Another Time, Another Place… Another Country, Another State of Grace

In order to understand the South Africa of today, and still live with hope, we must understand at least some of the past – its history and its great literature and ideals…

In the fifth century, Rome was sacked by pagan Goths.

This left the Christian world in deep shock. After having been mercilessly persecuted by the Empire in the early days, by some mystical fashion, the Emperor Constantine had been converted in a dream and had legalised the Christian religion. And there was an end to the constant bloodshed.

Despite the attempt of Julian the Apostate Emperor to re-paganise Rome, the march of Christianity continued, and Rome became the centre of the Church – the place of Peter and Paul’s martyrdom, and thus the home of their successors, the Popes.

But then it fell apart. Constantine moved the Empire to the East – to Byzantium which became Constantinople, and is now Istanbul in Turkey. Rome’s power weakened, and eventually it was conquered and the old Empire of the West fell.

What was the point of being Christian if God’s city on earth could be overwhelmed by brutal power from the north? Many people despaired.

To answer this question, the world’s greatest theologian – St Augustine of the North African town Hippo – wrote the classic work, ‘The City of God’.

In it Augustine proclaimed that there is no lasting City of God on earth. Yes, we can build towards it, but because of our human imperfection, there will be no golden age again on an earth ruled by humanity.

As Europe descended into a dark age, men and women took this idea to heart, and in the ruins of the Empire they built new communities that would give life and birth centuries later to a new Christendom, the Holy Roman Empire governed by Charlemagne (which of course would itself not be perfect or last forever).

What does this have to do with us, living in the ruins of a country, haunted by centuries of conflict, subjugation and recent decades of corruption and criminality at the highest levels of government?

First of all, if Jacob Zuma is to teach us anything, it must be that the Mandela/Tutu idea of a rainbow nation, our post-1994 founding myth, is only ever an ideal, something to build towards.

Second, with the knowledge that we will never build utopia on earth, we need to be forgiving of each other – not constantly looking to make enemies of whole classes or groups of people. In other words, once we realise our country is not something eternal and holy, we need not constantly look to purge people we do not like. There will be no party to rule us until the return of Jesus.

In this regard, I keep recalling the famous speech of Bobby Kennedy the night Martin Luther King died – and just a few months before his own assassination:

In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it’s perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in. For those of you who are black — considering the evidence evidently is that there were white people who were responsible — you can be filled with bitterness, and with hatred, and a desire for revenge.

We can move in that direction as a country, in greater polarization — black people amongst blacks, and white amongst whites, filled with hatred toward one another. Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand, and to comprehend, and replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand, compassion and love…

But we have to make an effort in the United States, we have to make an effort to understand, to get beyond, or go beyond these rather difficult times.

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Third, we need to realise, in the words of famous economist John Maynard Keynes, in the long run, we are all dead. This might sound depressing. But it is not. It is liberating. All politics is temporary. As is all suffering.

In the words of Tolkien in the first instalment of his epic trilogy:

‘”I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.

‘”So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”‘

The people who try to build great earthly legacies usually fail terribly. Think of the dictators of our time. Of Napoleon. The way to live well is to follow the way of the hobbit, the little way, and to simply do the good that is right in front of you. When you do this, you touch eternity, a realm beyond the times and troubles of the now.

Finally, St Augustine knew that in the end all would be well. The resurrection of Christ is the promise to that end.

Every time there is terrible news in our country, I find myself going back to the closing pages of Dickens’ ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ – which, by the way, is also used at the conclusion of ‘The Dark Knight Rises’. In the book, Dickens traces the injustices that led to bloody revolution in France, and the even worse injustices that the Revolution let slip. (Has any revolution ever truly helped the common people?)

And while the two cities of the novel are London and Paris, there can be no doubt that in the background of Dickens’ thinking lay St Augustine’s ancient teaching of there being two cities in which we always live – the city of man and the City of God.

At the end of the novel, the great character, Sydney Carton, dies at the guillotine in the place of his great love’s husband. And in his final words lies wisdom for our times today:

‘They said of him, about the city that night, that it was the peacefullest man’s face ever beheld there. Many added that he looked sublime and prophetic… If he had given any utterance… and they were prophetic, they would have been these:

…I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss, and, in their struggles to be truly free, in their triumphs and defeats, through long, long years to come, I see the evil of this time and of the previous time of which this is the natural birth, gradually making expiation for itself and wearing out.

I see the lives for which I lay down my life, peaceful, useful, prosperous and happy… I see that I hold a sanctuary in their hearts, and in the hearts of their descendants, generations hence…

It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known.

Beyond politics, beyond corruption, beyond even this earth, there lies something else, something which that old wizard Gandalf mysteriously names ‘the secret fire’, and which the poet Dante called ‘the Love that moves the stars’. In this way, we find hope to go beyond our difficult times.