Oxfam has come in for quite a pasting this week. Shocking revelations and accusations have been made that some of those who were working to bring relief to the suffering of the most desperate and impoverished people had been taking sexual advantage of them. Some of those named have denied the accusations and claimed the stories have been embellished. Others have said that this kind of behaviour has been known about. Specifics may vary but there is a general story that not everyone who works in an aid agency can be trusted. While it shocks us we know all agencies have to have good and robust safeguarding policies and working practices. There is a darkness in the human heart that will look for the places of greatest vulnerability and seek to exploit them.
There was an interesting article in the Financial Times yesterday by Tim Harford, who calls himself the undercover economist. He wrote about ‘the psychology of righteous outrage’ and how emotions can be escalated or reduced by the ‘leniency shift’ or the ‘severity shift’. In other words if the trend around us is angry we can find ourselves getting angrier than we might otherwise have done, even if some anger is totally understandable. If the trend is more mitigating then there can be a reduction in how severe we see it to be. To show this, he quotes various studies, one into how juries behave and another reflecting on the Donald Trump phenomena. Xenophobic views prevailed in the United States but were largely underground, not expressed or if they were only anonymously before Donald Trump gave them public form. Then people came out of the shadows and owned the hatreds they had kept hidden. Juries can display the leniency shift if they think a crime was trivial and conversely the group’s verdict can be more severe than any individual may produce on their own. They egg each other on in both directions.
The danger with the Oxfam story, as tempers rise understandably, is that we are vulnerable to those who have a political agenda to reduce the aid budget. And The Times newspaper, which broke the story and has kept it going, is not neutral on this. Oxfam and other aid agencies do tremendous work, saving and transforming lives. They do it in extremely difficult situations, sometimes at great personal risk. And because they work in highly compromised political environments they are quite self-reflective and wonder whether they are really doing good sometimes. Asessing the benefits is complex. How much do they help, how much are they actually shoring up oppressive regimes by feeding the hungry whose hunger is partly caused by corruption and how much are they really able to transform a situation? Some places are so broken that it will take much more than the food and medicine trucks to solve them. They do what they can, where they can. Such then is the need for robust checks and balances, to ensure that those who go have motives that will be liberating and life enhancing, and not ones that will exploit.
Sitting alongside this is this morning we are given the story of Noah, which were heard part of as our first reading (Genesis 9:8-17). We heard the section about the rainbow as the sign of hope and promise. It’s the theme that runs through the whole bible. God’s love is unfailing and enduring. There will be storm, there will be darkness, there will be rebellion and rejection, but God loves the creation he has made and will never let go of it, whatever. The temptation is always to go for the severity shift, to be outraged and call for the annihilation of all who fall short. That is the first part of the story of Noah with the flood. Just turn it off and on again, and all will be well. What of course that does not do is address the underlying bugs and flaws that cause the crash in the system in the first place. That is part of the hardwiring and no software update will solve that. That too is a theme in the story of Noah. Truly Oxfam and others have to look at how they protect, ensure respect and secure the wellbeing of those in their care. And they have admitted to procedural changes that they have had to make. The Church of England and every other institution observe this from their own glass houses. We are institutions made up of human beings and have to address the darkness within us all.
The story of Noah begins with severity shift. The people are so wicked that the only solution offered is to destroy them. It is a psychotic outlook being displayed, one exhibited by apocalyptic serial killers and those who go on gun rampages. And the point of the story is to emphasise this. It is a journey of the imagination, a thought experiment. Let’s suppose for a moment that God could start again. How would that turn out? Keep reading and we find out. It turns out the same. What is needed is a fresh think. Not one of annihilation, but one of self-giving love that inspires, redeems and changes hatreds into love. It does this through coming alongside and revealing a better way. And that love is shown and brought to effect through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Yes there is challenge, and Jesus challenged. Yes there is argument and debate, and Jesus engaged in both of these with passion and force. And yes there is incredible compassion and love shown to those often regarded as unlovable, excluded, untouchable and outcast. Rich officials, occupying forces, women caught in adultery or with a colourful past in a conversation at a well, those with long-term medical ailments; all of these are just a few of those whose lives he transformed by his loving embrace, honouring and being set free from the severity shift they all suffered under. And he did it without falling into the corresponding leniency shift of nothing matters, of trivialising.
The story of the rainbow calls on us to take stock after the storm, even during it. As the sun of righteousness shines through the gloom and is refracted in the water droplets, revealing the multi-coloured splendor of its hidden spectrum, so it reminds us of the love that sets us free from all that would weigh us down and condemn. Called to live differently, to be transformed by grace, we walk on in hope and thanksgiving, sharing the generous love of God.
Sermon preached at Peterborough Parish Church, Lent 1 – Sunday 18th February 2018