Something is happening in this world that has got many, even amongst the most learned, thoroughly confused. On the one hand Capitalist America is seeing socialist type revolts (like the Occupy Wall Street) as a result of a long drawn recession, largely attributed to the failure of the capitalist system itself. And on the other hand a Communist country, China, is making hay with a capitalist form of economy. Then there are people in the Arabic belt, historically averse to democracy, and who submitted themselves to dictatorships and theocracies, now desperately attempting to establish democracies (aka Arab Spring).
Everywhere, from the street corners, to the corridors of power, to media rooms, to academic closets, and civil society chatterboxes, people are to some extent or the other engaged in figuring out the nature and outcomes of the events unfolding worldwide. Conclusions are being drawn according to ones foundational views. So here I am putting my own assessment. Recently I had the opportunity to listen to a series of lectures on democracy, by academic scholars, specifically addressing the emergence of democracy in the newly ‘liberated’ Muslim countries. While speaker after speaker defined the political elements of democracy namely, the electoral process, the horizontal checks and balances (executive, legislature and judiciary) and the vertical balance (the right to information, free media and the civil society) and the rule of law, they also introduced a very significant dimension, new to a political science discourse.
It was observed that just because a country is constitutionally democratic does not necessarily make it a good democracy. A good democracy can only exist where there is a culture of respect of the rights of others. When every individual respects and supports the rights of other individuals, only then a truly good democracy can be established. In short they said: “Love thy neighbour”.
That sentence sounds familiar?
The seed of what is happening in the world today was sown over 2000 years ago. However, over the centuries people, with good intentions I am sure, have taken bits and pieces of the message of Jesus and made their own extrapolation and established systems that we now, by hindsight, know were flawed.
Familiar political systems that came into existence after the fall of the Roman Empire, like monarchy, feudalism, capitalism and socialism emerged out of Jesus’ message, but were extracted from it in a manner that the real message was always left blurred, in fact distorted and even abandoned. In the functioning of these systems, ‘collapse’ is indeed their common outcome, and my contention is, because the centrality of Jesus’ plan for a just, prosperous and equitable society was left on the wayside: “Love thy neighbour” (Matthew 22:39).
The pursuit of narrow self-interest has dominated civic and political life.
Despite this, the message is still alive, for Jesus himself had written this all important piece of legislation in the heart of his Church (Hebrew 10:16), which has kept it alive and available to the world when it is ready to accept it.
From those lectures on democracy and the general trend of the discourse among the perceptive, it appears that the time has come for everyone to at least start taking the social, economic and political views of Jesus seriously.
After the collapse of communism and the expected collapse of capitalism, pessimists are seeing anarchy lurking around the corner and others are touting some archaic utopian solutions (almost all which are regional, sectarian, undemocratic and potentially dangerous).
Some optimists, on the other hand, though not openly admitting it, are espousing Jesus’ pragmatic socio-economic plan. But how far will they go, how well will they be able to articulate, will depend on how willing they are to cast aside their prejudices (Matthew 18:3) and how much conviction they will muster to cast out greed (Matthew 5:3).
The parable of the mustard seed is the shortest parable, but has far reaching implications. Let’s take a look at what it says:
"The Kingdom of Heaven is like a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and sowed in his field; which indeed is smaller than all seeds. But when it is grown, it is greater than the herbs, and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in its branches." (Matthew 13:31-32, see also Mark 4:30-32 and Luke 13:18-19)
The Roman philosopher, Pliny the Elder, in his Natural History writes that the “mustard… is extremely beneficial for the health. It grows entirely wild, though it is improved by being transplanted: but on the other hand when it has once been sown it is scarcely possible to get the place free of it, as the seed when it falls germinates at once.”
This description troubled many ‘rationalists’ of the previous two centuries who considered the parable had ‘subversive’ potential, because the fast-growing nature of the mustard plant makes it a ‘malignant weed’ with ‘dangerous takeover properties’. The radical message of human equality that Jesus announced does indeed have the capacity to unnerve those who have institutionalized inequality and those who treat it like a natural phenomenon. They fear this parable has the potential to mobilize revolt against their comfortable status-quo.
But in reality what was ‘subverted’ was Jesus’ declaration of dignity for all and compassion for the weak. What was ‘taken over’ was the rightful inheritance of the meek and the lowly (Matthew 5:5).
Against this background I think that little seed that Jesus placed on this earth is possibly the only hope for the hopeless. For that time will certainly come, when the usurpers—isms, ideologies and political systems—disguised as benefactors (Matthew 7:15), that have had nothing to offer, but death and destruction, exploitation and discrimination, hunger and deprivation, terror and bigotry, will be replaced by the ‘new world order’* that Jesus set in motion with the sowing of the mustard seed and which has the potential of heralding a universally just and peaceful society.
*The recent downward trend of capitalism is the direct impact of what is called ‘crony capitalism’ which has seriously jeopardized the international financial system. It is interesting to note that their formal groupings describe itself as the ‘new world order’; this is forgery. The original ‘new world order’ was announced by Jesus at the Sermon on the Mount where for the first time in human history the spotlight was on the dignity of the poor and the depressed and the promise of hope. Since then, there have been many other declarations of the ‘new world order,’ but they are all self-serving, or lack the potential to turn the world upside down (Matthew 23:12) and look more like the ‘old world order’ that robbed the poor of their dignity.