The Rolling English Road

Serena and I have just returned from a two week break in Northumberland.  I came to see it as very much a “non retreat” retreat.  “Non retreat” in that it wasn’t intended to be a retreat and wasn’t at a retreat centre.  But, a retreat in the sense that it provided some very much needed R&R after a very difficult 12 months at our church, and an extremely busy couple of months at work.  We were both running on empty, and the time away doing very little has helped to put us back on more of an even keel.

But that’s not the aspect of Northumberland I wanted to post about.  Northumberland is full of what G K Chesterton would have called the “Rolling English Road”.  This is the title of one of Chesterton’s best-known and best-loved poems, which begins:

Before the Roman came to Rye or out to Severn strode,
The rolling English drunkard made the rolling English road.
A reeling road, a rolling road, that rambles round the shire…

It continues in similar vein.  Chesterton’s thought process is that the drunkard on his way home from the hostelry at dead of night does not necessarily take a direct route, but weaves about a bit, perhaps doubling back here or taking a detour there.  And the English road which results is one of my favourite things: full of tight, twisty corners; following the contours of the landscape; taking in views of the surrounding countryside; crossing streams over little bridges; and great fun to drive in a nippy car like a Ford Focus!  Despite their frequent twists and turns, rolling English roads do get you there in the end, and the journey is as enjoyable as the destination.  Our ordinance survey maps for that part of the world are scribbled on to show the “good driving routes”.  Good meaning picturesque rather than direct or quick.

The A1 (and at times the A1(M)) formed the large part of our route home from Northumberland to London.  This isn’t a rolling English road any more.  Thanks to bypasses, this road no longer passes through the centres of the towns along the route.  Thanks to cuttings and embankments, the road now cuts through the landscape, rather than rolling with it.  The result, of course, is that the journey is pretty quick, but the views of the countryside around are almost non-existent and the journey is just that: a purely functional journey from A to B.

So what?  I like driving on little roads and not motorways (Although not the 350 miles from SE London to N’land)!  Well, thinking about this got me thinking about the often-quoted saying of Jesus about the broad and narrow ways:

“Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it.  For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.”  Matthew 7:13-14
This is often interpreted as meaning that it is very easy to disobey God and to sin, but very difficult to turn from sin and follow Christ.  I wonder, though.  Would the person who said “my yoke is easy, and my burthen light” really have meant that?  I’m not too sure.

A lot of Christ’s teachings spoke directly to the local people in words they would understand as a people suffering Roman occupation.  Who built wide gateways and easy roads?  The Romans…  So, one possible interpretation of this passage I would draw out is that Christ is saying that the Roman’s ways (of violent oppression in order to enforce the pax Romana) lead to destruction, whereas His ways (of peace leading to the pax Christi) lead to life.

I think there’s also a lesson to be learnt in how we view our Christian discipleship and journey of faith.  My own path of faith has been a lot like the rolling English road (at times staggering drunkenly) and not very much like the straight Roman road.  It might be a little slower, but it rolls with the cultural landscape of the past and the scientific reason of the present, and does not ride roughshod through them.

There are those, though, who are happy to drive a straight Roman road through the path of reason and tradition (normally using the Bible as both weapon and justification), and to call that straight path “faith”, or “the only way to God”, or “the only escape from hell”.  Well, as far as I am concerned they are welcome to their wide gate and broad road!  What might they miss cutting through the landscapes of the past, present and future?  What enjoyment of the journey will they miss if the end goal is all that matters?

That Roman road’s certainly not for me.  So, based on my past experience, I shall keep on the windy, twisty, rolling English road that I have trod so far.  As Chesterton puts it at the end of his poem:

“For there is good news yet to hear, and fine things to be seen,
Before we go to Paradise by way of Kensal Green.”

In what I perceive to be the Christian challenge to these riots

The whole (well, most) of London is in shock after another senseless evening and night of rioting on the streets: cars burnt out, shops smashed up and looted, buildings burnt to the ground.  There seems to be no rhyme or reason to these senseless acts of violence – a political protest this ain’t.

My initial reaction, like most others, was one of disgust – these “human” rioters are more animal than human; there is no similarity between them out there on the streets looting and middle class me sat in front of the TV (which was bought legitimately).  I still think these mindless acts should be condemned…I still think the police should be supported throughout this, the rule of law upheld, and the looters/rioters bought to justice.

But, as a Christian how should I be feeling?

Aren’t these rioters, as well as being rioters, also my brothers (and sisters)?  Aren’t they also created in the image of God, don’t they also, somewhere, hold that spark of the Spirit within them, as I hope I do?  Weren’t we taught to love our neighbours as ourselves, and also to love our enemies?  To bless those who harm us, to bless and not to curse?  Whatever I might feel about certain people’s behaviour, they are human every bit as much as I am, and not simply animals…

I’ve been reading Harry Williams’ “The True Wilderness” which is a collection of his sermons from his time at Trinity College, Cambridge.  It’s a fantastic read, and portrays a version of Christianity and God which I definitely resonate with.  Yesterday I was reading his sermon “Deeper compassion for humanity”, and it is directly applicable to the current situation in London.  Here’s a bit of it where he ponders on an encounter with a kleptomaniac, but it might as well be with a rioter/looter/arsonist.

Suppose for instance that we come across a kleptomaniac.  We may be enlightened enough to realise that simply to condemn him as a criminal does no good to anybody.  Instead we may think of him and behave towards him as somebody who has a disease called kleptomania, like a man who has the measles.  

But this apparently enlightened, clinical approach is in fact an attempt to prevent ourselves from perceiving how much we have in common with him.  For his stealing is an attempt to compensate himself for an intolerable sense of having no value, and this sense of having no value follows from his never having been properly loved.  It is true of all of us that in this way or that way, to this degree or that degree, the love we needed to feel our own value has been withheld.  And so the spectre of valuelessness haunts us all, waiting to spring.  And quite a lot of the things I do are attempts to avert my gaze from this ghost who would take from me all reasons for living.  

True, my own way of compensating myself for the threatening sense of valuelessness is not that of the kleptomaniac.  I do not go around shop-lifting [also read rioting/looting/burning].  But I see to it nonetheless that I accumulate quite a lot of riches [to compensate]

And he then goes on to list many of the things that we middle class, respectable citizens do to heap up the riches of respectability and popularity.  All perfectly acceptable in our modern, capitalist culture of course!  However, the fact remains that we and the kleptomaniac/looter/rioter/arsonist have more in common than we think.  We all feel valueless in some way and do something to compensate for it.  It is only by recognising that we all suffer from the same wounds that we can find some common ground with the “other” and be able to communicate with them.  We know we suffer from those same wounds because we’ve been there ourselves.

Williams says that instead of remarking “There, but for the grace of God, go I” when confronted with the other, it is much more honest to say “There, by the grace of God, I have been and I am”.  He concludes by saying that “[O]ur identification with the other person brings to our lives and to their’s the power, the joy, the victory which is already ours and all mankind’s in Christ Jesus Our Lord.

Difficult?  Yes.  Insulting to some?  Probably.  Incomprehensible to many?  Almost certainly.

However, I think there is a genuine challenge here to all Christians (and in reality to all people) to respond with Love and not with hate; even in the face of such senseless violence.  Can we do it?