Sunday, 19 June 2016

Everyone's death diminishes us, but tragedy changes things

What can I say in the aftermath of Jo Cox's shocking murder? What language can we borrow when an MP is assassinated doing what she loved - serving her constituents and seeking the welfare of her  Yorkshire community and the community of suffering people across the world? There's a real sense in which she "laid down her life for her friends". She died because she was an elected member of Parliament. Her death was an act of witness to the values she cherished. A vocation to public office carries risks. She gave herself to her role and paid a terrible price. 

Jo's sister has told us that when they were children, "all Jo wanted was for everyone to be happy". She made this her life's work. People who knew her have written tributes that it's been extraordinarily moving to read. Most of us never met her, yet it seems oddly natural to be calling her by her Christian name. We feel as if she was somehow our own elected representative, even our friend. We wish we had known her and seen for ourselves the spirit of this remarkable woman: her passion for justice; her longing to make the world a more peaceful, happier place; her fiery love for humanity especially its weak and voiceless members in distant lands and on her own doorstep. If we had problems, we could imagine taking them to her surgery and she would have listened, understood. She would have cared and helped. And what fun we'd have had with her as her guest at the kitchen table with her family, sharing bowls of pasta and salad washed down with good wine, stimulating conversation, political anecdote and I'm sure uproarious laughter.

Why do we feel this way? Not because we want to write hagiography, though it's easy to canonise people we admire, especially when their lives are dramatically cut short. We're especially prone to hagiography when they died precisely on account of their vocation to a noble task. Something of that sort did shine out of Jo's life. But if I've read her correctly, she'd have been horrified at the idea of anyone rhapsodising in stained glass window language about her. I think she'd have been baffled by the degree of worldwide attention that's been given to her death. She'd have said: this isn't about me. Think about the people I care about and do everything you can for them. 

And that's the point. Anyone less prone than Jo to status-anxiety or self-importance it's hard to imagine. She was one of the world's spontaneously generous people. What we are drawn to in people like her is not - or not only - their heroic qualities, the achievements that mark them out as extraordinary. It's that these very qualities were allied to her sheer human ordinariness, indeed, seemed to flow directly out of it. It's unbearably poignant to learn about her devotion to her husband Brendan and their children, her happy temperament and love of life, her gift for home-making, hospitality and friendship. For most of us who live in intimacy with someone else, vocation is famously the third partner in bed with us. Not so with Jo. She seemed to practise a kind of stabilitas that was immensely life-affirming.

I need to tread carefully here. John Donne's time-honoured words tell us that "every man's death diminishes me". If we didn't know this before, we know it now. When death is "wrong", whether it's murder, accident, premature illness or armed conflict, it affects us. When it suddenly ambushes a man or woman who in some way stands for us, it is symbolically happening to us too. When that person is young and at the top of their game, has everything to live for, and is living such an exemplary, courageous and fulfilled life, it diminishes us more than ever. Who among us with any shred of human feeling has not wept for the senseless waste and cruelty of Jo's being taken from us? Even as I write, I am feeling it all afresh. Why ever did God allow this? Can God himself even answer that question?

The temptation for most of us in the shock of grief is to be angry, bitter and vengeful. What a wonderful example is being set by Jo's widowed Brendan in his loss. He speaks about honouring Jo by carrying on doing what she would have wanted and gave her life to, trying to roll back the tides of hatred that threaten to engulf our world. Inspired by this remarkable couple, I want to say that this senseless act of violence is very much not just a terrible waste, though in the rawness of our emotional response right now, that is precisely what it is. But we know from our own experience of the death of those we love that their memory goes on touching our lives. They live on in us and we are better people because of them. 

Jo's death has released a huge outpouring of admiration, gratitude and affection. This includes people who energetically disagreed with her views on such big issues as refugees, the EU, poverty, sanctions, immigration or human rights. But death transcends our differences. It's the great leveller that strips away pretence and illusion so that we have to focus on what we have left: our common humanity. Wealth, privilege, status and power count for nothing in the face of death, only what has been of lasting value in our lives. It is necessary that death should "diminish" us if only because it pulls us back to what really matters: that we should live not for ourselves but for the others who have a claim on us. Her death shows us the unselfconscious beauty of this way of being a human being. And the best thing about Jo seems to have been her native simplicity. It all seemed as natural as a bloom emerging to full flower. I imagine it wasn't: achievements like hers are always hard-won over a lifetime. Nevertheless it's precious gift to be able to live in the way she did. We honour it and admire her all the more because of it. 

This isn't a Princess Diana moment - the collective grief we feel seems more earthed in reality than that. Perhaps Jo's Yorkshire grit is helping us to get things in perspective. It's too early to say whether something in our politics and in the habits of public life may be shifting. Could the discourse of politicians, journalists, campaigners, everyone with influence over others (even preachers!) be touched by her death? Could we become less cynical and compromised, more respectful, compassionate and humane? Could our motives and aspirations be purified a little? Many have posed these questions in the last few days. Tragedy can have the effect of cleansing our vision so that we see and act in new ways. Perhaps Jo's death can help us to be more serious about life, find more fulfilment in our work, put laughter, joy and generosity back into our relationships. The spirit in which we engage in the final days of the EU referendum campaign, so febrile and bad-tempered up to now, may give us a clue about how Jo's death has changed things. 

As a Christian, my faith is founded on another death. That death too was the cruel waste of an even younger life in which so much promise was never to be fulfilled. "Those whom the gods love die young" wrote Herodotus of soldiers who perished in war. "The unfinisheds are among the most beautiful of symphonies" said Viktor Frankl, writing about the millions of victims of the Nazi Holocaust. The extent to which we are diminished by a tragic death is itself a tribute to the value of the life that has been lost. But faith goes on to say: in that death we remember every Good Friday lie the seeds of transfiguration, of resurrection and of eternal life. "Now the green blade riseth from the buried grain" we sing at Easter. 

What might Jo have become with so much yet to bring to us! How might she have brought her own happiness to make a difference to our fractured world? To murder such a good person makes no sense. We feel the heartbreak at the heart of things. But we cherish the memory of a rich and rewarding life that will not lose its capacity to inspire. Perhaps we can dare to hope that some redemption might come to our nation's broken sense of self as a result of this shameful deed and a life that was sacrificed. Faith wants to believe that it's possible. 

But this much we can say for certain. She will keep the flame of hope alive for that better world she fought for so well. She restores our belief in humanity at its very best.  Grief and gratitude walk hand in hand.  Ave atque vale.

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