Jesus knew all about social divisions coarsened by national disappointment. Yes, the Somewheres (#MakeIsraelGreatAgain) were oppressed by the Anywheres (the globe-trotting Roman elite). His response was personal encounter.
So thousands of Christians (and the CUF Near Neighbours initiative) joined with fellow Britons to make the weekend of last weekend The Great Get-Together, inspired by Jo Cox. And this week is Refugee Week. Chairing the Refugee Council taught me that hostility towards refugees is lower where refugees actually live. Personal encounter makes such a difference.
History opens up for us the meaning of the divides which Jesus crossed, but in our own time we don’t have that perspective. A year ago the BBC asked sports presenter Adrian Chiles to break out of the metropolitan bubble, to try to find out what Brexit meant. He highlighted class. Class? What was dad going on about, one of his children wondered? How easily they might go through life without having a working-class friend, he replied.
Class doesn’t yield easily to doses of money, education or legislation, let alone slogans or political hot air, but it does evolve. Looking across the UK, the US, France and elsewhere, I see growing mutual ignorance and contempt between ruling class and ruled. If I’m right about this tear in our democracy, then forget no deal, a bad deal, or a good deal ‒ none of these will work if we neglect the space of personal encounter.
But how? A tea party for refugees is easier to organise than one for the ruling class and ruled. Once the work Christmas ‘do’ (painful or not) was an opportunity, bosses mixing with security guards, but these days the latter have been outsourced.
I’ve been lucky. I’ve got close to senior leaders but ̶ an equal privilege ̶ I’ve also got to know working class friends where I live, in Bermondsey. I wondered how I could offer those experiences of personal encounter to others.
So in 2013 I started making our democratic wound the subject of my second novel, which is dedicated to Jo Cox and published this week. Any novelist aspires to let readers inhale what is righteous, joyful or contemptible to others: she or he aspires to do the work of personal encounter. Aifric Campbell, the novelist and writing teacher (and ex-banker), observes:
“Neuroscientific research reveals that reading literary fiction fosters empathy and enhances cognitive flexibility. … I observe this first-hand at Imperial College, London where I teach creative writing to our future scientists, engineers, technologists and medics.”
Summer’s here. What are you reading? These days, personal encounter thrives not just in fiction and autobiography but in new kinds of non-fiction: feeling working hand in hand with thought to create an intellectual and personal encounter. A glorious book like this on class is Lynsey Hanley’s ‘Respectable’ (Penguin 2017).
And what personal encounters might you be called to offer to others through writing? Lesson one in Novel-Writing 101 is ‘how to look a fool’. So let me be a fool and say that novels would have been important to Jesus. This much we do know: he saw story as central to how we come to understand and share our identities as children of one God, and citizens of a place where the glass walls of class have been transcended.
This summer, why not do some transcending?