shepherd because they know his voice—it’s familiar to them and it means life, life in abundance. There is an enemy though, a thief, who only wants to slaughter and destroy, and the test of our understanding is which voice we recognise and respond to: his or the shepherd’s. Who moves our hearts?
There was another piece in the magazine which touched me, with the subtitle: How the Heart gets Hardened. Peter Godwin, once a war correspondent in Africa, writing about the visual image of atrocity and how it moves the heart to sympathy even as it hardens it. The images we have seen this week are horrible, heart-wrenching, hard to behold. Kosovo and Colorado: twinned mirrors of our violence. But to tell the truth I’ve found myself flipping past the atrocity and analysis of European tragedy to linger over the details of Littleton’s shame. Why is my heart moved by one and not the other, I wonder? Both horrors are beyond me. I understand neither. Both events feel as though they have intruded from outside to shatter my illusions of civility. Both echo with violence I don’t really believe is possible. But where I avoid Kosovo—surf on by—I dwell with Colorado … why?
Maybe Colorado asks only sympathy of me but Kosovo demands much more. Maybe with Colorado it is easier to contain the blame and name the monster while in Kosovo I have to consider the heartless monstrosity of ordinary folks like you or me. Or maybe it’s just because Colorado is all over bar the burials while Kosovo will jade and jar me for months to come.
But in truth the answer is none of these. The truth is that while the Serbs are strangers to me the trench-coat mafia are not. I can identify with them. Not so much with the violence but as the experience. I remember the stratified world of adolescence, strange as any tribe’s rites of passage, with its insiders and outsiders, its pettiness and ridicule, its self-righteousness and shame. I would not go back for anything. The first reports from Littleton, as press and public grappled to make meaning, spoke of a war of cliques: jocks and preps and goths and nerds. The kids interviewed seemed to say of the murderers: Yeah they were creepy kids. Strange. Odd, Didn’t fit in. Not one of us… And I guess they weren’t. I guess they found their own place to fit in, strange and terrible as it was. And though I know being judged and excluded gives no excuse for violence, it is the hook that snares me. I know what it’s like and I know it has its own violence—with winners and losers assigned their roles early and then checked on at reunions just to confirm that all are playing their part. “He’s not one of us.”
In a 1997 poll for a Belgrade magazine Albanians saw themselves as peaceful, courageous, hospitable. Serbs saw themselves as … peaceful, courageous, hospitable. But each saw the other as treacherous, selfish, rough, and hating other nations. “They’re not like us.”
Where is the voice of the shepherd? What must we do to be saved? One thing only: remember—remember Jesus knew violence, felt it firsthand, it defeated him, totally, before he defeated it only by dying. His risen voice has no violence in it, no threat, no accusation and his hands still have the wounds.
What must we do to be saved? One thing only: remember—we are baptized, with Jesus we are dead to death and alive for life, and among us there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither woman nor man, neither slave nor free. We have no kinship but the one we celebrate today with each other, children of God. We are no longer strangers. We are no longer lost and alone. We are saints. We are one in the house of God.
April 24th, 1999