The Internet tempts us all to become instant “experts” on every issue we read about. It is a temptation that Bloggers find difficult to resist- but resist we must. For even the professional analysts who are invited to pontificate on TV news channels and chatshows seem to have no more wisdom as to what should be done right now in Syria than the rest of us. But, unlike us, they get paid fat fees for looking wise and spouting clichés.
So, in response to people asking me what should be done in Syria, my answer is simple: “I don’t know”. And how am I expected to know when I have little idea of what is happening in a country that I have never visited, and about which I have to depend on a global news media that is selective and prejudiced most of the time? As for trusting Western governments and their “intelligence” agencies, enough has been said on this Blog over the years about the idiocy of such a suggestion. Liberal democratic governments lie to their citizens as much as do despotic regimes.
What, then, should ordinary citizens be doing long before situations become intractable, like in Syria today?
They should be asking questions in letters to the newspapers or directly to their elected representative, or in Internet forums. (I am addressing readers living in relatively democratic countries, where access to media and politicians is possible). This is more demanding than offering half-baked solutions.
Following the horrendous chemical weapons attacks on the 21st August, trying to find the right questions to ask is a challenging exercise. But here are my own, given in the hope that readers of this Blog will also offer theirs:
(1) Why do we express moral revulsion at chemical weapons only after they have been used? Why are those governments (or private companies sponsored by governments) which have developed these weapons not the target of international sanctions? (The former head of Syria’s chemical weapons unit defected and is now living in Turkey- is he not also morally culpable for the 21 August attacks?)
(2) Which countries have deployed chemical weapons in the past, and why have their heads of state not been prosecuted before the International Criminal Court?
(3) If chemical weapons are intrinsically evil (as I agree they are), because they do not discriminate between combatants and non-combatants and because they are designed to torture and not just kill, does not the same apply to nuclear and biological weapons? If so, should all those governments that possess these weapons of mass destruction not be labelled “terrorist states” from a moral point of view?
(4) Are not all those states which have fuelled the civil war in Syria with their arms shipments to both sides morally culpable?
Some of the commentary in the media, and even among academics, is quite ludicrous. London’s conservative Daily Telegraph called Obama “a reluctant warrior” forced to deploy US military might to protect civilians in Syria (but not, apparently, in Afghanistan, Pakistan or Somalia). On the other side, some of the anti-American rhetoric is equally pathetic. American “unilateralism” is condemned, but not France’s unilateral military interventions in Mali, Ivory Coast and other former French colonies. And are we not grateful, with hindsight of course, for India’s military intervention to prevent genocide in East Pakistan in 1971 and the Vietnamese invasion (albeit belatedly) in Cambodia to stop Pol Pot? Neither of the latter actions were authorised by UN resolutions.
I also find irrelevant the argument about the “illegality” of any Western intervention. The argument, voiced in several eminent circles, is that what makes an act of war legal, apart from self-defence, is the Security Council, acting under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, authorising the use of force in response to a threat to international peace and security.
However, what may be illegal can still be moral. International law is slowly catching up on what would be considered normal moral practice (e.g. using force to protect a neighbour whose life is threatened). A more serious criticism of any military intervention in Syria is the possible widening of the conflict; as well as the lack of clarity in the aims of such an intervention. That is why I said it is a difficult decision and not as clear-cut as many armchair pundits on either side seem to think it is.
As long as the five permanent members of the Security Council have a right of veto on any UN resolution, and they remain the biggest arms dealers in the world, the UN will remain a dysfunctional organization. It is beyond reform. It needs to be replaced by new international institutions comprising democratically elected representatives and a global law enforcement capacity.
Finally, should not populous democracies like India and Brazil be urged to take on a more global role when it comes to international diplomacy? India has been a disastrous “superpower” in the South Asian region, largely because of self-serving politicians and an expensive but poorly-trained army. But it does have some competent civil servants and academics. And if it could be persuaded to take an active peace-making role in areas of the world where it does not have any vested interests, economic or military, would not this reduce the perception of “Western hegemony”? As long as India and Brazil only posture on the world stage as “major economies”, their criticisms of the US ring hollow.
I have spent the past three weeks in New Zealand, a land of spectacular beauty and rich in ecological diversity. Little wonder that, following the success of the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, filmmakers have been descending in droves to this country.
My wife and I came away deeply impressed by the lives and work of some of the Christians we met from a variety of social and academic backgrounds. For instance, a youth court judge practicing restorative justice who has incurred the wrath of the establishment by his unashamed Christian testimony; a counter-cultural Anglican bishop committed to a simple personal lifestyle and to building local community; university graduates choosing to live with the urban poor in tough neighbourhoods; a professor of public policy, one of the country’s leading authorities on child poverty, who openly challenges the ruling politicians; a theology lecturer who has overcome life-threatening illness by battling the arrogance of the medical profession; a business family building low-cost homes; a medical doctor helping refugees while struggling with her own deteriorating bones and joints; and a nuclear scientist who has been studying the environmental fallout of nuclear weapons and monitoring the implementation of the nuclear test-ban treaty on behalf of the New Zealand government.
The last-mentioned comes from an unbroken line of English missionaries and pastors, stretching back to 1819. He shared with me his deep dismay at the spiritual hollowness at the heart of New Zealand society, which is accompanied by a pandering of government to the super-rich and a growing culture of alcoholism and drug-dependence. He recalled standing by a nativity display in a large retail store one Christmas and overhearing a little girl asking her mother, “Who is that baby in the window?” To which the mother replied, “I have no idea”. “This is not the country that my forebears gave their lives for” was his immediate thought.
The strong theological currents that run through Tolkien’s trilogy are thus invisible to a population that has lost access to the Biblical narrative and Christian thought. Biblical illiteracy and historical amnesia are not, of course, confined to New Zealand. But there does seem to be a systematic effort to wipe out any Christian reference in state education and public life, despite the fact that there are large numbers of Christian Maori, the original inhabitants of the land, as well as large churches among Pacific island and East Asian peoples who have made the country their home.
Walk into the impressive national museum in the capital, Wellington, and you will find no exhibit on the Christian contribution to New Zealand history or contemporary society. I guess the issue will come to the fore next year which is the bicentenary of the arrival of the first Christian missionaries to New Zealand shores. The secularization of public life doesn’t just happen, but is actively promoted by secularist elites through the media and some sections of the academy. The answer should not be the setting up of rival media and colleges by Christians, but the courageous and wise engagement by well-educated Christians in these institutions.
The role of the media in forming one’s view of the world is crucial. It has to be addressed in churches and educational institutions. Let me give you an example that links recent events in New Zealand with what is happening politically in Sri Lanka.
During the last week of our visit, the New Zealand media were dominated by the Fonterra story. The entire dairy industry (the country’s largest export) is in the hands of a single giant transnational corporation, Fonterra. China, the largest buyer of milk powder, halted imports of Fonterra products following the discovery that some whey protein products were contaminated with botulism-causing bacteria. Sri Lanka, the fifth largest market for Fonterra, followed China and Russia in halting imports. The ruling regime here adopted a moralistic tone in castigating Fonterra as a typical transnational corporate exploiter.
At the same time, a prominent local company in Sri Lanka which also produces and distributes milk products, was challenged by villagers whose drinking water had been polluted by one of the factories of the company. Some prominent members of the ruling regime have vested economic interests in this company. Peaceful protests by the villagers were met by the lethal intrusion of the army (which is under the command of the President’s brother)- three people were killed and others injured. The use of live ammunition by the army and their desecration of a church into which the villagers had fled have been the subject of condemnation by local human rights activists and church leaders.
However, the stark contrast between the Sri Lankan regime’s treatment of Fonterra and its treatment of its own citizens’ demand for clean drinking water has been completely missed by the New Zealand media, and the international media as a whole.
The Prime Minister of New Zealand, along with other heads of state of Commonwealth nations, plan to meet in Sri Lanka in November. Already luxury limousines are being imported (with funds from local taxpayers) for these heads of state from Britain, Canada, Australia, India and elsewhere to be driven from their hotels to their conference venue. Should they be meeting in a country where there is no rule of law and whose “government” rules by spreading terror? And is the global media complicit in hiding these realties from the citizens of those Commonwealth nations, many of whom would be appalled if they only knew what their leaders are doing?
June was a remarkable month in global politics. We witnessed several potentially epoch-changing events. There was the unexpected election victory of Hassan Rouhani in Iran which could change relations between his country and the West. In Turkey, Brazil and Egypt what began as single-issue protests (against corruption, sectarianism or the privatization of the commons) quickly mushroomed into larger confrontations with political elites.
Dissatisfied with the status quo and distrustful of political parties, these leaderless social movements for change (mainly but not exclusively among the young) are blossoming in many places. If we needed reminding that the “public sphere” is not simply a realm of rational argument and deliberation but also one of imagination, passion, outrage and protest, then we received it in plenty.
Liberal, representative political institutions do not spring up overnight. And, as recent events in the US and UK have shown, they are easily dismantled. Their maintenance requires constant vigilance by a well-informed public that is not overcome by the lethargy induced by mass consumerism. The messy, topsy-turvy, contradictory and occasionally violent nature of the democratization process in Egypt is no different, historically, to what took place in Europe and the US. It is not a reflection of some “essential” aspect of Muslims or the “Arab psyche”.
Business corporations also had their wings singed last month. The US Supreme Court ruled unanimously that human genes could not be patented as they were ‘a product of nature’. It struck down patents held by Myriad Genetics, Inc, on two genes linked to a higher risk of breast and ovarian cancer. Powerful private companies spying with American taxpayers’ money on foreigners and their governments were exposed by Edward Snowden (see my previous post “The Revolt of the Geeks”). The vicious backlash against him in large sections of the American media only revealed how ignorant many Americans are about what happens in their own country, let alone abroad.
Then at the G-8 summit in northern Ireland- the least unlikely gathering at which to expect corporate power to be reigned in- the rich nations vowed to change the global tax regime that enables multinationals to hide their profits in offshore accounts through bogus companies. Prior to the summit, Britain struck a deal with its Caribbean protectorates (representing around a quarter of the world’s tax havens) towards greater banking transparency. As David Cameron put it, “More was achieved in 24 hours than in the past 24 years”.
Whether we who live in the so-called developing world will benefit remains to be seen. More than multinational tax evasion, it is corruption and plunder by local politicians that needs to be addressed in a banking system that hitherto encourages criminality. Once again, we have seen how the rich nations need to suffer more (whether through money-laundering and tax avoidance/evasion, or acts of terrorism) before these global injustices even begin to be tackled.
Pressure to clean up the global tax regime has come from non-governmental organizations like Oxfam, Christian Aid and Tearfund (UK). The eminent economist Joseph Stiglitz has also been campaigning against a tax system that is pivotal in increasing inequalities within “developed” societies, especially in the US and UK.
Stiglitz has argued what should have been obvious to all defenders of “market freedoms”. Major corporate tax avoiders like Apple, Google and Amazon have benefitted enormously from what the US and other Western governments provide: “Highly educated workers trained in universities that are supported by government. The basic research on which their products rest was paid for by taxpayer-supported developments- the Internet, without which they couldn’t exist. Their prosperity depends in part on the US legal system- including strong enforcement of intellectual property rights; they asked (and got) government to force countries around the world to adopt US standards, in some cases, at great cost to the lives of those in emerging markets and developing countries.”
Stiglitz goes on: “Yes, they brought genius and organizational skills, for which they justly receive kudos. But while Newton was at least modest enough to note that he stood on the shoulders of giants, these titans of industry have no compunction about being free riders, taking generously from the benefits afforded by our system, but not willing to contribute commensurately. Without public support, the wellspring from which future innovation and growth will come will dry up- not to say what will happen to our increasingly divided society.”
But perhaps the most amazing story last month was that of a 28-year old Indian woman, Arunima Sinha. Two years ago, she had half a leg amputated after robbers pushed her out of a train near Lucknow, north India. She had refused to hand over a gold chain she was wearing. The national-level volleyball player began a mountaineering course to recover from what she called her “darkest hour”. Last month she became the first woman amputee to climb Mount Everest, a climb that took her 52 days. Now she is setting up a sports academy for poor disabled children.
India is probably one of the least disabled-friendly countries. Here is a woman who has turned her weakness into a source of strength and service to others. It is such stories, often tucked away in the back pages of newspapers, that are harbingers of deep-seated social change.
“Often the best source of information about waste, fraud and abuse in government is a government employee committed to public integrity, willing to speak out. Such acts of courage and patriotism…should be encouraged rather than stifled.”
These were the words of one Barack Obama when on the presidential campaign trail in 2008.
In an interview with an American online journal at the time, I cautioned Americans about expecting differences in foreign policy from the Bush era. When the almighty god of National Security takes over, humans are expendable, paranoia reigns, and the military-industrial-megamachine runs amok.
But I must admit that Obama has succeeded beyond my expectations in “outbushing” Bush. During his first term in office, six whistleblowers were charged under the Espionage Act of 1917 for disclosing classified information. That is twice as many as all previous presidents combined.
The threat facing whistleblowers has implications for media freedom. In the Internet and cell-phone age, journalists are no longer able to guarantee their sources’ anonymity. And if the sources dry up, so do the stories and we are left in the dark about what our governments are doing.
A 29-year old ex-CIA employee, Edward Snowden, recently leaked information on a secret US spy programme that harvests internet and phone records of US citizens and foreigners. Snowdon told Britain’s Guardian newspaper that he had leaked the details of the US National Security Agency’s surveillance programme to “protect basic liberties for people around the world.”
The merging of government and the corporate world is shown by the extent to which “national security” is outsourced to private contractors. Snowden’s company, which receives all its funds from the federal government, is in turn owned by the private equity firm Carlyle Group. (Republicans only dislike Big Government when the poor are the beneficiaries).
Snowden’s revelations are not new. What is interesting is the anger of many white Americans upon discovering that they are included in the objects of government surveillance. As long as surveillance focused on foreigners, or Americans with Arab or Pakistani appearance, there was no problem. The majority could sleep peacefully in their beds, free of the threat of “terrorism”.
In his book Collateral Damage, the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman observes that “Security obsessions are inexhaustible and insatiable; once they take off and are let loose, there is no stopping them.”
The questions that every sane person should raise in the public arena, wherever he or she may happen to live, are surely these:
1. Can democracy survive if protected by undemocratic means?
2. Is a society that requires torture, indiscriminate surveillance, technological over-kill, and the sacrifice of other peoples’ rights and liberties for the sake of one’s own, a society worth defending?
Through this Blog I may well have become yet another “person of interest” to the CIA. After all, I have defended Bradley Manning who, instead of being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his courage in exposing war crimes, is being court-martialled for treason. I have also expressed disgust at the hypocrisy and double standards practised by American and British governments when it comes to democracy and human rights; and I have frequently condemned the immorality as well as illegality of the use of drones in non-combat zones in Pakistan and elsewhere.
In the United States, the massive surveillance apparatus built up since 9/11 is the domestic companion of the overseas drone killings. It spells the degradation of the liberal state. Unaccountable government is at one end of that spectrum of degradation, and an unaccountable financial sector at the other.
Iraq has already been forgotten by the American and British public, and so will Afghanistan. Bush and Blair have retreated to their private havens and lecture circuits, while the people of Iraq continue to suffer the aftermath of their destructive and illegal political actions. When on a single day last month 57 Iraqis were killed, it was considered a non-event in the Western media compared to the killing of a British soldier on a street in London. Yet the two atrocities are historically connected.
In the popular American television series Homeland, Sgt. Nicholas Brody is suspected of having been turned by a Middle Eastern terrorist organization. He is put under surveillance by CIA agent Carrie Mathison. Sitting in her apartment, she can watch every minute of Brody’s life at home in every room of his house. She’s trying to see whether something he says or does will reveal his affiliation with the terrorists. Mathison can see everything about Brody except in the one place hidden from the surveillance cameras: his garage. Away from his family, who would never understand his conversion to Islam, Brody goes to his garage, lays out his prayer mat, turns to Mecca, and prays.
Carving out such “sacred spaces”, free of the encroachment of governments, capitalist markets and intrusive technologies, and making those spaces the launching pads for the prophetic unmasking of national idols- surely this is the biggest missionary challenge facing the American Church. And it may well be unlikely “geek” heroes like Manning and Snowden, and those courageous Muslims who refuse to let their faith be domesticated or co-opted, who help that Church recover its integrity and nerve.
“Give a person a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach him how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime”. So runs a popular traditional adage about economic development.
But poor fishing communities don’t need us to teach them how to fish. They may have much to teach us about more sustainable fishing practices. We are not the ones denuding their lakes and oceans, or polluting them with our refuse. And what if they are unable to fish, not because they lack the skills, but because the fishing rights to their rivers and lakes have been sold by their governments to foreign corporations and governments as a way of servicing the nation’s external debt?
Libraries groan under the weight of academic theses and books analysing poverty and theorising about development. They have provided employment and financial security to economists. They have done precious little for the world’s poor. The biggest single obstacle to ending poverty is not the lack of economic knowledge but the lack of political will. Politicians who truly care for the poor will somehow find pragmatic solutions rather than being bound by ideologies of the right or the left.
One doesn’t have to be a high-paid consultant or “poverty expert” to know that, for instance, corruption robs the poor; that social class is the principal determinant of school performance; that nutrition, healthcare and education are more vital for a nation’s security and well-being than missile systems, national airlines and superhighways. Yet the rich states continue to sell arms to poor nations and invest in projects that benefit their businesses more than the poor. Kofi Annan recently stated that capital flight from Africa to banks in the West (including tax havens which are British and American protectorates) amounts to three times what is given as official development aid.
The individualistic approach to poverty is most evident in organizations that promote child sponsorship programs. Whenever I visit friends in the US or Europe I often notice pictures of African or Asian children pasted on their fridge doors. They pray for these children, whom they have never met but know by name, and support them monthly through a non-governmental organization. I am impressed by their concern for children in the Two-Thirds World. (Rarely, however, do I see pictures of impoverished children from their own cities!). At the same time I share my reservations with them and also try to give them a bigger picture of what hinders the development of poor communities.
No doubt child sponsorship is a near-perfect marketing strategy for raising funds. That is why it persists despite repeated concerns expressed by local people. If the money raised does go to support a specific child, then there is at least a financial integrity about the program. But it raises some difficult questions. Who gets chosen and why? What about the children in the village or slum community who are left out? Since the cost of living varies enormously, how does a child-sponsoring organization based in the US determine that (say) $30 per month will meet the needs of a child in South Sudan, the Philippines or Bolivia? Are local economists and educationists consulted in the process? Never, in my experience. Quite simply someone or some group in the donor nation is employed to work out how much an average donor is willing to donate each month and this suddenly becomes what sponsorship costs! It has little to do with real costs on the ground. It’s also a very expensive process to manage, which means a large fraction of the money raised is swallowed up in the bureaucracy of the organization.
Many child sponsorship programmes have long moved away from real child sponsorship, and the photos and stories of children boil down to a means of hooking people into funding community development projects in which the children in the photos are among the beneficiaries. At a local development level this makes far more sense. At the fundraising level I think it does raise issues of integrity. Are the donors informed that this is how their funds are being used? Whatever the style of sponsorship, the process also inevitably exaggerates the importance of the donor over that of the local people providing the care and training on the ground.
The biggest and best-known of the child sponsorship organizations promises its donors, largely drawn from conservative evangelical American churches, that they will “present every child with an opportunity to become responsible and fulfilled Christian adults”. For those of us living in societies largely hostile to Christian faith, and where churches working with the poor are often accused of using financial help as an incentive to “conversion”, such promises send shivers up our spines. Are parents and guardians consulted? Or does the promise mean that only orphans are helped, and that parents who oppose their children being taught Bible stories will be sidelined? This, too, raises ethical concerns.
Moreover, when a sponsor asks on the organization’s website questions such as “Should I visit my sponsored child?”, it is other sponsors who reply, not local people on the ground.
There is no shortage of Christians in poor nations who have learned the skills necessary to court donors from rich nations. They know what is the “flavour of the month” where giving by evangelical Americans or Singaporeans is concerned. That foreign donors need to be educated does not seem to register on their thinking.
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.