There is a meme currently going around on Twitter (yes, I confess I am on there too much!) which says, “what from your childhood is indicative of who you are now?” The thought that first flashed into my mind was how I used to go around the playground at junior school, looking out for kids who were on their own and befriending and encouraging them.
Of course, in many ways it was projection. I had changed classes and consequently some of the kids in my new class had decided to ostracise me, the new kid, and although I did make friends, there were times where I was on my own, and I knew what it was like to be lonely and feel bullied.
If, when, and how kids learn empathy is an interesting subject. Is it from experience, or is it from what is modelled to them? Often on Twitter one witnesses people who seem to have an empathy deficit, boldly judging others and declaring their “otherness” to equate to deficiency or even deviancy.
I know my own disaffection from the more conservative wing of the church in which I had come to faith, was precipitated by being rejected by those I thought were my Christian friends, for daring to have a relationship with… someone who went to a different church to them! Yes, students can be dispiritingly immature. Such treatment does seem to originate in the playground.
My own little boy, when aged 5, came home from school one day in tears. “Everyone was teasing me, calling me a girl” were the words I heard as I hugged him, trying to find out what was wrong. When I eventually got to the bottom of it, it turned out that the uniform policy was that girls could wear school jumpers or cardigans, but for boys, only the jumper was on the approved list. It had never crossed my mind to think that there might be a variation in the rules for children’s tops, and so I had put in the hand-me-down pile of uniform from his sister, a school cardigan. Having a vague memory that I had seen James Bond in a cardigan, we spent the evening Googling Daniel Craig pictures (which I suspect was more for my benefit than his!), but the situation highlighted how society has developed often quite arbitrary rules for defining who is what.
The anthropologist Margaret Mead, many decades ago, made the observation that there is no single denominator between societies that differentiates consistently who is considered male or female, other than the factor being that societies will always have some such rule.
That is not to say, of course, that societies will always make the rule a completely and strictly binary one. Indian culture has the hijra, Maori’s the Takatāpui and indigenous North Americans the two spirit. At least some cultures do not have the unhealthy and unhelpful Platonic binary. At OneBodyOneFaith we are utterly committed to the equality of all, and that God made all human beings in God’s own image. The meaning of this deserves far deeper reflection, but at its core is an understanding of image as akin to identity and nature. And that the message here is about the heart of God, which is relational and loving. God made human beings to love and be loved.
Someone once drew to my attention to the fact that the creation myth draws out how God made sense of chaos, but in creating night and day, still created a spectrum from dawn to dusk. Likewise in humanity, there is a beautiful array of embodied experiences of what it is to be human, so rather it is that the Genesis story is referring to there being a range from female to male.
This autumn, in creation, in the northern hemisphere, we are seeing once again one of the stunning spectrums in nature, as leaves turn from green to brown, but also to oranges, yellows and deep reds. Yet all those leaves will end up on the ground and return to the earth. Jesus loved to use metaphors and parables and stories that drew on nature, to teach us about ourselves and God’s love for each and everyone of us. My prayer this autumn is that with all the change and uncertainty, sadly even death, around us, the constancy of God, and God’s love for all people, in all their beautiful diversity, might be our mainstay, to see us through this time.
Reverend Jo Winn-Smith