Thursday, 6 February 2014

A Utopian Vision


 Isaiah 2:1-4

The second chapter of Isaiah begins with one of those passages that have become part of the language and culture of Western society. Preachers and politicians echo its phrases even if sometimes they have no idea of where they come from:
“and they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruninghooks:
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.”

Here too, however, the focus is on Jerusalem. Isaiah’s dream is that the Temple mount, “the mountain of the LORD’s house”, will be exalted so that it becomes (figuratively, we assume) the highest in the world. All the nations will stream to it, acknowledging the God of Israel and ready to learn his ways. In this way God will become the judge and arbiter among the nations and there will be universal peace.
This Jewish vision of one God teaching the world how to live was inherited by Christianity, and the churches especially of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw their role as evangelizing the rest of the world. As missionaries spread over the world under the protection of the European empires, they saw themselves as exporting not only the Christian faith but also a whole European way of life. They were educating and civilizing the rest of the world as well as evangelizing it.

Perhaps the high point of this movement was the great International Missionary Conference in Edinburgh in 1910. As happens with many human enterprises, its chief effect was different from its original aim. In one sense it was a new beginning, but rather than the beginning of a new missionary advance it was the beginning, for Protestants at least, of the ecumenical movement that has so changed the face of the Christian churches. As far as world mission is concerned, however, 1910 now looks like the beginning of the end. The slogan that rallied all the missionary societies and inspired them to work together was “the evangelization of the world in this generation”. Today that looks like a very dated and unrealistic dream.
Four years after this conference Europe, the “Christian” continent, was engulfed in a disastrous war that left many people disillusioned with traditional beliefs and values and paved the way for a much more questioning, sceptical and secular society. During that war came also the Russian revolution that spread militant atheistic Communism over a wide area of Europe and Asia and eventually led among other things to the complete closure of China to Christian missionaries. Later in the twentieth century came the breaking up of the great world empires. Countries to which European missionaries had enjoyed free access became independent and able to refuse entry to them. Many of these former colonies reasserted their own cultural and religious heritage. Islam, in particular, is now a force to be reckoned with in the political, social and religious scene. Economic developments have led to massive immigration into Western European countries, so that today Western Christians can no longer think of people of other faiths as faraway “heathen” waiting to hear the gospel, but as neighbours on the same street and colleagues in the same workplace. Even many people whose cultural heritage is Christian, including some active members of churches, now hold to an eclectic spirituality that mixes Christianity with elements of Buddhism and Hinduism. We now live in a market-place of faiths and world views in which “winning the world for Christ” seems not only unrealistic but arrogant.

Probably the nearest we have today to the ideal of the whole world uniting around one “teaching” is the concept of human rights as expressed in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Geneva Convention, the International Criminal Court and so on. Whatever people’s creed or culture, there is a feeling that there are certain basic humanitarian principles on which everyone agrees. These principles are of course very far from being universally recognised in practice, though the fact that they are adopted in theory is felt to be a step in the right direction.
Today, however, even this consensus is being questioned, Stephen Hopgood* argues that the ideology behind “human rights” is a Western liberal perception of human life and society that does not necessarily fit every culture. He calls it “a secular bourgeois ideology, a kind of religionless Protestantism”, that is becoming increasingly irrelevant in today’s world of varied cultures and in the light of the resurgence of religion as a strong force and often divisive force.

World peace today can only be achieved by the much more difficult and complex path of people of different faiths and cultures striving for justice in their own terms and at the same time learning to understand, respect and compromise with each other. And yet, however we expect it to be achieved, and however long we expect it to take, there is something in those words of Isaiah that keeps us hoping.

* The Endtimes of Human Rights, Cornell University Press 2013; see also his article in New Internationalist, November 2013, pp 38-39

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