WHO, then, can we trust? This question seems all too prevalent at the present time. Our human capacity to trust each other is infinitely precious, yet it is easily eroded, as recent events have shown.
A former United States president is facing charges related to attempting to overthrow the results of the 2020 presidential election. This extraordinary turn of events threatens to undermine trust in democracy itself — not only in the US, but around the world. Closer to home, and on a rather different scale, scenarios such as “Partygate” in the UK have weakened trust in politicians generally.
Recent problems facing the Metropolitan Police, and miscarriages of justice against individuals such as Andy Malkinson, who spent 17 years in prison for a rape he did not commit, erode public trust in our police and the Crown Prosecution Service, in spite of the undoubted integrity of the vast majority of police men and women.
As Christians, we face the appalling truth that countless acts of abuse have been committed by clergy and other church members. Many of us were shaken by the news in 2020 that Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche movement, had manipulated and sexually abused women over decades; later reports confirmed at least 25 women were involved (News, 3 February 2023).
In the Church of England, recent upheavals concerning the Independent Safeguarding Board, plus turbulent events at the July General Synod in York (Comment, 28 July 2023), have affected people’s confidence in the very system that was put in place to address abuse issues.
In such a world, it is not surprising that some are asking, “Can we trust anyone any more?”
BROKEN trust can hurt us at more than one level. There is the primary emotional, and sometimes physical, harm, along with disappointment, anger, and perhaps humiliation. But, at a deeper level, our very ability to trust may have been damaged.
I once met an elderly man who told me how, many years previously, he had confided in a friend over something intensely personal, only to find that she had betrayed his trust. With palpable bitterness, he said that he would never trust anyone again. This struck me as profoundly sad, not only because of the unhealed wound in his heart, but also because his capacity to trust was so diminished that he seemed to be stuck in a fortress of bitterness and potential loneliness.
It is totally understandable that those who have been abused or badly let down can never again trust certain people or institutions. Nobody can presume to tell another person how they “ought” to respond in such cases. But I would still want to look for ways of hanging on to our ability to trust, even when things are tough. I was encouraged by a woman who managed to do this, albeit in very different circumstances.
Some years ago, she had realised that her teenage son was stealing money from her handbag. When challenged, he was genuinely penitent. They talked at length about why he had done this, and he promised never to do it again. But then his mother had to make a decision: should she hide her handbag from now on, keeping her cash safe but perpetuating an atmosphere of mistrust in the house? Or should she leave the bag in its usual place, thus signalling her full confidence in him? She chose the latter course, and this worked out well for them both. Trust, like love, will always carry an element of risk and uncertainty. But it is a crucial element of our humanity.
Nevertheless, there are contexts in which trust is impossible. It is right to be wary of placing any confidence in figures such as President Putin; similarly, in 1938, politicians agonised over whether to trust Hitler at the time of the Munich Agreement. The challenge is to distinguish between times when trust is appropriate, and situations in which naïvety could put us at the mercy of scoundrels or manipulators.
Yet even when we simply cannot trust certain individuals or organisations, this does not have to mark the end of our capacity to trust anyone else. Imagine a life in which we were so cynical that we never placed ourselves in the hands of hospital surgeons, bus drivers, restaurant chefs, or swimming instructors. And trust between friends is a priceless gift — which, of course, is why the pain of betrayal from those close to us can be so acute.
AS CHRISTIANS, we are called to trust in God: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart” (Proverbs 3.5a). Yet even this can be hard — not because we doubt God’s essential goodness, but because a situation can be so awful that it is difficult to see how anything good can come out of it.
Trust is never an achievement, as if we will get more out of God the more teeth-gritting confidence we can muster. Trusting God is more like a willing surrender into the arms of love, in and through whatever happens. And trust is as vital in our human relationships as it is in our spiritual life.
As a clergy spouse, I used to worry about how best to respond to the characters who appeared regularly at the vicarage asking for money (which we never gave) or food (which we usually did). Some requested baby milk and nappies, or a lift to the train station. We did our best to apply basic common sense and safeguarding guidelines, but we still wondered how to follow Jesus’s advice to be “wise as serpents and gentle as doves” (Matthew 10.16).
In the end, an archdeacon said to me, “It’s better to give them the benefit of the doubt than close your heart in perpetual mistrust.” Amen to that.
Angela Ashwin is a speaker and writer on the spiritual life, a Lay Canon Emeritus of Newcastle Cathedral and a Reader at Southwell Minster.