In a poll that was taken last summer by the Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey, it was found that 79% of people claim to have some religious affiliation. Of course, this does not mean that the affiliation is deep, or important, or genuine; it may mean just that we are ashamed not to claim it. Certainly compared to the Republic or rest of the UK, it is the case that religion has a huge and vocal influence over public life and policy here. I’ve sometimes heard us called ‘Europe’s Bible belt’, and given the proliferation of churches and religious organisations, as well as the frequent contributions by religious spokespeople in the press, and the way religion underpins so much political and social discourse, perhaps this moniker is justified. And yet the shocking fact is that- notwithstanding all this Christianity – we have developed something of a reputation as the race hate capital of the world.
Quoting from another recent Human Beliefs and Values Survey, Northern Ireland ‘has the highest proportion of bigoted people in the Western world… (and) the bigots are on average more bigoted than those in other countries’. The study reported that 44% of people in Northern Ireland ‘did not want someone from at least one of the five following groups living next door to them: homosexuals; immigrants or foreign workers; Muslims; Jews; or someone from another race’. Understandably, some might look at this moral sickness (among many others) as the direct result of religion’s disproportionate influence and yearn for the day when it is knocked from its pedestal altogether.
And yet others of us are willing to hold on – even if it is just by our fingernails at times – to try and reclaim it from its distortion and abuse, and recover what we believe to be at the heart of its message and meaning. But, in a world of multiple denominations and creeds, who could be decisive about what that might be?
Well actually we are explicitly told what it is. The greatest word in Christianity is a Greek word, so important and significant, that it takes an entire chapter of the new testament to try and define it. That word is agape:
Though I speak with the tongues of men and angels and have not agape I am become as sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal
And though I have the gift of prophecy and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not agape, I am nothing
And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not agape, it profits me nothing
Essentially, bringing it all down to the boil – this is what religion has to say to the world: you can have all these other things, education, technology, wealth, knowledge, power, status, reputation, faith, all these things. But if you do not have the one thing needful, which is agape, you never have enough. And its absence will make all the rest pale into the shadows anyway.
What does agape mean though? Over the centuries it has been translated in various ways from the Greek. When the bible was first published in English over 400 years ago, it was translated as ‘charity’ – but with the passage of time the meaning of words sometimes changes, and in our modern language charity means the same thing as philanthropy, or ‘do-goodism’, and so therefore will not suffice anymore.
Mostly these days it gets translated ‘love’, which is undoubtedly better than charity, and everyone knows love is indeed the greatest thing in the world. But it may still be problematic because each of us hear and interpret the word love differently. Type ‘love’ into google and over 12.4 billion results will show up on your search engine! Maybe even this great word doesn’t go deep enough.
For that reason some of the best contemporary scholars have suggested that there may be an adequate substitute: the basic word ‘care’ or ‘caring’. So then we can read –
Though I speak with the tongues of men and angels, and do not care, I am become as a sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have all knowledge, and all faith to remove the mountains, but do not care, I am nothing.
Caring suffers long, and is kind; does not envy; is not puffed up; seeks not its own, is not easily provoked; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things
Caring never ends
And now abides faith, hope, caring, these three; but the greatest of these is caring
When I first encountered this translation, I thought it a bit too mild, too gentle (remember the soft and lovely Care Bears, from the 80s?). But the more I thought on it, it occurred to me that the exact opposite is true. This is a gutsy word, robust, and practical and full of investment – not for the fainthearted! And sad to say, often not the thing a lot of folks who claim to have faith are known for.
Caring implies risk and courage, the willingness to stick your neck out and go out on a limb. It means the opposite of cool detachment, judging as from a superior eminence but never getting drawn in. To care is not the safe option! Because, if you care greatly about a person, about a movement or cause, you always run the risk of hurt and pain and make a terrific gamble. As C.S. Lewis says ‘Love anything, and your heart will be wrung, and possible broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully around with hobbies and little luxuries, avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket of your own selfishness.’
It takes real courage to care; for caring is dangerous. It is the opposite of security. But all the greatest things in the world come by involvement. How do you really know another person? By standing off and looking at him, critically, objectively, detachedly? You won’t know very much about him that way, because you can never really know another person unless somehow you become involved with them; you see that other person’s life as from the inside, to look at the world through his eyes. Agape. We sometimes say that love is blind, meaning that it hides from us the defects of the beloved; and there’s a little truth in this – but not very much. The far greater truth is that love is the means of knowledge, that it is only by caring greatly for another person that you begin to notice who that other person is – and that can turn all your previous assumptions right on their head!
One of the most impactful things I ever read was a speech given at the White House in 1999, by Holocaust survivor and Nobel Laureate Elie Weisel. I remember I was travelling home on a 5-hour train journey from Cork city and I sobbed almost for a full hour after having read it. His speech, given before the Clinton administration, was entitled ‘The Perils of Indifference’, and it passionately demonstrated how the real opposite of love is not hatred, but indifference. After all, hatred and anger can be creative – people have been known to accomplish great things out of anger, e.g. anger/hatred at certain forms of injustice. But indifference simply doesn’t care. Its voice is silent, it’s eyes look the other way, it remains the bystander, because it’s just too awkward, too inconvenient to be involved in another person’s pain and despair. Yes, indifference is more deadly than anything.
“In the place that I come from, society was composed of three simple categories: the killers, the victims, and the bystanders. During the darkest of times, inside the ghettoes and death camps, we felt abandoned, forgotten. All of us did.
And our only miserable consolation was that we believed that Auschwitz and Treblinka were closely guarded secrets; that the leaders of the free world did not know what was going on behind those black gates and barbed wire. If they knew, we thought, surely those leaders would have moved heaven and earth to intervene. They would have spoken out with great outrage and conviction. They would have bombed the railways leading to Birkenau, just the railways, just once.
And now we knew, we learned, we discovered that the Pentagon knew, the State Department knew.
What happened? I don’t understand. Why the indifference, on the highest level, to the suffering of the victims?”
And though I have all faith so that I could remove the mountains, and have not agape / do not care / remain indifferent, I am nothing.
For that reason, I often take comfort in the response Mother Teresa gave one day, when she was asked about changing the world. ‘Never worry about numbers’ she said. ‘Love one person at a time, and always start with the person nearest you.’