CHRISTIAN COMMENT: A shortage of grace

People in crime fiction have amazing memories.

The investigator asks someone what they were doing the previous day/week/month/year ...well, maybe not year... and the answer comes. Often with great precision.

If it were me, unless there was something in the diary, I’d be hard pressed. I’d be taken away on suspicion.

Same with the news. Most weeks, last week’s news is old to the point of oblivion.

Not this week. Cardinal O’Brien is still there – number two event after the Queen. Now he’s offering apology for that same ‘inappropriate behaviour’ already headlined. Not that we know what it was. Nothing criminal apparently, just way below expected standards.

The descriptive word most frequently used in blogs and news-reports is ‘hypocrite’. When the more lurid sketches of the cardinal’s sex-life are set against his diatribes against gay sex, the word seems a perfect fit. And I’m not going to argue against that.

What concerns me is the licence we in Britain give ourselves for claiming moral high-ground. “This person has shown that their moral life has flaws. They are guilty. I am therefore free to criticise.”

The alternative is to say that there is no such thing as moral high-ground, that all life-styles are equally valid, that the ‘playing-field’ is indeed level. That is so clearly destructive of how human society survives that I’ll leave it alone.

We seem to be going through a particularly nasty phase of our national life. Scathing abuse of anyone whose way of life is different from the majority seems to be normal. The Jade Goody saga of a few years back was a useful indicator but there are plenty of websites – of the ‘Chavtown’ species – that show the intensity of fear and hatred we have nationally for those who are different. And it’s all from a position of ‘My life’s right. You change.’

There was a group of Jews in Jesus’ day who made a speciality of this. They were called ‘Pharisees’. They weren’t necessarily hypocrites: they really did believe that they were meeting God’s standards for the best human lifestyle. They acted as moral watch-dogs.

On one occasion they caught a woman having sex with someone not her husband. Fair enough: if everyone kept their marriage vows, there’d be a lot less pain and grief. They dragged her off to Jesus who had been teaching about God’s best for humans. “Let’s see if this ‘teacher’ obeys the moral law. If he’s as he should be, he’ll join in stoning her. If not, we’ll know he’s a fraud.” [‘Stoning’... good metaphor for how we assault those who become media targets.]

They stood her in front of Jesus. “You know what God’s law says. What are you going to do?” they said and waited.

Jesus paid no attention but started to doodle on the ground – a bit like someone starting to fiddle with their iPhone when you’ve just asked them something. They kept on at him and at last he stood up and said, “Anyone whose life is above criticism, anyone who’s perfect – they can throw the first stone.”

Bit of a shock, that. There was a pause. People began to drift off, ashamed, till no-one was left except the woman.

“Doesn’t anyone condemn you, then?” said Jesus when he looked up. “No-one, sir.” “Then neither do I. Off you go but live right in future.” My guess is she’d be so relieved and grateful, she’d probably do just that.

We could all do with more grace.

By Nigel O’Dwyer, who leads Goring New Life Church, and lives and works in Worthing.