Renewing our vision and instincts
What ideas about human living do you need to ‘give up’, and ‘put on’, to help your vision to see, and your instincts to show, signs of God’s coming Kingdom? By Michael Peat
I find the opening scene of the 1993 film In the Name of the Father to be particularly powerful. The film is based on the true story of four people (the “Guildford Four”) wrongly convicted and imprisoned for the IRA’s bombing of two pubs in Guildford in October 1974.
The opening scene takes us to Belfast in the early 70s, to a neighbourhood overshadowed by hostility, where clashes between British military forces and IRA gunmen are commonplace. Jerry Conlan (played by Daniel Day-Lewis) is a young man we first see stealing lead from the roof of a house. On finding a piece of piping, Jerry can’t resist using it to aid his - tuneless but exuberant – air guitar rendition of the opening riff from Jimi Hendrix’s song Voodoo Child (Slight Return).
But this is a place where British soldiers are constantly on the look-out for snipers. So when a British patrol catches a glimpse of Jerry dancing with the piping that he imagines as a guitar, their own imagination screams ‘sniper’s rifle’: their immediate instinct is get their shot in first. The soldier’s shot is a near miss, but the chase that ensues lights the touchpaper for a riotous stand-off between local residents and soldiers. Five minutes of footage encapsulates the volatility of Belfast in the thick of ‘The Troubles’, and introduces themes that will run through the whole film: paranoia, misinformation, premature judgement, and the fateful consequences of just being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
In their renowned book Resident Aliens, Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon suggest that ‘Ethics is a way of seeing before it is a way of doing.'
Their point is that we can only act well if we learn to see the world around us with a vision shaped by the Gospel. We don’t learn this from a one-off ‘how to’ course, but through constant training in the practices that are part and parcel of belonging to the body of Christ (worship, exploring scripture in community, mission and so on).
At a surface level, the film scene I have described clearly bears out the truth of seeing before doing: If the soldiers could have recognised that it was only a piece of piping that Jerry was waving about, presumably none of them would have taken a shot at him.
But at a deeper level, I wonder if it wasn’t just the awkward angle that hindered their recognition but the moral vision that shaped their imaginations and habits of thought. The narration at the beginning of this scene points out that soldiers on the street were ‘terrified of the civilian population, any one of whom could be an IRA gunman’. Could it be that the assumptions these soldiers brought with them (understandably in that context) made it that much harder to distinguish a ‘piping-enriched’ moment of joy amidst division from the gun barrel of sniper who needed to be pre-emptively taken out? I should add that not one soldier in a patrol of several thought to question the claim that Jerry was a dangerous sniper.
This scene also shows that moral judgements cannot always be made with the luxury of slow deliberation, by applying time-honoured theories at our desks, or after mulling it over with friends in a café or pub (if you can still remember such times!). In reality, moral judgements often need to be instinctive reactions to situations that catch us unawares. This is one reason why several Christian thinkers (Hauerwas being one) have wanted to emphasise that ethics is not just about understanding and applying rules, but about how everyday actions shape who we are as people.
The thinking goes that as we learn to see the world with a gospel-drenched vision, we learn the right virtues to make a habit of enacting. In doing so, our characters develop in more wholesome ways and fitting actions happen increasingly by instinct, in everyday moments as well as in moments that are surprising and urgent. A cyclical process emerges whereby we continue to nurture our vision, character and habits by what we do, so that they remain fit for purpose (google ‘virtue ethics’ for more details).
There are versions of this approach that do not look to the Christian gospel to resource their moral vision. But to understand it in thoroughly Christian terms, we might consider Paul’s teaching in 1 Thessalonians 5: 8 – 10:
‘But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him.’
Paul is inviting us to ‘put on’ protective clothing that we are to keep wearing: faith, love and hope of salvation. I hope I am not doing Paul’s teaching a disservice by pressing his metaphor a little further and suggesting that habitually wearing these things can enable them to become more familiar to us over time. ‘Armour’ that starts out feeling alien and awkward to move in becomes gradually more natural to wear, so much so that there may come a time when we are barely conscious of the part they are playing in our everyday lives.
We ‘put on’ faith, love and hope of salvation to shape our vision and fit our habits to it. To ‘belong to the day’ is to envisage the time we experience as ‘penultimate’, as the Christian martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer called it. God’s promise ultimately to renew all creation has been confirmed by Jesus’ resurrection.
But we live now before God’s renewal is complete. This is the ‘not yet’ time when sin continues to corrupt creation and cloud our judgement. Christians are called to discern, and to become, signs of a dawning future; to learn to expect God-given glimpses of joyous daylight in a world still fallen, even as we recognise that darkness still invades the present.
Paul is clear that although we have a responsibility to take steps ourselves - to put on faith, love and hope - God’s enabling Spirit is at work within us: ‘the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ’ (Phil. 1: 6). Even so, experience teaches us that our good intentions all too often get derailed; growth in our characters rarely feels like it is progressing in a straight line. A centurion at the foot of Jesus’ Cross, a soldier trained in habits based on seeing Rome’s military power as the means of glory, was nonetheless enabled to see the divine truth of ‘power in weakness’ humiliated on a cross (Mk 15: 39). This gives us cause to hope that our own faltering efforts to renew our vision and habits do not have the last word.
These aspects of our moral life – our vision and instincts – seem to me to resonate with the kind of reflection that Lent encourages. Lent is about repentance, turning away from what is false to what is true. In the life, death and resurrection of Jesus we see true human living – here like nowhere else - and we are invited to share in it. To focus on this truly human life inevitably leads us to ask what is involved in ‘stripping off’ the ‘old self’ so that we can be ‘clothed’ with the new self, ‘renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator’ (Col 3: 10).
What ideas about human living do you need to ‘give up’, and ‘put on’, to help your vision to see, and your instincts to show, signs of God’s coming Kingdom?
Image | Unsplash
Michael Peat is Free Church Chaplain at the University of Bristol
This is the last of a Lent 2021 series written by Baptists, which has seen a new reflection published each Wednesday throughout Lent. The other reflections are:
Revisiting what following Jesus means Andy Goodliff offers reading recommendations to deepen discipleship this Lent
How do you normally observe Lent? “Wilderness” is a rich and layered idea in the Old Testament - reflecting on it may offer some helpful ways forward as we seek to engage with Lent this year. By Helen Paynter
Learning to tell our story afresh - A reflection on the place of faith within a culture and history and how we understand the place of the church in the wider world. By Ruth Gouldbourne
Jesus who shares our pain - Anthony Clarke on how an extraordinary stained glass window reveals something of the nature of God.
Forty days and forty nights - continuing our Lent series, Simon Woodman explores the significance of the number forty in the Bible - and what it means for us today
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