Monday, September 1, 2008

Theological Reflection from Estonia 2

The Gospel readings have continued to guide my thoughts about my experiences here and I have been struck by their relevance to what has been going on. The following week’s gospel, Matthew 16, took the story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman and in my preparation to preach I had concentrated on the idea that it is we who seek to put limits on God’s grace. The Canaanite woman was the outsider, a woman, alone in public and a foreigner. She was not, therefore, part of Jesus’ vision for his ministry which he saw then exclusively in terms of being to the House of Israel. It is her persistence that wins his change of heart towards her and is significant because it suggests a development of Jesus understanding of his own mission. The woman’s brash courage actually seems to convert Jesus and develop his understanding of the full implications of his mission. In this way she signalled the way to the future as Gentiles flooded into the church, carried on waves of faith that in Jesus salvation had come.

I wanted to argue the point that we need to make the church a place to which a modern Canaanite woman, disadvantaged, despised and marginalised within society can come with her plea, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me!” And we need to make that church a place from which the word goes out, as from the Lord himself, “You have great faith. Your request is granted!” We therefore need to consider who the outsider, the marginalised and the disenfranchised are in our societies. Who is the “other” today, those that we reject because they don’t fit into our self imposed pigeonholes of who God accepts?

This speaks to me: apart from my new issue of tourists milling about in church, my own personal struggle is with beggars, usually of the drunken sort. Here again I am challenged to consider the application to my own situation as I challenge others to consider the application to theirs. Tallinn, as all cities do, has beggars. Many are elderly Russian ladies and they get short shrift from most people who are fed the line that they are part of a Russian Mafia network of professional beggars. While that seems fanciful to me, I am in no position to come here and challenge received wisdom. What I do know is that these old ladies present a pitiful sight standing around holding out margarine tubs for alms. This could, of course, be the exact effect intended but it stirs my conscience every time – again you could argue that this is the intention. When I came here in 2005 it was midwinter and these same old ladies were out then. Would anyone really do that all day in sub-zero temperatures as part of an organised racket? “Preposterous.” said Anne-Liis, the Church Warden, when I told her the organised crime theory.

The Canaanite woman was met with rudeness and rebuff from Jesus and his followers. I watch the tourists from America, Sweden and Germany and all the other rich first world nations, their wallets full of holiday spending money, treat these old ladies in the same way: harshly and with rudeness and rebuff and they remind me of the Canaanite woman. Not only are they someone’s mother and grandmother but they are the “other” in Estonian society: marginalised and outcast in our eyes but not beyond the grace of God. A 10 EEK note represents 50 pence and a 25 EEK note £1.50. I need to make the judgement about whether I am supporting organised crime by giving to these old ladies or providing a hot drink to someone who has been harassed and abused all day by people who treat them as invisible. It is still a tough call and I don’t know the answer, other than to say that if they look like vagrants, they probably are, and most vagrants here are alcoholics so they should never be given money. With the others you make your best judgement.

The issue is the same with the toeless man who carries a sign that claims he is a war veteran who has lost his toes to mines and the legless man in the wheelchair. They too are the “other”, marginalised and despised. Gustav says that they have pensions. They may well have but what is the appropriate balance between suspicion and compassion? The legless man may have a pension: it will be small and he still has no legs and a shit life. Does he deserve to be abused and humiliated? Is he beyond the grace of God? The Canaanite woman wasn’t.

I spoke to him: he is clean cut and looks well cared for. I watched him for a long time before I approached him – neither of which I would probably have done at home. He never took the initiative with tourists but responded when they gave him money. His name is Sacha and he lost his legs in a train accident. Why should I disbelieve that? He confirmed that he had a pension: “But this is Estonia. It is a small pension.” He was articulate and personable. Does that make him more deserving of charity than the alcoholics who try to scrounge money and cigarettes from tourists? Does that make them more outside God’s grace than Sacha or the old ladies?

An evening with the marginalised and despised followed hot on the heels of these thoughts as I spent a night with the Head of Tallinn’s social services, Mart-Peeter Erss.

I had mentioned to Gustav something of my interest in issues relating to drug and alcohol dependency and HIV education. He organised for me to spend an evening with the Director of Social services himself. A needle exchange programme; a hostel for alcoholics and vagrants; a few very seedy pubs; a sink estate for problem families; feral children; a night shelter and a halfway house for homeless families; drunks and addicts collapsed on the street - one still with the syringe in his arm and addicted prostitutes. A typical night for Tallinn social services and not unlike a route I could trace in Leeds or Bradford. Even with the overwhelming sense of desperation and bleakness, three things stood out in my mind: 1) Mart-Peeter’s articulation of pessimism, "We aren’t changing anything". 2) The way I was shown round the alcoholics’ hostel. These men have nothing, have lost everything and seemingly now the right to dignity and privacy too. The warden just flung open doors without knocking. What was I? A visitor to a zoo? Let’s show the foreign visitor the exhibits. 3) Finally what struck me was that all of this was to be found in one northern suburb, Kopli, where 75% of the population is Russian. When I commented to Gustav the next day about the smell in the hostel his response was that I would find the same smell on tram no.1 and bus no.3. A couple of days ago an American tourist had described the Old Town as how Disney would do medieval. At the time I thought that was harsh. Walking home after Mart-Peeter dropped me off, I felt he had a point.

This is an incredible challenge to anyone with any compassion because the levels of deprivation and the human degradation and hopelessness is overwhelming: It has certainly overwhelmed social services – underfunded and understaffed as anywhere. What is the Pastor’s appropriate response to such a situation? Mine was to go and drink beer with Gunnar, our night security porter and a quickly established friend. A former policeman with extensive undercover experience, he just joined up the dots about the crime levels in Kopli. He also muttered darkly about the number of "train accidents" in Estonia. A lot of the men in the hostle were legless - in every sense. Gunnar talked about gangrene setting in when men collapsed in a stupor in the depths of winter and suffered frost-bite. He also talked about suicide by train.
I’m sorry to confess, I just don’t have the Mother Teresa gene in me. And don’t start me on the vexed question of where God is in all this. The trite answer is alongside the suffering and offering perpetual redemption. Beyond that I have no answer at all, because any response seems so inadequate.

The Canaanite woman was assertive with Jesus in regard to God’s grace. These people don’t have the wherewithall to be assertive with anyone, ground down as they are by unemployment, lack of education, poverty, addiction, speaking the "wrong" language and a culture of criminal activity as a way of life. This being the case such people need an advocate to speak for them. The church can be a powerful advocate but these people are distainful of organised religion are are extremely unlikely to make the expression of both need and faith found on the lips of the Canaanite woman.