To be living in Britain today is to know that you are being watched. CCTV cameras have sprouted like fungi all over our urban fabric and, like mushrooms, they are the very visible sign of activity hidden below the surface of daily life which goes much deeper. Our surveillance society seems to be all-encompassing. If I drive down the A15 towards Lincoln, automatic numberplate recognition cameras record my journey. If I walk through Brigg, the camera pictured above and others like it will be able to track my movements. You never know who is watching you, or when and why they are. This week The Guardian has run an expose on some of the more questionable aspects of the way in which the Police monitor the activities of protesters and demonstrators. CCTV cameras can help cut crime on our streets, make possible a more rapid response to crime as it happens and subsequently assist the prosecution of those responsible, which keeps us all that bit safer. When surveillance technology is used in a way which infringes our civil liberties, such as to inhibit peaceful protest and legitimate demonstration, it is altogether more worrisome in its Orwellian overtones of ‘1984’ and Big Brother keeping watch in a decidedly sinister fashion.
So the question is whether we can trust the watchers. The same technology can be used for very different motives. What is their intention in watching us? How do they look at us? Are we seen as innocent citizens or as suspects?
This led me to reflect on what it is like being continually ‘watched over’ by God – not a comfortable thought. As a youngster from a non-churchgoing background I suppose I thought that God was mightily displeased with what God saw of me; all the ways in which my life was not perfect or up to scratch. God was a judgemental presence ‘up there’ who watched me ‘down here’. Yet over and against this was a conflicting sense too that God wanted the best for me, wanted me to have the ‘light of life’ and not to walk in darkness. It took me a long time to understand and own the truth of 1 John 4:18, that for God the ‘Look of Love’ is exactly how it is. The more I looked into the life of Jesus the clearer this became. Violence, retaliation, threat and coercion – the tools of state and empire – were never his way. In Jesus the meaning of the phrase ‘God is Love’ was embodied, incarnated and fleshed out in public for all to see. There was no need to project onto God the worst aspects of human behaviour. God’s seeing and watching over entail a paradigm wholly about Love. The language of empathy, tears, sadness and regret unpacks its meaning, not that of clenched fists, cruel words and ill-intent. As we see in the crucifixion of Jesus, such love cannot be derided as ‘soft’ or ‘sissy’, as some testosterone-fuelled Christians might have us think, rather it is costly, demanding and radically self-giving. Just imagine the vulnerable agony as God watches what humanity does to Jesus, and Jesus knowingly accepts the consequences of such a way of Love in a world of hatred, violence and cruel self-interest.
Others may look at us with dubious motives, God never does. God’s watching over us in Love is the vision of Grace. It costs God everything. This Divine Look of Love can be trusted with our lives.