“See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the son of man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death.”Mark 10:32-34
We watched a movie a week ago at Volmoed entitled The Two Faces of January. The story begins in Athens, shifts to the Island of Crete and ends up in Istanbul. This is an enchanting location for what begins as a romantic holiday but soon becomes a dark thriller of sudden death, ending in a graveyard with no semblance sign of redemption. The Volmoed reception of the movie as entertainment was generally a thumbs down. But the more I reflected on it, the more movie reminded me of some classic Greek tragedies. Like most lives and the birth of nations, they start with great promise, but as the myth unfolds the mood changes as fateful choices lead to frightful consequences. Soon everyone is dragged downwards in a spiralling journey of gloomy foreboding and death. The inevitable, happens, and there seems to be nothing humanly possible to prevent it. We are sucked into the mire of fatalism, a sense of unrelenting hopelessness irrespective of what we can or should do about it. Such is the philosophy of fatalism, which prevails today as much as it ever did in ancient Greece. Whatever will be will be,
At times it seems that the Lenten journey of Jesus to the cross is exactly like a Greek tragedy. “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the son of man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death.” There are no maybes, no ifs and buts, but simply a prediction of fateful happenings. Jesus will be arrested and condemned to death, and there is apparently nothing that either he or his followers can do to prevent it. The die is cast. A story of good news of peace which started one starlit night in Bethlehem and then on the hills of Galilee starts plummeting towards disaster the nearer Jesus and his disciples get to Jerusalem. Then everything falls apart. The story is becoming bad news, very bad news. Judas betrays Jesus and commits suicide; Peter denies Jesus and weeps his heart out; the crowd bay for Jesus’ blood and get it; at a rigged trial Pilate condemns Jesus to death then washes his hands of the whole affair; all the disciples except for some women, flee the scene in panic; and then comes the punch line, “my God why have you forsaken me?” It has all gone horribly wrong. The fate of Jesus seems so inexorable, so inevitable, so meaningless, without any semblance of hope. The passion story is like a dark Hitchcock movie or one of the millions of human tragedies that daily unfold across the globe leaving us all gasping in helplessness. If there is a God, then where in this hell is God, the God we Christians have the audacity to say is compassionate and loves us? Is not life really determined by fate as the ancient Greeks and many of our contemporaries believe?
Fatalism is a powerful philosophy. If the bullet has your number on it, soldiers say, there is nothing you can do about it. It’s the luck of the draw, we say, or the way the penny drops. It is your karma or kismet; it is all predetermined, programmed beyond our control. And there is much to support this conviction. Ask people born into poverty, or those who have incurable cancer; ask those whose lives have fallen apart through no fault of their own. Not everyone, in fact, not most people get a good hand of cards to play. It is the luck of the draw, we say. Life is a struggle and there is nothing we or they can do to change the circumstances in which we live. Don’t we all feel like that at times? And it becomes more so the older we get. There seems to be something written in the stars that determines the course of our lives.
It was in a world shaped by this powerful philosophy and the myths that provide its narrative that the gospel of Christ was first proclaimed and fundamentally challenged this worldview and way of being in the world. “For freedom Christ has set us free,” writes Paul to the Galatians. freedom not just from dehumanizing legalism but also from what the apostle called the “elemental spirits of the world.” (Gal 4) or the “principalities and powers” of death. The gospel of Christ is good news not because it tells us that we can pick ourselves up by our own bootstraps, but because it speaks to us of the mystery and power of a divine love and grace that can set us free from the power of fatalism, and therefore set us free to live without the fear of fate and so act responsibly. Of course, we are not set free from the inevitability of death, or suffering, or even from poverty, but we are liberated from bondage to a fatalism that decrees that life has no purpose or meaning, no hope of redemption. and no possibility of transformation.
The truth is that only those who can discern some purpose in living are able to survive tragedy, only those who refuse to be trapped by the conditions in which they have been born or seem destined to live, are open to the redemptive power of God’s grace who can change their destiny. That is why I do not believe that the future of our country or any other is dependent upon fate but on the choices we make and the actions we take by God’s as we discern God’s will, not a cast-iron will of preordained inevitability, but a will of justice and freedom, of mercy and peace. So I take great comfort from the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer written shortly before his imprisonment that ended in his death that in the end became inevitable but not fatalistic:
I believe that God can and will let good come out of everything, even the greatest evil. For thatto happen, God needs human beings who let everything work out for the best. I believe that in every moment of distress God will give us as much strength to resist as we need…. In such faith all fear of the future should be overcome…I believe that God is no timeless fate but waits for and responds to sincere prayer and responsible actions.
We reaffirm these convictions of faith as we journey with Jesus to the cross on that dark Friday of divine absence that, for us, has become the Good Friday of liberation from fate as we commit our future into God’s gracious hands. So, too, we reaffirm our commitment to authentic and hopeful acts of love, justice and mercy, and pray for grace and wisdom in doing so. God does not expect more from us; but God also does not ask for less for we “believe that God is no timeless fate but waits for and responds to sincere prayer and responsible actions.”
John de Gruchy
Volmoed 17 March 2016