I went to see “The Old Oak” at the cinema a few weeks ago. It is a Ken Loach film. I have a lot of respect for Ken Loach, even though I have to confess to it being the first film of his I have gone to see. He makes films that tell the stories of ordinary people living in Britain today and he shows the impact of the policies of the current government on people here who have the least. His films are not easy viewing.
The Old Oak is set in a village in Northern England, not far from Durham in 2016, prior to Brexit. The story is about the settling of some Syrian refugees into the village and the impact of it on the local people and the refugees themselves, and the relationships that develop. I’m not sure exactly why I was moved to see this film but avoided his other films on account of the anticipation that they would be gruelling, all I know is that I was moved to see it and I was deeply moved by it.
I felt angry at the blatant racism of the villagers towards the refugees and the bitterness that they espoused:
I’m not a racist but….
I felt angry at the lack of compassion and the spite that they showed to people who had been displaced from their home and who had nothing. I also felt angry at the deprivation and the hopelessness that the villagers themselves felt at being trapped in poverty in their own lives. And most of all I felt angry that these feelings had been stoked and amplified by the corruption and lies of those in the Brexit leave campaign who later came to form our government. I felt ugly inside and ashamed to be British – a strong, repulsive response. I recognise myself in the first week of the Spiritual Exercises at this response as I contemplate sin and the sins of the world.
A platonic relationship develops between Yara, one of the refugees and the publican Tommy Joe (TJ). In response to an idea from Yara, who was inspired from photos of how the community held together during the miners strike:
When you eat together, you stick together.
He opens up the backroom of his pub to cook community dinners for anyone and every one. The community pulls together to fix up the back room to make it functional for the purpose. However, some of his regulars who had asked for the back room to be opened and he had turned down due to the extensive work needed, sabotaged the room in a pique of spite and the dinners stopped.
The scene that moved me the most in the film took place in Durham Cathedral. We see a small part of that scene in the trailor for the film. Yara and TJ had gone there to collect some food that had been donated. Yara wandered into the cathedral during choir practice and the space, beauty and peace of it contrasted with the apparent bleakness in the rest of the film. She had a conversation with TJ about how her father had been abducted and imprisoned by the Syrian regime. She believed he was still alive at this point because they had had reports that someone had seen him in prison a few weeks previously. Yara talked about how this hope for him to be alive caused her despair. She conveyed that if they knew he was dead, they would know he was no longer suffering, or being tortured and that they would be able to mourn, to move on and live their lives. This conversation broke my heart, and even now as I write about it weeks later it still has the power to move me to tears. How can hope be the source of despair? An yet, there was truth in her words.
I remember the incident in London Bridge some years ago when the driver of a van deliberately ploughed through pedestrians. I’d read an article later somewhere where a mother had commented on her child asking where was God in such a thing. She had told him to look for the helpers, always to look for the helpers. This one simple response has stayed with me since then. It is the helpers and the hope for better that defies the violence that would otherwise overwhelm us.
I read somewhere – I think it was in “God in All Things” by Gerry Hughes – that as long as one person remains who stands up for what is right then evil will not prevail. As St Francis of Assisi puts it:
When I did the Spiritual Exercises, there was a meditation in the first week whereby I imagined myself in a river, seemingly teeming with life, but I was standing in front of an outflow pipe with what was effectively crude oil pouring out of it. I was trying to block it from reaching the children behind me but it was clinging to me and making me sick, and some of it was still managing to flow past me. More recently, I was in this river and in front of the outflow pipe again. This time my body was anointed in a different oil, fragranced with God and the black oil could not cling to me because of it. The words that accompanied this image in my prayer were:
Satan cannot take what belongs to God.
Evil and sin is tricky. Much has been written about it and I certainly don’t have the answer to it. The first week in the Exercises is spent in meditation of it and on contemplating the cross, Ignatius cries out in wonder:
This is a cry of wonder accompanied by a surge of emotion as I pass in review all creatures. How is it that they have permitted me to live, and have sustained me in my life? Why have the angels, though they are the sword of God’s justice, tolerated me, guarded me and prayed for me! Why have the saints interceded for me and asked favours for me!…How is it that the earth did not open and swallow me up, and create new hells in which I should be tormented forever!The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, trans. Louis J. Puhl SJ.
Like many others around the world, I am completely horrified by the violence currently being perpetrated in the Middle East. As a species, we have an intrinsic tendency towards violence. This point never hit more deeply as when I watched the jubilation portrayed in the film Oppenheimer after the bombs had been dropped in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was sickening. I identified with the man shown vomiting in the bicycle sheds. In God in All Things, Gerry Hughes, who took a stand against violence in his life, talks about our destructive belief in redemptive violence:
Supporters of active non-violent resistance are generally considered to be romantic idealists, who are out of touch with the realities of the violent world in which the weak and oppressed will be trampled on by the ruthless unless the ruthless are deterred by violence.God In All Things, Gerard W. Hughes
He also says:
Our advocacy of violence is not seen as being in conflict with fundamental Christian belief. If we believe in redemptive violence, we may find ourselves in strange company; in agreement with tyrants, dictators, totalitarian regimes and terrorists throughout the ages.God In All Things, Gerard W. Hughes
I went on a retreat to Loyola in 2009 which had been organised by Gerry Hughes and I was, and still am, impressed by this quiet, gentle Jesuit priest who held such seemingly radical views. At least, by the response they would illicit in some, you would think they were radical. You would think that condemnation of violence and calling for peace would be obvious, logical, a common desire for everyone. Apparently not. I am proud to be Scottish this week because of the call by Scottish MPs for a ceasefire in the Middle East, and I am ashamed to be British because parliament voted against calling for a ceasefire. I genuinely do not understand it – how can anyone seriously vote against calling for wanton violence and destruction to stop? I may be one of those romantic idealists that Gerry Hughes was referring to, and I may be politically naive without a solution to the problems, but still. Surely the first step to stop the killing is to stop the justification of the killing?
When the scapegoat mentality takes hold in a country it destroys any sense of proportion, threatens to banish the rule of law, tends to demonise any who are suspected, and frightens people from speaking the truth, lest they are accused of colluding with the accused.God In All Things, Gerard W. Hughes
While I recognise a grain of truth in Yara’s words in Durham Cathedral, and agree within the context in which she spoke them, I don’t agree in a general sense. Hope is the defiance of the violence we see. It is the message of the cross, it is the message of all of those who stand for peace. We dare to hope for more than the violence we are capable of, and while there is one person alive who advocates for love, there is hope. There are many of us and the darkness cannot extinguish this light. This hope is our defiance and we dare to speak it out.