By Rev. David Moffat
In Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, right at the end, Neville Longbottom, the class geek, is awarded the house points which win Gryffindor the House Cup. Why? Harry, Ron and Hermione had discovered a plot to steal the Philosopher’s Stone, and as they headed out of the common room after curfew, Neville had stood in their way, certain that they were going to get themselves in trouble once again. Unsuccessful though he was, Albus Dumbledore (the school’s headmaster) awarded Neville his points with the words, “There are all kinds of courage. It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, but just as much to stand up to our friends.”
How true! Faced with knowing that a friend is in the wrong, most of us would be tempted to turn a blind eye, at the very least. We do not face the same quandary when the wrong doer is a stranger.
The doctrine of charity tells us how we are to deal with the other people we relate to – according to the goodness which is present in them, or what is the same, to the extent that they have accepted what is of the Lord. This applies to people of every race, religion, social status, etc. in practice, it means that we ought to do a little work in getting to know the person and the circumstances before we perform any type of ‘good’ for them, for example, a natural kindness such as the giving of money.
All these guidelines apply equally to friendships. But, I maintain that we find the rule much harder to apply with objectivity in the case of a friend. Let’s return to the example of money. Say a person walks up to you in the street and asks for ten dollars. What would you do? Would you say ‘yes’, immediately and hand the money over? Would you enquire as to the reason? Would you offer to supply that person’s need rather than giving money? Would you just say ‘no’? Now imagine that person is a friend – would your reaction change?
It is natural, in the case of strangers to be more inclined to refuse the request than grant it. And we are more likely to question the motive of a stranger than we would wish to tarnish a friendship with thoughts of mistrust. We easily fall into the trap of assuming the worst of a stranger and the best of a friend.
This is the more difficult side of the doctrine of charity, because it challenges our assumptions and lower nature. Most people seem to understand the implications of the doctrine in relation to a stranger in the street. We have misgivings about ‘just handing the money over’ to the stranger who asks, even though we may have been told to treat everyone to the same natural kindnesses. We find our misgivings explained in a rational and sensible manner by the doctrine. But when it comes to being kind to a friend, most of us wouldn’t hesitate or even harbour doubts. But, everyone should be treated with equal care and attention, so that in all situations good may come from our actions. That is to say, we should not treat everyone in the same way, but in dealing with such requests, we should begin from the same principles. This can come as something of a shock.
But there’s another complication to consider. When we deny a kindness to the deserving stranger, it represents one point in time, one missed opportunity for good. We can repent, learn from our mistake and move on, fairly confident of no further contact with that person. Unfortunate as such a missed opportunity it, there are no lasting consequences of our actions for us. But when we are kind to the undeserving friend, we have done more than aid an evil in that person – we may predict with some confidence a continued association with that evil. That evil may lead us to greater and greater problems. Swedenborg describes how detrimental friendship associations can be when they are entered into carelessly (True Christian Religion, paragraphs 446-455; cf. Arcana Caelestia 3875.5).
I’m not suggesting that we can ‘get away’ with treating strangers badly! That’s just plain selfish and short sighted, and who knows what the consequences for other people might be. My point is that friendships are more potentially dangerous for our spiritual well-being.
In The Lord of the Rings, especially the second and third books of the trilogy (The Two Towers, and The Return of the King), we find true and false friendship vividly contrasted in the relationship between Frodo Baggins, Samwise Gamgee and Gollum. It shows us how we really ought to treat our friends and who our real friends are.
Samwise (Sam) is Frodo’s true friend. He share’s Frodo’s purpose – the destruction of the ring of power. He is caring, thoughtful and encouraging. But he is also able to correct Frodo and stand up for the truth, even when he knows Frodo will not find it easy to accept his words. He treats Frodo “without fear of favour.”
Gollum is altogether different. His purpose is not to destroy the ring, but to regain possession of it. At first he breathes murder towards Frodo and Sam. When he is forced to guide them towards Mordor he does so only for the opportunity it gives him to move closer to his goal. He is not interested in the truth – he tells Frodo whatever he wants to hear in order to gain his trust. In Peter Jackson’s recent films, Frodo finally rejects Sam’s friendship for Gollum’s, only to plunge himself into terrifying danger – and to be rescued by the ever faithful Sam.
Let’s turn now to friendship in its highest sense – friendship with the Lord. When we are friends with the Lord, all other relationships can be seen in their true perspective – in relation to the highest possible good. Our truest human friendships are those which are formed on this basis. Our priority should not be the personality or character of another, but it should be our connection with the Lord, and through this connection we can be true friends. When the Apostle Paul speaks of the ‘body of Christ’ (Ephesians 1:23; 1 Corinthians 12:27; Romans 12:4-5), this is what he is describing. This is the church – in an ideal sense. When Swedenborg describes the Grand Man of heaven, he is speaking about the same thing – the ideal become reality. We are in heaven because of the presence of the Lord in our lives, and the collective effect is a reflection of the Lord.
Our gathering to celebrate the Holy Supper represents this idea friendship too. It is an act of worship we most usually celebrate together. One of the most important aspects of sharing the Holy Supper with those who are housebound, is the sense of sharing it with a body of people with whom they are physically unable to be present. When we have gathered for that purpose, we can say our congregation represents those friendships. It is not limited to that particular group – indeed we may not actually call those present our “friends”, but by focussing upon the Lord in an external way, it shows us what the inner nature of friendship ought to be.
There is one more aspect of friendship I would like to mention in conclusion. The Lord said, “No longer do I call you servants, for a servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends…” (John 15:15) Friendship with the Lord is a liberating experience! As we align our being with His, the commands of his words become part of our nature too. We no longer have to strive in order to avoid killing, because the need, the desire to kill, or the other evils which would lead to breaking that commandment are no longer part of our lives. Friendship is representative of our regeneration. Our growing friendship with the Lord is the realisation of that potential.