Monday, June 15, 2015

Willful Blindness


Earlier this week the Houses of Parliament hosted an event in which the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar met to discuss the contributions of their religions to peace in the world.  One MP took to Twitter to describe a conversation at the gate to the Palace of Westminster.  A man in a dog collar approached a policeman to gain entry.  ‘You here for the thing with the Archbishop of Canterbury’, said the policeman.  ‘I am the Archbishop of Canterbury’, replied the cleric.

In our first reading, Jeremiah is railing against those who look to particular practices and accomplishments as proof that they are safe from the judgement of God.  “Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord.’” he warns his people. There is no complex theology in this warning, no difficult to read message.  It is very simple.  People are stealing, murdering, committing adultery, swearing falsely, making offerings to Baal and going after other Gods, and then going to the Temple and thinking ‘We are safe’.  In his short charge sheet, Jeremiah says that it is no good systematically breaking the Ten Commandments and then going to the Temple and expecting to receive God’s mercy.

I think that Jeremiah’s contemporaries are suffering from a peculiarly advanced state of ‘willful blindness’.  Willful Blindness is, in origin, a legal term that states that if you could have known something and should have known something, but chose not to know, then you are still responsible.  The writer Margaret Heffernan has identified a number of factors that make us more likely to succumb to willful blindness: power, self-interest, ideologies, money, obedience to authority, peer pressure, all of these can contribute to our being willfully blind.  Willful blindness is not difficult to spot in our world.  Think of Rupert Murdoch and the phone hacking scandal; chairmen of banks in the crash; the Church and the child abuse scandal.  For a variety of reasons, all were willfully blind.

But willful blindness is not something that just afflicts those on the front pages of the newspapers.  It is something that we are prone to as well.  Whether it is unhealthy eating and drinking, when we know it is not good for us; or our avoidance of the need for change to avoid environmental catastrophe; or our reluctance to pay tax, and to contribute to the common good.  As individuals we are bad at this; as groups and as a society we are worse.  We are willfully blind.

Our willful blindness is reinforced by the way that we tend to hear only from those with whom we agree.  The newspapers that we read, tend to tell us things that reinforce a particular world-view.  Social media is worse.  Research tells of how people using social media can hear the same things over and over again and mistake it for the whole truth. 

How then do we escape from willful blindness.  Margaret Heffernan tells the story of a man who refused to work with Enron, even as most of his competitors beat a path to its door.  He had spent his childhood pushing his sister to school in a wheelchair, and it gave him a perspective from which he could ask important questions.  Walking with the powerless and outsiders, hearing the voices of people who have a very different perspective on life to ourselves.  Theses are important steps in curing our willful blindness.  Jeremiah is, predictably, blunter.  “Amend your ways and your doings” he tells his people.  Tell the truth, and act in the light of the truth.  It might not be comfortable, but that is the only path to a good outcome.

As the people of God we are called to tell the truth, even when it is hard and uncomfortable; even when it implicates us in the problem; even when it means that we have to change.  Truth is not about acknowledging an intellectual matter and then acting in a different way.  It is about joining up our ‘ways and our doings’ with the truth.  As Christians, we are to speak the truth, and act in its light.  And if we are to do this, if we are to avoid a willful blindness, then we need to listen to those who have different experiences to us and spend time with those who have no power.

Jesus calls his disciples to be the ‘leaven in the lump’, to be the small agent that enables the larger whole to change.  Paul, in our second reading, calls on God’s people to be the ‘objects of mercy’.  A better translation would be the ‘vessels of mercy’.  These vessels of mercy are not there for their own sake – to collect God’s mercy in beautiful containers.  Rather we are to be vessels of mercy that pour out that mercy on others.  We are to be truth-tellers, so that the truth may set us and the whole world free.

Which leaves only with a question.  What are the truths to which we are willfully blind, and how will we stretch our understanding of the truth to learn to spot them and to speak those truths not only with our mouths but with the whole of our lives?


First given at Evensong, Derby Cathedral 14.6.15. 

No comments: