WE LIVE IN apocalyptic times. By which I mean we are confronting twin existential threats to the future of the planet from catastrophic global heating and loss of biodiversity, alongside the growing, mass displacement of people by war, poverty and abuse brought about through a resurgence of different forms of authoritarianism.
Besides all that, we are also just beginning to face up to the impending fourth major, history-defining economic and societal disruption – following the agricultural, industrial, and digital revolutions. This is one which will be occasioned by Artificial Intelligence (AI), automation, robotification, and the potentialities of technological transhumanism.
At the core of all these problems and challenges (for they are both) is the global destruction wrought by neoliberal capitalism, the captivity of much of the planet to addictive consumption, obscene levels of inequality, the hollowing out of accountability by the corporate and personal wealth of a tiny minority, and a widespread failure of human moral imagination, intention and capacity.
Forgive me if this is not exactly the good news we might be hoping for as people across the world variously celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah and Solstice. But it is necessary to concentrate our minds on where we are as a future-determining species right now, because the life and wellbeing of billions depends upon it, and because most of the signs are that we are presently sleepwalking to destruction.
That word ‘signs’ is important here. Alongside the warning of impending catastrophe, it is the parallel meaning of the word ‘apocalyptic’. It is about seeing in the dark, perceiving the possibility of deliverance in the face of disaster. It involves a recognition that, in a number of senses, we are always living at the end of the world. For the many millions who cannot guarantee where their next meal is coming from, where the next bomb will land, or whether their home will be swept away by flood or fire, that is a daily reality. For those of us sitting in material comfort and security while the planet burns, it is a reality too. We mostly just do not realise it yet.
In the midst of Covid (which has not gone away, incidentally) there was much talk of “no return to the old normal”. That seems to have been almost completely forgotten now. Likewise, the arrival of refugees and asylum seekers to our shores in increasing numbers – though nothing remotely like the numbers felt in the poorest and most devasted parts of the world – has largely become an opportunity for scapegoating and performative cruelty on the part of the kind of politicians who fuel fear of others in order to buttress their ‘strong man’ (sic) appeal, while failing to recognise that we reap what we sow, and so need to sow better. Historic and contemporary inequality, war, abuse, racism, genocide, poverty and climate crisis are the forces leading to mass displacement. They are what we should be addressing, urgently. But the main response from our rulers, and from too much of the population, is to try to turn blame onto the victims, to build higher walls, and to seek to protect at all costs a lifestyle and a system which is literally killing us – some quickly, others slowly; some far, some near.
A new world, an awakened humanity, and a revived spirit are therefore not luxuries, or some kind of religious curiosity, they are essential to the possibilities of a sustainable liveable future for the planet, for people everywhere, and for all the creatures and life-forms we share the Earth with. As the Italian political theorist Antonio Gramsci famously put it, “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”
What we desperately need right now is rescue from ways of ordering our lives economically, politically, socially, communally and personally which are both self-destroying and other-destroying. We need to turn around and discover fresh paths towards wellbeing and wholeness, just-peace, and a genuine communion with all on this fragile earth. Interestingly, there are biblically and theologically derived words for all this which are central to the Christian tradition, but too rarely deployed in other than abstracted ‘religious’ terms: metanoia (repentance, or turning right around), salus (salvation, which means both health and wholeness), shalom/salaam (peace as the presence of right relations, not simply the absence of war), communio (mutual indwelling and benefit), and oikoumene (the unity of the whole, inhabited earth). Imagine what might happen if these were taken seriously, and acted upon?
Before we get to the good news, we need to face the bad news, however. The bad news is that, as St Paul once put it, we have to “work out our own salvation, in fear and trembling” (though he didn’t mean ‘alone’), because there is no messianic technology, superhero, ruler, party, corporation or class coming to do the job for us. On the contrary, those who promise to liberate us if only we hand them huge amounts of power and control – secular or religious, or both – will inevitably turn out to be bombastic, dangerous, deceivers and charlatans. Even so, they will often appeal to the masses. Trump, Putin, Musk, Meloni, Farage, Bolsonaro, Johnson… there have been many in the recent past, and there will be more in the years to come.
So we are absolutely right to distrust saviours offering or bearing gifts, arms, wealth, multiple hatreds, division and ‘security’, alongside their own unquenchable lust for power. Which brings us, strangely enough, and by way of life-altering contrast, to that baby born in Bethlehem (more likely Nazareth, many scholars would say), whose coming into the world millions are marking today.
Throughout the chequered and sometimes disastrous history of Christianity, the figure of Christ has been used to justify and launch crusades. The message about him has been translated into a tool of domination. The cross on which he was judicially executed for subversion has been turned into a weapon of slaughter and persecution. Above all, the promise of deliverance and hope he proclaimed and lived for the whole world has been squashed into a cipher for the salvation of a few and the damnation of the many.
The ‘religion of power’, whether specifically religious (in many forms and guises including, and apart from, Christianity) or ostensibly secular (like postmodern, digitised, rapacious capitalism) is what is overwhelmingly responsible for the state the world is in and the peril it faces, if we are honest. But we should not think of this as an alien force, or simply the product of a few malign figures or movements of which we are simply victims. In its widest sense the ‘religion of power’ is an impulse and a story we all too readily enable, inhabit, serve, collude with, vote for, cheer and – just as fatally – fail to see, or ignore. Its twin is what Walter Wink called ‘the myth of redemptive violence’, the idea that the force of a conquering hero or group/party/army will put things right.
Read aright – that is from among the lowly from whom it sprang, from what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “the underside of history” – the birth of Jesus and all it portends is precisely about the rejection, refutation and reversal of the ‘religion of power’. That is, the lure of domination in all its guises, actually human or allegedly divine. So the child who embodies peace and possibility is born in historical obscurity, at the edge of empire, and of uncertain parentage and potential scandal. The representatives of earthly wisdom and power come to pay homage to humanity at its smallest, weakest and most vulnerable – rather than the other way round. The Emperor and his religious collaborators do not see what is really happening; that is left to workaday shepherds.
When the imperial delegate finally does notice, he sees the threat posed by the message this baby embodies (a rebel God who turns the world upside down, as his mother joyously sings) and turns to genocidal rage. The family are forced to flee and seek refuge. On and on it goes. Whatever the historical detail behind the narrative (something we will never fully resolve) what is clear is that the God who comes to us in this lowly, uncommon shape and form is not the legendary potentate on high who enforces orders of earthly wealth, oppression, hierarchy, exclusion and punishment. Rather, the God of Jesus is to be found among those who need delivering from our domination systems, who are prepared to challenge them, and who will take the risk of being transformed (and sometimes even killed) in the process.
Deliverance, challenge, transformation. These are the gifts of love-that-does-justice which we most need in apocalyptic times, combined with a gentleness that refuses the construction of power-over others, searching instead for a power-with and a power-for those who need it most. Maya Angelou, the Black American memoirist, popular poet and civil rights activist, who we sadly lost in 2014, sums up the essence of the seasonal story beautifully in her Amazing Peace: A Christmas Poem.
In this climate of fear and apprehension,
Streaming lights of joy, ringing bells of hope
And singing carols of forgiveness high up in the bright air.
The world is encouraged to come away from rancour,
Come the way of friendship.
Perhaps that sounds rather sentimental. If so, we should probe further. That word ‘encourage’ is maybe not quite enough for the task it describes, for instance. ‘Invite’, ‘urge’, ‘impel’: all these and more are perhaps required to capture the urgency of the task. Equally, ‘friendship’ is much more than civility among the likeminded, or those who are like us. In the gospel story that unfolds from the moment of birth in Bethlehem, or from the divine Word unfolding life itself in John’s prologue, the invitation is to love enemies as well as friends, to refuse the sword, to forgive repeatedly, to share extravagantly, to prioritise those pushed to the margins, to recognise our dependence upon one another and upon the God who strangely chooses dependence upon us. This is a story of profound personal, interpersonal and corporate liberation – all three. It is also a narrative about turning our politics, our use and abuse of power, and the world itself, upside down. That is the apocalyptic decision required of apocalyptic times.