Sermon given at Evensong on the Twelfth Sunday after Trinity 2021

The future of humanity starts with a true conversion of mind and heart.

The Reverend David Stanton Canon in Residence

Sunday, 22nd August 2021 at 3.00 PM

Yesterday thousands of marchers rallied outside the Palace of Westminster, outside Downing Street and apparently took over Oxford Circus and Hyde Park. They were criticising our government's handling of the Taliban seizing Afghanistan.

With the world’s news dominated by fast moving events in that Middle East nation, I would like to shift the emphasis somewhat this afternoon and rather focus upon the dignity of each individual human person.

Last Thursday, just outside the Great West door, there was a moving wreath-laying ceremony at the Innocent Victims’ Memorial to mark UN World Humanitarian Day. You will see the memorial with associated flowers as you leave the Abbey after this service.

During that wreath-laying ceremony we paused in silence to remember those currently in great humanitarian need, and within my mind’s eye came the sight of thousands of Afghans fleeing Taliban rule, swarming the tarmac of Kabul’s international airport even clinging to planes as they took off.

Last Friday, The Times reported that Government sources have also claimed that hundreds more Britons and Afghans could have been flown out by now if the response from the Foreign Office had been faster.

Nevertheless, Special British forces, as I speak, are carrying out rescue missions in Kabul to help thousands of stranded Britons, other foreign citizens, embassy employees and their families, and particularly vulnerable Afghan nationals to reach the airport. A good friend of mine has the unenvious task of being in charge of the evacuation effort as chief of joint operations.

While all this is going on, the residents of Kabul are painting over advertisements of women without headscarves, and the Taliban is searching for people they consider American and British collaborators. It seems increasingly unlikely that the Taliban will sever all ties with al-Qaeda as they had previously promised.

It’s a strange thing, but many people in the West seem to know more about day to day life in the city of Kabul through Khaled Hosseini’s best-selling novel The Kite Runner than they do through the news.

The book is all about Amir, a young boy from the Wazir Akbar district of Kabul. The story is set against a backdrop of tumultuous events, from the fall of Afghanistan’s monarchy, through Soviet military intervention, to the exodus of refugees to Pakistan and the United States, and the rise of the Taliban regime. All this was written some twenty years ago.

Now, as then, the vulnerable, especially women and young girls, the weak, the poor and the dispossessed are about to pay the highest price for the impulsive political and military decisions of others.

In a sobering moment, Khaled Hosseini recently said that not only does he fear for women and girls 'more than any other group' under the Taliban, but that if he could go back now, he would take The Kite Runner apart and spend more time addressing the fundamental question of the dignity of each human person and the harrowing ordeals of pain and loss.

This, to my mind, is the heart of the situation right now.

If we look at things for a moment from an Islamic perspective we see that an important Hadith (or saying) of the Prophet is that religion is not what one formally practices, but how one deals with others.

In other words being faithful to God involves seeing the Divine in this world, as well as preparing to meet Him in the next. That of course is exactly the same for our Christian faith. Who here would argue with the belief that living the faith is service to God through service to humankind?

So we’re reminded again that humanitarian aid and our Christian faith are inextricably bound together. The Gospel imperative to love our neighbour entails not only that we should help those in need, but we must also address the causes of suffering, prejudice and inhumanity especially when it is done in the name of God.

The deepening of our spiritual lives must go hand in hand with our practical concern for our neighbour, and thus with social care. Many people may well be surprised to discover how over the centuries the Christian Church has reflected on the social dimension of the Gospel; that is, the way society helps or hinders people to live out the command to love God and our neighbour.

In recent times the Church's care for those in greatest need has been based on a basic moral test: how are the most vulnerable members society faring? In a world marred by deepening divisions between rich and poor, we clearly need to put the needs of the vulnerable first.

The Church has a continuing duty to apply the values of the Gospel to the problems of society, and so help all of us to play an active part in striving to build a just and compassionate social order. The foundation of this teaching is the dignity of the human person.

In virtue simply of our shared humanity, we must surely respect and honour one another. In the knowledge that the Taliban are right now hunting for people who worked for the US and other NATO forces and are threatening to kill their relatives if they do not surrender, we must never forget that each individual has a value that can never be lost and must never be ignored. Moreover, each of us, of whatever background, is made in the image and likeness of God.

But if we delve a bit deeper, we see that our human dignity also consists in our being made free by God; free, that is, to do his will by choosing to live and act within the framework of his law.

All societies should therefore respect human freedom by enabling women and men to assume responsibility for their own lives, and encouraging them to co-operate with each other to pursue the common good. This means that the functions of all governments, though important, must always be subsidiary; that is, governments should help men and women to be free to realise their own destiny.

The Church has the right and the duty to advocate a social order in which the human dignity of all is fostered, and to protest when it is in any way threatened. We therefore have a duty to oppose totalitarianism because it oppresses people and deprives them of their freedom.

Beyond the immediate events in Afghanistan, it’s also important to say that as Christians we also reject the view that human happiness consists only in material wellbeing, and that achieving this alone is the goal of any foreign policy.

The Christian Church does not present a political programme, still less a party political one. Our social concern provides a set of consistent and complementary principles, values and goals. We recognise, of course, that many people of other faiths or even none would be able to accept much that this teaching has to offer, whether it is described as Christian or not.

Every public policy should be judged by the effect it has on human dignity and the common good, and in the case of Afghanistan there’s much scope for debate about the best way to achieve these. Our social Gospel places the political within the larger context of humanity's relationship with God.

Of course, social and political action is important, but realising our full human dignity as children of God, made in his image and likeness, also requires each of us to undertake an inner spiritual journey.

The future of humanity does not ultimately depend on political reform, or social revolution or scientific advance. Something else is needed. It starts with a true conversion of mind and heart.

On this journey of following Christ, we will all need to die to sin, put it to death within ourselves by God’s power in us; and rise with Christ to new life. This is the path and pattern of all our lives, the Passover from death to life, and this is very much the Paschal Mystery. It happens over and over again, till the end of our lives. 

It is the way of love and it is a journey which involves everything we are, but is deeply meaningful and totally fulfilling.