We have just celebrated our northern Thanksgiving; and I, for one, am still assimilating an infusion of pheasant, stuffed with wild rice; of lamb shanks, sweet potatoes, corn, apple pie: “enough to kill a man!” But there was so much to be thankful for, this year as all previous, and in all to come.
By the finest tradition, we thank our Lord for creating and preserving us within reach of salvation as beings who take pleasure in the bounty of the harvest and in the fruit of our labour, but who may also rise above our animal nature.
It is well to assign a theme, each year—a topic for thankful meditation, that looks forward, as well as back. The harvest is in, but in its riches there is promise as well as fulfilment.
Grace we have had, have, and will have, if we will only discern it.
My thanks this year is for men and women who will speak out, for the truth, at the sacrifice of their own comfort, or life if necessary; who have spoken, do speak, and will continue to speak, prophetically. I do not restrict this list to Christians.
News over the weekend of the Nobel peace prize awarded to Liu Xiaobo and of the furious Chinese state response to it was especially invigorating.
While Nobel prizes in themselves are garbage (all such awards are), good sometimes comes from the fuss that is made over them. The recipient this year is serving his fourth prison sentence in China for having become a kind of Chinese Vaclav Havel—a literary man who was most recently among key organizers of the Chinese “Charter 08.” This echoed the Czech “Charter 77,” which challenged Communism a generation ago.
There are tens of thousands of political prisoners scattered through the Red Chinese Gulag, or “Laogai.” More than a thousand of them are known to the West by name and particulars. Xiaobo is memorable in the West because he was teaching as a visitor at a university in the United States at the time of the Tiananmen demonstrations in 1989. Rather than keep his safe distance and comment easily from abroad, he returned home to stand with the students.
The comparison to Havel includes good political sense, for Xiaobo was among those who tried to persuade the demonstrators of Beijing that the “People’s Army” really would gun them all down, and some tactical retreat was in order.
He wasn’t arrested on that occasion, until the smoke cleared.
As I understand from a Chinese friend, Xiaobo’s great value within China is as a voice expounding, often quite subtly, the relation between Aesthetics and Human Freedom (the translated title of one of his most famous essays). He confronts directly what other critics of Chinese totalitarianism avoid: the apparent “economic miracle”—the outward gleaming success expressed in skyscrapers and multiplying consumer goods.
He identifies this with the life of pigs. He finds the evil of the regime not only in direct acts of political repression, but also in the vileness of this consumer spectacle. In doing so, he addresses himself not only to the Politburo that cannot feel safe while men like Xiaobo are free to walk the streets. He also addresses his countrymen, who agree to accept a pig’s rewards.
Here is someone who “speaks truth to power”—to the power that goes beyond the simple capacity of a regime to alternatively intimidate and buy off its opposition. He is, in effect, speaking as the Pope did, in extended off-the-cuff remarks on Psalm 81 (no. 82 in Protestant Bibles), on Monday morning in Rome. His topic was “apocalypse” (a Greek word that means “unveiling”).
Pope Benedict is perhaps our greatest living dissident. He spoke of the “false gods” that threaten and oppress us. He included the false gods of finance and capital; the false gods of ideology and terrorism; the false gods of drugs and addiction—the false gods who are not specific regimes or enterprises or persons, but rather “the principalities and powers” with which St Paul said we were at war.
And quite literally, “false gods.”
False gods who claim our allegiance and devotion, while they deceive and enslave us. In the Chinese case, it is a false god who offers material prosperity at the expense of human dignity. In the Western case, it is exactly the same false god.
This, I have come to think, is the standard for speaking out. Yes, we must inevitably attack the very agents of the false gods—the commissars, the ideologues, the paymasters, the pushers. But, if that is all we oppose, then we merely advance one false god against another. The true dissident, the righteous prophet, points beyond the pig sty.
There will always be such dissidents, such prophets. No matter what is done to silence them, they will always be heard. Count our blessings!