Archive for the ‘General’ Category
My Danish brother-in-law has been unemployed for more than six months. The economic situation in Scandinavia, though complained about by locals, is not as grim as in southern Europe. Spain recently announced that more than one in four people were out of work. Youth unemployment in Italy runs at nearly fifty per cent. People all over the world are desperate for jobs. And those who have jobs are desperate to keep them, at whatever cost. Under the present regime of global capitalism, small businesses struggle to survive, and self-employment is limited in scope.
On the one hand we are told that we live in an era of unparalleled freedom of choice. On the other hand, there is a profound sense of resignation to fate. Managers complain that their decisions are controlled by impersonal “market forces”. They are compelled to “downsize” or move their operations elsewhere, otherwise they lose out. When profits dip, workers are laid off. Nobody thinks of a proportionate pay cut across the board. Thus the paradox we see today of prosperous stock markets and struggling economies.
The values espoused by capitalism are not optional for people who wish to remain employed. Worldwide, few labourers can choose to work part-time or with flexible hours in the interest of being available to their families. We are forced on to a treadmill of consumption in a 24/7 economy. Unbridled capitalism demands that we prioritize work over family, greed over generosity, shareholders over employees and neighbours. Like Marxism, this is a fundamentalist religious faith.
Thus it is not new technology per se that puts people out of work. Rather, technology that goes hand-in-hand with a particular mindset. According to the latter human beings are expendable, simply means towards the end of ever-increasing profit. The few who keep their jobs are highly paid but over-worked. The many who lose their jobs find that the social security network is simultaneously being dismantled. There also seems little opportunity for work outside regular employment.
A dysfunctional work environment where individuals are discounted also affects those who remain employed. A study in the prestigious medical journal The Lancet showed that workers who kept their jobs during a major downsizing were twice as likely to die from cardiovascular disease, perhaps triggered by work stress.
The wise employer, unlike the neo-classical economic theorist, knows that people don’t work just for money. Work is an important aspect of human fulfilment. Our self-esteem is bound up with what we do. As long as they perceive their work to be interesting and useful, men and women are usually willing to do it for less pay. Meaning is often more attractive than a bigger salary.
The best description I have come across of what forced unemployment does to sensitive men and women (of whatever age) is the following passage from the Chilean writer Isabel Allende’s novel Of Love and Shadows:
“His activities in the union were a stigma, in the eyes of the new authorities. First they watched him, then they hounded him; finally, they fired him. Without a job and without hope of finding another, he began to decline. Pale and wan, he shambled through nights of insomnia and days of humiliation. He had pounded at many doors, suffered long hours in waiting rooms, answered advertisements in newspapers and, at the end of the road, found crushing hopelessness. Without a job, he gradually lost his identity. He would have accepted any offer, however mean the pay, because he desperately needed to feel useful. As a man without employment, he was an outsider, anonymous, ignored by all because he was no longer productive, and that was the measure of a man in the world he lived in.
During recent months he had abandoned his dreams, renounced his goals, considered himself a pariah. His children could not understand his constant bad humour and unremittent melancholy: they looked for jobs washing cars, carrying shopping bags from the market, performing any task to bring home a little money. The day his youngest son put on the kitchen table the few coins he had earned walking rich men’s dogs, Javier cringed like a cornered animal. Since that moment, he never looked anyone in the eyes: he sank into total despair. He often lacked the will to dress and spent a large part of the day in bed. His hands trembled after he began to drink secretly, feeling even more guilty for draining much-needed money from his family. On Saturdays he made an effort to be clean and neat when he showed up at his parents’ home, in order not to distress his family further, but he couldn’t erase the desolation from his face.
His relations with his wife disintegrated; in such circumstances love grows weary. He needed consolation but, at the same time, reacted with fury at the slightest gleam of pity… Apathy enveloped him like a cloak, obliterating any notion of the present, sapping his strength, and stripping him of courage. He moved like a shadow. He ceased to feel he was a man as he watched his home collapsing about him and the light of love dying in his wife’s eyes. At some moment that his family was too close to perceive, his will snapped. He lost his desire to live, and decided to seek his death.”
This should be read by all politicians, business employers and armchair economists.
It has been fashionable in some Western intellectual circles to scoff at the 18th-century Enlightenment doctrine of Progress. Where Progress was understood as the inexorable march of freedom and rationality throughout the world, with Western industrial societies leading the triumphant march, such scoffing was (and remains) necessary. Two barbarous world wars, followed by several proxy wars, all emanating from the scientifically and technologically most advanced nations, surely put paid to that myth.
However, we are soon approaching the twenty-fifth anniversary of 1989- that remarkable year which was a huge rebuke to historical determinism, whether of the optimistic or pessimistic kind. That was the year when, with the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, the metaphorical Iron Curtain collapsed. A whole generation witnessed the truth that no power on earth is impregnable, nor is history closed to novelty, surprise and sheer reversals of direction.
Whatever the social and economic problems the nations of Eastern Europe continue to face, there is no denying that what they all experienced was genuine progress- and one not planned and engineered by human agency. Totalitarian regimes suddenly toppled at gathering pace. What had taken Poland ten years took Hungary ten months, East Germany ten weeks, Czechoslovakia ten days, and Rumania ten hours; and the Soviet Union disappeared soon after. With hindsight, we can say that this was the fruit of prayerful, faithful and unflinching witness in the face of terrible adversity. As the Czech dissident, Vaclav Havel often observed, this was a victory of the kingdom of truth over an empire of lies.
Anyone who seeks to discern the hand of providence in the events of history is taking on a gigantic challenge. This is why far more Christians prefer to pursue the natural sciences than become professional historians. The fourth-century church historian Eusebius hailed the conversion of Constantine as the culmination of divine providence. It was followed not long afterwards by the terrible persecution of Persian Christians in the East because they were now seen as belonging to an enemy empire. Perspective is all-important. It is why history-writing cannot be confined within borders.
Abraham Lincoln spoke of the American Civil War as God’s judgment on his nation for its acceptance of slavery. But the same surely cannot be said for the Holocaust or the Rwandan genocide or the killing fields of Cambodia. Here the theologian can only confess the mystery of human corruption and the paradox of the “God on a Cross”. This is a God who is neither an absentee landlord nor a control-freak. He is found in the mess of history, overcoming human evil by bearing its full weight and planting seeds of a new creation in the midst of ugliness and death.
Some religious leaders are quick to pronounce divine judgment on everything that either baffles them or angers them. It would be better to remain silent and to wait upon competent historians and social critics to trace the causal threads and ramifications of cultural changes, social policies, technological developments and intellectual ideas on a society over several generations. Then perhaps- and only perhaps- may we be able to discern where God has been at work in judgment or in redemption. The apostle Paul’s depiction of divine judgment (in Romans 1) as a divine withdrawal or “handing over” of humans to their selfish wills may be a fruitful way of understanding the complexities of social evils. But much will still remain beyond our comprehension.
Thankfully, commitment to social transformation does not depend on our answering correctly the question “What is God doing today?’, but rather trusting the character and promises of a God known supremely in the life, death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. Desmond Tutu has testified: “Our own struggle for justice, peace and equity would have floundered badly had we not been inspired by our Christian faith and assured of the ultimate victory of goodness and truth, compassion and love, against their ghastly counterparts.”
In the midst of my own struggles, political and theological, I want to affirm that the collapse of the Iron Curtain, the dismantling of apartheid, the emancipation of women in many parts of the world, and the widespread recognition of human rights norms and international law are “eruptions” of the Kingdom of God in my own lifetime (along with much else). All these events have a flawed, fragile as well as incomplete side to them; but that is the nature of the “now-but-not-yet” redemption of creation that the Kingdom is all about. From the day of Pentecost the Church itself has been a deeply flawed, yet genuinely anticipatory, human community.
I once said publicly in an American university, in answer to a question, that I had no hope for my nation’s political future. I was immediately upbraided by a student who announced to the audience that Christians must always have hope! I explained that biblical hope was not to be confused with optimism, let alone “positive thinking”. I had hope in the promises of God, but I didn’t see the preservation of Sri Lanka, the US, Japan, or any other nation-state promised by God in the Bible. Even the nation-state of Israel has nothing to do with ancient, biblical Israel. All these may well disappear into the mist of history, as others have done.
The confusion of Kingdom hope with secular Progress has often been challenged. But the confusion with optimism over our own private projects, our nation’s prosperity or the numerical growth of the Church seems to be rarely addressed.
Much has been written in recent days of the simple lifestyle of the new Pope. As Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he shunned the archbishop’s palace and chose to travel in public buses. A few days after being installed as Pope, he celebrated mass with the Vatican City’s gardeners and refuse collectors; and has opted to perform the traditional foot-washing ceremony of Maundy Thursday, not in St Peter’s Basilica, but in a juvenile prison in Rome.
However much we may disagree with the Vatican’s views on priesthood, celibacy and lay ministry, we cannot deny that the Roman Catholic Church regularly provides more examples of incarnational servant-leadership than any other Christian denomination. A prominent evangelist, apologist or mega-church pastor who lives like Pope Francis would be as rare as a snowflake in hell. A lifestyle that revolves around self-promotion, business-class/first-class air travel, conferences in luxury hotels and convention centres – this is what we have come to associate with most “global evangelical leaders”.
The Roman Catholic church has, belatedly, come round to being a leading champion of human rights and social justice in many parts of the world, largely as a result of pressure from Latin American and Eastern European bishops and theologians.
The Reformed Church tradition can boast of a rich heritage of social transformation, resistance to political tyranny, cultural engagement and ideological critique. Paradigmatic twentieth-century figures here are Abraham Kuyper (Netherlands), Karl Barth (Switzerland), Alan Boesak (South Africa). In the US, political philosophers such as Richard Mouw and Nicholas Wolterstorff have helped recover the centrality of justice to the Biblical narrative and Christian discipleship.
This goes back to John Calvin himself. He spoke boldly of the “wounds of God” not only with reference to the cross, but in terms of human beings as icons of God. For Calvin, notes Nicholas Wolterstorff, to injure a human being is to injure God; to commit injustice is to inflict suffering on God. “Behind and beneath the social misery of our world is the suffering of God. If we truly believed that, suggests Calvin, we would be much more reluctant than we are to participate in the victimizing of the poor and the oppressed and the assaulted of the world. To pursue justice is to relieve God’s suffering.” [Nicholas Wolterstorff, “The Wounds of God: Calvin on Social Injustice”, The Reformed Journal, June 1987]
Not only did Calvin vigorously denounce corruption in the church, but also tyranny in the polity and huge inequalities of wealth in the economy. In his Commentary on Habakkuk 2:6, Calvin claims that the cries of the victims are the very cry of God. The lament “How long?” is God’s giving voice to his own lament. One rarely finds such thoughts expressed in Calvinist circles today!
Was Calvin the first liberation theologian? He has as good a claim as any. He persistently fought the City Council of Geneva for the rights of poor refugees, persuading them to provide adequate social welfare. He himself was often exiled, experienced severe deprivation and other indignities, which must have made him particularly sensitive to the plight of refugees and the downtrodden.
How strange, then, to hear some influential pastors in the US and UK laying claim to be guardians of a “Reformed orthodoxy” while demonstrating little of Calvin’s heart. For these men (they are always men), the church’s mission is primarily one of proclaiming a message of individual salvation. Pastors are exhorted to “contend for the faith” (which usually amounts to contending with other pastors, and damning all who disagree with them), and “the faith” is taken to be a set of timeless “doctrines” rather than any distinctive Christian way of living.
But perhaps not so strange, once we recall that our personal experiences, social and political contexts, profoundly shape the way we read both Scripture and the world. That is one reason why we need to listen to each other in the global Body of Christ. Authentic Christian witness has to be ecumenical and trans-cultural.
We have a long way to go in developing such theological maturity despite all the deceptive language of “partnership” and “equipping”. Below is one example of the huge obstacles we face.
A group of North American pastors calling themselves The Gospel Coalition of International Outreach is engaged in what they call “a mission of Theological Famine Relief for the Global Church”. They state on their website: “We are partnering with translators, publishers, and missions networks to provide new access to biblical resources, in digital and physical formats. Our goal is to strengthen thousands of congregations by helping to equip the pastors and elders who are called to shepherd them.”
Sounds loving, until one asks: who decides who is theologically famished and who is not? who selects what “resources” to send the famished? who decides what constitutes “equipping” and who should be doing it? The answer is always the same. A small group of white, well-to-do American or British males. We have experienced such paternalistic, colonial “mission” before- others deciding what is the “Good News” for us, what is “sound doctrine”, which authors to read and whom to avoid, etc. They have exported their theological blind-spots and sectarian rivalries, reproducing carbon-copies of themselves in the global South rather than nurturing real leaders. The learning and theological traffic is all one-way.
Perhaps a day spent with leaders like Pope Francis or Desmond Tutu may be more useful for African pastors than all the “resources” from north America.
Can the North American Church become more Christian by learning from the history and politics of countries like India and Sri Lanka ?
Even to suggest this must come as bit of a shock to those small but highly vocal sections within that Church who believe they have nothing to learn from other peoples, even non-American Christians. In their political discourse, the USA is the bastion of liberty, democracy and prosperity, a beacon to the rest of the world. Somehow Christianity, the U.S Constitution and Supply-Side Economics are fused together. Economic libertarianism is identified as Christian freedom. That precariously-won freedom is now threatened by the likes of Obama, Muslims, the UN, Jim Wallis, George Soros and the IPCC.
How such a diverse crew ever got lumped together baffles me. This bizarre discourse trades on fears engendered by the changing ethnic and religious landscape of the U.S. This self-enclosed worldview, frequently invoking the rhetoric of “persecution” and the threat of Big Government is making strong inroads into the minds of kids brought up not only in the Bible Belt but Christian colleges and fundamentalist seminaries throughout the U.S. It dominates the ugly genre of fundamentalist apocalyptic and the new “conspiracy fiction” (e.g. David Kullberg’s sensationalist War Against God); pseudo news-media such as Fox and World Magazine, and parochial “academies” such as the InterCollegiate Studies Institute and the Acton Institute. There are many more, all massively funded by corporate America.
My first encounter with the tiny intellectual and social worlds of these “Tea Party Christians” (for want of a more accurate term) immediately reminded me of the Sinhala-Buddhist discourse in Sri Lanka and Hindutva (or Hindu Nationalism) in India. While the various schools of Buddhism comprise clusters of religious and ethical practices, beliefs and institutions (such as the sangha, or monastic order), what is labelled “Sinhala-Buddhism” is a political ideology. Sinhala is the majority language of the island, and all Buddhists here speak it. If I were to define the core elements that form the mental map of Sinhala-Buddhists, they would be:
1. Sri Lanka is historically a Sinhala-Buddhist country. All other ethnic and religious groups (Hindus, Muslims and Christians) live here at our sufferance. They must not aspire to equality but accept their proper place within the social and political hierarchy.
2. The high civilization of Sinhala-Buddhism is responsible for all that is good in our history. All that is evil comes from Hindu invasions and Western colonialists (Portuguese, Dutch and finally the British).
3. Even though we are, numerically-speaking a majority (65-70 per cent) on the island, we are threatened by powerful minorities who are aided, economically and politically, by “foreign powers”. Today Muslims, heavily funded by Saudi Arabia, are seeking to take over the state and impose their laws on us. Christian missionaries are in the pay of the CIA and other American powers that want to destroy our ancient civilization.
This is the mirror-image of “Tea Party Christianity”. This is not mere ethnocentrism, to which we are all prone. It is nothing less than racism. It thrives on one-sided national histories, ignorance of other people and their faiths, growing economic insecurity, and the fear of losing traditional privileges. And just as we seek to persuade our Buddhist friends to distance themselves from this distorted caricature of Buddhism, so it may be the role of Muslims, Hindus, atheists and others in the US to help “evangelical” Christians in the US to publicly distance themselves from such distorted caricatures of historic Christianity.
Indeed American Muslim migrants can learn from the Roman Catholic experience. For much of the nineteenth century, Catholics in America were the feared “religious other.” Not only did many not speak English, but some of their religious women- nuns- wore distinctive clothing. Their primary allegiance was to the Roman Catholic Church and not to the U.S Constitution. It took them more than a century to be accepted as equals by white Protestants. At the same time, however, American Catholics helped re-shape parts of their own Church. The Jesuit, John Courtney Murray, was decisive in helping the Second Vatican Council endorse religious freedom- so much so that, ironically, the papacy has become the greatest global champion of religious freedom today. Can Muslim migrants in the US, while not being intimidated by the phobias of the American “right”, still help to re-shape the politics of their home countries in the light of their more positive experiences of American life?
I do not doubt that discrimination against orthodox Christians has been increasing in American universities and the mass media. Those who oppose abortion or gay marriage are regularly pilloried and even excluded from public forums. But Christians betray their faith by their strident cries of “persecution” and lobbing grenades at people, even among their own ranks, from a safe distance. They can become more winsome and credible in their persuasive skills by being consistently “pro-life” (in ways that I have explained in other Blog posts), renouncing racism and nationalism. and being more willing to learn from others. And the place to begin is by switching off their pseudo-Christian media networks, taking their kids out of home-schooling, closing down their sectarian colleges and mono-denominational seminaries, living in ethnically and religiously mixed neighbourhoods, and joining the mainstream of cultural and social life. That is how the rest of us live.
Joseph Ratzinger, who steps down this week as Pope Benedict XVI, was not as popular, let alone as saintly, as his predecessor John Paul II. But he has acquired a well-deserved reputation as the “Green Pope”, making the Vatican the first carbon-neutral country in the world, putting thousands of solar panels of Vatican rooftops (a project which won the 2008 Euro Solar Prize) and committing the Vatican to having 20 per cent of its energy come from renewable sources by 2020.
Ratzinger has always been an animal lover. He practises the Church’s official teaching that we owe kindness to non-human animals and that it is morally wrong to inflict gratuitous suffering on them. In an interview with a German journalist, before he became Pope, he said: “Animals, too, are God’s creatures. Certainly, a sort of industrial use of creatures, so that geese are fed in such a way as to produce as large a liver as possible, or hens live so packed together that they become just caricatures of birds, this degrading of living creatures to a commodity seems to me in fact to contradict the relationship of mutuality that comes across in the Bible.”
In his first sermon as Pope he returned to this theme: “The external deserts in the world are growing because the internal deserts have become so vast. The earth’s treasures no longer serve to build God’s garden for all to live in, but they have been made to serve the powers of exploitation and destruction.”
The 40-day period of Lent in the liturgical calendar of the Church is intended to be a time of spiritual preparation leading up to Easter. But, in practise, Lent often degenerates into meaningless acts of masochism (from “I’m giving up coffee/chocolate for Lent” to ritual self-laceration in “folk Catholicism”). I’m often reminded of my Muslim neighbours who fast scrupulously during the day during Ramadan, only to feast sumptuously through the night.
If the purpose of fasting is to force us (well-to-do Christians) to be more attentive to the cries of the poor, to reflect on our self-indulgent lifestyles and to change direction, then instead of giving up (say) coffee for forty days, it would be better to use this period of Lent to study the conditions under which coffee is manufactured around the world, who gains and who loses out, and then perhaps to boycott gourmet coffee companies whose products we unthinkingly consume.
Indeed, food is a topic around which cluster numerous justice issues. Simply pausing to ask ourselves “Who makes the food on our table, and at what cost to the rest of creation and to future generations?” opens up a plethora of disturbing moral challenges. Here are just a sample:
1. Cruelty to animals. You don’t have to be a vegetarian to be appalled, like the Pope, by the horrific conditions under which many animals are bred and killed to meet the demands of a consumer society. Factory-farmed pigs, geese and ducks are treated as “commodities” (separated from mothers, artificially fattened and inseminated). Many of us in the Church participate in such structural sin by our silence.
2. Intensive fishing and farming practices. The use of massive trawler nets in the north sea has depleted fish stocks, and the same is happening in the Indian Ocean. South Indian and Sri Lankan fishermen attack each other almost every day around the island’s coast; the reason being that South Indian coastal waters have been denuded of fish by unsustainable fishing methods, forcing fishermen from Tamilnadu to poach in Sri Lankan waters.
3. Waste. According to the UK’s Institution of Mechanical Engineers, as much as half the food produced in the world ends up as waste each year. They blame this on unnecessarily strict sell-by dates, “buy-one-get-one-free” and Western consumer demand for cosmetically perfect food, along with “poor engineering and agricultural practices” and poor storage facilities in many developing countries.
4. Climate Change. Poor communities around the world suffer increasingly from severe climatic events and changing weather patterns caused by greenhouse gas emissions in the wealthier nations. Desertification, crop failure and major flooding are growing at a pace. Last year was the most arid in U.S history; while thousands of small farmers in India commit suicide every year because of failed monsoons, chronic indebtedness to loan sharks, and dwindling arable land.
5. Trade Injustice. Huge government subsidies paid to farms and agribusinesses in the U.S and European Union, combined with taxes on imported food, means that farmers in poor countries cannot compete and so give up agriculture altogether. While the jury is still out on the toxic effects of GM foods on humans and the environment, the question of who has access to GM seeds has a clear answer: only rich farmers who can afford to buy the seeds from giants like Monsanto. An unfair global system of patents worsens inequalities between and within nations.
The biblical prophets were scathing in their scorn at those who thought of fasting as a religious technique for getting God on their side:
‘Is this not the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not hide from your own kin? (Isaiah 58: 6,7)
Why do men like President Assad of Syria prefer to rule over rubble than surrender power? Arrogance in politics is compounded of ignorance, willful blindness, and fantasies of invincibility. And when entire societies prostrate themselves before such arrogant rulers, what comes to mind are the controversial Freudian notion of a collective “death-wish” and the Biblical language of the “demonic”.
Perceptive observers of the human condition, like the Jewish political thinker Hannah Arendt, have reminded us that evil at its most radical happens not in acts of blatant, monstrous savagery, from which most of us may easily distance ourselves, but in the mundane banality of ordinary acts of routine de-humanization. No tyrant can last for long without a vast army of people, often decent and conventionally “moral”, who passively follow orders. They don’t have to be all soldiers, policemen and civil servants/bureaucrats. The Nazi regime from which Arendt fled was served by brilliant scientists, doctors and engineers who had anaesthetized themselves to the suffering around them and contributed, often as willing agents, to that suffering and never asking the questions: “whose interests are promoted by my work?”, and “who is bearing the costs of my work?” These are questions that all people in liberal democracies, too, should be pondering; but few, alas, do.
Christian parents and educationists can best serve the kingdom of God by teaching children, from an early age, the responsibility of disobedience. Of learning to say “No” and of questioning what they see and hear, not least in the pulpits of many Christian churches.
I am encouraged that signs of such responsible disobedience are beginning to emerge in the Christian community of my own country. Monday was the 65th anniversary of Sri Lanka’s national independence, and the Anglican church observed it with a 3-hour service in the cathedral in Colombo, not of thanksgiving but of public lament for the state of the nation and especially the collapse of proper governance (see my last post). It was attended by hundreds from other Christian denominations as well as non-Christian observers, all of us dressed in white (the traditional colour of mourning).
What weapons can the Church wield against oligarchic despotisms, apart from prayer, symbolic acts of protest and courageously saying “No”? Central are the word of the Cross and the simple signs of water, bread and wine, tokens of an alternative identity and supreme loyalty (if understood and practised properly).
And, of course, martyrdom.
A few days ago, I attended a fascinating lecture in a theological college in Singapore on the “Lost World of Genesis One” by a visiting American professor of Old Testament, John Walton. His central argument was that the opening chapter of the Bible is not about “material /physical origins” as much as “functional origins”: i.e. the ordering of a sacred space in which the God of the cosmos dwells. The literary genre appropriate to the chapter is that of ancient “Temple texts”. (Thus the framework of a six-day week because many official temple inaugurations took place over a week). The climax of the chapter is the “rest” of God, when God surveys the place of his habitation and comes to make his throne in it.
I have written and preached on this chapter many times; and I found Walton’s approach deeply respectful of the integrity of the text and sensitive to the thought-world of the first Israelite readers and their neighbours in Egypt, Mesopotamia and Canaan. I am persuaded by his interpretation of the divine “rest” by analogy with other texts such as Ps.132:8,14 and Is.66:1. The literal opposite of “rest”, after all, is “unrest”, not work. God’s “rest’ in creation signifies his sovereignty over the forces of natural chaos and social upheaval that always threaten to overwhelm God’s people. Seeing the material world as the Temple of God, with human beings (women as well as men) as both his image in the Temple and his priests engaged in service to the Temple, is religiously revolutionary and politically liberating.
But how does one believe in the sovereignty of such a God in a world that seems so godforsaken? When evil seems enthroned in places such as the nations mentioned above, and rich nations wreak havoc with the earth and its nonhuman creatures, how do the People of God witness to the “rest” of divine rule?
Much of twentieth-century theology, especially following the unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, has learned to interpret divine sovereignty in terms of the “trinitarian history” of a God who suffers with and for his creation without ceasing to be God. Our tears are but a drop in the ocean of God’s own tears. Easter is not only a reversal of Good Friday, but also its vindication. The risen Christ still bears his wounds, and his reign is the reign of a vulnerable, suffering love in which he calls his people to participate. The arrogant power-fantasies of Herods and Caesars are undermined not by force of arms but by the faithful testimony of men and women, in word and deed, to a way of life grounded in a different understanding of being human.
Several countries in the last century moved from being “tinpot dictatorships” to flourishing democracies. Sri Lanka has plummeted, since its independence in 1948, from a flourishing democracy to the status of a “tinpot dictatorship” today.
Last friday saw the sealing of the final nail in the coffin of the rule of law and constitutional democracy in Sri Lanka. Politicians of the ruling regime voted to impeach the Chief Justice, in total disregard of the judicial decision by the country’s two highest courts- the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal - that the entire process was seriously flawed and unconstitutional. We thus have a legislature that has lost all legitimacy, having shredded the Constitution that it was elected and sworn to uphold.
Regular followers of this Blog will be familiar with the rapidly deteriorating political and human rights situation in Sri Lanka in recent years. I began this Blog three years ago, and my first post (“The Gods of War”) lamented the terrible carnage that was being inflicted by both sides in the final months of the war. There was much euphoria when the 30-year conflict with the Tamil Tigers ended in May 2009, and great hopes were entertained of national reconciliation, an end to militarism and the recovery of the economy. However, those of us who knew the nature of the ruling regime, and watched with dismay the chauvinist jingoism that attended the President’s boast that he had won “the war on terror”, had no such hopes. Predictably, what we feared has unfolded- the obstinate refusal to acknowledge any wrongdoing on the part of the army, and the legitimate grievances that led to the war in the first place; the repression of the media and the manipulation of electoral politics; the appointment of the President’s family members and cronies to key positions in government and the economy; and the systematic elimination of dissent and the continuation of militarisation under the pretext of preventing terrorism from rising again.
Predictable it may have been; but not the speed at which it has all happened. What is most shocking is the way not only business leaders but highly educated academics and other professional men and women meekly capitulated and acquiesced in the nepotism, corruption and outright deceit that has become a regular feature of public life in Sri Lanka today. Whether through bribery, intimidation, or sheer apathy, people have chosen to remain silent and passively follow orders. It reflects badly on the nation’s educational system, let alone religious institutions- of which Sri Lankans have always boasted.
What has become stark is the division today between men and women in public life who are governed by a moral sensibility and those opportunists who are driven only by self-gain. This division is more fundamental than differences on policy or of political affiliation. The President’s loyal members of parliament are all either gangsters or otherwise intelligent men who have sacrificed their moral scruples for the intoxications of power or the material benefits that flow from being close to power.
I am happy to report that the 3 committed Christians in parliament (only 3 out of 225 members) have not compromised their moral integrity in discharging their political responsibilities. On the contrary, they have been the most well-informed, articulate and outspoken critics of the ruling regime. As a result they attract venomous abuse in the state media. Two of them are personal friends, and I am full of admiration for their moral courage.
Moral courage is not what comes to mind when one thinks of the Chief Justice. It is another political irony that, having been widely perceived as a “stooge” of the President, she should now become the nation’s principal political martyr! When a couple of recent Supreme Court rulings went against the President’s party, she became the target of a scurrilous media campaign and false charges of corruption were leveled against her.
We can only hope that more “stooges” will eventually rebel. The famous words of the Lutheran pastor, Martin Niemoeller, in the context of the Nazi tyranny, echo throughout history:
“First they came for the Jews
and I did not speak out- because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the communists
and I did not speak out- because I was not a communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists
and I did not speak out- because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for me-
and there was no one left
to speak out for me.”
Speaking out is not easy in the face of political thuggery and restraints on the media. Also, as a young law student from the University of Colombo wrote to me yesterday: “An unfortunate thing about most political analysis today is that it makes the problems we face seem so huge that even those who want to change things, feel nothing is possible. I was wondering what sort of suggestions one might give people about how to use our individual spheres to help change society. Conversations on these issues with those we meet is one thing. Being informed, knowing our history is another. challenging minor injustices is another. But are there any other ideas you have on this? And, do you know if there is literature on this? I am sure social activists have struggled with, and written about, how individuals can make a difference for the good, in the small spheres of influence they have. Any thoughts?”
How should I answer him? We are eager to learn from those who have lived under similar political regimes and have seen justice and freedom restored, even in part.
The Japanese scientist Shinya Yamanaka was jointly awarded the 2012 Nobel Prize for medicine. Five years ago, Yamanaka and his colleagues at Kyoto University showed how induced pluripotent stem cells could be derived from adult cells and potentially substituted, in research and therapy, for embryonic stem cells.
What the Nobel committee (in its citation and press release) and the major TV channels and newspapers ignored, however, was the fact that Yamanaka moved away from research on embryos on moral grounds, and not merely technical reasons. (See http://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/11/science/11prof.html?_r=0 )
It was not too long ago when “hype” about how embryonic stem-cell research would revolutionize medical treatments was rife in the global media. Politicians like Gordon Brown and Barack Obama were adamant that those who opposed such research on moral and religious grounds were obstacles to “progress”. Today those voices seem to have fallen silent. Even when the Vatican and other Christian leaders were encouraging work like what Yamanaka eventually undertook, the media attention was all on the promise of embryonic cells (after all, we have to do something with the thousands of frozen embryos languishing in fertility clinics, don’t we?)
The season of Advent in the Christian calendar brings multiple challenges to our taken-for-granted ways of seeing. Here is a God who catches us by surprise, breaking into peoples’ lives in unexpected and unsettling ways. This is a God who embraces embryonic life, identifies with the weak and vulnerable, and chooses to work through flawed women and men for the redemption of the world. There is also a challenge to fundamentalists: pagan Magi behave like God’ s servants, while the ruler of the Jews behaves like a pagan tyrant.
Not least is the challenge to journalists and the scores of “expert” commentators who are invited by anchormen and chat show hosts to pronounce on global events. Where would the cameras and TV crews have been focused on that first Christmas? Outside Herod’s palace, probably, certainly not in Bethlehem. But Judaea was too much of a political backwater, anyway, for the Roman media to bother.
Most histories of most countries focus on the actions of monarchs, warriors and industrialists. Howard Zinn is uncommon among historians in telling his nation’s story (the United States, in his case) from the perspective of the little people: blacks, poor whites, women, native Indians, common labourers.
“When I taught American history, I ignored the canon of the traditional textbooks, in which the heroic figures were mostly presidents, generals, and industrialists. In those texts, wars were treated as problems in military strategy and not in morality; Christopher Columbus and Andrew Jackson and Theodore Roosevelt were treated as heroes in the march of democracy, with not a word from the objects of their violence. I suggested that we approach Columbus and Jackson from the perspective of their victims, that we look at the magnificent feat of the transcontinental railroad from the viewpoint of the Irish and Chinese labourers who, in building it, died by the thousands.” (Howard Zinn, Failure to Quit, 1993)
As for Herod’s murderous rage which left many childless mothers in Bethlehem, only one evangelist records it (with no voluminous commentary) and links it to an ancient lament from an earlier time of national suffering. And a friend’s Christmas newsletter reminds me that Mary’s son was also born with a “death warrant” around his neck. She was warned that a sword would slash through her own heart. Would Mary have accepted her vocation if she had known the consequences for the other mothers of Bethlehem? Nowhere do the biblical writers seek to explain such events. Clearly God is not a Cosmic Utilitarian. There is great evil abroad in the world and most nativity plays sanitize away this dreadful reality. (The most repugnant aspect of Christmas for me is the sentimentalism, not the commercialism).
God has not promised to explain to us every terrible thing that happens. Every attempt to “explain evil” only trivializes it, reduces the horror and irrationality of it. And the trivialization of evil is what is characteristic of the narratives of secular modernity, whether Kantian, Utilitarian, Marxist or Freudian. In the words of Archbishop Rowan Williams, they leave us “linguistically bereaved”, lacking a vocabulary to make sense of our deepest motivations, let alone the deeply threatening elements in our social and cosmic environment. There are aspects of human behaviour that we cannot make sense of, aspects of our selves – and our collective humanity- that cannot be caught in rational schemes.
But parents continue to bring children into this dark world. They assume that existence is fundamentally good, despite the silence of the heavens. And the God Christians trust in is a God who bears the wounds of his world.
Perhaps the biggest challenge that Advent heralds is the revolutionary and “this-worldly” nature of the “salvation” that God promises. Mary exults thus in “God my Saviour”:
“He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones,
and has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
but has sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1: 51-53)
Note that the verbs in her song are in what is sometimes called the prophetic aorist tense. So certain is God’s coming reign of justice, that it is spoken of as already having been established.
For whom is judgment Good News? Definitely not for those who profit from the present world order.
On the anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbour, it is worth reflecting again on the question: whose history do we read?
Towards the end of the First World War, President Woodrow Wilson presented to the US Congress an ambitious scheme for a new international order based on democratic government, the right of small nations to self-determination, the reduction of armaments, and free trade. Even as the US was suppressing liberty in central America and the Philippines (which they had annexed in 1898), Wilson was proudly declaring that “we are chosen, and permanently chosen, to show the way to the nations of the world how they shall walk in the paths of liberty.”
Wilson’s rousing rhetoric, leading up to the 1919 Peace Conference in Paris, was seized upon by anti-colonial nationalist leaders from Egypt to China. Despite some glaring faults, Pankaj Mishra’s latest book From the Ruins of Empire deftly portrays the hypocrisies and brutalities of colonial rule and the responses of subjugated Asian and North African intellectuals. Mishra chronicles how their hopes were dashed when Wilson (who was, for a brief moment, the most admired politician all over the world) caved in to cynical imperialists such as the British Prime Minister Lloyd George and Clemenceau of France. Britain and France had dispatched hundreds of thousands of artisans and soldiers from all over their colonial empires to their battlefields in Europe, with vague promises of self-rule if victorious. After the war, both nations promptly forgot their promises.
Mishra tells us how racist slurs and jokes by Western powers marred the discussions about the constitution of the proposed League of Nations, with many Asian and African nations barred representation at the conference. Even the Japanese, an Asian imperial power on par with the Europeans, and who arrived in Paris seeking an end to trade restriction on Japanese imports in French Indochina and an end to discrimination against Japanese immigrants in California, were humiliated by being given a seat at the far end of the table, next to Ecuador and Guatemala.
The British manipulated Wilson, who was an Anglophile himself and surrounded by advisers drawn mainly from the east-coast WASP elites. They persuaded him to support British rule in Egypt, and informed him that even poets like Rabindranath Tagore were dangerous firebrands!
Among the people disillusioned by Wilson was a young Vietnamese man living in Paris, Ho Chi Minh, then known as Nguyen Ai Quoc. He was a poor menial worker in Paris when Wilson arrived with his bold plans for a new international order of self-governing states. He rented a morning suit and sought a personal audience with Wilson, “carefully quoting from the United States Declaration of Independence in his petition”. He was allowed nowhere near Wilson, or any other Western leader.
Like so many other anti-colonial thinkers and activists, Ho was then attracted by Lenin’s 1916 pamphlet which asserted that the US was no less an imperial power than Britain, France or Japan, greedy for resources, territory and markets, and that it was the inherent instability of the global capitalist system that had caused the Great War.
1919 was a crucial year for many nations struggling to be freed from colonialism. Ho Chi Minh joined the French Communist Party in 1921. “It was patriotism, not Communism”, he later recalled, “which had prompted me to believe in Lenin.”
In India, the 29-year-old Jawaharlal Nehru wrote of how the “Wilsonian moment” had passed, and “for ourselves it is again the distant hope that must inspire us, not the immediate breathless looking for deliverance.” A 25-year-old Chinese journalist by the name of Mao Zedong lamented, “So much for national self-determination, I think it’s really shameless!” He wrote to his friends in France to say that he was through with all other ideas save “the Russian Revolution” which was the only way to liberate China. Two years later, the Chinese Communist Party was birthed in Shanghai. Mao later recalled: “The whole of the Chinese revolutionary movement found it origin in the action of young students and intellectuals who had been awakened.”
We know how Germany took its revenge on Britain and France two decades later, having been utterly humiliated at the Paris conference of 1919 and excluded from the League of Nations. And Ho Chi Minh not only drove the French out of Indo-China but inflicted on the United States the most humiliating military defeat in its history. Over 50,000 Americans lost their lives, not to mention numberless Vietnamese and Laotians, because of Wilson’s decision to ignore the humble petition of a Vietnamese migrant worker.
One of the unofficial Chinese representatives to Paris, Liang Qichao, wrote back home that “China’s only crime” had been “her weakness and her belief in international justice after the war. If, driven, to desperation she attempts something hopeless, those who have helped to decide her fate cannot escape a part of the responsibility.”
If the next generation of Maos, Hos, Osamas and Castros are being formed today in Gaza, the West Bank, North-West Pakistan, the Congo, or northern Sri Lanka, who bears responsibility?
And whose stories will be told in the global media in 2019, when the world “remembers” 1919?
I am sorry for my American friends. They deserve a better choice when it come to electing their president. And, given that this is the most powerful political position in the world, we non-Americans feel cheated too.
But, as I pointed out in my last post, an electoral system appropriated by the super-rich is not likely to deliver the best candidates for public office. While waging wars in the name of “promoting democracy” abroad, the US is increasingly shackled by a political system that is converging towards that of many Third World countries. (Voter turn-out is usually much higher in the latter, though).
Neither Obama nor Romney offer anything that addresses the problems that global society faces, or even the American public. But the latter should not forget that, in the eight years preceding Obama’s presidency, government greatly expanded its reach into individuals’ lives, constitutional safeguards against executive power were shredded, the deficit ballooned, the economy was wrecked, corporate reform shelved, and American soldiers sent abroad to fight two unpopular wars. There is thus a huge gulf between Republican principles and the Republican track record. That is why I said that anybody who votes for Romney/Ryan has taken leave of reality.
But, more tragic than U.S politics is the sorry state of those sections of the American Church that proclaim themselves “Bible-believing”. Wealth not only corrupts politics, it dulls vision and kills prophetic speech. It turns the Church into a cultural ghetto. It has no voice in the public square, except for the shrill voices within it that regularly denounce abortion and homosexuality. One shudders at the call by Franklin Graham (son of Billy) for a new “moral majority” that will only elect politicians who promote “the sanctity of marriage” and “protection for God’s beloved nation, Israel.” (Decision magazine) Such pious nonsense is exported to the rest of the world by Americans who do not care to learn from the global Church. Vociferous “Bible-believing” Americans like Graham have simply lost the (Biblical) plot.
Since Rheinhold Niebuhr and Martin Luther King, Jr., no Christian public intellectual has emerged in the US. Yes, there are outstanding Christian theologians and philosophers; but most of them seem to talk only among themselves. Younger Christian scholars in major secular universities are too busy securing an elusive tenure to stick their necks out and expose the public myths that sanction injustice. And by the time they get tenure, they have nothing substantial to say.
The late William Stuntz, a law professor at Harvard, was an exception. Just before his death last year he published a masterly work detailing the collapse of the American criminal justice system, a work that is unlikely to be read in any white-dominated Christian college or seminary. (There is a plethora of Christian colleges and Bible seminaries in the U.S- probably more than the rest of the world combined. Outsiders marvel at what effective brainwashing techniques they use to turn out so many ill-informed and chauvinistic alumni).
A typical refrain from the subculture that is misleadingly called “evangelical” in the US is that to be “pro-life” means always voting Republican. The politically naive vote for Republican candidates in the hope that they will repeal the abortion law. They are constantly fooled. They voted for Reagan in 1980, and Reagan cynically used them and let them down. Indeed his divisive economic policies forced more women into poverty and increased abortions and children born out of wedlock. On the foreign policy front, he armed and trained death squads all over the Americas, and brutal dictators all over the Middle East and Asia. No “pro-life” evangelical church leader ever raised his voice against these policies. If “pro-life” is taken to mean that American foetuses are more valuable in the eyes of God that Palestinian babies or Iranian and Pakistani children dying because of American governmental actions, then that is not the God of the Bible.
Unlike many evangelical church leaders who are blatantly and cynically one-sided in their “pro-life” rhetoric, the US Catholic Bishops Conference tends to be much wiser and more comprehensive in their ethical stances. Roman Catholics also run many adoption agencies and counselling centres in poor neighbourhoods, thus offering mothers an alternative to abortion, something that the vociferous evangelicals seem not to do.
Then there are those who attack Obama for having “divided America”. They cannot have read much of American history. When was the US ever united? Obviously no black will make such a comment. Nor will anybody who lived through the 1960s as an adult, or the 1980s under Reagan. Bush’s controversial “war on terror”, with its shredding of constitutional safeguards for Americans with Arab names, seems to have faded from memory. And the substance of my post was about the Great Divide between the 1 per cent and the rest of the US, a divide that one cannot blame on Obama.
Isn’t the moral outrage of the rich a wonder to behold? In the Republican lexicon, when governments take from the poor it is “efficiency”, but when they take from the rich it is “theft”! Those poor, persecuted billionaires.
What the US needs for its cultural renewal and political transformation is not more single-issue crusaders; but, rather, for more “Bible-believing” Christians to become “Bible-reading” and “Bible-obeying” Christians instead. Or, better still, for them to leave their Bibles, read their “secular prophets”- the Chomskys, Stiglitzes, Ehrenreichs, bell hookses- and then return to their Bibles. They will be surprised by what they will discover there.
[No new Blog posts in November as I am on a speaking tour in Western Europe]