Reading Luke 19.41-20.08
Preacher Canon Robert Titley
As Jesus came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, ‘If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace!’
Jesus’ lament over the city ofJerusalem never ceases to come up fresh, for there is always something to lament over in our own times. Today is no exception, as Jesus’ anger and sorrow finds its echo in all the outcry against journalistic phone hacking – ‘How could they do that? How have we come to this?’
And ‘we’ it is: look at the present predicament and it quickly defies attempts to locate the sin safely in a few ‘wrongdoers’. Both Conservative and Labour cosied up to the Murdoch empire – and perhaps they had to, for up to now News International has been to the media world what the People’s Republic of China is to the global economy: whatever you think about its ethics you have had to be on good terms with it. The great British public who are so appalled by this wrongdoing supplied the five million a week who bought the News of the World, and the many more who read it, along with other papers that may well be found to have behaved similarly. And those who would never read the NoW have read its serious, loss-making stable-mates in News International, kept afloat by its success. And how many of us have never been titillated by the red top headline in the newsagent? So the events of these past days not only show behaviour that we rightly condemn, but they also hold up a mirror to our society, to what we have encouraged, or tolerated, or ignored.
How could they do that? How have we come to this? You could add, and how much does this matter? This was also the week of more death inAfghanistan, famine in East Africa, the birth of a new nation inSouth Sudan; but then I remember that phone hacking has been used in covering one of these stories too: so this is not just a rival piece of news but it is news about how the news is gathered.
Jesus’ cry over the city contains a warning that its enemies will overwhelm it – as happened in AD70 when the Romans crushed a Jewish revolt and sackedJerusalem. Tomorrow the church keeps the feast day of someone whose life could be said to be sustained response to that anguish of Jesus overJerusalem. St Benedict was born in Nursia, centralItaly, around the year 480. As a young man he went to study in the great city ofRome. Appalled by its cynicism and corruption, Benedict got out of town and went to live as a hermit. He did not intend to found some counter-cultural community but a community found him: Benedict quickly attracted disciples and a movement gained momentum around him, so he began to establish small monasteries in the area. After a dispute that nearly cost him his life, Benedict and the monks who were loyal to him moved to Monte Cassino in about 525. Benedict’s disgust with theRomeof his day came at a time when the empire was in danger; just as Jesus’Jerusalemwas threatened by the power ofRome, so Benedict’sRomeitself was threatened by the barbarians on its borders. And as the empire began to break up, the many monasteries and convents inspired by Benedict example, and the way of life he mapped out, became treasuries of the virtue and learning that were endangered and sometimes lost as the old world passed away.
So times were bad then. So how bad are they now? What lament should we pronounce over the city? Are the barbarians at the borders? Or (as some argue) have they been in power for some time, and this week’s events have at last put them on notice? I have to confess that the claims for a brave new world for our press and our public life seem to me to be overblown, or at lest premature – though I hope I’m wrong. Will the public appetite for the stories that sell papers fade, now we know how the stories are harvested? I wonder. Will it be easier now for someone in the newsroom to speak out against wrongdoing? There is a depressing piece by Nock Cohen in today’s Observer which describes cowed journalists as part of a wider malaise of silence: he describes the fate of the banking risk manager who told his superiors in HBOS that they were lending recklessly – redundancy, then no job offers in banking, though he seems to be rather good at what he does; and the doctor cited by the British Medical Journal, who raised concerns over unsafe surgery – he had to go to Australia to find work; and others. This, says Cohen, explains the silence, and what he brutally calls the ‘the cowardice of the average British citizen’.
There is much talk about how the press must be regulated in the future, and regulation was something Benedict knew all about. It was hierarchies of a rather worse kind that so appalled him in Rome, and when men and women became drawn to his defiant rejection of all that, he regulated: he drew up his own ‘regula’, or Rule, to order the lives of his brothers and sisters. Its approach to hierarchy is remarkable, the more so as it comes out of society where slavery was everywhere and the power of wealth and position were unbridled. Benedict takes leadership and power seriously: he says clearly that the junior owe obedience to the senior, but he is no friend of authoritarianism. Here, in Chapter III of the Rule, he describes how decisions are made.
Let the abbot convoke the whole community and himself state what is the matter in hand. And having listened to the counsel of the brethren, let him settle the matter in his own mind and do what seems to him most expedient. And we have thus said that all are to be called to council, because it is often to a junior that the Lord reveals what is best…
Let the abbot himself…do all in the fear of God and according to the Rule; knowing that he will, beyond all doubt, have to render account of all his own judgments to God the most just Judge.
I’m not so naïve as to imagine a newsroom or boardroom can be run like a monastery, but here are principles that any organisation would be healthier for promoting: a listening leadership, an encouragement to the junior to speak, an authority that binds the shepherd as well as the sheep.
Benedict did not dream this up. Again and again in the Rule he quotes scripture, and offers it as his response to the gospel, to what has been called ‘the politics of the body of Christ’. And we can find much in it to give some edge to the contribution that Christians should surely make as anger and lament give way to the debate about how to order our public life. Of course, we must be bound by the principles we seek to bind upon others, which is to say that each one of us can benefit from a regulated life. So when you or I are next attracted by a headline in the newsagent or on the web, let us give ear to Benedict;
What are the instruments of good works?
In the first place, to love the Lord God with the whole heart, the whole soul and the whole strength,
and [to love] one’s neighbour as if oneself;
to honour all;
to do as one would be done by;
not to hate anyone;
not to harbour jealousy;
not to love contention;
and [when we fail, as we surely will] never to despair of the mercy of God.
The Rule of St Benedict is online: http://oll.libertyfund.org/index.php?option=com_staticxt&staticfile=show.php%3Ftitle=2202&Itemid=27