Monday, 14 May 2012

God of Conversion: Hope in a Prodigal World

by Alan Paton

The first time I visited a Manila shantytown I was twenty six, despite having grown up in the Philippines. Manila to me was an endless expanse of uptown malls, hotels and amusement parks. I rarely entered the old city of Manila, and the riverside sprawls were alien to my senses. I was not shocked when I finally arrived in the barrio; seven years in England had informed me about what my country was meant to look like from BBC reports of grinding poverty and governmental abuse.  My friends used to ask me how I could stand growing up well off surrounded by so many poor people. Of course, the thing was that I rarely saw any of it. Walls can hide many unsightly truths. Furthermore, the system that allows for the huge differences in wealth within the Philippines is the same one that causes the discrepancy between developed and developing countries. An analysis of this global system of poverty has been extensively commented on by the liberation theologians, economists, sociologists, but none is more powerful a description than Alan Paton's Cry, the Beloved Country.

Like in Gilead, Cry, the Beloved Country tells the story of a good man, Stephen Kumalo, pastor of a country parish in South Africa. Kumalo starts on an Oddesseian journey to the big city to help his ill sister and to find his son, who had left for the city and had not been heard from for a long time.  Kumalo has to steer a course through the city's many vices, all of which touch his family in damaging ways: racism, prostitution, substance abuse, crime. Kumalo finds that his son is imprisoned for murder. He comes face to face with another father yearning for his lost son, James Jarvis, the father of the white man murdered by Kumalo's son.

Both fathers must deal with the grief of having lost with their sons, and both turn the loss around by a realisation. Both men realise that, in different ways, their children were victims of a system that routinely dehumanizes its people by exploitation and corruption. The loss of their children then inspires both men to do something about their lives so that their son's sacrifices do not end up being meaningless.

The book was written in the forties, before full-blown apartheid, but it has not dated at all. While South Africa has changed so much since then, the world has changed surprisingly little, despite the growth of the BRIC countries and a, perhaps, new world order. Wealth has not brought humanisation. If anything, it feels like the dehumanising system has become so much more heightened, dare I say monstrous, by the advent of the Virtual World and a more pernicious globalised consumerism.

What are people who still care about the good to do against a seemingly worsening situation? As death and suffering lead to new life for both Kumalo and Jarvis, it must be the same for us. If the Resurrection tells us anything about despondent situations, it is that hope is always the right attitude. The most interesting people in a dehumanising system are those who do not allow that system to work on them. I am sympathetic to those who rail against the shallowness of globalisation, from hippies to skinheads, goths to monks. They are right to rebel, but they rebel in such different ways. Some  express their difference by hate, anger, or fear, but it is those who challenge by love that  are most inspirational. I want my life to be a revolution, but one that brings life, and life to the full.

I shall quote from the pope's Glasgow homily in 2010:

‘Society today needs clear voices which propose our right to live, not in a jungle of self-destructive and arbitrary freedoms, but in a society which works for the true welfare of its citizens and offers them guidance and protection in the face of their weakness and fragility.’

‘There are many temptations placed before you every day –drugs, money, sex, pornography, alcohol –which the world tells you will bring you happiness, yet these things are destructive and divisive. There is only one thing which lasts:the love of Jesus Christ personally for each one of you. Search for him, know him and love him,and he will set you free from slavery to the glittering but superficial existence frequently proposed by today’s society. Put aside what is worthless and learn of your own dignity as children of God.’

Friends sometimes ask me, as a religious person, how I deal with all the evil in the world. For me, it is not merely a philosophical challenge, but a personal one. I ask myself, "Have I added any evil to the world myself?" because if I have, then I do not feel that I can really complain about its existence.  I have done much more to support evil than to defeat it. I feel a need for conversion continually, that one day I might do right by my God and by my world. I hope.

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