Catriona Robertson

journeys at home and abroad

Does it matter if the chairs are hard or that the children are coughing?

Recently I’ve been way too busy with two other blogs (London Peace Network, London Boroughs Faiths Network) and have neglected my firstborn.

But here’s a talk on poverty and friendship I gave to the Isaiah Community in May.

Olympic Peace, a vision of friendship?

Friendship, justice, spirituality. And this evening’s theme, Olympic Peace. Big words, ambitious ideas. I’ll talk mostly from my experiences of what is familiar to me: community organisations, multifaith groups, local social action.

But first, I’ll read from The Fever by Wallace Shawn.  Shawn is a white, liberal, middle class New Yorker.

Look – here’s a question I’d like to ask you – Have you ever had any friends who were poor?

See, I think that’s an idea a lot of people have: “Why shouldn’t I have some friends who are poor?”

I’ve pictured it so often, like a dream that comes again and again. There’ve been so many people – people who work at menial jobs whom I’ve seen every day – people who’ve caught my eye, talked to me, and I’ve thought, How nice, It’s nice, If only – and I’ve imagined it – but then what I imagine always ends so badly.

I always picture that they invite you to come over to their home for dinner, and – I don’t know what it is – it’s something about the light bulbs, the flooring that’s coming up just a tiny little bit from the floor, and you walk in and you say to yourself, Its fine, this is fine, it’s all just fine, but you know it isn’t – and there’s sort of a sticky smell coming from somewhere, from a hallway, a room, and the television, and the walls are painted with this kind of shiny pink, and there are children who are sick and sneezing and coughing. And there are some hard chairs, and you end up sitting on the floor, and you’re squirming around on the floor, and you’re trying to find some support for your back. And they give you some food, and the meat is greasy, and the piece of meat seems to get bigger and bigger as it sits on your plate. And everyone’s being incredibly nice. And somebody changes the baby’s diaper.

And then a week later they call and invite you again, and you don’t know what to say, so you go once again, and then once again maybe a few months later, and then – I don’t know – maybe you move to another part of town, maybe you move out of town altogether, maybe they move out of town – but the next time you go is a year later, and then there is never a time after that.

For Shawn, it’s just too awkward – he withdraws from the friendship.  Maybe what lies behind the awkwardness is just too big to take on.

I’m interested in whether friendship is possible across economic difference, across economic injustice, even.  Do you have friends who are much richer or poorer than you? If so, are there any no-go areas? Awkwardnesses you avoid?  Or do we have to be more or less level pegging for friendship to work?

Economic justice is one of the hottest topics of the day.  We’ve seen the Occupy movement in London, and a range of commentators are asking about the values underpinning our economic life and challenging the assertion that the market is value-free.

On a global scale, is friendship possible between peoples and nations across gross economic difference, injustice?  Or – does it just get awkward again?

The Olympics say yes!  Of course it’s possible!  That’s what it’s all about – athletes rich and poor gather to compete in peace.  More specifically, the Olympic Truce promotes peaceful relationships throughout the Olympic period.  It promotes friendship – not violence.

And peace-making’s not a bad thing to do.  Jesus says in our reading today, “I have protected them and kept them safe” – referring to his disciples.  It comes a couple of chapters after the passage, beloved of early-churchers, when he’s talking to the disciples and says, “I have called you friends.”

As you know, in ancient times, a truce was declared so that athletes and artists could get to the Olympic Games, compete and return home without being killed.  The modern Olympic movement has taken this up.  A UN resolution takes place every four years for a global truce for the few weeks the Games are on – but a worldwide ceasefire hasn’t yet been achieved.

In London, the network I convene, the London Boroughs Faiths Network, is supporting and encouraging a wide range of local peace-building and violence-reducing activities:

•  knife amnesty bins
•  conflict transformation training for young people
•  twinned projects, in collaboration with the Foreign Office, linking local projects here with those in  Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Jamaica
•  faith trails, multifaith cricket and football, fundays and picnics
•  open iftar meals at mosques across London during Ramadan
•  workshops on what it’s like to be in a minority or in the majority and how past history (of colonialism, for example) plays out in the present
•  work to reduce violence against women and girls (the only crime that increases during big sporting events)
•  arts activities such as the War and Peace Festival here at St John’s

We want to plant seeds which will bear fruit next year and into the future.

We’re asking, what happens when the violence stops?  What happens next? If violence isn’t the answer, what do we do with our difficulties, our conflicts?  What are the options? What else could we try?  How can we live together well?  London’s streets are far from peaceful and the same can be said of Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Jamaica.  And we’re light years from economic justice.

But back to Wallace Shawn’s dilemma.  Does he withdraw or does he stick with that awkwardness?  Does he – can we – dig deeper?  Why is it awkward?  Does it matter that the chairs are hard or that the children are coughing?  Do we fall back into our comfort zones, moving further apart from those who are richer or poorer than us – whether on a personal level or on an international scale?  Or do we move closer in friendship – with all that it entails?  Can we be brave enough to hold ourselves open to interrogation about this awkwardness by God?

Will the awkwardness win?  Or will friendship overcome it?

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This entry was posted on 6 July 2012 by in UK and tagged , , , , .
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