In July 2005 my family and I moved from Swanage in Dorset, a lovely seaside town on the south coast with quite a tight knit community, to Larbert, a town just outside Falkirk in central Scotland. I had been married for 10 years at that stage to a woman who was born in Falkirk, moved to England when she was 3, and always fancied moving back again. So, on holiday, I went past a branch in Edinburgh of the bank I was working for at the time, popped in to enquire whether they had any jobs going and, six weeks later, we moved with our three young children.
It was an exciting time. I love Scotland. Its culture, its scenery, its history, its people and its incredibly strong sense of identity (as well as its haggis and Irn Bru!) are all so inviting and friendly. There was, for me, one concern, though. How would the Scots take to me, an Englishman, living and working here.
I knew that there was a strong rivalry, especially where sport was concerned, and that there was an increasing level of support for independence. All of the views which were presented to me, some by members of my wife’s family, suggested that there was a large anti-English feeling in Scotland. Most of this was media inflicted, either by a nationalistic Scottish media or an aloof, condescending English media, but it was evidently there. It worried me that, as soon as people heard my accent, I would be the subject of vitriol for some. I was scared that I may not be allowed to settle comfortably and that maybe my children would be the target of anti-English bullying at school.
In the end, these fears were totally unfounded. The people I live and work with, the children my kids went to school with, and everyone else we’ve encountered here could not be friendlier, more welcoming and more inclusive. Yes, the rivalry is there, but it’s friendly rivalry. Yes, the anti-English media sentiment is there, but it doesn’t extend to a dislike of the English people. In fact, I have found myself joining in with critical ism of many quarters of the UK media who don’t seem to see north of Hadrian’s Wall or, in most cases, the Watford Gap. This country is home to me now. I have many Scottish phrases in my own speech, hold a season ticket to my local football team, Stenhousemuir, I’m a Church of Scotland member and refer to the people of Scotland as “we”. I love it here.
It took me living and working here for me to appreciate the people and the reasons any rivalry may be there. I can even see why many want independence, something I couldn’t even fathom 9 years ago.
This is the case for all of us. There are many people living in situations we can’t begin to fathom. People living in poverty, abusive households, living with addiction, different political views, different nationalities, different religions, social isolation, different social class, different pressures and expectations to our own. We find it all too easy to view these lives through the prisms of our own circumstances and experiences. This can all too easily lead to lack of understanding, fundamentalism and fear.
What do we think of the 45 year old drug addict, squatting in an empty flat? Do we look down on him for getting himself I to that situation, or do we ask what drove him to drugs and what could help him back off them? What about the 19 year old single mother of 3 who lives off benefits in a council house? Is she just an irresponsible scrounge, having kids to sponge off the state? Or is she a caring, loving mother, raising her children in the best way she can so they have a better chance in life? What about the public schoolboy with convictions for driving under the influence of drink and drugs? A spoilt brat with no sense of responsibility, or a young man who finds it impossible to live up to the expectations placed upon him and has found the wrong outlet for his frustrations and insecurities?
In To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee wrote this,
“You never really know a man until you understand things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
Few things are more true than this. We cannot hope to understand until we have made the effort to do so, until we have taken the time to step into the shoes of people in situations different to ourselves. We need to listen and talk, to visit and, if called to do so, live in places alien to us. Only when we break down the barriers which exist in society and within our own heads will we start to understand, empathise and make a positive difference.
Jesus did this all of the time. He hung out with prostitutes, tax collectors, lepers, beggars, Roman soldiers, Samaritans, adulterers and even (shock, horror!) women. He did this to set us all the ultimate example. He didn’t say that He condoned people’s life choices, but He did this to understand so that He could show them a better way. THE better Way.
One of the most famous examples happened in Luke’s gospel, and Jesus explained why He did this,
“Then Levi had a big feast in his house for Jesus, and among the guests was a large number of tax collectors and other people. Some Pharisees and some teachers of the Law who belonged to their group complained to Jesus’ disciples. “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and other outcasts?” they asked.
Jesus answered them, “People who are well do not need a doctor, but only those who are sick. I have not come to call respectable people to repent, but outcasts.”” (Luke 5:29-32 GNT)
We are all outcasts, in one form or another, and Jesus comes to call us. He also comes to call all those who we may see as outcasts. Shall we condemn and fear them, or do we take up Jesus’ call to show them the way, the truth and the life He brings. It is understanding and love we must show. To all. It’s not just what Jesus would do, it’s what He did. What He does. What He asks us to do.