Thinking Anew – The importance of acceptance
Practical Christianity insists that we value others, especially those with whom we have differences. Photograph: Getty Images
When Éamon de Valera died in 1975 a service of commemoration was held in Christchurch Cathedral, Dublin. The sermon was preached by the then-Archbishop of Dublin Dr Alan Buchanan. It is difficult to imagine two men so different: de Valera, the republican and ultraconservative Roman Catholic; Buchanan, of northern unionist background and senior bishop of the Church of Ireland. They did have one thing in common: both had been prisoners of war –de Valera for his republican activities and Buchanan, a British army chaplain taken prisoner at Arnhem.
So what could the archbishop say about a man so different to him? He began: “Speak of the man as you knew him” and went on to talk of a shared respect.
His words came to mind recently when, following the death of the Duke of Edinburgh, former president Mary McAleese was asked in a BBC interview to comment on the historic visit of Queen Elizabeth and the Duke to Ireland in 2011. She said: “What struck me on that day was that I was talking to two people of faith and it was a faith that demanded of them that they seek reconciliation and forgiveness. This really surprised me and I don’t know why it should have but it did and they both gave me to understand that they wanted to visit Ireland. They saw themselves as having a duty to do whatever they could by way of bringing about that reconciliation between neighbours.” Here again we have people, political and religious strangers, but by respecting each other, discovering something in the other that was authentic and worthy of admiration.
This is consistent with the principles of Christian living described in tomorrow’s epistle reading: “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. “(1 John 4.7)
This is not sloppy sentimentality; this is practical Christianity, insisting that we value others, especially those with whom we have differences.
Tomorrow’s reading from the Book of Acts (8.26) reminds us that living with difference is a human problem. Philip, known as the evangelist, meets an Ethiopian eunuch who is trying to make sense of that familiar passage from Isaiah 53 that we associate with the passion of Jesus: “He was despised and rejected . . .” This spoke to the eunuch’s own experience as he had just visited Jerusalem seeking spiritual comfort and found none because, as a eunuch, he was not allowed into the Temple. He too felt despised and rejected because according to scripture this “sexless” man “shall not have a place in the assembly of the Lord” – an attitude that haunts parts of the church to this day.
He asks Philip to explain the texts and Philip tells him that Jesus is the rejected one, “cut off out of the land of the living” but that the good news of the gospel is that because of Jesus, the risen Christ, the excluded have become the included. And so right there in the desert, a white man, and a black man, a Palestinian Jew and Ethiopian Arab, dive into the water for baptism – a message for today’s church.
In his book As Bread is Broken, Fr Peter van Breeman stresses the importance of acceptance: “One of the deepest needs of the human heart is the need to be appreciated. Every human being wants to be valued . . . Every human being craves to be accepted, accepted for what he is . . . When I am not accepted, then something in me is broken . . . Acceptance means that the people with whom I live give me a feeling of self-respect, a feeling that I am worthwhile. They are happy that I am who I am. Acceptance means that I am welcome to be myself. Acceptance means that though there is a need for growth, I am not forced. I do not have to be the person I am not.”