Ross Kemp’s Extreme World certainly brought to the surface a side of Glasgow that many might well have suspected existed, but perhaps not in the rawness that it was portrayed in this documentary style programme. What it also brought to light, incidentally, was the amazing work that is done by many people across the city who really want to help Glasgow become a better place and help its citizens find a better quality of life. Not least among those featured was Salt & Light, a ministry begun just over ten years ago by Anne McIlveen (Wallace, as she was then). Whatever the problems of Glasgow and whatever their magnitude, the situation would be much worse if it wasn’t for people like Anne and organisations and ministries like Salt & Light.
Glasgow is certainly not unique in the UK as a city with some huge challenges. I can’t imagine that a tour of, say, Liverpool or Manchester or Sheffield or even Edinburgh would reveal anything less shocking than what was recorded in Glasgow.
How we respond is the big question.
At one level, the call to address social injustice is very clear. There are injustices in our society. There is unfairness. The benefits system is at turns inadequate and unhelpful. Sometimes it appears that it completely fails those who really are in need, and at others, it seems to provide a disincentive to work.
I would suggest, however, that appropriate as it is to be concerned enough to do something about social injustice, that in itself is not the answer.
During the summer I read a novel by Leo Tolstoy. Not the big one! I happened to be browsing in the Kindle store and discovered one of his less famous works Resurrection (though in its day it was more popular than War and Peace and Anna Karenina) for seventy-seven pence. At that price I couldn’t resist.
The story concerns a young Russian prince, Nekhludoff, who has been called to do jury service. As the accused persons enter the court, he recognises one of them. She happens to be a young woman who had a few years earlier worked on his aunt’s country estate. The prince had seduced her and then abandoned her. He discovers that since then she has slid into a life of prostitution and now stands accused of theft. The prince is overcome with remorse, and to cut a long story short, gives away his property and follows her to prison in Siberia. Along the way he decides that, to find personal redemption, he will offer to marry her and work for the reform of the prison system and the whole of society.
In the end, she refuses to marry him, and the more he tries to change the system the more horrified he becomes at what actually goes on and the more frustrated he becomes by his failed attempts to change it.
In the end, after accompanying a British missionary who visits the prisoners and gives them New Testaments, he returns to his hotel room thoroughly disillusioned. Disillusioned by the cruelty of the system. Disillusioned at how those who want to change it can be just as cruel and heartless. And saddened that the young woman refuses to marry him. Nekhludoff’s world – like the Russia of Tolstoy’s day – was an extreme world. A very extreme world. And he felt powerless to change it.
He then picks up a New Testament and randomly begins to read from the beginning of Matthew 18. There he discovers the message of the Kingdom of God and from that night on his life is never the same again.
Whatever the precise message Tolstoy wanted to convey by giving this ending to his novel, he hits upon what I believe, and what I believe the scriptures teach, is the real hope for society: Jesus and the Kingdom of God.
A kingdom that is other worldly enough not to be enslaved to human ideology. A kingdom that is in essence the rule of God and therefore powerful enough to confront the destructive powers at work in our society and at the same time comfort those who have been most damaged and injured by those destructive powers. A kingdom that is not based on human might but one that is exemplified in a little child. A kingdom that is eternal and will prevail, because it is based on the death and resurrection of the Son of God.
That’s what Jesus sets out as the answer to Glasgow’s challenges and the challenges of any and every major city in this nation and throughout the world. And we as the church are the vehicle of that kingdom. That kingdom comes in the city as we feed the hungry, preach the gospel, heal the sick and live in a way that that is consistent with citizens of the Kingdom of God.
Our challenge is to keep the kind of childlike faith and hope and simplicity that enable the heart to receive the Kingdom and live in its life and power:
For an answer Jesus called over a child, whom he stood in the middle of the room, and said, “I’m telling you, once and for all, that unless you return to square one and start over like children, you’re not even going to get a look at the kingdom, let alone get in. Whoever becomes simple and elemental again, like this child, will rank high in God’s kingdom. What’s more, when you receive the childlike on my account, it’s the same as receiving me. (Matthew 18.2-5, The Message)
Congratulations on being part of God’s answer to the problems of this world – an extreme world!