One bright light in the dark and sinister events of south Belfast this week was the way in which members of the City Church provided a haven and a sanctuary for those who were in danger. In responding so quickly and effectively, the church showed the difference the gospel can make in a difficult and tense situation.
The problem of dealing with difference and diversity is a global one, and one which is not unfamiliar to those of us who have lived in Northern Ireland these past 40 years. How should we respond to social and cultural diversity? Should we try to exclude people who are different from us, or should we learn to embrace them?
Recent history has given us numerous examples of exclusion. Whether it is the tension between Serbs and Croats, Hutus and Tutsis, Republicans and Loyalists, or blacks and whites, the instinctive sinful tendency of human hearts is to try to create a world where those who are different, the “other”, do not exist. The attempt to exclude Romanians from south Belfast is just another episode in that long-running pattern of sinful behaviour.
In a very powerful political theology, “Exclusion and Embrace”, Miroslav Wolf traces this pattern of exclusion to the Old Testament story of Cain and Abel. Cain could not live in a world with a brother who was different from him, and so he tried to create his own world where the “other” was totally excluded. He wanted to live in a world without diversity where the only inhabitants were people who were just like him and his group.
This story is not just a snapshot of an isolated incident. It is a kind of pattern that will appear again and again in the Bible and in human history. From the dawn of the human race, says Genesis 4, human beings have clashed over their differences, not just differences of opinion, but much more profoundly, differences of wealth, status, race, gender, intelligence, physical attractiveness and achievement.
It is against this dark background of envy and anger that the light of the Gospel shines most brightly. Christians believe that Jesus Christ represented both innocent Abel and guilty Cain and reconciled them to each other and to God. Jesus Christ, the naturally innocent one, the natural Abel, “became sin” for us (2 Corinthians 5:21). On resurrection morning God raised the victim of envy and exclusion to new life, the one whose blood had been crying out from the ground for so many centuries.
It is on that event that Christians centre their hopes for a new world where people from different backgrounds and ethnicities, through faith in the crucified and risen Christ, come to share a new identity. Rather than excluding each other, they embrace one another in love and grace.
The members of City Church showed that already that new world has begun to dawn in the midst of the darkness of sinful hostilities. The challenge is for Christians in every town and community to show the same grace and compassion, to embrace those who are different, and not try to exclude them. Christianity is all about passion for Christ and compassion for people.