Vinoth Ramachandra

Archive for February 2010

Václav Havel, the former Czech dissident, philosopher and President, insisted that his mission was ‘to speak the truth about the world I live in, to bear witness to its terrors and miseries, in other words, to warn rather than hand out prescriptions for change.’[1]

‘Speaking the truth’, ‘bearing witness’- these are actions, indeed commanded actions, that resound throughout the New Testament, on the lips of Jesus and his apostles. Truth and freedom are always found together. To believe lies is to be unfree. To be free is to love truth, to be no longer enslaved by falsehoods and fantasies. And it is truth that brings about a hunger for freedom, and effects real change. (Although Havel, perhaps self-deprecatingly, speaks of his vocation as simply warning rather than prescribing, every writer tacitly hopes that what he or she writes will change the world in some way).

The love of freedom, I suggested in my last Blog post, is one of the necessary conditions for a well-functioning democracy. Indifference towards freedom opens the door to political tyranny. ‘One does not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God,’ said Jesus at the beginning of his public ministry. The word of God is that which truthfully discloses God’s character and purposes. In Jesus, that word is embodied in a historical human person. ‘You shall know the truth,’ said Jesus of himself, ‘and the truth shall set you free’. In a perfect case of Scripture-twisting, these words are engraved on the wall in the entrance of the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. (Teachers of biblical hermeneutics should use this as a wonderful example of what follows when texts are isolated from their contexts!)

That this ‘word made flesh’ cared for the bodily needs of men and women is plain from the biblical testimony. But this freedom from want and affliction was part of the wider freedom of the new order (the ‘kingdom of God’), inaugurated in his cross and bodily resurrection: a freedom from enslavement to evil and every false god (including the gods of self and state) and a freedom for the joyful worship of God and love for one another in the human family. Worship is a political act: a joyful recognition that we belong to an Other, the final judge of history, who cannot be contained within any political, religious or cultural system.

Thus to pit freedom from want against freedom of speech and worship is to perpetuate a false dichotomy. ‘If someone takes away your bread’, wrote Albert Camus, ‘he suppresses your freedom at the same time. But if someone takes away your freedom, you may be sure that your bread is threatened, for it depends no longer on you and your struggle but on the whim of a master.’[2] Life at the ‘whim of a master’ is what people in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, Papa Doc’s Haiti or Stalin’s Russia had to endure. The cost was incalculable. In another of his essays, Camus went on to speak of a ‘socialism of the gallows’ that suppressed human civil liberties in the name of feeding people’s bellies.

The ‘military-industrial complex’ was a term popularized in the counter-culture movements of the 1960s. Today political freedom is threatened by a renewed rhetoric of ‘national security’. The nexus between politicians, military generals and industrialists has been tightened, from superpowers like the US and India to the little Lilliputs of my last blog post. Two decades after the Cold War ended, world military spending is at its peak. Neither global poverty nor environmental protection merits anything like the colossal sums of money that countries spend on standing armies and sophisticated weaponry.

The US Defence Secretary announced last week the biggest military budget in US history- nearly $900 billion. (And this in the wake of President Obama winning the Noble Peace Prize). The US is also stepping up arms sales to Taiwan. China responds angrily by hiking its own military spending. India diverts development funding into maintaining a massive military machine. It also sells arms to rogue states like Burma in exchange for natural gas and oil concessions. Western media focus on Iran while ignoring all these other threats to peace and democracy around the world.

Small, poor states like Liliput are also turning to Russia and China to provide them with weaponry and advanced surveillance equipment that will strengthen their capacity to spy on their own citizens and so increase the repression within their borders. When the self-styled emperor of Lilliput takes over the portfolio of media minister, then the classic totalitarian engine is set in motion: suppress any critical thought, control the flow of information, keep invoking the spectre of ‘terrorism’ or a ‘foreign conspiracy’ even in the absence of actual military conflict.

Tyrannies eventually deliver neither bread nor security. Tyrants not only inflict fear on others, they live in constant fear themselves. They are desperate to cling to political office and the fortunes they have plundered. They know that losing power will expose them to imprisonment. So, in their paranoia, they lash out at everybody, even their own supporters. Thus every tyranny, for all its apparent invincibility, is unstable. It is only a matter of time before it splinters and disintegrates. But the tragedy is that so many innocent lives are blighted on the long road to freedom.

[1] Václav Havel, Disturbing the Peace ( New York: Knopf, 1990) p.8

[2] Albert Camus, Resistance, Rebellion and Death (1960, Alfred Knopf; Vintage, 1995) p.94



February 2010