Saturday, December 7, 2013

Telling the Truth in a Time of Falsehood

The Second Sunday of Advent
8 December

Saint Faith’s Anglican Church
Vancouver BC
         Fifty years ago my family returned to the United States after three years overseas.  We returned to a society torn apart by racism and the unresolved tensions that still existed between the northern and southern states that even a civil war could not resolve and that had been intensified by the unjust and punitive conditions imposed upon the southern states in the years following the end of the civil war.

         In the Rocky Mountain West where we had lived before our overseas assignment and where we returned in the autumn of 1963, these racial tensions did not seem too present.  But they were.  Although Hispanic settlers had come to Colorado more than four hundred years ago, they were still second-class citizens and few government services were available in Spanish.  Even though African-Americans had been serving in the armed services and were no longer restricted to the enlisted ranks, Colorado Springs, a city largely dependent upon the military for its economic well-being, was segregated into wealthy and poor neighbourhoods, white, African-American and Hispanic neighbourhoods.  First Nations people were invisible.

         Fifty years ago my parents bought a new television to grace the living room of our new home.  One of the first things we watched was the unfolding drama in Dallas where President Kennedy was assassinated, only to be followed by the murder of his alleged assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald.  During the five years that followed we watched the violence that gripped many cities as President Johnson, as the chief legal officer of the nation, imposed the Civil Rights Act upon reluctant governments.  I remember the assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr.  I remember the fights that broke out in my high school when court-imposed desegregation brought large numbers of African-American students into the halls.

         As a young adult I witnessed the continued violence in the United States to establish a just society.  Like many of you I watched the oppressive tactics of the white minority South African government to repress the non-white majority and I deplored the violent attacks against white South Africans perpetrated by elements of various black nationalist movements.  I am sure that I was not alone in fearing that the only future for the United States and for South Africa was continued self-mutilating violence.

         Then in 1990 a dignified man walked out of a prison in South African holding the hand of his then-wife.  I watched in fascination as he delivered his first speeches to cheering crowds of black South Africans.  What I did not hear were words calling for vengeance, for retribution for centuries of wrong-doing.  What I heard were words that seemed to be contemporary echoes of Isaiah’s words to the people of Israel:

         The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.  The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.  The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.  They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. [1]

While the dream of equality and reconciliation that Nelson Mandela dared to dream still awaits its fulfillment, not only in South Africa but in the United States and, dare I say, Canada, it is a dream that offers an alternative to the deluded reality that many people, rich and poor, still endure, day after day, whether in developing nations or the so-called ‘developed’ nations of the G-7 or G-20.  This deluded reality is based on a falsehood:  it is inevitable that might is right, that the rich get richer and the poor poorer, that there is nothing any individual or small group of individuals can do to change this.

         What Mandela called for is the same call made by John the Baptizer in today’s gospel.  John calls upon his listeners to metanoia, a New Testament Greek word which means ‘a change in perspective; a new way of looking at the world’.  As it flows out of John’s mouth and, later from Jesus’ mouth, metanoia is an invitation to see the world as God sees it:  God’s beloved creation where diversity is celebrated, where the dignity of every creature, human and non-human, is treasured and protected; where justice and peace are actually our natural environment.

         But, as one commentator puts it, ‘the good news always comes as bad news to someone’, metanoia is not without its costs.  To see the world as God sees it means naming to the powerful what is wrong even when it risks their displeasure.  To change our perspective on the human condition often means confessing our own near-sightedness and commitment to our own self-interests rather than taking a broader view and relinquishing our privileges in order that all God’s creatures can thrive and rejoice in the abundance of God’s gracious self-giving.

         But this is not possible unless we conquer our greatest enemy:  fear.  Fear comes in many forms, from the fear of being thought of as naïve or ‘religious’ all the way to the fear of losing our lives, whether physically, financially or socially.  But the antidote to fear is hope and our hope is rooted in the reality of God’s power working in us to do more than we can ask or imagine:

  • despite many on-going challenges to develop a truly democratic and equal society, South Africa heeded the dream of Nelson Mandela, working towards truth and reconciliation, forsaking the temptation to wide-spread violence;
  • despite continued racial divisions in the United States, an African-American defied the common opinion and became President; and
  • despite systemic inequalities for First Nations in Canada, we have embarked on a process of truth and reconciliation that holds the seeds of a new future for all of us.

When we see such things, how can we not face our fears and dare to act in ways that will see the hungry fed, the homeless housed, the poor given the means to live with dignity?

         As part of some work that I am doing for the General Synod, I came across some words from another South African, Alan Boesak, that I believe speak to our fears and invite us to metanoia, to look at the world as God sees it.

We are called to proclaim the truth and let us believe:  It is not true that this world and its people are doomed to die and to be lost.  This is true:  [Christ has] come that they may have life in all its abundance.

It is not true that we must accept inhumanity and discrimination, hunger and poverty, death and destruction.  This is true:  The deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, the poor are hearing the good news.

It is not true that violence and hatred should have the last word and that war and destruction have come to stay forever.  This is true:  Death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more.

It is not true that we are simply victims of the powers of evil who seek to rule the world. This is true:  The Lord whom we seek will suddenly come to the temple; and the Lord is like a refining fire.

It is not true that our dreams of liberation, of human dignity, are not meant for this earth and for this history.  This is true:  It is already time for us to wake from sleep.  For the night is far gone, the day is at hand. [2]

And may this be so today.  Amen.

[1] Isaiah 11.6-9.

[2] Alan Boesak as quoted by Janet Morley, ed., Bread for Tomorrow:  Prayers for the Church Year (1992), 31 alt.

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