The strains of the D-Ream song, “Things can only get better” run like an ear-worm in my head as another ‘Breaking News’ banner flashes across the screen of my lap top. Another day, another half million refugees fleeing persecution. Another day, another hurricane devastating lives in the Caribbean. Another day, another location in London is the scene of a fearful attack on ordinary people going about their business.
I was born in the sixties and am part of the generation that really did, until relatively recently, think that things can only get better. The Berlin Wall came down, the Apartheid regime was dismantled, women gained rights over their own bodies and possessions and we marched together to call for debts to be wiped clean for the most impoverished countries on earth. Anti-racism in the UK and the Civil Rights movement in the USA brought about change and I believed there was a broad consensus about what made for just and peaceful society – good seemed to be ‘winning’. That optimistic view of a trajectory of progress has taken quite a beating in the last few years. As the ‘War on Terror’ continues to unfold in wave after wave of unforeseen circumstances and new fascist movements gain prominence even in ‘mainstream’ politics, it is easy to despair.
I put this point to Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, when he spoke to the Methodist Summer School earlier this year, asking how my generation are to make sense of this shift of perspective and how are we to live with the sense of dislocation and disappointment that we are left with. He made some helpful responses to my meandering thoughts, the first being “God is still God” and secondly, “What makes us think that any of this is about ‘winning’?”. I’ve reflected since on these thoughts.
God is still God.
I’m reminded of the wonderful poetry in Isaiah 40. 21-24:
Have you not known? Have you not heard?
Has it not been told you from the beginning?
Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?
It is he who sits above the circle of the earth,
and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers;
who stretches out the heavens like a curtain,
and spreads them like a tent to live in;
who brings princes to naught,
and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.
Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown,
scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth,
when he blows upon them, and they wither,
and the tempest carries them off like stubble.
The Creator is not diminished, God is not mocked (Gal:6.7), by the human tendency to grasp for power. The ‘princes and rulers of the earth’ are brought to nothing in the face of the divine imperative for love. They may have their day but that day is brief, the signs that they ever existed will be wiped away. We might see this as a reason to give up, leaving it to God to make things right whilst we live in a fatalistic bubble, disconnected from the struggles for justice in the world. Yet, on the contrary, a belief that in the end God’s way of love, justice and peace will be manifest, even if we do not live to see it, should spur us on to every effort in changing the world. Faithfulness calls us to participate in God’s plan for creation, to join in with God’s desire for a world where love is manifest. Remembering that God is still God, is a liberating state of mind that reminds us we have nothing to lose – even when the world seems to be going to ‘hell in a handcart’.
What makes us think that any of this is about winning?
The group, ‘club’, ideology I subscribe to is shaped by my faith, my context, my upbringing and the people I choose to spend time with. This is borne out on my social media pages, where I rarely find my views of politics or faith challenged – it is easy to fall into the trap of imagining that mine is the only ‘right-minded’ perspective and that if everyone else thought about things the way I do there would be no problems in the world. It’s only a small step from this perspective to one where I want to change people to see things my way, to win them over – or more dangerously to ‘win’ in politics, commerce, faith etc, rather than to serve God and love my neighbour.
Living faithfully in God’s world involves far more compromise than most of us are comfortable with – the God who ‘stretched out the heavens like a curtain’, made a tent big enough for all to live in – if you’ve ever been camping in a group you will know that the exercise involves co-operation and compromise if all are not to suffer!
I continue to reflect on this response. How do we make sense of events in the world in a way that acknowledges God’s continuing engagement in creation? How can Christians work for change in the world in a way that makes space for the opinions and ideologies of others and when is it fitting to challenge ‘the other’? What are the ‘wins’ we should be putting our efforts into?