Vinoth Ramachandra

Lessons from Advent

Posted on: December 3, 2016

It has become fashionable of late, following Brexit and the U.S election fiasco, to bemoan the corruption of democracy and the triumph of “post-truth” politics. So I found it faintly humorous to discover recently these words from the great Greek sage Aristotle lamenting the state of Athens “nowadays” by comparison with “the old days”:

“Formerly, as is natural, every one would take his turn of service [in political office]; and then again, somebody else would look after his interests, just as he, while in office, had looked after theirs. But nowadays, for the sake of the material advantage which is to be gained from the public revenues and from office, men want to be always in office.”

While those of us in the Majority World have become perhaps too blasé about politicians who tell blatant lies to win votes or stay in power, many Americans naively assume that their Presidents never lied to their publics. Hence the view expressed by many non-Americans that they preferred Trump to win simply so that naïve Americans would wake up to the rottenness at the core of their political culture.

I am not so optimistic. To begin with, a Clinton victory should surely have been no less revelatory. There seems little difference, morally speaking, between Trump money and Clinton money; or between promoting Islamophobia and being in the pocket of Wall Street and the Zionist lobby. And why was advocating mass foeticide less reprehensible in the left-liberal media than advocating a ban on free trade deals? (It is Mexicans who have suffered most under NAFTA, but that fact was of no concern to either political camp).

I suspect that the reason Clinton won the overall vote was simply because many of those who voted for her were repelled by Trump. But the terrible choice faced by American voters- and a system that does not encourage multiple contestants- is unlikely to provoke serious soul-searching, apart from in a few liberal academic circles.

In his book Nationalism, first published in 1917, the Indian Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore went as far as to say “The nation is the greatest evil.” He boldly stated his “conviction”- formed in the context of the Indian independence struggle- that “my countrymen will gain truly their India by fighting against that education which teaches them that a country is greater than the ideals of humanity.”

Unfortunately the education that Tagore repudiates is alive and well in India today. Like their Tea Party Republican cousins in the US, Hindutva ideologues trade on mythological readings of Indian history and a search for national scapegoats. Hardly a day passes when the mainstream Indian TV and print media do not whip up frenzy over alleged Pakistani border violations in Kashmir. The Indian army is always innocent of atrocities. And any criticism of Indian government policy by students and human rights activists is labelled “sedition” by senior cabinet ministers. Christians in India, like their fellow Muslims, have been intimidated by Hindu nationalists who charge them with being agents of foreign powers. Patriotism has been reduced to the slanting of meaningless slogans (the Indian equivalents of “Make America Great Again”) while aping Western consumerist lifestyles.

Christians, wherever they live, need to cling fast to two paradoxical truths:

(a) The Incarnation declares that the “Word made flesh” within a locality, a context, a culture is no less than the Word that creates and sustains all creatures with his love.

So Christian political witness arises out of a Gospel that both affirms all cultures and nations and critiques/relativizes them at the same time. We do not have to choose between the cosmopolitan vision of Liberalism and the (historically) Conservative stress on tradition and the virtues necessary for citizenship. The Gospel unites and transcends.

(b) To fail to love (especially those who are different to us) is not to be fully alive; but to love truly and deeply will lead to death. If you cannot love you remain imprisoned in yourself. But if you do love, you will be seen as a threat by the powers of domination in your society and you will be killed. Or, be thrust out of your church.

That is what Advent teaches us.

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7 Responses to "Lessons from Advent"

Dear Vinoth,
Thank you for this incisive article- during this Advent Season as we ponder the ineffable mystery of the Incarnation. Your summary in highlighting the two paradoxical truths are to be heard and lived.
St Irenaeus of Lyons stated ” The glory of God is man fully alive” along the same lines as you have expressed.
Best Regards,
Roshan

As an American/EU citizen who is still lamenting the “November Surprise” that took place in the U.S. and who is watching the rise of alt-right groups throughout Europe, I know much can be said about all this, but I have 2 short questions instead:

Why are so many citizens drawn to these political movements?

Is the idea that globalization has failed us and has left significant numbers of people behind simply an over-simplified reason?

Matthew:

When X benefits us, we bless it unconditionally.

When X harms us, we curse it unconditionally.

The question to ask is: who are the “us” and the “we” that are saying these things?

Undoubtedly, the form that economic/financial globalization has taken since the 1980s has (grossly) disproportionately benefited multinationals and the rich elites of the global North and global South.

The core problem is the lack of political imagination and statesmanship worldwide. As long as political vision is captive to a narrow set of economic criteria (e.g. raising GDP) neither globalization nor isolationism is going to improve peoples’ lives.

Thanks for your thoughts above. The late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe was quoted as saying “if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you”. Probably not the message to get you elected to power nor hired at your local megachurch.

Thanks so much Vinoth.

Last question:

What sort of political imagination is necessary to really improve lives globally?

Thanks Vinoth for bringing this issue & putting light into it! I have been struggling in this for sometime.

Thanks for bringing the advent story home in this season. We are struggling to cope with the aftermath of the election when we learn majority Christians voted in favor of Trump, a cause of dissolution for few.

It is good to be reminded that the Word embodied in a culture that was divided with allegiance to Rome vs patriotism to the nation, and proclaimed the truth of the kingdom with grace. And the church was born.

ananda

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