Like many other people, my mind is preoccupied with the horrors of Gaza and, despite the current lack of media attention, the appalling situation in Zimbabwe. Israel-Palestine is somewhere I have visited several times and will visit again next year. Zimbabwe is a country I have grown to love because of a strong link between the Diocese of Southwark and four of the Zimbabwean Anglican dioceses. The Croydon Episcopal Area is linked with the Diocese of Central Zimbabwe and we know Bishop Ishmael Mukuwanda and his people very well.
I have been to Zimbabwe several times and Ishmael and his wife have stayed with us several times during the last five years or so. It is in this relationship that we learn to see through different eyes and think through different frameworks. If my theology only ‘works’ in Wimbledon, but would be embarrassing if expressed in Harare or Gweru, then it is not a theology worth having. And to go to such places is to have your theology seriously tested.
And yet even in places of suffering and injustice there is a sense of deja vu – of seeing played out a situation that has been experienced many times before in the long history of humanity. Powerful people become paranoid and oppress others in order to compound their own security. Mugabe is trapped in his own weakness and paranoia – and they will lead to his undoing. As I observed in an earlier post, history teaches us that empires come and go and that power is a gift, not a right.
This might seem an odd diversion, but yesterday I was reading the speech by Franklin D Roosevelt on 4 March 1933 after being sworn in as President of the United States of America. I read it in the Guardian’s Great Speeches of the 20th Century. The introduction is written by the Prime Minister Gordon Brown who in retrospect must surely wish he hadn’t agreed to do it. Roosevelt, speaking of the dire economic straits of 1930s America, could have been writing today. Try this, for example:
‘…we face our common difficulties. They concern, thank God, only material things. Values have shrunk to fantastic levels: taxes have risen; our ability to pay has fallen; government of all kinds is faced by serious curtailment of income; the means of exchange are frozen in the currents of trade; the withered leaves of industrial enterprise lie on every side; farmers find no markets for their produce; and the savings of many years in thousands of families are gone. More important, a host of unemployed citizens face the grim problem of existence, and an equally great number toil with little return. Only a foolish optimist can deny the dark realities of the moment.
And yet our distress comes from no failure of substance. We are stricken by no plague of locusts. Compared with the perils which our forefathers conquered, because they believed and were not afraid, we have still much to be thankful for. Nature still offers her bounty and human efforts have multiplied it. Plenty is at our doorstep, but a generous use of it languishes in the very sight of the supply.
Primarily, this is because the rulers of the exchange of mankind’s goods have failed, through their own stubbornness and their own incompetence, have admitted their failure, and have abdicated. Practices of the unscrupulous money changers stand indicted in the court of public opinion, rejected by the hearts and minds of men.
True, they have tried. But their efforts have been cast in the pattern of an outworn tradition. Faced by failure of credit, they have proposed only the lending of more money. Stripped of the lure of profit by which to induce our people to follow their false leadership, they have resorted to exhortations, pleading tearfully for restored confidence. They only know the rules of a generation of self-seekers. They have no vision, and when there is no vision the people perish.
Yes, the money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilisation. We may now restore that temple to the ancient truths. The measure of that restoration lies in the extent to which we apply social values more noble than mere monetary profit.
Happiness lies not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort. The joy, the moral stimulation of work no longer must be forgotten in the mad chase of evanescent profits. These dark days, my friends, will be worth all they cost us if they teach us that our true destiny is not to be ministered unto but to minister to ourselves, to our fellow men.
Recognition of that falsity of material wealth as the standard of success goes hand in hand with the abandonment of the false belief that public office and high political position are to be valued only by the standards of pride of place and personal profit; and there must be an end to a conduct in banking and in business which too often has given to a sacred trust the likeness of callous and selfish wrongdoing. Small wonder that confidence languishes, for it thrives only on honesty, on honour, on the sacredness of obligations, on faithful protection, and on unselfish performance; without them it cannot live.
Delivered almost 76 years ago, his words resonate powerfully even now in a world of economic embarrassment and moral fickleness. Roosevelt was writing of America, yet while he was speaking on his side of the Atlantic Ocean Adolf Hitler was enjoying the first months of his rule of a Germany that had no idea what it was walking into.
America re-grew its economic, military and political power and ultimately became the ultimate superpower. But those days are passing even now – just as the thousand-year Reich collapsed after only a decade and a half of catastrophic hubris.
Empires come and go. The Bible tells us so. We’ve seen it all before. Time to learn the lessons. (But I doubt we will.)