In a few days time, the decorations will come down, the lights that have pierced the darkness of winters nights will be put out, Christmas wrapping paper will no more be seen until next year. The carol singing will cease, the Christmas specials on radio and television will be a distant memory. Only the returned goods queues in shops now open with New Year’s sales from unsold Christmas products and the credit card bills will remind us of a festive period that has quickly passed.
Christmas comes but once a year and with it all the paraphernalia, presents, pressures and pleasures. But what of its abiding story? What of the implications, challenges and encouragements found in the story of Christ’s coming?
What of the revolution that began so long ago that still disturbs and challenges as much as it comforts and brings hope to our world?
God’s appearing as a baby, a vulnerable human child turned all the religious expectations of the Messiah on its head. The Kingdom of God that Jesus came to usher in marked such a contrast to how kings and rulers governed. The ways of God, revealed through Christ, marked a whole new way of being and doing. This was a revolution unparalleled in human history. Creative, redeeming, life-giving, healing, filled with hope, Christ brought then, as now, transformation to lives and communities that recognised in his coming a new way for living.
Being in Ireland over Christmas, the news headlines there were dominated by the talks that were convened under the chairmanship of a senior US diplomat, Dr Richard Haass. He led talks to resolve some of the most divisive issues that have undermined and hampered the Northern Ireland Peace Process. Sadly, there has been no breakthrough but a breaking up of the talks without agreement. Seeped in a history of conflict, violence, hurt, misunderstanding, sectarian prejudice and unforgiving bitterness that so scars the psyche and landscape of Northern Ireland, the process of peace and reconciliation is a long and complex road. Political parties, seeking to settle differences over parades, flags and the legacy of the Troubles, have so far failed to deliver any sense of agreement or consensus. Despite the rhetoric that is trying to be positive and upbeat, disappointment pervades. More than 3,500 people died in the Troubles, and in over 3000 cases no one was prosecuted. Fifteen years on from the Good Friday Agreement there is still no agreement as to how to investigate these killings, administer justice and bring resolution, closure, peace and reconciliation to those affected.
In one sense I feel very hesitant to make any comment on what I’ve seen, heard and read, but I am left disappointed, not only with the collapse of the talks but also with the politicians representing the people of Northern Ireland.
I feel equally disappointed and disillusioned with many of our own political leaders. Their task is onerous and the burdens upon them are many and the constant onslaught and misrepresentation of them and their policies by the media makes their work so difficult. Yet I can’t help feeling that, if this is what modern democracy has produced in terms of our political leaders, then we seriously need to question its efficacy in delivering good government.
One of my favourite films of last year was the Oscar-winning, Lincoln. It was Abraham Lincoln who said of politics: Government of the people, by the people, for the people. I am not convinced that we are currently being governed well. I fear that those who govern on our behalf have become something of a ruling elite, cut-off from the real life experiences from those whom they claim to represent. When democracy is all about fighting for the middle ground, maintaining power in the key marginal seats, pandering to the media-fuelled fears of a vociferous minority or being so in the league with press barons as to ‘buy’ power, there is something seriously wrong with the system and those within it.
When morality went out of the marketplace and all sense of the economy existing for the common good was replaced by greed, gambling and godlessness, the world was thrown into a major recession for which the poor, not the rich, have paid the price. Similarly when integrity is removed from the political realm it is the breeding ground for injustice, populism, manipulation, spin and moral cowardice.
No wonder people are disillusioned, disinterested and disconnected from politics, which contrary to popular opinion, does make a huge difference to people’s lives.
Much of the world cries out for change. Were we not anaesthetised in the West by consumerism and the ‘feel good factor’, we too might see beneath the surface of our own society and demand change.
But who can we look up to? South Africa looked to Nelson Mandela, who chose the way of peace and reconciliation, who led by integration not retribution.
An Sang Su Chi whose leadership resolve to bring her people freedom and other basichuman rights remained during years of house arrest.
Last year Venezuela lost arguably its greatest and most inspirational political leader Hugo Chávez. Get beyond the North American neocons and their rhetoric that called openly for him to be assassinated and you encounter a man, who far from being perfect, was nevertheless committed as a leader and who was prepared to rule for the people, the vast majority of whom were poor and who for years had suffered under a ‘bourgeois democracy’. He was a fearless defender of the poor and the oppressed and his courage in being prepared to stand with them against the oppressors, whatever the cost, brought him powerful enemies.
Those of us who know the Christmas story, know only too well, that when you stand up for the poor and oppressed, for truth and justice and your words and actions challenge the status quo, you make enemies, often among the rich and powerful. As was the experience for Jesus, history records the stories of leaders who came to bring a different way for living; a way for living as expressed in the Magnificat:…. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty. Any life that seeks to challenge or undermine, expose the lies and injustices on which wealth and power is founded will be subject to opposition, misrepresentation and suffering. As in the case of Jesus, so too for people like Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Hugo Chavez; if the lies, ridicule and opposition don’t work, your enemies have to get rid of you, to kill you.
South America has for many years been politically and economically unstable. It’s an interesting continent and poses both a challenge and a threat to existing economic and political power bases. Chavez is dead, but in the south of that great continent, the Uruguayan President José Mujica is showing all the traits of someone who is a political leader, like Chavez, of a different kind to that of so many contemporary world leaders. In an age of austerity, he lives and leads by example. Forsaking the state palace for a small farmhouse, he donates the vast bulk of his salary to social projects, flies economy class and drives an old Volkswagen Beetle. He describes his beloved Uruguay as “an island of refugees in the world of crazy people”.
He leads a government that sets prices for essential commodities such as milk and provides free computers and education for every child. Key energy and communications industries are all nationalized. He has led the world in moves to restrict tobacco consumption. Living within its means and actively promoting the use of renewable energy and recycling at the UN last year he rallied against the “blind obsession” to achieve growth through greater consumption. He has the courage to speak out and condemn a free-market global economy: “I’m just sick of the way things are. We are in an age in which we can’t live without accepting the logic of the market, contemporary politics is all about short-term pragmatism. We have abandoned religion and philosophy… what we have left is the automotive and of doing what the market tells us.” Gosh, if only his words could be echoed by our own politicians in the West, allied to moral courage, we might have a different way of looking at the world.
I think it’s remarkable and a real sign of the Holy Spirit that Pope Francis is from South America. He too, like Mujica, has abandoned the refinements of the luxurious accommodation occupied by most popes in Rome for a small apartment and rather than being chauffeur driven in an expensive limousine, drives around in an old Renault 4. An Argentinian who is now rattling the cages of the Vatican, (as much as the gearbox on his Renault!) shaking and re-shaping the renewal of the Catholic Church and speaking out to the politicians and world’s financial institutions about their responsibility for the common good.
I’m also hugely encouraged by what I see and read about Archbishop Justin Welby. A church leader who is prepared, with grace and humility, to challenge politicians, banks and financiers about their responsibility to others, not just to stakeholders. When the money markets exist purely for financial gain and not the common good, we risk not so much a stock market crash but the judgement of God.
When I was in the Czech Republic earlier last year I remember speaking to a good friend from Bulgaria, a leading academic, who, critiquing the attitude to education in the West, raised huge concerns that we were now simply educating people in order to compete and serve a technocratic, consumerist capitalist economic worldview. We had lost the ability to be educated for education’s sake, we, as the Uruguayan president observed, have forsaken religion and philosophy and the ability to ask not just what does society need us to be but rather what kind of society do we want to live in?
Of course people like Mujica will be regarded (as no doubt I will be regarded by some readers) as being naïve, but sometimes simplicity, wisdom, compassion and commitment to live by one’s values and ideals provide an antidote to the morally polluted and dysfunctional populist policies. One of the things that struck a chord with me with the Uruguayan president was when he said: “we can almost recycle everything now. If we lived within our means, by being prudent, the 7 billion people in the world could have everything they needed. Global politics should be moving in that direction…. But we think is people and countries, not as global citizens… the world will always need revolution. That doesn’t mean shooting and violence. A revolution is when you change your thinking. Confucianism and Christianity were both revolutionary.”
And this takes me back to where I began this blog: to the Christmas story and to the advent of the revolution and a different way for living, under the leading of the greatest revolutionary the world has ever known, Jesus Christ. As I think about the coming year and the call upon our lives as a community to embrace our new monastic Rule of Life, our Way for Living, I see within its principal foundations, Availability and Vulnerability, a response to the call of Christ, to follow him. Any in monastic rule of life is a response to the call of Christ, a way for living out his revolutionary ideals. The Sermon on the Mount is Christ’s revolutionary manifesto for the world; a call to a different way of living, a revolution that brings transformation, hope, peace and community to a fractured world.
The outworking of our calling as a community is to live out the gospel. The seeking of God, the one thing necessary, will inevitably bear fruit in our being caught up in expressing his heart for the world. It will demand of us our lives in the cause of the revolution. To seek him is to serve him. The peace of Lord Christ, we pray, go with us, wherever he may send us.
In the name of Christ, bring on the revolution!