It's a sunny afternoon, and I'm walking along the South Bank trying to make eye contact with people I pass, which is a bit awkward if I'm honest. This is Central London and we do not look strangers in the eye.
All of this is largely the fault of my San Franciscan friend, Mark Scandrette. For a week, a group of us have committed to daily spending an hour in a busy location, noticing the people around us, making proper eye contact and (internally) speaking a blessing on them: "beloved child of God, may you be well."
So far, so Californian.
But there is a purpose to this. We're taking part in a "Learning Lab' – a ten-week group experiment with the beatitudes. "Blessed are the merciful" said Jesus, "for they will be shown mercy" – so we're working on how we judge, what instant decisions we make about people, and what it would be like to move through life looking at each other with eyes of compassion and mercy.
An hour of eye contact may sound like a small thing, but as I've engaged in these practices in the beatitudes for the last couple of years, I've been radically challenged. The beatitudes are a piece of poetry, ancient wisdom, a subversion of the idea of what it is to be 'blessed' like the gods. But they're also a call to action – at the same time poetic and intensely practical.
As Paul Coelho puts it, "The world is changed by your example, not by your opinion."
We who have learnt to think like ancient Greeks are all too easily distracted by the abstract. Faith is so quickly reduced to ideas and beliefs – but Jesus was a 1st century Jew. He lived in a Hebraic culture that dealt in material and tangible terms.
The invitation of the beatitudes is an invitation to a radically different way of living. An invitation to change the world by acting differently. In a world where the poor are blessed, we're invited to live simply, to share and to be grateful. To unclench our hands from the things we are holding on to in our scarcity, and practice generosity.
In a world where meekness is blessed, we're challenged to stop striving and competing and comparing – but to serve others instead. In a world where 80% of humanity lives on less than $10 a day, the beatitudes ask us hard questions about how our actions and our consumption add to the injustice that others experience daily. These are not easy paths to walk – neither are they small and inconsequential choices. The beatitudes find purchase in our individual lives, but also in our corporate life, in our political and economic systems, in how we do business and what we consume and how we respond to difference and oppression everywhere.
As Easter approaches, we are faced with the reality that the way Jesus lived and acted and loved ultimately cost him his life. The beatitudes call us to put into action the ideas that we have about peace-making and justice and doing good – whatever the cost. This is not reserved for exceptional individuals or icons of change like Tubman, Gandhi, and King. It is the way that we all invited to, if we follow in the way of Jesus.
Our 'Learning Lab' lasted just ten weeks – but the challenge of practicing the way of Jesus lasts a lifetime.
"Too often words are worthless and found cheap
But others count for something, when they're spoken let them speak
Hear these words spoken from an ancient mount
Thunder clap, earth shatter, ground rumble hear the sound ...
If these words become the catalyst of incarnation
Liberation for our spiritual incarceration
Then nine beats to the bar is the rhythm of regeneration
Re-creation, in this generation."
[9/8 – Steve Bassett/Eric Leroy Wilson, NINE BEATS Collective]