On Thursday, I went into Birmingham city centre. As we walked through the New Street station, we were accosted by a young man pushing the “Rich List.” I had no difficulty telling him he was misguided but as I later walked back down High Street, I saw a man with his loud speaker calling for personal salvation by accepting Jesus Christ, a small group of Jehovah’s Witnesses seeking to distribute their Watch Tower magazine proclaiming that they could tell you what the Bible really says, a number of homeless with their paper cups begging for money, and a Muslim man with his stand covered in Korans and other books. It struck me as odd how each of these people where proclaiming a message but seemed totally oblivious to each other and to some extent the people walking the street or rushing to make their purchases. All they were interested in was selling their wares or their message.
Was salvation really the message of the preacher or was he simply accumulating his indulgences for the week. He was making sure that his message was the loudest in the street but he did not seem to care about the Jehovah’s Witnesses who stood less than ten feet away or the homeless person almost sitting on the ground behind him. The truth he believed to be proclaiming was all important but it clearly had no impat on what happened on a daily basis. It was this future salvation that was important.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses showed even less compassion. They often stand talking to each other while people pass by but more often than not, they simply stand there looking bored. Does the Bible really say anything of value to those around them. It doesn’t look as though it fulls them with any sort of enthusiasm and certainly no compassion. Why would I want to learn what they believe the Bible says since it seems so boring and uninterested.
What about the Muslim man? I didn’t hear the music that they normally play but again, I didn’t feel invited in. I may have stopped to pick up an English Koran for my reconciliation studies but he didn’t really seem interested so I walked on. He showed no interest in those who walked past. What was his Koran really about. Recruiting people to the faith, just like the street preacher, or the Jehovah’s witnesses. Cerrtainly nothing to do with the lives of people or the suffering of the homeless.
The young man pushing his rich list message was a little more enthusiastic but I really wondered whether he understood what he was pushing. This was a job, a way of earning some money, a way of getting himself onto that rich list. Was that a message I wanted to hear. It certainly didn’t show any compassion.
The homeless at least were blatantly seeking funds to live. They looked genuinely homeless but there was little compassion in the street. The occasional passerby would drop something in their cup but most rushed on looking for what they needed to do.
It seems to me that we have become a society of personal projects. We go to work to progress those projects or to obtain funding for our projects but we never reach out to others or seek to build a community. That would involve letting go of our own projects.
I am also conditioned by this society of looking after self but I dream that it could be different. Others have had similar dreams (i.e. Martin Luther King Jr, Gandhi, John Paul Lederach, …). Some have had an impact for a period but their dreams remain unfulfilled. Some have formed their own small communities separated from the rest of the world but the dominant story by which society lives is never challenged and their efforts drift back until the next prophet steps forward.
It seems to me that if we do not change the dominant story, the story people live by, the framing story of people’s lives then all we are doing is treating the symptoms and never attacking to core of the problem.
What do I mean? It seems that we look for cures to cancer but never want to change what is shown to be the cause of cancer. We want to treat mental illness but we don’t want to address the systemic problems that cause mental illness. We want a different type of society but we will preach a message of future salvation and never deal with inequality or the issues that Jesus addressed in the gospel. We want peace but we will not look for the things that make for peace but will build greater weapons of destruction and create larger barriers so others can not have what we have and we are shut out from what they have.
I am no longer interested in more statistics about the level of poverty, the increasing or decreasing wealth of the nations, the number of wars, who is on the rich list, … I am even less interested in the junk that comes in spam emails and through my mail box. They are selling a message that I am no longer interested in. It is a message of the decay of society. It isn’t a message of hope, a message of peace, a message of living together in harmony, a message of building equality.
The message, I want to hear is a practical message that endeavours to addresses the underlying causes and to build the type of society were the barriers are broken down, where we walk collaboratively together to care for each other and the living world, where relationships and reconciliation are at the core.
I would like to see the street preacher, the Jehovah’s witness, the Muslim bookstore watcher, and the rich list promoter actively working to solve the problems for the homeless, resolving inequality, ensuring that we are not exploiting the planet and each other. Somehow, I don’t expect to see it happen because I don’t think any of them have thought through what the message is that they are telling or have the compassion for the people they claim to want to reach.
What I know is that it is time to change and key to that is understanding what we are selling and what is really involved in selling our message.