The Knowledge Network has been screening an excellent and informative documentary on Afghanistan recently. It’s a sobering and sad recounting of a brutal history unfolding over the past sixty years. A story of dictatorships, power, corruption. and exploitation. First by individuals with a bloodthirsty lust for power, then Communism, then Western powers. It describes the gaping chasm between the liberal and enlightened Kabul of the sixties and the 80% rural agrarian population deeply rooted in fundamental Islam. No surprise that these two realities would clash and give rise to what we now know as the Taliban.
As I watched the rise of these fundamentalist rural militants I wondered whether they have an uncanny resemblance to the zealots in Jesus’ day, and the frenzied mob of Saul who stoned Stephen? It draws me to conclude that the basic nature of men and women down the ages is largely unchanged. Time, education, technology, education, and ‘evolution’ have not brought about a better ‘us’; we just wear different clothes.
In a recent article for the Economist Niall Ferguson, writing about America’s fading empire, quotes Churchill:
“THE MULTITUDES remained plunged in ignorance… and their leaders, seeking their votes, did not dare to undeceive them.” So wrote Winston Churchill of the victors of the first world war in “The Gathering Storm.” He bitterly recalled a “refusal to face unpleasant facts, desire for popularity and electoral success irrespective of the vital interests of the state.”
Those words could be describing our day with a relevance that is startling and disturbing. Or is it? What do we expect? If people are basically good and the civilizing influence of education and wider communication makes us better, where are the results? Democracy is our great solution, but we’re witnessing it fall apart at the seams. Yesterday I saw a poster for the Liberal Party down the street disfigured with a hammer and sickle pasted over the face of the candidate. Hardly a sign of tolerance and freedom of speech. We’re in the middle of a pandemic where vaccinations are exposing how fragile we are, as we insist upon the right for individuals to choose no matter what the risk or cost might be to others. What about the greater good? What about considering the welfare of others as a motive for action, even to the point of laying down my right or preference for a stranger?
Christianity broke into the world as a radical counter culture expressed through the lives of the early disciples. It was diametrically opposed to religious fanaticism, party politics, Roman oppression, the subjugation of women, exploitation of slavery, lies, incest, selfishness… add to the list of human failings. It is long.
The bedrock of Christianity was expressed by John in the revolutionary declaration that God so loved the world that he sent his Son into the midst of what had become very unlovely and disfigured. People were doing then to one another what we are doing now. The pandemic of the Fall, human rebellion against God, was without hope or solution other than the antidote or vaccine made available through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. And we have never fully comprehended, or understood, what exactly is contained in the mix of that profound mystery. But what was evident from the beginning was that whatever it was that this Jesus carried, it changed lives and transformed characters.
The early disciples were by and large uneducated ordinary men and woman. Yet through them sick people were healed, relationships were changed, people who should never have been together built communities transcending all boundaries between Gentile and Jew. We forget how radical a breakthrough that was! Early Christianity was not words on paper, slogans on walls, nor debate points in universities. It was word made flesh and living among us. The power of Jesus and his Spirit alive, real, and relevant. Touch, taste, and see that God is good. How? Lives of friends and neighbors transformed, evidenced by the fruit of love, servant hearts, humility, courage, and generosity of spirit. Love manifest in power not platitudes.
Some who followed Jesus were flogged, placed in jail, or even stoned to death. Eventually they would be led into the Colosseum after having the impertinence to challenge the lordship of Caesar above that of Jesus. They died for what we compromise over because nothing matters that much. Western Christians would rather not suffer today because what is generally believed is not that radical. The focus has turned inward and been polluted with bits and pieces from many philosophies, religions, and viewpoints. Jesus’ teaching and call has been hollowed out, whittled down to politically correct statements devoid of power and hope. We don’t even believe there is a pandemic that only Jesus can heal and defeat.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed and want to plug your ears because of the tidal wave of negativity all around you, don’t be alarmed. Sadly, there is nothing new under the sun. Everything is cosmetically different but underneath it’s the same old, same old. When James and John wanted Jesus to bring down fire on a Samaritan village that failed to welcome him, they were suggesting violence and racist behavior akin to anything we might witness today. Jesus pulled them aside and rebuked them. He didn’t discount or reject them, and neither did he ignore their suggestion as nothing to worry about. He continued to keep them by his side as their transformation continued in the context of grace – manifest in loving, firm, committed relationship, and sacrifice for the sake of others.
As already alluded to, Saul was a violent religious fanatic type, brought to his knees outside Damascus, by the Spirit of God who drew a line in the sand and said, enough! Out of the blindness and the dust Paul rose, and during the next fourteen years was changed into a man whose life was almost the exact opposite of how it had begun. People around the region were astounded, first by what they saw in the changed character of the man, and secondly by what they heard when he spoke. In his context the love of Jesus alive in him caused him to be flogged, imprisoned, and eventually beheaded. It mattered enough!
Nothing much has changed. If Christians desire to be salt and light in the world in which we live the message is also unchanged. Character and sacrificial lives speak louder than posturing, politics, and self-centeredness. People around us are still hungry for a better way that they can taste and see for themselves. The fruit they have at hand is our lives, our example, our generosity, our grace, our integrity, our love manifest for them without judgement or condemnation. Not so much our words.
They shall know who has been vaccinated (by Jesus) – by their love.