June 2009 - Vol. 31
One of my worst faults is a penchant for reading The Economist whenever I happen upon one. This past week I allowed myself to fall particularly heavily when I managed to capture a copy of it just before a week’s holiday in North Carolina. Imagine my shame and remorse when seven days later I woke up to discover that I had read the whole thing. Let me confess first off that I have never been guilty of this particular sin of economy before, nor do I think this will become a recurring habit, but something caught my eye as I browsed through it. A review of a new history book by Tom Holland, The Forge of Christendom: The End of Days and the Epic Rise of the West. The review stated the author’s thesis thus: that Christians have a history of interpreting “troubling geopolitical events...in apocalyptic terms. This mood creates a favourable background for zealous forms of religion – the sort of religion that thrives when people see little virtue in marrying, breeding, or building up private property.”1 I was caught by the sentence – to use a movie cliché – it was so right yet so wrong.
One of the main reasons I had for doubting the veracity of The Economist’s analysis was the privilege I had to visit India recently. A side note here. The man from the “developed” World writes about the East at his peril. I hope that my friends from India and other places not saddled with the dubious title of “Western” will allow me a few observations in the understanding that there will likely surface in these reflections a couple of prejudices and gaffes – for which I even now beg your indulgence.
India was rather hot for an Irishman. Given that the skin of my race begins to blister in the presence of a 60 watt bulb, I was pleasantly surprised that I seemed to cope with the sun without too much discomfort. I managed to walk up and down an enormous gorge (with 100 other people) during the noonday heat. I also ate many delicious meals, pungent with spices (which had been specially toned down for my delicate palate) unknown even in the best whole-food shops of Lansing, Michigan. Some of my favourite hours were spent with the orphans we visited as part of our mission trip. They were too young to know that The Economist existed. They didn’t understand the exchange of place and country – being as interested in the 91 mosquito bites I was sporting upon my face, arms and hands as they were in where my country could be found on the map of the world. Although the biggest exercise in democracy was marching past their door, they didn’t notice, they wanted to show me their new dance. I was reminded of playing with my brothers and sisters when they were young – vaguely aware that time was passing and that I should be doing something else, I would while away hours playing “eagles” with my little sisters or kicking a ball in the front garden with my brother Eoin till eleven o clock at night while the light faded from the long Irish evening. Going to India was a participation in “geopolitical events” on a grand – perhaps the grandest – scale, but it was also just playing ring-a-rosies, eating dinner with new-found friends and climbing a local mountain. This was not The Economist’s “background for zealous forms of religion.”
And yet, it was. During the first week of our stay the team of which I was a part participated in a camp for the youth of the Sword of the Spirit communities. The camp was impressively well run, in a beautiful location with fantastic views and nice food. There were no “troubling geopolitical events” which would give people an excuse for “zealous forms of religion” – but it was there anyway. One hundred and five young people assembled from four different Sword of the Spirit Communities for the first regional Kairos Summer Camp. Many sacrificed a week of work, a lot of time and a lot of wages to gather together. One group made a 23 hour train journey from Bangalore. One of the organisers – a university student from Pune – came to the camp for 2 days, travelled home to do an exam and came back for the final day to help us all pack up and head off home. I met people who don’t have a car, who aren’t interested in building up private property – yet are interested in marrying, building a family and foregoing the property for the sake of their children and their family life. I was privileged to be allowed into the lives of people whom I would never have met but for covenant community. Had I gone to India as a tourist or a business man, I am confident that I could not have had a better experience of the country, because I wouldn’t have been able to meet its people. I would not have had a chance to meet with them on The Economist’s “apocalyptic” terms.
Apocalypse, in the terminology of early Jewish and Christian literature, is a revelation of hidden things – revealed by God to a chosen prophet or apostle. From the second century onwards the word has vastly changed its meaning to come to signify, vaguely; the end of the world, the destruction of everything, and the finality of all things. We are an apocalyptic people. We are a people to whom God has revealed certain things – the plan of covenant community, the gift of a life not dependent upon material possessions, worldly preoccupations, or even relationships. We relate to each other as those who believe in, and long for, the apocalypse. We call each other brother and sister – though no blood relationship exists. We treat one another as family across eight thousand miles of distance because we don’t think this world is the one we are finally created for. We don’t need troubling geopolitical events to make us zealous in our religion because as Christians we strive to be “steadfast in faith, knowing that your brothers throughout the world are undergoing the same trials” (1 Peter 5:9).
I suppose there is some merit in being able to
look to the skies and discern the way the wind is blowing and ramping up
or down one’s “zealousness” relative to it. I think there is more to value,
however, in remaining zealous for one’s belief when the world attacks and
mocks you for it, when it seems cold to it or perhaps worst of all,
when it seems indifferent to it. Some people have told me that “this is
a very good time for reaching out to others. With the economic crisis happening
around the world, people are ready to hear about other things – they will
turn to religion.” I do not agree with this view. Original sin is all around
us – it affects our lives from first breath to last. We do not rely on
God because now is a good time to do so, as everything else is not working.
We rely on him because we need him always. We should proclaim the gospel
in season and out of season, living as though every day would be our last,
hoping that it might be so. We do not need troubling geopolitical events
around the world to look to Christ. Original sin already does that job
all too well for us.
1“The Rise of Christianity: The Millenium Bug”, in, The Economist, May 15th-19th 2009.
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