I’m just reading a very interesting book by Yuval Noah Hariri called Sapiens, a brief history of humankind published in Hebrew in 2011 and English 3 years later. Three quotes to give you a flavour of the book: “History is something that very few people have been doing while everyone else was ploughing fields and carrying water buckets.” “We did not domesticate wheat. It domesticated us.” And thirdly, “We study history not to know the future but to widen our horizons, to understand that our present situation is neither natural nor inevitable, and that we consequently have many more possibilities before us than we imagine.”
Anyway, as I was reading it, I wondered what his opinion would be following what I see as an increase in the darker side of the human social psyche, exemplified in what seems to be a rise in racism, sectarianism, far right politics, and isolationist nationalism. Hariri, writing when it began to seem possible that Trump would be elected to the White House, describes what is happening in the world as the collapse the Liberal Story that “has ruled our world in the past few decades.” https://www.newyorker.com/business/currency/does-trumps-rise-mean-liberalisms-end
Why are people losing faith in the Liberal Story? he asks. It cannot be that it is a sham, he says, because: “From (an) historical perspective, it seems evident that humankind is actually enjoying the most peaceful and prosperous era ever. In the early twenty-first century, for the first time in history, more people die from eating too much than from eating too little; more people die from old age than from epidemics; and more people commit suicide than are killed by war, crime, and terrorism put together.
Perhaps it is “that people care more about their future expectations than about their past achievements. When told that they no longer suffer as their ancestors did—from famine, plague, and war—people don’t count their blessings; rather, they enumerate their debts, disappointments, and never-to-be-fulfilled dreams. A person who has lost his job at a Rust Belt factory takes little comfort in the knowledge that he hasn’t died from starvation, cholera, or the Third World War.
Perhaps it is because people sense that “in the twenty-first century, most of the major problems are likely to be global, and the national political institutions we have inherited are incapable of handling such problems effectively.”
The Liberal Story has survived attacks before, from the First World War, fascism, communism, nuclear weapons yet now faces not systematic ideologies but what Hariri calls “a nihilistic burlesque” that rails against the present order but offers little to replace it.
Finally, he says, in his New Yorker article: “When humans lose their ability to make sense of rapid global change and the old story collapses and leaves a void, we need new ways of thinking, and we need them fast. At present, though, we are still in the nihilist moment of disillusionment and anger, in which people lose faith in the old story but before they have embraced a new one.”
If ever, in my lifetime, a light needed to shine in the darkness, it feels like now. There have been moments of danger, admittedly, many; but this feels like a confluence of dark trajectories. One might expect me, being a Christian and a minister to boot, to say that the Christian story is just the one to shine that light. Well, I’m not going to, although I will say later that the Jesus story might have something to offer.
Instead, I am going to ask us to accept, confess if you like, that Christianity has played its part too often in bringing darkness rather than light to the world. As Hariri has it, “In the 300 years of the crucifixion of Christ to the conversion of Emperor Constantine, polytheistic Roman emperors initiated no more than four general persecutions of Christians. Local administrators and governors incited some anti-Christian violence of their own. Still, if we combine all the victims of all these persecutions, it turns out that in these three centuries the polytheistic Romans killed no more than a few thousand Christians. In contrast, over the course, of the next 1,500 years, Christians slaughtered Christians by the millions, to defend slightly different interpretations of the religion of love and compassion.”
During “the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, (of 1572) between 5,000 and 10,000 Protestants were slaughtered in less than twenty-four hours. When the pope in Rome heard the news from France, he was so overcome by joy that he organised festive prayers to celebrate the occasion and commissioned Giorgio Vasari to decorate one of the Vatican’s rooms with a fresco of the massacre (the room is currently off-limits to visitors,” and the fresco pretty gory!). “More Christians were killed by fellow Christians in those twenty-four hours than by the polytheistic Roman Empire throughout its entire existence.”
And Christians have been killing Christians and others ever since when their political causes outweighed their faith, or when they dragooned their faith into the service of their politics. And the church itself has often been complicit in this as it sought to protect itself, to preserve its own power and influence rather than live the life or even die the death of the one we claim to follow.
Let’s not pretend that Christianity as we have known it is the panacea for the world’s ills. It was a supposedly Christian country that sent Captain James Cook to claim the lands of Terra Australis incognita for Britain, an act that led to the genocide of the native inhabitants of Tasmania, every last man, woman and child of them. It was a supposedly Christian country that engaged in the slave trade; Christians who gave us apartheid in South Africa and segregation in the United States. I could go on, but I won’t. It is not the past but the future that must most concern us.
In this advent season as we continue through the Christian story we await the coming of the Christ child. In that child is the very epitome of humility, of vulnerability, of need. In that child is the very antithesis of overweening power, of violence, of strength, forcefulness, and self-preservation.
If the church is to have a positive role in shaping whatever is ahead of us, then we must recapture the humility of the Christ child who grew into one who wept alongside the weeping, who valued the marginalised. We must recapture the humility of one who was seen by at least some of his earliest followers as walking in the footsteps of Isaiah’s suffering servant who would not break a bruised reed nor snuff out a flickering flame in his desire to bring justice to the world.
Can there ever be a church which follows this Jesus? Can there ever be a church which follows the Jesus who kneels at the feet of his friends and forgives his enemies rather than rules from a throne with an army and all the trappings of power?
There can be such a church, I believe. But it will not look like it has looked in our lifetimes. It will not sit at the tables of power, it will not wield the levers of government, and it may not even have its great symbols of power that are its great churches and cathedrals. It may instead act as the yeast in the mix, as the seed that grows secretly, as the light in the darkness.
We may have to employ the methods of freedom fighters, but using love instead of violence as the means to our ends, acting in cells and small groups, linked together only by our commitment to service, to compassion and to justice. We may plant seeds of loving kindness in our communities or we may nurture those that others, even beyond the Christian story, have planted. We will seek out the good in the world and rejoice in it; seek out the injustice and challenge it; seek out hatred and counter it. We will make common cause with others who do the same, whether they share our faith, hold to another or have none. Love will be our watchword, not power. Love will be our watchword, not status. Love will be our watchword, not influence.
“Love shall be our token,
love be yours and love be mine;
love to God and others,
love for plea and gift and sign.” (Christina Rosetti)
The future, now, is the time, if humanity has to write a new overarching story, for Christianity to take its place in the world like a child in the manger, subversive of power; like a family given no shelter, on the outside of influence; like a refugee, lacking a stake in society.
In this Advent season and beyond, may a little child lead us.