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Good Cop Bad Cop

By Donald Phillipps in All Sorts

Our world is increasingly a world of extremes- where do we stand?

This title was the answer to a recent crossword clue that had me baffled. It was the only possible answer to the spaces available and the letters already in place. It’s the title of a song, but it’s better known in connection with methods of police interrogation. It seems to me to strike at the heart of everyday reality – our world is increasingly a world of extremes.
Dunedin is pretty well served by its daily newspaper – long may it retain its independence of overseas control. We’re well informed on what going in in our part of the world, though I’d exchange some parish- pump gossip for news of international significance. Monday morning’s World Focus helps redress that balance, though this week’s issue made uncomfortable reading. A US cartoon on tax cuts for the wealthy; bribery in India; President Trump’s ‘ramshackle executive’; the crumbling of the Islamic State and its dangerous aftermath; supermarkets and so-called fair trade; political uncertainty/change in the Near East; militancy in the Philippines; the migrant crisis. By contrast George Orwell, an uncomfortable prophet at the best of times, is praised for his ‘patriotism’, and the emergence of French President Emmanuel Macron is seen as a positive for the restructuring of post- Brexit Europe –vision rather than screw-drivers.
What lies at the heart of this apparent movement to the extremes - never more powerfully expressed than in W.B.Yeats’ poem The Second Coming, written in 1919, under the still-looming shadow of WW1:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre The falcon cannot hear the falconer; Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere The ceremony of innocence is drowned; The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity.
Where, for example, do climate change and religious fundamentalism fit – are their protagonists to be dismissed for their ‘passionate intensity’? Are those who live and let live to be condemned for their lack of conviction?
What on earth, therefore, are we to make of those extraordinary verses – part of last week’s lectionary readings - in the Gospels (Matthew 10:34f = Luke 12:49ff) where Jesus describes his teaching, and his mission, as disruptive. He even uses the word ‘sword’ to illustrate the sharpness of the division that will come about within society. Is the Gospel subversive of peace and good order?
Remember Robert Muldoon – how can we forget him! He wrote more than one book about himself – the 1981 version of his autobiography was entitled My Way. His legacy, I fear, was to divide his country. It was not that his ideas were always wrong – it was that he so scorned those who disagreed with him and his way. Our Parish statement – ‘Finding Good in everyone – Finding God in everyone’ – echoes our rejection of that spirit.
But Yeats’ harsh phrase, ‘The best lack all conviction....’ must be taken seriously. Generosity of spirit; a willingness to acknowledge, if not respect, another’s point-of-view; the listening ear; inclusiveness, are essential to peace and growth. Fundamentalism, religious or political or whatever – ‘their way’ - on the other hand, gives rise to disrespect and exclusion.
Archimedes is supposed to have said, “Give me a place to stand, and I will move the earth.” I believe it may be said of Jesus of Nazareth that he at last found his place to stand – the place on which he was to make his last stand – and it was with that sense of conviction, or certainty, that he quite literally moved the world. For long enough we have thought of that place in terms of the love of God – but I wonder whether we ought not take the larger view. Where Jesus was - in that place - there was God.
When I think of the sermons that I have heard (and preached myself) I realise that their underlying spirit has often been an honest, but too often vain, attempt to provide answers. But what are the questions we are attempting to answer? Where are we coming from? What is the future for which we yearn?
We may not want to move the earth, but do we know where we now stand? It may be true that good people lack conviction. It need not be true if we are honest with ourselves – if we are honest in our search for truth.
Donald Phillipps