The centre cannot hold

A comment caught my eye in the Tablet recently about the Irish referendum to change the Constitution so as to allow for legislation legalising abortion within limits yet to be determined.

“All referendums seem to have a tendency to force moderate opinion to migrate to one extreme or the other, so that by the end of the campaigning, the centre ground is deserted.”

This is a striking observation.  Those against the change argued passionately about the right of life of the unborn. Those in favour of change argued passionately for the right of women to make up their own minds without being told what to do by either church or state.  Neither side seem to have struggled to find a middle ground; they were not listening to each other.

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.

W.B. Yeats, The Second Coming

I arrived in what is now Zimbabwe 52 years ago into a deeply divided country.  Although the two sides were unequal in terms of political leverage, neither seemed willing to seriously explore the middle ground.  The result was a “migration to the extremes” and a war that left about 60,000 people dead.

It seems to take unusual insight and courage to promote the middle ground.  It is easier and “clearer” to hold an extreme position.  We can see this happening again in Europe today where a growing number of countries in the Union are opting for a “simple” solution to the migrants: keep them out.  Pope Francis, on the other hand, is saying “welcome, protect, promote and integrate” them. He is criticised as his tiny country, the Vatican, obviously cannot do what he is telling others to do.

But that is not his role.  He is a spiritual leader and his task is to shine the light of the gospels on the issues of the day.  This year we celebrate the Birthday of John the Baptist on a Sunday so John is pushing what would normally be the Twelfth Sunday aside, as the Church sees John as a key figure.  But John’s role was to wake people up: he was a bit of an extremist!  He preached judgement: “Brood of vipers,” he told the Pharisees and Sadducees, “who warned you to flee from the coming retribution?”  Yet when Jesus came he judged no one.  He fulfilled the words of Isaiah: “He will not break a bruised reed or quench a smouldering wick.”

Jesus is not an extremist, in the sense of being a fundamentalist.  He takes us where we are now. But he is demanding: he asks us to move to new ground where we are reconciled with our brothers and sisters.  This means exploring the “middle ground”.  This seems to be so difficult for us.  We find it so much easier to exclude others and build a wall around us to keep others out.  But this is not the way forward.

24 June 2018               Birthday of John the Baptist

Isaiah 49:1-6                Acts 13:22-26                          Luke 1:57-66, 80

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