On Randomness and Powerlessness

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This morning’s Thought for the Day drew inspiration from a quote I read at the weekend. It’s from a book entitled The Descent of the Dove by Charles Williams, author and member of the Inklings literary circle, and is quoted in Eugene Petersen’s helpful commentary on Jeremiah, Run With The Horses. The full quote refers to the Church, but I felt there was a relevance to the broader culture in these times of uncertainty and fear.

You can listen again to the Thought here by scrolling to 01:23:06 or you can read the text below:

Charles Williams, literary contemporary of CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien, once wrote that:

“At the moment when it is remotely possible that a whole generation might have learned something both of theory and practice, the learners and their learning are removed by death…The whole labour of regenerating mankind has to begin again every thirty years or so.”

Thirty years is no time at all. It seems that, just as one generation gets to grips with the world, everything shifts, the wisdom we have accrued is lost and we need to begin all over again.

My generation grew up during the Cold War. The seeping fear of nuclear threat permeated our understanding of politics and the future, yet the threat of monolithic global conflict seemed both remote and impersonal. This week, as parliament debated the rights and wrongs of maintaining a nuclear deterrent, violence and conflict seem closer to home, more individually driven, more likely to erupt at the end of my street. The sense of powerlessness and uncertainty is as overwhelming as thirty years ago.

In Baton Rouge, Nice or Istanbul, we observe the apparent randomness of events, and the deep-seated anger that drives individuals to behave violently towards others. How can peace ever be won by human endeavour when anger lurks in all of us? Not the righteous anger that rails against injustice, but an anger rooted in the hatred of others, acting in rebellion against peace.

Out of powerlessness, I find myself responding in the words of the psalm that asks the question. “Why. Why, Lord, do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” And the more I contemplate the random nature of violence in our times, the more drawn I am to the words that follow:

“You, Lord, hear the desire of the afflicted;
you encourage them, and you listen to their cry,
defending the fatherless and the oppressed,
so that mere earthly mortals
will never again strike terror.”

Perhaps we must learn again to look beyond ourselves to find the deep-rooted peace we are craving for the next generation, and for our own.

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