Every semester I teach my new crop of students the story of Omelas, a story whose central theme could be stated this way:
The 20th century built up quite a list of casualties around "principles" in Barth's sense. Various philosophies solemnly assured us that the human cost is really worth it, because history will vindicate the sufferings and sacrifices of the present. Keep your nerve, don't be distracted by the human face of suffering, because it will be all right in the end; we know it will because the principles are clear.Imagine if we have a religious leader in America who spoke this way. Then imagine further, that the media listened to such a person, even gave him space in a major newspaper for his opinion.
Of course, it gets better:
People react impatiently to this, asking why religious believers should be taken seriously when they talk about economics. Fair enough. But the whole point is that the believer doesn't want to talk about economics, only to ask an "unprincipled" question – to make sure that principles don't simply block out actual human faces and stories. How we make it all work is vastly complicated – no one is pretending it isn't. But without these anxieties about the specific costs, we've lost the essential moral compass.Forget, for a moment, the state of the Anglican Communion, of whether or not Rowan is a good Archbishop of Canterbury. Just take joy, and light up every face you meet.
The God of the Christmas story (and the rest of the Gospels) doesn't relate to us on the basis of any theory. but on the basis of unconditional love and welcome. That act of free love towards the entire human race changed things – even for those who didn't and don't share all the beliefs and doctrines of Christianity. And for those who do share those convictions, loving God and one another is a defiance of all programmes and principles designed to preserve only the wellbeing of people like us.
All of us, Christians most definitely included, have problems living up to this. But that's one reason why we tell this story repeatedly, the story of the "unprincipled" God who values what others don't notice, who relates to people we'd all rather forget, whose appeal is to everyone because he has made everyone capable of loving response. At least once a year we all – Christians or non-Christians – need to hear again that permission to be free from principles so that we can ask the question about specific human lives and destinies, about the unacceptable cost of programmes and systems when they are only about me and people like me.
And when that question is asked, says Karl Barth in his sermon, what begins to come through "the eternal light that requires nether fuel nor candlestick".
May this Christmas bring that light into all our lives, to light up every face we meet.