I turned on the radio the other day and a familiar, and for me much loved song was playing – Woody Guthrie’s ‘This land is your land, this land is my land’. Guthrie wrote the song in 1940 as a response to Irving Berlin’s ‘God bless America’. Guthrie was deeply aware of the inequalities within American life, the real struggles that were a daily reality for the many whilst the few lived a very comfortable and insular lifestyle and he was offended by what seemed to him to be Berlin’s blinkered sense of how America was experienced for most of its people. It’s a song about injustice, recognising that for those who were not able to live the American dream, America wasn’t the land of milk and honey.
In this morning’s reading from the book Deuteronomy, we reach the end of Moses’ life. Over recent weeks we’ve journeyed with him – from the bulrushes and the access to a privileged life that he gained when he was discovered there, through to his growing understanding of the injustice inherent in the way his people were treated and his subsequent leadership during the Exodus.
In this morning’s reading, Moses looks out over the promised land, the land that he will never reach and yet which represents a promise that has shaped his life. More than 3000 years later, people continue to look out over land that they will never reach or never inhabit. People look out over land that they once inhabited and have left either because of conflict with neighbours or because the land has become uninhabitable as a result of changes in the climate. And people continue to live with inequality of opportunity simply as a result of where they were born. That inequality of opportunity has been amplified by the global pandemic; it’s becoming clear that more affluent, more sparsely populated areas are less affected. That people whose life expectancy was already below average are more likely to suffer severe symptoms or to die. It’s also become clear that there are parts of the world where a global pandemic is a secondary concern; places where the severity of daily conflict is the only show in town.
I confess that until recently I knew nothing about the situation between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the disputed territory of Nagoro Karabkh. I was asked to do something that required me to research a little about that conflict – and I discovered that members of the Armenian Apostolic Church look out over land that is disputed and which, for them is part of their promised land. And I know that there are many other conflicts that I know nothing about, many other regions where communities are unable to live peaceably alongside one another; many other parts of the world where land is disputed and blood will continue to be shed.
There was a time, before the days of globalised markets and cheap travel when it was easier to see those conflicts as happening somewhere else, amongst people we’ll never meet and whose cultures we don’t understand. That doesn’t really wash any more. Conflicts are brought into our living rooms; their impact on the production of food and manufactured goods is seen on our supermarket shelves.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus is clear about what is required of those who seek to follow him; after you have exercised your responsibilities to your God, then you turn to what is required of you in your day to day life and it’s just one commandment: love your neighbour as yourself.
Love your neighbour as yourself – that sounds like a very straightforward way of dealing with the kinds of territorial disputes I was describing; we can imagine how it might be a way of beginning to address the privilege gap that is at the heart of the inequalities in our Western societies; we may even begin to see that it could be an approach that would impact on the pandemic.
But how? If only it were a simple as that sounds. Love your neighbour as yourself. Clearly the starting place is to love one self. And for many reasons, that isn’t easy, especially for those of us who have been brought up in polite British society. We can be very good at putting ourselves down, at seeing ourselves as perhaps less than we are, rather than as more than we are.
Think about how we tend to respond if someone pays us a compliment. Either we brush it aside or we try to make a joke about it. Few of us are good at just saying thank you and actually believing that we did something well, perhaps exceptionally well. Or we find ways to diminish the things that we do well – that’s an easy task; anyone could have done that…. We don’t find it easy to value ourselves so how can we possibly find it easy to love ourselves? It would be fair, I think, to suggest that at best we have a critical expression of love for ourselves.
Now I don’t think that Jesus is suggesting a critical expression of love for our neighbour. I think that he is referring to something more akin to God’s unconditional love for us. In our eucharistic liturgy we hear the words: we love because God loved us first.
God’s love is unconditional and open ended. It doesn’t presume anything and it doesn’t ask anything. We may well not be worthy, and yet we are still the recipients of that love.If this land is both your land and my land, we both need to see it differently. This land can only be both yours and mine if at least 2 things change: we need to find a way to trust and respect one another and to believe that we are each driven by something more than a purely selfish motivation. I know there are theories that would suggest that selfish motivation has been important in the survival of the species, but there is a difference between a big picture selfish motivation and a narrow self- centred motivation.
A globalised world has brought a lot of welcome change into our lives. It’s left us better informed and better connected. And I suggest it’s brought some new responsibilities.It’s no longer good enough for us to look out wherever the eye can see and suggest this land is yours and mine; we now need to look further afield, look towards the lands that we can’t see with our own eyes, that we may never see with our own eyes and to find a way to suggest that ‘this land is made for you and me’.
In a global economy, this land is indeed your land and my land. The choices I make impact on your land and on your choices. Jesus is calling me to think about you, whoever you are, about your land, wherever that is and to do so through that lens of respect and trust, that lens of love for you and as a result, for me.