Greece, democracy and politics

We have just spent twelve days on holiday in Greece, and enjoyed the experience a lot.  We swam in the Mediterranean and enjoyed the sunshine, but it was the history of the country that made the trip memorable.  We visited Knossos in Crete, a major archaeological site of the 3,500 year old Minoan civilization, once believed to a matter of legend but now known to be an influential precursor of Greek and Roman culture.  The country is full of reminders of the political and cultural forces that have, ever since, shaped the life of Europe – Greek, Roman, Venetian, Ottoman, British.

In Piraeus, the port of Athens, a museum celebrates Greece’s maritime heritage.  Prominent on display is an account of the country’s naval victory over the Persians at Salamis in 500BC – a decisive encounter which brought to an end the ambitions of the greatest empire the world had ever seen to expand westwards across the Mediterranean Sea.  Athens had already been ravaged by the Persians, whose vast army and navy looked fair set to obliterate the small city states of Greece, but Salamis, like the Battle of Britain centuries later, proved a turning point.

Without the survival of Athens and its early democratic ideals, Europe, and the world, would have been a very different place.  There would have been no place for the great Athenian philosophers, Plato and Aristotle, nor the rich cultural heritage represented by the Parthenon and the plays of Euripedes and Sophocles.  Homer’s Ilead and Odyssey would probably have disappeared.  Even more significantly, the idea of democratic government – rule by the people – would surely never have developed as it did.

We flew out of Athens on the 20th September, the day of the Greek General Election.  Alexis Tsipras and his Syriza Party won most seats, and they now have to work out how to survive in the Eurozone as part of a European Union.  We asked our taxi driver on the way to the airport who he wanted to win.  His reply was not surprising, if rather disappointing.  He didn’t really care, he said, because politicians were all liars and the result wouldn’t make any difference to him, whoever won.

Disillusionment with politics and with democracy (both Greek words and ideas, of course) is widespread, not only in Greece  The reasons are complex, but we must not allow our society and world to be shaped by undemocratic, unaccountable forces over which the majority of people have no control.  Democracy today has got to look very different from that which operated in Athens in the 5th century BC, but we have to try and find a way of making it work, at a continental and global level as well as at a national and local one.

The Persian Emperors Darius and Xerxes believed that they could rule the world well.  Their glory, wealth and power enthralled their subjects as well as their enemies.  But at Salamis they were not enough.  Let’s hope we have the resolve and confidence to counteract the glory of today’s commercial and other undemocratic powers.  Let’s get stuck in to the messy, but vitally important, business of politics, at whatever level we can.  .

Now I’m a Pensioner

For the first time in more than 36 years, I am no longer a full-time, paid Baptist minister.  I have become a pensioner!  It seems a good opportunity to reflect on how things have changed over that time.

What comes to mind immediately is what I’m doing right now, sitting in front of a screen and keyboard writing something that, when I click the “publish” button, could potentially be read by anyone in the world with access to the internet.  I say potentially, because I am under no illusion about the number of people who might actually be interested in doing that – perhaps none at all.

Of all the changes that have occurred, the rapid development of information technology and digital communication has probably been the most profound.  It has transformed the experience of worship, the preparation and presentation of sermons and teaching material, the way people relate to each other, both within the local church and with the wider church, the communication of ideas, etc.  We are living – not only in church life, of course, but in society as a whole – through a technological revolution, the consequences of which are impossible to foretell.

The impact of this revolution on the local church is considerable.  It is changing the notion of community, for one thing.  As we can now meet each other electronically in all sorts of ways, community is understood as being less and less about physical closeness.  In a previous generation,the car made it possible for people to belong to a church, or any other social group, even though they lived miles apart.  Now, electronic communication makes it possible for people to “meet” regardless of where they live on earth.  Even a sense of touch or smell across the globe seems probable.  All at the touch of a few buttons, or a voice command.

The convenience and potential are clear, and they are being exploited to the full by some.  There is no real substitute for physical closeness, of course, and I doubt if anyone would deny that.  But I wonder if our capacity and desire to be and work together are being undermined?  Actual communities, rather than virtual ones, are messy and frustrating.  We cannot log out or pause; we cannot so easily hide our responses when we get annoyed or impatient.  Are we losing the ability to put up with each other?  To love each other?

An actual community, to survive for long, needs at least some kind of institutional structure, some hierarchy.  It needs a constitution.  But each of those words – institution, hierarchy, constitution – are deeply unpopular in this new world of networked individuals.

Building a healthy local church, one of the prime tasks of any minister, presents new challenges in this environment.  To do so – if we want to do it at all – will require a grasp of the impact of changing technology and a serious commitment to its value for people’s spiritual welfare.