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The darkness will never overcome the Light of God

We are in a crisis. Of that there can be no doubt. Both the world and the Church within it are facing their toughest challenges for a very long time. Not since the 1920s and ‘30s has there been the possibility of such a seismic shift across the West as that which is beginning to unfold today. If we are to come through it without catastrophe we had better learn from history and learn fast. Meanwhile the Church appears to be overwhelmed, on occasion paralysed, by the enormity of the problems, not least due to fears of its own demise.

In this article we are going to reflect on the socio-political currents that are sweeping across Europe and North America. We will then consider how the Church, by learning from its past, can be a more effective moral compass in a world that appears to have lost its way.

 

Firstly, we reflect on the fact that we live in an age of rising populism.

The present political climate has come as a surprise to many: how has the outcome of elections and referenda become so difficult to predict? Why are the institutions that held the respect and trust of the majority for so long now failing in the eyes of the people? What will happen if the constraints that allowed tolerance and fostered community are further removed?

For some, this situation has been a while coming. For more than a decade the warning signs were there. In 2002 the bookshop assistant appeared to be shocked when I ordered Angus Roxburgh’s latest book: ‘Title?’ she asked. ‘Preachers of Hate’, I replied. Roxburgh, had covered Glasnost as the Guardian’s Moscow correspondent before joining the BBC and reporting on Kosovo, North Korea, Afghanistan and East Timor. In his book [i] he charted the rise of the far right across Europe. Important questions were posed: Is there a neo-Fascist renaissance across Europe? Why are ordinary voters deserting traditional parties? Is it less safe to be a Muslim or a Jew in Europe? What should be done to avoid catastrophe? What Roxburgh could not have foreseen was the rise of the far left alongside the far right as Europe lost its confidence. It was Richard Koch and Chris Smith who would co-author a book in 2006 that looked at the diminishing confidence of Europe. Entitled Suicide of the West[ii] they identified six key pillars of Western civilization: Christianity, optimism, science, economic growth, liberalism and individualism. Each of these, they argued, had suffered a century of sustained attack from within and no longer inspired or united the West. However they concluded that collective suicide was not inevitable. But, like Roxburgh before them, what Koch and Smith could not have foreseen was the economic crash of 2008 that sent confidence in liberal democracy on a downward spiral across Europe and the US. We must not overlook the fact that Obama was elected as US President on the crest of a wave of hope and confidence. Decades of social progress and upward mobility had been the norm. Further change for the better was not only still possible but utterly believable. However, in the days and weeks before he moved into the White House the world’s economic order faced meltdown, confidence disintegrated, hostility toward the institutions grew and the world of politics fell to an all-time low in the eyes of the electorate. Obama’s successor was therefore elected from a vastly altered socio-political landscape. With an altogether different mind-set Trump channels disillusionment into anger, identifies the scapegoat and targets them for abuse. His simplistic and populist promises cannot be fulfilled, and when they fail, for fail they will, even greater dangers face our world. Maybe we should not fear Trump so much as what happens next.

In Europe too nationalism has again reared its head after a brief respite. The re-writing of history, hostility toward the ‘other’ and policies that inflict great harm on any chance of a cohesive society should send alarm bells ringing. In Britain the rise of hate crime in the lead up to the European Referendum and its persistent increase ever since is deeply worrying. What is even more worrying is how views that were once clearly judged to be abhorrent have begun to find their way into the conversations of ‘decent folk’. It may be that these views were there all along but the moral conscience of society constrained them. It seems now as though there is no compulsion to restrict the vilest of beliefs when it comes to ‘the other’.

One of the first casualties in an age of populism is correct and appropriate vocabulary. Words are used to convey a message: they can encourage the already convinced or seek to convert the unconvinced; they can incite or they can heal. In the mind of a tyrant well-chosen words can alter what is perceived to be truth. When they are used to draw a false picture they can be very dangerous indeed. The biggest tyrants in history were always amongst the greatest orators of their day.

What the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century learnt was that if their words were coupled with imagery, especially moving images, then the effect was great indeed. The propaganda films of Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany used cutting edge techniques to propagate the hatred and control the minds of the people. It is no coincidence that the fairly new medium acted as a significant factor in hastening the social and political revolutions of central and Eastern Europe.

This was also the case on a previous occasion in history when another communication development occurred. The invention of the printing press led to societal, political and religious changes over ten years that would have previously taken a hundred.

In the first half of the 20th century cinema increased the rapidity of change; television, especially satellite television, increased it further. Today the internet means that the exchange of ideas across the globe is instant and the ‘popular view’ altered in next to no time.

The end result is inconsistency, uncertainty and insecurity. What we thought of as reliable and trustworthy is now brought into question, especially when false claims are so convincingly made.

Earlier this year Harvard Lecturer Yascha Mounk produced a sweeping take on the crisis we face. The People Vs. Democracy [iii] identifies that the two core components of liberal democracy – individual rights and the popular will – are increasingly at war with one another. Stagnating living standards, voters’ discontent, fears of multi-ethnic democracy and the rise of social media are creating an unprecedented crisis for the West. Economic downturns in the past have led to cataclysmic changes in society, from the French Revolution to the rise of the Nazi party. There is no room for complacency in the knowledge of such historical events. Liberal democracy only tends to flourish when the economy is growing for the electorate. Take away that confidence in the belief that things will get better and even the most established democracies are vulnerable.

The dangers to cohesive society in an age of populism are clear: verifiable facts are contested, truth is dismissed and community is pitted against community, to put it bluntly: extremism follows, and after that tyranny.

This is the world in which the Church is called to convey the Good News. So what hope is there? Are we fit for purpose? How can we avoid the mistakes of the past?

The Church of Christ, in every age

Beset by change but spirit led,

Must claim and test its heritage

And keep on rising from the dead. [iv]

To listen to many one would think the Church in the West, especially the Church in Britain, was already dead and buried. Even some within the Church seem to have left the graveside and are now getting on with the wake. What we may be overlooking is the fact that the Christ in the tomb is potentially the Risen Christ.

The second half of this article will consider how the Church can be a more effective moral compass in a world that appears to have lost its way. To do so we will consider the relatively recent past and claim that only authenticity can transform a spurious world: in a world of fake news, the Good News has to stand up to scrutiny. If populism arises out of fear then those of us who believe that perfect love drives out all fear have much to offer.

We may be invited to serve the present age, we can serve no other, but ‘moving with the times’ isn’t the solution to all our problems; the past has much to teach us. In my research for a book that is to be published later in the year [v] I had sought to understand more fully the failure of the German Churches to respond positively to their closest faith neighbours during the Nazi years. What I ended up realising was that there was a fundamental flaw in how the Church viewed and responded to the world. In the face of appalling persecution the Church in Germany was therefore more than an impotent observer, it was in fact a willing accomplice. The conditions imposed upon the German state by Versailles may have been a significant factor in the rise of Hitler but what took place after could only have done so with the complicity of many in the Church, including, especially perhaps, its leaders.

Democracy was something new to the German nation post First World War. When it failed to protect the people from economic disaster any hope there might have been in it being the best way forward evaporated. The shame of defeat, the loss of confidence and a rising generation that had not experienced war led to increasing political extremism. Observing that Bolshevism had caused much strife in Russia many Germans began to put their trust in far right parties as a bulwark. Their trust was misplaced, especially when a charismatic leader swept to power by populism promised them a Thousand Year Reich.

Today the Church in Britain faces new challenges, though the circumstances elsewhere in Europe almost a century ago have much to teach us. Again austerity has taken hold. Again millions have lost confidence in the electoral system. Again populist voices make empty promises. Again those with different views are spoken of as traitors. Again fantasies of a glorious past are better than the reality of the present. Again trust is misplaced. Again there is a crisis of confidence.

Meanwhile in the Methodist Church we are fed statistics that distress us. For some they even indicate the end of the Church as we know it, and who can blame them. This leads us to believe that we are impotent in the face of the greatest socio-political challenges we have faced in more than a lifetime. We are not confident that we have the capacity to be active resistors to populism and extremism. Too focussed are we on our own survival that we overlook our potential to change the world.

It is easy to be pessimistic when so much attention is given to the figures as they are presented. They don’t make pleasant reading. However I do not for a minute believe that all should be doom and gloom in the face of declining numbers. And before anyone accuses me of being naïve or in denial, let me say that I am not only aware of the seriousness with which such numerical decline and the reduction of income should be taken, but I am also a front-line minister. I therefore see the reality on the ground, I know the stories behind the graphs and I feel the anxiety of the members who give their all. The situation is challenging to say the least.

What I have come to believe these past few months as I have reflected on the rise of populism in our land, the deepening of division in our communities and the inability of so many to respect the views of others is that the Church has never been more needed than it is today. But what kind of Church is it to be? Is it one that falls for the populism? Is it one that barricades itself against the incomer? Is it so certain of its dogma that there is no room for fresh insight? Yes I have never been more disturbed by what is happening in our world today; but nor have I been as convinced of our calling as I do now. We have a job to do, we have to do it with every fibre of our being and we must never let anyone say that we can’t fulfil our calling.

Authenticity is, I believe, the key. People need reality. For a while people may fall for a false promise, but when it proves to be just that, a fantasy, those that offer authenticity will prevail. The Gospel we tell can change people’s lives. Those about us need to know that what we are presenting is reliable, trustworthy and above all else that we believe it! If it is no longer changing our lives and doesn’t speak to them in their need why should they listen?

Authenticity means there is no room for unfounded certainty. Honesty in all things, including belief, faith and doubt, is integral. But if we are just trying to convince ourselves through convincing others we shall be caught out eventually. When the evidence is such that our certainty is brought into question all else with it may end up discarded. Science, medical ethics, philosophy and all other areas of human thinking and discourse are not immune to God’s activity; to pretend they are and to create a silo mentality is to give up on our world.

Authenticity leaves space for the new arrival, for the different, for the discovery of new ideas without losing that which is essential. Our faith and beliefs have been honed by centuries of thought. Those who succeeded the first Apostles, the Church Fathers, the Reformers and the Holy Club have played their part in making us what we are today. There is no reason to believe that at some point God stopped disclosing new insights on the truth. As the world gets ever smaller it becomes ever clearer that we have much to learn from traditions other than our own. To ignore this fact is to limit not only the believability of what we seek to do but also the God of many names whom we serve.

Authenticity is the key.

We are meant to be in the ‘truth business’ so if we fail to convey the truth through our authenticity as disciples and as the body of the Church why should anyone believe us?

  • In a time of decline we may be tempted to exaggerate our presentation in order that we may appease or appeal. An authentic Church is able to communicate the Gospel by maintaining its integrity.
  • When we have lost our confidence we may be tempted to copy what works elsewhere without properly considering the contextual factors. An authentic Church is true to its place.
  • Amongst the confused we may be tempted to believe the last thing we hear and fail to recognise the need for consistency. An authentic Church does not sway with the wind.
  • As so many again prefer to classify and categorise we may be tempted to include and exclude according to some carefully constructed criteria. An authentic Church never forgets that every single human being is made in the image of God.
  • In a world where the slickness of delivery is a high priority we may be tempted to think that the small and under-resourced community has no place. An authentic Church is nothing less than a much-needed presence.

One example of how the need to attract numbers has watered down our effectiveness as a Church is when Arminianism is preached from Methodist pulpits yet Calvinism is sung in the pews. Our theology has become fractured and inconsistent by thoughtless use of worship resources. Care should be taken at all times to ensure that the provision for congregations is consistent and not confusing. Each year presbyters are asked at their Synod if they continue to believe and preach our doctrines. Perhaps we should rephrase it: believe, preach and sing our doctrines!

There have been times in my ministry when I have been driven to make the Church ‘grow’. I have driven myself. I have driven others. I now wonder whether this was for the best. I recall Henri Nouwen writing that the Church is not meant to be ‘successful’ but ‘effective’. I think I now know what he meant. Success is built on effort which can lead to stress. To be effective is altogether different and tends to come about not as a consequence of human action but the presence of the Spirit. All too many ministers, be they lay or ordained, have burnt out as a result of being driven; I count myself amongst them. It’s a salutary lesson to realise that the world will go on without us. In any case scriptural holiness isn’t about ‘putting bums on seats’, it is about Christian character and virtue, both theological and practical.

So, we cannot sit back and let the world slip into further chaos. Vaclav Havel, the playwright who led the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia and became its first post-Soviet President identified how an individual seeking an easy life can lead to problems for the world. He wrote a parable about a greengrocer. Wanting an easy life the grocer placed a sign in his window: Workers of the World Unite. It wasn’t that he was an activist in the Party, nor that he was a fan of Marx, far from it, he just wanted to fall in with the crowd and avoid unnecessary attention. But other shopkeepers followed suit. Soon the whole street had similar posters in the windows. Havel concluded: resistance to the regime became almost impossible as a consequence.[vi]

Our actions and inaction have an impact upon those about us. Wrapped up in saving the Church might mean we fail to notice what is going on in the wider world. We have long been familiar with the proverb ‘all it takes for evil to succeed is for good people to do nothing’. I have come to believe that evil can also succeed when good people make the wrong choices. Plenty of wrong choices were made by good people in the German Church during the 1930s and ‘40s. They did so because they believed them to be right at the time. Their misplaced trust had been formed out of insecurity during a period of prolonged austerity. Out of fear of the other, out of a desire to fit in with the rest, they fell for the propaganda. Put like that we can see the similarities with our own time. We would do well to learn from history, and learn fast before it is too late to stop the snowball becoming an avalanche.

In conclusion I want to revisit something that Jesus said, consider what he may be saying to us today and rephrase it in the following way: ‘Whoever would save the Church will lose it; and whoever would lose it might just end up saving it’. The Church we need to lose is the one that pretends to be something it is not. The Church we need to lose is the one that is focussed on itself and its own survival. The Church we need to lose is the one that turns its back on its neighbours. I have come to believe that when I face my Maker in judgment I won’t be asked what did I do to save the Church; but what did I do to love my neighbour.

 

[i] Roxburgh, Angus. Preachers of Hate – the rise of the Far Right, Gibson Square Books, 2002.

[ii] Koch, Richard & Smith, Chris. Suicide of the West, Continuum, 2006.

[iii] Mounk, Yascha. The People Vs. Democracy – why our freedom is in danger & how to save it, Harvard, 2018.

[iv] Fred Pratt Green. Singing the Faith, 414.

[v] Thompson, Bruce. Echoes of Contempt – a history of Judeophobia and the Church, Wipf & Stock, 2018.

[vi] Snyder, Timothy. On Tyranny – Twenty lessons from the Twentieth Century, The Bodley Head, 2017.

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