Jacob Rees-Mogg, Grenfell & how we can do the same in the church

Yesterday, Jacob Rees-Mogg got into trouble for making the following comments:

Most of the frustration has centred on what Rees-Mogg called, ‘common sense.’ It appears he was suggesting that – irrespective of what the fire brigade advised – it is just common sense to leave the building. He went on to say, if he were in the building, he would have left.

These comments were compounded when, Tory MP Andrew Bridgen, attempted to defend Rees-Mogg this way:

Clearly he understood Rees-Mogg as many others did. He really was suggesting that he was cleverer than those who died in that fire. He would have left while the simpletons who lack common sense stayed put. Again, it should be pointed out that those buildings were not made for mass evacuations. The ‘stay put’ advice is correct as each flat is a sealed, fireproof, concrete box but the fire took hold, not internally, but externally thanks to the flammable material in which it had been clad.

This is a classic example of victim blaming. There are other videos showing the amount of smoke that filled the corridor as people were inside the burning building. The choice to leave – running into a burning corridor, with no obvious escape, fill with thick acrid smoke – is not as common sense as Rees-Mogg suggests. Faced with such scenes, and fire brigade advice to the contrary, it is little wonder many chose as they did.

It bears asking, if Jacob Rees-Mogg and many others are cleverer than the Grenfell victims, why they didn’t have the common sense not to clad the building in dangerous flammable material in the first place? It also bears asking, if they are the prevailing voices of common sense, why they didn’t have the intelligence to keep those highly insensitive thoughts to themselves? If they are so clever, leaving aside the crassness of the comments, why did they not reckon that saying these things in the middle of an election campaign really isn’t very helpful for their electoral chances? It does seem that they aren’t as bright as they seem to think.

We can end up making this same mistake in our churches too. We – particularly those of us with a theology degree or two behind us – can very quickly think of ourselves as much brighter than our people. If only they had the common sense to behave in line with scripture, to do what Jesus says, things would be so much better. The problems in the church, we think, are really the result of people failing to do what is painfully obvious. Those who sin are just those who lack the knowledge or theological education of the pastor. They are the dim-witted idiots who just don’t know what’s good for themselves.

But in worse cases, we don’t just see ourselves as better than those who sin, we can position ourselves as superior to those who suffer the effects of other’s sin. We can end up making the kind of victim-blaming comments that Rees-Mogg has done. People who are the victims of sinful behaviour in the church can easily be blamed for the results of that sin. If only they had more common sense, we think, this wouldn’t have happened. If only they were as smart as me, or reasoned this theologically as well as I can, they would have positioned themselves to avoid all of the fallout of this sin.

The temptation is to frequently position ourselves above others. We want to feel that we see things clearly and if only others saw things are clearly as me, they wouldn’t get themselves into the problems that they now face. They might be circumstantial, they might be results of other’s sin, they might be other things altogether. But we so rarely recognise the truth of the statement, there but for the grace of God go I. Instead, we like to think our intellect and clever choices are what keep us from such things.

Whenever we are faced with issues of sin in the church – whether the sin of an individual or those who are suffering the consequences of other’s sin – we would do well to remember our own sinful tendencies. We are sinners as much in need of God’s grace as those in our churches. There are times when it is right to call out sin for what it is. We may even need to put people out of the church for their serious sin. But we must take the Biblical caution seriously, ‘let anyone who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall.’ (1 Cor 10:12). That is not to say I am necessarily likely to fall in precisely the same way as you. There are some sins that I struggle to see myself falling into because they just aren’t the sort of thing I am tempted to do. But I must be careful lest I fall into the kind of sins that, sadly, I see as all too troublingly close to home and evidently plausible.

But we need to be careful when it comes to those suffering the consequences of other’s sin too. We will all be the victim of sin at some time or other. Whilst for many of us it may be small beans, for others there may be major fallout. But we need to guard ourselves against suggesting that, if only those suffering were a bit brighter, they might have avoided the consequences they are now suffering because – at the end of the day – if that’s true, if we were smarter, we might have avoided those things ourselves, like the effects of Adam’s sin for example. But we can’t avoid those things. It’s not an issue of common sense, it’s not a matter of being brighter, it is just the reality of being a sinner in a fallen world.