I am not a number

PrisonerNumberSIxIn the 1960s cult TV series ‘The Prisoner’, the main character, referred to as Number Six, lets out an impassioned plea, “I am not a number, I am a man”. I’m not sure when I first saw it, but it must have been one of the reruns a decade or more later; I’m too young to have seen it when it first came out. There are lots of strange things about the series. Set in the mock Italian Welsh village of Portmeirion, Number Six is an abducted intelligence agent subjected to mental torture and when he tries to escape strange white balloons come after him.

It came to mind when I was thinking about the fiasco over A Level results last week. It was always going to be a challenge to work out what to do when exams were cancelled but I can only imagine the offence caused to teachers by telling them they couldn’t be trusted to behave professionally to prevent grade inflation. There are ways to moderate their assessments, to provide evidence for their judgements.

But beyond this, there is something more subtle that concerns me. Even though there has been a U-turn, the damage is done. A whole cohort of young people have been told that their individual efforts did not count and that in effect they were just a statistical unit, a number in a modelling exercise. The father of one student locally told me that his daughter had been predicted an A* but the algorithm gave her a B because no one has ever got an A* in that subject from her school before. She is an exceptional student. This arbitrary downgrading is not healthy and sets up a distrust and a disconnect between government and those who will all have votes at the next election. “I am not a number, I am a person”.

The same statistical depersonalisation has been present in some of the Covid responses. When some seriously suggested that herd immunity would be the best way forward they were prepared to treat real people as collateral and dispensable. That word, ‘collateral’, first entered our common language chillingly during the first Gulf War. It was used to refer to civilians who were ‘in the wrong place’, not the intended target but a cost worth paying. Just War theory does not take that approach. Two of its principles are that action is to be proportionate and protecting of non-combatants.

That is why many are so concerned about nuclear capabilities in weaponry. And I’m sorry that in all of the commemorations of VE Day and VJ Day we haven’t made the same of the anniversary of two atomic bombs being dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the horrors these unleashed. We overlooked this, unfortunately. The film ‘Red Joan’, shown in cinemas last year, tells of a young nuclear physicist in the 1940s who in developing the atomic bomb realised its dangers. She decided that the safest approach was to make sure both sides had the knowledge, the British, Americans and Russians, and therefore neither would use it. So Joan shared it with the Russians. She thought, if both sides had the knowledge neither would dare use it. At the end of the film she points out it hasn’t been used since. Discuss.

One of the beauties of the gospels is that time and time again we see Jesus looking beyond the surface deeply into the person. We are known by name and honoured by name. More precious than sparrows, with even the hairs on our heads counted – with or without a lockdown haircut. Jesus calls us to follow him, loves us and knows that we have our own special gifts to share and use in the service of his kingdom.

The story of Moses (Exodus 1:8-2:10), begins with a despotic ruler who decides that genocide is a policy worth pursuing. Every male child is to be treated like vermin and murdered. The irony is that Jewishness is transmitted through the mother, but misogynistic and antisemitic Pharaoh does not seem to spot that. People again treated as statistical units of concern, depersonalised and disposable.

The gospel reading (Matthew 16:13-20) has Jesus asking his disciples who they think he is. A great statement of faith comes from Peter that he is the Messiah, the Son of the living God. This is followed by warnings that he faces the cross, which shocks them, but Jesus identifies so much with humanity that he claims no exemption from its frailty and pain. If we face it, he faces it, embraces it and redeems it.

Next (chapter 17) comes his Transfiguration, and it was on the day we celebrate this, 6th August, that the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima 75 years ago. A cloud of glory contrasts with a mushroom cloud of shame. After he comes down from the mountain the first thing he does is heal an epileptic boy. Not just a statistic and a number, but a person in need of healing.

This cloud of glory sees who we are and all of us matter. Jesus came for all of us, personally and together, but none of us are mere statistical units to be written off or ignored. That is quite a challenge when we try to live like him and share his good news. “I am not a number, I am a man”, or boy in this case.

May the love of him, who goes in search of the lost, the one sheep who is missing, give us hope and inspire us in our journey with him in faith and hope and love, for each of us matters and is precious in his sight. ‘I am not a number, I am a child of God.’

Sermon for Trinity 11, Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 23rd August 2020


About Revd Canon Ian Black

Ian is Vicar of Peterborough and Canon Residentiary of Peterborough Cathedral in the Church of England Diocese of Peterborough. He served as Rural Dean of Peterborough for 5 years. Prior to moving to Peterborough, Ian was in Leeds for 10 years in Leeds, as Vicar of Whitkirk and as a member of the Chapter of Ripon Cathedral. He has also worked in Kent in Maidstone and as priest-in-charge of a group of parishes 10 miles north west of Canterbury. He was a Minor Canon of Canterbury Cathedral, a prison chaplain and Assistant Director of Post-Ordination Training for the Diocese of Canterbury. Prior to ordination Ian had a career in tax, both with the Inland Revenue as a PAYE Auditor and a firm of Chartered Accountants as a Tax Accountant. Ian was born and grew up in Stratford-upon-Avon and is a former head chorister at Shakespeare's Church - Holy Trinity. He studied in Canterbury, Lincoln Theological College and has a Master of Divinity degree from Nottingham University. He is married with two sons. Publications include three books of prayers: Prayers for all occasions (SPCK 2011), Intercessions for Years A, B & C (SPCK 2009) and Intercessions for the Calendar of Saints and Holy Days (SPCK 2005). His most recent book, 'Follow me: living the sayings of Jesus', was published by Sacristy Press in 2017. There is a hymn based on this 'Christ the Saviour'. He has been writing online since the mid 1990s. Ian is a keen photographer and these frequently appear in his posts and on social media.
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