This week on Newsnight we saw a minor miracle. I sat there open mouthed as there was actually a news report about the Street Angels of Magaluf. More to the point the segment ended with the words, ‘The street angels say that they are not here to judge but just here to help’. Street Angels are a similar charity to Street Pastors, which operate down in Shrewsbury. A friend of my wife was helped by them a few weeks ago. Basically, when you’ve had too much to drink you put yourself in danger, so the Street Angels or Street Pastors, help you out. They give water, first aid and take you home or to a taxi. We used to have Street Pastors in my last parish in Chorley. You can watch the report here.
This report got me thinking about our society and who exactly does the judging. The judgemental religious person is well known stereotype, bit like the Welshman who sings all the time. Like many stereotypes there is an element of truth here. Yes there is the grumpy old woman in church who tuts at the kids. The strange Vicar who preaches fire and brimstone. Perhaps these characters were commonplace in the past or perhaps they were as much of a mythology then too.
In recent years though I have noticed that it is Church along with others who help and get told off for doing so. The foodbank in town in a good example. Across the country today over a million people use foodbanks, the vast majority of them are set up by churches. The reaction that you get is mixed at best. People say that it is only the scroungers who come for food and that you shouldn’t help people who don’t deserve it. It’s a regular in the tabloids like the Daily Mail. We are told that we shouldn’t help. We should judge these people back to virtue and out of poverty that is of their own making. Sadly a minority of practising Christians share this view also.
I encounter similar attitudes to the local Debt Relief centre, run through Christians Against Poverty. We hear, ‘But why are they in debt its their own fault.’ ‘If they lived within their means this wouldn’t happen’ and ‘They don’t deserve any help because they have brought it on themselves’. These statements may be partly true in some cases, but you can’t judge someone out of debt. You can nurture people out of debt though.
In the town we are hoping to set up a Christians Against Poverty Job Club. I’m sure that we will hear similar things when this becomes a reality.
There is a moment in the film where the journalist asks if working as a Street Angel ever made him doubt his faith. The guy replied that it made his faith stronger. I sometimes wonder how God could love us as humans, when we end up in such a mess. As a priest I see people week in week out who are pressing the self destruct button. People who seem almost determined to destroy their lives and everyone else around them. It is easy to begin to see yourself as superior. Just like the Jeremy Kyle show invites us all to look down at those in misery, we can fall into this trap.
But when we do stand back and judge others, tut and shake our heads, we forget an uncomfortable fact. The person who we judge could be me. If we are honest there is not a great deal separating all of us from those we judge. In fact quite often the faults we see within the other are reflections of our own failings. If I think about the people who I grew up with, some have been to jail, some have died and one is a rich economist. There are just a few bad choices that separate those who went to jail and me. Helping someone is always a risk, some will not accept the help, some will let you and themselves down and some will flourish. There is no risk in judgement, we just make ourselves feel better and superior for a second. Judgement is the coward’s way really, it is when we refuse to take the risk and help.
The guy in the video said that being a Street Angel is what Jesus would have done. Being in the pubs and clubs is where Jesus hung out. Then just like today people mocked and judged him for it. Last year in the UK the churches contributed 3.5 billion to society, this has increased significantly since 2010. We are called to be the hands and feet of God and it is only through compassion that we can reveal God to others and to ourselves.
People often think about prayer as some kind of magic spell. This understanding confuses me as prayer is essentially a conversation. When I trained for the priesthood the monks there taught us about the two tables in the church. The table of the Eucharist and the table of the community. There is no point in being fed with the bread and wine at communion and then not feeding the community. As the Pope puts it, ‘You pray for the hungry and you feed them that’s how prayer works.’
If we stand in judgement and help only those who we think deserve it, then we won’t help hardly anyone. That’s why judgement is easier than service. Because unless we fight the judgemental, Jeremy Kyle within us all, then the world will continue to be the way it is.