June 5, 2015 admin

Stuttgart and the sparrows

I’ve been especially moved this week by two  entirely different matters. Yet on reflection, they have, at depth, much in common.
I was in Stuttgart as a guest of the Kirchentag. It’s to the German Protestant Church what Limmud is for the Jewish community, a festival of learning, music, prayer, people, encounter, joy and the debate of every conceivable issue. Only it’s somewhat bigger, with over 100,000 people. The entire centre of the city was closed to traffic for four days and given over to crowds of people, mostly young, singing, talking, attending street lectures.
The mayor of Stuttgart addressed a special gathering for foreign visitors (a mere 6,000): ‘I’m the one who’s been asked to speak because I’m the quickest’, she began, making everyone warm to her. ‘We have guests here from 140 countries’, she explained. ‘Our city has many people with migration and refugee backgrounds and we are glad to live peacefully together. I am proud that in this town over 900 people are currently giving their time to the support of refugees’. It wasn’t a speech I’d expected to hear in today’s Europe; it was moving, and chastening.
Outside in the street I was hailed by a voice calling ‘Jonathan’; it was Nicholas Sagovsky, formerly canon theologian of Westminster Abbey. He currently works with church and government leaders in Britain on issue of good society in general and asylum in particular.
Between bouts of anxiety about my own session, a shared discussion of a Biblical text with a Christian Colleague (which went well in the end), I calmed myself by reading. Nicky had given me Field Notes From a Hidden City, by Esther Woolfson. It’s subtitled ‘An Urban Nature Diary’, with ‘urban’ referring specifically to Aberdeen, but the concerns of the book are far wider. Here is a lady who cares and knows. The fledgling jackdaw by the roadside, the declining sparrow and the beautiful sparrow hawk: she observes, studies and appreciates them and recognises fellow creatures following the integrity of their own lives.
This causes her to call into question the heedlessness, and prejudice, with which we ignore, judge and make assumptions. Observing a lone red squirrel, she recalls how the species was once killed by the thousand as a pest. Now they are endangered species. Instead the greys are persecuted today; there’s even a lady in the town who alerts trapping squads whenever she hears of a sighting. When she sees a grey squirrel in the garden she feels she’s harbouring a threatened fugitive. ‘As I watch it, it occurs to me that all that changes is human perception’.
But there is much that perception fails to perceive, the meaning of a city park turned into a mall, the loss of the great throngs of sparrows. Carrier pigeons were once so numerous in North America that it took three days for the flocks to fly over. She quotes the woman who made the last recorded sighting before the bird became extinct. ‘She listened to its call in which she heard a cry of bitter admonition, ‘See, see, see!’’ Twice she refers to John Locke, the philosopher to whom we are perhaps more indebted than any other for promoting the spirit of tolerance which came to embrace Jews too: ‘the killing of beasts will by degrees, harden [people’s] minds even towards men’.   
Stuttgart and the sparrows: what they have in common is this, the appeal to care, to extend the circle of what and whom we notice, to commit ourselves to life, compassion, hesed – ‘loving-kindness’ – among the most important words in the entire language of Judaism.
Religion which gets stuck as dogma in the head is sadly not just useless but often dangerous.  It must descend to the heart and touch there the flow of compassion which is the essence of the sacred gift of life.

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