I’ve given up trying to get a place in the London Marathon. To do so, it seems, either, you must be part of a running club (which I’ve never understood as the best context for conversing with others) or sign up to sponsor a charity.
It’s perhaps unfair to pick on the Marathon. There are, after all, plenty of great challenges nowadays that help middle aged, middle class people like me to prove to ourselves that we are still alive. I could run through the desert, climb a mountain, cycle across a country. All very challenging and enjoyable, but each time, the entire scheme is financed by raising money for a charity. Once we have raised them a thousand pounds, they will have enough to finance our little adventure, whilst being left with enough change for the whole transaction to have been worthwhile.
I think it’s the transactional nature of these schemes that mean, whatever else they are, they have little to do with charity. Ultimately, the word charity derives from the word for grace (charis), something that cuts through into our world from utterly beyond it, disrupting all that we have and are and cherish. Charity now, it seems, is simply part of the great game we play and the lifestyle we value. Being able to baptise our own quests for fulfilment (valid though these things may be) with the satisfying label ‘charity’, dresses them up in a virtue they don’t really possess (and I think there’s another biblical word for that practice!)
Quite apart from the obvious question about why we need to commit to doing something stupid before people will give money to help others, is the question of what these challenges actually yield.
The epic journey, the worthwhile endeavour, the search for meaning etc etc, I suspect, do little more than grease the wheels of the boredom and tediousness of the daily grind.
When Christians are exposed to the disruptive, life-changing grace of God, embodied in the real lives of other people, enough serious challenges present themselves soon enough. In London last weekend, for instance, campaigners working for justice found themselves in the thick of a challenge they never expected. Seeing that the government are chasing tax from poverty-stricken individuals, and allowing wealthy companies to avoid tax, it is hardly surprising that – as an expression of grace – protesters threw a spanner in these unfair practices by staging a peaceful sit-in at Fortnum and Masons. Police who had promised to escort them through violent crowds outside, suddenly changed tack and arrested the protestors – who are now in serious trouble with the law for interrupting business.
These protestors (from an organisation called UK Uncut) have performed, in the fullest sense, a charitable act: an expression of grace that brings disruption to unjust systems. And not a sponsor form in sight!
Being in Central London, it has been a privilege to be part of a church that sees grace at work in those who have slept rough on the streets in support of homeless folk against a government set on removing them to beautify our city for the Olympics ; in those who are serving as UN peace observers in beleagured Palestine ; in those who have been arrested on the runway of an airport where they were preaching the Gospel of eco-justice. No less a radical expression of grace, however, is the act of apologising to an enemy, reading a book with which we disagree, seeking help when previously we have been too proud.
In each of these instances, grace has been at work. A radical exposure to genuine otherness as expressed in other people, that rips through your guts and drives you to action before you know what’s hit you. When grace is what you breathe in, these charitable acts are as natural and unconscious as breathing out.
And when this is how the grace of God is at work in your life, the epic quest, the ultimate challenge, great ambition, the mountain-climbing, the channel-swimming, the marathon running, all seem like deliberate but futile attempts to attain what grace gives by accident.
There’s no such thing as Do-it-yourself grace.
If we dare to inhale the grace of God, the consequences will always be charitable.