Speaking truth to power is a dangerous job, especially if the seat of power is vengeful. Jillian Trigg and Margaret Latham of the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) have had recent experience of power’s vengefulness.
It can also be humiliating if you are told that it is not your place. On several occasions Federal and State politicians, children of the Enlightenment, have told me that I should stick to my field of religious piety and leave them to get on with their business of running the world – or at least the country.
The problem with this is that, the Enlightenment notwithstanding, the role of the Church is not simply to corral a few holy souls to heaven, but to be agents in corralling heaven to earth. Is that not what the Lord’s Prayer would have us pray? Is this not what the New Testament is all about?
Today is Advent Sunday, the first day of the new Church year. It celebrates a very human emotion – anticipation. Human life in its fullness is not possible without anticipation, an emotion which excels in children but often dies in adulthood. We humans are used to marking significant personal life moments which often follow a long gestation period of anticipation. But in our western materialistic culture we are no longer very good at anticipation as a shared public or corporate longing for fulfilment.
It was not always thus. Most ancient societies and cultures held several annual celebrations, often associated with the change of seasons to express hope that life is on offer, darkness is being overcome by light, etc. It is ironic that those cultures that are still reasonably good at these life giving celebrations are cultures that have not yet been totally absorbed by western material values.
Advent is a corporate celebration which anticipates the coming of heaven to earth. Its immediate focus is the incarnation, the birth of Jesus, the pitching of the divine tent in the midst of the temporal and finite world. The coming of Jesus is the divine act that purposes all that is temporal and finite to be stamped with the character of the eternal. This anticipation was expressed in the familiar Isaiah reading for today (Is. 2:1-5) in which we are to anticipate power being challenged, weapons of war are to be transformed into tools of peace.
In these post Enlightenment days Advent is sadly reduced to an ‘out of this world’ anticipation of the second coming of Jesus when life as we know it will come to an end, judgement will take place, evil will be vanquished and the ‘saved’ will be vindicated. Don’t get me wrong, I do believe that in the fullness of time light will overcome darkness and what is transient will give way to what is eternal.
However the focus of the New Testament is not primarily about this; it is primarily about the coming of heaven to earth and the consequences of this coming in a new ‘kingdom’, a kingdom which pivots around sacrificial love. Tragically, worldly power is hardly ever about sacrificial love and that is why the kingdom of Jesus is so confrontational. When we proclaim ‘Jesus is Lord’, we make a radically subversive statement about true power and where it lies.
Let me give a very contemporary example. Most of the world is at war with what it calls ‘terror’. How this terror morphed into its current manifestation is extremely complex and is certainly a mixture of both the consequences of ill-informed western interference and of a religion that has yet to deal adequately with sacred text that allows (perhaps even authenticates) violent interpretation. However resolving the issue will not be ‘bombing the hell out of them’ as Donald Trump has often promised. Resolving the issue will only occur when grace prevails; when those who are recruited refuse to join because they are included in and have experienced what for them is a better way.
Almost every day somebody reflects back to me what I am constantly thinking: “the world is in a hell of a mess”. Everywhere political systems are inadequate and democracy everywhere seems to have been diminished through manipulated and very blatant self-interest.
There has never been a more urgent time for truth to be spoken to power. Shamefully the Church has undermined its voice through mimicking many of the traits that need to be overcome in the wider world.
We may well be tempted to keep our heads down and restrict ourselves to pious rhetoric, but in the season of Advent this simply will not do.
In the season of Advent we anticipate ‘earth being kissed by heaven’. The Kingdom that Advent anticipates is a vastly different kingdom to the one that values power over service, profit over compassion and individual rights over the common good of God’s whole creation.