Earlier this summer I picked up a newly published novel by broadcaster and journalist Edel Coffey. What caught my eye about this book was neither its genre (I am not a great fiction reader), nor its author (this is her debut work). What drew me to this book was quite simply its title: Breaking Point.
If words and phrases can capture a moment then ‘Breaking Point’ is surely a contender to describe the year we are living through in 2022.
Within our communities, an increasing number of individuals and families are at breaking point. In a recent interview with the The Irish News, Christians Against Poverty Northern Ireland Director, Alison Flanagan, spoke candidly about how many people ‘face destitution’ in the coming months as the price of food and fuel continues to soar.
Institutions and organisations are at breaking point. North and South stories in print media abound of post pandemic health care, social care, education, the justice system, businesses and charities, all being systemically stretched far beyond what they can sustain or cope with.
Add to this a global order that seems perilously close to breaking point and the picture is complete, a perfect storm of diverse and accumulating pressures, that shows no sign of being stilled.
When I was a law student at Queen’s University in the early 1990s I remember studying a module on ‘Law and Feminism’ and being introduced to the concept of ‘standpoint’. Standpoint theory emphasises the importance of identity and self-understanding in terms of how we view the world and how we treat others. ‘Where we stand’ matters in terms of how we process and respond to what is going on around us.
From the very beginning, the narrative of the Bible is a story that never appears to be far from breaking point. From rebellion in Eden, to the prospect of wipe-out in the wilderness, from exile in Babylon to the flight of the disciples in Gethsemane, time and again it feels that the plotline of scripture could break and any meaningful sense of story grind to a shuddering halt.
However, this is not what happens. What makes the difference and what makes a coherent plot line possible is that the God who stands at the centre of this near chaotic story is revealed to be kind.
God’s kindness is seen as He creates future possibilities amidst the early disorder of the Genesis story (Genesis 24:12). God’s kindness is present on the long and windy road to the Promised Land (Psalm 106:7). In kindness God announces an end to the exile (Isaiah 54:8). It is in kindness that the love of God appears in the birth, life, and death of a Saviour (Titus 3:4).
This is the “standpoint” from which Scripture wants us to process the world around us and to respond to it. ‘God is kind’ is a truth that calls through the fog of human experience and reaches out to us when otherwise we would struggle to believe that such a thing could be true.
But if, in faith, we hold to this truth, what will it look like as followers of this God to take our stand in relationship with individuals, placed in communities, located in a world, struggling to make any sense of all that is going on around?
On Sunday past, following the death of Her Majesty the Queen, in a personal epitaph to his grandmother, Prince William the Prince of Wales, expressed gratitude for her ‘kindness’; a kindness he had experienced in the best of times and in the worst of times. There is power in kindness and sometimes that power is quite simply transformative.
On one occasion the missiologist Leslie Newbigin was asked to reflect upon a time when the gospel made an unexpected breakthrough in a cultural context where such breakthroughs were often elusive. Cataloguing the different things that had made an impact he wrote: ‘It might have been a talk on the factory floor with a friend, a visit from a Christian during an illness, the reading of a tract or Scripture, an act of kindness, a sermon, a prayer …’
Spirit cultivated kindness (Galatians 5:22) is like the kindness of God Himself. It is undeserved, it is surprising, it reaches out across boundaries of culture, lifestyle, and creed. It is practical and not without cost. It is sometimes misunderstood. It is offered with no strings attached. It points to Jesus (Ephesians 2:7) and it can lead to Jesus (Romans 2:4).
What does it look like for followers of Jesus to take their stand in the society and in the times in which we live? For those seeking to live faithfully under the authority of Scripture this will mean many things, many things that will include a conscious choosing to clothe ourselves in kindness (Colossians 3:12). Could this be one of the simplest and yet most transformative gifts that we are called to share, with people, and in places, so close to their breaking points?
Niall Lockhart is minister of Ballyhenry Presbyterian Church
Please note that the statements and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Contemporary Christianity.