Visiting friends with teenage children can be very instructive. During one of these visits, a teenage boy proudly displayed his skills to me in a video game called ‘Call of Duty.’ In essence he was running all over the place shooting at enemy soldiers, completing one level of the game after another. The boy was a virtual hero fighting virtual enemies by killing them with a virtual machinegun. I recalled that memory recently when I read about recruiters of the so-called ‘Islamic State’ using the title of that video game for their own purposes, presenting their fight as a ‘genuine call of duty.’ It’s a powerful and attractive image, seemingly appealing to some people who respond to such a call by travelling to Syria, sometimes with their whole families. We hear of such stories on a semi-regular basis. But the numbers going out there are tiny in comparison with those travelling in the opposite direction, fleeing the ‘Islamist paradise’ as well as the hell of the Syrian civil war. The fact of hundreds of thousands of people making their way to Europe, despite enormous risk and personal cost, speaks volumes.
This massive wave of refugees, the biggest in Europe since World War II, is overwhelming and is bringing the reality of distant wars to our shores. The sheer scale of it proves to be overwhelming to political leaders and decision-makers. Rich countries to the west and north of the European continent are calling for proportional distribution of the refugees across the union. Many other countries, particularly from the former Soviet bloc countries, are opposing such a solution for their own reasons. In fact most of the refugees don’t want to stay in those countries even when they are there already, but try to reach Germany, the UK or Scandinavia. In the midst of all this political wrangling, the essential truth seems to be completely lost – we are talking about individuals, human beings, and not about nameless numbers.
Obviously the whole situation takes us out of our comfort zone. Political bickering aside, most of us would genuinely like to help those poor people; or rather, we would like someone else to step up, take charge and sort things out, to allow us to slip back into our cosy comfort zone of everyday life. In today’s gospel Jesus takes his disciples out of their comfort zone. He leads them out of their cultural environment, where everything has its right place and is familiar, to Decapolis, a region and culture that many Jews despised and abhorred. The disciples not only have to travel through that land: they have to face the people living there and their existential problems. The deaf and mute man represents the difficulty of such meetings; as if cultural and religious differences are not enough, an impossible thing is requested of them: that the disabled man be cured. Even the NHS would struggle with such a case!
In the second of today’s readings, there is a sentence that should make us feel a bit uneasy: ‘Do not try to combine faith in Jesus Christ […] with the making distinctions between classes of people.’ St James then illustrates that with an example of differing receptions given to a poor man and a wealthy man, reflecting the difference in their fortunes. St James deems that to be completely wrong and irreconcilable with genuine Christian faith. He wants us to see the person behind the wealth or the poverty, the person behind the power or the weakness, the person behind the influence or the helplessness. Jesus demonstrates exactly that when he takes the deaf and mute man from the crowds and treats him as an individual human being, regardless of his cultural, religious or ethnic background.
I know from my own experience that the best way to defuse any potential personal conflict is to attempt to understand the other person. Labelling people – whatever the names or terms we use – dehumanises them and either sets them up as targets or pushes them down into oblivion. Either way, they become worthless to us, starting or boosting a vicious circle of hatred, eventually bursting out into violence. It doesn’t have to be like that. We can try to perceive the person behind all the labels we have stuck on him or her. Perhaps only then we realise that there’s no need to fight; that the only need of the person is a helping hand from us.