1 March 2017
Next week, my promised reflection on Jesus and world religions. Today some brief reflections about the first week of March and the first week of Lent, inspired by signs of the times.
As my calendar shifted to March, thoughts of an earlier March popped into my head. I was ten years old……I remember the day well: 5 March 1953. It was a Thursday (Ash Wednesday that year fell on 18 February) and my Dad had gathered the family around the radio in our living room. He said “something historic is happening.” Then Walter Winchell came on the radio and announced that Joseph Stalin had died.
It seems so long ago. No. I am not slipping into an old guy nostalgia trip. My concerns today are more contemporary, but today’s current events seem to resonate so much with events back then.
Although I suspect a couple of my readers may not agree, my brief thoughts today are truly Christian theological, not partisan party political.
Stalin, who once upon a time studied to be an Orthodox priest, maneuvered himself into becoming head of the Soviet Union, following Lenin’s death in 1924. He consolidated his power by manipulating information, passing laws against what he called terrorist organizations, and exploiting his own inflated personality cult. He insisted that he should be remembered for “the extraordinary modesty characteristic of truly great people.” Stalin of course was one of the 20th century’s most ruthless dictators.
What I especially remember about Stalin is how he branded his opponents “enemies of the people,” and subjected them to interrogation, deportation, and even death. Commenting about “enemies of the people,” Mitchell A. Orenstein, University of Pennsylvania professor of Russian and East European Studies, observed: “In essence, it was a label that meant death. It meant you were subhuman and entirely expendable.”
Stalin succeeded because he was good at authoritarian seduction: emotionally-charged bully-talk, with very little rational or honest content. He was a self-centered, write-your-own-rules dictator. He got away with it in grand style.
Strangely, authoritarian followers are loyal and easily submissive to such authoritarian leaders, insisting that everyone behave as dictated by the authoritarian. They are fearful about a changing world and a changing society, which they either don’t understand or do not want to understand. They are attracted to strong leaders, who appeal to their feelings of fear and anxiety. They respond aggressively toward “outsiders.” They scapegoat foreigners and people from other cultural or religious traditions. Blind faith is substituted for critical reason. A leader’s feckless racism and compulsive lying are seen not as moral failures but as signs of strength. The unknown and the different become the enemy. Authoritarianism becomes even more sinister, when authoritarian leaders begin to proclaim their message in the name of Christianity.
Authoritarianism is not a Christian virtue. Jesus was not an authoritarian leader. He was neither boastful nor pretentious, and hardly a self-stroking narcissist. Jesus neither controlled nor directed his followers to isolate, segregate, humiliate, or persecute. In the New Testament, Jesus’ authority is not power OVER people but EMPOWERING people: motivating and empowering them to serve, to minister, and to spread the Goodnews. Jesus invites and empowers us today. He challenges us to think, to speak, and to act courageously.
Authentic Christianity promotes solidarity and hope, not fear. Genuine Christians consider helpless refugees their brothers and sisters in need, not enemies. Followers of Christ do not set one group of people against another; nor do they promote a distorted view of patriotism that proclaims one country’s greatness is best established by demeaning other people.
In Lent we have 40 days to take stock of ourselves. And to take stock of the world in which we live. On Ash Wednesday, we are charged to repent and believe in the Gospel. Believing in the Gospel means as well living the Gospel. May we encourage each other to stand strong, think clearly, and act resolutely. We live in very challenging times.
For spiritual reading between now and Easter, why not a systematic re-reading the Gospels? I suggest starting with Mark. If you are looking for a handy guide for reading the Gospels I can suggest another book by Steve Mueller, who wrote the book on Revelation, “So What’s the Good News? ” (Faith Alive Books). He writes with clarity and pastoral realism; and again, he is a knowledgeable and trustworthy scriptural guide. Gather a group of friends.His book would be perfect for your own Bible study group: sharing today to shape tomorrow!
If you are looking for something more comprehensive, I suggest: “Introduction to the New Testament” by Raymond F. Collins (Doubleday). Ray’s book is excellent. He offers a clearly written and very fine introduction to New Testament scholarship–its history, methodology, and findings.
As always, I appreciate your observations and support. My contact info: Dr. J. A. Dick — Geldenaaksebaan 85A, 3001 Heverlee, Belgium