‘Give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness
and put upon us the armour of light.’
Based on a passage of Paul set for today, the rolling phrases of the traditional collect for Advent Sunday may send a shiver down our spine, or we may find its language rather uncomfortable. Military imagery – armour, weapons, battle – is not perhaps our thing at St Marks. Or we may dislike the way it speaks of life’s issues as simple polarities, not nuances and shades of grey. Identifying darkness with evil and light with good feels quite Gnostic, and those of us who are blind may reasonably object to having the conditions under which we live held up as the realm of all that is opposed to God.
And yet, it isn’t really possible to get away from this language in the bible and Christian tradition. It’s particularly associated with the kind of writing called apocalyptic. This is typically imagining the ‘end times’ – what the world is coming to, if you like, and it’s often stern and frightening. If you’ve been following the readings for Morning Prayer during the last month or so, you’ll have been working your way through Daniel in the OT and Revelation in the New, and the readings we heard today from Isaiah and Matthew are different takes on the same theme of what the future holds for humankind. Both hope and judgement are predicted, and the readings are placed here at the beginning of Advent so that, as we prepare to celebrate the coming of the saviour and the great mystery of the incarnation, we also get to grips with what the second coming might mean. We hold ourselves and the world we live in accountable in the eyes of God. Apocalyptic literature tends to originate during times of persecution or the serious threat of war. It makes sense because the readers are themselves genuinely embattled, and desperate for promises of hope at a time when it appears that they are definitely on the losing side. For first Isaiah, the threat of invasion by the great kingdom of Assyria was foreseeable, so small provinces like Israel and Judah must have lived in huge anxiety. In Matthew, the promise of Christ’s second coming is set within the context of Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem, and many apocalyptic terrors are described. Probably the gospel was set down after the city did indeed fall to the Romans; people would have imagined that they were already living through the end of the world.
And I have to say that the apocalyptic tone of the collect for Advent Sunday is beginning to make a surprising amount of sense to me as I contemplate the bewildering and very worrying changes that seem to be happening currently in the western nations that we think of as bastions of democracy. The populist, nativist, racist far right has taken its gloves off and is enjoying, or is confidently anticipating, significant success at the ballot box. And our settled, liberal way of thinking about things has been caught not having the faintest idea how this has come about, and what strategies we should engage to combat it.
Now the original meaning of ‘apocalypse’ is actually ‘revelation.’ It’s about the uncovering of that which has been hidden (often for sinister reasons), the exposure of what is really true. And for sure there have been a lot of things uncovered during the US election and its aftermath. For me one extraordinary example of this is the widely-reported exchange of social media comments after the results were out, between two women based in a very small, all-white community in West Virginia. A director of development in elder care in the county wrote of Melania Trump: ‘It will be refreshing to have a classy, beautiful, dignified First Lady in the White House. I’m tired of seeing a Ape in heels.’ To which the Mayor of the town replied ‘Just made my day Pam.’ Now, there was an outcry about this racist exchange, and to be fair, the local community was horrified. The Mayor has been instantly sacked and the other woman suspended from her post, and the community has begged people to come and visit and see that they are not all like this. However, looking into this more deeply, it appears that the Obamas have had to put up with being depicted as a family of apes on many occasions, and I sorry to say that some of those who have exchanged cartoons to this effect have still been subsequently elected to office. What staggers me is not only the disgusting nature of the insult, but the apparent fact that a racist view of the world is literally unable to see that ‘classy, beautiful and dignified’ are self-evident truths that apply to Michelle Obama. Did you see her picture on the front of Vogue?
So when people say, on the face of it reasonably enough, that they are ‘fed up’ with political correctness, this may be the sort of horrible remark they wish to be free to make, and which they feel entitled to make after a campaign like that one. This is why next weekend, Donald Trump’s victory is going to be celebrated in style by the Ku Klux Klan, who see it as a victory of their own. Photos have been seen of white nationalists hailing him with a Nazi salute. He’s recently disavowed these supporters, but given that he refused to do so during the campaign, and has been whipping up precisely those groups for about 8 years with his championing of the ‘birther’ lie, to undermine the black president, this seems disingenuous. And we have seen in the UK the rise of aggressive racist and Islamophobic insults after our referendum campaign, where some politicians and newspapers actively encouraged xenophobia by making immigration the scapegoat for whatever economic or community problems people have been experiencing. Indeed, this hasn’t stopped at the level of insults. Eastern Europeans have been physically attacked, and we now know that Thomas Mair, the murderer of the MP Jo Cox, was inspired by white supremacist, Nazi ideologies, objecting to her sympathetic stance towards refugees, and her belief that there is more that unites us than divides us. I don’t think that comparisons with the 30s and the rise of fascism are far-fetched, and I do think we’re going to find these times, and how to handle them, as confusing as the 30s no doubt were. We are dealing with ‘works of darkness.’
In addition to the resurgence of unashamed racism, the way in which Donald Trump conducted his campaign has overturned all the norms of current political discourse. We expect politicians to exaggerate somewhat, to make a few implausible promises, to paint their opponents in negative colours, and to spin the evidence in favour of their point of view while ignoring conflicting research. But no-one was prepared for a candidate who lied openly, ignorantly asserted things that could easily be fact-checked to be wrong, offered disgusting slurs to women, disabled people, Mexicans and Muslims (including even the family of a fallen military hero), and threatened to jail his opponent, even implying that his supporters should assassinate her. As that sports coach said, our children would have been gated for weeks if they had behaved or spoken in that bullying way. And yet he paid no price; he was elected. It seems that a fair few people are looking for a big, white, bullying strong man to be their leader, especially if he has a commanding and entertaining presence.
But what Trump has also demonstrated beyond doubt is that an election campaign in a great Western democracy can be successfully conducted not only in a grossly offensive and threatening way but with a total disregard for truth. And I don’t mean with a careless attitude towards it; most of the lies were deliberate. What has been innovative about this campaign is the phenomenon of ‘fake news’. This doesn’t mean the crackpot notions of a few conspiracy theorists, shared with their equally deluded mates. It means a concerted effort by campaigners to disseminate stories they know to be false, with clickbait headlines so that they go viral on Facebook. It turns out that 44% of US adults get all their news from Facebook, which doesn’t do fact checking and does tend to filter towards you items that resemble what you already like. An echo chamber effect takes hold and ‘normies’ – that’s ordinary people to the creators of fake news – are convinced, or at least sufficiently affected by these items for the feeling reaction to remain. These are works of darkness.
Those of you who are watching the US carefully will have spotted that Trump has appointed as his chief strategist Steve Bannon. Bannon used his website Breitbart as a highly influential platform for the alt-right (‘alt-right’ is just a new, cool way of saying ‘fascism’), privately vowing from the summer of 2015 onwards to go to war against the political class, the mainstream media, the establishment of both major parties and against political correctness – and to do it all at the same time, just as Trump has done. He was described in Radio 4’s Profile programme as someone who is ‘interested in chaos for the purposes of power’. This is what was going on while many of us were finding Trump’s campaign ridiculous. Creepily, in a recent interview Bannon admitted quite freely, ‘It only helps when the media and the liberals get it wrong, when they’re blind to who we are and what we’re doing. Darkness is good: Dick Cheney. Darth Vader. Satan. That’s power.’ You’ve got to wonder what the white evangelicals who voted for Trump think about exactly who his chief strategist aligns himself with. Though I admit I am most worried in that little list about Dick Cheney, he of the Iraq war’s ‘enhanced interrogation techniques.’
So I think political discourse, or at least campaigning discourse, has been changed profoundly. Because don’t imagine that similarly sinister and power hungry people across Europe and indeed the UK are not taking careful note of how to be successful in this ‘post-truth’ world.
So, where does this leave us as Christians? How should we respond to this new world? Some of my immediate strategies are unlikely to be very helpful. They include getting apoplectic with fury and shouting at the TV. Well, I don’t think we should underestimate the power of these techniques to infect us too. Ineffective anger, helpless despair, good old liberal self-accusation, withdrawal from even watching the news – these too are the impacts of the works of darkness. Looking back at that collect, notice how it begins ‘Give us grace’ – and I love how tough and active the word ‘grace’ sounds in this sentence. We’re not asking for grace so as to become a slightly nicer person than we are at the moment. We want it for casting away the works of darkness. And we’re going to need the protection of the armour of light. Because we can’t just copy the techniques of casual lying, and we shouldn’t admire our politicians for doing this either. Nor should we just accept a new normal. More than ever we should challenge bombastic statements that get to be accepted as reality just because they are repeated. The rather forthright Conservative MP Anna Soubry recently described an exchange with an East Midlands guy, who said you no longer hear people speaking English in Newark any more. She looked him straight in the eye and said ‘That is crap and you know it. Overwhelmingly they are speaking English in Newark.’ And you could see him thinking, ‘That’s absolutely true.’ She didn’t patronise, but she didn’t let it pass.
We could also pay attention to where we ourselves get our news from. Do we think twice before sharing a juicy piece of news, and check its source? If we value responsible journalism, which verifies what it asserts, are we supporting it by buying the newspapers or subscribing – because if this kind of journalism becomes unsustainable, our grandchildren will have no reliable access to public truth. And when we come across xenophobic tabloids given out free eg on aeroplanes, do we voice our objections? Are we supporting initiatives like ‘Don’t fund hatred’, which seeks to get advertisers to withdraw from such papers? Good for Lego, incidentally.
But we should also never underestimate the importance of our traditional Christian disciplines, which we’re asked to focus on more during Advent, so that we can ‘keep awake’ as the gospel requires us to. We come to church, where we engage in the profoundly counter-cultural activity of confessing our sins: naming the world’s evil and the way we find ourselves drawn into it. We seek to attend to truths from the bible that may be personally uncomfortable for us to hear. We undertake the powerful, hopeful effort of interceding on behalf of those who are powerless. We commit ourselves to following the one who ‘came to visit us in great humility’, who himself was sent to his death by a cynical politician who ironically queried ‘What is truth?’ and didn’t stay for an answer. And every time we celebrate communion, we remember that death and consent to drink the cup he drank.
I think we’re going to be losing some battles in the next little while, or at least, having to fight them over again. Many of us celebrated the life of our dear brother Fred Gould on Thursday. Hearing his life story, I realised that he knew something about how not every battle is won. A teenager during the war against fascism, he lost his father in the Arctic convoys and two aunts in the Blitz. But as Sue said, he was someone who ‘rejoiced in the truth’, was devoted to Holy Communion, and was a cheerful learner and wise teacher all his faithful life. Facing these times, may we too be granted the tough grace of someone like Fred, or like Jo Cox, who with her dying breath was trying to protect other people against the works of darkness. Give us grace.