Stepping into the third world is a strong experience: like venturing beyond the garden gate for the first time, like being blindfolded and swung round in a party game. It is disorientating. All the comforting re-assuring things we rely on to guides us through normal life are gone. We find ourselves in a world without the norms and mores we expect and take for granted: of language, culture, food, smells, toilet and sleeping arrangements, customs, services, institutions and time, especially time. It is as if we are set loose in a wild landscape where nothing is certain any more.
In the west, it seems, we have a very skewed view of the reality of world. We describe the third world as if it were an undeveloped part of our world, when in fact it is the world and we are only a tiny part of it. We are in a very small walled garden, a compound with its walls, gates and barbed wire. Inside we are protected, safe and warm and free to think and discuss and plan and be creative without the crippling business of surviving.
My sense is that the walls of our compound will not, in time, be able to hold out against the inevitable tide which will overrun them. We will not be able to protect our way of life forever. It is not sustainable. Anyone can see that. It is patently clear, yet the impression I get is that we are in denial. We have confidence that we are able to respond to crises that come our way and carry on with our lives. Whether it is a financial collapse, a terrorist threat or the current refugees’ crisis we feel we will be able to sort it out and it won’t threaten our existence. (Interestingly enough the big three still very much threaten us and don’t show any sign of going away.) Even using the word “crises” suggests that they are nothing more than temporary irritants and so we are seduced into thinking that everything will be ok and our culture, so strong, it will see off all comers. Witness Andrew Neil’s rant on BBC (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WIKg3Qexn7U), following the Paris attacks. It is a belief that our democracy and civilisation will not only last for a thousand years but for ever. This unashamed arrogance is astonishing as it is breath-taking in its blindness. We seem to have a collective short memory and are wilfully ignorant of the reality of history and of biblical prophecy.
So my heart is not in reinforcing the walls and securing the gates. My heart is for reaching out, sharing what we have left, while we still have it. All the good things: our education, culture, structures and institutions, laws and orders, the sense of the common good, honesty and integrity in public life, what we have learned and found to work, most of which has, it has to recognised, come from the Bible. Sharing as much of it as we can before the wreckers and vandals destroy it completely. In my experience it is what the people of the world want. It is what they come here for. It is not for the weather. The business of trying to protect and shore up our way of life, our British values, whatever they might be, by building walls, and bolting doors is in itself a hopeless and futile project. It is futile because the destruction of our way of life is happening from within. The vandals are home grown. Bit by bit we have chipped away at the foundations, grubbed out the roots and the structure has become very unstable. It won’t take much to push it over. We have broken away from our moorings and set adrift in an uncertain sea, scrambling about for anything, any common denominator (usually the lowest) that will hold the thing together. Yet still we carry an over inflated confidence in our ability to ride out any storm. We believe that our way, the way of liberal democracy, is somehow invincible. It isn’t.
This is not the time for erecting fences, getting the wagons into a circle or retiring into a lager. That will only prolong the agony and the inevitable fall. This is the time for breaking out. It is the time for opening our hearts and our lives and telling the Good News while people are still listening.
At the back of the hotel, where we were staying, just outside the walls of the old city and close to the Damascus gate there was a marshalling yard where buses were turning, reversed and revving with cars and taxis horns from early in the morning. You couldn’t sleep after that. At the edge of the yard was an outcrop of limestone rock pitted and hollowed with small caves and vegetation. If you looked closely it would not be too difficult to imagine the shape of a face or a skull in the fissured rock. I fancied it was here. I somehow imagined it as a place like this, not up a hill, but on a principal artery leading out of Jerusalem to Damascus, a very public place for a very public spectacle, deliberately chosen by the Roman occupiers to make examples of those who would defy their authority, to terrorise any would be rebels and subdue these troublesome Jews. The chosen execution of nailing the criminal through the hands and the feet to a wooden post was itself designed to inflict the greatest pain and prolonged suffering. But the greatest terror was the shame of it, the curse of it. The words written on the cross in three languages were “The King of the Jews” but the word written across this whole defining scene, as if in six foot letters or in indelible ink was “SHAME”.
They say that shame is an emotion that has been banished and eradicated from our contemporary life. I don’t believe it. I have seen it deeply ingrained on the faces of the men who I used to visit in prison. The awful sense of having been so bad that the punishment was incarceration, with their freedom removed and the forced separation from the friends, family and their normal lives. I found it a very powerful and strange experience on these visits and very hard to deal with. The worst point was when you said your farewells and left, they to their cells and we to our freedom. I have also known shame in my own heart: the emotion that goes beyond an awareness of guilt provoked by an active conscience that could not be silenced. It goes beyond the sense of failure and foolishness to the shock and realisation that you could be such a person who would think these thoughts say these words and do these deeds. It is one, if not, the most powerful emotion in the human spirit, which has the ability to permanently cripple and ultimately destroy any sense of self-worth or value. It is present in the memory of punishments being meted out, the beltings, the penalties, the exclusions, the reprimands, the forfeit of freedom and, in the ultimate case, the forfeit of one’s life.
There is something here that is so difficult to comprehend. It is hard to begin to feel yourself into the situation. It is hard to make sense of it and it proffers a very disturbing and unsettling problem. The prospect that you could be found guilty of a crime so heinous that it could justify the forfeiting of your life, stirs at something so deep and so worrying, way beyond any fear or distress and I think it touches the rawness of shame. You would have to be a clinical rebel if you could shut your heart to its sting.
So on this day, this Good Friday and on every day, I want to remember the one who took my shame who bore it willingly so that I can stand guilt and shame free before the Holy God now and when I see him face to face.
I have never been on an anti-nuclear march. I have never been on a protest march of any kind, for that matter, and expect I never will. Not that the issues don’t concern me. They do. But I have never felt, for me, joining a protest march or sit-in, was either a relevant or effective way of making a point and of influencing opinions and decisions. The issue of Nuclear Weapons, a big thing in many people’s mind with the possibility of an independent Scotland, presents a particularly vexing dilemma
You don’t need to have much imagination to grasp the unspeakable horror that would be unleashed in the event of a nuclear conflict. I have read the books and watched films. One of my closest friends comes from Nagasaki. I have a very vivid imagination and these images and records have been indelibly printed in my mind so that they won’t go away. Because of the scale, the might, the inevitable indiscriminate nature of the beast, no cause could ever be important enough to justify their use. And if you have no intention of using them how can you ever justify having them? That the other side have similar weapons is, for me, no argument either. I would accept facing a major nuclear assault on my own nation, my own people, my own family, with all the horror that that would entail and still refuse to respond in kind. But then, nothing is ever that simple. Or is it?
When you look at the issue dispassionately, (if you can) a curios but relevant fact comes into play. While millions of people (2-3 million) have been killed in wars since 1945 with bombs, missiles, rockets, shells, kalashnikovs and machetes not one single person has died as a result of a nuclear weapon being used in anger. This is an astonishing statistic and despite current East/West jumpiness and the possibility of a terrorist group laying hands on the goods there is nothing to suggest that these weapons are ever likely to be used. Many would even suggest that the presence of these weapons has, in fact, kept us from all-out war over this period. If that is so, and it is a big if, then the argument shifts from morality to money. Maintaining a nuclear arsenal, or being covered by a nuclear umbrella, when there is never the intention of using either, does seem quite insane. It can only be regarded as a foolish and obscene waste of money, time and expertise, resources that would much better be employed in more worthy causes.
But to the dismay, no doubt, of many of my friends and family, I am still not convinced that the campaign for nuclear disarmament is a necessary element in the pursuit of world peace. At the end of the day, a nuclear missile is an inanimate object and of itself has no moral character. It is certainly a weapon and the vilest kind. (Although I expect evil minds can and will produce even worse). The person behind the weapon is, on the other hand, a moral being, capable of distinguishing between right and wrong. In a way it doesn’t matter if they are pushing a button, or firing a shell, dropping a bomb or wielding a machete, the end result is the same. The difference is only in method and scale.
So the campaign that I want to be involved and committed to is for the changing of hearts and the resistance of evil. This is essentially a work of God and of His Holy Spirit but I believe that Jesus has called his followers to be part of and instruments of, that work. This, for me, is the most relevant and most effective way of engaging in this struggle. The struggle: the campaign, the fight and the battle, which is not against people, or governments, or political parties or societies, or nations, but against the spiritual powers of darkness.
The overnight bus from Lima was an experience I would try and avoid, if I could. We drove along the coastal plain on a muggy hot night, stopping to pick up passengers and sellers of choclo, oranges and bottled drinks, on the way, before beginning the long climb up into the sierra. It was a continual zigzag. On the upper floor we were constantly thrown from side to side which put an end to any idea of sleep. All windows were tightly closed and condensation from the heaving bodies dripped down the glass. A cockroach was trying to get into a bag of vegetables. Some passengers had already been sick and the worryingly thin sick bags were sliding around the floor. I was hoping that one didn’t burst just at my feet and I was praying that the driver would not fall asleep at the wheel. It was a long nine hours before the glimmering light of dawn eventually brought relief and the appearance of small farms and dwellings in the hills, now dotted with eucalyptus; cactus and pampas grass lightened the spirit. Then suddenly, we were there, over the hill and looking down on Ayacucho, spread out in the valley below us just coming to life and waking up to a new day.
I had a number of places on my wish list to visit during my trip but this was the one at the top. There were a number of reasons why this was so. It was here in 1824 that the battle of Ayacucho was fought and the victory that not only secured Peru’s independence from Spanish rule but signalled the end of the colonist’s power in South America. Simon Bolivar credited with the victory, changed the name of the city from Huammango to Ayacucho “the corner of the dead” or “field of blood” as a tribute to the many who died on the battlefield. It was in this city in the late 1960’s that the Sendero Luminoso was born under the inspiration of their charismatic leader, Abimael Guzmán. The “Shining Path”, was a Maoist guerrilla insurgent organisation representing pure communism, whose aim was to destroy the existing bourgeois state and replace it with a dictatorship of the proletariat which would in turn precipitate a world revolution. The brutal war between the rebels and the government force, that continued throughout the 80’s and early 90’s , resulted in thousands of deaths. Many innocents were caught in the crossfire. After the murder of one of their lieutenants, the Shining Path took revenge and massacred a whole village including old people, children and pregnant women. Guzman was unrepentant. “We responded with devastating action, neither we nor they have forgotten it, because they got an answer they didn’t possibly imagine, to be sure. lucanamarca, More than 80 were annihilated, that is the truth…. The main point to make is that we are a hard nut to crack and we are ready for anything , anything” The Christian church was a specific target for the terrorists. They refused to take the side of the revolutionaries and suffered terribly as a result. Many congregations were slaughtered and pastors killed. One of those was Rómulo Sauñe Quicaña. He came from a rural community and it is possible that he was descendant from the Inca royal household. He heard about Jesus as a teenager and gave his life to serving his Lord as a pastor among the Quechua people introducing new hymns in the Quechua language, using traditional instruments. As a gifted linguist, he assisted with the translating of the bible into Quechua. The effects of this work were truly revolutionary. The Quechan Christians now had a confidence and assurance in their faith that the Maoists with their dehumanising philosophy could not match. When you know that you are loved by God, being sold the idea that you are an economic unit as part of the proletariat mass holds no attraction. Because Rómulo Sauñe and others refused to bow the knee to the ideology of the Shining Path or to their methods, he was hated. Coming home from visiting a local church in 1992 his bus was stopped at a road block and he and four companions were murdered. Two weeks later Guzmán was captured in an apartment above a dance studio in a fashionable suburb in Lima and the war was effectively over.
In 1987, at the height of the conflict, the Ayacucho Quechuan bible was first published but because of the upheaval and migration over the years, this had to be fully revised and republished. It was dedicated in May 2013 . Those who were there at the dedication describe it as a very moving scene, when massed choirs approached the city square from four corners and thousands joined the celebration, among them, many who had lost family members in the war and who had come through great suffering. I wanted to see the site of the ancient battle. I wanted to walk down those streets. I wanted to be in that square.
Arriving at the bus station that morning my thoughts, however, were not so much with the history and the events that unfolded in this place but with how dreadful I felt. This was brought on partly by the overnight journey and partly on account of the altitude. I was told that when you arrive at altitude the first thing you should do is nothing: no lifting, no walking and no work, just rest, for half an hour or so to allow your lungs to become accustomed to the thinness of the air. I wanted just to sit, but my companion was insistent that we find a hotel first of all. So we took a taxi to the city and called on a few dubious establishments. Each was regarded, by my companion, as too expensive so we searched for other equally disreputable places. Finally she settled on one. It was very tawdry, lacking linen, towels, soap, toilet paper in fact just about everything you would expect in a hotel, apart, that is, for a bed and a remote control for the TV. I was past caring. It was somewhere to rest. I threw myself on the bed and passed out for an hour or so while my companion went looking for a friend she knew. When she returned she had found somewhere better so we paid off the man behind the grill and left. The other hotel was luxury by comparison. But there was something more. The place had an atmosphere. It was hard to describe. Perhaps it was the little things that make up the whole, perhaps it was the way the staff went about their business, perhaps it was just fancy, but it felt a good place to be. My weariness had quickly evaporated and had been replaced with a surprising sense of well being and excitement at new discoveries. I was introduced to the owner, a man in his early seventies cheerful, warm and friendly and later, to his daughter. She ran a small clinic from some small rooms within the hotel and was the first and only person that I met on my trip who spoke English. She was Quechuan and was fluent in four languages. She studied in Brazil and the UK but her life’s work was as a medic among the desperately poor villages that surrounded Ayacucho. For seven years she had worked to provide proper sanitation in this region and was able to witness the astonishing improvements to health, particularly amongst children. Previously there was a very high level of infant and child mortality due to contaminated water supply. We had just met, but I felt I had known her all my life and I had this strange conviction that I had come here for a purpose. She spoke about a clinic she ran in a town outside the city and asked if I would like to see it. It was in Quinua, the site of the battle and a place we had actually planned to visit. Immediately we went looking for a combi bus to take us there.
The village is about an hour and half by combi and much higher up in the mountains (3,300m). Above the village is a large impressive plateau. You can stand here and look out across the valley, down to the city with the Andes circling around and that wonderful gasping sense of space and scale and beauty and the crystal clearness of the air like the purest water you drink or the finest wine. It had all the beauty we associate with the Scottish highlands but on a far far grander scale. At the edge of the plateau is a rather ugly obelisk, a memorial to the battle that was fought on that field. Inside there is a small museum telling the story of how the loyalists in red were defeated by the rebels in blue with the help of the local rural population wielding pitchforks and axes. A young boy acted as our guide and explained the significance of the various artefacts. After some hours the sky began to darken and we knew that rain was about to fall. This was the rainy season after all. We made our way back down to the village and reached the market just before the clouds burst open and heavy rain descended, loading the thin tarpaulin roofing sheets and scattering waterfalls in arbitrary directions. Lunch of cuy (guinea pig) rice and beans was followed by a look at the work of the artisans and their famous pottery.
The clinic is in the centre of the village: a single storey building, up from the road, typically concrete and bricks, and incomplete with reinforcing rods stretching to the sky. Our friend was in the middle of a consultation, so we took a seat in the waiting room. It was the same room and we could hear the discussion that was going on, although busy with our own activities, my companion checking on facebook and me scribbling notes. Quite suddenly, the conversation stopped and there was silence. I looked up. There were three medics, the patient and a relative around the table. All heads were bowed and there was prayer for the situation with the words, I heard many times, “nothing is impossible to God” When I remarked on this to my companion afterwards she was surprised. “Would medics in the UK not pray for their patients?”
Most of the building construction I had seen, apart, that is, from the major public building and the malls, was shambolic, unfinished and in a permanent state of disrepair. The clinic was no different but here the situation was much worse. The actual construction was poor. It wasn’t working. Two columns, hastily inserted in one of the rooms to save the concrete roof from collapsing, bore testimony to this. The junctions between the various parts of the building allowed water to drip down the walls of every room with dark damp stains turning green. Amongst the faded health posters and basic facilities it was a most depressing scene. On the concrete roof in among the debris of water tanks and make shift solar panels, we talked about the work. The need for the clinic was obvious. It was the only one. The government did not have the resources to provide anything here and so it was left to voluntary agencies to run and support this work. It often boiled down to knocking on doors to find someone who would help. The people themselves were desperately poor. Added to this was the spectre of domestic violence and the migration of young people to the cities often leaving the old people to die in desperate conditions with poor shelter. This was the summer and it felt quite cold. I shuddered to think what a winter would be like in these open concrete dwellings with tin roofs and no insulation. While our friend was describing the terrible conditions of these people and their basic needs, she broke down. I felt so helpless. I was a passing visitor a fleeting stranger. What could I do? I wanted to get out my height rod and measure up. I wanted to draw up sketch proposals for accommodation and improvements to the building. I wanted to get the materials, gather some workers, pick up my tools and get started right away. All I could do was to show some sympathy, buy some gifts from the craft shop and leave.
On the final leg of my journey home, all the experiences and memories were cluttering up my mind. They were too many: too many people, too many situations, too many memories to make any coherent and consistent sense of what it all could mean. As the miles and time and climate and language passed and moved into more familiar territory, the idea of helping with the clinic seemed nothing more than the craziest of ideas, an interesting interlude, a story to tell. The realistic possibility of it becoming a serious project, one that I could be part of, seemed more and more fanciful. After all it was in a remote part of a country in the southern hemisphere, on the other side of the world, it was three languages removed, it was among a different people and in a completely different culture. I had learned too much about the disasters that happen when people with misguided zeal blunder into situations to help and leave, having made it so much worse. Yet something niggled and it still does.
I came to see the place of so many memories but left with a memory of a cry of desperate need. One that would not go away.
No matter how you try the bad news gets to you. You can anesthetise yourself for a time, then the horror of it all grabs you by the throat. You can be cushioned for so long and then the rock bites. The mud slides, the floods and waves rage on the land. The earth’s crust moves for a couple of seconds and cities are flattened while the lucky ones escape to shiver in tents in the cold mountains. The famine never ends and peace still does not return to the villages. The merchants ply their evil trade in poison and guns and the wars continue: wars and stories of wars.
This week it was Syria and two distressing reports. One was by the Euro Mediterranean Human Rights Network (EMHRN ) “Violence against women: Crimes of impunity” highlighting again the despicable nature of modern warfare, where women are targeted and rape is an instrument of war. The second was even more harrowing. It was by the Oxford Research Group “Stolen Futures: the hidden toll of child casualties in Syria” The statistics alone are damning. During the conflict, 7,557 children were killed by explosives, 2,008 by aerial bombardment, 2,806 from small arms including sniper fire and summary executions and 112 were tortured and killed with infants among them. That means that picking out children to be tortured and executed is, like the raping of women, just another instrument of war. It is almost impossible take in or believe. We have come to accept that children will inevitably be caught up in conflicts and suffering, but to specifically target children as this report, if true, clearly shows, represents a new level of horror a new depth of evil. It is hard to come to terms with it. Immediately there is white hot anger and utter contempt for those who are behind the killings. There is also deep shame and guilt at our impotency. The great powers in the world with all the resources at their disposal can do nothing other than make noises and carry off a few chemical weapons to be destroyed. Our parliament having voted against intervention, has kicked into touch any possibility of standing up to the bullies for some time to come. It is almost as if behind a veneer of liberal niceties we are with Joseph Conrad’s Kurtz “let the brutes exterminate themselves” “It’s not our problem”
But what can you do? What can I do?
Inevitably I am back crying to God who can do something and I find the voice of the sons of Korah in Psalm 46: God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging……Come and see what the Lord has done, the desolations he has brought on the earth. He makes wars cease to the ends of the earth. He breaks the bow and shatters the spear; he burns the shields with fire. He says, ‘Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.’
Another suicide bombing, another church, another group of worshipers men women and children, another 75 dead and 120 injured, another round of condemnation, another pledge to fight the terrorists and win and just another incident that barely makes the pages of the morning’s newspaper. It is now just one of these things, the suffering is far away, the reality is dim, the unanswered question “where was God?” is put to bed and we get on with life. But sometimes you can’t.
This from a previous outrage:
TO A SUICIDE BOMBER
“o yes …I am afraid”
To you suicide bomber who I will never meet/I have but one thing to say though I know you won’t hear me now/I too, like you, believe in commitment /It can’t be halfhearted /It has to be all the way/I too, like you, believe in spiritual things/The material world will pass away/What is seen is temporary/What is unseen will last forever/I too, like you, stand dismayed at what I see/At times disgusted with our seedy western ways/I too, you like, you believe in life after death/When our brief short stint is passed/Then will be eternity/Where no sacrifice will ever be too great /Or can compare with the glory that is to come/I too, like you, believe in God /He is one, /All powerful /All merciful/But I fear /I fear /I fear /For you/When I think of how you will stand before him now/And how you will answer /When he hears the blood of the /The women men and children/The babies and the children yet unborn/Crying out from the ground and the underground/And I know/It would be better much better for you then/That a giant boulder was hung around your neck /And you were drowned in the deepest part of the sea