Nicolas Stebbing CR asks whether we are in a time of disillusion or hope
“Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream. “ (Amos 5: 24)
When I was about 14 I began to see injustice in my country, then called Rhodesia. We Europeans had a great life, but Africans were kept out of it. Not many Europeans saw this but some of us began to protest, write letters to the paper, vote for parties who wanted a better deal for Africans. A friend and I used to tear down opposition parties’ election posters not knowing this was illegal! Unfortunately, the electorate moved to the right. The white government moved to the right; the African leaders became increasingly militant. Civil war broke out. I identified with their search for justice though I hated the violence. In the end, after 30,000 people, mostly African, had died peace and independence came. For a few years it seemed to work. The government seemed competent and enlightened. Then it began to fall apart. Another civil war took place, killing another 30,000 people. The economy began to collapse under bad government and corruption. Now 40 years after independence the country is a mess, the people suffer and political leaders are unjustly rich. Was it all a waste of time?
In South Africa there has been a similar tale. I was there with my Community for seven years. We supported the liberation movements. We did what we could to undermine apartheid. In the end a new order came in 1994 under the wonderful President Nelson Mandela. The dream was well established of a new South Africa, socially just, free and mature after the long struggle against injustice. Twenty-six years later the dream is dead. Corruption thrives. Rich blacks are far richer than rich whites ever were. Apartheid is alive and well, only it is not colour but wealth that marks it out. Does nothing change?
I was a student in the sixties. Though my own people had little idea of social justice it seemed the Western world did. Student riots took place demanding a more just world order. Britain had a Labour government. America had Democrats in power with the charismatic Kennedy at its head. The Churches embraced the cause of social justice. Even the great Roman Catholic Church joined in the spirit of change with Vatican 2 and the decree Gaudium et Spes. Christian Aid, Oxfam, Caritas, missionary societies, religious communities like CR and a host of other organisations have worked along with the United Nations agencies to eradicate injustice. Yet the gap between rich and poor grows bigger. The rich countries dominate the world while the poor countries slide down the scale (not helped by their own corruption, though this is often exacerbated by Western trading practices). Is there any hope ever of establishing a society like that portrayed in the Gospels?
Ever since the Second World War there have been campaigns against nuclear bombs and nuclear power. Sometimes they seem to be influential, other times they fade into the background. When communism collapsed in 1990 there seemed good reason to get rid of bombs but America would not so Russia would not either. It is deeply unchristian to have a system of defence that relies on the threat of killing millions of innocent civilians randomly, yet Christians go on voting for the parties that support this. Billions of pounds which the UK cannot afford are absorbed by this nuclear ‘defence’. Even more billions of dollars which USA could spend on its own poor, let alone those of other countries, are taken up with developing more and more clever ways of doing utterly barbaric things. We Christians care about the poor. We care about peace. We worship a Christ who was killed by an oppressive political system. Yet we vote for nuclear bombs. Does anyone care?
One of the other delights of my life has been the work of seeking unity between churches. This was really exciting after Vatican 2 when it seemed attainable. Yet now Anglican and Roman Churches seem to have stopped converging. As Religious we continue to meet, to pray together and to celebrate the Christian faith we all share. All churches have ecumenical officers and foster ecumenical conversations. Does it go anywhere? Whatever the rhetoric a real desire for unity seems pretty low on the agenda of all our churches.
These are not the only issues that Christians should care about and act upon. We know about climate change and the destruction of our environment, both leading to the destruction of large parts of the human race, particularly the poor. This is not just in the future; it is happening now. Millions are already dying for reasons linked to climate change. Some things are being done, but not nearly enough. Covid 19 has revealed gaping holes in our society which need to be filled. When normal life, in some form, returns, will it allow us to do anything about that? Or will the rich and the powerful once again insist on an agenda that has already proved catastrophic for our world?
So, I am 74. Do I abandon these causes, become a quiet peaceful member of society and prepare for death? Preparing for death is never a bad thing but that means also thinking of judgement. What will I say when Christ asks me why I stopped caring for the poor, the weak, the victims of our oppressive society? Will I find myself among those who didn’t help my brothers and sisters even though Christ was in them? Of course I won’t, not actually because I fear judgement but for a number of other good reasons. I know God is still active and I want to work alongside Him, not against Him. I have hope:
- I do not find Zimbabwe or South Africa depressing places to be, despite the disappointments. They are young countries growing into adulthood. They will take a long time to mature but they are full of life and hope. My visits there always fill me with hope as I see young citizens working to build a new life. It is wonderful to see black people in places they could never have gone a few years ago. It is wonderful to enjoy friendships across the colour line. It is wonderful to meet Africans who are real leaders, compassionate, profound and competent. Life is much more full of hope there than in the tired corrupt West.
- The cause of all these evils, racism, injustice, climate change and nuclear violence is simply human sin, the same sin that has been around since the dawn of human civilization: selfishness, which shows itself as self-centredness, greed, laziness and a hardheartedness that insulates us against the suffering of the poor. We will never finally overcome those sins in the human race but we work constantly to overcome them in the lives of individuals. We will always live in an imperfect society but the Holy Spirit enables us to grow towards perfection, individually and with our society. Calling people to justice whether for the poor, for the weak, for the environment or for peace slowly makes people aware of their sin and enables them to repent. Repentance which ignores these issues is no real repentance at all. God is in this. The Holy Spirit is active and we see it. That is why I do not despair.
- Sixty years of caring in this way has been enormous fun. I have met marvellous people, been to wonderful places. I have had excitements and enrichments most people never dream of. If you want to meet interesting people today seek out the environmentalists, those who care about the world. Seek out those who care that villagers in Africa are being destroyed by the changing climate. They are lovely, loving people, so much nicer than those who ignore these pending disasters, or are too lazy to act against them.
Catholic Anglicans are proud of a history when we worked among the poor, when we did great mission work in poverty stricken parts of the world. Then we showed that Christ was incarnate among the poor and the sacraments were not decorative toys for the rich but instruments of salvation for all. Are we still doing this? Are our present concerns mostly focussed on ourselves? I see little in New Directions to suggest we are now seeking justice. That is a pity because it would be so much more fun if we did.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled.” (Matt 5: 6)
Fr Nicolas Stebbing is a member of
the Community of the Resurrection, Mirfield.