Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Stay awake! or sleep the sleep of the culpable

Mark chapter 13 is one of the darkest, foreboding chapters in the any of the four Gospels. It is menacing and mysterious. In it Jesus describes life without those familiar secure landmarks and boundaries that help all of us find our place in the world. To the people of his own times Jesus foretold a time when
  • the Temple would be dismantled,
  • national leadership would be confused and in meltdown,
  • international conflicts would multiply exponentially
  • religious and political interests would develop lethal power games
  • scary images of stampeding refugees and unprecedented natural disasters would become stark realities.
Asked how people can cope with such a doom-watch scenario it seems all Jesus can suggest is ‘Don’t fall asleep!’ - Apocalypse is just round the corner.

"Keep awake!" But who can keep awake all the time anyway? A body on chronic red alert is going to crash sometime. Sleep is a natural and essential process of rest and renewal. Well, yes, but we know what Jesus meant. There is such a thing as dozing our way through life without noticing, not paying attention to what’s going on around us. But for followers of Jesus, to be passive and silent, uninterested or disinterested in what is happening to our planet, or complacent about the threats to the vulnerable in our world, or to be uncritical of those who use and abuse power over others; that is to sleep the sleep of the culpable.

On the other hand to be awake to the ethical implications of business decisions; to be awake to the human consequences of our political leaders’ actions; to be awake so as to hear the cries of the poor and the pleadings of the suffering; these are examples of necessary vigilance.
  • Being awake to the ongoing moral cost of Guantanamo
  • Being aware of dawn raids on asylum seekers as violation
  • Being informed on Trident, Just War theory AND the Sermon on the Mount
  • Being alert to the daily violence and consequent tragedies of Baghdad
  • Being vigilant on behalf of the still threatened tribal peoples in Darfur
  • Feel free to add to this rather personal, limited but ethically prejudiced list
Such wakefulness and moral alertness doesn’t come easy. And it doesn’t win popularity contests either. It means being open-eyed, clued-up alert to media mind games, political spin, commercial exaggeration, and other forms of truth tailoring. Jesus urged his followers to be alert to the signs of the times, awake to the realities around us, watchful and protective of truth.

The practical application of the most powerful, sustained, detailed warning Jesus ever gave is, ‘don’t go to sleep’.
Be there when and where it matters. Stay awake, notice what’s going on. But noticing is one thing; drawing attention to what we see is quite another. Doing something about it is something else again. Lenten discipline is more than introspective concern for our own personal spiritual development - it is risk-taking moral alertness and compassion.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, that most wide-awake and watchful of Christ’s followers, who saw long before most, where Hitler’s Nazi ideology would finally lead, famously wrote ‘When Christ calls a man he bids him come and die.’ There is a cost attached to being awake, seeing what’s happening, and taking the stand in the centre of the world’s courtroom as Christ’s witness. And the rewards aren’t obvious, except to know that alert outspokenness on behalf of the poor, the threatened and the suffering is always an act of obedience to Christ who commands us, for the sake of the world, and as an attitude of costly obedience ‘Stay awake!

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