The Latter Times
‘In the latter times’ writes one of the contributors to the book of Daniel ‘Many shall be running back and forth and evil shall increase.’ (Dan. 12:4) Whoever was writing may have borrowed the words from elsewhere and re-worked them slightly to fit the times he or she was living in, times when a people were being oppressed by a powerful ruler. The point of the book lies both in its poetry and in its prophetic witness. Prophecy is concerned with history – specifically, God’s involvement in history and the extent to which God may or may not play a part in shaping it. In the bible, poetry gives voice to God’s passionate love for his people.
Prophecy discerns how his purposes are to be worked out in their life together. There have been many ‘latter times’ in the history of the human race, some of them arguably within the reaches of our own memories. One, perhaps, being experienced right now. There will undoubtedly be more.
If we stick with the book of Daniel as a basic blueprint or model for what these ‘latter times’ might be taken to mean, or what they might look like, we see not just individuals speaking into the future, but whole populations moving and acting. We see migrations and mass movements, the movements of dissent and sometimes of revolution.
Right now, in the UK, we are watching two movements of dissent as they appear to converge on one another. They are unprecedented in their size and remarkable for what can only be described as their solemnity. They are, for the most part, more like religious processions than political demonstrations. Prayer is seen to be going on in at least one of them. It is as if God is not simply being invoked. He is present to the moment, involved in the course of history. In this particular instance I think especially of the Extinction Rebellion protests that have been taking place in London and elsewhere in the UK. But I am also thinking of the one million people who turned out on those same streets a few days later to demand a final say in the Brexit process.
There was a certain stillness about the march which ought to have struck fear in the hearts of the powerful. A riot would have been frightening, but this steadiness of purpose, this silence at the heart of things, spoke not so much of the power of the people pitting itself against the power of government, as of authenticity.
Authenticity is the mark of the genuine authority which comes with what the bible calls righteousness. Embedded in the word ‘righteousness’ are two other words, both pertaining to the character of God. They are ‘mercy’ and ‘justice’. Both of the massive demonstrations we have seen speak of this righteousness. The one in the context of our planet and the lives of future generations, the other in the context of resistance, resistance to a dangerous fragmenting of the unity of purpose that exists between 27 European nations and that has sustained peace between this country and its neighbours for over 70 years. Relatively few people alive in Britain today have known war, so this particular protest is also a resistance to the price we might yet pay for wilfully ignoring history. The price would be huge and long term.
The purpose of prophecy then, lies in remembering and in reminding those who are prepared to learn, of the need for ‘knowledge’, knowledge being a kind of divinely graced common sense. Common sense is common, not because it is obvious, but because it serves the good of the greatest number of people, rather than of the powerful few. So the first thing that is required of any political leader is a healthy dose of this ‘common’ sense. The two demonstrations that have taken place in London over the past two weeks have been an expression of, and a demand for, common sense, properly understood, to be deployed by those in government or who have the means or the power to change the way we use the God given resources of this planet. So the two events are of a piece. They are also continuous and open ended.
By this I mean that for as long as anyone engages with the urgency of the Extinction Rebellion, and with those who value peace and prosperity in Europe, the marches will continue. They will continue to take place in streets and cities but, more significantly for those of you reading this post, they will continue through the hearts and minds of every individual who consciously abandons complacency, cynicism and despair in regard to both these areas of human survival and wellbeing.
They will also continue from within the life of God, which is neither limited nor finite. Every heart that is concerned with the common good, seeks the knowledge that ultimately comes from God. The bible calls this Wisdom. It is an attribute of God’s own nature, but it is also ‘common’ sense. It is God acting from within the human person, prompting the freedom given to us to exercise our free will in righteousness, justice and compassion. These three stand in direct opposition to the three prevailing evils of our time, the evils of complacency, cynicism and despair. Complacency and cynicism stifle hope and blunt creativity. Despair is about lifelessness and death.
The demonstrations that we have seen stand against this triple evil. They suggest that what appears to be our end, can become our beginning. T.S. Eliot wrote in his poem Little Gidding, that ‘We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.’ The solemn coming together of peoples who are confronting human folly and greed for the sake of our common survival is part of a new creation, a new thing being created out of the ashes of complacency, cynicism and ultimate despair.
These great demonstrations of a people’s will to the common good are also a ‘knowing’, a knowing which pertains to each one of us, if we are willing to own it. So we are each called from wherever we are at this moment, with whatever we have to offer, to engage with this new beginning for the common good, to ‘know’ it for the first time from deep within ourselves and take responsibility for it, as a matter of utmost urgency.