When I worked as a professional linguist for the British government in the first half of the 1980s the colours on the map looked deep and fixed. The mighty Soviet Empire joined in proxy wars with the American Giant and the Berlin Wall looked pretty impregnable. The West was best and the East was a beast… according to the simplistic world view of most of us. China was bonkers – but that was OK because China was closed off from most of the world anyway. India was a bit of a post-colonial basket case.
It’s not very subtle really. We just tend to assume that the ‘now’ is the ultimate and, from the comfort of our relative affluence, we find it hard to imagine our towers cracking. You have to suffer to imagine radical change; it’s hope that imagines difference.
The world changes very quickly. What looks solid and permanent cracks and collapses in a seeming instant. The Soviet monolith dissolved, it’s tanks and guns neutered by popular refusal to be controlled by the taxidermic hypocrites of the incompetent Kremlin pantheon. The Berlin Wall was breached. Just as the British Empire waxed and waned within a period that is a blip of history, so the empires came and went. It is hard to believe today that the Cold War was ever that cold really.
And yet we find it hard to learn from history – even recent history. The USA proclaims itself the ‘land of the free’, but is skating on the surface of unsustainable debt and diminishing power – apparently divided between a polarised populace who can’t see that the world is changing, whether they like it or not.
Empires come and go. That’s what history teaches us. And when they begin to go, we begin to fantasise that if only we could go back to how it once was (but probably wasn’t), all would be well again. Which is why, in religious terms, some would like to take us all back to the seventeenth century rather than create a new world from where we are. Fantasy is the food of the fearful.
Yet, this is not true only of nations. The news is dominated by the on-going hacking scandal in the UK and the latest fear-driven financial crisis. The British tabloid press demonstrated an invincible hubris for decades, setting themselves above the law, seated on the thrones of moral judgement over everyone else. Today they look pretty sordidly feeble – built on criminality and greed. And the smell is spreading across the media and across the Atlantic. This probably isn’t a good time to set up a private detective agency…
Europe itself, like the USA, is walking on the thin ice of economic and financial hubris: massively in debt, manufacturing too little, too used to living off the fat. And we are finding it hard to choose change. We want it all – even when we know we can’t afford it. Amy Winehouse wasn’t the only one to find addiction too hard to reject.
We like to think that we would be the little boy who declares the emperor to be naked – when, actually, we would be colluding in the imperial fantasy. We like to think that we would defend Jesus from the demands to crucify him – when, actually, we would be joining in. After all, it’s not that hard to argue the case either way, is it?
The prophets of the Old Testament basically had a single simple message: if you claim to love God, then live in such a way as to incarnate his character. As Micah put it: “Love mercy, do justly, and walk humbly with God.” No hubris, no fantasy, no tyranny of any kind. Refusal to heed this led to exile and the loss of everything that spoke of God’s favour.
Empires are falling – some faster than others. It will be challenging to see what colour the world and it’s money will be by the end of the next decade… which is a mere blip of a slightly bigger blip of a history from which we rarely learn anything other than how to repeat it.
Today I’ll be celebrating an icon of hope: the wedding of my godson in London. More anon…
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