Thursday, December 17, 2009

Too late? A genuine possibility

We are now faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked, and dejected with a lost opportunity. The tide in the affairs of men does not remain at flood -- it ebbs. We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is adamant to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words, "Too late." There is an invisible book of life that faithfully records our vigilance or our neglect. Omar Khayyam is right: "The moving finger writes, and having writ moves on."
A quote from the debate at the Copenhagen conference yesterday? A speech from a prominent NGO outside? No, it is an extract from this 1967 speech by Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. and concerned the Vietnam War. The man had a gift with words.

But the sentiment he expressed then about the challenges of his day still apply today to ours. Procrastination still kills. There is no guarantee that our civilisation will escape the fate of those dug up by archeologists. And there is no guarantee that our actions and inactions might not be material contributing causes to that result. As my fifth-grade teacher used to say "It is possible to avoid the consequences of our actions, but not to avoid the consequences of avoiding the consequences". In other words, we shall reap what we are currently sowing.

What of grace? Of forgiveness and the love of God? They are indeed a comfort, removing anxiety over past mistakes and giving us hope to act without full knowledge (to "sin boldly", in the famous exhortation of the older Martin Luther). But they are never an excuse. They give us freedom from guilt and fear, freedom to act, but never freedom from responsibility or the "freedom" to do as we please without consideration of others. This latter "freedom" is merely another kind of slavery, according to Jesus. It is slavery to our selfish desires. The great epistle of freedom is Paul's letter to the Galatians:
For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.

- Galatians 5.13-15

Are we indeed loving our neighbour? Or are we simply consuming and thereby consuming one another? To follow Christ does not give simple answers. While we may find a new centre and coherence to our lives in seeking to love our neighbour, it does not remove the necessity of working out just what it means for us to love one another today.

So let us examine ourselves without any of the false safety nets of misplaced security or simplistic notions of freedom and ask: what are we to do today? Not "what do we want to do today?", nor "what will enable our lives to continue as they have been?" nor even "what must be do to survive?" But simply, what are we to do today? This question is not easy. The pressing needs of the hour do not remove its complexity. The answers are not found in the back of a book. The apparently obvious solutions put forward by so many interests do not remove our responsibilities to pay attention, to deliberate and to act.

May God have mercy on us all.


Mark Thompson said...

Byron, Thanks for an excellent series of posts over the past year on climate change. I have been greatly encouraged, edified (and educated too) by the material you have posted. Good on you for quoting the old doctor in this last one. I look forward to reading more.

byron smith said...

Thanks Mark!

I'm writing some pieces for CPX about Copenhagen at the moment (I posted a link to the first one a few days ago). The next one should be up sometime soon, and then there might also be a 3rd, depending on when our baby decides to arrive.

Mike W said...

hi byron, thanks for this post. Most of us (including christians) seem to live with the boundaries for our action provided by the state. so there are loads of people in australia who support strong action on climate change, but won't curtail their lives a great deal without legislation. I can see why this is the case, but i wonder whether the failure of state based solutions will bring into question the idea that life should be pushed as far as the state will allow.

byron smith said...

Mike - when you say we live "with the boundaries for our actions provided by the state" do you mean that we generally live within the law, but we should consider some civil disobedience? Or do you mean that the government sets the example on what is "thinkable", so that, for example, the obsession of nearly all contemporary governments with the pursuit of economic growth above all else rubs off on us but we ought to have the courage to live lives that don't experience an ever increasing level of consumption? Or both? Or something else? It sounds interesting, can you please say more? :-)

byron smith said...

"It's too late to prevent the problems we've already committed ourselves to by our inaction so far; it's never too late to prevent the problems ten more years of inaction will commit us to." - from a very interesting discussion here.