One generation shall praise thy works to another, and shall declare thy mighty acts.
As we move into the last decade of the second millennium, it seems appropriate to start thinking in
rather sweeping terms about the course of human events. The ultimate question is one of meaning--have
all these years accomplished anything worthwhile? What course have we been on? Is this an indication
of where we are headed?
It would be misleading, though, to talk only about the changes that have taken place since Gospel
times. These changes have indeed been striking, but they have taken place against a background of
constancy. Our understanding of the "laws of nature" is far more detailed, but the laws themselves
have not changed. We are still male and female, still born as infants, still forming relationships and
learning, still aging and dying. The same kinds of behavior still heal and hurt, the same attitudes
still bring blessing or misery.
In a sense, it seems as though all that has changed are the tools we have to realize our purposes, if
we take "tools" in the broadest sense. We do not have to walk or ride horseback to talk with a
friend--we can telephone. We do not need to wait weeks to find out what has happened a thousand miles
away--we can see it on the evening news. We are not so limited by the physical world, by its
distances, its oceans, its seasons. In comparison with, say, one of the disciples, we have vastly more
It has been said that power corrupts, but our theology would suggest that this is merely an
appearance. It would be more precise to say that by enabling us to act, power reveals our intentions.
Gaining the power of speech does not make liars out of us, but it certainly makes it possible for us
to lie. Gaining financial power does not make us materialistic, but it provides the means for us to
behave materialistically. Gaining adult strength does not make the abused child an abusive parent, but
it does give the inner anger the resources to express itself.
So when we try to discern whether the world has improved or not, we must at all costs take this into
account. We cannot make a fair comparison between our times and Gospel times, for example, by simply
counting the number of people who have been killed in wars. We would have to know what a Caesar would
have done with modern weapons. Nor, obviously, can we simply compare how much is donated to charities,
presuming that we could gather the statistics.
We can, though, make some suggestive comparisons. We can realize that in Gospel times, war was taken
for granted, and there were no apparent compunctions about territorial conquest. In a way, we can say
that since the technological means of destruction and death were so limited, people were not faced
with the ultimate nihilism of war. Only now, when we have the capacity to destroy all human life on
our planet, has that become inescapably clear.
In Gospel times, there could be only a relatively small privileged class. Virtually all labor had to
be done by hand or by animals, and it was assumed that most people were designed and created for that
purpose. The thought that everyone was potentially literate did not have a chance. It was virtually
necessary to believe that some people were born to be slaves, if not legally, then at least
effectively. Only with the invention of the printing press, and perhaps more significantly, with
machines to do manual labor, did it become practical to think about universal education.
Once this has happened, though, "ordinary people" are empowered. They have greater independence, and
they are harder to govern. We are currently seeing the collapse of authoritarian regimes which had the
full resources of modern technology behind them, essentially because of the power inherent in people's
ability to think for themselves, to share those thoughts with each other, and to act concertedly. We
are also seeing what seems to be the spread of civil disorder; and I would suggest that the apparent
breakdown of traditional moral codes is more accurately seen as the "uncovering" that takes place when
the powerless gain power.
I might digress at this point, and propose in this connection that there is a need to rethink our
efforts to aid the oppressed. Whether they be the blacks of South Africa or the minorities in our own
midst, empowerment is not the whole answer. Helen Keller believed that once women were granted the
right to vote, wars would be a thing of the past. We live in a country where women outnumber men and
are entitled to vote, and we still have wars. There are oppressive native governments in some African
countries that were once colonies but are now independent. There are Jews who are profoundly
distressed at Israel's handling of the Palestinian problem, as that nation struggles with the dilemmas
of empowerment. It is, in a sense, easy to be righteous when you are oppressed, because you are
incapable of any unrighteousness on any obvious scale.
In the efforts toward social justice which are surely urgently needed, then, the church may have a
vital role to play. It seems to be up to us to insist that more than some redistribution of power is
needed, and to work as intensely as we can for that transformation of the human heart which enables
people to exercise power lovingly. Whether that power is much or little is a secondary matter, for
Jesus was quite right: "Whoever is faithful in that which is least will be faithful also in much, and
whoever is unjust in that which is least is unjust also in much."
To return to our main theme, though, all that has been said presupposes what may be the most
significant change, the change of scale. We have grown from thinking in terms of local communities or
quite small nations to thinking in continental terms, and now, thanks in large measure to the
exploration of space, in truly global terms. Alexander the Great set out to conquer "the world," and
apparently thought he had. We are the first generation that has actually seen the world as a single
whole, and with this comes a new sense of planetary community and planetary responsibility.
It is genuine progress, I think, to enlarge the group with which we identify. It is progress when the
child first goes to school, and begins to relate to a larger world than the family. It is progress
when the young person graduates and becomes involved in the adult world. It is progress when the
colonies adopt a common Constitution and become United States, when the several nations of Europe move
toward a larger community. We might say that as the boundaries between those countries become less
absolute, the "region at peace" grows.
We must also note that this process must be a voluntary one. The parties involved must begin first to
see their interdependence, and then to see it as good, as worth nurturing. Otherwise, we have the
phenomenon that is happening in Eastern Europe, where there is rebellion against the unwilling union
of socialist republics.
We find ourselves, then, faced with a kind of microcosm of the paradox of power. Power is necessary
for independent thought and action, and independent thought and action are necessary for genuine
cooperation. And if we look at the sweep of history since Gospel times, I believe we can see even on
the surface an irregular but inexorable progress. Tyranny as an accepted form of human society is
gradually dwindling. Compulsion as a prerequisite to social order is more and more widely challenged.
The vision of a community of nations has gained in strength, and extends now to the vision of a
single, global community. There is even the growing recognition that our task is not to control the
world of nature, but to live at peace with it, to cooperate with its laws rather than trying to find
ways around them.
Where does this leave us as we begin 1990? I hope it leaves us with the confidence to face the fact
that a tremendous amount still needs to be done. The Lord seems to be entrusting us with enormous
power for good or for ill, and leaving us as always with life-and-death decisions to make. Perhaps the
most urgent and difficult task for the church is to insist that fundamental human problems will not be
solved by technology, that technology can give us power, but cannot give us either the will or the
wisdom to use it well.
With the stakes growing year by year, we are under more and more pressure to work for the
transformation of human hearts. We are obliged to witness that that transformation is indeed possible,
and to demonstrate the fact by allowing the Lord to transform our own. We are obliged to show by our
actions that a transformed heart is socially concerned, that regeneration does not lead us into some
private spiritual bliss where we can ignore the sufferings of others. We are called not so much to
explain our theology as to do it, in a sense to try to leave everyone we meet a little richer for
having met us. If we can explain it to those who are interested, that is a valuable bonus; but the
deed without the explanation is a far truer witness than the explanation without the deed.
With us as with everyone else, it is not a question of how much power we have, how much influence we
exert, but of how we exercise the power we do have. One of the paradoxes involved is that it takes
power to control power--we need strength of an inner kind to govern our lives well.
It is especially this inner strength that we see not as our own, but as a gift from the Lord. So as we
observe the Holy Supper, let us image ourselves as being fed for the year to come, offered freely both
the love and the wisdom we need to treat all our neighbors lovingly. We can in some measure see where
we have come from; we may derive a general idea of where we are headed; but we cannot see the future.
We can know with surety, though, that the commeandments of love to the Lord and the neighbor, followed
in whatever circumstances providence offers, lead now as they always have in the right direction. We
can enrol in the ranks of those whom the Psalmist describes: "One generation shall praise thy works to
another, and shall declare thy mighty acts."