There are no burkinis in the gospels
There are no burkinis in the gospels. No bikinis either.
But when I see a photograph of a woman on the ground, surrounded by four men with weapons, being told to take off her clothes, I’m still pretty clear on where Jesus would position himself on this beach.
Which is why I found myself, sweaty and dishevelled after a cycle ride from Peckham to Knightsbridge, in a cassock, on a pretend beach in front of the French Embassy.
I had not expected to be approached by so many cameras and people asking me questions, so I hadn’t at all prepared anything to say. I suspect this may be only too evident if any of my ramblings find their way onto screens or into papers. But here are a few of the things I should have said.
More parties, please
Today’s beach party at the French embassy was attended by women in burkinis, bikinis, trousers, skirts, hats – and it was celebratory. Difference – my faith shows me – is something to be delightedly curious about, rather than to fear. Can we learn ways of asking interested questions about faith, and belief and – why not? – clothing, and really listening to the answers? Would that not be a better way of approaching our diversity, as European communities, than bans and division?
A certain amount of my embarrassment at finding myself in front of cameras this afternoon was, I have to admit, because a black cassock, on a hot day, after a central London cycle ride is, frankly, a difficult look to carry off with any elegance.
But I am also embarrassed that I got a say here when very many women regularly do not get a say. And let’s face it, the fact that I am white and middle class will get me more of a say, more often. I am reminded of the responsibility to do what the Bible says in Proverbs (31.8-9) – to speak up for justice when others are denied a voice. And also of the responsibility, sometimes, to shut up and listen.
I’m glad to say that there were many non-white and Muslim spokespeople at today’s event who spoke with more authority than me, and I fervently hope that their voices are heard before mine.
It’s easily possible that a French person could see an English priest making a comment on the practice of their police and think ‘It’s none of her business’. I said to the various cameras that I was undertaking a neighbourly gesture – to ask a question of a neighbour ‘What’s going on here?’.
What I didn’t say was that this perspective seems to me to go with the territory of being a follower of Christ. I’m afraid (actually, I’m not – I’m excited and thrilled) that I am stuck with the biblical question ‘who is my neighbour?’ and Jesus’ wonderfully frustrating non-answer- a story about a man who gets beaten up on a road and taken care of by someone from a feared and different nation and religion.
A line in the sand
A final one.
So, as I say, there aren’t any burkinis in the Bible, but there is a woman on the ground, surrounded by men carrying weapons. In the gospel of John, chapter 8, a woman is brought to Jesus by a group of men who are ready to stone her. They have judged her, and there is a law, a written law, that they are ready to carry out against her.
I don’t know how it feels to be a woman in that position. But the woman on the beach, with whom we stood in solidarity today, has had an experience like it. I imagine it is terrifying.
Jesus bends down and writes in the dust of the ground. We don’t know what, intriguingly. The men won’t stop asking him questions, seeking his answer to their judgement of the woman. He won’t stop not answering, won’t stop kneeling down and writing in the dust.
Then he does stand up. He looks around at the men. He looks at the stones in their hands and he sees the self-assuredness of their position. There is a law, a written law. And he turns the question on them.
‘If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.’
He kneels down again and writes more in the dust.
The law, the written law, suddenly seems – well – incomplete. It is pulse-less. Unresponsive. Unlike this strange teacher in the dust, who is, frustratingly, undeniably, alive. The first of the men, the oldest one among them, puts his stone down and walks away. One by one they all follow.
Jesus stands up and speaks to the woman face to face. He asks her a question. He hears her reply.
And that is why I think I know where Jesus would put himself on a beach in Southern France. And that is why I wore my cassock at a fake beach today.