War, Identity and Home
If a certain tendency, in at least some parts of the world, to over self-confidence in our advanced state as modern human beings needed any puncturing, the events of the last weeks must surely have let a considerable amount of air out of these tyres.
The images and reports from Ukraine have seamlessly overridden those of Covid-19 on media outlets across the world, and our thoughts and prayers this morning are with all those who are suffering as a result of the current barbarities whether in Ukraine, Yemen, Afghanistan or the many other parts of the world in turmoil.
It seems incredible, but the post-1989 dream of the end of the Cold War which some of us will remember all too well has been rolled back in the space of a couple of weeks.
And, having grown up in the Cold War, this recent bi-polar history is still very much present to me. I remember writing an assignment on Karl Marx’s theory of history on that very same day in November, the 9th of November 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell.
It seemed like a new world had dawned, and indeed it had. The end to a bi-polar social order, which had characterised the post-Second World War period, appeared to have arisen out of the ashes of the old Soviet Empire, in the form of a new vision of globalisation. Yet, hot on its heels came another sinister world order of religiously inspired terrorism following the 9/11 bombings and their echoings in xenophobic killings, of sadly all too many religious and indeed secular varieties.
If progress is indeed a myth, as many have recently argued, it has been a powerful one, capturing modern imaginations through art, literature and science; and, not only modern imaginations.
In the era of the biblical patriarchs, the vision of progress was equally attractive. The vision addressed to Abraham, or Abram as he is called at this stage of the Genesis narrative, is equally a myth of progress towards a “very great reward”. The reward of the land of Canaan and of blood heirs as many as the stars in the night sky.
As Christians reading this today it is difficult not to have our imaginations illuminated by a “myth of progress”. ‘All shall be well and all manner of things shall be well,’ seems a motif as old as the canonical texts of all of the great axial civilisations with their promises of the dawn of new social orders of prosperity, order and peace: “To your descendants, I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates”, as the reading from Genesis at Mattins puts it in the context of the dream of the land of Israel.
The promise of a land to call one’s own, of offspring to carry on one’s name and of a social order enabling a secure citizenship is a vision empowering universal myths of progress, which religious traditions and secular ideologies, past, present and no doubt future will tend to foster; and not without good reason.
Why else would we take human history seriously? If it is not heading somewhere, what is the point of it? Are we simply too afraid to admit that if the myth of progress is but a fairy tale that we tell ourselves in order to avoid admitting the ultimate banality of time, then not only will our self-confidence in the myth of progress deflate, but perhaps even the confidence we have in the idea of civilization itself might be undermined. And then what is to stop barbarity taking over as the new ‘social disorder’, a contemporary ‘rule of the jungle.’
And, whilst it is true, as Ghandi so pointedly put it in his response to the question of what he thought about western civilization, in replying that he thought it would be a good idea; it nevertheless remains that, a good idea, and not only for the so-called western or minority world as it is now called.
The whole planet needs a good idea to inspire it; an idea to inspire women and men to good actions for others; to struggle to find solutions to our climate emergency, to end discrimination in all of its forms, and to meet all of the global challenges that we face.
Even the Pharisees seem to be on message, in our Gospel for today at least. They uncharacteristically tell Jesus to “leave this place and to go somewhere else” because Herod is out to kill him. Moreover, Jesus himself is clearly ‘goal directed’ as he has his sights set on Jerusalem, since, he must “press on today and tomorrow and the next day—for surely no prophet can die outside Jerusalem!”
The promise of the land, represented by its capital Jerusalem, and the offspring out of the blood of the ‘white robed army of the prophets’ and martyrs from Abel onwards, clearly also inspired Jesus in his Lukan mission of bringing all God’s children together like a “hen gathering her chicks under her wings”.
So, do we Christians have a problem with naively buying into the universal myth of progress against the actual truth of the violent reminders of the realism of history, whether it be in Ukraine, in the Shoah, or in the countless pandemics, plagues and wars throughout human history?
Well, we might; if we do not also listen to the message of the reading from Philippians concerning the true nature of the land and blessings promised to us.
As Philippians puts it,
“Our citizenship is in heaven”, a new land opened up for us by our saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ. The land, promised to us, is the land of the kingdom of heaven. A land that is both here and not here, now and still yet to come. A place where the historical myth of progress, beloved of world civilisations is inaugurated and truly fulfilled.
It is a land inhospitable to those who “live as enemies of the cross of Christ”, as it means destruction for their dreams and hopes of a land to call their own. This is not because God wills them to be homeless, or to be disadvantaged, but because, it is a vision of a land, a vision of progress built on “earthly things”: “their god is their stomach and their glory is their shame”, as the Letter to the Philippians puts it.
True progress, as revealed, inaugurated and consummated by the death, resurrection and final return of Christ, lies not in building a lasting kingdom based on earthly power, but rather one built on the divine power of love.
This idea of progress overcomes not by brute force, but rather by the force of love. It reveals a legitimate and God-given desire for a homeland where we can truly flourish, because all can flourish in peace and security: the true homeland of the kingdom of God.
Because of this, the myth of progress was never really a fairy tale. Whilst it had, and always will have, corrupt elements in it where we reach out selfishly to grab a patch of this land for ourselves, even with these inevitable impurities it is nevertheless the animating vision of history for Christians.
Time, and its story, history, is the meeting of God’s eternal Word in Creation with Creation. It is an unfolding drama of the dynamic encounter of the Creation with the kingdom of this divine Word.
The bringing of Abram out of Ur to the land of Canaan, the sending of the divine Son as Jesus the man, and the ultimate consummation of history in His glorious body at the end of time are all chapters of the true story of progress, to which we as Christians should subscribe.
Without this, we can easily be hoodwinked into following other myths, other stories of history, whether of the optimistic or of the pessimistic variety. The story of the unfolding of the kingdom is neither. It is, on the contrary, true realism, the ground of reality and the source of our hope which inspires us to participate in God’s transforming action in history.
We pray that this kingdom, this vision of progress may come for our sisters and brothers of Ukraine, of Russia and of the whole world.
Fr Tony Carroll, Tutor, College of the Resurrection