Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Hour and the Man

I lay awake last night, restless and thinking of why our wealth makes us dull to the gospel and soulless. Yes, we hear about Angelina Jolie and Madonna adopting infants from impoverished nations, and Bono spearheading efforts in Africa to combat HIV and AIDS. We anticipate- skeptic and believer alike- the fulfilment of the promises our President-Elect made on his unique and inspiring campaign. These are stories from the wealth of America. But these are remarkable because they are doing something counter-intuitive- and that is, sharing of their time, wealth and indeed of themselves.

I thought of Gandhi, wondering how a man could influence so many and transform the moral direction of a nation. My dad, born in 1941, tells me that when he was 5, before India's independence, people referred to Gandhi as "Gandhi Appooppan" (Grandpa Gandhi). In a remote village in Southern India, which was still a princely state and would continue to remain so until the fifties, they looked with respect to a man from faraway Gujarat and were arguably guided by his principles. Today's India has very little of those principles. Politically India's policies prior to the 90s were socialist im principle. The welfare state it created faces a crisis of epic proportions in the early 90s when policies were dramatically reversed and now has created a consumeristic nation characterized by greed and selfishness. In the turnaround which was necessary and laudable, something else happened which happens all too often- a trading away of values that called for simple living, even austerity, to make way for trumpery and shallow living. India's leadership today bears no resemblance to the one in the 40s. Martin Luther King once remarked on his trip to India, "To other countries I go as a visitor. To India I come as a pilgrim." To King, Gandhi's land held a moral clarity and courage that was unparalleled inthe world then. Gnadhi rose up in the context of an unjust and predatory governance system. Besides him so many Indian leaders then crafted a policy that was exemplary and powerful to oppose the British government with peace and civil disobedience. The hour produced the men.

Ah, but then America had Dr. King himself, a man known for his similar resistance in the face of injustice. The greatest humans in history are known for moral courage, rather than for the power they wielded, the skill they had, the money they made or the feats they accomplished. Mother Teresa, Francis of Assissi, Nelson Mandela, Diertrich Bonhoeffer- are all known for this. Others have had a moral dimension to them that fuelled their specia well-known activities, despite any failing they may have had elsewhere- Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churcill, President Roosevelt. Poets and authors are known much more for their profound thoughts on moral dilemmas and their resolutions- Dostoevsky, Tagore, Tolstoy. Those whose wealth and skills make the world a better place are often known because they make the world a better place, not because of themselves. Thus Alfred Nobel is known more for the prize he instituted than for his fortune in armaments. Bill Gates for now is known for Microsoft, but if he persists at his charity, he may be known much more for it in the future. This brings us to the celebrities who too are known for charitable activities than for their achievements in show business.

Why do we admire moral courage. Why is it so empirically verifiable that true greatness always comes in the face of adversity? In America we face an economic crisis, accompanied by unprecedented loss of jobs, wars in other countries and other worries. RZIM writer Margaret Manning asks in today's 'Slice of Infinity' if it is possible today to sing 'Joy to the World' when there is no apparent joy to be found. Can those of us who are not yet affected by the crisis be legitimately joyful when there are others who are so affected?

The fact is, these conditions are not new to many among the have-nots of this world. For them the crisis has been an ongoing affair. For the rest of us this is a new reality that is scary. Margaret tells us that Christmas means precisely this, that the promised Messiah came to a world that was truly dark- this made all the difference to a people that were on the verge of losing hope. The long-awaited Messiah was just so- he came into a sinful, evil world. To know the reality of this is to have known the reality of evil in our world, and indeed in ourselves.

In yesterday's 'Slice', writer Jill Carattini writes that John the Baptist who came to prepare the way of the Lord, actually exhorts us even today to make his paths straight, in our own hearts. To receive the Messiah, I need to feel my evil and repent from the bottom of my heart.

I mentioned that the hour produces the man- it did so 2000 years ago in Bethlehem. But that was God's gift to us and not the will of man. But isn't it true that every man who is so produced comes out of God's will? Jesus is God's Son, but the prophets were his messengers. My prayer is that we who need a prohet more than ever would get one- even if he calls us to turn away from our most familiar, beloved and sinful ways.

No comments: