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  • Writer's pictureRoss Moughtin

When a problem seems intractable

Intractable problems invariably offer the challenge of reconciling two opposites. of squaring the circle. Usually they don’t just go away but instead keep us awake at night. Like the Irish border, the main problem facing those negotiating Brexit. How do you make an international frontier not a border between two sovereign nations? The border itself was a response in 1920 to the intractable problem of Irish unity, giving home rule to the people of Ireland except for those who didn’t want it. Sometimes all you can do is kick the can down the road. However, there may be a glimmer of hope for Brexit following yesterday’s talks at Thornton Hough (I know the vicar) between Boris Johnson and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. “DARE WE DREAM OF A DEAL” headlines this morning Daily Mail of all newssheets. Even the FT offers some encouragement. Politicians have been wrestling with intractable problems ever since the birth of politics. Sadly, given human nature, such problems usually lead to violence, as even today Turkish planes bomb Kurdish-held areas of northern Syria. However, in international politics there is one intractable problem which has persistently challenged the world over the generations. The Romans thought they had fixed it for good in AD70. That is, the Holy Land – the ultimate oxymoron.. For thirty years, between 1917 and 1947, it was the turn of the British to sort it out – how to give the Jewish people “a national home” as promised by Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour, while claimed by the local Christian and Muslim communities, who constituted almost 90% of the population. To be fair, the Brits did their best but in the end all we could do was abruptly withdraw in 1948 and lead the locals to slug it out. And tragically the conflict continues. Here, I have been trying to find a quote from Abba Eban, one time resident of my son-in-law’s parish in Southwark and subsequently the Israeli foreign minister 1966-74 – but without success. So from memory. He was patiently explaining to a concerned friend that such is the nature of the Arab-Israeli conflict that it is not going to be solved by a conversation over coffee by well-meaning people. “The Arab-Israeli conflict, “ concludes philosopher Alain de Botton, “is also in many ways a conflict about status: it's a war between two peoples who feel deeply humiliated by the other, who want the other to respect them. Battles over status can be even more intractable than those over land or water or oil.” So what do we do with intractable problems, especially if they are important and urgent? According to the late John Stott, this was the intractable problem facing God. What to do with us? On the one hand, sin. As human beings our nature is to rebel against God, to claim his territory as our own. We want him out - even though at the same time we long for justice. However, God by his very nature is a God of justice: “A faithful God who does no wrong, upright and just is he.” (Deuteronomy 32:4). Above all his justice is relational and not merely abstract. “He upholds the cause of the oppressed and gives food to the hungry. . .The Lord watches over the foreigner and sustains the fatherless and the widow but he frustrates the ways of the wicked.” (Psalm 146:7f) Very simply, for God to be God, sin must be punished, the rebellion has to be put down. That means us. However, our sin, therefore, gives God a big problem – because of his abundant love for his wayward creatures. “You, Lord, are forgiving and good, abounding in love to all who call to you.” (Psalm 86:5). The problem seems intractable with God, so to speak, caught between his justice and his compassion. You can’t have it both ways, it would seem. However, they can be resolved but only in one way – the cross of Jesus, no less. Where, in the words of Graham Kendrick, God’s wrath and mercy meet. This cross, as vindicated by the resurrection of Jesus, changes everything, not least it takes the ‘in’ out of the ‘intractable’. Here we can see into the very heart of God himself; we now understand that the cross underpins his entire creation. Above all the cross must change our mindset – and certainly challenge our pride and refusal to let go. So next time we are faced with an intractable problem, just think Jesus. As the apostle Paul teaches: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” (Philippians 2:3)

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