October 27th, 2016
We’ve been reading of late, on a whim, the British fiction author, P.D. James’, The Children of Men. (You may have seen the film adaptation from several years ago.) The novel is what literary folk like to call dystopian. It imagines a world in which the ability to procreate has mysteriously vanished. No children exist–only the last generation to be born, now somewhere in its early 20s, that youngest set known as “Omega.”
There in a world that is only dying–not renewing, not proceeding, finding no reason to cultivate the world further since no one will be around to enjoy it–governments are finding ways to minimize the impact on what of humanity remains. They organize mass suicides among the infirm, a practice euphemistically known as the “Quietus.” They imprison lawbreakers in facilities allowed to function almost like walled-in anarchies; whether inmates are treated with respect or not is no longer of any concern.
This world increasingly jettisoning age-old values has also largely dispensed with notions theological. The loss of humanity’s continuance has cast a pall upon any thought of a divine benevolence overseeing all things. Some pockets of faith remain but most move on as if their impending death is indeed a final end. The protagonist of the film, ironically named Theo, shares that same cynicism toward the transcendent.
The world decaying before their very eyes, the interest in preserving what’s left dwindling among the populace, there are nevertheless still a few who long to see certain virtues endure. A five-some of young adults who come to call themselves the Five Fishes petition Theo to use his influence with a key law-maker of the nation to overturn those draconian practices sponsored by the state. Among the five are two Christians. The remaining three, while not sharing their compatriots faith, nonetheless can’t entirely dismiss the moral coherence and impetus their faith sustains.
Enervated by part cynicism at the revolutionary spirit of this younger generation, and part unwillingness to risk himself for a dying world, Theo initially rebuffs their importunity. But after witnessing first hand those cruel, inhuman policies that had inspired the Five Fishes to act, he reaches his own existential crisis: does he engage in a fledgling movement almost certain to fail, or stand aside and preserve what goodness life still has to offer in his and his world’s remaining years? In the end he chooses the route of greater resistance, saying:
There was some dignity and much safety in the self-selected role of spectator, but, faced with some abominations, a man had no option but to step onto the stage.
A new moral energy had catalyzed within him. But as with most, if not all, righteous efforts it would not be without cost.
Job was our guide last Sunday into that suffering compounded by its incomprehensibility. This Sunday we let Jeremiah orient us to a kind of suffering that is derived from doing what is nobler, riskier, and harder. Save for Jesus Himself, Jeremiah most illuminates by his experience the pain that comes with being an advocate for what is righteous.
We’re going to let a contemporary figure frame up that exploration of Jeremiah’s words. This figure has been much in the news over the last several months, provoking a fair share of controversy, but not as political candidate. Among you who join us this Sunday there may be both those who are inclined to reify or to vilify this individual. Regardless of how you might interpret this person of note though, few would dispute that the individual has taken up something like a prophetic mantle–one which is both animated by a sense of a righteous imperative within, and which also invariably provokes righteous indignation from without.
You may never find yourself in a moral crisis worthy of a novel, or in a public moment impressing upon you the need to speak and act with defiance against present conditions. But we all inevitably encounter circumstances in which we are presented with the opportunity either to stand against something worthy of reproach, or to permit it to continue. What then?
What is it like to suffer for what is righteous? What is that even for? And moreover what does it take to face and fulfill the occasion for it? Those are the three questions Jeremiah starts to answer for us, in a passage with a curious juxtaposition of lament, praise, and despair (Jer 20:7-18).
Not all Christians are called to be martyrs. All are called to follow the Lamb on the path where martyrdom is a real risk.
Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine
Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am thine.