12Always treat others as you would like them to treat you: that is the law and the prophets.
Matthew 7:12 – REB
It might be one of the legacies of lockdown, but almost every day, I hear in our media worryingly angry, aggressive criticism of others. This has been a growing trend for some years. I’ve found over my lifetime that it’s generally better for one’s mental health, to try to accept that the vast majority of people are not unlike I am – mistaken routinely; weak and human all the time; selfish, thoughtless and angry occasionally and permanently in need of forgiveness and redemption. Is it good for us, to consider ourselves better than others, and view the world as full of people who are evil? Is it not curious that those whom we prefer to think of as ‘evil’, tend to be those with whom we disagree?
In recent months, I’ve more than once heard a news presenter suggest that our government has been lying deliberately in order to cover up its incompetence. I’ve also – astonishingly – heard it suggested that the government has deliberately targeted certain groups of citizens, in the hope that they would die of COVID. And the entire long-term debate around PPE and Testing has been characterised by an assumption that our government would wish, deliberately to withhold PPE and Testing from those who need it. Nobody ever seems to ask why any sane, rational person would wish to do that. I’m no apologist for this, or indeed any government. I’ve voted for all three main political parties at various times in my life, and I’ve never been a member of any of them. But I do generally tend to the view that with weak human-beings involved, ‘mess-ups’ are far more likely than ‘conspiracies’. I’ve run several companies, with hundreds of employees, and by-and-large I’ve found that almost every one of them got out of bed every morning, determined to do their best, with events often conspiring against them.
I’ve fairly recently seen a banner that said: ‘If you’re not angry, then you aren’t paying attention’, which is apparently a quotation from a multi-millionaire American punk rock musician.
It is, of course, perfectly reasonable to understand and sympathise with those who’ve been cooped up in a flat with no garden, with bored kids at home and nowhere for them to go to play for many weeks. You could say that they’ve earned the right to be upset.
But what might be the long-term effect on people, of promulgating and even celebrating anger? And what is it that’s caused our world suddenly to be so full of aggressive people, intent on violence against others that they’ve never met? Why do they give those people absolutely no room for compassion, sympathy or understanding?
I don’t personally engage in social media (this site is as near to it as I get) but I’ve become aware that on social media sites, people are prepared, if not positively keen, to say things to others that they’d never dream of saying to another human being to their face. And it’s all too easy for the media to promulgate the idea that the government (and everyone who works for it) is malign and evil. Do we actually think that the world is so simple that every single mistake that might have been made in the last four months, has been made by our Prime Minister himself and his famous ‘senior adviser’? When our Prime Minister was extremely ill himself, it crossed my mind that it might temper some of the most vitriolic views about him. After all, as a people would we not naturally sympathise with those we know, who’ve been close to death, so soon after the arrival of a baby? But I was wrong – it appears that there are people who genuinely think that his illness was a hoax, or that he deserves opprobrium rather than sympathy. Is he genuinely so evil that we can’t find it in our hearts to sympathise with the incredibly finely-balanced decisions that he and his ministers have had to make? Consider the following questions:
- The Behavioural Scientists advise you that lockdown will only be effective if terminated quite rapidly. Do you lock down earlier, in the hope that the virus will disappear quicker, or later, expecting a long period of growth in cases?
- Do you stop all people flying back from affected areas at the start? What about your own estimated 350,000 citizens trapped after holidays abroad? Heathrow alone sees over 6 million passengers per month (prior to COVID). If you decide to quarantine them, where will you put them all? And how do you ensure compliance on such a massive scale?
- There’s a period of many weeks when PPE cannot be obtained anywhere in the world, even at premium prices. Do you ignore this and make masks compulsory anyway, rather than waiting for supply to catch up?
- You’re informed that there are thousands of elderly people in hospitals at the start of the pandemic. Do you just leave them there?
- You’re asked for precise, detailed advice about some industries that you’ve scarcely even heard of. Do you give it, or open yourself to criticism that your advice is imprecise, or ask people to decide for themselves, as they know their businesses better than you do?
- Some serious mistakes are made by the Civil Service, whilst under perhaps their greatest pressure since WW2. Do you denounce them publicly, or take it on the chin?
- Countries you thought of as close allies deny you access to the elements you need to produce test kits in the quantity required. Do you blame them for the lack of testing, or take it on the chin and restrict testing to the highest risk areas?
There are many hundreds of very finely balanced questions like these. If you feel you can answer all of them, with absolute certainty that you’re right (and without applying hindsight), then maybe you should be Prime Minister and maybe you have a right to criticise the government aggressively. But can you?
I can’t think of anything that I’d like to do less than make major decisions during COVID.
The quotation above from Matthew is often referred to as ‘The Golden Rule’ and it takes one form or another in all of the world’s major religions, maybe because it’s such a good maxim for life, at any time and in any place. Has the decline of faith in general, and this kind of moral teaching specifically, left us with no sense of moral direction, just a burning, aggressive anger?
It seems to me that people need a moral compass more than ever at the moment, and at precisely this moment many seniors in our Church have, instead of showing compassion, simply joined in the rancour, as yet more angry, selfish observers. I pray that one day, our Church will be able to show the world a different (and far more compassionate) way – the way of Christ himself, as underlined by him in the quotation from Matthew, and not just join in the general abuse of those in government who’ve been doing their best, under impossibly difficult circumstances. Amen