Arise and shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you, for darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you. Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. —Isaiah 60:1-3 (NSRV)
In a eulogy for a minister who devoted his life in the passionate struggle for justice, his colleague began by observing, “They say that it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness—well, Dave did both!”
The passage from Isaiah is a standard for Advent and Christmas, but it speaks in a particularly direct way this year to our communion of churches. The call is to rise up and witness to the light in a world plunged in bleak despair and spiralling tragedies, announcing the light and glory of God while saying even more darkness will come. The “both and” of hope breaks in precisely where there is no apparent reason to think things could change. The situation is looking worse and worse on many fronts, and God’s people in our churches and throughout the world are arising to announce and make visible the glory of God. And as Irenaeus reminded us, “The glory of God is humanity fully alive.”
The ecumenical community gathered in Rome to address xenophobia, racism and authoritarianism in the context of global migration. No backing down from the prophetic call clearly named by Rev. Dr. Tracy Blackmon of the United Church of Christ in a passionate address where the bleak reality was squarely addressed and the gospel light brought to shine on the structural and systemic injustices we are called, with and by God, to transform.
As the G20 leaders met in Buenos Aires, Argentina, the G20 Interfaith Forum met in parallel sessions raising the ethical and spiritual imperative to transform the global economic system driven by so called free market capitalism that is the engine behind climate injustice, inequity and poverty from which the very few profit at the expense of the life and work of the vast majority of the world’s people. Speaking truth to power in a world fallen among thieves.
In both cases people of faith rise up in hope to defend and protect the life of people and planet precisely because the situation does not provide any indication that change is likely or possible. Fuelled by the hope of Isaiah as witnessed to by Jesus of Galilee, we find inspiration in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “The time is always ripe to do what is right.” We arise as it gets more bleak, more troubled…hope is not linear. It does not come to us because change seems likely or evident. It comes as the despair mounts. As a gift of faith, the tragedy and despair are in fact our signals to arise and mobilize in the light of the implacable gift of life. Like the eulogist said, we both curse the darkness and light a candle. The challenges do not admit to soft optimism or disembodied yearning for better times, or prayer without discipleship.
This was never more clear than in our recent visit to Iraq led by our President Najla Kassab, together with leaders from PC(USA) and member churches in Syria and Egypt. We visited the three small congregations scattered throughout the country. After years of one war, conflict or invasion after another the up to 90% of Christians of our family have left and all Christians have faced the same. Death, violence and displacement is common to all Iraqis of all faiths and groups. Our focus on the Christians lead us to understand once again that in the midst of the threats, loss and massive migration they are reaching out as the situation continues to worsen, and crises deepen their concern in witness and service. To offer care for the general population in kindergartens and other service ministries. They understand their presence as needed for the construction of a society of co-existence for the possibility of peace and reconciliation with respect for diversity. Our president shared in ministry at the women’s prison where the church assures each person of their worth and dignity. Kindergartens and schools offer a place where the values of love and belonging stand in contrast to the violence and war and injustice which has divided the region. Arise and shine, they heard it, and they did it! But they also call on us to address the root causes of the migration to ensure peace and justice and reconciliation so God’s glory, humanity fully alive in its full diversity, will prosper. Without Christians and others who are not the dominant groups such a vision is impossible.
In Manila, WCRC folk visiting the United Church of Christ in the Philippines walked in tough spots to see the work in solidarity with the urban impoverished communities, heard the testimony of young people displaced by violence and violation of their human rights from the island of Mindanao. There the same rhythm the people of God rising and shining forth in defense of life even as the gloom of structural injustice and authoritarianism grows. The hope that comes when the reasons to hope seem far away.
Darkness covers the Earth and thick darkness the people is an apt description of the moment in which we live, but the WCRC continues to be stirred up and mobilized as we are “called to communion and committed to justice.” Called to communion to share the suffering and hope in our whole family. A family of churches that is arising so that God’s glory…humanity and earth fully alive will be fulfilled and after all what less can be said for followers of Jesus who proclaimed in the midst of the bleakest of times: “I HAVE COME SO THAT ALL MAY HAVE LIFE AND LIFE ABUNDANT.”