Most of us can recall a phase in our teenage years when we concluded that our parents’ generation, who had been telling us what to do all through the years, had been making a mess of things themselves all along.
Scornful of their achievements, we claimed and tested our freedom to see how far it would stretch. Little did we realise it would only be a matter of time before our own children would see us as the obstacles to progress. Cynicism apart, perhaps this instinctive yearning for change was, and is, a whisper from the Almighty.
Whatever happened to that revolutionary within? Has it been overcome by a weariness which prefers to muddle along because we no longer believe anything can be changed?
Every Christmas is a renewal of God’s invitation to turn away from pessimism and despair and embrace the Christian virtue of hope. God has not given up on us. The inner conviction that things could be better can be revived and nurtured. It has tremendous potential for good. Or, alas, for evil.
Among the European volunteers for Daesh (ISIS) were hundreds from the UK, all of them young. Obsessed by an ideal, they were and are willing to sacrifice everything to make it happen.
Youthful enthusiasm was also the driving force in 1930s Germany, when millions of disaffected young people were enticed by the promise that National Socialism would deliver a proud, pure, reinvigorated nation. Newsreel pictures of those days recorded hordes of adulatory teenagers screaming their support for Hitler’s cavalcades. The recently republished book, Darkness Over Germany, by E. Amy Buller, recounts how that sophisticated nation succumbed to a malevolent force masquerading as righteous. The book’s message is “spiritual bankruptcy finds expression in political upheaval”. It is sub-titled A Warning from History.
I don’t think many British people today realise that by casually distancing themselves from their Christian heritage, they have become ripe for a political or religious takeover. Neil McGregor, the former director of the National Gallery and British Museum, has just completed the marathon series of broadcasts on Radio 4 entitled Living with the Gods. He comments on the state of the UK today: “In a sense, we are a very unusual society. We are trying to do something that no society has really done. We are trying to live without an agreed narrative of our communal place in the cosmos and in time.”
Gordon Brown, in his reflections on his time in office as Chancellor and then Prime Minister, writes “… some argue that we should banish religious arguments from the public square altogether… without such a national conversation it is difficult… to find a solid basis for national unity”.
When President Trump retweeted a vile message from the fascist Britain First organisation, Prime Minister May courageously responded: “British people overwhelmingly reject the prejudiced rhetoric of the far-right which is the antithesis of the values that this country represents: Decency, tolerance and respect.”
Now I’ve no doubt that those are her values and they are shared by some others. But, regrettably, they are no longer commonly held, even if they once were.
Social media are now the prime means of communication for generations of British people and the marketplace for ideas. Tim Farron, until recently the leader of the Lib Dems, delivered a lecture last month on “What Kind of Liberal Society do we Want?” Here are some snatches.
“Maybe ten years ago we thought social media would lead to greater democracy, greater individual empowerment, the flowering of thousands of unmediated, unfiltered, un-spun viewpoints and opinions. How naive does that sound now? Today’s social media fuels groupthink, pack mentality and depressing conformity – not to mention a disgraceful lack of civility and decency…. Five minutes on social media will give you a window into a society which condemns and judges, that leaps to take offence and pounces to cause it – liberals condemning those who don’t conform as nasty and hateful…”
He continued: “It’s time to be honest with each other. We do not have shared values and the assumption that we do is dangerous.”
One of my friends has just sent me a Christmas card with the greeting “Hope you are well. The world isn’t”. This should be a call to action.
I have decided that, for as long as I am spared, I am going to spend as much time as I can telling and retelling the story of the Bethlehem baby, who grew up to motivate people of all kinds to join his movement.
The demands he made on his followers were immense, but realistic. They were to prune their lives of distractions to make room for God; that would enable them to receive from him both the inspiration and power to be rejuvenated. Their attitude towards each other should reflect God’s generosity towards them and, like Jesus, they were to pay special attention to people who were marginalised or downtrodden.
They were warned that this might make them unpopular and invite ridicule, but they would have the inner conviction that they were on the right track, for this new movement was guaranteed ultimate success. Even so, they were utterly dismayed when an unholy alliance of church and state conspired to execute Jesus. But then – and this is where we come in – Christ’s mission was validated by His return to life on earth for long enough to convince those with open minds.
The essence of Christ’s message is that our willingness to enlist with Him is the only qualification to be accepted by God. No one is too young. No one is too old. This is why Christ came into the world. As the Bible puts it, “…to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God”.
No one is excluded except those who have chosen to exclude themselves. Rebels can become disciples. It’s an enduring invitation which began at the first Christmas.
Dr John Sentamu is the Archbishop of York.