The Christian Hope: Karabakh or Bethlehem?

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This was written at the time of the breakup of the Soviet Union and is a meditation on the deep human tendency to tribal conflict. Occasioned by the then current, in 1989, battle between Armenians and Azeris for the region of Karabakh it has of course more recent parallels up to today.

Written in 1989. Taken from the anthology Christianity for the Twenty-First Century.


Karabakh stands in my mind as a collective symbol for the innumerable tragedies which seem to be erupting one after another in so many parts of the world. Though the causes for these outbreaks of hatred and violence may be different in each place, the overall picture is one of disaster. Remember the squares of Beijing and Tbilisi, think of Ulster and Jerusalem, Sumgait and Kabul, think of Africa and Latin America... India too, traditionally a land of peace, has witnessed bloodshed. One can't help feeling that peoples and tribes, countries and governments, leaders and crowds - the whole human race is on the path to self-destruction.

Ideologies, traditions, political and national slogans, cults and languages - all have been used as weapons against human beings. If the most unnatural war is civil war [...] then shouldn't we finally admit that we are witnessing a world-wide civil war between all the 'children of Adam', a war that is tearing the body of humanity apart?

This warfare is ceaseless. Terrorism and hatred know no truce. They are fuelled by lawlessness, crime and drug addiction. It seems as if in our age a barrier has been broken, and the floods of anger let loose. This is happening now, before our eyes, but the symptoms have been here for a long time.

Have we forgotten the awesome words of the Dies Irae? Do we need to be reminded of the Nazis, the Stalinists, the Khmer Rouge! Should we forget and bury our heads in the sand? But that won't stop the growth of evil!

Yet now today the Christmas star, the star of Bethlehem, shines once again, as it did two thousand years ago, over a world in turmoil. It calls us and reminds us of eternity. That is why Christmas is more than just the 'children's festival', or a family get-together, more than just a holiday. For some people, the Christmas star is just a decoration on the Christmas tree, but those who think like that are missing the real significance of this holy day. The star of Christ reminds people of their higher calling. It reminds us of the sacred spark which the Creator has placed in us, the spark which ignites in us love and freedom, faith and creativity, compassion and fellow-feeling.

Someone once asked the philosopher Nicolas Berdyaev the paradoxical question: 'Can God create a stone that he himself could not move?' And Berdyaev promptly answered: 'Yes, that stone is man.' The church has always taught that people cannot be delivered from evil, nor the natural world either, without their active participation. We are made in the image and likeness of the animals, but as regards our essential being, we are made in the image and likeness of our Creator. Therefore freedom, which is our inalienable attribute, gives us the possibility of transforming our animal nature, and of activating those wonderful potentialities which are within us. But is this possible if people take only themselves as the starting point?

For several centuries now the world has been nurturing the illusion that it can. It has tried not to notice 'Bethlehem', and not to see the gentle shining of that gospel star. Intoxicated with science, proud of our power over the elements, we human beings have put our trust in our knowledge of the laws of nature, expecting peace and happiness to come from them. But it hasn't happened. Knowledge, when in the grip of that animal nature of ours with its reasoning powers, has not saved civilization, but has become its memento mori, its sword of Damocles. And the fault for this lies not in knowledge itself, nor in reason which is God's gift to us, but in the eclipse of the spirit which has not been able to withstand the force of the beast.

We human beings have relied on the ideals of secular, this-worldly humanism, which our century has taken such pride in. We thought we could do without the star of Bethlehem, since we had found our own tablets of the law. However, these tablets proved to be as fragile as glass, and the first blows of the World War smashed them to smithereens. Humanism was pitilessly crushed under the boots of the dictators whom the crowds followed blindly. So the beast had only lain low for a while, and with new strength once again swept over the planet, crushing everything in its path. And yet, the fault lies not in humanism as such, but in forgetting the higher, divine sources of the good.

We human beings thought that technology, comfort and a life which would guarantee the best possible conditions of work and rest, would solve all problems. But the example of the highly- developed countries has shown this to be an illusion. The example of these countries shows us vividly what moral, cultural and ecological dangers technical civilization is fraught with, and where satiety, 'ethical materialism', and 'consumerism' will lead. Of course, it's a good thing that people should be well fed and clothed, should have adequate housing, and be able to use modern technology in their daily lives. But to make of these things the only ideal is to diminish the purpose of life, and to lead people into the dead-end of materialism. We human beings have for centuries dreamed of a transformation of society bringing prosperity and well-being to all, where liberty, equality and fraternity would reign. But the experience of the terror in the days of the French Revolution was already a warning and a prototype of everything that has come to pass in our own times. When the social order is taken as sacred, rather than people and their lives, their rights and dignity, then in the name of that social order thousands and perhaps millions may be destroyed as if they were nothing but worthless scum. Of course the idea of improving the social order is a noble and valuable one. But when that aim becomes sufficient unto itself and claims to be a religion and destroys individuals, then it leads to the opposite result.

I would remind you that prescriptions for general happiness have been around since very early times. Was it not in classical times that the cult of science was born, when the Epicureans preached hedonism and the cult of pleasure (though incidentally Epicurus himself was not to blame for this)? Was it not Plato who created his system of a police state, from which poets, free-thinkers and dissidents were expelled for the sake of the 'good of the citizens'?

The past has also left us the dread idea of a forcibly imposed religion. This is not to be wondered at, for if people turned the ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity into terror and new forms of slavery, why should not the same happen with religion? But, you may object, religion, unlike the cult of science, hedonism, secular ethics or political utopias has to do with the spirit and the higher Being. That's certainly true. But when religion becomes an instrument in the hands of those in power, when its adherents use force, then faith loses its true nature and becomes the servant of political passions and the 'interests' of a particular social group. In many ways, our present spiritual crisis bears traces of that counterfeit, that metamorphosis of religion, when religion is darkened by fanaticism and violence and becomes merged with interests of the state (which is by definition imperfect).

Karabakh' (understood symbolically) did not spring out of bare soil. Today we are beginning to understand that, however much the world has gained, it has lost even more. Now the time of decision and choice has come. This is what the star of Christ, Christmas Day, reminds us of, the day when the shepherds of Bethlehem heard the song: 'Glory to God in the highest, on earth peace and goodwill towards men'. When the Son of Man - the Son of God - was born, a new power entered the stream of history, the power of love and spiritual transformation. To all who follow it, this star is not only a beacon in a dark world; it pours into them the mysterious energy of the spirit revealing the image and likeness of God. Christ comes to people not in a halo of earthly wisdom, not on the shoulders of legionaries, and not with a social charter. The word of the gospel speaks to our hearts and minds, not just to change our 'ideology', but to make us into 'a new creation'. The world stands at a crossroads. Perhaps we have reached the end of civilization. The Pharisees, proud of their ancient heritage said: 'We are the sons of Abraham.' But John the Baptist rebuked them, saying that if they did not repent, God could raise up new children of Abraham from stones [Luke 3.8].

In exactly the same way, we now have to understand that unless we find the right path, our century may be the last in history. Isn't the Creator free to begin again from the beginning, perhaps with the little islets which will survive a nuclear catastrophe? Or with another planet, with another humanity? But I don't want to believe that.

When I look at Rublev's icon of the Trinity, it brings to my mind the Bible story from which Rublev took his subject [Gen. 18]. The Lord appeared on earth in the form of the three travellers in order to test, for the last time, the impious and sinful cities [of Sodom and Gomorrah]. And Abraham, the 'father of the faithful' prayed that the cities should be spared for the sake of a handful of the righteous. Alas, there were so few that God chose to lead them out of the doomed Sodom and Gomorrah.

But in us Christians, the hope lives that our common home, our earth, all the fair things made by mankind, will escape the fate of Sodom. We think of the self-sacrifice and heroism of the ascetics, of all the prayer and struggle, of all the service to one's neighbour, of all the compassion which shine in the darkness of the twentieth century. We remember the faithfulness to Christ, even to the death, of the new Russian martyrs, and Martin Luther King; we remember Mother Maria and the heroes of the Resistance, those who kept their hearts pure during the reign of madness and hate. We remember the holiness of the Russian starets Siluan(2) living on Mount Athos, of Mother Teresa and her fellow-workers in India; we remember the sublime and noble thoughts of Berdyaev and Teilhard de Chardin, and the self-giving of Mahatma Gandhi, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Bishop Helder C�mara. We remember the doctors and teachers, writers and philosophers, creative artists, politicians and countless others among our contemporaries who challenge the kingdom of materialism, greed, consumerism, evil and violence. They showed the world what it means to be faithful to Christ, even though some of them were not consciously Christians. Did not Christ himself say, 'Not everyone who says to me "Lord! Lord!" will enter the kingdom of Heaven, but he who does the will of my heavenly Father'? [Matt. 7.21].

We also believe that this invincible power of good is rooted in human nature, in our divided and contradictory selves, and is nourished from the same source which created, sustains and gives life to the universe. That power for good is waiting for us. It has revealed itself to us. Now it's our turn to respond.