Reason for the Season, 2

Three things go by the name of Christmas…. a religious festival…. a popular holiday…. the commercial racket.”

C.S. Lewis, “What Christmas Means to Me”, in God in the Dock.

Observing this year’s Christmas hubbub, I am more convinced than ever that the whole origin and meaning of “Christmas” is sliding more steeply and deeply down the slope to cultural irrelevance. 

In “What Christmas Means to Me”, Lewis points out that seventy years ago the “second Christmas”, the popular holiday, still had “complex historical connections with the first”, and the two together gave people a good “occasion for merry-making and hospitality” – which he had no objection to!

Things have moved on considerably since Lewis’s time.  Of the “three things called Christmas”, we now observe but two in the generality of culture and people’s awareness of why we have a “Holiday Season” at all.  As Lewis says, few object to throwing a good party and being hospitable, at least for a few cheery days of the year – all the more as we deal with the onset of the long cold and lengthy nights of winter (as we experience it here in the great white north, anyway).

What do you note people saying, if anything, in reference to the “Holiday Season” and any particular reason for celebrating it?  Is it anything more than “merry-making” for the sake of merry-making and plunging into the tide of the “commercial racket” so you won’t be classified with Uncle Scrooge or the Grinch?  Certainly it is a good custom for family and friends to gather to symbolically demonstrate love and affection and concern for one another – although this year this is problematic. 

There is no denying that we need some cultural markers to allow us reasons and ways to be together to support one another and experience some more intimate human community.  So even if there is no Jesus factor involved, a merry-making and gift-giving binge once or twice a year is not a bad thing.  As Lewis said, no need to be the party-pooper harping away at telling everyone they are missing the real point – although it is appropriate to mention the birth of Yeshua-Jesus now and then as a reminder.

But, without Jesus, beyond the binge and after the bloating indigestion, mega-sugar-crash, and fortified  eggnog and other spirits hangover, what was it about?  Fantasizing about Santa and goodwill to all people for some vague reason?  Receiving some gifts that symbolize a love which is usually neglected in practice?  Feeling a nice glow for a few days but then crashing back into the loneliness or shallowness of regular life for most of the rest of the year?

Think about what all that maudlin Santa-elogizing and schmaltzy glitter and twitter really says.  What about all that “Commercial Racketeering”?  “Things are given as presents which no mortal ever bought for himself—gaudy useless gadgets, ‘novelties’ because no one was ever fool enough to make their like before,” as Lewis described it.  “Long before December 25th everyone is worn out—physically… by weeks of daily struggle in overcrowded shops, mentally… by the effort to remember all the right recipients and… suitable gifts for them.”

Lewis recognizes that for many businesses, the whole thing “is good for trade” and they can’t survive without it.  The whole thing is topsy-turvy.  Tongue-in-cheek, he suggests that it would be more meaningful to just tell the businesses to shut down and give the shopkeepers charitable donations.  (Hmm-sounds like 2020…)

Meanwhile what have we made of “Christmas”?  it is now a mostly shapeless cultural lump called “the Holiday Season” in which we wish one another a vapid “Happy Holiday(s)” according to whatever you choose to make it mean.  “And so this is Christmas, and what have we done?” asked John Lennon in one of my all-time favourite Christmas songs.

Without the (shudder) “religion”,  the merry-making is actually poisoned by the gross usurpation of what was once a joyous but reverent celebration of the coming into the world of the very Person and Being of God in the flesh of a human baby over two thousand years ago in an animal shelter in the village of Bethlehem in ancient Judea.  No amount of gooey sentimentality and nostalgia for a fuzzy lost innocence of bright hope for something eternal to be born in us can ever substitute.

To be sure, there are remnants of Jesus, or “the Christ-child”, still invoked or slid in among the multitude of cloying old and new “Christmas music” and trendy films about happy-ever-after love-finding or old hurts being reconciled somehow miraculously.  An angel may glide in here and there too, or a nod to a little shepherd-boy or gentle farm-animals lowing softly at a baby in a manger.  But who understands what these oblique references are even about now?

It’s a daring and risky school pageant that allows anything like the Bethlehem story to appear.

How do we return to joy in all this, especially when the year ending that has been so full of gloomy-doomy shadows?  At least, for the most part, the “crowded shops” that wear us out have been far less wearing.  And, if this year of shadow has had an positive effect on our spirits, it might be that we are more open to considering why we are here in the first place.  And so, why can’t we say “Merry Christmas” without worrying that it might offend someone’s hypersensitivity to a specific Christian festival in a culture that was largely built by professing Christians?  I have met Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists who are less hung up about it than many Christians.  And they could care less what the militant secularists think if they say it.  Can we face the shallowness of what we now think and do and believe about the real meaning of so much in our Western cultural jungle, including the Reason for this Season?

Thank you for the seventy-year old reminder, Professor Lewis!

Merry Christmas, and may God’s peace (shalom) fill you up unto overflowing so that you can’t help passing it to others!

Reason for the Season, 1

This week and for one or two more, World.V.You will take a short break from the ongoing series “Inconvenient Conscience” (see the previous ten posts in the Archives).  We are rapidly approaching both Christmas and the end of the memorable year 2020.  At Christmas-time, faithful readers might appreciate a break from the usual sort of articles found on this site, and it is a good time to turn to thoughts about the “reason for the season”.

What is that reason?  That question is more relevant than ever in 2020 and in this season of our society’s and culture’s development.

Many Westerners are now so secularized that they barely recognize that “the Holiday Season”, “Yuletide”, etc., are substitute names for “Christmas” – a term now somehow often considered offensive in the public forum and even much commercial advertising.  “Christmas” is an old religious term derived from the public celebration of the birth of Christ, but even in that we miss something of the historical origin of what was a central event in the Western calendar for almost 1500 years.

“Christ” is not a personal name, but a title transcribed from Greek, Kristos – the Anointed, the Chosen of God.  The Greek term translates the Hebrew word Mashiach (Messiah) – which is also a title meaning exactly the same thing.  Both words point to the same person whose birth the “Christ Mass” commemorated and celebrated with proper and due joy and solemnity for Christians – the followers of the one whose birth is the real “Reason for the Season”.

Jesus “Christ” is, in his humanity, Yeshua ben-Yosef of Natzeret, a humble Jewish village in Galilee of northern Israel.  You can still go visit this place.  His parents were very humble folk in ancient Israel two thousand years ago, but their ancestry joined them both in direct line of succession to the most celebrated King in ancient Israeli history – David of Bethlehem. 

The human Jesus story was never really lost over the last two thousand-plus years since that humble birth took place, but over time it was obscured and heavily overlaid with opaque layers of piety.  The story of this man’s extraordinary life and death became the stuff of legend and initiated startling change in both the History of Israel and that of the wider world into which it became inextricably woven.  Yeshua the man morphed into a semi-mythological being called “Christ” and for centuries all but disappeared behind a wall of theology, liturgy, and ritual.  The wall was built and maintained by usually well-meaning people, mostly men, who became its keepers and guardians, protecting it against questioners and unorthodox thinkers and practitioners.  To reach the man-god behind the wall and actually have a relationship with him became harder and harder.  It was easier to find proxies (priests and saints) who could stand in less exalted posts which ordinary sinners could approach without fear of immediate thunderous judgment and rejection as unworthy.

The last hundred and more years have seen an ongoing “quest for the historical Jesus” among Biblical scholars and archeologists and many others from almost every discipline thinkable in academia.  But, like so many demythologization campaigns, the actual, historical truth which undergirds the myth and the wall and, in the case of Jesus-Yeshua, the theology, has all too often rejected even the real man, or buried him under even more levels of obscurity in attempting to shed anything that does not fit the new framework (theology?) of rationalist empiricism.

The central meaning of the story, as it swiftly emerged from the events of his life, death, and reputed resurrection from the dead, is simple when accepted as it was told by his earliest followers.  The man Yeshua was in fact the incarnate Son of Israel’s God, the One God, the only God, the very Creator of the universe and all that is.  He had been promised to the first humans as a Saviour and Redeemer to restore humanity’s broken relationship with and estrangement from the Creator.  As such, he was the heir of King David, and thus the rightful King of Israel, but he was not to make Israel the new world superpower overwhelming all the nations with judgment and wrath, but to bring universal peace, reconciliation, and restoration between God and humanity, and among all humans, and between humanity and the broken creation.

The story continues.  Yeshua demonstrated who he was/is by the works he did and the things he taught.  He was rejected and killed by crucifixion by both the Jewish leaders and the Roman authorities.  His death was freely accepted by him and was, in fact, the once-and-for-all sacrifice for all the sin and brokenness brought into the whole Kosmos by the rebellion of humankind since its first days and by its first progenitors.  God confirmed what that death meant and accomplished by raising his Son from death on the third day after his execution-murder.  Before he returned to his Father, Yeshua-Jesus commissioned his disciples to go out into the world and preach, teach, and demonstrate the coming of his Kingdom, a new kind of Kingdom called the Kingdom of God.  Its characteristics include love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control.  It seeks no earthly dominion except over people’s hearts.  It welcomes anyone who seeks it and will follow Yeshua-Jesus as Lord.

The story of Yeshua fits no other parameters in human history, philosophy, or ideology.  In fact, it redefines the parameters of human history and society.  Many attempts have been made to explain away its miraculous aspects, especially the resurrection.  These are declared by dubious scholars to be later accretions and pious (or even malicious) fabrications.  They are even categorized as a continuation of pagan and Oriental mythico-theology of a dying and rising god(dess) as the personification of the cycle of being, the wheel of existence.  But all these attempts to wave aside Jesus utterly fail, for they all run into the same adamantine wall – the evidence-based claim that was there from the very first that Yeshua really and truly and physically rose from the grave alive and transformed into an incorruptible but still recognizable human being.

Thus we arrive at all the modern and postmodern relativistic probing and questing, desperately trying to elicit a non-miraculous “historical” Jesus from the original events.  This despite the fact that, as the Apostle Paul told the Roman Governor Festus and the Jewish King Agrippa II, “these things did not happen in a back alley” but in front of hundreds and even thousands of eye witnesses.  Every rationalization of these things hits the wall of Good Friday followed by Easter Sunday.

Christmas is a special time and event fully worth celebrating in its proper context as the recognition that God sent His Son to live among us to show us how to live in restored relationship with our Creator.  But in and of itself it is not enough.  It is not the whole story and cannot be understood and truly absorbed into the heart or change the soul without its completion in Good Friday and Easter Sunday.

Otherwise, it is just a nice cultural tradition we use to gather together, eat good food, say nice things, and have nice family times hoping to support one another and trying to be nicer to one another for a few days in the year.

Santa the merry elf is a poor substitute for the King of Kings and Prince of Peace bringing His Kingdom of righteousness, shalom, and joy.

Inconvenient Conscience, 10 – Turning Around, 6 – England and Slavery

“With regards to myself, I have nothing whatsoever to urge, but the poor Publican’s plea, “God be merciful to me a sinner.”” – William Wilberforce, July 11, 1833 – eighteen days before his death. 

Quoted in William Wilberforce by Robert Furneaux, Regent College Publishing, 2005 edition, p. 453.

“IN AN AGE AND COUNTRY FERTILE IN GREAT AND GOOD MEN,

HE WAS AMONG THE FOREMOST WHO FIXED THE CHARACTER OF THEIR TIMES

BECAUSE TO HIGH AND VARIOUS TALENTS,

TO WARM BENEVOLENCE, AND TO UNIVERSAL CANDOUR,

HE ADDED THE ABIDING ELOQUENCE OF A CHRISTIAN LIFE.

EMINENT AS HE WAS IN EVERY DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC LABOUR,

AND A LEADER IN EVERY WORK OF CHARITY,

WHETHER TO RELIEVE THE TEMPORAL OR SPIRITUAL WANTS OF HIS FELLOW MEN

HIS NAME WILL BE SPECIALLY IDENTIFIED

WITH THOSE EXERTIONS

WHICH, BY THE BLESSING OF GOD, REMOVED FROM ENGLAND

THE GUILT OF THE AFRICAN SLAVE TRADE,

AND PREPARED THE WAY FOR THE ABOLITION OF SLAVERY

IN EVERY COLONY OF THE EMPIRE…

Excerpt from the epitaph inscribed on the base of Wilberforce’s statue in Westminster Abbey

We occasionally find instances of national repentance accompanied by a substantial change of culture and society in the Bible.  With one exception, they occurred in ancient Israel and the southern Kingdom of Judah.  They also came “from the top down”, so to speak, being initiated primarily by royal decree. 

The one prominent Biblical example of a Gentile nation repenting is found in the Book of Jonah, when, to Jonah’s chagrin, the pagan Assyrians, the most terrible aggressors and terrors of the ancient Near East in the ninth to seventh centuries BCE, listened to Jonah, an Israelite prophet, and repented in sackcloth and ashes.  The Assyrians begged the mercy and forgiveness of the “God of Heaven” – Israel’s God – lest they be brought to death and utter ruin.  From the evidence of archeology and Biblical scholarship, the Book of Jonah appears to be authentic to the culture and historical and religious context of the period 785-770 BCE, when it is best dated.

In the History of the West where “Christendom” once prevailed, we find that the same sort of “top-down” leadership seems necessary for a nation to truly turn around (“repent”) from its dissolute and destructive course.  There may be an exception or two out there, but they do not come to mind as I write this.  Our previous case study of Germany started that way. 

This post will consider the seismic shift which occurred in English and British culture beginning in the late 18th and on into the first half of the 19th Centuries.

For the last hundred years it has been easy and fashionable to satirise and even mock the “Victorian Era” as a funless, humorless age when official morality and censoriousness stifled personal self-expression.  Asked for one-word descriptions of British culture in that century, we frequently hear pundits and commentators use “prudish”, “intolerant”, and “racist”.

Without debating the justice of such sobriquets, what is the “real deal” about why Britain moved into such a morally and socially “unprogressive” (by anachronistic 21st Century standards) state?  It’s very hard for people such as ourselves to wrap our heads around the answer, and many, perhaps even a majority of post-Christian, post-modern Westerners are likely incapable of crediting it.  I suspect that even many professing Christians of our time accept the now stereotypical characterization of that age in Britain and much of the West as supremely judgmental and closed-minded, following Britain’s lead.

Given our opening quotes, the reader will justly suspect that the answer I propose has to do with William Wilberforce.  That extraordinary Englishman, still venerated in the former British colonies in the Caribbean as “the Great Liberator” (although there is strong resistance to that description even there now) and entombed in Westminster Abbey, the ultimate recognition of national greatness in Great Britain, certainly played a huge role in the dual transformation of the general British society and the British Empire of his time and several generations following, with remnants of that change still functioning.

Here is an illustration of our age’s revulsion from the whole ethos that produced that moral and social revolution.  Not long ago my beloved and I were viewing an episode of the BBC series “The History of Britain”.  The episode was concerned with the late 18th and early 19th Century.  The eminent British historian narrating was fascinated by the rise of Romanticism and the ferment produced by the French Revolution and the beginnings of the struggle of the working class and women for rights.  I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop: “But what about slavery and the slave trade?  What about the movement for moral transformation that was paired with it?  What about that, Simon?” 

It was fine to analyse those other aspects of the age, but the absence of the number one internal imperial issue had become a yawning abyss.  Then, just as the episode was ending, the slaves were suddenly free and there was a nod in the direction of “the Church and the Chapels” as somehow having had something to do with it.  And that was all!  Astonishing! 

William Wilberforce and his and his monumental group effort and their prodigious forty-year campaign were invisible.  Not a word about the man declared “the greatest living Englishman” all over Europe during his lifetime, and the “the greatest Englishman of the 19th Century” later by the considered opinion of British historians!  How does a first-rank historian deliberately neglect and avoid something so enormous in a well-regarded media production?  How does it slide by the BBC, let alone the great mass of modern media-consumers undetected?

I see this neglect as a manifestation of both the modernist materialist perspective that moral and spiritual motivations cannot be true primary causes of any great change, but are masks, disguises for power, money, and reason, which are always the underlying real motivators of any group and individual claiming they are acting for moral and spiritual reasons.  Now we also add the fear of offending someone or other if we let the old Christian influence back into the public sphere in any way – even if only by recognition of its previous importance in public and private life, perhaps for fear and horrific idea that we might see it come back.

Today in this blog is not the place to debate this.  Today we are merely noting that in the England and British Empire of the late 18th and early 19th Centuries, the moral and spiritual motivations manifested themselves as the determining forces in excising the most pernicious practice of that age, and perhaps of all history, from the commercial, social, and moral fabric of the then greatest power on earth.  The influence of that mighty work led to a radical (in the true sense of “right to the root”) transformation which percolated into political and social progress of the most substantial kind, changes which launched the very progressive world we have come to expect, with a social conscience and expectation that it is the job of rulers to seek the general welfare and to reach a helping hand to the most downtrodden.

All of this is an enormous topic.  Repentance was at its core, and actions following testified to the reality.  All luminary claims that these immense changes stemmed from the Enlightenment, shunting the obscurantist “religious enthusiasts” to the side as obstructing rather than leading in all these struggles are irrelevant to the actual historical record. 

Guilty conscience over the terrible inhumanity and atrocious degradation of whole sectors of humanity based on race and class had to be reawakened, and the powerful brought to shame and acceptance of guilt – at least a critical mass thereof.  It was the work of William Wilberforce and his growing army of collaborators who undertook this impossible-looking task.  And they won the hearts of the masses along the way with their practical demonstration and savvy campaign strategies. 

We will not rehash this story.  It is extremely well documented and remains readily available and researchable for any who care to seek it out.

Like every long-lived nation and society, England and Great Britain have many sins and failings to repent of, and some they have.  In this instance, it was done and, on the whole, well done, although, of course, not perfectly.

The story of real revolution that makes change deep and long-lasting is not that of political violence and upheaval mass vengeance taken by under-classes against elites and overlords.  That is the usual picture of history, but the universal record of such reversals is the eventual, and usually quite precipitate replacement of one set of tyrants by a new set and a new regime just as monstrous, if not moreso, as the old soon oppressing the new underclass.

In his England in 1815: The History of the English People in the Nineteenth Century, Elie Halevy, an eminent French historian (1870-1937) declared that England was spared the terrible upheaval of revolution and class warfare which had swept Europe because of the virtually miraculous transformation of its society through the efforts and influence of its Christian reformers.  Although a pretty small minority, they were the leaven in the lump which allowed the English to ride out the waves of violence and mass destruction and slaughter and emerge as the world’s superpower.  Halevy was a Jew, not a Christian.  His “objective” analysis and interpretation (as objective as any could be, at any rate) was widely accepted, although it has since been drowned out by a more “rational, scientific” way of seeing things through “hard facts and statistics”.

The trouble with facts, statistics or other, is that their interpretation is always through the lens of worldview.  But in the case of England’s repentance and transformation, the statistics point even more powerfully to the power of the spirit operating within the reformers than to a “hard-nosed” argument from economic and political “inevitability”.

Next time, Canada in the Dock.

Inconvenient Conscience, 9 – Turning Around, 5 – The USA

“Everything clarified and articulated becomes visible…. Why avoid, when avoidance necessarily and inevitably poisons the future?”

Jordan Peterson, 12 Rules for Life, an Antidote to Chaos, Random House Canada, 2018.  pp. 272-3.

As we saw last time, Germany’s successful emergence from its terrible past and dark night of the soul is a signpost of hope.  As per Peterson’s insight above, Germany allowed its desperate soul-sickness to be articulated, to be clearly declared in full light of day.  Once it was confessed, real steps became possible and were and continue to be taken in turning things around.  In large part, they have succeeded.  Failing to do so would have poisoned Germany’s future for generations.  Germany’s repentance is shown in action to have been real and genuine.  The Germany of the last thirty years has been Europe’s anchor rather than its terror.  Its most ancient and bitter foe, France, is now its closest ally and firmest friend.

While never condoning the 100 million (including in Asia) or so deaths directly attributable to those wars, we can see one good thing to have come out of the horror of World Wars 1 and 2 – Germany’s substantial redemption.  (Until the final wrap-up of all things by the Creator, everything is partial, even the best things.)  As Saul/Paul of Tarsus wrote to the ekklesia in ancient Corinth almost two thousand years ago:

“We know, you see, in part; we prophesy in part; but with perfection, the partial is abolished…. For at the moment all that we can see are puzzling reflections in a mirror; then [at the great culmination], face to face.  I know in part, for now; but then I’ll know completely, through and through.” (First letter to the Corinthians, Chapter 13, verses 9 and 12. 

The Kingdom New Testament, a Contemporary Translation, N.T. Wright, 2011.

As to the rest of the West, we have not seen such a turn-around, such a turning about, such a recognition of having so terribly missed the mark and needing to repent, needing to lean in a new direction and actively take a different path.  Perhaps, as we watch with fascination the increasing signs of the unravelling world order largely created by the Western victors of the World Wars, we are approaching the reckoning.  Or, more optimistically, perhaps we are the threshold of an awakening of the spirit, in the Spirit.  Every crisis is also an opportunity.  It need not be for evil to take charge.

When it comes to candidates of nations with deep, unresolved, unrepented sins buried in the closet, or even having come out of the closet but still not dealt with, there is no lack of examples we could pick and choose.  As a white Canadian, I could quickly sketch out a list for my own homeland and its European-stock population, as could my Canadian readers.  Take, for example, our utter, shameful, and so far unpardonable failure in dealing justly with our Native Peoples.  And, as a Canadian, that is perhaps what would be proper for me to do.  After all, “People who live in glass houses should not throw stones at others.”  And then there is, “Before you go taking the speck out of your neighbour’s eye, take the log out of your own,” – a saying of Jesus, by the way, and one which Canadian lumberjacks can appreciate.

According to international perceptions, Canada is a model of progressive multiculturalism and accommodating, inclusive pluralism.  So non-Canadians (and even some Canadians) might yawn from lack of interest in dissecting the internal squabbles of a minor state such as Canada.  While I am well aware of the possible impropriety of picking on someone else, we will take the United States as our next case-study while reserving the right to deal with Canada later.

After all, the USA is the leader of the democratic world, the self-acclaimed “land of the free and home of the brave”, the “cradle of democracy”.  For over 240 years the USA has touted itself as the “champion of the oppressed and down-trodden”.  It is not hard for outsiders, and even many Americans, to poke eighteen-wheeler sized holes in these brash declarations.  But Americans have been bold about wearing these labels and dressing in these cloaks since 1776, when the “Founding Fathers” signed and proclaimed the Declaration of Independence in breaking from the “Mother Country” of Great Britain.

So let’s just consider the Declaration’s opening statement: “We hold these truths to be self-evident – that all men are created equal, that all men are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness…” – except… Africans and African-Americans, Native peoples, Latinos… 

The Founding Fathers themselves did not really believe what they said, as much as some were probably at least consciously quite sincere in saying it.  It is the hidden (and for some of them not hidden at all) reservation beneath the high rhetoric that, from the very first, cracked the Liberty Bell and undermined the very cornerstone of the nation’s constitution.  In 1776 and 1787, the problem was reserved for future resolution, but never resolved.  Instead, as Jordan Peterson put it, it was systematically avoided by the vast majority, left unclarified or excused, obfuscated instead of clearly articulated—until it produced the inevitable result Peterson states: it poisoned the future.  It continues to poison the US.  Even the Civil War did not really lance the boil and extract the poison.  And so the race issue continues to do its devastation, having set profound hooks in the nation’s very soul from the very beginning.

The second profound flaw that took root in that now distant time was class domination, apart from race, but inextricable with it.  Of course, class distinctions in human societies have existed for thousands of years.  They seem to be an innate aspect of fallen, mark-missing human nature, despite all the ideal scenarios human ingenuity can imagine.

It’s not that there has been no repentance or attempt to reconcile in the USA.  There have been some valiant initiatives to undo the most serious consequences of the sins of the Fathers.  For example, in 2019 there were some important ceremonies and activities to repent for and commemorate the four hundredth anniversary of the first importation of African slaves into the British colonies of North America.  So why has American society slid into such a dire state of division and turmoil, apparently even deeper than what we see in other nations of the West?

There is no perfect or scientific answer to such questions, and no one alive (apart from the Resurrected One who will someday give the answers) has the wisdom to unravel it all and find the perfect road out.  Abraham Lincoln might have been that person, at least a Pathfinder, but he was martyred shortly after giving the most splendid oration of his career (the Second Inaugural) which included the phrases “with malice towards none” and “binding up the wounds of the nation”.  He eschewed the road of revenge and punishment towards the defeated Rebels while signifying that the newly freed African-Americans must now be integrated as full citizens.

His death meant the death of his unique, hard-earned authority to lead the nation on that very path.  Instead, it was vengeance and retaliation which took hold, and ten years later this engendered the return to power of the old southern racist and ruling-class elite bound and determined to both keep the blacks in their place and the poor whites in line through fear of the negro and manipulation.  The industrial magnates and financial plutocrats of the North also played their role in condoning and conniving in the South’s backdoor revenge, for class suppression was in their interest too, and they were no less racist than southerners, just not outright slavers.

Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy might also have been Pathfinders to the way out and up, but they too were martyred and the path since then seems to have reentered the quagmire.

Thus, until the American nation as a substantial whole repents and renounces these sins and their continuing deep racist and elitist class roots and their blatant current manifestations from the heart , forgiveness cannot be asked and given, and true healing cannot begin.  The Southern myth of the noble “Lost Cause” must die.  it remains a deep poison. Northern complicity in that myth must be repented.  We could say the same about the terrible and repeated genocides of American First Nations. 

Without such deep and wrenching measures, which cannot be done in any short time and once truly begun will have to be ongoing and continuous, as Germany as done in its national repentance, the US will not lose its violent, divided heart.  That can only be a work that begins by a massively turning towards the One Being who has the power to move on human hearts and spirits to break the chains of slavery and the festering wounds of unresolved internal conflicts.  It involves surrendering the blame-game and the right to make the other side pay “the last full measure”. 

The example for doing that was given on a small hill on the outskirts of Jerusalem two thousand years ago when the Creator chose to take it all upon Himself in the Person of His incarnate Son, Yeshua/Jesus of Natzeret, rightful heir to the throne of Israel.  Instead, He accepted a crown of thorns and took the full wrath of His own people’s leaders and sins as well as that of the quintessential world empire, Rome, representing all the rest of humanity. 

Instead of saying how He would make them all pay “the last full measure” once His Father vindicated Him and raised Him incorruptible and immortal from the grave, He prayed for His executioners, and for the whole human race, so blind and enslaved by the depth of their “failing to measure up” (hamartia –missing the mark, sin), saying, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.”  Would He have prayed a different prayer even if they had known what they were doing?

If you know Him at all, you know the answer to that question.  Because, let’s admit it, since then, millions and even billions of us have known very well what we’ve been doing, and how wrong it has been and is, and how these things so deeply wound Him, His Father, and those humans we sin against, and the rest of the Creation we sin against by our destruction of it.  But he still offers His full forgiveness “to the last full measure, for the last full measure”, thus robbing us of any right we have to claim it of those who have wronged us.  He has claimed it and paid for all of it, from Eve and Adam to you and me.

To paraphrase a young Swedish maiden, “How dare we!” keep claiming we have a right to extract the last measure of vengeance, of profit regardless of how its getting has made others suffer?  On the other hand, if we will not turn from our wicked ways to the Healer Who can really bring us to the healing we all so desperately need, the Creator will leave us to do our own will to persist in our sin and thus to also experience the terrible consequences thereof.

“Domine, in Tua gratia, misericordiam Tuam nobis da.”  (Old Latin Liturgy – “Lord, in Your grace, give us Your mercy.”

Inconvenient Conscience, 8 – Turning Around, 4 – Germany

If we review the various ages of history, we will see that in every generation the Lord [the Creator God] has offered the opportunity of repentance to any who are willing to turn to him.”

– Clement of Rome at the end of the First Century CE

In 1929, Germany was considered by many Europeans to be the most progressive, civilized, highly educated, and scientifically sophisticated nation in Europe.  Its historical cultural attainments were also highly admired.  Theologically, it was considered the leading Christian nation.

It had been over ten years since the end of the Great War of 1914-18.  Germany had greatly struggled to find itself following the catastrophe of crushing defeat and the ensuing social and political revolution.   The Versailles Peace Treaty had been so vindictive that many Germans were unable to accept all the territorial and financial penalties and limitations on their status as a Great Power which it had imposed.  But as 1929 dawned, it seemed that Germany had adapted and was finding a new future as a peaceful, once-more prospering nation in the international community.

Many Germans were still angry about how the Allies had treated the Fatherland and imposed a diktat which made Germany the scapegoat for all the terrible things that had happened since 1914.  But reasonable, liberal people were leading the country and seemed to have found a road back to respectability and reintegration in the international community.  Even the onerous reparation payments had been renegotiated with the Allies and made more tolerable.  The economy was once more humming, workers were once more getting a living wage for their families, and German culture was once more regaining its leading edge among the enlightened nations of the world.

Then came the Great Crash of October 1929.  Within a year, Germany faced economic Armageddon – six million unemployed in an adult male workforce of about 22 million, millions of pauperized families destitute, thousands of businesses gone, banks going bankrupt, and on and on went the tale of woe. 

The lurking forces of extremism rapidly thrust themselves front and centre after having spent the previous five years in the political wilderness.  A quirky, brooding, charismatic fringe-party leader with a Charlie Chaplin moustache catapulted into national prominence with electrifying oratory and promises of German redemption and the restoration of all Germany’s old, lost greatness. 

His more outlandish views about Jews and other undesirables could be ignored as demagoguery if you didn’t know any better, which 95% of Germans didn’t.  A few restrictions on “those people” wouldn’t hurt anyway, eh?  And if you really thought about it, history and culture really did show that Germany was a superior nation and Germans were superior people – compared to the half-barbarians of the East and the mongrel nations to the south, or even southern France.  The Nordic nations and England were the only countries that could racially compare.

Hitler thundered that Germany had been cheated and betrayed from within by those wretched connivers and manipulators – the Jews and Communists.  Germany had not really lost the Great War because of military defeat; internal enemies had undermined the nation’s effort, sapped morale, and engineered a socialist revolution which still threatened to destroy the German people and rob it of its true destiny.

So went the tale, and, over the next two years, it sounded better and better to millions.  The fiery, hypnotic orator with the funny moustache and mesmerizing eyes looked more and more like the man who could lead them out of their wretched national condition and give regular folks a new chance to have secure jobs and a country able to protect and provide for them.

On January 30, 1933, Adolf Hitler, who had become the most powerful politician in Germany, was constitutionally sworn in as Germany’s Chancellor (Prime Minister) by octogenarian President Field-Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, the icon of the old leadership establishment.  The Old Guard thought they could control and use the ex-corporal; within two months they learned that they could not.  He used and completely outwitted them, and, with Hindenburg dead in August 1934, his hold on power became absolute.  Der Fuhrer had arrived!

Twelve years later in May 1945, Germany lay in utter ruin, along with most of Europe.  The German people had lost at least six million war dead, not counting the “subhumans” previously removed from the population.  The country was completely occupied by the victorious Allies, who quickly fell out among themselves while dividing Germany into two – West and East.  The two halves were fashioned in the image of the occupiers – the democratic, capitalist West, and the Communist, totalitarian East. 

The division ended in 1989 when the Soviet Bloc in Eastern Europe collapsed, the Berlin Wall and Iron Curtain were torn apart, and Germany proclaimed its own reunification.  Some trembled at the thought of a reunited Germany in the heart of a Europe where the old Occupiers had faded away.  The new Germany (Fourth Reich?) was born with a pledge to be democratic, peaceful, and dedicated to cooperating with its neighbours to build a European Community where all were equal and could prosper.  The government swore that the new Germany would never allow the old ultra-nationalism and racism to once more raise its head.  It seemed reassuring that the leading party in Germany was (and still is) the Christian Democratic Union Party.

In contrast to East Germany before reunification, West Germany emerged into prosperity and repentance and reconciliation with its former enemies in the period 1949-89.  Its first Chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, was a deeply committed Christian.  Although the general population of West Germany was still too numb and absorbed with recovery to follow in his spirit for the first twenty years, he led West Germany to full recognition and relationship with the new Israel.  He negotiated generous annual reparation payments to the Jewish state as early as 1951, and reached out to other nations to seek reconciliation. 

From 1965-68, there was a series of West German trials of SS war criminals and Nazi officials who had operated the most notorious death-camp of Auschwitz between 1941 and 1944, and later of other death camps.  This marked the full acceptance in West Germany of what had happened, and taking full responsibility for it within the populace.  From that point on, the people and country embarked on a road to make amends.  After 1989, that effort moved into the former East Germany, however reluctantly, and it continues in all Germany to this day, both by deliberate government policy and at the grass roots level, where it had really begun even before the Frankfurt Trials in the 1960s.

Jesus once said, “By their fruits you will know them.”  We also say, “Actions speak [much] louder than words.”  Germany has produced fruit pointing to the nation’s true repentance.  The Nazi past has been accepted and repudiated; Nazi criminals have been brought to justice; Israel has had firm support and received (and continues to receive) generous reparations to Holocaust survivors and other aid from Germany; Germany has endeavoured to reach out to its neighbours for reconciliation and with practical help; Germany is the backbone of the European Union and has been more than generous in helping the other members when they have been in crisis.

While not every German owns what happened in 1933-45, there is a large majority that do and abhor it.  What can we learn from the German example?  Many things, but we can only mention a few here.

First, pious apologies at an official level for historic wrongs mean little or nothing.  In the last two decades, it has become a bit of “a thing” for Western governments to issue official apologies to ethnically oppressed and victimized minorities, throwing conscience money along.  Here in Canada successive federal governments have apologized to all kinds of groups and minorities for racism and neglect and victimization by the majority European stock population over the last four centuries.  But does this signal repentance and a real acceptance of and desire for it?  The lack of meaningful action that leaves so much as it has been suggests otherwise.

Some other states have done better at this than Canada.  Some have done less.  None have approached Germany’s effort.  What is the missing ingredient?

Repentance!  And how does one truly repent?  That comes from within, in and of the spirit, the full acceptance of what an awakened conscience shouts at our hearts.  It cannot be contrived by an intellectual process or a superficial emotional response of regret and remorse.  Political posturing does not constitute repentance, as necessary as political action is at the national level.  In Germany, there was, from the beginning of the movement, an underlying spiritual movement.  It came out of the country’s long-neglected Christian roots. 

Repentance is not a “one and done” deal.  It is an inner disposition which initiates and sustains action over the long haul.  After all, “sin” (missing the mark, falling short, committing moral offence) is a problem that has to be dealt with all the time since we all continue to miss the mark.  When we are speaking of the sins of a nation, the terrible damage runs very deep and very wide.  The repentance must be commensurate with the offence.

There remain at least two major aspects of this subject to discuss before we conclude.

Next time, we will look at some other national situations in the light of what we have noted so far in this exploration.

Finally, we will apply whatever we have gleaned to the individual, personal level.

Inconvenient Conscience, 7 – Turning Around, 3 – Repentance

 “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand/nearby/right here/among you/in your midst/within.” –

an expanded translation of the meaning of what Yeshua/Jesus said about beginning to change one’s life and seek the Creator.

We now come to a very hard word for our ears to hear and our Post-modern minds to accept: Repentance.  This word is encrusted with religious connotations which our culture has generally rejected.  There is no substitute or synonym which conveys its basically simple meaning without all the baggage rife with religious judgmentalist connotations.  It is not the same as sorrow or regret or remorse, which are basically passive responses.  To “get it” we have to revert to etymology and the New Testament (koine) Greek word it translates so poorly.

The English word is imported from French – (se) repentir, la repentance – which in turn is derived from Latin poenitere.  The prefix “re-“ refers to a repeated action, not a single one.  The French pentir(e) refers to a leaning posture.  Thus repent(ir) is to turn or change a direction to its opposite, to turn back, to turn around.  The Latin is very close in meaning to the Greek verb – metaneō – to turn (right) around, to go in the opposite direction.  The French originally retained the sense of the Latin, having been directly derived from it.  The English is thus third-hand and, as we noted, has morphed into a caricature of the original.

Repentance is therefore an action, an active, ongoing posture. It is not a one-and-done deal, although it must begin sometime, somewhere with a positive decision, followed by the act of turning away from the destructive way to the positive, life-giving way.

The English word “sin” comes from Old English and its Saxon roots.  Its meaning is the same as that of words in other languages designating a religious and/or moral violation which offends God or the gods.  The Greek word is hamartia, and, while it means “sin” it denotes and connotes “missing the mark/target”, falling short of the desired goal.  Thus, it is not exclusively about religious or moral fault.

Why belabour the semantics of words which are out of vogue and are among the new “four-letter words” in our brave new progressive West?  (Meanwhile, the old “four-letter words” have become cultural mainstream.)  Simply, our relegation of such things to the dim fringe of our language and conceptual framework is one more symptom of our deliberate cultural and moral impoverishment. 

Do we really have to talk about “sin” and “repentance”?  Who today believes people are “sinners” other than religious fanatics?  As for moral standards, we all know they are quite malleable and can be legislated to suit the newest and latest research from psychology, anthropology, sociology, and moral philosophy – or even bio-genetics, physics, and chemistry.  Moral guilt?  I suppose we still need some semblance of that to assign blame for anti-social acts.  But an anti-social act is itself conceptually a changeable thing according to evolving popular standards.  Heck!  Professors professing the wrong set of ideas in university, or even playing devil’s advocate in a discussion, may be guilty of anti-social acts these days!  (So much for the great commission of the universities to explore truth with some sort of objectivity!)

Meanwhile, in the back reaches of our souls, the little inner voice still whispers, “But you know you are a sinner, that you have been and are immoral.  You know there really are right and wrong things, things in your mind and that you actually do which really should change, however much they can be rationalized and temporized by your own inclinations and the wink-winking of society.”

The debate within goes on, poked alive from time to time – maybe by one of those religious-types or some passing reference in a show or a book or a magazine.  Old terms like “(in)equity” and “(in)justice” still evoke moral outrage, whatever they may now be directed at. 

And then the “celestial spark” flares up at you and irritates you:  “When you took that little thing at work, you know it was stealing, eh?  When you lied that little black lie to your partner or your boss to cover up, it was a lie.  When you tell yourself your drinking, recreational drug-use, gambling, and porn “dabbling” are not really hurting anyone else, you know damn well that’s so untrue.  When you go out on another shopping binge and spend way beyond your discretionary spending budget, you know it just ain’t right or fair and everyone else in the family will suffer for it.  When you habitually gorge on junk-food as some sort of emotional therapy, underneath you know how bad it is for your health, and that you will pay for it, and so will those who have to care for you.  And, in all this stuff, everyone else pays for your guilty conscience’s desperate gymnastics and your manipulative antics to justify and bury your – um, er, gulp – sins!”

This litany is not my way of saying I am more righteous than anyone else.  The reason I can make the list is that I am well-acquainted with sin myself, and with some of the things on that list.  But denying that they make me feel guilty (just another way of saying they spur my conscience into appropriate reaction) will never give me peace or help me change.  For that, well, there’s only one road out – get ready for it! – Repentance!

I suspect that a great many of us here in the West will not even be able to accept that this primal need is more than a sort of vague cultural memory that can be dismissed out of hand, or at least by procrastination and neglect and rereading/rehearing all the rant and cant against subservience to religious claptrap.  But if we accept that this old concept still lives in our hearts and souls because it is a reality, however hard we have worked to bury it, we then have to come to terms with how we actually go about it – this “turning right around to go in another, radically different direction” so that we can really begin to change and experience a new way of living at peace with ourselves, our loved ones, and the world.

Perhaps a recent and very powerful historical illustration will help.  I speak of Germany.

Absurd Holocaust denial aside (yet millions still buy the Big Lie that it never happened, or that it didn’t happen on anything like the scale all the historical records declare), the whole word is aware of the unspeakable crimes of the Nazi regime in Germany between 1933-45, aided and abetted by a great many accomplices in other states of Europe, whether directly ruled by the Germans or coerced.  Six million Jews and as many more other “subhumans” (Romani, gays, disabled, etc.) died in extermination camps or by massacre or execution.  Tens of millions more were killed by deliberate policy of reprisal, starvation, deportation, intimidation, etc.

We now know that the fable that the ordinary German populace did not know, or knew little, about what was going on is mostly bunk.  It is easy to judge from the outside that they should have stood up to oppose this horrendous and monstrous action, that the Army should have taken action to stop it and punish the SS and perpetrators.  However, we don’t have to look far afield to find numerous examples of bystanders looking the other way while terrible things are done right under our noses.  Fear and the desire for personal peace (“just stay out of it!”) keep mouths shut.  It is costly to step in to confront injustice and just plain old evil.  You may very well end up the next victim.

World War 2 ended and some of the worst war criminals were tried and executed by the Allied victors.  Others vanished, while still others were quietly slipped into the shadows to serve the new masters who wanted their expertise to use against new enemies.  A great many minor players just blended back into the general population, hoping to remain more or less invisible.

But in Germany, after a decade or so, a remarkable thing began to happen, and it lives in that nation still.  There was a real, genuine, national repentance!

TO BE CONTINUED

Inconvenient Conscience, 6 – Turning Around, 2 – Paradigm Shift

“We are all faced with a series of great opportunities—brilliantly disguised as insoluble problems.”

John W. Gardner

“We need not only a purpose in life to give meaning to our existence but also something to give meaning to our suffering.”

Eric Hoffer

 “paradigm n. 1. a typical example or pattern; a model. 2. a mode of viewing the world which underlies the theories and methodology of science etc. in a particular period of history.”

The Canadian Oxford Compact Dictionary, 2002

Paradigms do not die easily for any of us.  Every people and culture in history has had and has its ruling paradigms.  We are acculturated to believe that the world and cosmos work according to this common understanding of reality.  Families and communities operate within the shared paradigm of a clan, a nation and a civilization.  Some local expressions may deviate to a degree, but on the whole are rooted in the bigger picture.

 In the 21st Century, the overarching Western (and, to a large degree, global) paradigm is scientific, technological, and evolutionary.  This tells us that all things can be learned and understood, formed, reformed, fixed, and improved by Science and its applied side, Technology.  The downside is that those two demi-gods can just as easily be turned to evil and destructive ends as used for good.

Western humans entertain a sort of self-hypnosis that we can and will master nature, compel it to do our bidding, because, tiny on the cosmic scale as we are, we are smart, really smart!  We can learn everything we need to because we are so smart.  We apparently are in the process of uncovering the very secrets of the Universe Itself – its when, what, and how at least.  Our current paradigm mostly sloughs off the why and who and makes the where irrelevant.

A near synonym for paradigm is worldview.  We all have one.  Worldview is a broader concept than paradigm because it takes in everything we believe, whether we are conscious of those beliefs or just operate from them without ever formulating them in so many words.  Much of our worldview is simply absorbed from our infancy on, and perhaps even in the womb, but the human infant rapidly moves beyond mere instinctual responses to learn how things fit into its little world and how to begin manipulating aspects of that little world to satisfy its basic needs and begin using things.  As we grow, huge new parts of our worldview are added by imitation, absorption, formal instruction, and experience.

Worldviews are not static structures within our psyche.  Events and experiences constantly impact them and make us modify them on an ongoing basis.  Big events, whether positive or negative, bring acute crises in our worldviews and challenges to our paradigms.  An accumulation of small factors may also do this over time.  This is true for everyone individually, and just as true for societies.  Our responses to these crises reveal our fundamental character and direct our future course.

Our opening citations tell us that there are two basic responses to every major challenge – rise up to meet it as an opportunity to grow, or run and try to hide from things we can’t or won’t face up to.  There are two variations available.  First, a tactical withdrawal, as the military would put it.  Draw back temporarily to regroup, to gain some time to reform the lines so that we can move forward later with a plan to meet the crisis and find and perhaps even exploit the hidden opportunity within it.  The second is to bravely (or abjectly) surrender to fate and let disaster triumph.

We of the West in the early 21st Century are at a major crossroads.  The crisis in our culture and souls has been growing for many decades until it is now screaming at us.  Like the proverbial frog in the pot of water being very gradually heated up, we have been ignoring its growth until it has become the elephant in the room.  Every now and then it startles us with a resounding “BOOM!”  We are briefly forced to come out of our stupor and self-absorbed quest to accumulate and satiate ourselves, but then hasten to “get back to normal”.

Think World War 1, the Great Depression, World War 2, the 60s Counterculture ferment, Civil Rights and race riots, 9/11, and even the economic meltdown of 2008.  All everyone wanted after these times of turmoil was to somehow bury it all and get back to “personal peace and affluence” as Francis A. Schaeffer put it.  We operate with an illusion that we deserve and can achieve something like Utopia via luxury, ease, and convenience.  Discovering the world does not promise this, we seek to approximate it in our personal lives.  Here in the West, we believe we deserve it, we are owed it. 

Other civilizations seem to have kept a more balanced perspective.  Buddha’s wisdom that “All life is suffering” guides hundreds of millions to understand that the kind of Utopia the West propagandizes is an illusion that just begets more suffering.  Hinduism says “Amen” and offers eventual perfect unity with the One after multiple lifetimes of vain striving.

We of the West have taken the opposite tack and succumbed to a materialist worldview that tells us that the only version of Paradise is one to be found here in the one lifetime we know we have.  Such a Paradise must perforce consist of maximum pleasure and comfort, for what else is there?  You cannot offer people a vision of the future perfection of the human race as a substitute and expect them to sacrifice their own chance at some joy and contentment here and now in the name of evolution.

Ideology fills no heart’s void.  It divides.  Science in itself answers no ultimate questions.  How does it help you even if it’s true that the Cosmos is 14 billion years old?  Humanly, it’s meaningless to tell us that it will go on for another fifty billion years before it either implodes to start all over again, or just dissipates into a cold, dead, never-ending expanse.

We cannot avoid wanting “something to give meaning to our suffering”, as Hoffer says.  Truly, existence without meaning is suffering at its worst – viz. Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialist classic, La Nausée.  The need to know “Why?” ever haunts us, and the “Just because” of Evolution falls dead in our hearts.  Even the hardest atheist hopes his/her life has meant something to someone.  Humans are cursed with the terrible, tremendous, burning need for hope.  We are bred to the bone with the aspiration to know the truth – about ourselves, about our earthly home, about this enormous reality called Cosmos.

Every child learning to discover knows in the gut that all this cannot be just a freak, a huge cosmic joke, a meaningless illusion that tricks us into believing it is here for a purpose, into which we fit somehow.

Despite more than a century of intellectualized propaganda that there’s really no meaning and that there is no Creator-Being behind it all, even most Westerners still stubbornly cling to the belief that there is such a Being, that it does mean something, and that we do have some unique place and role in it all, both as individuals and as a species.  The very fabric of our being is formed to believe.

Hence the gnawing doubt that eats at our subconscious and keeps blowing on the smouldering wick/ “celestial spark” of conscience to annoy us and prick us and remind us that we have a moral obligation to seek justice and act humbly and do mercy to one another in the name of and in honour of that Creator who, it has long been said, made us in Their own image.

Hence the mostly sublimated but always-there suspicion that we really do need to repent!  For something!  Even when we find some good reason to, it’s never quite enough.  The heart, mind, soul, and spirit still hunger for something deeper that the partial points to.  For without turning to the Creator, there is no ultimate reconciliation possible, no final resting place to find.  The still small voice thunders inside our deep of deeps, “Turn around!  Turn back!  The Kingdom of God is within, in that place of the broken Divine image waiting to be made whole again.”

TO BE CONTINUED

Inconvenient Conscience, 5 – Turning Around, 1

“You reap what you sow; if you sow the wind, you reap the whirlwind.” The Tanakh (Hebrew Bible)

“Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it.” – George Santayana

“Turn right around, for the Rule (Kingdom) of God is at hand/right here/right now/among you at this very moment.” – Jesus

I have been a student of history for most of my life.  I grew up in a home surrounded by books and steeped in a love for music.  My father had a large library of serious books about all kinds of things – history, philosophy, theology, psychology, and science among them.  He had never finished High School because, when the Depression hit in 1929, as the oldest of five, and a sixteen-year-old boy, he had to drop out of school to help feed the family.  Despite this, he always hungered to learn and accumulated and read books, encouraging his children to do what he had not been able to do.

My parents not only made sure we had the basics, but strongly encouraged us to go farther than they had been able to.  (My mother had completed High School.)  Mom made sure we had an impressive array of good children’s books and Encyclopedia – the Britannica Junior, Britannica (Adult) and Americana, and a complete set of The Book of Knowledge.

I was a strange kid.  I rarely read the Hardy Boys, but loved adventure stories, especially those based on History, like Enid Blyton or G.A. Henty books.  But I loved “real history” most of all and began devouring all the Encyclopedia articles about history – in all three sets of Encyclopedia by the age of Ten.  I began to rummage in my father’s library too to find interesting stuff I could at least partly understand.  I read Winston Churchill’s six-volume history of the Second World War  the first time at ages thirteen and fourteen.

It was my strange taste in books which opened up a door to a friendship with my paternal grandfather, a man with a reputation in the family for being hard and at times mean to kids, a veteran of WW1 who never spoke about it except with a few old army friends he still had – and me, under an oath of silence until he was dead!  (I have written and published an account of my unique friendship with “Grandpa” in Grandpa’s Hands, available on Amazon.)  This is one big reason true war stories have always drawn me.

What fascinated me about history was that it reveals what people are really like – the good, the bad, the ugly, the sublime, the stupid, and the downright wicked.  I discovered that historians don’t always agree about exactly what happened and why, and sometimes not even when, but through all of that muddle the truth about who and what we humans are really like as we show by deeds rather than words keeps breaking through.  Psychology has its place, but history, I found, is the context for everything and teaches the best and worst about human nature set in the nitty-gritty of both the big story and all the little stories as they fit into the big story.

I also found that all the great leaders displayed some degree of deep perception of human nature.  Great thinkers might have this too, but many of the great ideologues seemed to lose sight of it in their flights of imagination and fascination with the stratosphere of best-case scenarios if only humans would stop being so damn contrary.  This led me to read extensively about the two extremes – the amazingly good people and the downright evil ones.  So I read a lot about heroes and discovered that they all have clay feet, like Churchill and Lincoln, both of whom remain among the “greats” despite their flaws.  And I read a lot about horrendously wicked people such as Hitler, Stalin, Mao, mad (as in insane) genii who functioned at a high enough level to do very terrible things while somehow convincing and coercing myriads to acquiesce in their infamy.  (The psychology of why people follow such monsters is quite another issue.)

The three brief references at the top of this episode point to the most important but most neglected truths about humanity that paying attention to history teaches us:  (1) the Law of Karma is almost completely borne out over time, to the degree that it invites belief in the old-fashioned idea of fate; (2) everyone knows that we should learn from the past, but almost no one ever does – both as individuals and as societies from the smallest level (family) to the widest (nations, civilizations); (3) nevertheless, there is a way out of the trap of being the pawn of history and the mere victim of fate, – both personal and collective.

First, about Karma.  I am not a Hindu or a Buddhist, but the idea of karma is quite simple: sooner or later your past, or our past, will out and catch up with us.  There is always a price to pay, whether now or later.  Biblically, it is “You reap what you sow,” and “Be aware; sooner or later your sins will find you out,” and, as Jesus said, “What was said in secret will be shouted from the housetops,” and “You will be accountable for every idle word that you say.”  Physics tells us that “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction,” and also now tells us that even chaos theory and the uncertainty principle seem to sort themselves out to take every obscure event into the equation.  We best see this illustrated by the “butterfly effect”, that the beat of a butterfly’s wings in China may be the final factor in unleashing a typhoon on Hawaii.

History is full of “might-have-beens”, “what-ifs”.  What if the assassin in Munich at the beer hall in 1939 had succeeded in killing Hitler?  What if the British Tommy in 1917 who had him dead to rights in the Battle of Arras had not just let him walk away?  What if John Wilkes Booth had been stopped and shot by Lincoln’s AWOL bodyguard at Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865?  What if Julius Caesar had heeded the seer and his own wife Calpurnia on March 15, 44 BCE?  Etc.

And, perhaps the greatest of all, at least in the West, what if Yeshua ben-Yosef had never been born in Bethlehem, probably in the year 4 BCE?  We could then have just been gradually transformed into Stoics or Epicureans, or, perhaps by the gradual progress westward from India of monks and adherents, we would have evolved into an Asokan-style Buddhist culture.  Or perhaps we would have all become Jews, or just remained pagans of various varieties.

But the West’s history turned down a very different road following the coming of this single person and the life and death (and reputed resurrection) of this extraordinary comet of a human being named Yeshua ben-Yosef.  He came from “Nowhereville”, from a very obscure village called Natzeret in the north of an insignificant province of the Roman Empire on the eastern fringe of the Roman (and then Western) world.

The absurdity of the West’s identity-crisis and the extent of its conscience troubles are no better illustrated than by its attempts to divest itself of direct association with the Person of Jesus.  Failing that, we exert might and main to transform him into something far less potent and challenging than he was or can be made to be by even the most extreme efforts. 

Since he was born and lived and died, despite the completely asinine but still persisting attempts to say that he never really existed (!!!???), we then proceed to a bunch of other “if-onlys”.  If only he hadn’t made it so damn hard to reduce him to another nice philosopher and moral teacher.  If only all those wretched miracles didn’t keep popping up to confuse the record, and to confuse the gullible masses who keep insisting they can and do still happen!  And worst of all, if only the absolutely absurd tale of his resurrection from the dead could just be disposed of, once and for all!  Then we could ignore all the really challenging bits of his life and teaching, and the kinds of extreme behaviours to repeat those challenges and make us rethink our own lives and society that some of his most dedicated (fanatical?) followers have kept confronting us with over the last two thousand years.

That word of his they keep repeating just plain sticks in the craw of the modern psyche.  Metanoia in the ancient Greek – Repent in English!  Sounds too freaking religious, eh?  It just means, “Turn around!  You’re going the wrong way, straight to destruction!  There’s another way, a better way, but you have to turn around!”

TO BE CONTINUED

Inconvenient Conscience, 4 – Conscience vs. Tyranny

“For now we see [ourselves] in a mirror, dimly, but then [we will see] face to face.  Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known.”

from The First Letter of Paul to the Corinthians Chapter 13, verse 12, in The New Testament

As we once more pick up the question of conscience in the West, we ask, “Why are we so afraid to face ourselves and admit the truth?”  – the truth about why the West has run from the “celestial spark” (see Part 3) of conscience. 

The process of running from ourselves began long ago.  It has gathered tremendous momentum since the ferment of the 1960s Counterculture Revolution.  Since then, there has been a continual impetus to shed the Judaeo-Christian elements of the West’s character and foundation.  It would be unthinkable now for any leading statesman to speak as Winston Churchill did in 1940 when inspiring the people of the British Empire during World War 2 as he declared that it was a war to save “Christian civilization”.

Today we live a culture where people are often shamed for holding strong morals and principles based on the conviction that God holds us accountable.  However, if you hold such notions because of a philosophy or ideology other than the Judaeo-Christian, there is a shade more tolerance.  The public face of the West is now that all principles are mutable in the face of new notions of truth about what constitutes progressive tolerance and an open social order.

Churchill never claimed to be a model of devout Christianity.  However, he recognized that the foundation of the West stood on its Judaeo-Christian heritage as much as upon the Greco-Roman tradition of reason and rational thought.  He was not denying or excusing excesses committed in the name of Christ, or of any religious leader or institution.  But neither was he under any illusion that human nature is basically good and our powers of reason and scientific discovery of truth and wisdom will take us into paradise on earth.  He was no fan of utopian schemes and well knew that the real meaning of “utopia” is “nowhere”.  The results of utopian thinking were rampant before his eyes in Soviet Russia, Nazi Germany, and the Fascist countries of Europe.

Churchill preferred democracy.  He famously quipped, “Democracy is the worst possible system of government – except for all the others.”  He was not deluded that the popular masses would somehow find and decide what is best because, after all, people are all basically good when you scratch beneath the shallow exterior.  It was because he believed the opposite that he fought tooth and nail to save democracy throughout his whole political life and in his prolific literary output.

His iron faith in democracy was based on the understanding that the ruthless and brutal will naturally rise to the top if not checked.  After several thousand years of trying various schemes of oligarchic, monarchic, and tyrannical rule, the verdict was in that the great and powerful individual or oligarchy will inevitably degenerate into selfish, abusive, corrupt, dissolute, brutal, and oppressive government, regardless of the best of early intentions.  As Lord Action (an eminent British historian of the 19th Century) put it, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Churchill was himself a scion of the privileged English aristocracy.  Paradoxically, he firmly believed that for the inevitable abuses of power by the powerful to be held in check, ordinary people have to be empowered through constitutional arrangements and a relatively impartial system of justice.  None of this was “natural” to any civilization that had yet existed until it gradually emerged where Christianity had taken root, buttressed by certain ideals of the Greeks and Romans at their best.

 For Churchill, this sort of government found its best and most effective expression in Great Britain and was extended to its Empire thereafter.  This happy marriage emerged only in the culture and civilization of “the West” – in Europe and its appendices in North America and a few other places.  (Please note, I am not advocating the innate superiority of the West.  We are discussing an historical phenomenon.)

The essential difference between Western leaders like Churchill and those since is their fundamental view of human nature.  Churchill’s view, shared by most educated people and leaders of his generation, was that humans are not basically good, but flawed, marred, and ever ready to take advantage of others, circumstances, and nature for personal gain and benefit.  People are not born as blank slates imbued with benign complaisance and readiness to treat others with equity and justice, all things being equal. 

Where did Churchill’s pessimism about human nature spring from?  Three main sources: (1) a deep reading of the Bible and understanding of its core message[1] of fallen human nature in need of Divine salvation, (2) a profound interest in and study of history which continually illustrated #1, and (3) personal experience and astute observation of human behaviour, his own and everyone else’s he ever met.

The second and third of Churchill’s sources are still wide-open to anyone who cares to consult them and draw appropriate conclusions.  For the most part, the first has now become a closed book.  Oh, it is still available to be read, but it has been discarded as a religious relic or an irrelevant mythological curiosity by our educational authorities and intelligentsia.  What reputable person aspiring to be taken seriously and become influential today would now publicly refer to it as a source of wisdom?

Why did Churchill (and so many other leaders and thinkers back then) use quotes from and allusions to “The Good Book” regularly in his speeches and writings and still keep his credibility?  Is it just a question of different times and less enlightened generations of the past?  Did Churchill and other leaders and serious academics of his time actually think they could use the ideas based on such a source to inspire people to reach beyond their own limitations and to effect meaningful, progressive change in society?

This is not an article about Churchill, as interesting a person as he is.  It is about our feeble grasp on truth and our society’s vaporous idea of conscience.  Part of the cause of our social and ethical disintegration is that we have pushed the old “sources of truth” which people formerly considered crucial to the side.  Even completely secular thinkers and admirers of the Enlightenment tradition such as John Ralston Saul (Voltaire’s Bastards) have deplored this phenomenon.

The truth about us as a collective, and probably for many of us as individuals, is that we are adrift, “at sea” with no landfall or reference points in sight.  Oh yeah!  There is an old map still around somewhere, but everybody says it’s like those medieval charts with pictures of sea serpents and is completely fanciful.

The pursuit of fame, fortune, the perfect body, the perfect career, the perfect partner, all turns to sand after a while.  When we wake up to that, we begin to search for an identity beyond our technological prowess and our mania for “self-actualizing” ourselves as anything we care to imagine.  For most of us, the refrain of “you can be and do anything you like or can imagine, even totally reinvent yourself and your gender” turns out to be the pursuit of a phantom which keeps disappearing around the next corner or curve in the road.  Or maybe the Phantom sneaks up from behind and laughs snidely that it’s a chimera.  The Phantom smirks that we should have known all along what we are really supposed to become, but now we’ve burned so many bridges it’s too late, or seems to be, to go back.

The West now suffers from a two-fold collective guilt-complex.  The first element of it stems from the residual effect of the old paradigm of the missionary impulse to “civilize the world” – i.e., to Christianize it, which also meant to Europeanize it.  This bred imperialism and exploitation while covering it in a veneer of a holy mission.  Not that every missionary or even every imperial administrator was a conscious agent of oppression and exploitation – although some of the administrators were crassly so.  We rightly rejoice that this arrogant hubris has now been shed (or so we think) as wickedness.  And we feel rightful guilt for it.  In this, our conscience has been true.

The second part of our collective guilty conscience is that in having thrown out the very sources of the West’s well-developed sense of social justice, we have lost the very values that have always kept us on track towards that goal.  It used to be called the promise of the coming Kingdom of God taking root in this age, however imperfectly it was done.  Now, without a compass, and having undermined our very foundations, we have only the very thinnest notion of what real justice and mercy look like.  In making ourselves free to pursue whatever vision of ourselves we choose, we have made ourselves slaves to the baser parts of our nature.

[1] Churchill was raised with the Bible by his Nanny.  He had sections of it memorized and continued to read it from time to time as an adult.


Inconvenient Conscience, 3: Whatever happened to our conscience?

“Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire, called conscience.”

George Washington’s “Rule of Civility”, adopted from a now unknown Jesuit priest of the 16th Century.

We finished last time with three questions, the first of which was “Why have we become so morally, ethically, and spiritually bankrupt as communities and nations?”  Today we will attempt an answer.

The West has lost its bearings when it comes to foundational principles and values.  It is fractured and fractious, with its public face deeply cratered between “Right” and “Left”, “Progressives” and “Reactionaries”.  We could find many other labels to attempt to describe our riven soul.

Despite our collective moral, ethical, and spiritual bankruptcy everyone retains some sense of morality, ethics, and spirituality, however jumbled.  The bankruptcy consists of our society, our culture, our civilization, having no deep reserves, no central “bank” of long-held traditions and unifying vision from which to draw any more.  Our communities are fragmented and confused as to what is true, what is worth saving and fighting for, what is the core of who and what we are and aspire to be.

While I do not see George Washington as a model of public virtue and probity as our American neighbors’ national mythology so often portrays him, he certainly had virtues and principles, however inconsistently he may have lived by them (his views on slavery, for example).  On the whole, he attempted to live as a man of integrity and honor.  He lived in a time when the general consensus was that to not live by one’s conscience was reprehensible, if not unthinkable.

By contrast, we make heroes of people who have too often parked, seared, and even erased their consciences in order to claw their way to the pinnacle of whatever heap represents the ultimate in achievement.  CEOs, super-rich entrepreneurs, aspiring academics, elite athletes, unscrupulously ambitious politicos, actors, rock stars, etc. all leave behind them a bleeding trail of broken promises to and lives of ex-spouses, children, parents, siblings, best friends, business partners, associates, and team-members.  What was done to “arrive” disappears in the mists of fame, acclaim, ultra-wealth, and even notoriety fanned into a blaze of glory by mawkish media and the cyber-universe.

What Mr. Washington’s Rule called “that little spark of celestial fire” has gone out.  In truth, we no longer have a connection to the Great Celestial Flame that lights and keeps the fire burning.  All I have is my own little fire and no other source to keep it going but my own feeble strength.  This is quickly depleted without a connection to a core of power from which I can draw.  It’s not very surprising if I find my spark overwhelmed by the side-drafts and downdrafts of all the contrary currents wafting into my little corner with every passing fancy of the latest trends of “revolutionary new thinking” and (manufactured) popular fashion, opinion, and pseudo-folk wisdom.  All the more in an age when every wild idea runs rampant across the cyber-sphere with little restraint.

But the saga of taming the West’s conscience so that it no longer presents an obstacle to doing what I want, when I want, with or to whom I want and not having to face any consequences is a long tale.  For the sake of brevity, and not putting you, my readers, to sleep, I will reduce it to a rather crude simplification with which you can then concur or take exception.  If it merely succeeds in provoking you to turn around and check on your own little “celestial spark”, even if you reject my version of the story, it’s all good!  Argue with me, but, as a once-popular Christian chorus put it, “fan [it] into flame”.

Here is my crude tale:

“Once upon a time, the ancient world was a hodgepodge of warring polytheistic tribes and nations.  All these tribes and nations lived as seemed right in their own eyes and had different ways of holding themselves together and accountable.  Generally, it was recognized that there were divine entities who were somewhat marginally interested in human behaviour, even if only for their own benefit of receiving their worship, which validated their existence.

“Sages, seers, and prophets began to suspect that the stories of their divinities were often less than admirable with regard to promoting general good behaviour among their human adherents.  It was proposed by some of these that beyond these rather low-level sets of deities there must be a Higher, Ultimate Divinity who had created the world to operate on established laws and principles that were valid for everyone, everywhere, and always.  Lawgivers and great spiritual leaders proposed ways of living according to the ways of the Great God, who was increasingly seen as the One God behind all the others, and who may even have created them.

“At this point, paths began to diverge as some peoples followed the Way given them by one of these inspired Lawgivers or Enlightened Ones.  But that there is a Higher Power, a Supreme Deity who esteems moral righteousness and has created a basically good creation became a general principle in much of Asia and then moved into the West.  Two strands of this belief penetrated into the heart of what became the West – the first via the Greeks and their philosophical disciples, the Romans, and the second via the Jews and their theological and spiritual near-cousins, the Christians. 

“Skipping forward a bit, we find an uneasy unification of the two strands forming the core of what became the soul of the West.  Like Jacob and Esau in the Bible Book of Genesis, the two struggled in the womb of their mother [Rebekkah in the Bible story] and the younger [Christianity historically] came into the world grasping the heel of the elder [both Greco-Roman philosophy and Judaism are in this place historically] and ever seeking to surpass him and take his place.”

The Story of the West cannot be in the least understood or kept in any proper perspective unless we keep the reality of its birth in sight.  The civilization that came into being from the unification of these competing twins became known as “Christendom” for about 1500 years.  Only since World War 2 has the West turned its back on that long and tortured but immensely real and powerful saga and sought to substitute another tale for it.

The chief element of the new story is the determination of a new set of self-appointed Lawgivers and Prophets to deny and excise, or perhaps exorcise would be the most accurate term to describe this ferocious campaign, the Judaeo-Christian twin from the family. 

What such an exorcism is producing is becoming more and more appallingly evident.  It is a mutilated, traumatized facsimile of a soul with no depth or substance, incapable of sustaining the body once inspired and invigorated by the uneasy partnership of the twins.  Even the remaining twin (the Greco-Roman) has become so marred that it scarcely resembles what was once so vital and admirable and extolled – its heart of reason and gracious estimation of human dignity as the reflection of the Supreme Divinity.  It seems that by killing one twin, we have killed, or are in the process of killing, both.

Ideology blinds its fanatical promoters and advocates at least as much as any theology.  What we have now seen all too terribly in modern history is that it ultimately kills many more people, much more beauty, creativity, and even creation than any set of Inquisitors, Zealots, Mujehadin (?), Puritans, or whatever other set of religious fanatics ever did.

And one of the most terrible and tragic casualties left in the devastation along the roadside is “that little spark of celestial fire, called conscience”.

TO BE CONTINUED