From time to time a visual image comes to me which illustrates an issue in theology. Recently I was watching an episode of the historical drama The Last Kingdom which explores England in the 9th century. The Danish stronghold of Durham was being attacked by soldiers loyal to the Saxon King, Alfred of Wessex. I began to reflect on the physical issues connected with castles. Many, like Durham, stand on a hill. Those inside the fortress can look down on their enemies and have a tremendous sense of power and security. There are just too many difficulties for these opponents ever to be a threat. But, as we all know, a castle on a hill has one fundamental weakness. The strength that protects it is still very vulnerable. It needs to receive food, supplies and reinforcements from the outside. During a siege this is difficult or impossible. The salvation or safety of the castle walls may turn into a recipe for starvation if the enemy successfully surrounds you and cuts you off from contact with the rest of the world. Walls that keep you safe also cut you off from the wider world.
A comparable situation is to be found in some of the challenging cities in Britain and America where gang warfare is rampant. Members of a gang may take over an area of the city and have control over such things as drug distribution or protection rackets. They will feel extremely safe in their own territory. The problem is that the security they feel is matched by the inability for any member of their gang to leave the area. Outside the safe-zone they are in danger from a rival gang. Security in one geographical area changes into exposure to danger when one goes outside its boundaries. What safety gang members enjoy in their own territory is balanced by total insecurity in places outside their area of control.
Another area of life where security in one part of life is complemented by extreme vulnerability in another is in the possession of great wealth. Many people celebrate wealth, not for what they can buy, but for the security that they feel when they have it. Possession of wealth does however, seem to create many problems of its own. The rich are not exempt from illness, family breakdown or tragedy of various kinds. But there is one notable but avoidable misfortune that many rich people seem to encounter. Many wealthy people have the belief that their good fortune and money makes it necessary to be isolated away from average people. They and their families do not need to mix with ordinary people and do ordinary things. The social life of the very wealthy seems to centre around attending parties and gatherings where they will meet people like themselves. One of the great disadvantages of this kind of social whirl is that not infrequently the rich also find themselves caught up in a need to impress other rich people. Subtle pressure will be maintained to force them to drive a suitable make of car, go to fashionable resorts and generally wear openly the badges of ostentatious wealth. The brief exposure to this kind of life that most of us get through reading the colour supplements of Sunday newspapers, suggests that there is a great deal of effort in maintaining such a lifestyle. The vulnerability of such wealth seems to be twofold. First of all the very rich find themselves caught up in a round of expected behaviour which, on the face of it, appears exhausting and of little value to anyone. Secondly the rich, by opting for a narrow social circle may miss out on any exposure to the full range of people who live in our society. This may not appear to matter for much of their lives. Nevertheless, the inability to relate socially with people of every background is an enormous handicap for wealthy people as they enter old age. The education for mixing with people of all types which is encouraged among Christians, is borne out of a desire to help and serve people right the way through life. The security that wealth and position may have offered for so much of their lives (along with social distancing) has now become a social handicap. Instead of their old security and strength, the older wealthy person may find only unhappiness and loneliness. Like the soldier in a well defended castle, a former sense of safety and impregnable strength gives way to starvation for ordinary human contact and the lack of skills to achieve it.
The words safety and salvation come from a similar root. All of us want such security and safety but it is important to be aware how being safe may sometimes make us extremely vulnerable in another area of life. Some branches of Christianity spend a lot of time assuring their followers of their safety and salvation. The ‘saved’ individual is assured that he/she has done all that is required to be acceptable to God in this world and in the next. This kind of teaching for me is extremely dangerous and is likely to create a kind of religious smugness in the individual concerned. Anything that suggests that I have arrived at a place of safety in this life is almost certainly a false claim. I for one do not spend a lot of time thinking about my achievements, whether personal or professional. I am far more focused on the tasks that lie ahead of me. Do I have the energy, mental or physical, to accomplish these? I find it a much healthier outlook to think of what God wants me to do in the future rather than whether I have already achieved a particular status in God’s eyes.
At this time of year, we contemplate the Passion of Christ. There is one particular phrase in the Passion narrative which suggests that a desire to dwell on an ‘achieved salvation’ is unhelpful for a Christian. It is said of Jesus in John’s gospel that he loved his disciples ‘until the end’. There was no pause in Jesus working his Father’s will. We cannot imagine him sitting back to enjoy the status of ‘being saved’ No, Jesus saw his life right up to the end as being one of service and love for his followers and disciples. For him there was no place of rest or safety; there was no security or a place to hide. There was only the continuous path of obedience to his father, fuelled by his trust and perfect confidence that God would care for him in life and in death. Perhaps the Passion story has this to teach us as well. We cannot ever expect to find complete safety or security; all we can seek is to know and follow the path that God calls us to walk in this life.