Redemption by George Herbert
tenant long to a rich Lord,
Not thriving, I resolved to be bold,
And make a suit unto him, to afford
A new small-rented lease, and cancell th’ old.
In heaven at his manour I him sought:
They told me there, that he was lately gone
About some land, which he had dearly bought
Long since on earth, to take possession.
I straight return’d, and knowing his great birth,
Sought him accordingly in great resorts;
In cities, theatres, gardens, parks, and courts:
At length I heard a ragged noise and mirth
Of theeves and murderers: there I him espied,
Who straight, Your suit is granted, said, & died.
WHY do the heathen so furiously rage
together? and why do the people imagine a vain thing?
The kings of the earth stand up, and the rulers take counsel together against the LORD, and against his Anointed:
Let us break their bonds asunder, and cast away their cords from us.
He that dwelleth in heaven shall laugh them to scorn: the Lord shall have them in derision.
Then shall he speak unto them in his wrath, and vex them in his sore displeasure:
Yet have I set my King upon my holy hill of Sion.
I will rehearse the decree; the LORD hath said unto me, Thou art my Son, this day have I begotten thee.
Desire of me, and I shall give thee the nations for thine inheritance, and the utmost parts of the earth for thy possession.
Thou shalt bruise them with a rod of iron, and break them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.
Be wise now therefore, O ye kings; be instructed, ye that are judges of the earth.
Serve the LORD in fear, and rejoice unto him with reverence.
Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and so ye perish from the right way, if his wrath be kindled, yea but a little.
Blessed are all they that put their trust in him
I was talking with my wife about the upcoming 50th anniversary of Neil Armstrong and co walking on the moon. She mentioned she’d heard that the US flag stuck into the lunar surface by the crew had since turned white from it having had constant bombardment by ‘naked’ sunlight.
I remarked that the natural world was then putting in its place that high ambition which the flag had been meant to signal to the world.
I spoke about the polar ice melting, and of the (supposed) Russian ambitions for them to be staking claims to any land to be exposed by the melted ice in The Arctic regions northwards of Russia in The Barents and Kara Seas.
Then of course Antarctica came up and the same concern was raised about which nations will vie for territory, and how hard might they push, were ice to melt and expose further land there.
This conversation caused me to think again about what I have always thought about whenever a ‘vacuum’ of any kind arises, a vacuum such as would be stimulated by new land appearing or by further explorations of the solar system, and a vacuum thus bearing upon political and other walks of human life.
I am old enough to remember vividly the affair of The Bay of Pigs, when Fidel Castro was stocking up on nuclear warheads readied in Cuba by Russia to be trained on targets on the Eastern Seaboard of the USA. Kennedy literally faced-down Khrushchev the Russian Leader; and in the course of facing him down many people on the planet were considering a final showdown was ready to occur between The Soviets and The USA – the ‘cold war’ suddenly turning up the temperature to thermonuclear levels.
As the newspapers of the day told it – Khrushchev blinked first.
The political vacuums arising out of potential for land at the poles, and the affair of The Bay of Pigs have profound similarity to each another. Both do present debacles; their potentialities being provocative of debacles.
In my own callow way I too have taken part in such a debacle-like event; something pretty trivial by comparison. For a time in the early 1970s I was studying timber and commercial uses for timber. There was a field trip one day for my fellow students and myself where we saw how timber-framed buildings are designed and erected. Larch-lap and shingles, and a lot of such technology mostly having originated in Canada; but I was in Buckinghamshire I believe?
At the end of the day the leader of our group of students told us he had eight or nine copies of a book dealing with timber-framed buildings; and there were ten or twelve of us students in the group. The leader told us he had decided he would throw up into the air the eight or so book copies, and that we should have to scrabble for a copy between us all, and so some of us would be disappointed.
He threw them up in the air and I cannot understand why but I felt that I was going to have one; I was going to wrestle for one if necessary. I got one and I got one by being more belligerent than several other students were willing to be to obtain a copy.
The reason I’ve gone from the global and mass destruction of nuclear war to a bathetic instance of me pushing myself forward for a small ‘prize’ is to show to you how universally and throughout all of life this troublesome raising of its head by a dreaded debacle permeates into almost everything.
The economists have a word for the main culprit which provokes such debacles, even having provoked that one concerning The Bay of Pigs; and this word is ‘scarcity’. Scarcity is not necessarily to be associated with famine or lack of anything needful to life. It is a relative term; some items are less scarce than are others; and in our world scarcity is able to be created deliberately so as to force up the price of the scarce item to its buyers. A sense of scarcity can even be created in the marketplace when in fact there is a superabundance of the particular kind of item thought to be scarce.
A person is able to look on eBay and see say a book which any booklover knows is available ‘two-a-penny’ as we labelled in my childhood commonplace things, but on eBay it is labelled ‘rare’ or ‘unusual’ or else ‘hard to find’. Maybe the guy offering the book is wet behind the ears and, say, because the book is 100 years old s/he thinks it really is unusual; or maybe s/he is hoping someone wet behind the ears is browsing on eBay right now and looking for just that title?
Scarcity then is a flexible and many-sided weapon of a concept in the worlds of politics and economics.
There is only so much land on the planet; and of this land available there is some which is not profitable to man nor beast; not even were one to dig down for diamonds or chalk or iron ore. The economist Malthus believed that as items like food and shelter became less scarce, less difficult to obtain in general in a population; that that population inevitably would grow and quickly absorb the surplus food and shelter – that is the plentiful food and shelter. This is like when you get a job and it pays a lot more or a lot less than the job you just left. Suddenly it seems either you are swimming in money or else you are finding the end of the week near payday to be hungry days for yourself.
But as time goes on you generally find yourself adjusting to the loss or to the gain of income – as the proverb goes – you begin to cut your coat according to your cloth. We’ve all experienced this kind of thing. I am sure that when a commodity suffers a price hike; say bananas double in price overnight in all the food stores, it goes on that for some weeks banana sales do pretty badly but over time and on the whole banana sales gradually creep back up to the level they were at before the price hike. Few of us who enjoy a banana will say to ourselves, I am never going to buy bananas anymore, and fewer who might say this will have the resolve to act and to stay the course.
The price hike created a vacuum in demand for bananas into which over time the flow of banana buyers gradually returned and so filled it up. We accepted the price hike – in the end.
So there are two big things that arise from this behaviour which we show as a race almost universally.
The first is that when say land becomes up for grabs in Antarctica and the ice has melted, added to the present supply of land is this territory and land, it being desirable and so always scarce. The nations begin quarrelling and sparring with one another for stakes to property and to real estate there. The US flag on the moon. Me fierce for a copy of a book. The Russians heading northwards
The vacuum must be filled – and so often it is the first come and the most belligerent who grab the prizes. Politicians know this – it is their bread and butter to know this and to act in ways which display knowledge of this. They know as regards defence of territory, there is always a red line which they must draw and not allow others to cross, or else in maters of aggression to go in before a red line can be drawn by an adversary.
The second things which arises, this time from the Malthusian bananas, is that once a person has acted quickly and jumped in and grabbed something, and another person has allowed this to happen, and sometimes to their cost; then very soon after the vacuum has been filled by the opportunist having jumped in, the situation becomes soon becomes the status quo and so becomes more or less unchangeable, unchallengeable, without parties expecting, accepting, major ructions arising.
The old legal saying goes: “Possession is nine-tenths of the law”. The old political slogan runs: “What we have we hold”.
Kennedy in regard to Khrushchev knew that he could not allow Russian missiles in Cuba to become the status quo. He knew he had to act and say a loud forthright stern obdurate threatening NO! Kennedy wanted the vacuum which had been occupied by Khrushchev quickly deflated – or else! Even were it to mean what was at the time known as MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction).
To have acquiesced was not an option; not least because to have acquiesced would have not only allowed Cuban missile ranges homed on Manhattan and Virginia State to quickly become the new status quo; it would also have meant inviting more audacities to come from Khrushchev and from who knows else, since to have acquiesced would have been to signal to the world of a profound weakness of resolve in The White House, at the heart of America.
You have heard it said that those who seek high office in the public service once they arrive they have to offer themselves to be come as it were enslaved to the demands of their jobs. Power comes with some undesirable qualities. Long days, heavy workloads, and so on
Now given that ambitious powerful people are then more or less enslaved in their roles in high office; and that these same people in high office also have a pretty basic solid code of practice to be followed whenever threat or aggression from abroad is present or else when they offer aggression abroad; it looks like for a person to desire power in high office means in fact when it is achieved that in large part a shackle is placed upon one’s mind and one’s life altogether. There is little room for manoeuvre and all is protocol plus 16 or more hour working days and 7 days a week.
There’s a great essay by George Orwell titled Shooting an Elephant and this essay demonstrates in a very picaresque way the brute fact regarding people who hold sway over many others; about how their exercise of power is very often an instance of the tail wagging the dog.
Orwell is more or less forced by the people he governs, as being their District Officer, to shoot dead a perfectly useful and economically valuable elephant. The elephant had run amuck, as even working elephants normally do from time to time, it appears, and had killed a person. The elephant was now placid again and ready to continue work.
Orwell The District Officer had been called to restore order. A huge crowd had gathered who wanted to see what he would do. He felt he had no choice but to shoot dead the elephant because it was the only way he could show he was in charge; and so maintain the respect and awe due to him from the crowd as their District Officer. So the shooting was economic and irrational madness, but yet absolutely necessary to his standing and to what was expected of him by the crowds. He shot the beast dead.
Take this episode in Orwell’s life as a metaphor, an analogue, and paradigm for the cleft stick, the practical dilemma in which the politician, someone like Kennedy, is always in; again and again having to prove himself to others, to measure up and handle himself, against others who likewise for the same types of reasons have to prove themselves perpetually and to measure up and to handle others
There is also that guy in James Frazer’s book The Golden Bough, who is The Keeper of the Sacred Oak. This guy had high ambitions and so he took off to win from the present Keeper the title of Keeper of the Sacred Oak. He pursues and kills the present Keeper and installs himself as the new Keeper. Day after day without sleep he can be seen sword in hand red eyed circling warily The Sacred Oak, anxiously awaiting the next ambitious guy coming up to slay The present Keeper of the Sacred Oak.
Another analogue for you depicting the circumstances of holding High Office
So what is the answer to this perennial conundrum? Its practice is rather ‘do others before they do you’ rather than Our Lord’s “Do as you would be done by”.
Now that we have mentioned The Lord Jesus I might as well say up front right away that He is what we can do to answer and solve and dispense with this perennial problem in human life. All The Lord’s teaching and deeds and life in ancient Palestine go directly to and answer and resolve these terrible human, and human-made, dilemmas.
The Lord tells us His Way is The Way; The Definitive Way; The Way which brings peace justice, mercy, love and concord; the way of forgiveness, of compassion, of charity. The French writer Jacques Ellul has a very useful take on this definitive solution of Christ’s. He sees the role for Christians being Christ’s followers for them to live their lives at that point at which they are clearly demonstrating, witnessing, and promulgating, in as far as each is able to, the possibilities of The Alternative, The Only Alternative, The Kingdom of Heaven.
The Lord Jesus saw these terrible dilemmas we all allow to rule us; and when Incarnate every effort and saying and deed and action He made and suffered was a considered furtherance by Him of His sure solution; The Promise of The Kingdom.
So much of what He said and did and recommended to us represents a clear reversal , a turning upside down of our secular power structures, and of our views about place and position, power and prowess. All the trappings of ambition, pride, envy, hatred, anger, violence; all that stuff we have reviewed here concerning vacuums and scarcities and Shootings of Elephants and being The Keeper of the Sacred Oak and so forth; all our politics and their chicaneries, are demolished by His words; are shown up for what essentially they are: enslavements to fear; to war; to violence; to getting the better of your neighbour; to not falling behind; all that endless weary round of day to day life that, as the poet George Herbert says so well “Throws us in the end back on God – Him being the only haven of peace and assurance”
The writer to The Hebrews tells us “Here is no continuing city”; and I hope you are able to see how and why so many Christians have thought it good to shun the world as we live in it, and live as recluses or take up menial roles. (I do believe myself that Christians ought to stay with the fray and be counted bearing their cross regardless)
And finally I say, following Christ is accompanied with His golden gift of freedom.
One is not enslaved to high office and huge workloads because hooked on the buzz power gives one, and so on. The Lord Jesus asks much of us as His followers; being a Christian is not an easy option; and Christ says there will be persecutions and sufferings for the followers of His Word. One is enslaved to Christ, yes, but eagerly so, and thankfully; because it is enslavement to what one knows is love, truth, and goodness, and this is our peace; this is our freedom; from fear; from despair; from presumption; from doubt, for emptiness at bottom.
But more than this, our spirits are freed in our being called to do and enabled to do what is the only sound Way of life – that Way which is able in the end to ‘wipe the tear from every eye’.
“He which testifieth these things saith, Surely I come quickly. Amen. Even so, come, Lord Jesus. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen”