Attending an overnight residential seminar recently, there was a Holy Communion service at 8 am. It is customary that some piece of writing is read by way of reflection and the piece chosen was one now rarely heard. The Revd G.A. Studdert-Kennedy, who was known to the soldiers on the Western Front as “Woodbine Willie”, wrote a collection of poems called “The Unutterable Beauty”, a collection which contained the poem “Indifference”.
When Jesus came to Golgotha, they hanged Him on a tree,
They drove great nails through hands and feet, and made a Calvary;
They crowned Him with a crown of thorns, red were His wounds and deep,
For those were crude and cruel days, and human flesh was cheap.
When Jesus came to Birmingham, they simply passed Him by.
They would not hurt a hair of Him, they only let Him die;
For men had grown more tender, and they would not give Him pain,
They only just passed down the street, and left Him in the rain.
Still Jesus cried, ‘Forgive them, for they know not what they do, ‘
And still it rained the winter rain that drenched Him through and through;
The crowds went home and left the streets without a soul to see,
And Jesus crouched against a wall, and cried for Calvary.
The poem would still have got the odd airing in the 1980s, but its reading at the seminar was a first encounter with it in thirty years. In student days, it seemed an unduly cynical view of the world; its presentation of tenderness as simply a cover for a lazy apathy seemed unfair, at least the world represented by Birmingham had managed to avoid the horrific wars of the first half of the Twentieth Century.
With the passing years, though, there is a sense that Studdert-Kennedy had perceived a nascent deep malaise. Attempts to energise a community, to raise support for a cause, to point out people’s duty as citizens to uphold justice and peace fall on deaf ears. Go to a meeting and suggest that people are not powerless, that they have the capacity to change things, and they will smile nicely and than you for your words, and then move on to do whatever is next on their agenda for the day.
If indifference is prevalent in the secular world, it is even more so in the life of the church. Speak of Jesus’ commands to care and to act, and there will be nods of agreement and then they will go home. Indifference seems too slight a word, but anything else might suggest a degree of commitment that is entirely absent.