What Makes Us Human

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Reflection on What makes us human,  on the Jeremy Vine Show on Radio 2 on 1 July 2015. 

Recently I visited one of the centres in Erbil where thousands of Christian refugees are living. One woman told me of their frightening and rapid flight from their home in the city of Mosul as ISIS terrorists advanced. She told me that her Muslim neighbours of many, many, years wept to see them leave. 

Here, in the midst of the most awful suffering, is a true sign of what makes us human. We weep. 

The tears of true weeping are powerful in all that they can express. 

They flow because we are heart-broken at what is or has been lost or destroyed. As human beings we know, at the deepest level, what is truly good for us, and it is not the latest car or mobile phone. Perhaps we shed a tear over them occasionally. But we do not weep! We weep at the death or departure of a loved one. We weep at wanton destruction of friendship, even at the destruction of our much loved environment. We weep because, in fact, we are not indifferent to goodness. We care passionately about all that is good, and not just about 'my personal goodness' but for all that is truly good, objectively good, good for others, for our common good. 

Sometimes we weep with rage. These tears are born of our innate sense of justice, when we see a situation which is 'crying out to heaven for justice'. Often those tears will be fuelled by our sense of helplessness for the evil being done is beyond our influence. But that does not dull our sense of outrage at innocent suffering, at horrendous abuse of a person's integrity or dignity. Pope Francis says that we will never truly tackle the horrendous problem of human trafficking, modern day slavery, until we learn again how to weep. 

Such tears come from the heart, from our inner self, from our soul. They point to that dimension of being human which goes beyond the immediate, which sees beyond the facts, to an awareness of the deeper values. They mark us out from the animal world with its refined instincts but absence of moral sense and decision making. 

There is another source of tears which we must not hide away. Each of us is capable of shedding tears of regret and of repentance. Here, perhaps, we come to the most inner part of ourselves. We reflect on our behaviour. We judge our behaviour. We face the uncomfortable truth of our waywardness and we repent. This is the realm of conscience, that inner capacity within every human being, by which we recognise in what we do the difference between good and evil. 

These tears of repentance are the most valuable. Through them we set out on the road of forgiveness, the road of new possibilities, the road of a new freedom to start again. Tears of a confession, when shed in the embrace of love, evoke mercy and forgiveness. That is certainly true of the love of God. And when we seek and find forgiveness we, as human beings, appear in all our nobility, as most powerfully reflecting the image and likeness of God in which we have been created. 

Then, of course, come the tears of joy. They begin in sheer relief that a burden has been laid down, a locked door sprung open. But then they become tears of wondrous gratitude that I am loved and that life again is filled with light. 

Long may we weep. Then we will discover again our humanity.