I am getting increasingly concerned as a leader at the amount of time we spend in schools and public services at fixing or mitigating the effects of sin. An example: a child seriously hurts another child. It takes, perhaps, less than a minute. The ramifications for the families and school may last weeks, certainly, possibly months and even, if the sense of hurt and shame is deep enough, for the children’s whole school career. The amount of interviewing, report writing, phoning, discussion, involvement of other adults including social services, coaching and (perhaps) alteration and enforcement of policy that has to take place could be valued in the thousands of pounds, if we were to tot up the monetary value of this. Another example: two adults fall out publicly and need a third adult to mediate, with time and trouble expended, with said third adult probably needing to do the lion’s share of the work. Third adult probably spends more time than adults one and two combined on this, whose public fall-out may have lasted a few minutes, tops.
Some years ago I was in HMP Shrewsbury with a group from church; we would support the chaplaincy in leading services for the lads inside once a month on Sunday mornings. We would also go in at Christmas and Easter, which was an interesting way to spend Christmas Day, and focused our minds on Jesus’ humble origins in a way that nothing else did in our experience. On this particular Christmas day, a gentlemen from Telford was sitting with his head in his hands. He had recently been tried and sentenced and was beginning his stretch. “Six years,” he said, “for six seconds of madness”. I have no idea what he was talking about, but the sin had ruined him, damaged his business, possibly irreparably. It comes to mind often, that story, because I am deeply concerned that we spend a huge amount of time fixing the effects of the sheer sinfulness of human behaviour, and because we take the trouble it is often the fixers, not the sinners, who end up with the finger of opprobrium pointed at them because they have the more responsible view of what needs to be repaired. Safeguarding is awash with this thinking – that somehow it is our job to keep people safe from themselves. So much of our blame lies at the feet not of perpetrators but of those who are trying with reducing resources to stop the perpetrators perpetrating.
This can take many forms: an employee filches some property and is caught, perhaps; or performance issues by staff members have a negative impact upon the success and reputation of the whole school; or a parent shouts at another parent…or….the list is endless. The impact on time and treasure expended in investigation, disciplinary work, committees, police work – never mind the sleeplessness and the worry and damaged relationships and trust – far outweighs the value of the stuff filched, or the time that could have been spent in planning and teaching properly, or a few words to explain a misunderstanding. What’s all that about? The wages of sin, personally, might be death, but corporately they are betrayal, mistrust and a huge amount of paperwork. The restorative work nearly always involves the greatest commitment and pressure on those who did not sin.
In the book of Judges, a collection of stories about the men and women who had a go at leading Israel before the first king was appointed, there is a less-than-appealing story about the city of Gibeah. Gibeah was a city in the tribe of Benjamin where a Levite (a priest) went to stay overnight, along with his concubine. In the account the men of Gibeah are not overly hospitable and an elderly man eventually takes them into his home, aware of the reputation of some of the local men. Sure enough, they find his house and surround it, demanding they surrender the Levite so they can use him sexually. Eventually (and this says something fairly desperate about the mores of the time) the men of the house surrender the concubine to the men outside, who rape and murder her. The Levite then sends various of her body parts to the tribes of Israel to think about it and consider what to do. The tribes then come together to confront the tribe of Benjamin with their sin in protecting the men and allowing “such a thing in Israel”. So far, so appalling. But the serious learning is to come, and concerns how a community has to sacrifice itself in order to restore the tribe of Benjamin to Israel. Having decided that in the face of Benjamin’s intransigence, they must go to war, a lot is cast and the tribe of Judah is chosen to fight the Benjamites first. Their losses on the first day are horrible and they sit and mourn. God directs them to fight again the second day and the same thing happens. The third day God relents and delivers Benjamin into their hands, using an ambush strategy familiar to Israel with the capture of Ai in Joshua 8. It is this throwing of the youth and hope of a nation against its own, to repair the breach created by perhaps no more than a dozen wicked men to start with, that seems so senseless and yet is somehow so honourable. It is not an economy of scale that we can easily imagine yet we have fought bloody wars for far less honourable causes.
And yet, when facing the stupidity of successive Greek governments and their inability to run an economy, or the sin and senselessness of Libyan warlords, Syrian governments or the crass idiocy of extremist Wahhabism that sends thousands of men, women and children across the Mediterranean to Europe in fear for their lives – we necessarily do the same, opening wide our arms and giving of our treasure, and those countries who choose not to, are the poorer for it, because somehow it is in the sacrifice of ourselves for the relationship we treasure, where we are able to strengthen and render deeper meaning to that relationship. The New Testament indicates that we should bear with the sins of the weak, simply because we have the level of responsibility, self-control and skill that can repair that which they have destroyed, at least in part. And we know this as humans at a deep level. You get the occasional ridiculous dictator or binary thinker who thinks that the best thing to do with enemies is exterminate them, but serious reflection will show that what we long for in ourselves is understanding and the capacity to forgive and repair. Coming to terms with that image-bearing part of ourselves might take a while, because with it, unfortunately, comes the requirement to bear responsibility for what we have done. The thief must steal no longer but do something useful so that he can contribute again.
But the speaking out of that responsibility and the acceptance of consequences is essential to restoration. Where teachers are hurt because colleagues have not “pulled their weight” and thus damaged the collective, we need to speak the truth in love. We need to apologise to colleagues whose work we have damaged and to the parents of those children we have not served to the best of our ability. Money or property stolen must be repaid, either in value or in kind. And somehow, somehow, enemies must be loved and forgiveness begged for and tendered if we are to overcome extremist violence.
And then the time must be taken to complete the paperwork.