Two things behind this post.
- 2016 was, in many ways, a brutal, ugly and unsettling sort of year.
- This pair of goldfinches visited our garden (I’ll come back to the goldfinches)
2016 was especially unsettling for us in the West, I think, because it was also a year that saw rising threats to the future stability and security of our Western way of life.
In no particular order, some of these threats include (and I am sure you can add your own):
- The devastation of Syria – but also within Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen and elsewhere – and its unimaginable associated human cost, have left many looking on feeling both helpless and angry. On top of this, the conflict has exposed the West’s impotence to oust Assad and has hugely bolstered Putin’s influence in the region.
- The West continues to reap what was sown by Bush and Blair’s reckless and arrogant invasion of Iraq. Western hubris to imagine that Western democracy could be catalysed in Libya, Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan has been shown to be just that.
- Putin’s latest ‘victory’ in Aleppo is part of his agenda of regaining Russian self-respect and influence in the world. Annexing Crimea, partial invasion of Eastern Ukraine, new balances of power with Turkey, cyber-hacking the USA and ruthless crushing of dissent at home – are all part of Putin’s gangsterism and empire-building strategy demonstrating his contempt for the weak West.
- European elites seem to have no coherent answer to either the refugee crisis or the very real chance of the break up of the Euro. Italy could enter a fiscal crisis in 2017. Risks to the viability of the Euro appear to be relentlessly rising despite continual firefighting by European policy makers. After years, it is pretty clear that there is neither the political cohesion or creativity to ‘re-imagine’ a different structure for Europe that can actually work.
- That scepticism towards Europe as an idea is shared by more and more within Europe. Brexit might be only the first step.
- Liberal Westerners are aghast at the potential ending (or at least a serious threats to) of the onward ‘civilising’ march of liberal secular democracy in Europe and the USA. Trump and Putin (and their mutual admiration society) pose the nightmare scenario of the rise of autocratic right-wing nationalism. I mean by this a form of nationalism that goes back to a myth of ‘our origins’ and seeks to ‘recover’ who we ‘truly’ are while simultaneously finding scapegoats blame for the ‘decline of our once great nation’.
- The nihilistic brutality of ISIS / Daesh and its sporadic, unpredictable and ruthless violence within European cities is designed not for military victory but to spread fear and catalyse division within the enemy. One desired outcome is to sow seeds of enmity and distrust within European multiculturalist pluralist societies that can grow into ugly plants of xenophobia, racism and exclusion – to undermine Europe from within. So far, quite a lot of progress made on this front.
The fear and uncertainty felt by many in the West today is not because uncertainty, violence, mass immigration and nationalism are new but because they are hitting close to home.
These are some impressionistic descriptions – some may be more accurate than others. The real point is not the detail but a question:
What is a response for a disciple of Jesus to living in times of deep uncertainty?
Some possible responses:
Be consumed by fear at threats to our ‘Western way of life.’
There is an incomparable richness with living in the West – the freedoms and opportunities that we take for granted are all around us. It is an astonishing privilege to live in a culture that has a democratic government (and only partially corrupt form of politics). Heck, even the trains nearly run on time some of the time. These freedoms should be supported and defended as that which gives maximum freedom to most people.
But, Christians should be well aware that these gifts are not guaranteed and are certainly not an indispensable part of being a follower of Jesus. A Christian’s source of identity, security and hope does not derive from living in an unheralded time (historically speaking) of prosperity, political stability and access to infinite information.
So we are not to be people of fear, but of hope. Our ‘salvation’ does not rest on the fortunes of liberal secular democracy. Christians in the West are, after all, called to be NOT good Westerners – whether Irish, American, British or German etc. They ARE called to be faithful disciples of Jesus their Lord.
2. Live by the sword
Up there with ‘love your enemies’, perhaps one of the most ignored teachings of Jesus is that “those who draw the sword will die by the sword” (Mt 26:52)
Christians are not to be uncritical supporters of the West or of their particular state. A role of the church (however unpopular) is to call the state to account before God – and take the consequences (ask John the Baptist).
It is the West’s arrogance and militarism that has helped create the disaster of the contemporary Middle East. Rather than respond the catastrophic mess with support for more violence, it is Christians who are called to be peacemakers; people of prayer; compassion; of reconciliation and mercy.
An illustration from the radio this morning: Lyse Doucet is a superb international correspondent for the BBC. She was talking of why she risked her life reporting from Aleppo. Her reply was unescapably moral: it was a privilege to see what was happening and tell the human story of suffering. She recalled her Catholic upbringing and that she had been taught to be ‘my brother’s keeper’. She was there to use her training and experience to help give a voice to those without a voice. Her actions are a fantastic model for Christians. Non-violence is not passive, it is courageous and bold on behalf of the weak and vulnerable. It speaks of risky love at cost to ourselves. It speaks of a radically different narrative to the men of war.
3. Accept the fate of the world
The brilliant atheist Friedrich Nietzsche (with impressive moustache) talked of amor fati – love of fate. By this he meant that we should overcome our weakness of trying to seek salvation or moral perfection in this world. Rather we should grow up and say YES to all that exists; embrace all of life, both its miseries and joys. There is nothing else higher or better than life as it is. It is Christian weakness and illusion to believe that there is – and Nietzsche hated such weakness. He believed in strength and power rather than perverse ideas of pity and compassion.
Nietzsche was absolutely right – if God is dead. For without God all we do face is a pitiless world where the will to power wins out and compassion is mere stupidity (sound familiar re a certain President elect?). Fatalism and power are the responses of faithlessness – quite consistent for an atheist but not exactly an option for a Christian.
4. Hope, compassion and beauty
Rather than 1-3, can I suggest that in a violent and uncertain world, Christians are to be people of hope, compassion and lovers of beauty.
Christian hope rests not in politics or nationalism but on the victory of God won in Christ. In him we have the certainty of resurrection life, forgiveness of sin, new life in the Spirit, a mission give our lives to, a God to love and a church and world to serve. We are to be people who believe in, are shaped by and share good news – whatever the world is doing around us.
That good news includes Paul’s command to ‘remember the poor’ and to live a kingdom life that is ‘good news to the poor’. God’s people, like OT Israel are to reflect God’s heart for those cast aside by the power structures and politics of the world:
He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt. Deut. 10:18-19
As recipients of God’s grace and compassion, we are to share grace and compassion generously with those in need like refugees fleeing from unimaginable violence.
Finally, back to those goldfinches. I like bird watching and think goldfinches are particularly pretty. Now some people I know don’t like birds at all and I think Starlings are frankly evil. So my point is not about birds per se, but beauty.
There is something captivating and transcendent about beauty – maybe for you it is a landscape, a sunset, a person, a poem, a tree, a painting, a crashing wave on a beach or a crafted piece of clothing?
Beauty reminds us that this life, this world, is full of goodness, made by a loving creator. It is to be treasured, savoured, enjoyed and looked after. Since God’s ultimate agenda is renewal and healing of this broken and violent world, Christians are to be life-affirming and world-affirming.
Part of being people of hope is to pause and give thanks for the beauty we see every day. Part of being people of hope is to create beauty with our hands and with our words.
Hope, compassion, beauty: these, I suggest, rather than fear, violence and fatalism, form a Christian framework for approaching 2017.